When Lieutenant-General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns took command of 1st Canadian Corps in March 1944 he was briefed on plans for the forthcoming offensive in Italy’s Liri Valley by the commander of 8th Army, General Oliver Leese. Two options were considered. If British 13 Corps broke the Gustav and Hitler Lines, the Canadians would pass through using Highway 6, the main road to Rome. If 13 Corps was stopped short, Burns would be responsible for the Hitler Line and the subsequent breakout across the Melfa River to Ceprano and Frosinone. Major-General Chris Vokes’ 1st Infantry Division would attack the Hitler Line with Maj.-Gen. Bert Hoffmeister’s 5th Armoured Div. taking over the advance towards Rome.
Planning for both eventualities began in April and when 13 Corps’ advance stalled Burns and his staff were ready to support a set-piece attack against the Hitler line. The Canadian Corps headquarters and 5th Armd. Div. had been imposed upon 8th Army, but by April, Leese was impressed. “The Canadians under Burns,” he wrote, “are developing into a very fine corps. He is an excellent commander and will, I feel sure, do well in battle.”
Burns had won the temporary support of the army commander but his relationship with Vokes and Hoffmeister was less clear. Vokes and Hoffmeister had been in action since the landings in Sicily and they were hesitant and even hostile towards newcomers who had yet to prove their competence in action. This difficult relationship may have influenced Vokes’ decision to try and bounce the Hitler Line on May 21-22 instead of waiting until the full set-piece attack, Operation Chesterfield, began May 23.
The story of the advance on Pontecorvo by the 48th Highlanders and the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards (PLDG) is scarcely mentioned in the Canadian official history, but this heroic and costly action deserves more recognition. Brigadier Dan Spry’s 1st Brigade had reached the edge of the “saucer-shaped valley” in front of Pontecorvo on May 21 as troops of Gen. Alphonse Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) occupied the west bank of the Liri River opposite the town. Spry crossed the river to liaise with the FEC and decide if an assault over the river behind the town could turn the Hitler Line. Spry reported that the riverbank was too steep and well defended for an assault crossing of the river so Vokes, who had learned that the PLDG had captured numerous prisoners in an advance towards Pontecorvo, decided to commit 1st Bde. to a follow-up attack.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Johnston first heard of the plan to attack Pontecorvo at a late-night orders group on May 21. The 48th Highlanders were to lead off at first light with the Royal Canadian Regiment and Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. following to widen the breach. Tanks, including British Churchills, were available to provide support. With less than four hours available to brief his officers and complete battle preparations, Johnston protested that “such an attack without proper preparation, was inviting heavy casualties with no chance of success.” He informed Vokes that he would not take responsibility for this ill-conceived venture and asked to be relieved of his command.
This was an extraordinary step for a battalion commander to take, and after pressure to act to support “other important operations,” including the breakout from the Anzio bridgehead scheduled for May 23, Johnston finally agreed on the condition that the attack was postponed until 8 a.m. or later if his battalion and the supporting armour were not ready. The remaining hours of darkness were used for reconnaissance and desperate attempts to obtain artillery support. The final plan called for the 48th Highlanders to breach the line and then seize Hill 106 outside Pontecorvo. Their advance began at 10:30 a.m. The defences confronting the Highlanders were part of an 800-metre-wide belt stretching eight kilometres from the Liri River to the edge of the mountains beyond Aquino. The Todt organization, using drafts of Italian labourers, had built a series of positions protected by an anti-tank ditch, barbed wire and minefields. In addition to standard field works, the Hitler Line included eight positions manned by specially trained troops employing the 75-mm gun of a Panther tank turret bricked into the ground. Each post was supported by a medium machine-gun, rocket projector and a well-camouflaged troop of self-propelled guns (SPs).
The Germans in their forced withdrawal to the Hitler Line had failed to burn the field crops so the waist-high wheat provided enough cover for the infantry to reach the wire. A troop of Churchill tanks joined the attack and as the enemy concentrated on this new threat the Highlanders infiltrated the defensive belt capturing a number of steel-domed machine-gun posts. The Germans defending the Hitler Line were short of infantry, but not firepower and the Pontecorvo zone included anti-tank positions that inflicted a terrible toll on the British armour. The Highlanders were forced to dig in and endure endless mortar and Nebelwerfer fire. Pontecorvo did not appear to be a soft spot and
Spry was told to wait until Operation Chesterfield began before committing the RCRs and Hasty Ps to Pontecorvo.
When Vokes ordered 1st Bde. to attack Pontecorvo, he kept 2nd Bde. in reserve to exploit success and roll up the German front from the south. This meant there was little time to deploy 2nd Bde. to the Aquino sector and no time to allow company commanders to recce the ground they would have to fight over. The brigade began to move to its forming up place on the evening before Chesterfield began. Tanks of 25th Bde., Royal Armd. Corps, followed during the hours of darkness.
The attack began at 6 a.m with a deafening artillery barrage on a frontage of 2,300 yards. All of 8th Army’s artillery was available: 682 field and medium guns with an additional 76 mediums and heavies for counter-battery tasks. Yet more guns were assigned to counter-mortar shoots, and air observation squadrons were available to locate enemy guns and troop movement.
The barrage was timed to lift 100 yards after five minutes and then in further 100-yard lifts in three minutes. Smoke was fired to try and neutralize the open northern flank at Aquino. Second Bde. attacked two battalions up. As first reports suggested, the enemy was stunned by the barrage and easily overcome, but minefields, obstacles and anti-tank guns prevented the tanks of the North Irish Horse from continuing forward.
With no further progress being made, the barrage was halted at 7:50 a.m.
On the ground, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were suffering the worst carnage of the Italian Campaign. The PPCLI, on the right, was exposed to the heaviest fire. An account of its battle—written shortly after the 23rd—notes “intense mortar artillery and light machine-gun fire… taking a heavy toll of both forward and reserve elements.” The Seaforths on the left were under similar pressure and the artillery support had to be limited due to uncertainty about locations. “Casualties were now coming back in considerable numbers. Immobilized tanks continued to fire their guns until they were set ablaze by enemy fire.”
The commanding officers of the Loyal Eddies and PPCLI, lieutenant-colonels Rowan Coleman and Cameron Ware, had agreed the Loyal Eddies would follow the PPCLI forward to help consolidate the dangerous Aquino flank. At 8 a.m.—as the move began—German snipers and by-passed machine-gun posts became active and inflicted casualties, including battalion radio operators and Coleman.
On the brigade’s right flank the Seaforths had advanced to the edge of the Aquino-Pontecorvo road, but the armour was held up or destroyed. Lt.-Col. Syd Thomson reported that his men had “no anti-tank weapons except their PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) guns.”
The Corps Commander Royal Artillery (CCRA) Brig. E.C. Plow, who was co-ordinating fire support, spent a frustrating morning issuing orders to postpone pre-arranged plans for phase two as there were no signs the infantry was able to continue the advance. His “eyes,” the air observation pilots, could see little of the battlefield which was covered in smoke and dust. At 12:27 p.m. his counterpart at 1st Div., Brig. N.S. Ziegler, asked if a “William” target, all available 8th Army artillery, could be fired on Aquino “to try and loosen things up” as no definite targets could be located. It took just 33 minutes for batteries scattered across the Liri Valley and beyond to report ready and then receive a “time on target” signal. In the next few seconds 668 guns fired 3,509 shells weighing 92 tons at Aquino.
The artillery helped limit the volume of fire from Aquino, but was not enough to change the facts on the ground. The PPCLI’s history describes the situation: “Hour after hour the pounding continued…all three battalions could only cling desperately to the few acres they had won, waiting for aid to reach them. It did not arrive…. Liaison officers and runners go forward and do not return. There is nothing to see, walking wounded bring back black tidings but only in vague terms—map locations, enemy dispositions, everything definite has escaped them. Everyone knows the attack has failed; no one is prepared to accept the failure as final.”
May 23rd was the worst day of the war for 2nd Bde. and the costliest single day for any Canadian brigade during the Italian Campaign. Casualties totalled 543 men, 162 killed, 306 wounded and 75 taken prisoner. Many of the wounded returned to their unit after a short interval, but for the moment the brigade was spent.
In the broader picture the battle and the role of 2nd Bde. was not a “failure.” The 3rd Bde., attacking one battalion up to the left of the Seaforths, was shielded from flank fire and ignored by the enemy’s self-propelled guns counter-attacking from Aquino airfield. The Carleton and York Regt. overcame “the relentless pounding of the hostile mortars, Nebelwerfers and artillery keeping up with the barrage.” Their supporting armour, Churchills of the 51st Royal Tank Regt., “suffered heavy losses” but the “battlefield showed glaringly the price the Hun had paid and destroyed 75 mms, much vaunted 88s SPs and MK IV tanks added conspicuously to the picture of death and destruction stretching across the plain.”
The Carleton and York Regt. was able to bring its anti-tank guns forward, organize anti-sniper patrols and widen the breach before the West Nova Scotia Regt. passed through at 5:30 p.m. The WNSR had risen early—“breakfast at 0430 hour in the dark, companies moving down to the forming up place in the early morning light fitted in their proper places with amazing precision.”
Waiting under fire for most of the day put everyone’s nerves on edge and so the order to move came as a great relief. The WNSR quickly “married up” with a squadron of Three Rivers Regt. tanks which were rushed forward to replace the exhausted British tankers. “All our tank liaison training went by the board,” an infantry official recalled, “as they rolled into position through the WRECKS of the Churchills we just waved them on, got up and started forward.” The enemy had not recovered from the second phase barrage and the infantry moved steadily forward despite “rain really pouring down” and intense shelling.
Divisional and brigade headquarters could scarcely believe their ears when the lead WNSR company signalled “Caporetto,” the code word for final objective, less than three quarters of an hour after crossing the start line. The other three companies were just minutes behind as were several troops of Three Rivers tanks. Vokes had retained the Royal 22nd Regt. with two squadrons of 12 Canadian Armd. Regt. as divisional reserve. He released them to Brig. Paul Bernatchez who ordered them forward to exploit the growing breach 3rd Bde. had created in the Hitler Line. The Quebec regiments moved through the gap and turned north seizing a “tongue of higher ground” in front of the area the Seaforths had fought to secure. The breakthrough had cost the brigade 45 men killed and 120 wounded. There was also good news from 1st Bde. The 48th Highlanders had renewed its attempt to reach Pontecorvo. The Hasty Ps, ordered to join in, could not employ artillery support since no one knew exactly where the 48th Highlanders were. Spry decided to launch the Hasty P attack to the north of Point 106, hoping the enemy would be fully occupied with the 48th on the other side of the hill.
Farley Mowat’s history of the Hasty Ps, The Regiment, describes the afternoon attack as “the most brilliant single action fought by the Regiment in the entire course of the war.” Those who recall the climb to Assoro will be surprised by this assertion, but the Hasty Ps achieved a “clean breakthrough” penetrating the Hitler Line and clearing a route for the tanks at “a total cost of eight men killed and twenty-two wounded.” That night the RCRs entered Pontecorvo to find the enemy in full retreat.
Hitler’s 10th Army had been defeated and was threatened with encirclement. The 51st Mountain Corps opposite the Canadians reported that after “fluctuating fighting, during which not only our own troops but also those of the enemy suffered severe casualties, it proved impossible to prevent enemy advances….”
Artillery fire and close combat had “wiped out” the left wing of 90th Panzer Grenadier Div. and the battalions from 1 Parachute Div. sent in as reinforcements. Since 10th Army headquarters failed to respond to requests for assistance or instructions, the corps decided to abandon the surviving Hitler Line positions and retreat “before an orderly withdrawal became impossible.”
Tenth Army’s failure to respond was an indicator of the scale of the catastrophe overtaking the Germans in Italy. The American advance from the Anzio beachhead threatened 10th Army’s lines of communication while the collapse of the Hitler Line meant the last field defences south of Rome had been breached. Since the available reserves had been committed the only option was a fighting withdrawal to Rome or beyond. During the night of May 23, the 5th Canadian Armd. Div. began the pursuit.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on March 7, 2008.