Maj Robin Bothwell Fraser, 3rd Field Company, Distinguished Service Order

Distinguished Service Order
3rd Fd Coy's Crossing Over the Moro, known as the Chit House Crossing
Background 

Major Fraser's story is well told by Mark Zuehlke in his book, Ortona: Canada's Epic World War II Battle, extracts of which are reprinted here:

From page 128

The 48th Highlanders attack had been Intended nut only to secure a bridgehead on the western outskirts of San Leonardo but also to clear the river valley of enemy infantry. This would enable the Royal Canadian Engineers to build a bridge across the Moro River free of immediate enemy interference. It was imperative the RCE have a bridge ready by morning. If the engineers failed, the Highlanders' success would be for naught. Without tank support, the Highlanders and RCR would face the impossible task of holding ground against determined counterattacks by combined forces of armour and infantry.

The task of building the bridge fell on the shoulders of thirty-two-year-old Major Robin Bothwell Fraser.  Born in Coaticook, Quebec, Fraser had moved to Toronto before the war mid worked as a draughtsman. When war broke out in September 1939. He immediately enlisted as a lieutenant. Promotions had come steadily, and Fraser had earned a reputation as a resourceful and determined engineering officer.

The engineers planned to confine the river to a culvert over which a corduroy-road causeway would be constructed. The corduroy road would consist of 800 twelve-foot-long round timbers of eight-inch diameter set side by side. Under this would be a culvert built out of several rows of connecting lines of forty-gallon drums, with the bottoms cut away so each allowed the river to flow through the next in line. A bulldozer would fill the streambed with dirt, forcing the river into the culverts, then grade a track from the bridge to the existing roadway. It required thirty-four three-ton trucks to carry the timbers, drums, and other construction supplies.'* So many trucks in a small area would be extremely vulnerable to enemy fire if the opposing riverbank was not cleared of German machine-gunners.

Although the Highlanders had secured their objectives by 2000 hours, nobody thought to told Fraser. This left Fraser waiting impatiently with his convoy of trucks and 120 men on the road leading down to the Moro. At 2200 hours, Fraser decided the engineers either got to work or failed in their task.  He took six sappers and a D-7 bulldozer, driven by Sapper Milton C. McNaughton, down to the river. Fraser later wrote in the company's war diary,  "That D-7 seems to make as much noise as an entire tank brigade as it moves down to the job." Deciding that no bulldozer work was required on the southern side of the river. Fraser told McNaughton to find a way to get his machine over to the other side and start grading the diversion needed there. McNaughton clanked eastward across the rough country until he found u possible crossing point, By this lime, however, the sound of the bulldozer had attracted the attention of the Panzer Grenadiers. Shelling of the river valley intensified, and some machine-gun positions dug in on the valley In front of Sun Leonardo started searching for the bulldozer with bursts of fire. McNaughton paused, waiting for things to quiet down. When the Germans kept firing, he finally said. "Aw, the hell with this." and drove his D-7 into the riverbed.

The bulldozer boiled up out of the river onto the other bank and rumbled back toward the planned bridge site. But the dense foliage and other obstructions along the shoreline forced him to detour away from the river and toward the enemy positions. A fretting Fraser saw the bulldozer moving across the skyline a good quarter mile inside what was still enemy territory. The Germans saw McNaughton, too, and raked his machine with heavy machine-gun fire. Miraculously, McNaughton and the bulldozer drove through the intense fire virtually unscathed and returned safely to the riverbank.

By now Fraser had four lorries, two loaded with barrels and the others with timbers, down at the river. A team of sappers set about installing the culvert and then laying down the timber bridging, while McNaughton cut the diversion up to the roadway. The cut he graded varied from zero elevation to twelve feet over a distance of only eighty feet, requiring extensive shifting and shoring of natural terrain. It took McNaughton seven hours to complete the task." Despite heavy enemy fire, the engineers suffered surprisingly few casualties during their night's work. Only three men required evacuation for wounds. Fraser and a few others received minor wounds, but stuck to their jobs."

One thing was increasingly obvious. The Royal Canadian Regiment did not possess San Leonardo, nor was it anywhere near the eastern edge of the village. Fire from both positions never faltered. While Fraser had no idea what had happened to the RCR, he knew that their failure boded ill for his ability to keep the bridge open come morning. But he was determined the engineers would do their fob regardless of enemy fire.

From page 137

Vokes's bridge before San Leonardo was ready at 0600 hours, not a minute too soon. The tank attack was scheduled to begin in precisely one hour. German shelling of the bridge location intensified as dawn approached. Time and again, Major Robin Fraser's exhausted engineers rushed out on the bridge and frantically repaired damage caused by shell strikes. The engineers took heavy casualties. While only three engineers had been wounded during the bridge's construction, two were killed or wounded keeping it in repair for the duration of the attack.

 

 

Citation 

On the night of 8/9 December 1943 the 1st Canadian Division made an assault across the Moro River. The 3rd Canadian Field Company, under command Major Fraser, was given the vitally important task of constructing a tank crossing over which supporting arms could be brought up to the assistance of the forward troops. As Major Fraser well knew, the success of the operation very largely depended upon the success completion of his job by first light.

Although the bridgehead was not complete by 2200 hours, Major Fraser led small parties of his company to the site and began work, despite the presence of the enemy on the far bank. Throughout the night the work was interrupted by heavy mortar, shell and machine gun fire. Largely through Major Fraser's drive, ability and superb example to his men, work continued at the crossing and the task was completed on time.

After the tanks had crossed, maintenance on the crossing was essential. In daylight heavy casualties were suffered by the field company. Major Fraser, himself slightly wounded, saw his job accomplished, personally supervised the dressing of the wounded men and then skilfully extricated the remainder of his company. He himself was the last to leave the crossing.

To this officer's fine example and devotion to duty in difficult and very unpleasant conditions, as well as to his personal courage and technical ability can be attributed to a large extent the final success of the divisional plan.