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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Canadians in Sicily - Part Two

Piazza Armerina


On 16th July, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade was moving towards Piazza Armerina, which was defended by units from the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. As usual, the Germans had selected good positions with a commanding view of the road leading to the town. Coming under heavy fire, the Loyal Eddies were ordered to move up and clear out the enemy on the high ground. Progress was slow as the enemy fought tenaciously, and it was not until artillery support was finally brought up that the Canadians gained the upper hand. The town was finally secured by 6 am the following morning after the Canadians had suffered 27 casualties. Once again, the enemy had fought an effective delaying action, holding up the Canadian Division for 24 hours. It was not until noon on the 17th that the 3rd Canadian Brigade was able to push through the town and take the lead in the advance towards Enna.


Lt. Col. R.M. Crowe and Maj. J.H.W. Pope - Commanding Officer and battalion second-in-command of The Royal Canadian Regiment, near Piazza Armerina. Both men would be killed in action during the Sicilian Campaign.

Valguarnera


As the 3rd Brigade approached Enna later that day, it reached a fork in the road, which was overlooked by Monte della Forma, an 800-metre-high peak. At its top was the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, lying in wait to prevent the Canadians from going both left towards Enna or right to Valguarnera. While the 3rd Brigade soon found itself caught up in a difficult battle, Major General Simonds dispatched the 1st Brigade off to the east to outflank the town of Valguarnera in a difficult night-time cross-country march over steep terrain, without any artillery or tank support.


Men from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry march through the streets of Valguarnera.

Having successfully completed this manoeuvre, the Hasty P's managed to reach the outskirts of Valguarnera by dawn the next day, but after setting up a couple of roadblocks and taking some prisoners, they were forced to retreat back into the hills when artillery up in the town opened up on them. In the meantime, though, fearing that their line of retreat was about to be cut off, the Germans on top of Monte della Forma had started to pull back, enabling the 3rd Brigade to resume its advance after having been held up for fourteen hours. The RCR was sent to assault Valguarnera, but it was not until after dark that the town was finally secured by the 1st Battalion, 48th Highlanders of Canada. The Canadian Division had suffered 145 casualties, 40 of whom had been killed, although German and Italian losses were heavier: Between 180 to 240 killed and around 280 captured. Simonds now decided to bypass Enna, instead directing the 1st Canadian Brigade to Assoro and the 2nd Brigade to Leonforte.


Assoro


Although the Canadians had been making steady progress, the Eight Army was struggling to pierce the Hauptkampflinie in the eastern part of its sector, where XIII Corps had become bogged down on the north bank of the Simeto river, on the southern edge of the Plain of Catania. In the centre, the 51st (Highland) Division was also facing stiff resistance in the area of Gerbini, and thus, the Eight Army’s last hope of breaking through now rested with the Canadians on its left flank. Here, the Hauptkampflinie was anchored by a series of mountaintop towns, the westernmost of which were Assoro and Leonforte.



On 19th July, as they advanced northwards from Valguarnera, the Canadians had attempted to cross the Dittaino but were stopped in their tracks by artillery fire directed on them from the heights above. Overnight, however, the Loyal Eddies managed to secure a crossing, allowing the 1st and 2nd Canadian Brigades to move up towards their respective targets. The two towns, located on adjacent hilltops, and separated by a narrow, plunging valley, were defended by the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment, who had at their disposal five tanks and about 50 guns in total.


View of Assoro.

On the morning of the 20th, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe, the commanding officer of the Hasty P's, who were to lead the attack on Assoro, was taking a closer look at the target, together with his Intelligence Officer, Captain Maurice Cockin. They were reflecting on how difficult it was going to be to assault the ancient strongpoint, perched some 600 metres above them, with only a single, winding road leading up to it, when an enemy shell landed nearby, killing both men. The Battalion second-in-command, the Lord Tweedsmuir, now took over as the new CO and devised an alternate plan which he believed had some chance of success. During his own recce, he had noticed a path leading to a very steep cliff, which he reckoned his men might be able to climb. The cliff led right to the highest point of Assoro and would give them an unrivalled vantage point, but more importantly, the path that led to it was not visible from the town itself, meaning that they could attack using the element of surprise.



The battalion moved off at dusk, led by a special assault company of just twenty men and an officer from each of the rifle companies, who would check if it was even possible to climb the cliff. The men carried only their weapons and ammunition, having got rid of anything that might make any noise. As they climbed through very difficult terrain, they kept expecting to be discovered, but surprisingly, no flurry of shots arrived. By 4 am, they had only reached the base of the 300-metre cliff that would take them to the summit, and they were aware of the need to reach their objective before the first rays of the sun gave their position away to the enemy. Luckily, the cliff was not as steep as first thought, and so up they went, with the assault company cresting the hill just as dawn broke.


The castle, located on the highest part of Assoro, where the Canadians finally crested the hill to begin their assault on the town.

The Germans, clearly believing Assoro to be impregnable from the cliffs on this side of the town, were taken completely by surprise, with firing now coming from above rather than below them. The German artillery soon came into action, but Allied artillery opened up in response, silencing most of the German batteries. The problem was that the Hasty P's were now isolated on the summit, with no way of getting any supplies or ammunition to them, and with water being in particular short supply, they struggled as the sun bore down on them. Having held on throughout the following night, however, they were finally relieved on the morning of the 22nd, when a party of around 100 men from the RCR was able to deliver emergency supplies, while the 48th Highlanders attacked Assoro from the west, finally driving the enemy from the town.


Leonforte


In the meantime, the 2nd Canadian Brigade was fighting its own battle at Leonforte, just over three kilometres away. The attack had been due to start at 4 pm on 21st July, but just as the Seaforths were receiving their orders, their command post was hit by artillery, with around 30 officers and men being killed or wounded. Brigadier Christopher Vokes decided to give the task to the Loyal Eddies instead, who were to launch their assault under cover of darkness and behind an artillery barrage at 9.30 pm. The first part of the attack went exactly as planned, but once the battalion was inside the town, the Allied artillery was helpless to assist further. The Edmontons were heavily counterattacked by panzergrenadiers, assisted by tanks and assault guns, and with no heavy weapons of their own, they fell back in disarray. Small groups, cut off from each other, fought their own battles in bitter house-to-house fighting, eagerly awaiting to be reinforced.


Destroyed German armour in Leonforte.

Brigadier Vokes, fearing that the Edmontons had been wiped out, was initially reluctant to send in more units, until a 10-year-old boy arrived with a written message from the Edmontons' CO, Lieutenant Colonel James Jefferson, informing Vokes that his men could hold on until anti-tank guns and armour could be brought up. In the meantime, a platoon of the 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, had been working to bridge the 15-metre gap over the Dittaino, and despite being under constant mortar and machine gun fire, had achieved their objective by 4.30 am on 22nd July. Although fighting continued for the rest of the day, by nightfall, Leonforte had also been declared secure. In the battles for the two towns, the Canadians had suffered 276 casualties. The 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment, now falling back towards Agira, came off far worse, with losses of more than 600 men.


Nissoria & Agira


The next mountaintop target for the Canadians was Agira, to the east of Assoro and Leonforte, and part of the same long ridge which continued all the way towards Paternò. The Canadian Division was now reinforced by the addition of the 231st Brigade under its command, and the first attack on Agira was scheduled for the night of 22nd/23rd July. While the Canadians were to launch the main assault from the west, a synchronised attack was to be carried out from the south by the 231st Brigade, which had been advancing from the Dittaino valley. Although the 231st Brigade succeeded in its objective of securing a height located some two kilometres to the east of Agira, it was left in an exposed position when the Canadian attack faltered under heavy artillery and machinegun fire.



A second attack after midnight on the 24th was once again halted at Nissoria, a small village located in low ground between two ridges, around halfway between Leonforte and Agira. Although the Germans had not been expected to defend this area, they had in fact reinforced the two ridges and were not planning on giving them up easily.


In the early hours of the 25th, the Hasty P’s secured the first ridge and Nissoria itself but became bogged down after coming under fire from the second ridge and suffering 80 casualties - the highest single-day loss of any Canadian unit during the whole of Operation Husky. The 48th Highlanders, thrown in the next night, were also forced to withdraw, and thus, on the night of 26th/27th July, the 2nd Canadian Brigade was brought into the battle, with PPCLI finally dislodging the enemy from the area of Nissoria.


View of Agira.

The following night, the Seaforths and the Loyal Eddies fought their way eastwards, each capturing a height directly overlooking Agira. The loss of these heights made the town untenable, forcing the Germans to finally abandon it. Agira had cost the Canadians 438 casualties, and the 231st Brigade some 300.


Regalbuto


After Agira, the next town to the east was Regalbuto, which was held by a strong battlegroup of the Hermann Göring Division, including its Engineer Battalion, a company of paratroopers, eight tanks, and various artillery pieces and nebelwerfers. The defence was being overseen by the divisional commander himself, Generalmajor Paul Conrath, who had impressed upon his men the need to hold on to the town at all costs: Yet again, the Canadians and the 231st Brigade were in for another tough battle.


The 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment was first in, on the night of 29th/30th July, but as they moved towards their objective - a long ridge running parallel and to the south of the highway that passed through Regalbuto - they came under a heavy crossfire from machine-guns, mortars and artillery, forcing them to abandon the attempt. The position was seized the following night by the 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, while simultaneously, the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment seized Monte Serione to the north of the town.


Devastation in Regalbuto following yet another intense battle.

In the early hours of 1st August, the RCR launched an attack on the precipitous Tower Hill, on Regalbuto's south-eastern edge, but by daybreak, they were still out in the open, where they remained pinned down until pulling back under cover of darkness later that evening. As they were doing so, the Hasty P's launched their own attack on Tower Hill, successfully capturing it after adopting a longer, flanking route to the south. When this was followed up by an assault on Regalbuto itself in the afternoon of 2nd August, the 48th Highlanders discovered that the town was empty: Conrath had pulled out his men during the night.


Closing Stages


With the capture of Regalbuto, the last of the mountaintop towns located on the same commanding ridge was Centuripe. Located roughly in between the Hauptkampflinie and a second defensive line, it guarded the approaches to Adrano and Paternò, and the British knew that were they to capture it, they would be able to look down upon both of these locations, putting pressure on the Germans to abandon them, and with them all their positions south of Etna, including Catania.


View of Centuripe.

The unenviable task of taking Centuripe was given to the recently arrived British 78th Infantry Division. On 29th July, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was temporarily placed under the 78th Division's command, and on the following day, the 1st Battalion, The West Nova Scotia Regiment took Catenanuova, allowing the rest of the 78th Division to push through and capture Centuripe on 2nd/3rd August. As expected, the capture of the town forced the Germans to realise that their position around Catania had now become untenable. The 3rd Canadian Brigade, in the meantime, reverted back to Canadian command.


With the Hauptkampflinie by now having been broken, the Axis forces settled on the second defensive line - the Etna Line - running from San Fratello in the north, through Troina, Adrano, and down to the eastern coast of Sicily. While the Americans were tasked with taking Troina, Montgomery ordered XXX Corps to continue its thrust towards Adrano, and then to head off up towards the left, western side of Etna, through Bronte and on to Randazzo, while XIII Corps was to finally resume its advance northwards towards the direction of Catania.



On 4th August, the 78th Division was ordered to force the Salso river, north of Centuripe, later that night, followed by the Simeto the night after, and then assaulting Adrano on 6th/7th August. Simultaneously, the Canadian Division was to secure the left flank of the advance by taking Monte Seggio, before also crossing the Simeto, while the 51st (Highland) Division would protect the right flank, taking Biancavilla. All these objectives were completed according to schedule, and with the fall of Adrano, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was withdrawn from combat, to begin planning and training for the invasion of the Italian mainland.


The first sustained campaign for the Canadian Army was over, and it had not been an easy one. The Canadians had been tested by both the sweltering, dry conditions of the Sicilian summer, as well as the battle-hardened German troops. Canadian casualties for the whole of the Sicily campaign totalled 2,310, of whom 562 had been killed, 1,664 wounded, and another 84 had been taken prisoner. Despite the difficulties they encountered, the Canadians had acquitted themselves superbly, earning the praise of both the Allied commanders as well as their German enemies. More importantly, after years of training in England, they had now also received vital combat experience and learned lessons which would serve them well in the fighting that was yet to come.


After Sicily


On 3rd September 1943, the Allies launched the invasion of Italy, with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, now part of British XIII Corps, landing in Calabria, in the 'toe' of Italy, as part of Operation Baytown. Together with the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade, now redesignated the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, the division would become part of I Canadian Corps with the arrival in the Mediterranean theatre of the 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division in November 1943. I Canadian Corps would continue fighting its way up the Italian peninsula until early 1945, after which it would still have a role to play in western Europe in the closing stages of the war.


Canadian infantry and tanks in the ruins of Ortona, Italy, December 1943. This was the scene of a bloody battle between the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and elite German Fallschirmjäger that would become known as the "Italian Stalingrad".

In June 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade participated in the assault phase of the Normandy landings, under command of British I Corps, with the Canadians being assigned one of the five invasion beaches. The Canadian units eventually reverted to the First Canadian Army when this became operational in Normandy on 23rd July 1944. After participating in the Battle of Normandy and moving along the coast towards Belgium at the beginning of September, the First Canadian Army fought in the critical Battle of the Scheldt, helping to open Antwerp to Allied shipping. By the end of March 1945, it had been further strengthened by the arrival of I Canadian Corps from Italy, and in the final weeks of the war in Europe, it participated in the liberation of the Netherlands and the invasion of Germany.


Canadian soldiers landing on Juno Beach, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France, on 6th June 1944.

Throughout World War Two, Canada also participated in other theatres, with one of its largest contributions coming in the Battle of the Atlantic, where the Royal Canadian Navy assisted in escorting convoys carrying vital supplies to Britain. Canadians also flew in both Royal Canadian Air Force and combined Royal Air Force squadrons, from the Battle of Britain, through the bombing campaigns over Germany, to eventual victory. By the end of the war, more than one million Canadians, including about 50,000 women, had served in the three armed services. The cost had been high: Some 42,000 were killed or died in service, while another 54,400 were wounded while in the process of helping to bring about the final defeat of the Axis forces.

 

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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