Lance-Corporal J.E. Cunningham of The Essex Scottish Regiment practices firing a Lifebuoy [Flamethrower, Portable, No. 2] near Xanten, Germany, March 10 1945.
Credit: Capt. Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-137466.
Private Noel also used the Lifebuoy Flamethrower while serving with the Canadian Army.
"You can’t forget it. You sleep, you’ve got it in your brain, you think about it and you’re there. It’s always like that."
I started [enlisted in the Canadian Army] in 1939. And then I was here [in Canada] for three years, I sat three years, and then, after three years, I was old enough to go overseas and they shipped me overseas. I was a flamethrower, I used to carry it on my back [a Lifebuoy (Flamethrower, Portable, No. 2)], the gun, flame, you shoot that, fire. That’s what I used to carry. You put that in a building, it burned, you can’t put it out. You should shoot out on the rocks, it burned the rock, it’s so powerful.
And we used to have a line, they called it the Gothic Line [a German defense line established in northern Italy that the Allies attacked between August and December, 1944]. That’s where the, when you draw a line when you pushed them [the Germans] back, they draw a line and you could see it on the map with the red line. They put the line where the German was. We pushed them back and draw it again, draw another line for that, used to work with. Keep that line, yeah. When you seen that line going, you knew you were beating them. Keep pushing. One time there were four days, couldn’t move, right in the trench. We had a slit trench, we were there four days before we got out of there. We went in and we went in a mile and when you were in there a mile, the Germans pushed us back, they pushed us back a mile. We went there and we took a static line, they called it, stayed there and we stood there and hold them back.
Four days after, they were coming with tanks, coming toward us. When we heard them, they told the officer. He said: "You should sit down in the hole in the trench,” he said, “we’re going to open fire; cannon." He opened up a 60 cannon [artillery guns], lined up. It was just like hitting a piece of tin there, armor, you could feel the ground going like that. And he started ahead, worked to about here when he started. And they’d be 500, 600 feet ahead of us when those bombings started going up. You could hear the bullet going up on the ground. The next morning, we got up and there was nothing left on top of the hill; we walked 12 miles.
If you ever seen the devil on earth, it is devil on earth. Some place was tough, real tough. You were face to face with the Germans sometime. You had to fight. There was nowhere to go. You’re in the front line. The farthest you’ll go from the front line is about I would say four or five miles back of the lines. So there’s not too much going on. But you’re still in the battlefield but you go back and forth and you stay back there or all this, you know. You’re never all the time in the front line, you don’t fight all the time. Every time you went there, you thought you were dead. I seen my boys there dropping on the side of me there, just voom, gone. Officers, didn’t matter who it was, they’ll get you if you’re in the front, those shells and when it blows up, you’re gone.
Was there any time that you thought you were going to go in particular?
Lots of times, every time I went in, I was thinking this might be my last day. Because there’s no place to hide. You hide in the field, flat open field. They’re there, you’re right down on your belly, but they can still see you. They can still shoot at you.
The trench there, you hide in there and they can’t see you. That’s how small you can get. And the fence wire, them squares in the fence there, you go through that. That’s how small you can get when you get that scared.
The officer took me out and sent me back. He said I’d had enough. He asked me where I started. I told him. He said: "You’ve had enough; you go back." He sent me back. And from there, I came home.
Some fellow went crazy and they took their gun and shot themselves. I seen fellows shooting themselves, take their gun, sitting on their bed, put the barrel here and shoot, boom, gone. That’s the way it works in the army. I know another fellow shoot the finger off; not to go overseas. Shoot the finger; trigger finger.
You can’t forget it. You sleep, you’ve got it in your brain, you think about it and you’re there. It’s always like that. You get up and dreaming, you get up and hit the wall or things like that. Like just last week, I hit the wall there, it hurt myself. The week before, my hand was all red, from hitting the wall. You don’t know. You wake up, you’re standing up in the floor. It’s bad. It doesn’t leave you like that. You stay like that.
Took a souvenir from Aldershot [the principal Canadian Army base in England]. I draw this [showing his tattoo] when I came home from the war. Well, I didn’t want to get something that, I wanted to get a souvenir and bring something that I thought was I guess for me. I was lucky enough to come home and I had a prayer beads and I had the prayer beads on my fingers and it was almost wore out when I had it out on the battlefield.