CHAPTER 12: Mowat's Private Army
In the thunderous dawn of July 10, my platoon and I waded ashore to face our baptism of fire on the saffron sands of Sicily. The assault upon Hitler's and Mussolini's Fortress Europe had begun.
I remained in nominal command of Seven Platoon until our capture of the mountain fastness of Assoro in central Sicily. During this campaign the man who had replaced me as regimental Intelligence Officer was killed and I found myself back in my old role.
I held the job of I.O. until the end of 1943 when I was seconded ("kicked upstairs") to HQ First Canadian Infantry Brigade, of which the Hasty P was an integral part. Eventually I was promoted to the rank of captain and became Brigade I.O.
On March 9, 1945, after twenty months' service in Italy, I found myself aboard an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) bound from Leghorn for Marseilles. The vessel's engine kept breaking down so we made a slow passage, which gave me time to bring my journal up to date.
. . . This morning we could still see the grey loom of the Ligurian alps astern. Watching them slowly diminish, many things came to mind. I thought of the burning beaches of Sicily we stormed in July of 1943, and of the high mood of exaltation that was on us during our first action. We thought we would live for ever. I did, anyway, until I saw Sergeant-Major Nuttley lying in the foaming wavelets, unable to speak because he had been shot through the throat and was already as good as dead.
. . . Our first winter in Italy, and the darkening mood as casualties increased. The bloodbaths at the Moro River and Ortona, our rifle companies reduced to platoon strength, and Alex Campbell sprawled in a shell-shredded vineyard, weltering in his own heart's gore.
. . . The spring of '44, when even the war-torn Italian fields seemed to sprout new life, while our forgotten little army grew thin and tattered and shrank into itself. Reinforcements did not come and we railed against the Judas politicians who had sent us here, then abandoned us.
. . . The May day shortly after my twenty-third birthday when we broke through the "impregnable" Hitler Line to liberate Rome. Followed all too soon by the bleak winter wallowing in the mud and blood of the Lamone and the Montone River holocausts.
. . . The Tri- wound scheme: if you'd been wounded in action three times you could apply for home leave, but probably would not get it. You could not be spared because the conscripts in Canada were rioting against being sent to Italy, where we were fighting our all-but-forgotten war.
. . . Well, arrivederci to all that. It's spring again and we are bound for the Low Countries, where schnapps flows, the sun shines, and the war correspondents smell victory in the wind.
Landing at Marseilles, we put our vehicles ashore, climbed into them, and set off to join the rest of the Canadian Army in Holland, where I was given a new job, evaluating and assessing German weaponry. Then, in mid-April I was assigned to liaison duties with the NBS (the Dutch underground) in German-occupied Amsterdam. Working and living behind the German lines provided some exciting moments until May 7 when, just five days before I turned twenty-four, the German army in Holland surrendered.
For us Canadians the shooting war was over and we were at loose ends. I did not remain so for long, as these excerpts from letters home attest.
June 2 Ouderkerk [near Amsterdam]/b>
I've gone back to work. In effect I've made myself a new job because the army had absolutely nothing interesting to offer, but I owe the idea to Colonel Michels, chief of staff of the Dutch underground. He and I have had some interesting discussions about the future, and we agree there is no way Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam are going to stay pals. Michels believes the big boys will be toe-to-toe in short order and he's afraid all us little countries will get squeezed to death between them. I talked to a senior US officer in Antwerp not long ago who told me: "We are going to pulverize Ivan and anything and everything that gets in our way."