Op Husky

History

Operation Husky 1943

In early 1943, the leaders of Allied forces identified Sicily as the site for the “third” front, the strategy undertaken to draw German troops from the Russian front and the future landings in Northwest Europe. Late in the spring of 1943, Canadian troops received word of their involvement in “Operation Husky,” which would be the first major land role in the Second World War for Canadian soldiers.

Canadian soldiers left ports in England and Scotland in late June 1943 as part of the largest armada ever assembled. The journey was perilous. On July 4th, in the Strait of Gibraltar between Oran and Algiers, the first Canadian casualties came with the sinking of the transports SS City of Venice and SS St. Essylt by German U-boats. Ten Canadian troops were lost on the City of Venice and one Canadian was lost in the sinking of the St. Essylt. The Devis was hit the next day, resulting in another 52 British and Canadian troops were lost and more than 40 wounded in the sinking of the Devis. In total, 53 Canadians of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division were lost at sea.

Sicilian campaign

On July 10th, 1943, more than 25,000 Canadian soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade landed at Pachino, Sicily, marking the beginning of the Sicilian campaign.

During the campaign, Canadians secured their objectives, fitting in between the US Army on their left and the British Eighth Army on their right. The Germans drew blood all along their retreat: Grammichele, Piazza Armerina, Valguarnera, the intersection of highways 4 and 192, Leonforte, Assoro, Nissoria, Agira, Regalbuto and Catenanuova, among others. Strategically, Canadians had broken the Germans’ defences at Agira, forcing the German left flank to fall back, allowing the British to move forward from their bloody stalemate on the Catania Plain. By the end of August, the remaining Germans in Sicily had retreated.

The July-August campaign was arduous. It was fought through hot, dusty country, devoid of shade and plagued with malaria. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division with its supporting units were well trained but inexperienced. Nonetheless, though the Germans exacted a toll of over 2,310 casualties including over 560 dead, 84 captured and more than 17 missing in Sicily, the Canadians had taken a far greater toll on their adversaries and pushed them back. The Canadians gave better than they got.

The Canadian units that fought in Sicily deserve to be remembered. Here was a combined force that not only had Canadian armour providing close support for Canadian infantry; but it also was a reflection of Canada. All the infantry brigades were made up of one Permanent Force unit and two NPAM (Non-Permanent Active Militia) regiments, and the battalions represented all parts of the country. While specific Canadian civilian projects have celebrated the contribution of Canadian Armed Forces soldiers in Ortona, on Juno Beach, and many other European locations, only modest, but much appreciated battlefield monuments exist in Sicily.

After the battles

Immediately following the advance of the Allies, from town to town, supplies of desperately needed food, water and medicine poured in behind the lines. In Modica on the 12th of July, then Lt. Sheridan Atkinson of the RCR who took the surrender of the Mayor of Modica explained, “ When our food trucks arrived in the Piazza, we just had to stand back. The people were starving and we knew that we could get another meal.”.

The allies knew that they must secure their gains by meeting the needs of the Sicilian people who had been near starving in the months preceding the invasion.  The Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMG) was established with a British Staff Officer Francis Rodd, 2nd Baron Rennell and an American Civil Affairs officer colonel Charles Poletti at the head of it. They ran affairs in Sicily until February 1944.

In the very early days, Rennell made the controversial decision to retain the services of the Carabinieri and other police and officials who had worked for the Fascist regime. They were given back their weapons and asked to participate in the rebuilding of their communities.  Rennell once said, of these troops “They are doing an excellent job and deserve to be trusted. Their oath had been to the King, not to Mussolini. (…) We do not seek the support of any political group, neither anti-Fascists nor any others. For the time being, all political gatherings are forbidden in Sicily. We are a military administration, we have no mandate to make any political or social reforms”.

According to Dr. Cindy Brown of the University of New Brunswick, Gregg Centre, “For the longer term, AMG allowed for the rehabilitation of the apparatus of the Sicilian government, and other infrastructure essential to deliver the basic necessities of day-to-day life; these underpinnings of civil society had been degraded by decades of Fascist mismanagement even before the severe damage resulting from the military operations.”.

Many mistakes were made by the allies in the rebuilding of Sicily, but this collaboration provided valuable lessons and the AMG was the first example of allied attempts to bring about a lasting peace by creating the necessary security which allowed civilians to relaunch their governing bodies and system of justice which could support the development of economic activity.

 

In the months following the invasion, another 26,000 Canadians would land in Sicily. They would support many projects in the rebuilding of Sicily. One project differed from the rest but served to employ hundreds of civilians. Captured German and Italian weapons were refurbished, crated and shipped to the resistance fighters in the country then known as Yugoslavia.

 

The Canadian public remains largely unaware of the vital contribution made by our men and the loss and sacrifice of our soldiers during the invasion of Sicily.

Project Mission

The mission of Operation Husky 2023 is to honour those who died on all sides during the Sicilian Campaign and to bring attention to the shared history of Canadians and Italians by engaging Canadian and Italian students in the study of the making of peace.

Project Activities

Organisers, in collaboration with the towns along the path of the 1st Canadian Division and with the assistance of the Italian Esercito (Army) have prepared numerous commemorative activities. 

These include:

1. The Opening Event

In recognition of the importance of the successful landing in Sicily on July 10th, 1943, Operation Husky 2023 organisers will conduct a ceremony on “Bark West” beach, the site of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division landing on the outskirts of Pachino. Following the ceremony, Op Husky marchers will walk into town and conduct their first “marker” ceremony. Each marker will feature a plaque, honouring individual Canadians and Italians who died in the war near where the marker is placed. The first day will end with a wreath laying ceremony at the War monument in the town’s main Piazza.

2. A 22-Day March

A small group of Canadian volunteers will conduct a 325-km, 22-day march, (July 10 to Aug 1), from the beaches of Pachino to Adrano. The march will include battlefield history briefings and commemorative activities in 22 towns. Using the trail dedicated to this commemoration, the “Walk for Remembrance and Peace”, marchers will follow a fully mapped and signed walking trail that follows the path taken by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in the summer of 1943. 

 

To learn more about how to qualify to be a part of this team of volunteers please communicate your interest to steve@isaix.com.

3. Commemorative and Cultural Tour: 12 to 14 days

A tour of Sicily departing from Canada on July 21st, will combine visits to the major historical and cultural sites and tours of Canadian battlefields in Sicily. The tour will link up with key commemoration activities led by Operation Husky marchers in the final days of their march. Retired Brigadier General David Patterson, Canada’s leading military battlefield guide, will expose participants to the unexpected and significant contribution of Canadians in the battle for Sicily. Interested Canadians can choose to join the marchers for several days of the march or take in amazing Roman, Greek and Norman ruins at key sites around Sicily.

 

Following the final commemorative events on August 1st, the civilian tour travels by ferry to Salerno to visit Canadian battlefields in the Liri Valley and Ortona.

4. The Main Events: LEONFORTE, Agira, SANTA TERESA DI RIVA

The main events will be on July 24th in Leonforte, July 29th in Agira. and August 1st, 2023 in Santa Teresa di Riva.

Leonforte, July 24th, afternoon:

The unveiling of a monument to the Engineers will take place at the site of the first installation of a Bailey Bridge in WWII. This feat resulted in the advance of the Three Rivers Tank Regiment into the town of Leonforte. Their presence relived the 2nd Brigade of the 1CAN DIV and directly contributed to the collapse of the German defensive line in the surrounding mountains.

Agira, July 29th, morning:

A memorial service will be held at the Canadian War Cemetery on the outskirts of town. This ceremony will include a rollcall, in which those present will be asked to take the place of a soul lost in the conflict, stand at the chosen headstone and respond on behalf of the fallen to the rollcall.

Agira, July 29th, evening:

A re-creation of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Pipe concert, originally broadcast by Peter Stursberg of the CBC on the exact date in 1943 is planned conducted. The event will be held in the central piazza of Agira. The events of this day, July 30th, 2013 were featured on the CBC’s

 

“The National”.

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2398859317

Santa Teresa Di Riva, August 1st, morning:

The unveiling of a monument to the Canadian Service Battalions will take place at the site of launching of the landing craft that ferried many Canadian soldiers, their vehicles and supplies to mainland Italy.

“The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.”

John McCrae

Take up the torch with us and get the message out about this story of Canadians in Sicily.

Stephen Gregory Founder, Operation Husky

The inspiration

In the spring of 2004, Bombardier Charles Hunter, an Original ’39er, sat at the supper table of the Gregory family in Westmount, Quebec

He regaled them with stories of his experiences on the battlefields of Italy. Charles was a gunner with the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment. He fired the famous 25 Pounder all throughout Italy. Charles’ recounted a heroic battle involving the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps) of Belleville Ontario. The Battle of Assoro was an amazing story. Erik Gregory, 11 years old, sat in rapt attention.

A week or so later, Erik’s grade 6 history teacher, Madame Pachis, invited him and his class to participate in the Historica Fair, a national history program for students from across Canada. Erik immediately chose the Battle of Assoro as his topic. Stephen, Erik’s father was surprised and delighted. What a brilliant way to honour Charles and the veterans of this campaign, he thought.

Erik’s enthusiasm quickly turned to concern as he struggled to find documentation. Though Farley Mowat, the famous Canadian author had himself been a Hasty P and had written of his experience in “And no Birds Sang” and “The Regiment”. His books were among of the few resources available. Fortunately for Erik, his uncle Andrew is a war buff and historian and was able to help him find more material.

Erik and his father brainstormed on how best to present the information about Assoro. They recorded a brief interview with Charles. Erik made a model of a 25 pdr which Charles had generously provided and Steve helped him paint it and prepare the diorama box. Erik prepared a presentation board featuring maps and text in French.  As his father watched him throw his heart into this project, Steve became completely engrossed in the Canadian campaign. These men had displayed courage incredible courage, but there was so little coverage as compared to Normandy or other important Canadian campaigns. 

Erik’s project was a fantastic success. His classmates voted his project as one of the best in the class. As a result of this vote, Erik’s project was presented at a regional history fair. His presentation at the fair was selected as one of 160 projects Canada wide and he was invited to present it at the 2006 National Historica Fair in Halifax. It was an honour to be selected. Each of the projects was exceptional.

Later that year, Erik decided to offer his project diorama to the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment as a token for their museum. His offer was warmly received. Each of the officers of the Regiment with whom he met offered him praise and encouragement. LCol. Bourque, commanding officer of the Regiment, asked Erik to present his project to the officers. Erik beamed as he concluded his presentation and was presented with a plaque from the Regiment acknowledging his achievement. Steve had rarely seen such a smile on his son’s face and he was overwhelmed by the generosity of these soldiers; LCol. Bourque, Gratton, Aubé, Saint-Louis, de Kovachich, among others – what gentlemen.

This experience led to a family tour of Italy in 2006.While in Sicily, Steve stole away to visit Assoro and the Canadian war cemetery at Agira. This short trip to Agira had a profound effect on Steve. Alone in the graveyard with more than 400 souls, he felt compelled to thank each one. What appeared from a distance during his son’s project to be such a glorious triumph hid the tremendous sacrifice of the young men who fought these horrible battles; 18 and 19 year olds, sons, fathers, brothers and husbands

At that moment, Steve decided that more had to be done to honour these men;

Operation Husky 2013 was born.

Operation Husky
2013 Achievements

Six years of planning and over 30 dedicated volunteers ensured that the commemorations planned for the 20-day walk and the civilian tour were very successful.

 

The achievements of the volunteers and marchers was impressive:

  • Marched 300 + KM and climbed thousands of meters climbed and much of it in +40 degrees.
  • Placed a Monument measuring 2.5M X 1.5M X 1.5M made from local stone with an embedded plaque (1.2.5M x 1M) in the Main Piazza of the City of Pachino. 
  • Placed 562 Markers, one for each of the Canadian Soldiers who died in Sicily, 3 Markers for Ships lost at sea and over 50 Markers dedicated to Sicilian civilian losses. Components of these Markers were made by school children in Montreal and in Sicily.
  • Participated in 25 commemorative ceremonies in 19 towns, each involved the laying of a wreath.
  • Participated in 6 historical conferences where we made presentations describing the role of Canadians in Sicily.
  • Conducted 4 pipeband concerts with our band of 6 Pipers and Drummers held in the evening in the main squares of hosting towns.
  • Unveiled four plaques: Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery at Assoro, The 48th Highlanders of Canada, The 12 RBC (Three Rivers Regiment) and the R22R.
  • Organized and lead a roll-call at the Canadian War Cemetery at Agira with one person representing each of our dead in Sicily (we had an estimated 330 Canadians present).
  • Re-created the famous Seaforth Highlander Pipeband (12 Pipers and 4 drummers) concert which was attended by over 4,000 Agirans.
  • Produced and donated, a complete Canadian Exhibit to the Museo dello Sbarco, War Museum in Catania. This included the only collection of 1st Canadian Division Cap Badges and Shoulder flashes in the world.
  • Organized the writing of one “Special Edition” of the Canadian Military History Journal publish by Laurier University.
  • Supported two Italian documentaries being produced (TLN in Canada and RAI Storia in Italy) and one in English/French in the works which we are funding.
  • Co-funded a Canadian documentary entitled “Bond of Strangers”.
  • Produced a website with historical images and records collected from our project.
  • Received Canadian press including 3 minutes on the CBC’s The National and a two-page spread in the Globe. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/07/30/world-war-operation-husky.html
  • Received significant Sicilian press including coverage on over a dozen Italian Websites.