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The Canadians in Italy1943/45

by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

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Contributed by 
Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
People in story: 
Tom Canning
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A1149158
Contributed on: 
19 August 2003

It was during the Battle for Ortona that the Cdn. 1st Infantry Division ran out of steam and were replaced by the newly arrived Cdn 5th Armed Division, who had not fired a shot in the war to date whereas the 1st Inf. Div had exceeded all expectations in the Sicily Campaign and were recognised by Gen. Montgomery to be a first class fighting unit and he thought the world of them all as he had served as a Staff Officer to the Canadians during the Great War of 1914 -18.

As the 1st Div were withdrawing they were overtaken by some units of the 5th Armed Div. who made it known to all and sundry that they would now show the 1st Cdn. how to fight. Unfortunately for the 5th Armed Div. they bounced into the German 1st Parachute Div. of whom General Sir Harold Alexander wrote to Gen Alanbrooke the C.I.G.S. that they were the finest fighting troops in the world in regard to their performance at MonteCassino. The inexperienced 5th Cdn.Armed Div. did not know this and so they were back just two days later, much the wiser.

Their education was completed when they ran into the 1st Cdn Inf Div. now fully rested after their two day respite, and a full scale fight took place between the two Cdn Divs. with the Germans, on one hill, and the British on the other hill, wondering what the heck was going on. Gen Montgomery was not too pleased when he was given the details of the fracas, and after another little Battle the 5th Cdn.Armed
Div. was banished close to the American sector !

This, of course left the Canadians without Tank support and as the two British Armed Divs, the 1st Armed ( Desert Rats of Gulf Fame) and 6th Armed were fully occupied with their own British Corps. The British 25th and the 21st Tank Brigades with their Churchill Tanks, were volunteered for the task !

Much training was then begun and various lessons learned, and we soon began to appreciate the values and integrity of these men from Canada, and so we prepared for Battle,as the Monte Cassino conflict was now in its third phase and it looked like we could be called on at anytime soon,which proved to be the case. Unfortunately for the 25th Tanks, the 21st suffered a landslide which all but buried the whole Brigade and neccessitated a wholesale clean up which lasted a whole week. The 25th were then thrown into the Battle of the Gustav Line followed in short order by the Liri Valley Battle. These have been recorded in detail elsewhere, but mention must be made of the Tank Killing Grounds of Pontecorvo and Arce.

These were spaces cleared of trees in a big rectangle with a path on the say, North side, which was being traversed by the North Irish Horse, under wireless silence. As the leading Tank came into the centre of the path through this cleared space,it came under fire from a 50mm gun in the S.E. corner. The lead tank then swung to deal with this gun and the rest of the squadron followed and when fourteen tanks were in a semi circle in this cleared space, an 88mm a/t gun opened up and knocked them all out with 35 killed and another 30 men wounded, in less than two minutes. Meanwhile about half a mile away, the 51st Tanks had come upon the same scene with the same results, so with 28 Tanks knocked out in a few minutes the Infantry were denied all Tank support and the attack fizzled out !

This was classified as a bad day, but it was not the worst as the confusion around the entrance to the Liri Valley with some ten or more Divisions all struggling to move on and so it was with a great sigh of relief that we all made it to near the Alban Hills in time for a Commando group to 'liberate' Rome. This gave us time to absorb reinforcements and have a rest as all too soon we were lead Brigade at the start of the Gothic Line Battle.

The night before we made our first move over the Metauro River to start the Battle we were advised that we would catch up with the Seaforths of Canada, a Vancouver Regiment with whom we had been training for some time but.......as we moved over the River.... all Tank Commanders and Wireless ops. should have their heads above the normal level of the Tank Turret.There were quite a few complaints about this as it was recognised as a suicide ploy usually, but we were convinced to do so... until at least we were fired upon !!!

Later we were told that we had been watched by Gen. Alexander and no less than Mr Churchill who had been very impressed with our 'devil may care' attitude. If he had only heard some of the comments.......

The Gothic Line Battles were different inasmuch as the German knew that they were well on the way to defeat and so they made every effort to hold us from gaining access to the Po Valley where we had at least five Armed Divisions waiting to spill out and force their way into meeting the Americans on the other side of the Florence area.

It took too long, and as we had been fighting hard since Aug 27th, by Sept 11th we were a sorry lot and we were driving in line ahead, obviously moving into a different sector nearer the coast we came upon a sight which was unforgettable. The beautiful azure Adriatic Sea in all it's glory with waves lapping the sandy beaches of a small town called Catolica. We just all looked until moved on by the M.P's. little did we know that we were to spend two whole days in that small town with it's beautiful beaches and clear waters.

We met again with our Inf. Platoon and MacDonald, the medic from Montreal, who always rode on my Tank at my side, invited us to dinner ! We then had a quick wash and brush up and duly presented ourselves at the Warship shaped Barracks they were in. MacDonald, on seeing us there slapped his forehead and gasped - "you guys are here for dinner - right ?", we agreed and so he borrowed my Webley, walked outside where we heard one shot ring out, a minute later MacDonald strides in with a dead chicken. After a cursory cleaning it ended up in a stew / soup whatever, which was delicious.

Three days later we were in a real ding dong fight with an 88mm a/t gun - and we lost two good men with seven wounded. I spent the next six months in various hospitals being patched up and returned to active service. The Canadians kept going until they were tranferred to Belgium early in the new year and distinguished themselves once more, with many Cities and Towns in Canada being the recipients each year of magnificent Dutch Gardens in thanksgiving for their release from occupation.

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Message 1 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 13 November 2003 by GerryChester

Hello Tom,

I have read with great interest your excellent piece on Canadians in Italy, particularly as the Regiment in which I served, the North Irish Horse, was fighting alongside men of 1 Canadian Corps in the Hitler and Gothic Line battles. However, the paragraph below is not an accurate portrayal of the events of May 23rd 1944.

"These were spaces cleared of trees in a big rectangle with a path on the say, North side, which was being traversed by the North Irish Horse, under wireless silence. As the leading Tank came into the centre of the path through this cleared space,it came under fire from a 50mm gun in the S.E. corner. The lead tank then swung to deal with this gun and the rest of the squadron followed and when fourteen tanks were in a semi circle in this cleared space, an 88mm a/t gun opened up and knocked them all out with 35 killed and another 30 men wounded, in less than two minutes. Meanwhile about half a mile away, the 51st Tanks had come upon the same scene with the same results, so with 28 Tanks knocked out in a few minutes the Infantry were denied all Tank support and the attack fizzled out !"

The lead Churchill, the Squadron Leader's tank on which I was aboard, was not knocked out by 50mm gun but by fire from a dug in Panther turret. She was hit on her starboard side four times, the only penetration being to the turret - fortunately after we had baled out. Sadly, the driver was killed on his way out. The same gun also knocked out the 2 I/Cs tanks immediately behind ours.

Here is an extract from my narrative:
" At about 08.00 hrs, having concluded that the combination of smoke, dust and exhaust fumes, which had reduced visibility to but a few yards, would provide good cover, the order to move out was given. Ballyrashane-4 led the way out of the woods, followed by Capt. Pope's tank, which took up a position a short way to the left, and by Bangor, commanded by Sgt Roy Burns, moving to the right. Almost immediately, we received two quick hits on the starboard side. Although neither hit had penetrated the hull, Major Russell wisely gave the order to bail out.
Bill Wheatley exited through the pannier door, with great presence of mind, bringing one of the tank's first-aid kits with him. I shot out of the turret to take up cover on our tank's port side. No sooner had I done so when another A/T shell destroyed the right track cover, mortally wounding Harry and severely injuring our Skipper who fell off the turret on to the left track. Behind him, Alan Hughes managed to evacuate safely. No sooner had he done so, when another shot penetrated the turret causing the ammo to start exploding. While Bill and I were lifting Major Russell down, I was slightly wounded by some flying debris. By great good fortune, a few yards in front of us was a small wadi, which provided us with some cover, into which we managed to carry the dying Harry."

The attack continued to successfully break the Hitler Line to allow Canadian Armour to continue northwards. If the 25 tanks lost (not 28)7 were knocked out by the same Panther Turret as they returned to replenish ammo stocks et cetera. The wrath of the Churchills utterly destroyed the turret killing the crew who had bravely stayed put. For a photograph of the turret, please see: http://www.geocities.com/vqpvqp/nih/Articles/1-4a.htmlAbout links

To correct the quoted casualty figures, 34 were killed and 36 were wounded. The attack did not fizzle out, it was successful as indicated by an exchange of messages. The wearing of the Maple Leaf was the highest battle honour bestowed on the NIH in its 100-year history. See: http://www.geocities.com/vqpvqp/nih/addenda/tetley.htmlAbout links

 

Message 2 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 16 November 2003 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Hello Gerry,

My quotations came from one of your buddies - Terry McGrath whom I am sure you will remember...I think he had a few G&T's at the same time..Sadly Terry died about five years ago and he followed his wife.
I was with 145 th R.A.C in 21st brigade and we were following you around at that time. I finally bought it at San Fortunato on the Coriano Ridge in the September. The Canadians were great guys and we had a great deal of respect for them.. we still have "Smoky" Smith V.C. with us here in Vancouver and he trots out now and again although this week he was in a wheel chair when he laid his wreath for the lads. Great to hear from you after all this time.. I was wondering when some of the lads would show up !

 

Message 3 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 16 November 2003 by GerryChester

Hello Tom,

Great to hear from a fellow Churchill crew member. I knew Terry McGrath, but we were not too close as he was in C Squadron while I served in B.

I bet you remember these insignia:

http://www.geocities.com/vqpvqp/nih/addenda/21atb.htmlAbout links

David Dawnay was CO of my Regiment in Africa.

Did you know the NIH joined 21 ATB on 4/12/44?

I have a site which may be of interest to you. Please see:

http://www.geocities.com/vqpvqp/nih/frontpage.htmlAbout links

Best wishe s,

Gerry

 

Message 4 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 17 November 2003 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Hello Gerry,
Pity you didn't get to know Terry McGrath as he was quite the character..he was posted as a deserter in North Africa as he had been released from hospital and was sent to the inevitable transit camp from which he took off and hitched back to the NIH whereupon the Major O.C. packed him into jeep.. went back to the transit camp...gave the Commandant hell for posting Terry as deserter ! He was a manager for the Customs for many years and was president of our catholic Organisation the Catenians when I caught up with him as he was wearing the same 'gongs' as I was at a national function and we got chatting
he always got a kick out of being a trooper and the ranks were full of Major generals. Colonels etc..but HE was President. We always had a few laughs to-gether. I'll look up that site you mention.

When 145th regt was broken up for spares at Cesena..at which time no doubt you joined 21ATB..I was still in hospital in Sicily..actually on my way to Blighty when they threw the battle casualties off and replaced them with base wallahs with long time malaria etc. I finally left hospital in the January '45 from the Sept '44
went to Reiti for retraining on armed cars and joined 16/5th Lancers in 6th Armed div and was with them til demob in may '47. I have a few more articles on site you might want to check out as it has been good fun in recalling all the times we had...we did get a few laughs !
God bless.

 

Message 5 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 17 November 2003 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Tom here again Gerry,
tried your site and managed to get the introdiction page but the others are "Gateway-timeout" so it's probably a Yahoo thing as I am on Google here in Canada and it sometimes get distorted...anyway it started off well !
Cheers beginning to sound like the Tom & Jerry show !

 

Message 6 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 23 November 2003 by GerryChester

Hello again Tom,

I have searched NIH records and cannot find any details as to when and how Terry was wounded. A chap in Belfast is also looking.

Could we contact each other by e-mail? I am working on a Churchill Brigades project - for instance, what was the general feeling in your unit about fighting in Tunisia while still part of 4th Mixed Division? Incidentally, the 21st was the only Brigade so to do.

My e-mail address is: vqpnih@msn.com

Regards, Gerry




 

Message 7 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 25 November 2003 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Gerry - Tom here

having troubole with your e-mail address - server is refusing to acknowledge - do you have another one -
if not - try mine at tomcan@shaw.ca

 

Message 8 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 03 December 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Hi Tom (and Gerry)
A cracking tale and well worth the telling despite the odd discrepancies (can I take my tin hat off now?).
I'm sure you've got many more such stories filed away in your head and if you don't tell them now, then, when?
I occasionally look in at the following site: www.ww2talk.comAbout links , I even remember telling you about it, and Gerry is the main 'Tank Rep'aboard.
Peter has recently introduced me to the joys of Messenging and the ability to actually talk to each other is quite mind-blowing.
Ask him to do the same for you and then we can all chat merilly away
Ciao for now
Ron

 

Message 9 - Canadians in Italy

Posted on: 03 December 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Fascinating stuff, and the WW2 website at its best!

Could I remind you two old-timers, and the rest, not to post email addresses 'en clair'? Unless of course you enjoy receiving lots of spam. Spammers employ 'spy-bots', tiny but ingenious programs, which rove the Internet harvesting email addresses. What they look for is the tell-tale @. You can mess these menaces up by disguising your address as (in these two cases) vqpnih@@msn.com and tomcan@@shaw.ca, with a note advising humans to remove the extra @. Another way, increasingly favoured, is to post addresses as vqpnihATmsn.com and tomcanATshaw.ca, with a note to replace AT with @.

Peter

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