Chapter 12: The Ortona Salient
The Background of Operation “Timberwolf”
When the decision was reached to dispatch Canadian forces to the Mediterranean, it was generally understood both in London and in Ottawa that on the completion of Operation HUSKY they would be sent back to the United Kingdom, to bring to the First Canadian Army the benefit of the battle experience which they had gained. A memorandum issued by the planning section of Allied Force Headquarters on 28 June (the day on which the Fast Assault Convoy bearing the majority of the Canadian troops left Greenock) listed the 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade among the formations provisionally earmarked for return to. the United Kingdom as part of the build-up for a cross-Channel operation in 1944.1 Other selections were made later, however, and as we have seen the 1st Division and its attached troops proceeded directly from Sicily to operations in Italy.
By the middle of October the question of the Division’s future role had become a matter of concern to General Simonds, who was anxious to move his reinforcement base from North Africa to the Italian mainland if his forces were to remain in Italy for the winter. In a signal to General McNaughton he requested a “definition of broad policy in respect to future employment of 1 Canadian Division and 1 Canadian Armoured Brigade in this theatre indicating whether we are to winter here or probable date of move elsewhere.” He also questioned the continuing validity of the directive which governed the operations of the Division. This had authorized employment in operations “from or based on North Africa”, and was qualified by a cable in which the Canadian Government had extended such authorization to apply to operations across the Strait of Messina and in the toe of Italy. The GOC considered that neither of these conditions now applied; and he had learned further that General Montgomery had received no information as to the future of the 1st Canadian Division.2
General McNaughton confirmed next day that the operations then being undertaken by the 1st Canadian Division and the Army Tank Brigade were
within the scope of Simonds’ directive. As to the Division’s future role he answered, “15 Army Gp should by now be fully informed of Operation ‘Timberwolf.’ “3 This allusion conveyed little to Simonds; and if the 15th Army Group was indeed in the picture the news had not yet reached the Eighth Army. On 16 October Montgomery signalled McNaughton: “Have never heard of ‘Timberwolf.’ “4
Operation “Timberwolf”, the project whose existence had been thus well concealed, had been in process of development for more than two months. At the beginning of August Canada’s Minister of National Defence, then in England, had visited in turn the British Prime Minister and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and had told them of his desire to send a Canadian Corps Headquarters and additional Canadian troops to the Mediterranean. In a discussion with General McNaughton on 5 August Colonel Ralston said that he had advocated such a course on the grounds of “(a) giving a Canadian Corps HQ training, (b) battle experience for additional Canadian troops, (c) morale of Canadian Army in UK, (d) morale of Canadian people”, and he reported that General Sir Alan Brooke*
* On the day following this discussion, however, McNaughton had a talk with Field-Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington), and afterwards recorded his conclusion that “the chance of a Canadian Corps and additional divisions being really required in the Mediterranean is remote.”5
had received the proposal favourably.6
The matter was raised more formally in consultations held in the Chateau Frontenac, before the “Quadrant” Conference opened. Mr. Churchill promised that the Combined Chiefs of Staff would give the question full and sympathetic consideration, but at the conclusion of the “Quadrant” meetings he was unable to hold out much hope that the request could be granted. The United Kingdom was under obligation to bring back certain formations from the Mediterranean, and the sending of more Canadians to Italy would mean that a correspondingly greater number of British forces must be withdrawn. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister promised to pursue the matter further, and on 31 August he cabled his Deputy (Mr. Attlee) and the Chiefs of Staff in London in the following terms:
1. At my meeting with Canadian War Committee today a strong desire was expressed that a second Canadian Division should be despatched to the Mediterranean area as soon as possible. I understand that CIGS is fully in picture as the result of his talks with General Stuart.
2. Pray let me know as soon as possible what can be done. We can then put our request to the Canadian Government in the usual way. 31. 8. 43
The British Chiefs of Staff found the proposal impracticable, and on 14 September the CIGS told General McNaughton that the existence of firm commitments for the build-up of United States forces in Britain meant that
shipping would not be available for the transfer to Italy of an additional Canadian division and Corps Troops.7 This decision was confirmed by a telegram from Mr. Churchill to Mr. King on 19 September conveying a negative reply to the Canadian Government’s request, on the grounds that the movement of Canadian troops to Italy would “involve disturbing decisions taken as recent[ly] as Quebec Conference without any military justification which was not valid when Conference took place.”8
The Canadian Government did not yet give up hope (its experience in getting the 1st Division to the Mediterranean had shown what may be accomplished by perseverance). On the last day of September the Canadian High Commissioner, Mr. Vincent Massey, asked Mr. Churchill whether the British decision might be reconsidered, and was told: “I will have another try.9
This the Prime Minister did to good effect. On 7 October the CIGS informed General McNaughton that the question of building up Canadian troops in the Mediterranean to a Corps had been reopened, and that whereas it had been negatived before because of inability to provide shipping, it had now been re-examined on the basis of an interchange of personnel only. Sir Alan said that the project to bring back three British divisions to the United Kingdom had been enlarged to include additionally the 30th Corps Headquarters and Corps Troops, and the 7th Armoured Division. These formations would leave their equipment, and he had recommended to the Prime Minister that a Canadian Corps Headquarters and Corps Troops and a Canadian division should be sent to Italy, and should be equipped from this source. There was some discussion whether the division to be sent should be armoured or infantry. Brooke favoured an armoured formation, a preference which was endorsed by McNaughton, for to remove an infantry division would leave the 2nd Canadian Corps in the United Kingdom with one infantry and two armoured divisions, a very unbalanced grouping.*
* It may be noted that a month earlier the VCIGS, Lt-Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, had told McNaughton that if an additional Canadian division were dispatched to Italy it would in all likelihood be an infantry division, as there was already in the Mediterranean theatre more armour than was appropriate.10 Later Montgomery was to express similar views to the GOC 5th Canadian Armoured Division, declaring that no role existed for an armoured division in Italy.11
General McNaughton then nominated the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Corps, commanded by Lt-Gen. H. D. G. Crerar, and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division; Corps Troops would be selected up to the capacity of the shipping available.12
Five days elapsed before approval came from Mr. Churchill. On 12 October the Canadian Government received his formal suggestion for an exchange of troops which would result in a Canadian Corps being formed in the Mediterranean theatre.13 As soon as this message reached Ottawa the Cabinet War Committee met to consider a reply. Although, as we have seen, there had been repeated requests to the United Kingdom authorities
for the invitation which had at last been extended, the decision which the Canadian Government now had to make was a critical one. The fact had to be faced that acceptance of the proposal might entail dissolution of the Army Headquarters*
* This would not necessarily be the case, and indeed proved not to be so. The British Eighth Army provided but one of many instances of the troops of an Army not all having to be of the same nationality as its headquarters.
and the termination of General McNaughton’s command, for there was no assurance that the corps sent to Italy could be returned to Britain in time for the Army to be reconstituted for major offensive operations in North-West Europe.14 The Government realized that it would have to face public criticism on the score that it was breaking up the Army and depriving the Army Commander of his command. But these considerations were overridden by the recognition of the value of providing urgently needed battle experience for more Canadian troops and the importance, from the point of view of Canadian-American relations, of Canadian armed forces playing something more than a purely defensive role. The Committee agreed that Mr. Churchill’s proposal should be accepted, and a telegram containing the approval of the Canadian Government was dispatched to London that same night.15
In the course of McNaughton’s discussions with Ralston and Stuart when “Timberwolf” was first proposed, it became evident that the divergence of view between the Army Commander and the Canadian Government over the question of the operational employment of Canadian troops had reached a critical stage. The GOC-in-C had told the Minister of National Defence that “if operations were to continue in the Mediterranean, he unhesitatingly supported developing a Canadian Corps in North Africa ...”, but only if it could be assumed that the Canadian contingent “would return to the Canadian Army in the UK before the date†
† At that time it seemed probable that OVERLORD might not be mounted before September 1944.
set for a major offensive on the Continent.”16 On the other hand, McNaughton’s record of these conversations reveals that the CGS “favoured building up Canadian Forces in Africa to a corps ... even if there was no certainty that they could be brought back”. This would make the Army Headquarters redundant as an operational command, and Stuart proposed that it might be combined with CMHQ to administer all Canadian troops in the European and North African Theatres, a course for which (according to McNaughton) “both he and the Minister indicated throughout the conversations a strong predilection”17
To McNaughton, under whose leadership the First Canadian Army had grown to maturity, “the important thing for Canada at the end of the war was to have her Army together under the control of a Canadian.”18 Asked by Colonel Ralston for his advice to the Cabinet War Committee, he reiterated that as a matter of principle he “was opposed to the dispersion
of the Canadian Army, but in this connection an expedition to the Middle East on the same basis as 1 Canadian Div did not necessarily imply dispersion. If the Canadian Government decided upon dispersion, then [he] thought it would be wise to put someone in control who believed in it.”19 This fundamental difference of opinion certainly contributed to producing his retirement before the end of the year.
Planning for the Movement
Preparations for “Timberwolf “ went ahead rapidly. As soon as Canadian acceptance was received, the British Chiefs of Staff notified the Combined Chiefs of Staff and General Eisenhower of their intention to exchange a British armoured division in the Mediterranean for a similar Canadian formation from the United Kingdom. This arrangement, they pointed out, would provide a battle-experienced armoured division for operations in North-West Europe, and would meet the Canadian desire to form a Canadian Corps in the Mediterranean. Preliminary examination indicated that the effect upon the build-up for OVERLORD would be negligible.20 Subsequent signals gave details of the units to be dispatched, and asked for an immediate decision as to their destinations.21 These communications brought from General Eisenhower a reply qualified in its enthusiasm. He agreed that the proposed movement could “be accomplished in shipping already scheduled to carry back British and US Divisions without serious dislocation”, and that although the dispersal of ships for disembarkation at various Mediterranean ports would produce administrative complications, such could be overcome. The Allied Commander-in-Chief continued:
While the arrival of these troops at this time is likely to cause us considerable embarrassment. General Alexander advises me, and I agree, that, appreciating the political considerations which may be involved, we accept the Canadian Corps Headquarters, Armoured Division and non-divisional troops. In view of our total build-up we shall eventually be glad to have this HO.
The aspect which causes me most concern is the pressure I anticipate will be put upon me to get these troops into action at an early date ...22
Although General Alexander had bowed to the inevitable in agreeing to accept Canadian formations, his views on the matter were clearly set forth in a signal to the CIGS:
The proposed move of the Canadian Armoured Division has come as a complete surprise to me. We already have as much armour in the Mediterranean as we can usefully employ in Italy. I should have preferred another Canadian Infantry Division. Arrangements for the relief of the Seventh Armoured Division by First Armoured Division are already in hand. I do not want another Corps Headquarters at this stage. I shall be grateful if I can be consulted in future before matters of such importance are agreed upon. These decisions upset my order of battle which in turn affect my plans for battle.23
At CMHQ planning for “Timberwolf” proceeded expeditiously and smoothly. There was no time to lose, for the first convoy was scheduled to sail in the last week of October. On 8 October, before “Timberwolf” was finally approved, General McNaughton had called together eight senior officers for what was described as a “movement conference”. He announced that he had just agreed with the War Office that the Canadian Army would ship to the Mediterranean 25,000 troops on 25 October (personnel were to be ready by the 20th), 10,000 troops in November, 4000 in December, and the remainder as required in January 1944. This would provide “a balanced Corps”, which would include the 1st Canadian Division, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, and one Army Group Royal Artillery, together with hospitals on an appropriate scale and such rear echelon units as might be required. The General made it clear that the detailed composition of this Canadian Corps had been left entirely in the hands of the Canadian Army.24 Next day with some of his senior officers he attended a conference at the War Office, and presented a list of the units which it was proposed to send in the October convoy. “Timberwolf” was adopted as the code name for the move.25
It was highly important to maintain the closest security, for although the hazards of Mediterranean convoy movement had been greatly reduced since the days of Operation HUSKY, to the menace of the submarine had been recently added that of the aerial glider-bomb.*
* The first attack on Allied shipping by glider-bombs (radio-controlled winged missiles, launched and guided from aircraft) was made on 25 August 1943, off the north-west corner of Spain. Two days later, in the same area, the Canadian destroyer Athabaskan was badly damaged by a glider-bomb.26 On 8 September the Italian flagship Roma, when leaving Spezia to surrender to the Allies, was sunk by Luftwaffe glider-bombs;|27 and on 16 September, during Operation AVALANCHE, a direct hit from the same new weapon disabled HMS Warspite.28
Accordingly, planning at Canadian Military Headquarters in the early stages was restricted to a very small group of officers, who paid for their exclusive information by giving up a considerable amount of sleep. Special warnings were issued against assuming that all War Office officials were fully informed, and even at HQ 1st Canadian Corps four days elapsed before General Crerar told his two senior staff officers of the contemplated move.29 Security regulations issued with the main movement order prescribed the restrictions to be placed upon all means of communication by personnel after they had been warned for embarkation, the removal of identifying unit and formation badges and patches from uniforms, the marking of baggage by non-revealing serial numbers, and the avoidance of conversation with stevedores or other civilians at the ports. The instructions ended on an uncompromising note: “No units, formations or individuals will give farewell†
† Interpreting this injunction with commendable ingenuity, the 5th Armoured Brigade Headquarters held a housewarming party, and afterwards reported, “Security seems to be excellent – all local guests seemed to be of the opinion that we are to be here for the winter. The party was quite a success.”30
While negotiations were still proceeding between the United Kingdom and Canadian Governments, the CMHQ planners were busily engaged in drafting “Special Instruction No. 1,” which contained the detailed information regarding the move. The job was completed on 12 October, and at 4:10 on the following afternoon word came from the War Office that Canada had accepted the British Government’s request and that the cable to Allied Force Headquarters announcing “Timberwolf” had been signed.32 This was the green light signal for the operation to begin; within the hour dispatch-riders were speeding on their way from Cockspur Street to the GHQ and L. of C. units spread across Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.33
More than 200 units and detachments were to take part in “Timberwolf”, the order of battle comprising four main groups: the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, 1st Canadian Corps Troops, elements of Army Troops, and elements of General Headquarters and Line of Communication Troops. The main fighting formation was the 5th Armoured Division, numbering close to 15,000. It was composed of the 5th Armoured Brigade and the 11th Infantry Brigade, and a full complement of supporting arms and services. This, the senior of Canada’s two armoured divisions, had been organized in Canada in the spring of 1941, and had reached the United Kingdom late the same year. Maj-Gen. C. R. S. Stein had succeeded the Division’s first GOC, Maj-Gen. E. W. Sansom, in January 1943, but in mid-October a medical board found him unfit for further overseas service.34 Maj-Gen. Simonds replaced him, and the Division moved to Italy under the temporary command of its Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier R. O. G. Morton.35
It will be recognized that although the organization of a division (which is the largest formation in an army to have a permanent composition) enabled it to provide for its own extensive needs as fully as possible while carrying out its allotted role, the need for preserving the mobility requisite to a fighting formation placed limits upon the size and complexity of its establishment. Accordingly it was standard practice for certain units of a specialist nature (such as heavy and medium artillery, light anti-aircraft artillery, and various survey, engineer, signal and armoured units, together with appropriate service units required to ensure proper maintenance) not to be included within the divisional formation, but to be organized as “Corps Troops” or “Army Troops”, available for temporary allotment to subordinate formations as occasion demanded. In addition to these non-divisional troops there were certain specialized formations and units under the command of General Headquarters, which were normally sub-allotted by GHQ to armies to assist them in their tasks, or employed at the base and along the Lines of Communication.
The 1st Canadian Corps Troops, approximately 8500 strong, comprised the Corps Headquarters and the extensive array of units required to support and maintain a corps of two divisions in the field. The Canadian Armoured Corps contributed to the order of battle the 1st Armoured Car Regiment (The Royal Canadian Dragoons); the Royal Canadian Artillery supplied the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment and the 1st Survey Regiment; the Royal Canadian Engineers a field park and three field companies; of the remaining arms and services the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (which provided two corps troops composite companies, a corps transport company and a motor ambulance convoy), the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps were the most strongly represented.36
The bulk of the 3700 Army Troops selected to accompany the 1st Canadian Corps to the Mediterranean was made up of the 1st Army Group RCA, which comprised the 1st, 2nd and 5th Medium Regiments and the 11th Army Field Regiment, together with requisite signal, ordnance and supply and transport units. Also included were two dental units – No. 3 Company Canadian Dental Corps to look after the needs of Army and Corps Troops, and No. 8 Company to serve with the 5th Armoured Division. Among the 6600 GHQ and L. of C. troops were Nos. 1 and 14 Canadian General Hospitals (of 600 and 1200 beds respectively), certain other medical units, a base reinforcement depot with four reinforcement battalions, and a number of miscellaneous administrative units and detachments. Two increments to expand the Canadian Sections of GHQ 1st and 2nd Echelons already serving in the theatre of operations completed the “Timberwolf” order of battle.37
The fact that the troops proceeding to the Mediterranean would come immediately under British command necessitated action by the legal branch of Canadian Military Headquarters. As long as they were in the United Kingdom, Canadian troops were in the position of “serving together” with British forces. This meant (under the terms of the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act 1933) that control of all matters of discipline, training and internal administration of Canadian forces in Britain rested with the Government of Canada. It was now necessary for a properly constituted military authority – in this case General McNaughton – to issue a directive which would give the GOC-in-C 15th Army Group powers of command and discipline over the troops concerned. Similar action had been taken with respect to the 1st Division and the Army Tank Brigade for the Sicilian operations. McNaughton’s Order of Detail of 20 October placed all Canadian Military Forces in the Mediterranean theatre “in combination with all the Naval, Military and Air Forces ... of the British Commonwealth ...
serving in or based upon or operating from the Continent of Africa ...”*
* The directive to Crerar empowered him to withdraw the Canadian force from “in combination” if he received orders that did not in his opinion “represent a practicable operation of war or are otherwise at variance with the policy of the Government of Canada on any matter; provided always that by so doing an opportunity is not lost nor any part of the Allied force endangered.” He also had the right of reference to the Canadian Government (through the Senior Combatant Officer) in respect to any matter involving the forces under his command, but only if representations made to the Officer Commanding the Combined Force (in this case the GOC-in-C 15th Army Group) had failed to secure appropriate action.
from the time of their embarkation in the United Kingdom.38
In the initial discussions on “Timberwolf” the War Office had made the condition that the 5th Armoured Division would take over the equipment of the British 7th Armoured Division, which it was replacing in Italy, and the rest of the Canadian Corps units that of the 30th Corps. It was agreed that the Canadians would carry with them only their personal arms and equipment (including Bren guns and two-inch mortars).39 This problem of meeting their needs, especially in vehicles, was to cause considerable trouble before it was finally settled. From the first AFHQ regarded the War Office proposal as impracticable. In explaining his inability to guarantee getting the Canadian “troops into action at an early date”, General Eisenhower notified the War Office that the equipment being released in Sicily by the 30th Corps and its divisions was “already heavily depleted and almost fully mortgaged as reserves for the British forces now engaged on the mainland.” Equipment earmarked for these formations was being imported as fast as port capacity would allow, so that even if additional shipments were made for the purpose of re-equipping Canadians, they “would remain in the ports undischarged.”40
General Eisenhower further pointed out that the equipment of the 7th Armoured Division did “not correspond with that of Canadian Armoured Divisions”, and that a period of training would be essential to accustom the Canadians to the new types, particularly of wireless equipment. There was also the consideration that for administrative reasons a large proportion of the non-divisional troops would have to be disembarked in North Africa, with the prospect of a long wait before moving to Italy. Priorities of transportation had to be determined strictly on an operational basis, and reinforcements to units already in the field, and service troops required to operate the extended lines of communication, had first claim on available shipping across the Mediterranean. General Eisenhower’s message concluded:
I have elaborated these points because I would like it made clear in advance that necessarily there will be a considerable delay in equipping the Canadians and bringing them into action.41
This naturally disturbed General McNaughton, and he expressed to the DCIGS, Lt-Gen. R. M. Weeks, his serious concern “at the
thought of his troops being scattered about the Mediterranean without equipment.”42 The War Office, however, took a somewhat brighter view of the situation, and McNaughton was assured that there was a good supply of equipment in or on the way to North Africa.*
* In a letter to Eisenhower’s Chief Administrative Officer, Weeks denied that British equipment was not interchangeable with Canadian and queried AFHQ’s inability to unload shipments sent out from the United Kingdom. “The point is really, do you know what you want? I can well believe that with all your efforts at re-equipping, with your congestion at ports, and your re-loading problems from North Africa to Italy ... it is difficult to have a clear picture.”43
If necessary it was “prepared to send a complete divisional equipment from here to Sicily or to wherever 5 Canadian Armd Div is located.”44 There the matter rested pending General Crerar’s arrival in Algiers.
The decision to enlarge the Canadian force in the Mediterranean necessitated a review of the constitution and status of the Canadian administrative staff there. By the middle of October Canadian troops in the theatre were widely dispersed. The 1st Division and units of the Armoured Brigade were fighting in the hills about Campobasso; the Canadian Section, GHQ 1st Echelon had just moved from Sicily to Santo Spirito, near Bari, the location of Headquarters 15th Army Group; while the Canadian Section, GHQ 2nd Echelon, the Base Reinforcement Depot and No. 14 Canadian General Hospital were still near Philippeville in North Africa. The difficulties caused by these widespread dispositions, already great, would be multiplied by the arrival of the balance of the 1st Canadian Corps, particularly in view of the impending problems of re-equipment.
The situation could best be met by concentrating all the Canadian administrative services and maintaining them under a single direction. As the first step Brigadier A. W. Beament, Deputy Adjutant General at CMHQ, who, it will be recalled, had already gained practical experience in the Mediterranean theatre during the preparations for Operation HUSKY, was appointed Officer-in-Charge, Canadian Section, GHQ 1st Echelon. Lt-Col. Tow became Colonel in Charge of Administration.45 The question then arose as to the most suitable location for Brigadier Beament’s Section. Up to now it had been attached to Headquarters 15th Army Group, an arrangement which had meant for Colonel Tow as Senior Officer (the designation was later changed to Officer-in-Charge) much air travel between Italy, Sicily and North Africa. A change in General Eisenhower’s administrative system furnished a satisfactory solution.
Once the Fifth and Eighth Armies were firmly established in Italy, the resultant lengthening in the lines of communication had emphasized the need for a major reorganization which would allow closer coordination in the administration and supply of the Allied Forces as a whole, and also facilitate
dealings with the Italian Government.*
* It may be noted that Headquarters 15th Army Group had never assumed the full administrative responsibilities of a Force Headquarters placed between AFHQ and the forward armies. The executive administrative work was performed on the British side in Sicily, and later in Italy, by Headquarters “Fortbase”, an Eighth Army organization, authorized to deal directly with AFHQ.46
The possibility of moving AFHQ to Italy had been examined during the summer of 1943, but early in October it was decided that the most satisfactory solution would be to set up an advanced headquarters in the Naples area.47 The new organization, known as AFHQ Advanced Administrative Echelon (or more briefly “FLAMBO”), came into being on 24 October 1943. It was headed by Maj-Gen. Sir Brian H. Robertson, with the title of Deputy Chief Administrative Officer,†
† The Chief Administrative Officer, Maj-Gen. Sir Humfrey M. Gale, remained at AFHQ.
who was to serve as “personal administrative adviser” to the GOC-in-C 15th Army Group.48
A Canadian proposal that Brigadier Beament’s Section should remain accredited to Headquarters 15th Army Group, although accommodated physically at “FLAMBO”, was accepted by both AFHQ and 15th Army Group.49 A confirmatory telegram from General Eisenhower to the War Office agreed that the Senior Officer of the Canadian Section, 1st Echelon should have direct access to the GOC-in-C 15th Army Group. It would be the Section’s function to relieve the Canadian Corps Headquarters to the maximum extent of non-operational tasks; and contact with both Corps and Army Group Headquarters would be made “through frequent visits by Staff and senior Officers instead of permanent liaison detachment.”50
The arrangement proved satisfactory. No better location could have been chosen for the operations of the Canadian 1st Echelon than Naples. The Section found good office and living space within a few steps of General Robertson’s headquarters. Liaison with Headquarters 15th Army Group presented no difficulties while that body remained near Bari, for direct telephone communication was supplemented by several daily flights each way; and when in November it moved to Caserta, it was less than an hour’s drive from Naples.51 The need for Canadian liaison with AFHQ, which did not move from Algiers until July 1944, was met by the appointment of an Assistant Deputy Quartermaster General (Liaison) for the Canadian Section, 1st Echelon. Brigadier N. B. MacDonald, ADQMG at Canadian Military Headquarters, was given the post, and he remained in Algiers with a small technical staff until May 1944. From July until the end of 1944 No. 1 Canadian Liaison Detachment, commanded by Brigadier G. R. Bradbrooke, gave CMHQ and HQ 1st Canadian Corps liaison with Allied Force Headquarters.52
The dispatch of additional Canadian forces to Italy necessitated the organization of a second base reinforcement depot of four battalions. It
also led to the concentration in the Naples area of the majority of the Canadian reinforcement units in the theatre, thereby ending the delays which a shortage of shipping had imposed upon the movement forward of reinforcements from No. 1 Depot near Philippeville.53 To control the two Depots and other base units, Headquarters No. 1 Base Reinforcement Group was formed, under the command of Brigadier E. W. Haldenby. The two new headquarters and two of the battalions of No. 2 Depot sailed direct to Naples (Nos. 7 and 8 Battalions spent a month near Algiers en route).54 The Canadian 2nd Echelon moved from Philippeville early in December, to be followed by No. 1 Depot. By January the entire Canadian Base Reinforcement Group (less No. 4 Battalion, which was operating as an advanced reinforcement base) had been brought together at Avellino, 35 miles east of Naples.55
The 1st Canadian Corps Arrives in Italy
Long before preparations to receive the Canadian Corps had been completed in the Mediterranean theatre the big movement had begun. General Crerar and an advance headquarters of about 30 officers and NCOs made the journey by air, reaching Algiers on 24 October. There they were joined by the remaining groups of the advance party.56
Meanwhile, troop trains were converging on Liverpool, Glasgow and Gourock, carrying the “Timberwolf” units to their waiting ships. Embarkation continued from the 23rd to the 26th, and the ships which had been loaded in the Mersey slipped up the English coast to rendezvous with the main convoy in the Clyde. As the Canadians settled down aboard their transports there came the welcome transition from British wartime rations to shipboard fare; scarcely a single war diary fails to testify eloquently to the excellent food which appeared in seemingly unlimited quantities.
In the evening of the 27th the convoy, consisting of 24 vessels, most of them United States transports, sailed down the Clyde. The course lay well out into the Atlantic, refuting the story*
* Amid the general speculation as to the convoy’s destination the most popular rumour favoured North Africa. An officers’ sweepstake conducted aboard the troopship carrying the 5th Armoured Division Headquarters listed eighteen possible ports of disembarkation, ranging along the African coast from Casablanca to Port Said, and including ports in Sicily and Italy, and even Cagliari in Sardinia.57
(circulated as part of the cover plan) that “Timberwolf” was but a training venture with American troops in Northern Ireland.58 The North Atlantic extended a rude welcome, but after two days the weather cleared. In the late afternoon of 4 November the convoy passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.59
During the voyage through Atlantic waters there had been various submarine alerts, none of which had materialized in action. Now, at 6:10 p.m. on 6 November, when the convoy had reached a point about twenty miles north of Philippeville, a dozen German torpedo-bombers swept in from the north, diving down to almost mast height to release their bombs and torpedoes. Anti-aircraft fire claimed three enemy aircraft, but at least three ships in the convoy were hit. The S.S. Santa Elena, an American liner carrying more than 1800 Canadian personnel, including No. 14 Canadian General Hospital, was struck near the waterline by a torpedo, while about the same time a bomb crashed into the deck near the stern. In spite of the violent initial explosion, which plunged the ship into darkness and quickly produced a decided list, and the thunderous racket of the blazing guns, there was a remarkable absence of panic or confusion. All ranks took their places at the boat stations in an orderly manner, and when “Abandon Ship” sounded, the life-boats were loaded with the 121 nursing sisters and lowered. The crews of these comprised South American waiters and stewards, described as “rather inferior small boatmen”, and in many cases, as the craft pulled away from the ship’s side, the nurses themselves took the oars. Half a mile away the S.S. Monterey (with the bulk of the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade aboard) had come to a halt and was standing by to pick up survivors, and the exertions of the nursing sisters reached a climax in an exhausting 50-foot climb by rope ladder up her towering side.60
In the meantime the Santa Elena had righted herself, but an attempt by a destroyer to come alongside and take off the troops was frustrated by a considerable swell. Life rafts were lowered, and the men went down the ship’s side on scramble nets. Paddling was slow work – one raft’s equipment consisted of one paddle, one boat-hook and a steel helmet – so that it took an hour to reach the Monterey. Fortunately the sea was warm, and a new moon gave good visibility. Shortly after midnight a submarine alarm sent the Monterey off to Philippeville, and the remainder of the Santa Elena’s passengers and crew were rescued by circling United States destroyers. There was no loss of life. The doomed vessel remained afloat for nearly twenty-four hours, but finally sank as she was being towed into Philippeville harbour. “It is a sad sight to see a ship go down at any time”, wrote one of the officers who had been aboard her, “but the survivors were not comforted by the thought that their complete kit and equipment, with the exception of the clothes they were wearing, was going down as well.”61 The Monterey was prevented by rough weather from berthing at Philippeville, and on orders from the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean she set course for Naples.62
Besides the Santa Elena two other ships of the convoy, the Dutch Marnix van St. Aldegonde and the US destroyer Beatty, were lost as a result of the air attack on 6 November. Neither carried Canadians.63
The remainder of the voyage was completed without incident; the convoy split up, and on the 8th the troopships bearing the Canadians anchored at Augusta, Palermo and Naples. The majority of the Army and Corps Troops were taken to the Sicilian ports. Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps, part of 4700 troops aboard the Edmund B. Alexander, disembarked at Augusta, and the Argentina unloaded 3700 at the same port, the men being ferried ashore in landing craft. At Palermo the James T. Parker and the Sloterdijk discharged another 4000 troops.64 After spending from one to four days in an American staging camp outside the island’s capital, the units in turn moved by rail to various destinations along the eastern seaboard. The journey through the length of Sicily, in trains consisting each of “fourteen box wagons and one passenger coach”, was uncomfortable and slow.65 By the time that movements from Augusta and Palermo had been completed, Canadian troops were distributed along the east coast of Sicily from Messina to Syracuse and as far inland as Lentini on the Catania plain.66
The complex arrangements for the reception of the new arrivals and their billeting in accommodation vacated by forces returning to the United Kingdom had been expertly worked out with the British administrative authorities in the base areas by the “A” and “Q” officers in General Crerar’ s advance headquarters. After discussions at AFHQ in Algiers the group, which was headed by Brigadier J. F. A. Lister, DAQMG 1st Canadian Corps, flew to Sicily and established temporary headquarters in Catania. On the arrival of the main body, Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps was set up in the San Domenico Palace Hotel at Taormina. This fine hotel, in an old Dominican convent, had been used as a German headquarters and more recently had been occupied successively by the Headquarters of the 50th Division and the 30th Corps; one wing had been destroyed by bombing, but the remainder was in good condition and well furnished. From its windows the Canadians enjoyed the magnificent views of Etna and the Mediterranean which had in peacetime attracted many international tourists.67
The transports carrying the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and the GHQ units docked at Naples, the John Ericsson and the Thurston on 8 November, and the Monterey two days later. As the various units disembarked in the badly battered harbour, the bulk of them marched into a large transit area which had been marked out about five miles north of the port, astride the road to Caserta. Here they pitched their tents among the vineyards and olive groves, while Divisional Headquarters was established nearby in the little town of Afragola.68 The two hospitals and some small attached units went to Caserta, seventeen miles north of Naples.*
* Late in November the dispatch of a fifth Canadian hospital, No. 3 General Hospital (200 beds), was authorized to meet the needs of the growing Canadian base area at Avellino. It arrived from the United Kingdom at the end of January.
Within a month No. 14 General
Hospital was in operation there with over 1000 beds, and No. 1 had moved across Italy to begin work at Andria, near the Adriatic port of Barletta.69
For the “Timberwolf” troops there were a few days of inevitable disorganization and adjustment to their new surroundings; then they settled down to such limited training as was possible in a somewhat restricted area and with only personal weapons and a bare minimum of transport obtained from British Ordnance Depots. The 5th Armoured Division, as we have seen, welcomed a new commander; as did the 11th Infantry Brigade in the person of Brigadier George Kitching (formerly GSO1 with the 1st Division). Brigadier G. R. Bradbrooke, who had been in command of the 5th Armoured Brigade for the past year, continued in the appointment until the end of February, when he was succeeded by Brigadier J. D. B. Smith. At the end of 1943 Brigadier H. A. Sparling took over from Brigadier Morton as Commander Royal Artillery.
General Simonds’ transfer from the 1st Division to gain experience in the command of an armoured division had been suggested to General McNaughton by General Montgomery on the occasion of their meeting in Sicily. The Eighth Army Commander had spoken “in the highest terms of the way in which he [Simonds] had handled the operations under the direction of 30 Corps and Eighth Army and of his possibilities for promotion to command a corps in the future after further experience as a commander on the divisional level.70 He was succeeded as GOC 1st Canadian Division by Brigadier Vokes, who had earned Montgomery’s approval while temporarily commanding the Division in October during General Simonds’ illness.71
When the question of moving Simonds to an armoured division first arose, General McNaughton had proposed that General Crerar, who had on several occasions applied for operational experience,72 should take over the 1st Division for a few months.*
* Prior to becoming GOC 1st Canadian Corps Crerar had not commanded a field formation. He was Senior Combatant Officer at C.M.H.Q: from October 1939 to the following July, and from then until his appointment as Corps Commander in April 1942 he served successively as Vice Chief and Chief of the General Staff.
The suggestion did not find favour with Ottawa, for at that time the only Canadian armoured divisions were in the United Kingdom, where they apparently were to remain for some time to come, and it was feared that if Simonds were sent back from the Mediterranean to assume command of one of these, the action might be misconstrued by the Canadian public as a reflection on a commander whose work had in fact been thoroughly satisfactory.73 During the first half of September, when, as a result of the Quebec meetings, it looked as though a Canadian Corps might be formed in the Mediterranean, the matter rested. On the 28th, however, the possibility that “Timberwolf would take place had become so remote that General Stuart cabled McNaughton “that it would seem advisable to discuss with CIGS” the proposal to, replace the GOC 1st Canadian
Division.74 Two days later, having received word of Simonds’ illness, the Army Commander signalled Montgomery asking his acceptance of Crerar to command the 1st Division. “No question of seniority arises”, he pointed out, “as Crerar is quite content to serve under any of your Corps Commanders.75 It seems likely that this message did not reach Montgomery, for no reply was received. However, the prospect for “Timberwolf” had suddenly brightened, and it became apparent that General Crerar would go to the Mediterranean theatre as GOC 1st Canadian Corps.
The matter came up again at the end of October, on the occasion of Crerar’s first meeting with General Montgomery in Italy. His directive from General McNaughton had enjoined him to request the 15th Army Group that all Canadian formations and units then in Sicily and Italy be brought together under his command in the 1st Canadian Corps at the earliest convenient date. Montgomery, however, frankly stated that he did not want another corps set up in Italy, and proposed instead that Crerar should take over command of the 1st Canadian Division and turn his back, for the time being, on Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps and the problems of equipping the Corps Troops and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. But the circumstances in which General Crerar might have become GOC 1st Canadian Division had changed materially during the past month, and the proposal was one which his present instructions did not permit him to accept.76
Equipping the 5th Armoured Division
The Canadians did not stay long in the Naples area. On 15 November General Simonds wrote to General Crerar, “I am most anxious to get the troops away from this sort of suburban ‘built up’ area as quickly as I can. It is a very poor training area, the squalid slums are depressing and constitute a very bad atmosphere in which to condition troops.” A suitable concentration area had been selected at Altamura, 28 miles south-west of Ban; but before the Division could move, it had to take over the vehicles and equipment of the British 7th Armoured Division. The transfer was made during the third week of November, and in the process the misgivings with which Canadian units had parted with their vehicles before leaving England proved fully justified.
Most of the equipment (except tanks, which were to be supplied by Headquarters 15th Army Group under a different plan) changed hands directly between the units concerned, the 11th Canadian Brigade taking over from the 131st Brigade, and the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade from the 22nd Armoured Brigade. It was soon seen that there were problems of establishment to be settled. Differences existed between the scales and types
of equipment as prescribed for Canadian armoured divisions and their British counterparts in the Middle East,*
* One important difference in the scale of transport arose from the fact that the Sherman tanks of the 7th Armoured Division required a greater bulk of ammunition and petrol than the Ram tanks on which the establishment of the Canadian Division was based.77
and the situation was further complicated by the fact that the 7th Armoured Division during its many months of fighting with the Eighth Army had devised substitutions and improvements in the official scale of both personnel and vehicles to such an extent that Canadians trying to make an accounting during the takeover reported despairingly that “the ‘Desert Rats’ have a War Establishment all their own.”78 Thus, in many cases the vehicles received from the British formations were found to be in excess of normal establishments, and the Canadian units were unable to man these with their existing driver strength.
There was more serious ground for complaint, however, with respect to the type and the condition of the vehicles. In the first place, the proportion of transport with two-wheel drive was unsatisfactorily high. Such equipment might well serve on the dry and level desert; but the prospect of facing the mountain grades and winter mud of Italy without their accustomed four-wheel drives was as displeasing to the units of the 5th Division as it had been to those of the infantry division when re-equipping for Operation BAYTOWN.†
† Experience in the 1st Division had shown that two-wheel drive vehicles could be pulled out of trouble if a sufficient proportion of four-wheel drives were available. In a letter to 1st Echelon early in December, General Simonds gave his opinion that unless at least fifty per cent of its transport were four-wheel drive, the 5th Armoured Division would “be more or less immobilized whenever the ground is wet.”79
There was greater dissatisfaction over the unserviceable condition of a large number of the vehicles relinquished by the 7th Armoured Division. Diaries of the Canadian units concerned are uniformly critical of the lack of battle-worthiness or even roadworthiness of their acquisitions; indeed the 7th Division’s own published history remarks that some of its “vehicles had been with the division since the previous February , when they had been obtained second hand from 4th Indian Division. Several thousand miles, mostly over open desert, had not subsequently improved them.”80 “It is true”, wrote General Simonds to the Canadian Corps Commander, “that the 7 Armd Div landed at Salerno with this same transport, but they had been told that providing their vehicles were good for 2000 miles they should not worry. Most of these same vehicles have now done well over 3000 miles since landing.”81 To make matters worse, it appears that a natural spirit of camaraderie among the veterans of the desert fighting had led to extensive unofficial “swapping” of the 7th Armoured Division’s better vehicles for the worst in other units and formations of the Eighth Army, these latter finishing up in the hands of the Canadians.82 There was an almost complete lack of tools, and the problem of the supply of spare parts promised to be seriously complicated by the discovery that the resourceful mechanics of the Eighth
Army had been in the habit of “cannibalizing” transport of different makes, in order to produce from two or more broken-down vehicles one that was reasonably roadworthy.
There was little time to effect running repairs on the badly worn equipment, for almost immediately General Simonds’ units began to cross the peninsula to Altamura. This move was described by the officer in charge of an accompanying Canadian Light Aid Detachment as “outstanding for the number of breakdowns which swamped the Ordnance recovery services. ... Of the magnitude of the recovery problem only this need be said: the 11 Canadian Inf Bde REME facilities worked for over three weeks to recover broken-down vehicles to the Altamura area.”83
Not much could be done to remedy this disconcerting situation other than to press continuously for replacement by new or well-conditioned transport of the type with which Canadian formations had been equipped up to that time. General Simonds carried the matter through his channels in the field to Headquarters 15th Army Group, while, on instructions from General Crerar, Brigadier MacDonald made strong representations to Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers. The result in both instances was nil; as reported to Simonds by a representative of General Alexander’s headquarters: “The vehicles simply do not exist in the Mediterranean theatre.”84
Arising out of a visit by the Minister of National Defence to the 5th Armoured Division on 2 December (during the course of which Colonel Ralston inspected part of the recently acquired equipment) a proposal was put forward that some of the 3500 new Canadian vehicles which were on their way from the United Kingdom to equip the 1st Canadian Corps Troops might be used to meet the needs of the armoured division.85 The Corps Commander, however, took a firm stand against any such action. On his arrival at Algiers he had discovered that the original agreement reached with the War Office, by which the Canadian Corps Troops should be re-equipped from the 30th Corps, was without practical basis, as indeed General Eisenhower had already pointed out.86 The British Corps had landed in Sicily with many of its units equipped on only assault or light scales, and these had not subsequently received their full normal issue of vehicles and stores. Vehicle mortality and deterioration during HUSKY had outstripped programmes of replacement and repair, and stocks remaining at the conclusion of the campaign had been turned in for overhaul and dispatch to meet the needs of the Eighth Army*
* A major factor of the serious vehicle situation existing in the Eighth Army during September and October was the necessity, occasioned by the absence of a Base Workshop organization in Italy, of sending all worn engines back to Egypt for reconditioning – a round journey of 4000 miles.87
on the mainland.88 AFHQ could make no stocks of vehicles or other equipment in North Africa available to replace this almost total deficiency. Indeed, Canadian staff
officers in conversation with their British “opposite numbers” at Algiers and in Sicily had found a marked lack of enthusiasm towards the forthcoming arrival of the Canadian Corps in the Mediterranean. “Their reaction was one of surprise that we should be coming at all, and incredulity that we should be coming almost completely unequipped.”89
To meet the situation AFHQ asked the War Office to provide from the United Kingdom the vehicles required to equip the 1st Canadian Corps Troops. The request was passed to CMHQ “on the grounds that if complete vehicles are to be from the UK, Canadian types would be more suitable for [Canadian] units.”90 CMHQ had already undertaken to provide vehicles for the returning British units, and the 3350 which General McNaughton immediately made available were credited against this commitment.91
This was the transport which General Crerar was determined should be held intact for equipping his Corps units, in spite of the difficulties which were being encountered by the 5th Armoured Division. He set forth his reasons for this decision in a letter to Brigadier Beament on 11 December:–
The basis we are now working on is that agreed to by Gale with me in Algiers and on the conditions which Gale assured me obtained, i.e., that AFHQ had the means available, in this theatre, adequately to equip 5 Canadian Armd Div. but that Corps Troops would need to obtain their M.T. from the UK. I desire to stand on that policy until it is proved, quite definitely, that it is impossible for AFHQ to produce for Simonds the ... vehicles, weapons, etc., which I was assured could be made available. There is danger in switching M.T. from Corps Troops to 5 Canadian Armd Div because the result may well be that a reason can thus be found to delay the formation of 1 Canadian Corps owing to the non-equipment of one or more Corps Troops units which Army or Army Group may then say are essential for the purpose.92
To General Simonds he wrote:
Gale is fully aware of the political importance attached to the re-equipment of the Canadian formations ... as well as knowing the military implications. He is also in a position to do what is required about the situation.93
The Corps Commander had decided wisely. At the end of the year Simonds was to report: “Eighth Army have ‘turned on the heat’ for us and controlled stores to complete our W.E.*
* War Establishment.
are flowing through fairly well. We have been given 97 new engines for vehicles. ...”94
Delivery of tanks to the 5th Armoured Division encountered the almost inevitable delay. When the initial proposal was made at the War Office to equip the Canadians from the returning British armoured division, General McNaughton had stipulated that the 5th Division should be provided with Sherman tanks fitted with 75-mm. guns.†
† At that time McNaughton had told the CIGS that “we had no confidence in British types with 2-pounder or 6-pounder” guns. He added that the only reason that the Canadian Army did not adhere to the Ram tank “was that it was easier for Shermans to be provided than convert Rams to 75-mm.”95
Given the choice of accepting
diesel-powered Shermans from the 7th Armoured Division or waiting for new tanks from North Africa equipped with Chrysler engines, General Simonds decided on the latter, having been promised delivery at the rate of 50 per week from the beginning of December.96 Shipping difficulties slowed down this programme. It was 19 December when The Governor General’s Horse Guards received the first two Shermans to reach the Division, and by that time the GOC had learned “that only a very few tanks would be available until the end of December or January.”97
Vehicles and Guns for the Corps Troops
By contrast with the difficulties encountered by the armoured division, once the decision had been reached to furnish the 1st Canadian Corps Troops with transport from the United Kingdom the programme of re-equipment moved smoothly and with only minor delays. Space for the 3350 vehicles was found in three convoys, the first of which arrived on 11 December. Vessels unloaded at Catania, Naples and Bari, and at each of these places a specially formed Canadian Port Organization looked after servicing and distribution, and fully justified its existence by ensuring that the new Canadian vehicles – which amid the existing shortage were regarded as fair game by any unit or ordnance depot which could divert some of them from the supply stream – did not fall into other than Canadian hands.98
Not all the personnel in these organizations were specially trained for their task; a good example of the adaptability of the Canadian soldier was provided by No. 3 Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit, RCOC, which while waiting for its laundry equipment to arrive from the United Kingdom, worked with one of the Port Organizations in receiving and distributing the Canadian Corps’ vehicles.99
On the other hand, the contribution of No. 1 Salvage Unit, RCOC, in the Captured Enemy Stores Depot at Syracuse, illustrates well the effective employment of specialists in their own field of labour. By General McNaughton’s direction the unit had been carefully trained in the handling of enemy equipment, and during its two months’ stay in Sicily its 42 members, aided by Italian labour, examined, sorted and classified all the Italian equipment taken in the island, and cleaned, assembled, packed and loaded on board ship all serviceable arms and stores for carriage in gun-running expeditions to Yugoslav patriots.100
By the end of January, except for a few technical vehicles the Corps Troops had received all their transport.101 Provision of the rest of the equipment needed by the Canadians involved a search of resources throughout the Mediterranean theatre. Ordnance depots in Sicily supplied what limited
quantities they had available; the remaining requirements formed an “inability list”, to fill which AFHQ depots in North Africa (principally Bone and Algiers) and ultimately those of the Middle East Command (Alexandria and Cairo) were canvassed in turn.102 As a result, the Corps’ Deputy Director of Ordnance Services, after visiting Cairo on 12 January to present the Canadian bulk requirements in spare parts, was able to report within a week “ 1000 tons of spare parts ... shipped from Egypt”, and ten days later, “balance of our deficiencies of ordnance equipment ... shipped from Middle East.”103
In the months that passed while the Corps slowly acquired its needs, probably none felt more keenly the lack of even token equipment for training purposes than the artillery units; as one commanding officer declared, “the gunners ... never feel equipped unless they have guns, and no guns’ are available.”104 At the beginning of December the 1st Medium Regiment RCA went into action on the Fifth Army front “with a scratch lot of equipment and guns which were raked together for them”,105 but it was late in February before the 2nd and 5th Medium Regiments received their first guns, and two months later before they had their full complement.106 After similar delays the 7th Canadian Anti-Tank Regiment had by April been equipped with its “M-10” self-propelled guns, and the self-propelled battery of the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment had been promised its establishment of 40-mm. Bofors before the end of the month.107
With these and certain other exceptions – notably in motorcycles and signal stores – the equipment of Canadian troops in Italy had in general been brought up to at least local standards by the end of January. Although complaints about deficiencies continued, these were common to all units in the Mediterranean theatre – which was beginning to feel more and more keenly the effect of the priority being given to the needs of the approaching invasion of North-West Europe. The obstacles in the Canadian path had been many, but all had been surmounted, in a manner which was thus summarized by the Corps AQMG:–
The background of the story would appear to be broadly, incomplete arrangements at a high level, frustration, delay, self-help as the only salvation, Canadian control of Canadian business, and the Corps Commander’s unwavering intention to put an efficient machine into battle at the earliest opportunity.108
It may be appropriate at this point to include a few general remarks about the maintenance of the Corps in its new theatre. In the early days of the war, while Canadian industry was being geared to meet the new demands upon it, the Canadian Army Overseas had drawn on United Kingdom supply for most items of the equipment it needed. General McNaughton considered, however, that when Canadian production reached full flood a supply pipe-line should be organized stretching from the manufacturer in Canada to the
soldier in the field. He preferred to receive Canadian equipment because of its established quality and a standardization of parts and components which permitted interchangeability and so facilitated repair, and because close contact with Canadian industry meant that developments initiated in the field could be quickly brought into use to the advantage of the troops. A third consideration was the encouragement given to men and women in Canadian factories to know that the products of their efforts were going to their own Army. In McNaughton’s opinion only such items as could not satisfactorily be produced in Canada should continue to be bought from the United Kingdom.109
During 1942 a Base Ordnance Depot and a Base Ordnance Workshop were established in England and action was taken to provide the First Canadian Army with the necessary RCOC units to complete the pipe-line.110 But before the system was fully functioning the situation regarding supply changed as a result of the strategic plan produced at Casablanca. For the first time it became possible to calculate the actual requirements of the United Nations’ armed forces in different parts of the world and to coordinate production and distribution so as to fill these needs with the greatest economy of shipping. Since the steadily increasing War Office stocks in the United Kingdom provided the only readily available source from which Canadian formations could be re-equipped to meet changing operational needs, it was obviously practical to assign Canadian production to more distant theatres where armies were equipped to British pattern and to drop the idea of a separate pipe-line for the Canadian Army Overseas.111 The result was the adoption of the greater part of a War Office proposal, advanced in March 1943, whereby the resources of British and Canadian ordnance, engineer and medical stores depots in the United Kingdom and any joint theatre of operations should be pooled to avoid duplication, conserve both manpower and storage space and reduce administrative problems.112
Negotiations continued well into the summer, and in June General McNaughton formally advised CMHQ that “First Canadian Army shall be organized and equipped in accordance with the War Office pattern for British armies”, and that only “a comparatively few items of equipment” would be reserved as “continuing Canadian supply.”113 Such items included vehicles and spare parts, clothing generally, certain signal stores and special engineer equipment. Canadian vehicles and spares remained under Canadian control in the United Kingdom; and liaison officers were attached to British depots to ensure that other equipment of “continuing Canadian supply” was issued to meet Canadian requirements, and to advise CMHQ when to order additional stocks from Canada. It was further agreed that Canadian formations in an operational theatre should be supplied with engineer and medical stores from British depots.114 The position taken by Canada in this important matter was dictated by a broad view of the advantages which
might result in the conduct of the war as a whole. That it resulted in many difficulties and disadvantages to the Canadian forces themselves cannot be denied; and in order that appropriate lessons may be drawn from this Experience, it will be discussed in a subsequent volume of this History, where the policy on supply will be taken up in some detail.
Since the 1st Canadian Corps was provided with no rear installations other than hospitals, dental units and base reinforcement depots, its maintenance became even more of a British responsibility than had been envisaged for the First Canadian Army.115 Under the system of supply already in use for the 1st Division, Canadian ordnance staffs in Italy periodically indented in bulk for stores held by British Advanced Ordnance Depots (that at Naples later became a Base Ordnance Depot). In the special case of technical stores (including spare parts for vehicles) for which there was a constant demand, a forward supply was held in the Canadian Ordnance Field Park with each formation. Ammunition, petroleum products, engineer and medical stores, and other supplies (of which rations formed a major item) were drawn in bulk from the Eighth Army by the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, whose units carried out distribution to all units and formations of the 1st Canadian Corps. Canteen supplies came from the Expeditionary Forces Institute – the overseas component of the NAAFI with which Canadian troops had become familiar in the United Kingdom.
The “Arielli Show”, 17 January
Early in the new year Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps moved from Taormina to the mainland. On 11 January the main body reached its new accommodation – a tented camp in an oak wood half a dozen miles north of Altamura.116 The bulk of the Corps Troops had now crossed into Italy, and while these went about their training, Headquarters personnel engaged in exercises designed particularly to fit them to the task of directing operations in a campaign in which continual movement was to be expected.
Meanwhile the GOC continued to press for an active role for his Corps. He had been not a little concerned at demands made by the 15th Army Group and Eighth Army Headquarters for large bodies of Canadian troops to undertake tasks which neither added to their standard of training nor brought them nearer to contact with the enemy. Shortly after their arrival on the mainland four artillery units – the 11th Army Field, the 2nd Medium, the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft and the 7th Anti-Tank Regiments RCA – were hurried off to the Salerno area to fill a request for 1600 officers and men to operate a transit camp for the dispatch of the forces taking part in the Nazi landings.117 Two days later the Corps was called upon to provide
1700 all ranks for refugee control at Brindisi and Bari, the unattractive assignment falling to The Royal Canadian Dragoons and a composite group drawn from available artillery units.118
Under no illusion as to the adverse effect which this employment on sedentary duties, even though only temporary, might have on the enthusiasm of troops who had trained for several years in the United Kingdom and had come to Italy expecting immediate action, General Crerar was moved to write to General Alexander:–
I dislike intensely complicating in any way the difficult problem which already faces you in AFI*
* HQ Allied Forces in Italy. This name was adopted by HQ 15th Army Group on 11 January 1944.119 A week later it was changed to “HQ Allied Central Mediterranean Force”.120 On 9 March, in accordance with a preference expressed by Mr. Churchill, General Alexander’s headquarters was redesignated “HQ Allied Armies in Italy”.121
concerning the proper military employment of the several Dominion and Allied forces under your command, in which problem the 1 Canadian Corps is an important factor. This is a situation, however, unfortunately inherent in a heterogeneous, as opposed to a homogeneous, military command. On the other hand, my responsibility to my own Government compels me to tell you that this combination of what appears to be a comparatively slow re-equipment and the recent large-scale employment of trained combatant Canadian troops on L of C guard duties threatens to produce very undesirable reactions among the Canadian forces in this theatre and, indeed, among Canadians generally.122
In reply, General Alexander expressed his sympathy with the Canadian Corps Commander in his difficulties, but at the same time warned against the “tendency among some troops to consider themselves incapable of doing their job unless they are absolutely complete in all items of transport and equipment.” On the question of the employment of the Canadians on non-operational duties the C-in-C declared that unless lower category men were to be brought in to perform these tasks (which would automatically cut down fighting strength) all troops must take their share. It was “in no sense derogatory to ask fighting troops to carry out such duties when for any reason they cannot be employed on the battle front.123 A week later Alexander sent Crerar a comment by the Commander of the British 1st Division, which had taken part in the assault at Anzio: “The Canadian units who ran the Assembly Areas did a marvellous job and gave the troops that send-off which is so invaluable”; to which the Army Group Commander added, “If you had any doubts as to the importance of the work which was assigned these units, your doubts will, I think, be completely removed by the results.”124
On 12 January Crerar attended a conference called by Sir Oliver Leese, when it was agreed that the Canadian Corps Headquarters should take over from Headquarters 5th Corps as soon as the Canadian GOC was in a position to do so, and that Canadian Corps Troops would be introduced forward as soon as they were equipped and concentrated.125 In his letter
to Alexander three days later, Crerar expressed the hope that this relief could begin on 1 February.126 Before the end of January, however, some of the “Timberwolf” units had already found the action their commanders sought.
Early in December, and long before the supply of tanks for the 5th Armoured Division was complete, General Simonds had informed General Crerar that the 11th Infantry Brigade was “steaming ahead” and that by the end of the month he would like to send a brigade group forward “to get its first experience of contact with the enemy.”127 On 4 January Brigadier Kitching was notified that he was to relieve the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the 1st Division’s front north of Ortona. The role was to be one of holding and patrolling. “The intention”, wrote the brigade’s diarist, “is to ‘break us in easily’. We shall soon see whether it is ‘easy’ or not.”128 The brigade, augmented by field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, and other units of the supporting services,*
* Major units of the 11th Brigade Group were. the Princess Louise Fusiliers (Brigade Support Group, later reorganized into Independent M.G. Companies), The Perth Regiment, The Cape Breton Highlanders, The Irish Regiment of Canada, the 17th Field Regiment, 49th Anti-Tank Battery (of the 4th Anti-Tank Regt.) and 47th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery (of the 5th LAA Regt.) RCA, the 10th Field Squadron RCE, the 11th Brigade Company RCASC (No. 14 Company), No 24 Field Ambulance RCAMC and the 11th Infantry Brigade Workshop RCOC (later RCEME).129
began to move north from Altamura on 9 January. Just before dark on the 12th leading elements passed through the rubble-filled streets of Ortona, and by the following evening the relief had been completed.130 The brigade now held the coastal end of the Eighth Army’s thinly spread fifty-mile front, its sector of responsibility reaching 3000 yards inland over the high ground between Ortona and the Riccio River. Immediately to the left were the battle-seasoned battalions of the 1st Canadian Brigade, and beyond these the 8th Indian Division and the 2nd Parachute Brigade held the left of the 5th Corps sector. Confronting them were as worthy opponents as could be found in all Italy – the 1st Parachute Regiment of Heidrich’s veteran division.131
Patrolling by the two forward battalions – The Irish Regiment of Canada and The Cape Breton Highlanders – began immediately, and continued for three nights. The terrain was fairly open, and well suited for nocturnal prowling. Inland from the coastal road the ground rose sharply into a broad plateau cut by narrow ravines running generally north-eastward (see Sketch 5). The Canadian positions were on the forward slope of a ridge overlooking one of these – the steep gully of the Riccio River. Beyond the Riccio rose a higher ridge, the Regione di Fendo, behind which was the valley of the Arielli, a much larger stream about midway between Ortona and Francavilla. Along the east slope of the Fendo ridge ran a secondary road which meandered up from the coastal highway at the mouth of the Riccio and eventually crossed the Arielli to arrive at the village of Tollo, some five miles inland.
Map missing from image PDF
About this road lay several scattered groups of farm buildings, in the vicinity of which the enemy had constructed a number of strongpoints and weapon-pits. During the hours of darkness patrols from both sides wandered over the Ortona side of the ridge with reasonable freedom, arranging booby traps and occupying likely posts from which to shoot up opposing parties. The whole area was in effect a “no man’s land”, virtually abandoned during the day and at night the property of the most aggressive.132 During the daytime spasmodic mortaring and shelling from the enemy gave the 11th Brigade a comparatively gentle baptism of fire, and casualties were very light. So far, the “breaking in” had been quite easy.
At the army conference of 12 January to which we have already referred, General Leese, in outlining the 15th Army Group’s intentions, had made it clear that the forthcoming amphibious operations by the Fifth Army at Anzio (to be launched on 22 January) and a coordinated attack in the Cassino area two days earlier, would be supported “in every way possible” by the Eighth Army.133 The Eighth Army had already contributed to the Fifth Army’s operations two infantry divisions (the 1st and 5th British) and additional artillery, while a third (the 2nd New Zealand) division was under orders to go as soon as its relief arrived. A directive issued by General
Alexander on 12 January suggested further means of providing the required support:–
Commander Eighth Army will maintain sufficient pressure on the enemy forces on his front to prevent the enemy from moving any troops from 76 German Corps to reinforce those opposing Fifth Army.134
To this end General Leese charged that “all ideas of a static or low priority front were erroneous and must be eradicated from everybody’s minds.”135 He planned that the Eighth Army’s main effort would be an attack by the 13th Corps in the Orsogna–Guardiagrele area on 24 January. The role of the 5th Corps was defined thus:–
5 Corps using I Canadian Inf Div reinforced by 11 Canadian Lorried Bde were to make every effort to gain the high ground east of R. Arielli. This operation to be supported by all artillery available. Heavy casualties are not to be incurred, and if the Corps Comd decided that this cannot be done without incurring heavy casualties the matter is to be re-referred to the Army Comd.136
A Corps operation instruction issued next day set the date for the Canadian attack “on about 16 January” and gave orders for a deception scheme to be put into effect “to induce the enemy to believe that the attack on the high ground ... was a preliminary operation to a major attack across the R. Arielli.”137
There is evidence that General Leese’s disinclination to regard the Adriatic front as being of low priority was shared by Kesselring and the Commander of the German Tenth Army. A directive from the C-in-C South-West to the fighting formations on 14 January did not presage any particular developments, but exhorted the troops to greater tenacity, declaring emphatically: “The ‘Gustav–Foro’ position will be held.” The order carried a significant postscript signed by von Vietinghoff: “In the event of a soldier being so devoid of honour as to desert to the enemy, in future the most severe measures against his family will be taken.”138
The Foro sector, as distinct from the Gustav* Line – the name which had been given to the southern stretches of the German Winter Line designated that portion of the enemy’s positions which extended from the Maiella Mountains to the Adriatic Sea.
* Named from the letter “G” in the German phonetic alphabet.
It consisted of a system of half a dozen successive defence lines grouped about the River Foro, a small stream two miles north of the Arielli. These lines fanned out from Pennapiedimonte (near Guardiagrele) to various points along the coast between Torre Mucchia and Pescara.139 The sector was the responsibility of General Traugott Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps, which in mid-January had three divisions in the line – the 1st Parachute, the 26th Panzer and the 334th Infantry – and the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division†
† By 15 January about half of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division had moved to the Rome area. Its intended replacement on the Adriatic front by the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division was cancelled when the Fifth Army’s offensive held that formation on the west coast.140
At an orders group on the afternoon of 15 January Brigadier Kitching announced that the 11th Brigade’s task was to seize a series of strongpoints along and beyond the Tollo road, and thence to push down into the Arielli valley, thus moving the Allied forward positions on to the Fendo ridge. The assault would be made in successive attacks by The Perth Regiment (commanded by Lt-Col. W. S. Rutherford) on the left, and The Cape Breton Highlanders (Lt-Col. J. B. Weir) on the right. Each thrust would be supported by a squadron of the Three Rivers Regiment.142
In the sector assigned to the Perths a rough trail crossed a fork in the Riccio by two fords about 250 yards apart, and thence climbed steeply for half a mile to join the Tollo road near the top of the Fendo ridge. This junction, and a blown bridge 500 yards to the north where the lateral road crossed a small gully, were the main Perth objectives. These had to be secured before The Cape Breton Highlanders began the second phase of the brigade operation, which was the capture of the high ground lying between the Tollo road and Highway No. 16. The third and final phase called for exploitation by both battalions towards the Arielli to establish firm positions on its right, or near, bank. For his reserve the Brigade Commander had the Irish Regiment and a squadron of the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment. General Leese’s specification of “all artillery available” was implemented in a comprehensive plan of barrages, concentrations, and counter-battery, defensive fire and smoke tasks, which involved all the guns of the 1st Canadian and 8th Indian Divisions and the 1st Army Group Royal Artillery – a total of one heavy, five medium and nine field regiments. The allotment of ammunition was 400 rounds per gun for the field regiments and 300 for mediums, and this impressive fire power was to be further augmented by thirty-two 4.2-inch mortars of the 1st Division’s mortar group, which were given targets mainly on the right of The Cape Breton Highlanders’ objectives.143
The Desert Air Force assigned four squadrons of Kittyhawks and twelve light bombers to attack targets up and down the Tollo road during the 16th; on the 17th the bombline would move forward to the Arielli River.144 Finally, in order to distract the enemy’s attention, the 1st Brigade on the left and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on the right were ordered to demonstrate strongly with “diversionary noises” before and during the first phase of the operation.145 All in all it would seem as though the 11th Brigade was going into its first action with as much support as it could wish.
The 5th Corps’ “last light sitrep” on 16 January reported “heavy air and artillery bombardment of enemy positions on 11 Canadian Inf Bde front throughout day”,146 and the 1st Canadian Division sent a message of appreciation to the Desert Air Force for the “close support provided today right on the button”.147 11th Brigade patrols probing the battle area that night found little conclusive evidence regarding German locations, although
some came in contact with small enemy groups which they judged to be working parties. A patrol from the Irish Regiment reported that the trail across the Riccio in the Perths’ sector showed signs of digging and had been strewn with rushes.148 This paucity of information appears to have had little effect upon the plans for the next day’s operations, for which both Canadian battalions had been thoroughly briefed. From an observation post overlooking the Riccio the Perth company and platoon commanders had studied the battle area, and Lt-Col. Rutherford had further rehearsed them on a representative plot of ground in the battalion rear area. “It looks as though an attack by us is in the making”, recorded the diarist of The Cape Breton Highlanders.
Promptly at half-past five on the morning of the 17th the artillery barrage opened and the Perths began their attack. On the left “C” Company moved quickly down the track into the valley of the Riccio, and within ten minutes the leading platoon, under Lieutenant R. S. Chamberlain, had forded the stream. But the enemy, aroused by the barrage, was quick to reply. The Perth attack was headed directly into the area held by the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Regiment; between them and the sea the 1st Battalion faced The Cape Breton Highlanders.149 In preceding weeks the Germans had had ample opportunity to survey the valley and register their targets, and now from their artillery and from well-sited mortars on the Arielli side of the Fendo ridge shells began to burst with deadly accuracy about the river crossings, and fire from heavy and light machine-guns swept down the hillside. The main body of the Perths’ “C” Company was stopped at the second ford, and thus deprived of the support of the barrage. Since the most damaging fire was coming from a large white house about 200 yards up the hill, the company commander, Major R. A. MacDougall, led a party of seven in a gallant effort to storm it. The entire group was wiped out. The remainder of the company, unable to advance, took cover in the tall rushes about the ford.150 From behind them tanks of their supporting squadron “thickened up the firing in the valley and on the ridge in front.” One tank ran on to a mine and was put out of action.151 In the meantime Chamberlain’s platoon had been split by the intense fire, but with one section he had worked his way up to his part of the company objective. Having silenced the machine-gun posts there, his little band stood their ground throughout the day, doggedly repelling all attempts to dislodge them.152
Meanwhile on the right, the same withering fire had halted “A” Company as it reached the bed of the Riccio at the point from which the narrow gully led to its objective – the destroyed bridge – on the Tollo road. The key point in the German resistance was a farmhouse in a commanding position a hundred yards up the ridge. A flanking platoon attack against this strongpoint failed; nor could subsequent fire from the supporting tanks dislodge the
enemy. “A” Company remained pinned down in the valley bottom, many seeking shelter in German-dug slit-trenches. Attempts by “B” and “D” Companies to work forward to the left and right objectives respectively were equally ineffective.153
At Brigade Headquarters there was a dearth of accurate information. Smoke and haze limited visibility across the valley; telephone communications were broken repeatedly by artillery and mortar fire as well as by the movement of our tanks, so that in spite of the efforts of a hard-working and heroic repair crew there were many times when no clear picture of the attack could be obtained at any level of command.*
* The Cape Breton Highlanders’ war diary reports that “aerials could not be erected as they were too exposed, and this prevented use of wireless.”
At 11:35 a.m., when at the most two platoons had reached the base of the Fendo ridge and the remainder of the forward companies were either casualties or severely pinned down, a message was passed to Divisional Headquarters by the 11th Brigade Intelligence that the Perths’ “A” Company was on its objective at the gully and that an unknown number of the supporting tanks had crossed the Riccio and were about half way up the ridge (approximately at the strongpoint earlier attacked by Major MacDougall).154 But twenty minutes later The Perth Regiment was reporting to Brigade Headquarters, “No known infantry across ford at present moment.”155
Although it had been intended not to start the second phase of the operation until the Perths had control of at least the right end of their objectives, it was now decided to commit the Cape Bretons, on a somewhat modified plan. At 12:45 p.m. Brigadier Kitching ordered Lt-Col. Weir to shift his axis of attack to the right, using as a covered approach the draw of a small stream which entered the Riccio from the Canadian side about 1000 yards below the main ford.156 A message to Divisional Headquarters at one o’clock announced that “Phase Two” would start at 1:45, and that the Perths would launch another attack with smoke at half-past one.157
At first it looked as though the Highlanders might succeed. Screened from view in its approach to the Riccio, “D” Company in the lead quickly had its forward platoon across the river and within 35 yards of its objective on the ridge. Then the enemy mortars burst into action and the company was caught in deadly cross-fire from machine-guns in houses on either side of its path. There was difficulty in getting an effective smoke screen, for the wind was eccentric and the Highlanders were too close to where the smoke shells must fall.†
† The 1st Canadian Field Regiment, which had been assigned all smoke tasks for the operation, was unable to meet this demand of The Cape Breton Highlanders, presumably because the overlapping of the first and second phases found it still committed in support of the Perths and it was running short of smoke shells. Accordingly the assignment on the right was given to the 4.2-inch mortars, which had a danger area considerably greater than that of the 25-pounders.158
“C” Company, following within ten minutes, met the
full force of the enemy fire. Platoons lost contact and wireless communication with Battalion Headquarters failed. For two hours the whole company was completely pinned down, before the cover of smoke allowed a withdrawal up the gully.159 Attempts throughout the afternoon by “D” Company to reach its objective failed. No supporting tanks crossed the stream. One was knocked out by a mine before it reached the bottom of the valley, and at both battalion crossing-places the incessant mortar and machine-gun fire prevented engineer parties from doing the necessary mine-clearance around the fords.160 An hour after the attack started Weir received orders from Brigadier Kitching not to commit his remaining companies until the first two were consolidated on their objectives, and not to become involved in a night attack.161
Meanwhile the second Perth attempt to gain the initial objectives on the Tollo road had been launched on the left. At 4:15 p.m., after a 30-minute bombardment of the road by the nine field and five medium regiments,162 “D” Company crossed the main ford under cover of smoke provided by the battalion mortar platoon to join the “C” Company group which had gone to ground after the death of Major MacDougall. Then the combined force, supported by fire from two troops of tanks which had successfully negotiated the first ford and taken up positions on the knoll within the forks of the Riccio, struggled up the hill to within 200 yards of their road-junction objective.
That marked the high tide of the 11th Brigade’s effort in its first day of fighting. Shortly after five o’clock the Perths’ “A” Company, which had been suffering heavy casualties from snipers and machine-gun fire, was reported to be abandoning its untenable position in the gully on the battalion right.163 As darkness fell orders came from Brigade Headquarters to withdraw the whole battalion.164 On the right flank The Cape Breton Highlanders moved back from the Riccio, and special details were organized to assist the regimental stretcher bearers in bringing the wounded up from the valley.165 Throughout the night a steady trickle of stragglers from both battalions made their way back from the battle area, among them Lieutenant Chamberlain and his section from “C” Company of the Perths. The courageous platoon officer received the Military Cross.166
Late that evening Kitching held another orders group at which plans were made for a resumption of the attack next morning;167 but before midnight word came through Divisional Headquarters that the GOC 5th Corps had ordered the 11th Brigade’s withdrawal into corps reserve.168 In the early hours of the 18th the tired battalions handed over’ to relieving units of the 2nd Canadian Brigade.
In spite of General Leese’s injunction not to incur heavy casualties, the “Arielli Show” had cost the Canadians eight officers and 177 other ranks. Worst sufferers were the Perths, who lost three officers and 44 men killed, 62 men wounded, and one officer and 27 men taken prisoner. The Cape
Breton Highlanders, who had committed only two companies to action, had thirteen men killed and three officers and 30 men wounded. Not only had the brigade failed to take and hold its ground objectives, but from evidence in German documents it would appear that the enemy had not been deceived as to the intention behind the attack. The Tenth Army’s war diary carried the following entry for 17 January:
In the area of 1 Para Div the enemy attacked after heavy artillery preparation (20,000 rounds in the afternoon alone) in various places during the whole day, and was repulsed. A temporary penetration was eliminated in a counter-attack. The action was apparently a diversion.169
The 1st Parachute Division reported 27 killed and 36 wounded on that day.170
Various reasons may be advanced for the 11th Brigade’s lack of success. Reference has already been made to the breakdown of communications which resulted in a very imperfect picture of the situation reaching Brigade Headquarters. Contributing to the obscurity was the inadequacy of the maps in use. In default of accurate large-scale maps,*
units had been issued with a gridded aerial photograph of the area, from which references to actual positions could be reported with only approximate accuracy.†
† A message in the 1st Canadian Division’s log late on the afternoon of the 17th reported: “Trace for air photo most inaccurate. CBH. NOT on objective. Believe some are in gully this side of stream.”172
Poor flying conditions on the 17th had cancelled the air programme, even though its implementation would have assisted only the intended exploitation to the Arielli River. The brigade plan of delivering successive punches by single battalions has been criticized as enabling the enemy to meet each attack in turn with all his fire power concentrated in one spot; whereas, with the tremendous artillery support available to the Canadians, a joint assault by both battalions simultaneously would have dissipated the German fire and brought the attackers greater chance of success.173 Above all the Canadian troops, unpractised in battle, were opposed, battalion for battalion, by seasoned veterans of a formation unequalled among the German armies in Italy for its fighting skill and tenacity, and on ground decidedly favourable to the defenders.
This Canadian inexperience was underlined by Kesselring in his telephone conversations with the Commander of the Tenth Army. On 19 January the two were discussing the reported relief of brigades of the 1st Canadian Division by formations of the 5th Armoured Division:–
Kesselring: ... We need not be afraid that anything will happen there; they are unseasoned troops and we can easily cope with them.
von Vietinghoff: They all want to show their wares.
Kesselring: The trial runs of green troops are nothing famous.174
In accordance with the Eighth Army plan of 12 January, the 11th Brigade, after only three days in reserve, returned to the line on the night of 21–22 January to occupy positions in the 13th Corps’ sector, immediately north-east of Orsogna. Here Brigadier Kitching’s battalions relieved a brigade of the 4th Indian Division, in order that the GOC, Maj-Gen. F. I. S. Tuker, might concentrate his forces for the projected attack against Orsogna.175 On their immediate left (also under command of the Indian Division) were two other units of the 5th Canadian Division, The Westminster Regiment (Motor), near Salarola, and the 2nd Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians)) in the Castelfrentano area. These had been equipped at short notice and by devious means and brought forward to supply General Tuker’s lack of motorized and armoured troops. But the 13th Corps’ proposed operation was postponed, and later cancelled. It was postponed when General Leese, anxious to husband the Eighth Army’s limited strength, obtained General Alexander’s permission to defer his offensive until mid-February, when he would have in reserve the fresh Canadian Corps Headquarters and Corps Troops, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and the newly-formed Polish 3rd Carpathian Division; it was cancelled when early in February the 4th Indian and the 78th Divisions, with which the attack was to have been mounted, were called in quick succession to reinforce the Fifth Army in the west.176 For the remainder of January the activities of the 5th Division units in the line were restricted to patrolling by the infantry,177 and occasional direct fire against enemy positions by the tanks.178 The Westminster diary recorded somewhat naively, “Everyone is pleased over working with the Indian troops, because it is something to talk about later.” It was more; it was a strengthening of the happy association of Indian and Canadian soldiers which had begun in November between the Sangro and the Moro (see above, p. 289n) and which was to continue to thrive on many fronts throughout the entire Italian campaign.
The Anzio Landings and the German Reaction
Meanwhile on the other side of Italy the Fifth Army was delivering the blows which it was hoped would force the Germans to withdraw north of Rome.179 Late on 17 January the 10th British Corps attacked across the lower Garigliano River, and in three days of bitter fighting secured a substantial holding*
* Four months later this bridgehead was to provide the Fifth Army with a springboard for its advance to Rome.
and breached the outer defences of the Gustav Line.180 Kesselring called the situation “the greatest crisis yet encountered”, and began mustering all reserves within reach to counteract what he obviously
took to be the principal Allied effort. He ordered the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions from the Rome area to the Garigliano, and on the morning of the 22nd he launched a violent counter-offensive against the 10th Corps bridgehead.181
On that same morning, when every available formation of the Tenth Army was actively committed on its southern flank, a combined Anglo-American force under the command of the United States 6th Corps landed at Anzio, 35 miles south of Rome. It gained complete surprise, for the reinforcement of the Garigliano sector had left only small contingents of the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions guarding the 100 miles of coast south-eastward from Civitavecchia. In the area of the Allied landings the only German troops – responsible for 40 miles of coast – were three engineer companies and one panzer grenadier battalion.182 It was not the first time that an Allied offensive had taken Kesselring unaware, but as on other occasions he reacted promptly and vigorously.*
* On 12 January, in a directive to his Air Commander, Kesselring warned that a fresh Allied landing in Italy would “certainly be carried out at the same time as a heavy attack on the Tenth Army front.”183 On the other hand, according to General Westphal (Kesselring’s Chief of Staff), Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Intelligence Branch, Armed Forces High Command, visited the Army Group on 21 January, and stated his conviction that a new landing was definitely not to be feared in, the immediate future.184
A month earlier the German High Command had taken steps to meet just such an eventuality. It had issued orders to the C-in-C West (France and Lowlands), the C-in-C South-East (Balkans) and the Commander of the Replacement Army (Germany), specifying the units that were to be transferred to Italy in the event of a landing in any one of five designated sectors. Thus the C-in-C South-West was assured of reinforcements; pending their arrival he was directed to throw his own forces into the struggle.185
The prearranged plans worked with clockwork precision. Army Group “C” promptly alerted replacement units in the Rome area and ordered Tenth Army Headquarters to transfer to the Anzio sector all the combat troops that could be spared, to which end the counter-attack at the Garigliano was cancelled. At the same time it asked the Armed Forces High Command that the task forces provided for in “Case Richard” (a landing in the Rome area) be sent to Italy. By nightfall on the 22nd troops of the Fourteenth Army were on their way from Northern Italy and the two succeeding days saw formations on the move from France, Germany and the Balkans.186 Among the units which left the Adriatic front within 24 hours of the Anzio landings was the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the 1st Parachute Division, which had dealt so sternly with The Perth Regiment less than a week before.187
The denuding of the Tenth Army’s Adriatic flank continued. By 26 January the 26th Panzer Division had virtually disappeared from the
Eighth Army’s front, its place being taken by the bulk of the 305th Infantry Division, which was moved up from the Maiella sector and inserted between the 1st Parachute Division on the coast and the 334th Division inland. To guard the mountainous centre of the peninsula as far as Alfedena three battalions of the 305th Division were left behind with a GHQ Alpine Infantry battalion to form an independent group, known from the name of its commander as “Blocking Group Bode.”188 Then, at midday on 2 February, the Headquarters of the 76th Panzer Corps (with Corps Troops) moved off to the south-west, and was relieved by that of the 51st Mountain Corps, brought down from the north under the command of General of Mountain Troops Valentin Feurstein.189
The Allied forces at Anzio had met virtually no opposition during the landings, yet exploitation inland was slow. General Alexander’s instruction of 12 January had set down as the main object the capture of the Alban Hills, in order to cut the German communications south of Rome (see Map 15). But the Fifth Army’s Order to the Commander of the 6th Corps, Maj-Gen. J. P. Lucas, specified only an “advance on” (not to) the Alban Hills. Four German divisions were reported to be in the neighbourhood of Anzio, and for the 6th Corps (with a strength of little more than two divisions) to have pushed forward to the hills would have dangerously overextended its forces and risked their destruction. Accordingly Lucas had concentrated on consolidating his beachhead position.190 On the German side the C-in-C South-West made use of the breathing spell to bring some order into the confused mass of heterogeneous units that had crowded into the area. On 24 January he directed the Tenth Army to defend its present positions from the Gulf of Gaeta to the Foro Line; the Fourteenth Army (under General Eberhard von Mackensen) was to take over the coastal front from Cecina (20 miles south of Leghorn) to Terracina (18 miles up the coast from Gaeta), its chief task being “to counter-attack and to throw the enemy forces landed south of Rome back into the sea.” The former responsibilities of the Fourteenth Army were transferred to a new command created for that purpose, the Armeegruppe von Zangen,*
* A German Armeegruppe was not an Army Group in the Allied sense, but merely a provisional organization, intermediate in status and responsibility between Corps and Army. The commander, General of Infantry Gustav von Zangen, later commanded the Fifteenth Army in North-West Europe.
which was ordered to guard the northern coasts and carry on “with the utmost energy the construction work on the Apennine position and on the coastal fronts.”191
For the first time the Germans had two armies engaged in active operations against the Allied Fifth and Eighth Armies. The troops of neither were left in any doubt of what was demanded of them. On 24 January a direct order came from Hitler, to be read to all members of the Tenth Army: “The Gustav Line must be held at all costs for the sake of the political consequences
which would follow a completely successful defence. The Führer expects the bitterest struggle for every yard.”192
An exhortation to the Fourteenth Army four days later was couched in less restrained terms. In it Hitler saw the Allied landings as “the beginning of the invasion of Europe planned for 1944”, and he called on every member of the Fourteenth Army to wage battle
... with inspired hatred towards an enemy who is carrying on a pitiless war of extermination against the German people. ... The battle must be hard and merciless, not only against the enemy, but also against every officer and man who fails in this decisive hour. As in the battles on Sicily, the river Rapido and at Ortona, the enemy must be made to realise that German fighting strength is unbroken and that the invasion of 1944 is an undertaking which will be smothered in the blood of Anglo-Saxon soldiers.193
The Attack Along the Villa Grande–Tollo Road, 30-31 January
At the end of January Canadian troops carried out one more limited attack, the last of the winter on the Adriatic front. As we have noted, the idea of a major offensive by the Eighth Army was languishing, although by vigorous patrolling and simulation of other preparations for a large-scale assault it was hoped to disguise that fact from the enemy. After the Anzio landings the need for determining the enemy dispositions had given this patrolling added significance. Intelligence staffs, appreciating that the 76th Panzer Corps would contribute reinforcements to the new danger area, depended upon the identification and interrogation of prisoners to give them a picture of changed enemy dispositions. Confirmation of the 26th Panzer Grenadier Division’s replacement by the 305th Division was obtained from patrol captures on 25 January, but questions regarding the strength of the 1st Parachute Division on the Canadian front*
* First intimation of the move of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Parachute Regiment on 23 January came from the Fifth Army front, where it was identified in action on the 31st.194
went unanswered.195 There were strong grounds for suspecting that some of Heidrich’s units might have been called across the peninsula; in the somewhat complacent words of a recently captured member of the 1st Regiment, “Whenever they get in a mess they throw in the Paratroops.”196 In spite of determined efforts, however, our patrols had taken no paratrooper since the 22nd.197 It was therefore ostensibly with the object of securing a base for bolder and more effective patrolling that plans were made to deepen the salient held by the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade on the left of the 1st Division’s front.
A more pressing reason for the forthcoming operation, however, was disclosed by the GOC 5th Corps, Lt-Gen. Allfrey, who with
Brigadier Hoffmeister (acting Divisional Commander in the absence on leave of General Vokes) attended a brigade conference at Brigadier Spry’s command post on the afternoon of 29 January. It was to be a “holding attack”, carried out in keeping with a 5th Corps instruction (of 23 January) which read: “During the crux of the fighting on Fifth Army front, additional steps are to be taken to stop the enemy reinforcing from this side.” Possibly because the holding attack is one of the costlier operations of war the Corps Commander directed that the real purpose of the venture*
* Formation and unit war diaries and other documentary sources throw no light on why the operation was undertaken. Late on 29 January the 5th Corps gave as the next day’s “intentions” for the 1st Canadian Division: “Active patrolling continues with object PW.”
should be kept from the participating troops.
The proposed operation was discussed at length by Spry and the commanders of the units which were to participate; in the light of the detailed knowledge of the ground which nearly a month’s patrolling and observation by the brigade had produced there was little optimism about the chances of success.198
The area over which the attack was to be made was the Piano di Moregine, a 500-foot plateau rising from the gully gouged out by the left fork of the Riccio west of San Nicola and Villa Grande (see Sketch 6). At the time Brigadier Spry’s force was disposed with The Royal Canadian Regiment on the right, the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards (under command, serving as infantry) in the centre, and the 48th Highlanders on the left, about 1000 yards west of Villa Grande.199 The Brigade Commander selected his reserve battalion, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, to attack through the 48th’s positions, following a secondary road which from Villa Grande crossed the plateau to join the main Tollo road (the 11th Canadian Brigade’s objective of 17 January). The objectives were positions code-named “Apple Blossom” and “Trafalgar”, respectively to the right and left of the Villa Grande–Tollo road where it began its sharp descent to the Arielli.200 The attack was to be carried out by day, with two companies operating forward for the whole distance – about a mile – followed by tanks of “B” Squadron of The Calgary Regiment. It was a long thrust to make in daylight across generally flat, exposed ground, even though the enemy forces guarding Tollo were believed to be light,†
† Three days later, referring to the Hastings’ casualties in this and a subsequent attack, the 1st Brigade diarist (who was apparently ignorant of the “holding” purpose of the operation) was to write: “A very heavy price to pay for the knowledge that the enemy is holding the approach to Tollo in Strength.”201
and the attackers would have strong artillery and air support. The artillery programme called for the fire of the 2nd and 3rd Field Regiments RCA, two field regiments of the 8th Indian Division, two British medium regiments and the 14th Heavy Battery RA. It included counter-battery firing, and made available on call a smokescreen to cover the left flank.202
Map missing from image PDF
At 3:45 in the afternoon of the 30th, fifteen minutes before H Hour, 24 Kittyhawks of the Desert Air Force bombed enemy gun positions on the far side of the Arielli.203 Promptly at four o’clock, under an impressive and apparently effective artillery barrage across the 1000-yard front, the Hastings moved off, with “B” Company on the right and “D” on the left. Initial progress was good, and at five o’clock Lt-Col. Kennedy reported his troops to be only a “few minutes” away from the objective.204 As the advance continued, however, the enemy (later identified as the 1st Battalion, 4th Parachute Regiment)205 laid down a barrage of his own behind that of our artillery. “B” Company, hard hit and thoroughly bewildered by this assumedly friendly fire that failed to lift, was driven to the cover of a small gully 400 yards from the “Apple Blossom” group of houses; here it reorganized for a second attempt. Meanwhile, on the left, “D” Company had been halted by heavy machine-gun fire. Towards last light the two companies again attacked, with fresh artillery support and assisted as before by tanks. This time “B” Company managed to approach to within 200 yards of its goal and “D” Company was still more nearly successful; but suddenly the growing darkness was streaked with tracer as the enemy’s machine-guns once more broke into action. The fire increased in intensity and, with further progress being impossible, both sub-units withdrew to positions 300 yards short of the battalion objectives.206 In less than three hours the Hastings had suffered casualties of fifteen killed and 33 wounded.
Kennedy now reported to the Brigade Commander, and plans were drawn up for a further attack next day. A number of changes were made in the support arrangements. The preliminary artillery concentration was eliminated, for the sake of surprise; the rate of advance for the barrage was reduced
from 100 yards in two minutes*
* Of this rate of progress prescribed for the attack on the 30th the war diary of the CRA 1st Division observed beforehand: “Time alone will tell if our infantry can follow at such a pace, even though the ground is favourable.”207
to 100 in three; the tanks were this time to precede the infantry, moving close under the barrage and covered by a smoke screen.208 As on the previous occasion the Desert Air Force was to assist, but in greater strength; during the early afternoon of the 31st Kittyhawk fighter-bombers made 72 sorties on hostile gun positions.209
The start of the fresh attack, originally timed for 2:00 p.m., was delayed half an hour, for stretcher bearers were still collecting the previous day’s casualties from the battlefield. “A” Company was now to advance on the left, replacing “D”, with “B” Company still on the right. Promptly at the new H Hour, as high explosive shells screamed overhead and the supporting tanks rumbled forward through the covering smoke, the Hastings again began advancing across the open fields on either side of the road. Almost immediately heavy mortar fire fell on them from the right flank. At about the same time two of the Calgaries’ six Shermans were stopped by mines. The remaining four, bursting through the smoke only fifty yards behind the barrage, caught the enemy with his head still down. Despite the loss of two more of their number – one returned with the troop commander fatally wounded, and yet another struck a mine – the tanks shot up targets on both sides of the Arielli, inflicting considerable casualties and knocking out three 75-millimetre anti-tank guns. In the meantime, the Hastings found themselves under increasingly heavy mortar fire, with machine-guns as well now sweeping them from the front and left. At last, as the advancing platoons were cut down to sections, and sections reduced to two or three men, Kennedy withdrew both companies. Left without prospects of infantry support, the two surviving tanks, their ammunition running low, also retired.210
In this one bitter hour The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment had lost nine killed (including two officers) and 34 wounded, which brought the casualties for both days to more than ninety. Yet the operation had taught or confirmed more than one useful lesson, as was reflected in a report submitted to General Crerar†
† On 11 February 1944 Crerar addressed the Commanders and Staff of the Eighth Army on “The Principles of Effective Fire Support in the ‘Break-in’ Battle”. He gave his view that “in this theatre conditions and circumstances have faced us once more with the tactical problems and conditions which typified the last Great War,” and he emphasized the need of applying those tactics and techniques which had proved most successful in offensive operations during-that war.211
by General Vokes on his return from leave. He emphasized the need for adjusting the barrage to “a speed which enables the leading infantry to keep close behind”, and pointed to the advantage of the infantry advancing quickly through enemy fire rather than allowing themselves to be pinned down; for “the enemy cannot alter range as fast as they can move”. (In subsequent attacks the conventional moving barrage
was to be largely replaced by the more flexible timed or “on call” concentrations on known or suspected enemy positions.)212 Above all the GOC stressed the value of flexibility in “infantry-cum-tank” tactics, in which “each must endeavour to observe and conform to the actions of the other, thereby helping where help is obvious.”213 This last item was to receive very close attention in training exercises in rear areas before Canadian infantry and armour again went together into action. Nor should any assessment of the value of Canadian operations in January ignore the fact that at a time when Chiefs of Staff of German formations in Italy were racking their brains to find units which could be moved from relatively quiet sectors to reinforce the Anzio and Cassino fronts, the enemy did not feel free to withdraw from the Adriatic front the brilliant fighters of the 1st Parachute Division.
Late on the night of 31 January, Kesselring’s Chief of Staff telephoned congratulations to his opposite number in the German Tenth Army:–
Westphal: With the paratroops you have obtained a new success. They are really wonderful.
Wentzell: Yes. They counted 90 dead [sic]. It was again the 1st Canadian Infantry Division; where the 5th Division is we do not know. But they must be up there; they keep on talking with Corps.214
Von Vietinghoff’ s Chief of Staff was right in his surmise. The 5th Canadian Division was “up there”, and at noon on the next day took over the Orsogna sector from the 4th Indian Division.215 In command of the Armoured Division was Maj-Gen. E. L. M. Burns, former GOC 2nd Infantry Division, who had succeeded General Simonds on 30 January on the latter’s appointment to command the 2nd Canadian Corps. At midnight on 31 January–1 February General Crerar’s headquarters had formally relieved Headquarters 5th Corps. Now for the first time in the Second World War a Canadian Corps was operating in the line.216
“The Adriatic Barricade”
A few days were to elapse before the forces under General Crerar became a completely Canadian command. When his headquarters opened at Rocca San Giovanni, eight miles south of Ortona, the seven-mile front for which it assumed responsibility was manned by the 1st Canadian Division, next to the sea, and on its left the 8th Indian Division and the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade, covering the Ortona–Orsogna Highway opposite the villages of Crecchio and Arielli.217 Crerar had continued to press for “a speedy amalgamation of Canadian forces in CMF under my command”,218 and the departure of the 4th Indian Division for the Fifth Army front during the first week in February and the demand for the. 78th to follow shortly
brought a regrouping of the Eighth Army in which his purpose was largely achieved.
In a series of reliefs on the night of 8–9 February the 5th Canadian Armoured Division replaced the 8th Indian Division in the Canadian Corps’ sector, coming under General Crerar’s command at midday on the 9th.219 On 4 February the 1st Army Group Royal Canadian Artillery, commanded by Brigadier W. E. Huckvale, had become operational with the Canadian Corps, releasing for service on the Fifth Army’s front the British 1st Army Group Royal Artillery, which had been providing the medium and heavy support for the 5th Corps.220 Only the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade remained outside Crerar’ s command; on 9 February it came under the 13th Corps to replace the 5th Armoured Brigade in providing Lt-Gen. S. C. Kirkman (who had succeeded Lt-Gen. Dempsey as GOC on 22 January) with the requisite armour.221 Units of the brigade spent the rest of February*
* During the third week of February The Ontario Regiment provided a ski-party of 50 to carry rations to a troop of the 56th British Reconnaissance Regiment snowed in at Colledimezzo, on the east bank of the Sangro (see Map 10), and ammunition to a unit of the Polish Carpathian Division, isolated at Pescopennataro.222
and most of March in the Lanciano–Castelfrentano area filling a counter-attack role while training with infantry of the 8th Indian Division.223
For the Canadians the next twelve weeks were to be devoid of major action, as both sides relegated the Adriatic sector to static warfare (although, under directions of the Army Commander, General Crerar drew up outline plans for more than one major operation designed to clear the enemy east of the Arielli and lead to the capture of Tollo).224 The only break in the routine of patrolling was to come with the periodic reliefs which withdrew units from their watch along the front line for brief interludes of rest seasoned with bursts of “refresher” training for the expected offensive in the spring. The weather, which towards the end of January had shown some improvement over its wretchedness at the beginning of the year, turned depressingly bad again in February, and the continual rain converted the heavy clay of the coastal sector into a morass. In such circumstances the necessity of holding front-line positions which had been neither deliberately organized for defence nor constructed with a view to any degree of permanent occupancy imposed a considerable strain on the troops, who frequently found themselves forced to spend the day cramped in slit-trenches, with anything approaching normal movement only becoming possible at night. These difficulties, observed an officer of the Division, “are immeasurably increased when the slit-trenches are full of water, the ground is deep in mud, and temperatures at night are below the freezing point.”225
Night after night our patrols were out along the entire front, as the need for prisoners was stressed from corps to, division, from division to brigade,
and thence to every battalion, company and platoon. These stealthy sallies into “no man’s land” were made by parties whose strength varied with their assignment. The smallest was the “recce patrol”, consisting usually of one officer and three or four other ranks sent out to reconnoitre enemy positions and obtain information by listening, watching or searching; although heavily armed and capable of defending itself in necessity, it avoided fighting. More aggressive were the roles of the “standing patrol” – of any number up to a platoon, organized as a protection against enemy patrols, and prepared to ambush and kill – and the “fighting patrol”, consisting generally of one officer and a section of ten men (although not infrequently in platoon strength) whose business it was to move boldly through unoccupied territory and make contact with the enemy, with the purpose of capturing or killing a German for identification purposes.226
Successful results came slowly. On 4 February a Seaforth fighting patrol took a prisoner, the first on the divisional front for some time. He was a young paratrooper of the 3rd Regiment, and before he died of his wounds his interrogation established the fact that Heidrich’s division had not left the sector. The latest entries in his diary revealed something of the effect of our patrolling on the enemy morale:–
I have changed a good deal, I cannot smile now. Here one must run for one’s life. ... We squat day and night in our anti-tank ditch. Listening posts are put forward and patrols with grenades and machine pistols. One cannot feel safe here. ...227
Mid-February passed, and still no evidence had been collected of any major change opposite the Eighth Army’s front; the enemy’s line was held in succession from the coast (the dispositions were later confirmed by captured documents) by the 1st Parachute Division as far as Villa Grande, the 305th and 334th Infantry Divisions, and “Blocking Group Bode” in the mountains. “Excellent”, “good”, “inexperienced” and “satisfactory” were the respective ratings given these formations by Kesselring and von Vietinghoff in the course of their daily telephone conversations.228
Heidrich’s division finally moved during the third week of February; on the 20th his headquarters and the last battalion hurried from the coastal sector to join the 14th Corps at Cassino.229 A planned exchange with the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division did not materialize, and on 21 February Kesselring ordered that exhausted formation into army group reserve at Frosinone, where it would be readily available to strengthen either the Cassino or Anzio front. In its place he dispatched to the Pescara sector the 992nd Grenadier Regiment (278th Infantry Division) which had been guarding the Ligurian coast south of Leghorn.230
Having lost his best formation without replacement, Feurstein was forced to spread his remaining forces more thinly in front of the Foro position;
initially he placed in the coastal gap a temporary headquarters under the commander of the 334th Artillery Regiment to administer whatever units Army Group “C” might be able to spare him.231 The 146th Grenadier Regiment*
* This was the strongest surviving formation of the 65th Infantry Division, which had been so badly mauled in November. Although slated to be withdrawn by 15 March, the regiment stayed only until 24 February, when its place was taken by a general sidestepping of units of the 305th Division.232
came to stay for a month, but was packed off again after only four days. By the end of February the 305th Division, supplemented by the 334th Engineer Battalion next to the sea, manned the entire front opposite the Canadian Corps.233
The departure of the paratroops did not go unnoticed by the Canadians. The interception of a German message on the 19th warned of the approaching move, and Canadian guns roared an appropriate send-off. Although a general shortage of ammunition had limited expenditure on the Eighth Army’s front†
† On 8 February the maximum daily expenditure of ammunition within the 1st Canadian Corps was set at 25 rounds per gun for the 4.5- and 5.5-inch guns, and 20 rounds per gun for heavier equipment.234
the occasion was a special one, as was pointed out by the diarist at the divisional artillery headquarters:–
Will we arrange a special BF [Harassing Fire] programme? Will we? Just give us the ammunition and watch us go to town. Twenty rounds extra per gun will be forthcoming. Intelligence has given us the known routes of a changeover and relief by Jerry, so we will plaster these places from 1830 to 2100 hrs.235
With Heidrich’s battle-wise soldiers out of the way the taking of prisoners suddenly became much easier. On 20 February a Carleton and York patrol brought in from a slit-trench on the Moregine Plateau two members of the 146th Grenadier Regiment, whose interrogation gave first proof that the Parachute Division had been relieved.236 The capture earned for the patrol five pounds from General Vokes, and a similar sum (in lieu of a temporarily unobtainable bottle of whiskey) from Brigadier Gibson. To this reward the Corps Commander added a further five pounds, which he described as “the most welcome payment I have ever made.”237 After that the flow of prisoners increased; the spirits of our troops were lightened by the disappearance of an old enemy, and they found in their new opponents a marked deterioration of the will to resist.238 In the sector held by the 11th Infantry Brigade there were few days which did not see a patrol of some kind going out. The highlight of this activity was a daylight raid across the Arielli by members of The Cape Breton Highlanders who snatched a German from his weapon-pit and dragged him screaming back to our lines.239
February passed into March without either side undertaking a formal attack, although the ever-present possibility that the enemy might become more adventurous kept the Canadians continually on the alert. History was made on 4 March, when for the first time in the war a full armoured regiment
carried out a precision bombardment on a German position. Forty-eight tanks of the 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars, firing from regimental line at a range of 5200 yards, dropped 720 shells into Tollo. The rounds fell accurately in an area 200 yards by 100, the concentration bringing from an Air Observation Post Officer the tribute, “The most beautiful sight I have seen in a long time.”240 The state of relative inactivity amid the rain, the cold and the mud severely tested the morale of the troops in the line. There were disquieting factors from outside the realm of actual operations. Men five thousand miles from their families found cause for dissatisfaction in the irregularity of the arrival of mail from Canada. The introduction of “Mailcan,”*
* The “Mailcan” service was inaugurated late in 1943, on a tri-weekly schedule from Montreal to Prestwick, with one trip every five days from Prestwick to Naples and Foggia, to carry all letters and registered mail to Canadian forces in the Mediterranean theatre. The first cargo reached Catania on 28 December, in a Flying Fortress manned by an RCAF crew. Bad flying weather seriously interrupted the schedule during February.241
the Canadian forces air-mail service from Canada, had disappointingly failed to shorten materially the time taken for letters to come from home. Christmas parcels did not reach units of the 1st Canadian Corps Troops until 2 February, and during the last two weeks of that month no letters, by air or any other means, were received.242 On the battlefield rumour travels fast, and a tale, immediately and officially denied, circulating throughout the Corps that English wives of Canadians in Italy were being compulsorily shipped to Canada, contributed to the general depression.243
As an antidote to war-weariness a period of rest behind the line in the vicinity of Ortona and San Vito provided a blessed change of environment which brought dry billets, baths, change of clothes, hot meals at regular hours, and a variety of entertainment furnished by the British and Canadian military administrative and auxiliary services. An amusement guide to Ortona would include the names of “The Beaver Club”, “Monastery Inn”, “Loew’s Theatre”, “The Red Shield Club” (in the Ortona Opera House), “The Cinema” and the “Hole-in-the-Wall”;†
† This theatre was named after a London public house at which many Canadians had spent their last minutes of leave before boarding the train at Waterloo Station.
at these the tired soldier could find recreation in a liberal choice of movies, in “ENSA” shows, and in the popular offerings of “The Tin Hats” – an all-Canadian concert party.244 At the “Sword and Drum” in San Vito dances for officers brought together the charm and beauty of Canadian nurses and closely-chaperoned Italian girls from the two towns (although the society girls of San Vito were hesitant to attend until they knew the names of signorine invited from Ortona).245 There were some fortunate souls – the total weekly allotment for the Canadian Corps was 17 officers and 370 other ranks246 – who spent a few days at the Eighth Army’s Rest Camp in Bari. They returned full of praise of its efficient administration and the fact “that those attending are left completely free of
any parade.247 Such were the amenities which helped to combat decline in morale during these somewhat discouraging weeks. Nor should we omit mention of the daily army newspaper which the Minister of National Defence at the time of his visit to the 1st Canadian Corps had ordered to be started as a means of bringing the troops regular up-to-date Canadian news. Publication of The Maple Leaf began in Naples on 14 January 1944, under the editorship of Lt-Col. R. S. Malone. High priority was given to the newspaper’s distribution. It was flown daily up to forward airfields so that troops in the field could read it the same day that it came off the presses.248
The Canadian Corps’ first operational tour of duty lasted for 36 days. On 7 March the British 5th Corps Headquarters came up from army group reserve to relieve both General Crerar’s headquarters and that of the 13th Corps. It was the first step in the regrouping of the Eighth Army for a spring offensive west of the Apennines. The Canadian headquarters closed at Rocca San Giovanni and moved south into the Biferno country, to open next day at Larino.249 At the same time the 5th Armoured Division was withdrawn from the line,*
* The relief of the Division’s infantry brigade was not completed until 14 March.250
going into reserve at Castelnuovo in the Daunia hills, half a dozen miles north of Motta Montecorvino; and on 26 March the 1st Armoured Brigade (commanded since 27 February by Brigadier W. C. Murphy) was relieved from its duties with the 5th Corps by the British 23rd Armoured Brigade, and moved across the mountains to a training area in the Volturno Valley, near Venafro.251
Coincident with these moves General Crerar departed for the United Kingdom to become GOC-in-C First Canadian Army, and General Bums took over the Corps.252
Brigadier G. A. McCarter continued as Chief of Staff, 1st Canadian Corps. Burns was succeeded in the command of the 5th Division by Maj-Gen. Hoffmeister, former commander of the 2nd Brigade,253 which was taken over by Brigadier Gibson. Lt-Col. J. P. E. Bernatchez was promoted to brigadier and placed in command of the 3rd Brigade. The appointment of Commander Royal Artillery, 1st Canadian Division passed from Brigadier Matthews to Brigadier W. S. Ziegler.
For seven more weeks the 1st Canadian Division remained in the Ortona salient – its units widely dispersed along a seven-mile front from the coast to Crecchio. To man this extended holding General Vokes had to keep all three brigades in the line, each with two battalions forward. A rotating system of reliefs within the brigades gave each unit a welcome respite of a few days in reserve after two or three cheerless and exhausting weeks in the front line.254 To compensate for the lack of strong reserves behind the line, and to meet any attempted break-through to retake Ortona – a contingency which, though remote, could not entirely be ruled outsh Vokes coordinated a plan of defence which made the town a fortress to be garrisoned
by the 1st Brigade (whose positions were in the coastal sector), and designated defended concentration areas to be manned in an emergency by troops not actually committed in the battle line.255
No enemy thrust came, however, and as improved weather in late March introduced a somewhat tardy and capricious Adriatic spring, reserve battalions found it possible momentarily to abandon their counter-attack role in order to undertake long route marches over the rapidly drying roads. There was a perceptible easing of tension. “Even the most casual and unpractised observer”, wrote the Division’s Historical Officer on 3 April, “cannot fail to notice the emptiness of the once teeming gun areas and the general slackening of traffic along our lines of communication.”256
On the German side there were signs that the enemy was beginning to relax his vigilance. His carelessness in exposing himself on ground covered by our fire brought sharp reminders from our artillery to mule trains, vehicles and wandering parties of infantry.257 He apparently no longer feared an Allied attack in the sector. Captured intelligence reports of the 51st Mountain Corps for March noted the gradual thinning out of the Canadian forces in the coastal sector and the weekly rotation of battalion reliefs in the front line.258 Work on the Foro position had stopped early in the month as Kesselring ordered all efforts concentrated on the construction of defence lines in front of Rome.259
On the evening of 20 April a brigade of the 10th Indian Division began to relieve the 1st Canadian Brigade next to the sea, and the changeover of the whole division proceeded during three busy nights and days.260 To mask these movements the last days before the Canadian departure were marked by more than usually vigorous patrolling across the divisional front, and in all three brigade sectors raiding parties came fiercely to grips with the enemy.261 Early on the 23rd General Vokes handed over command of the sector to Maj-Gen. Denys Reid, GOC 10th Indian Division, which was newly arrived from Syria. Three days later he had established his headquarters at Vinchiaturo, and the 1st Division was once again under command of the Canadian Corps.
The end of April found one Canadian formation still actively engaged in the line. This was the 11th Infantry Brigade Group (commanded from 14 February by Brigadier T. E. D’O. Snow),*
* Brigadier Kitching returned to the UK to take command of the 4th Armoured Division.
which on 9 April took over a mountainous 9000-yard section of the 13th Corps’ front five miles north-east of Cassino. Besides his three infantry battalions Brigadier Snow had under his command The Westminster Regiment (Motor) of the 5th Armoured Brigade, the 17th Field Regiment RCA and other artillery and engineer units, and the Italian Bafile Battalion – composed mainly of about 1000
sailors from the Italian Navy who had volunteered for land duty after surrendering their ship at Malta.262 On 15 April the Brigade Group came under the command of Lieut.sh General Sir Bernard Freyberg, GOC 2nd New Zealand Division (then part of the 10th Corps). There was extensive patrolling, although very little fighting (Canadian infantry casualties for the four-week period totalled 125 all ranks). The most formidable problem was the maintenance of Snow’s 7500 troops in their isolated, rocky positions. Supplies had to be transferred successively from heavy lorries to 15-cwt trucks, to jeeps, to mules, and finally carried by man-pack to the forward companies. The brigade ended its tour in the line on 5 May, when it handed over to the 12th South African Motor Brigade and went into reserve in the Capua area.263
The relief of the 1st Canadian Division ended the long, and in many respects often unsatisfactory, period of service on the Adriatic front. Among the units and formations moving down to the Biferno Valley there were few regrets. The sector had been the scene of much bloody fighting by the men of the Division, and many had fallen on the battlefield. In Ortona (Moro River) Cemetery, beautifully sited on a headland overlooking Ortona Bay, rest 1372 Canadians, nearly a quarter of all those who fell in Italy and Sicily. Of the score of cemeteries from Agira to Villanova in which Canadian soldiers are buried no other harbours so many Canadian graves.
But now the change in environment turned the thoughts of all in the Canadian Corps to the prospect of future action. It was no secret that preparations for a great offensive were afoot, and a spirit of eagerness filled the air. Before many weeks had passed Canadians were to have undertaken successfully one of their most spectacular operations of the entire Italian campaign.