Joseph Blanchard

Joseph Blanchard

Editor’s note: The following is an account by Joseph Blanchard, who grew up in New Brunswick but lived briefly and spent summers in Pictou County. He was a member of First Special Services Force, otherwise known as the Devil’s Brigade. The Canadians and Americans in the force trained in Helena, Mont., and joined the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy in November 1943. He shared this account with family members.

Aug. 14, 1944, 10 p.m.

World War II

Joseph Aurel Blanchard

First Special Services Force

The men of Second Company First Regiment (2-1) of the First Special Services Force had finished their last shipboard meal and were sitting around below decks in full battle dress, checking weapons for a night landing on the Hyenes Island, about three miles off the coast of France.

We had been given our orders and we knew what we had to do. They were simple orders—get into 11-man army boats, go ashore, climb the cliffs, kill or take prisoner the several hundred enemy defending the island and put the big guns on the island out of operation. This would allow the invasion of the mainland of South France to go ahead the next morning as planned, without the island guns shelling.

I had joined the force several months earlier in Anzio. At that time, the force was understrength with probably one or two thousand men on the line, normally held by a full division of 10,000. As we were so spread out, I got to know only a small number of the men by name.

The men of our company were ready. I could see no fear in their faces, just a grim determination. This could be a dirty job, but we were ready. We had the confidence in our ability to use our weapons, the tools of our trade.

Why didn’t I have my notebook and write something about each of the men in our section? Sgt. Frank and Sgt. B gave last minute advice—check your Mae West (our inflatable floatation device worn high up around the chest) and check your guns. Their confidence help reduce tension.

I missed my close buddy from Anzio, Walter Dawes from Mississippi, who had taken a bunch of shrapnel in the foot and leg and had gone back stateside. Walter and I were the “old soldiers” of the front line force; we were 28 and the average age of the front was 20 or less.

I wondered, and I suppose most of the others also wondered, how many would die that night. Would it be like back on May 23 at Anzio when we lost 23 men there, killed in action?

Then the call from the ship’s officer came, “OK lads time to go.” This was from the British officer. We were on a British boat. We filed up the stairs to the deck. Some landing craft were in the water and some were in the davits. The British officer’s orders were in low key. “Lower away handsomely now. Down you go lads.” And we climbed over the rail and down the rope ladders to the rubber boats now in the water.

There were 11 men to a rubber boat. One of the front (bow) and five on each side. I was last on the left side. Three or four rubber boats in tow by several larger landing craft and soon we were quietly on our way to the islands. Our island was Isle du Port Cros. If we were not fixed on, we would be cut loose from the motor craft one-quarter mile or so from shore, and then it would be paddle in as quietly as possible.

The big question on our minds was when will they start firing and we waited for their bullets and paddled quietly and slowly toward the cliffs, and we wondered if we would reach the cliffs or would we have to swim in the cold Mediterranean.

It is hard to believe, but we reached the cliffs without a shot. There was no beach, the deep water went right to the cliffs.

Carefully, I got a foothold on the rocks and, groping in the dark for footholds and handholds, started the slow climb. We had trained to climb carefully and quietly and we went up inch by inch without a sound. We had climbed for what seemed to be hours and up a half-mile, but was probably more like half an hour and 180 feet up, when someone lost a helmet. The four clanks on the rocks and the splash in the water smashed the silence, and we melted into the rocks, not a sound or movement for at least five minutes. Then slowly we started to move up again.

The steep cliff became a slope and we crawled quickly on elbows and knees, guns cradled, as we had often done in training, and then we were in the bush. Now we were ready to fight. It was great to feel the comfort a loaded tommy gun can give you when you have both feet on the ground.

We advanced slowly across the island, picking up prisoners as we went. There was not much shooting. They would fire a few rounds and then surrender. One of our officers, Lt. MacLean, was shot and later died of his wounds. By daylight we had control of the island and had taken about 100 or more prisoners. The last 20 or so defenders were holed up in Fort de L’Eminence and would not surrender. Dive bombing by U.S. planes and 15-inch shells from the British battleship Ramilles had no effect and we were forced to wait overnight.

Our company took shelter in a hotel-like building in plain sight of the fort, which was hardly more than 100 feet away. My stomach accepted the contents of a K ration pack, a can of hash, hard biscuits, cookies and candies, then it was sleep. With complete exhaustion, the wood timbers felt like a feather bed.

PICTOU COUNTY SERVICES

  • Sunny Brae Remembrance Day Service, 2 p.m., at the War Memorial
  • Eureka Remembrance Day Service, next to fire station, 11 a.m.
  • Glencoe Remembrance Day Service, 2:30 p.m., at the Glencoe Hall Cenotaph, 957 East River East Side Rd.
  • New Glasgow Remembrance Day service, at the cenotaph, 10:45 a.m.
  • Pictou Remembrance Day service, at the cenotaph, 10:45 a.m.
  • Stellarton Remembrance Day Service, at the cenotaph, 10:45 a.m.
  • Trenton Remembrance Day Service, at the cenotaph, 10:45 a.m.
  • Westville Remembrance Day service, at the cenotaph, 10:45 a.m.
  • Hopewell Remembrance Day Service, at the cenotaph at First Presbyterian Church
  • Royal Canadian Legion Branch 108, River John, is holding its annual Remembrance Day banquet this year. Doors open at 6 p.m. Proof of vaccination required, and masks are to be worn until seated. 60 spots available. Contact 902-890-7003 to get your name on the list. Admission is $18 at the door. Outdoor service on Nov. 11.