November 11th. Remembrance Day. Not a cause. Not a legend. Not even history, for some of those who fought in WWII are still with us, and over 2000 Canadian military personnel continue to be deployed on approximately 20 different missions worldwide. I’m going to tell you a story about my own grandfather in a bit, but first I’d like to share some insights that researching his service has brought to me.
The current health pandemic has brought with it a significant shift in our day-to-day actions and environments. We are all feeling the restrictions on our ability to socialize with friends or have family get-togethers. Some are frustrated with new rules put in place for the protection of those in compromised health situations. But maybe it’s time to take a different perspective. In 1943, Canadian troops spent Christmas Day fighting to capture the city of Ortona in Italy. Clearing houses of the enemy floor-by-floor, using a technique called “mouse-holing” – setting a charge on a wall to blast through it, then going in room-by-room to eliminate the enemy on their mission to clear the Nazis out of Italy. No prisoners to be taken. So I'm happy to accept the request to wear a mask to protect others and be grateful I'm not being required to wear a soldier's uniform and a gun.
Think about those in service now, that are unable to come home on a leave from their mission due to the pandemic. Think about our veterans who served in those two very long, terrible world wars. Thrown into battle in deplorable conditions where they could do nothing but fight down their fear and push on. Where they were forced to kill or be killed. Think about the families that said goodbye to their loved ones heading off to fight, and the anguish of every day not knowing if they were dead or alive, wounded or suffering. Letters were sporadic and a phone call was a non-existent opportunity. We can think about it, but most of us cannot even begin to imagine it. All so that we have the freedom to live this incredibly privileged life.
Here are some new things to remember this Remembrance Day. Remember that we have unprecedented technology to keep us connected to our loved ones. In real time, by video, by phone. Remember that we have unprecedented access to food, shelter, and health care. Remember that while those troops lived in fear and discomfort for years of war, we now have far more “stuff” than anyone needs. Most of us have someone we can go to that will help us if the bottom falls out of our world. Remember to be grateful. Remember those who served and continue to serve.
It was a documentary by Norm Christie called the Great War Tour that got me thinking about doing a motorcycle trip that followed the Canadian soldiers through Europe. I knew that my grandfather, Carl Curtis, had served in WWII in Sicily, but didn’t know much else. I began to ask questions of my Aunt Norma and my mom and learned a bit more. The idea of the journey became personal – to follow Grandpa. That led to emailing Norm Christie to ask if he could point me to any resources that could help me. He sent me links to other documentaries. Then I found a war diary online, written by a man in the same regiment!
I learned that Carl was shipped from Scotland to Tunisia and was part of the Italian Campaign that pushed the Nazis out of Italy and forced Mussolini to flee. I learned that a covert operation by British spies drew the Nazis’ attention (and some of their troops) away from Italy so the allied troops could land in Sicily. I learned that the allied troops then had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of terrain. How they travelled through routes designed to make them “fish in a barrel” because the Nazis held the high ground and took full advantage of it. I learned that they eventually broke the Gothic Line and Hitler Line, allowing the allies to capture Rome. I learned how they navigated terrain full of “shoe mines” – small wooden mines that a mine detector couldn’t detect, but with enough TNT to blow a foot off. I learned that they slipped through a crack in the Gothic line by timing machine-gun fire to cross the road into an anti-tank ditch to crawl under the machine gun fire.
I learned that the Canadian tank regiments that participated in the Italian campaign were pivotal to its success and Canadian troops were extremely highly regarded. We have reason to be proud of their ingenuity, perseverance, and courage. And I think of Carl, who survived, and all those who fell in that campaign. A campaign largely over-shadowed by the Normandy invasions, yet a campaign that was critical to ending WWII. I think of how he never spoke of the war and how I grew up largely ignorant of his time in it and the impact of it on his life and mental health.
So far, I believe I have traced their steps through Sicily and on to just shy of Rome, where, having broken the Hitler Line, the Canadian tank regiments were called to the next place of greater need. So, the research continues to figure out what happened next - between there and when they were assigned the important and deadly job of the liberating the Netherlands. Mom tells me that one of the things she does know is Carl spent time with a family in the Netherlands at the end of the war, waiting to be shipped out. She says he always spoke so highly of their kindness to him. I continue to dream of a future opportunity to travel it by motorbike and see the places for myself. If that should not come to pass, I have gained so much from this very personal experience of delving into this particular chapter of Canada’s past.
I realize how privileged we are to not spend every minute of every day thinking about war until Remembrance Day comes around. I didn’t know until a few years ago that Kelly McLaughlin, a classmate from high school, had a career in the Canadian military. But I think about it all now, and much more often than once a year. We live on the knife-edge of change and need to close our ears to media and remember to treat each other with respect and courtesy. Learn to listen, even when we don't agree. Strive to understand. It is the only way to move forward and not backward.
I’m sharing some of the links of Norm Christie’s videos, which focus on Canadian troops and their experiences. I also encourage you to check out The Memory Project – a video project where you can listen to stories of those that survived WWII. Search for your relatives who served, or others in their regiments that may be there. It’s eye-opening. It's personal. It's inspiring. And it's heartbreaking.
Keep their experiences alive by listening and learning. Lest we forget. For if we do, we are destined to repeat it.
The Memory Project - go to the Veteran Stories menu at the top.