For the last decade or so, World War II veteran Hans Andersen has been placing a wreath at the Cloverdale Cenotaph.
This year will be slightly different, as the general public won’t be in attendance, but that won’t change much for Andersen.
The 99-year-old and Maple Ridge resident places a wreath every year for all prisoners of war.
He says he places the wreath to “pay respect to my comrades, the ones who are gone and the ones who are on their way.”
Andersen—himself a former POW—recalls when he was captured after his Seaforth Highlanders attacked the Hitler Line in Italy in 1944.
“I was taken prisoner in the last battle,” says Andersen. “I guess it was my last battle anyway,” he laughs.
The Hitler Line was a one of a series of German defensive lines that stretched across Italy south of Rome (see picture). The defensive barriers were intended to stop the Allied advance and the Hitler Line was very strong between Pontecorvo and Acquino.
It was the Canadians’ task—the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 5th Canadian Armoured Division (fighting as part of the British 8th Army)—to breach the line between Pontecorvo to Aquino.
Andersen’s Seaforth Highlanders battalion (part of the 2nd brigade of the 1st Can. Infantry Division) were ordered to smash through a thick ribbon that opened at about 1,000 yards wide and expanded to about 1,500 yards at their objective (see picture).
According to a post about the military history of the Seaforth Highlanders, the battalion, along with the rest of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division (the 3rd Brigade on their left and PPCLI, also in the 2nd Brigade, on their right) advanced at 6:07 a.m. May 23, 1944. The Hitler Line was the most heavily defended defensive line the Allies battled through in Italy. The line was defended by minefields, swathes of barbed-wire, embedded machine-gun nests, and anti-tank gun batteries. As they advanced, the Canadians were under a constant barrage of mortar fire too.
The battle that followed the advance was one of the most intense of the Italian Campaign.
“The Hitler Line had been under construction for many months,” reads the post on seaforthhighlanders.ca. The defensive installations were “well-placed and deviously camouflaged, designed to funnel attacking troops into defined ‘kill zones’ for German artillery.” There were bunkers every 150 to 200 yards and each one held a platoon of German soldiers.
This was Andersen’s job: advance through a minefield and face off against machine-gun, artillery, and mortar fire. As the attack began, the Seaforths were supported by cover fire from the tanks of the North Irish Horse battalion.
Andersen says he remembers the advance. “We couldn’t see very much, but we just kept going.”
As the battle began, the artillery shelling in the area created a dust bowl and visibility was cut down to only a few metres. The North Irish Horse faced heavy resistance from artillery fire and suffered mounting losses after many of their tanks hit land mines.
“The Seaforths would have to cross 400 yards of open ground with no communication due to the high rate of casualties to infantry personnel carrying wireless radios.”
Only 100 Highlanders reached their objective that day. “Throughout the afternoon these men, hastily organized into sections and platoons defended their objective through several German counter-attacks,” the post continues.
“We lost a lot of men that day,” adds Andersen.
By 5 p.m. the Germans had begun to retreat. It was the hardest battle the Seaforth Highlanders had fought in. And they suffered heavy losses: 52 men were killed, 106 men were wounded, and 52 men were taken prisoner, among the latter, Andersen. The North Irish Horse lost 41 tanks in the battle, half their number.
It was also one of the bloodiest days for Canadians in the war as 950 soldiers died that day.
Before they got captured Andersen recalls wondering with the other Seaforths about where everyone was.
“We kept on going and ended up on the paved roadway. We sat there for a little while in the afternoon.”
An officer told Andersen and four other Highlanders to wait until he returned, but he never did.
“That’s what really bothered me that day,” he says. “Why in the hell didn’t I see any officers out there? They told us what position to take and that’s the last we saw of them.”
They were waiting in a ditch off the edge of a road when some German tanks rolled up.
“They sent four Tiger tanks out to us,” says Andersen. “You see a tank, you know you’re done—especially their damn tanks,” he laughs. “They rounded us up.”
Surround by four Tiger tanks, Andersen says the Nazis only sent “one little guy out to meet us.” He held a machine gun up at their chests and motioned them to walk into a wooded area a short distance away.
Staring down four 88-mm turret-mounted gun barrels, and four tank-mounted, MG-34 7.92 mm machine guns, along with the “one little guy,” Andersen and his fellow Highlanders obliged.
He’d spend the rest of the war in captivity.
Andersen’s military life started three years previous when the 19-year-old Manitoban joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in June, 1941. After some initial training in Shilo, Andersen went to Nova Scotia and trained until early 1942 when he sailed for England.
“We boarded the ships at Halifax,” Andersen wrote in a short bio in about 1965. They sailed up near Iceland and then down to Liverpool “to avoid the Jerry submarines.”
While in England Andersen transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders. “My brother was in the Highlanders and he insisted I transfer over. So I did.”
In total, four Andersen brothers enlisted to fight for Canada in WWII: Hans; Chris, who made it home from Europe after the war, was in the Seaforth Highlanders; Nels, who was in the air force, died when his plane went down over Nazi Germany; and Diver Andersen died in a training incident when the plane he was in went down in Canada.
After spending more than a year in England, in the early summer of ’43 Andersen and the Seaforths were sent to take special invasion training near Glasgow. The Highlanders eventually boarded a ship and weren’t told where they were off to.
After two weeks at sea, it was revealed they’d be invading Sicily.
“We were put into a light-armored landing craft about ten miles from land,” Andersen wrote. “What a trip! We thought the sea would swallow us up for the waves were about forty-feet high. We hit a sandbar about a quarter of a mile away from land and had to get out and wade.”
He writes things were hectic as they landed, but eased up almost immediately. (Historians now say the Italian defensive plan for Sicily didn’t account for battles on the beaches, so the amphibious landings didn’t turn into the ferocious firefights the Allies would later see on the beaches of Normandy.)
After regrouping inland, Andersen’s battalion began to march through the Sicilian countryside.
“It was a barren looking country and was so dry. The soil seemed like flour and we scuffed up dirt with every step. We had to march every day for what seemed like two weeks. Every house we passed, people came out and waved white flags at us as we went by.
“Our objective was the town of Leonforte, near the center of Sicily. Eventually we arrived there and ran into some really heavy fighting with tank and artillery support. It was our first contact with enemy soldiers [inland]. Once we advanced too fast and got caught in our own artillery fire. We managed to take the place in two days and were there for a while to rest.”
While awaiting the invasion of mainland Italy, Andersen caught malaria, then had to have an appendectomy.
“I was sent back down the lines for six weeks. I missed the invasion of Italy but got back up in the front lines in time to go into Ortona.”
The Battle of Ortona (Dec. 20 to 28, 1943) is sometimes called the “Italian Stalingrad” because of the ferocious close-quarters combat that defined the fighting.
“The fighting there was the worst I had ever been in. It was door-to-door fighting and there was so much to watch for: Jerry snipers, booby traps, mortar bombs, and [anti-personnel] mines.”
He remembers anti-personnel mines were difficult to find.
“We had to rely on feel through our boots. If you stepped on a mine, you could feel the mechanism being tripped and you had to fall flat on the ground. The bomb would jump about three feet up before going off and would send pieces of shrapnel to the sides intended to wound you, if you were standing upright. It was surely frightening waiting for the mine to go off.”
He notes booby traps were everywhere. They were hooked to anything that would move: doors, drawers, cupboards.
“Life was miserable at Ortona. We had taken most of the town the first week. Losses were heavy and reinforcements were slow in coming up, so we took much longer to take the rest of the town. We had Christmas dinner there and ate in shifts. Some of us would eat while the rest of us would keep up the battle. Finally we got some more tank support and were able to take the rest of the town and chase the Jerrys back about six miles out of town.”
It was in the spring, 1944, when the Seaforths moved inland toward the westside of Italy to take part in the battle for the Hitler Line.
After being taken prisoner, Andersen says they stayed where they were for two days. Then they were off to Germany in a massive convoy.
“They all moved out,” he explains. “Miles and miles of stuff going down the road to Germany. Retreating. And we were in the back of a truck. There were about eight or nine of us.”
Andersen laughs as he remembers wanting to get a message back to Highlanders about what the Germans were doing.
His guess is they travelled north about a hundred miles. Then they marched everyday for another week or so.
“We could see our planes overhead all the time. Sometimes our Spitfires would swoop down on us, but they must have known we were all prisoners because not once did they fire on us. Anything else that moved on the road would get blasted to hell.”
Finally, Andersen says, the POWs were loaded into boxcars at the Brenner Pass and transported into Germany.
“We were held for about 10 months,” he recalls. For the first six months, Andersen says they were sent to a remote logging camp to work. It was off the beaten track, somewhere in the backroads of Germany.
For the last four months, they spent their time in a prison camp.
“It wasn’t bad for us. The Russians were at one end, some other (soldiers) were in the middle, and then there was us,” he says. “We kind of had our own way there for a long time. We just did what we wanted. They’d bring us food. It was skilly—we called it. Soup. Broccoli and cabbage soup.”
Andersen remembers seeing Allied bombers a lot. They flew back and forth overhead with little to no return fire and he and his fellow POWs suspected the war would not last much longer.
And then one day, the prison guards marched Andersen and all the other POWs—save for the Russians, he doesn’t know what happened to them—to the top of a big hill. They stayed there for a few days.
“One morning we could hear singing coming from a distance,” he recalls.
The singing was coming from U.S. soldiers. All but four of the German guards vanished. The remaining guards turned them over to the Americans.
“The officer in charge told us to find our own way back,” remembers Andersen. “So, we went into a little town and stole an old Jerry truck.” Then they made their way 75 miles toward the rear flanks hoping they wouldn’t be mistaken for the enemy.
The war was over for Andersen. He went to England via France and then back to Manitoba to farm.
He says he doesn’t think of the war much these days. It fades more and more from his memory each year.
“You think of different things as life goes on. Different things that happened. Things pop into your mind. Some things are unpleasant.”
He says it mostly happens when he lays down in bed. Just before he falls asleep, something of the war always flashes into his mind.
“But it’s always something you want to forget.”
Andersen turns 100 next June and says he’ll keep laying a wreath for POWs on Remembrance Day as long as he can.
“At least another 10 years,” he laughs.
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