Although the Canadian Army had mobilized from Canada for the Second World War in mid-1939, the bulk of its force remained in the UK until 1943. The Americans, who had entered the war in 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been advocating for a launch into mainland Europe as soon as possible. However, Churchill and Montgomery used their powers of persuasion and logic to lay the groundwork for an expanded advance into the Mediterranean.
The logic was: if Italy could be pushed out of the war, then Germany would have to send men and material to counter any invasion by the allies. Those troops would have to be brought from either the Russian front and or from France. In the final analysis, the gamble was correct as the German Army drew from both fronts to reinforce Italy. This, in turn, weakened the Axis on the two crucial fronts.
However, neither the British nor the American planned to utilize the Canadians. The pressure from the Canadian public and from the Generals in the field, influenced Canada’s PM Mackenzie King to insist that the Canadians be involved.
The 1st Canadians Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade set sail as part of a 2,000 ship convoy from the UK to the Mediterranean, with their ultimate destination being the southeastern tip of Sicily. Operation Husky was on its way.
But, not everything went as planned for the convoy.
Most accounts of the convoys which ferried troops and equipment to the Mediterranean during Operation Husky will tell you that there were two convoys: the Fast and the Slow. But in fact, there were four convoys. The first Fast and Slow convoys were delivering troops to the initial landing on July 10. There was a second pair of “follow-up” convoys which were dedicated to bringing reinforcements and replacement gear was scheduled to arrive three days after the initial landing.
In planning for the convoys, each morning, the Commander of 1 Canadian Corp, Major-General George Kitching, and Lt-General Guy Simonds, in command of 2 Canadian Corp, would assemble with their staff to draw names of vessels which were sailing in the Fast and Slow convoys. The drawn vessels were considered sunk in this “war game”. The commanders would then have to determine any change of strategy on the landing in Sicily, given the loss of specific men and machines.
The exercise of 3 July, seven days before the planned landing, took on an onerous tone. The three vessels supposedly sunk by German torpedoes were all part of the Slow convoy: the Devis, the St. Essylt and the City of Venice.
1st Canadian Division in the two assault convoys numbering over 26,000 troops, with tanks, artillery and supplies was transported over 3200 kilometers.
The “Fast Assault Convoy” left its numerous moorings on June 28 and assembled just off the English coast. The 1st Canadian Division’s component of this convoy included ten ships containing the division’s three infantry brigades and the Three Rivers (tank) Regiment. The Fast Convoy arrived on schedule at the staging point near Malta without incident.
The Canadian component of the “Slow Assault Convoy” included forty-two ships carried some troops and much of the division’s vehicles, equipment and supplies. The 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade, with the exception of the Three Rivers Regiment, traveled in the slow convoy. The slow convoy did not have the same luck as its Fast counterpart.
The Slow convoy, which was split into two groups, embarked from the UK on 25 June 1943. By 3 July it had passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The next evening, as it sailed eastward off the North African coast between Oran and Algiers, the City of Venice was hit by a torpedo. The converted passenger liner was declared a loss and in addition to casualties among the crew, six Canadian soldiers were killed. St. Essylt, was also hit and caught fire approximately thirty minutes after City of Venice’s ordeal began. On 5 July a third ship, Devis, was torpedoed, catching fire and sinking in twenty minutes. In this case, fifty-two more Canadians were reported as missing and presumed dead.
Mark Zuehlke’s book, Operation Husky: The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10-August 7, 1943, offers an accessible account of the Canadian army in Sicily, including the plight of the slow convoy. Zuehlke notes a discrepancy between his figure of ten Canadian dead aboard the City of Venice and G.W.L. Nicholson’s Canadian official history, which notes the figure of six recorded above; however, both sources agree on the fifty-two casualties from Devis. Neither of these men agrees with the casualty list available from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists fifty-seven names, fifty-four of which are found on the Cassino Memorial, while three men are buried at La Reunion War Cemetery in Algeria. Zuehlke’s count is proven correct, as Nicholson included as his fifty-eighth name Gunner Frederick McNeil of 1st Anti-Tank Regt, RCA, who was listed as killed on 19 June 1943 and remembered on the wall at Cassino War Cemetery. In fact, McNeil died of alcoholic poisoning on his trip from Canada and was buried at sea. It is also possible that there were individuals of British descent serving with the Canadian division, or that some of the wounded passed away after 9 July and are mixed in with the casualties from the liberation of Sicily.
In addition to the human casualties en route to Sicily, 1st Canadian Division lost a significant amount of equipment. The divisional motor pool lost 500 vehicles; while the loss of 40 guns meant the division’s artillery strength, particularly its anti-tank strength, was significantly reduced. Divisional Headquarters lost almost all of its vehicles and signals equipment, and the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps’ No. 9 Field Ambulance lost twenty personnel including one medical officer and most of its vehicles. Vehicle shortages, in particular, would be of great significance as the division marched towards the island’s centre in mid to late July 1943.
Only effective improvisation on the part of troops in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps would offset this handicap. The 150 donkey saddles, that were in stores, became a big part of the success of moving equipment and ammunition on the trek through Sicily.
The Devis was a 6,054-ton motor merchant class built in 1938 in Belfast. It left Clyde (Scotland) on 24 June with 289 Canadian troops, 4000 tons of government stores and a deck cargo of two landing craft.
At 15.43 hours on 5 July 1943, At 15.43 hours on 5 July 1943, U-593 fired two spreads of two torpedoes at convoy KMS-18B northeast of Cape Bengut and heard a hit after 1 minute 20 seconds and sinking noises. The torpedo hit and sank the Devis, the ship of convoy commodore (Rear Admiral H.T. England, RN) in station #41. 52 Canadian soldiers were lost. HMS LCM-1123 (Landing Craft Material) sank with the ship, while HMS LCM-1129 floated off slightly damaged and was salvaged by its crew. The master, convoy commodore, six naval staff members, 24 crew members, 21 gunners and 237 soldiers were picked up by HMS Cleveland and landed at Bougie.
The following list is Canadians killed during the slow convoy. Some deaths are the result of injuries received while aboard the Devis.
The City of Venice was an 8,762-ton steam passenger ship built in 1924 in Belfast. It was retrofit as a carrier ship as well as a passenger ship. When it left Clyde on June 24 it carried 302 troops, 700 tons of military equipment, one landing craft and 2000 tons of sand ballast.
At 20.47 hours on 4 July 1943 U-409 fired one G7e torpedo at the City of Venice in station #21 of convoy KMS-18B and struck her on the starboard side at the after end of #2 hold while steaming on a zigzag course at 7 knots in fine weather and moderate sea about 10 miles north of Cape Tenes, Algeria. The ship was carrying 292 troops of the 1st Canadian Division and ten naval personnel. The explosion blew away lifeboat #1, threw the landing craft stowed across the fore end of #2 hold forward and set the petrol in the vehicles transported in this hold on fire. The crew stopped the engines and immediately tried to extinguish the fire, but the deck water service pipes had been destroyed, the auxiliary pump was out of action and to spray a 30-gallon fire foam container was not sufficient to control the fire. The beam and hatches in the main and tween decks had also been blown away, causing water to pour into #3 hold over the tween deck and the ship to settle very quickly by the head, first listing slightly to starboard, then going over to a list of approx. 10° to port and eventually coming back to a 5° list to starboard. The master ordered most of the 158 crew members, 22 gunners (the ship was armed with one 4in, one 12pdr and eight 20mm guns) and all passengers to abandon ship in six of the lifeboats, keeping lifeboat #8 alongside for the skeleton crew remaining behind and placing an emergency wireless set in lifeboat #2. Unfortunately, the lifeboat #6 was swamped when the falls were let go too quickly and all occupants were thrown into the sea, drowning two Indian crew members. A total of 19 rafts and two floats were released and all troops were clear of the ship by 21.30 hours with the exception of 25 to 30 men who volunteered to remain on board in case they could help in any way. However, the fire was spreading rapidly to the after end of the tween deck and frequent explosions were heard, presumably from tins of petrol and oil stowed in the forward holds. Due to the imminent danger of the flames reaching the ammunition magazine forward and the petrol stowed between the after end of #2 hatch and the dining saloon, the master decided to abandon the City of Venice after having considered to beach her on the nearby coast. Some men then went into lifeboat #8 which cleared the ship at about 22.00 hours to pick up men swimming in the water nearby and had not yet returned when HMS Teviot came alongside on port side near #3 hatch. The chief officer, second officer, seventh engineer officer, ten gunners and the soldiers who had remained behind boarded the frigate as quickly as possible until the ship was completely abandoned by 22.20 hours. However, the lifeboat #8 with about 60 occupants was capsized in an unfortunate accident when it fouled the starboard quarter of the rescue vessel, throwing all men into the sea between the ships. The master, eight crew members, one gunner and ten military passengers, including the officer in command of the troops, were lost from this boat. The City of Venice well down by the head and on fire fore and aft by 2330 hours and was seen to sink by the bow at 0530 hours on 5 July. The landing craft HMS LCE-14 was lost with the ship.
The Teviot picked up a total of 204 survivors, the remaining survivors being rescued by HMRT Restive and HMS Rhododendron They were all landed at Algiers on 5 July.
The St. Essylt was a 5,364 ton Merchant Marine vessel built in Sunderland in 1940. At 21.40 hours on 4 July U-375 fired a spread of four torpedoes at convoy KMS-18B and hit the St. Essylt in station #13 on the starboard side with one of them. They approximately 20 miles north-northwest of Cape Tenes, Algeria. The ship caught fire, was abandoned and eventually sank after an explosion at 05.45 hours on 5 July. One crew member, one gunner and two passengers were lost: none were Canadian. The master, 53 crew members, 23 gunners and 320 military personnel were rescued and landed at Algiers.
The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major campaign of World War II, in which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers. It began with a large amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign, and initiated the Italian Campaign.
Husky began on the night of 9/10 July and ended on 17 August. Strategically, Husky achieved the goals set out for it by Allied planners; the Allies drove Axis air, land and naval forces from the island and the Mediterranean sea lanes were opened for Allied merchant ships for the first time since 1941. The Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, was toppled from power in Italy and the way was opened for the Allied invasion of Italy. The German leader, Adolf Hitler, “canceled a major offensive at Kursk after only a week, in part to divert forces to Italy,” resulting in a reduction of German strength on the Eastern Front. The collapse of Italy necessitated German troops replacing the Italians in Italy and to a lesser extent the Balkans, resulting in one-fifth of the entire German army being diverted from the east to southern Europe, a proportion that would remain until near the end of the war.
The southern area of Sicily had been designated by the Allies as Bark. The Canadian forces were to be concentrated in the area designated Bark West. On July 10, they landed on two beaches, designated Sugar and Roger.
During the evening and overnight of 9 and 10 July, American and British airborne troops launched toward Sicily in WACO CG4A gliders. Strong winds caused havoc for the Americans, with troops being scattered widely over the south-east of Sicily. The British did not fare much better; of the 147 gliders sent, only 12 landed on target and 69 of them crashed into the sea, killing some 200 men. However, those troops which made it safely performed their tasks which were to attack patrols and generally cause havoc. There were no Canadians involved in this initial encounter with the enemy.
At 0445 on 10 July, the main assault went in. Canadian troops went ashore in large number as mostly unopposed: both the Germans and the Italians were taken by surprise. The landing, however, was not without its drama. As the Canadians approached the beaches some of the landing craft were caught up on a hidden sandbar. The stranded LCA’s lowered their ramps and the troops poured out only to find themselves in water deeper than they were tall. Lt. Farley Mowat (who would go on to be a much-loved Canadian author) of the Hasting and Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps), gave the following description: “I leaped off the landing craft yelling: Follow me, men. I sank like a stone in eight feet of water striking the bottom feet first. So astounded was I at this unexpected descent into the depths that I may no attempt to thrash my way back to the surface. I simply walked straight on until my head emerged.” The interesting sidebar to Mowat’s story is his LCA was at neither Roger nor Sugar beach. He ended up some three miles west of the target. When Mowat and the men of the Hasty Ps finally left the water the truth of war came to them suddenly. Company Sergeant-Major Chuck Nutley was struck in the neck by an Italian bullet and died on the beach. He was the first Canadian KIA of Operation Husky.
The Canadians consolidated their landing sites and proceeded inland to their next objective… the airfield at the town of Pachino.
The town of Pachino became the site of the first real battle of the operation for the Canadians. The Royal Canadian Regiment was given the task of taking the airfield. The field itself had been deserted by the enemy and heavily damaged. After securing the location, the Regiment moved a few hundred yards to the north and encountered a heavily defended enemy battery. A vicious battle ensued with the Canadians being the victors. However, the battle also resulted in the RCR’s first loss: Pvt. G.C Hefford of St. Thomas, Ontario was killed. The first two awards of the campaign, for gallantry, were also handed out to the RCRs. Pvt. Joseph Grigas was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal while the Military Medal went to Pvt. Jack Gardiner.
While the RCR, followed by the Hasty Ps, had moved on Pachino, the 48th Highlanders had wheeled left towards the town of Burgio, the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) drove to the north-west and the Seaforth Highlanders hugged the coast and then drove north towards Ispica.
Nightfall brought the first day of battle to a halt. The Canadians had won the upper hand on the enemy, but at the cost of seven dead and 25 wounded. The estimate was that over 100 Italian soldiers had been killed or wounded and that 650 more were taken prisoner.
After consolidating their position in Pachino, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment (the Eddies), supporting the 48th Highlanders, drove towards the mountain town of Ispica, some 20 kilometers to the northwest. If there was ever a spot to expect stiff resistance, this was it. To their surprise, the Eddies marched into the town unopposed. On this date, the Canadians toughest enemy had been the dust and heat of the trip.
Leaving the Highlanders to rest, the Eddies moved west to the village of Scicli supported by the Sherman tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment. In a 2013 interview in the Ottawa Citizen, Jack Wallace, a former tank commander with the Three Rivers, remembers Scicli this way: “A platoon, which my tank accompanied, was also dispatched to accept the surrender of a small town called Scicli. The town had offered to surrender, but the commanding officer didn’t want to take any chances, so he had us lob shells over the town as a precautionary measure. When we entered the town, there were no sheets or white flags about to indicate surrender. The streets were also uncomfortably quiet. Twenty minutes after we arrived, an American paratrooper approached us from another section of town and told us everything was under control. He and a few others had parachuted on the night of the invasion but had been dropped on the wrong spot, captured and jailed. They talked themselves out of jail by telling the mayor that if he didn’t surrender his town shortly, fleets of bombers would blow the place off the map.”
The Canadians rounded up over 1100 Italian prisoners. An action that would be repeated many times over the next weeks.
The Canadians were advancing rapidly into Sicily’s fiery interior. Italian resistance was light. By mid-day, elements of various Canadian battalions were probing into Modica. One small group of Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers closing on Modica was commanded by Lieutenant Sheridan “Sherry” Atkinson. The group was soon approached by Modica’s mayor, who declared he wished to surrender the town to Atkinson. Riding a motorcycle, Atkinson and Lance Corporal Verne Mitchell returned with the mayor to the town square where they found 900 Italian soldiers waiting with their weapons neatly stacked. Atkinson formally accepted their surrender. Throughout the day more Italian troops came forward to surrender to the Canadians in and around Modica. Before the day was through, the general commanding the 206th Coastal Division had come forward to give up. This largely marked the end of Italian resistance in the Canadian sector of the invasion.
The biggest enemy facing the Canadians on 13 July was the terrific heat of the Sicilian interior. Having lost many vehicles at sea when the transports were torpedoed, the troops advanced largely on foot. The war diarist of the Seaforth Highlanders described his regiment advancing in one snaking file along a mule track and through “a continuous cloud of fine white dust which when mixed with…perspiration…made a white layer of dust over each man. It seemed to work into every nook and cranny, into our boots and up to the hair on our heads.” Meeting little resistance, the advance since leaving the beaches of Bark West had been rapid and grueling. The Seaforths, for example, covered 48 kilometres in 24 hours, ending at midnight of the 13th. In the area of Ragusa, the Canadian division received orders to stand down for 36 hours of badly needed rest.
Following a three day rest period, the Canadian Division continued to take the battle to the enemy. At first, all went well, but resistance stiffened as the Canadians were engaged increasingly by determined German troops who fought tough delaying actions from the vantage points of towering villages and almost impregnable hill positions. As the Canadians closed on Grammichele, they realized that its position, about 76 metres above the valley floor, made a concealed approach impossible. The lead formation under command of Hasty P Lieutenant Pete Ryckman entered the hexagonal-shaped town at 1100 hours and was immediately ambushed by several German tanks, self-propelled guns, and infantry of the Hermann Göring Division. Ryckman marked the positions of the armoured vehicles with tracer fire from a 50-calibre machine gun on a Bren carrier and several were knocked out by the supporting Sherman tanks. For this action, he was awarded a Military Cross. The sharp, confused battle in Grammichele also marked the first confrontation the Canadians had with German troops. The fight cost the Canadians 25 casualties, 15 being Hasty Ps and ten Three Rivers Regiment tankers, including tanker Harold “Buster” Brown, from Toronto, who was hit by shrapnel in the leg and foot. Only one of these casualties was fatal: 20-year-old Three Rivers Trooper Ellis James Lloyd.
It was here also that Huron Brant, a Mohawk from Deseronto, Ontario, was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. Brant, single-handedly, killed or wounded a group of 30 Germans. Brant himself was killed on 14 October 1944 and is buried in Cesena War Cemetery.
With Grammichele cleared, the 48th Highlanders moved west toward Caltagirone, a town with 30,000 population. En route they heard large explosions coming from the town, indicating that the Germans were vacating and leaving behind obstacles of destroyed buildings filling the streets. By midnight on 15 July, they reached the town and secured two fuel dumps and an intact hospital as well as 150 Italian soldiers and a handful of American paratroopers who had been captured after being blown off course during their recent landing.
In the early morning of 16 July, the Eddies and the Three Rivers tanks headed towards the next large town, Piazza Arminera, 26 kilometers to the northwest. Piazza Amarina, at 2,366 feet above sea level, was the highest community that the Canadians has encountered in this campaign. It was a hard climb in hot and dusty conditions. It was a fairly uneventful trip until about 3 kilometres before their destination went all hell broke out. The convoy has run into the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. German artillery, mortars and machine-gun fire drove the Eddies to the shoulders of the road while the Shermans moved up. However, the Shermans were unable to raise their guns high enough to support the Infantry. The Eddies had to rely on own 3-inch mortars until Britsh self-propelled guns arrived. The battle raged for many hours until just before midnight when the Germans pulled back to fight another day. Piazza Arminera was secured on 17 July at the cost of six killed Eddies and twenty-one wounded.
The German tactic was consistent. They were fighting rear-guard actions from secured locations designed to delay the Canadians and cause losses. When their “objectives” had been achieved, they pulled back to the next defensible location to continue their “war of attrition” against the Canadians.
The next defensible position would be Valguarnera, or as the Canadians called it, “Valcartier”. However, before reaching the objective, the Division had to navigate the narrow pass near Grottacalda, along highway 117. Here the column met the same German Panzer Division they had encountered the day previous. To counter this threat the Canadian commander, Brigadier Penhale split his troops leaving the Royal 22nd, the Vandoos, on the highway while sending the Carleton and York Regiment on a right-hand flanking movement around the obstruction and the West Nova Scotia Regiment on the left. Supported by a barrage of 120 guns, the Carletons made good their tactic helping drive back the Germans. On the left, the West Novas slogged through dusty ravines and scrub, in blistering temperatures, to occupy the former German position where they secured some 30 machine guns and one self-propelled gun left behind by the withdrawing Germans.
With the road now open the column continued its move toward Valguarnera.
The Hasty Ps were the first to reach the outskirts of the objective. Here they met fierce resistance from the Germans. Under heavy mortar and artillery fire, and running low on ammunition, the Hasty Ps, unable to communicate with their command, decided to pull back. Had they known that the RCRs were on their way to support them, they might have delayed a bit longer.
As the RCR reached the town they rounded up a number of stranded Hasty Ps and continues on. Suddenly they were confronted by a number of German tanks. It was here that the RCR Second-in-Command was killed. Capt. Strome Galloway recollected the incident this way: “Eight Dog Company men (from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment), withdrawing under command of Sgt-Major Turner, encountered the second-in-command of the RCR coming forward on reconnaissance. This officer, Major Pope, insisted that the Hastings men accompany him and somewhat unwillingly they did so. It was nearly fatal to all of them. Turner was shot through the back by a sniper, but the survivors pushed forward into the inferno of the aroused valley. Reaching the road the came face to face with three Panzer IV tanks supported by a platoon of German infantry. With great personal bravery, Major Pope attempted to engage the tanks with a PIAT, but the first bomb failed to explode and he was killed before he could reload.
The seven Hastings privates were now on their own. With their one Bren gun, they engaged in a spirited exchange with the tanks and German infantry. The tank commander, foolish enough to thrust his head out of the turret, was shot by a rifleman, and for few precious minutes, the German force was disorganized. The eight men ducked quickly into the ditch, through a culvert, and began belly crawling up the hillside through a field of cactus. Tank shells and incendiary machine-gun bullets set the dry hill-side on fire. After lying in the open sun for six hours as the flaming grass scorched their bare legs and arms, hey escaped at last when dusk had fallen.”
As the RCR was settling into their positions, the reserve battalion of the brigade was sent to occupy high ground two miles south of Valguarnera. One company encountered a sizeable German force which was dispatched by a single section at the cost of three men. Corporal Kay, the section commander, earned the DCM for this action. In all, the company killed 35 Germans, by their account, and took 20 prisoners.
The 48th Highlanders mopped up “nests of snipers” still in the rear of the other two battalions, and after a right flanking march, entered Valguarnera well after dark to find it deserted by the enemy.
The approach to Assoro was a tough one. The whole division moved out the morning of 20 July with half going right and the other half moving left across the dry Dittaino valley. Many hundreds of metres above them the German watched and waited. When the First Brigade reached a point approximately 6 kilometres from their objective, they were met with very accurate mortar and artillery fire. The RCR, supported by the Three Rivers tank took the vanguard of the attack. Subsequently, nine tanks were knocked out by well-placed mines. Division command pulled back to plan the next attack. It was obvious that, due to the commanding height of the German outpost, the next attack could not be made during daylight. At 2100 the next attack began with the Hasty Ps on the right and the 48th going left. They were supported by a massive artillery barrage which kept the German heads down. The initial objective was a series of goat paths leading up the cliffs.
By 0400 the Hasty Ps had reached the base of the cliffs and were ready to make the ascent. In absolute silence, the troops made the 40-minute climb from ledge to ledge. As they were nearing to top, the sound of a machine gun broke the silence. Pvt A.K Long had stumbled into a German observation post. One of the Germans reached for a gun and Long riddled him with bullets. The other three Germans surrendered. For some reason, the Germans in nearby Assoro did not hear, or at least react to, the gunfire. The Hasty Ps still had surprise on their side. Minutes later the Canadians crested to the ridge and had achieved a position overlooking the medieval castle, taking the Germans completely by surprise. With the help of very accurate and deadly Canadian artillery, the Germans pulled out and the objective was won.
While the Hasty Ps were cleaning up and replenishing their supplies at Assoro, the bulk of the 1st Division was closing in on the twin town of Leonforte. The morning of 20 July, the Eddies had established a bridgehead over the Dittaino River allowing the Seaforth Highlanders to advance on Leonforte. Leonforte was larger than Assoro, but not quite as high. However, the siting of the town required the Seaforths to mount a head-on attack up a twisty switchback road. This gave the Germans a clear line of sight at the Canadians. But just before the attack was to commence, the battalion commander, Lt-Col Bert Hoffmeister called an order group to discuss the attack. As the officers and aides discussed the planning, four Canadian artillery shells, aimed at Leonforte, fell short and struck the farmyard where the group was assembled. Thirty of the assembly were killed or wounded.
Responsibility for the attack then fell to Second Brigade’s Chris Vokes who selected the Eddies to make the attack at 2130, supported by a massive artillery barrage. The artillery barrage forced the Germans to keep their heads down and the Eddies entered the town. A savage street-by-street battle ensued. Canadian tanks and anti-tank guns were delayed joining the fight until the engineers could bridge a ravine leading to the town. Meantime, the Germans who had been initially pushed out of Leonforte counterattacked with tanks and self-propelled guns. Overpowered and outgunned by the Germans, Vokes gave the order to pull back from the town and regroup while waiting for the Canadian tanks.
As the Eddies pulled back, a situation was developing. The battalion commander, Lt-Col Jefferson, and 100 of his men were trapped in the town and faced annihilation. Meanwhile, under intense mortar and machine-gun fire, the engineers succeeded in the installation of a fifty-foot bailey bridge across the ravine. But it was not going well for the Eddies trapped in the town.
As their number diminished, the Eddies moved from house to house seeking protection. Vokes was meanwhile growing despondent over the fate of the Eddies as all communications with them had ceased. Salvation for the Eddies came in the form of a ten-year-old Italian boy named Antonio Guiseppe. Jefferson scratched out a message describing their situation and location and handed it to the boy, along with whatever he had in his pockets as payment. The boy took off, dodging artillery, bullets, mortars, and patrols until he reached Vokes’ HQ. He handed Vokes the message. Vokes called out that the Eddies were alive and proceeded to order an all-out attack to rescue them. After a first failed attempt to cross the recently installed bridge, due to intense mortar and gunfire, a second attempt was made, come hell or high-water. The Three Rivers’ Shermans and truck pulling six-pound anti-tank guns of the 90th Anti-tank Battery and hundreds of troops cross the bridge at great speed and reached the Eddies in the nick of time. As Jefferson accounted it: “Our leading tank was seen to be approaching. Simultaneously an enemy tank rounded a corner near Battalion Headquarters. The Canadian gunner was lightning on the trigger and the enemy tank exploded almost in our faces.”
After much heavy fighting in both the town and the surrounding countryside, Leonforte was declared secure about 24 hours after the Eddies had first entered it. The fighting at Leonforte had cost the Canadians 56 dead and 105 wounded, but moreover cost the Germans a position crucial to their outer defence perimeter.
Reference: Daniel Dobson’s The D-Day Dodgers and Lt-Col G.W.L Nicholson’s The Canadians in Italy, Vol II
Owing to the victories at Leonforte and Assoro, the flank of the US 1st Infantry Division was now secure and they were free to drive north from Enna to Troina. To the east, the 8th Army was still battling at Catania; Montgomery’s new plans called for an attack on the Etna defences from the west.
Advancing parallel to the US 1st Division, the Canadians were to strike up the centre of the island and were given the British 231st “Malta” Brigade under command. The Canadians were ordered to advance immediately on Agira It was 22 July. The Malta Brigade was ordered to advance from the south, seizing high ground east of Agira while the Canadians attacked along six kilometres of highway leading to Catania. It was assumed the enemy would defend the high ground at Agira. The presence of German troops at Nissoria, a village located in the low ground along the highway between two low ridges, was not expected.
The Royal Canadian Regiment advanced with tank support under an artillery barrage as the battle opened; enemy resistance was fierce however and ten Sherman tanks of the Three Rivers regiment were knocked out. Reserve companies of the RCR swung to the right, discovering a deep gully parallel to the road which they followed to a position past the town of Nissoria, halfway to Agira itself. Unable to make radio contact with 1st Brigade headquarters, the battalion was reluctant to continue the advance without orders.
Out of contact with the RCR, the 1st Brigade commander ordered a deliberate attack on Nissoria in the early minutes of 25 July. The town was secured by The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, but a second ridge to the east was strongly held and by early morning, the Hasty P’s had suffered 80 casualties – the highest single-day loss of any Canadian unit during the Battle of Sicily.
The RCR in the meantime been withdrawn to avoid subjecting them to Canadian artillery fire. The 48th Highlanders next went into action, ordered to capture the heights of Monte di Nissoria to the north of the village, clearing the way for the 2nd Brigade to continue the advance. The lead company made it onto the objective on the evening of 26 July but heavy fire prevented their reinforcement, and the 48th were forced to withdraw.
On the night of 26 Jul, a platoon of The Edmonton Regiment force marched over eight miles of rough terrain and managed to cut the road from Agira to Nicosia. Digging in and holding on, they managed to ambush several trucks and even knocked out three tanks and a tank recovery vehicle. Lt John Dougan was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership (and would later win a bar to the MC at San Leonardo). A third attempt to take Agira acknowledged the German’s strong defence on a low ridge (codenamed “Lion” by the Canadians) to the east of Nissoria. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry launched an attack under the largest artillery barrage fired to date on Sicily and supported by two squadrons of Shermans from The Three Rivers Regiment. The attack was a success, and follow up companies were ordered to take the “Tiger”, a low ridge 1,000 meters further east. This attack did not go as well, and the rough terrain caused the soldiers to fall behind the barrage.
Regardless, The Seaforth Highlanders were committed to attacking “Grizzly”, the third piece of high ground still further east, on the western edge of Agira itself. “C” Company on the right flank found the enemy still in strength on “Lion” who remained there until daybreak. On the left, “A” Company reached “Tiger” at first light and drove the enemy back. For once, the Germans did not mount a counter-attack; their reserve, an uncommitted battalion of Panzergrenadier Division 29, came forward to defend “Grizzly” while Panzergrenadier Regiment 104 reorganized. Monte Fronte, high ground dominating “Grizzly”, was defended by several machine guns and mortars. The Seaforths left a single platoon at the base of Fronte, while the rest of their company maneuvered to the flank, through orchards and vineyards to a 300-foot cliff. Scaling the cliff, the company was reinforced and cleared Monte Fronte.
Cemetery Hill, dominating the northern end of “Grizzly” was then cleared by The Edmonton Regiment after hard fighting, and the hill was declared secure on the morning of 28 July.
Following the success at Agira the 1st Canadian Division took a deep breath. They had been fighting for almost 2 weeks through and over some of the most rugged terrain possible. They started by fighting the Italians who were surrendering in large numbers. (Indeed, Benito Mussolini has been deposed on 25 July and arrested.) Then they fought the Germans who were performing rear guard (defensive) actions. Finally, in Assoro, Leonforte, and Agira, the Germans put up more determined resistance resulting in more and more losses of Canadian men and equipment. But the Canadians had succeeded. The Americans, at that time, were running across Western Sicily with abandon and seemingly without a plan. Meanwhile the British were bogged down to the east near Catania. It remained to the Canadians to continue to move forward… and forward meant east to the town of Adrano.
The push to Adrano was meant to do two things: the first was to draw Germans out of their defence of Catania, to help the British; and second, to clear out some the defences confronting the American as they pushed along the north toward Messina.
For the first time since the landing on the Allies on 10 July, Montgomery met with Patton to discuss strategy. It was clear to Patton that the British and American both had a goal in mind… be the first to reach Messina. Patton called it a “horse race”. Montgomery, on the other hand, wanted to rest his troops for the next big action which would be the crossing from Sicily into the boot of Italy. Beating the Americans to Messina, which while not the main objective, would certainly be a bit of icing on the cake.
So where did this leave the Canadians? The Canadians were given the task of clearing out remaining pockets of serious resistance and driving the Germans to the sea. The 1st Canadian Division along with the 231st Malta Brigade and the British 78th Division was tasked to take Regalbuto, Centuripe, and Adrano, in an action code-named Operation HARDGATE. The Canadians were to lead the way by capturing Canenanuova, some 20 kilometres to their east across the rugged countryside with no major roads, from the Germans and created a firm base for a further advance by the British.
Operation as part of the British XXX Corps, the 1st Canadian Division’s Royal 22e Regiment took the 3,000 foot heights of Monte Scalpello, dominating the dry stream bed of the Dittaino, and on the night of 29-30 Jul, both The West Nova Scotia Regiment and The Carleton and York Regiment attacked Catenanuova, under cover of a heavy artillery bombardment. German defenders were from the 923rd Fortress Battalion. “For one of the few times in the entire Sicilian and Italian campaigns, the Germans lost their nerve and bolted – an act which resulted in the dissolution of the unit and numerous courts-martial. The Canadians then successfully defended the town against several German counterattacks.
Following the success at Catenanova, the Canadians ushed on to Regalbuto, 10 kilometres to the north. The Hermann Goering Division’s operations order of 27 Jul 1943 stated clearly that Regalbuto was to be held, and with Centuripe form the main defensive outpost in front of Adrano, itself the key position of the Etna defensive line. Generalmajor Paul Conrath, commander of the division, felt this right flank was the key to his entire defensive line.
The battle for Regalbuto drew near as the 1st Canadian Division moved through almond and olive groves on 28 Jul to within one mile of the town. In the early morning of the 30th, British 231st Infantry Brigade was hit by German rocket fire on their Start Line. Pushing on despite heavy casualties, the brigade was ambushed by German paratroopers and armoured engineers, and forced to fall back.
As night fell (on 29 Jul, the Hampshire Regiment) received orders to launch an attack against a long ridge which stretched south of the highway within a mile of Regalbuto. Unlike most of the other ridges in the area, this one ran parallel to the road, which it commanded along its entire length. On this rocky rise, the Hermann Göring Engineers had decided to make their stand to prevent or delay the capture of Regalbuto, a fact of which the Hampshires became unpleasantly aware when a wicked burst of Nebelwerfer fire met them as they formed up on their start line. One platoon was practically wiped out. In spite of this inauspicious beginning, the battalion pressed on bravely, only to be caught in the deadly cross-fire of machine-guns. In the face of rapidly mounting casualties and a realization of the enemy’s numbers, the attack was called off.
The ridge overlooking Regalbuto would not fall until 0235hrs on 31 Jul “after a severe series of firefights.”6 With the enemy in control of Santa Lucia and Mount Serione, entry into the town on Highway No. 121 was impossible.
The naturally strong Regalbuto ridge was covered by troops on the nearby Tower Hill and Monte Tiglio. The approaches were treacherous, necessitating the crossing of numerous steep ravines and rocky spurs. The 231st Maltese, who had moved into position after a very tough cross-country approach, launched the attack on the night 30-31 Jul.
The 2nd Battalion of The Devonshire Regiment went forward late on 30 Jul, executed a flanking attack, and with the supporting fire of 144 guns from four field (1st RCHA, 2nd RCA, 3rd RCA, 165th RA (British)) and three medium (7th Medium RA, 64th Medium RA and 70th Medium RA) artillery regiments, seized the hill. Counterattacks by the Hermann Görings as well as Parachute Regiment 3 failed to dislodge them, though 109 officers and men of the Dorsets became casualties. During the late morning of the 31st, the Dorestshires attacked Mount Serione, with one company capturing an uncompleted railway station and another company gaining possession of a cemetery defended by the Germans. By late afternoon, the Dorsets dominated two roads leading into Regalbuto from the north and the northwest. The 48th Highlanders, placed temporarily under command of the 231st Brigade, relieved them before dusk.
The Royal Canadian Regiment launched a night attack on Tower Hill on 31 Jul after a six-mile approach march followed by a hasty reconnaissance. The failure to secure the Start Line was also problematic, and after a delayed start the assault companies attacked into a steep ravine. Halted by heavy fire, the RCRs were trapped at daybreak and left under a hot sun with no food or water. A withdrawal came only under the cover of darkness that night.
Also after last light on 1 Aug, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment launched an attack, this time with a proper reconnaissance, and moved from hill to hill arriving at dawn to attack Tower Hill. The companies moved over rough terrain, but the advance patrols were able to provide guides and the movement went smoothly with their assistance, as well as the battalion scouts. Both “A” and “B” Companies crested Mount Tiglio, the southern bulwark of the defences at Regalbuto, finding fresh weapons pits but no Germans. Three days of battle had possibly convinced the Germans no attacks would come from the south.
Major Kennedy realized as dawn broke that a premature attack would be disastrous. He gave his mortar crews time to establish themselves, allowed his company commanders time to assess the ground for the attack on Regalbuto, and permitted the Forward Observation Officers’ to survey the terrain and report on likely enemy concentrations.
At noon on 2 Aug, “D” Company attacked across the broad valley as a diversion, firing from more than ten separate positions. “D” Company went to ground as planned and held the attention of the Germans. As the enemy exposed their weapons positions to fire on the company, 3-inch mortar fire and artillery was called down to neutralize them. “B” and “C” Companies were able to cross the valley practically unopposed and attacked up onto the heights opposite Mt. Tiglio. The heights were cleared within thirty minutes, capturing machine gun positions and driving the Germans off.
A patrol of the 48th Highlanders simultaneously entered Regalbuto itself, to find the enemy there had left.
On 7 August, the 1st Canadians Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade were taken into reserve status where they remained until the implementation of Operation Baytown… the move to the mainland of Italy.
Patton won his horse race to Messina on 17 August, beating the entry of the British by four hours. But at what cost? The Germans had evacuated 60,000 troops plus thousands of tons of equipment, tanks, artillery and supplies across the Strait of Messina by the time Patton arrived. His victory was a hollow one.
Many historians have questioned the conduct of the Sicilian campaign and wondered if it was worth the costs in blood and tears. Carlo D’Este, the best known American students of the campaign, described Sicily as a “bitter victory” because so much of the German army escaped across the Straits of Messina to fight another day. He also argued that the differences between the British and Americans over strategy were aggravated by national and personality conflicts among the Allied generals and that those differences would continue to influence operations for the rest of the war.
A leading Canadian historian on the campaign, Bill McAndrew, is careful to distinguish between the military achievements of the Canadians who fought so successfully at the section, platoon, company and battalion levels and the higher command. The failure “to prevent, stop or even hinder the German evacuation of the island” was, he writes, “a combined operations debacle.” Perhaps so, but the navy and air force both had good reasons for not committing resources to the costly task of closing the straits and the army had quite enough to do overcoming a determined enemy holding such favourable ground. Sicily was the first real test of what Canada’s citizen army could accomplish in battle and they passed with highest honours.
The cost to Canada was high for this, its first major victory of the war, with 562 killed (including those lost at sea), 1,664 wounded and 84 captured.
The cost to the Germans was over 5,000 killed, 13,500 wounded and 6,663 taken prisoner. The Italians lost 7,000 killed or wounded and 160,000 taken prisoner. The British had lost 11,843 while the Americans lost 7,402 killed and wounded.
Reference: Lt-Col G.W.L Nicholson’s The Canadians in Italy, Vol II
Having driven Axis troops out of the island of Sicily by 17 Aug 1943, following a two period of rest and reinforcement, the Allies launched Operation Avalanche, the invasion of mainland Italy. Given a choice of two landing sites, the opening of the Volturno River north of Naples or Salerno southeast of Naples, the latter was chosen as it had landing beaches favourable to invaders and it had nearby major roads and airfields that could be used by the Allies after a successful invasion. Operation Baytown and Operation Slapstick were launched to prepare for the main Operation Avalanche invasion, although the latter was actually commenced on the same day as Operation Avalanche.
Operation Baytown was embarked upon by British XIII Corps under the command of Bernard Montgomery. On 3 Sep 1943, six days prior to the Salerno landing, British and Canadian troops landed at Reggio Calabria at the southwestern tip of Italy, intending to tie down German troops in southern Italy and perhaps even drawing German troops away from the Salerno area further north. Opposition to the landings was very light because the few German troops in the area rapidly withdrew northward. Italian troops on the coast, belonging to the coastal divisions, were poorly equipped, demoralized by the political situation and the massive Allied bombardment; they offered no resistance to the landing. This operation ultimately did not achieve its intended effect as the German commander-in-chief Albert Kesselring correctly deduced the main Allied target was further north up the coast; instead of keeping troops south to counter the British-Canadian attack, Kesselring actually gradually pulled German LXXVI Panzer Corps back, leaving only a single regiment and some Italian formations to deal with the Baytown invasion.
Operation Slapstick, which saw the amphibious landing of Taranto and Brindisi in southeastern Italy, was conducted by troops of British 1st Airborne Division. Although two port cities had been secretly made available to the Allies during the secret armistice negotiations, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower decided to land a large number of troops there as another attempt to draw German attention away from the Salerno landings. The four British cruisers that carried the invasion troops arrived at Taranto at 1500 hours on 9 Sep, where they were guided through the defensive minefield by the Italians as previously agreed upon. The Taranto landing was met with no resistance as German troops had already been pulled back per Kesselring’s orders days prior. Two days later, the British paratroopers captured Brindisi, again without resistance, although along the way the advance was met with German harassment. On the same day, the British paratroopers who pushed westward linked up with Canadian troops of XIII Corps. The Slapstick offensive would push on to capture the airfield at Gioia del Colle in mid-Sep 1943, after which it would be halted to consolidate the territorial gains. The British paratroopers would be withdrawn to Britain by Nov 1943.
The main Operation Avalanche offensive against Salerno took place on 9 Sep 1943, the same day as the Taranto operation. To gain an element of surprise, the landing commenced without pre-invasion naval and aerial bombardment, but Allied leadership did not know that Kesselring had already been preparing for a possible invasion in the general region, thus no surprise could truly be achieved. The 165,000-strong Salerno invasion force, US Fifth Army under the command of Lieutenant General Mark Clark, was consisted of US VI Corps (Major General Ernest Dawley), British X Corps (Lieutenant General Richard McCreery), and US 82nd Airborne Division in reserve. Despite the broad 56-kilometre front, only three divisions, two British and one American, made up the initial assault force, with the British landing north of the Sele River near Montecorvino and the Americans to the south of the river at Paestum. A small force of US Rangers and British Commandos would land northwest of the British landing beaches to secure the roads leading to Naples up the coast.
Opposite the Allies stood several German divisions, all of which had been vigilant of an Allied attack as warned by Kesselring.
At Paestum, the two inexperienced battalions of US 36th Division which landed first nearly fell into disarray when they faced enemy fire, but was able to hold the beachhead as the next wave of troops arrived. The British troops further north were able to push inland for about 8 to 11 kilometres. Through the following three days, both sides built up their strength in the region, but it would be the Germans who would reach their desired level of strength (six divisions) first for a major offensive, while Allies shifted to a defensive stance. The German counterattack began on 13 Sep, with the main attack striking in the region near Battipaglia, intending to divide the British X Corps and the US VI Corps. The afternoon of 13 Sep saw Allied units, mainly the Americans as the German efforts focused more in the Sele River region, being pushed back and suffering heavy casualties in the process; two battalions of US 82nd Airborne Division were brought in to help hold the line. In the afternoon on the following day, US 180th Infantry Regiment arrived near Paestum, relieving the paratroopers. The German advances were slowed on 15 Sep, largely because of heavy naval gunfire and aerial bombardment. On 16 Sep, German troops launched a second attack against positions held by troops of British X Corps but made little progress.
Meanwhile, Bernard Montgomery’s force which had participated in Operation Baytown slowly made their way up Italy. By 16 Sep, British 5th Infantry Division had reached Sapri, less than 100 kilometres southeast of Salerno, thus nearly linking up the two forces. In light of the German inability to drive off the Allied invasion, and the now near link up of two large Allied forces, Kesselring was advised by German Tenth Army commanding officer Heinrich von Vietinghoff to call off the offensive, fall back, and form a defensive line; Kesselring agreed with this suggestion and gave such orders on 17 Sep. Kesselring believed that even as he gave the Allies control of Salerno, the terrain of Italy would prove to be favourable for defence. Together with his orders to pull back from Salerno were orders to destroy key bridges and other means of transportation to frustrate future Allied advances.
Realizing the Germans were pulling back, British and American troops of US Fifth Army began marching toward Naples on 19 Sep. By the end of the month, the southern portion of Italy was under Allied control, including the major airfield complex near Foggia, which was captured on 27 Sep.
Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Baytown and http://ww2today.com/3rd-september-1943-operation-baytown-the-invasion-of-italy