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J.L. Granatstein: Remembering Canada’s costly fight for Sicily

Commentary

Eighty years ago today, the Allies invaded Sicily, defended by Italian and German troops. In the invasion force were the 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, some 20,000 soldiers ready for their first full-scale operation after three years in England.

The Canadians reached Sicily in two convoys, one of which had three ships sunk by U-boat torpedoes, and lost 58 soldiers, forty of the division’s 25-pounder artillery pieces, 500 trucks, the headquarters’ wireless equipment, and Major-General Guy Simonds’ baggage. The division’s chief engineer, Geoffrey Walsh, remembered that he had to loan socks to the 1st’s commander.

The 1st Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, built this 100-foot-long Bailey bridge across a river near Straorini, Sicily, in 4 1/2 hours on the opening day, Sept. 3, 1943, of the Allied invasion of Italy. The bridge was blown up by retreating Germans. Credit: Jack H. Smith/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-177088.

The invasion proceeded well nonetheless. The Canadians and British troops, under General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, landed on the southeastern shore, the Americans to the west. There was light opposition on the beach, with Italian troops surrendering quickly in the face of overwhelming force—“They hadn’t got their heart in it at all,” one soldier said. The Canadians moved inland over rugged terrain with steep hills and winding narrow roads, and the constant heat, dust, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes soon began to wear down the men. After three days, Montgomery recognized that the Canadians, not yet inured to the climate, needed a few days rest. Supplies came forward, carried by “liberated” mules.

Moving forward on July 15, the leading units bumped into the Germans, a small blocking force from the Hermann Goering Division. The Wehrmacht had better machine guns, well-trained mortar men, and deadly 88mm guns that pierced the lightly armoured Sherman tanks, and in this first engagement the Canadians suffered 27 casualties. The next day at Piazza Armerina, a town best known for wonderful Roman mosaics, Panzer Grenadiers blocked the advance for a day until the Loyal Edmonton Regiment took the town. At Valguarnera, the enemy in battalion strength fought stubbornly, and it took two brigades—and 145 casualties—to drive them back. But the Germans had noticed; Field Marshal Albert Kesselring reported to Berlin that his Grenadiers called their opponents “‘Mountain Boys’ [who] probably belong to the 1st Canadian Division.”

For the next two weeks, the 1st Division fought over the steep hills and through the deep ravines of central Sicily. It seemed that every turn in the winding roads had a German machine gunner or two, each blown bridge a defended obstacle to be overcome, each small town a platoon of Germans to inflict casualties and another delay. So too did dysentery, diarrhea, and malaria in the towns that Brigadier Bruce Matthews, the division’s artillery commander, called “filthy & smelly beyond description.” At Assoro, the Germans held the high ground and prepared to fight. There the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment swung wide, found a higher peak, and scaled it at night. The dawn revealed the Germans eating breakfast, and the Canadians poured their fire into them. Well-trained, the enemy recovered quickly, even the cooks fighting back, and their artillery pounded the Canadians. Soon counterattacks began, and the Hasty Pees were hard-pressed but hung on. The German defence of Assoro had been completely disrupted.

At nearby Leonforte, the 2nd Brigade’s Loyal Edmonton Regiment fought into the town, but the Germans counterattacked in force and cut off the Eddies. Brigadier Chris Vokes organized a flying column of tanks, anti-tank guns, and infantry to bust into Leonforte, free the Edmontons, and, after heavy fighting, finally liberate the town. Two days of battle had cost the 1st Division 275 casualties.

At Agira, 25 kilometres to the southeast, the Germans were again ready in strength. Simonds unwisely sent one battalion after another into the attack; each assault crumbled under the mortar and machine gun fire, and the Three Rivers Regiment lost ten tanks to the 88mm guns. Simonds persisted, using a heavy artillery barrage and tanks to support the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in taking their first objective. The Germans promptly recovered and drove off subsequent assaults. But when a company of Seaforth Highlanders climbed a 100-metre ridge that dominated their position, and when the Loyal Eddies took another ridge west of Agira, the Germans had to retreat. Again the cost was heavy, but this was a major victory.

The Sicilian campaign was nearing its end. The Americans under General George Patton had stormed through the western island, freed Palermo, and were moving east quickly. The British had advanced in parallel with the Canadians, and in Rome the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had been toppled. Only northeast Sicily remained in German hands.

For the Canadians, only one major attack remained. In the level valley of the Simeto River Simonds created a striking force consisting of an armoured regiment, a reconnaissance squadron, an infantry battalion, a battery of self-propelled artillery, and anti-tank guns. The Three Rivers and the Seaforths commanders coordinated their plans, the infantry and tanks “married up” company for company, and the two COs, riding in the same tank, led their troops into action on August 5. The Germans’ 3rd Parachute Regiment, taken by surprise, fought to the last man against the dismounted infantry and the Shermans, but the attack succeeded with cannon and machine gun fire. The Seaforths had lost 43 men in a battle that demonstrated that army and infantry cooperation worked and could be mastered. General Simonds had learned something too.

Kesselring and the German high command sensibly accepted that Sicily had been lost and, on August 10, one month after the invasion, began a superbly executed withdrawal to the Italian mainland. They had put four divisions into Sicily’s defence and lost 11,600 soldiers. The Allies had suffered 19,000 killed, wounded, and captured from the dozen divisions they employed. It was a victory, but a costly one.

The 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade had proven themselves in battle, but they too had paid a steep price: 562 killed, 1,664 wounded, and 84 taken prisoner. They had learned it was no easy task to fight the Wehrmacht. The task now for the Canadian troops and their Allies was to carry the war to the mainland, to an Italy now under the complete control of the Nazis. The bloody war would continue.

Sean Speer: Not all population growth is created equal

Commentary

Last week the popular American economics blogger Noah Smith published an essay entitled “Maximum Canada” in which he outlined the success of Canadian immigration policy and the benefits of a bigger national population. 

His observations follow similar commentary in recent months in favour of the so-called “Century Initiative” in which Canada aspires to reach 100 million residents by 2100. The basic premise is that a much larger population would boost Canada’s economic and geopolitical influence around the world, lessen its asymmetry vis-à-vis the United States, and create a bigger domestic market for trade and commerce.

These arguments are generally compelling. There’s certainly something of a correlation between population size and global influence. The exceptions are far outweighed by the rule. 

The main problem with this analysis however is that it’s too focused on population growth as an end and fails to properly scrutinize the means. Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne recently argued for instance that the target of 100 million Canadians by 2100 isn’t even that ambitious because it broadly tracks population growth patterns over the past several decades. As he explained: 

To get to 100 million in 77 years—two and a half times our current level—implies an annual growth rate of 1.2 per cent. By comparison, over the last 77 years, our population more than tripled, from 12.3 million in 1946. That works out to 1.5 per cent annually. To be sure, birth rates were higher in the 1950s and 1960s; population growth today comes almost exclusively from immigration. Fine: let’s take 1970 as our starting point. Average annual population growth: 1.2 per cent. The Century Initiative proposal is essentially a continuation of the status quo.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about population growth that’s driven by a combination of natural growth (births minus deaths) and immigration and growth that solely comes from immigration. Smith, Coyne, and others fail to grapple with these key differences. 

It doesn’t mean that Canada shouldn’t aspire to have a larger population or even necessarily that we shouldn’t pursue an immigration policy that ultimately gets us there. But before fully signing onto “maximum Canada”, we need to account for the fact that all forms of population growth aren’t the same. (This isn’t, by the way, a normative judgement. It’s merely an observation about the practical differences between a society that draws on immigration to supplement its own natural growth and one that relies on it entirely.)

Let’s start with the data. Replacement level fertility is an average of 2.1 children per woman. As Coyne notes, Canada’s fertility rate dipped below replacement level beginning in the early 1970s. It’s now just 1.4 children per woman (see Figure 1).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Fig1_CanadaFertilityRate_graph_v1-1170x835.jpg
Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Although the country’s fertility rate has been below the replacement rate for the past half century, its current rate represents an unprecedented low. As Figure 1 shows, it has steadily fallen to now below the G-7 average and is increasingly one of the lowest rates in the world.

That means that immigration isn’t just doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to population growth. It’s now nearly solely responsible. Take 2022 for instance. Canada’s population grew by more than 1 million people—the largest single-year growth since 1957—and immigration was responsible for roughly 96 percent. 

Estimates are that immigration will reach 100 percent of population growth by 2032 and will remain the main driver for the coming decades. As a result, Statistics Canada projects that the overall share of Canada’s immigrant population (which consists of landed immigrants) will rise from 23.4 percent in 2021 (see Figure 2) to as high as 34 percent in 2041. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

There are various ways in which immigration-driven population growth is different than natural growth. These differences will ostensibly produce outcomes that are distinct from past experiences and therefore may limit the utility of historical instruction. There’s an onus on proponents of the Century Initiative to account for them in their analysis and advocacy. 

The first is that it’s older. Although the immigrant population is generally younger than the average age of non-immigrant residents, it’s still self-evidently older than babies. The majority of immigrants fall within the core working age group (25 to 54). Just over one quarter are aged 15 and younger. Immigration-driven population growth may slow the rise of (and even temporarily lower) the country’s average age but it won’t, according to leading economist David Green, “substantially alter Canada’s age structure and impending increase in the dependency ratio.”

The second is that it’s far less geographically distributed. More than half of recent immigrants settle in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver and nine of ten settle in a census metropolitan area. Natural growth by contrast would presumably more closely reflect the general distribution of population across the country. Immigration-driven population growth should therefore be expected to impose even greater pressure on housing and other infrastructure in our major cities and contribute to a growing urban-rural divide in our economic and political outcomes. 

The third is that it will reshape the country’s culture. That may not be a bad development—particularly in the eyes of those who value diversity—but it still represents a qualitative difference relative to natural growth that requires a bit more attention. 

Consider two scenarios. First, there’s a strong possibility that it erodes the place of the French language and francophone culture in our national life as Quebec’s share of the total population declines and its conception of binationalism is fully consumed by multiculturalism. Second, it’s also possible that it could at times conflict with the goal of Indigenous reconciliation to the extent that immigration-driven growth produces a growing share of the population that can plausibly argue that it has no role or responsibility for the historic injustices faced by Indigenous peoples. (There are growing calls—including from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—to expand newcomer education about the Indigenous experience presumably to mitigate this risk.)

These considerations don’t challenge the case that immigration has been a net positive for the country or that we should maintain high immigration levels in the face of aging demographics or even that we should aspire to a bigger population. They do however dispute the idea that the source of population growth is irrelevant. Natural growth and immigration-driven growth may produce the same number but their effects are necessarily different. 

What is envisioned by the Century Initiative and others is essentially without precedent. Immigration has never been solely responsible for such a run-up of Canada’s population. History cannot provide much of a guide. Only prudence can. 

A prudent position would be to recognize the benefits of large-scale immigration without assuming that it can be raised to unprecedented levels or become solely responsible for the country’s population growth free from consequence. Maximalist ends without due consideration of the consequences of maximalist means is rarely the basis of good public policy. Immigration is no exception.