One Experience of War

Posted By October 19, 2000 No Comments

This column was submitted to the Ottawa Citizen, and was published on November 10th. Dick Field is now in his 76th year and of all his wartime recollections, this is the one that was the hardest to recall.

The youngest of Canada’s Second World War veterans are now past 75. Except for a few vets from Korea or the former Yugoslavian “peacekeeping” missions, few Canadians understand war. One vet is a friend of mine, and recently he told me there was only one time he cried during the War.

Dick Field was a 19 year old from Toronto when he joined the 4th Field Artillery, then resting in Antwerp in September 1944. The regiment (chronicled in George Blackburn’s magnificent trilogy) was part of the Second Canadian Division – veterans of Dieppe and the savage weeks that followed D-Day. Two operations of almost similar magnitude awaited it: The slog in the flooded Scheldt Estuary in the autumn of 1944, and the February-March offensive to clear the Rhineland.

Dick survived these and the Liberation of Holland as a signaller and often was with a forward observation officer – those who stay with the infantry to summon and direct artillery fire. He was a tough and practical kid. He was smart enough to find out how to stay alive, and hardened enough to impassively watch the trapped crew of a Sherman tank burn alive… and calmly watch the German who doomed them with a panzerfaust rocket get cut down as he tried to surrender a second later.

The German Army in the Rhineland in February 1945 was the last large one Hitler had in the West, and the last chance he had of keeping the Allies out of Germany. However, the spring thaw came early and flooding stalled the US contribution to the offensive. The British and Canadians of the 1st Canadian Army then advanced down a narrow muddy front, and the Germans moved their reserves to meet them. The fighting was brutal and lasted for weeks.

In the second and third week of the Rhineland offensive, three Canadian Divisions took the lead against Germany’s paratroopers and panzers. The Canadians made slow progress while both sides took very heavy losses. On February 21st, the Canadians halted while British troops passed through them to continue the attack.

The 4th Field Artillery was deployed in a field near Goch, and Dick was among the gunners relaxing in nearby houses. This was a chance for a dry sleeping place and to write letters. Late that afternoon, trucks from a Canadian infantry battalion (the Canadian Scottish) pulled up, and their drivers laid out soldiers’ packs in the road — in four neat blocks of 120 for the battalion’s four rifle companies. These contained clean clothing and personal effects, each stenciled with the name and number of its owner.

Nearby, there was a POW cage, and a temporary Canadian cemetery – both starting to fill up. Bandsmen from the Canadian Scottish were also forming up with their instruments.

War is noisy. Always, there is the sound of small arms fire. Always, there is the sound of guns firing, shells passing overhead and then exploding. These become a background that soldiers tune out until it becomes personal. However, the troops in the village also soon heard the sound of a lone piper, and then from the next road they heard another.

Soon Canadian troops came lurching up the road in the dusk – dirty and tired as only infantry can be, a state those who have never soldiered cannot imagine. These were men drained by constant tension, who went days with no sleep beyond an hour or so in a muddy hole while daily attacking a dangerous and active enemy.

As the Canadian Scottish heard their band join the pipers, they instantly moved from a tired shuffle and fell into step — marching like proud guardsmen into the village. Dick and the other gunners marched alongside them, in a spontaneous gesture of solidarity and respect. Then they stood to one side, as the infantry were quietly addressed by their CO and dismissed to rest.

Each soldier sought out his pack and gunners escorted him to a dry place in a nearby house. It was over quickly. Of the 120 for “A” Company, only 12 were taken: from the block of 120 for “B” Company, only 26. The other companies did not fare much better.

Some gunners stood and stared at the blocks of packs, with only a few empty spaces where the survivors had taken their gear. Four hundred packs abandoned in the new moonlight stood as mute substitutes for their dead or wounded owners.

Dick told me he only cried once during the War.