Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
the Assault Course
As the weeks slipped by, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the company had achieved enough expertise in the art of war to rightfully call ourselves fully-trained infantrymen. We were lean, tough as nails, had the stamina to march thirty miles at speed, run through the obstacle course as though it was a children's playground, fire our weapons with reasonable accuracy, wield the bayonet like killers from hell, and so on, and so on. Our Advanced Training period was drawing to an close, and with that we could expect to be on draft for overseas shortly. The anticipation of this momentous day was clearly evident in the huts in the evenings. The petty gripes and disagreements had fallen off almost completely. Everyone was in a happy-go-lucky boisterous mood. The jokes were funnier. The singing was louder, though not quite so melodic, and the repartee between guys who weren't especially fond of each other could now be described as animated. All in all we were like a houseful of kids in the last couple of days before Christmas.
One of the final acts of our training was the passage of the company through the assault course under simulated conditions of actual combat. Whoever it was that designed this course had to be either a frustrated or else sadistic RSM (or both) from the First World War. Why? Because it had all the impedimenta of the ghastly fields of the Ypres Salient and the Somme, except for the endless acres of mud and water-filled craters. There were barbed-wire, trenches, dugouts, some artificial shell-holes, tunnels, log barriers, all placed or set up in the most devilish pattern to make our run through as demanding as possible.
In full battle-order we took off from the start-line at the shrill blast of a whistle, one section at a time. First we had to climb a twenty-foot high stockade of logs. Not too bad, but then making our way down on the other side wasn't as easy as we thought it would be. Some guys, to get down faster, pushed themselves away from the log wall and dropped the last ten feet. These were the guys who had to go the remaining distance hobbling on sore ankles. There was no way of getting out of it. They had to finish the course. The next obstacle was a mass of interlaced barbed-wire which I managed to get through without falling or tearing my trousers to shreds while a Bren gun somewhere behind us opened fire, the rounds snapping through the air just three feet over our heads. This was one time I was glad I was on the small side. I gritted my teeth as I ran, jumping from side to side to thread my way through a stretch of craters. Thirty yards farther on I came up against a tangle of tree-trunks put there expressly. it seemed, to break and twist the ankles of those who hadn't already done so at the stockade. The streams of Bren rounds, snapped overhead a little too close for comfort. Past the logs we came to a tunnel built above ground that we had to crawl through. I dove in following the man ahead. No more than ten feet inside I butted my head against a jam-up of guys who were in a state of panic trying back track. It didn't take me long to find out why the panic. The tunnel was full of tear-gas. Instead of putting their gas-masks on, they lost their 'cool' and tried to scramble back, which was almost impossible, since their way was blocked by the guys coming up behind. For a minute or two it was nothing but a shamozzle in the tunnel. How I managed to extricate myself from the seething mass of bodies and put on my gas-mask was something else again. I don't know how I did it, but I did just as the tear-gas started burning the hell out of my eyes. On emerging at the far end of the fume-filled tunnel I took my mask off and chuckled as I heard the muffled curses of those still trying to untangle themselves, and then I was on my merry way to the next challenge, jumping over shell-holes and trenches as 2" mortar smoke-shells burst not thirty yards off to my right. I flinched a couple of times, as Ihadn't expected to have mortars fired at us. A few yards up the way I cameclose to getting myself shot up when I damn near ran into the line of fire ofthree Brens firing on fixed lines, the rounds tearing up the turf not five yards from my line of travel. I swerved sharply left like a broken-field runner dodging tacklers, did some real some fancy stepping this way and that.Then I had to veer left even more when three smoke bombs slammed into the ground almost directly in my path, close enough to scare the living daylights out of me. "Were the guys firing those 2" smoke bombs off target, or were they doing it on purpose, or was I somewhere where I wasn't supposed to be? "These thoughts went through my head as I gingerly danced my way around them.It was about this time I realized how out-of-breath I was, most likely notbrought on by physical exertion so much as by fear, or perhaps excitement. My breath came in short, laboured gasps. My lungs were on fire. "I'll never make it!" I kept repeating over and over as I ran on. And then before I knew it, Ihad finished the course. Glory hallelujah! I'd beaten the monster!
I was amongst the first half dozen finishers and felt really good about it. And then I realized I wasn't breathing hard anymore. Somewhere on that course there was something like two hundred men still struggling, and I watched with a feeling of superiority as they staggered to the finish line singly, in twos, threes, and groups, every one of them breathing heavily and in various degrees of physical distress. As far as I can remember, only three or four guys didn't make it all the way through. I had reason to believe that within the week they'd be transferred out of the infantry to some less demanding part of the army, most likely the Service Corps where stamina was not a necessary criterion.
That evening in our H-huts we sang, and we sang, and we sang just about every silly song we'd learned since we first put on the uniform. We were all journeymen infantry soldiers and damn well proud of what we had just accomplished. Going through the assault course was the culmination of our advanced infantry training, and we knew it wouldn't be long now before we were on our way to bigger things. One of the songs we sang with robust good feeling was that juvenile tune that went like this:
There are beans, beans, big as submarines in the stores, in the stores. There are beans, beans, big as submarines in the Quartermaster's stores.
My eyes are dim I cannot see, I have not got my specs with me,
I have not. . .got. . .my specs with me.
There are rats, rats, big as alley cats in the stores, in the stores.
There are rats, rats, big as alley cats in the Quartermaster's stores. . . . . . .(and so on , and so on)
There were more stanzas&emdash;on beer, cheese, bread, whiskey, socks, tents, rice, and flies, and we sang boisterously through them all. It became monotonous after a while but we had a lot of fun anyway.
Compared to the German soldiers and the militaristic kind of songs they sung, we were a bunch of schoolkids singing "Ring around the roses". The only kind of song that suggested we weren't innocent kids was when we sang songs like the North Atlantic Squadron, and later on in England, "Roll Me Over in the Clover." But as silly and juvenile as most of the songs were, they did fulfil a need for us. At least as long as we were busy belting out the songs, we gave no blue thoughts of separation from family and friends. The recurring episodes of homesickness that plagued almost everyone since departing Canada's shore, had, of course after we'd been training in England for several months lessened in intensity and frequency. And singing like this was a tonic indeed. Yes, even though we were now six months in the army, there was still that occasional tug for home inside. Later on down the road after we landed on the other side of the pond, it hit us again. The fact that we were more than 3000 miles from home had something to do with it.
In the last few days of April the Zombies in the company were on their way to points west&emdash;the far west. Most of them would do their soldiering in the barren, sandy wastes of Dundurn, Saskatchewan, while others would rough it in the bush away up in the boondocks at Terrace, B.C. It was glaringly obvious the guys were deeply morose over the move. There wasn't even a hint of a smile to be seen on any one of them. Come to think of it, I rarely ever had seen them smile right from the first day we all came together.
Original Story from messages received on 20 February 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 21 February 2002.
The story above, the Assault Course, was written and contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski, who served with the Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. The moving story is a part of his published work entitled: Not All of Us Were Brave which was published by Dundurn Press.
Would you care to read more tales of World War II written by Mr. Stan Scislowski? His work is featured on a website devoted to the Perth Regiment of Canada. Check out this very interesting website and while you are there look at Stan's Corner .
We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words wish to offer our profound "Thanks" for the excellent material contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski.
September 5, 2002.
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