The Incredible True Story of Canada’s WWII Sniper Squad

An excerpt from historian David O’Keefe’s new book, Seven Days In Hell.

Black Watch, Canadian WWII sniper squadPhoto: HarperCollins Publishers

Verrières Ridge, Normandy, July 25, 1944, 0930 hours—H-hour

None of the men in the 1st Battalion of Canada’s Black Watch had seen the sun for a week when it pierced through a thin veil of overcast to beat down upon their position at the foot of Verrières Ridge. As they quickly surmised, its warm rays did little more than taunt and torment, for nothing could relieve the tension and gut-gnawing dread that had ballooned during their week-long baptism of fire that now reached its crescendo.

Each of the 320 hollow-eyed, grimy and grim Highlanders, all that remained of four battered rifle companies, sat, knelt or crouched in a muddied, vacant beet field, waiting for the next move. Their heavy woollen battledress, smeared with mud, plaster dust, ash and splatters of blood, sported sweat-soaked armpits, groins and necklines that bore witness to their week-long macabre dance with the unholy trinity of sweltering heat, intense combat and waves of soul-destroying fear and anxiety.

Having learned to take nothing for granted in the moments before battle, some of the men fumbled with buttoned flies or webbed belts to relieve themselves from what the ancient Greeks termed “watery bowels,” while others chose to suck back a freshly rolled cigarette or wolf down a slice of hardtack, washed down with a hidden stash of rum, to help steady overly taut nerves. Men of a more religious bent silently muttered prayers or fondled rosary beads, while those suffering from the vagaries of crushing fatigue built up over the last seven days sat despondent and stone-faced, staring aimlessly into a swath of flaxen-coloured wheat fifty or so yards ahead. Racked by fatigue that clouded minds, impaired judgment and left them ragged and sapped of strength, some toyed with trading near-paralytic exhaustion for death.

The northern slope of Verrières Ridge, coated now with thick, tall wheat standing shoulder high, rose from beyond a curtain of grain. Shimmering impressively in the prevailing breeze, it accentuated the long, slow and gentle slope that led to the main line of German resistance concealed behind its crest.

In the wake of the four Black Watch rifle companies priming for the second phase of Operation Spring, the largest Canadian Army set-piece attack since Vimy Ridge a generation earlier, lay the battle-scarred artifacts that chronicled the latest chapter of Canada’s most storied regiment.

A thousand yards behind sat Hill 61, a slight rise that the Black Watch called home for four gruelling days and nights. Littered with singed wheat, smashed vehicles and hundreds of abandoned slit trenches, the pitted and scarred landscape testified to the constant cascade of shells unleashed by two rival armies locked in desperate battle. Sitting exposed to enemy observation, they dodged constant German sniper fire and the thunder of rocket, mortar and artillery shells that crashed down in torrents of white-hot steel and high explosive while fending off enemy patrols that used the blanket of wheat as cover to infiltrate their lines by day and by night.

They took the pounding devoid of sleep, hot food and rum they sorely needed to steady rapidly fraying nerves. All the while they watched comrades die, collapse or disappear, irretrievably swallowed by the dirt and the grain, or consumed by imploded psyches.

"Not a single man spoke in the beet field..."Photo: readersdigest.ca/Shutterstock

In the shallow valley at the foot of Hill 61, spiralling columns of smoke eddied up from the ghostlike ruins of the conjoined towns of St. André and St. Martin. The mining and farming community, which had stood for centuries, devastated over the previous week by massive artillery stonks and close combat encounters, sat rubbled, strewn with debris and the unburied dead. Periodically, muffled explosions from unattended fires erupted, punctuating the strange, almost serene calm that befell the beet field, a development that seemed far out of step with the corps-wide battle raging across the entire front.

Off to their immediate right stood a small cluster of industrial buildings that the locals now call Cité de la Mine. Oblivious to the existence of a 1,200-foot shaft that burrowed down to the iron deposits far below Verrières, the men in the Black Watch had mistaken it for nothing more than a factory until it gave up its secrets when they had passed through moments earlier. Smouldering now from a liberal dousing of white phosphorus grenades and fistfuls of Composition C crammed into ventilation ducts and pithead openings, the corrugated steel and tin structure displayed ominous traces of the Highlanders’ wrath. Wall panels and sidings that once flashed in the sunlight stood scorched and blackened, riddled with bullet holes and pockmarked by shrapnel. Doors and window frames hung limply, ripped from their hinges by blasts that left mounds of shattered glass glinting in the sun, guide ropes severed, skips alight and trolleys overturned. In almost every corner, dead and dying German grenadiers, unable to escape to burrows underground, lay slumped in grotesque attitudes on conveyor belts and refuse heaps, while others dangled from power pylons atop the thirty-foot-high tipple used to load the iron deposits.

Not a single man spoke in the beet field—or if they did, nobody remembered. Nightmares festering from the recent fighting bubbled to the surface and clashed headlong with their bid to husband whatever fumes of courage remained for their final assault. They wondered in the back of their minds if the attack would indeed go on. After a series of nasty surprises and fatal encounters with the Germans in St. Martin, the battalion was now four hours behind the schedule of the tightly timed corps plan, which left the men in a most unenviable predicament. Instead of pushing up the wide-open slopes of Verrières in the haze of the pre-dawn light, they now faced the unnerving prospect of a matinee performance.

The nature of their objective, lying just over a mile on a straight line through the wheat field ahead, weighed heavily on their minds. Tucked into the reverse slope of Verrières, only a handful of the men knew the town by name, and fewer cared. All the villages south of the Norman capital of Caen featured fieldstone houses ringed by high dirt mounds crowned with dense hedges and thickets, all converted over the previous ten days into potent fortresses brimming with automatic weapons and anti-tank guns supported by artillery, rockets, mortars and battle groups (Kampfgruppen) from elite panzer divisions. With the capture of this village considered vital for the success of the entire corps plan, the men in the Black Watch harboured no doubts that its fanatical defenders would fight tooth and nail to hold out at all costs.

Getting to their objective, however, was their immediate problem. As with previous attacks that week, they expected to have a squadron of Sherman tanks in support, which would pepper the objective with direct fire while the artillery dropped an indirect curtain of steel and high explosive fifty yards ahead of their position, steadily creeping forward as they advanced. Smoke would shroud the battlefield in a great, thick mist to their right, cutting off enemy observation from the heights across the Orne River to the west. But as H-hour arrived, none of these elements so crucial for success had materialized.

"The men in the Black Watch could not have been more alone..."Photo: readersdigest.ca/Shutterstock

Undaunted, the acting commanding officer waved his right arm and 320 men rose to their feet in unison like a fleet weighing anchor. Following a slight pause, the mass of soldiery lurched forward on his cry of “Black Watch advance” and embarked upon the most contentious chapter in their regiment’s long and storied history.

Clomping through the mud with rifles across their chests at the ready and bayonets fixed, the Highlanders momentarily dipped into the sea of wheat and discovered the going more trying than first imagined. Rationing in England had prohibited training in this type of terrain, and although they had had a brief taste earlier in the week, it proved nothing compared with the almost labyrinthine world they now entered, with command and control reduced to a limited series of verbal cues.

Cutting telltale paths into the grain as they bounded up the northern slope of Verrières, the Highlanders continued to move slowly up the gentle rise that in centuries past had hosted the armies of William the Conqueror and King Henry V, but now masked a more sinister horde. Spread out in a loose configuration and carefully concealed in slit trenches and skilfully placed weapons pits, Wehrmacht and SS panzer-grenadiers, snipers, machine guns, panzers and anti-tank guns, from some of the best units Hitler still had to offer, waited patiently, baiting their quarry into a carefully crafted killing field.

To a man, each of the 320 Highlanders wading up the slope came from the ranks of the citizen-soldier, men who volunteered for service and left the relative safety of their homes to cross an ocean to fight someone else’s war. Although known as a Montreal regiment, one-third of the men heading towards their destiny on the ridge came from all parts of Canada, the British Isles and Nazi-occupied Europe, and included a contingent of Americans who had arrived before Pearl Harbor to ensure that they got in on the action.

Slogging steadily through the wheat, prairie boys, long-shoremen and lumberjacks strode side by side with men from the working and middle classes, the wealthy and the powerful. Former bookkeepers, truck drivers, bartenders, machine-shop fitters and general labourers joined with saints, sinners and rogues. Caucasian, African Canadians and First Nations men moving seamlessly with Jews and gentiles, communists and socialists, capitalists, conservatives and liberals. Shepherded by captains of industry, college athletes, lawyers, stockbrokers and private-school prefects, the men maintained an unyielding faith and obedience to authority underscored by their devotion to principle, duty, friendship and the ironclad concept of “regiment”; all now set for bonding and branding by Verrières Ridge.

Plowing through a horseshoe-shaped draw under enemy observation from the centre and both flanks, only the hushed snick snick of German sniper bullets cutting through the thick stalks met the advance. On occasion, deafening clanks signalled that they had found their mark, while the growl from section commanders and platoon sergeants to “keep together” rose above the clamour of the shuffling and the cursing.

Fifty yards into the field, the feathery whine and muffled crumps announced the arrival of mortar-ranging shots falling behind the trailing rifle companies. Soon a screen of high explosive and white-hot shrapnel arrived, erasing any notion of escape or withdrawal. In quick succession, German artillery observers, dug in on the crest and the heights across the Orne River valley, zeroed in on the ten-foot whip antennas of the battalion’s wireless sets, waving madly above the wheat. In quick succession, the crackle of wireless traffic ceased as German mortar shells found their mark. With communications cut, the men in the Black Watch could not have been more alone.

"C'mon, men! Keep moving! We can reach the objective."Photo: readersdigest.ca/Shutterstock

A hundred yards into their advance, German machine guns, sitting snugly in camouflaged hides lining the flanks as well as up on the ridge, barked to life. Firing on fixed lines, their bright green-and-yellow tracer ripped into the field from three sides, cutting deadly swaths into the wheat with scythe-like precision, their searing-hot rounds tearing flesh, tissue and tendons, leaving organs and bones shattered. The Highlanders, devoid of cover, bobbed and weaved in the chest-high grain, desperately seeking any channel to avoid the accurate and deadly German fire pouring down, each man hoping not to draw the short straw in this morbid game of “fate or luck.”

One by one, however, the men started to fall, swallowed by the wheat that reduced command and control to almost nil. The cadence of the few officers and NCOs still left on their feet, once calm and firm, now rose sharply with an increased sense of urgency. With no hope of stopping, of withdrawal or of mercy, they could only continue to chide: “Stay in step! Keep it together! Keep moving, men; keep moving forward!”

Any trepidation built up in the moments before the attack had vanished, replaced now by a scorching rush of adrenalin injected into ever-tightening veins. With their hearts now racing, throats burning and the near-deafening tone of carotid arteries pounding in their ears, only the cries from the wounded and the dying rose above the racket. Once smooth and controlled, their collective glide hastened in pace, turning rapidly into a frantic gallop as they slammed headlong into the German picket halfway up the ridge. Hidden beneath the grain, any defender naive enough to offer surrender received no quarter when the Highlanders over-ran their slits.

German rocket and heavy artillery fire joined the choir just yards from the crest, and a hurricane of steel and fire greeted the mass of humanity scurrying through the wheat. The normally pleasant scent of petrichor, kicked up from the soggy soil with each blast, mixed paradoxically with the bleach-like stench of cordite, the charcoal-like smell of singed flesh and the sulphuric stink of melted hair. With every step, the ground shook; bodies and body parts flew in all directions, striking those still pushing forward up the ridge.

The only reward for the intrepid Highlanders who reached the crest came in the form of elite panzers and Panzergrenadiers who opened fire at point-blank range. Within seconds, shredded bowels and punctured bladders unleashed the pungent, metallic scent of blood and the rancid pong of feces and urine. From beneath the grain, earth-curdling screeches from the wounded and dying, calling out in vain for a medic, a stretcher-bearer or their mothers. In short order, cries turned to whimpers and then, mercifully, irreversible silence.

Drenched in sweat and wild-eyed with rage and terror, the Highlanders who were still on their feet continued to press through the withering fire and the carnage, spurred on by desperate “do or die” calls from their acting commanding officer, whose repeated pleas to push on rose above the cacophony. “C’mon, men! Keep moving! We can reach the objective.”

Seven Days in HellPhoto: HarperCollins Publishers

Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe

Drawing on declassified documents and first-person testimonies, David O’Keefe’s Seven Days in Hell (HarperCollins Publishers, 2019) tells the epic true story of the men from the Black Watch during the battle for Verrières Ridge, a dramatic saga that unfolded weeks after one of Canada’s greatest military triumphs of the Second World War.

Read on to find out how Cree code talkers from Alberta helped win WWII.

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