by Bruce Cherney
It’s hard to say why Fred Bender saved an issue of a newspaper from Cardiff, Wales, dating from the Second World War. His reason will remain a mystery since he is among the many veterans of the conflict who have recently died.
The edition of the South Wales Echo, Wednesday, October 13, 1943, doesn’t carry news of any specific Canadian action, but it does have some important news about the war.
Fred, a long-time Winnipeg resident, was featured in the November 5, 1999 Editor’s Comment of the WREN at a time when he had just begun relating his wartime experiences. Among veterans, this is more the rule than the exception. That school children today are hearing more about wartime experiences reflects the knowledge that those who fought for their country and are still alive today are nearing the end of their days. It is with this knowledge that 2005 was declared by the federal government to be the Year of the Veteran, a commemoration of the Canadians who took part in the war that ended 60 years ago.
At 20, the farm boy from Saskatchewan journeyed to Winnipeg to enlist. He was trained for the artillery, but when the Canadian forces in Europe began to suffer appalling casualties, he was handed a gun and told he was to become a foot soldier.
Combat, according to Fred, was not a time to think, the main objective being to “shoot, shoot, shoot” to survive.
The men he fought with were young and may have entertained thoughts of their invincibility, but war has a way of quickly reversing this opinion. For Fred, an early battlefield experience served as a reminder of one’s vulnerability. “We had just come up to a pill box in the Scheldt in Holland. There was a sniper in a church steeple pinning us down. The Germans dropped two eggs (88-millimetre shells) into us,” he related.
“A guy who had just come up was hit. We found his tunic hanging up in a tree. We picked his pieces up with a shovel and put them in a blanket and then we put the blanket and his pieces into a grave.
“It was terrible when you think about it. Our lieutenant was quiet for many days after.”
Fred’s war ended in the Hochwald area, which was heavily forested and protected the Rhine crossing into Germany at Wesel. The chaos of battle meant that Fred wasn’t sure where enemy fire was coming from. All he remembered was that bullets seemed to be coming from all directions at once.
When advancing up a hill, a German was shooting at rocks in front of Fred to send splinters off rocks as a type of deadly shrapnel. Fred was hit with a bullet in the chin, but thankfully its force had been mostly spent by first striking the earth in front of him. Until his death, Fred bore a scar on his chin from this bullet. Then he was hit in the left thigh. “It went right through my leg. There was black stuff all over.” The black stuff, Fred explained, was a combination of blood and lead from a pencil he had been carrying in his pant’s pocket.
Fred’s war was over — it was March 1945.
It was two years earlier that the Welsh newspaper had been collected by Fred. How had it survived? Had he sent it home to Saskatchewan and on his return to Canada retrieved it? Had he carried it in his kit across the battlefields of Europe? It’s quite possible he carried it with him, since the newspaper is folded into a compact bundle.
And, why this newspaper and not any others?
When his son Rick found the newspaper among the keepsakes tucked away in Fred’s Dominion Street home after his death, it came as surprise. He thought somehow it had to have been important to his father.
Perhaps it was because of the many advertisements for movies or dances on the back page. He may have had a good time at the Astaire Ballroom, “Dancing ... in comfort, style and luxury with Ivaugh Marsh and the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra,” or won a tango competition at Counnaught Rooms. He may have taken in The More the Merrier, starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn, at the Empire Theatre; or Johnny Weismuller in Tarzan Triumphs at the Coliseum.
But, as expected, the primary concern of the newspaper was the war. One of the front page articles marked a turning point for the Allies — Italy to Declare War To-day, it reads. Until the dictator Mussolini had been ousted, Italy had been allied with Germany and Japan. After Mussolini was deposed by the Fascist Grand Council, Italian General Pietro Badoglio was invited to form a new government on July 26, 1943. The general concluded an armistice with the Allies on September 3. The surrender came after Sicily was invaded and taken by the Allies and landings were made by British, American and Canadian forces on the Italian mainland.
The decision to join the Allies recognized the realities of the day — the Germans were in retreat on the Italian mainland, although far from beaten. The Germans turned mountains and river valleys into strong defensive positions which had to be taken by the Allies, resulting in massive casualties.
And, the days of Mussolini were far from over. Hitler had a special force liberate him from his imprisonment and he was set up as the puppet ruler of northern Italy at Salo with the Germans pulling his strings. Mussolini was nominally in control of the north until a year later when partisans killed him and hung his body up in a Milan square for public display.
“What forces a co-billigerent Italy might be able to send to war against Germany at present is obscure to all except the Allied High Command, but some see a hint in Mr. Churchill’s statement that the Italian fleet may fight under its own commanders on the side of the United Nations,” reported the Echo, quoting information obtained from the New York Times.
The 1st Canadian Division under General Guy Simonds, serving in British General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, came ashore at Reggio di Calabria on September 3. Eight days later, British and American forces landed at Salerno.
A headline in the Echo claimed that a battle to cross the Volturno River, just north of Naples, by the Americans and British was imminent. Artillery had already opened up on German positions in preparation for the Allied advance.
“On the right flank, where the Eighth Army has also increased its fire, the important railway junction at Vinchiatura is also threatened ... about seven miles north of the junction and (the) last mountain stronghold controlling the section of lateral road still in German hands — is doomed.”
By October 12, the Allies had established a fairly solid line across the Italian Peninsula from the Volturno to Termoli on the Adriatic coast. On the Adriatic side of Italy, the Canadians would take part in some of the most intense fighting of the Italian campaign, including the capture of Ortona in December 1943.
Further news outlined the Azores Pact.“The announcement that Portugal (previously neutral) has granted Britain anti-submarine bases in the Azores is a development not only of immense immediate advantage to the Allies but one which carries political and strategic implication of world-wide significance. Portugal is setting an example for other little nations, but the move has also set a legal precedent of considerable bearing on Britain’s alliances with Russia and Turkey.”
The same article indicated that Spain would also fight on the side of the Allies if Germany decided to invade the Iberian Peninsula as a result of the treaty with Portugal.
An editorial in the Echo said the importance of the treaty and naval and air bases in the Azores could not be overstated. “Not only should we be better for attacking these pests (U-boats), but we shall be able considerably to strengthen our escorts to shipping convoys.”
In Sweden (neutral throughout the war), the Echo said the “man-in-the-street considers that Hitler now counts for so little that a small neutral country that Portugal can openly defy him. Swedes are less impressed by the strategic importance of the move as it is generally thought here that the Battle of the Atlantic is already won.”
The Battle of the Atlantic involved the Allies combating German surface raiders, but the primary goal was to stop the submarine threat claiming Allied shipping. In the first years of the war, merchant marine vessels, so necessary for the feeding and armament of Britain as well as the Allied troops stationed on the island, were being sunk in great numbers.
By March 1943, the Royal Canadian Navy was given the responsibility for the North-West portion of the Atlantic. In that month, the German codes had been broken, a great advantage to Allies who could now zero in on the German U-boat wolf packs. By May 1943, Allied ships had sunk 41 submarines and further kills climbed as new technology and air cover was improved. By the end of the year, the Germans lost 287 submarines. Throughout 1942, only 85 U-boats had been sunk.
The year 1943 was pivotal for the Allied cause. Following the Allied victory and subsequent retreat from El Alamein by the German Afrika Corps in November 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized that the tide of war was about to turn and that the year 1943 would determine if an Allied victory was possible.
“Now is not the end,” said Churchill in a speech at Mansion House, London, on November 10, 1942. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Besides the invasions of Sicily and Italy, the Americans along with Australians and New Zealanders had started to push the Japanese back in the Solomons and New Guinea.
On August 15, 34,000 troops, including 5,300 Canadians, invaded the Japanese-held island of Kiska off Alaska in the Aleutians. Upon landing, the Americans and Canadians discovered that the Japanese had withdrawn on July 28, ending an immediate threat to the mainland of North America by the Japanese.
Fred’s copy of the Echo had the first reports of atrocities that followed the Japanese capture of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. Among the Allies at Hong Kong were two Canadian battalions of 1,975 men — the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. The Canadians lost 23 officers and 267 men were killed during the battle. Another 483 were wounded.
This was not the end of the survivors’ suffering, since they would endure years of brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese as slave labourers until their liberation in September 1945.
Bishop Cuthbart O’Gara told Reuters, as reported in the Echo, that he had seen “British officers and men bayoneted and was himself only saved at the last minute ... ‘When the British officers and men were bayoneted to death we thought our turn had come. Then a field radio nearby received a message and we were marched off to a garage.’”
The bishop spent seven months in an internment camp before he was released and returned to the U.S.
But, it was on the Russian front that the Germans were suffering their greatest defeats. At Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the most bloody single engagement in human history (as high as 1.2-million civilian and military casualties are estimated), resulted from the clash of the personalities of Hitler and Soviet dictator Stalin. Stalin could not allow the German capture of a city named after him and Hitler became obsessed that Stalin be humiliated by the German taking of the city.
In the end, the humiliation was Hitler’s. The German 6th Army under Field Marshall Friedrich von Paulus was surrounded by the Russians and forced to surrender on February 2, 1943.
Later, in the summer of 1943, Hitler tried to regain the offensive, calling for an attack on the Russian salient near Kursk. What transpired was the greatest tank battle of the Second World War and a disastrous defeat for the Germans. After the Battle of Kursk, the Germans were never able to recover and mount another offensive. The initiative on the Eastern Front was now fully on the side of the Soviets.
It was actually on the Russian front that the Germans were bled red, trying to stop the Soviet juggernaut..
In the Echo, the impending liberation of Kiev in Ukraine and Gomel in Belarus were headlined. “Fierce armoured battles in which the panzers are being badly mauled are being fought north and south of Kiev as the encircling Russian armies move round behind the city from their west bank bridgeheads.”
An Izvestia reporter said that: “For two years the Germans have been mercilessly killing off Kiev’s inhabitants. Gallows have been erected on the Bassarabka Square. Tens of thousands of graves testify to German bestiality. Kiev’s suburbs have been burnt to the ground.”
Of of the 1.1-million Canadians serving in the Second World War, 42,042 died and 54,414 were wounded. To put the contribution in perspective, the total population of Canada at the start of the war was just 11.5 million people.
Yet, Canada’s contribution and sacrifice of young men and women to the war effort in the name of preserving freedom has mostly been forgotten. Despite the occasional moment when former veterans like Fred open up, many are still uncomfortable with telling their stories. They saw too many of their comrades die before their eyes and the memories are still too painful to discuss.
It was perhaps knowing that he would eventually have to tell his story that Fred hung onto one wartime newspaper for so many years. But, that’s a guess. We’ll never know the significance of the South Wales Echo to the Canadian soldier wounded in battle while fighting for his country.