Monday, 27 January 2020

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 5 Feb 1944

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 5 Feb 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.

Feb 1944: TBA 
Mar 1944: TBA 
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  

February 1944

As noted earlier, the early part of 1944 was relatively quiet for Canadian troops in Italy.  However, by February, U.S. and British troops were heavily engaged in and around the Anzio Bridgehead and American and other allied troops had advanced to positions around Cassino, via the western part of the Italian boot.

1 Canadian Corps and others of the Eighth Army continued with active patrolling on the eastern side of the boot, referred to as “The Adriatic Barricade”.  The intent was “to contain as many of the enemy as possible, to hinder his movements and his efforts at thinning out his line on the Corps front, and to harass him unceasingly” (Page 43, Report 173).

As for 12 Fld Coy, it continued with training of various sorts, active mine clearance (up to the front lines at Ortona), road maintenance, and removal of demolitions left by the enemy.  Even during these lulls, however, causalities and fatalities could be (and were) caused by mines and accidents.  

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

Feb 1 to 6 – Campomarino, Italy

To begin the month, work was slow as 2 and 3 platoons moved into new areas.  Some companies of the Royal Engineers and the RCE also moved into the area, as there was a bridging course located there, which many units were taking.  12 Fld Coy took the bridging course, along with 1 Fld Coy, RCE.  By the Feb 6, the company was on the move to a new site.  Conditions were snowy, and many vehicles were seen spending some time in the ditch.

Feb 7 to 10 – San Vito Marino, Italy

After the move, the company settled into its new billets.  This was followed by training of various sorts (Bren, Tommy, first aid, etc). Then, there was mine clearance training for 2 and 3 Platoons, as well as mine clearing for 1 Platoon, up to the front line slit trenches, joining the infantry in and around Ortona and north of it.

Feb 11 to 15 – San Vito Marino, Italy

3 platoon cleared gun sites of mines for British artillery around Ortona.  1 and 2 platoons went on "specialized training".  A D4 cat of another RCE unit nearby blew up a Teller mine, resulting in some injuries and hospitalizations.  The site had been swept, but the mine was too deep to be detected, especially as it was an Italian box mine (i.e. wooden).  Some of the officers were off to a Court of Inquiry, regarding the accident.

Feb 16 to 21 – San Vito Marino, Italy

2 Platoon swept the camp for suspected deeply buried mines, but a truck tripped one anyway.  A sapper (Spr Woods) was killed instantly (“driver blown out of the cab”); there were other injuries as well.  Remaining vehicles were evacuated from the motor transport park.
There was a minor dysentery outbreak in the camp (13 men from 3 Platoon were on sick parade).  A muddy camp made the experience even worse.

Feb 22 to 26 – San Vito Marino, Italy

Platoons were involved in training, mine sweeping, and takeover of road maintenance from 14 Fld Coy RCE.  Preparations were made for paid Italian labour to assist with the road work.  Weather continued to be gloomy, with the odd sunny break.

Feb 26 to 29 – San Vito Marino, Italy

The company continued with road maintenance.  A search for demolition charges took place in a nearby railway tunnel, but was found to be a dud by Sgt Critchley.  During the relative downtime, a recee of the local area was made, searching for sources of eggs and vino.

Department of Defence Historical Documents and Miscellaneous Sources, February 1944

Following are some selected quotes from the report on Operations during Jan-Apr 1944 in Italy, written by the military:

1 - The Effect of Weather on Operations in February 1944:

“Descriptions of the weather are vital to the understanding of most questions of operations and morale on this front. With very little respite the weather in February remained bad, and the effect of this factor has been depressing. The heavy clay of the coastal sector, in which we have tried to fight, has been converted into a morass, and the conditions of our forward slit trenches can be imagined more easily than described. It was not until 27 February that the sun made more than a fitful appearance. Although the climate moderated somewhat during the last days of February, for the first ten days of March "the elements raged with unexampled fury." Gales which broke over the battlefield on 10/11 Feb brought heavy floods which caused large sections of the coastal road to disappear, necessitating the use of the roundabout mountain roads which had become similarly impassable.”  (page 47)

2 - Active Patrolling:

“Since the main activity during the five weeks 1 Feb to 7 Mar was patrolling, it is relevant to clarify the nomenclature and objects of the several types of patrols as established at a conference held at H.Q. 1 Cdn Inf Div, on 14 Feb. They were defined as follows:
Recce patrols,
(a) Strength: generally one officer and three other ranks - to be heavily armed and capable of defending itself.
(b) Objects: to obtain information by listening, watching or searching; avoids fighting.
Standing patrols,
(a) Strength: any number up to a platoon.
(b) Objects:
(1) for protective purposes
(2) to kill
(3) to ambush,
Fighting patrols
(a) Strength: generally one officer, one N.C.O., and ten other
(b) Objects:
(1) Special Fighting patrols – meet the enemy and fight
(2) to bring in a body
(3) to dominate No Man's Land.
Raiding party,
Strength: larger than a platoon,
(1) to raid and clear out positions
(2) to capture prisoners from any enemy position
(3) to carry out special tasks.” (page 48)

3 - Rumours about War Brides in the U.K.:

“On the battlefield rumour travels faster than sound, and a tale was in circulation throughout the Corps that English wives were being compulsorily returned to Canada on the basis of their husbands being out of the U.K. This rumour was immediately and officially denied, and is only referred to as just one more factor, trivial as it may seem, which  contributed to the general depression.”

5 JAN - 21 APR 44

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

1 - Mine Clearance Engineer Intelligence:

This is a pretty good description of some of the nitty-gritty of clearing a minefield.  Imagine prodding the ground in front of you, with the possibility that you could make a mistake and blow yourself up, along with your minesweeping partner.  I remember that this seemed pretty amazing when my dad first told me of it.  At the time, I assumed that everything was done as shown in the movies – i.e. just walking along with a magnetic detector.

Feb 7, 1944
It was noticed during the mine clearance today that the detector men paid no attention to where they put their feet. Because a detector is NOT reliable in picking up a wooden box mine it is essential that the detector man walk ONLY where the ground has previously been prodded.  Likewise the prodders only prod where the detector has swept.
In other words the detector man stands in one positon and sweeps an area i.e. an arc, the prodder then prods within the arc.  The detector man then moves forward so his feet are within an area has been both swept by detector and prodded, and sweeps another arc.  The process is then carried on.  Remember to NOT step in any area which has not been both swept and prodded.  It is not only your life but there are the lives of those who are with you.
Also when neutralizing a mine, only the man doing the neutralizing should be closer than 50 yards from the mine – and make it a good 50 yards.

And here’s a short order related to some new plastic explosives, to be used in demolitions.
Feb 10, 1944
Plastic “Explosive 808” will be delivered in the near future for use by units.  In order that it may be distinguished from the existing non-plastic 808, wrappers will be labelled “Plastic 808” in RED, as opposed to the present BLUE marking.

2 - Canadian Soldiers Wives in the U.K.:

Here’s how the situation was put to the troops on the ground, regarding the rumours about U.K. wives of Canadian soldiers.  That would have included my mother, as my father and mother were married in the U.K. in 1943.  She didn’t come to Canada until 1946, after my father had been demobilized in late 1945.

Feb 8, 1944
1 Certain rumours have been circulated both within and without 1 Cdn Corps to the effect, the English wives of Cdn Soldiers are being compulsory returned to Canada on the basis that their husbands are out of the UK.
2 There is NO truth to this rumour.
3 A circular has been sent with Dependents Allowance Cheques, at the end of February, informing all UK wives of the provisions of Overseas RO 3322, par 1-8.  These paras, in brief, state that free transportation to Canada will be provided for all dependents of soldiers, but only in exceptional circumstances, will a dependent be eligible for free transportation until the solder is returning to Canada for discharge or some other permanent purposes.  Wives have also been informed of the address of the Cdn Immigration Dept. in London, and have been advised to retain this information for further use.

3 - Training Syllabus for 3 Platoon, 12 Fld Coy RCE:

This order gives a nice summary of some of the training that an Engineer Field Company went through at this time of the war.  Activities included:

·       Everything to do with water points, the facilities to tap water sources and purify water for the army.  This was an important function – water sources had to be near the front lines to supply troops, and the water had to be clean, to ensure that troops were in shape for operations.  Troops that were sick from water-borne diseases became a liability rather than an asset.
·       Small arms training, including Tommy Guns and Bren Guns, in this case.  Engineer units had to be able to provide their own protection, and could be called upon in infantry roles as well.
·       General training in use of tools of all types.
·       First aid, in case of injuries on the job, mines or from enemy action.
·       Use of the Piat gun, an anti-tank weapon (Projector Infantry, Anti-tank), and not an easy one to operate.  It was spring-loaded, which made it hard to set up and it had to be fired from a relatively short range.  There was no back-blast, however, which was an advantage.  Back blast could give your position away, and was dangerous to the operators.  As for the Piat gun, opinions varied about the weapon – some thought it great, others hated it.
·       Familiarity with mines and clearing of mine fields.
·       Then, there were company sports, meant to maintain morale and keep the fellows fit and healthy. 

Notably absent in this particular order was Bailey Bridge assembly, disassembly or demolitions, though they did plenty of training in those areas.


0800-0830    Parade
0830-0930    Water Recces
0930-1030    Horrocks Test (Chlorination)
1030-1130    Water Purification
1330-1430    Sanitation
1430-1530    Water Points
1530-1630    Tommy Gun (Drivers only)

0800-0830    Parade
0830-0930    Bren Gun Stripping
0930-1030    Bren Gun Immediate Action
1030-1130    Bren Gun Stoppages
1330-1430    Compressor, Use of Tools
1430-1530    Compressor, Use of Tools
1530-1630    Compressor, Use of Tools

0800-0830    Parade
0830-0930    Equipment Needed, First Aid
0930-1030    Equipment Use, First Aid
1030-1130    Body Structures, First Aid
1330-1430    Fractures
1430-1530    Hemorrhage
1530-1630    Shock and Concussion

0800-0830    Parade
0830-0930    Piat Gun Stripping
0930-1030    Piat Gun Cocking
1030-1130    Piat Gun, Loading and Handling
1330-1430    Mines and Minefield Clearance
1430-1530    Mines and Minefield Clearance
1530-1630    Mines and Minefield Clearance

0800-0830    Parade
0830-0930    Enemy Demolition Equipment
0930-1030    A.B.C.A.
1030-1130    Questions and Answer Period
1330-1430    Company Sports
1430-1530    Company Sports
1530-1630    Company Sports

Some Family Stories Related to February 1944 Events

War Bride Rumours (of being shipped to Canada)

I don’t recall either my mother or father talking about these rumours.  However, his war records show an August 1943 entry saying “married without permission” and a January 1944 entry saying “Granted Permission to Marry”, followed by a Feb 1944 entry giving details of the marriage.

I don’t know why he didn’t get the army’s permission to marry.  I suspect that he just didn’t see the need for it.  But, perhaps these war-bride related rumours about brides being shipped to Canada encouraged him to “fess-up” to the marriage.

And here are a couple of short books that might interest you, for only 99 cents each:

On the Road with Bronco Billy

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.

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.

The travelogue is about 12,000 words, about 60 minutes of reading, at typical reading speeds.