Sergeant Orville 'Bob' George

By Christopher Bretz

 

Sergeant Orville Harrison George
Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment (Royal Canadians)
H249, Squadron B

2nd Armoured Regiment, 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade
5th Canadian (Armoured) Division
I Canadian Corp
March 1941 to August 1946

Orville 'Bob' George (1916-1984) grew up in the Kelwood-Neepawa area of central Manitoba, the 6th of eleven children. His father was a blacksmith who serviced the local farming community. Orville attended school until grade 8 in 1931 but afterward left to work on local farms as a hired hand to help support his family. It was the Depression years, and while they were not wealthy they were a warm, close-knit family, who were thankful for everything they had.

With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Orville and his brothers Russell and Roy were eager to enlist and join the war effort. Partly they were very patriotic and wanted to do their part for their country, but equally, the opportunity to travel and make a better living than they otherwise could was exciting and attractive to the young rural boys. Orville and Russell went to Brandon together to sign up. Russell successfully joined the Cameron Highlanders, but Orville was turned down twice on account of his poor feet. He kept trying though and on the third try found a recruiting station in Maura, Manitoba which would accept him, and so joined the Canadian army on March 26th, 1941 at age 24. He went for basic training in Listowel, Ontario, and continued at Camp Borden. While there he served briefly as a waiter in the officer's mess. He was finally assigned to the Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment with which he served from 1941 until August 1946. The regiment would operate extensively in Italy during the war and see some of the fiercest fighting.

The Lord Strathcona's were not immediately mobilized at the outbreak of war in September 1939, but were instead placed on active service. They were only concentrated in Winnipeg the following January. The regiment went through several changes before becoming a ready fighting force.

On 24 May 1940, the headquarters and one squadron were mobilized together with headquarters and one squadron of 'The Royal Canadian Dragoons' to form the '1st Canadian Motorcycle Regiment '. It was redesignated to the 'Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians)' on September 21st, 1940. The regiment was then allocated to the Canadian Armoured Corps on November 15th, 1940. It would have been around this time Orville was assigned to the force. The regiment would then be designated the 2nd Armoured Regiment, a senior unit of the 1st Armoured Brigade February 11th, 1941. Later, following the re-organization of Canadian armoured formations in early 1943, the regiment landed in Italy in November 1943 where it operated as an armoured regiment in 5th Armoured Brigade, of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, one half of the 1st Canadian Corps.

For some background and sense of scale, the 5th Armoured Division was a force comprised of about 10,000 men at full strength. The 5th Armoured Brigade had roughly 3,000 men. The Lord Strathcona's regiment had around 1000 soldiers divided into three squadrons of 200-300 troopers each, plus some support personnel.

The 5th Armoured Division was commanded by Major-General G. G. Simonds (Oct 1943- Jan 1944), Major-General E. L. M. Burns (Oct 1943-Mar 1944), and Major-General Burt M. Hoffmiester (Mar 1944-Jun 1945) during Orville's combat tour.

The 5th Armoured Brigade was commanded by Brigadier I.H. Cumberland.

And the Commanding Officers of the 2nd Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona's Horse) during Orville's combat tour.

Orville was a member of B Squadron and he would later serve as batman to the Squadron's senior officer in 1943, then Major J. M. McAvity.

The Strathcona's sailed from Halifax for England on November 13th, 1941 and trained for two years there. They received their first Canadian built Ram tanks for training in March 1942. Orville himself was a 'trooper' supporting the heavy armour. He mentioned he had the opportunity to work closer with the tanks, but after seeing them in action, and what happened to the soldiers inside them when they were hit, he decided it was safer to remain on foot walking next to them instead.

During this extensive period Orville and the regiment moved from base to base in southern England for numerous training exercises. He spent a lot driving and transferring between the 2nd Armoured Regiment and the 3rd Canadian Armoured Core Reinforcement Unit. During this time he was paid $1.50 per day. It was a relatively comfortable period with no real threat - the war was always some distance away - and there was always something to do or learn. He became a batman (personal assistant to an officer) around January 1942, and for which he earned praise. A batman was usually seen as a desirable position. The soldier was exempted from more onerous duties and often got better rations and other favours from his officer. Senior officers' batmen usually received fast promotion to lance-corporal rank, with many becoming corporals and even sergeants. Sometime in 1943 Orville became batman to Major J. M. McAvity, who would later become commanding officer of the regiment. Orville also earned a Class 3 truck driver's licence on January 23rd, 1943, and was awarded a Good Conduct Badge March 26th, 1943.

At an inspection in England, King George VI noticed that the divisional patches on the sleeves of the troopers bore the legend "LSH". He remarked to a Strathcona's officer that he had always thought the proper abbreviation of "Lord" was "Ld". The regiment promptly changed its formation patches and have used the correct designation ever since.

Orville met his future wife Diana Neilson in February 1943, introduced to him by his brother Russell. They quickly fell in love. Orville and Diana took to pet names during this time, he earning the name Bob (likely from his fellow soldiers) and she Paddy, although no one outside of them really knows the significance. They both used those names for each other the rest of their days. The two spent a great deal of time together and soon Diana was pregnant with Orville's child.

Orville also befriended a First Nations soldier in his regiment while training in England named A. M. Lavallee. He was a very large muscular man who took to looking out for much smaller Orville. Diana mentioned that even if she did not know where Bob was, Lavallee would. It is believed Lavallee was from Quebec.

Throughout 1943 the Canadian public (and the troops themselves) were becoming impatient with Canada sitting on the sidelines of the war. There was immense political pressure to put more Canadians into battle, so the summer saw several Canadian regiments participate in Operation Husky, otherwise known as the invasion of Sicily. This battle would pave the way for the main attack of Italy.

On November 12th, 1943 the Lord Strathcona's were dispatched on what they thought was yet another training exercise, this time told they were going to Northern Ireland. The reality was they were sailing to Italy to enter the war. Orville didn't have an opportunity to tell Diana anything (even if he did know what was going on), but he certainly didn't expect it would be well over a year before he would see her again.

The Strathcona's soon found out they would replace the 7th British Armoured Division in Italy. The regiment left all of their new vehicles and tanks in England and were informed they would inherit the English vehicles.

They passed the rock of Gibraltar on the evening of November 24th and made their way to Algiers. After a bit of preparation the regiment sailed again and landed at Naples, Italy, on December 1st, 1943. All ranks crowded the decks to get a view of Vesuvius as they slid into harbour. In the next days the regiment moved quickly inland over the mountains towards the town of Matera in the south. They also found the majority of their new English vehicles were completely worn out, having first been issued in North Africa or were two-wheel drive – useless in Italy's hills and mud. It took several months for the division to be fully equipped with new vehicles, including M4 Shermans

By January 18th, 1944 they arrived at the town of Ortona, where they got their first taste of hard combat against the battle hardened German 1st Parachute Division. It has been called Canada's Mini Stalingrad.

The real battlefield was a bit of a shock for many of the still green troops, and for some it was quite traumatic. Orville's impression of Ortona was only shared in his later years. Constant shelling meant they didn't sleep for days on end, and the stress of live fire strained one's wits. Orville said he lost it. His friend Lavallee saw his condition and dragged him off the lines to a nearby building where they drank wine into the night, getting Orville very drunk. The next day Orville woke up in his foxhole next to a dead German soldier and no idea how he had survived the night. All he remembered through the alcohol and his exhaustion was walking into the town the day before. Thankfully, for whatever reason, after that he was able to sleep regularly.

The Canadians suffered 1,375 dead in the fighting in and around Ortona, almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign.

Of the battles that the Strathcona's fought in Italy one of the most notable, and the one whose anniversary is celebrated annually, took place on the Melfa River on May 24th, 1944. During this desperate battle the Strathcona RHQ reconnaissance troop established a bridgehead on the Melfa River and held it against determined German tank and infantry attacks until reinforcements could arrive. The advance up the boot of Italy bloodied the regiment but also forged their identity as a Canadian tank unit, second to none. 

June 6th, 1944 was D-day, the invasion of Europe at Normandy. Understandably it received alot of attention, but many soldiers fighting on other fronts began to think their sacrifices were being ignored, or at least overlooked. The highly sarcastic phrases 'D-Day Dodger' and 'Spaghetti Boys' spread referring to Allied servicemen on the Italian front, as if they had somehow avoided real combat by serving there. A popular song even sprung up (written by the troops) about it in November of that year.

J. M. McAvity assumed command of the regiment in June of that year at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Orville was his batman.

After summer the regiment participated in a number of major battles in Italy, including the breaching of the Gothic Line on September 1st, Misano Ridge on September 3rd, Coriano on September 12/13, the Lamone Crossing on December 12th and Fosso Munio on December 19th, 1944.

The regiment left Italy around February 18th, 1945, from the port of Leghorn. They did not go back to England however, and instead went to the French port of Marseille where the armoured force could be used in the European theatre. Many took the opportunity while in France to take some leave. Orville returned to England briefly on February 28th and finally was reunited with Diana for the first time in 17 months, and met his now 13 month old little girl, Bobbi. On March 26th, 1945, Orville was also promoted to lance-corporal.

The Strathcona's then fought in the North West Europe campaign to liberate Holland and the Lowlands. Arriving in Holland on April 2nd, 1945, the Strathcona's along with the 8th New Brunswick Hussars participated in operation 'Dutch Cleanser', making a long dash from Arnhem to the Zuyder Zee to cut off the remaining Germans in western Holland.

Soon afterward on June 3rd, Orville was granted permission to marry on or after June 3rd, 1945, which they subsequently did on July 24th.

After the main hostilities ended, the Strathcona's remained in Germany and France on clean up duty and patrol for nearly a year.

While Orville was in northern Europe he contracted the mumps and was laid up for several weeks. With little to keep him occupied he started smoking for the first time as the cigarettes were free from the army, a choice which sadly affected his health in later years.

Below are the movements of the 5th Armoured Division in 1941-1946. The red lines indicate the approximate segments which included Orville George.

In 1946, the regiment returned to Canada and decided to call Calgary its new home garrison. Orville was discharged on August 9th, 1946 from Winnipeg and appears to have spent the next several years as a civilian.

In January 1951 Orville enlisted in the military again, this time as a member of the 12th Manitoba Dragoons Reserve Army, with which he served until 1960. He would participate twice weekly at the Neepawa drill hall, and would spend several weeks in the summer at Fort Wainwright in Alberta, among other bases. His daughters remember every month he would also parade in formation. During the early 1953 Orville was promoted to A-corporal, and on several occasions over the next few years moved between corporal and sergeant, which he left the service at.

During the war Orville had sent most of his $25 per month pay back home to his mother to keep for him and build a nest egg. Upon returning home he was surprised to find she and the family had need of the money and had spent it all. Fortunately when he was discharged he recieved $2,100 (about $25,000 today) as a housing credit from the army.

One of the few regiment buddies Orville kept in touch with was Ernie Gallant. During the late 1950s they would get together to visit, but not really to reminisce. During one of these visits they both started smoking after having quit for some time, and Orville never looked back. Ernie was also his daughter Bobbi's godfather.

It was difficult for many of the troops returning home to peacetime. Back then there was no real understanding of post traumatic stress disorder, and the social norms of that generation expected you would 'be a man' and simply cope with any conflicted feelings about combat. They simply were not talked about. Orville was tragically plagued by guilt and feelings of cowardice. There were no events he shared which caused him to feel this way, but instead it was likely his natural reaction to the horror of war. He did say later he thought he was the only one who felt this way, and so felt very alone. He also would never share any of his thoughts with his wife or children so as to protect them, further isolating himself. In early 1975 Orville, in an attempt to still the demons that were haunting him, overdosed on prescription medications and was in a coma for several days. The event was in the end helpful for Orville as he was able to start discussing his thoughts and begin healing.

In his later years Orville recalled some of the events he experienced during the war, but generally would still not speak of it to his family. He did think fondly of the the beautiful Italian coast at Naples and his brief time in Rome. He less fondly remembered the incessant rain and mud of his first winter there, and the foot rot which came with it.

Orville and his brothers (and many more) were honored in 2005 with their pictures hung on the walls of the Kelwood Legion.

 

Sergeant George's service medals include (left to right);

The medals now reside with his daughter Jennifer George McDowell.

 

 


 

Further reading:

Lord Strathcona's Official Website
Lord Strathcona's Horse: The Royal Canadians, J. M. McAvity, 1947