The Canadian intelligence officer moved cautiously not wanting to spook the officer who leveled the Mauser pistol at his chest. The German motioned with the muzzle for the Canadian to move toward the German truck. The clandestine meeting, arranged quickly on the back of reconnaissance from the Dutch resistance required two Allied officers meet with the German command currently controlling Western Holland. There was a distinct risk that the obtuse message from German General Johannes Blaskowitz was a trap. The men understood they could be killed or taken prisoner – only to join the ranks of those rumored to be incarcerated and starving behind German lines. If there was any doubt of the callous disregard of the occupying Germans for citizens stuck in the cross-fire of war, one need only look north and to the east, where over 1M Russians had died of starvation in Leningrad during the 2 ½ year German siege. The occupants had been rumored to be reduced to cannibalism and inhuman subsistence.
Captain Farley Mowat and his fellow Canadian officers were known for their colorful and creative acts of insubordination against the rigid daily life of the military. In another place and time they might have been considered in contempt of command and drummed out of the Corps. Yet, this was not a time to adhere to protocol. Mowat did not possess the authority to negotiate a truce with a Wermacht General but recognized this odd ensemble of junior intelligence officers held the lives of 1M Dutch in their hands. Amsterdam was the new Leningrad and its inhabitants were starving under the iron-grip of a German Army indifferent to suffering. An entire city was being used as a bargaining chip to negotiate terms that might result in a conditional armistice. With each day, Dutch Resistance reported hundreds dying of starvation. At great personal risk, Capt. Farley Mowat and along with Capt. Ken Cottam, who spoke fluent German, volunteered to lead the mission. Twelve hours later, they were being led into the lair of the wolf.
Mowat had been in the Canadian army at the onset of the war and was attached to the Hasty P’s – formally known as the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Having landed in Italy, Mowat spent much of 1943 and 1944 as a rifle platoon commander. He was subjected to daily combat which temporarily broke him with battle fatigue briefly during the Siege of Moro River where he was found weeping at the feet of a wounded comrade who had been shot through the head. Early in 1945 he was moved to an intelligence unit in the Netherlands where he would be agree to cross enemy lines to begin negotiations about a food drop that might save an entire city from certain starvation.
Farley’s father, Angus Mowat, was a librarian who fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI where four divisions of Canadians collided with four divisions of a deeply entrenched German Sixth Army. 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the capture of an escarpment that would serve no real strategic value in the broader Battle of Arras Casualties at Vimy eclipsed 90% for certain regiments. His father had returned from the killing fields of Flanders traumatized and pessimistic to mankind’s ability to co-exist on a planet seemingly addicted to the methamphetamine of war. His love of books and literature effected young Farley and would define his lens to the world. As a young officer, Mowat kept a daily journal through the entire war – a journal that offered a humorous and tragic front line view of men in battle.
…“Still, with a crazy sense of adventure and a large white sheet flying from the wire cutter on the front of the jeep, the two officers and a third man, roared off toward German lines. I was convinced we would be riddled with machine gun bullets at any time.
Cottam spoke fluent German and armed with bravado, an authoritarian attitude of importance, and the vague message, we actually succeeded in making it past several checkpoints of nervous soldiers and were admitted to see General Blaskowitz in his heavily guarded compound.
Late that night, we managed to negotiate a truce with the German forces in order to supply food to the citizens. On April 27, 1945, we radioed the message that we had negotiated a truce with the Germans to allow food deliveries.” In a later interview with the Canadian Press, ‘Mowat later said he thought they would either been promoted for their daring, or court-martialed for entering into basically unofficial negotiations with the German command.”
Great minds indeed think alike but smaller groups move with greater resolve. Unbeknownst to the Canadians, Allied Command had also been negotiating at the highest levels of the German Army but had bogged down in red tape. On April 29th, a British Lancaster loaded with supplies initiated food supply operations codenamed, “Manna” and “Chowhound”. Further drops were delivered and estimated at saving thousands of lives.
After the war, General Blaskowitz was arrested and put on trial at Nuremberg. Given his own track record of questioning his superior’s orders, demotions due to insubordination and his allowance of food supplies to be delivered to Holland, his attorneys had advised him that he would not be found guilty of the most serious charges against him. Riddled with guilt over his own inaction in the face of SS evils, Blaskowitz chose to leap to his death from a balcony after breaking away from his guards. The next day, he was exonerated by a jury of all charges.
Farley Mowat returned home decorated with the 1939–1945 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defense Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the War Medal 1939–1945. Yet, like his father, he was sickened by man’s inhumanity to man and desperate to return to the Arctic, the last remaining Eden unspoiled by man.
Mowat would return to the arctic tundra and become moved by the plight of two of the most endangered species – the arctic wolf and the native people, the Inuit. He would write his most famous book, Never Cry Wolf chronicling his hapless transformation from neophyte environmentalist to skilled survivalist. He would become Canada’s most well-known author and outspoken advocate for the wilderness and its preservation. In his time in the field, He lived among the Inuit and felt connected to their mythology that was passed each night across flickering campfires. The People, seemed to understand the symbiotic interdependence of Mother Earth and its native tribes.
Canada’s most widely read author hated war and was cynical to the motives of mankind. “War is absolute lunacy. It is the most distinguishing feature of the human species. My ultimate conclusion is that these murderous symptoms serve as a diagnosed indication of the way we are going to end. “
His epitaph in a local paper summed up his life with the same twinkle that marked his 92 years. “Farley Mowat was a trickster, a ferocious imp with a silver pen, and an ardent environmentalist who opened up the idea of the North to curious southerners. A public clown who hid his shyness behind flamboyant rum swigging and kilt-flipping, and a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause. Above all, he was a bestselling and prolific writer, who kept generations of children (and their parents) spellbound by tales of adventures with wolves that were friendlier than people, whales in need of rescue, dogs who refused to quit.
In a 60-plus-year career as a writer, he wrote more than 40 books, including several memoirs, and won many prizes and honours, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award, the Order of Canada and several honorary degrees. But it wasn’t all popcorn, tots of rum and fireside tales. A lonely, only child, he turned to animals for friendship as a boy.
Like many young men, he eagerly marched off to fight for King and Country in the Second World War, but the atrocities he witnessed and the killings he himself committed in the brutal Italian campaign so traumatized him that he turned again to his animal friends, if only in his imagination. “
It was my salvation,” he once said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in November, 2009, about writing drafts of the books that would later make his legacy. For the rest of his life he preferred the company of “the others” to members of his own species.
Back in Canada, he was a battle-scarred veteran in psychic despair when he went on a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the late 1940s. “I didn’t like the human goddamn race,” he told The Globe in 2005. “I had seen enough of its real naked horror during the war to convince me that we weren’t worth the powder to blow us to hell.”
Humanity was, for Farley Mowat, a misnomer.