I have had the good fortune of being an historian/guide on study tours of the Italian campaign. Since 2005, my colleague and now husband Lee Windsor and I have delivered courses and professional development tours to Sicily and Italy for undergraduate and graduate students as well as serving Canadian and US military officers.

The 2008 SDF Graduate Tour led by Lee Windsor (far right) and Cindy Brown (far left)

After meeting Ontario high school teacher and veteran’s advocate Blake Seward, we now incorporate the ‘Lest We Forget’ project into each tour.  Participants deliver a presentation about the life and death of a fallen soldier at their burial site at Commonweatlh War Graves and U.S. Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries across Italy. Students are provided with the personnel file for their soldier and are encouraged to seek out other means to understand who that soldier was. Some find newspaper sources and others contact the family. The impact of walking the sacred ground where Allied soldiers fought and fell and then visiting the grave of a family member, friend, or a soldier with whom they have become acquainted is enormous.  Casualty statistics take on much greater meaning.

We don’t just walk participants through sites of battle. We also take them to places that that tell the story of the impact of war on civilians caught in the crossfire. The Italian people so often help us out in this aspect of our course by randomly showing up at a stand and recounting their story of bombardments, the arrival of Canadian troops who gave them chocolate, the destruction of their home, or the death of a family member. Other Italians drag us all (sometimes a group as large as 16) into their homes for local coffee, their homemade wine or freshly harvested produce while they show us precious artefacts collected on their land after the war. It is something we can never plan for but that adds such value to the experience of our students.

Enjoying the Hospitality of the Sicilians on the 2008 SDF Graduate Tour

In Sicily, we visit Cristoforo who lives near the Ponte Dirillo, a few miles east of the American landing at Gela. Cristoforo was a young boy during the war and is probably in his 70s now. On his land lie the remnants of an Italian pillbox network. On the side of his house is a monument to the 82nd Airborne Division. Cristoforo was just a boy when the Allies landed in Sicily and recounts his horror for us.  He personally witnessed the death of two American soldiers killed outside of his door as the battle raged between Jim Gavin’s paratroops and the Hermann Goering Division.  Every year, he welcomes Lee and I and a new group of complete strangers with open arms and offers fresh sweet blood oranges picked from his trees. Cristoforo faithfully brings out pictures and books of wartime photographs but also more recent photographs of celebrations at the monument he helped to fund in honour of 82nd Airborne. Last May 2010, he got down on his hands and knees and bid that we follow him into the tunnels of the pillbox network that he had excavated. During his excavations he found spent US and German ammunition casings that became parting gifts for everyone.

On the Italian mainland, outside Potenza, we visit the Verrastro family (of three generations). Their small farm is the perfect vantage point to overlook the large railway junction town of Potenza, taken in a dramatic action by the West Nova Scotia Regiment in September 1943.  In the weeks preceding the capture of the town Allied bombers repeatedly struck the rail yards. When the West Novas finally entered the battered town, they were greeted with the horrid stench of 2000 civilians killed and buried in the rubble.  It is ironic that despite the destruction of Potenza, at our viewing place at the Verrastro family home we are always greeted warmly with open arms and many baci. Every year, this family that has so little, prepares us coffee as we use their vista over the battlefield.  They are always grateful that young people want to learn about Potenza’s wartime experience.

In the final days of our undergraduate program, we spend two nights around Monte Sole.   There, in September-October 1944, 770 women, children and elderly Italian civilians were murdered by elements of 16 SS Panzergrenadier. It is amazing to observe the students struggle to understand how such an atrocity could be carried out as they walk the ruins of villages erased by the war. Although survivors of the massacre are dwindling with the passing of years, hearing their stories at these sites makes a significant impact on the students. Because it is such a shock and so little known, Monte Sole often turns out to be the part of the course that makes the most impact on our students.  The visit always leads to discussion about why the war against Germany had to be fought and won.

These are the elements that are not found in English language histories of the Second World War in Italy. But the Italian campaign, as with all modern conflict, was not fought in a vacuum. Civilians lived and died on the battlefield.  In all wars there are extraordinary stories of suffering and survival as the innocent endure days, weeks, or months of war. Their stories have become my life’s work.

For more information on the undergraduate battlefield study tour of the Italian Campaign click here.

Cindy Brown is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Ontario and a research associate of the LCMSDS