A Boy Who Went to War:
The Autobiography of a Canadian Soldier
By Tom Doucette
Edited by Joanne Doucette with thanks to Lorraine Dmitrovic.
Copyright Joanne Doucette, 2005.
Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat, the mist
In my face, when the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place, the Power of the night, the press of the storms, the post of the foe; where he stands, the
Arch fear, in a visible form, yet the strong man must go: for the journey is done, and the summit attained, and the barriers fall, though the battle’s to fight ere the guerdon.
I was ever a fighter so – one more fight, the fest and the last! I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebare me, and bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers the heroes of old.
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears, of pain, darkness and cold, for sudden the worst turn the best to the brave, the black minute’s at end, and the elements rage, the fiend-voices that rave shall dwindle, shall blend, shall change, shall become first a peace, then a joy, then a light, then thy breast.
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, and with God be the rest!
This is my story, a true one. It is an account of my younger days in a Cape Breton coal-mining town and a fishing village up the coast and my life in the army. When I was 17, in 1940, I enlisted and I was in Europe when the war ended in 1945. Throughout the war, I secretly kept a diary about my life in the army in Canada, Britain, North Africa, Italy, and northwest Europe. I give you this book, written through the eyes, ears, and heart of a private. It is not a military history. Indeed, the professional military historian may find errors. It was impossible to keep a diary while actually in the frontlines. I could only record events hours, days, or even weeks after they happened.
I was a scout-sniper with The Royal Canadian Regiment, in the First Canadian Infantry Division, during the Italian Campaign. I hope I bring the same observation skills to this book as I did to my work as a sniper. I saw a lot; I remember it now. I was close to my fellow soldiers as a man in war can be. I looked into the eyes of the enemy. I saw many people and places. I write about World War II as I saw it – and survived it. One way or another, I did discover the power to get up and keep going in a world that changed me forever. I hope it will change your perspective on a war that television, movies and paperbacks may have warped.
Today is the first day of the year 2000 and, like the old year, I am at the end of this autobiography. I will seal it and place it where it will be found some day in the distant future.
Glossary of Terms
AWOL: absent without leave
Battalion: an infantry unit of approximately 860, all ranks
Brigade: a military formation usually consisting of three battalions
Bren gun: a light machinegun used by the British and Canadian armies
CO: commanding officer of a battalion of infantry whose rank was usually Lieutenant-Colonel
DIV – an infantry division; in the Canadian army, a division consists of three brigades of three battalions each, plus supporting artillery, engineer units, medical units, and other supporting arms; the total manpower of a division is usually 15,000 troops
Jerry: slang for a German
Platoon: consists of three sections and a platoon headquarters; each section has 10 men; platoon headquarters consists of lieutenant (who is platoon commander), a platoon sergeant and a platoon runner
RAP: regimental aid post; infantry medical section that operated within the battalion under the command of the battalion medical officer; responsible for care and evacuation of wounded
RCE: Royal Canadian Engineers
Recce: reconnaissance (pronounced “wrecky”)
Slit trench: very narrow trench approximately five feet deep by six feet long; “slit trench” is a British and Canadian term; “fox-hole” to Americans; “shutzengraben” to Germans
Military Decorations of the Canadian Army
BEM British Empire Medal
CD Canadian Forces Decoration; the holder is permitted to use the letters C.D. following his or her name – the same holds true for the following decorations and awards
DCM Distinguished Conduct Medal
DSO Distinguished Service Order
DSM Distinguished Service Medal
MC Military Cross
MM Military Medal
MBE Member of the Order of the British Empire
OBE Officer of the Order of the British Empire
VC Victoria Cross
A Soldier is Made
On July 17, 1922, I was born in New Waterford, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and there I grew up. New Waterford was far removed from the glittering luxury of that golden decade’s high society. Mine wasn’t the destiny of a Rudolph Valentino. My family background and early childhood were such that it was inevitable that I should be a soldier.
Father married in overseas in England to Lucy Agnes Devenish. My mother’s oldest brother served in the Royal Flying Corps. Another brother was in the Royal Navy, and yet another in the Royal Fusiliers. That brother served as a machine gunner in Gallipoli and France. In our home when I was young, names like Mons, Lille, Ypres, and Somme were more commonly mentioned than Montreal, Toronto, or Winnipeg.
The military was obviously in the Doucette blood. Family life was like being in a military dictatorship. A strict disciplinarian, father (Thomas Leo Doucette), often bellowed in Sergeant-Major fashion: “Stand up straight! Shoulders back! Don’t slouch! Hands out of pockets! Get your hair cut! Shine your shoes!” Absenting myself without leave from school, chores, or dining room table without permission wasn’t tolerated. He would accept no explanation or excuse.
We lived in a company house on 7th Street. I remember when Plummer Avenue was a dirt road. I can recall my first year at Mount Carmel Convent School when Father Nicholson was the parish priest. I think of the 1929 Depression and the effects it had on my family. They moved from New Waterford to Ingonish the same year.
New Waterford owed its existence to coal. The nearby Sydney steel mills used that coal as fuel. The only employer in our town of 4,000 was the mining company BESCO (British Steel Company) It also owned the steel mills. New Waterford was a typical company town.
In many ways, the lives of miners and their families were similar to that of soldiers. Our houses resembled rows of barracks, quite like the married quarters of permanent British army camps. Single men in New Waterford rented quarters in long, barrack-like, flat-roofed buildings that the mining company termed “hotels”. Married couples lived in “double houses”. The company built these the double houses with one end having the exact same lay-out as the opposite end. Each double house sat directly across the street from an identical one.
The Company painted the houses alternately dull red and dull green. All the streets were uniform straight lines. The houses looked like soldiers in green and red uniforms marching in parade square formation, in precision, up hill and down. Since most of the trees were cut down, nothing camouflaged the houses, save for the ever-present coal dust and furnace smoke that settled like a black mood on everything in New Waterford.
BESCO also owned the stores, hospital, and all utilities, even the town streets. There was little private ownership of property. The miners had all their customary bills paid by automatic weekly deductions from their pay envelopes. They also gave to God whether they wanted to or not – BESCO included church offerings among those mandatory debits.
BESCO’s General Manager lived in a company-owned wooden mansion that looked like something out of the deep south. The company built it on an entire block overlooking the main street. His life and comforts were on par with his army counterpart: a General.
The mine superintendent lived a life similar to that of an army Brigadier, but his house lay a discreet distance from his “senior officer”. It wasn’t quite as elegant. The underground managers (“little colonels”) were the social class between the lowly miners and upper management. Their houses were of a size and design in keeping with their social class.
What a sight the BESCO miners were as they trooped off in pairs in coal dust blackened clothes, wide black belts, and leather caps. to the pit-head to begin their shifts! Each miner carried a one-gallon water tin and oval-shaped lunch pail, always called a “piece tin”. The miners were equipped with picks and blasting powder. They resembled a great black army of ants, as, with their blasting caps and sharp picks, went down to do battle with the enemy – coal.
A miner often worked with the same partner for years — if death or injury did not break up the team. Everyone referred to his working partner as “my buddy”. If one was killed or injured, another man took his place at the start of the next shift.
Wives, children, and mothers on the home front always kept an ear cocked for the mine whistle. It blasted loudly in the event of disaster or impending disaster. Despite the ever present threat, life went on.
Quite often, miners were killed. It was not unusual for the mine superintendent to appear at the widow’s house the following day. He bore the dead husband’s lamp and brass number tag and orders for the eldest son to report for work as his father’s replacement. They ordered boys as young as 14 to work. Some were so small that their water cans struck the ground as they walked to work. The widow had very little say in the matter. If the mother wanted to keep the boy out of the pits, she had to pay off the debt to the mining company and move out of her home. BESCO always managed to keep workers in continuous debt. The Company showed little mercy if debts could not be paid.
Danger, from mine gas explosions, fires, and rock falls, was always present. A constant reminder was a monument in the middle of the County Road in New Waterford. It was in memory of 65 miners killed in one 1917 explosion. My father worked in Number 14 colliery. I can remember one night when my father returned from the mine. His face was sad. I heard him say to mother, “Here’s the sweater you knitted for me. My buddy, Stevie, had his leg tore off and I used it to stop the bleeding.”
He handed her a blood-soaked feed bag with the sweater in it. My father was back in the mine the next day – with a new buddy.
In the early 1920’s, BESCO needed men and brought immigrants in from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were hard workers, but BESCO allowed few of them to live in company houses. Back then people of all backgrounds in New Waterford held racially prejudiced views. Discrimination was accepted in all of Canada then. Residents referred to eastern Europeans as “Bohunks” and Italians as “Dagos”. BESCO sold land it considered useless, mostly on the edge of town, to the eastern Europeans. They let Italians and black people build on land near the pit-head. There BESCO dumped manure brought up from the underground stables where the pit horses were. People referred to the area as “the Yard”. As the years passed, these Eastern Europeans, Italians, and Black Canadians became some of the most prosperous and independent people of New Waterford. This was not because of the Company’s generosity. They owed their success to their own hard work and ambition.
About 70 percent of New Waterford was Roman Catholic. The remainder were members of various Protestant denominations and of a small Jewish community. The soldier’s struggle to survive in battle left little time or energy for religious intolerance. It was the same in mining towns. An Orangeman and an Irish Catholic often worked side by side in the mine without expressing differences of opinion – with the exceptions of the “Glorious 12th of July” [when Orangemen paraded behind someone dressed up as King William on a white horse] and Saint Patrick’s Day. Even on those days, for the most part, friendly elbow nudging and banter substituted for more violent disagreement.
The town had two convent schools. We called the smaller public school, “The Protestant School”. I started at the Mount Carmel Convent School at the age of six. There, I spent one of the most miserable years of my childhood. My first teacher made a fuss over me when she heard my name. I was named after my father, Thomas Doucette. This teacher had also been my father’s first teacher in 1903 in the nearby town of Dominion.
Shortly after I began First Grade, the school board replaced the lay teachers with teaching nuns. The Sisters installed a school routine as severe as any army camp. Under the hand of the parish priest, the Reverend Father Nicholson and the Mother Superior, discipline became tyranny and punishment, cruelty. The threat, “You will be sent to the Mother Superior” struck fear in the hearts of students and nuns alike. In my Grade One class students were allowed one trip to the washrooms in the forenoon and one in the afternoon.
To request permission, we had to put our hand up and say, “Please, Sister, may I?”
If we had already had our one allotted trip, she answered a firm, “No!”
If we persisted, she struck us five times with a three-foot long ash pointer.
Mount Carmel School was opened in 1912. It was built by the parish. Convents for the nuns who taught in the school were part of Mount Carmel School. Mount Carmel was initially staffed by Sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame and Catholic lay teachers. In 1921, the Church replaced them with Sisters of Charity. This order supplied principals and many of staff until the early 50’s. Then a policy was put in place whereby the town built and owned all school buildings. http://www.cbv.ns.ca/nwcomndx/history/schools.htm
If a child remained silent, sitting in agony until he wet his pants, the Sister of Charity immediately marched him before the Mother Superior. Mother Superior accepted no explanation and mercilessly thrashed the child with a four-foot long by two-inch wide hardwood ruler. If that same little boy again needed to go, and again the nun refused permission, the inevitable happened. He wet himself and was marched back not to Mother Superior, but to the good Father Nicholson who administered the punishment. A large man, he was not above using his fists or boots on any student whether they were six or 16.
Before we entered class for the first lessons of the day, we paraded in twos to the church. (The church and school formed a single complex.) The girls marched in one row of twos on the left; the boys in the same formation on the right. On the command of the “Sergeant-Major”, Mother Superior, we halted at the church steps. After this point, the nun gave no verbal commands. Instead, the Mother Superior snapped two small hardwood blocks together between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. The device sounded like a springing mousetrap: CLICK, CLICK.
On the first click, we marched forward. On the second, we halted. On the third, we bent our right knee in genuflection. On the next, we entered the pews to await another click signalling to turn and face the altar. On the next click, we knelt in unison and begin prayers. When prayers were over, we went through the same routine in reverse order. Mother Superior watched constantly. If a child didn’t pray diligently enough to satisfy her, she thrashed that boy or girl.
To some, it might seem that I am harsh in my criticism of those adults in my boyhood in the hard years of the 1920s and 1930s. Please remember that then, “permissiveness” meant that a boy could do as he pleased – as long as he had permission from teacher, clergy, grandparents – and mother and father. To this day, when I hear this song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, I remember my childhood:
My object so sublime
I shall achieve in time,
To let the punishment fit the crime,
The punishment fit the crime.
When I was a child, the punishment often exceeded the crime. One day when I was six, I came home from school. In innocence, I sang a song to my mother that I’d learned from my school chums. It parodied a popular song on the new–fangled thing called the radio. The words of the song?
She’s got eyes of blue
I love eyes of blue
She’s got eyes of blue
That’s my weakness now.
The words I sang so innocently were:
She’s got curly hair
Underneath her underwear
She’s got curly hair
That’s my weakness now.
My father’s leather belt had only one purpose. It hung in its sacred place on the holy nail alongside the kitchen door. Father took it down and heavily laid it down many times on my bare, unholy ass. Let the punishment fit the crime. For weeks afterwards, I sang my own parody of the song:
I’ve got welts first class
Right upon my poor bare ass
I’ve got welts first class
That’s my weakness now.
The Miner’s Strike of 1925
The history of Cape Breton’s coal mining is closely tied to the history of military operations on the Canadian east coast. French soldiers mined coal deposits in the cliffs along the sea. This coal was fuel for Fortress Louisbourg in the 1740s. In recent years, tools, tallow candles, and other artefacts from that period have been found. The mines shafts and tunnels where these items were found are in relatively good condition considering that over 200 years has elapsed since they were constructed.
Even as a boy, I knew that many generations of coal miners had worked in New Waterford. A number of the older coal miners had worked in the pits at Glace Bay. During a ten-month 1909 strike, more than 200 men from The Royal Canadian Regiment (R.C.R.) were allotted the unpleasant task of assisting the civil authorities to maintain law and order. Many miners were bitter towards the soldiers because of their intervention, while others realized that the soldiers had no choice in the matter.
The R.C.R.s lived throughout the bitter winter of 1909-10 in deplorable conditions on a gale-swept piece of land known as Table Head. It is bounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean. There is hardly a day in winter when it is not swept by icy storms. In spring, ice drifts down from the Labrador coast. The inshore wind of this ice can cut through the warmest clothing like a sharp steel knife through wool. The miners’ strike ended in the summer of 1910.
It filled me with great pride after World War II, when my father said, “It was the strict discipline of the officers and men of The R.C.R. that saved the town from the consequences of a bloody riot.” Having served overseas in Italy and northwest Europe in that regiment, I sure knew what he meant by “strict discipline”.
During the strike of 1909, my grandfather was the Chief of Police in the town of Dominion. It was on the outskirts of Glace Bay. At that time, my father was 12 years old. There were coal mines in Dominion and they were also on strike, as were most of the mines on Cape Breton.
In 1925, the miners went out on strike again, but it ended up with bloody rioting in New Waterford, where I lived. The civil authorities called the troops in to assist them, but the miners saw the troops as strike-breakers. Only three years old when the 1925 strike occurred, I don’t really remember it, but I recall its aftermath. The bitterness and hatred left scars on New Waterford for many years afterwards.
The blame for conditions preceding the strike lies both on the shoulders of BESCO and the miners. Both sides had para-military mentalities that left little room for intelligent compromise. Yet I blame BESCO for the riots because they were the direct result of the dictatorial way the company dealt with the just complaints of employees and its misuse of the judiciary to enforce its private government over the people of New Waterford.
Many miners had served in the Great War that ended only seven years before the strike. Many were prepared to fight an enemy that they considered as threatening to their survival as any they had faced across No-Man’s Land. Some argued in favour of peaceful means. Others protested that they could outmatch the handful of company police and Nova Scotia Provincial Police that BESCO would use to force them back to the pits.
The miners struck to back their demands for safer working conditions, shorter hours, abolition of company-owned utilities, and union recognition.
Though I’m sure BESCO knew the miners’ grievances were justified, The Company believed the miners could be starved into submission and forced back to the pit-heads. They drew up plans to impose their will over the workers. The first stage of their plan was enforced starvation through cutting off all credit purchases from the Company Stores. The new policy? Cash only. Stage Two was to call in the army if the miners practiced civil disobedience. BESCO planned to cut off water, electricity, and fuel to miners’ homes. The Company set the stage for civil disobedience.
Six months before the miners struck, the Company order the miners to work longer periods of overtime each day for straight pay. Because of the long hours of overtime, the rate and severity of accidents increased.
Then all purchases by the miners at the Company Stores were on the “Buy Now, Pay Later” plan. Credit was the rule rather than the exception. Few ever paid with cash. The Company Stores had little or no competition. Many miners didn’t know how much they owed the Company until they got their weekly pay envelope at noon on Saturdays. Miners with large families often found that they owed BESCO more for one week’s groceries than they could earn in two weeks. First, the company deducted rent, then the coal bill, then church dues, then doctor’s bill, and, finally, anything else the Company could think of in order to reduce the take-home pay.
If a miner found that he couldn’t pay his debts from his week’s pay, BESCO chalked the debt up against future earnings. It was a vicious circle of eat, work, and go deeper in debt.
Once, a miner, a friend of my father’s, died while working underground. When they opened his piece tin, they found nothing but a stone wrapped up in a towel. He was so deep in debt to BESCO that he had literally starved to death. A proud man, he never let on to fellow miners how desperate his financial situation was. Wives of miners sometimes came to the pit-head with fresh lunches for their men so the husbands could go back down in the mine to work extra shifts to pay their debts to the Company.
After three months of higher production and higher company earnings, BESCO raised prices in its stores. Then the Company cut back production and the work week to two or three days. The Company was in a better position for a long strike if it had a stockpile of coal for the Sydney steel mills. The miners were then, with a short work week, in a worse situation. Many men owed BESCO more than they could possibly repay on a short work week. There were no other jobs to go to. If they quit BESCO, the company would seize their household goods, scant as they were, and the man would still owe that debt to boot. For most miners, living conditions rapidly deteriorated. Some hunted in the nearby forests or fished in the ocean. They barely kept their families alive.
BESCO had brought many newcomers in from Italy and Eastern Europe. These men fared better. They had a different way of thinking and did not become dependent on the company store. They had gardens, pigs, cattle, and other farm animals. Their hard work and hunger for independence kept them from starving. Many a starving miner and his family were helped by those they called “Foreigners”.
After two months of the deplorable conditions that BESCO imposed on the miners, the men reached a breaking point. The miners struck. However, BESCO anticipated and prepared for the strike. Mine officials stocked their homes well with provisions. Company police prepared to live in and defend the pit-heads and company offices. BESCO placed barbed-wire barricades around the steam-operated power plant. This allowed them to run the electric water pumps that prevent the mines from flooding during the strike. (Ironically, this same company didn’t give a damn when miners worked in saltwater seepage up to their knees in order to eke out a bare living.)
The strike was relatively peaceful until BESCO cut off electricity and water to New Waterford. Then the situation among the strikers turned ugly, but BESCO had yet another card up its pinstriped sleeve. It requested troops from the federal government to restore law and order. BESCO’s was law and the government quickly obliged. Ottawa immediately dispatched troops to all of the mining towns on strike. The unpleasant task fell on The Royal Canadian Dragoons. This was a cavalry regiment with a remarkable record in both the Boer-British War in South Africa and the Great War of 1914-18. Nevertheless Cape Breton miners remembered The Royal Canadian Dragoons with distaste for many years to come.
The confrontation between the miners and the army began when the miners marched en masse to the BESCO-owned water and power plant at New Waterford Lake. They wanted to restore services to their homes. The cavalry met the men at the gates and they fought bitterly. I was three years old when the miners’ strike of 1925 took place, but I can remember when an army pistol shot killed Bill Davis. Another Royal Canadian Dragoon shot Gilbert Watson through the navel. [Michael O’Handley was trampled by a Dragoon’s horse and broke his back. He survived as did Gilbert Watson, who continued working in the mines for another 18 years.] Many others were less gravely injured. Many cavalrymen fell or were dragged down from their horses. The Company police fled at the first sign of trouble, quickly disappearing into the surrounding woods. The army retreated back to the relative safety of the powerhouse.
After the riot at New Waterford Lake, the miners turned their attention to the company store. They broke in to search for food and clothing. The Company was prepared for them. It had already removed all food that was packaged in small quantities. They mixed shoes and socks up in boxes. A box containing a size six black shoe would be paired up with a size ten brown shoe or a man’s shoe with a woman’s.
While the miners were raiding the store, more militant strikers went on a witch hunt for “scabs”. They searched for fellow miners suspected of favouring a return to work under the company’s terms. They also went after miners who had refused to take part in the march on the power plant. They led one miner through New Waterford with a rope around his neck and threatened to hang him. Only the pleas of the parish priest saved him.
“For God’s sake, don’t hang him! If you do, then please hang him outside of town so his death won’t occur in my parish!”
The strikers relented, only beating the poor devil severely. Then they let him loose. The miners weren’t vicious men, but mob mentality often brings out the lower forms of human behaviour. People hurled the cruel insult, “Scab” , at miners they suspected of sympathy to BESCO, at their wives, children and grandchildren then and for many years after the Riot at the Lake.
After the strikers vented their rage, both miners and BESCO realized that, if the strike continued, there would be no winners. The troops restored water and electric services and then The Royal Canadian Dragoons occupied New Waterford under martial law.
Despite killing one miner and gravely wounding two, the military did deal fairly with the civil population. They showed no favouritism to the mining company. Military officers and the company police made half-hearted efforts to unearth the instigators of the riot. They were up against a closely-knit community. They had to content themselves with protecting the pit-heads and company offices.
The strict discipline imposed on the troops was in large part responsible for the fact that no further clashes took place between the military and the miners. In the weeks that followed the riot, many of the miners’ wives and children showered the Dragoons with verbal abuse. The soldiers refrained from retaliating in any manner.
The closing of the mines and martial law were enough to convince the Company that the miners could neither be bullied nor starved into submission. It wasn’t long before BESCO conceded to the miners’ demands. The settlement reached provided for better working conditions, abolished the company store, increased wages, and it paved the way for the miners to purchase the homes in which they lived.
In 1926, my father’s health deteriorated to such an extent that he was forced to quit work in the mine. The chlorine gas used by the Germans during the war had damaged his lungs and heart. In 1927, after three years of fighting the War Pensions Board, the government granted him a 50 percent disability pension amounting to about $15 a month. This was not a princely sum, but was enough to help pay the rent. He was able to work two or three days a week. My family lived quite comfortable until the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
New York Tribune, April 27, 1915
Boulogne, April 25.— The gaseous vapor which the Germans used against the French divisions near Ypres last Thursday, contrary to the rules of The Hague Convention, introduces a new element into warfare. The attack of last Thursday evening was preceded by the rising of a cloud of vapor, greenish gray and iridescent. That vapor settled to the ground like a swamp mist and drifted toward the French trenches on a brisk wind. Its effect on the French was a violent nausea and faintness, followed by an utter collapse. It is believed that the Germans, who charged in behind the vapor, met no resistance at all, the French at their front being virtually paralyzed.
Everything indicates long and thorough preparation for this attack… The German troops, who followed up this advantage with a direct attack, held inspirators in their mouths, thus preventing them from being overcome by the fumes.
In addition to this, the Germans appear to have fired ordinary explosive shells loaded with some chemical which had a paralyzing effect on all the men in the region of the explosion. Some chemical in the composition of those shells produced violent watering of the eyes, so that the men overcome by them were practically blinded for some hours.
The effect of the noxious trench gas seems to be slow in wearing away. The men come out of their nausea in a state of utter collapse. Some of the rescued have already died from the aftereffects. How many of the men left unconscious in the trenches when the French broke died from the fumes it is impossible to say, since those trenches were at once occupied by the Germans.
This new form of attack needs for success a favorable wind. Twice in the day that followed the Germans tried trench vapor on the Canadians, who made on the right of the French position a stand which will probably be remembered as one of the heroic episodes of this war. In both cases the wind was not favorable, and the Canadians managed to stick through it. The noxious, explosive bombs were, however, used continually against the Canadian forces and caused some losses.
The Depression Years
I was seven when the Depression began. To a child of that age, depressions and stock market crashes meant about as much as the bursting of a small soapy bubble. They did, however, have a great impact on our family, as I suppose it did on all peoples living in the industrialized West. I can remember that we were accustomed to having bacon or ham and eggs for breakfast, as much toast as we wanted, and as much food as we could eat at any mealtime. Suddenly things were different. My father was out of work. Then it was, “Go easy on the sugar, go easy on the milk. You can only have a half bowl of cereal. No, we can’t afford eggs.”
We were more fortunate than many others. At least we could afford bread and molasses.
The Depression that I remember was not all doom and gloom. In 1928 my father took me out of the convent school and enrolled my sisters, brother, and me, at the Central School. This was a public nondenominational school. While attending it, I learned to like going to school.
I can remember a humorous incident that happened shortly before the Depression. One day a bunch of us smaller boys were playing cops and robbers. We were whooping it up with our pistols when a girl by the name of “Issy Buffett” asked, “Can I play with you?”
We told her, “No, Issy, because you haven’t got a gun.”
Issy replied, “Yes, I have! I’m going home and I’ll get it.”
Issy went home and returned with a nice shiny pistol so we let her join in our game. All went well until a passer-by noticed Issy’s gun. It was a fully loaded Smith and Wesson army revolver of the type used by the soldiers at the New Waterford Lake Riot in 1925.
“Show me your gun,” the man asked Issy.
Little Issy was so proud of her shiny toy that she passed it over to him without question. The man took the pistol from her. Issy, of course, had to drop out of our game.
The winter of 1929-30 was a bleak one so my father and mother decided to leave the mining area of Cape Breton and move to a place called Ingonish where my father was born in 1897. There the old Doucette family home in the Clyburn Valley still stood. In early April, 1930, my parents went there to see what condition the house was in. This meant a 12 mile journey to Sydney by motor car, then a 40 mile journey on the S.S. Aspy to Ingonish, and, from there, a five mile hike to the Clyburn Valley.
The S.S. Aspy was a small coastal steamer. She carried passengers and supplies to the scattered communities along the north coast of Cape Breton from early April to late November. For the rest of the year, those little villages were cut off except for the mail. A man with a horse and sleigh brought the mail in when the roads were open and the trail over Cape Smokey was passable.
When my parents finally reached the Clyburn Valley they found the old home in good condition even though it had been deserted for over 30 years. They decided the house could be made quite comfortable with some minor repairs. My father had inherited the homestead when his mother died while he was overseas in 1917. It consisted of the house and 25 acres of land on the south side of the river. It was about a mile from the nearest neighbour.
The Clyburn Valley is about 12 miles long and a half mile wide. It runs east and west from the main road between two long ridges that were nearly joined together at the entrance to the valley – only the Clyburn River separated them. The valley was flat, fertile land, of the type that is often referred to as “Intervales” by the people of northern Cape Breton. In later years my family were known as “The people who lived up the Intervale.”
My parents returned from their visit to Ingonish and it was decided that we would move as soon as arrangements could be made to ship all of our belongings. On the 28th of April, all of our worldly goods were hauled to Sydney and loaded on the Aspy. My parents, my brother John (Buddy), my sisters (Jean, Leona, Rose and Frances [a.k.a. Honey), and I occupied one of the small staterooms (there were four). The weather was stormy. I remember that I was very seasick. The overnight trip took 12 hours and I “fed the fishes” for most of the 40 miles.
Before the boat docked my mother dolled all of us children in our Sunday best. I wore black velvet short pants, a white ruffled shirt, a black bowtie, knee-length socks, and shiny black shoes. I must have looked like a Little Lord Fauntleroy with my English school boy cap perched on my curly little head. [This style of dress was not uncommon for middle class boys of that time.] Aspy Day took place twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. A host of expectant people always met the old tub. However, I don’t think anyone expected to see a rather freakish-looking little boy all dolled up like I was that day.
It was the Aspy captain’s custom to blow three toots on the ship’s whistle when the steamer reached a point in the bay midway between Cape Smokey on the south an Middlehead on the north and a half mile from the entrance to the harbour. The three blasts brought people out of their houses. Some came with horse-drawn wagons; some came on foot; others arrived in small rowboats. It seemed that there was always a race to see who would get there first.
The Aspy never stopped for very long. There were many other harbours where people would be anxiously watching for her arrival. To the older men of the small fishing ports, there might be a chance of meeting with someone who might have a little drop of rum. To the women, the Aspy’s arrival meant yard goods, sugar, tea, and other needed supplies – and the ever-welcome Eaton’s catalogue. They watched eagerly for it even though few had much money to buy anything. The catalogues always were useful in the two-holer out back as reading material while a body whiled the moments away in seclusion.
The teenage boys and girls would rarely miss meeting the Aspy. There might be someone new to smile on in the hope that the smile would be repaid with interest at some later date. The boys of my age would come to make friends with the newcomer or fight with him if he refused their friendship. However, mostly they came with the fascination small boys have for ships. Since most of the boys were fishermen’s sons, the snow white Aspy, with its three inch black stripe running from stem to stern above the waterline, was the greatest ship they could ever imagine. The Aspy was a twice-weekly magnet that drew young and old.
The hawsers were hardly fastened to the wharf when we waddled down the gangplank, our knees wobbly from the rolling of the sea. The only passengers getting off at the South Ingonish Beach wharf were my family. No sooner had the ship docked, than the unloading of supplies and freight commenced. There were drums of kerosene, bags of sugar and of flour, and there was our furniture. My father arranged for our belongings to be stored in the wharf shed. The wharfmaster assured him that they would be safe until they could be delivered to our new home.
It was mid-afternoon before all our furniture was unloaded. Then we walked the mile and a half to my granduncle’s house. He was a big man and this was the first time I had seen him. He had snow-white hair with a moustache and goatee to match.
After a brief rest at his house we continued on to our new home. It was a distance of about five miles and the last two were through dense bush over a trail that was almost completely grown over. It was a long hike. My father carried a pack and bundles of blankets on his back. My mother and we children carried other supplies which we would need until the remainder of our goods could be hauled in by horse and wagon.
It was nearly dark when we reached our destination. Then, to our dismay, we found that lightning had struck the house in the storm of the previous day. All that remained of the house was a heap of ashes and charred timber. My father was a man who did not despair easily. He immediately set to work building a shelter of spruce boughs in a patch of young, green ferns. We bedded down. During the night it rained quite heavily, but the following morning dawned sunny and warm.
I awakened to a boy’s paradise. A wide river flowed through the valley. Sea trout abounded in the water. Green mountains climbed up on every side. To a small boy from a dusty coal mining town this was a new world. The valley, completely uninhabited for many years after the gold mine there closed in 1898, seemed a promising Garden of Eden meant for the Doucettes alone. To my father especially, it was a fresh start on the road to better health and relative independence.
My parents cooked our first meal over an open fire our first morning there. We weren’t to be alone for long. An elderly gentleman came into the valley that morning in search of a lost cow. Seeing the smoke from our campfire, he crossed the Clyburn to investigate. He was amazed to finds us: a mother, father, and five small children, camped near the burned-out homestead. A kindly gentleman, he offered my father a small cottage he owned for our use. It was near his own house, close to the ocean, about two miles from where we were.
We lived for two months in his cottage. It had two rooms and a two-holer out back. It was unfurnished so father borrowed a horse-drawn wagon to haul our wood-burning stove, beds, and enough furniture for us to settle in quite comfortably. Granted, we were a little overcrowded in the two rooms.
Later that summer, father rented a large house at Ingonish Beach. His war disability payments were sufficient to cover the cost of renting the property. (The cost was three dollars per month for the six-room house and lot).) The beach community spread along two miles of dirt road on the north side of Ingonish Harbour. Twenty houses, a one-room school, two stores, and a telegraph office made up the community. The telegraph operated out of one of the private homes. The plaster mines had closed in 1928. Now the only source of income for the village was fishing. There were more than a dozen fishermen’s wharves.
The life of a fisherman and his family was very hard. The fishing season was short. It began when the harbours were free of ice, usually in April. It ran from that time to late October. The workday usually started at 4:30 AM and ended at dark. On days when the sea was too rough, there was other work to do: repairing boats and fishing gear, cutting wood to store as fuel for the winter, etc.
The price of fish fell to half a cent a pound for cod. Lobsters went for three cents apiece. Often, the men found that they could not market their fish so, quite frequently, the fishermen took the dead fish out and dumped them back into the ocean.
There was no electricity in the northern communities of Cape Breton then so the only means of preserving fish was by salting the herring and mackerel and salting and drying the cod and haddock.
Money rarely changed hands in the day-to-day existence of the local people. Much of the hooks, lines, salt, and other needs were obtained though bartering fish in exchange for supplies.
Very few of the boats were equipped with engines. Most depend on oars and sails. A few of the larger boats had sails and engines. In the fall, the men would load up their boats with dried fish. Then they would set sail for the West Indies where they would trade the salt fish for molasses and sugar, and the occasional couple of kegs of rum (illegal though it was).
The winter months were not idle times for the fishermen. They kept busy repairing their boats; building new ones; mending nets; and preparing for the spring fishing. They cut firewood in the winter and left it to dry for the following year. Deer and rabbits were plentiful and most homes had at least one shotgun, a high calibre rifle, and a small bore rifle, such as a 22. Many of the boys were accomplished hunters before they reached their mid-teens.
My family lived for three years in the same house at South Ingonish. The school was a few hundred yards away on the top of the hill, on the same side of the road that our house was on.
The community was icebound for four or five months every winter. In 1932 a new road was built over Cape Smokey from
Wreck Cove on the south side to Ingonish Ferry on the north side of the Cape. The road crew hewed this new road out of the solid rock face of the mountain. They used very little mechanical equipment in the construction. From the southerly point where the construction began, the road climbed 1,400 feet in quick turns and bends up to the summit of Smokey. This was a distance of one mile, with a sheer drop to the ocean on one side and towering rock faces on the other.
After the new road opened, two of the first tourists to travel over it in a motor car were Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir. That was in 1935. His lordship [John Buchan] was Canada’s Governor General at that time. The vice-regal couple drove in an open touring car. Because it had no police escort and was not chauffeur driven, few people recognized the distinguished visitors as they stopped to chat with the people in many of the fishing villages.
After my family moved to Ingonish, my first three years of schooling were at the Beach school. I enjoyed school and found everything very different from my first year at the convent school. The children were different. They were mostly the children of fishermen’s families. It seemed to me that the poorer they were, the more willing they were to share the little they had. Many of them came to school barefooted. The few families that were better off were related in one way or another to my father. My father’s ancestors were Acadian-French, but most of the fishermen could trace their family roots back to Ireland and the Great Potato Famine there in the 1840s.
When I was in my early teens I had few friends of my own age that mother allowed me to bring into my home. This did not stop me from making friends among the children of parents my mother considered “undesirables”. There is a way around everything, if you look for it. Many a good meal I had at some of the fishermen’s homes. They would say, “You’re welcome as the flowers in May, me son”.
In my own way, I learned to accept people as I found them and to form my own opinions for myself. The people of Ingonish were hard workers, hard drinkers, and had large families. If they didn’t like you, they said so; if they did like you, you didn’t have to be told.
In 1933, some of the men of the community helped my father cut down trees to build a two-room log cabin on the site of the original home in the Clyburn Valley. The wide boards for the floor and roof were all sawn by hand using a pit-saw operated by two men. They placed a flattened log on a trestle made of large tree limbs. They marked it off there into boards by using a red ochre-coated line. Then one man stood on the log and another stood below. The two men then sawed the log into lumber. It was back-breaking work.
Before the spring of 1934 came, our new home was ready for us to move into.
The Clyburn Valley is a beautiful place. Then it was completely hidden by mountains. There were only three ways of getting to it. One way was over a footpath two miles long that came over the mountains from South Ingonish. Another path came up from near the St, Joseph’s Church at Ingonish over an overgrown wagon road about a mile and a half to where our house was. There was another road. It followed the course of the river. It was built as a road to the gold mine at the head of the valley in the late 1800’s. It was called, “The Old Goldmine Road”. It was on the opposite, or north side of the river. There was no bridge across so when we used it we took our shoes and socks off and waded across.
When my family moved to the valley I started to go to the Clyburn Brook school. It was about two miles from our house and was a one-room school. Some of the children walked four miles to go there. In winter the snow would often lie eight feet deep, but bad weather rarely closed the school. There were no snowploughs in those days. I tell you it was some walk.
In the four years we lived in the valley I saw very little of the outside world. The few times I did were when I went to school and church.
My life had hard times, but was full of pleasant moments too. The wilderness filled my hours. I learned to hunt with snares and guns. Diligent study of nature taught me which wild plants were edible and which wild mushrooms were not poisonous. Hiking took me long distances into the surrounding mountains. I learned to stalk without making a sound. My education in the Clyburn and Highlands gave me what I needed to survive in wilderness. Yet the most important lesson was that, most often, the world is what we ourselves as human beings make it. I knew that one day my life was going to be a happy one because I would make it that way.
My father soon established himself as a market gardener, growing mostly cabbage and cauliflower. Although, of course, I had chores to do, I was not overly enthusiastic about work. I spent most of my spare time hunting, fishing or reading. A travelling library, funded by Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, supplied most of the books that I read. This travelling library was a wooden box that contained about 30 books. The box was exchanged for another every two weeks on Sunday morning after mass.
I was very fond of military history and spent hours reading The 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada 1914-1919. It was the history of my father’s regiment in the Great War.
In 1935, my father bought a battery-operated radio so we could get news and music from the outside world and the all-important weather forecasts. Most of the people in our area of Cape Breton were staunchly royalist. In our little corner of the Empire, the jubilee of Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary caused considerable interest. We closely followed, on the radio, the news about the death of His Majesty, the coronation of Edward VIII and his subsequent abdication. We listened intently to the news of the events leading to the abdication on the radio and in the two-day-old newspaper that arrived by mail from Sydney. People were, for the most part, against divorce. I can remember the shock people expressed at the King’s decision to abdicate in favour of Mrs. Wallis Simpson.
By 1938, the Depression was petering out. The coal mining towns on Cape Breton boomed. Coal companies opened new mines to meet the demand for coal for the steel mills in Sydney. Much of the steel was shipped to Germany and Britain.
Father’s health had improved so my parents decided to move back to New Waterford. In early summer my father sold the old Doucette homestead on which he had built a six-room home. (He had torn the log cabin down.)
In 1937, my family moved back to New Waterford and my father built a house near the cliffs between New Waterford and Low Point. The town we returned to was very different from the depressed place we’d left in 1930. Some of the streets were paved. There were new roads and a highway to Glace Bay was under construction. Many of the miners now owned the Company houses that they had lived in for many years. The mine parking lots were full of shiny new cars during almost every hour of the day with the around the clock shifts. Technology introduced new methods of mining into the industry and mechanization had eliminated the need for horses and boys.
After we moved to New Waterford, I did not go back to school. Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO) re-employed my father. He went to work in Number 12 mine. The future looked bright.
In 1939, the threat of war with Germany hung over us. The Spanish Civil War ended with the Nazis of Germany and the Fascists of Italy sharing a confidence in themselves as great military powers. In the previous four years Ethiopia had fallen before Italy’s might. Nazi Germany took over the Rhineland and the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia. The blitzkrieg on Poland plunged the world into six years of war. This war would eventually challenge the very concept of human existence.
Somehow, somewhere in my heart, I knew that I was going to be a soldier.
Young and Green in Uniform
On September 10th, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany. The total of all ranks in the navy, army, and airforce was less than 4,000. There was also the Non-Permanent Active Militia (N.P.A.M.). It consisted of regiments and battalions of infantry, artillery, cavalry, and service units. The militia were volunteers who trained on the lines of warfare as it was fought in 1914-18. They used weapons, uniforms, and equipment that were surplus when that war ended. The cavalry were in the process of changing from horse regiments to armoured regiments.
Almost every city and town from coast to coast in Canada had a militia unit. The men of these units proved invaluable as training personal – in co-operation with the instructors supplied by the permanent force units. They trained the thousands who immediately volunteered in the service of their country.
The militia on Cape Breton Island was made up of a Highland battalion of infantry, a battery of coastal artillery, and several smaller service units. At the outbreak of war all these units were considerably under strength and under equipped, but this did not dampen the enthusiasm of the officers and other ranks. They mobilized even before war was actually declared. Recruiting offices were set up immediately and more volunteers came forward than these units could equip. The first units for overseas services had first claim on any available equipment.
The first units of the First Canadian Division arrived in England on the 21st of December, 1939. Although volunteers were being recruited for the permanent force units, recruiting for most other units was suspended until the spring of 1940. The units of the N.P.A.M. were assigned the task of protecting all vital installations such as power plants, railway bridges, government docks, and harbour facilities across Canada, as well as the Canadian-US border crossings.
During the winter of 1939-40, The Cape Breton Highlanders were split into platoons. The army assigned them to patrol ocean shores where it was considered the enemy might possibly land sabotage parties from any one of the many German ship known to be on the high seas at war’s outbreak.
The Cape Breton Highlanders stationed one of the platoons at the Low Point Lighthouse, quite close to my home. It was not an unusual sight to see a pair of the Highlanders, in kilts and tamo’shanters, with their long, bayoneted Lee Enfield rifles, trudging through deep snow in sub-zero weather, carrying out their duties.
As I look back now on those early days of the war, I am amazed at how The Cape Breton Highlanders so represented the multicultural face of Canada even then. In the battalion there were Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, First Nations, French, Poles, Blacks, Italians, Germans, Russians, and descendents of other nations too numerous to mention. They came from every walk of life. Some were rich, some poor.
I remember, in particular, one family of four brothers who had served in the Great War and re-enlisted for this war. One of them also had a son serving. There was the Italian who served in the Great War. There was a German and his son. There were fathers who lowered their ages in order to join up. Some of them were only ten years older than their sons who were serving with them. These were The Cape Breton Highlanders.
During the winter of 1940, I tried to enlist four times. The army turned me down, saying I was too small. I weighed 115 pounds, stood five foot six inches, and looked more like 15 than the 18 year old I claimed to be. I knew I’d never look good in a kilt and tamo’shanter that way. In March the examining doctor told me that, if I had my tonsils out, I would gain weight. I had never been to a doctor before. In April I went to the doctor that my family used. I sat in his chair and he took my tonsils out. I went home in a taxi, thinking “Soon, soon…my chances are better than ever now.”
A few days later I was eating like a fiend to try and gain weight, but it didn’t help very much.
In late April I went back to the recruiting office and the same doctors who examined me in March did a physical again. I stripped down to the bare soles. The doctor was a gruff old codger who growled, “Stand on the scales.”
I looked down and saw 117 pounds. He called out to the clerk, “130 pounds.”
He told me to stand up straight so that he could measure my height. I heard him call out to the clerk, “Five foot nine inches.”
So it was with a great, great stretch of my frame, and the doctor’s imagination, that I was sworn in as a recruit in The Cape Breton Highlanders. I went home that day on Cloud Nine to await the letter from the Department of National Defence. That letter would tell me when and where I should report for duty. I never told my parents or the members of my family. For two months I went to the post office every day, sometimes twice. The letter finally came the first week in July.
I hitch hiked to Sydney and reported to Battalion Headquarters at Victoria Park. I enthusiastically signed all the papers and they gave me a uniform: a Highlander’s cut-away jacket and a pair of narrow-bottomed trousers in khaki to match the jacket. I had to wear my own underwear and socks because the quarterstores had none. They gave me a written order for the purchase of a pair of boots from a local shoe store and a chit to have my meals in a restaurant. They then assigned me to a bell tent along with 11 other new recruits at Victoria Park.
I was allowed to go home and break the news to my family about where I was stationed and what I’d be doing. I was a soldier. To say the least, Mother didn’t take it well. After all, the army had turned me down so many times and I was the midget of the family. My older brother, Buddy, had also been turned down. It must have been my persistence. Father, he took it all in stride. He couldn’t believe it at first, but I didn’t really care what they thought. I was in the army now!
A week after I joined up, the army gave me my fighting equipment. They told me, “Your rifle is my best friend and you must treat it with life and death care.”
My set of wide web equipment must be kept spotlessly clean and its countless buckles shined ever day and oftener – if an N.C.O. (Non-Commissioned Officer) or officer said so. They told me the web equipment was designed to carry the packs and ammunition pouches. Yet, in my case, I believe it was to hold the uniform (four sizes too large for me) on my bones. The only parts of my uniform that fitted were my Glengarry and my cap badge.
I went through my recruit training, picking up nearly every thing in two weeks. I learned how to check in for roll-call at ten at night and go out again for a couple of hours and then sneak in past the guard after midnight. About a month after I joined up they sent me to A Company. At that time A Company was based in a large church on George Street in Sydney. It was called the George Street Barracks. Shortly after I arrived there some of us found that we could unhook a basement window and jam it so that it appeared to be firmly closed. We would then go out after roll-call and sneak back in after midnight.
After four or five nights of after-hours freedom, one night 12 of us came back to barracks. We jumped down through the basement window to the floor below in darkness and silence. When the last man was in and had hooked the window shut, a bull voice barked, “Attention!”
The lights flashed on and we stood facing the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major). The following day the army sentenced me to seven days confined to barracks and seven days pack drill. For the next week I peeled potatoes and scrubbed floors from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. At six o’clock, the bugle would call “Defaulters” and I would fall in to do two hours pack drill under the scrutiny of the Sergeant-Major.
On the first day of my sentence I phoned my parents. “I won’t be able to get home to visit this week. I’m on duty,” I told them. The day after I completed my sentence, I got the evening off and took the bus home. When I walked into my father’s house, I nearly fainted. Sitting there with my father was the sergeant who had caught me a week before! They had served together in the Great War in the Royal Highlanders of Canada. When I was charged the sergeant checked my enlistment papers and found out that my father was a friend of his. He noted my home address, but he was a gentleman and waited until after I had served my seven days of C.B. (Confinement to Barracks). He never mentioned the matter while he and I were in my home. He said nothing of it to my father. Neither of us ever discussed his friendship with my father and I never told any of my army friends.
By the summer of 1940, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France had fallen before the might of the German war machine. At the fall and surrender of France, many French merchant ships were on the high seas. Those in the ports of neutral United States were ordered by the American government to leave or be interned for the duration of the war. When France fell, there was only one French port in the North Atlantic where the ships of France could find a safe harbour. There was only one place that was not occupied by neutrals, Germany or the Western Allies. The small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the south-western tip of Newfoundland are French soil, and there the ships headed.
The harbours of Saint Pierre and Miquelon were not equipped to handle large numbers of big freighters at one time. The islands are difficult to navigate because of their narrow channels and treacherous shoals. They are known for fogs that often close the harbours in without warning.
Few of the French merchant vessels found refuge at Saint Pierre. Many stayed out of Allied harbours offshore in international waters while their skippers awaited instruction from their government in France. Most of the skippers were uncertain of where their loyalties belonged.
In late July, after consultations between representatives of the French Government in Exile in London, the British government and the Canadian government, the French ships were ordered to proceed to Allied ports. There they would be considered “Non-status” until the skippers and crews decided whose side they wanted to be on in the war. Most immediately volunteered their services to the Allied cause. A few held out in the hope that they might be able to make a run for their home ports.
In the latter part of July five of the French merchant ships were escorted into Sydney Harbour. The skippers refused to commit themselves or their crews to the Allied cause. Our government informed the skippers that their ships would be considered and treated as enemy ships if they tried to weigh anchor and leave without the permission of the Canadian authorities. The skipper and ships officers weren’t allowed to leave their vessels, but the crew members could take transport from their place of anchorage to the government-owned docks and enjoy their freedom during daylight hours.
The army detailed detachments from my company of The Highlanders to guard the ships out in the harbour. This was to ensure there would be no unauthorized sailing. This was a wise move on the part of the Allied governments because it took several months before the French ships were all safe and secure in Allied hands.
I was in one of the detachments that did ship patrol on the French merchantmen. The ship our particular group was responsible for had a load of Indian motorcycles on board. They were destined for the French army when France fell. When the American authorities ordered his ship to leave the port of Boston, the skipper decided to put in at Saint Pierre. Before she reached Saint Pierre, a Royal Canadian Navy ship intercepted the French vessel. They ordered the French skipper to proceed to Sydney Harbour and anchor there. It didn’t look like the French army was ever going to get their motorcycles.
The situation was very serious. Here we were a young bunch of green soldiers who had only been in the army four or five weeks. Ill-equipped and untrained for this type of duty, we were guarding experienced sailors. They must have been well aware that their guards had no knowledge whatsoever of the operation of large ocean-going ships – and that there was little we could do to stop them if they really wanted to weigh anchor and leave.
The seamen were good-natured about their predicament. They’d offer us the strong, black, foul-smelling Oran cigarette — of which they seemed to have an unlimited supply. They would almost wet themselves laughing at us while we coughed and wheezed to get our breath after our first puff of the black dynamite. They expressed genuine sympathy for us because we had to stay and keep our eye on their ship while they were lightered to shore to have a good time during the day. Then they could come back at night and enjoy their sleep while we paced the deck on guard round the clock.
The people of Sydney treated the seamen well. The sailors would return to the ship and tell the ships officers about their colourful experiences of the night before. The ships officers weren’t allowed the privilege of going ashore. The ‘able’ seamen laid it on thick about their beautiful girlfriends and sexual encounters. The skipper and his officers could only accept the fact that the Allies had more to offer than the Germans. They only held out for ten days and then we returned to our barracks ashore.
A week after we finished our duty on the French ship, a small Norwegian fishing trawler crept into Sydney Harbour and tied up at the Government Docks at the Esplanade. It was carrying four generation of about 40 people from two family groups. They won their freedom from Nazi tyranny by escaping from Norway across the North Sea to Iceland. From there they sailed to Greenland, along the eastern coast of Labrador, through the Straits of Belle Isle, across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and along the north coast of Cape Breton to Sydney. The oldest of the group was a great-grandmother over 90 years old. The youngest was an infant born en route. On that August day, thousands of people flocked from all over Cape Breton to offer their hospitality to these extremely brave and hungry people.
A week after the Norwegians arrived, the army sent my company to Glace Bay to guard the Seaboard Electric Power Station and the Marconi Broadcasting Towers on the outskirts of the town. This was pleasant duty for me. The barracks were two huts, each large enough to house a platoon of men. One of the huts had a small cubicle which was the platoon officer’s quarters. When we arrived at the Seaboard plant, I was assigned to be the platoon officer’s batman. As well as having the responsibility of keeping the officer’s uniforms and equipment in spotless condition, I was the clerk-runner. These duties excused me from regular training and guard duties.
At ten each morning, I walked the four miles to the South Street barracks. They were in a ball park near downtown Glace Bay. There I would deliver any written messages and reports from Seaboard and Marconi barracks. Then I returned with the mail and orders for my platoon and the other platoons that were under the command of my platoon officer.
After a few days at Seaboard I learned the shortcuts through the woods to Highland Avenue. I often hitchhiked downtown from the point where I came out on Highland Avenue. I soon learned that, if I was waiting at the right spot at the right time, the man who owned the dairy would give me a lift in his pick-up truck. The same man would always stop and pick me up on my return trip to barracks.
I was at Seaboard about two weeks when I became friendly with a lovely young lady. She was about a year younger than I. We dated for about two weeks and became quite fond of each other, but our friendship never when beyond being good friends.
One day when I was returning from town, my friendly dairy owner stopped and picked me up. I was only in his truck for a few minutes when he led the conversation around to the army and, “Did I like Glace Bay? Did I have a girl friend?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“Are you getting anything off her?”
His question shocked me. I had never in all my life been asked a question like that.
“No, sir!” I exclaimed. “She’s not that sort of girl!”
“Well, b’y, I’m glad you said that because that girl that I’ve seen you with every evening just happens to be my niece.”
He was a big man, well over six feet tall and 200 pounds of solid muscle. When I got out of his pickup truck that day, I was 120 pounds of red-faced shiver.
In November the army ordered my company back to the George Street Barracks in Sydney. A week later they assigned us a very unusual task for soldiers. The all-essential Trans-Atlantic cable had broken beneath the waters of Cabot Strait. This was an important communications link between Britain and North America. No time could be lost in lifting and repairing it. The cable ship Lady Nelson was called to lift it. The army ordered my company of The Cape Breton Highlanders to assist in the task.
To appreciate what an immense undertaking this was, it helps to understand the composition of the cable and the method needed to lift and repair it. It was a multi-stranded, insulated cable of copper wires, each strand being about an inch in diameter. This one inch cable was enclosed in a waterproof cotton cover enclosed in a thick sheath of lead to form one continuous cable about three inches in diameter. The cable stretched from Cape Breton to Newfoundland and across the Atlantic to Europe.
The specially constructed cable ships had large circular tanks built on end, with open tops and upright pillars in the centre of each tank. These pillars were used to coil the cable around as it is hauled from the ocean depths. Our job was to haul the cable up from one tank and coil it in another as it was being inspected and repaired. We worked out on the open deck. The weather was bitterly cold, with sleet and rain. We weren’t yet equipped with winter clothing. The work of repairing the cable had to be done without interruption until the repair was done. We shivered, shook, and froze for three days until the crew and Highlanders completed the job.
A week after that, the army issued us new uniforms. These were the battle-dress that became the standard uniform of the Canadian Army. However, it was to be a few months more before we were issued modern web equipment. My company remained in the George Street Barracks until mid-January 1941. This meant that I was only 12 miles from my hometown and I could get home every evening when I was not on duty. Except for foot drill, there was little or no training going on.
In the middle of December influenza broke out among the Highlanders stationed in Sydney. Those of us whom it did not weaken were required to take care for those who were ill. Out of the 150 members of A company and Battalion Headquarters, over 100 fell desperately ill. I was one of the fortunate ones not laid low by the flu.
One of the older men claimed that lemon-gin or orange-gin were the only cures for the influenza. That’s why I was kept busy during the day making numerous trips to the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission store or the bootlegger’s place around the corner from the barracks. I don’t recall having an evening off until after Christmas. By New Year’s Day, 1941, all the ill had recovered. I don’t know if the booze helped, but at least they all seemed to suffer happily.
In mid-January the Highlanders moved from Cape Breton to Saint John, New Brunswick. Most of us had never been off the Island in our lives. It was a sad parting. Many of us believed this move signalled that we would be heading overseas within a matter of weeks. Saint John was an east coast port where ships bound for overseas customarily departed in midwinter when Montreal and Quebec City were icebound.
When our troop train pulled out of the Sydney railway station, many of our relatives, friends, and girlfriends were there to bid us farewell and safe return. Most of us promised our tearful sweethearts that we would return, faithful and true. We intended to keep our promises. Well, at least until we got off the train in Saint John and found that the New Brunswick girls were just as lovely as the girls on Cape Breton.
Before pulling into Saint John many of us Highlanders worried about how we would be regarded by the people of that city. Over the following four months we learned there could not have been a friendlier people in any city in all of Canada. The people welcomed us as warmly as they would have welcomed their own sons. Many Highlanders left good friends in Saint John and Sussex when, in the early spring, we departed for Ottawa.
When we left Camp Sussex, the weather was typical maritime spring weather: very cool and wet. When we arrived at Connaught Ranges, outside Ottawa, the weather was lovely. Daffodils bloomed and everything was fresh and green.
This was the first time The Cape Breton Highlanders were all together as a battalion in the same camp, with no other troops, since war broke out in 1939. Because the platoons had been widely separated from other companies, the discipline was quite lax. It wasn’t helped either by the fact that many men knew their officers and N.C.O.s before they joined up. Many came from the same small villages and towns. Many of them had worked in the coal mines together. Many officers were closely related to men in the ranks.
I remember many amusing instances when close peacetime friendship surfaced in wartime. One evening after dark, the Commanding Officer (C.O.), Colonel Small, was crossing the parade square. At the same time, a private approached him from the opposite direction with, “Hey! Bud, gimme a light for me cigarette?”
The C.O. stopped, pulled out his lighter, and held it for the private to light up. Then he asked, “Do you know who I am? I’m the Commanding officer, Colonel Small.”
“That’s OK, B’y, I thought you was Frank Cristie, the bandmaster. You looks just like ‘im,” the private replied.
The C.O. was not amused.
There were also times when pre-war dislikes surfaced, to the detriment of many a damn good man.
The stay at Connaught Ranges was put to good use on the Dominion of Canada Rifle Ranges. This was the first time many fired an army rifle. It was also the first firing practice the whole battalion had since the war began. We were under canvas and the weather turned very hot. In early June, the army let us swim in the nearby Ottawa River. When we did a tour of guard duty on Parliament Hill, the Governor General, the Earl of Athlone and his Lady, inspected us. Before the end of June about 100 new recruits joined us. They were sent to the battalion from Cape Breton.
Soon we moved from Ottawa to Camp Borden, near Barrie, Ontario. Camp Borden was a far cry from the comfort and conveniences that we had enjoyed at Connaught Ranges. At Connaught we were under canvas, but the tent areas were on green turf surrounded by hardwood forests and farms. In Borden the whole camp was like a dry sandy desert where the only trees were pines. A legion of army boots had ground the pine needles and sand into a grimy, dusty mixture that the least breath of wind blew into our tents, clothing, and food.
To most of the men in my battalion, Ontario was a foreign land, very different from Cape Breton. This was the first time that we had ever seen poison ivy, skunks, and groundhogs. None of these are found on Cape Breton, but we learned about them very quickly.
The Saturday after we arrived in camp, one of my friends met a girl. War escalated everything from hems to hormones. They immediately had a love affair in the dense bush outside of the camp. Later that evening he noticed he had blisters and severe pain on his knees and elbows and under his genitals. He reported to the Regimental Aid Post the next morning. The medical orderly looked at the affected areas. He immediately pronounced the condition as some rare, new form of V.D. (Venereal Disease) that he had never seen before. He had my friend taken to Pecker Hill (Camp Borden Military Hospital). There a medical officer immediately diagnosed it as, “Poison Ivy”.
“Private, how did you get poison ivy in such a restricted area of your body?”
My friend didn’t mind explaining the circumstances to the medical officer. “My only worry,” he answered, “Is “How is the girl going to tell her mother how she managed to only get poison ivy on her bare buttocks?”
One of the boys in the battalion came across a young groundhog. He’d never seen one before so he decided to catch it with his bare hands. Razor-sharp teeth slashed open a severe wound in his hand. We learned to keep away from groundhogs.
One of our bagpipers was a Great War veteran, in constant demand as entertainment at the Army Service Corps Sergeants’ Mess. When he was off duty in the evenings he would play for them. After he had piped a dozen tunes, and wetted his whistle with a whiskey between each tune, he’d stagger back through the pine trees and pine stumps. Our bivouac area was about a half mile from the Service Corps Sergeants’ Mess. No street lights shone in that part of the camp. As he staggered his way merrily along, he decided to stop for a breather. He picked a nice small pine stump to sit and rest on. The stump was a full-grown skunk.
His tent was close to the one I was in. About one in the morning, we heard yells from the tents of the bandsmen, “Get that stinking old bastard out of here!”
Poor Old Dan slept on the sand that night with a rubber groundsheet wrapped around him. The following morning his red tunic, plaid kilt, and bagpipes went to the cleaners in Barrie. They wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. They were brought back to camp just as smelly as they were when they were taken away. The pipes were deodorized, but even so, a strong wind would still raise some “airs”. They hung the tunic and kilt over pegs on a wooden post. The post was a strategic distance from our sleeping area. When the battalion left Camp Borden in late September, the uniform was given a decent burial in the sands of Borden.
One of my companions in A Company was an enormous big Scot who had served The Great War. One afternoon we were doing foot-drill. As we were standing to attention, we heard Big Dan speak in his thick Scots accent, “Auch, I’ve been shot”.
We paid not attention until he spoke out the second time, “I hae been shot.”
We looked at him. He was still standing to attention, but a stream of blood coursed down his arm. A corporal escorted Big Dan to the camp hospital. His wound was dressed and he returned to the parade square. We had not heard the sound of a rifle fired, but apparently the shot came from the woods on the edge of camp.
Lightning severely burned one of the men from my platoon while he was on guard duty at the barbed wire enclosure around the camp detention centre. Fortunately, his rifle butt was touching the ground when lightening struck him. The electricity grounded through the rifle. If he had the rifle at the slope arms position, he would have been more seriously injured or even killed.
While we were at Borden, the army discovered that one of my friends was only 16. The powers that be decided he would be discharged from the army as under-aged. He was placed in the Boy Soldier category to await formal discharge. Because he had drawn a man’s pay for over a year, they ruled that he owed them the difference between man’s pay and Boy Soldier’s pay. As a result, they required him to stay in the army with no pay until the army was ready to hand him his discharge. He went for weeks without pay. If that was not rough enough, suddenly, for no discernible reason, the platoon sergeant took an extreme dislike to this young soldier we affectionately nicknamed “The Boy”.
The Boy had to do the same duties and training as a man. It seemed his luck went from bad to worse. One day we were doing foot-drill with fixed bayonets. We made a left wheel. The platoon sergeant was at the rear of the platoon. The Boy was at the end of centre file of threes. When we made the left wheel, The Boy’s left hand raised a little and his rifle, with its long bayonet attached, went horizontal from slope. As we wheeled, the bayonet passed about an inch from the sergeant’s nose. The sergeant immediately dismissed the platoon and placed The Boy under close arrest. He marched before the Company Sergeant-Major who was a tough old son-of-a-gun. When he saw the charge against The Boy, he told the lad, “Return to your tent.”
The Sergeant-Major then lit into the Sergeant. “Why are you requiring The Boy to do duties and drills that he is not supposed to be doing? He’s a Boy Soldier.”
The Sergeant’s dislike for The Boy intensified, but the only duty The Boy was required to do was to keep the bivouac area tidy. All day he spent his hours picking up scraps of paper and litter with a spiked stick. Every time he took a breather, the Sergeant seemed to be right there to bellow at him, “Move your arse, you lazy son-of-a-bitch.”
We felt sorry for The Boy. He received no pay, had no rest from the ever-watchful eye of the Platoon Sergeant. Yet the lad loved the army.
One Saturday morning at eleven we received our pay, all except The Boy. The Platoon Sergeant had us fall in for an hour’s drill before we’d be dismissed for the weekend: all, of course, except for The Boy. The Boy went about the rounds of the tent area, busily picking up cigarette butts, gum wrappers, and other scraps. The Platoon Sergeant seemed to gloat over the power he held over the lad.
We were dismissed for the weekend and were all getting ready to go into town when suddenly an NCO informed us that the Platoon Sergeant had lost ten dollars from his pay. He knew it had not been stolen because he had put it in his shirt pocket when he was paid an hour earlier. He had the platoon fall in, in single line abreast. Then he marched us back and forth over the sand for an hour in search of his ten dollars. When it could not be found, he dismissed us. It is amazing how blowing sand will cover things over so quickly.
When the Platoon Sergeant was nowhere near, The Boy said to his friends, “Let’s go in to Barrie. The treats are on me. I’ve just received ten dollars in a letter from home!”
On September 15, our officers told us that The Cape Breton Highlanders were now part of the 11th Brigade of the 5th Armoured Division and that we would soon be going overseas. The Battalion issued Pay Books and every member drew up Short Form Wills. In the last week of September, we marched to the railway siding. We sat there in a sandstorm for two hours before we boarded the train. Our destination was Camp Debert, Nova Scotia.
We arrived at Debert in the late evening after a two day journey from Borden. It had been a long tiresome trip and we slept little. We were packed in like khaki sardines in the old wooden railway coaches. They were originally used, around 1900, as harvest trains to carry workers from eastern Canada to the grain fields in the West. The wooden seats for designed for solid (dis)comfort, with the occasional wood splinter thrown in for good measure.
We arrived in camp tired and hungry. The weather was wet and miserable; Debert camp was a sea of mud. On our arrival, men led us to the wooden huts that were to be our home until we left for overseas. We quickly got rid of our rifles and our equipment. They then escorted us to a mess hall were they told us a good meal awaited us.
When we entered, our noses told us the large flat tins of cooked ground beef that awaited our arrival had been around a wee bit too long. Our N.C.O.s ordered us to sit down, eight men to a table. We did as we were ordered. Then, in unison, as if a signal had been given, each man dumped his pan of meat upside down in the middle of the table. The bottom layer in the pans was alive and well. The temperature in the mess hall was over 80 degrees. Who knows how long it had been that hot? The cooks had prepared the meal 30 hours before we arrived so that they could have their weekend passes. Our suppers were an invitation to food poisoning. They were fortunate they were not our battalion cooks.
During the next few weeks the army granted us embarkation leave. As it was only a five or six hour car drive from Cape Breton, many of the officers and other ranks had frequent visits in Debert with family members and friends.
When World War II broke out in 1939, I was 17 years old. In early 1940, I joined the Canadian Army. In 1941 I went overseas. My embarkation leave was to the last I would have with my family until the war was over. It should have been pleasant.
I arrived home on a Friday afternoon. On the Saturday I went with my father at to pick up his pay from the mine pay office. From there we were going to visit some of my aunts and uncles so that I could say goodbye to them. My father was very proud of me as we walked down the main street. My uniform was spotless and well-pressed. After we said all our goodbyes, we headed home.
We happened on one of the miners my father worked with. He invited us to his house for a friendly drink. My mother was totally against liquor [as were many in those Temperance days], but that didn’t stop my father. He reasoned that a man ought to have a right to have a drink on special occasions. He surely had that right when his son was leaving for overseas and he might never see that son again. So, he had two small whiskies. I didn’t drink. After Dad had his drinks, we said goodbye to our host and left.
Father and I stepped through the front door at home. All went well until mother caught the faint smell of liquor on his breath. All Hell broke loose.
My parents and I had planned to go to the movies that evening. Afterwards we would go to a restaurant for dinner. We wanted to make it something special, an evening to remember. Instead, we didn’t go out. Mother always refused to go out with father if he had liquor on this breath. The atmosphere in the house that night was chilly. Mother did not speak one word to him.
On return to Camp Debert, I went back to being a steward in the Officers’ Mess. When all embarkation leaves were over, the Battalion was confined to barracks. In early November, we got on a train for Halifax. There, we boarded the RMS Orcades, a Pacific and Orient Lines ship. It had been removed from peacetime use and converted to troop ship service. At noon the next day, November 13, 1941, we steamed out of Halifax Harbour. In the evening we formed up in convoy with five other ships. Two Royal Canadian Navy sub-chasers escorted us.
The American Convoy
Men transform as their circumstances change. Songs common to soldiers in barracks, such as: “Nellie Put YourBelly Close to Mine”, “We’re a Bunch of Bastards”, “My Old Eighteen Pounder”, and many others, too vulgar for church on Sundays, fell away as we boarded the troopships. Our new tunes were more suitable to the Salvation Army. Troopship favourites were: “Old Rugged Cross”, “Rock of Ages”, “Little Brown Church in the Vale” and many of the hymns that we last heard in Sunday school.
When I went overseas, the Americans were not officially in the war. To the amazement of the 6,000 men aboard our ship, on the morning of the third day out from Halifax, we awoke to find that our two Canadian escort ships had left us and an American flotilla now replaced them. These ships were part of the U.S. Atlantic fleet that, by coincidence, just happened to be on a training exercise and were heading in the same direction as we were.
The convoy followed a zigzag course in order to evade any enemy submarines that might lie in wait ahead of us. We progressed very slowly in the general direction of Europe. For four or five days, we sailed south-easterly in sunny, warm weather. Then our ship, the Orcades, changed course to northerly. On about the tenth day, the Orcades rolled in cold and sleet, somewhere just south of Iceland.
On the fifteenth day, our American friends left us and we steamed on alone. We were sorry to see the American battlewagons go. They entertained us during daylight hours with demonstrations of modern naval weaponry. When seas weren’t too rough, the Americans catapulted torpedo-carrying seaplanes from the deck. The seaplanes circled the convoy. After an hour or two, they taxied over the water to the stern of the battlewagon. She slowed down so until the plane was about ten yards directly behind her. The ship had a crane built on the stern. Sailors lowered a cable and attached a hook to the plane so that the aircraft balanced perfectly. The crane then lifted the plane out of the water and hoisted it back up onto the catapult where they readied it to fly out at a moment’s notice.
Little did we realize that the Americans would, in less than four weeks, be our allies. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on December 6, 1941.
After the Americans left us, we were without escort for 12 hours. Then two Royal Navy corvettes joined us in convoy. The contrast between the two corvettes and the huge American ships was almost absurd. Now the weather was bad and the seas rough. We were northwest of Scotland in a war zone with those two small corvettes that replaced a whole flotilla of battlewagons. As we sailed on to our destination, none could help but admire the sailors who manned the corvettes. The little ships clawed up to the summit of giant waves; then a trough swallowed them. Repeatedly they emerged from a wall of foaming spray. At times, we could make out everything on deck as a wave lifted a ship up high. Then, the ship plunged down into the next mammoth swell, and exposed the complete rudders naked in the air. How the enormous waves failed to capsize the corvettes, I do not know.
The corvettes circled our convoy continuously until we reached the port of Greenoch. Our destination was actually Liverpool, but we had to dock in Greenoch for 24 hours as Liverpool was under a heavy enemy air raid. Because of wartime security, we stayed at anchor off shore. The army allowed no one ashore. After a day there, we were on the move again, heading for Liverpool.
Tinned Canadian Sardines
The day after we left Scotland, our ship sailed into the entrance of the Mersey River. The Orcades waited until nightfall before going to the Liverpool docks. While anchored in the Mersey, we saw our first evidence of enemy action. The shallow water on both sides of the river channel was strewn with sunken ships. Some had only the tops of their masts sticking up like crosses marking the place where they lay. Others sprawled beached; hundreds of seagulls perched on the broken hulks.
When we left the Orcades, we were glad to give our feet a rest after standing so long on decks. We happily bid farewell to hammocks, boat-drill, and the cramped quarters below deck. Less than six months later, the Germans torpedoed our old friend, R.M.S. Orcades, off Cape Town, South Africa.
We entrained at Liverpool at six in the evening. It was dark and, in the wartime blackout, we saw very little of our surroundings. We saw about as much of Liverpool as we did the inside of our railway coach. They had blacked out the windows and there was only one very small electric light. We were sardines packed in a tin with all of our equipment and weapons. The train travelled slowly and stopped to stoke up in the tunnels so that the Luftwaffe could not see the flare-up from the fireboxes from the air. The sulphurous stink of soft-coal fumes filled the tunnels and train. Our train was part of the Great Western System; familiarly called the G.W.R.
Except for those on guard or other duties, most of the troops slept through the night. Sleeping was very difficult in uniform, especially with all of our equipment crowded around us. By the time day broke, we were all awake and anxious to see the English countryside. We couldn’t tell where we were even though we passed countless railway stations. The British had painted over the names of places as a security precaution. Enemy agents might be dropped by parachute to ferret out such vital information as train stations and troop movements.
Later in the morning our train pulled into a large station where the ladies of the local branch of the W.V.S. (The Women’s Volunteer Service) served us tea and sandwiches. We welcomed this stop as an opportunity to stretch our selves and see our first English girls. Like the first Roman soldiers that came to Britain, we came, we saw, they conquered us. In the years that followed, many of us married “War Brides”.
It wasn’t long before we re-boarded the train and arrived in Aldershot at five in the evening. They unloaded the train speedily and formed us up by platoons in marching order. They led us to Maida Barracks at the top of Gun Hill which was about a mile from the railway station. After we settled into our allotted billets, we were paraded to the mess hall for our first real meal in 36 hours. This was our introduction to English bangers, coarse brown bread, and margarine, followed by English custard.
After finishing the meal, we stayed in the mess hall to listen to the Battalion Commanding Officer, Colonel Small. He congratulated all ranks for our good conduct over the past month, but followed with a stern warning: “You are not just soldiers. You are the representatives of Canada and you will conduct yourselves accordingly.”
After the Colonel spoke, he was followed by another officer. This man had gone overseas preceding the battalion as part of the advance party. He told us, “In future, you must carry your tin hats and gasmasks at all times. You will not leave the camp area without a pass. Those with relatives in Britain will be the first ones to be allowed leave.”
It was amazing how many Canadians serving in the army had relatives living somewhere in Britain, or I should say “The U.K.”, as we called it during the war. Men with Scottish backgrounds suddenly, when leave was coming up, remembered Cousin Mary in Caithness or Aunt Annie in Inverness. The Padre even had relatives living in the Irish Republic. He needed special permission to travel there because it was a neutral country and he had to travel there in civilian clothes.
I had an aunt and uncle living in a place called Hornchurch, in Essex, about 18 miles east of London. I wrote to them as soon as I arrived in England and visited them on my first leave. Hornchurch lies on the Thames estuary. It was a fighter base that figured prominently in the Battle of Britain since it was directly in the path of the enemy bombers. Quite often, when the enemy planes could not penetrate London’s defences, they flew over Hornchurch and nearby Romford and dropped their bombs.
The first morning my battalion was in Aldershot, they briefed us on life overseas. They then allowed us to into the town, if we wished, and allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the camp itself. The British Army designated Aldershot as Southern Command. It was then the centre of a vast military district. It was under the command of a general named Bernard L. Montgomery. Over a million men and women served in the armed forces in this area which included Farnborough, Camberley, Farnham, Guilford, Woking, and many other towns and villages in southern England.
The army built the military barracks in Aldershot at the time of the Boer War. They had such names as Corunna, Maida, Barrassa, and Wellington in honour of the Peninsula War against Napoleon, 1808-1814. Each two-storey barrack block contained four rooms, two on ground level and two above. Each room was large enough to hold an infantry platoon. Each floor had a W.C., an English version of a flush bowl, complete with a pull-chain that let the water come down with a rush and a roar almost equal to the fury of Niagara Falls. I’m certain that Sir John Crapper, father of the water closet, never thought of inventing a silent one.
To those of us who could accept the fact that we were living in wartime conditions with food shortages, air raids, crowded trains, army discipline, discipline, and a native people whose customs and expressions seemed strange to us, Aldershot had many amenities that few other camps in England could offer. In town, there were three cinemas, two theatres for live shows, seven pubs, two restaurants, a sports stadium, several large, beautiful parks, and a shopping arcade. Various barrack blocks had their own facilities, including Officers’, N.C.O.s, and men’s canteens. There were E.N.S.A.-operated (Entertainers National Service Association) entertainment halls and N.A.A.F.I. (The Navy Army Air Force Institute) canteens.
We had organized sports activities. The barrack block that my battalion was in, the Maida Barracks, was built along the side of Queen’s Parade. This was a long and wide paved road that ran from the centre of Aldershot to Farnborough.
When I arrived overseas, they assigned me as a mess steward in the battalion Officers’ Mess. This also served as the brigade headquarters Officers’ Mess. The meals were not really very different from those that the cooks served in the mess of the other ranks, but they charged the officers mess dues. They then used the money to buy extras when ever extras were available. They served the officers’ meals on real chinaware and white linen tablecloths. This gave an air of non-existent luxury. I enjoyed working in the Officers’ Mess. It allowed me the privilege of not living in barracks. I shared a room with another fellow from my platoon by the name of Bill Shaw. Bill and I became very good friends and spent much of our off-duty time together. A pleasant person, he always had a good disposition in any situation.
One of the most memorable places where I spent my time when I was off duty was the Smith-Dorrien Institute in Aldershot. It was part of the Maida Barracks complex. The Women’s Volunteer Service ran its canteen. It had a public bath, library, and gymnasium. It also boasted a large sitting room with an impressive fireplace. Over the mantel hung a portrait of His Lordship, The Honourable Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien. You may well ask, “Who in hell was Smith-Dorrien?”
I remember the day in 1941 when I asked one of the very elderly ladies in the canteen that same question. She politely, but firmly, informed me, “His Lordship was General Smith-Dorrien, late of the Zulu Wars (1879), the Egyptian Wars (1882), the Sudan (1885), and the Frontier Field Force (1886). In this action he won the D.S.O.” 
“He was also in the 19th Brigade in the South African War where he led The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, the Gordon Highlanders, and the Shropshires at the Battle of Paardeberg. They defeated the Boer leader, Cronje.”
“After His Lordship retired from the army, he devoted his life to bettering that of the ordinary British soldier.”
The Smith-Dorrien Institute facilities were a monument to this great general, a man of much military accomplishment.
Our accomplishments were, for the time being, somewhat lesser. Shortly after our arrival in Aldershot, they unloaded the officers’ baggage from the holds of the Orcades. The officers were looking forward to receiving it at the Officers’ Mess. They had great expectations. Among the baggage were two cases of Johnny Walker whiskey. Whey the two crates finally arrived at the mess, they found only empty bottles and sawdust. They never solved the mystery of the missing Johnny Walker, but blamed the theft on the crew of the Orcades – on circumstantial evidence only.
In retrospect, it should have amazed us that soldiers a thousand miles out to sea could suddenly produce mickies of Johnny Walker from their Bren-gun magazine pouches. A mickie is a 12 oz. flat flask which fits very nicely into a coat pocket. The old long Lee-Enfield bayonet made a great tool for pulling nails. After, it served equally well as a hammer to nail the lids back on the boxes after the men neatly replaced the empty bottles. On the way over, officers sent some of us down into the hot stuffy cargo holds of the Orcades to shift baggage. It was an oversight on the part of the higher-paid help that no officer or senior NCO was put in charge of the work.
Early in November, some of us went on a conducted tour of Windsor Castle. We were allowed to see the inside of the royal residence. The following morning, the R.S.M. dressed the battalion up and the Colonel dressed it down to the lowest. On the day before, two of the royal hymnals disappeared from the Royal Chapel of Windsor Castle. The RSM said sternly, “They must be returned to the battalion orderly room by nine the next morning. If they don’t appear, all future leave will be cancelled.”
Later in the day, the Royal Hymnals materialized on a table in the officers’ mess. Nothing more was said about the incident.
I wasn’t long in England before I received two letters. One was from my aunt and uncle. They invited me to spend my leave with them. The other was from one of my mother’s distant cousins, Doris Stevens. Her daughter, Margaret, was a pen pal of one of my younger sisters. My sister had sent her my army address. This second letter was an invitation to visit their family in the Midlands. I answered both letters with promises to visit them on my first leaves.
Soon I received my first leave, a weekend pass. I decided to see my aunt and uncle in Hornchurch. The trip through London was an education in itself. I left Aldershot on a Friday afternoon. Off I went with five pounds in my pocket. I slung my respirator and tin hat over my shoulder in the proper manner, like a man of the world. I was green as a fresh young cabbage leaf.
Though I travelled alone, when I arrived at the railway station in London, I felt I could handle myself in any situation. I stepped out of the station with such a confident air that, I’m sure, all the 11 million souls in London were certain I’d been there all my life. To my delight I spotted three lovely young ladies who seemed unusually interested in me. They looked me over in a way that seemed to say: “Haven’t we met somewhere before?”
I knew that it was impossible. This was my first time in London. I didn’t think they had ever been to Cape Breton.One of the ladies approached me with, “Hi, Canada, this your first time to be in ole London?”
I was about to return her pleasantries when I spotted the biggest policeman that I’d ever seen, standing across the road. He held up a big ham of a hand; its index figure seemed to be beckoning in my direction. I looked behind me, but there was no one else but me. I pointed at my chest with a questioning face. His head nodded, “Yes, you.”
I crossed over to him and questioned, “Yes, officer?”
He pointed to the three young ladies and replied, “It’s Constable, not officer, and you’d better stay away from those ladies or you’ll get it in the sling.”
“In the sling, sir?” I asked, “What do you mean?”
“You’ll get your pecker in a sling. Pock.” They’re whores of the worst kind,” replied he, pointing knowing at my crotch. “Stay away from those tarts.”
It suddenly dawned on the innocent cabbage leaf just what he meant. I left that quarter of London as quickly as I could.
To get to Hornchurch, I needed to get on the underground and go to a spot called Aldgate East. From there I journeyed on the L.N.E.R. (London North Eastern Railway) – a railway system that served the East Anglia area, east of London.
I met my aunt and uncle for the first time. My first weekend leave was fairly quiet. The air-raid sirens wailed three or four times during the nights, but no bombs fell near us. I enjoyed my leave in Hornchurch and it became my home away from home while I was in England.
At Christmas time, the army granted me nine days leave. I decided to spend a few days in Hornchurch. Then I went to the Midlands to visit my mother’s cousin. My destination was the small town named Hinckley, in Leicestershire.
As usual in wartime England, the trains were packed. Since it was Christmas, they were even more crowded than usual. I boarded the L.M.S. (London, Midland and Scottish) train for Nuneaton. As the train rumbled further away from London, the passengers began to thin out, debarking at stations along the way. Soon I got a seat and slept most of the way to Nuneaton. I arrived there in the early hours of the morning and changed to the train bound for Hinckley. I arrived there about eight in the morning.
I was the only Canadian soldier to get off the train. Someone was to met me there, but the platform was empty. [Margaret went to meet him by one path and he took another path to her home. They missed each other.] I was out of matches so I crossed the street to the Railway Hotel. The man behind the bar apologized, “We’re all out, son.”
As I walked out, two old codgers were playing checkers. One look up and said, “Where ya goin’, Canada?”
“I’m not really sure,” I said, “But here’s the address.”
“Doris Stevens!” he exclaimed. “She’s my daughter. I know who you are, Tom Doucette. Your mother is my niece. I knew Lucy before she married your Dad.”
He told me how to find the Stevens’ house. From the hotel, it was easy to see Sketchley Hill, with the tall chimney of the dye works, near where they lived. Off I went.
Doris greeted me warmly. “You gave me such a start there. When I looked out and saw you coming up the walk I thought you were your Dad, just like in the last war!”
They welcomed me with the traditional English cup of tea. I was surprised to learn from Doris, Margaret’s mother, that she knew both my parents during the 1914-18 war. After my mother and father married, Doris, only 17, visited my grandmother in London.
I sat enjoying my cup of tea when in came a beautiful young girl. She introduced herself as Margaret and apologized for missing me at the station.
I visited many times in the weeks after that and Margaret did meet me in the station. As we strolled the short distance over the fields to her home, I got to know her. She told me about herself and her family. Only 15 years old and still in school, she was the only daughter of my mother’s cousin and had a younger brother, John. Her mother, Doris, was in war work. Her father, Alf, was a sailor in the Royal Navy, completing his 23rd year of naval service. She only saw him three times in her life so often was he away at sea.
In 1941, when we walked through those meadows, we had no idea that our future lives would revolve around each other.
Hinckley is a very old, established textile manufacturing town. It boasted many shops and factories well over a century old. Margaret’s home was in a new housing estate, built just before the Second World War broke out. This was not an extensive housing development, but the homes were still quite large, on good-sized lots. As well as its own private garden, each family had a 20 by 30 foot garden allotment on common ground. Here they could grow vegetables such as cabbages, Brussels sprouts and carrots, as well as flowers.
The Stevens kept their back garden neat, with flowers. Some neighbours had Anderson shelters, but they did not – only a Morrison shelter in the house. The Morrison shelter resembled a large sheet-steel table. It had been named in honour of a war-time British defence engineer who had designed it. Both kinds of shelters were put to good use.
Nearby factories and die works, were magnets for German bombers with their loads of incendiaries. A fire bomb exploded, torching the wooden fence at the back of the garden. Other bombs fell in the fields behind the house. Luckily, Margaret’s home escaped damage.
Her home ultimately evolved into my destination for all long leaves. I stayed at my aunt’s home in Hornchurch on weekend passes. Before long I fell deeply in love with Margaret. She was almost four years my junior. We were inseparable. When together, we travelled on bicycle or hiked. I met all of her relations and friends. Although our personal relationship did not then go beyond being friends, each time I went back to camp, I looked forward to her letters with increasing eagerness. I’d unfold them and read them over and over – until they fell apart in my hands.
In early 1942, I was posted to the demolition section of the pioneer platoon of my battalion of The Cape Breton Highlanders. We moved to the south coast and became part of the defences that would protect England if the Nazis tried to invade across the Channel. I took courses in survival, mines, explosives, and demolition work.
In the early summer of 1942, the army called for volunteers for an operation so secret only a few of the top brass knew anything about the actual plans. I was one of those who stepped forward. They took my name. Selection was later. I was disappointed; I was not one of those chosen.
On 22 August, some of those who had volunteered were listed as killed, missing or P.O.W.s (Prisoners of War). They served with the Second Canadian Division at Dieppe. Dieppe was the operation that I had unwittingly volunteered for.
One day in summer, 1943, a letter came from Margaret’s mother. She planned to allow Margaret to travel to Hornchurch to visit my aunt and uncle. She wrote me to say that, because of the respect I had shown toward her daughter, she trusted me to meet Margaret in London and escort her to Hornchurch.
Overjoyed at the thought of Margaret near me, even for only a few days, I obtained a weekend pass. Almost a year and a half had slipped away since I landed from the Orcades. Margaret was 17; I was 20. We made great plans, through the mail, for what we would see and do while she was on holiday.
I looked forward to that weekend with Margaret. Margaret and I had set our plans and I approached my platoon officer with a request for a leave in the middle of June, 1943. He granted my request and we made all our arrangements. But, on the first of June, the higher-ups threw a tight security blanket over the south coast. They allowed no letters to go out or phone calls made out of the area. The army cancelled all leaves.
How could I let Margaret know? Dear God! I couldn’t.
This sad state of affairs stayed in place until July 11: the day after the First Canadian Division gained a beachhead at Pachino on the south coast of the island of Sicily.
To my grief and beyond my control, without any explanation whatsoever, I failed to meet Margaret in London, as planned. I wondered if she would understand. She never wrote to me again.
In mid-July I was ordered to pack my kit. I was leaving The Cape Breton Highlanders. I had joined them at Victoria Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in spring, 1940. In the three years I served with the Highlanders, I had become well acquainted with almost every officer, N.C.O. and other rank in the battalion. I had seen many changes.
When we went overseas in 1941, our Colonel, senior officers and senior N.C.O.s were almost all older men, veterans of The Great War. Most were of Scottish ancestry and most from Cape Breton. When I started out in “A” Company, the O.C. was Major McLean. The three platoon commanders were: a MacNeil, a MacKenzie, and a Macdonald. The Company Sergeant-Major was a MacLean. The Quartermaster was a MacLean. The three platoon sergeants were a MacCormack, a MacDonald, and a MacDonald. Many of the men in the ranks hailed from the rural areas and fishing villages of Cape Breton – the same source for their officers. I wondered if I would ever see so many Canadian Scots in one place again.
Because many senior officers of the 5th Division and 11th Armoured Brigade Support Group were veterans of the 1914-18 War, a modern warfare approach eluded them. Our training was along the lines of communication trenches, barbed wire, and massive bayonet charges “over the top”. Although we were supposed to be an armoured division, few of us ever had the opportunity of training with the tank regiments that were part of our division. Lightning-fast Blitzkrieg with Panzers and air cover swept away the defences of nation after nation in 1939 and 1940. This kind of war was foreign to the trench warfare men like my own father had fought. The men of World War one fought a stationary war in the mud, behind tangles of barbwire, in places like the Somme, with only the occasional bloody breakthrough as the Canadians did at Vimy Ridge.
In that summer of 1942, the army replaced many of the older officers and N.C.O.s with younger men or with senior officers and N.C.O.s from other divisions. Those who were replaced went back to Canada where they served in administration postings and training camps.
Late in August 1943, I waited for my departure date from Camp Aldershot. Then my older brother, John (nicknamed Buddy), and my brother-in-law, Joe McNeil, arrived overseas. I met them in Aldershot and we did the town.
A few days later, the army posted me to the N.E.T.D. (Non Effective Transit Depot) near Southampton. The Non Effective Transit Depot was a designation to classify personal that were struck off-strength from the Canadian Army in the UK, but were not yet taken on strength to the Canadian Army in either Canada or the Central Mediterranean. A few days after I arrived at the N.E.T.D., I boarded the Monarch of Bermuda bound for North Africa and Italy.
To North Africa
As I sailed out of Southampton, I said a silent goodbye to England and Margaret. It had been a long time since I had heard from her. On board the ship I knew no one. Yet I was fortunate in that no one assigned me to one of the hammocks on the lower decks. Instead, I shared a cabin with five other Canadians. Our cabin was roomy with two three-tiered bunks.
The other passengers were mostly members of the British Army or R.A.F. A few were with the Royal Navy. Quite a few were members of the women’s branches of the armed forces. Since I knew no one, I spent much of my time alone on deck.
On the second day out from Southampton, we anchored in the loch at Greenoch. Late that afternoon, as I stood at the rail admiring the Scottish scenery, I observed a young crewman. He was intently watching the shore about a quarter of a mile away. Being of a curious nature, I questioned, “Do you know Greenoch?”
He replied with his own question, “Die ye na see yonder wee white cot? And die ye nae see a wee auld lady?”
“Mon, it’s my auld mither. It’s been twa lang years I’ve been awa. I’ve ha two ships to the bottom neath me and I’ve been hauled fra the brine three times. It’s three days we were in Southampton – nae lang enough tae get hame. I am hame noo, but nae mon is allowed tae go ashore, and I may near see hame nee mair.”
With these words, he turned and vanished below decks.
I stood at the rail for a few moments until I suddenly realized that I too was leaving behind a loved one whom I might not see ever again. I too turned my back to the land. Grown men don’t shed tears, only when the sun is in their eyes. This was a cloudy day so I disappeared into my cabin and did not surface on deck until the Monarch of Bermuda was well out to sea.
The Monarch of Bermuda was a luxury liner that, in peacetime, sailed between New York and Bermuda. She was a fast ship so we did not travel in convoy for most of the distance to Gibraltar. We followed a course from Greenoch to the north, then down the west coast of Ireland well out of sight of land, and past the Bay of Biscay. We then sailed on to the Straits of Gibraltar.
Before we entered the Straits, we formed up into convoy with some other ships. Because it was night when we passed between Gibraltar and Tangiers, we could only see those other ships as vague shadows steaming along beside us.
Tangier was a neutral Moroccan port. It was the first town that many of us viewed lit up since we left Canada two or three years earlier. Only people who have experienced life in countries that have been completely in darkness for an extended blackout can know the thrill of seeing a city in full night lights once again. It was electrifying for us, but not for the captains of the ships that must slip through the Straits of Gibraltar.
Our intelligence service knew that enemy agents watched from the Spanish mainland at night. Axis spies could see the ships passing through. From their vantage point in Spain, they watched for the lights of Tangier to blink out for a moment or two. This meant a ship was going into or out of the Mediterranean. If the ships were sailing in line, bow to stern, the German agents could quite simply determine how large the ships were and how many ships were in the convoy. If a convoy was big enough, the agents sent a wireless message to Berlin with the details.
A large convoy was usually headed for the battle zone, full of troops and supplies. It was, thus, a prime target for attack. Torpedo-carry aircraft from enemy bases on Corsica and Sardinia swarmed the flotillas. Enemy agents also knew that, if only one ship slipped through the passage, its destination was probably Oran, or some other port on the North African coast farther west of Algiers. This was out of the range of the torpedo bombers.
Our side tried to disguise the number of ships passing though. Hopefully, the Allies could fool the watchers into thinking only one ship was on the move. The ships formed up line abreast, one beside each other, before they sailed within sight of land. They then passed through the Straits in the very early hours of morning when fewer lights glowed on the Tangiers skyline. If an enemy observer spotted the convoy, it would seem that only one ship was backlit against the lights, slipping quietly through the dangerous passage. It was very simple strategy and, thankfully, for the Allies, it worked.
The Monarch of Bermuda sailed into the harbour at Algiers at night and I awoke early, going up on deck when the sun rose. The beauty of Algiers astounded me. The view from the harbour is breathtaking as the sun climbs over the city, lighting the buildings. The sunlight transforms the panorama of white or cream-coloured buildings. Its rays paint them a blaze of crimson, ochre, pink and gold. The ancient builders constructed the city on terraces and the shimmering succession of colours descended from an apex in the west down to the quays and the water’s edge.
The officers kept us on board ship until late in the evening. When it started raining, we disembarked. We paraded onto the docks in a soft drizzle and waited for transports to take us to our destinations.
I found that I was part of a group of 100 Canadians. We were all temporarily attached to the First Army, British North Africa Force. We fell under the command of Captain MacNab from the 11th Armoured, Ontario Regiment. The only other officer that I can call to mind now was Lieutenant Maximillian Forsyth-Smith of The Cape Breton Highlanders, my old Regiment. I did not know him while I was with the Highlanders. Unfortunately, I do not recall any of the NCOs in our group.
Our destination was Blida, farther inland. While we waited, we had the chance to see Arabs for the first time. Many were relatively prosperous, but this was the first time most of us had seen such poverty.
Some of the children were victims of land mines. There was a boy of about 12 years of age and another child of about 14. They sat on a length of timber. From the 12-year-old’s pant leg a rotten stump of a leg protruded. He proceeded to pick away the dead flesh, quite unconcerned. We gave them some chocolate bars and tried to make conversation with them. They spoke no English; we spoke no Arabic.
We wondered aloud if the older one was a boy or girl. They looked alike, dressed alike. The question almost became an argument between us when one of our fellows asked in French. The older one immediately lifted her clothes to the navel, exposing the bare truth that she truly was a girl.
Well after dark, still in a gentle rain, we finally climbed aboard the lorries. So we saw nothing of the Algerian countryside until we reached our camp at Blida. Our new home was nothing but a sandy, flat, barren space, about a mile from town. It was barren in every sense of the word. There was absolutely nothing: no tents, no latrines, no cooking facilities. We each carried two blankets and a rubber groundsheet in addition to our rifles and full military gear. We bedded down for the night on the bare sand.
With morning, we went to the English battalion nearest us and scrounged some compo-rations and tea. We waited around all the morning for someone to tell us just what our situation was. We sure as hell didn’t know.
Before noon, Captain MacNab returned from British battalion headquarters. He informed us, “Owing to some foul-up, we are not officially attached to the British Army for pay, rations or supplies! The English battalion Commanding Officer will do his best to supply us with tea and hardtack. Other than that, we are on our own.”
Surely, when the army cocked-up, it did it royally.
The British Army did always seem to have a plentiful supply of latrines in the form of shovels and soldiers (us) to dig. So we could, at least, sanitarily dispose of what little waste there was.
In the first week at Blida most of us had a little English money that we could easily trade for French francs in the shops of the town. Arab children hung about our bivouac from dawn to dusk. They sold us oranges, dates and grapes. Most of us gorged ourselves on these luxuries that we had not seen since early in the war.
Blida was a French Foreign Legion town, sitting in a fertile green valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The contrast between the poverty of the Arabs and the wealth of the French colonials was so obvious, it shouted. A Foreign Legion post stood at each end of town. It was common to see a troop of mounted legionnaires gallop down the main street on a Friday’s market day, scattering the Arabs even though the residents were only trying to carry on business. They interfered with no one, but the Foreign Legion broke up the market. French Gendarmes policed the town; their word was law. If a colonial accused an Arab of any offence, the French always won out – even if the Arab was clearly innocent.
In those days, the French planted the seeds of a future civil war. In the 1950s, it broke out. The Arab leader, Ben Bella, and the Algerians succeeded, defeating the French Foreign Legion and the French army itself. The result was an independent Algeria.
Storm in The Desert
We spent about a month in Blida. Except for three large marquee tents supplied to us, our living conditions did not change. Before we left there, the monsoon season began. One night, a storm rolled in with sudden fury, without warning. In less than five minutes, the dry, sandy ground became a river. The wind tore the marquees from their stakes. I was sleeping in one that had a long four-inch diameter centre poles. The tent came down on top of me with a crash as the pole splintered. The tent flattened the ground between the man next to me and me. At daybreak, a foot of water covered our bivouac area. Men and equipment were sodden.
With afternoon came the sun and it scorched us, evaporating the night’s rain. With the sun, came a multitude of small brown scorpions, stinging.
While we were there in Blida, we did a lot of peddling. We sold extra boots, socks, blankets, and other articles of equipment to keep from starving. It seemed we were a forgotten army. Around October 15, our officers ordered us to get ready to move out. We waited for a week. Then we travelled to the docks in Algiers harbour. Here we embarked on an old steamer. It was so full of rats and cockroaches that it was a marvel that the old tub stayed afloat. The following day, we left harbour, bound for Naples.
A day’s steaming carried us to the southwest coast of Sicily. From there we sailed up the west coast of Italy, past the Isle of Capri, and into the harbour at Naples. Allied forces had just occupied this port. From Naples, we travelled to a former Italian army camp at Avellino. When we arrived there, the Allies had only just captured it. Avellino was one of the Italian Mussolini’s, the Italian dictator’s, pet passions. The barracks were some of the most modern in the world when the Italians built them in the early 1930s. Now they were a sorry mess.
Before surrendering, the Italian troops connected the sewer pipes to the town water supply. They sabotaged the electric power lines by attaching explosive charges with electric detonators. They cut the lines at intervals and hid them under the rubble of fallen buildings. The soldiers smeared human excrement on the walls and windowsills inside the barracks. They placed percussion grenades (called Red Devils) under empty food tins. These they scattered throughout the barrack grounds. The Red Devils were extremely hazardous. If jolted or kicked one, they exploded instantly with sufficient force to maim or kill.
The British and Canadian armies were well known for being very particular about cleanliness and order in barracks. Wherever they went, they kept their living quarters immaculate – no matter how rough the conditions. The nasty little surprises left behind injured some Canadians in the camp at Avellino. Eventually, we cleaned the mess up under the strict supervision of our senior NCOS.
As our small group arrived in Avellino, the First Canadian Division was fighting their way north along the Adriatic coast. They succeeded in gaining a crossing over the Sangro River. The battle for that waterway was the fiercest Canadian engagement in Italy up to that point.
Higher-ups designated our group as reinforcements for the First Division as they prepared to take the town of Ortona.
A few days after I arrived in Italy, I managed to scrounge up an Italian-English dictionary. I wanted to learn the basics of the language of the country.
Studying at ever opportunity, I enjoyed Italian.
Early in December, our group split into smaller ones; they assigned us to different regiments. They sent me to a small mountain town, Lucera. My group spent about a week from there. From there we boarded a train for Termoli on the shore of the Adriatic. The weather turned very cold and the freight cars we travelled in were unheated. There was a roof vent for exhaust in the boxcar. One soldier had the brilliant idea of taking the lining out of his steel helmet and using it to hold a small straw fire. By the time we reached Termoli just after dark, we all smelled like smoked herrings.
A drizzling, freezing rain drenched us as we marched to the bivouac area, west of the city in an olive grove. The grove bore grim reminders that it had recently been a battlefield. Shellfire had stripped many of the olive trees of their branches. Some enemy dead lay buried in shallow graves near where we ourselves lay down to sleep that night.
In the morning, trucks from The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps arrived to transport us to the front lines. Travelling north along the Adriatic coast, I passed through some of the towns and villas that were very familiar to the men of the First Division. By this time they were on the outskirts of Ortona. We crossed over the Moro and Sangro Rivers. Here Canadians had paid a heavy price to rout the enemy.
In the truck I was on, there were many who had already served in the fighting in Italy. Some had been wounded and were returning to their regiments. In Sicily and southern Italy, some also had fallen casualties to dysentery, malaria, and other diseases that struck many of the first Canadians serving in the Sicilian-Italian campaign.
One of the experienced men from a 3rd Brigade regiment, asked, “What outfit are you going to?”
I told him, “The Royal Canadian Regiment.”
He laughed, “You poor little bastard! They are the toughest, most chicken-shit outfit in the whole god-damned Canadian army. They’ll kill you with their discipline.”
It was my first hint of what to expect in The Royal Canadian Regiment (R.C.R.).
Late in the evening, we entered the town of Lanciano. The road took a right turn parallel to the battlefront. As we travelled east toward Ortona, we could hear the roar of artillery, mortar, and many other sounds of war.
Later that night we arrived at the Advanced Base Reinforcement Depot in San Vito. It was about seven miles from the front. When we got there, we were immediately turned over to the NCOs from our regiments.
We ate and billeted down for the night. The next morning the medical officer gave us a once-over. Kit-inspection followed. This involved the inspection of a soldier’s weapons and equipment listed with the Quartermaster-Sergeant’s office as being issued to the soldier. Kit-inspections were important. They ensured a soldier had in his possession all he needed before he went into battle.
Then we went by truck to the battalion headquarters of each of the regiments to which we had been posted.
The Royal Canadian Regiment
Late in the afternoon of December 29th, I moved up into the line with about 30 men. We were future members of “D” Company, The Royal Canadian Regiment. It was in a forward position between the villa known as “San Tomasso” and the junction of the main road and the coastal road to Tollo.
The front overlooked the Arielli valley. This valley began about three miles north of Ortona, at the edge of the Adriatic. The line followed the valley inland to the west for about three miles. Then it abruptly turned to the southwest. It then swung west again. The perimeter of the front line was at no time more three and a half miles from the town.
Only one road led directly into the town. The enemy kept it under constant observation. Every movement on that road called down a hail of artillery fire.
Before entering the town, we had to pass through a crossroad, codenamed “Dundee”, about a mile to the west. Any driver unfamiliar with Dundee could mistakenly drive straight-ahead right into the enemy lines. This did happen to two army intelligence officers in their jeep. The enemy killed them outright. Subsequently, the Canadian Provost Corps posted military police on the crossroad on point duty to direct traffic. The poor devils were under constant fire, but they held their ground. If one fell, another instantly took his place.
On our way into the line on the evening of December 29th, we had to follow a long gully. We came under heavy artillery fire. We went forward on a zigzag course toward the front. Shrapnel claimed five casualties. One was a young fellow named Coombes. He and two others took shelter in a sand hole in the side of the gully. An 88 mm shell struck the edge of the hole and exploded. The blast knocked Coombes senseless. He suffered a severe concussion. Stretcher-bearers evacuated him back to a hospital. As they carried him out, I saw blood oozing out of his ears.
He was the first casualty I remember. He and his friend, Ralph Chambers, were the only men I had become friends with on the way up from Avellino. Both were from Newfoundland. In 1942, they journeyed to Nova Scotia so that they could volunteer for the Canadian Army. [Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until 1949.]
When we reached “D” Company, in the forward lines, it was dark. I paired up with a man named Walt Beddows. He was also in the group from Blida. The officers assigned both of us to 16 Platoon. It was in reserve; the other two platoons were in the forward slit trenches.
Being in reserve might sound nice, but all it really meant was: two platoons of three sections each would be deployed in a defensive position in the forward trenches while the other platoon in the Company would take up a position about 50 yards to their rear. The platoon positioned behind (“in reserve”) laid down covering fire if the enemy attacked the two in front.
A short, whispered briefing told us what they wanted of us. After that, Walt and I found a hole in the rubble of a brick goat pen. It had dry straw in it so we bedded down with our groundsheets over us. We slept. Unless there was an unusual amount of enemy activity, our NCOs allowed the reserve platoon to sleep during the night. Those in the forward platoon were in two-man slit trenches. While one partner stayed on the alert, the other slept. After two hours, they alternated so that each man did two hours on and two hours off in succession. If an enemy attack was expected, every man would be kept on the alert.
During the night, heavy rain, high winds, and a ferocious thunderstorm hit with almost hurricane force. Walt and I slept right through it. The first thing we awoke to was a corporal tearing the groundsheet off of us. Three gallons of ice-cold rainwater dropped from the groundsheet on us, drenching us from chest to knees.
“Do you fellows want a morning shot of rum?” he asked.
Walt looked the corporal straight in the eye. Giving the NCO a funny grin, he replied, “Bless you, my boy.”
He gulped the strong, black liquor down. I declined. I had tried rum once in 1940, a few months after joining up. It made me ill then. I hated rum after that first drink.
The storm I slept through knocked down a brick wall, killing some of the men from our Regiment’s “C” Company. They had sheltered in the lee of the wall.
The rain transformed the battlefield into a sea of mud. It filled many of the trenches with water. The fighting had reduced all of the buildings on our part of the front to rubble. Our NCOs ordered us to dig new slit trenches. We had to do the best we could with what we had. The old hands, with the Regiment before I came, were well equipped with shovels. They scrounged these from abandoned farms in the south. We bailed water out from the trenches that could be made liveable.
I heard no grumbling. It would not have done any good anyway. The whole front on our section was absolute desolation. The retreating enemy tanks had left deep wide ruts across the sea of mud. Fields that in summer had yielded a harvest of grapes, were now a tangled mess of barbed wire and dead vines.
Twice a day there was a ritual in the infantry regiments when they were in the line. It began about an hour before dawn. Orders passed down from the Company Commanders to, “Stand to”. By the time the order reached the forward sections, we whispered “Stand To”. Quietly it passed from one man to the next and so onto every officer, NCO, and other ranks.
“Stand to” ensured all would be awake, in defensive positions, prepared for any enemy attack.
A half hour after dawn, “Stand-down” (meaning “OK, relax”) orders passed from one soldier to the next. If we suspected any enemy activity on the front, the Stand-to lasted until either the enemy attacked or everything quieted down.
We executed the same procedures from a half hour before dark until a half hour after sunset. More often, the stand-down came much later than we expected.
On January 1st, a few days after I arrived at the Regiment, we heard that we’d get Christmas dinner during the day. One platoon from each company was allowed to go at a time. The other two platoons had to wait their turn. Number 17 platoon went out first; mine, 16, relieved them in the forward trenches. When they returned an hour later, Number 18 platoon went out. When they came back, my platoon finally went out for the feast.
The weather was still bitterly cold and the rain kept up a steady downpour. The three sections of the platoon were spaced well apart as we walked out, to minimize thee danger from enemy shellfire. We were fortunate; all remained quiet.
We walked about a mile through the mud, shell holes, and tangled grape vines to reach the remains of the house where our Christmas waited for us. The house was on the south side of the hill where it was not exposed to enemy observers. In the downpour, visibility was reduced to about a hundred yards anyway.
This was my first Christmas dinner with The Royal Canadian Regiment. This was true for about 70 percent of those who were with the R.C.R.s on that most special day. Casualties from death, wounds, disease, and injury thinned the ranks of those who landed at Pachino on July 10 only five months before. In the ensuing five months, many came as reinforcements, only to end their lives somewhere along the way.
When they first told us we were going out for Christmas dinner, the N.C.O.s did not tell us what to expect. We were not served it on December 25 for one thing. It was now January. Many men had fought their way through Ortona and ahead to the front line. They had not eaten a hot meal in over a week. So feeling very lucky, we lined up with our mess tins to be served.
The regimental cooks were busy in the shelter of what little of the house remained standing. Stainless steel containers of steaming hot turkey, beef and, could we believe it, real mashed potatoes graced a couple of set-up benches and form tables. These were the genuine article, not the dehydrated kind. There was delicious thick gravy. With this first Christmas dinner in the line, I savoured my first taste of R.C.R. tradition.
A major served our meal to us. That in itself was not unusual in an infantry regiment. However, this particular major wore a peaked peacetime cap. He held a cane under his left arm while he served us with his right hand. The rain poured down on him, drizzling off his cap into his moustache and down all over him. He seemed oblivious to it. His only concern was to make sure that every man was fed. As he served each man, he sincerely wished him, “All the best in the New Year.”
I thought he was an extraordinary man. I couldn’t help but notice that he wore the ribbon of the African Star. He was the first Canadian I saw with one. It indicated that the wearer had served in either the British First Army or the Eighth Army in the deserts of North Africa.
We sat around or stood talking to acquaintances while we ate our meal. Most of the conversations between the older men (those who had been with the regiment more than a week) were about mutual friends.
“How are you doing, Joe? How’s Scotty McP—— and Skinny McK——–?”
“Didn’t yuh know? They both got killed at the f—ing crossroads.”
“No! son-of-a-bitch! Poor bastards. They are both married and have kids in Scotland.”
“Joe D got it too, hit in the eyes with mortar shrapnel when we crossed the railway tracks. He’s blinded. The stretcher bearers took him out. Well, guess we gotta go now. See you again, Bill.”
Within three weeks, Bill was killed while on night patrol. Joe died in May in the Liri Valley fighting. The greatest friendships could be brief. You never knew who was going to be next to go.
Persistent muddy conditions made any attempt to advance over no man’s land impossible. The roads leading to the artillery guns were impassable. Vehicles sank to their axles in that greasy goo. When the Germans and Italians attacked our forward infantry lines, the FOOs (Artillery Forward Observation Officers), radioed back for a DF task (defensive fire) to be laid down on the enemy. This helped protect the infantry positions. The shortage of artillery shells was so severe than only three rounds of DF fire per gun were allowed to fire each day.
The 25-pounder field pieces were the only cannon that were useful for close infantry support. Because of their shorter range compared to heavy artillery, they were deployed nearer to the frontline. The artillery had the difficult job of keeping them supplied with ammo. The only consolation to us was that the enemy was in the same situation we were.
Neither of us could use tanks or armoured vehicles. The enemy and ourselves took up an honourable position of static warfare on both sides of no-mans land. This restricted the action to mortar fire, machinegun fire, sniping, listening posts, fighting patrols, and recce (reconnaissance) patrols.
The three months of the winter rainy season in Italy meant coastal plains flooded by swollen rivers. In summer, most of those same rivers were insignificant trickles. Static warfare essentially established the no-man’s land: the area between our forward trenches and the defensive position of the enemy. Static warfare did not imply rules of war or mutual consent between enemies. It limited adversaries to defensive roles through necessity.
In the second week of January, they moved our Company further inland to the village of San Tomasso. It was a meagre assortment of three houses, a large barn, pig sties, and outside crappers. Fortunately for us, when we first arrived there, all the buildings were still standing. They were brick and quite substantial, although some were damaged. I noticed that some of the walls were over a foot thick.
The most outstanding landmark on the enemy side of the line, only 300 yards across the Arielli Valley from our forward slit trenches, was a large, pink, stuccoed villa. It was codenamed “Bluebell” by our Divisional Headquarters. The enemy occupied Bluebell. I wondered why it wasn’t codenamed, “Pinkbell”.
Before we moved to San Tomasso, they put a new officer in command of Number 16 Platoon. Lieutenant Rich was originally with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. He was not with our regiment very long before he proved himself to be an outstanding leader. He was an easy man to respect, as friendly and courageous as any man could be. Shortly after he came, Brigade Headquarters order us to step up patrol activity into enemy-occupied areas.
The weather had dried up quite considerably. We had a standing patrol at a rock pile about 75 yards out in front and to the left of our forward position. The third night we were at San Tomasso, Corporal Knox and I went out for two hours at this listening post. Everything was quiet — except for muffled voices speaking German and the sounds of digging from the direction of Bluebell.
Private Reynolds, a veteran of the landing in Sicily, relieved us, along with private Ralph Chambers. Three quarters of an hour after they relieved Knox and me, a heavy artillery shoot began. Lieutenant Rich and I were in the house that was being used as platoon headquarters. We heard where some of the shells were landing and exploding. We waited anxiously for a break in the firing. The shoot only lasted about ten minutes. Then the R.C.R.s sent a relief out to the standing patrol listening post. At first, in the darkness, nothing could be found. Then, we found two ragged greatcoats in one of the many fresh shell holes. A direct hit killed Reynolds and Chambers instantly.
When the group of reinforcements I was with arrived at the platoon, at the end of December, we brought it up to full strength. The day after Reynolds and Chambers died, we were down to about 18, all ranks. The following evening, we received six more reinforcements. They came into the frontline just after six in the evening.
Among them was a lad of about 18. He had been a Service Corps Driver. Wanting to see action in the frontline, he had volunteered to come to our regiment. Before he arrived, Corporal Knox had lost his slit trench partner. Knox told the new young reinforcement to get in his trench and wait there while the Corporal placed the other reinforcements in the other trenches where he wanted each of them to be.
The corporal had barely turned his back when the enemy opened up with a barrage of Moaning Minnies. These were long range mortar bombs that gave out a high-pitched scream as they plummeted earthward. The barrage fell into the middle of our platoon position. Everybody ducked into his trench. As the bombs fell, we could see the young fellow in Knox’s trench. He was just standing there as if he froze in an upright position. Corporal Knox yelled, “Keep your head down!”
Yet the lad didn’t move. When there was a let-up in the mortar fire, Knox ran over to the young fellow. He was dead. When we finally took his body from the trench, we could not find a wound. Later they discovered that a piece of shrapnel entered his back under his webbed shoulder strap. The medical officer said that the fellow drowned in his own blood.
In the weeks that followed our arrival at San Tomasso, we stepped up patrol activities to almost fever pitch. There was hardly an hour at night hour when there were not at least two patrols from our company somewhere out between the enemy lines and ours. In addition to recce patrols, fighting patrols, standing patrols and listening posts, we also carried out contact patrols. These were usually best carried out by one man alone.
The job of the contact patrol was to contact the flanking companies and report to the flanking companies’ commanding officers before returning to his own company. This was probably the most dangerous type of patrol because, if the waiting Germans ambushed the contact man, he was on his own. Fortunately, we never had one of our contact patrols taken prisoner. The Germans regarded such soldiers as prizes because of the military intelligence a contact man could provide. The men on contact patrol knew the deployment of all the companies of our regiment, ours included. Quite often the contact man knew the deployment of the companies of the other regiments who were holding the line on our right and left flanks. This was all information that could be of vital importance to the enemy.
Up to this point in the war, I had not fought in any large-scale battles. The static warfare conditions ruled such battles out. Though there was shelling, mortar fire, and the occasional sniping in our direction, my baptism of fire took place out on patrol. These were small-scale battles with the occasional enemy ambush. I found that this was the type of warfare that I was most suited to. It held more of a challenge for the individualist.
Regular patrols rarely went as planned. The officer, NCO, or private needed to decide important matters in seconds without benefit of the advice of someone higher up. Quite often the Germans ambushed patrols. Although there was always a pre-arranged plan in the event of an enemy surprise advance, it wasn’t always possible for the officer or NCO in charge to locate all his men. In the darkness and on unfamiliar ground, it was often difficult to know if men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Sometimes a man was just gone. We never knew.
Silence was the essence of good patrol work. Therefore, the officer couldn’t put the remaining men on the patrol in jeopardy by staying out in no-man’s land to search for anyone missing. Calling out to anyone would have been inviting the Germans to swarm in for the kill.
On the other hand, fighting patrols were usually very well planned prior to the actual moment the officers actually put the plan into action. The plan began with details of the purpose of the patrol. There could be many goals. A patrol could be to take enemy prisoners in order to gain information about the strength of their defences or to ascertain the level of enemy troop morale. A patrol could be sent out to destroy enemy machine gun posts, mortar positions, or telephone lines leading from enemy forward positions.
The patrol leader had an important part in planning for fighting patrols. This was usually one of the platoon officers. The leader studied all available maps and defence overprints, as well as aerial reconnaissance photos (when available). He had to learn as much as he could about the enemy locations known to be in the patrol area. Then it was up to him to plot a route in and out, as well as alternative routes. He decided the number of men to be used, the weapons to be used and which NCOs and other ranks would best be suited for the type of patrol. He also decided on the type of wireless sets he wanted and the preset wireless frequencies (and alternate frequency). He chose the time the patrol went out and the prearranged time the patrol returned to our own lines.
Initial planning for a large fighting patrol usually involved the regimental intelligence officer. He briefed the patrol officer on the latest information in his possession. An officer from regimental Tactical Headquarters also attended the briefing. It fell on his shoulders to ensure other regiments on the left and right flanks knew that our regiment was operating in no-man’s land at a particular time on the chosen night. As well, Tactical Headquarters was responsible for making sure that the artillery units, mortar and heavy machinegun units, and other support arms were aware that our patrols were operating at a given time, in a given area.
They also briefed the Regimental Medical Officer so that his staff was ready for any casualties that must be evacuated from the line during the night of a patrol.
When the patrol officer fully formulated his plans, he picked those he thought qualified to take part. He had to select carefully. Men who were too brash were not good for patrol work. They were often a danger to themselves and the others in the patrol. These same aggressive men, however, were some of the best when it came to pushing forward in full-scale offensives. The best men for patrol work were those who knew how to take orders and follow those orders to a T.
One evening, our platoon officer, Lieutenant Rich, returned from Company Headquarters just after stand-down. Our NCOs ordered 20 of us to report to him in the house that was used for Platoon Headquarters. He and Sergeant Frank White were going to lead a large patrol out across the Arielli Valley to the remains of a house, codenamed “Frankie”.
The house was about 1500 yards from our forward lines and well behind the enemy lines. The purpose of this patrol was to learn if the Germans occupied Frankie. If they didn’t, we were to establish a standing patrol of fighting strength on the objective. We were to then stay there undetected for the next 24 hours when another patrol would relieve us.
With map and a pointer, the Lieutenant pointed out the objective, the nearest known enemy positions and the resistance we might expect to meet. He indicated the route we’d follow and where we would cross a shallow river. According to his study of the air photos, the Germans had mined both sides of the riverbanks. After Rich finished his briefing, he asked, “Do you have any questions?”
When he had answered all of our questions to the best of his ability, he told us what clothes we’d wear and which weapons we would carry. Our weapons were: one two-inch mortar, four Bren lmgs (Light Machine Guns), six rifles, and 13 submachine-guns. At that time, some of us were still using American .45 calibre Thompson submachine-guns. Others carried 9 mm Sten guns. These were lighter than the Thompsons and, therefore, we could carry more ammunition for the Stens. The rifles were of little use on night patrol, but would be needed in daylight hours if the Germans attacked. The rifles had a longer range than the submachine guns. After he had briefed us all, Lieutenant Rich told us to get a few hours’ rest. Our patrol was scheduled to pass out of our forward line at 2305 hours.
At 2200 hours, we left our trenches and went to Platoon Headquarters. Here, they fed us a hot meal, brought up in hotboxes to the front by muleskinners. After we finished our meal, we prepared for the patrol.
Probably few of us realized how representative we were of the mixed cultural backgrounds of the Canadian soldier or how different our peace time lives were. Our English Canadian Lieutenant was, in civilian life, in the insurance business in St. Catharines, Ontario. Our English sergeant was a ballet dancer in Montreal. The three corporals were Scottish, English, and French-Canadian. Among the other ranks were Clyke, a black youth from Nova Scotia; Fritch, the son of a German farm family from Kitchener, Ontario; and Jang, of Chinese-Canadian parents, from Toronto.
While we prepared for patrol, we joked among with Jang and Clyke, “You guys never have to darken your faces with burnt cork like us! So you are always ready and willing for patrol work!”
Joking aside, we all knew we were buddies, counting on each other absolutely. We asked ourselves questions like, “Who were we? How long would we be together? Alive?”
At 2315 hours, we were on our way toward enemy lines. The Germans added two more fresh shell holes to those among the rows of grapevines. This showed they had no patrols of their own out in that area of the front. We crawled our way to the river in less than an hour. Each man stayed in close contact with the man ahead of him. Accustomed to many night spent in complete darkness, we could see the forms of our comrades when they were 20 feet ahead of us.
We crossed the river where the water was about a foot deep and shuffled our feet, without lifting them from the water. This way we did not make a sound. When we reached the enemy side of the river, our lieutenant and sergeant told us to lay low. They went ahead to find out if any enemy were in the immediate vicinity and to pick a way through the enemy minefield while we waited. Ten minutes later the Lieutenant returned. We moved forward to where the Sergeant waited for us.
At 2245 hours we were on our objective, the remains of a group of houses, Frankie. We set up a listening post that we would occupy for the next 24 hours as a Standing Patrol.
We spent the rest of that night and the following day under the cover of the ruined buildings. Set on the brow of a low hill, Frankie let us watch the enemy without being seen ourselves. We had enough food rations and ammunition to last for two days. We also had a wireless set and a Veery pistol with a supply of signal flares. We could signal if the Germans undertook a large-scale attack on our sector.
On our second night at Frankie, the enemy kept a continuous barrage of 88mm artillery fire on our sector. Our own artillery poured round after round into their lines, while avoiding the area where we waited under cover. Because of all the activity, our relief patrol couldn’t reach us. They withdrew to wait for the next night.
Most of us slept through most of the second day while some lookouts watched at their posts, in case of an attack. The day was quiet. After stand-down that night, Lieutenant Rich and some men ventured farther into enemy lines. Here they picked up more information on the location of some of the enemy positions.
At 0315 hours, another patrol from our regiment relieved us. At 0450 hours we were back at our trenches at San Tomasso. We went to the house that was used for Company Headquarters. Here, they individually de-briefed us, asking about what we had heard and seen while we were out on the standing patrol. When the Company Commander was satisfied that he’d collected the necessary information, he allowed us to return to our trenches for the day.
On January 17th, we saw first hand the results of poor planning and faulty leadership. We were defeated at the town of Pescara. Maybe our leaders underestimated the perseverance of the Germans and their desire to keep Italy. Maybe it was overconfidence. It wasn’t due to a lack of courage or ability on the part of those who were directly involved.
True, the British Eighth Army had beaten the pride of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. It had fought alongside the First Canadian Division and the American Army in a line that ran across Italy from Ortona on the Adriatic coast to just south of Monte Cassino and north of Naples on the Tyrrhenian coast in western Italy. Cassino blocked the American advance northward and Pescara blocked the Eighth Army. The First Canadian Division was a part of the Eighth Army on the Adriatic Front.
The muddy conditions of winter warfare slowed us. Three of the toughest fighting units of the Germany: First and Fourth Parachute Regiments and 79th Panzer Grenadiers halted the First Canadian Division, First Canadian Independent Tank Brigade and the British Eighth Army at the Arielli Valley, four miles north of Ortona.
Tanks and armoured vehicles were all but useless in the sea of mud. The mucky conditions lasted from Christmas Day to mid-February. Ammunition carriers had great difficulty supplying the 25-pounder field artillery guns. This was certainly true for the R.C.R.s. Because of this, all defensive fire shoots were limited to three rounds of ammunition per day per gun. This restriction mean that, when the Forward Observation Officers for the artillery batteries radioed back for a DF (Defensive Fire) shoot to protect our positions from enemy attack, quite often higher authorities denied that protective fire.
What did we have to resort to? We placed dummy guns, made from wood and wire covered with burlap sacking, in strategic positions behind our front lines. We wanted to give the enemy at least the impression of well-defended positions. What was the army’s excuse for our lack of ammunition?
“Shipping is not available to bring the supplies to where they are needed.”
I thought it odd that shipping was not available to supply the troops that were in Italy at that time. It was available for the transport of another full division from England to Italy. The way I saw it the men and equipment of the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division could have been kept in England until early in the spring when the terrain and the weather would be more favourable. Dry terrain was important for the use of a highly mobile force of tanks, armoured vehicles and the lorried units of the Armoured Division.
The infantry support group of the Fifth Division was The Eleventh Brigade, consisting of The Cape Breton Highlanders, The Perth Regiment and The Irish Regiment of Canada. The Westminster Regiment (a machinegun battalion) was also a unit of the Support Group. These were all fine regiments, but they lacked battle experience.
I really don’t know what possessed the higher brass at Canadian Corps Headquarters to commit these fresh, unproven troops to battle against the Fourth Paratroop Regiment with the town of Pescara as the Eleventh Brigade’s objective.
Before their attack on January 17th, the brass gave their officers a very brief look at the battlefront. Things may have turned out differently if they had taken a week in the line with some of their senior NCOs to familiarize themselves with the conditions of the terrain. They could have gained knowledge of enemy strong points. However, when the attack began, most of the officers and NCOs had a false impression of the enemy’s strength and ability. Some openly sang their own praises, “Our men will capture Pescara within an hour.”
They bragged, “We’ll show the Red-patch bastards how to fight!”
The First Canadian Division’s patch pride was a scarlet rectangle. This patch was worn on the arms of our jackets. The Fifth Division wore a maroon rectangle. But symbols and strong emotion cannot stand up to the reality of a well-trained and experienced enemy.
It was no surprise to me that the first action in which the Eleventh Brigade fought was a complete failure. The great loss of men and equipment was devastating. It was surprising that they did penetrate the enemy lines as deeply as they did in the two hours that they fought before they were forced to withdraw to our forward positions. The bodies of many who fell in that attack lay for weeks between the enemy lines and our own.
I felt that the January attack by the Eleventh Brigade was carried out to satisfy the vanity of the newly-appointed commander of the First Canadian Corps, General Crerar. The First Canadian Corps was formed by putting the First and Fifth Canadian Divisions under Crerar’s command. Whatever the reason was, it proved to be a costly failure. However, later the Eleventh Brigade and the Entire Fifth Division proved that they were equal to any other division in the Canadian Army. They showed this in the Liri Valley, the push to Rome, and later again at Corriano Ridge and in Northwest Europe.
Rest and Lessons: Language and Sniping
January passed. Early in February, they ordered my regiment back to a rest area at San Vito, about six miles south of Ortona. Of the 30 men who started the New Year with my platoon, only Lieutenant Rich, Sergeant White and eight other ranks remained off the casualty or dead lists.
The rest area at San Vito turned out to be a group of requisitioned houses. Though not luxurious, they were a far cry from the mud and filth we’d endured in the previous six weeks. The routine in the rest area was strict. We passed the first day cleaning our weapons and equipment, washing clothes, pressing uniforms, and polishing boots. After the officers thoroughly inspected us, they allowed us to take the remainder of that day off duty.
The only entertainment San Vito offered was a cinema that someone had renamed “Loews Theatre”. I could have seen “I Married A Witch” for the fifth time, but I preferred to stay in the house and play poker and drink wine. The following day, our CO decided we needed more training in battle drill. Vigorous training ate up what was left of our days in the rest area. They only allowed us the evening hours to follow our own pursuits.
After a few days out of the line, I had the chance to put into practice the Italian that I had been learning from books in the spare moments I could snatch. One afternoon we were out training in a valley near the town. I stopped to talk to an Italian couple and their 19-year-old daughter. The girl was anxious to learn English. Because I was learning Italian and could converse a little, they invited me to come to their house in the evening. They wanted their daughter to practice her English. Every evening in the week that followed, I enjoyed their hospitality. The family was good to me. I added to my knowledge of their mother tongue – an ability that served me well in the months following our stay in San Vito.
Their residence was actually a rather prosperous farm. Well-tended vineyards, dormant at that time of year, surrounded the house. Off the main highway, their farm had been spared the ravages of war.
When I visited in the evenings, they served me a light meal, usually consisting of vegetable soup, pasta cooked in tomato sauce and ground beef, and topped with a very strong goat cheese. Dessert was stewed dried figs or preserved oranges in a thick, very sweet syrup. As in most Italian homes, the meal was never complete without a glass of wine. (The farm and vineyards were in the Abruzzi area where some of the best white grapes are grown.)
After a few visits with my new farm friends, they began greeting me with the term ‘paesano’, the Italian word for ‘fellow countryman’. They also started using the word ‘te’ instead of ‘voi’. ‘Voi’ is the common polite form of the pronoun ‘you’ in English. ‘Te’ is the familiar or personal form of the word and also the equivalent of the Old English ‘thee’. Italians, more openly expressive of personal feelings, use ‘te’ to signify close relationships or dear friendships.
After nearly two weeks in the rest area at San Vito, we returned to our former position in the front line at San Tomasso. Our company headquarters was in the village of San Nicola. Our routine in the line was no different than it had been in our previous stint. There were, however, many changes to our platoon.
Lieutenant Rich, our platoon commander since the last days of December, was no longer in command. The brass posted Rich to Support Company as commander of the Scout and Sniper Platoon. This was a new formation within Support Company.
The officers picked many men who had served under Rich in Number 16 Platoon of “D” Company to be members of the Scouts and Snipers. These included Sergeant White and Privates Darling, Beddows, Houston, and Waldo. Most of the others chosen had served in many night patrols been under his command.
I stayed with 16 Platoon until mid- March. Then we moved back to San Vito. The weather was lovely and warm. Spring finally came to dry out the countryside. I could renew acquaintances with my Italian family in that town. However, I was only there a few days when they chose me to go on a course at the First Canadian Corps Sniper School at Volturara, in the south of Italy. I was lucky they picked me since only two members from each infantry regiment in the First Corps were allowed to attend the School.
I learned much while I was there. The School Commander was Major Slim Liddell, one of the Company Commanders from my regiment. One of our original officers, he had landed with the R.C.R.s at Pachino in Sicily on July 10, 1943.
It seemed logical for me to attend the school at Monte Vultara at that time. I had been a Forward Scout since February 1944, when the Scout Platoon was formed during Ortona’s winter static warfare. I learned an incredible amount. Training included mapping, sketching, unarmed combat, methods of escape to follow if captured, observation behind enemy lines night or day, as well as sniper duties. In the months before the battle for the Liri Valley, while I was on the Adriatic front in Ortona, my regiment used me as a daylight sniper. I was involved in extensive night patrols into enemy lines on recce work.
When my course ended in the first week in May, they sent me to the Reinforcement Depot at Avellino. They also gave me a two-day pass when I arrived there. I visited Naples, Pompeii, and Salerno then. When I returned to Avellino, the army immediately posted me back to my regiment. This time I went to its Scout Platoon as a Scout-sniper.
The next day, we prepared for the assault on the town of Monte Cassino. I was thankful that, while I was on my sniper course, the Regiment went though intensive training in attack and destroy tactics in the mountains of south-central Italy. When the training period ended, the entire First Canadian Corps moved from the Adriatic Line to a line previously held by American troops. The Americans tried repeatedly to capture the German-held monastery of Monte Cassino.
On the summit of a high ridge, the Benedictine priory dominated the surrounding area. Now the monastery served as an enemy observation post. The Germans could direct their artillery and heavy mortar fire over a wide section of the front. The Allied advance through the Liri Valley, the relief of the American Forces on the Anzio beachhead, and the liberation of Rome hung on the capture or destruction of Monte Cassino.
On May 10th, I was part of the largest group of men and material ever assembled by the Allies for battle in Italy. Our position fell behind a line extending westward from the Apennines east of Monte Cassino all the way to the Mediterranean coast. The line followed the courses of the Rapido, Gari and Garigliano rivers. The battle line was 35 miles long!
I had rejoined my friends in the Scout Platoon just as officers assigned them to the various Companies that they would be working with once the advance moved forward. Lieutenant Rich kept some scouts and snipers under his own direct command. Because of this he was able to use them as a separate search-and-destroy section. He would use us to follow closely on the Germans’ heels once the Allies broke through the enemy lines.
On May 15, the long-awaited spring offensive began. The Germans had set up a well-fortified line of defences known as “The Gustav Line”. They also built an equally strong secondary line of loosely-joined defensive positions in the rear of the Gustav Line. This secondary line was “The Senger Line” to the Germans. To the Allies, it was “The Hitler Line”.
After bitter fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the monastery of Monte Cassino fell to the Polish, French, and Indian Divisions. Finally, the Allies had robbed the Germans of their advantage.
On May 23rd, the town of Pontecorvo, the hub of the Hitler Line, fell.
On May 23rd, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade broke through the Hitler Line. They paid a heavy price. During this battle, the 2nd Brigade had he highest casualties of any Allied brigade during the Italian campaign. Lady Nancy Astor sneered at the Allied troops in Italy as the “D-Day Dodgers”, but the fighting there was the first Allied toe-hold in Europe. The Allies fought from the island of Sicily up the spine of the Italian peninsula, only to find themselves up against the well entrenched and well-trained German defenders of the Hitler Line.
British General Harold Alexander, the Allies’ deputy supreme commander in the Mediterranean, planned to breach German defenses south of Rome. This plan, called “Operation Diadem”, called for Allied troops to smash through the Gustav and Hitler lines. The brass hoped that, at the same time, a break-out from the Anzio beachhead on the west coast of Italy, would trap the Germans. The famous Eighth Army advanced northward.
As part of the Eighth Army, Lt. Gen. Harry Crerar, Canada’s chief of staff, called for a wholly Canadian corp. For the first time, Canadian solders came together, armoured and infantry divisions, in a one unified fighting force. Before, the Allies split up the Canadian regiments among British armies on an ad hoc basis. Defense minister, J.L. Ralston, supported Crerar in creating the I Canadian Corps.
The First Canadian Corp consisted of: the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, 5th Canadian Armoured Division, 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and supporting units. It was situated between the U.S. Fifth Army on the west and the British XIII Corps in the low mountains on the east. The First Canadian Corps led the assault through the centre of the Liri Valley. Against them were the entrenched defensive positions of the German Tenth and 14th armies.
Lt. Gen. E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns replaced Crerar. Burns wanted a broad-front attack up the Liri. The First Canadian Corp had more men and armour. He planned on keeping a steady flow of fresh units into the front to keep up the speed of the advance. Burns believed that this would break the over extended German defense. The mud soon played havoc with Burns’ plan. The Canadian advance slowed down in the muddy conditions of January 1944.
The Allies kept on, however, to press forward and broke through. Shortly after the attack began, the 1st and 3rd Canadian brigades joined the advance against for the Hitler Line. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade then reinforced the attacking troops. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade was the one broke through the German lines near Aquino, May 23, 1944.
After the breakthrough, the Canadians had to clear pockets of Germans who refused to submit as the First Canadian Corp drove up the valley.
As Canadians, French and British advanced north, the U.S. Fifth Army broke out of the Anzio.
American General Mark Clark thought Alexander was trying to beat the Americans to Rome. To catch the lead, Clark turned his army toward Rome rather than marching them east to connect with the Eighth Army. This would have cut off many German troops. It didn’t happen.
When the Allies captured Pontecorvo, the Scout Section under Lieutenant Rich and Sergeant White were waging guerrilla type warfare. On the evening of May 23rd, the scouts managed to work our way into the side streets on the edge of Pontecorvo. The Germans had not detected us. The relentless hammering by our field artillery smashed the perimeter of the town into rubble.
I remember how Lieutenant Rich led the way as we advanced through the maze of debris and fallen timbers. We crept up on a badly-damaged church. Yet the bell still hung in the steeple. In a brave gamble, Lieutenant Rich climbed up the inside of the tower. A few minutes later, people for miles around heard the tolling of the bell. The enemy within Pontecorvo believed this was a signal from their own commander to fall back immediately. They withdrew the bulk of their forces!
Our own advancing troops, on hearing the ringing of the bell, thought the town was in Allied hands! They rapidly moved in to consolidate their position. The Allies quickly captured many Germans who had remained as a rear guard and made them prisoners-of-war. Lieutenant Rich later received the Military Cross for his bravery at Pontecorvo.
After we captured Pontecorvo, the Germans retreated northward towards Frosinone, Ferentino and Anagni. Our advancing troops were close on the enemy’s heels. They had no more fortified defensive lines with which they could hold back our momentum. To cover their retreats, small pockets of snipers, mortar men and machine gunners fought from strategic positions as rear guard. Much of the job of clearing them out fell to the scouts and snipers of our platoon. Quite often we were well ahead of our own regiment’s line of advance.
On June 1st, under Lieutenant Rich’s leadership, the scout platoon entered Ferentino. We found it lightly defended by a small enemy rearguard. Shortly after midnight, one of the rifle companies from the R.C.R.s moved in to occupy the town, having put that enemy rearguard to flight. This was another minor victor, but we had yet to grasp our main goal. We wanted Rome.
On the evening of June 2nd, my unit prepared for the final battle before we captured Rome. American forces, pushing northward along the west coast of Italy, had already broke through to link up with the combined British-American troops on the Anzio beachhead, 20 miles south of Rome.
On our sector of the front, the hillside towns of Anagni and Palestrina in the north end of the Liri Valley were our final objectives. The Allies and the Germans had already declared Rome an Open City.
Shortly before midnight, my platoon commander ordered me to go forward into the enemy lines to make a reconnaissance of a small bridge at a point where the Appian Way branches. The highway’s right branch leads to the town of Anagni.
At 1 a.m., I set out with a companion. He was to be my cover man if I came under enemy fire. Our orders were not to fire unless it was downright unavoidable. Our job was simply to gather important information. Headquarters needed to ascertain whether the Germans had demolished the bridge, my unit’s objective. If the enemy destroyed this bridge, it would be an obstacle to our troops on our main advance to Rome.
The route I chose to the bridge continued through a vineyard, running parallel to the highway. I calculated that if I took the tenth row of vines in from the highway, I could creep within a 100 feet of the bridge. In the dark, the Germans would not detect me. We crawled up to the end of the vineyard rows. Now we lay within 75 feet of the enemy. We could see their silhouettes as they stood on our objective, chatting. Obviously, they didn’t know we were nearby.
I was sure the bridge was intact. The fact that enemy troops stood upon it testified to this. It was not yet prepared for demolition. I decided to go back to our own lines by another route. We couldn’t be sure that we hadn’t passed an enemy listening post on the way. So it was a precaution to go another way in order to avoid being trapped on our return.
I selected a course down the first row of vines, the ones nearest to the highway. We crawled along the end of the rows nearest to the bridge. Then we started back. Once we were between the rows, we felt that it was safe to walk since the Germans could not observe us from the bridge. We almost reached the south end of the row and the safety of a ditch along the highway. Then I felt a tripwire pull across my knees. My buddy and I flopped flat on the ground as a shrapnel mine exploded near us. We were lucky the ground was soft and damp. The flying steel from the anti-personnel mine hit neither of us. We sprawled there hoping the Germans didn’t know our position, but a volley of small mortar bombs showered down around us telling us that they did indeed.
I could see the mortars as the enemy fired from the direction of the bridge. I knew that, since only a half second elapsed from when I saw an orange flash until the bomb screamed down near us, the mortar positions were less than 200 feet from us.
“Get out!” I yelled to my companion.
We ran to the cover of the highway ditch. Here we stopped and took cover until the enemy stopped mortaring us. It was then I found a wound across the left side of my face. I felt the blood trickling down my neck and under the open collar of my shirt. I suffered no pain, only a burning sensation.
In the darkness, it was impossible to determine whether I was seriously wounded. We decided that my companion would relay the bridge information to our platoon commander while I walked sought medical attention. A mile south I entered our own lines. Men directed me to a tent that was serving as an Aid Post. There they cleaned up the wound in my neck and face and removed a small piece of shrapnel from the area near my windpipe. They neatly stitched the wound. They then placed me on a stretcher on the ground outside the tent. The corpsmen could do nothing more until daylight.
Left alone, I decided that I wasn’t severely wounded – at least not enough to be evacuated. I elected to rejoin my platoon in the advance to Anagni. I tried to make my way in the darkness to their position up front, but I couldn’t find anyone. There was nothing left to do but to go to Anagni alone. It was a safe journey. The last shots the Germans had fired were those mortars fired on us at the bridge. The enemy there was probably only a small rear guard placed there to slow our advance. The night now was eerily silent. The sounds of vehicles moving behind enemy lines were the only interruptions to the calm.
I made good time reaching Anagni. The town appeared deserted. I went up by an old Roman wall that partly surrounded the southern part of the town. The Italians built the town on one of the most southerly of the Alban Hills at the north end of the Liri Valley.
When I came into the town in the light of early dawn, the first building I noticed appeared to be a large, empty convent. I went in at the first floor and climbed up until the third floor. There I found a room unoccupied and I flopped down on a bed, fully clothed. In a few minutes, I was asleep – for the first time in two days.
Several hours later, I awakened to full daylight streaming through the windows and a great commotion. I went over to the window to see what all the noise was. Canadian Army vehicles filled the street below. They had liberated the town while I slept in it.
I decided to check out the other rooms in the building. Some of the enemy might still be in hiding. I opened the door to the room next to the one I slept in. To my astonishment, a young woman stood with her back flat against the wall. There was terror in her eyes as she just stood there facing me. From that look on her face, I guessed that she thought I was a German soldier. At that moment, I didn’t realize how horrible I must have appeared. The side of my face was a mass of congealed blood and dust.
As soon as she realized that I was not a German, she burst into smiles and stepped forward to clasp my hands. Then she embraced me in a gesture of friendship.
“What’s your name?” I asked in Italian. “Why are you in this empty building?”
To my great surprise, she answered in perfect English, “My name is Tina.”
She told me, “I took refuge here yesterday.”
On the evening before I arrived, the Germans had set up a mortar at the foot of the wall on the south side of the building. They tried to hamper our advance. The enemy decided to use the first floor, where Tina was, for their quarters.
“I was certain they’d shoot me if they found me here,” Tina said. “So I very quietly crept up to the third floor room. When I heard you enter the room next to me, I thought you were a German soldier.”
She desperately hoped that I would not discover her. She planned to escape and to Palestrina. Here she could join her friends, hiding in the mountains near there. When she realized I was not “ein Deutsche gefahrlich” (a dangerous German), she grew very concerned about the wound in my neck.
“Stay in the room,” she ordered and left.
A few minutes later, she returned with clean water, soap, and a towel. She had also found some medical supplies left behind when the nuns were moved out of their convent. She made me remove my shirt and upper clothing. Then she washed my hair and cleaned me up. She carefully, washed the wound with rubbing alcohol and applied ointment.
Though I had had only a few hours sleep in the previous 24, I was completely refreshed.
Before noon, our troops completely occupied Anagni. Tina and I went down to the street. I met some of my fellow Scout Platoon members. When I described the comfortable rooms on the convent’s third floor, we decided to use the third floor as our quarters for the rest of our stay in town.
Tina promised, “I have to go, but I’ll be backed within the hour.”
While she was off on another mission, I went with my friends to those third floor rooms to settle in. An hour later, Tina came back with a five-litre keg of white wine. My friends had fallen asleep in the clothes on the beds. As if it were a baby, I gingerly placed the keg of wine between two of them.
Tina and I went to a smaller room where we sat on a bed and talked. I wanted to discover more about her. She told me that she was 20 years old and a university student. She also worked as a nurse in Anagni. But, I learned nothing more at that time.
Tina and I became good friends in the week following our first meeting on June 3. From Tina, I learned that there was a part of the war few ordinary soldiers knew anything about. She was very different from any of the Italian women I’d met before. Most Italian women treated Allied soldiers with utter indifference. In their eyes we were just another wave of foreigners, invading their country. We knew that few were friendly unless they had something to be gained by a show of friendliness. We did not blame them for their indifference.
Because of shortages imposed on them by Mussolini’s ruling Fascists and tradition, especially in rural Italy, most women in southern Italy wore black clothing, or dark, plain shades of browns or greys. Tina, however, was dressed in a cheerful plaid skirt and flowered blouse. The difference did not stop there. All Italian women I had seen before had dark hair and complexions, with black or brown eyes. Tina’s eyes were blue-green. Her hair was reddish-blonde and her skin tone light.
In the afternoon, I sallied out and found my platoon officer. He informed me that I was at first reported as “Missing-in-Action”. Then the Army reported me as “Wounded-in-Action”. Because I was unable to return to our lines the day before at Ferentino because of our own heavy artillery fire, I was reported Missing-in-Action. The wound I had received in the mortaring that morning was the basis for the second report. I also learned that the R.C.R.s were to have a few days rest at Anagni before moving on.
After I left my platoon officer, I went to the field kitchen and helped myself to some tins of bully beef, margarine, and bread. I went back to my room in the convent, looking forward to breakfast. Tina was waiting for me. I had not eaten in over 24 hours.
Tina said, “In the last two days, I haven’t eaten much.”
She was quite happy to see the food that I’d brought with me. We sat on the bed and enjoyed our first meal together: cold bully beef, bread, and margarine.
Between mouthfuls, we talked and I did learn a little more about her.
“I have friends who are in hiding in town,” she confided. “They are not enemies to the Allies, but they are uncertain about how the Canadian army might treat them.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, the Germans and the Italian Fascist government declared them criminals, along with other groups.”
“Take me to them,” I suggested, “maybe I can help them.”
“That would be impossible,” she said. “I must talk to them first and get their permission.”
“Take this to them,” I replied, offering her some rations.
That evening, we strolled through the main street. She showed me the places where the Germans had their mortar positions set up before they withdrew. In some positions, the mortar bombs were still in their containers. She also pointed out some of the town’s leading Fascists. They were now masquerading as great friends of the Allies. When it was nearly dark, she left me with her promise to return the following morning with some word of her friends in hiding.
The following morning, June 5th, Tina came to me with warm water, a razor, and clean towels. I washed and shaved. When I finished, she bathed the wounds in my face and neck. By then, my injuries had almost healed over. While we ate breakfast, at 10 a.m., we heard loud shouting and went down into the street to find out what all the noise was. People shouted, “The Americans have liberated Rome!”
Rome was quiet on the morning of 4 June 1944. Propaganda leaflets dropped during the early morning hours by order of the commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, urged Romans “to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect the city from destruction and to defeat our common enemies.” Even though the retreating Germans had declared Rome an open city, citizens were urged to do everything possible to protect public services, transportation facilities, and communications. “Citizens of Rome,” the leaflets declared, “this is not the time for demonstrations. Obey these directions and go on with your regular work. Rome is yours! Your job is to save the city, ours is to destroy the enemy.” http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/brochures/romar/72-20.htm
When Tina heard that, she said, “I must leave you and go speak with my friends. But I will be back within a few hours.”
When she came back, Tina revealed that her friends had finally given her permission to introduce me to them. She was very serious as she led me from the main street to a house in an alley near the old Roman wall. Before we entered, she clasped my hand tightly.
“Please, don’t ask any questions once we’re inside,” she begged me.
When I agreed not to, she knocked on the door. An elderly woman opened it and invited us in. Once inside I found myself in a room that was kitchen and bedroom combined into one. It was sparsely furnished. All that I could see was an iron wood stove, a table, three chairs, a bed, and a few dishes. A narrow door on the right wall from the entrance was closed.
Tina introduced me in Italian using my first name only, “This is Vincenzo.” [My father’s second name. JD]
“This is my aunt,” Tina said to me, without offering a first name.
After the introduction, Tina and the woman spoke in whispered Italian. I paid little attention. However, I knew from it that Tina told the woman I had brought her some food. Their conversation now continued in a tone loud enough for me to pick up what they were saying.
I placed a tin of meat, some bread, margarine and a packet of cigarettes on the table. Tina turned to me. From the expression on her face, I could tell see that she was very apprehensive about my meeting her friends. The peach-cheeked smile was gone.
The old woman unlocked the doors that lead into another part of the house. Tina and her “aunt” went into the room and closed the door behind them. While I waited in the kitchen, I heard muffled talking in Italian. After a few minutes passed, Tina opened the door. She beckoned to me to come with her. Smiling, she took me by the hand, “Everything is all right.”
When we went into the room, I was surprised to find four young men. They were fully clothed and lay on two beds.
Tina immediately began speaking to me.
“These are my brothers,” she said.
Straight away they all jumped to their feet and shook hands with me. No one spoke. I could not believe that they were her brothers. None resembled her in even the slightest way. They all had dark complexions with dark hair. The six of us went back into the kitchen where the “aunt” made lunch from the food I’d brought. She locked the outside door while we ate our simple meal in silence. Then someone opened a bottle of red wine. She poured a drink for each of us.
The only time the young men spoke was when two of them said, “Grazie” [thank you].
Although I was tempted, I did not ask any questions, as Tina had instructed me. When they spoke to Tina, their conversation was about me.
“What did she know of me?” they asked.
Finally, they seemed to make up their minds that, if Tina trusted me, then they had nothing to fear from me. Yet they made it clear to me that I was to learn nothing about them, their pasts, or why they were in hiding.
After we had eaten and finished that bottle of wine, Tina led me from the house to a spot below the old Roman wall. There the road ran away from the town. We sat on the soft grass for several hours and talked. I was anxious to know more about her “brothers”.
“Have they committed some crime?” I inquired.
“If they had have not broken the law,” I naively asked, “Why are they in hiding?”
All that I could learn from her that evening was, “They are not criminals.” Tina said, “They will be gone in a few days anyway.”
They were still uncertain about how the Allies would accept them. She promised, “I will tell you all about them as soon as they are safely away from Anagni.”
Each time I renewed the subject, she embraced me. That ended my questions.
Late in the afternoon, we parted at the convent. She told me she was going back to the house to see her brothers.
When Tina came back that evening to the convent, she came to my room with me. She laughed as she announced, “I’ll take you to Rome tomorrow morning if you get some food to take along.”
“I’ll get you the food,” I said.
“Good,” she replied, pleased. “So, in the morning, I will take the stitches from your face. Your wound has healed enough. If we remove them now, you will not be left with much of a scar.”
After we made careful plans for the next day, we went down to the secluded spot below the Roman wall at the end of the town. There we sat for several hours. I felt confident about the next day. It got dark as we climbed back up the hill to the convent where we said goodnight.
On the morning of June 5th, mail arrived from Canada. It was the first in three weeks. There were no letters for me, but I got two cartons of cigarettes. Each carton held 300 smokes. I knew that I could use them to help bribe our way into Rome or to buy other favours. I went back to our platoon cook. I got six tins of meat from him. Then I returned to my room and packed everything necessary into my haversack.
I was all prepared for my Roman holiday when our officers suddenly relayed orders that no Canadians were allowed in Rome. The brass gave the military police orders to stop all Canadians from entering the city. When I told Tina, she said, “Well, we can stay here in a Anagni until they lift the ban on travel to Rome. Then we will go to Rome.”
But there was a twinkle in her eye.
“Besides,” she said, “I know of a route that the military police would not bother to patrol.”
Truthfully, I doubted that, and I resigned myself to spending more time in Anagni.
On the next morning, June 6th, Tina came early to my room. She carried hot water, towels, a manicure set and a pair of surgical scissors. After I washed and shaved, she washed my hair and did my fingernails. Then she very carefully removed the stitches from my neck.
After we ate breakfast, we went down into the street. There was great noise and shouting and we wanted to find out what was going on.
Our officers had just officially announced that the Second Front had opened up in France with the landing of Allied troops, including Canadians, at Normandy. Those of us who were serving in the dust and mud of Italy had reason to celebrate. We had fought hard half-way up the mainland of the country. Now we could believe that we would soon leave Italy to join the other Canadian Divisions in France.
Tina revelled in the thought that now all the Germans would leave too. Then, we suddenly realized that our beautiful relationship would come to a sudden end too. We walked away from the jubilant crowd of celebrants and went down to our favourite place below the old Roman wall. There we sat on the grass and talked about the war and how it affected us.
It was then that Tina revealed that her name was not Tina and that she was no ordinary Italian.
In the summer of 1943, a mixed bag of left-wing radicals, liberals, communists, and communist sympathizers united to for a group known as GAP or Group For Partisan Action. The formation of GAP eventually created Partisan cells. These operated against the enemy throughout most of Italy north of Rome. These Partisans were a group that could honestly be termed “Freedom Fighters”, without any stretch of the imagination. In 1944, many deserters from the Italian army joined them. Mussolini’s dreams of grandeur left these soldiers disillusioned.
Highly-educated people made up the leadership of the Partisans. Many were university teachers, engineers or other professionals. They recruited their followers from among the students at the universities. The glue that bonded the Partisans together was their desire for freedom from their own country’s Fascist oppressors – and its Nazi German ally.
The leaders assigned each separate Partisan cell a different job. Some were saboteurs. Others engaged the Germans in open warfare, using hit-and-run tactics. These proved very successful. Some were couriers, supplying information to the leadership. Yet the most successful group was the one made up mostly of women. Their role was to aid allied P.O.W.s (Prisoners of War) to escape from their German captors and to help them find their way back to Allied lines. War historians estimate that the brave women of Rome helped more than 300,000 Allied Prisoners of War to escape.
After a Partisan attack on the German army in May 1944, Pope Pius, the Fascist Party and the Germans condemned the Partisans as criminals. The Germans retaliated against this Partisan attack by slaughtering over 300 unarmed civilians. The Nazis selected their victims at random from the citizens of Rome.
Then the German army and the Fascist police commander ordered stepped-up measures to stamp out all partisan activity. When the partisan leaders in Rome learned that the enemy knew the names and identities of their members, they gave the resistance fighters new identities. They slipped out of Rome to the relative safety of the surrounding countryside. Some came to Palestrina and Anagni to help care for the civilian population. The citizens were in dire need of food and medical attention.
The leaders of the Partisans assigned others to harass the enemy and assist the advancing Allied armies. Tina herself was helping at the hospital in Anagni when the Germans ordered all civilians to leave the town. The Germans obviously expected that Anagni would be subjected to the same destruction that befell Ferentino, Frosinone, Pontecorvo, and Monte Cassino in the weeks before the Allies approached.
Before we captured Anagni, we took Ferentino in heavy fighting on June 2nd. When the Germans fell back to Anagni, the civilian population fled en masse to the surrounding hills. As the civilians left the town, the Germans checked their identities in order to catch any Partisans. Because of her red hair and blue eyes, they’d have easily picked Tina from the crowd. She decided to take her chances and remain in Anagni. She, the elderly woman, and the four young men all knew that they faced great danger as partisans.
Tina hid out in the deserted convent. The others stayed together in the house where they could easily pass as members of one family.
Quietly to Rome
On the 2nd of June, the Germans occupied the first floor of the convent. Tina made her way to the third floor room where I discovered her on the morning of June 3rd.
Now, with the official announcement of the Canadians landing in France on June 6th, the normally strict discipline in our unit relaxed for a few days. However, the army enforced restrictions on travel into Rome even more tightly.
I was anxious to see Rome while Tina was eager to learn the fate of her Partisan friends there. She was sure that, if we could get to Palestrina, ten miles northwest of Anagni, we would have no difficulty continuing on to Rome. She knew several routes we could take. In addition, she had friends in Palestrina who’d be willing to help us. We disregarded the travel ban to Rome.
On the afternoon of the 7th, we prepared to leave. We would steal away before dark that evening. We packed our haversacks with enough food to last four or five days, as well as the two cartons of cigarettes I had. At five in the evening we donned our haversacks. Then we went into the town square and mingled with the crowd of soldiers and civilians, celebrating the liberation of Anagni, the freeing of Rome, and the D-Day landings in France. We slowly worked our way northeast out of the town and into the foothills until we reached a footpath that led to Palestrina.
We had picked a safe time to exit Anagni. Most of the people living outside town were in Anagni or Palestrina, participating in the celebrations. Just before dark, we stopped at a house where there were two elderly women. They greeted us. We exchanged a tin of beef for a bottle of wine and some goat’s cheese.
Before we reached their house, I had removed my beret and battledress jacket. This was so that they would not know that I was a Canadian soldier. By this time, I spoke enough Italian to talk with them. Yet I restricted myself to “yes” and “no”, letting Tina do all the talking. She led them understand that we were returning to Palestrina from Anagni now that the area was safe to travel though.
Soon we left their house and made our way along the trail in the dark. Tina knew the route so we made good time in the last mile-and-half to Palestrina. The countryside was fresh and green. The cool evening breezes blew softly on the hillside. Walking was enjoyable.
When we reached Palestrina, we stopped in a vineyard near some houses. Tina told me her friends were there. She quietly said, “Wait for me. I should be back within a half hour. If I do not return, wait for another hour and then make your own way back to Anagni.”
I sat there in the dark for what seemed an eternity. I lit a match and shaded it under my jacket so that I could check my watch. Only 15 minutes had passed. A few moments later, Tina returned.
“We’ll be travelled to Rome in fine style,” she announced. She found two of her friends. They’d lend us two old bicycles. Tina led me to a house in the village. It sat on the road to Albano. I waited outside. She went in with two packets of cigarettes and a tin of beef. Shortly after, she emerged with two young girls. They removed the bikes from under some hay in a shed. Five minutes later, we began pedalling down the road to Albano, less than ten miles away.
Before we reached Albano, we got off the main road and turned on to a footpath. This route bypassed the town. Because it was difficult to follow the path in the dark, we decided to stop and rest until daylight. It was 3 a.m. We hid the bikes in a vineyard and settled down to take a break. Although both of us were tired, we couldn’t sleep. Damp and cold, we huddled together for warmth and talked almost in whispers. We did not know if we were near houses where someone might hear us. In the dark, we could see nothing.
In the Alban Hills, night turns to daylight very quickly in summer. Before the sun appeared on the summit of the Sabine Mountains, the sky flushed a deep violet. Then, from violet, it transformed to blue with pink waves above the western horizon. Next, suddenly, as if unexpected, the sun rose like a ball of fire on the top of the mountains toward the east. The heavens transformed from a black starry dome to a silver-blue sky in minutes.
Early dawn revealed there were no houses near us. The only buildings standing were some small stone sheds. The owners of the vineyards used these when the grapes were harvested. In June, the grapes were still unripe so we were alone and there was no fresh fruit for breakfast. We sat between the rows of vines near the pathway to breakfast on cold bully beef. After we finished, we got our bikes and began walking them. Although we were both cold and damp, the morning sun and walking soon warmed us. In good spirits, we climbed on our bikes and pedaled towards Rome.
Tina had travelled this footpath many times before. She began playing games with me, predicting what lay around the next bend. This helped to pass the time quickly. Each time, she was accurate to within a couple of hundred feet. I feigned disbelief even though I knew she would be right. I wanted the simple pleasure of seeing her looking back at me, laughing, as she led the way along the path. There was nothing like freckles, a peaches-and-cream complexion and a big smile in the middle of war.
After we cycled for an hour, she cautioned me to halt and be quiet. We silently slipped off the trail and rolled the bikes under the shelter of some trees. There no one could see us.
She said softly, “A few hundred feet ahead there is a small bridge. It crosses a narrow river. Here the Germans always post guards.”
“On one of my previous trips to Rome, I had to wade across the river a couple of hundred yards downstream or they would have seen me,” she added.
It was now likely that Allied military police patrolled the same bridge to prevent troops from sneaking into Rome.
“Stay with your bike,” Tina said. “I’ll ride ahead to see if the way is clear. If they stop me, I’ll say that I’m just a farm girl going to work on the other side of the River. Then I’ll wait a half hour and come back to you here where you are hiding.”
I watched from my hiding place as Tina pedalled off towards the bridge. As she disappeared over the brow of the hill, I heard her singing an old Italian love song, “Mamma Son Tanto Felice!”
About ten minutes later she came back and said, “The way is clear. There are no guards on the bridge.”
Then she laughed merrily as she told me that the only person she saw was a man working in a vineyard. He was near the pathway on the opposite side of the river. He suddenly looked up from his work as she approached. “I was tanto felice!” she laughed, “that I could not resist blowing him a kiss!”
He reacted with a bewildered look.
I took off my Canadian army beret and jacket and stuffed them into my haversack. We mounted our bikes and continued on our way. When we crossed the small bridge, the farm worker neared the path. We stopped. Tina said to him, “He’s an Americano who had just a few days before taken part in the liberating Rome.”
The man was excited. I was the first “American” soldier that he had ever seen. “Come with me to my house. It’s just a little further along the way,” he insisted.
Worried that we would be delayed for too long, I said, “Tina, tell him that we can come back and visit him another time.”
For all I knew the man could have been a Fascist and, therefore, dangerous to us. As a diversion, Tina told him she had a cousin, Bartolo, in Albano, that he most likely would know. As it turned out, Bartolo was a friend of his. He was overjoyed! It made him even more determined to have us go with him to his house and children. Actually Bartolo was not Tina’s cousin, but he was friendly to the Partisans. Any friend of Bartolo’s could be trusted.
We pushed our bikes as we walked along the footpath with the man. When we neared the plain, neatly white-washed house, the worker rushed off ahead of us. He shouted to his wife, “Visitors! Visitors!”
An attractive woman in her forties greeted us, along with five young children. There were two girls and three boys, ranging in age from five to 15. The couple nearly wore out our hands shaking ours. Tina fascinated the two girls. The three boys were curious about me – the young Americano. Their parents insisted we stay for breakfast. They served us fresh eggs fried in olive oil, complete with bread and wine.
Tina wanted to tidy herself up first. To the accompaniment of the squealing, giggling young farm girls, Tina finished in a few minutes. Meanwhile, I washed and combed my hair at a pump outside the kitchen door. When I was done, the father and young sons discussed my appearance. They compared me favourably to the German soldiers who had occupied their farmyard for the past two months.
I went into the kitchen. Tina said, “I’d like to give the family a tin of beef and a packet of cigarettes.”
I agreed even though it was evident that they expected no payment for their hospitality to us. They showered a mille, mille gratias on us when Tina opened my haversack and handed them the gifts. They were more determined that we should stay with them for the remainder of the day. Tina explained, “We have to leave as soon as we finish breakfast. We are expected in Rome that evening.”
Still they insisted that we stay for at least a few hours.
We agreed. We were both weary. A few hours of rest would do us good and we could still make it to Rome by that evening. Victorious, the smiling husband produced cognac. After two drinks, Tina and I couldn’t keep our eyes open. The girls showed us to their bedroom. There Tina fell asleep on the bed while they were chatting with her. They gave me the boys’ bedroom where I slept soundly.
At noon, the parents sent their children to wake us. I went to the outside pump and had a good, cold wash. It completely refreshed me. When I went into the house, I found Tina ready to go. The couple insisted that we accept a bottle of their best white wine. We also promised to return to their home for a visit when we came back from Rome.
In the early afternoon, we were back on our path to Rome. This route led in an almost direct line to Rome. The city was about twenty miles west of the farmhouse that we’d just left behind us. The way was quite hilly, but Tina was confident that we would reach the city well before dark. We decided that it would be wiser to wait until it was dark before entering Rome. We’d have a better chance of getting past any military police checkpoints in the suburbs. Tina was under the impression that the Allies had tight control of the city, in much the same way as the Germans did when they occupied Rome.
As we continued toward the city, we met small groups of people going in the opposite direction. Most greeted us as they approached, but we did not stop to talk until two young men stepped out, blocking our way on the path.
Tina talked to them and learned that they were from Albano. Two weeks earlier the enemy took them from their homes to work in Rome loading equipment and supplies for the Germans. They escaped from on the day before the Americans entered Rome ands stayed for the liberation celebrations. Now they were on their way back to Albano. We learned from them that the military police were not stopping many people – only those we were well-known Fascists who might cause the Allies trouble. So we knew that we were likely to have little difficulty reaching the centre of Rome. We expected large jubilant crowds would be gathered in the main streets and city squares, perhaps slowing us down.
We thanked the two men for their information and went on our way. Late in the evening, we passed through the village of San Paolo in the suburbs. Night had fallen when we entered Rome from the south, near the Tiber River. The main thorough, the famous Appian Way, was crowded with military traffic. Most of the vehicles were American, but, fortunately, there were some Canadian trucks and other motor transport on the road. We felt more confident that we could travel in the city without being stopped by military police once we saw that there were some Canadian troops in Rome. Perhaps the Canadian ban had been lifted while Tina and I had been on the road.
Travelling was difficult in the dark, unlit streets. Crowds of people and heavy traffic forced us to take back streets. We had to push our bikes, not cycle. Fortunately, Tina knew the Roman streets in the dark.
In the early morning hours of June 8th, we arrived at an apartment occupied by four of her friends. It overlooked the Tiber and was only a half-mile from the Vatican. Two young couples welcomed Tina with warm embraces. While they were reserved toward me, they were not unfriendly. Tina had a million questions for them – and they of her. Their conversation was in very rapid Italian. Since I was exhausted, I had a hard time understanding it. I knew some questions were about me.
When they asked about me, Tina looked at me and smiled. Then she answered them. While they talked, one of the women prepared a meal for us.
Suddenly I realized that they had accepted me – because I was Tina’s friend. She introduced them to me in Italian – on a first name basis. It seemed that none of the four could speak English. Since I could speak some Italian, Tina asked me not to use English while we were with them.
After we washed and cleaned ourselves, we sat down to a good meal of fresh fruit, bread, pastry and wine. When we finished eating, our hosts served us hot cognac. We sat around talking. From the books in the room, some with English titles, I knew they were well educated. At five in the morning, Tina
bedded down in one of the rooms. I slept on a folding cot in the living room.
At nine a.m., our hosts awakened us. One of the men lent me a razor so I could shave. I also enjoyed a long bath before we set out to see the sights of Rome. Tina borrowed a change of clothing from one of the women. Her own clothing would be cleaned, ready to wear when we left for Anagni.
In the early afternoon, Tina made sure that our bikes were securely stored in a shed at the apartment. Then, we made our way to the Coliseum. We found a park bench and sat down to talk. Street vendors sold everything from young girls to gold bars. Urchins begged gum, cigarettes, and chocolate bars. Except for them, no one bothered us. A steady stream of military police in their jeeps passed, but the police seemed more interested in controlling traffic than keeping surveillance on the thousands of Allied soldiers in Rome.
“My friends in the apartment are members of the Partisans of Rome,” Tina informed me. “They are all well-educated and really do speak English. Because of our Communist sympathies, the Allies might not accept us. They may have a hard time seeing us as a force that had fought against a common enemy. For months, we have waged an underground war against the German Army in Rome and the campagna.”
“In March, 1944, the Partisans attacked a detachment of the German occupation forces. The German commander ordered 300 unarmed civilians of Rome executed in retaliation. You know of this, Vincenzo?”
“This caused Pope Pius to condemn as criminals all members of the Partisans. The High Command sent out a message to the German and Fascist commanders to step up the measures to wipe out the Resistance. Street-by-street searches began in order to round up those of us whose identities were known.”
“Partisan leaders sent many of their people to Albano, Palestrina, and Anagni – where you met me. We continued the struggle from these towns. Our new identities helped us to avoid capture. Now we wait to see how your armies will respond to us.”
Now that Rome was in Allied hands, the Americans accepted as true friends the very Fascists that had condemned the Partisans. Some Fascists even claimed to have belonged to one Partisan group or another. Their immediate acceptance as Partisans by the American authorities created a deep feeling of mistrust among the true Partisans. The Allies still considered all Communists enemies of the American ideal of democracy.
The Allies gave little thought to the fact that the Partisans had, for months, fought two of our enemies: the Germans and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist army. Many Partisans left to go further north in Italy to continue the fight for freedom and the liberation of their country.
The reluctance of Tina’s friends to accept me when they first met me was understandable. They did not reach out to me in friendship until Tina told them that I was an ordinary 21-year-old soldier. She told them that I had fought hard and was wounded in the struggle for the same ideals that they were fighting for.
I was disappointed in what I had seen of Rome that day. It was not how I had expected the city to be. Yet this was only four days after the Americans had liberated it. There was much to be done to clean up Rome and return it to the beautiful city it must have been in peace time.
We had a beautiful morning together in Rome, but we knew we soon had to return to the apartment to prepare for our return to Anagni. I expected that my unit would receive orders to move out on 24 hours’ notice. If I was absent, I would face serious military charges.
When we reached the apartment, it was mid-afternoon. We decided to leave Rome after lunch. It would be safe to travel the Appian Way. This would allow us to cover the distance to Anagni in about six or seven hours. At 3 p.m., we bid goodbye to her friends. It took a half hour to pedal out of Rome and another hour to reach Albano.
Just before six that evening, we stopped at the farmhouse that we’d visited the previous day. The farm couple were overjoyed to see us. Once again, they treated us as honoured guests. We welcome their hospitality and the chance for a brief rest.
Tina was radiant in her freshly-washed and ironed clothes. The farm children adored her in much the same way that small children often adore an older sister. After we rested and ate a meal, we were back on the Appian Way.
We decided to go onto Anagni, instead of first going to Palestrina. It was possible that orders had already arrived for my unit to move. If not, we could always return the bicycles to their owners later. As we pedalled eastward, the only military checkpoints we saw were where the military police were stopping vehicles. Those vehicles were coming from and not to Anagni. We weren’t stopped.
At 8:30 that evening we arrived back in Anagni. Both very tired, we went to our rooms to tidy up. Later I went to the rooms where my platoon members were. Though they knew that I hadn’t been in my room for the past three days, they asked no questions. Though I was with a girl all that time, no one suspected I’d been to Rome.
While I was with my buddies, Tina went to the house where her Partisan “family” was. She asked them to take care of the two bikes for us. Two of the men volunteered to take them back to Palestrina. The bike owners were Partisans they knew.
When Tina returned, she was elated because this would give us more time to spend together. But this was not to last for long. The following morning my unit received orders to prepare to move the next day, June 9th. We were going to Piedmonte d’Alife – about forty miles south of Anagni. The platoon was to undergo an intensive period of training for the next three weeks. The army would enforce strict disciple. It would make it next to impossible for me to find my way back to Anagni and to Tina. She and I faced the fact that we would probably never see each other again.
We spent our last evening together in our own little world of green grass at the foot of the old Roman Wall. We were at the south end of the town by the road that goes from Anagni to join the Appian Way to Piedimonte d’Alife.
We sat and talked about the things we had done and seen in the past week that we had travelling together. The joy of having shared each other’s lives was very present to us. From the beginning to the end of our friendship, we both knew that the war was far from over. There would still be dangers for both of us to face as we went our separate ways.
It was nearly dark when we went back to our rooms at the convent. I accompanied Tina to her room and kissed her goodnight for the last time. Then I went to my own room and got ready for the move that was going to happen tomorrow.
Awakening early on the morning of June 9th, I dressed quickly. Then I went and knocked on Tina’s door. There was no answer. I knocked a second time. When again I got no reply, I opened the door and entered the room. Tina was gone and so were her few belongings. I then recalled her telling me that, when I was gone from Anagni, she would travel north to join the Partisans who were still fighting the Germans.
By 11 a.m., our platoon trucks moved out of town for Piedmonte. I stood in the back of our truck as it slowly descended the steep road near the old Roman wall. As it swung to the left, I looked back toward the spot where Tina and I had spent many hours together. My heart leapt!
A familiar figure in a flowered dress stood with her head held high. She vigorously waved goodbye to me. She called out my name in Italian: “Vincenzo! Vincenzo!”
I watched her figure recede in the distance as our truck rolled south to our unit’s new location. I would never forget her.
A Feast of War Before Florence
The Piedimonte d’Alife rest area was in a pleasant part of the country where we could forget the battlefield for a while. There were no signs of any severe fighting there. Shellfire, both Allied and German, destroyed much of the towns and villages in southern Italy. Battle completely obliterated some places. Gunfire reduced homes to rubble. Generation after generation of the same families had lived for centuries there, but the pounding of artillery wiped it all out in minutes. I believed then that many decades would pass before the scars of war would be wiped from the land – if ever.
After we arrived in the rest area, our Scout Platoon changed greatly. Lieutenant Bill Rich, our platoon officer, was posted as captain to a newly-formed battalion: the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish. Before he left our unit, it was announced that they were awarding him the Military Cross. Sergeant Frank White was platoon sergeant when I was in 16 Platoon at Ortona. He became the first Scout Platoon sergeant to leave for Canada. Wounded in the arm, the injury severed the nerves that controlled the movement of his hand. There was now no place for him on active duty. Few men were ever so reluctant to leave those they had lead or the regiment they had served so well.
Command of the Scout Platoon was assumed by Lieutenant J.T.B. Quayle. He had landed with The Royal Canadian Regiment in Sicily in July 1943. J.K. (Smoky) Stover took over the duties of Platoon Sergeant. Stover had been with the R.C.R.s since 1939. The army posted him back to Canada from England in 1942 as an instructor.
Along with changes in platoon, leadership, our platoon also received ten replacements among the other ranks. These men took the places of casualties from the advance in the Liri Valley and subsequent fighting from May 15th through June 3rd.
Before he departed for the Lanark and Renfrews, Captain William Rich, MC, threw a party for the Scout Platoon and other R.C.R. platoons that shared the same bivouac area at Piedimonte d’Alife. He organized the scouts into small groups of four or five men. Then he assigned each group to scrounge nearby farms and market gardens for meat and vegetables for a banquet. We understood that we were not to take from anyone who had little enough for themselves and neither were we to scavenge more than we needed.
My group was on the hunt for potatoes and chickens. In late afternoon, Privates Nevers, Houston, and I searched for suitable targets where we could get what we needed. We found a promising farm about two miles from our bivouac. We waited until dusk before we began to execute our carefully devil’s-laid plan. Nevers set to work in a potato patch about 200 feet from the nearest farmhouse. While he was digging a sack of spuds from the rows near the pathway, Houston and I casually sauntered up to the farmhouse.
An old man sat at the side of the house, enjoying his evening glass of wine. We nonchalantly stopped to chat with him. The only one who could speak Italian, I carried the conversation. Hoping to strike the chords of his vanity, I remarked, “What a fine flock of chickens you have in that shed behind your house.”
“You know, my friend and Companion, Eduardo Houston, just happened to be a chicken farmer near the City of Ottawa. Eduardo comes from the capital of Canada.”
“Yes, Eduardo was the main supplier of chickens to the Prime Minister of Canada before he enlisted in the army.”
The elderly farmer was delighted. The fact was that Ed Houston couldn’t stand the sight of chickens. Even the thought of eating chicken turned his stomach inside out. He never raised a chicken in his whole life!
The old man was so pleased to meet a fellow chicken farmer that he went into his house and emerged with a bottle of his best cognac and two glasses. We sat there quite a while as he told us of his life alone there for ten years. He said, “I seldom have the joy of company in the evenings.”
We repaid his kindness with some cigarettes and loose tobacco. This was more than enough to pay for the provisions he was unknowingly supplying us.
When Nevers had filled his sack with potatoes, he hid them further down the road. Then he joined us at the farmer’s house. I immediately introduced him, “This is my friend, Bambino. He is the son of a potato farmer from the Saint John River Valley of New Brunswick.”
(An Italian mother gave him his nickname “Bambino” when he first arrived in Italy. He was small and had boyish looks.)
The old chap was ecstatic to discover there were more Canadians with the same interests as himself. This, naturally, demanded another round of cognac. Houston excused himself on the pretext of having to return to camp.
When Nevers and I finished our drinks, we asked the farmer to show us his potato field. I had a flashlight, but the eager and naïve farmer led the way through the dark along the path to his potatoes. We were both hoping to hell that he wouldn’t see the rows that we had just dug up. I kept the beam of the flashlight away from any freshly-disturbed earth. We steered him away from the evidence of our foraging.
In the distance, we heard the muffled squawking of hens. The farmer, feeling the effects of his cognac, laughed at the cackling, saying, “The hens, they make noise all night.”
When Nevers and I were sure that Houston had rounded up enough hens for a good chicken dinner for the platoon, we thanked the farmer for his hospitality. We gave him some more cigarettes and tobacco and bid him good night.
After midnight, we rejoined our platoon in the bivouac area. We counted the night’s haul. We had a young pig, ten hens, three sacks of spuds, fresh corn, and other vegetables. There was enough to feed nearly a 100 hungry soldiers. The next day we helped the platoon cook prepare the banquet.
That evening, it was our time to party. The drinks were on the house or perhaps I should say, “The drinks were on the houses.”
Others had liberated bottles, while we captured chickens.
We invited the padre and senior regimental officers. After we finished our meal, some of the soldiers played various musical instruments to entertain us. We then had a sing song with Lieutenant Rich tendering his rendition of “Bye Bye, Black Bird.” Our night ended with us in deep enjoyment. It just about made us all forget we were in a war.
The day after our grand banquet, Rich left The Royal Canadian Regiment. Lieutenant J.T.R. Quayle arrived to take over command of the Scouts.
The army trained the Scouts in unique ways. Our activities were quite often separate and distinct from those of the men in the infantry rifle companies. Therefore, the officer in charge of the Scout Platoon had to possess exceptional leadership qualities. The men in our platoon had developed a special feeling for Lieutenant Rich in the five months that he was the officer in charge.
Though the two officers were very different, Lieutenant Quayle was just as able and the men accepted him on those terms.
On July 15th, we were on the move again. After several weeks of armoured support training, we bivouacked on the shores of Lake Trasimeno in central Italy. We stayed there for four or five days. The weather was lovely and sunny. The countryside was beautiful. The local people were very friendly.
On July 20, we moved once more. But before we left Lake Trasimeno, the officers ordered us to remove all traces of markings that would identify us as members of the First Canadian Division. We even painted out the serial numbers on the vehicles so that the Germans could not distinguish us from any part of the British Army. The Army Commander wanted to move the Canadians to a selected part of the front to catch the enemy by surprise. In the past, the Germans had usually put his best-trained troops in the line to oppose the First Canadian Division.
As we moved back and forth on the roads of central Italy, our officers hoped that theses moves would confuse any enemy agents actively working in the area. In fact, only our senior officers knew of our real destination.
The days were hot. The roads were dusty. Nights were cool with clear skies. It was easy for us to determine that we were travelling in a generally northern direction.
On the evening of August 6th, we arrived at a small place south of the ancient city of Florence. This was the small town of Castellina in the Chianti province. Here the R.C.R.s halted and our troops took over a sector of the line, relieving the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards. As the enemy had withdrawn from the area, there was no evidence of battle.
At 0900 hours the following morning Lieutenant Quayle detailed Corporal Thibert and me to move forward to scout the city of Florence through to the Arno River. The river divided the city from east to west. He ordered us to find out whether the Germans occupied the southern half of the city. Our destination point was the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest covered bridge in Europe. It is only capable of carrying pedestrian traffic. The bridge is, also, in reality, a double row of shops spanning the Arno.
Before the Allied advance on Florence, the Germans and Allies declared it an Open City because of its historical importance. It was one of the great cultural centres of the world. According to the Geneva Convention of 1923 and the Rules of War, the enemy would not use armed force to defend Florence nor would the Allies use armed force to capture it.
Before leaving for Florence, the scout officer and I found a large-scale map of the city and the surrounding area. Though printed in 1907, it was still accurate enough to help us find the shortest route. Corporal Thibert and I moved across country to avoid the roads. The roads were, in many cases, very good, but had lots of curves where the Germans could wait in ambush.
Early in the afternoon, we crossed a small valley. When we reached the opposite side, we came into a beautiful garden. We’d stepped into someone’s backyard. An immaculate green lawn stretched up to a large white villa where a well-dressed man in his mid-forties sat at a marble-topped table. He was sharing a meal with his two young children, a boy and a girl, in their very early teens.
Here I was to have one of my strangest experiences of World War II. We were in the middle of a war, right? Undoubtedly, the corporal and I must have presented a frightening sight. Two dusty men carrying sniper’s rifles burst in on the family’s quiet lunch in their garden. It was amazing, but they showed no fear of us.
The man calmly arose from his chair, saying, “Gentlemen, welcome to my home.”
He continued, “You both look tired. May I have the pleasure of inviting you to dine with us?”
“I am sorry, sir, but we are under orders to proceed to the Ponte Vecchio.”
“Then,” suggested he, “You shall at least have some cold milk and cakes.”
He rang a small silver bell that was on the table. A maid appeared and he asked her to bring us refreshments.
The gentleman spoke again in perfect English, “I am Gino Solocci and these are my children. I am the president of the Bank of Peru. Though I am the citizen of a neutral country, I make my home here in Florence. Unfortunately, as a neutral, I cannot help you, but, please, enjoy the refreshments.”
The corporal and I devoured the welcome fare and our host did tell us the best route to reach our destination. We thanked him and then we went on our way. We first followed a road that led us through the Boboli Gardens. Then we took another road. This passed below the wall of the ancient Fort Belvedere. Short after 1600 hours, we were on the Via Guicciardi. This street led us onto and across the Ponte Vecchio.
Corporal Thibert knew that I sat in a good position to observe any enemy that might try to cross the Arno by the Ponte Vecchio. Therefore, he left me in my sniper’s hide  and returned to meet Lieutenant Quayle and lead the rest of our platoon in. The rifle companies advanced with them.
Before darkness fell, Canadian troops occupied the southern half of Florence. Through the night, the Germans ignored the conditions of the agreement that Florence remain an Open City. They fired mortar and machineguns from their side of the river for most of that night and into the next morning. At noon, a sniper’s bullet struck one of our scouts in the shoulder.
On August 8th, some scout platoon members, soldiers from the rifle company of the R.C.R.s, and several hundred Partisans joined forces to search for German and Fascists forces in hiding on the south side of the Arno. I wasn’t with that group, but remained in my role as a sniper in case the enemy tried to cross the Ponte Vecchio to our side. I was high up in a tower of the Pitti Palace Tower, the State Art Gallery of Florence, observing.
On occasions like this when I was alone for much of the time, I thought of people from my past. Yet I seldom thought about my parents or other family members. Perhaps that was because five years of separation from them had created an emotional gulf that would never close. Maybe I had grown too callous for any deep personal feelings for I no longer felt any sense of shock or anger when I saw my comrades killed or maimed for life.
Instead my thoughts turned to times like I had with Margaret back in England. She was beautiful, with the classic English complexion, and lovely wavy brown hair. When I looked down to see Partisans in the streets below, I thought of Tina in Rome. I suppose my thoughts turned to them because I had never really had a girlfriend back in Canada. I had many friends that were girls, but it was in the same way that I had many friends among boys of my own age. Yet I had no close friendships. I firmly believed that close relationships in wartime for a longer like me were best avoided.
Maybe this was a psychological precaution, self-protection for the mind. I don’t know. I saw many friends shatter completely when death broke off a close friendship. I determined to be the eternal optimist. I would live out the war and, when it ended, all the pieces of my life would fall into place. My only fear was that a shell, bullet, mine or such might severely wound me and I could suffer a slow, agonizing death alone. This did happen in war. I saw many of my comrades fall. The uncertainty of not knowing what became of them after I saw them last bothered me most.
Before Florence was declared an Open City, the enemy demolished all of the bridges crossing the Arno, except for the Ponte Vecchio. This prevented the Allies from completing the occupation of the city, but also assured that the Germans could not counter-attack from the north side of the river.
The morning of our first full day in Florence, the Scout Commander brought two fighter pilots, members of 117 Wing, City of Windsor Squadron of The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), up to our forward positions. The two young pilots said, “We’re visiting you here at the frontline to see what life was like for the infantry.”
They spent most of the afternoon in the tower with me. From there, we could see the whole city spread out below us. The two RCAF men were quite out of their element. Their front line was the wild blue yonder. There fighting was man against man, plane against plane. In the infantry, in the line, it was mostly groups of men thrown against groups of other men or tanks battling tanks. What happened on the ground was the only thing that mattered to the infantry. As an infantry sniper, I was one of the few in the army who did, quite often, select his own target and wait for the opportune moment to strike.
The two pilots remained in the tower with me to observe the enemy movement with considerable interest. In the evening, they left to return to their squadron.
The following day, Lieutenant Quayle came and told the scouts, “Today is German General Albert Kesselring’s birthday. Watch the hills to the north of here at 1400 hours and you’ll see two Canadian fighter pilots deliver Kesselring a birthday present.”
The General’s headquarters lay four miles north of Florence.
Shortly after 1330 hours, we watched as two fighter planes flew in from the south. As they reached the centre of Florence, they gained altitude until levelling out at about 3,000 feet. When they reached about three miles north of us, we saw the sun’s reflection on the silver-coloured bombs as they fell. Moments later, great clouds of dust billowed up from the target area, the German headquarters. We heard the rumbling of explosions in the distance.
It was not a bad afternoon’s work for a couple of pilots who had just been up to the front-line the day before to “see what life was like in the infantry.” For reasons unknown, however, the German Commander in Chief Southwest had left his headquarters only minutes before the bombs destroyed it. General Albert Kesselring had also served in the German air force during World War I. He was a pioneer in developing army and air force co-operation in battle. He survived to lead the German army against the Allies in France. This was one of the rare occasions when the RCAF and the Canadian Army worked together in a tactical role.
On August 8th, a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers relieved our regiment in Florence. We then moved on to the town of Sienna, south of Florence, From there, a vehicle convoy took The Royal Canadian Regiment on a trek that was to last several days. Other regiments of the First and Fifth Canadian Divisions joined us to form a larger convoy. Our trucks wove back and forth through the mountains of central Italy, until, eventually, we halted a few miles south of the city of Perugia. This city lay at the entrance to one of the few mountain passes leading from central Italy to the Adriatic coastal plain.
During our move from Sienna to Perugia, our senior officers again took all identifying badges or markings from our uniforms and vehicles. Nothing would easily identify us as Canadian. “Don’t speak to anyone except our own troops.”
We could not throw any cigarette, gum or chocolate wrappers that might identify us as Canadian from the vehicles or leave such things in the few rest stops.
At 2400 hours on August 17th, we were on the move again. We travelled eastward, through the pass, towards the Adriatic.
The Adriatic Front
I give a lot of credit to those at Canadian Corps headquarters. They were in charge of logistics. They organized the move of two divisions and their supporting arms through territory that the Germans had occupied only a few days before. Everything and everybody journeyed at night. We turned off every light on our vehicles and travelled almost bumper to bumper in pitch darkness.
Headquarters planners had to arrange provisions such as hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline and fuel for tanks, armoured cars, and other vehicles – numbering well in excess of 3,000. They had to ensure that there were rations for the thousands of troops to eat. In addition, medical service must be moved up too so that they would be readily available. I was amazed that there were no serious foul-ups.
In the morning, we reached our destination on the Adriatic front. We debussed northeast of the town of Jesi. This was about 55 miles from where we had stopped south of Perugia. We found ourselves near the village of Monte Maggiore, several miles from the Adriatic coast. We were also about eight miles from the Matauro River. The Polish Division of the British Eighth Army held the front line south of that river.
On August 24th, in early afternoon, Lieutenant Quayle led the Scout Platoon forward almost to the south bank of the Matauro. From high on a grassy hillside, we could observe the ground on both sides of the river.
Although we saw no sign of the enemy, we were well aware of his presence. While we were in our observation position, Lieutenant Quayle informed us that the Allies were going to launch a large-scale attack the following evening. He assigned us to the various rifle companies of The Royal Canadian Regiment. He laid on what the officers expected of us in tomorrow’s attack. After receiving our instructions, we broke up into small groups of two or three. This made us less conspicuous as we made our way back to our regiment.
Three of the scouts, Privates Arsenault, Houston, and Hache walked side-by-side about a mile south of the river. German artillery was shelling Monte Maggiore. A dud 88 mm shell fell short. By a queer quirk of fate, it struck Hache in the back of the head, killing him outright. Neither Arsenault nor Houston, who were walk beside him, was injured.
Just before midnight on August 25th, I moved up to the approaches of the Matauro with “C” Company of the R.C.R.s. We were to lay in wait for the artillery to open up with their first barrage. At the stroke of midnight, all hell let loose as over 1,000 artillery guns laid down a 15-minute barrage along the 15 miles of front. The front stretched from the Adriatic to the higher slopes of the Apennine Mountains. After the first shoot, the artillery laid down a creeping barrage and lifted the range 100 yards every five or six minutes.
Our scout officer ordered me to cross the river with “C” company. There I was to lay in wait on the north side until daylight. The next day I would re-join my platoon. It sounded easy enough, but problems began immediately. “C” Company crossed the river and was well on the move forward. Left completely alone on the Matauro’s north bank, I worked my way to the right. There, on the right flank of the R.C.R.s, the Allies expected the Polish Division to advance. Though my own unit met no enemy resistance when they crossed the river, fighting delayed the Poles in their crossing.
I sat in darkness under the cover of some trees for an hour. My only weapon was my sniper’s rifle – about as useful as a baseball bat in the darkness.
In that sector, the front was very quiet. Soon, however, I heard the splashing of men wading across the water. At first, I thought that they must either be Germans delayed in their retreat or Polish troops finally coming across the Matauro. In a few moments, I knew the voices were speaking English. When they grew near enough, I challenged them, calling the password.
“Water,” I said.
“Pump,” they replied.
This was the proper response. These men were a bridging section of The Royal Canadian Engineers. Their Lieutenant was leading them across the river in search of a demolished bridge, somewhere in the vicinity.
“Would you happen to know where the bridge is?” asked the officer.
In the absolute darkness, I could barely discern the outline of the officer. Yet, for some unexplained reason, in the back of my mind I saw the bridge – even though I had never actually seen it before.
“Yes, Sir!” I replied. “The bridge is several hundred yards downstream.”
I went on, “The Germans demolished it and mined the abutments and the verges of the road. About 100 feet downstream from the bridge, there is shallow water and the banks have a gentle slope on either side. There would be a better place to put a replacement bridge across. If you leave your men here, I will show you. You will have to be careful. It’s heavily mined up ahead.”
The officer agreed to follow me so we crept forward cautiously until we could see the outline of the abutment on the north end of the demolished bridge. In the darkness, we carefully felt for disturbed earth where the enemy had planted mines.
The officer called to his men who quickly came forward. We all made our way through the narrow strip of verge infested with mines. A hundred feet downstream we found the ford exactly as I had described it. (To this day this incident of ‘second sight’ mystifies me.)
The Royal Canadian Engineers officer asked my name, rank, number and unit before I left him and his bridging party. This was before daylight.
By mid-morning I rejoined my Scout Platoon just as they were moving up toward the Convento Beato. Out goal was about four miles north of the Matauro. A series of deep gullies cut east to west, across our line of advance, slowing our tanks and armoured vehicles. This also slowed down the infantry advance.
As a result, the army ordered the R.C.R.s westward toward the middle of one of three high ridges. On the crest of the ridge lay the village of Saltara. It was in ruins. Many villagers had taken refuge in caves. They had dug these in the relative safety of a sand quarry. Now, the Germans had withdrawn to the north. When we approached, the people of Saltara came out of hiding. Most were elderly men and women, and children of all ages.
They were the first civilians that I saw in the Gothic Line, on the Adriatic Front in 1944. All of them were tired and all of them were hungry. Some of the elderly were in great discomfort from the cramped conditions in the caves. We stopped long enough to give tinned beef and biscuits to them.
The contrast between these people and those we had met when we had been on the Adriatic Front at Ortona, in late 1943 and early 1944, was remarkable. The people in the caves were very friendly, welcoming us as liberators. We had only seen the people of the Ortona area in winter. Their living conditions were probably the worst ever encountered by Allied troops in Italy. In war, we’d come to know dirt was the norm, rather than the exception. The people in Ortona proved that rule. The people of the caves, however, were very clean, considering the conditions they had been living under for several days.
The Three Ridges
There were three ridges: Monte Della Mattera in the centre; Monte San Giovanni to the west; and Convento Beato to the east. The push to occupy them continued for the next 48 hours. The Scout Officer ordered Privates Houston, Hunt, and me to work our way north of Saltera, ahead of our advancing rifle companies.
Before we left our platoon, Lieutenant Quayle informed me that he had received a message from an officer of The Royal Canadian Engineers. He sent word expressing his gratitude for the assistance I had loaned his bridging party during the night of the 25th. Of course, I felt rather proud.
During the movement of the First Canadian Corps to the Adriatic Front, the army postal service held our Canadian mail and parcels at the base post office. All transport was for supplies – more important then mail. As a result, cigarettes were scarce enough as to become next to non-existent during the first week in the Gothic Line.
As Hunt, Houston, and I scouted forward of Saltara, we found a deserted villa. It was the home of one of the officials of the Italian State-owned tobacco monopoly. We searched the buildings and found no sign of the enemy. We did discover a plentiful store of Italian cigarettes as well as cigars and vermouth. (Lady Luck was again on my side.) We lugged a demijohn of vermouth to the side of road. Then we went back for several cases of cigarettes and cigars.
When our companions from the rifle companies came by, we filled their water bottles with vermouth, and their pockets with enough smoking materials to last each R.C.R. a couple of days. We then fell in with the last rifle company to come by. A few hours later, we passed through the forward platoon to continue scouting the forward area.
Late in the afternoon, we were about to descend into a small valley when we heard voices speaking German. Slowly, we worked our way to a position enabling us to see down into the valley. About 40 Germans grouped around several horses and wagons, as well as a horse-drawn artillery gun. They had several light machine-guns set up, ready for action.
We watched them for about a half hour as they ate their afternoon meal. They laughed and joked amongst themselves, quite unaware that we were so close. It was obvious that they were in the process of withdrawing farther north. We knew too that they had some rearguards between themselves and our advancing rifle companies, only three miles away.
It would have been foolhardy for us, three scouts, to open fire on them. We carried only one sniper’s rifle and two sub-machineguns and we were isolated ahead of our rifle companies. We quietly left and slowly and cautiously worked our way back to our own platoon area. As we moved south, night began to fall. We decided to wait until it was completely dark before going on.
At 2200 hours, under the cover of full night, we silently neared the area where we thought our unit was. Suddenly, from the south slope of the hill, an enemy machine gun post opened fire. From the other side of the valley, our Bren guns returned fire. Caught in the middle, we took cover. A few minutes later, the enemy gun fell silent. We lay there in the dark for a half hour before heading for our own lines.
The following day, August 27th, we scouts were on the move again in advance of the rifle companies. We neared the hill where we had watched the Germans the day before and again came under enemy fire! A burst of machine gun fire cut Private Beattie down. We soon silenced the enemy machine gun, killing two Germans and capturing another. He was badly wounded and lived only a half hour after we took him prisoner. Later that day, the Scout platoon captured another five of the enemy.
The Adriatic plain is only about 15 miles across at its widest point. It lies between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennines to the west. From west to east across the plain, many wide rivers and their tributaries carve a series of gullies and other obstacles. These impeded any form of military advance. From the Matauro to the Po, these rivers seem to be a measured distance of about ten miles apart on average.
The next river obstacle we faced was the Foglia. In the early morning of August 29th, Lieutenant Quayle led the Scout Platoon on patrol to the south bank of that river. All was quiet, but this was deceiving. The enemy waited for us in well-fortified positions in what was the actual Gothic Line.
The Gothic Line was a series of fortifications. An uneven line of anti-tank ditches zigzagged parallel to the front line. The Germans buried damaged and immobile tanks up to their turrets in earth and rubble. The enemy set up machine-guns and self-propelled guns in protected positions. Tanks and artillery lay in wait. They laid minefields. The enemy lay head in well fortified positions.
Behind the Gothic Line, south of Rimini, the enemy prepared another secondary line of defence. Beginning at the seaside resort Riccioni, this second line ran west across Rimini airport. It continued west to the Apennine foothills. However, our long-range artillery constantly pounded their positions. As well, the Tactical Wing of Desert Airforce continually bombed the Germans. This prevented them from completing their secondary line. Consequently, their High Command sent much of the weapons and flamethrowers south to reinforce the Gothic line.
Tactically, the retreating German army held the advantage over the advancing Allied forces. They prepared their defensive line carefully, well before their retreat. They surveyed and carefully measured every inch of ground for five miles of the approaches to the Gothic Line. They measured the ranges to all possible offensive positions – anything the advancing Allies might use to advantage. All were plotted out on operations maps. They assigned wells to their machine gunners and snipers. They placed their mortar sections in ditches. They allocated houses and points that could be used as observation posts to their 88 mm field guns. The Germans detailed anti-tank gunners to possible tank approaches. Even their infantry riflemen knew the ranges to the areas of cover that our infantry were likely to use.
We called this all-encompassing enemy system of pre-determined range measuring “taping”. One time, at Tombo Di Pesaro, I found one of their survey instruments, complete with clipboard and long-range binoculars still attached.
The Allies countered enemy taping by using exceptionally large-scale, up-to-date maps. We were fortunate to have a very well trained and dedicated group of people who supplied us with 1/25,000 scale topographical maps. They included defence print overlays showing known enemy positions. We had faith in these maps. Our cartographers based them on aerial photos taken by Tactical Air Force Reconnaissance planes. They made the maps within 24 hours after the got the aerial photos.
In the early morning hours of August 29th, we again headed into the line. We rode part of the way in trucks. We passed through a valley where heavy fighting had taken place 15 hours before. The smell of rotting human flesh and burned-out vehicles gagged us. It permeated the damp night air. Some of my companions referred to the place as “Death Valley”.
On August 30th, the Allies opened the attack on the Foglia and all along the front. The Third Brigade of the First Canadian Division consisted of The West Nova Scotia Regiment, The Royal 22nd Regiment [the VanDoos] and The Carleton York Regiment. They were all part of the assault. Also with them were The 11th Brigade of the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division. It consisted of The Cape Breton Highlanders, The Perth Regiment, The Irish Regiment of Canada, and The Westminster Regiment.
After these regiments launched the leading assaults, enemy resistance began to crumble. Soon the German forces were in danger of complete encirclement. The R.C.R.s were ordered to swing right toward the Adriatic. The strategists hoped that they could draw a net around those of the enemy who had not yet withdrawn to the secondary defensive line at the Conca River. Unfortunately, by the night of September 2nd, the enemy had already escaped to the north side of the river. Only small pockets of rearguards remained behind. The net was almost empty.
A few miles south of the Conca, the Scout Platoon captured ten of the enemy in one of these pockets of resistance. We had some weird and amusing moments with those ten prisoners that night. We marched them to a house near the line. The R.C.R.s used it as platoon headquarters. There our intelligence officer subjected them to lengthy questioning. After he was satisfied that he had all the information he could possibly squeeze out of them, our officers ordered us to march them back to the nearest Allied P.O.W. cage.
Since we were snipers and had been in the line for over 24 hours without sleep, the R.C.R.s detailed L/Sergeant Meadows, Corporal Peters, Private Houston and I as P.O.W. escorts. However, the moment we stepped outside the house, the enemy laid down a Moaning Minnie mortar barrage on it. The high-pitched scream of the falling bombs shattered the night. The German prisoners fell to the ground in terror. We scouts stood our ground. We were used to the Moaning Minnies so we knew they were far off-target.
When the barrage stopped, we order the prisoners to their feet. One of our Scouts, Corporal Muller, spoke German. He stepped forward and asked the Germans, “Warum Du sind so angst von deinem feuer?” (Why are you so afraid of your own mortars?)
The P.O.W. Corporal replied in German, “We are not normally front line troops. We had never been trained in the “Ninenwurfer” (Moaning Minnies to the Allied troops).” German Army propaganda taught them that the Ninenwurfer was an ultimate weapon from which there was no escape.
There was a danger that four escorts might not be enough to take the prisoners to the P.O.W. cage once night fell. Therefore, they assigned Corporal Muller to join us. This turned out to be wise.
One of the prisoners was a ratty little bastard who suddenly remembered that he was a member of the Master Race. He said, “No bunch of scum is going to keep me prisoner for very long!”
Corporal Muller warned him, “You will be shot the moment you make any attempt to escape.”
The P.O.W. snapped a snarky Heil Hitler salute. His own corporal cautioned him, “Shut up!”
Yet he continued his mouthing and threats. Meanwhile, he was delaying us in an area where we could fall under heavy enemy fire. Suddenly, the German Corporal grabbed the little bastard by the front of his jacket. At the same time, he landed a solid punch on the point of his chin. The little sod quickly lost his love for the Fuhrer just he gained a new respect for his Corporal’s fist. We had no more trouble from him.
We marched the prisoners in double file. Sergeant Meadows and Corporal Peters led. Corporal Muller guarded one side; Houston was on the other. I took up the rear position. As we marched back, we saw other Canadian troops moving up toward the front. At times, it was hard to keep an eye on our prisoners. This forced us to travel slowly. We stopped often to make sure none had escaped. It took us five hours to travel six miles in the dark.
After the first three miles, we stopped for ten minutes to rest and smoke a cigarette alongside the road. Here the British Columbia Dragoons were waiting in a rest area for their turn to go into the line. One of their young troopers showed great interest in our prisoners, offering to help escort them part of the way. His only problem was that he didn’t have any weapon, except a rifle. A rifle would not have been much use in the dark.
As I had grown fond of and familiar with my sniper’s rifle, I offered to lend him my 45-calibre pistol. He gladly accepted it. I took off belt, leather holster and pistol and handed all to him. He fell in by my side. We talked as we walked along behind our prisoners. After we’d gone a quarter of a mile, Ed Houston decided, for a change, to go to the rear. I left him with the BCD trooper while I went to the fore to talk with the Sergeant. When I dropped back to the rear, I found Houston alone.
“Where is the young trooper?” I asked.
“He had to go back to his unit because he was on guard duty,” Ed replied.
I nearly doubled over laughing.
“What’s so funny?” asked Ed.
“That young fellow pulled the same kind of trick I’d have pulled under the same circumstances. He’s got my 45 pistol!”
Houston and I both enjoyed a damned good laugh over that one.
After midnight, we reached the place where we expected to find the Brigade P.O.W. cage. We discovered, however, that the army had moved it. No one knew where the new location was. We finally found a British military policeman. He told us where the British P.O.W. cage was – another seven miles farther south. Since we couldn’t find anyone to take responsibility for the prisoners, we had to continue on to the British cage.
Fifty minutes out of every hour we marched steadily; then we sat for a ten-minute rest. In the early morning hours, we halted in a village street. We had the prisoners sit on the curb, facing the road. We sat with our backs against the wall of the building behind them. We gave each prisoner a cigarette and, then, leaned back to enjoy one ourselves.
A few moments later, a British dispatch rider drove up, stopping his motorcycle in front of the Germans squatting on the curb. In the dark, all he could see was lit cigarettes. He asked directions to a town farther north. When he received no answer, he asked again. From out of the shadow of the building, I called out, “I‘m afraid they won’t tell you, sir. They’re Germans.”
The poor devil slammed the bike into gear and flew down the road.
When we at last reached the British P.O.W. cage, it was just before dawn. Our difficulties were not over. It was completely dark and we couldn’t find a single guard. We finally came across a Sergeant-Major, asleep in a bell tent outside the compound. We woke him up. A stickler for protocol, he would not perform any duties until he changed from pyjamas into uniform, complete with shiny boots and web belt.
He explained, “You know, the Major would be quite displeased if I addressed him without my cap on.”
He was one of those soldiers who just had to find his cap before finding his major.
“Of course,” he added, “You Canadians should be well aware that the Major will not appreciate being wakened so early in the morning.”
Sergeant Meadows, a little perturbed by this time, made the Sergeant-Major well aware that the British would accept the prisoners immediately or we would just leave them where they were and return to our own unit without them.
“Perhaps it would be best to awake my superior officer,” the Sergeant-Major decided.
The moment he was out of sight, I went to see what food I could scrounge. Outside the P.O.W. compound, there stood a large marquee with the canvas sides rolled up. I crept inside and lit a match. To my surprise, the tables were all set for the morning breakfast. The tables gleamed with silverware and real plates lay on white tablecloths. In the middle of each table sat plates loaded with biscuits and side-bowls of butter.
“If these goodies are for the enemy P.O.W.s, then what the hell am I doing on the outside?” I wondered.
Right away I slipped a table knife into my back pocket. I loaded the inside of my jacket with biscuits. After I picked up a bowl of butter, I headed out. Then that I tripped over one of the guy ropes of the marquee. I made a one hell of a rattle.
“I say, what in ‘ell are you doing?” came from the other side of the marquee.
I sat very quietly for a few moments, unseen, while the Sergeant-Major shone his flashlight around the inside of the marquee. He didn’t see me or anything missing. He put out his light and went over to join our Sergeant who was with the prisoners.
He informed Meadows, “You will have to wait a while until the Major is ready to accept your prisoners.”
I waited until the Sergeant-Major left. Then I rejoined our happy little group of pilgrims. That may be the only time captors and P.O.W.s shared a laugh together while wolfing down a stolen breakfast.
The Sergeant-Major returned. He said, “The Major will not be available to accept the P.O.W.s so I will do the honours myself.”
Despite the laughter, we were glad to bid good riddance to the P.O.W.s. Then we were quickly on our way back to our unit. About a mile north of the P.O.W. compound, we found a jeep near the side of the road, in a vehicle compound. It looked abandoned. At least, that is to say, there weren’t any guards near. We decided it needed new owners so we pushed it while Sergeant Meadows steered. When we reached the crest of the first hill, Meadows turned the key in the ignition. As the jeep coasted down the hill, he slipped it into gear. Nothing happened. It should’ve started so we pushed it to the brow of the next hill.
Meadows turned they key and again slipped it into gear. Repeatedly he tried, but nothing happened. By then it was near daylight. We had little time left. We lifted the hood and removed the distributor cap. Someone else had taken the ignition rotor – the reason it wouldn’t start in the first place! We shoved the jeep into the cover of some nearby bushes. We didn’t want it found while we were in the vicinity.
Several miles further on, we hitched a ride with a lorry that was passing within two miles of the R.C.R.s. By noon, we were back with the Scout Platoon. We had had no rest in the past 40 hours and little to eat. Our officers recognized this and let us rest until evening.
The next day we began scouting for “C” Company of our regiment. Just after dawn, the Germans pinned our company down on both sides of the highway at a group of houses known as “Abyssinia”. Before the Company approached this position from the south, the Scout Platoon observed enemy troops on a bridge a quarter of a mile north of Abyssinia. I was with the scouts. Sergeant Meadows was in charge.
When we scouts moved back and met the advancing sections of “C” Company, we reported to the company commander. He doubted that there were enemy so close ahead of us. Even when we pointed out the enemy on the bridge, he said, “Oh, they’re probably our engineers.”
Sergeant Meadows insisted, “They are Germans. We have observed them close-up.”
The Company Commander ordered one of his Bren-gunners to set his Bren up in the middle of the road and fire a burst over the heads of the men on the bridge. The young Bren-gunner pressed the trigger and let all hell loose.
Heavy firing swept the men of our company who had not bothered to take cover when the Bren fired. The enemy lay in ambush with three self-propelled guns sitting camouflaged on the north side of the bridge. From there, the Germans had a clear line of fire on the road and on the ditches where we were trying to get some protection.
From daylight that morning until after dark that night, few of “C” Company’s men could move. Our casualties were heavy. Two Scout Platoon members, Privates Burt and Greenough, were killed when they tried to help some of “C” Company’s men who were badly wounded. Another Scout, Private Cake, died later of wounds received that day. 22 members of the R.C.R.s were killed in action on September 3rd and 4th at Abyssinia. Many others were wounded. Many men died later of wounds suffered there.
While the members of “C” Company were down, Sergeant Meadows, myself and most of the other members of the scouts with “C” Company reached the safety of higher ground on the west side of the highway. An embankment there shielded us from German eyes. Across the highway, there was a field. It was about 300 yards from where the sergeant and I were. In the field there stood a big house with shutters on every window. Neither the R.C.R.s nor the Polish troops (who were supposed to be the line on our right flank) occupied it. During the day, I noticed that every hour the shutters facing our position were open slightly more than they had been in the previous hour. I brought this to Sergeant Meadow’s attention. We both kept a careful watch for a few hours. Clearly, the enemy was in the house, using it as an observation post. From there they could direct artillery fire down on our troops.
Sergeant Meadows crept down to the side of the ditch and retrieved a Bren gun and some full magazines from one of our Bren-gunners who would never use it again. We set the Bren up under the cover of low shrubbery. There we waited for some definite movement from the enemy-occupied house.
Just before dark, two young women came out of the door facing us. They moved very cautiously. When they felt no one was observing them, one went back to the door to open it wider. Suddenly, five or six enemy soldiers darted out the door and headed for the German lines. Earlier Meadows ordered me to hold my fire until he gave the word.
Then he yelled, “Fire!”
I was ready and squeezed the trigger, emptying the first round, spraying the ground between the doorway and the first enemy out of the door. All of the enemy, including the two women, went down. The sergeant quickly removed the empty magazine and snapped on another full one. I emptied that too. Now no one moved near the house. We stayed in the same position until it was too dark to see.
In the meantime, another Company of R.C.R.s had moved up on our left flank. This removed the pressure on “C’ Company.
The following day was September 5th. A large-scale attack was about to begin, we thought. However, the Germans withdrew. As the regiment closed in on the hilltop village of San Lorenzo In Strada (west of Riccione), we came under intense fire.
After heavy losses, we were forced to halt for the night. Before daylight the following morning, we were on the attack again. Despite our efforts, we could not dislodge the enemy from his position on higher ground. In the four days of battle there, our regiment suffered total casualties of well over 140, all ranks.
The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment relieved us on September 6. On September 8th, The Royal Canadian Regiment moved back to a rest area seven miles south of Riccione.
By early morning September 16th, the R.C.R.s were back in the line of advance a few miles northwest of Riccione. Our immediate objective was to capture the buildings and drainage ditches on the western edge of Rimini airport. There clever concealments protected the enemy.
Every inch of ground gained had to be hard fought for. Enemy mortar, artillery, and small arms fire poured down on us in an endless stream. My company commander led his men across a stretch of open ground. There an 88mm artillery shell killed him in a direct hit. Those men not killed or wounded continued to advance. The shelling eased up as the enemy lowered his sights on the advancing men.
Then I crawled to where the company commander’s remains lay. All I found was part of his uniform and his steel helmet. I picked it up and turned it over. His black hair and scalp were still inside it. The wireless set he was carrying lay on the ground 20 feet from where he fell. I was surprised to find that the explosion of the 88 shell hadn’t damaged it.
I made my way to a house where some of our men were fighting it out with the Germans inside. After a half hour of bitter combat, we disposed of the occupants and took the house over. Once inside, we found that we ourselves had casualties who needed immediate attention. Since we had wireless contact with regimental headquarters, we requested stretcher-bearers to evacuate our wounded. While we were caring for them, the Germans counter-attacked with about a dozen men.
Because we had used our small-arms ammunition almost completely up, we asked our Regimental Sergeant-Major to get more. In the interim, the men of the rifle company were able to keep the enemy at bay and stop them from gaining position to the south and west of the house.
Before our stretcher-bearers arrived, the regiment restocked us with ammunition by way of one of the Regimental Sergeant-Majors. The RSM risked himself by dragging a wooden box of 303 cartridges along a drainage ditch. When he neared the back door of the house, he picked up the heavy box. Then he darted across the open space between ditch and door. He was a welcome addition to our party. We finally beat the enemy counter-attack back. Then stretcher-bearers evacuated our casualties.
Our advance went on, inching its way forward and gaining ground throughout that night and the next day. During our advance, scout officer, Lieutenant Quayle, was wounded. The regiment couldn’t evacuate him immediately so we took him temporarily to a farmhouse that was Battalion HQ. While he awaited evacuation, a grenade exploded near the door of the building, killing one of our officers and wounding three others. One of the wounded was Lieutenant Quayle. This was his fourth wound in action and the second on that day.
On the evening of September 196h, The Royal Canadian Regiment’s role in the battle for Rimini airport ended as the enemy shifted his attention to Coriano. There, the 5th Canadian Division fought to take one of the last remaining pieces of higher ground from the enemy. If the Canadians captured the high ground, they could deny the Germans positions to direct their artillery fire against our advance.
In the previous two weeks of fighting, our regiment had suffered well over 300 casualties. Combat had reduced most of the rifle companies to less than 30 percent of their normal strength. On the 20th of September, a draft of reinforcements arrived at our forward positions, north of Rimini airport. Many were fresh arrivals from basic-training camps in Canada. Fortunately, some among them were experienced front-line men, former officers and other ranks who had served in action with the R.C.R.s. These men had been evacuated as casualties. Now they were back.
On September 29th, we were in a rest area north of Riccione. We remained there until October 10th. While we were there, Canadian War Correspondents visited us. They asked me to show them where some of the severest fighting near the Rimini airport had taken place. I showed them the rubble of one of the buildings that I had used as a sniper position.
They asked me, “Can we take a picture of you with your sniper’s rifle?”
“Sure,” I said.
While they snapping photos, they handed me a notepad and a pencil so I could write down my name and hometown address. When they left, they seemed quite happy with the material they had gathered for the people back home, eager for news.
A few weeks later, the bullshit appeared in most Canadian newspapers. My picture appeared with an article below it stating that I was one of the top snipers in the Canadian Army. A photo of me with the notepad and pencil was, according to the article, me marking down my sixteenth kill! The gist of the article was that the brave correspondent and photographer had dodged shot and shell to get actual authentic news, witnessing the battle for Rimini airport first hand.
I had to laugh. The article was a prime example of what the frontline troops called: “The mud and blood of war and the bullshit of the press.”
Farewell to Italy
While our regiment was in the rest area near Riccione, the army granted me a week’s leave to go to Florence. I knew that none of the other R.C.R.s were granted leave at that time. So, when I arrived in Florence, I was on my own. When I got there, I went to visit those people I had met there in August. I spent most of my leave with them.
There were thousands of troops in the city. Most were American, but some were British. Because The Canadian Independent Tank Brigade was operating with the 78th British Division south of Bologna, many men from The Ontario Regiment, Calgary Tank Regiment, and The Three Rivers Regiment were in Florence. There were also many Partisans. They used Florence as base of operations for their hit and run attacks on the enemy in the mountains north of the city.
In the four years since I enlisted in the army, I had witnessed some of the worst examples of man’s ingenuity, used to create means and ways to destroy nature’s beauty and the lives and property of others. In Florence, however, the opposite was true. I saw some of the most beautiful and greatest creations the world has ever known. I stood in the Piazza del Duomo. It boasts the works of Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and countless other sculptors and architects. It seemed almost unbelievable that men created many of Florence’s great art works 200 years before Columbus sailed the Atlantic.
One of the highlights of my leave in Florence was the play, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne played the leading roles. The plot revolved around the lives of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett when the two lovers fled England and went to live in Florence. I was, in fact, only two houses from their real-life Florence residence when I sat and watched artists Cornell and Aherne.
While I was there, the rainy season began and I couldn’t travel far outside Florence. I contented myself with visits to the Boboli Gardens, Fort Belvedere, and other places of interest.
The family, the Bartolinis, I stayed with in Florence consisted of a young, married couple, Paolo and Maria, his mother and their two young children, Antonio and Leonora. They were well educated and very proud of their city. They were marvellous to me and wanted to show me much that I wouldn’t have seen if I had been living at the Allied leave centre. I gained insight into Italian history and the Italian people.
During the one conversation with my host, I dropped a few disparaging remarks about the false loyalties of the Italian soldier – and the Italian people as a whole. Paolo gently said, “You must learn to understand my people. Our country is very old. Yours is very young, but, as a unified nation, my country is also young. Until the 1870s, my country was overrun by other, stronger countries on an average of once in every ten years.”
“As a result, it became an accepted in Italy to have multiple loyalties. If we had not submitted to necessity and bowed to oppression, our people would not have survived.”
“You may not realize it, but one of the longest periods of relative prosperity was from 1921 until 1939 – under the rule of the Fascists.”
He went on, “If our people had resisted Mussolini when he gained power, many would have perished. The same thing would have happened if we had turned against the Germans, or the Allies, in 1943. No matter who rules us, we are still Italians. The Allies now are the masters, but our people have always been, and will always remain loyal to Italy. It is our home.”
His explanation helped me realize why the southern Italians had treated us with indifference. How could they be certain that the Germans wouldn’t force the Allies to retreat, leaving them to the mercies of a returning, vengeful German occupier? They, after all, had seen many a liberator come and go.
When my leave was up and I was due to return to my regiment, I missed the truck that was to take me back. Knowing the R.C.R.s would be sent into the line soon, I hitched a ride with a British officer and his driver. I rode in the back of their jeep until we got to Perugia late in the afternoon.
Perugia sits atop a high rocky outcrop near the foot of the western slopes of the Roman Apennines. As we approached it from the west, the sun was setting. Bathed in pink light, with a slight mist in the valley at the base of the rock on which the city sat, Perugia appeared as a walled castle, suspended in mid-air.
I found lodging for the night in Perugia and the next morning hitched another ride – this time to Pesaro. From there I thumbed another to my regiment at Riccione. The following day we re-entered the front lines south of the Pisciatello River. During the night we moved forward and took over position from the New Zealand forces.
Before we moved up to the front line, the army appointed another commander to the Scout Platoon. However, he had to be evacuated a few hours after we entered the line, leaving our platoon without an officer in charge.
Sergeant Chant, an older NCO from Support Company, took over as temporary scout leader. He was cool headed, well suited to the job. Acting Sergeants Stover and Meadows were the other NCOs with my scout section then.
We stopped for the night in a farmhouse about 200 yards east of the Pisciatello. The river there flowed north before it turned east toward the Adriatic. We stood guard around the outside of the house and those inside were kept on alert all night. Thick fog blanketed the area.
The only other occupants of the house were an elderly farm couple. They were content to remain by themselves in one of the rooms.
In the morning, before the call to, “Stand To” passed around all ranks, I stood on guard at the front door of the house behind a low brick retaining wall that enclosed the outside stoop. As the fog lifted, I could see the outline of a house 50 feet away on the opposite side of the road. As I lay there, enemy soldiers climbed out of some trenches in front of the house where we were. They began talking to one another as they made their way to the house across the road.
I called out to the rest of my section, “Enemy across the road!”
At the same time, heart pounding, I opened up with long bursts of fire from the Bren gun. This took the enemy completely by surprise. Reloading a fresh magazine, I continued firing into a wagon-shed on the west end of the house. Two Germans aimed a bazooka at us. They fell before they could return fire.
We covered the north side of our house well with firearms. An attack on that side would be futile. Some enemy soldiers slipped out the back of the house they occupied. They crawled along a drainage ditch to take up position behind a haystack at the rear of our house.
Fully aware, our men opened up on them with submachine gun and rifle fire. The enemy threw stick grenades at the open door where Sergeant Chant stood, blasting away at them with a Sten gun. One grenade landed by his left foot and he kicked, sending it spinning toward the open door. It exploded about two feet from his foot. In the midst of the firing, Pte. Davis went to the front of the house to take over the Bren gun from me. I was running out of full magazines. I went back inside just as Sergeant Chant was taking cover after kicking the stick grenade.
The only way we could dislodge the Germans from behind the haystack was to set it on fire. That would place us in greater danger. Smoke billowing in our direction could then blind us and give the enemy an advantage.
Suddenly Acting Sergeant Stover grabbed a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) and a PIAT bomb. Coolly, he inserted the detonator into the bomb’s nose. He then loaded the PIAT and went to the window facing the haystack. He put the weapon to his shoulder and fired. The PIAT bomb curved up over the haystack and struck the trunk of a tree. There was a flash. A terrific explosion showered fragments down on handful of enemy soldiers behind the stack. The Germans retreated, leaving their dead and wounded where they fell. (The army later awarded J.K. Stover the Military Medal for his brave leadership on the morning of October 10, 1944.)
Throughout the skirmish, the old coupled huddled in a corner. The man held the bottom half of a wooden barrel over his wife’s head and shoulders. At the same time, he tried to protect her by keeping his body between her and the line of fire. She prayed aloud, but we paid little attention, concentrating on the fierce fighting.
After firing stopped, we kept a close watch on the front just in case the enemy tried to counter-attack. Sergeant Chant on a chair near me.
“There’s not much to those German potato-mashers,” he declared, a hint of humour in his voice. “That one exploded near my foot and I didn’t feel a thing.”
“You’d better look at your left leg!” I replied.
He glanced down. Blood was soaking his uniform, forming a large patch on his trouser leg below his left knee. He rolled up his trouser leg, exposing a nasty wound.
Before the enemy could try again to dislodge us from the house, two tanks rumbled into the yard behind us. They were from a New Zealand armoured regiment and a welcome sight. They took up firing positions, easing forward until their guns pointed at the house across the road. Moments later all was quiet on the opposite side of the road.
On the morning of October 11th, after the Allies cleared the approaches to the Pisciatello , we waded across. As we did, we came under heavy shellfire from self-propelled guns concealed near the west bank and in the drainage ditches.
Once we were across the Pisciatello, our advance slowed. Rain transformed the normally dry drainage ditches into formidable water obstacles, and the ground, to mud.
On October 12th, Lieutenant Joice returned to the regiment. The army assigned him to command the Scout Platoon. He was with the regiment on two previous occasions while it was in battle. Wounded twice at separate times, he was well known to the men of the Scout Platoon. He was reputed to be a fine leader.
On the 13th of October, the R.C.R.s assigned me to scout for “D” Company. This was the company I had originally started out with when I jointed the R.C.R.s in the front line at Ortona in December, 1943. Only a half dozen of the men who were in “D” Company at that time were still with it. Among them was Pte. Ray Jang.
Later that night, Jang was with Lieutenant Falardeau, his platoon commander. They went forward to make a recce in front of Casa Neri: “D” Company’s next objective. In the rain and pitch black night, Falardeau stepped on a shoe mine. It blew one of his feet off and severely damaged the other leg. Ray Jang picked up his badly wounded officer and tried to carry him back through the minefield to the house that was “D” Company HQ.
Before they got out of the minefield, Jang too stepped on a mine. It blasted one of his legs off below the knee. In pain and shock, he crawled, dragging the burnt stump of his leg until he reached the Company. He told our men there what had happened to Lieutenant Falardeau. They made Ray Jang as comfortable as possible and placed him on a stretcher to await evacuation from the line. After considerable searching, slowed by the minefield, they found Falardeau. The army evacuated him and Jang at the same time. The Lieutenant died from his wounds two days later.
The advance to the Pisciatello and its two main branch, the Rubicon, cost our regiment and our allies dearly. Only the great number of enemy graves, dead Germans on the ground and burned-out Wehrmacht vehicles showed we were extracting a heavy price from our adversaries too.
On the evening of October 18th, The Royal 22ieme Regiment (the VanDoos) relieved us. The R.C.R. was down to less than 50 men in each of the four rifle companies. The losses suffered by all Canadian regiments serving in Italy outnumbered the numbers of readily available, trained reinforcements.
After D-Day opened a second front Western European front, those of us serving on the Italian Front seemed the forgotten few. When there were ammunition shortages at Ortona, they told us, “Ammunition must be saved for the spring offensive.”
Before we advanced in the Liri Valley in May 1944, they explained that the shortages were the result of the American Army needing supplies so that they could advance on Rome. (Rome is actually farther south than Ortona.)
After D-Day, shortages in men and material grew acute. The justification was, “The men fighting in France have first priority.”
The officers and men serving on the Italian Front fought valiantly. The conditions were unbelievable except to those who were there. Hot meals were a luxury in the front lines. Mail was infrequent. Some men didn’t sleep in a bunk or bed since disembarking from transport ships that in 1943. Those evacuated as casualties were the exceptions. Yet there was no breakdown in morale.
October ended. It appeared we’d spend another cold, hungry, miserable winter fighting static warfare in Italy. In June, we’d hoped that the second Front would lift some enemy pressure off us. We had hoped for too much. As we pushed the Germans back towards the Austrian border, it was obvious that we must continue driving forward, inch by inch, until we linked up with the Yugoslavian Partisan Force. It numbered over a million, 200,000 of whom were women fighting alongside their men. The Americans on the west coast of Italy might possibly link up with other sections of the Yugoslav partisan army west of the French port of Marseilles. If thus materialized, the Allied armies would soon be fighting in Austria and southern Deutschland. The German Army commander was well aware of the situation. They used every means possible to delay our advance. They wanted to see us bogged down for another winter.
The Maple Leaf, the newspaper that brought us news from Canada, didn’t tell us much about the political debates on the conscription issue at home. It concentrated more on telling us how the factory and farm workers were putting their weight behind the men and women serving for Canada. It didn’t tell us about how our bunch of lousy politicians cared more about scoring political points to keep themselves in elected offices than keeping us reinforced with sufficient trained troops. The units in the front lines desperately needed reinforcements.
Our own officers never failed us. The common people back in Canada never let us down. We felt betrayed by politicians led by a gutless Prime Minister [William Lyon Mackenzie King]. We blamed some of the oppositions MPs who had been preachers of peace even as late as 1941 [e.g. Woodsworth of the CCF, forerunner of the NDP]. They cried, “Non-involvement!” while Hitler’s forces were stamping their ritual fire dance across Europe. Ironically, most of those same politicians screamed for more Canadian involvement when Germany turned on its secret ally the USSR. This was later, in 1941.
To this Canadian soldier serving in Italy, it appeared that the party line was more important to our politicians than the front line in Italy.
On October 20th, when the army withdrew the R.C.R.s from the front line, ”D” Company and part of Support Company, including the Scout Platoon, remained in the line at San Archangelo behind the front lines of The Royal 22ieme for a few days longer. On the 23rd of October, we marched back to join the rest of the regiment at Riccione. We spent the next five weeks in training. The fighting units shaped up for the next attack. This was the longest stretch out of the line our regiment had since July 1943.
On December 1st, we marched back into the front line, west of Rimini. We were actually about 20 miles north of the Rimini airport, nearer Riccione. During the advance toward the Lamone River, enemy resistance stayed light. It was mostly of rearguard action by small pockets of Germans. This resistance, combined with the muddy ground to slow our push to the south bank of the river.
On the evening of December 3rd, the Scout Platoon found good quarters in a farmhouse about a half mile south of the Lamone. It was one of the rare occasions when the two sections of the platoon, the scouting section and sniper section, were together in the front line.
Before dark, an enemy plane flew low overhead and machine gunned the house. Our only casualties were some demijohns of good white wine, stored in an outside two-hole brick crapper. At the time, Lieutenant Joice was at regimental Tactical Headquarters attending an “O” [Orders] Group with the other officers. The Commanding Officer detailed plans for crossing the Lamone River. The attack was to begin the next morning.
After dark, Joice returned to the Scout Platoon’s temporary quarters in the farmhouse. He called us all together in one large room and told us, “I am pleased to announce that A/Sergeant George Meadows has been awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in action.”
Meadows, a very modest person, accepted the award on behalf of all the members of the Scout Platoon. Lieutenant Joice then gave permission for each man to have a shot of issue rum in honour of the Sergeant’s award.
Among the officers, NCOs, and other ranks who had served as scouts from January to December 1st, 1944, one Military Cross, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, and five Military Medals were awarded. The Canadian Army was not generous in giving out decorations for bravery. Furthermore, the Scout Platoon only consisted of 32 men. The number of medals received was exceptional.
After Lieutenant Joice announced the award to Meadows, he informed us that a patrol was laid on for the scouts. He was sending a recce patrol across the flood-swollen Lamone later that night. The patrol would be Sergeant Meadows, two volunteers and himself.
Just before midnight, the patrol made its way to the south bank of the river. Joice left the two volunteers on the south bank to lay down covering fire if the Germans attacked him and Meadows as they swam to the opposite side. When the Lieutenant and the Sergeant entered the frigid floodwaters, they found that the surface of the water was beginning to freeze. As they neared the north bank, an enemy standing patrol hurled stick grenades. The two men from the Scout Platoon dared not give them fire protection. The danger of hitting Joice and Meadows was too great.
The enemy grenades didn’t injure Joice or Meadows so they swam downstream and tried to get back to the south bank. In the middle of the Lamone, a severe cramp, caused by the freezing water, almost completely paralyzed Lieutenant Joice. Sergeant Meadows helped him gain the south bank. Meadows then tried to carry the officer up the steep bank. The water there was still about four feet deep.
The sergeant, near complete exhaustion knew he might have to leave Lieutenant Joice. Instead, he hung on to the officer and floated downstream until he found a tree downed in the water. Meadows told Joice, “Hang on to a limb until I return with help to get you up the bank.
By the time the Sergeant found the other two scouts waiting further upstream, Meadows was suffering from cold and exposure [hypothermia]. The three made their way back to the house. After Sergeant Meadows downed a hot drink and changed into dry clothes (women’s clothing found in the house), he led a number of scouts back to where he’d left Joice. The officer was gone.
They searched the south bank of the river until dawn. Then they, reluctantly, abandoned their search. Lieutenant Joice was reported Missing-in-Action.
The following day, the army bought light collapsible boats forward and “D” Company crossed the Lamone before midnight. We met little enemy resistance. The remaining three rifle companies made quick crossings on the right and left flanks of “D” Company. The Germans then quickly counter-attacked with such force and determination that we couldn’t hold the bridgehead on the north side of the Lamone. Casualties were heavy. All ranks of the rifle companies were severely depleted. At noon, our officers commanded an orderly withdrawal to the south bank.
The battle for the Lamone was one of the fiercest battles the R.C.R.s engaged in during the entire Italian campaign. Causalities thinned the ranks of the rifle companies so much that parts of Support Company and Battalion Headquarters Company were dissolved so their men could reinforce A, B, C, and D Companies.
This was the last time that the Scout Platoon was to operate as such. We had suffered severely in the previous week’s fighting. The Scout Platoon reformed as a company platoon, giving us the dubious title of “X Company”. Were we the unknown quantity?
X Company was made up mostly of men from Support Company: the Scout Platoon, the Anti-Tank Platoon and the Mortar Platoon. Although the scouts were now part of X Company, we still operated as a scout section.
On the night of December 10th, the Third Brigade of the First Division crossed the Lamone under heavy enemy shellfire. Our regiment crossed the next day.
We were now fighting on the coastal plain leading to the Po delta. The main river obstacle was the Senio. Wide, with high dikes on both sides, the Senio’s floodwaters flowed higher than the level of the plain below. Enemy troops retreated behind this obstacle. They left self-propelled guns behind to slow up the Allied advance until they could get into a position to bar all further movement of our troops north toward Venice. So it was that the eight mile strip between the Lamone and Senio Rivers became a death trap for the men of the First Division.
Two branches of the Senio, the Fosse Vetro and the Fosse Vecchio, lay between it and the Lamone. On these two smaller rivers, the enemy rearguards put up their toughest stand. On the morning of December 14th, a heavy mortar shoot caught Corporal Thibert and I as we approached X Company’s headquarters. This was a large farmhouse south of the Naviglio Canal. The Canal ran parallel to and was part of the Senio. I escaped injury, but shrapnel severely wounded the Corporal’s foot.
Later that day, while an O (Orders) Group met in the same house, the enemy dropped a high explosive shell in the centre of the room where the meeting was in progress. Most of the officers and NCOs in the room were killed or wounded. Among those killed outright was our platoon commander. Sergeant George Meadows was wounded and died ten days before Christmas. It was only ten days after he received his Military Medal.
The fighting continued until we were within a few hundred yards of the Senio on Christmas Eve. Then the army withdrew us to Russi, south of the Lamone. There we ate Christmas dinner and enjoyed a short rest.
On Christmas afternoon, we received orders to back into the line. We were to go to the sector west of Russi at the Lamone. I believe the troops that had captured the sector from the German were withdrawn too early. They left the line before another Allied regiments took over, thereby leaving a gap though which the enemy infiltrated. There had to be a ball-up somewhere at the higher command level. This is the only reason I could think of to explain this.
After heavy fighting, D Company regained most of the lost ground. The following day, the Third Canadian Brigade took over our positions. The army took our regiment out of the line and transported us to San Pancranzio, an area of demolished houses and flooded fields about three miles northwest of Russi.
On January 3rd, X Company dissolved. Its members went to C Company. Some scouts went into a re-constituted Anti-Tank platoon. There they retrained to use PIAT weapons as tank hunters. Though they were in a different role, they would still be scouts. Later that same day, we moved again. Our new sector lay seven miles northeast of Bagnacavallo, in the fields and vineyards on the south side of the Senio dike. Except for sporadic enemy mortaring and patrolling in the sector, things were relatively quiet.
The Germans had halted our advance, not so much by troops and weapons, but by exploiting the weather and the resulting ground conditions. It is no exaggeration to say, “We ground to a halt.” In consequence, we faced another awful winter of mud, blood, shortages, and static warfare.It was exactly what the Germans hoped for.
We sat out the winter of 1944-45 in the line south of the Senio. This was one of the coldest winters modern Europe had known. Most smaller rivers and canals froze over, but not the fast-flowing Senio. It snowed at night and thawed by day. At times, we couldn’t see the top of the dykes because of fog, snow and rain. We slept in two-hour shifts each during the day. At night we stood-to. They brought one meal into us after dark every 24 hours. We stayed in that sector continuously from January 3rd until February 26. Then troops of the Eighth Indian Division relieved us, heralding our long-awaited move to France.
On February 28th, we embussed and trekked westward. Spring began; the rainy season was over. Travel across Italy now was much pleasanter than it was when we knew we were destined for the front lines. Our regimental convoy rolled south until we reached the entrance of the pass that led through the Apennines toward the headwaters of the Arno River. We went south of Florence and followed the Arno Valley.
On the 29th, we arrived at a camp in a sandy area near Pisa. Once we settled in for our brief stay, the army granted leaves to those who wanted to visit Pisa. I went. I was surprised that the war hadn’t severely damaged the town. Although some American bombs fell near the Leaning Tower, only the nearby St. John’s Baptistery and the adjoining cathedral suffered slight damage. From the carillon floor on the top of the Leaning Tower, a breathtaking view of Pisa spread below me.
On March 8th, we trekked to the port of Livorno (Leghorn) on the west coast of Italy. Livorno sits at the south end of the Gulf of Genoa. There we boarded waiting American landing craft for our crossing to Marseilles in southern France. On the next morning, March 9th, we left Italy. I enjoyed the short voyage across the Ligurian Sea. The weather was good. I could see Cape Corso, the northern part of Corsica, about 50 miles west of the Italian coast. We said farewell to the boot of the world.
On March 10th, our landing craft berthed at the Marseilles docks. I wasn’t impressed with what little I saw of the southern French city. We passed through it just before dark that evening. Marseilles hadn’t suffered much war damage. Yet it was filthier than many Italian cities and towns where war was fought. The people in that part of Marseilles were not friendly.
The movement of the First Canadian Corps from Italy to northwest Europe was codenamed “Operation Goldflake”. The route our convoy took from Marseilles to Paris cut through the Rhone Valley. After 130 miles of travel over fairly dust, but good roads, we stopped for the night. Some of my less fortunate comrades slept ten to 12 to a bell tent. Others slept in bedrolls laid out on the ground beside the vehicles. Many found the tents too crowded for a good night’s sleep. We were more used to sleeping in the open.
Our convoy by-passed Paris. Now we saw the first signs that war had been fought in the Ile de France. Along the highway, men had cleared a path through about a two-mile stretch of burned and wrecked German vehicles. They were strewn along the way. They had not yet removed enemy bodies from those vehicles. The stench of death hung thick in the spring air.
As we approached the Belgium border, we met the first reminders of the war 30 years ago. It lasted over four years. Millions of young men died in advances and retreats that covered less ground than we did in our advance in the Liri Valley in May 1944.
Across the Franco-Belgian border, we saw the miles of concrete grave markers of those who fell in what was then called “The Great War”. Canadian, British, French, and Belgian grave markers stood on one side of a long stretch of highway – as far as my eye could see. On the other side of the road stood the markers of the Kaiser’s men and allies.
Even with nearly five years of Nazi occupation of Belgium and France, the Allied graves were as well kept as their enemy’s own fallen. Battle instils respect for those who fight valiantly for something they believe in. Each side believes their enemy is fighting for evil and that they are fighting for the only righteous cause, but soldiers respect each other.
On the evening of March 16th, we arrived at Schilde, a village on the Albert Canal about nine miles from the port of Antwerp, Belgium. We remained in Schilde two weeks. It was a pleasant change from what we knew in Italy. They billeted me in a large chateau a mile from the village. It had a moat around it and was a picture-postcard setting. My quarters were comfortable and clean.
The villagers were friendly. On my first trip into Schilde, I met a family who owned the bakery on the main street. Vervliets Bakery became my home away from home. The family’s living quarters were in the same building with the bake ovens in the basement. The aroma of freshly baked cakes and pastry saturated the house. Though baking ingredients were in short supply, the Vervliet family was generous to me.
On April 3rd, the R.C.R.s left Schilde by truck convoy. We travelled northeast to the German-Dutch border. Then we went on to a bivouac area in the Reichwald forest south of the remains of the German town of Kleve. A “Reichwald” (pronounced ‘rykevalt’) is a German state forest. The Reichwald is a large, re-forested area on the German side of the border. Some of us had only groundsheets to protect our bedrolls from the rain. Still, we were more fortunate than some of our officers. They found shelter in a dugout covered with logs, tin, and earth. In the morning, a tin of gasoline exploded there, killing two and injuring the other two occupants.
The following day the Regiment was on the move again. We crossed the Waal River near the German-Dutch border. On April 10th, our trucks stopped a few miles west of the Dutch town of Zutphen.
Our first action in the Netherlands was quite different from those in Italy. After each initial advance in Italy, our officers kept other ranks in the regiment well informed as to what was going on around us. In the first days of action in Holland, it seemed that even our officers were in a state of confusion. Perhaps this is unfair of me. There were no established front lines. Small pockets of German resistance were scattered all along their retreat.
The enemy were falling back generally towards Amsterdam in western Holland and north towards Friesland. The Zuider Zee divided their line of retreat. The Ijsselmeer, a freshwater lake, formed the southern part of the Zuider Zee when a dam was completed in 1932. The Ijsselmeer divided the German lines of retreat.
The Scout Platoon no longer existed as such, but its former members still acted as scouts. In the early hours of the second day, we were on the advance. Corporal Peters and four other ex-scouts captured a platoon of Germans who were asleep in a gristmill. The prisoners were a pathetic lot. Most were old men, veterans of the 1914-18 war. Some of the others had served Russia where frost bite ate their ears and fingers. They surrendered gladly.
Determined to preserve personal dignity to the last, their platoon commander requested that his men be allowed to wash and shave first. Corporal Peters sat down and smoked while they washed. An hour later, the German commander marched his men into captivity. Then the Germans turned over all of their weapons.
As we advanced toward Apeldoorn, small groups of enemy rearguards slowed us down. They holed up where ever there was sufficient cover for them to make a last stand and fight it out. These rearguards would often be only two or three snipers in well-hidden positions. Mortar crews hid behind buildings. Self-propelled guns ran low on fuel, but their commanders put up a good fight before abandoning their vehicles.
We were fortunate the ground dried out enough to allow our tanks and armoured support weapons to move forward.
The Allied Command hoped to spare Apeldoorn from severe damage should the Germans put up heavy resistance. On the evening of April 16th, it looked as if heavy damage was going to be unavoidable. The enemy were preparing to make a last stand on the west bank of the Apeldoorn-Deventer canal on the eastern outskirts of Apeldoorn.
At that time, the Fifth Canadian Division had advanced to the eastern shores of the Zuider Zee. This cut off the enemy escape route to Germany, squeezing 120,000 German troops into a pocket. This pocket shrank smaller by the hour. We believed that the Germans would make a stand at Apeldoorn while the rest of their forces tried to break through the Fifth Division’s line of advance and escape across the Dutch-German border.
The First Canadian Corps Headquarters laid on an encircling movement for the morning of April 17th. They hoped that the enemy troops in Apeldoorn would find themselves trapped and cut-off from the main body of their forces. The bulk of the German army was retreating westward towards Amersfoort and northwards toward Amsterdam. We hoped that the enemy at Apeldoorn would show little fight before giving up.
In the afternoon, some of our forward scouts linked up with a small group of Dutch Underground. They informed us that the enemy was still in Apeldoorn in large numbers. Just after midnight, April 16th, our officers ordered us to hold our advance. We were under heavy mortar fire and machine-gunned from enemy positions within Apeldoorn’s outskirts.
A few hours later, the German firing ceased. All was quiet. At dawn we entered Apeldoorn. Hardly a shot was fired. We captured about 200 enemy soldiers before their demolition parties could destroy the main bridges leading into the town.
During the advance, our regimental forward scouts found a hospital where the Germans held many wounded Allied prisoners. The German guards retreated only moments before we arrived. They left a small rearguard. The wounded prisoners quickly relieved them of their weapons. As we came within view, the Allied prisoners rushed to see us. Many of those who were too weak to walk were carried to the windows by their comrades so they too could see our men entering the hospital grounds. [Some men crawled on hands and what remained of their legs to see the R.C.R.s come.] Some of the prisoners were air force pilots whose planes went down in flames. Many had severe burns that had not been given proper medical attention. There was a shortage of sulpha and other drugs that were unavailable to the enemy doctors. Once our men made the condition of the prisoners known to our Regimental Medical Officer, he hurried medical aid to the site.
Apeldoorn was the first town in northwest Europe that our regiment had helped to liberate. The people received us joyously. Flags flew from almost every building of the town. Bells rang. People wept openly in the streets. I will never forget it.
Apeldoorn had a large group of underground fighters. These women and men had resisted the enemy forces. Once we liberated the town, the Underground moved quickly to round up those who had collaborated with the enemy. They marched men and women through the streets publicly displayed with heads shaven bare. We witnessed this public humiliation of collaborators with mixed feelings. We were accustomed to treating our prisoners with respect. However, perhaps if the Nazis had occupied our homeland for four years, we might have thirsted for revenge as the Dutch did against traitors.
We stayed in Apeldoorn overnight. The following day we moved on to Garderen, about ten miles west, on the edge of the Royal Forest.
My platoon was fortunate to find good billets in a café on the left side of a road. This road led into the forest 200 yards away. The café was empty of furnishings so we had plenty of room for our bedrolls. We could use the kitchen for light cooking.
Negotiations to end the war in Europe were finally in progress. Though we in the ranks knew little of what was going on in the talks, we did have a sense of complete victory over our enemies. The little village of Garderen was not to be left out of liberation celebrations. The people there, too, welcomed us with tears and open arms.
The Regiment relaxed strict discipline for the first few days after Apeldoorn’s liberation. They granted day passes to those who wished to visit Apeldoorn. I got a pass. The first day in the town I met a 19-year old girl, R., from Amsterdam. She had been visiting relatives in Apeldoorn for several weeks when the Germans unexpectedly restricted all civilian travel between Apeldoorn and other Dutch towns and cities. Now that Apeldoorn was liberated, she was anxious to return to her family in Amsterdam. Since Garderen was nearer to Amsterdam, she came back with me. That night I gave her some extra blankets and she bedded down in a corner of the café.
The following day, my superiors told me that I was picked to go on 14 days leave to England. I went to Regimental Headquarters where they gave me my pass and pay. That evening I was supposed to board a truck that would take me to Nijmegen. I didn’t really look forward to boarding that truck. One would’ve thought I’d be ecstatic about the leave! Who couldn’t want to forget about the war for two weeks? Me.
Since I joined the R.C.R.s in Ortona in December, 1943, I had not missed a day with my regiment while it was in the line. I did not intend to be out of action when, and if, the war ended.
That evening, our platoon officer called the platoon together in the café. He announced that, for all intents and purposes, the war in Europe was over. The end would certainly become official within the next few days. This made me determined to be in the line when the war ended – even if I was on leave. My pass only stated that I was granted 14 days leave – to begin the following day, but it didn’t say I had to go to England.
I knew that they wouldn’t let me stay with my platoon while I was on leave. I talked it over with R., the young woman who was hoping to reach Amsterdam. I proposed going along with her part of the way. If we couldn’t get through for some reason, I’d leave her after two or three days and return either to Garderen or to my regiment if it had moved by that time. She assured me she knew all of the roads and bicycle paths on the route that we would travel.
The next day I gathered together everything we’d need for nearly a week. In the Royal Forest, a quarter of a mile from the café, there was a deserted enemy arms and ammunition dump. I went there and picked up a French Etienne cavalry carbine. (I had turned in my own rifle to the regimental armourer.) I talked the platoon cook into giving me some tins of bully beef. I scrounged a couple of blankets from another R.C.R. going on leave. Since the army had just paid me, I had quite a lot of money. I was ready, I thought, for the road to Amsterdam.
That evening the regimental truck left –
without me. I was already on my way with R. through the Royal Forest, heading toward the Zuider Zee. While there was still daylight, I used my clasp-knife to cut a slit in the back of the collar of my battle-dress jacket. I pushed my paper money into the slit and turned the collar back down. No one would see the slit unless the jacket was taken off and carefully searched.
During the first five miles of our journey though the forest, we avoided the road. Travel was slow. When we reached the forest’s western edge, we stopped for the night and rolled our blankets out on the ground.
Before dawn, we ate. Then we continued until we emerged from the low brush on the forest’s edge. Facing us there was a wide expanse of low heath, well marked with bicycle paths that promised easy travelling. At each crossroads concrete markers showed the distance to nearby towns and villages. By evening, we’d walked about 15 miles. The last marker on the path showed we were now only 16 kilometres from, and almost directly north, of Amersfoort.
We had seen no enemy or Allied troops during the day. The only signs that a war was still going on were the Allied bombers that passed overhead often throughout that afternoon.
I believed R. and I had a good plan to get her home. The Amsterdamsel and I agreed before starting out that we would avoid all built-up areas. To conserve rations, we would eat as little as possible. We would also avoid travelling at dusk or dawn when enemy patrols would be most likely to spot us. We travelled at night when there was less enemy activity. We had detected none by the end of the second day.
I thought it best to get rid of the rifle so I dropped it into a canal. It was awkward to carry and would be of no use if the Germans stopped us.
On the third day, we were about to cross a highway between Amersfoort and the village of Baarn, when we heard vehicles approaching. We quickly dropped to the ground and pulled a blanket over us, pretending that we were making love. Several truckloads of German soldiers rolled by. They laughed and called out rude remarks. They obviously thought that I too was a German soldier, victorious in love. R. replied to their laughter with spicy remarks. They continued on.
When they’d driven out of sight, we hid in some bushes until dark. That evening, quite a few German Army vehicles drove by, all headed northwest in groups of four and five. “They’re headed toward Hilversum and Amsterdam,” R. said.
We decided it’d be better to follow along the east bank of the canal that led from Amersfoort toward the Ijsselmeer). We could cross near Baarn. We travelled about three miles in two hours before we found a bridge that we thought safe to cross. I went ahead to see if the way was clear. She waited about 50 yards behind, well hidden at the foot of the dyke.
I was about to cross the bridge when someone coughed a few yards away from me. Quietly I dropped to the ground and lay still. It was too late to crawl away. I had stumbled on a two-man German patrol, making their rounds on the bridge.
They turned their flashlight beam on me. I looked up the wrong end of a pistol. I knew enough German to understand “Gefangen”. I was their prisoner. The two soldiers were excited as they marched me away with hands high over my head.
Ten minutes later I was in their unit’s headquarters. It was about a kilometre west of where they had caught me. They escorted me into a large room in a building that appeared to be a villa or a country club. Pictures of Himmler, Mussert (The Dutch Quisling), and Seyess-Inquart hung on the cream-coloured walls. Inquart was the German military governor of the Netherlands. On the opposite wall hung a picture of Adolph Hitler with the German flag to one side of it and the Dutch Nazi Party flag on the other side.
The first officer who questioned me asked, “Name, rank, and service number?”
He had already taken my Soldier’s Record of Service and pay-book so I gave him name, rank and number only. Then he asked, “What is your regiment?”
I refused to answer.
“What are you doing in this area? Why are there no other Canadians with you?”
I said, “I was captured near Apeldoorn two days before and escaped. I was trying to make my way back to our own line of advance.”
The officer seemed to believe me. After all, they had found no weapons when the searched me. They rummaged through my haversack too. When they went over me, they didn’t find my pass or money, hidden in my jacket collar, away from prying eyes and fingers.
While they interrogated me, they sent my two captors back to the canal ridge to search for anyone that may have been with me. When they returned empty-handed, I was relieved. I had expected they would find R. They would certainly have treated her worse than I expected to be. After they searched the canal bridge one more time and no one was found, the officer ordered me locked in an adjoining room.
It was a holding cell. The door had a small barred window. After they locked me in, I felt my way around in the dark until I found a bare iron cot. I sat down on the end of it and thought about the situation I was in. I wondered what my captors would do to me and what would happen to the girl if they caught her. Too tired to think properly, I soon fell asleep.
I thought that I had been asleep for hours when someone kicked at the slats of the cot, waking me. I opened my eyes. An unfamiliar German officer stood over me. He asked, in perfect English, “Have you slept well?”
“Yes,” I replied. “What time is it?”
“5:55 a.m. You’ve been asleep exactly one hour.”
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You are not to ask the questions; you are to answer mine!” he barked.
I could see that it wasn’t going to be my day. They took me from the cell and marched me back to the room where the other officer had questioned me earlier. Now it held four other people. Two wore collar badges I recognized as Dutch SS. One was first German officer who’d interrogated me. There was a German soldier, obviously my guard. Finally, there was the officer with perfect English. He would now control the interrogation.
The Germans seemed cool and unhurried, but the two Dutch SS men seemed terrified as they pulled papers out of a filing cabinet to pack them in boxes. Some of the files went in black carrying cases. Others they threw on the floor as unimportant.
The German officer in command motioned me to sit at a table where they had spread my haversack’s contents with a typewritten list of the items it had supposedly contained when they captured me. The officer sat across the table from me.
“Is this correct?” he asked, as he handed me the list. I glanced down at it.
“No,” I replied. “When I was captured, I had four bars of chocolate, four tins of meat and a carton of cigarettes.”
He took the list from my hand, yelling something to the two Dutch SS officers. The German wasn’t satisfied with their answers. He drew his pistol from its holster and set it on the table in front of him. One of the Dutch SS officers left the room. I heard heavy footsteps above. In a few moments the man came down and emptied a green canvas bag on the table in front of the German officer. Among its contents was my carton of cigarettes – with one package missing. The Dutch SS officer reached into his pockets and put three chocolate bars on the table next to the cigarette carton.
The German officer was angry. He added the chocolate and cigarettes to the list and handed it to me. “Sign it.”
“Very well, it will make no difference.” He continued, “Now, you said last night that you had been before, near Apeldoorn. Also, you stated that you were trying to reach your regiment after escaping from our troops, correct?”
He looked me straight in the eye.
“You are a lying dog! Do you expect me to believe that our German soldiers would allow you to keep your meat, chocolate, and cigarettes? These fools here may believe you, but I do not!”
“You shall be allowed to wash and shave. You will put the contents back into your haversack, except the cigarettes. I will hold them in safekeeping until I decide what we will do with you.”
After I washed and shaved, guards escorted me back to the table. My haversack’s contents were dumped again out on the table. Under the German officer’s watchful eye, the soldiers checked off the items on the list against those on the table. They then put everything, except the cigarettes, back into my haversack. The German officer buckled it shut and tied a tag to it. He then turned to me, “You must be stiff in the legs. You will be permitted to go outside under escort and allowed five minutes’ exercise.”
A young German soldier took me to the front driveway of the house. He held a sub-machinegun at the ready position. I knew from the orders they had given him that I would be shot if I tried to escape. My exercise consisted of brisk walks back and forth on the driveway, from an iron gate by the road to the door of the house – a distance of about 75 feet. My escort stood outside the door; another guard was posted by the gate. As I walked back and forth, I made mental notes of my surroundings.
The house was of white stucco with heavy black beams on the outsides of the gables. It was very large with dormer windows in the high-pitched roof. I could only see the east side and the south end, but I guessed there were 14 or 15 large rooms in it. The driveway was white crushed stone. I particularly noted the black, wrought-iron gates. In the centre of each was the Barred Lightening Flash insignia of the Dutch Nazi Party. (I later learned that the house was the headquarters of the Dutch Nazi Party in Baarn.)
As I walked back and forth, newcomers arrived in a small car. They looked at me as if I were an object of curiosity as they drove by and parked near the house.
A few minutes later, the German officer who had interrogated me called to the soldier at the gates. He immediately left his post and ordered me back to the room where they questioned me before.
The two new arrivals had a meal laid out on the table. It was 16 hours since I last ate. The thought of food caused an empty feeling in my stomach. The German officer asked me, “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” I answered.
He placed a piece of black bread on a sheet of paper and passed it to me. Then he poured some black liquid into a cup and handed it to me.
“It isn’t a very good breakfast,” he said, “But it may be the last you’ll have for a long while to come. The unteroffizer and escort have come to take you to the Hole.”
After I ate the last scraps of black bread and drank cocoa that tasted like coffee, they took me outside. They placed me in the back compartment of the small car. The German officer handed me my haversack. Then the unteroffizer got in the passenger’s side and drew his pistol. He kept it pointed at me while his comrade drove.
Twenty minutes later we halted at the gates of the prison camp near Amersfoort. A high wire mesh fence, topped with barbed wire, surrounded the wooden barracks. The camp was not large, possibly about three square acres in area. At each of the four corners of the enclosure, a watchtower stood. These were built of bare wooden posts. At the top of each tower, a machinegun was mounted. It appeared they manned it only at night.
Near the camp’s centre was another machine-gun tower, facing toward the gate. It was manned by two German soldiers when they took me there, before noon, on the second day of my captivity.
On entering the prison camp, they first took me to the commandant’s office. There they searched me and questioned again. They removed the tag from the buckle of my haversack and opened it, checking the contents against the list inside.
After the interrogation ended, the young interpreter who was asking the questions told me that they had been informed that I was sent to that camp because there were no Prisoner of War camps that they could send me to in the vicinity. So, it was up to them to decide what would be done with me. The officer in charge of the patrol in Baarn had noted that I was a re-captured prisoner. I had made an escape earlier in the day that I was re-captured and so I was to be held in solitary confinement until the oberlieutnant decided my fate. The interpreter put it, “Until die offizeren decides how, and in what manner you will be disposed.”
After they finished their brief questioning, they handed me back my haversack. They had returned its contents to it. Soldiers then escorted me to a wooded area behind the barracks. This was my introduction to the Hole.
On the way to it, I was able to see other prisoners. I saw a lot even from my fleeting look from 25 yards distance. All appeared to be civilians. Many were suffering the final stages of starvation. They were but moving skeletons.
The Hole was a concrete chamber 3 x 3 metres square. The only entrance was a trapdoor in the roof. Small trees and underbrush almost concealed the structure. The walls were almost completely below ground level. My escort opened the trapdoor and motioned for me to go down. When I reached the foot of the inside ladder, he slammed the steel door down and locked it.
For a few moments I could see nothing. The smell of mould and human excrement choked off my breath. When my eyes finally adjusted to the dark interior, I made out a small barred window near the top of one wall. In the dim light, I took stock of my new home. The floor sloped down toward the centre. A round hole there served as crapper, urinal, and a place to vomit. The previous resident had left the marks of his retching on the concrete floor.
The only furnishing was a bare iron cot. It was solidly fastened to one wall. On the opposite wall was the window with a concrete step below, permitting me to see out. Since the walls were about ten inches thick, the panorama was restricted. So very alone, I crouched down and looked up. I could just barely see the sky. The ground in front of the window was overgrown with weeds; beyond that, only small trees.
When I finished surveying my hopeless surroundings, I sat on the cot and checked my haversack. My shirt, clean socks, towel, and shaving gear were all intact. I was surprised to find they’d left me two packages of cigarettes and a box of matches.
Later that evening, the young solider who had acted as interpreter came. He brought me a bowl of watery potato soup. I didn’t hear him approaching and jumped, startled, when he suddenly banged his boot heel on the trapdoor.
“Go to the window and I will hand you a bowl of soup through the bars.”
He passed me the soup. Then he crouched down in front of the window. I could see his face through the bars. He pushed an old blanket through, saying, “Here is something for you to sleep on. You must drink your soup quickly and give me back the dish. I have orders not to wait too long. If you do not drink it, I am to leave the dish with you. If I do not take the dish now, they will give you nothing to eat tomorrow.”
I had no choice. I wanted to live. I gulped down the warm sickly mixture in one swallow. It had been 12 hours since I had had anything to eat or drink. My stomach revolted, but I managed to hold the soup down. I asked, “How long will they keep me in the Hole?”
He replied, matter-of-fact, “I don’t know. Many have died here so you really do not matter.”
When he left (with the bowl), I tried to see if I could force the trapdoor. It was securely fasted and any attempt would be a waste of time and energy. I sat on the cot and thought sadly about my predicament. Had my worst fears come to pass?
Netherlands in World War II, 1940-1945
At the outbreak of World War II, the Dutch government declared neutrality. On May 10th, German forces invaded without declaring war. On May 14th, the German airforce bombed Rotterdam, after the city surrendered. They destroyed more than 40 % of the famous port city. Dutch forces surrendered on May 15th. The royal family and many leading politicians escaped to London where they formed a Government-in-Exile. From London, Radio Oranje (Radio Orange) kept the Netherlands up-to-date with information from the free world. Some of the Dutch Royal family came to Canada.
On June 29th 1940 (Anderdag), many Dutch wore a white carnation to express their support for their royal family. White carnations were the favourite flower of Prince Bernhard, Queen Wilhelmina’s German-born husband. June 29th was his birthday. The German military removed portraits and statues of Wilhelmina and Bernhard. People drilled holes in coins featuring the queen and wore them.
The Germans had little success in convincing the Dutch, supposedly also Aryans, to join the Nazi cause. In February 1941 the Dutch pulled a massive strike to protest anti-Semitic measures of the Nazis. In September 1944 the Dutch struck again to try to weaken German resistance to the approaching Allied forces. Most Dutch loathed the occupation and sympathized with the resistance. However, there were some collaborators. Many were members of the Dutch Nazi Party, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB), found by A.A. Mussert.
The Nazis forced Dutch Jews to register, and later deport them. A number of Dutch hid Jews at personal risk. Westerbork Camp was a transit facility, next stops Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. The Jewish community of the Netherlands suffered considerably higher losses in the Holocaust compared to the Jewish communities of other countries in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. The Nazis deported more than 500,000 Dutch to Germany to use in the German economy as forced labour. About 30,000 of them died before the end of the war.
The Allies tried unsuccessfully to take the Rhine bridge at Arnhem intact in Operation Market Garden. Most of the Netherlands remained occupied until the end of the war. Hitler demanded that the dikes be blown up and the countryside flooded. The Wieringermeerpolder was flooded in April 1945. The German commander in charge prevented a major disaster by exaggerating the amount of dynamite needed.
Food became very scarce. In response to the strike of September 1944, the Germans outlawed the import of food into the highly populated areas of Holland and Zeeland in October 1944. The period until liberation in May 1945 thus is known as the Hunger Winter. Many died of starvation.
Arthur Seyss-Inquaart was an Austrian that the Nazis appointed Reichsstatthalter (Reich Commissioner) for the Netherlands. The Nuremberg Tribunals in 1946 convicted him of war crimes and sentenced him to death. He was executed. A Dutch tribunal sentenced A.A. Mussert to death in 1945. based on a summary from http://www.whkmla.info
During 1944-45, Europe experienced one of the coldest, bleakest winters in well over a century. Even if it had been normal peace time, governments would have had difficulty maintaining enough food supplies and keeping up services. A German army of over 125,000 men occupied two-thirds of Holland. The Allies, near victory, almost completely surrounded them. Allied planes constantly attacked the sea and land links with their own mother country. Their supply lines were nearly non-existent. Fuel supplies for the German tanks and vehicles were cut off. Ammunition was the only thing they seemed to have plenty of.
Many enemy soldiers began to feel that they had little to lose except their lives. The Dutch civilian population responded at the beginning of the German occupation in May 1940 with forced friendship, tolerance, and, sometimes, collaboration. By the mid 1943, they had turned wholeheartedly against the Nazi. This change showed itself in quiet hatred and open defiance as well as underground warfare.
The Germany army in Holland in early 1945 was in a hopeless situation. Their hunger reduced the troops to plundering cities, towns, and countryside to the point of starving the civilian population right to the verge of death and beyond. The Germans were reduced to setting up roadblocks on all routes into major cities, such as Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht, to seize whatever they could for their men. They even confiscated the few small potatoes, carrots and other scraps they found in civilian pockets. Whatever starvation the German army endured, the people of occupied Holland suffered ten-fold. In some cities, the Germans set up soup kitchens. There any civilian with a ration card could get a bowl of potato soup a day. The Jews (in hiding) had no ration cards.
The Hunger Winter became so desperate that, if one family member died, the family didn’t report it so the extra bowl of soup could help others survive. Many bodies of the unreported dead were weighted down and dumped, under the cover of darkness, into canals. In their desperation, many city dwellers turned to their gardens and window boxes for mature tulip bulbs. Many who ate tulip bulbs fell seriously ill as the tulips bulb’s centre is poisonous.
Since there was no longer heating fuel, people chopped down the trees in the parks and hauled up street railroad timbers for firewood. Abandoned houses, including those of vanished Jews, were demolished for their wood. Quite often, German soldieries walked into Dutch homes and took the stove as well as the firewood even as the family huddled around it to keep warm.
There is much hatred and bitterness in war. We in the Canadian Armed Forces had a lot to be thankful for. We were volunteers. We grew up under a free and democratic system of government. We could re-elect or remove our government though the use of a free and secret ballot every four or five years.
The tyranny, victimization, and inhumanity of war made us aware of how special our own freedoms were. The war, for many of us, including myself, was a school of life.
As members of the armed forces of Canada, we had the right to appeal against any unjust punishment through the Right To Redress. If our appeal was heard, we had the right to be represented by a person of our own choosing and to call witnesses in our defence. Because of our particular culture, a mostly unwritten moral code governed us. It defined our conduct toward our fellow human beings. As soldiers and as human beings, most Canadians played by the rules.
The ordinary German soldier was as decent a human being as we were. Before I judged harshly, based on bitterness and prejudice, I had to consider that most of the enemy soldiers were young men who had only known life under an absolute dictatorship. They looked to a Nazi machine that promised them everything, like a messiah. It took credit for giving them a better life, collectively, than their parents had ever known.
Nazism, with is seemingly high ideals of nationalism and socialism, exploited naïve patriotism until patriotism was elevated into blind religious fanaticism. Once it reached that peak, there was no turning back. A glorious and prosperous future awaited.
To speak out against the Nazis or to express any thought that could be construed as unpatriotic toward nation or the “gods” of leadership was punishable by imprisonment or even death. There was no appeal.
The German nation was under the complete control of a military code of discipline. It permitted no questions or refusing an order. A senior officer could order a subordinate shot for that. It didn’t matter if the order was reasonable or not. Would I have acted any differently than the ordinary German citizen or ordinary Germany soldier if I had grown up under those circumstances?
Sitting on the cot, I at last grew too tired to stay awake. Without another thought of war, I fell asleep. The next morning I was already up when the guard brought my morning soup. It was no different than the bowl of the previous evening. As I passed the empty dish back out through the bars, I asked, “Could I have some water please?”
He shook his head and didn’t answer me.
Left alone again, I realized I was losing track of the days since I had left my regiment back in Garderen. I was uncertain in it was Day Three or Day Four. I could not remember when I had last eaten a proper meal, taken a bath or enjoyed a true good night’s sleep. The thin soup didn’t calm the hunger pangs that seemed to deaden all other senses. Neither did it quench a thirst that was growing intolerable.
Before dark fell that evening, the interpreter came with a jar of water.
“Do not drink it all at once because I will not bring you more until tomorrow evening,” he whispered. “When the jar is empty you must throw it out the window into the bushes. If they find the empty jar in your cell, I shall be in serious trouble. You must not scream or make any loud sound. If you do, the Commandant will become very angry.”
“Could you punch some more holes in my waist belt?” I asked him. “It won’t hold my trousers up anymore.”
I passed the belt out to him and he made some more holes with his clasp knife. Then he handed the belt back to me. With that he was gone. The cool water blunted my hunger pains a little. Later, when I lay down on the cot, I quickly went to sleep. Though I awakened early the next day, it was nearly noon before the interpreter brought my soup. I drank it much slower than I had on the previous days.
The interpreter was quite excited. He blurted, “The prison camp staff is preparing to move out. But none of the prisoners have been taken away.”
He went on, “All hostilities are at a standstill. We expect that Allied troops will be in Amersfoort tomorrow.”
“What do you think they intend to do with me?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” was the only answer and he took the empty bowl and left.
The weather was getting warmer so the stench inside my cell ripened, becoming almost unbearable. I had no means of keeping myself clean. I felt my flesh was crawling under my clothing. I could do nothing to ease the predicament I had gotten myself into. I began to understand another meaning of the phrase, “War is a dirty business.”
Before dusk that day, I was surprised to hear voices and people approaching the Hole. They unlocked the hatch and ordered me to climb out. My legs were so weak I had difficulty scaling the ladder.
The interpreter and an officer, the one who had interrogated me the first morning after my capture, stood on the roof waiting for me to emerge. They took me back to the Commandant’s office. There they gave me a cup of hot chocolate. They ordered me to sit down while they carefully checked my haversack contents. All was intact, save for one pack of cigarettes I’d smoked. They gave me another hot drink and a slice of black bread.
“This camp is closing and I have orders to take you to our SS Headquarters in Amsterdam,” said the officer. “You will wash and clean yourself up. You have clean underclothes. You will be permitted one half hour. We leave here in one hour’s time.”
The officer left. Others led me to a washroom. I had difficulty walking. Having been in the darkness of The Hole for so long, my eyes couldn’t adjust to bright light. After I stripped and washed, shaved and rinsed my head under the cold water tap, I sponged off my body. Then I donned my clean set of underwear, clean socks and put my battledress back on. Once back in uniform, I felt much better. While I was naked, I looked at my body. I had lost a lot of weight. When I touched my ribs, it hurt.
Precisely on the hour, they escorted me to the same small car that I had arrived in. They put me in the back compartment. The other occupants of the car were the officer, the interpreter, and an NCO. The officer drove and the NCO sat on my right in the back seat. The officer was the only one of the three who spoke to me during the long drive to Amsterdam.
There was a lot of traffic on the highway. All of it seemed to be heading towards Amsterdam and to the area to the west of the city. There were vehicles of all kinds. Horses pulled wagons. Men pulled other wagons.
We slowed down and pulled over to the side of the highway a few times when Allied planes flew over. It became clear the planes weren’t going to bomb or fire on the Germans on the ground so we continued on our way.
It was late evening when we arrived at a large white building near the centre of Amsterdam. The black flag flying on a pole on the building bore the insignia of the German SS. We entered the building and, for reasons unknown to me, the German officer was friendlier as he led me to an upstairs office. He let me sit down and rest a moment before a fresh round of interrogation began. They asked all of the same questions I had already been asked four or five times before. However, they did not search me again.
After the fresh round of questions finished, the German officer that had been in charge of me in the car now became the only one to speak directly to me.
“One of our patrols in Baarn has found your bedroll. None of our units operating in the Apeldoorn area have reported taking you prisoner. Neither have you been listed with the neutral authorities as a captive of the German Army. Finally, neither has the Canadian Army reported you as Missing – Believed Prisoner of War to the International Red Cross in Switzerland.”
“Perhaps,” he suggested, “it is quite possible, that, because of the chaotic state of affairs at our army headquarters, the proper reports have not been filed.”
Then he stopped.
I wasn’t sure what re really thought of me or if he believed anything that I had told him. I asked him, “What date is it?”
“May 3rd,” he answered. I was shocked.
It was April 28th when I left Garderen.
When our conversation finished, the officer said, “Stay where you are until I return.”
He left the door open as he went to another office further down the hallway. As I sat there, I could see other people passing by the open door. Some were civilians escorted by SS men in their black uniforms. I didn’t have the faintest idea of what would happen to me.
I waited only a few minutes before the officer came back. He led me to a small dining room where I had my first meal that tasted like food in five days – roast horse meat in gravy with boiled turnips. After I ate, he took me down to the first floor and out into the street. It was nearly dark as we walked down some side streets and entered a house near one of the canals. He pointed to the stairs, “Go up”.
When we reached the third floor, he unlocked the door to an apartment. Though it was not very large, the apartment was nicely decorated, with those special touches that betrayed the recent presence of a woman. The faint odour of perfume and other cosmetics contrasted vividly with the reek of the place where I had spent the past four days and nights in Einzelhafft (solitary confinement).
There was very little furniture, but, from the outlines in the dust in the room’s corners, clearly someone had removed furniture recently.
I wanted to know why the officer had brought me there. My curiosity was satisfied when he motioned to me to sit down on one of the chairs. I sat while he remained standing.
“You are wondering why I have brought you here to this apartment. I have been stationed here at SS Headquarters for the past six months. I shared this apartment with a lady friend. I had her moved out yesterday because Amsterdam is no longer safe for her.”
“Also,” he continued, “We have received orders from our military command to cease all hostilities. Our orders are to move all of our forces to a concentration area in South Velsen and another in North Velsen. That is near the North Sea Terminus of the North Sea Canal that connects the sea to the Ijessel at Amsterdam. We will leave here tomorrow or the next day. You shall be free to make your own way back to your army, but I would advise you to wait until your troops have occupied the city. Many of our troops are still armed and they might shoot you on sight. Furthermore, many Dutch, men and women, are also armed. They might think you are German and shoot you too.”
I thanked him. As he was about to leave, he handed me the keys to the apartment and said, “Goodbye and good luck.”
He quietly closed the door behind him and left. I listened to his footsteps as he went down the stairs and out into the street.
I opened my haversack and lit a cigarette from the candle that he’d left burning in an ashtray on the floor. I sat and thought a long while before I took off my clothes and got into the first bed I had been in since I was on leave in Florence the previous October. I slept soundly.
I awoke early the next morning to the sounds of heavy traffic. From the third story window, I saw hundreds of German military vehicles loaded with men and equipment moving west out of the city. The windows across the road were cloaked in darkness, but I could see the silhouettes of Amsterdammers watching the retreat. I decided to take the German officer’s advice and stay put, for sure.
There was no hot water in the apartment and only a trickle from the cold water taps. I decided that, since I would be in the apartment for a while, I would wash some of my dirty clothes. When I dumped my haversack out on the floor, I was surprised to find my Pay Book and Soldier’s Record of Service Book. They were in the bottom of the haversack. The last time I saw them was the night I was captured and searched.
I had enough face soap to wash and rinse my clothes. My uniform was rather smelly and slightly wrinkled from having been slept in for so many days. I dampened it and laid it flat in front of the open casement window so it would dry quickly. I draped the freshly-washed underwear and shirt on the windowsill.
When it was light enough to see inside the apartment, I searched it thoroughly. I found no food, but I wasn’t too worried. At least I would have enough water to drink. I was accustomed to going many hours without eating.
In a cupboard, I found some bottles of scented water that were almost empty. I poured the remains of the contents into one bottle and mixed it with a few drops of water. Then I sprinkled it over the inside and outside of my uniform, the clothes I’d just washed and the interior and exterior of my haversack. The odour from them was still strong, but, at least, it was masked by something sweeter and cleaner-smelling.
I decided to wait until evening before I would try to make my way southwest away from Amsterdam. I knew that the Germans would not be moving completely until the Allied troops approached. Quite often during the day, I went to the window to see what was happening in the street. Toward afternoon, the long line of Germans began to thin – although there were still quite a few that seemed to be stragglers or rearguards.
Before it was dark, I suddenly sensed someone observing me from the house across the street. Very carefully, I took in the clothes that I had laid to dry. I closed the window. Then I put on my uniform and packed my stuff back into my haversack. I removed my money and leave paper from the collar of my jacket. They had survived their ordeal well. I tucked them into my pay book. I decided that, the next time someone asked me to show them, I wouldn’t try to hide the fact that I was supposed to be in England on leave. I hoped that the next time I would need to produce my service book it would be to one of our own Allied units.
Darkness was falling. I was about to leave the apartment. Just then, I heard footsteps and voices of two people ascending the stairs. My stomach somersaulted. While the door was locked, there was no way I could leave the apartment without being detected. If I tried to go out by way of the window, it would be very difficult because of the height to the street.
At first I though they were German soldiers. Then I recognized that one of the voices was a woman’s. I listened to try to determine if they were going to another apartment. They stopped directly at the locked door of the room where I stood. For a few moments they didn’t speak or make a sound. Clearly, they were listening to detect someone in the apartment. I made no sound until, suddenly, they banged on the door.
I realized there was no way to bluff my way out of the trap I was in. Calmly I went to the door, unlocked it and opened it wide. A man and woman in civilian clothes stood at the door.
I startled. The woman pointed a pistol at my stomach. While she kept the gun on me, the man grabbed me by the shoulder and forced me around to face against the corridor wall. He frisked my pockets and pant legs for weapons. Then the woman shoved the pistol into my back while her companion searched my haversack. While they were searching me, neither spoke.
When they were finished, they forced me back into the apartment. The woman spoke to me in German, but the only thing I could understand was that they though I was a German. I motioned to the front pocket of my jacket. The man walked around me. Reaching over my shoulder, he removed my Soldier’s Service Book from my jacket pocket. Taking a flashlight from his pocket, he used it to read what was printed on the front cover. In perfect English, he read aloud, “Canadian Soldier’s Record of Service”.
The woman stepped forward to examine what he had just read. I caught a glimpse of her face in the beam. She was one of the people I had seen in the house across the street during the day. At that moment, my state of mind was such that my first thought was that these two were probably German Gestapo. I feared capture by civilians more than by soldiers. Soldiers had a measure of respect for soldiers they caught; civilians usually didn’t.
They ordered me to put my belongings back into the haversack. The woman took it and told me to walk ahead of them. When we reached the street, the man led the way. The woman walked behind with her pistol pointed at my back. We crossed the road to the house opposite. We entered.
Three other men were in the room there. In the dim light, I could see that they all wore armbands with blue, orange and white bars. They spoke Dutch. From their gestures and the few words of Dutch that I understood, I knew they were discussing me. The contents of my haversack were strewn across the table. The men examined them closely. They were searching for any marks that would indicate they were German Army issue. Only when everyone in the room was satisfied that I might be Canadian, did they begin to question me in English.
“I was taken prisoner on April 30th at Baarn. I spent three or four days in The Hole at the prison camp near Amersfoort. Then they took me to the SS Headquarters here in Amsterdam.”
Then I told them how I ended up in the house across the street from theirs. After they asked me a lot of questions about Baarn, the Amersfoort camp, and the SS headquarters, they told me to describe each place in as much detail as I could. Clearly some of the people knew what the places looked like on the inside. I wondered if they had ever been prisoners. When they finally were satisfied with my answers, they relaxed, happy to have found me in the apartment.
They told me that they knew I was in the apartment for most of that afternoon. They also knew that the officer who had brought me there the evening before was an SS officer. He lived there for some time with his Dutch mistress. They had seen the Germans move her out a few days earlier. They kept watch there to find out if the officer or his mistress returned to the building.
My ‘hosts’ were, they told me, members of the Amsterdam Underground Army. Earlier that day some of their members had contacted forward elements of the Canadian Army in the city’s southern outskirts. Apparently, the Allies agreed that the Germans could withdraw completely from Amsterdam before the Allies entered. The Dutch expected that the city would be liberated by the following day, May 5th. Until then, they would hold me. When the Allies entered, the Underground would free me to rejoin the liberators.
They gave me back my haversack. I took out the remainder of my last package of cigarettes and divided them up among the people in the room. After all, they were no longer treating me as a prisoner. Though they had no food to offer me, they did have a partly-full bottle of raw gin.
More people arrived at the house. Many had been out in the streets checking on the retreating Germans. Others came in to confirm that Canadian troops were near the city. We all talked late into the night. They told me about conditions in Amsterdam. Thousands still suffered from hunger and lack of medical attention.
I fell fast asleep in a chair. The one drink of gin I had sank like a sedative on my empty stomach. I tried to stay awake, but couldn’t. I woke early in the morning to find myself alone except for the woman who had stuck the pistol in my back the day before.
“You must wash quickly and then come with me,” she said. “The Canadians are here in the city. The Underground soldiers have put on their uniforms, taken their rifles, and are going out to meet your troops before noon.”
I donned my uniform quickly and we went out into the street together. Thousands headed toward the part of the city where they expected the first Canadians. I didn’t intend to be recognized as a Canadian by the first Canadian troops we met. I removed my beret and battledress jacket and stuffed them into my haversack. As we approached the Berligbrugge, I saw the Underground lined up on both sides of the bridge. They were an honour guard for the first Canadian soldiers who were now about to cross the bridge.
My guide and I found a good vantage point on the second floor of one of the buildings. From there we could see the Canadians from our upper window.
It was an emotional scene. Dutch, British, and American flags, bunting, and signs of welcome in English and Dutch bedecked the buildings. People arrived from every direction. They bore outward signs of the severe conditions through which they had suffered and survived during the last years of the Nazi occupation. The vast majority showed the marks. Most had sunken eyes and cheeks. Their bodies and limbs were almost skeletal. Yet many now dressed in their best for this, the most important occasion of their lives. True, the clothes hung loose on many, betraying advanced stages of malnutrition, but the smiles on their faces were easy to interpret.
Indeed, victory was theirs. They were free; their country was free.
Bren-gun carriers and jeeps came into view. The crowd surged en masse towards them. In a few seconds the drivers had to stop because they could not see the road. People, old and young, crowded onto the vehicles. They embraced the Bren-carrier and jeep crew, laughing and weeping.
Shouts of “Welcome Canadians!” built into an endless chorus. Men and women handed our troops bouquet upon bouquet of flowers.
I stood in the window watching the Underground clear a path for the Canadian vehicles. People had told me that conditions in Amsterdam were very bad. They said that, when the first troops entered the city, the populace would be deeply stirred. Still, the scene I witnessed on the morning of May 5th, 1945 would be, I believe, inconceivable to anyone who did not witness it personally.
The first vehicles continued slowly advancing toward the Dam Square. The first were Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards. These were both regiments of the First Canadian Division. The crowds forced the vehicles to creep along so slowly that I could see that there were men from other Canadian units, including a few men from mine.
It suddenly struck me that, if I waited for the right moment, I’d be able to put on my jacket and beret and descend to the street. Then I could wait for my chance to join in with the troops who had dismounted from their vehicles. I would be lost among the heroes being embraced and kissed by the crowd standing shoulder to shoulder, 30 to 50 deep on both sides of the convoy.
I donned my battledress jacket and beret.
“Goodbye,” I said to the Dutch woman.
We smiled at each other, and, then, I plunged into the mass of cerebrating Amsterdammers. When I reached the centre of the crowd on the side of the street, the throng of well wishers mobbed me immediately, crying “Welcome Canada!”, “Thank You, Canada!”, “Long live England!”, and “Love live the Netherlands!”
Some seemed too numb to express themselves – they knelt on the pavement and wept openly.
Before long, I was able to board a truck that belonged to the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards.
“Hey! What are you doing on my truck?” shouted a sergeant.
“I came in on one of the Seaforth’s carriers, but, when I got off, the crowd was so dense that I couldn’t get back on,” I lied.
He nodded, smiled and accepted my tale without further questions. Before reaching the Dam Square, the convoy halted. Some of the vehicles took up headquarters in a nearby school. Then, because of the shortage of food, the army detailed some of the trucks to return to the base supply depot near Nijmegen to pick up supplies. They would then bring the food back to Amsterdam. When I heard this, I went and found one of the drivers of a three-ton truck that was about to leave. I explained to him that I had a leave pass, but before I could get away, was picked to go with the first troops to reach Amsterdam.
“Now that we are in the city,” I explained, “I am permitted to continue on to Nijmegen, and from there, to England on leave.”
“You could check my story out, but unfortunately the officer in charge of me has already returned to the R.C.R.s. In the confusion, I missed my chance to go with him.”
I went on to tell him how others really expected to be in Nijmegen that night or early the next day. I showed him my pass and my pay book. That convinced him that it was OK to give me a lift to Nijmegen.
I arrived in Nijmegen early on the morning of May 6th. After a good bath and a cleanup, I ate a solid breakfast of bacon, boiled eggs, toast, and oatmeal cereal. A few blocks from the leave centre, I found a cleaners shop where I had my uniform pressed. I returned to the leave centre and waited around until I found a group of other Canadians who were being processed for leaves to England.
It was apparent that many of those going on leave had been delayed from leaving their regiments. Why? Most regiments were on the move into western and northern Holland when the passes were issued. They asked no questions, therefore, about why my pass had been issued a week before.
I spent the night in the leave centre at Nijmegen and the following morning, May 7th, I boarded a train to Calais. Just before the train left, it was announced that the war in Europe was officially over!
Although the Allies had liberated Nijmegen and the surrounding areas of southern Holland late in 1944, May 7th became Liberation Day all over again. Troops and civilians alike began to celebrate this final victory. As the train chugged across Belgium and France, I saw celebrations in every town and city. They reflected the great happiness that liberation from enemy occupation meant to the people of Western Europe.
Among the hundreds of troops on the train, I met no one that I knew. A single soldier alone, I just sat back, enjoying what I could see from the train window as we crossed towards the coast. The full implications of the end of the war in Europe did not hit me then. The previous week had, in some way, summed up my five years of war. Though mentally and physically exhausted, I was, thank God, alive.
V-E Day, the 8th of May, I arrived in Calais at dawn. The train pulled to a halt at the ferry terminus. In prewar days, it had been the ferry crossing to the English port, Dover. When the train stopped, I immediately sought out a café. It was a while before someone came to take my order of toast and tea.
The owner apologized, “My wife and I spent the night on the town. We celebrated the end of the war!”
Most of the town’s residents had joined them. There were few civilians up and about at that time of the morning. The café was empty. While I was eating, two young ladies entered the café. Well-dressed and attractive, they took a table near to mine. They ordered coffee. While they were waiting for their coffee, they asked if they could join me at my table. Since we were the only customers there, I said, “Sure.”
I was glad for the company. I learned from their conversation that they were from Paris and on holiday in Calais. They expected to meet their boyfriends there. As they spoke fairly good English, I took my time eating while I talked to them. When they had finished their coffee, they got up promptly and left.
I noticed that they forgot to pay for their drinks.
“Oh well,” I smiled to myself, “They are nice girls and I have money to spare.”
I didn’t mind paying for them. When I finished my toast and tea and was about to pay the café owner, I saw a small business card tucked under one of the saucers where the women had sat.
I picked it up and turned it over. I read, “Two Lovely Young Girls from Paris: Nanette & Paulette, Room 3.” It had the house number and the street in Calais where I could find them. I knew then that I was back in civilization. I paid the café owner for their coffee and my own tab.
I then returned to the terminus. About a dozen Canadian paymasters sat at tables. They were shelling out to those who wanted to draw their pay before crossing the Channel to England.
At the thought of England, my heart warmed a little more. Though it wasn’t home, it was a step closer to Margaret.
The Gifts of War
At 10 a.m., I boarded the steamer for the short trip to Dover. I arrived at 1 p.m. and got on the train for London. The Kentish countryside was beautiful. As the train sped past small towns and villages, the usually staid English showed that they too, could open themselves up for the occasion. People were celebrating everywhere.
The train pulled into the station in London around three in the afternoon. People packed the platforms. Most of them were coming to London for the V-E Day celebrations. Very few were leaving the city.
I made my way to the Railway Transport Office. Before I departed Calais, the R.T.O. there told me to report to the R.T.O. in London where I would receive information regarding the Crossing Number. I would need it when my leave was finished and I would have to go back to France. At the London R.T.O., they gave me the number and the date, and instructions to listen to the B.B.C. on that day and the day before. The B.B.C. would announce any delays in crossing due to foul weather.
My leave started officially on May 1st. Two days were allowed for travelling each way to England and back to Holland so I still had seven days to enjoy myself in England. After I came out of the London R.T.O., I returned to the platform. I intended to leave right away for Hornchurch. I was going to my uncle’s home and to see Margaret and her family.
On the platform there was a booth with a large sign above it, saying “Prisoner of War Information Desk”. Among the men milling about in front of the desk were two I recognized. One was Waldo and the other was Criss. They were two snipers from my scout platoon. The Germans had captured both at Rimini Airport the previous September. I went up behind them and slapped them both on the back at the same time.
Waldo spun around. He immediately recognize me, shouting, “Tom! You old son-of-a-whore! How are you?”
All of London must have heard. The faces of the three very young ladies at the desk blushed scarlet. The three of us nearly killed ourselves laughing. I quickly explained to the young ladies, “We haven’t seen each other in quite a long, long while!”
When they realized that Waldo’s greeting was not a reflection on my mother’s character, they laughed along with us.
After the reunion with Waldo and Criss, I went on my way via the underground and the L.N.E.R. to Hornchurch. When I arrived at my uncle’s house, the only person at home was my grandmother. My uncle and aunt were in London to take part in the victory celebrations in front of Buckingham Palace. During the next hour with my grandmother, I asked about Margaret. “Do you know where Margaret Stevens is?”
“Oh, Margaret is now stationed in Aldershot with the Auxiliary Territorial Service,” my grandmother told me. The Auxiliary Territorial Service, more commonly known as the A.T.S., was the women’s branch of the British Army.
“Would you have her address?” I asked.
She said, “I just received a letter from Margaret a few days ago.”
She gave me an envelope with the address on it.
“Thanks, Grandmother” I said, “I’ll be back to see you in a few days.”
Leaving the house, I headed for railway station near Upminster Bridge. I went back to London and from there I travelled to Aldershot. I had no difficulty finding Parsons Barracks – where Margaret was billeted.
I told the civilian guard at the gates, “I wish to speak to Margaret Stevens, one of the young women who are billeted here.”
I waited nervously as the elderly man went to phone to try and find her. It was two years since we had last seen each other. I was uncertain as to how she would feel towards me. In my mind, I still pictured her as the beautiful 16-year old she was when I had seen her last. At 18 she could only be much more beautiful and worthy of suitors. I was determined that I would not leave Aldershot until I had seen her and spoken with her.
The old guard returned in a few minutes and said, “Margaret will be along in a few minutes.”
He went about his business. I waited a few more anxious moments and there she was! We embraced. Then we stood back and just looked at each other. We had both changed, but our feelings towards each other had not.
Margaret had just returned from the victory celebrations at Buckingham Palace in London. She told me to wait while she went to ask her Commanding Officer for a few days leave so that she could go back to my uncle’s house in Hornchurch with me. A half hour later she returned, all smiles, with a leave pass in her hand.
I remember absolutely nothing of our trip to Hornchurch. All my attention was on Margaret. We spent two wonderful days together. When her two-day pass was up, we both went back to Aldershot. I found an empty room at Maida Barracks. This was the first barracks that I was in when I first arrived in England in 1941. The room had bunks with mattresses. I slept there and got my meals at one of the mess halls. There many Canadians in transit on their way home to Canada had their meals.
I spent the evenings with Margaret. When the weekend came, she got another pass so we went back to Hornchurch. My 14 days leave was coming to an end. Each evening at six o’clock my aunt and uncle listened carefully to the B.B.C. They were listening for the announcement that my Crossing number was one of those cancelled because of rough weather over the Channel. I was fortunate. Four days in a row my Crossing was cancelled. On the Sunday evening Margaret was preparing to go back to Aldershot. We sat alone on the chesterfield in my uncle’s living room.
“Margaret, will you marry me?” I suddenly blurted out.
I can’t recall what her immediate reaction was, but she didn’t say, “No”. Yet neither did she say, “Yes!”
It struck me that maybe I had rushed things a bit. After all, we had only seen each other for a few days after being apart for two years. There were other factors to consider too. She was only 18 years old and would have to get her parents’ written consent. She would also need special permission from the British Army. I would have to get the consent of the Canadian Army. I was stationed in Europe; she was stationed in England.
Margaret, sweetly, asked me to give her time to make a proper decision. Deep inside, I knew her answer would be, “Yes” so I was happy to wait for the day when her final reply would come.
On that Sunday evening, I took Margaret back to Aldershot. After we said our “Goodbyes, I returned to Hornchurch. The next evening at six the B.B.C. announced that my Crossing Number would leave from Dover at noon the following day.
On the 18th of May, I rejoined my regiment at Ijmuiden, on the North Sea coast near Haarlem. When I got there, I went directly to what was left of my former platoon. Now it was made up mostly of many new arrivals and men who had served in other platoons and companies of The Royal Canadian Regiment. Of the 32 men who had started out with the Scout Platoon in February, 1944, only five were left in the entire regiment.
Lieutenant Quayle, now Captain Quayle, was back with the regiment after recovering from wounds. So were many other officers and other ranks of the R.C.R.s. All the same, despite new faces and a new peace, we were still an army.
When I arrived in Ijmuiden, I found out about our regimental duties in the area. We were holding in confinement thousands of German soldiers and Kriegsmarines. They had surrendered themselves and their weapons on May 8th. The Allies were shipping many of these P.O.W.s back to ports in Germany by boat from the docks of Ijmuiden.
My stay in Ijmuiden was pleasant. When we weren’t on duty, time passed leisurely. People were friendly and there was a lot of entertainment for us. The R.C.R. band was reorganized. Each evening there was a ceremonial changing of the guard in front of regimental headquarters. The regiment arranged day trips for those who wanted to visit Amsterdam, Haarlem, or some of the other nearby cities.
Early in June, many officers and men volunteered to become part of the Pacific Force for service against Japan. The Point System allowed those who had racked up the longest service overseas to be first to be repatriated back to Canada if they asked. Those who had only just arrived overseas as the war was coming to a close in Europe would become members of the Army of Occupation in Europe. Those with long service overseas who did not want to return to Canada when their turn came could ask for an extension of their time overseas. They would go to England and work as clerks or cooks.
Upon my return from leave in England, I immediately went before my Commanding Officer to request permission to marry. He referred me to the regimental padre. I gave all the necessary information to him. He advised me that it would take a month or more for the application for permission to marry to be properly processed. I continued to write to Margaret every day that I could. She had not yet said, “Yes”, but I remained hopeful. I waited anxiously for her every letter.
On June 20th, our regiment moved fro Ijmuiden to a small place named Soestdijk. The Dutch Summer Palace was nearby, but also the SS headquarters at Baarn was only a mile and a half from the school that we billeted in. The prison camp near Amersfoort sat on the bend of the highway, eight miles in the direction toward Amersfoort. I was back on ground, therefore, that I was slightly familiar with.
A few days after we arrived in Soestdijk, I walked to the SS headquarters. The building was deserted. The iron gates still bore the Dutch SS insignia. I walked along the curved driveway leading to the front door. It was open. Inside, files, papers, and documents were scattered across the bare floors. This indicated that the occupants had fled in a hurry.
Several days later, I took a “sentimental journey” and hiked to the prison camp near Amersfoort. Gone were the machine guns from the towers, gone were the inmates. The high fences with the barbed wire still stood, as did the drab wooden huts. Memories there, ghosts of war, would haunt me forever. I looked at the place for a long while and wondered how long it would remain.
Near the end of June, all Holland celebrated the birthday of H.R.H. Prince Bernhard. The R.C.R.s participated in the celebrations along with the other Canadian units in the Netherlands. We marched in a mammoth parade through Amsterdam. It was almost a re-enactment of the liberation of the city, but the condition of the people and of Amsterdam itself had greatly improved.
The first week of July I asked for and was granted a week’s leave to visit Belgium. I hitchhiked to Nijmegen and from there to Brussels. I spent two days in Brussels and then hitched another ride to Ostend. After spending the night in Ostend, the following day I got another lift. This took me to Dunkerk. From there I went to Ghent, Antwerp, and then back to Holland and my regiment.
After I returned to the R.C.R.s, I asked for a year’s extension of my time overseas. I specifically requested that I be given a clerical posting anywhere in Britain. I had been the company clerk of “A” Company of The Cape Breton Highlanders in 1942 for about six months. I was quite certain that my request would be granted.
During the regiment’s stay at Soestdijk, they arranged tours for those of us who wanted to visit various parts of Germany. I went on one that was to visit American Army Headquarters in Mannheim. The journey there and back was an education in itself. I was the only R.C.R. that took that tour at that time. The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps provided the transportation.
Before the group left the depot in Nijmegen, they provided us with box lunches, Canadian Army style: spam and jam sandwiches sufficient for two meals on the way to the British Army headquarters in Bonn. We rode in the back of the RCASC trucks. As no seating was provided, we either stood up all the way or sat on our bedrolls. The trip into the Rhineland gave us a chance to see areas of Germany where there had been heavy fighting only a few months before.
At noon we arrived in what remained of Cologne. We stopped there and, after we had eaten our lunch, they allowed us an hour to see the section the city near the cathedral. Except for an immense area of completely destroyed buildings, Cologne reminded me of Ortona. Heaps of rubble nearly choked off the streets. In the square in front of the cathedral, bulldozers had cleared a wide area. The once-beautiful gothic cathedral was now almost a complete ruin.
In the square, black marketers peddled watches, cameras, souvenirs of the defeated German army, and anything else that would fetch a price. They traded for cigarettes and food that they resold for exorbitant prices. The Allies placed a non-fraternization ban into effect. There were severe penalties for any member of the Allie forces caught speaking to or being friendly with any German.
Nonetheless, in that square in Cologne, fraternization flourished openly – as long as there were no military police in sight. When the M.P.s drove up in their jeeps, it seemed to me that the black marketers were forewarned. A few minutes before the police sped into the square, civilians scurried into the surrounding heaps of rubble. It was a game of hide-and-seek, but the peddlers won every time.
We arrived in Bonn late in the evening. From British Army headquarters, trucks took us to a ‘hotel’ where we were to spend the night. It was a basement under a large bombed-out building. They had built wooden platforms along the walls for beds. Straw-filled bags served as mattresses.
After we finished our evening meal of spam sandwiches, they let us go wherever we wanted, providing we were back before the trucks left at eight the next morning. I had a good supply of Canadian cigarettes and chocolate bars with me so I decided that I would see as much of Bonn and the German people as possible that evening.
Few civilians were about so I walked until I came to a small area that was cleared of rubble. The sound of a steam organ drew me to it. I was surprised to see a calliope, complete with a Ferris wheel. It was what Europeans called a “kermis”, a circus without animals. In the grey, dismal surroundings, it lifted my spirits to see the happy faces of the children as they rode the merry-go-round and other rides. Power for the machines and lightings came from a diesel generator. When the machines were in motion, the lighting dimmed.
I was not there long before I noticed a woman of about 45 years of age with a small boy about six years old. The woman seemed to be debating with herself as to whether she could afford to treat the youngster to a ride on the carousel. I saw her sadly shake her hand and slip a coin back in her pocket.
I walked over and put a coin in her hand. I said in English, “Please, give the boy a ride. I am too old to ride a carousel so the boy shall do my riding for me.”
“Five marks is too much to give me,” she replied in English – to my surprise. “I shall take only enough to pay for one ride and I will give you the remainder.”
While the boy happily rode around on the carousel, I talked with her. “Is the boy yours?”
“The boy is my grandchild; he’s five,” she told me. “I have another, a girl, who is seven years old. I care for them both. Their father was killed on the Eastern Front in 1943. Their mother died in an air raid on Munich in 1944. My husband was killed in 1942, near Tobruk in North Africa. My grandchildren are the only family I have left.”
My heart went out to her. I asked her, “Where do you live?”
“Only a few blocks away,” she replied. “If you wish, I will take you to my apartment, but, please understand the conditions under which I and my grandchildren must manage to live.”
It was quite dark. Since there was no street lighting, I felt confident the military police wouldn’t stop me for fraternizing. We hardly spoke as we walk through the ruined streets. Her apartment was on the second floor of a badly bomb-damaged building. In the first floor hallway, only one bare electric bulb dimly lit the shadowy stairway to the second floor.
She knocked on the door of her apartment and called out to her granddaughter, “Unlock the door”.
The young girl opened the door and they showed me in. The apartment was badly lit. The few furnishings in it had been salvaged from other damaged homes. I sat on a chair at the table and took two chocolate bars from my pocket. I offered them to the children. The woman took one of the bars and broke it in half. She then gave half each to each child. Chocolate was a luxury to them, one that had not seen for quite some time and the children may never have seen at all.
“We have very little food to eat so I will save the other bar of chocolate to make a hot drink for them later.”
I was curious how a woman who had been born and raised in German could speak such fluent English. “Where did you learn English?” I asked.
“In the late 1920s and early 1930s, I worked for an English family who lived near Munich. I travelled with them many times to England and spent my holidays in London.”
She paused. “Of course, after Hitler came to power, the Englishman took his family back to England. Then, during the early years of the war, I worked in the German Ministry of Information as an English translator.”
We sat talking for several hours, but at no time did I tell her my name or ask for hers. She warned me, “Many ex-Nazis engage Allied soldiers in conversation. Later they report the soldier to the military policy for breaking the fraternization ban.”
She went on, “These people watch their neighbours to see if Allied soldiers are in the neighbour’s home. Then they report the visitors to the military police.”
“I wish you well,” she said when I left.
She gave me a black leather case. I opened it only to find myself holding her son’s military medals.
“Please take them. They bring me too many unpleasant memories,” she begged.
I had to accept these gifts of war. I promised to come again and visit her in a few days when I returned from Mannheim. As I walked back to quarters, I thought of how hard life must be for them. Was the will to survive possibly another gift of war?
The next morning before we left Bonn for Mannheim, the British army cooks armed us with the standard fare: bully-beef, jam, and cheese sandwiches packed in a cardboard carton. These were to be our lunch or the way and our evening meal in Mannheim.
Mannheim was headquarters for the American Occupation Zone in Germany. We arrived there at 6 p.m. A young American army lieutenant met our group and showed us where we were to sleep and eat. We got out of the truck and picked up our bedrolls. The Lieutenant drawled, “What you all goin’t’ do with those?”
“Sir, we’re going to sleep on them.”
“Hell, leave them in the truck,” he told us.
Then we picked up our sandwiches in their cardboard cartons. He looked at one, lifted his eyebrows and said, “What’s you all goin’t’do with that mess?”
“It’s our evening ration, sir!”
“The goddam war is ovah an’ we don’t even feed that stuff to hawgs!” he exclaimed.
We quickly dumped our evening meal of bully into the nearest garbage pails. He led us pretty well empty-handed from our truck to some newly-painted huts. Inside were bedrooms with four cots in each. Each cot boasted white sheets and pillows, and soft wool blankets. There was a bath and shower in each hut. We were very glad these were our quarters for our stay in Mannheim.
After we settled in and had a wash and good clean-up, the Lieutenant led us to the dining hall.
“This is the Chow Hall,” said the Lieutenant, referring to a large beautiful building that had been an educational institute before the war. When we entered the large foyer, we heard an all-woman band playing the latest American hits. The musicians were dressed in colourful band costumes. All were in their 20s to early 30s and all blonde to boot. The Lieutenant brought me back down to earth when he said, “They are all Displaced Persons from eastern Europe. The Nazi brought them to Germany as forced labour during the war.”
We went into the dining hall itself. The contrast between what was there and what we had in the Canadian and British armies overwhelmed me. The dining area could comfortably seat about 400 people. They had set the tables with white tablecloths, silverware, real chinaware, and menus. Each table had four place settings.
Once we were seated, waiters came to take our orders. They wore black trousers, white shirts, and red jackets. The menu offered a choice of different kinds of soup and juices. For the main course, we could select fish, chicken, roast beef, steak, or roast pork. The dessert menu offered pies, cakes, or puddings. We could even order beer with our meal if we wished.
After our evening meal, they invited us to the PX canteen. It was well-stocked with chocolate bars, gum, silk stockings, cosmetics, Coke and Pepsi, cigarettes (at 50 cents a carton), and many other luxuries. We had not seen these things since we left Canada early in the war.
I began to wonder if army life for the typical American in uniform was something akin to the joy of an open ticket stay at the Savoy or the Ritz. The Americans accepted these treats as things they were entitled to as men serving their country overseas. To me, the opulence was almost obscene after the starvation I’d seen in Holland and even the night before in Bonn.
In the British Zone, soldiers considered an extra pack of cigarettes or cup of hot chocolate in the evening a luxury, but, then again, we in the British Zone “had it all” compared to what essentials were available to the Germans themselves.
At that time, in Germany, the civilian population consisted mostly of women, children and the elderly. They existed on a small amount of food that was rationed out to them as equally as possible. The British Occupation Zone Headquarters in Bonn dispensed a daily ration. The daily ration per person included: one ounce of dried egg, two ounces of powdered milk, four ounces of black bread, one ounce of sugar, four ounces of dried cereal (when available), two ounces of fresh meat or fish, one six-ounce tin of corned beef (bully) per three persons, and an ounce of chocolate (when available). With summer beginning, fresh vegetables were available, though very expensive and generally difficult for mot post-war Germans to afford.
While I was at US Army Headquarters, I spent most of my time alone. I passed my days in Heidelberg, close to Mannheim. Heidelberg is a beautiful medieval city on a mountain. In many ways, it reminded me of Florence. The River Arno divides Florence; the Nekar divides Heidelberg. However, Heidelberg was much smaller than Florence. Florence is famous for its art and cultural treasures; Heidelberg, for its university.
The university sits high on a mountainside on one side of the Nekar. Heidelberg castle is across from it on a mountain top on the opposite side of the Nekar. From the end of the town’s main street there was a cable car that runs passengers up to the top of the mountain and its ancient castle. I spent my days there alone. I went to see the castle and the university. This was one of the few places in Germany that had not suffered any war damage.
I enjoyed my days solitary in Heidelberg. One of the most interesting buildings and gardens in town was the Red Bull tavern. I stayed there for one night. A small part of the garden behind the tavern is where many duels were fought. The seconds used to place the injured duellists on an oak table that still stood in the garden. They rubbed whole salt into the wound so that it would heal. This left ‘the Heidelberg Scar.’ The innkeeper told me that no one had ever washed that table. The blood of the wounded men still stained it a dark red.
The second morning in Heidelberg, I decided to go to a local barber for a shave. Four blocks from the Red Bull, I found a small barbershop. The barber was about my own age. I took off my battledress jacket and beret and sat in the barber’s chair. He spoke English so I had no difficulty telling him that I wanted a shave. While he was shaving the stubble from my neck with his straight razor, he remarked on the cloth regimental insignia and the red divisional patch on my jacket.
“Your patch is that of the First Canadian Division? Did you serve in the Liri Valley in Italy?”
“Yes, I did,” I replied.
“I served there. I fought against you Canadians. My brother was killed in the same battle.”
All the time we were talking, I lay tilted back in the barber’s chair. He stood behind me and, with his finely-honed sharp straight razor, removed the lather and whiskers from my throat.
He held no resentment. War was war; that was then and this was now. I thought about how only a few months ago we were bitter enemies. It was our duty to kill the other on sight.
There were no other customers in the shop, so, after he finished shaving me, we sat for nearly an hour talking. When I left his shop, I paid him for the shave and gave him a pack of cigarettes.
I spent four days in Heidelberg and Mannheim. Then it was time to return to Holland. The evening before I left US Army Headquarters, I went to the PX and stocked up on chocolate bars, cigarettes, packaged cookies, and other goodies for the journey back.
When I arrived in Bonn the following afternoon, I went to see the woman and her grandchildren that I had met at the circus. I kept my promise. They were pleased that I cared enough to come back to see them. I gave the woman the cookies and chocolate that I had brought in the PX at Mannheim. I spent the best part of the evening with them.
After it was quite dark, I went back to the place where our group was staying the night – back to those old wooden bunks and straws-filled bags. How the Americans would have laughed. Yet, though our facilities were poor compared to those at Mannheim, they were still far better than the cold, bare floor the German woman and her grandchildren slept on.
The morning I left Bonn, the British Army cooks gave out the customary rations for the day’s journey back to Holland: those damned jam, cheese, and bully-beef sandwiches.
The drive along the autobahn through the Ruhr Valley was not scenic. [The Ruhr is an industrial and coal-mining area, heavily damaged in WWII by bombing.] Long lines of German soldiers marched along the shoulders of the highways. Some drove horse-drawn wagons. These were troops who had been fighting in Holland and northern German when the war ended. They were now returning to their homes in Bavaria and other parts of Germany. I was amazed at the spirit of the defeated enemy soldiers. They moved as orderly as they would have had they been the victors. Many groups sang marching songs as they passed through towns and villages.
After our truck left the autobahn near Cologne, the driver took a route that carried us through the most beautiful parts of the Rhine Valley. The ravages of war had hardly touched these places.
I arrived back at my regiment on August 25th. Many officers I served under, and the men I had served with, were no longer with the R.C.R.s. Some had left to join the Pacific Force. Others with long service had left for early repatriation to Canada.
On August 28th, they gave me the document granting me permission to marry and all my services records. I was being sent to a depot in Vilvoorde in Belgium. There I would await further orders in response to my request for an extension to my overseas service.
The most important paper I got when I returned to the R.C.R.s was a letter from Margaret. In it was the answer I had long been hoping for, “Yes!”
We would marry as soon as I arrived back in England. The following two weeks, we wrote to each other every day. I expected to be in England by mid-September, so we set our wedding date for September 15th.
On September 13th, I left Vilvoorde and sailed for England from Ostend. My destination was Aldershot where I was posted for two weeks to take a course in clerical duties. Naturally, I was pleased with the posting because Margaret’s barracks were only a few minutes’ walk from Maida Barracks where the Clerks School was.
Before I left Belgium, the army gave me a pass for seven days marriage leave. I carried all my service records and documents with me. I was not required to be at the Clerks School until October 2nd. When I reported to the office there, they told me that I was free to go until the course began. I stayed at Maida Barracks that night and, the following morning, Margaret and I went to my uncle’s house in Hornchurch. We were to be married the next day, a Saturday.
My uncle and aunt made most of the arrangements for a simple reception in their home following the wedding. Because rationing was still in effect, the guest list was limited to Margaret’s immediate family and a few friends. Her mother had come down from their home, Hinckley, in the Midlands, near Leicester.
Her father was in the United States at the naval base in Boston when we made our wedding arrangements. He refused to sign the consent forms for Margaret to marry me. He objected because he thought I was a French Canadian (“Bloody Frog!”). At one time, the Royal Navy stationed him in Montreal. God knows why, but he became very prejudiced against anyone or anything French.
His objections made little difference. Margaret and I were going to be married – with or without his consent.
My aunt and uncle were happy to be our bridesmaid and best man. Then, an hour before we were to go by taxi to the Registry Office in Romford for our wedding, Margaret’s father, Alf, arrived at my uncle’s house!
He got passage from the US to England on a British destroyer. When it docked at Portsmouth, he took a taxi to London and another from London to Hornchurch. I had never met him before although I had known Margaret and her mother, Doris, for nearly four years. Each time I was at their home, he was away on duty in the Royal Navy. I was formally introduced to him and it did not take long for the ice to break. An hour later, at two o’clock that afternoon, he took my uncle’s place as the best man at our wedding.
The 15th of September, 1945, was a momentous day for Margaret and me.
It also happened to the first time that the Battle of Britain Day was celebrated. Britain remembered that day in 1941 when the battle air supremacy turned in favour of the Allied air forces. They defeated the Luftwaffe in the skies over London and southeast England. Hornchurch was one of the main Spitfire bases east of London. The evening of our wedding there were massive celebrations with bonfires and street dances all across southeast England.
For Margaret and me this diary ended and our lives together began. We were on the new road of life together. We had been apart through one war. We’d been in love, maybe rather unknowingly, with each other through out it. Our love, perhaps, was one of those gifts of war. Had the war not come and I not been sent to England, I may never have met Margaret. Now we were together and in my heart, I knew that our love would last forever. The future looked immeasurably bright and promising.
Thomas Vincent Doucette
Excerpts from Eulogy by Joanne Doucette
My father was born in 1922, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He grew up in a beautiful valley, now part of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. When war broke out in 1939, my dad was only just 17. In May, 1940, he joined the Cape Breton Highlanders. He was the second generation of Doucettes to don a kilt and march off to war. My grandfather Thomas Leo had joined the Royal Highlanders, Black Watch, in World War I.
Dad went overseas in 1941. In 1943 he left the Cape Breton Highlanders and was sent to North Africa. From North Africa, he was shipped to Italy where he was posted to the Royal Canadian Regiment. In early June, Dad was wounded, but stayed with the regiment the war in Europe was over on the 7th of May, 1945. His combat in Holland was particularly important to him:
On the 15th and 16th of April we advanced slowly against pockets of the enemy rearguard until the early morning of the 18th [when] resistance crumbled and we entered the City of Apeldoorn. Then the regiment was ordered to continue our advance to the village of Garderen. From the moment we entered Apeldoorn and we were settled in on the edged of the Royal Forest at Garderen, the welcome given us by the inhabitants of the surrounding area was tremendous.
My parents were married in Romford, Essex, England, on September 15, 1945, and have lived with and loved each other ever since. He told me he fell in love with her at first sight and never had a thought for another. She was his true love, his English war bride, and, he told me, he could not have survived the
darkest days of his war without thinking of her across the Channel. She was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Dad returned to Canada in 1946 after serving an extra year in England at his own request. He and my mother lived in Nova Scotia for a short while, but, in 1947, moved to Ontario.
He joined the Militia at the end of 1947 and, after several promotions became a Second Lieutenant [later Lieutenant] in the Ontario Regiment. In 1955, he left the militia to devote more time to his growing family.
My father had a long and varied working life. He was particularly fond of the girls he worked with at Canadian Automotive Trim in Ajax. At the Corbett Creek sewer plant, he treasured the moments he could look across the marsh and see a Great Blue Heron or a muskrat. In 1982 he retired from his work because of the affects of the wounds he received in Italy.
But retirement was not leisure time for Dad. He was as busy as ever, perpetually fixing things around the house and for others, and writing — his life story, poetry, letters to the editor and many, many letters to politicians. Dad was a passionate man who cared deeply. In his correspondence I have found a letter from a prince [Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands], historians, scientists, other veterans, children, celebrities and folks struggling on welfare. Dad distrusted the pompous and the powerful. Farley Mowat [famous Canadian writer] wrote to my father,
Like you, I am dubious about all governments. More so, alas, as I get older. One of the reasons I go back to Cape Breton for most of each year is to get away from their dim-witted manipulations.
His trips back to Holland were enormously important to him. Myself, I don’t think the trauma from the war was healed until he went to the Netherlands and visited the streets where he had fought and his buddies had died. The Dutch people opened their hearts and their homes to him and there was, I think, mutual healing. He visited the Royal Canadian Regiment graves at Holten and spoke of it in a way that moved me to tears. In his files, if I may loosely use that term, I found a letter from a young Dutch man, a Jew who had worn a skullcap during one of the memorial parades for the Canadian liberators held in Holland. He said,
I still want to thank you for the fantastic liberation day 1980 and especially for the liberation itself…
My dad knew what the concentration camps were about, having been in one himself at Amersfoort for a short while. He was clear about justice and freedom, forgiveness and when to forget and when to remember. He fought hard and long for pension rights for other veterans and, in particular, the recognition of the heroism of a fellow soldier of Chinese Canadian origins who was overlooked when the glory was shared. Let me share from a letter from Jack Marshall, a Canadian Senator, about one of Dad’s battles for justice:
I just wanted to say that I appreciate and commend you for the attention you gave to the Widow which resulted in her getting the War Veterans Allowance.
It is so heartening to note that there are Veterans out there who continue to help their comrades and dependants as you did.
My parents have been married for 56 years. In his own words:
The day the war ended in Europe, I was granted a leave of absence to go to England. The following day I was reunited with an English girl I had known since I first arrived overseas in 1941. She was a distant relative of my mother and I was in love with her. Before my leave was ended I asked her to marry me. I returned to Holland and asked my commanding officer for permission to marry as required by the Canadian Army. I received his permission without question and we decided to marry on 15 September.
Together Thomas Doucette and Margaret (nee Stevens) had four children. In his papers he talks about his love for each of us. I think it would be fair to say that it was a troubled and wounded man that came back from that terrible war. He had many a bad night, as I’m sure, my mother did. But his love came through even during some hard times in the 1950s. We had little money, but we had love. He left a letter to his children, probably written very recently:
You are aware of the seriousness of the state of my health and I will not dwell on it.
I’ve had a long and satisfying life and accomplished much more than could reasonably have been expected of me. I believe my greatest success has been my 56 years of happy marriage which could have only been made possible by your mother who never failed to have faith in me when there were dark moments in my life.
In your years growing up we never had much money to spare for nonessentials, but you never went hungry; you never had the many luxuries that other children often enjoyed….[but] we did our very best for you and if we failed in any way, it was not because we didn’t try.
I sincerely hope when I pass on, I will leave you with a wealth of fond memories of me and you will forgive me for any mistakes I may have made.
My father made most of our toys of bits of lumber and scraps of leather or vinyl. He made an aeroplane out of an old kid’s car with a plank for wings. One day, one windy day, he pushed my sister, Colleen, in the plane. It hung from a tall maple on a stout wire with a wicked-looking hook. The wind caught the plan and lifted it off the book so that Colleen soared down the drive way. My dad told me not long ago that his heart was in his mouth until her little monoplane made a perfect 3-point touchdown on the dirt and rolled to a gentle stop. My father would have enjoyed the flight had he been Colleen. Colleen was always Dad’s alter ego, so like him, clever, quick to temper, quick to cool, ingenious, mechanically adept.
My brother, I think, has inherited the poet in Dad, the dreamer, the music maker. Dad and my brother were so different yet I know Dad loved him from the bottom of his heart. He spoke to me of it. As the lung cancer progressed, I know some of his best moments were watching the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team on TV with his son. He gave my father great comfort in the quiet way that only men sitting beside each other can.
My father always had a very soft spot for his youngest daughter. She was the first one he looked for when he came through the door after work. Later on I know that he respected her grit and determination in working for a nursing degree. He spoke of this in his papers, saying, I love her …and admire her for the life she’s made for herself.
I felt close to my father in our shared love of nature, something we four all have in common, something my mother also passed to us. But it was quite a trick he pulled on us children when he got the Village of Pickering to save those plastic lemons that juice comes in. One morning, before dawn, he got up with a ladder and tied dozens of lemons on an elm tree and called us to come out and see the lemon tree. Trickster he was. One day mother read fairy tales to us while Dad, unseen, was outside the window with a mirror, flashing a reflect light back in through the window, making the fairies dance on the ceiling. We were enthralled. He had a great sense of humour and that’s part of what he has passed down to us. His thirst for knowledge and passion for fairness are also part of our heritage.
Collecting things may possibly be part of our heritage too. I bring two samples to remind us in a tangible way of him: a Christmas Carol song sheet from the Toronto Telegram from the 1950s — and explicit instructions on how to make pickled herring from the 1940s. I know the herring recipe was not addressed to my mother.
He took special delight in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, valuing the moments he had with them. He loved his friends and neighbours and lived to help them and be with them in good times and bad. Through it all he was steady as a rock.
So know it is time to say goodbye to Thomas Doucette, good friend, good neighbour, good husband, good father, good soldier, good man. I leave you with a poem of his and his regimental motto, Pro Patria, for country.
I know we’ll meet again my friend
on the road that doesn’t have an end,
on the road that first began when the day first dawned
for life, for love, for death, and life beyond.
Thomas Vincent Doucette
Thanks to my mother for her help with this manuscript. Thanks also to Lorraine Dmitrovic who also tackled editing my father’s papers.
Thanks most of all to the men and women of The Cape Breton Highlanders, The Royal Canadian Regiment, and all the other regiments and units of the Canadian army, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and the Merchant Marine. Without their sacrifice, and the commitment and bravery of all the Allied forces, Hitler would not have been stopped and the world would be a far grimmer place than it is today. They did stop him and Mussolini, too, but paid a high cost. My generation is only beginning to appreciate the price paid by the World War veterans, those who fought and died in Korea (Canada’s forgotten War), the Blue Hats – our U.N. Peacekeepers, and those still serving in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and trouble spots around the world. I hope we never forget those who gave so much and are still giving so much. JD
Siol Na Fear Fearail
 Unfortunately, the future was not too distant. My father died April 26, 2002, of cancer. I found his story among his papers. JD
 BESCO later become DOSCO – the Dominion Steel and Coal Company.
 In 1912, the Mount Carmel parish grew because of new building in New Waterford and Father Nicholson became parish priest.
That year the Glebe House was built and the church cornerstone laid. On July 2, 1912, Father Nicholson said the first Mass at Mount Carmel. http://www.cbv.ns.ca/nwcomndx/mtcarchr/2.htm.
 That’s My Weakness Now
Written By: Bud Green and Sam Stept
Love, love, love, love,
What did you do to me?
The things I never missed
Are things I can’t resist.
Love, love, love, love,
Isn’t it plain to see
I just had a change of heart;
What can it be?
She’s got eyes of blue,
I never cared for eyes of blue,
But she’s got eyes of blue,
And that’s my weakness now!
She’s got dimpled cheeks;
I never cared for dimpled cheeks,
But she’s got dimpled cheeks,
And that’s my weakness now!
Oh my, oh me!
Oh, I should be good, I would be good,
She likes to bill and coo,
I never liked to bill and coo,
But she likes to bill and coo
And that’s my weakness now!
She likes rainy days.
I never cared for a rainy day,
But she likes rainy days
And that’s my weakness now!
She likes vestibules,
I never stood in a vestibule,
But she likes vestibules
And that’s my weakness now.
Oh gee, poor me!
I can hear the clock
She likes long good-nights,
I never had a long good-night,
But she likes long good-nights
And that’s my weakness now!
 Table Head is a coastal headland that forms part of Glace Bay.
 BESCO The British Empire Steel Company name was changed in the 1920s to Dominion Steel Company DOSCO. “The Company” was the common term used by the miners in Cape Breton.
 “Scab” is a word used by the trade union movement to describe a worker who is willing to accept the dictates of the employer during a strike or work stoppage by organized trade union members who are employees or the same company; employees of an industrial concern who refuse to become members of a trade union that claims to have, or has, the legal right to represent the majority of the employees of the company or industrial concern (employer).
 “Feeding the fishes” is an expression meaning “being seasick”.
 Little Lord Fauntleroy is a novel by American (English-born) author Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1886. It was a commercial success for its author, set fashion trends…The term “Little Lord Fauntleroy” has come to be a synonym for fop. From http://en.wikipedia.org
 Greenoch, Scotland is across the River Clyde from Gourock. The saying there was: “If you can see Gourock, it’s going to rain; it you can’t see it, it’s raining.” From A DIFFERENT WAR: Marines in Europe and North Africa
by Lieutenant Colonel Harry W. Edwards, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
 “Bangers” are large sausage, with meat tightly packed into the skin so that they burst open with a bang when fried. Wartime bangers were made from 90 percent grain, five percent air.
 Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. Small commanded The Cape Breton Highlanders from October 1940 to March 1942.
 E.N.S.A. was an organization of volunteers from the British entertainment industry who did entertained members of the armed forces in camps in Britain and in Europe after the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944.
 N.A.A.F.I. was a group of volunteers who worked in cooperation with the Allied forces to operate dry canteens (sandwiches, light meals, chocolate, cigarettes, matches, and shaving supplies, etc.). N.A.A.F.I. also ran wet canteens (beer and ale – when available) that were strictly controlled to avoid drunkenness in the camps. N.A.A.F.I. was a non-profit organization. If a profit was made, it was given to the various units of the forces to allow the purchase of extra comforts.
 General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Aldershot, before World War I. The Army Benevolent Fund still operates out of Smith Dorrien House, Queens Avenue, Aldershot, Hampshire GU11 2BT
 D.S.O. means Distinguished Service Order, an award from the British Crown for distinguished leadership in war time. The D.S.O. is only granted to commissioned officers. On rare occasions, it has been granted to senior warrant officers. Commissioned rank includes the officer ranks from Lieutenant to Lieutenant General. Commissioned ranks begin at Second Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier, Brigadier-General, Major-General, up to Lieutenant- General. The highest rank in the British Army is Field Marshall. The rank of Field Marshall does not exist in the Canadian army. Warrant Officer ranks are abbreviated by the letters W.O. Warrant Officers are the highest ranks between Commissioned Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers. A W.O.1 is a Regimental-Sergeant Major (R.S.M.). A W.O. II is a Company Sergeant-Major (C.S.M.). Depending on the branch or corps of the army, a W.O. II may also be a Battery Sergeant-Major (Artillery, or B.S.M.). If a W.O. II is in an armoured or tank regiment, he will be a Squadron Sergeant-Major or S.S.M.
 The Dieppe raid occurred August 19, 1942. 6,000 Allied troops, including some 5,000 Canadians, landed on the beach below the heavily-fortified cliffs of this French coastal town. The Royal Regiment of Canada (Black Watch), my father’s old regiment, suffered under intense fire. Of the Black Watch that got onto the beach 200 were killed and 20 later died of wounds. The rest became POWs. This was the heaviest toll suffered by a Canadian battalion on one single day in World War II. The South Saskatchewan Regiment, Cameron Highlanders of Canada, Essex Scottish, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Calgary Regiment, and others, including commandos, also landed. The withdrawal was a mess as the Germans poured fierce fire on the beach from the cliffs. Landing craft, however, did re-embark most of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Cameron Highlanders. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked for Dieppe, only 2,210 came back to England, and many of those suffered wounds. There were 3,367 casualties, including 1,946 POWS; 907 Canadians died. JD
 The Monarch of Bermuda was a very popular liner on the 6-day cruise run between New York and Bermuda. The 22,500-ton Queen of Bermuda was completed in 1931. She and her sister ship, the Monarch of Bermuda, were considered by owners, Furness Bermuda Line dubbed them, “honeymoon ships.” The British government requisitioned the ships and they served as troop ships.
 “Blida, town, northern Algeria, capital of Blida Province, on a tributary of the Chelif River, at the base of the Atlas Mountains, near Algiers. Blida is the trading center for the surrounding region, in which oranges and wheat are grown. Industries in the city include the manufacture of building materials, flour products, and olive oil. A mosque, built by the Barbary pirate Barbarossa II (Khayr ad-Din, 1483?-1546), is here. The city was founded in the 16th century and was occupied by the French in 1838. It was twice destroyed by an earthquake, in 1825 and 1867. Population (1987) 170,935.” http://www.greatestcities.com/Africa/Algeria/Blida_town.html
 Mohamed Ahmed Ben Bella (Muhammad Ahmad Bin Balla) (born 1916, Maghnia, Algeria) was the first President of Algeria, and seen by many as the Father of the Nation. Ben Bella was born in a small village in western Algeria during the height of the French colonial period to a Sufi Muslim family. During the Second World War he served in the Free French army, and was decorated for bravery. He was one of the founding members of the Front de Libération Nationale. He was arrested by the French in 1956 and spent until 1962 in prison. While in prison he was elected a vice-premier of the Algerian provisional government. After Algeria‘s independence was recognized, he quickly became more popular, and thereby more powerful. In 1962 he was elected as premier in a one-sided election. Later he became Prime Minister, and was later elected President. He was deposed by Houari Boumédiènne in 1965, and put under house arrest until 1980, when he went to exile to Switzerland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Ben_Bella
 The first stage of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s offensive was to cross the Sangro River. It was some four hundred metres wide. The Allies attacked on November 28, 1943. It was a success. British, New Zealand, and Indian troops got get bridges across the river and seized the opposite banks after tough fighting. Over the next few days they drove the Germans back about eight miles to the Moro River – about five miles south of Ortona. There the fighting petered out, the front line formations of both sides worn down. In leaflets distributed to his Eighth Army troops before and after the Sangro River crossing Montgomery exulted over hitting the enemy “a colossal crack”. They did crack the Bernhard Line. Yet as Canadian soldiers found out, the Germans weren’t finished. http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/pm.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=&ex=00000186&sl=2987&pos=1
 James E. Clyke died June 3, 1999 at the age of 74. He was a descendent of Black Loyalists and a Private in the RCRs.
 “As the 1st Infantry Division was withdrawing it was overtaken by some units of the 5th Armed Division, who made it known to all and sundry that it would now show the 1st Canadians how to fight.
Unfortunately, for the 5th Armed Division it bounced into the German 1st Parachute Division. Writing to General Alanbrooke, the Chief of Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Sir Harold Alexander once described the 1st Parachutes as the finest fighting troop in the world, with regard to its performance at Monte Cassino.
The inexperienced 5th Canadian Armed Division did not know this. It was back just two days later, much the wiser.
The school of hard knocks
The 5th Division’s education was complete when it ran into the 1st Division, now fully rested after its two-day respite. A full-scale fight ensued between the two Canadian divisions. The Germans, on one hill, and the British, on the other, wondered what the heck was going on.
General Montgomery was none too pleased when he received details of the fracas. After another little battle, the 5th Canadian Armed Division was banished to a location close to the American sector.” http://www.B.B.C..co.uk/dna/ww2/A2061938
 Edward James Houston, b. 15 Sep 1918, died 27 May,2003 in Ottawa, Ontario ?
“In late April, 1944, the Eighth Army, including the Canadians, secretly turned west to help the portion of the U.S. Fifth Army which had been stopped by the Germans on the Gustav Line at Cassino.
On May 12, the Eighth Army attacked the Germans in the Liri Valley as the Fifth army began a new offensive at Cassino, with tanks from the First Canadian Armoured Brigade supporting the attack. On May 18, Polish troops took the Monte Cassino monastery which dominated the valley.
The Fifth Army moving up the coast, broke through the Germans surrounding Anzio to join up with their colleagues while the Eighth Army continued to battle through the Liri Valley.” http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/ortona/
 “Anagni, Anagnia, is an ancient town in Latium, Italy, in the hills east-southeast of Rome, famous for its connections with the papacy and for the picturesque monuments of its unspoiled historical center.” http://www.odyssei.com/destinations/12092.html
 “Latin Ferentinum, town, Frosinone provincia, Lazio (Latium) regione, central Italy. The town is situated on a hill that commands the Sacco valley and the Via Casilina (the ancient Roman road Via Latina), 46 miles (65 km) southeast of Rome.” http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9034031
 “The mountains were immediately found to be the most suitable place to hide and face an enemy with largely superior forces. Only in Emilia-Romagna, due to its environment, was the partisan fight carried out mostly in the cities, in the plains, and along the coast. Within these particular environments the G.A.P. (Partisan Action Groups) were developed, to which reckless sabotage actions were often entrusted. Later, in support of the G.A.P., the S.A.P. (Patriotic Action Squads) were formed; they acted in the city with the aim to carry out disruptive actions and to support the strikes. Their strongpoint was the factory; their hardest task to persuade the workers to join the Resistance while still working at their jobs.” http://www.cifr.it/Chapter_11B.html
The Italian anti-Fascist are credited with keeping as seven German divisions out of the line. They obtained the surrender of two German divisions, leading to the collapse of the German army in and around Genoa, Turin, and Milan. They provided intelligence to The Allied armies and liberated cities in advance of those armies.
 Pius XII pontificate began on the eve of World War II. Pius XII followed a policy of public neutrality. As the war neared its end in 1945, Pius XII supported a lenient policy by the Allies towards the defeated Nazis and Fascists. He tried empted to negotiate an early German and Japanese surrender, but failed. Pius XII’s role in World War II is controversial. He has been accused of keeping silent about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. The Pope actually did speak out, but carefully. Although Pius XII is condemned today for not attacking Nazism, it is estimated that about 300,000 Jews were saved by the Vatican during World War II. After the war had ended, Pius XII was praised by many Jewish organizations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pius_XII
 March 24, 1944 “Units of the SS (the elite guard of the Nazi state) shoot more than 300 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves, south of Rome, in reaction to a partisan attack on German soldiers. Ten hostages are shot for every German soldier killed. The SS blew up the caves after the massacre.” http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/oeurchr.htm
 Palestrina in the Province of Roma, Laxio, Italy, is situated on a spur of the Apennines. It was the city of Latium and lies 23 miles east of Rome. The modern town of Palestrina (pop. c. 16,000, in 2005) is built on terraces once occupied by the temple of Fortune. From Palestrina there is a great view of Rome, the Alban Hills and the Campania as far as the sea. From www.italyworldclub.com
 The Alban Hills (Colli Albani) were created by long-ago volcanic activity. The circular craters of Lake Nemi and Lake Albano are part of the area’s geological past and the Hills are heavily wooded. The Alban Hills became a rural retreat for Rome’s rich residents. Now the great villas and palaces still dominate the little towns. Some were destroyed in the Second World War, when the area was heavily bombed. Others are now hotels or municipal offices, or occupied by corporations and religious organisations. Other villas still stand as crumbling reminders of the past. Today the Alban Hill towns are prized for wines such as Frascati, strawberries, peaches, meats, fish, flowers, etc..
 Mamma By Unknown
Mamma Son Tanto Felice
Perche Retorno Da Te
La Mia Canzone Ti Dice
Che Il Pui Belgiorno Per Me
Mamma Son Tanto Felice
Vivere Lontano Perche
Mamma Solo Per Te
La Mia Canzone Vola
Mamma Sarai Con Me
Tu Non Sarai Piu Sola
Quanto Ti Voglio Bene
Queste Parole D’amore
Che Ti Sospira Il Mio Cuore
Force Non S’odono Piu
Mamma Ma La Canzone Mia, Piu Bella Sei Tu
Sei Tu La Vita E Per La Vita Non Ti Lascio Mai Piu
Sento La Mano Tua Stanca
Cerca I Miei Reccioli D’or
Sento E La Voce Ti Manca
La Ninna Nanna D’allor
Oggi La Testa Tua Bianca
Io Voglio Stringere Al Cuor
 “The Appian way is the oldest and most famous road built by the ancient Romans. It was built in 312 BC by the Roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus. The road went south from the Servian Wall in Rome to Capua. It passed through Appii Forum and Terracina, and later on was extnede so that it reached Brundisium, now called Brindisi. The main route to Greece, the Appian Way was more than 560 km (more than 350 mi) long. The road was well constucted, although the present pavement of large hexagonal block made from lave, laid on a firm foundation and strengthened by cement, is probable not the original bed. From Rome to Terracina the course is nearly straight, despite the steep slopes of the Alban Hills and the swamps of the Pontine Marshes. Near Rome the road was lined with tombs, of which the ruins of many can still be seen. Parts of the road are still in use. The road is also famous because after the revolt of Spartacus and the other slaves, they were all crucified along this road.
This road, as well as most other Roman roads was based on a compact earth footing with a small layer of stones in mortar above it. Above the mortar was a hard filling, probably gravel, and then a slab surface was laid out on top. At the sides of the road there were retaining walls, and a ditch on each side.” http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Ring/5382/appian.html
Lake Trasimeno is the fourth largest lake in Italy. It covers an area of 80 square miles, but is only up to 20 feet deep. Corciano is a typical medieval Umbrian Castle located near the lake. Inside its walls is a village. The streets are narrow, the steps are ancient, and the sights include a palace, gardens, churches, and bell towers.
 In 1921, the Italian community of Lima Peru gave the City an Italian Art Museum. Don Gino Solucci was the driving force behind this museum. http://www.enjoyperu.com/limaperu/lima-peru-cultural-museums3.php
 “Of all the weird and horrible words that ever crept into the War Vocabulary the two worst were “embuss” and “debuss”” http://www.donlowconcrete.com/102/warpages/102chap9.htm
 Love does change things, you know. True love does anyway. The day of our wedding, for example, Margaret’s father turned up for the ceremony. Upon his ship docking at Portsmouth he’d received a telegram saying that Margaret and I were marrying that very day. However, he’d also got another telegram – one from his father near Eastbourne, telling him that his mother was dying. Margaret’s father told us nothing about this second telegram until after our wedding was over. That same evening, he went home, but his mother had died before he arrived. He remained for her funeral. I thought it was very big of him to be at our wedding in the face of such personal tragedy. TD