Chapter 4: The First Fighting in the Sicilian Hills
14-22 July 1943
Plans for Further Action
By The evening of 13 July the third phase of operations forecast in General Alexander’s instructions of 19 May had been completed.1 The Allied Armies had established a firm base from which to proceed to the capture of Catania and the Gerbini group of airfields, and the subsequent reduction of the island (see above, p. 20).
The limit of the Eighth Army’s advance ran in a south-westerly direction from Augusta (which had been captured early that morning by the 5th Division, heading the 13th Corps’ drive northward) to Vizzini, where the 23rd Armoured Brigade, under command of the 30th Corps, was meeting fairly strong resistance from elements of the Napoli Division reinforced with Hermann Göring tanks. (The Italian division as a whole was in a bad way; one infantry regiment had become encircled between Syracuse and Palazzolo, and the GOC, Maj-Gen. Gotti-Porcinari, and his headquarters staff had been captured.)2 On the Allied left, General Patton’s forces had a firm grip on a continuous bridgehead which stretched westward to within five miles of Porto Empedocle. The Seventh Army was putting the captured airfields of Ponte Olivo, Comiso and Biscari into use, and was preparing to extend its holding far enough inland to place these fields beyond the reach of the enemy’s long-range artillery, and so fulfil its role of protecting the Eighth Army’s left flank.*
* Field Order No. 1, issued by Force 343, named this objective “Yellow Line”, and defined it as an arc extending westward from the inter-army boundary at Vizzini to meet the seacoast at Palma di Montechiaro, fifteen miles west of Licata. The line contained the towns of Campobello di Licata and Mazzarino on the Seventh Army’s left flank, and on its right included the section of the Syracuse–Enna highway (Highway No. 124) passing through Grammichele, Caltagirone and San Michele di Ganzeria (see Map 1).
So far the Americans had borne the brunt of German counter-attacks. The most critical of these had been a series of armoured blows directed against the 1st Division’s beachhead at Gela on 11 and 12 July by a battle group of the Hermann Göring Division moving down from the Caltagirone region.3 In three separate attempts to throw
the invaders back into the sea the enemy launched 60 Mark IV tanks against the narrow American foothold; on each occasion the combined power of tanks, artillery, rocket guns and naval gunfire drove him back, destroying in all 43 of his tanks.4
Although, as we have seen, specific instructions covering the assault phase of Operation HUSKY had been issued several weeks before D Day, it was obviously not practicable to prescribe in advance a detailed course of action for the Allied Armies once their initial objectives had been secured. The directive of 19 May did not go beyond defining the Eighth Army’s task of capturing Catania and the Gerbini airfields, and the Seventh Army’s supporting role of preventing “enemy reserves moving eastwards against the left flank of Eighth Army”. General Alexander has related however how he visualized the development of operations after the firm base – “on a line from Catania to Licata” – had been established.
The next thing to do was to split the island in half, and the first stage would be to seize and hold the irregular rectangle of roads in the centre round Caltanissetta and Enna. This would by itself seriously hamper all enemy east-west communications. From there I should be able to press on to Nicosia, which would leave only the north coast road open to the enemy, and then to the coast near San Stefano. I could probably only maintain a small force at San Stefano but if it could hold firm the interruption of communications would be complete.5
A glance at the map of Sicily will show the strategic position of Enna as the hub of the highway system of the island. From this point roads lead in every direction. The main east-west highway from Catania to Palermo, and the north-south route from San Stefano to Gela intersect here. Other roads radiate to the south-west through Caltanissetta to Agrigento, to the south-east through Caltagirone and Vizzini to Syracuse, and north-eastward through Leonforte, Nicosia and Troina to Randazzo and the coast highways leading to Messina. Thus the axis of German withdrawal from the south-west of the island had to pass through Enna; while the converging roads from the south and south-east provided the Allied forces with direct routes to this focal point. The enemy was keenly alive to the importance of retaining his hold on such a vital centre of communications, and his task was to be the easier because of the rugged country over which all the approaches to Enna were laid.
It will be recalled that the original intention of HUSKY as expressed in the Operation Instruction of 19 May was “to seize and hold the island of Sicily as a base for future operations”. Since then, however, the measures proposed at Casablanca had been extended, and the Allied strategists had reached a decision to knock Italy” out of the war as quickly as possible (see below, Chapter VII). This would conceivably alter the pattern of operations of the invading armies. We have the evidence of General Leese
(who told General Simonds of the proceedings of a meeting held at Montgomery’s headquarters on 9 June) that the Eighth Army’s object was “to dominate the Messina Straits as soon as possible and to get a footing in the south of the mainland of Italy.”6 The Commander of the 30th Corps defined the role of the Eighth Army after the capture of Catania as General Montgomery saw it at this time.
The Allied Plan after landing, therefore, is for the Americans to form a firm base on the West covering the aerodromes, and for 13 Corps to drive on relentlessly in order to seize Syracuse, Augusta and Catania with the least possible delay. From these bases the Eighth Army will strike with its right in order to secure crossings over the Straits. The general conception is thus to hold on the left and strike on the right. By this means we should cut off and isolate the enemy still holding out around Palermo and in the West of the island.7
The task of the 30th Corps was primarily to assist the 13th Corps’ advance. If the Army met strong resistance, it might be necessary to concentrate the whole effort of the 30th Corps on its right flank, where it would be prepared to take over the high ground north of Avola, and subsequently Syracuse, in order to release General Dempsey’s formations for their northward drive along the coast.
The proposal to assault Calabria directly after the capture of Messina was quickly discarded by the Allied planners in favour of other schemes, but the early capture of the port remained a high priority for the Eighth Army. The 13th Corps, however, did not initially meet the resistance that had been expected, and the Eighth Army found it possible to develop an axis of attack for each of its two corps. Orders for 12 July were for the 13th Corps to continue its drive along the coast towards Catania and for the 30th Corps to advance on Caltagirone, Enna and Leonforte.8 This was the programme which by D plus 3 had brought the Eighth Army’s leading formations into Augusta and to the outskirts of Vizzini.
The decision to direct the 30th Corps north-westward towards Enna entailed a redefinition of the boundary between the Seventh and Eighth Armies.*
* Evidence that Montgomery requested a change in the inter-army boundary appears in the following message sent from H. Q. 30th Corps on 13 July: 45 US Div now on general line Chiaramonte–Biscari. Information received they intend to send one brigade Vizzini, two brigades Caltagirone to-morrow 14 July. Army Comd rapidly attempting to direct them more to west to avoid clash with you, but in case NOT retire from accordingly. Warn all concerned.9
The route which the Corps must use as its, axis was the main highway which runs from Syracuse through Vizzini to the centre of the island (see Map 3). The portion of this road between Vizzini and San Michele di Ganzeria, ten miles west of Caltagirone, had been included in the area assigned to the Seventh Army for its “firm base”;10 indeed, a movement by formations of the Eighth Army along this route would be directly across the face of the 45th Division on the American right flank. Accordingly on 13 July General Alexander issued a directive
which confirmed the Eighth Army’s advance on two axes – to Catania with its adjacent airfields, and to the network of roads within the area of Enna and Leonforte. General Montgomery was given exclusive use of the road (Highway Nos. 124 and 117) from Vizzini through Caltagirone and Piazza Armerina to Enna. The American axis of advance was turned sharply westward. The Seventh Army was to pivot on its left and advance to a general line running south-west from Caltanissetta, gaining contact with the Eighth Army at the road junction south of Enna.11
In ordering the capture of Enna and Caltanissetta the Army Group Commander was putting into effect his original intention “to split the island in half’. He has revealed that it was his purpose, although “for the moment tentative and liable to change”, that the 30th Corps, having captured Leonforte and Enna, should advance to San Stefano on the north coast.12 Subsequent events, as we shall see, forced a change in this programme.
General Leese had planned for 13 July that the 23rd Armoured Brigade should lead the general advance of the 30th Corps to the north-west; he had ordered the brigade to capture Vizzini that day, take Caltagirone on the succeeding night, and advance towards Enna on the 14th. He directed the 51st Highland Division to clean up resistance in Vizzini and the area to the east, while advancing the Corps’ right flank by a brigade thrust northward towards Scordia.13 The 1st Canadian Division remained in its positions between Ragusa and Vizzini. As we have seen, Vizzini did not fall on 13 July; indeed it was not until the following evening that the mixed German and Italian garrison withdrew towards Caltagirone, and elements of the Highland Division entered the town. The plan to send the armoured brigade on to Caltagirone was cancelled, and General Simonds was ordered to take the Canadians through the 51st Division at Vizzini, and advance to Enna.14
The First Encounter with the Germans – Grammichele, 15 July
At midnight on 14–15 July a long column of motor transport carrying the 1st Brigade, led by The Royal Canadian Regiment, set off along the very secondary road twisting northward from Giarratana. Three hours later the RCR deployed in Vizzini, and the Hastings and Prince Edwards moved into the lead. At 6:00 a.m. the brigade resumed its advance, travelling now along the paved State Highway, No. 124, which followed the narrow-gauge railway line connecting Enna with the south-east. As the column rolled forward, the infantry riding in lorries and carriers or mounted on tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, the troops found themselves passing through a more prosperous-looking area. than they had yet seen in Sicily.
Much of the way the road ran through a wide upland valley, with gentle slopes rising to the high ground on either side. Fields were large, and free from trees and rock. As usual there were no houses to be seen along the route; the peasant workers followed their custom of centuries of congregating in the hilltop towns.
Such a centre was Grammichele, a community of 13,000 ten miles distant by road from Vizzini. It was built in 1683, after an earthquake, and was constructed on the unique plan of a spider web, with six roads radiating from the central piazza. The completely hexagonal town was perched on a long ridge some 250 feet above the level of the surrounding country, and thus had a commanding view of the road from the east. It was a good spot for a delaying action.
At about 9:00 the leading Canadian troops rounded a bend in the road and saw Grammichele on the sky-line two miles to the west. There was no sign of the enemy as the reconnaissance group of the Three Rivers approached the town, with the infantry battalion closely following. But a strong rearguard of artillery and tank detachments of the Hermann Göring Division was lying in wait, and as the first vehicles reached the outermost buildings they came under a sudden burst of fire from tank guns and anti-tank weapons of calibres reported as ranging from 20 to 88 millimetres.*
* At the time of the Sicilian campaign the Herman Göring Division was equipped mainly with the medium Mark IV tank, weighing 23 tons, which mounted the long-barrelled 75-mm. gun. It still had some of the older Mark III tanks (at one time the main armament of the German panzer regiment), mounting a long 50-mm. gun (or in a few cases the short 75 of low muzzle-velocity). The Hermann Görings also used a small number of the heavy (56-ton) Mark VI (“Tiger”) tanks, equipped with 88-mm. guns-on 23 July the Division reported 23 tanks ready for action “including 3 Tigers”. The 45-ton Mark V “Panther” (with long 75), which eventually replaced the Mark IV as the enemy’s main fighting tank, did not appear in Sicily. The anti-tank weapons used against the Canadians at Grammichele included the 20-mm. Flakvierling, a self-propelled four-barrelled gun, which could be employed against either aircraft or tanks; the 88s appear to have been mobile flak guns in a ground role.15
The fire quickly shifted to the main body of troops; a Canadian tank and three carriers were knocked out and several vehicles destroyed.16
The infantry immediately began closing in on the town, while self-propelled guns of the Devon Yeomanry rapidly deployed from the road into the neighbouring fields to give prompt and effective support. Guided by tracer bullets fired from one of the forward carriers to indicate the enemy’s positions, the Three Rivers squadrons destroyed three German tanks and a number of flak guns. In wide, sweeping movements three companies of the Hastings converged upon the town from as many directions, while the remaining company gave covering fire. As the first Canadians gained an entry within the perimeter the enemy began to evacuate. By noon Grammichele had been cleared, and the Hermann Görings, leaving behind them a quantity of equipment and stores, were retiring westward along the
highway, harassed by our artillery.17 This first encounter with the Germans had cost 25 Canadian casualties.
Early in the afternoon the 48th Highlanders, with tank support, took up the chase as a motorized column, the 1st Brigade Support Group (of the Saskatoon Light Infantry) providing carriers to replace those which the Highlanders had lost at sea. Mines along the road delayed progress, and it was midnight before the battalion reached the outskirts of Caltagirone, having covered some of the distance by cross-country march. The town of 30,000, which had housed the headquarters of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, had been heavily hit by Allied bombers, and when the 48th Highlanders and the Three Rivers tanks entered unopposed early on the 16th they found the place a veritable shambles, with the streets badly blocked by rubble and many fires burning. In the very inadequate local hospital the Highlanders’ medical section did what it could for the civilian casualties, and the 4th Field Ambulance gave assistance when it arrived. Despite all their troubles the nuns insisted on serving the Canadians coffee – made of crushed acorns.18
While Brigadier Graham’s battalions were thus leading the Canadian thrust towards Enna, the 2nd Brigade, leaving Ragusa late on 14 July, had moved up to Highway No. 124 by a winding road through Chiaramonte Gulfi and Licodia, west of the route taken by the 1st Brigade, from Giarratana to Vizzini. There had been only enough transport for the Edmontons and Brigade Headquarters, and the other two battalions had found the march of more than thirty miles, much of it in extreme heat, very fatiguing. The brigade encountered no enemy en route, but the Edmonton suffered some casualties from sniping as they left Ragusa, an incident which led the 30th Corps Headquarters to issue an order that in future hostages were to be taken in each town after its surrender.19
The German detachments which the 1st Brigade had driven out of Grammichele were providing flank protection for the Hermann Göring Division, now slowly falling back for the defence of Catania. By 14 July the pattern of the enemy’s plan of campaign was clear. It had not taken Kesselring long after the Allied landings to realize – if indeed any confirmation of his earlier suspicions were needed – that the German garrison would be forced to fight the battle of Sicily practically alone. On 12 July, after visiting Generals Guzzoni and von Senger in Enna, he reported to Berlin:
The Italian forces in the area under attack are almost a total loss. The German forces at the moment are not sufficiently large to carry out a decisive attack against any one of the enemy bridgeheads.20
The battle groups formed to strike powerful blows against an invader who should have been already staggered by the resistance of the perimeter coastal defences, had managed to launch, as we have seen, only one serious
counter-attack, and that unsuccessful. Now, as effective opposition by their Italian partners virtually ceased, and the danger grew that Allied thrusts might isolate and envelop each group in turn, their only hope appeared to be in forming a stable and continuous defensive line.
It was not difficult for the German commanders to divine the Allied intention of striking up the east Sicilian coast in order to seize the ferry crossings and thus cut off the defenders and open the way to the mainland. Nor could they fail to recognize the threat which the Allied left was directing against the line of communication with the west of the island. In the draft report already referred to (above, p. 53) Kesselring has shown that he was fully alive to these contingencies.
The important thing now was to prevent the enemy from thrusting forward to Catania from the Syracuse or the Gela areas, and then with united forces pushing through to the Straits of Messina. At the same time, the strong enemy force that was advancing from Licata towards the north must be prevented from breaking through in the direction of Palermo, thereby making it impossible to bring up those of our troops still in the western part of the island and to evacuate important supplies.21
Accordingly the enemy shifted his weight towards his left flank and proceeded to concentrate his greatest strength in the Catania plain, where he was determined to deny to the Eighth Army the port of Catania and the vital Gerbini airfields. In face of threatened encirclement the main body of the Hermann Göring Division was withdrawn from the Vizzini–Caltagirone area and ordered eastward to the aid of Battle Group Schmalz at Lentini. Here it was joined by the remnants of the luckless Napoli Division, which during the first four days of the invasion had suffered most heavily of all the Italian field divisions. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been hurriedly recalled on D Day from its futile excursion to Western Sicily, was committed in the hills south and south-west of Caltanissetta, to oppose any northward thrusts by General Patton’s forces. Its left made rather uncertain contact with the Hermann Göring right, with units of General Chirieleison’s Livorno Division helping to fill the gap – a situation that was improved by subsequent withdrawals towards the natural bulwark of Mount Etna.22
On 14 July Kesselring’s daily report to the German High Command admitted that “the western flank is exposed to envelopment and preparations are being made to retreat to the Etna position.”23 This “position” was no strong system of fortifications such as the Allied Armies were later to encounter in central Italy; indeed the only preparation appears to have been the selection of a suitable site. The line to which the Hermann Göring Division fell back in the next six days was in general that of the Catenanuova–Catania railway, which followed the north bank of the River Dittaino. It marked the limit of withdrawal if Catania and Gerbini were to be held. The reason for German
sensitiveness along the route which the Canadians were following was thus apparent. The hilltop towns of Caltagirone, Piazza Armerina, Valguarnera, Enna and Leonforte all commanded lateral roads which led eastward into the Catania plain. It became the task of the German rearguards in these places, each of which because of its lofty location was readily convertible into a strongpoint, to contest our advance with increasing determination, in order both to counter the threat of encirclement of the main body of the Hermann Göring Division in the plain and to keep open a route for the passage of the Panzer Grenadiers from the west.
To General Montgomery on 15 July it was imperative that as far as possible the Germans should reap no profit from delaying tactics on the Eighth Army’s left flank. The attack of the 13th Corps along the coast was meeting strong opposition. Two nights earlier troops of No. 3 Commando, landing in the Gulf of Catania, had secured a road bridge on the main Syracuse–Catania highway, north of Lentini; while the 1st Parachute Brigade, dropping at the mouth of the Simeto River, had seized the important Primosole Bridge six miles south of Catania. Relieving troops of the 50th Division had met fierce enemy reaction, however, and by the evening of the 15th the Simeto crossing was still in dispute.24 That night the Army Commander wrote to General Leese:
So operations are a bit slow and sticky on the right, and all indications are that enemy troops are moving eastwards from the Caltagirone-Enna area and across to the plain of Catania. He is trying desperately to hold us off from getting to the airfields about Catania.
As we are held temporarily on the right, it is now all the more important to swing hard with our left; so push on with all speed to Caltagirone, and then to Valguarnera–Enna – Leonforte. Drive the Canadians on hard.25
Acting on this injunction General Leese ordered the 1st Canadian Division to “continue the advance vigorously directed on Enna.”26 In a letter sent to General Simonds earlier in the day the Corps Commander had suggested the pursuit tactics that the situation invited.
If opportunity occurs push a mobile mechanized force with tanks quickly through towards Enna ... All our experience in this island has been that if you are held up, put in a well-supported attack in strength.27
Simonds now ordered the 2nd Brigade into the lead, and placed under its command the 12th Canadian Tank Regiment, the Royal Devon Yeomanry and the 3rd Field Regiment RCA The situation with regard to transport had improved, and the divisional “Q” staff was able to round up enough 3-ton lorries to lift the whole brigade tactically. While this mobile force pressed on to secure its objectives in the Enna area, the 1st and 3rd Brigades were to be ready to follow at short notice and secure the communications in the respective areas of Valguarnera and Leonforte.28
Piazza Armerina, 16 July
Early on 16 July the 2nd Brigade Group pushed up Highway No. 124 from Caltagirone, the Edmontons with one squadron of the Three Rivers tanks forming the vanguard. They passed through the village of San Michele di Ganzeria without opposition, and turned north along the Gela–Enna highway (No. 117). By noon they were three miles south of Piazza Armerina, another typical “rural town” of 22,000 population. Its altitude of 2366 feet exceeded that of any Sicilian community yet encountered by the Canadians. At a sharp bend where the road swept down from a long level ridge to skirt a steep, narrow gully, the leading troops ran into fire from machine-guns, mortars and artillery. The enemy was well concealed on the heights commanding the southern approach to the town. The two leading Edmonton companies rapidly worked their way forward and seized high ground on either side of the road; but these positions, and indeed the whole of the road up to Piazza Armerina, came under heavy cross-fire from enemy mortars on two prominent hills about a mile to the north and north-east. Lt-Col. Jefferson, with only three companies at his disposal (“D” Company was still in Ragusa), directed “A” and “B” Companies respectively against these heights, holding “C” in reserve to reinforce success. Advancing under the heavy hostile fire “A” Company secured its objective, and was quickly joined by “C” Company. It was essentially an infantry action, for the Three Rivers tanks were unable to raise their guns sufficiently to engage the Germans’ lofty positions. The only supporting fire came from the battalion’s 3-inch mortars until, later in the day, enemy targets were engaged by the self-propelled guns of the Royal Devon Yeomanry and the 5.5s of the 7th Medium Regiment.*
* The 7th Medium Regiment RA was under General Simonds’ command from 15 July until 8 August. Previously the Canadians had been supported by a battery of the 70th Medium Regiment RA.29
The attack on the right proved considerably more difficult. “B” Company “took a terrific battering” as it fought its way uphill, and much of the afternoon suffered from being out of communication with the rest of the battalion. Enemy fire cut off part of the Company, pinning them down in an orchard, but eventually one platoon managed to reach the summit and drive the Germans off. The two hills so gamely captured by the Edmontons gave them vantage points overlooking Piazza Armerina; but the enemy (later identified as the 2nd Battalion, 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division30) retained for a time his grip on the town. He continued to shell the Canadian positions with his 75s, until these were silenced by the fire of the British “mediums”. During the night the Germans withdrew, and by 6:00 next morning the 2nd Brigade was in firm possession of the town. In their first action the Edmontons had acquitted
themselves well, but they had suffered 27 casualties. Piazza Armerina, formerly the home of the headquarters of the Italian 16th Corps, yielded the Canadians large stocks of signal equipment and a considerable quantity of petrol; while civilian refugees hurrying home as the Germans moved out lost no time in enriching their household possessions with abandoned furniture and equipment from the deserted barrack buildings.31
The enemy’s obstructive tactics along Highway No. 117 were paying him good dividends. Piazza Armerina had held up the Canadian Division for twenty-four hours; not until noon on the 17th did the 3rd Brigade, going into the lead for the first time in the campaign, resume the advance towards Enna. Yet it was important that the Eighth Army’s left wing should make rapid progress, for on the right determined German resistance was repelling all attempts by the 13th Corps to extend its bridgehead over the Simeto River. On 16 July General Alexander had issued a second directive, which laid down three axes of advance for the Eighth Army into the Messina peninsula – “northwards from Catania; from Leonforte to Adrano to sever communications this side of Etna; and via Nicosia–Troina–Randazzo to sweep round the northern slopes of Etna.” The Army Group Commander hoped that the “Eighth Army would be able to mount a rapid attack on this formidable position before the Germans could assume a good position of defence,” and he envisaged the Canadian Division, as General Montgomery’s left flank formation, driving in behind Mount Etna from the west. The Seventh Army’s task was “to protect the rear of this attack by seizing the central rectangle of roads around Enna and cutting the east-west road at Petralia.”32 Enna itself thus came into the American sector of operations; but the Eighth Army was to retain unrestricted use of the road from Piazza Armerina to Leonforte and Nicosia which passed just east of that hub town. In the west General Patton was directed to capture Agrigento and Porto Empedocle, if this could be done “without involving heavy casualties.”33
It will be observed that the directive based future operations for the Eighth Army upon the capture of Catania. Enemy resistance before the port, however, showed little sign of diminishing; a costly attack by the 50th Division on the night of 17–18 July to enlarge the Simeto bridgehead achieved little.34 This stalemate in the east heightened the importance of the Eighth Army’s other axes of advance, and caused a modification of Montgomery’s plans for the proposed northern sweep by the 30th Corps on the left flank. In a signal to Alexander on the 17th he reported that the 51st Highland Division was moving north from Scordia to “capture Paterno tomorrow with luck”, and declared his intention of sending the Canadians – whom he expected to reach Enna that night – eastward from Leonforte to
Adrano, rather than along the wider arc through Nicosia and Troina. “I will then operate with 30 Corps round the west and north of Etna and will cut off any enemy who stay east of Etna and about Catania.” He further suggested that the Americans after capturing Petralia should drive to the coast road and “make faces eastwards” along the coast, thereby completing the bisection of the island and hemming the enemy within the Messina peninsula.35 For the Canadian Division this programme in the main was to remain unchanged.
The distance from Piazza Armerina to Enna by road is only 22 miles, but the 3rd Brigade’s hopes of reaching its goal on 17 July soon faded. Eight miles north of Piazza Armerina a side road to Valguarnera branched to the right from Highway No. 117. This was an important junction to the Germans. By holding it they could halt the Canadians’ further progress in two directions: north-westward to Enna, and north-eastward to Valguarnera, which from its commanding height overlooked the Dittaino valley and the western Catania plain.
As so frequently in Sicily, topography was in the enemy’s favour. Immediately before it reached the fork, Highway No. 117 climbed through a narrow gap in a long ridge which broke from the backbone of the Erei Mountains to bend around to the north-east and cover Valguarnera from the south and east sides. In the hills on either side of this pass – which was called the Portello Grottacalda – the 2nd Battalion, 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (the unit which the 2nd Brigade had fought at Piazza Armerina), strengthened, it seems probable, by the 1st Battalion of the same regiment withdrawing from the American front, had taken up a stand awaiting the Canadian Division. Their best vantage point was Monte della Forma, a square-topped hill, 2700 feet high, on the west side of the pass; and it subsequently transpired that they had sited several mortars on its reverse, or northern, slope. In the action that followed the enemy demonstrated that two determined battalions by exploiting naturally strong positions could effectively hold up two brigades for more than twenty-four hours.
A blown bridge brought the 3rd Brigade to its first halt four miles north of Piazza Armerina. While sappers of the 4th Field Company RCE constructed a diversion, reconnaissance reported the presence of the enemy at the road junction ahead. This was confirmed when the advance was resumed at 4:30, as The Carleton and York Regiment at the head of the column came under mortar and machine-gun fire. The infantry dismounted, and from hull-down positions on the crest of a hill about one and a half miles south of Monte della Forma tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment successfully engaged the enemy outposts, forcing a withdrawal to the main line of defence. The Carletons’ CO, Lt-Col. F. D. Tweedie, then moved his battalion up to within a mile of the Grottacalda pass.36
The Fighting at Grottacalda and Valguarnera, 17–18 July
The situation seemed to require “a well-supported attack in strength”. Calling a conference of his brigade commanders, General Simonds issued orders committing to battle two of his infantry brigades supported by tanks and all the divisional artillery. The 3rd Brigade was to press on along the axis of the Enna highway; the 1st Brigade, which had been waiting at Piazza Armerina, was to strike north-eastward across country to Valguarnera. His remaining formation was to be ready to follow the 3rd Brigade at two hours’ notices.37
At eight that evening Brigadier Penhale sent the Royal 22e Régiment, commanded by Lt-Col. J. P. E. Bernatchez, forward through the Carleton and Yorks in troop-carrying vehicles. They were soon halted, this time by a large mine crater which the methodical enemy rearguard had blown in a stretch of the road that could not be by-passed. By the time that unit pioneers had repaired this breach night had fallen, and the advance continued in moonlight. A few hundred yards short of the pass, as the narrow road began its ascent around the base of Monte della Forma, the column was stopped by a heavy volley of machine-gun fire from the hills ahead. Quickly dismounting, the Royal 22e retaliated with their Bren guns, and in the skirmish that followed routed with heavy casualties a party of Germans seeking to cut off the battalion from the rest of the column. Then they dug in, and there was no further movement for the Canadians that night.38
After an early morning reconnaissance on the 18th Brigadier Penhale decided to attack with the Carleton and Yorks on the right, while the Vingt-deuxième kept contact with the enemy in the centre. This plan was extended when the GOC directed that The West Nova Scotia Regiment, which was now immediately to the rear of the Royal 22e, should make a wide left flanking attack to sever Highway No. 117 at a point some two miles west of the road junction and so cut off the enemy’s retreat towards Enna. The main fire plan provided for concentrations of 68 rounds per gun by four artillery regiments.*
* The 1st Field Regiment RCHA, the 2nd and 3rd Field Regiments RCA and the 7th Medium Regiment RA. The 142nd Field Regiment (SP) RA was supporting the 1st Brigade. Two troops of the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery (2nd LAA. Regt.) RCA in the infantry column carried out effective anti-personnel firing with their 40-millimetre Bofors guns during the day.
These were fired early in the afternoon on four selected targets about the pass, with results extremely encouraging to the attacking infantry.39
About mid-morning Lt-Col. M. P. Bogert withdrew his West Novas a mile or so down the highway and then turned west across country, screened from the enemy’s view by the hill from which the Canadian tanks had fired on the previous evening. It was heavy going under the blazing sun, and to
make matters worse a deep ravine halted the battalion’s carriers, and so forced the perspiring troops to carry the heavy 3-inch mortars. While the artillery pounded the face of Monte della Forma and Lt-Col. Tweedie’s troops launched their attack on the right, the West Novas, turning northward, forced their way through the tall thickets of cane that marked the course of the dry river bed. By four in the afternoon they had occupied a hill dominating the Enna highway west of the pass. They met little enemy resistance, for at Grottacalda the Carleton attack had already driven the Germans from their posts north-east of the road forks,*
* The success of the Carleton and York attack owed much to the gallantry and initiative of Private M. Brisson, surviving member of a party of three advancing on an enemy machine-gun post. He carried on the assault alone and took the position, shooting two of the occupants and killing the third with his rifle-butt. This action brought him the battalion’s first DCM.40
and a parallel withdrawal from Monte della Forma had brought to an end the fourteen-hour frontal fight of the Royal 22e under continuous mortaring. The junction was securely in Canadian hands by five o’clock.41
On the Division’s right flank the 1st Brigade had undergone a hard day’s fighting. Called forward during the evening of 17th July, the Hastings and Prince Edwards left the highway some two miles north of Piazza Armerina, and struck off in a north-easterly direction across the rugged countryside. Deep ravines and dried-up watercourses hindered their progress, soon separating them from their mortars and carriers. Their only roads were the goat paths that twisted around the steep hillsides. The tank carrying the artillery FOO and his wireless set was unable to negotiate the difficult terrain, and the attacking companies were without fire support throughout the following day.42
Dawn found Battalion Headquarters and “B” and “D” Companies on the heights less than a mile south of Valguarnera, looking over the ravine through which the road winds steeply up into the town; the remaining companies had lost contact during the night. On their right front a circular knoll, terraced with olive trees, rose 300 feet above the floor of the valley, dominating the road which bent around its northern base, although itself overlooked by the superior height of the town and the surrounding hills. From a nearby hill a solitary enemy machine-gun post checked further movement by the Hastings. On his own initiative a platoon sergeant of “D” Company, Sergeant W. J. R. McKnight (who was later awarded the DCM for his bravery), accompanied by another non-commissioned officer, crawled across the intervening valley and assaulted the position with grenade, rifle and bayonet, killing its ten defenders.43 Lt-Col. Sutcliffe now directed the building of a road-block, from behind which one company successfully engaged a number of enemy vehicles coming up the winding route from Grottacalda. The prize hit was that scored by a PIAT bomb on an ammunition truck which was carrying several enemy troops. It killed
all the occupants and immobilized an 88-millimetre gun which the vehicle had in tow. This may well have been the initial Canadian success for the new infantry anti-tank weapon. An attempt by the battalion commander to lead a platoon up into the town failed, and about noon a German detachment of lorried infantry attacked the road-block and forced the Canadian companies to withdraw into the encircling hills.44
Meanwhile, scarcely a mile to the east, but completely out of touch with the rest of the battalion, “A” and “C” Companies were engaged in a separate action of their own. Early that morning, guided by an unwilling farmer whom the battalion Intelligence Officer pressed into service, they had reached the knoll commanding the approaches to the town, and had dug in within 600 yards of the enemy’s forward guns. From this point of vantage they ambushed at close range a column of mechanized infantry on the road, inflicting heavy losses with their intense fire; the commander of “A” Company is reported himself to have accounted for eighteen Germans in a truck, catching them point blank with a Bren gun fired from the hip. Enemy reinforcements, believed to be the previously uncommitted balance of a battalion, now stormed the exposed Canadian position. In the first sharp engagement the Hastings repulsed the attackers, but the threat of artillery action compelled a decision to fall back across the road to the main line of hilts. The retirement was made with one company covering the other’s withdrawal, and during the evening the scattered battalion reorganized at its starting point on the highway. In the day’s fighting it had lost 20 other ranks killed or wounded and seven taken prisoner; it was later confirmed that the Hastings had killed between 80 and 90 Germans, and wounded as many more.45
On the 1st Brigade’s left the attempt of The Royal Canadian Regiment to capture Valguarnera also failed, and from the same series of causes arising from the uncompromising terrain – the immobilization of the unit carriers with their 3-inch mortars and wireless sets, the consequent breakdown of communications with the rest of the brigade, and the resultant loss of artillery support and absence of coordination with the flanking infantry battalion.
It was 5:30 on the morning of the 18th before the RCR left Highway No. 117 a mile south-east of the Portello Grottacalda to strike across country towards Valguarnera; and when they reached the ridge of hills bordering the road into the town, enemy sniping and mortar and machine-gun fire pinned them to ground until noon. shortly thereafter they pushed forward another mile, to gain positions directly south of Valguarnera on what must have earlier been the immediate left flank of the Hastings’ “A” and “C” Companies; indeed, a number of stragglers of that battalion, who had been pinned down by enemy fire when the main body withdrew, were
rescued from their predicament by a party led by the RCR’s Second-in-Command, Major J. H. W. T. Pope.46
Lt-Col. Crowe then directed a two-company attack against the enemy on the knoll ahead. As his men advanced well deployed down the open hillside in the face of brisk fire from mortar and machine-guns, the battalion commander himself walked at their head, “eager to keep the action rolling.” There was some spirited fighting before the enemy, who had apparently relied on advantage of position to compensate for his inferiority of numbers, withdrew, leaving the Canadians in positions from which they could overlook the entrance to Valguarnera half a mile to the north.
Three German tanks guarding these approaches now opened fire, and Major Pope went forward with six men to engage them. By extreme misfortune three bombs fired from a PIAT failed to explode.*
* Reports of other instances of the failure of the PIAT bomb to detonate unless striking the target squarely were fairly common. The adoption, early in 1944, of a “graze” fuse (which was actuated by the deceleration produced when the bomb struck an object, even obliquely) increased the proportion of detonations, thereby considerably improving the weapon’s performance against tanks.47
A hail of bullets from the tanks’ machine-guns forced the patrol to retire; Major Pope was killed. Shortly afterwards the tanks withdrew into Valguarnera, and a long mechanized column was observed leaving the town by its northern exits. Expecting a counter-attack, however, Lt-Col. Crowe ordered his men to dig in. At two o’clock he addressed a situation report to the Brigade Commander, explaining his intention of patrolling into the town, but not “before dark as I have no support weapons or armour of any kind.” This message was carried back to Battalion Headquarters by the regimental padre alone and on foot, and under rifle fire much of the way. Before last light a patrol from the RCR’s Support Company reached the rifle companies with rations.48
Meanwhile Brigadier Graham had ordered forward his reserve battalion, the 48th Highlanders, to occupy a ridge two miles south of Valguarnera. In taking this objective the leading company claimed 35 Germans killed and a score of prisoners. One Highlander, Cpl. W. F. Kay, won the DCM for his part in the action; his section of five men captured a machine-gun position manned by seventeen Germans, he himself personally accounting for eight of the enemy. After clearing out nests of snipers who were still operating in the rear of the RCR and the Hastings, the battalion marched around to the right, to enter Valguarnera in the dead of night and find it clear of enemy.49
The fighting on that Sunday had been the most extensive in which the Division had yet participated; there were 145 Canadian casualties, 40 of them fatal. Against this must be set the figures of 250 German and 30 Italian prisoners captured, and claims of from 180 to 240 Germans killed
or wounded.50 As we have shown, the actual gains of ground during the day were relatively small, so effectively had the enemy, although heavily outnumbered, capitalized on the advantages of his naturally strong positions. On the other hand the Canadians had acquired some much-needed battle experience, which was to serve them well in subsequent encounters with the Germans.
Two days later Kesselring’s daily report to Berlin carried a measure of unconscious tribute to the 1st Brigade: “Near Valguarnera troops trained for fighting in the mountains have been mentioned. They are called ‘Mountain Boys’ and probably belong to the 1st Canadian Division.”51
The By-Passing of Enna
During the afternoon of 18 July, while the battle among the hills was still in progress, General Simonds held an orders group and directed his 2nd Brigade to continue the advance northward towards Leonforte. It was 4:30 next morning when the Seaforth Highlanders passed through Valguarnera, followed by the Patricias. The enemy’s peculiarly effective knack of denying road passage to vehicles by mine crater and demolished bridge compelled both battalions to go on foot, and hence without supporting arms. On the other hand the retreating Panzer Grenadiers took full advantage of having their artillery with them, and from a hill which overlooked an important intersection of roads, railway and river five miles north of Valguarnera their rearguard halted Canadian progress with shelling, mortaring and machine-gun fire. Not until the afternoon, when the good work of the Canadian sappers in repairing demolitions enabled the guns to be brought forward, and the enemy felt the weight of a number of divisional concentrations on his positions, did he. withdraw in the face of an attack by the Patricias. The end of the day found the two forward battalions holding the disputed crossroads.52
That morning, as they came out of the hills about Valguarnera into the rolling upland plains which fill the angle between the main backbone of the Erei Mountains and the spur stretching eastward to Etna, the marching troops had caught their first glimpse of the majestic snow-topped volcano, forty miles to the north-east. Over to their left, a bare half dozen miles away, the square crag of Enna, reaching 3300 feet above sea-level, dominated the western sky-line. The horizon between these two landmarks was filled with the chain of heights which marked the path of the main Palermo–Catania road, Highway No. 121: Along this winding route through the rugged hills the Canadian Division was to do battle during seventeen days of bitter fighting, wresting one by one from the enemy the towns and villages which crowned the highest summits (see Map 5).
One of these mountain strongholds was clearly visible to the 2nd Brigade as they headed north along the road from Valguarnera – the lofty peak of Assoro projecting like a sharp tooth in the jagged sky-line eight miles ahead. This height formed a southern projection to the main ridge, which here flattened out as a high plateau extending from Leonforte, two miles north-west of Assoro, to Agira, six miles to the north-east. At Regalbuto, nine miles east of Agira’s 2700-foot cone, Highway No. 121, which had thus far climbed tortuously into every town and village along the main ridge, temporarily forsook the hills, dropping down by relatively easy gradients to cross the valley of the Simeto west of Adrano. It thus left Centuripe – most easterly of this group of communities in the sky – to be reached by a very indifferent trail which clambered by steep zig-zags up to the 2400-foot peak on which the town was sited.
The rugged country which the Canadians were now entering; is pierced by a number of tributaries of the River Simeto, which empties into the. sea south of Catania, draining the greater part of the eastern Sicilian plain., Two of these, rising in the mountains north of Enna, have courses that parallel on either side the Leonforte–Centuripe hill barrier – the Salso to the north, and the Dittaino to the south. The main branch of the Simeto itself has its source in the high watershed north-west of Etna, and flows almost due south along the volcano’s western flank, meeting the Salso midway between Centuripe and Adrano before breaking through a gap in the hills into the Catania plain. One more river that the 1st Division was to meet, the Troina, which shares its name with a lofty town lying near, its point of origin between the headwaters of the Salso and the Simeto, has carved a rocky south-easterly course through the mountains to join the former stream five miles to the west of its junction with the parent river.
More than a year later in Northern Italy Canadians were to know the hardships of campaigning across raging torrents swollen by the autumn rains; but here in the drought of summer these Sicilian streams had dwindled to mere trickles connecting the shallow pools which were scattered along their wide, boulder-strewn beds. These dried courses were no obstacle to infantry on foot; but the passage of tracked or wheeled vehicles presented a challenge that the Engineers were quick to take up. Although the valleys, which average a mile or more in width, form broad corridors through the wild terrain, they could not be used as avenues of advance for the Canadians while the Germans still held the commanding heights above them.
At a conference on the afternoon of 19 July, General Simonds outlined his plans for the 1st Division’s future operations. He had decided to advance that night on a two-brigade front, with the 2nd Brigade proceeding towards its objective of Leonforte, and the 1st branching out to the right to take
Assoro, and thence pushing northward to cut the highway east of Leonforte. While the 3rd Canadian Brigade temporarily remained in reserve, the 231st (Malta) Brigade was to come under the GOC’s command on the Division’s right flank. Since 17 July the Malta Brigade had been moving forward in an independent role between the Canadians and the 51st Highland Division. It had captured Raddusa, eight miles east of Valguarnera, on the 18th, and was now in position astride the Dittaino River, six miles east of the crossroads which the 2nd Canadian Brigade was holding. A continued advance along its present axis would bring it to Agira, but it was Simonds’ intention that no attempt would be made to reduce this stronghold until the capture of Leonforte and Assoro should enable the Canadian Division to attack simultaneously from the west.53
The inclusion of Agira within the sector of Canadian operations and an announcement by the GOC that the main divisional axis was to be eastward along Highway No. 121 confirmed the change in the earlier plans of higher command for a Canadian “left hook” around the north of Mount Etna. That same morning of the 19th, General Montgomery had reported to General Alexander that because of the strong enemy resistance near the coast he had decided not to, persist with the thrust of his 50th Division in that sector but instead to increase the pressure farther west. To this end he ordered attacks to be made at the centre of the Eighth Army’s front, the 5th Division (of the 13th Corps) towards Misterbianco and the 51st Division against Paterno, two towns on Highway No. 121 between Adrano and Catania.54 In accordance with the intentions which he had expressed to the Army Group Commander on 17 July the Army’s left flank would conform with this convergence upon the enemy’s hold on the southern base of Etna. “It was now clear”, writes Alexander, commenting on this modification of the plans set forth in his directive of 16 July, “that Eighth Army would not have the strength to encircle Etna on both sides against the stout resistance of the Germans. The Canadians were therefore ordered to advance to Leonforte and then turn east to Adrano, the centre of the three original thrusts, abandoning the proposed encirclement through Randazzo.”55
The tasks given to the two Canadian brigades were not easy. To reach their mountain objectives – Leonforte at an altitude of more than 2000 feet, and Assoro nearly 1000 feet higher – the attackers had to cross the Dittaino valley many hundreds of feet below, exposed to continual fire which the Germans were able to direct with great accuracy from their observation posts along the dominating ridge between the two towns. The advance began a little before midnight of 19–20 July. By morning the Edmonton had secured a bridgehead over the dry bed of the Dittaino just east of Highway No. 121, and about five miles from Leonforte. During
the day the Patricias occupied without opposition an isolated hill, Mount Desira Rossi, two miles behind the Edmonton crossing, and high enough to command the brigade’s further advance.
Five miles downstream the 48th Highlanders crossed near Dittaino Station, whence The Royal Canadian Regiment went into the lead for the 1st Brigade. Supported by “C” Squadron of the Three Rivers Regiment, they took two hills, one on either side of the Dittaino, but not before nine Canadian tanks had been immobilized by mines and the crews held pinned inside for five hours by the enemy’s continual artillery fire. A narrow, steep-sided valley led directly north-westward to the towering height of Assoro four miles away, but was under observation for its entire length from the enemy positions. Further advance by daylight being impossible, Brigadier Graham gave orders for the Hastings and Prince Edwards to attack that night.56
The final incident in the friendly rivalry between Canadians and Americans to be the first to enter Enna may here be told. With Valguarnera in Canadian hands and the enemy’s line of retreat through Leonforte threatened his position in Enna was obviously untenable; during the night of 18–19 July a terrific explosion in the town gave notice that the Germans were withdrawing. Early on the 20th the 1st United States Division had announced that it would make a reconnaissance of Enna that day and attack on the following night.57 When news of the German evacuation reached General Simonds’ headquarters, where the main attention was now focussed on Leonforte and Assoro, “A” Squadron of the Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment (the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards) received orders (according to the General Staff war diary) “to send a patrol to take the town before the Americans reached there.”
The troop entrusted with the mission set out from Valguarnera in four carriers, but five miles from their goal they were stopped by a badly cratered road which prevented further use of their vehicles. One sergeant, two corporals and a trooper went forward on foot. After more than a mile’s uphill plodding under the blazing Sicilian sun they commandeered a donkey and rode it in turn. Near the top of the long zig-zag climb they saw entering the town two truckloads of troops, which to their relief turned out to be Americans, not Germans. The long-suffering donkey was abandoned in favour of a lift in a jeep, and in this manner the Canadian patrol arrived in the main piazza of Enna simultaneously with the American vanguard.58
The 1st Brigade Takes Assoro, 20–22 July
Early on that same afternoon (20 July) the Hastings’ CO, Lt-Col. Sutcliffe, went forward with his Intelligence Officer into the RCR area
north of the Dittaino River, to reconnoitre the ground over which his battalion was to make the assault on Assoro. While he was engaged in this task, a German 88-millimetre shell exploded near their shallow weapon-pit, killing Colonel Sutcliffe and mortally wounding his IO Major The Lord Tweedsmuir, son of a former Governor-General of Canada, assumed command of the unit, and took his company commanders forward to complete the survey which had been so tragically interrupted.59
In the failing light the enormous silhouette of their objective stood out starkly against the northern sky, dwarfing by comparison the massive barrier which stretched on either side to Leonforte and Agira. The direct approach was by the road winding up an exposed spur on the left side of the valley; but. this route would obviously be well registered by enemy artillery, and to attack along it would be suicidal. The village itself*
* The ancient Assorus, one of the principal towns founded by the Sicels about 1000 B.C.
clung to the western (the least precipitous) slope of the Assoro mountain. Its steep, narrow streets climbed to within a few hundred feet of the summit, which was crowned by the fragmentary ruins of a castle built in the twelfth century by Roger II. The Norman king had chosen his site well, planting his stronghold in what must have seemed a well-nigh impregnable position on the edge of the eastern cliff, which towered a thousand feet above the valley.
Conceiving that the Germans would regard an attack from this direction a physical impossibility, Tweedsmuir determined on a march to the right across country and an assault up the steep eastern face of the mountain. Preparations to put this bold plan into effect began ‘immediately. To encourage the enemy’s probable belief that the Canadian attack would come from the south-west, just as night fell three Bren gun carriers of the 48th Highlanders went racing up the winding road. They got half way to the village before the Germans opened fire, whereupon they withdrew as previously ordered. At nine o’clock the divisional artillery began a four-hour programme of intermittent harassing fire on Highway No. 121 east of Leonforte, paying special attention to the junction where a side road branched off to Assoro.60
Half an hour later the Hastings moved off in single file on their daring venture. At the head of the column Tweedsmuir placed a specially formed “assault company” composed of twenty of the fittest and most active men from each of the rifle companies, armed with rifles and a few Bren guns and carrying nothing else except their ammunition. About a mile from Dittaino Station they struck north-east into the hills. Bright moonlight helped them pick their way across the wild terrain, now following a twisting goat path, now tracing the narrow course of a rocky stream bed, and now mounting steadily along a well beaten mule track. Daylight was not an hour away when the mile-long column halted on a rocky ridge east of the objective.
In the paling darkness the big mountain loomed vaster than ever, and a deep ravine that girdled its base like a natural moat looked formidable indeed to the desperately tired Hastings.61
The new CO now divided his battalion, sending one company and the picked assault group to scale the left shoulder of the mountain, while he led the rest in search of an approach from the north-east. A providential goat track took them down the almost sheer wall of the ravine and at the bottom they scrambled over huge boulders to the other side. Let Lord Tweedsmuir’s own words describe what followed:–
Then began a climb which no one who took part will ever forget. The mountain was terraced and always above was a tantalizing false crest, which unfolded to another crest when one approached it. It was forty sweating, tearing minutes before we stood on the top beside the shell of the great Norman castle and realized that we had achieved complete surprise. A German OP*
* Observation Post.
party had fallen to the left hand group and we had control of a vantage point from which we could see for fifty miles.62
The Hastings had taken their objective without losing a man, and it was some time before the enemy recovered from his surprise. Opening fire from their superior position the Canadians forced a German withdrawal from the village and knocked out eight vehicles in a convoy which they saw approaching along the roadway beyond. One of Tweedsmuir’s companies entered Assoro; but the enemy counter-attacked, and the confused fighting that followed brought no decisive results. Soon the guns from a German battery that had been firing on Leonforte swung around and began dropping shells with unpleasant accuracy into the restricted Hastings area, inflicting several casualties. It was now that good wireless communication, which was so sadly lacking at Valguarnera and later at Leonforte, proved its value. An urgent request by radio for artillery support brought the 7th Medium Regiment into action, and at 10:30 the enemy battery was reported silenced.63 For several hours thereafter the Hastings, clinging to their exposed position on the mountain top, the rocky nature of which prevented the digging of effective slit-trenches, were subjected to intermittent mortar and artillery fire. Enemy snipers still in Assoro were also a constant hazard; nevertheless, casualties were surprisingly light.
The day wore on, and the Canadians, worn out from their exertions of the night before, found it difficult to keep on the alert. Their only food was the emergency chocolate ration that each man carried, and they were running short of ammunition. Late in the afternoon the enemy launched a sudden counter-attack from Assoro, advancing almost to the top of the hill. Quickly a call went through to Brigade *Headquarters, and with gratifying promptness artillery concentrations began to crash down on the near edge of the village and the tightly packed houses beyond. The enemy’s
effort was broken up; and the battalion stood to for the remainder of a long night which was interrupted only by an occasional exchange of salvoes between the German artillery and the guns of the medium regiment.64
Early morning of the 22nd brought much-needed food and ammunition. On the previous day an officer of the Hastings and the Regimental Sergeant-Major had made the arduous journey to Brigade Headquarters in order to explain the situation and to guide a carrying party forward. At midnight one hundred volunteers of The Royal Canadian Regiment, stripped of their own equipment, and bearing a full day’s rations and ammunition in Everest packs and bandoliers, set off across country, escorted by another RCR company as precaution against enemy intervention. Led by the two intrepid messengers they reached the mountain top without detection by the enemy and returned to their unit without incident. In and about the ruins of the ancient castle the Hastings ate their first meal in thirty-six hours.65
Meanwhile vigorous efforts were being made to open the road up the valley into Assoro, and so bring to Tweedsmuir the additional strength he needed to decide the issue. An attempt by his support weapons to reach the village on the previous afternoon had failed under heavy enemy fire, and at sunset he had seen some of their carriers and trucks burning on the road far below.66 Brigadier Graham then ordered the 48th Highlanders forward. In the darkness they laboriously climbed to positions west of Assoro, the men pulling each other up the almost vertical sides of mountain terraces 30 or more feet high. At dawn they drove the enemy from the heights covering the south-western approach to the village, and opened the way for engineers of the 1st Field Company (with the enforced aid of a hundred prisoners of war) to fill a road crater which had barred the passage of vehicles. Throughout the morning the battalion methodically cleared the rocky high ground west of Assoro, receiving valuable support from the 75-millimetre guns of a Three Rivers squadron, whose drivers showed amazing skill in negotiating the steep and narrow winding trail. By midday of the 22nd a Highland company had joined the Hastings, and Assoro was firmly in Canadian hands.67
Some six weeks later, in preparing his “experience report” of the campaign in Sicily, the commander of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division wrote that the Allied infantrymen were “good soldier material” who exhibited “in general fair ways of fighting”. He added a tribute which may well have been prompted by his recollection of the Canadian tactics in the assault on Assoro:
In fieldcraft [Indianerkrieg] superior to our own troops. Very mobile at night, surprise break-ins, clever infiltrations at night with small groups between our strongpoints.68
The seizure of the Assoro pinnacle by The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was as significant to the Canadian Division’s advance as it was dramatic, for it upset the whole German plan of defence on that front, and thus hastened the fall of Leonforte. Assoro and Leonforte were two phases of the same battle; for the enemy had to hold the whole ridge, or withdraw from it altogether. We have seen how his grasp on the eastern end was pried loose by the 1st Brigade; let us turn now to the scene on the Canadian left, and follow the fortunes of the 2nd Brigade in its assault on the more westerly town.
The Capture of Leonforte by the 2nd Brigade, 21–22 July
From its bridge over the Dittaino River, Highway No. 121 climbed steadily in a series of sweeping curves to the Leonforte escarpment, with only one break in the otherwise continuous ascent. Two miles from the town the road swung abruptly eastward, dropping downhill to cross a deep ravine; thence it turned sharply to the north-west in a long gradient that led up into Leonforte’s southern outskirts. The town, with a population of 20,000, was both larger and more modern than the neighbouring Assoro. It was spread over the western shoulder of the mountain ridge, and its long central thoroughfare reached almost to the summit.
Early on the morning of 21 July, the Seaforth Highlanders, now leading the 2nd Brigade’s advance, reached the road bend in front of Leonforte and found that the bridge over the ravine had been demolished and that its approaches were being swept with fire from the town and the surrounding heights. In spite of the enemy’s advantageous position, the Seaforth prepared to launch a daylight attack that afternoon. By ill-fortune, however, part of the preliminary artillery concentration fell upon the battalion’s headquarters, causing thirty casualties and not a little disorganization. Brigadier Vokes postponed action, and ordered the Edmontons to take over from the Seaforth. Two rifle companies would cross the ravine and force an entry into the town while sappers bridged the road gap to permit the passage of supporting arms.69
shortly before nine that evening another bombardment, reported to have been the heaviest that the divisional artillery had yet fired, provided the overture for the infantry assault.70 Mortars and machine-guns of the Saskatoon Light Infantry rang up the curtain, and as “A” and “D” Companies of The Edmonton Regiment moved off down the road they received covering fire from the Seaforth.
At first the attack went well. The bombardment had sent the enemy to ground, and the assault companies clambered down into the steep ravine,
scaled the far side and entered the town with little difficulty. The balance of the battalion followed, Lt-Col. Jefferson’s headquarters moving with “C” Company. Meanwhile a platoon of the 3rd Field Company RCE went to work at the blown bridge. Before long the enemy launched a powerful counter-attack, supported by tanks and by machine-gun fire from the rooftops. A bitter struggle developed in the darkened streets. The failure of wireless communication with Brigade Headquarters prevented the hard-pressed battalion from calling for anti-tank guns to deal with the enemy armour, even had it been possible for these weapons to cross the intervening ravine.71
The action deteriorated into house-to-house combat as the unit became split up; in the fog of battle small groups of platoon or section strength fought on independently, each believing itself to be the sole survivor of the larger body. “B” Company, which had followed “D” Company’s assault, skirted the western edge of the town and seized some high ground to the north; then, unable to find the rest of the battalion, they decided to fight their way back to their starting point. “A” Company forced a way out through the eastern outskirts. In the centre of the town the Edmonton CO, with his battalion headquarters strengthened by two and a half platoons from “C” Company and some stragglers from “D”, took up a firm position in a number of buildings from which the enemy had been cleared. There the small band of about 100 officers and men held until morning.72 Attempts by unit signals personnel to open wireless communication with Brigade Headquarters from high rooftops failed, but during the night Jefferson entrusted to the hand of an Italian boy a written appeal for help addressed to “any British or Canadian officer.” The message reached Brigadier Vokes, creating in him a “great ray of hope” at a time when he thought he had lost “a very able battalion commander and most of his battalion.”73
While the Edmontons were battling through the night in Leonforte, outside the town the Engineers had been working vigorously but methodically to bridge the 50-foot gap. They were under constant mortar and machinegun fire which they later nonchalantly described as being “slightly high”.74 While the job was still in progress, their company commander, Major K. J. Southern, moved up the road with a few of the Edmontons to the outskirts of Leonforte, where they were confronted by a machine-gun covering the only approach to the town, and close beside it two enemy tanks and a small force of infantry. Here was a potential threat to the sappers toiling in the ravine below that might well have halted their efforts and spelled disaster for the isolated Edmontons awaiting reinforcement in the town. Catching the Germans by surprise, Major Southern’s little party discharged their small arms and made such a display of force that the more formidable enemy group was deterred from advancing. shortly afterwards the commander of the 90th Canadian Anti-Tank Battery, Major G. A.
Welsh, who had come forward with the engineer party, recrossed the ravine under heavy fire to bring two of his six-pounders into action. The machine-gun post and one of the tanks were destroyed, and Welsh kept up the good work*
* Both Southern and Welsh received the DSO for their parts in this operation. The former was killed in Italy in 1944 while commanding the RCE of the 1st Division.
by once more approaching the town and with the help of two engineers taking twenty German prisoners.75
shortly after two o’clock the bridge was reported open for traffic, although the crossing and the road on either side were still being swept by enemy fire. Through the remaining hours of darkness vague and conflicting scraps of intelligence concerning the fighting filtered back with Edmonton stragglers until Brigadier Vokes received the written message from Jefferson. He at once decided upon a daring plan. This was to rush a “flying column” across the bridge in broad daylight to the aid of the hard-pressed Edmontons. He detailed “C” Company of the Patricias, a troop of four tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment and a troop of the 90th Battery’s anti-tank guns. He placed in command the PPCLI company commander, Captain R. C. Coleman, whose “leadership and skill” that morning were to bring him the Military Cross.76
The bold venture was launched at nine o’clock. The Shermans, followed by the anti-tank troop, thundered down the road to the ravine, the infantrymen riding on the tanks and in the tractors and clinging to the guns, some even astride the barrels themselves. At breakneck speed the column swept across the bridge and raced up the long hill into Leonforte. Such was the speed of its assault that it sustained only one casualty as it passed through the enemy fire. It fell like a whirlwind upon the German posts at the entrance to the town and won their immediate surrender.
The Patricias quickly became involved in house-to-house fighting, the anti-tank guns giving effective support by knocking out at close range troublesome machine-gun and mortar positions. By ten o’clock they had reached the lost band of Edmontons in the heart of Leonforte. As the PPCLI reinforcing companies moved in to exploit the initial success, their “C” Company battled up the mile-long main street, to seize the railway station on the northern outskirts. There was heated action in the centre of the town. Tank met tank at point-blank range, and anti-tank weapons on both sides took their toll of opposing armour in the narrow streets. The Germans knocked out a Sherman, and lost at least three of their own tanks. By the afternoon Leonforte itself was clear; but the enemy had still to be driven from two commanding heights east and west of the town. The task was assigned to two of the PPCLI Companies, “A” to the left, and “B” to the right. By 5:30 both had gained their objectives, but only after much hard fighting and at a high cost in casualties.77
Among the many deeds of bravery performed that day in and about the hard-won town (altogether twenty-one awards were made for the Leonforte engagement) none was more spectacular than that of Private S. J. Cousins, a member of “A” Company of the Patricias. During the company’s assault on the height referred to above, the two leading platoons were halted by the intensity of fire coming from two enemy machine-gun posts on the objective. While they were reorganizing, Cousins, accompanied by an NCO, on his own initiative advanced against the German positions. One hundred and fifty yards from the crest, Cousins’ companion fell under the hail of bullets which swept the slope. “Despite the fact that further progress appeared to be utter suicide to the men of his company who were watching this gallant soldier, he then, with complete disregard for his own life, rose to his feet in full view of the enemy, and carrying his Bren gun boldly charged the enemy posts.”78 This resolute action so demoralized the enemy that he was able to close within less than fifty yards of their positions. Then firing from the hip he killed or wounded the German machine-gunners, silencing both posts. “A” Company took and successfully held the ridge; but unfortunately Private Cousins was killed later in the afternoon by a direct hit. He was subsequently Mentioned in Dispatches.*
* Neither the Distinguished Conduct Medal nor the Military Medal can be awarded posthumously.
The three days of fighting for Assoro and Leonforte had cost the 1st Canadian Division more than 275 casualties. Most heavily hit were the units of the 2nd Brigade. The Seaforth lost 76 officers and men, including 28 killed; the Patricias lost 21 killed and 40 wounded; the Edmontons 7 killed and 17 wounded, and one taken prisoner. The price paid by the 1st Brigade for Assoro fell just short of 100 all ranks.
As the two Canadian brigades drove the last of the German garrisons from Assoro and Leonforte, Allied Kittyhawks found satisfying targets in the numerous groups of vehicles withdrawing to the north and east. For the past week attacks by the Tactical Air Force on enemy road movement had been increasing in intensity and had taken a heavy toll. One of the most important centres of communication in the whole area under interdiction was Randazzo, situated at the intersection of roads which linked Axis positions on the east and north coasts with the battlefronts south and west of Mount Etna. The town and the roads and bridges in its vicinity became the object of consistent aerial effort. The 22nd saw a particularly successful attack in support of the Canadian Division. On that morning a long reinforcement column of 300 enemy vehicles and guns travelling west from Randazzo through Troina was bombed and strafed continuously by American and British squadrons based at Pachino. By evening these had flown 156 sorties; they had scored 65 “flamers” and claimed at least as many more vehicles damaged.79
An unfortunate event marred the day’s achievement, when RAF pilots attacked some Canadian vehicles on the road south of Leonforte, having apparently mistaken the town for Troina, which was similarly situated with respect to roads and rivers. Three members of the divisional Defence and Employment Platoon were killed – ironically while they were delivering new ground recognition strips. Gunners of the 54th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, assuming that the attack was being made by “friendly planes in hostile hands”, shot down one in flames.80 “This regrettable incident”, wrote the diarist of the 1st Division, “must be considered one of the fortunes of war, since it is not always entirely possible for aircraft in the forward areas not to mistake our own vehicles for those of the enemy.” It was a fair observation. Direct cooperation with ground troops was the most difficult of air operations, and there were to be other instances of faulty coordination when our aircraft undershot the bomb line and bombed or strafed friendly troops; or ground forces, insufficiently trained in aircraft identification, fired upon Allied aeroplanes.81
The Northwest African Tactical Air Force, which was charged with providing air support for the 15th Army Group, formed part of the Northwest African Air Forces,*
* Other components of the NAAF were the Northwest African Strategic Air Force, the Northwest African Coastal Air Force, the Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing and the Northwest African Troop Carrier and Training Commands.
commanded by Maj-Gen. Carl Spaatz under the general direction of the Air Officer Commanding Mediterranean and Levant, Air Chief Marshal Tedder. The NATAF was established at Carthage, under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, and it comprised the Desert Air Force (Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst), assigned to support the operations of the Eighth Army, the Twelfth US Air Support Command (with the Seventh Army) and the Tactical Bomber Force. Its total strength at the time of the invasion of Sicily was about 890 aircraft.82 The 21 medium and light bomber squadrons of the Tactical Bomber Force operated from Tunisia, Malta and, after 10 August, bases in Sicily. During the air campaign against the island, from 2 July to 17 August, they flew 5988 sorties against enemy-held towns and communications, and dropped more than 4600 tons of bombs. Fighters and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and Twelfth Air Support Command began moving to Sicily immediately after D Day, and by 21 July more than 27 squadrons were using captured airfields on the island.83
Liaison between the Desert Air Force and the formations of the Eighth Army which its squadrons were supporting was furnished by No. 2/5 Army Air Support Control (a combination of the two units indicated by its designation). By means of a number of mobile wireless links (“tentacles”) this organization provided communications through which headquarters of brigades and higher formations could make requests for air support direct to Army
Headquarters for transmission to the RAF, and keep the air arm fully informed on the battle situation and the positions of our forward troops. The Army Air Support Control was also responsible for “broadcasting” to ground and air formations the results of air reconnaissance carried out by the Desert Air Force’s Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron or by fighter-bomber squadrons on “armed reconnaissance” in search of their own targets. By this means the information gained about the enemy’s movements or the “score” obtained in attacks by our aircraft would normally become known to the forward troops within an hour of the sortie’s landing.84
Such a message reaching General Simonds’ headquarters on the afternoon of the 22nd brought encouraging news of successful attacks on enemy traffic on the roads in front of the Canadians:
Fighters 1420 hrs bombed and strafed 50 MET [enemy mechanical transport] Troina–Nicosia. 9 flamers including 1 tank and some damaged.85
Kesselring’s early morning report to Berlin on 23 July laconically admitted, “Leonforte fell into the hands of the enemy.”86 This unadorned statement failed to disclose that a key position in the German line of defence had been lost. A subsequent message from the C-in-C South, however, amplified the earlier news: “After extremely hard and fluctuating fighting and many casualties, Leonforte and Assoro were lost in the afternoon in renewed attacks by the enemy.”87 To Canadian Intelligence it was clear that the enemy’s relinquishment of the two hill towns was not of the same pattern as his withdrawals from Grammichele, or Piazza Armerina or Valguarnera. This was no small-scale rearguard delaying action. He had fought strenuously with all available resources to maintain his hold on the vital Leonforte–Assoro ridge, for the first time employing all three battalions of the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment as one tactical formation. It was learned from prisoners that when Assoro fell, the companies (probably of the 3rd Battalion) fighting there were hurried across to join the other two battalions in the defence of Leonforte; at first light on the 22nd the garrison in the western town was reported to have been reinforced by five tanks and about 75 infantrymen.88
A divisional intelligence summary commented on the significance of the changed enemy tactics.
This resolute defence is something new. Hitherto the German rearguard has pulled stakes cleanly and retired some 8 or 10 miles to a new position. The fact that they are not voluntarily retiring from their latest strongpoint but are fighting for every yard of ground indicates that we are nearing something like a serious defence zone. Beyond doubt they would have held Leonforte had they not been driven out of it.89
During their slow and difficult progress across the mountains during the next two weeks the Canadians were to become bitterly familiar with “this resolute defence” by German panzer grenadiers and paratroopers.