Friday, 3 April 2020

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 7 April 1944

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 7 April 1944

A Note on Blog and Book 

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.

The 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 comes available. 
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.

Apr 1944: TBA 
May 1944: TBA 
Jun 1944: TBA 
Jul 1944: TBA
Aug 1944: TBA
Sep 1944: TBA
Oct 1944: TBA
Nov 1944: TBA
Dec 1944: TBA
Jan 1945: TBA  

April 1944

April 1944 saw much of the Canadian army, and Eighth Army in general, preparing to shift from the Adriatic front to the western side of Italy, to join the U.S. Fifth Army in its attack on German defenses south of Rome.  That front continued to be stalemated, and the Anzio beachhead was still being contained by German forces.  The ultimate objective, after consolidating forces, was for the allies to break through the Gustav and Hitler lines and carry on to Rome via the Liri Valley from the south, while the Anzio forces approached Rome from the west.

12 Fld Coy would become part of that strategy.  During April, they moved to Telese, about one hundred miles distant, where several other RCE companies were also based.  They carried on with training, especially bridging training, which would be vital for the upcoming offensive in the Liri Valley, on the way to Rome.  They also built an observation post at the front, near Cassino, which appears to have been a crucial bit of infrastructure for the high command, as the battle in the Liri Valley developed in May.

Following is a condensation of the 12 Fld Coy War Diary notes for April 1944. 

April 1 to 4 – Telese, Italy

The Company executed a move from Bonefro to Telese, Italy.  There was some dodgy weather and a truck was stolen, but there were no casualties along the way.

They settled in to the new area, along with several other RCE field companies that were already there.  The weather improved considerably, and was now described as “splendid”.  Training mostly involved route marches and recees. 3 Platoon began work on a ford near the camp.

April 5 to 8 – Telese, Italy

The company got their truck back, though it was now a wreck, having been found near Foggia, which indicated that the truck was heading in the opposite direction of the company’s new location.  A sapper (Spr. Winslade) was to be court martialed over the affair.  One wonders, was he deserting, involved in the black market or just lost while on a drunken spree?
There was more bridging and weapons training (Bren and Tommy gun).  3 Platoon continued to work on their ford across the river, while 1 Platoon went on a route march and 2 platoon was duty platoon.

12 Fld Coy then become "duty company", which precluded much other activity.  There was a somewhat cryptic note in the War Diary: "This camp is proving rather destructive to our strength; today we lost a Sgt, L/Sgt and sapper".  It is not clear from the diary whether that involved transfers or injuries.

April 9 to 11 – Telese, Italy

This period included Easter Sunday and then a Corps Sports Day.  The Company did rather well at that, particularly in softball and volleyball.

Sapper Winslade was found guilty by his court martial, for taking a truck without permission and causing damage of over $350, which would have been a considerable amount, given that army pay amounted to less than $2 per day.  

The company did some water point work and set up targets. There were transfers and other shakeups in the officer ranks. Heavy rainfall threatened to wash away the camp.

April 12 to 17 – Telese, Italy

There was regular training, as well as continuing work on a water point. 2 and 3 Platoons visited a mine museum in Capua.  Some officers received further radio training, while others went on a short leave to Naples.  A party of sappers also had a chance to visit Naples while on leave for a free day.

14 Fld Coy left for the front (Cassino).  A 12 Coy officer (Lt. Anderson) did a recce at the front for an observation post. 2 Platoon then went to the front to construct that O.P. for G.O.C. near Cassino (Monte Trocchio).  It was a tricky job – the site was in full view of the enemy and had to be hewn out of the rocks over a couple of nights, with a compressor and jackhammers (the use of explosives for the job was doubtful, as that would give away its location to the enemy).

April 18 to 21 – Telese, Bonefro, Italy

Word came down to prepare for another move soon.  It turned out that only 1 Pl had to move, though, to do a job for the Administration Area (road work and bridging job).  Lt. Place went on a mine warfare course.

2 Platoon returned from the observation post job, with no casualties.  Everyone was quite satisfied with the job.  Plans were made for training in use and construction of the floating Bailey Bridge.  There were typhus inoculations for the entire company.

April 22 to 26 – Telese, Italy

There was some bridging work done for Ordnance by 1 Platoon.    Some confusion about the bridging job ensued, due to insufficient material, so the bridge was downgraded to a 50 foot span.

A newly posted officer (Lt. Warner) did a recee of a ford, for a river crossing, and marked it with mine signs.

April 27 to 30 – Telese, Italy

The company held a major bridging exercise, putting up a fairly complex Bailey Bridge in about 14 hours (110 foot with floating bays, landing bays, etc.).  The bridge was then dismantled on the following day. Everyone was happy with the exercise.  Two platoons were then sent to help 13 Fld Coy with their similar bridging scheme.

Department of Defence Historical Documents and Miscellaneous Sources, April 1944

Following are some selected quotes from the report on Operations during Jan-Apr 1944 in Italy, written by the military (along with a passage by popular historian Mark Zuehlke):

1 - Shifting to the Other Side of Italy:

“Although the change in the boundary between Eighth and Fifth Armies took place on 26 Mar, the regrouping of formations was carried out by degrees during the period between this date and 11 May, the day on which the spring offensive began. This regrouping involved not only movement of formations from one army to the other, in order to have all  American and British-equipped divisions in the armies to which they had been reallocated, but it also entailed a complete rearrangement of formations within each individual army. Considerable time was required, for all troops in both armies were exhausted and needed rest and reequipping. During the time that a formation was out of the line there  would be an opportunity to acquire reinforcements and to undergo a short period of training.” (Page 5, Report 179)

2a - The Mount Trocchio Observation Post:

“The new headquarters was set up on 4 Apr at Raviscanina, less than 25 miles south-east of the Cassino front, and a Corps O.P. was established on M. Trocchio over-looking the enemy positions (see para 48). W.D., G.S., H.Q. 1 Cdn Corps, 4 and 19 Apr 44). In this area the G.O.C., under direction H.Q. Eighth Army and  in conjunction with 13 Corps, began to make plans for the coming offensive. Study periods for staff officers were arranged and the coming operation was discussed in all its aspects. From the newly established O.P. the Corps Commander made frequent visual reconnaissance of the enemy-held territory.” (Page 8, Report 179)

“Good natural concealment was provided for H.Q. 1 Cdn Corps when it moved from the Raviscanina area on 10 May to its operational Headquarters in area H 0107 south of Mignano. As Headquarters left Raviscanina units of corps artillery took over the vacated sites to make it appear that no movement had taken place. The Corps Commander's O.P. which was established on M. Trocchio, (see para 11) was given the most careful attention. In constructing the position the rocky face of the hill-side was skillfully simulated and a covered approach was provided so that observers could enter and leave the post without fear of enemy detection.” (Page 41, Report 179)

2a - The Mount Trocchio Observation Post:

“Eager to ensure a good view of the impending Liri Valley battlefield, Lieutenant General Tommy Burns had an observation post established on Monte Trocchio. The post was carefully constructed so that it mimicked a natural part of the rocky hillside, and a covered approach was created so that Burns and his staff members could come and go without fear of being observed. Huge amounts of ammunition, stores, and equipment were being pooled within the corps perimeter to allow rapid resupply of the attacking units in the midst of the battle. Corps staff tasked with camouflaging this matériel decided at the outset that it would be impossible to adequately conceal large supply depots so close to the enemy observation points. Their solution was to distribute supplies in the roadside ditches and shadowed edges of groves of trees and thickets of brush. When these small caches were covered with foliage-garnished camouflage netting, they were rendered virtually invisible.”

Zuehlke, Mark. The Liri Valley: Canada's World War II Breakthrough to Rome (pp. 85-86). D & M Publishers. Kindle Edition.

3 - Air Attacks by Luftwaffe:

“A more serious outburst of enemy exuberance occurred on the same day, when Lenciano was bombed and strafed. Much damage was inflicted, and casualties were finally estimated at 47 killed and 300 wounded. None of these were Canadians, but the attack was a disturbing reminder to our troops of the danger of under-estimating the capacity of the Luftwaffe to deliver swift surprise attacks.” (Page 79, Report 179)

Orders and Documents Archived with the 12 Fld Coy War Diary, April 1944

Following are some selected quotes from the documents associated with the 12 Fld Coy War Diaries during April 1944:

1 - Air Attacks and Engineer Intelligence:

Though Canadian troops weren’t hit by the German air raid at Lenciano, orders went out to ensure that 12 Fld Coy was taking appropriate precautions against Luftwaffe attacks.  That included digging slit trenches and using camouflage for concealment purposes.  Since the training and weaponry of an Engineer Field Company would not be at a high enough level, the advice was to only engage enemy aircraft if under direct attack.

April 5, 1944
a) Slit trenches will be dug in sleeping and working areas for all personnel.  Bivouac tents properly dug in will be suitable in lieu, in  sleeping areas.
b) Warning of enemy air attack will be given by siren sounded by AA sentry or by an attack itself.  On either event, all ranks will take cover.  All those with weapons will then engage the enemy aircraft only should a hostile act be committed or obviously imminent, and when the aircraft comes within range.
c) The all clear will be given by the AA sentry waving a green flag.

April 5, 1944
1 The almost complete absense of any enemy air interference against Cdn troops in the CMP has resulted in the presumption that the German Air Force is negligible in this theatre of ops and a consequent slackening of all camouflage drill has resulted.
2 This presumption is completely false and on the 5 Army front, Allied troops are subjected to considerable attention from the Luftwaffe.
3 Lax camouflage discipline results in locations and concentration of troops being seen by enemy recce planes which in turn brings down enemy arty fire, or more seriously still, the element of surprise, so essential in any Commander’s plan, is lost and not only are casualties unavoidable but the success of the ops as a whole is jeopardized.
4 Camouflage is a weapon of either defence or attack.  Camouflage is protection and that it is enforced is the duty of the individual – the unit – the formation.
5 The priority of normal camouflage is:
i Good siting.
ii Good track plan strictly enforced.
iii Camp behaviour in bivouac – check on fires, smoke, laundry, dispersal, unnecessary massing of troops at meal parades, etc.
6 (a) Formation and unit HQ must be concealed as far as possible.
(b) Particular attention will be paid to the camouflage of ARMOUR when in lager.
(c) Concealment during road movement in the forward areas will be stressed.
7 Unit commanders will hereafter ensure that camouflage drill and behaviour is strictly enforced within their units.

2 - Malaria:

The Italian peninsula was an area where malaria was a constant concern, especially given the breakdown in normal sanitation and anti-malarial activities during wartime.  There were to be substantial measures taken against malaria throughout the ensuing campaigns, including use of mosquito repellants, clothing restrictions, and anti-malarial drugs.  The drug mepacrine is now considered to have the possibility of psychological side-effects, including toxic psychosis, though that didn’t seem to be much of a concern during the Second World War.

One can see how the orders concerning malaria escalated during the month of April 1944, as the weather got warmer.:

April 5, 1944
1 Anti-malaria measures (excluding repellent cream) will be put into effect forthwith.

April 24, 1944
1 The terrain in which the Army is operating, is likely to operate, is malarias.
2 The malaria season occurs between 1st May and 30th Oct.  Between the above dates the following orders will be in force.
3 ALL RANKS will observe the following PERSONAL precautions:
(a) Sleeves rolled down, slacks worn and Mosquito repellent smeared on all exposed surfaces of the body every six hours between sunset and one hour after sunrise, when not protected by a net.
(b) Mosquito nets will be used to sleep in at night.  These will be properly maintained, erected and utilized.  When, for operational reasons it is not possible to use a net, repellent and veil will be used.
(c) One tablet of mepacrine (or atabrine) will be taken each day.

April 27, 1944
1 Effective this date the following anti-malaria precautions will be instigated by all ranks.
2 Everyone will take one mepacrine tablet with the evening meal. This is to be taken with lots of liquid.
3) Personal Protection
(a) Mosquito nets must be used throughout the night by all ranks not on duty.
(b) Between sunset and sunrise (when not otherwise protected) all ranks must wear slacks and boots and long sleeved shirts, with sleeves fastened at the wrists and collars closed.  Sentries will wear veils in addition, when ordered.
(c) Repellent cream or fluid must be smeared on all exposed parts of the body from sundown onwards, at 4 hourly intervals until the soldier is securely protected within the mosquito net.
4 Adult mosquito Killing – All occupied barrack rooms, billets and tents will be sprayed before bedtime and as soon after reveille as possible.
5 Destruction of Mosquito Larvae
(a) On Monday of each week all receptacles containing water (unless otherwise dealt with to prevent mosquito breeding) will be emptied and left to dry for 2 hours.
(b) All empty receptacles that would hold water will be stacked upside down.
(c) Nothing that can hold water will be left lying around.
6 Reporting Sick
All ranks will report sick at once if they have a fever.  On no account will they treat themselves.

3 - Sexually Transmitted Diseases:

The other major health related concern was, of course, sexually transmitted diseases, or V.D., in the terminology of the day.  Rather than simply moralize to the troops, the army seems to be giving into the reality of the situation, and providing appropriate protection, no questions asked:
April 26, 1944
1 This morning a member of this formation was taken to the hospital with V.D.S..  Personnel will keep in mind at all times that this area and the area to which we are going or may go is frequented by the opposite sex, who carry the above mentioned infection.  Remember, that all personnel who go to hospital with the above mentioned infection leave the company under strength.  In order to fulfill our obligations as a fighting unit we must at all times be up to full strength.  If you must go out at night be sure you see the Medical Orderly before you go out and when you come back. The Medical Orderly is at your disposal and will supply you with the necessary preventatives.

4 - Saluting as an Expression of Comradeship:

The tradition of saluting is explained, as a matter of comradeship between men-at-arms, and as a matter of good discipline within a unit.  The need to maintain discipline and act appropriately towards visiting brass was a constant, and saluting was a big part of that.  It’s interesting that this order takes a collegial, friendly tone, as opposed to some of the earlier orders in this regard, which had a more disciplinarian approach.

April 20, 1944
1 When two or more other ranks are walking out and pass an officer or officers, all the other ranks will salute as laid down in manual of Elementary Drill.
2 A salute made to two or more officers in a street or other public place out of doors will be returned by all the officers saluted. In camps, unit lines or on parade, the salute will be returned by the senior officer only.
3 When two or more British officers meet an Allied officer or officers, all British officers will either salute or acknowledge the salute of the allied officers, as the case may be.  The rank of the British or Allied officers is immaterial.  The badges or rank of Allied Military forces should be studied by all ranks.
4 All ranks will salute officers of higher rank in cars which display authorized flags or stars.  The latter distinguishing signs, which are uncovered when the officer is travelling, consist of red metal plates with one or more stars according to rank, displayed on the front and rear of the car.
5 Saluting dates from the time of armour, the salute representing the motion of a knight raising the visor of his helmet with the open hand to the front, showing that, though raised, it contained no missile.
The practice of combining “eyes right” or “eyes left” with the salute originated from the olden days, when it was the privilege of men-at-arms to look their superiors in the face, while others must pass with downcast eyes.  The salute is, therefore, a recognition of comradeship and mutual trust between men-at-arms; it is at the same time, an acknowledgement of discipline and has become a visible indication of common allegiance which all ranks owe to the Crown and its service.
6 Officers and soldiers, on detachment, will show by the standard of their saluting their determination to maintain with pride the reputation of their unit, corps, and formations.

5 - The Things they Watched:

April 7-8, 1944
War Diary
A show “Bataan” was given in the theatre at San Salvatore in the evening.
 During the afternoon, all companies in the formation saw the film “Malaria”.

This month one of the featured movies was called “Bataan”, with Robert Taylor as the main star.  It was about the American defence of the Philippines, namely the Bataan Peninsula, in 1942.  The battle was one of the early contests between the U.S. and Japan, when Japan was on a roll in the Pacific.  It was a U.S. defeat, though very heroically portrayed in the movie, with 13 American soldiers fighting to the bitter end, killing many Japanese, and providing a role model for later American soldiers to follow.

It is interesting, in as much as all of the heroes are killed, even if the heroics are given Hollywood treatment.  Also, potentially of interest to engineers was the fact that the movie was largely about the defense and destruction of a key strategic bridge.  It has rather good reviews on the internet, being favorably compared to modern war movies such as “Saving Private Ryan”.
Considering where they were heading (Monte Cassino area) and what they would be doing (building bridges, sweeping minefields and piloting assault boats across rivers, while under enemy fire), the boys of 12th Field Company might have found a movie where all the heroes die, just a tad bit off-putting.  Perhaps, though, the army wanted to put troops in a fighting mood.

As for the second movie, “Malaria”, it sounds like a short educational film about the disease of the same name, produced by Disney in 1943 (“The Winged Scourge, Malaria”). You can watch it on YouTube.  However, it may also have been a 1943 French romance/thriller with that title.

Some Family Stories Related to April 1944 Events

Air Attacks

Generally speaking, the German Luftwaffe was much less of a concern than it had been during earlier phases of the war.  However, as noted above, they still had teeth and could do serious damage on occasion.

So, though the enemy’s aircraft continued to present a danger during 1944, Allied troops also had concerns about friendly aircraft accidentally unloading their bombs on them.  My father indicated that the main concern was American planes, who were reputed to be overly keen to get rid of their bomb load, but that might well have been a little unfair inter-Allied rivalry, or military “urban legend”.

In fact, the RAF hit 12 Fld Coy’s base a few months later, with a 500 pound bomb.  Fortunately, there were no casualties from that incident.  Perhaps the bomb didn’t explode, or perhaps it just missed a camp that was mostly empty at the time - the company war diary isn’t clear about the details.

Air Raids in Britain

On the subject of air raids, folks back home in Britain had experienced the blitz earlier in the war and in early 1944 they came under what was called the “Baby Blitz” by the civilian population and Operation Steinbock by the Luftwaffe.  This was to be the last strategic air offensive by the Luftwaffe, though of course the V1 and V2 weapons were to come later. 

My mother lived through a number of air raids during the war.  In fact, she said it got so bad that some people stayed in bed during the alarm, rather than going to the bomb shelter.  There were a lot of false alarms and the shelters weren’t exactly great places to sleep.

Among other places, she worked in Manchester, once at a munitions plant and another time welding jerry cans.  For a time, the air raids were frequent enough that she got tired of running for shelter, and would sometimes take her chances in order to get a good night's rest.

On one occasion, she and some friends disregarded an order to stay inside when a raid was imminent and walked into Manchester to visit the pubs or something.  An hour after they walked through a particular block, it was hit by an air raid and totally obliterated.  At the time all of this didn't bother her, but when she went back to Dundee, Scotland on a visit, she insisted that her mother keep her bedroom door open at night.  She said that when the reality of the situation caught up with her she cried for quite a while.  She would have been around twenty at the time. 

One problem she mentioned, was that some of the air raid wardens would try to take advantage of the situation with young women and make a play for them.  On at least one occasion, she was sure that one fellow would have 'done something' if she hadn't have been with another young woman.

I should note that a lot of cities got hit during the blitz besides London and Manchester.  In fact, Scotland was raided over 500 times, due to important naval, RAF and industrial sites being located there.

If you are interested in history, you may also be interested in adventure travel, whether by foot, bike, truck or car.  So, why not consider reading a travel, for only 99 cents on Amazon:

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.

On Grey Owl’s Trail – A Hiking Journal, free on Amazon, this weekend

While not as spectacular as some of the more well-known Canadian coastal trails (e.g. The Juan de Fuca Trail) or mountain trails (e.g. The Kettle Valley Trail), the Grey Owl Trail, in north-central Saskatchewan, has a charm all of its own. It is a very fine hiking or canoeing route, that can be done in a leisurely three days, or faster, if one prefers. It is also part of a much larger national park, Prince Albert National Park, which includes a variety of other trails and canoe routes, as well as a pleasant small town-site (Waskesiu), which includes many “civilized” amenities, such as restaurants, hotels, cabins, stores, and pubs.

Those qualities also make it a good site tor a family hike, as it is only moderately physically challenging, and therefore a nice introduction to the activity of multi-day hiking. At any rate, that was my family’s experience.

The journal is about 20,000 words, a length that can usually be read in an hour to 90 minutes. It includes notes from the trip, some history of Grey Owl and the trail, as well as selected quotations from the writings of Grey Owl and his wife Anahareo (who were both excellent, humorous and engaging writers).