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The Italian Campaign

Canadian Army units in Italy

The Capture of Ortona

The Destruction of Historical Heritage

In the mind of Allied strategists and military leaders, the campaign of Italy was not the logical continuation of the invasion of Sicily. Actually, there was a major disagreement between US President Roosevelt, who opposed the idea of further military operations in the Mediterranean, and British Prime Minister Churchill, who was convinced of the need to keep on attacking the soft underbelly of the Nazi beast. It was only in May 1943, at the Trident Conference, that the two men did come to an agreement on limited military involvement in Italy. It was well understood, however, that the Italian campaign should in no way interfere with the preparation of what was to be the war's major operation, the massive invasion of Northwest Europe planned for the spring of 1944.

The detail of the Italian campaign were discussed and decided at the August 1943 Quebec Conference. Its initial goals were the capture of Naples and of the Foggia and Rome airfields. Actually the Allies' objective was not so much to conquer Italy as to force Germany to divert some of its forces to a southern front. By dividing Nazi forces between several separate fronts, the Allies would prevent Hitler from striking a deadly blow at the USSR or from concentrating an invincible army along the coast of Normandy.

The Royal 22e Regiment landing on the beach at Reggio di Calabria on the morning of September 3rd, 1943
Photo by Alexander M. Stirton. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-177114.  

The Allied landing started on the morning of September 3rd, 1943; on September 8th, the Italian government announced its surrender. This development had been foreseen by Berlin and the Fuehrer immediately ordered German troops to take control of the country. Hitler feared that the Allies may use Italian airfields as bases for bombing raids against Germany. As a result, he reinforced the Wehrmacht divisions already stationed in southern Italy with orders to defend Rome at all costs. A major struggle was in the making.

In the mountains of Calabria, the progression of tanks and armoured vehicles was often slowed down as many bridges had been destroyed by the retreating German forces. The 1st Field Company of the Royal Canadian Corps of Engineers setting up a Bailey bridge over a ravine of the Straorini River, September 4th, 1943.
Photo by Jack H. Smith. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-177088.

The Liberation of Southern Italy

The 1st Canadian Division landed near Reggio di Calabria on September 3rd, 1943, and met no opposition whatsoever. Italian garrisons deserted their positions and fled to the hills; the only German unit in the area, part of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had retreated in the mountains two days earlier. For a couple of days, Canadian soldiers slowly made their way through the rugged Aspromonte region, their progression often slowed down by the collapse of bridges the Germans had sabotaged as they withdrew.

Canadian Army units in Italy

"Stop briefly at 1:00 a.m. and sleep where we drop. No sleep last night and evidently very little tonight. One meal only yesterday. At 2:00 a.m. men line the road, fallen by the wayside dead-beat. I can't go much farther. I am nearly done. It is pitch black here in the avenues of woods. I am sweating with weakness. At 2:30 a.m. we overtake men of the Patricias and kip down. Too dazed to remember much. John Gowan gives me two biscuits, a lump of bully beef (like chicken) and a bar of chocolate. Sleep on rocks with just my gas-cape over me. Get up at 7:00 a.m. stiff with cold and wet, stale sweat. Blessed tea, and two pieces of hardtack and cheese. One mile from our objective, they say. (I wonder?) The sun rises at 8:15 and warms us as we march off. Soon we near the summit of Mount Basilica. Forests of pine, beech, poplar and elder wood. Settle at 1:30 p.m. at big convalescent hospital for children and sleep for six hours in a real bed. Had almost forgotten it was the Sabbath. Have a feeling God will understand…"
- H/Captain Roy Durnford, Regimental Chaplain, Seaforth Highlanders, Diary, September 4th, 1943

On September 9th, an Anglo-American force under the Fifth US Army, landed in Salerno. It met strong resistance from the German division, which tried to drive it back before the Eighth Army could intervene. Violent fighting took place around Salerno until September 14th.

Further south, the 1st Canadian Division was moving at good speed along the coast towards the Gulf of Tarento; it then turned up north to make its junction with the Fifth Army. Under Lieutenant-Colonel M.P. Bogert of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, a special force was put together to capture Potenza. The operation was a real obstacle race among mines and blown up bridges, extremely demanding on the engineers. On September 20th, the "Boforce", as it had been nicknamed after its commanding officer, entered Potenza where enemy resistance collapsed immediately. On September 21st, the Fifth US army and the Eighth British Army formed an uninterrupted front line that reached all across the Italian peninsula, from Salerno in the west to Bari in the east.

From higher ground, a 14th Armoured Regiment (Calgary) Sherman tank covers the progression of the West Nova Scotia Regiment towards Potenza, September 20th, 1943.
Photo by Alexander M. Stirton. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-144103.  

In October, Canadian troops harassed the enemy throughout an area that stretched from north of Potenza to the Fortore and Biferno rivers, near the Adriatic Sea. Campobasso fell on October 14th. Enemy casualties were heavy and the Germans learned to respect the soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division.

Until then the progression of the Canadian army had been rather trouble-free; since September the German strategy was simply to delay that progression as much as possible. Their commanders had orders to retreat until they could take solid positions between the Bernhard Line that cut across the Italian Peninsula from Gaeta in the west to Ortona in the east. That line protected Rome and the Germans had clear orders: They shall not pass!

Towards Ortona

In mid-November, the Fifth Army and the Eighth Army got closer to the Bernhard Line. Under General Montgomery the British column moved on the right flank, along the Adriatic Sea with a view to reach Pescara before turning west along the Pescara-Rome road. Between November 28th and 30th, the Eighth Army took the ridge overlooking the Sangro River valley. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade supported the 8th Indian Division tasked with maintaining a steady base on the ridge. Two divisions were to move towards Pescara: the 2nd New Zealander Division along an inland route, and the 1st Canadian Division along the coast. The first obstacle was the Moro River, beyond which German troops were waiting.

The attack was launched on December 6th. The slopes were steep; heavy winter rains had swollen the river and turned the ground into thick mud that bogged down armoured vehicles. The enemy was well entrenched and each inch of ground had to be gained the hard way. Counter-attacks followed and the Canadians were forced to retreat. It took two days, December 8th and 9th, to capture San Leonardo. In spite of numerous obstacles, the Seaforth Highlanders, riding on the tanks of the Calgary Regiment, were able to get close to the village. On the narrow road, two tanks plunged down ten metres into the ravine after missing a sharp turn. Violent artillery and mortar fire hit the armoured column and the infantry as they were approaching the Moro River. On the other side, the lead tank struck a mine as it was climbing towards San Leonardo and was stalled, blocking the road and forcing the other vehicles to find their way through the olive groves. Only five tanks were left when the Canadians entered San Leonardo. The Seaforth Highlanders engaged the enemy and silenced their machine gun positions, killing or capturing many German soldiers. Twelve enemy tanks drove into town from the east but in spite of the difference in strength, the Calgarys held fast and destroyed or drove back the German tanks. On December 9th at 1740, the Canadians were solidly positioned in San Leonardo.

Platoon Commander Lieutenant I. Macdonald (with binoculars) ready to give order to attack at S. Leonardo di Ortona, Italy, 10 December 1943. Left to right, Sergeant J.T. Cooney, Privates A.R. Downie, O.E. Bernier, G.R. Young (kneeling, with Lee-Enfield rifle), Corporal T. Fereday and Private S.L. Hart (lying down with Bren gun) all of the 48th Highlanders.
Photo by Frederick G. Whitcombe. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-163411.

At some distance to the right, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment had also succeeded in crossing the river and in establishing a bridgehead on the road along the seashore. They withstood a violent counter-attack but that proved to be costly and inefficient for the Germans and the Hastings retained the position.

" 'A' Company on the left flank withheld their fire until the Germans had reached a vineyard some two hundred yards to their front, and then called for observed mortar fire and opened up with small arms, catching at least a company, and cutting them up completely. On 'B' Company's front another company was allowed into an enfiladed ravine and then decimated by crossing machine-gun fire."
- Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, War Diary, 9 December 1943.

After San Leonardo, the Canadian Division faced what seemed to be a dead-end: a deep and narrow gully that tanks could not cross. In addition, the 90th Panzer Division was entrenched in it, with gunner foxholes dug into the steep slopes, out of the reach of shells. After several ill-fated attempts to cross the gully, the Canadians faced with heavy machine gun and mortar fire were forced to retreat.

In the morning of December 13th, the Royal 22e Regiment and the tanks of the Ontario Regiment launched an attack on the enemy's flank, towards the Casa Berardi. The resistance was formidable and the infantry found itself facing artillery fire; only 50 men survived. The sole remaining officer, Captain Paul Triquet told his men: "There are enemy in front of us, behind us and on our flanks. There is only one safe place-that is on the objective." Triquet captured Casa Berardi at the end of the afternoon but the situation was desperate: only 15 men were left of the Royal 22e and Squadron "C" of the Ontario Regiment was reduced to four tanks! Triquet told his troops "They shall not pass!". As the night fell, Company "B" of the Royal 22e provided some relief and the Canadians were able to hold the position. Paul Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Italian civilians suffered from injuries caused by mines, shells and stray bullets. Many lost their homes and crops. Here gunners Chink Gades and Johnny Scott, 11th Field Regiment, serving corned beef to children in Acireale, December 13th, 1943.
Photo by Alexander M. Stirton. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-177161.

This was the breach the Canadians needed to move on but several days of violent and costly fighting against enemy defence positions were to follow until, on December 19th, they took control of the strategic crossroad on the Ossogna to Ortona road. On December 20th, the troops reached Ortona; it took eight more days of desperate fighting before the city could be captured, as the Canadians moved in slowly, disputing every house and every street with an enemy determined to defend its positions.

"Why would the Germans defend with inordinate fierceness - matched only by the determination of the Canadians - a small coastal town of little strategic value? Throughout the world, the showdown made the headlines…"
- The Capture of Ortona

While the racket of automatic weapons and explosions tore apart the silence of Ortona's usually quiet streets, the 2nd Canadian Brigade bypassed the city by the west and marched towards the Riccio River and the villages of Villa Grande and San Tommaso.

In early 1944, new Canadian units joined the Eighth Army's order of battle: Canada dispatched an additional division to the Mediterranean theatre, the 5th Armoured Division, under Major-General Guy Simonds at first and, from January 29th, 1944, onwards, under Major-General E.L.M Burns. The 1st Infantry Division, the 5th Armoured Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade were now part of the newly formed I Canadian Corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar.

The 11th Infantry Brigade was put to the test on January 17th, 1944. Reaching the advanced lines north of Ortona, it resumed its northwards march along the coast of the Adriatic, towards the Arielli River. The Canadians fought their last battles of the winter and in March and April, the unit of I Corps were relieved, leaving the Adriatic front for some training and rest.

On the western side of the Italian peninsula, on January 17th, 1944, the Fifth Army engaged the Germans who were still blocking the access to Rome. On January 22nd, a sizeable Anglo-American contingent, under the command of the VI US Corps, landed in Anzio, 56 kilometres south of Rome; it was to meet, however, with unexpected resistance.

The Battle for Rome

In the spring of 1944, two German armies were in charge of defending Rome; they held the Gustav Line that started south of Gaeta and ran across the country to a position north of Ortona and the Arielli River. The Gustav Line straddled the valley of the Liri River that flows in a north-south direction, parallel to the road to Rome. Further north, between the Gustav Line and Rome, VI US Corps held a bridgehead at Anzio.

"If generals believe that Europe's religious and historical centres must be bombed, would you agree?"
- The Destruction of Historical Heritage

The assault by the Fifth Army and the Eighth Army was launched at 2300 on May 11th, 1944, with the most intense artillery fire ever used by the Allies. On the Eighth Army's front, 1,060 guns spewed shells of all calibres; and 600 more were deployed on the Fifth Army's front. Royal Canadian Artillery regiments and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade squadrons supported the 8th Indian Division. Within a few days, bridges were built across the Gari River and the Gustav Line was broken in several places.

Soldiers taking shelter from artillery shells, Gari River valley, May 22nd, 1944. Photo by Alexander M. Stirton.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-136205.  

In the night of May 15th - 16th, I Canadian Corps moved up to the front to replace the 8th Indian Division then positioned in the Liri Valley. On May 17th, after a day of violent and confused fighting, the 1st Canadian Brigade was only 5 or 6 kilometres from the Adolph Hitler Line. The following day, on the Canadians' right flank, the 4th British Division captured the city of Cassino and the Polish flag could be seen on top of the monastery hill. On the Canadians' left flank, General Juin and the 1st French Motorized Division were moving along the road to Pontecorvo.

Troops of the Cape Breton Highlanders moving along a road near the Melfa river, May 24th, 1944. A dead German soldier lies by the roadside.

Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-135904.

The assault on the Adolph Hitler Line was launched early on May 23rd. Heavy barrage fire struck German defence positions, while much of the valley was still shrouded in a thick mist. On I Canadian Corps' front, the 2nd Brigade faced obstinate and unflinching resistance. Artillery and mines stalled the progression of tanks, while the infantry was exposed to relentless fire from the "Moaning Minnies" mortars, a formidable weapon. On the left, the 3rd Brigade was able to gain some ground. Major-General Major-General Christopher Vokes gathered his troops, reinforcing the 3rd Brigade with the division reserve and additional tanks. The Royal 22e and the West Nova Scotia Regiment resumed their assault not long after 1700 to widen the breach already made into the Hitler Line. In spite of strong opposition, they captured many prisoners and seized enemy equipment. After dark, the 3rd Brigade was solidly positioned west of the Hitler Line; casualties were acceptable: 45 killed and 120 wounded for three battalions. The 2nd Brigade, however, had suffered much more: 543 casualties (162 killed, 306 wounded and 75 prisoners).

Wednesday morning. As I write it is 8:30 a.m. and a roaring barrage has been going on for almost four hours. Danny and I go up the line and stay there. The R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post], which is an old barn attached to a house, begins to fill with wounded. Incredible suffering and unbelievable bravery. Cliff Preece and the M.O. [Medical Officer] of the North Irish Horse work ceaselessly throughout the day with a marvellous staff of uncomplaining helpers. The battlefield is very near. The house is a BHQ [Battalion HQ] as well as a hospital, and it is a hive of activity: intelligence staff, signallers, anxious officers and battered and war-weary men weave about everywhere. Shells dropping all around the area frequently wound German prisoners who stand near the R.A.P. These Germans are either dull with shock or nervous and excitable; pale, dirty and utterly exhausted, they stagger down the line. I make tea endlessly, and soup. The boys keep coming in-some bomb-happy, some terribly broken and shell-shocked, some with limbs torn off, some almost gleefully with light wounds.... Johnny McLean has been wounded. Lieut. Whiting got up to the barbed wire. I'm told; he is reported killed, with others. The men of the North Irish Horse who are with us have been wonderful. Their casualties have been heavy. Ours are extremely severe. Syd Thomson is feeling the strain but has been marvellous all day. Who has not? "How are things going, Syd?" I asked him. "I don't know, Pad," he said, "but I think I've got about 100 men left in all the rifle companies, and three officers." I can't begin to tell all I have seen, but it has been our best and our worst day.
- H/Captain Roy Durnford, Regimental Chaplain, Seaforth Highlanders, Diary, 23 May 1944

Having broken through the Adolph Hitler Line, the Allies marched towards Rome. I Canadian Corps moved along a line parallel to the Liri River. It reached Ceprano on May 28th, and continued towards Frosinone despite landmines and destruction left by the Germans. Frosinone was captured on May 31st. The Canadians were ordered to stop at Agnani to allow the French Expeditionary Corps to pass along the Fifth Army's right flank.

On June 3rd, the Fifth US Army attacked the Fourteenth German Army, which was desperately trying to prevent the Allies from reaching Rome. To avoid being surrounded, German forces evacuated the city and retreated northwards. On June 4th, the Allies made their entrance.

The Canadians did not take part in that triumphant arrival: I Corps had been put in reserve a few days earlier. Nevertheless, they shared the joy of the inhabitants of smaller cities that they liberated. There were good news on the BBC airwaves too: the landing in Normandy was underway. I Corps was then transferred to training and rest areas in the Volturno Valley, near Piedimonte d'Alife.

Canadian gunners during the attack against the Gothic Line, around August 24th, 1944.

Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada PA-185004.

Breaking Through the Gothic Line

In June and July, Canadian soldiers in Italy were resting and reorganizing on the basis of the lessons learned and in preparation of future operations. The 12th Infantry Brigade was created by shifting around the assignments of existing units.

In the meantime, the Fifth US Army and the Eighth British Army kept advancing: the US troops along the west coast towards Pisa, the British along the Adriatic shore towards Florence. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division resumed fighting in early August, replacing exhausted Allied units and taking part in the assault against Florence. Ontario Regiment tanks were placed under the command of the 8th Indian Division. On August 17th, after several days of fighting, they crossed the Arno River and entered the city; the use of the 75-mm gun was prohibited within the historical core.

Driven back by the Allies' progression, the Germans retreated behind a new defence line, the Gothic Line, that ran across the peninsula between Pesaro on the east coast and La Spezia on the west coast, through the Apennines.

In January 1945, the Ontario Regiment was wintering in San Clemento. Signaller Doug Lindsay and Cpl Walter Bloom in the regiment's outdoor kitchen.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-173618.

Italian Refugee Rehabilitated

Large - 8.95 Mb Small - 4.7 Mb
Italian Refugee Rehabilitated, from Canadian Army Newsreel 46, November 1944, 2 min 50

That line protected Italy's industrial heartland in the northern plains. To break through, the Eighth Army was to attack along the Adriatic coast on August 24th, while the Fifth Army was to do the same the following day along the central Florence-Bologna axis. I Canadian Corps got its part of the action within the Eighth Army, flanked to the right by II Polish Corps and to the left by V British Corps.

The initial assault came at 2300 in the starry night of August 24th. The first battalions crossed the Metauro River and easily reached their objectives. After two days of march, the Canadian brigades finally got in view of the Gothic Line. On August 30th, enemy positions were bombed by Allied air force. Supported by tanks, the infantry attacked in the late afternoon. The Germans, determined to hold fast, received the Canadian onslaught with heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. The ground had been well prepared and Canadian soldiers were constantly pushed towards mine fields. Despite those difficulties and severe losses, the infantry kept moving on and captured its objectives: the Gothic Line had been broken.

Cheered up by the sight of the dazzling blue sea they could see close by, I Canadian Corps troops marched on with confidence. But the road to Rimini was fraught with dangers and there were several encounters with an enemy that appeared unflinching. On September 21st, I Corps crossed the Marecchia River to be relieved by other Allied units.

But that victory, once again, was indecisive: the German army retreated but was reinforced and remained as formidable as ever. On the other hand, neither the Fifth Army nor the Eighth, weakened by months of combat were able to get additional troops so badly needed to deal a final blow: all reinforcements were destined to the operations in Northwest Europe. Understaffing was becoming a major issue.

With winter approaching, combats dragged on. The 1st Canadian Division was back on the front by December around the Lamone and Senio rivers. At the end of the month, the Canadian Corps, as well as the rest of the Eighth Army, took on defence positions for the duration of the winter. It was not to take part in the planned spring offensive. In April 1945, I Canadian Corps was transferred to Northwest Europe to join the First Canadian Army.

The campaign of Italy proved to be longer and harder than first thought. In 18 months, 92,757 Canadian soldier served in Italy. Among them, 408 officers and 4,991 soldiers of other ranks were killed in action; 1,218 officers and 18,268 other ranks were wounded. Over 1,000 men were made prisoners. In Italy, Canadians made the demonstration that they were superior soldiers. Combat experience gained throughout this long campaign would be invaluable in the coming months of the war against the Third Reich.

Suggested Reading:

• Daniel G. Dancocks, The D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy, 1943-1945, 1991.
• Dominick Graham et Shelford Bidwell, Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1985.
• Charles Fraser Comfort, Artist at War, 1995.
• C. Sydney Frost, Once a Patricia: Memoirs of a Junior Infantry Officer in World War II, 1988.
• Bill McAndrew, Canadians and the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945, 1996.
• Robert L. McDougall, A Narrative of War: From the Beaches of Sicily to the Hitler Line with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, 1943-1944, 1996.
• Farley Mowat, And No Birds Sang, 1979.
• Farley Mowat, The Regiment, 1955 [1973].
• G.W.L. Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, 1943-1945, Volume 2 of the Official History of The Canadian Army in the Second World War, 1956.
• Mark Zuehlke, The Liri Valley: Canada's World War II Breakthrough to Rome, 2001.
• Mark Zuehlke, The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War II Italy, 2003
• Mark Zuehlke, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, 1999.

Next: Canadian Army units in Italy