Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
It was about ten minutes to midnight on October 25,1943, while the good citizens of Eastbourne, and the military personnel in the city were sound asleep, we were shouldering our packs, hooking on haversacks and other impedimenta, getting ready for the march to the train station&emdash;our destination, we all assumed, and were correct in the assumption, was Liverpool. Half an hour later we lumbered off through the blacked-out streets of the slumbering city. Besides what we wore and had attached to our bodies, each of us carried two bulky kit-bags, all of which made our three or four block march to the station one hell of a labouring thing. Beasts of burden , that's just about what we were.
As this was supposed to be a top-secret move, we'd been forewarned to move as silently as possible so as not to alert enemy agents that might likely be in the area. There'd be no talking above whispers, and no smoking allowed. It seemed our people in charge expected us to more or less tip-toe to the station. Fine and dandy, but impossible. What should have been a march of ghosts became instead a stampede of frightened elephants. Maybe not quite that bad, but not far from it. If the people behind those blackout blinds failed to hear us going by then they either were stone deaf or extremely sound sleepers. This silent column quickly deteriorated into a gabble of voices, the decibels of which rose what sounded more like a noisy and impatient crowd waiting to get in to Maple Leaf Gardens on a Hockey Night in Canada playoff game.
The sun was up as our train rolled slowly into the Liverpool dockyard, where, not six months before, boarded a train for the long ride south to Aldershot after arriving from Canada that morning on the troop-ship 'Andes'. Now, here we were in the yards again, ready to board ship for the trip west, not back to Canada, but just across the Irish Sea to Ireland. Or so we thought.
As we stepped down from the train, the first thing that caught my eye was a white-hulled hospital ship with a huge red cross painted on its hull amidships. Next to it was the John Ericsson trooper that was to take us to wherever we were going. The hospital ship had just come in with a passenger list of repatriated , wounded British P.O.W.s, most of them having been in prisoner of war camps since Dunkirk. A Pipe Band and a Brass Band on the dock welcomed them home, each alternating with stirring pieces, the Brass with 'The Campbells Are Coming' and the Pipes with 'Scotland the Brave'. As we filed our way towards the Ericsson, we couldn't help but notice how haggard of troops were as they made their way down the gangplank to the waiting dignitaries on the dock below. Though the thinness of their faces and the sunken look of their eyes was grim testimony to what they had gone through in their years of incarceration behind barbed-wire, most of them had wide smiles on their faces as they trooped down the gangplank. Some were minus an arm. Some had a leg missing, their steps more deliberate and slower. Nonetheless, it was a happy moment for them as they were about to plant their one foot back on home soil again. We hesitated in our walk to the Ericsson's gangplank to watch the repatriates file their way off the hospital ship, a scene of pathos, of men returning home from the war, their bodies broken, some with their minds deeply scarred, some on crutches, a few being led because they were blind, and some being carried off on stretchers. What price glory? Their war had come to an end. Ours was just beginning.
The John Ericsson was an American registered troopship, formerly the Swedish Line passenger liner, the Kungsholm of 16,777 tons displacement She wasn't in the class of the British Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth both of whom displaced over 80,000 tons&emdash;a vast difference. She was more in the class of the Andes, the ship I'd come over on to England. But there was no comparison with where it came to comfort and food. The Ericsson had the Andes beat all to hell. Everything about the American ship was superior to what we'd had to put up with on the Andes. Instead of hammocks or the bare steel floor to sleep on as we had to on the Andes, we had three-tiered spring-mounted canvas bunks. Not the best, by far, but certainly softer than that cold, painted steel floor. A man could actually get a night of unbroken sleep on them.
As for the food served on the John Ericsson, our minds literally boggled at the sight of our first meal. I couldn't believe it when I saw what the servers at the cafeteria-style mess dropped in our mess-tins&emdash;spaghetti and meat balls topped with steaming tomato sauce. And that wasn't all. In the other mess tin went fruit cocktail and a square of sponge cake. And to top it all off, they poured coffee into our porcelained cups&emdash;not bland tea like we'd been drinking in England. The English might love their tea, but we North American natives preferred coffee. The very aroma of the coffee was enough to send us into raptures. This was our first decent meal since we left the shores of Canada; except, of course, what we partook of in the Lyons restaurant the past couple of weeks.
Breakfast proved to be another pleasant surprise&emdash;scrambled eggs, three links of pork sausage done up brown, and four strips of crisp-fried bacon and hash brown potatoes. "Will wonders never cease?" I remember saying to the guy behind me. And then on the next evening as we were well out into the Atlantic, which, by this time we knew Ireland was not to be our destination, we were served steak and a baked potato with mixed vegetables on the side and a glass of real milk, not the powdered variety like we'd been drinking all along. For dessert came a big dollop of vanilla ice cream and a bottle of Coke. Now, this was living! It was like we'd never left home. The Yanks sure knew how to feed their troops!
Some time early on the morning of 27th of October, tugs working as a team, pulled and pushed the ship away from dock and out into the mouth of the Mersey. We were on our way. "Ireland, here we come!" Or so we'd been told it was Ireland. It wouldn't take us long to realize that we weren't Ireland bound. By the time I got out on deck after breakfast to see what was going on, we were well away from Liverpool and following in the wake of another trooper. Eventually, after being joined in convoy by ships steaming south from the mouth of the Clyde, 24 ships had formed up in three columns. Of the 24 ships, nine were troop transports, The John Ericsson, Monterey, Edmund B. Alexander, Marnix Van Ste. Aldegonde, Santa Elena, Thurston, Argentina, James T. Parker, and the Sloterdijk. The others were fast freighters with a complement of destroyer escorts to shepherd Convoy KMF-25 as it was code-named, to its destination, wherever that might be.
After steaming along through the choppy seas, first in a westerly direction through Liverpool Bay, till it cleared Holyhead Island at the western reaches of North Wales where it turned due south, we knew for sure now that Ireland would not be our port of debarkation. The two ports where we would have had to dock at, had we in fact been going to Ireland, were either Londonderry or Belfast. But they were far to the north, in the opposite direction to which we were travelling. By next morning, with no sight of Ireland on the horizon, it confirmed our suspicions. With the convoy ploughing ahead on a southerly route, the consensus of opinion as to our destination, was that we were on our way to the Mediterranean, most likely Italy. Some, however, said we'd be landing in North Africa, and a few of the crepe hangers had us on our way around Africa's Cape of Good Hope to Burma. (God forbid!)
Original Story from messages received on 23 June 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 24 June 2002.
The story above, Operation Timberwolf, 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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