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Victory and remembrance — Newfoundlanders were there

The Second World War officially ended with the surrender of Japan in Tokyo Harbour on September 2, 1945, 70 years ago.

Members of the band of 567 Air Cadet Squadron stand near a memorial listing the names of veterans of the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit of the Second World War.

But the war in Europe had ended earlier, on May 8, 1945. My history textbook at old St. James School in 1961-62 showed Britain’s Field Marshall Montgomery dictating surrender terms to the defeated German army at Luneburg Heath near Hamburg. That was May 5, 1945, three days before the official marker. And the Newfoundlanders were there—part of an epic Allied thrust from Normandy to northern Germany.

Somehow, growing up in Carbonear, in spite of the relentless reporting of Herb Wells, it never dawned on me that Newfoundlanders—specifically the 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment of the Royal Artillery--had been in on these world-shaping events. Most of our military attention was focused on Beaumont Hamel and World War One. But the 59th had been part of the pursuit of Hitler’s armies across Northern Europe from a month after D-Day in Normandy (June 6, 1944) to the climactic assault over the Elbe and into Northwest Germany.

The phrase of the day was “the democracies on the march” — almost a strange concept in an era when Western nations often appear feckless and divided. The truth was that Newfoundland gunners had participated in nearly every major battle of the epic Allied march from Normandy to the Baltic. Richard Brinston from Stephenville, 90 years young, was part of it all. As a proud Newfoundlander it irks him when the islanders are lumped in with the Canadians when World War Two is discussed for his Battery 21 was often in support of British and American units.

Sweet Wine of Youth

A visit to the Canadian Legion Hall in Carbonear shows memorabilia of the men who fought in Italy with the other Newfoundland artillery regiment, the 166th.  However, in a quiet corner a simple pasteboard plaque mentions Lt. Jack Lee, Gunner Jack Keneally, Gunner John Murphy, Privates James Clarke and Joe McGrath. All were with the 59th (Heavy) Regiment of artillery. Messrs Lee and Keneally were prior associates. They had been hockey players together for the Carbonear Caribous in the 1930s.

According to my aunt Em, Jack Lee’s parents ran a hotel where the new Post Office now stands in Carbonear. He ran a motorcycle around the town, she remembers, while the devil-may-care Jack Keneally was known to us hockey players even in the Sixties from the chant “Shoot, Keneally! Shoot!” — a reference to Jack’s propensity to hold on to the puck a little too long.

Thus Keneally and Lee, young roustabouts typical of their generation like Richard Brinston who enlisted at age 17 and Gerald Saunders of Glovertown who volunteered for the Royal Navy at age 16 but was stopped by his parents. Later Saunders as a new army inductee escaped the Knights of Colombus fire in St. John’s (1942) and saw action from Normandy to Hamburg. Young men all with the joys of life still ahead of them destined to pass through the planet’s mightiest man-made catastrophe. This year 2015 is a good time for remembering what they achieved.

Hard, slogging work  

G.W.L. Nicholson’s definitive account, “More Fighting Newfoundlanders,” catalogues the 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment’s, “almost continuous action” across Northwest Europe. After almost four years of training in the use of the deadly 155mm “Long Tom” and 7.2” howitzers, the 59th was ready for France the night of July 4/5 1944, almost a month after D-Day. They were attached to General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group of British, Canadians and Poles.

Herein hangs a humorous tale. The first Newfoundlander to get into France on D-Day did it by mistake. The loquacious Jack Finn, a noted hockey player with the ace St. Bon’s team back in St. John’s, had the gift of the gab. Unfazed by the brass hats he spoke up at a pre-invasion briefing of British airborne troops, which he had wandered into accidentally. Though a forward observation officer for artillery (spotter), his thick townie accent made him suspicious. The Brits were forced to take gunner Finn with them in the small hours of June 6, 1944. The first Newfoundlander in Normandy!

There by default, Finney eventually found his way back to the 59th, which was by then firing heavily in support of the tough Canadian and British fight around Caen, just beyond the beaches. It is not always known that this strategic holding action set up the American breakout further south that eventually led to the capture of Paris.  

Thanks in part to their skill as truck drivers and their accuracy as gunners, the four batteries of the 59th soon earned praises from a British officer. He reported that the Newfoundlanders were “never satisfied, no matter how many targets are given them.”

They were in it to the hilt and most of it was hard, exhausting pick and shovel work. “It took about ten men to handle each gun, and there were four batteries with four guns each. It was hard, slogging work,” Richard Brinston remembers. Gun placement pits had to be dug, debris had to be packed around the weapons to ensure a better angle for effective firing. Camouflage netting had to be strung and slit trenches (foxholes) dug. Usually the foxholes were the only safety in the face of heavy German counterattacks. That July 1944, gunners Lawlor and Maloney won British Empire medals for their work in saving 20 Battery’s number one guns in face of a major night attack by the Nazi air force. According to Nicholson’s account, 16 enemy bombs fell in a one-half acre space.

“Cinderella on the Left”

But the Allied surge seemed irresistible. As the Germans fell back on Belgium, elements of the 59th helped cover the crucial Seine crossing. Herein hangs a tale. While the Americans liberated Paris and the British paraded through Brussels the Canadians and Newfoundlanders were manfully pushing along the coast into Holland against heavy resistance.

A crucial assignment was to eliminate Hitler’s V-2 flying bomb bases as they went. “Cinderella on the Left” the National Film Board later dubbed this often under-played effort. At least at Antwerp that September the Newfoundland gunners were treated by the mayor to wine and cigars most eagerly devoured. But the Allied failure to consolidate their gains on that great port city was a crucial mistake. Antwerp soon became key to the entire Allied effort. Until the approaches to Antwerp could be cleared, supply lines would stretch all the way back to Normandy, hampering the advance. The Second Canadian Corps were given the “formidable assignment” to assist in clearing an eighty mile water channel coming in from the North Sea. This Scheldt Campaign would cement Canadian reputations as dogged and determined warriors but at great cost.

The Newfoundlander gunners moved up in support. The challenging waterborne assaults along both sides of the 80-mile Scheldt Estuary featured some of the most heroic (and underreported) amphibious feats since D-Day. Day and night for five weeks, the 59th laboured to drive trucks across wet farmland and spongy ground, doggedly erecting gun platforms amid soggy “polders”— Dutch soil earlier taken back from the sea. Nicholson describes “water-logged land…almost beyond credence that sites for heavy artillery could be found.”         

Canada lost 3,550 men in this epic five-week battle to clear the Scheldt. The Black Watch from Montreal was virtually wiped out and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders saw bitter fighting. The 59th ‘s “Long Toms” could lob a 95-pound shell for 15 miles, crucial in covering the advance. In the middle of it all the Newfoundland talent for improvising shone through. Somehow Lieutenant Jack Armitage of the old Guards hockey teams in St. John’s got his skates sent to the front. In the land of Hans Brinker, the happy townie enjoyed many a leisurely skate in brief respites from war. An official press report praised the Newfoundland gunners at the Scheldt for their “superb job…one which the island may raise to a pinnacle of pride among the highest traditions of its history.” The Canadian Corps commander cited “the invaluable assistance of the big guns."

Market Garden and the Bulge

Meanwhile another of Newfoundland’s four batteries had been in on the failed Market-Garden offensive, the “bridge too far” effort that September to leap-frog airborne troops across the Rhine and end the war by Christmas. The Newfoundlanders were given “numerous fires” around Nijmegen in defending retreating Allied columns, “turning their busy guns around three times in one day,” as reported by historian Alan Fraser.

Still there was growing elation that the Third Reich was getting closer. When Hitler launched his winter offensive in mid-December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge), the reunited 59th Regiment stood alongside the British forces to guard the last bridge west of the River Meuse, a key objective if the German drive was to succeed. However, the magnificent American defensive/counteroffensive action stopped the German advance. The Bulge deflated by late January and the Allies retreated (more or less) to winter quarters. And it was cold.

Once again, British officers noted the “ability of the Newfoundlander to make himself comfortable in the most adverse circumstances.” “Boil ups” of spruce tea in the Dominion’s interior no doubt spurred this native resourcefulness. It played out to good effect during that harsh winter of 1944-1945. Men from the 59th took cardboard from their shell casing boxes to make floors and sideboards for their small tents. They converted oilcans into miniature stoves by stacking empty milk-cans as a makeshift stove. They did the best with what they had, townies and bay-men together.

“Bouncing the Rhine”       

As 1945 dawned, the climax of the war in Europe approached. A cardinal task for the Allied artillery was “counter-battery fire” against enemy artillery and mortar and machine-gun nests, causes of many casualties. In January and February — often firing by night in the bitter winter cold — the 59th supported the American Second Army in its move into Germany. One key job was that of spotter — moving around precariously to guide the big shells more accurately. Singled out for special praise in this dangerous task were Monahan of St. John’s, Sullivan of Calvert and Riggs of Grand Bank.  

On March 23, 1945 Montgomery issued a directive to “cross the Rhine north of the Ruhr and secure a firm bridgehead and penetrate deeper into Germany.” The 59th was now supporting the 15th (Scottish) division. Forward observer Lt. Dermot Griffith went with them—the first Newfoundlander to cross the Rhine. The next day the gunners paused to witness the most massive parachute assault of the war — Operation Varsity. The parents of a young French-Canadian lad killed in the assault later wrote to the Newfoundland chaplain:  “I wish to thank you in the name of my family for having given my son the last duties of Christian charity. Everything you did for him was of inestimable value.“

Moments of Humanity

There was more work for Padre Farrell while the 59th made more than 20 hasty location shifts over the next 40 days as the war reached a crescendo. Padre Farrell celebrated an April 1 Easter mass at a busy crossroads joined by French, Polish, Dutch, Ukrainian, Russian and Italian prisoners, one Polish POW crying throughout. ”The music for the service,“ reports Nicholson, “was that of tanks rumbling into Germany.” Richard Brinton especially remembered the heart-rending condition of the Polish captives.

As the Canadians fanned north to isolate the last German pockets in Holland, two Allied armies drove for the Elbe to beat the Russians to the Baltic and seal the Danish border. The Allied planners called up as many of the big guns as possible to facilitate the crossing of the swift-flowing Elbe River. The 59th was once again in the thick of it. On May 2 the Newfoundlanders made their last shoot — all four batteries, three rounds per gun — on Bergdorf, a suburb of Hamburg. The next day Germany’s second-largest city surrendered and North Germany was secure.

Eight full weeks after V-E Day, the 59th helped in the administration and rerouting of “displaced persons,” as prisoners were called. Still, one Newfoundland soldier wrote back home that, “the weather is fine…Eggs are fairly plentiful and chicken and pork quite easy to obtain. We are living well.”

A peaceful and humane epitaph for what had been a remarkable and searing effort. The Newfoundlanders’ humanity and good cheer consistently shone through. And still does. “Five of us are still living around the Stephenville area,” comments Richard Brinton, ”I sure wish governments would remember what we did, they could help us a lot more.” Those lively vets can take heart from the words of American tank general George Patton: “I do not have to tell you who won the war. The artillery did.” And the 59th was there.

Neil Earle, a Carbonear native, writes from Duarte, California

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