Memoir from Provost Corps, Plus a U-Boat tale.
A great tale of one man's survival when so many around him lost their lives in Italy and beyond. Features 5th Canadian Division.
Plus a fascinating U-Boat tale about weather station Kurt sneakily set up by the enemy in Newfoundland.
More great unpublished history!
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If you want your painting done with aplomb, get on the phone and ring Desperate Don!
https://pridepainting.ca/ That’s my plug, not Don’s!
I’ve been using her Liz for typing work several years now and that clearly says a lot for the quality of her service.
Full show notes, photos and transcript at:
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Interested in Bill Cheall's book? Link here for more information.
Fighting Through from Dunkirk to Hamburg, hardback, paperback and Kindle etc.
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Fighting Through WW2 Episode 84 – Canadian L-Cpl David Johnson
More great unpublished history! WWII
It seems proper that some of the circumstances which I witnessed during the World War of 1939 to 1945 should be recorded, first that Canadians may not forget that generation of young men who volunteered to face the threat of Hitler's fascist hordes.
Memories will fade and we who are left will be as pieces of driftwood upon the shores of time. Those brave Canadians who did not return to their beloved Canada will have no testimony.
More ww2 memoirs
The sergeant asked for volunteers to help lay tape to mark out lanes for the tanks where the engineers had swept [for mines]. I said count me in.
A Limey convoy down the road had stopped and the men had taken to the ditches. It then moved up to me and an officer said 'Corporal we are going to set up in this field.' I said, 'Sir, they are shelling this road' and he replied he must set up his unit anyway.
I remember Christmas Day on the Moro River. We had dug in and as usual I dug an extra deep slit trench. All night, Christmas Eve, we were shelled by German 88's.
Hello again and another exciting WW2 welcome to the Fighting Through second world war podcast.
I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall whose WWII memoirs have been published by Pen and Sword – in FTFDTH.
The aim of this podcast is to give you the stories behind the story and much more. You’ll hear memoirs, and interviews with veterans in all the countries and all the forces. I dare you to listen!
And hot on the heels of ep 83, this is a shorter bonus episode, so not so much of it but it’s quality not quantity that matters huh?
Don Kairo from Canada has been in touch. Full of beans about a memoir he’s stumbled across. As we traverse the world of WW2, we’ve now arrived in Canada WWII and Don has kindly sent me a memoir by L-Cpl David Johnson Canadian Provost Corps.
Seaforth Highlanders of Canada
Trained on tanks
Sailed from Halifax to Greenock in Scotland and thence on to Europe.
He lived a charmed life throughout the war, but by no means a safe one, and not unlike anyone who survived.
Lost many friends in the Dieppe raid and that's pretty much where his christening into battle began.
This is a best military history podcast WW2
7 Your favourite episode/subject
So far my favorite is episode 26 "The Zilken Letters" I immediately tried to find Wilf on Facebook after listening haha. Oh Dustin that’s so sad.
8 Any new ideas for the podcast. Anything I could do better? Anything else you want to add?
I love the podcast episodes and how well they are put together. I sometimes feel as if I am watching "band of brother, UK edition"! Good man Dustin. Funny but that was never my intenton but it does seem to have evolved that way. I think we’ve all gradually got invested in the various characters who’ve taken on the roles of an epic cast in their own right. So if you listener are one of those people who’ve only listened to the later set of episodes, you’re missing a treat in the earlier ones. Take a shufty at episode one and see what you think. I’ve actually been remastering some of the epsisodes recently and they’ve been relabelled V 2022 so I’d recommend anyone bingeing to double check the titles and download a fresh version. Not a lot has changed – it’s really about sound quality and music volume.
I'm enjoying yet another Fighting Through podcast and heard a reference to German submarines stealing ashore in the UK for fresh water.
I've attached a link to a little known occurrence over on this side of the pond that you may find interesting.
Weather Station Kurt (Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26) was an automatic weather station, erected by a German U-boat crew in northern Labrador, Dominion of Newfoundland, in October 1943. Installing the equipment for the station was the only known armed German military operation on land in North America during the Second World War. After the war it was forgotten until its rediscovery in 1977.
Weather Station Kurt
In the northern hemisphere, weather systems in temperate climates predominantly move from west to east. This gave the Allies an important advantage. The Allied network of weather stations in North America, Greenland, and Iceland allowed the Allies to make more accurate weather forecasts than the Germans. German meteorologists had weather reports sent by U-boats and weather ships, such as Lauenburg, operating in the North Atlantic. They also had reports from clandestine weather stations in remote parts of the Arctic and readings collected over the Atlantic by specially equipped weather aircraft. However, the ships and clandestine stations were easily captured by the Allies during the early part of the war. Data from aircraft was incomplete as they were limited in range and susceptible to Allied attack. Regular weather reporting by U-boats put them at risk as it broke radio silence, allowing the Allies to locate them and track their movements by radio triangulation.
Weather Station Kurt on display at the Canadian War Museum (2007)
Development and deployment
To gather more weather information, the Germans developed the Wetter-Funkgerät Land (WFL) automatic weather station. It was designed by Dr. Ernst Ploetze and Edwin Stoebe. Twenty-six were manufactured by Siemens. The WFL had an array of measuring instruments, a telemetry system and a 150 watt, Lorenz 150 FK-type transmitter. It consisted of ten cylindrical canisters, each 1 metre (3.3 ft) by c.47 cm diameter (1.5 metres (4.9 ft) circumference) and weighing around 100 kilograms (220 lb). One canister contained the instruments and was attached to a 10-metre (33 ft) antenna mast. A second, shorter mast carried an anemometer and wind vane. The other canisters contained the nickel-cadmium batteries that powered the system. The WFL would send weather readings every three hours during a two-minute transmission on 3940 kHz. The system could work for up to six months, depending on the number of battery canisters.
Fourteen stations were deployed in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions (Greenland, Bear Island, Spitsbergen, and Franz Josef Land) and five were placed around the Barents Sea. Two were intended for North America. One was deployed in 1943 by the German submarine U-537, but the submarine carrying the other, U-867, was sunk with depth charges in September 1944 northwest of Bergen, Norway, by a British air attack.
On September 18, 1943, U-537, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Peter Schrewe, departed from Kiel, Germany on her first combat patrol. She carried WFL-26, codenamed "Kurt", a meteorologist, Dr. Kurt Sommermeyer, and his assistant, Walter Hildebrant. En route, the U-boat was caught in a storm and a large breaker produced significant damage, including leaks in the hull and the loss of the submarine's quadruple anti-aircraft cannon, leaving it both unable to dive and defenceless against Allied aircraft.
On 22 October U-537 arrived at Martin Bay in Northern Labrador, at a position 60°5′0.2″N 64°22′50.8″WCoordinates: 60°5′0.2″N 64°22′50.8″W. This is close to Cape Chidley at the north-eastern tip of the Labrador Peninsula. Schrewe selected a site this far north as he believed this would minimize the risk of the station being discovered by Inuit people. Within an hour of dropping anchor, a scouting party had located a suitable site, and soon after Dr. Sommermeyer, his assistant, and ten sailors disembarked to install the station. Armed lookouts were posted on nearby high ground, and other crew members set to repair the submarine's storm damage.
For concealment, the station was camouflaged. Empty American cigarette packets were left around the site to deceive any Allied personnel that chanced upon it. One canister was marked and misspelled "Canadian Meteor Service",  in order to simulate “Canadian Weather Service”, as a German attempt to avoid suspicion if discovered. No such agency existed in Canada. In addition, the area was part of the Dominion of Newfoundland and was not part of Canada until 1949. The crew worked through the night to install Kurt and repair their U-boat. They finished just 28 hours after dropping anchor and, after confirming the station was working, U-537 departed. The weather station functioned for only a month before it permanently failed under mysterious circumstances, possibly because its radio transmissions were jammed. The U-boat undertook a combat patrol in the area of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, during which she survived three attacks by Canadian aircraft, but sank no ships. The submarine reached port at Lorient, France on December 8, after seventy days at sea. She was sunk with all hands eleven months later on November 11, 1944 by the submarine USS Flounder near the Dutch East Indies.
video icon The Nazi Weather Station in North America from YouTube channel Half as Interesting.
The station was forgotten until 1977 when Peter Johnson, a geomorphologist working on an unrelated project, stumbled upon the German weather station. He suspected it was a Canadian military installation, and named it "Martin Bay 7".
Around the same time, retired Siemens engineer Franz Selinger, who was writing a history of the company, went through Sommermeyer's papers and learned of the station's existence. He contacted Canadian Department of National Defence historian W.A.B. Douglas, who went to the site with a team in 1981 and found the station still there, although the canisters had been opened and components strewn about the site. Weather Station Kurt was brought to Ottawa and is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
With so much gloom around, I have to lighten things up a little. Now restrictions have been lifted, I’ve decided to go back to the gym. “They put a new machine in since I was there last, so I used it for an hour and felt really sick. It does everything, though — KitKats, Hershey Bars, Snickers, crisps ...”
A Moscow man buys a newspaper, looks at the front page and then throws it away. The same thing happens day after day. “What are you looking for?” the newspaper seller eventually asks. “Obituaries,” he replies. “But they aren’t on the front page,” the seller says. The man responds: “The one I’m looking for will be.”
You asked about Maisy Battery in Grandcamps-Maisy, about 1km inland and 1.5 miles from Pointe Du Hoc. I last visited it in 2019. The battery was completely buried shortly after the war and rediscovered and partly unearthed and restored by ex-pat Gary Stern and was opened to the public in 2006. It is run as a father and son operated battlefield site. The Stern family is still unearthing more of it from time to time. Originally Maisy comprised 2km of trenches and three batteries targeting Omaha Beach, causing grievous casualties on D-Day. I have visited Normandy numerous times and regard Maisy as a ‘must see’ on any Normandy battlefield tour. Stern would also make a good candidate for one of your podcasts!
Apologies for lateness to Lee Lidbury UK. This has been wallowing in my pending folder for far too long.
I purchased nearly the whole uniform Belonging to Captain L. W. R. Deacon. The grouping comprised of 5 Hats, his KD and normal Service Dress Uniform and his Battledress Uniform. The only thing missing was a Greatcoat.
How good is that?!
Having been on my wish list to find any Greatcoat to match the set, 3 Years after my original purchase, I found a Captain's Greatcoat To the R.A.S.C at a local car boot sale.
when I got it home
I found … Major L. W. R. Deacon faintly written on the liner - weird or what!!!!
Lee Lidbury, UK
Wow Lee thank you for that. What a great find. And the bloke had been promoted to Major!
Lee thanks so much, if you hear this, drop me a line if you have any sort of update on this soldier – I’d love to know if you’ve done any research on him.
After all that suspenseful build up I was sooo tempted to say it said M&S or Walmart on the lining but I think that might have dispelled the genuine mystique about the whole thing.
Funny though how you found the great coat at a place where they were selling car boots. Tyres maybe, batteries? But a coat? Maybe he used it for driving. But why isn’t it a car trunk sale anyway? Well that’s easy, Elephants have trunks!
Shut up Paul you’ve gone on long enough ….
Hi there Paul, I’m a fan of the podcast in Nanaimo Canada
I have just finished episode 80 about the Dutch Hunger Winter, love all the episodes especially ones with Wilf Shaw & your Dads account of the beaches at Dunkirk.
After listening to episode 1 I just had to rewatch Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk as soon as I got home….
A while back I was painting this lovely elderly lady Sandra Dall’s home. She asked where my accent was from.
I say Zim
She says wow far from home
I ask if she’s ever been to Africa she says no I’ve never left the country
I then ask when she was born
She replies 1939
I instantly asked if she remembered anything about Ww2
My Dad WAS IN THE WAR from start to end
How good is that I said to myself
She gave me my own photocopy of her dad’s memoir 😁
It’s about L-Cpl David Johnson Canadian Provost Corps
How do I share all of this with you?
We have the lords work to do mate !!
If you need any painting done on the island of Nanaimo, Don is your man with Pride Painting.
That’s my plug, not Don’s.
So if you want your painting done with aplomb, get on the phone and ring Desperate Don!
That’s also definitely my plug!
L-Cpl David Johnson Canadian Provost Corps
I REMEMBER June 1987
Now that I am approaching my seventy first birthday it seems proper that some of the circumstances which I witnessed during the World War of 1939 to 1945 should be recorded, first that Canadians may not forget that generation of young men who voluntarily left homes and jobs and loved ones that they might face the threat of Hitler's fascist hordes already on the march over Europe.
Soon, memories will fade and we who are left will be as pieces of driftwood upon the shores of time.
Those brave Canadians who did not return to their beloved Canada will have no testimony.
I make haste to point out that I escaped being wounded. I never merited any decoration or special mention and thus feel free to relate the following without any sense of having done anything noble. I was just there. I am glad I came back and give thanks to God in preserving me through it all.
Shortly after Hitler marched into Poland, Canada declared war on 10th September, 1939. After some heart searching, I remember leaving the British Columbia Police, where I was employed as a special Constable, and advising my wife that she and the two children would be looked after by the government while I went to war.
There were no recruiting offices opened in Vancouver so I found myself in the Vancouver Sun newspaper office where our picture, thirty of us, was taken for publication. Not long after at the Burrard Street Armouries I was examined and rejected on account of having asthma. With some medication and being otherwise healthy, I was examined again in Vancouver and on June the 24th 1940 (so not long after the Dunkirk evacuation) I became a member of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Next came the train ride to Calgary and Curry Barracks, where for nine months we underwent infantry training.
Then came a call for reinforcements for the Calgary Tanks and many of us responded. Another train trip took us to Camp Borden where we trained on two old obsolete World War 1 tanks - then embarkation leave and another train ride to Halifax to board the French liner Louis Pasteur.
It seemed as though there was one long mess line. It started for breakfast in the morning and was continuous until the evening meal. Down three decks in the bowels of the ship and assigned to hammocks in stifling heat as one tried to sleep, there came the dull thumps again and again of depth charges being lobbed at the Jerry subs. Several of us obtained permission to sleep on deck if we did not light up. I personally felt I would stand a better chance if a torpedo hit us than being down three decks.
In the morning, we could see the corvettes and a destroyer close by and, further on the horizon, American warships, which just happened to be going the same way as our convoy. (They had not yet officially entered the conflict). At last we landed in Greenock, Scotland and thousands of troops disembarked and thence by train to southern England. Then followed the monotony of training and [more] training on Salisbury Plains broken by a very rare leave to London for five days. At night we would lift the blacked out window curtains and look at the flashing of the Ack Ack guns as they fired away at German bombers. Sometimes we took the tube to our chosen destination and picked our way between the rows and rows of sleeping civilians who bedded down with their children [in the subway tunnels] night after night while London blazed and burned. Back with our outfit while on guard duty, there came the endless drone of thousand-bomber raids being sent out over the Channel to bomb Germany. On the second leave I’d had, for five days, upon returning I found our unit had moved and getting my bike I went to Portsmouth with several of #2 Provost Company, as we were told we would be going to Dieppe. Half #2 Field Provost had already gone over and many of my friends never returned.
I spent all day in the rain and cold directing traffic to the Port and then we were told the raid had failed and we would not be going over. One of my friends Doda, a Polish Canadian was found [dead], I was told later, with several Germans piled up in front of him. The secrecy had been so great that I was allowed to go on leave as a normal routine privilege, so missed the slaughter at Dieppe.
Our unit soon found out that the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada had gone into Sicily and we very much wanted to get into the action so we volunteered to re-join the infantry. Finally we were allowed to go but on condition we would be sent as movement control to 1st Canadian Div. #1 R.C.M.P. Company. In the days that followed we were sent to Aldershot and issued with Norton motorcycles to replace our Harley Davidsons. Later came a train ride and embarkation on an old Dutch ship, the Volendam. Blacked out, we approached Gibraltar - and across the waters we could see the lights twinkling across the Straights of Gibraltar, possibly Tangiers in North Africa. I remember well the slow trip across the Mediterranean in convoy, the heat and the very poor food on the mess deck and finally our arrival at the Port of Philippeville in North Africa. Our Tommy Guns were too hot from the sun to touch with the bare hand. The Arab urchins crowded around trying to buy anything for sale, a broken watch, an army knife etc. and finally we were transported to camp.
We drove past mountains of cases of canned goods and supplies stocked by the American forces.
A week later we had a day's leave and several of us took our bikes and spent the day in Constantine, which I recall as an amazing French city, with roads carved into the sides of a mountain with a deep ravine. Camels wended their way in caravans with Arab men escorting women clothed in their traditional black flowing robes and veiled faces but with their bare ankles displaying silver rings and jewels. Then came our time to move out from Philippeville after a week’s stay and we drove our bikes over shell-pocked roads to Bizerte where we boarded a Landing Craft Tank (L.T.C.) together with other troops and started for Italy.
An incident stands out in my memory. As we embarked we passed some cases of canned goods and somehow the boards of the cases came loose. I filled my saddle bags with several cans of loot and decided to find out later what I had liberated. On our way across the [operations centre] (O.C.), troops called on our Provost section to search the troop kit bags to find where the liberated cans of food had gone. I diligently went about the task in a friendly manner and confessed failure.
The soldiers well knew we had acquired the cans ourselves and kept quiet. At last we landed in Italy at Taranto and drove by bike to near the front at Campobasso. Later we billeted in a town called Castel Pignano. Some Canadian soldiers had been ambushed near a bridge the night before and it happened I was picked to stand guard the next night all alone with my tommy gun cocked and my back against a cement abutment as I listened for the slightest sound.
Not far from Castel Pignano the Jerries were lobbing in the odd 'Box Car' shell from a huge railway mounted gun and foolishly I went with some of my pals to see the anti-tank unit dug in on a hill which was being shelled. A year later, had it been so, I would have gone off in the other direction, if I did not need to be there.
Some Hasty Pees [a Canadian regiment] got drunk one night and fired their rifles for a bit. We were supposed to go out and calm them down but decided to let them alone. I spent the night on the floor as bullets whizzed around. In the morning, some came over to apologize which was unnecessary. We were all anxious to get into action now that we were there.
Our company moved to Cassa Calenda on a mountain top where we stayed for a month or so then one day we got orders to escort our Div. to the town of Termoli on the Adriatic. It was a cold wet ride and I was frozen to my bike when we arrived. The Indian Div. had a huge bonfire going and some of us thawed out in the intense heat. The mobile showers in Termoli were a treat and while inside getting my first shower in months, I heard some shelling and shrapnel fell on the roof. One of our corporals who had taken down his stripes in order to come with us from England had been on the road outside and got it. He was our first casualty and we missed him.
Our next task was to move up to the Sangro and escort troops over the swollen river - it had rained for days and the Bailey bridge had washed out. We never did any escorting but the engineers got the bridge going again and we went over. Some signals drove into a nearby field and got their truck blown up on a mine. All we saw was a cloud of black smoke.
I remember Christmas Day on the Moro River. We had dug in and as usual I dug an extra deep slit trench. All night, Christmas Eve, we were shelled by German 88's. There was a constant booming as though a drum had been struck and then the whine of the shell. In the morning I noticed all the olive trees around us had their bark stripped away by shrapnel but we had suffered no losses except some sleep.
A young Canadian was brought to us. He was dead and had had his throat cut with a shell fragment. Around his neck on his 'dog tag' was the Star of David. This Jewish boy was buried in my slit trench wrapped in an army blanket. The chaplain said a few words and that was all. Before he was buried his pal asked the chaplain if he could take his new boots which the Jewish lad had promised him. He got the nod and took the boots of his friend before we covered him over.
Jerry planes, the 109's strafed us continually, dropping anti-personnel bombs where we sat waiting to move up over the Moro. My school chum from high school days in North Vancouver B.C., Dave Moon, had just joined our section, E Section #1 R.C.M.P. Company and I was so glad to meet him. We arranged to have a game of chess on his pocket sized board he carried in his pocket. Dave was detailed to get traffic over a bridge just south of Ortona and a shell fragment got him in the lung I was told. He died a few days later. I was then detailed to take over the bridge and felt not the least bit happy about it. Underneath lay the bodies of two Italians caught by shell fire and their legs wee severed and piled alongside them. Some very brave soldiers, infantry of a unit I shall not identify came along and looked at them as they passed. They then said 'Corp would you mind if we searched them?'. I said, 'Go ahead'. They came up with a handful of lira notes and wiping the flesh off them they took the loot and went forward to the front.
It was towards late afternoon that Wally Williams our 'B' section sergeant drove up with our sixteen man section and said 'Dave when it gets dark come into Ortona and find us. We will get a house somewhere'. The Jerries began shelling again about an hour later but not near the bridge. Some time passed and then Wally came back with a few men on their bikes and with our section truck. The house they had taken had been hit and half our fellows killed. Later I recovered my kit bag from the truck and all was like puffed wheat where the shrapnel had torn into it.
It was not long after that we again left company headquarters and made our way to the south side of Ortona, where the Seaforth Highlanders were attempting to dislodge an 88 gun on the railway tracks inside the railway tunnel. Streams of civilians came back towards us and I remember one child being piggy backed on the back of a man. She had lost her foot.
Somehow an AMGOT (Allied Military Government) truck drove up loaded with green moulded bread which was eagerly clutched by the hungry civilians. Men grabbed loaves away from women and I brought my tommy gun up and forced them to hand them back. They then got into the truck and were driven away.
Frankly, my thoughts were that I was glad I had not remained in the infantry. The Seaforths fought hand to hand in Ortona. Had I remained in the Calgary Tanks I can look back and see I would not have survived. I met one of my Calgary Tank friends in Termoli before we moved up. This formerly fresh young farmer boy was now an old man. Nearly all the tanks had been wiped out and I found we had little to say to each other. The action he had seen had aged him beyond measure. I felt glad that not by choice, but by trying to get into action, I had not remained with the Calgary Tanks. I had transferred away from certain death though I had not realized it.
It was in January 1944 we finally moved into some caves north of Ortona. There was a horseshoe shaped valley and the road was filled with Teller mines which would be set off under the compacting weight of vehicles. The engineers had done a good job under fire, they worked under small arms fire, while clearing away most of the mines. The 'S' mines were a bother. They were planted in the verges (the roadside ditch) and the engineers swept the verges and placed the sign 'Verges swept' on the roadside with the maple leaf. The Germans had somehow duplicated our signs as they retreated. We then had to look for the sign to bear a black spot to be sure it was ours. We spent weeks above Ortona with tack brigade just over the hill, where the Jerries were about two thousand yards away. Canadian Mortar teams would set up by us and fire away and then pack up and leave for healthier locations. Only a short time later we would get shelled, sometimes with air bursts from which a slit trench gave little cover.
I recall L/Cpl Krasnuik was killed some time later and we had shared a cave together. Army photographers could not get past us because of the shelling so while they waited for it to stop they asked Krasnuik and me to pose for a picture of the two of us having a drink of tea.
It was the most nervous cup of tea I ever pretended to drink. [Pic in show notes.]
One night the 'limey' Five point fives set up in the valley about five hundred yards behind our caves. I had been sleeping in a little tent alongside the road in front of the caves which were stuffy. I remember each morning my pals would look over and say 'Hey Johnson' and good humouredly asked if I was still alive.
The nights I remember - when two of us would be on guard and for one hour each one stood guard while the other slept. Each sound seemed to be a Jerry paratrooper and Tommy gun in hand I would wait to be ready to challenge with the password which was changed each night. Sometimes 'Beaver' sometimes 'Maple leaf' etc. This password was for the infantry and all at the front in that location.
Finally we got word we were moving back and the Fifth Canadian division was relieving us. They came up and I helped escort their vehicles over the bridges. I warned a lieutenant to space the vehicles out as we were getting shelled. He replied he had ordered the men to do so but they wouldn’t keep to it. A few days later we were back at the front above Ortona as the Fifth Div had to withdraw for regrouping. They had not been prepared for what they met. Later they came back and we went south and over to the west side of Italy and escorted our Ist Canadian Division up the Liri valley. Then came our first leave.
We had five days rest in Rome and stayed quite a bit at the Beaver Club. I remember how some children set off a fire cracker in the street and three of us jumped to get under a truck for protection.
Before leaving this part of my memories I would like to mention what happened to the cans of food I had acquired on the dock before we started for Italy on the LTC. We had always been hungry since arriving in England and now in Italy the steady diet was M&V (canned meat and vegetable) and hard tack. We did have ample issues of bully beef and tried to find ways of eating it. Fried it was greasy. Eaten out of the can day after day it became revolting. Oh what a surprise when I opened one of the cans and found it contained canned chicken. Several of my friends and I shared this feast which was undoubtedly issue for American troops.
Listener for those of you who have forgotten or never heard the late veteran Wilf Shaw’s recipes for bully beef, here’s a short clip: – see ep 28 43.00
I would like to mention how when at Ortona I was detailed to go to a crossroads at Lanciano just inland. Taking my bike over a mud covered road I arrived with instructions not to allow any troops or vehicles down a road which was under very heavy shell fire. A dead mule which was rotting was the well-known sign post identifying this crossroads. Well, a short time later a convoy came up to me and I stopped it. The lieutenant in charge told me to step aside as he had to get up front. I refused and told him he couldn’t pass on orders from Div. Headquarters. Just then a voice sounded out loudly. 'Lieutenant you have heard the corporal do what he says. He is carrying out my orders'. The convoy turned back down another road and I looked to see a jeep and in it was I believe his name was Burns - Brigadier Burns. The rest of that day I felt quite important for a change.
We left Rome and started north. Our maps were marked with our route and destination which was Lake Trasimene south of Rimini. I was now with Fifth Division Provost Company as our section truck driver had failed to chlorinate the water and I was sent to hospital with severe vomiting, diarrhoea and fever. It meant a week in hospital, a week of convalescence and then assignment from the holding unit to a new outfit.
I remember a young man sleeping with us in a very large tent shooting himself. I awoke in the morning to hear he had died. Another man in the tent was frantic when he heard he was being assigned to Fifth Div. I was told I was assigned to Corps (the away back unit of supply which supports the fighting divisions). The sergeant major agreed to switch us and the young man stayed at corps and I was assigned to join Fifth Div, Provost as my outfit First Div. Provost had needed replacements at the time.
I remember while in hospital also that a nurse came by and cut my toe nails. The #10 hospital was close to the front and had been shelled a few times. I felt very embarrassed and protested I could cut my own but she replied 'You fellows are fighting for us. It is the least we can do for you.' I had not realised that it had been months since I have cut my toe nails or had had time to think of doing so.
I remember the Mepacrine to ward off malaria and the order to wear long K.D. (Khaki drill) when the sun went down. Then there was the mosquito nets which we carried in our saddle bags along with the mess tins and an extra clip for my Tommy gun.
Our next encounter with the fighting was on the Urso River near San Marino. This was south of Rimini. I was new to the section and when we were all together the section sergeant asked for volunteers to help lay tape to mark out lanes for the tanks where the engineers had swept. I never forgot the maxim not to volunteer but being new to the outfit I said count me in. There were wide grins of approval. I was then told they were just trying me out and that we were going to find a house for our section. Well we spotted a house without a roof (very few had roofs near the front). At the gate was a cart and, being battle wise, we didn’t move it in case it was booby trapped to blow up. Inside the house, which offered some shelter, we stepped cautiously and examined everything.
A wine barrel on the lower floor had a wire running from it. We contacted the signals who were nearby and warned them saying we would look for another place. Well, we later heard that a signal man ran a wire from the barrel and took shelter in a convenient slit trench. He had pulled the wire and he died. The slit trench blew up.
I remember a crossroads to which I was assigned. All around it was shell pocked. Not long after a shell landed right in front of me and I fell back into the ditch. I felt my arms and searched to find where I had been wounded. I was untouched. Then came the struggle. Was I to stay at the crossroads or move down the road a hundred feet or so. I was standing in a tangle of telephone wire. I was too ashamed to leave and too scared to stay.
A Limey convoy down the road had stopped and the men had taken to the ditches. It then moved up to me and an officer said 'Corporal we are going to set up in this field.' I said, 'Sir, they are shelling this road' and he replied he must set up his Recovery Unit anyway. He pointed out a tall poplar tree and said the engineers should have taken that out. They are using that for range finding to get this crossroads.
I am thankful that no more shelling occurred and soon after Captain Batty and his batman drove up in a jeep and told me I could come back to section headquarters. He then belatedly mentioned how he had been held down by shell fire the day before at that same place. I felt my wound dressing under my shoulder strap and thought that all through the thirteen months in action I had never had to use it.
At night I remember a crossroads where we took several hours duty at a time directing ambulances to and from the front and sometimes the odd infantry patrol would ask directions very quietly. Once I heard crunch, crunch across the road. I got down in the ditch though there was no sign that it had been swept. At last I couldn’t stand the fear anymore and taking my Tommy gun I charged across the road and prepared to fire on what I imagined was a German patrol. Oh how glad I was to see a bullock or a cow which was munching on some fodder. How it survived without being butchered I shall never know. I could have kissed it.
Back at section headquarters we always had a mouthful of Rum ration to help us sleep an hour or so. In the day I saw such bravery. From my vantage point on a crossroads I could see Canadian Engineers filling in a piece of road. They worked so hard shovelling and then there was a boom, boom and clouds of dust arose from shell fire just as they had gotten clear.
Time and again they ran for cover and time and again they returned to repair the damage. I then knew I had not even seen action. I just happened to be there with many others, so many others. I returned but [many] so many young men did not.
One day Captain Batty called me in and said ‘Johnson a compassionate leave has come through for you’. I told him I had applied for it in Canada years ago to settle my family affairs. I just couldn’t take it now we were in action. He told me if he had the chance he would take it. I asked for time and went to talk it over with fellows in my section. They all urged me to take the leave and gave me their addresses asking me to talk to their families when I got home. It later turned out I had no opportunity.
I cannot recall much of the return journey. I do remember boarding a ship at Naples and having my kit bag marked with an 'X' which I found out was because I was considered too thin to be sent straight home. I was not only well but very fit. I couldn’t understand it. Then came England and to a camp or barracks where we reported on parade once a day. We were fed milk shakes and an abundance of food though the war was not yet over and rationing was in force. I don’t recall the trip across the Atlantic but finally I arrived to be met in Vancouver by my mother and beloved sister Wendy. The B.C. Police had a job waiting for me but I was assigned to patrol Vancouver streets with 'zombies' who had declined to go over. I was also reduced to private with a subsequent loss of pay. This I was told until I had 'proved' myself. This was too much and I asked to get back to my outfit, now in Holland. I got as far as Halifax and was one day called in by a colonel. He asked two other men and myself where we thought we were going. We told him our story. He shouted at us in amazement. 'You fellows have done your bit'. 'You are going back to Vancouver'. A week later I was discharged. It was on June 12th 1945. A few days later I was engaged by the B.C. Police as a third class constable.
In conclusion I would like to mention several incidents which stand out in my memories. While being equipped at Avelino when I was sent back sick because of that polluted water I was put on night patrol of the town which was under curfew. No one was allowed to be on the streets or out of their houses after dark. Well a buddy and I were patrolling when I heard a noise in a dark alley. I called out in Italian 'Who is there'. I then heard a click of metal as the cocking of a gun. Should I fire with my Tommy gun or hold off? I didn’t want to get it after having gone through so much at the front. I held off and out of the shadows came a small eleven year old boy. Held in his hand was an army knife with the marlin spike opened. It turned out he was trying to get home and he called in Italian again and again something like 'piura, piura' which I understand meant afraid.
I had been saved the terrible memory of having killed a child who should not have been abroad during the curfew.
I remember on the Ortona front one of the new replacements to our section taking off when a shell hit a hay stack. He turned up at Div. headquarters and was not charged with desertion but was listed as 'battle fatigue' When ordered to return to the front he shot himself in the foot and was charged with S.I.F. (self-inflicted wound) We in our section didn’t condemn the poor fellow.
I recall how close our own section had become. It was a comradeship closer than any family tie yet strangely when one got killed we just carried on without any feeling of grief. I think we secretly thought – the next may be mine. There was no time to dwell on the loss of a pal.
I remember Montgomery's five hundred gun barrage from the Sangro River or at least behind Ortona. We above Ortona, in the caves, heard the shells rustling and whistling overhead.
We were in a sort of vacuum with the Jerry eighty-eights going well over us towards the twenty-five pounders of our Canadian artillery. Our shells went over the hill and presumably were landing where they were supposed to land. It was something to be ahead of such a barrage and to have safe shelter in the caves.
Through it all I can truly say Canada may never know fully how her sons fought on that little publicized front. The mud, the fleas, the cold and the summer heat. The hunger, and the laughs, the comradeship and the loss of friends.
I myself consider I was but a spectator. I was just there and never ever felt brave. I think my one thought was to somehow get through it all in one piece. On arriving in Canada I recall it seemed as a strange country. All seemed at peace and the houses all had roofs on them. Soon memories fade and that other life we lived overseas seemed as a dream not often recalled and something irrelevant to the task of getting a job and starting over again.
Lance Corporal David Johnson
Bn. – Battalion
B.N.A.F. – British North Africa Forces
#1 C.B.R.D. – (Possibly) Canadian Brigade Reinforcement Depot.
C.A.O. – Canadian Army Overseas
C.M.F. Central Mediterranean Forces.
First of all I’d like to say thanks to Don Cairo who made the effort to scan this memoir and to get it to me. Well done Don for having the presence of mind to enquire of the lady if she knew much about the war. Of course, thank you so much to the lady herself whose house you were painting, Sandra Dall. Sandra, that was your father and I’m sure you can be very proud of his service record and the fact that he made the effort to create such a precious historical treasure for his family.
Finally one unsung hero who deserves to be in the credits, Liz Nichols Secretarial Services, the lady who has typed up this and many other manuscripts for me, including Fred Reynard’s of Dunkirk and Gallipoli fame. If you need some typing done by remote connection you can drop her a voice recording or document for typing and she’ll get it back to you quicker than you can say Bully Beef.
She lives in Norfolk UK
Strangely I’ve never actually met her, yet I’ve been using her for several years now – ridiculous really – but that clearly says a lot for the quality of her service.
There’s a link to her in the show notes.
Thank you so very much for your support and for making the time to listen to me.
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I’m Paul Cheall
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