Saturday, March 19, 2011

Culling of the Melfa

John Mahony VC
The Battle of the Melfa Crossing of 24 May 1944, was a hard-fought action of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, during the exploitation of the 1 Canadian Infantry Division's rupture of the Hitler Line.  In this legendary river-crossing, the reconnaissance troop of the Lord Strathcona's Horse and a small group of infantry from the Westminster Motorized Regiment scraped out a small bridgehead and sustained several armoured counterattacks which failed to eject the force.  The most publicized hero of the battle, Major J.K. Mahony, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.

A lesser known member of this force, was the twenty-three year-old Private, John William Culling of Bluffton, Alberta, an infantryman of the Westminster Regiment.  Culling's actions on that day, single-handedly destroying a German Self-Propelled 88mm gun.  Culling's platoon had been the first across the Melfa.  Before they were done frantically digging their slit trenches, German tanks and self-propelled guns appeared and began opening fire.
L/Cpl J.A. Thrasher, Westminster Regiment and the Self-Propelled 88mm he knocked out with a PIAT, near Pontecorvo.
Culling slid into his thinly scraped slit-trench and awaited his fate.  Moments later a self-propelled 88mm gun rumbled next to the Private, and its commander appeared, attempting to assess the chaotic situation.  A proposed press release reported his subsequent actions:

"Culling grasped this heaven sent opportunity and his Bren gun.  First he wiped out the commander with the Bren then tossed a grenade into the open top of the vehicle, killing the driver.  Two more of the crew were shot with the Bren and the remainder called it a day and surrendered."

Melfa River Crossings Lawren Harris. CWM
Curiously, accounts gleaned from the Maple Leaf, Mark Zuehlke and Daniel Dancocks slightly alter the Culling story as recorded in the pre-press report for the unit war diary.  For Dancocks, Culling is from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and never wields a Bren gun, but kills the crew commander with a grenade.  John Grodinksi in his essay in More Fighting For Canada has another variation of the circumstance adding that Culling tosses two grenades and kills the rest of the fleeing crew with his rifle.

A modern account in the Maple Leaf puts the story as such:

"The tank commander opens his hatch and starts to climb out, and Pte Culling throws a grenade, killing the officer and getting the attention of the gunner, who swivels the turret toward his slit trench. Pte Culling takes another grenade, pulls the pin and tosses it at the hatch, where it rolls around like a basketball on the hoop before dropping in."

Here we have a tank, not a self-propelled gun, not to mention the slightly different circumstance of Culling's feat.  One is left wondering, whether the war correspondent's initial account, or that gleaned from later personal testimony is legitimate.  Then again, perhaps such analysis is merely nitpicking.  Culling dispatched an armoured vehicle that day in a hard pressed situation, with a well-placed grenade. It is clear that he deserves the Military Medal that was awarded to him for the action.

5th Canadian Armoured Brigade War Diary. Appendix 5.  3 Jun 1944
Daniel Dancocks, The D-Day Dodgers, 268.
Maple Leaf War Time Story

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