The Italian Campaign: The Liri Valley Offensive, May-June 1944
"To Destroy the Enemy South of Rome"
With the abandonment at the New Year of 1944 of the Eighth Army's plan to take Pescara and Avezzano, the main Allied attempts to break through the Winter Line and reach Rome were concentrated west of the Apennines. Apart from the narrow strips of lowland along either coast, the only break in the mountain mass that fills the interior of the peninsula is the entrance to the valley of the Liri River at its junction with the Gari. The long flat Liri corridor, flanked by parallel ranges of hills, extends north-westward into the Sacco Valley to form an inviting avenue to Rome. Along its northern edge ran two communication links of strategic importance--Highway No. 6 and the Naples-Cassin-Rome railway. But its entrance was forbiddingly guarded by a town destined to be remembered above all others in Italy for the stubbornness of its defence--Cassino with its Monastery Hill.
This sector now became the scene of the main Allied thrusts. American and French troops launched fierce assaults along the Rapido and the Gari1 during January, but although bridgeheads were made good north of Cassino, further progress was slight. The heavy fighting continued during February and March, with British, New Zealand and Indian troops taking over the front; Saint Benedict's famous Monastery on Monte Cassino was destroyed by a tremendous air attack (15 February); but we failed to take the hill or secure the town. It was apparent that a still heavier assault was needed to drive the enemy from his tenaciously-held positions.
Rome was still an objective of prime importance, not only in the design of the Italian campaign, but within the larger pattern of the whole Allied strategy of Europe. The airfields that lay north of the Alban Hills provided in themselves a strong military incentive for the early capture of the city; while, as we have seen, its political connotations rendered Rome itself an even more significant prize. The resolution with which the enemy clung to his defences at Cassino, and the determined counter-attacks which he launched against our Anzio enterprise in February, demonstrated the lengths to which he was
prepared to go to retain possession of the city. A Special Order of the Day from Hitler himself had been read to all ranks of the German Armies in Italy: "The Gustav Line must be held at all costs for the sake of political consequences which would follow a completely successful advance. The Führer expects the bitterest struggle for every yard." The Allied commanders were not sorry to find the Germans resolved to fight so hard for Rome; for this meant that the Allied Armies in Italy were carrying out effectively what was now their great strategic task--to contain in the peninsula as many German divisions as possible.
The failure of the 15th Army Group to reach Rome was however a source of some uneasiness to the planners of the overall Allied strategy. The approaching invasion of North-West Europe--Operation OVERLORD--would require the closest co-ordination of operations in the Mediterranean with the supreme effort in Normandy, and plans were under consideration for a full-scale invasion of Southern France, to be launched during May 1944. If Operation ANVIL, as this project was named, was to succeed, dislodging the enemy from his position below Rome and pushing him back well to the northward was desirable if not essential. From the Tunis Conference on Christmas Day 1943, where Mr. Churchill met the principal Mediterranean commanders, the British Prime Minister cabled to his Deputy: "We cannot leave the Rome situation to stagnate and fester for the three months without crippling amalgamation of ANVIL and thus hampering OVERLORD. We cannot go to other tasks and leave this unfinished job behind us." The immediate consequence was the mounting of an amphibious assault behind the enemy's right flank. This was delivered in the vicinity of Anzio on 22 January, by the 6th U.S. Corps of the Fifth Army, with both British and American divisions under command. The assault was covered and supported by strong Anglo-American naval forces. But although we initially obtained complete surprise the bridgehead was contained by the German Fourteenth Army before we could develop it, and a Fifth Army offensive which had started five days earlier along the Garigliano was held by the German Tenth Army with little gain. During the remaining winter months, the primary concern of the Allied forces in Italy was to effect a junction between these two fronts, and so advance on Rome.
On 26 February General Wilson received a directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff granting the Italian campaign until further orders "overriding priority over all existing and future operations in the Mediterranean." Plans for proceeding with ANVIL temporarily receded into the background. In the circumstances it was decided that the best contribution which the Mediterranean Theatre could make to the success of the invasion of Northern France would be to concentrate all resources on a continuation of the offensive in Italy. The entire direct support which the Allied Armies could give to OVERLORD depended first on
their ability to destroy the enemy south of Rome.
Regrouping for an all-out spring offensive was outlined at a conference of Army Commanders on 28 February. It was decided that for ease in administration all British-equipped divisions in Italy, which included Dominion, Indian and Polish forces; would return to the Eighth Army, and American-equipped United States and French formations would remain with the Fifth. General Alexander's intention was to continue to enlarge the Anzio bridgehead and to strike at Cassino once more, while at the same time redisposing his armies to the west of the Apennines for a full-scale attack through the Liri Valley which would link up with a projected breakout from Anzio and give us Rome. The grand assault would not however be launched at once, for the troops of both Allied Armies were exhausted and needed time for rest and refitting.
In the regrouping which began at the end of March, the "interarmy boundary" within the 15th Army Group was shifted westward from the centre of the peninsula to a line following the north bank of the Liri River north-westward from its junction with the Gari below Cassino. The transfer of formations was carried out by degrees. By the second week in May, the Fifth Army on its reduced front between the Liri and the Tyrrhenian Sea had two corps--the 2nd United States Corps and the Corps Expéditionnaire Français. The bulk of the Eighth Army was concentrated opposite the mouth of the Liri Valley. From the Liri to Cassino was the 13th Corps, with four divisions and an armoured brigade (the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade);2 to its right, the 2nd Polish Corps (two divisions and an armoured brigade) faced Cassino. Behind the 13th Corps, ready to pass through or come into the line on the left, was the 1st Canadian Corps, comprising the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and the 25th British Tank Brigade. This concentration, eight divisions and three brigades on a front of less than ten miles, was to be the Eighth Army's striking force. Its right flank, in the mountainous sector of the peninsula, was thinly held by the 10th Corps; the 5th Corps, under direct command of Headquarters, Allied Armies in Italy, remained in the Adriatic sector, now completely dormant.
The Great Deception
It was, of course, scarcely possible to conceal from the enemy the fact that the weight of the Eighth Army was being transferred west of the Apennines; and it must have seemed to him very probable that the resumption of the Allied offensive in the south would take the form of a
thrust up the Liri Valley--the only front on which a decisive result could be expected. What he sought to know was the degree of concentration that was taking place in the danger area and the timing of the impending attack. There is no doubt, too, that he was concerned about the vulnerability of his long coastal flank: he might well look for another Salerno or Anzio landing behind his lines. To keep the enemy uncertain about our intentions on the southern front, the Allied Command deliberately played upon his sensitivity along the coast.
An elaborate "cover-plan was devised to lead Field-Marshal Kesselring into the belief that an amphibious assault was to be made on 15 May at Civitavecchia, north of Rome. It was intended to convey the impression that the initial landing would be made by the 1st Canadian Corps--consisting of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, the 36th United States Infantry Division and the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade--and that subsequent reinforcing divisions would come from among those opposite the German southern front.
To this end, such a force was represented as having assembled about the Gulf of Salerno for amphibious training. The deception was carried on by means of dummy signal traffic. Between 22 and 27 April Canadian wireless detachments began operating near Salerno, while the actual formations that they represented went off the air completely in their true locations. For the benefit of possible enemy agents on the spot, a detachment of Canadian Provost Corps men planted a small forest of signposts bearing the Maple Leaf to mark assembly and embarkation areas on the Salerno coast. On 2 May wireless signals painted a vivid picture of the "rehearsal" of a landing being carried out in conjunction with the Royal Navy at a site which bore a remarkably close topographical resemblance to the coastal area immediately north of Civitavecchia. Between a "notional" Force Headquarters and imaginary divisional and brigade headquarters cipher messages based on a carefully written script passed to and fro, as the phantom assault force practised its theoretical landing behind the German lines. To carry the illusion further, units of the Allied Air Forces began a programme of daylight reconnaissance at frequent intervals over the beaches of Civitavecchia, and bombed radar stations in the vicinity of the town. It is worth noting that the inclusion of the 1st Division enhanced the plausibility of the deception scheme, for that formation was known to the enemy as having played a part in two successful assault landings, in Sicily and Calabria.
It was essential to the success of the cover-plan to persuade the enemy that the expected offensive in the Cassino area would not be launched until some time after the threatened landing had taken place on the Tyrrhenian coast. Unusually elaborate measures were therefore taken to conceal the arrival of the forces of the Eighth Army in the
concentration area. A comprehensively planned and skilfully executed camouflage programme effectively masked the transfer of the Canadian formations from their training areas. All travel was carried out under cover of darkness and the break of day always found units inconspicuously settled in their bivouac areas with their vehicles carefully hidden under natural cover or ingeniously disguised by great mottled green and brown camouflage nets garnished with foliage. In the maintenance areas experts in the art of camouflage supervised the concealment within the olive groves and along the roadsides of the tremendous reserves of ammunition, petrol and Engineer equipment and the great variety of stores necessary for the approaching battle. Special precautions were taken to prevent the creation of tell-tale tracks in and about the headquarters areas. During daylight hours local movement was restricted to a minimum, except in some rearward area where prying eyes might perhaps observe a mere three tanks innocently engaged in rehearsal with a handful of infantry--while the regiment's remaining half-hundred tanks lay concealed somewhere in the vicinity under a protective covering of leafy boughs and netting.
These painstaking ruses deceived the enemy to a marked degree. Captured Intelligence files of the German Fourteenth Army later revealed that on 11 May, the day of the attack, his picture of the Canadian dispositions was extremely confused. On that date he believed the 1st Division to be in the Salerno area--it was actually at Sant'Agata, east of Caserta; instead of placing the 5th Division correctly at Capua, he imagined it to be under Polish command at Acquafondata, north-east of Cassino (its 11th Infantry Brigade had held the mountainous sector of the front in that vicinity from 12 April to 5 May, successively under the 4th British Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division); the whereabouts of the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Corps, which was established three miles south of Mignano, was a blank in the enemy's location statement.
The Germans' misappreciation of the Canadian picture was paralleled in greater or less degree by their misconception of the dispositions of the other Allied formations. The enemy's underestimation of the size of our forces in the main area of attack led him to credit us with a large number of reserve formations in the rear--a mistaken assumption which made him regard our coming frontal attack as diversionary, and intensified his fears of a seaborne landing. His own dispositions on 11 May seem clearly to have been based on this belief; he had the minimum number of divisions in the line, while his reserves were grouped around the Anzio bridgehead or strung out along the western coast.
Three fortified lines barred the avenue of approach to Rome through the Liri-Sacco Valley. The first of these was the rearward
position of the Winter Line which had survived so many furious Allied attacks. Its most strongly fortified sector, anchored on Cassino and following generally the course of the Rapido--Garigliano southwards to the sea, the enemy had named the Gustav Line. The swiftly-flowing river--itself no mean obstacle--was flanked on its eastern bank by a thick and continuous network of wire and minefields. On the German side carefully-sited weapon positions on the valley floor and in the mountains to north and south allowed the enemy to sweep the whole of the fortified zone with fire, while deep shelters protected the defenders against our air and artillery bombardment.
Although he had good reason to trust the strength of these proved defences, Kesselring had ordered the construction during the winter of a second series of fortifications some nine miles to the rear. The Adolf Hitler Line, designed to bar the passage of any force which might succeed in penetrating the Gustav Line, crossed the Liri Valley from Mount Cairo (where it hinged on the main Winter Line) to Pontecorvo on the bank of the river, and thence southwards through Sant'Oliva across the Aurunci Mountains to the Gulf of Gaeta. Designed after the fashion of the famous Todt-constructed West Wall defences, the line depended for its strength upon a formidable barrier of concrete and steel structures especially designed as nodal points for anti-tank action. A number of these were miniature fortresses; each housed a solidly-emplaced Panther tank turret3 mounting a long 75-millimetre gun, and each was flanked by additional fixed and mobile anti-tank guns manned by crews whose living quarters were secure concrete burrows twenty feet below ground. Anti-tank ditches across all favourable approaches and an almost continuous belt of wire stretching from Aquino to Sant'Oliva completed this formidable secondary line of the German Tenth Army.4
The enemy's need for a third defensive position south of Rome was dictated by the threat from the Allied corps in the Anzio bridgehead, where a break-out to cut Highway No. 6 would render the Hitler Line useless. Early in March he therefore began to construct the Caesar Line, a last-ditch defence to which the Fourteenth and Tenth German Armies might retreat when and if the Allies forced a junction with the bridgehead. The western end of this Line was designed to block the gap,
between the Alban Hills and the Prenestini Mountains, through which Highway No. 6 emerged from the head of the Liri--Sacco Valley; the eastern sector, on which very little work had been done, was planned to extend to the Adriatic coast west of Pescara.
To the Canadian formations poised for the attack across the Gari, only the two southernmost of these German defence lines were to be of great moment. Forthcoming events would associate the names of the 1st Canadian Corps and the Adolf Hitler Line as long as either should be remembered.
"The Honour to Strike the First Blow"
The task allotted by General Alexander to the Eighth Army was to break or turn the Gustav and Hitler Lines and advance on the axis of Highway No. 6 towards Valmontone. The Fifth Army was initially to launch an attack on the left through the Aurunci Mountains and along the coastal road (Highway No. 7). When the Hitler Line had been penetrated, the 6th U.S. Corps would commence operations to break out of the Anzio bridgehead in a thrust to close the gap at Valmontone. The assault on the Gustav Line was to be carried out by the 13th Corps attacking across the Gari, while the 2nd Polish Corps on the right pushed through the mountains to isolate Cassino and turn the line from the north. In the centre of the peninsula the 10th Corps was to secure the right flank and make demonstrations with the object of deluding the enemy into expecting an attack from that quarter. The Canadian Corps' part would depend upon the initial success achieved by the Eighth Army attack. General Leese considered it most probable that its task would be to come up on the left of the 13th Corps, after the establishment of the first bridgehead in the Liri Valley, and carry the battle against the Hitler Line.
Among the troops awaiting the signal to attack, morale was high, for the men knew that the operation about to begin would decide the future course of the campaign in Italy, if not, indeed, that of the war as a whole. From General Alexander on the eve of battle came a message addressed to the "Soldiers of the Allied Armies in Italy"The Allied armed forces are now assembling for the final battles on sea, on land, and in the air to crush the enemy once and for all. From the East and the West, from the North and the South, blows are about to fall which will result in the final destruction of the Nazis, and bring freedom once again to Europe and hasten peace for us all. To us in Italy has been given the honour to strike the first blow.
We are going to destroy the German armies in Italy. The fighting will be hard, bitter, and perhaps long, but you are warriors and soldiers of the highest order, who for more than a year have known only victory. You have courage, determination and skill. You will be supported by overwhelming air forces, and in guns and tanks we far outnumber the Germans. No armies have ever entered
battle before with a more just and righteous cause.
So with God's help and blessing, we take the field--confident of victory.
At 11 o'clock on the night of 11 May the battle for Rome began, as 1000 guns thundered out in a violent bombardment of the defences of the Gustav Line. On the 13th Corps front a storm of shell swept through the heavy ground-mist in the Liri Valley, before midnight beach parties launched the first assault boats on the swirling waters of the Gari, while the bridging sappers began their vital race against the clock.
The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade had been assigned the task of supporting the brigades of the 8th Indian Infantry Division, which was attacking in the Sant'Angelo sector. As the infantry struggled across the river in their light craft, three troops of tanks of the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Three Rivers Regiment), drawn up on the east bank, covered their passage with high explosive and machine-gun fire. It was an unorthodox use of tanks, but one which was in due course to become accepted doctrine. In their forward assembly areas squadrons of the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment) and the 14th (The Calgary Regiment) awaited the completion of the bridges that would carry them over to join the infantry.
By half-past eight on the morning of 12 May, the gallant efforts of hard-working Indian sappers had completed the first of these--"Oxford" Bridge, a mile south of Sant'Angelo. Within another hour the river had been spanned a second time, by what must be considered a triumph of mechanical improvisation. A thousand yards downstream from "Oxford" Bridge, on a site code-named PLYMOUTH, Canadian mechanics and Indian engineers had succeeded in launching across the 50-foot river a Bailey bridge, borne on the back of one Sherman tank and thrust into position by a second in the rear. Over these bridges rumbled troops of Canadian tanks, camouflaged with green boughs as though decked for a May Day festival. No other tanks crossed the Gari that day on the Army front, for no other bridges were completed.
To the infantry, pinned down in their precarious bridgeheads by deadly fire, and expecting every moment the arrival of German panzers, the advent of the armour was welcome. Although the treacherous boggy ground on the west bank of the Gari entrapped a number of our tanks, holding them immobile for several hours, at least one squadron (of the Calgary Regiment) relieved the pressure by plunging forward half-a-mile through the enemy positions, knocking out many anti-tank and self-propelled guns as it went. It reached its objective with only four tanks left, and held it until nightfall.
During the greater part of 13 May there was hard and bitter fighting to expand the Corps bridgehead. At midday, following bombardment by the guns of seven field regiments, Ontario Regiment tanks supported a
Gurkha battalion in an attack upon Sant'Angelo. After sixty minutes of savage fighting the town was taken, and the way lay clear for exploitation forward. On higher ground the tanks now found a solid footing and a chance to manoeuvre with the infantry, and many a lurking German armoured vehicle and self-propelled gun succumbed to the skill acquired by Canadian tankmen and Indian foot-soldiers in their earlier combined training on the Volturno. Late that afternoon Panaccioni on the left of the divisional front fell to a combined assault by the Calgary Regiment and the 6th (Royal) Battalion, Frontier Force Rifles. On the Indians' right the 4th British Infantry Division had likewise fought its way across the Gari. With the bridgehead firmly established to a depth of 1500 yards on a 3000-yard front, there was room now for reinforcing formations. On the night of 13-14 May the 78th British Infantry Division crossed the river in rear of the Indian Division and swung north to cut Highway No. 6 and isolate Cassino and the Monastery.
For the main effort of 14 May squadrons of the Three Rivers Regiment supported the remaining and previously uncommitted Indian Brigade in a drive to cut the lateral Cassino--Pignataro road. Early in the morning a bitterly-contested advance began over the scrub-covered ridges of the high ground called the Sant'Angelo "Horseshoe"--terrain little favourable to infantry-tank co-operation. On three separate occasions Canadian tanks fought their way forward alone for 1000 yards, only to find that they had by-passed in the close country hidden German strongpoints whose fire forced the accompanying infantry to ground. Not until noon on the 15th did the attackers cut the road west of the "Horseshoe". That evening Pignataro fell to a twilight charge of Pathan frontiersmen supported by tanks of the Calgary Regiment.
The breaking of the Gustav Line in the Indian sector was complete, a success that had been paralleled along the greater part of the front. After only four days of fighting the enemy's forward defences had been overrun from Cassino to the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the coastal sector the 2nd United States Corps was launched along Highway No. 7, while on the Fifth Army's right the tough, hill-trained Moroccan troops of the French Expeditionary Corps were making incredible gains through the precipitous Aurunci mountains. Only in the rubble that had been Cassino did German paratroopers still cling tenaciously to their battered defences; but to the north the Polish Corps was poised to cut Highway No. 6 and so cut off this stubborn bastion of the Gustav Line. The collapse of the enemy's right flank and his lack in the forward area of available reserves with which to deliver any concerted counter-attack compelled a withdrawal towards the fortified positions of the Hitler Line. Here Field-Marshal Kesselring hoped to bring the Allied advance to a halt; and it was at this stage that the 1st Canadian Corps entered the Battle of the Liri Valley.
Breaching the Hitler Line
General Leese had correctly appreciated the course that events would take in the opening days of the offensive. The greatest progress on the 13th Corps' front had been made on the left, between Sant'Angelo and the Liri River. On the right, Cassino and Highway No. 6 were still unachieved objectives. On 15 May, therefore, he issued orders for the offensive to continue on a three-corps scale. The 13th Corps, shifting its weight to the right, was to concert with the 2nd Polish Corps an attack that should encircle Cassino and open to our use the highway to Rome; the 1st Canadian Corps was ordered to move up on the left of the 13th, take over the 8th Indian Division's front and continue the westward advance.
Carrying out these instructions, General Burns ordered the 1st Canadian Infantry Division to relieve the Indians at first light on 16 May and then to advance and make contact with the Hitler Line. Under cover of darkness the exchange with the tired Indian troops began, as Brigadier Spry's 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade took over the line from Pignataro south to the Liri. On the evening of the 16th, the 3rd Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier J. P. E. Bernatchez, crossed the Gari and moved into position north of Pignataro to form the divisional right flank. With the Indians into 13th Corps reserve went two regiments of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade for a much-needed but all-too-brief period of refitting. The Three Rivers Regiment remained in the forward area in temporary support of the 3rd Brigade. That night General Vokes took over command from the 8th Indian Division and immediately issued orders for an advance to begin at dawn. To the men of the 1st Division the prospect of renewed action was welcome. In the words of one unit diarist: "A long miserable winter of rain, snow, mud and the inevitable patrolling was at last but a memory in the minds of the Regiment. Now, after three weeks of hardening training, away from the nerve-shattering noise and tumults of front line service, the men of the Carleton & York unit were ready for new tasks ahead. Our Allies had crossed the Gari River; the defences of the Gustav Line had been bent and broken and the Eighth Army was on the march again."
Early on the morning of the 17th both brigades attacked across the Cassino--Pignataro road, the 3rd on the right, the 1st on the left. They met continual resistance throughout the day, but by nightfall they had fought forward some three miles to the Forme d'Aquino--a deep transverse gully which formed the only natural tank-obstacle between the Gari and the Melfa. Their progress had been matched by great advances all across the Allied front. By the morning of the 18th, the jaws of the joint pincer attack by the 13th and the Polish Corps had clamped shut behind Cassino, though not before the survivors of the 1st Parachute Division had contrived to make good their escape along
Highway No. 6. British units were at last in full possession of the devastated town, and over the ruins of the Monastery the Polish standard was flying. Across the Liri the gallant divisions of the French Expeditionary Corps had continued their spectacular onrush and their leading troops were now directly south of Pontecorvo, where they were threatening to turn the right of the Hitler Line.
These reverses on both flanks precipitated a further enemy withdrawal on the whole Liri Valley front. On the 18th the 1st and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades advanced without re-establishing contact with the retiring Germans. By the afternoon they were within a mile or so of the Aquino-Pontecorvo road; but now heavy fire from machine-guns, mortars and artillery gave warning that the retreat had come to a halt. It was sternly apparent that the enemy intended to fight for the Adolf Hitler Line. On the 19th, troops of the 78th Division, supported by Ontario Regiment tanks, put in a "quick attack" at Aquino in the hope of getting through the defences while his forces were disorganized. This was a costly failure, the Ontarios losing 13 tanks and having almost every other tank hit. The same day the 1st Division made an unsuccessful attempt to pierce the Line, the Royal 22e Régiment getting right up to the wire before they were stopped by fire which inflicted heavy loss. There was nothing for it but a set-piece attack.
The intention expressed by General Burns in his order of 20 May was terse and to the point: "The 1st Canadian Corps will breach the Hitler Line and exploit towards Ceprano." The next three days were spent in preparations for the forthcoming operation, which was euphemistically given the code name "Chesterfield". The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier T. G. Gibson, was brought up from divisional reserve and allotted a sector on the right of the 3rd. A preliminary "softening up" by artillery began immediately, with 400 guns pouring shells upon known enemy strongpoints. For seventy-two hours the unremitting bombardment went on, while from their hastily-dug positions on the very verge of the German defences Canadian patrols, defiant of mortar and machine-gun, probed vigorously forward through the mines and wire to reconnoitre tank routes and take prisoners. It was from one such foray that Canadian Intelligence learnt of the presence in the line of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division--old antagonists of the 1st Division in Moro River days. An advance south of the Pignataro Pontecorvo road by the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards on the night of 20-21 May, and a determined thrust on the 22nd by the 1st Brigade with the 48th Highlanders, opposite Pontecorvo, met strong resistance and did not achieve sufficient penetration to justify putting in another brigade here to "exploit".
Operation CHESTERFIELD was to be executed in two main phases. In the opening one the 1st Division, supported by the 25th (British) Tank
Brigade, was to break through the Hitler Line and secure the high ground some 1000 yards beyond, with a view to fanning outwards and destroying the enemy on the flanks. Through the gap thus made the 5th Armoured Division would, in the second phase, drive forward to seize crossings over the River Melfa and push on towards Ceprano.
As the hour of the attack drew near, the unfolding pattern of events on either flank of the Canadian Corps was determining the course of future operations and underlining the significance of the Canadian undertaking. Along the axis of Highway No. 6, the 13th Corps had, as we have seen, failed to "bounce" a way through the Hitler Line at Aquino; and General Leese assigned this Corps a holding role during the initial stages of the new offensive. Across the Liri River the rapid French advance had, by the 21st, cut the Pontecorvo-Pico road, and from their mountain positions General Juin's forward troops could overlook the rear of the Hitler Line in the valley below. But the powerful spring of the French offensive was now almost uncoiled and their tenuous supply lines through the mountains were dangerously extended. Their long right flank west of Pontecorvo was exposed to the enemy, and that afternoon artillery of the 1st Canadian Division was called on to help drive off a counter-attack delivered against the French salient by some fifty German tanks. On the evening of 18 May General Alexander had predicted, "If we get held up in front of the Hitler Line, and we are unable to turn it from north or south, a full-scale mounted attack will be necessary to break it." This frontal blow was now to be delivered.
At five o'clock in the hazy morning of 23 May the tempo of the bombardment against the German lines quickened to a fullscale cannonade of 800 guns, and an hour later the assaulting battalions crossed the start line. The first major operation by a Canadian Corps in the Second Great War was under way. Behind a protective barrage which stretched across the 2000-yard front the leading units of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades moved forward through the tall grain into the enemy wire. The main burden of the attack and the fullest force of the enemy's savage countering fire fell upon the 2nd Brigade on the right flank. For denial of Highway No. 6 to the Allies was of supreme importance to the enemy, and from the direction of Aquino, still held by Heidrich's battle-skilled paratroops, vicious machine-gun and mortar fire seared the Canadian flank. By mid-morning, at the cost of very heavy casualties, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, leading the attack on the brigade's left front, had fought their way through the line to their first objective on the Aquino-Pontecorvo road. But on the right Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, exposed to the fierce blast in front and flank, were perilously situated and unable to move a yard. So violent was the storm of fire assailing these two battalions that neither could be reached by their supporting tanks or anti-tank guns. In the afternoon the forward companies
of the Seaforth, thus unsupported and with their PIAT5 bombs exhausted, were badly cut up by enemy tanks. The brigade's third battalion, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, attempting to pass through the Patricias, was helplessly pinned down in the wire and suffered grievously from mines and fire. Many of the tanks of the North Irish Horse were lost on mines or knocked out by the deadly anti-tank guns about Aquino.
The fortune of battle was more favourable to the 3rd, Brigade on the left flank. Within an hour of the opening of the assault, the Carleton and York Regiment had driven through the relentless hail of fire to the lateral road and cleared the way for the advancing squadrons of the 51st Royal Tank Regiment, whose Churchills suffered heavily in a desperate battle with enemy tanks and anti-tank guns before the objective was consolidated. The Carleton and Yorks were now speedily joined by the West Nova Scotia Regiment, whose pre-arranged role it was to exploit forward in the second phase of the divisional attack.
Soon after noon, General Vokes decided to reinforce the 3rd Brigade's success by committing his divisional reserve in the Carleton and Yorks' sector. The new attack struck the enemy at a critical moment and turned his defeat into a rout. Two squadrons of the Three Rivers Regiment, together with the Royal 22e Régiment, moved up through "a graveyard of burning Churchills" and silenced enemy pillboxes to join the "West Novies" for the final burst. A little before five o'clock, in heavily falling rain, the attack went in. "Leaning on the barrage", the infantry pushed rapidly through to their goal. Fierce resistance from Panzer Grenadiers caught in the open while preparing a counter-attack was crushed with equal fierceness. Within an hour the battle was over. The breach was securely held.
Meanwhile, on the left, along the north bank of the Liri, the 1st Brigade and the Princess Louise, although not participating in the main attack, had forged slowly ahead amid bitter fighting. By daylight on the 24th they had driven the enemy from Pontecorvo. There were still Germans in Aquino, but they were subdued in due course by the British troops on our right. Shortly after dawn, while moppingup parties combed the grisly ruins of the broken line, the impatient tank squadrons of Major-General Hoffmeister's 5th Canadian Armoured Division began to roll through the hard-won gap. The Army Commander signalled warmly to General Vokes:
Many congratulations to you and your Division on your brilliant action to storm the Adolf Hitler Line; it was a very fine performance. Our grateful thanks and the best of luck to you all.
THE HITLER LINE
The artist here represents a party of infantrymen of the 1PstP Canadian Division over-running one of the deadly Panther-turret anti-tank positions of the Adolf Hitler Line, 23 May 1944. The long 75-millimetre German gun now points skyward; in the background are the Shermans and Churchills wich it knocked out before being itself destroyed. The soldier in the centre, presumably the section leader, has a Thompson machine-carbine; the one at the right carries a Bren. The flat-topped mountain is the Monte-d'Oro.
But for the 1st Canadian Division it had been a costly victory. Fifty-one officers and 838 other ranks were recorded as casualties in the day's fighting. The heaviest losses had fallen upon the 2nd Brigade, whose battalions were reduced to an average rifle strength of 150 men. The Seaforth comment was, "the grimmest battle this Brigade has known"--a weighty remark, coming as it did from one of the battalions that had taken Ortona. The supporting armour had also suffered severely. The 25th Tank Brigade lost 60 tanks--41 of them Churchills of the valiant North Irish Horse.
The Germans had taken a very hard knock. They had not had a very large infantry force in the Hitler Line in our sector--our intelligence estimated it afterwards as less than 1000 strong--but what they had they lost. In the operation as a whole we took some 700 prisoners, and in addition several hundred Germans were killed. This accounted for the greater part of two grenadier regiments, and a good many men of supporting arms.
The Passage of the Melfa
The second phase of CHESTERFIELD the break-out by the 5th Armoured Division--began with the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade, commanded by Brigadier J. D. B. Smith, driving forward to the Melfa River, the first obstacle behind the Hitler Line on which the enemy might be expected to make a stand. While the 9th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Dragoons), supported by the Irish Regiment of Canada, secured and held a firm base midway between Aquino and the Melfa, the main striking force, consisting of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona's Horse) and the Westminster Regiment (Motor),6 was directed against the river. With the remnants of his infantry withdrawn in disorder across the Melf a, the enemy relied on his artillery and delaying squadrons of armour to check our advance. In the angle between the railway and the east bank of the Melfa the Strathconas fought a sharp tank battle which ended in the destruction or dispersal of the German Panthers and self-propelled guns. During this fight Lieutenant E. J. Perkins of the Strathcona reconnaissance troop pushed on and got some of his light tanks across the river. He was shortly joined by "A" Company of the Westminsters, commanded by Major J. K. Mahony.
The precarious bridgehead on the far bank was now heavily counter-attacked by German infantry and tanks, but with PIATs, mortars and grenades Mahony and his men kept the enemy at bay even after half
the Canadians had fallen. The little group took 50 prisoners, killed numerous Germans and accounted for three self-propelled guns and a Panther. Although wounded in the head and twice in the leg, the Company Commander continued to control the fight with undiminished energy and determination. "The enemy perceived that this officer was the soul of the defence and consequently fired at him constantly with all weapons from rifle to 88-mm guns." The bridgehead, "vital to the whole Canadian Corps action", held firm in spite of all the Germans could do. Major Mahony's distinguished gallantry brought him the Victoria Cross.7 Two months later His Majesty the King, travelling incognito as "General Coilingwood", visited Canadian units in the Volturno Valley and invested him with the decoration.
By midnight a special composite force from the tat Division, consisting of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the Carleton and York Regiment and supporting armour from the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Three Rivers Regiment, after carrying on a running fight along the banks of the Liri, had reached the confluence of the two rivers. At first light on the 25th, this group succeeded in establishing a second bridgehead across the Melfa about 3000 yards downstream from the Westminsters. Later that same morning the Irish Regiment of Canada (drawn from Brigadier T. E. Snow's 11th Infantry Brigade) attacked across the river to reinforce the Westminsters, and by midday the 5th Division bridgehead was firmly established on a two-battalion front. In spite of continued heavy shelling and mortaring of the whole area of the crossings, two bridges, vital to the passage of the armour, were thrust across the stream.
During the armoured division's advance from the Hitler Line flank protection had been provided by the 3rd Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (Governor General's Horse Guards). All three squadrons fought almost continuously throughout the twentyfour hours, undergoing very severe shell and mortar fire. Rear parties of the enemy lingering along Highway No. 6 experienced the sting of the "recce" squadrons' thrusts; and the regiment's score for the day was half a dozen self-propelled guns knocked out, more than a hundred Germans killed, and as many taken prisoner.
With the 5th Canadian Armoured Division across the Melfa, the main battle of the Liri Valley was over. The operation now was a pursuit. The 6th United States Corps had broken out from the Anzio bridgehead on 23 May, and two days later had linked up with troops of the Fifth Army advancing from the South. With his escape routes through Rome
dangerously threatened, the enemy might attempt one more stand, on the Caesar Line; but his immediate concern was to get out of the Liri Valley as rapidly as possible, while at the same time seeking to delay the advance of the Eighth Army. To speed him on his way the 5th Division was directed to carry the Canadian pursuit on to Ceprano.
During the afternoon of the 25th, the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade passed through the armoured brigade's bridgehead to take up the chase. Resistance now mainly took the form of shelling from the enemy's rear artillery positions and machine-gun fire and sniping by isolated groups on the wooded high ground north of the railway. On the morning of the 27th the brigade reached Ceprano. Here the Liri flowed across our front, and beyond it the Sacco Valley led on towards Rome. Only one boat was to be found, but the Perth Regiment used it to ferry successive parties across and so cleared the town. General Burns now named Frosinone, well up the Sacco Valley, as the Canadian Corps' next objective, and a race developed between the two brigades of the 5th Division to re-establish contact with the retreating enemy.
A valuable day was lost in getting the armoured brigade across the Liri, for the Engineers had bridging trouble and the diminishing front was crowding together the pursuit formations of the 13th Corps and the 1st Canadian Corps. The narrow Liri-Sacco corridor, with few roads and those in general bad, offered very inadequate facilities for the advance of two corps abreast. To make matters worse, it was necessary for the 78th Division of the 13th Corps to use the 5th Division's bridge when it was completed. By the afternoon of the 29th, however, both General Iloffmeister's brigades were within five miles or so of Frosinone. That night the Perths took Pofi, climbing the steep hill on which the town is built in the face of shellfire and sniping. Early next morning they entered Arnara. In this region the long level of the valley came to an end, as the ground broke into a series of razor-back hills lying athwart the line of advance. Extensive tank deployment was impossible, -and the Corps Commander therefore ordered the infantry division to take the lead. The relief of the 5th Division was effected successively by brigades in order that there might be no sudden halt in the advance. On the afternoon of the 30th, the 2nd Infantry Brigade relieved the 11th, and next day the Loyal Edmonton Regiment entered Frosinone unopposed.
The 5th Division, its part in the Canadian Corps' victory completed, now withdrew into reserve. Its casualties--63 officers and 631 other ranks--reflected the bitterness of the past week's fighting. General Leese sent hearty congratulations on its success in its first major action. "I am very proud", he wrote, "to have the 5th Canadian Armoured Division in the Eighth Army".
The end of May also brought the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade a
very brief rest after three exacting weeks of fighting. While the Three Rivers Regiment had continued to support the 1st Canadian Division as far as the Melf a, in the 13th Corps sector the remaining units of the brigade had assisted the 78th Division's pursuit up Highway No. 6 to Ceprano. By 29 May all three regiments had been withdrawn to a harbour area near Aquino to refit for coming tasks; but the Three Rivers Regiment was in action again as early as 4 June. The Brigade was destined once more to be separated from the 1st Canadian Corps, and was to fight under other commands for months to come.
The End of the Battle for Rome
From Frosinone, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division advanced along the axis of Highway No. 6 for three more days, against rapidly decreasing resistance. During the final phase, the 6th South African Armoured Division was cooperating with it, under Canadian Corps command. All roads led to Rome, but with three Corps of the Fifth Army pressing down them to the capital there was no room for the pursuit divisions of the Eighth. On 4 June, when forward brigades of the 1st Division had reached the Anagni area, the Canadian Corps was withdrawn into Army Reserve, and took no further part in the fighting. By that time the success of the offensive in all sectors was assured. On 2 June, Fifth Army units from the Anzio bridgehead had taken Valmontone; on the 3rd they joined hands with the French Expeditionary Corps. With the whole area of the Alban Hills in Allied hands, the German High Command was forced to give up hope of a further stand on the Caesar Line, and to abandon Rome. On the morning of the 4th, Fifth Army reconnaissance troops entered the splendid and almost unscarred City the first European capital to be liberated by the Allies. So ended an important phase of the Italian campaign. To the men of the Canadian Corps it was a bitter disappointment to have no part in the entry into Rome. However, Canada was well represented in the occupying force--by the Canadian component of the First Special Service Force, which had distinguished itself in the break-out from Anzio and the advance to the capital (below, page 298).
The successes gained by the 1st Canadian Corps in its first operations as a Corps were gratifying. It had broken through a very formidable position and had advanced "a distance of 64 kilometres in a straight line"; and it had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, although as the Corps Commander observed the decline in the "bag" of prisoners indicated that the pursuit phase had not been so successful as the assault. But our own losses had not been light. The total casualties of Canadian troops in Italy during the month of May were reported as 3742 in all categories, 717 being fatal.
THE GOTHIC LINE
From a panting by Capt. G.C. Tinning
This painting shows soldiers of the 5PthP Canadian Armoured Division examining a German
Panther-turret pillbox near the village of Tomba di Pesaro.
It illustrates the hilly terrain which was the scene of the fierce fighting of 1 September 1944.
Two days after the fall of Rome, Allied armies struck in Normandy the long-awaited blow against the western defences of Hitler's European fortress. The launching of Operation OVERLORD, however, was not considered to detract from the urgency of the Italian campaign. "My object", wrote General Alexander to General Wilson on 6 June, "is to complete the destruction of the German armed forces in Italy, and in the process to force the enemy to draw to the maximum on his reserves, whereby I shall be rendering the greatest assistance to the western invasion of which my Armies are capable." There seemed little doubt that Field-Marshal Kesselring would attempt a firm stand behind the strong system of defences that he was known to be building along the Northern Apennines roughly from Pisa to Rimini--the "Gothic Line".8 But the morale, organization and training of the Allied Armies in Italy had reached their highest peak; "neither the Apennines nor even the Alps should prove a serious obstacle to their enthusiasm and their skill."
These armies were now directed to advance with all possible speed--the Eighth up the valley of the Tiber to Arezzo and Florence, the Fifth along the west coast to Pisa and Pistoia. They would then be in a position to launch an attack north-eastward through the Apennines against Bologna in the Lombard Plain, from which the seizure of Turin and Genoa would provide bases for a drive into Southern France, or the Venice and Padua area for operations against Austria. Such were the possibilities which now presented themselves to the Allied Italian Command.
The Eighth Army's exploitation role northward from Rome was assigned to the 13th Corps, and under this Corps the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was immediately plunged into action once more. In the latter part of June the Ontario Regiment supported the 78th Division, and the Three Rivers Regiment the 4th British Infantry Division, in the difficult country west of Lake Trasimene, giving and taking hard knocks. Thereafter the chase led through the vineyards and maize fields of eastern Tuscany. The Canadian tanks were continuously in action. During the second week of July they were used west of Arezzo to break through the hills along the left bank of the Arno. Resistance was strong, for the enemy was playing for time with which to strengthen his line further north. Strong delaying rearguards clung to every rocky point of vantage, and the trails along which our squadrons made their way were hazardous with mines and broken with demolitions. The Brigade now came once more under the 8th Indian Division, an affiliation which brought mutual satisfaction, for of the 1st Armoured Brigade's
Liri Valley Offensive, May 1944
attachments to non-Canadian formations in Italy, none produced a warmer relationship than that with the Indians. (Indeed, it is said that when given other armour the Sepoys were wont to inquire feelingly, "Where are our own tanks?") Early in August, the Indian Division reached the Arno east of Empoli, and the latter half of the month found the Ontarios helping to "ease" enemy stragglers out of Florence without damaging the treasured fabric of that famed and beautiful city. Just beyond Florence lay the Etruscan Apennines and the Gothic Line.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (8) * Next Chapter (10)