One of Surrey’s few surviving veterans of the Second World War was very nearly killed in the conflict’s final weeks.
Reginald Wise, 91 and a proud member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Cloverdale, was a Green Beret sniper with Britain’s 40 Royal Marines Commando back in April of 1945.
The elite British paramilitary unit was in northern Italy, battling entrenched German forces in what became known as the Battle of the Argenta Gap, part of an Allied spring offensive to liberate the Po River valley.
They were searching for enemy flak gun positions when they came under fire.
Corporal Wise took cover behind a broken-down tank as the bullets whizzed by and proceeded to aim and pick off the gunman.
Except it turned out there was a second gunman – a barrage of bullets struck his arm.
“Next thing I knew I was on my back looking up at the sky,” he told the Surrey Leader in 2007.
“I thought ‘Blimey. I guess this is it.’”
It wasn’t. Someone else silenced the enemy gunner and ushered Wise to safety, although one German bullet remains lodged in his arm to this day.
Others were not as lucky.
Seventy-nine British commandos died in the Battle of the Argenta Gap. Wise was among the survivors who returned in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary and pay tribute to his comrades.
“You think about the other guys,” he said. “The ones you lose. The ones you were friends with for quite a while. Some were only 19.”
Wise was just 20 years old himself by the time he was fighting in Italy, barely a month before the war ended.
As a 16-year-old he had volunteered with the Home Guard and manned anti-aircraft guns in southern England to defend against German bombers. (The family house was bombed in the Battle of Britain in August 1940, injuring his grandmother.)
He joined the Royal Marines’ commando brigade in 1942 at the age of 17.
His marksmanship quickly got him sniper duty.
The small highly mobile force specialized in raiding and reconnaissance ahead of larger Allied attacks.
Wise saw action that was at times fierce in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece prior to Italy.
“We would go in first and do the little things,” Wise recalled. “Our best weapon was surprise.”
Killing was part of the job “you got used to,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to talk about,” he said. “In certain situations, you got out more or less unscathed and started to think you were lucky. I guess I was.”
In 1951, Wise and his wife Phyllis emigrated to Canada and settled in Surrey with their six-month-old daughter. Two sons were born here.
Very lucky, indeed.
– Cloverdale Reporter, with files Surrey Leader