By Lloyd Dolha
The Honourable Albina Guarnieri, Minister of Veterans Affairs, has declared 2005 the Year of the Veteran.
“Today, we ask a new generation of Canadians to surrender their time, volunteer their hearts, and take one year to fully remember a century of sacrifice. That year is 2005 – The Year of the Veteran.”
– Minister Guarnieri
As part of the Year of the Veteran, The First Nations Drum will recognize and celebrate the stories of aboriginal veterans who served this country with distinction and pride.
In the summer of 1943, Canadian troops were sent into action in the Mediterranean with British and American forces in the successful assault against Sicily where they carried the campaign to the Italian mainland.
SmokeyAmong the Canadians was a 17-year-old Métis named Frank (Smokey) Stover, from Brooks Alberta.
Stover had spent two years in the militia before he joined the army and, as a result, skipped basic training and went straight to artillery training in Petawawa. Upon completing his artillery training, Stover joined Able Troop, of the 7th Battery, Montreal Second Field Regiment of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
Stover was put in charge of No. Two artillery gun. Able Troop was in Scotland doing water-landing exercises when they got the
order to ship out.
After six days at sea, at about 4:00 a.m., the four-gun contingent was loaded onto a landing barge for a water landing on what they thought was Sicily. No. One gun was unloaded, but quickly sank beneath the waves. It was just a small island off the Sicilian coast.
“So the barge pulled back, went around the little island and hit shore. No. Two gun was hit dry land, so I asked the (British) Royal Engineers, ‘Where do I go?'”
The sapper pointed to a small trail to the right that led to a clearing.
“We set our guns up and pointed toward the enemy. When morning came, we were in a fruit orchard. So I was the first Canadian to land on (Mediterranean) enemy shores,” said Smokey.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade flanked the 8th British and 5th American armies in the Sicily landing. None other than General George Patton and General Bernard Montgomery commanded those armies.
The first landing craft encountered brisk opposition, but the troops wiped out machine gun nests and other opposition quickly.
After 38 days of fighting, the Allied armies routed Sicily on August 17, 1943. About 500 Canadians from combined operational units participated in the fighting. The majority of the Canadians were veterans of the Dieppe and North African campaigns of the previous summer and included a handful of fresh recruits out of the United Kingdom.
“We captured Sicily and took another barge to the toe of Italy until we were 60 miles out of Rome and we started firing again. We beat the Germans and took Rome. We all had a ten-day leave and I had an audience with Pope Pius XI.”
The capture of Rome took place at the beginning of June 1944, after Allied forces broke through the GUSTAV line, a battle in which 180,000 men were killed or wounded. By June 4th, the Allies on two fronts had linked up and advanced into Rome, as the Germans gave up the ancient city without causing further damage.
As commander of No. Two gun, Smokey was known for his accuracy. One of the things that defined the fighting in Italy was the predominance of valleys and ridges. One day during the battle, the Germans were holding a house on a ridge, keeping the infantry from advancing. Smokey’s captain used to always say, ‘ For accurate shooting, go see No. Two gun.’
“He (the captain) showed me the range. It was approximately 6,000 yards on the map. The first shell hit the house just to the right of the window. The second hit just short of the window. The third shell went right in the window.
“Well, the Germans came running out and our infantry captured them,” chuckled Smokey.
By April 1945, the First Canadian Corps, veterans of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, and the 2nd Canadian Corps, veterans of fighting in France, Belgium and Holland, were reunited under the command of General H.D. G. Crerar, with his 1st Canadian Army.
The two corps – five divisions and two armored brigades – was finally fighting in the same operational theatre.
According to William Boss, Canadian Press War Correspondent, the decision to link all Canadian units in one theatre was doubly historic. For one thing, the enemy knew nothing of the move. The Germans were kept entirely in the dark about the move by the security conscious Canadians.
Shoulder flashes, Canada patches, cap badges and all other insignia were removed. Vehicle tactical signs were painted out. The men were not fully informed, but knew something big was on and kept their mouths tightly shut.
The second reason was, at the time, this was believed to be the first time that a corps, complete with everything required to keep a formation in the field, had been taken out of the front line in one theatre and transferred intact to another front 1,000 miles away, ready for action.
The same guns that smashed the German’s Lamone River line in Italy in December 1944, were in action in northwestern Europe. The same tanks that cleared the enemy from Valle Di Commanchio were pursuing the beaten foe in northwestern Europe.
The climax of the war had already come with the Normandy landings in June 1944, in which the Canadian army played an important part. Instrumental in the capture of Caen, which followed, the Canadians won another major victory in the closing of the Falaise gap later that summer.
False orders in Holland
In northwestern Europe, Able Troop moved through southern France into Holland. In Holland, a young 2nd Lieutenant, fresh out of military academy took command of the 7th Battery.
It was summer and hot. Smokey and his gunnery crew were sitting around in their shorts, with only their boots and dog tags.
Complete with leather gloves and a swagger stick, the 2nd Lieutenant walked up to Smokey’s gunnery crew and demanded,
“Why aren’t you dressed properly?”
Looking up, Smokey replied they were dressed properly. The 2nd Lieutenant had Smokey placed under arrest and took him to the major.
The major acidly told the young officer to leave him and his crew alone.
“They’re good gunners and they keep their gun clean.”
That evening an order came through for 200 rounds of shells per gun. The same 2nd Lieutenant was assigned to load shells in the barrage that lasted all night.
Soon afterward, the division moved up to closer to the Holland/Germany border. Looking out from the armored vehicle, Smoky could see they were ahead of the infantry and called on the driver to stop.
“What’s the matter?” asked one of the officers.
“Somebody’s got their orders all screwed up. We’re ahead of the infantry,” said Smokey.
Able Troop stopped and set up their gun. They had just completed the task when a group of Germans attacked driving them back from their artillery guns.
Calling up British infantry for support, Able Troop recaptured their gun in a four-hour pitched battle. Smokey grabbed his rifle and dove under a truck and began firing.
“They (the guns) were all loaded up and ready to fire except we took the firing pins out. So we turned them around and ejected the cartridges and replaced the firing pins,” said Smoky.
The same young 2nd Lieutenant was court-martialed as a result of the incident.
In June 1944, the Allies invaded Normandy, with the Canadians assigned one of the five landing beaches. They fought across Normandy, up the French coast through Belgium until September, when they were assigned to clear the Schedlt estuary and open up the vital port of Antwerp.
The battle for the Scheldt ended after a month of bitter fighting. The Canadians had suffered almost 6,400 casualties, but the Allies had accomplished their goal. The route to Antwerp was safe, and the way was clear for the final advance into Germany.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, declared later that victory over Germany was assured “when the first ship moved unmolested up the Scheldt.”
In February 1945, the 1st Canadian Army opened a drive through the Rhineland and the formidable Hochwald forest and forced the Germans back across the Rhine. The Canadians eventually liberated much of the Netherlands before the war ended in May.
“Then the order came out they wanted volunteers to go to the east because Japan was still fighting, so I volunteered. One of my friends said ‘Christ, Smokey haven’t you had enough!’ I said I want to get home.”
Smokey was on a 30-day leave in Calgary to a hero’s welcome when Japan surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sergeant Frank (Smokey) Stover served 22 years in the Canadian Army before retiring and now lives in Vancouver, BC.
“These days I just been enjoying life, spending the government’s money,” said Smokey.