Wednesday, 1 January 2020

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 4 Jan 1944

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 4 Jan 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 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 1944: TBA 
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  

 January 1944

The early part of 1944 was relatively quiet for Canadian troops in Italy.  After the heavy fighting and losses in the Ortona region, there was a period of relative rest out of the lines.  Also, the weather made substantial offensive operations basically impossible, due to rain and snow making many roads and river crossings impassible.  In time, 8th Army would join the effort to capture Rome, but the hard going in winter delayed that.

On the western side of Italy, U.S. 5th Army was engaged in an effort to fight on up the Italian peninsula, with the aim of eventually capturing Rome.  Landings at Anzio, which were touch and go for quite a while, were meant to provide another vector for the capture of Rome.  However, things didn’t go as smoothly as hoped, so U.S. forces were also unable to make substantial progress at this time.

Troops on the 8th Army Adriatic front kept up a constant pace of patrolling, harassment of the enemy, and attempts to obtain POWs for information.  This was intended to tie up German troops, thus relieving U.S. troops of some of that pressure, as well as maintain some offensive spirit in the troops and gather general intelligence.

As for Engineer units, they could still work on roads, bridges and similar infrastructure that supplied the troops and were needed for later offensive action.  They also provided assault support for some limited actions.

12 Fld Coy was not yet involved in most of these actions, however.  Transport and obtaining adequate equipment was still a problem.  Nonetheless, they crossed over to the Italian mainland early in the month and moved closer to the action.  By month’s end they had become involved in bridging and mine sweeping and clearing operations close to the front.

Following is a condensation of the War Diary notes for January 1944. 

Jan 1 to 3 – Syracuse, Sicily Adrano, Sicily

January 1st saw the men tidy up any unfinished business that they had in the area, then hit the barracks early in preparation for a 3:00 a.m. breakfast call, followed by a march to the wharf.  The company then moved out for mainland, using a convoy of twelve trucks to get to Messina, with some breakdowns occurring.

There were several injuries on the road to Messina, when a company truck was accidentally sideswiped by an English truck.  Five sappers were injured, one seriously (Spr Romhild).
The company then took a ferry to the mainland, followed by train travel, which was reported to be quite an enjoyable ride in comfortable continental-style coaches.  The trip involved some stops for meals, as well as numerous halts while the locomotive’s steam engine built up a head of steam, to tackle some very steep grades.

Jan 4 to 9 – Altamura, Italy

The lads arrived at the new camp at Quartodipalo, near Altamura, and spent some time living in tents while setting up their camp.  That was disappointing, as there was an empty country mansion nearby, that they naturally would have preferred.

The company then scrounged for needed supplies, including from a nearby salvage dump.  Work on a water point began and recces of the area by non-coms were performed, both to obtain local knowledge of the area and to sharpen the men’s recce skills. However, trucks breaking down, and a general lack of tools for jobs slowed things down. 



Jan 10 to 14 – Quartodipalo, Italy

1 Platoon and some of 2 Platoon worked on the water point, though adequate truck transport continued to be a problem.  The remainder of 2 Platoon and 3 Platoon did road maintenance, in and around camp.  Truck breakdowns continued, though the unit was succeeding in getting better transport and equipment.  Major wade went to recce a new site, to which the company would soon be moving.

Jan 15 to 20 – Quartodipalo, Campomarino, Italy

There was another move to new site, which involved setting up camp, constructing Nissen huts, constructing camp and perimeter roads and related jobs.  The men spent a night in pup tents before putting up the Nissen huts.

A couple of officers picked up explosives and other stores for the general use of 1 Cdn Corps.  The company began planning for a bridging school, which they were to build in the near future.  2 Platoon moved to the town of Carunchio where they would soon be building a Bailey Bridge.

There was still a shortage of needed tools and transport, but the unit received a D4 and D7 bulldozer, which helped with road work.

Jan 21 to 26 – Campomarino, Carunchio, Italy

Most of the company continued to set up camp, which involved pouring concrete by 3 Platoon and gravelling roads by 1 Platoon.  Heavy winds made Nissen hut setup difficult (the corrugated sheet metal could become “gone with the wind” and become a menace to the sappers).  Heavy rains came down one evening, and the local clay turned into gumbo.  Rain, flooding, mud and bad weather were to be a continuing problems in Italy, over the next year.

Jan 27 to 31 – Campomarino, Carunchio, Italy

2 Pl finished their bridge, a 140 foot Bailey Bridge at Carunchio.  They had paid help from Italian civilians, to grade the  bridge approaches.

One of the officers headed out on a mine clearing job in an area at which a 1 Cdn Corps H.Q. vehicle had been blown up by a mine.  The Major went out on a recce for another move.

Lt. General Crerar, who would ultimately command Canadian troops (under Montgomery) in northwest Europe, paid a visit.  A platoon of Royal Engineers also paid a visit and spent some time working with the company.

Other Notes and Observations from January 1944

Following are some selected quotes from the report on Operations during Jan-Apr 1944 in Italy, written by the military in Report Number 178:

1 - The Static Situation in early 1944:

“The first four months of 1944 saw little action by Canadian forces in Italy; during the greater part of that time the Eighth Army's Adriatic front - on which the Canadian formations were serving remained practically dormant. Two engagements during January themselves relatively minor in comparison with the scale of the heavy fighting of the previous month - mark the only active  operations in which Canadian forces in Italy were engaged during the opening months of 1944.” (page 2)

2 - Typical Engineering Support in an Action:

“At approx 2100 hours (17 Jan 1944) the C.O. (Lt.-Col. J.F. Bingham)... was ordered to H.Q. 11 Cdn Inf Bde for an 'O' Group, and plans were made for the C.B. Highrs to attack the following morning, 18 Jan, at 0800 hours, supported by an artillery barrage and "A" sqn 12 Cdn Armd Regt. This attack was to go through the Perth R. bridgehead which was being strengthened during the night and engineers were laid on to have the mines cleared by morning.”  (page 20)

5 JAN - 21 APR 44

3 – Canadian Reactions to being Under Montgomery and the British/Commonwealth 8th Army

Though there was a considerable national feeling to get all of the Canadian troops under one command (which would eventually happen, but not until late in the war), during the Sicilian campaign and the first part of the Italian campaign, Canadian troops were quite happy to be under General Bernard Law Montgomery’s command, with the storied British 8th Army.  He liked them and they liked him (though it took a little while and some tough battles to solidify these opinions).
The Eighth Army had been the main factor in booting Rommel’s Afrika Corps from North Africa, and Canadian troops were proud to be associated with it, at least during the time that Montgomery commanded.  Montgomery was also known to have a deep concern for the lives of his men, something that the highest levels of army leadership did not always display.  This was a very positive factor for morale. 

However, he would be sent to England early in 1944 to plan and command the D-Day landings – therefore, leadership that was less popular with the troops would soon take over in the Mediterranean.  Hence, morale would suffer, though that was also due to inevitable war fatigue.

Here are some quotations from Montgomery, related to that subject from “Monty - Master of the Battlefield 1942-1944, by Nigel Hamilton:

“The Canadians are going great guns.  They are very willing to learn and they learn very fast; They will be one of the best divisions I have in due course.” (based on a letter from Montgomery letter to General Alan Brooke, quoted on page 336).

“It is definitely the wish of every officer and man in Canadian formations here that they should be a part of Eight Army and be known as such.  They definitely do NOT repeat NOT want to be nominally independent.  They consider that the present method by which they are referred to as Canadian troops of the Eighth Army is quite satisfactory.  This makes it clear that the Canadians are in the Eighth Army and they are very proud of this fact and do NOT repeat NOT want and other arrangement.”  (based on a letter from Montgomery letter to General Harold Alexander, quoted on page 346).

And here is a quote from Colonel Strome Galloway, a Canadian officer, on  the same subject, also from that book, that supports Monty’s claims.  The part about Montgomery being respected and popular with the troops comes up a lot in literature about the war, as does material about him not being popular with much of the Allied high command, especially many Americans:

“In our minds [in 1942] he was an overbearing martinet – a proper bastard.  He demanded that we undergo hardships.  To toughen us, he broke many in the process.  We thought his methods were madness.  But his system of training prevailed, and when we eventually went into action we knew he was right…When we ended our five weeks of warfare in Sicily successfully, we realized it was because we had been molded into a hard, discipline force by the hand of Montgomery, the bete noire of our days in Southern England.

The most remarkable thing about General B.L. Montgomery, as we Canadians knew him in our early days together, was his lack of remoteness.  Six distinct levels of command existed between the man with the rifle and ‘Monty’.  These levels were platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division and corps.  Yet, to the private soldier the Army Commander seemed to be his own personal commander, with no one else really in between…It was this remarkable ability of Montgomery to project his personality over the heads of all his subordinate formation commanders, right down into the forward slit trench, that made him the soldier’s general.”  (quoted on page 347).

Other Notes and Observations from January 1944

Following are some selected quotes from the documents associated with the War Diaries.  Note that there don’t seem to be many records for January 1944, so I have used the opportunity to include some from other periods of about that time:

1 – Scrounging

As noted above, in the War Diary, the company “scrounged” for supplies, when they weren’t provided in the usual manner, which was likely to involve a fair bit of army bureaucracy and paperwork.  Scrounging could expedite the process. 

Basically, this meant appropriating materials that didn’t seem to have an actual owner, or taking them from the owner, sometimes with payment made, sometimes not.  That might include things like trading vino for ammo if one unit had a lot of one and little of the other.  It might also include taking materials that appeared to have been abandoned, or were surplus to requirements and were therefore in storage (e.g. in a salvage dump).

If the owner was actually a civilian, and no recompense was made, this could be considered looting.  Looting could entail serious penalties.  If it was army property, it was more likely to fall under the category of scrounging and would be looked upon less severely. 
The intent of scrounging was also important in making such distinctions.  If the material had a significant and urgent unit purpose, that was more acceptable than if it was meant for a personal or non-urgent need.  As the order below states, “use your common sense”.

Scrounging has long been a military fact of life (e.g. Napoleon’s armies were said to “live off the land”), and a good scrounger could be a useful fellow to have around.  Engineers might have to do a lot of scrounging, as they were often in the construction business and needed things like sand, gravel and lumber.

But, scrounging could create problems, as outlined in the order below.

Feb 16, 1944
1 – Recently in Corps Troops Engineers, there have been many instances of men taking equipment and material for personal and unit use.  The loss of this equipment and material seriously inconveniences other units.  Before taking anything, men must be absolutely certain that the material is NOT being used for any other useful purpose.  In case of doubt, an officer will be asked.
2 – If any cases arise in this unit of the above and a complaint is received from outside sources then disciplinary action will be taken against the offender.  Use your common sense in what you scrounge.

2 – Relations with Carabinieri

The Italian Carabinieri are a national military/police force, organized along military lines but primarily serving a civilian policing role.  This force was established over 200 years ago, so it has a long tradition.

During World War 2, however, this dual role created problems for the allied troops, who were in the position of being both an occupying military force and a co-belligerent, now that Italy had switched sides in the war.  It must have been hard to show due respect to personnel who were your enemy only months before, but without local law enforcement, the Allies would have to have diverted resources away from the war effort for civilian purposes, which was obviously undesirable.  So, Allied soldiers had to suck it up, and show some respect, as outlined in the order below.

Feb 16, 1944
1 – The Italian Carabinieri are essential to the maintenance of law and order amongst the civilian population.  It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that their efficiency and morale should not be impaired in any way by conduct of Army personnel.  In particular it will be impressed on all ranks that they will not in any way impede or interfere with Carabinieri performing their duties.
2 – Disciplinary action will be taken against all offenders.

3 – Enemy Propaganda

Along with the “bombs and bullets” war, a psychological war was always being waged.  As we know, this was done at the national level via radio, newspaper, film and other mass media.  For the “home side”, the propaganda was meant to stiffen support for the war.  On the other hand, the intent of the enemy’s propaganda was to make the civilian and military population doubt the war aims and strategies of the enemy and therefore make it more amenable to surrender or at least a negotiated peace more favorable to the propagandist’s side.

At the unit level, propaganda leaflets were a common tactic.  They were meant to sap the morale of the opposing troops, sometimes with messages casting doubt on the opposing sides leadership, or trying to convince them that their cause was unjust or simply hopeless and not worth fighting for.  The “you are fighting and dying for Wall Street capitalists” leaflet is a good example of this, as it is meant to stir up both class and nationalist resentments within the Allied forces in Italy.  It reads:

This diploma is ornamented with portraits of prominent Americans for whom you, idealists in the truest sense, are sacrificing your health and life.  It shall not be the only record that Wall Street is granting you!

For this sacrifice is also to receive lasting recognition in the shape of the huge memorial depicted below and created by one of America’s best sculptors.

It will be placed at the foot of Wall Street as an eternal expression of gratitude for the willingness of those soldiers who patiently fought and died for Wall Street, although they had the chance to spend the War in Germany until repatriation!”

The propaganda could also be designed to prey upon the homesickness, personal and national jealousies of the troops.  They could be summed up as operating on the age old insecurities of everyone – sex and death, as the leaflet below shows, which was obviously designed to undermine morale of the British troops.  It reads:

“While you are away, the Yanks are “lease-lending” your women.  Their pockets full of cash and no work to do, the boys from overseas are having the time of their lives in Merry Old England.

And what young woman, single or married could resist such a ‘handsome brute from the wide open spaces’ to have dinner with, a cocktail at some night-club and afterwards…

Anyway, so numerous have become the scandals that all England is talking about them now.

Most of you are convinced that the war will be over in four months.  Too bad if it should hit you in the last minute.”

The order below requests that anyone coming into possession of these leaflets should pass them on to the Canadian Psychological Warfare Branch, apparently for purposes of research.  No doubt they also simply wanted them taken out of circulation, so as not to have them affect the morale of the troops.

Feb 16, 1944
1 – Enemy propaganda leaflets dropped from time to time among our troops are of great interest to Psychological Warfare Branch.  It is necessary that original of leaflets of propaganda should be received by this branch as quickly as possible, in order that reply or other action may be taken by them.
2 – In future, at least two originals if available, of propaganda leaflets found in 1 Cdn Corps area will be forwarded direct to the PWB 1 Cdn Corps, or through Intelligence of Fd Security channels, with the least possible delay, together with details as follows:
a – Where and when found.
b – Method of distribution, if known.
c – Quantities found.

4 – Army Pay

The subject of pay is always of interest to people, so here is some information about army pay, for privates in 1944 (higher ranks would make more, of course).  I assume sappers would have gotten about the same pay as privates, though many would also have received trades pay.  My father appears to have drawn extra trades pay as carpenter, concreter and pioneer, though it isn’t clear whether he was paid separately for each trade:

Private 1944: $1.30 per day.
          After 4 months service: $1.40 per day.
After 6 months service: $1.50 per day.
Trades Pay “A” group: $0.75 per day.
Trades Pay “B” group: $0.50 per day.
Trades Pay “C” group: $0.25 per day.
Subsistence Allowance: $1.25 per day.

Multiplying these numbers out, a sapper with average trades pay would earn about $60 per month, when serving in Italy.  If he was back in the U.K., and not living in barracks he would earn the subsistence allowance of $1.25 per day, to pay for meals and accommodation. 

For married men, the situation for wives back in Canada (or the U.K. for those who married British war brides, as my father did) was:

Dependents Allowance
Wife: $37.20 per month
First Child: $13.92 per month
Second Child: $12.00 per month
Third Child: $10.00 per month
Fourth to Sixth Child: $8.00 per month

For context, a Canadian government publication that was meant to assist wives in budgeting, estimated that a mother and child could be fed on about $20.00 per month.  Perhaps in Britain, it would be less.

The order below gives an indication of how pay was accrued and calculated (the paybook) and how and when it was received (the pay parade).  It also shows that the army limited the amount that a man could spend while on leave.  Presumably, they were concerned that soldiers would blow their money on vices such as alcohol and prostitutes.  Also, the government preferred that soldiers would have some savings, to supplement demobilization grants, once the war was over. 

Feb 23, 1944
Pay parade will be held at 1800 hrs. 26 Feb 44.  All paybooks will be turned into the Orderly room before 0900 hrs.  26 Feb 44.  Men going on leave will be able to draw up to $50.00 providing they have it in their free balance.  They will only draw it on the day they are due to leave and NOT the payday before.

5 - The Things they Watched:

Here are a couple of movies that the company got to see during this time.  They both have a naval/nautical theme.

“Lady Hamilton” was also known as “That Hamilton Woman”.  It starred Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier and was directed by Alexander Korda in 1941, so plenty of big names here.  The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) summarizes it as “The story of courtesan and dance-hall girl Emma Hamilton, including her relationships with Sir William Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson and her rise and fall, set during the Napoleonic Wars.”  It earns 7.2 out of 10 stars.  I am sure that the sappers enjoyed it, if only to gaze upon Vivien Leigh (among other notable roles, she also played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”).

Feb 1, 1944
There will be a picture shown tonight in the usual place (HQ lines), at approximately 1800 hrs..  The title of the picture is “LADY HAMILTON”.

“Gambling on the High Seas” was filmed in 1940, and was more of a crime film, about a man who runs a crooked floating casino outside of the then 3-mile limit, and the efforts to bring him to justice.  It received 6 stars out of 10.  It starred Jane Wyman, who later married Ronald Reagan, who would become president and commander-in-chief of the U.S. military decades later.  She wasn’t quite the looker that Vivien Leigh was, but I imagine the sappers were still impressed.

Feb 24, 1944
There will be a show tonight 24 Feb 44 at 1800 hrs. at the usual place, down by the Officer’s mess.  The name of the picture “GAMBLING ON THE HIGH SEAS”.

Some Family Stories Related to January 1944 Events


According to her stories, my mother’s brother Peter was an excellent scrounger.  He was also a very unlikely soldier.  He was drafted into the British Army, rather than having volunteered.  He had no use for military dress, discipline, or life, considering them all to be part of the capitalist status quo, which he refused to cooperate with, if at all possible.  I suppose the tribulations of the 1930’s did that to a lot of working class people.

He was once found away from his post in Northern Ireland, by some officers (at a nightclub I think).  This was a punishable offence, and when asked why he wasn't in uniform, he basically told them to 'F off'.  He was threatened with court-martial, but it never happened, as his unit was soon going to be sent to Sicily, although the regular soldiers didn't know it at the time.  I suppose that under the  circumstances, an uncooperative soldier was of more to the British Army in the Mediterranean Theatre than he was in a stockade in Britain.  Interestingly enough, he ran into my father, by coincidence, while they both disembarked in Sicily in late 1943.

My mother told stories of how she received packages from him while he was on the continent. One package contained a dozen pairs of stockings, which were extremely difficult to obtain in wartime Britain.  Obviously, he must have been involved in black market activities of some sort, or at least had valuable connections in that regard.  It would be interesting to know if he put his scrounging skills to use for his military unit, in a more appropriate manner, but I don’t recall any stories along those lines.

My mother said that he was always something of an operator, whether in civilian or military life.  His black market activities and general disdain for army life eventually led to a quick discharge from the British Army, after the war was over.  That meant that he was not eligible for any of the government assistance normally given to demobilized soldiers.  But, a good scrounger can probably adapt, even to that.


My dad never mentioned getting propaganda leaflets, though they were common enough that he probably would have seen them.  Likely, he just laughed them off. 

My mother mentioned sometimes listening to “Lord Ha Ha”, a propagandist that the German government used against the British, beaming his radio broadcasts across the channel.  She said that everyone knew that British news sources were also propaganda sources, which hid some truths from the people, so “Ha Ha” could be useful for trying to guess what was really going on, triangulating on the truth, so to speak.  But, mostly she said that the British people just laughed off Lord Ha Ha and Nazi propaganda in general.  Leaving aside ideology about democracy, they mostly just thought Hitler and Hitlerism was ridiculous.

Army Pay

My dad often repeated the “hungry thirties” and the “dollar thirty a day in the army” memes (we would call them memes now, though the term wasn’t used then).  It was a way to tell younger people that they haven’t seen anything compared to the depression and the war that the earlier generation had been through.  I suppose every generation does that, but they really did have a point.

The army (British and Canadian) was quite careful about wartime marriages, though they obviously couldn’t stop them.  No doubt, the wife’s allowance was a temptation for some British women to enter into a hasty marriage, just as the vagaries of the soldier’s fate must have influenced the men into chancy marriages.  Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die.

After my mom and dad married, the army sent an officer up to Scotland to interview her, to see whether this was a marriage of convenience or a considered decision.  Apparently, they passed the interview.  My mom did note that the English officer that was sent to check her out was a strikingly handsome man.

Generals Monty and McNaughton

Montgomery was popular with 8th Army – I recall my dad talking about him visiting his company, somewhere in Sicily, if I recall correctly.  He was also popular with the British public, as my mother attested on occasion.  He was the general who was seen to have “turned the war around” with his victory over Rommel at El Alamein.

General Andrew McNaughton was the Canadian army commander, for the first few years of the war.  He was then removed from that position in late 1943 or thereabouts.  Montgomery didn’t care for him, as he hadn’t had battle command at the level he was now serving, though he had served in World War 1 at a fairly high capacity.  But he was thought to be more of a scientist than an army commander (he had helped pioneer a number of new artillery procedures used at Vimy Ridge in 1917, such as the use of acoustic location technology for counter-battery fire).

Also, he was keen on keeping the Canadian forces together as one unit, to be controlled by Canadian high command.  That didn’t fit with the plans of some of the British and American planners, Monty for one.

And here’s a short book that might interest you, for only 99 cents.:

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.

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