By Sam McBride

The first reunion of Canadian veterans who served in the Italian Campaign in World War Two was held in Sicily and mainland Italy between April 22, 1975 and May 4, 1975, commemorating the 30th anniversary.

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C  over of souvenir album of the reunion.  Photo by John Evans is of Canadian veterans beside reflecting pool during ceremony at Cassino War Cemetery.  Published by Minister of Supply and Services Canada 1976.

 

 

 

Three hundred veterans joined with the official party led by the Hon. Daniel Joseph MacDonald (1918-1980), minister of veteran affairs, other dignitaries and a selection of young people from across Canada.  Participants included three Victoria Cross recipients from the campaign: John K. Mahoney; Brigadier Paul Triquet and E.A. “Smoky” Smith.

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itinerary, page 1

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itinerary, page 2.  Also in the schedule were “Briefings in Ottawa and arrival in Rome, April 20-22, 1975.

Minister MacDonald was a sergeant in the Italian Campaign with the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, and later the Cape Breton Highlanders.  He lost an arm and a leg in the bitter fighting December 21, 1944 for Coriano Ridge in the assault on the Gothic Line.  Today, the headquarters of Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown is named in his honour: the Daniel J. MacDonald Building.

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photos with caption information from Veterans Affairs published in the Nelson, B.C. Daily News in May 1975.  Leigh McBride was born and raised in Nelson before moving to nearby Trail, B.C. in 1969.

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another photo with caption in the Nelson Daily News, May 1975

 

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ortona pic0001It was the first time Canadian vets returned as a group to the scene of the fierce battles of their youth, and paid their respects to fallen comrades in cemeteries from Agira in Sicily to Argentan north of Ravenna on the Adriatic Coast.  According to Veterans Affairs information at the time, a total of 91,500 Canadians served in Sicily and Italy, of whom 25,254 were casualties, including 5,900 killed in action.

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Seaforth Highlanders Leigh McBride (left) and Borden Cameron (right) with General Bert Hoffmeister (middle) during a side trip to Venice. Family photo.

The tour was described as a “pilgrimage”, and included events in famous names such as Salerno, Naples, Rome, Anzio, Cassino, Ortona, Bari, Reggio, Ragusa, Catania, Florence, Rimini and Ravenna, and 25 cemeteries.

There was some overlap with other ceremonies for a separate commemoration: the country of Italy’s 30th anniversary of the liberation from German rule in 1945.

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Welcomed by local residents.  Family photo.

I recall that my father, retired Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, initially did not want to go to the “Canadians in Italy Reunion”.  After coming home to Nelson, British Columbia in 1945 he preferred to put the war experience behind him, though he maintained strong friendships with several Seaforth veterans such as his commanding officer Col. Syd Thomson (who was my godfather), Captain D. Borden Cameron and Major John McLean.

Leigh suffered a bullet wound in his shoulder in the Allied invasion of Sicily in August 1943, and then May 23, 1944 at Cassino he suffered shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and face that resulted in the loss of his right eye.  The only survivor of his unit, he was found unconscious by German soldiers, and taken to hospital in Rome for treatment, and then to prisoner of war camps in Germany.  He returned to Canada in February 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  On September 16, 1944, while Leigh was at the Oflag 7B prison camp, his younger brother, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride (1920-1944) was killed near Rimini when his carrier vehicle ran over a road mine.

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Posing for photo with local residents.  Family photo.

With strong encouragement from Borden Cameron (the quartermaster who organized the famous Seaforth Christmas 1943 dinner at the Ortona church in the middle of the battle), Leigh decided to attend the reunion.   He was particularly looking forward to visiting brother Ken’s grave in Coriano Ridge Cemetery near Riccione for the first time.   Paying his respects at Ken’s grave was an extremely moving experience for him, as it was for me when I visited the cemetery as a tourist in 2005.  This posting includes a candid photo Borden took of Leigh standing by the gravestone and reflecting of Ken’s death, which was devastating for their parents, particularly mother Winnie who never recovered from the shock.  On September 20, 1944 the parents were thrilled to hear the news that Leigh, who had been missing for four months, was alive and in a POW camp.  They were still celebrating two days later when a telegram came that said Ken had died six days earlier.

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Remembrance ceremony under way.  Family photo.

Participants in the tour got from place to place in sleek Fiat buses.  Leigh told his family he was extremely impressed with how Italy had recovered from the war, when people were starving and living in dilapidated homes damaged by the warfare.  He particularly enjoyed side trips to Venice and Mount Etna.  The experience led him to become an aficionado of Italian art and architecture.  Unfortunately, by the time he retired from his job with the legal department of Cominco Ltd.

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Borden Cameron, Leigh McBride and fellow veterans.  Family photo.

In retrospect, the 30th anniversary was probably the best time for the reunion in Italy to be held, as participants were generally still in good health, were advanced enough in their careers to be able to take a couple of weeks off work, and could afford the cost of the flights to and from Italy and other expenses not covered by Veterans Affairs or the local hosts.

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Leigh joins other tourists during a side trip to Venice in late April 1975..

Leigh would not have been able to attend a 40th anniversary reunion in 1985 because he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinsons Disease.  Ten years later he died at age 77 in a care home in Trail on August 12, 1995, a couple of months after the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Italy.

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1942 photo of Leigh McBride (left) and his brother Ken, who was killed in action near Rimini in September 1944 and is buried at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

As part of the publicity associated with the reunion, Veterans Affairs distributed photos with identification and caption information to the local newspapers of participants.  Both the Nelson Daily News and the Trail Daily Times ran the material in early May 1995, and the Trail paper passed on the photo prints to Leigh for the family album, from which I am very pleased to be able to scan and share images in this posting.  Local residents, some of whom lived through the war years, showed their Canadian visitors heartfelt welcomes and appreciation, as shown in several of the photos.  A highlight was a parade of the Canadian veterans through Rimini to a response by locals that was described by writer Maurice Western in the May 15, 1975 Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper as “tumultuous”.

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Leigh McBride, seeing his brother Ken’s grave for the first time at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Photo taken by Borden Cameron.  Family photo.

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ceremony at Coriano Ridge Cemetery.  Family photo.

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Cemetery ceremony.  Family photo.