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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Canadians in Sicily - Part One

On 10th September 1939, seven days after Britain and France had declared war against Germany, Canada followed suit following a near unanimous vote in Parliament the day before. Nonetheless, with a very small professional army, and very few aircraft and ships, the initial understanding was that the war effort would consist primarily of supplying raw materials, foodstuffs, and munitions to the Allies, and training Allied aircrews. Direct military involvement was to be limited as much as possible, in the hope of avoiding the need for conscription.


Prime Minister Mackenzie King's request to King George VI for approval that war be declared against Germany, dated 10th September 1939.

The Canadian Active Service Force had been mobilised on 1st September 1939. It consisted of two infantry divisions, both of which had three infantry brigades, each with three rifle and one machine gun battalion, with additional artillery and engineer units in support. While one division was to be kept in Canada, to be used only if necessary, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was authorised for overseas service, picking up from where it had left off during World War One, when, as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, it had fought at Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele among other notable battles on the Western Front. Now, in December 1939, under the command of Major General Andrew McNaughton, the division sailed from Halifax in two heavily escorted convoys, with additional troops reaching England in February 1940, together with steel helmets and more modern weapons and equipment to replace the obsolete ones they had originally taken with them.


First Combat Operations


Following the disastrous Battle of France and the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in May 1940, the 1st Canadian Division was chosen as part of a second expeditionary force under the command of General Sir Alan Brooke that was to assist in the evacuation of Allied forces and civilians from ports in western France. Its advance guard, consisting of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, arrived at the French port of Brest on 13th June, but Paris was occupied by the Germans the following day, and with the French capitulation seeming imminent, the brigade was withdrawn back to Britain by the 18th, having had to abandon most of its vehicles. During its brief excursion to the Continent, the 1st Canadian Brigade lost six men, one of whom was killed in a motorcycle accident, while the other five ended up being interned by the Vichy French government. Now tasked with the defence of Britain in the case of a German invasion, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division would be joined in England by several other Canadian formations in the months that followed.


Infantry and Bren gun carriers of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Infantry Division, training at Aldershot, December 1939.

In the meantime, as tensions mounted with the Japanese in the Far East, the British were struggling to build up enough forces in the region, due to their commitments in the war against Germany and Italy. It was felt that a couple of Canadian battalions being despatched to boost the Hong Kong garrison would deter the Japanese from contemplating an invasion. The Canadian government authorised the formation of "C" Force, consisting of two infantry battalions - 1,975 personnel - and commanded by Brigadier John Lawson. The force, made up entirely of volunteers, arrived in Hong Kong on 16th November 1941. At that time, war with Japan was not considered imminent and it was expected that the Canadians would see only garrison duty. Yet, the members of "C" Force would become the first Canadian soldiers to see action in World War Two during the subsequent fight for Hong Kong island, in which 290 of them were killed, including Lawson, while the survivors were forced to surrender to the Japanese on Christmas Day.


Canadian soldiers training in the hills on Hong Kong Island prior to the Japanese invasion in December 1941.

The next major involvement for Canadian troops came in Operation Jubilee, the ill-fated attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on 19th August 1942. The plan was to temporarily seize control of the port to test the feasibility of an amphibious landing, destroy a number of military targets, and then withdraw, using a combination of land, sea, and air forces. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, by now also based in England, was selected as the primary force for this operation. Unfortunately, the raid turned into a fiasco, as aerial and naval support proved insufficient, with many of the assaulting troops finding themselves trapped on the beaches, where they were pinned down by enemy fire. Although an attempt was made to evacuate as many of them as possible, most of the Canadians had to be left behind. While the British suffered more than 300 casualties and lost 34 vessels and 106 aircraft, the Canadians lost 907 killed, 2,460 wounded, and 1,946 captured. Less than half of them made it back.


Canadian prisoners of war being led through Dieppe by German soldiers.

Despite the disaster of Dieppe, the Allies did at least learn valuable lessons regarding coastal assaults, which led to the more successful Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria in November. By early 1943, with victory in North Africa seemingly a matter of time, the Allies started planning for the next step, which would be the invasion of Sicily, planned for the night of 9th/10th July. Although it had been the wish of General McNaughton, now commanding the First Canadian Army, to keep all of his five divisions together in southern England, ready for the eventual cross-Channel invasion, the Canadian prime minister, William Mackenzie King, made a personal plea to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the Canadians to be given a role in the upcoming battle. As a result, the British 3rd Infantry Division, which had already been earmarked for Sicily, was replaced by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, together with the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade. Now under the command of Major General Guy Simonds, the division was assigned to the British XXX Corps, serving alongside the 51st (Highland) Division and the 231st Independent Infantry Brigade.


Planning


Although it would eventually be overshadowed by the Normandy landings the following year, Operation Husky would be the largest amphibious operation of World War Two in terms of the size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day of the invasion. Some 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns were to be landed on 26 beaches, along a stretch of coast some 170 kilometres long. While the U.S. Seventh Army was assigned to land in south-central Sicily, in the Gulf of Gela, the British Eight Army would be landing in the south-east of the island: XIII Corps would come ashore around the area of Avola, in the Gulf of Noto, while further south, XXX Corps would land on either side of Capo Passero.



In the build-up to the landings, an incredibly detailed and complicated plan had been worked out with regards to the routes and timings of the naval convoys. The challenge of coordinating all these movements to make sure that they all arrived at the right place and at the right time was immense, since, apart from troops already stationed in the Mediterranean, part of the invasion force was made up of units that had begun their journey from much further away. This included the Canadians, who were sailing from the Clyde, in Scotland, with Force 'V', under Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian.


XXX Corps' sector had been divided into three: The 231st Brigade would be landing at 'Bark East', around Marzamemi; the 51st (Highland) Division at 'Bark South' on the eastern side of Capo Passero; and the Canadians on the western side, at 'Bark West', on the left wing of the Eighth Army. 'Bark West' was essentially the Costa dell' Ambra, located between Punta delle Formiche and Punta Castellazzo, and was further divided into two separate landing areas: The left half was codenamed 'Sugar', and the right half 'Roger'. This stretch of coast was known to be defended by fifteen pillboxes, two batteries of 6-inch guns, and about twenty machine gun posts manned by the Italian 206th Coastal Division, together with barbed wire and suspected anti-tank mines.



The 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade was to land on 'Roger', destroy a gun battery at Maucini, capture the Pachino airfield, and make contact with the rest of XXX Corps, while the 2nd Brigade was to land on 'Sugar', destroy beach defences, and assist Nos. 40 and 41 (Royal Marine) Commando, who would be landing further left of Punta Castellazzo, to secure the left flank of the landings. The 3rd Brigade and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade would come ashore once the main assault had secured a beachhead.


Landings


The voyage to Sicily was relatively safe, but on 4th and 5th July, three transport ships were torpedoed and sunk by Axis submarines, with 58 Canadians being drowned, while 500 vehicles and a number of guns were lost. Nevertheless, the rest of the convoy continued on its way, and by the evening of 9th July, the invasion armada was approaching the Sicilian coast. The troop transports had been timed to arrive at the release positions just after midnight, to allow for the landing craft to be lowered and assembled, before they could begin their approach towards the beaches. H-Hour had been set for 2.45 am. Unfortunately, a strong wind and heavy swell, combined with the darkness, led to some delays and confusion, especially in the American and Canadian sectors, located on the south coast, which was more exposed to the weather conditions. Most of the men were seasick, and in many cases completely soaked, although, by the early hours of the morning, the wind finally began to ease.


'Sugar' Beach, one of the landing zones assigned to the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.

The landings themselves turned out to be much easier than initially thought, as the Italian defenders barely put up any resistance. Once ashore, the Canadians easily cut through or blew up the few obstacles in their path, quickly disposing of a few machine gun posts manned by a handful of bewildered Italian soldiers. The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) easily captured the Maucini gun battery when its entire garrison, consisting of three officers and 35 men, surrendered after a single warning shot had been fired. Advancing further inland, they reached the Pachino airfield by 9 am, finding it deserted and ploughed up, though British engineers had it back up and running by early afternoon.


A Royal Engineers sapper in a steamroller levels the surface of the airfield at Pachino after the retreating Italians had ploughed it up with deep furrows.

The RCR then made contact with the Highlanders, advancing from the direction of Pachino, before, aided by the 1st Battalion, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment - the Hasty P’s - they also successfully captured the second gun battery, located further north. By nightfall, the Canadian Division had formed a deep and secure bridgehead, at the cost of seven men killed and 25 injured. Enemy losses were much higher, estimated at around 100, while hundreds more had been captured by the units of XXX Corps. The American and British landings, on either side of the Canadians, had been equally successful.


Consolidation


On 11th July, the 1st Canadian Division began moving inland, acting as the left flank unit of the Eight Army, with the immediate objective of XXX Corps being the Noto-Pozzallo road. The 51st (Highland) Division - with the 231st Brigade under command - and the Canadians were ordered forward simultaneously, with the Pachino-Rosolini road as the divisional boundary. The 1st Battalion, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment - the Loyal Eddies - set off for a ten-kilometre march towards Ispica, which sat on high ground overlooking the coastal plain. Here, too, warning shots were enough to bring about an instant surrender of the garrison, while, simultaneously, the 51st Division entered Rosolini unopposed. Later in the afternoon, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) passed through the Edmontons, continuing their march through the night to a position overlooking Modica. The 1st Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, also advanced towards Modica, but detached a company to Pozzallo, where they collected 260 prisoners and a pile of equipment.


Modica, sitting in a deep gully, was shelled by a 15-minute concentration early on the morning of 12th July, after which PPCLI sent in a patrol which secured a large number of prisoners. Later in the day, however, Italian soldiers reappeared in the town, ambushing a Canadian patrol. After a brief engagement, with more artillery fire being directed onto the town, several hundred more Italian soldiers flocked out to surrender. Modica was also the location of the headquarters of the 206th Coastal Division, and the unit's commander, Major General Achille d'Havet, became the first general to be captured by Allied troops during the invasion of Sicily. With the Edmontons clearing out Scicli, the Canadians now advanced towards Ragusa, which, as it turned out, had already been captured by the U.S. 45th Infantry Division.


Loyal Edmonton Regiment soldiers entering Modica.

By the morning of 13th July, the Canadians had reached Giarratana, which was taken without trouble by the Hasty P's. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which had sailed directly from the United Kingdom, and was thus the only formation in the Eight Army not to have been acclimatised to the Mediterranean conditions, had by now covered more than 60 kilometres in the hot Sicilian sun since landing on the beaches three days before. The troops had had very little sleep, and due to the heavy loss of vehicles when their convoy had been attacked while headed to Sicily, they were forced to walk everywhere. The shortage of transport was also causing their supply lines to become stretched, and in light of all of this, the Eight Army's commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, decided to take them out of the fighting for two days.


Grammichele


With all the beachheads by now having been secured, the commander of Allied 15th Army Group, General Sir Harold Alexander, now intended to split Sicily in half, in order to cut off the enemy’s east-to-west communications. By thrusting north through the Caltanissetta and Enna region, the enemy would be denied the main east-west routes in the centre of the island. A further move northwards to Nicosia would cut off the next east-west route, and then only the north coast road would remain, which could be cut near Santo Stefano. Any Axis forces in the west of Sicily would thus be trapped there, with no means of reaching Messina, where they could otherwise be evacuated.



Alexander gave the main task of advancing northwards to Montgomery’s Eighth Army, with the Seventh Army shielding the Allies' left flank. The orders for the Eight Army were for an advance on two axes: while XIII Corps was to advance along the eastern coast towards Catania and eventually Messina, the task of securing the network of roads within the area Enna-Leonforte was to be given to XXX Corps.


The Canadians resumed their advance on 15th July, pushing on through Vizzini, which had been cleared by the 51st (Highland) Division the day before, and headed towards Caltagirone. They were now in trucks, which sped them up a bit. As they approached the town of Grammichele, the lead tank travelling with them was hit, and all of a sudden, the column came under heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, causing them to leap out of their trucks and fight back. Despite the best efforts of the German garrison, the Canadian infantry, aided by the accompanying tanks, managed to secure the town by noon, having suffered 25 casualties.


Canadian armour passing through Grammichele.

The 1st Canadian Division had had its first encounter with German troops. Some Canadian units attempted to give chase to the retreating Germans but were forced to slow down after discovering that the road ahead of them had been mined, and thus did not reach Caltagirone until around midnight. The town, until recently the headquarters of the Hermann Göring Division, had already been vacated, as the enemy forces had disengaged from the Vizzini-Caltagirone area and were regrouping behind the Hauptkampflinie - a new defensive line that was being prepared to protect the north-eastern part of the island.

 

References


Holland, J. (2020). Sicily '43: The assault on fortress Europe. London: Bantam Books UK.


Zuehlke, M. (2008). Operation Husky. Douglas & McIntyre.




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