A Canadian veteran's visit to Ortona
On to the Adriatic 13
It was at Venafro where where Gen. Mark Clark's Fifth Army found the ‘going' a hell of a lot tougher. Not only did his men, espec-ially the infantry find the enemy resistance stiffening, they also found the conditions under which they had to do battle miserable in the extreme. Under the pelting rain and sleet and snow and cold of early winter the Americans and British troops fought their way slowly up one mountain only to find another one even more daunting, across the valley. They paid for their gains heavily in men and materials as they slugged it out every foot, every yard, every mile of the way through the mountains that winter, fighting as soul-destroying and heartbreaking, as any battle fought on land by any army before and thereafter. As we rolled along through Venafro's streets we could see at once why the Yanks had been bled white here in this wild and untracked region of precipitous heights and deep gorges.
A short drive along the road and we come to Isernia where the French Expeditionary Corps under the tough and inspirational leadership of Gen. Alphonse Juin speared its way through what looked to be nearly impassable mountains and defended gorges. The 2nd Moroccan and 3rd Algerian Divisions left behind them a trail of dead—their own and the enemy's, as they fought from peak to peak through the wilderness all the way to Monte Cifalco six miles north of Cassino. We passed by their cemetery just outside Isernia. Once again we could see the steep price in flesh and blood the war exacted The wide expanse of white crosses was mute testimony to what had gone on here.
Our route through the Abruzzi section of central Italy was a remarkably scenic one of towering snow-capped mountains and densely wooded hills. At almost every turn in the road we came upon new, and increasingly breath-taking vistas that brought the cameras out and had us tripping the shutters all along the way. Since most of us on ‘B' bus came from the mainly flat countryside of Western Ontario it was understandable why we allowed ourselves to become carried-away at seeing close up all these towering mountains, when the highest piece of geography we ever get to see is nothing much more than a pimple in the landscape.
The road, a narrow one, ran along the rim of deep valleys where on one side of the bus we could look straight down a sheer, grey wall of rock while people on the other side looked almost straight up to a craggy pinnacle a thousand feet or more above. Every mile presented some new enrapturing scenery. Far across a painter covered valley I saw a rush of water cascading along the natural flume of a desolate hillside. After several turns in the road we come to an open tract where the mountains stand well back from the road, perhaps ten miles or so, the snow on their crests a sure indication that they were even higher than any we had passed farther back along the way. The part of the country we were now entering was flat, but the soil was poor, fit only for the hardiest of grasses and weeds. From what we could see, very little in the way of crops could be sustained on this impoverished ground, yet people lived here and thrived in a fashion within the limits of what the land could yield.
On and on we rode. It got so that we began to wonder if the Italian ‘boot' wasn't a great deal wider than what we had always thought it to be. And who would have thought back down the road a hundred miles or so that it would be possible for us to become bored with all the stunning scenery that unfolded before our eyes? But, after all, how many mountains and and scenic valleys can we gaze upon in rapt attention before they all begin to look exactly alike? It was at this point we started singing to relieve ourselves of the monotony of looking out the windows, and the creeping ennui that was overcoming us.
With the finely tuned voice of Art Hoyland leading the way, we sang, and we sang, and we sang some more. The miles passed by without notice as we sang with great spirit all the songs we used to sing when we were in the army. Yes, with great verve did we belt out the songs, like “Roll Out the Barrel' — ”You Are My Sunshine” — and real ‘oldies of World War 1 vintage, “Mademoiselle From Armentieres” and “It's a Long Way To Tipperary.” After a few of these lively tunes we toned down a bit as we got into “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and then ended up on a sentimental note with Dinah Shore's two most popular hits “I'll Be Seeing You” and “I'll Walk Alone”. And when we ran out of the older tunes we turned to new ones like Engelbert Humperdink's “Release Me”. One thing we knew for sure, and that was, ‘there's nothing like singing that can chase away the “blahs”.
By this time we were beginning to wonder how much longer we'd be cooped up on the bus. What brought this on was that all of us were suffering from inordinate distensions of our bladders, which in simpler terms meant that we had to visit the ‘john'—but soon! More than a few in our group were in a state of near panic, a distress that unmistakably said that if they didn't get to a ‘john' soon they'd sure as 'shootin' be wetting themselves. Lucky for these unfortunates that Sulmona, our next stop was just another few miles down the road. Had the journey continued much past that, the whole lock, stock, kit and caboodle of us would have forced our driver to pull over to the side of the road. If that had have happened, passersby in other vehicles would have been treated to a bus load of men and women shamelessly relieving themselves by the side of the road. We were that desperate. Modesty be damned! Thank God we were spared the indignity!. But just when we thought relief was near at hand our bus drivers found themselves going the wrong way on a one-way street. That could only spell F-I-A-S-C-O! In good Canadian Army language it would be F-A-F-U or S-N-A-F-U— I think you know what I mean.
It was rush-hour and we were going nowhere in a hurry. Coming straight at us is this mass of furiously beeping Fiats and other assorted vehicles all trying to work their way around our street blocking bus convoy. There was no way the buses could turn around in the narrow street, and they certainly weren't about to back up. It was a test of wills. And our drivers won out. Sing loudly the praises of their stubborn souls! Straight ahead our lead bus forced its way slowly into the teeth of the raging traffic, scattering the homeward bound every which way. Some determined Fiat handlers tried to slip by, by climbing the curb and driv-ing along the sidewalk. No go. All they managed to accomplish was to scare the hell out of a lot of people who threw themselves into store doorways along the road to escape being run down. It was a delicate situation, and strangely, in all the excitement, we completely forgot about our pressing need to answer Nature's call.
The travel brochure states an interesting fact in that Sulmona is in the heart of the Abruzzi, and that it lies within an area highly subject to earth-quakes. When I read further that there had been many strong earthquakes here, even severe ones in the past several hundred years I wondered why it was selected as a ‘stop-off' in our itinerary. Aside from this undoubtedly negative feature, however, Sulmona is known far and wide for the production of sugared almonds, called confetti. Certainly nothing to get excited about, but a fame of a sort to the people who make it their home. The only other notable feature about the town I was able to glean out of the pages of the brochure was that the Roman poet Ovid lived here between the years 45 B.C. to 18 A.D. I had never read the works of Ovid so I don't known anything about the man, and therefore can't say anything about him here except that a statue of the poet stands in the centre of the little square next to the hotel.
We dined in the Italia Restaurant where a very nice buffet luncheon was laid-out for the ravenously hungry and thirsty way-worn travelers. Each table had a bottle of wine, supposedly the very best of all the wines made in the district. And to make the occasion an entertaining one, two very attractive young local belles dressed in colourful and traditional costumes of the region walked amongst the tables dazzling the males with their engaging smiles and sparkling dark eyes. They were pretty, petite, and most certainly out of reach for the younger and more libidinous bucks, but you couldn't blame them for a little fantasizing and making a 'play' for them. At best, all that was possible for the gay blades, and there were more than a few, was to have their pictures taken with their arms around the lissome young ladies. On the other hand, the wife chaper-oned types had to content themselves with merely observing the scene, though with some noticeable envy, while the ‘sports' were doing their thing.
We passed through Francavilla just outside Pescara, arriving in Ortona a half hour later. I don't think there's a man who did his share of fighting in or around Ortona in that Christmas season of 1943 that was able to identify the city of today with that of the city of evil memories. After all the years since the heavy street fighting that had taken place here, like Cassino and a hundred other towns and cities in Italy, it had undergone almost complete rebuilding. Although most of the buildings were repaired to a state much as they had been in when the 1st Div. fought it out tooth and nail with the paratroopers, the high-rise apart-ments on the northern limits of the city most certainly were recent developments. Also, the city perimeter had, by natural growth over the years pushed outwards and I was surprised to see how many of homes were built along the styles of our modern homes back in Canada. What a change from the picture that had etched itself on our minds! The war had destroyed all vestiges of the Ortona we once knew.
The Moro River Cemetery - 14
Work on the Moro River Cemetery began shortly after the enemy pulled back from Ortona but it wasn't until the war ended that all the bodies were exhumed from the many individual regimental plots and isolated grave sites and were brought together and reburied here. Of the 1615 graves, 1375 are Canadian, due to the fact that the area in the vicinity of Ortona right through to Orsogna at the southern extremity of the Orsogna/Ortona lateral road had been largely a Canadian battlefield. As the years went by improvements were contin-ually made till it reached its present state of unaffected loveliness.
The visitors enter through an arch that is actually a part of the tiny Church of San Donato. The church is little more than a roadside shrine. As at Cassino, the moment our eyes fall upon the wide spread of white headstones in perfect alignment, we are immediately moved by the memories of those who lie beneath them. White pergolas draped with wisteria and cloaked in vines catch our attention, but only for a moment, as our eyes are drawn instead to those mute stones standing in long rows, stark in the sunshine of the mid afternoon. Flowers and small shrubs bright with colour grow at the base of each stone, while along the seaward side tall and slender Lombardy poplars serve to break the openness of the cemetery.
As stated in the book "Silent Witnesses", a Canadian War Museum publication, the designers, in a stroke of thoughtfulness, included in the plan two gnarled olive trees which grow near the entrance. How many olive trees had we slept under, or hung our underwear and other clothing on to dry? Or how many olive groves was it that we had to fight our way through? These questions come to mind. And how many of our boys last saw the light of day beneath the spreading branches of an olive tree? Too many.
An uncommonly cool wind blowing in from off the Adriatic sighed through the leaves of the poplar trees bordering the Cemetery as the Service of Remem-brance was about to begin. I remember much colder winds blowing through these same fields way back then when 1st Div. wallowed about in the mud here in the constant cold and gray rainy days of November and December 1943. And later when 5th Div. joined their brothers-in-arms, I can never forget how we all shivered and shook in the frigid snow and sleet gales of January and February. At that time, low in spirit, always cold and patrol weary to the point of dropping, we couldn't but help wonder if the weather and not Jerry was the greater enemy.
The Service was a carbon copy of the one held at Cassino except for the different Italian officials and personalities taking part. The address as given by the Hon. Daniel MacDonald, covered the feelings, I am sure, of all the Campaign veterans in the Pilgrimage who had taken part in the epic battles that began at the Moro, swept through the gullies on the approach-es to Ortona, and built to a climax in the vicious house to house, street to street, block to block fighting that went on for a full week in the seaside town. His talk also evoked memories of the many, but no less fierce battalion and company size engagements that almost daily scourged the river valleys and the farmyards all along that winter front; of the nightly patrols and the ambushes; of the constant threat of shell and mortar fire: of standing on guard in soggy slit trenches for hours on end; and finally, of the misery of living day to endless day in the bleak conditions of weather, land, and personal discomfort.
The Veterans Affairs Minister, a platoon commander with the Cape Breton Highlanders at that time, did not forget to mention the overall friendship and trust that grew between the Canadians and the Italian farmers or 'paisanos' and their families on whose land the battles were fought. It was only right that he should have, for we remembered how, more often than not, the hungry people shared what little pasta or rock-hard bread and uovas (eggs) they had in their meagre larders, with the Canadians who had come into their midst. They shared it with these strangers who had come to live with them for a time in the presence of death and mutual adversity. And, we Canadians likewise shared with them what we had in the way of rations. We gave them our beloved(?) bullyboy, our tasty(??) marg-arine, and our mouth-watering(???) mutton stew and steak & kidney pudding. Whatever we could manage to scrounge through barter or outright theft we exchanged with these impoverished people for the far more palatable eggs, or pasta, or sausage to supplement the bland mishmash of rations the company cooks tried to or were forced to palm off on us.
Once again, as the lingering, last notes of the Lament died on the brisk breeze blowing across the cemetery we began our melancholy walk along the rows of headstones. I soon came to the stone marking Joe Gallant's grave. Joe came from Prince Edward Island, and everyone of us in the platoon felt strongly that Joe should have been given a job somewhere in the back areas or at least in echelon because he was too old to go into battle. He's the kind of guy you find in every outfit. and they always get hung with the moniker "Pop". I stood close by the stone, head bowed in silence as memory took me back to that grim morning of our first day in battle. Joe, was the oldest man in the platoon.
On this morning of our battle baptism Joe shouldered the big '19' signals set for Company H.Q. He wasn't burdened with it for very long because he was the first to die. Mortars caught us as we moved forward to the attack on dark and cold morning of January 17, 1944. Long before the day passed into evening 46 others had made the supreme sacrifice. I knelt on the soft grass remembering how we waited in the pre-dawn darkness of a farmyard, each man alone with his thoughts. Each man alone with his doubts. Charlie company would lead the attack on the high ground across the Riccio stream and Dog company (my company) was to follow close on their heels. Baker and Able companies were over to our right.
As we sat with our backs up against a rickety snow fence, priming grenades and making last minute checks of our weapons I looked over at Joe and didn't like what I saw in his eyes and on his face. He definitely wasn't the Joe as i knew him. He seemed to have withdrawn into himself, a dark, brooding sort of withdrawal. We tried to cheer him up but got nowhere. His mind was elsewhere. Joe's eyes told us that he knew something we didn't know. It's known as premonition. He knew he was going to die. That voice inside kept telling him so. And then we heard someone shouting, “Okay you guys, up, up, c'mon we're on our way!” And that was it. Half an hour later Joe was dead. A mortar bomb hit Company H.Q. and it's hot fragments tore into the back of Joe's head. Smashed also was the #19 radio set he carried.
The Katia Hotel - 15
It happened something like this: Four days had passed since we arrived in the country and in that time I hadn't been able to take a bath or a shower for the simple reason that I can't stand cold water. For those four days I had suffer through the inconvenience of washcloth bathing, which everyone will agree is not exactly the ideal way to take a bath. Oh, what I wouldn't have done for a nice, deep, warm bath! But, not in a single hotel was I lucky enough to draw hot water. Either it had been all used up by the time I got around to preparing for one, or else the proprietor was intent on saving money on his heating bills. Anyway, when we checked into the Katia I happened to be one of the first dozen to get my room key, and as soon it was dropped into my palm I went up the stairs two steps at a time, bags and all. I was making damn sure that if there was any hot water on tap that I'd get my fair share.
Fine and dandy! As soon as I hit the room, my clothes fairly flew off, and then, with great anticipation I was in the bathroom adjusting the shower. The spray pattern was just right, but the water wasn't. It was ice-cold. Even when I turned the knob all the way to the farthest notch of the ‘hot' scale the water was still cold. I waited with my hand out, testing. No sign of getting warmer. I waited and waited and waited and finally gave up. "Damn it all!" muttering to myself, “the damned thing can't be hooked up to the hot water system yet!” And with that I decided I might as well have a shave. "Be damned again!" No hot water in the basin either. Besides feeling more than a little frustrated and perturbed I also felt disturbing pangs which I could no longer ignore. I decided to spend a few minutes of blissful time on the throne instead. And then I hit the flush button, which, for some god awful reason Italian plumbing designers locate in a shoulder paralyzing spot smack dab centre on the wall behind. In one searing instant I catapulted halfway to the shower under the impetus of the hottest damn water this side of Dante's inferno. The water surged and hissed with the power of Niagara Falls, great clouds of steam issuing from the white porcelain bowl like it was Yellowstone's famous geyser.
When I think of how close I came to suffering one of the most agonizing burns in the most embarrassing of places on the anatomy, it damn near brings tears to my eyes even now so long removed from the incident. The confounded plumbers, for some inexplicable reason had gotten their pipes crossed. But it was their only mistake, and it had to be in my room. My dear wife Joyce always said, “if there's any bizarre situation that's going to happen I'll most likely be involved in it.” Now I was beginning to believe her. Put a stack of bibles in front of me and I'll swear to it that this incident I described isn't something I made up or exaggerated in hopes it might elicit a laugh or two. It actually did happen. My good friend and roommate Cam Burrows will stand by my claim, even though he didn't witness the near disaster. He simply tested the faulty contrivance and it repeated its outrageous performance That was good enough evidence for Cam to conclude I hadn't gone entirely 'round the bend'.
A Walk through the Valley of the Riccio - 16
As our hotel was only a couple of miles down the road from my Regiment's startling for our first attack I would consider myself as being some kind of fool if I failed to take the opportunity to visit the scene of that ill-fated venture. So, right after breakfast on that free Sunday, in company with two other ex-Perths, Lloyd Casemore and Fred Scott I set off down the old coast road confident that we'd soon be standing on the ground that was the startling for our Regiment's baptism into battle, the battle of the Riccio River, or the Arielli as every Perth who was there mistakenly thought it was. It was a 16 hour battle that didn't turn out to be anywhere near the success we had expected it would be. In fact we took a beating; the first and only defeat the Regiment would have inflicted on it in the balance of the campaign and the war.
A Humorous Episode
I was prowling through the area around the house we took over from the Governot General's Horse Guards on the lookout for something of value, be it civilian goods or enemy weapons and equipment. I spotted this closed-off opening at the back of the house directly above a lean-to, and knew it had to be the entrance to the attic. I climbed up on the lean-to and quickly pried the panel off covering the opening. Inside I waited a minute or two for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then I began my hunt, stepping very carefully from joist to joist, a good foot farther apart than the usual standard, my eyes peering into the darkness searching for something of value. As I reached the front of the house, my foot missed a joist and came down hard between. The next thing I knew, I went crashing through and landed flat on my back on a table amidst cascading debris of plaster and wood. Around the table were four guys frøm my platoon hard at it playing euchre. They fell over backwards in fright and surprise as I thundered down.
And so, there I was, lying spread-eagled on my back, groaning from pain—thought I was dying, or at least thinking my back or a few ribs were broken. I expected the boys to rush to my assistance and perhaps offer me a little sympathy. Not on your life! Instead, they just stood there cursing me roundly for having scared the bejeezuz out of them and worst of all, for breaking up their game. I guess I must have been in tip-top condition because I didn't even end up with a bruise. But my search for loot ended for the day— only for a day. My insatiable need for scouring of the battlefields for whatever goodies I might come up with overcame any thoughts of getting hurt or even blowing myself up on a mine or a booby-trap. And there were many such scourings I had gone on, throughout the campaign. That I managed to come through all the battles, along with these extra-curricular activities alive and kicking has to be a miracle. What else?
A Sunday in May 1975
Joining our guns in this tympanic accompaniment were the deep guttural crunches of enemy 81 mm mortar bombs and the sharper crack of 75s and 88s. One could not walk this road with insouciance then as we now walk, unless of course one happened to be either ignorant or looked for an early and violent exit from this world. Those that did, obviously were newcomers like ourselves who had yet to taste the sourness of fear, the deep dread that only the front line can bring. All others, only too familiar with the dangers of strolling about out in the open stayed well out of sight.
We came to the T-Junction where my company HQ had set up shop in a beat-up old farmhouse a stone's throw away down the lateral road, the centreline of the Regiment's advance in what was to be its painful and tragic battle baptism. Today, as we walk down the road I'm surprised to see the same house still there. At least I think it's the same house. If it is, then a heap of renovation has gone into it. New stucco, new slate roof, new trimwork, new landscaping. A complete new look. What a difference from what it was when we last had seen it! I had the urge to enter the yard and examine the premises a little closer, and maybe even knock on the door to tell the occupants who we were and why we were here. But then I thought perhaps it would not be such a good idea. If the present occupiers were the same people who lived here when we arrived at the front, there was a good chance we would not be welcomed with open arms, but rather, their greeting might be either indifference or at worst, hostile. After all, how could they be friendly to us when we were the people who looted them of everything they owned.
Within an hour after we took over from the Carleton & Yorks our boys unearthed a treasure-trove of brand-new 'off the rack' clothing, bolts of material, linens, bed-spreads, silken goods. You name it—they found it. It was obviously the complete inventory of a dry goods store. It's likely that whoever had lived here moved their inventory from their store in Ortona only days before the fighting closed in on the town, and hid it where they thought no one would find it. But they grossly underestimated the Canadian soldier's consummate ability to sniff such goodies out. In the next couple of days the battalion postal clerk found himself inundated with parcels of all sizes packed with the products of liberation, all being sent home to Canada. The sad part of it was that some of the senders of parcels didn't live long enough to read a letter of thanks from home. In fact some of them died in battle just two days later.
Flash-Back — January 17, 1944
I was just a boy with an overactive imagination and wild, unattainable aspirat-ions. The very real possibility of dying a horrible death or being maimed for life had never entered my mind. Others would die but not me. How innocent I was! By day's end my innocence was gone, and if anyone else thought and felt the way I did, their innocence had gone too, evaporated in the thunder and vaporous hell erupting all around us. From this day on, not one of us would be quite so eager for battle again. Neither, of course, would those who died here.
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle
Takes him by the throat, and makes him blind."
On that moonless early morning of January 17 I took my place in the column for the short walk down the road to the startling where we took cover in the roadside drainage ditches to wait for our artillery to lay down the barrage that would open the battle. All of the Corps artillery, with the added support of several batteries of British mediums were to smother the enemy positions on the Fendo ridge across the Riccio River valley, the Regiment's first objective. The final objective was the near side of the Arielli valley a little over two miles away. We had been told in our final briefing that the volume of shells would virtually obliterate the positions on the lip of the ridge and along the Tollo Road running along the valley rim. From what we were led to believe, our job would, in main, be a mopping-up operation. It all sounded so easy.
When the guns opened up it was as though the end of time had come. The air shook. The ground beneath my prone body shook. Every bone, muscle and fibre in my body shook. And now I knew what fear really was. So this was what Ypres, the Somme, and Verdun must have looked like! Thoughts like this raced through my mind. This was no Hollywood war movie I was watching. This was the real thing. I kept my eye on that part of the front where the shells were landing, the flashes like a million giant fire-crackers going off. The thunder rolling back to us sounded like ten thousand bass drummers beating away furiously at their drums. The crescendo was immense.
And now, besides the awe in what my eyes were taking in and the fear that pressed like a hot fist into the pit of my stomach, a troubling sense of disillusionment impinged on my thoughts. All eagerness for battle had evaporated. All those many fantasies I was author to when I was kid reading the heroic exploits of young men like myself in World War I, fantasies in which I too was a hero had gone for nought. Battle was no longer the glorious adventure I pictured it to be. Now, all of a shocking sudden I wanted no part of it. And in realization of this I cursed the choice I'd made to serve in the infantry instead of in one of the other safer non-combat Corps of the Army.
Strangely though, after the first flush of anger and fear, I somehow took hold of myself. I looked around to see how the others were taking it, and when I saw the same unmistakable look of fear in their eyes I didn't feel quite so bad anymore. I wasn't alone in this respect. Although a nagging doubt kept going through my mind about my chances of getting through this day alive, a feeling of confidence rose within me, a feeling that, as terrified as I might be, I told myself I wasn't going to break down and run like a coward. I'd stay, come hell or high water.
A few minutes before the guns opened up, we'd moved into an olive grove to the left of the road and lay there in the open with not so much as a hole or depression of any kind to crawl into for cover. Although I was caught out in the open I kept my 'cool' and looked around for a dip or fold in the ground I could crawl into. It'd be better than no cover at all. Then, down came the Jerry mortar bombs crashing with unbelievable ferocity of sound, much louder than I thought they'd be. The Muscles quivered all over again! Now there was no doubt in my mind at all about whether I was prime infantry material or not. I didn't have it in me to be the killing machine I'd always thought I was going to be.
[ Following is an extensively rewritten excerpt of a piece I'd written for Legion Magazine. It describes the final stage of the battle. It's this particular piece of ground that Lloyd Casemore, Fred Scott and myself are interested in seeing once again.]
At 1600 hours right on the button another mighty artillery barrage came down on the enemy held ridge. This time it was in support of Dog company's effort to take the high ground. Every gun in the Canadian and British batteries let loose in an stupendous drum-beat of sound. With the valley convulsing under the hurricane of shells slamming into its far slope and on top of the enemy positions all along the ridge, Dog company made its second leap forward. This one followed on the tail of the barrage with intention of catching the enemy deep in their holes before they could come up fighting. 16, 17 and 18 Platoons in that order, sprinted across the torn-up ground past a heavily cratered olive grove with sniper fire snapping in the air around their ears. No one looked around to see if anyone was hit, they simply ran as hard as their legs could take them to reach the valley where all hell was in eruption. When they hit the valley's rim they were stunned at what their eyes took in. Nothing they'd seen in movies equaled the intensity of explosions blanketing the valley floor, the far slope, and the ridge top itself. Thick, nauseating smoke from the shell bursts drifting eastwards along the valley partially hid them from enemy eyes.
Each man, as he arrived at the valley rim and his eyes took in the dread scene into which he was about to enter, he paused, but only for the briefest of moments. The Riccio River valley was one solid mass of explosions. And as the shells in their downward flight passed over their heads, they might very well have touched them had they reached high enough. It was awesome. 16 platoon went over the lip and down the 30 degree slope, side-slipping their way to the bottom. As they ran towards the Riccio stream thirty yards away they found themselves engulfed in the tail end of the barrage. It should have lifted and moved up the ridge slope, or perhaps our men were a little too eager to come to grips with the enemy above them and so ran into the barrage. It was as they splashed through the water barely covering their boots that the carnage began. One, two, three, four men went down as the red hot hot fragments of the shells slammed into and through their bodies. The Riccio was nothing but a ribbon of water no more than five feet wide and only a couple of inches deep. Then came the German mortars. Shrapnel filled the air, and what the bullets missed, the fragments didn't.
One section was cut down by the scything burst of an MG firing from dead ahead up on the slope. The cold, rippling water around their torn and bleeding bodies ran red with their blood. Part of a section that had been bowled over by a mortar, though stunned, were on their feet and on the move to try and break through the curtain of shell and mortar fire. A second mortar bomb knocked them over again, or it could even have been one of our own shells. Their bodies were perforated and lacerated from head to foot by the killing spray of jagged steel. A section from 18 platoon managed to get halfway up the far slope to take on the enemy positions with rifle and Bren fire, but there simply weren't enough of the platoon up there to change things for the better. This was as far as the Regiment was able to advance. An hour before midnight came the signal to pull back to Ortona.
And so, our first battle ended on the sour note of defeat. As hard on the spirit as it was, we wouldn't allow ourselves to wallow in a slough of self-pity or depression. The day would come, so was the feeling throughout the Regiment, that the next time we'd meet Jerry in battle things would go a lot different for us—a lot better. We knew it. We were sure of it. Then it'd be Jerry's turn to take the same kind of punishment he'd handed us, only double. And that did happen some seven months later at the Gothic Line. “What goes round, comes round”, as the saying goes.
Why and how so many of us survived the battle I don't think any of us who were there will ever be able to say for sure. Call it luck, or call it a miracle, or call it both. One thing's for certain; for all the Regiment's lack of experience it still pushed the attack in the face of a fanatical defence thrown up by the paratroopers. It went as far as it could go. It never broke. Not a man turned and ran away. It was so close to success, yet so far. But there were other extenuating reasons besides 'greenness' that were responsible for the battalion's failure to take its objectives. The attack failed not because of lack of courage or leadership; there was more than enough of those two qualities displayed.
Admittedly the men had much to learn in the way of movement under fire, battle drill notwithstanding. But with the circumstances such as they were, even the veteran units of the Ist Div. would not likely have done any better. This was borne out two weeks later when the Hasty P's ran into deep trouble in almost exactly the same place. They lost as many men as we did and didn't get as far across the Riccio Valley as we did. I say this not in denigration, but as hard fact. What I'll never understand, and neither will a lot of other Perths, is why Brigade didn't push the reserve Regiment, the Irish Regiment through us to carry on the fight. Hell, we had no more than thirty or forty yards to go to take the ridge. Beyond that, I think the paratroopers would have been ‘hard put' to defend the territory between the ridge and our main objective, the high ground overlooking the Arielli River a couple of miles to the northwest. Whether, in reality that's what it would have taken to convert a setback into a victory will never be known, but I believe it would have—just one more battalion—that's about all.
April 27, 1975
A man with a sporty, checkered cap gets out, and with a wide smile beneath his slightly bushy moustache walks up to us and begins to rattle off, like we used to say "the ding-dong", in typical rapid style, something which we tried to understand, but simply couldn't. Our grasp of the Italian language had long since been lost. Although we remembered an odd phrase or two, we had a tough time trying to figure out what the man was saying. Somehow though, in our barely remembered Italian, and he in complete inability to speak or or know what the heck we were saying, we eventually came to some under-standing. He knew we were returning "Canadese soldate" and in typical voluble way of Italians he was politely inviting us to his humble casa which was only a short ways down the road.
What could we do but accept his invitation? And so, we three knights of the road proceeded to squeeze ourselves into the friendly gentleman's car. Not an easy operation. Somehow though, without undue aggravation of our wartime induced arthritic conditions we were able to squeeze into the little Fiat and away we went.
Rocco Catena, a sprightly man in about his late forties, maybe early fifties, lived in a small house that stands on or very near to the spot where my company had come under heavy mortar fire for the first time. At that time it was more or less open country with a stand of tall conifers nearby. Our 16 hour trial by fire began for my com-pany on his property. I had this sneaking suspicion the minute we walked into his kitchen that the family knew that the Canadians were coming and sent the 'old man' out to round up a couple to bring home so as to celebrate our return with food, wine, and small talk. What prompted me to assume this, was the table in the dining room covered in embroidered white linen on which were a half dozen or so dishes of good things to eat, and three bottles of wine.
In no time at all, it seemed, we were surrounded by a rapt audience of children, youths, and several older men all dressed in their Sunday best. There had to be at least a baker's dozen gathered around us listening to what we were saying but not knowing except for the one lad who knew some English. It was enjoyable just the same to see so many young people who seemed so happy and excited to see and talk to us. There was no doubt about it but that we Canadians had done well by ourselves in regards to public relations in Ortona and the countryside surrounding it during the war. The evidence was all around us.
We spent more than an hour with this kind and amiable family, and stilted as our spoken Italian was, we were able somehow to convey to them what had taken place here on that cold, mid January Monday morning in 1944. Fortunately for all concerned, one of the teenaged lads who had studied English at school did a first-class job of translation. And then, before we knew it, a ruddy faced Mrs. Catena had all sorts of good things on the table for us to eat. One of the dishes was piled high with what looked to me like deep-fried smelt. But they must have been a different variety of fish because they weren't quite as tasty as that favoured delicacy. And then there were plates of various 'cold cuts', pastrami, mortadella, prosciutto, sausages heavily laced with fat.
And what Italian festive table would be complete without its cheese and olives? Here, the Catenas outdid themselves. You name the cheese, it was probably there. We ate our fill as much as we could, but after all, we hadn't come this way to dine like kings. We came here for another purpose, and that was to walk over the ground that had been our first battleground. And so, after we had quaffed the glasses of vino rosso proffered us by as fine an Italian gentleman as Rocco Catena, we said our 'good-byes', and with much hand-shaking all 'round, we piled back into the little Fiat for the very short ride to the valley of ill memory.
What a feeling it was for us as we got our first look at the valley! We arriv-ed on the very spot where Charlie company had come under M.G. fire from a house up on a knoll directly to their front. I knew it was the spot even though my company reached the valley about one hundred yards to the left. I'd heard enough descriptions at reunion gatherings over the years to know more or less what had transpired here—of how Major Bob MacDougall and Lt. Laurent Rochon and the lead platoon of Charlie were caught in the sunken road and severely cut-up by an M.G. firing from a concealed position near a house half way up the far slope. McDougall and Rochon and six men were killed in that first flare of enemy reaction. Below us is the sunken road, and straight ahead up on the slope I see the house near where where the MG 42 had fired from. It was easy to visualize exactly what had happened here on that dark dismal and dispiriting day.
From the sunken road we walked over to the approximate spot where my company had come over the lip and ran straight into hell. I looked closely at the Riccio stream and saw that it was nothing much more than a minor gash in the valley bottom with a bare hint of water trickling along. Except for the fact that a vineyard now covered the slope down which we tumbled and rolled under the impetus of MG bursts stitching the ground all around us, I could still remember everything about the valley. It's amazing that I should be able to do so after all these years. Even at the height of fear gripping me as I reached the valley I was still in control enough of my nerves to take in the whole sweep of the battlefield and to imbed it in my memory. I started down the slope accompanied all the way down by machine-gun slugs kicking the dirt up in wicked spurts inches from my boots.
A week or so before the Pilgrimage I tried my hand at writing a poem, hoping I might come up with a few lines that would be appropriate to read out on the occasion of my return to the scene of the Regiment's first battle. I intended to dramatize my return here on the lip of the valley, a sort of oratory to myself and to the invisible company who fought and who died there. In the excitement, however, of walking over the ground, reminiscing with Lloyd and Fred, and snapping pictures, I forgot to do this bit of high drama. And so, in the spirit of Remembrance and wanting others to read the meaning therein I have included it in the pages of this Pilgrimage narrative.
And we lingered in conversation.
While Death spoke in ranting, noisome way,
My reply was a whining, groveling thing.
Shortly thereafter we parted company,
To meet again at some other time,
In some other place,
And There we'd bicker once again."
After our memorable visit to the Riccio River valley we returned to the Katia where I bumped into a very disappointed fellow in the person of Jerry Martinak, a Legion buddy of mine. Word got around as soon as our good friend Rocco dropped us off, that we had indeed walked all over the that famous Regimental battleground, and it reached Jerry's ears. He had so desperately wanted to see it too, for he had been a member of that ill-fated platoon from Charlie company cut to tatters in the sunken road. Jerry Martinak only survived because he was a few yards back out of the cone of fire of the MG If there was any piece of ground that he wanted to see more from up close than any place else, it had to be that sunken road. Jerry was almost beside himself when he walked up, pleading with me to take him back. He said he'd pay the cab-driver whatever it'd cost. I was a little leery about taking him back, since there wasn't much time left to do a visit. The buses were scheduled to be on the road to Rimini in less than an hour. Jerry was persistent, however, and I just couldn't let him down.
As though God willed it, a cab happened to be handy, and away we went in a cloud of dust. Within a few minutes Jerry's fervent wish was fulfilled. He saw the slope (no longer grass covered, but tilled and ready for planting), on which he frantically scrambled along in desperation to escape the fire of the MG 42 ripping his platoon apart. He saw the sunken road where his company and platoon commander and a good part of his platoon had died so early in the battle. As soon as he got out of the cab Jerry hurried off down the road towards the spot where he'd gone to ground as his buddies were dying all around him. He stood there in the middle of the graveled country road looking directly at the house halfway up the slope where the Spandau that had done all the damage fired from, and I knew what was going through his mind. The memories of that bleak Monday came flooding back. And then I saw him walk into the field a short way and stop. As he told me later on the way back; that spot where he'd walked into the field brought forth another memory, a memory of an event that took place five months later. Let me tell you what happened then.
In that period of June, 1944 when the Canadian Corps went into Eighth Army reserve following the Liri Valley action, we got word that the Germans had pulled back from the Ortona Front to avoid being outflanked and 'put in the bag'. The area from Ortona inland to Orsogna and thence northwards to Pescara was now free of the enemy, and with this in mind, our Padre, Crawford Smith thought it would be only fit and proper to go back there and bury our men, their skeletal remains lying scattered about in the valley of the Riccio River. So, in the company of six volunteers, they crossed the Maiella range to carry out the dolorous task of gathering, identifying, and burying the dead. Jerry Martinak was one of the volunteers.
As Jerry tells it, "Another fellow Perth", and I had just finished digging a shallow grave, and the other guy went out about thirty yards to carry back the bones of one of our boys. As he went to pick up the bones inside the uniform, his foot came down on a mine. Wham! And he was gone.I ended up putting his mangled body in the hole he had only minutes before helped me dig. You know —you expect sudden death in battle and you eventually come to accept the possibility it could happen to you. But the death I'd just witnessed, I can never accept.
Jerry didn't have to go back to Ortona to do this job. He went because he knew that someone from the regiment had to do and it might as well be him. He thought it only right. And so he went. The burial detail was canceled after the last shovel full of dirt was thrown onto his grave. The Padre didn't want to see anyone else to die this way.
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