A Sherman tank from Finestone's Troop of The British Columbia Dragoons crossing the Moro River, Italy, December 1943.Bernard Finestone
Sherman tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons deployed and advancing north of the Liri Valley, Italy.Bernard Finestone
Bernard Finestone in a South African hospital, 1944Bernard Finestone
11th Infantry Brigade Liason Officer and other Canadian troops near Monte Cassino, Italy, February, 1944.Bernard Finestone
"Eight hundred shells landed the first 10 days at Cassino with the 11th Brigade." They sandbagged the latrine.Bernard Finestone
"You don’t recover from that. Never recover from that. And anybody who says they do is lying. They weren’t there."
But the 1930s, the late 1930s were terrible times and we know the facts but the aura that surrounded everybody is very similar to what’s going on right now. Right now, people are, myself included, are waiting to see, does Iran go to war. And is Israel going to bomb their atomic facilities. And there are about seven wars going on around the world right now [August 2009]. This was the same period of time with Hitler and Hitler was a very menacing affair and I’m Jewish. So in my mind and in my father’s mind -not my mother’s oddly enough, she was very upset when I went - but my father and I both felt very simply that Hitler was threatening every Jew and he was threatening Western civilization and he had to be stopped.
In the beginning, they made every officer qualify to all the trades in the tank. There were three trades in the tank. There’s the driver mechanic, who drives the thing and maintains it. There’s the gunner, who fires the 75-millimetre [gun] as we eventually ended up with. When we started, they were two-pounders and the machine guns. And then there was the wireless operator, who operated the wireless and loaded the gun.
Now with those three trades, everybody had to qualify before they could be a driver, an operator, loader or a gunner and when they did, they got trades pay, this was a real, these were recognized trades. They made all the officers of my era qualify in all three.
You have orders, you have to be at such and such a line by 10:00 and by, in another river by 12:00 and you know, you have targets. And you do your damndest to achieve the targets. Most of the time we did, sometimes, we couldn’t do them. You know, it didn’t always go, in spite of the fact that we were as good as we were, we didn’t always, we sometimes fought to take a river and didn’t succeed and had to wait and try it again the next day. But that’s what everything was. You were given your orders every night and you knew what you had to accomplish that day and you did your damndest to do it.
Tanks tended not to fight at night. After dark, they withdrew us. We would go back 500 or 1,000 yards and go into what we’d call the laager. Make a big circle facing outwards so if the Germans broke through during the night, we could fight them off. And then all our supply people would come up here and you couldn’t fight them unless you got more gasoline and more ammunition. We only had 93 rounds in a Sherman, you could fire 93 rounds in a day. If you didn’t get it replenished, you couldn’t fire the next day. So you had to get out and re-gas and get more ammunition and they’d bring up food which you would eat. And you get all that done, perhaps by 10:00 or 11:00 and you’d dig a slit trench under the tanks so that if the shells came in, they wouldn’t get you. Sleep in the, in the slit trench until 4:00, 5:00 in the morning and get up and go again. So yes, in the tank, we would get three, four, five hours sleep at night.
There was no friendship between them and us. As a matter of fact, it was so bad that the Germans among other things would fire at our Red Cross and they would, if they captured some people, they wouldn’t accept their surrender, they would kill them. And we got so mad, we started to behave the exact same way. And all our generals and, and General Alexander, who was commanding the Eighth [British] Army, which we were in, would try to stop the Canadians from doing this and we said to hell with this, if that’s the rules of the war, and we did exactly the same to the Germans. I personally have shot down over 30 Germans who were trying to surrender.
That was the war they fought, we fought the war their way. And if we saw an ambulance in the front and it was at a critical place, we would put a shell in it. Exactly as they did to us, so they damn soon learned, you know, be careful with Canadians. To a point that when we went into the major battles, Alexander issued an order of the day for the Canadians, telling them, start taking prisoners because they, you made it impossible, they’ll never surrender to you, you’re not doing a smart thing, change it. But Canadians were tough. If the Germans did that to us, we did it to them. I bet you’ll never find that comment in any history book.
You know, action is murder. If they’re talking about the post-stress disorder, every single one went into action had post-traumatic stress disorder. Everybody, including me. The first time I went into action, and I was engaged and I engaged Germans, and we blew up a couple of tanks, and I have to tell you, pursuant to a question you asked earlier, I was so excited and delighted. I remember hammering my hand on the turret and saying, it works! it works! I’d been training for two years, three years, finally I put it into action and it worked. I won. The Germans were on fire and I was still there. But that was the first time.
The next morning when I went in, we were to go off around 7:00 in the morning. We got to the front lines at 6:00 and from 6:00 to 7:00, I sat in my turret, waiting for the signal to go. And I had five men in my tank and communications with the intercom. All nervous and edgy. And I was trying to tell them funny stories, to keep them preoccupied. The stories weren’t all that funny but everybody laughed hysterically. The stress and strain in that waiting period to go in was incredible. Once you’re in action, you are so busy, particularly if you’re an officer and you’re responsible for, for four tanks, and later on I was second-in-command of 18 tanks, you have great responsibilities and you have a tank that you have to fight, you’ve got a gun that you can put on target and I was the rear link, I used to have to pass messages from the colonel to the squadron commander. In the midst of my fighting, I’d have to move us. I was so busy, I literally had no time to be scared. No time at all.
But then comes the next stage, when one of your tanks is hit and some of your men die and these are your men and that you’ve spent months and years with and you see them lying there. One of my, I can never forget with his guts spilling out, just lying on the ground. He asked me to hold his hand, which I did while he died. You don’t recover from that. Never recover from that. And anybody who says they do is lying. They weren’t there.
In my day, if you could continue to work, we didn’t disqualify people because of post-traumatic stress disorder. If they couldn’t fight anymore, we took them out of the tanks and sent them back to the supply line where they could move food and do the jobs that we required. We took them out of the front lines and kept them and helped them over their bad time. If they couldn’t work at all, and some couldn’t, we sent them back and they went to the psychologist and so on, we never saw them again.
But there isn’t anybody who was in real battle that came out unmarked. In my case, in addition to getting malignant malaria, which takes seven years to get over, it took seven years before I stopped having nightmares. I got married six years later and my wife used to wake me up and say, you’re screaming.
But it goes. It burns off, it disappears. And, is it a pleasant thing? No, winning is great. Losing is terrible. But the stress is murder. I think it’s essential that as much as possible of the truth of what war is like and what Canada did should be given to the kids – the good things and the bad things. We’ve got a great number of things to be extremely proud of, but the dirty part of war is a part of war. And not to tell the truth, not to carry the stories out I think is a terrible mistake which we are making, and you are trying to correct and therefore I am trying to help you. Do I enjoy telling these stories? No - it brings tears to my eyes every time. But it has to be done.