Thursday, February 15, 2018

Northwestern campaign Europe 1945

Bede's photo of the German coastal fortifications along the Atlantic sea wall, 1945

The piece below is a first draft of a scene from my book about the life of Bede Smith

Oldenburg, Germany, May 1945  

In early April, the Fourth Division advanced into northwestern Germany. A campaign of targeted bombing by the Allies cleared the way for them to seize the medieval garrison town of Oldenburg. Meanwhile, less than 300 miles to the northeast, in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the streets of Berlin, the Nazi leadership imploded, and on the 30th of April Hitler put a gun to his head.

Events moved swiftly towards Germany's surrender, until the guns fell silent on the 5th of May. Bede was 10 miles from Oldenburg when the news came through of Victory in Europe (VE), and the celebrations began. For him, it had been 276 long days since he'd set foot on the four-mile stretch of grey sand in Normandy.

Several days after VE Day, Bede entered the smoke haze of the officers' mess, the notes of Lili Marlene still ringing in his head from the previous night's entertainment. He wandered over to the notice board and stood, arms folded, scanning the announcements. One flyer outlined the three options available post-VE: soldiers could remain in Europe in the Army of Occupation, volunteer for the Canadian Pacific Force, or apply for a discharge. While Bede was examining the fine print, a separate headline suddenly caught his attention – "Australians Land in Borneo." He adjusted the glasses on his nose and bent lower to read the details. The news item reported a military landing at Tarakan, an insignificant island near Borneo, where the Japanese were still dug in. His middle brother Noel would be there with the Australian Eighth Division. And younger brother Kevin, as far as he knew, was serving in the Solomon Islands. For them, the ordeal continued.

Bede's thoughts were interrupted by a burst of raucous laughter coming from a corner-table in the mess. Despite the sore heads from days of celebration, nothing daunted their spirits. He sauntered over to join the group. The men had copies of the Canadian Forces newspaper, The Maple Leaf, spread out on the table.

'Have you seen this?' his colleague said, holding up the front cover of The Maple Leaf Victory edition. One word filled the full length of the front page – "KAPUT."

'Yes,' Bede laughed. 'The cover's a beaut!' He pulled out a chair and sat down to join the men.

'What else have you found out?' asked Bede
'Some more information about volunteering for the Pacific.'
'You going to volunteer?' Bede asked.
'I'm not sure yet. Are you?'
Bede hesitated. 'I haven't decided. No one can say we haven't done our bit.'
'You've got a wife and child at home. You're off the hook, so to speak.'
'That's true,' Bede said. 'Still, the job's only half done.'

His colleague reached into his uniform pocket, tapped out a few cigarettes and offered them around the table. Bede reached over for one and dug into his pocket for a match.

'Some of us are applying for leave,' his colleague said. 'Going to try and see Paris while we can.'
Bede's eyes brightened. 'That sounds terrific!'

He took a short puff on his cigarette. He'd need to make his decision about the Pacific soon. How would Marg react if he volunteered? All this time in the Europe campaign amounted to a 20-month separation from his family. He'd missed out on Pat's first birthday, and her second birthday. His daughter wouldn't know him when he returned home.

Bede worried about his parents in Sydney who had endured the last five years with fortitude. James and Alice Smith had three sons in the military. As well as Bede, their middle son Noel had served in the North African campaign and was now in Borneo. Youngest son Kevin was a pharmacist with 17th Field ambulance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Their daughter Nora worked for the government in Canberra, leaving youngest child Joan (Kevin's twin) as the only one at home.

Towards the end of May, Bede's Division relocated south to Almelo, a town in the eastern Netherlands, where they helped distribute food to the starving population. For the Dutch, after the famine and the flooding of parts of their country, the peace was sweet indeed. At a victory parade in The Hague on the 21st of May, Queen Wilhelmina was welcomed back from exile. Dutch red, white and blue flags flapped in the breeze, and the Canadians were hailed as heroes.

After breakfast on the 25th of May, Bede marched across the quadrangle and joined a queue of soldiers filing across the barracks' yard in Almelo. He stood with the morning sun warming his back, as the line inched slowly towards the entrance to a large canvas tent. Behind the perimeter fence, a flock of starlings roosting in a tree chirped loudly, reaching a celebratory crescendo.

When Bede reached the head of the queue, he paused at the entrance to wait his turn. A dozen officers were lined up in a row inside the tent, seated at makeshift tables, each with a pile of papers in front of him. The pug-faced lieutenant at the next available post looked up, raised his hand and summoned him forward. Bede sat opposite the lieutenant and handed over his completed questionnaire.

'I'm volunteering for the Pacific,' Bede said, confirming his intentions.
'Good to hear, Captain,' he said. 'We're short of dentists.'
'So I'll be in the Sixth Infantry?'
'Correct. All volunteers from Europe will be assigned to the Sixth.'
'What happens next?' Bede said.
'You'll be demobbed and sent back to Canada. Then you'll start training for jungle warfare. Very different from what you've been through here.'
'Yes. I have an inkling.' It was not a welcome prospect either – the heat, the rugged terrain, the tropical diseases.
'So, how long before we sail?'
'It could be a while yet, Captain. Word is, they're having trouble locating enough carriers to ship you guys back across the Atlantic.'

Bede's face broke into a broad smile, buoyed by the news. Chances were he'd be in Europe a while longer – time for a trip to Paris.

More than 60,000 volunteered for the Canadian Pacific Force. Bede spent another six weeks in Europe and visited Paris. He also inspected the remains of the massive German fortifications along the Atlantic Sea Wall. The beaches were still covered in barbed wire and discarded military hardware and the once palatial seaside hotels remained boarded up.

Bede sailed back to Canada, on the troopship SS Pasteur and disembarked in Halifax on the 7th of July, 1945. There was much talk among the soldiers on board as to how much longer Japan could hold out. He prayed that this next stage of combat could be averted.

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