He wasn’t around for the original Armistice Day in 1919, but Parksville’s Harry Bullock didn’t miss by much.
Born in London in 1920 — one week before the second commemoration of the end of hostilities in “The Great War” — Bullock would don his own British Army uniform two decades later to help defeat the Axis powers in Europe.
“I was standing on a corner with the boys, cheeking at the girls, and one of ’em came up and slapped me around the face,” he said. “She said, ‘My brother’s away at the war. Why are you not?’
“So I went and joined up the next day.”
Bullock, a jocular 95-year-old who still retains more than a trace of his working-class Cockney accent more than 50 years after emigrating to Canada, would not see action for more than two years. Once he did, he made up for lost time.
Though he never shot at an enemy, Bullock survived repeated bombing attacks and suffered a combat injury that left him with a partial disability payment. He was not an officer, but played an indirect — yet very much hands-on — role in several historic events in the course of World War II and its aftermath.
Jokingly referring to himself as “probably a war baby”, Bullock left behind in Sicily a war baby of his own — in a manner of speaking. And he might well have held hands, if ever so briefly, with a young girl named Elizabeth, long before she had the title of “Queen of England” appended to her name.
Bullock admits his memory has faded over nearly a century on Earth. During a conversation following the flag-raising ceremony to kick off the poppy campaign at the Parksville Legion Hall last week, he was not quite sure if he had three children or four at the time he and his wife came to Canada from the UK (he does know that he had six children in total).
What he does recall, however, comes out in a series of separate but highly detailed vignettes, shared with all their sights, sounds and feelings.
Bullock has no memory of his birth mother, and was placed in a care home from age seven to 13 before he reconnected with his father. When the Battle of Britain brought German bombers to London, he joined others in the shelters and subway tunnels under the city.
“I can remember walking down the old Kent Road and both sides were blazing,” he said. “I was walking down the middle of the street and buildings were burning and falling down. My (step)mom and dad got bombed out; my stepmother died from the bombing.”
World War II veteran Harry Bullock of Parksville, 95, attends the flag-raising ceremony to kick off the Remembrance Day poppy drive at Parksville Legion Branch 49. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB NEWS
At age 19, following that slap on the street corner, Bullock enlisted and was sent to Beaufort for training. As he was finishing his training, the German forces evicted the British from mainland Europe in the disastrous evacuation at Dunkirk.
“I was sent to join the infantry with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, who’d come back from Dunkirk and had no soldiers left.”
He was sent to Northern Ireland for training which lasted two years from 1940-42, while the British furiously worked to build up their war capacity while battling Axis forces in North Africa.
By the end of this training Bullock was a decorated marksman in the infantry, but was tapped for a spot in the military police with the sixth battalion in England. He left behind a new wife, who was pregnant with their first child, as he reported to his new unit as a motorcycle dispatch rider.
While still in England with the military police, he said, he was ordered to see a doctor in Maidenhead, a few miles down the road from Windsor Castle. Upon arrival, he was directed to go to a nearby cottage hospital for the weekend, a directive that left him perplexed.
“There were, like, four other young men like me, and there was nothing wrong with any of us. Then we were told we were getting visitors there, and they were introduced as the Ladies of Mountbatten. There were people there taking pictures and such.”
Among the visitors was a girl of about 15 and her younger sister. At one point, Bullock said, one of the nurses said more coal was needed, and he volunteered to take the bucket out to the coal bin.
“This girl, about 15 or 16, came out with me and there was a great big woman, obviously her guardian, who came out with us. I filled the bucket and went to take it in and this girl said, ‘No, I’ll do it,’ and she actually took my hand and pulled it off the bucket.
“That was the Queen. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but later on when that other King (Edward VIII) abdicated and her father took over, it dawned on me that’s who it was, and her sister. I thought I recognized her.”
Shortly after this simultaneously innocuous and momentous meeting, in July of 1943, Bullock was finally shipped overseas, though he was not told where he was going. It turned out to be the Mediterranean Sea, where he joined the Allied invasion of Sicily — and, later, Italy.
His unit was attached to the British Eighth Army, which included the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which in turn was placed under the command of Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army.
As a dispatch rider, he followed the initial attack wave after a beachhead was established. But he actually had to take his Indian motorcycle ashore via the same landing craft used by the infantry.
“That was something, I tell you,” he said. “We went into this harbour (at Syracuse) and had to drive our motorcycles out of there, into the water and over. I went so fast I went through the crowd and this beach master’s waving me down and I didn’t stop.”
On one of his first nights ashore, Bullock said his unit was stationed in a wooded area and told to dig in. About 2 a.m., he and his fellows were shocked awake by explosions in the trees above and bombs sailing overhead.
“Some of our ships had come into the harbour and they were firing,” he said. “The shots were at a low trajectory, and because the Germans were so close it was hitting the trees. Then an officer came running back and said, ‘Get out of there! You’re sleeping in an amunition dump!
“So that was our first taste of getting shelled, and it was our own people.”
As the Allies were pushing through Sicily and before the Germans effected their evacuation to mainland Italy, Bullock found himself and five or six other MPs guarding a bridge one evening after curfew, when nobody was allowed to be out.
“I heard this chittering and somebody talking in the dark, and I said, ‘Fellas, keep me covered; I’m going out to see.'”
Bullock found a boy and a girl, perhaps 12 to 14 years old, huddled on the bridge. Holstering his service pistol, he asked what they were doing out, and was told their mother was having a baby and they were trying to get the doctor.
“I felt sorry for them,” he said. “I went back to the fellas and said, ‘We should let these kids go; they’re getting the doctor for their mom.’ They said, ‘Well, you can go. We’re not going.'”
Bullock said that’s just what he did, helping the children locate the doctor and then following them back to their neighbouring village. While enjoying a glass of wine downstairs, he heard the cry of a newborn, followed by footsteps coming down the stairs.
“They said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘In Italian, it’s Enrico,'” said Bullock, who added that he got his dispatch duty in part because of his relative fluency in the language. “She said, ‘My mom’s gonna name the baby after you; it’s a boy.’
“It just goes to show you some of the stuff that happens in wartime, little things like that.”
World War II veteran Harry Bullock, right, chats with Shona Rowe of the Parksville Legion Auxiliary following the flag-raising ceremony Oct. 30 at Legion branch 49. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB NEWS
Wartime is also about people killing each other, and Bullock had a near miss on an otherwise idyllic afternoon after the Allied forces had moved on into the southern part of Italy.
He was alone, riding his motorcycle down a tree-lined highway, several miles behind the front, when suddenly the air was rent by a loud blast.
“It was about 30 or 40 feet away, is all,” he said. “All I saw was this body going up and he had no legs. Somebody had trod on mine, an Italian, probably. The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital because I’d come off my cycle again and hit my head.”
The concussion not only blew Bullock off his cycle, but left his right eye out of alignment. To this day, it peers off to his right, though it was not enough of an injury to keep him from returning to action.
“That’s why I’m classified as one of the wounded warriors,” he said. “But I came off the bike so many times and got cuts and bruises all over.”
Much of his duty was escorting convoys of troops, shuttling them to and from the front lines. He also carried dispatches to and from General Clark’s headquarters. He was there when the Allies spent four months in early 1944 trying to dislodge German defenders from Monte Cassino. That battle, characterized as the fiercest of the Italian campaign, consisted of four separate Allied attacks by Americans, Canadians, British and allied troops from India, Morrocco, South Africa and New Zealand before a badly decimated Polish brigade finally planted its flag atop the rubble of a bombed-out abby.
“I took the Poles in and I could hear them when they were attacking,” Bullock said. “They were shouting, ‘Two for one!’ Meaning they were gonna kill two for every one of theirs that got killed. And they finally took it.”
When the Allies finally approached Rome, there seemed to be some question about which army would get to occupy the city first. After Bullock delivered a dispatch to Clark, the U.S. General moved his troops into the city while the British and Canadians continued north to push the Germans from Anzio.
“These things were coming from the guys like Churchill,” Bullock said. “I guess the powers that be said the Americans could go in first. I took the dispatch to Mark Clark and it must have been the one that gave him the all-clear, because they went in directly afterwards.”
Bullock was called on for another momentous dispatch delivery near Trieste, along the Yugoslavian border. Draza Mihailovic, an anti-communist leader originally supported by the U.S. and British leaders against the occupying Germans and rival Yugoslavian Partisans under the communist leader Josip Broz Tito, was preparing to enter Yugoslavia, believing he had the backing of the Western Allies.
But while the Americans still supported his efforts, the British had for some months been receiving intelligence that suggested elements of Mihailovic’s group were collaborating with the Germans and instead turning their attentions to beating Tito to postwar control of the country.
“Unknown to anyone else, (Mihailovic’s troops) were going to go into Yugoslavia with an army and were going to throw Tito out and put Mihailovic in,” he said. “I had to take this dispatch. It was dark and lonely, a road in the country, and when I stopped the convoy there were scouts who came up with guns.
“I said, ‘I have a dispatch for the head man.’ They took it, and it was to tell them to turn back because the Russians were coming in to establish Tito.”
Finally, Bullock obtained his discharge in 1945 and received a ticket to Northern Ireland and a wife he had not seen for three years and a child he had never seen.
“When I went back the train station was packed with people, and I didn’t recognize her,” he said. “She came up and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Harry, it’s me.’
“I’d been gone for three years and when I came back I was 25 and she was 21. From being teenagers to being grown up, I didn’t know her at all. My Lord, I’ve had a mixed-up life.”