1939-1943Prelude to Invasion
In January, 1943 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff met at Anfa Camp near Casablanca in French Morocco. The purpose of the Casablanca Conference was to decide the next offensive action of the western Allies after the Germans were defeated in North Africa. Reluctantly the Americans accepted that the inevitable cross-channel invasion of France was not possible in the forthcoming year. But everyone agreed 1943 could not pass without the western Allies fighting somewhere. If for no other reason, to appease Soviet Union demands for a major operation to draw German forces away from the Eastern Front.
The British had come to Casablanca with a clear plan. They wanted to invade Sicily. Doing so would provide a springboard from which to invade mainland Italy. Once the Allies were solidly established on the Italian boot, it was probable that Mussolini’s already teetering government would collapse and the country might well surrender. Churchill described this tactic as exploiting the “soft underbelly” of Europe’s Mediterranean coast.
Operation Husky, as the invasion of Sicily was soon codenamed, was to have been an entirely British and American show. But as word of the impending operation filtered out to senior First Canadian Army commanders in Britain, they started a lobby campaign for a role in the Sicilian invasion. The British resisted the notion, as did First Canadian Army’s senior commander, Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton. With a strength of about 170,000 men, the plan for First Canadian Army was that it would play a key role in the eventual cross-channel invasion. McNaughton described the Canadian army as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin.” But it was also an army that except for the disastrous Dieppe raid was not seeing combat. Pressure was mounting both in Canada and among the soldiers in Britain for some element of it to be sent into battle somewhere. The actual where mattered little. Eventually Prime Minister Mackenzie King appealed directly to the British government that the Canadians have a role in Operation Husky. This led to Churchill issuing an order on April 23 that any forthcoming action must include Canadians. Within two days the Canadians were invited to commit one infantry division and one tank brigade to Operation Husky. The offer was readily accepted. In less than three months, 26,686 Canadian soldiers would join the largest amphibious invasion in history.
Operation Husky was a massive undertaking and like nothing the Allies had ever attempted before. It involved 2,590 vessels carrying 181,000 soldiers shipped from the United States, Britain, and North Africa to all converge precisely on the night of July 9–10 off the Sicilian coast. In terms of landing soldiers on a single day neither the later Operation Overlord nor Okinawa’s Operation Iceberg—both often cited as the largest invasion in history—were even close. Seven divisions and several other units would land on 10 different Sicilian beaches across a 160-kilometre front. Preceding the beach landings, two airborne brigades would land by parachute and glider to seize key strategic positions inland.
There was another pivotal element to Operation Husky. It would serve as a dress rehearsal for Operation Overlord. The planning staff already heavily engaged in preparing for the cross-channel invasion kept a keen eye of Operation Husky’s development and execution—adapting their plan in accordance to what worked or did not during operations in Sicily.
The invasion was directed out of Malta by Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. Montogomery.
July 10, 2013Prelude to OpHusky 2013
After seven years of planning and fundraising, it’s hard to believe that Operation Husky 2013 is actually coming together. Steve Gregory’s fantastic dream is on the cusp of becoming a reality.
Over the past few days, people have been arriving from Canada and getting acquainted with Sicily. Many are meeting one another for the first time. Over the next 20 days, they will become very close through a shared journey of extreme remembrance, an experience like no other.
There have been logistic and communication problems eerily similar to those that hindered the Canadian invasion 70 years before in 1943. But like the soldiers who sailed here into danger, the small band of strangers who will walk in their footsteps are determined to fulfill their mission: to reclaim lost history, to honour the fallen.
On this morning in 1943, the leading battalions of 1st Canadian Infantry Division stormed onto the beach on the western edge of Pachino Peninsula—the southernmost point of Sicily. A slaughter was feared as the Canadians had to rush from the sea fully exposed to the Italian gun positions. Fortunately, the defending Italians were little devoted to fighting for fascism. They opted instead to flee or surrender, often greeting the Canadians as liberators. During the landing and immediate advance inland to Pachino airfield and other objectives, ten Canadians were killed. This was considered remarkably light. The July 10 ceremony recognizes the sacrifice of these Canadian lives and those of 58 soldiers lost at sea when the transports St. Essylt, City of Venice, and Devis were sunk by a German U-Boat on July 4–5 en route from Great Britain to Sicily. The contribution made by the Royal Canadian Navy is also to be acknowledged.
The March Begins
A crowd of maybe 150 people turn up early on the beach south of Portopaulo, Sicily. The sun rises and sheds warm light on colourful marching bands, bagpipers, military and police, civilians, a few photographers and emergency service personnel.
They coalesce around a group of people standing close to two flagpoles who are wearing white shirts and Canadian-red ballcaps. These are the marchers of Operation Husky 2013, and it's a big day for them.
They travelled 7000 km to be at this spot on this day to stand on the ground where 70 years before, Canadian forces landed as part of a massive invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.
It's an emotional occasion, particuarly for four of the group of ten marchers whose fathers landed on this beach that fateful day in World War Two.
They are all a bit nervous. Flags are raised, anthems are played and sung, words are spoken and, in short order, they take the first steps of a monumental journey, a remembrance trek like no other. Within a few hours, they reach Pachino for a very warm welcome.
The town of Ispica was the first entered by Canadian troops. It had been badly damaged by pre-invasion shelling and bombing. Additional damage resulted when the British cruiser, HMS Delhi, fired a salvo of its five 5-inch guns at the village prior to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment pushing into it. Despite this, the Canadians were enthusiastically greeted by civilians “waving and clapping their hands…Wine and fruit were passed out to the troops, the hatred of Mussolini and the Germans being expressed time and again.” A young Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry lieutenant, Sydney Frost, was soon appointed as its temporary mayor. Frost renewed his relationship with the townspeople after the war. Working with Ispica townspeople, this veteran funded the 1991 erection of a memorial honouring the Canadians who fell during Operation Husky. In 2000, Frost and Ispica further unveiled additions to the monument that recognized the Italian troops and civilians who also perished in the fighting..
Pachino to Ispica
After a disorganized start to the day, the marchers leave Pachino around 6 am and begin their 21 km walk to Ispica. A sense of panic sets in when they realize they might be late. The plan to stop at the Syd Frost Memorial is in jeopardy. A group of cars arrive; there is talk. The marchers get in the cars and are driven to the Frost monument for a brief ceremony and pictures. They get back in the cars and drive to the outskirts of Ispica where they change out of their walking gear, change into white shirts and red hats for the formal ceremony then march behind a five-person pipe and drums band to the town centre for a ceremony with local people.
They forget the disorganization and difficulties when the small ceremony is held; they are all deeply touched by the shared experience of remembrance with the Sicilians, whose town suffered badly when Canadians invaded 70 years before.
This day found the Canadians advancing into Sicily’s fiery interior. Italian resistance was light. By mid-day, elements of various Canadian battalions were probing into Modica. One small group of Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers closing on Modica was commanded by Lieutenant Sheridan “Sherry” Atkinson. The group was soon approached by Modica’s mayor, who declared he wished to surrender the town to Atkinson. Riding a motorcycle, Atkinson and Lance Corporal Verne Mitchell returned with the mayor to the town square where they found 900 Italian soldiers waiting with their weapons neatly stacked. Atkinson formally accepted their surrender. Throughout the day more Italian troops came forward to surrender to the Canadians in and around Modica. Before the day was through, the general commanding the 206th Coastal Division had come forward to give up. This largely marked the end of Italian resistance in the Canadian sector of the invasion.
Ispica to Modica
A 23-km day ahead of them, the marchers are surprised when logistics tells them the first 8km are too narrow to walk safely. They are driven to their new starting point and walk alongside stone fences.
On the outskirts of Modica, they encounter the marker team, and find their way through what is to become the most meaningful daily event for them all – a small ceremony to remember those who fell 70 years before, near this place, on this day.
In Modica, the star of the show is veteran Sheridan Atkinson. He received the surrender of Italian forces here 70 years before. He addresses the ceremony and afterwards is swarmed by the locals.
Today's formal ceremony with local people goes well. There is a larger crowd than at Ispica, and a warm feeling embraces everyone. Then most go for a tour of the local chocolate factory.
The biggest enemy facing the Canadians this day in 1943 was the terrific interior heat. Having lost many vehicles at sea when the transports were torpedoed, the troops advanced largely on foot. The war diarist of the Seaforth Highlanders described his regiment advancing in one snaking file along a mule track and through “a continuous cloud of fine white dust which when mixed with…perspiration…made a white layer of dust over each man. It seemed to work into every nook and cranny, into our boots and up to the hair on our heads.” Meeting little resistance, the advance since leaving the beach had been rapid and gruelling. The Seaforths, for example, covered 48 kilometres in 24 hours, ending at midnight of the 13th. In the area of Ragusa, the Canadian division received orders to stand down for 36 hours of badly needed rest.
a continuous cloud of fine white dust which when mixed with…perspiration…made a white layer of dust over each man. It seemed to work into every nook and cranny, into our boots and up to the hair on our heads. — War diarist of the Seaforth Highlanders
Modica To Ragusa
The ten marchers of OpHusky2013 clocked 12 hot kilometres today between Modica and Ragusa. Canadian soldiers in 1943 walked the full 20.
Eleven Canadian servicemen died this day in 1943, ten with the RCAF and one infantryman with the Royal Canadian Regiment. OH2013 planted markers in their memory on the outskirts of Ragusa, before they entered the town for a ceremony.
The Canadians in 1943 had walked 100 km from the landing beach in three days. At midnight, they were ordered to rest, at a place nicknamed "Happy Valley." Many of them were sick with dysentry.
In a photo treasured by the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver, a long line of soldiers is shown marching uphill to a meeting with British General Bernard Montgomery. The visit to the famous Field Marshall boosted the morale of the troops. He warned there would be hard fighting ahead.
Taking advantage of the Canadians being gathered in various resting spots, General Bernard Montgomery visited each position and rousingly welcomed them to Eighth Army. He also praised their performance in the invasion’s initial phases and cautioned them that hard fighting lay ahead when they finally met the German army. On the night of July 14–15, the Canadians were on the move towards Vizzini. At 0300 hours on July 15, the leading Royal Canadian Regiment reached the town to find elements of the British 51st Highland Division finishing clearing it. By sun up the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment had advanced two miles beyond Vizzini and was heading towards Grammichele, which lay about 15 kilometres to the west. Much of the advance on July 14 was carried out by mounting the leading troops on the Shermans of the Three Rivers Regiment. Others rode in captured Italian military trucks.
Ragusa To Vizzini
The group is split. The keeners are up early for the 35 km trek to Vizzini. The rest help break camp because their overnight location now is changing. They meet up with the first group at Licodia Eubea to walk a shorter distance to the day’s destination. In Licodia, they notice traces of fascism on town walls. And for the first time, some of the locals don’t seem particularly pleased to see the Canadians.
“Expressions on some faces, particularly some of the old men, are downright frosty. What did you do in the war, old boy, I wonder.” — Mark Zuehlke in “Through Blood and Sweat”- Mark Zuehlke in “Through Blood and Sweat”
In Vizzini, Sherry Atkinson speaks to the ceremony and the townsfolk fall in love with him, like everywhere he speaks. He meets and hugs two Italian WW2 veterans in their 90s who were prisoners of war for three years.
The new overnight accommodation in Caltagirone is sub-standard, and some marchers bail to a B&B they pay for themselves.
As the Canadians closed on Grammichele, they realized that its position about 76 metres above the valley floor made a concealed approach impossible. The lead formation under command of Hasty P Lieutenant Pete Ryckman entered the hexagonal-shaped town at 1100 hours and was immediately ambushed by several German tanks, self-propelled guns, and infantry of the Hermann Göring Division. Ryckman marked the positions of the armoured vehicles with tracer fire from a 50-calibre machinegun on a Bren carrier and several were knocked out by the supporting Sherman tanks. For this action he was awarded a Military Cross. The sharp, confused battle in Grammichele also marked the first confrontation the Canadians had with German troops. The fight cost the Canadians 25 casualties, 15 being Hasty Ps and ten Three Rivers Regiment tankers. Only one of these was fatal: 20-year-old Three Rivers Trooper Ellis James Lloyd.
Vizzini To Grammichele
The marchers rise at 3:30 a.m., the earliest morning yet. Their trek this day will take them 15 km to an exceptional town rebuilt in a spider web layout after a devastating earthquake in 1693.
On their way they stop to pay tribute to 12 fallen from 1943, five infantry and seven RCAF. Mysteriously, a stray dog accompanies them the whole way and lies down in front of one flier’s marker. Is it his spirit?
In Grammichele, their small parade of pipes, drums and marchers is met by hundreds of citizens who join them as they move towards the town square; the largest crowd since Pachino.
“…ever more people join in…They just get up from where they were having coffee at a café or step out of their doorways and join the advance. There are women in fashionable heels and carrying designer purses. Children vie for the little Canadian flags…”
A colourful ceremony takes place with dozens of police and emergency service personnel, Italian veterans, musicians and politicians.
The 48th Highlanders led the advance from Grammichele to Caltagirone with a push west on Highway 124. Caltagirone had a population of about 30,000 and served as a Hermann Göring Division headquarters. When the highway proved to be heavily mined the advance stalled. 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade’s Brigadier Howard Graham ordered the Highlanders to abandon the vehicles they had been using and advance alongside the road on foot. “I’ll buy you the best bottle of Málaga in Sicily if you take Caltagrione before daylight,” he promised Lieutenant Colonel Ian Johnston. At about 0400 hours they entered the town and found the Germans had fled hours before. Because of its headquarters status, Caltagirone had been heavily bombed and was “a veritable shambles, with the streets blocked by rubble and many fires burning.” The Highlanders medical personnel, soon joined by 4th Field Ambulance, laboured in the small hospital to care for wounded civilians.
The group treks 15 km through gentle hill country, pausing where 11 markers have been planted for Canadians who fell in combat this day in 1943.
It’s day seven of the OpHusky2013 journey; the marchers are all tired. Signs of wear and tear are starting to show. Padre Don Aitchison reads aloud the symptoms for “prickly heat,” also known as “miliaria:” rashes caused by excessive sweating that blocks the sweat glands. Patches of raw, red and blistered-looking skin are showing up on the legs of several marchers; some have it much worse than others. They remind one another that 70 years earlier, Canadian soldiers had it tougher, suffering from dysentery, malaria, shortage of water and constant threat of combat.
Marcher Robert Werbiski speaks emotionally to the formal ceremony about the role his father, a medical officer, played here 70 years before. His unit tended to civilian wounded after the town had been heavily bombed to drive out the German Army. Despite suffering at the hands of Canadian shells, the local people are grateful to this day for the Canadians who not only provided medical aid when they could, but also food and other assistance.
July 17Piazza Armerina
The advance out of Caltagirone by 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on July 16 was directed towards Enna with Piazza Armerina as an intermediary objective. ‘C’ Company of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment led with its soldiers aboard Shermans of Three Rivers ‘C’ Squadron. By noon, Piazza Armerina was visible in the distance atop a 721-metre hill. As the column descended a long, level ridge into a steep, narrow gully it came under intense fire by machineguns, mortars, and artillery positioned on the heights south of the town. The Eddies were unable to see most of the German positions and it proved impossible to elevate the tank gun barrels sufficiently to provide effective fire. The infantry advanced alone, overrunning many positions and forcing the Germans to abandon the rest. They soon overlooked Piazza Armerina, still strongly held and with a good number of 75-millimetre guns firing from hidden positions. The battle raged on to 2100 hours, nine hours after it started, before the Germans withdrew from the town.
The OH2013 marchers get a scheduled day off, the first since their arduous trip began eight days before. They have come a long way, and take delight in being able to sleep in and wash their clothes. Most spend the day near their quarters in Caltagirone.
Mark Zuehlke writes:
“It is amazing that a single day of rest can put some spring back in the step.”
The marchers have come to accept that their daily treks will not perfectly match the progress of the Canadian Army in 1943. At this point in the campaign, the army often moved more quickly. In 2013, the goal is to have a formal ceremony in towns along the route, and those are not matching perfectly either. Everyone adjusts to the reality; they soldier on.
On the evening of July 17, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade became embroiled in a hard battle to seize the junction that controlled both the road running north to Valguarnera and the one leading west to Enna. Both towns were important objectives. The legendary French-Canadian Royal 22e Régiment waged a drawn out gun duel with Germans for the junction and control of Grotta de Calda pass. By late evening, the Van Doos had won the junction. The Royal Canadian and Hastings and Prince Edward regiments, meanwhile, had launched an attempt to outflank the heavy German defences with a night move overland to take Valguarnera from the flank. Both were blocked by strong German forces and forced to conduct a hasty and dangerous retreat. Attempting to stabilize the RCR front, its second-in-command, Major Billy Pope, led a patrol in an attack on three German tanks threatening their main position. Armed with a PIAT gun, Pope charged one of the tanks only to be killed by machine-gun fire.
Refreshed, today’s march is 15 km, mostly along a quiet backcountry road. The OH2013 team encounters not one car, not one person; not even a police escort.
In the town, a large ceremony awaits them. It’s as if the whole town has turned out for the occasion. The locals seek out as much shade as they can get from the scorching mid-day sun. Dozens of schoolchildren are enthusiastic, but protected by watchful adults who keep them in the shadows of large buildings.
The OH marchers and pipe band stand in the sun, using small Canada Company umbrellas for protection.
Thirty-nine fallen Canadians are recognized today.
The 48th Highlanders of Canada had on July 18 closed on a hill three kilometres south of Valguarnera that was their rallying point for an advance into the town. Finding the hill strongly held by Germans, the Canadians called down a heavy artillery barrage before charging. In the fierce ensuing battle, 35 Germans were killed and 20 wounded versus four Canadian dead and six wounded. The advance into Valguarnera proved uneventful. They found the town badly damaged in the fighting and deserted by the enemy and most of the populace. While the main advance was focused on Valguarnera, ‘A’ Squadron of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards had driven its mix of Bren carriers and armoured cars towards Enna. With the road blocked by craters, No. 3 Troop sent four men on by foot. Arriving at the same time as a larger American force and finding Enna undefended, they could claim to be the town’s co-liberators.
Short march to Valguarnera
The group has an unusually short day but they are grateful.
Now lodged in a school gymnasium in Raddusa, they suffer from lack of sleep. Police advise there is no safe route for them to walk. So they are bundled into cars and driven to the outskirts of Valguarnera for a short parade with the pipes and drums into the town for a well-attended event.
There are 19 fallen who are remembered this day. Special tribute is paid to Major Billy Pope of the Royal Canadian Regiment, who died near here on July 18. Some of the marchers later go find the spot where the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment ambushed a six-truck convoy of Germans escaping Valguarnera.
July 20Dittaino Station
It was the 48th Highlanders who led 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade’s advance into the Dittaino Valley. The battalion enjoyed a fast walk under a hot sun, its war diarist recorded, meeting “no opposition whatever for ten miles.” Stopping at Dittaino Station, the 48th Highlanders sought what shade they could as the Royal Canadian Regiment passed through and began an advance towards Assoro. The station became an important rallying point for the brigade’s planning of the attack on this strategically vital mountain town. From points in this area, the commanders were able to plan their operation. Not far north of the station, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe, commander of the Hasty Ps, was killed by German artillery fire while attempting to observe enemy defences on Monte Assoro.
Into Dittaino Valley
The marchers experience the greatest heat yet of OH2013 as they descend into the broad, exposed valley of the Dittaino River. They trek 20.5 km under the scorching sun in 41 degrees Celcius that feels even hotter.
Unexpectedly, another stray dog joins them for this long, hot day. Dubbed “Husky 2,” it too seems to hold the spirit of fallen Canadian soldiers from seven decades before.
Mark Zuehlke writes:
“Husky 2 pads along, seemingly indifferent to the hot asphalt underfoot. The heat is fearsome. The road surface is like a turned-on stove burner. I can feel a burning sensation coming right through the soles of my shoes.”
There is talk but no action when it is clear that some suffering marchers should rest in the support van. The group finally arrives at Dittaino railway station where 15 markers have been planted for today’s roadside ceremony. Later, Phil collapses. He is taken to hospital and treated for heat exhaustion. Bob attends to him overnight.
On the night of July 20–21, the Hasty Ps conducted a stealthy march across country and arrived undetected at the southeast face of Monte Assoro at 0400 hours. Captain Alex Campbell with four other officers, including Lieutenant Farley Mowat, and 60 men comprised the lead assault company. The cliff was sculpted into 47 steep and overgrown terraces. The men helped each other up, passing weapons and ammunition from hand to hand. A signaller carried his heavy wireless set up. Not a single sound betrayed them. As Mowat later wrote, the ascent required a “private miracle” by each man. Catching the German defenders entirely by surprise, the assault company gained control of the summit around its imposing castle and dug in before the enemy could respond. With the rest of the regiment now also atop the summit, the Hasty Ps defeated repeated heavy counterattacks that continued through to July 22. Late that day, the enemy retreated. This enabled the 48th Highlanders to advance west to the outskirts of Leonforte and conduct a hook eastward towards Nissoria.
Dittaino to Nissoria
Four marchers now in separate accommodations drive before dawn to meet up with the rest of the team, less Phil and Bob.
From Dittaino railway station, the marchers see the hilltop towns of Assoro and Leonforte, which together formed an almost impassable barrier in 1943. Mark explains the challenge and the story of the Hasty Ps’ surprise overnight move to take Monte Assoro.
As they get set, Rod Hoffmeister decides to go with the marker team to Leonforte where dozens of Seaforths lost their lives in 1943. Bill and Terry go with him. So the marching troop is down to only five, and they set off on a quiet road for the 20 km trek. No sign of Husky 2.
In Nissoria, two ceremonies take place. One where Sherry Atkinson tells how he was wounded so badly in Nissoria 70 years before that it ended his combat career. His story connects him deeply with the crowd when he says: “My blood is in the earth of this town. And so I feel that I am one of you.”
The second ceremony is a rare event: a street dedication to a Sicilian soldier from Nissoria who died July 10th fighting invading Allies near the coast in WW2. This makes the visitors feel awkward, but it’s clear most local people are happy to see the Canadians.
On this day, 41 markers are planted, most in memory of fallen Seaforth Highlanders.
At the same time as the Hasty Ps had moved against Assoro, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment assaulted Leonforte head on. A terrific street battle that portended the fighting in Ortona ensued. Cut off, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Jefferson and a large number of Eddies were soon fighting for their lives and knew it would only be a matter of hours before they were overrun. Jefferson enlisted ten-year-old Antonio Giuseppi to carry a message through the German lines to alert 2nd Brigade to his predicament. The boy dashed into the bullet-torn darkness and succeeded in finding brigade headquarters. At dawn, the PPCLI raced to the rescue by riding on several Three Rivers’ Shermans right into the midst of the battle. After heavy combat in the streets, the Germans were driven out and Leonforte was in Canadian hands by day’s end of July 22. Thirty years later the brigade commander, Chris Vokes, sought to personally thank the Sicilian civilian only to learn that the Canadians had known only his first and middle name, which were all too common.
Valguarnera to Raddusa
The route today takes the marchers 20km through more gorgeous scenery and the trek is largely uneventful. They number less than 10 as two are sidelined by injuries or health concerns.
In Raddusa, a large crowd turns out to greet the Canadians. The marchers witness another fine local band and are warmly welcomed by local townspeople and dignitaries, but the speeches are too long and means too much time in the hot sun. Weariness again is setting in.
July 23Monte Scalpello
While the fighting around Assoro and Leonforte raged, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade advanced along the Dittaino Valley with the Carleton & York Regiment gaining the Raddusa-Agira Highway late on July 22. In doing so, they relieved the British 231st (Malta) Brigade (which was attached to 1st Canadian Infantry Division) and enabled it to advance north on the road toward the next major Canadian objective of Agira. The three regiments of the 3rd Brigade arrayed on either side of the Dittaino River, about eight miles south of Agira with intention to advance along the valley to a major three-way junction at the town of Catenanuova. On the ridges bordering either flank of the valley along which they were to advance, German troops were regularly sighted. The advance was clearly going to be contested.
Ragusa to Monte Scalpello
The number of marchers drops to its lowest yet – only four will start the 30 km route. Another four will join them for the last half, while two others will ride the distance.
But things go wrong. The first group is quicker than expected, and blast through the meeting point. The second group is stifled, and have to drive to the end point. Their saving grace is they finally got to close the “mule gap.”
20 fallen are commemorated this day on the side of Monte Scalpello.
That night, Steve Gregory is stricken with heat exhaustion, vomiting and suffering severe cramps. He will not march tomorrow.
In the afternoon of July 24, the Royal Canadian Regiment and ‘A’ Squadron of the Three Rivers Regiment launched a major assault aimed at winning Nissoria and opening the way for a thrust from the west to Agira. They were to advance for two miles behind a creeping barrage that would lift 100 yards every two minutes. Theoretically all the infantry had to do was keep pace with the barrage and it would walk them through to their objectives just east of the village. It was an artilleryman’s dream and an infantryman’s nightmare. In the burning Sicilian heat the soldiers reached Nissoria, but passing beyond the village they could no longer keep up with the artillery. As the shelling moved past them, the Germans hiding deep in shelters emerged and took up their fighting positions. They tore into the RCR, shredding the battalion and killing its commander Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Crowe. ‘A’ Squadron was also badly cut up, losing ten tanks with four men killed and another thirteen wounded.
The day starts at 5 am for those who can make the 15 km. Steve and Terry are absent.
The aches, pains and rashes are greater in number and everyone seems afflicted to some degree.
The marchers arrive in Regalbuto, hot and weary, in good time before the 11 am start of the formal ceremony. Steve arrives and is well enough to participate fully. The main event of the day over, some marchers move out of the school gym, mainly due to lack of sleep, and join the others at a nearby hotel. The afternoon temperature reaches 44 degrees C.
Late that afternoon, the vice-mayor of Regalbuto gives the group a tour. A special mass is held in their honour and Padre Don is honoured by the opportunity to preach, an Anglican in a Catholic Church. The parishioners beautifully sing a number of hymns, and all those attending are inspired.
24 fallen are commemorated this day.
At 0030 hours on July 25, the Hasty Ps were ordered to save the situation at Nissoria with an immediate attack. Within thirty minutes the battalion marched hard for the village. From Nissoria the Hasty Ps fought through to the highest point of a ridge codenamed “Lion.” They formed a rough square on the hilltop, facing Germans attacking from every direction. The Canadians had kicked up against a major German defence zone that its troops were ordered to fight for “every yard of ground.” Attacked by a combined force of infantry and tanks, the Hasty Ps could not hold. No amount of bravery could reverse the situation, to stay was to die. The Hasty Ps broke away to a position west on Nissoria. In just a few hours they had lost five officers and seventy-five other ranks killed, wounded, or missing. This was the highest casualty count a Canadian battalion suffered during a single day of the Sicily campaign.
Day of Rest
The marchers get some much-needed rest today. They are weary, and move into better accommodations. But Steve has a lot to do to prepare for the final, busy week that will be packed with events. It’s a major turning point in the mission.
Many people are coming in from Canada, including financial supporters, other supporters who aren’t up for the 20-day adventure, and an Armed Forces contingent of 60 representing all the units that took part in the 1943 campaign. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment is sending a group of more than 30. The Seaforth Highlanders are sending their pipes and drums.
The 43 who fell on this day in WW2 are commemorated at ceremonies the day before or after.
July 26Mount Santa Maria
July 26 saw the 3rd Brigade advancing along the Dittaino Valley, which had been heavily mined. The slow advance was 11 kilometres from Catenanuova when divisional orders demanded the pace be quickened. The Van Doos led, attempting to cut around the north flank of Monte Scalpello to gain its eastern slope. ‘B’ Company led this attack and was met by intense 88-millimetre fire just east of Libertinia. Resorting to fieldcraft the Van Doos slipped forward by way of various gullies and dense thickets until they encountered a Sicilian woman who spoke fluent French. She briefed them accurately on German positions ahead, which enabled the company to seize the mountain without a heavy fight. The rest of the regiment, meanwhile, was locked in a 36-hour battle for other tactically vital features adjacent to Monte Scalpello. The battle cost the Van Doos 74 casualties, including one officer and 17 other ranks killed.
Mirabella to Piazza Armerina
Today’s march is different. Five recent arrivals from Canada join in. Steve and Phil are absent due to illness. This route should have been walked ten days ago, but it’s today because of the timing for the major ceremony in Piazza Armerina.
As they walk the hot 20km the marchers begin to get to know the newcomers. Reaching the outskirts of town, they find a large roundabout with a giant cross in the middle where about 20 markers have been placed. A busload of Canadian troops arrives, disembarks and watches while the marchers hold their ceremony. Then together they form into a parade and walk to the center of town with local people for the big ceremony, two pipe bands playing separately.
The ceremony is long and hot. The soldiers on parade are wearing forest-green camouflage fatigues rather than desert gear, and the heat overtakes some of them as well as a few of the new marchers. The day ends well as the two pipe majors meet and quickly merge their units.
On July 26, Second Brigade relieved the battered 1st Brigade in the struggle for Agira. Fighting remained fierce as the western Canadians launched a series of daytime and nighttime assaults to finally win the high ground west of Agira. The town fell to the PPCLI on July 28 after a short street fight with Germans covering the escape of their main body towards Adrano.
Another day with a difference: several major ceremonies and no marching.
The new arrivals of the larger OpHusky 2013 contingent, civilian and military, all meet up in Leonforte for the largest parade yet. It travels through the town to a cenotaph for a major ceremony that includes veterans Sherry Atkinson of the RCR who has been joined by Bob Wigmore of the Hasty Ps, who both had fought in Sicily. Their remarks to the crowd of mostly local people are well received.
Earlier, there had been talk of a march from Leonforte to Assoro, but that has been replaced by a large formal lunch. That lunch is interrupted for a number of participants by an impromptu climb up Monte Assoro, in tribute to the night-time surprise assault by the Hasty Ps on 21 July 1943. Several depart to catch the action, which is captured on film for the documentary “Bond of Strangers – The Operation Husky Story.”
Everyone is atop Assoro when Bob Wigmore, who made the ascent 70 years before, happily greets the climbers when they reach the top. A crowd of mostly military pay respects at markers for the eight Hasty Ps who died in this battle, and dedicate a new plaque the role of the artillery in the Sicilian campaign.
25 fallen on this day are commemorated.
After Monte Scalpello fell, 3rd Brigade continued its advance on Catenanuova and seized it on July 29. The brigade then turned northward towards Regalbuto, its next objective. Regalbuto was also the subject of an advance eastward from Agira by the British 231st Brigade and 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. German opposition to these advances was intense. The regiments of 3rd Brigade also faced the difficulty of having to capture a series of hills and mountains that dominated their line of advance. Hill 204, Monte Peloso, and Monte Criscina would each fall in turn. In the fight for Monte Criscina the West Nova Scotia Regiment suffered its most costly day of the campaign, with one officer and 18 other ranks killed and another officer and 26 other ranks wounded. The next day, August 4, the brigade marched into Regalbuto and reunited with the rest of the division.
Long March to Catenanuova
The marchers are back on the trail, but only because they insisted. Logistics told them it was over, but the marchers said they’d do it themselves if necessary, so a route map and support were laid on.
They are 15 today, including Steve who has recovered fully, and a few new faces but less a couple of originals. They start in the Dittaino Valley with a marker ceremony; the July 28 fallen total 25. Destination is Catenanuova, and fortunately the going is through easy country, though very hot.
A ceremony in the town is well attended and well received. The OpHusky parade and contingent is much larger now than when it began; more people have arrived from Canada to take part.
On July 29, 3rd Brigade struck to seize Catenanuova. For this attack the Canadian brigade was under command of 79th British Infantry Division and the purpose in taking this major transportation hub was to provide a staging point for the division’s advance on Adrano via Centuripe. At the same time, 1st Canadian Division would advance on Adrano from Regalbuto. The West Nova Scotia Regiment led the attack, going in on the heels of a heavy artillery barrage that caused extensive damage to the town’s railway yard. The German 923rd Fortress Battalion defending Catenanuova mostly bolted in the face of the attack. But the crack 3rd Paratroop Regiment attempted to regain its control with a series of counterattacks that wore on through July 30. Only when the Van Doos hooked out to the north of the town and captured two hills did the paratroops concede the battle for Catenanuova was lost.
The Last Day
No one can believe it’s their last day of marching, for tomorrow will be fully occupied by the ceremonies at Agira.
The soldiers have been given permission to walk the route from Cantenanuova to Centuripe, and 35 of them come along and mix with the civilian marchers for the journey. Their fitness level is obvious; many want to run and get a workout, and they easily outpace most others for the 11 km.
Mark Zuehlke briefs the group on the combat in this area, which prompts many questions about tactics.
The walk is all uphill, and at the top the group takes over a small neighbourhood of bars and restaurants, savouring the refreshments and absorbing the significance of the moment. What began on the beach 300 km away on July 10 now seems a long time ago.
The afternoon ceremony is in Adrano, the biggest town yet. Eighty markers solemnly stand in a town park for the fallen Canadians from July 29 to August 7, the last day of the Sicilian Campaign in 1943.
The five-day battle for Agira cost 438 Canadian casualties and the British 231st (Malta) Brigade 300. To honour this costly sacrifice, the Seaforth Highlanders band formed in Agira’s main plaza on this evening to play the retreat. CBC reporter Peter Stursberg and his sound engineer Paul Johnson determined to record the performance, setting up beside the steps to Agira’s main cathedral. The recording was direct to a vinyl disk via a turntable and Johnson had only one disk. There could be no retakes. The pipe major promised his band would perform flawlessly and the priests in their black robes were to begin ringing the bells on Stursberg’s signal. The recording went perfectly. It was the first recorded broadcast from inside liberated territory and was heard around the world. Stursberg later wrote: “This was the first sound of liberation, and the poor, government-financed CBC had bested the wealthy U.S. networks.”
Roll call at Agira and Time to Celebrate
A strong breeze promises to cool what could otherwise be a very hot day at the Canadian War Cemetery, just outside Agira.
The marchers arrive early, well ahead of the scheduled start time, as they have a special role to play today: they will help guide the more than 500 civilians and military to answer a roll call unlike any other.
Today, 70 years after these soldiers were buried, their names will be read aloud, one at a time. And at each gravestone, the person standing there will answer for them. It takes eleven minutes for Steve Gregory to read out the roll call, and he’s reading quickly.
That night, a huge celebration takes place in Agira. To commemorate the Seaforth Pipes and Drums concert 70 years earlier, the same band plays the same tune in the same town in the same square on the same day to honour the fallen.
July 31Hill 204
In mid-July the Germans had nicknamed 1st Canadian Infantry “The Red Patch Devils” because of their tenacious fighting style and the red divisional shoulder patches the men wore. The attack by the 22nd Regiment on Hill 204 and Monte Santa Maria north of Catenanuova only cemented the division’s reputation. With the Germans counterattacking in an attempt to regain Catenanuova, the Van Doos became entangled in a battle against Germans heavily dug in on these two summits while also facing paratroopers trying to cut through their lines. Both the attacking Germans and those on the two hilltops were cut apart by the Van Doos, often by a handful of soldiers acting on their own initiative.
On August 1st the Allies launched a major coordinated offensive — Operation Hardgate — to smash the German resistance in Sicily. While General Patton’s Seventh Army advanced along the coast from Palermo toward Messina, Eighth Army’s XXX Corps was to seize Adrano on the western flank of Mount Etna while XIII Corps pinned the Germans before it on the Catania Plain. The operation saw the commitment of the rest of 1st Canadian Tank Brigade with the Calgary and Ontario Regiments patrolling a 16 kilometre gap between the two British corps with orders to “destroy all enemy attempting” to attack their flanks. For the XXX Corps advance from Catenanuova north to Adrano, meanwhile, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade came under command of the British 78th Infantry Division. The Canadians led the charge.
August 2Monte Criscina
On August 2nd, 3rd Brigade’s West Nova Scotia Regiment approached the 600-metre crag of Monte Criscina midway between Catenanuova and Regalbuto. A patrol at first light had found no Germans on the summit, but as ‘D’ Company closed in heavy machine-gun fire from dugouts on its lower slopes pinned the West Novas down. When ‘A’ Company attempted to turn the position to the right it was also blocked “by the German bullet storm.” A confused fight ensued where platoon commanders had little control over their men. So individual gallantry saw soldiers like Private Thomas Martell dashing through murderous fire to deliver a Bren gun and ammunition to his section. Private Gerald Joseph Doucette, meanwhile, charged and wiped out German machine-gun positions alone until being shot and killed. Such heroism was not enough and the attack had to be abandoned. But during the night the Germans abandoned Monte Criscina and it was secured the following morning.
Regalbuto, a town lying between Agira and Adrano, proved a tough nut to crack. The first attempt to take it on July 30 and 31 by 231st British Infantry Brigade, which was attached to 1st Canadian Infantry Division, was thrown back with heavy losses. 1st Canadian Brigade’s Royal Canadian Regiment managed to then claw out a foothold on the town’s outskirts on August 1st only to have to withdraw. Frontal assaults having failed, the Hasty Ps were ordered to outflank Regalbuto to the south. Once the Hasty Ps threatened the German line of retreat east to Adrano, they would have to surrender the town. The attack was carefully planned with 3-inch mortar teams accompanying the infantry companies. When the German machine-gun and mortar positions exposed themselves by firing on the infantry the Canadian mortars lashed back with deadly fire. The Germans fled Regalbuto late in the afternoon of August 2nd. On August 3rd Canadian engineer and medical units entered the town to bring relief to the civilian population. Artillery fire and aerial bombardment had reduced Regalbuto to a ruin. In 1943 it had a population of 1,200. Three hundred died in the shelling and bombing. Many others were wounded. Those who remained, wrote one divisional staff officer, “were a pitiful sight, dirty, ragged, frightened and apparently half-fed.”
August 4Salso Valley
When the Canadians attempted to advance on August 3rd from Regalbuto along the road running to Adrano they met heavy resistance. Major General Guy Simonds consequently decided to slip 2nd Brigade into the Salso River Valley to advance cross country to Adrano. The Seaforths led off during the night of August 3rd and 4th. Caught by surprise, German resistance was light. By dawn ‘A’ Company was closing on a hill overlooking the junction of the Troina and Salso rivers when it came under heavy fire from the summit. ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies leapfrogged to the lead and routed the Germans. It soon became apparent, however, that the Germans were dug in on several hills and low mountains on the Salso Valley’s north flank and that each must be taken in turn.
August 5Hill 736
On August 5 the hurriedly assembled Booth Force—named after Three Rivers Regiment’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Booth—punched eastward from the junction of the Troina and Salso rivers. The force was comprised of the Seaforths, Three Rivers Regiment, Princess Louise Dragoon Guards scout cars and the 90th Anti-Tank Battery. The Seaforths rode into battle clinging to the Sherman tanks. Booth Force’s wild charge carried it four kilometres to seize the high ground overlooking the Simeto River and opened the way to Adrano. At the same time the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had been clearing the hills on the northern flank of the Salso Valley. Hill 736—named for its height in metres—was heavily defended by paratroopers who outnumbered the two ‘D’ Company platoons sent to storm the position. Scrambling up the hill behind a creeping barrage, the Edmontons suffered heavy losses. Just one officer and a few men managed to gain the summit, but they came at the paratroopers like Red Devils and those Germans not killed surrendered. While Booth Force had been making its rapid advance and the Edmontons spilling blood for control of the hills, their actions had been watched by Winston Churchill from a vantage near Centuripe. He was particularly impressed by Booth Force’s effective infantry-cum-tank cooperation.
On August 6, 3rd Brigade moved through Booth Force’s lines with the Van Doos leading. ‘C’ Company’s Lieutenant Yves Dubé, unaware that orders had been issued for the Canadians to leave Adrano for the British 79th Division to clear, led a strong fighting patrol into its streets. Like Regalbuto, Adrano had been reduced to ruin by relentless artillery and aerial bombardment. Discovering that the Germans had abandoned the town, Dubé could not understand why the British and Canadian artillery continued to shell it. Was his platoon the only one active in Adrano? Realizing this was likely the case, Dubé led his men back to the regiment’s lines and reported that there were no Germans left in Adrano to shell. He and his men had fired not a single shot and this was 1st Canadian Division’s last combat action in Sicily.
Although 1st Canadian Infantry Division’s operations in Sicily were over, the campaign was not yet done. The final German evacuation from the island concluded on August 16. Supporting British infantry divisions, the Calgary and Ontario tank regiments saw action in the foothills of Mount Etna from August 6th to 9th. At 2300 hours on August 9th at Monte de Casale Ontario Regiment tankers were just climbing out of their Shermans when German bombers swept in and ignited a nearby ammunition bunker. Twenty-six-year-old Trooper Richard Arthur Burry was killed by exploding ordnance—the last Canadian to die in Sicily due to enemy action.
Operation Husky was a major Allied victory. The Germans lost 5,000 men killed and 6,663 taken prisoner. Although 59,000 Italian soldiers and 3,000 sailors escaped the island, 137,000 remained as prisoners. Another 2,000 had been killed. On the Allied side the U.S. suffered 7,402 casualties and Eighth Army 11,843. About a quarter of the latter were Canadians—2,310. Including those who died at sea, 40 officers and 522 other ranks died, 124 officers and 1,540 other ranks were wounded and 8 officers and 76 men were taken prisoner. Twelve nursing sisters were among the wounded—injured when an anti-aircraft shell struck No. 5 Canadian General Hospital in Catania on September 2.
The Canadians had marched almost 200 kilometres while being in near constant contact with the Germans and bearing “the brunt of the fighting…No other division in the Allied force made a larger contribution to the victory,” one report concluded. Along the way they had won the respect of their German foes, which carried over to the forthcoming fighting on mainland Italy. It was the first step that would see the Canadians serving in Eighth Army soon regarded as its top shock troops wherein they would lead the way into most future major operations.
As Churchill intended, Operation Husky provided a springboard from which the Allies invaded mainland Italy. It also served the purpose of diverting German forces away from the eastern front. With Sicily lost, the German grip on Sardinia and Corsica soon became untenable and these islands were both abandoned in the fall. On September 3, Eighth Army invaded the mainland with 1st Canadian Infantry Division in the vanguard of landings in Reggio Calabria on the heel of the mainland’s boot. Six days later the main Allied force landed further up the western coast at Salerno. Italian politicians loyal to the monarchy had entered into secret negotiations with the Allies even before Sicily fell. This led to Mussolini’s resignation and being placed under house arrest on July 25. The new Italian government surrendered on September 8 and promptly joined the Allied cause. While it had been hoped the Germans would not have time or strength to overrun Italy and meet the Allies on the beaches at Salerno, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had anticipated events and heavy fighting ensued. The long campaign in Italy was begun. It would last until May 3, 1945 with the Canadians serving there until their transfer to North-West Europe in February 1945, where they joined other Canadian divisions that had landed in France at Normandy in 1944.
See the Film
See the film Bond of Strangers - The Operation Husky Story
A 54-minute documentary by Max Fraser