Behind every soldier in the field are the people who got them there, keep them there and get them home again.
The Stretcher Bearer is just one of the many integral roles that supports the soldier in the field. A non-commissioned member of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, the stretcher bearer is literally the lifeline between the sick or wounded soldiers in the field and the medical care behind the front lines.
Stretcher Bearers shared the same miserable conditions of the soldiers they cared for and when the call went out they were up in the front lines often under fire. Unarmed stretcher bearers were protected under the Geneva Convention identified by the Red Cross armband.
The arrival of gunpowder in Europe increased the number of casualties and types of wounds inflicted on soldiers. By mid 19th century medicine had advanced to the stage where armies were beginning to change the way they were dealing with disease and injury approaching it in a much more efficient way.
It was a surgeon in Napolean's army who pioneered the concept of evacuation by developing specially fitted wagons known as Napolean's flying ambulances, greatly increasing medical efficiency. Medical evacuation techniques continued to be perfected during the American civil war and throughout the First and Second World Wars. During the Korean war the Americans adapted the then brand new helicopter technology to transport wounded/sick over rough terrain and out to hospital ships at sea.Red Cross
A Swiss man, named Henri Dunant, was so appalled by the lack of care for the wounded and resulting loss of life he witnessed during the Battle of Solfernino in 1859, that he proposed the idea of a neutral health care service to care for the wounded in conflict and catastrophe. Eventually this led to the Red Cross and the symbol still worn today by military medical personnel around the world.First Geneva Convention 1864
The first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864 by 16 European states to save lives, to alleviate the suffering of wounded and sick military personnel, and to protect trained medical personnel as civilians, in the act of rendering aid.
Chapter IV, Article 25 of the Geneva Convention states, that:
"Members of the armed forces specially trained for employment, should the need arise, as hospital orderlies, nurses or auxiliary stretcher-bearers, in the search for or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded and sick shall likewise be respected and protected if they are carrying out these duties at the time when they come into contact with the enemy or fall into his hands."
Article 29 reads:
"Members of the personnel designated in Article 25 who have fallen into the hands of the enemy, shall be prisoners of war, but shall be employed on their medical duties insofar as the need arises."
Knowingly firing at a medic wearing clear insignia is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention.
In modern times, most combat medics carry a personal weapon, to be used to protect themselves and the wounded or sick in their care. When and if they use their arms offensively, they then sacrifice their protection under the Geneva Conventions. These medics are specifically trained.Care in the Field: Canadian Doctor Norman Bethune
Canadian Doctor Norman Bethune improved battlefield care dramatically by providing a mobile blood transfusion service in the field in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. As the Chief Medical Officer of the Communist Forces Eighth Army in China in 1938, Bethune set up a mobile medical unit. Intensive care of soldiers in the field developed even further in the Vietnam war. Today Field Ambulance staff perform procedures in the field that were once only delivered in the best-equipped hospitals.
Second World War
During the Second World War, Stretcher Bearers were assigned to Field Ambulance units who were responsible for the evacuation and treatment of casualties. Each Field Ambulance unit was assigned to a specific infantry or armoured brigade and landed with them during assaults. Stretcher Bearers moved the wounded from the battlefield to each unit's Regimental Aid Post where they would be quickly treated and prepared for evacuation by ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Post. Here the wounded might receive blood products, morphine or care for shock before moving on to the Advanced Dressing Station.
As the Casualty Clearing Post was still within enemy firing range, the idea was to move the wounded to the rear as quickly as possible. At the Advanced Dressing Station those requiring immediate surgery were sent on to the Casualty Clearing Stations where Field Surgical Units would take care of them. Less serious cases often stayed at the Dressing Stations until ready to go back to their units. Those who could not return to active duty were evacuated by hospital train or plane or ship to the General Hospitals for further care.
Over 20 Canadian General Hospitals were operational during the Second World War and were usually attached to army formations and therefore moved as the army advanced. Canadian General Hospitals were in England, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany by the end of 1945. Evacuation procedures might have changed according to the theatre of war, however the dedication, care and bravery under fire of the Stretcher Bearers was unwavering regardless of the theatre of war.
The life saving first aid procedures the Stretcher Bearers performed were as valuable to the wounded and seriously ill soldier as the knowledge that someone was coming to rescue him and would be there to calm and help him through whatever he had to face.
Stretcher Bearers in the Second World War wore and carried the same army issued gear of a regular soldier. As well as a helmet, gas mask, and a trenching tool to dig a slit trench with for example, they would also carry a bag for their medical equipment. Not allowed to carry a gun, Stretcher Bearers wore a Red Cross arm-band and carried an identity card issued by the Canadian Red Cross as well as a notation in their service books that they were protected under the Geneva Convention. In spite of the relentless violence on the battlefields, the laws of the Convention were generally well respected.Canadian Jeep Ambulance
A Canadian innovation, the jeep ambulance could move faster and go places where the former larger ambulances couldn't drive. This new low profile jeep, designed in Sicily, carried two stretchers behind the driver, rather than above and protected casualties from the sun, wind and rain under a canvas canopy. Casualties could now be easily loaded at no higher than waist level. The framework was designed in such a way that it could be easily transferred to another jeep. Also successfully utilized during the campaign in Italy, this Canadian design was further improved for service in Korea.
Rudy Deutsch joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) as a reinforcement in January, 1943. As a 'farm kid', Rudy had been very skilled with a gun. He could take it apart and put it together in half the time of the other recruits. The recruiting officers immediately put him into training for Snipers and Scouts but because he had injured his appendix in a Lacrosse match the year before he was not able to handle the heavy guns.
He had several options to chose from when transferring out and he chose the Medical Corps. He went off to Camp Borden for Medical Advanced Training for 3 months, and sailed for the Mediterranean the following July, 1943. His experience as a stretcher bearer with a forward unit in action started in North Africa, carrying casualties off ships en route from Italy to the 67 British Field Hospital in Philippeville, Algeria.Italian Campaign
In Algeria, Rudy was stricken with malaria, found unconscious by a fellow medic and then became a patient at the same hospital for 3 weeks. On release he was sent to Campobasso, Italy and reunited with some of the boys he'd trained with in Canada. There he was assigned to and served the rest of the war with the 5th Field Ambulance in support of the Canadian First Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade; The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.
Rudy first saw action at the Moro River where he tells the story of his baptism by fire. The Division was moving forward to the objective at Casa Berardi when three Messerschmitts approached and opened fire on their position. Rudy, having narrowly escaped the brutal strafing, had to quickly run to the aid of those who'd been hit. As Rudy recalled:
"There was this one guy, his leg was shot up real bad and I was trying to put a field dressing on it when the Medical Officer came along. He said, ‘Rudy. Get out your jackknife.' So I got out my jackknife and I thought he meant I should cut off his pants so I could get the field dressing on it. He said, ‘No, not his pants, cut his leg off.' So I cut his leg off and got a field dressing on it real tight to stop the blood from flowing. I didn't eat for three days after that."
Stretcher Bearers had great devotion for their comrades as well as for the civilians. When they heard the call, they went out into the thick of shelling and gunfire to carry the wounded back to safety. They did their utmost to protect their charges but sometimes fate intervened.
Rudy recounts his traumatic memory during the battle of the Gully,
"Four of us were carrying out a wounded man from this deep gully, and we were just about to get up over the top and I said, ‘Let's rest the wounded.' So we put the stretcher down, right on top of a mine. We lost him."Ortona
The next objective for the Division would be to capture the town of Ortona and 2nd Brigade was assigned the task. Rudy's unit was attached to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment throughout the 8 day battle, one of the deadliest of the Italian Campaign and often referred to as "Little Stalingrad".
One day in the midst of the street fighting, Rudy was called to help some civilians who had been wounded. The Germans were firing artillery rounds from the north onto the town, but some of the shells went further, over the top of the hill, landing near the Adriatic shore on the other side. This particular family had been living in a little house near the railroad track fairly close to the sea when their home was hit.
Rudy was sent down the steel stairway by himself and found, when he arrived, that the lady of the house had been killed the day before from the German shelling. The man of the house had been severely wounded. Rudy found him lying in the rubble of the house with both his legs blown off.
He had two little sons crying by his side, approximately 7 and 8 years old. To ease this man's pain, Rudy gave him a shot of morphine and then put field dressings on both legs to stop the bleeding. He was conscious, but suffering terribly. Rudy pulled him up on his back and carried him on his shoulders, resting on each landing, before climbing up each of the four switchbacks, all the while the little boys following, crying.
When Rudy got the man up to the Aid Post, the Medical Officer started cleaning the wounds to prepare for surgery but the man was unable to survive the trauma. His little boys were still with him holding his hands when the townspeople came to take him away.
Rudy kept the boys with him because the Aid Post was in the orphanage next to the church - the same location that the Museo Della Battaglia di Ortona is today. He arranged for some stretchers to be laid down for the boys to sleep on next to him, with wounded soldiers all around, and took care of them for the next two days. When he was sent to the front to the Loyal Eddies R.A.P. in the valley, he was forced to leave them behind.
Heartbroken, he went back to look for them a couple of days later but never found them again. He suspects the nuns at the orphanage may have taken them to live with extended family but, in over 65 years, Rudy never stopped wondering about them. Rudy had been friends with the nuns as he was the only one who used to go to mass every morning, help them haul water and feed them beef and bread from rations in payment for letting the Canadians use their building.Europe
Rudy continued his service in Northwest Europe when the Division was tasked with the liberation of Holland. In Holland he was attached to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and specifically to Captain Sydney Frost's D company. They were the first Regiment to cross the Ijssel River eventually entrapping the German Army. Rudy was present during the truce when the Allied and German senior officers arranged Operation Manna, the food drop that would save the Dutch from the brink of starvation.
Always in the thick of the action, stretcher bearers and medics shared in some of the most harrowing dangers and misery as the infantry. Their red cross patch was their only insurance that they would be able to safely make it through the shelling and back to the Regimental Aid Posts with their wounded.
Born on the 21st of June 1922, Charles Sydney Frost enlisted with the Canadian Army as a Lieutenant in 1942 after graduating from the Royal Military College of Canada. He served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Europe during the Second World War in Sicily and Italy.
He was badly wounded in Italy on the 11th of April, 1943 and evacuated to a British army hospital in Algiers where doctors rebuilt his face with wire and metal bars. He was then sent to the Basingstoke Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital in England for cutting edge plastic surgery.
Frost returned to the theatre of war three months later to Ispica, Sicily, where the 21-year-old officer appointed himself mayor of the town. Upon his return he was promoted to Captain but again wounded in Italy on the 14th of December 1944.
In 1945 he was appointed Acting Second in Command and commanded his company in the assault across the Ijssel River in the campaign to liberate Holland. He remained with the Regiment for the North West Europe Campaign and through the end of the war.
Following the Second World War, Sydney Frost joined the Royal Regiment of Canada (Militia) in 1947 and was appointed Commanding Officer from 1959 until 1962 when he retired from active service. He was appointed Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Canada from 1967 to 1974 and then Honourary Colonel from 1974 to the present.
Frost entered Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, graduating in 1949, and practiced corporate law until 1984. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from RMC in 1976 and appointed Queen's Counsel in 1960. He was awarded honorary citizenship from the town of Ispica. He revisited the graves of his Second World War comrades on many pilgrimages and cherished his European friendships. In his retirement years he wrote Once a Patricia (1988), A Life Worthwhile (1994) and Always a Patricia (2004).
Colonel Frost was bound by a lifelong sense of discipline, honour and duty, acquired both at home and in the military. Striving for excellence was his lifelong pursuit as an athlete, soldier, lawyer, author and musician. Charles Sydney Frost died in Toronto on August 6, 2009. He was 87.
The Saving of Achterveld Church
The village of Achterveld is a small catholic enclave in the Dutch province of Utrecht. The masterpiece Neo Roman church designed by Dutch architect Hendrik Valk was the heart and soul of the town in April of 1945. From the church tower, miles of countryside could be observed and as such was an ideal command post for the German Forces as they prepared for the advance of the Allied Army in the final days of the Second World War.
Victory was within sight in early April and the Canadian Corps drove into Holland liberating 70 miles of terrain within a week. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division was tasked with clearing northeast Holland and crossing the Ijssel River to trap and defeat the remaining German troops in Southern Holland. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) had the distinction of leading the division across the Ijssel in amphibious Buffalo landing crafts. This was the Regiment's first action in northwest Europe.
Rudy Deutsch was a medic attached to D company, PPCLI, serving under the command of Capt Sydney Frost. In Rudy's words,
We were on the first Buffalo that crossed the Ijssel River in Holland and liberated and occupied the town of Wilp on the night of April 11, 1945. Our M.D., Major Fairfield, set up the Regimental Aid Post in a German bunker at the crossing where we carried in our wounded soldiers for treatment by Dr. Fairfield.
We tried to get some of our badly wounded back across the river with a small boat. The Jerries had their sights on us at the crossing and peppered us with 88mm shells which landed in the water and upset our boat. It was a struggle to get back on land carrying the wounded through the river. We had some 88mm shells land 4 feet from us once we got to the bank. They went plunk into the sand and didn't exploded. We were extremely fortunate not to be blown to pieces!".
After successfully establishing the bridgehead, the Patricias moved out two days later and advanced rapidly through the countryside liberating village after village. As ragged and starving civilians embraced the Canadians with tears, the enemy surrendered in droves but there were still German soldiers in occupied villages ready to obey Hitler's orders and fight to the last man.
On April 17th the advance came to a standstill as Allied and Nazi high command entered negotiations. The village of Achterveld found itself in the dangerous position of being situated in no-man's land between fronts. Both Allied and Nazi patrols crept through the town day and night. Terrified civilians took cover in underground shelters to protect themselves against the constant shellfire and artillery barrage from both sides. Many villagers sought refuge in the warmth of the church basement.
On the early evening of April 18th there was an unusual quiet. Some civilians of the town ventured out of hiding and noticed the Germans were wiring their Church with dynamite. According to documented accounts from Dutch archives, local villagers saw seven Germans entering the tower with dynamite.
The Pastor of the church also noted in his diary that he witnessed the Germans bringing explosives into the church tower. One brave villager hopped on his bike and rode 6km with the distress message to Canadian headquarters at Barneveld.
At about that same time, Rudy was in the Regimental Aid Post near Barneveld. Rudy recalls the actions of that day vividly:
"There was a German senior officer that was wounded quite badly and I was taking care of him, he was bleeding badly and I was trying to put a field dressing on him to stop the bleeding. He said, 'If you save my life. I'll tell you what's going to happen.'
So I put a tourniquet on him and I stopped the bleeding and he came through. He told us the Germans were going to blow up the church. The big church in Achterveld was wired with dynamite and ready to be blown. So I ran over to where Sydney Frost was and I told him what the German officer had told me."
As the civilians waited anxiously hope was restored when they saw the Canadian armoured car. The messenger returned one hour later with the Patricias in support just as the Germans were laying their finishing touches to their work on the tower.
A fierce firefight ensued, four Germans escaped but the Patricias captured three others and the church was spared. Sydney Frost recounted,
"We arrived there just in time, the Germans were about to blow up their church... a patrol ran into a pocket of Germans who put up a fight but soon withdrew leaving a number of prisoners... a Patricia officer was about to enter the tower when a Dutch civilian presented him with 25 pounds of dynamite and several feet of fuse he had found in the church. Those Germans were going to blow it up just for spite... We got there just in time and saved the church."
German soldiers had wired the Achterveld Church with 60kg of dynamite. There was a mass scheduled at the Church that evening of April 18th. It is pure speculation to suggest that the Germans might have intended to blow the Church while the villagers were inside celebrating mass, after all, war crimes in the Dutch countryside under German occupation were a common terror tactic.
But what is certain is that the treasured and sacred Church was to be destroyed as the Germans retreated to prevent the advancing Canadians from being able to use it as an observation tower. Regardless of the scope of the impending disaster, the village of Achterveld held on to their gratitude for decades after the end of the war.
In 2000 the town of Achterveld erected a monument in honour of the Patricias with both Sydney Frost and Rudy Deutsch in attendance at the unveiling. The plaque reads,
"Canadian soldiers from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry prevented the destruction of the parish church of Achterveld. We thank these soldiers who saved the heart of our village. May 2000".
Just hours after the PPCLI fired their last shots of the Second World War, history was made in Achterveld. On the morning of April 28th, 1945, Allied and German leaders agreed on a temporary armistice. The people of Holland were on the brink of disaster with widespread starvation after four years of occupation and the German imposed Hunger Winter.
Meetings among high ranking officers took place at the Achterveld School House over the course of two days. According to the official history,
'The Patricias' Medical Officer, Major G.C. Fairfield, supplied the typewriter on which the agreement was copied; the Battalion loaned the Russian representative an electric generator to provide power for his radio transmitter. The Battalion also supplied a tent, pickets, checkposts and guards in the village and refreshments in the messes.
As Rudy Deutsch recalled,
"Our last position was in Achterveld and I took part in the food drop there. I have pictures where they brought in the German generals with the white flags and blindfolded to the little school in Achterveld. I was an interpreter there because I was one of the only ones that could speak German."
It was finally agreed that both armies would engage in a truce while convoys of food and supplies were moved in under Canadian command to relieve the suffering. Operation Manna began immediately on the morning of April 29th. Tons of food and supplies were convoyed in and dropped in gunny sacks at very low altitudes by Canadian Bomber Command.
On May 5th German forces surrendered in Holland. In the advance from the Ijssel River the PPCLI had suffered 5 killed, 34 wounded and 3 missing. Over 700 German soldiers had been taken prisoner.
The people of Holland have never forgotten the Patricias and have honoured their contribution to the liberation of the Netherlands with five memorials in the path of their historic advance on April 1945.
Rudy's early years growing up on his Saskatchewan farm gave him lots of opportunities to develop powerful arms milking cows and running farm machinery. Rudy developed a reputation as an unstoppable arm wrestler, especially during his years of service during the Second World War.
Once he arrived home after the war, Rudy began competing competitively. He attended arm wrestling competitions in Canada and the U.S. and collected 25 awards over the years. In 1984, Rudy won the Masters event in arm wrestling in his age category in Calgary, Ab.
In 2008, at 86 years of age, Rudy attended the World Championships in Kelowna BC and won the Bronze medal. When Rudy rediscovered his passion for arm wrestling after the war, he said it had a re-energizing effect on his life. "It keeps you going, and keeps your mind active."