A Sherman tank of The Ontario Regiment during the Allied advance to Rome, Italy. 12 May 1944.Lieut. Alexander M. Stirton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-201637 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired
"You asked me again if I'm scared, I was too damn busy to be scared."
We bellied up to the Hitler Line* in the dark. We were led by our own recce group. We just had a few fellas in the jeeps and things. They led us into where the airport was. So at three in the morning we arrived at the perimetre of the airport. Now, we lay down, I lay down. I got two hours of sleep that night.
So five in the morning we were ready to go. Well, the dang trouble was the fog was so thick, I was actually touching the tank ahead of me and I couldn't see it. You wouldn't believe. Impossible to visualize fog that dense. Anyway, at 5:00 we started out. The infantry went around, going into the village – imagine, “lightly held” – but the colonel and the infantry, the adjutant, and the whole... were wiped out in the first five minutes. It wasn't lightly held.
And, so the infantry just bogged down. We wandered out into the airport. The sun came out. Everything was fine until the sun dispensed the bloody fog. And then we were in trouble. So anyway, my partner and I, with our two, our two troops, we got across the airport and our whole squadron got across the airport and when the fog lifted we were in trouble because we were just laying out there – no infantry.
With this infantry around, you've got all those eyes to help you. And one thing about our tanks, they have a phone in the front of the tank. So the company commander of the infantry just picks up the phone and says, "John, would you take out this or take out that?" And this way, we coordinated so well with the infantry because we were right with them. We weren't behind them. And when they dashed ahead of us we had to stop firing because we didn't want to hit our own guys.
It wasn't like the Gustav Line.** [The Gustav Line] was defence in depth. Hitler Line was a line. But it was prepared by the Todt Organization, which is the engineering firm of the German Army. And these were cement emplacements 10-feet deep, steel on the top with these guns mounted up there. And you couldn't get at them, there's no way you're going to get at the things because you had to get broadside of them anyway, but there's no way you'd get at them anyway.
So we're literally bogged down there. We became, as I said in one other screen, that we were the ducks and they were the hunters. And that's what we were, so they just pinpointed and they kept knocking out our tanks. We lost 13 tanks.
I said it before, it's the worst job I ever had. You consider I've got a moving tank, I've got a gunner to control, tell him what shots I want. Do I want armour-piercing [shells]? Do I want HE [high explosive] for killing infantry, or what I want? I've got a machine gunner there, too, I've got that to look after. I've got the driver to look after – where to go, how fast, and so on and so forth. I've got two other tanks I've got to keep my eye on to make sure they don't get into trouble and give them directions. And I've got the company commander on the phone telling me where he wants me to do some shooting, what guns or whatever it is bothering them, to knock out. If you don't think you're busy, you're worse than a one-armed paper hanger, let me tell you. They're just going so bad... You asked me again if I'm scared, I was too damn busy to be scared.
Well, I guess like everybody else, it's great to see mother and dad and brothers. I guess we all have that same feeling because we were overseas four and a half years.
The girl I was going with there, whose family treated me like a son, and I was in Oshawa [Ontario] before we left. Because her father was – won a Military Medal for valour in the First World War and he was a great man as far as I was concerned. So he brought her up to Camp Borden [Ontario] the day we were leaving or the day before we left. And it was... Goodbye and best wishes and what else could we say?
She was still there waiting and we got married. And we're still married, we're still going strong.
*German defensive line in the middle of Italy
**Another German defensive line in Italy that was part of the Winter Line, a series of fortifications