This is the first of a series of articles examining the Canadian contributions to the Allied campaign in Sicily and the Italian mainland. Regular readers of Canadian Military History In Perspective will recall a number of articles published in 1997-98 on this theme, articles that may be consulted on the Legion Magazine Web site, www.legionmagazine.com. This new series will focus on battalion and brigade-level actions, explore the Italian battlefields and understand the challenges faced by Canada’s soldiers in more detail.
Before we begin our battlefield study tour, some background information is required. The decision to invade Sicily was made at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 over the protests of American military leaders, who feared that once committed to Sicily, Allied forces would be tied down indefinitely in the Mediterranean. The British countered with the argument that knocking Italy out of the war could be accomplished without fighting a costly attritional battle on the mainland. Operation Husky was the first step to reaching that goal. The Americans agreed to Sicily, leaving the decision about mainland Europe to a later date.
Allied planners disagreed about almost every aspect of Husky, including estimates of the strength of the enemy. Italian divisions had fought well in Tunisia and the Italian 6th Army defending Sicily, deployed nine infantry divisions supported by 20 tank and self-propelled gun battalions. It was thought that the Italians, together with two German mechanized divisions, could only be overcome through massive force and everyone focused on preparations for a complex combined air, naval and army operation.
Initially, the planners called for two widely separated landing areas, one for each of the Allied armies. General Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British 8th Army, insisted on the principle of concentration and convinced the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to accept a plan to land both the American and British forces in south- eastern Sicily. Montgomery’s veteran divisions would then engage the enemy on the Catania plain before advancing north to Messina and securing the island. General George Patton’s 7th U.S. Army would protect the British flank. The idea of employing large airborne forces to support the landings and secure vital bridges was also approved, despite doubts about the training of the aircrew slated to carry the paratroopers to battle.
The Canadians were not involved in the strategic debate and were only invited to participate in Husky after the Canadian government argued it was vital to get Canadian forces into action in 1943. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, together with 1st Army Tank Brigade, was informed that it would replace a British division in the order of battle in late April 1943, leaving just two months to re-equip and train for amphibious warfare and combat in mountainous terrain. Their task, inherited from 3rd British Div., was to secure a beachhead on the Pachino peninsula and advance inland on the left flank of British 8th Army. The actual landings met little resistance, and the immediate task, capturing Pachino airfield, was quickly accomplished.
Unfortunately, Montgomery’s overall concept of operations proved to be deeply flawed. The Italian 6th Army was weak, immobile and demoralized. Most Italian soldiers and generals had come to hate the Germans and were ready to welcome the Allies. The Big Red One, the U.S. 1st Inf. Div., dealt with the only serious opposition encountered in the landings, but the Germans were able to block the main British advance. A frustrated Montgomery now made one of his worst command decisions of the war. He persuaded the Army Group Commander, General Harold Alexander, to allow 8th Army to cut across the American line of advance taking over roads assigned to the U.S. 45th Div. This decision was made in the full knowledge that 1st Cdn. Div., which was to take over from the Americans, had lost much of its transport to German U-boats and needed time to pause and reorganize before continuing towards Enna. A furious George Patton was forced to withdraw 45th Div. and move it to the west, but refused to accept the passive role Montgomery and Alexander had allotted to his army and began his own campaign to liberate Sicily, turning west to Palermo before advancing to Messina along the north coast.
Major-General Guy Simonds, the 39-year-old commander of 1st Cdn. Div., knew nothing of the background to his new orders when he was told to take over the advance to Enna and seize the vital road network in the centre of the island. The 1st Inf. Bde. (The Royal Canadian Regiment, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and the 48th Highlanders) led the advance, using most of the available transport. The Hasty Ps, with a squadron of Three Rivers Regt. tanks, were in the lead when the town of Grammichele was reached. The town sits on a ridge overlooking the surrounding countryside, an ideal defensive position that was adopted by a battlegroup of tanks and anti-tank guns of the Herman Goring Div. This was the division’s first serious encounter with the Germans and the Hasty Ps dealt with the enemy in textbook fashion. With one company deployed as “fire company” two companies with a battery of self-propelled anti-tank guns began a right flanking attack while the Three Rivers tank squadron engaged the enemy armour. The German battlegroup was forced to withdraw, abandoning equipment and stores. The Canadians suffered 25 casualties in this brief encounter.
The 48th Highlanders took over the lead, reaching the outskirts of Caltagirone early the next day. Caltagirone, a city perched on a long narrow ridge, had been identified as the headquarters of the German Goring Div. and was targeted by Allied bombers. With fires still burning and the winding streets blocked with rubble, it was fortunate that the enemy chose to withdraw to new defensive positions rather than force a house-to-house battle.
The German high command initially classed the Allied invasion as a Dieppe-level raid that would be quickly crushed, but by July 15, Hitler agreed that western Sicily must be abandoned and a new defensive line based on Mount Etna established. The German commander was informed it was important to fight a delaying action. However, no risks were to be taken with the German divisions in Sicily especially “the valuable human material” that was to be saved for the defence of the mainland.
The 2nd Cdn. Inf. Bde., made up of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regt., under orders to advance “vigorously” towards Enna, reached Piazza Armerina in time to receive a rough reception from a battalion of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Div. The Edmonton regiment bore the brunt of the fighting, suffering 27 casualties before the enemy “melted away.” The modern visitor to Piazza Armerina will find a city of charming medieval alleys, steps and lanes leading to the Piazza Garibaldi in the city centre. The Edmonton’s recall a bitter struggle for the approaches to Piazza Armerina in a country where “everything went uphill” and movement was over cobbled roads or dirt tracks in scorching heat.
The 3rd Cdn. Inf. Bde., which included the Royal 22nd Regt., the West Nova Scotia Regt. and the Carleton and York Regt., took their turn leading the advance towards the narrow gap in the mountain south of Valguarnera. The enemy had established a strong blocking position there and the Van Doos encountered heavy, well-directed fire. Brigadier M.H.S. Penhale ordered the Carletons to attack the position from the east, forcing a German withdrawal. The West Novas carried out a wide, cross-country flanking movement to reach the Enna road behind the Germans.
The divisional commander, under growing pressure to move more quickly, had ordered 1st Bde. to advance directly to Valguarnera. This move, largely on foot, across the grain of the country was an extraordinary effort which could only have been carried out by fit and determined men. The brief struggle for the approaches to the town, together with 3rd Bde.’s actions were fought by the infantry–without significant support–as neither tanks nor carriers could follow the men across narrow gullies and mountain slopes. The battles fought on July 18 produced 145 casualties, but the road to Enna and the town of Valguarnera were in Canadian hands.
The German withdrawal to new positions based on Leonforte, Assoro and Agira was also hastened by the speed of the American advance west of Enna. Gen. Oliver Lease, who commanded the 30th British Corps including the Canadians, was later to admit that it “might have been better to have let them go to Enna on the main road and to have moved the Canadian division direct against Agira from the south.” On July 17, he obtained Montgomery’s permission to shift the boundary, allowing the Americans to seize Enna but they were still denied use of the main road north which ran through Leonforte, an objective reserved for the Canadians. But Montgomery now recognized that 8th Army did have the mobility or manpower to break the stalemate at Catania by encircling Mount Etna.
The Americans were told to take over the advance along Highway 20 from Nicosia around the north side of the great volcano, a task originally assigned to the Canadians, while 30th Corps concentrated on reducing the southwestern side of the Etna defences. A fresh British division, the 78th, was to join 1st Cdn. and 51st Highland divisions in the advance.
Simonds met with his brigadiers, including the commander of the British “Malta” Bde. which was temporarily under his control, on July 19 to co-ordinate an advance which would require extraordinary effort in difficult terrain. Today, the wide valley between the Dittaino River and the hill towns to the north is bisected by the A19 Autostrada connecting Catania to Palermo, but in 1943 the area contained little more than scattered olive groves overlooked by an impressive mountain ridge. The official historian Lieutenant-Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson described the scene as the Canadian soldiers saw it in 1943. “One of these mountain strongholds was clearly visible…. The lofty peak of Assoro protecting like a sharp tooth in the jagged skyline…. This height formed a southern projection to the main ridge, which here flattened out as a high plateau extending from Leonforte, two miles northwest of Assoro to Agira six miles to the northeast. At Regalbuto, nine miles east of Agira’s 2,700 foot cone, Highway 121, which had thus far climbed tortuously into every town and village along the main ridge, temporarily forsook the hills, dropping down by relatively easy gradients to cross the valley of the Simeto west of Adrano.”
Simonds proposed to attack on a two brigade front with 2nd Bde. committed to Leonforte and 1st Bde. to Assoro. The advance east, supported by the Malta Bde., would only begin when the enemy was forced to surrender his hold on those dominant positions.
On the afternoon of July 20, 1943, the commanding officer of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., Lieutenant-Colonel R.A. Sutcliffe, and his intelligence officer went forward through the RCR bridgehead across the Dittaino River to reconnoitre the approaches to Assoro. Movement on this open ground in daylight proved deadly and both men were killed. Thus began one of the most remarkable feats in all of Canadian military history–a night march to the eastern side of Assoro Mountain followed by a climb “which no one who took part in will ever forget. The mountain was terraced and always above was a tantalizing false crest, which unfolded to another crest when one approached it. It was 40 sweating minutes before we stood on top beside the shell of a great Norman castle and realized that we had achieved complete surprise….”
Major The Lord Tweedsmuir, son of a former governor general, who was second-in-command of the Hasty Ps and who had led the assault, gave the above description of the climb to the division historical officer and noted that the battalion had reached its objective without further losses. The next morning a company of the Royal Canadian Regt., stripped of equipment, carried rations, water and ammunition to the Hasty Ps and that night the 48th Highlanders joined the battle, clearing the western approaches to Assoro. This allowed the engineers of 1st Field Company to fill a large road crater, a move that in turn permitted the Three Rivers’ tanks to join the battle. By noon on July 22, Assoro was free of the enemy.
The story of the attack on Assoro is largely known to Canadians through books written by Farley Mowatt, especially The Regiment and his 1979 memoir And No Bird Sang. Mowat’s emphasis is on the regiment and its achievements, but Assoro also was a battle in which divisional and corps artillery, engineers and armour as well as the Hasty Ps’ sister battalions played a large role. John Marteinson and Michael McNorgan, the authors of The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, remind us that A Squadron of the Three Rivers Regt. advanced on a “boulder-strewn cutting that seemed completely impassable to tanks” and “inched their way into positions from which the gunners could fire into enemy machine-gun posts…. The tanks neutralized the well-entrenched enemy covering the road into Assoro, enabling the Highlanders to clear the ridge and make contact with the beleaguered Hasty Ps.”
In September 2005, a large delegation of veterans, friends and serving members of the Hasty Ps will return to Sicily to place a plaque at the Norman castle on top of Assoro Mountain. This time, Lieutenant-Colonel David Patterson, Director of Reserve Training at the Canadian Land Force Command and Staff College in Kingston, Ont., has carried out a peaceful recce, meeting with the mayor of Assoro and the landowners to reach an agreement on recreating the cross-country march and climb. The people of Assoro will join in the commemoration, welcoming their Canadian visitors as liberators who brought an end to a war that had cost Italy tens of thousands of lives.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on September 1, 2005.