From Leonforte To Agira: Army, Part 61

PHOTO: JACK H. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA--PA151748

PHOTO: JACK H. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA151748

Members of the Royal Canadian Artillery fire on an enemy position near Nissoria, Sicily, in July 1943.

Sicily is an island of extremes and in July, when the sun shines for 11 hours a day, temperatures often reach 40°C. The men who fought for the hill towns of central Sicily in 1943 remember the heat, the dust and the stony landscape with its conical hills and steep ravines. To overcome an enemy holding the high ground required the kind of physical strength and mental agility shown by the men of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment during their climb to the heights of Assoro, northwest of the city of Catania.

While the regiment was planning its daring adventure, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry gained control of Mount Desira Rossi, a craggy projection south of the Dittaino River. The commander of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Chris Vokes and his battalion commanders were thus able to study the approaches to Leonforte, 2nd Brigade’s objective.

Leonforte, a town of some 22,000, was astride Highway 117, the main road to the north coast of Sicily. The prospect of taking it was not inviting. The Patricias’ historian described the town as “oblong in shape and a kilometre in length.” He noted it could only be entered along a “twisty switchback road which crossed a deep ravine on the southern outskirts of the built-up area. The approach to the bridge, which had been destroyed, was on a reverse curve. This gave the enemy a clear field of fire. The town itself–built on a steep hillside and extending over its crest–was so complete that nothing but plunging fire could reach its garrison. Its narrow twisty streets afforded every facility for street fighting and dispersed defence.”

Intelligence reports suggested the Germans were withdrawing to positions closer to Mount Etna–further to the east–and that Leonforte was “lightly held.” So, Vokes ordered the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada to seize the town during the night of July 20-21.

The Vancouver battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Bert Hoffmeister, had met well-organized resistance at Valguarnera and had dealt with it by directing artillery fire on positions the enemy quickly abandoned. When the Seaforths encountered a similar situation at the ravine near Leonforte they called on their mortars and the field artillery to suppress the enemy’s fire. However, as the day wore on it was evident that the Germans held Leonforte in strength.

Vokes ordered Hoffmeister to launch a full-scale attack behind a bombardment to be fired by the entire divisional artillery. This attempt at demoralizing and disorganizing the defenders required the gunners to plot their targets from a map, a procedure known as predicted fire. Unfortunately, such area shoots were sometimes subject to error due to faulty maps, inadequate meteorological data and other variables. On this occasion at least four shells fell on the farm where the Seaforths were completing an Orders Group, killing or wounding a number of officers and men. Vokes ordered the Edmonton Regt. to take over the attack. This allowed the Seaforths time to withdraw and reorganize.

The Edmonton Regt., which became known as the Loyal Edmonton Regt. on Oct. 31, 1943, was sent forward with two Saskatoon Light Infantry medium machine-gun platoons. Together, their task was to provide covering fire. With this support, two companies entered the ravine and scaled the far bank, working their way forward under cover of darkness. This time the preliminary barrage was well concentrated on the southern end of the town and the enemy withdrew or went to ground allowing the two lead Edmonton companies to enter the town. The left flank company was counter-attacked and withdrew in some confusion. On the right, both the lead and follow-up companies reached the centre of Leonforte before enemy tanks forced them to “break into houses and form defensive positions” until the engineers bridged the ravine, allowing the tanks of the Three Rivers Regt. to join the battle.

The battalion signallers were unable to get through and this was a common problem in the mountains of central Sicily. Lt.-Col. J.C. Jefferson recruited a young Italian, Antonio Giussepi, to serve as a runner. His job: deliver a message to brigade. Reassured that the Edmonton’s were still holding firm in the town, the commander of the 90th Anti-Tank Battery, Major G.A. Welsh managed to get two of his six-pounder anti-tank guns across the ravine where they were used to destroy a machine-gun nest and knock out a German tank that controlled entry into the town. The engineers completed their bridge on the afternoon of July 22 and Vokes sent a “flying column” of tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns–with a company of PPCLI on board–into the centre of Leonforte. Jefferson recalled the arrival of the lead Three Rivers Sherman tank just as an enemy tank rounded the corner approaching his headquarters. “The Canadian gunner was lightning fast on the trigger and the enemy tank exploded almost in our faces.”

The battle group, led by Captain R.C. Coleman, then went about the task of clearing the town with skill and determination. By late afternoon, the enemy had withdrawn to high ground on the edge of the built-up area and two additional PPCLI companies were committed to clearing these positions.

Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, the official historian of the campaign, notes that 21 awards for bravery were made for actions at Leonforte, including the incredible deeds performed by Private S.J. Cousins of the PPCLI. Cousins, confronted by devastating fire from two enemy machine-gun posts, “rose to his feet in full view of the enemy and carrying his Bren gun boldly charged the enemy posts” silencing both machine-guns. Cousins who was killed later that day was Mentioned in Dispatches because neither the Distinguished Conduct Medal nor the Military Medal can be awarded posthumously.

The battle for Leonforte cost the Canadians 56 men killed and 105 wounded. But it also cost the Germans a key position on their outer defensive perimeter. The road north to Troina was now clear and the 1st U.S. Division, which was pushing north from Enna, could advance with a secure flank. The Big Red One and the Red Patch Div. exchanged liaison officers and prepared to deal with Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s new plan to cease the battering at Catania and concentrate on breaking the Etna defences from the west. Gen. George Patton’s 45th Div. was to begin advancing along the north coast highway, while 1st U.S. and 1st Cdn. Div. operated on parallel roads in the centre of the island. The 231st British Bde., known from its earlier deployment as the Malta Bde., was placed under Canadian command.

The task assigned to Lt.-Gen. G.G. Simonds required an immediate advance to Agira and on the afternoon of July 22 he met with brigade commanders to outline his plans. The Malta Bde. was to advance from the south and seize positions on the high ground east of Agira. The 1st Cdn. Bde. was to launch an attack along a six-kilometre stretch of highway, the main road to Catania. The planning assumption was that the enemy would hold the hilltop defences around Agira. Little attention was paid to the village of Nissoria, located on low ground along the highway between two low ridges.

The Germans, an infantry battalion of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Div., supported by a few tanks and self-propelled guns, had been surprised by the “remarkable athletic accomplishments” of the “British” troops who had appeared “in our backs during the night” at Assoro. They decided to defend Agira using the reverse slopes of the two ridges at Nissoria as the first and second lines of defence. Simond’s plan to use aircraft and field and medium artillery to support 1st Bde.’s move into Agira assumed that a relatively light barrage–lifting 200 metres every two minutes–would be enough to neutralize the enemy and permit the Canadians to close and destroy.

A Royal Canadian Regt. company commander described the advance as resembling “a training picture” as “an irregular line of troops” moved forward. The “clank and whine of Shermans lifted great clouds of dust…and in the distance the artillery layed a smokey, metal pall over the hills.” The operations of war are very different from training exercises and once the barrage lifted the enemy responded quickly, inflicting casualties on the lead companies and knocking out 10 of the Three Rivers Shermans. The RCR reserve companies also reacted, swinging around to their right where they discovered a deep gully running parallel to the road. Following this route they reached a position well beyond Nissoria and halfway to Agira. They were, however, unable to establish radio contact and unwilling to advance further without orders.

Neither Brig. Howard Graham nor Simonds knew where the RCR companies were. They arranged for a deliberate attack on Nissoria by the Hasty Ps to be carried out after midnight. The battalion secured Nissoria, but the second ridge east of the village was well defended and, at dawn, German mortar fire inflicted further casualties. This engagement cost the Hasty Ps 80 killed and wounded, the heaviest single-day losses suffered by any Canadian battalion in Sicily.

Two attempts to reach Agira had failed and since Simonds had ordered the RCR companies to withdraw to avoid casualties from their own artillery it was clearly time to pause and reorganize. The 48th Highlanders of Canada were told to capture Monte di Nissoria, the peak north of the village, in preparation for a new advance by 2nd Bde. to be made on the evening of July 26. Lt.-Col. Ian Johnston sent a single company forward hoping to secure the northern end of the feature before committing the rest of his battalion. The lead company got onto its objective, but attempts to expand the foothold failed in the face of enemy fire and the Highlanders withdrew.

Simonds, under pressure from his corps and army commanders, had little choice but to press ahead. The 1st U.S. Infantry Div. was meeting fierce resistance at Nicosia, north of Nissoria, and so a new attack was planned for July 27. From Nicosia, Highway 120 ran east along the northern edge of Mount Etna. This offered an opportunity to outflank the enemy holding up Montgomery’s advance. The Canadians and the newly arrived British 78th Div. were playing a vital supporting role and an all-out effort was required. Unfortunately, this meant that Agira would be attacked while the enemy held the northern flank.

This problem was partly overcome on the night of July 26 when a platoon from D Company of the Edmonton Regt. “travelling light but with all their platoon weapons plus extra ammunitions” walked “eight miles over volcanically torn up country” to cut the Agira-Nicosia road. They dug-in at a point where the road crosses a small ridge at the end of a switchback turn and held the position, ambushing German trucks and accounting for three tanks and a valuable tank recovery vehicle before reinforcements arrived. Lieutenant John Dougan was awarded the Military Cross for this action.

The plan for the third attempt to seize Agira recognized the enemy’s determination to hold the low ridge–code-named Lion–east of Nissoria. The Patricias advanced behind the largest artillery barrage yet fired in Sicily. The attack, supported by two squadrons of Three Rivers tanks, was a complete success. As darkness fell the reserve companies were ordered forward to capture Tiger, a low ridge 1,000 metres to the east. However, the Sicilian landscape defeated all efforts to keep up with the barrage.

Vokes went ahead with the next stage of the plan by committing the Seaforth Highlanders to attack Grizzly, the high ground on the western edge of Agira. The right flank Seaforth company discovered that the enemy had regained control of parts of Lion which they held until daybreak. On the left, A Co., commanded by Maj. H.P. Bell-Irving, bypassed the enemy reaching Tiger by first light and routing the enemy. Hoffmeister ordered his reserve companies forward to consolidate the gains and deal with the expected counter-attack.

However, the enemy was in no condition to launch a counter-attack. The only available reserve was a fresh battalion from 29 Panzer Grenadier Div. It was brought forward to take over the defence of Grizzly while the battered 104th Panzer Grenadier Regt. reorganized. The key to the Grizzly position, Monte Fronte, was strongly posted with additional machine-gun and mortars, but they failed to appreciate the determination of Bell-Irving and his men. Leaving one platoon at the base of the hill to occupy the enemy’s attention, he led the balance of the company around the right flank where terraced orchards and vineyards provided cover to the base of a 300-foot cliff which they promptly scaled. When reinforcements arrived, Bell-Irving was able to clear the rest of Monte Fronte.

The northern end of Grizzly was dominated by Cemetery Hill and when the Edmonton Regiment’s attack began the enemy seemed in full control. Once again success depended upon the initiative of company and platoon commanders. A section of men worked their way around the hill creating distractions that allowed the rest of the company to charge the enemy with fixed bayonets. By the morning of July 28, Grizzly was secure.

Taking no chances, Simonds arranged for full artillery support to attack Agira. The Patricias and the sorely tired citizens of the town were spared further casualties when an artillery observation officer discovered that the streets to Agira were filled with friendly people anxious to welcome the Canadians. The barrage was cancelled and the Patricia’s entered the town as liberators. Agira cost the Canadians 438 casualties, the costliest battle of the Sicilian campaign.

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