Major L.M. McBride’s two-month journey from Nazi POW camp Oflag 7B to his hometown of Nelson, B.C. in early 1945

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By Sam McBride

My father Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) enlisted for Canadian military service in 1941 immediately after graduating in law from the University of Alberta but before his bar examination, the last step before qualifying as a lawyer.  With his maturity, education and achievements, he was taken on for officer training, including time at Gordon Head near Victoria, B.C. and Currie Barracks in Calgary, Alberta.

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Leigh M. McBride and his brother Kenneth G. McBride, both proud to be officers of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.  Family photo.

As a lieutenant, he led his Seaforth Highlanders of Canada unit ashore in the Allied landings at Pachino in the southwest tip of Sicily.  It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, and destined to be exceeding size a year later with the D-day invasion of the French coast.   The invasion could have been a bloodbath like Dieppe the previous summer, but at that point Italians were turning away from Mussolini, and as a result surrendered in large numbers to the Allies.  The situation changed dramatically when Germany sent some of its best troops to stop the Allied advance.  Leigh was in the thick of the fighting against the Germans until being hit in the shoulder by a bullet.  He later said he was fortunate that the bullet did not hit any bones in his shoulder, but the wound must have been substantial, as he was sent to an Allied hospital in North Africa via Malta for treatment.   He returned to his regiment in  November, and was in at the forefront of the Allied advance to Ortona, which would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, commonly known as “little Stalingrad” after the gigantic victory of the Russians over their German attackers by the Volga River.   I remember Leigh often talking about the extraordinary Christmas dinner that the Seaforths enjoyed in a church in Ortona.  As per military tradition, on Christmas he and other officers were the waters and servers of the privates, corporals and sergeants.  Thirty years later, in April 1975, he visited the re-built church with Seaforth buddies who were at the famous dinner, including the quartermaster Borden Cameron of Vancouver who organized the food and drink for that event which went on just a few blocks from where vicious street-fighting was going on between the two sides.

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Leigh met a fellow Nelsonite while in North Africa for treatment of a bullet wound to his shoulder.  Nelson Daily News

The hilly terrain in Sicily and mainland Italy was such that the advantage was almost always with the defending forces.  On May 23, 1944 Leigh and his men were part of an ambitious attack on the Hitler Line.  That day is remembered as his hometown city of Nelson’s Black Day of the War, as two Nelson boys (Priv. Ray Hall and Priv. Jack Wilson) were killed, and two others (Leigh and Priv. Joe “Bud” Dyck) went missing.  Both were seriously wounded and were hospitalized at Italian and later German hospitals.  Word came through the International Red Cross in July that Bud was alive and recovering in a German POW camp, but it was not until September 20, 1944 – four months after going missing – that his parents were advised that he was alive in a German POW camp, recovering from serious wounds, including schrapnel to his legs, arms and face, and the permanent loss of his left eye.  In response to a request for the Regimental History of the Seaforth Highlanders, Leigh wrote about the fateful day he was captured (see the November 4, 2019 posting in this blog).

pow article in local Nelson newspaperLeigh received treatment at a hospital in Rome before being sent by train for medical care in Germany, followed by time in prisoner of war camps.  I am not sure how many POW camps he went to, but once when I visited Regensberg as part of Western Europe he said “oh, I was in a prison in Regensberg”.   His last camp before repatriation was Oflag 7B (VIIB) north of Munich.  This was a camp for Allied officers.  He describes his experiences at this camp and others in newspaper interviews conducts as he was returning home in February 1945, and later in presentations in Nelson in March and April 1945.

He knew as early as October 1944 that the extent of his wounds made him a good candidate for a prisoner exchange and repatriation.  His parents worked tirelessly to get packages of supplies, particularly food, to him through the Red Cross, which was trusted by the Germans.

His repatriation was confirmed on about January 11, 1945 when he was at the German military centre Heilig Annaburg near Berlin, where he was photographed in a group with other injured Allied officers about to head home in prisoner exchanges.

My dad rarely went to movies, but he did make a point of taking our family to a drive-in theatre in Spokane, Washington in 1970 to see the movie “Patton”, where much of the story involved the Allied push across Siciliy and the conflicting egos of American General Patton and British General Montgomery.   I suspected his Seaforth Highlander friends recommended the move, and he told me it was very well done.  I don’t think he ever saw the movie “The Great Escape”, and I never heard comments about it from him one way or the other.   That escape concluded in May 1944 just a couple of weeks before he was captured.  Hitler’s vengeful act of having 50 of the escapers shot would have been one more reason for the next-of-kin of POWs to be worried about getting them back.

aug 16 180030Leigh occasionally watched the TV comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” and enjoyed it.  He said while in one POW camp he played chess with a German guard who looked a bit like Sgt. Schultz in the show.  Through the efforts of his parents, Leigh was able to get law books included in his Red Cross packages which he read in preparation for the bar exam he would be taking after returning from the war.

mar26190003After his prisoner exchange was confirmed, he left Heilig Annaburg by trail for the Swiss border.  As a result of Allied bombing, rail trips took about four times longer than normal.  He became officially free in Constance, Switzerland.  From there he was taken to the port of Marseilles, which had been liberated in the Allied invasion of southern France in the fall of 1944.  The Red Cross ship “Gripsholm” took him to New York, where he and other freed Canadian were taken in a sealed railway car to Toronto, and headed west from there on the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Reporters met them at several locations along the way, but, as part of the repatriation agreement, they could only comment on the help provided by the Red Cross, which Leigh and others were happy to do.

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In repatriation group, Leigh is top row, third from left, at Heilig Annanburg.  Below, photo of the same facility today by Brennen Jensen of Maryland, whose late father is four in, front row.

pic from brennenWhen he finally got to Vancouver he was greeted by his mother Winnifred Foote McBride, who had not seen him for almost three years.  The reunion was particularly poignant because her other son, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, also with the Seaforth Highlanders, was killed in action near Rimini on Sept. 16, 1944 when his jeep ran over a German mine.

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Winnie McBride greeting her son Leigh at Vancouver CPR station

From Vancouver, mother and son made their way home to Nelson on the Kettle Valley Railway, arriving in the evening of Feb. 28, 1945 to an enthusiastic welcome party of family, friends, the mayor and other dignitaries.  In the coming weeks he was in strong demand as a speaker at service club meetings, and an extensive interview with the Nelson Daily News.

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After passing his bar exam he began his career as a lawyer in Nelson.  He was never the same physically after the war, as he had nerve damage and hearing loss as well as adapting to life with vision in just one eye.  He once showed me where schrapnel was still in his leg because it would be dangerous to remove it.  This was painful for him, but he never complained about it, as he remembered so many fellow soldiers who had more serious injuries or died in the war.  In the late 1960s his cousin (and former law partner in Nelson) Judge Blake Allan told him he could get an appointment as a judge if he wanted, but Leigh declined the opportunity because, as he told me, it would not be fair to soft-spoken defendants if he could not hear them.

Each year until the 1970s Leigh would travel to the Shaughnessy Veterans Hospital in Vancouver for examination by doctors there.  In 1969 he moved to Trail to begin working as a lawyer for the large mining and smelting company, Cominco Ltd.   In addition to golf, his hobby in retirement was reading books about Italian art and architecture, an interest he developed while participating in the 30th anniversary of Canadians in the Italian Campaign in 1975.  Within a couple of years after retiring from Cominco I 1982 Leigh contracted Parkinson’s Disease, which got progressively worse and resulted in him in 1990 going to a care home in Trail, where he died August 8, 1995 – exactly 42 years after being wounded in Sicily.

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front page of newsletter for relatives of Canadian POW’s

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from POW newsletter

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Oflag 7B mentioned in POW relatives newsletter, December 1944

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Oflag 7B again mentioned in Canadian POW relatives newsletter

 

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Oflag 7B facilities today, used for police training

 

First-hand account from the Canadian attack on the Hitler Line on May 23, 1944 by Seaforth Highlanders officer Major L.M. McBride from Nelson, British Columbia

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Note from editor Sam McBride: The following report was written by my father Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) in response to a request in 1968 by Professor Reginald Roy of the University of Victoria who was producing a regimental history of the Vancouver-based Seaforth Highlanders of Canada regiment.  Parts of this report were quoted in the regimental history, and later also in the Mark Zuehlke book “The Liri Valley – Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome.”  Leigh lost his left eye in the action he describes, and spent several months in German hospitals and prison camps before repatriation in early 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  While in a POW camp, he learned from letters from his parents that his brother and fellow Seaforth officer, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, was killed by a road mine explosion near Rimini, Italy on September 16, 1944.

 

By Leigh Morgan McBride

The morning of May 23rd, 1944 in the Cassino area was very foggy – the heaviest fog I remember seeing in Italy.  Originally Major E.D. (Davie) Fulton* was to be in command of “D” Company of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada but he and C.Q.M.S. Staines were involved in a highway accident and if I remember correctly, Davie either broke a leg or sustained other injuries which sent him to hospital.  In any event, as a result of the accident I was in command of “D” Company when it participated in the attack on the Hitler Line.

The start line was at the edge of the woods – we were the forward company on the right and the “A” Company under Major J.F. McLean D.S.O. was the other forward company on our left.  There had been sporadic shelling of our battalion area for the previous few days.  However, as soon as we got under way from our start line and into the wood we immediately came under heavy fire, both machine gun and artillery, and our casualties were heavy.

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Major L.M. McBride c. 1942

Our squadron of the North Irish Horse (note in pen on carbon copy: our supporting tanks) had been warned to beware of any enemy hiding up the trees.  As our tanks lumbered forward over the uneven ground the range of fire of the machine guns would suddenly lower hundreds of yards and our company would be the recipient rather than tree-borne Germans.  The visibility that morning was virtually nil with the heavy fog or mist plus the smoke from shells and mortar bombs and right from the outset we had difficulty with our radio communications.  We tried about three times to get the machine gun fire from our tanks stopped but with little success and this, coupled with the heavy fog resulted in Dog company being scattered from “hell to breakfast”.

The different units all seemed to get completely broken up into small groups sometimes with other companies or even with the Pats who had started on our right flank.  Taking the small group of company headquarters that was still intact I started to pick my way very carefully through enemy wire trying to make sure that I just stepped on hard ground which had not been disturbed and as I moved through the wire my runner Johnson was stepping right in my footsteps.

Seaforth_crest_in_colour_from_decal[1]Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and I woke up on the ground back in front of the wire but Johnson had been killed instantly as had Warner the older of the two signallers.  The younger radio operator had a bad gash on his cheek and I helped him over to a nearby ditch that would give him some cover until he got proper medical attention and patched him up temporarily with a field dressing.  That eliminated all of company headquarters except myself, and trying to locate the three platoons I came across a private from the Pats and we went on together through the fields of hay or some type of crop which was almost waist-high.  Suddenly, we came under machine gun fire and hit the dirt.  Every time we moved in the deep hay it of course showed up and we got another blast for our trouble.

By then we realized that the heavy firing we heard was between us and the woods and that it was either Jerry tanks or 88s dug in so as to be almost invisible until you stumbled over them.  The only thing to do was hope that our own tanks would be able to help, but we did not know at that time what a terrific pasting our tanks had taken from the dug-in tanks and 88s.

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McBride in Italy. c. 1943

I am not sure what happened next – whether we were on the receiving end of a shell or mortar bomb but whatever it was hit me in the left eye and when I more or less came to it was to find several Germans looking down at me.  They put a bandage on my eye and when it started to get dark they put me in an ambulance and we no sooner got under way when a large shell went off beneath the vehicle, and some unfortunate Jerry who had a bunk below me in the ambulance got almost the full brunt of the explosion.  I don’t know how badly he was hurt but it sounded pretty grim.  I got shrapnel in my left shoulder and left leg but none of it too serious.  After that I have a recollection of a very bright light in an operating room which must have been in Rome as my German records show an operation taking place there.  The next thing I remembered was waking up in a German Red Cross train somewhere near Verona in northern Italy.

I felt before the attack on the Hitler Line that 2nd brigade would have had a much better plan exploiting the penetration on the left flank which had been breached by 1st brigade.  Even if we attacked where we did, I am sure it would have been less costly  to the battalion had we attacked several days earlier, however, perhaps there was some perfectly valid reason for the delay which would be apparent at higher levels.

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McBride (right) with fellow Seaforth officer Borden Cameron during the 30th anniversary reunion in April 1975 in Italy

Our front was so narrow that it left no alternative than a direct frontal assault.  The hay or alfalfa completely hid the enemy and yet they still had an excellent unobstructed field of fire at our infantry and the North Irish Horse tanks.  We had tremendous artillery support that morning but much of its effect was wasted because the enemy were dug in so well and because the visibility was so poor because of the very heavy ground mist or fog that hung over the ground.  In Sicily and the month-long battle of the Moro River crossing and Ortona we never operated under such chaotic conditions as we encountered in the Hitler Line.  “D” Company got completely scattered going through the wood and because of the heavy small arms fire and shelling and the fog it remained broken up in small groups.

I have read with interest the chapter on winter patrols northwest of Ortona.  After reading of Keats, Shelley, Byron et al wintering in sunny Italy it was a rude shock to encounter the winter of 1943-44.  Although we were virtually at sea level the weather was terribly cold for days on end and then it would be followed by heavy and constant rainfalls and everything turned into a sea of mud.  I think you described it very graphically when you described Lt. Gildersleeve’s boots.  Incidentally, I think the functioning wireless set mentioned in footnote 48 on page 408 very likely was that belonging to “D” Company as the one signaller was killed and the second wounded when we were in the middle of the wire.

I am sending your material (maps, war diary excerpts, etc) under separate cover and apologize for the delay I writing but we recently moved our offices and everything has been somewhat disorganized since last fall.  Very best wishes to you in your project.

Everything in chapter IX seemed correct and the only error I could spot was the weight of the Churchill tank which you stated to be 39 tons.  My recollection is that they were 40 tons but I could easily be wrong (note on carbon copy in pen: I wasn’t).

Feb.13, 1968

Kind regards,

L.M. McBride

 

* E. Davie Fulton (1916-2000) went on to serve as federal Minister of Justice in the Diefenbaker cabinets from 1957 to 1963.

30th anniversary reunion in 1975 of Canadian soldiers in Italy in Second World War

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By Sam McBride

The “Canadians in Italy” reunion of Canadian veterans who served in the Italian Campaign in World War Two was held in Sicily and mainland Italy between April 22, 1975 and May 3, 1975, commemorating the 30th anniversary.

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Cover of souvenir album of the reunion.  Photo by John Evans is of Canadian veterans beside reflecting pool during ceremony at Cassino War Cemetery.  Published by Minister of Supply and Services Canada 1976.

 

 

 

Approximately 300 veterans joined with the official party led by the Hon. Daniel Joseph MacDonald (1918-1980), minister of veteran affairs, other dignitaries and a selection of young people from across Canada.  Participants included the three Victoria Cross recipients from the campaign: John K. Mahoney; Paul Triquet and E.A. “Smoky” Smith.

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itinerary, page 2.  Also in the schedule were “Briefings in Ottawa and arrival in Rome, April 20-22, 1975”.

During the war Minister MacDonald was a sergeant in the Italian Campaign with the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, and later the Cape Breton Highlanders.  He lost an arm and a leg in the bitter fighting December 21, 1944 for Coriano Ridge in the assault on the Gothic Line.  Today, the headquarters of Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown is named in his honour: the Daniel J. MacDonald Building.

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photos with caption information from Veterans Affairs published in the Nelson, B.C. Daily News in May 1975.  Leigh McBride was born and raised in Nelson before moving to nearby Trail, B.C. in 1969.

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another photo with caption in the Nelson Daily News, May 1975

 

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ortona pic0001It was the first time Canadian vets returned as a group to the scene of the fierce battles of their youth, and paid their respects to fallen comrades in cemeteries from Agira in Sicily to Argentan north of Ravenna on the Adriatic Coast.  According to Veterans Affairs information at the time, a total of 91,500 Canadians served in Sicily and Italy, of whom 25,254 were casualties, including 5,900 killed in action.

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Seaforth Highlanders Leigh McBride (left) and Borden Cameron (right) with General Bert Hoffmeister (middle) during a side trip to Venice. Family photo.

The tour was described as a “pilgrimage”, and included events in famous names such as Salerno, Naples, Rome, Anzio, Cassino, Ortona, Bari, Reggio, Ragusa, Catania, Florence, Rimini and Ravenna, and 25 cemeteries.

There was some overlap with other ceremonies for a separate commemoration: the country of Italy’s 30th anniversary of the liberation from German rule in 1945.

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Welcomed by local residents.  Family photo.

I recall that my father, retired Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, initially did not want to go to the “Canadians in Italy Reunion”.  After coming home to Nelson, British Columbia in 1945 he preferred to put the war experience behind him, though he maintained strong friendships with several Seaforth veterans such as his commanding officer Col. Syd Thomson (who was my godfather), Captain D. Borden Cameron and Major John McLean.

Leigh suffered a bullet wound in his shoulder in the Allied invasion of Sicily in August 1943, and then May 23, 1944 at Cassino he suffered shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and face that resulted in the loss of his right eye.  The only survivor of his unit, he was found unconscious by German soldiers, and taken to hospital in Rome for treatment, and then to prisoner of war camps in Germany.  He returned to Canada in February 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  On September 16, 1944, while Leigh was at the Oflag 7B prison camp, his younger brother, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride (1920-1944) was killed near Rimini when his carrier vehicle ran over a road mine.

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Posing for photo with local residents.  Family photo.

With strong encouragement from Borden Cameron (the quartermaster who organized the famous Seaforth Christmas 1943 dinner at the Ortona church in the middle of the battle), Leigh decided to attend the reunion.   He was particularly looking forward to visiting brother Ken’s grave in Coriano Ridge Cemetery near Riccione for the first time.   Paying his respects at Ken’s grave was an extremely moving experience for him, as it was for me when I visited the cemetery as a tourist in 2005.  This posting includes a candid photo Borden took of Leigh standing by the gravestone and reflecting on Ken’s death, which was devastating for their parents, particularly mother Winnie who never recovered from the shock, as well as Leigh, other relatives and Ken’s many friends.

On September 20, 1944 the parents were thrilled to hear the news that Leigh, who had been missing for four months, was alive and in a POW camp.  They were still celebrating two days later when a telegram came that said Ken had died six days earlier.  The main reason why news of Leigh being alive and a POW was slow to reach Canadian authorities was because was being treated in German hospitals during most of the “missing” period, and the usual mechanism of informing via the Red Cross was not available in hospitals as it was in POW camps.

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Remembrance ceremony under way.  Family photo.

Participants in the tour got from place to place in sleek Fiat buses.  Leigh told his family he was extremely impressed with how Italy had recovered from the war, when people were starving and living in dilapidated homes damaged by the warfare.  He particularly enjoyed side trips to Venice and Mount Etna.  The experience led him to become an aficionado of Italian art and architecture.  Unfortunately, by the time he retired from his job with the legal department of Cominco Ltd.

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Borden Cameron, Leigh McBride and fellow veterans.  Family photo.

In retrospect, the 30th anniversary was probably the best time for the reunion in Italy to be held, as participants were generally still in good health, were advanced enough in their careers to be able to take a couple of weeks off work, and could afford the cost of the flights to and from Italy and other expenses not covered by Veterans Affairs or the local hosts.

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Leigh joins other tourists during a side trip to Venice in late April 1975..

Leigh would not have been able to attend a 40th anniversary reunion in 1985 because he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinsons Disease.  Ten years later he died at age 77 in a care home in Trail on August 12, 1995, a couple of months after the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Italy.

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1942 photo of Leigh McBride (left) and his brother Ken, who was killed in action near Rimini in September 1944 and is buried at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

As part of the publicity associated with the reunion, Veterans Affairs distributed photos with identification and caption information to the local newspapers of participants.  Both the Nelson Daily News and the Trail Daily Times ran the material in early May 1995, and the Trail paper passed on the photo prints to Leigh for the family album, from which I am very pleased to be able to scan and share images in this posting.  Local residents, some of whom lived through the war years, showed their Canadian visitors heartfelt welcomes and appreciation, as shown in several of the photos.  A highlight was a parade of the Canadian veterans through Rimini to a response by locals that was described by writer Maurice Western in the May 15, 1975 Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper as “tumultuous”.

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Leigh McBride, seeing his brother Ken’s grave for the first time at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Photo taken by Borden Cameron.  Family photo.

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ceremony at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

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Cemetery ceremony.  Family photo.