Canadian Army 1942-1946
Corporal 11th Canadian Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
The following stories are some events that happened after our landing on the beaches of Normandy, France, in 1944. I hope they will be of interest. I have had many scary moments, and, as you may have heard war veterans say, “There were no atheists in the front lines.” This I believe because of some of the experiences I have had, and my reaction to them.
Normandy, France July, 1944
Around the 18th and 19th of July, 1944, the 11th Field Company, RCE, built a Class 40 raft for ferry service across the Orne River near the Caen Race-Course. As recorded in the history of the Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 2, the raft was ready for use at 0600 hours, but did no business until 0900 hours when it began to take Sherman tanks across the river. The river at this point was only 120 feet across and the round trip took no more than five minutes.
Our next job was building a 140 ft Class 30 Double-Double Bailey Bridge. A number of us had to cross on our raft to the far side to prepare the approach for the bridge. I recall that it was necessary for us to blow a cement wall, which was in the way. Following completion of the approach, we returned to the other side to assist in the building of the bridge. As it turned out, this bridge was a heart-breaking job. When first launched, the nose failed and the bridge had to be with drawn and rebuilt. On the second launching, in heavy rain, the near-side bank seats shifted and the bridge had to be jacked up while the bank seats were replaced. Finally it opened for traffic at 11:30 hrs on the 22nd of July.
It happened one night in July 1944, after the city of Caen had been taken. #2 Platoon of the 11th Field Company was assigned, along with other duties, the clearing of a road and verges(edges) of mines in a small village, which had just been taken by our division. The village had been heavily bombed by our air force and shelled by the artillery. There was heavy damage and fire from the burning buildings gave off just enough light for us to carry out our duties. Mine detectors were big and cumbersome compared to the mine and metal detectors that presently exist. A battery was carried on your back and it was necessary to wear earphones to drown out the surrounding noises so that you could hear the sound made by the detectors when metal objects were located. This could possibly be a land mine. If the operator was by himself, it was necessary to assign another soldier to stay near him to warn, if necessary, of any danger and also to help if a mine was discovered.
On this particular night it was my job to carry out this particular duty. I was standing perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the mine detector operator, when off to my left, I heard someone say, “Comrade, Comrade!” I swung around. There was a German soldier coming towards me with his hands over his head. As he approached, I released the safety catch from my rifle and was ready for action. I thought, “Is this a trap? Are there more in hiding?” Thankfully, it wasn’t, but there I was with a prisoner on my hands. I finally located our sergeant who assigned another soldier to accompany the prisoner and me back to the rear lines, located in another village about a half mile from the one we were in. It was necessary to walk this half-mile with our prisoner in the dark. Again there was fear of being ambushed from the open fields; however, we reached the village and turned the prisoner over to the Canadian troops there and then returned to our platoon – mission completed.
I have many times wondered whether that prisoner is still alive, whether he was well taken care of, and what his thoughts are of that night so long ago.
Animals Suffer Too
When we recall experiences during wartime, we sometimes forget about the suffering of farm animals. Likely, many of them, if they were not killed, were badly mangled either by shellfire, bombs or land mines and died in agony. I remember one of these tragedies.
We came across many dead bodies which were composing and the odour was terrible. Among them was one live cow. It appeared that its legs were badly damaged and part of the stomach area was exposed, but there was still life from the neck up. We looked at the cow and decided the humane thing to do was to end its life. One of the boys volunteered to do the job. He was at an angle to the front of the cow’s head, and instead of penetrating the skull, the bullet ricocheted off, doing only a little damage. All the cow did was shake its head. Perhaps our comrade chose the angle because he didn’t want the cow staring at him as he ended its life. He had misjudged; the angle was too great. The next shot, however, was directly on and did the job. Yes, I am sure we all felt better as we went on our way to carry out wartime duties, knowing the animal no longer suffered.
Around the 25th of July 1944, #2 Platoon were brought back from the front line for a little rest and a chance to clean up, do some laundry and other chores. We were in a large field situated between the front line and where our artillery were located, and they, at the time, were firing shells into German territory. It certainly was the wrong area for us to relax in as the shells going over our heads made an awful noise. It would appear that the German artillery wanted to silence or knock out our artillery guns by firing shells in return, and, in doing so, some would fall short – on us. Shells were going over out heads in both directions.
On the 26th of July, a shell landed in the field we were in killing Sapper S. A. Arsenault. Arsenault was about 50 ft from me at the time, and as fate would have it, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The rest of us were in other areas of the field. What if the shell had landed where we were? Before going back to France in 1994, I made it a point to locate Arsenault’s grave.
I wrote the War Graves Commission, and they returned the following information:
G-51021 Sapper Saul Alphie Arsenault 11th Canadian Field Coy, R.C.E., 26th July Age – 36
Buried at Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, Normandy, France. Plot 6 - Row B - Grave 12.
It brought back a sad memory for me as I stood at his grave on the 5th of June 1994 - It could have been me.
How I Located Sapper Arsenault’s Grave
I had been posted to the 11th Canadian Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, 2nd Cdn Infantry Division, 2nd Platoon, in May 1944, in Southern England. Our platoon commander was Lieut. E.T. Galway. During my service with that platoon I met a number of sappers but none that I was especially close to. One that I did meet and work with was a Sapper Arsenault. During one of our conversations, I asked him where his home was, and he replied, “Moncton,” or he might have said “near Moncton.” On July 26th, 1944, Sapper Arsenault was killed.
Although I had seen deaths before his, he was the first that I knew reasonably well to lose his life. As a result, I never forgot him and have thought of him many times after the war was over. After the war, I worked for a period of time in Moncton. While there, I visited the Moncton cenotaph. There are two Arsenaults listed as killed during World War II. This made it more confusing for me as I did not know his first name or initials. In 1994 I took a trip back to Europe. Before going, I phoned the War Graves Commission and told them my problem. They were very obliging and within a few days, I had the necessary information – his full name and regimental number, the cemetery in France where he is buried and the location of his grave. They also gave me the location of his “next of kin” as St. Marcel which is near Shediac, New Brunswick. It is interesting to note that neither of the Arsenaults listed on the Moncton cenotaph was the one I knew. During my trip back to France, I had my picture taken beside his headstone.
France, August 1944
Towards the end of August 1944, the 11th Field Coy, E.C.E. was camped near Bourgtheroulde, approximately 15 miles south west of Rouen, France. The camp was situated beside an apple orchard and a well-kept cemetery. One night in particular, while I was on guard duty, the moon was unusually bright. During my patrol I had to pass an area between the orchard and the cemetery. As everyone knows, when you walk past headstones, the moonlight reflects off the polished surfaces. There were fully ripened fruit on the trees and there existed no distinct line between our company and the enemy. Can you imagine walking alone in the dead of night, the tension of your duties, a flash of light reflecting off the headstones every now and then, and the odd apple spontaneously falling off the trees? It was one of the eeriest nights I ever spent during W.W. II
On the 16th of March 1945, we (11th Field Coy, RCE) began to check a stretch of ground near Cleve for mines; we needed to make it safe for the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. The mine-clearing party of one officer, one sergeant and seven sappers found a number of riegel mines (R.MI.43). These were safely lifted and stored in two dumps by the evening of the 17th. The following morning the mine-clearing party returned to destroy the dumps, but something went wrong. There was a terrific explosion and all were killed.
The following were in the mine-clearing party:
Lieut. O.H. Taylor
Sgt. C.V. Richards
Spr. E.F.R. Andersen
Spr. A. Brown
Spr. H.C. Inkpen
Spr. U. Mayo
Spr. D.A. McLellan
Spr. N.T. Sponagle
Spr. A.A.J. Steffler
They are buried in the Groesbeck Canadian War Cemetery, Holland, Plot 5, Row D.
North West Europe, 1944.
“The Pocket Knife”
One day in North West Europe, while carrying out our duties, our section of the engineers met up with some of the infantry who had with them six or more prisoners. Sometimes prisoners could be a real bother, taking many of our boys to guard them and eventually to turn them over to authorities. Although this wasn’t normally one of our duties, we did take these prisoners off their hands. The prisoners hadn’t been searched so that was the first thing we had to do. On a prisoner I was searching, I found a pocketknife, which was approximately three inches long when folded, with a blade nearly as long. It was in a leather case with an opening and fastener at one end. With a blade that long, I considered it large enough to be a weapon, and I took it from him. I must admit that I intended keeping it as a souvenir, which I did, and I brought the knife home with me after the war.
A few years after the war, I moved to Truro, Nova Scotia, where I became acquainted with a Mr. Harry Kuthe, a younger man who had been born in Germany. During many conversations with Harry, he told me his father had been a soldier in the German forces and had been taken prisoner. Early in the war, he and many other prisoners were brought by ship to Canada where they were imprisoned in an internment camp in Ontario. After the war, his father was shipped back to Germany. Mr. Kuthe, Sr., along with his family eventually returned to Canada as immigrants and settled in Ontario. A few years ago, I gave the knife to Harry, who was to give it to his father. Although not returned to the prisoner I had taken it from, I hope Mr. Kuthe, Sr., has kept it as a souvenir, and, as a memory of many personal items he likely had taken from him when he was taken as a prisoner of war so many years ago.
"The Hand Gun"
Around 7 May 1945, there were no war activities in our area, even though the war in Europe wasn’t officially over until 8 May 1945. We were on the outskirts of Oldenburg, Germany, not doing much of anything, except awaiting further orders. On one side of the road near where we were waiting, there was a forest. Between the forest and the road was a high steel mesh fence, with a gate in the fence, not far from where we were. We had no business going in, but some of us were inquisitive, including me. A short distance inside we found a well-camouflaged building. The door to the building was open, and after taking precautions by looking for booby traps, which could be disastrous for us, if they were set off. We entered and found no personnel in the building. It was a huge building and the trees extended through the roof in their natural shape. On top of the roof was fresh green brush, which was likely there for camouflage from the air. They must have changed the brush regularly, as it had a fresh green look.
This large building in the woods was a shell manufacturing plant. They produced large shells, similar to those used by heavy artillery. It was full of machinery, and the production lines were on tracks similar to railroad tracks, but on a smaller scale. These tracks wove around the trees. In one corner of the building were the offices. I went in, and at the rear was a private office. On the desk was a leather holster, and when I checked it out, it held a Belgian browning 7.65 m.m. handgun. There were no shells in the magazine of the gun, nor were there any in the spare magazine in the holster, but a few live shells were scattered on the desk. This handgun became another one of my souvenirs.
The big problem now, was how could I get the gun home? It was against the law to bring or send home any kind of weapons. This is how I did it. I took the gun apart, made up different parcels, and along with other souvenirs I had collected, mailed home a part in each. These parcels were mailed home to my wife at various times. I brought the hand grip piece, and the leather holster home with me. When I finally arrived home, I put the pieces together. All of the parts had arrived home safely. Then I took the handgun, (minus the firing pin), to the Customs Office in Amherst, N.S. and had it registered as a war trophy. It has since been properly registered. Did I break the law?
After the war was over in Europe, the 11th Field Company, R.C.E., returned to Holland from Germany. One of the main duties was locating, lifting and destroying land mines, which had been laid by the Germans. In August 1945, we were sent to The Hague to clear the area in and around the city. We were quartered in some old hotels in Scheveningen, which is a beach resort near the city. One day, shortly after we had arrived, a man came to our orderly room. Speaking English, he said he was a watch repairman from the city and asked permission to take any watches that the men needed repaired.
Permission was given as this was a first time we had an opportunity to have watches repaired since we left England. In a very professional manner the man made the rounds of the hotels and took the men’s names and any other necessary information. He promised faithfully to have them repaired and back within a week. We were there quite a few weeks and that was the last we ever saw of the man or our watches. We had been so happy to get our watches fixed that everyone forgot to get his name or the location of his business. On top of that, he impressed us as being a very sincere and honest man. I guess we were mistaken.