Kate LeBlanc photo/Telegraph-Journal

Saint John High students take a step back in time

by Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon - Sunday, November 23, 2008

This article is courtesy of Tekegraph-Journal

Remembrance Battle of Ortona was one of Canada's greatest achievements of Second World War.

SAINT JOHN - Brandon D'Souza always had a close relationship with his grandfather, who lived next door as he was growing up.

But the late Clement Edward Shea never talked much about his military service overseas during the Second World War.

"Even on Remembrance Days, he never mentioned too much," D'Souza said. "I think he was humble about it...He just saw it as his duty" to serve.

On Tuesday, however, D'Souza will get to see first-hand one of the places where his "Gumpy" served as a sergeant in a tank division of the 8th Princess Louise's, earning eight medals that are proudly displayed in his family's west side home.

D'Souza is one of six Saint John High School students travelling to Italy today to participate in remembrance ceremonies commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona.

"I feel very lucky and honoured to get a chance to retrace his footsteps; to see where he and many others fought for peace and freedom for us and other people around the world," said D'Souza, 16.

It will also be his first time overseas, he said. "I think it will be a really interesting and amazing experience."

Remembering Ortona is a national tour, being organized out of Ontario. The Saint John High group will be the only students representing New Brunswick, said teacher Maryanne Lewell, who will accompany and supervise them.

"This will be a really unique experience," said Lewell, who teaches history and social studies.

Each student will represent a former Saint John High student who was a soldier killed in Ortona - with the exception of D'Souza, whose grandfather returned to Saint John in 1946 after six years of service in Italy, Belgium and Holland, and died of natural causes in April, 2006.

The Grade 11 and 12 students have all researched their assigned soldier's life and will each give a short grave side presentation about them. They will also assist in the ceremony by carrying flags and laying wreaths.

"It's a way to bring the history of that event to the kids in a way that makes it very real and personal," Lewell said.

The students all volunteered to go and to pay their own way - about $3,000 each.

For some, such as D'Souza and Ashley Eadie, who comes from a military family, it was for personal reasons. "There's a real sense of connection for them," said Lewell, whose great uncle also fought in Italy, although not in Ortona. For others, it was a general interest in history and an opportunity to travel, she said.

The Battle of Ortona was a small but fierce battle in 1943 between German paratroops and assaulting Canadian forces, including the Carleton and York Regiment out of Fredericton and the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's) of Sussex, Lewell said.

Canadian forces had been ordered to take the medieval seaport of Ortona. It was of high strategic importance as it was one of Italy's few usable deep water ports on the east coast and was needed for docking allied ships.

Ortona was impregnable from three sides, flanked by sea cliffs on the north and east and a deep ravine on the west. So Canadian troops attacked from the south on Dec. 20. It was difficult to get the tanks through the narrow, twisting roads. And the soldiers would have been vulnerable to sniper fire out on the streets. So they went house to house by cutting holes in the walls of the old buildings, which butted up against each other. It was one of the first times the tactic, called mouse-holing, was used.

On Dec. 28, the depleted German troops, who lacked reinforcements, finally withdrew from the town. It was considered among Canada's greatest achievements during the war. But the price was high. More than 1,370 Canadians were killed in and around Ortona, almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign.

Some of the surviving Canadian veterans are expected to participate in the ceremony of remembrance on Tuesday, Lewell said. A representative of Veterans Affairs Canada is also scheduled to attend.

Following the ceremony, the students will walk from the cemetery into the town, where they'll have lunch in the same location the Canadian soldiers ate their Christmas dinner in 1943. In the afternoon, they'll attend the town's own ceremony.

The students are scheduled to fly out of Saint John today, arrive in Italy on Saturday and spend a couple of days in Rome, visiting sites such as the Roman Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. On Tuesday, they'll be in Ortona. Then they'll visit Monte Cassino, the site of another battle, and go back to Rome for a mass for Canadian soldiers at St. Peter's Basilica before flying home.

ortona1.jpg - Brandon D'Souza displays his grandfathers medals, which include the 1939-45 Star, the Italy Star, the France and German Star, the Defence Medal, the 1939-45 War Medal, the Canadian Forces Decoration, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the Holland Liberation Medal. - Taken by Kate LeBlanc photo/Telegraph-Journal

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