Sunday, July 25, 2010

James Roberts: Soldier, Statesman, and . . . . Ice Cream Salesman???

I recently reread the story of James Roberts: one of Canada’s most distinguished sons. Roberts came from a fairly well to do family and, in 1937, he and his brother attended a Canadian trade show in Toronto where an American businessman demonstrated a machine that dispensed ice cream that was soft. It was the ancestor of today’s Dairy Queen machines. The two Robert’s brothers made that businessman an offer for the rights to using his machine in the British Empire. The next year, they set off to the English resort city of Blackpool and turned a very nice profit selling soft serve ice cream to tourists. That winter they invested their profits in additional ice cream machines and anticipated becoming Britain’s ice cream tycoons. Unfortunately, next year the prospect of the outbreak of WWII caused a dramatic downturn in the number of visitors to Blackpool and the brothers dreams of riches melted away.

James Roberts returned to Canada and when his country entered the war in September of 1939, he joined the Canadian Army. Since he had some previous experience in the Canadian militia, he received an officer’s commission. James Roberts turned out to be an extraordinarily talented officer specializing in armored reconnaissance (the subject on which he once wrote a book). By D-Day, he’d been promoted to full Colonel and was commanding a regiment from Manitoba. By all accounts, his men held him in the highest regards since he was brave, resourceful, and genuinely concerned for their welfare. In early 1945, his brigade commander was killed and Roberts was promoted to Brigadier General—an extraordinary accomplishment for a man who was not yet forty.

Roberts later wrote a book about his life entitled The Canadian Summer, the title is in part a reference to the Dutch habit of referring to 1945 as the “Canadian Summer,” since Canadian troops liberated most of Holland. The Canadians were extremely welcome because the Canadian summer succeeded the hunger winter of 1944/’45, when most Dutch civilians had been on the brink of starvation.

Roberts married the widow of a Dutch officer, served as a senior civil servant in the Canadian government, was his country’s deputy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and finished his career as Canada’s ambassador to Switzerland.

That is quite an impressive record. However, he achieved complete immortality in the Canadian Army due to a remark he made to the German General commanding the Wermacht army in Holland. At the time of the surrender in May of 1945, Brigadier General Roberts was given the assignment of picking up the German General at his headquarters, transporting him to the surrender ceremony and then returning him to the German headquarters. I’m not entirely sure about the protocols of the Canadian army, but that strikes me as a truly extraordinary honor. As they drove back to the German headquarters, the German General was silent for most of the way, obviously thoroughly depressed about just having surrendered his army. Finally, he asked through his interpreter whether Roberts had been a professional soldier. That question took Roberts by surprise.He’d been in uniform for 5 and ½ years, and anything that happened in peacetime seemed to be incredibly distant. It then occurred to Roberts that the German General was trying to console himself. So Roberts replied, “No, very few Canadians are. In civilian life I sold ice-cream.”

The German Generals response is not recorded. If I were writing a sketch for Monty Python I would have Brigadier Roberts recite the details of how to make 28 different flavors of ice cream—but that would have been *cold*.

I think it’s fair to say that James Roberts was a really cool guy.

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