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The Arielli Show: Army, Part 71



Clockwise from top: A Canadian tank kicks up the dust as it passes near Ortona, Italy, in early 1944; treating a casualty, Italy, January 1944; a Canadian private gets a haircut near Ortona, Italy, in January 1944.

General Bernard Montgomery’s “colossal crack” of December 1943, an advance by 8th Army to Pescara and the lateral road to Rome, was intended to outflank the enemy positions at Cassino. By late December it was evident that these operations had stalled. The battles fought “in a sea of mud” under the most miserable conditions were consuming 8th Army, which had suffered more than 10,000 battle casualties. Losses from sickness and battle exhaustion were also very high, imposing an incredible drain on available human resources.

Canadian casualties totalled 176 officers and 2,163 other ranks, killed, wounded and missing, including the 650 casualties suffered during the fighting in Ortona. The 8th Indian Division was in even worse shape, having lost 3,400 men in a little over four weeks of combat. The New Zealand Div., with just two infantry brigades, reported 1,260 casualties, 72 per cent in its six infantry battalions. Losses categorized as sickness, which included battle exhaustion, added thousands more to the toll. It was time for Montgomery to follow Caesar’s wise example and “go into winter quarters.”

Conditions and casualty figures in Gen. Mark Clark’s Anglo-American 5th Army were similar. After the difficult struggle to hold the beachhead at Salerno and the liberation of Naples, by Oct. 1, 1943, 5th Army was a spent force in need of rest and reinforcements. When Clark’s divisions were able to renew the advance, they confronted a well-organized, powerful enemy holding the Volturno River just 56 kilometres north of Naples. The Volturno, like the Sangro and Moro rivers on the Adriatic coast, was transformed from a creek to a swollen river with the beginning of the winter rains. After a bitter, costly battle, the enemy withdrew to the Gustav Line, using the Gari and Garigliano rivers to link Cassino with the coastal mountains. To armchair strategists, especially Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the solution to this problem was to mount a second large-scale amphibious landing behind German defences. Clark’s staff began planning the operation on the assumption that such a landing could only take place if 5th Army had previously broken through the Gustav Line.

Operational realities soon became less important than running a debate about the resources for the Italian Campaign. The British had reluctantly agreed to send troops and most of the scarce Landing Ships, Tanks (LSTs) to England in preparation for Operation Overlord and D-Day. They now sought and won a postponement of the LST transfer so that a landing at Anzio, south of Rome, could take place in early 1944. During December 1943, 5th Army’s weary divisions had secured a small bridgehead across the Garigliano, but the enemy continued to hold the Gustav Line and most of the length of the river, as well as strong positions at Cassino. Clark recommended that all offensive operations–including Shingle, the codename for landings at Anzio–be called off until spring, but Churchill was insistent. He, and the British Chiefs of Staff, had used a good deal of their political capital persuading the Americans to agree to one more amphibious attack in Italy, so there had to be one.

Operation Shingle was now to be a two-division assault on the German flank that “would open up the way for a rapid advance to Rome.” It was scheduled for Jan. 23, 1944, two days after a new assault on Cassino and the Gustav Line began. Those who argued that the Germans had sufficient troops to contain an attack on the scale of Shingle without weakening their defences in the south were ignored, despite solid intelligence of German dispositions. Major-General John Lucas, who was to command Shingle, complained that “the whole affair has a strong odour of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur (Churchill) is still on the coach’s bench.”

Eighth Army, now commanded by Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese, was to play a minor, purely holding role in the new offensive. Leese, who had commanded 30th Corps in North Africa and Sicily, had been sent home on leave because of growing problems with his “nervous disposition and temperament.” Appointing an army commander who had no direct experience of the intense battles of November and December was a curious decision, particularly since Montgomery was also “skinning a lot of his people” out of Italy for Overlord, including Lt.-Gen. Miles Dempsey, the most experienced corps commander, and Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, the senior air officer.

Leese, his army reduced to two corps, ought to have been pleased to learn that the 5th Canadian Armoured Div., together with the headquarters of 1st Canadian Corps, had arrived in Italy. Instead, he echoed Montgomery’s view that neither an armoured division nor an inexperienced corps headquarters was needed. When he heard that Lt.-Gen. Harry Crerar would shortly return to England for Overlord, he complained that “Crerar knows nothing of military matters in the field…so I have to teach Crerar for a time and then change to another totally inexperienced commander.”

Leese shared the common 8th Army view that no one but a veteran British general ought to command at the corps or army level. These sand-in-their-shoes officers were condescending to everyone–American, Canadian and British–if they had not fought with Montgomery’s 8th Army in the desert. The Americans, with their own self-confident sense of superiority, were unimpressed by the British Army, which they saw as overcautious, but most Canadian officers accepted the 8th Army mystique and sought to win approval rather than to assert their own identity.

There was, of course, an obvious case against sending additional Canadian formations to Italy at a time when British and American troops were returning to play a part in the invasion of France. It was J.L. Ralston, Canada’s minister of national defence, who pressed for the establishment of a Canadian Corps in Italy. He was a Great War veteran who had persuaded his cabinet colleagues to agree to a five-division army for Europe. Ralston believed that the war might end in 1944 with few Canadians having seen action.

Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the Canadian Chief of Staff, accepted Ralston’s plan and overcame the opposition of Gen. Andrew McNaughton, who wanted 1st Division back in England–not a further dispersion of the Canadian Army. The issue and McNaughton’s subsequent resignation were the subject of Part 14 (January/February 1997) of this series and may be read on the Legion website,

One of the many problems created by Ralston’s decision was the equipment question. Shipping space could be found for 25,000 troops, but there was no room for trucks, tanks or artillery. Only personal weapons could be carried. The armoured brigade was supposed to be re-equipped with what 7th Armoured Div. was leaving in Italy, including a great many worn-out armoured vehicles. Crerar and Maj.-Gen. Guy Simonds, who was given command of 5th Armoured in preparation for his promotion to corps commander, ended up spending most of their time in Italy ensuring that the division and corps troops got the best possible weapons and equipment before they entered battle.

While the armoured brigade and the 10,000 corps troops, including medium and field artillery, anti-tank, armoured car, anti-aircraft, engineer, ordnance, service corps and medical personnel, re-equipped and began retraining, the 11th Canadian Infantry Bde. was assigned to a very different role. The brigade, composed of the Perth Regiment, the Cape Breton Highlanders, the Irish Regt. of Canada and the 11th Independent Machine Gun Company (the Princess Louise Fusiliers), was sent north to the Ortona salient to allow the 1st Div.’s weary battalions to withdraw for rest and reinforcement. Brigadier George Kitching, who had served as senior staff officer (GSO1) in 1st Div., was given command of the brigade for what became known as the Arielli Show.

When 1st Div. abandoned the offensive north of Ortona in early January, it dug in to defend a narrow salient anchored on the Adriatic coast that slanted back to Villa Grande, the furthest point reached by 8th Indian Div. First Parachute Div., still the toughest German unit in Italy, held the high ground between the Riccio and Arielli rivers with good observation over the Canadian positions. This was exactly where the senior Allied officers wanted the paras to remain while the landings at Anzio and the battle for Cassino got underway. Leese knew that 8th Army, weakened by the transfer of divisions to participate in the main offensive, could do little to persuade the Germans that a new Adriatic offensive was imminent, but he insisted that “all ideas of a static or low-priority front… must be eradicated from everybody’s minds.” The New Zealanders were to make yet another attempt to gain Orsogna after the Canadians made “every effort to gain the high ground east of the River Arielli.” This was to be done with all available artillery but “without incurring heavy casualties.” Unfortunately, Leese had no practical advice as to how such an attack could be carried out without heavy casualties.

According to Kitching, who described the Arielli Show in his memoirs, Mud and Green Fields, the corps commander, Lt.-Gen. Charles Allfrey, “seemed to think he should plan my brigade battle.” The elaborate fire plan, handed down from corps, required 11th Bde. to attack on a narrow, one-battalion front. The Perth Regt. was to lead off, with the CBH responsible for the second phase. The initial artillery bombardment included one heavy, five medium and nine field regiments, and included a lifting barrage for the Perth Regt., as well as counter-battery fire, concentrations in likely enemy positions and smoke to blind German observers directing their artillery. Kittyhawk fighter bombers added to the weight of high explosives directed at the enemy.

The 12th Canadian Armoured Regt. had been loaned to 11th Bde. and Lieutenant-Colonel E.L. Booth tried to provide “maximum tank support” to the green troops carrying out their first attack. “A” Squadron, assigned to the Perth Regt., towed the infantry’s six-pounder anti-tank guns forward and worked out tactical details with Lt.-Col. Rutherford and his company commanders. The Canadian Army was committed to a “lessons learned” approach to training, and 1st Div. had offered its advice on how to fight a set-piece battle after Ortona. There was nothing new to say about tank-infantry co-operation except to argue that “each arm must thoroughly understand the possibilities and limitations of the other.”

This was not an easy task. Booth explained that the tanks could not go forward with the initial infantry thrust because of anti-tank mines. The tanks would instead take up positions on the crest of the ravine overlooking the river to take on known and possible enemy positions with direct 75-mm and machine-gun fire. When the Perth Regt. attack bogged down at the river crossing, the tanks were sent forward to assist the infantry and engineers, even though it was pre-registered artillery and mortar fire that had stopped the Perth Regt. The same problem confronted the CBH and, once again, tanks were called for. The lead troop lost one tank to a mine and a second to an artillery shell.

Later in the afternoon, the Perth Regt. and 12th CAR were able to cross the river and establish themselves on the reverse slope due to a heavy counter-battery shoot that temporarily silenced the German guns. By midnight, losses to 11th Bde. amounted to 185 men, 130 of them from the Perth Regt., and Allfrey decided to order the brigade to withdraw under cover of darkness. The Germans dismissed the Arielli Show as a diversion and claimed to have eliminated the “temporary penetration” by a counter-attack. Their program for transferring artillery units to the Cassino front went ahead on schedule.

The 11th Bde. had been “blooded” and could now claim battle experience, but the cost was far too high. On Jan. 23, the brigade took over the Orsogna front vacated by the New Zealanders, who had moved west to join 5th Army’s offensive at Cassino. Heavy snow and rain plagued the soldiers as slit trenches–dug into saturated ground–quickly filled with water. The Germans still held the town and ridge line overlooking the brigade positions, using the tall church tower in Orsogna as an observation post until the tanks of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse demolished it.

While 11th Bde. settled into the Orsogna sector, 1st Div. returned to the Arielli under orders to maintain pressure while absorbing the large numbers of reinforcements that had come forward. Unfortunately, evidence of the transfer of German units to meet 5th Army’s offensive led the corps commander, Allfrey, to order another attack across the Arielli. Allfrey described the task as a “holding attack” designed to draw enemy reserves, but insisted “that the real purpose of the venture should be kept from the participating troops.” The Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. and the Calgary Tank Regt. drew the assignment, which produced more than 90 casualties and not much else. No further battalion-level attack was ordered at the Arielli because 1st Cdn. Corps was slated to take part in a spring offensive in the Liri Valley.

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