“We will remember them”
Operation Husky 2023
Canada’s involvement in the Allied Invasion of Sicily deserves more recognition
By Patricia Dumais
October 12, 2023
Canada’s participation in Operation Husky, the Allied Invasion of Sicily in 1943 during World War II, was one of the great exploits in the annals of Canadian military history. Sadly, unlike the Battle of Vimy Ridge or the Normandy Invasion, it remains unknown to most Canadians, having received little coverage.
Westmount businessman Steve Gregory would make it his mission to change that. Steve learned first-hand about Operation Husky at a family dinner in 2004 with guest Bombardier Charles Hunter, a veteran of the campaign. Charles Hunter’s account would leave an impression on Steve’s son, Erik, who would eventually participate in a local Historica Fair with the Battle of Assoro, one of the more prominent campaign battles, as his topic. But researching Operation Husky proved very challenging – aside from famous Canadian author Farley Mowat’s writing of his experience in And No Birds Sang and The Regiment, few resources were available.
Nevertheless, Erik’s perseverance and his father’s encouragement and help led to his project being chosen to participate in the 2006 National Historica Fair in Halifax. Later that year, when Erik offered his project diorama to the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment museum, his gift was warmly received.
That same year, on a family vacation in Italy, Steve took the time to visit Assoro and the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira. Realizing that this great victory had come with tremendous cost to life had a profound effect on him, which set in motion the creation of the first Operation Husky commemoration in July 2013, the 70th anniversary of the event.
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On July 10, 1943, more than 25,000 Canadian soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade landed at the beach in Pachino, Southeast Sicily, marking the beginning of the two-month-long Sicilian campaign, code name “Operation Husky.”
The July-August 1943 campaign was arduous, fought through hot, dusty country devoid of shade and plagued with malaria. The Canadian soldiers were well trained but inexperienced. The Germans would exact a toll of over 2,310 casualties, including over 560 dead, 84 captured and 17 missing in Sicily. But the “Red Patch Devils,” as the Canadians were known, would take a far greater toll on their adversaries and push them back. After conquering the Germans on the island, the allied armies would move to the Italian mainland.
My father, Ludger Dumais, participated in Operation Husky as a First Canadian Infantry Division gunner. Like most veterans, he rarely spoke about the war but mentioned his time in Sicily. I did not press him for more information, as I knew that the war had affected him – he suffered from what is known today as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
* * * * *
I first met Steve Gregory in August of 2012 at the Settimana Italiana Festival (now known as ItalfestMTL), where he manned a booth promoting the first Operation Husky project held in 2013. He explained that he wanted those Canadians who sacrificed their lives in Sicily to be properly commemorated.
This would be accomplished with a 19-day march along the path taken by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the planting of hundreds of markers indicating where each soldier had fallen. He would work with local town and government officials, historians, and the military to get them on board in organizing special commemorative ceremonies. Not forgetting the civilian victims, ceremonies would also take place in cemeteries. The whole would be a privately funded volunteer-led effort. Learning that my father was a campaign veteran, Steve invited me to join as a “marcher.”
I could not participate in Operation Husky 2013 but pocketed one of Steve’s flyers. Ten years later, in December 2022, I found the flyer in papers I was going through. Doing an online search, I discovered that Operation Husky 2013 happened and was a success, that there was a subsequent Operation Husky 2018 (5 years later), and that the next one would occur in July 2023. I contacted Steve in early January and was invited to participate.
The Operation Husky 2023 team would initially consist of twenty or so volunteers who would act in various capacities: logistics, communications, event preparations, marker installation, marchers, etc. As the month went by, the team would be joined by even more volunteers such as seven Dutch bagpipers/drummers, and a group of WWII Canadian Soldier reenactors.
Many of the volunteers were retired military, including five Colonels and one General, some were active military or reservists, and a few, like myself, were civilians. We had the good fortune of having professional chef Bruce Pennington, who volunteered to prepare our meals. And there was Jocelyn Blanchet, a bagpiper from the Black Watch, leading the way to the ceremonies. The youngest volunteer, Greyson Hatton, was only fourteen but turned out to be a great asset to the marker team. Except for Steve, I had not met anyone else.
I looked forward to walking in my father’s footsteps and began training early. The Operation Husky 2023 walk known as the Walk for Remembrance and Peace (or WRAP), is 325 km long, from the beaches of Pachino to Adrano at the foot of Mount Etna, passing through 22 towns and lasting 20 days. We were to walk an average of 15 km a day, six days a week, with up to 35 km on some days.
July 5 quickly arrived as I boarded the plane for Rome on that day in Montreal. I met some volunteers at the airport and would meet the others in Catania and our first lodging in San Lorenzo, close to Pacino. The march would start on July 10 after a first ceremony at the beach where the Canadians landed.
Among the volunteers were Canadian Senator Tony Loffreda and his wife Angelina. An Italian-Canadian, Senator Loffreda was eager to participate and learn more about this important event in Italian and Canadian history. He and Angelina enthusiastically attended many of the ceremonies in an unofficial capacity.
We quickly settled into a routine, up very early, around 4 am, to begin our walk around 6 am. July 2023 was the hottest on Sicilian records, reaching a maximum of 47°C (116°F!). The heat and brush fires in the countryside made the air hot and hazy, so we had to begin our walks as early as possible. Whether on main roads or country trails, a safety car that transported our food, water and first aid always accompanied us.
When not walking, we were assigned to help in any way we could. I touched up markers, assembled wreaths, assisted in the kitchen, and sold merchandise to raise funds, among other chores. The atmosphere was of cooperation and comradeship, with little complaining and much getting things done. I guess I can owe this to the military culture – we are all in this together, let’s make the best of it.
A typical day began with a walk, followed by a ceremony before noon, usually at a local cemetery, to honour civilian victims. The afternoon was downtime being too hot, with most towns completely shuttered save for the bars and gelaterias. We would take some time off, have a siesta, or do some chores. After one of Chef Bruce’s delicious suppers, we were out again, marching into a local town where more ceremonies were held. By late evening, we were back at our lodging, preparing for the next day.
As we marched through the towns, led by our bagpiper, the townsfolk would gather on balconies and doorsteps, waving us by. We had a good supply of Canadian flags and pins that we distributed freely – these were particularly popular with the children.
Arriving at the town square or war memorial, we were greeted by the sindaco (mayor) and other dignitaries, the police and military, and a host of local organizations. After the speeches, we laid wreaths honouring the fallen, Canadians and Italians alike. I believe the Sicilians appreciated this – it was not just about us, it was about them too.
We experienced Sicilian hospitality wherever we went. Usually, after the ceremonies, refreshments were served to us. On several occasions, we were treated to full-course meals featuring typical Sicilian dishes such as Pasta a la Norma (ziti with tomato and eggplant). And, need I remind anyone of the artisanal gelatos, the best ice cream in the world?
Although it was, at times, unbearably hot, I enjoyed the walks through the Sicilian countryside. At first, the landscape seemed a bit desolate – arid, ochre-coloured hills punctuated by deep green vegetation here and there. In July, the grain crops have been harvested, and many fields lie fallow. But one would soon notice crops flourishing under protective tarps – tomatoes, squash and other vegetables – and olive, citrus, almond, and pistachio groves.
Further inland, gentle hills gave way to dramatic gorges and mountains. Most towns are situated on hilltops and require some effort to reach. I could only think about what my father and his comrades had to endure, marching through this incredibly rough terrain with heavy packs on their backs and little water in the hottest months of the year, all while the Germans watched from the hilltops.
About halfway through the trip, I pulled a tendon and could not complete the walk. It was a big disappointment, but I resolved to make the best of things and be on call for anything I might be helpful. I still managed to attend many ceremonies, hobbling along with my walking pole.
One of my most memorable moments was a visit to the Canadian Military Cemetery in Agira where most of the 560 Canadian war casualties were buried. The cemetery is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, perched high on a hilltop with a superb view of turquoise Lake Pozzillo and soaring Mount Etna. Faces of Agira, a project of the D-Day Dodgers Foundation, had placed a photo of each soldier at their grave. I paused before each one, reading the soldier’s name and looking at their photo – so many young men whose lives were cut short…
On July 29, the final commemorative ceremony was held at the cemetery, where a roll call took place in which those present were asked to take the place of a soul lost in the conflict, stand at the chosen headstone and respond on behalf of the fallen when his name was called out. It was particularly touching to see some graves visited by actual relatives of the fallen person. Denis Gravel of the Wendat tribe conducted a moving ceremony of gratitude on behalf of the aboriginal soldiers.
Operation Husky 2023 was a meaningful learning experience for me. I discovered Sicily, a fascinating and beautiful part of Italy, rich in history and culture and finally realized what my father and others had to face back in July 1943. It took incredible courage and resilience on their part to ensure our freedom. Some paid the ultimate price, and we must not overlook that.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
– From the poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon
For more information about Operation Husky 2023 visit remembrancewalk.ca
Roger Chabot’s excellent documentary series about Canadian military involvement in Operation Husky: youtube.com/@RogerChabotBIA/videos
Mark Zuehlke‘s book Through Blood and Sweat gives a thorough account of Operation Husky 2013: zuehlke.ca
Bond of Strangers: The Operation Husky Digital Experience gives a thorough account of Operation Husky in 1943 and 2013: bondofstrangers.com
Feature image: Canadian Military Cemetery in Agira, by Ranna16
Other images: Patricia Dumais, unless indicated otherwise
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Patricia Dumais is co-editor of WestmountMag.ca and a nature enthusiast. Having grown up near a wetland that was lost to urban development, she recognizes the importance and benefits of conserving urban green space. email@example.com