‘Their bullets are just as sharp’
Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the Nov. 8, 1989, edition of The Record. Cyril York passed away Feb. 10, 1998.
Parrsboro resident Cyril Yorke was in Lima, Peru, getting ready to set sail for West Africa when the war broke out, and although the merchant mariner would visit ports in Casa Blanca, France and Montreal before returning home, it didn’t prevent him from making two very important decisions which would radically change the course of his life.
The first decision was to get married, and the second was to join the Princess Louise Fusiliers — an elite group of soldiers, trained in the handling of medium weapons including the Vicker’s machine gun, 4.2 mortars and Bren Gun Carriers armed with flamethrowers, whose sole purpose was to provide support to army units under enemy fire.
Yorke first became involved with the Fusiliers regiment shortly after joining the army.
“This fellow came from the Fusiliers looking for recruits and when they said they had a mobile unit my hand was up this high (holds hand well above head),
and from there I walked across Italy,” Yorke laughed.
On Oct. 30, 1942, the Parrsboro resident shipped out for Europe landing on Gourock, Scotland. From there the young recruits were transported by train to Camp Aldershot in England to begin training for the Fusiliers. The group stayed at Camp Aldershot for a month and then headed to Boxhill for more training, this time on the flamethrowers.
Next, the group, by now divided into regiments, participated in the Spartan Scheme, a competition set up to determine which regiment would go to battle in Italy with the Fifth Division combat unit. Yorke recalled being particularly anxious to win the competition.
“We wanted to go because there was a war going on in Italy and we figured we weren’t doing anything just lying around England.”
The group set sail for Italy, but ran into some trouble on the way, according to Yorke.
“On the way down a hospital ship was bombed and we stopped to pick up nurses and other personnel who were in the water after the bombing. Six or seven ships were sank that night, including the ship carrying all of our weapons and ammunition.”
The hospital ship was towed into Algiers where it sank as soon as it got into the harbor. From Algiers, the Fusiliers headed for Naples, Italy, where they spent several weeks waiting for more ammunition before heading across country to Ortona, Italy.
In Ortona, the Fusiliers met up with the Cape Breton Highlands and the West Nova Scotia Regiment and that, Yorke said, “is where my machine gun came into play. We were giving support fire — covering them until they went in. We shot in their bigger equipment because we had longer range equipment than the infantry.”
The Highlanders lost that battle. After that, Yorke said, they realized war was more than just fun and became “a good unit to be with.”
That winter the Fusiliers found themselves stuck in the mountains all winter.
“We couldn’t get out because we were under surveillance all the time. We lived in pup tents all winter,” Yorke remarked.
The former Fusilier said during their time in the mountains, the group became very proficient in the game of bridge. Machine gun trenches were dug so that the men in them would be close enough to one another to enjoy a game of bridge while manning their gun.
Looking back at the war, Yorke remembers moments like these and says “It wasn’t all bad — you don’t think of any of the bad things; you wash them all from your mind.”
Around the end of 1944, the group headed to France and then Belgium where hey spent a week before going to Holland. It was when Yorke was in Holland that the war ended. He recalled the uncertainty felt by the group at that time.
“We kind of held our breath until we found out it was true. It was quite a relief when we found out it was. The Dutch people were very happy about it — they were passing out anything they had, which wasn’t much.”
From Holland, the group was stationed in Italy for two or three months before going home. While in Italy many of the soldiers were kept in local homes. Yorke remembers these months as being filled with joy and celebrations as the soldiers participated in the baseball games and regattas.
When it came time to go, Yorke was among 15,000 who boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the long journey home. The ship docked in New York upon reaching North America and from there Yorke headed home to a wife he had not seen in three years and a son he never met.
“There was a lot of readjustment, they were almost strangers,” Yorke remembered.
Not only did he have to adjust to his family, but also his environment,
“Everything seemed very quiet — there was no action. I found a job as a piledriver, but I decided there must be an easier way of making a living so I went back to the army.”
His decision to re-enlist in the army was not disputed by his wife, whom he said “didn’t mind — she was happy as long as we were together.”
Later, when the Korean War broke out, Yorke, who was a sergeant by this time, applied to go to Korea but was turned down because “at that time I was inspecting vehicles that went to Korea and figured my job was too important.
“I wanted to go because I had already seen a lot of the world but I hadn’t seen Korea. I also missed the comradeship. I think you miss everything — when I stopped going to sea, I missed the sea. I guess it’s natural,” he explained.
Looking back on World War Two, Yorke commented when he first joined the war effort he had no idea what to expect. However, when after being involved in battles, the vet said the war didn’t seem real sometimes.
“You don’t really think it’s real — it’s just when you hear the shells snap when they go over your head, you know they’re getting close.”
He indicated usually there was so much activity; there wasn’t any time to get scared, although this wasn’t always the case.
“When you come off of a rest period — the first day you go back in you’re scared; everything scares you.”
Since his wife’s death earlier this year, the vet has been left alone with his memories and although most are good, there are a few of the war that still haunt him. He recalled one particularly unsettling memory.
“The flamethrower is not a good memory. They would be crying and squealing but they would still keep coming. They were some of Hitler’s fanatics — some were only 16 or 17 years old, but their bullets were just as sharp as anybody’s else’s.”
The late Cyril Yorke.