This article was originally published Nov. 2003 in the Robson Valley Times. The article is based on an interview with Joe Sivecki of McBride, B.C. Joseph Sivecki was born on April 10th 1923 and died on Sept. 11th, 2004 at age 81.
By Andru McCracken
19-year-old Joe Sivecki volunteered for service in the Canadian army in 1942 and served with the Seaforth Highlanders during World War II. In Italy, Sivecki was a part of an important bridgehead for which a Canadian man was awarded the Victoria Cross.
It was the night of October 21, 1944. Sivecki said the Canadians crossed the river Savio, north of the city of Ortona, just after midnight. They crossed under heavy rainfall, fording the river in a human chain and taking the other side under a creeping barrage. Mortars stationed behind the front lines peppered the area in front of them clearing the way for the soldiers to advance.
The Canadians had no heavy equipment to back them up, no tanks, no jeeps – only what they could carry across a swelling river.
“Once we crossed the river we had only small guns, Bren guns and PIATs,” said Sivecki.
Sivecki was a company runner so when his Major decided that they should set up headquarters in a large church across the road, he and another runner went around the perimeter of the building looking for enemy soldiers. They found none, but when they searched the inside of the church they found three heavily-armed German soldiers inside, who, luckily, surrendered. “They could have wiped us out, I guess they didn’t know how few men we were; it was early in the morning and they gave up without a struggle,” said Sivecki, “The Germans were not expecting us to cross. In less than 12 hours the river rose by 5 and a half or 6 feet.”
In the headquarters established in the church, the company would set up communications lines, an observation post and a first aid centre, said Sivecki. As company runner, he had the dangerous job of running for supplies and giving messages in an area recently occupied in the middle of the night.
The company heard tanks approaching, and Sivecki was sent to get reinforcements from the sniper platoon about 200 yards away. As he approached, a sniper asked him for the password; it was none other than Murray Cochrane of Mount Robson.
When he got back to the church the tanks were closer. Without heavy equipment the company was in serious danger. Sivecki was sent to get the tank-hunting platoon. He explained that a Colonel had set up a group of tank hunters who carried a PIAT gun (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank). Sivecki said that the PIAT launched a 2 and half pound bomb that was designed to pierce the sides of tanks. The PIAT needed to be cocked, much like a crossbow, and after the bomb was airborne an explosive went off it inside of it, which propelled it further. When it hit the tank it would cut the surface and explode inside, he said.
The anti-tank crew included Ernest Alvia Smith, or Smokey Smith, as he is called. Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions that night. Although Sivecki wasn’t able to get through with the message, the anti-tank crew heard the tanks and scrambled to the road and laid mines. A German staff car, the first to cross, missed the mines but was gunned down by the company. The officer was wounded and the driver was killed. Smith put an enemy tank out of action with the PIAT at a range of 30 feet, and while protecting a wounded comrade; he destroyed another tank and two self-propelled guns, as well as routing a number of the enemy infantry.
“Three tanks, two half-tracks, a German staff car and a personnel carrier were knocked out within two hours and inside of a quarter mile radius,” he said.
Sivecki said Smith’s act was incredibly brave, standing firm as a 40-tonne tank bore down on him. The company took 28 prisoners of war that night.
The company spent five and a half days holding its position, while men on the other side of the river tried to build a bridge. “They promised us a bridge, but as fast as they could build it the Germans kept knocking it out,” he said.
But eventually they made it out of the area and took up positions on another front.
Later, Sivecki saw images of the church they had used as headquarters. “It was totally demolished,” he said.
“It was an important bridgehead and there was no heavy equipment on that side of the river, though heavy guns were still giving support from the other side,” said Sivecki. “The Germans didn’t expect us to cross there. It was a surprise attack.”