Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
An Unforgettable Christmas
One of the most memorable Christmases that come to mind came under the dark and fearsome conditions of war. It all began on the night of 19th/20th of December 1944 on the Adriatic side of the Northern Italian plains.
The approach of Christmas brought on no feelings of anticipation and joy, simply because we knew there wouldn't likely be any chance we'd get to celebrate the Holy Day. Instead, there had to be the grim thought sitting heavy on each of our minds the very real possibility that some of us would not be around to celebrate it after this next battle which we knew we would venture forth on in the next day or so. Some of us would be lying dead out there in the soggy fields or ditches to our front. And some would be carried out on stretchers grievously wounded. The battle lasted all that night of Dec 19/20 and well into the next day, a night in which an appallingfall of shells and mortar bombs took the lives of many of our boys, a night in which a goodly number would no longer march by our side with brisk step, laugh with us, carouse with us, live the kind of life together with us as we had been doing for so long. And then came Christmas Eve, and miraculously, enough of us were still on our feet to celebrate or at least ponder on the significance of this Holy Night. How could I or anyone else know that this Christmas Day would turn out to be a most remarkable one, one that none of us would, in the wildest stretches of our imaginations have predicted it would be enjoyed about as merrily and boisterously as any we celebrated in our childhood and in the years that came after the war. I will try to describe as accurately as possible the glad event as transpired.
Here I am just three days after the horrific day and night of hell, still alive and unhurt as I stand at an open-to-the weather upstairs window of a house a mere 60 yards from the Senio River dike, on the far side of which an entrenched enemy waited to do us lethal harm. It was a time of alertness, a time of tension. We were waiting for the counterattack we expected at any minute, at any hour, Christmas Eve or no Christmas Eve. How could an enemy such as we were facing give any thought to honouring the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace? How could he, when the harsh sounds of war kept up its unholy din in the sharp crack of artillery shells bursting in the vineyards nearby, the growling crump of mortar bombs going off in the field to our left, and constant ripping-canvas sound of enemy machine-guns answered by the slower tac-tac-tac-tac of our own Brens mean anything but cause us to pause in celebration of Christmas and the meaning therein? This Christmas Eve, as I saw it, would not be a Silent Night&emdash; would not be a Holy Night. It would be war as usual,and there would be no Star of Bethlehem shining benevolently out of the cold, starlit southern sky.
Shortly before nine when my relief came, the night turned strangely quiet&emdash;ominously quiet. Only the muted sounds of gunfire far off to the west disturbed the stillness that suddenly had descended on our sector of the front. My first thought? The enemy is getting ready to throw in an attack!" And the tension grew. And all kinds of fearful thoughts went through my mind. Was it the silence before the storm? Will I make it through the night and the battle to come? Is this the night I die? Not uplifting thoughts, for sure. I expected it wouldn't be a peaceful night on this Christmas Eve. Why should I expect it to be anything but a night of terror, another night of hell? After all, on the previous Christmas the Germans fought a no-holds-barred battle for the whole of Christmas week against our 1st Division, where they fought like vicious, cornered beasts of the jungle, killing and being killed, so why should they have a change of heart this Christmas? The action of the last few days told me that I could only expect violence, not the spirit of Christmas on this night. But as it so turned out, the hours passed quietly, and I went downstairs to my blankets spread out on the floor near the fireplace, where, as lay down my weary body on the hard floor, lingering thoughts of home kept going through my mind. Although as weary as I'd ever been, sleep did not come right away. I must have lain there for an hour before I dropped off to sleep an undisturbed sleep, the first I had in over a week.
Next morning, however, as I took a peek out the door of our fortress-like two-storey house along the via Rossetta, overlooked by the enemy positions a mere sixty yards away, and to my vast surprise I saw our boys walking about between platoon positions completely oblivious of the dangers thereabout, strolling in carefree manner as though they were promenading down the avenue on a bright Sunday morning in June. I couldn't believe my eyes. Just the day before, when I stepped outside the door a sniper shot hit the door-jamb six inches from my head. It was suicide to even stand at an open window on the side facing the enemy. Now, however, here were our fellows walking about as unconcernedly as though they were far back in some rear-area where death wasn't waiting around every corner and behind every bush or would come from missiles falling from the sky. Fear, if only a few short hours, had been set aside. The enemy who had given us such a pummelling not so many hours before, had decided, it seems, to forego the violence during the hours of Christmas, and In fact were celebrating in their own boisterous way, standing in bold view on the dike-top singing carols and in good voice, much better voice than what we could come out with&emdash; drinking wine, laughing, gesturing to our people to join them, one even riding an old swayback mare without a saddle, galloping back and forth on top the far dike while taking long swigs of wine out a slender bottle. What an uplifting feeling it was to see this all going on! A form of brotherly love?
But let me go back again to Christmas Eve and tell you what had gone on while I slept on the floor in front of the great mantelpieced fireplace; several of my platoon, now only 17 of us left out of 34 that started out into the flame-shot night of December 19, were busy preparing for our Christmas feast. Six of the boys had gone out into the dangerous darkness to round up our Christmas fare by executing the first cow they came across. They found it In a stable of a farmyard some three hundred yards to our right, slaughtered it right there with a shot to the head from a Tommy-gun, and then dragged the carcass all the way back to be cut up and made ready for the oven and the pans. It was no easy job dragging that heavy carcass back to our quarters, and so I asked the boys a simple question the next morning. "Why didn't you guys walk the cow back and kill it behind the house, it would have saved you all that back-breaking work?" Their answer, given with blank expressions, "Never thought of it."
All that night this intrepid group worked, cutting the carcass up into steaks and roasts in preparation for the cooking. The stove was the only gas stove we'd come across in Italy, and it just so happened to be of modern make, and to our great amazement and welcome surprise, the gas still flowed through the pipes and was immediately put to use. It wasn't long before the four burners were working full tilt cooking up our Christmas fare, while in the oven, two great roasts simmered in their pans. And we were lucky enough to have four 'something better than average' cooks. Although the fare was not the traditional goose or turkey, but rather, steaks and roasts as the main course, and whatever else we could round up in side dishes, made for one of the best and most appetizing Christmas feasts as we ever did enjoy. The satisfaction of it all was aided and abetted of course by the ample supply of vino rosso and vino bianco as are found in almost every farmhouse in Italy, and for a guy like myself, spare drinker that I was, there was plenty of apple cider to help wash the food down. And it just so came about that it was the first time I got a wee bit tipsy. The table was covered in expensive linen resurrected from a hidden cache of goods found buried in five-foot diameter wine-barrels in a back of the house lean-to, as were the expensive cutlery, dishes and goblets. We even had some appropriate decorations hanging from the ceiling and on the table. And there was much singing and revelry brought to the height of merriment by the effects of the wine and apple cider. And then, in the midst of our feasting, shortly after noon in came Santa Claus&emdash;not the old gent in red suit and white-tasselled tuque, but our Company Commander and his jeep driver dressed in the khaki of their battledress, bearing candies, nuts, turkey, fruit, and even quart bottles of Molson's beer for each man. Yes, it was a time for uninhibited celebration and we and the enemy across the way made the most of it.
Promptly at six in the evening of Christmas Day, a lone 25-pounder somewhere in the 17th Field Regiment gun-lines behind the Lamone River barked, and the passing of its shell overhead signalled the end of the truce. The war and the killing was about to begin once again.
Original Story from messages received on 10 August 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 12 August 2002.
The story above, An Unforgettable Christmas, 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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