L/Sgt Grey’s name has been familiar to me for decades. Veterans spoke warmly of him, and I always paid particular attention to anyone mentioned by Harry Ruch. I try to contact family and, in this instance, I was lucky. I reached Ann Pye (Grey), L/Sgt Grey’s daughter. She agreed to an interview, and her daughter, Debbie Coles, arrived in the middle of it. Ann enlisted her to send images, which she did readily. The story of the necklace presented by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Sergeants’ Mess is a touching one. When I related it to members of the Argyll Senate, we concocted a plan to replace it with an Argyll brooch. We had a small ceremony in the Officers’ Mess on 7 November 2019 and had a chance to meet the delightful Ann Pye. I thank Ann and Debbie for their help in telling the Grey family’s story.
Death in battle is different, Sam Chapman thought:
“He is cut down in an instant with all his future a page now to remain forever blank.
There is an end but no conclusion.”
– Capt Sam Chapman, C and D Coys
“Duty.” When asked why he had enlisted (4 April 1941), Jess Grey’s terse response said it all. The answer for the son of a First World War veteran was, like the man himself, straightforward. Born on 13 Aug. 1913 in Brantford, Ont., young Jess left school in Hamilton after grade 7 “for financial reasons” and “helped [his] father as a decorator and a painter for two years.” Jess was a shipping clerk at the T. Eaton Company in Hamilton from 1928 to 1936. On 22 July 1933, he married Pearl Long at St John’s Anglican Church, Hamilton. His life was changing; their daughter Ann was born in 1935; they had four more children, two daughters and two sons, who did not survive childbirth. In 1936, Jess became a plumber’s apprentice at the Steel Company of Canada, and they lived close by on Hilliard Street (a few blocks southeast of Wentworth Street North and Burlington Street).
The war was looming and Jess Grey was anxious to serve. He spent two years with the 2nd/10th Dragoons as a private and applied to enlist in the RCASC on 6 Sept. 1939, four days before Canada declared war, but “was found medically unfit: No Molars, Vision B.” The Argylls mobilized in June 1940 and he enlisted with them on 4 April 1941 at Niagara Falls. Apparently, neither his teeth nor his vision was a problem. He was a happy man. Daughter Ann remembers vividly the day he joined up: “He was marching around the kitchen with a broom on his arm like a rifle and I fell in behind. My mother was crying; she realized he was going to war and I simply marched behind him. Mother didn’t know he was joining.” Jess had enlisted in time for the battalion’s famous May 1941 march from Niagara to Hamilton and, by the end of that month, the Argylls were off to Nanaimo, B.C., back in August briefly, and then to Jamaica and garrison duty for 22 months. They returned to Camp Niagara in May 1943 and underwent review and selection for overseas service.
The Personnel Selection Board made its report (30 May 1943). He was 5’, 8-1/2”, 185 lb, with hazel eyes and brown hair. According to the report, he was:
“a man of medium height and very powerful build … above average intelligence and a straight-forward, direct manner. Grey has been a Driver for some 21 months and enjoys this very much. He drinks fairly heavily, but this does not affect his efficiency or his stability, which appears to be good. He is a married man with an 8 year old daughter. This man has done a great deal of boxing and wrestling and enjoys other sports. He is a stolid type of man who should be an aggressive fighter.”
Grey, it should be noted, had only one infraction on his service record (a rarity in itself) at this point: he was confined to barracks for three days on 8 Feb. 1943 for drunkenness. He had been a “company driver” for 21 months and qualified as a driver for Class III vehicles on 7 May 1943. He had, however, been a rifleman for five months and a rifleman he would remain. They noted: “His wife’s attitude to the service” was “SATISFACTORY” and deemed him “ambitious.” All in all, it augured well.
Before going overseas, the battalion lost many soldiers because they were over-age, unfit, or had a medical condition. In England, promotion came quickly for Jess: ACpl on 1 Aug.1943 and Cpl on 4 Nov. 1943. Interviewed again on 21 Jan. 1944, Grey continued to impress: “Good type N.C.O – Stable straight forward manner aggressive nature. Fighter qualities … Good leader.” Grey added one more infraction to his almost spotless record before going into action; he received a “severe reprimand” on 6 June 1944 (D-Day); he had been AWOL for one day and two hours. Like a goodly number of Argylls, he took advantage of an obvious situation. The invasion had started, and it was unlikely that qualified NCOs and soldiers would receive much of a punishment for their absence; their suppositions on this score proved to be the case.
There was little fighting in the late days of July, but the reality of battle was omnipresent. Although the first few days in late July were relatively quiet, the calm was short-lived and, as Lt Claude Bissell put it, “the dead … joined a shadowy company that grew in numbers each day.” From the small engagements to Hill 195, St Lambert, Igoville, and Hill 95, the days were full of action and death. The numbers of dead and wounded depleted the unit, reducing the number of its leaders; Grey became LSgt on 18/08/44. In brief respites from battle, Argylls sought what comfort they could.
Grey was in 7 Platoon, A Coy. Uninvolved in the fighting around St Lambert, on 20 Aug. 1944 A Coy moved into “a small town in the valley,” and “our section,” as Cpl Harry Ruch wrote in his diary, “took over one of the Jerry’s strongly built trenches.” The friends: Ruch, Pte “Pop” G.I. Corcoran, Pte “Long John” Brennan, Pte J.J. “Choke” Chokan, Pte S. “Junior” Dickenson, Pte Reg “Red” Layton, and Jess Grey caught and killed three chickens, and “scrounged some potatoes, carrots, onions and beans from the gardens” while Jess started the fire. They “planned a good dinner.” “We got on the fire and settled down to wait. Then Jerry woke up and started to shell us rather heavily so we had to seek shelter. We took turns in dashing out to keep up the fire and stir the brew. Jerry eventually slackened his fire and the brew done we enjoyed one of the best meals in days.” Of the eight, two would die on 28 Aug. 1944, and three more would be wounded in the months ahead.
A Coy was spared the onslaught faced by C and D Coys at Moerbrugge (8–10 Sept.), where, along with the Scout Platoon, they made a diversionary attack north of the village. In the days following, A Coy saw more action along with the brief joys that accompanied liberation. Zelzate was divided by a canal and its bridges were gone. The civilian population was exuberant and some swam the canal to welcome the Canadian Argylls. Liberators, civilians, and Germans mixed, and there was confusion and casualties. LSgt Jess Grey was the only Argyll killed on 18 September in Zelzate/De Katte. His friend, Harry Ruch, wrote of it in his diary:
“About 1900 hrs our Sgt [L/Sgt Jess V. Grey] was over to our section when a civvy told us that two Jerries were walking across the field to surrender. The Sgt., while unarmed went out to meet them. Calling the Bren gunner and one man with a Sten I went out with him to give him protection but we couldn’t find the Jerries. We came back and tried to find the Civvy. With the Bren gunner I reported to B.H.Q. and the Col. [Dave Stewart] said someone was trying to pull our leg and not to pay any attention.
Meanwhile the gunner needed First Aid for a small wound so stayed at B.H.Q. and I, thinking the Sgt. and the other man had gone back to the Pltn, was about to go back myself when I heard a burst from what sounded like a Smiezer [Schmeisser]. It came from the position we had just searched. Running out to the position I found both the Sgt. and Duke had taken cover in a ditch, the Sgt. being wounded in the chest. Leaving them comparatively safe in the ditch I run back for the Stretcher-bearers. Jerry must have seen me running in the open because he bracketed me with four mortar bombs that nearly were the end of me. Picking up the bearers at C.H.Q. and also taking the Bren gunner with me we went back to pick up the Sgt. and brought him in. He died at the R.A.P.”
According to Belgian reports: “We are told that the fallen soldier was Roman Catholic and that he was assisted at his last moments by a Belgian priest who administered the extreme unction to him.” [Grey was Anglican.] Capt Charlie Maclean later wrote to Pearl Grey that “Jess died in the forward hospital after we had sent him back from the Regimental Aid Post: I stay with the Regiment of course, so would not be with him when he died. I think he would be unconscious when he died too, as the Doctor there told me they gave him blood plasma trying to revive him.” Padre Maclean buried LSgt Grey along with Pte Cole, who was killed the next day, in temporary graves at Zelzate.”
The news of Jess’s death did not reach Hamilton and his family until Halloween. “My mother went into shock,” daughter Ann remembers. “When she told my grandmother, she passed out.” For Ann’s part, “I couldn’t believe it – ‘My daddy’s coming back,’ I cried.” The Hamilton Spectator published seven obituaries from Jess’s family. The one from his parents, written “in proud and loving memory of our dear son,” reads:
Somewhere in Belgium, in a soldier’s grave,
Lies our dear son, among the brave.
He never shunned his country’s call,
But gladly gave his life, his all.
He died the helpless to defend,
A faithful soldier’s noble end.
Pearl and Ann’s tribute reads:
Silent thoughts, tears unseen,
Thinking of days that might have been,
Deep in our hearts your memory is kept.
We smile with the world but we never forget.
“It was tough,” Ann remembered. “She [Pearl] worked in a factory, only a Grade 7 education, and [we] got a little two-bedroom wartime house after my Dad died.” The Canadian Pension Commission awarded Pearl a pension, “with additional allowances for your child,” on 13 Nov. 1944. “She never remarried, never had a boyfriend … She talked about him all the time and we talked about how life would have been different [had he lived] … We were not bitter [because] a lot of people were in the same boat as we were … My Mother had a copy of Black yesterdays . I’ll never forget. I was reading it [to her] and she was smiling and the tears were running down her face … Before she died [in 1998], she told me, ‘I’m going to meet your Dad.’” Pearl was then in a nursing home and had, unfortunately, lost her precious wedding ring. She was upset; she had worn it since 1933. Ann purchased a new one for her and put it on her finger.
The Argyll Regimental family, Argyll friends, and the Argyll Women’s Auxiliary played a significant part in the lives of Pearl and Ann Grey after Jess’s death. As Ann relates: “I was baptized in 1941 and Pte Reg Layton (an Argyll friend) was my god-father. After the war, we took the bus every weekend to Toronto [where he lived]. There’d be a gathering of Argylls and they’d talk and sing … My mother belonged to the Women’s Auxiliary and always went to their meetings [at the armouries], to changes of command, and to Regimental church parades.” Ann herself “knew the armouries like the back of my hand.”
Ann Pye (Grey) loved her father: “He was a man’s man and knew how to treat women: polite and kind, and respected them … He was loving towards my mother” and “he was a pussycat inside.” She can recite his Regimental number – B46579: “I’ll never forget.” Ann has two daughters and four sons, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She taught all of them about her father, LSgt Jess Victor Grey; one grandson is named after him. Jess’s picture hangs prominently, where it always has, on her wall.
LSgt Grey is remembered as well in Belgium. Although the Belgians never knew him, they cherish the memory of a liberator, then and now. On 11 Jan. 1945 Padre Maclean wrote to Pearl Grey to tell her that “the people of the town have taken up an offering and with funds have made provision for flowers to be placed on your husband’s and Pte Cole’s grave every second day for the next three years. They did this as a token of thoughtfulness for the liberation.” The Belgian Legion of Former Soldiers (1914–1918 and 1940–1945) in Zelzate took notice as well and held a ceremony on 5 May 1945. They sent a “narration” of the event, written in French, to DND headquarters, where it was translated and forwarded, along with pictures, to Mrs Grey. It noted that the “tomb is well kept due to the vigilant care of the workers of the hamlet; during the summer, it is adorned with plants and perennials; cut flowers are renewed regularly.” The ceremony commemorated “these two Canadian heroes, on V-Day.”
The chairman of the Belgian veterans delivered an address:
“We have come to render homage to the memory of two brave Canadian soldiers, killed in action on this very spot and entrusted her to a friendly soil. This is a very modest homage, but it is heart-felt. The two heroes who lie here, have become more than friends to us. They belong to our people, they have become part of our people, they are now intimately bound with your neighbourhood….
We practically know nothing of these two young men whose lives came to a sudden end on this very ground. Their names appear on the crosses which keep watch on their graves; we also know that they came from a distant land, Canada, and that they died a hero’s death in the struggle for their country and for liberty for all. But we haven’t the least idea of what were their way of living, their environment, their plans for the future. Nevertheless, we have become deeply attached to those strangers from a far-off land whose customs, language and habits were different from ours, because they have laid down their lives for righteousness and our common ideal of freedom. Neither do we know anything about their social status, but there is one thing about which we haven’t the slightest doubt and that is the nobility of their character, manifested by the sacrifice of their young lives.
We bow in respect before the graves of these young men whose faithful memory we shall always gratefully treasure.
Rest in peace, Canadian comrades. May the Belgian soil be gracious to you and may your supreme sacrifice be rewarded in a life of eternal peace.”
There was more to come. On 17 Sept. 1945, a contingent of Argylls led by Maj R.A. Paterson, OC of C Coy at Zelzate, returned to take part in a massive ceremony honouring LSgt Grey, Pte Cole, and those of 10 Brigade who died.
War Diary. 17 September 1945. Nijverdal [H.P.]
The Canadian contingent was honoured in Salzate this morning by a special service at the Cenotaph, where plaudits were read by the Burgermaster [sic] and various other civic officials. Local underground leaders were introduced, as well as the two girls who swam the canal on the day of liberation to present flowers to Maj. Paterson and others of C Coy. Also presented was one “Germaine” who aided in evacuating the two Argylls who had been badly wounded and later died. Wreathes [sic] were then laid on the graves of these two heroes – L/Sgt. J.V. Gray of A Coy and Pte. P.J. Cole of the scout platoon who gave their all for freedom, as the inscription read … The grand parade followed with the Argylls in the lead….
The parade consisted of troops, costumed civilians, bands, and many picturesque floats. The onlooking crowd, numbering up to 50,000 people who had come to Selzate from many of the outlying communities liberated by 10 CIB, and the Poles.
The official ceremony ended at 1730 hrs. with the presentation of illuminated scrolls to Major Paterson … and the playing of no less than six national anthems. In the evening the town was thrown open to the visiting troops. A Ball in the Town Hall, along with all the cafes blended in making a perfect evening, to renew and make more acquaintances.
The Belgians honour LSgt Grey as a liberator; the Regimental family honours him respectfully as a comrade-in-arms; the Grey family remembers a good and loving family man. Shortly after the war, Ann Grey recalls, the Argyll Women’s Auxiliary “gave me a silver locket from Birks with an Argyll cap badge. They told me it was ‘my medal for giving my Daddy to the war.’ I lost it three years ago [about 2016]; it’s as if a part of me had gone.” Jess Grey believed in “duty,” service, and sacrifice; for him, it ended on that Belgian street on 18 Sept. 1944; for Pearl and Ann Grey, they continued to live it throughout all the decades that followed. They, too, made the ultimate sacrifice.
On 7 Nov. 2019, the Argyll Senate and members of the Women’s Auxiliary gave Ann Pye an Argyll brooch to replace the missing Argyll locket. At the small and rather delightful ceremony in the Argyll Officers’ Mess, Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel Glenn De Caire made the presentation.
Ann Pye (Grey) on right at a gathering in the Argyll Officers’ Mess, 7 Nov. 2019.
With respect, L/Sgt Grey – An Argyll
Note: L/Sgt Grey’s poppy will be mounted in the virtual Argyll Field of Remembrance. The Argyll Regimental Foundation (ARF) commissioned Lorraine M. DeGroote to paint the Argyll Poppy for the Field of Remembrance.
Between 11 and 14 September, 3 Argylls were killed in action and 2 were wounded.
“a history bought by blood” – Capt Sam Chapman, C and D Coys
L/Sgt Jess Victor Grey, 1940
Jess and Pearl on their wedding day, 1933.
Pearl and Ann in 1942. Jess carried this picture with him overseas. It was returned to Pearl after his death.
Graves at Zelzate for LSgt Grey and Pte Cole (image from Black yesterdays)
LSgt Jess Victor Grey’s grave, Zelzate, Belgium.