Born on May 20th, 1923 to Albert and Jean Ellis from Montréal, Ralph was 18 years old when he enlisted. He spent the first 10 days at the Jacques Cartier Barracks in Montréal before being sent to Huntingdon, Québec, for his basic training (2 to 8 weeks), then to Petawawa for advanced training (1 month). The order came to travel to Halifax, N.S. and embark on the HMCS Duchess of York for the voyage to Europe. It was a long journey, but safe enough, since the convoy was quite big (over 100 ships) and well protected.
Mr. Ellis was a sapper in the Royal Canadian Engineers, whose work included road construction and maintenance, reconnaissance and construction of Bailey bridges. They also preceded the infantry and tanks in order to lift mines and clear the roads.
From Liverpool to Italy
Soon after the arrival in Liverpool, England, they embarked on the HMS John Erickson en route to Naples, Italy. This trip was not as easy as the first one. After passing Gibraltar, around 9 pm, the German planes attacked and sank 3 ships: 2 Dutch ships and 1 hospital ship. Mr. Ellis learned many years after that Dr. Drummond Smith from Hawkesbury was on that hospital ship. Fortunately, Dr Smith escaped and came back to a long career as a doctor at the Smith Clinic in Hawkesbury and life in Dulreaggan Hall in L'Orignal. (His brother Erwin was also in the military).
The division of the Royal Canadian Engineers bivouacked in a field between Naples and Caserta waiting to be sent to build Bailey bridges in Atessa, in the mountains, on the Sangro river around Christmas time, on the Arraella and Rapido rivers and finally to the Hitler Line. "This line across Italy ran from Terracina on the Tyrrhenian coast to Pontecorvo, Aquino and Piedimonte (...) north of Cassino. Towering the town was Monte Cassino crested with its famous monastery."
During the month of May and especially from the 19th to the 23rd, the battle was fierce and Allied casualties were great. The Canadians succeeded at breaking the Hitler Line. The division kept pushing north to the Gothic Line, from the Tyrrhenian Sea through Pisa and Florence, to Pesaro on the Adriatic Sea.
Son, the war can wait! Ralph Ellis remembers
In Farnborough, at the time of his arrival in Britain, a General looked him in the eyes and asked him his age. When the young soldier answered 19, the general said "You're a damn liar, but I'm glad to have you."
Despite heavy bombing of bridges by the German air force, the Ponte Vecchio was spared because of its historic value, as were Rome and the Vatican.
One night Major R.B.Cameron (whose wife was a Campbell from McCrimmon Corner near Vankleek Hill) detailed Mr. Ellis to take a message asking for protection in the building of a bridge. He told him to remember the password for the night TOP HAT. Mr. Ellis and his companion, Andy Burroughs from Smith Falls, got lost around 1am. They entered a stationery store and on their way out were met by the military police who asked the password and inquired if they had seen any Germans. Upon Mr. Ellis' negative answer, the Allied learned that the Germans had already left a town that the Allied wanted!
Major Triquet from the Royal 22nd defended a large house at a strategic crossroad. He could radio for help but re-inforcement couldn't reach his position because the Germans were holding the Canadian division near Pangipani [ ].
At another time, Mr. Ellis got lost and had to ask directions from an old Italian man. Mr. Ellis could barely speak Italian and the man was not fluent in English.
"Are you Catholic", said the old man. "No", said Ralph, "Why?"
"Then you would know the name of this town. Come with me." "I'm in a rush and don't have time"
"Son the war can wait". Then the old man brought him to the church of St. Francis of Assisi! Mr. Ellis never forgot this saint!
Used as Bait!
In February, 1945, Mr. Ellis and his Divisions left Leghorn, Italy for Marseilles, France in a landing craft. Since they were near Genoa, they served as bait: the goal was to make the U-boats (German submarines) come out of hiding and divert them from seeing the tanks and equipment making their way from Italy to France. The fact that the Canadians were leaving Italy had to be kept secret. The two divisions made their way from Marseilles to the outskirts of Paris, then to Ypres, Belgium and then on to Arnhem, Holland where the battle was quite serious.
Complications in Holland
Ralph Ellis was then transferred to Division Headquarters in Apeldoorn, Holland. It was a promotion of sort, since he was now driving a Brigadier, had a flag on his jeep and partook of better food and accommodations. His activities brought him to Groennengen, Holland, where his life became complicated.
The soldiers had celebrated the end of the war. Ralph started to have a headache, sore throat, and fever and drove himself to the hospital where they forbade him to leave: he had diphteria, was highly contagious and he had to wear a mask. All his belongings, identification papers, souvenirs and mementoes from various places were still in his barracks. He could not get to them. He was sent to Holdenburg, Germany, to a convent converted into a hospital, taken to the airport, flown to Bruges, Belgium to a British hospital where he spent 3 weeks.
The time soon came for him to be shipped to Britain, by mistake, he was put on a train with German prisoners of war. Thanks to a Canadian nurse he was put on the right train to Ostende, took the boat to Dover, England where he met Arthur Séguin from L'Orignal at the hospital in Aldershot. Penicillin, a new drug at the time, was administered and he was sent to Canada on the HMCs Queen Mary in October 1945. Mr Rhéal Lalonde from L'Orignal was on the same ship.
- Italian Star
- 1939-1945 Star
- France and Germany Star
- Defence Medal
- Voluntary Medal with a bar for active service
- Defence of Britain Medal