Veteran Stories:
Peter L. Cottingham

Army

  • Peter L. Cottingham pictured at Fort Osborne, Winnipeg, in 1941.

  • Peter L. Cottingham in 2000, pictured at Fort Osborne, Winnipeg, in the same place he was photographed in 1941.

  • Peter L. Cottingham's Canadian paratroop wings.

  • This fortieth anniversary Liberation of Rome medal was presented to Peter L. Cottingham in 1984. Cottingham was at the Anzio beachhead before taking part in the liberation of Rome. (Obverse pictured)

  • This fortieth anniversary Liberation of Rome medal was presented to Peter L. Cottingham in 1984. Cottingham was at the Anzio beachhead before taking part in the liberation of Rome. (Reverse pictured)

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"There are over 8,000 allied graves on the Anzio beach head… May the 23rd is very keenly etched in my memory…"

Transcript

My name is Peter Cottingham. I was a Staff Sergeant in Battalion Headquarters, a Battalion Operations Chief of the First Special Service Force, which was an international commando unit. My whole experience with the First Special Service Force was unique, in a way, because it was the first international unit. It was half American and half Canadian. And it was formed in 1942 after the Quebec Conference. Our original target was to drop into Norway and destroy a heavy water project that the German occupiers of Norway were working on building... a heavy water project so they create a hydrogen bomb, which, fortunately, they never did get. We were much relieved when we heard that they didn't want us to do this because it did seem like kind of a suicide mission. So we went and trained for ship-to-shore operations because a lot of the enemy, both in Japan and in Europe would have to be got at by landing on a hostile beach. We were shipped over to North Africa and up through Italy. And Italy was where we really met some stiff opposition. The American 5th Army in Italy was bogged down north of Naples, so they called on the First Special Service Force to take this mountain that nobody seemed to be able to take. And that was quite an expensive operation for our unit. We lost a lot of men doing that. And that's the mountain on which I, myself, was wounded the first night in action. I recovered in the hospital about 30 days later and it was just in time to go and make the landings at the Anzio beach head. We weren't there too long until the Germans counter-attacked and tried to drive us back into the sea. We landed there around the first of February and did not get off there until May the 23rd when we broke through the German's lines. That was over 100 days that we were encircled by the Germans. As a matter of fact, there are over 8,000 allied graves on the Anzio beach head, between the British Army and the American Army. May the 23rd is very keenly etched in my memory because that was the biggest battle I was ever in, in terms of losses and people trying to kill us. I hadn't gone more than about 50 yards from where we were in this canal waiting to jump out and go towards the German lines, and I had to travel with my colonel, and he got killed. And we had to leave him there and go on with the pursuit of breaking through the German lines. Later on in the day, and as we got closer to highway they were retreating on, they counter-attacked with five Tiger tanks and that was a very tight proposition for me, in particular, because I got pinned down in a ditch and this tank was coming at me and the ground was shaking all around me and I thought that they were going to squash me like a bug. And somebody managed to get a big shell into that tank and it burned up. We could hear the fellows in it crying and the ammunition popping and banging. That was the 23rd of May, but I was sure that that was my last day on Earth.
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