The very best French fries John Stieger has ever eaten were in a German bunker in the middle of the Second World War.
His regiment had entered the bunker in Walcheren Island, the Netherlands. The Germans, who were known to poison food left behind, had just abandoned the space, leaving ammunition, other supplies, and a large vat of fish oil. A chemist in their troop tested the oil and confirmed it was safe to eat. Seventy-five years later, he still smiles when he thinks of those fries.
Mr. Stieger’s father Johan was Austrian; his mother Marie was German. They met and married in Montreal in 1918. Mr. Stieger’s older sister was born in July 1920 in Montreal. After the First World War, a promoter in Quebec talked his parents into moving to Germany since inflation made the Canadian dollar stretch farther there. They sold their home and bought a farm near Hamburg.
“In the meantime, the money disappeared,” Mr. Stieger said. “Deflation. They lost everything.”
Mr. Stieger was born on August 19, 1922, while the family was living in Germany.
“My mother couldn’t even buy food for me. She had to sell utensils and that to get milk,” he was told.
With help from his father’s brother still in Montreal, the family headed back to Canada when Mr. Stieger was very young. Luck turned in their favour when they met a man on the ship who was looking for employees for the Canadian Bronze Company. His father and uncle were both hired and the family moved to Valleyfield, Quebec. Mr. Stieger grew up playing with the French kids, so he spoke German (his language at home) and French before he ever spoke English. He attended an English-speaking school, then went on to a boarding school in the eastern townships of Quebec to finish high school. Mr. Stieger did well in senior mathematics, excelling in courses such as trigonometry and geometry. He also earned a spot as captain of both the football team and track and field.
Memories of the First World War were fresh in Canada’s mind and, as high school graduation neared, Mr. Stieger dreamed of becoming the next Canadian hero fighter pilot. He and a group of friends drove to the nearby air force base to sign up. A month before graduation, Mr. Stieger found out he had been refused from entry into the air force; he realized much later it was likely on account of his birth place.
Three of Mr. Stieger’s friends who were accepted into the air force were killed within their first three months of training.
After graduation, Mr. Stieger went to northern Quebec to work in an aluminum plant. A co-worker he roomed with got killed in a tragic accident, and Mr. Stieger had to pack up the man’s belongings to send home. He quit the job and signed up for the army on August 18, 1942 (the day before he turned 20). While the air force might not have wanted a German-born Canadian, Mr. Stieger was sought after by the army. Thanks to his mathematics skills, specifically trigonometry, he was funnelled into a new regiment – one of only two regiments in the entire Canadian army, called the Second Royal Canadian Artillery Survey Division.
“I had the ‘matric’ [mathematics], and they needed me,” Mr. Stieger explained, noting most of his division was made up of schoolteachers.
The survey division helped the Allies learn where the enemies were shooting from and where to best place their own weaponry. Through flash spotting (studying from a high viewpoint – often a church steeple – where the gun flashes came from), sound ranging (pinpointing enemy fire through sound) and straight surveying, Mr. Stieger’s regiment helped the troops make best use of their firepower by placing it in the most strategic spots, while helping them stay out of harm’s way of enemy lines. His son Jay describes his dad’s role as being like a human GPS.
“We were wired up in those days to get the information back to our own guns. That’s why we worked with all the guns in the Canadian army and the British Army,” Mr. Stieger described.
They would also have an observer right on the front lines with the foot soldiers, taking turns in that position. Mr. Stieger says, simply, that being on the front lines was scary.
Their tools were survey books, huge speciall- made typewriters. and the power of trigonometry. However, Mr. Stieger was close enough to the front line danger, he carried a Sten gun through his service. He also carried a P38 gun, taken from a prisoner of war who was found trying to sneak back to the German side from behind their line. Mr. Stieger took the man’s revolver (which took the same ammunition as his gun), and carried it illegally through the war.
The survey crew was often placed into No Man’s Land, directly between the two sides. He shares one particular scene from Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Between Allied-occupied Nijmegen and Axis-occupied Arnhem, was the Rhine River, and in that No Man’s Land space was an island where the survey crew had to go.
“One day, they (the Germans) fired an 88 gun, which was their big one. And it hit my truck directly,” Mr. Stieger said. “One of my men was killed outright.”
The driver got part of his leg shot away, four men in the back were injured, and Mr. Stieger got shrapnel on his face and along the left side of his body. He was fixed up at the field dressing station and was back to the job within three days.
That was not the only time Mr. Stieger survived a dangerous encounter. His corps was assaulted on two separate occasions from overhead bombing – both times from Allied forces unaware that friends, not foes, were below them. The first was a 500-strong plane attack, and three of Mr. Stieger’s crew mates were killed. After that, they needed to scrounge from other regiments for food, surviving on corned beef and hard tack for six weeks, he remembered. A few days after the first bombing, another friendly fire occurred.
“We could see the planes – they were about 1,000 feet up – and it lasted for over two hours,” Mr. Stieger recalled. He had been taking a shower at the time the attack started, and ran in nothing but a towel to hide it out with other soldiers in a nearby bunker.
Everywhere they went, there were signs of war.
“Houses shattered. And you found soldiers everywhere.”
There are good memories from the war too though, mixed in with the bad. He received care packages from his mother and aunt, which included cigarettes, toilet paper, toothpaste, even white asparagus – “my favourite.”
When in Nijmegen, they were billeted in a castle. They used green wood on the grounds to heat the castle, and the smoke got to a few of the soldiers, including Mr. Stieger, who chose to sleep in the barn instead. He became friends with the caretaker, and would share some of his care package items with the man and his family, like chocolate for his children. In return, the caretaker would share when the castle owner gave him some cow or pig meat.
“When we were surveying in No Man’s land, we found the furniture of a railroad station operator,” Mr. Stieger said. “It was a chesterfield, and good furniture. We put it in a truck and brought it to his house (of the caretaker). We weren’t allowed to do it, but we did it!”
He got a week’s leave at one point, and went to Paris. It was required that the leave be educational, so he learned some French history in the mornings. But in the afternoons, he got to tour the sites.
What was Paris like during the war?
“Full of American soldiers,” he described.
He remembers the end of the war clearly. It was May 4th – his mother’s birthday.
“We were in a field next to a battalion of tanks. It was 9:00 at night. They had a radio. It said ‘attention, this is Marshall Montgomery. Cease fire tomorrow the 5th at 0800 Hours.”
While his regiment drank in celebration, Mr. Stieger and his captain stayed on guard, just in case.
He travelled back to Canada with a troop out of Montreal. He had signed up to be sent to Japan, but figured the war might be over there too by the time he travelled home, had his month’s leave then sent to his next assignment. He was right. Mr. Stieger came home, where he was welcomed back by his parents, sister and friends. They cried when they finally saw each other again, after more than three years away.
Following the war, Mr. Stieger went to McGill University, then to work for IBM in Toronto, where he remained for his career. He got married, had a son, and retired in 1983. He now calls Invermere home after his son convinced him to move out west to be with family almost 20 years ago.
Mr. Stieger isn’t one to elaborate when asked what it was like to know that, while he fought with the Canadian side, his Austrian relatives were likely on the other side of No Man’s Land from him. Years later, he learned the story of one Austrian cousin who had been an officer of an S.S. youth unit. That cousin could see that the war would be ending soon, and that it would not be in the Germans’ favour. He told his troop they should surrender, and was shot in the back by his own men. Another cousin was taken as a Prisoner of War, and sent to a camp in Colorado, though he later told family he never had it so good as when he was in the POW camp, with cigarettes and whiskey on a farm in the States.
Up until a couple years ago, Mr. Stieger went to Europe every year, where he and an Austrian cousin would travel to a different country each trip to see the sights. He tells the Pioneer he never went out of his way to visit any of the many locations he was stationed in during the war. He has memories enough from wartime. Mr. Stieger does not contemplate his service in the army very often. It was a long, long time ago now. But he still remembers every November 11th. He goes to a service, and he thinks of the battles he was in, and the lives he and his division led during and after the war.
He does say as a young man, he felt an obligation to join. And he wanted to bring peace to his parents, who would walk down the street and get comments from people because of their background. Woven between the lines of Mr. Stieger’s story, there is evidence of the persecution his parents faced. His father was put in an internment camp in northern Quebec during the First World War for approximately nine months before his employer pulled him out.
“When I was in uniform, I walked by those places with my mother. And then they just shifted their attitude,” he said. “I joined up for my mother and dad, so they’d have peace.”