CBC In Depth
July 11,1943: General Bernard Montgomery standing on a "duck" speaking to Canadian troops, Pachino peninsula, Sicily. (CP Photo/National Archives of Canada/Frank Royal)
INDEPTH: ORTONA
Italian campaign
CBC News Online | Updated Oct. 26, 2004

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Canada played a major role in the Allied invasion of mainland Italy during the Second World War, mostly as part of the British Eighth Army and sometimes fighting independently. At the height of the battle against the Germans, there were 76,000 Canadian soldiers fighting in Italy.

Canada suffered 25,264 casualties including, 5,900 killed.

The invasion of the island of Sicily on July 10, 1943, set the stage for the coming campaign to take the Italian mainland from the Germans. At the time, almost a year before the Normandy invasion, it was largest amphibious invasion in history, using more than 3,000 ships and landing craft.

The Canadian First Infantry Division, and the Canadian Armoured Brigade, part of the British Eighth Army, commanded by general Bernard Montgomery, landed along 60 kilometres of shoreline on the southern tip of Italy near Pachino. The United States Seventh Army, under the command of lieutenant general George Patton landed on another 60-kilometre stretch of shore near Gela.

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry patrol walking up main street. July 1943/Agira, Italy. (National Archives of Canada/PA-138269)
Sicily fell quickly to the Allies, creating a base for an invasion of the mainland and bases that secured most of the Mediterranean for ships and aircraft. The collapse of the Italian army in Italy also fuelled unrest and the government of Benito Mussolini fell just two weeks later on July 25. The Germans then began changing their role from ally to occupier.

On Sept. 3, 1943, the Allied landing force left the Sicilian ports of Catania, Augusta and Syracuse for landing beaches between Taormina and Messina. The British Eighth Army consisted of the First Canadian Division, the Fifth British Division and the First Canadian Tank Brigade

The Canadians' objective was Reggio, Calabria, where they met little resistance because the Germans were pulling back to a series of fortified defensive positions to block the Allied advance.

Later that day, the government that succeeded Mussolini surrendered and Italy turned to do what it could to support the Allies.

A week later, the Canadians were in Catanzaro, 120 kilometres from the beaches.

But another landing, this time at Salerno by the U.S. Fifth Army (actually a joint force with two British and two American divisions under the command of lieutenant general. Mark Clark) ran into trouble as it met stiff German resistance. The Canadians were ordered to make a hurried assault on Potenza, an important crossroads and railway junction east of Salerno to relieve pressure on the Fifth Army.

Then, as the Fifth Army moved north toward Naples, the Canadians turned east through the rugged Appenine Mountains and then north along the east coast toward Foggia. On October 1 and 2, 1943, the Canadians were involved in their first major battle against the Germans in Italy at a corkscrew highway through the town of Motta. The Royal Canadian Regiment and the Calgary Tank Regiment attacked Motta, while the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment went after the Monte Mianoa, on a ridge dominating the countryside.

Two weeks later, the Canadians captured the town of Campobasso, then ran into into heavy resistance from the Germans at Vinchiaturo, but routed them in a one-day battle.

At this point, the Allied advance ran into a heavily fortified and defended German line running across Italy from Ortona in the east to Cassino in the west, blocking all roads to Rome.

The Canadians fought a series of running battles with the Germans along the Biferno River.

At the same time, the army was reinforced with the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division, creating the First Canadian Corps, commanded by lieutenant general. H. D. G. Crerar.

As the first snows of winter began to fall, the Canadians reached the German defensive line north of the Sangro River. And after fierce fighting alongside troops from New Zealand and India, the Canadians forced the Germans back to a second defensive line in the Moro Valley. To the west, meanwhile, the U.S. Fifth Army was held up again on the road to Rome near Cassino.

The Canadians attacked the Germans along a road to the town of San Leonardo, but not on the main highway as the enemy was expecting. The Canadian advance took the lightly garrisoned town by surprise, just as the Fifth Army achieved a breakout from the Salerno beachhead. The Germans were able to counterattack and the Moro Valley saw some of the bitterest and fiercest fighting of the Second World War including artillery exchanges and hand to hand combat.

German soldiers surrendering to members of the Edmonton Regiment. Ortona, Italy, Dec. 21, 1943 (CP Photo/National Archives of Canada-T.F.Rowe)
After a battle lasting ten days, the Canadian soldiers had pushed the Germans back to the ancient town of Ortona overlooking the Adriatic. Artillery from both sides pounded Ortona and the Germans also used mortars fired from nearby hills to try and slow the Canadian advance. Much of Ortona was reduced to rubble, making it difficult for the Canadians to use tanks. The Germans barricaded themselves in houses and mined streets. The fighting was house-to-house-literally – the Canadians blasted their way through walls to get from building to building. The battle continued over Christmas Day, 1943 but three days later the Germans withdrew.

One of the worst winters in years slowed but did not stop the fighting in central Italy. The Allied offensive became bogged down facing the German's Gustav Line. In January, 1944, a combined British and Americans Corps from the Fifth Army landed at Anzio behind the line.

After the successful Allied landing, the Germans moved crack units south from Rome and brought in reinforcements from Yugoslavia, France and Germany.

The Germans were able to seal the Anzio beachhead into a "pocket" and then counterattacked, driving the Americans and British back from some advanced positions. The result was a stalemate in March and April, 1944, which one observer said resembled the trench warfare of the First World War.

As spring came, the Allies planned an offensive with the aim of breaking through at Cassino and relieving the force at Anzio. There was one small group of Canadians with the Americans at Cassino, in the joint U.S. Canada Special Service Force, what the Germans called the Devil's Brigade (the first official special forces unit)

In March, 1944 lieutenant-general Crerar returned to England to take command of the First Canadian Army, preparing for the D-Day landings in France and was succeeded by major-general E. L. M. Burns as commander of the First Canadian Corps.

In late April, 1944, the Eighth Army, including the Canadians, secretly turned west to help the portion of the U.S. Fifth Army which had been stopped by the Germans on the Gustav Line at Cassino.

On May 12, the Eighth Army attacked the Germans in the Liri Valley as the Fifth army began a new offensive at Cassino, with tanks from the First Canadian Armoured Brigade supporting the attack. On May 18, Polish troops took the Monte Cassino monastery which dominated the valley.

The Fifth Army moving up the coast, broke through the Germans surrounding Anzio to join up with their colleagues while the Eighth Army continued to battle through the Liri Valley.

The next objective was the Hitler Line, about 15 kilometres to the north of the Gustav Line. The attack began on May 23, supported by 800 artillery pieces, tank and mortar fire.

It was the Canadians who breached the line, infantry including the Royal 22nd Regiment (The Vandoos) Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Seaforth Highlanders and the Carleton and York regiment. The Canadian Fifth Armoured Division raced through the breach to the Melfa River, the next German line of defence, where they faced Panther tanks. Light reconnaissance tanks from Lord Strathcona's Horse and the Westminster Motor Battalion made it across the river and held the bridgehead until reinforcements arrived.

The Canadians then took Ceprano and Forsinone and then were ordered to reserve status for about a two-month rest. The Americans entered Rome on June 4, 1944.

The next Allied objective was the strategic industrial heartland of northern Italy and the German's last fortified defencs there, the Gothic Line.

The Allies planned a surprise attack on the eastern Adriatic and a swing toward Bologna. As a feint, the First Canadian Division massed near Florence, then secretly rejoined the rest of the Canadian Corps for the attack on Rimini.

A Polish division was on the coast, Canadians from the First and Fifth Divisions the spearhead in the centre with British and Indian divisions to the west. They had to cross six rivers, one after another.

The attack began in the last week of August, 1944. The Canadians easily crossed the Metauro River but then faced heavy German defences at the Foglia River. By August 30,. the Canadian Corps broke through the Gothic Line and reached the River Conca. The Germans massed troops outside Rimini, a highway crossroad that was easily reinforced. and battled in front of the town for three weeks before the Germans withdrew and the Canadians entered a nearly deserted town on September 21.

Fall brought more rain to northern Italy and in October the First Canadian Division fought a soggy battle at Romanga as the Americans headed toward Bologna.

Later that month, the Canadians were once again placed in reserve for a rest after 10 weeks of fighting, then rejoined the fight as the Eighth Army continued the battle for the Lombardy Plain against increasingly desperate German defenders who stopped the Allies at the Senio River. The winter again brought a stalemate. In Februrary, 1945, the Canadian Corps was withdrawn from Italy to join the advance in Europe against Germany.




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MAIN PAGE RETURN TO ORTONA THE COURTYARD OF HELL: Matthew Halton reports for CBC News THE GHOSTS OF ORTONA: Ted Griffiths remembers the battle ITALIAN CAMPAIGN
CANADIAN ARMY NEWSREELS: Ortona Italian campaign
CBC ARCHIVES: The Italian campaign
INTERACTIVE: Canadians in the Italian campaign
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