When Operation Baytown–the Anglo-Canadian invasion of mainland Italy–was in the planning stages, Major-General Guy Simonds, the general officer commanding 1st Canadian Division, informed his brigade commanders that he would employ mobile battlegroups if the enemy simply withdrew.
On D-Day plus four, X Force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Neroutsos, the commanding officer of the Calgary Tanks, led the advance along the coastal highway, but on Sept. 9, 1943, Montgomery ordered the Canadians to pause and regroup as the “build up across the straits from Sicily is very slow….”
The next day, Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, who commanded both 8th British and 5th United States armies, urged Montgomery to “maintain pressure against the Germans so that they cannot remove forces from your front and concentrate them against Avalanche.”
Sept. 9 was D-Day for Operation Avalanche, the landings at Salerno, and Alexander was understandably worried about the enemy reaction to the amphibious assault south of Naples.
Avalanche had been planned in the context of negotiations for an Italian surrender, with 82nd U.S. Airborne seizing Rome and 5th Army advancing swiftly from Salerno to Naples. However, Allied intelligence analysts failed to understand Hitler’s determination to rescue Mussolini and hold onto as much of Italy as possible. The men of 5th Army had cheered the news of the Italian surrender as the convoys approached the beaches, but were shocked by the speed and intensity of the German reaction to the landings. Four of the five German divisions in southern Italy were moved to Salerno to seal off and destroy the bridgehead. The battle hung in the balance for the next six days without any support from 8th Army.
“We fought and marched 300 miles in 17 days, in good delaying country against an enemy whose use of demolition caused us bridging problems of the first magnitude,” wrote Montgomery in his memoirs. “…Fifth Army did their trick without our help–willing as we were.”
The British official historian C.J.C. Molony suggests that Montgomery did try to implement Alexander’s orders, but “administrative difficulties rather than the enemy” prevented a rapid advance. His description of these difficulties is worth quoting at some length. “Transport is the bugbear of armies and, like original sin, is the everlasting occasion of accusation, railing, disturbed consciences, and censorious, vain preachings. In modern armies there is at once too much transport and not enough. The chief causes of this condition are elaborate weapons greedy for huge quantities of heavy ammunition, high military social standards which require for the urban man in uniform much food and medical care, and in the urban man himself a capacity to endure hardship far lower than that of the harshly nurtured man of Minden, of Sebastopol or of First Ypres. Yet it is idle to look for a Golden Age of hard-bitten sparseness in an imaginary past. In 1914, the kind eyes of 5,592 horses, the transport of an infantry division of that day, rested on a marching crocodile of men only 18,000 strong but 15 miles long, and staff officers ‘swore terribly in Flanders’. Their successors have done the same there and elsewhere for kindred reasons.”
Few observers believe that transport problems were responsible for Montgomery’s failure to press the advance with any sense of urgency. None was communicated to the Canadians who spent four days resting near the beaches of the Adriatic before beginning an unopposed advance along the coast towards Taranto, the scene of the famous torpedo-bomber attack upon the Italian fleet in 1940. Taranto, located on the heel of Italy’s boot, was seized by 1st British Airborne in an unopposed action. The Canadians, therefore, were ordered to turn inland and advance to Potenza, a road and rail junction 50 miles east of Salerno.
Alexander had given Montgomery a direct order on Sept. 17 to “secure Potenza” and he in turn gave the task to the Canadians. Simonds thought his instructions were too vague and wrote to Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey, the corps commander, noting he was “not quite clear as to whether it is now desirable to make ‘military noises’ in that direction as quickly as I can, or whether we should lie up until the whole division is ready to advance.”
Simonds proposed to move quickly on Potenza “unless I hear from you to the contrary.” He met with Lt.-Col. Pat Bogert, the commanding officer of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, and told him he was to command a motorized battlegroup comprised of a squadron of tanks from the Calgaries, engineers, a battery of self-propelled artillery, a platoon of medium machine-guns (Saskatoon Light Infantry), plus a troop from the divisional anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments. A company from 9th Field Ambulance, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, completed what became known as Boforce. The advance north began on the morning of Sept. 18.
Today’s traveller can drive on a modern highway, the S407, from the sea to Potenza. In 1943, most of the route was over narrow roads that made their way up into the mountains through a series of spectacular switchbacks. Following the original route gives a much better idea of the achievements of Boforce, but today the bridges and culverts are intact and the only “enemy” is a fast driver headed in the other direction.
An account of the challenges faced by Boforce, based on the West Nova Scotia Regt. war diary, reads: “At 0500 hrs in the early morning of 19 Sep, A Company …moved forward to the blown bridge just west of Laurenzana to cover the operations of the engineers who were constructing a diversion. When these were in hand, A Company moved forward on foot followed by Lt.-Col. Bogert’s command party and D Company. The force was now moving along a steep defile at the confluence of the Fiumara d’Anzi and the Fiumara Camastra, both with dry but substantial river bottoms. Scarcely a mile ahead of the column, German sappers blew a crater in the road and another diversionary operation was necessary.
“Shortly afterwards, as A Company rounded the bend overlooking the river beds, the bridge carrying the road across their junction was blown and the enemy demolition squad opened fire on the leading troops. Fire from three-inch mortars was immediately brought down, an enemy lorry was hit and the Germans hastily withdrew. Lt.-Col. Bogert placed tanks at the head of the column as soon as they could be brought forward in order to frustrate for the future any similar activity on the part of enemy demolition parties. Just before reaching Anzi, another blown bridge was discovered and D Company went forward on foot while the remainder of the battalion closed up in troop-carrying vehicles. Anzi was entered at approximately noon and three German vehicles, which were visible on the road beyond, were engaged by the leading tanks and withdrew hurriedly. In addition to the increasing number of craters and blown bridges and culverts, the road from Anzi onward was studded with Tellermines.” A Tellermine was one of 40 different types of German anti-tank mines. Various kinds contained from 10 to 12 pounds of explosive.
Potenza, the largest city in the region of Basilicata, was founded in pre-Roman times as a village on the slope of a south-facing ridge above the Basento River. The poor agricultural land had led to the depopulation of the rural areas. However, Potenza had developed as a regional centre around its 12th- century cathedral. Beginning on Sept. 13, the Allied air forces began attacks on the city’s railroad yards and road junctions. Potenza, crowded with refugees from the Salerno battle area, was targeted by Allied heavy bombers on six consecutive days and much of the city was destroyed in these attacks with heavy loss of life.
The decision to continue to bomb Potenza is just one example of the lack of overall strategic direction of this phase of the Italian Campaign. Allied intelligence, based on Ultra and other sources, had reported German intentions “to throw the Allies back into the sea” at Salerno. However, by Sept. 14 the crisis in the beachhead was ending and 8th Army was supposed to be on the move north. The first signs of a German withdrawal were noted on Sept. 17, but no one ordered the Allied air forces to cease attacking a town or the railway yards that the Allies would soon need.
Historian Lee Windsor, who has studied the battle for Potenza and walked the ground, describes the initial attack by the rifle companies of the West Novas as one that “sacrificed the stealth of a footborne approach for the speed of using trucks.” Unfortunately, mines blocked this approach and sacrificed surprise. Two West Nova companies were pinned down in the dry riverbed and the advance stalled. The Germans had planned to hold Potenza with a regiment of 1st Parachute Div. but orders to withdraw to a new line left Potenza to be defended by a company-sized battlegroup ordered to stage a delaying action. When the Canadians mounted a second attack, using artillery, armour and an additional infantry battalion–the Royal 22nd Regt.–the German paratroopers withdrew. Canadian doctors treated 16 wounded Germans as well as 21 Canadians. However, the real tragedy of Potenza was the number of civilian casualties, estimated at over 2,000, including several hundred dead.
Major A.T. Sesia, the divisional historical officer reached Potenza on Sept. 21. “The city itself,” he wrote, “lies sprawled partly on the height immediately north of the river and on the northern bank of the river itself…at the immediate approaches to the town there was considerable damage. The artillery and especially the air force had created huge craters…good cars were destroyed or burnt out and some were blown great distances by the force of exploding air bombs.” While exploring the city, Sesia noted a huge group of civilians in front of a bakery where bread was being baked for the first time in 10 days.
The German 10th Army, responsible for the eastern sector of the Italian peninsula, had ordered 1st Parachute Div. to the Foggia-Manfredonia area to block the British advance along the Adriatic coast. The German divisional commander noted that the flat Foggia Plains “were particularly ill-suited for campaigning with the weak forces of this division” so everything possible must be done to delay the Allied advance until more troops were available.
The general need not have worried. Logistical problems and a lack of urgency at Allied headquarters led Montgomery to regroup his 8th Army along the Ofanto River just 25 miles north of Potenza. The Canadians were told to secure Mount Vulture and the town of Melfi but no further advance was anticipated until Oct. 1.
The German high command also issued orders on Sept. 22, instructing the soldiers of 10th Army to adopt measures outlined in a directive entitled Exploitation of Italy for the Further Conduct of the War. This order demanded that “extensive use be made of the Italian male population for further military and economic purposes.” Both civilians and soldiers were to be conscripted for construction battalions and “extensive use” was to be made of conscripted drivers, mechanics and fitters “in order that the German soldiers may be freed up for fighting.” Supplementary orders required the confiscation of material in the Naples and Foggia areas that might be of value to the German war effort, especially locomotives, train cars and trucks. Material that could not be removed was destroyed.
The Canadians witnessed one of the most dramatic examples of Hitler’s scorched-earth policy when a patrol from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry reached Atella, a village south of Melfi. That is where the Germans destroyed a section of the Apulian Aqueduct, the major source of water for the Foggia area and the heel of Italy.
As the Germans withdrew to Foggia and began construction of a series of defensive positions known collectively as the Winter Line, 13th British Corps (1st Canadian and 5th British infantry divisions) settled into a comfortable routine. The 1st Div. war diary for Sept. 29 reported “strong rumours that there is a war on” but nothing interfered with “putting on a sports meet in the middle of a campaign.” The diary entry continues with the notation “…the GOC (general officer commanding) has developed jaundice and had to be evacuated to hospital. This is a bad blow to the division as it appears we are about to enter our heaviest battles so far.”
Jaundice or infective hepatitis was one of several serious diseases to plague the soldiers who fought in the Mediterranean theatre. During the summer of 1942, two brigades of the New Zealand Div. had a very high incidence of jaundice while holding positions near El Alamein, North Africa. The ground there was heavily contaminated by enemy dead and feces. This experience prompted efforts to find ways of improving hygiene in forward areas, but hundreds of cases were reported in both Tunisia and Sicily.
Brigadier J.H. Palmer, the consulting physician at Canadian Military Headquarters, studied the incidence of hepatitis among Canadian troops in Italy. He noted that an epidemic began in Sicily and reached its peak in October 1943, re-emerging in a more virulent form in the spring of 1944 when more than 6,000 Canadian soldiers were admitted to hospital suffering from the disease. The average period of disability from infective hepatitis was 50 days and even mild cases were given several weeks to recover. Unfortunately, Simonds proved to be a poor patient. After several days of “confinement” at divisional headquarters he insisted on returning to duty. He did just that, but was forced to enter hospital when the classic yellow jaundice symptoms appeared. Brig. Chris Vokes became acting divisional commander in Simonds’ absence and he was to command during the first heavy fighting experience on the mainland of Italy, which we will examine in the next instalment.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on May 1, 2006.