The Italian Campaign: Sicily and Southern Italy, July-November 1943
Allied Strategy in the Mediterranean
The decision to attack Sicily was taken by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. At that time the conquest of the island was considered simply as a continuation and completion of the North African strategy, designed to open the Mediterranean to our shipping and provide a base for future attacks on Southern Europe. Before the Sicilian invasion actually took place, however, the strategic concept had developed further.
The TRIDENT Conference of the Allied leaders at Washington in May 1943 reaffirmed the decision to attack Germany in North-West Europe, and fixed the date, for planning purposes, as the spring of 1944. At the same time, however, the resolve was taken to go on from Sicily with a view to knocking Italy out of the war: to "carry out such operation in exploitation of HUSKY (the conquest of Sicily) as would be best calculated to eliminate Italy from the war and to contain the maximum number of German Divisions". The first object defined by this directive was soon achieved; the second continued in effect until the defeat of Germany as the basis of the Italian campaign.
It had thus been decided, before a single Allied soldier set foot on the soil of Italy, that the forthcoming campaign there would be a subordinate enterprise. It was to play second fiddle to the great project in North-West Europe, its long-term strategic function was to contribute to the success of that project by tying down German forces in the south. The extent to which, from the conquest of Sicily onwards, the Mediterranean was to become a secondary theater, was emphasized by another decision of the TRIDENT Conference. The Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean was instructed to dispatch to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1943 seven (finally eight) veteran divisions. "It was our purpose", writes General Marshall, "to avoid the creation in Italy of a vacuum into which the resources of the cross-Channel operation would be dissipated as the Germans had bled themselves in the North African campaign".
The Assault on Sicily
The enemy undoubtedly suspected that the Allies, having liquidated his African armies by the splendid victory in Tunisia in May, were
planning some new offensive move in the Mediterranean; but he could not fathom with certainty either its time or its objective. His strategists, we now know from captured documents, disagreed on the question of where we were likely to strike next. He completely failed to interfere effectively with the gigantic concentration of forces which was taking place. The fast assault convoy from Britain had no casualties during the long passage. The slow assault convoy, it is true, did suffer by enemy action. On 4-5 July three of its ships fell victims to submarines off the North African coast; and in the sinkings 55 Canadians lost their lives. With these ships we lost also more than 500 vehicles and some artillery, and this considerably embarrassed the Canadians during their early operations.1
On 9 July the various assault convoys of the Eastern and Western Task Forces gradually drew together, precisely as the plans made so many months before had provided, in the rendezvous areas south and west of Malta; then they sailed northwards, each convoy towards its own assigned beach. The enemy still made no sign.
During the day, the weather, which had been hot and cloudless, changed suddenly for the worse. A gale blew up; there seemed every likelihood that an assault landing would be impossible and that the whole great project would be ruined at the last moment; and a Canadian officer saw General Simonds standing by the rail of the headquarters ship Hillary watching the turbulent sea with a serious and calculating eye. In the evening, however, the wind fell, and although a heavy swell persisted it appeared that landing would be practicable. In the event, the gale proved ˆ blessing in disguise; for it apparently led the naval adviser of General Achille d'Havet, commanding the 206th Italian Coastal Division, which was charged with the defence of this sector of Sicily, to assure his chief that landings were impossible that night. This doubtless softened the effect of the news, when it came, that our armada was approaching. The operations log of the German Commander-in-Chief South indicates that at 4:30 p.m. on 9 July Axis aircraft reported convoys steering towards Sicily. By 6:40 p.m. "all troops in Sicily had been alerted".
Even this much warning would have had serious effects had we had to do with troops who were determined to fight hard; but we were to find that few Italians, whether soldiers or civilians, now had their hearts in the war against the Allies. D'Havet's men showed very little disposition to resist the invasion, and the Canadian assault before dawn, which was covered by strong naval and air bombardment, proved to be
an almost bloodless operation. The arrangements were considerably disrupted by the swell; some units were landed late, and some in the wrong places; but there were no grave consequences.
The Canadians, and a Special Service Brigade comprising two Royal Marine Commandos under Brigadier R. E. Laycock which was operating on their left under General Simonds' command, took all their objectives with little trouble and few casualties; and that night Simonds reported that his whole force, including the Marines, had suffered not more than 75 killed and wounded. The enemy's one flicker of offensive spirit, a counter-attack in the Commando area in the afternoon, had been repulsed without great difficulty.
The assault had been successful all along the front. The 13th Corps on the British right did well, and was able in fact to take Syracuse late on D Day and Augusta on 13 July. The Americans likewise met little opposition in the beginning. On 11 July, however, the situation momentarily became critical about Gela, in the centre of their front, where German forces put in a fierce armoured counterattack. But the U.S. troops showed their quality, and had good naval support; and after a few anxious hours the menace was scotched. Thereafter the German regiments made a rapid lateral withdrawal from the western and central portions of the island; in the next phase, while the Americans rounded up the seldom-resisting Italians in these regions, the Germans concentrated upon defending their own vital line of retreat to the mainland against the Eighth Army.
A letter written to General Simonds by General Leese on 10 June, exactly a month before the assault, indicates that at this time the Eighth Army planners hoped that a vigorous stroke by the Army's right wing might enable it to "dominate the Messina Straits" at an early date, thus cutting off the enemy in Western Sicily and opening the way for invasion of the Italian mainland. If this idea was still entertained at the time of the invasion, it was frustrated by the swiftness of the German counter-measures. Before the landings, the German garrison in the island consisted mainly of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. These formations were widely distributed, from the Catania Plain in the east to Marsala in the west. As soon as the pattern of the Allied attack was clear, they re-grouped with great rapidity to their left flank, collecting their strength in the Catania area to baulk the British northward thrust along the coast. At the same time considerable German reinforcements were put in motion from the continent towards Sicily, and in the later stages of the fighting the enemy had available there large parts of the 1st Parachute Division (one of his very best formations) and of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. His air support, always inferior to ours, was steadily reduced by Allied air action; but in the opinion of the Chief of Staff of the 14th Panzer
Corps, which defended Sicily; this was compensated for in some degree by his strength in anti-aircraft artillery.
It may be well at this point to note the successive changes in Allied tactical plans which affected the Canadians' employment and lent increasing significance to the operations of the left wing of the Eighth Army of which they were a part. General Leese on 10 June had thought it possible that this wing would have, in the beginning at least, a relatively static role; but this did not prove to be the case.
On 13 July, three days after the landings, General Alexander issued to his two Armies a directive which instructed the Eighth to advance on two "axes", one directed upon Catania and the adjacent airfields, the other (on the Canadian flank) upon "the network of road communications within the area Leonforte-Enna". It was considered at this time that it might be desirable for the 30th Corps to drive on to the north coast. On 16 July a further directive ordered the Eighth Army to continue the movement on three axes: northward towards Catania, eastward from Leonforte towards Adrano, and on the far left through Nicosia and Troina upon Randazzo. This would have directed the Canadian Division in a wide sweeping movement north of Mount Etna. By 20 July, however, it was clear that the Germans had withdrawn into the north-east corner of the island and that their main force was holding up the British south of Catania. Here General Montgomery had won a bitter battle about Primosole Bridge, but it was apparent that further ground could be gained on this flank only at a very heavy cost in lives. The sweep north of Etna by the Eighth Army's left was now abandoned; instead, the Canadians were to drive on Adrano (also called Aderno), which lies at the foot of Mount Etna about twenty miles north-west of Catania. Between them and the north coast the Seventh U.S. Army was to come into line and join in a combined offensive to break through to Messina. In this phase, the Eighth Army must be content to "hold" on the right and would make its main effort on the left, where the Canadians were; to strengthen this flank, and to strike the final blow at Adrano, the 78th Division was ordered over from Africa.
Across the Sicilian Mountains
On 11 July the Canadians had begun the advance inland prescribed in the pre-invasion plan. The weather was extremely hot, the roads extremely dusty, and there was little transport; the troops were fresh from a temperate climate and a long voyage in crowded ships; and even though for a time there was scarcely any opposition, mere marching was a very exhausting experience under these conditions. The Sicilian countryside, with its strange semi-tropical vegetation, its picturesque hill-towns and its squalid rural slums, was constantly presenting new
sights and sounds (and smells); but the men were too tired to be interested tourists. In Modica on 12 July men of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry captured General d'Havet. On the same day a patrol of the Royal Canadian Regiment established, at Ragusa, the first contact with the United States forces (the 45th Infantry Division) advancing on the left. That night the Division's advanced troops were in the vicinity of Giarratana, some thirty miles, as the crow flies, from the point of landing. The Canadians badly needed a rest; and so General Montgomery, to quote his own words, "pulled them out of the fighting for two days."
They resumed the advance on the night of 14-15 July, moving on Highway No. 124, which runs along the rocky backbone of Sicily's southeastern peninsula, directed through Vizzini upon Caltagirone and Enna. On the 15th they had their first encounter with the Germans, at Grammichele; after a stiff little fight, a detachment of the Hermann Göring Division was driven out of the town and the advance continued. This was the first of many similar actions. The Germans made the most of the rugged terrain of Sicily. In general, advance was limited to the narrow and tortuous roads, and these were constantly cut or obstructed by mines and demolitions; while every few miles along the route the enemy had available to him a commanding defensive position. He defended these with increasing determination as the campaign proceeded, and the Canadians, pushing forward in the sweltering July heat, were forced to storm or outflank a long succession of rocky hills and ridges at a steadily mounting cost in casualties.
It was essential to make all possible speed, for as we have seen the Eighth Army's left flank was taking on increased importance. On 15 July General Montgomery wrote to General Leese, advising him that operations were "a bit slow and sticky on the right" and that everything indicated that the Germans were pulling their troops eastward from the central area of Sicily with a view to doing all they could to keep us from getting the airfields about Catania. The letter proceeded:
As we are held temporarily on the right, it is now all the more important to swing hard with our left; so push on with all speed to Caltagirone, and then to Valguarnera--Enna--Leonforte ...
The Division occupied Caltagirone on 16 July. The next day it took Piazza Armerina, after clearing a strong enemy position on the lofty hills to the south. The 18th was a day of confused and expensive fighting on the craggy approaches to Valguarnera; but that night this place too fell into Canadian hands.
In the meantime the Americans to the west were making rapid progress; and it was now agreed that Enna would be left to them, while the Canadian Division would be directed upon the hill-towns of
Leonforte and Assoro to the north-east. These two places stand on a commanding ridge rising about 2500 feet above sea-level and about 1200 above the valley of the Dittaino River, across which the attackers had to approach them. Eastward from Leonforte runs Highway No. 121, leading through Agira to Adrano. This town appeared to be the western anchor of the German position in front of Etna; and in accordance with General Alexander's plan General Montgomery now directed that the Canadians, after taking Leonforte and Assoro, should swing eastward and drive towards Adrano "without restraint".
The 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, on the right facing Assoro, and the 2nd, on the left facing Leonforte, both got across the dry bed of the Dittaino on 20 July. The next two days brought violent and dramatic action.
Brigadier H. D. Graham, commanding the 1st Brigade, detailed the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment for the attack on Assoro. This place stood on the western side of a jagged and lofty mountain peak--about 3000 feet high--which was crowned by an ancient Norman castle. The Hastings' Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. B. A. Sutcliffe, was killed by a shell as he reconnoitred this extraordinarily formidable position; and the command devolved upon a son of a former Governor-General of Canada, Major Lord Tweedsmuir. The new commander decided that a direct frontal attack towards Assoro along the single tortuous road which led towards it would be a hopeless proposition; instead, he adopted the bold and original course of a silent night march across country and an assault upon the mountain's steepest face--that fronting the east. His enterprise had the success which it deserved. Dawn of 21 July found the men of the Hastings, almost ready to collapse from exhaustion after the march and the desperate climb, ensconced on the mountain-top beside the castle determined to hold against all comers this vantage-point which they had seized in the midst of the enemy's positions. And hold it they did, in spite of artillery fire, counter-attack and snipers, until the Germans on 22 July withdrew from the town below. It is not surprising that the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, the victim of this exploit, should write of its late antagonists in its subsequent "experience report", "In fieldcraft (Indianerkrieg) superior to our own troops. Very mobile at night, surprise break-ins, clever infiltrations at night with small groups between our strongpoints".
In the meantime the 2nd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier C. Vokes, had been dealing with Leonforte. This town, perching below the crest of a steep hill on the further side of a deep ravine spanned by a bridge which the Germans had of course demolished, was as tough a proposition as Assoro, and there was very hard fighting before it was taken. On the evening of 21 July the Edmonton Regiment, their way
prepared by a heavy artillery concentration, clambered down into the ravine and up into Leonforte, while sappers, working under fire, began to replace the bridge. There was a fierce struggle in the town's dark streets, and the situation was mastered only the next morning, when a flying column of tanks and anti-tank guns with men of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry clinging to them ran the gauntlet of fire, across the now completed bridge, followed by the rest of the Patricias, to reinforce the hard-pressed Edmontons. The heights overlooking Leonforte were cleared that afternoon, after further bitter fighting and a good many casualties. The Germans were contesting every yard of ground; and still harder battles lay immediately ahead.2
The Fighting for Agira
The next objective was Agira, which barred the way to Adrano. Athwart the highway leading to Agira from Leonforte stood a succession of formidable hill positions; and the resistance offered by the Germans on these positions upset the Canadian time-table. It was hoped to break through them in one continuous operation, the 1st Brigade carrying the attack in the initial stage and the 2nd taking over thereafter. On the afternoon of 24 July the Royal Canadian Regiment, supported by tanks of the 12th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment), assailed the enemy about the village of Nissoria. The village itself was taken without trouble, but two commanding hills beyond it, one on either side of the highway, were different matters. The infantry and tanks were beaten back from them with heavy losses; among the R.C.R.'s fatal casualties was the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. Ralph Crowe. That night the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment attacked the hills with a similar result; and the third battalion of the 1st Brigade, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, had no better fortune when it went forward in its turn on the following evening. Only when the 2nd Brigade took over and sent the Patricias in on the 26th behind a very heavy barrage moving in 100-yard lifts were the positions overlooking Nissoria finally cleared. Possession of them .had been purchased at a heavy cost.
The second enemy position, a mile or so to the east, was in our hands by noon of the next day; and that afternoon the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada attacked the third, lying immediately west of Agira. South of the road they gained a foothold on the summit of the hill, and cleared this part of the objective in a dashing attack on the morning of the 28th. The same day the Edmonton Regiment, not without
some fierce fighting, took the portion of the objective north of the road. Subsequently the Patricias cleared Agira itself, one of the most imposing of Sicily's innumerable hill-towns.
While the Canadians fought their way towards Agira from the west, the 231st British Infantry Brigade, operating under General Simonds' command, had been attacking from the south to threaten the enemy's communications running eastward from the town. On three successive nights they had got across the highway, only to be withdrawn each time when the main attack failed to gain ground. The Germans, fighting with their usual obstinacy, refused to be coerced by this threat into giving up their positions west of Agira until actually driven off them. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier M.H.S. Penhale, had also been pursuing an independent role, advancing down the Dittaino Valley on the right of the Division's main axis and parallel to it. This brigade too had heavy fighting, and was now able to make a valuable contribution to the 30th Corps operation which finally drove the enemy from his Adrano position.
The Corps plan for Operation HARDGATE provided for an attack against Adrano by two divisions. On the left the 1st Canadian Division would continue its thrust along Highway No. 121 through Regalbuto and clear the country north of the highway; on the right, the fresh 78th Division, brought in secretly from Africa and now ready for action, would strike north-eastward against Centuripe and then launch the main assault on Adrano. On 29 July the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade passed temporarily under the 78th Division's command and was given the task of gaining for it a bridgehead across the Dittaino at Catenanuova. The West Nova Scotia Regiment duly took Catenanuova on the 30th;3 the 78th went through and on 2 and 3 August captured the singularly commanding town of Centuripe. The Canadian brigade then reverted to its own Division and returned to the main divisional axis, Highway No. 121.
In the meantime the 231st and 1st Brigades had been battling hard under the scorching sun for Regalbuto, about five miles east of Agira. The Hermann Görings held the place with great determination, using their tanks as pillboxes among the ruins. Only on the night of 1-2 August did they withdraw from it. The Germans still held Catania and their line running north-west from it in front of Etna; but its right flank was threatened by the advance of the Canadian and 78th Divisions, while moreover the Seventh U.S. Army was now coming into line to share in the final drive into the Messina Peninsula. The Americans were to push forward along the coast road and the parallel inland route through
Troina; on the far right, on the other coast, the 13th Corps would seize any opportunity to take Catania and advance through the defile between Etna and the Straits; in between, the 30th Corps, including the Canadians, would break through the enemy's centre and take Adrano.
During the first days of August the 2nd Brigade was engaged in clearing the rugged tract of country north-west of Adrano and north of the River Salso, whose course parallels that of Highway No. 121. On the 5th, after a difficult approach across a roadless wilderness of rocky hills, the Edmontons rushed "Hill 736", which dominates the angle formed by the Salso and Troina rivers; and on the same day a striking force of the Three Rivers Regiment and the Seaforth with some artillery and other elements attached went forward across the Troina to attack German paratroopers holding the high ground between this river and the Simeto, which joins the Salso just west of Adrano. This operation was brilliantly successful, providing a particularly fine example of infantry-tank co-operation; the paratroops' losses were heavy, but the Canadians' were small.
The final Canadian blow towards Adrano was struck by the 3rd Brigade. By 6 August the Royal 22e Régiment had a bridgehead across the Simeto and was pushing on towards the town. Orders from Corps, however, directed that it should be left free for the passage of the 78th Division. One patrol of the 22e did, nevertheless, reach the outskirts of Adrano and found no enemy therein. The enemy had now been levered out of his main line of resistance before Etna; on 5 August the 13th Corps had finally got into Catania; on the 6th the Americans cleared Troina, where they had had very bloody fighting; and the whole Allied front was on the move. The Canadian Division was withdrawn into Army Reserve on 6 August; a few days later it passed under the command of the 13th Corps and moved southward to plan and train for the next great enterprise, the invasion of the Italian mainland. It thus took no part in the last phase of the Sicilian campaign, and was not present when American and British forces entered Messina on 16 and 17 August, completing the conquest of the island after thirty-eight days' fighting.
The Sicilian Balance-Sheet
The four weeks fighting in Sicily was the first occasion during the War of 1939-45 when Canadian troops in large numbers were committed to a lengthy campaign, and accordingly warrants some comment.
In some respects, the 1st Division's introduction to active operations took place under almost ideal conditions. The assault landing at Pachino, though not quite bloodless, was a far less costly operation than those who planned it had thought probable; and the advance
through Sicily thereafter had begun with slight opposition which had developed gradually into the fierce resistance encountered in front of Agira. The Division was thus able to gain battle experience by relatively easy stages, in a manner vouchsafed to comparatively few formations in this war. Yet the campaign as a whole was not an easy one. Climate and terrain presented exceptional difficulties, and the Canadians had been thrust by circumstances into a more active role than that originally planned for them. They had marched further than any other division in the Eighth Army, and for more than a fortnight had had a very large share of the total fighting on the Army front. The stubbornness of the opposition at this time was grimly reflected in the figures of Canadian casualties, which for the whole of the Sicilian campaign, including the losses at sea, amounted to 2434 of all categories; 38 officers and 447 other ranks had been killed or had died.
It was a fine performance for a "green" division (and it should be emphasized that the Division could not have done as well as it did but for its exceptionally sound and careful training during the years in England). General Leese's comments, in a letter written to General Simonds on 6 August, the day the Canadians passed from under his command, were detailed and generous:
Now that you are shortly to leave 30 Corps I would like to write and congratulate you and the Division on your magnificent fighting since you landed in Sicily.
The landing operations went extremely smoothly and reflect the greatest credit on your planning and training before you sailed. The Division then marched many miles inland to the Ragusa area, fighting its way forward in great heat, to which your men were unaccustomed. This reflected particular credit on the infantry, who had only just finished a long sea voyage. You then took up the forefront of the Corps battle from Vizzini. For three weeks, with the Malta Bde under your command, you have fought continuously against a stubborn German resistance.
Your battle training has stood up extraordinarily well to the high tests demanded in the constant advances and attacks, both by day and night. The gunners have supported their infantry closely and well and the Divisional concentrations have proved the adequacy of your training. The sappers have worked with great devotion to duty, to establish tactical routes and to maintain your supplies. Finally, you forced your way from Regalbuto to the River Salso and joined up under the most difficult physical conditions with the 78th Division in time for the attack tonight. I cannot thank and congratulate you enough on all these performances.
I would like to add one personal word of thanks to you for your unfailing help during these operations; and to congratulate you on the manner in which you handled your Division.
My whole Staff tell me how extraordinarily well their opposite numbers in your Division have done and how much they have enjoyed working with them ...
Sicily, 10 July-17 August 1943
First On the Continent
One very satisfactory consequence of the invasion of Sicily had been the eclipse on 25 July of Benito Mussolini. The fallen dictator was replaced by a government headed by Marshal Badoglio, which announced that it would continue the war but was soon engaged in negotiations with the Allies behind the Germans' backs. Italy, it was clear, would soon be "eliminated from the war", and one of the main objects of the Combined Chiefs of Staff would be achieved. These negotiations proceeded concurrently with planning for the advance from Sicily into Italy, and the new situation inevitably affected the nature of the plans.
The project for this first invasion of the mainland of Europe, as finally settled after much discussion and many changes, was as follows. The Eighth Army would lead the way, sending the 13th Corps (commanded by Lieutenant-General M.C. Dempsey and consilting for this operation of the 1st Canadian Division, the 5th British' Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade) in to the attack by way of the short jump across the Strait of Messina to the toe of Italy. This enterprise (Operation BAYTOWN) would serve to open the Strait to Allied naval forces; and General Montgomery was instructed, in the event of the enemy's withdrawing, to follow him up, bearing in mind that the greater the extent to which he could engage enemy forces in the "toe" the more assistance he would be giving to the main attack further north. This (Operation AVALANCHE) was to be delivered a few days later, simultaneously or nearly simultaneously with the announcement of the Italian surrender. The Fifth United States Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Mark Clark and consisting of one American and one British corps, was to assault in the Gulf of Salerno, south of Naples and at the northern limit of operation of fighters working from Sicilian airfields. AVALANCHE had for its object the capture of Naples, which was to be followed by an advance on Rome. At the same time the 1st British Airborne Division would land by sea in the Taranto area and seize the heel of the Italian peninsula.
D Day for Operation BAYTOWN was 3 September, 1943: the fourth anniversary of Britain's declaration of war. The Canadian Division would attack on the right, its objectives including the, town of Reggio di Calabria; the 5th would go in on the left opposite Messina. The Canadian assault was to be led by the 3rd Brigade with the Carleton and York Regiment and the West Nova Scotia Regiment in the van. The operation would be covered both by the massed artillery of the Eighth Army firing from Sicily and by a powerful naval force.
Before dawn on the 3rd, as the landing craft moved silently across the Strait, shells from 655 guns began to crash down on the Italian shore. In the darkness and the smoke many groups of craft failed to find the proper beaches. As in the case of the Sicilian landings, however, these inaccuracies had no serious consequences, for there was even less
resistance at Reggio than there had been at Pachino. The Italian troops in the area had no intention of fighting, and the Germans did not propose to defend Calabria. On 17 August General von Vietinghoff, who was then about to take command of the Tenth Army, had had an interview with Hitler and been told that "the centre of gravity" was to be in the Naples-Salerno area. Calabria was to be evacuated, though "only under enemy pressure"; in the face of superior strength, "delaying action by fully mobile forces" was the order for this area. Thanks to this German policy, the 3rd Brigade had no difficulty in occupying Reggio and its environs; and before the evening of D Day the units of the 1st Brigade had already pushed forward into the mountainous interior. The British division had done equally well on the left. Allied forces from the West once more had a lodgement on the European continent.
The phase of the campaign now beginning was difficult and arduous, if not for the Canadians particularly hazardous. The Calabrian peninsula is nothing if not rugged; its Aspromonte range is among the highest in the Apennine system. The battalions, struggling forward in the September rains along the poor mountain roads in the face of German rearguards and constant painstaking demolitions, found this land of splendid pine-clad hills with its frosty nights a peculiar and rather uncomfortable contrast to Sicily where, only a few weeks before, they had been campaigning in tropical heat. After some days of slow advance through the mountains, the Canadian brigades were ordered to switch their axis of advance to the better highway running along the east coast of Calabria. By 10 September their advanced patrols were in Catanzaro, far up this coast, and some 75 miles from Reggio even as the crow flies.
On 9 September the Fifth Army had assaulted the beaches of Salerno, delivering the main blow of the invasion plan. This operation developed into one of the fiercest battles of the whole Mediterranean campaign, fought in part on the ground about the famous temples of Paestum. The radio announcement of the Italian surrender, made the night before the landing, had warned the Germans of their danger. They had already taken some precautions (notably in the Rome area); now they took others. Italian troops were disarmed and coast defences taken over. German documents prove that the enemy had no actual advance information of the Salerno attack, but we have already seen that he had long regarded the Salerno-Naples area as a likely Allied target. During 8 September he sighted our convoys and drew the inference that a large operation was about to take place in this sector, "or possibly further north". When the assault was made, he reacted to it with speed and vigour, rushing to Salerno reserve formations which he had been too prudent to commit against the Eighth Army in the south. Through several days of vicious fighting the fate of the Anglo-American bridgehead hung in the balance. The Allied Navies backed the land forces with all their
strength; British battleships went in close to the beaches to bombard the counter-attacking Germans, and a major lesson learned from this operation was the tremendous value of naval fire in support of troops ashore. But it was clear that no other form of assistance would be so useful to the hard-pressed Fifth Army as a rapid advance of the Eighth to threaten the rear of the Germans assailing the bridgehead.
It was not easy for the Eighth to get forward in the required manner, for the 13th Corps had already outrun its supplies. General Montgomery, indeed, had to call a halt at the Catanzaro isthmus to give "administration" a chance to catch up. While the main bodies stood fast the light forces continued to push on to the north; the Canadian Division's reconnaissance unit (the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards) occupied the port of Crotone on 11 September. The general advance began again on the 14th; and on the 16th the leading patrols of the 5th Division, which throughout had been driving forward along the western coastline, made contact with the Americans fighting on the right flank of the Salerno bridgehead. By that time the worst was already over at Salerno. The Germans, who had counter-attacked very heavily on the 12th and 13th and greatly reduced the bridgehead, continued to attack on the 14th only to be stopped in their tracks, and on the 15th the battleships took a hand very effectively. But it was important to strengthen and extend at the earliest possible moment the contact made between the two Allied Armies.
With this in view, General Simonds was ordered to seize Potenza, an important road centre some 55 miles due east of Salerno and the same distance inland from the Gulf of Taranto. The task fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, and primarily to a strong mobile advanced guard organized for the purpose and known (from the name of its commander, Lt.-Col. M. P. Bogert of the West Nova Scotia Regiment) as "Boforce". Rushing forward through the mountains, this force met no opposition until it was close to Potenza itself, and after some fighting and artillery action the 3rd Brigade took the city on 20 September. Lieutenant-General Richard Heidrich of the 1st German Parachute Division had seen the importance of Potenza and sent off reinforcements to forestall us there; but they arrived too late. The airline overland distance to Potenza from Reggio, where the Canadians had landed less than seventeen days before, is less than 200 miles, but the actual road distance by the route followed is computed at 457 miles. The disparity in the figures reflects the nature of Italian roads and throws some light on the conditions under which the war in Italy was waged.
In the meantime, the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade had been operating to the eastward, joining hands with the Airborne Division in the Taranto region and patrolling boldly inland far to the north and north-west. In this work the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards were
invaluable. Canadians at home, anxious for news of their troops, were annoyed in these days by the almost total absence of reference to them in the daily reports of the progress of operations. There was, however, good reason for this reticence. It was essential that the enemy should not realize that a single infantry division was covering the whole wide front from west of Potenza to the vicinity of Taranto.
By the end of September the Fifth Army, its grim experience in the bridgehead now only a memory, had driven the Germans back beyond Naples; Allied troops entered the city on 1 October. The 5th British Corps, concentrated in the heel of the Italian peninsula, had come under General Montgomery's command and had pushed light forces rapidly northward to seize the extremely important group of airfields in the flat plain of Foggia. From these the Allied Strategic Air Forces would soon be striking at centres of Axis war production heretofore safe from their attentions. The operations accompanying the Italians' change of policy had not brought all the results that had been hoped for. The Germans had disarmed the Italian Army with little difficulty, and their hold on northern and central Italy was unshaken. But the Allies had rapidly overrun a vast and valuable tract of the south. They now faced the difficult task of capturing the capital, an objective of great political importance. "Whoever holds Rome", said Mr. Churchill, "holds the title deeds of Italy".
Campobasso and Termoli
The Fifth and Eighth Armies now stood on a line running across Italy from sea to sea, with the Eighth on the Adriatic flank. In his share of the joint operations designed to take Rome, General Montgomery decided to use the 13th Corps in advance, with two divisions: the 78th operating along the coast and the 1st Canadian fighting forward from the plain of Foggia into the mountain mass to the north and west. The Canadians' immediate objectives were the upland cities of Vinchiaturo and Campobasso, which lie close to the centre line of the peninsula. The Division's main body moved from Potenza at the end of September, and concentrated with the 1st Brigade near Foggia. Then it moved on towards the menacing mountains edging the plain. At Motta Montecorvino, on the edge of the escarpment, the 1st Brigade bumped into the Germans--men of the 1st Parachute Division; and there was a fierce all-night fight (1-2 October) before the Canadians established themselves and were able to push on to Volturara. From here the 3rd Brigade carried the advance onwards, and on 8 October it took Gambalesa. In the meantime the 2nd Brigade, advancing on the left, forced its way into the hills further south.
The Germans' resistance had stiffened materially by comparison with that encountered by the Canadians during September. The battle was
approaching the narrowest and most rugged part of the Italian peninsula, highly favourable to defensive tactics; and on 27 September Heidrich had issued to his paratroopers a directive prescribing a definite technique of delaying action, designed to make us pay for every mile gained and to slow the speed of our advance to the minimum. Mines and demolition were now supplemented by a policy of fighting for ground, based on holding a succession of positions and refusing to give up any one of them until we had been forced to deploy our strength and develop a deliberate attack. In this manner the Germans fell back slowly and stubbornly towards the Sangro. Along this river on the eastern side of the peninsula, and along the Garigliano in the west, they had developed a defensive position which they hoped to make good as a Winter Line.4
So the advance proceeded, mile after mile across the sullen Apennine highlands in the autumn mist and rain, the battalions fighting for a commanding height here and an important mountain village there, with the divisional artillery bringing its full weight to bear in support as occasion required and circumstances allowed. Among these engagements, that fought by the Seaforth on 6 October for possession of the crossroads at Decorate was particularly fierce and costly. Finally, on 14 October, the 1st Brigade was able to occupy Campobasso, while the 2nd on the following day took Vinchiaturo, a significant roadcentre overlooked by the great 6000-foot mass of the Matese Mountains. It was desired to develop Campobasso (a provincial capital of some 17,000 people, dominated, like so many Italian towns, by an extremely unlikely castle on a highly improbable hill) as an administrative centre. As it and Vinchiaturo were still under shellfire it was necessary for the Canadians to spend some days driving the Germans from the villages on the near side of the Biferno River and thus pushing their guns back out of range. Thereafter, during the last ten days of October, the brigades extended their operations beyond the Biferno and, in a series of actions among which the attack on Colle d'Anchise by the Edmonton Regiment was conspicuous, cleared the villages on the far bank also. From these bases active patrolling was carried on in the course of November to drive the enemy still further back. During this month as many men as possible were given short leave to enable them to enjoy the clubs and theatres which had been set up in Campobasso; and the pleasures of life in "Maple Leaf City" were an agreeable memory for a long time to come.
While the 1st Canadian Division was pushing forward to Campobasso, one unit of the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade was playing a
CAMPOBASSOFrom a painting by Major C. F. Comfort Campobasso, "dominated by an extremely unlikely castle on a highly improbable hill", was developed as a leave centre for the Canadians in Italy in the autumn of 1943, and was known as "Maple Leaf City". In the foreground are Canadian troops and carries.
distinguished part in a dramatic incident on the Adriatic coast.
In warfare in the narrow and mountainous Italian peninsula the expedient that offered the best hope of rapid advance and the encirclement of considerable enemy forces was the "seaborne hook" the utilization of Allied naval supremacy to put troops ashore on the coast at points well in rear of the line which the enemy was defending from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. In practice, the Allies' employment of this device was painfully circumscribed by the limitations of their naval resources and in particular by a chronic shortage of landing craft. As we have seen, however, it was employed at Salerno in September; and General Montgomery now used it on a lesser scale, on the opposite side of the country, in October. By the beginning of that month the Eighth Army's advance up the Adriatic coast was approaching the port of Termoli, just north of the Biferno. The plan now was to loosen the enemy's hold on this whole area by striking at Termoli from the sea with a Special Service (Commando) brigade and two brigades of the 78th Division while the balance of this Division drove forward overland to make contact with them.
The Commandos landed successfully on the morning of 3 October; and while the 78th's seaborne units came in behind, the overland force duly struck across the mouth of the Biferno and joined hands with the men from the sea. So far all had gone well. Now, however, the enemy took a hand, hurling his 16th Panzer Division against the still unconsolidated and unsupported bridgehead in a violent and determined counter-attack. The British infantry were forced to give ground. Only one armoured unit (the County-of London Yeomanry) was on the spot, and if disaster was to be staved off it was essential to get additional armour up at once. It was in these circumstances that the Three Rivers Regiment, whose tanks had arrived at Manfredonia by sea from the west coast in the very nick of time, was ordered north into the fight; and the sight of the Shermans rumbling across the Biferno bridge must have been a very pleasant one for the 78th.
On 6 October British infantry and Canadian and British tanks went over to the attack. Through the day the battle swayed back and forth among the olive groves on the rolling plain west of Termoli. On this terrain tank could fight tank in a manner very rare in the Italian campaign. By evening the 16th Panzer had been worsted and the situation saved. The Three Rivers Regiment recorded that it had knocked out eight of the enemy's Mark IV Special tanks for a loss of five Shermans, of which at least two were recoverable. Fortunately, Canadian losses in men were light.5
In this smaller Salerno the Three Rivers Regiment had given a very good account of itself. The 78th Division, and particularly the 38th (Irish) Brigade, had many kind things to say; and General Dempsey wrote to Brigadier R. A. Wyman of the Canadian Tank Brigade in terms calculated to warm any commander's heart:
I have been speaking during the last two or three days to several of the units of the 78th Division and the S.S.6 Brigade which took part in the operations at Termoli. Wherever I have been I have heard nothing but praise of the, way in which Lt.-Col. Booth's regiment fought. There is no doubt that they played a very important part in bringing about the defeat of the 16th Panser Division.
All the accounts go to show that not only did they fight with tremendous spirit but, also with considerable skill. It must be a great satisfaction to you to know that whenever a unit of your Brigade gets the opportunity of taking part in a battle it invariably does so with the greatest credit.
On the Canadian Division's front November was, on the whole, as we have seen, a quiet month; it witnessed, however, an independent operation on the upper Sangro River by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier T. G. Gibson. General Montgomery, having successfully crossed the line of the Trigno early in the month, was now preparing for the attack on the Winter Line along the Sangro. He proposed to deliver his main thrust along the Adriatic coast; but with a view to concealing this fact from the enemy it was desirable to make a show of activity in the inland mountains.
Moving the Brigade north-westwards from Vinchiaturo through the mountains was itself a considerable operation, involving herculean toil by the Engineers to clear routes which the enemy had demolished with his usual thoroughness. But it was done; and on 16 November we pushed the Germans out of Carovilli. At the village of Castel di Sangro we found the dominant rock pinnacle overlooking the place held by paratroopers who beat off the first attack upon it and then withdrew. Brigadier Gibson now undertook long-range patrolling, one object of which was to convince the enemy, if possible, that the whole 1st Canadian Division was operating in these bleak uplands. The 3rd Brigade remained active on the upper Sangro until the time came to rejoin the Division for the next great offensive. Throughout this area Italian refugees were a special problem, for the Germans had ruthlessly "scorched the earth" to deny our troops winter accommodation, burning the--villages and driving the miserable inhabitants out into the freezing mountains.
The three months of September, October and November, 1943, were less costly in Canadian lives than either the Sicilian campaign
which preceded them or the bitter fighting above the Sangro which followed. Fatal casualties for the three months were 22 officers and 294 other ranks; non-fatal, 67 officers and 812 other ranks. October, with a total list of 44 officers and 639 other ranks, of whom 13 officers and 166 other ranks were killed or died, was by far the most expensive; and the majority of these losses were suffered in the series of stiff combats during the advance to Campobasso in the first fortnight of the month. It should be added that during this period there was also a good deal of sickness.
Great changes were impending in the Canadian force in Italy. As we have seen, the British and Canadian governments had agreed to build up a Canadian corps in that theatre. The Headquarters of General Crerar's 1st Canadian Corps left England late in October, and on arrival in the Mediterranean was set up in the first instance in Sicily. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division began to come ashore at Naples during the first week of November. But it was to be a long time before the 5th saw any action. Shortage of shipping space had made it necessary for them to leave their heavy equipment in England; it was to be replaced by that of the 7th British Armoured Division, which was moving from Italy to the United Kingdom. The "Desert Rats", however, had been fighting in the Mediterranean theatre from the very beginning; their equipment and vehicles proved to be ancient and much worn, and reequipping the Canadian Division was consequently a slow process, not carried out without many complaints from units which remembered with some poignancy the new vehicles they had left behind in Britain.
General Simonds, who had commanded the 1st Canadian Division so successfully during its long advance from the Sicilian beaches to the Sangro, was now transferred to the 5th Division; he was succeeded by Brigadier Vokes, who had already had experience of divisional command during September and October when Simonds was ill. The 2nd Brigade, General Vokes' old command, passed to Lt.Col. B. M. Hoffmeister, formerly Officer Commanding the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. These changes became effective before the 1st Division moved off from Campobasso in the last week of November to play its part in the Sangro battle.
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