Canada’s first D-Day

By the time 19-year-old Pte. Jack Sharpe waded ashore on Sicily on July 10, 1943, he had already been in the Canadian Army for three years. Now, as part of the Eighth British Army, he and his comrades in the 4th Princess Louise’s Dragoon Guards were about to fight their way across Sicily, then cross to the “toe” of Italy in early September, and battle up the Adriatic coast past Ortona to Ravenna before being transferred to Northwest Europe early in 1945.

Sicily was hot, Sharpe recalls. “The dust was a foot deep. There seemed to be a shortage of water and transportation.”

The first invasion of Fortress Europa
The Allies invaded Italy after finally capturing North Africa in March 1943. In taking Sicily, they would extend their air power over the Mediterranean and into the Balkans. But the real purpose of attacking Italy was to force the Germans to defend its industrialized north and perhaps their own southern border with elite fighters and crucial resources pulled from other fronts.

The Allies were actually planning to enter Germany from France, a geographically easier route. Terry Copp of Wilfrid Laurierniversity is a scholar of Second World War military history, focusing on Northwest Europe. He points out this region was where the outcome of the war would be decided. “The purpose of the Italian campaign was always obscure to the general public. It seemed to be just a slugfest,” Copp says. “It was a very unglamorous and a very, very difficult task because you’re not really trying so much to win as to force the other guy to commit resources to it.”

In fact, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower warned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Operation Overlord, code name for the invasion of Normandy, which they had set for the following June, could be compromised if the enemy were to withdraw divisions from the Italian front in time to oppose it. “If we can keep him on his heels until early spring, then the more divisions he uses in a counter-offensive against us, the better it will be for Overlord,” he wrote.

D-Day in Sicily launches the Italian campaign
The landing on Sicily near the little town of Pachino on the southern tip of the Mediterranean island had been a military success for the Canadians. Their commander, Maj.-Gen. Guy Simonds, reported casualties had been light and more than 700 of the foe captured. But as days went by, the Allies encountered mounting resistance, chiefly from German forces. By Aug. 6, 1943, when the Canadians were placed in reserve, their casualties numbered 2,310, with 562 killed. Sicily was liberated by mid-August, when Messina fell to the Americans and British.

Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, had been deposed on July 25, 1943. The new government signed an armis-tice on Sept. 3 as Allied forces crossed to the Italian mainland. By the first of October, Naples was liberated. But German troops were determined to stop the advance, especially on Rome, whose airfields would give Allied bombers another base for attacking Germany.

Next page: Bitter fighting takes its toll

A few months later, the forces faced winter conditions in the mountainous terrain with rains, snow and flooded rivers. Copp notes that the primitive nature of the road network made administration and logistics of the enterprise very difficult. Once again, the pack mule became an important animal in warfare.   

The situation also demanded a great many more medical and service personnel than usual to keep combat troops in the fray. “Probably not one in 20 of the soldiers who fought in Italy were ever at the front line,” Copp estimates.

But Sharpe’s unit saw plenty of action. “Lots of shelling and lots of casualties,” he admits. He tells of ambushes where the enemy had dug into canal banks, their gun barrels barely noticeable through small peepholes. “All of a sudden, the machine gun would open up and you’d lose a few men,” he says.

Then there was the diabolical choice offered if a soldier stepped on an “S” mine. “If you take your foot off [the mine], it goes up in the air about six feet [and explodes]. If you leave your foot on it, it blows your leg off.” Booby traps were another hazard: “They set booby traps in fireplaces so that in the wintertime, you’d light up a fireplace and it would blow up.”

Fighting was bitter as the Allies battled northward. In December 1943, Canadians re-invented house-to-house fighting in the 19-day battle for the Adriatic port of Ortona. “Mouseholing,” blowing holes in adjoining buildings followed by grenades, was one of the means used to gain control of the city. In the spring, Canadians joined the British and American attack on German defences in the Liri Valley protecting Rome.  

Only two days after the June 4th liberation of Rome by American forces, the Allies successfully landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of the continent. The Italian campaign, while not forgotten, was certainly overshadowed in print, on radio and in movie newsreels. 

Lady Astor, the British parliamentarian, labelled the Allies in Italy “D-Day Dodgers,” implying the forces there were slackers in comparison to those fighting in Northwest Europe. They responded with a cheeky song about the fun in sunny Italy but concluded it with a bitter reference to the scattered crosses and the boys buried beneath them.

Canadian effort breaks through lines
In late 1944, Canadians reached their peak of achievement in the Gothic Line battle, breaking through fiercely defended German lines. But Copp says as the Canadians took one mountainous position after another, “it was wearying and agonizing and, except for Rome, there were no great liberation marches and no great sense of winning important victories.”

In February 1945, Sharpe and his unit were pulled out of Ravenna as part of the First Canadian Corps headed to Northwest Europe to join the First Canadian Army. His unit was put on hold about two months before the war ended. “I was a little unhappy about that,” he says.

Sharpe intends to return to Italy this October to attend ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Italian campaign, which the government of Canada is holding in Cassino, Ortona and Rimini. Canada’s sole surviving Victoria Cross winner, Ernest (Smokey) Smith will be honoured with a plaque at Cesena, and the final event will be the unveiling of a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque at the Agira Canadian war cemetery  in Sicily where 490 Canadians are buried.

The 92,757 Canadians serving in the Italian campaign included army, navy and air force personnel; 5,399 of them lost their lives, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 were made prisoners of war.

“I think a lot of people, even now,  don’t realize what goes on in protecting freedom,” Sharpe says.