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d.c.cameron_and_the_gothic_line

D.C.Cameron and the Gothic Line

Glengarry Historical Society

Thursday 5th September 2019

The title of this talk begs two questions: who was D.C.Cameron? I’m sure many of you know that. What was the Gothic Line?
This talk on the life of Brigadier D C Cameron is taking place almost exactly 75 years after arguably Canada’s greatest feat of arms, for which our Glengarry hero won his second Distinguished Service Order in the Italian campaign.

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D C Cameron

Farley Mowat wrote of then Lt Col D C Cameron of Lochiel, the most decorated Glengarrian of the 2nd World War:

“It was dark before the plans were completed and as the CO gave his orders one new Company commander could not conceal his doubts; “Sir”, he said. “We’ll never make it”. Cameron showed his mettle. As if the interruption had not taken place he continued in his quiet voice to give the details of the battle. His placidity in what seemed to most of his officers to be a suicidal action, perhaps made the difference between defeat and victory”.

By the end of the day Cameron had secured victory and the breach of the heavily fortified German Gothic Line.

A picture of DC is beginning to form. He was a successful soldier and cool headed leader who fought in the Second World War and the Italian campaign as part of the Canadian Corps attached to the British Eighth Army. In the opinion of none other than Josef Stalin, this Canadian formation was the finest in all the allied armies.

First of all, how did DC a boy from Lochiel find his way to this distant battlefield?

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The Cameron Farm

Donald Cameron was the son of Robert William and Elizabeth Cameron. He was born on 5th April 1911 on the family farm, Lot 35, Concession 5 in Lochiel Township. This is a little east of the Fassifern cross roads. When DC was five years old he was smitten with the long recruiting march of the 154th Overseas Battalion CEF pipe band as it wove its way through the Counties. Family lore has it that he wanted to wear a uniform just like the soldiers. His mother made him a uniform, and on visits to Alexandria, nothing delighted the boy more than watching the recruits drilling at the Armoury during the latter years of World War I.

DC was educated at Alexandria High School and in 1926 went to work at Courtaulds synthetic fibres plant in Cornwall. He also had a dream of becoming an engineer, though there is no evidence of Courtaulds having an apprentice program. His desire to become a soldier remained strong and he joined the Militia, the recently formed SD&G Highlanders. In 1928 DC received his commission in the Regiment. Robert Cameron died in 1936, aged 55. Elizabeth moved to Cornwall to live with DC at 308 Pitt Street.

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Following the “war to end all wars”, Canada’s political masters decided that they did not want to go to war again, so radically cut back funding for the army, both permanent force and militia, but maintained a small naval component and used the fledging RCAF for largely civil purposes, such as surveying. In 1928, the SD&G Highlanders training budget for the year was $1,000.

As the Depression took hold in the 1930’s, Canada’s military men watched the dangerously unfolding world scene: Nanking, Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the German occupation of the Rhineland and Hitler’s total repudiation of the Versailles Agreement. New military equipment was appearing, but only on newsreels in Canada. Military budgets were cut further and we almost lost the Royal Canadian Navy. The Minister believed coastal defence could be handled by aircraft. In 1938 only 46,000 militia trained compared with 55,000 in 1913.

Despite all this DC soldiered on and as a Captain attended and passed the Militia Staff course. In January 1939 he was promoted to Major, left the Militia ranks, and became a full-time instructor at the new School of Infantry in Kingston. When war was declared on September 10th 1939, DC had moved to No. 1 Infantry Holding Unit at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa. This unit was to gather together the various regiments that would comprise the 1st Canadian Division, which three months later would be in England. On a personal note, DC’s father, Robert Cameron died in 1936, aged 55. Elizabeth his mother, left the farm and moved to Cornwall to live with DC at 308 Pitt Street. The current site of the Royal Bank.. On the September 30th. 1939, DC married Katherine Mary MacMaster, daughter of Angus and Mary Ann Margaret MacMaster of Lot 5, 9th Kenyon. “Kayo” was a teacher and following DC’s departure moved in with her mother-in-law, Elizabeth at 308 Pitt Street. Not only was their time together brief, but sadly their marriage was short. For on 26th March 1941, “Kayo” suffered an attack of appendicitis and died in Cornwall.

A friend wrote to Elizabeth: you were more like mother and daughter than “in-laws”. You were so loyal to her and she to you. I know how sorely you will miss her for she really was a girl in thousands…” “Kayo” is buried at St Columba’s, Kirk Hill.

DC was a great letter writer to both his wife and his mother. His letters to his mother continued throughout the war but like so much war time correspondence was subject to censorship, they do however provide a colourful background to training and life in war time England.

Following “Kayo’s” death, DC was appointed Brigade Major of the Infantry Training Centre and his CO was Col Hamilton Gault the founder of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). On June 2nd, 1940, DC wrote to his mother: “Sure we will have an invasion this summer and many of us want to be present when the curtain goes up”. The Dunkirk evacuation was underway at that moment and the Canadian 1st Division was the only complete army formation available for the defence of England.

It is hardly surprising that Canada shipped 30,000 of the old World War I Ross rifles from storage to England to arm the Home Guard.

Fortunately England was not invaded and by June 1941, DC was reunited with the SD&G Highlanders who had arrived in England as part of the 3rd Canadian Division. Initially he was OC of “D” Company before becoming second in command.

During 1941, DC’s private life took a new turn. In an undated letter to his mother, Elizabeth, he writes: Mother – For your own information – in your previous letter you mentioned that I might find someone with whom I would find happiness. Well I have met someone but never hope or expect to find one who can take Kay’s place. That is something I shall always treasure and remember. This she understands. Her name is Edith Burgoyne…. Edith had a son, Nicolas, from an earlier marriage. The boy was then attending Upper Canada College in Toronto, having been a child evacuee in 1039.

DC and Edith were married in London in January 1942. Letters to Elizabeth reveal a very happy and contented man enjoying his new partnership, though one senses a frustration that the Canadians are largely by-standers to this point in the war.

Prime minister Mackenzie King had decreed that the Canadian army was not to be divided, unlike other commonwealth troops who were to be found in a number of global locations. It is not surprising therefore that Canadians were persuaded to participate in a raid on the French coast. DC’s comment on the Dieppe Raid in a letter dated August 27th, 1942 confirm the frustration:

I was not at Dieppe, but Don MacRae was. He always lands on his feet. He went while on attachment to the Essex Scottish. He called from a hospital nearby and several of us went to see him. He had a small piece of a mortar shell in his right hip and was somewhat bruised by flying gravel, but otherwise alright. He would say very little, except that the Jerries’ fire was very accurate and they play rough. It was mainly a Canadian show and the boys were magnificent ad fought like Russians. To that unspoken question that we have all had at some time or another. How will the Canadians stack up in comparison? Why have they never been used in this war? Well, they gave an answer at Dieppe and they were not picked troops for the job either.

Later in the year DC was posted first to the battle school in Scotland. In mid-March 1943 DC attended a course for liaison officers at Brasenose College, Oxford.

In April 1943 Edith delivered a son, Ian Robert, much to DC’s delight and we are informed of the child’s christening. DC’s family life in England mirrored that of the Canadian army. It had trained and socialised in the English countryside without firing a shot in anger, except for Dieppe, for more than three years.

This imposed military inaction was becoming embarrassing for the politicians in Ottawa.

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German Occupation 1942

Things were about to change. The Germans had been driven out of North Africa and the Allies were about to open a second front by invading Sicily. Delicately the British approached the Canadian and asked for a Division of infantry and a tank brigade to assist in the landings. A reluctant General MacNaughton acceded to the request, but only with the assurance that the Canadians would return to England when Sicily had been captured.

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The Mediterranean Theatre 1943

The politicians now called for more action. Mackenzie King agreed, believing that fewer Canadian soldiers would be harmed in Italy than in France. This was of course fantasy. Canada would suffer 562 killed and 2,310 wounded in Sicily.

Canadians landed in Sicily on July 3, 1943. Major General Guy Simmonds distinguished himself. General Montgomery and the Americans were impressed by the Canadian skill. By 6th August 1943, the Canadians were looking across the Straits of Messina.

Shortly following the allied landings in Italy, the Italian army surrendered. The Germans quickly moved south building a series of defensive lines across Italy from coast to coast. The Gustav Line, south of Rome, was the first such obstacles to confront the Americans on the west coast and the British and Canadians on the Adriatic coast. At the coastal town of Ortona, the Canadians had to fight house to house for the month of December 1943. This victory cost the Division 1,372 lives and the soldiers were exhausted.

On 23rd October 1943 1943, DC informs Elizabeth: This is the last letter for some time as there may be a gap in the mails. At last he was to see the action for which he had trained for more than four years. He was finally off to war.

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Farley Mowat in his book The Regiment describes DC’s reception with his new comrades, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, fashionably known as the “Hasty P’s”.

Major Don Cameron had come to the unit shortly after the Moro battle. He had been transferred from the Third Division, then in England, at his own request to fill the heavy officer casualties in the First Division. Cameron found full acceptance within a few days after his arrival. Posted to command D Company, he spent he spent his first day with it taking out a three man patrol and liquidating a German position that had been making a nuisance of itself for some time past. Returning to his Company HQ dishevelled and a little thirsty, he found Angus Duffy, arbiter of men’s destinies, waiting in the little farmhouse. Duffy eyed the Major critically, listened without expression to Cameron’s casual account of the patrol, then made his decision. “You’ll do” was all he said as he produced a water bottle full of rum. This was a masterpiece of understatement.

Farley Mowat had been a member of the Hasty P’s, and had seen action in earlier battles, but had been transferred to Brigade headquarters as an intelligence officer, and thus had a firsthand knowledge of what was happening with (his) The Regiment at the front.

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Canadian Armour Passing through Ortona.
Charles Fraser Comfort, Canadian War Museum.

DC’s first action with his new company involved crossing the Moro River and this was immediately followed by strong German resistance during the battle for Ortona. The commanding officer of the Hasty P’s, Lt Col Bert Kennedy was wounded at Ortona and DC was appointed his replacement as acting Lieutenant Colonel.

Following a winter of rest, reinforcement and re-training, the Hasty P’s continued their advance. The Canadian Division had now become a Corps and they had switched to the west coast to relieve the Anzio beachhead and on to Rome. It was during this advance that DC and the Hasty P’s distinguished themselves in the Liri River valley where they punched through the Hitler Line. For this action DC was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross, for gallantry. The citation reads:

On the 23 may 1944 near Pontecorvo, The Hastings Prince Edward Regiment, commanded by Lt Col Donald Cameron, was assaulting the Adolf Hitler line. The battalion was being subjected to heavy shelling, mortaring and extremely accurate machine gun fire. The supporting tanks were having difficulty in moving forward due the extensive minefields and anti-tank fire. Because of this the Hastings Prince Edward regiment moved forward to assist the armour. Despite the intense machine gun and mortar fire, Lt Col Cameron superbly led and directed his battalion through the minefields, across the wire and an anti-tank ditch against the enemy in their strongly held steel and concrete emplacements. Throughout the attack although subjected to continuous sniping, Lt Col Cameron personally moved among his companies, encouraging and inspiring men and directing operations against German strong points. Largely as a result of Lt Col Cameron’s cool leadership, personal bravery and his utter disregard for his personal safety, The Hastings Prince Edward Regiment successfully breached the Adolf Hitler line, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and taking many prisoners.

Rome fell on June 4th, 1944 to the Americans and the Free French. Two days later, the Italian campaign became a footnote as the Normandy invasion began. Replacing the casualties and equipment lost during the spring campaign would prove to be difficult for the allies fighting in Italy. The Americans wanted a change of strategy; leaving Italy and landing in the south of France. Churchill wanted to see an allied advance through Italy to Austria before the Russian armies could get there. Canada was not consulted.

In August 1944, the Canadian Corps moved back to the Adriatic coast with the objective of attacking the Germans new defence line, the Gothic Line. This was to be a murderous test of courage and endurance. The Gothic line, running from Pesaro on the Adriatic to Viareggio on the western coast, consisted of 479 anti-tank guns, 2,375 machine gun emplacements and scores of tank turrets set in concrete. This was not new to DC and his troops, just a little more daunting. They were up to the challenge and their success resulted in a second DSO for DC. The citation reads:

During the advance of the Eighth Army from the Metauro River to Rimini, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment were in action during the periods 25-30 August, 2-8 September and 15-23 September 1944. Throughout these periods the battalion was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron, DSO. In the afternoon of 27th August 1944 and during the ensuing night and day, The Prince Edward Hastings Regiment and attacked and closely engaged the enemy in positions on the dominating ground about Point 268 (5071). In order to direct and control this attack, Lt Col Cameron established and maintained a forward Battalion Tactical headquarters and Observation Post in the face of concentrated and extremely shelling, which time and again threatened to demolish the house in which his headquarters and observation post were located. Remaining in this position, this officer directed the attack with such effect that the enemy were force to abandon this important height overlooking the Foglia River and the Gothic Line. During darkness in the early hours of 4th September 1944, and throughout the day, The Hasting and Prince Edward Regiment assaulted, and engaged in bitter close-quarter fighting in and about the village of San Maria. The dominating ridge, to the centre of which this place is the key, was captured a result of the successful storming of the village by the battalion controlled and directed by Lt Col Cameron. In the early hours of September 20th 1944, and throughout the day, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment assaulted, and engaged in close combat with, strong enemy positions on the vitally important San Fortunato feature. The Divisional attack was led by this unit acting on a battalion plan formulated, and orders given, by Lt Col Cameron. The achievement of the Regiment was such that it very materially contributed to the success of the whole Divisional plan the seizing of this last defence of Rimini. Throughout each of these actions, Lt Col Cameron handled his command with coolness, skill and great determination. As a result of the disregard for personal safety, sound judgement and inspiring leadership of this officer, the battalion under his command carried out its tasks with precision and determination which brought success to their operations, and very materially contributed to the achievement of Brigade and Divisional plans.

Farley Mowat covers the breaching of the Gothic Line in his book, The Regiment, and frequently refers to DC. His plan for crossing the Rigosa River in mid-October is described as:

A bold plan, well-conceived, but risky, for during the battle the salient would be vulnerable to counter attack. Cameron tried to minimize the risk by leaving no detail to chance.

DC’s bold plan using armour, artillery and infantry in concert was a textbook display of all arms cooperation. Again Farley wrote:

If there is merit in success in war, the action of Charlie Company and the Lord Strathcona’s tanks upon this day must stand high among the deeds done by the Canadian army.

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Gothic Line Memorial at Pesaro, Italy

With DC out of the line in December, the Hast P’s, under command of the Second in Command, suffered a severe setback at the Vecchio River. During the next month, DC had to use all his leadership skills to restore “the battle confidence” of the Hasty P’s. Farley Mowat again wrote;

On February 15th, the unit took a heavy blow. Lt Col Cameron was promoted and ordered to return to England. There was only one consolation and this was that by February 15th, the Regiment’s spirit was again almost what it had been before the December shambles. Cameron had managed a hard task with skill. He had command the unit through some of its best days, and through its darkest hours, and he had not failed the Regiment which had adopted him, and of which he had become a living part.

After a brief tenure with the 7th Canadian Infantry Training Regiment in England, DC was given a unique command on 10th May 1945. Although the Armistice had been declared, there were substantial numbers of German troops with all their equipment in Holland. DC had become Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion of the SD&H Highlanders. The role of this composite unit was to oversee the repatriation of the German troops and secure their arms and ammunition. The Battalion was also responsible for assisting the Dutch with re-establishing their civil powers. With its mission accomplished, the 3rd SD&G Highlanders were disbanded on 17 May 1946.

With his post-war duties completed DC was able to rejoin his family in England, which now included his recently arrived daughter Anthea Constance.

On 8th June 1946, DC had the honour of commanding the Canadian Army contingent in the Victory parade held in London. Having decided that he wanted to remain in the Army, he wrote in a letter to Elizabeth; “war is all I know”. DC was posted to head the winter experimental station at Churchill, Manitoba later in 1946.

In 1948, he was chosen to head Canada’s PPCLI Parachute Battalion in Calgary. From 1950, DC was appointed Commandant of the School of Infantry at Camp Borden, before becoming the Director of Infantry in 1955 when he was promoted to Brigadier.

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In 1957 he was given command of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, 6,700 strong, in Germany.

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4th Canadian Infantry Brigade

This was a choice Canadian command for it was in effect a mini-Division. The Canadians were part of the 4th British Division in Germany, and the British Brigades, at that time were mustering barely 4,000 men each. DC left 4CIBG in Soest, Germany for his next posting to Imperial Defence College in London. The IDC groomed both military and civilian leaders for the future.

DC returned to Canada in 1962 to become Commandant of the Staff College in Kingston. He retired in 1966. He lived for a further four years in Kingston. During this time his correspondence indicates that he is a sick man. Having read his letters from 1939 onwards, it is obvious that he was always a heavy smoker. He died on Sunday, May 3rd 1970 at age 59.

An obituary in the Kingston Whig-Standard by Cliff Bowering reads in part:

Don Cameron was quite a man. It is perhaps trite to say that he was a soldier’s soldier. But, that he was, indeed. He was a gentle person. Compassionate, sincere, dedicated. But he was also tough. A brilliant tactician, a stickler for perfection, insistent on devotion to duty. He was loved by his men. And no greater tribute can be paid a man who commands others in war. If there is a place where heroes go after death, I’m sure DC has already been accorded a place of honour there.

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D C Cameron

DC is buried in the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston. His wife Edith continued to live in Kingston until her death in October 1991. DC predeceased his mother Elizabeth by two years.

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The Distinguished Service Order

Robin Flockton September 7, 2019

Note: In WW1 Canadians won 70 VC’s. In WW2 Canadians were awarded 16 VC’s. Of these only 2 were awarded during the Italian campaign.
1,220 Canadians have been awarded the DSO. 119 have received 1 Bar and 20 2 Bars

d.c.cameron_and_the_gothic_line.txt · Last modified: 2019/10/31 14:57 by johnwoodrow