How a prized WWI Luger ended up in a police exhibits room in North Van
In the sepia-toned photo, the soldier stands stiffly with a neutral expression on his cleanly shaven face. He’s decked out in a khaki Canadian military uniform but he’s also got on a spiked Prussian helmet, an Iron Cross pinned to his chest and German pistol holster on his hip.
They are his war trophies seized from the enemy.
“Here he is carrying said Luger,” says Bill Riley, holding the picture taken of his father Harvey during the First World War.
“That Prussian helmet,” he says, tapping the photo with his finger, “was of the type the soldiers wore in the Battle of Ypres.”
Riley’s not sure exactly where the photo was taken but guesses it’s somewhere in France judging by his father’s age, maybe 22 at the time.
Harvey Riley, a member of the 6th Field Engineer Squadron, had seen action all along the Western Front, including the battles of Somme, Flanders and Ypres.
How he acquired his military booty isn’t clear.
“He either took it off a live prisoner or a dead one, we’re not sure how he obtained it,” Riley says.
He notes his father, a pugnacious type, wasn’t “over there to play cricket, he was a soldier.”
Like many returning veterans, Riley’s dad seldom spoke to his family about the war.
He once told his son a horrifying tale about how he and a fellow engineer suddenly heard the swishing sound of incoming artillery and dove into a mortar crater for cover. When the dirt and debris settled, his father discovered his friend had been killed by a shrapnel wound to the head.
When his father died in 1965, Riley, the only boy in the family, inherited the keepsake Luger, a small handgun commonly carried by German officers called a Walther, and the Iron Cross, a German military award.
Now 84, Riley has a dry wit and sharp memory for dates and details.
“The Luger was built in 1910, four years before the world war began, so it wasn’t a mass produced thing. It was a beautifully machined piece of equipment,” says the retired petroleum engineer and geologist who has lived in the same North Vancouver house since 1967. “I could take it apart and put it back together again blindfolded.”
Since the Luger has been in his possession, it has only been fired once.
On that particular day he took his 15-year-old son James to the backyard of their home which backs onto a greenbelt. He loaded one round into the pistol and took aim at a massive hemlock tree.
“It made one hell of a noise,” he recalls, noting that the cartridge casing ejected sky high.
It wasn’t the first time Riley had fired a weapon. As a youth he was a member of the 78th Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery so he’d had experience on the firing range, even winning a few awards. But this wasn’t about target practice.
It was “a learning experience for James Riley” on just how “dangerous, and how powerful and how lethal” the gun was, he explains.
After the gunshot cracked the silence of the quiet neighbourhood, father and son took a brand-new pencil and poked it in that hole to see how far in the bullet was lodged, but it didn’t reach.
The rest of the gun’s life was “spent sleeping in a dresser drawer,” says Riley.
That was until early last month when the doorbell rang and two RCMP officers stood in the doorway.
When Bill Riley inherited his father’s guns back in the mid-1960s he was living in Alberta and registered them with the Calgary police and safely stowed them away.
Then in 1995, the introduction of the Firearms Act required that all owners become licenced.
At his wife’s insistence, Riley paid $85 and got a licence for his pair of German handguns.
That licence expired in 2006 and he was sent a renewal notice. But when he learned that he was required to pay another fee and take two classes, he stubbornly thought: Why do I need to take a course? I’m never going to shoot it again.
Plus, he had lots of experience with guns, both in the army cadets and growing up in small-town Alberta where as a kid his dad would give him five shotgun shells and he’d routinely return home with five pheasants.
When the licence renewal forms arrived in the mail, he says they contained inaccuracies: two serial numbers for one of the guns and a wrong home address. So he called the Canadian Firearm Program (CFP) and asked for corrected forms to be sent.
He kept his registration information tucked inside a folder on the corner of the kitchen table and waited. But it never came, he says. Finally after about two years he put the paperwork away and forgot about it.
Then, this past December, he made a call to a war memorabilia collector.
A decade earlier while sitting in the waiting room of his dentist’s office he was thumbing through a magazine when he came across an ad seeking war collectibles.
He scribbled the number down and tucked it away in his office. When it recently resurfaced, he called, interested to see the value of the guns.
The man on the other end of the line said he was now retired and no longer purchasing military souvenirs but they chatted for a while and the man said he thought the Luger might be worth upwards of $600.
Then, three weeks to the day after that conversation, two Mounties arrived at this door.
He says they knew exactly what they’d come for: a Luger and a Walther.
“How did they know that?” he asks rhetorically.
He’s convinced the man he spoke to was either an informant, a police officer or retired cop.
Bristling, he called the man back after the visit from police but he vehemently denied tipping off the police.
As the officers left with his guns Riley felt upset and irritated. He felt as though his confidence had been violated.
“I know it was not just a coincidence,” he says of the police confiscating the guns shortly after speaking with the mystery man from Eastern Canada.
However, Cpl. Richard De Jong, a spokesman for the North Vancouver RCMP, says there’s no connection between the phone call and the seizure.
“I think it is a coincidence at best,” he says.
“We were contacted by the Registrar of Firearms [of the] Canadian Firearms Registry to attend a North Vancouver residence to seize two pistols due to a revoked registration certificate.”
On this rainy February day, Bill Riley has a sea of photographs of his father together with his three brothers (including Jim, the subject of the Instant Replay story on page 12) in their military uniforms spread across the living room coffee table.
A pair of empty holsters rest on an ottoman near the window.
“I hated to see them go,” he says of the guns.
He still remembers as an early teen when his father and a friend from the RCMP took target practice at an old steel tire rim, his father firing the Luger, the Mountie using a .45.
“[It] put a pretty good dent in the [tire rim].”
Riley says the officers who seized his guns told him he had to register the firearms immediately or they’d be destroyed in 90 days.
But when he called the CFP to re-register he discovered that it was no longer possible to do so because he’d let his licence lapse in 2006.
There were options for disposal. Rather than deactivating the guns, selling them — or, even worse — turning them over to be destroyed, Riley decided to donate them to the J.P Fell Armoury in North Vancouver, which he knew had a wartime museum.
“[The guns have] a whole lot of history,” he says.
The 6th Field Engineer Squadron Museum Association has expressed interest in the two firearms because they were brought home by a veteran of the squadron. Currently, the museum has a glass case dedicated to the “Spoils of War” — souvenirs brought home by its troops that includes things such as a German flashlight, an ornate-handled knife and miniature orange flag with a skull-and-bones insignia that was used by German soldiers to mark the location of land mines.
After recently meeting at the small museum, Riley was on his way out the door when he glanced at another glass case at the entrance that had other wartime artifacts on display.
Immediately, he recognized one of the pictures.
“I nearly fainted. I said ‘That is my dad!’”
At the time, Riley had no idea his dad had joined the war from the North Vancouver armoury. When he looked on the back of the photo he saw that it was incorrectly identified as Spr. Stewart Craig Duncan. Sure it was his dad, he took the picture home to compare with a photo he had. It was quickly obvious: the photos were stamped with the same numerical sequence, just one number apart.
“This must be the coincidence of the century I thought,” he says, pausing to dig up the photo of his dad.
Riley is still reconciling the loss of his prized war mementos but the next best thing would be having the guns on permanent display for others to see at the armoury where his father’s squadron called home.
Currently, the guns are in the police exhibits locker and the North Van Mounties have indicated a willingness to hand them over to the museum as long as they’re deactivated before being put on display.
As the 90-day destruction date inches closer, Riley remains optimistic the guns can be saved.
“They were certainly a very valuable souvenir and it seems like a shame to have them go into a melt pot.”