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Hard-Hitting Armour: Army, Part 78

A tank rumbles through San Pancrazio, Italy, July 1944. [PHOTO: ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA115031]

A tank rumbles through San Pancrazio, Italy, July 1944.

The decision during the Italian Campaign to withdraw the Canadian Corps from the battle south of Rome and from the pursuit of the German forces retreating to Florence allowed for a lengthy rest and training period in the Volturno Valley. According to the historical officer attached to 1st Cdn. Division, leave arrangements in June and July 1944 were “extensive and generous” with rest areas in Bari, Salerno and Amalfi.

Of course it was not all rest and relaxation. The lessons of combat in the Liri Valley were studied with special attention given to better methods of controlling artillery fire, and improving tank-infantry co-operation. The 21st British Tank Brigade was made available to work with 1st Div. because 1st Cdn. Armoured Bde. was with 13th British Corps, leading the advance to Florence.

Criticism of the Canadian effort in the Liri Valley focused on higher command. General Oliver Leese and other senior British officers were lavish in their praise of Canadian combat units and regarded 1st Cdn. Div. and 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde. among the best and most experienced troops in Italy. While it was politically impossible to break up the Cdn. Corps or place it under a British officer, Leese was determined to retain control of 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde.

Gen. Oliver Leese presents the Military Cross to Capt. J.L. Buchan of the Calgary Regt. [PHOTO: ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA144107]

Gen. Oliver Leese presents the Military Cross to Capt. J.L. Buchan of the Calgary Regt.

The 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde. was formed in 1941 in response to British requests for a larger Canadian commitment of armoured units. Winston Churchill had already told his cabinet colleagues that the Allies “cannot hope to compete (against the Germans) in numbers of men and must therefore rely upon an exceptional proportion of armoured vehicles.”

Churchill wanted 10 armoured divisions by the end of 1941. As part of this, Canada was asked to send both an armoured division and an independent infantry-support tank brigade to the United Kingdom. And this was to be done as soon as possible. The Ontario Regiment (11th CAR), the Three Rivers Regt. (12th CAR), and the Calgary Regt. (14th CAR) arrived in England in July 1941 to form what was then called 1st Cdn. Army Tank Bde.

The Calgary Regt. was selected to provide the tank component of the August 1942 Dieppe Raid and its fine performance validated the intensive training each regiment had undergone. The brigade, commanded by Brigadier Robert Wyman, participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, though only the Three Rivers Regt. fought continuously in support of 1st Cdn. Div.

All three regiments had extensive battle experience by the spring of 1944 and were highly regarded throughout 8th Army. The Three Rivers Regt., today the 12e Régiment blindé du Canada, earned particular praise for its role in supporting 78th British Div. at Termoli on the Adriatic coast. All three regiments fought with skill and effectiveness in support of 8th Indian and 1st Canadian divisions at the Moro River and at Ortona.

Members of the Ontario Regt. dine in Italy, June 1944. [PHOTO: BARRY G. GILROY, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA145776]

Members of the Ontario Regt. dine in Italy, June 1944.

In late February 1944, Wyman left Italy to take command of 2nd Cdn. Armd. Bde. in preparation for the Normandy invasion. Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Murphy, the senior staff officer of 5th Armd. Div., was promoted to replace Wyman and he commanded the brigade for the balance of the war. Michael Boire, a Royal Military College of Canada historian and amoured corps officer who is the acknowledged expert on the brigade, notes that Murphy’s job was “to dish out his nine tank squadrons to British and Indian units,” rather than plan manoeuvres. He and his staff, “largely scientists and university people,” were required to anticipate future moves and keep “a close eye on the battle to make sure replenishment and repair of each regiment’s tanks was as rapid as possible.” Boire describes the brigade headquarters as a “finishing school for regimental officers lucky enough to be selected for a great learning experience.” Murphy’s liaison officers, “a constantly changing group of lieutenants and captains, were responsible for everything from finding harbour areas and accommodations to collecting new maps and delivering and explaining orders up and down the chain of command.”

Brigade headquarters also encouraged the armoured regiments to share their experiences. Captain R.I. Currelly, the historical officer attached to the brigade, interviewed commanding officers and squadron commanders and produced a summary of “lessons learned in the Gustav and Hitler operations.” Among the key points was the need for infantry to precede tanks while operating in close country. The tanks would be used to blast houses or machine-gun enemy positions or likely enemy positions. This required the closest possible infantry-tank co-operation. The use of the light Honey tanks to bring supplies forward had worked well, but the threat of enemy shelling meant that during resupply, smaller units had to be well spread out. Most crew casualties occurred when men were outside their tanks, when much greater caution was required.

A Canadian tank on the move near Montevarchi, Italy, July 1944. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA160454]

A Canadian tank on the move near Montevarchi, Italy, July 1944.

Infantry-tank co-operation was only part of the story. When artillery observers were forward with the tank squadrons, quick fire could be used to destroy the enemy. The Three Rivers Regt. suggested that “our own field artillery could lift practically on top of advancing armour. This could develop a ‘steamroller’ effect which would be invaluable in overcoming a tough pocket of resistance.” Infantry would then exploit any initial success.

The “best armoured brigade in Italy” began to play its part in the long pursuit on June 11, 1944, when it was ordered north to support 4th British Infantry Div.’s advance to Arezzo, roughly 30 miles south of Florence. Before the move could begin, the Calgary Regt. lost the services of its exceptional commander, Lt.-Col. C.H. Neroutsos, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order.

The brigade’s war diary provides a glimpse into the mindset of those who served. Neroutsos, a Canadian of Greek ancestry, had joined the Three Rivers Regt. and by 1943 was second-in-command. Promoted to lead the Calgaries, he soon earned the affection and respect of the westerners. During the previous battles in the Liri Valley, Neroutsos had continued in action despite having “to wear a steel brace on his leg.” The brace allowed him to walk well enough to command his regiment. Major (later Lt.-Col.) C.A. Richardson took over the Calgaries in time to begin training in tank-infantry co-operation with 4th British Div. Each Canadian regiment was assigned to work with one of the three infantry brigades.

Before examining the battles of late June 1944 it would be best to establish the strategic and operational context of that time. Gen. Harold Alexander, the overall commander of Allied armies in Italy, was deeply involved in the debate over Operation Anvil, the invasion of the south of France which was timed for mid-August. He opposed Anvil, but in the end had to transfer 6th United States Corps and the most experienced French divisions to 7th U.S. Army just as the pursuit north of Rome was getting underway.

Alexander’s preoccupation with the British effort to cancel Anvil may help explain his failure to co-ordinate the advance of 5th and 8th armies which operated in separate corridors throughout the pursuit. Because 5th U.S. Army, which was advancing in more favourable terrain along the west coast, was always some miles ahead, the possibility of trapping the German 10th Army—by enveloping it from the west—seemed obvious. The Germans, under pressure from Hitler to stop the Allies as far south as possible, were desperately afraid of this. But as the British official history notes, Alexander settled for a “partridge drive” that allowed the enemy to withdraw to a series of delaying positions.

Both German armies were ordered to try to stop the Allied advance at the Albert Line which ran from Ancona on the Adriatic coast to the Tyrrhenian coast, opposite the island of Elba. As part of 13th Corps, the Canadian armoured regiments were committed to the section of the Albert Line to the west of Lake Trasimene. Known to the British as the Trasimene Line, it consisted of a series of hastily prepared positions that might be better described as a defensive zone five miles wide and 15 miles deep. As one historian wrote, “the great difficulty about the Trasimene Line is that nobody knew where it was supposed to be, not even the Germans!”

In the summer of 1944, the rolling country between the lake and the mountains, known as the Chiana Valley, was covered with olive groves, vineyards and small fields of grain. Much of the valley had been a malaria-ridden swamp until drained in the 15th century. The scattered villages and sturdy farmhouses were transformed into fortress-like positions while the small stream beds and drainage ditches became—with the assistance of engineers and explosives—anti-tank barriers. Apart from Highway 71, which borders the lake, the unpaved roads were little better than dirt tracks that three days of rain and tank traffic turned into stretches of churned mud. On a recent visit we were able to gain an overview of the battlefield from the ancient Etruscan town of Chiusi and from the shores of Lake Trasimene. It was evident that only the closest co-operation between armour, artillery and infantry could unlock such defences.

The 10th German Army ordered three of its best divisions, the Hermann Göring Panzer Div., 1st Para Div. and 334th Inf. Div. to defend the sector. However, no one beyond Berlin believed it could be held unless resources could be found to stop the advance of 5th Army along the coastal plain.

General Sidney Kirkman, commanding 13th Corps, decided to wait and organize a co-ordinated attack on the Trasimene Line with 6th South African Armd. Div., 4th Inf. Div. and the veteran 78th Div. Kirkman had been told that 78th Div., originally formed for Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa), was to be withdrawn to Egypt at the end of June because it was understrength, exhausted from long months of combat and destined for garrison duties in Palestine. He decided to reinforce its lead brigade with Canadian armour, sending the Ontario Regt. to work with old friends in the 38th Irish Bde.

Classically educated British and German officers recalled the story of Hannibal’s destruction of an entire Roman army on the shores of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC. The example of one of the most famous envelopments in military history may have inspired Major-General Charles Keightley to propose using the lake to stage an amphibious attack by landing a battalion 10 miles behind German lines. The unit that would supposedly carry out this too-clever manoeuvre was the London Irish Rifles. Its commanding officer pointed out that the available transport—DUKWs (amphibious vehicles)—had a “noise like a traction engine” and a top speed of 10 miles an hour, offering the enemy several hours notice to arrange a reception committee. Such a venture, he suggested, would “likely end Charles Keightley’s career as well as mine.”

The actual battle for Route 71 began at the villages of Sanfatucchio and Pucciarelli where the Irish infantry and Ontario tanks “worked in tandem; the 75-mm guns would blast a house at close range and then the riflemen would storm the building.” Beyond Sanfatucchio, the Germans had created a more formidable defensive position using a solidly built church and advantageous high ground. The church, which is now abandoned, and its graveyard sit on ground that overlooks all approaches. It is not difficult to understand why Sanfatucchio is a battle honour well remembered by veterans of the Ontario Regt. Once again the tanks and carefully observed artillery fire assisted the infantry forward. By evening on June 20, the enemy, less scores of prisoners and many casualties, had withdrawn north, pursued by the reserve battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers which was working with the Canadian armour. This force faced a series of disjointed counter-attacks, but in the process destroyed a number of enemy tanks which were badly employed in ones or twos without support.

While the Irish and Canadians secured Pescia and Ranciano, the Three Rivers Regt., supporting 4th British Div. began a seven-day battle which “from beginning to end was essentially a failure.” On this section of the front the enemy was able to withdraw intact, inflicting more casualties than they suffered. According to the Canadians, the 28th Inf. Bde. was “totally green” and unable to work effectively with armour. This contributed to the loss of 94 men and 26 tanks, one of the heaviest weekly casualty tolls to an armoured regiment in the Italian Campaign.

The 28th Bde. had spent most of the war on garrison duty at Gibraltar. It was brought to Italy as a replacement brigade due to a shortage of reinforcements and it suffered heavy casualties in its first battle at the Gustav Line. The decision to commit an inexperienced, and understrength brigade to such a battle suggests just how serious manpower problems were in 8th Army.

The Canadians were given a brief period of rest in July. Many spent Dominion Day 1944 bathing in the warm waters of Lake Trasimene. On July 5, Kirkman, whose 13th Corps was pressing north to the Arezzo Line, ordered the Canadians back into action to protect the mountainous left flank of 6th British Armd. Div.’s advance. Kirkman, who claimed that his corps “had learned all it knows about armoured fighting from 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde.,” needed the Canadians to support his 4th Div.

The narrowing valley, now divided by the A-1 auto route to Rome, was held by small detachments of the 10th German Army which was in the process of drawing back to Florence. Hitler could claim his delaying tactics had worked, allowing time for the development of field fortifications at the Gothic Line. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and his generals in Italy were much less confident. The Germans had lost more than 100,000 men from all causes since early May, an average daily loss of 1,260 men—a very high price for a fighting withdrawal.

The Arezzo Line, which the Canadians were now attacking, was the last serious blocking position south of Florence. The Germans held it until July 15 when 13th Corps, reinforced by the 2nd New Zealand Div., stormed Mount Lignano, the high ground controlling the roads to Arezzo. The Canadians were then assigned to 8th Indian Div. for the pursuit along the Arno River through Chianti wine country.

When the full story of 1st Cdn. Armd. Bde. is written, it will no doubt quote the words of Leese who described the brigade as “the hardest hitting and finest armoured formation that I have ever had the pleasure to command.” Generals offer such words of praise far too freely, but in this case Leese was speaking the plain truth.

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.