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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.
At divisional headquarters, the reports coming in from 2 CIB proved that the promised feint by the 78th Division in front of Aquino had failed to materialize. Yet shortly before noon, Major General Chris Vokes received a telephone call from the 78th Division’s commander asking that he refrain from directing any artillery fire toward Aquino, “as his troops were about to enter the village.” Vokes didn’t believe a word of this. If that were true, why was 2 CIB taking so much fire on its right flank? He sent a liaison officer to determine the exact position of the 78th’s most forward troops. The officer soon returned to say they were at least 1,000 yards from the Hitler Line and not moving. Vokes told artillery Brigadier Bill Ziegler that he needed him “to bring down on the enemy defences about Aquino a concentration of fire from all the heavy and medium artillery regiments within range of the target.”
Because he had no specific targets, Ziegler decided to throw everything he could into the general vicinity of Aquino. He called the commander of the I Canadian Corps’s artillery, Brigadier E. C. Plow, at 1227 hours and requested a “William” target designation for Aquino. This was a request that all divisional, corps, and army artillery regiments within range bring their guns to bear. Plow pulled out the stops. Thirty-three minutes later, the guns were ready. Precisely at 1300 hours, 668 guns from nineteen field, nine medium, and two heavy regiments, as well as several other batteries, fired. In little more than a minute, 3,509 rounds amounting to a total weight of ninety-two tons of shells crashed down on Aquino. The fire from that flank lessened significantly thereafter. Ziegler’s “William” target was the first time in World War II that all the guns of an entire army had been directed against a single compact target area.
Even though the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were screened from much of the Aquino fire, their attack had also run into trouble the moment it kicked off. The same counter-barrage that had caught the PPCLI also fell upon the Seaforths.
As the men had formed up on the start line, twenty-four-year-old Sergeant Harry Rankin pondered what it meant to go into an attack outfitted as a human bomb. Rankin and several other pioneers had been assigned to a section armed with either bangalore torpedoes or beehive bombs. Several such sections were to rush up to the wire ahead of the infantry platoons. Those men armed with bangalore torpedoes, which were long pipes filled with explosives, would thrust them deep into the wire. When the torpedoes were ignited, they would rip holes in the barbed wire through which the infantry would then pass. The pioneers carrying beehive bombs were to lead the way. Weighing about five pounds and consisting of plastic explosive crammed into a beehive-shaped metal casing, the bombs were to be placed on top of concrete pillboxes. Light the fuse and the bomb, whose shape focused the force of the exploding charge, should rip a hole in the pillbox and kill the Germans inside. At least that was the plan some officer had dreamed up. Rankin was dubious because nobody knew how thick the concrete was or whether it would be possible to get on top of one without getting killed.
Standing next to him on the start line was a nineteen-year-old private, who was the batman for a new officer, Lieutenant Don S. McLaughlin. Rankin, who had enlisted in 1939 at the same age as this boy, kept forgetting his name. It was hard to remember names of soldiers who were new and the lieutenant and his batman had just arrived on May 14. There was a tendency for the old hands to avoid learning the names of new men or getting to know them well, because so many didn’t last long. The boy was nervous, fear etched all over his face. It was painfully obvious that he had no idea what was going on. Rankin said, “Stick with me. Follow me. You’ll be okay.” The whistles blew and the leading companies, accompanied by the pioneer assault sections, rushed forward.
Rankin had the beehive strapped across the small of his back with some mercury fulminate igniters and short lengths of fuse stuffed in a front pocket. If any shrapnel hit the bomb or the igniters, Rankin figured they would never find a piece of him to bury. There were explosions all around. Suddenly something hit him hard in the shoulder blades. He was on the ground, then back on his feet. Blood poured from a batch of shrapnel punctures across the top of his back. The young batman lay dead in a pool of blood.
Stumbling toward the rear, Rankin passed a young Canadian lying on the ground. One leg was severed at the hip and the stump was lying in a two-inch-deep pool of blood. The man’s eyes were open and sightless. Rankin thought how easily it could have been him lying there dead rather than walking out with a wound that would heal.
In No. 7 Platoon of ‘A’ Company, Corporal Charles Monroe Johnson led one of the platoon’s three sections. Johnson was an American from Tennessee. He had enlisted in the Canadian army in 1940 because it seemed the United States was going to steer clear of the war against fascism and he thought that wrong. A new lieutenant named Don McLaughlin was in charge of the platoon, but had made it clear that he was just along for the ride. Sergeant Jim Needham, who had been with the regiment since December 1939, was in charge. Johnson liked that. The last thing anyone needed in a tough battle was a new lieutenant who thought he knew it all. That sort of attitude got lieutenants killed quickly and usually a lot of good men died too.
There would obviously be a fair amount of dying this day. The cacophony of noise buffeting Johnson was terrific. He had never seen such heavy German fire. The machine guns firing at them were drowned out by the sounds of shells and mortar rounds exploding, both their own and the Germans’. Only the flicker of tracers arcing through the air, almost lazily, told Johnson they were taking machine-gun fire. The platoon advanced with rifles at high port across their chests to keep them out of the dew-wet wheat. Johnson saw a figure in the top of an olive tree ahead of him and fired at it from the hip. Several other men did the same. They didn’t stop to see if their shot killed the German sniper. Their orders were to stop for nothing, to get through the wire and take out the emplacements behind.
“Get through this barrage, get through this barrage, get through this barrage,” Johnson repeated. He fired at another sniper in a tree out front of No. 9 Platoon and then saw the man brought down by a burst from a Thompson. The momentary distraction almost caused him to tumble into a slit trench in which two dead Germans lay in a pool of coagulating blood. To the left, a German suddenly stood up. Johnson thought he was raising his hands to surrender, but a Seaforth shot him too quickly for anyone to be sure. Directly ahead, a German stood up and fired a long burst with a light machine gun toward No. 9 Platoon. Every man in No. 7 Platoon cracked off a couple of rounds from the hip and the German folded in on himself. Without a second thought, Johnson stepped on his blood-covered head as he walked past. The number of Seaforths that were going down every minute didn’t leave him feeling merciful to the enemy.
Seeing three Germans suddenly bolt from a slit trench toward the wire line, Johnson took a bead with the butt of his rifle pressed into his shoulder. He snapped off the last three rounds in his clip and one after the other the Germans crumpled. Slamming a new clip into the Lee Enfield, he resumed walking forward with the rifle at high port. Next thing he was lying on his back, rifle still across his chest. Bewildered as to how he had fallen, Johnson stood up and looked about for his section. They were lost in the smoke. But they had been there just a split second before, he thought, how could they have disappeared? He walked forward, calling out: “Where is everybody? Where is everybody?” Stumbling over a dead German, he suddenly saw Private T. Seibert on his hands and knees. He had a gaping wound in his back and was calling out, “Am I hit?”
“You bet you are,” Johnson said. The wound was about seven inches long and the man’s ribs were showing. Johnson bound the wound with a shell dressing. Seibert pointed at his leg, “Where did you get that?” Looking down, Johnson saw that a big chunk of his left thigh was missing just below the hipbone. The pants and underwear there had been torn away and the skin for about six inches around the hole was black with powder burns. He applied a field dressing and flopped down next to Seibert.
A few minutes later, Corporal Bob Peebles hobbled up with a wound in his knee and lay down beside Johnson with his face about a foot away. Even then, the explosions were so loud it was hard to hear each other. Finally, after a shell exploded just feet away from the wounded men, Peebles said he would go for help. He hobbled off. Time passed and nobody came, so Johnson left too. Finding a house a hundred yards back that was filled with captured Germans and wounded Seaforths, Johnson crowded in and joined them. Seibert was eventually brought in as well and treated for his wounds.
Up front, Johnson’s company was taking terrible casualties. The new lieutenant, McLaughlin was dead; so, too, was Sergeant Needham. Lieutenant Don Tuck “caught a sizeable chunk of shrapnel through the open collar” and had to hand off command to Corporal E. S. Weston. They still had not reached the barbed wire and already ‘A’ Company had no lieutenants left and few sergeants. ‘A’ Company’s commander Major John McLean was unhurt, but he was having trouble keeping track of the whereabouts of his platoons. McLean told Sergeant Rod McGowan, commanding No. 8 Platoon, to hold his men in front of the wire until he found out what had happened to the two already inside. He found Weston and learned that the two platoons had “generally broken up.” McLean fetched No. 8 Platoon. When they were about fifty yards past the wire, McLean thought he saw a German machine-gun post on a facing low ridge.
He also encountered a platoon from ‘D’ Company commanded by Lieutenant T. E. Woolley on his right. The two platoons linked up under McLean’s command and attacked the German position, which turned out to be a large bunker. After a short fight, the Germans inside surrendered and were sent back toward the Canadian lines. McLean pushed on with his platoon and Woolley took his unit back toward the right flank to try to find his company. At about 0700 hours, McLean and No. 8 Platoon reached the Aquino-Pontecorvo road. The major got on the radio and reported he was at Aboukir. McLean urged Lieutenant Colonel Syd Thomson to send up reserves, for he had too few men to hold the objective. Thomson replied that there were no reserves, but that he would try to get tanks through. While the platoon dug in, McLean and Weston went forward to find the rest of ‘A’ Company, which appeared to have overshot the objective.
Crossing the road, McLean looked south toward Pontecorvo and saw what looked to be two companies of the Carleton and York Regiment moving past the road toward the second objective — the Pontecorvo-Highway 6 road. Finding no sign of the missing platoons, McLean and Weston started back. They were just coming up to the road when three German tanks rolled toward them. Weston and McLean dived into an empty German slit trench, hoping the tanks had failed to spot them. A moment later, one of the tanks opened up with its main gun and a shell struck close to the trench. Knocked out, McLean awakened later to see Weston dead beside him. The major was in considerable pain. Two Seaforth privates appeared and half-dragged, half-walked him to the shelter of some trees on the east side of the wire. Burning tanks were scattered across the field approaching the wire. He later wrote: “The scene was one of mass devastation, burning tanks, wounded men, shell holes, continual firing.”
At 0800 hours, ‘B’ Squadron of the North Irish Horse was right at the wire. Squadron commander Major G. P. Russell’s leading tank was only thirty yards from a concealed Panzerturm when it opened fire. In seconds, Russell’s tank and four others were ablaze. Russell was seriously wounded. The dust and smoke were so thick that the tank commanders were unable to see the gun firing at them. One after another the tanks were picked off by the Panzerturm or by other antitank guns. The Panzerturm knocked out thirteen tanks before a North Irish Horse Churchill managed to destroy it with an armour-piercing round that penetrated the concrete base and detonated the gun’s ammunition. In all, the regiment lost forty-one of fifty-eight tanks.
Initially, some of the Seaforths would have been just as happy to not be supported by the tanks. Warned that Germans armed with sticky bombs might jump out of the trees onto the tanks and blow them up, one troop behind ‘D’ Company raked the treetops ahead of it with machine-gun fire as it rolled along. Seeing that his company was being hit from behind by heavy machine-gun fire, Major L. M. McBride looked back and saw with horror that, as the tanks wallowed in and out of ditches and small gullies, each downward pitch directed bullets toward his men. To escape this danger, ‘D’ Company scattered and by the time McBride reached the wire it was spread from “hell to breakfast.” Some ended up fighting alongside ‘A’ Company; others drifted into the PPCLI sector and fought there.
McBride and his headquarters section entered the wire. Seeing the ground heavily laced with mines, McBride carefully picked his way along by stepping over the wire and onto what looked like hard ground that had not been disturbed. His runner, Private Herbert Johnson, was cautiously putting his feet into McBride’s footsteps and it looked as if they would all get through safely when there was a tremendous explosion. McBride woke up on the ground in front of the wire, apparently thrown there by the blast. Johnson was dead. So too was Private Vic Warner, a forty-year-old radio signaller nicknamed “Pop,” because he was the oldest man in the Seaforth signal section. McBride’s other signaller had a bad shrapnel gash in his cheek. The major helped him reach a nearby ditch.
McBride then continued searching for his company but found only a lost PPCLI private. Carrying on together, the men entered an open field and were immediately fired upon by a machine gun. Ahead of him, McBride heard the heavy thumping of .-millimetre or .-millimetre guns and knew he had stumbled across concealed tanks or antitank guns. He was just trying to figure out what to do next when something struck him in the left eye. When he came to, McBride saw several Germans looking down on him. One of them bandaged his eye and they loaded him into an ambulance, which, moments later, was hit by a shell. McBride received light shrapnel wounds to his left shoulder and leg and was knocked unconscious. His next conscious moment found him in a German operating room in Rome. Once the operation was finished, he was loaded onto a German Red Cross train going north. McBride would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner-of-war.
Back at regimental headquarters, Thomson was having a terrible time following the course of the battle. He had no radio communications with most of the companies and was barely in contact with brigade. Half the time, the designated channels were clogged with unidentifiable voices and proper radio protocol was seldom followed. As noon approached, Thomson received a report that ‘C’ Company, commanded by Captain John Joseph Conway, was lagging on the left flank. Unable to establish radio contact with the captain, Thomson set off in his jeep to check things out. When he got close to the company, Thomson left the jeep and went up to the company headquarters section on foot. While he helped Conway reorient his attack, a soldier came up with two dead chickens. “You might as well have these,” he said to the regimental commander. Thomson went back to the jeep and tossed the chickens in the back next to his bedroll before driving away.
Regimental headquarters was in a stone house set on the reverse slope of a low hill. Although the Germans were unable to observe the house, they were routinely mortaring and shelling the area. Pulling up near the house, Thomson heard the whistle of incoming mortar rounds and dived into a storage room. One round struck the back of the jeep, spewing chicken guts and blood all over. A door to Thomson’s left opened and one of his runners looked out on the scene with a horror-stricken expression. “God, they got the old bastard finally,” he muttered. Thomson stuck his head out the adjacent door. “No, not yet,” he said.
After Thomson had left, ‘C’ Company renewed its attack despite heavy casualties and the loss of most platoon commanders. Seeing one of his forward platoons was pinned down by a German machine-gunner, Conway and four HQ section men moved up on the gunner’s flank. As one of the men started to throw a grenade at the German, he fumbled it. Conway scooped the grenade off the ground to throw it away. The grenade exploded and tore his right hand off. Since the explosion’s full force was absorbed by Conway’s hand, nobody else was injured. Ignoring the bleeding stump, Conway led the men in an attack that destroyed the machine-gun position. Conway was awarded the Military Cross for his unhesitating action with the grenade.
Despite the terrible casualties, the attack continued, with ‘C’ and ‘B’ companies gathering up the remnants of the leading companies and driving through to Aboukir. At 1230, about 100 Seaforths reached the Aquino-Pontecorvo road. As the senior surviving officer, ‘B’ Company’s Major Jim Allan organized them into a single company over which he took command. His actions during the rest of the day resulted in his being awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Like the two leading companies, ‘B’ and ‘C’ had been shredded while breaching the wire. Allan had lost 20 percent of his men getting into the forward reaches of the Hitler Line. More fell as the company fought through to the road.
‘C’ Company had suffered similar losses. No. 14 Platoon had been caught in a tremendous mortar barrage only 200 yards from the start line. The platoon commander was killed and just eight men remained unhurt. Company Sergeant Major Joe M. Duddle took over. The eight men had gone only a short distance when a stonk of Nebelwerfer rounds bracketed them. When the smoke cleared, Duddle was alone, so he began a one-man advance through the wire that carried him to where fifteen men from all the companies had gathered under command of Lieutenant W. R. Artindale. Duddle and Artindale broke the group into two sections and pushed on, crossing the Aquino-Pontecorvo road and occupying some half-ruined buildings 200 yards to the west. The small group was soon being shelled and a heavy machine gun kept raking the buildings. Artindale returned to the road and found Allan, who told him to bring the group back to the road. When Duddle got the order, he called out to the others. Only six responded. Duddle quickly searched the buildings, finding several dead, no wounded, and others missing, probably taken prisoner. Gathering up the remaining handful, Duddle led them to the road.
While Duddle and Artindale were out west of the road, Allan and his ad hoc force had been knocking out nearby German positions. Near where the Seaforths had come up on the road, Allan spotted a Panzerturm. In front of it was a sunken track filled with fallen trees and fortified with slit trenches and dug-in machine guns. A small party of Seaforths crept down a gully that allowed them to outflank the Panzerturm and kill its crew with small-arms fire. They then dispatched the Germans in the sunken track.
Having knocked out this position, Allan gathered in the remnants of all the companies that had reached the road over the past couple hours. He found that the regiment effectively numbered only about fifty men. Of these two were officers — Artindale and Lieutenant T. E. Woolley. Both were wounded, Woolley quite seriously.
At about 1500 hours, Allan finished organizing the group in a defensive position anchored on an eight-foot-long by two-foot-wide German trench and some surrounding slit trenches, but almost immediately German tanks started firing into their position with machine guns. There was so much dust and smoke, the Seaforths were unable to see the tanks. Eventually, using binoculars, Artindale sighted the tanks on both sides of the road several hundred yards north of their position. Allan told Duddle to take a PIAT team comprised of Privates K. J. Gustafson and E. M. Richardson and see if they could sort the tanks out. Gustafson, the PIAT gunner, had only two bombs left. The three men crawled toward the tanks, which, as they drew closer, they could see through a gap in a hedge. Realizing a frontal shot would fail to penetrate the Panthers’ armour, Duddle and the men circled through the high grass to come up behind the tanks. As they came to an opening in the field, Duddle saw a tank standing there that had not previously been detected. Richardson crouched down and Gustafson stabilized the awkward shoulder-fired weapon on his back. This enabled Gustafson to get the weapon higher than the top of the wheat, so he had a clear line of fire. Gustafson sighted the weapon on the tank and then lowered the butt of the launcher, took off his spectacles, wiped them with a handkerchief, replaced them, lifted the butt again and fired both bombs one after the other, disabling the tank. The three men then fled through a hail of small-arms fire back to the Seaforth position.
Allan, whose radio had been disabled by a damaged antenna, managed to restore the unit to life by fashioning an antenna out of some German aerial wire he found. He asked Thomson for 6-pounder antitank guns, PIAT bombs, and, most importantly, reinforcements. Thomson knew the ground was too rugged to move antitank guns over and he had no reinforcements. The set-piece attack plan had committed the Loyal Edmonton Regiment to an advance on the right flank without consideration that it might be the Seaforths who broke through. There was one glimmer of hope, however. On the left flank, the Carleton and York Regiment had punched through to the Aquino-Pontecorvo road and were visibly moving toward the second objective. Thomson asked 2 CIB Brigadier Gibson to direct some tanks through behind that regiment and up the road to Allan’s position. Gibson refused, as this sector was now part of a planned major breakthrough by the rest of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade regiments.
Thomson decided he should move up to the Aquino-Pontecorvo road and set up a tactical headquarters in Allan’s position. That way, he could establish a radio link to call in artillery support to protect the surviving elements of his companies. He, Intelligence Officer Lieutenant R. K. Swinton, and a radio signaller started out in a Stuart tank from which the turret had been removed, but it soon lost a track on a mine. They switched to a jeep, but got stuck in a ditch. Continuing on foot, they came under artillery fire and the signaller was killed. The radio was also knocked out. As the two officers pressed on alone, they came across a bunker filled with Germans who, Thomson was thankful to discover, wanted to surrender. He told them to stay put and someone would eventually take them in.
Back at Allan’s position, some of the wounded were being gathered together to make a break for the Canadian lines along with a few German prisoners that the Seaforths had picked up. Lieutenant Woolley, himself badly wounded, led this party back to safety. Duddle, meanwhile, learned at about 1600 hours that two Seaforth sections were pinned down by fire 200 yards to the right of the main group. He crawled over and found that some of the dozen men were too badly wounded to move on their own. Duddle cobbled together several stretchers from bits and pieces of wood, gas capes, and webbing belts. They were preparing to pull out at 1700 hours when three German tanks materialized northeast of them. Duddle and some of the other men quickly dragged the wounded on stretchers into a hollow where they were hidden from the tankers. He then watched in despair as the tanks charged the main Seaforth position.
The three tanks rolled in from the right at the same time that two others struck from the left. They proceeded to hammer the helpless Seaforths with .-millimetre main gun and machine-gun fire. There was nowhere to run. After a few minutes, the tanks ceased fire and German infantry swept through the position, rounding up wounded and a few survivors who had no choice but to surrender. Among these was Lieutenant Artindale. Allan, who had been hit in the leg and buttocks by machine-gun bullets, was covered in blood and playing dead. The Germans missed him.
Several others also managed to avoid being rounded up in the infantry sweep. When the tanks and infantry withdrew, these slowly emerged. Allan found he had twelve men left. Most were wounded. Duddle’s group was still in the little hollow across the road and off to the right. There were also a couple of groups of two to three men hiding in nearby holes. Allan and his men held on as night closed in, but it was obvious the position was untenable. With his leg stiffening badly, Allan could no longer effectively exercise command. At 1830 hours, he ordered the men to withdraw toward the Regimental Aid Post situated in the Seaforth’s tactical headquarters.
On the way back through the Hitler Line, the men met no Germans. It seemed apparent that those positions not destroyed during the attack had been abandoned. Coming in behind Allan’s small group was the one under Duddle’s command. Once they were through the wire, Duddle and his party came across a number of wounded North Irish Horse tankers. Most were terribly burned. The tankers said they could walk out under their own steam, but Duddle carried out one who was practically blind. The CSM’s small party finally arrived at battalion headquarters at 1930 hours. Duddle, who would win a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his ceaseless courage during this day, turned around ninety minutes later and led a stretcher party search for more wounded. Unable to locate Allan’s defensive position in the dark, they managed to rescue one wounded Seaforth in a slit trench and several more tankers.
While Allan and Duddle had been withdrawing from the Aquino-Pontecorvo road, Thomson and Swinton had finally arrived at the abandoned position. All they found were dead Seaforths. Looking at the bodies and the equipment scattered in the ditch, Thomson realized they had probably been overrun by tanks. He was confirmed in this opinion a second later when a machine gun started firing at them from 200 yards away. The flash of the gun illuminated the silhouette of a tank. Thomson and Swinton dived into the ditch and then crawled back toward the safety of the Canadian lines. En route they stopped at the bunker and picked up the Germans, who had not wavered in their eagerness to surrender.
Although the battle was unquestionably a disaster for 2 CIB, it was apparent that the Germans were having a hard time as well. In the mid-afternoon, Ware contacted Gibson by radio to report that neither his regiment nor the Edmontons were capable of continuing the advance. Gibson responded: “Hold on, good work. Will do all we can for you, and send up more tanks. Looking at the broader picture the news is excellent. German transport is streaming up the road north westwards and the Adolf Hitler Line has been breached all along its length.”
Despite that promising news, Ware was increasingly concerned that the Germans might counterattack and easily wipe out the remnants of the two regiments. He told Gower to bring up the antitank guns. Having done an earlier reconnaissance, the lieutenant knew the area was so confined that he only called up half the guns. Soon the big tow trucks arrived, each pulling a gun, and Gower directed them into the preselected sites. The men unhooked the guns and wheeled them into position, dragged the ammunition off the trucks, and then the vehicles tore back to safety. The area was still being heavily shelled and a few minutes later a massive 105-millimetre shell smacked into the ground, buried itself under one of the guns and promptly exploded. The gun was wrecked, but its crew was unhurt.
As Gower and the antitank platooon started digging in, it began to rain. Gower and Sergeant Norman McCowan found a dead Patricia in a slit trench. The man had been killed after digging down only about six inches. They picked the body up, placed it on the parapet, and dug deeper with bayonets, knives, and their hands. Working frantically, they got down to about five feet before either felt the trench provided sufficient protection. The bottom of the trench filled with rainwater. When one bout of shells fell near their position, Gower lay in the trench bottom with McCowan on top of him. The cold water made him shiver. McCowan said, “I don’t know what you’re shaking for, I’m on top.”
Nearby Ware was also shaking, but less from fear than an overwhelming sorrow. The battle had broken him. He knew that. The regiment he loved was virtually destroyed and the decisions that a commanding officer must make without hesitation were too heavy a burden to bear. “You can command for so long,” he later said, “and really when you start wondering if you should send “Bucko” Watson, who you don’t want killed, or Charlie McDonald, who you don’t want killed either, it’s too long.” A quick tally taken of the companies determined that the regiment’s initial fighting strength of 287 men was reduced to only 77.
From the messages Ware had sent Gibson toward the end of the day, the brigade commander sensed Ware’s mental state. As evening drew in, he sent the PPCLI’s second-in-command, Major D. H. Rosser, to relieve him and pulled Ware back to brigade headquarters for a rest. Captain Howard Mitchell of the Saskatoon Light Infantry was nearby when Ware came in. Gibson went over to the PPCLI commander and praised his performance and that of his regiment. Ware’s eyes were glazed over with tears. “Those were fine boys. They are gone. I haven’t anybody left. They are all gone.”
The 2 CIB regiments had suffered terribly. The first casualty figures reported were worse than proved the case, but the reality was awful enough. The final butcher’s bill for the PPCLI was 3 officers and 55 other ranks killed, 5 officers and 157 other ranks wounded, and 2 officers and 25 other ranks missing. The Loyal Edmontons had lost 2 officers and 48 other ranks dead, 5 officers and 120 other ranks wounded. Of the Seaforths, 3 officers and 49 other ranks died, 7 officers and 99 other ranks were wounded, and 2 officers and 50 other ranks had been taken prisoner. The 210 casualties this regiment suffered on May 23 were the heaviest it suffered in any single day of battle during the war. The same was true for the other regiments. Taken together, 2 CIB’s ordeal was unequalled in a day of combat by any other brigade during the course of the Italian campaign.
The Regimental Aid Posts and all the hospitals back down the Canadian line had never dealt with such fearful casualty rates, but good advance planning paid off and the quality of care never suffered. When it became obvious that casualties were going to be higher than normal, Nos. 5 and 9 Field Ambulances moved their advanced dressing stations closer to the front, reducing the time lag that congested traffic conditions threatened to create. Soon No. 5 Field Ambulance, which was tasked to 2 CIB, found that the rate of casualties exceeded its resources, and some wounded were evacuated through the advanced dressing stations of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. By the afternoon, “four field surgical units, two auxiliary surgical teams, and two field transfusion units were working at full capacity in the joint advanced surgical centre. Nursing sisters had also been brought forward from the hospitals, and were being employed in the post-operative care of patients.”
Seaforth chaplain Major Roy Durnford was horrified by the rate of wounded pouring into the Regimental Aid Post. The RAP was situated in a barn next to the tactical headquarters. Soon the house from which Thomson was trying to coordinate the battle also had to be used to hold wounded. Durnford watched the surreal scene of “maps, signals, anxious officers battered and war weary” weaving about among the wounded. The shelling was continual, but the major casualties from it were German prisoners told to stand outside the RAP because nobody had time to figure out how to move them further to the rear. To Durnford, the Germans were “dull and dopey or nervous and excitable. Pale, dirty and utterly exhausted they stagger down the line.”
Durnford concentrated on the wounded Canadians. One of the first things Durnford always did during a battle was build a small open fire near the RAP on which he boiled up gallons of tea and thin soup to nourish the wounded. This time there was never enough. “The boys keep coming in. Some bomb happy, some terribly broken and shell-shocked, some with limbs torn off and some almost gleefully with light wounds . . . North Irish Horse tank boys went in with us. They were wonderful. Their casualties were heavy. Ours are extremely severe.” Staring around the RAP bursting with wounded and knowing how many Seaforths had perished in the Hitler Line, Durnford knew that May 23 had “been our best and worst day.”