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- Bill Greaves
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- 04 July 2004
This is not my story, but that of close legion friend of mine now deceased. I only wrot e it for him.
The BATTLE OF VERRIERES RIDGE
A name indelibly etched into the memories of the men of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division who took part in the fierce battle, code named “Atlantic” that swept back and forth across the ridge and in the villages of St. Andre sur Orne, Verrieres, St. Martin de Fontenay and Ifs between July 19 to the 21st, 1944. In these three days, every battalion committed in the battle suffered horrendous casualties in this their first major action of the invasion. The Essex alone sustained 244 casualties, 37 of them fatal.
I’ll not go deeply into all aspects of what had occurred on that blood saturated slope, details have been more than adequately covered and documented in the dozens of books written by noted Canadian and British historians over the many years since that evil day. I want to touch only on the story of one man, a Private in “D” company of the Essex Scottish Regiment of Windsor, Ontario, Bill Greaves, who was wounded in this crucial and soul shattering first battle since the tragedy of Dieppe where the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division landed in assault on the morning of August 19, 1942. It was on on the gentle slope of Verrieres Ridge in Normandy where next blood letting of the infantry battalions of 2nd Division took place. First, however, let me begin with an epitaph written by the late Col. C.P. Stacey in his book, The Victory Campaign, volume III of the Official Canadian History of WW II. It goes like this:
Three miles or so south of Caen, the present-day tourist driving down the arrow straight road that leads to Falaise, sees immediately to his right a rounded hill crowned by farm buildings. If the traveler be Canadian, he would do well to stay the wheels at this point and cast his mind back to the event of 1944; for this apparently insignificant eminence is the Verrieres Ridge. Well may the wheat and the sugar beets grow green and lush upon its gentle slope, for in that now half-forgotten summer the best blood of Canada was freely poured out upon them.
An eloquent and fitting tribute indeed.
The South Saskatchewans had gone up the Verrieres slope ahead of the Essex and soon found themselves floundering in a hell dance almost as flaming and body consuming as that of Dieppe. They were forced to pull back or face the reality of annihilation. They left behind them, however, on the grassy slope, a lot of good men, men they’d sorely be in need of in the days ahead. Their casualties numbered 66 killed, 116 wounded and 26 taken prisoner. Four days later in operation ‘Spring’ it would be the Black Watch’s turn to take a beating. They left behind even more men lying dead in the grain than had the regiment from the prairies. In fact it came about as close to being wiped out as had the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Essex Scottish two years earlier on the blood spattered stones at Dieppe. It was another black day for the 2nd Infantry Division.
As the prairie boys pulled back off the ridge on the 21st of June hounded by small-arms fire all the way, they passed through the two lead companies of the Essex Scottish who were already taking casualties from mortar bombs as well as snipers and intermittent machine gun fire. Dog Company, led by Capt. Cy Steele of Chatham, Ontario resolutely pushed on, though the small-arms fire thickened in intensity. All around them, bodies lay scattered about amidst the flourishing grain—their faces in the gray pallor and serenity of death. The wounded were intermixed with the dead. As Bill Greaves describes it, he had to step around and over the bodies of Sasks carpeting the slope. Bill and his buddies had only a moment or two to contemplate what had happened here and what lay ahead for them after seeing all the bodies, when all of a sudden they were hit by a whirlwind of 88 mm shells fired at them by German tanks. Machine gun fire laced into their ranks from several directions. And as they went to ground, mortars zeroed in on them.
Although the two companies had gone to ground, there was no protection for them there. The thick stand of grain offered concealment only. The thin stalks of wheat could not turn aside or stop the streams of .300 calibre steel jacketed rounds from slashing into flesh, bone and sinew. Nor could the grain stop shrapnel from perforating and slicing into their bodies as they pressed hard into the soggy soil in helpless desperation to escape death. The enemy, in full strength and in strongly set-up positions on the ridge, supported by mammoth, 88mm-gunned tanks, knew exactly where the Essex had gone to ground and poured everything they had at them. No amount of bravery could help them in the situation. To move forward was to die.
Early in the advance a sniper’s bullet caught Bill in the upper left thigh, knocking him 'ass over tea-kettle”. All around him his platoon mates were likewise being gunned down. Immediate withdrawal was the only command that could have been given, and so the remnants of the two Essex companies pulled back, leaving the wounded scattered amidst the wheat, to be picked up later when things quietened down or when the Ridge was taken. To the wounded it looked to be a forlorn hope.
Bill lay where he had fallen, drifting into and out of consciousness as the blood from the gouge torn out of his leg soaked his trousers and dripped onto the ground beneath him, made soft and mushy by the sharp downpour of rain earlier that morning. In his waking moments Bill felt sharp pangs of pain coursing up and down his leg. Gritting his teeth to keep from crying out, he managed to tie a shell dressing on the wound to staunch the flow of blood. And then, as if his present predicament wasn’t grim enough, mortar bomb1 frag-ments caught him in a shoulder, his good leg, and upper back. But the wounds, as painful as they were, were not Bill’s biggest concern. What troubled him more was the approach of SS killing squads thrashing about in the wheat on a search for wounded Canadians. He knew only too well what the infamous SS were capable of doing. They were young fanatics totally devoted to Hitler, totally lacking in compassion, who took sadistic pleasure in tormenting and then cold-bloodedly shooting the wounded. Another concern weighing heavy on his mind was the likelihood of tanks, either the enemy’s or his own, crushing the life out of him under their steel treads as they moved about on the slope. Bill had a pistol and for a moment thought seriously of putting a bullet into his brain when he heard the roar of a tank engine and the grating squeak of its treads against sprockets approaching the place where he lay. Quick death by a bullet was more preferable to him than being slowly crushed by the weight of a thirty-one ton Sherman or a fifty-six ton Tiger tank.
Later in the afternoon when tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers rumbled onto the scene, crew commanders were especially alert, not only for the presence of enemy armour and panzerfaust-armed2 infantry tank hunting teams, but they also scanned the terrain ahead to avoid running over the many dead and wounded lying about in profusion in the wheat. Even so, for all their care, some of the wounded did die horribly under the Shermans’ churning tracks. As one tank man put it, in a voice breaking under the strain of what he had just witnessed, “We just couldn’t help it. We’d swerve to miss one man, and damned if we didn’t roll over a couple of others.” It was a bloody, sad, and heartbreaking day for the Essex and all the other battalions that fought for the wheat covered slope of Verrieres Ridge.
Sometime towards evening when the mind numbing clamor of battle subsided, stretcher-bearers made their way forward to pick up the wounded, Bill, along with the other wounded were carried out to the Field Dressing Station for urgent treatment. Although the attack on the ridge had gone disastrously for the 2nd Infantry Division, when placed within the frame of the so-called ‘bigger picture’, it did achieve a measure of success. In all respects, the sacrifices made here on this minor, though fanatically defended elevation, without a doubt had a most important bearing on the outcome of the Yanks’ powerful breakout offensive on the right flank of the beachhead four days later. By tying down 1st Panzer Corps, their seemingly hopeless efforts kept this elite formation from being used against the Yanks, a move which might very well have stopped the attacking American divisions in their tracks or even driven them right back to the beach with heavy losses. What the outcome might have been after that, no one could hope to know or would dare conjecture. Therefore, it can be rightly said, that out of such sacrifices are major battles and even campaigns won. Although grave mistakes in the upper echelons of command had undoubtedly been made, the individual Canadian infantryman, the dead, the wounded, those who by the good fortunes of war came through unscathed only to die in later battles, and those who survived the war, helped make the breakthrough possible. They had given everything within their power to give, and in the end, their efforts and lavish sacrifice paved the way to overwhelming victory in Normandy.
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