Sign up for our free weekday bulletin.

Remembering the Sarnians lost in Canada’s “Forgotten War”

Published on

Tom Slater & Tom St. Amand

Seventy-five years ago, Canadian soldiers stormed the island of Sicily in a battle that raged through July and August of 1943.

The Allies won, but the victory was costly. Among the casualties were 565 Canadian dead, including two men from Sarnia —Private Carl Burke and Trooper Donald McClure.

To gain a foothold in Europe, the Allies had decided to first attack its “soft underbelly” in Italy. The Italian campaign was launched in Sicily, a mountainous island 90 kilometres north of Malta. With Sicily secure, the plan was to launch further attacks on Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.”

Though the Allies had amassed the largest invading force to date, the island’s steep cliffs and hilly terrain gave the Germans and Italians a natural defence.

The Canadian government had lobbied Allied Commanders to include Canadian troops, and the Battle of Sicily became the first sustained Canadian Army operation of the war.

It was also the first combat action for the two Sarnians.

When he enlisted in 1940, Carl Burke, 27, was a husband to Rita Marie (St. Jean) of Sarnia and a father to daughter Leda, their only child. He left for the U.K. in 1941 and became a member of the 48th Highlanders.

Donald McClure, who had a steady job at Holmes Foundry, suffered fatal wounds in Sicily when his tank was struck by a German mortar.
Submitted Photo

Before enlisting in June 1942, Donald McClure supported his family by working as a core maker at Holmes Foundry, a job he hoped to resume after the war. Four months earlier, Donald and his wife, Ethel, had buried their only child, a stillborn son.

He went overseas in December and was eventually transferred to the Canadian Army Tank Regiment, becoming co-driver in a five-man tank crew.

On July 10 both men landed near Pachino, Sicily. The heat was oppressive — over 40 Celsius —but the enemy fire was initially light.

The Canadians battled through 250 kilometres of difficult terrain as the German resistance stiffened, using the rugged terrain to its advantage. The enemy dug into every mountain and ridge, in every village and town.

The two Sarnia men died a week apart.

Private Burke, 30, was shot and succumbed to the wound a day later, on July 23.

Trooper McClure’s tank was hit by mortar fire that perforated his abdomen. An army surgeon operated on the 22-year-old but he died July 30.

The history books say the fighting ended on Aug. 17 and the Sicilian invasion helped the Allies take Italy. They also say the battle contributed to the downfall of Benito Mussolini. In September, a new Italian government issued an unconditional surrender.

But Canadians often refer to The Battle of Sicily as “The Forgotten War” because the written accounts make little mention of Canada’s effort or its men who fell.

Certainly, no history books reference Carl Burke and Donald McClure or consider the impact of their lives and deaths.

At their Davis Street home, Rita Burke learned of her husband’s fate by telegram as she was completing a business course. Nearly two years later the young mother received a War Service Gratuity of $472.39.

On Cameron Street, Ethel McClure also learned of her husband’s death by telegram. A cheque for $184.64 was sent as compensation.

Both men are buried at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily.


More like this