The Forgotten Front

Canadians fought continuously on Sicily and the Italian mainland from July 1943 to February 1945, losing more than 5,000 men. Why then is the Italian Campaign so overlooked today?


In May 1943, the British and Americans had finally liberated North Africa by defeating Germany’s Afrika Korps. But where would the Allies strike next?

The Americans had wanted to invade France in 1942 and still had hopes for an early assault, but the British remained wary. Could Italy be next? In the “soft underbelly” of Europe, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it, the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini was war-weary, and an invasion of Sicily might bring Il Duce (the leader) to the ground. The British hope was to force the Germans to deploy in strength in Italy, thus weakening their campaign in the Soviet Union and depleting their numbers in France. President Franklin Roosevelt agreed, and plans were drawn up for Operation Husky, an assault on July 10, 1943.

The Canadian government wanted a place in the Sicilian operation. The first Canadians had landed in England in December 1939. By mid-1943, the First Canadian Army, consisting of three infantry divisions, two armoured divisions and two armoured brigades, was in place under General Andrew McNaughton, its General Officer Commanding-in-Chief. The general wanted his troops kept together for the invasion of France, to spearhead the assault under his leadership. But McNaughton’s tactical skills were being questioned by senior British officers, and the government in Ottawa, feeling public pressure to avenge the disaster at Dieppe in August 1942, wanted its army to get into battle. Over McNaughton’s protests, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade were assigned to Husky in April 1943. McNaughton acceded only because the Canadians were to return to England after Sicily.

A crew with the 2nd Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery fires a 25-pounder at enemy  positions near Nissoria, Sicily, in July 1943. This  regiment served in Italy  until January 1945. [LAC/PA-151748]

A crew with the 2nd Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery fires a 25-pounder at enemy positions near Nissoria, Sicily, in July 1943. This regiment served in Italy until January 1945.

Getting to Sicily was no easy task. The Canadians left Britain on two convoys, one fast, one slow. The fast one reached Sicilian waters unharmed; the slow one lost three ships to U-boats, killing 58 soldiers and sinking more than 500 vehicles and 40 guns. The 1st Division’s headquarters, under Major-General Guy Simonds, would go ashore without its vehicles and signals equipment.

The Canadians landed in Sicily on July 10, 1943, as part of British General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army, fresh from its victories in North Africa, and alongside American forces.

Montgomery had worked with Simonds in England when he was Chief of Staff in I Canadian Corps, and he had decided that he was “the real brains” (in historian Doug Delaney’s words) at the Canadian headquarters. He was not wrong.

The Italian defenders on the Sicilian coast put up weak resistance everywhere in the first few days, and the troops quickly moved inland. The 1st Armoured’s Three Rivers Regiment, with its new Sherman tanks, received orders to support the Carleton and York Regiment in an attack on the village of Burgio. “Zero hour arrived,” wrote Major Jack Wallace, “and the attack rumbled forward with 35 tanks and a regiment of infantry.… We approached the objective ready for all hell to break loose until we saw a tiny white flag at the first house. Inside it we found four very poor Sicilian peasants.”

As Italian troops readily capitulated, the Canadians soon developed the reputation of being light-fingered. A surrendering general complained to Simonds that his soldiers had stopped his car and taken his flag. Then, as the general was being escorted into captivity, one of his staff “told him,” or so the division’s historical officer recorded, that a Canadian officer had lifted his pistol. “Come, let us go from here quickly,” the general said, “before they steal the very shirts from our backs.”

As the division marched up the island’s mountainous winding roads, they soon bumped into light German rearguards that forced the infantry into time-consuming deployments. On July 17 and 18, however, a German panzer grenadier regiment and armour stood and fought near Valguarnera, and the Canadians learned that the enemy had better machine guns and mortars and all the advantages the terrain provided. The town was taken, but at the cost of 145 casualties. The next 17 days brought more of the same, with major actions at Assoro, Leonforte, Agira, Regalbuto and Catenanuovo that helped break the centre of the German defences.

The campaign ended for the Canadians with a successful combined armour and infantry attack at the Simeto River on Aug. 5. The Seaforth Highlanders, under Lieutenant-Colonel Bert Hoffmeister, and the Three Rivers Regiment married up successfully, the tanks carrying the infantry close to Germany’s 3rd Parachute Regiment positions, and the Shermans providing fire support. “The whole thing,” Hoffmeister said, “was tied in extremely well.”

Fighting the Germans in Sicily provided some hard lessons, but the infantry and armour did well and some commanders proved themselves. Simonds led his division with skill in Montgomery’s view, and Brigadier Chris Vokes fought his brigade with tenacity. So too did Hoffmeister, who was soon to receive a brigade command.

Troops with the Royal 22nd Regiment are ready to disembark at Villapiana, Italy, on Sept. 16, 1943. [LAC/PA-115197]

Troops with the Royal 22nd Regiment are ready to disembark at Villapiana, Italy, on Sept. 16, 1943.

The Germans pulled their troops back to the Italian mainland after some 25,000 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Allies lost 19,000. The Canadians had 2,310 casualties, including 562 killed. The government now sensibly decided it made no sense to bring the 1st Division back to England, so it remained in theatre. Indeed, within a few months, Ottawa deployed the 5th Armoured Division and I Canadian Corps

headquarters to the Italian campaign, which began on Sept. 3 when the Allies landed on the mainland.

Initially, marching up the Italian boot was relatively easy, even though the Germans, now occupying Italy and completely running the battle after Italy switched sides on Sept. 8, fought a succession of delaying actions. Some were costly, as at Morta Montecorvino, Castelnuovo and Colle d’Anchise, but the Germans clearly had the intention of establishing a winter defensive line south of Rome.

This defensive position was strongly held, and it would sorely test the 1st Division, which had been ordered to fight on the east in the heavily ridged coastal plateau cut by rivers. Under fire, the Royal Canadian Engineers struggled to replace destroyed bridges over one river after another, and the division had a tough fight on the Sangro River in late November.

Then there was the much harder battle at the Moro River, a few kilometres south of the town of Ortona, in December. CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton described the slugging match there as “little Passchendaeles of mud and blood.” A deadly cycle of attack and counterattack occurred, with heavy casualties on both sides before the Canadians got across. After the Moro came “The Gully,” a deep fold in the ground that cost scores of Canadian lives as eight attacks by battalion after battalion battered against the enemy atop the high bank. Crossing The Gully took from Dec. 11 to 19 and cost 1,000 Canadian casualties.

As Christmas neared, the 1st Division entered Ortona, defended by Germany’s elite 1st Parachute Division. The paras had created defensive positions in the houses and blown up other residences to create interlocking fields of fire. Even tanks had been placed hull down in bombed-out houses. The only way to move was through the walls of connecting row houses, clearing one and mouse-holing into the next and tossing grenades to the floors above and below. The enemy booby-trapped some houses and left attractive objects behind to entice looters. One explosion caught an entire Canadian platoon.

On Dec. 25, men who were able to do so left the line for a roast pork dinner and a bottle of beer in a ruined church, then returned to their positions to fight again. Not every man was able to break free. Major Jim Stone of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment remembered that “I was on the main street of Ortona, directing a local attack ordered by my C.O. Three of my men were killed on the street before 0900 hours. My Christmas dinner was a cold pork chop brought forward on a Bren Carrier. A most unhappy day.”

“If it wasn’t hell, it was the courtyard of hell,” the CBC’s Halton described the Ortona inferno. “It was a maelstrom of noise and hot spitting steel. Perhaps 30 or 40 Canadian machine guns were brrppping at once. It sounded like hundreds.… And the enemy’s anti-tank shells and mortars were crashing into the buildings everywhere.…”

The enemy pulled out silently on Dec. 27, with two of its divisions as badly battered as the Canadians.

“If any Canadian soldiers ever had any doubts about the Germans’ abilities as soldiers,” wrote army dentist Captain Harry Jolley, “his experience here has undoubtedly set them at rest.”

“The Germans were superb…and when that is said, our Canadians were better,” said Halton. “The Boche had all the cards: the prepared positions, the hundreds of booby traps and mines. We had to seek him out and kill him man by man.… The attacking Canadians beat two of the finest German divisions that ever marched.”

But the Canadians had also lost 176 officers and 2,163 men killed, wounded and captured, along with more than 1,600 evacuated because of illness or battle exhaustion. Half their fighting strength had been gutted, and the 1st Division had shot its bolt.

“Everything before Ortona was a nursery tale,” said General Vokes, the general officer commanding (GOC) since November. “I am compelled to bring to your attention,” he told his British corps commander, “that in my opinion the infantry units of this division will not be in a fit condition to undertake further offensive operations until they have had a period of rest.…”

Members of the Carleton and York Regiment advance up a side street to rescue a comrade felled by a sniper’s bullet in Campochiaro, Italy,  on Oct. 23, 1943. [CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM/19920085-1030]

Members of the Carleton and York Regiment advance up a side street to rescue a comrade felled by a sniper’s bullet in Campochiaro, Italy, on Oct. 23, 1943.

The I Canadian Corps had become operational in November 1943, but did not fight a full-scale action until May 1944, in the Liri Valley south of Rome. The corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General E.L.M. “Smiler” Burns, so dubbed because he never smiled, had the still largely untried 5th Canadian Armoured and the 1st Canadian Infantry divisions under his command. The Fifth’s GOC was now Major-General Bert Hoffmeister. A mid-level lumber manager in Vancouver in civilian life, Hoffmeister had been a success as commander of the Seaforth Highlanders, and his brigade had taken Ortona. Now this able officer, who led from the front, had a division.

The big British-led push up the Liri Valley aimed to breach the Gustav and Hitler lines. In addition to the strength of the enemy’s superbly fortified defences, the difficulty was that the Liri was a constricted valley with too many units trying to use too few roads. The Canadians entered the battle on May 16 and advanced slowly. On May 23, the corps launched a set-piece assault near Pontecorvo, running into intense enemy fire, “worse by far than the fire in front of Ortona,” one Seaforth officer wrote. The Hitler Line was breached, but the casualties again were terrible: 3,300 killed, wounded or taken captive, and another 4,000 injured and ill. The advance was a success, but the Eighth Army commander, General Oliver Leese, complained bitterly about Canadian trucks jamming the roads and slowing the advance, something perhaps more attributable to his staff’s incompetence than the Canadians’. Leese tried to sack Burns, but the top Canadian brass refused to agree, and Smiler stayed in place.

The advance rolled toward Rome, seized by American troops on June 4, 1944. It was the first Axis capital to fall and it made headlines everywhere. But the Normandy invasion on June 6 grabbed the top spot and never gave it up. The quickly forgotten warriors—“the D-Day Dodgers in sunny Italy,” as their rueful song had it—soldiered on. If it had been something of a sideshow before, the Italian campaign all but disappeared from the public’s view after D-Day.

Heading to the front in high spirits, troops in the Governor General’s Horse Guard move through the Liri River valley in central Italy on  May 26, 1944. [LAC/PA-168026]

Heading to the front in high spirits, troops in the Governor General’s Horse Guard move through the Liri River valley in central Italy on May 26, 1944.

The fighting didn’t stop, however. The next major Canadian battle took place north of Florence in the Appenine Mountains. The Germans had built yet another defensive position, the Gothic Line, and I Canadian Corps had the job of breaking the eastern edge of it and opening the road north to Rimini and the Po River valley. As the Canadians reached the Gothic defences on Aug. 27, Hoffmeister went forward on reconnaissance before the scheduled attack on Sept. 1–2. Startled to observe that the enemy positions were still largely unmanned (the Germans having been convinced by an Allied disinformation campaign that the main attack would come farther west), he persuaded Burns to advance the date of the attack.

The Germans quickly manned their positions when the Canadian assault began, and there were very heavy casualties again. But Hoffmeister’s coup and his and Vokes’ soldiers’ cracking of the Gothic Line forced a German withdrawal on Sept. 1. Most Canadian military historians now agree that it was the finest feat of the war by Canadian soldiers. The 5th Armoured Division was now “Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine,” so-called for the maroon divisional patch they wore. Burns had won a victory, but he was soon sacked: Vokes and Hoffmeister could not work well with him, and the Eighth Army’s commander similarly found him difficult. The equally dour Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes replaced Burns.

The Canadians remained in Italy until February 1945, fighting almost continuously and taking casualties every day, until they were ordered to Northwest Europe to rejoin First Canadian Army.

I Canadian Corps had been one of the very best formations in Italy, and its soldiers would add their strength and experience to that of their comrades in Holland and Germany. Their role in Italy had lasted more than a year and a half and involved 92,757 Canadians. Remaining behind in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries were 5,764 officers and men, while 19,486 Canadians were wounded and 1,004 captured. In all, there were 26,254 casualties, more than one in four of those who served.

The goal of the Italian Campaign had been to tie down German forces, and it did. But to do this, the Allies devoted substantially more of their own resources than the enemy to the brutal slogging match. For the Canadians, the long supply lines from Canada and Britain stretched very thinly, and infantry reinforcements had become scarce through the summer and autumn of 1944. It was a long, hard war, and it was far from over. It would be won only by more men and more machines.

The forgotten Italian front remains largely neglected today. There are some fine books on the Canadian role, but the campaign is not taught in schools and is only lightly examined even in the few universities that teach military history. The Canadian focus—even Veterans Affairs Canada’s focus—remains almost completely fixed on the First World War, the fighting in Normandy, the clearing of the Scheldt, and the liberation of Holland from June 6, 1944, to V-E Day on May 8, 1945. It is long past time to remember the gruelling, costly campaign in Italy more clearly. The veterans of Ortona, the Hitler Line and the Gothic Line deserve nothing less.

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