• Samantha Cowan

Canadians to Italy 75 - Part 1: The Invasion of Sicily


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Instructions being signalled to waiting landing craft by semaphore at dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily, 1943

To the 1st Canadian Division, it felt as if they had been forgotten and sidelined. High Command wanted something to involve the whole Division. What followed is to this day one of the most inspiring of Canadian victories.

Canadian Mindset

In the summer of 1943 the 2nd World War was in its 4th year, and for almost all of that time the men of the 1st Canadian division were based on english soil, held back by the Canadian High Command. The Canadian Command was waiting for a campaign which could commit all 26,000 men. In the meantime, the troops were kept busy on base. The Canadian Command held endless sporting events many military parades, and countless hours of training, all while other Allied armies were in the fight. Had the Canadian Division been forgotten?

In June 1943, the Canadians would finally have the opportunity that High Command had been waiting for. Just over 26,000 troops of the 1st Canadian Division would board more than 50 ships and depart England. They were apart of a large scale seaborne force set to attack the enemy lines. The destination, though, is kept secret until they set sail to ensure utmost secrecy.

On June 28th the Canadians finally made eyes at a large convoy starting to building around them. The next day around noon a message was posted on all notice boards, it wrote, “Following message has been received from the Rear Admiral: ‘We are on our way to the Mediterranean to take part in the greatest combined operation ever attempted.’”


Allied ships make their way to the Sicilian coast, 1943

The Enemy Force

By this time in the conflict, the Allies had driven the Italian and German forces out of South Africa, forcing them to retreat back into Italy. This paved the way to the next Allied objective; the Southern Italian island of Sicily. Canadian troops join in a convoy with other ships containing over 160,000 American and British troops off the western shores of Sicily, and form up for the seaborne invasion codenamed “Operation Husky”. The goal: to take Sicily by seaborne and amphibious landings, knocking the Axis powers back further into Italy. This would ensure clear seaways for reinforcements, plus, it would allow the Allies to take over air bases in Sicily, supporting the invasion of mainland Italy.

Unbeknownst to the Allies, German submarines are monitoring their approach to the Sicilian coastline. The German submarines attack, and strike. Three ships go down, and with them, 58 Canadians are killed. With it, much of the Canadian’s transport are lost, almost 500 vehicles and guns. Once the Allied ship’s counter, the German boats are taken out, and the men remain in high spirits as the convoy bears on.

The average age of a Canadian soldier sailing to Sicily was 24, although many who claim to be 20 looked about 18, some recalling that the Canadian Army to be was “looking like a bunch of boy scouts”. Many found it hard to believe that these young and naive troops were considered by the newspapers as “Assault Troops”. The only experience the Canadian Army had ever had in an amphibious invasion was the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, only a year prior, where in just hours 3,367 were wounded, missing, killed, or taken prisoner.


German Luftwaffe pilot flying over occupied Europe

Sicilian Invasion

In the early hours of July 10th, Allied forces containing British, Canadian and American troops land on the beaches of the southeast coast of Sicily, in a seaside town, called Pachino. The Allies know that more than 200,000 soldiers of the Italian Army, and another 60,000 battle hardened soldiers from the German Army, are there waiting for them.

At 0400h, hundreds of ships opened fire on the Italian and German positions along the Sicilian coast, aimed to soften the defences in preparation for the pending beach invasion. The Canadian landing zone was on a stretch of beach known as the “Amber Coast”, just southwest of the Sicilian City of Pachino. As the men wade ashore expecting heavy resistance, they were met with few Germans scattered across the beaches, who attempted to retaliate. Despite this, the beach landings were a success, and only 7 Canadians lost their lives to take their zone. The overall landing invasion had been a success, and it became obvious the Germans and Italians had retreated inland to prepare for battle.

In the middle of the summer, with the heat of the Italian sun, the Canadians advance into a landscape of vineyards and small houses, with temperatures reaching that of 40 degrees celsius. Along the way, Italians put up almost no resistance against the marching Allies. They were tired of this war in which they never wanted, and they line up to surrender.

The Allied plan is to cut the Germans off before they can reach their escape route out of northeastern Sicily. Only one set back - the Canadian’s vehicles and equipment had been sunk in the amphibious convoy - the Canadians were left to carry on primarily by foot. As the dust roads were kicked up by the tanks ahead of the troops, it is said that they looked like they had been dipped in flour as they marched on.

In the first week, the Canadians march 50 kilometres - on foot - into central Sicily. The terrain and weather is what took the largest toll. Sicily is known to be extremely sunny and hot in the summer, the landscape covered in mountains and ridges with only windy roads to travel along. In addition, the Germans had every hill and corner pegged - trying to fight a war in these conditions would seem like a torture camp.

It had taken 5 days after the landing for the Canadians to encounter the German Army. These would be small ambushes, but violent nonetheless. The ambushes were not meant to hold ground against the Canadians, but delay their attack on the German strongholds; Leonforte, Assoro, and Agira. These strongholds were crucial to the Germans because they protected the German escape route through the Port of Messina, back to mainland Italy.


An example of the Sicilian landscape the Canadians had to overcome

Battle of Assoro

On July 17th, the Canadian advance came to a halt. They came to a position where the Germans decided to take a stand. The spot the Germans chose was thought to be impenetrable, and chosen strategically by the Germans - nowhere else was more formidable than Assoro.

Assoro’s so strong, that in its thousand year history, it had never been successfully attacked. It stands on the ridge of a mountain, 900 metres high, with its neighbouring mountainside towns of Leonforte and Agira. A formidable defensive position in all directions, Assoro made for an Army with an already incredible reputation for their defense, a wonderful place to stave off their retreat.

As the Canadians approach Assoro, the Germans spot them, looking on confidently from the height of the cliffs. The German spotters from the highest points could see any and all movement going on down below, watching the roads mainly, but with such a clear sight, they could see everything, even a single man in an orchard.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe set out on his reconnaissance run, along with him was his Intelligence Officer, Maurice Cockin. Crouching in the open, with binoculars and map boards,a German crew of an .88 watched them closely. The Germans fired at the two men, killing Sutcliffe instantly. Cockin died as well from his injuries soon after. The Canadians were enraged by this - killing before the battle had even begun was seen as evil, vicious and obscene. The Germans would slowly discover that they had lighted a fire inside the hearts of the Canadians - and it would be the eventual end to their demise.

The Canadian plan from here was simple on paper: make a night attack, single file. Filing through the hills and across a gully, then up a final steep hill to the foot of the ruins of the Norman castle that lay on the top of the Assoro Ridge. The only flaw was if the Germans caught on to this plan - should the Canadians be found out they would become be easy targets crawling up the steep hills in single file.

Nonetheless, in the early hours of July 20th, the Canadians found themselves on their final ascent of the steep hill on the Assoro Ridge. Every man used whatever strength they had left to claw at the rocky slope. When a man faltered, they clinged on and waited for a man from behind to push them up, or from above to pull them forward. Not a single soldier made a single noise, none fell or dropped even an ammo clip in the dirt. The slightest noise would have alerted the Germans, ruining the surprise. Just after 4am, the Canadians surprised a small German garrison at the top of the slope, and within 10 minutes, the peak before the Norman castle was stealthy in Canadian hands. More soldiers hurried up the ridge, to the point where they had almost 500 altogether, clinging to the ridge. At this point, the Canadians are actually positioned directly behind the German lines, and have taken a high point in the German defences. The Canadians also knew the Germans could no longer be on the defensive now with the the highest vantage point, Assoro, being in Canadian hands. The Germans could not lose Assoro, and are forced into an offensive.


Map of the Battle of Assoro

The Germans called in their artillery from the surrounding villages in an attempt at knocking the Canadians off the hill. The Canadians dig in as best they could into the rocky mountaintop and hold off the German counter attacks. Being above the Germans vantage point gave the Canadians a great advantage, forcing the Germans to abandon their strong points at Leonforte and Agira to aid in fighting the Canadians at Assoro.

An intense barrage counterattack led by the Germans lasted all day. The Canadians, still holding onto the ridge, continued to fight back. After the long day of fighting there fell a silence on the ridge. Through silence could be heard the immense sounds of vehicles. The Germans were fleeing Assoro. The Canadians successfully defeated the Germans, while also avenging the death of Sutcliffe.

Liberation of Sicily

The Battle of Sicily lasted 38 days. It was a great success for Canada, showcasing the troops ability to fight against the best the Germans had, while also gaining much needed battle experience. This experience will come in handy for the invasion of mainland Italy.

The Canadians hold a parade in the main square of Agira, the first liberation parade in occupied Europe since the start of WW2. The Germans though, have completed their main objective in the impending attack, fleeing across the Port of Messina and into Italy. Their army of 60,000 soldiers has been saved and is ready to fight another day.

The liberation of Sicily will always be looked at as a great victory for the Canadians, with 38 days of cross country walking, and rough terrain fighting. This victory ensured the Mediterranean seaways were clear of German fleets, as well secured an air base to support the invasion of mainland Italy, but this victory did not come without cost. In total the Canadians would lose 2,226 men, 562 who gave their lives for the battle, and 84 of which would become prisoners of war.


Artwork from the Canadian War Museum depicting the Canadian march through Assoro

Commemorate With Us

With the 75th Anniversary of Canada’s Invasion into Italy, let us join together, in celebration and thanks for the Canadians who sacrificed so much for us. In their honour, we travel to Sicily for the 75th Commemorative events. Join us to remember the bravery and vigour of our boys on the battlefields of Sunny Italy. Embrace the Italy that we know and love today, and help us honour the sacrifice endured by keeping our Canadian story alive.

If you would like to join us on the upcoming program commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Canadians in Italy , or if you would like more information in regards to the events taking place in Italy for the anniversary click here


References:

https://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/italiancampaign/assoro.htm

http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/canada-and-the-second-world-war/sicily

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ak3PoKDL9XQ&t=1658s

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