Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
With the Perths in the Field
A ceremonial welcome was something we never got when our forlorn group of reluctant reinforcements arrived at a station a few miles outside Hunstanton-on-the-Wash in Norfolk County. The Perths, only in the past few days had taken up billets in this town on the East Anglian coast after coming off a major exercise in the south of England. I can't say we merited any special kind of welcoming committee with a 21-gun salute and all that, but I for one felt there should have been at least an officer on hand to take us in tow. Instead, all we got in welcome was three drivers and one lousy and rather surly Corporal who'd come to pick us up. A very unfriendly person he was, at that. The bugger hardly spoke to us. About all he said was, "Okay, follow me, the trucks are over here." And with that decidedly cool reception we trundled our gear over to the three 15 CWTs, climbed in and were on our way to our new home and family. Judging from the crew that came to pick us up I had my doubts that we were going to a happy regimental family.
The Perth Regiment, as we soon learned, was one of the three infantry battalions in the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Armoured Division. The other two regiments were the Cape Breton Highlanders, and the Irish Regiment of Canada out of Toronto. The Cape Bretons, who were known as "The Bay Boys" usually responded to the greeting, "Are you from the Bay. . . By(Boy)?" They were a rough, tough bunch, a lot of them miners, fishermen, lumberjacks, trappers, men who lived hard lives and in living hard lives, by necessity became hard themselves. Where they came from, they seemed to do little else but fuck, drink and fight. At first, soldiering was merely a sideline for them. They reminded me of the Dufferin & Haldimand Rifles, as misbehaving a bunch of louts as you hoped you'd never run into. Apparently, from what I'd heard not long after we arrived, the Perths and the Capes had gone at each other a couple of times in wild pub brawls. As tough as the 'boys from the bay' were supposed to be, they met more than their match in the Perth alley-fighters. It could have been why the Perths got the name 'The Fighting Perths'. They backed down to no one.
Our 15 CWTs pulled up in front of the Windsor Hotel on a road just off the corner of a line of shops fronting on the Wash. After climbing the narrow stairway to the second floor with our heavy burden of packs and two kit-bags to what we thought would be our assigned sleeping quarters we were told there were bunks available for only four men. The rest of us had to stumble back downstairs with our burdens, muttering oaths every step of the way. We didn't have far to go, however, only a block down the street to billets upstairs over a radio repair shop.
Three rooms were all there were, each accommodating four men, with the same kind of low-slung wooden bunk beds we had to sleep in in Aldershot. I thought we might be lucky and get the steel-framed spring-mounted bunks we had in Canada. But it was not to be. As far as I know, only the NCOs and Officers got these. Like everything else I gradually became aware of in this man's army, Privates always got the shitty end of the stick. Once again I ended up with a bottom bunk. But by this stage of the game, after sleeping in one for a little over three months I got used to it and didn't mind it a bit.
Our first meal in the Perth Regiment mess was most certainly not one to write home about unless it was to describe how bad it was. Terrible! Not much better than the lousy grub they fed us on the Andes. A dog would, no doubt, have turned his nose up at it. The pork & beans was god-awful. The fried bacon was all fat, too thick, and indigestible. I gagged on the first mouthful. I had a tough time swallowing it and as tough a time dislodging it from my throat. As for the potatoes, they must have been loaded with waxy margarine and tasted like they'd been stored for much too long in someone's damp basement or root cellar. That none of us came down with ptomaine poisoning was something of a miracle. I gave up after a couple of mouthfuls. I picked up my mess-tins and dumped the whole foul mess in the overbrimming swill-tubs by the door. It was obvious that a lot of others as well were squeamish about eating the slop. I looked around for an Orderly Officer to voice my complaint, but he was nowhere to be seen. At the same time, though, I realized it might not be such a good idea to make noises after just arriving. It might be asking for trouble.
The Perths were billeted in requisitioned seafront hotels, but a few like our little group were put up in commercial buildings and even in homes vacated by the owners. In other words the Regiment was pretty well dispersed throughout the town. All in all, except for the food, a feeling came over me that I was going to like Hunstanton, and sure enough, when it came time to move on after a couple of weeks, I hated to leave.
Hunstanton is situated on the northeast shoulder of Norfolk County where the North Sea enters the bay or inlet known as the Wash. We were in that part of the country called East Anglia, well-known for receiving more than its fair share of the 'tip and run' raids by German planes. After the Luftwaffe had failed to bring England to its knees in the Blitz and turned its war machine around to the east and launched its mammoth offensive against Russia, it resorted only to sending in token daily bombing raids by one or a few aircraft against cities on or near the coast in what became known as nuisance raids. The planes would swoop in from over the sea at near wave-top level to avoid radar, and would climb steeply just before hitting land where they'd pick out a target indiscriminately, unload their bombs, strafe their way across the town before flying back out to sea and home. Though the raids posed no large threat to security, they did cause significant damage in the towns as well as inflict anywhere from moderate to heavy casualties, especially when a bomb landed smack on a cinema packed with people. We'd been reading all about these raids in the papers, and now here we were, front row centre.
So, here I was in 'tip and run' alley hoping to get in my first shots at the enemy with my puny little Lee-Enfield rifle. Fat chance I had in ever hitting one. But then you never know; I might just get lucky and get my name in the papers back home for shooting down a JU-88 or maybe a Messerschmitt 109. Wouldn't that be something? As it so turned out, I never did get to fire a shot, let alone see a Jerry plane. All I did was hear one, and that was late one night when I was on sentry duty outside BHQ. A single plane somewhere high up in the moonless, pitch-black sky kept going back and forth, its engines droning in that peculiar unsynchronized beat of its engines that we became so familiar with all the through the war. I experienced a deep thrill in knowing that up there in that black void above me somewhere was the enemy. The fact that I was infinitely more in danger of my life than the man piloting the plane didn't enter my mind even for a moment. After circling around for about fifteen minutes, it flew across the Wash where several searchlight beams swept back and forth trying to pick it up for the ack-ack to have a go at it. Then the sound of its engines died away as it flew off towards the east. Since no bombs were dropped I naturally assumed it had been a reconnaissance plane.
The Wash is famous for its tides. From the earliest times the irresistible sea has waged a constant eroding attack against the coast, undermining the chalk cliffs and washing away huge sections of arable land. But the hardy farmers of coastal Norfolk were not to be denied their right to the land, and in their determination they fought the sea with everything in their power to do so. Their undiminishing efforts eventually slowed down the erosion of their priceless land, but throughout the centuries the battle has been a never-ending one, and though lessened in intensity, the fight still goes on.
At low tides, when you stand out on the wet sand dotted with periwinkles you can see at once how centuries of sea action has eroded the base of the cliffs. The everlasting pounding of the waves at high tide has crumbled the face of layered chalk into great mounds of rubble. We transients knew nothing of this serious problem confronting the good people of Norfolk as they worked hard to save their land and livelihood from the ravages of the sea. We didn't know of this ongoing fight, and most likely, even had we known, we would hardly have given it a thought. All we were concerned with was what the Daily Syllabus had in store for us, and what pleasures and creature comforts might come our way from across the foam in the form of letters and parcels from home. Very few, if any were there who were interested in or bothered to look into the town's and the region's history. They had other things more important, at least in their estimation, on their minds.
Hunstanton had been a popular seaside resort in peacetime, when throngs of people came from all over this part of England for a weekend or a vacation. The hotels and restaurants and stores did a land-office business all through the summer months. But then came the war, followed not long after by defeat on the continent and then the miracle of Dunkirk, and suddenly the town was empty except for its own citizens. Only when army units began to be stationed here did the town come reasonably alive again, but certainly nothing close to the way things had been. The pleasure-seekers had long since gone, leaving the beach, the tides, the long and sloping greensward, and the town itself to successive waves of khaki clad visitors who were billeted here for a short while, and then were gone to other destinations. The 11th Infantry Brigade was one of these waves.
Although I could appreciate the beach and lovely greensward overlooking the Wash, I was more interested, as I suppose almost everyone else was, in finding a pretty and accommodating young lady to spend evenings with. This, however, was easier said than done. Competition was pretty fierce, what with something like five-thousand, give or take a few hundred like-minded Canadians stationed in or around the town. Any young and eligible female worth looking at and being seen with had already been latched on to, leaving the rest of us unfulfilled and having to find some other much less exciting means to fill out our free time. It was a case of each to his own preferences, and somehow we managed to survive.
One thing became apparent to me on my first walk around town and that was how much more friendlier the citizens of Hunstanton were as opposed to those who made Aldershot their home. They were far and away more inclined to speak to us, to say hello as they passed us by, to be polite instead of indifferent or snarky as the citizens of Aldershot tended to be. We found it surprisingly easy to fall into conversation with Hunstantons no matter the age or the gender. It was refreshing to stroll about the town and mix with these good people.
That first evening of our arrival we retired earlier than usual. Reveille, however, came a lot sooner than we had expected. It was 0400 hours instead of 0600. Someone came busting into our cozy little hideaway above the radio repair shop hollering "Wakey. . . wakey. . .wakey! Everybody up! Hey! Hey! Hey! Let's get crackin'! Up up up!" And while rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I heard one of the guys in the room speak up out of the Stygian blackness, "Holy Christmas! It's only four o'clock! Where in the hell are they getting off waking us up at this ungodly hour?" Was someone playing a game with us? I had to believe it was, until another less noisy individual stuck his head inside the door, though we couldn't see him, informing us it was no joke, "Okay fellas, let's get hustling, I know you're tired, but you have to be out on the road in fifteen minutes for roll call." With sleep still heavy in our eyes and somehow managing to get dressed in complete darkness we filed downstairs and stepped out onto the street chock full of men milling about as though not knowing what the hell was going on. After about fifteen minutes, NCOs had everyone formed up into some semblance of company order, after which the authoritive voice of an officer began to call the roll. Since we had just arrived, our name was on a separate toll.
The reason for the early reveille was because the Regiment was moving out at first light on an exercise. As newcomers we didn't know just exactly what we were supposed to do. In fact we had hopes they might let us stay behind and go back to bed. Not bloody likely! Some wise soul knew of our presence and proceeded to parcel us out to the companies. I was the only newcomer sent to #3 Platoon Able Company. At this time, the Regiment was organized into the 'three company' pattern, having gone through at least three changes in War Establishment between 'three company' and 'four company' patterns. When the exercise was over, the regiment reverted to the 'four company' pattern and remained that way right through to the end of the war.
Original Story from messages received on 22 February 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 25 February 2002.
The story above, the Perth Regiment, 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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