Somehow it seemed appropriate that I found myself in Sicily earlier this year – as July is the 70th anniversary of Operation Husky, the Second World War Allied invasion of Italy.
Indeed, Sicily was the last of my many journeys along the path of the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, RCA (1st Canadian Division), into corners of scenic countryside most tourists rarely discover. This trip was the final leg of a pilgrimage to honour my late father, Hubert (Bert) Snow.
Looking back, I now realize that I only became curious about my dad’s wartime experiences when Alzheimer’s disease started to take him from us. As his memory faded, I wanted very much to grasp what he had been through, almost as if this knowledge alone would keep him with us.
In actual fact, when I was young, he had never spoken much about his combat experiences and if he did, it was always lighthearted, at times even funny.
Tales were frequently about dancing at Hammersmith Palais, or how odd it felt climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
My father would laugh about being “AWOL” during the London Blitz and once showed me the note from the Canadian Red Cross asking that Gunner Snow be excused for his tardiness, as he had been helping clear a bombed-out building.
Then there was the time in Italy when, hot, dirty and exhausted, he and his comrades walked over a ridge and saw the beautiful Adriatic Sea. They stripped down and ran into the water – only to look up and see several black-clad old women washing clothes on the rocks, stoically ignoring the naked young men splashing in the surf.
At age 17, Bert, along with Verdun, Que., friends Rudy and Jack, was among the first to enlist in September, 1939. He and Rudy came home in 1945. Jack is buried in Assisi.
Every birthday, my father would emphatically affirm that he considered each year after the war to be a bonus.
Only when I was an adult did he add that he had never expected to survive the conflict. Perhaps that was the first hint that it was not all silliness and games.
Yet he routinely laughed that he was three days “late” for the invasion of Sicily; in fact, he had been on the MV Devis, which was torpedoed off the coast of North Africa. My dad was the odd man out for a four-man card game and was at the other end of the ship when the torpedo hit, killing his four friends.
As my father’s memories became confused, getting information about the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment became more challenging. To that end, I regularly frequented used bookstores and searched steadfastly online.
A major breakthrough was Mark Zuehlke’s book Ortona, which listed an unpublished archival source, History 1 Anti-Tank Regiment (RCA), 5 September 1939 – 31 July 1945, located at the Department of National Defence Directorate of History. There, in Ottawa, I found the typewritten document, dated July,. 1945, that proved to be the road map for many journeys overseas.
It also opened my eyes to the realities of war for both my father and his companions. Amazingly, while the log detailed mundane facts as well as brutal ones, it was also interspersed with amusing anecdotes and witty, personal observations.
As I was reading the manuscript, my dad’s war unfolded before me. I plotted routes, highlighting places where his 27th Battery was mentioned. Over the years, I have incorporated these roads into my travel plans – in England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, but mainly Italy, where my father had most of his combat experience.
This past April in Sicily, on the last leg of my pilgrimage and guided by McGeer & Copp’s The Canadian Battlefields in Italy: Sicily & Southern Italy, I followed in the footsteps of the 1st Canadian Division through Pachino, Ispica, Modica, Ragusa, Grammichele, Piazza Armerina, Catenanuova, Regalbuto, Agira, Assoro, Leonforte. I witnessed the same stunning views as my dad did almost 70 years earlier, especially in the Greek amphitheatre in Taormina.
On country roads, I found myself surrounded by fields of wildflowers, quite alone except for a few donkeys warily watching. At the Agira Canadian War Cemetery, I lingered among the 496 well-tended graves.
Set on a hillside under the mountaintop town of Agira, looking out at Lake Pozzillo with Mount Etna standing guard in the distance, the graveyard is incredibly beautiful. It was difficult to reconcile this breathtaking, peaceful place with the tragic sadness of it all.
Sicily, for the 1st Canadian Division, was simply stifling heat, dust, exhaustion, danger, and possible death. I did not and cannot ever see the Italy my father saw, but I feel an incredible comfort from knowing that I was exactly where he had been.
As his illness progressed, the funny war stories gave way to more serious ones.
Only once, however, did I get a glimpse of the terrible burden that he, like so many veterans, carried inside. When, in 1994, I showed him pictures I had taken of the Moro River Cemetery and modern Ortona, he said quietly, “Ortona was the worst.”
Quite possibly Gunner Bert Snow would not have seen any sense in my pilgrimage. Like many men of his generation, he was not one for sentimentality. Nevertheless, as a father, I believe that my dad would have felt my love and respect for him, and been pleased.
Sheila Snow lives in Montreal.