Canadians in Italy

One result of the Allied invasion of Sicily was the overthrow of the Italian dictator, Mussolini. However, although the new Italian Government surrendered on September 3, 1943, the Germans seized control and it was German troops that the Allies faced in their advance up the Italian peninsula.

The fighting in Italy, as in Sicily, was to be bitter. Taking advantage of the mountain peaks and swift rivers, the Germans made every Allied advance difficult and costly. Total Canadian casualties in the 20-month Mediterranean campaign (Sicily and Italy) numbered 25,264 of which more than 5,900 were fatal.

The Eighth British Army (including the 1st Canadian Division, the 5th British Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade) would lead the way across the Strait of Messina to the toe of Italy, and then advance towards Naples. The Fifth U.S. Army (with two British and two U.S. divisions) would make a seaborne landing in the Gulf of Salerno, seize Naples and advance on Rome. The 1st British Airborne Division would land by sea in the Taranto area and seize the heel of the peninsula.

The assault across the Strait of Messina began on September 3, 1943. The Canadians, directed on Reggio Calabria, met little resistance since the Germans had withdrawn to establish their line of defence across the narrow, mountainous central part of the peninsula. The Canadians captured Reggio, and advanced across the Aspromonte Mountains and along the Gulf of Taranto to Catanzaro. In spite of rain, poor mountain roads, and German rearguard actions, they were 75 miles inland from Reggio by September 10.

The Fifth Army meanwhile met stiff German resistance as it assaulted the beaches of Salerno. It was therefore vital for the Eighth Army to advance toward the rear of the German defence and assist in the U.S. breakout from the bridgehead. With this in view, a Canadian brigade was diverted from the main Canadian line of advance to seize Potenza, an important road centre east of Salerno. Potenza was taken on September 20. The breakout was accomplished, and on October 1, the Fifth Army entered Naples. In the meantime, the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade proceeded eastward, joined the Airborne Division in the Taranto region, and then pushed boldly inland to the north and northwest. The 5th British Corps seized the Foggia airfield.

By the end of September, the German hold on northern and central Italy was still unshaken, but the Allies had overrun a vast and valuable tract of southern Italy, and their armies stood on a line running across Italy from sea to sea. The next objective was Rome.

As the Allies drove north from Naples and Foggia, the Canadians found themselves pushing into the central mountain range. Now the enemy resisted with full force. On October 1 at Motta, the Canadians fought their first battle with Germans in Italy, and there followed a series of brief, but bloody actions. On October 14 the Canadians took Campobasso, the next day they took Vinchiaturo, and the advance continued across the Biferno River. During the same period, one unit of the Canadian Army Tank Brigade played a distinguished role on the Adriatic coast, where they supported a British assault at Termoli and its advance to the Sangro River.

In the 63 days since landing, the Eighth Army had covered 450 miles. However, the "pursuit from Reggio" was now over. The Germans, their strength now almost equal to that of the Allies and having the advantage of defence, meant to make a stand from the coast south of Cassino on the Naples-Rome highway, to Ortona on the Adriatic shore. The battle for Rome would not be easy.

Meanwhile, the decision had been taken to strengthen the Canadian forces in the Mediterranean. On November 5, the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Corps under Lieut.-General H.D.G. Crerar; and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division arrived. General G.G. Simonds took over command of this division and was replaced in the 1st Division by Major-General C. Vokes. General McNaughton, who had objected to the division of the Canadian Army retired soon afterward.

As the first snow of winter began to fall, the Eighth Army struck hard at the German line along the Sangro River on the Adriatic Coast. The aim was to break the stalemate that had developed and to relieve the pressure on the Fifth Army in the drive to take Rome. The task was not easy for the Adriatic shoreline was cut by a series of deep river valleys. As the British and Canadians succeeded in driving the Germans from the Sangro, they were faced with the same task a few miles further north. Here, along the line of the Moro River, occurred some of the bitterest fighting of the war. The Germans counter-attacked repeatedly and often the fighting was hand-to-hand as the Canadians edged forward to Ortona on the coast.

The medieval town of Ortona, with its castle and stone buildings, was situated on a ledge over looking the Adriatic. Its steep, rubble-filled streets limited the use of tanks and artillery and thus made this an infantryman's struggle. During several days of vicious street fighting the Canadians smashed their way through walls and buildings—a tactic which became known as "mouseholing." This was Christmas 1943. Meanwhile, a subsidiary attack had been launched to the northwest and the Germans, in danger of being cut off, withdrew from Ortona. The city officially fell on December 28.

Further offensives ground to a halt during the atrocious winter weather. During the lull, Simonds left for England and Major-General E.L.M. Burns succeeded him. In March Burns took over the 1st Canadian Corps from Lieut.-General Crerar, who returned to command the First Canadian Army in England. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division was taken over by Maj.-General B.M. Hoffmeister.

By now the Canadian Army in Italy had reached its peak theatre strength of nearly 76,000. Total casualties in the Corps had climbed to 9,934 all ranks, of which 2,119 had been fatal.

Date modified: