Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

The Magazine Of Queen's University

Search form

Finding Captain Dennis: Warriors of The Moro River Bridgehead

Finding Captain Dennis: Warriors of The Moro River Bridgehead

[photo of Grover Dennis' obitiary]How do you say goodbye to a friend who was at one moment sharing a quiet moment of peace in a makeshift dugout under fire on the front lines, who the next moment was mortally wounded?

It is difficult to imagine the nature of a friendship developing under the intensity of war and the stress of holding the vanguard against determined enemy pressure. A growing friendship between two Queen’s University graduates with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was abruptly ended on the front lines with the random explosion of a German mortar rocket – a “moaning minnie” on December 9, 1943. Captain Grover Dennis was mortally wounded by the shrapnel and died six weeks later at a field hospital 300 km south near Bari. My father, Lieutenant Hugh “Hub” Vallery was sitting beside Grover and escaped unscathed. In fact, Grover had likely shielded by father from a similar fate.

The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was part of the First Canadian Infantry Division, Allied Eighth Army, tasked with breaking the German lines along the Adriatic coast. The Hasty Ps provided a diversionary front, to facilitate a major allied thrust further inland. The Hasty Ps in fact were very successful in their decoy mission – despite taking heavy losses and being partially overrun, incredible courage allowed the unit to hang on and ultimately advance On December 5, 1943, The Hasty Ps replaced the tired Royal Irish Fusiliers on the front line along the coast road. The Hitler Line had been drawn through the Moro River just south of Ortona. To the north of the Moro River was a refreshed regiment of the German Elite 90th Panzer Grenadier Division.

Captain Grover Dennis and Hub Vallery had met while training with the Queen’s COTC group beginning in the fall of 1939. Capt Dennis deployed to Europe over a year earlier than Hub, who had stayed at Queen’s to complete a “wartime” 1-year Master's in History under the tutelage of Professor Reg Trotter, graduating in May 1942. Hub trained through 1942 in Canada, and deployed for England in May 1943.

Queen’s students had certainly risen to the occasion of volunteering and serving their country, setting aside brilliant academic careers or the “next steps” of civilian working-life to take up the Commonwealth cause in military roles.

Captain Dennis’s obituary in the Toronto Telegram of February 1944 highlighted the significance of his loss:

Wounds Fatal to Captain Dennis …. One of Canada’s outstanding athletes, Captain Grover W. Dennis, 27, died of wounds received in Italy where he served with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Wounded on December 9th when a high-explosive shell landed in his dugout, he was reported dangerously ill and his death took place in hospital January 23. One time Canadian high jump champion and former member of the Argonaut Rowing Club, Captain Dennis won the Queen’s Athletic Shield while he was attending the Kingston college and collected many other trophies and shields at track and field events. Son of Mr. & Mrs. D.L. Dennis, he married the former Doris Chadwick, 584 Ossington Avenue, just three months before he went overseas in October 1940. A brother, Flight Sargeant Steven Dennis recently returned from two and a half years overseas. Capt Dennis attended Bloor Collegiate before going to Queen’s. He graduated in 1940 and immediately enlisted.

After Captain Dennis’s injury, Hub spent another four days in desperate combat on the front lines north of the Moro River and in “the Gully”, and was captured in heavy fighting at nightfall on December 13th. His platoon had gone out of radio contact and had failed to receive the expected artillery support. Six months later, while incarcerated in Prisoner of War Camp in Germany (OFLAG 79), he was devastated to hear of Grover’s death.

Sixty-six years later, one of my history-loving daughters had called me from London, inviting me to a “long weekend from Rome” as a start to the family pilgrimage back to the battlegrounds of Italy. Our trip was a catharsis in memory of Captain Dennis, Hub and their comrades. My father had quietly thought of making this journey many times, but I believe he had suppressed his memories and was afraid that a reunion with his fallen comrades would have been traumatic. Hub was always “stiff upper lip” and all, but I knew that there was much more to the few stories that he had grudgingly divulged. On returning to Canada in August 1945, Hub looked forward, he did not want to look back.

We visited the silent, placid Canadian Moro River War Cemetery on a cool, quiet, blue-sky day in February 2009 – there were few signs that this beautiful area had been raped, years earlier by an intense, destructive confrontation of the best military forces and technology of the age. Our host at the Allegria in Lanciano, an Italian-Canadian, provided a wonderful counter-point with many stories of the devastation that the war had brought to her family and the local population. The Canadian military effort was only a part of the full story on this Adriatic coast of late 1943.

We found Captain Dennis’s simple grave on a wet, grey day at a beautifully kept Commonwealth cemetery south of the ancient village of Carbonara near Bari. We both cried for his loss. As a small gesture of recognition, we placed Hub’s wrist watches that he had worn for six decades after the war on top of the gravestone.

Captain Dennis had also been remembered in a regimental return in the early 1970’s. In the book, “Duffy’s War”, Captain Dennis was eulogized - “lives ceased suddenly, (Captain Dennis) survived fierce fighting at the Moro River bridgehead, only to die of wounds later in hospital”.

The tragedy of his loss haunts us to this day – a thanks for Captain Dennis’s efforts, commitment and his life doesn’t say enough.

Jacqui Vallery and Doug Vallery
Remembrance Day, 2010