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Sault siblings remember heroic father (6 photos)

Ron Giddens fought in epic Second World War battle while brother was in POW camp; wrote memoirs years later
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Known for being a peaceful country, Canada has nevertheless won immense respect on the world stage for its role in times of war.

One of many notable Canadian military exploits was the Second World War Battle of Ortona, in Italy in December, 1943.

In eight days of vicious, house-to-house combat, Canadians pushed enemy troops out of Ortona, a small Adriatic Sea town which was a strategic spot in the long, hard campaign to defeat Nazi German forces occupying Italy. 

Among Canadian soldiers in the Battle of Ortona was Daniel Ronald (Ron) Giddens (1920-2001), a Nova Scotia native who lived and worked as a millwright in Wawa in the postwar years.

Three of his four children eventually settled in Sault Ste. Marie.

His son Dan has compiled a book, which contains his father's own wartime memories and personal photographs, along with other military articles and official Canadian military photographs.

Copies of the book have been distributed to family members and friends.

Dan and his sister Kathy Millette, also of Sault Ste. Marie, spoke to SooToday and shared memories of their father and his role in the Second World War.

"There are less and less of them (surviving Second World War veterans) so you have to go to their children and get the stories," Dan said.

Giddens rarely spoke of his wartime experiences in his family's presence, but Dan eventually persuaded his father to write about it.

"When he was about 60, I got him a hardcover book with blank pages for Christmas, and he hung on to it for a few years (before he sat down to write a detailed account of his war years)," Dan said.

Eventually, Giddens wrote about key events in the first 40 years of his life.

It was Giddens' granddaughter Cindy Zappacosta's curiosity about her grandfather's wartime role that led Dan to compile his father's Second World War written recollections.

That came about in 2013, 70 years after the Battle of Ortona.

While in Halifax in 1941, Giddens enlisted in the Canadian Army.

By Christmas 1941, he was stationed in England as a gunner with an anti-tank regiment.

In May 1942, Giddens went to visit his brother Doug, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) airman, also stationed in England.

"I went to his base to meet him on the morning of May 8th, 1942," Giddens wrote in his memoirs.

"His friends told me he had not come back from his trip (bombing mission) the night before."

"If not heard from in three months, he would be presumed dead…it was one of the first times I ever felt lonely," Giddens wrote.

Giddens later discovered Doug's plane had been shot down and he had been taken prisoner by the Germans.

Doug was liberated from a POW camp May 8, 1945 (known as V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, when Germany surrendered to the Allies).

"My father said 'I wanted to see Hitler fall and I wanted to see my brother freed,'" Dan said.

"He volunteered to fight the Germans in Italy in 1943, he just said 'I'm going, I'm not sitting here waiting any longer (waiting in England for the eventual Allied invasion of France in 1944).'"

"He said he left his wartime friends, got on a boat with complete strangers with a different battalion and went into the unknown, straight into war," Dan said. 

The Battle of Ortona claimed the lives of 1,375 Canadian troops.

"He was involved in door-to-door fighting, Canadians were pushing anti-tank guns down the streets, pushing these huge guns to get to points where they could get at enemy snipers," Dan said.

"The Germans would be situated in various buildings and they couldn't get them out."

"The Canadians created a new fighting method called mouse-holing where they would blow holes in the walls on the sides of the buildings, not near the door, and they would get safely in that way and secure the buildings."

"My father never spoke of it, but it was done with the anti-tank guns he served with," Dan said. 

After Ortona, Giddens and his comrades, along with British and American troops, continued with the struggle to liberate Italy (an enemy of the Allies before Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed) from the Germans.

In May 1944, Giddens was badly injured by shrapnel wounds in his shoulder and leg.

Two weeks after he was wounded, Giddens, in a military hospital, was pleased to hear of the Allied landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-Day).

The Allied campaign in Italy proved to be of strategic importance, pinning down German troops that would have been used against Allied forces in Normandy.

Giddens was later transferred to a military hospital in England, and in August 1944, was sent home to Canada and spent the remainder of the war recovering from his injuries in Nova Scotia.

In 1945, he was pleased and relieved to see his brother Doug come home, released from a German POW camp.

After the war, Giddens married Evelyn Clark, another Nova Scotia native who had served in the RCAF Women's Division.

The wound in his leg kept Giddens from walking long distances for the rest of his life, his daughter Kathy recalled.

"But he never made a big deal of it and he never limped."

"He worked 30 years in an iron ore mine, sometimes 16-hour days, working overtime, he built houses, it never slowed him down," Dan said. 

Though a strong man physically and mentally, the horrific memories of war never left Giddens.

"Whenever he went into a room, he would go for the chair against the wall, he said it was a habit he got from the war, never to keep your back exposed in case the enemy comes in," Kathy said.

"I asked him why he did that and that's the reason he gave me…and that was years later, after the war when there was no enemy, but it was engrained."

"I only wish now I could have interviewed him…but he described word for word (in his written memoirs) how he was in England and volunteered for action ahead of his own battalion because they needed reinforcements going up through Italy, and he described how he spent Christmas 1943 in Ortona," Dan said.

"Computers weren't out then, when he was writing this."

"All these photos, he would have loved to have seen these photos on the Internet, all the websites that came many years later about the Canadian troops and Christmas in Ortona…it was quite an experience for him."

"For me it's important to remember all veterans, all those who fought, going to Remembrance Day ceremonies, it was engrained in me," Dan said.

"It's important to honour his memory and to honour the huge personal sacrifice he made for strangers, people he didn't even know," Kathy said.

"My brother Danny compiling this book, that's what really brought it home to me, I was really proud when I read about what he did."