Canadian WWII veteran Max Dankner spent many nights riding his Norton army motorcycle to carry out reconnaissance through German-occupied Europe. That is why motorcycles played a starring role in an unforgettable surprise which Dankner’s family arranged for his 95th birthday on May 30.
About a dozen Peel Regional Police vehicles, including two motorcycles from the Road Safety unit, and some Peel Regional Paramedic Services trucks assembled Saturday outside the Mississauga home of Dankner’s son. On the driveway, Max and his wife Natalie, had prime seats.
As the uniformed officers stood outside their squad cars and trucks facing Dankner, the parade marshal Sgt. Luis Simoes climbed off his bike, marched over to the edge of the driveway, and saluted.
“Max Dankner, of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, on behalf of the Peel Regional Police and a grateful nation, thank you for your service,” Simoes proclaimed. “I would like to wish you a happy 95th birthday.”
“It was an honour to serve my country,” Dankner replied.
Then the parade “mounted up”, as Simoes described it, and, with their vehicles’ emergency lights flashing, the officers drove past the delighted veteran.
“When I announced his name and the regiment he served in, the look on his face was priceless,” Simoes recalled in an interview Wednesday.
A 28-year veteran with the Peel police, Simoes is a supervisor with the motorcycle unit. He also volunteers with the #1849 Lorne Scots Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps based in Orangeville, Ontario. Dankner’s grandson Benjamin was an army cadet back in high school and is now a serving soldier in the Canadian Forces. That connection smoothed the way when the family approached Peel police.
“It’s not something that we do often,” Simoes acknowledged. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have staged a similar parade for a young child who was having a birthday in social isolation.
“How could I not do it?!” Simoes said, especially “when you combine veterans, cadets and motorcycles.”
Watch the parade video here:
Lied about his age
Max Moses Jacob Dankner joined the Canadian army in 1943 in his native Montreal, when he was just 17. He presented a doctored birth certificate. That worked for a little while, until his mother got wind of it and revealed the truth to his regiment.
“I was getting $1.50 a day, and she tried to get me out of the army, but she couldn’t, so they cut me down to boy’s pay at 80 cents a day,” Dankner recalled, admitting it was embarrassing.
When he was of age, the army sent him for officer’s training in Kingston. But he was pulled out before the course ended and sent to England, then shipped to Italy, in the fall of 1943. He served in the Italian campaign with the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, among the 93,000 Canadians nicknamed the D-Day Dodgers. Dankner’s reconnaissance regiment operated as scouts, reporting to headquarters about the conditions of local roads and bridges, and where the Germans were. The next summer, due to a manpower shortage, the Canadian military took away the regiment’s armoured cars, and converted the Dragoons to walking infantry.
Crashing the Gothic Line
In August 1944 the Dragoons were deployed to fight in what’s been called one of the most important victories in the Second World War. The Canadians, alongside the Poles and the British broke through Hitler’s infamous Gothic Line of defences across the mountainous terrain of central Italy. During this time, Dankner won the Military Medal for gallantry.
He described how his outfit was going house to house to clear out Germans. It was a tactic that had been employed successfully months earlier, when the Canadians captured the Adriatic town of Ortona.
“The platoon was [being] held back. There were Jerries up there, two guys with a Spandau (Nazi machine gun),” Dankner said in an interview, describing what he did next. “You’re talking about a 19 year old kid with all kinds of courage, and no brains. There was two guys sitting in there, and I heaved a grenade in there and that was the end of the story.”
Except for the part where he also saved the life of a comrade who had been standing right in front of the door as the Germans’ machine gun bullets started to fly. He pushed his buddy to one side, and dove to the ground himself. The story made the newspapers in Montreal.
Severely wounded by shrapnel
Dankner didn’t have time to dwell on that incident. On August 31, he was fighting near Monte Peloso, known then as Hill 253. It is near Tomba di Pesaro, which the Italians now call Tavullia. There is a memorial monument to the Canadian liberators on the next mountain over. Dankner was hit in the hip by a piece of shrapnel from a German mortar.
“It went in deep,” Dankner recalled, saying he was wounded at 2 p.m. “It was hot like hell.”
As historian Mark Zuehlke has written in his book The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in WWll Italy, the Princess Louise Dragoons “paid a bloody price for this tiny bit of real estate: 129 casualties, including 35 fatal.”
Dankner’s mother received a telegram a few days later.
Dispatch Rider in Holland
Although doctors told Dankner he would be shipped home to recover, the Canadian army had other ideas. After a brief stay in the hospital in Rome, and some rehab in Salerno, the soldier was returned to his unit. The Canadians would all transfer out of Italy to Northwestern Europe in March 1945 to fight in the final push to defeat Adolph Hitler.
That is where Dankner resumed his role as a dispatch motorcycle rider. In Holland, he was tasked to deliver vital messages between Dragoons squadrons stationed east of Amsterdam in towns such as Putten, Harderwijk, and Nunspeet. These trips had to be done at night, without lights.
“The Germans used to string copper wires across the road…and we lost two DRs in our regiment by that,” Dankner said, explaining the dangers.
Watch as he tells Ellin Bessner about his wartime experiences as a dispatch rider:
“You didn’t kill us all!”
When the Germans surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945, Dankner’s outfit was in Rotterdam. He recalls the liberated Dutch dancing in the streets in joyous celebration. While there, he encountered some German prisoners of war. His message to one of them was delivered in Yiddish, the language of his Jewish family back home.
“I am a Jew! You didn’t kill us all! We’re still here.”
Dankner is one of 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith who served in the Second World War. They served for King and Country, but also to try to save the Jews of Europe from Hitler’s Final Solution. Some 450 Canadian Jewish personnel were killed in the war.
Dankner remained in Europe until nearly 1946. Before embarking for home, he was able to visit the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Poland. The Russians had been liberated the camp in January 1945.
“It was very bleak looking. Terrible,” he told me.
Turned down for a job because he was Jewish
Back in Montreal after his discharge, Dankner hoped to parlay his three years in uniform and knowledge of motorcycles and weapons into a job with the Quebec Provincial Police, now the Surete du Quebec. The story goes that he was turned down because he is Jewish, and because he had fought for the English, “les Anglais”.
Instead, Dankner found work as a bus boy in a holiday resort north of Montreal. That is where he met his first wife, Stewarts’ mother. He also met a guest who owned a ladies’ hat factory. Dankner would eventually go to work there and, in time, have his own a successful business in millinery. A move to Toronto later saw him join the city’s Jewish branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #256.
In his retirement, Dankner has been a frequent speaker to local high school students and he attends D-Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dankner had not been to visit his son Stewart’s Mississauga home except once, on Mother’s Day. The family observed strict physical distancing conditions.
They “sat in the back yard, ten feet apart,” said Stewart, who knows more than most people about COVID-19. He works as the director of building operations for the Toronto hospitals in the University Health Network.
He got his father to agree come over again on the morning of his 95th birthday, but told Max only that some family friends would be driving by to say hello. The parade by the police and paramedics was a “100 per cent surprise,” Stewart said. “It was awesome!”
“I didn’t know a thing,” Dankner agreed.
Sgt. Luis Simoes, the Peel police parade marshal, has since received quite a bit of positive feedback from senior officers and from others who saw the video he posted on Facebook.
“It was a pleasure to pull off,” Simoes said. He’d wanted it to be meaningful for Dankner. However the policeman does have one regret.
“With the social distancing I wasn’t able to go up and shake his hand.”