When General Harold Alexander issued orders for the spring offensive in Italy he instructed Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army to attack in the mountainous coastal sector, employing 2nd U.S. Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps.

These forces were to advance north to the Anzio bridgehead–south of Rome–and join with 6th U.S. Corps. Clark’s forces were then to pursue the enemy to Civitavecchia, a port city north of Rome. The troops at Anzio were first required to advance inland to “cut Highway 6 in the Valmontone area and thereby prevent the supply and withdrawal of the troops of the German 10th Army.”

These operations were described as “supporting” the main assault that was to be carried out by 8th Army under Gen. Oliver Leese whose instructions were to “break through the enemy position into the Liri Valley and advance on the general axis of Highway 6 to the area east of Rome.” Alexander, who always seems to have preferred to avoid difficult issues, said nothing about what army would clear and occupy Rome. This potentially explosive issue became even more volatile when the orders Leese issued required 8th Army “to break through the enemy’s main front in the Liri Valley and advance on Rome” and Clark told his corps commander that he was to prepare plans to seize the city.

The controversy over Clark’s decision to make Rome 5th Army’s main objective while reducing the power of his thrust to Valmontone has overshadowed most accounts of what actually happened in May and early June 1944. This is because historians have tended to concentrate on the reason for the failure to trap and destroy the German units that were forced into a headlong retreat. In this series of articles on the spring offensive, the focus will be on the role of 1st Canadian Corps in the context of the conflicting operational goals that plagued the Allied armies in Italy.

Lieutenant R.O. Campbell (left) of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit and Corporal H.H. Mowbray with a movie camera mounted on the turret of a Sherman tank near the Hitler Line, Italy, 23 May 1944. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

Leese’s detailed orders for Operation Diadem called for co-ordinated advances by the Polish Corps against Monte Cassino, and the 13th British Corps across the Gari River. Ideally, the Germans would be forced to abandon the Cassino heights and withdraw to the Hitler Line to the west. In this optimistic scenario, the Poles would outflank the Hitler Line from the north, assisting a breakthrough by the 13th Corps. The Canadian Corps would be held in reserve to exploit a breakthrough or to assist 13th Corps.

The terrain and determined enemy resistance prevented the Poles and the British from achieving their goals, but 8th Indian Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade did succeed in establishing a shallow bridgehead across the Gari River before the exhausted, depleted infantry battalions ran out of steam. Leese decided to restore momentum by committing 78th British Infantry Div. and 1st Cdn. Inf. Div. to the struggle. Normally, these two fresh divisions–each operating with an armoured brigade and a considerable amount of artillery support–would have been part of a single corps to optimize command, control, and communication, not to mention co-ordinating intelligence on the enemy.

Since most of 13th Corps was to withdraw into reserve, the obvious solution was to place 78th British Div. under Lieutenant-General E.L.M Burns and 1st Cdn. Corps headquarters. Unfortunately, Leese, who in common with other senior British officers had opposed the creation of 1st Cdn. Corps, was not willing to allow Burns and his staff the opportunity to direct the battle. With two corps, each deploying a division in the narrow Liri Valley, and the Poles, part of yet another corps only a few kilometres away, radio channels were soon jammed, further jeopardizing co-ordinated action.

The men of the 1st Cdn. Inf. Div. knew nothing of these problems when they crossed the Gari River on the night of May 15-16, 1944. The history of the West Nova Scotia Regiment best describes the scene the Canadian infantry encountered: “The morning sun of May 16 revealed a green paradise, one of the show places of Italy, walled in by high mountains and rolling its way north-westward in farmland thickly dotted with bushes and trees, and watered by clear mountain streams. There were orchards and fields of tall grass or young wheat, thigh deep…thickets of scrub oak on the sand flats…the streams lay in deep gullies.”

The soldiers, clad in their newly issued summer denim, were at “top pitch,” anxious but ready for their part to begin.

The 1st Cdn. Inf. Bde. Group, with tanks of 25th British Tank Bde., was first into battle, taking over from Indian troops who had been stopped short of the north-south Pignataro-Cassino road.

The Royal Canadian Regt.–with tanks from the 5th Lancers–moved along the river using a tow path as the axis of advance. The French Expeditionary Corps had already cleared the south bank of the river and intelligence reports suggested an immediate German withdrawal to the Hitler Line which sliced through the area just east of the town of Pontecorvo. The RCRs soon discovered that a low hill overlooking the Pignataro road was “held in strength” and so it was decided to attack the hill with a rifle company supported by a squadron of tanks. It took some time to arrange artillery support and the attack finally went in at 5 p.m. The RCRs took the objective, capturing 60 prisoners from the 90th Panzer Grenadier Div. However, the enemy soon countered with devastating mortar and cannon fire, and the regiment was forced to withdraw to the reverse slope with its wounded.

The Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., on the right flank, bypassed Pignataro and advanced some distance before meeting serious opposition. Farley Mowat, in his history of the Hasty Ps, recalls that the Battle of the Woods, “quickly degenerated to the platoon and company level, and became a savage melee of infantry against infantry…. The Germans appeared to have unlimited supplies of shells and mortar bombs, and the regiment suffered 40 killed or seriously wounded in the first few hours.”

The divisional medical staff had anticipated such casualties and trained hard to ensure the best possible response. Each brigade was allotted a field ambulance “streamlined for battle” with Casualty Clearing Posts (CCPs) just to the rear of the forward battalions. Stretcher-bearers brought casualties from the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) to the CCP where Jeep ambulances ferried them to an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Here triage took place. “Group I casualties were those who showed symptoms and signs of severe shock and/or hemorrhage and included extensive burns.” These were immediately treated. Group II were those requiring emergency surgery while Group III could travel to the rear with an attached platoon of the corps Motorized Ambulance Convoy (MAC). The aim was to ensure the rapid treatment and safe recovery of more than 80 per cent of those evacuated with wounds.

Brigadier Dan Spry and his battalion commanders reported that the Germans were holding ground in front of the Hitler Line in strength. Each position would have to be dealt with in miniature set-piece attacks. Leese saw it differently. He criticized 1st Bde.’s slowness “in the face of quite light opposition.” He urged Burns to get the division moving. Burns explained the army commander’s views to Major-General Chris Vokes who ordered both 1st and 3rd brigades to mount what the official history calls, “a determined advance.” Vokes no doubt used more colourful language to Spry, who in turn ordered his reserve battalion, the 48th Highlanders, to fill the gap between the RCRs and the Hasty Ps. The 48th Highlanders were told to launch a dawn attack to seize the high ground above a stream called the Forme d’Aquino. The stream cut a diagonal gully across the valley from the town of Aquino in the north to the Liri River in the south, and there was growing evidence that the enemy was preparing to use it to slow the Canadian advance.

Kim Beattie’s superb regimental history of the 48th Highlanders, titled Dileas, provides a detailed account of the day’s action. As the battalion moved to its ‘forming up place’, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Johnston, was in a quandary. Neither his scouts nor brigade headquarters could locate the Royal Canadian Regt., which was supposed to support the attack. Meanwhile, the role of the Hasty Ps was equally obscure. Despite pressure from brigade headquarters, Johnston initially refused to launch his battalion into action until the battle plan was clarified. Spry–with Vokes on his back–was unrelenting, and Johnston agreed to organize an advance across a broad front with one of his companies hugging the bank of the Liri River which guaranteed the security of at least one flank.

No one seems to have understood that a small, dry streambed–the Spalla Bassa–was a tank obstacle for part of its length. The other great intelligence failure was ignorance about the enemy; a fresh battalion from the 90th Panzer Grenadier Regt., well-equipped with panzerschrecks, which was a portable anti-tank weapon. Even the heavily armoured Churchill tanks of the Royal Armd. Corps were vulnerable at close range. When they tried to join the infantry, five were quickly destroyed before the squadron withdrew.

The lead platoons of Dog Company, on the river flank, continued their fire and movement advance without tank support and managed to reach the point where the Forme d’Aquino crossed the road to Pontecorvo. Here they “were astonished to come upon a company of the Hasty Ps, hidden in the tall, green grain and among clumps of brush, and fervently glad to see the 48th Highlanders.”

Attempts to contact battalion headquarters failed in the general radio clutter so the two Highlander platoon leaders, lieutenants Norm Ballard and Doug Snively, decided to rush the enemy position on the far bank of the Forme d’Aquino. “A wild hand-to-hand melee then took place. Ballard leaped recklessly forward and killed the crew of four in the machine-gun post with grenades and snap revolver shots. Without pausing, he then hurled himself toward a sector of infantry protecting the artillery piece…. He was now out of grenades and his revolver was empty. Snatching his batman’s rifle, he leaped for the dug-in emplacement where a German officer was brandishing his Lueger. Ballard jumped for the officer, kicked him in the face, forcing the lieutenant’s surrender with this bare hands.”

Snively’s 17 platoon was equally effective. They carried out a classic “right flanking” move, capturing an enemy anti-tank gun position. The capture of the vital stone bridge across the Forme d’Aquino through the initiative of two young officers and their willing men was a remarkable achievement. Ballard was subsequently awarded an immediate Distinguished Service Order, although his comrades believed his actions were worthy of a Victoria Cross.

This brilliant action by two Highlander platoons was in sharp contrast to the “tedious and dangerous” struggle to try and clear the enemy from the area to the right of the road. By nightfall, Baker and Charlie companies were dug-in well short of the Forme d’Aquino and they could do little to assist Dog Company’s defence of the bridge against a fierce counter-attack. A platoon of panzer grenadiers, following behind three powerful 88-mm self-propelled assault guns, came directly towards the bridge where the battalion anti-tank gunners had posted their six-pounders. A mortar launched phosphorous flare “attached to a tiny asbestos parachute” illuminated the scene and allowed Sergeant Bob Shaw to score a direct hit on the second self-propelled gun which burst into flames, trapping the lead vehicle which was then destroyed.

While 1st Bde. fought its way forward, Brig. J.P.E. Bernatchez’s 3rd Bde. joined the advance on a one-battalion front. Bernatchez’s former regiment, the Royal 22nd, led off, working with a squadron of Canadian tanks. The Three Rivers Regt. had been borrowed by Vokes when the British armoured regiment–allotted to 3rd Bde.–was delayed. The two Quebec regiments meshed smoothly and the squadron leader reported that “although the going was very bad, the infantry-cum-tank co-operation was perfect.” Radio communication and hand signals kept everyone in contact and “as each objective was cleared, a definite planned attack was underway for the next.” The infantry “never lagged behind the tanks” and by early afternoon the first objective, Point 73, was cleared and consolidated.

The West Nova Scotia Regt., along with a second squadron of tanks, passed through the Royal 22nd Regt., maintaining the momentum of the advance. When the tanks were temporarily brought to a halt by a gully, the infantry just kept going. The Germans were under orders to slow the Canadian advance to the Hitler Line and so they fought a series of delaying actions. By early evening, the Carleton and York Regt. was ready to take over and it quickly reached the Forme d’Aquino where it relieved pressure on 1st Bde.’s open flank by crossing the deep gully and establishing a start line for the next day’s advance.

A striking feature of the day was the contrast between the confused and confusing operation carried out by 1st Bde., where command and control broke down early and was never regained, and the co-ordinated movements of 3rd Bde.’s battalions. Fortunately, on May 18, Spry managed to re-established control and both brigades completed their advance to the Hitler Line in good order. It was, however, evident that the enemy had bought sufficient time to occupy these defences in strength.

When the 78th Div., with Canadian armour under its command, attempted to break through south of the town of Aquino, they met “heavy opposition in the way of mortaring and machine-gunning from well-defended and wired positions….” And so a well-organized, set-piece attack on a wide front would be necessary to crack the Hitler Line.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine on January 9, 2008.