Honoring the Fallen in Forgotten Sicily
Italy’s picturesque mountains, flamboyant culture and rich cuisine contrast sharply with the horrors of war still lingering in the minds of many who lost loved ones in the ravines, fields and shelled towns of Sicily during WWII.
Many young Canadians died in Operation Husky, the campaign to take Sicily out of Axis hands. Their valiant efforts led to the expulsion of the Germans from the Mediterranean island and to the toppling of Mussolini’s Fascist government.
Little is known about Canadian efforts there. But now, thanks to the curiosity of a 12-year-old grade 6 student, his family is organizing a memorial march to honour the memory of Canadian soldiers who fought in Sicily in 1943.
Some of the boldest battles in Italy took the lives of 487 Canadian soldiers during the 33-day push to force retreating German defenders onto the mainland—a strategic move that also prevented the enemy from ruling the Mediterranean. But the intense heat and rugged terrain of Sicily proved to be another unexpected and formidable foe.
To launch the attack, Canadian troops slipped ashore near Pachino by the southern tip of Sicily. Nearby the British and American troops covered another 120 km of shoreline. As the Canadians advanced, they met strong resistance from the enemy strategically positioned at higher vantage points in the towering hill-top villages, rocky outcrops and almost impregnable hill positions in Leonforte and Assoro. Mt Assoro alone reached 920 metres high. Under German control, nearby road passage to Messina and the mainland was restricted.
Everyone, including German officers, thought the mountain's face was too steep to ascend. Fortunately Major Lord Tweedsmuir, son of the former Governor General of Canada, and commanding officer of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, encouraged his men to persevere and climb Mt Assoro's steep face. Treading by moonlight, they navigated the rocky terrain and by dawn Canadians had reached the summit—forcing the enemy to counter-attack. But the Germans were beaten back.
At the same time Americans were clearing the western part of the island while the British advanced up the eastern coast toward Catania. This forced the enemy into the base of Mount Etna, where the towns of Catenanuova and Regalbuto were captured by Canadian forces. Shortly afterwards, British and American troops entered Messina making way for a full allied assault on the mainland by using the now-free Sicily as a staging area.
To commemorate the strategic impact of that Canadian forces effort, young Erik Gregory, his father Steve and his uncle Andrew will be organizing a 2013 Canadian Citizen’s Memorial Campaign in Sicily. This 33-day, 200 km march will begin on the beaches of Pachino, Italy on July 10, 2013. It was on that day in 1943 that the largest armada in contemporary history, to date, had carried allied soldiers to Sicilian beaches. The Gregorys are hoping to attract upwards of 50 marchers, who will be accompanied by a piper and bugler.
As a student, Erik Gregory’s inspiration to research this battle for his history project came from a visiting dinner guest, Bombardier Charles Hunter, an Original 39er who recounted his experiences on the battlefields of Italy. Hunter was a gunner with the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment (8th Battery) and fired the famous 25-Pdr. He explained to Gregory his experience at the historic Battle of Assoro, which involved the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps) of Belleville, Ontario. Captivated by the events, young Gregory decided to write and direct a brief video interview with Hunter, create a model of a 25-Pdr, then enlarge territory maps and prepare a class presentation. It was so successful that he catapulted to the 2006 National Historica Fair in Halifax.
But the impact of the young fellow’s report on the battle did not hit home until a family holiday in Sicily. His father decided to visit Assoro and the Canadian war cemetery at Agira to see for himself the treacherous territory upon which the battle raged as outlined in his son’s project. Uncle Andrew had already visited the site with Bombadier Hunter and several other veterans the previous year, but now the conflict was gaining personal significance for all the Gregorys. The moment of transformation came when his father stood alone in the graveyard with 480 souls.
“I felt compelled to thank each one,” says Steve. “I cried for more than two hours. What appeared from a distance during my son’s project to be such a glorious triumph hid the tremendous sacrifice of the young men who fought these horrible battles: 19-year-olds, sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. I knew then, at that moment, that I had to go back and do more to honour these men.”
Suddenly the 2013 Canadian Citizens’ Memorial Campaign in Sicily was born. Upon returning to Canada, Gregory told his brother Andrew of his intentions, who immediately began to organize the family march to honour the fallen men. He began by researching material for a website.
“Not surprisingly, in spite of the strategic impact of these men, there has not been a great deal of Canadian post-war interest,” says Andrew Gregory, who completed his doctoral work in modern British history. Now both Gregory brothers are learning Italian and the Artillery Association of Montreal is offering to manage charitable donations to support their efforts.
Invitations to participate will eventually be sent out to the current regiments of what was the First Canadian Division. They hope that teachers from across Canada will also consider participating in the planning and delivery of remembrance activities during the march.
They aim to raise awareness among the young about Canadian contributions to the invasion of Sicily during World War II, and to inspire them to participate in the proud achievements of the little-known soldiers who won battle honours throughout Sicily. They also hope that the effort will raise the consciousness of Sicilians with regard to the Canadian contribution to liberate Sicily.
During the battles, Canadians fought through 240 kilometres of mountainous countryside, which was farther than any other formation in the Eighth British Army. In the final two weeks Canadians bore a large share of the fighting and casualties totaled 2,310—with 487 killed in action.
Today you can freely visit the Italian countryside. But at Agira lay those silent reminders in many emotional epitaphs above those who will never grow old:
“To the world you were just a part, but to me you were the whole world—with love, wife and daughter.”
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