First-hand account from the Canadian attack on the Hitler Line on May 23, 1944 by Seaforth Highlanders officer Major L.M. McBride from Nelson, British Columbia

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Note from editor Sam McBride: The following report was written by my father Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) in response to a request in 1968 by Professor Reginald Roy of the University of Victoria who was producing a regimental history of the Vancouver-based Seaforth Highlanders of Canada regiment.  Parts of this report were quoted in the regimental history, and later also in the Mark Zuehlke book “The Liri Valley – Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome.”  Leigh lost his left eye in the action he describes, and spent several months in German hospitals and prison camps before repatriation in early 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  While in a POW camp, he learned from letters from his parents that his brother and fellow Seaforth officer, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, was killed by a road mine explosion near Rimini, Italy on September 16, 1944.

 

By Leigh Morgan McBride

The morning of May 23rd, 1944 in the Cassino area was very foggy – the heaviest fog I remember seeing in Italy.  Originally Major E.D. (Davie) Fulton* was to be in command of “D” Company of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada but he and C.Q.M.S. Staines were involved in a highway accident and if I remember correctly, Davie either broke a leg or sustained other injuries which sent him to hospital.  In any event, as a result of the accident I was in command of “D” Company when it participated in the attack on the Hitler Line.

The start line was at the edge of the woods – we were the forward company on the right and the “A” Company under Major J.F. McLean D.S.O. was the other forward company on our left.  There had been sporadic shelling of our battalion area for the previous few days.  However, as soon as we got under way from our start line and into the wood we immediately came under heavy fire, both machine gun and artillery, and our casualties were heavy.

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Major L.M. McBride c. 1942

Our squadron of the North Irish Horse (note in pen on carbon copy: our supporting tanks) had been warned to beware of any enemy hiding up the trees.  As our tanks lumbered forward over the uneven ground the range of fire of the machine guns would suddenly lower hundreds of yards and our company would be the recipient rather than tree-borne Germans.  The visibility that morning was virtually nil with the heavy fog or mist plus the smoke from shells and mortar bombs and right from the outset we had difficulty with our radio communications.  We tried about three times to get the machine gun fire from our tanks stopped but with little success and this, coupled with the heavy fog resulted in Dog company being scattered from “hell to breakfast”.

The different units all seemed to get completely broken up into small groups sometimes with other companies or even with the Pats who had started on our right flank.  Taking the small group of company headquarters that was still intact I started to pick my way very carefully through enemy wire trying to make sure that I just stepped on hard ground which had not been disturbed and as I moved through the wire my runner Johnson was stepping right in my footsteps.

Seaforth_crest_in_colour_from_decal[1]Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and I woke up on the ground back in front of the wire but Johnson had been killed instantly as had Warner the older of the two signallers.  The younger radio operator had a bad gash on his cheek and I helped him over to a nearby ditch that would give him some cover until he got proper medical attention and patched him up temporarily with a field dressing.  That eliminated all of company headquarters except myself, and trying to locate the three platoons I came across a private from the Pats and we went on together through the fields of hay or some type of crop which was almost waist-high.  Suddenly, we came under machine gun fire and hit the dirt.  Every time we moved in the deep hay it of course showed up and we got another blast for our trouble.

By then we realized that the heavy firing we heard was between us and the woods and that it was either Jerry tanks or 88s dug in so as to be almost invisible until you stumbled over them.  The only thing to do was hope that our own tanks would be able to help, but we did not know at that time what a terrific pasting our tanks had taken from the dug-in tanks and 88s.

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McBride in Italy. c. 1943

I am not sure what happened next – whether we were on the receiving end of a shell or mortar bomb but whatever it was hit me in the left eye and when I more or less came to it was to find several Germans looking down at me.  They put a bandage on my eye and when it started to get dark they put me in an ambulance and we no sooner got under way when a large shell went off beneath the vehicle, and some unfortunate Jerry who had a bunk below me in the ambulance got almost the full brunt of the explosion.  I don’t know how badly he was hurt but it sounded pretty grim.  I got shrapnel in my left shoulder and left leg but none of it too serious.  After that I have a recollection of a very bright light in an operating room which must have been in Rome as my German records show an operation taking place there.  The next thing I remembered was waking up in a German Red Cross train somewhere near Verona in northern Italy.

I felt before the attack on the Hitler Line that 2nd brigade would have had a much better plan exploiting the penetration on the left flank which had been breached by 1st brigade.  Even if we attacked where we did, I am sure it would have been less costly  to the battalion had we attacked several days earlier, however, perhaps there was some perfectly valid reason for the delay which would be apparent at higher levels.

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McBride (right) with fellow Seaforth officer Borden Cameron during the 30th anniversary reunion in April 1975 in Italy

Our front was so narrow that it left no alternative than a direct frontal assault.  The hay or alfalfa completely hid the enemy and yet they still had an excellent unobstructed field of fire at our infantry and the North Irish Horse tanks.  We had tremendous artillery support that morning but much of its effect was wasted because the enemy were dug in so well and because the visibility was so poor because of the very heavy ground mist or fog that hung over the ground.  In Sicily and the month-long battle of the Moro River crossing and Ortona we never operated under such chaotic conditions as we encountered in the Hitler Line.  “D” Company got completely scattered going through the wood and because of the heavy small arms fire and shelling and the fog it remained broken up in small groups.

I have read with interest the chapter on winter patrols northwest of Ortona.  After reading of Keats, Shelley, Byron et al wintering in sunny Italy it was a rude shock to encounter the winter of 1943-44.  Although we were virtually at sea level the weather was terribly cold for days on end and then it would be followed by heavy and constant rainfalls and everything turned into a sea of mud.  I think you described it very graphically when you described Lt. Gildersleeve’s boots.  Incidentally, I think the functioning wireless set mentioned in footnote 48 on page 408 very likely was that belonging to “D” Company as the one signaller was killed and the second wounded when we were in the middle of the wire.

I am sending your material (maps, war diary excerpts, etc) under separate cover and apologize for the delay I writing but we recently moved our offices and everything has been somewhat disorganized since last fall.  Very best wishes to you in your project.

Everything in chapter IX seemed correct and the only error I could spot was the weight of the Churchill tank which you stated to be 39 tons.  My recollection is that they were 40 tons but I could easily be wrong (note on carbon copy in pen: I wasn’t).

Feb.13, 1968

Kind regards,

L.M. McBride

 

* E. Davie Fulton (1916-2000) went on to serve as federal Minister of Justice in the Diefenbaker cabinets from 1957 to 1963.

30th anniversary reunion in 1975 of Canadian soldiers in Italy in Second World War

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By Sam McBride

The “Canadians in Italy” reunion of Canadian veterans who served in the Italian Campaign in World War Two was held in Sicily and mainland Italy between April 22, 1975 and May 3, 1975, commemorating the 30th anniversary.

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Cover of souvenir album of the reunion.  Photo by John Evans is of Canadian veterans beside reflecting pool during ceremony at Cassino War Cemetery.  Published by Minister of Supply and Services Canada 1976.

 

 

 

Approximately 300 veterans joined with the official party led by the Hon. Daniel Joseph MacDonald (1918-1980), minister of veteran affairs, other dignitaries and a selection of young people from across Canada.  Participants included the three Victoria Cross recipients from the campaign: John K. Mahoney; Paul Triquet and E.A. “Smoky” Smith.

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itinerary, page 1

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itinerary, page 2.  Also in the schedule were “Briefings in Ottawa and arrival in Rome, April 20-22, 1975”.

During the war Minister MacDonald was a sergeant in the Italian Campaign with the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, and later the Cape Breton Highlanders.  He lost an arm and a leg in the bitter fighting December 21, 1944 for Coriano Ridge in the assault on the Gothic Line.  Today, the headquarters of Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown is named in his honour: the Daniel J. MacDonald Building.

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photos with caption information from Veterans Affairs published in the Nelson, B.C. Daily News in May 1975.  Leigh McBride was born and raised in Nelson before moving to nearby Trail, B.C. in 1969.

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another photo with caption in the Nelson Daily News, May 1975

 

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ortona pic0001It was the first time Canadian vets returned as a group to the scene of the fierce battles of their youth, and paid their respects to fallen comrades in cemeteries from Agira in Sicily to Argentan north of Ravenna on the Adriatic Coast.  According to Veterans Affairs information at the time, a total of 91,500 Canadians served in Sicily and Italy, of whom 25,254 were casualties, including 5,900 killed in action.

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Seaforth Highlanders Leigh McBride (left) and Borden Cameron (right) with General Bert Hoffmeister (middle) during a side trip to Venice. Family photo.

The tour was described as a “pilgrimage”, and included events in famous names such as Salerno, Naples, Rome, Anzio, Cassino, Ortona, Bari, Reggio, Ragusa, Catania, Florence, Rimini and Ravenna, and 25 cemeteries.

There was some overlap with other ceremonies for a separate commemoration: the country of Italy’s 30th anniversary of the liberation from German rule in 1945.

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Welcomed by local residents.  Family photo.

I recall that my father, retired Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, initially did not want to go to the “Canadians in Italy Reunion”.  After coming home to Nelson, British Columbia in 1945 he preferred to put the war experience behind him, though he maintained strong friendships with several Seaforth veterans such as his commanding officer Col. Syd Thomson (who was my godfather), Captain D. Borden Cameron and Major John McLean.

Leigh suffered a bullet wound in his shoulder in the Allied invasion of Sicily in August 1943, and then May 23, 1944 at Cassino he suffered shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and face that resulted in the loss of his right eye.  The only survivor of his unit, he was found unconscious by German soldiers, and taken to hospital in Rome for treatment, and then to prisoner of war camps in Germany.  He returned to Canada in February 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  On September 16, 1944, while Leigh was at the Oflag 7B prison camp, his younger brother, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride (1920-1944) was killed near Rimini when his carrier vehicle ran over a road mine.

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Posing for photo with local residents.  Family photo.

With strong encouragement from Borden Cameron (the quartermaster who organized the famous Seaforth Christmas 1943 dinner at the Ortona church in the middle of the battle), Leigh decided to attend the reunion.   He was particularly looking forward to visiting brother Ken’s grave in Coriano Ridge Cemetery near Riccione for the first time.   Paying his respects at Ken’s grave was an extremely moving experience for him, as it was for me when I visited the cemetery as a tourist in 2005.  This posting includes a candid photo Borden took of Leigh standing by the gravestone and reflecting on Ken’s death, which was devastating for their parents, particularly mother Winnie who never recovered from the shock, as well as Leigh, other relatives and Ken’s many friends.

On September 20, 1944 the parents were thrilled to hear the news that Leigh, who had been missing for four months, was alive and in a POW camp.  They were still celebrating two days later when a telegram came that said Ken had died six days earlier.  The main reason why news of Leigh being alive and a POW was slow to reach Canadian authorities was because was being treated in German hospitals during most of the “missing” period, and the usual mechanism of informing via the Red Cross was not available in hospitals as it was in POW camps.

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Remembrance ceremony under way.  Family photo.

Participants in the tour got from place to place in sleek Fiat buses.  Leigh told his family he was extremely impressed with how Italy had recovered from the war, when people were starving and living in dilapidated homes damaged by the warfare.  He particularly enjoyed side trips to Venice and Mount Etna.  The experience led him to become an aficionado of Italian art and architecture.  Unfortunately, by the time he retired from his job with the legal department of Cominco Ltd.

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Borden Cameron, Leigh McBride and fellow veterans.  Family photo.

In retrospect, the 30th anniversary was probably the best time for the reunion in Italy to be held, as participants were generally still in good health, were advanced enough in their careers to be able to take a couple of weeks off work, and could afford the cost of the flights to and from Italy and other expenses not covered by Veterans Affairs or the local hosts.

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Leigh joins other tourists during a side trip to Venice in late April 1975..

Leigh would not have been able to attend a 40th anniversary reunion in 1985 because he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinsons Disease.  Ten years later he died at age 77 in a care home in Trail on August 12, 1995, a couple of months after the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Italy.

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1942 photo of Leigh McBride (left) and his brother Ken, who was killed in action near Rimini in September 1944 and is buried at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

As part of the publicity associated with the reunion, Veterans Affairs distributed photos with identification and caption information to the local newspapers of participants.  Both the Nelson Daily News and the Trail Daily Times ran the material in early May 1995, and the Trail paper passed on the photo prints to Leigh for the family album, from which I am very pleased to be able to scan and share images in this posting.  Local residents, some of whom lived through the war years, showed their Canadian visitors heartfelt welcomes and appreciation, as shown in several of the photos.  A highlight was a parade of the Canadian veterans through Rimini to a response by locals that was described by writer Maurice Western in the May 15, 1975 Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper as “tumultuous”.

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Leigh McBride, seeing his brother Ken’s grave for the first time at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Photo taken by Borden Cameron.  Family photo.

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ceremony at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

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Cemetery ceremony.  Family photo.