In the twilight of my teenage years while working on a construction job, I met a crusty old Icelander who, between bouts of sipping on sun-warmed strong drink from a jug, would periodically chase our boss around the worksite with a shovel. Somehow, the overly-warm libation stimulated his imagination, allowing him to come to the conclusion that our boss was the enemy of the working man.
The Icelander, with the appropriate name of Thor (a Norse god who also had an appetite for strong drink) was never fired from his job, although he became more ornery as the summer progressed, swearing he would get his revenge for some sin or other perpetrated by our boss. In his more lucid moments — for all his gruffness, he was actually a kind man to everyone but the boss — he would tell of his war years in the Canadian Army.
He never spoke of those years in a quiet voice, but boomed out his displeasure at having been forced to march from one end of Italy to the other. “I walked over 500 G— d— miles!” he would curse, between sips, during what was supposed to be a coffee break, his eyes casting about, apparently on the lookout for our boss. It was perhaps his wartime experience with army leadership that caused him to wield a shovel, in lieu of a machine-gun, as a weapon to redress perceived wrongs.
His anger about the war could also be explained by how those who fought in the Italian campaign were treated. They became known as the D-Day Dodgers — labelled slackers for not taking part in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The Icelander’s anger intensified whenever he remembered these slights, even to the point where he would start to use a strange mixture of English words and Icelandic expletives (despite being born in Canada, Icelandic was his first language). “Those G — d — people. We were fighting ... (some unintelligible Icelandic phrase) ... We were dying (another Icelandic phrase) ... a year before G— d — D-Day. How (Icelandic again) dare they!”
My memory of Thor, who has long since died, was rekindled by last week’s journey by 45 former Canadian veterans and other dignitaries to Italy to take part in the 60th anniversary of the Italian campaign. Commemorative ceremonies were held at former battle sites and war cemeteries where the 6,000 Canadians who died in Italy are buried. Another 20,000 were wounded. In total, over 90,000 Canadians served during the 20 months the Allies fought in Italy.
Among the veterans returning was Ernest “Smokey” Smith, the last surviving Canadian to win the Victoria Cross, then the British Commonwealth’s highest medal of valour. Smith was among those who visited the battlefield near Cesena, Italy where he earned his medal.
Another significant site visited by the Canadians was Ortona where one of the bitterest and bloodiest battles of the Italian campaign was fought. This battle was called a “Little Stalingard” because of its intense street-by-street, house-by-house combat.
“We cannot know all the great feats and awful fates that are kept secret under this soil,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri at the Moro River Cemetery where 1,375 Canadians who fought in the battle are buried.
After Rome was liberated on June 4, the focus of attention in the Allied newspapers shifted to the Normandy invasion two days later. The Italian campaign, still raging on after D-Day, became known as the “Forgotten War,” although a soldier killed in Italy was just as dead as a soldier killed in Normandy.
The last insult to the Allied troops in Italy was when American-born Lady Astor, the first British woman MP, called the Eighth Army “D-Day Dodgers,” implying its men had deliberately avoided service in the “real war” in France. From her jibe, came the song D-Day Dodgers, which was sung to the tune of Lili Marlene, a popular song with the troops:
We are the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy,
Always on the vino, always on the spree,
Eighth Army Skivers and their tanks,
We go to war, in ties and slacks,
We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.
While men and materiel poured into France from the Normandy bridgehead, the troops in Italy were effectively forgotten. At best, their fight against some of the best units in the German Army was a sideshow to the breakthrough in Western Europe.
The secondary role the troops in Italy were expected to play is perhaps best summed up by Allied Commander-in-Chief General Dwight Eisenhower’s telegram to Winston Churchill on October 25, 1943: “My principal commanders and I are in complete agreement that it is essential for us to retain the initiative (in Italy) until the time approaches for mounting Overlord (the D-Day invasion), otherwise the enemy will himself seize the initiative and may force us on the defensive prematurely, thus enabling him to withdraw divisions from our front in time to oppose Overlord. If we can keep him on his heels until early spring, then the more divisions he uses in a counter-offensive against us the better it will be for Overlord and it then makes little difference what happens to us (Allies in Italy) if Overlord is a success.”
The opinions of the upper command filtered down the ranks and it became common knowledge that the soldiers toughing it out in Italy were seen as playing a secondary role. It wasn’t exactly a boost to morale, but they slogged on and performed extraordinary feats.
It’s too late for Thor, but I’m sure the remaining D-Day Dodgers are pleased that they are finally getting some recognition for the “very real” role they played in the final defeat of fascism.