With the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, the good people behind the Juno Beach Centre criss-crossed the country to interview prominent Canadian veterans who played a role in the liberation of Europe, especially those who served during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 and beyond.
The latest video to come out is an interview with Ottawa Royal Canadian Navy veteran and Legion d’honneur medal winner, Alex Polowin.
I had the privilege of interviewing Alex Polowin (right) and Martin Saslove (left) during a recent talk in Ottawa at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
Polowin and his family immigrated to Ottawa from Lithuania in 1928, and grew up in Lowertown on York Street, now the Byward Market area. The son of a fruit and vegetable peddler, Alex attended Ottawa Tech until Grade 11, but didn’t finish. He lied about his age when the war broke out, and enlisted in the navy at 17 on April 15, 1942. He chose the navy because “it had a certain intrigue.”
Polowin served as an Able Seaman training first in Toronto, at HMCS York, then in Nova Scotia at HMCS Cornwallis, and then several months in Newfoundland and Labrador, where he was assigned to his first ship, HMCS Pictou, doing slow convoy escorts across the North Atlantic from North America to Londonderry.
“I had a lot of fears being so young, and being away from home.”Alex Polowin
Later, he was drafted to the crew of the warship HMCS Huron, where from the vast British naval base at Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys (Scotland) in October 1943, the Allied navy made the infamous and dangerous escort runs of supply convoys to Murmansk. These were “too horrible to imagine,” he recalled.
One of his jobs was to scamper up to the top of the “crow’s nest” or lookout at the top of the ship, and check for icebergs or other enemy vessels. The cold would freeze a cup of “chai” as the drink was called, in 15 seconds.
From February 1944, HMCS Huron moved to the base in Plymouth, England to prepare for the lead up to Normandy. The Canadian ship clashed with German vessels in the England Channel, especially in April 1944. Polowin manned the port side Oerlikon 20 mm cannon (gun). They look like this.
“The Nazi ships hit us with 30 mm guns.” Polowin said of the encounter on April 25, 1944. “We were being torpedoed.”
Read what happened to the German and Allied warships here. While returning from that mission, HMCS Huron was rammed accidentally by HMS Ashanti, a British ship. After repairs, the ship was ready for D-Day in June, 1944. The RCN had to keep the English Channel clear and safe for the infantry and other troops to be able to land in France. Anti-German feelings ran high on board the Huron, and Polowin remembers what happened on June 9, 1944 when five Nazi ships were sunk.
“I could see two Nazi survivors on a float,” he said. All of a sudden, a sailor on Huron started firing into the water to try to kill them before they could be rescued, he said. According to Polowin, the German sailors weren’t killed because “he couldn’t depress the gun low enough to hit them.” When the Huron returned to port in Plymouth, the captain made the sailor leave the ship, for good.
Watch Ottawa Jewish Canadian WWII hero Alex Polowin describe his role in keeping the English Channel clear for the Allies to land.
As the only Jewish member of the Huron crew, Polowin “got into a few scraps”, due to anti-Semitism, mainly from the Irish aboard. He remembers hearing the Jews being blamed for financing the Nazis. That came about, usually when the sailors received their daily rum rations.
When Polowin enlisted, he was acutely aware that Jews in Europe were in danger from Hitler’s murderous policies. He knew that two of his mother’s brothers had stayed behind in Lithuania when the family came to Canada and was afraid the brothers would not survive the Holocaust.
“I forgive a lot of the Germans, but not the Nazis,” Polowin said. “I have a hatred for the people who murdered my relatives.”
Although Polowin’s two uncles did not survive, he dreamt about them while on board his ship just four days after the war in Europe ended, in May 1945.
“They hugged me and said they were proud of me,” he said, describing the dream. “I think that is one of the reasons I survived and wasn’t shaken up, like of the other fellas were.”
After the war, when Polowin returned to Canada and started a family, he named one of his sons Howard, in memory of one of the uncles, Chonoun, who was killed. Tragically, Howard died at age 40, in 1995, of a heart attack.