Breathing new life into a piece of the past
By Gillian Brunette
“If you are going to write about the carrier then you should take a ride in it.”
And with those words (and my one-hour interview concluded) Richard Hatkoski led the way from his office onto the production floor of Commercial Pallet, where a restored 1942 Universal Carrier, more commonly referred to as a Bren Gun Carrier, awaited.
Climbing up and onto what would have been the gunner’s seat and with Hatkoski at the controls, we ventured out into Baysville’s backcountry. Noisy and cramped, the tracked carrier can exceed 30 mph and turn on a dime. After an exhilarating 15 minutes we returned to base, the experience offering a better understanding of the workings of the carrier and a deep respect for those who operated them behind enemy lines.
Unlike the 100,000 or more carriers that were shipped to Europe between 1936 and 1948, this particular vehicle never saw wartime action, says Hatkoski. “I think it was built at the Ford plant in Windsor and was used for training purposes. The ones that went overseas rarely came back.”
This carrier has been through wars of its own, however. Found originally on an Ontario farm by Second World War veteran and Dwight resident Robert Boothby, it was restored by him to running condition. It was donated to the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 232, following his death.
“The Legion first acquired the Bren Gun Carrier about 25 years ago and had it outside as a static display, but it got vandalized. A cage was put around it to prevent the vandalism, but the weather eventually took its toll,” explains Rick Thomas, Legion representative for the Bren Gun Carrier restoration.
Hatkoski’s interest in the carrier can be traced back to his grandfather, a Second World War veteran who died when Hatkoski was just six months old. Much later, while researching his grandfather’s wartime history, Hatkoski discovered that he had seen action in Holland. He subsequently learned a lot about the Bren Gun Carriers and the part they played in Europe.
Aware of the Legion carrier and its dire condition, Hatkoski and friends Cameron Renwick and Matt Allan approached the Legion executive to begin a restoration project on the carrier. “We got it (carrier) in July 2007,” says Hatkoski.
With no money available for the project, it was necessary to raise funds. As luck would have it, Jim Fetterley of Kearney found a Bren Gun Carrier at a hunt camp, which he donated to the cause. “The top half was cut away, but the hull and transmission were in good shape, so we sold them to collectors and raised $1,800. With other donations we got $2,200, so we had enough to buy small parts,” Hatkoski says.
The carrier was taken out of its enclosure at the Legion to a bay at the former MTO building in Huntsville’s west end. “The Town gave us a bay to work on it. We were there a year and a half, but with no compressed air or tools available all we could do was begin cleaning the vehicle up,” Hatkoski says.
When the building was sold the carrier was towed out to Baysville. It was the spring of 2009 and restoration work began in earnest. “The carrier needed a complete overhaul. We had to buy instruments from other collectors all over the world. The engine itself is a flat head V8 Ford, common with collectors, so the parts were readily available,” says Hatkoski.
Early in 2010, another colleague, Wade Wettlaufer, began working on the engine and was able to get it started in January of this year, explains Hatkoski. “We had it on blocks, so didn’t get the tracks turning until the spring. Our goal was to get the vehicle back to the Legion in working order for July 1.”
On Canada Day the carrier was presented to the public and driven around the Legion parking lot. Several spectators took rides, including Ray Townsend, a Second World War veteran who saw action in Germany.
“It brought back memories of the many times I rode in one during the war,” he says. They (volunteers) have done a beautiful job with it. The people of Huntsville should be proud to have that carrier back in such mint condition.”
Born on the family farm in Monticello, Ontario in 1925, Townsend was 14 when the war broke out. He enlisted on Aug. 4 1943 at age 17 and attended an army university. However, when offered the option to jump the course after two semesters to go overseas, Townsend took it along with about 75 per cent of the other students.
“I gave up becoming an officer, but I wanted to go overseas. Curiosity was killing me. I wouldn’t have been satisfied if I hadn’t got to the front,” he says.
Townsend joined the Royal Regiment of Canada infantry and soon found himself on the troop ship SS Andes. It was a rough ride. “It rained, sleeted and stormed. Just about everyone was seasick. The food wasn’t very good either, endless mutton stew.”
Townsend got his first ride in a Universal Carrier in Holland after crossing the Rhine and heading north. “The infantry walked usually, but after we crossed the border (from Germany) we got rides,” he says.
“The carriers were always with us. They took Bren guns and ammunition to the front line. That was their main function. “
Injured by shrapnel, Townsend was sent to a hospital in Bruges, Belgium for a time. Pronounced fit, he was in Ghent, Belgium heading back to join his regiment when the war ended in Holland. It was May 5, 1945.
“My regiment was in Germany, not far from Wilhelmshaven. Fully armed patrols were being sent out around the northern area in carriers as a show of strength. There were still German soldiers on the loose and Russian prisoners-of-war who feared Stalin and did not want to go back home,” says Townsend.
Instead of staying with the occupational forces in Germany, Townsend was offered the option of continuing his education at the Khaki University in London, England (a Canadian educational institute set up and managed by the general staff of the Canadian Army). He left Europe on Sept. 13, 1945 at the age of 20. Seven months later he boarded the Isle-de-France for the voyage back home.
After the war Universal Carriers were used for a multitude of purposes, as they were relatively cheap to buy and operate, says Townsend. “They ran until they didn’t work any more and most were left to rot.”
But in the Netherlands, things are different, Townsend adds. “There are a whole slew of them in Holland because after the fighting stopped carriers and other vehicles were just left there. The Dutch started an organization called Keep Them Rolling and now, each year on May 5, restored tanks, trucks and carriers can be seen in town parades across Holland, the Dutch drivers wearing Canadian uniforms.”
To date, some 1,500 volunteer hours have been expended on the Legion carrier, but more restorative work is still to be done. Then the carrier will be returned to its rightful owner, where it will be properly housed.
“Matt has co-coordinated with the Legion to get architectural drawings for a permanent, covered enclosure in which to keep the carrier out of the weather. The idea is to have a storyboard inside and one side of the enclosure as a viewing panel with safety glass. One end will have a roll-up door, so the carrier can be taken out for events such as July 1 and Remembrance Day,” Hatkoski concludes, adding that the hope is to have everything completed by July 1, 2012.
Rick Thomas agrees: “When it comes back to us permanently it will be completely restored inside and out, exactly as when it was first built, and it will remain pristine for years to come. It will be a working memorial to all veterans,” he promises.