Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Research: A Good Book, a Good Connection

CBC Correspondent in Italy, Sept. 1943 (So Was Dad)

Canadian 80th Flotilla, including my father, in Italy, Sept. 1943

David Halton's book about his father's writing, reporting and broadcasting career - including significant work during World war II - is the type I cannot put down. When I returned it to a friend yesterday he said in amazement, "Done already?"

Three days. It took three days to read it thoroughly and I savoured every page - during morning coffee, after meals, while riding my exercise bike. David was writing about his father and I saw my own on several pages. That's the type of read I enjoy most.

Matt Halton produced a deep, rich supply of outstanding stories

Matt Halton and my father likely swam in the same water and walked - bare-bummed - on the same beaches in North Africa, though perhaps a year apart as far as their written accounts go. But they may have crossed from Messina, Sicily to Reggio de Calabria, Italy during the same week in September, 1943, and possibly in the same flotilla of landing craft.

Photo as found in Dispatches From The Front. M. Halton, far left

The book tells us Matt and "several other correspondents" stood nervously at Messina, very near the shore of the seven-mile-wide strait that separates Sicily from Italy,  and "along with hundreds of young soldiers from Maritime regiments" on September 2, 1943. My father was on an Allied craft designed to carry tanks (LST), not too far away.

Matt recalls that he and other correspondents selected to cross "with the first assault wave of Canadian troops" were soon witness to one of the greatest bombardments by Allied guns during the war.

From Page 191, Dispatches From The Front

My father very likely witnessed the same bombardment from the vantage point of the LST, and shortly after the guns had stopped, he began the first of several seven-mile-long journies to Italy's shore. While transporting Allied supplies, he saw the terrible results of bombardment.

He writes:

There was no resistance. The air force had done a complete job and there wasn’t a whole building standing and the railroad yards were ripped to shreds. How long we worked across the straits I cannot really recall, but perhaps into October. ("DAD, WELL DONE", Page 35

Mr. Hanlon writes that his father was not greeted by Germans once in Reggio di Calabria but by surrendering Italian soldiers. He notes that Mussolini was no longer in power ("overthrown") and that Italy's new leaders "would formally capitulate on September 8."

Matt Hanlon, fond of a reason to celebrate with a drink, very likely raised a glass on September 8. 

About that same time my father writes the following:

About half of the Canadian sailors went back to England after the Sicilian campaign. That left about 125 (of us) to work about a month across the straits. During that time we received mail and parcels. We worked alongside captured Italian and Sicilian soldiers who were loading our landing craft, egged on by Sweet Caporal cigarettes and some canned food. There were no P.O.W. camps and prisoners wandered freely. The Germans had made good their well-planned escape ahead of the invasion. On occasion during the action along the beaches at Sicily and the quieter time at Italy, we often saw big green turtles swimming about. They didn’t know there was a war on.

Some buddies and I spent my 23rd birthday (Sept. 6, 1943) singing our lungs out in a cottage-style house near the beach (Sicily), complete with a piano but incomplete with no roof. I had my guitar along and we all had some vino. About midnight with the hilarity in full swing, thunder rolled, the skies opened and the first rain in months came pouring in. Soaked inside and out we headed to where we belonged, singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” as big as life and twice as natural.

One night shortly after that event I was all snug in my hammock, mosquito netting all tucked in (it took a while). I was ready to drop off to sleep when all hell broke loose on the beach. Machine gun fire, tracer bullets drawing colourful arcs in the dark sky. Someone shook my hammock and asked if I was coming to the beach party - Italy had thrown in the sponge. I said, “No, I’m not coming, and would you please keep it down to a dull roar because I want to log some sleep.” (The Norwich Gazette, circa 1992)

So, it seems my father raised a glass as well. Perhaps one too many. ("Go easy on the vino, Doug," I would say).

Naval ratings off duty enjoying a bathe on the North African coast
at Oran or Mers-El-Kebir. Photo - Imperial War Museum, Nov. 1942

Mr. Halton and Mr. Harrison saw many of the same sights, bared their butt cheeks when opportunities arose, crossed the same straits at the same time and likely toasted Allied victories and mourned losses of good friends and mates at similar times and in similar ways.

I salute them both.

Please link to Research: In Comox and Courtenay, BC (10).

Photos GH

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