Sicily Summary

Says this observer: "Canadians again have proved they have what it takes to make not only good soldiers but great ones"

RALPH ALLEN October 1 1943

Sicily Summary

Says this observer: "Canadians again have proved they have what it takes to make not only good soldiers but great ones"

RALPH ALLEN October 1 1943

Sicily Summary


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Says this observer: "Canadians again have proved they have what it takes to make not only good soldiers but great ones"

SICILY (By Cable) — From a topographical point of view Sicily after all is only Canada under high compression. If some giant hand were to grasp our country in the wedge of its palm and squeeze until its 3,000,000 square miles had been crumpled into 10,000 the finished product might be something like the Mediterranean battlefields of July 10 to Aug. 17.

The Alberta foothills and the great northeastern mineral fields would crunch in on the prairies to form the jagged peaks and ridges that give the island’s interior the shape and texture of a dried half-walnut. Only the spatulate linger of the Catania plain would be left of the flat midwest. The water would be squeezed put of the rivers and lakes leaving a few thin and lonely trickles among the gorges and gravelled wadies. The Rockies would pyramid and jam together in the single dominating blob of Etna. (Don’t ask how the Rockies got over there where Hudson’s Bay used to be; even a slightly punch-drunk metaphor has its rights.)

Without admitting that it is anything better than an unpleasant parody of the real thing, Canadian soldiers who fought there were constantly remarking on the sudden fleeting almost dreamlike glimpses of home they caught every now and then through the hot and tortured hazes of the Sicilian summer.

In a single day’s drive or a three days’ march you can see the little haunting flashes of it all—white beaches that lie half known on the farthest coast of Vancouver Island, the glint of blue sea through all the trees, tile narrow dusty spirals of the mountain high-

ways, the flat brown fields of grain lying still under the baleful sun, the sheer scrub-topped cliff faces of Ontario’s wasteland, the laden orchards of Niagara and the Maritimes and the sweep of evergreens on the Laurentian slopes.

Sicily in short is flat and mountainous, luxuriant and bare, orderly and chaotic, cool and hot, beautiful and ugly. 11 has challenged and delighted some of the great military minds of the ages. It is a splendid place to dream about a war and a hell of a place to fight one.

This is where the soldiers of the Canadian Army fought their first continuous campaign since 1918. They fought successful major battles at Valguarnera, Assoro, Leonforte, Nissoria, Agira and Regalbuto and along the corrugated approaches to Adrano as well as many minor ones. The important thing to remember in piecing together even a hasty and impressionistic appraisal of their relatively small forces’ contribution lo the combined efforts of the two Armies is that every battle was two battles. There was the battle itself. But first there was always the battle to get there.

On Aug. 25 the British Admiralty announced Allied shipping losses for the Sicilian campaign as 85,000 tons — a staggeringly low figure in relation to the size of the fleets involved. But those marine losses, light as they were, struck disproportionately. Torpedoes don’t recognize quotas. The percentage of equipment lost by the Canadians was higher than the percentage of equipment lost by the 15th Army Group of which they were a part. The loss of life was negligible but the loss of transport, although not unduly severe, took on an added import to the Canadians because of the role they were to play in the land fighting.

Kept Flank In Motion

THEIR role was to travel a greater distance than any other division in the Eighth Army and they were fated to travel it on less transport than any other division. And they had to travel fast. For as

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Sicily Summary

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the right, flank of Montgomery’s Army dug in for the most stubborn and bloody struggle of the whole campaign before Catania, the task of keeping the eastern half of the front in motion fell squarely on the red-splashed shoulders of General Guy Simond’s First Division veterans.

Their line of march lay northwest from the Paehino Beaches on the extreme southeast coast of the island. In the predawn gloom of July 10 t heir lurching assault boats pitched them out waist deep in the water and they were on their way. The Royal Canadian Regiment, permanent force regiment with headquarters in London, Ont., the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment of Ontario, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry of Winnipeg, and the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver were the first to land. As the balance of the Division poured into the bridgehead the RCR’s led a swift thrust to the Paehino Airport and before they’d dug into their first lunch of iron rations the Canadians had taken their first objec-

The Pats and Seaforths did a left wheel for Spica, five miles inland. The next day the Edmonton Regiment went through them to take the town. Opposition had been light. Falling swiftly into battle formation the 48th Highlanders of Toronto, the Carlton and York Regiment of New Brunswick, the West Nova Scotia Regiment and the French speaking Royal 22nd Regiment fanned out along the axis of the advance. A Canadian tank formation not on the strength of the Division joined the infantry battalions and a British regiment of 25-pounders mounted on Valentine tanks moved in ahead of the Division’s impatient artillery.

The Seaforths took Pozzallo and the RCR’S added Rosolini to territory occupied by Canadians on the second day. The next day the advance began in earnest. Modica, eight miles inland : on the edge of the coastal plain, surrendered to a western brigade and the advanced guard of the Edmontons pushed five miles farther north to Ragusa to establish contact with the right flank of General Patton’s Amerii can Seventh Army. This had been easy. ¡There had been fighting of course and ! here and there a brush with stubborn infantry outposts or hidden machine! gun nests. A few brave men died. But mainly speaking the worst the Canadians had met had been friendly Italian ! civilians, neutial Italian soldiers, semineutral Italian roads and hostile flies.

By July 15 they stood beside Vizzini. The advance measured 30 miles on a | map. No one measured it on foot.. It was a long way. Their transport was sorting itself out to the rear of the i trudging infantrymen. But the services of supply and medicine and the heavy equipment of the engineers and artillery couldn’t walk. And since transport was short for the infantry it remained short.

End of Shadow Boxing

And so they kept on walking. At Grammichele they walked into their first real fight. A party from the Saskatoon Light Infantry, the Division’s support battalion, was ambushed outside the town by German tanks. The troops pressed on with a few tanks giving protection and after a sharp

skirmish the enemy retreated toward Caltagirone.

It hadn’t been a great engagement, this brush at Grammichele. But it marked the end of the shadow-boxing phase for Simond’s sweating dustcaked youngsters. From then on they were to see more and more of the German field grey among the Italian blue. They had made the first contact with an enemy that was even tougher than those roller coaster roads and they were to see more and more of him as the hot exhausting days piled up.

They were on the way to Enna, a plateau city commanding the east-west railway and two important roads. The 48th led a quick dash from Grammichele to Caltagirone but the foe had gone right through to the north.

On the sixth day after landing the Edmontons caught up with the Germans again at Piazza Armerina and for half a dozen miles they took turns with the Seaforths, Patricias, West Novas, Carlton Yorks and Quebec’s "Van Doos” in pushing back the enemy rearguards.

Now they were at the Enna hairpin standing below Valguarnera, where the road starts the lower prong of a wrinkled horseshoe that curls back above itself and heads back to the east and Mount Etna. Enng was a great prize. To have taken it in the second week of the campaign after forced I marches halfway up the island with j "green” troops would have been a great triumph for Simonds.

But the Canadian commander looked over the intelligence reports and j decided that Flnna could be won without a fight. The Americans were approaching the town from another direction. There was a minor road up through Valguarnera to a town called Leonforte 10 miles northeast of Enna itself. If the Canadians could fight their way up that thin rising ribbon the enemy would have no choice but to abandon his main central stronghold and get out before his line of retreat was cut off.

On the night of July 17 the Germans, firmly entrenched in the surrounding hills, repulsed an attack by the Royal 22nd, whose object was to secure the southern junction of a spur road through Valguarnera to Leonforte. The next afternoon the Canadian First Division became a tight-knit fully integrated force throwing all its resources on one objective, fighting full out and sometimes in the hard days ahead fighting for its life. F’or the Canadians the war was on in dead earnest.

The entire division’s artillery supported by a British self-propelled regiment plus a British medium regiment of four-fives and five-fives raked the menacing hills with a furious barrage that was only a foretaste of the fun the gunners of the RCA had in store for them. The barrage lifted ! after half an hour and the Royal 22nd , went back in with the Carlton Yorks 1 and the West Nova Scotias to help ! them. The road to Calguarnera was j secured.

On July 19 the Royal 22nd, the RCR’S, the Hastings and 48th, broke through stubborn defenses to take the town itself. Let’s hear the story of a corporal in the 48th. If you’ve heard it before remember that it wasn’t really the story of one man but the story of a whole division that in nine days of action had learned to fight, much the same way as this one man fought before Valguarnera.

Attacking the key hill to the south

the corporal saw one platoon of the 48th advance force severely riddled by vicious machine-gun fire and two sections of another platoon pinned down on the lead hot slopes. .So this tall quiet youngster out of England via Hamilton, Ont., was the last hope of two platoons trapped by a strongly entrenched German company. He detached his section, wormed his way into the clear with them and then started not down the slope but up. With seven silent men inching through the olive trees behind him he climbed undetected to within 20 yards of the German position. Then the enemy spotted the daring little handful and opened up with hand grenades. There was still a chance for retreat for those eight men who were outnumbered at least 15 to one. The corporal turned to the man behind him and asked for his hand grenades. Then he charged. The grenades went in and he was right behind them. The corporal charged straight ahead, emptying his tommy gun into the teeth of the German defenses.

The enemy broke and ran down the far slope—a whole company of seasoned German troops broken by eight Canadian youngsters just starting their second week of battle. No accurate account was ever made of the total number of casualties and prisoners they left behind them but the corporal’s known and believed personal score of killed ranges from a minimum of seven to a maximum of 18.

Scale 2,000-Foot Cliffs

After Valguarnera came Leonforte and Assoro. They’re really only two sets of brown-grey buildings thrown at random against a sawtooth chain of ridges and somehow sticking there. Massed artillery again preluded infantry attacks but the Germans had rushed up reinforcements to Assoro from the east and from their commanding positions only a hand-to-hand struggle could dislodge them. In the dead of night on Aug. 21 Tweedsmuir led the Hastings up the 2,000-foot cliff face past surprised German sentries and at dawn the Germans holding the town found themselves confronted with an unbelievable fait accompli. It left them only one alternative—to get out.

Such brilliant simplicity of operation wasn’t good enough for Leonforte and only the closest co-operation and absolute fearlessness of all forces concentrated there averted a disastrous victory or a first defeat. The main bridge leading to the town was blown up. The Edmontons went around it. The plan was to rebuild the bridge while the Edmontons drew off the main brunt of enemy fire and push reinforcements across it the next morning.

The Fldmontons met stiffer opposition than they’d expected and were forced to take any cover they could find in the town. An engineering platoon under Lieut. Neil Dickson, Winnipeg, went up under cover of darkness to throw across a bridge only to find that the enemy had machine guns firing in a steady stream across their work site. The engineers pitched in and did the job anyway. Three German tanks crept into view on the opposite side and began shelling the trellis work. Major K. J. Southern, Port Arthur, promptly gathered two or three sappers and an armful of grenades and went across to chase the tanks away.

The first heavy traffic over the bridge consisted of two antitank guns pushed by two crews of artillerymen under the

oldest major in the First Division, Major George A. Welsh, Sunderland, Ont. Major Welsh, veteran of the Royal Flying Corps of the last war, heard mortars and machine guns firing from strong points in the town on the trapped Edmontons.

Liquidates Pillboxes

With the help of 10 volunteers he manhandled two of his battery’s sixpounders down the main street and hid around the corner until the volley subsided. Then he whipped his guns into the middle of the street and blasted at point-blank range until the improvised German pillboxes and most of their occupants had been liquidated. A company of Patricias under Major Rowan Coleman found Welsh’s support invaluable during the bitter skirmish they fought to relieve the Edmontons and complete the conquest of Leonforte.

Tanks helped in the final phase of the battle and over on Assoro Ridge the 48th supported the “Hasty Pees in cleaning up enemy strongholds there.

The Canadians were now firmly astride the ridge leading to Adrano. Adrano had now become to the German position what Enna had been before— its central pivot and heart of communications life line. It lay 30 miles to the east. And so the running fight was on— never a pitched battle in which the enemy was willing to battle to the last man—but never quite a full retreat. The next stop was Nissoria. In just under three hours batteries of 25pounders and heavier medium guns poured more than 25,000 shells into the enemy’s Nissoria positions. That broke up the three-day stand in which successive infantry attacks by the RCR’s the “Hasty Pees” and the 48th had been stalled. The Pats and the Seaforths rushed on into Agira four miles farther on. Agira was occupied by the 48th assisted by a veteran English brigade that had toiled all through the siege of Malta and in Sicily had received its first chance to strike back at the Germans under anything resembling even terms. Ihe so-called Malta Brigade was working on the right flank and joined the famous British 78th Division operating in that sector. Striking toward Adrano from the south with a British division the brigade figured prominently in the capture of Catenanuova.

While the West Nova Scotias and the Carlton Yorks were crossing the Dittaino River to the south of Adrano the main body of the first division with its attached British units closed in on Regalbuto. On Aug. 2 Regalbuto fell. Adrano was a dozen miles away. Centuripe, just south of the main road, fell to the 78th Division almost simultaneously.

There wasn’t room for two divisions to move along the heavily shelled road so the Canadians moved off to the north into the valley of the Salso River and beyond. Now began their final climatical adventure. The rugged Edmontons went off into the hills above Salso. The Royal Canadian Engineers went into the bed of the river itself and built 10 miles of road along which the Seaforths and the Patricias struck a middle course roughly paralleling the Edmonton’s alpine push farther north and the British main drive farther south. Canadian tanks helped them reach the Simeto River guarding the north-south road. The Royal 22nd made the crossing as a three-pronged drive closed in, and the defending Germans, their lines of retreat again in jeopardy, pulled out so fast on the night of Aug. 6 that they didn’t even stop on their way for the ceremonial blasting they’d given every other town the Canadians had taken from them.

This was the Canadians’ last show in Sicily. Montgomery, more than pleased with the way they’d handled those backbreaking hills and the tenacious Germans defending them, ordered the First Division to take a rest while the British and Americans swept through the broken Etna line to Messina.

The Canadians did not win the campaign in Sicily. While they knifed up through the central sector, battletested Americans and British were fighting and winning the critical and bloody battles to their left and right. I have yet to meet a Canadian soldier from Simonds down who felt he’d done any more than his share. They have learned their little lessons — about camouflage and digging slit trenches promptly and looking after their water and their mosquito nets. One other thing they’ve learned. Peering through the sights of a Lee Enfield, feeding ammunition into a 25-pounder, clearing a minefield, driving a tank, or wheeling up the rations truck after 36 hours duty, the Canadian soldier still has all the things inside him that make not only a good soldier but a great one.