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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky: The Fallen - Part Three

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Agira Canadian War Cemetery


Operation Husky had included the participation of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, as part of XXX Corps. Canadian casualties for the whole of the campaign totalled 2,310, of whom 562 had been killed. Afterwards, the decision was made to concentrate into one cemetery the graves of all Canadians who had died on the island, and in September 1943, Canadian officers chose a site just outside the town of Agira, close to where some of the harshest battles involving the Canadians had been fought. Agira Canadian War Cemetery contains 490 burials, five of whom are unidentified.



Probably the first Canadian to be killed during Operation Husky was WO2 Charles Frederick Rupert Nutley, of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. 31-year-old “Chuck” Nutley, from Mount Pleasant, Ontario, was shot through the throat whilst still at the water’s edge, moments after he had leapt from his landing craft on Roger Beach, near Pachino.



In truth, initial resistance was very limited, until 15th July, when the Canadians came across German troops for the first time: As they approached the town of Grammichele, the Canadians came under heavy fire from artillery, mortars and machine guns, causing them to leap out of their trucks and fight back. The action at Grammichele lasted about three hours. Among the casualties that morning was Private Aaron Sabblut of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, from Vancouver, British Columbia. The 22-year-old was killed in the very first minutes of the battle when his Bren Carrier was struck by a German shell.



On the following day, the Canadians were advancing towards Piazza Armerina. As usual, the Germans had selected good positions, with a commanding view of the road leading to the town. Coming under heavy fire, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment was ordered to move up and clear out the enemy on the high ground. Progress was slow, as the enemy fought tenaciously, and it was not until artillery support was finally brought up that the Canadians gained the upper hand. The town was finally secured by the following morning, after the Canadians had suffered 27 casualties.


On 17th July, the Canadians reached a fork in the road that was overlooked by Monte della Forma, an 800-metre-high peak. At its top, German troops were lying in wait to prevent the Canadians from going both left towards Enna, or right to Valguarnera. While the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade soon found itself caught up in a difficult battle, the 1st Brigade was sent eastwards to outflank the town of Valguarnera, where heavy fighting ensued throughout all of the next day. Valguarnera was not secured until after dark on the 18th, by which point the Germans on top of Monte della Forma had also started pulling back, enabling the Canadians to resume their advance after having been held up for fourteen hours. The Canadian Division had suffered 145 casualties, 40 of whom had been killed.


Men from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry march through the streets of Valguarnera.

Lieutenant Joseph Beverley Starr, from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, had excelled at school as a boy, winning special prizes for his brilliance in mathematics, languages and the classics. The former Troop Leader in the Boy Scouts had many varied interests, including tennis, hunting, fishing, and sailing, as well as being an ardent chess player. In September 1941, he enlisted for active service and was selected as officer material, subsequently receiving a commission in the Carleton and York Regiment. During the battle to dislodge the Germans from the top of Monte della Forma, his platoon was held up by intensive fire from a German machine gun post, so he crawled forward in an attempt to silence it. Starr was killed, aged 25, whilst throwing a grenade at the German position.



Also killed in the heavy fighting around Valguarnera was Major John Henry William Pope, the second-in-command of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). “Billy” Pope had just led an RCR flanking movement which trapped a batch of Germans, when, having reached the top of a hill with an advance guard, he saw in the valley below German tanks and a handful of Canadians under enemy fire. Realising that they had lost all their officers, he ran down the slope to take charge, and successfully extricated them out of sniper and machine gun fire. Pope then saw three German tanks on the route to Valguarnera and went after them with an anti-tank weapon. On the way, he took out a German blockhouse, killing everyone inside, before continuing towards the tanks. On this occasion, however, the anti-tank weapon had no effect on the target, and as he was making his way back towards his men, Pope was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire from one of the tanks.



Buried very close to each other at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery are two privates from the 48th Highlanders of Canada, 29-year-old Jack Besserman and Max Joseph Lampert, aged 22. They were part of a group of Canadians who were attacking a ridge, when, having come to within grenade-throwing distance of a machine gun post, the German soldiers that were manning it hoisted a white flag and held their hands up, appearing to surrender. As the Canadians approached to take them prisoner, a second, concealed, machine gun post, located further back, opened fire, killing three of the men, including Besserman and Lampert. The two men, both Jewish, and both from Toronto, were initially buried side by side where they had fallen, before later being reinterred at Agira.



From Valguarnera, the Canadians now advanced towards Assoro and Leonforte. The two towns, located on adjacent hilltops, and separated by a narrow, plunging valley, were heavily defended by German troops. On the morning of 20th July, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Albert Sutcliffe, the commanding officer of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, which was to lead the attack on Assoro, was taking a closer look at the target, together with his intelligence officer, Captain Maurice Herbert Battle Cockin. They were reflecting on how difficult it was going to be to assault the ancient strongpoint, perched some 600 metres above them, with only a single, winding road leading up to it, when an enemy shell landed nearby. 38-year-old Sutcliffe, who had led his battalion with great distinction at Valguarnera only two days before, receiving a DSO for his efforts, was killed outright. Cockin was gravely wounded, and though stretchered away, he succumbed to his injuries the following day, at the age of 27.



Despite this tragedy, the attack on Assoro went ahead as planned, with the “Hasty P’s” assaulting the town by climbing a steep cliff which the Germans had left unguarded. By the morning of the 22nd, Assoro was in Canadian hands. In the meantime, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade had launched its own attack on Leonforte late on 21st July. The “Loyal Eddies” were involved in bitter house-to-house fighting throughout the night and for most of the following day, but by evening on the 22nd, Leonforte too had been secured.


Destroyed German armour in Leonforte.

The two battles had cost the Canadians 276 casualties, including 23-year-old Private Sidney John Cousins of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). Late in the afternoon of 22nd July, 'A' Company had launched an attack on a hill near Leonforte, but the Patricias were soon pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. Cousins, together with two other men, moved forward with a Bren gun to neutralise the position. When his two colleagues were hit, Cousins picked up the Bren and, firing it from the hip, charged the position singlehandedly, killing five Germans. As if that were not enough, he reloaded and repeated the performance, taking out the next position. As a direct result of his actions, German resistance collapsed. Cousins was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but for some reason, it did not go through. Unfortunately, he was killed later that day by an errant Canadian artillery shell. His only recognition came in the form of a mention in dispatches.



After Assoro and Leonforte, the next mountaintop target for the Canadians was Agira, further to the east. This would prove to be one of the toughest battles of the Sicilian campaign, as before Agira could be taken, the Canadians had to first capture the area around Nissoria, a small village located in low ground between two ridges, around halfway between Leonforte and Agira. Although the Germans had not been expected to defend this area, they had in fact reinforced the two ridges and were not planning on giving them up easily. The battle for Agira began on the night of 22nd/23rd July, with the town not being captured until the 28th. Agira cost the Canadians 438 casualties.


Agira was finally captured on 28th July, after a very tough battle that cost the 1st Canadian Infantry Division 438 casualties.

Among those killed at Nissoria was the commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Marston Crowe. The 31-year-old had taken over command of the regiment a few months before the 1st Canadian Infantry Division had sailed from Britain for Sicily. He had shown great qualities of leadership throughout the landings and the subsequent advance towards Nissoria. On the afternoon of 24th July, the RCR was advancing towards Nissoria against strong German resistance. In the confused fighting that ensued, battalion HQ lost contact with the forward companies, forcing Crowe to advance with a small group of signallers to attempt to establish their location. As they reached the crest of a hill, the party came under machine gun fire from two different directions, with Crowe being mortally wounded by the very first burst.



Two days later, 26-year-old Lieutenant Charles Horatio Waterous, serving with the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, was acting as a forward observation officer, moving around the battlefield in a Jeep. All three men travelling in the vehicle were killed when it was hit by a round fired from a concealed German tank, causing it to explode.



Another casualty of the fighting at Agira was Corporal Frederic William Terry, of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Just a few days before his death, he had attacked a German machine gun nest, firing his Bren gun from the hip, and, aided by the rest of his section, managed to knock it out, killing a large number of Germans and enabling his unit to advance. For this action, Terry was awarded a MM, but only a few days later, the 26-year-old was killed by a sniper.



Lieutenant John Stewart Carnegie de Balinhard, of the PPCLI, met the exact same fate on the same day. The former farmer and horse breeder was a platoon commander within 'A' Company. On 28th July, 'A' and 'B' Companies were sent into Agira to investigate reports that the enemy had withdrawn. Yet as soon as they entered the town, they came under fire from buildings on the main street. A house-to-house fight ensued, and at one point, de Balinhard went up to the roof of one of the buildings to recce the situation, when he was shot dead by a German sniper. Aged 33, he left to mourn him a wife and four sons.



Later that night, the 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, also sent a reconnaissance patrol into Agira. Once again, although the town initially appeared to have been abandoned, the patrol found itself caught up in a skirmish as it was withdrawing, resulting in five German soldiers being killed, as well as 23-year-old Sapper Lloyd Alexander Johnston, from Ottawa, Ontario. Johnston had been operating as a dispatch driver since the landings at Pachino, and only a few days before he was killed, he had rescued two badly wounded men from under fire. Since he could only load one man at a time on his motorcycle, he ran the gauntlet twice, somehow making it through unscathed, despite the risks involved. For this heroic act, he was decorated with a MM.



With Agira finally being taken, the Canadians moved on to Regalbuto, which was captured on 2nd August, after yet another costly battle. This left Centuripe as the last of the mountaintop towns located on the same commanding ridge. Centuripe was to be assaulted by the 78th Infantry Division, and accordingly, on the night of 29th/30th July, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, which had been temporarily placed under the 78th Division’s command, was tasked with capturing Catenanuova, to allow the rest of the division to pass through on their way to Centuripe.


Men of the 6th Inniskillings, 38th Irish Brigade, searching houses during mopping-up operations in Centuripe.

The 4th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, was ordered to bridge the dry Dittaino riverbed, to enable heavy weapons to be brought across to support the infantry. The work was carried out in full view of the enemy, under heavy artillery and mortar fire. 28-year-old Lieutenant George Eaton Atkinson, from Port Rowan, Ontario, was in command of one of the engineer platoons. He had enlisted in October 1941, leaving behind a good job as an assistant engineer at a gold mine in Timmins, as well as his wife and newborn son. The bridge over the Dittaino was almost ready when a mortar round dropped right beside Atkinson. Although one of his arms was severed by shrapnel, and the other one badly mutilated, he remained conscious and refused to relinquish command until all other casualties and the rest of his platoon had been evacuated. He would later receive a Military Cross (MC) but despite having been rushed to a casualty clearing station for urgent medical treatment, Atkinson died of his wounds a few days later.



On the same day that Atkinson succumbed to his injuries, a Supermarine Spitfire, piloted by Canadian fighter ace Flying Officer George Noel Keith, was shot down off the coast of Sicily. Born in Cardston, Alberta, Keith enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in October 1940, aged 19. His first overseas posting, in June 1941, was with No.402 "City of Winnipeg" Squadron RCAF. In May 1942, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, and the following January, he was posted to No.72 Squadron, based in Tunisia, where he would be credited with the first of what would eventually be eight enemy aircraft that he shot down. During Operation Husky, No.72 Squadron, now based in Malta, was tasked with flying patrols between Syracuse and Catania. Whilst strafing ground targets on 4th August, Keith's Spitfire was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Although he managed to climb to 2,000 feet, his aircraft would not maintain height, and he bailed out over the sea at 800 feet. Whilst doing so, his leg struck the tailplane, and although he was quickly picked up by Air-Sea Rescue and rushed to surgery, he succumbed to his wounds later that day. Keith was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.



After Centuripe, XXX Corps was ordered to continue its thrust towards Adrano. On 5th August, Captain William Kenneth MacDonald, of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, was tending to a wounded soldier on the battlefield. Dr. MacDonald had joined the army after completing medical school, being placed with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada as medical officer. Several times, he had gone forward under heavy enemy machine gun and mortar fire to attend to wounded men. On this occasion, MacDonald had gone up to the front lines against the wishes of his fellow officers, who had warned him that it was too dangerous, claiming that that was what he was there for. Even though medical personnel were not supposed to be targeted, he was shot dead by an enemy sniper as he knelt over the wounded soldier, doing his duty to the end. MacDonald was awarded the MC posthumously for his gallantry.



Because he had to wait until he had finished medical school before joining the armed forces, Captain MacDonald was, at 30 years of age, slightly older than the majority of those buried around him. In truth, like all the others, he was still far too young when his life was so tragically cut short. Despite the uniformity of the gravestones, each one of them represents a different life; a son, father, husband, or brother, taken far too soon. Despite the excellent work carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to care for these graves, it is clear that these cemeteries in Sicily attract far fewer visitors than those in other places, perhaps linked with much more famous battles, such as the Battle of Normandy, which completely overshadowed Operation Husky. Yet it is worth remembering that the brave men that now lie at rest in the soil of Sicily gave their lives just as willingly as those in other theatres, and their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

 

References


Holland, J. (2020). Sicily '43: The assault on fortress Europe. London: Bantam Books UK.


Zuehlke, M. (2008). Operation Husky. Douglas & McIntyre.




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