Residents across the township are mourning the death of Second World War veteran, longtime educator and community icon Allan McPhail.
Flags at the municipal office are at half-mast to honour the memory of the Cannington resident, who died Tuesday (Aug 1) at the age of 94. Known for his gruff voice and larger than life personality, McPhail dedicated his life to serving his community and his country.
That service began when McPhail enlisted in the Irish Regiment of Canada, a reserve unit, at the age of 16. He fully enlisted two years later.
After training in North Bay and Petawawa, McPhail sailed for England in September of 1941.
He recounted many of his wartime experiences through The Memory Project Archive, an online project featuring testimonials and photos from veterans, in December of 2010.
“I was wounded on July the 18th  at a place called Louvigny [southwest of Caen, Normandy, France]. And it was rather interesting because it was a night attack and we went into, this was around just close by Caen. I went to France; and we got there as breakout troops with the 2nd [Canadian Infantry] Division, the 4th [Canadian Infantry] Brigade, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, The Essex Scottish [Regiment] and us [The Royal Regiment of Canada]. We were in a place called Éterville for five days. We went into the first attack, went across a wheatfield and I could see and hear, the wheat was fairly high at that time, it was July, [bullets] snicking off the tops of the wheat,” he said.
“And onto my left was a guy that I knew quite well, a fellow by the name of [Private Donald Allen] Augustine, I could see him fall. I could never figure out…I wondered what happened to him. And I later found out that he had been wounded on the 18th, he died on the 25th, I could never find his burial spot except I finally found it about five years ago at a place called Bayeux. He had been to a British hospital and died there, and was buried in a British cemetery [Pte. Augustine, The Royal Regiment of Canada, is buried in the Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, IV. E. 19]. That’s one of the highlights.”
When discussing his wartime experiences, McPhail was always quick to remember comrades lost in battle.
“And the fact is that I was able to survive that day. I was wounded in the chest. There was a big shell hole just outside the orchard. I went into that hole and there were four or five other guys there, but they were dead. And since the attack went on about like 6:00 or 7:00 at night, it was 11:00, 12:00 dark, I didn’t think I should hang around there. So I made a decision to get up and I was able to walk back. And what you had to watch was that you didn’t step on shoe mines [German S-mines] or mines. So you made your way back, I made the decision to go back and stick on the tarmac, on the hard surface, and walk back. And a guy in a jeep came along and picked me up, and took me to a casualty clearing station,” he said.
“But on my way there, there was a guy by the name of Captain [Robert] Rankin, A Company, he was a good fellow. And I was a company runner and when we went into the first place we went in, I had a slit trench just outside of company headquarters; and I can remember him saying, him being there and we were being mortared. And a mortar shell hit the side of my slit trench, collapsed the side in and I was partially covered, but not excessively, I could get out. And he came out and he was a man of about 32 at the time and I was, what, 20, I guess. And he came out and he said, ‘Are you all right, McPhail?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m fine.” He said, ‘You stick with me and I’ll see you through this.’ I can remember those words. When I was walking back to the casualty station before I even got picked up by the jeep, I ran across the carrier that he was in, which was bringing up, resupplying with ammunition, and he was dead. They had hit a Teller [German anti-tank] mine and blew up the carrier, and he was dead. And the thought then to me was, well, I’m glad I didn’t stick, I won’t be able to stick with you now. [Captain Robert Rankin, The Royal Regiment of Canada is buried in the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Reviers, France, III. G. 4].”
McPhail’s sense of humour and quick wit certainly shines through in the next passage, as he recounted a German barrage that came at a very inopportune time.
“When we went into an attack, we always took a coil of wire with us on a pipe and you’d roll it out, and then hook up a field telephone. So you were the third line of communication. If the other two went, then they would call on you to run messages. But the communications were always pretty good. They had the radio too. So really, you were along almost as an observer, to see what was going on. Very difficult to see things in the battlefield though, it’s a very, very narrow horizon. You just don’t see things. You’re aware of the shelling and the mortaring; and they used to have those Moaning Minnies [Nebelwerfer: German multi-barreled artillery rocket launcher] ̶ they were a pain in the ass. But anyway, that was the way it is,” he said.
“The first position we were in, I had to, it always seems to me that the emphasis is on your anus, but anyway, I had to go and I wasn’t, you know, there were no toilets around or anything. So I got a big jar and I sat on it and as I was going, they started to mortar the position. Well, you see, you had to get up and get out of there, so I tried to get up and run; and the damn thing stuck to my arse. Well there I was, hopping around the field while all the other guys in the slit trenches were cheering me on. But I finally did get to a slit trench and I was all right.”
The interview concludes with McPhail recounting the second time he was wounded in battle.
“So I was wounded again on 8 March, 1945. Both times I was wounded in the chest. The second time was more serious than the first, but again, because of my experience the first time I was wounded, I knew, I mean, if you weren’t vitally hit, then there was nothing you could do then, but once I was, what was I doing? We were going into an attack at a place, it’s an old Roman city on the Rhine [Xanten, Germany]. It was the last part of the push to the Rhine by the Canadian Army, 8 March, 1945. I can remember going across that field and I could see on my left the flamethrowers. They had a Bren Gun Carrier [also known as an Universal Carrier: lightly armoured tracked vehicle] that had a Wasp, I think it was called, flamethrower. And I could see it and I could hear the machine guns; I could hear the artillery and the mortars. So we went forward; and as we were going forward, one of the signallers got hit in the leg,” he said.
As he tended to the injured man, McPhail became a prime target.
“So what I was doing, and I was stupid, stupid, I was putting a bandage on, but instead of just lying down, I was kneeling. They had the upper part of my body as a target and they hit me, oh, right in the middle of the chest. But, fortunately, they missed everything. Went right through me and, of course, as it went through, the hot bullet cauterized the wound as it went through. However, I was bleeding internally and I tried to get on a, there was a jeep came in. Oh, and it was terrible, it was muddy; and it was in March and it was muddy, and terrible. You couldn’t get out. Ah, it was just…Anyway, the jeep came in and I got on it. I got up. I knew that I had to get out of there and get to a casualty clearing station because I was bleeding internally. So I got up and I went to the jeep, and got on it; and damned if it didn’t get stuck.”
With the German artillery hammering their position, McPhail and his comrades were forced to abandon the vehicle.
“And then they started to mortar the thing, so I had to get off. Well, while I was lying on the field there, I was going in and out, and The Essex Scottish carrier came around; and I remember the guy saying, ‘What about him?’ The guy said, ‘Oh, I think he’s dead.’ I said, ‘Like hell, get me the heck out of here.’ So they did; they put me on a stretcher. I went back to a casualty clearing station and I was operated [on] there in an old cellar; and I never had a major operation after that, they did it right there. And then they took me by ambulance to a Dutch hospital. I don’t know where the hell it was. But we got to the hospital and there were four of us in a room – a German guy, two Limeys [English soldiers] and myself,” he said.
“Well, the orderly come in with a needle and went over to the German. The German thought he was going to execute, you know, just kill him with the needle. So he jumped out of bed. He was wounded badly. He hopped out of bed and was circling around the room, going around the room. And the two Limeys saying, ‘Get him, get him, goddammit, he’s going to kill us, get him, get him!’ And I was lying in the bed there and I was saying to myself, ‘Geez, what is this? I go all through that nonsense, I’m operated on and I figure I’m relatively safe and here I’m going to die with some crazy German and two Limeys fighting in a ward in the hospital.’ However, they figured it out and then the German took the needle and everything was all right.”
McPhail enrolled in university shortly after his return to Canada, moving to Cannington in 1953 to teach at Brock High School where he would be named vice-principal roughly a decade later.
He then got involved with municipal politics, serving eight terms on Cannington’s village council including stints as reeve and deputy reeve.
“It is with great and profound sadness to learn of the passing of Allan G McPhail, first mayor of Brock Township. On behalf of the residents, council and staff of Brock , we offer our condolences to Al’s family,” said Brock Mayor John Grant.
“Al often appeared to be larger than life, always present in our communities. I will remember him as a motivator that would lead by example. One of those rare individuals who could change lives, perceptions and attitudes. His vision helped unify five municipalities into the Township of Brock.”
MacPhail was elected as the first mayor of Brock when the municipality formed in 1974 and went on to serve five terms on township council over the next 14 years.
“Brock has lost a great man with the passing of Allan McPhail. He never stopped giving to our community, as a teacher, as a politician and as a mentor to any young person looking for some honest advice, politically or otherwise. I often turned to Allan when I was looking for such advice, most recently when he was an active member of the steering committee to establish the Brock Community Health Centre,” said Larry O’Connor, a longtime township politician.
“He always made a point of asking if I was taking care of myself and my family, never forget them. I will always remember Allan and, like many, will miss his big booming voice.”
McPhail was named the Township’s Senior of the Year in the summer of 2013, receiving an award from provincial Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for his many efforts to improve the community.
The following year, Brock High School also recognized McPhail, naming its library in his honour. It was noted that McPhail had contributed more than 90 years of volunteer service to an array of local organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society, Brock Township Public Library Board, Brock Community Health Centre and the Cannington branch of the Legion.
“He was dearly loved and respected by the staff and students at Brock High School,” said Lucy Black, the school’s principal at the time, after she heard of McPhail’s passing.
“We all looked forward to when he would come to the school. He was always full of stories and he really enjoyed sitting down and talking one-on-one with the students. He was quite an inspiration to all of us and never failed to make us laugh with his self-deprecating humour and good nature. May he rest in peace.”
In recognition of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, the French government announced that all veterans who fought for the liberation of the country in 1944 and 1945 would receive the French Legion of Honour.
McPhail was clearly touched by the recognition, which came during a formal ceremony at the Cannington Legion in the spring of 2016, and he dedicated the award to all those who served alongside him.