When Australian troops ventured off to far flung European battlefields during the Great War; a popular song captured the spirit of the time. The mother country needed help and the “Colonials” would do their bit for the British Empire. Composed by Joe Slater (music written by Charles Vaude) circa 1915; the troops proudly sang the lyrics “If England Needs a Hand Then Here It Is” …… and the Commonwealth would resonate with the deeds of these “cousins” from the four corners of the globe.
When the Second World War erupted, the call to arms went out for a second time – and again – men from all over the Commonwealth would take up arms in defence of Britain. And just like the First World War, Canada’s young men would step forward to do what many thought – to be their ‘duty’. Men such as John Leonard CHRISTOPHER.
IMAGE RIGHT: The British Empire Medal, as awarded to Chief Petty Officer John Leonard CHRISTOPHER, R.C.N.R. (Royal Canadian Navy Reserve). This medal is missing and his family are trying to recover this important part of their family heritage. Can you help?
So it is fitting, that by war’s end ….. the British Commonwealth would recognise the contribution made by her Colonial cousins. And the British Empire Medal is one such award, that would herald the lengths – one such man would go …… not only in defence of his country …… but his shipmates and the vessel on which they serve.
John Leonard CHRISTOPHER was born on the 24th of May, 1904 in Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy and served during World War Two. Despite being christened ‘John’, he was better known to his shipmates by his middle name of “Leonard”. By war’s end, he would hold the rank of Chief Petty Officer; be recognised by senior officers and his peers for his contribution to the war effort and awarded the British Empire Medal. The citation for his award is as follows:- “This Chief Petty Officer has served a considerable period at sea during which time he has proved himself a most conscientious, efficient and resourceful worker. In the early hours of the morning on 8 February, 1945, a fire occurred in the Petty Officer’s Mess of HMCS Beaver. This rating, in complete disregard for his own personal safety, and in spite of dense smoke and flames, extinguished the fire and materially saved the ship from possible serious disaster.”
IMAGE LEFT: John Leonard CHRISTOPHER (Service Number A-1414) in his early days, before he was commissioned a Chief Petty Officer.
The ‘Beaver’ was a small vessel that could easily have been overshadowed by the Major Fleet Units of the Canadian Navy. Launched in 1902, she was a product of the Crescent Shipyard, Elizabeth, New Jersey – but not commissioned into the Canadian Services until the 28th of May, 1941. Until then, she had formerly been known as the USS Aztec. H.M.C.S. Beaver was an Armed Yacht displacing just 808 tonnes. With a length of 260 feet and a width of 28 feet – she could cruise at a speed of 12 knots and was crewed by a compliment of 5 Officers and 45 sailors. John CHRISTOPHER would eventually be one of those crew.
From 1941, through to September 1944 – this vessel performed various tasks and engaged in general escort work, patrolling and transportation duties in the Canadian Atlantic provinces. However, it was evident that ‘age’ and workload took it’s toll on the vessel as serious defects began to plague her. So much so, that when the Beaver was drydocked for repair in 1944 – it was decided that she was fast living out her useful life from a Naval perspective. The fire which erupted on board the vessel on the 8th of February, 1945 (in which C.P.O. John CHRISTOPHER would win recognition) no doubt, helped to seal her fate and she was decommissioned shortly afterwards. Surprisingly, the Beaver was placed on the open market and sold off in 1946. John would survive the war and returned to Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick – Canada upon the cessation of hostilities. He lived out the rest of his life there and passed out at the relative young age of 54.
Stories of great deeds are rarely written about little vessels, such as H.M.C.S. Beaver ……. and just like his ship, the deeds of Chieft Petty Officer John Leonard CHRISTOPHER have faded off into obscurity. However, to the men who sailed on her; and the family of this particular sailor – the Beaver has become an indelible part of their “family history”. Sadly, one of the few tangible reminders the CHRISTOPHER family had, of their sailor ancestor is lost. Like many war service medals of families around the world, the war medals of Chief Petty Officer are missing. This British Empire Medal of John Christopher is more than just a decoration to be held in a collection of memorabilia. To his descendants, it is a reminder of one man’s service for a cause which he thought ‘just’.
Any sailor, from any Navy will tell you – of the importance of ‘ship and shipmates’. Whether a medal is awarded for the saving of a Battle Cruiser …… or a tiny little “Armed Yacht” ….. the risk to life is still the same. And to be recognised through the awarding of a medal – is a symbol of esteem bestowed, not only by a grateful ship’s company; but the Commonwealth in which one serves.
If you know of the whereabouts of the British Empire Medal awarded to John Leonard CHRISTOPHER, his family would be most grateful for your assistance in it’s return.