A Sailor's Story

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 09, 2017 12:38 PM
WWII veteran Leonard Whiffen is pictured in 2012 with his late wife, Grace, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

As he approached the magistrate’s office to enlist for duty, Leonard Whiffen was feeling anxious - not because he feared going to war, but because he was about to tell a lie. At 17 years old, Leonard was too young to join the fray. But that didn’t stop him.

“So I went to the magistrate’s office in Bonavista armed with an altered birth certificate,” says Leonard, 95, over the phone from his current home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I’m not the only one who did that.”

A few months later, Leonard travelled to St. John’s with several other servicemen from Bonavista. 

“The guys who went with me from Bonavista to St. John’s on the train the first part of February 1940…I’m the only one left,” says an emotional Leonard. “I can still remember their names: Best, Butler, Carpenter, myself, Hunt, Fleming, Way and Keel.”

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Leonard Whiffen, pictured in 1942

Leonard and his buddies shipped out on the RMS Newfoundland. After a rough passage, they arrived in Liverpool, England, then took a train south to Portsmouth.

“That was my first taste of air raids,” says Leonard. “The blinds were down in the buildings in the afternoons at 3:00 and bombs falling.”

Despite the imminent danger, Leonard insists the novelty of his new surroundings assuaged any fears. 

After an uneventful period spent guarding British beaches during the Battle of Dunkirk, the young gunner was assigned to his first ship, the minelayer HMS Menestheus. The massive vessel carried more than 400 mines below decks on railway tracks - each one larger than a typical home refrigerator, recalls Leonard. Based out of Lochalsh on the northwest coast of Scotland, the Menestheus, along with seven other ships, ferried mines to the Denmark Strait, where they were laid in hopes of thwarting the enemy. 
In May 1941, as the ship was returning to port after a stint laying mines, Leonard says they were suddenly ordered to change course.

“You didn’t know where you were going because nothing was broadcasted - you just went,” explains Leonard. Unbeknownst to him then, the Menestheus was about to join a massive effort to sink the Bismarck. His ship and several others coordinated to form a circle around the infamous German battleship, preventing her escape and making her an easy target for the Allies. 

“It was announced that the Bismarck was sunk by aircraft, by torpedo bombers. Everybody was happy,” says Leonard, adding he wasn’t close enough to watch the attack itself unfold. 

The tables would eventually turn, however, when the Menestheus found itself under attack by the Germans. Leonard was on deck manning his gun when the turmoil ensued.

“It was chaos,” remembers Leonard. “We saw this plane coming and she came in at a low angle and dropped the bombs right on top of us. We couldn’t fire at the aircraft because there was seven ships all in a line and we didn’t want to shoot any of our own ships.”

As water rushed in, the ship listed 20 degrees - but she never sank. She was towed to shore for repairs; meanwhile, Leonard went on leave, staying with a friend in Bournemouth, England. But it was no holiday.

“You’d sit down to dinner at night in the kitchen, and they had a steel plate on top of the table…In case of an air raid and bombs were dropping, people would go into the shelter or dive underneath the table so they wouldn’t get killed,” says Leonard. “You could hear the wave of bombers coming from Germany, going to bomb London or whatever, and you didn’t know if they were going to drop all the bombs where you were or go on to London.”

Following Leonard’s duties on the Menestheus, he was involved with training pilots how to land on an aircraft carrier and escorted convoys headed to Russia. 

And finally, it was all over.

“My significance with service in the Royal Navy was of a minute nature as compared to those of the army and air force - they suffered beyond words,” reflects Leonard. “I was very lucky to have been spared to come back to my home and native land.”

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While training pilots to land on an aircraft carrier, Leonard witnessed many planes, such as this one, go down.

A Hero Comes Home
Leonard returned home aboard the Duchess of Bedford, arriving in St. John’s on December 28, 1945.

“I was totally lost,” says Leonard. “It was quite a change [after] six years of someone saying, ‘do this, do that.’” 

While he admits he found the adjustment back to civilian life a bit jarring, he soon found his way. Leonard attended a vocational school in St. John’s and began work as a marine engineer. He also met and married the love of his life, Grace Baldwin of Pouch Cove - a fellow veteran. Grace served as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, during which she was posted to Halifax and Ottawa. 

In 1950, after being laid off from his job, Leonard, Grace and their twin daughters moved to Ontario, where he worked with the railway for much of his career. Following retirement, they moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia to be close to their girls, now seniors themselves at age 70. Death parted the couple last year, after 69 years of marriage.

“I have my sad moments and my happy moments, but a lot a sad moments since last year,” says Leonard, who suffered a heart attack shortly after his wife’s passing. “I still miss her.” 

While the great-grandfather admits he’s slowed down some, he’s keeping busy. He still drives, does his own cooking, tends to his garden and is researching his wife’s family tree. The month of November sees him particularly active. A speaker of Historica Canada’s Memory Project - a volunteer speakers’ bureau that arranges for veterans and Canadian Forces members to share their stories in communities across the country - Leonard can often be found touring schools in the Halifax area, especially around Remembrance Day. This will be his 13th year doing so. In 2012, he received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work with schoolchildren.

“If I can help by talking to the children about my experiences that’s good, because I think that should be; they need to know,” says Leonard. “It gives me a lift, too. The kids, they come up and talk to you and shake hands and give you little cards.”

He finishes each of his presentations by quoting this wise, old proverb: “If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character; if there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home; if there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation; when there is order in each nation, there will be peace in the world.”

Wise words, indeed. By Ashley Miller