“Through the Gates of Hell and Back”

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

On Nov. 11th it is once again time to remember and to honour those who served, those who fought and those who gave their lives. My late father John O’Brien (injured in the battle of Ortona) was a survivor of World War 11. My three brothers (through their insistence) wanted to learn more about his war years, so he penned his memoirs and all of his ten children are glad that he did so. Reading his notes seemed to bring him much closer to us, even in death.

My dad was born in Halifax and grew up on Lower Water Street, ‘The Avenue’, as he liked to call it. It was the toughest part of town and you had to be tough to survive. Dad belonged to the West Nova Scotia Regiment, 3rd Brigade, First Canadian Division during the Sicily and Italy Campaign. He tells his story of one man’s trip to and through the gates of hell and back again.

He relates:

Our ship moved out to sea, behind the main convoy that carried our Regiment and others of the First Canadian Division. On the third day out the loud speaker announced we were on our way to attack Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. The activities on ship increased, weapons were cleaned and inspected, malaria tablets were issued and oil of citronella given out, as well as clothing for the hot climate.

The main assault took place July 10, 1943- we were only a day behind schedule. As we approached Sicily, the evening was magnificent, sunbeams streaming through the clouds had ‘chained them to the sea!’ The sunset was most beautiful and as we proceeded closer the far horizon began to fill with colours, the colours of war. The ACK-ACK shells and tracers, the product of massive weapons aimed at the shore, filled the horizon.

On day two, we descended rope ladders to the boats that took us to the Sicilian beaches. The shores were loaded with supplies for three hundred yards: oil, gas rations and hundreds of men. We were ushered to the left of this depot about five hundred yards into a cactus patch.

Shortly, we had to work unloading the ships involving large containers of petrol. Already, thousands of barrels were on the beach, with thousands more to come. We boarded a truck of sorts, which proceeded from the land right into the water where it became a motorboat. This was our first introduction to DUCKS.

Those DUCKS were in operation on that day and served to unload the men from the ships and convey them inland. Each held about twelve men. When fully loaded they were dangerous in rough water. Several had already over-turned pinning the men below, drowning several of them. Of course, this was only discovered later when some of the men refused to embark on them.

This one particular DUCK, filled with troops headed about five hundred yards inland, when in the distance, planes appeared to the rear of the vehicle. One man had the guts, amid jeers of his buddies, to jump off and get some distance between him and the road, when the planes were first spotted. He wound up the only survivor as the planes were hostile and plastered the vehicle with bullets; every one of these men perished, save for him. To stand alone is indeed a difficult task, but what if you are right!

About a thousand yards from the assault site, an English soldier, walking along the beach entered a minefield. He was not aware of this until his leg was blown off, and was bleeding badly. He kept would-be rescuers away by shouting he was in a minefield. He eventually died. Sappers removed the body later, but for his having saved the lives of his comrades in blocking the rescue attempt, he was recommended for a citation, posthumously.

My dad’s memoirs were of such interest that they were published by New World Publishing. The title of his book “Through the Gates of Hell and Back”, (the private war of a footslogger from ‘The Avenue’).

Here is a few selected inserts from his memoirs:

Sicily

Page 54. The Gerries pulled out of Regalbuto and the next objective was Adreno directly in front and to the east of the Regiment. It was the main road below Mount Etna leading to Bronte in the North.

The Regiment advanced. The transport pulled into an orchard and we dug small slit trenches to bed down for the night. I was abruptly awakened to find the treads of a tank lined up with my trench (only two feet deep); that was the fastest I ever moved in my life. A tank corporal had selected the same orchard to spend the night. Everywhere there were shouts and confusion, as many were as rudely awakened as me. Fortunately there were no casualties. The tank commander extended his apologies and rumbled off elsewhere to bed down for the night.

Page 56. The Regiment passed on and our objective was reached, consolidating our position; the rifle company in front, while we brought up the rear. Sirens suddenly began to blare, becoming louder and louder. Due to an echo from the hills behind us, I thought a general was coming up the road, complete with a motorcycle escort. I said to the guys, “What’s that nut coming up here for, making all that racket, doesn’t he know there are German soldiers only a few hundred yards up front?”

The sirens blared even louder than before, so much so that was all one could hear. It was like being in a room, with the windows and doors closed shut with a siren screaming. Then I realized there was no general, amid the explosions followed by more explosions in ever increasing numbers. We were being introduced to the “Moaning Minnies” or ‘Sobbing Sisters’ (as we called them), weapons of terror utilized by the Wehrmacht – truly one hell of a demoralizing instrument of war!

Italy

Page 66. Two days later we moved off again, this time in transports; we disembarked in a forest to spend the night. It rained cats and dogs, our fires couldn’t be kept going and a dismal night was spent by all.

Lee, one of the Bren-gunners and myself had become buddies. As we couldn’t lie down (we were on the side of a hill) in our gas-capes, the water pouring down the side of this hill in rivers, so we decided to sit on our packs, back to back, supporting one another. After a time we became quite comfortable, in fact, so cozy and sleepy that I leaned forward to lie down, amid the water running by in little streams. I had forgotten about Lee, whom I was half-supporting, he lost his balance and fell over backwards, rolling down the incline, churning up water and mud in his descent. When he finally stopped his downward trend he looked like a mud-ball. Woah! I hid in various places, moving from smoldering campfire to smoldering campfire among the guys covered with their gas-capes. He kept calling, “Shorty, Shorty”. Boy was he angry! He had even fixed his bayonet on his rifle, whether he would use it or not, I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

Page 72. Blay White was one of our stretcher bearers, one of the very best and he proved it in the upcoming battles. These men, who wore the Red Cross on their arm and never carried a weapon, were indeed the unsung heroes of battles. In the midst of shrapnel and bullets, they went about aiding and patching up the wounded, evacuating them to safety on their stretchers. During every action, day or night, under any and all circumstances the cry “stretcher-bearer!” brought them running. It took a special kind of man to do this kind of mercy work.

Page 76. While resting in the little town of Lucera, Laurie Garnier, a friend from home, came over one night and we listened to the news from England. While discussing home and other such topics, we looked to the east, towards the Adriatic side of Italy, where we noticed the sky was aglow with tracers and flashes; this was just at dusk. We knew someone was being bombed on the coast. We learned later that seventeen of our ships had been sunk, including a supply ship that carried all of the equipment for one of our field hospitals (the 14th Canadian General Field Hospital). Among the ships sunk, was one carrying mustard gas – just in case, we were later informed! Three hundred patients had been swimming in this gas and all but sixty died before the authorities informed the hospital what they were dealing with. Several months later I had an occasion to be a patient at the Bari Hospital and there were still patients there who were in poor condition from this gas.

Page 89.

We set out on foot and for several miles I actually slept (and snored) while walking. The boys told me this later and commented that I didn’t even miss a step. The efforts of yesterday, the night and the wine that morning must have accounted for this unusual behavior. We reached our objective and dug in – we were a weary lot, two attacks in four days against a well-positioned enemy. From our vantage point we could hear the enemy on the right side of our hill with their mobile guns and a tiger tank; to the right of these hills lay the town of Gildone. We faced the town and the road that curved below us. There was a bend in this road that had to be traversed, but anything around that bend could be seen to the left and/or above the hill, including by the Krauts, who had the bend covered by their tanks. We learned that just before our arrival, an English tank had been knocked out, severing the head of the tank commander. Apparently, anything coming around that corner would be knocked out by the 88’s of the tiger tanks that were in place on the other side of our position. This particular tank officer had been warned of the situation before he stuck his tank and his head out; but his only reply was, “that what I’m here for, to get those bastards”. It is unnecessary to say who got whom.

Back and to the left of this bend was a terraced, snaking highway, that reminded one of the Burma Road, which led to our position. Looking down upon this scene, we saw a jeep coming up ‘like a bat out of hell’, twisting and turning, following the road’s contours- with shells bursting around it; first in back , then to its side and then in front of it. This was the way it was until the vehicle finally reached us.

It was Lance-Jack LeBlanc, bringing our compo-rations; from that point forward he would be known only as the Crazy Frenchman. There was no guy who received quicker promotions in the Canadian Army than him. In a few short months he had progressed from lance corporal to sergeant, but this was understandable – we were the best-fed regiment in the Division. He would find us anytime and under any conditions; through the worst terrain, through enemy patrols and through the worst kind of weather; he would show up either in his jeep or with his mules.

Page 90. There was another incident that happened before Campobasso – either at Gambalsea or Jelsi- that may be of interest. It certainly made the 1st. Division very agitated. The Germans were employing their slash, burn and retreat tactics- they seemed to revel in such rear-guard action, even to the point of dressing in women’s clothes to lay mines to disguise their intent if observed from a distance.

Private Smith (Smitty) a Regimental Signaler was with a section (about ten men) that was trapped below a road covered by fixed lines – machine-guns that at intervals would lay down a curtain of fire engulfing large areas of the road. To make the problem worse, barbed wire prevented access to this road.

At their backs, a slope descended to a valley below, some six hundred to a thousand yards. As they hunkered down in this precarious spot, lined parallel to the road, one of the men at the end was hit. Immediately the sergeant made everyone face the valley and try to detect where the fire was coming from. It was not successful as the next guy in the line was hit in the arm and then shot in the head; now the rest knew they were in big trouble. This sniper was not satisfied with wounding, but was intent on killing! The sergeant then directed fire to the most likely area that the deadly fire was coming from, as they could neither see smoke nor flame. This killer was taking his time and making sure. As Smitty told this story, all were dead thus far in the line; he was next. He managed to cut the wire and they scrambled to safety on the other side of the road, totally ignoring the machine guns that were peppering the road. Seven men dead out of the ten!

The word spread throughout the Division about this atrocity and extra efforts were put forth to find this sniper but no luck. Later, it was found that about six hundred yards below this graveyard of seven, was a clump of trees, where a jacket was found that had a two inch hole in it with powder burns all around the opening. Apparently this sniper had this jacket propped in front of him, in the direction of the slope pointed towards that particular section of the road and fired at his victims through the hole in the jacket, thus no smoke or flash. Imagine if you can, the anguish of those men in line, when that particular weapon cracked its deathly sound. That was one soldier who would certainly have been skinned alive if we could have found him.