Saturday, 30 November 2019

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 3 Dec 1943

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 3 Dec 1943 


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 on 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.

Dec 1943: TBA
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  

December 1943


During December, the Canadian 1st Infantry Division was heavily engaged in the brutal Battle for Ortona, along the Adriatic, so it was no doubt a great concern that 1 Canadian Corps couldn’t help out in that endeavour.  The struggle for control of Ortona was a battle in which the Germans and Canadians fought over the small port city of Ortona, with each side taking many casualties.

Though some questioned its strategic value (though controlling a port is always useful), it took on a great political significance, being tagged by the media as “Little Stalingrad”.  The intense house to house fighting was reminiscent of that far larger battle in Russia, and it became an important symbol for the western Allies to show Stalin that they were in the fight.  Of interest from the engineering point of view was the development of the technique known as “mouse holing”, whereby Canadian engineers blown holes in the walls between buildings, allowing troops to slowly advance in that manner.

1 Canadian Corps didn’t make it to the Ortona area until most of the fighting was over, early in 1944.  During December 1943, the 12th Fld Coy worked primarily on the bridge crossing of the Simeto River, near Adrano on the island of Sicily.  They also did some work on a Canadian Military Hospital on Sicily.  Though these actions weren’t as dramatic as the Ortona battle, improving the lines of communication and supply in Sicily and on the Italian mainland was of no small importance.  After all, it is said that victory is very much dependent on superior logistics and administration.  And the value of a hospital goes without saying in wartime.

As noted previously, the units in Operation Timberwolf didn’t have the option of bringing much of their Canadian equipment to the Mediterranean, so they were somewhat hampered by having to wait for later convoys and/or using British Eighth Army in-theatre equipment that had passed its best before date, from heavy usage in North Africa.  This also hampered their ability to join the fight, for some time after the November landing in Italy.

12 Field Company War Diary, December 1943

Following is a condensation of the War Diary notes for December 1943.  

Dec 1 to 3 – Adrano, Sicily

To begin December, the company fixed up its new quarters, making them livable as “They were filthy”.  The area was in a basin between two mountain ranges, so it was warm during the day but cold at night.
The river crossing job had been changed from a bridge to concrete ford. It was expected that the job would take a fortnight, as there were difficulties with supplies and tools for the job, so the going would be slow.  It was pick and shovel stuff to begin with.

Dec 4 to 6 – Adrano, Sicily

The company began receiving some equipment now, including dump trucks and a D4 tractor. But heavy rain began to fall, and the river began to rise precipitously, by four feet in one day.  Soon, the river was raging, and a truck was lost in it, as the banks became extremely slippery.  It was pulled it out with the D4 cat, but it took some rough handling in the process.

Most of the river crossings were flooded out and carried away by the current, so the unit was now effectively cut off from the rest of Sicily by the river.  The rivers were now torrents, 6 to 7 feet above their level of just a few days earlier.  The only way to bring in rations was a stone bridge several miles away, which was only approachable by mule tracks.  Since the company didn’t have mules, they were forced to manhandle the supplies they needed.

Dec 7 to 9 – Adrano, Sicily

Attempts were made to put a line across the river, but the rope broke.  Fortunately the rain stopped and the river now began to fall, so sappers could cross by wading to re-supply, but it was “no picnic”, due to the freezing water.
Since the river was lower, work on the river ford could go forth again. That included pouring concrete for the abutment and working on some makeshift break waters and culverts.  The Quarter Master had gone missing, probably due to truck trouble.  This was a concern.

Dec 10 to 12 – Adrano, Sicily

The Quarter Master returned safely from Syracuse, bearing news that the  lost 3rd platoon, who had been working on a hospital in Syracuse, had been located.  Unfortunately, they had had a spot of trouble with lice, and needed to be thoroughly disinfected (as did their clothes). They were still working on Canadian hospital there, which was expected to take a few more days. As it turned out, they had also sustained a lot of minor injuries and ailments during this time.
The rains resumed, but the Simeto River work continued, and the ford was still standing.  Work on the abutment continued, though the quality of the concrete was not great, due to a lack of good sand and gravel.  An abandoned German petrol truck had its tank cut off, which was then filled with stones to produce a makeshift breakwater.

Dec 13 to 16 – Adrano, Sicily

Work on the crossing continued, including finishing piers, positioning girders, decking and finishing up the final road approaches.  The bridge took its first traffic and everything held up.
There were rumours about a move to mainland, though there was no official word to that effect.  A sapper, Spr McKechnie was to be tried for A.W.L.. He seemed like a troublesome sort, as would be borne out in later months.

Dec 17 to 20 – Adrano, Sicily

The crossing and associated road work was nearly done.  It withstood considerable traffic, though there were some problems with the road surface, so some more effort was spent on improving the surface and sandbagging around the culverts was installed.  Corps Engineers visited and seemed happy with the bridge, though they recognized that culverts will have to be kept clear in heavy weather.  3 platoon moved on to Syracuse, to take over billets and start some road work there.

Dec 21 to 27 – Syracuse, Sicily

The rest of the company had now rejoined 3 Platoon, back at Syracuse.  3 platoon was working on a tramway (to transport stone to a rock crusher), while the others settled into their new billets.
 Christmas dinner and related libations went well.  Sergeants and officers served the sappers, with the War Diarist noting “It was an excellent meal and a very liquid time was enjoyed.”
After Boxing Day, the company got back to army business.  Among other activities, there were marches to the range and Tommy gun training.

Dec 28 to 31 – Syracuse, Sicily

3 Pl continued on works (tramway job), while the others trained.  However, a move to the mainland was imminent, so preparations for that were soon underway.


Department of Defence Historical Documents and Miscellaneous Sources

1 - Sexually Transmitted Diseases

“A report in December 1943, on the alarming incidence of this disease stated that the rate for V.D. among Cdns in Sicily is now 454 per thousand per year. Various attempts to meet this particular problem included abandoned plans for supervised brothels and a general educational policy with penalties for troops who could not prove that the elementary protection provided by V-packs and ‘blue light centres’ had been adopted. Placing the large cities 'out of bounds' normally led to excesses in the villages or among rural communities where adequate prophylactic stations could not be properly established.”

2 - Some representative early 1 Canadian Corps RCE action, though not the 12th Field Company

“The engineers of 5 Cdn Armd Div were called upon soon after their arrival. On 27 Nov, General Simonds was requested to make them available for operations with Eighth Army and agreed so long as it was assault work and not building behind the lines. This assurance was received.  The sappers under Lt-Col J.D. Christian, C.R.S., 5 Cdn Armd Div, moved forward and operated under command of Eighth Army but in support of and assisting the engineers of 2 N.Z. Div, who had been heavily engaged and had found it difficult to maintain the L. of C. The first job assigned to the Canadians was the improvement of a stretch of road from  Casalanguida (H4283) to the Sangro. This task was given to 1 Fld Sqn. 10 Fld Sqn was put to work on a high level bridge over the R. Aventino at map reference H300901; this they completed by 10 Dec - an achievement which won them praise from General Freyberg. On 9 Nov, I Tp of 1 Sqn came under command of 1 Cdn Armd Bde and operated with 12 Cdn Armd Regt, clearing mines under shell fire. The whole group was recalled to the command of 5 Cdn Armd Div at the end of  December and although not all of their tasks had been of an assault nature, they had operated under shell fire and mortar fire and during enemy air attacks, and had suffered several casualties, two of which were fatal.”


Other Notes and Observations from December 1943

Following are some selected quotes from the documents associated with the War Diaries:

1 - The Simeto River Crossing job:

Attached is a communication, thanking 12th Fld Coy for their work on the Simeto River job.  It emphasizes that improving transport and communications was an essential job, though not generally heroic or dramatic (though there were always accidents and mines to consider).
Dec 5, 1943
MESSAGE – This refers to our job on the SIMETO RIVER.
The Corps Commander has received from G.O.C. NO. 1 District, CMP, (SICILY) the following letter of appreciation for the able assistance furnished to the District by all ranks of HQ 1 Cdn Corps and Cdn Corps Troops:
Dear General,
I want to express my appreciation to you for the work which your troops are doing in helping us out in our various tasks here.  In all spheres we are receiving much able assistance from you and I can assure you that this is indeed very great help to our strained resources. In this extended warfare, on the lines of Communication one always has the feeling of living on a piece of elastic at full stretch: therefore it is indeed pleasant to find that the strain is a little relaxed by such a happy windfall that has been provided by you.
I hope that you will be good enough to let your troops know how much we are indebted to them for all their help.
J. Clark

2 - German Mines and Other Engineer Intelligence:

German mines would be a constant preoccupation for engineers, as would be the laying mines for allied troops.  There were a large variety of mines to be aware of, some of which were detectable by mine detectors and some of which were not.  Other enemy explosives, left by retreating troops or dropped by enemy aircraft could also be deadly.

The S Mine was also known at the Bouncing Betty, as it was launched about a meter into the air after being triggered, and sprayed shrapnel around.  It often maimed rather than killed, and the prospect of this device detonating at groin level was obviously rather terrifying to Allied infantry and sappers.  Some of the S Mines didn’t “bounce”, but rather exploded immediately, injuring feet and legs, as noted in the order below.  That sewed uncertainty, as well as fear.
Dec 10, 1943
1 Reports have been received of “S” mines which contain a detonator instead of the four second delay pellet, thus making the mine practically instantaneous.  The object of this has NOT been made clear.
2 Fifth Army now report that six dead bodies with their legs blown off have been found in the vicinity of mines of this type.
3 It appears that although the lethal range may not be so great, “S” mines with instantaneous fuses are the more deadly as they do not allow time or space for prostration.  They will probably be laid mixed with normal type.

Dec 28, 1943
It must be remembered that the sowing of “S” mines in craters and the laying of A/Tk mines on either side of diversions was carried on extensively by the enemy and extended considerably the time of making a good passage.

Dec 14, 1943
The Germans have a new type of A/Tk Mine made of aluminum, weighing approx. 7 lbs. (filling).  Total weight being of 14 lbs..  It has a body diameter of 11 ½ inches with a lid 12 inches in diameter.  This mine has three points of ignition under the lid.  Three DZ35 Push Igniters are used.  A pressure on one side of about 130 lbs. will ignite it or a central pressure of 390 lbs.. To neutralize, lift lid and insert a nail or safety pin(s) in the igniters. Mine detectors WILL pick this mine up.

Dec 22, 1944
In view of a recent accident involving the death of several officers and men whilst handling enemy ammunition, it is necessary to draw the attention of all ranks to GRO 506/43, which is reproduced hereunder.  This order will be republished in all unit orders forthwith.
1 NO enemy ammunition will be moved or handled until it has been examined by an I.O.O. who will, as the result of his examination, decide whether the ammunition will be destroyed in situ or wired off and indicated by warning notices pending further investigations, whether it is safe to move.  In the last case, a report will be rendered to his HQ, certifying that it is safe to move and under what conditions the movement will take place. Such movement may be authorized by the HQ receiving this certificate except as in para 2 below.  Only the above mentioned officer will examine, destroy, or certify enemy ammunition safe for movement.
2 No movement of enemy ammunition in bulk, by rail or ship, will be made without reference to AFHQ “Q” Maintenance, giving the following details: Type, Quantity, Number of packages and type of packages.  Group, which will also be marked on each package. Type of storage necessary.  Reason for proposed movement.
3 Enemy aircraft bombs will be moved only under supervision of RE Bomb Disposal Units, with any necessary technical assistance from the RAF. The OC Bomb Disposal Unit responsible for inspection will make the necessary certificate for movement as in para 1; par 2 also applies.
4 Enemy ammunition will not be stored nearer than one quarter of a mile from British ammunition and explosives.
5 All working parties of all Services, including dock labour, involved in the movement of enemy ammunition will be warned personally by a qualified officer on every occasion prior to handling enemy ammunition as to the precautions which must be observed during the movement, and such work will be supervised by qualified technical personnel.  Local native labour will NOT be utilized for handling enemy ammunition.

3 - The Problems of Troops and Alcohol:

Booze was always a problem.  That’s hardly a surprise – take an enormous number of young men, move them to a place far from home and family, train them to be aggressive, add in an extremely stressful situation (often life and death), and you are bound to get the desire to escape from it all with alcohol.  The fact that these Canadians had little experience of wine (vino) and couldn’t calibrate their consumption well, only added to the problem.
Dec 13, 1944
There have been recent incidents where members of the R.C.E. units have had too much to drink and have attacked the local inhabitants.  This behaviour disgraces the soldier’s unit and the whole Canadian Army and without fail other members of his unit suffer for his actions.
It only takes a couple of men to give a unit a bad name and this unit has a few of the type who if not controlled will undoubtedly cause trouble for this unit.
Last night recreational transport was run to ADRANO to see a show – some men took advantage of it to go on a spree and a disturbance was created.  By their actions the coy suffers by the cessation of any future recreational transport.  In future it is the responsibility of any N.C.O. or Spr. to place any other member of this unit who is creating a disturbance under close arrest and escort him home or hand him over to the M.P.s.  The culprit will immediately be court martialed and get the maximum punishment.

Dec 26, 1943
In future andy personnel of this unit discovered bringing bottles of wine into billets will be severely dealt with. Guard commanders will note this order and will be responsible for its observance.

4 - Relations with Italian Civilians:

The relations of Canadian troops with the Italian civilian population was also an issue.  It has to be kept in mind that the Allies were actually a conquering army, even if the Italian population had never been all that committed to Mussolini and his cause.  And among this population there were committed fascists, saboteurs, enemy agents, Italian nationalists, and people who just didn’t like having hundreds of thousands of young men from foreign lands invading their country.  So, things could get testy at times.
Dec 21, 1944
1 All personnel travelling either in convoy or in individual vehicles proceeding outside the village or town in which their billets are located, will carry personal arms and ammunition..

Dec 28, 1944
1 Regardless of what individual opinion there may be, there are terms governing the conduct of civilians of a country under occupation whereby the civilians are entitled to a normal life, and to go about their business unmolested.  Only under such special circumstances as may be required by definite military duties, has the individual soldeir any special rights in dealing with the civilian population. Redress of any complaints soldiers may have against civilians will be made through proper military channels.
2 Military operations are only one phase of the conquest of a nation.  Those who immediately follow the assualting troops must bey practicing the principles of democracy, set a very high example.
3 Offences against the civil population, more specially any offence involving the threat of or use of force of the threat of or use of arms (including knives and daggers), will be severtly dealt with.
4 Misconduct by soldiers towards the civilians is of direct assistance to the enemy and furnishes a fertile ground for enemy propoganda.  The Canadian is one of the best educated of soldiers fighting for the Allied Nations, and should readily sense the results of maltreatment of civilians.  Acts of violence toward the civilian population bring dishonour and discredit to Canada and the Allied Nations.

5 - The Things they Watched:

It is always interesting to see what movies the troops are being shown.  Besides its potential interest to movie buffs, it does give a sense of the cultural assumptions of the time.  Plus, the military would have been concerned with the potential effect on morale – should they show triumphant war movies, light escapist comedy, nostalgic romances, or something else?  Each would be expected to have a different effect on the men.
In this case, they are being given a chance to see one of the “Thin Man” series.  These were a series of husband and wife detective stories that became popular, involving comedy, action and romance.  I watched one of the early movies: William Powell and Myrna Loy had good screen chemistry, and there was a lot of witty banter in the films.  Lots of boozing, and jokes about boozing.  The dog Asta was 
also amusing.
Dec 11, 1943
There will be a show called “The Thin Man in South America” shown in Adrano at 1830 hrs, 12 Dec 43 (Sunday).  There will be transport provided.  (We hope).

Some Family Stories Related to December 1943 Events

Attitudes towards Italians and Germans

Martin and other veterans I met while hanging out at the Royal Canadian Legion with him, had a great respect for the qualities of the German soldier and a corresponding lack of respect for the Italian soldier.  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 particularly conducive of tolerance and understanding.

Martin was not impressed with Italian soldiering, as he was with the Germans.  He claimed that the Italians would sometimes send their livestock, or even the civilian women, ahead to determine if there were minefields.  This might just be the military equivalent of an urban legend (I can believe livestock, but not women), but who could possibly know, after all these years.

All that being said, Italian soldiers reportedly fought well in North Africa, while under Rommel’s command (the German general known as the Desert Fox).

Then, there were the Mafia in Sicily and southern Italy, whom he said would go whichever way the wind blew, and could not be trusted.  I believe he was impressed by the Italian partisans, however, who could be quite effective and deadly, especially by the time the war had moved up to Northern Italy.  By then, Italy was out of the war, and partisans were cooperating with the Allies, to kick the Germans out of the country.

It hardly seems surprising that many Italians were not enthusiastic soldiers, with their country stuck in an uncomfortable alliance with a great power, and with their own country very definitely being the junior partner of the alliance.  Many soldiers would have been reluctant draftees, anyway.

As for Italian civilians, for the most part, Italians weren’t that keen on Mussolini’s empire pretensions, though they did go along when things were going well.  A “new Roman Empire” was Mussolini’s fantasy.  It seems as if the Italian population “went along to get along”, but once the war turned against Italy, they turned against the war.


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