Monday, January 23, 2017

Memoirs: Frank Benoit "Bit of a Strange Story"

He Did "Seamanship and Commando Training"

by Michael (Mick) Benoit

Photo attached to Navy Records


The most significant additions to this site, in my opinion, are not excerpts from books I have read about Canadians who volunteered for Combined Operations during WW2, or photographs of landing craft used by Canadian men to transport troops and all the material of war to foreign shores. I say, I get most excited when an email arrives from a family member of a Canadian sailor who volunteered for Combined Operations and is one of the 1,000 men whose story belongs here. Right here.

The following story (used with kind permission) comes from Michael (Mick) Benoit, born in London, England in 1957, now living in Spain:

I´ve been looking through your 1000 Men 1000 Stories page on the web, which I found really interesting. Hats off to you - it´s a fine site.

Let me tell you a little about my father, Frank, and myself. It's a bit of a strange story (aren't they all?), but bear with me...

First off: I never knew my dad. He and my mother split up when I was six months old. I'm English. I was born in London in 1957. I live in Spain with my wife.... My earliest memories are living with my mum, my sister Sarah (she died in 1982), my three aunts, my grandparents and a cat called Pipper, in a house in Liverpool.

I am lucky enough to have had a very happy childhood. The father figure in my life was my grandfather, John Grogan. Frank was barely mentioned. If he ever did come up in conversation, it was only to be told that he was a Canadian and my parents were divorced.

It wasn't that he was a taboo subject, it was more that it never occurred to us to ask about him and neither did it seem to occur to my mother to tell us much about him. Looking back, I think we were too busy living our own lives to have time to be thinking about a dad we´d never met.

We knew that he was from Montreal (english speaking, despite the name - his mother was from Lancashire). We also knew that he´d been based in Scotland in WW2 and had been in a thing called Combined Operations, but that was about it. I never even saw a photo of him until my mother produced one when I asked her to, when I was in my mid twenties. This may sound peculiar but it wasn't to us. On the contrary, it was normal. His absence in our lives had never been an issue.

My mother was born in 1933 and is now eighty-three. Frank was born in 1915 so he was eighteen years older than her. They met in London in 1953, when he was over covering the coronation. (Apparently, he was a writer - short stories for magazines, radio scripts, journalism, etcetera.)

Out of the blue, one day early in 2014, my mother told me that she'd written in my name to a government department in Ottawa asking for Frank´s war record. A few months later a large manilla envelope with a maple leaf on it arrived in the post. I was taken unawares because I hadn't really been expecting anything special. Maybe a note saying he´d peeled potatoes in a camp, somewhere, or driven a lorry around, or something. After all, I reasoned, most military types do mundane stuff like that rather than the death or glory images you see in war films as a child. But no! It turns out that Frank had had what used to be called a "good war".

I never realized that there was no conscription in Canada during World War Two. As you surely know, you had to volunteer, and then, once enlisted, you had to volunteer again to go overseas, so that you really had to volunteer twice to do active service.

Frank joined the RCNVR in September 1940. From may 1941 to November of that year he served on HMCS Annapolis* doing convoy escort duty. He then volunteered (for the third time!) for Combined Operations and was based at HMS Quebec, the Combined Ops amphibious landing training centre in Scotland, from February 1942 to October 1943.

HMCS Annapolis. Photo provided by M. Benoit

Inveraray Harbour. Photo provided by M. Benoit

Inveraray caravan park, former training site. Photo by M. Benoit

According to the records before me, he did "seamanship and commando training". During this period, he took part as a landing craft cox'n (it doesn't say what type of LC)** in the North African and Sicilian landings. In early 1944, he was then posted to Vancouver Island (HMCS Naden), where he remained until being discharged in August 1945. For all this he was awarded the following:

1939 - 45 Star; Atlantic Star; Africa Star; Italy Star; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal & Clasp; War Medal.

Photo provided by M. Benoit

The Canadian Department of Veteran's Affairs have sent me copies of these medals. My friends say I should put them on a wall in the living room, framed and behind glass, but, to be honest, I prefer to keep them in a drawer, here at my desk, so I can get them out and actually hold them in my hands if I so wish.

Maybe that's odd, but it makes me feel connected to Frank. He died, it turns out, in 1991. It's a funny thing to discover in your late fifties (I'll turn sixty in May) that the father you never knew was a war hero. (I think they all were, to go through what they did. Voluntarily!) Funny, but very pleasing as well. I realize that I'm immensely proud of him.

I tell you all this because Frank (Francis Gerald Benoit V23076) was one of the 1000 men your site is dedicated to and this is one of the 1000 stories.

* * * * * 

Michael later sent the following about Frank's ship:

HMCS Annapolis was formerly the USS McKenzie. It was one of the 50 old destroyers (she was built in 1915) that the Americans sold to the British in the Lend-Lease deal early in the war. The British then sold five of them to the Canadians. They were supposedly renamed after rivers (apparently there's a River Annapolis in Nova Scotia).

Annapolis is also the name of the US naval academy where the Scot John Paul Jones (founder of the US Navy) is buried, so there's a nice inter naval connection. Frank's time aboard her must be a story in itself. I've read accounts of other crew members. They all seem to say she was wetter inside than outside...

I can't help feeling that the chances of our fathers having known each other must have been pretty good. I see Doug wrote, and Frank did too, and they both liked a drink (I'm sure they all did).

**Editor's Note: Instead of strange, I find Mick's story fascinating, significant, honest, and wish him the best of luck as he attempts to locate more information about his father, Frank Benoit.

I have found pictures of LCPs and LCAs used during training exercises at HMS Quebec (south of Inveraray) and my father mentions training upon LCMs at the same site in is memoirs, prior to Operation Rutter and Jubilee (re Dieppe raid, Aug. 19, 1942) and invasion of N. Africa (November, 1942).

LCM, Inveraray. Please link to Landing Craft Types, Inveraray (IWM)

My father, Doug Harrison, and several mates from RCNVR and Combined Operations returned to Canada in December, 1943 after training for and participating in the Dieppe Raid and invasions of N. Africa, Sicily and Italy. After a Christmas leave, they were sent to Vancouver Island in early January, 1944, as was Frank Benoit, and were stationed at HMCS Givenchy III, a Combined Operations training camp. A few months later, Frank was stationed for service at HMCS Naden in Esquimalt. 

Would they all have travelled west upon the same train? Would they have met on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria? Upon the Aquitania? Chances are.... fair to very good.

Crowds of Canadian boys return home in 1943, aboard RMS Aquitania   

* * * * * 

Michael Benoit later sent me Franks's Navy records, as seen below, with a few additional pieces of information. I have added a comment or two as well, and hope the children of other veterans will one day search for their father's military records as well. (In Canada, military records are available at the National Library and Archives, Ottawa, and can be reached via an online site.)

Michael writes:

Here you have Frank´s records, attached. I was just looking at them. They´re interesting, to say the least.

He was promoted to leading seaman, cox'n, in the spring of 1943, after the invasion of North Africa. Later that year, in the autumn, after the Sicily invasion and having returned to Scotland, he was awarded a good conduct badge. Around this time, he would have been told that he was being posted back to Canada.

In early 1944, he went to Givenchy III (Comox, BC).... It wasn't until the end of April that he was posted to HMCS Naden (Esquimalt, BC).

Navy records, in part, with Editor's comments:

Editor: Frank Benoit, born in Montreal, became a member of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) in July, 1940, seemingly before the Reserve had its own stationery. According to the record he volunteered for the 'duration' (above) of World War 2, and therefore was demobilized at the end of hostilities. Some Navy records added 'hostilities only' related to the duration of service and a whole class of volunteers became known as 'HOs'.

Frank Benoit volunteered for service in July, 1940 and began training in September the same year with the Montreal Division. HMCS Stadacona (a Navy base adjoined to HMCS Dockyard, Halifax), above, appears next on his records, and it was likely there he volunteered for Combined Operations, i.e., between 23 Jan. '42 and 28 Feb. '42. (The first draft of Canadian volunteers for Combined Operations were making their way to HMCS Niobe, a Canadian manning depot at Greenock, Scotland at that time).

Above entries (lines 6 - 9), HMS Quebec and HMS COPRA, are linked to Combined Operations; Quebec being the Combined Ops Number 1 training site just south of Inveraray, Scotland, and COPRA being Combined Operations Pay, Records and Accounts. During that time Frank was involved in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Records associated with his war medals will follow.

After returning to Canada via HMCS Niobe (Canadian base in Greenock, Scotland), Frank eventually landed (as did my father) at Givenchy III, a Canadian Combined Ops training camp near Comox, BC (last line above).

According to Frank's and my father's records, dates associated with HMS COPRA are identical; dates linked to passing through Niobe depot are identical; dates related to Stadacona and Givenchy III differ only by one day. I take that to mean their records were processed and brought up-to-date at the same time on most occasions, and the men may have actually been in transit together on the same ship (i.e., upon RMS Aquitania during their return to Canada - December, 1943) and train to Western Canada (January, 1944).

Mr. Benoit's last year of service involved activities in the west and east coasts of Canada before his discharge from HMCS Naden, Esquimalt, BC. On line 4 above (photo of Frank's Navy records), he was assigned to Wentworth while at Shelburne, but the war was ending so he may not have been able to even get a peek at his last assignment.

Some information can be found about Canadian Navy land establishments HMCS Peregrine and Shelburne (listed above) at For Posterity's Sake.

In very few places on Navy records do we see any link to Combined Operations, other than, for example, the entry '(C.O.)' on lines above re Frank's ratings.

On a rare form (above, in part), that may have been created to assist with future job training or placement after the war was over, mention is made of Frank's commando training and association with landing craft, along with prior experience "singing with Jimmie Gallagher's band in Boston." Excellent areas of interest, I say!

List of medals (seen in earlier photo) associated with WW2 and time spent in Combined Operations:

With good fortune I found a photo of the Montreal Division at HMCS Stadacona at a website entitled For Posterity's Sake, and, according to Mick Benoit and his mother, Frank Benoit is standing in the middle of the back row, number 37.

Photo may have been taken at HMCS Dockyard w fog-covered 
Halifax Harbour serving as a background. c. March, 1941

I take pleasure in seeing the archive grow one good story at a time.

Please link to Memoirs re Combined Ops, "Peter Neuman - Boy Soldier"

Unattributed Photos GH

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