By MCpl Kimberly Anderson, 2 Combat Engineer Regiment
The Canadian Armed Forces Op DISTINCTION supports the Government of Canada’s Military History Commemoration Program. This program is designed to remind and teach Canadians about the significant sacrifices and achievements made by those who served and who currently serve while preserving their legacy for future generations.
The Italian Campaign was a significant military effort for Canada that took place 75 years ago during the Second World War. More than 93,000 Canadians, along with some 160,000 Allied forces troops, played a crucial role in the Italian Campaign. Canadians fought for 20 months in the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and the rain of spring and fall. Canadian casualties in the Italian Campaign totalled more than 26,000 and nearly 6000 Canadians died. During this pilgrimage, we honoured the service and sacrifice of those Canadians who fought for the rights and freedoms of others.
Op DISTINCTION Commemorating the Italian Campaign
It was an honour and a privilege for MCpl Ferguson and myself to be nominated by 2 CER to participate in OP DISTINCTION. We had the unique opportunity to represent the Royal Canadian Engineers on the international stage for the purpose of commemorating the brave and heroic soldiers who admirably served so many years ago during the Italian Campaign. Without the selfless sacrifices made by the soldiers of the past, our world would undoubtedly be a very different place today.
The Italian Campaign was often called “The Engineers War” because its success depended upon the ability to cross so many natural and artificial obstacles. The difficult topography of Italy placed the Allied forces at a severe disadvantage because of the mountainous terrain, ceaseless rivers and fortified enemy defensive positions. It wasn’t until we witnessed the ground ourselves that we realized just how arduous it must have been to gain control of that critical ground. We were fortunate to have been provided with a copy of “Yet Another River to Cross: The Royal Canadian Engineers in the Italian Campaign” by the author Malcolm Hamilton before embarking on this journey. As we travelled by bus through the Italian countryside, the historical knowledge of the events provided us with an insight into how the campaign unfolded. From one historic battle location to the next, we could only imagine the hardship that was endured. It is stirring to recognize how resilient those soldiers must have been to be able to continue to fight and overcome the inherent adversity of the situation. Seeing the battlegrounds across the country and paying our respects to the fallen who are laid to rest so far from home, was an overwhelming experience that we will never forget.
Just as the Italian Campaign began in Sicily, so did our pilgrimage. The Agira Canadian War Memorial was the location of our first commemorative ceremony. It was truly humbling to see the names, ages and inscriptions on the headstones of the brave young men who gave their lives in the war. Given the environment and terrain, the determination and courage that those men demonstrated is nothing short of inspirational. They rightly deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice and valour. The commemorative ceremony at this location was attended by the Mayor of Agira and the school children from the surrounding area. It was evident that the many sacrifices made 75 years ago were still being remembered, honoured and venerated. Through poems, songs and speeches, it was clear that the lives lost here are not forgotten. The gratitude for the sacrifices that Canadian soldiers and the compassion for the grief that their loved ones suffered is still very present in the consciousness of the young generation.
As our journey brought us to the Italian mainland, MCpl Ferguson and I had the opportunity to visit the Casino War Cemetery with Canadian veterans of the Italian Campaign. Current service members escorted the distinguished veterans around the grounds. Together with the representatives of our delegation, we paid our respects to their fellow soldiers who were laid to rest in the cemetery. The monumental size of the cemetery is breathtaking and reading the epitaphs on the headstones was heartbreaking. Over 4000 soldiers from the Allied nations are buried there.
The commemorative ceremony in Ortona was very poignant. The tactic of mouse-holing was perfected during this battle by combining ideas from the Engineers and the Infantry Assault Pioneers. This technique was given credit to achieving the victory of this battle. The plaque on the Price of Peace Monument mentions this fight as being the most savage battle of the Italian Campaign. It states, “In the mud and rain, troops attacked from the Moro River to Ortona. Then, from house to house and room to room there raged a ferocious battle against resolute German defenders. With extraordinary courage the Canadians prevailed and just after Christmas finally secured the town”. On a personal note, I gave much thought to the events of the past as I stood vigil at the foot of the monument in the town square during the ceremony. As the pipes and drums contingent and the R22eR band’s music reverberated off the narrow street walls, the echoes were bone-chilling. The Governor-General of Canada’s speech was very moving as she addressed the audience in English, French and Italian. After the ceremony in Ortona, we visited Moro River Cemetery and paid our respects to the many fallen who are laid to rest there. Our last ceremony took place in Ravenna where we paid our final respects to our fallen Canadian soldiers who never returned home to Canada.
Overall, I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in the 75th-anniversary commemoration of the Italian Campaign. It was an honour for us to meet the surviving veterans and to be on parade with so many outstanding serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces. This pilgrimage was a very humbling experience. I truly feel indebted to all of those who sacrificed themselves 75 years ago so that future generation could enjoy the rights and freedoms we all too easily take for granted today.