Some think the young Jewish officer should have won the Victoria Cross
Seventy-seven years ago this week, a McGill University student from Montreal, Lt. Mitchell Sterlin, found himself camped with his men near the Sicilian town of Militello. A junior officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment, Sterlin, 22, was spending a well-deserved rest period after his first extended battle experience: the successful month-long Second World War action known as Operation Husky.
Sterlin and 25,000 Canadian troops invaded Sicily’s southern coastal towns at Pachino on July 10, 1943. Coming up against both Italian and German forces, not to mention the sweltering summer heat, the Allied victory in Sicily cost over 500 Canadian lives. The goal was clearing the Mediterranean for Allied shipping. Any German troops who were not captured managed to escape from Sicily en masse on August 17, crossing over the Straights of Messina to the Italian mainland.
While the Canadian troops were in reserve, they repaired gear, conducted training exercises, and even held sports competitions and parades. British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery paid them a visit on Aug. 20. They would see action again within days.
“Operation Baytown” started in early September. The Canadians were expected to help drive the Germans out of southern Italy. The idea was to keep the enemy busy, while the D-Day invasion of Normandy got underway the following summer.
Could have stayed out of war
For Sterlin, the son of immigrant Jewish parents, winning a spot in medical school was an impressive achievement. In wartime Canada, systemic racial prejudice existed against the country’s 168,000 Jewish residents. Some universities had quotas that restricted Jewish students. Sterlin chose to defer his rare acceptance so he could enlist.
“He could have stayed out of the war because he was accepted into medicine,” said Sterlin’s younger brother, Martin Sterlin, in a 2014 interview.
However, the family was keenly aware that life for European Jews under Hitler was perilous. After the German occupation of Lithuania in 1941, Sterlin’s grandmother and uncle and his family who had not immigrated, were murdered in the fall of 1941. Some 195,000 Lithuanian Jews, or 90 per cent of the country’s Jewish population, were killed during the Holocaust.
Mitchell had already undergone two years of part-time military training while at McGill. He was enrolled in the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps while he took his Bachelor of Science degree. Sterlin wrote his final undergraduate exams in the spring of 1942. In early May, just before his 21st birthday, he signed up for active service with Royal Canadian Army.
The next nine months were spent in officer cadet training and on infantry rifle courses, including at Gordon Head, British Columbia, in Brockville, Ontario and at Farnham and St. Jean, Québec.
“This cadet is serious, hard working, and has improved steadily throughout the course. Will make a good leader and regimental officer,” wrote Col. A. D. Wilson in August 1942.From Lt. Mitchell Sterlin’s Military Records, Library and Archives Canada.
Sterlin joined The Royal Canadian Regiment in February 1943. He soon shipped out to England. In late June, it was as Lieutenant Sterlin that he embarked on a convoy out of Scotland and into battle. The troops were told about their destination and their mission only once they were underway.
Being of the Jewish faith in the military was a double threat for Sterlin, and for the approximately 17,000 Canadian Jews who served during the Second World War. In my book of the same name “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII (2019), you can read how Canada’s wartime prime minister, Mackenzie King said that not only were Jewish troops fighting for King and Country and to defeat Hitler, but that they faced great personal risk should they be captured and their Jewish identities discovered.
In Sterlin’s case, he also had to overcome incidents of antisemitism from people fighting on the same side, and wearing Allied uniforms.
While en route to Sicily, some of the other RCR lieutenants urged Capt. Ian Hodson of “D” Company to get rid of Sterlin because he was a Jew. Hodson reprimanded them in graphic terms about what would happen to them and how they would be returned to England if they said another negative word about Sterlin.
“[Sterlin] was a very good officer,” Hodson would say in an interview after the war. They had met back at officer’s school.
Sterlin’s brother Martin, who was four years younger, wanted to join up, but promised his parents he would not do so once Mitchell was overseas. He felt Jewish Canadians showed courage in the face of both imminent death on the battlefield, and widespread racial prejudice.
“The paradox of so many Canadian Jews who voluntarily went into a situation where active and overt anti-semitism still existed,” Martin said.
We don’t know if his brother complained about antisemitism in his letters back home to the family.
We do know that Sterlin wrote about the hot, dusty Sicilian roads on which the Canadian infantrymen had to march. He also told them about the time he’d heard music playing, and made his men wait while he commandeered an Italian family’s gramophone. He wanted to listen to a recorded message on a disc that his family had sent him.
The Battle for Ortona: December 1943
Just four months later, The RCR had been moved east, to Italy’s Adriatic coast. The aim was to break through the so-called Gustav Line of German fortifications. Next they were to capture Ortona, which was needed as an Allied supply port. Then, Montgomery planned to turn west to join the Americans in liberating Rome.
It was winter, and rainy, and the rivers in the area were swollen. Even worse for the Canadian troops, the Germans had blown up all the bridges across both the Sangro and Moro Rivers, and mined the vinyards and olive groves.
On the afternoon of December 8, the Canadians launched an attack on the north banks of the Moro River. The RCR was supposed to reach and hold positions along a road near the town of San Leonardo.
Just before 10 p.m. that night, Mitchell Sterlin started to lead some his men in “D” Company’s 16th Platoon. They came under heavy fire.
Although the regiment’s commanding officer ordered a retreat, Sterlin didn’t get the message. He and ten soldiers holed up in a two-storey Italian farm house near San Donato all night and into the next day. They fought off the enemy attack for hours. Six machine gun units of the German Panzer Grenadiers fired at the building. The only other Canadian platoon in the vicinity that had been protecting Sterlin’s group from the outside of the farm house, soon ran out of ammunition, and reluctantly had to leave.
Sterlin and his men were seriously outnumbered. Two of the Canadians were killed. Eventually, the regimental commanding officer called down some of his own artillery to hit the area close to the farm house.
There are mixed reports of how the Germans gave up. They left 30 of their own men piled up around the outside of the house. Sterlin ordered a cease-fire and allowed German stretcher-bearers to move in and carry away the wounded attackers.
Then Sterlin and his men were able to leave the farmhouse, which the military immediately renamed “Sterlin Castle”, and reunite with a nearby Canadian unit.
Soon after the skirmish in the area later nicknamed “Slaughterhouse Hill”, Sterlin wrote a reassuring letter home to his parents.
“You’ll never have to worry about me because I’m blessed with wonderful luck and I’ll always be okay,” he told them.
Sterlin’s superiors in The RCR nominated him for a Military Cross, which can be awarded to junior officers. Due to the ongoing fighting, the paperwork wasn’t sent out right away.
Ten days later, Sterlin’s luck ran out. The RCR platoons were trying to secure a key junction southwest of Ortona known as Cider Crossroads. A German sniper shot and killed him on December 19, 1943.
Before the end of the month, the telegram arrived at Sterlin’s Montreal home, where it was his brother Martin, then 18, who answered the door.
50th anniversary ceremony
Sterlin’s actions remained largely unknown for much of the post-war years. In the early 1990s, The RCR decided to mark the 50th anniversary of the Italian Campaign. Some veterans commissioned an oil painting depicting “The Defence of Sterlin Castle”. They donated the painting to regimental headquarters in Petawawa.
It was also decided to actually name the regiment’s Victoria Barracks after Sterlin. The building, also known as Y-101, houses the massive drill hall, as well as other important services. Experts say it is highly unusual for the military to choose a junior officer to honour in this way.
Some of Sterlin’s surviving family members, including his brother Martin, and Martin’s son Dan and his wife Reesa, were invited to a dinner at Petawawa for the building’s dedication.
As Martin recalled, there was an awkward moment during a speech by an honourary colonel. The man was a veteran of WWII, and had seen Sterlin fatally gunned down.
“I still remember [him] saying ‘And instead of this Distinguished Service Cross, he had a wooden cross’,” Martin Sterlin said, adding that the whole room went “Ohhh!” because the veteran had not realized his remarks were inappropriate.
Quickly, one of the man’s table mates whispered that Sterlin would not have had a cross on his grave, but a Star of David, because he was Jewish.
“The [Colonel] corrected himself…and later on he apologized,” Martin said.
Watch Martin Sterlin reminisce about the regimental dinner:
‘He was robbed’: Colonel
After Sterlin’s death, the family learned that Mitchell had been up for a bravery medal.
However his death complicated things. Only two medals could be awarded posthumously. The lesser one is a Mention in Dispatches, which nets the bearer an oak leaf. The other is the Victoria Cross, with its purple and white ribbon. It is by far the most prestigious of all wartime gallantry awards. Sixteen were issued during the Second World War.
Sterlin’s sister Anne wrote to the government in early 1945 asking where the Military Cross was.
She learned that Sterlin was awarded the Mention in Dispatches.
When Col. Jason Guiney took command of The RCR’s 1st Battalion at CFB Petawawa in 2014, he hadn’t heard about Sterlin’s story. Guiney became a fan after asking for input to name the officers’ Rest Easy Room inside the Sterlin Building. The room is a place for junior officers to relax after hours. It is decorated with important photos and souvenirs from the regiment’s history.
Guiney, who is a self-described “huge regimental history geek”, asked the different companies to come up with a recommendation for a deserving battle. They voted for the room to be called “Sterlin Castle”.
“This was an amazing thing this guy did, it was him, a junior leader, leading his troops into this ferocious battle,” Guiney said, in an interview from his home south of Ottawa. “It was all about [Sterlin] as a person.”
The colonel arranged for a wooden plaque to be created and installed outside the room’s entrance door in 2016. Guiney also donated the framed shadowbox with Sterlin’s portrait, and replicas of the war medals to which he would have been entitled.
“When you walk into the [room], it is the first thing you see on the left,” Guiney explained.
Several related artifacts are on display: an epaulette cut from the uniform of one of the Germans killed outside the Italian farmhouse, and, the original oil painting showing The Defence of Sterlin Castle. The artist was Patrick Yesh from Calgary. A replica is at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Hard to be Jewish
An Italian historian and graphic artist, Saverio Di Tullio, included the story of Sterlin Castle in his 1993 book “1943: La Via Per Ortona” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canadian liberation of his native city. Page 23 shows a soldier carrying a wounded comrade out of the farm house.
“Hey Mitch!”, a soldier calls to Sterlin. “Imagine what they’d do if they knew you were Jewish?”
Col. Guiney doubts any of the officers who voted to call their Rest Easy room “Sterlin Castle” knew Sterlin was Jewish. He thinks they strongly identified with his achievements on the battlefield. It was the bravery in face of what might have been Sterlin’s last stand.
Guiney is convinced Sterlin fought so hard that day specifically because of his religion.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the ferocity of that battle was why he held on to the last breath,” Guiney said. “It would have been hard for him to be Jewish in that conflict knowing that he is fighting on two fronts: he’s fighting death and fighting if he would be captured.”
‘He was robbed’
Only one rank separated Sterlin from one of the most famous medal winners in the battle for Ortona in December 1943. Capt. Paul Triquet would become a national celebrity back in Canada when he won a Victoria Cross. Triquet and his Royal 22nd Regiment (Van Doos) captured a farm hamlet near Ortona known as Casa Berardi, on December 14, 1943.
Col. Guiney believes Sterlin was equally deserving.
“In my opinion, I think he was robbed of the Victoria Cross,” Guiney said.
Guiney has impressive overseas deployments to his credit, including as head of the Canadian task force in Ukraine in 2015, plus stints in the Middle East, Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross in 2017. Ottawa no longer hands out the VC posthumously.
“Perhaps this is an equally great honour, even if he never gets the [Victoria Cross] award,” said the colonel of Sterlin. “I think telling his story is an honour in itself.”
‘One of the guys’
Capt. (Ret.) Michael O’Leary has been studying the medal-awarding policies to infantry in the First Canadian Division during the Italian campaign of the Second World War. Despite the outcome for Sterlin, O’Leary doesn’t think The RCR was being stingy with its medals.
In his paper, “Too Few Honours”, O’Leary found that when it comes to the Military Medal awarded to infantry battalions in Italy, The RCR actually received more than any other unit.
“Twenty four to The RCR, the next was 19 to the Seaforths (Highlanders Regiment),” said O’Leary, who also works at The Royal Canadian Regiment’s museum in London, Ontario.
O’Leary is pleased that Sterlin’s footnote in Canadian history has come to the forefront in recent years. Attention is being paid, particularly with the successive anniversaries of both the landing in Sicily, and the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020. Aside from the room and the building in Sterlin’s name, new officers are taught about Sterlin during their indoctrination course.
“Naming a building for an old general has no meaning for them, ” O’Leary said. “Naming it for a young officer has meaning, he is one of the guys, they can connect to it.”
Tucci Farm House in San Donato
Those veterans or anyone with an interest in Canadian military history can also visit the actual physical farm house known as Sterlin Castle. Descendants of the wartime occupants, the Tucci family, still own it and live there. In 1992, Canadian veterans paid for a memorial cairn and plaque to be erected at the farm house gate.
The house is located at the intersection of two branches of a rural road known as Contrada San Donato, on the southern outskirts of Ortona. You have to drive merely a kilometre to the north along the same road, passing by olive trees and vineyards, to find the grave of Lt. Mitchell Sterlin. He is buried at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, along with over a thousand casualties of the fighting for Ortona in 1943.
Sterlin’s family chose a phrase from a sacred Jewish text to be engraved on Sterlin’s permanent tombstone, below the Star of David.
“SOME GAIN ETERNITY IN A LIFETIME, OTHERS GAIN IT IN ONE BRIEF HOUR” TALMUD
Sterlin’s brother did not live to see The RCR’s most recent tributes for his brother: Martin died in late 2014. However, at the earlier dedication ceremony for the Sterlin building, Martin told the organizers the family appreciated the honour bestowed on his brother.
“Mitchell’s death has, of course, brought a void to my parents and my sister (Anne) and I, and I sometimes think of the missing nieces and nephews, a whole corner of my life just isn’t there,” Martin told the audience. “But I have no doubt about this: he did the right thing.”