Thursday, January 1, 2009

Syd Thomson, soldier (1914-2008)


By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 1, 2009


VICTORIA

The Battle of Ortona would be known over the years by other names — Italy’s Stalingrad, or the Bloody Christmas.

In December, 1943, Canadian troops faced the unenviable task of evicting battle-hardened German soldiers from the Adriatic port.

The battle reduced the ancient city to rubble, as warriors fought street by street, house by house, room by room. It was in this ferocious hand-to-hand combat that the Canadians developed a technique called mouse-holing in which they attacked an adjacent house by blowing a hole in shared walls.

The costs were heavy for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the latter commanded by Sydney W. Thomson.

The dawning of Christmas morning brought no peace, nor any respite from the fighting.

As men continued to do battle, Mr. Thomson and an imaginative quartermaster prepared a Christmas dinner so memorable the survivors gathered every year after the war to mark the meal.

He retired from the military as a brigadier general with medals to his name and a vicious scar in one leg, which he would show to his children at their request if they were on good behaviour.

Sydney Wilford Thomson was born in Salmon Arm in British Columbia’s Shuswap to Cyril and Eva (nee Bromham) Thomson. His Scottish-born father co-owned a garage and later became a dealer of General Motors cars and trucks. Cyril Thomson was elected mayor of the municipality in 1928, serving in the post for 14 years.

Syd Thomson dropped out of school in Grade 10 to earn money for the family as the ravages of the Depression began to be felt. He picked apples in the summer, worked in a grocery store, unloaded and delivered the contents of a freight car of coal, which he would always describe as the most arduous job of his life.

In the 1930s, he joined the local company of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, needing his father’s consent as he was underage. He trained as a signaler, and was a lieutenant in the company when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Britain declared war two days later. On Sept. 9, Mr. Thomson received orders to mobilize the company. Canada declared war the following day.

He was ordered overseas in 1940, by which time he had transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders, arriving at the height of the Battle of Britain. He served as a platoon commander under Major Cecil Merritt (obituary, July 15, 2000), the Vancouver officer who would win a Victoria Cross for his bravery at Dieppe.

While stationed in the south of England, officers were invited to take tea at Streat Place, an estate that boasted a Jacobean manor house. The teetotal hospitality not being appreciated by the officers, they drew straws to determine attendance. Mr. Thomson picked a short straw. As it turned out, Mr. Thomson met a young woman who would become his wife after the end of the war. He would later offer detailed descriptions of his first glimpse of the host’s 18-year-old daughter, Catriona Bromley-Martin, who wore a blue dress while standing against a magnificent fireplace.

Had the officers more fully appreciated the deprivations to be faced in the coming months of war they might not have been so reluctant to take part in the tea.

In June, 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders set sail for the Mediterranean aboard the Circassia. They joined in the invasion of the island of Sicily the following month, the beginning of a long and bloody Italian campaign. By now a captain, Mr. Thomson served as a company commander.

Three days after the invasion, the company stumbled across a makeshift road block. Italian soldiers opened fire, shooting the captain through the thigh of his right leg. The wound was treated. The medical officer gave the commander an injection of painkillers, after which he was placed in the manger of a barn, his sidearm removed by comrades for safekeeping.

He awoke to find he was sharing the manger with two peasants carrying pitchforks. He reached for his gun only to discover he was unarmed, according to the official regimental history by Reginald Roy. To his relief, the farmers sought only hay for their oxen.

Sent to Sousse, Tunisia, to recuperate, he was treated with the experimental wonder drug penicillin.

Mr. Thomson was soon back in the field. In October, he led his men in an advance across a rocky knoll near a heavily-defended hill. A company slipped across without incident, but the enemy pinned Mr. Thomson’s soldiers with artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. A smokescreen failed to offer cover and four enemy tanks appeared on the right flank. The battalion had yet to face such intense enemy fire.

Mr. Thomson, by now an acting major, led his men in an assault that called for an advance across an open, muddy field as long as 10 football fields. The Seaforths charged uphill while facing the afternoon sun to capture Hill 1007 (Monte San Marco). Their commander was awarded the Military Cross for his “cool and skillful leadership” that “was an inspiration to his men throughout.”

The Seaforths continued the slow fight northward. Their war took a different turn at Ortona, as the cramped port offered little room to maneuvre. Crackerjack German paratroopers defended the ancient town, building roadblocks with engineers to force the attacking Canadians into the few open squares, which were ringed by machine-gun nests to create a killing ground.

Battling in close quarters, the Edmontons and Seaforths fought a slow, bloody battle in the waning days of 1943. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Germans launched a dangerous counterattack, which, at such close quarters, eliminated the use not only of the Canadians’ artillery but even mortars.

The regimental history offers a crisp description of events that day.

“The threat was such that A/Lt-Col. (acting lieutenant-colonel) Thomson made his way to the company positions and, although constantly exposed to sniper, machine-gun and mortar fire, remained with the forward troops, directing and co-ordinating the defence, and showing a cheerfulness and coolness under fire which did much for the men beating off the attack,” Mr. Roy wrote in his 1969 history, “The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, 1919-1965.”

“To see the commanding officer of the battalion at such a time somehow gave confidence to the private soldier, and Thomson’s unruffled calm and big smile acted like a tonic.”

The Canadians held their positions before returning to the dangerous task of claiming streets one house at a time. Mr. Thomson would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his action in the battle.

Christmas Day dawned, promising nothing more than another full day of stiff fighting. However, Capt. D.B. Cameron, an enterprising quartermaster, scrounged linen, candles and chinaware from the ruined homes of Ortona on which to serve a holiday meal. Tables were arranged in rows behind the thick walls of the church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli. The companies ate in relays. The pipe major played his pipes and a signals officer played the churchs harmonium, even as shells whistled and exploded outside. The padre led volunteers in singing “Silent Night,” as well as jauntier carols.

“Soup, roast pork, vegetables and Christmas pudding, along with a bottle of beer for each of the tattered, scruffy, war-weary soldiers was served,” Mr. Thomson recalled many years later. The menu also included cauliflower, apple sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, and even mince pie.

Dirty plates were stacked on the altar, while a side altar was covered by boxes of fruit and canned food.

“Between December 20 and the 28th we lost 42 killed and 78 wounded,” Mr. Thomson said. “Christmas in Ortona — the meal — yes. But the spirit of the occasion, the look on the faces of those exhausted, gutsy men on entering the church is with me today and will live forever.”

After taking part in the fight to break the Gothic Line in 1944, Mr. Thomson returned to England as an acting colonel to command the Canadian Infantry Training Unit at Aldershot. He reverted to lieutenant colonel to take command of the Black Watch in the Netherlands, where he was mentioned in despatches.

After the war, he returned to the Shuswap, where he went into business with his friend Big Jim Stone (obituary, Dec. 27, 2005), a much decorated Seaforths officer. The men built a resort at Salmon Arm named Sandy Point.

Mr. Thomson followed his father by running a General Motors dealership. He also owned an interest in the local bowling alley.

In 1950, Mr. Thomson rejoined the Canadian army, serving with the United Nations Observers Group in Pakistan. He spent months wandering the disputed Himalayan border region, covering the valleys by jeep and the foothills by mule and pony.

“These two armies, Indian and Pakistan, under tough physical conditions, have been facing one another for five long years,” he wrote to Mr. Stone, who, in turn, would go on to distinguished service in the Korean War. “Daily they sharpen their knives, clean their weapons and scowl across the line.”

On his return to Canada, Mr. Thomson became an executive with Hiram Walker & Sons, rising through the distillery’s ranks until named European sales manager in 1964. While in London, he became a director of the United Rum Merchants as well as a trustee of a fund for Canadian veterans.

He returned to Canada on his retirement in 1977, building his own home north of Victoria, from which he sailed to explore the nearby Gulf Islands. He also built greenhouses, even coaxing tobacco plants and tropical fruits from Vancouver Island’s temperate climate.

In May, 1987, he returned to Italy, where he offered an eyewitness account of the fight at the Gothic Line for a battlefield study conducted by the Canadian Land Forces Command and Staff College of Kingston, Ont.

Mr. Thomson returned to his Salmon Arm birthplace in 1996, eventually living in a cottage next door to his eldest daughter, from which he looked out on Sandy Point.
The Seaforths held a memorial service for him earlier this month.
It was his final wish that his ashes be cast on Shuswap Lake.

Sydney Wilford Thomson was born on Nov. 14, 1914, at Salmon Arm, B.C.. He died on Nov. 8 at Salmon Arm Hospital. He was 93. He leaves daughters Jacqueline (Jacqui) Maxton, of Coquitlam, B.C.; and Linda Franklin and Terry McDiarmid, both of Salmon Arm. He is also survived by a sister, Betty MacLean, of Abbotsford, B.C.; six grandchildren; and, four great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by the former Catriona Mary Bromley-Martin, his wife of 54 years, who died in 2000.

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