Chapter One of Book 7...'Moths to the Flame--Origin of The Warlock'
Monte la Difensa-- December 2, 1943
Felt more than seen during the pitch of a midnight assault, Corporal Ryder Beaton had no idea whether the spotting round that had fallen nearby was of the German or American 105mm sort. While time was suspended in an arc of abject terror, at 19 years old he was just salty enough to recognize that wonder of American fire direction—the phenomenon called ‘Time on Target’.
Each battery calculated the time of flight from their guns to the target. Each fired during the countdown at a time that caused the initial rounds from all of the guns to impact the target simultaneously. The resulting cacophony of carnage wrought Hell upon the 15th Panzergrenadier Division’s crack mountain troops dug into defensive positions south of Highway No 6.
Above on the shelves of granite under which he was suspended in bondage by rope and piton, the sheaths of white phosphorous descended onto flesh that not so much burned as created runnels of liquified bone and organ. Ryder clung to the sheer face with a tenacity belying his youth but was betrayed by the stream of urine soaking his crotch. Arduous as it was, his training did not prepare him for these horrors.
Private Beaton got off the train at Fort Harrison just outside of Helena, Montana. He observed the terrain closely matched that of his home at Banff in the Alberta province of western Canada. Before a cadre of hardened NCOs descended, he had just enough time to recall his fervent joy of skiing or mountaineering in similar pristine, but achingly cold peaks. At high elevations, tall firs pierced through both lingering snow and mist and reached to the glory of the heavens above.
Home sweet home.
His hardscrabble life before the military was similar to the other recruits, Officer and other ranks alike. When he was 10 years old, his father had been a miner when the Great Depression hit and he couldn’t work. Like so many others, this left the family bereft of stable income and teetering at the precipice of starvation and malnutrition. This tough upbringing soon came to bear, as did his father’s tutelage in hunting, trapping and all things outdoors.
Ryder was one of maybe a thousand recruits to a new, joint American and Canadian special operations venture called the First Special Service Force, sometimes just called the ‘Force’. Although it officially was known as a Regiment, divided further into Battalions, Companies and Platoons, those measures were merely obfuscations to mislead enemy observers. The core maneuver element of the Force was an 8-man section.
He and his mates occupied a canvas tent propped on top of some pallets, the center dominated by a small wood stove and support tent pole. Each man had a cot and footlocker. Assigned bunks were in the boy-girl, boy-girl type configuration: Canadian-American, Canadian-American being the protocol of the day. For now, there was little co-mingling or card playing, each man contemplating—what have I done? Tomorrow, following a five-mile run, they would begin the hallmark of the Force: alpine airborne training and certification.
This was not Ft. Benning where there was a gradual progression of tasks culminating in an actual parachute jump. Here, the training was perfunctory: donning the harness; hooking up to the overhead cable; breaking the descent of the jump with a parachute landing fall (PLF), feet and knees together as one; gathering of kit, and off to the rendezvous point. Ryder boarded his C-47 transport plane and soon was floating beneath a round silk canopy watching the ground initially seem far away and unmoving, then rushing up at an alarming rate as he hit the prairie earth ass over tea kettle.
Ryder reached the summit of the climb and wormed onto the ledge with all his equipment intact, his M-1 Garand ready to fire and cupped into the crook of his elbows as he low crawled beneath the tracer rounds of a German MG-42. Beneath the glow of a flare above, he looked to his right and watched his buddy Lance Garrison’s back of his head disappear as Lance incautiously popped his head up to get a better look. The flare cast a shadow where there now was a cavernous cavity and Ryder felt the wetness of Lance’s brain matter on his wrist.
He felt a prodigious rage, the shame of the wetness in his crotch forgotten, a palpable need to savage and bring Death to his enemy. Without any thought at all, he charged. To no one in particular, he bellowed, ‘Follow me!’
The section rose as one, with that deadly MG-42 ripping its chorus in a staccato rhythm; Ryder and others answered in equal violence with a volley of grenades. Some of the men fell, their blood soaking the thinly snow-covered granite. The Germans, in defilade behind a prepared position had the advantage, but Ryder’s wrath was so great, the men of the Force prevailed. As there had been no time to fix bayonets, Ryder improvised by bashing the last surviving Kraut’s head in with an epic buttstroke, the poor bastard’s head split like an overripe melon.
Hearing the poignant sound of reveille, Ryder rolled off his cot and started getting ready for another day of training. He looked forward to negotiating the obstacle course, a physical task at which he excelled. Everywhere they went, the ran ‘at the double’, each evolution of training building on the previous day’s labours.
Much of their training centered around weapons, of which there were a variety each soldier was expected to master. First, was the M1 Garand, a very new addition to the American arsenal: caliber 30, clip-fed, gas operated semi-automatic with an effective range of 500 yards. Standard issue for section commanders was the .45 cal Thompson submachine gun boasting a cyclic rate of 700 rounds per minute fed with a 20 or 30 round magazine to exploit its firepower. The tripod-mounted and belt-fed .30 cal M1919 Browning machine gun anchored the section during fire and maneuver drills.
The physicality of the training was hallmarked by not only the grueling O-course and endless formation runs, but by brutal force marches, some of which were 30 miles under basic load. Another aspect of the training that was designed to harden the men was that of unarmed combat with the V-42 dagger. A policeman from Hong Kong had been brought in to teach the Forceman methods both with blade and without bound by only one rule: kill or be killed.
As the unit had been designed to fight behind enemy lines, the soldiers were familiarized with many of the European theatre’s Axis weapons: the 9mm MP 40 Schmeisser machine pistol, the 7.92mm Mauser bolt-action rifle as well as the PzB 39 anti-tank rifle. Exotic explosives such as Ryan’s Special (RS) which exceeded the effectiveness of dynamite by tenfold were introduced as were the mathematical formulae required to efficiently maximize the blasts on targets such as the German heavy water production sites at hydroelectric plants in Norway.
Getting to a target area, usually behind enemy lines, required courage, guile and ingenuity. Men learned not only manual modes such as mountaineering and cross-country skiing—they trained on operating and maintaining a form of over-snow transport designed specifically for the Force’s unique Nordic mission set: the ‘Weasel’. The M29 Weasel was a front engine, rear wheel drive system with a different bogie wheel arrangement with Kégresse-style "rubber-band" style tracks.
Some months had passed since that nightmarish raid on Monte la Difense, hard days of battle in which Ryder and his mates were applied to spearhead the Italian campaign. Casualties mounted, terrain was acquired by blood and sweat, awards were dispassionately dispensed by pasty bureaucrats in the rear. Ryder himself was bestowed the Cross of Valour, a bauble for which he cared little when he considered the costs. Having been promoted to Sergeant, now he contemplated a new worry.
Someplace called Anzio.