2717 John Windsor: The Blind Scholar & Much More

2717 John Best Windsor entered RMC, 26 August 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II. He left 22 February 1941 and soon after joined the Lord Strathcona Horse as a lieutenant.

He met his wife-to-be in Great Britain and they were married in 1943 before he shipped out as a captain to the campaigns in North Africa and Italy.

John lost his eyesight on May 24, 1944, when the tank he commanded was hit during the battle for the Melfa River in Italy.

After he recuperated back in England; he entered St. Dunstan’s School for the war blind.

Following the war, he, his wife and child returned to Canada.

Lives Lived written by Dr. Reg Roy

2717 JOHN BEST WINDSOR (Class of 1939)

Soldier, writer, farmer. Born in Edmonton on Nov. 20, 1920; died of pneumonia on March 6, 1998, in Victoria, aged 77.

Dr. Reg Roy

I met John Windsor in 1969, when he enrolled in a military history course I was teaching at the University of Victoria. He was blind and, considering the amount of research and writing one expects of a history student, I had some doubt about his ability to cope.

He asked my permission to use a tape record in class. That was no problem. His companion took the course outline, reading list and essay topics and he explained she would be his eyes for research and he would dictate the essays to be written. For exams, in a separate office I would give them the examination paper at the same time I handed it out to the class. His companion would read the question to him, John would select those he wished to answer and would dictate his replies, in the same time as the rest of the class. He received a first-class mark in the course; I gave him a similar grade in another course. He graduated in 1972, with first-class honours in history, and later received an MA in history.

Born in Edmonton, John attended school in Calgary, where his father had started the Windsor Produce Company. After his senior matriculation in 1939, he decided to become a career officer in Canada’s tiny army. He was on the train en route to the Royal Military College in Kingston when the Second World War broke out.

There was no lack of talent at RMC, but there was dearth of experience about modern warfare and battlefield tactics. John was granted a commissions in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), a cavalry regiment that had been converted to armour. Unfortunately, Canada produced no tanks and the unit’s initial training involved driving French Renault tanks from 1917. With a crew of two and at full speed, they could go eight kilometers an hour downhill with the wind behind them. It was not until November, 1941, that the Lord Strathcona’s Horse went to Britain and slowly obtained modern tanks. John and his comrades trained for combat until late in 1943, when they were sent to Italy.

Now a battle captain, John soon saw action in a major battle in the Liri Valley. As part of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, his regiment plunged forward to seize a bridgehead over the Melfa River and quickly encountered stubborn resistance from German infantry, artillery and tanks. John was in the thick of battle when his tank was hit. As he wrote later, “One moment, the world around me was full of vivid colour, green and blue, red and brown, yellow and golden. There were trees and grasses, mountains and people. Then suddenly, in the fraction of an instant, everything turned inky blackness.” He had lost a good part of his face and was permanently blinded.

One thing John possessed in abundance was determination. After rejoining his English bride Pam and baby daughter Jane in England, he underwent plastic surgery and went to an institute for the blind at St. Dunstan’s. There, he said, “you learned very rapidly that you can still enjoy life.”

John and his family returned to Canada, where he studied industrial relations and personnel management at Queen’s University, finishing in the top quarter of his despite his handicap. In Vancouver, he finally found an office job with a wholesale produce firm, but after several years of routine work with little hope of advancement he moved to Brentwood Bay near Victoria. With nearly half a hectare of land, John hoped to grow his own food, keep hens and geese, and cultivate a small orchard.

It was not an idyllic rural life. With a second daughter, Judy, and a son, Stephen, John and his wife had little time for leisure. To earn money he wrote an autobiography, Blind Date, published in 1962. It was the first of five nonfiction books that he wrote, including works of biography and history. He had a number of good friends who helped with the research. He ran for office in the local municipal council and, to his delight, was elected twice.

When his wife died in 1973 there was a period of depression which he found difficult to shake off. Four years later he married Doreen Alcorn, herself a window, and once again life took on more meaning. He sold his farm, moved to the city and began to enjoy ocean cruises with Doreen, although he struggled with Parkinson’s disease for the past five years or so. He fought his disability to the end, wearing knee and elbow pads and a hockey helmet around the house to protect him from his falls. His regiment’s motto is “Perseverance.” John exemplified that in war and peace.

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Dr. Reg Roy served with the Cape Brenton Highlanders during the war. In 1958, Reg joined the History Department at Royal Roads and the next year he was invited to become a member of the University of Victoria’s History Dept. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1965, and became Professor of Military and Strategic Studies at UVic in 1968. He retired in 1988. He died, January 22, 2013.