On a beautiful afternoon, June 1, a few visitors came to spend time in lawn chairs with a Second World War veteran, husband and father, Sir Les Downing. He made it clear that the presence of his only child, daughter Donna Lynne from Pincher Creek, was an extra special birthday gift.
Downing misses his wife, Louise, who recently went to live Virden’s Westman Personal Care Home. The couple farmed south of Virden before retiring in Virden. He paid tribute to Louise saying, “She was a wonderful partner, never one to complain.”
Talk that afternoon focussed on the music that Downing played as a fiddle player with the Downing family orchestra. “I played for a lot of dances,” he recalled wistfully.
Donna Lynne commented: “Dad’s family are, almost all musicians. My dad’s mother, my grandmother Rachael, was a fiddle player.” She taught her family to play.
“Grandmother, Dad and his brother Clarence, played for many years,” said Donna Lynne. “Uncle Clarence’s farm was two miles east of Dad’s.”
Donna Lynne also chorded on the piano with the orchestra on their weekly orchestral engagements.
Downing loved waltzes and fox trots aplenty, but more recently, he named the tune “Seamus O’Brien” as a favourite.
Knighthood is a title carried lightly by Downing. Around the time of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the French government recognized Allied soldiers who took part in D-Day and the subsequent Normandy Campaign. Downing received knighthood, among of a handful of other WW II veterans from the area.
He fought his way across France, Germany and Holland in the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Infantry as a gunner with the Royal Canadian Artillery 19 Field. He signed up in Brandon and trained at Petawawa, Ontario before training in England. He saw action in France, Germany and in Holland and was on active duty on D-Day.
He recalls crossing the English Channel after a year of training in England. “That bothered us all; leaving England to go to the Front Lines. The boys were very quiet.”
A gunner, Downing’s job was to get the position relayed to him by a commander on the ground, and set his artillery correctly. It was a job he did with as much precision as was available in 1943, taking his job very seriously, knowing he could hit his own troops. He said he asked to be relieved of that position but that was not to be.
Thinking back to those days, the loss of a friend from Virden continues to bother him. Jim Kelly bunked nearby to Downing. He recalls that Kelly had so many things he wanted to do after the war. But Kelly lost his life very early in the war.
Downing said he wept then and … it still bothers him.
Sir Les shared about the joys of life that have kept him going. “I enjoy people. I enjoyed working, I enjoyed entertaining. I enjoy what I’ve been doing.”
In light of the four and a half years he spent at war in Europe, he said, “You enjoy [life] more when you go through what I went through. People grow closer to you.”