World War Ii
This is the story of 1st Canadian Radar Battery between 1944 and 1945. The account deals with the true beginnings of Counter-Mortar operations by the Army Operational Research Group and shows how their work helped the Allies rid Europe of the Axis powers.
When award-winning journalist Andrew Clark found the file on Harold Joseph Pringle, he uncovered a Canadian tragedy that had lain buried for fifty years. This extraordinary story of the last soldier to be executed by the Canadian military -- likely wrongfully -- gives life to the forgotten casualties of war and brings their honour home at last.
The sun was up over Avellino. Light filled the small valley and fired the branches of the pine and chestnut trees that sprang from the mountains surrounding the town. Vineyards stretched across the Italian countryside, and occasionally a bird broke the silence of the morning quiet with its call. In a ruined castle above Avellino by the main road to Naples, a young Canadian soldier named Harold Joseph Pringle slept in his tiny room on a hard cot. During the Second World War, Canadian soldiers had used the castle to watch for smugglers and black marketeers bringing illegal goods from one city to the next.
At one time, tens of thousands of Allied troops, most of them Canadian, had been stationed in Avellino. By July 5, 1945, however, the war was over and the armies that had raged over Italy were no longer necessary. The Canadians were all gone. In fact, there were only thirty-one Canadians in the entire country. But there was one more task to perform before the final residue of the Canadian army could go home.
Shoot Harold Pringle.
A mile from Pringle’s cell, five Canadian privates dressed in pressed uniforms eyed their watches as they assembled outside their headquarters. It was fifteen minutes to six in the morning, but it was July, so the sun was already shining brightly. The brigadier appeared and gave a nod to a sergeant who was standing by. It was time to get going. The soldiers climbed into two jeeps and drove up the winding road.
The brigadier was a veteran of the First World War, and as they drove it occurred to him that the Canadian army had not executed a single soldier during this entire war. That was a change from the last one, in which 26 Canadian soldiers had been put to death. Over one million Canadians served in uniform during the Second World War, and 92,757 of these men had fought in Italy between 1943 and 1945. Of those, more than a quarter, 26,254, were killed or wounded. Canadians had fought in Japan, Burma, France, Germany, Sicily, Italy, Holland and Africa, and during this time some had fallen on the wrong side of military justice for crimes ranging from theft to rape to murder. Yet not one had been deemed to necessitate a military firing squad. It was, the brigadier thought, a situation that the Canadian brass in Ottawa and London could not abide. So, on July 5, 1945, he and thirty Canadians were to correct this imbalance by turning Harold Pringle into that singular casualty. Harold Pringle, whose name the brigadier had found so innocuous when he had first heard it, would be the only soldier executed by the Canadian army during the entire war. In fact, he would turn out to be the last soldier ever executed by the Canadian army.
The jeep rolled down the dry dirt road. One private whispered to his friend, “Do you suppose he will already be awake?”
Soon the brigadier’s party pulled up beside the old castle and the soldiers dragged themselves out. The brigadier was now shaking. As he and his men approached the castle, the guards who had spent the night outside Harold’s room stepped sheepishly aside. Inside, they found a chaplain from the British army who had been ministering to Harold. He had spent the night sleeping in the same quarters as the sentries. It was five minutes to six in the morning. The brigadier recognized the priest. “You know why we’re here,” he told him. “You can be on hand if you like.”
The men then walked silently past the chaplain to the door of Harold’s cell. The priest called out, “Harold, Harold, son. We are coming in.”
Harold was lying on his cot, clothed, and he began to awaken. He thought, I must have finally fallen asleep. An officer Harold did not know began speaking.
“Private Harold Joseph Pringle, His Excellency the Governor General in council . . .”
The chaplain laid a hand on Harold’s shoulder.
Harold felt a cold tingling buzz up the small of his back. He scanned the room nervously. “Harold, we received word from Ottawa,” said the priest. “They found against you. Your appeal has been denied. So it will be today, this morning.” Harold knew what “it” meant. By eight o’clock this morning it would all be over. Once he was dead, his guards and executioners could all go home. He would never go home.
As the words fell on Harold’s ears, he felt the priest’s hand on his shoulder. He heard the priest ask if he had any requests, any food he wanted.
“Do you want a bit of rum?”
“No, I never cared much for drinking,” he said.
The priest handed Harold a cigarette, which he took and lit. Harold looked east out his barred window and saw the blue Italian sky hug the green banks of the mountains that surrounded Avellino. It was just an optical trick, but the mountains looked surprisingly close. Harold could see details, small trees and shrubs on their cliffs. One of the privates gave him a sheet of army paper and a pencil. Harold sat at a small table, on which lay three prayer books, one volume of the New Testament, and the book True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His wallet was also there, in it a few snapshots of family and old girlfriends; there was a tin box with his rosary, two medals (which would later be confiscated) and a mirror, badly broken. Harold inhaled deeply and felt the tobacco burn.
July 5, 1945
C5292 Pte. Harold Pringle
My Darling Mother and Father and Brothers and Sisters,
Well Mother Darling this is going to be an awful surprise to you all and I sure hope and pray that you dont take it too hard. But the papers have just come back from Canada....
From the Hardcover edition.
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