Every soldier has a story. Thousands of people have fought under Canada’s flag over the years, and every single one of them has a personal story of bravery and sacrifice.
As time marches on, and veterans of the last world war age and pass away, it is important that the stories are not lost. That’s why David McKay of Cranbrook felt it was important to share the story of his father’s cousin, Ray Marshall West, killed in Italy on September 24, 1944.
“It is easy for a soldier’s story to get lost in time as people who remember him are mostly gone now,” McKay said.
“To the greater world Ray was the only soldier from Marysville killed in the Second World war, and to us he was a relative we never knew. In my family, Ray’s story was only ever partially known by most people largely because they weren’t old enough to remember him. Added to this, he grew up with the last name West, in a family using the last name Bidder; attached to a larger family circle of mockeries.
“My father showed me Ray’s name on the cenotaph in Kimberley in the 1970s, but he had recalled only that Ray died in Italy, and since none of our family reunions seemed to bring Ray’s name up, I couldn’t find more to explain to me who Ray was. My grandmother undoubtedly knew him, but she never mentioned him, and though I had met Ray’s sister Dale, I didn’t know she was his sister because she was married and had changed her last name, so I just didn’t associate the connection to Ray. Ray’s half sister Lydia Bidder would come to my house for dinner in the 1970s, but I didn’t really understand who she was in relationship to my own family. This is how things get forgotten.”
Ray West’s mother was McKay’s grandfather’s sister, (Mary McKay/West/ Bidder) the eldest of 7. She married Frank Lewis West in about 1919, a shift boss at the Sullivan mine. They lived on Boundary street in Kimberley, just below the hospital hill, a few blocks from the family Dairy near the present day Gym 67 on Gerry Sorensen Way. Ray West was born in 1922 and he enjoyed the status of being the first McKay grandchild. Ray’s sister Dale was born in 1924. Frank West died in 1926 when Ray was just 4. Frank is buried near McKay’s grandfather and great grandparents in the Kimberley cemetery. Ray’s mother married Bill Bidder in 1927 and Ray moved with his sister and mother to Marysville to become part of their new family group. This coincided with the sale of the dairy the same year and others from the McKay family group moving to Marysville to be closer to Mary, Ray, Dale and Bill Bidder. Mary had two girls, (Ray’s half sisters), Lydia and Louise. So he believes Ray’s young life was at the hub of a larger family that was supportive and cohesive despite the tragedy of his father’s death.
“My father was born in 1937, so was just 6 when Ray was killed in Italy.”
Although they were cousins, Ray was more contemporary in age to my grandfather. I believe Ray graduated at McKim school since it was built in 1935; and Ray would have been graduation age in 1941 but haven’t found his class photo yet. It seems likely he was to have enlisted about this time, as in 1941 the regiment he joined was just being formed in Chilliwack. I haven’t accessed the official army records for a precise date of his enlistment.
Ray Marshall West’s service number was K/50619, and he enlisted in the Westminster Regiment (Motor) RCIC and was placed in “C” division.
After training at Borden, they sailed on the Halifax on HMT Andes, landing at Liverpool, England at the end of November 1941. They were rebranded the 5th Brigade of the 5th Canadian armoured division based at Aldershot near London. It was to be a long time of training until November 1943 that they finally embarked for Phillipville, ( modern Skikda) Algeria, not Europe.
They had been waiting for their Ram tanks, which were slow in coming, so left without the equipment they had trained on, having been combined as units for open terrain combat, not the mountainous terrain of Italy. Armoured divisions are employed with specific numbers of infantry and the support equipment has to match the way they are organized. Despite the years of training, they were terribly unprepared.
When they arrived in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily had already happened, and the combined U.S. and British forces had a tentative control of the toe of Italy as far as Naples. They were attached to the British 8th Army, the “Desert Rats”.
Summarily, they acquired all of the cast off, worn out equipment of the ragged 8th army, and were horrified to learn the the British command would not be supplying them with the added infantry units to provide for combat with tanks in mountains. The Axis powers had no air support to speak of in Italy, and they had arrived with air defense units, not anti tank and mine sweep units to match the new tactical needs. A massive restructuring of the Canadian forces ensued, with complex reassignments, changes of commanders, new badges, new affiliations from all over the commonwealth.
Tracking Ray’s whereabouts becomes tricky at times, but the Westies landed in Naples January, 1944. They are referred to in historical documents as 5th Brigade, but also under the British 12th Infantry wing… and it gets complex with New Zealanders and Greek Units and oh my!
“I believe his life in the army in Italy to have been one of athletic and strenuous activity.
“This I think was the most important part of him being able to surmount the difficult and dangerous conditions, as it must be easy or you can’t keep up. An entire year on the move with rugged conditions would be very difficult indeed.”
Several battles are cited for his group, the first at Guardiagrele, near Monte Mariella. Other conflicts were at Sangro River, Sararola, and and the Liri Valley south of Rome. The Canadians would break the German defenses using smoke and armour, and wait for the British to pounce, but that was the agreed plan and not what actually happened. The British tended to be a little long in coming most of the time. The Westies fought on the western edge of the battle front at Monte Cassino, where the German forces had laid down a defensive “Gustav” line. The entire valley had been flooded by water from a reservoir, making mud, an armoured division’s worst nightmare.
After Rome was liberated, the Westies relocated to the east coast of Italy starting near Riccione, fighting at Fogia River, and Conca River. They fought at Coriano Ridge starting on September 13, 1944. The fight was dreadful for the Canadians, with heavy losses and retired to Riccione on the 14th September.
The next initiative was to pass over the Uso River bridgehead and take the village of San Mauro. This is in the region north west of Rimini on the coast. The attack commenced on the 23rd of September, and it was the next day that Ray died. The direction the Westies were heading at that time was between Rimini and Cesena, crossing some flat and open country to capture the village of San Vito. I do not have available to me specifics of what happened, whether he died of wounds from a previous day or if it was during a battle.
Ray West’s remains are buried at a memorial cemetery for Canadian and British commonwealth soldiers on the edge of the town of Cesena. The internet allows a view of the cemetery and his grave marker , which bears the inscription: “By His Own Hand He Leadeth Me”.
“This long history is to highlight how Ray West was a man in the world who really existed with a family who loved him.” McKay said. “I am very sorry he died at age 22, and sorry I never had the chance to know him.”
With video from Paul Rodgers