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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.