“Two chapters from ‘A Life of His Own‘,
the memoirs of Noel Ryan (D-145952), in progress”.
March to May 1945
The Black Watch (RHR) of Canada
We left the draft camp late in the afternoon, just me and the driver roaming the country side looking for the RHR. Riding in the cab was something new, there was even a heater of sorts. This consisted of a small door which when open, allowed some heat in from the engine which was mounted back from the front of the truck, between the two seats. We also got some assorted smells and a lot more noise. Better than nought, I suppose. The driver was really off track and at one point, we crossed a wide river on a pontoon bridge. There used to be a small city on the other side but now all that was left was a single church tower, the rest of the town was flat. I used to think it was Cologne but I was wrong. It may well have been the Maas river but from my map, I cannot identify the town or city we entered. Funny, at the crossing , there was no one around on either side. We turned around and went back over the bridge following a different route and just as it was getting dark, made it into the camp, where ever that was.
I bunked somewhere for the night and next day I was interviewed for the regiment, name, rank and number, identifying parts of you in case you weren’t all there at some point, hand in your pay book and assigned to C Company and later to the third platoon, section three, I think. Finally, handing in my large pack and the infamous gas mask which would never see the light of day unless the Huns were observed to sport them in their little metal cannisters, which was never. In return, I received my balmoral head dress with the famous blood-red Hackle feather fastened into the head band on the right. Also received were our regimental and 2nd division patches which we soon set to sewing on. We had brought our steel helmets with us from Canada. I met up with the lads in one room of a house. No furniture, bare floor. Cold nights.
Fortunately, we had a makeshift heater. Let me see if I can describe it so it makes sense. First off, you needed a friend in the motor pool, for used engine oil and empty gas cans, and someone in the artificers bunch for tools etc. Everything was set up and working when I arrived so I was not a party to the stove’s manufacture, but here’s what looked it like and how it functioned. You need to know that the gas cans were much like the litre cans that now hold turpentine except that they were a cube somewhere around fifteen inches on a side and held five gallons. This is a far cry from the beautiful and functional gas cans used by the Germans and by our side too when we could get our hands on them. Logically, these were called Jerry Cans. For all their class however, you couldn’t make a stove with them.
It took two cans to make a stove. The bottom one was the fire chamber and the upper the heat chamber. They were anchored together somehow with a large hole between them to let the heat and smoke go into the one on the top, amd then into some sort of chimney and out the window. There was also a tin cylinder to hold the motor oil, hanging on to something. This had a piece of copper tubing soldered to the bottom with a petcock to adjust the flow of oil down the tube and into the fire chamber. The tube would go in through the side of the bottom can and make a little circle around the middle, ending up pointing downwards about four inches from the bottom in the middle. Finished.
To get the stove going, you first had to build a small fire in the lower chamber, using twigs or newspaper which would heat the copper coil. This would pre-heat the oil in the coil and allow the heavy oil to flow easily.
The petcock was then adjusted to a regular drip into the fire where it ignited and sustained a flame. There were other embellishments not really relevant at this time but you have the general idea of the stove I found in operation in the room to which I was assigned. There were seven of us I think able to stretch out on the floor. I think at that time, we must have had our usual three blankets, one below and two on top. We slept in our skivvies of course. Before we went into action, there was an event which, I wont blame you if you find it unbelievable.
On one of the days, the Padre made his rounds and handed out a small bible to each of us. This was about two and a half by four and a half inches and one inch thick. Just the thing I immediately thought, to keep in my left breast pocket over my heart and stop any bullet that had my name on it.
There were a few others who put it to a different use. There were most of our lot in the room and a couple of friends from another platoon, all having received the bibles that afternoon. Somebody said, “The Bible is supposed to foretell all the major events”. “Yeah”, another said, “let’s see if we can find out when the war will end”. And we were off. Now, being a Catholic and all, I had not much of a knowledge of the Bible, however, the other good Christians had some ideas about how this important information might be found. I remember “Revelations” and “Deuteronomy” being a couple of the sections that were searched. There were about three who were conversant with the workings of the codes and soon they were deep into calculating things like “a day means a year”, and deciphering various names into Hitler and various nations. I remember someone figuring America to be the daughter of somebody or other. We easily spent two or more hours sorting things out. And sort them out we did.
The deliberations, I hesitate to use the word “our” as I had nothing to contribute, concluded, that the war in Europe would end on the seventh day of the fifth month of the fifth year. The war in the Pacific was foretold to end in the eighth month of the same year. I do not remember the date except that it was late in the month.
The fighting in Europe stopped on May fifth and the surrender was signed on the seventh. A very accurate prophecy don’t you think? I was there. Believe It or Not.
Another day or two and we were issued ammunition, hustled into trucks and headed North. The ammunition issued was a full magazine of ten rounds for our rifles and a couple of bandoliers each containing fifty rounds for either rifles or Bren machine guns. We also received two hand grenades which we clipped on to our webbing, looking just like real combat troops. It didn’t take long to effect the change over from “just like” to nearly getting our asses shot off. Of course, many of the platoon had been under fire already. One of the gang had been at the landing in France and I would place him in his late thirties at least. Very cool he was. He was frequently told he was “too fucking old to be in the Army”.
From here on in, the next couple of months were and are confused somewhat. We were told where we were going, that is, what was our next objective. It didn’t mean very much as we were not shown any map and it was difficult to me to know what was where. What we did in the liberation of Holland was chase the Germans out. Us and them were on the run the whole time. The procedure was to mount Bren Gun carriers or tanks and drive along the road until we came under fire. We would then stop and make it hot enough for the Jerries to cause them to leave, or else. We didn’t do this for a living every day, fortunately. Here’s how it worked.
This may not be a hundred percent accurate but it is pretty close. Our regiment was a part of a brigade consisting mainly of three infantry regiments and two or three support regiments. The regiments were broken down the same way but in smaller numbers, three infantry company’s and support. The company was composed of three platoons which in turn were broken down to three sections. There was an order of battle in which there was first, the brigade broken down to the leading regiment, then the leading company, the leading platoon and finally, the leading section. One of the other two regiments were support to the leading regiment, the other was resting and not expected to see battle for several days. The leading section spearheaded the attack. Depending on the objectives for the leading regiment, there could be several leading sections.
Everything was based on a leapfrogging system. Company A would attack, consolidate and hold for Company B to make the next attack through Company A’s line. A Company would take up the resting position, C Company would be support for B, and attack through B who now would rest with A supporting C, and so on, spreading the danger and providing rest periods.
I think it best first to outline some generalities and follow up with some specific engagements as best as I can recall them.
Let’s set the record straight from the beginning. I’m no bloody hero. Nor was I a coward. I was concerned that Mrs. Ryan’s little boy should not get his ass shot off. This meant that I would be very cautious at exposing myself to enemy fire while still doing my job and supporting my mates. I was not as driven as some of the older and bolder lads who had been around for months rather than days and weeks like me. Mostly they seemed to be driven to the next cache of liquor they could find. I was always amazed at how much liquor these guys could come up with in a very short time. They didn’t share none of it neither. Stories were told of the cooks getting drunk and going on personal night patrols, bringing back German prisoners.
Also, at the time of the various engagements, everything was blurred. What was happening had the same quality as remembering them after fifty years. This brings us nicely to the first time I came under fire. Believe me, everything was blurred.
I don’t remember how we arrived at a street with houses on it, or where it was. I presume we came in trucks, demounted and moved into the village. I had no idea that we were especially close to the German defences. Nobody told me. There were some plopping sounds in the distance and some feathery type sounds in the sky which got closer and louder. Then they were all around us blowing up on the ground. We were experiencing a mortar attack. These were not thunderflashs going off. The mortar bombs were exploding with a sharp cracking sound. We knew it was the real thing.
Naturally we hit the deck. I went down hard, perhaps blown down even. I crawled fast off the street and hid under a small bush which couldn’t have stopped a BB. I felt much safer under the bush. I swear to God that I also pulled my whole self under my steel helmet for protection. The bombardment lasted only a few minutes, praise be to God. When things had quieted down, we got up and moved into the village, meeting no resistance.
Later in the afternoon we found ourselves on the outskirts of town near a house situated in a large, sparsely treed field. Here we received orders to dig in. This meant that we started digging a two man slit trench, about thirty inches wide, six feet long and five feet deep. My buddy was Barrie who was no more experienced than I. We got our hole dug and were fed from the garage of the nearby house, the food arriving in a carrier and served into our mess tins by the cooks. We ate in our slit trenches and waited for dark. All of this so far was supervised by our Sergeant. Barrie and I had no idea of what was going on. We did however establish which one would stay awake on guard for the first two hour stretch. It’s pitch black by this time when all hell breaks loose.
We are being fired upon by the whole German army. There are tracer bullets flying every where, shells are whistling over head and bombs going off all over. Barrie and I are real scared. We didn’t know where the Germans were or how far away but the firing seemed to come from mostly from one direction. I think we fired off a few rounds in the direction of the firing but for the most part, keeping our heads down. At one point our Sergeant sticks his head over the slit trench and enquires as to our health. “You guys OK?” Sure Sarge. He’s gone before we can even think to ask some questions. No kidding, we were scared. Thinking the Germans were only a few steps away and a bayonet in the belly soon to follow, I pull the pin on a grenade and toss it up and over the top of the slit trench. I hear it blow. I don’t know how long the fire fight lasted. Eventually it stopped and we fell into an uneasy sleep. both of us.
The morning was clear and peaceful and in relays, we headed for the garage which again was full of steaming hot food. We had large dollops of porridge with gritty tasting powdered milk, large slices of bread, some jam and tea in our mess tins. We had no trouble getting to the garage but when we left, some idiot would take a few shots at us with what later I could easily identify as a Schmeizer sub machine gun, making us run for cover and spilling our tea in the process. Nobody was ever hit and it might well have been one of our own just having a little sport.
So that was my first twenty-four hours, to be mostly continued on a daily basis until it all ended in Germany on May fifth. It was like cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. We chased the Germans, they hid and fired on us, we fired back and they took off again. Over and over. On the way though, some of us were left behind. Both sides shared the same attrition.
Constantly on the move, hardly never getting a full night’s sleep, not too much food, not being able to keep very clean or change clothes was living rough. The worst though was being tired, forcing yourself through each day on cigarettes and whatever booze you could turn up. I remember one three day rest we had. That’s what it was for me, rest. I slept for the three days, waking only for food. I don’t think I even washed or shaved. It got so I could sleep standing up in the back of the big 60 cwt trucks, hanging on to the metal supports for the canvas top. And that was with a dozen grenades rolling around loose on the floor too. I could sleep anywhere, anyhow, anytime.
The Germans in their flight left tons of equipment lying around. Some of the guys got the treasured Luger. Most common were the long German bayonets. Another buddy, George Rolfe and I affected one of these bayonets hanging down from our webbing on the right side, and tied down around our knee. Unshaven and dirty, we looked pretty tough. The bayonets were of great use in cutting the metal binding of straw bales that we found in stables where we would sometimes sleep. A bare wooden floor was heaven in comparison to a hole in the ground or the earthen floor of a barn.
Slit trenches were somewhat comforting. Unless you received a direct hit, you were quite safe from enemy fire. We followed the practice of digging a pit in mid floor to kick a grenade into as we had in training. There was one serious problem with a slit trench dug in a treed area. You could get air bursts overhead from mortar bombs exploding by hitting tree branches. One day we stopped our push forward and were told to dig trenches in a small woods beside the road. We suspected the half-track mounted 88 we chased all through Holland and into Germany was just around the corner, waiting for us. We dug our trenches and then feverously chopped and cut up small trees to cover the tops of the trenches as protection from air bursts.
We had barely finished when our support six pounder cannon came wheeling up, hauled into position by a carrier. A few cases of ammo were unloaded and the carrier moved some distance away, presumably out of harms way. Only the gunners and we were left, sitting ducks. The six pounder was going to have a two minute shoot. The unseen Germans were watching us closely of course and knew what to do. We knew what they were going to do too and we didn’t like it at all.
The six pounder shot off all the shells they could in two minutes. Aiming at whatever was waiting around the corner. I’ll bet they couldn’t see a thing. At the end of the two minutes and maybe twenty rounds, the carrier was quickly backed up, the cannon attached and the whole lot took off literally in a cloud of dust. The whole shooting match couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes from arrival to a fast buggering off.
As we expected, a minute later, mortar bombs started their little plopping sounds followed by their feathered whisper to crash over head in the trees in loud scary bangs. Fortunately, we were safe in our covered holes and suffered no casualties. We sure hated to see our support arrive knowing we would soon get a pounding from the mortars. The German gunners were very accurate too.
On another occasion we were not far from another position that was receiving a real pounding from the German mortars. It was severe enough to keep our troops pinned down, unable to move. We could hear the plop of the bombs being fired and their passage through the air but only about three out of five could be heard detonating. I had thoughts of slave labour doing a little welcome sabotage. I think it was on this occasion that the Tiffies were called in. Tiffies, my spelling, were Typhoon Hurricane fighters armed with rockets. They could be called in when we were pinned down and unable to move from our position. They arrived promptly and were very accurate. The rockets would blow a six foot deep hole where they impacted which fanned out about fifty feet around. What a pleasure it was to hear them go off. I believe it was a Polish squadron which was our air support. We heard a lot of scary stories about the Polish troops which were fighting on our front. The general impression was it was prudent to be as careful with them as with the Germans.
One of the early skirmishes where there was some bad times began with our company being billeted over night in a fairly large town. We were assigned to houses in an area where the street ended in a large circular drive way serving a dozen or so houses. At first light the next day, we were fed and briefed on the day’s activities. We were to load up on carriers and charge North until we were fired upon. When this happened, we were supposed to hop off the carriers and take up positions on the left side. Not being stupid, I headed for the last carrier.
Well, wouldn’t you know, the bad luck driver turns around and to my horror, takes off leading the pack. Holy Shit! The passenger seats are filled up with tied-up bundles of something so Barrie and are lying on top of these looking out over the driver, Barrie’s Bren between us. The brave little carrier goes charging into enemy territory followed by the other carriers. There is nothing cautious about our infringement, its full speed ahead. Barrie and I are hanging on, looking ahead when suddenly we see a head and shoulders pop up out of a hole in the ground. Tucked under the arm of the German soldier is a Panzerfaust, an anti tank weapon. Our driver takes this all in and stands on the brake. The rear carrier goes off the ground as it bounces to a halt. The Panzerfaust misses, landing a couple of feet in front of the carrier. The carrier takes off again but while all this is going on, Barrie and I have hopped off the carrier and have taken a position on the left side as ordered. Unfortunately, the bipod front legs of the Bren are entangled in the ropes and stuff and it goes up the road with the carrier. We hear it get fired on and it does a quick about turn and comes roaring back. I wave a little to it as it goes by.
Barrie, the weaponless and I lay very quietly in the ditch. We know there s a German in a hole across the road. He does not know there are a couple of Canadians on the other side. I am very upset and take great exception to having been shot at by an avowed enemy with an anti tank weapon. Slowly the SOB raises his head farther and farther out of the hole. It’s an easy kill from thirty feet. In a few seconds another soldier raises himself out of a shallow trench and starts running up the hill. This is a bad mistake and he pays the full price as an accomplice.
It remains quiet for several minutes and Barrie and I get up and make a mad dash back to where the others have stopped. I am able to give some directions as to where the firing was coming from. Shortly, another company goes through us to clear out the remaining Germans. The Crocodile carriers are called in to help and as the story goes, they are instructed to lay their flames on the right side of the road. They target the left side, catching our own troops in the fiery napalm. The results are best not recorded. I have no recollection of the rest of the day. Later, in true tradition of the old West, I cut two notches in my gun. Later still, I will atone with a poem. Not all Charlie Browns are alike.
BY THE NUMBERS
Alright you stupid bastards,
To aim this thing all you do
is float the tip of the fore blade
on the bottom of the rear peep sight.
Brace your left arm firmly on the ground
and take up the first pressure.
Now gently dammit, squeeze off a shot.
So you take up the first pressure
and gently squeeze off a shot.
A soul hisses through the little black hole
just above the ear;
Deflated, the corpse drops.
Only later can you hear the bitter wail
from the casualty list
and you weep for a fatherless child.
(And speaking of a poem, if you hunt around, you should find one entitled “Laren, April fifth, 1945”. It was a long time coming out, fifty years. It was there all the time, resident but unsuspected. Then, weeks before I left for Holland to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Holland it started to write itself as poems sometimes do. Part of the fun, so to speak, was that I did not complete the poem until I was back in Holland and on the site where the story in the poem took place. Again, it almost wrote itself.)
Like most of our days, we started off being loaded onto some form of transportation. As we went to the trucks, the Padre, affectionately known as the Sally Ann Joker, was standing there handing out cigarettes and mail. My mail seems to have caught up to me and I am handed a packet of, if I remember correctly, thirteen of those thin blue airmail letters from June and Mom. Only now do I ponder the unlucky thirteen but I must admit, in this case, I was the lucky one. So, off we go in the big 60 cwt trucks.
We drive for maybe an hour and finally come to a point where there are troops, the Maisonneuve regiment, one of our brigade, in a holding position on the road. They seem to be very concerned as we drive through their line, as well they might. The usual pattern if we were going through their holding position would be to start behind their line, forming up and coming through ready for a fight. Not this time. We drive on through and dismount about two hundred yards past the line. We are on the outskirts of Laren.
Now, on this day, Our regiment is leading the attack, our company is the leading company, our platoon is the leading platoon and I am in the leading section. We kind of snuggle down in a ditch in front of a small house which has a dense hedge next to the ditch. We are facing Laren which we can see a quarter of a mile down the road across the fields. In a few minutes, a tank lumbers up the road and stops on our right side. This is the closest I have come to a tank and I feel a little safer for its steel bulk and fire power.
We are briefed by the Lieutenant. First, at eight o’clock, we will have a barrage from the twenty-five pounders and then we will move into the town with the tank and chase the Jerries out. Eight o’clock comes, watched by the Lieutenant, and sure enough, right on schedule, we hear a shell whistling through the air and crumping to ground somewhere ahead of us. After a minute or so, I hear the Lieutenant say “I guess that’s it” and he stands up and with a wave of his arm over his head, in the best Gary Cooper style, he says “Let’s go men”.
Unfortunately, the Germans take this as a signal to start firing and the tank is their first priority. The 88mm cannon which is and will be our nemesis for the whole trip, very neatly places its first armour piercing round precisely in the middle of the front of the tank. It makes one hell of a bang too, as does the second shell, this time anti personnel, lands about six feet in front of the tank only seconds later. The shrapnel from this shell takes out every one ahead of me in the line. I am blown into the ditch, my rifle rammed into the earth about a foot deep, muzzle first and useless. Anyway, I am supposed to keep my hands on the Bren in such a situation and I grab it from Barrie who has taken shrapnel in one eye. Now, along with the two shells from the 88, we are taking fire from multiple machine guns and mortar bombs landing behind us. There is a second tank which pull up beside the first and with the tank commander directing the fire with his head and shoulders sticking out of the turret, this brave little tank starts shooting up the town with its cannon. The 88 takes off and we are left only with the machine gun fire coming straight down the ditch.
I have the Bren and try to turn around but find the handle of my shovel stuck in th hedge. Bad news with all the bullets flying around. The Germans load a tracer round every third bullet and you can see the burning end of the tracers as they pass you. Remember also, the German machine guns are belt fed and put out twelve hundred rounds a minute so there are quite a few little red tails flying around.
I finally get free of the hedge and start back towards the cover of some large trees lining the road. I take about three steps and my steel helmet falls over my eyes. The screw holding the metal onto the liner has come loose and I hit the ground. “Are you hit Ryan” the observers of my flight call out. I push the steel blindfold up and respond, “Nope”, get up and take a few more steps until there is a repeat performance with the helmet with the same dialogue. I make it to the trees. For some reason, I give the Bren to somebody, saying, “Take care of this”, and then cower behind a thick tree. I feel safer in spite of the Major and a couple of others having been taken out by a mortar bomb not far from where I am laying.
It quietens down a bit. The machine guns maybe run out of ammunition and they stop firing but there is sporadic sniper fire. In essence, we are pinned down. but not badly enough so some idiot orders us into an open field where we are better targets for the snipers. I grab a loose Sten gun and tag along like a good sport. In the field, we start scraping up the sod to hide behind as we are still under fire. The water table is about six inches down and while we have a foot of sod at our heads, we are laying in a couple of inches of water. I can hear the bullets plopping into the ground near me and wonder if I should move, making my body as target, better or worse. I decide to remain where I am and proceed to open my mail. All very nonchalant of course. Hey, I’ve been shot at before.
Time goes by, you know like when you’re having a good time, and we hear the sound of carriers behind us and we see a string of them lining up along a dirt road which angles off to our right. It is the heavy machine gun squadron of the Toronto Scottish Regiment which arrives to help us out. I may be wrong but I remember counting thirteen carriers all in a row pointing towards the town. Mounted on the carriers are Vickers water cooled and belt-fed machine guns. I thought they were fifty calibre bore but recently learned they fired the standard .303 rounds. It was much more romantic to think of them firing the heavier .50 bullets and I feel a little let down. In any event, the carriers as per schedule, fired off all their ammo over a period of perhaps a half an hour, shooting the town up and discouraging the Germans from any further action. It was not only welcomed but also a most impressive demonstration of fire power. Should you ever have the opportunity to be present when a dozen or so carriers mounting Vickers are all shooting at once, I urge you not to miss it. But bring your ear plugs.
After we were a little more certain that we were no longer under fire, we got up from our shell scrapes and since we were wet, the rum canteen, still with us, was uncorked and we were offered a tot. What an experience that was. It did not taste like any previously sampled rum. So smooth, no bite going down into the stomach where it immediately produced a warm steady glow that I hoped would never end. Who cared wet? We formed up sort of and marched into the town of Laren. We were billeted in a barn overnight and met up with our other companies the next day in the town of Holten, a few miles away.
Laren, Holland April 5th, 1945
We were driven to our fates St. 1
Tucked in trucks from
where we knew not where
huddled under canvas curtains
our only view.
The starting point ignored St. 2
through gaping mouths
we trespassed to the village edge
and ranged ourselves
half hidden in a ditch
beside Fort Garry’s armour. Still,
damned for being where we
should not be.
Our unknown Lieutenant St. 3
checking watch, announced
the coming of our saviours in
support of our ideals.
Just one minute more St. 4
twenty-five pounders, the
deadly Whispering Death, soon
would blast entrenched
creep us into victory.
The minute up St. 5
indeed was heard a
One single flight St. 6
one lonely shell
buzzing high above until
overcome by gravity it
crumped into the ground
far short of expectations.
One single flight St. 7
precise on 8 am
one single round
announcing our intent,
falling loud but much
in vain to our support
leaving behind a barrage of
sighing souls and
other body parts
let down in other ways.
“That’s it, let’s go”. St. 8
The battle cry
was fired off and
The mighty steel machine St. 9
nestling cold against our flanks
in that next second died.
The mighty fist of 88 had
struck and killed
before the shot was heard.
One more time the deathly hand St. 10
reached out now to punch
with iron fingers
deep holes into
the bodies of the faithful
flung about in leaderless
disarray and blood of war
while those within with
legs enough to run leapt out
their wounded shelter hastening in
fear of further execretion.
Now, the leader of those St. 11
Fort Garry Horse out from
the shadow of the deadened comrade
did swing his steed to
lie abreast his silent partner.
Directing by his head and phones St. 12
its officer with steady roaring in
our ears replied a David’s
challenge of his own with
rapid fire cannon blasting.
And all the time St. 13
the slanting hail with
colours green and red
flashed and twisted overhead.
Rammed into the ditch St. 14
against the hedge,
rifle jammed into the earth
halfway up the stock,
bore full of mud and
useless in that instant.
Well stuck too, with
shovel handle tightly grasped
within the branches, held,
beyond escape for timeless
somehow breaking free and
answering duty, obligation,
taking out the Bren in
unintentional comic exit
leaving eyeless buddy with
his own Hail of Mary’s.
Chased by waspish bees, off St. 15
down the ditch to safer climes
Bren in hand. Helmet steel released from
screwed retention slides down blinding progress.
Concerned cries out ” Are you hit”?
Reply negative. Helmet up, rises third time
drags Bren out, hides behind tree.
Now with squad in field. St. 16
Wet field soaks up wasps, fireflies,
bees with little plopping sounds.
Time to catch up on mail.
Reads lucky 13 letters delivered by
Sally Ann Joker at last bivouac.
Lots of plopping sounds.
Feelings pinned butterflies in stomach.
Tor Scots to rescue. St. 17
Lucky 13 carriers, mounted
Vickers side by side
shoot up and down the town.
Encourage wet Canadians.
More good news. St. 18
Rum canteen safe.
Warm friendly fire inside.
Unbelievable relief of cares.
Move carefully into Laren. St. 19
All quiet on western front.
Guaranteed daily hot meal.
Sleep, not mourning
thoughts only on next morning.
Noel Ryan May 11th 1995
The starting point of a move against enemy positions was normally from behind an established defensive line. You are considered to be in safe territory. This day we were on the wrong side of the line.
Fort Garry Horse is an armoured regiment.
All the cavalry regiments were switched from horses to tanks at the beginning of WW 2.
The Lieutenant was unknown since I didn’t know his name having recently joined the Regiment. I believe he was killed that day. His replacement, again unknown, was a complete disaster but that is another story.
Whispering Death was what the Germans were supposed to have called the twenty-five pounder artillery gun. These were very effective and as they were most often, so I heard, fired sequentially in a troop of four, the Germans were of the opinion that we had an automatic cannon.
The German 88 was the most effective weapon of the war. It was relatively small and maneuverable. It could be used as an anti-tank, anti-personnel and anti-aircraft cannon. It was the cannon mounted in the Tiger tank. We followed one which was mounted on a half-track all the way into Germany. The 3 1/2 inch rounds were super sonic, thus they could not be heard coming as with most artillery shells.
“Execretion” is a made-up word. You have to think about it.
The shovel was a full size spade of European design, having a “T” rather than our usual “D” handle. A “D” handle could not have stuck in the hedge. The shovel was carried stuck through our web belt with the handle sticking out behind and the shovel in front over our left chest providing some real or imaginary protection.
“colors green and red”. German machine gunners loaded a tracer bullet every third round or cartridge. One could certainly see as well as hear what was zipping past your head. The rate of fire of the German MG 42 was like 1200 rounds per minute, providing quite a fireworks effect. Fortunately, the high rate of fire reduced the accuracy considerably. The British Bren had a tracer loaded every seventh round. The rate of fire was around 700 rounds per minute and magazine fed rather than belt fed as was the MG 42, which required a two man operation.
I should confess that the German tracers were not both green and red. Most likely their tracers were red and ours were green. Just a little poetic license.
The Tor Scots were the Toronto Scottish Regiment.
They were one of the support regiments for the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, Canadian Army.
The carriers were a small tracked, all purpose vehicle of British design which was very successful in everything it did. It was originally called a Bren Gun Carrier with mounted Bren machine gun and five or six support troops. It was fast and highly maneuverable. For the Tor Scots, it mounted heavy machine guns, the Vickers which was water cooled. Carriers also dragged around the Tor Scots 4 inch mortars which were formidable weapons indeed, capable of hurling a 4 inch bomb around five miles to target. Maybe more. The one inch step-up from the 3 inch mortars of our regimental support company created a very different weapon indeed.
Our local 3 inch mortars were moved around by carriers as well and could be set up and fired quite easily. The 4 inch were huge and had to be dug into the ground. They functioned back of the lines like artillery. I saw them only once but they were indeed formidable looking.
Some carriers were called Alligators (Crocodiles?). They were fitted as flame throwers. I saw them in action once. Very Scary.
They could shoot a flame of Napalm nearly a hundred feet.
Our support company also had a six pounder anti-tank cannon pulled around by a carrier which also held the ammunition. A six pounder shell would bounce off a Tiger tank. Carriers were also used as troop carriers of which I had some experience which led to some interesting out comes.
Every platoon had a rum canteen which was to be used only as an emergency stimulant, especially when the troops were wet as was the case that day. To me, there was no taste or feeling of swallowing alcohol as in a shot of Rye. It went down ultra smooth and lay in the stomach for a couple of hours giving a very satisfying warm glow with no feeling of intoxication. Never to be forgotten.
Our company cooks made it a challenge to provide us with at least one hot meal a day. Even if we were at the front, so to speak. At some point, usually dinner, their carrier would swing in and unload the big food containers. Somehow, we would get to our daily hot meal. I can’t remember ever missing one.
One day there was a German sniper around who would let us go into a house to get our meal but would fire at us as we came out with our mess tins loaded and cups filled with tea, running back to the safety of our slit trenches. The sniper had a great sense of humour but was a lousy shot. I sometimes wonder if he was one of ours?
I must admit though that I cant remember getting many breakfasts or lunches under field conditions except for some American K rations or British 24 hour ration packages. These last were the ones with the great chocolate in them and those mean little Woodbine cigarettes. Never to be forgotten. All of it.
Author’s note: There is an interesting, friendly dispute between myself and Martin Hols, a Dutch WW2 historian with regard to the exact place where this action occurred. A lot of discussion took place as well as a visit to various sites in Laren in early May ’95. This was in part as the result of the townspeople not knowing where to plant a commemorative tree to mark the engagement. At the time they all were in their basements. I believe there are major errors in various regimental battle records. I revisited the site in 1952 and naturally feel my version, at least in location, is accurate.
Note two: Regarding the last line.
Each morning I would wake up and tell myself,
“Today is going to be all right, I wonder what
tomorrow will be like?”
I would be in Laren three other times, 1952, with Doreen, 1990 and 1995 for the celebration of the 45th and 50th anniversaries of the liberation of Holland. Each time, I visited the site of this engagement. Getting a tank shot out beside you is a major event in a young man’s life any which way it comes to you. However, there is a small mystery attached to this story. In 1995, the residents of Laren wanted to plant a tree in commemoration of the fighting. The problem was, where did the action take place? All the town was down in their cellars at the time. Well, I knew, wasn’t I there? Five years previously, I had met Martin Hols, a war historian who had written about the Canadian liberation and the routes they traveled. I happened to learn of the dilemma and offered my assistance. We drove to the spot where I remembered the action took place and had visited twice before, the first time only seven years after the engagement in 1952. No dice, “that’s not where the company records say it took place”, says Martin.
For me, it had to be since the landscape supported my memory, especially the road on which the Tor Scots lined up their carriers and no other location had that road that angled off from where we were in the field. Martin, a very nice young man by the way, could not be convinced. We have had some further correspondence and he has tried to be helpful in getting me straightened out. I also have tried to do some more research but fifty years is a long time, even longer if you say, half a century.
I expect someday to look into the grid references of the various regiments involved which do not agree. Confusing also is that I discovered from Martin, there were two tanks shot out that day, the other having been taken out with a Panzerfaust. Does any of this matter? Probably not but still I say, I was there. Anyroad, I got what I think is a good poem out of it. I also must say that I learned a valuable but embarrassing lesson, involving a tank, the what of which you will eventually be introduced. You will know it when we come to it.
This brings up another somewhat embarrassing event which followed our visit to Laren, which by the way if I have the right Laren, is host city to some very good jazz performances. We were loaded up on tanks for one of our runs around the country side. This time if I am correct, were hanging on to M4’s rather than the previous M3’s. Much sleeker they were but still very noisy. Tanks do a lot of clanking, you know. You can always tell when one is around. They also stink. We/I was very lucky never to have been confronted with a German Tiger tank. They were far superior even to the new M4’s, with their 88 cannons and heavier armour. The equivalent of the anti tank Panzerfaust was the PIAT, short for Projectile Infantry Anti Tank. This was a real joke as far as I was concerned.
There was the bomb, about the size of a softball with a point sticking out front and a tube with fins on it out the back about eight inches. The bomb part fitted into a cradle and firing mechanism. The firing pin was a rod on a big spring which when released would ram into the rear tube of the bomb, launching the bomb out of the cradle and firing the little rocket in the tube. The whole thing was large and clumsy and you couldn’t hit shit with it unless you were twenty-five feet away. Our little beauty was only fired once, a stupid weapon matched perfectly with an even more stupid officer. Later, eh?
Well, we seemed to be on the tanks most of the morning, roaming around looking for a fight, and a dusty ride it was. Now, we were supposed to be racing through enemy territory and what do we meet? Just outside the town of Assen, our objective, we run into a bunch of Engineers who with nothing better to do, have filled in their time waiting for us by building a makeshift, one man at a time bridge over the canal. Christ,t here are even photographers roaming around shooting photos of us crossing the canal. One shot, a non violent one for a change, can be found in several books dedicated to the Liberation. You see the makeshift bridge with a soldier sitting at the top of the various planks and such, Back towards the camera but I know it is me as I remember sitting up there for some time waiting to get across, and the camera man with his Graflex behind me.
Eventually we get across and into the town but the Jerries are long gone. all that is left is a few Dutchmen and a hoard of liquor which some other than me find, Most of the guys had a nose for it, believe me. Some of the liquor I saw that time was some sort of egg stuff which looked like uncooked omelet. I seem to remember the guys found some champagne that time too. None for me though. It was around here that we started to see the Dutch resistance. We would be driving along when all of a sudden, as Dutchman would pop out of a ditch with an Orange band around his sleeve and point, saying the equivalent of “They went thataway, guys”. Nice to see somebody on our side. And, we were getting closer to our major objective, the city of Groningen, way up North.
Somewhere along about this time, we had a shower. What a pleasure this was. The shower machine was in a tractor trailer. There were some sixteen shower heads in the trailer which also housed the heater and water tank. I have no idea whether there was some outside water supply or they hooked up to a well. The water was clean and hot. The soap was provided and we received an issue of clean underwear as well. Boy, did that ever feel good. It is hard to imagine going for three weeks without a bath or shower. I have no idea how we managed staying dainty which we most likely didn’t. I had expectations of getting lice, a prominent malady in the WW1 trenches. My real thoughts were I was too dirty to get lice, which I never did get. They were prevalent in the civilian population and I remember seeing them getting dusted from large powder spray pumps. I had no liking for the Army issue underwear which looked like something from the 17th century. I had my own and as there were no facilities for washing them, or drying them rapidly being on the run, I just didn’t wear any.
On the way to Groningen, we picked up another officer. He was a real little twerp. Most of us hated him because of his “go ahead boys, I’m right behind you” attitude. The first thing he did was to pick out a couple of big goons in the platoon who were to be his bodyguards. They followed him everywhere. I tell you no lie, there was serious talk of getting rid of him ourselves. I think this was known to the more senior officers, and after maybe two weeks, certainly not more than three, he was given leave and we never saw him again. We finished about three more weeks of war with only a Sergeant in charge of the platoon.
Except for going into Groningen through a lot of back yards, I don’t remember much of getting there. My memory starts for real entering the back of a house which fronted on a central park, full of Germans. I went up the stairs and found there were two Bren guns shooting at the Germans from one window. This got a lot of attention from the Jerries and I have no difficulty recalling the large number of bullets coming right through the walls. There were a couple of minor wounds but Jim Martin took one in the jaw. I took off for a medic and to get more ammunition. A good excuse get the hell out of there. I found a medic and hunted for ammo until the firing cooled down when the Jerries took off. I told you already, no hero, but it is a scenario I have played over many times. I ended up with the Bren.
That night I was out on the only night patrol I was ever on. We moved sometimes at night but it wasn’t a real patrol when you go out and expect to make some contact with the Jerries. We’re out for about an hour, wandering around and on our way back when, at the edge of a canal, we are challenged, “Who goes there?” “Its us, were on patrol” “What’s the password” “We don’t have no fucking password, Vokey”, whose voice I recognize. And then, we hear a Bren open up. Holy Shit! Boy, was I scared. I thought of being shot down by my own guys. Fortunately the Bren was not pointed at us and we were safe to return through our lines.
This reminds me of a story confessed to me over a few beers much later. This lad had been with another regiment and he was holding the line with a Bren one night and he saw figures creeping down a ditch. Every time he saw one move, he fired at it. The next morning, he found sixteen dead Dutch in the ditch. True? It could happen.
One more little note. As I say, we did move in the night sometimes and stood guard every night which contributed to my weariness. The nights were black of course most of the time but we had some artificial light which we called Monty’s Moonlight. This was several search lights aimed low over the sky and bouncing off the clouds giving about as much light as a half full moon. It was something that we were glad to have. I remember standing guard very well. Trying to stay awake was really difficult. If we were two in a slit trench, it was two hours on and two hours off, all night. We would carefully sneak smokes, lighting the cigarettes in our jackets and cupping them in our hands as we drew the smoke into our lungs. If we were billeted in a house, the hours were two on and four off, a better deal for getting some shut eye.
We had several days off in Groningen. The city went wild with the liberation and we were feted the whole time. Some of us were billeted with the inhabitants of the city, I with a family called Neisson. They were so proud to have a real Canadian Liberator in their house. They wrote my mother thanking her for sending her son to fight the Germans, all true if you remember.
It was an apartment where we stayed and one of the other residents, a single woman, had been a collaborator. She had been taken off pretty quick to have her hair cut off and paraded in shame through the streets. Some of the other guys around went into her apartment and took all the food stuff, there was only things like a little flour and various little boxes, no real food, and gave this to the Neissons. They promptly put them all back.
We kept in touch for many years but they moved and I lost track of them. My Dutch host in 1995 tried to track them down but was unsuccessful.
Too soon, we loaded ourselves into the trucks again, crossed over a river on a pontoon bridge and moved into Germany where the rules of engagement were different.
And indeed the rules were different. We drove into Germany feeling very strongly the conquerors and invaders. Our previously restrained passions were now unleashed, directed to the civilian population as well as the Wermacht. Not that we went around killing civilians but we felt that we had some license as an invading army not permitted a liberating force.This was evident almost the first day we were billeted on German soil. Unconsciously, we wanted blood to replace that of our fallen comrades. This took the form of getting meat for the kitchen, our first engagement.
That’s what we wanted, real food, good red meat and there it was, grazing the first green grasses of Spring. There were a couple of good looking cows in the field near our farmhouse. We had any number of farm-boy soldiers in the platoon who knew just how the handle the situation. Gonna get us a cow. But first, you have to get the cow to where you are going to kill it as cows are very difficult to drag around the lot. What a balls-up! Half a dozen guys chasing a cow all over the field with the cow in great panic, running through barb wire fences with great ease. I gave up thinking that the cow was going to be the winner but the cowboys finally got a rope around its neck and dragged it hollering its head off to the execution arena between two stout trees. There was a beam wedged in the branches between the trees and a pit dug underneath. The cow was led close to the pit and knocked unconscious with the back of an axe.
The cow was hauled up by its rear legs with the head hanging over the pit. Its throat was cut, the blood draining into the pit. Next, the belly was slit carefully so as to cut only the skin. The lads really knew what they were doing as a few little cuts around the exposed belly dropped the whole sack of intestines into the pit, leaving a clean interior. That’s all there was to it. What was left was for the cooks. I know we all had a piece of it but what it was like I have no recollection. Was the taste of victory really sweet?
My first engagement under fire took place on the next farm. We could hear the roosters crowing and even I could fathom that there were hens to be found as well. I decided to get me a big bird for the pot. I borrowed a rifle and went hunting. Unfortunately, I was not the only one to hear the call of the wild. When I got to the farm, there seemed to be half of several regiments already attacking the barnyard before me, every one running around trying to catch or shoot a chicken. Bullets were flying every where from an assortment of weapons. Everywhere you were caught in a crossfire. I finally got a bead on my intended and shot its head off. A body shot with a .303, would not leave much chicken. Then I hot-footed it away from what I think might have been the heaviest and most dangerous mission of my wartime experience. It was so bad that I left the area crossing over a field which had a sign on it, “Achtung Minen” which I considered the safest route to home ground. It was no more dangerous than staying around let me tell you. Apart from the chicken which was cooked up by our section, I received a lesson in dressing a bird. It was much the same as with the cow. You can carefully cut a slit in the stomach and the whole innards, packaged neatly in a little sack, almost tumble out of their own accord. Later this would gain me much needed brownie points with my prospective father-in-law who was too chicken, and he a farm boy of sorts, to eviscerate a gutsy Thanksgiving turkey.
Robbing hen houses of their eggs became a popular sport in Germany, and a good dietary supplement. One day one of the farm boys and I were going through hen house like a fox, even moving the chickens aside in their nests to get at the eggs. I figured we were going to get all the eggs there were when my buddy said “Wait a minute, this chicken is about to lay an egg”. I thought he was pulling my tail feathers. Suddenly the hen gave a screech and flew off the nest leaving a fresh warm egg where none existed a couple of minutes before when I had checked under her skirts. Them farm boys sure knew their stuff all right!
It was the same old story though, even more so. I never knew where I was until the fighting stopped. I had best then describe the series of engagements which I remember which may not be sequential. The liberation of Groningen was on the sixteenth of April so at this point, we are only a about three weeks before the fighting ends on May fifth. The Germans are a little more aggressive now that they are fighting for the Fatherland and are more concentrated. Our first objective is a flying field which we find to have been abandoned. We stay there for a couple of nights. The Germans have left in a hurry, leaving many weapons and ammunition. The base is intact and we are able to use the kitchens and sleeping quarters. It is here that I learn about a skill which I will later develop into a career which will launch me into another career. Talk about coincidence and Celestine Prophecies. Any road, one of the lads from another platoon discovers a fully equipped and functional darkroom. Interested, I watch him print some photos and become fascinated. I want a camera. There is talk of the Leica as a prize to be won, bartered for with cigarettes, or otherwise obtained. As with the liquor, I never come close to a Leica but I do manage to get my hands on a nifty Voigtlander in Oldenburg. It had a folding bellows with a view finder which flipped at the same time the bellows was extended. There was film to be had and with a few instructions from the photo guy, I was taking photos early in May and getting them printed, in Germany, surprising in view of the conditions, rationing and shortages of non essential materials. Cigarettes made powerful currency let me tell you, as I will from time to time.
A couple of days later we find ourselves coming under fire across an open valley with a town on the far side. We see the German half track with the mounted 88 pull out of some trees and cross the open fields. It is too far away to shoot at them with anything. Our weenie type of a Lieutenant goes berserk and starts shouting “Get the PIAT, get the PIAT”. Well, any asshole would know that the PIAT couldn’t land a bomb even a quarter of the way to the half track. However, this wasn’t just any old asshole, this was our asshole. The PIAT was produced, cocked, aimed and fired to land a pitiful hundred feet in front of us. What a jerk.
Following the appearance of the half track, we saw the Maisonneuve attack in the open across the valley. They came under heavy mortar fire and from our elevated position, we could see the Maizies dropping like flies in the valley. The attack seemed a disaster, poorly proposed and initiated, even worse than our stupidly being ordered into the open fields facing Laren a couple of weeks back.
We ourselves came under heavy mortar fire on the top of our side of the valley. I and others took shelter in a substantial farm house on the crest with our heads and bodies under tables. We didn’t take any hits but they weren’t landing far away. Soon we were joined at that location with a squadron of 17 pounders, the name being the weight of the shell that fired from the cannon. The shells were about four feet long and the answer to the German Tiger tanks. The muzzle blast from one of these cannons would tear up the sod in front for about ten feet by six feet about six inches deep. They had a good bang as well, causing minor shell shock from friendly fire. As always, the Germans took off and the firing stopped.
On another occasion, we are moving up a road lined with large trees. We come under fire from two sources, neither of them pleasant. We started taking fire from a four barreled 20mm anti-aircraft gun which was firing explosive bullets. We crouched in a shallow ditch behind trees which took all of the bullets, and their sharp sounding explosions against the trees with no casualties. I mean, one of those bullets could blow off an arm or leg, not to mention what one could do to the body. However, at the same time, we were being fired upon by our favourite 88 which was lobbing airbursting shells over our heads, firmly hiding under our steel helmets.
You might remember the 88 is the gun which fires its shells at such high velocity, faster than the speed of sound, that you cannot hear them going through threw air as the come at you. This may be interesting but its not a lot of fun having shells bursting shrapnel over you head without announcing their arrival. The shrapnel you can hear whizzing around in the air. I remember it well. I think some of the lads were hit but none in our platoon. On our left, a tank came rumbling up through the field and the enemy fire stopped.
We watched the flame throwing carriers at work a couple of roads to the right and wait a while to make sure the area was secure. Hah! Then we’re led off to the left, through a field where the tank was sitting. We were again the leading section and I was carrying the Bren, about the sixth man in the line. We all passed by the tank in the field, making for another field on the edge of a small woods. Well, everybody in front of me passed the tank but somehow, I didn’t want to. The last time I was on the left side of a tank, it was blown up and all sorts of nasty things started to happen. I am a quick learner as you know. They all tried to coax me past, “C’mon Ryan”. No way. The Sergeant came back and tried to talk me past but I wasn’t having any of that. I just wouldn’t go. Finally, he came back to where I was stuck and virtually pulled me along by the arm. I went with him but I was pretty well spooked. Of course the tank takes off to the rear at that point. I still have trouble passing tanks, even in the car.
We move diagonally to the left towards the wooded area and the Corporal tells me, “Fire into the bush”. This is a dilemma for me. I’m sure I was trained never to fire without a target which I explained this to the Corporal. “Fire the goddamn thing over there”. “No”. Here of course, I am working myself into deep shit but there is no way I’m going to fire the Bren into the woods, just like that! On the spot, I am relieved of the Bren. It is given to my number two who sets it up on the ground and starts firing.
Well, all of a sudden we are being shit upon by a couple of German machine guns, the 42’s that spew out 1200 belt driven rounds a minute. Jesus, with us just standing there in the open. There is no cover so the whole platoon, pretty well bunched together, takes off across the field to the left where we can see a road with houses on the other side.
What we can also see and hear is a constant stream of bullets, every third one an incendiary which pass over, under and through us, like souped-up fireflies. Not only that but there is a barbed wire fence lining the road between us and the safe houses on the other side. The bottom wire looks like it is about a foot off the ground. We all have our small packs on our backs. Most of us, including me, decide to take the low road, under the bottom wire. I don’t know how we did it but we were through the wire, across the road, and into the house in a split second. We take stock of the gang. Nobody has been hit but one has a burn on his neck from a bullet, another has a bullet hole through his mess tins and a third has a bullet hole in the rim of his steel helmet. We stand in house, counting our blessings and watch a duel between a Schmeizer submachine gun and a tank which is passing by.
First, the Schmeizer lets loose with a long burst which bounces off the tank. The tank replies with a long burst of .30 calibre machine gun. The Schmeizer replies with another long burst and is responded to with a similarly long burst form the .30 calibre. One more time the same thing around and the tank looses patience. KABOOM goes the tank cannon. End of argument. Following the tank into the village, we find no evidence of the enemy except for the four barrel 20mm cannon left behind and a spent anti tank, non exploding round which comes bouncing down the middle of the street and comes to a stop not many feet away from us. There are no repercussions from my refusal to fire the Bren.
The following day, we come across the first of the last ditch German troops comprised of old men and young boys. One old man was caught in his little hole mending his socks and offered no resistance. The kids we did not like very much. We did not want to carry the war to twelve year olds but on the other hand, they could kill you almost as easy as a trained soldier. Handle with care.
We get into a heavily wooded and hilly area in our pursuit of the German army. The tanks are with us all the way now. I see one try to knock a large industrial chimney down with his cannon. He takes about a dozen shots at it, missing with every one. He finally goes on his way. Later, we are at a small crossroads with a house on one corner. The tank fires a cannon round into the upper storey. We are on the other side of the street and a bunch of civilians run out of the house. There is a big blow up from the tank commander. It seems he was told there were soldiers in the house and he was very upset having fired on civilians. That same day, we are on the crest of a hill and see a number of German soldiers fleeing across an open field in the valley. I take a few shots at them with the Bren but the range is too far for accuracy. I borrow a rifle, thinking I am a crack shot and make a better impression, causing the soldiers to hit the ground but that is all that was hit. A road too far.
That night, or it could even have been the night before, we sleep in a German house with some of the family in residence. One of us asks the time, in English of course, and the German girl looks at her watch. Charlie Brown tells the Sergeant to be careful what we say because the girl understands English. She might be a spy you know. I enter this bit to show my state of mind at this time. Not good.
We are coming up to the last engagement of the war, for our little group anyway. It is interesting that for the first time, we are not trucked to our starting point. We march instead. We get to where we are going and advance with a purpose over the fields and hedge rows. This is not a lot of fun since we can’t see beyond the next hedge which in itself can hide any number of the enemy, and we are running across fields that are newly ploughed. This for me with the Bren slung over my shoulder is extremely tiring. We eventually come to a railroad crossing which may have been our objective. It is more than just a crossing, it is a switching station. There is a tower with many switching levers and signals. Beside the tower is a house where the railroad staff live.
My only excuse is that I am exhausted and fed up with the whole war and I hate the bloody Germans and I don’t want to be here and I go a lot squirrelly. The bloody Germans are not going to be able to use this station again. I start smashing the butt of the Bren into the switching levers in the tower. Corporal McGilivery is there and stops me before I can do any real damage. “You crazy or something” he yells at me. Well yes, I am. Almost completely out of control. I go down into the yard.
There I find a bunch of civilians, men, women and children who live in the house. The men have uniforms on. At home, our railroad workers do not wear uniforms. These men with uniforms are German soldiers. With my Bren cradled in my arms, I line them all up in a row, men, women, and children. The Bren is cocked and I even have taken up the first pressure on the trigger. I am yelling at them not to move. I am ready to open fire for any reason. Some of the others in the section are there too and I am yelling at them to keep out of my field of fire. I am that close to my very own Mei Lei. My friends calm me down. They take the Bren away from me. I remember just standing around after that. The next day as we get ready to move, I am told I am LOB, meaning Left Out of Battle, and sent to the Headquarters company. The next day I am at Headquarters where we hear that the fighting has stopped. I am sent back to my company. It is the 5th of May 1945, and I am in Oldenburg, Germany. The war is over.
And how do you celebrate the end of a war? Why, you get drunk of course. A few of us went into the streets, picked a house, invited ourselves in and demanded food and drink. We were served bread and jam and schnapps. In return, we informed the household that the war was “Kaput”. They couldn’t believe it. There was quite a lot of schnapps and I had more than my share. I staggered back to the loft where we were billeted and I proceeded to throw up much to the disgust of my mates. With a heavy head, the next morning we loaded into trucks and took of for the hinterlands of north west Germany.
This trip up was different from other trips. We did not expect to be fired on for one thing. The other thing was that it was very disturbing to see fields and fields of stacked arms and ammunition. There were all sorts of weapons and vehicles. I think I even recognized the tracked 88 winking at us from a field. Believe me, the war ended just in time so as not to come face to face with a hornet’s nest of concentrated German troops ready to fight to the last Canadian. Come to think of it, we used to say that about the Brits. In a different sense but with the same ending, eh? By the amount of arms in those fields, there was a lot of sting left in the Wermacht.
We stopped in the village of Essens with battalion headquarters in Norden if I am not mistaken. We were billeted in a house there. Funny, I don’t remember any Germans being around. We had been well lectured on the principle of non fraternization so maybe I just didn’t see them. We didn’t have much to do except for a few patrols and guard duties. I got close to getting in deep shit again over guard duty. I had finished the last of my shift a couple of hours before our group were to be relieved. I told the Corporal I was going for a walk. When I returned, there was hell to pay. For some reason, the relief bunch were late or could not come and, where was Ryan? Ryan at that point was put on charge, like deserting his post, big time shit.
The next day I was paraded before the Captain and questioned. I told him I had checked my walk with Corporal McGilivery. This had to be confirmed by the Corporal, see you tomorrow. The new day dawns and Corporal McGilivery it appears has gone on ten days leave. The Captain says “Well, I don’t want to see you remanded before me every day for a couple of weeks, case dismissed”. The next day, Corporal McGilivery shows up. Good Luck eh? You bet.
We were in Essens for three or four weeks it seems. There was not much to do. We slept on the floor, had regular meals and shot the breeze. There was no entertainment and at one point, the whole bunch of us had run out of cigarettes. All except me. I had written home for, and received, a can of loose tobacco and papers. I don’t know why I had requested this. But, there was nothing else to smoke in the whole section. I left the can and papers on the mantelpiece down stairs and every night after supper, each of us would roll a single cigarette from the can. As far as I know, nobody ever cheated. The can lasted out the drought and our usual supplies caught up with us.
One of the stories we heard concerned that other “Ryan” we last met in Aldershot. What we heard was that he was cleaning a Luger he had picked up and accidentally shot a mate in the stomach, killing him. I have no solid confirmation of this. It does seem to fit the fortunes of the “other guy” though. There was one other accident with severe consequences.
No entertainment eh? well, the Navy Show was in town, that is to say, Oldenberg. Somehow or other, I was chosen to go. A bunch of us hopped into a little 15 cwt and off we went to the theatre in a small convoy. It was a dark and stormy night. The roads, while macadam, had a lot of mud on them. For some reason, our little beauty lost its footing and went into a deepish ditch, burying half the cab in the process. I was sitting, last man on the left side of the truck. The cab hit on the right side. The sudden stop shifted every one to the front right corner of the box. Because of my position, I landed on top of everyone else, badly shook up but undamaged. Several of the others underneath had to be hospitalized. Those few of us not hurt, climbed into other trucks and made it to the theatre only a little late.
The show was a most welcome success. The star was John Pratt singing “You’ll Get Used to It”, still to be seen occasionally when there are programs about WW2. He became the Mayor of Dorval, Quebec, my first post as a Chief Librarian in 1967.
From Essens, we were billeted in another small town for a few weeks. Again, I don’t remember seeing many Germans around. Our section had a whole house to ourselves. I don’t remember any furniture and we were sleeping on the floor, as usual. We just bummed around, reading what we could and trying to stay out of trouble. There was definitely no entertainment around but we were still enjoying the quiet and safety of no war being around either. A few things of note happened there.
With a sign-up to go to the Pacific to fight the Japs, were promised a quick return to Canada, thirty days leave and rots of ruck. I really didn’t want to push my luck but I got to thinking of my first days with the Regiment and the night when we figured out the end of the war. I noted that our prophecy was right on. Now, if we were as accurate with the Pacific war, if I took the time to get to Canada, added thirty days leave, more time to frig around with a new unit, travel time to get to the Pacific and more frigging around, why, by our calculations, the war would be over, eh? I made a beeline for the recruiting office and proudly signed up to fight against the Yellow Peril for King and Country once more, not to rest before the world according to Charlie Brown was safe for Democracy. After all that, I was never called up and remained stuck right where I was and all that came with it. This was not all bad mind you except my heart was really somewhere else. I had a great desire to return to Canada and join McGill University.
I have to tell you that getting back to Canada was done on a priority basis. You had to have the points to make a fast trip. For every month of service, you had in Canada, you were awarded one point. For every month you served beyond Canadian borders, you could count two points. The most I could cobble together was nineteen, a very low total designed to keep me where I was for years. I requested compassionate consideration with regard to my continuing education. I appeared before one of the officers who, as it turned out, was a friend of Captain Gus Kennedy, previously mentioned, and also knew of my family. I didn’t get any break and was turned down cold as is the expression, doomed for service in the Canadian Army of Occupation. Not McGill University but, as it turned out, a learning experience of considerable importance, non the less. It was about this time that I hardened my disrespect for the officer corps. We never saw the buggers you know. I had another trick up my sleeve, however.
Actually, it was not really a trick and if it had been, it would have been in my ear. I was going deaf, couldn’t hardly hear a thing. All that shelling you know. Not very nice but maybe a ticket home. I went on sick call which I could hardly hear. They had to yell directions for me to catch the next truck into where?, where I would be examined by an MO as one referred to a medical officer in khaki. He looked into my ears and since he could not see daylight on the other side, concluded I had blocked ears. He mumbled something to his Sergeant whatever and before you could spit, I was having my ears syringed out with peroxide. You should have seen the shit that came out. And I could hear again. The sounds were unbelievable, every thing crisp and sharp. Why, I could even hear myself think.
This all goes to show how delinquent the Army can be to its young fighting men. Now, at home, my mother always took care of my ears. She really had a fixation about clean ears. She would sneak up on me from behind, grab an ear or two and drag me off to her bedroom where she would start digging into my ears with a hair pin. Oh the shame of it all when you are eighteen. While there were all kinds of inspections in the army, bed inspections daily, kit inspections monthly along with short arm inspections from time to time, they were completely remiss about ear inspections. What happens is, you go deaf, have to get them reamed out and stay in Germany for a year. Hah!
When there is not much to do, what is left is to sit around and chew the fat. I of course had a lot to say. Added to the general composition of the section being mostly from the agricultural type persuasion, this propensity to mouth off earned me the designation of “Professor” Actually it was a high school diploma which won the day. I am sure I was insufferable even then.
This brings up something I have been dying to tell you, well, almost anyway, on several occasions.
I am always ready at the drop of participle to talk about books as you know. The one which I wish to promote this time is “The Thirteenth Valley” by John M. Del Vecchio. If you want to have an excellent example of combat conditions and combat relationships, this book is a must. I only know of it in paperback edition. It is the one month story of a replacement soldier to a regiment in Viet Nam. He is given the name Cherry until he proves himself under fire. About 80 percent of what happens, what the relationships are both during that month and at home, what they talk about, even a dastardly major is very similar to my experiences. They call Cherry the “Professor” because he has two years of college. In the end, Cherry is battle hardened and wants to continue on with a vengeance.
My experience in this respect is a feeling that I would like to go back into action to do things differently, be much more aggressive. More macho? well, hardly knowing myself quite well!
During the time of the Falklands War, I had a big itch to follow the flag again. The feeling of being trained and armed to go into battle has never left me. I would like to test myself all over again even knowing I don’t have to do it again, and once is enough. Everything previously stated about the war and its ending, I stand by. Still, the experience is profound, never to be forgotten, if you survive. I’m glad I had the experience. As the CBC put it a few years ago in a programme about WW2, it was the last good war.
Just about this time, I get another letter from Dorothy Markham. She tells me of hearing I have been awarded a medal, and what is this all about. This is news to me. In no way can I think of any reason what I might have done to be considered for a medal. Shortly after, I hear some scuttlebutt from the guys that I had been recommended for an M.M. meaning a Military Medal which can be given to other ranks, like privates and such. I also hear from the same source that it was decided to be given to, I think, a John… as he had garnered two wound stripes as well as syphilis. It was thought the M.M. would go a long way towards squaring things with his wife. Logic like this is pretty hard to deny. I must admit some disappointment while still wondering what I might have done to warrant the attention. Maybe it was because I got up enough courage to go past that tank. When I eventually got back to Canada and met up with the old gang from Park Extension, I was queried about my medal. Me, I just didn’t want to talk about it being the shy, self-effacing but largely unsung, hero type.
Well, for once I know where I ended up next. I was Hilversum in Holland, between Utrecht and Amsterdam. It was there that I had to take down my red hackle from my balmoral and replace it with the cross of St. George and other icons. I was inducted into the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, at least another Scottish regiment. I was still hoping to be called for Pacific duty. It took a few weeks to get organized and in the meantime, we again had time to do not very much.
As usual, we were billeted in a local farm complex of some sort, not far from the town. There was an empty storage building which contained a small motorcycle. I got some gas for it and tried it out, never having been on a motorcycle in my life. I got it going all right and was driving around in circles in the shed. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to shut it off and I was getting dizzy. I thought that I might have to go around forever or until I ran out of gas. I don’t really know what I did but I was able to stop it, not that I got any help from my friends who just stood around.
It was about this time that I was just hanging out and a couple of the guys came running up to me, all excited, to tell that there was a Captain who was looking for me. I wondered what shit I was in this time. It was my old friend, Gus Kennedy come to check me over for the family. We had a nice little visit and then he hopped back into his jeep and was gone. Let me tell you that my stock was much improved by hobnobbing with a real Captain with a couple of wound stripes and a chestfull of medals including double oak leaves for having been mentioned in dispatches. All this did nothing to alter my general disgust with officers.
My ire was further fueled when one Saturday afternoon I was roaming around Hilversum and came across a theatre. I heard music coming from the interior and saw a poster with the name of Yehudi Menuin on it. It sounded real good and I tried to go in, only to be told that this was for officers only. I was pissed off of course and slunk away in a small fury. Those bastards, thinking themselves better than anyone else. I don’t think I have mentioned yet that recently I was able to get copies of my service records from the Gummint. In both of my appraisals, it was noted that I was a likely candidate for Officer training. What is that old saying? “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would accept me”.
It was in Hilversum that we received a complete new set of uniforms and anything else needed to complete our wardrobe. My original battle dress was in terrible shape, ripped and dirty. One rip was over my right knee. This was occasioned when my knee came too close to one of the bipedal feet of my Bren while running across a field. I got a good cut at the same time. I also got cut on my forehead from the same feet. I would grab the barrel of the Bren and swing it over my shoulder. At the same time, in a fit of efficiency, I would slam the legs flat against the barrel. One time I missed my timing and gashed my forehead. I sometimes refer to these two injuries as self-inflicted wounds. In the right company it raises eyebrows.
What was somewhat remarkable was that I turned in a size 22 battle dress for a size 9 would you believe. I remember days after hostilities ended at how much weight I had lost in only a couple of months. I also noticed that a small roll of fat remained just below my belly button. I don’t think I have ever been more svelte. It was nice while it lasted but I guess it is just not my style. I often think of my body, wishing I had more control over its contours. Still, I acknowledge and am grateful for, its health and strength. It may not look like much but it’s a good body, not to be ashamed of, nor any part of it. Soon we took off to our last permanent destination, truckloads of us to Wilhelmshaven, and our share in the occupation and policing of a torn, tattered and mostly shredded Germany.