Montgomery with Troops, Pachino, Italy, 11 July 1943.
National Archives of Canada (Department of National Defence Collection, PA-130249, photo by Frank Royal).

Montgomery with Troops, Pachino, Italy, 11 July 1943.

Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, who had helped to lead the Allies to victory against the Germans in Africa, commanded the British Eighth Army during the invasion of Sicily. The Canadians formed part of the British army in the joint America-British operation, which began in July 1943.

By the end of 1942, the war in North Africa was clearly approaching an end with Montgomery's victory at El Alamein and the American landings in Morocco and Algeria. The Forty-Niner, in an editorial written 12 December 1942, predicted the events of the subsequent course of the war with astonishing accuracy: the invasion of Italy, the collapse of Mussolini, the Soviet victory on the Eastern Front, and the D-Day invasion. (9) It is doubtful that any of the allied strategists read that issue of the Forty-Niner. Had they done so, they might have been surprised, since the decision about whether or not to invade Italy was still a matter of hot controversy at the time. The British, who favoured such a move, eventually prevailed over the Americans, and planning for the invasion of Sicily began. Public pressure in Canada to see their troops in on the fight had by now become irresistible. General McNaughton lost his struggle to keep the Canadian Army together, and the allied planners were asked to include a Canadian infantry division and an armoured brigade as part of the British 8th Army.

In the early months of 1943, the signs that action might at last be imminent began to mount. New weapons were issued, amphibious training began, and vehicles were repainted with new markings. At the beginning of May, the regiment said good-bye to southern England, where it had been for more than three years, and moved to Scotland for a final six weeks of amphibious training. At last, at the end of June, the troops boarded the transport Durban Castle. Their destination was unknown but nobody was sorry to be on the way.

Canadian Troops Disembark from Landing Craft, Pachino, Italy, July 1943.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, Box 8).

Canadian Troops Disembark from Landing Craft, Pachino, Italy, July 1943.

Canadian forces landed at Pachino at the southeastern corner of the island of Sicily. They used landing craft (LSTs, the largest Second World war craft able to unload directly on beaches) to transport them to shore from troop transports located farther out to sea. The crews of LSTs referred to them as Large Slow Targets.

The regiment was in fact headed for the beaches of southern Sicily as part of a massive British/American landing that was actually larger, in terms of the number of ground troops involved, than the D-Day landing the following year. The Canadians landed near the town of Pachino, which positioned them on the left flank of the British 8th Army and next to the US 7th Army whose major landings were at Gela. Sicily was defended by about 250,000 Italian troops and two German divisions. The allies had mounted an elaborate deception that had succeeded in convincing the German command that Sardinia was the primary target. The experience of Dieppe meant there was overwhelming air and naval gunfire support for the landings. The big unknown was how well, if at all, the Italian forces would fight. The allies had no useful intelligence about the morale of Italian soldiers in Sicily in spite of efforts to use American Mafia connections to infiltrate the island. (10)

Montgomery with Troops, Pachino, Italy, 11 July 1943.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-215, Box 8).

Canadian Troops Round up Italian Prisoners, near Modica, Italy, July 1943.

Canadian troops managed to take several hundred Italian prisoners shortly after landing in Sicily.

As events unfolded, when the Edmonton Regiment boarded their amphibious DUKWs and climbed down the nets into their landing craft on 10 July 1943, they were able to land and establish positions on shore without opposition. Patrols began moving inland at once and captured several dozen Italian soldiers after token resistance. Only three ships of the more than three thousand that made up the invasion force were sunk on the way by U-boats, but one of them contained almost all the Canadian vehicles. So the regiment moved inland on foot in a north-westerly direction through the towns of Ispica and Modica. The numbers of surrendering prisoners swelled to nearly 1500, but on 14 July, as they moved through Ragusa, three men were killed and four wounded by snipers, the first battle casualties of the war. On 16 July, just south of Piazza Armerina, the regiment encountered their first Germans and their first serious firefight of the war. In a situation that would become all too familiar over the coming months, soldiers of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division used the narrow, winding Italian roads to set up an ambush. In this case as in most others, the roadblock could be outflanked by labouriously hauling weapons to the crests of the hills on either side, but only at the cost of time and casualties. The Germans were masters at this kind of delaying action, and, even when they had no intention of making a stand, they made their opponents pay in blood for their gains.

Personnel of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Valguarnera, Italy, 19 July 1943.
National Archives of Canada (PA-166755, photo by Jack H. Smith; courtesy of Canada. Dept. of National Defence).

Personnel of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Valguarnera, Italy, 19 July 1943.

Canadian soldiers met increasingly stiff German resistance as they moved through Valguarnera to Leonforte.

General Sir Harold Alexander's original plan for the campaign in Sicily called for the experienced British divisions of Montgomery's 8th Army to make the main thrust up the east coast from Syracuse through Catania to Messina. As so often happens in warfare, the plan did not work out. The coastal thrust quickly bogged down, and Montgomery was forced to shift the axis of his attack to the left, to try to capture the town of Leonforte, which was the western anchor of the German defence line that ran east to Catania. The Canadians, although none of them with the possible exception of the divisional commander, General Guy Simonds, knew it at the time, were in the centre of a fierce dispute between the Americans and the British over army boundaries. The Americans, having not lost any of their transport, were in better shape than the 8th army to pursue the retreating Germans up routes 124 and 117 to Leonforte. General Alexander, who distrusted the Americans after their weak initial showing against the Germans in North Africa, took the two roads away from 7th Army and assigned them to the Canadians. The decision affected the Canadians and the Edmonton Regiment by eliminating any flexibility in their advance. (11) They could only go straight ahead in the dust and blazing heat.

Leonforte, Italy, ca. 1943.
Historical Section of the General Staff, Canadian Military Headquarters in Great Britain, From Pachino to Ortona: The Canadian Campaign in Sicily and Italy, 1943 (Ottawa: King's Printer, [1945]).

Leonforte, Italy, ca. 1943.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade captured the picturesque and formidable hill-town of Leonforte in late July 1943.

A dozen kilometres north of Piazza Armerina, at Valguarnera, the Canadians encountered the first indication that German resistance was stiffening. It took two days of all out fighting to win through and open the way to Leonforte. Then the going got really tough. Leonforte is an ancient hill town sited on top of a narrow ridge with only a single winding road giving access. On the afternoon of 20 July, the Seaforths were preparing to attack the town when a short Canadian artillery round wounded their CO and a number of officers. The Edmonton Regiment was quickly substituted and in the evening began climbing through the deep ravine that defined the southern edge of the town. A and D companies managed to get into the town without arousing the Germans, but, when headquarters and C company started to move in with their carriers, the enemy came to life. The battalion was in the town in a number of separate groups and a confused night battle developed. Colonel Jefferson was able to consolidate a position in the town during the night, but by morning the situation was perilous. The always temperamental radios failed to work, and contact with brigade headquarters was lost. The Germans outnumbered the Canadians and had a number of tanks available that could easily destroy the regiment's positions.

Engineers worked through the night to bridge the ravine so that tanks and anti-tanks guns could get across, but, with no word from the battalion, Brigadier Chris Vokes feared it might be too late. The road to the town was passable by 0900, and Vokes had a rescue column ready to go. Four tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, a company of Patricias, and some anti-tank guns charged through the German positions and brought much-needed firepower to Colonel Jefferson and his men. The enemy was cleared from the town, and when the shooting stopped the battalion proved to have gotten off relatively lightly with twenty-five casualties.

  • 9. The Forty-Niner, 1, 36 (January, 1943), 2.
  • 10. Carlo D'Este, Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily July-August, 1943 ( London: Collins, 1988), Appendix N. Unholy Alliance: The Luciano Connection.
  • 11. Ibid., Chapter 19, 'The Great Boundary Line Dispute.'
 

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