Veteran Stories:
George Joseph Heron

Army

  • Pay Book of George Heron.

    George Heron
  • George Heron in Calais, France, August 23, 1945.

    George Heron
  • Copy of Tradesmen's Qualifications Certificate of George Heron, February 4, 1946.

    George Heron
  • Hat badge of Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, Ontario, received by George Heron in May 1944.

    George Heron
  • Pay Book of George Heron.

    George Heron
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"The smell of death and cordite from recently fired shells hung heavy in the hot summer air."

Transcript

After several months training in England, our group of reinforcement soldiers boarded a small navy vessel sailing for Normandy. The date was 12 June 1944, shortly after the D-Day landing on 6 June. It was an overnight trip. There was no sleeping accommodation so you just lopped down where you could, on the deck or inside. I’m not sure too many of us got much sleep. We were going into action at last and there was that feeling of uncertainty. The morning was bright and sunny as we approached the coast. I was amazed at the large number of other ships on both sides and behind us, all carrying troops and supplies. Each had a barrage balloon attached. These balloons acted as deterrents to enemy aircraft.

At a given order, we climbed over the gun wheels and down rope ladders into ship-to-shore landing craft. A couple of minutes later, we were in France. I could see a fair amount of destruction on the beach ̶ military weapons and equipment that had been damaged or destroyed but no dead bodies. The latter had been removed and buried, at least temporarily until proper gravesites had been established. There was also damage to a lot of buildings. The front line was several miles away and we waited to be transported to wherever they were going to take us.

Eventually, we were moved to a large farmer’s field a mile or so inland but still well back of the front line and told to dig in. With shovels in hand, we quickly dug a series of slit trenches in the soft earth. The slit trench, which the Americans call a foxhole, provided ample protection against incoming artillery and mortar shells, except in the case of a direct hit. Luckily, there wasn’t anything coming from the enemy at the moment. But what we couldn’t help notice while we were digging and for some time afterwards, was the awesome sound of our own firepower going over our heads. These were shells fired by the giant guns of our warships, anchored just off the coast. Each shell sounded like a freight train in the air as it passed overhead and it had a range of several miles. No wonder we weren’t getting anything from the enemy at the time. He was hunkered down in his own trenches, waiting for the barrage to stop.

I eventually joined my assigned unit, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa [Machine Gun Battalion]. We made our way through the French countryside, stopping in many fields where there was carnage everywhere. Shell-hit army vehicles, our own and the enemy’s, were now no more than scrap metal. The smell of death and cordite from recently fired shells hung heavy in the hot summer air. The bodies of dead German soldiers lay decomposing in the sun. They were in that stage because, for the most part, they had been lying there for three or four days.

Our own troops suffered their share of fatal casualties too but a more concerted effort was made to see that they were properly buried. Included in the smell that permeated the air was that which emanated from the rotting bodies of farm animals; creatures that were quite susceptible to shrapnel from shell fire because they had no way to take cover.

Anyway, we made our way up through France, pursuing the retreating Germans. Our next stop was Calais. We set up our company headquarters in a large barnyard a few miles from the city. We were fortunate enough not to have experienced any enemy shellings on our arrival. Still, the German garrison that held Calais, although surrounded by our troops, refused to simply surrender. They, of course, were operating on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. We labeled them fanatics for continuing to fight in a no-win situation. We didn’t realize until later that it was the German officers who held this title more so than the common soldiers. This was shown to us when we were legally obliged to return about 200 prisoners of war we held.

Sound fantastic? Here is how it happened. Before any serious fighting could begin, we were made aware of a problem with the civilian population of Calais. As they felt the fighting was going to get much heavier, they started to flee the town by the thousands. All roads leading out of Calais were clogged by these refugees and whatever belongings they could carry on their backs or roll along in carts, wagons and baby carriages. It was obviously not a time to be sending shells or engaging in machine gunfire back and forth. I don’t know whose side came up with the idea, the Germans or the Canadians, but it was decided to hold a three day truce to allow the town to be evacuated. It was a humanitarian gesture, pure and simple.

Now for us, a truce was like a holiday. After spending three months dodging every kind of fire in modern warfare, we were experiencing a mini-peace, a time to relax and not worry if we were going to survive the day. Much to our surprise, some German soldiers came out mingling with the refugees. Only a few at first but, eventually, our forward troops brought about 200 to our farm headquarters. They were unarmed, of course, and we treated them as prisoners of war. There were so many, they filled the barn and much of the yard between the barn and the house. At one point, I was ordered to take up a position on the roof of one of the two storey out-buildings overlooking the yard. I was equipped with a Bren machine gun aimed at the Germans in the yard. I felt like a guard in a tower overlooking the compound of a penitentiary.

But we needn’t have feared them. For being the enemy, they were remarkably friendly. So we relaxed our vigilance to the point where we who were guarding them simply walked among them in the yard and in the barn with our Sten [submachine] guns slung over our shoulder. They could have easily overpowered any one of us but that was the last thing they wanted to do. Those who spoke English showed elation at being so-called ‘captured.’ For them, the war was over, they said. There was no doubt they were happy to be getting out of it alive. But their happiness was short-lived.

Their officers heard all about the prisoners we were holding, which apparently was contrary to the terms of the truce, so up to our headquarters the senior officers drove in their German equivalent of a jeep. Salutes were exchanged between German and Canadian officers, the former giving the outstretched Heil sign. The German officers asked that their soldiers be assembled in columns. Then the soldiers were addressed by the most senior officer, who went into a long discourse in German. What he said, we did not know but it probably had something to do with desertion and honour. He probably told them that there would be no retaliation against them if they returned immediately to the German lines.

Anyway, this is what they did to a man. As we watched the long column of German soldiers march back to their former positions, we knew we could legally do nothing about it: the truce was still on. In any event, when the shooting started again in the Calais zone, the battle lasted only a few days. The fighting spirit seemed to have gone out of the Germans and they offered little resistance. Some of the prisoners we held might well have been killed in this action and their war would have been over alright, but not in the way they would have wanted.

But for the most part, casualties on both sides were light. It ended with our taking Calais and the German army saving face.

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