Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Op HUSKY 2013 July 18 - 20

The Battle Map

 Here are another three days of entries following Sherry Atkinson's through Sicily for the 70th Anniversary of Operation HUSKY the Allied invasion.  Sherry was the Anti-Tank platoon commander for The Royal Canadian Regiment (The RCR) which was part of the 1st Canadian Brigade and in turn the 1st Canadian Division.  The journal entries are written by Sherry's wife Susan Atkinson.

Assaulting the Mountains in Sicily

By Susan Atkinson

Operation Husky 2013

July 18, 2013
After a much needed rest yesterday which saw us do very little but eat, sleep, swim and drink, today began with a beautiful breakfast in the shade of the acacia trees in the courtyard.  Along with the persistent flies and bees, we had our usual companions meowing at our feet.  The day's activities were to include two ceremonies, the first in San Michele di Ganzaria at 9 am, and the second in a place called Masseria Mandrascate.  In searching for the second site, I discovered that it is only an Agriturismo (Rural B&B), and that there is really no town there. We questioned the location as we did not wish to get lost, and were told that the ceremony there had been cancelled, and the one in the first location was to be delayed until 11 am.  After two conflicting phone calls from different men in the organization, we decided we would just drive to the town of San Michele di Ganzaria and see what was happening. 

On leaving the B&B, we discovered that fourteen Soldier's Markers had been placed in the roundabout just 1 km from where we are staying.  We had not been informed that they would be placed there, and we began to wonder if things were so confused that the marchers had gone through here today instead of next week.  The traffic was horribly snarled, and it took a long time to reach the highway so we could head south.  We arrived in San Michele di Ganzaria to find Canadian flags on lamp posts pointing the way, and soon found the mobile museum van which was being closed!  By this time, being a little impatient, we asked what the H--- was going on? Sherry was immediately placed in a Carabinieri vehicle and rushed up to the scene of the actual ceremony, to arrive just as O Canada was being played.  And it was only about 10 am! Needless to say there seem to be too many chiefs and not enough Indians and they don't seem to speak the same language!

The ceremony itself progressed according to plan and was very moving.  Following the laying of the wreath, speeches, playing of the last post and piper's lament, Sherry had the opportunity to visit with many of the local people.  Unfortunately, the children had all been led away while the speeches were going on.  The citizens of this town were very genuine in expressing their gratitude to Sherry for the sacrifices made by the Allies in liberating them.  He has had so many handshakes, kisses and hugs he may be completely spoiled. Following this, the Canadian group all assembled at a local bar/café for sweets and beverages. 

We left there about 12:30 and drove back to Villa Trigona where we enjoyed a light lunch of crackers, cheese, salami and fruit in our room.  Sherry is having a nice siesta while I compose this, and then we are going to sit in the shade outside and play a little cribbage.

Tomorrow we are off to the site of the first real battle for The RCR since leaving Modica at a place called Valguarnera.

A point of observation with a commanding view

July 19, 2013

Another early morning.  We arranged for just some cereal and yogurt for breakfast at 7:30, then headed out on our way to Valguarnera.  This was the scene of some brutal fighting in 1943, and was where the 2IC, Major Billy Pope was killed as well as several other popular members of The Regiment. 

After the usual confusion, we found a helpful policeman who led us to where the marchers and pipers were to meet up with the local band and march to the monument.  As usual, they were late, but we visited with the locals, and found the TLN film crew from Toronto.  Sherry had the opportunity to speak with many of the locals.  Eventually the rest arrived, and we followed them in the car as they marched up, up, up!  The local band led the way, and they were fabulous.  About forty members are in the band, and the majority are young women, including some mother and daughter pairs.  It was very inspiring to listen to and follow them.  The monument is in a beautiful park, and the service was quite lovely. A wreath was laid, the two anthems played, along with Last Post and the piper's lament. Thankfully, there were no speeches today, so we were not in the hot sun for too long.

Then we followed the group again, back down the same hills, and to the City Hall where we were treated to cold drinks and cookies.  Sherry's adoring fans were all in attendance, and we have good photos of him with several of the young band members, and some local children.  After refreshments, a few of the OH 2013 group went to see the local museum, but we opted to just stay behind where it was cool and rest.  Then we went out to the café across the street and visited with a number of the Operation Husky group who were assembled there. 

Eventually, we went to the restaurant for lunch.  It was a beautiful spot, and we were seated on an open-air terrace, and in the shade.  Unfortunately it was up about three flights of stairs!  Sherry was very tired after the climb, but we stayed through lunch and had good visits with some of the young pipers, as well as Rod Hoffmeister, Phil Bury and others.  At the end of lunch, some of the OH group were going to a conference/lecture (all in Italian), and they were hanging around for a small concert in the Piazza at 7 pm.  We were just too tired, and made the decision to come back here and have a rest.

Tomorrow we're off to Dittaino Station.

Ceremony remembering the fallen

July 20, 2013

Another sunny, hot day in Sicily.  After a more relaxed start to the day, we departed the Villa at about 9:30 am.  We enjoyed a nice drive to Dittaino Station, which is really just a crossroads with a railway station, taking some photos along the way.  This is a location on the route to Assoro, where today, the wide valley between the Dittaino River and the hill towns to the north is bisected by the A19 Autostrada connecting Catania to Palermo, but in 1943 the area contained little more than scattered olive groves overlooked by an impressive mountain ridge.  "One of these mountain strongholds is and was clearly visible. The ruins at the peak of Assoro was the enemy stronghold which had to be taken by the 1st Canadian Brigade, made up of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the 48th Highlanders and The Royal Canadian Regiment.

On the afternoon of July 20, 1943, the commanding officer of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., Lieutenant-Colonel R.A. Sutcliffe, and his Intelligence officer went forward through The RCR position across the Dittaino River to reconnoitre the approaches to Assoro.  Movement on this open ground in daylight proved deadly and both men were killed. Thus began one of the most remarkable feats in all of Canadian military history a night march to the eastern side of Assoro Mountain followed by a climb "which no one who took part in will ever forget. It was 40 sweating minutes before we stood on top beside the shell of a great Norman castle and realized that we had achieved complete surprise...."

The next morning a company of the Royal Canadian Regiment, stripped of equipment, carried rations, water and ammunition to the Hasty P's and that night the 48th Highlanders joined the battle, clearing the western approaches to Assoro. This allowed the engineers of 1st Field Company to fill a large road crater, a move that in turn permitted the Three Rivers' tanks to join the battle. By noon on July 22, Assoro was free of the enemy."

We reached Dittaino Station at about 10:05 to find, no surprise, no one there.  We sat for a while and then decided to drive in the direction of Assoro as Sherry felt that the station itself was not the correct location.  After traversing a questionable road, including a section where at least one half of the road had disappeared down the side of the mountain, we were able to see the correct spot where The RCR were encamped during the battle.

We turned around and returned towards Dittaino Station, only to be surrounded by goats being herded down the road.  Very soon thereafter, we spotted Steve MacKinnon and Brittany, two of our Media people, and the four of us went to the station to enjoy a cold drink and relax in the shade.  Eventually some of the others arrived, and we watched the young men plant the Soldier markers to be blessed this day.

The marchers finally came into view, and after a short break to try to re-hydrate, and tend to one who was quite dehydrated, the service began, and Rev. Don Aicheson did a short reading and the roll was called.  Someone stood at each marker and read out the name, regiment and any inscription for those who gave their lives seventy years ago today.  Sherry did the reading for Lieut. Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe of the Hasty P's.  They were almost side by side when the Colonel was killed, and everyone agreed it was right that someone who had been with him should honour his memory in this way.  Then piper played the lament, and we were all silent for a moment.  This was the first of these Soldier Marker services that Sherry and I have been able to attend, and it was a difficult and extremely moving experience for all of us.

Following the service, and some predictable delay, we all crowded into available vehicles and drove to the Outlet Mall "Siciliana" which is fairly close for a bite of lunch.  By this time the heat was almost unbearable, and there was way too much walking involved, but we did eventually find lunch and a place to sit. 

We departed there about 3 pm and returned to our lovely home away from home, stopping just outside Valguarnera for a few more scenic photos.  Sherry has had a rest, and we're now going to enjoy a little time in the pool. We'll have dinner here at the Villa this evening.  Tomorrow we go to the actual town where Sherry was so critically injured.  While we think the precise location is now under concrete, we will be in the general area, and the TLN video crew want to interview him, as does the Op Husky video crew.  It will be a long day!

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