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Memoirs of Gordie Bannerman

Italy and into Action

We arrived on the dock at Liverpool October 26, 1943 and were not long in boarding the troop ship John Ericsson. This was a German liner that was seized in New York harbour at the outset of the war and converted to carry troops. We were told that Ireland was to be our destination. If we had listened to the civilians on the street and around the dock we could have guessed that it was not Ireland, as we heard “give them hell Canada” and “come back safe.” Oh yes, the civvies knew more then we did. We marched on board carrying all our personal kit no trucks and guns all left behind. What a shame the loving care we gave those guns and to leave them behind was worse than leaving family. To an artillery man the guns were family. That may sound strange to most, but that is how gunners are.

I was allotted a bunk in a section of the ship which held either 180 or 200 other Sergeants. It was not long before the crown and anchor dice came out, or the poker playing started, or the rolling of the dice. There always was an enterprising fellow ready to skin his fellows out of their pay, such was the start of a voyage to Ireland. We set sail down the Mersey River towards the Irish Sea, and we sailed up along the coast of Ireland gathering more ships in our convoy. Then we turned back and started sailing in a south westerly direction past the southern tip of Ireland. This was a different change of what we had been told. We continued on this course so long that rumours were that we were going to the States to get new equipment. It was not long before we were getting a mepacrine tablet and malaria lectures.

Troop ship John Ericsson.

As the days went by the weather was getting warmer and then after all the westerly sailing we turned east. Here we had more lectures on behaviour of Troops in North Africa. Up to now it was a great trip with American rations. The sea all during this first few days was terrific. A lot of escort vessels and every now and then we had some aircraft patrolling above us. I cannot remember if we had any submarine alerts. Probably about the 4th or 5th of November we sailed past Gibraltar. As darkness fell we could see the lighted cities on the North African coast all lighted up. What a sight after the years of black out. We could not see enough of this.

We now knew we were Italy bound to join up with the First Canadian Division. Lectures were given to let you know how powerful the Italian Vino was compared to beer and other liquor. We were getting pretty excited to really get in on the fighting. We were young and we were ready to take on the enemy right now. On the evening of November 6th just after our fighter plane escort departed for their base we were hit by torpedo carrying Junker 88s. The German air force had their timing just right!

The card game and the dice game went on at the start of the attack and there was a joker or two that imitated bombs dropping giving the long whistle followed with a resulting boom. All this stopped when the large gun manned by Royal marine gunners fired. This gun was a naval type gun mounted on the stern of the John Ericsson. When it fired the whole ship seemed to lift! It was silence except for the intense battle raging topside and all throughout the convoy. When the all clear sounded we were still confined to our compartments on the ship, but Orme Payne, who was a signal Sgt., and able to read and send Morse code was on the bridge of the ship, as the ships crew were short an operator. Orme saw all the action from start to finish and he said it was some display of firing guns, planes being downed, and ships being torpedoed. A torpedo was coming toward the John Ericsson and all held their breath waiting to get blown up. By a miracle the torpedo passed across our bow and continued on through the convoy missing all ships. An American destroyer was hit with a torpedo amidships and looked to go down with all hands.

Orme stated that the Captain of the John Ericsson was one cool chap and seemed unfazed by all this and continued to give his crew orders in a quiet voice. Someone had given the Captain a steel helmet, which the Captain wore backwards throughout the attack. Orme noted, that the attacking planes were flying so low that the guns had a hard time, or were in some cases unable to depress far enough to get a shot at them. Only when a plane appeared in our front, then our gunners shot it down and it crashed on the ships stern immediately in front of us. #14 General Hospital Staff including over one hundred nursing sisters had to take to lifeboats after their ship listed and was sinking from a torpedo strike. The seamen were pretty terrified and the nurses took to the oars showing great coolness and as nurses were very resourceful. The nurses were picked up by another ship and as they scrambled up the nets lowered for them they came aboard so I am told swinging their watches and rings in condoms borrowed from the troops. This was again good thinking as watches had to be a great part in a nurse's equipment as they would be very hard to get replacements. I cannot say how long the attack went on as you lose the passing of time under this type of attack.

The rest of the night was spent aboard our ship with an increased number of machine guns being manned and I have been told that after the aerial attack that we could expect this, followed by a submarine attack. We really never knew how many ships went down until much later. The next day, all day, machine guns were manned in event of another attack, but we were not attacked by either submarine or aircraft. Seas were smooth and the sun shone bright and we entered Naples Harbour on November 8, 1943. We had arrived in a foreign country. The harbour was a shambles of sunken ships and blown up dock yard. We disembarked in the evening to start a 14 mile walk to a field near Afragola, Italy.

Even before we disembarked we could smell Naples and truly it was not a smell that you could grow fond of. We were given the time when we were to leave the ship. It was after six in the evening when, loaded down with our packs, we started to march through the filthy streets, refuse everywhere, sullen civilians, a rat or two scurrying about. Nothing to make a good impression on us, but a reminder of what a hell hole Naples was with bombed buildings, rubble on the streets open sewage draining down the gutters. Not much to welcome us to sunny Italy.

A troopship entering Naples Harbour on December 8, 1943.

I probably did not march many miles when trucks that were coming and going to our new area arrived, and I along with the rest of E troop were taken by truck to a field. We soon learned the village of Afragola was just a stone's throw away. Now some of our regiment marched the whole 14 miles and others were dropped off in a field where advance parties had built toilets, great ten holers, all without screening. We just curled up on the ground and tried to get sleep as best we could. Welcome to Italy.

The next morning we found out we were in a passion fruit orchard owned by a nunnery. The nuns were moving about talking to our fellows. We were descended upon by a group of civilians, men and children. The men offering barber services and the children shining shoes or selling oranges and nuts. The ten holers were really busy, but there was not any screening so if you were a little reticent about doing your bathroom needs, you tried to wait until the nuns and other females had left the area.

On the second night bedded down under the stars an air raid took place on Naples. The anti-aircraft barrage put up by the Allied guns put on a great display. Tracers, exploding shells, the whole nine yards. The only trouble, pieces of steel from the anti-aircraft shells landed in the fields around us. Here we were without any shelter, but our luck held and no one was hurt.

Afragola was a strange country and there were many things that were different, but somewhat memorable. The farmers in their great two wheeled carts going to work at 4 a.m. The father in front driving a skinny horse flanked by an ox, another horse, or in some cases a small donkey. In the rear of the cart sat the mother with small children. She and the children would be singing, Figaro Figaro, and the rest of the opera. These farmers returned late at night. The reason for such a long day was land was scarce and travelled miles to grow on a terraced hillside, the little plot of land that they had permission to use or had been granted by the state.

On the third day in Afrigola we had tents brought in. These tents were manufactured in Italy. Kitchen and dining area tents, along with Officer Mess tents. Noone had ever put up tents like these. After a few tries the tents were all put up. Pup tens were issued to all ranks, and seeing that General Simonds was coming to inspect us, these tents were properly aligned to suit the most fastidious a person. General Simonds was to take immediate command of 5th Canadian Armoured Division, our regiment part of the division. We had rain and tents were well flooded and the only really dry spot was the mess tents which soon became pretty crowded and smelly. The smell of wet uniforms along with the local smell soon had all wishing for sunshine. Those of us that had been at a camp in our teens had dug drains around our tents, but the rain was so heavy this was not much help. Soon the sun came out to dry bedding and clothes. We being young survived. This was only a sample what would happen in the not too distant future.

Here is where we all started to wonder when we would get our equipment, guns and trucks or when would we be in action. At night could hear in the distance the roar of artillery and see the flash of exploding shells reflected on the cloudy sky. We were far from the fighting, but at this time the Moro River crossing by the First Canadian Division was going on, and also probably even closer, the Fifth Army under Mark Clark, was driving towards Cassino.

General Simonds came and did his inspection and we heard the same platitudes, - a fine body of men, and you will get your share of fighting. Simonds then added that when we would be sent into battle it would be an area where we would be sure to have success. Did those words rise up to haunt us as close as January 17, 1944.

Where and when were we to get guns, as an artillery gunner without his gun is like a pilot without a plane. The time came, and we drivers and sergeants, mechanic and gun fitters, went forward to an area where the 5th RHA, an artillery unit of the famous 7th Armoured Division. The so named Desert Rats. We made a couple of visits soaking up any battle experience from these veteran gunners. I noted that my opposite number, a gun sergeant with this unit, had a gun tractor with the windshield glass gone on the Sergeant's side. I quickly wanted to know if it was shot out. “Oh no,” he said “while I was riding on top of the vehicle to escape the heat of the confined tractor, I was drumming my feet on the windshield and kicked the glass out.” Now if we had ever had something like that stupid to happen we would still be paying for it.

In the next few days we were to take over this equipment. I use the word equipment loosely. This regiment was handing over equipment that we would term junk, flat tires, missing spare parts, tarps missing from lorries, muzzle covers gone, and no gun covers. We had been stripped of all our lovely equipment, that we had been lavish in our care to leave it in England and take over this mess of junk was a heart break. Oh well, being young and Canadians we started out on the move to our new area the town of Gravina. Days later the last of the equipment finally made the trip, due to chaps like our mechanics, our Light Aid Detachment, which included Joe Smith and Bob Heywood. Then the work became in earnest to get this mess ready for action, and get some pride back in getting the guns ready and tractors to pull them.

Before we left the Afragola area, that little village was out of bounds to any troops. But, every once in awhile, someone either from our regiment or others stationed nearby, would break this order and would enter the town, usually raising hell and putting a prop under it. One of these nights when someone was raising a ruckus in the village, the Colonel ordered a number of Sergeants to be armed with tommy guns and see what was going on. If it was our regimental gunners, we were to bring them back immediately. I was one to go into the village accompanied on patrol with Sgt Sid Robertson, a real character and a chap about 15 years older than I. So I was pleased that I had such a stalwart with me on this patrol.

The streets of Afragola was strewn with refuse of all types, human and animal. Rats hustled out of garbage and you had to walk warily down the middle of the road. The reason for this was the householders threw the contents of their chamber pots (thunder mugs) out the upper windows and if you passed under you wore whatever they threw out. It seemed that Sid and I could see some movement of people dodging out of doorways and furtively into other doorways. The civilians had a curfew and risked getting shot at if they were on the street after a certain hour. The patrol went well and we did not find any of our gunners roaming the streets of Afragola.

Gravina is a town in southern Italy located south and east of Naples, and about an hour from the city of Bari on the east coast of Italy. In this area the 5th Division were stationed in towns like Altamura and Matera. Here we were to get our equipment in order. Our regiment was stationed in the school which was very modern. Here we were introduced to the type of toilets that had two raised foot prints in a two foot square sloping drain area. The drain area had a four inch diameter hole leading down into the sewer plumbing. If you did not drop it all in the hole, you pulled a chain and a flush type system washed it down this hole. If you have ever dealt with 700 or 800 young men, you find they get pretty careless in letting things go down the drain that soon clogged the system. Thus causing our poor sanitary men to curse all that were put on this earth that plugged toilets. At Gravina the regiment operated a house of ill repute.

Our gun park was next to this house and while the troops were doing gun drill the ladies of the night would come out and sit on a bench in the sun. These ladies had on house coats and were out to enjoy the sun. Well some of our chaps swung the guns around pointing at the ladies of the night. Being sporting types, the ladies swung open their house coats exposing all. This did not last long as one of the officers ordered the ladies back into their house much to the catcalls of the troops, who took this is as quite a diversion from gun drill. Some of it was fun.

Every morning was the same along our street. All the bare bottomed little children came out and did their thing along the side of the house, then along would come the goat herder with the goats. As he approached each house the women came out with a sauce pan or jug and the herder would stop a goat and milk into the ladies container the desired amount of milk. Now that is what you called fresh. Here we could not understand why the civilians took a pig into the house during the day and then put it out at night. We asked them why? The answer was that lice and other vermin in the bed would leave the bed and go on the pig. Take the pig out and you took the lice out.

Colonel Ralston visits the 17th RCA in Gravina, December 1, 1943.

We wondered how well our acquired guns would perform. Were the barrels worn so that it would be difficult to calibrate them? What all could go wrong with this much used equipment? On 8th of December the guns were taken to the Adriatic coast at Fasano. Lt. Casselman, John Wiebe, Jim Sinclair, and Stu Goldstone and the rest of our survey section doing the observing made the necessary adjustments to each gun, as each gun fired a little differently and all had to be in the 100 percent zone as we were to go on a scheme with the infantry. The infantry was going to advance under a curtain of fire, so we had better be good and careful. The scheme went over very good with great cooperation with the infantry, so it was back to Gravina for Christmas.

Captain Brooks did some scrounging for extra goodies for the table, fresh fruit, a few chickens, and a pig. Sid Robertson also was sent out on the scrounge and was to report back to Capt. Floyd Brooks. Sid returned laden down with a lot of goodies and was reporting all this to Capt. Brooks who said, "Sergeant, it is very good of you to get such an amount of goodies, but did you get anything for me?" Sid reached back and handed Capt, Floyd Brooks a live duck with a "Merry Christmas to you sir." Christmas day was great a long way from home, but the meal was wonderful, also the church service in the large church with five or six hundred in attendance.

Our stay in Gravina was soon to come to an end, but we had good times there. We met families that had children that could sing better than anything we had ever heard. Also there was always an Italian mother that would cook up a feed of spaghetti and enjoy watching us eat it as if she were our own mother. She quite likely had a boy or husband either in a POW cage or was wounded in Africa or fighting in Russia with the Blue Brigade. That time in our lives was special.

Christmas card to my folks in 1943.

At last we were able to get tactical signs and unit insignia painted on our vehicles and other equipment. With a bit of paint and after firing the old guns, like true gunners we started to look after the guns once again and take pride. The loss of our guns in England we had to put out of our minds and concentrate on what we had. WE WERE GUNNERS!

Our regiment spent the New Year in Gravina. But there was a lot going on in rumours of when we would be going into action. Word from the front was that Ortona had fallen with the First Canadian Division taking the town, but at a terrible cost in lives. Here we were after almost four years in the forces waiting to get our battle experience. We did not have long to wait, as about the 8th of January 1944 advance parties left for the Ortona area, and on the next day or so the complete regiment left Gravina. WE WERE ON THE MOVE!

What a relief we were moving up. Now the thought was how would we perform? What casualties we might take? Would I survive? All these thought raced through your mind and I suspect my crew seated in the gun tractor had thoughts much like mine although we did not share them. As we drove towards the active front we were reminded by the burnt out vehicles, tanks and lorries along the roadside. Then in the ditches we noted the crosses. Some with German helmets hanging on them and some with our type of helmet. Now we knew that men lost their lives when they went through here not so many days ago. The mines that had been dug up out of the road were piled and left, houses blown up, shell and bomb craters everywhere. We were getting a look first hand as we drove to the front that things get pretty serious. The closer we came to the front the more we could hear in the near distance some shelling and, looking closer, could see the odd air burst. This was just before we crossed the Moro River.

We drove through St. Vito down the long hill across the Moro River where so many Canadians had lost their lives not so many weeks before. Up the hill we went seeing more war torn area than any previously. We drove along this winding road and passed under the muzzles of the super heavy artillery, a British unit of 9.2 inch guns. A couple of these guns fired as we approached. What a blast! Boy we were getting close to where shots are traded. After the 9.2s we noted the medium guns in muddy torn up cratered fields. We saw a couple of Sherman tanks that had been knocked out and smoke blackened. We were getting closer with every turn of our wheels. Soon we were met by the sergeant major from each troop to take us to our specific gun positions. Ortona not far away and we were near San Leonardo.

On January 13, 1994 in San Leonardo we are directed into a gun position recently vacated by a British artillery regiment. On this clear January day we could see for miles. The mountains to our left front held by Tedesco or the Germans. These mountains had a fair amount of snow on their upper levels, but the view must have been spectacular as they were able to watch every movement we made. To our right was Ortona where the First Canadian Division fought and won over Christmas just past. I took our gun into position and set it in the gun pit ready to receive orders, to be put on line by our gun position officer Lt. Alec McIntyre. I, along with the crew, thought the gun pit would never do. So each gun in our troop went out of action in rotation so we could dig a better gun pit. We were well trained in digging.

First we dug good fox holes or we called them slit trenches, good deep ones, and broadside to the enemy putting up the earth around the edges. Next came the task of digging the gun pit. We needed no urging, probably this was a way of settling us in for what was yet to come. We, along with the other guns in our troop, completed our pits and works of toil. They were fine high breast works with the muzzle clearing the earth piled high. Then camouflage netting put up. Why, because Tedesco knew where we were, but we put them up anyway, again, something to do. We piled around the guns some six or seven hundreds shell and cartridges. We dug some below ground, but it looked like we were to use them soon. The remainder remained above ground. We had not fired a shot in anger this our first day in action. But 60 Battery #1 gun under Mel Ross fired the first ranging round on the 14th of January.

About ten in the morning I was awakened by a sound that I had never heard before. It was an incoming shell. We manned the guns 24 hours a day and I had come off shift with two others of the six man crew. This first incoming shell was followed by round after round crashing and exploding all around. The adrenaline pumped, the heart pounded and the mouth was dry. You thought of the crew in the gun pit. Were they going to be okay or was there going to be a direct hit into the ammunition stacked all around? The next shell burst quite close sending dozens of shell splinters pinging and clanging into the stacked ammunition steel boxes. Were they going to explode, who knows? As the shelling stopped, my thought was am I the only survivor? Getting out of my slit trench all the crew were safe. Everything above the ground was riddled with holes, but miraculously both 76th Battery troops escaped. Bob Wade, a signaller in Battery HQ said a shell hit in front of the command post dugout. He was wearing earphones and a shell splinter had cut the line from his ear phone to the radio set. We had one wounded in this first action by the enemy. A gunner Bouchard.

The 15th and 16th of January 1944 we spent getting ammunition at the ready, improving communications, and all guns in the regiment were able to fire a few shots in anger. Mostly registering targets for the up coming attack by our Infantry Brigade. The weather on Sunday the 16th was mild for January, and we were all in a high state of anticipation, getting ready to support our Infantry friends who in this attack were the Perth Regiment and the Cape Breton Highlanders with the Irish Regiment of Canada in reserve. The artillery barrage to kick off this attack started at 05:30 hours, and we certainly were pouring the shells into the German held positions. As the morning progressed we were told that almost all our observation officers had been wounded. Capt. Madden and gunner McNair were both wounded while waiting to go forward with Dog company of the Perths. Capt Steer had been with Charlie company of the Perths, but communication was knocked out and the company commander killed. This left Capt Floyd Brooks on his own bringing down hundreds of rounds per gun on enemy positions. Some time during this intense action there was a shifting where the infantry were going and Floyd Brooks found himself alone on one of the objectives.

On January 17, 1944 we were in the midst of this terrific amount of shell we were firing. I received a letter from my Mother saying she had purchased a Victory bond for me. I think a hundred dollar one. Well at the rate we were firing that hundred dollars was long gone. Also it was my sister Marjorie's birthday. She would be 18 on this day. As the day wore on the empty cartridge cases were piling up all around. The guns were getting so hot that flecks of paint went flying off. The oil in the buffer and recuperator system became so hot that the guns were coming back on the recoil metal to metal. This is a critical situation and the gun should be taken out of action, cooled down and have more oil added to the system. The gun fitters like Archie Simpson, Wilf Hogg, JD MacClean, and Alfie Jordison all did their jobs of keeping the old desert guns firing. Some were cooling the barrels with water, others momentarily taking the gun out of action and adding buffer oil, and doing other repairs. All the time knowing our Infantry Brigade needed us to help them out. Some of the gun crews were exhausted but carried on. Others had to leave the gun pits with ear drums damaged.

The gun that I was on fired 500 shells that day. None of my crew left the pit other than to take a leak, so you can see the hammering on the ears and the handling of that amount of shells loading and firing. Some 16 tons handled per gun. Still prior to this. Floyd Brooks was calling for a hundred rounds gun fire and eventually the order was keep firing which we did. The day wore on and as daylight faded we were told the infantry had to withdraw and we ended up firing some smoke to cover the withdrawal. What a day! What a price to pay in lives lost. Our Infantry was brave but the German Paratroopers were well dug in and experienced. It would be many months before the Perths and Cape Breton Highlanders were to avenge this day. During all our firing the Germans did not fire upon our guns. They were too busy wiping out our attacking Infantry.

Monday the 17th of January will long be remembered by our regiment and the Perth and Cape Breton Highlanders. Some say 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.

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. The next day after the ill fated attack, we thought that the Germans would turn their attention to us. They did send in a few shells. At dusk on the 18th of January, 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 alright 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.

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 stock 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. 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.” We got 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. 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 as the shell crashed damn close. I had let go of the rope and bucket. I leaped up just in time to see the rope and bucket disappear into the well. I went back to the gun position got a new rope and bucket to bring the crew the water. After all it was my turn. The evening of January 18, 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. 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.

The regiment moved into Orsogna and came under the command of the Fourth Indian Division. The gun positions had been last used by the 2nd New Zealand Division and they had left some good dugouts and the gun pits were pretty good. The New Zealand Regiment had moved out when the ground was very soft. They had filled the ruts in the road with boxes of ammunition and drove over these to get out of the position. We had to pick all these boxes out of the ruts, remove the shells, clean and linseed oil them all and store them ready to fire with our guns. We said a few well chosen words about all this extra work. This area is long remembered by Orme Payne who had to traverse a road from Orsogna to Lanciano daily. This road was called the mad mile as it was under German observation, and anyone, motorcycle, jeep, or whatever the Germans fired at. So it was a life or death run each trip! We used to make bets whether the vehicle and occupants would make it and not get hit.

I was seated on the gun seat late one night when a great burst of machine gun fire erupted in a small village to our immediate right. This was likely a German patrol testing the area to find out if we held it in strength. Then all was quiet and I heard a rustle and looked up swinging the tommy gun around to cover the spot where the noise came from. There was a rat coming over the parapet, the moon shining behind him. I hollered and Gunners Oughtred and Gillespie came out of the dug out saying is there a patrol coming? My answer, "No patrol, but a bloody rat and it is here in the gun pit!" The rat was gone, and seeing it was time to wake the other three members of the crew, we three went to our off shift dugout to get some sleep.

Gun position near the mad mile.

The regiment moved from the Orsogna gun position to La Torre. This location was south and west of San Leonardo. It was in this position that the regiment sent out a gun or sometimes two guns to a selected spot to harass the enemy all night long and if possible get him mad so he would fire on the harassing gun. We were nicely in position with our aiming point out. This aiming point was a lantern hanging high up in a tree. The type of propellant that we were to use was E which designated a type of cordite that when fired gave a tremendous flash. The reason, so we were told, was to attract return shell fire. This would give a group of people called Counter Battery Specialists the opportunity to do triangulation as one method of telling where the enemy battery was. Sound was another method. Here the counter battery sections had microphones set along the front and the calculations made gave them the range and direction the enemy battery was firing from.

Now I was the fifth gun in as many nights to set up in this harassing fire position and the enemy was getting fed up with this damn nuisance keeping them awake. Early in the evening we were at the gun to fire more rounds when there was a vicious crack of incoming airbursts. The flash of the bursting shell was very low above our heads with the shell splinters rattling off our gun and whacking into the earth around us. The whole group were cuddled up to the gun to see if we could get some protection, and over came a few more exactly over the gun. We had unleashed a hornet! As quickly as it started it stopped. We fired a round or so, left two guards on duty and went to a nearby house to wait then fire again. Our enemy was not finished with us. He pounded all around the gun! Dozens of shell sounded like freight trains. This was no 88mm stuff, but at least 27cm [11 inch]. The shells crashed for a long time and it seemed that about three out of ten were duds and did not explode. When there was a lull we went out to the gun and called for the two fellows. No answer for awhile then they answered. They would have been mince meat if they had not gone down the draw to escape the shelling.

The gun had lots of splinters around it. The lantern was knocked out of the tree and a tree torn up. We kept up our firing the rest of the night and had one more vicious amount of returning shells. This happened when our firing program was over and almost dawn. At dawn we went out to limber up the gun and depart. Here was a 200 pound shell that had skidded in knocked a tree down and came to rest in a long trench that it had carved in the field. Lt Art Debelle said, “Sgt. Bannerman see if you can turn this big shell over so I can get the markings of it.” My reply was, “Sir that shell has part of the fuse broken off and you know that it is against orders to touch or move a potentially dangerous item.” I did not touch it, but he asked my driver Fred Prokopenko to move it. Fred did and Lt. Debelle got the writing off the shell. But do you know what the rest of us did knowing the danger? WELL WE STOOD AND WATCHED FRED MOVE IT. How very stupid we were as that big shell could kill anyone if it exploded hundreds of feet away. Someone was looking after us.

The infantry was out patrolling every night, and every once in awhile a vicious clash would happen if a patrol from one side was more aggressive then the other. Our job was to have certain tasks ready to fire at a moments notice or to bring fire down on an area where one of our Brigades patrols needed help. This brought on a stern lecture from Major Lagimodiere. Someone had fired a gun or guns off line and had killed or wounded one of our infantry patrols. He assured us that it was not us, but he was laying it on hot and heavy, saying the Brigadier was not very pleased that this happened. He further said there is no excuse for this to happen and in his mind this was murder and we gun sergeants were warned to check our gun layers to be sure line and elevation were correctly placed on the gun. This we took to heart as Major Lagimodiere was a tough fellow and a no nonsense officer and we knew it.

Our division was trying to get other units into the line to get battle experience. At a distance of a hundred feet up against a house the Lord Strathcona Horse had a tank and crew. This crew used to interchange with other crews as the area was so muddy there was no chance to keep changing tanks. The house and shed that the tank was up against had massive vats of wine, probably hundreds of gallons and maybe a thousand or so gallons. The tank men were into this wine day and night and we could hear them at the gun position hooting around at all hours.

We wondered how long this would go on as our gunners were not allowed to be drinking while manning the guns. It did come to an end with a couple of officers and I think their RSM arrived in a jeep complete with tommy guns and a good supply of ammunition. The officers got out of the jeep spoke to the tank crew that were there. Then we heard the damnedest amount of submachine gun fire! What was going on? The Lord Strathcona Horse officers riddled these vats with sub machine gun fire. Thousands of gallons of wine flowed down toward our gun pits so much in fact that one of our guns had to be moved and the gun tractor was stuck in the mud created by the flow of wine necessitating another tractor coming to the aid of the first. The officers drove away and we had no more noise from the now sober tank crews.

Some great wine tales come out of this static front. Word was out that one unit had some really superior wine in a shed so other units came with jeeps, trucks and motor bikes to pick up some of this fine wine. The pickup would be by bringing large glass demi johns, small kegs, down to water bottles. There has been a lot of tales about who had this wine. Was it the Perths, Irish, Cape Breton Highlanders, or one of our batteries? All claim this fine vintage.

We were very short of personnel and I did not have another bombardier or L/Sgt. to look after a shift when I was supposed to be at stand down, so I was catnapping at the gun for a day or so. In this period we received shells with a type of fuse, I think a 222 fuse, which could be set for air burst. These were set up to almost the correct setting and stacked in the gun pit for a future firing. This future firing had been delayed a couple of times. I was getting mighty played out and our crew was away below strength. It was a quiet night and I left a new chap that had been brought up from the wagon lines to fill in then I walked down to the command post house. Ah, sleep! It seemed I no sooner was asleep when the phone rang in the command post. I knew that it was fire orders. I was awake and running up to the gun almost before the phone was answered, and arriving in time to receive fire orders.

The new chap was not a qualified gunner so I listened to the orders and set range and line. The order was to fire on a specific target some ten rounds of gun fire. The order came to fire so the new chap did the loading I corrected and checked after each round and fired the ten. Stand down was given. We now would pick up the expended cartridges and replace muzzle cover and do any other clean up. It was then I noticed that ten rounds of the preset 222 fused shells were missing. I asked the new chap did you load the ten rounds from this pile. He answered yes. That is when I could have died. Here he loaded the rounds from the area furthest from the breech. I was responsible I should have checked as he loaded the rounds. Shit would hit the fan if this went wrong. So down to the command post I went on some pretence and had bombardier Bob Andrews look up the range scale if those fired rounds hit the enemy instead of exploding on friendlies. It seemed that the margin of safety was plenty so I went back up to the gun figuring that the fat would be in the fire anyway. Two days later we fired the airbursts. My gun fired ten non-airbursts and the remainder of the 222 fused rounds. No harm was done and I probably scared the hell out of the enemy when airbursts were mingled in with percussion shells.

On the 17th of February I was transferred to RHQ as the senior sergeant in the regiment. This duty was to be groomed to become a warrant officer class two under the Regimental Sergeant Major's eye and the new title was duty sergeant. So it was good bye to the guns and E troop where I had many friends and to start a new way of soldiering. I must say I was pleased, but also sad. The guns were part of you and you served the gun and it responded to you and your crew. I probably did not have the crew with the most flash, but they were reliable, honest and true friends to me and did their duty with the best of them. I also stood by them and rescued them from more then one scrape. I had at least four chaps that I had on my gun that I had recommended for promotion and who made sergeant. Tommy Stewart, Alec “Red” Ross, both were killed later in Italy by direct hits in the gun pit. Dick Horsman advanced to L/Sgt., was wounded on about January 18, 1944. War over for him too. Nels Humble who took over Easy Charlie [my gun] survived the war.

I was transferred to RHQ on the 17th of February, away from the guns to an area slightly to the rear. RHQ command post was in a large two story house that was not damaged very much. My duties were always during day light hours where the RSM could call upon me to ensure that the guard was always posted unit sign out for day and lighted at night. If the RSM did not have time, I was to take the map that the RSM had all the information posted as to who was in the front lines and where, also by intelligence reports what German units were defending to our front. The RSM took this map daily around to all RHQ personnel and explained to the best of anyone's knowledge what was really going on. When the RSM was not available to take this map around I did. Since then I feel I have a good touch for times and places of where we were at all times in Italy!

Here at RHQ I did not have to leap out of my bedroll when a phone rang. I did put the odd time in on a duty phone. I took over a dugout on the reverse slope of a small knoll, put my pup tent over it and settled in. I had a two level hole. One level was covered with the bedroll and the other to place your Stengun, boots, and other gear. The flying observation officer flew low over head and dropped a message telling Colonel Armstrong he would be dropping in as soon as he landed and jeeped back.

There was a rest area set up down the coast at Bari. The morning after the air OP had dropped by, I was just getting out of my tent when I heard the whistle of incoming shells and they sounded like freight trains. As I looked toward the RHQ building I saw the RSM's batman start going towards the building. A big shell landed not far from Bill Cain. This shell must have went into the ground at least ten feet then exploded and great junks of earth were thrown skyward coming down all around Bill. I thought Bill will not survive this shelling as he kept dodging around still going toward the house. These big shells kept hitting all around Bill, all hitting deep into the soft earth. Bill made it to the house, caught the lorry to Bari and started a few days rest. As the shelling stopped I was still amazed that Bill had made his run through this and survived. I went over to check the area and see if any of our people or equipment was damaged. The shell holes were immense and the clods of dirt that had rained down around Bill were some over two feet in diameter. It was a large calibre gun that had fired on us. I would say the Germans knew our house was a headquarters by the number of vehicles coming and going, also with the flying OP buzzing low, it confirmed that our RHQ was a command post to be dealt with.

It did not take too long to get into the routine at RHQ. I had some good friends there, Chuck Watson and Frank Comadina that I had close contact with as much as anyone. The main thing was to be alert when Chuck took the notion to staple a list your were making out to delegate the duty roster. Chuck just might staple this to the desk by throwing his knife over your shoulder and missing your fingers that held the roster down. I still have all fingers and this attests to his skill. Also in RHQ was a school friend of mine, John Wiebe, with the survey section. Jim Sinclair was the Sgt in charge of the survey section and a life long friendship was made then. The RSM Jim Murray, with whom I had daily contact, and I seemed to get on pretty good. The adjutant Capt JL Wallace was a stickler for good deportment and discipline. JL had an attitude that it had to be done correctly or not at all. I do not think that JL and I crossed swords while he was the adjutant. I tried to do my job as well as I knew how. Colonel Armstrong, who was in and out of the headquarters, also received respect through his manner and rank. At this early time in my stay at RHQ I did not have too much personal contact with the Colonel. This would change as the war went on.

I missed the guns and the gun crew, but here I did not have to dig gun pits, or stay out day and night. At RHQ we did not miss meals and generally were in a safer area. This would change too. Some time in early March, the regiment was relieved by the 11th Army Field Regiment and we moved to Lucera. Guns and gunners went to the 8th Army school of Artillery at San Nicandro. After this school the regiment went back to the basics of clean up, wash up, shine up, get the mud of the Ortona front washed away, rifle range shooting, route marches and a trip to a mobile bath. We chaps needed a wash up too!

A mobile bath was a chance to get a scrubbing that was much better then a gallon heated outside on a gasoline fire and standing in your bare hide trying to reach all areas without some dropping off with the cold. The first mobile bath we went to was on Ortona front. We went to Lanciano, a very old city. Parts of this city predated Rome and other equally ancient sites. Our introduction to the mobile bath was one where you stripped down in a large tent and walked into another canvas sided structure where off to one side was a diesel fired boiler that supplied the hot water to a great number of shower heads. At least forty men showered at the same time. The 4th, 8th, and 10th Indian troops showered in an adjoining shower partly screened from us. The Indian troops showered with their underwear on. I forget the religious reason, but they, like we, were showered and issued clean underwear. Also in Lanciano I went to the fig market. Here were figs of every colour, it seemed from white to all shades of brown, great mounds of them. I bought some and enjoyed them. Then it was on to the Piazza and the shops had just opened after the siesta time. I went into a barber shop mainly because all the barbers were girls. Could they ever wield the old straight razors.

Sometime in March we put on a firing scheme with the infantry units, and General Hoffmeister strode in front with these infantry men to show how close you could walk behind a barrage. We always took great care in seeing our guns did not fire short killer rounds. In April we moved to the hilltop city of Campobasso. Here was a town that the First Division had seized after much fighting. They then established a leave centre here, The Canada Club, Beaver Club. We had some dances and quite a lot of charming girls were able to attend them, but I believe they were chaperoned.

In April of 1944 at Campobasso, Italy one of our original gunners, as a result of an altercation in this city, was wounded, but not by enemy fire. Norman Parisien was walking down a dark street in Campobasso along with some other 17th RCA members when he saw a gang of civilian youths beating up on a Canadian service man. As Norman bent down to assist the soldier an Italian shoved a shiv into Norman's back, slicing a kidney. It was the quick response of some Polish soldiers, some of them women, that rushed Norman to a Field Dressing station and to a Polish military hospital. Norman's life was saved by our allies. Norman was sent to England on a hospital ship where he made a remarkable recovery and wished to get back into action. Every move to get into action was thwarted, to the extent they were going to promote him to a sergeant, and keep him around this holding unit to be able to give his first hand knowledge of battle experience. Norman kept parading on every draft to get back into action and was told, “No, you're an artillery man and all these drafts just need infantry men.” Word was out to keep Norman as a Sgt in charge of men erecting facilities for a new hospital. Norman thought that over and on the next draft parade insisted in going back into action as an infantry man. Norman took a short training course in the infantry and was assigned to the Black Watch. Here Norman was promoted to Corporal and served with honour the rest of the war in Holland and Germany.

The regiment arrived in Acquafondata on April 14, 1944. This position was up in the mountains to the right of Cassino. We, along with our 11th Infantry brigade, took over a holding role. The infantry and our forward observation sections had a long winding track up into the mountains. While up in very exposed positions, they were supplied by night by jeep and mostly by mules which packed in radio sets, food, grenades, and mortar shells. If you were walking in front of the mule and you heard a noise or a burst of machine gun fire, and you hesitated with your foot not taking the next step, the mule would not place his foot down either. When you arrived at the spot to un-load the mules one had to be careful, as soon as the load was off the smart mules would turn and get the heck out of there.

The guns were in very steep positions having to be winched up the mountain side and trails dug in so the guns could be elevated to fire over the mountain in front of us. This position was taken over from the 2nd New Zealand division. RHQ was situated in the hilltop village of Acquafondata, a very old village. I took the opportunity to walk up to the old church and cemetery. I was interested in the dates on the headstones. The headstones were dated back to somewhere in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Most of the headstones carried the name San Phillipe. Rather odd as I would think that a French name. I checked with a lady of about 75 why the French names on the headstone. She said this dated back to the San Phillipe's arriving on this hilltop a few centuries ago being expelled from France. Also the San Phillipe boys could marry girls from neighbouring hilltop towns, but they had to remain living in Acquafondata, so the name was perpetuated for centuries.

At the foot of this village was a spring of beautiful clear cold water that ran out of the mountain side, but what a carry to get the water up to the village. The spring at the foot of the mountain is where RHQ had our kitchen. What was better than a fountain of pure clear water, and a sheltered area up against the mountain. The only thing was the long walk from the village to the kitchen three times a day. It was not long that we could climb up and down for meals taking on mountain goat abilities. Around our kitchen at meal times the civilian children would gather with pails or pots to garner any food that we would throw away. Can you imagine sitting down on the ground to eat your meal and all around you were, soft brown eyed children dressed mighty poorly watching with those big eyes every mouthful you ate? If really hungry, you would turn your back and eat your meal, but you could feel those little kids' eyes sort of going through your heart. Many the times I, along with some of the other fellows, dumped our food into their containers as we did not have the heart to eat very much of our food. The children usually had two containers each, one for our leftover tea and one for leftover food. Some would give the children a cigarette for Poppa, a chocolate bar, or a bar of soap or whatever.

Jim Sinclair and the survey section came by a terrific MG 42 machine gun. This was a German weapon and fired about 800 rounds per minute or more. We had hundreds of feet of German ammunition which came in long belts. We would clip about ten or more feet of ammunition together and proceed to blast away at stumps or German ammunition boxes. Going up into the hills where the Free French had fought we came upon many caves, or dugouts plus a few dead Germans. There was lots of the enemy equipment laying around, tons of mortar shells, rifle grenades, and personal stuff just left there. Along came a couple of Westminster Regt chaps with a German rifle scope mounted. They started to explode the German rifle grenades with rifle shots. Sinclair, Watson and I, knowing better, piled up mortar shells and German potato masher grenades. Someone set a grenade in the pile of mortar shells to explode the pile, but the grenade was a dud. Jim Sinclair lay down on a rise and lined up on this pile of ammunition with the machine gun. I was standing in the open and said WHOA wait till we get undercover. I squeezed behind a stunted oak tree which was about 8 inches in diameter. Jim let fly a great burst of machine gun fire and the pile of ammunition exploded! Shrapnel thudding into my little tree and branches and leaves falling on me. Jim was out in the open and had the blast go over him. Someone looked out for us as no one was hurt. That was a very stupid stunt. We all knew better too. Jim Sinclair and John Wiebe and a few more of the survey party had to return to this mountain top and bury the German dead the next day. These dead Germans had been killed quite sometime before and had not been buried.

A sort of cat and mouse game began between the RSM and the new survey Sergeant John Wiebe. It was over the issue rum. John was stealing the issue rum that the RSM had in his care and to catch John he would mark the gallon glass jug with a crayon at the height of the rum. John would take enough to have a snort and pour water into the jug so it was up to the mark. Soon this went nowhere as the remaining rum was getting so diluted that any one could see what was happening. The RSM then came to me, as I was the duty sergeant, and said tell your friend Wiebe to leave the rum alone. If he continues he will be in big trouble and will disrupt his chance for confirmation of rank. I think John left the rum alone after that.

I had a small mouse visit me when I took my turn on the phone at night. This sneaky little mouse would come around the phones by a different route and divert my attention. Then that little fellow would slip up and steal some fruit cake that one of the officers had left there. I sort of thought this mouse was too smart for his own good. I took a great inhale of smoke and when that little monster appeared at the cake I blew a great blast of smoke in his face. This wee chap leaped into the air rubbed his nose with his front paws and vanished for the night, leaving this mean beggar to have his laugh.

The gun areas were pretty quiet during our stay in this area. The forward observation officers and men had a different time as any movement in day light brought down immediate shell fire. The supply of men and materials up in the mountains was difficult, also the maintaining of communications. Radios did not work well due to the rocky area. Shell fire with resulting shell fragments and rock splinters cut the telephone wire up. Orme Payne, one of the Battery signal sergeants, devised a plan and laddered the wire, which except for a little more work initially and double the amount of wire was able to keep the phones operating. He should have had a medal for this.

We left our hill top village of Acquafondata about the beginning of May. A South African artillery regiment was taking over our positions. We moved into a camouflage area along the Volturno River. This camouflage area was so that the Canadian Corps would sort of disappear out of all battle areas. Now we knew what that meant. We were likely to spearhead an attack up the Liri Valley if Cassino was to fall. Up to now some 80,000 Allied troops had become causalities fighting for Cassino and the surrounding mountains and the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Our stay was very short, just long enough to do whatever the regiment had to do. Clean up, shine up, get the old guns back in good order, and repair the mobile equipment. Our mechanics, fitters and LAD sections were kept very busy.

Chuck Watson and I had an hour or so to waste. Armed with a bren gun, 1248 rounds of tracer ammo, a couple of tommy guns, and lots of ammo, we proceeded down to the river and hip fired at cans, bottles and what ever floated on the fast moving current. We had quite a work out. An Italian chap came up to us and made signs that he would like to fire the bren gun. We showed him how to hold it and told him to let it go, Fire! Fire he did, but he aimed high and a magazine of tracers went over the hill going who knows where. So that was the end of that. Chuck, on returning the bren gun, was told by Bert Townsend the armourer Sgt that by firing so many tracers we had ruined a barrel. That was the end of borrowing bren guns for hip firing!

I know that military life according to Lord Wavell is 90% boredom mixed in with 10% fear. Chuck Watson and I tried not to be bored. The fear part happened to all that ever experienced a stock of mortars or a shelling by the enemy artillery. The German was a good gunner and an accurate one. He knew where every bush, house, crossroad, survey marker was, and on top of that always held the high ground. He had been over all this area and his survey knew to a metre where any point was. Rather intimidating, but we had a few more guns.

We were at Capua in May of 1944. This was a supposedly rest and re-equipment area. Not much rest and next to nothing of new equipment. This equipment was junk when we took it over from The Desert Rats and our mechanics did excellent work getting the guns, lorries, and Gun tractors in working order. In fact the mechanical staff should have all earned medals for this.

The Push to Rome
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