Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
SPEARHEAD IN THE GOTHIC LINE
At 4:30 on the hot and muggy afternoon of August 30, both Canadian Divisions, Chris Vokes' 1st Infantry on the right, and Bert Hoffmeister's 11th Infantry Brigade of 5th Armoured on the left were all set to deliverthe knockout punch Gen. E.L.M. Burns the Corps Commander hoped would open up the Gothic Line for exploitation by the armoured component. Once our tanks broke loose and ran wild in the enemy's rear, Burns was confident it would result in a quick jump to the Lombardy Plains and thence to Venice and the Po River. A grand hope, to be sure, but one that was not all that unrealistic. Success depended to a considerable degree on the strength of the enemy holding the line. How many tanks did they have close to the battlefield? How many gunsand mortars were in place? And lastly, how soon would the enemy rush up reserves to plug the hole torn in their defences? Although the fighting qualities of the assaulting battalions gave the Corps no concern, there was always the possibility that bad luck and unforeseen developments would throw the proverbial monkey-wrench into the works. In other words, one of the requisites for success lay in the unmeasurable factor of 'battle luck', that intangible something that is so often the difference between success and failure. I'm sure that every officer, NCO and rifle-toting Private who'd seen a lot of action, knew how indispensable 'battle luck' usually is. Without it, even the best laid plans had a way of turning sour.
The starting line-up for the assault on the Gothic Line had the Cape Breton Highlanders on the far left, with their objective a pine-covered knoll at the end of a long finger of high ground cutting across the Corps front. The Perth Regiment's axis of advance was along a gravelled road cutting straight across the flats to a point two thirds of the way where it curved in a gentle arc left to the lateral road running from Pesaro on the coast to Urbino 22 miles inland. The Perth's objective was the grass-covered 111 metre high ridge marked on military maps as Point 111. Its 20° slope began at the road running along the base of the ridge, with a climb for the attacking troops of some 200 yards to the crest studded with weapons positions. Some 300 yards away on the the Perths' right the West Nova Scotia Regiment, one company in the lead, were poised to cross the flats at 1600 hrs, with intention of breaking into the line between Borgo Santa Maria and Osteria Nuova, and from there make straight for Point 133 northeast of these two levelled hamlets. The assault on the Gothic Line got off to an unpromising start for the three lead battalions who went forward without benefit of an artillery support. The West Nova's lead company soon became ensnared in the killing-ground of a minefield halfway between the river and the defended ruins of their first objective. The men began dropping like the leaves of autumn as their boots came down on Schumines buried an inch below the surface of the powdery soil. And then, to make things worse for the Maritimers floundering in the minefield, the enemy's artillery and mortars zeroed in on the hapless company, while long bursts of MG fire lanced into the ranks as they struggled to extricate themselves from a sure death situation. It was no easy job. They couldn't go forward. They couldn't go anywhere. Yet to stay put would mean annihilation. The only option open, as grim as it was, was to pull back and hope they wouldn't lose too many as they tried to get out from their deadly predicament. As was to be expected, however, the Novas lost almost as many men pulling back as they did going up.
An hour and a half later, the Cape Breton Highlanders and the Perths got their attack underway. Although the Cape Breton Highlanders had no trouble in working their way across the flat country and up to the base of the pine-covered Point 120 knoll rising from the very edge of the road in Montecchio, they ran into a buzz-saw of enemy machine-gun fire and showers of grenades as they tried to scale the rocky slope. They tried several times to go up and were thrown back each time, although parts of one company managed to establish themselves on the very crest, but were driven off by a strong enemy counterattack. After suffering heavy casualties throughout a night of unremitting close-in combat, daybreak found the Capes back on their start-line at the Foglia River.
Baker Company under Major Harold Snelgrove, kicked off the Perth attack at the same time as the Cape Bretons, their axis of advance taking them along the gravelled road up to the anti-tank ditch where their advance came a 'cropper'. It wasn't until they approached to within yards of the unblown roadway across the wide and deep tank barrier that they were hit by bursts of MG 42 fire coming from the ridge directly to their front. This was Point 111, the Regiment's first objective.
MG fire scythed through the lead two sections, knocking men over like pins in a bowling alley. It stopped them cold. Any attempt to go forward at this point was doomed, so the survivors of the lead platoon pulled back through the follow-up platoons, and then the whole company drew back all the way to the Foglia River. At the very moment this was happening, Dog Company under Capt. 'Sammy' Ridge waited in a torn-up vineyard just short of the river, listening with apprehension at the sounds of battle coming to them from their left front and their immediate right. On the right it was the deep crunch of mortar bombs, while on their left front, up near the ridge came the high-speed chatter of the enemy's MG 42. No answering fire by our side.
(From here the narrative reverts largely to the 1st person.)
It was hard to relax listening to the mortar bombs and shells going off with stunning regularity off to where the West Novas were operating. When we first entered the vineyard we simply made ourselves comfort-able on the ground waiting for our entrance onto the battle stage. But with the ruckus of bombs and shells banging away not two hundred yards away, we needed no urging from the officers or NCOs to get us to hacking away at the ground. We were afraid that if Jerry OPs spotted us in the vineyard we could expect to have him send us sooner than later his welcome cards in the form of 88s and mortar bombs. What saved our skins, I suppose, was the incredible tangle of the vineyard that hid us from their ever-watchful eyes. Or it might have been that since we had three battalions attacking simultaneously, the Germans weren't able get the few guns and mortars that were in position to take us under fire. I'd scooped out only a few spades of sandy loam when came to our ears the ominous high-speed brrrrrrrrrrrp of a Jerry machine-gun from the direction I knew Baker Company was supposed to be operating. I heard it even over the drumbeat of mortar bombs going off where the West Novas were going into the attack. I counted at least five bursts and just as many short ones without so much as a single answering burst from a Bren. It told me that things weren't going right for Baker Company. How bad the situation was, none of us had any way of knowing. But we found soon enough that the situation wasn't in our favour. A runner came barrelling into the vineyard moments later, breathless and red flushed in the face with a verbal order for Captain Ridge to take Dog Company across the Foglia to relieve Baker. A hard knot of fear hit the pit of my stomach, as it did every time at such moments. As apprehensive as I was, in a way I was glad to get moving. I never felt at ease whenever we plunked ourselves down and waited while the noise of battle was going on not too far away.
We took off from the vineyard at a brisk dog-trot down a road strewn with branches, twigs, leaves and all sorts of other impedimenta. You'd swear a tornado had passed through. A hundred and fifty yards down the road we came to the Montelabbate crossing site, a chaotic scene of tanks milling about in clouds of dust and exhaust smoke, the deafening roar of their engines and the grinding squeak of their tracks. Besides the tanks there were Jeeps, 15 CWTs and larger transports competing for the right-of-way. And to add to the confusion and fierce racket, people were running helter-skelter all over the place shouting and waving arms&emdash;to whom, I couldn't make out, nor did I have the inclination to find out. I was too busy keeping up to the man ahead.
Nothing made sense as we passed through this tumult and hodgepodge of disorganized men and machinery in our hurry to get across the river, which, much to my surprise and everyone else's, was nothing but three narrow trickles of water. We sprinted across the wide, near-dry river without even getting the soles of our boots wet. In the dry season, the Foglia, like almost every other river in Italy, had shrunk to little more than three slender ribbons of water trickling over the rounded stones and pebbles.
On the far side we sped through Baker Company survivors huddled close upagainst the shallow embankment, a frozen look of shock and fear written across their faces. From the glance I shot at them as we ran by I realized they wouldn't be in much of a mental state to carry on even once they recovered from their ordeal. When someone enters this state they rarely come back and contribute anything worthwhile to their company's progress. But this was no time for me to be doing any philosophizing. I stayed right on Jimmy Heaton's heels as we ran down the road through stifling clouds of dustchurned up by a troop of tanks maneuvering about on the road and in the field not much more than a stone's throw away. As long as Jimmy was there ahead of me picking them up and laying them down, I followed. At that moment I was too pre-occupied to be saddled by fear. My lungs were on fire and my breath came in rapid-fire gasps. My mouth was as dry as an old leather belt, not so much from nerves, but from excitement of what was going on around me and the anticipation of what might soon happen in that thousand yards of open country straight ahead.
I felt a lessening of tension once we got away from the river and the racket and confusion, knowing what a likely target it would be for Jerry artillery and mortars. I was even breathing a little easier when Capt Ridge and Sgt Blackie' Rowe came hurrying up motioning for the lead section of 18Platoon (which was my section) to climb the wire fence and form up in extended order in the field on the right side of the road. In the light of what had happened to the Baker platoon, Ridge decided it would be smarter to advance across the flats by way of the open field than by the road where the MG was firing on fixed lines. Nothing unusual about entering the field except for the fact that strung all along the fence at eight foot intervals staring us in the face were these triangular signs with the 'death's head' insignia and the words "ACHTUNG! MINEN! painted on them. Mines! "Holy Jeezuz!" I exclaimed in rising tension, "God damn it! Are they nuts or something sending us in there? We're as good as dead!" Such were the pessimistic thoughts that crossed my mind. But we had to go, and that was that. No questions. No arguments.
And so, it was with undisguised dismay and deep misgivings we climbed the wire fence muttering oaths and condemning Sammy's and Blackie's sanity and intelligence level. But since you don't argue with officers and senior NCOs, like the good soldiers we were supposed to be, we went. It took a lot of guts or else fatalistic resignation to do as we were ordered to do.
Jimmy went over first. I was right behind him holding my breath and gritting my teeth I hesitated a moment, reluctant to put my foot down, but then said to myself "What the heck, I can't go back." And with that, down came my foot. I think I let a sigh of relief escape my lips, or it might have been a "Whew!" Then I heard Sgt Rowe running off at the mouth at someone behind me who must have been giving him a hard time. "Never mind, just get your ass over the fence, and don't give me anymore of your lip! C'mon now, over you go!" No one wanted to commit suicide, that's for sure, and yet the order to go over the fence and into this minefield demanded we do exactly that. So, what drove me and everyone else into climbing that wire fence to enter what we all were sure would be our graveyard? I'll never know. I suppose it might have been fear of court-martial if we refused. Or maybe it was, at least in my respect, because I wanted to prove something to myself,that I wasn't afraid to die. Or it could even have been that I didn't give a damn anymore what would happen to me. I really don't know, and if you asked the others who went, they probably couldn't come up with an answer either.
Although the order, as we saw it, had to be the cruelest utterance any self-respecting and "wise in the ways of battle" officer could ask or demand of his men, there was a valid reason for his order. Capt Ridge knew that from time to time, the Germans pulled off ruses in which they'd put up 'ACHTUNG! MINEN! signs hoping to fool our attacking troops into taking another route, thought to be the safer one, but was instead the killing ground. This time the enemy had indeed told the truth. The wide-open fieldsstretching from Pesaro on the coast to beyond Montecchio were thickly sown with mines.
Like I'd said, it took a hell of a lot guts to climb that fence. It tookeven more guts to walk out into that field expecting the next step to be your last. With Jimmy Heaton leading the way, 18 Platoon walked out into the field, and I bet each man had his fingers mentally crossed. Behind me in order, came Gord Forbes, Walt Thomas, Bob McLean, Bob Wheatley, Cpl Jimmy Eves and Hugh Detlor. 16 and 17 Platoons brought up the rear as we waited for the order to move. It was almost dark.
If there's anything an infantryman fears more so than the sharp crack of an 88 or the rending crunch of a mortar bomb, it had to be mines&emdash;any kind of mine. Artillery and mortars you eventually come to cope with to some degree, as frightening as they were; mines, however, are something else again. It's the not knowing when you put your foot down whether a mine's buried there or not. And if it happens to be an anti vehicle Teller mine and you're 180 lbs or over. . . "whammo!" you're gone, with bits and pieces of your body splattering all over hell and gone. The grim thought of what could happen to you plays on your mind as you grasp every last shred of courage you can scrape up to keep going. Although you eventually come to accept the fact that every action you go into, the odds of your still being alive and in one piece after it's all over, gets longer, a lot longer. You don't want to but you have to accept also the unthinkable possibility that when you do go up on a mine, it'll be in such tiny pieces the Graves registration people won't be able to find or scrape up enough of you to give you a decent burial. I'd seen what a Teller and an Italian box mine could do to a tank or any other vehicle, and I'd seen what one of them did to Sgt Pete McRorie and Cpl Bob Adair in the Liri Valley. It was something I didn't care to see again.Worse still, I didn't want it to happen to me.
We lost no one while filing out into the field, but inside a few paces as we began our advance across the flats came the first explosion. Some-one off to my left closer to the road had gone up on a mine. It wasn't an ear-ringing 'bang' like the Teller mines made, so I knew it could only be one of the smaller anti-personnel Schumines. A few more paces and two more men went up, the lower extremity of their legs mangled by the searing blasts. We stopped dead, afraid to go on, trapped smack in the middle of a minefield. There was no getting away from it, we were in deep trouble. Then I heard Blackie Rowe's stentorian voice hollering from somewhere behind, "Get your god damn asses moving! Come on! Move! Move! Move! Haul your asses!" I turn to Gord, "Holy shit! the crazy sonofabitch is determined to get us all killed!"
What was there for us but to do what the man said. We resume the advance,but with cold fear in our hearts. Again I turned to Gord, "I can't see us getting out of here alive, Gord." He didn't even have time to agree with me when 'Bang!" and down he went. My first instinct was to stop and do what Icould for him, but Blackie kept barking at us to keep moving, so I moved on. Before we'd gone another 30 yards we lost three more on mines&emdash;three more men who'd one day be walking around on artificial legs, that is if the stretcher-bearers could get them out without stepping on a mine themselves."Cripes!" I said to myself, "We'll be wiped out before we get even halfway to our objective!" Mixed feelings of fear, anger and even pride were going through me. Uppermost was the fear of dying. Next came anger over being made to sacrifice ourselves in a hopeless venture. And lastly, there was the pride in being brave enough to go ahead and do as we were ordered to do even while our comrades were going down all around us. What else could have made us do what we were so deathly afraid of? Courage? Blind obedience? Afraid to be branded a coward? Perhaps it was a little of each. I couldn't be sure. But the way I had to look at it...as long as my buddies kept moving, so did I. I wasn't about to quit. And so it was that the guts of one pulled another along, and that one pulled still another, and so on down the line. It was as simple as that.
To walk through that frightful garden took nerves of hardened steel far beyond that which each of us thought we had. That was exactly what it took for us to go another 200 yards losing a a couple more lads before Captain Ridge saw the folly in going all the way to the anti-tank ditch some four hundred yards to our front. He called a halt and gave the order to file out of the deadly pasture, which we managed to do without losing more men. What a relief!
Sammy planned on Dog Company going the rest of the way down the road, a'touch and go' operation at best, but we had no other choice. Had the people back in Tac H.Q. been aware of our predicament, which I doubt, they most likely wouldn't have given us much of a chance of reaching the anti-tank ditch, let alone get across it. At this stage of the game, things didn't look at all promising. In fact things looked pretty grim left, center and right. The fortunes of war, however, were about to turn around in our favor.
Full darkness now cloaked the valley as we made our way slowly and warily up the road to where the Baker Company platoon had been shot up less than fifty yards from the anti-tank ditch. The twisted and torn bodies lying scattered about on the road, on the verges and in the drainage ditch on our side of the road told us in grim detail that we were now in the killing zone, so Blackie waved us off and had us walk on the far side of the drainage ditch keeping as close to the fence as possible. He wanted no part in our being cut down like the boys lying dead all around us, pinning his hopes on the likelihood the enemy MG's field of fire wouldn't cover any more than the road, the verges and the two drainage ditches. It was a smart decision, one that saved our lives. It was also a move that spelled victory.
On reaching the anti-tank ditch, we were surprised to find that the road across this massive tank barrier hadn't been blown. What an opportunity it gave us! Now, if we could only get our people across without being seen and shot to pieces we'd be in a pretty damn good position to take the high ground. But the bodies of Baker Company lying all around us told us it wasn't going to be that simple an undertaking. The MG 42 up on top of Point 111, we knew, had to be trained on this weak spot in their line, and we could be sure its two-man crew would open up the minute someone made a dash across that short stretch of road. Who'd be the first to go? I was up at the pointof the advance, but since I had no hankering to be the big hero I kept my mouth shut. I'd been lucky this far and wasn't about to press that luck any more than I had to.
We lay strung out along the fence waiting for Blackie Rowe to give the word for us to go. We didn't have much time to ponder the consequences of the bold rush we were about to make. Like the gallant 600 at Balaclava, ours was not to reason why. As we waited with bated breath and some considerable doubt that we could get across the big ditch, the Jerry behind the gun up on the height squeezed off a burst from his magnificent weapon&emdash;a three second sixty round clip ripped along the road throwing spurts of dust and gravel in the air, but they found no live target this time except those already dead. We were out of the cone of fire. Ten seconds went by. Not a soul moved. Not a soul dared to move. And then another three second burst stitched a long path up and down the road. Ten more seconds of silence. A third three-second burst walked up and down the road along the verges. Again ten seconds went by and no fire. Now alert to the timing of the hidden gunner, Blackie Rowe made his mind up in a flash. He saw a way for 18 Platoon to get across the ditch and to the relative protection of an embankment at the base of the ridge on the far side. He passed the word down the line of the platoon lying close up against the fence, telling us how we'd go about getting across without getting shot to pieces. "Every time that gun up on the ridge stops firing, two guys make a run for the embankment on the other side, and go like hell. Get that? Ready now; okay Bun(Ray Welsh), you and Humph (Johnny Humphries) go first." Although it was only 15 feet of roadway across the ditch and another thirty yards to the embankment across the lateral road at the base of the ridge, to each man it looked to be more like a mile. It was a a slim chance we might get enough guys across, but we had to take it. There was no way of knowing it, but we were on the verge of achieving what had to be the outstanding success of the Gothic Line break-in battle, a tactical success that would literally pull our chestnuts out of the fire.
When Bun and Humph took off, we stopped breathing, resuming respiration only after the two reached the safety of the far embankment. We couldn't believe our eyes. "They're across! Hot damn! They're across!" I remember saying to myself. And now it was Jim Heaton's and my turn to go. My heart was a-thumping as I got ready to go lickety-split. Less than a second after the next burst of gunfire stopped, we took off, our legs going like runawaypistons. With abject fear and an overly powerful need to cross the beaten zone driving me, I practically ran right over Jim as I sped towards the safety of the embankment. If that gun on the height flared into action again, Jim and I'd be dead ducks. But we made it! Not two seconds after we reached the embankment alongside the lateral road the Jerry on Point 111 squeezed off another burst, the bullets spitting gravel up along the very path we had taken. Lady Luck had run by our side.
The Germans, as so often had been the case, were methodical to a fault. Every burst came at exactly ten second intervals...three seconds fire...ten seconds wait...three seconds fire...ten seconds wait, and so on and so on, unless, of course when they had to re-arm with another belt of ammo. This fatal flaw in their makeup enabled Dog Company to cross the anti-tank ditch without a single casualty&emdash;a remarkable piece of battle luck and a large bit of battle savvy on Sgt. Blackie Rowe's part. It also required a sizable portion of nerve on everyone's part. It took Dog Company not much more than fifteen minutes to cross the anti-tank ditch and another fifteen minutes to form up for the assault on Point 111. While hugging the protective embankment, thankful that another major obstacle had been overcome we watched with some detached interest an NBH tank slowly moving up the road and then stop at the exact spot from which only minutes before we'd made the crucial rush to get across the deep moat. It opened up with its 75 mm gun at a suspected enemy post on the ridge top some 100 yards off to our right, pumping round after H.E. round at it. It fascinated me no end the way the the crew went at their job with the 75 and the ball mounted MG in the hull. While I was engrossed in the spectacle, two rifle shots smacked into the embankment too near for comfort. It couldn't have missed me by more than a foot or so. "Holy jeez! Where in hell did that come from? I exclaimed with more than a little fright. "The hell if I know!" someone along the bank spoke up. And when another two quick shots hit at about the same spot, I pinpointed their source as the wooded knoll on our left a couple hundred yards away. This was Point 120, the CBH. objective. It was obvious they hadn't taken it yet. As determined as the 'Boys from the Bay' were in trying to claw their way up the pine covered knoll to get at the enemy, they weren't able to succeed. Flesh, spirit and courage were not enough. The herring chokers lost a lot of good men on and around that infamous knob of ground.
After several more rounds smacked into the embankment in quick succession we were beginning to feel a little like tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. Although I didn't relish the thought of going up the hill to take out the enemy post&emdash;darkness would at least even things out a bit and give us a better chance of surviving. We knew exactly where the bastards were holed up, but the crew didn't know that we'd crossed the ditch and were getting ready to go up and knock them off. Better to go now than stand around and risk getting picked off by someone firing blind from the knoll.
By the amount of racket going on up on the knoll we knew the CBH were having one hell of a rough time. The night echoed to the whole gamut of battlefield noises, the deep crunch of mortar bombs, the muffled thud of grenades, the sharper crack of artillery fire accompanied by the steady clatter of machine-gun fire&emdash;ours and theirs. The mortar bomb blasts in particular were so ear-splitting loud I had to believe Jerry had brought uphis heaviest howitzers to unload their fortress busting hardware onto the boys from the Bay. Every time one landed you'd swear the very hill was being ripped apart.
Finally Sammy gave the magic word, "Okay, up we go!" This was 'it', our first bayonet charge. 17 Platoon under Lt. Bill Hider was on the right, 18 Platoon, Lt. Dooley in command on the left, with Lt. George Till's 16 Platoon coming up in skirmish order close behind. Strange, but I wasn't as apprehensive as I thought I'd be. With our spike bayonets fixed, full mags in weapons, safety catches off and rounds up the spouts we went up, leaning into the slope, which was a lot longer than it appeared from the road. Halfway up, my thighs and calves began to tighten up on me, another sign I was out of shape. Everything quiet above. But not for long. The Jerries awoke to the fact that something was amiss, that the Canadians were across the big ditch and moving in on them. They cut loose blindly with their MG. We hit the ground as the quick, short bursts sliced through the air above our heads. Two of the boys in 16 Platoon lower down the slope got nicked, but that's about all. Cpl Tupling had part of a finger shot away, while the other man took a flesh wound in the upper arm. Either the gunner couldn't see us too well, or he wasn't able to depress his MG far enough to do any damage. Had he been able to, he likely would have stopped our attack cold right then and there. But it's also possible he might have figured we were still back on the road and that's what he was aiming for. With some couple hundred bullets zipping through the air above our prone bodies I couldn't see us doing much about putting that gun out of action. In effect, we froze. Nobody moved a muscle. With only one gun firing, somebody could have gone off a little wide to the left or the right in flanking moves like we'd be doing in battle drill training and knocked the post out quite easily&emdash;but no one thought to do so.
Who was going to be the big hero? I knew it wouldn't be me. In fact I knew damn well it wouldn't be me. And then, with the bullets slicing the air above, I felt a strange urge come over me, a growing urge to leap up and make a one-man charge to take the gun out. I even had the presence of mind trying to talk myself into making the ultimate move&emdash;to go in on my own and take the sonofabitches out. "Here's the chance I've been waiting for all along. Here's where I win the Victoria Cross." But, as much as I fantasized at being a one-man army, I had sense enough to know I'd never make it. And so, like the others around me, I lay there glued to Mother Earth, wondering who'd be crazy or brave enough to get up and go. Only a sudden uncontrollable impulse would stir me into heroic action. That impulse never came. Instead I buried my Roman nose deeper into the thick grass, bracing my body against the .300 caliber rounds that at any second might punch holes in me from head to toes. I felt so inadequate, so helpless. By the same token there were no other potential VC types on Point 111 slope that night.
Although my heart pumped faster than it had ever pumped before, a feeling of elation came over me when I realized I wasn't quite as out of my mind with fear as I thought I'd be. But I was still scared enough not to get up and go. With long streams of 'made-in-Germany' bullets cutting the air above me I figured I'd take maybe three steps and they'd chew me up. I'd be blown away on the wind like chaff. I tried screwing up enough nerve to get up and make a run for the top as soon as the gun stopped firing, as I had done in crossing the anti-tank moat. Or if not that, I'd try wriggling up like a snake until I got close enough to lob a grenade into the position. But it was "no go". I just wasn't up to it. The survival instinct was too strong to be overcome by such foolish ideas running around in my head.
The assault stalled fifty yards from the enemy gun post. For what seemed like a long ten minutes, although it couldn't have been more than two or three, we lay face down in the dusty grass, frozen into immobility, wincing at every Spandau burst burning the air above us. Someone had to make the first move. I tried. Lord God Almighty how I tried! But I couldn't bring myself to get up and go. And then it happened. From somewhere close behind me heard Sammy Ridge bellow. I never thought he had that deep a voice. I couldn't make out exactly what he was hootin' and hollerin' about but it sounded like, "Come on Dog Company, up and at 'em, what the hell are you waiting for?" I raised my head high enough to take a sidewise glance and saw the silhouette of someone off to my right a short way get up and start to move forward. Right next to him somebody else got up. And then, as if by magic,the whole company was up and moving. No one now had to tell us what we had to do, we knew what our job was. "Take the high ground!" And take it we did&emdash;in spectacular fashion, far quicker and far easier than I thought possible. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
Up we went. The man at the trigger of the MG 42 squeezed off a burst. This time, though we must have made better targets, miraculously no one was hit. And without hardly knowing it, all of a sudden I was going up that last fifty yards as fast as the slope and the strength and endurance of my legs allowed. We were shouting and screaming at the tops of our lungs. To this day I can't be sure the bloodthirsty screams I made came from blood lust or fright. Perhaps it was a little of both. Anyway, the vocal racket we made going in with the bayonet was, as we were later told, loud enough for our people all the way back at the Foglia River to hear us. I guess it served its purpose because it took all the fight out of the Jerries.
My sidekick Walt Thomas was on my right elbow as we went in those last few yards, both of us cutting loose, firing from the hip. Jimmy Heaton on my immediate left let go with a couple of short bursts from his Bren, while someone else off to our right fired off short bursts from his Tommy. A surge of exhilaration and extreme excitement swept over me. For that moment, at least, I'd forgotten what fear was all about. In fact I was so full of 'piss and vinegar' I actually felt like I could do this every day and actually enjoy it. As we hit a six foot 45° angle incline directly above which the Jerry gun position was sited, a grenade went off with one hell of a bang somewhere very nearby knocking me and Thomas 'ass over tea-kettle' backwards. Whether it was one of ours or the enemy's I couldn't tell. All I did know was that when we both realized we hadn't been hit in any way and had gathered our wits together, we bounced right back up on our feet and went up and over. But there was no bayonet work or trench clearing of any kind to do. A trench full of Jerries were standing there with their hands high, all crying out in unison, "Kameraden! Kameraden! Kameraden!" A beautiful sight for me, if such situations could be called beautiful. Satisfying or most relieving might be the better descriptions. I had to admit it, I was intensely glad that we didn't have to use our bayonets in a hand to hand donnybrook. A guy has to be a born killer to look forward to that. I wasn't a born killer.
Once the prisoners were rooted out of their dugouts and trench systems and the hill secured, we prepared ourselves for a counterattack which we felt sure the Jerries would throw in inside the hour, which he usually did. If they didn't do it within the hour. then we could expect to have a fight on our hands in the morning at first light.It was a tremendous feeling we all experienced knowing we'd taken Point 111. As a result we were pretty damn proud of ourselves. After all, Dog Company had achieved something extra special in taking its objective, the first sub unit in the Corps to do so. In seizing Point 111, we got the ball rolling not only for the Regiment, but also for 11th Brigade and subsequently for the Corps itself. In the American Army it would have meant a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. Anyway, inside half an hour,Major Jack Tipler's Able Company passed through our foothold, and in a classic example of a left hook took Point 147 some 300 yards to the northeast. Both Baker and Charlie Company arrived shortly after and took up positions astride the high ground between Able and Dog. Once this was accomplished, it compelled the enemy forces holding off every thrust made by the Princess Pats and the West Novas in the flats to pull back. The Pats were now able to take the rubble heaps of Borgo Santa Maria, while the West Novas passed through Osteria Nuova and pressed on to the heights above. Now, all it would take for the line to be busted wide open was for the western and maritime battalions to take their next objectives. Once this happened, the situation became ripe for 5th Armored Brigade to go rambling through the hole. The day of decision lay ahead.
With what 11th Infantry Brigade had accomplished on Points 111, 120 and 147, the self-assured 1st Div. boys could no longer look down their collective noses at 5th Div, the Mighty Maroon Machine as they so disparagingly called us. It was we who had taken the laurels in this battle and they couldn't deny us this outstanding honor. We showed them once and for all that we were every bit as capable in battle as they were, and in this particular battle we outperformed them, and by a wide margin. The Perth Regiment, especially Dog Company could rightfully lay claim to the fact that we were the first unit in the Corps to take its objective. After the Gothic Line we heard considerably less, the usual scathing remarks about what happened to us in the valley of the Riccio River outside Ortona. The monkey was finally off our backs.
But let's go back to Point 111 and the events that transpired between the time we seized this elevated piece of real estate on 30th of August and the following night of 31st August/1st of September when the epic struggle took place on Point 204 between Dog Company and our tough opponents from the 1st Parachute Division. Once Dog Company secured Point 111, Cpl. Jimmy Eves,took three of his men from 8 section&emdash;Jim Heaton on the Bren, myself as his #2 man, and Walt Thomas to set up a listening post about thirty yards down the forward slope Digging in on the 30° slope was no easy matter, since the ground had been baked hard as brick by three month's of unrelenting heat and little rain. Although we knew the night was pregnant with danger,especially for us here on the forward slope, we put no special effort in digging our slit trenches. For one thing, the hard ground slowed us up, and for another,we hadn't fully recovered from the 35 mile grueling march of the two days previous. I don't know how deep the others went, but Jim and I called it quits after about three feet, nowhere near enough to give us protection should the Jerries suddenly mount an attack. We called it quits, that is, until something happened to change our minds only minutes later.
Our lightning capture of the height tended to lull us into a false sense of security, a tendency to believe the enemy had pulled out far enough back that his big guns wouldn't be in place yet to give us a pounding. Maybe the guns were gone, but there were still some infantry around. We found this out soon enough. A Jerry ammunition carrying detail blundered into our lines, not suspecting that the hill where their kamerads had been waiting for the ammo was no longer in their hands. They made their way up along a well worn path that ran past right where Jimmy Eves and Walt Thomas were hacking away at the rock hard soil with halfhearted effort. Jimmy Eves, an easy-going, gangling young farmer from Stella on Amherst Island near Kingston was startled when the detail walked right in on them from out of the dark valley.
Not sure whether they were our own men from one of the other companies or the enemy, he called out the password. No countersign. He called the password out again, only louder. The ammunition carriers dropped their loads and threw up their arms in surrender. A Gefreiter (L/Cpl), however, escorting the ammo carriers got off a hip-shot from his Mauser, missing Eves by a hair. He didn't get off a second shot. Thomas, who was off to the side a bit, saw what was going on, and in the flurry of excitement, grabbed Eves' Tommy gun lying closer to him than his own rifle, and blew the aggressive Jerry over backwards with a short burst in the belly. The impact of the .45 caliber slugs blew the man's insides away killing him instantly.
Jim Heaton and I were caught outside our trench when the firing broke out, and thinking it was a counterattack we dove into our trench in a tangle of arms and legs. When we got straightened away, Jim lined up his Bren in the direction the firing came from, but then saw he had no magazine in place. All the mags, eight of them, even the one Jim had momentarily removed from the gun so he could give the piston group a wiping-down, we'd placed a good six feet away where they wouldn't get covered with dirt while we were digging in. "Get the mags, Jim snapped." Although I was loath to leave the protection of our hole in the ground, shallow as it was, I had no other choice but to retrieve them. You can't shoot without ammunition so I scrambled out, groped around in the dark for a few hectic seconds until I felt the pouches, grabbed them and the extra mags and was back in a blur of motion. But by this time the commotion was all over with. Long, lean and lanky Lt. Bill Hider of 17 Platoon came down the slope to take charge of the four docile and frightened prisoners and hustled them up and over the crest to where he immediately put them to work digging slit trenches for his boys. As for Jim and I, we went at the job of deepening our own trench with an alacrity quite remarkable for a couple of weary old warhorses. After that, we spent the remainder of the night at full alert, ready and waiting and better prepared to defend ourselves should the Jerries launch a counterattack. It was a long, long night.
Stand-to came at first light with no counterattack as we expected. To say I was glad nothing like that happened was to put it in the mildest of terms. I was overwhelmingly relieved. Then, another crew came to take over from us, and we wasted little time in talking to them as we picked up our gear to retire to the safer side of the hill. In somewhat of a stupor, we dragged our asses up hill to the reverse slope where we flopped down in slit trenches, compliments of the relieving 9 section boys. The trench Heaton and I inherited, like every other one, was barely wide enough to allow the two of us to lie head to feet, and they couldn't have been any more than two feet deep, if that. Comfort, however, wasn't all that important to us at the time, We were giddy with fatigue and lack of sleep, almost dead to the world on our feet. Any hole in the ground would be fine enough for us. The way we felt, we'd have slept in a pig-sty in the high heat of a summer's day, and slept like newborn babes.
As so often happens in the infantry, though, we got next to no sleep. We felt like we'd closed our eyes for only a few minutes or so when our 25 pounders on the south side of the Foglia River began firing. We didn't hear the first ones go over, but we sure heard the next couple. The express-train rush they made as they barely cleared the ridge woke us up, scaring the 'bejeezus' out of us. "Goddamn it Jim, those came pretty damn close." I mumbled, looking down the length of my body to Jim whose head was at the other end. "Yeah, they sure did. The bastards better crank their sights up a notch or the next one's gonna land right on top of us. No sooner said, than done. One slammed in&emdash;damn near a direct hit. The old saying in the infantry, "You'll never hear the one that gets you." I can prove it's not so. I heard the last micro-second of this particular baby, and then 'bang', and lights out. But I didn't die, and neither did Jim. Miracles never cease to happen. The short round smacked down at the corner of the trench a little more than a foot above my head at the 'going-away' side. This is probably why the blast and the shrapnel didn't kill us. All we got was the backlash. The shell cut my rifle in half at the small of the butt, ripped my pouches and my small pack all to hell, and blew my helmet to where, I didn't know. It was likely sent flying all the way to the Po. Anyway, I can't recall how long I'd been knocked out, but it couldn't have been more than a minute or two, because when I came to, the first thing that told me I was still alive was the rank smell of H.E. I damn near puked. It also felt like someone had given me a good wallop up side the ears with a two by four. It took a good two minutes before I could speak.I wanted to say something to Jim but no words came. Only my lips moved.Then I felt helping hands lifting me out of the trench. I had trouble focusing my eyes, and then as the cobwebs in my head slowly cleared, I recognized the man holding on to me was our old reliable stretcher-bearer, Vern Gooding. He said something to me, but be damned if I could make out what it was because both my ears were ringing something terrible, and then a wave of nausea swept through me. Again I heaved, but nothing came out, likely because I hadn't had a substantial meal in a good while. I suppose it was only a transient reaction to the concussive effect of the near direct hit. In a fog, disoriented, dizzy, groggy, ears ringing, I stumbled around like a drunk leaving a blind pig. Gooding decided to send me back to the Foglia to the Field Dressing Station set up in the one house still relatively undamaged this side of the river. Though I had trouble making out what he was saying because of the ringing in my ears, I could make enough out to understand when he asked me if I could make it back on my own, I nodded assent and then made my way slowly and unsurely downhill, passing the Irish moving up through our positions to execute later that morning their famous right hook that finally took out the troublesome Point 120 knoll.
Original Story from messages received on 21 October 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 23 October 2002.
The story above, Spearhead in the Gothic Line, 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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