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The monastery at Montecassino has overlooked the Liri Valley for over 1000 years, and in 1944, it would look over the Allied offensive as they push towards Rome.
THE RACE TO ROME
In early 1944, the Germans heavily fortified the mountains and valley to stop the inevitable offensive by the Allies. The Allies tried to break through the valley three times in the Spring of 1944, but each time, the fortified German positions pushed back. These heavily fortified Germans positions in the Liri Valley would be known as “The Hitler Line” - a 20 km-long line of barbed wire, machine gun nests, and anti-tank posts. It was a killing ground of steel and concrete, ready and waiting for the Canadian advance.
One of the most difficult defences the Germans had defending the Hitler Line was called a "Panzerturm"
A 3 man crew would operate a tank turret set on top of a concrete bunker in the ground. They were supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns behind them, with barbed wire surrounding.
For the fourth attack in May 1944, the Canadians are ordered to spearhead the offensive along the Hitler Line. On May 23rd, at dawn, the allied artillery barrage began. A ½ dozen Canadian regiments move forward together through the wheat fields and small farms of the Liri Valley towards the line. The race for Rome was on.
Despite the heavy defences, the points of German resistance were quickly overrun. The Germans were surprised at the speed of the Canadian advance and were quickly taken back. The Canadians, didn't stop for any reason, not even to help the wounded. One day later, on May 24th the Hitler Line was effectively broken.
The taking of the Liri Valley was a huge step in the Allied plan early in 1944, but it was not without cost to the Canadians. For the Canadian Army, the fast and furious single-day fight in the Liri Valley would account for most of the Canadian casualties in the entire Italian Campaign. A staggering 890 Canadians were killed or wounded. The 2nd Brigade alone suffered 543 casualties, and the supporting British Armour lost 44 tanks.
Before the Canadians could walk into Rome, they had one last obstacle to face: the Melfa River. The crossing of the Melfa River was held up by a German stronghold, orchestrated to stop the Canadians from building a bridgehead. To add to the difficulty, the inexperienced Canadian staff accounted for mass confusion and poor planning for the troops. Once the Canadians were able to organize a bridgehead and fend off the remaining Germans, they were able to cross the Melfa River. From that point on, the majority of the fighting on the road to Rome was over.
Canadian soldiers crossing the Melfa River, 1944
Just 2 weeks after the Canadians break through the Hitler Line the Germans retreated from Rome, declaring it an open city. On June 4th, 1944, the Canadians entered the city. It was a day of celebration and praise throughout the capital. This great victory would capture the headlines of newspapers worldwide. Sadly, only 2 short days later, other Allied Armies land in Normandy. "D-Day" and the war in France sends the Italian campaign into the shadows. The troops in Italy make a bitter joke calling themselves “The spaghetti League” or the “D-Day Dodgers” as it seems as though the fighting being done in Italy could not rival that of the Normandy invasion.
Canadian soldiers walking past an immobile tank, 1944
The Gothic Line
While Rome is celebrating their liberation, less than 300 kilometres away, the Germans are preparing what seems to be an impregnable position built into the ridges and mountains of Northern Italy. This would be the ultimate test for the Canadians in Italy - The “Gothic Line”. The Allied plan was to attack through the Po Valley through Northern Italy and into Austria - the heart of occupied Europe. But first, The Gothic Line stands in their way.
After the swift advances by the Canadian Army through the Liri Valley, the German intelligence began to watch the movements of the Canadians believing that wherever the Canadians would be set up would be the site of the next offensive. Knowing they were being closely watched, the Canadians underwent a top-secret movement on August 8th, 1944. The troops moved from Florence, east, through the Apennine Mountains, to the Adriatic coast. All troops stripped off their Canadian insignia, and vehicles disguised.
Although the Gothic Line was the primary target and heavily fortified, the advance just to get to the foot of the Line would be treacherous itself. The Germans had developed a series of smaller positions in front of the main line creating a deep defence. Each position lay behind a river, and together they extended north for 16 kilometres from the Metauro River to the Gothic Line Proper. Within this section of ground all Italian civilians were evacuated, and for the last 10 kilometres before the Gothic Line, all roads, buildings, and other possible forms of cover were demolished or levelled by bulldozers. Soldiers recall saying, “It was just men and bullets, no cover could be found”. On top of this, the entire area was heavily sown with mines.
Behind the “kill zone,” as the Germans dubbed it, the Gothic Line’s main strength was meant to be provided by three belts of Panzerturms, However, to the luck of the Allies, only four Panzerturms, plus 18 smaller gun turrets, had been completed by late August.
German soldiers firing a 2cm anti-aircraft gun
The Canadian Push
On the 25th of August, 1944, it would be the 1st Canadian Infantry that led the force to cross over the Metauro River. It took five days of hard fighting to push the Germans back. But the Canadians were successful in their advance and now stood at the foot of the first belt of the Gothic Line, behind the Foglia River.
At the foot of the Gothic Line, the Canadian plan was to crash the Gothic Line following a heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. Infantry would be closely supported by tanks and would advance close behind a creeping barrage to the objective. The plan was to break the Line and keep pushing inward, advancing through layer after layer until the Canadians reached the town of Rimini.
Sketch map of the original planned Allied attack on the Gothic Line
Before the Canadian plan could be put into place, on August 29th, Major-General Bert Hoffmeister, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division’s Commander, crawled onto a hillcrest overlooking the Foglia River. Instead of seeing fortifications swarming with Germans, the strong points appeared unoccupied. The commander quickly realized the Germans had not yet replaced the wounded divisions with fresh soldiers.
Hoffmeister proposed that the Canadians “gatecrash” the Gothic Line with an immediate infantry attack to punch a hole in the Line where tanks could be fed through. Once the tanks were past the Panzerturms and other guns, the Line would have to be abandoned by the Germans all the way from the sea to the Apennines.
The following afternoon on August 30th, two regiments of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division (PPCLI and West Nova Scotia’s) would attack to on the right, and on the left would be two regiments of the 5th Division (Perth’s and Cape Breton Highlanders). The Perth’s were tasked to advance without armour support and through an open minefield. Once crossed the minefield, survivors then crossed an open road dodging machine gun fire and climb a steep hill to the German defences. The Perth’s managed to capture a piece of tactical high ground called Point 111. They were the first Canadians to successfully punch into the Gothic Line.
The fighting that followed was fierce and often confused. The ground was a maze of ridges, hills and deep, narrow valleys. Battalions became lost. German and Canadian troops met each other head on while trying to reach strategic positions. Tank battalions became isolated and surrounded by German troops. Both sides suffered heavy losses. Virtually every enemy position had to be taken by frontal assault.
Victory on the Line
On September 21st the last German stronghold would fall and the Canadians would officially succeed in defeating the Gothic Line. Breaking the Gothic Line was once thought impossible, but the Canadians once again pulled off an "impossible" feat. Despite this, the cost was high, and saw the Canadians with 4,511 casualties - 1,016 of which were fatal.
The Allies had hoped to continue to apply pressure on the Germans, in an effort to get them running right out of Italy - however, the early onset of fall rains would set back the planned armoured charge. The rains and onset of the worst winter in Europe in 50 years led to a stalemate on the Italian front. Although the Italian campaign would continue through until the spring of 1945, The Canadian Corps would be withdrawn from Italy in February, joining the rest of the Canadians in their final campaigns across northwest Europe.
Even so, the Gothic Line offensive was one of the most important victories won by Canadian forces in the Second World War. But its significance was overshadowed by the equally important events in Normandy, and just like this campaign started for the Canadian troops in the summer of 1943, the heroic headline soldiers that once were, again became the “Forgotten Army”.
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
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