“I wear these medals for all the men who never came back. They gave more than I did.” ~Sir George Wright
The scene near Borgo Sabotino, Italy on the night of February 15, 1944 was described like something out of an action flick destined for the silver screen. Instead it was the heroic action of a Sergeant in the Canadian army from a small little farming community in Prince Edward County. But George insists he isn’t a hero.
It was late, and George and a fellow soldier were manning an outpost defended by his regiment. Without warning they were surrounded by approximately 35 armed German soldiers and they opened fire. George’s fellow was wounded and in the ensuing battle, George single-handedly marched forward while firing his automatic rifle from the hip and covering the wounded man’s injuries in the process. He succeeded in holding back the enemy long enough for his comrade to withdraw and then proceeded to fight his own withdrawal to his main line of resistance. At 96 years of age, George says he can still hear the sound of the bullets flying past his head. He has no idea how he never got shot. This single act of bravery earned him a Silver Star for “gallantry in action.” But George says he isn’t a hero.
George Wright joined the army in January of 1940 with the same regiment as his father. After basic training in Quebec City he was shipped off to Halifax where he boarded a ship bound for England. The small town County boy who had been raised on a farm his whole life was bound for Europe. Prior to his 14 day excursion across the Atlantic, the largest body of water he had ever crossed was the Bay of Quinte. They were accompanied by big freighter ships and other troop ships all with guns mounted on them, and cruisers with guns and depth charges to throw out on any German submarines that might attempt to torpedo them while they crossed the ocean. It was at that moment that it occurred to George that this was something bigger–he could actually be shot and killed.
His father was already in Aldershot, England when George stepped off the ship. His father had admitted that he had lied about his age and about his involvement with WWI and the army had caught up to him, he was being sent home. Before he left his son, he gave him some advice, “Keep your head down son, and do not volunteer for anything.” George did not heed his father’s advice.
The battle of Britain was raging over London while George completed his training. They were stationed at Rusper, West Sussex which was 27 miles North East of London, and though they were surrounded by utter blackness they could see London burning off in the distance from the bombs that were dropped nightly by the Germans. One night George and his Orderly Officer were standing in a field talking, and they could hear a German plane fly overhead. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, but George could tell by the sound of the motor that the plane was loaded with ammunition. Suddenly the plane broke through the clouds and bombs began to drop from the sky into a field a little ways away from where they were standing, with the exception of one. It landed without detonating just on the other side of their mess tent while bombs in neighbouring fields exploded, forcing George and his Orderly Officer to dive for cover. Three hours later, the delayed bomb exploded and their mess tent was destroyed.
The company that George had been assigned to was comprised of mainly farm boys. They would spend their days marching upwards of 100 miles with full packs and weapons, and he describes those marches as being what separated the men from the boys. In the evening when they would remove their boots their socks would be so filled with blood due in part to the severe blisters on their feet. They would wash their feet, put on new socks, and if they didn’t immediately put their boots back on, by morning their feet would be swollen to twice their size.
Early June 1942 George was called before Major Fenton and asked to join approximately fifty other Canadians to be trained under British Commandos for a highly secretive mission. Ignoring the advice from his father he decided that he was more interested in making a valuable contribution to the war rather than just marking time in a field and he agreed to go.
When George arrived for military training, the British said to them all, “When we get done with you in three weeks time you will then be able to say you are in good shape. In the meantime you will either be dead or wish you were.”
George eventually found himself being trained to become a paratrooper. First he earned his wings for jumping from the British military, where he had to jump from a plane at a height of only 500 feet. When his training required him to head back over to the States, he again had to earn his Canadian wings and his American Wings. By the time he had completed his training, he had earned his wings for jumping from three different countries and was used to the exhilaration of jumping from a plane and rather enjoyed it.
He describes in his book, The Road That I Have Traveled, being stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia as part of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion. Being from Canada he had found it difficult to accept the fact that blacks were not allowed to mix with whites. Main street downtown had signs in all the windows of restaurants and shops that said WHITES ONLY, and the blacks were expected to patron the shops on the back streets. If blacks were allowed to ride the bus, they had to sit in the back. One day the bus that George and his buddy Herbert was riding was so packed that two black ladies had to stand. George and his friend stood up and offered them their seats. They had to insist when the ladies tried to refuse and it wasn’t long before George understood why. Seated not too far away were two American Soldiers and he heard them whisper to each other, “nigger lovers.” Herbert and George weren’t afraid of much and they turned to the two men and quickly said, “Maybe now you would like to give me and my friend your seats.” The two American soldiers saw their wings and simply looked down in silence.
Famously, George was a part of what the German’s called the Devil’s Brigade. This was a suicide squad formed from a combination of British, American and Canadian soldiers. They were aptly named because for all intentions they weren’t expected to return alive. One mission George described was to attempt to infiltrate and take possession of a well fortified mountainous region around Monte La Difensa and Monte La Remetania in Italy. No other military regiment had been successful in relieving the Germans of their stronghold on the area, so the plan was to come in from behind and take them by surprise. The back of the mountain didn’t seem possible to be scaled, according to George’s description, and so the Germans didn’t patrol that area. Their regiment, under the command of Colonel Frederick said that they would go in and recover the region. George described an old goat path that ascended 2000 feet high, and the final 1000 feet had to be scaled. Five of their best climbers went first, and took out a couple of sentries with knives. The first five then sent down ropes for the remaining men to climb with, complete with 80 pound packs and full weaponry and ammunition. By 6 o’clock in the morning 600 troops were on top of the mountain and ready to take the German army by surprise. The Germans were expecting another frontal attack. After a day of fierce fighting, a German officer came out and surrendered. He and four other men came forward toward their second in command with their hands placed behind their heads. At the last minute, the German officer brought his right arm down with a revolver in his hand, and shot one of the Canadian Officers. After that point the rest of George’s regiment opened fire, and as he put it, they took no prisoners that day.
The Devil’s Brigade, or the suicide squad, was so effective and highly skilled that they were used throughout the rest of the war to open up fronts for the Allies to gain ground. They never failed in a single mission. And he maintains that he didn’t do anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done, and if they wouldn’t then they didn’t want them fighting in the war. It was that simple. He did what he was supposed to do. When he looks back on that night at the outpost when he pulled his friend out from the line of fire, he says with all confidence that he knows that had the roles been reversed, his comrade would have done the same for him. He could have run away and left his friend behind but that would have made him a coward.
His regiment consisted of approximately 1800 men, and of that tally almost 500 never came home.
George has received numerous awards and medals over the years for his service, and from a variety of countries. Notably this past August he received the Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest honour awarded in France. He says he wears his medals for all of the men who never came back, all 500 of them. They gave more than he did, he says.
George doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He was only doing his duty.
George wrote a book back in 2005. He wrote it primarily for the benefit of his family so there are very few copies in circulation. The stories he tells are in great detail and are a fascinating read. Since personal accounts like these are few this is a rare gem indeed. It can be found in the Picton Public Library.