17TH Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars.
When I first met Dr. Tabah, all I wanted was a story about his War experiences as a Medical Officer, but as you will read, not only did he perform his duties with courage, he was a mover and shaker. Once he got back home to Montreal, little did he know that one day, he would play a major role in creating the first Oncology Day Center in Montreal at the RVH. From his own words, His story begins:
I was only six months out of medical school when in the winter of 1943 I found myself in the army and shortly afterwards on a small banana boat of about 15,000 tons heading out of Halifax for overseas. There were 90 other Canadian Medical Officers on that boat. We were the only passengers and to this day I cannot understand the logic of placing all that medical talent on one ship, which could have easily ended up as a disaster. We originally set sail in the company of a large convoy that gave us a certain sense of security. But after two days out we awoke and found ourselves alone on the high seas without another ship in sight. Each medical officer was obligated to a man, for two hours a day, one of the two 20mm anti-aircraft Oerliken guns mounted fore and aft on the ship after receiving only thirty minutes of instructions. That was the only protection we had from either a submarine or air attack To make matters worse, a firing demonstration of those guns was never held so we did not know what to expect or how they felt when fired. Each officer prayed that nothing would happen during his duty shift. Fortunately things went smoothly until we were 1 Y2 days off the coast of England when in the early morning a German fighter plane suddenly appeared in the sky but before it could get close enough to attack, two R.A.F. fighter planes also showed up much to our relief and quickly drove the German Plane away. From that point on we felt secure for the British escort planes were never far away.In England the medical officers were all sent to Aldershot where we spent the next six weeks receiving additional training on how to become soldiers and to conduct oneself in the army. Following this period of training I was then assigned as a Regimental Medical Officer to the Seventeenth Duke of York Royal Canadian Hussars. The next seven to eight months were spent intensively training for the forthcoming assault on Europe. The story of the D-Day landings on the Beaches of Normandy by the Americans, British and Canadians in the early hours of January 6th, 1944 is well known and well documented and makes for very interesting reading. It was the most massive, coordinated and combined assault in the history of warfare.
The third Canadian Division was one of the participants in the assault. While, the entire Reconnaissance Regiment did not take part in the original invasion, about one dozen of its officers and wireless operators were attached one to each of the many other units of the Division. Their task was to see that the Divisional Commander was kept constantly informed as to just what each and everyone of his battalions were up to on the beaches where, at times, there was utter mass confusion and disorganization. The D-Day landings proved to be extremely costly in terms of lives, the number of wounded and the equipment loss. The remainder of the Reconnaissance Regiment including Regimental head quarters, and other support Units arrived in France by mid June, by which time the beach head had been firmly secured. Initially, the Regiment could not function as a reconnaissance Unit because of the fierce fighting and the confined area of operation. It was not until after the capture of Caen that the various squadrons of the Regiment were able to initiate their role of reconnaissance, spreading out, often 4-5 miles or more ahead of the infantry. The battle for the City of Caen was fierce and bitter and until that town was taken the third Canadian and third British Divisions were bogged down. Any advance was very slow and very difficult as we were under constant artillery, machine gun and anti-tanksfire. But the Germans were also being hit three and four times as hard and eventually, it was one of our Reconnaissance Squadron, probing ahead perceived that the Germans were getting out of Caen and this Squadron was the first to enter the town and was soon followed by the Canadian and British Division. The city itself was so devastated and destroyed it made map reading virtually impossible with no distinguishable landmarks or street signs. The Regiment itself spent about a week mostly in the cellars of bombed out buildings where they attempted to replenish their equipment and supplies. The mildly wounded were given first aid and evacuated There was, throughout this time, day and night shelling of the town combined with nightly air raids.Our casualties were heavy. At one point the Regimental Head Quarters, to which I was attached, sustained several direct artillery hits and suffered no less than 10 casualties that kept me and the medical staff busy for the rest of the night. One of those shells resulted in the death of our adjutant as welt as several other key personnel. Night air raids by the Germans were always very eerie and frightening. They would first drop many flares that would convert night into day and you would swear that they could see every one of us on the ground This would be followed by heavy bombing attack Casualties were usually light as we all had time to take cover.
The next major goal was to capture Falaise and close the so-called Falaise gap. While waiting to commence the major attack on Falaise we were told that heavy bombing of enemy positions by the Royal Air force wouldfirst take place. Unfortunately, due to some error on the part of their scouting plane our Regimental Headquarters became one of several allied targets and we received the brunt of the bombs intended for the Germans. There is perhaps nothing more frightening than to watch wave after wave of bombs that got louder and more deafening as they approached the earth. Then you would hear a series of explosions, each one leaving a crater the size of a houSe. It was just good fortune that most of us were spared. Shrapnel, however, killed my medical corporal, as he shared the slit trench I was in. We had only one other seriously wounded personnel. That was the extent of our casualties. However, it did result in a loss of three wireless vehicles and 29 other transport and battle vehicles. Fortunately, it was only Regimental Headquarters that received the damage, The remainder of the fighting squadrons of the Regiment was in positions elsewhere awaiting the onset of the attack on the enemy and was not harmed by this aerial assault. Other allied units, however, were not so fortunate and suffered even more casualties and damage to their vehicles. Communications at Regimental Headquarters was disrupted for only several hours during the heat of the attackln the next two or three days all vehicles were replaced and we were mobile once more and in good shape. This demonstrated the massive build up of supplies and equipment by the Allied Forces.Many years later I met a Canadian who, on his first bombing mission, piloted a Lancaster bomber . during that very bombing attack on our Regimental Headquarters. They didn’t realize their mistake until they returned to their base in England and were told about it. Naturally they were devastated and tended to blame themselves for the error. In spite of that we became very good friends and remain so to this day.Fighting for Falaise was fierce resulting in heavy casualties, dead and wounded With my medical attendants we worked through the day and most of the night, on three separate occasions. Falaise was finally captured and this operation alone cost the Germans dearly with over 100,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoners. This marked the end of the Normandy phase of the campaign and now started the “Run through France” which permitted the Reconnaissance Regiment, for the first time, to truly play the role for which it was trained During this period the Germans were in full and rapid retreat, and the Reconnaissance Units found it difficult to find and keep up with them. As this went on our troops overtook many abandoned German Headquarters and their medical facilities. In their haste to get away they would leave all their equipment and facilities pretty much intact and this included many bottles of champagne and other varieties of French wines and liquor. Their medical facilities contained all manner of supplies and fresh surgical dressing, new surgical instruments, portable x-ray machines and the likel was always contacted by the squadron leaders to come up and help myself to whatever supplies and equipment I needed and to tend to one or two wounded Germans left behind. After caring for the wounded and seeing to it that they were evacuated to our medical facilities. I would help myself to the champagne and wines. At one of those camps I did rescue 4 large wooden boxes of brand new stainless steel general surgical instruments. These remained with me until the end of the fighting and eventually found their way to the surgical research lab at McGill after the war. I must add that during this period we were under constant shellfire by the enemy’s long-range artillery. The thing that struck me as peculiar and very fortuitous was the fact that almost one in four or five shells failed to explode once they hit the ground and on several occasions my life was spared because of that fact. I was told that this was the sabotage work of the large foreign labor force the Germans were forced to use to run their factories. On several other occasions we came under direct attack by one or two low flying German fighter planes that would suddenly appear from nowhere and zoom down on us with all machine guns blazing, strafing everything in sight. At such times there was a wild scramble by everyone to take cover wherever they could — behind vehicles and trees, in slit trenches where available or just plain hugging the ground. Invariably the planes would circle and return to attack two or three times. The casualties to personnel and vehicles were always quite heavy. This too was always a very hair-chilling experience. The campaign to capture the channel ports of Bologne, Cap Grips Nez and Calais was a major undertaking. These were formidable fortresses and to do it, the infantry required all the support the allied command could provide including, heavy artillery formations, supporting tanks, rocket-firing aircraft etc.
The organization of this attack took time and planning. Artillery, petrol and ammunition dumps had to be set up as well as dumps for tank ammunition and flamethrower fluid. And with all this, one had to coordinate with the Royal Air Force the precise time and sequence of attack.The Seventeenth Hussars was the only Regiment in the Division that was equipped with the flame throwing tanks. They were awesome, frightening and very effective at close range. During the preparatory stage of this attack by the 3rd Canadian Division the Seventeenth Hussars was assigned to contain the enemy over a 20-mile front covering each of those 3 major ports. During this period the Regiment came under constant heavy shellfire from the enemy. The shelling was particularly wicked as they had reversed their heavy 21 cm. Coastal guns and they were using them very effectively to tie down the squadrons. There was the occasional patrol and minor skirmish in an attempt to seize German prisoners for intelligence purpose. Casualties in the various squadrons during this period were surprisingly very light. The Divisional attack took place first in Bologne. This was initiated by massive bombing by the Royal Air Force. While this was going on the Seventeenth Hussars was fully committed to containing Cap Gris-Nez and Calais. In the assault on Bologne some of our flamethrowers were attached to several of the infantry Regiment and were used very effectively. However, this action was not without its toll and several of the flame throwers were knocked out by heavy enemy artillery killing . several of our men and badly wounding 4 others who were eventually cared for and evacuated. Once Bologne was captured the infantry turned its attention to Cap Gris-Nez. As I recall, fighting for this port was not as bitter although heavy shelling by the enemy persisted but after several days of heavy fighting they surrendered. The allies then regrouped, and repositioned their artillery and their infantry and prepared for the attack on Calais. Fortunately, for all concerned, the Germans commander at Calais only put up a token resistance and after a few hours of fighting surrendered to the allies. This completed the Regiment’s activities in France and they were immediately ordered into Holland into an area called the Schelde.
The Schelde was a vast swampland with dikes criss-crossing back and forth and these were the only roads for vehicles and troops to travel on. There were pockets of Germans holding out on the banks of the Schelde Estuary and the Third Canadian Division was given the task of cleaning them up. The Regiment itself played a major role in this effort. It was the first of the division to enter the Schelde and the last to leave. The Schelde operation proved to have been one of the hardest and most unpleasant that the Third Canadian Division had undertaken. The entire area was a marshland with mud, water, and mines everywhere. The only means of getting around was along the Dyke roads. The enemy had well established and easily defended positions all along those roads. To travel the dike roads by foot or vehicle during the day was extremely hazardous and foolhardy. During this period the Regiment functioned more as an infantry group working closely with other infantry Regiments.It took a month of slow fierce and heavy fighting for the entire Division to eventually clear the Schelde estuary of all the Germans. As a result of this major victory the town of Ghent was freed and the Citizens of that city welcomed the Third Canadian Division with open arms. I can recall the extreme fatigue and, in some cases, exhaustion of many of the troops as they arrived in their vehicles. The City did everything possible to show their happiness and appreciation at being freed. They opened their homes, supplied clean white bed sheets for every man, washed their clothes, pressed uniforms, cooked and fed them over the next 4 to 5 days. The men were soon completely rejuvenated. In the meantime, minor wounds and injuries were attended to, vehicles were repaired and supplies of all type brought up to norm.Following this well deserved rest, the entire Regiment together with the Third Canadian Division moved on to Nijmegen going first through Antwerp, Tilburg and several other cities along the way which were already in allied hands. The role of the Regiment at Nijmegen was to guard the Nijmegen Bridge, which had just been captured by the Air Borne troops, and it was the only crossing left over the river Waal. It was a very vital supply route for the maintenance of Montgomery’s Divisions near Arnhem. The Germans realized the importance of this bridge and shelled the area heavily day and night. At night, night fighters against unbelievable anti-aircraft fire also heavily strafed the bridge. They tried to launch mines up-stream in the hope that they would explode on contact with the bridge. The hussars were given the task of positioning several armed warning posts about a mile upstream and they would shoot up anything and everything that was suspicious or floating on the water. In addition, there were troops in a barge, close to the bridge, and the orders for them were to shoot at everything floating in the river. The Nijmegen Bridge, although badly damaged, remained intact and very vital for the duration of the war.During the winter months from mid December to mid February 1945 the division held positions along the River Waal without any major mishap or incident to the Regiment.
During this time I was attached to B Squadron as Regimental Headquarters remained well behind Throughout this period there were many minor skirmishes and nightly raids between our troops manning the dikes and German troops doing the same thing. Each side was interested in capturing a prisoner and there were nightly patrols from both sides for this purpose.During the course of the war the Hussars had taken literally thousands and thousands of German prisoners but they eventually lost one trooper to a German night raid. This only served to make the squadron more careful and alert and they prepared an intricate set of booby traps, trip wires and the like. I found this time to be very boring and unusually quiet after what we had been through. There was the usual sick parade but very few casualties to attend to. It was around Xmas time in 1945 when the entire 3rd. Division was placed on instant alert. We were advised that the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium was not going too well for the Americans and the 3rd. Canadian Division might be called upon to join with them. This state of alert lasted for about 7 days when the battle gradually turned in favour of the Americans and our support was no longer required. The next phase saw the regiment on the move once more with the rest of the Third Division chasing the enemy across the Rhine River. We had some minor casualties during this part of the campaign. If the enemy felt some security behind the Rhine General Montgomery soon dispelled that notion by sending a message to all units under his command boastfully stating “the great Allied fighting machine would soon deal with that situation in no uncertain terms►.For the next while massive preparations were made for the final assault and crossing of the Rhine. All Regiments were to make sure that their equipment, personnel were in ship shape condition. The actual attack on the Rhine took place on the night of March 23, 1945 and this was the last major undertaking of the 3rd. Canadian Division. The British Armour first secured a bridgehead across the Rhine and very shortly after that the entire 3rd. Canadian Division crossed the Rhine on a single lane Bialy bridge. That took several days but once across the river the Regiment resumed its usual role ofReconnaissance.For the next month or so the Third Canadian Division spent their time mopping up and clearing out pockets of German resistance. Initially the fighting was heavy but gradually German resistance crumbled as one Dutch town after another was freed. Around the middle of April 1945 I received a message from the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp Headquarters advising me to report immediately to No.3 Canadian General Hospital which was a 200 bed unit situated in Bad Zwischenon in Germany. At first I was sorry since the war was rapidly coming to an end The Germans did finally surrender on May 5th 1945. However, after I arrived in Bad Zwischenon and saw the beautiful surroundings and the well equipped and well staffed hospital I quickly learned to enjoy the new luxury and the complete change in pace. It was a wonderful feeling to have your own bedroom with clean sheets and clean clothes. The Unit remained in Bad Zweischenon for the next month and in June the entire hospital moved to Zwidlaren in Holland. Once again we found ourselves in beautiful surroundings in an old hospital building, which we adapted to our own use.
I spent the rest of my stay in Europe with this Unit. The person in charge of surgery at the hospital was Colonel C. Y.Hauch. He was a man of about 55 years of age from Owen Sound, Ontario and the product of a seven-year Halsted surgical training program at New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center. He was true gentlemen, a beautiful technician and an excellent teacher. He inspired me to take up a surgical career. Ifinally returned to Canada in December of 1945 and immediately applied at the Royal Victoria Hospital for their surgical residency program. I was accepted for July 1946DR. EDWARD J TABAH — Post War PERSONASWhether at the forefront of battle during World War II as a Captain in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp, or pioneering the first Oncology Day Center at the RVH, Dr. Edward j Tabah has always been there for patients. A senior surgeon for more than 40 years, Dr. Tabah has made extensive academic contributions while on the Faculty of McGill University, establishing himself as a leader in the treatment of cancer.Doctor Tabah began his career as an intern at the Montreal General Hospital before joining the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp where he served as a Captain from 1943 to 1946. He became the regimental medical officer for the 17th. Hussars Reconnaissance Regiment in the 3rd. Canadian Division, whose job was mainly to probe, finds out where the enemy was an wire back information to the troops. Doctor Tabah was 25 years old at that time. He says, “We had no choice but to join the armed forces. You didn’t want to shirk responsibility… you wanted to do your part. “Says Dr. Tabah, I went over to Normandy after they had established the beachhead, which was about the 7th day of the invasion. From there I stayed with the regiment and we made our way into France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany. It was a long drive. There was a lot of action and many casualties there were very limited facilities. I had a lot of dfferent experiences. We got bombed. We got shelled. Germans out in the open fields strafed us. We were even bombed by our own air force by mistake, the RAF, as we were setting up an attack near Caen and Falaise where nearly two hundred thousand German were taken prisoners.
After the war Dr. Tabah met up with Dr. Gavin Miller, Chief of Surgery at the RVH and Dr.MacKenzie who was in charge of research in surgery at McGill. During their talk, Dr.MacKenzie remarked that while they had very good new facilities at McGill, one of the things, which was sorely lacking was surgicalinstruments. Said Dr. Tabah, “I believe I have something which may be of use to you”. During the war Dr. Tabah had come across huge boxes of brand new German stainless steel surgical instruments still in the original wrappings,which had never been used Explains Dr. Tabah, “I helped myself to 4 boxes of equipment. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, but I put them in my “Half-track” and went through the rest of the war carting them around always thinking, what am I doing with these? All they are doing is taking up space”. When Dr. Miller opened the boxes and saw the new surgical equipment donated by Dr. Tabah and which was so badly needed, he was pleasantly amazed Needless to say, it was quickly put to good use and Dr. Tabah was appointed to the residency program at McGill. He worked as a surgical resident at the RVII for two years, 1946-1948, and then went to New York City, where he did a year fellowship in Surgical Pathology at the Presbyterian Hospital. The next year in 1949, he was accepted as a surgical fellow at the then world-renowned Mecca for cancer surgery, the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After four years of specialized training in radical operations for all kinds of cancers, he returned in 1953 to become a staff member at the RVII, as the first fully trained cancer surgeon or surgical oncologist, as the specialty is called today.During 39 years period from 1953 to his semi-retirement in 1992, he served as senior surgeon at the RVH and associate professor of Surgery at McGill University. He also served as Director of the Central Cancer Registry, Chief Surgeon of the Green Surgical Service, Chairman of the Cancer Committee, a member of the commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons, and numerous other national and international committees. He was also a founding Member of the prestigious “Society of Head & Neck Surgeons” in 1955. In 1987 he was presented with the Distinguished Service Award by the Royal Victoria Hospital.It was during this time that Dr. Tabah distinguished himself as a skilled and fearless surgeon who was able to perform the most difficult and radical operations on patients with advanced head and neck cancers, but also in other anatomical sites. For this he was highly esteemed by his peers, as well as for his compassion and devotion to his many cancer patientsin 1965, one of his patients, a young man in his twenties died of cancer. As a result of this together with this young man’s father, the late Mr.Joseph Chamandy, a group of business associates, and others, Dr. Tabah helped found the Cedar’s Cancer Institute, which turned out to be an indispensable resource in the fight against cancer. Its primary purpose was and is to find a variety of cancer-related activities at the RYII and McGill. Cedars had provided major funding for cancer research, education, patient care, and equipment. Their efforts over the years have touched virtually every area of the hospital. From much needed facilities to the improvement of patient care, Cedars has always been there, and continues to be therein 1966 Dr. Tabah initiated what was truly the first Oncology Day Center in Montreal at the RVH. This facility gradually evolved and expanded over the years. Two years ago, Cedars completed a massive renovation and expansion of the Edward J.Tabah Oncology Day Centre with the Hospital, doubling the core of this facility. Doctor Tabah continues to practice at the .RVH and was awarded THE ORDER OF CANADA IN 1993 in recognition of his outstanding work in the fight against cancer for more than 40 years. Whether it was treating the wounded, escaping enemy fire, carting surgical equipment across two continents for the then unknown purpose of helping a surgical program at McGill or pioneering new cancer treatment, it can certainly be said that Dr. Tabah “did his part”.
Some people, some “personas”, some physicians have the ability to change other people’s and patients’ lives forever, by virtue of who they are …. Doctor Edward J: Tabah, … is one of those.
The facts stated are from interviews with the members concerned. The Royal Canadian Hussars (Montreal) Association disclaims any liability with respect to accuracy.
Montréal, Qc, H3H-1X2