Veteran Stories:
James Walter Keith

Army

  • J. Walter Keith at the Ramada Inn and Golf Dome, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, June 5, 2010.

    Historica Canada
  • J. Walter Keith in the uniform of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Summer 1941.

    J. Walter Keith
  • Infantry Roll Book, 16 Platoon, "D" Company, The Regina Rifle Regiment, with pages opened to March 6, 1945. Lieutenant J. Walter Keith, 16 Platoon commanding officer, carried this book in his tunic pocket on the day in question.

    J. Walter Keith
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"Well, we were always taught to fire around, not over. He made a fundamental mistake ̶ he got up on top of this thing and a German got him right in the middle of the forehead, killed. That was my first dead guy."

Transcript

In the summer of 1944, horrible casualties in Normandy, worse than the First World War actually, the casualties per battalion per month. So they ran out of reinforcements and they involuntarily transferred a lot of officers and other ranks from the artillery. Less from the [Royal Canadian] armoured corps, none from signals [Royal Canadian Corps of Signals], they transferred them to the infantry. They called for volunteers and I volunteered. Not because I wanted to be a hero, [laughs] but because I hated signals. [laughs]

There seemed there was a damn conspiracy to keep me away from battle. There must have been. Some higher power there was arranging that I didn’t get there. I met two guys I chummed with on this junior leaders course. One was from signals too. It was Jimmy Webster from Ontario. After the course, I never saw him again. I regret that very much because I liked Jimmy. He was a good guy. He had been with the Regina Rifles [Regiment] actually.

I was sitting there and sitting there and sitting there, not getting on draft so I got mad, paraded before the commanding officer from the reinforcement unit who happened to be [Lieutenant-Colonel] Foster [M.] Matheson, “Black Bess.” [laughs] And a wonderful man. So I complained bitterly to him about sitting in this bloody Aldershot [England]. So he cried on my shoulder about having got sent back, so we had a mutual crying session, but he got me on a draft.

It felt like coming home because it was a Saskatchewan bunch. Most of the guys were from Saskatchewan. Most of the signals guys were from Ontario and they were some pretty good heads, but these were Saskatchewan guys and it was like coming home.

So I got [No.] 16 Platoon. My introduction to [No.] 16 Platoon was great. First of all, the platoon sergeant was Tommy Tomlinson, Sergeant Tomlinson, who had landed on D-Day, been all the way through and never been wounded, was still a marvelous soldier at the end, cool in battle and really a hell of a good leader. And I thought he would resent me, you know. Here is this green lieutenant, not even infantry trained, coming up to take over command of the platoon from him because he’d commanded it for a couple of weeks. He was in the Moyland Wood, commanded it before that. And he said, Jesus, sir, am I glad to see you. I said, what the hell do you mean? Well, he says, I like to have an officer. [laughs]

We went on into Emmerich and I lost another kid, killed. We went into one factory building. Well, going into the factory building, this was my first attack, my first real attack. I wanted to lead the platoon in. So we were sitting under the muzzle of this [Ordnance Quick-Firing] 17 pounder anti-tank gun and Dick Roberts is telling me my orders. And he knew what I planned to do. So he said, send a section in first. I said, no, I’m not, I’m going to lead the platoon in. He called me Mr. Keith; and he was getting mad at me. He said, Mr. Keith, this is a direct order; you will send a section in first. Well, I said, under my breath, [laughs] you’re a … but I sent a section first. They ran across the road and I led the rest of the platoon across to this building. There’s Germans spraying the place with [Maschinenpistole 40] Schmeisser [submachine gun], what do they call them, machine pistols, spraying the air with this thing. So we kept on going, banging away from the hip and bullets ricocheting all from the steel columns all over this place. We got to the other side of this one, we’re now on the lane and there’s another big building there.

And this one kid from Dollard, Saskatchewan, can’t remember his name, rifleman, real good kid. He took his Bren [light machine] gun and he put it on this, there was a mound of rubble. Well, we were always taught to fire around, not over. He made a fundamental mistake ̶ he got up on top of this thing and a German got him right in the middle of the forehead, killed. That was my first dead guy. And that was pretty horrible because the bodies lay out there all day when I was walking back and forth. Tommy Tomlinson ran out behind his shed and grabbed the kid. I saw his chest rise and fall with his last breath. Tommy ran out and grabbed him by the heels, and dragged him in. And then the poor old stretcher bearer, he put sulfa [antibiotic powder] in that hole in the kid’s head and put a bandage on it; and the kid was dead, but he tried to, you know, he figured he had to do something. So he lay there most of the day and I had to pass him going back and forth to company headquarters. It was just bloody amazing, somebody must have been watching over me.

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