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Memoirs of Gordie Bannerman

On to the Gothic Line

About the first of August we were ordered to take down all unit and formation signs and also remove our Canada badges from our battle dress. We left our area to move towards the North. We left the Capua area and journeyed up past the ruins of Cassino then along highway #6 through all our battle ground of May and early June, Pignataro, Pontecorvo, and all the way through Pofi, Frosinone, and through Rome. As we went north of Rome we were able to see the carnage that the Desert Air Force had caused to the retreating Germans. Hundreds of vehicles, guns, and some tanks strewn along the roadside also amongst this mess were quite a few rifles sticking in the ground with German helmets hanging on them. This marked where a German soldier had been buried in a hurry. It must have been a terrible ending for a lot of them as the road had been crowded and there was no escaping death from the sky.

We thought, boy did our air force ever kick the shit out of Tedeski along this route and we were thinking they would have less tanks, guns, and men the next time we meet which was to be sooner than later. We moved along the shore of a very large lake which was named Trasimene. As this move was made to hide the Canadian Corps from the Germans, we knew that something big was about to happen and we to be part of it. All the Canadian Corps now were on the west side of the Apennines and not too far south of Florence. It seemed that the strategy of the 8th Army was to let the Germans think the main thrust of a new offensive was to be north of Florence and not on the Adriatic side of Italy. The Canadians as the Germans knew were somewhere around, but really did not know exactly where.

I think that a couple of First Division patrols entered Florence to justify the presence of Canadians in that area. We now moved to a large concentration area near Montefalco, I suppose close to the western edge of the Apennines. In the Montefalco area, that the main attack on the Adriatic side necessitated that Allied engineers blasted and bulldozed a route across the Apennines Mountains so our tanks could be moved across the mountains on their transporters and negotiate the curves and slopes to arrive at Jesi near the Adriatic. In this area we were well camouflaged and our identity hidden. We heard a lot of talk about the German Gothic Line which was to be an extremely difficult task for us. Colonel Armstrong had gone to Brigade HQ for orders and on the road back to the unit was killed when his jeep rolled over him. About 25 men from each troop paid our last respects to our Colonel as he was buried in a small temporary cemetery.

Our new Colonel FT McIntosh arrived a couple of days later and we were on the move again to a forward area. In this area Lt Casselman, and Sgt John Wiebe plus all the survey section were on a mine clearing along a road. Mines being cleared Lt Casselman jumped in his jeep to drive back to the unit. He backed into a wide area and drove over a mine. The resulting explosion killed Lt Casselman immediately. John Wiebe, being the passenger, was thrown about twenty feet into the air. John told me while he was up in the air he could see for miles clear to the Adriatic. He then wondered how he was going to get down. In the next instant he crashed nose first into the hard backed earth. He was well battered and bruised.

On August 21, 1944 we moved closer to the Gothic Line. We had been briefed that it was going to be quite a show. We would move in supporting the First Canadian Division. Our advance party, after leaving Jesi, arrived in an area of rolling hills and some orchards. Here we came upon a peach orchard that was out of this world. Peaches were bending the boughs with their weight. Shell fire that had hit around had shaken some peaches on to the ground resulting in the ground being covered with the most beautiful peaches as big as large grape fruit.

Most of us had never seen a peach orchard and of course gorged on the tree ripened fruit. The First Division chaps loaded jeeps with all the peaches they could pick up. In this area Colonel McIntosh toured each troop to meet all of us. I had him repeat his name to me. It was the only time I ever spoke to Colonel McIntosh as he was killed within 24 hours of that meeting.

I was sitting on my motor bike looking over the country side. I was on a high rolling hilly area and could see for miles. I felt a shiver all over my body and I thought I must not get malaria, so I reached in a pocket and took a couple of Mepacrine tablets [Quinine]. I saw convoy after convoy coming through a small village to my left rear. The German gunners knew all this as the dust cloud was raising high from the convoy's passing. In the distance I heard a very large gun firing and soon the whistle of a shell passing high overhead. The shell crashed into the village, bricks, stones, and a massive cloud of dust was what I could see. But the convoy kept coming through this shell fire.

Shell after shell burst into the buildings and near the road. I should have heard the distant gun fire, but the exploding shell in the village would happen before I actually heard the whistle of it passing over head to my left. This was a vaunted large railway gun that our spit bombers had tried to knock out. It would run out from a tunnel fire a few shots and retreat into the tunnel. This gun was to cause us a lot of trouble. I was on an advance party to Montemaggiore and was left on the hill to direct others where to go.

Montemaggiore, Italy on August, 24 1944. This is an area where so many things happened. Our advance party arrived below the town of Montemaggorie to set up gun positions for the guns that would be coming in that evening. It was an entrance to this area down a long winding hill side and we were in an area where the enemy could see us coming and going. Our advance party vehicles were strung out with a good timed interval between vehicles. Lt Art DeBelle was our gun position office when our site was given to us for Fox Troop's gun position. The selection of where the best spot for each of the four guns in our troop was selected by Lt DeBelle. We had brought some of the crews from each gun who started to dig gun pits and slit trenches. Our troop command post dugout would have been dug at this time. Art Debelle asked me to stay with him and check out the site for a good road for the guns which were to arrive after dark.

The road to our rear that ran along a hill top and was under German observation and under extremely accurate shell fire! Each time a vehicle, motor bike, or truck went along this road the Germans would start to chase it with shell after shell. We could not believe how the vehicles ran this gauntlet of fire. We could see the shell burst and the ensuing dust cloud would obscure the vehicle under attack. We thought they must of got him, but in an instant out of this dust cloud would come the surviving vehicle going like hell on wheels. Some made bets on the result whether the vehicle would make it or not.

The day was spent getting all the preparations for the guns coming in. I dug my slit trench along a fine grape vine loaded with splendid big grapes. The 48th Highlander of Canada moved into our area and dug their slit trenches about a hundred feet further up the slope from us. While we were in grape vines, the 48th were in some taller trees to our front. We had a new officer posted to our troop this morning. His name was Lt Alex Ross and would be troop leader Fox Troop. This was to be his first day in action. The second in command, Major Alf Powis, called for the advance party to go to the Montemaggiore our Lt Ross was left getting to know the troop personnel.

The battered town of Montemaggiore.

Our survey section was very busy getting the proper survey information from any available Italian survey monument, and picking up the corrected coordinates of just where we were from the 1st survey regiment RCA. We were ready for the guns to come up. The afternoon and into the evening wore on with a lot of shelling on the road to our rear of which we had a grandstand view.

We were told at dusk that the guns would come into our position after dark to hopefully escape the violent shelling of the road. Here is where a guide from each troop was to go with Major Powis to a crossroad to meet the guns, and direct them to their respective troop position. This guide is almost always the troop sergeant major. On this evening somehow Lt DeBelle asked me to stay with him and we would meet the guns at the foot of the hill. Gunner Kirby said he would go on my motor bike to meet the guns along with the other guides and Major Powis. So that was agreed and Kirby left to join the other guides.

Lt DeBelle and I walked along the hillside and down to the crossroad at the bottom of the hill. Soon some of the other troops guns were moving past us in the darkness. It was not going to be a pleasant night. The Germans knew that there was a great movement going on and they started to shell over the town and down into this crossroad. Shells crashed down around us and into the hillside above us showering us with dirt stones and whizzing metal. Lt De Belle and I scurried for the small shallow ditch. Lt DeBelle landing on top of me. I twisted my neck around and here was Lt DeBelle's face inches from mine. I said, “Sir, you would be a lot lower if you got off me.” In that frantic few seconds he did not realize that I was under him. He wriggled off me in a hurry.

The shelling all around us was really close, and any movement of vehicles was being drowned out with the bursting shells. During this shelling our Colonel of just three days drove up and dismounted out of his vehicle. Right away he was hit with a shell killing him and wounding a couple of others with him. Gunner Marchuk, his driver, was to be awarded the MM for bravery trying to save Colonel McIntosh's life and the others. Within moments E troop guns appeared then our guns with our new troop leader Lt Ross leading them. Lt DeBelle jumped in with Lt Ross or walked in front of him with a flashlight to guide him to the troop command post. I brought the guns the rest of the way showing each sergeant where his particular site was. All this time the Germans were either shelling around the town, the road, or concentration areas around them. The First Division Infantry namely the 48th Highlanders, were also on the move through the town and drew a lot of shell fire. They were using more lights on their vehicles than we were.

This area was to be hidden from the Germans until the main assault across the Mataura River. When all guns were in their gun pits, slit trenches dug and camouflaged, the gunners would try to get a short rest. The trip to this position was extremely hazardous, not just from the shelling but the twisting steep road all in the dark. We lost on observation tank, and I think three trucks rolled over coming down this grim hill. We were soon to name this position Death Valley.

Montemaggiore, Italy on August 25, 1944. This morning started out with the sun shining and all the gun crews getting fed and shaved to begin a new day as last night was one of hard work. We had an immense dump of ammunition. This ammunition was brought in by our lorries plus some extra lorries from the Army Service Corps. I believe in the amount of four hundred rounds per gun. A lot of this had to be hand carried as the lorries could not get near some of the guns as the hillside was too steep. The amount of work these young men put in during the night and in a hurry was almost superhuman. The lorries had to get out of the area and back up the road before daylight and get loaded, ready to supply more shells when called for.

I had to go to Regimental Head Quarters and put in our ammunition report and a couple of other items. Walking through E troop area I was told my good friend, Bill Stickney, had been wounded and had been evacuated to hospital. A shell fragment had removed part of his heel. The war was over for Sgt Bill Stickney.

On arriving at RHQ I did what I had to do and was about to leave when Major Powis came in and addressed me. "Sgt Major Bannerman I do not know whether to award you a medal or court-martial you." I answered, "What is this about, sir?"

He said, "Last night when I was at the crossroad to meet the guns I checked all the troop guides and you were not there.” Knowing this along came Colonel McIntosh and said, "Jump in with me Alf [Alf was Major Powis's name] and direct me to the gun positions.”

His answer to the Colonel was, "I cannot as one of the guides is not here so I will bring in Fox Troop guns." He said, "Now Bannerman if you had been there I would have jumped in with the Colonel and would have been killed along with the Colonel last night."

So Gordie Bannerman was off the hook mind you I did not get the medal either. I do not remember if I told him Gunner Kirby was there to bring Fox Troop in. I checked with Kirby and he said he did not speak to Major Powis at the crossroad so that is why Major Powis brought our guns in and had his life saved. Someone looked after him.

I was relieved that Major Powis did not take a strip off me. Major Powis and I, along with other regimental advance parties, were to go on many more advance parties together. I never let any one else go back as a guide for our troop. Major Powis was a fine officer and we retained a good friendship during the rest of his stay with the regiment.

After my excursion to RHQ and my meeting with Major Powis, I returned to the troop area. I sat down with Sgt Nels Humble and Bdr Malfait. We were watching the shelling of the road to our rear, and wondering if the display of washing spread out on the forward slope of the hill to our rear could be a signal to the enemy in some form. As the day unfolds it proved correct. Our conversation was interrupted by the flutter, whirr, swoosh of the sky being full of mortar bombs about to hit all around us. Like gophers we were into the nearest slit trench. Humble and I in one and Bdr Malfait into the other. Then the mortar bombs hit and exploded all around and soon the crescendo of exploding mortar bombs drowned out the noise of their incoming flight.

Immediately Humble's pup tent started to have daylight showing all through it as the flying shrapnel cut in and out of the tent. Nels and I were very quiet each with his own thoughts. Self preservation likely was uppermost in our minds and the thought of this horrendous stonking of bombs surely we two were the only one's left alive. I do not know how many rounds crashed as they blended into a roar, probably two hundred or more. Then it stopped.

Humble and I knew we were okay, but what about the rest of the troop? We stood up to look over the gun position. The valley and all the gun position was thick with smoke and the smell of exploding bombs. The air not only was thick with smoke, but clods of earth were still coming down throughout our position.

Out of the smoke and falling earth and dust came Bdr Floyd Burton. Floyd was the signal NCO of Fox Troop and he was making his way to the command post to check on the signallers and staff. Humble and I hollered is everyone okay and all answered no one hit. So we had dodged the bombs this time.

But in a matter of a minute or so the air was full of the flutter, whirr, whistle of a stonk of mortar bombs, so into the slit trench we leaped once again. This time the bombs seemed to come down on us with increased fury as if they were mad not to have got some of us from the previous bombing. Humble and I were sure that noone could survive this amount of mortaring. We just sweated it out, almost deaf from the crashing and exploding bombs and we thought in any second we would get a direct hit on our slit trench.

Again as the mortaring started, it stopped. We were alive and stood up and hollered is everybody okay? Shouts came from all over the gun position and all were okay. The most memorable answer was from Henry Redfern who laughed and said pretty G-- damn hot eh Gordie and laughed some more. This broke the nervous spell and there were cheers and laughter. We again had dodged the reaper.

Bombardier Bert Cox wanted me to have a look at his slit trench. In the bottom of his slit trench was his blankets in small pieces as if a rat had chewed them up. Laying in with the torn up blankets was his rifle well and truly destroyed. I asked Bert where was he when his slit trench took the direct hit? Bert replied he had a feeling that he would be killed if he stayed in his slit trench so in the middle of this tremendous bombardment he left the slit trench and took shelter in the big gun pit Someone was looking out for Bert.

The 48th Highlanders were not so lucky as we were during this mortaring. They were about a hundred feet up the hill from our guns in some taller trees and the bombs were hitting and exploding in the trees showering their men with the deadly pieces. Their call for stretcher and aid people happened after every shelling. The 48th were also worried about the washing laid out on the hillside so a small patrol went to investigate and found some Italians with a radio and binoculars. These same fellows had been sending the information to the Germans regarding just where we were.

It was hard for we gunners not to fire in return to this vicious bombardment, but this would have given away the role which we were playing and that would soon end when our big barrage would start at midnight August 25, 1944. Our new officer Lt Alex Ross certainly had a big day for his first one in action.

This day and yesterday seemed to never end. Although Fox Troop had remained unscathed, a lot of causalities had occurred amongst the 48th Highlanders and some to other troops in the regiment. This valley was dubbed death valley. The day wore on the gunners, officers and command post personnel. We were all extremely busy as H hour of the big barrage was on for 23.59 hours, a minute before midnight. Shells were readied, nose caps off, netting was cleared so the guns would have a clear field of fire. Any personnel off shift tried to get some rest as the amount of shells to be handled and fired would need all the crews. The fire plan had to be all worked out and timing coordinated for the blast off at 23.59.

The 48th Highlanders at dusk started to move away through the town and down into the other side of the town. They were to make a silent crossing of the Metauro River. After they had crossed the river, we would then fire the barrage. A second or two before 23.59 hours one lone gun fired. It was a split second early and then the whole area erupted in sound.

The flashes of the guns lighted up the sky so you could read a paper. It was that bright. What a relief to send some back as being on the receiving end was getting a bit nerve wracking. You never forget the sound and sight of a barrage of a few hundred guns all firing at once. You still have to think of the poor devils that you are shelling. I often thought just give up and go home while you still can. Mind you this thought depended on whether they had just killed one of yours then you thought a little differently. During the barrage there was not much return fire until some time after the initial barrage. Then towards daylight that damn railway gun opened up sending a few rounds into the town. Then all was quiet and word came back from the front that all was going well without too much resistance and none in other areas. Dawn came and with it the order for advance parties went out. It looked like we were to start moving to keep up with the infantry.

Opening rounds in the Gothic Line barrage.

I ended up asking the Colonel of the PPCLI where the forward troops were and he said to have a look through his binoculars and the Pat's were going up a hill about a half mile in front of us. I looked at his map and went to catch up with our advance party. I believe the advance party had been a bit too premature and we all returned to Montemaggiore. We were still within range of the enemy, also the road traffic was heavy and we were supporting the First Canadian Division so they would have had priority. The advance party were all waiting around the Battery command post in a house on the southern edge of the town.

Then this German railway gun opens up on the town plus the road leading out of town and some passing over our guns. This massive gun fired a shell weighing in the two or three hundred pound range. When this size of shell passed overhead it was like a freight car in flight. During the shelling a stretcher with a chap on it was carried past where I was. I yelled who was hit and the answer was one of yours. I ran down after the stretcher to our aid post and found out it was Scott Coyle a signaller with us. He had been up in the town just poking around when he was struck in the back of his knee by a large piece of shell which went in one side and out the other.

I arrived at the aid post almost as soon as the stretcher. Scott was on the stretcher which was placed on the floor. Scott had the look of all badly wounded fellows, that grey appearance and was covered with a fine dust. This was from being near explosion and was stone dust mixed in with road dust. Scott was sweating and was quite agitated and attempted to tear off his shirt exclaiming how hot he was.

Our medical doctor seemed in a bad state of nerves as the shells from the railway gun were still roaring overhead making enough noise and rush of air that you thought the tiles were going to come off the roof then they crashed and exploded just down past our guns. Scott said “Are you ever going to give me a shot of morphine?” With this query the medical officer answered, “If you do not shut up and lay still I will not give you anything.”

I put my arms around Scott from the back as I knelt behind him, saying “just lay still and you will be okay.” Scott reached up and put his arms around my neck saying “I know you Gordie and I will be still.” Followed with the words “I should not have run so far after getting hit.” The medical officer at his own good time gave Scott a shot of morphine and had me relinquish my hold on Scott.

The medical officer then proceeded to take all the shell dressings of Scott's leg. These dressings had been put on by Vic Bennet a great friend of Scott's. Vic had done an expert job and here the medical officer was taking them off. It seemed the longest time to take the dressings off instead of getting Scott to the First Field Casualty station. None of us were impressed with this and when all the bandages were off we could see the extent of Scott's wound. A piece of the shell had gone in one side of his leg and out the other. The flesh was white, no blood. Scott had pumped it all out when he had run after being hit. The medical officer sprinkled some sulpha powder on the wound and roughly bandaged it back up. He said to take him away to the casualty clearing station. Scott’s buddies loaded him in the back of the aid post's small 800cwt truck.

Now here is where none of us stepped in. As the truck drove away we noted that no one had been in the back of the truck accompanying Scott. I believe Scott passed away a few moments down the road. Loss of blood, shock, delay in getting him on to where he could get the care. Initially Scott' s comrades were quick to look after him, but when he arrived at our own aid post things went nowhere. I was quite upset with how his wound and evacuation was carried out. Many of his comrades were in a rage, most directed whether wrongly or rightly on the medical officer.

This medical officer was not our Capt. Strashin who would have handled the situation in a more efficient manner. He had left to take a position more suited to his expertise. The new medical officer came to the unit the next day, 22nd August. Scott Coyle was wounded and died, 26th August. This officer did not stay long with the unit.

Montemaggiore, Italy August 26, 1944. After the barrage fired at 23.59 hours on August 25th, two 48th Highlander privates came into our command post, about three a.m. Both were wounded and one had a piece of a shell go through his foot between the heel and ball of his foot. We cut his boot off and found his foot did not look very good. I put a shell dressing on his foot and did not do a good job as Vic Bennet, took it off and did a super job of treating this man. I did not put enough pressure on the wound and could not stop the bleeding. Vic rectified that in a hurry. The other private said he was hit in the hip so we said down with your drawers so we can see how bad it is. It looked like a small puncture in his hip with really only a trace of bleeding. Now how to put a shell dressing on a hinder was a task for Vic Bennet who rose to the occasion.

Both men bandaged we enquired what part of town they had been in when hit. Their story was when the 48th moved out to cross the river they were in the town looking for vino and made no effort to join their comrades. While talking to them the fellow with the hip wound keeled over. We revived him and about then an ambulance took both men away.

The follow up on this happened on October 26th. I had 48 hours at the rest center called the Albergo Grande in Riccione. I met some 48th Highlanders and asked about the two privates that we had treated in August. I asked if the chap with the terrible foot wound will be in England? They said no, but the chap with the buttock wound is in England war over for him. They informed me that from the puncture in the buttocks a piece of shell had glanced off the pelvis and went up and sliced off part of his kidney and they said, the information that they received is he is lucky to be alive. So you never really knew the extent of even the most superficial wound, serious or not.

The Gothic Line, Italy. The initial success of the advance to the Gothic Line was going quite well. The regiment made many moves and sometimes were out of range so moved again. On one of these advance parties we were on, for once, a piece of higher ground. While we were checking out the new gun position, we had a view of the Germans shelling crossroads with two rounds into each crossroad except one. The German’s were very methodical in doing most everything.

When it came time to go with the 2/IC to the designated crossroad to meet the guns. I noted that this crossroad was the one that had not received any shelling during the day. I parked my bike opposite the Provost who was doing traffic control. I then had a funny feeling that all was not right and something was about to happen so I spent the next few moments roaming around a couple of houses picking up and tossing aside pieces of someone's belongings with no apparent reason or saving anything.

There was a couple of shells that passed over and hit the next crossroad. Along came 60th Battery and out of one of the vehicles hobbled a gunner who made his way to a waiting ambulance. He had been hit at the crossroad next to the one we were waiting at. I took his name I suppose for no other reason than to be sure it was reported.

The 60th Battery rolled through the crossroad, then 37th Battery, our troop of 76th Battery, were almost here and I left the building and went to start my bike ready to lead Fox Troop to the new position. Just as I kicked my starter a shell crashed into the house nearest the provost corporal. Down came all the overhead wires and the air was full of dust and bricks from the exploding shell. The provost corporal was either knocked down or wounded. Before the noise of the explosion died I was off my bike and hollered at our lead vehicle to get everyone out as there will be another shell arriving in seconds. Everyone got out of their vehicles and ran into nearby houses.

Then in came the next shell right into the crossroad and exploded. As soon as it exploded, I went to my bike and hollered let us get the hell out of here. My bike was laying on its side with the gas draining out. I righted the bike and on the second kick it started. I saw that the Provost Corporal was being taken away on a stretcher. I do not know if this was the original corporal or whether two had been hit. I then lead the way to our gun position.

All our fellows made it through this crossroad okay. Sometime during this, Capt Wolfe brought fire down upon his tank and buildings where our infantry was situated. Reason for this was the German paratroopers were trying to get in the house and were on the roof and also trying to get into Wolfe's tank. Lloyd Fraser a signaller with Capt Wolfe remembers this very well indeed. That was a heart pounding situation and the resulting fire cleared the Germans away for the time being.

A railway gun had a range of over 38 miles and fired a shell weighing 563.38 pounds. The gun was a 28cm listed as a K5[E]. I thought initially that the shells were in the three hundred pound class. No wonder when they hit a stone building that the building's walls would disintegrate. This gun certainly seemed accurate as it rained death and destruction all around us. The Germans were good gunners and this gun would be run out of a tunnel, fired then retreat into the tunnel to reload. The desert air force was always on the look out to destroy this monster. Pieces from the exploding shells carried for hundreds of feet. I do not remember this gun after we had left the Montemaggiore area.

Still in Italy
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