Canada in the Second World War

Events

First deployment of the 14th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery

by Wesley M. Alkenbrack, 14th Field Regiment, RCA

Our first attempt, to deploy the normal unit of four guns in the field role occurred immediately after debarkment; it should be recalled that our SPs [self-propelled guns] were carrying extra and unusual loads which temporarily rendered them clumsy in movement as well as critically vulnerable to enemy fire. It was necessary that every vehicle which came ashore be carrying a maximum load of everything which could aid the assault and our SPs had been pressed into service to help supply other arms.

Bdr. L.A. Boyle, Gunner H.W. Embree and Gunner L. Armstrong, 14th Field Regiment, RCA, seating on a Priest self-propelled gun in Normandy, 20 June 1944.

Bdr. L.A. Boyle, Gunner H.W. Embree and Gunner L. Armstrong, 14th Field Regiment, RCA, seating on a Priest self-propelled gun in Normandy, 20 June 1944.
Photo by Donald I. Grant. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-131408.

Slung between our tracks and secured by clevises to the front corners of the chassis was a wide steel “stone boat” about sixteen inches high, containing .303 rifle ammunition for the use of the infantry. While this grotesque device gave no great difficulty as long as the vehicle was moving straight ahead, backing up could be difficult and a sharp turn of the vehicle was virtually impossible.

There was a further feature of this extra-loading that was infinitely more perilous and which was to cost us dearly that morning. On the rear decks over the motor compartments were lashed canvas-covered cases four feet high containing mortar bombs and land mines for the use of other arms.

It is frighteningly obvious that our SPs were highly lethal bombs if we encountered enemy fire before we could rid ourselves of these impediments. In the desperate emergencies of the moment and our haste to get clear of the beach and town no time or thought was given to relieve as of these deadly loads and it was in this awkward and perilous condition that we crossed the beach, made our cumbersome way through the breach in the sea-wall and moved through the town.

The narrow street between the grim stone walls proved a formidable bottle-neck as we tried desperately to press forward, further complicated by the excited citizens surrounding our vehicles and pressing pitchers of strong Calvados cider upon us.

In the confusion of landing and the haste to get off the beach a minor complication had developed in that the guns of the three batteries had become mixed up in the column that now stretched through the town. Given time, we would all get sorted out when space permitted. But in the tight restriction of that narrow street, packed nose to tail with guns, we sat helpless for what seemed an eternity, our anxiety increased as the grey stone walls re-echoed with distant explosions of unseen weapons back on the beach or elsewhere.

In the meantime, the Regiment de la Chaudiere was threading its way on foot through our guns to precede us to the outskirts of the town. I remember envying them their mobility as they steadily made their way past us.

When the moment finally came that we could move, it was to directly support the advance of these same Chaudieres that we slowly and thankfully edged forward to get clear of the town. The first four guns of the mixed-up batteries that finally broke free were the quickest available and were so designated for use by Lt. Belyea, who undertook to deploy them.

Although that first gun position is more thickly treed and overgrown today, the foreground of the field that morning was clear of growth, although farther to our front it appeared to be planted with very young trees intended as an orchard. However, there was no growth high enough to impede crest clearance and the field was serviceable enough for our purpose.

There was a feeling of vast relief to be finally released from the real and imagined dangers of the crowded town as we prepared to take our familiar role of occupying a gun position. However, one aspect of that deployment was not so familiar; the infantry we were to support were immediately in front of us and in full view as they felt their way forward into unknown territory. Nothing could be predicted of what lay ahead of them and in our haste to be ready to give them covering fire in any emergency no critical reconnaissance of that gun position was possible, nor did it seem necessary.

Whatever dangers lurked farther ahead, the limited view of our immediate front appeared harmless enough-an open panorama of farm fields and growing crops lying in the bright sunshine of a warm June morning.

What we could not know was that six or seven hundred yards directly to our front, strategically sited to cover all exit from the town, was an .88 gun, the deadliest weapon in the enemy’s weaponry, deeply dug in with the barrel at ground level and skilfully camouflaged, waiting for us.

No doubt that gun had been hidden there for some time as a cunning and well-integrated part of coastal defence; had there been a little less frantic excitement among the local citizenry that morning it might have occurred to someone to warn us of its existence. But in the hectic fervour of sensed liberation no cool heads prevailed and we were left to discover the hard way what lay in store for us.

From the town we emerged abruptly into the open, leaving the road and turning to the right around the massive corner of a high Normandy wind-wall protecting some farm buildings. As we then began a wide turn to the left that would distribute the guns on their individual sites, the four guns were in this order:

Art Evans Charlie
2
Ed Crockett Able
3
Bob Sciberas Able
4
Wes Alkenbrack Dog
4

On the far left someone had set up a director and was determining the zero line in preparation to pass angles to the guns, while to our front the Gun Position Officer was giving arm signals, indicating the line of guns and the approximate zero line.

As the last gun, Dog 4, came around the corner of the stone wall and emerged on the field, Evans’ gun had almost reached its site, and Crockett’s and Sciberas’ were still moving on. It was at that moment that the .88 began its deadly work.

Clear above the sound of our labouring engines and clanking tracks came the grinding screech of an armour-piercing shell meeting steel at high velocity as Evans’ gun took the first hit. As smoke and dust billowed up from the stricken vehicle and the gun crew leapt from the deck to hit the ground, with incredible swiftness the second gun, Crockett’s, was struck and it was similarly abandoned by its crew as smoke and dust rose.

With those first two guns crippled and now burning it was obvious that our deployment was rapidly falling apart. Though stunned at the scene ahead of us, we on Dog 4 were still coming on, tensely preoccupied with our clumsy turn around the corner of the wall with that damned stone-boat squealing against our churning tracks.

In the kaleidoscope of the rapidly-changing scene around us impressions were fleeting and confused. We were apparently receiving additional fire from somewhere, probably mortars; the man on the director, Bdr. Caverly, was now a casualty on the ground and we on Dog 4 were marginally aware that extra personnel not directly involved in the deployment had very sensibly hit the ground beside the stone wall behind us.

Although almost unbelievably in neither case of the first two guns had the lethal bomb loads on their decks been struck, at this point whatever grim luck we had had finally run out in a stroke of unimaginable violence. As Dog 4 cleared the corner and moved forward onto the field Sciberas’ gun in front of us erupted in a massive and hideous sheet of red flame and the concussion of the explosion leapt from it in a shock wave of paralysing force.

There was no smoke to veil the disaster-one moment there was flame and the next moment revealed the stark and utter disintegration of what had been thirty tons of moving steel, now strewn on the ground like scattered garbage-the gun barrel and bits and pieces of steel plate and the remnants of tracks and heavy castings blown here and there, and no slightest evidence that six men had stood on the deck of that SP when sudden destruction came.

Dog 4 had stopped by then and as we stood transfixed in stupefied horror a vehement shout came from the group by the wall behind us to break the spell. “Alkenbrack, get back…”, it was Capt. Buchanan, Dog Troop Commander, “…get the hell back out of there!!”

What possible good backing up would do at that point was less than useless to ponder, but it broke us loose from our paralysis-it was something to do and he didn’t have to shout twice. I jumped over the side and the crew followed me. Stumbling to the front of the vehicle I made hand signals to the driver, Bruiser Burke, to back up. (It was only then that the stunned realization came that in our haste to jump ship Bruiser had been forgotten and he had made no move to follow us.)

He was still at his post in the driver’s seat, his tense white face staring out at me through his narrow window, waiting for orders, A brave man, Bruiser-the rest of us were clear and might have stood some chance when the next shot came, but deep in the hull there he stood no chance at all.

As I signalled desperately, he went into reverse but as he revved up the only result was the grinding squeal of steel against steel as the tracks churned uselessly against the sides of that forgotten stone boat. He came ahead fractionally and tried to reverse again, but with the same result. We were grinding there helplessly and all the while we were subconsciously waiting for the next round and wondering why we were still alive.

To add to the fearful frustration, small arms fire was now sizzling across the field like a swarm of bees, apparently rifle ammunition overheated and set off in those first two SPs, now briskly burning. In final desperation I shouted to L/Bdr. Buck McDonald to get down and unhook the clevises that secured the stone-boat and once we had rid ourselves of that we were able to back up and get out of our predicament.

Although we didn’t realize it amid the noise and confusion of those last few minutes, that .88 did get in one last round and one last hit, too, and it was on us; fortunately it was only a minor hit that tore the top off the tool box on the left rear corner of the vehicle just above the tracks, and then went on to tear a hole in that stone wall behind us.

Apparently before the layer had a chance to correct his aim with another shot the Chaudieres in their advance closed in on the gun and killed the gun crew. But for those of us on Dog 4 it was as close as that!

We were a badly-shaken bunch as we took stock of our losses and gave our wounded, first aid as we quickly evacuated them to the beach area. The town and our immediate front were now apparently cleared of the enemy and as the remainder of the Regiment debouched from the town and we rejoined them we learned of what our initial losses had been on the beach behind us.

Fortunately, the urgent need to move quickly inland and gain ground left us no time to dwell on the shock of our initial losses; leaving the burning wreckage of that first action behind us as we collected ourselves, the re-united Regiment began a concerted move south on the road to Beny-sur-Mer to find whatever awaited us.