Taking The Rough Land Of Sicily: Army, Part 62

January 1, 2006 by Terry Copp

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183278

PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183278

A Canadian soldier leads pack mules forward.

One of the original reasons for mounting Operation Husky, the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, was the hope that the conquest of Italian territory would hasten the fall of Mussolini’s government. On July 25, as the Canadians fought for Agira, news that Mussolini had “resigned” was flashed around the world. King Vittorio Emanuele III assumed command of the Italian armed forces and appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio as prime minister. Badoglio acted quickly to assure Hitler that Italy remained loyal to its Axis partner but he was in fact determined to seek an armistice with the Allies as soon as possible.The story of Mussolini’s downfall further demoralized the Italian troops in Sicily, but for the Allies and the Germans it was war as usual. Of far greater interest to the front line troops was a five-hour downpour on July 29 that provided the first rain since the landings almost three weeks before. Battalion war diaries describe the sheer bliss of open-air shower baths bringing relief from the dust and intense heat.

The rain also fell on the troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade who had been preparing the way for the newly arrived British 78th Division. The Royal 22nd Regiment, also known as the Van Doos, was tasked with the capture of two prominent hills controlling the approaches to the town of Catenanuova which the West Nova Scotia Regt. was to secure. Lieutenant-Colonel J.P.E. Bernatchez employed two companies in the first phase of the attack and Mount Santa Maria was taken by a bayonet charge following closely behind a heavy artillery concentration. The company on the right, advancing over the lower slopes of Mount Scalpello, was met by fire from 88-mm guns as well as the usual mortar and machine-gun fire. The enemy was too dispersed and well-hidden for the artillery to be effective and clearing the area required close work with infantry and mortars. The Van Doos had taken their objectives; now they had to hold them against strong enemy pressure.

As casualties mounted, the company on Santa Maria was withdrawn and it appeared that 3rd Bde.’s first action was failing. The enemy’s determination to crush the Van Doos had allowed the West Novas to move on Catenanuova. However, before the town could be taken, General Bernard Montgomery ordered a pause in operations to prepare for a new offensive employing the 78th Div. in addition to 1st Canadian and 51st Highland divisions.

Before examining Operation Hardgate and the final stages of the battle for Sicily it is necessary to offer a more complete description of the terrain over which the battle was fought. Serious military historians have long recognized that the ground is one of the most important “primary sources” available to researchers and this seems especially true in Sicily and Italy. The following description of the area between Agira and Mount Etna, “a jumble of ridges and hills…flat-topped or round and swelling, or sharp and precipitous” appears in the British official history and could only have been written by someone who was there in the summer of 1943.

“These heights and valleys though harsh were not bare and barren for they had been cultivated through the centuries. There were groves and belts of olive and almond and other trees and, within reach of irrigation, plantations of lemons and oranges. The hill slopes were terraced, often for vines, and cactus and prickly pear were planted as hedges and boundaries, and there were many patches of scrub. The hills were limestone and the soil was shallow, and time and weather had carved, scraped and gouged out pinnacles, battlements and cliffs, razor-backs and ravines, and had scattered boulders everywhere. In the river valleys and on any plateau there were fields strewn with stones and at this season covered with stubble or withered grass laced with weeds and prickles. The river banks made curves and loops, and fell sometimes twenty feet or more to the river beds, and gullies, pits and caves were plentiful.”

The author also noted a truth that all Canadian veterans would vouch for: “The very rugged country prevented ambitious deployments of troops who had very little pack transport or none. It was admirably suited to infantry tactics, though in the nature of things the attacker toiled up, across, perhaps down to get to grips with an enemy whom often he could not see. Allied tactics sometimes showed the plain-dweller’s tendency to underestimate the size of features, and used one battalion where two or three would have covered the ground better. The defender tucked himself in behind reverse slopes, among boulders, and in gullies, holes and caves. Ensconced, with a good view and plenty of breath, he hoped to do execution until expelled or until orders came to slip away, and he pounded off, with lungs soon bursting and temples throbbing, through another position already held behind him, to a more distant position for himself. But the fighting was far from being all tip and run; the records of bloody combats witness the contrary. Dust, heat and iron-hard ground spared nobody.”

Montgomery and his generals, including the young Canadian commander Guy Simonds, had come to recognize these basic realities by late July and the preparations for Hardgate took them into account. Gen. Harold Alexander, the future Canadian governor general, met with his two army commanders, Montgomery and Gen. George S. Patton, to plan the offensive and got them to agree to a fully co-ordinated series of attacks. The American 7th Army was to advance along the north coast to Messina while the British and Canadians tried to break through the Etna Line on the lower slopes of the famous volcano.

The Germans had begun to plan for their eventual withdrawal from Sicily but in late July there was no set timetable and Gen. Hans Hube had received substantial reinforcements. Much of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Div. crossed to the island to defend the northern approaches to Messina and the evacuation route to the mainland, allowing Hube to reduce the frontage occupied by his other divisions and to reinforce the Hermann Göring Div., facing the British and Canadians, with paratroops and fortress battalions.

The Etna Line was backed by two secondary positions the Germans could withdraw to if a breakthrough occurred, but on July 30 they were fairly confident they could hold out for some time. One unresolved question was the attitude and morale of the Italian troops, who in accordance with Badoglio’s proclamation were still supposed to serve alongside their German allies. Regiments of the Asota, Assietta and Napoli divisions were given sectors of the front to hold, but the German commanders did not really trust their partners who were almost universally anxious to end Italian participation in a war, fought on their soil, to benefit Hitler.

Operation Hardgate began on the night of July 29-30 when 3rd Canadian Bde., supported by fire from field and two medium artillery regiments, seized control of Santa Maria and Catenanuova. This sector of the front had been handed over to a German fortress battalion that according to German sources “fled in a shameful manner” allowing the West Novas to secure the town. Elsewhere, however, resistance continued throughout the day with fierce counter-attacks that had to be broken up with observed artillery fire.

The rest of 1st Canadian Div. led off the next phase of Hardgate with a carefully controlled advance from Agira to Regalbuto. This time the objective, Regalbuto, sat on a rounded hump surrounded by higher hills. The defenders from the Hermann Göring Div. included an engineer battalion fighting as infantry, elements of 3rd Parachute Regt. and a company of Mk. IV tanks. Their orders were to hold their position “at all costs” adding that previously issued instructions for withdrawal were “preparatory” and required an “express order” from division.

For the attack, Simonds decided to use the 231st (Malta) Bde. with 1st Canadian Bde. ready to pass through it. South of Highway 121, the Regalbuto Ridge led to Mount Santa Lucia, a sharp peak overlooking the town. To the north a similar hill, Mount Serione, dominated the approach. Beyond these prime defensive positions are more hills, the town itself and a deep ravine. The 231st captured and held both the western end of the ridge and Mount Serione but could go no further and Simonds committed the Canadians late on the evening of July 31.

The Royal Canadian Regt. used a barely visible cross-country track to bypass the ridge and reach the ravine at the southern edge of Regalbuto. Their objective, Tower Hill east of the town, could only be reached by descending into the gully and then climbing the other shale-covered slope. The enemy responded with murderous fire forcing the RCRs to dig in until darkness permitted a withdrawal.

The 48th Highlanders, fighting on the northern side of the town, were also heavily engaged and Simonds decided to send the reserve battalion, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., on a wide flanking movement designed to seize Tower Hill and the town from the rear. Such an advance was easy to accomplish on a talc-covered map board but on the ground the Hasty Ps would have to cross the ravine, capture two isolated hills and then turn north to their objective. The battalion brought their heavy three-inch mortars with them and this, together with good artillery observation from Mount San Giorgio, won the day at Tower Hill, forcing an enemy withdrawal from a town that Canadian soldiers remember as a shattered ruin largely deserted by civilians who had fled the relentless air and artillery bombardment.

Largely but not entirely deserted, Regalbuto was no sooner liberated than it was attacked by a squadron of American fighter-bombers. Correspondent Peter Stursberg of the CBC was there to witness the “scenes of horror: a hand, white and lifeless, sticking out of the rubble; a girl on top of the wreckage of her home, crying and waving her arms in despair.” However, he did not fully report the incident as the “censors thought it would be bad for morale.” The problems of target identification in Sicily had led air commanders to avoid close-support missions and concentrate on attacking the rear areas. This time, both the Desert Air Force and the Americans had struck at the German convoys withdrawing to the east. Regalbuto had been mistaken for Adrano, the next objective.

While 1st Bde. fought for Regalbuto, 2nd Bde., co-ordinating its operations with the right-flank regiment of 1st U.S. Div., had worked its way around the town towards the heights above the Troina River. The Loyal Edmonton Regt. was in the lead supported by a platoon of the Saskatoon Light Inf., who made use of mules to transport mortars and medium machine-guns. With mules, progress was slow, estimated at a mile an hour over a boulder strewn, dry river bed. The heights, especially Hill 736, proved to be occupied by the enemy and the Edmontons were forced to try and dig in under the blazing sun until the mules arrived with the three-inch mortars and radios to contact the artillery. A set-piece attack with full support forced an enemy withdrawal and the Seaforths took over the lead.

The ground east of the Troina allowed the tanks of the Three Rivers Regt. to advance with the infantry and so Simonds ordered a tank-infantry battlegroup to strike east to the Simeto River and Adrano. The tanks could provide closer, more accurate fire support than the artillery and the Seaforths became enthusiastic practitioners of combined arms tactics. Stursberg interviewed Simonds after the battle and the divisional commander singled out the engineers who built the river crossings and improved the tracks for special praise, though he insisted that “each arm and service has gone full out to do its share.”

The advance to Adrano was the last major operation carried out by the Canadians in Sicily. As the German defensive perimeter contracted, the Canadians were squeezed out of the battle and sent into reserve. The headquarters of 1st Tank Bde. and the two armoured regiments–the Calgary Regt. and the Ontario Regt. that had been supporting British units–rejoined their comrades. Unfortunately, much of the concentration area south of Catania was a notorious malaria zone and despite precautions hundreds of new cases were added to the toll mosquitoes had taken since the July 10 landings. When the 562 deaths, 1,200 wounded and several hundred battle exhaustion casualties are added to this total, one in every four Canadians who fought in Sicily was a war casualty.

Many historians have questioned the conduct of the Sicilian campaign and wondered if it was worth the costs in blood and tears. Carlo D’Este, the best known American student of the campaign, describes Sicily as a “bitter victory” because much of the German army escaped across the Straits of Messina to fight another day. He also argues that the differences between the British and Americans over strategy were aggravated by national and personality conflicts among the Allied generals that were to influence operations for the rest of the war.

The leading Canadian historian of the campaign, Bill McAndrew, is careful to distinguish between the military achievements of the Canadians who fought so successfully at the section, platoon, company and battalion levels and the higher command. The failure “to prevent, stop or even hinder the German evacuation of the island” was, he writes, “a combined operations debacle.” Perhaps so, but the navy and air force both had good reasons for not committing resources to the costly task of closing the straits and the army had quite enough to do overcoming a determined enemy holding such favourable ground. Sicily was the first real test of what Canada’s citizen army could accomplish in battle and they passed with highest honours.

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