On November 11, we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who worked to preserve our freedom and way of life in our armed forces.
Everyone who contributed was a hero in a way, but of course, there are stories more compelling than others.
In any battle, events are often turned by the actions of individuals, often out of all proportion to their contribution. A charismatic leader can either push his men to great achievements or his death or injury can send a chill through the whole operation. Even a lowly soldier can turn things around.
There were many examples of this during the Canadian operations along the Adriatic Coast of Italy during the Autumn of 1944.
The Canadian front stretched from the coast inland as part of the over-all Eighth Army responsibilities. It was lousy tank country with the shore riven with irrigation ditches, streams and rivers. The land was rich black loam that acted as a sponge for the rain and the blood that flowed that fall and as ever, the Germans were dug in and ready.
The Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry were the first to test the Savio. On 20 October, two companies worked their way through the minefields along the banks of the river and splashed across the waist-high Savio. But by 17:00 hours, both companies of Pats had been decimated by the heavy fire that greeted them. In D Company, one platoon and part of another huddled below the far bank, unable to move further.
Meanwhile A company’s Major Ted Cutbill, cut off from headquarters because of a radio malfunction, took a head count and tallied only 16 men. The major led his men deep into enemy territory to scout their positions and he sent off Sgt. F.H. Sparrow to bring back reinforcements in order to retain the bridgehead over the Savio. A huge accomplishment given the size of his unit.
The Germans pounded the Patricia’s bridgehead on Saturday, October, 21 and counterattacked. The Canadians had been reinforced but only with a handful of men and a new radio Sgt. Sparrow volunteered to cross the river again and bring back the needed food and ammunition, for which he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. Sparrow brought back news of an impending Canadian attack with Seaforths and Loyal Edmonton regiment units.
It rained all day as ******Bogert’s battalions prepared for the attack. Unlike the Pats, the Seaforths and the Loyal Edmonton regiment had time to recce the river area and knew what to expect when they attacked. And they had support in the form of two medium and six field regiments of artillery, plus every mortar and machine gun in the Saskatoon Light Infantry. (Savio marked the first time ever this regiment fought together as a unit). At 19:55 hours, the bombardment began and half an hour later two companies of Seaforths and a third of Eddies crossed the Savio.
The Seaforths attacked on either side of Cutbill’s dug-in troops. Captain Don Duncan’s D Company on the left crossed the Savio in single file and scrambled up the far bank where they contacted the Pats. Some of the Seaforths, finding their weapons clogged with mud, traded with Cutbill’s men. At the same time, Captain Anthony Staples’ B Company took advantage of the steady rain and darkness and speed and manoeuvre to clear the Germans from a number of machine gun nests in the area. By dawn, B Company alone had rounded up 51 prisoners.
Meanwhile at the other end of the battle, the situation was less favorable. The Edmonton’s commander was Major Bill Longhurst who had devised the “mouseholing technique” for street fighting while in Ortona. Although seriously ill he insisted on leading his troops, but died early in the attack, riddled with bullets on the muddy bank of the Savio.
News of the commander’s death caused a drop in morale and the attack in the Eddies sector petered out. Some of Longhurst’s men were captured, others scattered, but company Sgt. Major W.G. Davies rounded up 10 survivors and dug in. As soon as Colonel Stone realized what had happened to his Regiment’s company, he forwarded another across the river. This turning point allowed the Eddies to establish a firm bridgehead and during the night, both battalions sent across their reserves.
Counter-attacks were not long in coming. As the Seaforth commander Budge Bell-Irving later said, “Getting there and staying there were two different problems.” The river meant all the heavy support equipment had to be left behind and even after a bridgehead was established the soggy ground did not make for easy transport.
Meanwhile German armor, supported by infantry, began pushing to drive the Canadians back across the Savio. Bell-Irving played his trump card, a newly created tank-hunting platoon of 16 soldiers equipped with four PIATs. While all battalions had tank-hunting platoons, they were typically defensive in nature. But Bell-Irving’s men went looking for trouble. Their tactics were simple: Hawkins anti-tank grenades were used to immobilize the tank, which was then knocked out with a PIAT, and the crew finally dispatched with Tommy guns.
At 2:30 hours, four Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns, and 30 infantry rumbled out of the gloom. The Seaforth tank-hunters were waiting for them. Sgt. K. P. Thompson carefully laid a string of Hawkins grenades across the road and deployed his two-man PIAT teams nearby.
The first victim was a German staff car which missed the grenades but was riddled with bullets, killing the two occupants. A self-propelled gun followed, hitting a grenade; a PIAT finished it off. Private James Tennant fired his PIAT “at such close range that either a piece of shrapnel or the ring from the bomb flew back into his eye.”
Next came a Panther; Private Ernest Alvia Smith hurried out to meet it. A former track star from New Westminster B.C., the stocky 30 year-old Smith was nick-named Smokey because of his speed. The night’s fighting earned him one of the highest military awards available, the Victoria Cross.
Smith ran into a field with a PIAT team. He left a single man and a PIAT there and crossed the road with his injured friend Tennant to fetch another PIAT. The two Seaforths just got into position when the Panther approached, its machine guns raking the roadside ditches. Tennant was hit and Smith jumped into the road in clear view of the firing tank. At a range of 30 feet, he fired his PIAT at the Panther. Ten Germans riding on the back of the 50 ton tank leaped off and charged Smith, who picked up his machine gun and cut down four of the enemy, forcing the rest to flee.
A second Panther and more infantry came at him, but Smith steadfastly stood over his wounded friend, calmly reloading his machine gun with magazines collected from the ditch. Time and again he drove back the enemy with hails of bullets. A third Panther came into action, this time forcing Smith to help Tennant to safety and medical aid. Smith then returned to his post to await further counter-attacks. He was the second New Westminster native to be awarded the VC. “I was scared the whole time,” he later reported, “who wouldn’t be?”
The morning brought a host of surprises, including the discovery and capture of a bogged-down Panther in a nearby ditch. German machine gunners who were on the riverbank behind Bell-Irving’s bridgehead came out of their posts in the morning for breakfast. Arriving where their kitchen had been with mess tins in hands, they were captured by the Canadians who had made the old German set up D Coy HQ. Amazingly, the Canadians caught 56 PWs in the line-up for chow. Another group were captured when the Canadians cut the communication telephone line down to the river; the Germans sent a repair crew who were promptly taken prisoner. Altogether, mopping up that morning was done without a shot fired and 150 Germans were sent to the Canadian rear.
By October 28, after more tough battles, the objective of Ronco was captured by the Canadians and other Allied troops. Just days later, however, the whole Italian campaign was “Dragooned” by the American plan to invade southern France. The loss of forces in Italy to this operation, coupled with the ongoing fighting in Northwest Europe took the edge off the forces in Italy. Although the Allies still had superior numbers, the loss of forces to the other fronts coupled with the lousy weather and the defensively oriented terrain meant future Italian operations would be seriously weakened. The Canadians for the most part were withdrawn and moved to another equally water-logged area.
Smokey Smith died at the age of 91 in 2005.
Here is the citation for his Victoria Cross award:
‘In Italy on the night of 21st-22nd October 1944, a Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were selected as the spearhead of the attack, and in weather most unfavourable to the operation they crossed the river and captured their objective in spite of strong opposition from the enemy.
Torrential rain had caused the Savio River to rise six feet in five hours, and as the soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies.
As the right forward company was consolidating its objective it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about thirty infantry and the situation appeared hopeless.
Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his P.I.A.T. (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank gun) Group of two men across an open field to a position from which the P.I.A.T. could best be employed. Leaving one man on the weapon, Private Smith crossed the road with a companion and obtained another P.I.A.T. Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine-guns along the line of the ditches. Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of thirty feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the P.I.A.T. and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation Private Smith moved out on the road and with his Tommy gun at point-blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith’s position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder.
One tank and both self-propelled guns had been destroyed by this time, but yet another tank swept the area with fire from a longer range. Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack.
No further immediate attack developed, and as a result the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River.
Thus, by the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.’