Thirty-sixth in a series of pioneer profiles
Nelson’s Ronald Cox is a survivor.
He lived through several dangerous missions during World War II, spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp, and is among the last veterans of the Canadian Scottish Regiment who stormed the beach at Normandy.
At the regiment’s 75th anniversary reunion in 1987, Cox was one of 300 remaining vets who took part in the Allied invasion. When they got together again last month in Victoria, there were only 14.
The Vancouver Island-based regiment also fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War and has had members in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Their centennial was a big deal: 800 people came to the banquet and the vets, about 60 in all, from different eras in the regiment’s history, lined up on a football field on a frigid afternoon.
“When they walked down, you couldn’t believe the roar from the audience,” Ron’s wife Sheila says. “It put tears in my eyes.”
Outgoing Lt.-Gov. Steven Point inspected the group and noticed Ron shivering.
“Would you like a whiskey?” he asked.
“No,” Ron replied, “I’d rather have a hot rum.”
Cox, 92, has been to all but three of the annual reunions in the last 30 years — including ones in Nelson in 2001 and 2008 — and knows he’s part of the old guard. Following Bill Oke’s death in January, he’s the last Can Scot in town.
‘Just another piece of dirt’
Born in Wales, Cox came to Canada with his family and lived in Fernie for seven years before moving to Nelson in 1936, where he worked at Kootenay Breweries.
When war began, his brother Vernon and his sister Louise joined the navy and army respectively. Cox himself enlisted in Vancouver in 1940 at age 20, initially with the Irish Fusiliers, until the unit disbanded a few months later and he was reassigned to the Canadian Scots.
“You get on that island and walk from one end to the other, two or three times,” he says. “Right from Victoria to Courtenay and then Port Alberni.”
“That’s why his ankles are gone,” Sheila says, adding it wasn’t really about building stamina but just giving the troops something to do.
Ron shipped out in early 1941 and stayed at a 200-year old army barracks in Aldershot, England, where a bag filled with hay was his mattress. Yet that was luxury compared to what he endured over the next four years.
“I don’t know how he ever made it,” Sheila says. “I’m glad I didn’t know him then. I saw too many young women get married and pregnant and then they were without a husband.”
The site of the D-Day landing was a well-kept secret until shortly before the attack.
“We didn’t know where we were going till we were off the boat,” Ron says. “Normandy? That doesn’t mean anything to us. Just another piece of dirt.”
Cox’s regiment was part of the first wave to land, and he was among the first on the beach. His orders were to take out a Nazi pillbox — the concrete bunkers where gunners hid — but a barrage of bullets stood in his way.
“When you’re getting off those boats, everything’s chaotic and the hail of stones they’re throwing at us … It’s like being under a tin roof when it’s raining.”
Soldiers were told not to stop under any circumstances.
“Run — they drilled that into you for six months. Even if you can’t walk, drag, because everything keeps pouring in. If the Germany artillery don’t kill you, some of our tanks will run over you. They can’t take a chance.”
By the time he reached his target, it was already destroyed.
‘Great nerve and skill’
Cox was in France for months afterward, coping with daily battles, furtive sleep, and a relentless onward push.
In a 1945 Star Weekly article, journalist Matthew Halton chronicled Cox’s part in attempting to rescue a prisoner from behind enemy lines in Holland. Halton wrote how, after a first unsuccessful effort, Lt. Dennis Huscroft of Creston offered to try again.
“There was a painful silence then as we waited for Cox to speak. At last Cox said ‘I’ll go with you, sir I’m all right.’ The tension seemed to snap and Huscroft turned to Cox almost eagerly. ‘You mean you will come with me and have another spit at it?’ And slowly, Cox replied, ‘Sure I’ll come again.’ They looked at each other, the lieutenant and the corporal, two brave men, friends. It was like a film.”
Huscroft led the patrol to a German strongpoint, and then Cox and another corporal named Sutherland went in, “a great feat of nerve and skill.”
They were trying to find a way around a machine-gun post when they were spotted and “thousands of bullets from everywhere … turned the silent night into bedlam … Huscroft and Sutherland and Cox had to get out, and they’ll never know how they got out alive.”
Near war’s end, Cox found himself in another firefight near Cleves, Germany.
“We got down to this little farm place and they were lacing hell out of us,” he says. “There wasn’t one shell going the other way.”
An explosion knocked him out and he awoke to find bits of shrapnel embedded in him and a pistol pointed in his face — but it came as a relief. “It’s a strange feeling, being captured and knowing you’re safe,” he says. “They wouldn’t harm you as long as none of the SS were there.”
He and four colleagues marched into Cleves, then went by train to Hamburg, which had been bombed into oblivion. “That’s a place you wouldn’t want to look at,” Cox says.
Placed in Stalag XI, a prisoner-of-war camp, he suffered blood poisoning and was given little to eat, but his captors didn’t fare much better.
After 40 days, with the war in its final throes, he and thousands of other prisoners were marched toward Russia — but turned around when the Russian artillery arrived. The Americans then arrived with food and supplies, and Cox’s ordeal was finally over.
‘Don’t drum me up’
Back home in Nelson, Cox met Sheila Horswill, a dancer who moved here from Trail and knew his sister.
“She phoned me up one Sunday,” Sheila says. “I lived up on Richards, and they lived on Mill. So I walked down and met Ronald. He said how’d you like to go out for ice cream?”
November 16 marks their 66th wedding anniversary. (Oddly, the Nelson Daily News issue that carried word of his capture during the war included an item about Sheila on the other side of the page.) They had four kids.
Despite weak ankles and failing eyesight, Cox is still active with the local Legion. “They think the world of him,” Sheila says. “We had a dance and were the only ones on the floor. When we got off, they all clapped.”
During an interview at his Front Street home, however, Ron admonishes a reporter: “I don’t want you to drum me up very much. Not at all.”
But everyone else already does.
Previous instalments in this series