Squinting up a winding Italian road, Tom Baker was pretty sure he had the right spot.
Just around the next bend was the small town of Motta. And a nearby farmhouse looked a lot like the one that had been converted into a forward aid post that day in October 1943.
“I wouldn’t say I was dead on. But it was close,” says the Red Deer Second World War veteran, of the dusty corner that he returned to last month as part of a battlefield tour.
The last time Baker stopped at that spot, he was a 20-year-old motorcycle dispatch rider with the legendary 14 Calgary Tanks. He left on a stretcher, courtesy of a German shell that riddled him with shrapnel from his legs to his head.
“I was actually on a bike when I got hit,” he says. “They lobbed a shell over and it blew the bike all to pot and I got wounded.”
He returned as a 91-year-old, an honoured guest of his old regiment, now known as King’s Own Calgary Regiment, which organized the tour of Italian battlefields where the regiment made its reputation.
That shell led to a six-month hospital stay in North Africa before he could rejoin the regiment the following year as it worked its way through Italy, driving some of the German army’s crack troops ahead of it.
Baker would stay with the regiment as it switched theatres to northwest Europe, where it continued fighting until the end of the war.
Manitoba-born, Baker was one of nine children and moved with his family to Calgary when he was only a few years old.
When the war came, the former army cadet couldn’t wait to join.
“There were no jobs and there was no food. Things were tough back then,” he recalls.
There was a hitch however — he was only 16 years old. He tried to join twice, both times being tracked down and yanked back home by his father, before his dad finally gave up and let him join the third time.
He spent the next year and half or so on guard duty and other jobs around Calgary before word came that a tank regiment was looking for men.
Baker and two childhood buddies, C.D. Howe and Willard Scheuchner, became the first three recruits for 14 Calgary Tanks, which was mobilized in February 1941.
“We all went through (the war). The only one that got really banged up was (Scheuchner). He got shot up at Dieppe.”
After four months training in Canada, Calgary Tanks was sent to England and landed July 1, 1941. Months and months of drill, training, manoeuvres and exercises followed.
“We had a good regiment. We had a slam bang regiment,” he says.
British soldiers units made the mistake of challenging the Canadians to a marksmanship contest. With help from some of their Yukon Territories recruits, raised on hunting, the Canadians were more than a match for the Brits.
Likewise, a tank repair challenge went easily to the Canadians, many of whom were farm boys, born fixing tractors.
The unit finally got into action during the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in August 1942. Nearly 50 were killed and wounded, 138 taken prisoner, and all of the tanks that landed were lost in the unsuccessful raid.
Baker was offshore with the rest of his regiment’s reinforcements, bobbing about in a landing craft waiting to deliver ammunition and gasoline while the regiment’s tanks foundered on the pebbly shore.
Before he and the rest of the regiment’s tanks could be landed, they were called off when it was clear the raid was failing.
It had been a tough way to start the war for the young soldiers.
“We were only kids. I don’t think it really affected us that much,” he says. “There was a feeling, you know, it seemed like there was this pall over everything. It lasted for a while.
“But they kept us busy. The next day we were out on the parade square.”
In July, 1943 Calgary Tanks was back into action, this time in Sicily. Once ashore, Baker was picked to become a dispatch rider, a critical job because the mountainous terrain played havoc with radio communications and most messages had to be delivered by hand.
It was dangerous work and snipers were a regular threat, especially in the towns. “They were always deadly sure. Most of their bullets hit the head.”
While Baker was fighting with his regiment on mainland Italy, a war correspondent snapped a picture of him taking a quick snack break leaning up against the tracks of a Sherman tank. Tommy gun slung across his chest, the then-20-year-old veteran’s image wound up on the cover of Picture Post, an English news magazine. What the photo — which hangs on his living room wall — doesn’t show clearly are the six hand grenades that were hanging from his belt in case he ran into trouble. Not long after the photo was taken, he was wounded.
Incredibly, an English Picture Post reader had made the effort to track down the family of the young soldier to send them a copy of the paper. It then sat folded in a drawer for years before his mother nonchalantly produced it.
“I guess it was 50 years later when she told me about it and said, ‘Here’s something you might like.’
“That photo has gone all over the world,” says Baker, who has signed more than a few copies for people.
He remains proud of his unit’s war record. No armoured regiment spent more time in combat than 14 Tanks, he says.
They took their Sherman tanks across Italy in the middle of winter through the Apennine Mountains on roads so narrow the tank tracks overhung the edge of the road — and they didn’t lose a tank, he says.
He served with the regiment through France, Belgium and Holland before he was released from service on Jan. 1, 1946.
Tom wasn’t the only Baker boy or girl to serve. Two older brothers joined the army and navy and two sisters were in the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).
After returning to Canada following the war, he eventually found work in Ontario and a had a long career with Canadian General Electric.