Study Time In Italy

September 1, 2003 by Mac Johnston

photos by Mac Johnston

It is a world far removed in time and place from the Canadian consciousness. The setting is both medieval and Mediterranean. Though hilltop towns have dominated the landscape for centuries, newer construction blends well with the old and there is a timelessness about it.

The towns have names such as Valguarnera, Assoro, Pontecorvo and Tomba Di Pesaro. Then, too, there are features such as the Moro River, Mount Marrone, Point 111 and Coriano Ridge. While these names are not familiar to most Canadians, they have a legitimate place in Canadian military history. This is the Italian Campaign of 1943-45.

In this the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily on July 10 and the Italian mainland on Sept. 3, 1943, the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation’s annual study tour for university students went to Sicily and Italy May 9-25 rather than Normandy and Northwest Europe.

The group of 15 that assembled in Toronto was led by David Patterson, a lieutenant-colonel in the army reserve and an instructor at the Canadian Land Force Command and Staff College in Kingston, Ont. There were two guides/ historians, Lee Windsor and Major Michael Boire, 10 students, a Veterans Affairs Canada education officer and this writer/photographer.

Leading off, we got the big picture from Windsor, a PhD student and instructor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. The Germans had gotten a head start in planning and preparing for war in the 1920s and ’30s. After World War II began in September 1939, the political aim of the Allies was to stop Nazi racist and expansionist policies. Their operational goal was to destroy the German army, navy and air force, but first they had to build up their forces.

Following success in the Battle of Britain air war in the fall of 1940, the Allies’ first priority was to win the Battle of the Atlantic to sustain the United Kingdom and enable eventual attack on Fortress Europe. The United States entered the war in December 1941 and it became generally accepted that the Allied armies would meet the Germans somewhere in France in the decisive campaign of the war, but this couldn’t occur before 1943 at the earliest.

For political, military and psychological reasons, the Allies couldn’t simply sit still and wait till ’43 or ’44, Windsor explained. Thus they developed three major thrusts. One was the Lend Lease program to provide matériel, such as 327,000 trucks, to help the Russians who were in a fierce struggle with the Germans on the Eastern Front. A second was the strategy “to bomb the shit out of the Germans” from 1942 on to limit the strengthening of enemy forces while the Allies were building up their armies. The third Allied thrust was to conduct raids on occupied Europe to test doctrine and tactics and gather intelligence on German defence methods.

Engagement of the enemy on land occurred first in North Africa after Mussolini’s Italy invaded Egypt in 1940. The British pushed the Italians back and took 130,000 prisoners in early 1941. Then the Germans got involved and North Africa became “a deadly laboratory” where the British learned how to fight the Germans. The Allies invaded the North African coast in November 1942 and all Axis forces in North Africa surrendered in May 1943.

A decision was taken at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 to invade Sicily, whose capture would open up Mediterranean sea routes. From there, it was on to the Italian mainland to take Germany’s ally out of the war. It was not clear beforehand whether Germany would defend Italy vigorously. If so, the Allies felt, this would tie up valuable German resources that might otherwise be used to resist an invasion of northern France. If not, the Allies would score an important political victory, and possibly have a route through the Alps into Austria.

These are the very broad brush strokes of the Allied campaigns in the Mediterranean. A key point is that devotion of Allied resources to the Italian Campaign ruled out an Allied invasion of northern France in 1943, meaning that the decisive campaign of WW II could not be undertaken before 1944. The original American position had favoured an early confrontation in northern France, but the British were extremely leery.

When France was finally invaded on June 6, 1944, the attention of Canadians and the western world turned to the pivotal struggle that was under way in France. The Italian Campaign receded in importance and was even viewed by some as a sideshow.

Today, 60 years later, two important historical debates are under way, Windsor said. The first centres on the question: Was the Italian Campaign a worthwhile use of Allied forces in 1943? To this point, the Americans have tended to answer no, the British yes and the Canadians have been more or less in the middle, but perhaps tending to the British view.

The second debate is over Allied versus Axis operational effectiveness. The old view, Windsor said, has been that the Germans “were tactical and operational gods but were weak strategically and under the control of a madman.” In contrast, the Allies were perceived to be superior in strategy and in possession of greater resources, but weaker operationally.

Windsor comes from what has become known as the Laurier School, which is a viewpoint championed principally by Professor Terry Copp, co-director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and also author of the regular Legion Magazine series titled Canadian Military History In Perspective. This reassessment reflects more favourably on the Canadian Army. In simple terms, the message is that Allied superiority was not as great as was thought and we actually had to learn how to beat the Germans at their own game.

And while military historians formerly tended to take a top-down view in examining battles, Windsor argued, the Laurier School looks also at battles from the bottom up, from the view of the soldiers involved. In the Italian Campaign, this is particularly significant because terrain was a major factor.

From the big picture, we moved to an interesting aspect of the 2003 CBNF Study Tour. Each student had to present a 20-minute briefing on a subject chosen from a list of pertinent topics covering various aspects of the campaign. And so in examining the strategic background to Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, Kate Betts-Wilmott, a University of New Brunswick history student, said that the Allies had superior military intelligence, co-ordinated their efforts well and conducted an effective misdirection campaign.

Peter Batt, also of UNB, talked about naval support to Op Husky, which featured two task forces, one British, one American. It’s not well known but nearly 2,600 naval ships and landing craft were involved in bringing ashore five Commonwealth and three U.S. divisions.

During his discussion of the Husky naval bombardment of shore targets, Batt cited an example of how poor communications led to 229 Allied friendly fire deaths in one incident. This stirred up fresh memories of the deaths of four Canadians by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2002, 59 years later, and brought home a point about the difficulty in communicating in the fog of war.

After flying from Toronto to Milan and on to Catania, the capital of Sicily, we ventured forth in four rented vehicles. First stop was at Roger and Sugar beaches, the landing sites near Pachino. At Roger, Chris Wakelam, a Queen’s University engineering student, gave a presentation on the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade landings.

Wakelam concluded that there were many problems, some caused by a Force 7 storm on July 9-10. The Italian defence was weak, but the landing was not uncontested, as some perceive. Canadian casualties were seven dead and 25 wounded.

From the beaches we followed the march inland of 1st Canadian Infantry Division. We visited Valguarnera, Leonforte and Assoro. It was at Assoro that the group gained an appreciation of how difficult a task Canadian soldiers could face.

While shelling and probing were undertaken by other units to make the Germans think the attack would come from the west, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment conducted a long night march to reach the steep backside of the mountain one hour before dawn.

Occurring a day after the regiment’s commanding officer was killed, the assault was directed by the new CO, Major the Lord Tweedsmuir, who later wrote this description: “Then began a climb which no one who took part will ever forget. The mountain was terraced and always above was a tantalizing false crest, which unfolded to another crest when one approached it. It was forty sweating, tearing minutes before we stood on the top beside the shell of the great Norman castle and realized that we had achieved complete surprise. A German OP (observation post) party had fallen to the lefthand group and we had control of a vantage point from which we could see for 50 miles.”

Looking today at the rugged landscape, and the peak towering above the valley, it’s clear that if the Hasty Ps had been caught on the hillside in daylight, the Germans would have slaughtered them. “It was an unbelievable feat of fieldcraft,” said Patterson. “…There’s no monument here, it’s unfortunate.”

The landings and advance went well, but the Germans succeeded in enough delaying action to withdraw troops and equipment across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland. The Sicilian campaign lasted 38 days. We covered it in three and took a ferry to the mainland.

We then moved north up the coastal highway to the landing beach at Salerno, then on past Naples to Caserta. Our attention focused on the Liri Valley and the four battles for Cassino.

Although we travelled 3,100 kilometres in two weeks and covered a lot of ground, we were able to take in only a portion of the Canadian Army’s path from 1943-45. Using the hills and rivers, the Germans established a series of defensive lines that the Allies breached one by one. And so the Gustav Line broke in December 1943 and the Hitler Line in June 1944.

We crossed the Apennine mountain range for the breaking of the Gothic Line, which ran across the country 320 km from the Mediterranean to the Adriatric coast. Here, between Aug. 26 and Sept. 22, the battles came in rapid succession, including Monte Ciccardo and Ginestreto Ridge, the Foglia River Valley, then Misano Ridge, Coriano Ridge, Gemmano and San Fortunato Ridge. In December the Canadians engaged in the battle of the rivers, which stopped at the Senio in January 1945. Then 1st Canadian Corps was moved to the European Theatre in February 1945.

As our tour progressed, the presentations got down to the unit level. Here the perspective of the military officer was imparted by two individuals. Major Boire, an assistant professor at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., is an officer of the 12e Régiment Blindé du Canada. Major Doug Delaney, an RMC instructor and the oldest student participant at age 38, is Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Like Boire, he is working on his PhD.

They discussed the value of reconnaissance and patrolling. Boire explains: “Lots of people will tell you patrolling is a waste of time. It gets guys killed. Raiding behind the lines gets guys killed. It’s no good. That’s not true. It’s the constant, constant nourishment of the intelligence chain. Because you can’t start planning an attack out of the blue….

“…Germans don’t plan the patrol. They don’t plan the patrolling because they see it as wasteful. This is an organization that’s losing a million soldiers. We’re in the fourth year of the war. Even in Normandy they don’t patrol.

“While we are at it, let’s get down to the human level now. When you capture a soldier, what does he give you? Think of it. He’s the guy with a weapon. He’s occupying a position. Three or four young Canadians go out and they’re told bring back a prisoner. Now, it’s normally a prisoner from a specific place. They know what the positions are, so ‘Go to this position bring me back a guy.’ It could also be a zany order like, this is a zany order from Normandy: ‘Go to the buildings occupied by the enemy and listen in on the conversations.’ Or it could be, ‘You don’t necessarily have to bring the prisoner back, but by god I want his map.’ It could be all kinds of variations, but you need information.

“When a prisoner comes back and you interrogate him, he’s not going to give you the details of the plan. He’s not the general commanding the division. But he’s going to give you the broad details, the broad outline of the plan, because he was briefed on it. He’s a soldier. If you are a skilful interrogator, he’s going to be able to tell you what he’s feeling. What the rest of the soldiers in his organization are feeling. When was the last time they ate. When was the last time they went on leave. That’s just one guy. He gives you a slice of information in the matrix…. All your questions on the left, soldiers up there on the right. After you capture five or six, you see the picture coming together. You can get a tremendously accurate picture from prisoners of what the units are in front of you. What enemy units. Their identity. The weapons they carry. Their mission. Their morale. When they’ll attack next, sometimes that comes up. But on the basis of prisoners taken across the front, wow. You can get an exceedingly, exceedingly detailed vision of what’s in front of you. What’s behind them? Tricky. You’ve got to depend on (aerial) photography then….”

At one stop we discussed the taking of a typical small village in the Liri Valley in 1944. Delaney speaks: “What would be the first thing you’d want to knock out? Whatever the highest point is because there is probably a FOO (forward observation officer) in it. Any guys would tell you the first thing they would do is pull out their PIAT (projector, infantry, anti-tank) and knock the church steeple off the top because there’s probably someone in it. Because if you have a FOO, they’re calling down mortars and artillery on you so it’s a good bet. It’s good spec, speculatory fire. Likely there’s somebody up there, put a round through it. If there is you got them and if there isn’t, oh well.”

A topic of lengthy discussion was river crossings, particularly when the defensive position has been prepared. Standing on one bank of the Gari River, Boire comments: “Unless you’ve got that solid leadership it ain’t happening, no matter how much fire from your guns are landing on these positions. You see what I mean. We’ve now got a perfect example of a crossing, a long field of fire in front of it, a big killing zone and positions in depth. That’s what a fortified belt means. As soon as you enter the fortified belt, you’re under fire from everywhere, always in a killing zone. So the first killing zone is out by the river, the second one’s in here close, and the whole position you’re attacking is a killing ground too because everybody who occupies it can fire across it.

“…These are very complicated operations of war…. They have to be practised and rehearsed. The people who do them have to be exceedingly well motivated. Imagine yourselves in that position fiording that river and getting yourselves into this kind of a mess. You’re going to have confidence you are going to get out of it. You’re going to have a lot of confidence in the bullets you’re shooting, the rifles you’re carrying, the men leading you, that the artillery is landing on the objective.

“Confidence. That doesn’t just happen and you sure as hell can’t order it and you can’t demand it. You’ve got to build it. This is why the leader who reaches out and touches and inspires and influences is the guy who’s going to be able to do this and drag a whole bunch of soldiers behind him…. It’s the stubborn, determined, hard-nosed, probably socially inept, certainly politically incorrect, guy that’s going to get you through this. Because this is not reasonable, this is not logical, this is not fair, this is not commonsensical. It’s pure luck, it’s arbitrary as shit and it’s violent. It’s constantly violent.”

The violence and noise of the battlefield, the strain it creates on individuals and the resulting cases of battle exhaustion and neuropsychological cases were a recurring theme of the trip, which contained similarities to the type of battlefield tour that the military would conduct for junior and mid-ranking officers, or for senior non-commissioned officers.

As well as tromp through fields and climb hills, our group visited eight of the 17 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Italy and Sicily where Canadians are buried, the Venafro French military cemetery and the German war cemetery at Cassino. An impressive tour feature was called soldier presentations. Each student stood at his or her soldier’s grave and told the group about the individual. The choices varied, the soldier could be someone from a particular town or regiment, or a relative.

Addy Poulette of the University of Western Ontario in London chose her grandfather. Private L.P. Brooks, F56525, of the Royal Canadian Regiment died May 30, 1944, and is buried at Cassino War Cemetery. Poulette’s father, who was born in 1942, never knew his father because the soldier had already been sent overseas. After the presentation, she said: “It was pretty tough. I kind of resisted because it was so emotional, but I wanted to do it so I could show everyone who my grandfather was. It was good to come visit here because my dad hasn’t visited yet, so it was really nice. So now he can come here and know where it is and everything.”

“…What I know about my grandfather is that he was a RCR when he died but he was a Highlander before. You can tell by the pictures of him. And I know he served in WW II and I know he stepped on a mine and that’s how he died. And from the research that I was doing, the RCRs were in Pontecorvo when he died, because the RCRs were finished fighting by the 23rd of May and he died on the 30th. So he either stepped on the mine on the fight to Pontecorvo, so that would be on the bridge across the Liri Valley across the Hitler Line, or he was walking around when they were resting in Pontecorvo and he stepped on a mine in the town.”

Poulette is a Mi’kmaq/Oneida/Chippewa aboriginal from London. She explains the native custom she observed at the grave of her grandfather, a Mi’kmaq from the Waycobah Reserve in Cape Breton, N.S.: “There’s four sacred native medicines, that’s sage, sweet grass, cedar and tobacco, and they each have different purposes and my family wanted me to bring these medicines so that I could give them to my grandfather.

“So the sage, it cleanses the area, it gets rid of negative energy, it’s good for your health. Usually it’s burned, but in this case I just offered it…. Also I put the cedar down. That’s for protection. Also for good health…. And then there was the sweet grass. That also gets rid of negative energy. It’s really good. All these can be burned and that helps with the process, but you can also just offer them and so the sweet grass was offered. And then the tobacco, which is one of the strongest ones, that and the sweet grass. They’re all strong, but tobacco is very sacred and it was offered as a thanks.

“So I was giving thanks. Natives, aboriginals, traditionally offer tobacco when something is taken from the ground or an animal is taken and used. So, if you killed an animal then you offered tobacco saying thank you for giving yourself to us for use. Or the same with medicines, plants and whatnot. And so, the way I interpret it or used it was thank you for fighting, for giving of yourself for us.”

It was the war cemeteries that had the greatest impact on the students. Wakelam commented: “I mean if you take nothing away from the tour other than that, as far as I’m concerned, that was it, that was the thing. You see all those graves and you walk into a cemetery that’s small and the next one is huge, and it just hits. It’s almost crippling, you know. That was the thing for me.”

Unlike in Western Europe, aside from the war cemeteries there are few memorials or markers in Italy and little public interest in WW II. This ambivalence is no doubt influenced by the fact that Italy was first on the Axis side and then nominally on the Allied side, and remains politically turbulent.

One place where there is interest is Bardi in north-central Italy. A Royal Air Force Wellington bomber crashed into a hillside in nearby Credarola on Nov. 24, 1943, killing all six crew members, University of Waterloo student Kimberly Caiman explained in her presentation to the group. The crew consisted of two Brits, two New Zealanders and two Canadians, Flight Lieutenant Headley Fitch, 31, of Toronto, the second pilot, and Flight Lieutenant Colin Wheatley, 24, of Montreal, the navigator.

Flying out of Djedeida, Tunisia, the 37 Squadron plane was on a bombing run to Turin, Italy. Only 35 of 85 Wellingtons returned. Severe weather that caused icing is believed to be the cause of many of the losses.

Local residents found three bodies, which were given a proper burial by the parish priest. In 1945 the bodies were exhumed and moved to the Milan Commonwealth War Cemetery. There was a further casualty of war: Mrs. Fitch had great difficulty accepting the loss of her husband and required psychiatric care.

Our group had the honour of participating in a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the crash. The spearhead was Ottawa resident Anna Chiappa, whose father was born in Bardi. A group from Canada that went to Bardi for a week included relatives and a TV crew making a documentary.

After a short parade, Chris Wakelam and Brandey Barton of Wilfrid Laurier University, placed a wreath for our group. Colonel Dick Jamer, the Canadian military attache in Rome, said, in part: “…November 1943 was a terrible time for all of Italy, including Bardi. Showing kindness and respect for the remains of Allied airmen involved at least some personal risk. The citizens of Bardi were very kind, courageous people who took that risk.”

Bardi Mayor Bruno Berni, who went to the crash site as a 16-year-old, said: “Even today, after so many years, it is our wish to point out that our Christian principles have overcome all political and international problems…. Our religions, whichever they may be, teach us that we are, in any sort of situation, brothers tied by brotherly love.”

On that note, our group departed Bardi for Milan and the flight home. Reflecting, Barton said: “I think it’s just been an excellent tour. I wish that more people had the opportunity to do something like this because this is where you really get to appreciate what happened and you get to see the terrain and see what kind of obstacles they had to overcome, and I just think it’s an excellent way to learn history.”

We left with the knowledge that more than 93,000 Canadians served in Italy and Sicily from July 1943 to February 1945. More than 20,000 were wounded and 5,900 died. They may have long been overshadowed by Canada’s veterans of the Normandy and Northwest Europe campaigns, but, even if recognition has been slow to come, the fact remains that they did the job in difficult terrain against a determined German enemy. And now more people will learn about that.

A STUDENT’S VIEW

In 2001, Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion made a $50,000 contribution to the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation so that the interest would help fund the participation of one university student each year. The 2003 recipient was Kelly-Anne Campbell of Ottawa, who is doing a masters degree in international relations at Carleton University. The following is excerpted from her letter of appreciation to the Legion:

“…It was a phenomenal trip, the most memorable of my life, and I want to thank you for helping to make it possible. …I feel I have a much better understanding of what our soldiers endured throughout the Italian Campaign. Pachino Beach, the Liri Valley, Ortona and Point 204 are no longer simply place names on a map. Now, when I read about them, I can envision the coastal defences, the artillery observers in the monastery, the house-to-house fighting, and the importance of a single hill.

“It was an honour to stand on these battlefields, and an honour to commemorate and pay tribute to the Canadians that will forever lie in Italian soil. Very few Canadians have had the opportunity to see these sites. Through my work at the Canadian War Museum, I will endeavour to share my experience in Italy with visitors so that they might also have a small glimpse into what the Italian Campaign was, and what it may have meant, to those brave Canadians who fought there.

“Finally, what struck me most about the tour was how difficult it was to believe that this beautiful Italian scenery was, not that long ago, a battlefield. It would be so simple for a person to walk through the hillsides, admire their beauty, and never realize that only 60 years ago a desperate struggle was under way. Towards the end of the trip it dawned on me that perhaps this is the way it should be. Thousands of Canadians crossed the ocean and put their lives in jeopardy so that the world would be a better place and the Italian people could return to a peaceful existence. They were extraordinarily successful, for this is precisely what has occurred. A way of life preserved is, I believe, the legacy that the Canadians in Italy have left the Italian people.

Thank you once again for helping to make the CBNF study tour possible.”

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