Canadians to Italy 75 - Part 2: Target: Rome
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Allied soldier is seen overlooking the landscape after breaking through the Gothic Line
Canada and the Allies successfully drove the Germans out of Sicily, but was this the German plan all along? The fighting for Sicily was won, but the new fight for mainland Italy would be the fight that stuck in history books.
The Crossing of the Strait
A short 4 weeks after the successful victory in Sicily the Canadians and Allies invade mainland Italy. On September 3rd, 1943, the invasion would start with a massive barrage, pummelling the landing zones in hopes to destroy all German fortifications.
The Canadian's would be landing at the beaches near Reggio Calabria directly across from the Port of Messina. The U.S. Fifth Army was sent up more north to the beaches of Salerno to start their offensive. The Allied plan is to drive north up the coast, past the city of Ortona and encircle Rome. The plan is to seize the capital by the end of the year.
Invasion Forces plan their landing zines prior to the Mainland Invasion
Upon landings, the Canadians are reminded of the landings in Sicily. Very little resistance is put up by the German defences as they retreat backward into the central mountainous ranges in the boot of Italy. Italian armies put up no resistance at all, giving themselves up as the Allies reach the beaches. It would be this day the Italians began to give themselves up, but on September 8th it would become official that the Italian government is no longer fighting in the war.
With hearing this the Germans decide that the mostly occupied country of Italy would now become a large scale battlefield. Italy is still occupied by 100's of thousands of Germans. The Germans destroy railways, as well, blow up bridges and mining roads - anything they could do to delay the allied advance.
The Canadians capture the initial objective of Reggio Calabria and begin to make the march inland. They 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 had moved 120 kilometres inland from Reggio by September 10.
Meanwhile, the American Fifth Army was facing stiffer resistance at the landing beaches of Salerno. To assist the Americans a Canadian brigade was diverted from the Canadian offensive. This brigade was to assist in the taking of Potenza, an important road centre east of Salerno. Potenza was successfully taken by September 20th. By October 1st the Fifth US Army entered Naples. While the Americans were beginning to create a winning offensive, the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade was marching eastward to intersect with the British Airborne Division in the Taranto region. The two armies, once together, pushed inland to the north/northwest.
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. Allied armies stood on a line running across Italy from sea to sea. The next objective was Rome.
A view from Reggio Calabria overlooking the Strait of Messina with Sicily in the background
The Pursuit of Reggio
As the allies march from Naples to Foggia, the Canadians push into the central mountain ranges. Once again the terrain of the Italian countryside was delaying the Canadian advance. The Germans were putting up small resistance attacks at river crossings and mountain ranges. This terrain was especially good to be on the defensive with many various vantage points. On October 1st, at Motta, the Canadians entered their first battle with the Germans. These battles continued throughout the advance, and although brief, these battles were bloody and dangerous. Having to fight through the German defences, as well as having to march the Italian countryside, It took the Canadians 2 weeks to march from Lucera to Campobasso. Only 40km in distance.
The town of Campobasso was spared of a lot of fighting, unlike the fate of many of the small towns surrounding it. Campobasso was a strategic point that was crucial to the allied advance. All roads connect to Campobasso so whoever ruled the roads, would have access to all compass points. When the Canadians marched into Campobasso they were met with cheering crowds of the newly liberated townspeople. The whole town was in celebration and this soon became a military basecamp for the Canadians. Soon to be nicknamed “Canada Town”.
Canada Town was looked at as a place to escape the horrors of battle. They turned the community centre into the “Beaver Club” where one could go to write letters home, read books, or play darts. The military brought in Hollywood movies for the troops to watch, as well there would be comedy shows and entertainment throughout the town. Although many troops wouldn’t spend as much time as they would have hoped in Canada Town, it was a nice escape nonetheless.
In the 63 days since landing, the Eighth British Army had covered 725 kilometres. The "pursuit from Reggio" was over. The Germans prepared to hold a defensive from the coast south of Cassino, to Ortona on the Adriatic shore. The German Army was almost equal numbers to that of the Allies. Also, the Germans had the greater advantage of being on the defensive. The liberation of Rome would not be easy.
Men of the 10th Royal Berkshire Regiment move up to the heights of Calvi-Risorta, 27 October 1943
The next objective for the Candians would be to move up the Adriatic Coast towards Ortona. The task was not easy as the Adriatic shoreline was cut by a series of deep river valleys. In the early days of winter, as the first snow began to fall, the Eighth British Army attacked the German line along the Sangro River. The aim of the offensive was to break the stalemate that had developed and relieve the pressure on the Fifth U.S. Army in the drive to take Rome. The British and Canadians succeeded in driving the Germans from the Sangro but were faced with the same task a few kilometres further north at the Moro River. On the night of 5–6 December, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade took over Eighth Army’s lead and took the job of crossing the Moro River. In the early hours of December 6th, a three-pronged attack began. Only the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry made headway, winning Villa Rogatti on the left flank. When engineers were unable to erect a bridge across the Moro to enable tanks to support the PPCLI, a withdrawal was ordered.
It took until the 9th of December for the Canadians to win a firm bridgehead, but further advance was blocked by a deep, narrow pass nicknamed “The Gully”.
Advancing past the Moro River brought the Canadians to what appeared on topographical maps as nothing but a narrow, minor gap about a kilometre south of Ortona. But as the soldiers approached, they discovered the line was actually a deep, narrow ravine. The Germans had dug deep holes into its southern bank that protected them from artillery fire. The Allies shelled the German defences, but when the shelling stopped the Germans dashed up the ravine’s edge to fire their machine guns on the Canadian infantry.
“The Gully,” as the Canadians dubbed it, proved impossible to break with direct attacks. Each attack by a single battalion was thrown back with heavy casualties. Drenching rain and falling temperatures added to the already miserable battle. The battleground mirrored the muddy no man’s land between opposing sides during the battle for Passchendaele in the First World War. On the night of 14-15th of December the Royal 22nd Regiment outflanked The Gully. Eighty-one men of Captain Paul Triquet’s ‘C’ Company and seven Ontario Regiment tanks headed for a farmhouse called “Casa Berardi”. When the company took heavy casualties and soldiers were losing hope, Triquet shouted, “The safest place for us is the objective”. At 2:30 p.m. on December 15th, "Casa Berardi" was taken. Triquet became the first Canadian in Italy to win a Victoria Cross for valour. After four more days of fighting to gain a vital crossroads, the Germans withdrew from The Gully into the town of Ortona.
The invasion of mainland Italy and the road to Rome was filled with long marches and brutal battles. From September to the end of November the Canadian casualties were approximately 7,595, with 1,617 of which being fatal. In December of 1943 casualties in the crossing of the Moro, and the taking of Ortona would amount to 2,339. 502 of which would be fatal.
Painting from the RCAC pictured tanks providing support for the fight at Casa Berardi
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