Three In Italy: Part 16 of 18

July 1, 2006 by Arthur Bishop

ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay

ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay

From top: Victoria Cross recipients Paul Triquet, John Keefer Mahony and Ernest Alvia Smokey Smith.

As a result of the Allied conquest of Sicily in July and August 1943, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown. Although the new Italian government surrendered on Sept. 3, the Germans immediately seized control of the mainland. That same day–during the wee hours of the morning–1st Canadian Division and 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade crossed the Strait of Messina and met little or no resistance when they landed on the toe of Italy.

The Germans had decided to bide their time and prepare for the advance they knew was coming. As the Canadians began to move north, they ran into increasingly stubborn enemy resistance. Some of the bitterest fighting of the war occurred later that year along the Moro River which was crossed on the night of Dec. 5-6.

Casa Berardi

During their advance toward the ancient seaport of Ortona on the Adriatic coast, the Canadians had the job of capturing the key junction on the main Ortona-Orsogna road. The capture of the road junction was entirely dependent on them securing the weathered, three-storey farm dwelling–known as Casa Berardi–not far from the outskirts of Ortona. Both the casa and the gully in front of it had been turned by the Germans into formidable strong points defended by infantry and tanks.

All of this presented a major challenge for Captain Paul Triquet’s company of the Royal 22nd Regiment which had the close support of a squadron of Sherman tanks from the Ontario Regt. On Dec. 14, 1943, the plan was to advance through the gully and deploy on the high ground beyond, then attack along the road toward the crossroads.

Few people were as qualified as Triquet to tackle the job. Born in Cabano, Que., near Rimouski on April 2, 1910, Triquet attended the Cabano Academy where he became a member of the cadet corps which his father organized and trained. In November 1927, he enlisted as a private in the Royal 22nd Regt. For a while he considered joining the French army, but his father strongly opposed the idea. “If you’re going to play soldier,” he advised, “play it in Canada.”

Who could have predicted that his greatest time as a soldier would occur half a world away, in Italy.

Triquet, who was 33 years old at the time, and his company of Van Doos began their advance in the wake of a creeping barrage, compliments of the corps and divisional artillery. Triquet’s company of 81 strong soon ran into trouble when a German tank–hidden behind a house–opened fire. Armed with a PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank) gun and at point-blank range, Sergeant J.P. Rousseau destroyed the tank, a deed that earned him the Military Medal.

As the Canadian tanks came up out of the gully, one of them was destroyed by an enemy tank, which in turn was knocked out by a Canadian tank. Soon three more enemy tanks were knocked out. Triquet’s company, meanwhile, was down to roughly 50 men. “The slow but steady advance was a superb display of co-operation by infantry, armour, and artillery and of leadership…,” notes Daniel G. Dancocks in his book The D-Day Dodgers.

The opposition to the Canadians was savage, but the Shermans blasted the stronger positions and the infantry bravely cleaned out what remained. Triquet, who was the sole surviving officer, reorganized his force into two small platoons and encouraged them to keep on attacking. “There are enemy in front of us, behind us and on our flanks,” he told them. “There is only one safe place–that is on the objective.”

Significantly outnumbered, the Van Doos and the tanks continued their advance until they were pinned down approximately 200 yards from the casa. The house and surrounding area was defended by paratroopers who were intent on fighting to the end. Machine-gun and sniper fire rained down on the Canadians, and Triquet’s company was reduced to 14 men.

Smoke shells fired by the tanks gave the charging infantry enough cover to reach the walls of the casa. While Triquet and his men killed the paratroopers, a Canadian tank destroyed an approaching German tank with a single shot.

Although down to a handful of men, Triquet organized defensive positions around the building. In doing so, he exhorted his men with “Ils ne passeront pas!” (They shall not pass!), a phrase made famous by the French general Philippe Pétain at the Battle of Verdun in World War I.

Enemy attacks were successfully beaten off by Triquet and his small force which managed to hang on until reinforcements arrived. “It was due to him (Triquet) that Casa Berardi was captured and the way opened for the attack on the vital road junction,” notes the citation for Triquet’s Victoria Cross.

Triquet, who was promoted to major during the battle, received his VC from King George VI at Buckingham Palace. He was also awarded the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Triquet retired from the army in 1947 and became district sales manager for a forest products company with headquarters in Quebec City. He remained in the reserves and became a brigadier general in 1956.

A few years later he was named honorary aide-de-camp to governor general Georges Vanier. He was a member of the Legion’s Citadelle Branch in Quebec City. The branch in Cabano was named in his honour.

Triquet died on Aug. 4, 1980, and received a full military funeral in Quebec City. Attending the funeral were Governor General Edward Schreyer and Quebec Lieutenant-Governor Jean-Pierre Côté. A plaque in his memory was affixed to a side of the house where he earned his VC. It reads:

Casa Berardi

Medaglio D’Oro

Capt. Paul Triquet

Royal 22nd Regiment

Canadians

Ortona 1943

The Melfa Bridgehead

The crossing of the Melfa River and the consolidation of a bridgehead was the key component to the Liri Valley offensive that opened the way for the march to Rome.

On the morning of May 24, 1944, Lieutenant Edward J. Perkins and his Lord Strathcona’s Horse reconnaissance troop charged forward in their tanks to the river where they crossed to the west side and then established a small, but vital foothold.

During the course of the day, Perkins performed a number of heroics which earned him the Distinguished Service Order and immediate battlefield promotion to captain. Sergeant Clifford Macey, who helped get the Honeys across the river, earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

A Company of the motorized Westminster Regt., under the command of John Keefer Mahony, had the difficult task of reaching Perkins where they would consolidate and expand the bridgehead.

Mahony’s valiant efforts would earn him the VC.

The citation for his award states that the enemy still had strong forces of tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry holding defensive positions on the east side of the river. “Despite this, Major Mahony personally led his company down to and across the river…. Although the crossing was made in full view of and under heavy fire from the enemy machine-gun posts on the right rear and left front, he personally directed each section into its proper position on the west bank with the greatest coolness and confidence.”

The enemy had enclosed the bridgehead on three sides with an 88-mm self-propelled gun 450 yards to the right and a battery of anti-aircraft guns 100 yards to the left. The Germans also had a Spandau and a second 88-mm self-propelled gun as well as a company of infantry with mortars and machine-guns. The citation notes that Mahony and his men were constantly under fire until they knocked out the self-propelled equipment and the infantry on the left flank.

Shortly after the bridgehead had been consolidated, the Germans counter-attacked with a vengeance. They threw everything they had at the Canadians. But Mahony’s determined company beat off the attack with PIATs, two-inch mortars and grenades. “With absolute fearlessness and disregard for his own safety, Major Mahony personally directed the fire of his PIATs throughout this action, encouraging and exhorting his men.”

The company’s strength was reduced to 60 men, and all but one of his platoon officers had been wounded. An hour later the Germans formed up some 500 yards in front of the bridgehead. “At one stage, a section was pinned down in the open by accurate and intense machine-gun fire. Major Mahony crawled forward to their position, and by throwing smoke grenades, succeeded in extricating the section from its position with the loss of only one man.”

Mahony had been wounded in the head and twice in the leg, but he refused medical attention and continued to direct the defence of the bridgehead. The citation notes that he never allowed the thought of withdrawal to enter his mind. His example was followed closely by his men, and the Germans were defeated in their efforts to destroy the bridgehead.

His defence of the perimeter against overwhelming odds under the severest battle conditions was crucial to the outcome of the Battle of Liri Valley. Only when reinforcements arrived would Mahony allow his wounds to be dressed.

Mahony received his VC from King George VI–twice. The first presentation occurred on July 31 while His Majesty was travelling in Italy, incognito as General Collingwood. Mahony, who was still recuperating from his wounds, was so unsteady on his feet that the king had difficulty pinning the medal on his tunic. Many months later he was again invested by the king at Buckingham Palace. This time Mahony apologized for his earlier behaviour. The monarch, who had seen action at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, reassured him: “Mahony, I know what it means to be nervous.”

Born in New Westminster on June 30, 1911, Mahony attended Duke of Connaught High School. He took a job as a reporter with the Vancouver Province, and became an officer with the Westminster Regt. militia. He was among the first from his militia unit to enlist when war broke out.

Mahony remained in the army until 1962, serving consecutively as commandant cadet officer of Western Command, director of publications for the Canadian Army and assistant adjutant and quartermaster-general of the Western Ontario area.

In 1954, Lieutenant-Colonel Mahony was posted to Washington D.C. as Canadian Army liaison officer. He retired to London, Ont., where he engaged in youth work.

In later years he revisited the Italian battlefields, and while touring the Melfa area he noticed very quickly how much it had changed. The river bank had been turned into a gravel pit and there was a bridge that formed part of an expressway to Rome.

Mahony was 79 when he died on Dec. 16, 1990, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. At his own request he was buried without a military funeral.

The Savio River

The rain-swollen Savio River presented the Canadians with the toughest obstacle they had encountered in northern Italy. One hundred yards wide, the embankment on the far side had been cleared to allow German gunners a clear field of vision.

Weather conditions on the night of Oct. 21-22, 1944, could hardly have been worse for the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. The regiment was selected to spearhead an attack that would establish a bridgehead on the opposite side. It was cold, wet and miserable, and torrential rains had caused the river to rise six feet in five hours. As the “soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies,” states the citation for Ernest Alvia Smokey Smith’s VC.

The Seaforth’s managed to establish a foothold, but as the right forward company was in the process of consolidating its objective, it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks, supported by two self-propelled guns and approximately 30 infantry.

While under heavy fire from the approaching tanks, Smith led his PIAT gun group of two men across an open field to a position from which the PIAT could be best put to use. Leaving one man on the weapon, the five-foot-seven, 30-year-old private crossed the road with a companion and obtained another PIAT.

“Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine-gun along the line of the ditches,” reads the citation. “Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of 30 feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Smith fired the PIAT and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation, Private Smith moved onto the road and with his Tommy gun at point-blank range killed four Germans and drove the remainder back.”

A second tank opened fire, and more infantry began to close in on Smith’s position.

After obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, Smith reloaded his machine-gun and steadfastly stood his ground, firing back at the Germans until they gave up and withdrew in disorder.

As a result of Smith’s dogged determination and courage he so inspired his comrades that they held firm against all enemy fire until their own tanks and anti-tank guns arrived. This was vital to the eventual capture of San Giorgio di Cesena which allowed the Canadian advance to continue.

Smith, who became the first Canadian private in WW II to earn the VC, was born in New Westminster on May 3, 1914.

Smith first went into action when his regiment landed in Sicily in July 1943. He liked to joke that he was “the only one who fought the Sicilian campaign for nothing. I was docked 28 days pay just before we started. I was a non-commissioned officer nine times. I got broken nine times. When you had a stripe, you could take off for three or four days and have a booze party and all they did was take away the stripe, not your pay.” Smith was also twice wounded during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns.

For a time following demobilization, Smith worked in a photographic studio in New Westminster and dabbled in real estate. When the Korean War broke out he re-enlisted in the permanent force, retiring in 1964 with the rank of sergeant as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting unit in Vancouver.

He then joined his wife as a consultant in the travel business. One of his trips took him back to Italy and to the place where he earned his VC, 30 pounds heavier than when he was there last. “You have to appreciate that most of it is muscle,” he once quipped.

For a brief moment Smokey Smith relived the battle. “I had a big tank knocked out right here. I killed four Germans for sure. I know…they were laid out right here. It was a job to do, and you did it. I was scared the whole time. Who wouldn’t be.”

When he died peacefully at his Vancouver home on Aug. 3, 2005, Smokey Smith was Canada’s last surviving VC recipient. He was 91. To thousands he was a national treasure because he came across as an ordinary soldier who did extraordinary things (Tribute To A Hero, September/October 2005).

To mark his passing, flags across Canada were lowered to half-mast, and a rare lying-in-state ceremony was held in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings where thousands of people filed passed his flag-draped casket. In Vancouver, more than 2,500 paid their respects during a vigil at the Seaforth Armoury prior to what would become the largest military procession and funeral in Canada in more than 50 years.

While the prime minister and governor general paid their respects in Ottawa, the Vancouver funeral service included federal cabinet ministers, the chief of the defence staff, the dominion president of the Legion and the president of the Legion’s British Columbia-Yukon Command.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com


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