Atikokan’s Julian Habinski shares some of his experiences serving in Italy and Holland
“War shows you what life is all about; you learn to take things in stride.”
Life lessons on the World War II battlefront for a young Julian Habinski began in 1942 when he joined the 7th anti-tank regiment of armoured tanks, as the Allies fought their way north through Italy.
At 21, Habinkski was ready for a change in his life, after two years of hard farm labour in Starbuck (20 miles from Winnipeg). He joined his buddies in enlisting because “all the other young guys were signing up and I thought ‘What the heck, I might as well too.’”
He said goodbye to his parents and 11 siblings (he was a middle child) in Cold Creek and headed out for basic training in Portage la Prairie. Then it was on to advanced training at Brandon’s Camp Shilo base, where he was trained on Bren machine guns which fired at a rate of up to 450 rounds per minute, ‘six-pounder’ guns, and other anti tank weaponry for the Royal Canadian Artillery.
Only three weeks into training, Habinski’s mother passed away. Yet life was moving at such a rapid pace, there was little time to grieve: Training wrapped up and he was off to Halifax shortly thereafter. From there he boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for England, thus beginning a difficult sea voyage.
“What I was concerned about was getting sea sick… and I was. There were 17,000 troops and a crew of 5,000, so there wasn’t a lot of room.” To make matters worse, the ship had to change course every seven minutes to evade German U-boats, which took nine minutes to sight in on a target. Lying in a narrow hallway, “every time they changed course I rolled over and hit the wall,” he said with a chuckle, adding that the intense illness left little time for fear at what lay ahead. “I wasn’t scared, just sick.”
In England, Habinski completed two months of training before his unit headed for Philipville, North Africa, which was the holding unit for reinforcements for Italy. As part of a convoy of 26 ships, “there was more seasickness, but it wasn’t as bad this time.”
Stationed there for two months, the troops took part in rigourous route marching, covering five miles each day. “The sergeant said, ‘The cook needs a helper, and no one stepped up, so I did,” he said.
After six weeks of avoiding route marches and working in the kitchen, “I went up to 175 lbs; I ate whenever I wanted.”
The Italian campaign got underway in September, 1943, following the capture of Sicily and began when the Allied forces landing on the mainland at the ‘toe’ of Italy. The reinforcements were called up from North Africa to Italy and arrived just after the Allied troops cleared Naples.
From there until the end of the war, “we went all the way from Naples north to Rimini,” an eastern coastal city at the upper end of the ‘boot,’ Habinski recalled.
With the 7th anti tank division, Habinski was part of a battery of 16 armoured tanks and “our main job was to make sure no German tanks got the troops” as the Allied forces battled through the country. The tanks would set up position in fields near the infantry ready to deal with German tanks, and “if they showed up, we’d give it to them.”
His role was a driver-operator, meaning he operated the radio, and was ready to take over operations should anything happen to the driver. Each tank was also equipped with a gunner and a gunner loader. With armour several inches thick, the open-turreted crafts were pretty formidable, said Habinski.
The vehicles travelled at about 40 miles per hour, “up and over hills and everything” he said. “Sometimes though, you get up on a hill and it would throw a track and you’re done – you had to wait for a mechanic.”
Clearly, the job of a tank driver-operator was a dangerous job: “In my troop [of four tanks] we lost three driver-operators and I was the fourth one left. I was lucky; I thought ‘any time now,’ but it didn’t come. I can’t explain it; sometimes I got scared, but I look at it this way: someone up above was looking after me.”
He had a close call however, on Friday, the 13th of October, 1944, a date both lucky and unlucky that is etched into his memory. The tanks pulled in to an olive orchard to take up position, and while the rest of his comrades went across the road to the nearest house, Habinski stayed behind. Seemingly out of thin air, barrages of enemy mortar shells were landing all around him. “I dove under the tank and the shell hit the ground under the tank and got me in the arm. I crawled up to the far end of the tank and one of the boys across at the house, said; ‘Are you all right?’”
He was, but was sent to a Naples hospital for surgery. Two of the three pieces of shrapnel were removed, but because of its location in his upper arm, the surgeon feared he would lose the use of his arm if t hr third piece was removed. It remains there to this day. Habinski received a mention in dispatches honour for his injury in the line of duty.
Liberation of Holland
While immediately after the injury, “I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’m going home,’” recalled Habinski, adding with a chuckle. “About a week before Christmas I was back on the front line.”
Life on the front lines often meant camping out in fields in ‘pup tents’ with a ground sheet and one blanket. In the mountainous regions, “you’d wake up in the morning and your hair was white with hoar frost,” he recalled.
After months of battle waged, some Italian villages and their occupants had little left and many homes were destroyed. “Some of those villages were demolished completely. Just rubble. I couldn’t believe it: even though there was no place to go, they were walking, women, with belongings on their heads and in two-wheel carts. Some carrying their babies. What they went through was hell, but I guess that’s war.”
After Rimini was captured by Canadian and Greek forces, the Italian campaign ended with the surrender of German forces in May, 1945, after close to 6,000 Canadian deaths 26,000 casualties. Canadian troops were then sent from Italy to northwest Europe, where the other war front was also drawing to a close.
“All of a sudden, the war was over,” recalled Habinksi. His battery was stationed to Hilversum, north Holland (about 30 km southeast of Amsterdam) for the liberation of Holland from the Nazi regime, and the end of the war in northwest Europe.
Holland’s inhabitants “could not do enough for you; they were so happy,” he recalled.
The troops were billeted in schools and other empty buildings in Hilversum, while they waited to hear notice that they were heading home. During that time, the Canadians and the Dutch engaged in a popular pastime: hockey.
It was the game he had played as a child that brought about an uncanny reunion for Habinski when he drove the Canadian hockey team to Amsterdam to compete against Holland’s team. “I walked in and there was my brother, Kasmer, who was coaching the other team. He was in the Provost Corps [military police] and I didn’t even know he was there [or had even enlisted],” he recalled. “There were tears rolling.”
Soon enough, Habinski was back on the Queen Elizabeth and landed in New York, where he saw the Statue of Liberty before heading back to Cold Creek. He was greeted by family and friends at the Winnipeg train station. “It was so nice; everybody was there. The CN station was loaded.”
Then it was almost as if the war years hadn’t happened, with Habinski’s return to his old job on the same Starbuck farm for another two years. In the winter of 1946, Kasmer, who was working in security at the Steep Rock Mine, wrote to his brother that the mine was hiring. Habinski came to Atikokan where he worked for 13 years at the mine (where because some workers found his name hard to pronounce he quickly earned the nickname “Julie”), and used his wartime driving experience as a truck and bulldozer operator. His future wife, Emma, worked in the mine kitchen, and after marrying in 1951, they moved into their brand new Starr St. home, where he continues to live.
When the mine shut down, he worked for Myers Lumber on Main St., a brief stint as a truck driver in a BC coal mine, and then at Pluswood, where he retired in 1986.
“Since then, I wonder how I found the time to go to work,” laughs Habinski, who at 89 is grandfather of 11 and great grandfather of 10. (He has a son, Richard, and daughter, Janice Splawski).
He keeps busy unpacking and delivering flowers for the Enchanted Florist on Tuesdays, and lending a hand with yard maintenance (and offering rides when needed) to neighbours and friends.
On Remembrance Day however, he’ll take a little time out to attend the Legion ceremony and remember his fallen comrades. “There are a lot of them that are still there. I was lucky, I came home.”