In Italy Allied progress north was steadily turning into a battle of attrition as they came up against the next line of prepared German defences. The Canadian, including the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment – affectionately known as the “Hasty Ps”, were amongst those now stuck in an increasingly static war as the weather worsened.
On the 14th October Second Lieutenant Farley Mowat’s Brigade had gone into ‘Divisional Reserve’, and expected to enjoy some respite from the rigours of the campaign. However their bivouac site near Campobasso still endured intermittent shellfire.
It was suspected that there were German artillery observers located in the nearby small towns and villages. The officers, including Farley Mowat, were soon ordered to each lead patrols into the local towns to ensure that they had all been properly occupied. They were to experience very different encounters as this process unfolded:
As for me, accompanied only by Doc Macdonald, and unaware of what was taking place elsewhere, I drove nonchalantly into Ripalimosani, where, to the wild pealing of church bells, Doc and I were received as liberators by an ecstatic mob.
The mayor, a returned émigré from Chicago, escorted us into the town hall for an alcoholic and heroic welcome. I enjoyed the experience so much that I paid little heed when the mayor casually mentioned that a German platoon, which had been occupying the town, had withdrawn less than an hour earlier. Not until next day did I appreciate how well my luck was holding.
Early the following morning Gerry Swayle and his platoon were told to occupy San Stefano. It was assumed the enemy rear guards had all withdrawn across the Biferno overnight and Gerry would meet with no resistance. I saw him just before he started off and told him about the joys of liberating Ripalimosani.
“Ask for the Spumanti,” I advised him. “It’s terric stuff and they seem to have enough around to float a battleship.” He gave me his owlish look, grinning cheerfully as he took his place at the head of his platoon.
Then he led his men down the white, graveled road that curved and twisted toward the little village … directly into an ambush of half a dozen enfilading machine guns supported by heavy mortars. The two rearward sections of the platoon managed to gain the shelter of the roadside ditches, where they were pinned until darkness enabled them to belly-crawl away.
But Gerry, and every man of his leading section, was hit. The lucky ones were killed outright. The rest died slowly of their wounds, for it was impossible to reach them.
Their bodies lay strewn on the road for five days before a full-scale battalion attack finally took San Stefano and allowed us to recover our dead.
I assisted the padre and the burial party. Despite the chill, wet weather, the bodies had bloated to the point where they had stretched their stained, stinking and saturated clothing sausage-tight. They did not look like men anymore. They had become obscene parodies of men.
Somebody handed me Gerry’s broken spectacles, and for the first time since the real war began for me my eyes filled with tears. For the first time I truly understood that the dead … were dead.
Farley Mowat was an accomplished novelist, published in many countries, before he wrote his memoir of wartime experiences in 1979. See Farley Mowat: And No Birds Sang.