Veteran Stories:
Walter Edward Sills

Army

  • The Memory Project, Historica Canada
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"There was quite a bit of shelling going on, but the gun position officer of the 5RHA said it would not come any closer than we could see. It was about a hundred yards ahead. And as it turned out, he was right. So it must have been harassing fire, which didn’t bother our position at all. "

Transcript

We were ordered to prepare to take over from the 5th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery of the 7th Armoured Division, the ‘Desert Rats’* of North Africa fame.  So, we found them just southwest of Caen in an open field with masses of artillery and armour all about that area, looking towards the Verrières Ridge.  The [5th Royal Horse Artillery] 5RHA were equipped with Canadian self-propelled Sexton,** the 25-pounder, and with the American [M3] Half-tracks.*** In other words, their organization and equipment was exactly the same as ours, an SP [self-propelled] regiment.

We had to sit there a long while, because they did not have orders yet to move, and the 7th Armoured Division (British) knew that they were going to move to a new divisional area west of Caen.  So that there was a number of targets that they had to be called on to engage, and we were struck by the nonchalance, half the detachments would not move at all, sat there finishing their tea.  But we saw, and eventually, learned that they were very, very good at their business and they didn’t need to scatter all about to get the job done.  Every move they made counted. The next day…  There was quite a bit of shelling going on, but the gun position officer of the 5RHA said it would not come any closer than we could see.  It was about a hundred yards ahead.  And as it turned out, he was right.  So it must have been harassing fire, which didn’t bother our position at all, but there was, at night, a lot of enemy bombing, mostly anti-personnel bombs, and he couldn’t tell me whether that was going to be a problem or not.  If it was, you just simply took cover.  So we get to learn gradually how to cope in battle as artillerymen.

So the next day, we were ordered to move to the east to take over from the 14th Field Regiment of the 3rd Canadian [Infantry] Division, and that regiment had landed on D-Day so they had been in action for least six or seven weeks.  When the recce [reconnaissance] parties got there, I found that my troop was taking over from a battery from Belleville, Ontario, and a lot of my schoolmates from Napanee [Ontario] were in the battery, so we had a good time for a little while, having a good tête-à-tête.  The next… They left and we took over.

Our guns came in and this was our first real position where we get to stay for a number of days before the next big battle.  As we were waiting for the 14th Field to get their orders to leave, we were just sitting there and I looked at their command post location, and I didn’t like.  It was down wind, which meant that if you lost your loudspeaker system, it would be difficult to get the orders out to the guns.  So I directed myself and my vehicle crew to dig a new command post.  We discovered now, for the first time, that the ground in that area is made up of chalk and flint, which is about the hardest material to have to dig a hole in that one can imagine, especially the flint.  When a pickaxe hit a piece of flint, it would boom back with a mass of sparks.  Later on, there was so much movement of armour in our area that the area was filled with this dust of chalk and flint, which got into everyone’s eyes.  And there seemed to be no cure for that.  We found, much to our surprise, that one could fall asleep if one was tired enough with our eyes open because as soon as your eyes flicked closed, the irritation and the dust would cause you to waken up immediately.  Our issue goggles did not keep the dust out.  It was found that we could take German respirators, gas respirators or gasmasks, and cut them in half and use the rubberized top of the goggles built in that they did as good a job as any.  But still, one could not close one’s eyes for days in that area.

 

*The Desert Rats was the nickname shared by several British military organizations that fought in the North African campaigns.

**The Sexton was a self-propelled field gun deployed to provide indirect fire behind tanks.

***The armoured M3 Half-track had truck wheels in the front and tank tracks in the back. The half-track transported troops, supplies and could be used as communication bases.

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