Val Rimer enlisted in Winnipeg in 1942 and joined the Lord Strathcona's Horse armoured regiment after arriving in England.
The regiment was soon shipped off to Italy where they landed in Naples in late 1943. After the war, Val recalled, "The military in Italy was multi-national. There were Canadians, Americans, British, Ghurkhas, Palestinians, Sikhs, Indians and other Allied nations. The Canadians were constantly moved from hot spot to hot spot. We crossed and re-crossed Italy many times."
Their regiment was involved in many battles, including the battle of Ortona, the Melfa River, the Gothic Line and the Adolf Hitler Line.
The fiercest battle was crossing the Melfa River on 24 May 1944. The Strathcona’s lost over 20 killed and 30 wounded while losing 17 Sherman tanks. The Germans suffered a serious set-back with over 30 casualties and the loss of over ten Panther tanks, nine self-propelled guns, five anti-tank guns and numerous other vehicles.
The regiment's tanks were 30 ton Shermans that could travel faster and on softer ground than the German tanks. As Val recounted, "...but the German Panthers had 88 mm guns that could fire shells through our armour like it was butter, in one side and out the other. Our 75 mm's barely made a dent in their tanks. We had to catch a Panther by firing a shell at its track."
"We were the first to capture a German Tiger Tank in A1 condition, just before Rome. We hit its track and the German crew abandoned it. Strangely enough, we found out their radio was glued to our frequency."
One advantage the Shermans had over the German tanks was that the Shermans could be manoeuvred better through trees, and they had a shorter gun barrel which made it possible to swing the gun more easily.
The officers tried to be encouraging about what lay ahead for the tank crews during the Campaign, but as Val said, "We were always told we were coming to 'tank country' which meant ideal, level ground with no obstacles. We never found it ...but we were always told we were coming to it. There were always ditches, hills, vines - all sorts of stuff. Never in our entire stay did we encounter 'tank country'."
Not long afterwards, Val's troop gathered to assess the damage done to their tanks after a battle. "It was a mistake," he says. The Germans had a spotter nearby with a wireless directing 150 mm rocket fire. In a matter of minutes the three tanks in Val's troop were destroyed killing 14 men. Val was the only survivor of those three tank crews.
Advance on Rome
"Our regiment opened the road to Rome," Val says emphatically. "When we were five miles from Rome, the city was declared 'open', meaning there would be no more fighting on either side. As we were approaching the city, we were stopped. They let the Americans go in. Typical politicians!! So the Americans took Rome!"
The"This happened two days before D-Day. Rome was the first capital city of the Third Reich that fell to the Allies, but its capture was overshadowed in the media by the invasion of Europe."
The Canadians were not allowed to even enter the city, "Off limits", and the Americans had all the celebrations to themselves.
Val was wounded shortly afterwards, and ended up in a British hospital being used by Canadians. Val recounted how the wounded French Canadians in the hospital refused to get out of bed to salute when the officers made the rounds.
"I had to sit to attention." While in the hospital he learned that his younger brother, Abe, had been wounded in France. Val spent many hours worrying about how his parents would react to hearing that both sons had been wounded.
Back to Europe
Val rejoined the Strathcona's Horse after recovering and learned they were going "overseas". They loaded the tanks on LST's (Landing Ship Tanks) and crossed to Marseille on 19 Feb 1945. At Marseille the tanks were loaded onto flat cars and shipped by rail to Izegem, Belgium. There, the men rested and some even had leave to England.
After a brief rest, Lord Strathcona's Horse went into battle again in operation "Dutch Cleanser", the plan to push the Germans out of Holland and into the Zyder Zee. "Our tanks went hell bent for leather," Val recalls, "north toward the coast and we cut the German lines in half. The jubilant people along the way surrounded our tanks and it was hard to get them off so we could keep going. It was extraordinary. We chased the Germans all the way to the Zyder Zee and fired at their boats as they evacuated.
War is Over
Val was in a civilian's house in North Holland when word came through that war had ended. "The Dutch Underground took the women collaborators immediately and shaved their heads. That stood out for us." Val was 22 years old.
Before he returned to Canada, Val hitchhiked to Valenciennes, a small French town northwest of Paris. "I went to find members of my family. My grandparents came from Russia. My dad and his sisters came to Canada before the war but one sister married a Frenchman. I was the oldest grandson and before the war I wrote to her.
"When I found their house in Valenciennes, I knocked on the door. My cousin answered. She didn't speak English. I didn't speak French. Then my aunt came to the door, and I said to her in Hebrew, 'I'm Jack's son.'
"She looked at me stupefied. She hadn't seen anybody in the family since the 1920's."
"I went into the house and into the kitchen. They didn't seem to understand. Then she said, 'Yankel Zun' (Jack's son). She started to cry.
"I stayed for two days. We learned to communicate. Her husband had been killed in the Holocaust. She had raised five children by herself.
"I left everything I could for them. Then I got my brother and his friends to visit. Eventually my family in Toronto brought all of them over."
Val crossed the Channel in Feb 1946, and like all the other returning servicemen, mistakenly believed he would be searched for contraband, particularly captured weapons. "We threw it all overboard", he said. He met his brother Abe in London and they had a few days together before Val boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth for the voyage home.
"It was the same terrible experience going home," he says of the return voyage in the overcrowded liner. The voyage over had been sickening and the men encountered the same conditions on the way home to Canada. "We were jammed six to a stateroom designed for one person. The mess hall still smelled disgusting and everybody puked their guts out."
In Winnipeg, thousands of people crowded the station holding up signs for relatives. His fiancee, Doris, fainted in the excitement. His parents and sister drove him home and there, across the door, hung a huge banner:
"Welcome Home, Max and Abe."
The banner symbolized to Val many of the wartime changes in his life. During his transformation from a youth to a man, he had become known to his friends and comrades by his nickname, Val. Now, as he viewed the banner on the family's house, he realized that no matter how far he travelled, and how much he experienced, he would always be his parent's much-loved boy, Max.
Many years later, in the 1990's, Val would be invited to return to Holland to attend memorial services. There, Val would find himself standing shoulder to shoulder with brigadiers and generals. It didn't matter to him that he was outranked.
While he stood to attention amongst the brass, he recalled how he once gripped the transverse gear of his Sherman's big gun, screwed his eye tight to the telescope, and readied his feet above the firing buttons. He remembered the jubilant Dutch crowds swarming his tank as Lord Strathcona's Horse drove the Germans into the sea. That was enough recognition for him.
Val was proud to be Trooper Rimer, and that was how he signed the guest book in Holland.