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‘Gave their lives for us’: Canada’s role in Italian campaign remembered 75 years later

Rosalia Fantoni remembers the cold, the rain, and the hunger her family felt 75 years ago. And while those memories of the Second World War have dimmed over the years, her vivid recollections of the Canadian soldiers who entered her life during this particularly bloody moment in history have not.

“It was a time of profound joy,” Fantoni told CBC News, speaking through a translator. “Because when the Canadians finally came, the people who were hiding in their houses were so happy, they were sparkling with joy.”

It had been a complicated time in Italy, as the country entered the war on the side of the Axis powers. Canadian troops were part of an invading force in the summer of 1943.

Very quickly though, the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini surrendered, and the Canadians and other Allied troops suddenly became defenders of the Italians and their territory, advancing against German forces who had seized control in towns and cities along the Adriatic Coast — a push that became known as the Italian campaign.

Villanova, a small town in the coastal Ravenna province, was one of those communities.

A then-four-year-old Fantoni and her two-year-old sister, Eliza, had already suffered the unbearable loss of their father and uncle.  As partisans, they were hanged by the Germans near their home just weeks earlier.

A woman hangs laundry in a destroyed Ortona, Italy, in January 1944. (Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

Villanova itself had no infrastructure left; it was all destroyed by the Nazis. Then on the morning of Dec. 11, 1944, the Canadians arrived.

“And the people were all very astonished, because these guys were tall and blond with blue eyes and nobody had ever seen anything like this,” said Fantoni, recalling an early memory of the soldiers. “They were heroes. Blond heroes coming to liberate us.”

Fantoni remembers one Canadian in particular: a soldier from Toronto named George O’Connor, who briefly came to live in her family’s home. “Since we were very poor, he used to bring us chocolate, milk, sugar — you know, all the things that could make us happy.”

Finding a way to give back

Over the decades, Fantoni, 79, wasn’t content to just remember that wartime connection: she wanted to honour and preserve it — and ultimately give back.

She would visit the cemetery in her community often, pulled by the knowledge that the joy of Italy’s liberation also brought great sacrifice for Canada.

And while the Villanova Canadian War Cemetery may today be maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for Fantoni and others in the community, it became sacred ground.

There are 202 Canadian soldiers buried in the Villanova Canadian War Cemetery, located just outside of Ravenna, Italy. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Of the cemetery’s 212 headstones, 205 are adorned with the maple leaf and the name of a Canadian who died during the war. Six British soldiers and one unknown soldier are also buried there.

In the 1990s, Fantoni formed a research group, which painstakingly pieced together what happened in Villanova for a book called Home Away from Home. Another volume, detailing the personal stories and photographs of almost every Canadian buried in the cemetery is expected to be published next spring.

“I do this because if you think about it, these Canadians soldiers came here knowing nothing of Italy, and nothing of Villanova, and they came here and gave their lives for us … for our liberty. I don’t want anyone to forget this … because these soldiers saved our lives.”

Italian campaign in the spotlight

This week, Canada’s role in the Italian campaign takes centre stage.

Fantoni joins hundreds of other Italians in welcoming a Canadian delegation travelling through Italy to participate in commemorative events. Fifteen campaign veterans have made the journey across the Atlantic, some returning to Italy for the first time since leaving the bloody battlefields where they served.

It is Peter Principe’s first trip back since serving as a private with the 48th Highlanders of Canada. The 96-year-old still chokes up when he thinks of the three buddies he saw killed in action in Italy.

“Wars are not good,” he said. “Too many people get hurt.”

Peter Principe is one of 15 Canadian Second World War veterans travelling to Europe this week to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Italian campaign. He lost part of his left leg in Italy after stepping on a mine. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Principe lost the lower half of his left leg in Italy, when he stepped on a “shoe mine” just kilometers from that war cemetery in Villanova. It was Christmas Eve 1944.

In an interview with CBC before travelling overseas, Principe was emotional about the cost of war — but also realistic.

“I knew I was in the army. Being a soldier, what else could you do? You just went with it. You never thought nothing of getting killed or anything like that.… It was OK, I didn’t mind it.”

Watch: Veteran Peter Principe recounts being wounded on Christmas Eve in 1944

Veteran Peter Principe recounts getting wounded on Christmas Eve, 1944, in Ortona, Italy, during the Italian campaign of the second World War. 2:30

Principe spent nine months in Italy, moving from Naples to Cassino to other smaller communities along the Adriatic Coast, before that leg injury landed him in a hospital in Rome. Over the long term, there’s been hearing loss, too.

“They were shelling us like mad. Oh my god,” he recalled. “It’s lucky I never got killed.”

A total of 93,000 Canadians served over the 20-month fight, pushing up the coast, from southern to northern Italy. Well over a quarter of those soldiers became casualties, either killed, wounded or sidelined by serious illness. Nearly 6,000 Canadians died.

Principe, who served as a private with the 48th Highlanders, lost three friends in Italy. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

According to veterans and historians, the Italian campaign was a tough slog up the length of the Italian peninsula, as Canadians troops tried to punch through often-formidable German defences. The weather was brutal for long periods of time, with heavy rains famously turning roads into rivers of mud.

And the Canadians — tasked with moving from a mountainous terrain to a low-lying marshland — faced many rivers and canals that the Germans had turned into sometimes-impenetrable lines of control. 

‘Comes at a cost’

Historian Jeff Noakes, of the Canadian War Museum, said though the Canadians faced “really major obstacles,” they ultimately made steady progress. 

“Of course, it always comes at a cost,” he said. “Sometimes attacks, assaults across these defensive rivers, come at higher costs than others. The Germans, even through late 1944, are still fighting back quite strongly, because they want to hold on to as much of northern Italy as possible.”

It was there that soldiers, like Donald White, found themselves in late 1944, before being transferred to the Netherlands months later, where Canadians were feted enthusiastically as liberators. White served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, retiring as a trooper.

Donald White is another Canadian veteran who is in Italy this week to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Italian campaign. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Now 95, White has been back to both Holland and Italy in the years since World War Two. But this week marks the first time he’s been back to the city of Ravenna, a place he recalls for its “fancy arch … going into the town.” 

But White remembers something else about the Italian campaign — a mood among the general population, created by that complicated history of the war in Italy.

“I don’t think they really accepted us as a liberator. And so they weren’t all that friendly, but they weren’t all that distant either; they were kind of neutral there.”

Soldiers march through the Porta Sisi in Ravenna, Italy after the city’s liberation in this photo from 1944. (Imperial War Museum)

It is a history, White believes, that makes it all that more important to mark now.

Ravenna is going all out to honour the Canadians on this 75th anniversary. On Wednesday, there will be a ceremony in the main square, hosted by the city’s mayor. Veterans Affairs Canada is also organizing a program of remembrance at the nearby Ravenna Commonwealth War Cemetery, where 436 Canadians are buried.

White sees another reason to commemorate the Italian campaign. He’s among those who, even in the heat of battle in Italy, felt that events in other parts of Europe overshadowed the Canadian war effort farther south.

“As far as we were concerned down there, we were forgotten, because once D-Day went in, I don’t think anybody hardly anywhere heard anything that was going on [in Italy],” said White.

Watch: Veteran Donald White recalls fighting in the Second World War during the Italian campaign

Veteran Don White describes a lull in the fighting between the Allies and the Germans in Ravenna, Italy, on Christmas Day, 1944. 2:30

White is proud of what the Canadians accomplished in Italy, saying it was hugely significant to the overall Allied war effort.

“We tied up some of the most elite German soldiers there were. And so that’s kind of why I would like to go back and keep everything alive and try to give a little more insight to the Canadian people, about what Canadians did in Italy.”

Often-overlooked campaign

Historian Noakes concedes that apart from the Battle of Ortona — fought over Christmas 1943 and often involving house-to-house combat — the Italian campaign is generally unfamiliar to the average Canadian.

“Some of that is because from June 1944 onwards, of course, there are the D-Day landings and [the] subsequent campaign in Normandy and the fighting in northwest Europe, including things like the liberation of the Netherlands.”

Noakes believes there is still time for the Italian campaign to get its due recognition, including Canada’s role; still time for Canadians to hear from some of the Italians who, for three-quarters of a century, have honoured the sacrifices made by Canada’s soldiers and to recognize a dwindling number of aging veterans.

White served with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, retiring as a trooper. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“When these people are gone, we lose this direct, firsthand connection to these experiences,” said Noakes. “It changes the way we think about and remember these events, which is what makes a lot of these 75th anniversary celebrations, observations, pilgrimages so important.”

As for Fantoni, she’s remembering the anniversary with a smile, letting that feeling of joy at being free wash over her again.

“I just want to say thank you to Canada, and the Canadians, for what they do,” she said. “They lead by example, so … we need to remember our history and our roots. And we just have to be grateful.”


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