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Posted on Feb 3, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The Lost Photographs of the Star of Africa

By Danny Bouchard

Have you ever possessed an item of militaria and pondered on the history that may lay behind it? Have you ever considered who might originally have owned it and where that person could be now? Well, these are just some of the many questions that ran through the head of one of our readers and his wife’s grandfather; an 86-year-old Canadian World War 2 Veteran. And after more than 60 years, they were able to put to rest just such a mystery with the help of Armchair General on the internet…and some blind luck.

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Who is this mystery man?

This is the story of two men who fought on opposite sides during World War 2. Two men who never met, but who both fought bravely for their countries and whom fate intertwined with its mysterious bonds.

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The first of these men is a Canadian volunteer who joined the Canadian Army to fight the Germans following the declaration of war on September the 10th, 1939. Signing up for patriotism, the defence of freedom, and to see the world, Robert Béland joined the Canadian Armed Forces in August 1940.

For the better part of two years, Robert trained in Canada as an Infantryman, then as part of a tank crew and finally as an artilleryman.  On the 23rd of March 1943, he was transported to England via the troopship Empress of Ireland where he was assigned duties as an Anti-Aircraft Gunner with the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, 5th  Canadian Division.  Robert left Canada with a heavy heart as his wife of one year had just given birth to his first child, a beautiful daughter. He would not see his family until his return to Canada in October 1945.

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Gunner Béland circa 1943 and today

While in England, Gunner Béland diligently performed his duty, manning his Bofors 40mm Anti-Aircraft gun, engaging enemy aircraft bombing Great-Britain. In the summer of 1943, he left Great Britain and, along with the 5th Canadian Division, was transported to the Mediterranean where they participated in the Italian campaign from January 1944 until their withdrawal in February-March of 1945.

On the 10th of July 1943, Operation Husky took place and the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Sicily with little opposition. Alas, this proved to be short-lived as Canadian, British and American forces soon learned that the Sicilian terrain was perfect for defence; and the Germans were experts at defending their territory.  The campaign lasted 38 days until Messina was captured and the island was finally declared secured.

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