I Remember Wilfred Patrick Souter
In Canada, on November 11th we commemorate Remembrance Day. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we stop to remember the cost of war and the people who paid that cost on our behalf. On Remembrance Day I will remember my father Wilfred Patrick Souter who survived WWII, and parenthood, to become someone I continue to look up to and admire.
My father, himself the son of a British army officer who served in India, was an apprentice electrician when WWII broke out. His request to enter the airborne was denied. Instead he was stationed in Southampton keeping searchlights up and running with the Royal Artillery to help protect one of Britain’s most important seaports. To be clear, he didn’t want the airborne so he could best serve his country or some other nobel pretense. He wanted to jump out of airplanes. In his own words,
It seemed the most exciting thing on offer. Instead, I had to nursemaid searchlights.
Things got more exciting for him after his electrician journeyman training and the worst of the German bombing blitz were over. Following deployment to Sicily days after the conclusion of Operation Husky he did a brief stint on the searchlights again before he was assigned duties as a mobile electrician on the Italian mainland. On motorbike with sidecar he was tasked with repairing everything from forward observation post radios to tank ignition systems.
From his stories these were his most interesting days of the war. Trading army rations for eggs and wine with locals, tearing around the countryside on his motorcycle, and generally “chasing the Germans back where they came from” all brought a sparkle to his eye in the retelling. If you could coax a story out of him that is.
There were also darker moments. I believe it was from being a first hand witness that he stated, “Tanks are death traps, you’d never catch me in one. People get cooked alive.” Or the story of a friend who just happened to be on the motorbike ahead of him instead of behind him and was killed when he ran into a rearguard German booby trap – a wire stretched at chest height across a road. Chasing the Germans could be dangerous business.
The happiest day by far for him was the day he was demobbed and sent home. He thought it best to leave the military as far behind him as possible. I remember talking over future careers with him when I was in high school. At the mention of joining the military he got very serious and said,
Son, don’t join up unless they make you. War is no life at all.
After the war he stuck around post-war England for a decade then immigrated to Canada where his electrician’s papers were in high demand. He said he’d have preferred to go to Australia because of the weather and great swimming but he couldn’t afford the ship’s passage fee. Canada it was. He met my mother, a nurse practitioner midwife, at a Riverdale Hospital dance in Toronto. My mum had left her native England for Canada for many of the same reasons as my father. The rest is my history.
He was no war hero, and had no desire or pretense to be one. He did his duty as best as he could and I imagine him as staunch an ally in war as he was to me in civilian life. In characteristic fashion he managed to make the best of a bad situation and have more than a little fun doing it. WWII was a defining period in his life but not one he looked back at with nostalgia. The only time I ever saw him with a tear in his eye was on Remembrance Day when he thought back to the terrible cost of war.
With an unvarnished love, affection, and respect for who and what he was: That’s how I remember him.