Of the 756 men who’d landed in Sicily on 10 July, 1943, there were exactly 34 of us left.
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The biggest battle that we [17 Platoon, "D" Company, The Royal Canadian Regiment,] had was the Battle of Ortona [December 20-28, 1943], where we lost a lot of men. At that point in time, I was running, well, a crew, a [Ordnance SBML] 2-inch mortar crew. Our job was to stay at the rear of the platoon at all times so we could give them better fire support in front of them with the mortars. You can’t fire too close to your own people; otherwise it might fall back down upon you.
We crossed the [Moro] River and we went up the hills, and we turned to the right, which was going east, toward the city of Ortona, which is on the east [Adriatic] coast [of Italy]. We went over there for about a half a mile and then we turned left to head toward what we called the crossroads. When we got to the crossroads, we lay over there for about a couple of hours, surveying the situation; and we had a house there, a building rather, it was like it was on a corner. We were hanging out in front of that and when it was come time to move out [toward Ortona], our lieutenant did not know whether we should do a survey of the little field across the road from us or not.
And from being a private, officers don’t, as a rule, listen to what privates have to say. So the thing when I seen it with my experience, now, he was a newer officer than I was, because I was in the invasion [of Sicily], he was not in that. He was brought in following the fatality of our previous officers. He didn’t know whether to do it or not; and he asked the sergeant what he thought and the sergeant said, "I don’t know, sir." Well, this was a field, for your own verification, this was just a plain field across the road. It had a hedgerow, which would be about almost two and a half, three feet high, running across from left to right, that is from west to east on the edge of the road. Beyond that, it’s like a normal farm field and when I seen that, from my experience, I know for a fact, there had to be an enemy machine gun located somewhere around that specific area. But he didn’t realize that, he didn’t think it was a consideration; he didn’t have the experience for it. He didn’t ask any questions.
To make a long story short, what he asked everybody to do, he said, "okay, line up, we’re going to move ahead;" and when they lined up on the road, they were standing between the house on the road, between the house and the hedgerow. When they formed up as a group, that’s when the enemy opened fire. We lost most of our platoon right there. There was, my objective was safe because we were further back, out of gun range. But out of all of them, there was about only three or four who survived, so we had lost very heavily on that particular battle.
The regiment, as a whole, had very heavy losses from time to time. We landed in Sicily with 756 men. We wound up in December, approximately 15 December, 1944, with, our major had sent a letter, a phone call rather, around the platoons, telling them of the fact that of the 756 men who’d landed in Sicily on 10 July, 1943, there were exactly 34 of us left. And of the 34, nine of those were officers; the other nine were other ranks which would be sergeants, corporals and a few privates. Most of those would be coming from headquarters company, which was not a fighting company, it was a support company. But I would be one of maybe six or seven, or eight of the 25 who survived that at that point in time. I carried on with the regiment until we were taken prisoner on 17 February, 1945. We were taken to a prisoner of war camp, which was up north.
We were held there until May the 4th when an American tank was cruising up in this area. He come by the POW camp, stopped, he turned the turret gun into the commander’s house and he then got out of the tank. He went to the camp; and stopped on the outside of the front gate. He asked the officers in charge of our camp, which was an Englishmen, how many people we had. He was told that we had "x" number of people. He went back to the tank, got a hold of the base, told the number of people we had, where we were and they were told that we would be picked up the following morning, which was my birthday. So that’s the day that I got out, May the 4th, we got to get out of the prisoner of war camp.
We were then taken back by the Americans to the American air base; and we were treated like kings. They opened up the canteen for us. They gave us everything we wanted, no charge for anything at all and the following morning, we were all segregated by nationality, like English, Scotch, Irish, American, whatever, and then we were flown to our own military base. We were flown in [Douglas] DC-3s [CC-129 Dakota: transport aircraft], the first time we had ever flown. We were flown from, this would be from near the Bologna area and we were flown down to Bari in the south of Italy, where our Canadian camp was. When we flew down there, we were interrogated of course. This was as to why and how we were taken prisoners, what the situation was. Once that was done, then we waited for a ship for about two weeks to come pick us up and take us back to England.