Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Before Market Garden and Overlord there was Op HUSKY!

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Sicily, the invasion took place on 10 Jul 1943 .  This was D-day before D-day happened in Normandy and marked the first time allied troops were back in Europe.  As part of the celebrations The Royal Canadian Regiment sent one of the few remaining veterans Sherry Atkinson, the Anti-Tank Platoon Commander, to take part in the celebrations.  He and his wife have been sending pictures and journal entries chronicling their journey to the serving members of The Regiment.  I know that a lot of you guys are interested in the history that surrounds the game and figured I would share this with you too.  So I can't take any credit for this just passing it along in the name of history.

The Plan

By Susan Atkinson

Operation Husky 2013
July 9 & 10, 2013
By now, you will have seen the photos from July 9.  Surprise!  Mary Lou has joined our pilgrimage.  She arrived in Catania on Tuesday afternoon, after a much delayed flight.  We picked her up, and the look of total consternation on Sherry’s face was priceless.  This was probably the best kept secret in the Atkinson family history.  Once the shock wore off, and a gelato was enjoyed by all, we headed back to Villa Trigona, our home away from home.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the villa, then turned in for an extremely short sleep.  We were all up by 3:15, and left for Pachino Beach at 4 am.  I had programmed the GPS, following the advice of the local population, to take us south, rather than back north to the major highways.  It proved to be an interesting, and slightly terrifying decision. The roads chosen by the GPS (nicknamed The Nag) proved to be narrow, in some instances unpaved, unfailingly rough and almost impassable.  We climbed gravel barriers across the road twice – encouraged by a local who assured us in rapid Italian that we could make it – and ended up twice reaching dead ends and having to back some distance down these narrow paths unable to turn around.  Once we ended up in someone’s back yard, and almost got trapped there.  Remember all this is happening in mountainous territory, so our reversals were sometimes uphill, sometimes downhill.  And it was pitch black.  The sun did not begin to lighten the sky to grey until after 5 am.  Also, we have yet to figure out how to make the high beams on the car stay on.  They are supposedly automatic, but do not come on by themselves, which necessitated holding the stem of the lights towards the steering wheel to force them on and having to let it go every time we made a turn – and they were quite frequent.  Upshifting and downshifting while accomplishing all this was challenging, and the gasps and exclamations of my passengers and the few Hail Mary’s from me were the only things breaking the panicked silence.

Finally the sky began to lighten, we found a road which was paved and wide enough for two cars, and even one which had a name and a road direction sign.  Then we were on our way to Pachino.  We arrived at the appointed meeting place to be greeted by a Sicilian (no English spoken) who signaled us to follow him to the Beach landing site where the ceremonies were to be held.  We arrived there by 7:30 am, and were welcomed with open arms.  This began the overwhelming adulation for Sherry.

Placed at the site where the Allied Landings began on July 10, 1943, were a Canadian Flag and the Italian Flag.  Several Officer Cadets from RMC were present, along with Italian military representation, and the official Operation Husky team.  There were a large crowd of local residents, a military band, and some children.  Also present were representatives of the Italian media, and the Canadian media team.

The event kicked off with the planting of markers recognizing the Canadians who lost their lives on July 10, 1943. Both Flags were raised as the national anthems of the two countries were played by the band.  There were a few words said in English, French and Italian, and a wreath was laid by Sherry, with assistance from Canadian and Italian servicemen.  It was a very moving event, and upon its completion at 8:30, the Operation Husky group began their march into the city of Pachino.  Each day of this pilgrimage will see a band of Canadians, accompanied by some Italians for part of the way, march the route and distance which the Canadian Soldiers fought that fateful day seventy years ago.  It is very symbolic of the sacrifice our boys made in liberating the Sicilian people and driving the Nazis from this beautiful island.  While no one is shooting at these marchers, and they are not wearing full pack, the sun was beating down, and the temperature was above 30⁰ Celsius.  It is a long and difficult walk, but a small price to pay to honour the brave men and women of the 1st Canadian Division who undertook this task in 1943.

As the marchers departed the beach, the locals and media swarmed Sherry.  As the only veteran of the original landing who is able to attend these events, he is much adored and everyone wants to speak to him, touch him, have a photo taken with him, get his autograph or interview him for a story.  Several local children waited patiently until everyone else was done, watching intently, for their chance to gather around him and have their photo taken with their local hero.  It was ve>ry hard to extricate him from the crowd, and the marchers were well on their way by the time we left the beach.  Sherry, Patricia and Mary Lou did a memorial walk of their own, for a short distance up the road, to honour the fallen before we got back in the car and drove into town.

The march was about five kilometers today, and ended at the Piazza Victor Emanuel (town square) in Pachino.  The square is a large peaceful place where the local Cenotaph is erected.  About 11:30 the marchers arrived at the square, led by the band, to cheers from the local residents, many of whom had gathered to attend the event. Once again the anthems were played, the flags raised, and speeches given.  Unfortunately it was extremely hot by this time, and there is not too much breeze in the square.  Several of our marchers had to be assisted as the heat felled them.  The speeches were good, but lengthy, and by the time we left, everyone was exhausted, soaked in perspiration, and glad it was over.  Fortunately, we were able to ensure Sherry was seated and a young man took care of him, holding an umbrella over him to ward off the sun’s worst, and ensuring he stayed hydrated with frequent doses of water.

 At the end of the speeches, a beautiful memorial was unveiled in the square, commemorating the sacrifices made by the Canadians during the original Operation Husky in 1943, and the liberation of the people of Pachino.  Two large wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph by the Italian military, and another by Sherry and the Canadian Military Attache>′> to Rome, Colonel Baptista.

At the end of the event, Sherry was again the star, being surrounded by people wanting just to be close to him, touch him, have him sign their programs, take photos, etc.  By about 1:30 we were able to extract him and we were led to a lovely coastal museum to enjoy liquid refreshments, appetizers and then a full five course meal!  By the end of the third course, we were all too full, and very tired, and we made the decision to excuse ourselves at 4 pm.

Sherry is absolutely overwhelmed by the affection and attention shown him, but recognizes that this is symbolic for the sacrifices made by all Allied Forces in the Liberation of Sicily. We did not arrive back at the Villa until 7:30 pm, but this time we took the major highways and the trip was much less stressful.  None of us were hungry, but enjoyed a quiet time together with a little vino rosa.  We retired before 10 and slept long and soundly.  We plan to take tomorrow off, and visit some of the local attractions.

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