Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
The Fosso Munio Affair
Introduction: A good many rivers in Italy are nothing much more than ditches or creeks by Canadian standards. The Fosso Munio in the north Italian Po Plains is one of them. It was here at this insignificant water barrier on the night of December 19/20 and most of the 20th that my Regiment, the Perths, came under artillery and mortar fire such as they hadn't ever been subjected to up to this date in the past year of the campaign. Following is the full account of what took place that Christmas week
On the morning of the 20th word came down the pike from Tac HQ that we were to move up that night through the Irish and commence the advance to the line of the Senio River about two miles to the north. As always in such situations, the latrines throughout the Regiment became like Grand Central Station in New York, people hurrying to and fro. I can't recall a single occasion when we were preparing to move up, especially in a night operation, with the anticipation of imminent action that the old bowels and kidneys didn't go into high gear. I must have gone four times before we were off and moving down the road.
As we formed up in the farmyard in the early dusk, going through all the motions of hooking up gear, making last-minute adjustments to weapons, and except for an odd, silly remark or two from someone trying to act as though there was nothing to worry about, we stood more or less in pensive mood, each man alone with his thoughts. Christmas was only five days away. Would this be our last? Would we see the dawn of Christmas day? This morbid question had to have gone through more than a few minds.
Once we were on the road and moving, what little wisecracking there was, stopped altogether. Only the sound of boots scuffing the gravel, or the ruffling sound of someone letting off a fart was all I heard. In other words, it was an unusually quiet night. The only hint there was a war going on was the sound of intermittent small-arms exchanges some considerable distance off to our left. While still farther west in either the British sector of the front or Gen. Mark Clark's 5th Army area of operations the night sky flashed, accompanied by the boom of artillery, sounding so much like that of an approaching summer storm.
At this stage in affairs, a man resigns himself to what has to be done because there's no way out for what awaits him down the road, unless, of course he buggers off to the rear or gives himself a self-inflicted wound. Neither way out is what most of us consider even for one second. He more or less says to himself, "Well, here we go again, I just hope I'll come out of it O.K." If he's any kind of man at all he faces up to whatever awaits him, hoping he can do what needs to be done without cracking up, and he usually does do his job as best as he can dictated by how much guts he has to offer. According to statistics he has about a ninety percent chance of surviving even a tough battle, and that's actually good odds. But when he thinks about those who now lie buried in temporary cemeteries all the way from Villanova to Ortona, statistics don't mean one damn thing. It certainly didn't help the boys whose bodies now lie moldering and being eaten by worms.
On the other hand, if he's something considerably less of a soldier than what he assumed to be when pounding the square in Aldershot or whatever other camp he trained at, and instead dwells too much on his chances, then all those negative, or morbid thoughts going through his mind can't fail but to affect him to the extent that he's not much good for anything. I've seen more than a few guys slip into that mode of thought and end up being evacuated as psycho-neuroses cases. Others, as I've mentioned earlier, guys like Harvey and Grant resort to other ways of avoiding going into battle. Grant chose to desert, while Harvey chose to shoot himself in the foot. Only a relative few, however, take the shameful way to ensure survival. Though flight or a bullet in a non-lethal part of the body may be their salvation, they never really escape the mental torment that will dog them through the rest of their days. They carry a heavy burden of shame and guilt on their minds and therefore know no real peace of mind at any time. That was a kind of hell that I would rather not have to go through. It has to be far more agonizing, mentally that is, than any hell that battle can bring on. I've since observed this with certain veterans I've known over the years. I've seen it in their eyes and reactions when incidents of the war are mentioned, and I've seen it in the vehement manner in which, when something about the war is mentioned, they don't want to hear about it because it brings back too many bad memories. I sometimes can't help but wonder what guilt or shame they might be suffering from.
It wasn't until we got up to the Canale Naviglio that we came under fire. Though it turned out to be only an MG firing on fixed lines from somewhere out in the blackness between us and the Senio River. We scattered for cover in the ditches on both sides of the road. A natural reaction, and as soon as we realized what it was, we were back on the road, a little uptight but considerably more alert than we had been only moments before. There's nothing like being shot at that snaps a man out of lethargy or morbid self-pity. When that first bullet or automatic weapon fire cracks in the air over your head, the instinct for self-preservation takes over the faculties. You haven't got time to think of anything else but saving your skin. Fear motivates you, but it's a controlled kind of fear.
The Jerries were alert to something because as soon as we were crossing the unblown roadway across the Canale, all hell broke loose. Mortar bombs fell out of the night sky with resounding fury, along with the sharp whiz-bang of Jerry artillery going off with echoing blasts in the fields on both sides of the road. The natural reaction should have been frantic dives into the ditches running alongside the road, but no&emdash;we were like runaway stallions stampeding our way across the Naviglio bridge making straight for the cover of the houses on the far side. 18 Platoon piled into the pitch black interior of a house at the intersection. "Holy jeez!" I thought, "we're not even into the fight and we're already catching hell!" Things sure didn't look promising. In fact they looked pretty damn grim! I was sure we lost half the company trailing behind us, but miraculously not one guy got so much as a scratch. All anyone got was an attack of nerves.
In a darkness so black, I couldn't see past my palm close up against my face. But I sure as hell could hear the unholy racket going on outside. I sat there in the dark like everyone else in that room glumly listening to mortar bombs and shells going off all around the house, expecting one or more of them to knock a wall down or punch through the roof and vaporize every one of us. With the thunder going on full crescendo around the Naviglio bridge and in front and to the rear of the house we'd taken cover in, what else could I believe but that our time had come? At best, if this didn't happen, there was no way we'd be able to move out and get moving on our route of advance to the Senio. And, if the house didn't collapse and bury us, then we'd all be dead before we took ten strides into that inferno. It would be murder, pure bloody murder.
A few minutes later, however, Blackie Rowe barged in, ordering us to form up on the road. "Okay, you guys, everybody out on the road!" From somewhere in that dark room someone piped up, "Form up on the road? Are you crazy, man? Where in jeezly hell do you think we are, at Aldershot? A guy can get killed out there!!!?" And then someone beside me, I couldn't make out who it was because of the noise going on outside, half-shouted, "The black bastard wants us all killed on parade, the stupid sonofabitch!" We were all of the same mind. I knew it because you could hear a lot of the fellows running-off at the mouth. But for all the spewing, not a man hesitated to do what he was ordered to do. Instead, like the good soldiers we were supposed to be, we filed out into the God awful night, an overwhelming fear in our guts and a feeling in our legs as though we'd just run a 26 mile marathon. And as though Jerry knew we were forming up on the road he stepped up the rate of his fire. Hell couldn't have been half so bad.
There's nothing as fearful to infantrymen than to stay put out in the open waiting for someone to get them moving and on their way, all the while every-thing but the proverbial kitchen sink is flying through the air around them. When I say it took one hell of a lot of guts to get out there on the road when all the fires of hell are in full flame all around you, I mean it. If there were medals awarded for just standing there while all this was going on, then every man in Dog Company that night deserved a medal. Quite a few, I'm sad to say, would have to have been awarded it posthumously.
Finally someone smartened up and got us on our way. Anywhere else had to be better than standing there right in the eye of a man-made storm. And when we did get moving I knew we were in for a grim night&emdash;an awful grim night. Yet, even for the way the night was starting out for us, I never for a moment gave a thought to my chances of surviving. It might get even rougher, but damn it all, I was going to see it through somehow, that is if I didn't get knocked off in the meanwhile. Again, I wouldn't allow myself to dwell on the grim possibilities. That lay ahead. It would do me not one damn bit of good. If I hadn't looked at it in that light I'm sure I wouldn't have gone even fifty yards and I'd have cracked up. It was that bad.
A short distance up ahead was a straight stretch for about 40 yards, then sharp inverted 'S' bend in the road to the right, and at the other end, another sharp, almost right-angled bend to the left where the road ran straight to the Senio River. This was the Chiara road, an extension of the via Cocchi out of Borgo di Villanova. It was through this reverse 'S' bend that we'd have to make our run for life. Whoever it was that lead the way into that shooting gallery had be the bravest of the brave. It demanded every last shred of courage a man had in his makeup, and without a doubt there had to be plenty of it shown that night&emdash;not only by the nameless one, but also by all who followed him. One after the other we ran into this whistling, blasting, erupting hell. Before I realized what I was doing I was smack in the middle-of the boiling cauldron, legs a-churning furiously, lungs flaming hot, adrenal glands working to beat sixty, pumping the 'fight or flee' hormone into the bloodstream.
It was run&emdash;run&emdash;run as fast as your legs could carry you and hope to God Almighty you'd make it through. Converging streams of tracers not five feet over the road forced us to run doubled over or we'd have had our heads knocked off our shoulders. I never did find out how many, if any, that we lost in the run through the corridor of flaming hell.
Once we emerged into the clear where the road angled sharply towards the Munio ditch about 100 yards dead ahead, we straightened up and kept on running. We could have made for the three houses on the right side of the road and got under cover but kept on going instead straight to the Munio. After all, this was advance and you don't take cover every time the enemy zeros in on you.
Just short of the Munio we ran into another hail of mortar fire and crackling, snapping MG fire and were forced to take cover in a house on the rim of the Fosso Munio. After hurdling over the rubble into the cover of the house through a large opening that not long before had been the sturdy back wall, we plunged into the shambles of what had to be the kitchen. We knew this because we stumbled over dishes, pots and pans and chairs while groping our way in the impenetrable darkness.
Jim Hanagan and I found our way into a room on the north side, where we came upon bales of straw piled three deep along the two outside walls. The former occupants, obviously having been enemy troops, knew what they were doing when they rounded up bales of straw for this added protection. The way things were going outside, Jim and I couldn't see us doing much of anything but die.
We certainly didn't expect the platoon to venture out into that howling night. So we made ourselves comfortable on the thick pile of straw on the floor, expecting to stay right where we were until things quieted down. It might be a half hour, an hour, or it might even go on all night, for all we knew. We couldn't have been there more than fifteen minutes, however, when unknown to us, 18 Platoon moved out of the house and went across the Munio. It wasn't for another half hour later that I decided to see how the others were making out. I stumbled about, bumping into walls, tripping over stuff scattered about on the floor, and if I'm not mistaken I damn near fell over what felt like a body. I couldn't find a soul, and when no one answered after I called out, "Hey, where in the hell is everybody?" I knew the platoon had gone and left us behind.
But where did they go? I made my way back to the bail-buttressed shelter to tell Jim that the platoon had taken off. "Now, what the hell do we do, Jim?" "Be damned if I know! My God, we can't go out there! We'd be dead in seconds."
I was in an agitated quandary. "Jeez, we've got to do something. We've got to get out of here and find where they've gone!" I said to Jim loud enough for him to hear over the banging of the shells and bombs going on like a drum roll outside. "Yeah," and how in hell do you think we'll find them, do you want us to wander over hell's half acre looking for them with all the crap coming down? Sweet chance we'd have!" Jim replied, "Are you that brave or just nuts enough to try?" His questions made sense.
Less than an hour before we got into the predicament, 12 Platoon of Major Snelgrove's Baker Company at the forefront of the advance to the Senio got shot up in the ditch on the far side of the Munio. A Jerry MG 42 crew, firing through a culvert caught the ill-fated patrol as it approached, their first long burst killing the entire lead section and several others coming up behind along the ditch. The survivors pulled back in panic to the south side of the Munio, and that's when Dog Company got orders to cross the Munio.
I couldn't see a way out for us, at least not the way things were at going at the moment. With every calibre of shell, from 40 mm to 210s slamming down all over the place, tearing great gouts of soggy soil in the fields on both sides of the road around the Munio focal point in a crescendo beyond imagination, we saw no way Dog Company could get across the Munio without being wiped out. No one would have lasted five seconds, let alone the time it'd take to go fifty yards out into the field on the far side of the ditch and dig in. Notten minutes after 18 Platoon entered the house it was on the move again. Apparently neither Blackie Rowe or anyone else thought to go to the room where Jim and I were holed up to tell us the platoon was moving out to cross the Munio. So that's how the both of us were left behind, not knowing that we were now the only occupants of the house along with the two dead guys lying half buried in the mound of rubble at the rear of the house and maybe one or more inside.
And so it happened that all through the night 18 platoon suffered under the heavy shelling and mortaring, ten times worse than they'd ever been under before. And as was bound to happen, one shell made a direct hit on a shallow slit trench&emdash;the one Jimmy Eves had dug for himself. Though Jimmy lost the lower half of his legs, somehow he lived to wake to many more dawns. That he didn't get blasted into bloody pulp was another one of those unexplainable bits of incredible good fortune that happen in battle. There might have been two reasons why he survived; the first being that because his trench, like everybody else's was not much more than a foot and a half or no more than two feet deep, most of the blast went upwards and out. The second reason could have been that the shell had zoomed in from over his shoulder and exploded between his feet as he lay outstretched in his shallow trench, with most of the fragments going forward. It's a wonder that Jimmy didn't die from loss of blood or even shock which often happened when a casualty is not given medical attention soon after a wound of this severity. Jimmy laid there all night long without treatment. It wasn't until some time after first light that stretcher-bearers got to him and carried him out.
To everyone on and around the Fosso Munio, whether in slit trench, ditch, or under cover in houses it must have looked to them as though the whole world was coming to an end. Back in the house on the lip of the Munio, in our somewhat secure shelter Jim Hanagan and I heard shells striking the upper storey and heard the clatter of cascading masonry. A few more hits and we figured the house would cave in on top of us. We were desperate. We to get out of there, and right soon. But where else could we go? Nowhere. While Jim and I talked it over as to what to do next, a shell screamed in and went off right up against the house with a bang that stunned me silly. It hit no more than a foot from the wall and about a foot off the doorless doorway, punching a small hole in the wall in direct line with my head. If it hadn't have been for the straw bale between me and blast I'd have had it but good. The straw, "thank God!" did a great job of absorbing the blast and the shrapnel.
We had to get out soon or else end up buried under a mound of mortar, plaster, wood beams and such, because the shells were slowly knocking the house down brick by brick around our ears. We tried once, we tried twice to make a run for the large house across the road and about twenty yards back from the Munio but were driven back each time by the density of mortar bombs and shells concentrating on the Regiment's crossing site. Our first sally took us only about fifteen paces when we were driven back by the bombs, Our second attempt a half hour later went better, only slightly better. We got as far as the house where we pounded on the door but no one would open it to let us in. Since we couldn't stand there at the door much longer with all the scrap iron landing in the yard, in desperation we made a dash for a large bake oven we'd passed on the way to the house, figuring it might be a good place to shelter and spare us the danger of making a run back to our original shelter. But even here we had no luck. On opening the steel door we found to our surprise the dark interior fully packed with frightened men. How many were in there, we couldn't tell, and didn't wait to find out. We had no recourse but to make it back to the house we had started out from, deciding to spend the night there. It seemed a much better chance for our survival than being caught out in the open. There was no use wandering over all hell and gone looking for our lost platoon. We'd have never made it, that's for sure. We'd have to wait for morning and hope by then things would slacken up.
During the night, while the enemy gunners and mortar crews concentrated their efforts on the Chiara Road crossing site, Charlie Company under command of Major Bob Cole pulled off a tactic that by-passed the beaten zone. Taking his platoon through the open fields immediately to the right of where all the bombs and shells were landing, Cole's men slipped through in the the darkness of flat farmland undetected, overpowering isolated enemy posts in quick Commando fashion, and arrived within minutes at a cluster of dwellings and farm buildings known as Casa della Congregazione. On battle maps it was marked down in code as 'Measure.'
They had no sooner taken up positions in and around the buildings when the Germans, realizing with dismay that a strong force of Canadians had penetrated their lines, reacted in characteristic violence. They came at Charlie Company from two directions firing Schmeissers, rifles and MG 42s. When they were within hand grenade range they flung their wood handled potato mashers. But the tin can type of grenades was not all that effective in the open. It's killing power came only when tossed into a house or confined space where the blast itself did the killing. Anyway, the Jerrys' vigorous attack, came to nought, forcing the survivors to pull back under the onslaught of small-arms fire poured into them by the undaunted men defending their new-won position.
Fifteen minutes later the Jerries came on again with guns blazing, but were driven off, suffering heavy casualties for their persistence in applying the same tactic. General Reinhardt's 98th Fusilier Battalion took a real shit kicking. Through the balance of the night the Germans kept at it, at times coming in alternately from almost every point of the compass in an effort to destroy this cancer in their hide. Every time they came in they lost more men, till finally the attacks were called off and they pulled back to the far side of the Senio River. They'd had enough, much to the relief of the hard-fighting Charlie Company men whose ammunition was almost used up. The battlefield around them was carpeted with German dead, dying, and other wounded. First light found Charlie Company in firm control, and in their hands were a dozen or so sullen faced prisoners soon to be sent down the line to the POW cage.
While the surrounded company was heavily embroiled defending what it had seized and fighting for its very life R.S.M. George Curtis, in charge of an ammunition carrying party on their way to the beleaguered company ran into an enemy patrol and in the ensuing fire fight, the ammo detail scattered to escape capture. Curtis, however, leading the way, was unable to get away, and suffered the ignominy of capture, but for only a few minutes. While on his way to the Senio escorted by his captors, a chance 25 pounder 'stonk' came down around them. In the confusion of the frantic efforts of the Germans to seek cover, Curtis threw himself into the nearest furrow and then made his break for freedom with shells went off all around him. His courage and determination to avoid being taken prisoner enabled him to make it all the way back to the Munio.
Every man has his breaking point, that moment, usually in battle when his spirit and his nerves have been stretched too tight for too long until they finally snap. It most often happens to those who lack that something that makes one man a fighter and another man who backs off challenges of any kind. Breakdown however, though it takes much longer, can even happen to the strongest of will and the bravest amongst us. No one is excluded from this dread malady, which onset can be sudden, or gradual. Some will break the very first time they come under fire. Some might go through several battles and stressful situations before they come to their Waterloo. Still others can keep their mind together throughout a whole campaign, but if exposure to extreme danger goes on, time and again, seemingly without end, eventually there'll come a day when something inside him gives way, leaving him a quivering nervous wreck of a man, of no use to himself or to the men he goes into battle with. It happens all too frequently
I saw 'Angel' break down and bawl like a baby crying for its mother a month later on the static front near Crecchio when things were quiet. They took 'Angel' away and he never did come back to the regiment. I ran into him much later on, in fact on the Queen Elizabeth when I was on my way home in the first week of January 1946. He looked okay to me, but he certainly didn't have that spark that made him the gregarious character that he was when I joined the regiment in Hunstanton in England and right up to that day when he caved in. I guess he must have recovered enough that he was given some chore to perform in some rear echelon unit, most likely at the Base reinforcement depot at Avellino.
Another gutsy fellow who finally could take it no longer was Sgt. John Derrick. John was a Private when I came to know him. He'd served all his time in 16 Platoon and through his ability to perform admirably in action and his powers of comprehension John worked his way up the ladder of command and ended up as a Sergeant. At the crossing of the Liri River in front of Ceprano his recovery of an assault boat in danger of being swept away downstream earned for him the MM. And every battle and engagement after that John did everything that was demanded of him at the head of his platoon. But stress finally caught up to him at the Fosso Munio, and what happened there broke more than a few. John Derrick lost control. That invisible band that kept him together had been stretched for a little bit too long, weakened by the forces that strained at it till it finally snapped. He had gone as far as he could go. He could go no more. They evacuated him. When I heard that he had folded I remember saying to myself, "Jeez, if a guy like him can break, what's to stop me from going off my rocker?"
Morning came, but the incoming fire hadn't slackened all that much. In fact it increased during the three attempts to bridge the Munio. From a narrow window Jim and I took turns watching the activity going on. First, there trundled onto the scene a huge contraption on top of a tank. We couldn't figure out what the hell it was, and then we saw it open up. hinged in the battle and set in place across the gap between the Munio banks. It was a contraption called an ark bridge, but unfortunately it came down at an angle and then couldn't be set right. The second attempt came a half hour later when another tank rolled up to the ditch with a huge bundle of saplings about 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet wide. The tank dropped this bundle of sticks into the gap over which our supporting armour could cross and drive the enemy machine gunners back from their Munio defence posts. This attempt to bridge the Munio also failed when the bundle, like the ark bridge had gone in at an angle nullifying its use as a means for tanks to cross the barrier. And then when an armoured bulldozer came squeaking and grinding up the road, Jim and I were then about to witness with open-mouthed awe on an act of supreme bravery&emdash;the bravest thing I'd ever seen. We sure as hell felt the guy working the controls deserved the award of the VC. We figured that the gutsy sonofabitch would get it one way or the other, either having the King pin it on his tunic at an investiture at Buckingham Palace, or in the posthumous category. The way things were going on all around him, I had to believe it'd be more than likely the latter way he'd win the top award. Back and forth he drove that machine, scraping the ground and pushing mounds of the brownish-black soil into the Munio. His job was to push enough soil into the wide ditch for our tanks to cross over on. I, myself thought the scheme would never work, since the loamy earth would be much too soft for tanks to cross over on. What they needed was gravel, not soft soil. Anyway, he worked his machine as though he was working on some peacetime construction site, all the while fragments from mortar bombs and artillery shells thwanged against the blade of his machine and the thin armoured sides surrounding him. As it turned out, tanks were able to cross not long after enough soil had been bulldozed in. It surprised me.
But before I get to that, let me describe what transpired between the time the bulldozer was on the scene and the moment when we were able to cross and join up with our buddies in 18 Platoon. A brief lull in the racket came at about mid-morning Jim and I decided it was time for us to haul ass out of there, not only to save our skins, because with the way the shells had been beating up the house good and proper there was a better than even chance we'd not be around for very long. The other reason we had to do something other than stay there was to make some attempt at getting back to where we belonged&emdash;and that was with our boys. It was while we were getting ourselves primed to go that we saw the three M-10s rounding the 'S' bend on their way towards the Munio. At that moment, just within the periphery of my vision I caught sight of something small and dark on its way at blinding speed towards the M-10s. It was about a yard off the ground. It went so fast I wasn't exactly sure of what I was seeing &emdash;an armour-pierceing round on its way to its target. A concealed anti-tank gun crew had opened fired on the new threat. The lead M-10 shuddered under the impact of the AP shell, the heavy unit literally jumping off the ground. Now I knew I wasn't mistaken. I'd actually seen the AP round in it's flat-out flight. Right behind it came another and then another knocking out the other two machines. Three shots&emdash;three SP guns knocked out, the crews piling out of their stricken machines like rats leaving a sinking ship and went pelting across the rough ground for the shelter of two large house near the bend.
Whether they left any of their buddies behind in those knocked-out machines dead or wounded I had no way of knowing and I was in no position to find out.
The distraction of watching the M-10s getting knocked out over with, Jim and I got set for another try at making a run for the big house across the road, a sanctuary that gave promise of more protection than the one we were in. Now it was about the best time to go&emdash;not too much stuff coming in. Even the MG fire slackened off significantly. Then Jim caught me off guard and was off and running. "God damn it!" I muttered to myself, "He's got more guts than I've got!" Miraculously he reached the house without a shot being fired at him.
Good show! But then as I was about to take off, three mortar bombs ripped up the ground directly in the path I was about to take. I fell back into the protection of the wall, where I waited to see if any more were coming in.
Nothing. Two minutes&emdash;five minutes&emdash;nothing. So, without further hesitation I shot out into the open. For the first twenty yards everything was fine and dandy, even though the 36 pound PIAT, feeling more like a ton, slowed me down.
As I reached the halfway point, an alert MG crew somewhere in a trench on the other side of the Munio picked me up. The gunner swung the weapon in my direction and let loose a series of bursts that cut the ground around my flying feet. When that first burst cut loose I started zig-zagging like a broken-field runner in a football game, but instead of evading tacklers I dodged steel jacketed bullets. As terrified as I was I knew I couldn't take a belly flop or they'd have stitched me from asshole to breakfast. With lacing streams from the MG 42 snicking into the soft soil around me, (I could actually see the mud jump) all I could think about was reaching that solid wood door straight ahead. That was a good thirty yards I had to go. If I could just make it to the round topped bake oven before they got me I'd be home free, because now the bake oven would be between me and the Jerry's line of fire. That last thirty yards, however seemed like a mile. But all of a sudden I was there. This time it just took one pound on the door and someone opened it and I practically fell inside.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked around and saw how many of our guys were in the place. There were enough to make up a couple of platoons. One thing I couldn't help but notice and I didn't like what I saw was how most of the guys had that vacant look on their faces, the look that told me these guys had had enough. In my estimation, they wouldn't be much good for anything from here on in.
It wasn't until mid afternoon when a troop of Lord Strathcona tanks crossed the Munio and went up the road towards the Senio that the shelling and mortaring stopped abruptly. Not long after, Jimmy Hanagan and I, anxious to dissociate ourselves from the depressing throng of fear stricken men in the house, and anxious to get back to where we belonged, started off down the Chiara Road to rejoin our platoon mates. Once again it surprised me how quick I was able to recover from extreme stress and act as though nothing so frightening had just occurred. I wasn't at all nervous, nor did I experience morale problems. I was alive and that's all that mattered. One day at a time, was the way I looked at this thing called 'battle'. In no way would I allow myself to think much beyond the next minute. Enough of these minutes and I'd lived another hour. Enough of the hours and I lived to face the same another day. Who knows, but that I could go through enough of these minutes and hours and days and end up getting through the whole shootin' match alive and in one piece. If it so happened that I did not survive, then at least I hoped the end would come clean and quick&emdash;a bullet through the heart or right through the middle of my forehead. Fatalistic, but it was just another way of facing up up to it all.
A little over fifteen minutes later we found 18 Platoon flaked out on the floor of a small house close up against the road less than two hundred yards from the Senio River. They looked up at us with the glazed look of men wearied beyond weariness. No one said a word, just gave us a wan smile and nodded like they were glad to see that we were still alive and back with the gang.
Then they laid their heads back and dozed off again. If Jim and I thought we'd had a rough time, what these guys had gone through was ten times worse. They'd seen the deepest and hottest part of hell.
We were in the house for not more than an hour when we moved over to another larger house off the road about fifty yards. While we were moving over, Bren-carriers of the Irish Regiment clattered past down the road on their way to the Senio. It was nice to know someone else was now ahead of us, even though we were not that far behind them. Close enough to still catch hell. A little later on reliable old Tommy Wilson and his kitchen crew pulled into the farmyard in a carrier bearing dixies full of hot food and tea. A welcome sight. Everything seemed to be almost back to normal again. It was&emdash;but only for a short time. They didn't call me 'Guts and Gaiters, and 'mess tins' for nothing &emdash; I was right there at the head of the line-up for my ration as usual, got my two slabs of camouflaged bully, a dollop of mashed potatoes and gravy and hurried inside to scawf it down. I had just stepped into the house when a flurry of mortar bombs fell in the yard only yards away from where the kitchen crew doled out the food. Five guys were wounded, two from 18 Platoon, Sgt. Blackie Rowe and Walt Thomas, None of the five suffered serious wounds. Only one person died and that happened to be the head of the household, a man about sixty who was outside idly watching the men lined up for their food, probably hoping he might be lucky to come away with some himself. And that's when the bombs came down. They carried his body inside and laid him out on a bed and then the whole household of some two dozen Italians, men, women and children went into hysterics of grief. I never heard such a caterwauling in all my life and I was more than glad when word came shortly after that we'd be leaving within the hour to take over positions in houses along the via Rossetta running parallel to the river no more than fifty yards from the fifteen foot high embankment of the Senio River.
The house 18 Platoon took over was a sturdy two-storey house, and from what we heard, it had been the home of the local land baron, a well-known ardent Fascist. He and his family and several other families were still in the house when we arrived. Amongst them was an exceptionally attractive young lady with flowing black hair, and although she wasn't garbed in the finest of ladies' wear, her shapely body revealed the complete woman in her. Like the English would say, "She was a smasher." That indeed she was.
The civilians remained with us for that first night, before they were evacuated to Villanova and thereabout. That night when it was time to sleep, everyone, civilians and our boys spread blankets and whatever else in bedding available on the floor in front of the fireplace for warmth. In other words we were well intermixed and no one seemed to think anything of it. Which brings to mind a missed opportunity for me to experience the ultimate bliss of sleeping with the beauty in our midst. It was like this: My turn at guard duty upstairs wasn't till midnight, so I decided to catch some shut-eye and found myself a good spot within range of the heat thrown off by the flames in the fireplace. In a matter of minutes I was in dreamland and slept right through to when 'Mouse' Mosionier nudged me awake to relieve him on guard at 7 p.m. After rubbing the sleep from my eyes I saw the long tresses of the Italian beauty up against my right shoulder, and realized that I'd been sleeping practically up against that ravishing body without knowing it. Man, how easy it would have been to have a party under those blankets! That is, if she didn't mind a little partying. I cursed my luck and went upstairs to take over the Bren post at an upstairs window.
My two-hour shift gave me something to think about for when I could crawl back under the blankets in what I was sure would be my love-bed. And though the two hours seemed to drag on, my relief came on at nine and with great anticipation I hurried downstairs to crawl in under the blankets and cuddle up next to the raven-tressed beauty to engage in what was uppermost in my mind.
But be damned if I didn't find, much to my dismay and disgust, that Mosionier was lying there beside her&emdash;in fact right up against her. He told me next morning after the whole shooting match of Italians had been evacuated that he did get into her and that she responded like no woman had responded to him before.
With all the civilians having been evacuated to Ravenna or somewhere or other, we got busy ransacking the place, going through every drawer, cabinet and closet in the house in our hunt for loot. And we found plenty, so much so that when the Lanark & Renfrew Regiment took over from us a couple of days after Christmas, we marched out looking more like a ragged crowd of refugees than a Canadian Infantry Battalion. Every man went out carrying something of value for sale, trade or for his own use. All manner of household goods hung from our packs or were carried out under our arms&emdash;pots and pans, rolled-up mattresses, pillow-cases full of clothing and linen goods&emdash;almost anything that could be found in any given house, we had it. One guy even carried out a guitar, and another guy had an alarm clock hanging from his shoulder strap. Now, what in the hell would he have use for an alarm clock?
But let's get back to our positions along the Senio; The presence of snipers on the Senio dike and in the upper storeys of the houses across the river made travel between platoon positions an extremely hazardous proposition, if not, impossible. I got an introduction to it not fifteen minutes after we took over. On the west side of the house was a stable not ten feet away, and in that stable we could hear a cow mooing. "Oh boy!" I thought, "I'm going to have myself some real milk that I hadn't had in a long time." Though I'd never milked a cow, I'd learn soon enough. And so. with bucket in hand I stepped out the door and had to duck back inside when a sniper almost picked me off. The shot bullet smacked into the jamb a foot from my head. Not to be denied, I said to my buddies, "give me room, you guys, I'm going across." And with that, they were now sure I'd gone wacky. "You dumb bastard, Scislowski!" somebody said as I prepared to make the dash U didn't give a damn what anybody thought, I was going to have myself some fresh milk, sniper or no sniper. And with that I backed up to give myself running room.
At this point I hesitated, thinking, "God damn it, I've got to be nuts! There's a Jerry out there who's got his rifle trained on the door ready to kill me." But before I could talk myself out of it, I was off and running. I went so fast the sniper had no chance to get a shot off, and I was in the stable home free. Okay, now to milk the cow, something I'd never done, and it showed.
For one thing, I couldn't stand taking the teats in hand. It felt like I was handling someone's tool. When I got over this squeamishness I found, no matter how I squeezed and pulled, not so much as a drop of milk came. In desperation I hollered over to the guys in the house that I needed help, and Jimmy Heaton came shortly, making the lightning dash across the space between the house and the stable. I couldn't believe how easy he made milking look. In no time at all, it seemed, he filled the pail. I stood in awe as I watched the milk shooting out from two teats in a full spurts. And now to get back to the house without getting shot. Again we were too fast for the sniper to get a bead on us.
One of the most surprising and welcome things about the house was the fact that there was a gas stove in the kitchen, and even more surprising was the fact that the gas was still flowing. I turned a knob and smelled the gas, so someone applied a match to see how long it would burn. We thought there would only be pockets of it left in the lines, and once this was burned, that'd be all. any heating of food would have to be done in the fireplace. But the blue flame kept burning and burning&emdash;which gave me an idea. Instead of just drinking my milk I decided to heat it up and break some of the rock hard Italian bread I found in the cupboard and add it to the pot. We used to do this at home many a time back in the 30s when there wasn't much food in the pantry. Though it wasn't soup, it was just as satisfying. A most delicious meal in itself.
Two days later, on Christmas Eve, we were wondering how we might celebrate Christmas morning in some reasonable fashion, with decorations and a dinner. Now there was our cow just outside the door we could slaughter and cook up steaks and a roast&emdash;not exactly Christmas fare&emdash;but better than the turkey or goose that we didn't have. But some of the boys decided, and rightly so, that we shouldn't kill our milk provider. So, someone came up with the idea that we get one from the next farm over. That night, those not on watch, Tony Wanner, Bun Welsh, Jimmy Heaton, Maxie Pincombe and one other guy, went out armed with Tommy-guns to procure our Christmas dinner.
While I was on watch with a Bren at an upstairs window at the rear of the house I heard our foragers set out for the hunt, and from the sound of things, they'd had more than a few slugs of vino under their belts. No sober one would have ventured out into the night where they were almost cheek by jowl close to the enemy and could very well bump into one of their patrols. But I didn't dwell on what the boys were doing, I had a job of my own to do and that was to keep a sharp lookout for intruders bent on murderous missions. I listened to the usual sounds of intermittent machine-gun fire, ours and the enemy's off in the direction of the CBH. I also heard the dull thud of mortars going off some short ways off in the direction of the coast to the east. Otherwise my two-hour stint at the post went incident-free, although agonizingly slow. In the last half hour, from 8:30 to 9:00 a light snow began falling, and then I realized everything had quieted down, with only the distant sound of spasmodic artillery fire off to the west in the Fifth Army sector indicating that this was the 'front' and not some idyllic rest area a hundred miles behind the lines. By the time my relief came, not a shot broke the stillness. Not a sound of any kind disturbed the peacefulness that suddenly had descended on the battlefield. I remember thinking, as the minutes ticked away towards nine when I was to be relieved, that perhaps the Germans would be decent of heart enough and good Christians by honouring an unwritten truce for Christmas Day, like they did in the First World War. Then I said to myself, "I doubt they will. After all, they didn't show any Christmas spirit a year ago at Ortona. The bastards fought like wild dogs against the Edmontons and Seaforths," so why would they not do the same here?"
When my relief came, a fairly recent reinforcement named, Mullen, I let him know that I hadn't heard a shot of any kind since 8:30. He replied, "Uh, oh, maybe the Jerries are up to something. I bet they're going to throw in an attack. Remember what they just did in Belgium a week ago?" I replied, "I don't think they'll do the same here." With that, I went downstairs to my crude bed in front of the fireplace with its glowing embers giving off a sleep inducing warmth and I slept like a baby, disturbed only by the noisy arrival of the hunting party with our Christmas dinner.
I awoke bright and early next morning to a hustle and bustle going on in the kitchen. All through the night Jimmy Heaton and his cohorts in butchery worked on the carcass cutting up steaks and roasts so that the rest of us could enjoy a reasonable facsimile of Christmas dinner. Our intrepid hunting party had gone over some three hundred yards to the east where they killed a cow close up against the Senio dike with a couple of shots from a Tommy-gun and dragged it all the way back to our quarters. What I couldn't understand, and I asked the boys why they didn't walk the cow back and shoot it behind the house, saving them all the backbreaking work. They looked at me dumb-like, and then one of the guys replied, "Jeez, we never thought of that." It just shows you what stress will do to people's thinking capacity.
Everybody who was awake, except the guys that were on guard duty upstairs, had some chore to perform to prepare for the Christmas feast to be held later that afternoon. Some of the guys worked on cutting and frying the steaks, preparing the roast for the oven, while others peeled potatoes, cut up beets and turnips, while the rest of us worked on cleaning up the place, getting the festive table ready, covering it with a richly brocaded tablecloth, decorating the whole with whatever we could find on the premises to brighten things up, like fancy candlestick holders, tableware and cutlery, and a few little knick-knacks to hang from the ceiling. Except for our celebration being done without a decorated Christmas tree in the corner off from the fireplace, and the fact that it might not have been anywhere near like home, it was, nonetheless, a close second and far better than not having anything at all to brighten up what otherwise would have been a drab and cheerless day. At that moment unknown to us, other goodies were on the way by jeep to enhance the festive table, and as circum-stance would have it, this Christmas Day in 1944 would be long remembered by those who were there in the shadow of the Senio dike not sixty yards away from the enemy.
What was almost incredulous to believe Christmas morning was to look outside and see our people walking around between platoon positions like we were not at the front and that the enemy was no more than sixty yards away with weapons in hand trained in our direction. No one was getting shot at, however. Who the first man was that 'tested the waters' I couldn't begin to know, but it had to have taken some guts and maybe a touch of foolhardiness. But then what had to have made him do it was the fact that Jerries were out in the open on the far Senio dike. A goodly group of them were brazenly walking about in the open singing and having themselves a ball brandishing bottles of vino in their hands. One Jerry, riding an old gray mare bareback, holding on to her mane with one hand and waving a bottle of vino (obviously) with the other hand, went galloping back and forth along the top of the dike whooping and hollering up a storm, and every now and them tipping the bottle to his mouth for a long swallow. We could hear their loud chorus of voices, far better modulated than what we ever could come up with, singing Christmas carols. It was really heartwarming to hear them sing Silent Night! How could you hate and want to kill them, even after what they did to us only four nights earlier?
As the day wore on, the Jerries were in such an expansive holidaying mood they waved to us in the unmistakable gestures of inviting us to come on over and join them in spirit of brotherhood to celebrate the occasion. And from what I heard, more than a few were all set to go. Senior NCOs put a kibosh on any such foolish thoughts. There was no way of knowing what was on the enemy's mind. Maybe they wanted some prisoners. Who knew? Or maybe they were indeed filled with the spirit of Christmas. I like to think they were.
Things were so safe on this bright, though somewhat frosty afternoon at that Sammy Ridge and Company CQMS Hugh Goold drove up with a jeep load of goodies which included Canadian turkey, nuts and candies, fruit and one quart bottle Molson's beer for each of us, all this to enhance the Christmas party we were already enjoying. This was the one and only time I got myself half looped-up on the drink that cheers. I got into a bottle or two of 'apple-jack', cider actually, and all in all was having myself one heck of a good time singing and carrying-on. What a Christmas it was! Certainly one I could never forget.
Peace and goodwill was everywhere on our sector of the front. Sharp on the stroke of six, one gun somewhere beyond the Lamone barked, and the passing of the shell overhead signaled the end of the truce. The war had begun again.
Four days later we were relieved by the Lanark & Renfrews and shortly thereafter took up billets in a Music Conservatory in the heart of Ravenna. And so ended for us what proved to be a most frightening and hectic Christmas season, touched with tragedy and ending with celebration.
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 15 December 2003.
Story originally submitted on: 19 December 2003.
The story above, The Fosso Munio Affair, 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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