Seventy-one years ago, Phillip Wragg was standing on a dyke in Holland when the Second World War ended.
“They came along and said ‘it’s all over boys,’” says the 96-year-old veteran who remembers people cheering and a feeling of profound relief. “We could go home now.”
“He was looking forward to getting home after being away for five years,” says Wragg’s wife Nikki, who planned a large celebration so family and friends could be on hand at the legion last Friday to see her husband receive the Légion d’honneur from the French government.
Wragg has been recognized for his participation in Operation Overlord, the Allied Forces effort that united tens of thousands of troops and played a pivotal part in ending the war.
After six days at sea, on June 6, 1944, members of the Royal Regina Rifles were lowered into landing craft and deposited on Normandy Beach. They were among the first units to land in Normandy and “The Johns,” as they were known, faced fierce resistance.
“Phil kept saying the sky was black and I said ‘how come,’” reveals Nikki. “It was 8 in the morning and he said it was the planes – the sky was black with them.”
The next day, with the occupation of Bretteville-L’Orgueilleuse, they became the first regiment to reach and hold its final D-Day objective.
Wragg saw plenty of frontline action as the Rifles fought their way through France, Holland and Germany, and was hospitalized for battle fatigue and a shrapnel wound from an enemy mortar.
“We just dug a hole about two feet so two men could sit in it when there was heavy shelling,” he says, tearing up and wanting to stop the interview. “The noise? It was like hell.”
Most battlefield memories are too painful to resurrect, although Nikki says they are surfacing more and more frequently in the form of nightmares.
Wragg enlisted in 1940 in North Battleford, Sask. following training in Regina Nova Scotia and Scotland.
Nikki notes that there was not a lot of publicity about the horrors of the First World War. Consequently, many men thought they were going on a grand adventure.
“We wanted to help; we had a lot of love for our country too, you know,” adds Wragg.
Wragg says Canadians were well-treated in the U.K. during their years of training, a time when he was also able to re-connect with British relatives.
“Those were my last happy memories before I went into action.”
While fellow soldiers became brothers, Wragg says there was fear in forming friendships because the risk of being killed was enormous.
Wragg returned to Saskatchewan in 1945 and worked with his dad for three years as a butcher. In 1960, he moved to Salmon Arm where he embarked on a 15-year career as the butcher for Lloyd Askew. He spent another 10 years hauling cattle for Bill Hopkins.
Last year, Wragg received letters of commendation from the prime minister, the premier and lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan and the mayor of Regina.
“This is the crowning on it; it’s absolutely wonderful the French government has done this,” says Nikki enthusiastically. “He doesn’t want any fuss, but we thought we, as a family, want to remember this.”
Her enthusiasm is met with a disgruntled, “I want to go home,” from Wragg, who was happy at the prospect of seeing members of his family, but was not interested in “bringing it all up again.”