Libby Yanch is a school colleague and friend of mine and when I mention that I am collaborating with an art teacher for a school contribution to Operation Husky 2018, she shares that her great uncle, Wilfred Joseph (Bill) Nolan, fought in Operation Husky in 1943. Libby’s great uncle was from Pembroke, Ontario. Early in my relationship with Dave, our first trip together is in Sicily for ten, extraordinarily hot and sunny days. We drove all over the place and often came across locations where Dave would sweep his arm over a breathtaking vista and say “this is where the Hastings and Prince Edward County Regiment were involved in a skirmish” or in a tight hairpin turn pronounce “this is the site where the Hasty P's did such and such”. Libby’s great uncle never spoke about his wartime experiences to his family. It was only after a stranger phoned her father many years later, that the family had some insight into his contributions to Operation Husky and the Italian Campaign. Libby came back to school with two black and white photos of her great uncle Bill to share with me and his exploits, recounted by Mark Zuehlke, in Ortona – one where he is relaxing in a hayfield and the other in his uniform on a motorbike. I can’t stop thinking about what it must have been like to be in the landing craft as he came ashore on the beaches of Sicily and had to walk across the island. Most of their trucks were lost when two ships were sunk the day before landing.
To see if I can find out more, I order Farley Mowat’s, The Regiment, a history of the Hasty P's, from the Wolfe Island library. It turns out that Sgt. Bill Nolan’s story is included in this history of the infantry regiment. It’s quite surprising to find out that a small part of your family history is caught in the pages of this iconic Canadian author’s words. Bill Nolan’s story is one of bravery and leadership, where he led ten Canadians in an attack that provided critical intelligence for the others in the unit.
Farley Mowat narrates:
“Baker company followed up the enemy’s defeat and Sgt. Bill Nolan, with ten men attacked and overran a house controlling the road junction, capturing eighteen German paratroopers in the process.
The capture of the paratroopers was a disquieting event. It was the first indication that the enemy’s finest formation, the Paratroop Division, was arriving upon the scene, and it meant fighting ahead would be of unprecedented ferocity.” (page 145)
I wonder as I read this passage what that enterprise must have been like for those eleven Canadian soldiers. The detail is not there. Sgt. Bill Nolan earned the Military Medal for this action. Dave shares that he mentions this narrative with clients when he is standing at San Donato, on his Italian battlefield tours – a Canadian story that highlights the peril Canadians faced against the German forces as they advanced towards Ortona. They would have known on this day that what lay ahead of them was going to be increasingly challenging. The Paratroop Divisions were known for their skill and fierceness.