History in the shadows
“We’re the D-Day Dodgers out in Italy.
“Always on the vino, always on the spree.”
So opens the bitingly sarcastic song D-Day Dodgers, written by some Allied forces fighting in Italy in 1944 whilst the much more high-profile Allied advance was taking place in Western Europe. D-Day — the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — had grabbed all the headlines and, in a quote attributed to, but later disputed by, British parliamentarian Lady Astor, those serving in Italy were seen to be avoiding real combat and were referred to as “D-Day Dodgers.”
Catching wind of the condescending moniker, a British serviceman penned the song, to the tune of popular wartime ditty Lili Marlene. The second verse recalls the landing of troops at Pachino, on the southeast tip of Sicily, on July 10, 1943, cheekily calling it the beginning of a sunny “holiday with pay.”
As Shirley Gervais found out last month on her own holiday to Italy, the term was a colossal misnomer, and there was no holidaying for her father-in-law and the more than 23,000 other Canadians who took part in Operation Husky 70 years ago.
Eleven months before D-Day, Allied forces, after successes in the North African battlefields, set out for a surprise attack on the shores of Sicily, the island at the toe of mainland Italy’s boot. They came ashore 160,000 men strong, but not before German U-boats had picked off a number of Allied transports.
The 1st Canadian Division was included in the invasion at the insistence of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Vic Gervais, who had enlisted in the South Saskatchewan Regiment in 1941, had trained in Great Britain for more than a year, and Sicily became his first theatre of war, as it was for many Canadians.
“He talked about how they didn’t know where they were going until they got this book with some Italian phrases in it,” Gervais said, referring to Vic, who passed away in 2002.
The Canadians and Allied forces decamped Axis forces from the island after 38 days of fierce fighting in the punishing heat of the Sicilian summer. Vic Gervais served as a gunner on a 25 Pounder heavy artillery gun, shelling targets in support of the infantry battalions as they advanced.
“They called them the five-mile snipers, because they could fire that far ahead,” said Gervais.
Although her father-in-law avoided speaking of his wartime experience for most of his life, Gervais said he opened up only when he realized he was near death.
Then, he talked about how difficult and unpleasant war was in the two years he pushed through Sicily, Italy and later France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
After his death, Gervais and her husband — Vic’s son — George, began researching in earnest the veteran’s military experience. In searching for information about the Sicily landing, code named Operation Husky, they found out about Montreal businessman Steve Gregory’s drive to earn greater recognition for the men who took part in the battles that helped pave the way for the successes of D-Day one year later.
Gregory was drawn to the cause after his son interviewed a veteran of the campaign for a school project, but found little mention of it in historical records.
Over seven years, Gregory organized a drive for recognition that culminated in Operation Husky 2013, a trip to Sicily organized for descendents of veterans to mark the campaign’s 70th anniversary.
On July 10, a dozen Canadians began a walk retracing the path Canadian soldiers took on their liberation of the island, starting in Pachino and ending weeks later at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery, where 490 Canadians now rest.
Along the way, monuments were unveiled and ceremonies were held in each of the villages that, 70 years ago, were liberated one by one.
Sandy and George Gervais, of Benalto, along with their two youngest children, were among the approximately 100 Canadians who made the trip over to participate in the last week of events.
“We just wanted to go to honour (Vic’s) memory and the only thing that could have been better is if he could have went with us,” said Gervais,
“But we took his beret with us, so he was with us spiritually as well.”
She added that she hopes Operation Husky will now be mentioned alongside D-Day and the Dieppe raid in the annals of Canadian military history thanks to the commemoration.
“There were brutal battles in Italy. The Canadians had to fight hard. This was no holiday,” she said, a message some of the final, more serious lines of D-Day Dodgers bear out.
“You’ll find the scattered crosses, some which bear no name.
“Heartbreak, and toil and suffering gone.
“The boys beneath them slumber on,” it goes.