Chapter 3: The Invasion of Sicily
10 July 1943
Sicily and its People
From the earliest days of recorded history Sicily has known occupation at many hands. Twenty-five centuries have gone by since far-sailing Greek and Phoenician adventurers planted their first colonies along the island’s seaboard and began gradually to crowd into serfdom the hill-dwellers, who, tradition says, had themselves come as immigrants or “Sicels” from the mainland peninsula. On more than a dozen occasions during the passing of the years the invader has landed on her shores; for Sicily’s position between Europe and North Africa has made her a steppingstone between the two continents and a battleground for powers seeking control of the Mediterranean basin. Thus, many peoples have used the island as a resting place, but few as a final abode. Although throughout her chequered history Sicily has more than once enjoyed independent rule, her record is mainly one of domination, successively by Greek, Carthaginian and Roman, Vandal and Ostrogoth, Byzantine and Saracen, Norman and Angevin, Spaniard and Austrian. The last invasion before 1943 was in 1860, when the gallant expedition of Garibaldi and the Thousand opened the way for the annexation of the island into the new Kingdom of Italy.
So turbulent a history was bound to leave upon the inhabitants of the island a mark no less enduring than the influences of geology and climate. The almost continuous state of defence which Sicily has been forced to maintain has compelled the population to live in large groups, and to build their inland communities on elevated, easily defended sites. The rugged topography of the country has provided ample scope for this practice, which has been further encouraged by the ravages of the malarial mosquito, which flourishes in the lowlands but not on the cooler high ground. The Allied armies in the summer of 1943 were to fight some of their fiercest battles when ousting the enemy from these lofty hill towns of the interior.
As we have seen, Sicily’s natural physical structure places the advantage overwhelmingly with the defender in any contest for possession of the
island. The mountain backbone along the northern coast is flanked by lesser ranges which cover most of the central and southern regions. Two of these formations merit note, for they were in the area of operations assigned to the Eighth Army, and more specifically along the axis of the Canadian advance. The more extensive of these is the Monti Erei, an irregular chain of flat-topped hills which branches south-eastward from the main northern spine to mark the watershed between the Ionian Sea and the Malta Channel (see Map 1). Although erosion has much fretted the sandstone of which it is composed, the range forms a continuous and fairly level barrier descending gradually from an altitude of 3000 feet at Enna – the most centrally and loftily sited town in Sicily – to 2000 feet near Caltagirone at its southern extremity. From a point a few miles north of Enna a spur runs eastward between the Salso and Dittaino Rivers to the lower slopes of Mount Etna, bearing on its heights the towns of Leonforte, Assoro, Agira and Regalbuto – names that were to become indelibly inscribed in the story of Canadian operations in Sicily. The soft rock of which these hills are formed makes their slopes unstable and subject to frequent landslide – a condition favourable to demolitions of which the engineers of a defending force might be expected to take full advantage. East of the Erei ridge the land declines to the Catania plain in a series of low clay and sandstone hills, which are traversed by the steep-sided, flat-floored valleys of the eastward-flowing Salso and Dittaino Rivers.1
The other hill system in the Canadian path consisted of the tableland of the Monti Iblei, which stretches north-westward from the Pachino peninsula to meet the Monti Erei at Caltagirone. This plateau, which rises to a height of 2000 feet or more, is broken by narrow valleys with precipitous sides. At its northern edge a series of terraces step down to the Catania plain; to the south it shelves more gradually to the narrow coastal strip running westward from Cape Passero.
As might be expected in a country where the majority of the towns and villages were perched on lofty hilltops, the roads of Sicily were rarely level and more seldom straight. Skilled engineering had eased the steepness of the gradients and the sharpness of the bends by which the main State highways mounted and descended these hills, but many of the Provincial and Communal roads (on which the Canadian Division was forced to rely) provided only a narrow and tortuous route. A standard-gauge railway ran through most of the coastal area, while the interior was served by a network of secondary lines, many of narrow gauge, and not expected to be of much value to the Allied forces in the early stages of the campaign. Because of difficulty of troop movement off the existing routes, it was apparent to the Allied planners, as Lord Montgomery has pointed out, that “the
campaign in Sicily was going to depend largely on the domination of main road and track centres.” Events were to show that these almost invariably became the main objectives of the advancing forces.2
The climate of Sicily may be summed up in its two major characteristics – high summer temperatures and absence of rain. July is described by the guidebooks as generally the driest month of the year, and certainly 1943 proved no exception. July is not included among the months recommended for tourist travel in the island, an omission which the men of the 1st Division, sweltering on the sun-baked hills and in the fiery valleys of the interior and choked by the dust which the combination of heat and drought engendered, could heartily endorse.
The general briefing which Canadian officers and men received during the voyage to the Mediterranean included a picture of the people of Sicily, their characteristics, and the attitude which they might be expected to adopt towards the Allied invaders. The troops learned that only ten per cent of the four million population lived in scattered settlements outside of the towns and villages. Agriculture had always been the principal spite of the unpromising terrain ninety per cent of the surface of the island was under cultivation. Wheat-growing was of very long-established tradition. In early days Sicily was one of the chief granaries for ancient Rome, but in modern times the thin soils of the steep mountain slopes, the low rainfall, and the traditional but not particularly efficient methods of farming under the iniquitous system of the absentee landlord accounted for a low average yield which produced little surplus wheat for export. Of livelier interest to the average Canadian soldier were those more characteristic crops which he was to encounter in the growing state for the first time – the citrus fruits, vines, almonds and olives, the intensive cultivation of which occupied a large proportion of the agricultural population.
Life for the Sicilian peasant had long been a harsh and constant struggle for existence. Under the latifundia, a discreditable system of land tenure which had persisted from feudal times, he toiled out his days in virtual serfdom to a landlord whom he might never see. From his humble lodging in some hilltop community he daily trudged down to wrest his meagre living from stony fields an hour’s journey or more away, returning at night by a track often so steep and rough that even the sturdy Sicilian carts could not mount it. Such local isolation as this had combined with poverty and a low standard of literacy to make the mass of the population politically apathetic. In common with the rest – of Italy, Sicilians in the years before the Second World War had been relentlessly subjected to the indoctrination of the totalitarian state. Attempts by the Fascist regime to ameliorate the lot of the people in the island had met with only a measure of success, and the effectiveness of these reforms had been largely neutralized by the burdens
which Mussolini’s ill-conceived foreign policy had placed upon the Italian nation. All in all it was not expected by the planners of HUSKY that the civilian inhabitants of Sicily would offer much resistance or even show marked hostility to the Allied forces. An intelligence summary issued by the 1st Canadian Division thus appraised the situation:
At the outset of invasion it is possible that national pride stimulated by Fascist propaganda may induce the civil population to lend active assistance, at least in the early stages, to the defending forces. In these circumstances, they might even help the Germans, though this is most unlikely. It is, however, very questionable whether the efforts of the widely discredited Fascist propaganda machine will rally the Sicilians in the final emergency. On the contrary, it is more likely that the civil population will take no active part in military operations, but, as at Tripoli, will greet the invading forces with sullen indifference, whether they are British, Canadian or American.3
Events were to prove the accuracy of this appreciation.*
* It is of interest to note that late in May Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Intelligence Branch, Armed Forces High Command, expressed similar doubts regarding the mood of the Italian people to Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Reich Propaganda Minister. Goebbels expressed the contrary view, that in defence of their own soil the Italians would “fight much more bravely than they did in North Africa, not to mention the Eastern Front.”4
The Defences of the Island
The state of the defences of Sicily had been closely studied by the Allied planners, and information now available from enemy sources has confirmed that the conclusions then reached were generally remarkably well founded. Captured documents have shown that wherever miscalculations occurred the Allied appreciations erred on the right side in overestimating rather than minimizing the enemy’s strengths.
The Axis air power, as we have seen, had been seriously weakened by the merciless offensive carried out against enemy airfields by the Allied air forces. A draft intelligence report on the fighting in Sicily prepared after the campaign at the headquarters of Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German Commander-in-Chief in Italy (and bearing amendments in his own handwriting),5 reveals that by D Day the German 2nd Air Fleet – which included in its command Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Southern Italy – had been reduced to some 430 serviceable aircraft, of which 250 were fighter planes; while the Italian Regio Aeronautica, with some 325 effective aircraft disposed on the mainland and in the islands, could muster within range of the battle area not more than 200 fighters.6 In some measure compensating for his weakness in the air the enemy had concentrated strong forces of flak artillery along the east coast and at the western tip of Sicily to provide effective anti-aircraft protection of the Strait of Messina and the important cities of Catania and Palermo. An urgent request made on 19 June
by the Italian General Staff for 2,000 additional German aircraft*
* The report by the German Armed Forces Operations Staff of the Feltre Conference, held on 19 July 1943, offers the following reason for non-compliance with the Italian request: “The material requirements of the Italians the Führer designated as partly unfulfillable; for instance the delivery of 2000 aircraft. Germany could neither produce them nor withdraw them from the East; neither could Italy handle them.”7
to ensure the efficient defence of the island against the vast resources of the Allied powers had remained unanswered.8
Although the enemy’s naval forces were of considerable strength, it was not expected that they would offer serious resistance. At the time that HUSKY was launched Allied Intelligence believed that the Italian fleet included as effectives six battleships and seven cruisers, besides a large number of destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines.9 To escape air attack these ships had been distributed to various ports, chiefly in the north, at Genoa and Spezia, and in the south at Taranto – although the German intelligence report cited above states that the Italian fleet, in consequence of heavy air attacks, had only one battleship ready for commitment. German naval craft in the Western Mediterranean consisted of two small flotillas of E-boats based respectively at Cagliari in Sardinia and Porto Empedocle on the south coast of Sicily.10 Whatever the Italian naval strength might be, battle experience was lacking, for in three years of war Mussolini had avoided committing the heavy units of his fleet to action, relying on the efforts of light craft, submarines and air power to oppose Allied incursions into Mediterranean waters. It is little wonder that morale was reported to be low and tactical ability poor. There was justification for the Allied view that even an assault on Sicily, “bastion of the so-called European fortress”, would. fail to spur the Italian fleet, widely separated as it was, into striking an effective blow against the invading armada.
It is on record that the German Admiralty was under no delusion about the probable effectiveness of the Italian Navy in preventing an Allied invasion. At the conference in Rome in May to which we have already referred, after hearing the plans of the Italian Admiralty for the operations of its naval forces in the event of an invasion of Sicily (which might be expected some time after 22 June), Admiral Dönitz declared that the Axis naval forces were “too weak to foil the enemy’s plans by destroying either his embarkation points or the approaching invasion fleet.”11 Although he was going to send more German submarines to the Mediterranean, it was only for their nuisance value; he was convinced that they would not be able to stop an invasion. The Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy defined a less spectacular role for the Italian fleet:–
Our whole problem is a successful defence on land. Although preparations for the battle at sea are necessary they are not decisive. The battle on land alone is decisive. Therefore, the most important part of the Navy’s mission is to make battle on land possible. That means safe-guarding the supply lines across the sea.12
So vital was the need for keeping the islands supplied that Dönitz declared that submarines and even cruisers must be used for the purpose.
For the “battle on land” which the German High Command rightly considered would be the decisive factor of the approaching test, Sicily was none too strongly garrisoned. An Allied appraisal at the time of invasion placed the number of Axis ground troops on the island at 323,500, but over eighty per cent of these were believed to be Italian troops of the notoriously indifferent Sixth Army Command.13 However, the most reliable statistics derived from enemy sources after the campaign show that this estimate was excessive; there were probably no more than 40,000 German
* An additional 30,000 German troops reached the island during the campaign.14 On 25 July 1943 Hitler spoke of 70,000 Germans then in Sicily.15 An Armed Forces Operations Staff situation report of 4 August gave the ration strength (which invariably exceeded the actual strength) in Sicily as 80,000.
and 230,000 Italian troops in Sicily on 10 July 1943.16 These forces were in general to be found in two types of formation corresponding to the role which they were expected to play in the defence. Since the long coastline and numerous beaches made the island vulnerable to assault at many points, the enemy relied on a screen of coast defence formations in static positions to absorb the initial shock of the landings; he held his field divisions concentrated in the interior, ready to deliver deliberate counter-attacks which would complete the destruction of the invaders.
All Italian formations in Sicily formed part of the Sixth Army, which at the time of the invasion was commanded by General Alfredo Guzzoni, with headquarters at Enna. Guzzoni had led the Italian expeditionary force against Albania in 1939, and had commanded one of the armies which invaded France in 1940. He subsequently served as Under Secretary of War and Assistant Chief of the General Staff, and in May 1943, at the age of 66, he had taken over the command in Sicily from General Mario Roatta, who became Chief of the General Staff. The Sixth Army consisted of two corps, the 12th and the 16th, comprising a total of four field and the equivalent of six coastal divisions. The 12th Corps, with two infantry – the 26th (Assietta) and the 28th (Aosta) Divisions – and three and a half coastal divisions under command, was stationed in the western half of the island, with headquarters at Corleone; the eastern sector was garrisoned by the 16th Corps, under the command of General Agostino Cinti, whose headquarters was at Piazza Armerina. This Corps included the 4th (Livorno) and the 54th (Napoli) Infantry Divisions, stationed respectively at Caltagirone and in the area between Vizzini and Syracuse, and the 206th and 213th Coastal Divisions, as well as certain independent coast defence commands. Also under Cinti were six aerodrome defence units and five mobile groups stationed at key inland points. Each stationary unit (difesa fissa aeroporto) in general comprised one or more infantry companies, a
platoon or company of machine-gun troops, and a battery or two of howitzers manned by Frontier Guard units transferred from Northern Italy; a gruppa mobile was built around approximately one armoured company, equipped with French Renault (“R.35”) or Italian “Fiat 3000” tanks. A Sixth Army order of battle showed one of these aerodrome fixed defence units (No. 517) at Pachino at the end of May. The 206th Coastal Division guarded a seventy-mile stretch of the south and east coasts between the Gulf of Gela and Syracuse.*
* Specifically from Punta Braccetto, 23 miles south-east of Gela, to Masseria Palma, four miles south of Syracuse.
This was the sector in which the Eighth Army’s assault was to be launched.17
The Italian coastal divisions, as not infrequently happens with troops assigned to garrison duties, were not the elite of their country’s fighting forces. None had seen action; and in general their training had been haphazard, their equipment and supplies were inadequate, and their morale was low. These formations were not built on any fixed establishment, and none exceeded 12,000 in strength. They were composed of second-line troops organized into a number of static infantry battalions, machine-gun units and batteries of medium and coast defence artillery. Aerial reconnaissance revealed no strong defences along the assault beaches. The defenders had to rely on short belts of wire and scattered minefields covered by machine-gun posts and occasional concrete pillboxes. Guzzoni’s Chief of Staff, General Emilio Faldella, writing ten years later, states that on the 206th Coastal Division’s front there were on the average 26 men, two automatic rifles and three machine-guns per kilometre, with two pieces of artillery every three kilometres. The first-line formations of the Sixth Army were believed to be of somewhat higher calibre, but only one, the Livorno Division (commanded by Maj-Gen. Domenico Chirieleison), which had been trained and organized as a special Assault Landing Division three years before, could be considered at all formidable.18
Neither the Italian nor the German High Command was ignorant of the ineffectiveness of the Italian garrison in Sicily. In March 1943 General Roatta had submitted a detailed and decidedly pessimistic report on the state of the Sixth Army,19 and in May Field-Marshal Kesselring informed Admiral Dönitz that on a tour of inspection of the island he had “noticed that Italian defence preparations were very incomplete.”20 Kesselring “had therefore impressed this fact on” Roatta, but apparently to little avail, for during the last week in June a group of Italian staff officers inspecting the units of the Sixth Army had found the situation unimproved, and had reported that the main burden of the defence of the island would have to fall upon the shoulders of the German armoured formations.21
The sorry state of the Italian forces on the island is revealed in a series of documents captured during the operations in Sicily, emanating for the most part from the 16th Corps and the 206th Coastal Division. These records show an almost unbelievably low standard of morale, training and discipline. Thus the Corps Commander reports that in early March, during mild weather “very favourable for intensive training”, on two separate occasions while passing “between Syracuse and Caltagirone at an hour when training should be in full swing”, he had “seen everywhere ... isolated groups of soldiers idling and yawning in the sun, their mules torpid from lack of exercise and attention.” Some efforts had been made to improve matters shit was proposed, for instance, to assign to each regiment at least one regular officer as battalion commander – but even as late as June 1943 it was found necessary after a review of the coastal regiments by the Prince of Piedmont to court-martial certain regular officers because their units had displayed before His Royal Highness a complete ignorance of the elements of military etiquette and training. Among the “deficiencies and shortcomings” of this inspection to which General Cinti considered it “necessary to draw the attention of everyone” were cases of soldiers being “on pass” during an “Alert”, without arms or steel helmet; a “present arms” being “carried out with MGs and LMGs. This movement should be carried out exclusively with rifles and carbines”; and the “greatest indifference” which soldiers of detached units affected to the passage of automobiles, pretending not to see and failing to salute those with a pennant. “In fact, His Royal Highness was actually not saluted on several occasions, although his automobile was carrying two pennants.”22
The Commander of the 206th Division complains of a mortar unit no members of which “had ever had any practical training”; of guard duties being very slackly performed – it was possible to penetrate to the sleeping quarters without being challenged; and of a divisional Chief of Staff whom he continually finds “glued to the telephone. Every time I send for him he takes a long time to come because he is telephoning. This afternoon alone, between 1600 and 1850 hours, he had 53 (fifty-three) telephone calls. This is absurd.” The same commander is greatly concerned over his soldiers’ aversion to the use of the bayonet in fighting:
I have observed that units consider the bayonet as an object to be fixed on to the rifle only for presenting arms. If I summon a soldier, if I order a unit to move a few yards, the first thing anyone does is to unfix his bayonet as if it were not possible for a soldier to address an officer with the bayonet fixed, or for a unit to do a half-right turn or move five yards with the bayonet fixed. I cannot understand it. It would be perfectly easy to have a few hours’ battle-drill, or even ordinary drill with fixed bayonets. Soldiers are not children two or three years old, who are afraid of cutting themselves if they carry a sharp instrument in their hands.23
The German Garrison
German troops had been introduced into the garrison of Sicily comparatively recently. Convinced that the fighting power of the Italian forces on the island could not be sufficiently strengthened merely by supplying them with arms and equipment, early in February the German High Command ordered Field-Marshal Kesselring “to keep as strong as possible battle groups in constant readiness in Sicily”.24 (Although nominally under the command of the Duce, and receiving his general instructions through the Italian Comando Supremo, Kesselring was the commander actually responsible for the conduct of German air and ground operations in Italy and the Western and Central Mediterranean; Hitler had appointed him Oberbefehlshaber Süd (Commander-in-Chief South) in December 1941.)25
Accordingly the C-in-C South created a Special Headquarters (Einsatzstab), to which he gave the task of organizing two German motorized divisions – one for Sicily and one for Southern Italy. Chief of this Special Staff was Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, who had been First General Staff Officer (Operations) of the Fifth Panzer Army in North Africa.26 Under von Bonin’s direction there was formed in Sicily, on 11 May 1943, the Kommando Sizilien, comprising three Grenadier Regimente Sizilien. On 29 June it was redesignated the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division (104th, 115th and 129th Panzer Grenadier Regiments), to perpetuate the original formation bearing that number, which had been lost in Africa.27 At about the same time the Einsatzstab was organizing for the defence of Sardinia a parallel German formation, which was destined to face Canadian troops on more than one battlefield in Italy – the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division. Into these divisions went the Rückstau Afrika – drafts of German reinforcements who had been awaiting transfer to North Africa, and whose further progress towards that destination had been rendered unnecessary by the collapse of Axis resistance in Tunisia.
The termination of the North African campaign had left German military power in Italy in an extremely precarious state. To the very end the High Command in Berlin had refused to allow any evacuation from the Tunisian bridgehead, and even in the last weeks and days of the operations, in utter disregard of the protests of the field commanders in Africa, it had continued to send in by air from Italy entire battalions and completely useless headquarters staffs. As a result, when von Bonin reached Rome on 8 May by one of the last Axis aircraft to leave Tunis, he found that “there was not one battle-worthy formation of the German Army in Italy, including the islands.”28
Accordingly, early in May, alarmed at the defenceless state of his Axis ally – for, as we have seen, the German High Command placed little reliance
on the combat value of the Italian troops – Hitler offered to send Mussolini five divisions with modem equipment.29 But the Duce, even after the loss of his African empire, was in no hurry to accept German aid. On a previous occasion when he had refused the offer of a German armoured division he is reported to have told Marshal Badoglio, at that time Chief of the Italian General Staff, “If they get a footing in the country we shall never be rid of them.”30 Now, on 13 May, he gave Hitler’s personal representative, Admiral Dönitz, only a partial acceptance. The minutes of the interview reveal the Fascist Dictator in all his arrogant assurance:
The Duce states that he is confident about the future. The only result of British air raids on Italy will be that the people will learn to hate the British, which has not always been the case. This helps in carrying on the war. If there is one Italian who hates the British, it is he himself. He is happy that his people are now learning the meaning of the word hate as well.
He has answered the Führer’s offer of five divisions, by stating he wants only three of them.*
* The 15th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions and the Hermann Göring Panzer Division.31
This refusal came as a surprise to the Commander-in-Chief Navy. The Duce explains that he had asked that these three divisions should include six armoured battalions with 300 tanks, two of which are detailed for Sardinia, three for Sicily and one for southern Italy.32
Several weeks were bound to elapse before any new German forces other than those which Mussolini had thus none too graciously accepted could be moved into Italy equipped and organized for action. They could come only from France, where a number of divisions were being formed to replace formations lost at Stalingrad.33 In the meantime, in the face of the increasing danger of invasion, Kesselring decided to reorganize for the defence of Sicily the Hermann Göring Panzer Division. The bulk of this formation had been destroyed in Tunisia, but its custom had been to maintain large reserves in training. These were scattered over a wide area, with elements in Sicily, Naples and Northern Italy, and even in France and the Netherlands.34 Concentration proceeded rapidly, and by 1 July the complete division was in Sicily, under the command of Maj-Gen. Paul Conrath, a former police officer with (according to Kesselring) “too little experience in the handling of modern, combined arms.”35
From the time of their arrival on the island until 16 July, when a German corps headquarters was brought over from the mainland, the 15th Panzer Grenadier and the Hermann Göring Divisions were for political reasons placed under the tactical control of General Guzzoni. For administrative purposes, however, they were under the command of Lt-Gen. Fridolin von Senger and Etterlin, head of a German liaison staff attached to the Headquarters of the Sixth Army – a convenient arrangement which would keep Kesselring in touch with the forthcoming operations. In order to have a mobile reserve for counter-attack, Guzzoni initially placed both German formations (except for one regimental group of the 15th Panzer
Grenadier Division held in western Sicily for flank protection) with the Livorno and the Napoli Divisions in the south-east corner of the island. He planned to use the two Italian field divisions in a delaying action first, and then to commit the Germans at the point where counter-attack promised greatest success. But it was the German view that an attempted landing should be repelled with concentrated fire at its weakest moment – while the assaulting troops were still in their landing craft; and that it was a mistake to station reserves far inland, where air attacks might make daylight movement to the coast impossible. The conflicting theories of a defence in depth by massed mobile reserves as opposed to a beach defence with reserves being held close to the coast produced a controversy which was to reach its crisis at the time of the Normandy landings. In Sicily neither plan could be assured of success, for the defenders did not have the troops either to hold a rigid front along the coast or to create a reserve strong enough to throw back into the sea an enemy which had completed the critical phase of landing and was established on dry ground.
A compromise was reached at a conference between Kesselring, Guzzoni and von Senger in Enna on 26 June. At the Field Marshal’s insistence the Italian Army Commander ordered the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to move from the Caltanissetta–Enna region to the western end of Sicily,36 where it would be ready to counter any surprise assault against Palermo.*
* In the opinion of General von Senger and Etterlin, Kesselring erred in his choice of divisions, and should have given the more important task of defending eastern Sicily to the stronger 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which having been on the island for some time was familiar with local geography.37
(“It makes no difference”, Kesselring told his divisional commanders privately, “whether or not you get orders from the Italian army at Enna. You must go into immediate action against the enemy the moment you ascertain the objective of the invasion fleet.”)38 The transfer of the Panzer Grenadiers was unhurried, but on 5 July Kesselring was able to report to Berlin that the division had two regimental groups in the west of the island.39
The better to fulfil their role of strengthening the striking-power of the Italian field formations, the German divisions were divided into four mobile battle groups with varying specialized establishments. Thus the bulk of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division was held at Caltagirone, available for counter-attack against penetration from the south, while an armoured force from that formation, reinforced by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division’s third regiment (the 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment), and commanded by Colonel Wilhelm Schmalz, was stationed immediately west of Catania, to meet an Allied landing on the east coast.40
By the second week in July German defence preparations in Sicily were well advanced, but by no means complete. A situation report by Kesselring on the 8th showed that there were’ still gaps in the order of battle of the
reinforcing units, particularly the fortress regiments and battalions.41 At the same time the defences of Sardinia were being steadily strengthened, for the enemy was by no means sure where the Allied landings would be made. A “top secret” appreciation drafted by Kesselring’s Operations Staff on 28 June noted that American and British forces in North Africa were “sufficient for simultaneous attacks against Sardinia and Sicily. In view of the transfer of forces into the eastern Tunisian area it must not be assumed that Sardinia alone will be attacked.”42
The emphasis placed upon Sardinia as a probable target for invasion owed its origin at least partly to a clever piece of Allied deception. On 9 May 1943 the “Foreign Armies West” intelligence section of the German Army High Command circulated a report: “Memorandum Concerning Documents Found on a British Courier”. It told of a letter written on 23 April by the “English Chief of the General Staff to General Alexander”, which had been found on the body of a British courier washed ashore in Spain,*
* Although the Germans were deceived into thinking that the “courier” had been killed in the crash of an aircraft at sea, actually the body, that of a civilian who had died of pneumonia, was “planted” from the British submarine Seraph a mile off the Spanish coast. The spurious “Personal and Most Secret” letter in his dispatch case had been written at the promptings of the Intelligence planners by Lt-Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff. A detailed account of the whole undertaking (which bore the code name “Operation Mincemeat”) will be found in Ewen Montagu, The Man Who Never Was (London, 1953).
and which contained “Anglo-Saxon High Command Plans [for] two landing operations in the Mediterranean”. These were to be directed against Greece, with a cover name HUSKY, and an unspecified target in the Western Mediterranean (cover name, “Brimstone”). A feint attack on Sicily also was mentioned. The Berlin report admitted that the brevity of the captured document made it impossible to say whether the information was genuine or an attempt at deception. It declared, however, that “in consideration of the surrounding circumstances and the situation in the Mediterranean the genuineness of the communication is deemed possible.” It was quite conceivable that Sardinia with its weaker defences would be selected by the Allies for attack in order to gain new bases for action against Italy and Sicily. The report therefore directed special attention to Sardinia and south-western Greek ports.43
The suggestion that Greece might be an Allied target came on top of reports of an increase in sabotage operations in that country by Greek guerrillas and British agents. These activities, which were carried out as part of the general Allied cover plan for HUSKY, seem to have produced the desired results. The record of Hitler’s naval conferences discloses that on 14 May 1943 the Führer voiced his belief “that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attacks will be directed mainly against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus.”44 Already the High Command had
instructed the Operations Section of the Army General Staff to strengthen as much as possible the defences in areas in the Mediterranean particularly endangered by the threat of Anglo-American operations. The order concluded: “The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnesus have priority over any others.”45 Remnants of formations broken at Stalingrad were diverted to the Balkans for reorganization, and before the end of May the 1st Panzer Division (in spite of bitter protests by Col.-General Heinz Guderian, Inspector General of Armoured Troops, who rated it as “our strongest reserve”) was on its way to Greece to guard against possible Allied landings there.46
The Allied Pattern of Assault
The general plan decided upon early in May for the invasion of Sicily had undergone little change by D Day. As we have seen, the original object of Operation HUSKY had been “to seize and hold the island of Sicily”, and it was in these terms that Force 343 (which on D Day became the United States Seventh Army) and the Twelfth Army (the temporary designation of the British Eighth Army) issued their order for the assault. The forces with which General Patton was to carry out the task assigned to his Seventh Army were the 2nd US Corps (1st and 45th Infantry Divisions), which would land before dawn on D Day in the Gulf of Gela, to take Gela town and the Comiso group of airfields; and the 3rd Infantry Division (reinforced by part of the 2nd Armoured Division), which was to assault farther west and capture the port of Licata and its airfield. To assist the landing of the 1st Division, parachute troops of the 82nd Airborne Division would be dropped on the previous night four miles inland from Gela near the Ponte Olivo airfield. On the advance inland the right flanking formation of the Seventh Army would be the 45th Division, which it was planned would eventually gain touch with the Eighth Army’s left in the neighbourhood of Ragusa.47
General Montgomery’s forces were to make five simultaneous pre-dawn assaults on the two coasts which contained the south-eastern tip of the island. The right-hand sector was assigned to the 13th Corps, under the command of Lt-Gen. Miles C. Dempsey, who in 1940 had been General McNaughton’s Brigadier General Staff at the 7th Corps Headquarters in the United Kingdom. The Corps would assault in the northern half of the Gulf of Noto, with the 5th Division directed to capture Cassibile and advance north on Syracuse, and the 50th (Northumbrian) Division to take Avola and protect the Corps’ left flank. The main assault was to be preceded by the drop of a glider-borne brigade group of the 1st Airborne Division west of Syracuse late on 9 July, and a sea landing four hours later just south of the port by Commando troops. To these formations fell the tasks of securing road
communications into Syracuse and capturing coastal batteries defending the port. On the completion of the assault phase of the operations, the 13th Corps was to advance northward across the River Simeto to capture Catania.48
General Leese’s 30th Corps, which was to carry out the landings in the Eighth Army’s left sector, consisted of the 1st Canadian Division, the 51st (Highland) Division and the independent 231st Infantry Brigade (the Malta Brigade).*
* The 1st (Malta) Infantry Brigade garrisoned Malta from before the outbreak of war until March 1943. When it left the island it was redesignated the 231st Infantry Brigade.
The 51st Division was to assault astride the tip of the Pachino peninsula on beaches bearing the code name “Bark South” and occupy the town of Pachino. A few miles to the north, landings by the Malta Brigade on the “Bark East” beaches were designed to provide right flank protection for the 30th Corps bridgehead and to establish contact with the 13th Corps. The Canadian Division was to assault on the left flank of the Highland Division through “Bark West” beach and capture the Pachino airfield. Placed under General Simonds’ command for the operation was a Special Service Brigade, composed of Nos. 40 and 41 Royal Marine Commandos, and commanded by Brigadier R. E. Laycock (later Maj-Gen. and Chief of Combined Operations).49
The naval role in the general plan of HUSKY was threefold: to ensure the safe and timely arrival of the assault forces at their beaches; to cover their disembarkation; and to support and maintain them after landing and throughout the subsequent operations. For these duties Admiral Cunningham allotted his available naval forces to the Eastern and Western Task Forces, and planned additionally to employ two strong covering forces of battleships to operate to the east and west of the area of invasion. To disguise the direction of the Allied attack, concentration of ships in the Central Mediterranean was postponed as long as possible. As we have already indicated, the Allied troopships followed the routes of normal Mediterranean convoys, and their movements were so timed that they would not reach Sicilian waters until late on the eve of D Day. As a further deceptive measure, on the day before invasion the main covering force, designated Force “H”, which consisted of four battleships, four cruisers, two aircraft carriers and eighteen destroyers, would concentrate in the Ionian Sea, as though to threaten the west coast of Greece. A smaller Force “Z” would be held in reserve in the Western Mediterranean, to replace possible casualties, or to reinforce Force “H”.50
The naval component of the Western Task Force, commanded by Vice-Admiral H. K. Hewitt, United States Navy, consisted mainly of American elements organized into a Control Force and three Task Forces corresponding to the three areas of the Seventh Army’s assault. The Eastern Task Force, under the naval command of Admiral Sir Bertram H. Ramsay, was similarly
divided. Force “A” was to carry the 13th Corps and the 231st Brigade from the Middle East; Force “B” was to bring the 51st Division from Tunisia; while Force “V”, commanded by Rear-Admiral Vian, was responsible, as we have seen, for transporting the 1st Canadian Division from the United Kingdom. A fourth component was Force “K”, the four cruisers and six destroyers already referred to (above, p. 48), whose task was to provide the initial close gun support for the assault forces.51
The work of the Allied air forces in furnishing protection for the HUSKY convoys and in attacking the enemy’s airfields, bases and lines of communication has been described above. By D Day air superiority over the landing beaches had been assured; there remained for the Mediterranean Air Command the tasks of providing direct support for the assaulting armies and the transportation of airborne troops and supplies. It was planned that fighter cover for the Eastern Task Force would be provided by Royal Air Force squadrons from Malta initially, and subsequently from captured airfields as the advance progressed. To support the Western Task Force British squadrons would be supplemented by twin-engined fighters of the Twelfth US Air Support Command based first in Tunisia and then on Sicily itself.52 The reduction of Pantelleria,*
* Late in 1940 the British Chiefs of Staff had approved a plan to capture Pantelleria by a force of Commandos led by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, Director of Combined Operations. The undertaking was, however, twice postponed, and finally abandoned in January 1941.53
which lies in the Sicilian Straits 100 miles west of Licata, furnished an additional base for a Royal Air Force Wing to provide convoy protection, and for American fighters to support the landings of the Seventh Army. Under the threat of an assault landing by the British 1st Infantry Division the Italian-held island surrendered on 11 June after having been subjected to six days and nights of relentless aerial bombardment†
† A close study of the effects of mass bombing upon the concrete shelters and gun emplacements on Pantelleria provided information of great value in planning future operations against similar heavily fortified positions-notably those of the Normandy coast.54
which achieved concentrations described by General Eisenhower as “greater than any we had previously attempted.”55 Two days later the Italian garrison of Lampedusa – a smaller island 100 miles to the south – capitulated under Allied bombing. The loss of these two outposts virtually deprived the enemy of any chance of early warning of the approach of the assault on Sicily.56
For these and all other air operations connected with the invasion of Sicily there were available to the Mediterranean Air Command 113 British and 146 American squadrons, employing more than 4300 aircraft, and in addition a force of 500 American gliders.57 If we measure against these figures the meagre strength of the Axis air forces in the Central Mediterranean at this time, it is obvious that Allied air superiority in the battle of Sicily was never in question.
The Role of the 1st Canadian Division
From a point two miles to the west of the extreme tip of the Pachino peninsula the coast sweeps north-westward for nearly five miles in a wide curving bay with a sandy shore, called on Italian maps Costa dell’ Ambra (the Amber Coast) (see Map 2). The bay is defined by two sharp headlands, Punta delle Formiche (Cape of Ants) to the south, and Punta Castellazzo (Castle Point) to the north. Midway along the shoreline a small rocky limestone point, le Grotticelle (the Caves), divides the long beach into two sectors. This was “Bark West”, the stretch of coast assigned to the Canadian landings; the right and left sectors were given the respective code names “Roger” beach and “Sugar” beach.
There was no formidable land obstacle behind these beaches. One hundred feet above the high-tide mark the sandy shore-strip merged into a low ridge of limestone not more than ten feet high, almost entirely covered by drifting dunes, across which were several easy means of exit for motor transport. Inland the ground rose gradually across miserably poor fields that were at first little more than pure sand and then small patches of soil crowded in between rocky outcroppings. At the left end of “Bark West”, behind “Sugar” beach, a group of sloughs or salt marshes, the largest of which was the Pantano Longarini, blocked the passage of vehicles in that area, but elsewhere the only hindrance to traffic was expected to be the “dry stone” walls which encircled the small fields. Half a mile inland from le Grotticelle a very rough cart track wound in a north-easterly direction to join the provincial road running westward from Pachino to Ispica and Ragusa. At the junction was the airfield, the only landing-ground in the peninsula, which might in emergency accommodate from sixty to eighty fighter craft. The town of Pachino itself, with a population of 22,000, lay a mile to the east of the landing-strip, and some three miles north-east of “Roger” beach.58
Causing considerable concern to the Canadian planners were two false beaches or sandbars which lay submerged along Costa dell’ Ambra some distance offshore. They were apprehensive that the assault craft might ground on these, and the troops on disembarking find themselves in water too deep for them to wade or to drive their vehicles ashore. A submarine reconnaissance made on the night of 25–26 June confirmed this fear by revealing the presence of a sandbar eighty yards off “Roger” beach 600 yards long and twenty yards wide, covered by only eighteen inches of water. Inside the bar there was a sharp drop of as much as’ nine feet in some places. A similar underwater obstacle lay off “Sugar” beach, although shoreward the intervening water was not more than five feet deep.59 As we have noted
earlier, General Simonds had prepared to meet such a contingency by using amphibious craft. On receiving this confirmation – which came to him aboard Hilary on 7 July – he issued orders that three of the assault companies of the 1st Canadian Brigade should land in LCTs. (Landing Craft, Tank) carrying DUKWs, which could swim ashore should the landing craft run aground on the sandbars.60
We have already observed that the enemy’s prepared defences along the Sicilian coast were not very formidable. Air photography indicated about fifteen pillboxes and a score of machine-gun posts in the “Bark West” sector; there was some barbed wire along the beaches, and anti-tank mines might also be expected. There were several similarly defended positions inland, particularly in the vicinity of the airfield. The major possible sources of trouble were two coast defence batteries, one near some farm buildings which on the map bore the name Maucini,*
* A trace captured by the 231st Brigade on D Day showed that the Maucini position contained four 147/35 guns (i.e., having a calibre of 147 millimetres and a barrel length of 35 times this calibre), or approximately 6-inch howitzers. Post-war Italian sources give the total armament of the 206th Coastal Division as 215 sub-machine-guns, 474 machine-guns, 46 “isolated” guns, and 65 guns in batteries.61
about one and a half miles north-east of “Roger” beach, and the other, less dangerous to the Canadian attack, two miles farther east in the 51st Division’s sector. A third battery (found when captured to comprise four six-inch howitzers) sited on the northern outskirts of Pachino to cover the approaches to the airfield was also in range of “Bark West”. It was reasonable to suppose therefore that the worst the Canadians might have to contend with during the landings would be artillery fire from up to a dozen guns, followed by machine-gun fire as the assault craft approached the beaches; a forced disembarkation because of the sandbars before the troops reached shore; possible submerged mines in the intervening water passage; and on the beaches wire entanglements, mines and perhaps booby traps, all of which would have to be negotiated under fire from machine-gun posts and pillboxes.
From these various sources heavy casualties were to be expected should the enemy offer determined resistance – indeed a somewhat gloomy prognostication by the inter-service planners of the operation provided for the action that should be taken “if a whole Brigade were destroyed before the beaches were reached.”62 But the Commander of the Canadian force was more optimistic. In a conversation with General McNaughton on 30 May he commented on the lack of battle experience of the Italian coastal divisions, and declared “that in view of the great superiority of force, the sound plans and the careful preparations he had not the slightest doubt of the successful outcome of the operation.”63
On 7 June General Simonds issued his orders for the 1st Canadian Division’s participation in Operation HUSKY. The assault at “Bark West”
was to be made on a two-brigade front, supported on the left by a simultaneous attack by the Special Service Brigade. In the first phase of the operation the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade would land on “Roger” beach, to the east of le Grotticelle, and would destroy the enemy coastal battery reported near Maucini, capture the Pachino airfield, and establish contact with the other formations of the 30th Corps in the neighbourhood of Pachino town. West of le Grotticelle the 2nd Brigade, landing on “Sugar” beach, was to advance west and destroy beach defences, meet and assist the Special Service Brigade in its operation, and subsequently take up positions north of the Pantano Longarini marsh and patrol towards the north-west. The Special Service Brigade would land immediately to the west of Punta Castellazzo, and hence on the extreme left of the Eighth Army’s front, and having overcome enemy resistance in the area, reorganize on the high ground to the north-west of the salt marshes. The landings of the two infantry brigades were to be made at H Hour, which was set at 2:45 a.m.; the Commandos were to touch down ten minutes earlier.64
The main Naval support fire for the “Bark West” assault would be provided by the monitor Roberts, the anti-aircraft cruiser Delhi, and three destroyers, all under the direct control of Admiral Vian in Hilary. In addition one destroyer and four smaller naval craft were to escort each brigade shorewards and give close support fire. To preserve the element of surprise the assault was to be a silent one, and the covering bombardment would begin only if and when the enemy opened fire.65
During the second phase of the operation the divisional reserve, which included the 3rd Infantry Brigade, the 12th Army Tank Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment), and certain artillery and medical units, would proceed ashore, while the assaulting brigades captured high ground astride the Pachino–Ispica road and the whole Division reorganized for the third phase – an advance to the north-west in conformity with the Highland Division.66
The Canadian Landings and the Capture of the First Objectives
D Day was forty-eight minutes old when the 1st Canadian Division headquarters ship, HMS Hilary, dropped anchor seven miles off the coast of Sicily.67 For the past hour and a half medium bombers had been “softening up” the defences of Pachino airfield, and the flares and flak put up by the defenders were clearly visible from the ships as they arrived at the release position. By the time the big transports carrying the assault brigades had slowed to a stop, the landing craft aboard were loaded with troops and ready to be lowered.
This called for the exercise of considerable skill. Early on the previous afternoon, as the various assault convoys of the Eastern and Western Task Forces were, completing the last few miles of their voyage, a sharp gale had suddenly blown up, so roughening the sea as for a time to threaten postponement of the landings. But the risks of attempting to defer the precisely timed and closely coordinated operation until more favourable conditions were considered greater than the hazards of proceeding with the invasion as planned, even in the heavy weather.68 Fortunately by sunset the wind had slackened, so that the beaching of the assault craft promised to be less dangerous than had been feared; but the storm had left in its wake a heavy swell which made the launching of the small craft from the heaving transports a tricky undertaking. At ten minutes past one the LCAs*
* Landing Craft, Assault, a 40-foot ramped craft, affording protection against rifle and machine-gun fire, with a carrying capacity of 40 men (including a crew of four).69
carrying the first flight of Commando troops of the Special Service Brigade made the forty-foot descent into the sea. Twenty-four minutes later the two assault battalions of the 2nd Canadian Brigade – Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, commanded by Lt-Col. R. A. Lindsay, and The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, commanded by Lt-Col. B. M. Hoffmeister – were on their way to “Sugar” beach. As the flat-bottomed craft headed shorewards, the troops which they carried heard the reassuring thunder of salvo after salvo from the 15-inch guns of HMS Roberts, bombarding the Pachino airfield and its defences.70
The 2nd Brigade was due to land with the Seaforth Highlanders on the left and the Princess Patricias on the right. Because of faulty navigation, however, the craft carrying the Seaforth ran some distance off their course and actually landed the battalion to the right of the Patricias. In one respect at least the heavy swell aided the invaders, for the high-running surf carried the landing craft right over the false beach which had been the cause of so much concern.71 Both units met with practically negligible opposition. As the craft approached the shore they came under desultory small-arms fire, which ceased as the assaulting troops reached the beach. Once ashore, they easily cut through or blew up the few wire obstacles in their path, quickly disposing of a few machine-gun posts manned by a handful of bewildered Italian soldiers. At about three o’clock the headquarters and the remaining companies of each battalion followed the assault companies ashore. An hour later Brigadier Vokes, who was still afloat with his headquarters, had received success signals from both his assaulting units. Thereafter the two battalions proceeded inland towards their first phase objectives.72
Meanwhile, on the left, the Special Service Brigade had landed rather farther to the west of Punta Castellazzo than intended. Otherwise this assault went according to plan, for the Italians left their beach defences as soon as
they were seriously threatened. At the cost of a few casualties the two Commandos quickly destroyed the defences in their sector and moving inland made contact at 6:40 a.m. with the Seaforth Highlanders near the south-west corner of the Pantano Longarini.73
The 1st Canadian Brigade, scheduled to attack “Roger” beach in the right sector of the divisional front, experienced considerable delay in leaving its transports. It will be recalled that because of the false beach which barred direct passage to the shore, General Simonds had decided to use tank landing craft and DUKWs. Three LCTs with 21 empty DUKWs on board had been requisitioned for this purpose from Malta, and it was intended that they should land a company of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, and two companies of The Royal Canadian Regiment. (These battalions were commanded respectively by Lt-Col. B. A. Sutcliffe and Lt-Col. R. M. Crowe, two fine officers who were destined to give their lives in the battle for Sicily.) As a precautionary measure, when confirming this change of plan on 7 July, the GOC had signalled Glengyle that if the LCTs did not arrive in time (they were due at 12:15 a.m.), the original arrangement for sending all the assault units of the 1st Brigade ashore in LCAs would stand.74
Brigadier Graham was thus faced with the unpleasant necessity of having to be ready with two different landing plans, with no means of knowing in advance which would be required. He could not communicate with the headquarters ship because of wireless silence (only lifted once surprise was lost). The Senior Naval Officer aboard Glengyle warned him that the LCTs. might have difficulty in finding their respective troopships in the dark, and the rough weather added to the probability of delay. It was 1:40 a.m. when the first craft reached the Brigade transport area. By that time the Brigadier had ordered the assault companies to begin embarkation into LCAs. This necessitated reorganization of the troops, and it was 2:26 before the craft carrying the first flight of the Hastings and Prince Edwards were ready for lowering from Glengyle. In the meantime the assault companies of The Royal Canadian Regiment, which were to land on the right sector of “Roger” beach, had begun to load into two LCTs which had been brought alongside Marnix van St. Aldegonde. The heavy swell so prolonged this transfer that Brigadier Graham decided to send in his first Bight without the right hand assaulting companies. This decision anticipated a message from General Simonds delivered to him personally at 3:35 by the Division’s AA&QMG, whom the GOC had dispatched in the Admiral’s barge: “You must get your assaults away in either LCTs or LCAs.”75 The delay in beginning the landings on “Roger” beach had caused much concern on Hilary, for it will be remembered that it was to the 1st Brigade that the important tasks of capturing the Pachino airfield and the battery behind
Maucini had been assigned. At 3:15 Admiral Vian signalled his Senior Naval Officer Landing on Glengyle: “Will your assault ever start? “76
One minute later the two leading companies of the Hastings and Prince Edward headed for shore in their LCAs. It was four o’clock before The Royal Canadian Regiment’s first flight left Marnix van St. Aldegonde – two and a half hours late. During the approach to the shore there was occasional shelling from the Maucini battery, but this was silenced by naval fire. Each LCT carried seven DUKWs, and as the large craft grounded on the sandbar the amphibians swam off to the beach laden with troops.77 The assault companies of both regiments made their landings approximately where planned, but one of the Hastings’ reserve companies, which had been carried aboard HMS Derbyshire, came ashore 5000 yards too far to the west, in the Commandos’ sector.78 Fortunately this wide dispersal of the Hastings had no serious consequences; before long the battalion had reunited, having suffered casualties of two killed and three wounded by machine-gun fire. But this incident and the earlier confusion which marked the launching of the assault flights serve to emphasize the difficulties attending large-scale amphibious operations carried out in the darkness. Had there been heavier opposition to the landings these departures from plan could have led to extremely serious results.
The 1st Brigade encountered no opposition on “Roger” beach, for by the time the first flights touched down – the Hastings at 4:45 and The Royal Canadian Regiment at 5:30 – the weight of the naval bombardment and the success of the earlier landings farther west had induced what few Italian troops were present to withdraw from the beach defences. At 6:45 General Simonds was able to report to the 30th Corps Headquarters that the Canadian Division had captured all its first objectives.79
The reserve battalions of the assault brigades now began to land, The Edmonton Regiment coming in at “Sugar” beach and the 48th Highlanders of Canada going ashore on “Roger” with pipes playing. shortly afterwards orders were given to the supporting arms and the divisional reserve to follow. From their huge LSTs, Sherman tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment splashed ashore through six feet of water, and by 10:15 a complete squadron was on “Roger” beach ready for action. The 3rd Infantry Brigade began landing at eleven o’clock. The 142nd Field Regiment (Royal Devon Yeomanry), a British self-propelled artillery unit placed under General Simonds’ command, disembarked at about the same time, and could thus claim to be one of the first field regiments to invade Europe.80
In the meantime the assault units were rapidly completing their part in the opening phase of the divisional plan. After their delayed landing the battalions of the 1st Brigade wasted little time. The Royal Canadian Regiment quickly reached and cleared the Maucini buildings, taking a dozen
prisoners. The battalion then advanced against the battery, where a single warning shot fired by a sergeant was sufficient to bring the entire garrison of three officers and 35 other ranks trooping from a dug-out in surrender. By nine o’clock the RCR had reached the airfield, to find it ploughed up, and apparently deserted. (It is to the credit of the Engineers that the British 15th Airfield Construction Group, under command of the Canadian Division, had completed a landing-strip on the damaged field ready for emergency use by a little after midday.)81 “C” Company, crossing to the north-east comer, made contact with tanks of the 51st Division, which was now moving inland through Pachino. It took little time for “A” Company, aided by the Hastings, who had followed in from the left, to clear some barrack buildings to the north of the field. This same company then pushed forward towards the battery north of the town, which had directed some troublesome but fortunately ineffective fire at the RCR while they were engaged at the airfield. This had been promptly silenced by the Navy, but as the advancing company approached the battery position it came under considerable machine-gun fire. Two Canadians were killed and two wounded before the garrison of 130 Italians surrendered with their four 6-inch guns. The determination and courage displayed by two members of a section of “A” Company in leading the final assault on the battery brought the RCR the first awards for gallantry won by Canadians in Sicily. Private J. Grigas received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Private J. W. Gardner the Military Medal.”82
Meanwhile “C” Company had seized the high ground north-east of the airfield and had captured 100 more prisoners. By six in the evening the battalion had consolidated north and west of the field. Officers and men fell to work on their rations, for their first meal since leaving the ship fourteen hours before. On their left the Hastings, who had taken their objectives against even less opposition than met the RCR, dug in among the low grapevines in a defensive position covering the airfield.83
Farther west resistance had been almost totally lacking in the sector where the units of the 2nd Brigade were exploiting. During the day all three battalions had reached their assigned positions north and west of the Pantano Longarini, and their patrols had brought in many unresisting prisoners. Only on the Canadian Division’s extreme left flank had the enemy displayed any offensive spirit. Here, late in the afternoon, a Blackshirt unit held up the advance of the Commandos with heavy mortar and anti-tank fire, and threatened to penetrate between the Special Service Brigade and the positions held by the Seaforth Highlanders. The Commandos, lacking heavy supporting weapons, were unable to reply effectively to the enemy’s fire. Fortunately a Canadian heavy mortar detachment (of the Saskatoon Light Infantry) was in the vicinity, and on request from a Commando officer it quickly went into action, firing 160 rounds and “engaging the target with
devastating accuracy”, as Brigadier Laycock afterwards wrote.84 The Commandos then closed in and the Blackshirts hurriedly withdrew, abandoning their horse-drawn guns and large quantities of ammunition. Thus ended abruptly the only counter-attack attempted on the 1st Canadian Division’s front that day.85
The second phase of operations was completed that first night. Under cover of darkness units of the 2nd Brigade moved forward some three or four miles to the north-west of the Pantano Longarini in the direction of Ispica, patrols increasing their harvest of prisoners along the way. On their right the 3rd Brigade, which upon landing had temporarily halted at Burgio, a large winery on the highway three miles west of Pachino, made a parallel advance of three miles, in the course of which The West Nova Scotia Regiment encountered its first opposition, and captured 25 Italians without sustaining any casualties. The Special Service Brigade completed its covering role on the left flank, and was withdrawn next day into army reserve. General Simonds’ rear headquarters was now ashore and initially established, according to its war diary, “in a civilian hovel, 12 by 16, inhabited by an old woman, 11 guinea pigs, 4 dogs, a goat and 4 gallons of wine, all of which were quickly cleared out.”86 Late that night an enemy air raid struck at the beaches and the crowded shipping in the bay. It met a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore, and caused little damage; but troops in the beach area, many under fire for the first time, hastened to deepen their slit-trenches, the digging of which had hitherto seemed one of the less profitable drudgeries of soldiering.87
The first day of the campaign had thus been highly satisfactory. Casualties had been surprisingly light. Final statistics show that the Canadian losses on 10 July were seven other ranks killed, and three officers and 22 other ranks wounded; the Special Service Brigade reported six killed and 19 wounded.88 Enemy losses were much higher. At 6:45 p.m. the Canadian divisional headquarters notified the 30th Corps that 650 prisoners had been taken (including a score of German Air Force personnel), and this figure grew before the day was over. The total number of enemy killed and wounded in the 1st Division’s sector was estimated at close to 100.89 Late that evening General Simonds dispatched to General McNaughton, then at Headquarters 15th Army Group in North Africa, a signal which told the gratifying story of the day’s achievements:
Landings effected with very little opposition and by 1200 hrs today all objectives for phase one were in my hands. Ineffective counter attacks in afternoon were repulsed. Casualties very light and first reports indicate do not exceed total of seventy-five killed and wounded including 40 and 41 Marine Commandos. We took over 700 prisoners and some material. Morale high and troops very confident of themselves. Details will follow. Success mainly due to excellent cooperation Royal Navy and RAF.90
How Canada Learned the News
Because of the strong pressure which had for many months been brought to bear upon the Canadian Government to get troops into action, the means by which the initial announcement of Canadian participation in the invasion should be made was a matter of some concern in Ottawa. It was felt that the news of Canadian troops being in action should be released from the Dominion capital before, or at the latest simultaneously with, publication in Washington or London.91 On 28 June it was learned from CMHQ that General Eisenhower would make the original announcement of the landings.92 The reply from the CGS urged that Canada should be accorded equal treatment with all other interested countries in the release of the Supreme Commander’s official communique.
It would be expected that Prime Minister or Minister [of National Defence] would be in a position immediately to follow publication of communique with statement, probably by radio, amplifying as much as possible and giving particularly some idea of number of Canadians involved and name of Commander. As you can understand, this will be regarded by Canada as most important information and hesitancy about giving it is likely to be misunderstood. Realize that consideration of security must govern, but hope may be able to go just as far as possible in these respects. What we must avoid is that Canadian statement is in any way less complete on essential points than statements by any other governments and that it is no later than that of any other governments.93
It was planned that three announcements concerning the invasion should come from General Eisenhower’s headquarters: the initial communique to the world; an Avis to the French people telling them that the invasion of Sicily was but the first stage in the liberation of Europe and warning them to remain inactive for the time being; and a proclamation to the Italian people. A signal from Eisenhower to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 5 July gave the text of these messages; none contained any reference to Canadian troops. The terms employed were “Allied forces” and “Anglo-American forces”.94
When a copy of this signal reached Ottawa late on 7 July, immediate efforts were taken to have Canadians named in these first announcements. On the evening of the 8th Mr. Mackenzie King telephoned the White House and expressed his opinion that “it was an extraordinary thing that a communication should go from General Eisenhower without any mention of the participation of Canadian troops.”95 Mr. L. B. Pearson, the Canadian Minister to Washington, saw President Roosevelt and his special adviser, Mr. Harry Hopkins, the same evening. The President “recognized the force and reasonableness” of Canada’s representations. Hopkins in turn took up the matter with the British Prime Minister, who promised definite mention of the Canadians in the Churchill–Roosevelt proclamation which it had been decided should replace Eisenhower’s proclamation to the Italian people.96
At the same time the Canadian High Commissioner in London, Mr. Vincent Massey, approached Mr. Attlee and Lt-Gen. Sir Hastings L. Ismay, Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence, both of whom “took a sympathetic attitude to Canada’s contention that she should be properly associated with the proclamation to the Italian people and the Avis to the French.”97 This was followed by a telegram from the War Office to General Eisenhower. It advised him of the British Chiefs of Staff’s decision to mention Canadian forces in the Churchill–Roosevelt proclamation, and assumed that Canada would be referred to by name in the Supreme Commander’s Avis to the French people.98 On the same day Washington informed Eisenhower that the Combined Chiefs of Staff approved mention of the Canadians in the Avis.99
General Eisenhower remained firm however.*
* It will be noted that Mr. King was in error when in addressing the House of Commons later he attributed to “the military authorities in Great Britain” the decision “that no reference should be made to Canadians participating in the assault upon Sicily.”100
At an early hour on the morning of 10 July he signalled the British Chiefs of Staff that “security requirements” and the need for being consistent with the terms of the communique made it undesirable that Canadians should be referred to in the Avis.101 On the previous day he had authorized the Canadian Prime Minister to issue a special communique twenty-four hours after the first landing, which would confine itself to the statement: “A Canadian force forms part of the Allied forces which are undertaking landing operations on Sicily.”102
Having thus arranged that Canada should be the first to announce her participation in the invasion Eisenhower saw no reason for taking any action which would lead to her being “scooped” by the world press.103 His initial communique, issued in Algiers at 6:24 a.m. on D Day (12:24 a.m. Ottawa time), stated: “This morning Allied Forces under command of General Eisenhower began landing operations in Sicily.” Canadians were not named in either this or the immediately following Avis, which referred only to “Anglo-American forces”. Less than ten minutes after the Algiers release, however, the United States War Department most unexpectedly announced that “British, American and Canadian troops” had begun landing operations in Sicily.104
The release from Washington took the Canadian Prime Minister by surprise. He had received word that the Combined Chiefs of Staff had approved mention of the Canadians in the Avis to the French people, but, lacking confirmation that General Eisenhower would include them in his communique, he was prepared to wait until 11 July to make his own announcement. When the news broke from Washington, Mr. King felt himself free to act. “When I heard the announcement made”, he told Parliament later, “I felt there was no obligation on my part which would bind me
further not to make an announcement to the Canadian people.”105 Accordingly he immediately issued a statement to the press and at eight o’clock in the morning (10 July) delivered the following message over the radio:–
Armed forces of Britain, the United States and Canada are now in the forefront of an attack which has as its ultimate objective the unconditional surrender of Italy and Germany. All Canada will be justifiably proud to know that units of the Canadian Army are a part of the Allied force engaged in this attack ...106
Early Allied Successes
The success which attended the Canadian landings had been matched along the whole of the invasion front. Assaults made by the other formations of the Eighth Army had met very little opposition. Elsewhere on the 30th Corps’ front the 51st Highland Division and the 231st Brigade had captured the town of Pachino and occupied the eastern half of the peninsula with little difficulty. On the east coast the two divisions of the 13th Corps had captured their initial objectives of Avola and Cassibile by ten in the morning, and the 5th Division had then moved north on Syracuse. It entered that important port the same evening at nine o’clock to take it undamaged.107
The United States Seventh Army had landed against little initial opposition – although in rougher surf conditions on the more exposed western beaches – and had speedily taken all its D Day objectives. The 3rd Division encountered some resistance east of Licata before it captured the port and the adjoining airfield, and during the day Axis air forces threw against the beaches and transport areas scattered bombing and strafing attacks which later turned out to have been the major enemy air effort of the campaign.
* The most costly enemy air raid in the Canadian sector occurred on 12 July two miles east of Ispica, when six fighters attacked a column carrying Headquarters, Royal Canadian Artillery. One gunner was killed and the Brigade Major and five others wounded.108
By nightfall the Americans held two firm beachheads from two to four miles deep, one extending from Scoglitti to Gela, and the other reaching six miles on each side of Licata.109
The airborne attacks in the sectors of both the Eastern and Western Task Forces had not achieved the success that crowned the seaborne assaults. At dusk on 9 July some 5,000 troops in transport aircraft and gliders took off from Tunisian airfields in the largest night operation of its kind ever attempted up to that time. Unfortunately, faulty navigation by inexperienced pilots, due in part to the high wind which had threatened to cancel the beach landings, and to heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire over the Sicilian coast, resulted in a wide
dispersion of the airborne formations.*
* In two subsequent airborne operations, by American paratroops on the night of 10–11 July, and by British glider-borne and parachute troops on 13–14 July, serious losses were caused by anti-aircraft fire from Allied naval and merchant vessels. The precipitancy with which both operations were mounted had left insufficient time to clear in advance with naval forces a safety corridor for the troop-carrying aircraft. The unfortunate effects of what Eisenhower termed “inadequate coordination between the services” led to his appointment of an investigating board of officers, whose widely circulated recommendations had much to do with ensuring the success of subsequent airborne operations during the invasions’ of Italy and Normandy.110
Of the 134 gliders carrying the British 1st Airlanding Brigade, fifty came down in the sea, and only twelve landed in the intended dropping zone. In the Seventh Army’s sector, paratroops of the 82nd Airborne Division made widely scattered landings over an area of fifty miles extending from Licata to Noto, inside the Eighth Army’s boundary. Nevertheless, disappointing as this misfortune was, small parties of airborne troops in both sectors reached some of their objectives and carried out the role assigned to them, while others attacked strongpoints wherever they found them.111 An enemy authority, General Kurt Student, commander of the German airborne attack on Crete and Commander-in-Chief of all German paratroops from 1943 until the end of the war, in October 1945 gave an interrogator his opinion that “the Allied airborne operation in Sicily was decisive ... If it had not been for the Allied airborne forces blocking the Hermann Göring Armoured Division from reaching the beachhead, that division would have driven the initial seaborne forces back into the sea.”112 In weighing this tribute due allowance must be made for the general’s natural enthusiasm about troops (though hostile) of his own special arm. There is little doubt, however, that the activities of these first arrivals in Sicily and the confusion which the widespread droppings caused in the enemy’s coastal defence organization contributed materially to the ease and rapidity with which the initial beaches were won.
A large share of the credit for the satisfactory results achieved during this opening phase of operations must go to the naval and air support given the Allied Armies. Skilful planning and effective coordination of all the fighting services had brought to a hostile shore the greatest seaborne force ever embarked, and the culminating assault was a model for future combined operations. The value of naval bombardment in a landing operation was proved beyond doubt by the effective manner in which coastal batteries were neutralized.113 According to General von Senger and Etterlin the realization that troops manning defences near the shore would be “exposed to an annihilating fire from naval artillery” had been an important factor in the decision to place the main reserve well inland.114
As the ground forces made good their landings, the air attacks which had crippled the Axis air power in Sicily continued; 1,092 sorties were flown on
D Day and 17 of the few enemy aircraft encountered*
* Enemy aircraft flew an estimated 150-200 sorties on D Day. On succeeding days this effort declined sharply; by July it had fallen to an average of 50 sorties a day, and had ceased to provide effective opposition.115
were shot down.116 Some of the sorties were carried out by Spitfires of No. 417 (City of Windsor) Squadron RCAF, which from their base at Malta patrolled high above the “Bark West” beaches as the Canadians came ashore, and later escorted a medium bomber attack on Caltagirone. The Squadron was engaged in a heavy schedule of similar sweeps during the days that followed, and on 15 July it landed in Sicily, taking over the Pachino airfield as a base for subsequent operations in support of the Eighth Army’s advance.117
Proof of the effectiveness of the cover provided by the Northwest African Air Forces appears in the small number of naval ships destroyed by enemy air action. For D minus 1 and D Day losses of up to 300 craft had been expected; the actual toll was only six vessels.118 To this great achievement by the Allied air forces Admiral Cunningham paid striking tribute in his official report on Operation HUSKY:–
To one who had fought through the Mediterranean campaign from the beginning it appeared almost magical that great fleets could remain anchored on the enemy’s coast, within 40 miles of his main aerodromes ...
The navies (and consequently the armies) owed a great debt to the air for the effectiveness of the protection offered them throughout the operation.119
We have referred to the part played by RCAF squadrons in the general Allied air offensive; the Royal Canadian Navy too made its contribution to the conquest of Sicily. In the convoy which brought the 231st Infantry Brigade from the Middle East to assault the beaches on the 30th Corps’ right flank two of the three flotillas of assault landing craft carried aboard the transports were Canadian – the 55th and the 61st Flotillas. For twelve hours these landing craft ferried the assault and reinforcing troops ashore on the “Bark East” beaches, and when early in the afternoon of D Day their convoy withdrew, they had put two thirds of the Malta Brigade safely ashore.120 In addition to these LCAs, two Canadian flotillas of the heavier Landing Craft, Mechanized†
† See footnote to p. 202 below.
were engaged in the operation. Commencing early on D Day, the 80th and 81st Flotillas, whose job was the transfer of vehicle’s and stores from ship to shore, served for 26 days along the Sicilian coast between Avola and Syracuse until maintenance of the Eighth Army over the beaches came to an end on 5 August. A total of 400 Canadians manned these four flotillas, while an additional 250 served during the operation in various other support craft of the Royal Navy.121
Enemy testimony has shown that the complete tactical surprise which the Allied landings had achieved in all sectors was due in no small measure to the gale of the previous day. The daily situation reports submitted to Berlin
by the German Commander-in-Chief South reveal that from 1 July the enemy was aware from Allied shipping movements and the repeated attacks on Sicilian airfields that the hour of invasion was approaching, although he still considered Sardinia a possible objective.122 Finally, at 4:30 p.m. on 9 July his aerial reconnaissance discovered convoys steering towards Sicily, and he concluded that the Allies had started their offensive and would “move first of all against the southern and eastern coasts of Sicily.”123 By 6:10 p.m. the German Command had received further details of the approaching task forces, and half an hour later “all troops in Sicily had been alerted.124 Later, however, the captured Commander of the 206th Italian Coastal Division informed interrogators that this warning did not reach him until 10:20 p.m., and that his naval adviser then declared that the weather was much too rough for a landing to be effected. This must have been a welcome assurance, for the coastal garrisons had been wearied by false alarms and invasion rumours for weeks past, and were glad to relax their vigil when the storm offered seeming security from Allied invasion. But although the Italian defence formations might thus blame the weather for the manner of their surprise, their subsequent lack of resistance, as we have seen, amply bore out the pre-invasion Allied estimates of their low morale and poor fighting qualities.
With the German defenders of Sicily, whose role, as noted above, was to be one of counter-attack, the Allied troops had so far made no contact. The fruitless dispatch of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to the Palermo area had thinned out the German forces under General Guzzoni’s command. The German component of the island’s garrison was thus caught off balance on D Day; but not for long. Early in the afternoon of the 10th Guzzoni issued orders for the Panzer Grenadier Division and a mobile group of the Assietta Division to return to the centre of the island.125 At 3:40 a.m. on 11 July Kesselring sent the following report to the High Command in Berlin:
OBS has given the following order to the Chief of the German liaison staff at HQ Sixth Italian Army:
Mass of Hermann Göring Division ordered to destroy the enemy who has advanced to Caltagirone. Battle Group Schmalz (now at Lentini) will retake port of Syracuse in immediate counter-attack.126
The Advance Inland
On 11 July the 1st Canadian Division resumed its advance into the interior of the island. In its role on, the Eighth Army’s left flank the 30th Corps’ immediate post-assault objectives were, first, the road which cut across the comer of the island from Noto to Pozzallo, and then the high ground of the Iblei Hills which commanded the roads converging on Palazzolo and Ragusa. General Leese ordered both of his formations to carry out this
advance simultaneously, the Highland Division (to whose command the 231st Brigade had passed on the afternoon of D Day) on the right and the Canadians on the left. Initially the interdivisional boundary was the Pachino–Rosolini road.127 In his sector General Simonds decided to move the 1st Brigade on the right and the 2nd on the left, leaving the 3rd Brigade still in reserve.
Shortly after midday the 2nd Brigade pushed off towards Ispica, led by The Edmonton Regiment under the command of Lt-Col. J. C. Jefferson. As the marching troops set off along the hot and dusty highway they could see their first objective half a dozen miles away, for Ispica stands on the eastern edge of a 150-foot cliff overlooking the coastal plain. Such a site offered natural opportunities for a prolonged defence, but Allied naval shelling and aerial bombing the previous night and again that morning along the line of the Corps’ first objective had effectively reduced all opposition in the town. An ultimatum from the Edmonton CO followed by a warning salvo brought capitulation, and when the battalion entered in mid-afternoon it encountered only the “enthusiastic greetings of the civil population and the frantic endeavours of the military population to surrender”.128
The naval fire which supported the Canadian advance came from the ships which had covered the “Bark West” landings – Roberts and Delhi and the destroyers Brecon, Brissenden and Blankney129 – and from the cruiser Orion, which formed part of a bombardment group from Force “K”.130 The skill of the naval gunners caused Kesselring a few days after the invasion to warn the Germans that “in view of the complete naval supremacy of the British the effect of the naval artillery against land targets is of particular importance ...”131 As a subsequent survey by Combined Operations Headquarters pointed out, Allied bombardment in the Central Mediterranean was carried out in almost ideal circumstances. “Main enemy supply lines [which] ran along exposed coastal roads, a weak enemy submarine effort, little interference from the air, together with good weather, produced a set of conditions unlikely to be so favourable anywhere else in the world.”132 The long-range bombardment of inland towns by the monitor Roberts was coordinated by the 1st Division’s Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier A. B. Matthews, who went aboard on D plus 1. Fire from the cruisers and destroyers was directed by forward observation officers (of the Royal Canadian Artillery), whose detachments moved with – or ahead of – the leading infantry battalions, and kept in communication with the guns afloat by means of Lucas lamp or wireless.133 The nature of his tasks meant that a naval “FOO” was generally well in the lead of the advance, and was thus often among the first to make contact with enemy positions.
Such a case was that of Captain G. D. Mitchell, RCA, of No. 1 Naval Bombardment Unit. On D plus 1, having successfully directed HMS Delhi’s fire on to Ispica, he was driving westward in a PPCLI carrier, in order to
do the same for Modica, the next town in the Canadian path. Half way on his journey his party of six came upon a road-block, where wire and mines, covered by two anti-tank guns, barred the way. Dismounting, and backed by the authority of two Bren guns, Mitchell forced the detachment of about twenty Italians to surrender and to dismantle the obstacle. This exploit, and the efficient manner in which “he never ceased his efforts to maintain communications with his bombarding ship and support the Army ashore by every means” brought Captain Mitchell the Military Cross, and the added distinction of being the first Canadian to win this award in Sicily.134
The Corps’ progress had been equally satisfactory on the right, where the 51st Division had entered the town of Rosolini unopposed shortly before noon. The enemy was clearly on the run; accordingly orders were issued for the advance to continue to the next objectives without delay. In the Canadian centre the Patricias now took up the chase. Passing through the Edmontons at 5:15 p.m., the battalion moved off westward along the State highway which encircled the island. They marched all night without meeting opposition and by early morning were in position on the high ground which overlooks the town of Modica from the south-east.
While the main body of the Seaforth also moved up to the Modica area, one company was detached to the 2nd Brigade’s left flank, to take over the small coastal town of Pozzallo, which had surrendered earlier to naval landing. parties from HMS Blankney and Brissenden after a warning bombardment of 160 rounds had bracketed the town. When the Highlanders arrived on the afternoon of the 11th, they collected 260 prisoners, along with much equipment. Here they met and solved their first problems of ministering to the needs of the civilian population. The machinery of local government had broken down, and deserted by their Fascist Mayor and corporation the people of Pozzallo were desperately short of food. With the help of the local priest and postmaster, the Canadians broke open a granary and organized the distribution of grain, bread and macaroni.135
In the northern sector the 1st Brigade, moving off from Burgio on the afternoon of the 11th, followed the 51st Division into Rosolini, where a detachment of the 12th Canadian Tank Regiment had earlier relieved British troops. While the 48th Highlanders, commanded by Lt-Col. I. S. Johnston, spent an uncomfortable night in the town – which they found half on fire from the naval shelling and pervaded by a horrible stench136 – the RCR assumed the lead and pushed forward towards Ragusa. It was necessary for the battalion to press into use a variety of motor transport from the rest of the brigade, as well as tanks of the Three Rivers and captured enemy vehicles; for it will be recalled that the loss of the three
ships in the Slow Assault Convoy had cut heavily into the vehicle establishment of the majority of the Canadian units. For some time after the landings the shortage of transport continued to be keenly felt. It was partly relieved by pooling all available equipment and requisitioning mules and carts, and by the decision to suspend the practice of making “first line maintenance” the responsibility of the driver – a system which had meant that each driver serviced his own vehicle, and it did not move without him. Now, with an excess of drivers on hand because of. the sinkings, it was possible to keep each vehicle continuously in operation by using relief drivers and having an enlarged workshop section carry out maintenance at the end of each shift.137
By early morning on the 12th the RCR had deployed four miles east of Ragusa, a large centre of 40,000 inhabitants. A battery of the Royal Devon Yeomanry – the British field regiment was providing artillery support for both the leading Canadian brigades – fired several rounds into the town, and an R.C.R carrier patrol was sent in to secure its surrender.138 The patrol discovered that Ragusa was in the possession of the Seventh Army, a company of the 45th US Division having entered the town from the west late on the previous evening. This, the first meeting of Canadian and United States troops in Sicily, established the contact between the two Armies that had been forecast in the general plan of assault.139
The pattern for the entry of Canadian troops into Modica that morning at first closely resembled that at Ragusa. Unlike the hill town Ispica, Modica lies in a deep gully, and from their position of vantage on the surrounding heights it appeared unlikely to the Patricias that the reduction of the place would present much difficulty. Late on the 11th the naval FOO, Captain Mitchell, after his exploit with the road-block had reached the outskirts of the town to find it occupied by Italians only. His report that there were no Germans in the Modica area was relayed by the 2nd Brigade to Divisional Headquarters shortly after midnight, and was followed by another message that. Modica was seeking to surrender. An immediate reply, dispatched at 1:25 a.m., ordered the Patricias to accept the town’s submission.140 Accordingly, on the morning of the 12th, after a 15-minute bombardment by the 142nd Field Regiment, a fighting patrol from the battalion went down into the town and took a considerable number of prisoners.141
Reports appearing in the official war diaries and accounts given later by participants are at some variance as to what followed. It appears that Modica was left without any occupying forces, and that some enemy elements who showed more spirit than usual had either re-entered the town or emerged from the cellars to which the artillery bombardment had driven them. About mid-morning two small detachments, one consisting of two
Seaforth lorries, bringing forward rations and ammunition, and one from the RCR’s anti-tank platoon, both seeking their respective units, entered Modica under the impression that it was safely in Canadian hands. As the former approached the central square, however, it was ambushed; it suffered some casualties and lost one of its vehicles. The RCR and Seaforth parties, joining forces, advanced under cover of fire from a mortar whose crew had become attached to the anti-tank group. Not until further artillery fire had been called down from the Royal Devon Yeomanry did resistance cease and the little band of fifteen reach the main piazza. There they captured seven field and five medium guns and one anti-tank gun, which were sited to cover all converging roads. From all parts of the town several hundred Italian soldiers now came flocking to surrender.142 They were turned over to The Edmonton Regiment – the fourth infantry battalion to claim a share in the occupation of Modica.143
A possible reason for the brief flare-up of resistance was the presence in Modica of the headquarters of the 206th Italian Coastal Division, the formation, it will be recalled, responsible for the defence of the coastline between Licata and Augusta. The Commander, Maj-Gen. Achille d’Havet, who had been decorated by the Duke of Connaught with the Military Cross in the First World War, was concerned that his capitulation should be made to an officer of appropriate rank – a sensitiveness which caused the General rather a frustrating morning, and produced a number of separate claims for credit for his initial capture. From the mass of conflicting evidence it would appear that the first Canadian to make contact with the Italian commander was a sergeant of the PPCLI fighting patrol, who discovered d’Havet in a building in Modica.144 The General’s request for a captor of more exalted rank was referred to the 2nd Brigade Headquarters – apparently on more than one occasion and by more than one agency.*
* It is reported that these included a Seaforth signals corporal who having entered Modica by mistake was prevailed on to bring back to his battalion, riding on the pillion of his motorcycle, a delegate who sought to surrender the town; and a liaison officer with Brigade HQ who for two hours held d’Havet’s car at a crossroad near Modica while unsuccessfully trying to reach the Headquarters staff by wireless. The war diary of the Three Rivers Regiment relates that during this period the CO, Lt-Col. E. L. Booth, encountered d’Havet’s naval and military chiefs of staff and accompanied them into the town, to receive there the Italian General’s unconditional surrender.145
Eventually he formally placed himself in the hands of the Brigade Major, Major R. S. Malone, who conducted him to General Simonds’ Headquarters. Here the GOC had the pleasure of accepting the submission of the first general officer to be captured by Canadian troops in the Second World War.146
From the Corps Commander came an order to move on beyond Modica without delay.147 The presence of American troops in the Ragusa area had obviated the need for further westerly advance by the Canadians, and the two leading brigades now turned northward. Before leaving Modica,
however, the 2nd Brigade, methodically cleaning up remaining enemy pockets on its flanks, dispatched a platoon of the Edmontons with a troop of tanks to Scicli, a small town midway between Modica and the coast: It was a routine job. The unit diary reported tersely: “The tanks fired three shots over the town and 1,100 prisoners emerged from the hills and gave themselves up.” That night found the three battalions of the brigade in the hills about Ragusa, where there were still large numbers of Italian soldiers waiting to be rounded up.
North of Ragusa the country becomes increasingly rugged as the sprawling ridges of the Iblei Hills climb towards their junction with the Erei Mountains. The secondary road leading northward from Modica now became the axis of advance for Brigadier Graham’s 1st Brigade. Throughout the morning of 12 July the 48th Highlanders and the Hastings and Prince Edwards had marched through oppressive heat and dust from Rosolini to join The Royal Canadian Regiment at Ragusa. That evening the advance was resumed, and by the following morning the three battalions were grouped about the hill village of Giarratana, which the Hastings had occupied without trouble.148
The 1st Brigade, which was thus holding the Canadian Division’s most forward positions, was now roughly 30 miles as the crow flies from its point of landing, and more than 50 by march route over mountain roads. The Division had stretched its supply lines to the maximum for the vehicles available, and the troops themselves were badly in need of a rest. Although they had engaged in no strenuous fighting the circumstances of their introduction to Sicily had been difficult enough. The contrast with the period of inactivity aboard the transports was severe, for there had been no time for leisurely acclimatization. Glaring heat and clouds of fine white dust were the normal conditions under which officers and men marched, and the long hours which the shortage of motor transport compelled them to travel on foot deprived them of opportunity for rest. The PPCLI war diary said of the men during the battalion’s march to Modica, “every time they stopped they fell asleep”; and on 13 July the RCR diary recorded that its personnel had had an average of about eight hours’ sleep since landing.
The Canadian Division was the only one of the Eighth Army formations unaccustomed to the semi-tropical conditions of the Mediterranean area, and on 13 July General Montgomery called a halt on his extreme left flank, directing that the Canadians should rest in the Giarratana area for a day and a half.149 Here the 3rd Brigade caught up with its fellow formations, while Divisional Headquarters moved from Ispica to the Modica area. During this pause the arrival in the beach area of the follow-up convoy and the herculean efforts of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps units in
bringing up vehicles considerably eased the transport situation for the forward troops.*
* 23,400 tons of stores and 3700 vehicles required by the 1st Division were discharged across the beaches in just over twelve days.150 Battalions solved the problem in supply which the lack of transport had created by leaving rear parties to form dumps from which stores could be leapfrogged forward at times when the advanced troops were stationary.151
On the 14th, General Montgomery visited every unit and was given an enthusiastic reception. Calling the men around his car, he welcomed them to the Eighth Army, praised their performance up to that time, and expressed his confidence that they would stand up to the tests ahead.152
In the brief respite at Giarratana, to those who had time or inclination for retrospection, there was cause for satisfaction that the introduction of the Canadian Division to the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations had been accomplished in so relatively easy a manner. Across the narrow sands of “Balk West” beach Canadian soldiers had made their entry into Hitler’s European fortress with almost negligible losses. Yet we have shown that for the majority of the troops the first few days in Sicily were by no means a picnic. Had the men of the 1st Division been less well trained or in poorer physical condition they would have found the assignment harder still. As it was, the process of their “breaking in” was swift and rigorous, effectively fitting them for the future tasks to which Montgomery had pointed.
These were not far distant. In the hills north of Giarratana the Canadians were soon to meet the German defenders of Sicily, and much hard fighting was to ensue.