This year marks the 100th anniversary of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s iconic clock tower cenotaph. In recognition of the cenotaph’s century of service through two world wars and beyond, NOTL historian Ron Dale has been researching the stories of the people – all men – whose names are engraved on it. This is one in a series of stories to document and remember the sacrifices these combatants made. Future instalments will commemorate those named on the Queen Street cenotaph and on the municipal memorial in Queenston.
Special to The Lake Report
During the Second World War Canada declared war on Italy on June 10, 1940, immediately after Italy joined Germany against the Allies.
After the defeat of the Germans in North Africa, the Allies planned to invade Sicily, then Italy. The invasion of Sicily, code named Operation Husky, was launched on July 10, 1943.
Victory in Sicily was followed by the invasion of Italy on Sept. 3. This hard-fought campaign would continue for a year and half, ending when the Germans surrendered in the spring of 1945.
More than 93,000 Canadians fought in the Italian campaign and at least 6,000 men died.
While Canadians were fighting in Italy, the Allies finally launched their invasion of western Europe, with D-Day on June 6, 1944, two days after the Allies captured Rome.
The invasion of France overshadowed the battles in Italy and the sacrifices there seemed to have been forgotten.
A rumour reached the Allied soldiers in Italy that Viscountess Nancy Astor had stated that the soldiers fighting in Italy had “dodged” D-Day by serving in Italy. The soldiers in Italy took umbrage but also adopted the title with pride.
John Earl Grimstead was one of the so-called “D-Day Dodgers” who stayed in Italy.
Grimstead was born in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Sept. 2, 1921, brought up on Picton Street. He left school early to learn the printing trade.
On Sept. 2, 1939, as war loomed in Europe, Grimstead enlisted in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment.
After receiving rudimentary training with the regiment he decided to become a full-time soldier and fight overseas. He transferred to the Canadian Active Service Force on Nov. 10, 1939.
Grimstead received more basic training in Toronto and then was sent to the Royal Canadian Regiment depot at Camp Borden on Aug. 28, 1940.
There he received infantry training with the regiment but became ill in early January 1941 and was hospitalized for 44 days, ending his association with that regiment.
When he recovered, he transferred to the 12th Armoured Battalion, the Three Rivers Regiment, at Camp Borden. Now a member of a tank crew, he sailed with his regiment to England, disembarking on July 1, 1941.
He was anything but a model soldier while in England. He overstayed leaves and was charged with being AWOL, losing pay as a punishment.
In December 1941, he took off and was declared a deserter but returned to camp on Jan. 7, 1942, after an absence of 21 days.
On June 13, 1943, Grimstead embarked for the Mediterranean, arriving in North Africa on July 10, the day that the invasion of Sicily was launched.
He did not join the Three Rivers Regiment for that campaign nor was he with them when they landed in Italy in September.
He was again on the sick list, hospitalized for another two weeks in August. He finally joined his regiment in the field on Nov. 1, 1943.
Grimstead fought in the bloody Battle of Ortona and, with his tank regiment, was frequently in action against a very professional German army.
It seemed that any time the regiment was pulled from the front line and sent to a rest area, Grimstead got in trouble.
In April 1944, he was penalized with 28 days of “field punishment” and the loss of four weeks’ pay. He simply seemed to be a free spirit with little respect for authority.
After the fall of Rome on June 4, 1944, the Allies pushed the Germans from their defensive positions north of Rome. A major obstacle was the Trasimene Line, barring the approach to Florence.
On June 25 the Three Rivers Regiment attacked that position. The regiment got bogged down on muddy roads and became sitting ducks for German anti-tank guns. Grimstead was killed when his Sherman tank was hit by an 88 mm shell.
Trooper John Earl Grimstead was hastily buried near Villastrada and the location was recorded.
After the war his body was disinterred by the Imperial War Graves Commission and reburied in the Assisi War Cemetery, Rivotorto, Italy.
He is commemorated on the Queen Street cenotaph.
Attributed to Lance-Sgt. Harry Pynn
“When you look around the mountains, through the mud and rain
You will find the crosses, some which bear no name.
Heartbreak, and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath them slumber on
They were the D-Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy”