Baxter Peddle

Reprinted with permission from the book Hodge’s Cove by Eric Stringer, 2011

 Name:   PEDDLE, Baxter

Service #:   971860

Branch of Service:         Royal Navy / 166th Royal Artillery

Marital Status when enlisted:   Single

Duration of Service:   December 1942 – September 1945

Medals awarded:

  1. 939-45 Battle of Britain
  2. Italy Star
  3. Newfoundland Volunteer Service Medal
  4. War Medal
  5. Defense of Great Britain Medal

Other noteworthy information:   Just a few days after he received the “Request for Information” form, I had a phone call from Bax referring to it. He suggested that the “Other Noteworthy Information” section might be better addressed if both of us could sit and talk about it, rather than he attempt to fill it in himself. Which sounded just fine to me; so the arrangements were made.

The following evening, Bax came to my house at about six fifteen. With him he brought a book entitled GUNNERS World War II, 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment Royal Artillery written by Edward W. Chafe, and published by Creative Publishers, St. John’s 1987. It is from this book that some of the following information has been taken, and noted in brackets as (GUN).

Bax related that probably his most notable experience after he had left Hodge’s Cove to enter the military occurred before he actually left St. John’s. He had been on a date with one Martha Slaney of Marystown and was at a dance at the Knights of Columbus Building that night when the famous fire broke out (Dec. 1, 1942). It being during the night in the height of wartime, it was policy that a black-out be in effect …. That is, windows, etc. be barred so that no lights could be seen by the enemy offshore, thus revealing location. In attendance at the dance, besides Newfoundlanders, were Americans from the military base at Fort Pepperell. According to Bax, it is possible that the fire which broke out quite suddenly and spread with considerable speed might well have been set by Germans in the vicinity.

Anyway, basically what happened was this: they had been partying there that evening when almost in a flash they found themselves surrounded by flames. All around the perimeter of the approximately 50’ by 120’ floor fire was showing and enclosing the patrons. One of the main exits was for some reason steel-bar closed, and when the people found that not to be an escape route, many panicked. Indeed, Bax’s date’s dress or coat was on fire. As the many of them scurried around seeking an escape, open came burning holes in the ceiling from the fire which was obviously burning in the floor above and down came bed/bunks with people still in them. About a hundred lost their lives in that fire.

Fortunately for Bax and his friend, and others, they had found a window that turned out to be their means of escape. After someone had broken the window, Bax wrapped his thick military coat around Ms Slaney to smother the flames and lifted and pushed her out through the window which he estimates to have been about ten feet above the ground (her only injury was a badly sprained wrist). As he himself was about to climb through to get out, someone grabbed onto his leg so as to climb up as well. But in the spirit of “every man for himself”, Bax  push-kicked the guy (an American, he recalls) back and climbed through the window to his safety.

According to the way Bax tells it, that was probably the most dangerous experience after he had left Hodge’s Cove.

As for his experience in the 166th

Bax had told me that the war had been on for more than two years before he joined. My hunch was that by that time he must have had some notion of the potential danger of being directly involved in combat. So I asked him why he, just a mere lad of seventeen, had volunteered. I anticipated an answer something along the lines of “a spirit of adventure” or “youthful exuberance”. But no, it was not like that at all. With a smirk and a Baxter-like gleam, he said, “I had to … all the old fellas was after me!” (Sorry, readers! If you didn’t know the character that was Bax, you can’t appreciate the essence of that statement.)

How many others went to war for a similar reason? Few, I suspect. But then, there were few Baxters.

Bax had left Hodge’s Cove in the summer of 1942 and had gone to St. John’s, where he joined the Militia as a Royal Navy Volunteer. He spent six months there as part of the local home guard. In late December of that year, he left St. John’s and traveled by train to New York where in January of 1943 he boarded the Queen Mary to sail for Liverpool, England for training in the 166th Royal Artillery. He spent about six months at Watford and Kent before departing for service in Italy. On board the Duchess of Richmond, they sailed south along the coast of Portugal, on through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy. They landed at Salerno Beaches, near the southern Italian city of Naples.

During my conversation with Bax, I asked him what specifically the 166th Royal Artillery’s mission was in Italy; indeed, why Italy at all? His explanation was that the Germans had already advanced into the country and had captured all the northern towns and villages, seizing whatever they desired from the residents there. It was the 166th’s mission to regain control of these areas from the Germans (and Hitler’s secret Italian forces, subversives commanded by Benito Mussolini). The latter presented an added problem in that the Allies couldn’t afford to assume that Allied forces there would be friendly; they might well have been wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The entire Italian Campaign had been led by British General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army. Along with the American Fifth Army, the 166th slowly but steadily walked north through Italy recapturing the territories that had earlier been taken by the enemy. The Royal Artillery had four batteries, each having approximately two hundred fifty men. Within each battery were groups of 60 – 70 men and were known as Troops. Bax was in Roger Battery, E Troop. Each Troop had a number of (25 pound) gun crews with about 7 men to a crew. Each man had to be able to do each other’s work within the crew because if something bad befell either other, then someone else was quite prepared to continue the job.

By September 1944 through the combined efforts of the 166th and others, a number of strikes succeeded in pushing back the Germans in the north of Italy to the Bologna area. In attempting to gain the strategic position of Mount Catarelto, the Newfoundlanders suffered a number of losses, but not in vain. Again the Germans were pushed back. (GUN)

The planned attack on Mount Sole was postponed in November. The arrival of winter brought major operations in the Italian mountains to a virtual standstill. The Newfoundlanders dug themselves in for the winter in the snow-covered Pian de Setta area, and made themselves as comfortable as possible in dugouts and huts, which they built from parts of railway cars, a portion of a hen-house, and other valuable materials. Ammunition boxes, filled with earth, were used to line the walls of the dugouts. (GUN)

This position was to become the home of the Newfoundlanders until the middle of February 1945 when the 24th Guards Brigade was being advised that it was being replaced by the Americans, and the 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment would be coming out of action at the same time. The joyous news was received with elation by the Newfoundlanders, who had been fighting for sixteen months in Italy. (GUN)

It was all but over for the basically, defeated German and Italian forces there. The Empress of Britain took the 166th back to England where they were again reacquainted with civilization. On board the Duchess of Richmond, Bax and comrades were again about to see their “home, sweet home”.

They arrived in St. John’s sometime in September 1945 at a wharf owned by Furness-Whitty. According to Bax, luxuries were not easily come by. Indeed, from the time they had landed at Salerno until the cessation of the war, they hadn’t been given leave.

Nor was the pay anything to write home about. In fact, their pay was a mere 15 shillings a week, much less than other militarians were receiving.

(prepared with Bax’s corroboration)