60. A day Long Remembered
January 1944. Monday the 17th of January will long be remembered by our regiment and the Perth and Cape Breton Highlanders. Not just in the amount of shelling we didm, or the attack that ended in a disaster. Some say the addition of additional troops on a wider front would have made the difference. Then the German guns would not have been able to concentrate their deadly fire on the two attacking battalions. Even to this day the odd First Division person will remind us that when our Brigade marched through Ortona to take up forward positions, our chaps were supposed to have said, we will show you fellows real fighting men and we will be in Pescara for supper. Pescara was a town well past the Arelli River. I will have to check when Pescara was taken but it certainly was not in the immediate future.
Now here was the area where we had our indoctrination under fire. Our fellows did very well, but as yet we did not have any direct hits on any of our guns. We started to lose signallers and observation assistants, plus Forward observation officers. These were up with the infantry and and were FOO's. That is the term for the Forward Observation Officer.
The next day after the ill fated attack, we thought at the guns that the Germans would turn their attention to us. Well he did send in a few shells. At dusk on the 18th Jan, I heard the shell whistling to my right and saw the flash of fire and heard the explosion as it looked like it had hit a tree It hit a tree allright and the resulting explosion sent pieces into a gun pit of 60th Battery, wounding l/sgt Dick Horsman .who had recently been promoted from my gun crew. That wound was the war over for Dick who survived, raised a family.,and late in life sadly committed suicide.
To many of WW2 fellows the war never was completely over, no counselling just go home and get on with life. Some never did. Shell fire is a frightening experience and I do not think you ever became used to it. If you were in your slit trench by yourself under going a massive stonk of mortars or artillery shells, your heart pounded and the adrenaline certainly flowed. You imagine the whistling shells had eyes as they approached and they were looking for you. Ah' they missed as you heard it explode close by. If you had a pup tent placed over your slit trench, you could see the pieces of bursting shell cut holes in the canvas as they came in and out.
In this position each morning a British signaller walked along the front of our guns checking a phone line that was laid back to their command post. We note this chap always timed his visit when Stan Gillespie my gun layer was brewing up the gun crew's pot of tea. This chap said you Canadians do brew a fine cuppa. It is because you get good tea from home. The issue tea was a miserable mixture in a sealed sardine like can, Tea, Sugar, and Powdered Milk, all mixed up.
We all took turns getting water from a well about three or four hundred feet away from the gun. One day it was my turn. I pulled up a bucket by a rope and filled one container. Well a German gun started to range it seemed on the well. The first round landed a few hundred feet short but the next one was not too far away and it looked like the next one would be right on me. I was pulling up the rope when I heard a gun fire in the distance. This is it! So I ducked around the back of the well stone work as the shell crashed damn close. I remembered I had let go the rope and bucket , I leaped up just in time to see rope and bucket disappear into the well. Well nothing to do but go back to the gun position get a new rope and bucket and bring the crew the water. After all it was my turn.
The evening of 18th January 1944 was a clear cold moonlight evening everything was very still and we were at 'Stand To' in case we had to fire our guns in a hurry. Over this still clear night came the stirring sound of bagpipes. If you had been there it would have put the chill up your spine and a stirring in your heart. It was the Canadian Seaforth Highlander Piper standing on the out skirts of Ortona piping the Seaforths back into the line to take over from our Brigade. I will never forget this and often get the same chill.
Members of my gun crew were really turned on to this and a couple said Gordie let us get Bren guns and go with them .....
So goes memories ..