Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
The Episode of the Swan
Swans couldn't fly. At least that's what I thought. Yes, I knew they had wings, but to me, their bulky bodies didn't seem to be aerodynamic-ally constructed to enable them to fly for more than a brief glide across the water. They were just big, ornamental birds that were put on earth by Nature to add a touch of elegance to ponds on the great landscaped estates of British Lords and Dukes. That morning, however, I found out that swans could indeed fly. Three of them flew over our positions and straight into a high-voltage power line. One hit a wire and broke its neck, plummeting to the ground practically at our feet. Instead of feeling sorry for the big and beautiful bird we rejoiced at the prospects of the delicious dinner that would soon be ours, providing, of course, that we didn't get the word to move on before we had a chance to roast it. We got on the ball immediately in preparation for the feast. Jim Renaud got right to work plucking and getting it ready for the roasting pan. And while Jim was hard at it, those of us who were not manning any posts went out in the neighbour-hood on a scrounge for all the items necessary in roasting fowl. We knocked on doors of every house in Chilton Foliat and came back with loaves of bread, salt, pepper, sage seasoning and margarine. And to top things off, the lady of the house in whose yard we were positioned, offered to to roast the swan in her oven.
Everything moved along as smooth as we could have wanted, when a bit of a crisis cropped up. By this time the fog had largely dissipated and we could now make out the outline of Hungerford just down the road a short ways. Nothing unusual as yet. But then we saw a small convoy of staff cars with two motorcycles leading the way moving rather slowly along the twisting road in our direction. We didn't pay any special attention to the motorcade until it was abreast of our position, and then, on seeing the pennants attached to the front fenders we knew it had to be some real 'high-priced' brass passengers in the cars, not just Colonels or Brigadiers. We jumped to attention in respect, expecting them, however, to go right on by. Not so. The motorcade stopped, though no one got out. Meanwhile Jim Renaud, sitting on a rock behind us, kept right on with his plucking, undisturbed by the momentary flurry of people around him jumping to their feet. In the rear window of the second car in the line of six olive-drab sedans a head popped out, and there was no mistaking who it was. "My God! It's the big boy himself, General Andy McNaughton!" I remember whispering it to Walt Thomas who was standing beside me. The top dog asked us what we were doing, and when one of the fellows, I can't recall who it was, told the General how the swan came to its end, and how we thought it'd be a good idea of having it for dinner instead of letting it rot in the field. I don't think McNaughton believed our story wholeheartedly, judging by the way he looked at us, but he didn't ask us any leading questions, and let us go with a mild warning; "Don't let the the game warden see what you're doing." And with that, the motorcade sped off. You could hear the collective sigh of relief as the General and his coterie of staff officers went on their way, no doubt chuckling to themselves over what they were convinced was a far-fetched story. This was one time though that we were completely innocent of any wrong-doing.
We knew it would take most of the day to roast the bird so we made arrangements with the lady of the house who so graciously used her oven to roast it, that if we moved on, somebody would be sent back that evening to pick it up. Our Company D.R. Blackie Rowe was the delegated one, and we had him identify himself to the lady so there'd be no mistake at the pickup. The Canadian Army had more than its share of scoundrels and down and out thieves that would steal from their own grandmothers or the blind, so we had good cause to be worried that one of the bastards from 16 or 17 Platoon, knowing all about the swan, would do their damnedest to pick it for themselves.
As was to be expected, we pulled out shortly after noon, and as mile after boring mile passed beneath the wheels of our 30 CWT all we could think of was the mouth-watering white and dark meat we would soon be eating. Though we'd spent most of the afternoon in the trucks, we hadn't travelled more than 20 miles&emdash;another one of those stop and go affairs that was enough to drive a guy batty. By nightfall we hadn't made contact with the enemy. And as soon as we were given permission to bed down for the night off the side of the road, Blackie Rowe took off on his Norton to pick up our dinner of roast swan. Since rations were not forthcoming, we in 18 Platoon could hardly wait to fill our hungry stomachs with the succulent meat. But as it turned out, we went to bed hungry that night. Some no-good, dirty thieving' sonofabitch had purloined our dinner. It seems that Blackie had arrived about fifteen minutes late. The lady who'd roasted the swan that someone had come to her door saying the man who had been delegated to pick it up had been hurt, and he was sent in his place. She couldn't question him on this and turned the prize over to him all wrapped up in layers of newspaper. And so, there was no roast swan dinner for us that night. Frustration, disappointment and seething anger overcame every one of us, and I'm sure had we found out who the dastardly thief was we'd have near killed him. We never did find who the culprit was.
Morning came in heavy overcast and with every sign of rain. a mass of dark gray clouds scudded across the sky so low it seemed as though all we had to do to touch them was to stand on our tip-toes and reach upwards. Not a promising day, to be sure. Within the hour, it began drizzling but it didn't bother us much. What bothered us more was what had happened to our swan. We were still seething over it.
After trudging through the drizzle for half the morning we arrived at a nondescript piece of high ground where we dug in for the night. very shortly after we lay down in our trenches for a night's sleep, the clouds above us opened up and the rain came down, not in a deluge as it had at Southampton a few nights previously, but enough that we had to cover ourselves with both the gas cape and the groundsheet. It was a losing battle to keep out the rain. It managed to seep in no matter how you wrapped the things around you.
God, but it was another one of those rough nights! Somehow though I drifted off to sleep, a sleep broken by numerous awakenings when in the course of my changing positions during the night I uncovered myself and felt the cold rain either on my face or somewhere on my person.
It seemed to take forever for morning to come. When I did wake up I was overjoyed to see clear skies overhead and the sun peeking over the low hills to the east. It's been said that the mark of a good soldier shows up when he can bounce back with zest and enthusiasm after a period of physical discomfort, sleep deprivation and all forms of morale-sapping situations. If that's so, then we were good soldiers because that's just the way we greeted the day. We were ready for whatever our officers threw at us, whether it was a long march, a boring ride, or a donnybrook with some 2nd Div. unit should we happen to bump into one. We were hoping it'd be the latter. We in 18 Platoon especially were chafing at the bit to take our frustration of the night before on anyone, whether it'd be a Canadian unit, some Yanks or Limeys, we didn't care which. Our dander was up and there was some adrenalin to burn up.
Shortly after eight that morning we boarded our 30 CWTs and had gone only a mile or so down the road when we debussed in a hell of a hurry because there was supposed to be enemy troops close by. We formed up in arrowhead formation in a grassy meadow to the left of the road just as a thick fog-bank moved in quite unexpectedly. Up ahead a short distance, probably no more than a hundred yards away was this low round-topped hill which we had seen before the fog closed in. The Fusiliers Mont-Royal, so we were told, were on top of that hill, and we could expect them to give us a bit of a hard time in taking it from them. As we went up the hill I had the same kind of feeling in the pit of my stomach that I used to get before every football game I played in high school. I knew it would go away once I got into the thick of things.
The fog was our ally. The Frenchman up on the hill couldn't see us coming, and so we were in on them before we or they even knew it. Actually, though, we caught them sleeping at their posts. There were several umpires on the scene and they declared us victors. The exercise had come to an end. Just like that, it was over. I expected to get into some kind of fist-fight melee with the Montreal boys, since there was no warm feelings existing between French-speaking troops from Quebec and English-speaking boys from Ontario. Thank God it didn't happen! I wasn't a street brawler and I doubted I could hold my own against the Frenchies, some of whom were pretty tough bastards from the backwoods of rural Quebec.
Once the exercise was declared over, both sides sat or sprawled on the grass waiting for word to move off back to their respective truck convoys. A pervading feeling of semi-hostility was present on the hill. There was no intermingling between us and them, no exchanging of cigarettes or the usual friendly troop banter. They sat off to the side and minded their own business and we did the same. I didn't feel too good about this. Hell, these guys were on our side. They were our own country-men, not the enemy. Just because we spoke different languages didn't mean we had to be hostile to each other.
Hell, we had Frenchmen in our own ranks, guys like Angel Desjardin, Walter Thomas, Eugene Charette, and there was none of the kind of bullshit I witnessed on that bald hill in Berkshire. What is it that because you don't know someone, don't know their background, don't know their feelings, that you should distrust him, feel that he's a threat to you in some way? Like some classical literary giant once said; "How can I hate that man&emdash;I don't even know him?" I guess maybe that's why we have all these wars. We don't know each other enough.
Original Story from messages received on 5 May 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 5 May 2002.
The story above, The Episode of the Swan, 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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