The Italian Campaign
From the very beginning of the Second World war, men and women from the Creston Valley served in the air, bringing the war to the Axis homeland on the wings of Bomber Command. They served at sea, playing a crucial role in defending against the enemy U-Boats in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. It would be nearly four years, though, before many of the Creston Valley recruits to the Royal Canadian Army saw their first major participation in the war on the ground.
That opportunity came in the Italian Campaign. It was a series of Allied offensives that started with the Invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943, moved to the first Allied landings on mainland Italy two months later, led to the occupation of Rome on 4 June 1944, and ended with the surrender of German armies in Italy on 29 April 1945.
76,000 Canadians, including many from the Creston Valley, were serving in Italy at the peak of the Campaign.
Kirk Beard, serving with the British 8th Army, was among the Canadians who landed on Sicily on 10 July 1943. Light fighting in the first few days increased steadily over the next several weeks. The Canadian troops faced stiff German resistance from towering villages and impregnable hill positions. Despite this, the Canadian troops captured all of their objectives and contributed to the conquest of Sicily, which was complete by 17 August 1943.
Landing on the Italian mainland on 3 September, the Allies quickly came up against the Winter Line: a major obstacle comprising three German defensive lines (Gustav, Bernhardt, and Hitler) across Italy. The Canadian troops, including Ed Smith and Arthur Constable, did their part against fierce resistance that autumn, capturing Reggio on the day of the landing and advancing 75 miles inland by 10 September, then going on to capture Motta, Campobasso, and Vinchiaturo by 15 October.
Wesley Flett enlisted in the army in November 1942, and spent that Christmas on leave at his family’s home in Erickson. The weather was so warm that the family ate Christmas dinner outside, with Wesley resplendent in his new uniform. The following Christmas, Wesley was at Ortona.
This medieval village on the Adriatic was a key command centre for the German army and heavily defended. Its steep streets, blocked with mountains of rubble after intense bombardments, made tanks and artillery useless; the Canadian troops at Ortona engaged in vicious street fighting, from house to house and even from room to room, where every building gained came at a terrible cost.
Ed Hewitt arrived in Italy on 15 December 1943, just in time to take part in the horror of Ortona. Cliff Kanester was there as well, as was Edward Smith, serving with the Princess Pats. The assault began on 20 December 1943, when the 1st Canadian Division forced its way through the outer defences to take up positions around the town. There followed six days of slow, brutal advances into the town, until the German troops began to withdraw on 27 December. Finally, on the 28th, Ortona was in Canadian hands. Over 260 Canadian soldiers were killed in those eight days of fighting; more died later of their wounds and thousands were wounded.
Four major Allied offensives took place between January and May 1944 before the Gustav Line was broken. The first three offensives all managed to push the well-dug-in German defenders back temporarily, but they failed to achieve a major breakthrough. The fourth, finally, succeeded.
These were costly battles, with the Allies suffering about 55,000 casualties in the four assaults. Among them was Wesley Flett, killed in action on 17 February 1944 at the start of the second offensive.
Relentlessly, the Allied forces pushed their way to their primary objective: Rome. On 23 May, The 1st Canadian Infantry Division lined up at the centre facing the Hitler Line, the final obstacle between the Allied troops and Rome. The Canadian infantry were the first troops of the British 8th Army to break through the line, and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division poured through the gap. George Dodd and James Miller, in the Sherman tanks of the BC Dragoons, were the first unit through.
It was Canada’s single bloodiest day of the Italian Campaign. Creston’s James Bohan was wounded in the attack, but Larry MacDonald, serving with the 1st Armoured Car regiment, and George Dodd and James Miller came through unscathed. It is possible that Fred Miller, who also served with a tank corps in Italy, was there as well.
After twenty-four days of relentless fighting, in which the Canadians faced the toughest German opposition anywhere in the war, the Allies occupied Rome on 4 June 1944. US troops occupied the city first, with the Canadians passing through early the following morning. In all likelihood, the only Creston Valley soldier to take part in the occupation of Rome was Irving Ferguson. He was serving with the elite commando unit, the Devil’s Brigade, and was among the first troops to enter Rome.
Fighting continued throughout the summer of 1944, as the Allies pushed north from Rome to Florence. Dennis Zackodnik was wounded in July during this campaign and invalided home.
The Allied offensive was renewed on 25 August 1944, in a major effort to penetrate the Gothic Line, Germany’s last line of defence in northern Italy. “Operation Olive,” carried out throughout the autumn of 1944, succeeded in penetrating the Gothic Line, but did not achieve a major breakthrough. The Allied forces sustained massive losses in their ranks in the process. Edward Hewitt, Ron Mooy, Dan Fast, Ed Vickers, and Kirk Beard were all wounded during “Operation Olive;” Mel McMillan died of the wounds he sustained in that fighting.
As it had after Ortona, winter weather brought the offensive to a halt. In the early months of 1945 the Allies adopted a policy of “offensive defence” that allowed them to keep the enemy under observation while committing a minimum number of troops. The resulting skirmishes were not without their cost, however. Among the other casualties were Ralph Rentz, killed in action in January 1945, and Kirk Beard, who was taken prisoner in February 1945.
In February 1945, the Canadian troops were pulled out of Italy and re-deployed to Europe. Arthur Constable and Irving Ferguson went to southern France; Terry Davidge, Warren Hook, Ron Mooy, Jack Ryckman, and Edward Smith were among those who went to northern Europe to follow up on the D-Day landings.
The Canadians’ part in the Italian Campaign was over, but certainly not forgotten for those who took part. The Italian Campaign saw some of the worst fighting for Canadian troops, and arguably for any troops anywhere, of the Second World War. Gerry Ostendorf later said of her brother, “Cliff [Kanester] saw some very tough fighting in Italy. He lost a very good friend in action. It was hard for him. He was very soft-hearted, and never wanted to talk about his experiences.”