Excerpt From The Gothic Line

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The Gothic Line, Mark Zuehlke

Chapter Fifteen – A Bitter Day
In the re-entrant, the situation by mid-morning of August 31 was still chaotic, with the British Columbia Dragoons trying to group by squadrons in the midst of persistent heavy mortar and artillery fire. As Sergeant Eric Waldron of No. 4 Troop rolled the last ‘C’ Squadron tank through the gap in the wire, a mortar round exploded on his Sherman’s front deck. The concussion banged Waldron’s face against the hatch rim, breaking his nose and blackening both eyes. Blood gushing from his nostrils, Waldron fell to the bottom of the tank in a heap. “Are you dead, sarge?” his loader/signaller called down softly. Waldron moaned that he was okay and crawled back into the turret’s cupola. When he looked out of the hatch, Major Jack Turnley, his squadron commander, was standing nearby. “You all right?” he called up to the sergeant. “I think I’ll live,” Waldron replied. Turnley told him to move his tank up to the top of the eastern ridge to guard the regiment’s flank.

From a position hull-down behind the ridgeline, Waldron observed some kind of German depot-heavily camouflaged in netting-set up in an open basin. Waldron suspected it was an ammunition dump. He radioed Turnley for permission to fire on the depot, but the major curtly refused. Waldron cursed his major’s consistent reluctance to permit ‘C’ Squadron to fire on unidentified targets. While seconded for six months during the North African campaign to the British 5th Lancers, Turnley had once shot up several armoured cars that turned out to be British. He had been at pains since not to repeat that mistake. Waldron sat in his tank, sweating under the hot sun, German shells exploding nearby, and glared impotently down at the depot.

Down in the re-entrant, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Vokes waited impatiently for the Perth Regiment. He had been advised the Perths would soon join the Dragoons for a joint assault on Point 204. Perth commander Lieutenant Colonel William Reid, meanwhile, was near Point 111 still waiting for the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards to relieve his regiment and did not expect to rendezvous with the Dragoons until after 1000 hours. The Perths were going to be coming, but definitely not as quickly as Vokes expected.

Vokes paced up and down outside the regimental command tank, his headset linked by a long wire to the turret, so he could communicate with his signaller without being hemmed up inside the Sherman. From his nearby tank, ‘B’ Squadron commander, Major David Kinloch, watched Vokes’s growing restlessness. Finally, in what Kinloch thought was an independent action, Vokes ordered ‘C’ Squadron to head for Point 204 with ‘A’ Squadron in trail. The lieutenant colonel would remain in the re-entrant with Kinloch’s squadron and the regimental headquarters tanks until the Perths arrived and then bring them forward at the double. Back at brigade headquarters, 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade commander Brigadier Ian Cumberland had no idea that the Dragoons were going to attack without infantry support.1 In fact, one of his general staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Angle, who had commanded the Dragoons until being transferred to brigade headquarters, understood that Cumberland had told Vokes that the combined operation would not begin until early morning of September 1.

‘C’ Squadron headed out in an arrowhead formation with Lieutenant R.W. “Bud” Green’s No. 4 Troop right, Lieutenant Tony Romanow’s No. 1 Troop left, and Lieutenant Z.M. “Zeke” Ferley’s No. 3 Troop centre. Tucked inside the arrowhead was No. 2 Troop under Lieutenant Jack Saville and Turnley’s headquarters section. The squadron rolled down the ridge into a wide valley of grain fields, where the shoulder-high wheat provided excellent cover for snipers and gun emplacements. A confusing array of ridges and hillocks cut across the valley this way and that, making it difficult for the tankers to keep their objective in view. Halfway between Point 204 and the re-entrant stood a hill marked on their maps as Point 156. Once ‘C’ Squadron reached this initial objective, ‘A’ Squadron was to leapfrog to the lead.

The ground under Ferley’s tank tracks was “oose and dry. On the least slope, one had to be extremely careful, or the tank would slip sideways and throw a track, immobilizing the tank. It was necessary to hit each upward or downward slope square on with the tank,” he wrote. Saville’s troop had started out with only two tanks, having lost the third to a breakdown. Now one of the two remaining tanks threw a track. Turnley ordered Saville to attach himself and the remaining Sherman to Ferley’s troop, which was also a tank short. The loss of these tanks reduced the squadron to twelve Shermans, four below standard strength.

Not only was the terrain difficult to traverse, but the advancing squadrons were being intensely shelled by the Germans and sporadically, it seemed, also by Canadian artillery. When the shelling grew too severe, the tank commanders buttoned up their hatches and resorted to using their periscopes to guide the drivers forward-a difficult undertaking in even the best tank country. Despite these problems, ‘C’ Squadron reached Point 156 without serious difficulty at about 1100 hours.

The ground ahead, Ferley saw, “was undulating and irregular-there was no definite pattern to the rise and fall of the ground. This even applied to the squadron position.” Ferley was unable to see either No. 1 or No. 4 troops, despite the fact that he knew they should be just off respectively to his left and right. He sensed the Germans were out ahead, barring the way to Point 204. “I knew that they would probably get the first crack at us-they were hidden, we were not, a usual situation.”

About six hundred yards ahead, a two-storey farmhouse stood on the long slope running up to Point 204 with a large green tree growing fifty yards behind it. The tree had a wide base and a trunk that tapered off very gradually like a child’s drawing might. To the left of the farmhouse was a dense grove of trees. From his map, Ferley knew Point 204 was obscured from view by these woods. Beyond the trees rose another higher hill, identified as Point 253 or Monte Peloso. This hill was a bit to the southeast of Tomba di Pesaro.

As Ferley scanned the ground to the front, his attention kept being drawn back to the tree behind the farmhouse. It seemed so out of place there, almost surreal. As he considered what was odd about the tree, the bright flash of a heavy gun jetted out of the tree’s base. The muzzle flash and gun recoil shook off some of the camouflaging and suddenly the tree was transformed into a cleverly concealed self-propelled 88-millimetre gun. Ferley called out firing coordinates to his gunner and laid the tank’s 75-millimetre on the SPG. The first shot was high, the high-explosive shell exploding far beyond the crest of the facing hill. While Ferley’s crew reloaded, the German gun fired another shot at some target the troop commander could not see. Ferley’s gunner snapped off another round, which exploded below the German position. Once again the German gun fired, still apparently seeking the same invisible target. Ferley’s gunner raised his sights a bit and this round struck home, causing the German gun barrel to tilt slightly upward.

“Three rounds HE, rapid fire!” Ferley shouted. “Fire, fire, fire.” The shells blasted out. “One round AP. Fire.” The armour-piercing round shrieked down on the German SPG. Ferley then had the gunner rake the position with the co-axial machine gun. Scratch one German gun, Ferley reported to Turnley.

By the time Major Gerald Eastman’s ‘A’ Squadron clanked up onto Point 156, the hill was under fire from German artillery and self-propelled guns and antitank guns that were largely invisible to the Canadian tankers because of excellent use of camouflage. Eastman sidled his Sherman toward a stand of trees that offered a little cover. As the big tank shoved aside some scrub trees, it slid into a hole and tipped on its side. Eastman and his crew scrambled out. Leaving his men there to wait until a recovery team could pull the tank out of the hole, Eastman commandeered another tank in his headquarters section. He could see only one of his tank troops and had no idea where the others had gone.

Radio communication was hopeless. According to the plan, Eastman’s squadron was to leapfrog ‘C’ Squadron. But it looked as if Turnley’s Shermans had already gone ahead.