The Blog of Rod Hoffmeister as he followed the path of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division through Sicily, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle for Sicily, honoring those who fought and those who fell.
Training for Operation Husky 2013
It is only 5 weeks until I start the 20 day march through Sicily. I am working hard to get in shape & know I will be ready. I have no idea what emotions I will feel following in the 70 year old footsteps of my father and the Seaforth Highlanders he led into battle.
In 3 days I willbe on my way. The interest in Husky is growing rapidly. There was a large spread in today’s Globe & Mail. I will be on the CBC Morning Show 6:15am Monday just before I board the plane. The media interviews have caused me to reflect on the importance of Husky and its place in the history of the Seaforths and my family.
March Day 1
Today started early and hot. At 7am we assembled at the beach at Pachino for a memoria service The Padre and I sead a special prayer for fallen Seaforths Pte Reginald Fieldhouse Pte Raymond Hunter We placed their markers right near the shore alongside the two other soldiers that were killed in the landings. About 200 people attended the ceremony including an Italian band and a 5 member Pipes & Drums from Canada. They sound quite good but so far can only play 8 tunes together. We then started the 7km march from the beach to the town centre of Pachino. As this was a day of formal ceremonies, I was rearing my kilt and long woollen socks with my Glen. Really a bad choice for a very hot day! By 11:30am we had marched to cheering crowds into the main square. Then started a 1 1/2 hour ceremony followed by a 3 hour municipal hosted lunch in an old winery. A very full day! As I was marching along the same roadways as my father traveled exactly 70 years ago, I wondered how he must of felt to lose the first 2 Seaforths. I expect he was too busy to spend much time on reflection, but I certainly did as we marched along. More to follow tomororrow. There will be video and photos on the way later today.
March Day 2 Pachino to Ispica 21 km
The day started early and by 5:30am we were marching away from Pachino. The sun was just coming up so we wore reflective vests and carried lights. Today there were 11 marchers. The routine is to have a rest period every 5km. Our first stop had a pleasant surprise. A fruit stand! We were treated to fresh flat white peaches that tasted amazing. We traveled into marshy country with large lakes populated by flocks of flamingos. Not what I expected to find in arid Sicily. The walk was long and really hot. It was easy to imagine how the Seaforths felt 70 years ago short of food and water and traveling in clothes that were saturated in salt water the previous day. As the opposition collapsed ahed of the original advance, the Seaforths did not suffer any killed this day. The town of Ispica stands on top of a large hill. It is approached by a winding road from which one can see the caves that the residents hid in during the bombing that proceeded the taking of the town. We were greeted by the town band and were led to a ceremony in the town square followed by a simple Sicilian lunch. We are all a little foot sore but really enjoying the march. Tomorrow on to Modica.
March Day 3. Ispica to Modica
Another day in the heat and another 15km on the road. We started on a small country road with high walls of beautifully stacked loose rocks. Every yard has a barking dog or two so we were well greeted along the way. After about 5km, we stopped at a round about and placed 3 markers for 3 of the soldiers that fell on this date 70 years ago. The Padre said a prayer, the piper played, and we all said a personal prayer. We stopped again on the outskirts of Modica and placed another 3 markers. We were led the last 3 km into Modica by the police. We were led by our band for the last bit until we arrived for the ceremony at the town square. The star of the show today was Sherry Atkinson. He was the Lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Regiment who took the surrender of the town. He was met by several old residents that remembered his actions. It turns out that as his unit entered the town they were met by a large number of Italian soldiers standing at attention with their weapons piled in front waiting to surrender!. The way my feet are feeling, it is hard to believe the troops were able to make such progress. I will have to suck it up tomorrow. Moleskin will help. Tomorrow Ragusa.
Husky 2013 Days 4 & 5
I was out of Internet range yesterday. On Saturday we traveled about 15 km from Modica to Ragusa. We placed 10 markers in 2 places around Ragusa.- mostly RCAF fatalities Gain We arrived at the main square for the memorial ceremony at 11am sharp. When the Mayor appeared about 11:15 there was an attempt to load both the Italian and Canadian flags on the same pole. About 30 minutes passed while there was animated discussions in Italian. Finally somebody brought another pole. It was lashed to an old artillery shell with baling twine and the ceremony continued. In the meantime the day became hotter and hotter. Our translator almost fainted in the middle of a speech. All of this was filmed by Max Fraser our documentary film producer. An Italian farce! After we were persuaded to attend a military museum so did not make it to the beach for a swim until about 6pm. Again, another day with no Seaforth dead to remember Sunday July 13 This was the day that the Seaforths were pulled back from the line to regroup and reprovision in “Happy Valley” near Ragusa. Through new software, we have been able to convert the old map references from the War diary into a Google position. On Tuesday I plan to visit the exact spot and to walk the route the troops took to visit Monty from which the iconic photo of Hoffy leading the troops was taken. Today we marched from outside Ragusa to Vizzini. The terrain was steep and the road windy. Some of out group set off at 5am to march 36km while the rest of us settled for 14km of uphill. The scenery was spectacular - just what I had expected to see. It should be noted that by this time in the war, the Seaforths did have access to some mechanized transport so the donkeys and mules we saw from a distance today would have had less appeal. Another day without Seaforths deaths to remember. We did have a short service for the 5 men from the airforce and other army units that did die on this day. We moved to Caltagirone late in the day. More hills tomorrow.
Husky Day 6 Vizzini to Ragusa
We started the day exactly where we left off the day before. We traveled on a winding road up to ridges populated by wind turbines. A stray dog joined us sticking with us all day. He would not leave our side no matter how hard we tried. For 16 km he stayed with us. At our second marker memorial he laid down against the marker of an airforce flier and would not move. This was an unsettling event that leads to a number of spiritual questions…. The marchers are all becoming very tired and weary -myself included. We are averaging about 5 hours sleep a night and the walking in the heat is really tough. Tomorrow we march into Caltagirone.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 7
Today we marched from Grammichele to Catagirone about 16km As we were walking along a country road past orange groves, a farmer stopped to chat. He then the went off and returned with a crate of oranges for us. He would not take any money but just our thanks. This is the sort of gesture that we are seeing from the Sicilians we meet. After lunch we went in search of the Seaforths rest point of July 12,13 - Happy Valley. I found the military map coordinates in the daily war diary and was able to use new software to super impose the location on a Google map. I also knew that this was the starting point for the iconic march photo. After a little cruising around, we were able to find the exact spot where the troops rested for two nights and where they set off to visit Monty. I was able to stand on the same patch where my father led the unit to the rendevue. The film crew were there to document the event as the marchers recreated a short piece of the 70 year old march. I felt very privileged to be able to see these sights and am sorry more Seaforths were not able to join me. We did not have to honour any Seaforths dead today.
Operation Husky Day 11
The municipal and provincial police have taken control of the management of the marches. On Friday July 20, they decided it was unsafe to march. Instead we were transported to Vaquarnera for a ceremony. We assembled and marched behing our Pipes & Drums and a very professional and well drilled town marching band. We did end up marching to the music for about 6km through the town to a beautiful monument for the ceremony. Following lunch, we held a memorial at the site of the markers for 18 fallen Canadians. We were invited to attend a sort military conference at 5pm (all in Italian) followed by a concert by our 5 member band. The crowd was large and the people really appreciative. It was different to spend the whole day in one town. We were able to meet lots of the locals and certainly kept the memory of our lads alive. 5 Seaforths died on this day 70 years ago Pte Clifford Bompas Pet Gordon Doyle Pet Alexander McCuish L/Cpl Benjamin Swanson Pet William Niven These men were killed as the Seaforths left Valguarnera on their way to Leon Forte. German resistance has increased.
Yesterday July 17 was an off day from marching. We spent the day resting, catching up on emails, and exploring the town of Caltagirone. At our morning coffee, we were shown the newspaper of the day featuring a photo of our group. As we traveled around the town we were recognized and greeted often. This morning, day 9, we walked from outside Caltagirone to Masseria Mandrascate - about 12km. The chosen route followed a covered aqueduct. It was a track with beautiful vistas and no cars. Farms, sheep and goats were the order of the day. Our march into town followed the main street The townspeople had decorated it with Italian and Canadain flags. All the young school children were there to greet us. However, we quickly returned to earth as the names of the 38 Canadian soldiers that died this day in 1943 were read out. The list included Seaforths who died at Valguarnera. Pte. Oliver Bates A/Cpl Clifford Gordon From now on the lists grow longer as the level of battle grows in intensity.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 11 (the last blog should have been day 10)
Enna to Dittaino Station 22 km This was a walk on a really hot day along the bottom of a valley with temperatures up to 38c One of our members developed heat exhaustion that later required hospitalization over night. The march ended at a decrepit train station that looked as though it was a stage set for a Falinni movie - or maybe a Clint Eastwood one. On this date 70 years ago two Seaforths died Cpl William Beads Cpl Hugh Mercer Their markers were placed at Dittaino Station and blessed by our Padre.
Operation Husky Day 12
July 21 1943 was the day of the beginning of the Battle of Leonforte. I chose to spend the day not walking but remembering. I spent the morning placing 26 markers of the Seaforth dead on a hill above the town of Leonforte. The markers were part of over 60 placed to mark those killed in action on that date. I was able to say a few words in front of each of the Seaforths. I placed the markers facing up hill which I imagine is the way most were facing when they fall. The markers can be seen from almost all location in the town. I hope that the readers of this blog will take a few minutes to remember the following Pte John MacLeod A/Cpl Spencer McElhoes Pte Dan Alexy Pte Maurice Asselin Pte Charles Cromb Sgt Robert Brammer Cpl Garth Carmichael Pte James Carney Pet Robert Monahan Pte John Ferguson Pet Will Morrison Pete Mike Gramiak Pte Toby Nicholas Pte Charles Leon Pte Robert O’Brian Pet William Sillers Pte Thomas Simpson Pet Benjamin Smelzer Pte Richard Strangeway Pte Robert Swordy Pet Cyrus Topley Pte Gordon Warnica Pte John Watson Lieut James Budd A/Capt Douglas Strain The last two were killed by friendly fire. This was a very emotional day but one that I felt was really needed. Seaforths have to honour our own.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 13
July 22 Valguarnera to Raddusa 20 km The day started early at 3:30am to be at the start point of the march by 5:30am. We were able to beat the heat until about 8:30am when it really began to cook. The sun rising over Mt. Etna was a beautiful site. The usual 11am ceremony was highlighted by a choir of elementary students singing O Canada with great enthusiasm. The heat and long marches are taking their toll. We are now down to 9 regular marchers. A number of us have an ugly heat rash on our legs and lots of moleskin is applied daily. The Seaforths were also up at 3:30am on this date 70 years ago. They were put on 15 minute notice but did not engage during the day. Their time was spent receiving prisoners and eating 3 regular meals for the first time in days. Entertainment was provided by numerous airforce sorties. One Seaforth died on this date Pte Paul Plecas His marker is with the other Seaforths above Leonforte.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 14
Raddusa to Mt. Scapello I did not walk today. The walkers had passed the meeting point by the time I arrived so I had to settle for the marker ceremony. The location was at the base of the mountain. For the first time we were joined by other Canadian family members. We expect the number of attendees will now grow daily as we approach the more formal ceremonies commencing on July 26th. On our travels today we met a small herd of mules along side the road. I was able to stroke one of them and have him pose for photos. Mules were a critical mode of transport 70 years ago. They were so valuable to their owners that often the farmer would accompany the animal into battle. It is likely that today’s mule was related to those that carried supplies for the Seaforths. 70 years ago on this date the Seaforths were camped South of Leonforte. During the afternoon they moved to the West side of the town of Assoro. One Seaforth died on this date A/Cpl Ronald King.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 15
Mt. Scalpello to Raddusa 12km (all uphill) We had the most pleasant march this morning. We started before dawn at about 5:30am and were able to watch the sun rise over Mt. Etna. The volcano is becoming more active and there was a red ploom of smoke and ash stretching for miles. The Mayor of Raddusa provided us with a buffet lunch after the ceremony but I cut it short to have a private visit to the Canadian Cemetary at Agira. I counted 58 Seaforths buried there among the more than 550 Canadian dead. The Cemetary is in a great location looking towards Agira. I was able to spend a moment or two in front of each Seaforths headstone. It was surprising to me at the average age seemed to be in the early 30’s. I guess that the guys who left Canada in 1939 to go to war were all a bit older by the time Husky came along. There will be a large ceremony at the Cemetary on July 30 but the crowds will be large allowing for little private time. Our pipers arrive late this evening in Sicily. The drummers come tomorrow. I will be working hard to ensure our civilian band members (the drummers) will be able to seamlessly meet up with our pipers for each of the ceremonies planned over the next week. To do so, I will abandon the march tomorrow and will be focused on the success of our Pipes and Drums. I have rented a car and will shortly move to Catania. 70 years ago the Seaforths were still at rest near Assoro. A Cpl was able to escort a midwife to 4 births. One of the trucks was sent out to gather corn for the starving population. The Germans had taken all the supplies during their retreat. Planes continued to fly overhead to missions to the north and artillery fired from behind the Seaforth lines. As of this date, the Seaforths had had 131 casualties including 38 dead. Including those sick with malaria, dysentery, and jaundice the unit was well under strength. Reinforcements had yet to arrive.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 16
Today July 25, was a day off from marching so I went into Catania and rented a car. Driving in the mountains of Sicily requires a small vehicle and lots of bravery. It is the the land of steep hills and blind hairpin turns. Where the autostradas are really fast, it is hard to average above 30kph in the hills. Tonight I will have dinner in Agira and scout out the plaza where the concert will be recreated on July 30th. We still do not know if it will be covered by the CBC as it was 70 years ago. More participants continue to arrive. Some will walk with the marchers for a day or two. Others will just attend the ceremonies. Our Pipes and Drums will play for the first time tomorrow in Piazza Amerina. On this date in 1943 the Seaforths were still in reserve camped near Assoro. The Germans were reported retreating towards Agira. This was the day that The Italian Dictator was force the resign. No Seaforths were killed on this date.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 17
Piazza Armerina July 26
WeI marched 3 km from the assembly point to the location of the ceremony in 35 plus temperatures. The other marchers completed about a 20km march earlier in the morning.
This was the first day the CF joined us. As well as 12 members of the Seaforth Pipes and Drums, there was a contingent of about 40 soldiers. The pipes were worn out from playing and marching by the time they arrived at the final location. Their combat uniforms are way too warm for this climate. Tomorrow they will be in kilts and short sleeved shirts. We will see if that is better for them. Several soldiers had to leave the ceremony due to heat stress. This may become worse as they switch to tier dress uniformas later in the week. I tried to encourage the marchers to each sit at a table of soldiers at lunch to update them on our experiences to date. I sat with a table of Vandoos from Quebec. They were quite impressed with the story of the dog Husky and his determination to honour a fallen airman as few days ago. This day 70 years ago, the Seaforths were again in reserve as the attack on Nissoria and surrounding country began. This was the last day of rest before heavy fighting would begin. I almost forgot to mention. The Husky tour group arrived today and my wife and sister are expected later this evening.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 18
Leonforte in the morning and Assoro in the afternoon. I had written this blog this morning but somehow it did not make it on to the site so here it goes again. Leonforte is the first battle to become a WWII battle honour for the Seaforths. It was also one of the most costly in lives. As a result, I requested to give a small speech at the ceremony. I talked about the sacrifices and reminded the audience that the Seaforth markers were high above them. I was able to barely hold it together during the delivery. It is such a sad day to remember. In the afternoon we traveled to Assoro where the Hasting and Prince Edward troops conducted a night climb to capture the high ground above Assoro. They were remembered in a ceremony at the mountain top as were the Royal Canadian Artillery who supported the infantry throughout the Husky campaign. The Seaforths on this day 70 years ago were beginning the battle of Agira. Killed on this date were Pte. John OBrian Pte. August Saul Cpl. George Wynd.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 19
This is a small town about 1 hour away from Catania. We had the usual ceremony but with more Canadians present. The combined 1st Div. and the Seaforth band are sounding better by the day. The young boys and the old Pipe Major of the make up 1st Div. band are really enjoying playing with the Seaforths. The boys are trying to obtain some of the arrangements from the Seaforths to improve tier playing at home. The ceremonies themselves have become a familiar blur. The marchers are now stepping back and letting some of the new arrivals take a role. This day 70 years ago the Seaforths were fully engaged in the battle of Agira. The objective that afternoon was a piece of high ground call Grizzly. A and B companies became involved in heavy fighting with considerable casualties. Killed in the fighting were Lieut. Marriott Wilson Lieut. Arthur French Pte. Reginald Clack Pte. Allan Livingstone A/Cpl. Frederic Terry.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 20
July 29 Adrano
This town is the official end of the march. The marchers who walked every day have covered over 300 km from Pachino to Adrano. This was the final civic ceremony and the first with a lady mayor. She gave a (well translated) speech thanking the Canadians. After the ceremony, we had a moment of prayer at the more than. 70 markers placed in the main park. This is the largest grouping of markers so far and is a prelude to the morning at the Agera Cemetary tomorrow. The mayor then hosted a buffet lunch in the park for the marchers and the soldiers. The Seaforth pipes continue to sound great. However several of the members are complaining of sore feet. 70 years ago the Seaforths were in the field east of Agira. Fighting continued off and on throughout the day. For the first time since their arrival in Sicily it rained!
Three Seaforths died on this date Pte.Joseph Grad Pte. Stanley Miller A/LCpl. Rupert Story (awarded the Military Medal posthumously).
Operation Husky 2013 Day 21
July 30 Agira
At 10am the most moving ceremony commenced at the Canadian Cemetary in Agira. The dead overlook a beautiful valley with a lake. About 700 people attended this remembrance including members of the Italian and Canadian armed forces. It ended with a person standing at each of the graves and answering the name as the roll call was given. It took about 20 minutes to go through the list of the dead. It was such a sad and moving event. Most of us were crying. The Seaforth band were present and most were able to stand in front of a Seaforth grave. There were way too many for us. I spent the rest of the day trying to ensure the evening concert in Agira would be a success. At about 10pm after numerous speeches the Seaforth Pipes and Drums entered Garibaldi square to the peal of church bells and to the recorded voice of Peter Stursberg. They played the traditional Retreat in front of a huge crowd. It was a great ending to the day. A record of the days events was shown on the CBC National last evening. 70 years ago the Seaforths were on the Grizzly feature but not directly engaged on combat. 20 men secured horses and rode off on a scouting mission. No Seaforths died on this date.
Operation Husky 2013 Day 22 (Last Day)
The Sicilian adventure ended with the opening of the Canadian exhibit at the Catania Museum. The Seaforth piper in WW11 garb stands tall and proud. The march through Sicily has been part pilgrimage and part Canterbury Tales. As we have walked along there have been lots of deep discussions and lots of stories told - mainly on a one to one basis.
This has led to the development of a very close bond between the marchers that will hopefully endure. We all had our motivations and goals for coming on this adventure. I believe that for all of us they have been fulfilled. The countryside has been permanently ingrained in my memory but more importantly that of the fallen will never leave me.
For me, being able to follow in the actual steps of the Seaforths and my father from the beach in Pachino to the mountain town of Agira and to be able to honour all those who fought has been outstanding. The two events that will always hold special meaning for me were the placing of the Seaforth markers above Leonforte and the roll call at the Agira Cemetary.
11 more Seaforths were to die in Sicily. Lest we forget Pte. Lawrence Deitsch Pte. Ross MacLeod A/Cpl. Robert Lorimer Lieut. Frank Hall Cpl. Bruce Barber Pte. George Barnes Pte. Owen Hartley Pte. Arthur Parry A/Sgt. James Poole Pte. William Broad.