During a Remembrance Day ceremony in Kelowna in the mid-1990s, Mark Zuehlke overheard veterans discussing the Battle of Ortona in Italy.
It was a December 1943 bloodbath between German paratroopers and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and a battle that Zuehlke knew little about.
“I had no idea how horrific it was, so I went and thought I was going to read a book about it and discovered that there wasn’t one,” Zuehlke said. “I decided that it needs to be a book, so I guess I better write it.”
Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, became a Canadian bestseller and transformed the former journalist’s career as he began documenting, from start to finish, Canada’s involvement in the Second World War.
This month marks the release of Zuehlke’s ninth in the Canadian Battle Series, Breakout from Juno, a chronicling of Canada’s role throughout the entire Normandy Campaign following the D-Day landings.
Since Zuehlke began his research into Canadian military heritage, the dwindling number of Second World War veterans has led the Victoria resident to rely more heavily on previous interviews, historical records and regimental histories – resources which abound in the capital city, including in the special collections area of the University of Victoria’s McPherson Library.
Details from his stories also spring from local records of the Canadian Scottish Regiment and Fifth Field Artillery Regiment.
“I take all that, munge it all together and tell a story so it looks like you’re looking over the shoulders of soldiers and going through the battle rather than being off in the distance. It’s very intense and very close up.”
In preparation for his latest work, Zuehlke traveled to French battlefields, many of which have been well-preserved. Verrieres Ridge was one such location, and the scene of a major battle over a five-day period during the Normandy campaign.
The village of Verrieres has disappeared, yet a small chapel remains on the ridge. Inside sits a memorial to Gerard Dore, a 15-year-old soldier from Montreal who was killed outside of the chapel on July 23, 1944.
Since his death, locals have maintained a memorial for Dore, marked with a candle, Canadian flags and newspaper clipping from his hometown.
“It struck me as very poignant when I was in Normandy, to realize that a lot of soldiers’ sacrifices were being well-recognized by the French,” Zuehlke said.
The next edition of the Canadian Battle Series will be released in August, 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raid on Dieppe.