Campaigns in Sicily and Italy

Princess Pat's Light Infantry Under Fire in Sicily

In the Second World War, Canadian soldiers took a considerable time to regain their Great War reputation for steadfastness and combat effectiveness. They spent a lot of time "on the shelf" in garrison duty before participating in combat on a large scale. It was in the Mediterranean where a new generation relearned the skills and showed the determination of their fathers.

On to Sicily

At the Casablanca Conference, the Allied high command selected Sicily as the next strategic target after the fall of North Africa. The invasion would be opposed by a mixture of mostly Italian units shored up with several elite German divisions. Churchill subsequently suggested a role for Canadian forces in what was designated Operation Husky. The Canadian First Division was substituted for the British 3rd Division and the First Canadian Tank Brigade was added to the order of battle. D-Day for Husky would be July 10, 1943.

A Supply Ship from the Invasion Fleet Explodes During the Landing

En route to their first action since Dieppe, the Canadians would lose three ships filled with trucks and communications equipment to U-Boats. Nevertheless, they were successfully placed ashore on the left flank of the beaches assigned to Montgomery's Eighth Army and accomplished their tasks of capturing the key Pachino Airfield and linking up with the American Seventh Army to the west fairly readily. Then, they needed a rest. Truly, two years of garrison duty had left Canadian soldiers in poor condition to bear up under the Mediterranean's summer sun.

Time plus Sicilian geography and climate, however, would cure the conditioning issue. Division Commander Guy Simonds soon led his charges on a successful flanking movement at Catania on Sicily's east coast in front of Mount Etna.

Shortly afterwards, Monty, who now found himself blocked from further advance on the east side of the volcano, decided to shift his axis of attack around to the west side of Etna in a left-hook maneuver. On July 28th, the Canadian First Division captured the ancient town of Agira in a well-coordinated air, artillery and infantry assault against a crack Panzer Grenadier formation. In recognition of this victory, the principal Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily would be placed here.

Monty in Sicily

Following this success, Canadian forces received an education in using the unique and weird features of Sicilian topography to shield a withdrawing military force. They pursued retreating Germans north across mountain, valley and ravine for over a week. On August 6th Canadian units were placed in Army Reserve, having suffered 500+ killed and 1300 wounded in the campaign. The entire island was secured by August 17th. In 38 days the Allies had captured the central, dominating position in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, historians mainly judge the operation as a lost opportunity because an entire Panzer Corps was allowed to escape across the Straits of Messina to regroup. The old enemy would be waiting in Italy, but only the Germans -- Italy would surrender on September 3, 1943.


Canada's forces would soon be active again when the Eighth Army crossed the Strait as the first step in the invasion of Italy. On September 3rd, first day of Operation Baytown, they captured the abandoned enemy headquarters at Reggio Calabria. On September 9th an American Army [5th] landed just south of Naples at the Salerno beaches and the linking of the two Allied armies became a priority. Part of this operation was the capture of the rail junction of Potenza -- 80 km east of Salerno -- by BoForce, a fully motorized column with tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft guns under the command of Lt. Col. Pat Bogert of the West Nova Scotia regiment. The two armies linked up on September 16th.

Canadian Tanks Slowly Advancing in Italy

In December 1943, Canadian troops would fight their most memorable and bloodiest battle of the Mediterranean war. In late November the Eighth Army front had stalled after crossing the Sangro River, part of the Gustav Line of defenses. Montgomery chose his Canadian forces to capture the series of obstacles holding up an advance along the Adriatic coast. In a bitter 3-week fight the First Division would force a crossing of the Moro River and a deep 1.5 km-long gully in front of the town of Ortona. Then came the fight for Ortona itself, against the men of the First German Parachute Division. The enemy had turned the narrow streets and old houses of the town into a booby-trapped fortress. With every narrow street zeroed in by artillery, machine guns or anti-tank weapons, the battle, as the saying goes, was fought house-to-house. Canada would suffer 1,400 killed and another thousand killed or wounded by end of battle on December 27th.

Ortona at Battle's End

What ensued in Italy is a long, repetitive tale. One natural or fortified strong position after another was defended almost to the last by stout German soldiers. Their withdrawal just before being swamped allowed them to fight another day. Then a brief advance north by the attackers followed until the next position was reached and the cycle would repeat. Important names would be added to the annals of Canadian Arms include the Gustav, Hitler, Gothic and Rimini Lines and the Liri, Montone and Senio rivers and valleys.

When Canadian forces were moved to the Western Front in February they had built up to full corps with 92,000 men having served in the Italian theatre. Almost 5,400 men had paid the highest price with 20,000 more wounded or captured. In early 1945, though, the world's focus was turned to the north where the Allies in the west and Russians in the East were ready to enter the heart of Germany. The end-game of World War II in Europe was about to be played out.

Credits: Sources consulted for this article include Bitter Victory by Carlo D'Est; Italy: The Hard Underbelly by Simon Rigge; The Battle of Sicily by Mitcham and von Stauffenberg; the websites of the Canadian Legion and Canadian Veterans Affairs Department. Photos are from the US Army Signal Corps.

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