Remembrance Day - Some of my Father’s Memories of the Second World War
What follows are some stories told to me by my mother and father, mostly concerning their experiences, or their family's experiences during the Second World War. The book, The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966) is excerpted to provide the historical framework for the personal anecdotes. Excerpts from the book are in regular type-face, while related personal anecdotes are in italics.
My father, Martin Olausen, served in the Canadian Army from 1941 to 1945 with the Royal Canadian Engineers. He originally immigrated to Canada from Norway. While overseas he met my mother, Ruby Olausen (nee Gorrman), who lived in Dundee, Scotland. They were married and settled in Edmonton, Alberta after the war, raising seven children.
These stories are of events that occurred fifty or more years ago, so naturally there is a certain flavour of tentativeness to them, as the principals are either no longer living or are drawing on memories that are over a half-century old. Some stories are of the twice-told variety, to use Edgar Allan Poe's term. Nonetheless, they give an interesting perspective to some of the great events of the first half of the twentieth century.
Comment: Martin talked about being in North Africa. Although the Canadian Army was not there as a unit, perhaps he was part of the above group. He mentioned the sand flies, how they would get into everything - food, etc. He also talked about the heat of both North Africa and Sicily. He often mentioned swimming in the Mediterranean. My mom says he was a keen soldier, and good at sapper type tasks, so it would not be that unlikely.
"The Voyage and Landing - …The slow convoy however, had three ships torpedoed and sunk - two on the night of the 4th/5th [July 4 &5 , 1943) and one on the 5th July - in the Mediterranean between Oran and Algiers. There was some loss of life and a large loss of vehicles and guns." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 135, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966)
Comment: Martin talked about the U-boats and torpedoing of ships. Perhaps he was with this convoy. He said that torpedoes missed his ship, but not by much. Torpedoes were a constant and real fear whenever troop transport was involved.
My mother's father was in the merchant marine during the Second World War, so talk of convoys and torpedoes came from that direction too. He had been in the Royal Navy from the ages of fourteen to twenty-one, a time that included the First World War, so he was an experienced sailor. Martin stated on several occasions that my grandfather had been on the 'Mermansk Run' at times during the Second World War, the series of convoys that sailed through the high reaches of the North Atlantic to the Russian city of Mermansk. If so, that would have been quite a brutal experience, as these convoys were very badly mauled by the German U-boats. Of course, any convoy duty would be dangerous, regardless of where it was located.
"The 1st and 3rd Field Companies, RCE landed in the assault with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 4th Field Company followed up with the 3rd Brigade later…quite a number of sappers were put ashore at wrong places but all managed to locate their proper areas easily enough…The 2nd Field Park Company started disembarking during the afternoon of the 13th [July 13/43], as did the detachment of Canadian tunnellers." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 136, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966)
Comment: Judging from the units landed in Sicily, Martin was probably in the 1st, 3rd, 4th Field Companies or the 2nd Field Park Company. One of the Field Companies seems more likely. These units also correlate with locations that he talked about being at later on in Italy. During the landing, he met my mother's brother on the beach, who was with the British Army (she is from Scotland - they met during the war). This may be due to the confusion of landing locations located above. Considering the number of people being landed, running into his future brother-in-law seems like a big co-incidence.
"On the first morning the advance from the beaches was rapid…a warning shot brought out the crew of an Italian battery…with their hands up in surrender…By last light [July 13/43]…the Canadian bridgehead, from Burgio west was about two miles deep…Casualties had been comparatively few; the Italians seemed to have had little will to resist. There were, however, two mobile divisions inland - the 15th Panzer Grenadier and the Hermann Goring Panzer - ready and willing to provide future opposition." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 137, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966)
Comment: Martin and other veterans I had met when with him had a great respect for the qualities of the German soldier and a corresponding lack of respect for the Italians. The informal term for the Germans was "Jerry", whereas the Italians were referred to as "Eyeties". In modern usage, the term "Eyetie" (and to a lesser extent "Jerry") may seem rather politically incorrect, but wartime is not the particularly conducive of tolerance. It hardly seems surprising that the Italians were not enthusiastic soldiers, with their country stuck in between two great contending armies.
"On 12th July [July 12/43] the Headquarters RCE were at Ispica and the three field companies were spread out in support of the infantry brigades. To start with, as the advance went up into the hills, movement was fairly rapid. The very speed of the penetration caused early trouble, for the engineers, moving on foot, were hard put to it to open communications and yet keep sections forward with the leading infantry as needed…The main tasks for the first few days were engineering reconnaissance, clearing minefields (sometimes well booby-trapped and, on more than one occasion, in part dummy, which was a great nuisance) and demolishing roadblocks, particularly in towns and dykes. Every inch of road had to be checked for mines." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 138, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: I guess these were pretty typical engineering tasks, except for the absence of bridge and road construction. Martin talked of one of the techniques for detecting mines, "prodding". It seemed to involve poking the ground ahead with a knife or bayonet, to determine a mines location by touch. It seems like a dangerous technique, but magnetic detectors were not always reliable, especially if there was a lot of shrapnel, etc. in the area. Also, some of the German mines were primarily made of wood, and therefore difficult to detect by magnetic means.
It also shows the dual requirements of sappers, to be at the front of the advance with the infantry, clearing mines, booby traps, obstacles, etc. but also to open up communications and transport for the units that are to follow.
"The Advance to Mount Etna. By midnight of the 15th [July 15/43] advance elements had reached the bombed and burning town of Caltagirone on the Syracuse-Caltanissetta-Palermo road. The advance had been of necessity slow; occasional mines and booby traps made the whole route suspect…In addition to shifting rubble the 3rd Field Company had a 30 foot crater to fill and a large blown culvert to repair north of town. And there were special hazards in the quantity of vino available." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 114, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: I can recall Martin mentioning Syracuse many times. The mention of vino (Italian for wine) is also interesting. Within my family, there is a celebrated story of the time when Martin and some comrades discovered a large quantity of vino, in a wine cellar somewhere in Italy. They overdid things with the wine quite severely, and ended up far behind the enemy lines. One version of the story has them actually getting captured by some Germans for a short time. Fortunately, the situation was very confusing, and they managed to get back to the safety of their own lines after a few hours. He also pointed his rifle at his lieutenant, threatening to shoot him, while under the influence of vino. He was threatened with court martial, but that was dropped because skilled sappers were in such short supply. Instead, they had him solemnly swear that he would never again touch vino, an oath which he maintained during the remainder of the war, and the rest of his life. Of course that did not diminish his hearty appreciation for beer.
Other than that incident, he was apparently quite a good soldier. He was quick to volunteer and frequently went out on reconnaissance patrols.
P 144 "The river bed was swept by fire all during the 30th [July 30/43]. Bulldozers went forward at 0130 hours together with other parties of the 4th Field Company. The construction of crossings was attempted in two places but mortar and shell fire stopped the proceedings. Efforts were concentrated on one of these sites at first light and the job was about 25 percent complete when the sappers were pinned to the ground - machine gun and rifle fire being added to all the rest…The 4th Field Company had now lost four officers - all in twelve days. Seven other ranks were wounded in this one operation." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 144, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966)
Comment: Another rather celebrated family story involves an occasion when Martin was working on a bridge, setting charges for demolition I think, suspended by a line 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 killed or captured.
Comment: Martin talked about both swimming in the Mediterranean and climbing Mount Etna. These seemed to him to be much more interesting physical challenges than the war itself.
"There were, of course, inspections and visits…On the 20th [Aug 20/43] General Montgomery inspected and spoke to the divisional engineers at noon. And on the 22nd Lieutenant-General McNaughton made an informal visit to see the men at training." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 148, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: Martin talked about a visit by Monty: he was especially proud to serve alongside the 8th Army, the famous Desert Army. He also liked McNaughton, who was eventually taken off the command of the Canadian Army. Martin, and many other Canadian soldiers think he got jobbed because the Americans didn't like him.
"There were one or two mines and mine-lifting problems which were novel to the troops. Box mines (Holzmines) of wood were particularly hard to detect, although easy enough to neutralize when located. And even steel Tellermines didn't produce much of a signal in the headphones of the Polish mine detector when buried 30 and more inches deep. Fortunately there had not been too many booby-traps". The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 148, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: Previous comments about mine detection apply. Martin had at least one bad incident with a mine, fracturing his left big toe. Eventually, it was partially amputated, after the war I believe, so he had no toenail on that toe. He never spoke much to me about the details of the event, at least that I recall. His discharge papers also mention a scar on his left thigh. Whether the two injuries were related, I don't know.
THE ITALIAN MAINLAND
P 153 "So the pattern of the days to follow was set - craters, blown bridges and more craters - days of heavy labour compensated by the inner satisfactions that go with the sense of a job done well. The C.R.E.'s diarist wrote on the 7th [September 7/43]: 'This division is becoming very sapper conscious and we bask in glory.' The faster the road became usable forward, the shorter the distance supplies had to be packed; the Canadian soldier does not really enjoy packing supplies." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 153, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: I once met another veteran, to whom I mentioned that my father had served overseas. He asked me what unit he was with and I replied that he had been an engineer. His eyes grew a little wider and he seemed to ponder that a moment. 'Sapper, eh', he replied, nodding his head. ' Tough job'. It seemed to me, that raised Martin in his esteem. Of course, that was only my interpretation.
"At the Basento [September 19/43] the task was to get the tanks across a crater, through a mined area and into Potenza. This was soon accomplished and a platoon of the 4th entered the town in the wake of the tanks. In the late afternoon, while clearing a route through the streets (the city had suffered considerably in recent air attacks) this platoon was fired on by a belated nest of the enemy. One man was killed and a corporal wounded. A sharp exchange took place during which several Germans were hit and one taken prisoner; the remainder of the enemy then 'cleared out'. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 157, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: Sappers were also combat soldiers and got into firefights. I don't think the RCE liked to use them this way, as the special training and skills they possessed were difficult to replace when there were casualties. Martin once told me about having to kill a man at close quarters, with a knife. He had been drinking, and I guess that brought the story out. I guess it still haunted him, as he was weeping when he talked about it. All I could say, was that it was him or you, so you had to do it. I am sure that wasn't an original thought, but it was all I could think of at the time; I think I was about twelve years old or so. I believe this occurred later in the war, perhaps in Northern Italy.
"Field Marshal Montgomery in El-Alamein to the Sangro has commented at some length on the important part enemy demolitions played in delaying the drive and on the opportunity the enemy sappers had to create trouble and confusion at every 'twist and turn' in this mountainous country. When an advance is made against an enemy who chooses to stand and fight, the infantry have the predominant role. But in this almost bloodless trek, the load bore heavily on the engineers. It was emphasized again and again, as in Sicily, that the division could go forward only as rapidly as craters could be filled, diversions or bridges built and the roads repaired. A senior staffer is reported to have remarked…'What this division really needs is three brigades of sappers and three companies of infantry.' " The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 157, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Comment: I always thought it rather remarkable that my father had managed to survive over 4 and a half years of service with only one significant wound. I suppose these intervals of what the book calls 'almost bloodless' treks must have helped. Luck also helped. I remember one story where he said his platoon was pinned down in a farmyard in Italy. An 88 mm German howitzer had them in its sights, sighting over the barrel, as they say. This was a particularly fearsome weapon. A shell landed in a large pile of pig dung, blowing up the pile and covering them all with pig shit, but the dung must have muffled the explosion, as nobody was hurt. Had it not been for that pig dung, he says they probably all would have been killed.
"During this period the Italian people gave considerable assistance both with military intelligence and with labour. It was no unusual sight to find a single sapper out on a job with a working party which he himself had pressed into service from the neighbourhood. There was help with more dangerous work on occasion too. On 9th September (1943) men of the 4th Field Company found themselves clearing minefields near Stazione di Riace with the enthusiastic co-operation of the Italian engineers who had laid them and two days later, a 3rd Field Company party at Marina di Monistare ran into a similar situation with an Italian officer, who located for it two Box-Mine and three Tellermine minefields. Yet, although the populace had somehow acquired the idea that the Allied troops were liberators rather than conquerors, some incidents discouraged the troops from trusting too far. One returning reconnaissance arty, mistaken for German by the local inhabitants, was warned of the proximity of British troops." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 158, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
Another example of the interaction of the Italians, both military and civilian, with the Canadians. Martin was not impressed with their soldiering, as he was with the Germans. He claimed that they would sometimes send their livestock, or even the civilian women, ahead to determine if there were minefields. Some, for example the Mafia in Sicily and southern Italy, would go whichever way the wind blew, and could not be trusted. I believe he was impressed by the Italian partisans, who could be quite effective and deadly.
"Contact with the enemy came quickly - machine guns fired on the vanguard of the force, 'A' squadron, 4th Princess Louise Dragoon guards, as it approached the Motta ridge. Sergeant A.B. Harris and Sapper W. Foster of the 1st Field Company had a brush with a German patrol while reconnoitring close to the town itself. Take and disarmed, the two were marched away. However, their captors apparently considered one armed guard a sufficient escort for two unarmed men. Consequently, both were able to escape and return by a circuitous route to make other and better 'recces' another day." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 161, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
I guess this story illustrates how a Martin and his comrades could have escaped from behind the enemy lines during the vino inspired escapade that I touched on earlier. I never heard much of the details; perhaps they didn't remember them to clearly themselves.
"The Upper Sangro…The discovery of a number of German signs, in English, including 'Fix this up with Bailey Bridge strong enough for Tiger tanks. We'll be back in the spring' and 'Merry Christmas, Canadians' provided light relief." The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, Page 166, (Thorn Press, Toronto, 1966).
As I say, my father didn't seem to have any particular dislike of the Germans. He used to say that they were 'damn fine soldiers'. From my reading of the war in Italy, it seems not to have been as barbaric as it was in many other places, although I am sure there were plenty of terrible events. From quotes like the one above, it seems like the respective armies had a fairly high level of professional respect for each other.
Comment: Martin always used to say that the U.S. Airforce was more to be feared than the Germans Airforce. I wonder if this was a U.S. plane? Perhaps he was aware of this particular incident. He sometimes said that if you spotted a German plane you hit the deck and dug in, but if you spotted an American plane you dug in that much deeper.
Of course the war carried on. Maybe next Remembrance Day I will add to this. There are some interesting stories remaining.