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Second World War veteran Charles Hunter wears his uniform at his home in Russell, Ont., on July 4, 2013. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Second World War veteran Charles Hunter wears his uniform at his home in Russell, Ont., on July 4, 2013. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

In Italy, battle begins to give Canadians their due for wartime successes Add to ...

The two Canadian soldiers did not know each other and were probably on separate ships as the Allied fleet steamed toward Sicily. It was July, 1943, and the invasion of Hitler’s European fortress was about to begin.

The first soldier, Charles Hunter, fired a lot of artillery shells during the Sicilian campaign but rarely saw German troops in action, never got scared and – bizarrely – came close to getting flattened by a British bomber. The second, Sheridan (Sherry) Atkinson, took the surrender of more than 1,000 Italian soldiers before his nasty encounter with a German shell ended his war service a few days later.

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Their stories represent the Canadians’ wildly divergent experiences in the Allied invasion of Sicily, known as Operation Husky, which killed 562 of the 23,000 Canadian troops who splashed ashore at Pachino on July 10 and wounded more than 1,600. For Canada and the survivors, Husky was a tremendous success: the first independent Canadian action in the Second World War, the first Canadian victory and a big morale booster after the Canadians’ disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, the year before.

Today, just days short of the landings’ 70th anniversary celebrations, both Mr. Hunter, who was a bombardier in the Royal Canadian Artillery’s second field regiment, and Mr. Atkinson, a lieutenant in the anti-tank platoon of the Royal Canadian Regiment, are alive, fairly well for their ages and still more than a bit pissed off.

They are angry that Canada’s role in Husky has never been given its due. The Americans and British were awarded, or took, most of the credit in the press and the history books for the first great humbling of German and Italian defensive forces. “It still burns my ass that we got so little appreciation for what we did in Sicily,” says Mr. Hunter, who is 93 and lives in a retirement home in Russell, Ont., near Ottawa.

Mr. Atkinson, who is 92 and lives in Ridgetown, in southwestern Ontario, says “Husky was overshadowed by D-Day [in 1944]. No one remembers the landings in Sicily.”

But both men are delighted to know that a remarkable civilian-led effort is under way to set the record straight about Canada’s crucial role in liberating Sicily. A series of events will begin Friday at the Canadian embassy in Rome and extend throughout July in Sicily. They’ll honour the fallen Canadian soldiers, commemorate their victories, tell their stories of heroism and grief, and provide material for TV documentaries. Several hundred Canadians are expected to join the events, some of whom will walk the entire route taken by the soldiers.

At least two of the few remaining veterans plan to be there. One of them is Mr. Atkinson. The other is Bob Wigmore, who fought with the famous Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, known as the Hasty Ps.

The Husky commemoration is the work of Steve Gregory, 53, owner of the Montreal technology training company IsaiX. The idea came to him in 2006, when his son, Erik, met Mr. Hunter. The old soldier told him about the Battle of Assoro, the Canadians’ daring nighttime attack on the Sicilian mountain town, from behind. But when Erik went to research the battle, he came up short. “We couldn’t find any material about the Canadians in Sicily,” Mr. Gregory says. “We never got recognition for the tremendous role we played.”

Erik ended up doing a multimedia project that included an interview with Mr. Hunter. Then father and son went off to Sicily, where Mr. Gregory found himself moved to tears at the all-Canadian cemetery in Agira, in central Sicily, where 496 soldiers are buried. At that point, he decided he would put on “a real show” to commemorate Husky’s 70th anniversary in 2013. His prime sponsor is Canada Company, a charity founded by AGF Management boss Blake Goldring that finances programs for active and retired soldiers, such as job training and scholarships.

Mr. Hunter and Mr. Atkinson have vivid memories of the Sicilian campaign. For the Canadians, Husky began on a tragic note. Three of the eight troop ships steaming towards Sicily were torpedoed in the Mediterranean; 58 Canadians drowned. “The German U-boats were waiting for us,” Mr. Hunter says. “We even saw their periscopes. They were popping up all over the place.”

Once ashore, Mr. Hunter and his crew suffered few casualties, since they were typically a couple of kilometres behind the front lines, lobbing artillery shells into the German lines. His closest brush with death came about two weeks after the landings, near the town of Nissoria, just west of Mount Etna, when they were taking a break. “We saw six British bombers, and one of them rolled and went down,” he says. “It crashed a couple of hundred yards from us and we took four killed directly and another two died in hospital.”

Mr. Atkinson’s Sicilian adventure could not have been more different. A few days after the landing, he and a dozen other soldiers became separated from their regiment and wandered into enemy territory. They got into a firefight with Italian soldiers near the town of Modica, but managed to overcome them.

Ninety-three of the Italians surrendered; no small accomplishment for the Canadian soldiers. But it would get much better. The mayor of Modica begged the Canadians to come to his town. When Mr. Atkinson and another soldier entered, white sheets of surrender hung from the balconies and about 1,000 Italian troops were in the main square with their rifles neatly stacked in front of them.

“A thousand soldiers surrendered to a couple Canadians,” he says. “We were dumbfounded. After they surrendered, the Carabinieri [Italian military police] invited us to lunch – macaroni, goat cheese and lemonade.”

That was on July 12. Twelve days later, a piece of shrapnel from a German cannon tore through his right shoulder. He was evacuated to Tunis, where he was interviewed by a Canadian war reporter. It was only when the story appeared that his wife knew he was alive.

Mr. Atkinson will no doubt tell this story in Sicily in July to an enthralled audience.

 

OPERATION HUSKY

  • For the Canadians, Husky began with a tragedy. Three of the eight troop ships on the way to Sicily were torpedoed in the Mediterranean; 58 Canadians drowned.
  • On July 10, just after dawn, the Canadians went ashore near Pachino. The Canadians formed the left flank of the five British landings over about 65 kilometres of shoreline. At Pachino, they were met with light resistance from Italian troops.
  • From the Pachino beaches, the Canadians made their way over the next several days to the village of Grammichele, Piazza Armerina, Valguarnera, and then the hill towns of Leonforte and Assoro, all of which fell. The Canadians then went to Agira, which was taken on July 28.
  • Catenanuova and Regalbuto were also captured by the Canadians after British and U.S. operations pushed the Germans into an area around the base of Mount Etna.
  • The final Canadian task involved the capture of Adrano. The Canadians were withdrawn into reserve on Aug. 7. Eleven days later, British and American troops entered Messina. The Sicily operation had taken 38 days.

Source: Veterans Affairs

 

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