One of the most enduring myths about Canadian military history is that historians and the general public have concentrated their attention on the campaign in Northwest Europe ignoring the “D-Day Dodgers” and the battles in the Mediterranean. This view persists despite the popularity of Farley Mowat’s books, the high quality of the official history of the campaign and the excellence of the popular history The D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy 1943-45 by Daniel G. Dancocks. The Canadian role in Italy is also the subject of some of our best memoirs including Sydney Frost’s Once a Patricia and Strome Galloway’s books and articles. Now for 1996 we have the superbly designed and illustrated Canadians and the Italian Campaign 1943-45 by Bill McAndrew.This new title is the latest in a series sponsored by the Directorate of History and Heritage of the Department of National Defence. Once again no expense has been spared in producing the volume, but do not let the coffee-table format confuse you. McAndrew has written an original and insightful account which will please veterans, the general reader and professional historians. Throughout the book McAndrew uses personal accounts to illuminate and humanize the analysis of a complex story. His special interest in questions of morale, combat effectiveness and battle exhaustion is evident throughout and there is much to be learned about Canada’s war that goes well beyond the specifics of the Italian campaign. In the next several articles I will be exploring aspects of the war in Italy and the development of the Canadian forces in 1943. My debt to McAndrew and other specialists will be evident to all.

The decision to attack the island of Sicily was made at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, and most of his countrymen, opposed the plan but were unable to offer a viable alternative. When Marshall was forced to accept the first phase of Winston Churchill’s strategy of “closing the ring”, he had warned President Franklin Roosevelt that the landings in North Africa in November 1942 would postpone the invasion of France until 1944, drawing the Americans into Britain’s Mediterranean obsession. At Casablanca he accepted the logic of employing the Anglo-American armies against Sicily, a million men could not be kept out of action for a year, but Marshall still regarded the Mediterranean as a diversion which prolonged the war.

Historians are naturally attracted to issues involving large personalities and great debates so there are numerous studies of the Allied leaders and their interaction but surprisingly little attention has been paid to purely military considerations. By the summer of 1942, when the key decisions about the future were made, Churchill and his chiefs of staff had lost confidence in the leadership, training and morale of the British Army. The long series of defeats from Dunkirk to North Africa and the Far East seemed to raise fundamental questions about the fighting qualities of the British and Commonwealth soldier. The victory at El Alamein in the Egyptian desert had soothed some of the anxiety but British operations in Tunisia moved slowly. When the Americans suffered a tactical defeat in Tunisia at Qasserine Pass, the British concluded that the American forces were badly trained and poorly led. Could such men overcome the experienced and superbly equipped divisions of the German army on the fields of Northwest Europe? The answer for most senior British commanders was a resounding no. Far better to continue operations against Italy until Bomber Command and the Soviet armies had weakened Germany. By 1944 the Allies would have much more battle experience and knowledge of waging war on several fronts within a coalition. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad seemed to promise that there would be time enough to learn.

The story of the transformation of the Commonwealth armies is usually seen as beginning in the desert under the leadership of General Bernard Montgomery. It is in fact far more complicated than that for much of the change took place in the United Kingdom at the Ministry of Supply. The quality of weapons and weapon systems may not determine the outcome of battles but if one side is consistently inferior the odds of defeat are very great.

When the politicians in Ottawa decided to press the British to include Canadian units in the next major operation in the Mediterranean they knew little of the actual state of their troops in Britain. The Canadians, like their British counterparts in England, had spent most of the war preparing to defend the island from invasion. This had begun to change in the summer of 1942 but as the historian John A. English has shown the army was far from ready for operations against a well trained enemy.

There is nothing sinister in the failure of the British and Canadian high command to train and equip a modern army, it was a matter of priorities. Before 1943 virtually everyone agreed with Churchill’s view that “only the navy can lose the war and only the air force can win it.” The army was for home defence and sideshows like North Africa. By the end of 1942 such a view was no longer sensible and was abandoned.

Consider for example the changes made in the equipment of the Canadians after they were selected for action in Sicily. Our armored units, the Calgary Tanks, the Three Rivers Regiment and the Ontario Tanks were equipped with the reliable, and by 1943 terms, powerful Sherman tank. The infantry battalions were introduced to the new Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank, or PIAT, the British bazooka. The PIAT had a dangerously limited range and could not be relied upon to fire accurately but it did provide the foot soldier with a useful anti-tank weapon which an infantry section could take into battle.

Assignment to Sicily also meant that the battalion anti-tank platoons finally got their hands on the six-pounder anti-tank gun which was still a scarce commodity two years after its introduction. The gunners of the divisional anti-tank regiment were equally pleased with the 17-pounder self-propelled gun which was quite accurately described as equal to the famous German 88-mm. The Saskatoon Light Infantry, the division’s support battalion, was introduced to the 3-inch mortar, the infantry battalions‘ vital defensive weapon. By 1943 smokeless powder and improved range made the weapon a match for the German 81-mm mortar.

Other innovations helped to build confidence and improve effectiveness. The question now was whether the Canadians could find the leadership and commitment to succeed in battle. Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton, the commander of the 1st Canadian Army, first chose Harry Salmon, a decorated WW I veteran with a reputation as one of the best trainers of soldiers in any army, as divisional commander. After Salmon’s death in a plane crash, McNaughton jumped a generation selecting Guy Simonds to replace him.

Simonds was to become the best known Canadian general since Arthur Currie, but in 1943 the 40-year-old Simonds was an unknown quantity. To command a division without ever having fought in a battle is unusual at any time but to begin a career with an assault landing is extraordinary. Simonds was nevertheless the obvious choice because he was simply the outstanding professional soldier in the army. He had excelled in all previous appointments and was well regarded by the British who were prone to be suspicious of Canadian officers.

Simonds inherited a divisional staff and five brigadiers who were a good cross section of Canada’s officer corps. Major-General Chris Vokes who led the 2nd Brigade, and who followed Simonds in command of the division, is the best known, but the group included Bruce Matthews, an outstanding artillery officer and future divisional commander, as well as many others who proved to be capable leaders. With their militia backgrounds Matthews and Brigadier Howard Graham were the exceptions among 1st Division’s mostly permanent force senior officers.

The Canadians had just over two months to prepare for the invasion of Sicily and they used their time well. The most serious setback in the first phase came when three merchant ships in the Slow Assault Convoy were sunk with losses of 58 men, 500 tanks and 40 guns. Divisional headquarters and the field regiments were severely hampered by equipment losses and a good deal of improvisation was needed. The landings themselves were accomplished with few casualties and the division’s first inland objective, the airfield at Pachino, was secured when the Royal Canadian Regt. overwhelmed the defenders of an artillery battery.

Contemporary historians are critical of nearly every aspect of Operation Husky. Carlo D’Este, the leading American student of the campaign, titled his book Bitter Victory, emphasizing the escape of German forces to the mainland as well as the caution and confusion of Allied leadership. D’Este believes that the attritional battles fought by the 8th Army in Sicily were both poorly managed and unnecessary. Normally this kind of history is annoying but D’Este cares deeply about the plight of the ordinary soldier caught up in the horror of war and imposes harsh standards on all decision makers.

The Canadian experience in Sicily produced a very different collective memory. Sicily was the army’s first campaign and most thought it was a great success. When Montgomery ordered the Canadians to push hard in a left hook to outflank the German defences at Catania the division moved quickly to fulfil its tasks. The story of the next 30 days cannot be repeated too often. The extraordinary achievement of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., the Hasty Ps, in climbing a mountainside at Assoro was first told by the unit historian Farley Mowat who wrote:

Each man who made that climb performed his own private miracle. From ledge to ledge the dark figures made their way, hauling each other up, passing along their weapons and ammunition from hand to hand. A signaller made that climb with a heavy wireless set strapped to his back–a thing that in daylight was seen to be impossible. Yet no man slipped, no man dropped so much as a clip of ammunition. It was just as well, for any sound by one would have been fateful to all.

Bill McAndrew, normally a stern critic of the British-Canadian way of war, sees Assoro as just one of the extraordinary Canadian achievements in Sicily. The battle for Leonforte fought by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Loyal Edmonton Regt., was less spectacular. However, the “speed and audacity” of the battle-group commanded by Captain Rowan Coleman which raced to the relief of the Loyal Eddies was a promising example of a combined arms operation which the division would have to master if it was to succeed in battle.

The next major battle, to seize the village of Agira, involved a more methodical and less successful set-piece attack employing five field and two medium artillery regiments. McAndrew suggests that this conventional artillery-based plan was a poor substitute for the mobile fire and movement operations which proceeded it but German resistance was stiffening all across the front as the enemy began to evacuate non-combatant troops to the mainland.

The fall of Agira came just as the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed. His successor, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, maintained that Italy would continue to fight but few, and least of all Hitler, believed him. The invasion of Sicily had accomplished one of its major purposes.

For the next two weeks the Canadians were committed to the thankless task of attacking a German army which was conducting a well-organized withdrawal. Each piece of high ground, from low hills to mountain peaks was occupied and held by the enemy until pressure, or their timetable, forced a withdrawal. Since the senior Allied commanders were doing little to prevent the evacuation across the straits of Messina, the strategic purpose of costly assaults on prepared positions is not clear.

Where were the vaunted Allied air forces and the powerful Royal Navy while the Germans ferried men and vehicles across the narrow waters to the toe of Italy? The Royal Air Force, with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 331 (Medium Bomber) Wing under command, flew just 591 sorties over the straits during the evacuation. Such bombing, from high altitudes at night, against precision targets, produced predictably minor results. If the full weight of the North African Strategic Air Force had been diverted from the Romanian oil fields more might have been accomplished but no one had the authority to require this. The tactical air force did attempt to interfere but the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns and the lack of urgency at the highest levels of command meant that operations were on a modest scale. The same lack of direction and fear of shore-based gun positions kept the navy well clear of the crossing points.

The Canadians who went into reserve on Aug. 6 were not concerned with these large questions. They had suffered 500 fatalities since landing on the island and 1,300 men had been wounded. There were ample reinforcements so the rifle companies and tank squadrons could be rebuilt but the memory of young lives lost in the Sicilian sun was sharp and poignant. It took both real courage and a strong sense of duty for men released from the threat of death in battle to begin preparation for the next phase, the invasion of the Italian mainland.

The Sicilian campaign made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. The landings in Sicily were an important factor in Hitler’s decision to end offensive operations in Russia. The reinforcements the Germans sent to Italy, especially the Luftwaffe squadrons, demonstrated Hitler’s sensitivity to developments on his southern front. If the Allies maintained pressure Hitler would have no choice except to transfer German divisions from France and Russia to Italy and the Balkans. If Husky was an operational failure it was a strategic victory of great value.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on March 1st 1997