It’s a pretty quiet life for George Siggs these days.
Widowed several years ago, the father of four, and grandfather of four, is a resident at Retirement Concepts’ White Rock Seniors Village on Maple Street.
Yes, there’s still a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and his son, Don, confirms he’s always had something of a weakness for the ladies.
But unless you see him as he appeared the other day – resplendent in plum blazer and beret and service insignia – you might not guess that the former trucker, now 96, accumulated some brief but intense experiences as a youth on the battlefields of Europe.
In conversation with The Peace Arch News, assisted by Don and Seniors Village community relations manager Si Cussen, Siggs’ memories are still vivid and in sharp focus, more than 75 years later.
One of a dwindling number of Second World War veterans of the First Canadian Paratroop Battallion, Siggs was barely out of his teens when he parachuted across the Rhine in 1945, in the vanguard of the Allied troops that finally pushed through to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich, ending the war in Europe.
Like many others of his generation, his recollections of that time are a blend of both the harrowing and the humorous. But happily he – and two brothers in the service – beat the odds and survived the war.
Siggs, who grew up in Kitsilano, had completed high school and was working for the City of Vancouver driving a sawdust truck when he was drafted for military service in 1943, at the age of 18 and a half.
Once you were called up, you had little choice of what branch of the services you would be in, he added.
“They put you wherever they needed you,” he said. “I always wanted to go into the air force, but I didn’t have enough schooling for that, so I ended up in the army.”
A call for volunteers
After basic training in Wetaskiwin, Alta. Pte. Siggs was shipped to Calgary for advanced training. Every week, he remembered, the barracks would receive the same visitor.
“This fat little sergeant would come through every Wednesday, saying ‘Come on, men, who wants to volunteer for the paratroops?’ I’d never volunteer, but one day this friend of mine jumps up and says, ‘Come on, Siggs, let’s go!’
Ironically, Siggs was accepted for paratrooper training, but his buddy didn’t make the cut – he’d broken a leg before, which meant he was ruled out.
“Me? I was what they called a ‘perfect specimen’,” Siggs said.
“I still am,” he added with a grin. “Except for the false teeth – I’d never make it now.”
Siggs’ paratroop training took place at Camp Shiloh, Man.
The camp was equipped with a 252-foot-high training tower, and after initial training (a lot of running and physical conditioning – you had to be in top physical condition to be a paratrooper, he noted) and mastering the correct hit-and-roll technique for landing, practice jumps from the tower were mandatory.
“If you came down wrong, you ended up with a broken leg, and that would be pretty much the end of it for you.”
Next step was to actually be dropped from a plane – a two-engined Hudson bomber – to practise not only jumping and landing, but also mustering in the drop zone as quickly as possible under field conditions.
Bound for England
After some two months of training Siggs was on the liner Ile de France (converted to a troop ship for the duration) bound for England. He and his comrades learned the grim facts that paratroops had played an important role in the D-Day invasion, but at a sobering price in terms of dead and wounded.
“We found out that we would be replacements for some of the guys that had been killed on D-Day,” he said.
But while waiting to be deployed, members of the battalion had opportunity to explore what delights pubs and dances could afford in wartime England. And, unlike many of his comrades, Siggs didn’t have to struggle to adapt to life in ‘the old country.’
“My mother and father were from England and I had a lot of relatives over there,” he said. “Every two weeks I could get a 48-hour pass to go to London and stay with my uncle in Beckenham. And my cousin, who was the same age I was, introduced me to a young lady…so every second week I’d be up to London and going to the dances. When you’re 20 years old you’re full of vim and vigor!”
He was faced with the seriousness of the war soon enough.
‘Baptism of fire’
On Dec. 16, 1944 a major German offensive broke through a weakly-defended section of the Allied line in the Ardennes in the ‘Battle of the Bulge.’ Siggs and his comrades were sent to France as ground troops to help reinforce the American forces, who had borne the brunt of the attack. The ultimate containment and reversal of this attack by Allied troops is recognized as one of the crucial turning points of the war, putting the depleted German forces permanently on the defensive – and in retreat.
Siggs’ true baptism of fire as a paratrooper came later, on March 24, 1945. His battalion joined Operation Varsity, an airborne attack designed to disrupt German communications. It followed on the previous night’s Operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine, led by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
“It was the last major obstacle to getting to Berlin,” Siggs said.
Dropping into open, flat, partly-flooded countryside near the town of Wesel at 10 a.m., in broad daylight, the paratroops did not have the advantage of surprise over the opposing German forces – also, ironically, paratroops.
As a mortar gunner, Siggs was part of a three-man team, all of whom were carrying parts of the gun – and extra bombs – strapped to them as they descended from the sky. As number two man, Siggs carried the barrel of the mortar strapped to his leg; number one carried the bi-pod stand and and number three the base plate of the gun.
Their job was to land and connect as quickly as possible to reassemble the gun – and be ready to fire before the enemy had a chance to get their own range.
“We’d assembled the mortar, but we didn’t get to fire it. The Germans knew just where we were and started firing bombs at us. It was scary. You only had one defence, and that was to hit the ground.
“A lot of guys got hit. It killed one of my pals…he kept telling me his belt was too tight. I had a sharp knife and cut the belt off – and all his intestines came out. It was over for him.”
There was nothing else to do, Siggs said, but wait out the incoming fire, then “pick up the equipment and move on to the next objective,” assuming the duties of the fallen member of the team.
“You just had to take over,” he said.
As they joined up with other infantry supported by tanks, Siggs said, the paratroops – whether equipped with mortars, machine guns or Piat anti-tank guns – would ride on the tanks, until called on to return fire to “clean up” pockets of resistance.
“Somebody would shoot at us – we’d clean up whatever it was, then move on,” he said.
That was the nature of the rest of his war, he added, until the collapse of the German army less than two months later.
Russians, vodka and an accordion
Siggs’ battalion joined up with Soviet troops in the small town of Wismar on the Baltic Sea. By that time life had already turned from the grim business of war to tedious duties – and numerous diversions.
“They – the Russians – were quite the guys to have a drink with,” he said, smiling at the memory.
He had just been appointed the jeep driver for a Major Hillborn – a stickler for doing things by the book.
“He wasn’t very popular with the men,” Siggs recalled.
One day, to thank him for helping them secure parts for a jeep they had obtained, the Russian officers invited Hillborn to their mess in a commandeered mansion. While Hillborn visited with the officers and inspected one of the powerful ‘Stalin’ tanks, Siggs was left outside with his jeep – until a Russian driver appeared and gestured to him, asking if he’d like something to eat. Siggs accepted and soon found himself dining with the Russian soldiers in their mess.
“They brought me a plate of food and a glass – the size of an orange juice glass – which they filled with vodka. To show I was a good man – and a Canadian – I downed it. By the time I’d picked up my knife and fork they’d refilled it. That went on for a little while!”
Siggs has memories of someone producing an accordion; of women appearing from somewhere, of singing – and attempting to demonstrate that he, too, knew how to do Russian dancing.
Eventually Hillborn appeared, telling him it was time they returned to barracks. Siggs wove his way out to the jeep and plunked down in the driver’s seat.
“The major took one look at me and said, ‘Oh no, Siggs, in the back!”
Fuming at having to drive his own driver home, the irate major attempted to bring Siggs before the colonel on a charge.
“He wanted him to tear a strip off me for dereliction of duty, but the colonel didn’t do too well at that – I think he was laughing too hard,” Siggs recalled.
“I was known as the ‘Russian Ambassador’ after that,” he grinned.