Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
When Not on Parade or Training
If you were the type like I was, a fellow that didn't care to spend his evenings sopping beer at the Queen's, or for that matter in any other pub in town, then about the only other pleasureable pursuits available were the cinemas, of which there were three in downtown Aldershot the Ritz, Empire, and one on Union Street. The latter, for some unknown reason I never did go in to see a movie. About a quarter mile down from the Ritz and Empire Cinemas where the High Street makes a sharp curve southwards was the Manor Park Pavilion, named after the park across the road. And believe it or not, in supposedly 'staid' old England there was also a burlesque theatre, the Hippodrome where the girls stripped right down to the bare. I took in only one show, simply because it wasn't anything like what I had expected and looked for. The girls didn't do any strip-tease like the feature girls did at the National and Gaiety Burlesques in Detroit, leading the largely male audience from 18 to 80 gradually up to a peak of lustful anticipation. Nor was there a raunchy, baggy-pants comedian like Scurvy Miller to add a few laughs with his lewd jokes and antics. Here at the Hippodrome all you saw was this stage full of G-stringed ladies with ample bosoms standing in fixed pose, with not a ripple of movement to stir the imagination. Then the lights would go off for a few seconds and come on again. "Voila!" the ladies had all changed poses. It didn't stir the libido in me one iota. The naked ladies looked like statues in a park.
Another way for clean-cut, well-behaved guys like myself to fill in the idle evening hours was to visit one or more of the many canteens known as 'dry canteens' scattered throughout the many barracks blocks abounding in the town. The 'wet canteens' served beer and ale.' In my case, I could only drink so many cups of tea and eat only so many cakes or tarts, so the other alternative was to stroll the streets of downtown Aldershot in hopes of striking up an acquaintance with some accommodating local lass I might be lucky enough to run into. Success was highly unlikely, however, since there wasn't very many of this gender to go around. With something like more than 50,000 virile specimens of Canadian manhood, all with the same thought in mind to compete against, most of them much better looking than me, my chances, if any, were mighty slim indeed. A handsome devil with the stature to match might have a chance. Not so, me. There were quite a few A.T.S.(Auxiliary Territorial Service) stationed in and around the town, but I hadn't seen one that would arouse the sleeping giant within me. Some of them were real 'dogs', with nothing feminine about them at all. They carried on more like some of our rougher male types than the women they were supposed to be. A guy would have to be pretty damn hard up to spend time in the sack with the likes I'd seen walking the street in khaki skirts and low-heeled shoes.
Almost every day right after the evening meal I'd kill some time and get some 'kicks' out on the square alongside Wellington Avenue twirling my home-made baton. All it was was a three and a half foot long broomstick with rubber balls attached at each end. I picked up the talent all by myself (no instructor help) back when I was about 14, and after much trying of this move and trying of that technique, spinning it through my fingers and then over my wrists to improve my technique I developed a routine that brought me a lot of looked-for attention. And which young man didn't like a lot of attention especially when saddled all too often with thoughts of home? I got to be pretty damn good at it, too, if I do say so myself. Yeah, and how I loved showing off my new-found talent! I'd go through all my moves, some I hadn't seen even the best drum-majors or twirlers in bands do. In a matter of only a few minutes I'd invariably draw a gallery of onlookers. Most of the windows at the back of Salamanca Barracks where I was bunked in the first two weeks after arrival, were occupied by spectators. Along Hospital Hill Road and Wellington Street, troops and civilians strolling by would stop to watch me. And I soaked it all in, literally lapped it up. It was 'seventh heaven' for me. And as the audience grew, I'd go into more daring moves, passing the baton behind my back, through my legs, over my shoulders and throwing it high in the air and catching it behind my back. I did them all. I even did my favourite, one I thought up myself and perfected. I'd spin the baton in front of me and then flick it off to the side(my left) where it would hit the asphalt on one end and bounce right back into my right hand, when I'd commence spinning it over my wrists and through my fingers. Quite a trick! I've never seen anybody else do it. Without a doubt, twirling the baton was the best medicine I could have had to ease the gnawing chronic pain of homesickness to the point that I no longer suffered from it as I had in that first week and a half or more after landing in England. I knew very well I was 'showing off', but what the heck, it made me feel so good I didn't have time to dwell on how far away I was from home and friends. I finally lost the baton somewhere in Italy when some no-good bastard must have taken it out of my kit-bag and used it for kindling. But before it disappeared, I put on my little show in a couple of towns we were billeted in for a short while, and the Italians were simply awed at what I could do with a stick. More often than not I they referred to me as a 'specialiste'. Again, balm for the weary of heart.
As the weeks went by, our training tempo speeded up to the point where we went on platoon level night schemes. Most of the time we spent working on patrolling techniques. I doubt that we learned a hell of a lot from it. No sooner would we go out into the night in the training area across the Farnborough Road when by ones, twos and even sections we became separated and hopelessly lost. No one seemed to know what we were supposed to do, or where we were in relation to where we started out from. It's what we all came to know as a SNAFU, the acronym for SITUATION NORMAL-ALL FUCKED UP. It wasn't the first time things would get fucked up good and proper, and by no means would it be the last. It happened more times than enough, both in England and later in Italy.
Although we didn't learn all that much from these night excursions, we didn't seem to mind going out on them at all. I, for one, enjoyed going out on these patrols at night. It gave me something to do, especially when I was broke. It provided a bit of excitement, especially when we got to throw thunderflashes around with reckless abandon, and lastly because we were able to sleep in next morning and were given the rest of the morning off. To me it was great fun to go sneaking along drainage ditches stalking another platoon and then surprising them with a hail of loud-banging thunder-flashes. It sure was easy to be brave when you know the other side can only blast away at you with blanks.
One night while we were out practising patrolling, our section got lost temporarily and we found ourselves wandering in amongst a bunch of Nissen huts. It was near midnight by this time, time to find our way back to the Wellington monument and join up with the rest of the platoon for the march back to barracks. Inside the huts we knew there were men sound asleep, and with a couple of thunderflashes left over from our stock, someone got the bright idea to toss one inside. We could just imagine what it would do, and the thought of it was enough to make us chuckle with fiendish delight. I opened the door quietly, and the guy with the outsize firecracker tossed it in and away we went into the darkness giggling over our prank. Well sir, when she went off with the ear-splitting bang thunderflashes were noted for, it had to have scared the livin' shit out of the snorting and farting sleepers. I could just imagine the bedlam it caused. I've got to believe that more than few of the guys in that hut are either collecting DVA pensions for impaired hearing or else ended up shortly after the incident in the Basingstoke Neurological Hospital for mental breakdown.
On looking back at field training as applied at Aldershot, I'd have to say there was far too little of it. Our officers and NCOs didn't seem to be overly concerned about whether we were getting enough or not. In fact most of them appeared to be altogether too lax in their efforts to prepare us for what was to eventually come, and as was to be expected, we indeed were ill-prepared for it. It's likely they felt we'd be getting enough of that in the field unit we'd be assigned to, so all they did was keep us occupied and in good physical shape.
In that summer of 1943 huge bomber fleets were making almost daily 'around the clock' raids on strategic targets in Germany and Occupied Europe. Bomber Command, which, along with British squadrons, included Canadian squadrons as well as Canadian aircrew attached to British and other Commonwealth crewed planes, bombed almost exclusively at night, while the American Eighth Army Air Force squadrons bombed in daylight. What an awe-inspiring sight it was to look up into the night sky over Aldershot and see our bombers forming up for the long haul to their target for the night. With double daylight summer hours in effect, there was still enough light even close to midnight for us to see them quite clearly. Normally, it's next to impossible to pick out an airplane at night even when it's not at maximum altitude. But these we could see because of the residual light and the glint of sun off the fuselages. Wherever I happened to be at the time, whether out with the company on some night time scheme or just standing on the balcony of our barracks I'd look up in awe as the bomber stream droned on towards their mission target and the fate that might await the crews encased within the aluminum air-frame. I visualized the crews at their posts, many of them my age or a little older, but not by much. I wondered what was going through their minds knowing of the likelihood they might not be coming back. Since I hadn't yet been put in that kind of situation, I couldn't begin to know just what it would feel like going into battle and possible death, and that there was no way you could back out of it. My time would come for me to know the feeling one day, and like those airmen I'd have time to think and dwell on the fate that might be awaiting me somewhere across an open field or in some drainage ditch, along some shell-pocked road or in some battered, open-to-the-weather farmhouse.
Getting back to the NAAFI again. Besides rock cakes, tarts, Cadbury and Mars chocolate bars and tea sold by this organization for the benefit of service personnel was a concoction the NAAFI had the nerve to call lemonade. It was deep orangish-yellow looking more like rich piss than something you drink on a hot summer's day. In fact, a lot of guys called it 'panther piss'. Like most of the fellows, I called it something a little more respectable-jungle juice. Though it tasted only faintly of lemonade, we managed somehow to get used to it, and in fact I got to like it after a while. I guess a guy can get used to almost anything.
Came finally the day when the company marched out to the grenade range, located in a wide tract of scrubland a mile or so outside of town, near Farnborough, a barren spread of open ground known as Rushmoor Common. On looking back and knowing what I know now, I never cease to be amazed at how backward our training facilities were in regards to preparing us for battle. At Rushmoor Common we were introduced to a replica of a trench system like that as zig-zagged across the face of Belgium and France in that war that was supposed to end all wars. There it was right in front of us; a trench with saps and sand-bagged parapets just like the ones at Ypres and the Somme. It's a hard to believe that the 'Brains Trust' running the show on our side acted as though they were blind to what had gone on in France when the Germans unleashed their blitzkrieg armoured divisions to run roughshod over the Belgians, smashed the French armies and drove the back-peddling British Expeditionary Force all the way back to Dunkirk and eventual evacuation, or at least a better part of it. It seems they could not see that this war would be one of movement, not like the first war degenerated into&emdash;a war of stagnation, mud and misery indescribable. There would be no Ypres Salients&emdash;no Sommes&emdash;no Verduns. This was going to be a war of mobility. Yet here we were, about to get another lesson in trench warfare, circa 1916.
So here we were, a hundred and fifty young men standing by the lip of a trench of that war, ready to see how good we were in lobbing a grenade at an imagined attacker. From the very first lecture back at Ipperwash when we threw dud grenades I wondered why in hell we had to lob them cricket style, stiff-armed and straight over our head. We grew up playing softball and baseball, so why didn't we pitch grenades the only way we knew how? I asked one of the Corporal instructors at Ipperwash why we had to do it the British way. His answer, though I doubted its efficacy, was because the weight of the grenade would play hell with our shoulder and arm muscles. Horse shit! I threw a couple like I threw baseballs and found I'd thrown just as far and my aim just as true. And I didn't feel any strain after throwing north American style. The Yanks had the same kind of grenade as our #36 grenade, so, I thought, how come they threw it like they threw baseballs? As far as I could see, we were tied too much to British Army training methods and battle concept.
As the instructor pointed out, the most important thing we had to remember when preparing to throw a grenade was to hold it with palm down, safety-pin ring up. In this way, when the ring is pulled, there's little chance of jerking the grenade accidentally out of your hand and having it fall at your feet and go off, killing you and others around you. Apparently there'd been more than a few cases where this happened.
Five men at a time went down into the throwing trench, while the rest of the company took cover in a long trench nearby. I was in the first group, and the Sergeant-Major instructor handed each of us a #36 grenade(no duds this time), and went through a last minute check to make sure we understood what he was talking about. After throwing the grenade, we were supposed to watch where it landed and then duck down before the grenade went off. This was what I liked and I got a big lift out of it. Each of us in turn threw a grenade and did exactly what the CSM said to do. And then when it was the last guy's turn to pitch his out he began trembling, looking down at the grenade in his hand with fear in his eye, as though it was something that was going to snap at him. "Jeezus!" I said to myself, "I hope the sonofabitch doesn't drop it after pulling the pin or we're gonners!" Thank God the Sergeant Major grabbed it out of his hand before he could do anything wrong. I don't how how we'd have gotten out of that trench fast enough. At least one of us would have been plastered all over the walls of that trench, and it would likely have been me because I was the farthest from the steps leading to safety. I felt sorry for the old boy, and that's just about what he was. He must have been at least in his late thirties. I knew right then and there he'd be reassigned to a non-combat Corps of the army. It might have been his saving grace. He just wasn't cut out for the hard role of an infantryman.
After the stint of grenade-throwing we moved over to another part of the range where a stern-faced Sergeant-Major Randerson, who must have been a specialist in grenades, showed us a weapon none of us had ever seen or heard of. It was the #74 grenade known as the 'sticky bomb'. It was wrongfully designated as a grenade because it wasn't a grenade at all. It wasn't thrown. It was applied forcefully on the side of a tank to knock it out. It was about the size of a grapefruit or softball, with a six inch handle. It was a rather complex piece of weaponry, and the dangers therein in its handling was thereason the army turned it down. Too many men got hurt or killed playing around with it. Less than an hour later I was to learn in frightening manner exactly why the army relegated it to the scrap heap. But first, a little more description of this horrible beast.
The bomb consisted of a spherical glass flask filled to capacity with nitroglycerine, to which was attached a bakelite plastic handle inside of which was the striker and fuze mechanism. The glass flask was covered in a towel-like material saturated with with viscous adhesive, and enclosing this was was a cover made of two thin steel hemispheres spring-loaded to fly apart when a catch was released. The reason for the cover was obvious. It was designed to keep the bomb from sticking to all and sundry as well as to protect from being broken in shipment. And it sure did stick to everything, especially to the trousers of those about to apply to a target.
Now, the way this bomb or grenade was to be used in battle, called for an incredibly brave man. According to the book , this intrepid soul was to dart from cover(probably under heavy fire), rush up to the enemy tank hoping the gunner inside wouldn't spot him, remove the safety-pin as he approached the tank, flip the catch releasing the hemispheres, then slam the gooey flask against the tank. He had five seconds to dive back to cover before the big blast came. And the big blast was indeed a big blast, capable of destroying or stopping the big tanks then in use. I doubt seriously though it would have knocked out the later German behemoths, the mobile land fortresses, the Panther and Tiger tanks.
We listened attentively and watched closely as the Sgt. Major went through the motions of arming the bomb and demonstrating how it should be slammed against the tank hard enough to crush the side of the bomb impinged against the tank hull. This was very important, since, as it was pointed out, the explosion's main force goes to the side that has been crushed. Simply sticking it to the hull of a tank will have no effect on the tank expect to possibly startle for a moment the German crew inside. He then called for three volunteers to go with him and the Sergeant to a derelict tank hull some two hundred yards away on which we volunteers would have a crack at trying out the weapon. Without hesitation I stepped forward along with two others. I guess I was trying to prove something, either to myself or to the rest of the company that I had the makings of a hero. And then off we went across the weed and scrub-covered ground to the derelict tank hull. I was disappointed somewhat to see how little of the hull remained. All that was left of it after numerous demonstrations of this anti-tank weapon was the bottom portion of the hull and the front drive sprockets. Most of the rest of the tank lay scattered about in varied-size pieces from a couple of inches to as much as two feet long, curled and twisted hunks of armour plating. Off to one side were two trenches side by side about ten yards away from the hull. One was for the instructors and the other for us heroic types. And now would come the moment of truth.
After a final bit of instruction to make sure we remembered what we had been told earlier, the Sergeant Major thrust a bomb forward for one of us to grab. I reached out, wanting to be the first, but was beaten to the draw. The five of us stood by the hull as the first man prepared the bomb and then swung his arm and smashed the bomb against the hull. We took off to our respective trenches where we cupped our hands to our ears and opened our mouths wide open. The open mouth was to lessen the effect of the blast. And what a bang it was! Humongous! Like the crack of doom. I'd never heard anything so loud, not even the worst thunder storm could have sounded so loud. Simultaneously with the incredible blast came the scream of what had to be a fair-size hunk of steel blown off the hull. It passed right over our trench not more than a foot above. All of a frightening sudden I wasn't so anxious to make myself out to be a hero. But there was no way out of it now.
I was so shook up I didn't even feel like getting out of the trench. The Sergeant Major's voice, however, convinced me I had a job to do. He didn't even give me time to collect my wits, to settle my nerves, but thrust a bomb into my hand and say, "Okay, it's your turn now, son, let's get it done right." Quite reluctantly I took the bomb from him. I tried hard to look nonchalant about it, but I had a feeling I was doing a lousy job of looking calm and collected. Inside, my guts had turned to jelly. First, I flipped off the hemispheres. No trouble here. Then as I started bringing my arm back to give a good swing, the adhesive coated coated globe got stuck to my trousers. I jerked it away in rising panic, only to have it stick in another place. I pulled it away a second time and swung, but it was a feeble sort of motion as I applied the bomb close by the sprocket. I knew as I set sail for the trench that I hadn't crushed the globe against the hull as I was supposed to. But I didn't care. I practically dove into the trench where I awaited the clap of thunder. Five seconds go by but there's no blast. Ten seconds...no blast. Another ten seconds. . .no blast. "What the hell's gone wrong" I say to myself. Then as I peer over the lip of the trench along with the other two guys I see the Sergeant Major and the Sergeant striding up to the hull and the SM is not only running off at the mouth, he's crimson in the face. Man, was he ever mad!
I climbed out and in a thoroughly subdued manner walked up to the hull where the SM had already pulled off the bomb that failed to explode. Though the bomb didn't explode, I thought for sure the SM would. He ranted and raved at me while I hung my head in abject shame. What did I do wrong? I wondered. Was it my fault or was it a faulty fuze? The way the two senior NCOs acted, it was my fault that could have caused their death if it had exploded as they removed it. The only thing, I reasoned, as to why the thing had failed to blow was the fact that after I pulled the sticky-bomb off my trousers the second time I must have relaxed my hold on the firing-pin lever so that when I let go, the already expanded spring didn't drive the firing-pin forward with enough force to ignite the fuze. And so, I came away from this show of bravado with the first doubts about my having what it takes to be a hero.
Original Story from messages received on 21 February 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 23 February 2002.
The story above, When Not on Parade or Training, 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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