Looking Beyond The Casualties: Army, Part 17

September 1, 1997 by Terry Copp

The University of Edinburgh in Scotland has recently established a centre for WW II studies that could serve as a model for Canadian universities. Its mandate is “to promote knowledge and understanding of all aspects” of WW II and to “stimulate research into major themes and problems relating to war.” To accomplish this, the centre–under director Paul Addison–has established a masters degree program that focuses on homefronts and battlefronts. He has also developed a partnership with Lamancha, the independent film production company that created the outstanding Battlefield series shown recently on the Public Broadcasting System.Addison also persuaded renowned spy novelist and popular historian Len Deighton to join the centre, and Deighton has written the foreword to a new book containing the papers presented at the 1995 conference on The Soldier’s Experience of War. The book, published by Pimlico, London, is titled Time To Kill. It is described by Deighton as “the most stimulating collection of military history” he has yet encountered. As one of the contributors I must be appropriately modest about my own discussion of 1st Canadian Army in the Rhineland battle, but otherwise Deighton is right: This book is full of interesting, provocative essays.

The collection includes a number of articles on the war in Italy that help to provide some important perspectives on a campaign that was central to the experience of Canadians in WW II. For example, an article by Brian Sullivan examines the Italian soldier in combat and offers information on training, or lack of it, equipment and leadership instead of stereotypes about the Italians as fighting men. Another essay–appropriately titled Matters of Honour–examines the role of the Indian Army in the battles for Cassino and the Gothic Line. With thousands of young Canadians of South Asian descent in our schools and universities it is important to learn and teach about the role of the Indian soldier in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The 8th Indian Infantry Division fought alongside Canadians at Moro River, Ortona and elsewhere while 1st Cdn. Armored Brigade supported the 8th in the assault on the Gothic Line. Their war was as heroic and costly as everyone else’s and their story needs to be told. The author, Gerard Douds, concludes his account with a verse from a song sung in the 8th Div. that tells part of that story.

Oh bury me at Cassino

My duty to England is done

And when you get back to Blighty

And you are drinking your whiskey and rum

Remember the old Indian soldier

When the war that he fought has been won!

Canadian veterans have much stronger memories of contact with the Scots. The Jocks of 51st Highland Div. had fought with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and in 1943 landed with 1st Cdn. Div. at Sicily. Sent home to take part in the D-Day landings, 51st Highland Div. was later reunited with the Canadians in Normandy. A history conference held in the heart of Scotland could not help but address the particular experience of the Scottish soldier. The conference organizers invited Diana Henderson, director of the Scots at War Trust and Hamish Henderson, the writer and poet, to discuss the impact of the war on the Scottish soldier.

Hamish Henderson served as an intelligence officer with 51st Highland Div. in North Africa and Sicily. He wrote his deeply moving poem, The Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily, when the division was recalled to Britain for Operation Overlord. The haunting chorus of one of the great poems of the war is a reminder that everyone who served in Italy has cause to remember the experience of war in the Mediterranean.

Then farewell ye banks Sicily,

Fare ye weel, ye valley and shaw.

There’s nae Jock will mourn

the kyles of ye

Puir bluidy swaddies are weary.

Henderson was also the author of “three-thirds of the original words” to the song D-Day Dodgers which became the theme of all British and Canadian troops in Italy. He recalled writing the verses to fit the tune of Lili Marlene after learning that Lady Nancy Astor had used, the phrase D-Day Dodgers in a speech. Hamish Henderson, who is now in his late 70s, then sang the song in a light, true tenor voice that took people back to 1944.

The final paper on the long bloody crawl up the Italian peninsula was presented by Richard Holmes, one of the most interesting and innovative military historians in Britain. His recent book, Riding the Retreat, tells the story of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat from Mons, Belgium, interweaving the events of 1914 with his own experiences at retracing the route on horseback in the 1990s.

Holmes describes some of the basic realities of the war in Italy where the battlefleld reminded war veterans of conditions they experienced on the Western Front in WW I. The Italian campaign, which lasted from July 10, 1943, to May 2, 1945, cost the Allies 320,995 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The German and Italian total–not counting those who surrendered at the capitulation–was 658,339. Of the 92,757 Canadians who served in Italy, 5,399 were killed, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 were taken prisoner.

Holmes does not explore all dimensions of the soldiers experience of war in Italy and there is much to be learned from other studies. Colonel Sydney Frost’s outstanding memoir of his war service, Once A Patricia, includes a chapter simply titled Malaria. He writes: “Shortly after joining the scouts and snipers, I started having headaches … my muscles ached and I started to run a fever. Severe chills racked my body, alternating with a fever of 105 degrees. It was obvious to everyone except me that I would have to be evacuated.” Frost was one of more than 1,200 cases of malaria that afflicted 1st Cdn. Div. in July and August of 1943. The soldiers had been instructed to take mepacrine to prevent infection, but battle conditions did not always encourage this and after fighting through a highly malarial area the division was rested in an equally dangerous zone.

Malaria never reached these epidemic proportions again and in 1944 it was just one of the diseases that contributed to the extraordinary health problems that wreaked havoc on the Allied armies, including the Canadians. Official medical statistics show that in 1944 there were 831 disease-related admissions to medical units for every 1,000 Canadian soldiers serving in Italy. The leading problem, 143 admissions, was diseases of the digestive system, while jaundice or infectious hepatitis struck almost one in 10–nearly double the rate for malaria. Venereal disease accounted for 73 admissions per 1,000 while respiratory problems accounted for 60 skin diseases 44. Accidental injuries brought the number of non-battle admissions to 910 per 1,000. Non-fatal battle casualties, including battle exhaustion, added another 210 per 1,000, creating the remarkable statistical truth that there were 1,091 admissions for every 1,000 Canadians serving in Italy.

Disease is a dimension of war that is rarely integrated into our accounts of strategy, but the implications are obvious. The decision to conduct a major campaign in Italy imposed extraordinary burdens on everyone involved. Military historians usually compare the number of combat troops engaged and conclude that tying down 20-odd German divisions with a similar number of Allied units was a good bargain. The difficulty was that maintaining Allied divisions at the end of a 1,000-mile supply line in a country like Italy required hundreds of thousands of support troops not to mention air, naval and merchant marine forces. For the Canadian Army, with its commitment to providing separate medical and psychiatric services, this also meant the buildup of no less than six general hospitals and a number of special units to deal with combat stress casualties. The war in Italy was not fought on the cheap.

The invasion of the Italian mainland began on Sept. 3, 1943, with assaults by British and American troops at Salerno south of Naples. General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, including 1st Cdn. Div., made a virtually unopposed crossing of the narrow Strait of Messina to the toe of the Italian boot. The Canadians found themselves caught up in a frustratingly slow advance along narrow roads that quickly became congested with the vehicles of a motorized army. The slowness of the British and Canadian advance became a matter of urgency and controversy. Even the most generous interpretation of Montgomery’s behaviour in ordering a lengthy pause while German counter-attacks threatened the Salerno beachhead questioned Montgomery’s judgment and motives. The pressure was on when a group of journalists from 8th Army headquarters reached Salerno and reported that nothing opposed Montgomery’s advance. The Canadians were ordered to seize Potenza, a railway junction 50 miles east of Salerno.

This operation has recently been studied by Lee Windsor, a brilliant young historian who is re-examining Canada’s role in the Italian campaign. His article on Boforce, which appeared in the Autumn 1995 issue of Canadian Military History, challenges those who question the combat effectiveness of the Canadian Army. He argues that “the thrust to take the town of Potenza is just one of the many examples of superior performance in the Italian campaign.”

Boforce, named for Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Bogert, CO of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, was developed as a fully motorized flying column. It was made up of the West Novas and Calgary Tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, plus a platoon of Saskatoon Light Infantry with their medium machine-guns. The advance moved quickly by skirting around blown bridges. By the evening of Sept. 19, after just 36 hours on the road, Boforce reached the high ground above Potenza. Gen. Guy Simonds, the divisional commander, ordered Bogert to attack that night.

The Germans had already begun their withdrawal north, but they held onto Potenza with elements of 1st Parachute Div. The battle for Potenza lasted until the afternoon of the 20th when the enemy withdrew to avoid being cut off. The Canadian thrust had surprised the Germans and forced them to retreat much sooner than they had planned. The success of Boforce suggests 8th Army could have moved much more quickly north if ordered to. It also demonstrates the growing professionalism of the Canadian Army and the high quality of its leadership. Guy Simonds had taken Montgomery’s belated orders and created an effective all-arms battle group of the kind the German army is always being praised for employing. Unfortunately, Simonds fell victim to jaundice, an infection that has no respect for rank, and was forced to enter hospital and hand over 1st Div. to Chris Vokes.

Canadian casualties at Potenza were very light by the standards of later battles: Six killed and 21 wounded. It was the civilians who suffered the greatest losses with as many as 2,000 killed in air raids directed against a town that functioned as a railway centre and route for reinforcements. The Italian people would continue to pay a high price for Mussolini’s grandiose dreams.

After Salerno and the liberation of Naples, the Allied high command appeared confused and uncertain. The invasion of mainland Italy had been justified by the promise of an immediate surrender of Italian forces and the prospect of establishing airfields for the heavy bombers in the Foggia plains. As a bonus some German troops, who would otherwise be fighting on the Eastern Front or strengthening the Atlantic Wall in France, would have to remain in Italy to defend the industrial centres in the north.

Allied planning in October reflected the belief that no major operations were required. Gen. Harold Alexander, the overall general commander, limited his objective to “the seizing of vital areas” for “all-weaker airfields, ports and centres of road communication.” The retreating Germans would be harassed by light mobile forces, and the Allies planned to enter Rome before Christmas.

The Canadian role in this projected advance was to begin with the capture of Campobasso. For the first phase a Canadian battle group under Lt.-Col. F.D. Adams of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards co-operated with the famous Popski’s Private Army, an irregular force that relied on jeep-mounted machine guns and bold, rapid movement. The Canadians pooled their resources with the Russo-Belgian commander Major Peniakoff. This created a combined armoured-car and jeep force that moved out ahead of the rest of the division.

The enemy was trying to delay the Allied advance, not block it. The battles on the road to Campobasso were short and sharp, but sometimes very costly. Most of them have been forgotten except by the men who were there. Take for example the capture of Motta Montecorvino and Mount Sambuco. The village was attacked by two squadrons of Calgary Tanks, part of yet another battle group, commanded by Lt.-Col. C.H. Neroutsos. The infantry could not join the armour as the approaches were swept by machine-gun fire, so the tanks withdrew.

The 2nd Cdn. Field Regt., which had been stuck in traffic on the narrow eastwest road, dignified as Highway 17, arrived and shortly after 3 a.m. on Oct. 2 the guns opened up on the village. The Royal Canadian Regt., which had been repulsed earlier that night, used the artillery and a violent thunderstorm to rush the village forcing the German paratroopers to withdraw to Mount Sambuco, a mile to the west. This ridge of the Daunia Mountains dominated Highway 17 and the roads north. So, the Germans appeared determined to fight for it.

Brigadier Howard Graham directed a systematic assault. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. moved cross-country to the slopes of the mountain while the RCR worked its way through a series of muddy pastures to the south end of the ridge. That night the Hasty Ps scaled Mount Sambuco and the RCR took its objective. The official history reports that “there was bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness and rain but by daylight on Oct. 3 the whole ridge was in our hands.” The two nights fighting had cost the brigade 78 casualties.

The next hill was just two miles away and so a new attack–with the 48th Highlanders of Canada in the lead–was mounted. Volturava fell quickly but just ahead was the Fortore River, sure to be defended. Fortunately 3rd Bde. was available to take over and the men of 1st Bde. could pull back to find a place to sleep.

These bald accounts of battalion level actions can’t possibly convey the reality of the soldier’s experience of war. Let us hope that young historians will take up the challenge and tell some of the hundreds of stories that will illuminate and give meaning to the contribution of those who sang the Canadian, version of Hamish Henderson’s song:

We fought in Agira, a holiday with pay;

Jerry brought his bands out to cheer us on our way,

Showed us the sights and gave us tea

We all sang songs, the beer was free.

We are the D-Day dodgers,

in sunny Italy.

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