This is the first of a series of articles examining the battles fought by the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy during the late summer and fall of 1944. During a recent trip to the region between the Metauro River and Rimini along the Adriatic coast it was possible to visit many of the most important battlefields and to appreciate the challenges imposed by the terrain.
We began our survey at the church in the town of Montemaggiore which, at an elevation of 197 metres, is perched on a hill just south of the Metauro. The church square is known as the Belvedere Churchill because the British prime minister came here on Aug. 26, 1944, to watch the first stage of the battle. The ever adventurous Churchill insisted on going further forward and ended up near the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Regiment beyond the river where he could hear “the rat-tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns, and watch the tanks manoeuvre a kilometre away. It was the closest Churchill ever got to the front in the Second World War.
To the east one can see the narrow coastal plain where, in August 1944, General W.A. Anders’ Polish Corps was waiting to resume the advance. The Poles had pushed the Germans back to the river in a series of sharp battles fought over the previous month. To the northwest, near the ancient university hill town of Urbino, the mountains are higher and more rugged, features that the British 5th Corps faced. Straight ahead from the top of the hill one can see the route followed by the 1st Cdn. Division during its approach to the Gothic Line further north. The relatively open valley of the River Sale leads to a series of mountain peaks as high as 555 metres.
To a military historian who has written extensively about the problems posed by the gentle ridges in Normandy with their modest reverse slopes, this ground appears problematic. What were the generals thinking? To answer this question we need to review the strategic debate of the summer of 1944 and remind ourselves that the primary purpose of the entire Italian Campaign was to force the German high command into diverting resources away from Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. Given this imperative, the Army Group Commander, General Harold Alexander, and his two army commanders, Oliver Leese and Mark Clark, were required to mount some kind of major offensive in July or August 1944.
Their problem was complicated by the decision to invade southern France using some of the most experienced and effective troops from the Italian Campaign. These included the French Expeditionary Corps, 6th United States Corps, as well as much of the available air power. This operation, known as Anvil, was to coincide with D-Day in Normandy, but was postponed to July then August.
The postponements allowed the British chiefs of staff, who had long opposed any withdrawal of troops from Italy, to seek the cancellation of Anvil. This Anglo-American controversy may have contributed to Alexander’s failure to organize an effective advance north from Rome in June 1944, but on July 5 a final decision in favour of Anvil, or Dragoon as it was now named, was made. Alexander was told his “task will continue to be the destruction of the German forces in Italy” by an advance to “seize the line of the River Po” in the north part of the country. This was to be done with the available troops in Italy, some 18 divisions and seven independent armoured brigades, including the Canadian Corps and its orphaned armoured brigade.
With clear, urgent and final orders, Alexander and his army commanders began detailed preparations for an offensive through the heart of the Apennine mountain range on the Florence-Bologna axis. Today’s traveller can use the E25 autostrada that tunnels its way through the mountains to reach Bologna in less than two hours, but in 1944 the roads followed narrow valleys before climbing to high mountain passes. To succeed in such a venture, the full weight of the 5th and 8th armies was required to push forward on all possible routes with enough divisions in reserve to exploit success.
The great advantage of this plan was that a breakthrough here would force a retreat or create conditions for an encirclement of German troops on the coastal flanks. The weakness was the growing distrust and animosity between Clark and Leese which made co-operation between their armies increasingly difficult.
This problem was solved when Leese proposed to scrap the plan and transfer most of 8th Army to the Adriatic coast. Staff officers pointed out that while “the initial attack should be easier from all points of view,” the enemy could readily withdraw to a new series of lines using the lateral rivers and mountain spurs. They cautioned that “as we push the enemy back, we will enable him to reduce his front and easily transfer reserves along the Via Emilo,” the old Roman road from Bologna in the north to Rimini in the southeast. One other troubling factor was the effort that had gone into a deception plan designed to convince the Germans that the attack was to take place in the Adriatic sector.
Despite these disadvantages, Alexander agreed to the changes hastily authorizing a new deception scheme intended to persuade the enemy that the attack would come in the central sector. He explained his support for Leese as based on reasons “both military and psychological.” He recognized that Leese wanted a separate battlefield for 8th Army, something that would free him from the need to co-operate with the Americans. Clark accepted the change providing that 13 British Corps, which still included 1st Cdn. Armoured Brigade, remained with his army. Clark believed that if 8th Army’s attack began first and drew off German reserves, 5th Army could penetrate the mountain passes and reach Bologna before winter.
The confidence expressed by both army commanders is difficult to understand. With less than six weeks left before the heavy rains of October began, realism required modest expectations, not heady optimism about a breakout into the Po Valley. It may be argued that generals need to use their leadership skills to engender enthusiasm and energy in subordinate commanders, but it is evident that Clark and Leese believed they were on the eve of a great victory. As J.M. McAvity, the historian of the Strathcona’s Horse has noted,
“Army commanders use a wave of the hand over a map, corps commanders will point with three fingers, divisional commanders with two, brigadiers with one, while the junior commanders must go into more and more detail with an increasingly sharp pencil.”
Leese, who held a series of morale-building sessions with the senior officers of each division, told the Canadians that the mighty 8th Army would “destroy the enemy standing between the 8th Army and Venice.” This was the equivalent of a wave of the hand which ignored the problems of attacking across a series of ridges and river lines. When Leese outlined 8th Army’s strength—1,200 tanks, 1,000 guns and 10 divisions—he said little about the three divisions of the German army’s 76 Corps or the reserves that could reach the battlefield in a matter of days.
However one evaluates Leese’s leadership skills, his failure as a commander in Operation Olive—the codename given to the Gothic Line offensive—is evident in the plan he developed. He ordered the Polish Corps to advance along the coast to Pesaro where it would be pinched out of the battle. The Canadian Corps—with one infantry and one armoured division—would attack on the Polish left flank and then crack the main Gothic Line defences while turning east to seize the town of Cattolica before advancing north to Rimini. British 5th Corps—to the left of the Canadians—was designated the “pursuit corps” despite the mountainous terrain along its line of advance.
Leese’s decision to allocate five divisions, two independent armoured brigades and the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Infantry Bde., to Gen. Charles Keightley’s 5th Corps reflected his admiration for Keightley and his lack of confidence in the Canadian Corps commander “Tommy” Burns, but made no military sense. Either the Canadians should have been reinforced or 5th Corps given the best axis of advance. The Canadians, Leese believed, could crack the Gothic Line, but the breakout into good tank country was a task he reserved for Keightley’s corps and especially the 1st British Armd. Div. Unfortunately, this left the question of how the British were to get from their inland sector to the breakthrough point unanswered.
Before Operation Olive could begin, the troops had to cross the Apennines from Florence to a staging position near the port of Ancona on the Adriatic. For the Canadians, this involved a series of moves along routes the corps engineers had surveyed and improved. Tanks and other tracked vehicles were assigned to a one-way route over secondary roads that were reconfigured with diversions around choke points. In just five nights, the entire Canadian Corps “mushroomed into being on the Adriatic front.” This was a tremendous tribute to Canadian engineers.
The first phase of Operation Olive began on the night of Aug. 25. All three corps crossed the Metauro before an intense bombardment struck the known German positions. The quick seizure of bridgeheads was largely due to an earlier German decision to withdraw to the first ridge of hills, named the Red Line. This move accidentally coincided with the opening of the Allied offensive. The German 10th Army had completely misread the situation and both the army commander and Gen. Richard Heidrich, 1st Para Division’s skilled leader, were away on leave.
The Loyal Edmonton Regt., the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the 48th Highlanders led the advance, and met little or no opposition. When the Seaforths moved through the bridgehead to seize Monte della Mattera—also known as Point 479—heavy shellfire and the accidental strafing of forward troops by Allied aircraft inflicted numerous casualties. The 145th Regt., Royal Armd. Corps, which was part of the 21st British Tank Bde. supporting the Canadians, provided a squadron of Churchill tanks plus the light Honey tanks for the final assault on Point 479. “One company of Seaforths was placed on the tanks, and led by a troop of Churchills, quickly made the ascent,” noted a report from the 21st British Tank Bde. “…stiff resistance was met in a number of houses, but was successfully overcome.” The long period of training in infantry-tank co-operation was paying off.
A second instance of superb co-ordination between armies occurred on the 1st Bde. front where the PPCLI, working with 12th Royal Tanks, encountered a battery of German 88s on Monte San Maria. The forward observation officer called for artillery support, corrected the fire and silenced the guns all in a matter of a few minutes.
The 48th Highlanders, continuing 1st Bde.’s advance, was pinned down on the slopes below a strongly defended convent located on an extension of the Monte della Mattera feature. Brig. J.A. Calder decided to avoid a costly frontal attack. Instead, he sent the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. with a squadron of 12th Royal Tanks on a right hook, described accurately in Farley Mowat’s history of the Hasty Ps as “a small masterpiece of infantry and tank co-operation that won the hill.”
From the convent grounds the next ridge line, which included the village of Monteciccardo, is clearly visible. Shortly after midnight on Aug. 28, 1944, a company of the Loyal Eddies worked its way up the hill reaching the outskirts of the village. This occurred just before a company of German infantry—“marching in threes”—arrived to walk into a trap. The arrival of a German tank and additional infantry ended premature claims of victory. Clearing the village and the nearby monastery required armour and a day-long “slugging match.”
It is possible to retrace these battalion battles today and to visit the poignant memorial in the village of San Angelo, which was flattened by bombing and shelling. The plaque to those killed in the war simply notes that on Aug. 28 “il fronte di guerra passa a San Angelo.”
Once the Red Line defences were broken, the drive to the Foglia River gained momentum. On the Adriatic flank the Polish Corps, with its divisions reduced to the size of brigades, continued to advance assisted by the success of the artillery program that had caught the paratroopers in the open. On the left flank, 46th British Div. kept pace with the Canadians but elsewhere 5th Corps was “delayed by the lack of roads and problems with traffic control.” This was an ominous sign of trouble for a “pursuit corps.”
The terrain also affected the Canadian advance. It was relatively easy for German engineers to block roads, blow bridges and help their soldiers make the best use of the steep slopes, razor-backed ridges and gullies to slow the advance. The Canadian infantry could not always wait for the armour and since men on foot did not need to follow the roads with their disorienting switchbacks, they tramped up the hills making the best use of cover.
The capture of several Canadian soldiers spooked the German commanders who after Ortona and the Liri Valley saw them as shock troops signalling a major offensive. The 10th Army chief of staff demanded more information because he said “everything would change if they really are Canadians.” Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who knew that 1st Canadian Armd. Bde. was fighting under British command, demanded to know “which Canadians?” and was furious when told the first prisoner who was brought back for interrogation in daylight “was caught in a bombing attack and killed.” Orders were given that “under no circumstances were Canadian prisoners to be brought back until dark.” Later, when the first captives were interrogated, little could be learned because “they refuse to speak.”
Finally, on Aug. 28, Kesselring agreed that the fresh formations of Canadians and British had replaced the Poles with the objective of quickly passing through the main Gothic Line defences (the Green Line) overlooking the Foglia River. Reserves, including “three additional flak battalions for defence against constant air attacks,” a tank battalion and an infantry regiment were rushed to the Adriatic sector, but—as we shall see—not in time to prevent the Canadians from breaking through the Green Line.
- Banner photo: A Canadian gun crew in Italy, August 1944. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on December 5, 2008.