“I think that my experience of taking part in the Causeway Battle on Halloween night and November 1, 1944 in Holland is probably the most terrible 40 hours I have ever spent…” -the late Bill Powell, 1998
Bill Powell: I joined the army on Nov. 27, 1941 at the Bay Street Armouries in Victoria. I went to Vernon for basic training for two months and then to Brandon, Man. for about six weeks for advanced artillery training.
I almost went overseas in 1942, but the Japanese were expanding their conquests over large parts of the Pacific. So instead of going overseas, as I was scheduled, I was sent to the West Coast to help repel a possible Japanese invasion. I found myself posted to the 9th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery at Patricia Bay, B.C. About October 1943 the 9th AA Battery was transferred to Prince Rupert, B.C. My wish was still to go overseas, so in May 1944 I had a chance to volunteer for the infantry. Overseas the artillery and others referred to the infantry as the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry).
I was sent to Calgary to Currie Barracks for advanced infantry training. While there, the Second Front opened up. The Second Front was the Allied invasion of Western Europe, which was then occupied by German forces. Sometime in August 1944 I was sent overseas, first to Britain and then to France, where I soon found myself, near the beginning of September, as a reinforcement in the Calgary Highlanders.
I was appointed to #12 Platoon, “B” Company. As I recall, after two others and I joined our platoon, our strength was 15 or 16 men. A full platoon was supposed to consist of 33 men. Full strength for our Battalion was 817 men. So you can see that we were about half-strength. There was a great shortage of reinforcements.
Lt. Alec Keller was our platoon commanding officer. He was a great soldier. He’d taken part in the Dieppe raid and was decorated in 1942 – the Military Medal for bravery at Dieppe. In Holland, he also received the Military Cross. When I joined the platoon, he made me a platoon runner.
If he’d known my sense of direction it’s doubtful that he’d have done so. Sometime in October I was made a section leader. I think [because] I’d survived longer in the platoon than anyone else, except Al Morris. Also, as I’ve already pointed out, I was a terrible runner… One day Lt. Keller told me I was “steady.” That was the only compliment I ever received in the army. Not long after this I heard he was promoted to captain; I never saw him again.
I won’t go into details about everyday life except to say it consisted of attacking the enemy, living in slit trenches when we came to a stop and dug in. It was a life where the main emotion was fear. Total exhaustion, most of the time. There were usually two men in a slit trench. At night we had what was called 50 per cent guard, which meant that all night long one man in a trench had to stand guard. Next morning the word would come down “Green,” which meant advance. A week at the front felt more like a month.
So much of what I experienced has been “blotted out.” We had a really bad time at Loon Plage, near Dunkirk in France. It was a matter of battle after battle through Belgium until we found ourselves beside the Albert Canal near Antwerp. The Calgary Highlanders recommended Sgt. Clarence Crockett for the Victoria Cross for his part in the successful crossing of the Albert Canal. Instead, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Clarence Crockett was a great man.
This is supposed to be about the Causeway Battle, but first I must explain a few things. The Allies had advanced to a position along the whole front ready to mount a great offensive into Germany. However, there was one problem: war supplies couldn’t be brought up to the front in large enough quantities or quickly enough. Supply lines were taxed to the limit. I think it amounted to some 400 miles starting on the coast of France near Cherbourg. A port had to be found near the front. That port was Antwerp.
Gen. Horrocks and the 2nd British Army had captured the city early in September. However, the Germans controlled the long inlet leading into the port (the Scheldt Estuary). On the north side they controlled the South Beveland Peninsula and on the south what was known as Breskens Pocket. In addition to this the enemy had the Scheldt Estuary mined. Until the Germans were driven out, the port with all its dock facilities (which had been captured intact by the Belgian White Brigade) couldn’t be used. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were given the task of driving them out.
(To be continued)