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Canadian armour arrives on the shore of the Italian mainland in September 1943. Photo: Alex Stirton, Library and Archives Canada.

While the men of 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade were fighting for the high ground overlooking the Sicilian town of Adrano, Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister, was aboard the Queen Mary en route to Quadrant, the first Allied conference to be held at Quebec City. This was Churchill’s second trip across the Atlantic in 1943 and as with his visit to Washington three months before, the purpose was to seek agreement on future strategy. During Trident, the May 1943 conference, Churchill had persuaded American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to agree that General Dwight D. Eisenhower would begin planning operations designed to exploit the capture of Sicily by invading the Italian mainland.

The Americans had insisted on limited action against Italy because they were concerned that Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, were trying to expand the Allied commitment in the Mediterranean. Gen. George C. Marshall, Roosevelt’s indispensable military adviser, was determined that operations in Italy would not be allowed to interfere with the buildup for Overlord, the invasion of France. He persuaded the British to accept May 1, 1944, as D-Day for Overlord with 29 American, British and Canadian divisions, including seven from the Mediterranean, positioned in England by early 1944. (Overlord, as it turned out, came on June 6, 1944.)

Churchill won agreement to attack the Italian mainland, designed to “knock Italy out of the war” and engage as many German divisions as possible, but he had to accept that Italy would soon become a secondary theatre.

The first Quebec conference confirmed these arrangements, including Baytown, an attack across the Straits of Messina from Sicily to the toe of Italy and Avalanche, an assault landing at Salerno south of Naples. The Canadian government played no part in these discussions. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was present for photo ops with Churchill and Roosevelt, but he “accepted the position that the higher direction of the war was exercised by the British prime minister and the president of the United States.” The Canadians did learn that their troops in Sicily were scheduled to participate in Baytown and Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the chief of the general staff, gave his formal approval on Aug. 17.

The soldiers of 1st Canadian Division and 1st Canadian Tank Bde. began preparing for their part in Baytown on the basis of lessons learned in the Sicilian Campaign. The key to success in battle was skill in the use of ground for the attack, defence and the defeat of the enemy’s immediate counter-attacks. Training focused on “fieldcraft, siting of weapons, camouflage, cover, observations, use of compass, and map-reading.” Infantry battalions were to organize and train sniper and scout platoons while emphasizing the role of the three-inch mortar and Bren gun carriers in supplying firepower. Each brigade was urged to deploy the Saskatoon Light Infantry platoons of 4.2-inch mortars and medium machine-guns well forward. The terrain in Italy made heavy mortars, with a 3,000-yard range, crucial weapons in “softening up or smoking an objective” and accuracy required “a high standard of drill and discipline.” The Vickers machine-gun, “one of the best weapons in our armoury,” was most effective when used in enfilade with a section of two guns as the fire unit. Training in infantry-tank co-operation was also stressed and everyone was reminded of the need for the strictest anti-malarial precautions.

Everyone agreed that the terrain dictated the methods used in planning an attack. Once the fire plan was in place, rifle companies needed to advance while dispersed on a wide front. They were also to avoid the tops of ridges. The best approach was to stick to defilade and shadow and if in doubt to take the long way around. Above all, the idea was to keep moving once the attack started. Stopping would be a sure way to bring enemy mortar fire down on you.

While the soldiers trained, Major-General Guy Simonds and his staff officers developed detailed plans for the division’s part in Baytown, a curiously limited operation to be carried out by Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. Simonds outlined the division’s task at an Aug. 24 conference. The Canadians together with 5th British Div. were to capture a beachhead on the mainland side of the Straits of Messina “so that the straits are free for the use of our own shipping.” The secondary purpose was to “draw enemy resources against the beachhead” to assist the success of the Anglo-American landings at Salerno that were to take place after the beachhead at Reggio di Calabria had been secured.

Simonds was probably aware that Montgomery was unhappy with the minor role assigned to his army. Monty was not used to being a supporting actor and once it became clear that Mark Clark, the American general in charge of Operation Avalanche, would fight the main battle, Montgomery “sulked in his caravan” and allowed Baytown to develop as a set-piece assault landing with an elaborate and unnecessary bombardment of an undefended coast. Few resources were allotted to the pursuit of the enemy who were known to be planning to withdraw from the southern tip of Italy.

Simonds decided to plan for a pursuit role as well as the bridgehead battle. He selected 3rd Canadian Inf. Bde. for the assault landings with 2nd and 1st brigades to follow. He warned his brigadiers that once ashore he would not hesitate to pool the limited transport available “to make one brigade mobile, stripping the assault brigade to a skeleton to do so.” Unfortunately, the loss (to enemy submarine) of a shipment of Canadian-made four-wheel-drive vehicles had not been made up and the Canadians were forced to rely upon borrowed two-wheel-drive lorries that had “seen lengthy service in Africa.” First Div. staff were grateful for the loan, but they made it clear that when new Canadian trucks arrived they would return the British trucks promptly.

Third Canadian Inf. Bde. had not played a major role in Operation Husky–the invasion of Sicily–partly because it had performed poorly in pre-invasion training. Sicily provided an opportunity to fix some problems and improve the level of company training but Simonds was still unhappy with Brigadier M.H.S. Penhale, a permanent force officer, who he thought was too cautious and too old for active command. Penhale’s preparations for the mainland landing seemed well organized and the rehearsal went smoothly, but on D-Day of the actual landing there was much confusion, and fortunately little resistance. The German 29th Panzer Div. began a staged withdrawal and the Italian coastal division quickly surrendered.

Simonds ordered the Canadians to advance inland beginning on D+1. Unfortunately, he had to follow orders to secure the mountainous core of the “toe,” the Aspromonte, instead of advancing along the coastal road. The decision to send Canadian troops into this incredibly difficult country made no military sense. The roads–often little better than tracks–climbed barren hills through a series of switchbacks. The enemy was bound to withdraw from the area or surrender once the “toe” had been bypassed. Also, the Canadian battalions committed to the mountains were in no position to respond when Gen. Harold Alexander urged 8th Army to advance north “regardless of administrative (logistical) consequences.” Montgomery ignored this plea. He ordered the Canadians to move south to the coast where they were to pause and build up resources.

Major A.T. Sesia, the divisional historical officer kept a detailed diary in September 1943 and his entries capture the character and flavour of this strange interlude. “3 September. The night was pitch-black and no lights were visible from the enemy shore…. At precisely 0345 hours our artillery barrage opened up…. The noise from these guns kept the night air reverberating with a steady roar. Every now and then tracer shells would cross the water in a horizontal line of flight. Firing along fixed lines they guided the landing craft to their proper beaches…. The barrage lasted until 0530 hours. Here and there fires were burning on the enemy coast and every now and then the sky would be lighted up a greenish blue glow indicating a direct hit…. All morning the news from the fighting front was good. Practically no opposition was encountered…. We drive off the beach into Reggio di Calabria…another air attack took place and enemy fighters shot up the town and dropped bombs too close for comfort…. Thus, did I, for the first time, set foot on the land of my forefathers. Reggio was deserted…the people had fled to the hills, the population had dwindled from 170,000 to 20,000 when the invasion of the mainland appeared imminent.

“4 September. As we drove through the town, I saw that the city, possessing many beautiful buildings, was so battered by our air bombing and shelling that there was hardly a building left unscathed…. Apparently all day yesterday considerable looting went on. It is probably difficult to differentiate between looting and scrounging…the generally accepted view is that looting is sheer vandalism, in scrounging one takes what one needs to render more efficient the prosecution of the war.”

His diary entry for Sept. 5 notes that out patrols have reached far inland in all directions, but have not contacted any Germans. It also states that the enemy has carried out extensive demolitions to hinder the advance.

“The mountains in this area form part of the Aspromonte chain and rise in height up to 6,000 feet. We are therefore pretty well confined to tracks and roads….

“6 September. Immediately upon leaving Reggio we climbed the high hills by way of steep winding roads…. After darkness had fallen we drove without lights up and down hair-raising grades and sharp bends. In a way it was a godsend that we could hardly see more than five or 10 feet ahead of us since we knew we were driving along a road with no guardrail above ravines ranging in depth from 600 to 2,000 feet. To add to the discomfort it commenced raining and soon developed into a downpour…. Apparently the Germans have withdrawn…and the Italians refuse to fight….

“7 September. We pushed off at noon…a slow trip due to demolitions and diversions. Warning signs such as “Danger! Use four-wheel drive if you want to see Canada again!” Heavy guns are firing to the northwest of us from naval craft which are supporting the landing of 231st Bde. (on the west coast of the “toe”).

The entry for Sept. 8 notes that he spent most of the morning at Operations Command.

“The situation on our front is fluid…our forward troops have in no way made contact with the enemy…. Italy has surrendered. This news did not surprise me, as it was evident since the invasion of Sicily that the Italians were not prepared to continue the war. What lies in state for 1st Canadian Div. is now a matter of conjecture until such time as a new plan is worked out.

“9 September. The situation up front is still unchanged. No actual contact with the Germans has been made…. The BBC announced this morning that a large British and U.S. force has landed near Naples. We packed up early this morning, proceeded in convoy 57.2 miles…surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery…. At every town, village and hamlet the inhabitants stood outside their homes to cheer us.”

The entry for Sept. 10 says that ever since the armistice, Italian soldiers have been wandering along the sides of the roads unshaven, discouraged and demoralized–all heading for their homes.

“11 September. Last night orders were issued for division headquarters to proceed to an area north of Catanzano…a fairly modern city built on a high feature.

“12 September. Proceeded to headquarters of the 104th Mantova Div. with…Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Walsh (the Royal Canadian Engineer commander) to confer with Italian (engineering commander) and lay on certain tasks for repairing roads. The road to Carlopoli was a macadamized state highway, well banked with concrete ditches along the berm…very few of our troops have passed along this route…the Germans had in fact left the area only a day ago. We had been as far ahead on our western flank as our recce troops had been on the eastern flank.

“13 September. Gen. Montgomery and the Corps Commander, Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey, were at division headquarters to present to officers and men decorations and awards which they had earned in Sicily. During lunch with the D.A.A.G. (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General) Frank Wallace, I remarked that it was high time he was made a lieutenant-colonel. He replied that in the Canadian Army in England there were so many lieutenant-colonels they could form fours with them and he was not going back because he didn’t know how to form fours.”

The entry for Sept. 14 reports heavy fighting is going on in the Naples area. It notes that a British armoured division landed last night near the scene of the fighting.

“15 September. News from Naples very vague and from this it can be assumed all was not going well. We in 13th Corps were so far behind we could do little to relieve the pressure. However, once we reach Nova Siri our advance will continue with 5th Div. following the coast road and 1st Canadian Div. on their right flank in the mountains.”

The next day Simonds ordered Lt.-Col. Pat Bogert, the commanding officer of the West Nova Scotia Regiment to take command of an all-arms battle group. Its task was to strike for Potenza, a road and rail junction 60 miles east of Salerno. The Canadians were back in the war.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine on March 1, 2006.