During the Italian Campaign in December 1943, Ernie Bagstad and his Seaforth Highlanders were engaged in fierce house to house fighting in the Italian port town of Ortona.
The Germans put up a fierce resistance from heavily defended positions in an effort to delay the Allied advance up the coast. On Christmas Day, Ernie's 'C' Company was told to head to a nearby bombed out church. To their surprise, a lavish Christmas dinner had been laid out for them.
While the fighting raged on outside, the Company sat down to eat a hot meal together, with Christmas pudding for desert. The Companies ate in relays... so everyone got their turn. The Seaforth position had been infiltrated while 'C' Company was at dinner but, as Ernie said, "We chased them out when we got back".
Ernie was born in 1924 near Stavely, Alberta. He moved with his family to Rocky Mountain House in 1930, and later as a young man of 15, he travelled on his own to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he worked on fishing trawlers off the west coast.
Inspired by his stepfather who was a Seaforth Highlander during the First World War, Ernie decided to follow in his footsteps, and as he said, help to "finish the job" that his stepfather had started. He tried to enlist with the Seaforth Highlanders at 17, but wasn’t accepted until February 1942, just a few months shy of his 18th birthday.
After five months of training Ernie was sent to England in July, 1942. He spent a lot of time in London, which according to Ernie, was pretty "busted up" by this time, but people kept on with their daily routines as usual... fighting fires and rebuilding, and "shaking their fists at the skies".
The Italian Campaign
Ernie was sent to the Mediterranean in July 1943 as a reinforcement during the Invasion of Sicily. He later joined up with the Seaforth Highlanders in Italy in October 1943 on the Adriatic coast, just south of the small medieval town of Ortona. This was to become Ernie's baptism by fire.
Ortona was located on the eastern end of the heavily defended Gustav Line. The Germans had decided to defend the town, and the Canadians were ordered to drive them out. From December 20-29, 1943, Canadian soldiers fought one of the bitterest battles of the Italian Campaign, often referred to as "Little Stalingrad".
The Battle of Ortona
In Ortona, the Canadians faced the battle hardened 1st German Paratroop division. Ernie recalled the fighting in Ortona as a "very dirty job". The streets were too dangerous for patrols and were often filled with rubble which made it difficult for the tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment to traverse.
The Germans were deliberate in what streets they blocked and which ones they left clear, which would be covered by snipers and artillery, and full of "nothing but danger".
So the Canadians improvised methods of blowing holes in walls to move from one building to the next, called "mouse-holing". It was very dangerous work, and the threat of booby-traps was everywhere. Ernie said that a normal day in Ortona was a 24 hour day. During the nine day battle he hardly got any sleep, and was on the verge of exhaustion all the time. Some soldiers that Ernie ran into were so traumatized by fear they could hardly function.
With the battle raging all about them, the Seaforths soon learned they were about to be treated to an unexpected surprise, it was Christmas Day...
Christmas Dinner - December 1943
On the evening of the 25th December 1943, Ernie's Sergeant called everyone in his Company to head over to the nearby church (Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli). A rumour had started that they were going to get Christmas dinner.
When Ernie arrived he found the rumour was true. They were seated at makeshift tables outside the Church and served roast pork and mashed potatoes. Ernie's keenest memory of the dinner was the bottle of ale and the chocolate bar they received, which helped to "settle the nerves".
Soldiers from the Three Rivers Tank Regiment and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment also joined them for dinner. The rest of the Seaforths were inside the church. Ernie could hear the church organ and bagpipes being played.
In the distance they could also hear the sounds of gunfire as the battle continued to rage a few blocks to the north. After they had finished their dinner, another Company came in and took their place for dinner.
A Famous Photo
Matthew Halton reported on the dinner during one of his radio broadcasts. Ernie's parents heard the story, and knew that Ernie had enjoyed a Christmas dinner, since Ernie's stepfather could hear a piper in the background playing the Seaforth's regimental march.
A Canadian photographer, Terry Rowe was also there at the church, and took what became an iconic image of the dinner. After the war Ernie was shown a copy of the picture, and to his surprise, he recognized himself in the photo.
Ed.Note: The Christmas Dinner photo has been credited to Terry Rowe but was probably taken by Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit veteran Norman Quick. Norman was a Combat Cameraman during the Italian Campaign and told this story just before his death. He and Terry were the two cameramen filming the Christmas dinner in Ortona, Terry with his still camera and Norm with his film camera.
Terry was trying to get a good shot of the dinner with his camera but wasn't able to fit the whole table in from his limited range. Norman put down his film camera, grabbed Terry's camera, and impulsively jumped up onto a balcony and snapped the one shot of the dinner that exists. Sgt. Norman Quick was the last surviving member of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. He died in 2013 at the age of 92.
Wounded in Action
Ernie's ordeal at Ortona ended the day after the Christmas dinner, when he was shot in the leg and arm by a sniper. Bleeding badly from the wound, Ernie passed out from loss of blood. When he came to he found himself on a stretcher being carried to safety by four Italian civilians. Out of gratitude for helping him, Ernie gave the Italians some cigarettes.
As Ernie recalled, the Italians promptly put him down while they each lit up a cigarette, and then continued carrying him until they eventually reached a Casualty Clearing Station where medics stopped the bleeding.
He was then taken to a British Field Hospital where the bullet was taken out, without anesthetic. Ernie spent the next month recovering before he was sent back to his unit in February 1944.
Back in Ortona, the Germans had pulled out of the city the following day, on 27th December, 1943. The Canadians had been victorious in the battle, but it had come with a heavy cost. Over 1,370 Canadian soldiers were killed during the Battle of Ortona.
The Liri Valley, May 1944
In the spring of 1944, the 1st Canadian Division was moved into the Liri Valley with orders to break through the Hitler Line. Ernie and the Seaforth Highlanders would be among the first wave of infantry to storm the German defensive positions.
They were up at 3am on the morning of 23rd May, 1944, had their obligatory shot of rum, something to eat, and then moved to their jumping off spot. About twenty seconds after they set off, the artillery started up behind them with a tremendous barrage.
Ernie said they didn’t know what they were stepping into. "It was very well fortified, there was a mine field between us and the main objective, and the closer we got, the more machine guns and anti-tank weapons there were in place".
As they advanced forward through the smoke and chaos, one of the fellows with Ernie stepped on a mine and had his legs blown off... "I saw to my right that one of my buddies went down. I could see him moving, he was calling me. I could only hear the maddening noise of artillery around us, but I could see the expresson on his face, saying 'help me'. So I crouched down and ran over. He said to me, 'my legs feel kind of funny, I wonder if you could help me stand up, I'll be alright once I get standing up'".
Ernie said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you..." he tried to get up anyways, but he couldn't make it, because he'd lost so much blood. "There wasn't anything I could do for him. I could see through his eyes to his soul. He was afraid to be alone. Something told me to stay there with him in his last few moments of life on this earth. I stayed with him until he died, which didn't take very long."
Ernie found himself pinned down by machine gun fire, but was able to free himself. His only thought now was to find his leader, Sgt Sawatzky.
To Ernie's great relief he found his Sergeant, still fighting a determined battle. With the help of a tank they managed to knock out the machine gun nest and capture an anti-tank bunker, taking several prisoners.
After they captured the bunker, everyone in the Company celebrated. The bunker had been the last of the fortifications in their sector. The Germans began to retreat under covering fire, and as Ernie said… "it was one of those bullets that hit my Sergeant".
Those who have had the good fortune not to have faced death in war cannot know, that at just the right angle, in the reflection of the sun, you can see a bullet in it’s trajectory toward you. "I saw that bullet, just as my Sergeant got up to run. The dread filled my heart but there was nothing that could be done, as in that same instant, the bullet went through his head."
"For a few minutes we had been jubilent, and then all of a sudden I lost my Sergeant... why I didn't get hit I'll never know because there were machine gun bullets flying all around, and I never got a scratch... So I went over to him and put his Tam o'Shanter back on, he never wore a steel helmet, only a Tam o'Shanter... so I put it back on his head."
Seeing Sgt Sawatzky killed "knocked the starch right out of me. To me he was invincible, and he was my leader, but he was more than that, he was my friend. It was very hard to take when he died."
As the battle raged around them, Ernie and four other men dug in preparing for the German counter-attack.
Under heavy fire two men were killed instantly, "leaving just two of us as a tank rolled up and spun its turret around on us. The guy beside me, my only remaining comrade, was shot dead. At this point, I was alone... absolutely alone".
Ernie assumed he was about to be killed, but with his last reserve of strength, he prayed for one last favour, and that was to, "let me look that cowboy in the eye that's going to kill me, and I'll haunt the bugger the rest of his life."
Prisoner of War
"The pit of fear in my stomach disappeared as I faced that German soldier and challenged him to shoot me. We looked right into each others eyes... and he blinked, and I didn't. He lowered his gun and ordered me out with my hands up. So that’s how I became a prisoner of war."
Ernie said the last thing he ever expected was to be taken prisoner. He felt terrible, and let down by his regiment. "Someone had promised us that the 5th Division was going to come through us in the afternoon, but they never showed up. They showed up alright, but not until 5pm on May 24th... it wasn't much good to us. We might not have gone out into that open field and dug in if we'd known, and I might not have been taken prisoner of war."
Ernie soon found himself riding on the back of the Panther tank which drove him several miles to an open field where about 400 other prisoners were gathered, including other Seaforth's and PPCLI.
They were eventually loaded onto trains to make the slow, painful journey northward into Germany where, after several days, they were unloaded near Moosburg and marched to the POW camp, Stalag 7A.
Ernie said he felt "pretty damn blue, bruised physically and mentally". Not long after Ernie arrived, a German guard told them that France had been invaded. Hearing this raised their spirits, since they knew the war would have to end soon.
Ernie made several friends in the camp and volunteered to work on a nearby farm cutting alfalfa. As difficult as life was on the farm, it was not nearly as bad as the POW camp. But his farm stay ended when the family Ernie was staying with discovered he had been captured near Cassino, where it turned out they had lost a son. So they had Ernie sent back to the POW camp.
The food in the camp was terrible and the vital Red Cross parcels helped to sustain them. Cigarettes were a form of currency among the prisoners, and were also used to bribe guards. Some of the guards at the camp treated the prisoners well, but others, according to Ernie were "junkyard dog mean". Ernie got on the wrong side of one guard, who smacked him in the jaw with a rifle butt.
By the spring of 1945, the distant sound of gunfire made them aware that the Allied armies were approaching.
During the war, several telegrams were sent to Ernie's mother, Mrs. Eve Chambers of Rocky Mtn House, Alberta, which she gave to Ernie after the war.
On April 30th, 1945, Stalag 7A was liberated by the American 14th Armoured Division. At the time it was the largest POW camp in Germany.
A few days later they were driven to a nearby airport, loaded onto Lancasters and flown to Brussels. When they arrived, they were first deloused and then led to a hanger where they had a shower and cleaned up. Then they were given brand new Canadian Army uniforms to wear.
Ernie's Letter Home
The letter Ernie sent home a few days after he was liberated from Stalag 7A POW camp.
To Mrs J. Chambers
Rocky Mtn House
Pte Ern Bagstad
May 5, 1945
Dear Mother and Everyone,
At the moment I am still in Germany. I don't know when we are being moved or where to. So I am therefore unable to give you an address of any sort. I hope to be able to send a letter to everyone in the family real soon, also hope to send some sort of an address. At the moment the old son is pretty sound although we had a bite of a winter but then that's all past. I don't think there was ever a lot of men much happier than this bunch when the Yanks took a run past here.
But don't get the feast out yet as I am not home by all appearances it shall be awhile yet. I hope that everyone at home is ok. Also that you didn't get to many gray hairs over me. Give my hellos to all the family. All the best to you and Dad. Love Ern
Queen Mother of Belgium
They were told to head for the mess hall where a turkey dinner was waiting for them. There was also a gentile lady pouring tea at Ernie's table. She turned out to be the Queen Mother of Belgium. Ernie felt that was a real "feather in his cap".
For Ernie and many other former POW's, the food they were served after their liberation was too rich for many of them to eat, since they had survived on such poor prison food for so long. It took awhile before Ernie could eat a full meal.
A few days later they were loaded onto Lancasters, piloted by Canadians, and flown to Oxford, England in time to celebrate VE day. A few days later they were flown to the 1st Canadian Field Hospital in southern England to recuperate.
Ernie said the Canadian Hospital felt like heaven. The nurses made them feel welcomed, and they went out of their way to take good care of the men. He felt like he was home... and as Ernie said, "it dawned on us that the war was finally over, and we didn't have to get shot at any more."
Ernie first visited The Military Museums in Calgary in 2005 to donate his Seaforth Highlanders uniform. He was so impressed with what he found, that Ernie and his wife Lydia became volunteers with the museum.
It wasn't long afterwards that Ernie was persuaded to share some of his stories with local school children in Calgary, telling them about his experiences as an infantryman during the Second World War.
For years Ernie never spoke to anyone about the war. "I couldn’t bring myself to open my heart to anybody. Once I did begin to share some of my experiences I came to think that even if I did open my heart and let out some of my memories no one would believe me. Now, I don’t give a damn who believes me, I’m going to tell them anyway."
In 2007, after giving a presentation to the Bowness High School, the students of the drama department decided to write and perform a play based on some of the experiences Ernie had described to them.
The play was called, "Dead on Ground", and Ernie was present during the opening performance of the play. He said afterwards he had felt tremendously honoured by the students efforts, and for their respectful and heartfelt interpretation of his story.