The cover of Peter Cottingham's book, "Once Upon a Wartime'. The photo of him was taken in Grasse, France, in 1944.Peter Cottingham
A map of the Anzio landings in which Peter Cottingham took part in 1944.Peter Cottingham
A painting of the fortress that Peter Cottingham's unit took in Anzio, with a picture of his commanding officer (inset), who was killed in the operation.Peter Cottingham
Peter Cottingham, 2010.Historica Canada
"I says, this looks like it, Tom. He says, it sure as hell does. And the ground was shaking from this tank coming. And all of a sudden, somebody got him with a bazooka."
The day we broke out of the Anzio beachhead is probably indelibly etched on my brain, what’s left of it. And it was a very, very sad day. My colonel, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Grey, a great guy, the day before this, he said, Pete, we’re going to with the assault platoon of 6th Company when we break out of the Anzio beachhead. And I says, oh my goodness, colonel, who’s going to run the place if you get hurt or killed? And he said, McFadden, he’s 2IC [second-in-command]. I said, okay.
So the next morning, we sneaked into this canal which sort of surrounded that part of the beachhead, this is the Anzio beachhead, and down on the step in the canal, we were quite out of sight of the enemy until we get up over the earth that they piled up when they were building the canal. And this is where we going to take off to go through the German lines, which at that point in the beachhead was probably three or four hundred yards from the canal.
Well, the engineers had built a bridge for the tanks to go across the canal; and at zero hour, a couple of our tanks went through there and then we all scrambled out of the canal, and followed the tanks. We were getting a lot of machine gun fire coming at us and we hadn’t gone 50 yards before my colonel got killed. And it was just a pretty tough time from then on.
Then these guys that we were going after came out of their place with their hands in the air, came running toward us. And the hardest thing I ever had to do was not shoot one of them, just to, they were giving up. And I just waved them, go back, you know, to whoever’s back in the canal. And we kept on going. But that was the toughest thing I ever did.
After we had broken out of Anzio, we had a deal with about five German Tiger [Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H] tanks and you don’t want to get mixed up in a tank battle because your flesh and bone don’t feel like much under a little steel flag around, I’ll tell you. But this particular one, our battalion headquarters had taken refuge in a farm building which had a lot of granite stones and very thick walls and it seemed like a good place to hide if there were these tanks coming by.
And the first thing I found out is that one of the guys who was in charge of the tanks was up in the top story of this building, directing the [Medium Tank, M4] Shermans. And the Shermans were useless in the war. And they were burning all around us. We had 15 when we started out that morning and, I think, we were down to about two by that time in the afternoon.
And, anyhow, one of these Tiger tanks threw a shell into the top story of this building, so myself and another guy went up there to see if this tank commander was alright, and he was dead. So there was no use. And then we came back down in and they put one right through our building and it didn’t hit anybody in there, but it hit the tank that was hiding behind the building. An 88 [German anti-tank artillery gun], they go through anything. And when that shell came through my, the room I was in, you couldn’t see a thing except the dust of pulverized granite. [laughs] And the only I could see was the door, which was open and I got out of there pretty fast, and so did everybody else; and we went back down and got into a ditch. It was a one-sided war right there with those tanks.
We got in the ditch and one of the guys, about two from me, had some white phosphorous [incendiary] grenades in his pack, which was sticking up a little bit and a machine gun bullet hit it and burned him in half. It was a pretty bad spot. And then, I thought, the tank that did that was coming toward us and I just thought, this was it, we can’t look up or we’ll get shot, they’re going to run over us. This guy had his face right about that far from me, I says, this looks like it, Tom. He says, it sure as hell does. And the ground was shaking from this tank coming. And all of a sudden, somebody got him with a bazooka or something because he burned up and we heard the ammunition blowing up in there and the guys were screaming, and that’s it. That was a German tank.