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What is it like to go into combat for the first time?

That’s a question a lot of people have asked me. All I know how to truthfully answer is to say. “That it depends on the situation of every individual soldier, sailor or airman and the intensity of the war or battle at that particular time. “

I met a man who had his leg blown off the moment he crossed the start line in his first infantry attack. I know another, an officer that lost virtually his whole platoon in a desperate fight, was badly wounded himself and never got over the loss of his men, mentally, for the rest of his life.

Then again, I met a sergeant while I was training in England who had been on the infamous Dieppe raid in 1942 and survived with a great deal of luck and a huge sense of humour. He was a radar specialist and on the raid his job was to head for a particular anti-aircraft gun known to be controlled by a radar gun-sight system and capture the sight (information from the French resistance and arial photographs).

He laughed as he told how he had imagined himself winning a Victoria Cross by successfully killing the gun crew and capturing the gun-sight. When the landing barge he was riding in rammed ashore and dropped its ramp, he charged off the ramp, Tommy gun at the high port and carrying a load of explosives and plenty of ammunition — and dropped into 15 feet of water, The Barge had run up on an offshore sandbar.

He hit bottom like a 200 pound block of lead, quickly dropped all his gear and struggling to hold his breath managed to get to the surface and grab onto the side of the barge. The British sailor running the barge managed to get free of the bar and was ordered to get to the beach and pick up wounded and survivors of the slaughter. Our hero assisted and they managed to reach an evacuating destroyer. All were hauled aboard and transported back to England. He was a lucky man.

My particular indoctrination to battle was less dramatic and gave me more time to adjust. I was a reinforcement and not attached as yet to any unit. The unit I was eventually assigned to as an artillery signaler, along with another signaler was the 4th Field Regiment of 4th Brigade of the Second Canadian Division.

We were put in a truck and headed for the front, then just moving into Holland and the entrance to the Beveland Peninsula. Our Regiment’s job was to back up our Infantry and amour as it sought to clear the north shore of the Scheldt Estuary, a 40 mile long and mile wide bay leading to the Port of Antwerp in Belgium, the 4th largest port in the world. The port was vital to the supply of Canadian, British and American troops. The south shore had already been cleared by the Canadian 3rd Division.

Meeting the Forward Observation Signal Crew we were to replace
As we drove north, my inner sense of the seriousness of war became oppressive. Looking up the road a cloud of dust hovered over the scene as great tank transports thundered ahead of us. Jeeps, motorcycles, assault boats on flatbeds and red-capped MPs controlling the traffic were everywhere shouting and giving directions.

We pulled off the road into a small farmer’s field and broke for lunch. As we ate our half loaf of bread and canned stew we relaxed and felt relieved that we at last had the freedom of making our own decent lunch instead of the usual horrible fare we were served back at the Canadian reinforcement units (CARU).

Crash-Bang! A huge ear shattering series of explosions rocked us from just back of the trees behind us, “What the Hell was that!” we shouted at each other as we threw ourselves down on the grass. It turned out it was a 3.6 inch anti-aircraft battery of 4 guns letting fly at a wandering German spy plane. It jarred the nerves for the moment that’s for sure. We had no idea the guns were there.

An hour or so later we drove off the highway and entered as farmer’s yard with a house 20 yards in front of us and a sort of a drive-shed (for implements) off to our left. The sign on the house said “B” Echelon 4th Field Regiment,” the regiment’s administrative section. Our driver made his way inside and soon reappeared with a Corporal (Bombardier in the Artillery). The Bombardier said, “Are you Field and Rossi, our new replacement signalers? He checked off our names as we each answered, “Here Bombardier!” Welcome he said and we chatted a bit.

“Say,” he said, “Would you like to meet the crew you are replacing?” “Sure,” I said, “It would be a good idea because we could find out from them something about the job we are expected to do.” “So come on he said, the guys are over here” and he led us to the drive shed. Opening the large doors we saw a plywood table on wooden supports and three Canadian soldiers lying dead on top of the table. “Welcome to the War,” he said and laughed.

After the shock wore off we recognized the gallows humour for what it was, a way to deal with tragedy. The dead men’s wrecked Bren gun carrier was also in the shed (it had hit a land mine) so we spent some time going over its contents and damage. Interestingly there was a blood-stained suit of body armour with a rifle bullet hole right through the center of the stomach pad. So much for the usefulness of body armour, we never bothered using the stuff after that.

Clip Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop
It was now late in the day and we were lying on our packs and other kit bags and baggage in the back of a small truck, called a “200 weight.” It was quiet outside and getting grayish as sunset approached. Our canvass top and its rear flaps were closed up as we tried to catch some sleep. It was a slow stop and start progress on a black topped road built along a checkerboard of dykes. Our guns followed along and set up in the fields below to give supporting fire to the infantry. Slowly we left them behind.

We began to worry about a mysterious Clip Clop noise following our truck. When we sped up the Clip Clop Clip Clop would go faster. When we slowed the Clip Clop would slow somewhat but it would come closer and closer to the truck, like a horse and rider trying to catch up. Neither of us had the nerve or energy to find out who or what it was, maybe a Dutch collaborator trying to throw a grenade into our truck? Finally, just as the sunlight was about gone the truck stopped. The Clip Clop Clip Clop Clip Clop speeded up and stopped!

For a moment all was quiet when suddenly the flaps of the back of the truck were thrown open and there was a big brawny smiling red-faced Dutch farmer who held out a bag of apples to us and shouted, “Velcome Canadees, Velcome Canadees, I help you. I help you tonight!” in broken but delightful English.

The Clip Clop we had heard was the noise he made as he ran in his wooden shoes! He was a wonderful guy and did help us by leading us and others of the regiment to a comfortable Dutch farmhouse where we ate well and slept on soft Dutch feather mattresses in real Dutch wall-beds.

Beveland Flooding


The next day the travel was on paved roads for a while with farmer’s fields flooded on both sides. The dykes had been breached by the Germans to impede our advance. The picture on the left was taken through our truck window (reflection in photo) but our radiator was leaking and the engine overheating, therefore one of the guys is scooping up water for the radiator. Note a Dutch farmhouse surrounded by water in the distance. Tough going!

Soon we were off the main road again and traveling along the top of dykes. Some of our guns had moved up in the night and were deployed in the fields below. A couple of the gunners talked to us and had an awful night as they had dug shallow slit trenches and fallen asleep in them, waking up in three inches of water. They were soaked and half frozen. There was enemy shelling ahead but we had no choice but to advance because our vehicles had to follow the infantry down the top of the dykes, in full view of the enemy.

At one point we stopped and sheltered in a slit trench dug in on the side of the dyke but left as soon as the shelling stopped. We stopped again at a small workman’s storage shed beside the road and a terrible sight greeted us. There lay the mangled bodies of seven dead Canadian soldiers, not long before cut to bits by mortar fire as they took cover behind the shed. Blood was everywhere.

There were also several dead German soldiers including a German officer lying close by. He had apparently been killed the day before (he was beginning to decay) but I searched him anyway and found a number of German army issue post cards in his tunic breast pocket. I retrieved them and one of them is on the left. (Clck to expand)
MG42 Gun Crew
To me. the worst thing was to see dead Canadians. That always made me very sad. Dead Germans never bothered me. It sounds callous but that’s how I reacted at the time. A few minutes later, as we waited for orders to mount up, several long columns of the Essex Scottish Regiment of Windsor Ontario came along the road.

One young infantryman saw the dead Canadians and yelled to me, “Hey Gunner, grab one of those helmets for me, I lost mine.” I ran around and could only find one in not too bad shape but it was sticky with blood. I shouted. “I have this one but its’ still got some blood on it.” “Never mind that,” he yelled back, “Just toss it to me,” and he caught it and jammed it on his head as he marched by. I saluted him and shouted Good luck!

That’s the end of my first few days in action, but as yet I had not made myself very useful. Later I realized that only a few of our troops could fight in those constricted conditions, so only one or two crews of forward observation signalers were put to use. Nevertheless, I could see things would get much worse as the Schelt was cleared and the allied push resumed. For more on my journey into war, stick with us.

The remainder of the German postcards now 68 years old, are attached to the covering E-mail because I was unable to set them all into this story. Strange that the cards were made in West Germany but the captions are in Dutch (I translated aproximately to English).
They must have been issued to impress the Dutch girls with Nazi power and possibly to recruit young Dutch men into the German forces.

Particularly note the political cartoon showing the Russian Communist train headed at neutral Holland and the German “Freedom Train” sign indicating the German forces headed to stop the the Communists.

I have attached the rest of the postcards to the covering e-mail for your interest. Some young Dutch men joined the German forces, probably because of propaganda such as this and also feeling they were going to be on the winning side. They evntually paid a terrible price.
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Comments

Comment from admin
Time June 23, 2012 at 3:12 p06

GREAT START, DICK !! ANXIOUS TO READ THE REST OF THE STORY !! WE “NEVER” FORGET SEEING OUR “DEAD” COMRADES, DO WE ?? EVEN AFTER SIXTY YEARS !! LOOKING FORWARD TO “MORE” ?? DON.

Comment from admin
Time June 23, 2012 at 3:12 p06

Absolutely LOVE your stories!

Thank you so much!

Joey

Comment from Vaughan Byrnes
Time June 24, 2012 at 3:12 p06

Well done Dick! I hope this reaches the wide audience it deserves. I look forward to reading more.

Comment from mmorpgcreation.com
Time December 4, 2013 at 3:12 p12

Hi! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 4!

Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and
look forward to all your posts! Carry on the excellent work!

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