Canadians remembered in Villanova

Taking an interest in my family's military history I began a journey starting back in 2003 that has taken me to France, Holland, Germany and Italy.

I have learned an incredible amount particularly about the fighting in Italy, but more importantly, along the way, I have met some extraordinary people.

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It is said the Italian Campaign is the forgotten campaign and that the D-Day Dodgers were not given due recognition for their service and sacrifice. The Italian Campaign lasted from 1943-45 and following months of heavy fighting, immense casualties and loss of life, these seasoned soldiers continued on to fight in north western Europe. In Italy a total of 92,757 Canadians served their country, 5,764 died, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 captured.

In France numerous memorials can be seen along the D-day beaches and small towns. There appeared not to be the same reflection on military history in Italy as there was in France. I saw few memorials for the soldiers' efforts but from what I learned about our soldiers, who showed great tenacity, determination and achievements, I wondered why this was not so. What I did find was a quiet remembrance and respect along the way.

During my "tours'" in Italy I met Italian citizens near Cassino and in Villanova in Northern Italy in who were knowledgeable about the fighting in the area during WW2. Three years ago I began helping with research for a research group in Villanova. Reviewing Canadian newspapers from 1943-1945 and talking to Italian citizens I have learned so much about our courageous, determined soldiers, the legacy they have left, and the impact they had on the Italian citizens of whom they liberated.

In Northern Italy, in the province of Ravenna, in the Commune of Bagnacavallo lies the Villanova Canadian War Cemetery. It was selected as a cemetery by the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division, which is heavily represented there. Most of the Canadian war dead belong to one of four regiments - the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment, the Fourth Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the Perth Regiment and the Irish Regiment of Canada. The majority of these four regiments were killed following the Lamone River crossing in December 1944.

It was in the vicinity of Villanova that troops of this division succeeded in establishing a bridgehead over the Lamone River Dec. 10-11, 1944. West of the bridgehead was heavy fighting in the following days when attempts were made to cross the three canals that run from Faenza to the sea. From Dec. 12-15 the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment and the Fourth PLDG suffered heavily in these attempts. Eighty-five of the burials in the cemetery come from these two regiments. Others include those killed in the advance to the final line held by the Canadians on the River Senio before they left Italy in February 1945. The Villanova Canadian War Cemetery contains 212 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 205 are Canadians and there is one unknown soldier. The other six were members of the British Army.

In the Village of Villanova lives Rosalia Fantoni. As a small child she lived in fear and hunger as war raged on around her. Her father and uncle (partisans) were hung by the SS in front of their home just two weeks before the Canadians liberated Villanova. Villanova was liberated on Dec. 11, 1944 by the Cape Breton Highlanders.

For many years Rosalia has remembered their sacrifice and wanted to know all she could about Canadians. She read books, travelled to Canada in her dreams, remembering the kindness and peace brought to her by these men. She wanted to know about them to "understand the generosity that drove their actions."

She has written a book called Casa lontano da casa (Home Away From Home). It is a collection of stories, poems, some military history and all the Canadian War dead resting in Villanova are listed in the back of the book. She feels strongly that these men should not be forgotten.

An excerpt from Rosalia's book is as follows:

"For many soldiers, time stopped on the soil of Romagna, in the town of Villanova, on the river Senio. Their homes were far away in Canada, where the rays of the moon lay gently on the faces of children falling asleep in a young and healthy fatigue.

"Their 'home away from home' was the war-torn country of Italy, the towns of Villanova and Bagnacavallo.

"Here, a place where fear kept people indoors, holding their breath while the distant noise of bombs loomed everywhere. By night, only the voice of the fountains sounded through the streets of towns frightened into submission by the spectre of death, where only the innocent victims of unannounced aerial bombardments remained, their bodies strewn amid shards of glass and rubble.

"The liberators, caked in mud and dust, made their way through villages of destroyed houses, schools full of evacuees and refugees, unusable railways; and in the background, the constant rumble of bombs, the grenades that wrought havoc on so much human life, artillery fire that made the walls shake and the air tremble.

"The memory of these days survives in its telling; and suffering, in its telling is like a great thaw - the thaw that turned the snow of Auschwitz to tears.

"It is vitally important that we keep these memories alive!"

Every Dec.11, a ceremony is held at the cemetery and each grave glows with a small candle.

The research group of Villanova/Bagnacavallo want to publish another book. They want to know more about the men buried in Villanova. They would like to place a face to the name of these men, know something about them. They consider these boys as their own sons, exact words spoken to me by an Italian gentleman who was there to greet us at the cemetery. As he spoke to me he cried as he told me he had two boys. Clearly these men have not been forgotten.

I was not sure how successful I would be in searching for families of the 205 men buried in the cemetery, but have found 105 families to date. Approximately 70 photos have been obtained. The research group is working hard and is excited about this project. Other Canadians are also helping dig up war diaries of these regiments, working toward making this project a success.

I am honoured to be involved and more than that want to let families know that a little "prairie" like town in Northern Italy remembers.

Villanova is so like the little prairie town that so many of these soldiers came from.

Rosalia's dream came true and she and her son Alessandro visited Canada in 2010.

Anyone with a family member who was KIA in Italy in December 1944 and January 1945 who would like to contribute to this project can contact me by e-mail: dmaxwell7@shaw.ca or call 403-467-0001.

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