The Learning is Always Better When it’s Personal (Part 1) – Educational Blog by Maryanne Lewell

I know this, in my teacher brain. You know, the part of my brain that can talk rubrics, and SMART goals, and formulate differentiated lesson plans…  the part of my brain that dominates from September to June, every year. But, you know how it goes, after awhile it all becomes, well, academic.

Sicily hit a reset button on my teaching.

As a graduate student with the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for War and Society, I was able to travel to Sicily this June. The majority of participants on the tour were Canadian Forces officers, plus a handful of graduate students, two American NCOs and two American high school teachers sponsored by the US First Division Museum in Cantigny, Illinois. The goal of the tour was to explore the Allied landings of OP HUSKY and the battle for Sicily in 1943; we were led by the exceptionally capable team of Dr. Lee Windsor and Cindy Brown representing Canada, and Dr. John Curatola and Dr. Greg Hospdor representing the United States.

From the very first day, arriving in Sicily’s bright sunshine and stepping out of the airport at Catania to see Mount Etna’s plume of smoke gently rising in the distance, the tour challenged what I thought I knew about the Sicilian campaign, and my emphasis (or lack thereof) on it in my own teaching. I had prepared for the staff ride by reading the assigned book, Carlo d’Este’s Bitter Victory, in which he assesses OP HUSKY and the liberation of Sicily as flawed and hollow, decrying  “the Allied failure to win a decisive victory in Sicily.”  I had also read Bill McAndrew’s assessment of firepower in the Sicilian theatre, among other readings. The narrative that was taking shape in my mind when I arrived was an error-riddled, flawed campaign that was unable to create momentum, thus allowing the Germans to escape to the mainland while Patton and Montgomery raced to Messina.  Sound familiar?

Maryanne and Lee in Sicily

The leaders of the tour spent the week dismantling all of these ideas, beginning with Montgomery facing a replay of the Somme on the flat plains of Catania in the shadow of Mount Etna, where the Germans had planned to build a strongly defended Winter Line: unwilling to risk Great War attrition-style warfare and its attendant casualties, the thrust of the attack fell instead to the Canadians pushing through the foothills skirting the volcano. It’s hills. It’s all hills. Up one and down the next, and then repeat. In the hottest heat I can imagine. As a coastal girl, I can only imagine how shocking it must have been to the Canadians, arriving from training in Scotland, to have to rapidly acclimatize to desert conditions. I was exhausted after walking in it for an hour or so and then returning to the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle: it’s hard to argue that the armies were moving slowly when you consider the barriers posed by the heat and the hills.

The well-trod historical ground of inter-allied tension (Monty vs Patton and all that) was also challenged by the tour leaders, who pointed out that the Canadian First Division and American First Division fought side by side, pushing along the same axis to place Corps-level pressure on the German defenses while Patton scooped around where mobility was possible in the West.

There was a lot of ground covered: from the landing beaches at Pachino and Gela, around the Catania Plain, to the hills of Assoro, Leonforte, Agira, Troina, and finally all the way to Messina.  At every stop, the historical narrative I thought I understood was challenged.

I teach Social Studies 9 (the theme is Canadian Identity) and Modern History 11 in New Brunswick. In both of these classes, I get to talk about the Second World War, with emphasis on the Canadian contributions.  The historical narrative that has been set up in our textbooks is pretty traditional, it that privileges the Northwest Europe campaign: Dieppe leads to D-Day, and the Italian campaign is mentioned only briefly. D-day dodgers, in sunny Italy. There are two specific battles emphasized in the grade 9 text, they are Ortona and Monte Cassino.  To the text’s credit, it does mention the landings briefly, particularly their destabilizing impact on Italian politics. Pachino is on the map along with Ortona and Cassino – but the emphasis is on the later battles.

I was surprised, in my readings and on the tour, to see how involved Canadians had actually been in OP HUSKY.

So why isn’t this in my textbook?

I’m at a loss to understand why, especially here in Southern New Brunswick, the story of OP HUSKY and the Sicilian Campaign has slid into relative obscurity. For many of our veterans, this was their theatre of operations: just look at the units who participated in the campaign, and you will find amongst the better-known Loyal Eddies and Hasty P’s the Carleton and York Regiment out of Fredericton, the 8th (Princess Louise’s) Hussars from Sussex, and 3rd Field Artillery from Saint John.

Like a broken record during the week of in Sicily I repeated “seriously, why aren’t we teaching this?”

So why aren’t we?  Here’s how I see it now: OP HUSKY and the invasion of Sicily works much better as a kind of “beta test” or “roto zero” for OP OVERLORD than Dieppe does – it’s not a raid with an expected extraction time, it has combined operations between ground, naval and air forces, and it has co-operation (and competition) between Allies at the highest level of command. Being able to compare apples to apples would be a good exercise for my grade 11s – how were these operations similar, and how were they different? What do you think the planners learned in the 11 months between these two operations? What was the civilian experience on the ground during these two ops?  How was it different from the perspective of an ordinary soldier?

Almost immediately, I started thinking in terms of lesson plans, and seeing how my teaching was evolving with the exposure to new historical thinking. And if I want to make my lessons personal and relevant to my students, shouldn’t I be talking about the area where our local soldiers were most likely to be?

I can now draw on my own experience with this: as part of the tour, all participants were assigned a soldier as part of the Lest We Forget Project. The idea is to bear witness to that soldier’s life, while standing at his grave. I’ve seen this done before, and I’ve presented them before while leading professional development for teachers in NW Europe. I’ve even done this project with my students as an online blog. But this time was different, because it was family.  My great-uncle, Howard Blinn, was killed in Sicily on July 22nd 1943.  He was 29 years old. I was able to interview his widow, his sons and his half-sister; I also saw the letters he wrote while he was away training in Scotland and eventually in Sicily.  Following in his unit’s footsteps and seeing his grave was an intensely emotional experience for me.

Obviously, being on the ground changes your interpretation of the events.  This is one of the basic principles of teaching: there’s nothing like first-hand learning.

Maryanne at her Great Uncle’s Grave in Agira

But now when I’m talking about the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment’s epic early-morning climb up Assoro (and I will, because that’s a great story) I can talk about the crazy slope of the hill, Sicily’s oppressive heat, and how a lack of water can cause you to shake like a leaf.  Or how the towns like Leonforte, where 3rd Field artillery fought, are built atop the hills. In order to reach them the armour had to climb slowly along roads filled with hairpin turns so extreme that every day I had to take gravol to avoid motion sickness.  And I can tell the kids about my great-uncle Howard of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, and how his grave overlooks Agira, and gets the shade of the trees in the late afternoon.

Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the OP HUSKY landings.  I think it’s time we teachers, our textbooks, and our curricula gave Canada’s Sicilian history its due.

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