New book and film remember ‘Operation Husky’

With Remembrance Day just around the corner, there is an event coming up next Tuesday evening at the Yukon Arts Centre that you won't want to miss. 

With Remembrance Day just around the corner, there is an event coming up next Tuesday evening at the Yukon Arts Centre that you won’t want to miss.

It will serve as an important reminder of a nearly forgotten contribution by Canadians to the Allied invasion of Europe, nearly a year before the assault on the beaches of Normandy. It all started on July 10 of 1943, when an Allied force consisting of American, Canadian and British troops landed on the shores of Sicily. It was the beginning of a campaign that took them up the boot of Italy in a series of hard fought battles.

There was no intense battle like there was on the beaches during the Normandy invasion. “Operation Husky” began with little resistance over a broad front along the south coast of the island just off the toe of the Italian boot. The fighting became more intense as they moved inland. Over the following weeks, until the Canadians were withdrawn after the taking of Adrano, on the slopes of Mount Etna, 562 lives were lost.

It was the beginning of the end for Germany, although it would be almost two years before the surrender. “Operation Husky” is almost forgotten in the broader events of World War II. The story of the Canadian participation in the campaign is lost, enveloped by the British, within whose military structure the Canadians were embedded.

Sixty one years later, Montreal businessman Steve Gregory invited Charles Hunter, a veteran of the Sicily campaign, to dinner. Hunter told the remarkable story of the Canadian assault on Monte Assoro. It so captivated Gregory’s son Erik that the youngster chose the story as his grade 6 history project.

Two years later, during a family holiday in Sicily, Steve Gregory found himself visiting the war cemetery at Agira. He was so moved by the experience that he resolved to plan a project of remembrance. Thus was born the second edition of “Operation Husky.”

Gregory’s project had three main objectives: To follow in the footsteps of the Canadians across Sicily; to plant commemorative markers for each dead Canadian soldier near where they died, and to have a special ceremony in the war cemetery at Agira. As part of his ambitious plan, he needed more information. Fortunately, a new book about “Operation Husky” had just been published by historian Mark Zuehlke.

Gregory contacted Zuehlke to engage him as a consultant to the project. Zuehlke, a renowned author and recipient of the 2014 Governor-General’s History Award for Popular Media, was slowly drawn into the project. He eventually became one of the members of the party that would retrace the historic Canadian advance.

Each day at 11 a.m. the walkers would stop at the site of the commemorative markers for a simple ceremony of remembrance. As the party progressed across Sicily, these solemn ceremonies gained momentum.

Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser learned of the project and expressed an interest in recording the event for a film documentary. Fraser has more than a passing interest in “Operation Husky.” In 1943, his father was one of the members of the force that invaded Sicily. Farley Mowat, in his book The Regiment, makes mention of Max’s father, whose unit, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, or “Hasty Ps,” fought its way through Italy until it was transferred to liberate Holland.

The result of this project is the new book Through Blood and Sweat, by Mark Zuehlke (published by Douglas and McIntyre), and the film Bond of Strangers, produced by Max Fraser. Both followed the footsteps of “Operation Husky,” part 2, which took place in July of 2013 and are designed as products for remembrance of this almost forgotten campaign.

Fraser and Zuehlke will be taking their book and film on an inaugural tour of Canada in time for Remembrance Day, with events taking place in Vancouver, Kingston, Belleville, Toronto and Montreal, but the launch of the tour will occur at the Yukon Arts Centre next Tuesday, October 27 at 7:30. Tickets are available at the usual outlets.

Zuehlke, renowned for his speaking as well as his writing, will open the evening, with readings from his new book, followed by the one-time showing of Fraser’s new film. Copies of the book and the film (in DVD and Blue Ray format) will be available for purchase.

If Fraser’s film is about remembrance rather than the battle, then the stars are the men who participated in the original campaign. During the course of both the book and the film, these men shared their personal experiences and knowledge of “Operation Husky.” Veteran Sheridan “Sherry” Atkinson spoke at many of the ceremonies during the 2013 pilgrimage. According to Fraser, Atkinson was the true “rock star” of the event.

For Fraser, participating in the walk while making a film was a real challenge. The logistics of organizing the walk were chaotic. They would finish one day not knowing where they would start the next day, and communications were a challenge. Zuehlke, for example, missed out on an impromptu assent of Monte Assoro. He was not with others in the walking party when they made the spontaneous decision to retrace the steps of the Canadian soldiers up the slope during their assault on the summit in 1943.

Ultimately, everything seemed to work, culminating in a moving ceremony at the cemetery in Agira, where reinforcements who joined the original walking party for the final part of “Operation Husky” stood by the graves of the fallen Canadians, and responded when the names were read out during a roll call.

Each morning, before the walking party set out, Zuehlke would provide an historical briefing. Of his trek, Zuehlke said that he had driven through this region on previous occasions, but this was the first time he had followed the route on foot. Walking made him aware of the things that he hadn’t noticed when zooming by in an automobile. While passing slowly over the same sun-drenched terrain that the Canadian soldiers had covered 70 years before, he had plenty of time to reflect on what the soldiers must have experienced, but without the shellfire and the bullets.

With Remembrance Day rapidly approaching, this event will be an opportunity for everybody to reflect upon the little-known Canadian contribution to the first Allied invasion of Europe and to remember the sacrifice made by the 562 who never returned.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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