Surviving vets of Second World War's Sicilian campaign mark 70th anniversary

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - When Cpl. Al Stapleton stepped off the landing craft 70 years ago near Pachino, on the southern tip of Sicily, he went straight to the sandy bottom and was totally swamped by the churning surf.

But true to form, Stapleton — from St. Mary's, Ont., a headquarters signaller with the 1st Canadian Division — held his breath, marched towards shore and emerged from the warm Mediterranean Sea into the blinding sunlight on the invasion beach.

The date was July 11, 1943, one day after American, British and Canadian armies launched what was at the time the largest seaborne invasion of the Second World War.

A cactus — not the grinding paraphernalia of the Allied war machine — was the first thing Stapleton noticed.

"Being from southern Ontario, I'd never seen a cactus before," Stapleton, now 93, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

It was a brief interlude of normalcy before he embarked on 19 months of some of the bloodiest, most difficult, yet often overlooked fighting done by the Canadian Army during the Second World War.

Two of Stapleton's buddies were killed on the beach in Sicily by German FW-190 fighter-bombers, the infamous Foche Wulves that instilled fear every time they buzzed his canvas tent. He still remembers their distinctive propeller nose cones.

The Italian campaign, although top of mind in 1943, has languished amid the historical shadow of the liberation of France and northwest Europe; its soldiers were cast, in the biting sarcasm of the day, as "D-Day Dodgers."

The passage of seven decades has failed to soothe the sting of that derisive nickname, and the tongue-in-cheek song that accompanied it in 1944.

"It didn't make an awful lot of sense, especially when your buddies were being killed. You know?" said Stapleton. "It's only ignorance as far as I'm concerned."

Unlike most military anniversaries under the Harper government, the commemoration of the landings in Sicily will be a low-key affair.

A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney says there is a remembrance march taking place, but the government plans something more elaborate later this year to mark the anniversary of the entire Italian campaign.

The fighting, in what former British prime minister Winston Churchill described as the soft underbelly of Europe, has been dimmed in public recollection, Defence Minister Peter MacKay acknowledged.

But that has as much to do with the reluctance of Canadian veterans to blow their own horns as it does the wash of history, MacKay said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Canadians have not traditionally been as good at trumpeting their exploits, whereas other (nations) have, in modern terminology, better public relations," he said.

"Canadians — then as now — are more concerned with getting the job done."

The Canadian landings in Sicily, alongside the famed British 8th Army, were carried out by 15,000 largely untested troops who'd spent the first three-and-a-half years of the war on garrison duty in England. They were followed by an additional 11,000 reinforcements, according to several regimental histories.

The 38-day campaign through the arid orange and olive groves cost the fledgling force the lives of 562 soldiers, with another 664 wounded.

The entire Canadian war in Italy, stretching until February 1945 when the 1st Division was transferred to northwest Europe, would eventually claim 6,000 lives, among a total of 26,000 casualties.

A convoy carrying 500 vehicles was torpedoed and sent to the bottom just prior to the 1943 landings, an event that forced soldiers to commandeer pack mules and carts to carry equipment over the rocky terrain and sharp, jagged hills.

Bewildered Sicilian farmers were all handed IOUs, which the soldiers gleefully signed "Mackenzie King," on behalf of the prime minister, Stapleton said with a chuckle.

The troops fought along the eastern edge of the island — through Valguarnera, Leonforte, Assoro, and Regalbuto — in battles that are lost to the mists of history in the consciousness of many Canadians today.

The poverty of the people they were "liberating" left an indelible mark on Stapleton, who recalled how starving civilians — clinging to life on the edge of the battlefields — used to scour the trash of Allied soldiers looking for scraps of food.

There was also the time, in Italy, when troops queued at the medical tent were quietly shamed by the sight of wounded civilians who had been caught in the crossfire.

"I can remember, if you had an illness, a complaint of some sort, and you were standing in a sick line and they'd bring a kid in, you'd just go away," Stapleton said. "You'd feel that bad."

The mere mention of German Hummel self-propelled guns — dubbed Bumble Bees by some Allied troops — prompts from Stapleton a deep, hoarse groan, followed by a long silence.

In one village, Italian women, outraged that their German lovers and boyfriends had been driven away, took up arms and began sniping at Canadian troops, who drew straws to "take care" of the problem.

The war left him "a little more sour on religion," he replied when asked what sort of mark his time overseas left.

Stapleton left the army shortly after the war ended, having spent five-and-a-half years away from home. He turned his signals training into a 35-year career at the CBC as one of the public broadcaster's technicians.

His advice to young men returning from the war in Afghanistan: "Look forward, not back. You've got your whole life ahead of you."