William Booth

Private W.T. Booth (D-83056)

Notes further to a few of the entries in the Black Watch war diary. They are based on the personal experiences of the writer, then a private in the Intelligence Section of Battalion Headquarters, First Battalion, Black Watch.

July, 1944

Entries July 11-17 marked “Frankeville” (misspelling of Francqueville)

Francqueville is a village just west of the road leading south from Villons-les Buissons through Biron, Authie, Francqueville to Carpiquet airfield – the axis of advance by infantry of the Canadian third division on the first few days after the landing on the beaches. Fighting was again heavy in this area on the 8th of July in the operation which saw the fall of Caen. To the east of this road and set some distance back from it is the Abbey of Ardenne, the fields adjoining it, surrounded by hedgerows, being the concentration area for the Black Watch from July 11 to 17 preparatory to its first action against the enemy on July 18.

The Abbey gave us our first sight and lasting impression of the aftermath of battle. The Canadians who had been executed there by the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division (the rank and file were not told about this at the time) had of course been taken away and buried, but the German dead inside the walls in an apple orchard and inside the building had not been. The stench of decomposition hung heavy over their bodies, bloated in the hot July sun. I remember two men who told us they were from the British Seventh Armored Division (the “Desert Rats” of the 8th Army in North Africa) preparing a meal for themselves in that scene. One end of the Abbey was just a gaping hole in which a Sherman tank had blown up. Something charred beyond recognition lay on the ground beside it. Major Motzfeldt said it was a sheep but we suspected otherwise.

 Entries July 18-25, Caen, Vaucelles, Ifs, Hill 67, May-sur-Orne:

The Black Watch saw its first action on July 18 when it crossed the Orne canal separating Caen from the western suburb (Vaucelles) at this point. This was part of the Canadian role in Operation “Goodwood,” Montgomery’s objective being to break out of the Orne bridgehead and capture the high ground south of Caen known as the Bourgebus-Verrieres ridge. “Goodwood” effectively ended July 21.

When the Essex Scottish were thrown back from Hill 67 by a counter-attack on July 21, the Black Watch was ordered to retake the hill and hold it. Besides the creeping barrage mentioned in the War Diary, the rifle company that I was with had the support of a Sherman tank firing its six-pounder anti-tank gun. It turned aside as we approached the crest. Three of us from the I-Section of BHQ had gone forward to dig an observation post on the reverse slope. The attack was successfully carried out though we were under mortar and sniper fire during its course. Because I walked alongside the Sherman I wouldn’t hear the incoming fire. I saw some of its effects, of course, such as the death of a man I knew named Hudson who was thrown into the air by a mortar bomb. Yet the entire attack, which didn’t last long, had an air of unreality, as though it were a movie I was watching. When we had taken the Hill this feeling vanished in the shock of seeing Canadian dead, the Essex Scottish, lying on the ground. Seeing Hudson fall did not have the effect on me of seeing the sleeve patch of the Second Division on the uniforms of those killed.

On that day (July 21) operation Goodwood effectively ended without succeeding in securing the Bourgebus-Verrieres Ridge. During the three days we were on Hill 67 (the rifle companies below the crest, in the area of Beauvoir farm; the command post of BHQ in a large dugout on the crest with a few of us from the I Section and others in a supporting role in slit trenches near it) we seemed to be under ceaseless fire with “moaning minnies” constituting a good part of it. Such fire begins to wear down the nerves rather quickly. Major Motzfeldt did much to boost the morale of those around the command post by strolling among the slit trenches with his balmoral and its red hackle on his head.

On the 23rd of July, a German fighting patrol “infiltrated through the forward companies and attacked the Command Post,” as the Diary reports. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. There was suddenly a burst of shouting in German, and in English to the rest of us to stay in our slit trenches, and from behind us there immediately came the roar of machine gun fire. The War Diary doesn’t mention it, but the machine gun fire came from a unit of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, a medium machine gun battalion defending the Command Post. The man in our regiment which the Diary reported killed was an anti-tank gunner named Bulow whose six-pounder gun was positioned about a hundred yards ahead of the Command Post. When dawn broke in a heavy mist, the Germans who had survived walked toward us, hands on their heads and calling out “Kamerad.” They all wore field caps, not steel helmets. One of the men I was guarding seemed to be in his late forties. He was calm and asked me if we were “Amerikanisch.” One of the pockets of his tunic bulged with his shaving gear. Perhaps the patrol was for him a way of resigning from the war.

Around 3:30 in the morning of July 25 the rifle companies began to make their way from the area of Beauvoir Farm to the town of St Andre-sur-Orne, a part of which the Queen’s Own Camerons of Canada had been clinging to the past few days. A report had come from them that the town was clear, and the Black Watch moved forward to their forming up point in preparation for its role in the second phase of the operation named “Spring.” The fighting transport (F Echelon) of the regiment remained in the town of Ifs along with the men in Battalion HQ who had not been on Hill 67. Three of us from the I Section (Sgt. Fred Janes, “Dolly” Lessard, and I) were to precede the rifle companies to St. Andre and then, according to our orders, into St. Martin-de-Fontenay to lay white tape marking the forward edge of the forming-up point. The tape was wound on a signals reel. St. Martin is sister to St. Andre, alongside an apple orchard which was soon laced with tracer fire from a machine gun. St. Martin had not been cleared. There was nothing to do but take cover where we were. I found a German slit trench in the orchard and at first light, as the vehicles of F Echelon began pulling into a large field behind us, moved across the road to a ditch with a hedge running alongside it. Looking over the hedge, one could see the wreckage of a bomber knocked down during operation Goodwood and beyond it the gentle rise of the grain fields to the crest of the Verrieres Ridge. The grain was about waist high at that time. Soon the vehicles in the vehicle park and those dug in around them and in the ditch running along the road would come under observed fire from the ridge and, though I think most of us didn’t know it at the time, from high ground west of the Orne.

The entry in the Diary: “May – sur – Orne. 25th Fri.” reflects some of the confusion and problems in communication on that day. The Black Watch was never in May – sur – Orne except for a patrol or two sent in by Major Phillip Griffin then acting C.O. since Lt. Col. Cantlie had been killed while on reconnaissance in the early hours of the morning and the senior company commander, Major Motzfeldt who was with him wounded. In the first phase of the attack the Queen’s Own Camerons who were to secure the towns of St. Andre and St. Martin-de-Fontenay were unable to do so because the enemy continued to infiltrate the area. The Calgary Highlanders who were to go through the Camerons and take the May-sur-Orne, about a kilometer south, got to the town but were unable to hold their position there.

We assumed that the rifle companies began their advance about mid-morning, though we had no communication with them. They had been strung out along the walls and hedgerows on the eastern side of St. Martin and were to advance to their start line, a road running out of May and up to the crest of the ridge, where they were to follow a creeping barrage onto their objective, Fontenay-le-Marmion. By the time they reached the start line their casualties were heavy. They had come under fire from the ridge and from May-sur-Orne on the right flank. Only some 60 men reached the crest of the ridge; some 15 were able to make their way back down. Griffin’s body was found among those who reached the crest.

Later that morning, the Germans turned their attention to the vehicle park and to the men dug in at the side of the road. I remember that the first mortar rounds – three of them – were dropped on the airplane wreckage in the field to the east of the road. We guessed that they were either ranging shots or were intended to kill or drive out snipers who might have been concealed there. This was followed by a methodic “walking” of mortar bombs up and down the ditch and hedgerow. This fire continued at intervals. At the same time fire was brought down on the men and vehicles on the other side of the road. Particularly terrifying were the shells from the 88mm gun with its high muzzle velocity and the flat trajectory of its shells which came in on us with a shriek and near simultaneous explosion. Mortar bombs by contrast gave some advance notice of their approach. By this time (early afternoon perhaps) a number of the vehicles were on fire. Later the field was covered, it seemed, with burning vehicles including an armored one with slits for windows, but not a recce car as I remember, which gave off roiling black smoke.

In digging my slit trench I had struck a thick root which I wouldn’t cut with my shovel. I moved back up the ditch about seven or eight feet and began digging there. Above me at about the same distance two of our signalers had dug quite a deep trench for themselves. I had dug a shallow trench when the Sergeant of the I section, Fred Janes, came across the road and began digging the trench which I had abandoned. Before that he had dug in along side the I section vehicle. He had not been long digging when we heard a mortar bomb coming in. In a matter of seconds we knew it was coming in on us when the feathery sound a mortar bomb has as it descends changed to a roar. I pressed down as flat as I could but the trench was too shallow to allow me to get below the surface. When the bomb exploded it felt as if a giant foot had stepped on my back and driven the air out of my lungs. Barely moving, I tried to “feel” if I’d been hit. I sat up and looked to where Janes had been digging; only a blackened depression remained. The recognizable half of Janes lay on the road.

Above the two signalers sat motionless in their trench. They were both dead but not a mark could be seen on their bodies. Whether it was another bomb on that particular stroll up the ditch I didn’t know. If so, then I had been bracketed and left without a scratch. Though I didn’t think these thoughts then, later I wondered if on the next round a slight adjustment of the sights on the mortar wouldn’t have made it a clean sweep.

I think it was about mid-afternoon at that point. It seemed that most of the vehicles in the field had been hit. A pall of smoke and dust hung over the park. There had been no word of rifle companies, no one there in that scene to organize and direct those who were still alive. For those of us in the I section – “Dolly” Lessard, Ray Dubuc, who had come down in the trucks later in the morning, myself and the driver – there was nothing to do but get out. Lessard, who was a little ways down the ditch toward St. Andre, shouted to me and we both ran across the road to the truck. The driver and Ray Dubuc ran over from their trenches. The steel frame that supported the canvas canopy had been cut in two on one side by shrapnel. Jerry tins of gas had been spilled but had not caught fire. The tires on one side I remember had been blown and there was a large hole in the engine hood but no critical part had been damaged. We jumped in, the driver floored the accelerator, and we raced up the hill to Fleury-sur-Orne. Major Mitchell became C.O. and the Battalion went into reserve until its rifle companies could be brought up to strength.

Entry Bourgbourgville, France. 14th Sept. 

The DR who ran into an armored car was the writer of these notes. After the 25th of July the Battalion was established in Fleury-sur-Orne and the I section was given its own motorcycle (a standard issue Norton, as was also the BSA).”Dolly,” Lessard, and I were the only ones who wanted to ride it. There was no instruction.

Early in the day of Sept. 13, “Dolly” was thrown from the bike, or spilled it, when an incoming mortar bomb exploded. The road between Grande Mille Brugghe and Bourgbourgville was under constant observation by the Germans in Spycker. They fired at everything that came along it. “Dolly’s” spill broke the headlight, though anyone traveling that road at night didn’t use lights. I “met” the armored car when I was coming back from Bourgbourgville carrying codes for the rifle companies and others in Grand Mille Brugghe. It had its small running lights on but I must have been too tired to see them. The accident sent me back to Bayeux in Normandy for two weeks.

Entry MR 722518 23rd Dec. (See also 29,30 31 Dec.) 

BHQ was in the town of Cuijk an dem Maas. The Monastery of St. Agatha was a short distance from Cuijk and from the Maas River. The OP was on the top floor of the monastery, which had received some damage from shell fire, and looked out toward Middelarhuis. In the middle distance was a small one story building into and out of which the enemy strolled nonchalantly. The entry in the Diary for Dec. 22 notes that this carelessness had been observed by the rifle companies, too, and suggested it might be owing to the German success in the Forest of Ardennes. The OP had a field phone and lines to the mortar and medium artillery batteries. It would been a waste of ammunition to have fired on the enemy every time they came out of that building, which no doubt had a deep cellar, but when I reported mortar positions, the response was quick. The enemy also took his turn and occasionally dropped a few mortar bombs on the grounds of the monastery. The OP was never hit.