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.