Chapter Seventeen: Those Were Fine Boys
A thick haze hung over the Liri Valley as dawn broke on May 23. It was a cool morning with afternoon rain forecast. On the right flank of the Hitler Line, the men of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade waited 200 yards behind the start line. This was to decrease the odds of their being hit by artillery rounds that might fall short when the massive barrage began. Breakfast was a slice of Spam and four pieces of hardtack washed down with water. Company commanders glanced at their maps and noted once more the codenames that they were to report by radio each time they crossed one of the designated points set 300 yards apart. January, February, March, April, Aboukir. Aboukir was the Aquino-Pontecorvo lateral road. When the leading companies hit the road, phase one would conclude. Then would come a sixty-minute reorganization and a renewed drive to cut the road running from Pontecorvo to Highway 6. This was code-named Caporetto.
At precisely 0558 hours, the gently undulating ground extending from the start line to the Hitler Line’s front wire erupted as the barrage opened with terrific force. Fifteen hundred rounds a minute slammed down. “The steady pounding of guns, the roar of tanks moving forward, made a terrific din,” wrote the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry war diarist.
The regiment’s companies were organized with ‘C’ right and ‘A’ left. These two companies would lead the advance to Aboukir. Then ‘B’ Company would pass through, followed by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. ‘D’ Company was in reserve. ‘A’ Squadron of the North Irish Horse supported the leading companies. The PPCLI was seriously understrength. Each company numbered only 60 to 70 men, including officers, instead of the designated strength of 125. Lack of reinforcements, sickness, and men lost to injuries and wounds suffered while forming up for the battle, had sapped away existing strength. Such was the case throughout 1st Canadian Infantry Division’s other regiments and, indeed, the entire corps.
On the right flank, Major W. “Bucko” Watson, the veteran PPCLI commander of ‘A’ Company, led his men toward the start line. Along the way, Watson encountered Loyal Edmonton Regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel Rowan Coleman, who had come forward to see his old regiment march into battle. Coleman wore a soft hat instead of a helmet. Casually smoking his pipe, the ex-PPCLI officer greeted each man he knew with a pleasant word of encouragement. Watson said cheerily, “See you on the objective.”
Left of the PPCLI, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada had ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies leading, with ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies behind. ‘B’ Squadron of the North Irish Horse supported the front two companies while ‘C’ Squadron stood alongside the rear companies. Once the lead companies reached Aboukir, those to the rear would take over the lead.
Within minutes of crossing the start line, an intense German artillery and mortar counter-barrage caught 2 CIB in the open. Whenever the Germans saw a creeping barrage approaching, it meant undoubtedly that infantry would, as doctrine dictated, be “leaning into the barrage” immediately behind. So they dropped a counter-barrage immediately to the rear of the Allied barrage, normally throwing the attack into confusion and causing heavy casualties.
When the first counter-barrage rounds came in, PPCLI’s ‘A’ Company started taking casualties as it was moving through a small grove. Exploding mortar and artillery rounds shattered the trees, sending splinters of wood whistling through the air to pierce flesh. German machine guns opened up from positions that had been reportedly cleared by patrols the previous night, but the creeping barrage rolled over the gunners and silenced them. At 0620 hours, ‘A’ Company and ‘C’ Company both passed January. Eighteen minutes later, Watson’s radio operator reported that ‘A’ Company was at February. No word came from ‘C’ Company. Its radio signaller had paused to make a minor adjustment to his No. 18 radio set. When he looked up, the rest of the company was lost in the smoke and fog. He blundered on in search of the company, but never found it.
Bursting out of the woods, Watson saw the wire through the haze. While in the woods, his company had ceased moving in extended order. The men entered the open grain field by platoon sections, each section zigzagging in single file to keep from presenting clear targets to the increasingly numerous machine guns. Casualties mounted. One section was cut down to only five men. Nobody stopped to help the wounded; the job was to reach the objective. To pause in the open to help a fallen man would only result in more casualties and the company’s destruction.
Just in front of the wire, Watson’s men hit a minefield thick with S-mines. More men fell as the mines exploded, tearing off feet, mangling legs. Some wounded men landed on detonators of other mines that gutted stomachs, shredded arms, and rent chests open. No. 7 Platoon climbed over what turned out to be a paltry wire field without trouble. As Watson and his signaller moved through the wire, a bullet hit the radio. He had just finished reporting that his men were in the wire, but casualties were heavy. Now, the radio was out of action. On the opposite flank, ‘C’ Company had also reached the wire, but here it was a greater obstacle. No. 13 Platoon used pliers to cut a path. Men tripped mines inside the wire field and were killed or wounded. Some of the wounded became hopelessly tangled in barbs, trapped in twisted positions from which they were unable to free themselves. The dead also hung from barbs. Machine-gun bullets and shrapnel ricocheted off the wire with a screeching sound or thudded into the bodies of the corpses and living alike.
The tanks had been completely left behind by the leading companies. With their radios out, neither company commander was able to contact the tank troop commanders. As Watson managed to get two platoons, each numbering about twelve men through the wire, he was unable to see how far back the tanks were. He had not seen them since entering the woods at the beginning of the attack. Any moment, he expected ‘B’ Company to come up in support, but as he advanced into a maze of German pillboxes and other concrete-and-steel gun emplacements, it seemed the remnants of his company were entirely isolated. Knowing their own men were safe inside the concrete positions, the Germans dropped artillery and mortar fire on his company and more men fell. Exerting control was virtually impossible.
On the right flank, ‘C’ Company was in similar dire straits. Lieutenant R. D. Browne-Clayton, commanding No. 14 Platoon, lost many men during the advance to the wire. Inside the Hitler Line, the well-concealed machine-gun emplacements exacted a heavy toll. Browne-Clayton knocked one out by throwing a grenade through the gun slit, but moments later he was hit by two bullets. He collected several men too badly wounded to walk and led them to the shelter of a shell crater. There the small group remained until being taken prisoner in the late afternoon.
As Acting Sergeant Roy Douglas Edkins ran past a Panzerturm he sustained multiple shrapnel wounds from an exploding mortar round. He continued leading his ‘C’ Company platoon forward until being wounded again. Turning command over to a corporal, he refused evacuation and instead stalked a German sniper holding up the advance. Edkins closed on the camouflaged gun pit that concealed the man and took him prisoner. He then escorted the German to the Canadian lines before seeking medical treatment. His action won him the Military Medal.
Meanwhile, Corporal Frederick William Snell reorganized his platoon after it was torn up in the minefield. Everyone senior to Snell was dead, so he had taken charge. Noticing movement in a tree ahead of him, Snell set off alone to investigate. Discovering three snipers, he raised his Thompson submachine gun and blasted them out of the tree with one long burst of fire. After making sure the Germans were dead, Snell returned to his platoon and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
With no idea what was going on up front, Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Ware moved his tactical headquarters to February hoping to visually determine how the battle was developing. What little he saw was disheartening. The tanks were unable to get forward. Every time they tried more were knocked out by mines or antitank guns. When one tank finally managed to get through the woods and into the clearing in front of the wire, a Panzerturm immediately blasted it into a wreck. At February, several tanks were burning and their ammunition exploding. The resulting shrapnel and flaming metal flying through the air added to the danger the tactical headquarters faced from sporadic German shelling and sniper fire.
The PPCLI pioneer platoon worked frantically to clear the road for the tanks. Corporal R. Armstrong and his pioneer section lifted about seventy-five mines while being fired upon by machine guns. Heavy casualties soon forced them to abandon the effort. As there seemed to be innumerable box mines that the detectors couldn’t find, their mine-lifting effort was mainly for naught.
The tankers did their utmost to push forward and paid the price in blood. When an antitank gun or mine immobilized a tank, its crew kept the gun firing toward targets on the other side of the wire until finally it started to burn. A Panther tank engaged a Sherman knocked out by a mine. During the short firefight, the Sherman was struck eight times before it finally started burning and the crew grudgingly evacuated. The tankers scooped up rifles from dead infantry and fought alongside the PPCLI. Another tank, trying to edge past a minefield by hugging the slope running into the Forme d’Aquino, tumbled over and over into the narrow stream. Landing right side up, the tank clawed its way back up the slope and returned to the battle despite the crew being badly battered by the accident. In all, ‘A’ Squadron lost ten of eighteen tanks. Most of the others were damaged.
While the tanks tried gallantly to support ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies, ‘B’ Company was holding back at February. Before going forward, Captain A. M. Campbell wanted to establish some contact with the leading companies so he could link up with them. Runners were sent out, but either never returned or staggered back wounded without having reached either company. Ware told Campbell to try to advance anyway. The company was being chopped up where it was and would do more good forward. From reports of walking wounded filtering back toward the field hospital, he had the impression that the two companies had some sections on Aboukir. If that was true, they must badly need support.
Ware’s tactical headquarters was taking a lot of mortar and artillery fire, resulting in casualties. Fragments from a mortar bomb which struck a nearby building killed Captain R. Shelton, the Forward Observation Officer for the 3rd Field Regiment, RCA. Then Major G. Rankin, representing the commanding officer of the 3rd Field Regiment, was shot in the leg.
During the move up to February, Lieutenant Donald Gower had become separated from Ware’s party. As the commander of the antitank gun platoon, Gower was to stick with Ware until it was determined where and how the guns should be deployed. Reaching the edge of the woods and seeing wire up ahead, Gower realized he had gone too far and began retracing his steps. Whenever a stonk of German shells or mortar rounds struck nearby, he took cover behind one of the knocked-out tanks, crowding in with the other infantry gathered there for protection. Once, when the shelling eased, Gower asked the man lying next to him if he had seen Ware. Getting no response, Gower shook him and only then realized that the man had been killed seconds earlier by flying shrapnel.
Pressing on, Gower found some more men huddled behind a tank. As he started asking them about Ware, another massive counter-barrage crashed down and everyone piled under the tank for cover. Suddenly the tank, which the infantry had thought derelict, fired up its engine and pivoted. Men clawed their way out from under the tank, rolling this way and that to avoid the grinding tracks. Gower found himself alone under the tank, scrabbling to escape. Reaching under to grab his hand, a soldier dragged him clear.
It was obvious that the PPCLI attack was collapsing. Learning that the Seaforths were having better luck on the left flank of the brigade’s attack, Ware tried to advise 2 CIB commander Brigadier Graeme Gibson to pass the Loyal Edmonton Regiment through that regiment instead of his own. He was unable to establish radio contact with brigade headquarters, however, and doubted that Gibson would agree to the change anyway. The brigade commander seemed always adverse to spontaneity.
Accordingly, at 0845 hours, ninety minutes behind schedule, Lieutenant Colonel Rowan Coleman waved his regiment forward. In the woods, the Edmontons found the rear elements of the PPCLI dug in at February. ‘A’ Company led, with ‘C’ immediately behind, followed by Coleman and his tactical headquarters, then ‘D’ Company. ‘B’ Company hung back in reserve. As ‘A’ Company burst out of the woods into the grain field, its commander, Captain P. G. Wright, was wounded in the head by a mortar fragment. Wright staggered forward, but another exploding mortar bomb severely wounded him in the lower body. Seeing the company wavering in the face of heavy casualties, Coleman rushed up and told Lieutenant W. B. Langston to take over.
Mortar, artillery, and machine-gun fire was increasing. Snipers hidden in the upper branches of nearby trees were also shooting at them. About twenty feet short of the wire, the fire became so intense the company was forced to ground. Trying to rally the men, Coleman was shot in the leg and hand. Lying in a ditch, Coleman ordered another charge. Lieutenants Langston and B. P. Lange led two sections into the wire. They became mired in antipersonnel mines and were struck by intense machine-gun fire. With both lieutenants wounded, the sections were pinned down. They added more bodies to the tangle left earlier by the PPCLI. One machine gun was firing on the Edmontons from just a few feet away. Private Douglas Robb calmly raised his rifle and shot the gunner dead. When Lieutenant G. L. Sherman attempted to organize the bridgehead inside the wire, he was struck three times by sniper fire and killed.
Private Edmund Andrew Kidd found himself the only company stretcher-bearer that was neither dead nor wounded. While tending to one casualty, he was struck by mortar fragments. Ignoring his injuries, Kidd dressed the wounds of two more men and then started crawling forward to help others. With bullets and shrapnel snapping all around him, Kidd tended and evacuated six more men to safety. He remained with the wounded until his own condition became so critical that he was ordered to report to the Regimental Aid Post. He won a Military Medal.
Coleman, too, refused evacuation. Instead, he set up a forward tactical headquarters in the ditch where he lay wounded. The only tanks that were up near the wire were three disabled by mines, but still possessing operational machine guns. At 1100 hours, a Mark IV Panther tank appeared about 500 yards ahead of ‘A’ Company and engaged the three helpless tanks. In minutes, they were burning.
Learning that his second-in-command, Major Archie MacDonald, had come up to the rear battalion headquarters, Coleman handed command to the major. MacDonald started up to Coleman’s position, stopping to compare notes with Ware en route. Both MacDonald and Ware recognized that much of the fire cutting their two regiments to pieces came from Aquino. MacDonald, who had a functioning radio, called for smoke to be fired along this flank. After leaving Ware’s headquarters, MacDonald had to run across a field to reach Coleman. Just as he started out, a sniper bullet hit him in the heel. MacDonald radioed Coleman with a report on the situation and provided the location of Ware’s headquarters, suggesting Coleman withdraw there. He then limped to battalion headquarters and relinquished command to Major F. H. McDougall.
By noon, ‘A’ Company, now commanded by the wounded Lange, extricated its forward sections from the wire. The company formed a circular defensive position in the open, just in front of the wire, and dug in. Coleman, meanwhile, tried to crawl with his tactical headquarters back to a small gully, but he soon became too exhausted to continue. The headquarters staff carried him out to the safety of the gully, where they loaded him onto a jeep and evacuated him to the Regimental Aid Post.
While the Edmonton attack ran out of steam, the two leading companies of the PPCLI were still well inside the wire. The only officer left standing in ‘A’ Company was its commander, Major “Bucko” Watson. With him were just five men, one of them a lance corporal. They paused next to a derelict German tank, so Watson could attempt to gather together more of his company. Men were spread out all over the battleground, moving about in ones and twos. Some were going forward, others backward. Many were wounded and having difficulty moving in any direction. Suddenly, the supposedly derelict tank fired its main gun toward the Canadian lines. With no weapons capable of knocking it out, Watson and his party scampered away before the crew realized their presence. In the confusion, Watson and the lance corporal got separated from the others. Then the lance corporal was killed. Watson, himself twice wounded, carried on toward the objective. He reached it alone and could find no trace of his men. Some scattered elements had, however, reached the Aquino-Pontecorvo road. Bits and pieces of PPCLI-marked equipment and gear were strewn around. Whether the men who lost the stuff had been taken prisoner or had withdrawn, Watson had no idea. Suffering from loss of blood and exhaustion, he was too weak to return to the wire. Watson crawled into a large shell hole, where he stayed until being found the following day by a PPCLI patrol.