By WO Terry Warner, CD
The interview was prearranged through members of Royal Canadian Legion Branch (#595 Strathcona). It was conducted at the home of Mr Fields between 7 and 9 pm, 29 Apr 2014.
The purpose was to learn more about Stanley's WWII military service to properly inform the Regimental Sergeant Major, Chief Warrant Officer Luc Lemieux, and the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Vandenberg, for introductions as the invited guest at a mess dinner for Mapping and Charting Establishment.
Stanley Fields was born in 1918 and is age 95. He is slightly hard of hearing but otherwise appeared to be healthy. He has a charming sense of humour and good recall. He grew up in Ottawa and worked as a plumber after high school. As a teenager, he was a page on Parliament Hill. He joined the Canadian Army in September 1939, one week after war was declared. Eventually, he found his way to the Royal Canadian Engineers, claiming he'd do just about any job but wasn't fond of having to walk everywhere. the 5th Field Company Company was formed in Kingston, Ontario in September 1941 with men were from across Canada. Although he was a tradesman before the war, that had little bearing on Stanley's service in the Engineers. He was married in 1940 and left his pregnant wife Joan in Canada when the unit sailed to England in the fall of 1943. He didn't see the child until it was a year-and-a-half old.
At some point the Canadian Army chose 3rd Canadian Division for D-Day to land on Juno beach. After considerable staff work and rehearsing, the plan was to land four infantry battalions, four tank regiments and hold a fifth tank unit in reserve. Each battalion and regiment was assigned a specific frontage of the beach, code-named Mike on the west and Nan on the east. Each of these was subdivided by colour. According to the timetable, amphibious Sherman tanks were to land at H-Hour minus 5 minutes, engineer tanks and specialized obstacle clearing parties at H-Hour followed by the infantry assault companies at H-Hour plus 5 minutes. the 5th Field Company split into sections across each beach, and Stanley's sections landed on Nan Red, on the extreme left of Juno beach. Each beach was a very carefully chosen combination of Royal Marine Assault tanks, Firefly tanks, armoured D7 bulldozers, jeeps with trailers, Universal Carriers and specialist troops, all loaded into specially armoured Landing Craft Ship Tank (LST) ships, about 180 feet long and 30 feet wide.
The invasion was planned for 5 June but had to be delayed by 24-hours due to bad weather. The troops stayed on board while waiting, and were fed a good meal that night. In the early evening, the flotillas sailed from Southampton. Stanley remembered being served hot chocolate, which didn't stay down. The War Diary notes some men were seasick, but everyone was quite excited to be part of the occasion.
The lead landing craft touched down at 0800, although Stanley remembered it was 0730. Almost immediately there were problems with late arrivals, misdirected craft, and mechanical breakdowns. The tide was higher than expected. Some obstacles were too difficult to clear and some craft were stuck further offshore in deeper water. On Nan Red, the three craft with the 5th Field Company's sections, and Stanley Fields came under immediate small arms fire as the ramps came down. The Royal Marine tanks and armoured bulldozers went ahead. Except for those wounded on board, the majority of the sections scrambled to shore but had to take cover behind a seawall for the next two hours. Stanley spoke of carrying a pack with about 75 lbs of kit and his Sten Gun. A popular officer Lieutenant Donald Stalker was killed moving a Jeep ashore. When the engineers tried to work around to attack the machine guns, Sgt Downing was killed. Stanley was able to attract the attention of a tank which fired on the machine guns, and that stopped the German resistance on that beach. He claims he was supposed to get a medal for that, but there were no officers left alive as witnesses.
For the rest of D-Day, the 5th Field Company's sections worked to remove explosives and mines from the obstacles, hitching tow cables to the heavy steel angle obstacles, and widening the beach landing lanes. They defused shells and mines attached to the steel and concrete fixtures and carried them across the sand to holding areas. One of which was discovered to be a minefield, when a man stepped behind the mine tape and was killed.
The Engineer history and the War Diary writes that for several portions of Juno beach the enemy had not expected the attack and the garrisons were not strongly manned. These defenders were eventually overtaken by the infantry, and by nightfall approx. 1600 yards of beach had been cleared. Over the next two days, the remaining sections and HQ of the 5th Field Company arrived at their camp near Bernieres-sur-Mer. The D Day casualties were quite a bit lower than expected, with one officer, one Sergeant, one Corporal and two Sappers killed, and 17 wounded, three of whom died of their wounds. Two sections had been stranded offshore for two days, and two stragglers were found, which reduced the numbers of missing men from 26 to none.
The war was not over for Stanley simply after landing. The bridgehead had to be expanded and the enemy defeated. A read of the Engineer history and the War Diary records a long succession of hard and satisfying work for the 5th Field Company. Depending on the task, the company had individual assignments or could be combined with other companies for bigger jobs.
Several accomplishments stand out. First was the importance of bridging. As the Canadian fought their way inland from village to village, every existing bridge became a mobility objective. If these were destroyed or would not handle the weight or volume of traffic, the Engineers built improvised or Bailey bridges. In late July near Caen on the Orne River, the 5th Field built a pair of 140' triple-double class 40 bridges, which were named in honour of esteemed visitors Churchill and Monty. There were countless other small bridges and obstacle crossings for everything from patrols to tanks and heavy trucks. In late August, the 5th Field Company crossed the Seine River with a sequence of assault boats, then ferry rafts and finally a 500' pontoon bridge. Which accompanied a 110 foot triple single Bailey nearby. Stanley remarked that it seemed like they were the only company building bridges because that was all they saw. Starting after Christmas 1944 and for eight weeks into 1945, they built the 1286 foot "Walsh Bridge" on the Maas River in Belgium. The War Diaries read like day by day progress reports of improvisation, adapting of damaged and standing structures, and sheer intensity of labour. Stanley did say they were never short of engineering supplies, especially bridging panels. When they needed something, there was a constant stream of supply trucks hauling pieces forward.
Another significant assignment was mine and explosive detection. Stanley acknowledged that the Germans were smart and professional soldiers who knew their business. The deminers were constantly learning their opponents' tricks for concealing bobby traps under mines or burying mines in road craters to disable heavy equipment. He described the tick-tick-tick sound and motioned the sweeping pattern of mine detectors picking up a signal.
The third and fourth major tasks of the 5th Field Company were road maintenance and water points. As the front advanced, heavy traffic damaged or destroyed the existing roads. Mobility was especially difficult in the winter and worse when the Germans flooded large areas of Holland. Marginal or light duty roads in good weather became linear mud obstacle that could stop even the luckiest driver. The sections used whatever rubble, stone, steel matting was available, and even made log roads if wood was available. Stanley mentioned that what takes a crew of men a week to build, a tank could destroy in an hour. Elsewhere, if they found a village that needed its municipal water supply repaired, the engineers got the water flowing again.
Stanley transferred into the 5th Field Company in February 1942 as a Sapper and rose to the rank of Corporal. He turned down a promotion to Sergeant because it meant he would have to leave his section of 10 or 11 men. They knew each other, trusted each other, and could work extremely well together. He was injured carrying a Bailey panel when he stepped into a small hole, and was evacuated behind the lines for about 10 days. He told the company he'd be back. If he stayed out of the line too long, there was a chance that he would never catch up with the unit, or he would be sent somewhere else as a replacement. So, he found a truck going towards the front, said the name of the unit which the driver recognized, and hitched a ride back to his section. When asked about housing, he said they'd be put up in houses, typically on the second floor. The War Diary shows a steady progression of camp locations from France to Belgium to Holland and Germany, including one stretch in the Belgian town of Gheel. The local lunatic asylum had been liberated, and the patients adopted one Sergeant as their mayor and wouldn't let him leave! Decades later, Stanley roared with laughter at the mention of the story.
After the Germans surrendered, the company began the slow process of leaving Germany, returning equipment, preparing to return to England and preparing themselves for civilian life. As a soldier who joined in 1939, Stanley soon had enough points to qualify for repatriation. He returned to Canada and was discharged in November 1945. He took exactly two weeks leave and then started working as a plumber. He was employed in that profession until reaching mandatory retirement age of 65.
Stanley and his comrades formed the 5th Field Company Association and hosted regular social and vacation outings. After his retirement, Stanley spent weeks at the National Archives copying the War Diaries and compiling a coil-bound copy of the company's records. Over 400 Engineers passed through the unit between 1941 and 1946, and the Association did its best to maintain the bonds of friendship. There are perhaps four living veterans today. In 2013 Stanley received the Engineer's Coin from MGen Whitecross, and is planning to visit Normandy in June 2014.