This is the last of a series of articles on Canada’s role in the Second World War Italian Campaign. The series began in the September/October 2005 issue of Legion Magazine, and all of the articles, with photos and sketch maps are available on this website. After five years of reading, archival research and three trips to study the ground over which the battles were fought, I continue to marvel at what our soldiers accomplished.
From the bare mountains of central Sicily, through the Moro River and Ortona and on to the Liri Valley, the Gothic Line and the rivers of northern Italy, Canadian military forces faced extraordinary challenges, always attacking, always up against a determined, powerful enemy. There were no soft spots in the series of continuous fronts the soldiers encountered, no flanks to be easily turned, no breakthroughs to be quickly exploited. Their story is one of courage and endurance.
Sixty-five years later, historians are deeply divided over the value of the strategic and operational level decisions that committed large Allied forces to the campaign after 1943. The debate continues to resonate because in addition to the very considerable Allied battle casualties, 320,000 killed, wounded and captured, non-battle sickness and injury especially malaria, jaundice and battle exhaustion took an enormous toll. It is also necessary to remember that the peak effective strength of 5th and 8th armies, 550,000 troops, represented less than a third of the air, naval and land forces committed to the Italian theatre in 1944. Almost everything these men and women consumed or used had to come from Britain or North America and this imposed a great logistical weight on the Allied war effort.
The enemy forces, enjoying interior lines of communication, proximity to Germany and control of the agricultural and industrial production of northern Italy, were able to limit Allied advances even though they employed roughly one third of the manpower committed by the Allies.
Canadian political and military leaders were neither consulted nor informed about the key decisions to develop operations in the Mediterranean. When rumours of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, reached Defence Minister Colonel J.L. Ralston, he successfully lobbied for the inclusion of Canadian troops. Having crashed the party with a division, the Canadians pressed for more, sending the Armoured Division, a corps headquarters and a medium artillery group to Italy against the wishes of senior British commanders.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Div. and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade were assigned to Husky and both began intense training for an assault landing. The Canadians quickly proved to be exceptional warriors. The story of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment climbing the vertical face of the Assoro is simply the most famous of the exploits of the Red Patch Div. that summer of 1943. All Canadians with a personal connection to the men or a serious interest in the history of our nation should consider a trip, a kind of pilgrimage to Italy and it should begin in Sicily. Go in June or September, when it is not too hot. Fly to Rome, make a connection to Catania and pick up a rental car. You will need to reread articles on the Legion Magazine website and obtain a copy of Eric McGeer’s invaluable Sicily and Southern Italy guidebook before going, but once there you will find friendly people and well marked routes to battlefields. Stay in Taormina, Syracuse or Enna and concentrate on the Canadian role in the battles for Assoro, Agira, Leonforte and Regalbuto.
The Canadian military cemetery in Sicily is a place of striking beauty with Mount Etna’s volcano darkening the eastern horizon. Canadian casualties in Sicily were 584 killed, 1,757 wounded and 76 taken prisoner. All the identified burials are located at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery. The list of names, as for all Commonwealth war graves cemeteries, is available at http://www.cwgc.org.
It is a brief ferry ride from Sicily to the mainland, on a route that retraces the path taken by the Canadians in Operation Baytown. Once again there was only slight resistance and the men began to follow a long and very winding road into the toe and instep of the Italian boot.
Ortona is the name attached to the best remembered Canadian action in Italy, but to understand the events of that bleak December in 1943 you need to begin at the Commonwealth war cemetery above the Sangro River. General Bernard Montgomery’s plan to advance on Rome from the east required the 8th Army to cross a series of rivers beginning with the Sangro. Both the Canadian armoured brigade and the infantry division were committed to support this advance with 1st Div. taking over the coastal sector from 78th British Div. after its costly battle for the Sangro.
The Via Valeria, the lateral road to Rome, is less than 30 kilometres north of the Sangro, but for the New Zealand, Indian and Canadian divisions it might as well have been on the moon. For those retracing the Canadian campaign it is worth spending several days in the Ortono-Orsogna area. The Moro River and the Gully, notorious battlefields south of Ortona, as well as the city, are described and illustrated in Eric McGeer’s battlefield guide titled Ortona and the Liri Valley. The marvellous museum of the battle of Ortona is strongly recommended.
The Moro River Canadian War Cemetery is the burial place of 1,375 Canadians who lost their lives in the struggle. Visitors may wish to stay at one of the beachfront hotels at the Lido Ricco just north of Ortona. The Lido and the hill above it (Pt. 59) were the last positions wrested from the Germans before the offensive was abandoned.
In the spring of 1944, the Canadians crossed to the other side of Italy to take part in the Battle for Rome. To understand the events of May and June you must begin at Cassino where the famous abbey and the Monte Cassino massif overlooks the southern approaches and guards the narrow Liri Valley that opens the way to Rome.
The view from Monte Cassino is spectacular and the abbey has been fully restored. The Polish military cemetery lies just below the abbey and contains the graves of more than 1,000 men of the Polish Corps. Their commander, General Wladyslaw Anders, was buried here following his death in 1970. Our Polish comrades fought alongside the Canadians in many battles and large numbers moved to Canada after the war. The memorial plaque at Cassino is an eloquent reminder of the contribution and sacrifice they made. It reads:
We Polish soldiers
For our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
And our hearts to Poland.
The Cassino War Cemetery lies below the mountain. In addition to individual graves, there are the names of 4,054 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, but have no known grave. They are inscribed on the Cassino Memorial within the cemetery grounds. Included are 194 Canadians.
If those venturing back to Italy today are to understand the ferocity of the battles for Cassino and the approaches to Rome, it is important to recognize the depths of Hitler’s commitment to blocking the Allied advance in Italy. Hitler, faced with the loss of his “living space” in the east—as the Soviet Army continued its advance—was determined to retain control of the industrial capacity of northern Italy and the food production of the Po Valley. He went so far as to authorize an attempt to create a malaria epidemic by destroying the drainage of the Pontine Marshes south of Rome.
The Canadians entered the battle after months of frustrating, small-scale attempts to gain control of Monte Cassino and the defences known as the Gustav Line. Operation Diadem, the code-name for the offensive, was timed to draw enemy resources away from France in the weeks before D-Day (June 6, 1944). Eleven divisions, including 1st and 5th Canadian, were to mount the attack. First Canadian Armoured Bde. assisted 8th Indian Div. in the assault phase across the Gari River with the Canadian Corps held in reserve to exploit.
The road west of Cassino takes travellers to the Pontecorvo road (SP45). There are several vantage points where visitors can quickly grasp the problem of pushing elements of three army corps, Canadian, British and French, through this mountain-edged valley. The stone bridge across the Forme d’Aquino is the same one seized intact by the 48th Highlanders in a textbook right flanking action. Once in Pontecorvo, look for the new plaque honouring the Canadians in the main square. There are few remaining signs of the formidable defences, but the terrain hasn’t changed much.
The 5th Canadian Armd. Division’s advance to the Melfa River and beyond can be traced with a stop at the actual crossing point. The house seized by Lieutenant Edward Perkins and his Lord Strathcona’s Horse reconnaissance squadron, and the battlefield where Major John Mahony of the Westminster Regt. earned the Victoria Cross is almost exactly where the highway crosses the river. It can be reached by crossing the Melfa on the old road—the S6—and turning left to San Giovanni Incarico. There is a commemorative plaque on the farmhouse wall.
The Canadian Corps was pulled out of the battle before the entry into Rome, but Canadians serving in the First Special Service Force were very much involved. The Allies were unable to trap the German forces or pursue them energetically and in mid-June, 1st Canadian Armd. Bde. provided much of the hitting power when British 13th Corps caught up with the enemy at what became known as the Trasimene Line. The area west of Lake Trasimene is also well worth a visit on the way north to the Gothic Line.
As seen in our series, the Gothic Line battles of September 1944 were among the most challenging and costly engagements fought by Canadians in the Second World War. To appreciate the incredible Canadian achievements, visitors should first view the battlefield from the church square in Montemaggiore, named Belvedere Churchill because this is where British prime minister Winston Churchill watched the attack unfold. Visitors can follow the routes taken by the Canadian divisions through countryside that is little changed so long as you do not wander too close to the coast. Be sure and stop at the memorial located on Pt. 204, where a gun turret and explanatory plaques help make sense of this complex hilly terrain.
Coriano Ridge War Cemetery, which includes the graves of 427 Canadians killed in action in the region, is located in the heart of the battlefield. McGeer’s third guide to the Canadian battlefields in Italy, The Gothic Line and the Battle of the Rivers, offers detailed information on where to go and what to see.
The armies of many nations whose sons and daughters are part of the contemporary Canadian mosaic are part of the story of the Italian Campaign. British and Polish soldiers, the New Zealand Div., and Greek Mountain Bde., Italian partisans and army units, and divisions of the Indian Army recruited from what is now Pakistan, as well as India. Almost 6,000 soldiers of that army lost their lives in the campaign. About half are buried in cemeteries, the rest—for religious reasons—were cremated and their memorials may be found near Rimini, for the Gurkhas, and Forli, for Sikhs and others.
The Battle of the Rivers, which began in October 1944 and was still underway when the Canadians left Italy to rejoin 1st Canadian Army in Holland, is the least known of all the Canadian actions in the Second World War. The distance from Rimini and the Gothic Line to Ravenna and the Senio River is less than 40 kilometres and the key points in the flat terrain can be seen in a day. Those with a particular family connection or special interest in the 5th Armd. Div. should visit the Villanova Canadian War Cemetery, one of just three in Italy, including Sicily, designated as Canadian. All but six of the gravestones display the Maple Leaf.
A nearby monument to the engineers of 8th Army is a sharp reminder of the enormous importance of the men who cleared minefields, built bridges and performed a myriad of other vital tasks. The plaque notes that 2,494 bridges were built to support Commonwealth and Polish operations in Italy. Nearby, the Ravenna War Cemetery includes British, Canadian and Indian army graves and a section contains headstones marked with the Star of David and the trilingual badge (Hebrew, Arabic and English) of the Palestine Regt. which was commanded by Canadian Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin. No other campaign had the international character of the battles for Italy.
Hamish Henderson, a Scot who originally served with 51 Highland Div., wrote the original version of the D-Day Dodgers:
Look around the mountains
In the mud and rain
You’ll find scattered crosses,
Some which bear no name.
Heart break and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath them slumber on,
For they’re the D-Day Dodgers,
Who stayed in Italy
I had the good fortune to hear Hamish sing the last verse, and I have never forgotten his words.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on August 11, 2010.