Bob Paterson was born in Hamilton in 1916 and grew up on Homewood Avenue in the city’s west end. He graduated from McMaster University in 1938 and then went to work in Toronto for London Life. He was, as he put it, vaguely away of events in Europe but “life pretty well went on.” A sportsman all of his life (he acquired the nickname “Flan” for his devotion to flannel socks), he was in Algonquin Park in May 1940, fishing with his dad, when the German army broke through the famed Maginot Line. “Then I knew that the game was up…. I knew it was an all or nothing situation. You just damn well had to join.”
Paterson had begun officers’ training in September 1939 when the war broke out. He had his qualifications as a gunner and tried, unsuccessfully, to join the Guelph and then the Hamilton battery in May 1940. His brother-in-law, 2Lt Dave Duncan, was in the Argylls and “telephoned one night in June and said, ‘The Argylls are being mobilized, seven or eight of your friends from McMaster and myself have all joined up. Why don’t you come down and take a crack at it?’ And that’s how I got into the Argylls.”
The introduction to military proved as interesting for Paterson as it did for most others: “My commission was dated June and I was taken on … provisional second lieutenant, supernumerary … I was the lowest of the low.” He admitted to being “pretty green…. We had no military training at all. We didn’t know how to dress properly, how to salute, how to march, how to do a damn thing, and [we] were given men to command. It was pretty awful.”
In time, Paterson, like the men of the Battalion as a whole, became soldiers. His brief artillery training made him a natural fit for command of the mortar platoon, although it did not have any mortars for some time. Years later, 2Lt Pete Stephen could still “see him out on the training area, trying to teach them how to fire a mortar with a piece of stovepipe and sticks of wood that fitted in the stovepipe.” But leadership does not depend on equipment, and Paterson was making an impact on his men without it. Pte Mike Forester, a tough young lad from Grimsby, thought, “Oh gosh, Paterson was a prince. I really liked [him]…. He was a very quiet-spoken man…. He had that knack about him, treated everybody the same, and he was very well liked … he was one of the men, just like Al Rathbone [later long-time OC of the Mortar Platoon]. He had that same disposition.”
From Niagara to Nanaimo to Jamaica, Paterson acquired the professionalism of soldiering and deepened his friendships with fellow subalterns such as Alex Logie and Jack Harper. On the way to Jamaica, he and several other Argylls met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Bermuda, where the erstwhile king had been sent in the vain hope that it would keep him out of trouble. There was time for golfing and golf was to Bob Paterson like a muse to a poet. Paterson himself loved novels and wrote well. His account of the Agapenor incident reads like a Graham Greene novel. It was March 1943. Paterson and Logie, with a section each, had been sent to act as guards on the ship after a mutiny. They were sent to Colombia to board a flying boat dressed in ill-fitting white suits with army boots and suitcases full of sub-machine guns, rifles, and ammunition:
[W]e landed at Barranquilla in Colombia, spent the night there. The boys begged me to let them [out] … the place was full of Germans. I was terrified of them getting into trouble or something, but I let them, I think, from oh, say, five o’clock in the afternoon until they had to report back to the hotel at nine. And apparently they got into a whorehouse or something, and they were just about to enjoy themselves and the sergeant, I think, said “It’s ten minutes to nine,” and they cursed me to beat hell and everything, and they got back. They all got back to the hotel.
But the funny part was that we went into the hotel and I went up to the reception desk and asked about our rooms and so on, and the German – she was a German lady, blonde hair, big – she said, before I said anything, “Good afternoon, Lieutenant Paterson, your rooms are ready.” I thought, “Jesus!” … [I learned years later] that same women … was notorious, she was one of the head spies in Colombia.
While in Jamaica, Paterson had substituted for the adjutant, Capt Art Hay, when he was absent. When Hay went to RMC in August 1942, Paterson became the acting adjutant, and on 6 Feb. 1943, Lt Paterson became the adjutant, an important position within the Battalion. It was a mark of his ability, and he was promoted over a lot of other officers. Not surprisingly, in some quarters, his appointment caused some small bit of jealousy. But Paterson loved it: “I liked being adjutant very much … you were your own boss and well, you answered to the Colonel obviously, but you did all the administration. It was very busy…. The most difficult thing I ever did in the army.”
As the Battalion prepared to go overseas in 1943, much of the work fell to Paterson. Hay became the acting CO and things changed, and for Paterson too:
He [Art Hay] worked the hell out of everybody. Soon as he took over the unit … I wasn’t Bob anymore, I was Paterson – and that kind of made me mad. He was like that … and he’d upset other people, doing other things … I guess he worked us too hard. He really did.
He’d have all the officers running up at Huntstanton, I remember. Adjutant, anybody, we’d go out, after supper at night…. We’d worked all day, then we’d go for a four-mile run. Jesus … he got me down. He really did.
There seems to be about [a] fifty-fifty split. Some give him [Art Hay] credit for keeping the unit together, and others have said … it [the officer training] was basically a pain in the ass. They said they didn’t appreciate … sand-table schemes in the Mess, and having to keep up the next morning.
I think he was a theorist and I think he was heavy-handed. He wouldn’t think of what we were thinking, and there was no empathy…. There was something to be done and he would draw up the operation order – [a] brilliant operation order – but it probably was not practical … like Haig in the First World War.
On 19 Sept. 1943, Lt Don Seldon, 2IC of C Coy, learned from “Hay … that I am to become Adjutant and will take over from Bob Paterson in the near future.” Shortly thereafter, the Argylls got their new CO, LCol Dave Stewart. “I remember,” Paterson said, “ I was the Adjutant. It was raining, and he blew in and, out of the night … ‘I’m your new CO.’ Right from the start, everybody liked him. Everybody liked him. He won us all over in ten minutes. He had great charm and he was very decisive. Awfully nice guy. We just thought he was great.” Stewart “appealed to other ranks and the NCOs and the officers in quite a different way. He seemed to sense the differences and he was a sensitive man. He knew what I was thinking and what the other guys were thinking, and he was very smooth.” That was Stewart the man and the leader and then there was Stewart the CO: “I can remember his first operation order: verbal, simple, everybody could understand it; the most beautiful thing I ever heard. An idiot could have carried out his plan of attack, or whatever it was, and I thought, ‘Boy, this is for me.’” Stewart had made his mark and it was indelible. In early October, after a bit of a handover, Seldon and Paterson traded appointments.
Maj Gordon Winfield commanded C Coy. A bully and a braggart with a “terrific temper,” he became increasingly hesitant about command. Increasingly, he left matters to his 2ic. The CO was also aware of Winfield’s shortcomings and, years after the war, admitted his lack of experience in getting rid of senior officers. “Dave Stewart asked me before D-Day if I thought he [Winfield] could command the troops, and I said no. Told him flatly that he could not command.” When the company went into action, Paterson, like the other 2ICs, was left out of battle. CSM George Mitchell of C Coy was privately scathing about Winfield’s performance. When he was slightly wounded at St Lambert in late August, he was sent back to England. For his part, Stewart was determined he would never return. When the Battalion finally received badly needed reinforcements in the early days of September, Paterson became OC of C; Jack Harper had A, Logie had B, and Pete MacKenzie had D – a new generation had taken over.
Paterson was shocked by the horror of war so evident at Falaise: “I was stunned by the magnitude of the thing [German retreat from Falaise], the magnitude of the dead and the horses and broken up wagons and debris scattered all over. And the smell, we were all half sick. It was just … horrible. I called it in the history [of the 10th Brigade] a charnel house.”
The months of September and October leading up to the winter sojourn on the Maas River witnessed heavy fighting and, with it, the attendant casualties. One of the best examples of Argyll determination and doggedness was that of C Coy at Moerbrugge (8–10 Sept). Dave Stewart had taken over the brigade and an inept and disliked Maj Bill Stockloser took over the battalion. The Argylls, led by C and D Coys, were to cross the canal unsupported and without assault craft. Stockloser, when pressed by Paterson how they were to cross without boats, described it as “a crossing of opportunity.” The companies sustained heavy casualties, crossing in leaking rowboats without oars. MacKenzie was wounded in the early going and C Company was cut off by an unexpectedly fierce German resistance. C Coy was isolated in one building. Paterson put his Bren gunners in the upper windows and all ammunition went to them; the effect upon the attacking Germans was devastating. On the morning of the 10th, they had run out of ammunition. By the night of the 9th, Paterson wrote:
There was no communication by wireless or by runner. The company was perilously short of ammunition, and had no rations. Still the whole town was ablaze that day with small arms fire, grenades and piats. The air was a frenzy of automatic fire and the shouts and groans of wounded Germans. No one knows how many attacks they made, but there were many. Their stretcher bearers worked all day and were permitted into the company lines to clear the dead and wounded. It was the wildest show and the bloodiest for a long time. Toward evening the enemy teed up what was to be his last attempt at dislodging us.
C Coy held on and was prepared to fight on. Bob Paterson had said he would have been happy to stay in Jamaica for the war or for a successful Stauffenberg plot end the war and the necessity for fighting. This quiet, reflective man, given to poetry and novels, had no intention of giving up:
I had thirty men, and they were all there. You didn’t have to give any orders. They were going to fight, they were all going to fight…. Never thought of [surrendering]. Never entered my mind. Didn’t enter [CSM] Mitchell’s mind. Didn’t enter any of the men’s minds, that I know of … I thought that was the end…. [But] I think I was too exhausted to be afraid … I was fatalistic at that point. I’m no hero. I was no hero at all … there were no heroics in my mind. I was beyond that point.
Happily, in the early morning hours of the 10th, the RCE bridged the canal and shortly afterwards the tanks of the South Alberta Regiment crossed and relieved the besieged company: “You could hear the [SAR] engines start up,” Paterson remembered, “and we knew they were coming. And Jesus, what a glorious moment, I’ll tell you.” A month or so later, several Argylls, including the CSM, were awarded medals for this action but not Paterson. His 2IC, Capt Sam Chapman, commented in a letter home: “But Paterson was the man who decided they’d stay + fight to the last man – if it came to that – which decision in my opinion required more guts than all sorts of spectacularly brave acts.”
The fighting, the casualties, the isolation from brother officers, the death of Alex Logie on 20 Oct. 1944, and the lack of reinforcements took their toll on Bob Paterson in the days leading up to early November. Then, LCol Stewart left and Stockloser was in charge again. Paterson had had it: “You were just exhausted … to hell with the booze and women.” He was equally tired of leadership at higher levels: “Shit, you didn’t have a hope in hell. And I was very critical as I went on, and I got worse. The longer I was in the line, the worse I felt about the goddamn command set-up … I gave up trying to be logical after a while.” Had he been certain of Stewart’s return, he could not have left. On 19 November, Sam Chapman wrote to his wife: “Major Paterson just got word that he is going to brigade on staff. He’s seen a lot of fighting and deserves a break – anybody who’s been lucky that long shouldn’t try his luck too far.” For his part, “I was seconded, but I left to all intents and purposes … I couldn’t take it any more. I was having convulsions at night … and I couldn’t stand up straight…. And I was terrified of doing that in front of the men, and I didn’t tell anybody … so I applied for a staff posting…. I had lost all my pals: Logie, Harper, everybody I knew gone, except Pete. Pete Mackenzie came back. I’d lost anybody I knew. Johnny Farmer’d gone, Coons had gone.”
Bob Paterson was with the 10th Brigade until the end of fighting. He returned to the Argylls as a company commander and participated in several of the celebrations. Given the task of writing the history of the 10th Brigade, he penned a short, incisive, and eloquent chronicle. He returned home, moved to Brantford, Ontario, where he opened a business, had a home backing on to a golf course (his idea of heaven), married Peggy, and had two sons: Robert Alexander and Ian. His sister, Janet, married Hugh Maclean.
Like Logie and Maclean, he, too, would be remembered with respect by his men. A private in C Coy, John Evans (in the lower right of the famous picture of Maj Dave Currie winning the VC at St Lambert), was a crusty, disagreeable commissioner at the Armouries, a man seemingly incapable of the slightest gesture of respect to anyone regardless of rank. At a mess dinner in the late 1980s, Maj Paterson was walking in and passed Evans, who snapped to attention and saluted. While they chatted briefly, Evans remained at attention and saluted again when Paterson departed. “Best damn officer I ever served under,” Evans snorted to no one in particular and then reverted to his churlish ways. Paterson was a fine officer and, like Logie and Maclean, an equally decent man with a sharp intelligence and genuine modesty.
When, in 1986, Claude Bissell was interviewed, he began by reading the last two paragraphs of Paterson’s history of the 10th Brigade. They had, Bissell thought, a “symphonic” quality and expressed perfectly how soldiers in battle felt. Paterson was explaining why, when huge crowds in the major cities of the Western world greeted news of the war’s end with rejoicing, soldiers in the field of battle were mute. On 27 April, he wrote to Phyllis Logie: “We are being sporadically shelled, our guns and rockets startle the beautiful spring nights. It’s all madness, a fantasy. Each day we say to-morrow – and yet it’s still to-morrow.” That understanding informed the last paragraph of his history, and those words inspired the title of Black Yesterdays: The Argylls’ War:
Perhaps in the months to come will that fabulous “to-morrow” really be to-day – a day when all the bells and voices of our great memories shall ring out, cry out, peal, and shout, in one wild tumultuous song of thanksgiving. Sometime, while dreaming over a sun drenched lake, while pausing in the fields to watch the summer clouds pile one upon the other, or in the quiet half hour before sleep, we shall hear that symphony we once listened for, and it shall swell and reverberate through our beings in unforgettable strength and beauty so that we shall know that to-day has come, and that those black yesterdays are forever left behind.