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."
So what we've got now isn't peace. It's a delusion of peace - a standoff. The big boys are getting ready for the next act. Yankee and Limey boffins are already crawling like lice over the wreckage of the Jerry war machine and presumably the Russkies are just as busy.
Churchill and Truman have decided the rest of the western Allies - all the little brothers - are to be denied access to advanced German military science. I've seen the orders. We are "forthwith" to turn over all innovative German weapons and tech gear to our Limey and Yankee colleagues; and all enemy experimental facilities, especially rocket or V-1 sites, are now strictly off limits to us.
On top of this, Supreme Allied HQ is now implementing something called Operation Eclipse. On the face of it this seems to be a program for collecting run-of-the-mill Jerry weapons and putting them out of reach of baddies. In fact, it is intended to ensure that all German war materials not in Russkie hands be collected and concentrated in secure dumps solely controlled by the U.S. and the Brits.
Michels believes this is all part of a concerted plan to keep the Yanks and the Brits dominant during the build-up to a showdown with the Russkies, which he believes (passionately) is what we face.
What's to be done? Michels says he won't stand by and see his nation turned into a patsy for either of the warring giants. He wants the smaller nations to band together as a sort of buffer block between the two Goliaths.
The upshot of all this is that I have revived my job as a Tech I.O. and am again busy as a little beaver collecting Jerry stuff, especially his newest and bestest. Only (and here's the twist), instead of sending it all back through "channels" to end up in an Eclipse dump, I bring it to an old Dutch army barracks at Ouderkerk recently abandoned by the Jerries and now in the hands of the Dutch Underground boyos. This is my (very) unofficial base. The NBS supplies me with accommodations and guards my collection. In exchange I collect two of every piece of Jerry weaponry and equipment I can lay hands on, and Michels gets the second one.
Officially I'm on detached duty from First Corps HQ at Hilversum, but they only see me when I need something I can't get from the NBS, such as a twelve-ton Mack breakdown truck with a crane on it, and 60-hundredweight lorries to transport my "finds." Three young lieutenants just arrived from Canada have attached themselves to me since nobody at Corps wants them, so I'm putting them to useful work. Whether what I'm doing is good for anybody else, I know it's good for me. My eye shineth again, and I am full of piss and vinegar as I organize and lead my crew on scrounging expeditions all over northern Europe.
June 15. In future you will kindly address me with all due deference as Officer Commanding, First Canadian War Museum Collection Team. A sonorous title, ain't it? Ought to be - I concocted it myself.
How it came about is quite a story. Last week I got back to our base with a truckload of purloined German radar equipment and found Lieut. Mike Donovan (an Irish boyo who has become my right-hand man) growling over an order instructing him and Lieuts. Jimmy Hood and Butch Schoone to report to Hilversum for duty with the Army of Occupation in Germany; and an order for me to return to the Intelligence Pool (unofficially called the cesspool) for reassignment.
Doc, my trusty batman, suggested we all go AWOL and head for Italy, but wiser heads prevailed. I drove up to the lions' den - Army HQ - where I had some quiet conversations with and delivered some magnums of vintage champagne to sympathizers who feel, as I do, that all staff officers and staff decisions should be consigned to hell. I told my friends as much as I felt they ought to know about my activities. They were sympathetic to my problem and supportive of my proposed solution.
My plan is to convince the Powers-that-be of a need to assemble a collection of the most fearsome German weapons and ship it to Canada's national war museum as a way of honouring the memory of our dead and to help keep the reputation of the peacetime army in good repute. I did not tell anyone that our real intention was to feed the latest Jerry military technology into the hands of our own research boffins.
Well, the Big Brass bought it. Donovan, Hood, Schoone, and I have been placed under the (purely) nominal command of Col. Harrison, boss of the army Historical Section. He is a good guy and au fait with our real purpose. He has made it clear that the less he hears from us, or about us, the better. "I'm sure you know your job better than I do," he told me pleasantly, and didn't even wink.
We have taken over the house once occupied by the Jerry commandant of the Ouderkerk barracks and are making ourselves comfortable for the duration. Equipped with letters of authorization from Col. Harrison bearing the Army HQ stamp, I requisition whatever I need from both army and civilian sources. I am also authorized to travel anywhere, to enter any German installations, and to remove whatever I may in my wisdom consider essential to the War Museum Collection.
We have been busy, busy, busy. Already we have about 200 tons of loot (pardon me, exhibits ), including a 30 cm (12") calibre siege gun, several panzer tanks and self-propelled guns, masses of radio equipment, and no inconsiderable collection of shells, bombs, flares, rockets and pyrotechnics with which we sometimes entertain ourselves and scare the bejesus out of our Dutch neighbours.
So here I sit, captain of my own ship, eating and drinking of the best with bon (occasionally bonne) companions. Tonight I go to a soirée at Tyce Michels's house in Amsterdam to celebrate the rebirth of the Dutch Armed Forces. I think I'll drive there in the Opal sedan that used to belong to the Jerry commandant of Amsterdam before Tyce took it away from him and gave it to me as a token of his appreciation.
But my life is not all beer and skittles.
I'm getting scared.
It is now the second month since the war ended, taking with it my excuse for carting around an empty skull. I should snap out of it, but I can't seem to snap. I can't seem to "rehabilitate."
I sit down to write, for I believe I can write. A para or two of reasonably good descriptive stuff comes out and I stare at it. But no more comes. No story comes. So what do I do? I rip the paper up and spend the rest of the afternoon or evening stripping down some piece of Germany military wizardry to see what makes it tick. It seems I'd rather dice with a deadly device that might blow up in my face than seek a sensible future. I seem to be trying to escape reality by an infatuation with mechanical toys - like a grown-up with an electric train set. There's no real satisfaction in it - just a way of passing the time away. It may be better than passing the bottle, but it leads nowhere. I even have to flog my interest to keep this war museum caper going and persuade myself I'm doing something worthwhile.
Where, for Christ's sake, is a real purpose ? Could it be learning how to properly become part and parcel of the animal kingdom - trying to learn the secrets of how they manage to make things tick without blowing the world to hell and gone. The devil of it is I've pretty well lost touch with them in the past four or five years, and I don't seem to know how to get back in touch again.
I wrote a poem after the Ortona show called The Fascination of Destruction. It was about the way we've turned ourselves into slaves of the Machine. How the Machine made slaves of us and maybe planted the seeds of our own destruction in us. Yet here I am, up to my ass in killer machines, trying to preserve them for posterity! What a laugh. Trying to preserve them so they can continue to blow us off the face of the planet is more like it. I must be nuts! But I'll be goddamned if I can get hold of anything else that really seems worthwhile, so I guess I'll just have to stick with what I've got until something else turns up. If it ever does. Meanwhile, as Mehitabel the cat used to say to Archie the cockroach:
"Wotthehell . . . wotthehell . . . wotthehell . . ."
To which, in his next letter to me, Angus replied:
"Purpose, my son, is everything. Should a man find himself without a useful enterprise and a clear objective he had better contrive them pronto, even if they are only temporary stopgaps. Inaction will cause him to sink into the slough of despond and vanish without a trace."
This was good advice and I took it.
July 15 Ouderkerk Col. Harrison just came over from London to see us. He was stunned when he saw the size of our collection and told me we would probably only be allowed to ship about a tenth of our stuff home and would have to dump the rest. He suggested we take a holiday.
The hell we will! I decided to raise the ante. When in doubt, go on the offensive! So we all fanned out on super-swanning expeditions.
I did one into the Russian zone. Doc and I drove there in my Jeep, Lulu Belle, hot on the trail of a top-secret, heat-seeking, experimental rocket the Jerries codenamed Rhineland.
The bridge over the River Elbe we had to use was a pontoon affair built by the Yanks who manned the checkpoint on our side. They were hesitant about letting us cross but the fistful of authorizations (some of them actually authentic) I produced finally cleared the way.
We were stopped on the other side by a clutch of business-like-looking Red Army types and escorted to a guard post, then to a regimental HQ, where a young chap who spoke a sort of English listened to my attempts to bluff our way on through and burst out laughing. When Doc whispered tensely, "What's up, boss?" I could only reply, "I don't think they buy it."
They didn't. But whatever they may have thought we were up to, they didn't hold it against us. Instead of being shot or sent to Siberia, we became the centrepieces of a party the like of which I cannot remember. The truth is I don't remember a damn thing after the first few rounds of toasts to Churchill, Stalin, mothers, wives, and girlfriends, until late next morning, when I was wakened by a kindly U.S. sergeant proffering a cup of coffee as I lay in a bunk in the Yankee guardhouse.
"Goddamn!" he said respectfully when I came to. "Musta been quite a party you guys had with Ivan. Dead to the world when they drove you back in your Jeep. They left a message for you."
It said,You good fellow come again.
Well, I don't know about that. . . .
My other lads had better luck, or different luck. Butch Schoone, who is German-speaking, and Jimmy Hood tracked down a factory in an old salt mine near Würzburg where V-1 "buzz bombs" had been manufactured. They are a bit vague about what followed, but they showed up in Ouderkerk a couple of days later with two V-1s on tractor-trailers. And - hear this - the second one was a piloted prototype for a new version of the flying bomb to be used in suicide missions against Allied shipping in the Channel. So far as we know it's the only one in existence. Hood and Schoone have become quite insufferable about it and Donovan was darkly swearing to cap their exploit.
Which he did.
Mike went off on a recce and was gone three days. Somewhere near Hamburg he happened on a railroad spur filled with flatcars laden with V-2s: forty-foot rockets with one-ton warheads whose like bombarded London during the closing weeks of the war. These were virgins, closely guarded by a company of Limeys who were not letting anybody come within shouting distance of the big, black monsters.
What followed would make a pretty thick book, but I'll cut it short. With the help of the Mack breakdown, a Jerry midget sub marine trailer, thirty litres of DeKuyper's gin, and his Irish gift-of-the-gab, Mike sprung a V-2 and brought it home to us.
We hauled the ugly beast into one of our big storage hangars then put all hands to work on it. When I inspected the result I found a rather peculiar-looking one-man Jerry "submarine." A wooden conning tower had been fitted amidships. The great rocket fins had been masked and a wooden propeller added. And the lads had painted the whole contraption a nice nautical shade of blue.
We are now waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Colonel Michels is very mad at me because I didn't get him a V-2 too. But it is obvious that this is the ultimate weapon of the future, and it is an offensive, not defensive weapon. In a sense the Brits and Yanks may have it right: the fewer powers to get their hands on these things, the better for the world.
I think it's time we moved out of Canadian Army territory, and I know which way to go. If you really have to hide, get as close to the hunter as you can. When I phoned Harrison's London office to tell them what was afoot, the staff captain there just gulped and said, "Tell us about it. When it's done."
I've certainly got myself a purpose now, if only to bring our collection home intact. With Harrison's help, we'll do it somehow. If we can arrange shipping. But if you've got enough nerve you can arrange just about anything in the current situation where the whole vast military organization is breaking down. B.B.B. - Bullshit Baffles Brains - is our modus operandi, and it works. Bamboozling the cement heads in authority is such a satisfaction.
There are other things that are making life worth living. Not least is the powerful affection I've developed for my lads. Not just Schoone, Hood, and Donovan, but all twenty of the best bloody rascals in the army, who now call themselves, with pride would you believe, Mowat's Private Army, and will tackle anything I think needs doing or getting. If I asked them for a German battleship, they'd try to get it. We may be the only unit left in the army that still has esprit de corps, even if (and maybe because) our "corps" is one we invented for ourselves.
Aug. 2 Oostmalle The Cdn War Mus Col Tm has now established itself in Belgium in the quiet little village of Oostmalle, fifteen miles northwest of the port of Antwerp, from which we hope someday to sail for home.
Col. Harrison came over from London again a couple of days after we arrived here. He seemed nervous and a little grim. Did we or did we not have a V-2? All hell had broken loose at Cdn Army HQ as a result of a blast from Supreme Allied HQ. The search was on for some unidentified Canadians who, presumably as a lark, had snatched a V-2 from the Brits.
Harrison surely guessed the worse, but what a guy! When I took him to view the collection, never letting on what was what, he stared at the "one-man sub" for quite a time, then smiled a little crookedly. "Fine specimen," he says. "Looks a bit odd, but I suppose it's an experimental job."
So nobody told any lies, but we will keep a low profile for a while. Meantime, the V-sub and the rest of our 700-ton collection (yup, 700 now) skulks in the wooded grounds of a big chateau behind a high stone wall guarded by my lads, who aren't about to let any strangers in.
As for me, I'm not unhappy. I feel like the captain of an independent tramp steamer with a sterling band of deck officers and an unbeatable if disreputable crew, the lot of them loyal to a fault. Tramp steamers mooch around the world picking up cargo wherever they can find it and taking it where it needs to go. They have purpose. And so, thank God, have we. At least for now.
Aug. 20 Live, laugh and be merry now that the age of the atomic bomb has come upon us! After hearing the news of the big blast in Japan my new plan for the future is simplicity itself. I shall skedaddle to a point in the middle of the Barren Grounds somewhere west of Churchill and start digging a hole. Meanwhile, I am in Belgium with enough war material to outfit an entire Wehrmacht division, while the search for the missing V-2 goes on. Little wonder the powers want it under wraps. Clearly it was designed to deliver the atomic bomb, and the Jerries had a new generation of rockets on the drawing boards capable of delivering the bomb a distance of four thousand miles. Little wonder that Donovan's peccadillo has raised such a ruckus in high places. A friend at Army tells me our V-2 is now thought to have been stolen by French operatives disguised in Canadian uniforms. Of course it was! I could have told them that!
Sept. 23 Oostmalle This letter may be premature but I'll take the chance. If the Gods of War are willing, and the fates smile, I ought to be on the high seas headed for Canada with my collection in a few weeks' time. And after five months of floundering around inside myself, the currents may have at last carried me close enough to shore so I can touch bottom and still keep my head above water. How's that for a contribution to the Department of Mixed-Up Metaphors?
As an indication of my current state of being I've finished the draft of a five-thousand-word story I've been thinking about for a couple of years and simply couldn't write. It isn't much good yet, but that's not the point. The point being that at long last I seem able to focus on something beside fun and games. So this is "ver goot!" as our Belgian town major likes to say.
Oct. 25 Antwerp After more ball-ups and shenanigans than you could believe, the First Can War Mus Col Tm is about to haul anchor and go to sea. I am writing this aboard the SS Blommersdiik , moored to a dock in Antwerp with orders to sail on October 28. With luck I should see Montreal two weeks from then.
Our departure from Oostmalle for the twenty-mile trip to the docks must have been one of the strangest convoys of all time.
It was led by Lulu Belle flying an enormous Canadian flag just in case the Belgians might think the Germans were returning. Sure looked that way! Swastikas were very much in evidence on most of the vehicles, which included seven Jerry tanks, one of them a Mark V Panther, and six self-propelled guns on tank chassis.
Lulu was followed by a fifteen-ton Jerry half-track mounting a four-barrelled Flakvierling (anti-aircraft gun) and towing a heavy artillery piece, which in turn was towing a huge trailer carrying our real one-man U-boat. The rest of the mile-long column included a rich mix of heavily loaded Canadian Army transport trucks and Germany Army vehicles, most of them towing trailers, and all of them groaning under guns, torpedoes, searchlights, buzz bombs, our V-2 sub, a Kreigsmarine torpedo boat, a couple of Luftwaffe fighters, an ME-103 jet engine, and miscellaneous items "too numerous to mention" as the auction posters say.
This, my friends, was Mowat's Private Army putting on a final show.
It almost seemed as if the Jerry vehicles knew it was the last-time trip for them. Jimmy Hood and Mike Donovan rode herd in an amphibious Wehrmacht Volkswagen, along with a couple of ex-Wehrmacht mechanics we sprung from a POW camp to keep the machinery running. The column clanked and clattered along at about five miles an hour, tying up all traffic in the northern part of Antwerp for three hours. The folk we encountered en route, whether military or civilian, must have had trouble believing their eyes. The Limey military police patrolling the city went quite insane. Nobody had told them what was coming and they were fairly gibbering with outrage.
The column wobbled on until it reached dockside. Then Mike gave the signal to halt and from every vehicle came a last salute of horns hooting, gas warning sirens wailing, guys drumming on empty jerry cans, signal flares and crackers being fired, and a ragged cheer from all hands.
It took two days to load and stow everything aboard ship. And no, I did not take the horse the pretty American nurse in Brussels wanted me to carry back to Montana for her. But I am taking Cpl. Roy Weatherdon and his dog, Spike, a hairy mongrel from Germany who has attached himself to us for rations. Spike plans to become an illegal immigrant to Canada.
We hope all goes well. Crossing the North Atlantic at the beginning of winter with a V-2 and a midget sub lashed on deck ought to be interesting. And, ah yes . . . the Limey embarkation officer wouldn't permit our collection of experimental artillery shells, rockets, naval mines, and aircraft bombs to be stowed in the holds. Claimed it might be dangerous. So the big wooden crates containing them are lashed onto the afterdeck all around the little cabin I now call home. Nobody aboard but me and Roy knows that some of the crates contain Jerry shells filled with the latest Nazi horrors in the way of nerve gas. I do hope they aren't going to leak. . . .