From the museum, a group of us travel in several cars to the junction of the main highway and the road to Valguarnera, where fifteen markers have been planted. They have been set out in three groups of five. The dozen or so people present conduct a short ceremony at each cluster.
Approaching one of the clusters, I read the name Major John Henry William Pope and claim it for the roll call. When I call out his name, it is impossible not to tear up. Major Billy Pope was the second-in-command of the Royal Canadian Regiment and a best friend of then captain Strome Galloway. Early on in researching and writing the Canadian Battle Series, I interviewed Strome at his Ottawa home. A friendship was kindled that ended only with his death at eighty-eight years on August 11, 2004. Many times, our conversation came around to Billy Pope and the circumstances of his death.
As an officer, Pope was a roguish officer, the kind that was popular with compatriots. As Strome described him in his book Some Died at Ortona, Pope had a “close-cropped head, round as a cannon ball, with china-white teeth under a Zorro moustache.” As the Canadians sailed from Britain to Sicily, he often pulled the regiment’s junior lieutenants aside. “Have you seen much of death in the sun—in the morning?” he would ask. Before the apprehensive young man could answer, Pope flashed a grin that twitched the scar curving down his chin and said, “Well, you will.” Pope always claimed the scar resulted from a sabre duel in university. It had really been caused by a motorcycle accident.
On July 18, the Royal Canadian Regiment had its first real brush with death in the morning sun, and Pope should have missed it. With the battalion’s commander forward in the thick of the action, Pope was to stay back with the reserve company. Should Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Crowe be killed or wounded, Pope would assume command. Pope lamented his situation as akin to being “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
Seeing that a section of men from the Hasty Ps off on the flank of his battalion were pinned down by German fire, Pope realized he had an opportunity to get into the action. Gathering a few men, he led them scrambling down a virtual cliff and rescued the embattled soldiers. As the composite group returned to the RCR lines, Pope spotted a German blockhouse three hundred yards distant, on Valguarnera’s southern outskirts. Grabbing a PIAT gun and several bombs, Pope and his men crawled to within a hundred yards of the blockhouse. Two bombs killed the Germans inside and severely damaged the structure. As Pope finished this job, three German Mark iv tanks ground up onto a nearby roadway and brought one of the RCR companies under fire with their 75-millimetre guns. Dashing around several houses to get in range and achieve a good firing line, Pope attacked the tanks. He had three PIAT bombs remaining. We will never know whether in his excitement Pope forgot to prime the bombs or they were defective, but none of the bombs detonated. Moments later, the thirty-year-old native of Victoria was hit by a machine-gun burst fired by one of the tanks. He fell dead. Pope was the first RCR officer to die in Sicily. He died under an afternoon sun, at 2:00 p.m.
“It was a very brave and also very foolish thing that Billy did,” Strome told me once over a drink in the pub that operated on the ground floor of his condominium building and was a primary reason he lived where he did. Many days he lunched there and savoured a scotch or two. “We were all making a lot of mistakes in Sicily. The kind of mistakes that come from battlefield inexperience.” Looking off across the pub, Strome added softly, “Had he knocked those tanks out, Billy would probably have won a VC for it. And he probably was thinking that at the time. I wish I could have told him to be more careful.” Strome laughed wryly. “Of course, he wouldn’t have listened.” A Victoria Cross. The highest Commonwealth medal of honour, an award that only fifteen Canadians received during World War ii. I have researched the circumstances behind almost every one of those Victoria Cross wins. I found that none of those heroes was thinking about his chances for a VC when he acted and did something that extended beyond the pale of normal bravery. I have stood before Billy Pope’s headstone at the Agira cemetery in the past, and I plan to do so again whenever my path leads to Agira. I will do it because Billy’s story is a sad one and, yes, one that speaks of bravery—even if there is some foolishness to be found in it. I will do it also for Strome, because he never forgot Billy Pope. Standing here before a simple white marker on which Pope’s name and details are inscribed in Italian, I am more moved than when I’ve stood before his headstone. Perhaps it is the sheer proximity to where he died. These markers are close to the southeastern flank of Valguarnera. I look up at the steep cliffs and sharp cuts in the ground leading to the town and wonder exactly where Pope was when those bullets tore into his body and took his life away. Did you see it coming, Billy? Was there a sudden moment of clarity, the realization of having made an irreparable mistake? Or were you still bound for glory, fearless? China-white teeth bared in a fierce grin. I am not religious, but softly I say, “God bless you, Billy. Be safe.” And then I say the same for Strome, nine years gone. It is the same, probably meaningless, prayer I generally offer when I visit my father’s grave.
After the marker ceremony, Don Aitchison, Phil Bury, Andrew Gregory, and I get into the Colonel’s Car, and Bill Rodgers drives us to another historic spot near Valguarnera. Once again, I have used the coordinate translator to this time fix the precise location where, on July 18, two Hasty P companies ambushed six German trucks passing on a road beneath their position. The Germans were making a getaway from Valguarnera. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies had dug in on an overlooking hill. Each truck was loaded with twenty to thirty infantrymen. At a range of about a hundred metres, the Hasty Ps opened fire with their rifles and Bren guns. ‘A’ Company’s commander, Captain Alex Campbell, grabbed a Bren gun from one of his men and charged down the hill, firing from the hip. Clenched in his teeth was a spare ammunition magazine around which he shouted incomprehensible demands for the Germans to surrender. Unlike most Canadian soldiers, Campbell intensely hated anything and anybody German. Seeing that the back of one truck was still fully loaded, Campbell raked it with fire and personally slaughtered eighteen of his hated enemy.
As Lieutenant Farley Mowat descended from the hilltop, he was sickened by the carnage. Badly wounded Germans lay around the trucks or hanging out of doors and off the sides. A German medical orderly dazedly wandered from one man to another, but could do little for them as he lacked any first-aid supplies. Neither could the Hasty Ps, for they were equally ill equipped. For the rest of his days, Mowat was haunted by the sight of a truck driver draped over his steering wheel, coughing up foaming blood from a lung shot that gushed through the splintered cracks in the windshield that his face was pressed against. Each bloody cough was accompanied by a sucking heave and then a hissing expulsion, as the man tried desperately to clear his lungs of the blood drowning him. I have often thought it likely that this incident triggered Mowat’s descent into what was known then as battle exhaustion and is today called post-traumatic stress disorder. Following the fighting at Ortona in December 1943, Mowat was transferred quietly out of his infantry company and made the battalion’s intelligence officer—a headquarters job. He performed the duty masterfully, writing such cogent versions of the day’s events in the battalion war diary that it served as his core source when he went on to write the regiment’s acclaimed official World War II history, The Regiment. Seldom has a regimental history become an international best seller, but this one did.
One lieutenant suggested that perhaps the kindest thing would be to put the wounded Germans out of their misery. The previously berserk Campbell sharply rebuked the man and forbade any killing of prisoners. “The anomaly of hearing such sentiments voiced by a man who had just butchered twenty or thirty Germans did not strike me at the time. It does now. The line between brutal murder and heroic slaughter flickers and wavers…and becomes invisible,” Mowat wrote in his war memoir, And No Birds Sang.
Gazing at the site of that past carnage, Bill says, “When I stand in places like this, it strikes me how ordinary they are.” The road is no wider than an alley, pavement badly cracked and heaving in the centre and along the edges. Knee-high wild grass runs up the slope past a few struggling olive trees. We kick about along the side of the road, searching for some sign of the past—a spent cartridge, a bullet, or a chunk of shrapnel—and turn up nothing. The slope is steep. I can hardly picture Campbell, a large, powerful man, charging down it. All but impossible to imagine the trucks, here where we stand on the road, and the Germans trying frantically to escape before bullets cut them down. We discuss how the ambush was triggered and how it unfolded. The brutal simplicity of it. The Hasty Ps coincidentally being perfectly positioned, the Germans all but defenceless. One Canadian fuming with hatred, the rest just doing their duty. Knowing as well that if roles were reversed, the Germans would serve up the same punishment with equal ferocity. The time for mercy comes when the firing stops and the enemy is clearly vanquished. To show it beforehand is to risk your life and that of your comrades.
Before us, the road winds off through rolling grain fields. Turning my back to the hillside, I see the wide Dittaino valley beyond another line of hills. It is a cloudy, hazy day. Neither Monte Teja, on whose eastern flank the ancient town of Agira clings, nor Etna is visible. With the sun behind cloud, it is not hot even standing on this road. My eyes wander back to the Dittaino valley. Tomorrow we walk through it.