Sergeant Ivan Smith of The Cape Breton Highlanders (on right), posing with a Dutch family in Baal, The Netherlands, 1945. The family had sheletered a Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation.Ivan Smith
Sergeant Ivan Smith of The Cape Breton Highlanders (on left) and a comrade, on leave in Rome, Italy, February 10, 1945.Ivan Smith
Regimental shoulder flash of The Cape Breton Highlanders.Ivan Smith
The Bay News (Regimental Newsletter of The Cape Breton Highlanders), Issue No. 5 of September 22, 1945. The featured article discusses Coriano Ridge, a Gothic Line battle that Mr. Smith recalled vividly 66 years after the fact.Ivan Smith
Mr. Ivan Smith in Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 27, 2010.Historica Canada
"But why didn’t they snipe me at the same time? Why didn’t they get me? Could never figure that out."
We landed in Naples [Italy]. We left Scotland in an old captured German ship. Left Naples and had a holding unit in Italy, called Avellino. From there, they shipped out to different units. So I was then [with] The Cape Breton Highlanders. And then we had a couple little skirmishes before [Monte] Cassino. That’s the first big one I had.
I got a couple little specks of shrapnel in my legs up there, but I got up and I was walking about Cassino; and they had dummies up in the trees all dressed up with the wire to them. They had the wire going to the main building and we were far enough in, then once in a while they let one drop here and drop here, and drop there all over the place, just wasting ammunition because they had to carry everything up that big mountain.
We got up there and I had a fellow on the right of me, and a fellow on the left, right close together. Someone killed them and I don’t know what, each side of me. I didn’t hear any artillery shells, but I think everything’s lit up, the haystacks burning and out buildings, and a sniper got them. That’s the only thing I can figure out. But why didn’t they snipe me at the same time? Why didn’t they get me? Could never figure that out. So I was there standing by myself...
Coriano Ridge, it was a hard battle there; and I’ll tell you, this is a good story here. We were just digging in. Alfred and I were digging our trench. [We] got down about a foot and I heard this mortar bomb coming over. Coriano Ridge was the hill we were on and the valley in between, and Germans on the other side, and another hill. I heard the bomb coming over; and it was getting very close. I was facing it. So I hollered to him to get down, just before it hit. But we had nowhere to get down to, kneel down about a foot deep, we’re usually down about three or four feet.
I felt this shrapnel pass my ear, the heat of it and the wind of it, that’s how close it was. When we got down, we were backside to backside and when it passed me, it hit him right back there. So I had to patch him up and get him up, lay up on the top of the ground while I was still digging. He laid there about an hour before the stretcher bearers got around because the shelling was so heavy, they wouldn’t get out of the trenches. But they finally got around and took him out, but I was still digging, and they were still shelling. It was a heavy shelling and probably seemed a long time. And yeah, that’s a close call again when I felt that. If it had took me in the ear, took my ear off, I would have bled to death.
I’ll share one in Holland. We left our stationary [position], our section [12 Section, 12 Platoon, "B" Company, The Cape Breton Highlanders] did, round about noon. In the daytime this was. They were shelling us all the way up. There was a big red barn; we had to be there before dark. The closer we got, the heavier the shelling was, of course. There was a house up ahead of us, to the right, figure full of snipers, you see. I picked up an old raincoat. I said, I’m going to be dry tonight. There was be heavy rain and thunder that evening. So the shelling seemed to have got heavier, so I threw the coat away, but it didn’t make any difference.
So we get up to this barn, it was all levelled, except there was a canal on the left hand [side] below the dirt road. So the shelling got heavy, heavy, heavy. So I said, we’ll have to get down in that canal. And that was dirty, oh geez, all full of runoff from the cows, for years. Sort of like pea soup, only thicker.
So I got down into it. I said, "you fellows can stay up there if you want to, but I’m getting down." So I got down. I didn’t know how deep it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be dirty. And it was going to be with that old gunk lying on the bottom, was going to be hard to get your shoes up out of it. So I got down, just up to the waist; and I was walking along, and I heard this mortar bomb coming over. I knew it was going to be close, too damn close. And just before it landed, I knew it was just about ready to land, I hollered to them, "you’d better get down!" They all made a run for this canal, got down in the canal. Good thing they did, that was just on the road they were on, so everything went over their heads.
So we got as far as we could and started going uphill. And then we had to get uphill to the barn. It was quite a ways. So we finally made it. Then after that, it started heavy rain and thunder. Well, there for a while, I couldn’t tell the difference between the thunder or the heavy artillery. A big crack sounded similar. So there was two cows up the barn there. I said, we’ll get in with the cows. I said, they’ll get a lot of the shrapnel. So he got in one stall with the cow, and I got into the other one. First thing I know, there was this big crack and that was the artillery shell then there, probably an 88 [mm German anti-tank/anti-aircraft artillery]. It hit the beams above us, big hewn-out beams. Not this two by eight stuff now. And [it hit] mostly his section, but I was crouched up, my helmet on, and all the splinters in the boards are flying around me. I was soaking wet, of course, from that canal; and it tore the floorboards up and the hayseed was coming down on top of me. I looked like a haystack because of all that wool - I had the wool pants on, and that would stick to it.
So I hollered into him, see if he’s all right, I never got no answer from him. Called a couple times, no answer. So I got on my feet, looked over the boards between the stalls. His cow was dead and it fell on top of him, and killed him. So I got out of there and tried to find the stretcher bearers, come see if they could get him out. It was a big Holstein cow, about a 1,000 pounds. So I found a stretcher bearer, but I didn’t go back up. Then I tried to find a place to watch the doors and the window because I knew when they’re shelling like that heavy, they usually put a counter attack in. I guess it rained so hard and things, they didn’t do that. If they had have, they would have thrown grenades in the windows and the doors, and come in after us. But they didn’t do that. And right today, I’m scared of thunder and lightning.