Spr Ernest Gagnon, 4th Fd Coy 17 May 1944

Sappers of the 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, burning coal piles during Operation Gauntlet (taken by Ross Munro)
Spr Ernest Gagnon's Headstone in Cassino War Cemetery

Sapper Ernest Gagnon was born in Deschenes Mills QC, the son of Arthur and Josephine Gagnon. He enlisted on 8 September 1939 in Ottawa ON and was assigned to the 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, the local RCE unit. He left Canada with one of the earlier Canadian contingents, disembarking in Scotland on 30 December 1939.

On 17 August 1940, Ernest boarded a ship bound for Spitzbergen on Operation GAUNTLET landing 25 August. The goal of the operation, which had the approval of the Norwegian and Soviet governments, was to evacuate the civilian population and deny Germany the coal, mining and shipping infrastructure, equipment and stores, and suppress any wireless stations on the archipelago to prevent the Germans from receiving weather reports.

Initially, Canada was to contribute a brigade, less one infantry battalion, and supporting divisional troops units including a machine gun company, an anti-aircraft battery, the 3rd Field Squadron, signals and medical support to Force 111.  After they trained in Scotland, the scope of the operation was reduced to a smaller battalion, a machine-gun company, 3rd Field Company, brigade HQ and a small party of Royal Engineers. The operation was successful and executed in such secrecy the Germans could not react or finger. The Canadian engineers set fire to about 450,000 long tons of coal dumped at the mines, burned much of the fuel oil and poured into the sea, removed or sabotaged mining equipment and burned down the main town.

Ernest returned to the UK and continued training.  In January 1943, he was qualified and paid as a Pioneer ‘C’, the rough equivalent of a modern-day combat engineer sapper in the RCE. In June of that year, he married an English woman in Sussex.  He was then sent to a reinforcement unit in England until August 1943 when he was sent to the Engineer Reinforcement Unit in Italy and later assigned to the 4th Field Company who were affiliated with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade based on the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Vandoos.

The 1st Canadian Division crossed the Gari River on the night of 15 May 1944 led by the 1st Brigade. Their task was to continue through the Gustav Line and advance to the Hitler Line. They suffered badly on the first day against determined German rearguard actions.  On 17 May, the 3rd Brigade fared somewhat better and made good advances with the Van Doos in the lead. The 1st Brigade continued pushing on and by the time the Canadians were within three miles of the Hitler Line, the situation had stabilized. Up to this point in the war, the fighting on the Gustav Line was the most intense the Canadian Army had experienced. They acquitted themselves very well and by 18 May, the Gustav Line was broken in the west, the Polish 2nd Division stood atop Monte Cassino and the Germans had been forced back to the Hitler Line. 

Ernest Gagnon was killed on 17 May 1944 supporting the 1st Canadian Division fighting through the Gustav Line. He was 26 years old and left his new wife alone in England.

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