For 20 years (from ages 22 to 42) I had the privilege of visiting with my grandfather and listening to him tell me the stories of his experiences in WWI with the Fort Garry Horse. There never was a time when he shared his experiences that I didn’t feel a welling up of tears in gratitude for his sacrifice, and probably more amazing to me, his attitude. The stories never got bigger or better with each retelling. He felt compassion his enemy just as much as he loved his family.
Shortly after he passed away in 1989 my relationship with my father developed. My father served in WWII with the 2nd Brigade in Italy and with other units of the Allies at various times.
I never knew my dad when I was growing up and had no real appreciation for him as a person. Soon after grandpa died my dad and I began talking and invariably the conversations would veer to his experiences in the war(usually at my insistence).
What amazed me was the similarity of attitudes these men shared, in spite of seeing some of the most gory and horrific sights that anyone can be forced to view. Neither of them was bitter. Neither of them hated the enemy. Yet one can’t help but speculate on how the experiences of those wars forever altered their lives, for better or for worse. My emotions run high every time I listen to my dad tell of his experiences, just as they did with my grandfather. I honour these men and am so grateful to call them dad and grandpa and to forever have their stories to pass on to my posterity.
Just one bullet, or one piece of shrapnel in the right spot would have prevented this story from ever being told by me. It is with great honour that I share with you one of the stories that my father has recorded. I trust that you will forgive the length and find value in it.
AS I REMEMBER ORTONA –
(As I saw it in the OP with Captain Don Watson M.C. 77 Bty. 3rd Fid. Reg’t R.C.A.)
The 2nd Brigade was designated to make the attack with the Eddies leading up the gully with Pats covering the left flank and the Seaforths on the right flank under a creeping artillery barrage. Captain Watson, Gunner Masding, and myself accompanied the officer leading the Seaforths. I was carrying an “18 set” for communications with the guns.
We received little or no counter fire as we walked up the slope, under the shells as they laddered up, but suddenly, we found we were advancing too quickly, and we were caught in our own shells and two or three of the infantry went down. Captain Watson yelled, “STOP”, and I passed the order to the guns. Everything came to a halt.
Medical aid seemed to appear out of nowhere for the injured, and no further rounds were forthcoming. The officers quickly decided that “Up 200, Fire” would correct the situation. I passed the order, and everything resumed as before with little time being lost. I might add that with all the firing that had transpired from our previous barrage, we could practically step from one shallow hole to the next, made by our twenty-five pounders, all the way up the draw.
As the infantry were securing the south and west edge of town, we were told to follow the trail back along the outskirts of town and go to the Church of Santa Maria de Constantinople where “C” Company’s headquarters was being established. We were unable to give covering fire to the infantry due to the density of the stone buildings. We knew they were in very close and changing proximity to the enemy, sometimes occupying different rooms and floors in the same building, but we were kept well informed by means of sitreps.
Things started to liven up as Gerry obviously knew where HQ was located and he started raining down mortars and Moaning Minnies (nebblewerfers) on the area. By this time it had become dark, and Capt. Watson asked if Masding and I would go back to the outskirts of town and locate our Bren gun carrier which Obie was bringing forward with our equipment, and guide it to the church. After finally locating the carrier, Obie said that he could not see the trail and it would not be safe to try to move it as he might drive over the bank. I finally took two sheets of white paper, one in each hand and held them over my head, and he said he could see them if I stayed about ten feet in front of the Carrier while I backed up, making sure of not running over me. About one hundred yards along the trail, we were bracketed by several rounds of shellfire, really putting the wind upon us.
We felt somewhat secure knowing that we could not be observed. I knelt down in front of the Carrier for about five minutes. No more rounds fell. We decided that it was “a shot in the dark”, and we proceeded to the church and parked near the big iron gates of the surrounding stonewall.
The next day the courtyard was coming under considerably accurate mortar and Moaning Minnie fire, and also the vehicle parking area was taking quite a beating. After observing the area in the daytime, I could see the top section of a small tower about a block and a half northeast of our location. After informing my Captain, he decided we would go down the street, take a peek around the comer and see what it was all about. There stood a small tower uninhibited by any other buildings – a perfect OP for the Gerries. We quickly returned to the church where the Captain contacted the infantry and obtained an infantry Captain, a six-pounder anti-tank gun, and a crew who manhandled the gun over considerable debris and parked just short of the corner.
Capt. Watson was in seventh heaven. He informed the gun crew that they were to load the gun, push it around the comer, fire using open sights, pull the gun back, reload and carry out the same procedure until he told them to stop. I believe they carried out this operation about five or six times, thereafter the tower was no longer habitable. It was a rather exhilarating experience. However, since the enemy had already registered the coordinates for our location at the church, we continued to come under considerable fire at various time, although apparently unobserved, and movement became a little more secure.
Christmas day, Major Woolliams (Battery Commander) came forward to the church to familiarize himself with the situation. He parked his scout car outside near our carrier and, if I recall correctly, his operator was Howie Love, however I may be mistaken. Anyway, we had eaten some cold rations for breakfast and had been informed that a Christmas dinner would be served later on but we were unsure as to the time.
The Major asked me if I would go out to his scout car and get him something he could eat as he had not had any breakfast. The rations were in a 4.2 mortar box that was mounted on the front of the vehicle. I had no sooner gone through the gate than a barrage of mortar and Moaning Minnie fire landed throughout the area and I was temporarily incapacitated by the blast from a Minnie. The Minnies were designed to damage by blast more than with shrapnel and I can testify to that. After lying there for what seemed like two or three minutes and gathering my thoughts, I realized that the mortaring had stopped. I proceeded to the scout car and opened the punctured mortar box and found that nearly everything in the box had been damaged by shrapnel except for a can of tomatoes that I quickly rescued and took to the Major. He immediately opened the can and consumed the contents.
The Seaforth supply officer and his staff created a table in the shape of a large square and covered it with white sheets for a tablecloth. They then set the table for about forty to fifty men who would be seated around the perimeter of the table. We sat in the ?¢‚Ç¨?ìfirst sitting?¢‚Ç¨¬ù about noon with “C” company and it was a fabulous affair.
There was a pump organ, and someone would pump it while the Padre led the service. Carols were sung, wine and beer were served, and a delicious meal of roast pork with all the trimmings was placed before each man, served by the Officers to the men, in regular military tradition. It was almost as if there wasn’t a war going on, except for the occasional explosive sound of mortars and shellfire… which reminded us.
Everyone seemed to really relax and enjoy themselves for two hours and then it was their turn to relieve their comrades in the firing line so that they could also come to the church for their Christmas treat and a two-hour respite. All this was taking place with some fighting, mostly mouse-holing, going on within about three hundred yards of the church. The meal was repeated four times and then it was night and back to the business of war as usual.
On the afternoon of December 26th, our OP crew was ordered to go forward to the main town square and occupy a floor of the hotel located on the north side of the square from which we would be able to observe the large tombstones in the cemetery behind which the enemy was reported to be digging in. Capt. Watson, having gone ahead with the infantry to reconnoiter the situation requested our presence but we were told not to bring the Carrier due to heavy debris blocking the narrow streets. We were warned that heavy sniper fire might be encountered so we should move quickly using whatever cover we could find. I carried the “18 set” on my back as we ran, zigzagging from doorway to doorway down the narrow street. Suddenly, a man carrying a movie camera stepped out from a doorway just in front of us and asked “if we would mind” going back a ways and rerun the street so that he could get it on film. He said he was a reporter from Western Canada and would like to send the pictures home with our names. I guarantee you the term “rude” would hardly cover our quick response, and we rapidly resumed our journey.
As we approached the edge of the square we passed one of our destroyed Sherman tanks that had been brought to a stand still by a large mound of stone rubble and knocked out by antitank fire. We could see the hotel and its large glass doors (still intact) across the street and decided that our best bet was to dash quickly across the square and get out of sight. It was apparent that this area could be a sniper’s delight When we opened the doors we found the body of an elderly white haired lady who had been shot between the eyes, obviously by a sniper.
A flight of stairs led to the main area on the second floor and we continued on up to the third floor where we met Capt Watson. We then proceeded up to the fourth floor to a room on the north side from which we could observe the cemetery, a considerable distance away. We studied the area with our field glasses but were unable to detect any sign or movement of the enemy. Later in the afternoon our Capt. was informed that the street we had traveled down was now cleared enough that we could bring the carrier to the hotel (thanks to our remarkable Engineers). Masding and I were asked to return to the church and bring Obie and the carrier forward. As we went down stairs to the doorway, we met an obviously young Lieutenant standing there, looking out the doors. He looked kind of dumbfounded and gave us the impression that he was not sure of what was going on. We informed him that we were in a possible sniper area and standing there might be a bit dangerous, however he nodded and proceeded on the run. Our return trip to the hotel was uneventful and we parked the carrier next to the open hotel doors and about three feet from the wall in order to give us cover whenever we unloaded it. We again entered the hotel and there on the floor near the old lady, was the lieutenant with a hole in his forehead. (Some days were definitely worse than others!) Early on the 28th we were informed that Gerry had withdrawn and Ortona was ours… It was a terrible price to pay, but victory was ours.
Originally posted by Larry Bates.