Remembering the Westminsters

Chuck Strahl
July 7, 2019
By July 1944, 75 years ago this month, the toughened and blooded I Canadian Corps was considered the most deadly attack force of the Allied Eighth Army grinding its way up Italy against the German Wehrmacht. It had taken less than a year to transform tens of thousands of farm boys and young townies into this fearsome fighting machine. In late May, Chuck Strahl retraced much of the physical route of one Canadian regiment, the Westminsters. The “Westies” took part in nearly all the fighting leading up to the summer of 1944. Strahl was deeply moved not only by the Canadians’ military feats and the fearsome toll, but by the lengths to which Italians have gone never to forget their liberators.

It was 75 years ago that some of the Second World War’s most famous battles were fought in Europe. Canadians are frequently reminded, as they should be, about Canada’s significant and costly role at places like Juno Beach, as we were again during the commemoration events around the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. There will be pilgrimages throughout 2019 by the government and veterans’ groups keen to fulfill the promise that “we will remember them.”

But while the great victory in Normandy occupies most of the news media attention and popular imagination, there was another front where Canadians fought hard, risked everything, sacrificed many comrades – but ultimately won. And it was in this same spirit that The Royal Westminster Regiment Association recently arranged a 75th-anniversary commemorative tour of Italy. Many of the major battles of this historic regiment, formed in 1862 and today based at New Westminster and Chilliwack, B.C., were fought there in 1944. Those of us who joined the tour, which extended from May 20 to June 1,  learned some profound lessons about the battles, and about so much of the best and some of the worst of the war. 

By late 1942, the Allies had decided to engage the Nazis on multiple fronts, knowing that if the enemy had to commit resources “everywhere” it would be more difficult for it to defend any one critical position. In keeping with that strategy, the U.S., U.K., and Canada had landed nearly 200,000 troops in Italy in early September 1943. The Westminster Motor Regiment, as it was then called, was deployed with many others to force the German army to defend the fortified  positions it had constructed across Italy. So it was that the “Westies,” as the soldiers in the Regiment were called, found themselves in the thick of things as the Allies attempted to breach the Gustav, Hitler, and Gothic Lines, each one designed to inflict maximum damage on the Allies and slow their advance to Germany.

Strahl - Inset 1 Westies (above)
The Italian Campaign, Gustav line, Hilter line, Gothic line
Westies at war: Beginning in 1943, Canada's Westminster Motor Regiment, now known as the Royal Westminster Regiment, bravely fought its way through several heavily-defended German defensive lines in Italy.

It was on the site of the first and most southerly of these lines, the Gustav, that we heard about one of the recurring themes of the Canadian Campaign in Italy: uncommon courage under fire. Today, one can still see the remnants of old German pillboxes that formed strongpoints along the line. We identified some key farmhouses standing alone in the former battlefields. They are all abandoned now, but in 1944 they played a crucial role in individual battles. Much of the hard-fought ground has reverted to farmland, though the never-ending drainage ditches, hills and ravines remain as a reminder of just how difficult the fighting conditions must have been.

We were taken back to the time of the fighting with the story of how a Westie, Major Jack Mahony, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. The famous “VC” is the highest and most prestigious award for “gallantry in the face of the enemy” that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Working with another Canadian regiment, the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (long a Calgary-based unit), the Canadians were tasked with crossing the Gustav Line at the Melfa River, where the mountainous centre of the Italian “boot” meets the Mediterranean coast southeast of Rome. It was an audacious undertaking. Not only was there a river to cross, but the German tanks were bigger and better-armed than the Sherman tanks used by our boys, and the positions fortified.

Majo Jack Mahony, Royal westminster Regiment, Italian Campaign
Major Jack Mahony was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for his gallantry under fire during the Westies breaching of the Gustav line at the Melfa River.

The battle in May 1944 was bloody and the Canadians fought courageously. During the assault Major Mahony was wounded in the head and twice in the legs, but refused to leave the fray until reinforcements arrived, continuously supporting his troops and directing their actions during the battle. Twenty-three Westies died in the effort, but the river was crossed, the Gustav Line was breached, and the German army was forced to retreat. It was an important victory for the Allies. This action also cemented a friendship between the Royal Westminster Regiment and the Strathconas that has endured ever since.

Italians in the area have not forgotten the Canadian sacrifices. While we were in the ancient town of Roccasseca, birthplace of St. Thomas Aquinas, the mayor and many residents held formal ceremonies of recognition, renaming a town plaza “The Jack Mahony Square” in honour of what he and other brave Canadians had done to liberate them.

Jack Mahony passed away in 1990, but his daughter, Louise, was there, along with a different group that was one of the eight or nine commemorative tours that visited the area in May and June. Thankfully, Louise was able to attend the ceremonies arranged by our Italian hosts. Listening to the stories of her father was a moving experience, attesting to the resolute and determined fighting spirit of the Canadians. As we did throughout our tour, we visited the graves of the Westies buried nearby, placing a small Canadian flag beside each headstone. The serving soldiers of our Regiment wore their uniforms for the ceremonies, as did the four cadets who accompanied them.

The Italian Campaign, Roccasseca, Jack Mahony Square.
The ancient town of Roccasseca, where the locals still celebrate their liberation by Canadian soldiers, and where the piazza is named Jack Mahony Square.

Everywhere we went on the 12-day tour, which I estimate covered about 1,500 km by road, we heard of so much courage, at so high a cost, expended by Canadians to help liberate Italy. It was gratifying to see that none of it has been forgotten. But we soon learned that the Italians remembered more than just the courage of our troops. The humanitarian efforts of the Canadians also stood out.

This struck home at our next stop, the town of Pofi, 35 km farther up the Allies’ advance upon Rome. As they did everywhere we went, the locals thanked us and all Canadians for sacrificing so much to give them their freedom. Yet here the emphasis was different. We were stirred by hearing about how the Canadians had helped the Italians themselves. It was a story that also chilled our hearts. 

Through an interpreter, an Italian lady told us the story. After the Allies had routed the Germans, serious problems remained. Some members of one of the liberating armies decided to take advantage of the chaotic situation and further traumatized the townsfolk by sexually assaulting many of the local women. Unable to stop it themselves, the villagers asked the Canadians for protection. The Canadians immediately set up patrols. When the marauders refused to stop their attacks, our soldiers did what they had to do: they shouldered arms and shot the perpetrators. They then moved the women to safety in the Canadian sector.

Royal Westminster, Lord Strathcona's Horse Regiment
Canadian armoured forces, including units of the Westies and Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment, advance from the Gustav line towards the Hitler line in 1944.

Our Italian hosts remember and continue to appreciate the Canadians’ humanitarian work. The local history resonates with it, and efforts are underway in Italy to specifically recognize the suffering of women and children during wars. Canada’s Ambassador to Italy, Alexandra Bugailiskis, attended several commemorative ceremonies. In Pofi, she gave an impassioned speech, reaffirming that what Canadians were prepared to do in the Second World War we are prepared to do again: stand resolutely with those most vulnerable. There are many victims in any armed conflict. But our men in uniform showed it was possible not only to fight and win battles, but to help the shards of civil society collect themselves for the rebuilding ahead. 

After Pofi, we moved on to Ortona, infamous for gruesome door-to-door fighting in late 1943. Although the Westminster Regiment wasn’t in that particular battle, we got a history lesson there about a particular Christmas dinner that happened amidst the battle. 

The Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders were the Canadian troops fighting in Ortona, and they suffered cruel losses. They had been battling hard, so the Seaforths’ quartermaster decided to help keep their spirits by holding a Christmas dinner for as many troops as possible, complete with all the trimmings he could scrape together. There is a famous photo of the men sitting together in a square, enjoying a meal and a couple of hours’ respite. We also heard some things that were symbolic of one of war’s most difficult tasks: reconciliation. 

On the 50th anniversary of that Christmas dinner, veterans got together to once again share a meal in Ortona. A handful of former German soldiers heard about it and asked if they could also attend, to express their sorrow about what had happened during the war and to try to bridge the gap between the two sides. The gesture was probably sincere, but it was a “bridge too far” for some of the veterans who had lost so many friends during the fight. The two groups were in town together but, understandably, they ate in separate rooms. Reconciliation can be difficult. 

Christmas dinner 1943: Just a few blocks from the brutal fighting in Ortona, Canadian soldiers enjoy a brief respite of seasonal good cheer.
Christmas dinner 1943: Just a few blocks from the brutal fighting in Ortona, Canadian soldiers enjoy a brief respite of seasonal good cheer.

Even so, a glimmer of what was to come was told in a story of two soldiers – one German and one Canadian – who had attended that event, started to write to one another and eventually became fast friends. When the former German soldier was dying of cancer, his Canadian friend flew to Germany to be by his bedside. Reconciliation is possible. 

I thought about this later that day as we toured present-day Ortona. It was rebuilt after the war, but its narrow streets and old churches give the town much the same look as it has had for centuries. As in many of the small towns we visited, it’s proving difficult convincing the young people that they shouldn’t move to Rome or Milan. Despite the town’s historic feel, it is unlikely to replace Tuscany as a tourist Mecca.

Here too, in honour of the battle’s 75th anniversary, Ortona is renaming its piazza, this time calling it “Canadian Heroes Square.” Our tour guide, Angelo, walked us to the bronze statue that was placed there in 1999, depicting a Canadian soldier ministering to a wounded comrade. The statue is called “The Price of Freedom.” There were fresh flowers on the pedestal. 

“For many years, we were unsure where the flowers came from,” said Angelo. “But we finally found out that they were placed there by two sisters who live nearby. These sisters were saved by the Canadians in a remarkable show of courage. During the fighting, the young girls were trapped and isolated on the wrong side of a minefield, but a Canadian soldier was determined to save them. First, he had to chart a path through the mines to get to the girls. Then he went back and forth, delivering the girls to safety on his back so they wouldn’t step on any mines. Forever after, the girls – now elderly ladies – have made sure there were flowers placed here in remembrance.”

Two other stories stood out. In gratitude for being saved, the sisters began washing the uniforms of Canadian soldiers. But it was a bittersweet chore. Often, a soldier who dropped off his washing never returned to collect it. Other soldiers would go through the neatly folded laundry to give the sisters the news: this soldier will be by later for his uniform; that one will never return.

The final story from Ortona reminded me again of the importance of reconciliation. The statue in the town square was created by a talented Canadian, Rob Surette, an Indigenous artist from Ottawa who sculpted the impressive bronze piece but refused payment for his work. 

Many First Nation and Métis men served, fought and gave their lives in the war, but those who returned home were often denied the recognition or benefits given other veterans. It remains an impediment to Canada-Indigenous reconciliation. Yet here was a bronze statue created by an Indigenous artist, depicting one soldier ministering to another, and it is giving Ortona’s town square its focal point. It reminds us that reconciliation may indeed be difficult, but is worth the effort at home and abroad. 

As we continued to travel the Westminsters’ fighting route northeastward across Italy, we heard many wartime stories of Canadian heroism, as well as local suffering. In the village of Colfelice, the local mayor, schoolchildren and residents young and old came together to thank Canadians for what they did 75 years ago. The war exacted an awful price on the locals but, like elsewhere, they heaped praise on Canada’s efforts to bring them freedom.

Ortona then and now: Evidence of the battle can still be seen 75 years later.
Ortona then and now: Evidence of the battle can still be seen 75 years later.

In Villanova, the focus is on something the townspeople consider “a miracle.” Like many villagers, these Italians had spent months during the German occupation barely surviving. As the bombing and artillery shelling in the area increased, over 100 locals took refuge in a concrete culvert deep under a railroad embankment. As time went on, things appeared increasingly bleak and hopeless. Eventually,  there was nothing more to be done except pray for deliverance.  

That’s when the “miracle” happened. Some Westies, led by Private (later Sergeant) George Dominick, were patrolling the railroad when they heard crying coming from the culvert area. George investigated and found the crowd of starving and bedraggled Italians. He gave them the “V” for Victory in sign language, and was able to convince  them that the Germans had been forced to retreat, that they had been liberated, and that they could return to their homes.

Locals have honoured this liberation by building a chapel near the culvert and holding an annual ceremony of remembrance. Wreaths and flowers are placed there, and the story is being passed down to the next generation. We met and spoke to some elderly folks who described their liberation as children 75 years ago. 

The schoolchildren accompanied our soldiers and veterans to each headstone as they placed a flag in remembrance of every Westie killed in action and buried there. Some tears were shed. In that town, the next generation will remember. On one occasion, as our group was walking through town, an elderly lady grabbed me by the sleeve to ask if we were “Canadese?” When I responded yes, she smiled broadly and put her hand to her lips to blow a kiss, softly saying, “Grazie.”

Of the 92,757 Canadians who served in Italy, 26,254 became casualties, of whom 5,900 were fatal. We tried to visit every single one of their graves. Since it was May, the poppies were in full bloom. Sometimes they grew wildly alongside the roads and cemeteries. Sometimes, as in John McRae’s famous First World War poem In Flanders Fields, they were on farmland, row on row. Certainly the headstones of fallen Allied soldiers – thousands and thousands of them – were in neat rows, meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 

In Villanova, our guide was Rosalia, now an elderly woman who has spent a lifetime remembering – and ensuring others remembered – the sacrifice of young Canadians, many of whom lie beneath Italian soil. She told of how her father and uncle were both killed by the Nazis in the days just before Canadians liberated their town. As we walked amongst the Commonwealth graves, Rosalia’s comments reminded us why the Westies continue to cultivate relationships with our Italian friends, even after all these years. She invited us to return whenever we can. In the meantime, she assured us, “We will remember them. We will look after your boys.” 

As promised, we too will remember them.

Chuck Strahl, P.C., is a former federal Cabinet Minister, currently serving as Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel to The Royal Westminster Regiment.

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