Veteran Stories:
Herb Francis Pragnell

Army

  • Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) Defence Overprint Map of Amersfoort, The Netherlands, dated April 13, 1945. The map shows German minefields, gun emplacements, and other positions.

    H. Pragnell
  • Lieutenant Herb Pragnell, Royal Canadian Engineers. This picture was taken in England in 1944, prior to the Normandy landings.

    H. Pragnell
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"“Well, the average life of a subaltern with the South Saskatchewan Regiment right now is five days.” Which was not very encouraging."

Transcript

I’m Herb Pragnell. I served in the army engineers and the infantry during the Second World War and for a year or two after. Well, I was fortunate when I finished high school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, they offered a posting with the RMC, the Royal Military College, who were running what they called a war course for two years. And I attended that from 1940 to June of 1942. And studied engineering as well as other military work. And then after completion I was commissioned in the engineers and we shipped to Chilliwack, B.C. for training. And we all got assignments to work in the camp for a short while until we could join a draft. But the engineers had a rule that you had to be 21 if you’re an officer before you could go overseas.

I was assigned to run the newly opened rifle range in Chilliwack where it rains all the time in the winter, and I felt sorry for the men because the ground where they had to lie down and fire on was just mud and nothing had been ready. It was just bulldozed up. So anyway, we were there all winter and really sorry for ourselves and it came March, I was finally old enough and I was put on a draft overseas.

And I arrived in Britain and one of the first jobs I got was to go out and go to some old barracks in Aldershot and prepare them for an incoming draft because there wasn’t any room in the engineering camp at the time.

Well, it wasn’t much field work as such. This was a reinforcement centre, it wasn’t really a training centre. So the only training they gave us really was vehicle training, a certain amount of drill and motorcycles. The issued vehicle for engineering officers was a motorcycle. If you were in charge of your section, you had eight trucks, up to near 60 men and a motorcycle. At any rate, I thought they were still fighting the First World War because officers and the engineers at this time, with all these vehicles and people, you had a lot of paperwork to do and you had to be in touch with people on the radio all the time and you couldn’t do anything on a motorcycle, really. So after they’d had a few experiences, they eventually issued us with a Jeep.

I’m still in the 2nd Div., but I moved up to run their waterproofing school as a punishment I guess. But actually, it was quite interesting. This is where we, where the vehicle drivers we taught them how to waterproof their trucks for the landings in Europe. And they used to seal them all up with this muck-like paste and put pipe fence on and then we’d drive down to Brighton [England] and go into these water pools and submerge the vehicles up to a certain level. And if they got flooded, well, the guy failed and they hauled him back and he had to stay and do it over again. That ran until not long before D-Day, in which case we shipped those down. And I was back in the holding unit when D-Day arrived, unfortunately. So there I sat, along with about 70 or 80 other engineering officers, all of whom they expected very high casualties, but they didn’t have any, the same number they expected of the engineering officers. High casualties of course were, as usual, in the infantry.

So not long after D-Day, maybe a month or two, we were all called in and invited to join the infantry, which I was happy to do. I had picked the PPCLI [Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry], South Saskatchewan and another western regiment, because I’m a Westerner, and when the time came, these officers said, “Well, the average life of a subaltern with the South Saskatchewan Regiment right now is five days.” Which was not very encouraging. That was they were wounded or killed, usually they were wounded anyway, most of them within five days.

Anyway, as we were getting ready to break up and move out, they came in with a stop order and they shipped me off to Italy. I finally got to the PPCLI in January [1945] and would you believe, after being assigned to a platoon, getting ready to move, I was once more hauled out, I must have been too well trained I guess, and pulled in and put in as a junior member on a court martial. And it was around the Gothic Line that I joined the 1st Div., the western brigade [2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade]. Anyway, in the spring, we were, as you know, Canadian Army moved up to Northern Europe, moved the entire Canadian Army, what was left of them. I just want you to know that the first platoon I took over in Italy, there were only seven men instead of 30 odd. So they sure needed reinforcements.

We went up and we arrived in the Ijssel River and we were getting ready to assemble in the bush there, the forest, getting ready to go out and cross this river in these [LVT-2 Water] Buffalo, which are like an open topped tank that floats. Great machine, they didn’t have them in Italy, but they had them in northern Europe. So we were there and in the middle of this, in the middle of the night, it seemed in the middle of the night at the time, a messenger arrived for me to report to headquarters. So I said goodbye to my platoon and went up to headquarters, and I was hastily introduced to the pioneer platoon and given new orders. And I had a few minutes to assemble what they said was a crew that could clear mines in the far bank.

From then on, the regiment started pursuing the Germans. I was usually on a patrol and eventually in a Bren Gun Carrier [a light armoured track vehicle]. Usually at the front ostensibly checking for mines, which is pretty hard to do at the speeds they we were traveling, but you could only identify a disturbance. Fortunately, the Germans were disorganized at this time and things went fairly well for our regiment.

It was on May the 8th, and once again, I’m up front there, in my Bren Gun Carrier, checking for mines. We pull into the city and there is not a soul showing on the streets. We got orders, came up with a DR [Disptach Rider] to stop, we stopped and waited. And all of a sudden, these people started appearing and eventually we were mobbed. And that’s how it went all through Amsterdam, a delightful group of people. And the only thing they wanted, we thought it was food, we put guards on all the kitchens and I’d issued barbed wire and, but all they wanted was cigarettes. And the poor sods had been deprived I guess.

Well anyway, this liberation went beautifully well, really, and the people were very happy to see us. And we have been back several times and they’re always happy to see us.

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