A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 15 January 1945 (January 1945 – Static Warfare During another Winter Lull)
This series of blogs, entitled "A Sapper's War" follows some units of the Royal Canadian Engineers in World War 2, primarily the 12th Field Company, which was my father's unit. The main sources are the unit War Diary, Daily Orders, official military histories, and The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers Volume 2. I will also include some personal accounts of his, when this is appropriate to the history.
blogs will mostly relate to their time in Italy, from Oct 1943 to Jan 1945,
though it will ultimately be extended to the later events in Northwestern
Europe and the earlier events in the U.K.. They will be put together in
book form eventually, but until that time the blogs will be available for
interested readers on this "Dodecahedron Books" blog site. I
encourage anyone who in interested to read the blogs, and buy the book when it
Naturally, I am claiming copyright, though you can make "fair use" of content, of course, if you are writing about similar times and events.
Though the overall history of the war will be noted, as context, the text mainly relates to the experiences of the 12th Field Company, as indicated in their War Diary and related orders, and other documents. If you want a more general history of the war, there are many other sources to more completely fill in those details.
There will be a fair bit of focus on what might be called "social history", in addition to the sometimes routine, sometimes harrowing military activities of a group of Allied sappers in the Italian Theatre of WW2. The daily orders and company War Diary often provide an interesting window into this day-to-day world that the strictly military lacks.
Though this account is based is a Canadian engineer company, it is likely that British, other Commonwealth and American sappers would have lived through similar experiences at this time, so families and interested parties from those nations might also find it interesting.
I will fill in links to the blog series below, as they are posted.
Jan 1945: TBA
January 1945 – Static Warfare During another Winter Lull
For the most part, January 1945 was a “winter lull” war along the Adriatic for both Eighth and Fifth Army. Canadian forces began the month with a minor offensive, in order to bring the winter line up to the defensible Senio River in the west and the Reno River in the north, near Valli D Comacchio. There was some sharp fighting, though it seems as if the Germans lost many more men than the Allies in this case.
After that, came a “hold the line” period, though both sides did a certain amount of patrolling and probing of the other’s defenses, including a fairly large scale attack by the Germans on Dec 8-9, which was quite handily turned back. There was also some training in sea borne landings later in the month, near Cervia. However, by the time that those amphibious efforts were implemented in actual combat (April 1945), Canadian troops had vacated Italy in order to reinforce the offensive in the Netherlands and into Germany of late winter/early spring of 1945.
12 Fld Coy was near the front at the beginning of January, around Russi and the Three Wise Men Bridge that they had built at Christmas, maintaining the bridge and nearby Bottle Route. Presumably, this was in support of the operation to advance to the Senio, early in the month, which was only a couple of miles west of that location.
After that came additional training in Assault Bridging, construction of some landing strips, building billets for troops behind the lines and maintaining the 3rd Canadian General Hospital in Cattolica. The end of the month would have them working on blown dykes around Tower Bridge, which would include a lot of mine detection and demolitions. And you never know when your D-7 might be called upon to clear some snow, even in Italy.
Following is a condensation of the 12 Fld Coy War Diary notes for January 1945.
January 1 to 3 – M.R.S.432530, Italy
1 Platoon worked on Bottle route, from the Montone River crossing to the Three Wise Men bridge, which crossed the Lamone a few miles further west. They then collected stores and began clearing a site for a Class 40 timber bridge on Bottle Route.
2 Platoon hauled lumber, to use for an improvised bridge on Diamond route, then constructed that bridge the next day. They also did general maintenance on that route and did mine sweeping in Cesenatico, back on the Adriatic coast.
3 Platoon filled craters on a lateral near Russi, and maintained the Three Wise Men bridge. They also took some training in the Bailey Assault bridge.
January 4 to 6 – Riccione, Italy
The platoons dismantled some bridging that was no longer needed and returned it to stores. As the Winter Line was now more or less established, they then made moves away from the front, to Riccione (HQ, 2 and 3 Platoon) and Cervia (1 Platoon), which are all located along the Adriatic coast.
January 7 to 14 – Riccione, Italy
The winter lull was now in full swing. The 12 Fld Coy war diary doesn’t have much to say about this period, other than “all platoons continued work on billets in Bellaria, Riccione, San Giovani, San Clemente, Morciano and Messano.” Since a lot of troops were being rotated out of the line, it would be necessary to prepare a lot of billets in many locations, mostly on the Adriatic coast. One suspects that this was a relief, after the intense action of the last few months.
Some of the officers were temporarily attached to an Italian army group, who were holding the line in the eastern part of the winter line, against the Germans, their erstwhile allies. Italian partisans were also involved in manning the line, at this stage of the conflict.
January 15 to 19 – Riccione, Italy
Work was delayed for a while, as some of the parts needed to build Nissen huts had been stolen. An officer and some Italian police formed a search part to look for the loot. The Major took a seven day leave in Rome. The war diarist somewhat cryptically notes that he took “the orderly room stove with him, worse luck.”.
3 Platoon worked on some buildings in Riccione, and HQ platoon began work on a landing strip along the water front in Riccione. The diarist calls it a “landing strip for Fearless Fosdicks”. This seems to refer to a type of American bomber, some of which had nicknames on the plane, referring to this comic strip character.
January 20 to 25 – Riccione, Italy
The company continued with various works in towns along the Adriatic coast. This now included work on the 3 Cdn General Hospital in Cattolica and a transit camp in Rimini.
1 Platoon was sent to the 8th Army Calibration School in Bellaria. It isn’t clear what the purpose of this was, but it might either refer to artillery or signals. Perhaps the idea was to ensure that the company’s communications processes were up to standard, as an engineering company would need to stay in close contact with other units.
January 26 to 31 – Ravenna, Italy
The company now moved back to Ravenna. Along with the usual jobs related to maintenance of routes and bridges, a new task fell to the company, especially 3 Platoon. That was related to the various dykes in the area, which was crisscrossed with canals and other waterways. The enemy had blown many dykes during their withdrawal, to slow the allied advance by flooding areas.
3 Platoon was sent to recee these dykes along the Montone River from San Marco to Tower Bridge, along a distance of a good 10 km or more. This included “Clearing and uncovering all suspected mines with explosives.”. That would turn out to be a dangerous job.
Other Notes and Observations from January 1945
Following are some selected quotes from the report on Operations during January 1945 in Italy, written by the military (Report Number 143, Canadian Operations in Italy, June 1944 to Feb 1945 and/or The Canadian Army 1939 – 1945, An Official Historical Summary)
1 – Establishing the Winter Line along the Senio
The idea here was to gain a bit of territory that would make for more defensible lines over the winter. The Senio River was a natural choice for that.
“2 Cdn Inf Bde was assigned the task of clearing the Cotignola pocket, which included the occupation of Granarolo. Just north of this town the Fossa Vecchio, a natural waterway, passes under the dyked and artificial Canale Naviglio. This .explains why in operations further north the Fosso Vecchio had to be crossed before the Canale Naviglio, whereas in this operation the sequence was reversed. On 3 Jan the P.P.C.I led the attack, forming a bridgehead over the Canale Naviglio into the area between the waters just south of Granarolo. Seaforth of C. passed through and cleared up the remainder of the peninsula and thus threatened to seal off Granarolo, which was easily cleared by L. Edmn R. Both forward battalions then broke out over the Fosso Vecchio and patrolled to the Senio without encountering serious resistance, while a parallel advance by troops of 56 (London) Div cleared Borghetto and also roached the Senio bank. 3 Cdn Inf Bde on the right completed the clearing operation. By dawn on 5 Jan the survivors of the enemy had sought shelter in the Senio flood banks. (DND 143, page 19)
2 – Holding the Winter Line
Once these lines had been established, positions were developed and strengthened. This static warfare was reminiscent of the situation that prevailed in WW1 for much of the time. It could be quite trying for morale, as there was little sense of accomplishment, other than surviving.
“There was little change in the situation during the next. month. Fixed positions, strengthened by dug-in tanks of 21 Tk Bde and an elaborate system of wiring, mines, boobytraps and outposts were established to discourage the enemy infiltration and raids, which became more troublesome and daring as the static role of our troops became apparent.
Both sides carried out appeals by propaganda leaflet distribution (using both air and artillery for delivery) and by long-range broadcasts. The latter device was also used to transmit various faked operational sounds (vehicle movement, patrol and construction noises etc.) and was called either "Sonic or Chinese Warfare. The only largo-scale enemy attack was launched from the base of the Comacchio spit on the night of 8/9 Jan 45 and was easily repulsed.” (DND 143, page 19)
3 – With the 2nd Battalion RCE in Northwest Europe
This continues the concern with a possible breakthrough by the Germans in their last-chance gamble in the Ardennes area (i.e. the Battle of the Bulge). Note that this was mostly an American battle, though there was some British and Canadian involvement in the northern part of the battle zone (guarding the Meuse River crossings and engaging some German attacks in that region).
This was the unit that my dad was with until October 1943, when he was transferred to 12 Fld Coy. There was definitely no Winter Lull on the Northwestern European front. Here’s a story from early January that presents one of the more potentially dramatic episodes for them:
“The Ardennes breakthrough left us in a rather peculiar position, as at that time we were attached to the 2nd British Army, and when Jerry started his push, our British neighbours promptly disappeared to take up prearranged positions in the vicinity of Louvain. Thus, we for once, became front line troops and many were the conjectures and whimsies as to what would happen should the Ardennes thrust prove to be a point, and the main attack to be diverted our way. The fact too, that if Jerry was successful in proceeding far on his supposed way to Antwerp from the Ardennes, we should be completely cut off was given deep thought and attention…However, our American friends smacked down Jerry very thoroughly.” (The Story of 2 Bn RCE 1940-45, page 34)
And here are some of the events noted above, from the Engineers’ perspective, as found in “The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers”:
4 – Engineer Work during the Winter Lull
This sort of work was a bit unusual for Allied engineers as they were generally on the advance, so rigging bridges for demolition wasn’t generally a priority. It turned out that some bridges, like some boxers, were just hard to knock down.
“Engineer work, however, continued. The problems of route maintenance and flood control in the Italian winter need no further exposition…All hands spent early January creating a defensive line, the work spurred by the success of a minor enemy raid on the Fifth Army’s front, as well as by news of a German winter counter-offensive in the Belgium-Luxembourg Ardennes sector…Plans called for extensive minefields to be strung out…All forward bridges had to be readied for demolition, including the Bailey Bridges, which proved harder to prepare than might be expected…Experiments produced an explosive layout that would turn the bridge over as well as cut it. To make demolition more certain the companies resorted to pipe-pushing to place charges deep under the bank seats. Pipe pushing was also used to provide surprise obstacles in unlikely places.” (page 260)
Orders and Documents Archived with the 12 Fld Coy War Diary, January 1945
Following are some selected quotes from the documents associated with the 12th Fld Coy War Diaries during January 1945:
1 - Security
This order warns of the danger of revealing important information, in the event of capture by the enemy. By this point in the war, when it was pretty clear which side would win, prisoners of war might have been less inclined to be careful about what they said to the enemy. Also, during this Winter Lull, it seemed like the propaganda war was a major factor in the sporadic fighting.
January 2, 1945
1 Enemy propaganda leaflets picked up in 1 Cdn Corps area indicate that some Cdn Tps recently captured by the enemy have disregarded the vital need for security.
2 It must be impressed on all ranks that if taken PW, statements made by them whether true or false can be used by the enemy in his propaganda aimed to undermine our morale. Further, their careless talk may easily endanger the lives of their comrades still fighting.
3 It will again be brought to the attention of all ranks, that if captured, they are to give no infm in addition to the NAME, RANK and NUMBER.
4 No enemy propaganda leaflets are to be enclosed in letters, the strictest Censorship will be enforced in this regard.
2 – Skid Chains
The winter weather brought something that Canadians (especially Canadian truck drivers) will recognize – skid chains for tires, to maintain traction. A trucker friend of mine used to dislike putting chains on his rig when going through snowy mountain passes in the Rockies. One can only imagine what road conditions were like during the war in Northern Italy.The photo below shows a sample of these chains on a vehicle and displays why the order says to keep them off some roads. Basically, they can chew up a road (even pavement) pretty fast. By the way, a metaled road is not actually made of metal, but would more commonly called a gravel road (from the Latin metallum, which means both "mine" and "quarry").
January 20, 1945
1 Skid chains will NOT be used on any metaled or hard surface road.
3 – Rubble from Historical Buildings
Speaking of metaled roads, the stone and gravel had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere included rubble from bombed out buildings. Only in an ancient civilization like Italy could rubble include valuable 6th century artifacts.
January 20, 1945
1 Recently a unit hauling rubble from a damaged church in Ravenna, took along with the rubble some quantity of 6th century mosaics, presumably to be included in road repairs.
2 Therefore, before removing rubble from damaged churches in Ravenna, either for road repair or clearance of way, the advice of Historical officer 1 Cdn Corps will be sought.
3 The historical officer will advise if rubble contains anything of historical importance. Should rubble contain items of value it will not be removed.
4 – Educational Courses
Troops were offered a variety of educational programs, for a number of reasons – improvement of morale, increasing soldiers’ knowledge base and helping them with future careers and integration into civilian society after the war ends. These were very popular throughout the British and Commonwealth armies, where Education Officers were posted with units and lectures were given on various subjects. The book “Fighting the People’s War” describes this program and its long-term political and social effects at some length.
This included the opportunity to visit famous cultural and historical centers, such as Rome, on guided educational tours. This one sounds pretty interesting, though there were only 10 vacancies. It should also be noted that Rome was still an active center for catching sexually transmitted diseases (80 cases for the week ending Dec 29, 44). So, Rome could be quite an education for a farm boy (or even a city boy) from Canada.
January 25, 1945
1 Personnel taking courses run by the Educational Services , who desire help are to submit their names to Coy HQ.
2 Personnel who wish to attend a 4 day course concerning the City of Rome, while on leave in Rome will submit their names to Coy HQ. This course will be held at the University of Rome. Names required by Monday Jan 29, 1945.
January 29, 1945
It has been instituted to give the interested soldier a true and worthwhile picture of Rome as a centre of world culture and a treasure house of the arts. The subject of music has also been included in the course, supplemented by one evening at the Royal Opera House. The president of the Arts Faculty of the University of Rome has selected some of the best authorities on the subject as lecturers.
2 A course will last 4 consecutive days. Each morning, 2 lectures on a period of Roman history will be given. Each afternoon two tours will be conducted to illustrate the morning lectures. One lecture will be devoted to an explanation of the Opera or Ballet to be seen by the students during one evening of the course.
6 Two hotels have been reserved for the students. This accommodation is free of charge for the whole period of the student’s leave. The hotels are within short walking distance of the Canada Club where morning tea, lunch and dinner will be served.
7 This formation has been allotted 10 vacancies for the first course which begins 7 Feb and ends 10 Feb 45.
5 - What they Watched
Here are a few of the movies that the sappers got to see in January 1945. Static warfare seems to have resulted in a lot more opportunities to see movies. This set of movies is definitely aimed at an audience of young men, and there is still a somewhat military tone to several of them, but rather toned down and secondary to the main plots of the movies. Rom-coms and crime thrillers prevail, many featuring rather comely young lasses.
Jan 2, 1945
1 A Chip off the Old Block, Donald O’Conner, Peggy Ryan
Jan 3, 1945
1 Rio Rita, Abbot and Costello
“Something to Shout About”, Don Ameche, Janet Blair.
“Jack London”, Michael O’Shea, Susan Hayward
“Hymn of a Nation”, Aurtouro Toscanini.
“This is the Life”, Donald O’Conner, Peggy Ryan
Blood”, Errol Flynn
“One Dangerous Night”, Warren Williams
6th Detachment, Canadian Army Show
“Phantom Lady”, Franchot Tone, Ella Raines
Some comments (based on Imdb):
· “A Chip off the Old Block” seems like a fairly forgettable rom-com, by a young duo that were quite popular in the day. It has something of a Navy angle.
· “Rio Rita” features Abbot and Costello, who were a comedy team, perhaps most famous now for the “Who’s on First?” routine of fairly clever banter. The film is a comedy based on a 1929 flick, with a bit of ‘catch the Nazi spy’ thrown in to be topical.
· “Something to Shout About” is another song and dance movie, that doesn’t seem to have even a side story with any military features.
· “Jack London” is a biopic about the life of the famous adventuring novelist. It sounds like it was pretty badly done, and emphasizes his time as a journalist during the 1903-04 Russo-Japanese war, which facilitates a fair bit of WW2 influenced anti-Japanese propaganda.
· “Hymn of the Nations” is a short documentary, featuring Italian conductor Toscanini, which facilitates a fair bit of anti-Mussolini propaganda.
· “This is the Life” is another Donald O’Conner/Peggy Ryan rom-com, though this one sounds like it is pretty funny. Interestingly, Donald O’Conner was drafted into the U.S. army about this time, as was the character that he plays in the movie. He survived the war and later played in many movies, notably “Singing in the Rain”. He was also Francis the Talking Mule’s human sidekick.· “Captain Blood” stars the famous Errol Flynn as a pirate and Olivia de Havilland as his love interest. What more can you say? It sounds like a good movie (so I ordered it from Amazon). From the picture, it looks like the stars went to the same hair stylist. Olivia de Havilland was the cousin to the designer of the famous WW2 fast bomber, the Mosquito. She died in 2020, quite an incredible span of time for one person to live through.
· “One Dangerous Night” is a crime thriller, maybe film noir.
· “Phantom Lady” is another film noir crime thriller. Co-star Ella Raines seems pretty interesting, she can really pull of that “sultry eyes” look, which I am sure the boys in 12 Fld Coy liked.
Some Family Stories Related to January 1945 Events
Forgotten Under the Bridge
January 1945 included preparing bridges for demolition and sometimes actually blowing them, as described in the History of the Royal Canadian Engineers.
I am not sure exactly when this happened, but another rather celebrated family story involves an occasion when my dad Martin was working on a bridge, setting charges for demolition I think (or perhaps removing them), suspended by a line above or perhaps in the water below the bridge. The bridge suddenly came under attack, and the platoon high-tailed it out of there, to the safety of the other side. Unfortunately, they had forgotten all about him. It wasn't until a fair while later that someone remembered and they went back and rescued him from his predicament. He was rather unhappy about the whole incident. He was left in the cold water for quite a while, unable to move for fear of being spotted by the enemy and being killed or captured.
A Ride on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail
The Kettle Valley Rail Trail is one of the
longest and most scenic biking and hiking trails in Canada. It covers a good
stretch of the south-central interior of British Columbia, about 600 kilometers
of scenic countryside. British Columbia is one of the most beautiful areas of
Canada, which is itself a beautiful country, ideal for those who appreciate
natural splendour and achievable adventure in the great outdoors.
The trail passes through a great variety of geographical and geological regions, from mountains to valleys, along scenic lakes and rivers, to dry near-desert condition grasslands. It often features towering canyons, spanned by a combination of high trestle bridges and long tunnels, as it passes through wild, unpopulated country. At other times, it remains quite low, in populated valleys, alongside spectacular water features such as beautiful Lake Okanagan, an area that is home to hundreds of vineyards, as well as other civilized comforts.
The trail is a nice test of one’s physical fitness, as well as one’s wits and adaptability, as much of it does travel through true wilderness. The views are spectacular, the wildlife is plentiful and the people are friendly. What more could one ask for?
What follows is a journal of two summers of adventure, biking most of the trail in the late 1990s. It is about 33,000 words in length (2 to 3 hours reading), and contains numerous photographs of the trail. There are also sections containing a brief history of the trail, geology, flora and fauna, and associated information.
After reading this account, you should have a good sense of whether the trail is right for you. If you do decide to ride the trail, it will be an experience you will never forget.
A Drive Across Newfoundland
Newfoundland, Canada’s most easterly province, is a region that is both fascinating in its unique culture and amazing in its vistas of stark beauty. The weather is often wild, with coastal regions known for steep cliffs and crashing waves (though tranquil beaches exist too). The inland areas are primarily Precambrian shield, dominated by forests, rivers, rock formations, and abundant wildlife. The province also features some of the Earth’s most remarkable geology, notably The Tablelands, where the mantle rocks of the Earth’s interior have been exposed at the surface, permitting one to explore an almost alien landscape, an opportunity available on only a few scattered regions of the planet.
The city of St. John’s is one of Canada’s
most unique urban areas, with a population that maintains many old traditions
and cultural aspects of the British Isles. That’s true of the rest of the
province, as well, where the people are friendly and inclined to chat amiably
with visitors. Plus, they talk with amusing accents and party hard, so what’s
not to like?
This account focusses on a two-week road trip in October 2007, from St. John’s in the southeast, to L’Anse aux Meadows in the far northwest, the only known Viking settlement in North America. It also features a day hike visit to The Tablelands, a remarkable and majestic geological feature. Even those who don’t normally consider themselves very interested in geology will find themselves awe-struck by these other-worldly landscapes.
On the Road with Bronco Billy, A Trucking Journal
What follows is an account of a ten day journey through western North America during a working trip, delivering lumber from Edmonton Alberta to Dallas Texas, and returning with oilfield equipment. The writer had the opportunity to accompany a friend who is a professional truck driver, which he eagerly accepted. He works as a statistician for the University of Alberta, and is therefore is generally confined to desk, chair, and computer. The chance to see the world from the cab of a truck, and be immersed in the truck driving culture was intriguing. In early May 1997 they hit the road.
Some time has passed since this journal was
written and many things have changed since the late 1990’s. That renders the
journey as not just a geographical one, but also a historical account, which I
think only increases its interest.
We were fortunate to have an eventful trip - a mechanical breakdown, a near miss from a tornado, and a large-scale flood were among these events. But even without these turns of fate, the drama of the landscape, the close-up view of the trucking lifestyle, and the opportunity to observe the cultural habits of a wide swath of western North America would have been sufficient to fill up an interesting journal.
The travelogue is about 20,000 words, about 60 to 90 minutes of reading, at typical reading speeds.
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