May 25, 1999
Story: Significance of a tree at the Casi Bernardo. A German sniper took out a Canadian soldier right beside the tree. He bled to death at the base of the tree all the while calling out for his Mom. The was and still is a fruit tree, however, legend has it that after the blood from the fallen soldier had spilt on the tree it never bore fruit again.
At Casi Bernardo (our first stop) we met a wonderful couple who were around during the Crossing of the Moro Valley and the Battle for Ortona. He relayed many stories of how he, at age 5, and his parents helped and housed the Canadians. There were stories of him bringing wine to the Canadians and how is some cases the Canadians infringed on there privacy, mainly when they were drunk. He then brought us back to their beautiful villa and fed us snacks and home grown wine. Both were fabulous.
Next stop: we went to high ground to get a good vantage point of the battle fields (Moro Gully). It’s amazing the terrain the Canadians had to suffer and die over. Stephan gave a great presentation. Diane also gave a good talk at the Casi Bernardo.
We then visited San Leonardo which the 1st Canadian Inf. Bgd. Liberated. It was a very hospitable town, with many people who have spend time in Canada. It was like a mini-homecoming. One had lived in Vancouver for much of this life and apparently many in the town were from or had relatives in who lived in Calgary. Interesting indeed!
We ate lunch there, got it at a convenience store, it was not bad considering. The women working at the store were extremely nice and gave us free fruit. I bought a massive bucket of cherries for 2000 lira, which is just under $2.
Went to a few more towns, nothing special.
Then we went to the Moro Valley Cemetery. That was definitely surreal. 1600 grave stones (approx 1300 Canadian). Grounds were extremely well kept by two very nice grounds keepers, who spoke English. I’m always amazed at how many people speak English and have been to Canada in these small towns. A few of the gravestones had no name and just said “A Soldier of the Second World War”. This attests to the intensity of the fighting, especially the artillery fire. This is a beautiful cemetery and is a great tribute, honour and remembrance to the Canadian soldiers who fought in the More Valley.
We then proceeded to Ortona where Dave gave a good talk on the battle in Ortona. You certainly can understand why it took the Canadians 4 days to advance 500 m. The streets are narrow and winding; there is no cover; and lots of windows to snipe from. Considering the troops had no tank support (as the hit barricades) it’s a wonder how they took the town at all. I guess if you throw enough men at a problem, it’ll eventually get fixed.
After, we all went swimming in the Adriatic. The was warm and very salty (and shallow as well).
Ate dinner at a small restaurant that served rigatoni with meat sauce as an appetizer and veal (KFC style) and fries (with Mayo, very European). Wine and Coke were our drinks.
May 26, 1999
Today was a driving day for 3 hours we drove to just outside Pesaro. Our 1st stop was Montemaggiore. It was a beautiful little town that was high in the hills.
We had a nice panoramic view of the advance to the Gothic Line. Absolutely beautiful country. Very green, rolling hills interspersed with houses and small farming villages.
It was very difficult to pinpoint specific areas in the hills, for example, a specific mountain (hill), a point like pt. 204 or a village. The topography is so varied. I can now truly appreciate the difficulty the Canadian Generals had to go through when planning an assault or trying to pinpoint a German position.
In Montemaggiore we stopped at a little convenience store to pick up lunch. I got foccia bread and an ice tea for cheap (under 5 bucks). We walked through the steep streets and took in the culture.
At 1:30, Mark gave us a 20 min brief on the advance to the Gothic Line.
We then proceeded to Monte della Mattera just outside of Mombaroccio. From here we tried to orient ourselves to our maps. Fortunately, we had the Convent Beatosante (nunnery) to go by. Once again the countryside is beautiful. We were at an extremely high vantage point. Probably at 1000ft above sea level.
After that we went to a point just outside of Monteciccardo. There Mark read a humorous story from Farly Mowat’s The Regiment. To paraphrase, a Canadian Command post was being set up and in the corner stood a lost and hungry German Corporal. So the CO (Cameron) invited the Corp. to eat and then told him to go back to his unit. During the supper however, the group argued about the Geneva Convention, therefore, when Cameron ordered the Corporal back to his unit the German thought about it and decided he was sick of fighting and declared himself a POW. Cameron wasn’t having any of it and demanded that he return. After a heated argument Cameron eventually gave up and took him POW.
Next stop was Montelabbate where we had a front on view of the Gothic Line. We did some orientation with detailed maps Mark provided for us. After we went to Pesaro to our hotel which is very nice. It is situated right on the ocean with sprawling beaches to the right and left. We have a pool with ping pong and fooze ball.
We had dinner at the hotel which was OK, nothing great. Salad, bread, Spaghetti and Veal and Fries. Oh ya, and wine (oh course)
So far 2 people have got sick over the past 3 days. The General on the second day and Stephan. Both are suspected of drinking the water.
Night life is pretty active in Pesaro, but we stick out so bad as tourists. We were the only ones wearing shorts and ball caps. Oh well whatever.
May 27, 1999
Today we walked the Gothic Line. We started just outside Montelabbate, which is the eastern side of the Canadian section of the Gothic Line (facing north). It was a sweltering day with temps in excess of 30 C. From Montelabbatte we marched up the same road the Hastings and Perths marched. We passed pt. 111 and moved to pt. 147. Heidi gave a talk on the Hasty P’s and Laura gave a comprehensive account of the Perth’s advance up the road towards Pt. 204.
The countryside was beautiful. You could see right to the ocean and Pesaro. There was a lot of open ground making it clear why the advance by the Canadians was so deadly.
We also saw in the distance a destroyed villa which hadn’t been repaired since the war. There is not much evidence left from 55 years, but occasionally you see blown out houses and that sort of thing.
We then walked to pt 204 which was about 3 miles from our starting point. At pt. 204 there was a beautiful monument to the Canadian Tanks (5th Armoured Regiment BC Dragoons), who were the 1st Allied unit to break the Gothic Line.
From here we went to a village (the name escapes me) for lunch. After this we went to a few other ridges to view the advance of the Canadians. From this ridge we had a good view of the enter Canadian breakout from the Gothic Line.
From here we went to Germmano which is a small fortress village high up in the hills. The Conca River goes around the base of the hill. From here we had a beautiful view of the Brit sector. The Brits basically got hammered at this position. They were trying to advance to Croce, but just couldn’t get up the hillside. Meanwhile, the Canadians on their right flank were going like gangbusters up the Adriatic coast.
There was a small monument to the Brit struggle at Germmano. Nothing special (statue and mosaic). We were up over 1000 ft from sea level. Very high and with a good view of everything.
Went back to the hotel swam and drank beer for 2 hrs, ate supper (Lasagna and bad beef). Drank lots of wine and went to bed late.
May 28, 1999
Today we drove up to Rimini to view the battlefields the Canadians fought over after breaking the Gothic Line. Our 1st stop was Santa Maria di Scacciano, which gave us a good view of Coriano. Coriano was a German stronghold that repelled many (3?) Canadian assaults. Coriano was never taken by the Canadians.
Helene gave a good talk on the Cape Breton Highlanders assault on Corino. From Santa Maria…. We walk through the blazing heat and many farming fields to Coriano which is a quaint and inviting town. We lunched in front of the massive Cathedral which looked very modern.
There was a destroyed castle behind the church that was in the process of being repaired. Within the castle there were a few residences.
From Coriano we drove to San Martino which gave us a view of the San Fortunato Ridge. This ridge was a major stronghold that the Canadians took. Sean gave a good talk here about the assault on San Martino and the approach to San Fortunato Ridge.
We then drove to the ridge and hopped a fence that was a property (with a huge house on it) adjacent to the villa Belvedere. Rob gave a talk on the assault of the Ridge. Half of the group decided to hike up this hill (where a radio tower was) to get a better vantage point. The view was spectacular. We could see into the valley to the SW of us (where the Ausa River flows through). We could also see the huge expanse of Rimini.
After this we switched into tourist mode and went to the Republic of San Marino (founded 300 AD). This tourist haven was filled with so many touristy things that for a moment I thought I was in Disneyland. If you can forget about the tourist stores and the exorbitant prices, the place is stunning. The town of San Marino is built into the summit of the mountain. On the very top of the summit lays 3 medieval castles, with all the bells and whistles. Huge walls, big oaks gates, arrow slits and so on. In addition, they had a great parliament building, laden with marble. Stephane and I were present during the changing of the guards, which was interesting. The guards wear green, black and red uniforms (very Christmassy). Inside was very nice, its still a operational parliament with modern equipment. Apparently, they have 2 presidents that change every 6 months. There are only 20000 people in San Marino, so not much to administer, aside from the crazy tourists.
Went back to the hotel, had a late night swim
May 29, 1999
This was a traveling day. We all got to Cassino at about 3 pm. The town is very run down and his very little to offer. Our hotel is nice, but there is no pool.
We went up Monte Cassino and received a small overview of the Cassino theatre by Marc. Oriented ourselves with maps and then proceeded up the rest of the Mountains.
Went to the Polish Cemetery. It’s different from any of the other cemeteries, as there was no grass. Also, instead of head stones they had large concrete slabs with all the biographical information. Interestingly, all of the Jewish burials were segregated into the bottom corner of the cemetery.
We then went to the top where the monastery was but couldn’t get in due to our paltry dress. We’ll have to come back tomorrow wearing long pants and shirts.
May 30, 1999
This was our free day in Rome. Saw the typical Roman sites, except the Vatican (oh well, next time). We did a bike tour with Dr. Peter Kent of UNB. Good day.
May 31, 1999
Today we went to view the Canadian breach of the Gustav and Hitler lines. I was driving today and was a little nervous at first since everyone was harassing me about driving for the first time. Nevertheless, I got through it.
Our first stop was at a point just outside Sant’ Angelo in Teodice. We went up a hill that over looked the Gari River onto the start line of the Allied advance. Now the land is covered with trees and crops, but in ’44 it would have been a moonscape with pot holes half the size of a football field. There would have been no trees.
Our next stop was Pignataro, which was the starting point of the Canadians, nothing wonderful to see.
We then proceeded on to Aquino to have our lunch in a square. It’s your typical small Italian town where everyone stares at you.
After that we went 1/2 way to Pontecorvo where Todd gave a good talk on the “Vandoos” 22e Regiment breach of the Hitler line.
Finally we went to Pontecorvo where we stopped for ice cream. Everyone in that town was a little weird. There were bags of open garbage filling the street. Garbage everywhere! A lot of people seemed like they weren’t playing with full deck of cards. If Stephen King was to base a book on an Italian town, this would be it. Very Children of the Corn like.
We then went back to the hotel and got changed and then proceeded up to the Monastery.
The monastery was very beautiful. They had a large open ground adorned with flowers and a large statue of Christ. Their little museum was wonderful with beautiful art, priceless chalices and crosses and large ancient prayer books.
There main chapel was extraordinary, with more gold than I’ve seen in my entire life.
June 1, 1999
Up at 5 am, in Rome by 8:30, on the plane at 10, in Paris by 12:30.
From Paris we drove out to the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge.
This monument is very impressive. The names of over 16000 dead Canadian soldiers have been engraved into the base of the monument. The grounds are maliciously keep, and the Canadian staff are extremely friendly.
Interestingly, there are still parts of Vimy Ridge that haven’t been cleared of mines. In several areas, the grounds have been cordoned off as there is a risk of stepping on an unexploded shell or mine.
After our tour of Vimy we drove up to Amiens. Our hotel in Amiens was really nice and was a refurbished Victorians style mansion or apartment complex.
Went to a very nice restaurant right beside the Cathedral. After dinner me, Dave, Big Dave, and Sean went to an area where a series of pubs were. We met a guy from Moncton named Ghiselyn who was doing his Int’l MBA in Amiens. He also has an apartment in Paris, which he invited me to stay at. What unbelievable luck. So hopefully I’ll be able to stay there in Paris.
June 2, 1999
Another long day of traveling. I wasn’t feeling so hot this morning as I was nursing a slight hangover and exhaustion. Our 1st stop was Beaumont Hamel. It was pretty interesting and depressing at the same time, since their casualties at the battle of the Somme were upwards of 90% (800/900). One can see why the Newfies were slaughtered as the Germans had two enfilading MG positions.
Next stop was a memorial to the Canadians at the Somme and then off to the South African monument/memorial. This was an extremely well done memorial with a small museum and an interpretive center. The grounds were huge with many trench lines still scarring the earth. You had to really watch your step as there were still unexploded shells in the ground. 50 French people die every year as a result of unexploded shells. In fact a British military historian died a few years back when a shellhe picked up from the Somme battlefield exploded in his office.
Next stop was a small cemetery where Dave Peabody’s Grandfathers uncle was buried. It was very emotional as Dave broke down. This was the first time anyone from Dave’s family had visited the grave (F. Gorman).
We then drove to Dieppe. It’s a lower class town that has been built up lately due to an increase in British tourism. Nonetheless, it’s still pretty scummy. The beach sucks, since it’s all chert stones (large stones). And the channel is too cold to swim in.
June 3, 1999
Today we went down to the beach to do 2 presentations. Rob was first and talked about the RCRs. I was next and overall the presentation went good, I had lots of handouts which made my presentation much more understandable. It was certainly better than my first one.
We then proceeded to Puys where Big Dave gave his presentation. There were very few interesting things to see on the beach. However, there was a nicely preserved German MG pill box. On the other side of the beach there was a bunker which had fallen from the cliff a few years back. The cliffs are about 150 ft. high so one would expect that there would be some damage to the bunker…there was not! A testament to German engineering.
Next we went to Pourville where we eventually lunched at a bar due to the pouring rain. Dennis gave a good talk on the invasion at Pourville.
We then drove to the Dieppe cemetery was which ended up being an emotional experience since on one tombstone two brothers were buried (2 years apart nearly to the day). It reminded me a little of Saving Private Ryan.
After this it was straight to the Abbey d’Ardenne (2 hrs from Dieppe). The Abbey is a beautiful place which is built around the 13th century Abbey. Apparently this area was a rallying point for the French during the last Crusade. Lots of history here!
Went to Caen to wash some clothes, pounded back a few Kilkenny’s and checked out the huge Castle in the middle of Caen. Walked along the walls, which gave a great view of the city and the cathedral. The castle was used by William the Conqueror.
June 4, 1999
Today we went to the Canadian D-Day beaches (Juno Beach). The first city was Couselle-sur-mer where the 7th Brigade landed. It was low tide and there was about 600 yards from the water to the sea wall. Only now do I realize the difficulties the Canadians had to endure crossing the beach.
I gave my last speech on 7th Brigade and it went OK. I fumbled through it like the first one, but it went a little better.
There were a few rusted out concrete bunkers and pillboxes littering the beaches. They were very interesting. We walked through the town and checked out the monuments to the various Canadian regiments. It started pouring with rain and we were all drenched to the bone.
Our final stop was the Canadian D-Day cemetery.
June 5, 1999
This was our free day and most of us decided to go to Omaha Beach. The cemetery at Omaha Beach was very sobering. There were about 10000 graves there and the way they were set up it looked like the crosses went on forever.
We went down to the beach and had a leisurely stroll up the beach. One can now truly appreciate the difficulty the Americans had in storming this section of the Norman coast. The beach at low tide is about 600-700 yards wide and there is a fairly steep rise with a cliff. I don’t know how they did it.
Saw a few German 75mm and 88mm gun emplacements. They’re positioned on angles so they can fire down the length of the beaches. They don’t fire straight on as it was portrayed in Saving Pvt Ryan.
There was one annoying thing and that was the “Recreationists” who dress up in old WWII uniforms and drive re-built WWII vehicles. They were driving like maniacs up and down the beach, ripping up the place. In my opinion, they weren’t showing any respect to the soldiers who died on the beach. There is a time and place for stuff like that and the day before D-Day is not it!
We then moved on to Pont du Hoc which was a German stronghold that the American Airborne took on D-Day. The grounds were littered with huge creators the result of a massive artillery barrage from 16in Battleship guns. Lots of bunkers and gun emplacements for the tourists and veterans to enjoy.
It was on to Bayeux after where we stopped at a D-Day museum. This museum was extremely well done and very comprehensive. Lots of “kit”, good historical background and cool guns.
After the museum I went out on my own to the Bayeux Cathedral. This was the most amazing cathedral I’ve ever seen, it wasn’t the biggest, but definitely the most beautiful. There was small crypt in the base of the church that had 700 year old sketches on the wall and up top a wonderful children’s choir was singing their praises to God. This singing was very soothing and set a peaceful ambiance in the church.
Two blocks away was a small museum that housed a 1000 year old tapestry. I think it’s the largest tapestry in the world, but I’m not sure. Anyways, the tapestry was sewn in the 1070s or 1080s and it depicts William the Conqueror’s rise to power and invasion of the southern shores of Britain. (The Battle of Hastings against the English King Harold). The first half of the tour is a long and in depth historical context which sets the scene and goes through and explains each section of the tapestry.
There was also a small section that had a few mannequins and models.
The actual tapestry is pretty amazing, the detail and colours are pretty mind-blowing when you consider it was made 10 centuries ago.
That night we all went to a concert at Le Memorial which was in honour of the vets. The 1st 45 min wasn’t bad, but the concert went on for 3 hours. It was painful! Most of the vets left after the 2nd song, smart guys!
June 6, 1999
Today is D-Day. 55 years ago today men from the Canadian, US and British Armies were storming the beaches of Normandy.
Our morning was filled with ceremonies (3 to be exact). The first was a small ceremony at Courselle-sur-mer. The Minister of Veteran Affairs Fred Miffland was there along with Sheila Copps. These were very somber events.
The last ceremony was a lot larger, but unfortunately a lot longer and more boring. Sheila made a long, tedious and obviously unnatural speech that put most people to sleep. Those poor, poor vets. We bailed out fairly early to do some battlefield touring.
We had a big party with the Americans who were staying at the Abbey with us. They number around 20 and hail from Tennessee. Unfortunately, most were between
June 7, 1999
Fairly hung over today, but hey that’s the price you pay for drinking hard the night before.
Headed out to the Carpiquet Airfield today to look at the battlefields. Nothing special, pretty standard stuff.
After lunch we hooked up with the vets again to go to more ceremonies. Traveling with the vets was quit an experience. They had so many interesting stories of heroism and sacrifice. One vet admitted that he was drunk for most of the war, …, sounds like the only sane way to get through the horrors of war.
We then drove back to the Abbey d’Ardenne for the ceremony in the garden. In this garden 21 Canadian soldiers were executed by the 12th SS under the direction of Kurt Meyer.
The ceremony was moving all the vets and most of us to tears. It was raining as well which accurately symbolized the moods and thoughts of most in the gardens. Gen Belzile was the Master of Ceremonies and gave a beautiful speech. At the end he got all of us to lay a maple leaf on the monument as he called out the names and ages of the executed. It was a tough for everyone to stay composed.
June 8, 1999
Went touring again today. Did the battlefields in the following operations: Atlantic, Spring and Totalize Part I.
One battle in particular had a very strong emotional impact on me. This was the battle where the Black Watch advanced up the Verriere Ridge. These troops, who were very green, were ordered up the slope to take the ridge. There was no air support, they were late advancing, hence no artillery support, and to top it all off, it was at night. In addition, the Allies foolishly reflected their spotlights off the clouds illuminating the entire area. This unfortunately silhouetted the men of the Black Watch and
made them easy targets for the German machine-gunners who had no problems mowing down the Canadians. It got to the point where the Germans simply stopped firing as it was just too easy to kill the Canadians. For once they had mercy on the helpless Canadians. Sadly, this advance practically wiped out the entire Black Watch.
After this we all went to Le Memorial for a tour. I finally got on the internet! Le Memorial is an interesting museum which depicts war and society, in other words the moral highs and lows of society. The exhibits were very emotionally and politically charged, it was obvious that the curator envisioned a theme where western democracy was the ultimate good in the world and all other nations should strive to be like the western world. Communism, Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Fundamentalism
are all evil. The designers have a point, but I think they took it way to far. There was an obvious agenda, a subtle propaganda campaign.
After dinner we met up with Terry Copps group in Bayeux. Good fun, talked to tow guys whose fathers fought in the Battle of Normandy campaigns. Lots of good stories.
June 9, 1999
For the 1st half of the day we did everything from just south of Caen to Falaise. Spent the later part of the afternoon touring Falaise. Nice town. The centerpiece for the town is a castle that was used by both William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart. The castle is magnificent, however, unfortunately a few years back a big metal contraption was constructed and placed in front of the castle. This structure dramatically decreased the aesthetical quality of the castle. In fact, when the local folk saw
the metallic beast, they responded by stoning the Mayor’s house and nearly starting a riot.
June 10, 1999
Returned to Falaise all extremely hung over from the previous night of rippin’ it up with the Yanks. Poor Dave Macri was up first and had to cut his presentation short due to his extreme hang over. After the abbreviated presentation we all walked down to a museum which depicted the involvement of Falaise in the post D-Day invasion (closing of the gap). It was a very well put together museum, but a little dingy and dirty. Great relics of the war, the curator even had a Panther Mark IV tank and an 88mm gun. The models and dioramas were good too.
After this we met up with the vets in St. Lambert-sur-Dives (this was not planned, but a pleasant surprise). This was the final event for the vets who have had a very busy schedule the last week. No doubt most of them were ready to go home. Today we were celebrating the life of Major Currie, V.C. and his heroics in St Lambert. After the ceremony we asked a veteran of the South Alberta Horse who was fighting in St Lambert along with Currie, what it was like here. At first he was a little hesitatant, but then he opened up and described the situation. Now before I go on I must explain that the Germans were in full retreat at this time and were not fighting back. Any ways, he said that he was sitting up on a ridge, overlooking the Dives River, watching the German columns cross the river. His platoon opened fire. He said it was like a turkey shoot. He also recalled the shooting horses and huge number of dead and dying Germans in and by the river and town. Apparently, the stench was pretty bad.
Drove up to the Polish monument and caught the tail end of the ceremony. Talked with a few more vets and then took a group shot on top of a Sherman Tank.
We had the group’s last supper at a nice steak restaurant in Caen. We all gave Vince a nice note book, gave the General a book on D-Day, and to Marc we all gave him a pocket watch with the engraving “Normandy Tour 1999”