Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
January 12, 1944 -- With our training days behind us -- the time had come to put into practice everything we learned in the lecture rooms and in the field. Now we were about to find out once and for all whether we were every bit as good as we thought we were or something much less.
We arrived at the front north of Ortona, just off the Torre Mucchia spur, where we took over reserve positions from the Carleton & York Regiment. The Cape Breton Highlanders were in position holding the line directly to our front along the coastal road, while the Irish were inland about a mile, overlooking the left fork of the Riccio River downstream from where we were to launch our attack four days hence. Our role for the present was as the reserve battalion three hundred yards behind the Cape Bretons.
The takeover went off smoothly, with the Carleton & Yorks out of New Brunswick wasting no time in getting away. The front was fairly quiet except for the intermittent crump of mortars landing in amongst the Capes'positions and somewhere off to our left, inland. We settled down into our own positions with quiet efficiency, when to our ears came the high speed drawn-out brrrrrrrrrrp of a Jerry machine-gun. This was our aural introduction to the famed MG 42 whose incredible rate of fire was almost twice that of the Bren.
The burst drew an instantaneous response from a Bren with its characteristic slow and deliberate tac-tac-tac-tac-tac. It sounded so pathetic and ineffective compared to the enemy's weapon. Every time the MG 42 opened up, you'd swear someone was tearing a long strip off a tarpaulin or a window-blind, they were that fast. Although they were fast, they weren't as accurate as the Bren, as we were very soon to find out, the Jerries depending more on the hose-pipe method than aimed fire. For this reason, each man in their platoons had to carry extra bandoliers of ammunition to keep the gun's appetite satisfied.
The Perths settled into farmhouses scattered all through the area just off the T-junction of the coast road, a hop, skip and jump north of the headland known as Torre Mucchio or point 59. A gravelled secondary road down which the Regiment would march into its first battle ran past the farmhouse Dog company HQ had taken over. Angling sharply from the coast road, it ran almost due west to the fork of the Riccio River a mile away, ascended the far slope of the Riccio River valley where it turned abruptly right and rejoined the coast road one mile from its origin. The centreline of our attack would be along this road. Ten minutes after we had relieved the Carleton & Yorks, burly Bob Wheatley and I, along with other Bren gun groups were detailed to spend the balance of the afternoon and the night in weapon posts set up at likely points where enemy patrols might infiltrate through the Capes and reach as far back as Ortona. Bob and I inherited a slit trench half full of water. We tried digging our own but didn't get more than a foot down before it too started to fill. So there was nothing for us but to spread our ground-sheets out and establish our position above ground and hope to hell Jerry wouldn't get a foolish idea and greet our arrival with a mortar 'stonk'. If he did, we'd be shit out of luck, either having to dunk ourselves in the icy water or tough it out above ground.
Since orders were for us to remain there all night, I went nosing around the area, as usual on the hunt for something more comfortable to lie on than damp ground and found myself a rush-filled palliasse. Although it kept us off the ground, its drawback was that it was all of two feet thick, which meant that we were well up in the air and feeling decidedly insecure.
Just as I expected and feared might happen, a Jerry mortar-crew extended us a warm welcome by lobbing a clutch of bombs our way, several of which landed in 16 platoon area to our right, wounding Sgt. Don McIlwain of that platoon, the first man in the Regiment, as far as I know, to be wounded. We saw him go haring across the open field holding on to where the shrapnel had lodged in a cheek of his ass. We were lucky Jerry's aim and range was off a bit. The bombs meant for us landed a trifle long, crashing harmlessly into a wooded gulley directly behind us about a hundred yards away. I couldn't believe the ear-splitting bangs they made. All of a sudden I realized the mistake I'd made in choosing to serve in the infantry instead of some servce unit like a laundry detachment.
Instinct told us to roll off our palliasse and into the trench, but on seeing that cold, uninviting water with a thin layer of ice on top, we thought better of it. We just couldn't do it. Our only recourse then was to lie there on that towering palliasse and hope to hell the Jerry mortar crew wouldn't raise the angle of their tubes by a couple turns of the screw. What a helpless feeling it was to be so exposed and to listen to those bombs crashing in that echo chamber of a ravine!
As the bombs were plunging out of the overcast sky, every muscle in my body started twitching and jumping. As much as I tried to stop shaking, I couldn't. I thought it might be an epileptic seizure, but it wasn't. Although Bob Wheatley, looked as shit-scared as I was, "How come he's not shaking?"
I said to myself. "What the hell are you shaking for, Stan?" Bob mumbled to me between the echoing blasts. "Damned if I know." I replied. "I'm trying, but I can't stop it!" There was no doubt about it, I was scared, but I didn't think I was that scared that I should lose all control of my muscles. They were really a-twitching! What the heck was it that made me go like this? I had no way of knowing at the time. The twitching and shaking, however, stopped as soon as the bombs stopped coming over. And now the strange part. Where I should have been left with a bad case of nervous exhaustion or shell-shock, it didn't happen. Once the danger was over, I was back to normal&emdash;no nervous tics, no muscles quivering, no nothing. It was as if nothing so frightening had just happened.
Much later on in the campaign when mulling over this momentary loss of muscle control, I came to the conclusion that it was only my adrenal gland kicking into high gear, sending a powerful jolt of the 'fight or flee' hormone through my system -- far more adrenaline than my body could burn up by just lying there. Perhaps if I had made a run for cover I'd have been okay. But since I didn't, my muscles had to do something to use up the excess adrenaline, so they jumped and they twitched and they quivered. At least that's my theory. Not everyone's adrenal gland works at the same rate, as I learned some time after the war. With some people, like myself, the adrenal gland reacts quickly and more often, and with greater output than others. I knew this because of the short fuze I had when it came to heated arguments which invariably ended when I threw punches. There was many an occasion later on in the campaign when I was in far more danger and a hell of a lot more scared and yet I never experienced so much as a quiver. I might have done some silent praying, but my body didn't go into a fit of muscle spasms.
Here at Ortona was the one and only time something like this happened.
If there's anything besides a good woman, good food, and good wine that's likely to grab an infantryman's interest and fancy it has to be the hunt for loot, any kind of loot, military or otherwise. The very next morning, one of the more enterprising guys in company HQ, while poking around the house, detected a hollow sound under his boots in the wood floor of the lean-to outside the house. Pulling a couple of boards loose, he found a huge wine vat underneath, full of wheat. Instinct told him there had to be more than just wheat in that vat, and his suspicions proved to be right. Digging into the grain the inquisitive one began to haul out all kinds of clothing, bolts of material, lingerie, in fact almost everything in the way of dry goods found in department stores. In no time at all, word of the discovery travelled through the three platoons, and inside of a few minutes the place was swarming with people digging into the treasure-trove. Bob Wheatley and I only found out about it when we noticed all these civilians walking about the company lines 'dressed to the nines' like they were strolling on the avenue.
Or at least we thought they were civilians. We couldn't believe our eyes until we recognized that the strollers weren't civilians but our own fellows who were having a little fun wearing the fancy 'duds'.
When we heard about all the good stuff waiting for our grubby hands, we abandoned our position for the moment to get into the 'digs' ourselves. And what a looting spree it was! Everybody was into the act, officers included. And, in the next two days the Regimental Postal Office was inundated with parcels of all sizes, shapes and weights made out to addresses in Canada. Someone came around the next day telling us that the goods cached in the vat was the 'lock, stock and barrel' of a dry goods shop in Ortona. Why it was hidden there was obvious. When the fighting drew near the town, the proprietor, seeking to protect his investment from being lost by fire and other destructive means, as well as to keep it from the loot-hungry Canadians, decided to bury it in wheat-filled vats under the floor-boards of his lean-to. He underestimated, however, the Canadians' uncanny knack for sniffing out treasure, no matter how and where it might be hidden. The sad part of this mother-lode discovery was the fact that some of the senders of the parcels didn't live long enough to read the acknowledging letters from home saying the parcels had reached their destination. They died in battle just four days later.
Always a one to go treasure hunting, a trait I acquired back when I was a pre teenager when I loved going up and down the alleys in Windsor looking for junk, hoping to find something useful or to sell to the sheenies, I carried on in a similar fashion in Italy. Though there were no sheenies in Italy to sell to, there were more than enough other potential buyers or people to take in trade what I might come up with in my scavenger hunts. On the second day we were up at the front, with some free time on my hands, I was overcome with an urge to search a farmhouse halfway between our Brigade reserve positions and the Cape Breton Highlanders who were up front. No one cared to come along with me to see what might be found, not even my erstwhile buddy of like pursuits, Walter Thomas. We'd been warned about booby-traps, but such talk went in one ear and out the other. I thought of myself as one of the immortal ones, that nothing was going to kill me in this war, and so, booby-traps were the least of my worries.
It was damn stupid of me to go traipsing around at the front,especially since I didn't know the lie of the land, didn't know where our other companies were located, didn't know if there were snipers out there to pick me off. In fact I knew next to nothing about how to stay alive. Since we were reserve battalion and I was one of the more ignorant ones in the company, I went out to the farmhouse without a care in the world. All I could think of was that I might find some valuable item, perhaps a diamond necklace or other jewellry I could send home or sell. I was hoping I'd come across another treasure trove such as the one our boys unearthed in the company HQ farmhouse the day before. But it wasn't to be. As soon as I set foot in the house I knew there'd be nothing here for me. The place was a shambles of junk strewn all over the floor, telling me in bold detail that others had been here before me and gone through the cupboards and dressers with a fine tooth comb. Since I was determined to come away with something, I picked up a small hand-cranked coffee grinder and a small bag of oats with intention of making myself some porridge the first time I came across some milk. Which I did. Though the ground oats turned out to be coarse and full of husks, I somehow managed to finish the whole mess-tin full and even enjoyed it to a degree. When you're hungry, you're hungry, you'll eat almost anything.
THE BATTLE OF THE RICCIO RIVER
(0r the Battle of the Arielli, as it has so been misnamed.)
Sunday, January 16 -- Another bright, sunny day, but with a nippy breeze blowing in off the Adriatic. We most certainly didn't expect to have a church parade called here at the front, but that's exactly what happened. When we heard we were having one, we thought someone had gone nuts. If it was dangerous for more than three men to get together in the open, then what the hell will it be like when a whole company gathers out there in a wide open field less than a half mile from the enemy, singing Abide With Me and What a Friend We Have in Jesus? It was an open invitation to disaster. Whose idiotic idea it was, we never did try to find out. It might have been the Padre's, but we just couldn't see he'd be the kind of man who'd put his boys in such a dangerous situation. We felt it had to be the CO's brainwave, one of most hare-brained orders of the many hare-brain-ed ones any of us had ever had to obey. It was downright criminal. It was obvious to all of us that all it would take would be a couple of mortar bombs landing smack dab in the middle of the gathering and half the company would be blown to rat shit? Even the least brightest in the company saw the insanity in it. We might have been new to the front with a hell of a lot yet to learn, but we weren't that dumb that we couldn't see the danger we were about to be put into. A church-parade in the front lines! Outrageous! Insane! Stupid! A hundred and fifty men, elbow to elbow out in the clear, within sniper shot of the enemy lines, singing hymns and listening to a sermon? God Almighty!
Although we tried to be a good and devout congregation, it was tough to be moved by the Padre's sermon and all the hymn singing when our ears were cocked for the rustle of an incoming shell or the last second flutter of a mortar bomb on its downward flight. Our hearts weren't in it. And so it was with a deep sigh of relief that we welcomed the end of the Service, one of the shortest on record, and hustled back to the relative safety of our posts.
Inside the hour after we arrived safe and sound back in our company lines we gathered around Capt. Ridge to listen to what he had to say about the attack we were set to make at daybreak. We literally hung on his every word, knowing there'd be no more pretending. From here on in everything would be for real. Instead of rocks to shoot at, we'd have live targets. Likewise,of course, and there was no getting away from it, we'd also be live targets for the guys we'd be shooting at. But we didn't give this a thought. Excitement and anticipation over the prospects of battle dominated what was going through our minds. In my own, at least, there was no room for such things as fear and doubts. With every new item of information he passed on, the excitement grew till I thought I was going to bust. I couldn't deny the fact, however, that I also felt my first twinge of nervousness, a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach like that which came over me in the locker room before every football game I played back in my high school days. But this was no football game. There was a hell of a lot more at stake here than winning or losing a game. Here a man could lose his life. I shrugged the thought out of my mind and waited to hear what more Sammy Ridge had to say. At this point he did his best to re-assure us that everything would work out just fine for the Regiment. The enemy wasn't expected to put up much opposition because of the heavy barrage that would blanket his positions before we went in. He also mentioned that there wasn't much more than two platoons facing us, and even though they were the tough paratroopers we'd been hearing so much about, we should have little trouble walking right through them once the artillery finished lambasting them.
The battle plan called for the Perths to take center stage, while the Cape Breton Highlanders were to put in a diversionary two company attack on the coastal flank. The Irish Regiment of Canada as the reserve battalion on our left flank wouldn't have much to do except create a lot of battle noiseswith small-arms fire to make the enemy think an attack was imminent in their sector and hopefully draw their attention away from the main effort. Able company under command of Captain Frank Kennedy, and Major Bob MacDougall's Charlie Company were selected to spearhead the Regiment's first attack, with the two companies leaving the start-line the instant the artillery barrage shut down. The artillery was to commence firing at 05:30 hours, laying down a stupendous concentration of shells of shells of all calibres on the enemy positions on what was known as the Fendo Ridge.
Opposition was expected to be light, at least up until the lead companies reached the valley of the Riccio River. But even here the planners were confident the enemy would most likely not be in any condition to put up much resistance. The drenching artillery fire would see to that.If there were any of the enemy still alive after the kind of punishment they'd taken, they'll be so stunned they would be in no condition to put up much of a fight. Or so the planners believed. So this then was what we were left with, a feeling that our battle baptism would be an easy introduction into the art of war. Yeah, it all sounded so easy&emdash;not a buggerin' thing to worry about. Our first battle would be history by noon, with the Perth Regiment firmly on the final objective on the near side of the valley of the Arielli River, with the next objective, Pescara, a fishing village six miles farther up the coast.
Nine Field Regiments of 25 pounders and five Regiments of 5.5 Mediums would open the days proceedings with a barrage that was touted to be equal in volume as that fired at El Alamein. Besides the artillery support, a squadron of heavy bombers were to blast the enemy positions with 500 lb bombs. All in all, our first operation was made to look like it was going to be a pushover, not much more than an exercise, but with live ammunition and live targets.
We went to bed that night with thoughts of the battle on our minds, wondering how things would go for us in the morning. Though our coming battle baptism was made to appear easy, sleep, for me didn't come with the closing of the eyes. Nor did it come quickly for anyone else, so I presumed. Too many thoughts, both positive and negative ebbed and flowed through the semi-consciousness of my mind all night long. Visions of heroic acts dominated most of my thoughts. I saw myself as a 'one-man-army' charging into the heart of the enemy positions, bludgeoning and bayoneting my way through a swarm of defenders. I also saw myself standing before the King at Buckingham Palace as he pinned the coveted Victoria Cross on my tunic. What exhilarating thoughts they were...enough to make my head swim with anticipation of the great day that would soon break upon us. How was I to know that it wasn't going to come close to being anything at all like the battle I imagined it was going to be? How was I to know that the things wouldn't go the way the planners painted the 'big picture', that it would turn out to be one of the grimmest, most heartbreaking, most spirit-draining days in my young life? In retro-spect, it was far better that I could not foresee what we were about to experience or I might very well have given in completely to fear.
In the next few hours I'd find out to my deep dismay and utter terror, deep disappointment and escalating self-doubt, that instead of being the Canadian version of the American hero of WWI, Sergeant York, I was closer to performing the coward's role. My only comfort, after it was all over lay in the fact that everyone else was as bad off mentally and spiritually as I had been all through the hours when all hell was raining steel and high-explosive around us. On this note then, I was no less a fighting Perth than anyone else in my company. They were all scared shitless.
Along with the reverie of a heroic performance on my part, other more sobering thoughts kept me half awake I kept thinking of home, of my mother, my brothers and sisters, the teachers who'd been writing to me and sending me parcels, and I even wondered what my gang would be thinking of if they could only see me now. I tried not to dwell on these thoughts, nor on the possibility that I might not live out the day, or that I might lose a leg, an arm, or even get my nuts shot off. Somehow I man-aged to cast such morbid and self-pitying thoughts out of my mind and eventually dropped off to sleep, a sleep that was much too brief. At 0400 hours someone nudged me awake. Time to get ready for the big day. We had a job to do.
In that final hour or so before battle, I had an acute attack of incontinence. And so did everyone else. Bladders and bowels worked overtime.
Every five minutes, or so it seemed, we had to empty them, which meant there was a steady procession of men hurrying off somewhere to unload. We learned for the first time the powerful diuretic and laxative effect pre-battle nerves can have on a man. No prescription or off-the-shelf medic-ation can come anywhere near to being as effective. In the space of an hour, every one of us had to have gone front and back at least three or four times.As I was going through all the necessary adjustments to packs, making sure the bolt action in my rifle worked smoothly, checked to see that the magazine was filled, saw that the two No.36 grenades were fuzed, I happened to look up and notice Joe Gallant sitting by the snow-fence staring into space. He didn't look at all well to me, nor had he ever since we arrived at the front four days ago. And I think I knew what was bothering him. Joe was deeply afraid of what lay ahead for him. For the past several days he'd been doing his damnedest to get out of the coming battle. He claimed all his teeth were hurting him&emdash;that he should see the dentist. But the MO wasn't convinced his teeth needed to be looked at. When he was turned down, Joe let me and a few of the others in 18 platoon know what was on his mind, that he wasn't going to make it through the day. He was in a terrible mental state, and sank into a deep depression on the eve of battle, and no amount of encouragement from any of us could snap him out of it. We could only guess that Joe must have had a premonition that he was going to die. In these last few minutes before we fell out on the road to march off to the F.U.P. Joe as much as told me he was as good as dead. "Aw, come off that, Joe! Quit your worrying. You're going to be okay," I said, trying to snap him out of his fatalistic outlook. But Joe knew something I didn't know. Within the next two hours Joe would be dead.
Joe was the oldest man in the company, the type known in every Regiment as 'Pop'. He had to be in his late thirties, if not forties. In my opinion, Joe should never have been in the infantry. He'd have served his country far more effectively in some non-combat role as a cook's helper in Brigade or Div. or doing guard duty at Corps HQ. I'd seen a lot of younger and more robust infantry prospects than Joe slinging clothes and tending the washers in the mobile laundry who should have been taking Joe's place.
While Dog company was getting itself ready for the big 'do' Charlie company went by down the road past our Company HQ farmhouse on the way to the FUP.(Forming up point) I stood by the side of the road watching the men go by, and although it was dark I could see their expressionless faces and wondered what might be going through their minds. I shouldn't have wondered,because it wasn't more than minutes later that I was on that same road moving up, thinking the same things that had probably crossed their minds.
A troop of Shermans from the Three Rivers Tank Regiment moved up alongside the column, the grinding and squeaking of their tracks and the roar of their engines wore on our nerves. We wished to hell they'd bugger off to somewhere else. Although we were greenhorns at the game of war, we new that noise attracts attention, and attention from German artillery was something we didn't want, especially before we even got into action. The racket the tanks made was enough to warn every German up ahead and maybe even all the way to Pescara that the Canadians were about to put in another attack. All through the campaign we carried on a "love/hate" relationship with the tanks. We loved to have them with us for their support, yet we hated them whenever they came too close. The noise of their engines and the grind and squeak of their tracks made it impossible for us to hear the whistle and rustle of incoming shells, thereby giving us little time to dive for cover.
0500 hours&emdash;"Dog company fall out! Okay, everybody up and out on the road, come on, nip, nip, nip!" CSM Don Habkirk went 'round the platoons shouting and nudging people awake. Time for one more 'leak'. No time for the latrine...just direct the stream off to the side right where we stood. And so, without so much as a word spoken to each other we moved on up the road in staggered sections for the short trek to the FUP where we were to wait for our artillery to open up in less than half an hour. No one was in the mood to be joking or talking at a time like this. This was serious business, and most certainly wasn't a time for comedy or kidding.
Tension built up to an unbearable pitch as the platoons hunkered in the roadside ditches to await the barrage. And then, sharp at half past five the gray light of approaching dawn flashed into brightness like someone had just flipped a light switch. Fifteen Regiments of Canadian and British artillery opened up in a stupendous crescendo of gunfire. The heavy hammers of war went to work on the enemy positions on the high ground across the valley of the Riccio River, pouring a torrent of steel and high-explosive all along the valley lip. The early morning darkness raged with the thunder of the guns behind us in the ravines and gulleys around Ortona and San Vito, banging away full steam. In the undiminishing crash of gunfire, the lightening sky filled with the whispering rush and whistle of hundreds of shells on their way to the target. At the arrival point on the ridge the 25pounders, 5.5s and 7.2s crashed in an obliterating hell-dance of fire and drum roll of explosions. What was happening around us was both fascinating and frightening. It stunned the senses. It was hell on earth. We lay there in the ditches numbed by the immensity of what our eyes were taking in. Now I knew what the Canadians at Ypres and a hundred other battles had gone through under those mammoth barrages as they waited for zero hour to climb out of their trenches to face the unmitigated terror of 'No man's land." With the constant thunder of the guns pounding our ear-drums, and the whir of shell after shell passing overhead, it was at this point that self-doubt began to make itself known. Who could not be afraid at a moment like this?
For a full fifteen minutes the bombardment blanketed the enemy positions all along the valley lip. And then as suddenly as the artillery had erupted,the guns stopped their cannonading. An unnatural stillness descended on the battlefield, a stillness almost as unnerving as the din that made ears ache and turned stomachs into knots. Somewhere up ahead in the slowly lightening dawn, Major Bob MacDougall waved his Charlie Company forward. All went well in the beginning and the company made good time, but when the lead platoon under Lt. Bob Chamberlain started down the slope into the Riccio River valley just above where the slender thread of trickling water split into two branches, it came under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire as it forded the Riccio stream. Instinctively, though peppered all the way with long bursts of MG fire, the platoon put its many months of battle-drill training to good use and went up the far slope killing three paratroopers in one of the MG 42 posts spitting fire at them. They pushed on and seized the platoon's objective on the high ground overlooking the valley at 07:30 hours. Only nine men, however, of the 32 that started out were still on their feet. For his leadership and his courage in this action, ex-Elgin Regiment, Bob Chamberlain shortly there-after was decorated with the Military Cross.
The main body of MacDougall's company came under heavy mortar and MG fire converging on the road at the southern fork of the Riccio. Seeing his men cut down all around him, the Major, with Lt. Laurent Rochon and six others made a brave but hopeless rush on a white house half way up the slope directly to their front, the source of most of the fire lancing into the hapless platoon. As brave and determined as these men were, they never made it. The entire group, with Major MacDougall in the lead, brandishing his Enfield MkII revolver, was gunned down in its tracks before the group had gone twenty yards. MacDougall, Rochon and two men were killed outright, and four were wounded and eventually taken prisoner. The attack died at this point. It was impossible for anyone to move through the killing ground without meeting a like fate.
On Charlie company's immediate right, Captain Frank Kennedy's 'Able' company had run up against heavy machine-gun fire as well, and had no better luck trying to work its way up the slope. The two lead platoons came under extremely heavy mortar and machine-gun fire as they started down the slope to cross the valley floor. Seeing no progress was possible against the three, and possibly more enemy posts firing down on them, Capt. Kennedy directed Lt. Alfred Clements to take his platoon in an right-flanking move to eliminate the threat. This tactic, however, achieved nothing except the death of Lt Clements along with five of his men. They were caught in the hail of bullets from two other weapon posts firing at them from enfilade as they tried to cross the valley.
While all this was going on, a Charlie Company PIAT team wormed its way up the slope and got to within range of a house from which an MG poured a steady stream of steel-jacketed rounds at every attempt by one of the platoons to close on the position. The man behind the weapon had their number and was inflicting grievous damage. Every burst drove them to ground, but somehow, the PIAT team got through the beaten zone and sent a couple of bombs into the position, forcing the crew to stumble out and throw their arms up in surrender. But success was short-lived, when another crew took over the weapon and continued flailing away at the hapless Charlie company lying pinned down in the valley. A troop of Three Rivers tanks rumbled up, but not far enough forward, in an attempt to silence the enemy post. The battle-proven paratroopers were in no way intimidated at the sight of the tanks and kept pumping small-arms fire at the assaulting platoons, to which they then added a mortar bomb stonk on the largely unprotected Perths.
At about this time (0700 hours), Dog company in Battalion reserve, under command of Capt.William (Sammy) Ridge, got word from a runner to enter the battle on Charlie company's left, with intention of taking the pressure off Charlie Company, freeing it for the final rush. As the two lead companies had been able to do little or nothing in the face of the heavy opposition, the focal point of the attack shifted to the far left of the Regiment's axis of advance. Lt. Col. Rutherford put the onus on Dog company to get across the slender ribbon of water of the Riccio, (grossly misclassified as a 'river'),and move up the shallower slope in that sector and fight their way into and through the enemy positions along the lip of the valley.
Within minutes after the artillery shut down, Dog company came under heavy mortar fire at the FUP and suffered their first casualties, although only one man, Joe Gallant, had taken a killing hit. Fragments from a mortar bomb bursting close behind him tore into the back of Joe's head killing him instantly. His premonition had come true. Strapped to his back was the company's #19 radio set, rendered useless by shrapnel tearing the guts out of the works. Fragments from the same bomb wounded Sergeant-Major Don Habkirk, who'd been walking ahead of Joe.
(From here on I switch entirely to the 1st person in describing the action)
"We'd just got moving out of the ditches when mortar bombs smacked down all around us with tremendous crashes, catching us out in the open with no place to duck under cover. Chunks of half-frozen turf pelted my face as I lay clutching the ground in fear. "Boy, are we in for it now!" the thought flashed across my mind. "Here we're only minutes into the battle and already I'm going to die!" From my face down position on an open piece of ground at the edge of a stand of tall pines, I raised my head to look around to see if there was a shell-hole, dip or depressionI could crawl into to give me half a chance. If there'd have been anything at all I'd have gone there in a hurry. But there was not a damn thing that would save my skin. The few shallow craters nearby were already occupied. No room for another body. Nothing! Not a damn thing! All there was out there were the bright flashes and black eruptions of mortar bombs.
18 Platoon was lucky in that we were on the fringe of the beaten zone. Most of the bombs were landing in 17 platoon's area on our left. Enough of them, however, were coming down a little too close for comfort, prompting me into doing something about my predicament. Any kind of cover, no matter what, was better than no cover, which was exactly what I had. Scared as I was, I hadn't lost my wits as yet. I remember saying to myself, "If I don't find something better than this, and soon, I'll be dead in less than two minutes, maybe even sooner." So, right after three bombs went off, crrrrump&emdash;crrrump&emdash;crrrrump not fifty feet from me, I took off, crawling as fast as I could back towards the road where I noticed no bombs were falling.I fought hard to hold back the growing panic threatening to overwhelm me. One bomb slammed into the turf not ten feet away from me, but it was a dud. Luck was with me. I was living a charmed life, at least up till now. But by the way things were going it didn't look like my luck would last much longer.
I hadn't given a thought to praying, but I thought I'd better do something about it and right quick, even though I didn't know how to address God. Every time I started on a prayer, as crude as I knew it would be, a bomb would go off close by, cutting the prayer short. The only time I'd ever spoken to Him was the day before when we were standing out in the open at the church service. At the time, I begged Him to get us our asses out of there before it'd be too late. I'd always held the opinion that God didn'ttake sides in war, regardless of what our leaders and clergy tried to make us believe. I had a mind of my own and convinced myself that God didn't choose who was to die, or who was to live. I knew that there had to be a lot of German boys opposite us who prayed to the same God, and their mothers worried and prayed as our mothers and loved ones did. So whose prayers would He answer, ours or theirs'?
With every bomb that banged in nearby, the ground beneath me jumped. I was so terrified I forgot what I was babbling about and to whom I was directing it. Although desperate beyond desperation I somehow managed to plan how I might get out of this thing alive, all the while alternately whispering to myself to hold on, and to God Almighty to protect me. I lay there, pressing so hard to the ground that my stomach ached. And then, not ten yards away from me on my left I spotted tank-tracks&emdash;only three-inches deep but I made straight for them. Three inches underground is better than no inches. The tracks were about a yard wide, and I knew right off they were put there by either a Tiger or a Panther tank. The Sherman's tracks were about half as wide.
As shallow and near-useless for protection as the impression was, I drew some comfort from it anyway, enough to calm me down somewhat. With the near-hysteria gone, I looked at my situation in a different light, taking in all that was going on around me. I didn't need anyone to tell me I had to get out of the beaten zone, and quick. I knew that if I didn't move and move fast, I'd either get myself splattered all over this little patch of Italian soil by a direct hit or go stark, raving mad. To go shellshock was the last thing I wanted happen to me. Death, as long as it was quick and painless, like a bullet between the eyes would have been preferable. So I moved. I crawled along the track away from the eye of the storm, flopping flat on my face every time a mortar bomb exploded a little too close for my good and welfare. And then one plunged into the ground not more than a couple of arms length away. It had my name on it, but apparently the name was misspelled. It was another dud. Scared even more shitless now, I was beside myself as to how to escape the fate zeroing in on me. And that's when I came face to face with Ken Topping who looked to be in worse mental shape than I was. Topping was a well-put-together lad, tough as nails, who, although he wasn't the bully-type, also wasn't shy or gentle about throwing his weight around. He was pretty meek on this occasion. His eyes were the size of two half-dollar coins, his lower lip flapped like a flag in a March gale. He couldn't talk. He was right out of it! Why I should have looked upon the situation as being funny, I'll never know. Maybe it was because I suddenly realized I wasn't the only man who was almost out of his mind in fear, that here was one of the toughest guys in the platoon, and he's a hell of a lot worse off than me.It actually made me feel a little superior, if only for an instant.
With this in mind, what was going on around me didn't seem half so bad, and as long as I kept moving maybe I could save myself. And then, as suddenly as it began, the mortaring stopped. What a tremendous relief! Sammy Ridge appeared out of nowhere and wasted no time in getting us on the move. To a man, we were not only glad to get moving, we were actually anxious to be onour way into the attack. To come to grips with the enemy was something we could handle with reasonable composure. To lie there on the ground waiting for a shell to blow you away without you're being able to do anything to keep it from happening was a mind-shattering experience. We weren't looking forward into running into that kind of situation again. Any kind of a move, forward, backward, sideways, it didn't matter, as long as we were getting out of there, we were all for it.
Swinging off to the left, we entered a dip in the terrain, and used it to our advantage in approaching the valley of the Riccio River where our Charlie and Able Companies were locked in a losing battle with the enemy. We made good time, hidden as we were from view of the enemy. Mean-while, behind us on the higher ground we'd just vacated, two Shermans rolled up and began firing with their co-ax machine-guns, the streams of tracer-fire burning the air over our heads as the two streams converged on a target somewhere out of our line of vision. It was heartening so see the support we were getting after our not being able to do a damn thing about hitting back at the enemy.
About a hundred yards farther along the shallow gulley we came upon the bodies of two Seaforth Highlanders lying face down, their arms stretched out in front of them, their rifles just beyond their reach. Every man in the company, of that I'm sure, paused to look down at them in morbid fascination before hurrying on. The Seaforths weren't mangled or twisted in any way, but beside one lay an upturned helmet inside of which was pooled the red, pulpy remains of what had been the man's brain. What killed his partner I couldn't make out, but I had to assume a sniper had gunned them both down. I saw no entry marks of shrapnel anywhere on their battledress to suggest a mortar or a shellburst was the cause of their death. This was our shocking first look at dead men on a battlefield. The sight of the bodies, especially the man whose brains had been blown away, etched itself on my memory to the extent that I had a tough time shaking the gruesome image out of my mind. It bothered me for the balance of that long, terrible, heartbreaking day.
Halfway to the valley of the Riccio (about 200 yards away) 18 platoon swung off sharply to the right, emerging from cover to take up positions in the ruins, or rather the remains of a farmhouse and its outbuildings. Not so much as a wall stood. Three rubble heaps were all that suggested a farmhouse and outbuildings had occupied this piece of real estate. The larger heap, I identified as the house because of the pots and pans lying about amidst the debris. Also, there was a white-enameled steel bedpost sticking out of the pile of rubble. Reaching the ruins was easy enough getting out presented a real problem. It didn't take us long to realize we were trapped. Two or maybe three Spandaus opened up on us, and then mortars zeroed in. Lucky for all of us there were slit-trenches all through the area and we dove for this cover. How it was that no one was hit was unbelievable.
The sprays of .300 calibre rounds from the MGs ricocheted off the rubble sending pieces of wood and masonry flying in every direction. For the next fifteen minutes, or perhaps longer, the enemy threw everything but the kitchen sink at us. All I could do was stay deep down in my trench and hope and pray one of the bombs didn't make a direct hit. When they stopped dropping out of the low-slung clouds I dared to poke my head up to take a quick scan around to see what was going on, see how the others were making out. I couldn't see anybody but I could see the far side of the Riccio valley, although I couldn't pick out where the enemy weapons were that were firing on us. The smokeless powder the Jerries used made it near impossible to pin-point their location. On my third peek over the rim of my trench I caught a movement in an upstairs window of a large house across the valley, but before I could bring my rifle to bear and take a bead on him, the Jerry beat me to the draw and let go a long burst that tore up the turf along the rim of my trench, cascading dirt and stones onto my helmet. Now all I could do was sit there at the bottom of the trench and wait. Wait for what? To die, most likely. Not a pleasant thought. I got to wondering if any of the guys in my platoon got hit in that first flurry of MG fire. I also got to thinking that maybe I was the only guy still alive. How would I know? Maybe they'd gotten away, leaving me here all alone. Or maybe they were all dead at the bottom of their slit-trenches. "Well," I said to myself, "if that's the way things stand, then I guess I'll just have to wait it out and make a break for it as soon as it gets dark. It's no use getting upset over it." By this time I'd gotten a hold of myself and was confident that I'd get out of the jam somehow.
But as I sat there in my hole by a pile of rubble I had plenty of time to do some serious thinking and it all turned pessimistic. During a lull in the gunfire and a slackening in the rate of mortar fire I heard someone hollering, but I couldn't make out who it was and what it was all about. At first I thought it was someone calling out for a stretcher-bearer, but I detected a tone of calm authority in the voice. "Who in the hell's stupid enough to be out there in the open? The sonofabitch'll get himself knocked off," With care I stood up, first putting my helmet on my hand and lifting it above the lip of the trench to see if it was safe to stick my head up. Nothing happened, so I had a quick look around. That's when I saw Gord Forbes, Jimmy Eves and George Simeays hot-footing it for the protection of the gully. And not ten yards behind them sprinted Ken Topping, Walt Thomas, Bob Wheatley and Cec Vanderbeck practically falling all over each other in the flight to safety. "Holy Jeez, they're still alive!" I exclaimed, "But they'll never make it!" I had to hand it to them -- they had guts to get out of their nice, deep trenches and make that run across open ground with bullets chewing up the turf around their flying feet. It was a shootin' gallery out there. How the Jerry gunners failed to plink any of them will always make me wonder. Was it a miracle? Was it Divine intervention? Or was it just that the MG 42s weren't all that accurate? It could have been a little of each that saved them. All I can say is that if it had been Brens firing, I don't think the boys would have made it. As good a weapon as the MG 42 was, the man firing it had to depend more on the hosepipe method in hopes a few of the thousand rounds spit out would hit their target. That's the way it went with them&emdash;fortunately for us.
I watched my section mates with bated breath as they ran, admiring them their courage for getting out of cover to run the gauntlet. Yeah, I couldn't help but admire and envy them their guts. "They've got a hell of a lot more than I've got!" Hunkering down at the bottom of my nice and deep trench I did some serious thinking about how and when I'd make the break to rejoin the platoon. I had to do it. There was no way I was going to stay where I was. But before I could go, I had to screw up the courage, talk myself into it&emdash;shove fear aside and with fingers crossed, 'light out!' It'd take a heck of a lot courage to climb our of the security of the trench&emdash;let me tell you&emdash;a lot more than I thought I had. How could I go when I was scared right out of my hide? I sat there for a good ten minutes trying to shut out from my mind the negative thoughts crowding in on me. I tried to convince myself that if the others made it okay, then I could. My feet felt nailed to the bottom of the trench. And then, without really being conscious of what I was doing, I was up and out of the trench, picking the old feet up and laying them down, tearing off across the open ground like a scatback in a football game dodging tackles, weaving this way and that. Only this scatback wasn't eluding tackles, it was the hundreds of bullets snapping and cracking all around me. I might have been scared shitless, but I wasn't that scared that I didn't know that if I threw myself on the ground I'd get stitched up from asshole to breakfast in nothing flat. And then to speed me on my way even faster, a mortar bomb plunging out of the gray sky, exploded with an ear-splitting crash not twenty yards to my left. With the stink of the H.E. burning in my nose I pelted right on as fast as my furiously pumping legs could carry me. That seventy-five yards seemed more like three hundred. My lungs were on fire as I sped into the cover of an embankment where I ran into the guys in my platoon who watched my flight for life like I had watched theirs.
I flopped on the ground gasping for air as though I was at death's door.It wasn't so much because of the energy expended that I was flat on my backgasping for air. Fear had most to do with it. After my respiratory rate returned to near normal I realized what I'd just gone through and felt a surge of pride go through me. After all, although my action didn't knock out an enemy MG post or anything like that, I did conquer to some extent my fear&emdash;a fear far beyond anything I'd ever known before. I'd just come through a terrifying 'run of the gauntlet' of mortar and machine-gun fire, that in all respects, should have killed me. I could have stayed in that hole and waited for darkness to get away, but when I saw my buddies make their break,I knew I had to do it too or I'd have never lived it down.
It was quite evident all of us that our glorious attack wasn't going atall as we expected it would. In fact things looked downright bleak. Other-wise we should have been on our objective by this time.(3 p.m.) The first hints that we weren't going to distinguish ourselves by taking our objective and winning the battle came at the FUP, strong indication that things were not too rosey. Even before the mortars hit our company, when we saw the casualties from the two lead companies streaming through us on their way back to field dressing station, many of them carried back draped over the shoulders of the less seriously wounded, we knew the attack wasn't going right. And then when the mortar bombs started raining on top of us, they confirmed our worst fears. Something had gone painfully wrong. The tremendous pounding the Germans had absorbed from our artillery hadn't destroyed their capacity or will to fight. Hardly had the echo of the last shell's arrival on their positions faded when they came up out of their deep dugouts, and popped up out of their slit-trenches with guns blazing. They were soldiers -- the very best.
It was hard to believe how many hours had gone by since our guns opened up at 5:30 that morning. Here it was, three in the afternoon, close to eight hours since the opening barrage and we'd done nothing yet worth bragging about. We'd spent most of those long hours hugging the half-frozen ground, quaking with fear instead.
At this stage of the day's action we had time to dwell on what had happened thus far. One thing that was obvious, and there was no question about it, morale was about as low as it could go. You could see it in the faces around you. No one did much talking. No one felt like talking. Here we were, not even a full day into the battle and already it felt like we'd been fighting forever. The thought kept going over and over in my mind; "God, but I've been damn lucky to be still alive, but how in hell can I expect to get through this.? I can't expect to be lucky forever. Will luck take me through the next time we go into action, or a third, or a fourth?" I just couldn't see any way that I'd be getting out of this war alive. At some time or another my buddies or a burial detail would wrap me up in a death blanket and lower my body in a shallow grave somewhere.
Out there, our boys were dying, and dying faster than I thought would ever happen. Could I then expect to wake up to another dawn and face another day like this and expect to survive? It's no wonder our morale, my morale, was down as far as it could go. Chances of our ever seeing home and loved ones looked mighty slim&emdash;mighty slim indeed. If I didn't get the fatal hit today, then sure as hell somewhere down the line I'd get it, hopefully between the eyes. After plumbing the depths of despair and wallowing in demoralizing self-pity I finally grabbed hold of myself and said in unspoken words, "To hell with it! This moping and worrying and feeling sorry for myself isn't going to do me one damn bit of good. If I die, I die. If I make it back in in one piece, then I'll have beaten the odds. Fatalistic? In a way, yes. But then that's the way it had to be. What other way was there for me to look at it? What other way could I keep my sanity intact? I wanted action or I'd have never joined the infantry, or in fact even gone 'Active'. I could have been a 'zombie' and missed all this shit. I asked for it, and now I got it and would have to face up to it. There was no running away.
From beyond the embankment came the steady rattle of small arms, both the enemy's and ours, mostly the enemy's. It was so easy to pick out which was which. Brens could only push out a maximum 540 rounds per minute, while theMG 34 delivered 800 to 900, and the later model 42 could spit out 1200 rounds per minute. Someone somewhere on the battlefield came up with the nickname 'rubber' gun for these superb weapons&emdash;not an apt name, but nonetheless that's what we came to know them until the more descriptive term 'cheese-cutter' took over. By what-ever name we called it, the Jerry machine-gun was a weapon to be feared.
At 3:30 that afternoon, while we were cooling our heels and catching our breath behind the embankment, Lt. Don Handford came running up all flushed in the face and breathing hard, giving us the latest word, which, under the situation, we weren't at all enthusiastic about hearing. The orders were for Dog company to get moving ten minutes after our artillery opened up for another 'go' at working over the enemy positions across the valley. That meant we'd be making a run for the valley even while the shelling was going on. The shoot would begin at 16:00 hours (4:00 p.m.) sharp.
We had every reason to be deeply apprehensive, especially after all that we'd seen and been through up till now. Only nine hours of hell, but enough to give us all a lifetime of grim memory. The only thing for us now was to hitch up our belts, grit our teeth and hope to bloody hell there wouldn't be any Jerries left alive after our artillery lifted. In the briefing of the previous day we'd been told not to expect much in the way of opposition because there wasn't any more than a couple of platoons, or at most, a company holding the line to offer opposition. What few there might be stillstanding after our guns got through with them, would be so bomb-wacky they'd be in no condition to give us trouble. How simple and easy our Intelligence people made things look! They gave us the impression it was going to be a 'cake-walk', a walkover, a tea-party. How wrong they were, we were about to find out. This would be the first of many miscalculations our Intelligence people made throughout the campaign.
At 1600 hours sharp, the heavy orchestra behind us bust loose in a symphony of cannonading that came pretty close to equalling the earlier barrage. 25 pounders, 5.5s, 7.2s and 4.2 mortars poured out their steel missiles of destruction. This time, we were directly under the flight paths of the shells at the point in the trajectory where they were on their downward journey. It was ten minutes of listening with awe and fearful doubts as they whirred over our heads and plunged into the target area with a drumbeat roll. And then we were on our way for what we thought would be thedecisive thrust that would end our agony. 16 Platoon under Lt. Frank Switzer took the lead, followed by 17 under Lt. Bill Hider, with 18 led by Lt. Don Handford bringing up the rear. The heavily overcast sky was a crowded highway of shells all going in one direction, some so low on their downward journey that I had the urge to reach up and see if I could touch one as it whistled by. For all the infernal noise of guns behind us barking, the whir and whistle of the shells hurtling overhead, the bass-drum beat of the hundreds of shells crashing in the valley, the machine-guns, both ours and theirs clattering at a furious rate,the rifle fire snapping past our ears and mortars crumping on the open ground just off to our right, the company ran resolutely on towards the valley of decision. Although we were as 'green as grass' when it came to combat and our nerves rubbed raw from prolonged fear, not a single man hung back from the job that had to be done. It was now or never. It was life or death. It was victory or defeat.
We ran along a well-worn path at the edge of a chewed-up olive grove, pockmarked everywhere with craters. We dodged, we hurdled and sidestepped around tree-limbs lying in our way. I stayed right on the heels of the man ahead. my eyes focused on his back. I stayed close mainly because he was my shield. Any bullets coming our way had to whing him first, giving me a chance to hit the ground. As we plunged on towards the valley, the din from tons upon tons of high-explosive going off grew louder at every stride. Sharp pops kept sounding close by my ears, and I knew either a sniper across the valley was trying to get a bead on me, or maybe it was just an ordinary rifleman shooting at us. I expected the next stride or the one after that would be my last. To my right on the periphery of my vision I caught a glimpse of a small group of our boys from one of the other companies stumbling back from the slaughterhouse of the valley, two of them carrying wounded draped over their shoulders.
Then suddenly, there before my eyes was the wide sweep of the Riccio River valley, the far slope a boiling mass of shellbursts, the valley itself thick with smoke and reeking of the stink of H.E. I froze, but only for an instant, my mouth agape as a long line of machine-gun bullets kicked up the dirt past my boots, so close I felt the vibrations through the double sole of my boots. In that instant I tried to spot where the firing had come from and then started downwards, sidestepping in the wake of the rest of 8 section. A second burst ripped into the slope less than three feet from me.I hit the ground head first and rolled all the way to the bottom where I came to a jolting halt against Gord Forbes' backside. I thought the whole section had been killed, but then Gord Forbes snapped out at me sharply, telling me to get my goddamned boot out of the crack of his ass.
The Jerry who'd been firing at our little group must have thought he'd nailed us all, and switched his aim to other targets. He had plenty to choose from. For 8 Section at the bottom of the slope, to move was to die, so we laid there and played dead. In effect, we were pinned down, literally glued to the ground. Along with the fear that if we made any kind of move at all,the gunner would turn his attention back to us, the steel curtain of mortar blasts all along the line of the Riccio just forty yards away discouraged any forward movement. Everything looked about as hopeless as imagination and reality could make it.
Intermingled with the explosions of our 25 pounders was the deeper crump of mortar bombs, but we weren't sure whether they were the enemy's or ours. They turned out to be of German origin. From where I lay on the slope just a few feet off the valley floor I could see the rush-filled Riccio, surprised that it was nothing but a ribbon of water, a lousy, narrow ribbon of sluggish water no more than four feet wide dotted here and there with bulrush. We expected something much wider. "They call that a river? The Roseland Golf Course ditch is wider than that!" the thought went through my head. The killing began in earnest when 16 Platoon, the lead platoon splashed through the shallow water on their way to go up the slope on the far side and close with the enemy in their dugouts and weapons posts outside the houses. They ran straight into this shower of mortar bombs. Caught in the killing-ground, the lead section was all but destroyed. Cpl. Tom Littlejohn, Ptes. Sinclair Ludwig, Allan Cartland, Bill Faircloth, and Howard Woodcock, were all killed on or just the other side of the Riccio. A dozen others behind them lay writhing in pain from wounds. The only hope for the wounded to save themselves was to crawl into the shallow craters that dotted the valley in abundance. The attack died at this point. The way things stood, no one who was there could see any possibility for the main body of Dog company to work its way up the slope and fight their way into the enemy positions.
While 16 Platoon and a good part of 17 Platoon had been rendered ineffective through heavy casualties caused by mortar-fire, No.7 section of 18 platoon had somehow burst into the clear through the curtain of bomb bursts and managed to work its way partly up the slope before being driven to ground by heavy machine-gun fire coming at them from the ridge crest directly ahead and from enfilade on both flanks. Although pinned-down on this naked slope, with only the shallow craters punched into the soil by the 25 pounder shells for protection, they were still able to lay in some rifle and Bren fire on the line of buildings and weapon posts on the high ground above them, though not nearly enough to put them out of action. However, by their very persistence, they forced the enemy to keep their heads down long enough and often enough to allow some of the wounded, those who could walk or crawl,to make their way out of the killing zone.
One enemy post that had been giving the most trouble was put out of business by the well-aimed shots from a Bren in the hands of Angel(call me H'Edgar) Desjardins of No.7 section, a burly and boisterous personality of unquestionable courage. When Angel spotted where the gun was firing from, he lifted his Bren to the hip and poured a whole mag into the position in three 10 shot bursts. But when his #2 man on the Bren, Billy Gilbert replaced the empty with a full mag the gun jammed. Without batting an eye, Angel went into the proper procedure of dismantling the gun, removing the piston group, wiping it and all other parts down and re-assembling it as he had so many times on T.O.E.T. and on ranges. While 'Angel' was busy doing what had to be done, Gilbert kept pecking away with his rifle at the enemy gun positions to keep their heads down. And when the big Frenchman from Ottawa had the Bren back together, he laid his sights on the enemy posts and drove them back into cover of the thick wall of a house directly to their front. Three or four of the enemy were seen to be hit as they tried to make a run for the house.
A stone's throw away to Angel's left, Pte W.K. Paul of 17 platoon got into a shooting match with a couple of Jerries in an upstairs window of one of the larger two-storey houses at the top of the rise. Caught out in the open with bullets snapping in the air all around him and cutting up the turf around his feet, he had no recourse but to let go with his Bren, firing from the hip at his tormentors. Fire aimed at him from another MG failed to hit or drive this man to cover. He's one guy who I never thought would have the guts to stand there in the open and take on the enemy the way he did. This wouldn't be the only time in the campaign I misjudged a man as to his courage or lack of it. Catching in the blink of an eye where this new threat was coming from, he raised his Bren, and, firing from a standing position, knocked it out with a couple of bursts. As a body plummeted head first out the window, this very unlikely-looking hero,(he never even got so much as a Mention in Despatches) Pte. W.K. Paul, kept pumping slugs into the body as it plummeted out of the window.
These were the only two instances that I know of where Dog company platoons were able to exchange fire with the well dug-in and protected defenders. Unfortunately it wasn't anywhere near enough to allow the survivors pinned down on the far side of the stream to rise and move forwardin a last ditch attempt to go in with bayonets and grenades. Dog company could go no further. They stayed there on the bullet-raked slope only a scant fifty yards away from the objective. So close and yet so far. Had the reserve battalion, the Irish Regiment been committed at this point, it's quite likely 11th Brigade would have come out of the battle with a victory instead of the disheartening setback it turned out to be. It's always easier, however,to fight a battle after the fact.
So there we were, eight men from 8 section clumped together at the bottom of the east slope, immobilized. In effect&emdash;we froze. Not a good show, but then, even had we gotten up and tried to cross the Riccio to join 7 and 9 Sections on the far slope, I doubt we'd have changed things much for the better, that depending, of course, on our not getting cut down in our tracks in the process. The way things stood, no one was going any place. As I lay there with face pressed tight against the ground, my heart racing like a runaway engine, twinges of guilt came over me. "Here's my chance to do something big and win a medal; who knows, even the VC." It'd take one hell of a brave man to jump up, run 40 yards, splash through the Riccio and go up the 30° slope with rifle blazing. I knew I didn't have that kind of guts. So. what could I do but lie there like I was dead. But I also knew that the moment I stood up, at least three MG 42s and a dozen rifles would cut me down before I ran ten steps. I'd have been a 'gonner'. Just like that, I'd have been a gonner. All it would take though, for me to do something special for a change would be for someone else to stand up and go. I'd have gone too, and I'm sure the rest of the guys in 8 section would have done the same.
One man a little braver than the rest&emdash;that's all it likely would have taken. And if we had charged across the valley, I'm pretty sure every damn one of us would have been cut down in our tracks.
As the shades of evening slowly darkened the valley, the firing slowed down and all but came to a stop. The battle was over. Now we could hear the the plaintive cries of the grievously wounded.
I lifted my head from my face-down position right up against Gord Forbes backside to have a look around and see what was what. And that's when I saw short-assed Art Gallant off to our left not fifty yards away staggering back from the Riccio supporting Sgt Jack Leghorn. From where we lay I could tell Jack had been seriously wounded. Seeing and hearing no small-arms fire aimed their way, we threw caution to the wind, got up and went over to join them, figuratively holding our breath, hoping the enemy gunners across the valley wouldn't open fire on us. We could see nothing across the valley to suggest our people had taken the valley rim so instead of going forward and risking instant death or capture, we went over to join Gallant and Leghorn and make our way back to our lines. To all intents and purposes the battle had ended with nothing to show for the heavy expenditure in manpower.
Sgt. Leghorn had taken a hit from what had to be a fair-sized bomb fragment just below his right shoulder, leaving his arm hanging only by shreds of skin and lacerated muscle. While our group was making its way back up the slope with Art and Sgt. Leghorn, I was afraid that any second we could expect to be gunned down. But not a shot came our way. This I couldn't understand. The enemy across the valley must have seen us, because there was still enough daylight, even though the shadow of the high ground across from us had crept half way across the valley. Then why hadn't they fired on us? They had us dead to rights&emdash;that's for sure. I guess we'll never know. Maybe it was because the para boys, were a different breed of soldiers, not like the murderous SS. Maybe they felt sorry for us after all the punishment they'd given us and let us few stragglers get away. Who knows? Maybe he was too busy picking up his own wounded and dead and let well enough alone.
Jack could thank Art Gallant for saving his life. Art's quick response in tying a shell-dressing on the wound and applying a tourniquet to staunch the flow of blood even while mortar bombs were falling thick and fast all around him, had done the trick. Yet what did Jack do but run off at the mouth, giving poor Art proper shit all the while Art was doing his damn-edest to patch him up. Art took Jack's rantings, but only for a short while. Being no slouch himself when it came to spieling off strings of uncomplimentary remarks and expressions, Art let Jack have it right back and with both barrels. And that's the way it was when we came up to them. Both were going at each other verbally tooth and nail, coming close even to spitting at each other.
At the lip of the valley we were joined by a Support Company mortarman, Hank Wickie. On his shoulder he toted a 3" mortar tube and on his face was a look of complete bewilderment. It seems that in the course of the day's final events Henry had somehow become separated from the other half of the mortar team, the man carrying the base-plate. What happened to his partner, he had no way of knowing. After wandering around in a desperate attempt to reconnect with his man, dodging fire of every kind, he ran into our little group of forlorn stragglers and decided to stick with us instead of traipsing all over hell and gone trying to find his partner.
A few yards back from the lip of the near side of the valley we came upon an abandoned and badly damaged farmhouse where we picked up a door that hadbeen blown off its hinges, to use it as a stretcher. With Jack fast weakening from loss of blood, it was imperative that we get him to medical help as quickly as possible or there was a good chance we'd lose him. But where in hell would we find this help? We hadn't a clue. The only sensible thing then to do was to strike off to our right where we could expect to eventually run into one of the 1st Div. units holding the fort just back from the valley rim. It didn't take us long to find out it was one hell of a tough job carrying a wounded out on a door. Lord nows, it would have been tough enough carrying him out on a stretcher what with all the ruts and, shell-holes and rough ground between where we were and the help that Jack needed. How none of us broke our legs or let go our grip on the door throughout the 200 yards of agony we endured was in itself quite an achievement.
There were times though when we had to fight off an overpowering compulsion to dump Jack, for all the verbal abuse he was giving us. Our fingers were numb and our arms felt like they were being torn out of their shoulder-sockets, and Jack's mouth was going steady chewing us out every foot of the way. As much as we felt sorry and concerned about him, whether we'd get him to the medical people in time or not, unanimously we finally had to tell him "Shut up! For crissakes! we're doing the best we can, don't be such an asshole!"
Actually, it wasn't like Leghorn to act the way he did. He was one of the more respected senior NCOs any of us had yet served under. An intelligent, agreeable, and easy-going Platoon Sergeant, Jack was just too nice a guy for us to be sore at, but then a guy can only take so much crap before he starts dishing it back. His cantankerous carrying-on I have to blame on the fact that he was upset and frustrated on having been knocked out of the war in his very first action, and the only way he could react to it was to vent his wrath on somebody and it might as well be us.
Night had fallen before we reached the Hasty Pees holding the fort in a tight group of substantial houses just yards back from the lip of the valley opposite the Jerry-held San Tommasso. We were able to run into them because of the flares either the 'Plough-Jockeys' or the Germans were firing into the night sky every few minutes. What a relief it was, both in the physical sense and patience-wise to turn Jack over to the care of the Hasties' stretcher-bearers. We bid him "so long and wished him the best of luck".
We were more than glad when the Hasties let us stay the night. We were totally spent and needed the sleep without having to worry about standing guard in a slit-trench. But as it so happened, we got little or no sleep because all night long Jerry mortar bombs crashed with stunning regularity just outside the walls of the casa we shared with a Hasty Pee HQ Company section. We'd heard enough mortar blasts over the past 16 hours to last us a lifetime, and although each one we heard during the battle was like the crack of thunder right over our heads, in comparison to those landing all around this cluster of houses, they were little more than thunderflash blasts. The walls intensified the blast effect, making our ears throb and ring like church bells. I found a cozy spot under a stairway, and though I felt somewhat more secure than I had since morning, there were times when I expected the walls and roof of the house to come crumbling down on top of us.
Shortly after daybreak, not even waiting to see if by chance we might be fed, we struck off across country in the direction of Ortona, whose rooftops we could see as we made our way across farmland almost lunar in aspect. This was the second time the desolate farmland reminded me of the battlefields I had seen in picture books of the First World War. After a nerve-jangling trek through the wasted land, feeling certain the Jerries would lob a few mortar-bombs our way, but they didn't, and we came out safe and sound onto the coastal road just outside the northern edge of Ortona. To our astonishment and welcome surprise I saw not more than a hop&emdash;skip&emdash;and jump away down the road the remnants of Dog company climbing into trucks. Our spirits took a giant leap. The company had not been wiped out after all.
Now that you have read his introduction to combat by Mr. Stan Scislowski, would you care to read a number of passages leading up to his initial introduction into combat? Click on the link below for a list of all of Stan's excerpts from his compelling story Not All of Us Were Brave!
Stan's Stories: Canada Main Page
Original Story from messages received on 16 January 2003.
Story originally submitted on: 16 January 2003.
The story above, Battle, 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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