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Infantrymen and tanks of the Eighth Army push along a road to Ferrara, Italy, in April 1945.

Keystone/Getty Images

  • Title: The River Battles: Canada’s Final Campaign in World War II Italy
  • Author: Mark Zuehlke
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
  • Pages: 470

In July, 2014, Canadian historian Mark Zuehlke received an e-mail from Italy.

A history institute based in Ravenna was inviting him to give the keynote address at a conference celebrating the 70th anniversary of “the liberation of many towns in our province, Ravenna. ... All the towns were liberated by Canadian Regiments toward the end of 1944.”

In his preface to The River Battles, the B.C.-based Zuehlke notes that several years before, after taking a quick look, he had concluded that the pitched battles which occurred in northern Italy could not sustain an entire book. Now, however, confident that those encounters could drive a 30-minute talk, he accepted the invitation. He began researching and found himself swamped and astonished by “accounts of fierce battles fought in a complex landscape criss-crossed by rivers and canals ... [and] countless stories of individual courage and sacrifice.”

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That December, after giving the keynote, Zuelke spent days exploring the battlefield, standing on dikes “overlooking mud-soaked fields and vineyards in conditions mirroring those the Canadians endured in 1944-45.” He found the exact location next to a little church where a Seaforth Highlander earned a Victoria Cross.

“Walking away from that church in a cold rain,” he writes, “I realized the hook was in.” Back in Canada, he turned up hundreds of historical records – more than enough to animate a book about this culmination of Canada’s Second World War Italian campaign.

As a Canadian military historian, Mark Zuehlke stands with Tim Cook, Ted Barris and David O’Keefe. He belongs to the elite. To write this fifth and final volume in his Canadian Battle Series, Zuehlke assimilated an astonishing amount of detailed information from a multiplicity of primary sources. Building on the focused unities of time and place – six months in 1944-45 and a waterlogged plain called Emilia-Romagna – he has delivered a vivid, hard-slogging narrative.

Zuehlke spares us no horror. He describes an endless night of shelling, for example, when rockets known as Moaning Minnies “sobbed hysterically” as they smashed into the trenches filled with huddled troops. Come morning, the guns fell silent and Sergeant Fred Cederberg sent a man to wake a recent recruit sleeping in a shallow trench. The man lifted a blanket and yanked on the recruit’s foot. The leg came away in his hand: “My God, come here! The poor bugger’s cut in two.”

A few pages later, we find engineers under heavy machinegun fire struggling to clear a riverbank of debris and landmines. Finally, one troop manages to cross the river. Two more troops start to follow and Zuehlke allows an eyewitness describe an explosion so violent that “it appeared to lift the entire floor of the gully.” Hopelessly trapped under heavy fire, the Canadians “sustained tragically high casualties, with 16 men killed and five wounded.”

Against this dark background, Zuehlke draws attention to bright acts of extraordinary courage. While under intense artillery fire, one field company managed to clear several multifaceted, booby-trapped roadblocks near a river. The driver of an armoured bulldozer found himself struggling to dismantle a final obstacle, unable to see which way to turn from his restricted seat. A young lieutenant jumped onto the vehicle and, standing outside the protective cage surrounding the driver, gave him directions, hopping down occasionally to scurry alongside and shout the way forward. For this, Lieutenant Victor Alexander Moore earned a Military Cross.

Elsewhere in the field, Major Allen Brady led a section of men through flooded streets to occupy a house overlooking a canal. He ran a telephone line back to tactical headquarters, but then the house suffered a series of direct hits from a massive, self-propelled gun (SPG). Knocked unconscious, Brady awoke to find four men dead and the telephone line severed – the only way to request help. He ran outside, repaired the line, and then directed artillery fire in knocking out the SPG. Despite “great pain” and heavy bleeding from undressed wounds, Brady led his men along the river to a better position. He was later recognized with a Distinguished Service Order.

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From time to time, Zuehlke pulls back from the battlefield to provide context, focusing on shifts in command structure and changes of strategy. He shows how, viewed from a lofty distance, troops comprising up to 250 men become pieces in a chess game. When Canada’s defence minister, Colonel J. Layton Ralston, returns to Ottawa and pushes for conscription to address the worsening manpower shortage, Prime Minister Mackenzie King replaces him.

Later, Zuehlke notes that as the Canadians struggled forward, the supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, “was less interested in winning ground in Italy than in preventing enemy divisions” from abandoning this territory to fight elsewhere.

Canada’s Italian campaign, which culminated in these river battles, lasted 20 months and was the longest undertaken by the Canadian army. Those killed included 408 officers and 4,991 of all other ranks, while 1,218 officers and 18,268 other ranks were wounded. Including those taken prisoner, total casualties were 26,254. Although the campaign was essential to achieving victory, such numbers make one wary of lightly going to war. Perhaps that is the greatest achievement of books like The River Battles.

Ken McGoogan recently published his 15th book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.

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