History

Operation Husky: Small-world connections in Sicily

  • Jul 29, 2013
  • 696 words
  • 3 minutes
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Canadian Geographic Education‘s chair, Connie Wyatt Anderson, is joining hundreds of Canadians as they trek across the island of Sicily, Italy, this month to commemorate the Allied invasion 70 years ago. Read Wyatt Anderson’s other posts here.

As the crowd of Operation Husky marchers and organizers, Canadian Armed Forces soldiers, local politicians, Canadian tourists and townsfolk parted ways after a commemoration ceremony in the Sicilian town of Leonforte, my eyes fell on a family wearing identical screen-printed t-shirts.

I approached them, reaching out my hand to the gentleman who appeared to be the father and asked, “Where are you from in Canada?”

“Alberta,” he replied.

“I’m from Manitoba,” I said.

Our conversation volleyed back and forth until we determined that we both attended the same Manitoba high school.

“Shirley!” he called to his wife, “This woman’s from Manitoba, and she went to high school in Swan River.”

What I soon found out was that the Gervais family, George and Shirley and their children Charlotte and Joshua, had travelled to Sicily as part of the Operation Husky 2013 commemoration. They had begun planning for the trip three years ago after speaking with Steve Gregory, the commemorative event’s founder.

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The Gervais family t-shirt shows images of George’s father.

And the t-shirts: they showed two photos of Victor Joseph Gervais, George’s father, side by side. With the Sicilian landscape stretching out behind him, there stood Vic as a young man in his R.C.A. uniform standing next to Vic, the old man, proudly wearing his military medals.

I stared at George’s t-shirt and thought how remarkable it was, noticing both the young and old Vic and thinking about the differences between the craggy, achromatic Sicilian mountains and the sun-bleached Mediterranean sky from the rolling verdant hills of southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

After years of research, the Gervais family had put together a record of Vic’s Second World War experience. Farming and living in Alida, Sask., with his widowed father, 22-year-old Vic he had enlisted in Regina in the non-permanent active militia of Canada, and later with the South Saskatchewan Regiment in 1941. After training at Camp Shilo, outside of Brandon, Manitoba, he was sent to England and later Scotland for further training. There, he became a member of the 1st Canadian Division, 2nd Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

The Sicilian campaign would be the first theatre of war he encountered. He was a gunner on the 25 pounder heavy artillery gun. The 25-pounder gun was the main gun used by the Canadian Field Artillery units and was used to support the infantry by shelling ahead of the ground troops as they advanced. The typical 25-pounder gun crew comprised of six men. He was later promoted to bombardier and then sergeant.

As we stood in the shade in the Leonforte town square, I got the feeling that George purposely left his sunglasses on as he talked about his father. “He passed away in 2002. He never talked about Sicily until near the end. He was the only member remaining of his original six-man gun crew that left from England. Shirley’s put together a remembrance album and she’s gone to the local schools and talked with the students about Operation Husky.”

After Sicily, Vic continued on with the Italian campaign participating in the Battle of Ortona and the Battle of Montecassino. He went on to serve in Germany, France, Belgium and Holland and received six medals for his service.

After I snapped photos of George’s t-shirt and of Charlotte and her father holding the Operation Husky flag they were carrying, I heard George call to Shirley, “Can you believe she’s from Mafeking? What are the odds of seeing a Mafeking girl in Sicily? We should buy a lottery ticket.”

I couldn’t help but think of how lucky I was to stumble upon the Gervais family and how lucky Vic was to return to his prairie home in Saskatchewan.

Canadian Geographic Education has created classroom activities on Operation Husky. Please go to www.cangeoeducation.ca.

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