The 5th Canadian Armoured Division’s first major opera- tion—the breakout from the Hitler Line and the establishment of a bridgehead across the Melfa River—was by any measure a great success. Unfortunately, the next stage of the advance through Italy—the crossing of the Liri River and the advance to Ceprano and Frosinone—was marred by a series of incidents that resulted in slow and uncertain progress. Was this the result of the normal friction of war or were failures in command responsible for the difficulties of the last days of May 1944?
General Oliver Leese, the commander of 8th Army, insisted that the problems began with Canadian Corps Commander Lieutenant-General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns and extended throughout corps headquarters and 5th Armoured Div. Leese, with full support of General Harold Alexander, provoked the most serious of the many wartime confrontations between senior British and Canadian generals when he met with Lt.-Gen. Ken Stuart, the Canadian army’s chief of staff. According to Leese, Burns “was not up to the standard of corps commanders in 8th Army” and should be replaced, preferably by a British officer, Major-General Charles Keatley who commanded 78th Div.
Stuart listened politely to these comments, but replied “the replacement of Burns by a British officer would be a mistake and could only be considered as a last resort.” He informed Leese that he would make an investigation before taking any action.
Apart from the 1st Canadian Armd. Brigade, which was still in action under British command, the Canadians were out of the line in a training and rest area when Stuart arrived. His conversation with Burns was friendly, but frank. Stuart stated that he planned to interview Burns’ divisional commander and principal staff officers. “My future action,” he told Burns, “would largely depend on what I will be able to find out.” Stuart recognized that discussing a senior officer’s competence to command with his subordinates was “unusual” but so was the situation. Before we examine the resolution of this conflict we need to review the events in question.
On the evening of May 24, elements of 5th Armd. Brigade’s Griffin Force were holding a small bridgehead across the Melfa River. The next morning, a battle group from 1st Canadian Div. reached the river, securing the left flank. Unfortunately, 13th British Corps, which had failed to secure the town of Aquino during the battle for the Hitler Line, was unwilling to stage a direct assault on the town. As a consequence, the Governor General’s Horse Guards (GGHG), the divisional recce regiment tasked with protecting the flank up to the corps boundary, was left on its own and “fought almost continuously throughout the day” before reaching Highway 6, situated beyond Aquino. The New Brunswick Hussars were also drawn into skirmishes south of Aquino. With the right flank temporarily secure and the Irish Regiment across the Melfa, the second phase of the operation—the advance to Ceprano—could begin. The 11th Bde. battle group, comprised of the Irish Regt., the Cape Breton Highlanders and the armour of the New Brunswick Hussars, was delayed by traffic congestion on the division centre line. The Hussars spent the night several miles from the river, waiting to be “topped up” with fuel.
The next morning, Brigadier Eric Snow, who had taken command of 11th Bde. after “the Arielli show”, discovered that the guns of 17th Field Regt. as well as the Hussars were still on the move. He postponed the attack until 4:30 p.m. The advance was met by heavy enemy fire, but by last light the infantry was consolidating on the brigade objective. While Snow was issuing orders for the next day, the division’s precarious supply line was under threat from a new direction—British 8th Army.
Leese had decided that 6th British Armd. Div. should take over the British advance along Highway 6 and so he ordered Gen. Sidney Kirkman, the commander of 13th Corps, to make it happen. Kirkman, armed with this authority, went to Canadian Corps headquarters and told Burns that 6th British Armd. Div. required access to the bridge Canadian engineers were building across the Melfa. Royal Military College historian Doug Delaney has questioned this decision to “cram two armoured divisions into a corridor only fit for one” and called it “inexplicable,” but Leese’s motivation is clear enough. The American advance out of the Anzio bridgehead was well underway and so risks had to be taken if 8th Army was to play a part in the liberation of Rome. This was a political decision, not a military decision, and as Leese later admitted, the result was “great congestion and serious delay.”
Canadian corps headquarters first heard of what Delaney—in his biography of Major General Bert Hoffmeister, called a “terrible decision” on the afternoon of May 24. That was when the Canadians were preparing to send 11th Infantry Bde. forward to Ceprano. Corps and divisional officers were then faced with a series of co-ordination problems that would have challenged the most experienced staff. Clearing the Canadians off their divisional centre line could not be completed on May 24, and the next day the 6th Armd. Div. ran into an unmarked minefield which further postponed the advance. Leese and Kirkman blamed the Canadians for these delays. Ironically, the tanks of the Calgary Regt. entered Aquino on the 25th during the last stages of the German withdrawal. If Leese had waited 24 hours, 6th Armd. Div. could have stayed on the main highway.
Traffic congestion continued to cause problems on May 26, preventing two detachments of engineers from reaching 11th Bde. With just one route available, the advance slowed. In his Report on the Battle of the Liri Valley, Brigadier Snow wrote: “The going was very bad. The country was extremely close and can be likened in places to bush country in Africa…shelling and mortaring were very heavy during the whole time. The (General Officer Commanding) GOC (Hoffmeister) was with me and he was continually urging that we get on, that the advance was much too slow and that something must be done.”
The situation got worse as the day progressed and casualties mounted. Snow decided Ceprano could not be reached during daylight and since both his flanks were open he ordered his battalions to dig in. Hoffmeister, who was under pressure from corps, countermanded the order and the advance continued. Patrols reached Ceprano and found it empty. The next morning, May 27th, the Perth Regt.—“spurred on by the tenacity and energy” of their commanding officer, Lt.-Col. J.S. Lind, crossed the river to find the enemy holding the high ground, Point 119, just beyond Ceprano.
Two attempts to rush the position failed, and when Snow postponed further action to the next day Hoffmeister was furious, insisting that “there was no excuse for not capturing it.” Snow in turn was unhappy with the Cape Breton Highlanders who in his view were “slow” and “sticky.” No one asked the combat troops who might have mentioned something about the Germans and their ability to concentrate their resources to repel the only troops actually across the Liri.
Hoffmeister decided to commit his armoured brigade group despite the “razor-backed ridges” that ran at right angles to the line of advance. The divisional engineers had selected a bridge site that required a complex “double-double” Bailey bridge to cross a “120-foot gap with near vertical 20-foot riverbanks.” However, before construction began, Adams Force from 1st Inf. Div. reached the river at a point where a single Bailey bridge could be quickly positioned. Hoffmeister decided to send his armour forward by this route and informed corps headquarters that his sappers were tired and the bridge was no longer needed. The Chief Engineer, 8th Army, intervened and demanded that the bridge be built so that 78th British Div. could use it. The Royal Canadian Engineers official history notes that “all went well during the night, with morning came trouble. Perhaps fatigue, over-eagerness to make good time and inexperience contributed to a degree of carelessness. As the bridge was pushed across the gap, the launching nose hit the far bank and buckled.” The repairs were not complete until late on the 28th. By then the Germans had withdrawn to new defensive positions.
The Canadian advance to Frosinone resumed the next day, but progress across the complex terrain was slow. Both Burns and Hoffmeister were unhappy with 11th Bde. and decided to place a brigade group from 1st Div. under Hoffmeister’s command before turning over the advance to Maj. Gen. Chris Vokes’ more experienced division. The change could not be made immediately and both of Hoffmeister’s brigades were ordered to capture the villages of Pozi and Arnava before handing over.
Leese had withdrawn 6th British Armd. Div. from the pursuit, but Highway 6—the only good route north—was reserved to 78th Div. This left the Canadians with a narrow corridor through close country, crossed by stream beds, tributaries of the Sacco River.
Brig. Des Smith decided that no more than one armoured regiment could get forward and so he sent two companies of the Westminsters with the British Columbia Dragoons. The battle group was forced to swing south using a 1st. Div. bridge as the Ceprano crossing was reserved to 78th Div. On May 29, they set out for the high ground overlooking Pozi, but were slowed by mines and blown bridges. Italian civilians helped guide the tanks around minefields and by evening the men were on their objective. The two lead BCD squadrons had lost five tanks to enemy action with more than a dozen “bogged down, stuck on banks, tree stumps, etc.” This BCD after-action report stressed the smooth co-operation between the infantry, armour and self-propelled anti-tank battery, but noted that the “type of country during the advance to Pozi objectives was entirely unsuitable to tank action…this task should have been carried out by an infantry brigade.”
The 11th Bde. had paralleled the BCD/Westminster advance with instructions to seize Pofi and three objectives on the high ground near Arnara, code named Tom, Dick and Harry. The Perths took Pofi “well after dark” by “scaling the very steep sides of the town in the face of shell fire and snipers. At first light, a Perth Regt. company entered Arnara without meeting further opposition and was “warmly welcomed by inhabitants.” The Irish Regt., tasked with the capture of Tom—the ridge southeast of Arnara—won the position “in hand-to-hand fighting.” More than 30 Germans were captured and several killed.
The most dramatic incident of the day involved the Lord Strathcona’s Horse which ran into a battle group of Panther tanks and self-propelled guns of 26 Panzer Div., serving as a rearguard for the German retreat along Highway 6. Three Strathcona tanks were hit immediately, but the one remaining Sherman in the lead troop, commanded by Corporal J.B. Matthews, “manoeuvred his tank backwards and forwards so as not to present a stationary target, and destroyed a Panther, a 75-mm gun and a Mark IV tank.” The next morning, May 31, 1st Div. took over the advance.
Leese, on the basis of reports that strong German resistance had blocked the American advance to Highway 6 at Valmontone, sent the 6th South African Armd. Div. forward to take over from the Canadians, but the report was premature. Rapid progress by the French Expeditionary Force and the American advance on Rome meant that 8th Army was not to be involved in the liberation of Rome. The Canadian Corps was withdrawn into reserve.
When Stuart began his investigation of Leese’s case against Burns he could not use the full documentary record historians employ. Instead, he met with Vokes and Hoffmeister separately and then interviewed Smith and Brig. J.F. Lister, the corps’ senior logistics officer. Smith, who had won plaudits for his conduct of 5th Armd. Bde.’s actions, was now serving as Brigadier General Staff (BGS) 1st Canadian Corps. All four officers agreed that “mistakes had been made” and each “accepted a portion of the blame.” Stuart’s report continues: Both divisional commanders “were quite outspoken about the corps commander. They respected his tremendous fairness in all his dealings…and found no fault whatever in any tactical decision he had made” during the Liri operation.
“They emphasized that the operation…was a most difficult one, that British 13th and 10th Corps had also made mistakes and as many as had been made by the Canadian Corps.…” They were “quite happy to go into the next operation under Burns and his present staff.” Both Vokes and Hoffmeister did raise the issue of “Burns manner and personality,” as did the two staff officers. Burns, known to some as “smiley,” had a notoriously dour personality that did nothing to endear him to his younger subordinates. His manner also contrasted sharply with Leese’s ebullient schoolboy humour.
Stuart then spoke to all mid-senior and senior combat and staff officers in both divisions. He found them to be “a very happy family” surprised by the criticism of the corps and convinced that “they would give an excellent account of themselves in any future operation.” Stuart was now convinced that Leese, not Burns, was the problem and he went to Alexander’s headquarters in Rome to outline his conclusions. Alexander admitted he had only met Burns on two occasions and Stuart noted that it was obvious that he was simply backing Leese, his army commander. Alexander offered to let the Canadians have Kirkman who Alexander described as “the best corps commander in 8th Army.”
No Canadian senior officer who had fought alongside 13th Corps in the Liri Valley could possibly accept this judgment, and Stuart insisted that he could not accept Leese’s assessment of Burns. Alexander reluctantly agreed to back any decision Stuart made.
At a final meeting with Leese, the British general “lost his temper” and accused Stuart “of criticizing his decisions” and “trying to command 8th Army.” Stuart remained calm and the outburst ended, but Leese was now even more determined to replace Burns. Harry Crerar, who was in touch with Stuart throughout this command crisis, recalled Sir Arthur Currie’s experiences in the First World War and noted the Englishman’s traditional belief in his own superiority: “In practice, no Canadian, American or other national commander, unless possessing quite phenomenal qualities, is ever rated as high as the British.” Burns remained in command of the corps.
- Banner photo: Canadian forces advance between the Gustav and Hitler lines in Italy’s Liri Valley in May 1944. Credit: Strathy E.E. Smith, Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on July 21, 2008.