Trumpeting Dixie on their musical horns, a parade of vintage Italian compacts cars drove down Corso Umberto I in Leonforte. People scrambled to the sidewalk to avoid the fun-sized motorcade. My wife and I were surprised to find the town bustling with so many people on the first Sunday of October. Its cobblestone streets were lined with food stalls. Billows of smoke brightened by the morning sunshine rose from sizzling grills and infused the brisk autumn air with intoxicating aromas.
We had stumbled on the Sagra della Pesca, an annual food fair. Celebrating their recent harvest, farmers had come from far and wide to display the region’s cornucopia of delicacies — cured meat, wine and cheese — and each one had to be sampled. A busking teenager played an upbeat tarantella on his accordion. “Isn’t that from ‘The Godfather’?” I asked.
“No,” said Roberta, “that’s ‘C’è la luna mezzo mare’, a traditional Sicilian song.” She sampled a local cheese and smacked her lips. “They have all the ingredients we need for a fantastic picnic,” she said. Being Sicilian, and my wife, she knew what to choose.
“Looking around at today’s lively, kid-friendly harvest fest,” I said, as I bit into a slice of capocollo dolce, a salami that a vendor with a weather-beaten face had offered me, “it’s hard to reconcile what happened here 80 years ago.” Evidence of the violence was all but gone, buried deep below cobblestones and hidden behind walls, but Leonforte was once the site of a fierce World War II battle between invading Canadian forces and defending German and Italian forces.
I am Canadian and Roberta and I live on Vancouver Island. Since marrying five years ago, she and I have visited Sicily on four occasions together. Based in Messina, her hometown, we usually stay for a month so she can take care of her aging parents, restore familial ties, and look up old friends. Each time, we explore somewhere new. My interest in history has taken us to a few hidden wonders of Sicilian antiquity that not even Roberta had seen before. Previously, we toured the ancient Greek temples and theatres in the coastal cities, explored Norman cathedrals and spent time on the Aeolian Islands, but this was our first time travelling away from the coast.
As we drove inland from the Ionian sea, away from Mount Etna’s ever-watchful cyclopian eye, Sicily became more arid and the countryside unfolded like ripples of roasted ricotta. The roads were in good nick, there were few cars, and the view transformed with every mile, winding over a wheaten, sun-dried land — the grain fields that once fed an ambivalent Rome. There has been a human presence here for 16,000 years. Before that, giant swans and Pygmy elephants ranged. When the Greeks arrived in the 8th Century BC they found remains of a creature that had a massive skull with a large cavity in the centre of its forehead, and naturally assumed the island was inhabited by cyclopses, rather than small elephants. Persephone, the mythological embodiment of Spring and fertility, is said to have been gathering flowers with nymphs in a field near here when Hades blasted through a fissure in the earth and dragged her into the underworld. The result was famine and drought. I suggested to Roberta that we make a diversion to Leonforte as part of the research I needed to do for a book I am writing.
Like a lion surveying the savannah, the town stood high on the terrain. During Sicily’s Byzantine period, and later under the Muslim Emirate of Sicily, it was fortified. In 1610 Nicolò Placido Branciforti founded a city here, naming it Leonforte in tribute to his family’s coat of arms. And in the summer of 1943, Leonforte was a large, modern town by Sicilian standards, with around 20,000 natives living alongside Germany’s 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
In July 1943, the 1st Canadian Division participated in the Allied invasion of Sicily, the first major pushback against the fascists in the Second World War. After landing on the beaches in the southeast of the island, they had advanced with little resistance against Sicilian and Italian forces. Still, communications, bridges, and culverts had been systematically destroyed by the retreating Germans, who then scattered mines everywhere. Because of its high iron content, the lava soil made it harder to detect mines in Sicily which caused the Allies long and serious delays.
“Drive the Canadians hard,” ordered General Montgomery, and hard they were driven, over steep sun-caked hills and through fiery valleys and across the barren Sicilian countryside. It was so hot that medical orderlies could not get accurate readings because their thermometers would not drop below the 102-degree mark. July is not among the months recommended for tourist travel in Sicily. But no one had told the men of the 1st Division that, eh.
In late July, the Canadians were given the unenviable task of taking Leonforte from the Germans. The approach to the town was a steep ravine, spanned by a long bridge that German engineers had destroyed before the Canadians arrived. While under heavy fire, four of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment’s rifle units managed to negotiate the ravine and enter Leonforte at midday. German and Italian defenders, now reinforced by tanks, launched a furious counterattack. As the sun set, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment was surrounded by enemy forces and completely cut off in the medieval town’s centre. But as the enemy closed in, they held their position.
“We were in the northeast corner of the town,” wrote Major Henry Bell-Irving. “My idea at the time was that we’re here, and we’d better stay. I thought we might find something relatively strong that we could hold, and stay there until somebody caught up. There were German tanks in the street, and I can remember lying in the ditch with a tank right alongside me, and another firing along the ditch with tracer. There was tracer all over the place. We tried to throw grenades into the tanks, but it was quite hopeless.”
During the night, a Sicilian boy with a note addressed to “any Canadian or British Officer” managed to slip through German lines and deliver the message to the commander of the 2nd Brigade. That brave ragazzo had thrown the encircled Canadians a life line. The next morning, crossing a bridge that had been hastily erected before dawn across the ravine by Canadian engineers, tanks and anti-tank guns arrived and attacked the town. German troops attempted to counter the assault, and vicious house-to-house fighting ensued. By noon, however, Leonforte was entirely in Allied hands and Canadian pipes and drums played in the town square.
Canuks aren’t known for their imperial aspirations. Canada was colonized but not a colonizer. And yet, for a brief spell in history, we occupied this part of Sicily. I wish that made me proud, but the battle has a darker side. In their book, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory, Samuel W. Mitcham and Stephen Von Stauffenberg allege that Canadian soldiers shot dead unarmed German prisoners in full view of their comrades who were still fighting. Canadian Armed Forces have never acknowledged that war crimes were committed here. But the Germans claim it is the reason the fighting was so fierce. “This occurrence soon became known throughout the division and heightened its determination to resist,” said General Eberhard Rodt, commander of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. The occurrence is impossible to verify as most of those who survived have since passed on. Google “war crimes by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment in Sicily” and nothing comes up. Another Sicilian mystery goes unsolved.
Roberta and I found an idyllic spot in an olive grove surrounded by cedars overlooking Leonforte, and tucked into our picnic of delicacies. At midday, the town’s terracotta and mustard-walled buildings glowed like a beacon. Our picnic owed much to the sacrifices made here on this now comely and peaceful battleground. We raised a glass of rustic wine for the fallen, friend and foe, the many young Canadians, Italians and Germans who gave their lives here. And unlike most of the many wars fought over Sicily since time immemorial, this one was for a good cause.