The Invasion of Sicily
At the end of 1942, Great Britain and the United States put a stop to the series of remarkable military successes of Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps, who threatened to capture Egypt and the Suez Canal. On November 4th, 1942, the Eighth British Army, under General Bernard Montgomery halted the German troops at El Alamein in Egypt, forcing them to withdraw. On November 8th, British and US troops landed in North Africa (Operation Torch). The Afrikakorps was caught in a pincer between landing invasion forces advancing from the east and the Eighth Army still marching westwards. On March 12th, 1943, the Allies finally recaptured the whole of North Africa.
The invasion of Sicily was the logical conclusion of the North African adventure, since capturing the island meant regaining control of most of the Mediterranean. The Allies had a second goal: to force Germany to pull land and air forces away from the eastern front in order to defend its southern side, thereby easing the pressure on the USSR.
Operation Husky, as the invasion was dubbed, was risky business. The landing flotilla had to sail by the Gulf of Biscayne, teeming with U-boats, before entering the Mediterranean. On July 4th and 5th, 1943, the slow-moving assault convoy was attacked off the coast of Algeria and three freighters carrying supplies were sunk. Some 52 Canadian soldiers were reported missing in action and over 500 vehicles were lost.
Allied strategists agreed that ground forces would be meeting strong resistance: indeed, the island was defended by the Italian Sixth Army, with over 200,000 men, plus two German divisions, the 15th an 90th Panzer Grenadiers.
As the day broke on July 10th, 1943, the Allied fleet approached the southern tip of Sicily. The Seventh US Army, under General George Patton, captured the beaches of the Gulf of Gela. During the five weeks of the operation, part of the US troops marched up along the west coast of the island, then cut inland to reach Palermo. Meanwhile, other units of Patton’s army crossed the island right down the middle to reach the northern coast and then eastwards to Messina. Further east, the Eighth British Army under Montgomery landed on the shores of the Gulf of Noto, between Pachino and Syracuse. From there, it moved up north to seize control of the inland mountains and liberate the eastern coast up to Messina. The Eighth Army’s order of battle included, besides British divisions, over 26,000 soldiers from the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under Major-General Guy Simonds and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade under Brigadier R.A. Wyman.
The Royal Air Force 244 Wing provided support to the Eighth Army; it included No 417 (Fighter) Squadron from the Royal Canadian Air Force; on their Spitfires, Canadian pilots were involved in all phases of the invasion.
From Pachino to Valguarnera
On D-Day, Canadians soldiers landed with no major difficulty on the beaches around the small village of Pachino. Italian soldiers did not offer any serious resistance, surrendering rather than risking their lives. At the end of the day, the 1st Canadian Infantry division had reached its objective and was ready to move on to the third phase of the invasion: the march inland.
The great day. The fun really started for me about 0300 hours. Terrific bombardment by our heavy guns. Not much firing seen on shore. Tricky loading landing craft because of heavy swell. Landed wetshod at 0645 hours. Few casualties. Surprise achieved. Saw about 60 prisoners; prisoners and civilians not very perturbed. Dug in in transit area north of the salt lakes. Hot as hell. Very heavy firing about 1600 hours. I move up to “C” company position, where we come under mortar and artillery fire. See our heavy mortars, self-propelled guns, which silence the enemy. We move off to Phase III. Terrific anti-aircraft barrage when our ships bombed off the beaches that night.
– Captain B.G. Parker, Seaforth Highlanders, Diary, July 10th, 1943.
Landings effected with very little opposition and by 1200 hrs today all objectives for phase one were in my hands. Ineffective counter attacks in afternoon were repulsed. Casualties very light and first reports indicate do not exceed total of seventy-five killed and wounded including 40 and 41 Marine Commandos. We took over 700 prisoners and some material. Morale high and troops very confident of themselves. Details will follow. Success mainly due to excellent co-operation Royal Navy and RAF.
– Major-General Guy Simonds to General A.G.L. McNaughton, July 10th, 1943.
Canadian troops then started the long march inland. The Italians did not offer any real resistance and German soldiers further north did not get involved. During those early days of the campaign in Sicily, Canadian soldiers were mostly concerned with fleas, scorpions and mosquitoes. The heat was intense and military vehicles raised clouds of choking dust as they drove on. As soldiers marched through a series of villages perched atop the hills, water got more and more scarce.
In the distance, they looked picturesque, like castles in the air, but they were hot and dirty and evil-smelling, close-packed grey hovels sometimes brightened by a beautiful rococo church with cupids swirling round the door. The people would stand by their houses and raise their fingers in Churchill’s V sign. Peasants on the roads and refugees returning home saluted so frequently that their arms must have got tired. They apparently thought they had to do this or be shot, and we felt badly.
– Peter Stursberg, CBC war correspondent, excerpt from Journey into Victory.
In the morning of the 15th, around 0900, the front of the column was driving along National Road 124, approaching Grammichele that could be seen in the distance. Suddenly the soldiers were caught in the fire of a German artillery and tank detachment from the Herman Göring Division. They engaged the enemy and the 48th Highlanders, supported by the tanks of the Régiment de Trois-Rivières, were able to drive the enemy back. Both regiments pursued the enemy as far as Caltagirone that they entered the next morning. The city was in ruin following Allied air bombings, as it had been the HQ of the Herman Göring Division. The 48th Highlanders medical unit took care of the wounded civilians as best as it could.
At the same time, German forces were trying to slow down the advance of Allied soldiers as they withdrew towards the natural barrier that is Mount Etna. The 1st Canadian Division’s orders were to push forward as hard as possible towards the city of Etna that controlled the centre of the island.
As they moved forward, Canadian soldiers met increasing resistance. Combat occurred at Piazza-Armerina on July 16th, then at Valguarnera on the 17th and 18th. Up in the hills, the enemy made clever use of the terrain, blowing up bridges to slow down the advance of the Canadian artillery and armoured vehicles. The infantry had to plod onwards on foot, without support. In a single day, near Valguarnera, the Canadians had 145 casualties, including 40 killed. But they learned fast. Two days after having lost that town to the Canadian Army, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring reported to Berlin: “Near Valguarnera troops trained for fighting in the mountains have been mentioned. They are called ‘Mountain Boys’ and probably belong to the 1st Canadian Division.”
Assoro and Leonforte
The march through the inland mountain region became more and more difficult. The enemy was stationed around Leonforte-Assoro, where rocky outcrops jut out from the bed of the River Dittaino, buttressing Mount Etna. Mount Assoro reaches some 920 metres and German positions seemed impregnable. From this natural stronghold, the German 15th Panzer Division controlled the road to Messina.
The 1st Infantry Brigade could not get near Assoro without becoming an easy target for enemy fire, as the Germans occupied the village that clung to the mountain’s western flank. From that position they could see anyone that came near. The mountain’s other face was so steep that any ascent by that way seemed impossible. But not for Major Lord Tweedsmuir, son of the former Governor General of Canada, and commanding officer of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. At sunset on July 20th, Tweedsmuir sent a group of soldiers to climb mount Assoro’s steep face. By moonlight they managed to find their way through the rocky terrain amid goat and donkey paths. At dawn, the Canadians had reached the summit on higher ground than the Germans. Taken by surprise, the enemy was forced to withdraw but quickly counter-attacked. Fighting went on until noon on July 22nd, and Assoro remained under Canadian control.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Infantry Brigade engaged the enemy in Leonforte, a city of 20,000, near Assoro. In the city’s dark and narrow streets, fighting turned into house-by-house combat as the Loyal Edmonton Regiment scattered throughout the town. To help them out, Brigadier Christopher Vokes launched a mobile armoured column of four tanks plus a company of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The assault was so fast and so efficient that the German guard posts at the entrance of the city surrendered. Fierce fighting went on until full surrender of the city and of neighbouring positions.
As soon as Leonforte and Assoro were under control, Major General Simonds ordered his four brigades to attack Agira, some 123 kilometres east of Leonforte. Simonds deployed an artillery barrage comprising five field artillery regiments and two medium artillery regiments. Canadian guns pounded the German positions, with regular pauses to allow the infantry to move forward. At the same time, RAF’s Kittyhawks bombed German positions. The enemy resisted fiercely and it took five days to capture Agira and the neighbouring city of Nissoria.
Back with L.O.B.s [Left out of Battle] again, who had strict orders not to meddle forward. See plenty of signs of Jerry at shelled red house just beyond Nissoria. Don Newson lands right on top of me in one dive. Tank battle 200 yards ahead. Many German dead and some of our own along the road. Five Sherman tanks burnt out, also some German tanks an 88 mm guns. Shelled most of the day. Lie up. Have cramps and vomiting…
– Captain B.G. Parker, Seaforth Highlanders, Diary, 27 July 1943.
Canadian losses were heavy but the enemy had been severely hit. Meanwhile the US Army was moving on along the Canadians’ left flank, Palermo being already captured. In the evening of July 25th, the Rome radio station broadcast the astounding news of the resignation of Benito Mussolini’s government.
On July 28, towards the end of the afternoon a thunderstorm broke over the hills; this was the first rain to fall since Canadian soldiers had started their exhausting progression through the Sicilian furnace.
In the Dittaino River valley, the 3rd Canadian Brigade reached and captured Catenanuova on July 29th. Further north the 48th Highlanders, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment took part in the battle for Regalbuto along with British units. The battle raged from July 30th to August 3rd. The city, pounded by major artillery and air bombings, lay in ruins and rubble blocked the streets. This time there were no cheering crowds to greet the Allies as they entered the town.
The eastwards push went on from August 3rd till 7th and, from Regalbuto, Canadian troops followed the beds of the Salso and Troina rivers along which several positions still defended by the Germans were captured. In the meantime, fighting raged a few kilometres to the north between US and German troops. The Germans, faced with imminent defeat, started organizing their withdrawal from Sicily, scheduled for August 10th. British and US forces made their junction at Messina as planned on August 17th, 1943. Sicily had been liberated.
Canadian troops were put in reserve on August 6th, 1943; they transferred to the Lentini area, on the island’s east coast for a few weeks of rest. In only 38 days, they marched 200 kilometres in exhausting and scorching weather; they fought without respite, and distinguished themselves on many occasions, suffering 2,310 casualties, including 562 killed in action.
- 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 .
- G.W.L. Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, 1943-1945, Volume 3 of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, 1956