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West NS Regt Snipers

The West Nova Scout-Sniper Platoon

H. Col. John Leefe, West NS Regt

Italy 1944: the Allies had successfully driven the Italian and German forces out of Sicily and invaded the Italian mainland. The First Canadian Division was now part of the famous British 8th Army. Canadians, British and other Commonwealth forces were responsible for driving a deeply entrenched, tough adversary out of a tremendously demanding terrain consisting of mountains, cold cascading streams, deep valleys and plains always coping with the summer heat of the Mediterranean and the constant wet, cold, mud, ice and snow of late autumn through to late spring. In the vanguard was the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade comprised of R22eR (Vingt-Deuxs) from Quebec, the Carleton and York Regiment from New Brunswick and our own West Nova Scotia Regiment. Before their job was done in Italy and Northwest Europe, they would be in the thick of fighting for 22 months.

Up to Christmas 1943 the war in Italy had been one of movement. After the brutal battle for Ortona it took on a more static complexion with the German lines well established, formidably armed and manned by hard bitten and superbly trained troops. This was known as the Arielli Front or Gustav Line which ran about one hundred miles from the Gulf of Gaeta in the west across the Italian peninsula’s Appenine Mountains to the Adriatic in the east. In March 1944 Lt. Col. Ronald Waterman DSC of the West Nova Scotia Regiment (Ronnie to his men) decided static warfare offered an opportunity to harass the enemy more vigorously. He instructed Captain Don Rice to scrutinize every platoon in the West Novas and select the ones he felt were best qualified to populate a stand alone Scout-Sniper Platoon.

For two weeks about 40 West Novas trained some 3 miles behind the Arielli Line. Here they learned how to shoot using telescopes and trench periscopes. They learned map and aerial photo reading and interpretation, compass reading, field sketching, judging distances, stealth techniques in forest recce patrols, use of knife in silent despatching an enemy, no smoking on duty and of course, camouflage techniques. They had to become adept at remembering every detail of every observation and how to properly report the intelligence upon returning from no man’s land. The patrol was responsible for the greater part of the regiment’s scouting activity most of which occurred at night. After completion of this intensive training phase, 23 of over 40 potential candidates were selected to form the Scout Sniper Platoon.

The scout-snipers were well equipped for the demanding and extremely dangerous duties they volunteered to undertake. Their basic weapon was the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk. 1 sniper rifle. It was bolt action, hosted a ten round .303 calibre magazine and had a modified butt. It mounted a telescopic site, probably a Tel Sighting No. 32 Mk.1 which made it deadly accurate in the hands of a skilled sniper. On patrol the platoon preferred to use the Thompson submachine gun made famous in the US gangster movies. It fired a 45 calibre bullet. The original design carried a round magazine, but by 1944 it had been discarded as it was too quick to jam and too slow to reload. The preferred stick or box magazine housed 30 rounds and could fire at a rate of 600-1000 rounds a minute. It had great stopping power and by 1945 was being produced at $45 per gun. Binoculars were standard, captured German ones being particularly prized. Another sought after German accoutrement was a binocular telescope called the “donkey ears’. It was mounted on a tripod which when opened was reminiscent of its equine namesake. It had a range of 3000 yards and gave an extremely clear view. Trench telescopes could be used not only for viewing vertically, but also for looking around corners.

Clothing was designed to suit this special form of warfare. It was essential that footwear be comfortable, slip free and noiseless hence the soles were made of rope rather than crepe. For winter patrolling there was a white parka that fell to the knees and there were white covers for weapons. These were little used on the Arielli Front, but came into use later in northern Italy where there was more snow. Camouflage for clothing, especially helmets, grease paint for exposed skin and rain repellent gear were ubiquitous. So much for sunny Italy!

The Scout-Sniper Platoon was responsible for all reconnaissance patrolling of enemy lines. Captain Rice would muster his specialists and then go over detailed planning for their outing. Usually they worked in pairs and sometimes in teams of three. Each group would then head out to pre-determined zones to gather intelligence of enemy positions and movements and would remain in the field up to twelve hours. Stealth and non-detection were essential. In later years Oren Foster reflected, “Our job was to go into No Man’s Land at night and capture prisoners for interrogation. A very risky business. Throughout the war fear was our constant companion.” Upon their return the scouts went through a detailed de-briefing with Captain Rice and the West Nova’s Intelligence Officer.

With a much more complete picture of no man’s land and enemy positions in hand, the initiative was turned over to fighting patrols. These consisted of ten men drawn from various companies and were lead by a junior officer. One of the scouts who had previously reconnoitred the area would accompany the patrol to his farthest point of penetration upon which he would return to his own lines. The fighting patrol would then carry out its mission. Any number of tasks could be performed including shooting up enemy outposts, blowing up mines, capturing prisoners for interrogation, drawing fire to determine enemy strong points and generally gathering as much intelligence about the enemy as possible. Much of this patrolling was done under cover of darkness. It was a lonely, dangerous task that was hated by most of the men assigned to it, but they performed it like the professionals they had become. The intelligence they gathered saved lives.

The Scout-Sniper Platoon was also responsible for maintaining forward Observation Posts (OP) twenty-four hours a day. The OPs were located in forward areas where enemy movements could be best observed. This duty was performed by a couple of scouts at each post in six hour shifts. My Uncle John who served with the Royal Canadian Artillery in Italy and was a post-war CO of the West Nova Scotia Regiment was often detailed to such duties as Forward Observation Officer (FOO). He said the loneliness was daunting.

At the OP the scouts would record and report every discernable enemy movement. This was accomplished by a field telephone or wireless set that connected them back to the Intelligence Officer. They reported troop numbers, locations, regimental identification, types of vehicles and weapons, presence of artillery, anti-tank guns, self-propelled guns, tanks, machine gun post positions and location of mine fields. This information was absolutely essential to getting the better of the enemy. As previously noted each scout was well versed in compass work and calculating distances so bearings could be taken on the position and type of enemy guns. This intelligence would then be forwarded to Canadian gunners who would open up on the enemy targets. Not infrequently the information went directly to the air force and a sortie of fighter bombers would make a visit to the enemy lines. An example of their work is found in the Regimental War Diary dated April 12. “Weather fine and hot. Div believe they have the secret of the enemy flare sig system. Two parties of scouts sent out to try these for effect. This was partially successful, enemy arty opened on our gun areas.” Apparently “Div” got the German signals slightly mixed up! Despite the odd setback, wrecking havoc on the enemy whether in fast moving or static warfare was always a priority for the Scout-Sniper Platoon.

As the name implies, sniping was a specialty of the platoon. Occasionally snipers would work in pairs, but sometimes alone. A sniper would be assigned a specific area that had been previously studied from aerial photographs, visited by patrols or studied from Forward Observation Posts. In the pre-dawn darkness, the sniper would usually dig a slit trench (Americans had fox holes, Canadians had slit trenches) and camouflage himself and the immediate area to avoid possible detection. The sniper couldn’t leave his position until after dark so he would sate his hunger with a can of bully beef and a handful of biscuits. Throughout the day he would observe the enemy position through a trench telescope, binoculars and his rifle sniper scope.

Needless to say, this was a very dangerous and very lonesome task. It required men who were much more than just superb shots. They had to have the patience of Job, the eye of a hawk and nerves of steel. They had to know their enemy well when they arrived and better when they left. They sought to identify specific targets looking for enemy soldiers whose comings and goings were repetitive. This would be very useful in selecting a target. It was not unusual for a sniper to return to the same site several days in a row. He knew he would only get one shot away and it had to be successful. If he missed and his position became known he was a dead man. Such was the skill of Hardy aka Harry “Snake Eye” Gates.

On one occasion, Gates left before dawn and made his way through the late night to a position that provided a perfect view of a farmhouse populated by Germans. Three days in succession he returned to the same spot carefully observing their activities. He took particular notice of one man who just after dawn each morning came out of a house, stretched to loosen his muscles and sauntered over to a small bank. Here he dropped his suspenders, unbuttoned his trousers and relieved himself. His predictability was as regular as clockwork and it was to be his undoing. On the third morning right on cue the German played out his early morning regimen. He emerged, walked to the bank, dropped his suspenders, unbuttoned and emptied his bladder. While fastening his pants a single shot pieced the early morning air and the German dropped to the ground dead. The purpose of such sniping was to keep the enemy unsettled, fearful, on edge. Gates patience and skill achieved that purpose. He later remarked that he felt it only proper to allow the enemy soldier time to complete his ablutions before he was dispatched.

Stalking was an essential skill. Scout-Sniper Oren Foster used his talents to good effect to locate a German sniper. The West Novas were being heavily mortared and with obvious accuracy. Captain Rice detailed Foster to go forward to see what he could find. Carefully scrutinizing the landscape, he thought he saw a slight movement in a haystack that was some distance away. Displaying his usual stealth he worked his way up to it. Here he captured an enemy sniper who had also been acting as a forward observer, passing on vital information to the German mortar platoon that was lambasting the West Novas. The shelling stopped almost immediately and Foster returned to his lines with the German sniper in tow complete with wireless set.

On another occasion, one of the West Nova companies had its right flank fired on nightly from a nearby cave in a gully. This was very disruptive and caused significant problems for patrols in the area. The Scout-Sniper platoon was called upon to make a thorough reconnoitre after which it was decided the best way to deal with this nuisance was to attack it with a PIAT. This weapon’s full name is Projector Infantry Anti-Tank hence the acronym. It was the British counterpart of the American bazooka. The PIAT was difficult to cock for the first shot, but after the initial firing it re-cocked itself. It was thirty-nine inches long (1 meter), it weighed 23 pounds (15 kilograms) and had a potential range of up to 115 yards (110 meters). It was most effective when fired from a slit trench using front “A” shaped monopod. Though it was heavy, cumbersome and only 65% accurate, it did have some strengths. It was smokeless, cheap to mass produce and unlike the bazooka, it had no back blast so the firer’s position was not revealed. The Scout–Snipers moved forward with 3 PIATS and silently made their way to within 250 yards of the cave more than twice the normal range of the PIAT. They armed and fired 18 bombs, three of which hit the target. This resulting explosion caused the cave entrance to collapse probably killing the resident enemy. Fighting patrols attempted to raid the caves at last light, but came under heavy fire before they reached their objectives and were forced to retire. The caves however, ceased to be a problem.

Charlie Fleet, a Newfoundlander who had joined the West Novas as a replacement sniper., was described by Oren Foster as a “real bandito” who had a 6 gun tucked in his belt, carried a nasty looking knife and preferred a German submachine gun, likely a 32 round Schmeisser, whenever one was available. He constantly badgered Foster to go on night patrols with him. Whenever Foster objected that he had been with Fleet just the night before, Fleet would say he didn’t care, he just wanted him. “Charley thought) I was his good luck charm.” Foster said they would infiltrate enemy lines and get as close to a German position as possible. At that point Fleet would invariably say he was going to “stir them up a little” and throw a hand grenade into the enemy position. “That sure stirred them up”, said Foster. He went on to observe that “Charley was a strong man and threw Mills bombs like baseballs! One time we were out and Charley had thrown his grenades and I was scared silly as the German machine gun opened up, then all went quiet and I started to sweat. Next thing I hear is Charley snoring!!”

Fleet and Doucette teamed for a patrol. Snooping around in the dark they literally almost had a Jerry patrol walk into them. He later observed they were so close, “you could of smelled his breath”. They subsequently sneaked backed to their own lines, picked up a Bren gun and returned to do a bit of shooting, but the Germans had gone.

On another occasion, Cpl. Fleet reinforced by “EFI” (whatever that was) stood on rubble in front of his observation post and “at the top of his hoarse voice invited Tedeschi [Italian name for Germans] to come out and fight”. In a 2006 interview with then Major George Thomson (currently Colonel commanding 36 Brigade) Foster said that his most vivid memory was the friendship with Charlie Fleet. “I could depend on him and he could depend on me. He saved my life a few times, I suppose.” Foster was awarded the British Empire Medal for gallantry after saving several soldiers from drowning during a military exercise in England prior to the Italian campaign. Foster also teamed with “Snake Eye” Gates recalling; “ I remember one night, Snake Eye and I were crawling through a dense olive grove. He suddenly stopped and motioned me forward. He had bumped into a trip wire with his forehead and stopped! We tied a line around the wire and backed off and pulled it and waited to see if any Germans showed up. None did, but if we had been walking instead of crawling, I would not be here today. Just one of many lessons learned in Italy!”

Fleet returned to Newfoundland after the cessation of hostilities. His daughter in conversation with Bill Green said that Fleet became a heavy drinker in the post-war years. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disordered. Occasionally she and her mother would be awakened by Charley screaming, “Oren! Oren! Let’s get the hell out of here!” How many families have been visited by such unwelcome ghosts of the past very much including the recent past?

German mortar fire was always a problem. The regiment was being lambasted by the enemy who Captain Rice deduced had a spotter in a nearby olive grove. He ordered Oren Foster to “Go and get him!” Foster worked his way forward coming upon the offending Jerry who reached for his gun, but the intrepid West Nova already “had the drop on him”. Foster’s prisoner was twice lucky. He had just been transferred from the Eastern Front to Italy and now his war was over. It was off to a nice safe POW camp for him. Apparently in a show of gratitude, he provided a lot of very useful information to his captors.

The regiment moved into northern Italy in the latter part of 1944. Foster was again active, this time striving to outflank a German machine gunner who was ensconced on the second floor and was creating problems for the West Novas. Foster circled the site finding the Italian farmer whose house was hosting the unwelcome tenant who pointed out the location of the stairwell. Foster crept up the stairs, opened the door and ordered the machine gunner to put his hands up. Foster then ordered him to pick up the machine gun and bring it with him. The response in English was, “I can’t, I don’t feel well. Foster’s reply was, “Pick it up or you’ll feel a lot worse!” Upon returning to his comrades with the well armed prisoner, he was met with some abuse, “but at least he wasn’t going to kill any more of us.”

1945 witnessed the Scout Sniper Platoon continuing its deadly work. On January 21 a sniper working with “A” Company in Sagnacavallo “got two probable kills” At Bagnacavallo on the 26th another kill was scored at 368421 by a sniper working in the “D” Company area . On the 29th a sniper “shot a dog forward of “D” Coy this morning. During the past few days several of these animals have been observed at different points along the river bank [Senior]. It is believed they are being used by the enemy to carry messages, locate mine fields, foot paths, etc.” On February 1st a West Nova Sniper shot one enemy in a weapon pit at 373426. “Later he was dragged over the dyke by his comrades”. The next day a sniper working in the “D” Company area scored a kill on the dyke at 36784202.

Unfortunately Cpl. Charles Jeremy, another West Nova Mi’maq, was wounded at the Arielli River on March 10, 1944 just about the time the Scout-Sniper Platoon was established. He had been sniping ever since the landing in Sicily. His brother L/Cpl J. J. P. Jeremy was killed in Sicily. Charlie slipped into the night to get even with the people who, as he noted, “did my brother dirt”. It is said that by the time of his return he had significantly thinned the ranks of the enemy. Legend had it that he had 60 kills to his credit by the time he was wounded in March 1944.

The West Nova Scotia Regiment Scout-Sniper Platoon proved to be very effective. It was comprised of men who were excellent shots and who were skilled stalkers. Most if not all came from rural communities where they had hunted from the time they were youngsters. Cpl. Charlie Fleet (Stephenville Crossing, NF), Privates Hardy Fulton aka Harry “Snake Eye” Gates (Port Maitland, NS), Oren S. Foster (Annapolis Royal, NS), Val Young (Little Bras D’Or) wounded at Ortona December 17, 1943), G. K. Langille (Martin’s River, NS) , C. R. Peck (Bear River, NS), R. M. Francis (Lequille, NS), D. F. Adams (Kentville, NS) and Francis. H. Doucett (Miscuoche, PEI) who was killed at the Gothic Line in September 1944.

This has been the story of brave West Novas who through special skills, determination, self-discipline, cunning and intelligence, accepted an extraordinary wartime role and who through their diligence made life more difficult and often short for the enemy. Their efforts saved the lives of comrades-in-arms who advantaged from their work.

Some information for this story comes from a letter written by Don Rice to Tom Raddall as Raddall was researching his very fine history of the West Nova Scotia Regiment in the Second World War. Home in Canada, Rice became a medical doctor. No doubt the gruelling business of war had made him seek a post-war career in the healing profession. Other information comes from the Regimental War Diaries, various publications, Dalhousie University Special Collections and personal interviews including those undertaken by Bill Green of Springhill, Nova Scotia who is a nephew of Hardy aka Harry “Snake Eye” Gates.

Last edit October 26, 2014