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Chapter 14: The End of the Battle for Rome, 24 May–4 June 1944

The Exploitation by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division

While the forces under General Voke’s command were breaching the Hitler Line, drawn up behind the Forme d’Aquino the 5th Canadian Armoured Division awaited from the Corps Commander the code word, “Punch”, which would launch the second phase of Operation “Chesterfield”. This involved, it will be recalled, an advance to seize two successive objectives – a bridgehead over the Melfa River, which crossed the valley about five miles north-west of Pontecorvo, and the town of Ceprano five miles beyond, where Highway No. 6 swung over to the right bank of the Liri. Maj-Gen. Hoffmeister assigned the first of these tasks to the 5th Armoured Brigade; on its completion the 11th Infantry Brigade would pass through the armour at the Melfa and continue the advance to Ceprano1 (see Map 14).

In laying his plans for his armoured brigade’s operation, Brigadier J. D. B. Smith had to take into account the limited front on which the advance could be made and the considerable depth to which it had to go. There was also the consideration that German retention of positions along the north side of the Liri Valley in front of the 13th Corps meant that the Canadian thrust would be made with a badly exposed right flank. To meet these difficulties, Smith organized the units at his disposal into two strong striking forces and a reserve group.2 The first of these, formed from the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons) and The Irish Regiment of Canada (temporarily withdrawn from the 11th Infantry Brigade), he ordered to secure a firm base midway between the Hitler Line and the Melfa, where it could deal adequately with enemy opposition on either flank. From this position the 2nd Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians)), supported by a company of the armoured brigade’s lorry-borne infantry battalion – The Westminster Regiment (Motor) – would push forward and seize a crossing over the Melfa. Moving up from the reserve group, the

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remainder of The Westminster Regiment would be prepared to enlarge the initial bridgehead, from which the 5th Armoured Regiment (8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars) would exploit towards Ceprano. Each battle group, known by the name of the commander of its armoured regiment (Lt-Col. F. A. Vokes, of the B.C. Dragoons, and Lt-Col. P. G. Griffin, of Lord Strathcona’s Horse), was supported by a self-propelled battery from the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment RCA, a detachment of the 10th Field Squadron RCE, and a section of the 7th Light Field Ambulance. Additional artillery support could be called forward from the self-propelled 105s of the 8th Field Regiment RCA in reserve.3

At 5:30 p.m. on 23 May General Hoffmeister telephoned his Corps Commander that he considered the situation favourable for the armoured division to begin its advance. General Burns gave the necessary order,4 and the battle groups of the 5th Armoured Brigade started moving across the Forme d’Aquino. There were unexpected delays. The centre line for the advance had originally been laid to break out through a gap on the extreme right of the Corps front, turning north behind Aquino and thence swinging westward parallel to the railway. But the position of the 3rd Infantry Brigade’s breach made it necessary to shift this axis about a mile to the south, and to select a new assembly area and start line.5 Rain which had begun to fall during the late afternoon rapidly made the tracks forward from the Forme d’Aquino all but impassable to armour, and considerable congestion was caused by tanks of the 25th Tank Brigade returning from the battle to re-arm and refuel. As a result of these difficulties Hoffmeister reported to General Bums about 8:30 p.m. that his armoured brigade could not attack before morning.6

The leading tanks of Vokes Force crossed the new start line on the Pontecorvo Highway No. 6 lateral road at 8:00 a.m. on the 24th. Each BCD squadron was supported by a company of the Irish riding in carriers drawn from the battalions of the 11th Brigade.7 Immediately behind came squadrons of the 3rd Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The Governor General’s Horse Guards) charged with the duty of covering the flanks. Guns of the 1st Canadian Corps (230 in number) had fired a preliminary series of timed concentrations across a front 2400 yards wide. (The original programme of support by all the available artillery of the Eighth Army had been considerably reduced by the change of axis and the postponement of the advance; for the guns of the 13th Corps were now required on the 78th Division’s front).8 Almost immediately the Force came under heavy shellfire from the front and from the general neighbourhood of Aquino. About a mile west of the Pontecorvo lateral road it quickly disposed of some German infantry, who were supported by a few anti-tank guns. These were all that was left of the 361st Grenadier Regiment, which, with other remnants of the

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90th Panzer Grenadier Division driven out of the Hitler defences, had been ordered to establish an emergency line running from San Giovanni (on the Liri, about three miles above Pontecorvo, and not to be confused with the larger San Giovanni Incarico, four miles farther upstream) to Ponte Regno, at the bend in the lateral road, midway between Pontecorvo and the Via Casilina.9 The report in the 51st Mountain Corps’ war diary of this failure to halt the Canadian advance emphasizes the strength of the attacking column: “At 1000 hours the enemy attacked with 100 tanks, supported by artillery and aircraft, on the boundary between 1 Para Div and 90 Pz Gren Div. After breaking through at Ponte Regno and overcoming the remaining elements of 361 Gren Regt to the west thereof, he succeeded in advancing to the Melfa. ...”10

Shortly after midday Vokes Force had reached its objective in the area of Mancini, a farm two miles north-west of Aquino. On the way a brisk clash with enemy armour marked the first Allied encounter on the Western front with German Panther tanks.*

* Since early in 1944, when it became the first Panther-equipped unit in Italy, the 1st Panzer Battalion, 4th Panzer Regiment, had been carefully kept in reserve. Kesselring, in whom the desire to husband good tanks was strong, had not committed it even against the Anzio bridgehead.11 On 15 May, however, in response to urgent appeals for help, he agreed to send von Vietinghoff one Panther company from the Battalion,12 and five days later this appeared in the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division’s area,13 engaging Vokes Force on 24 May. On the 25th US forces encountered Panther tanks near Velletri.14

The Canadians emerged on roughly even terms. They destroyed three Panthers and captured several self-propelled 88s, for a loss of four Shermans. The engagement cost the Irish and the Dragoons a total of 33 casualties; 90 paratroopers were rounded up and sent to the rear.15

It was apparent to Brigadier Smith from reports coming back to him that enemy resistance east of the Melfa was not well organized, and he ordered his second group forward to the river at 11:30 a.m., although at that time Vokes Force had not established the planned base. Two hours later Griffin Force had passed Mancini, where the Irish were digging in around the BCD tanks, and was heading across country, deployed for battle. In the lead was Strathcona’s Reconnaissance Troop, with orders to press on to the Melfa with all speed. The rest of the regiment moved with “A” Squadron “ up “, and “B” and “C” well off to right and left of the centre line. Immediately behind the leading Strathcona squadron rode the Westminsters’ “A” Company in their White scout cars (armoured 15-cwts. on wheels). As the spearhead neared the Melfa, sunken roads and crosstracks made the going increasingly difficult. Close-growing scrub restricted visibility and movement, and the Westminsters were hard put to it†

† The regiment’s large “portees” – 3-ton lorries used for transporting the six-pounder anti-tank guns-were particularly hard to manoeuvre. These vehicles, which had been taken over from the 7th Armoured Division, were subsequently replaced by light anti-aircraft artillery tractors.

to follow the armour across

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irrigation ditches and over ground covered with stumps and fallen trees.16

Shortly before three o’clock the Reconnaissance Troop, commanded by Lieutenant E.J. Perkins, reached the Melfa at a point about a mile downstream from the railway crossing. Captured German maps later revealed that this was on the boundary between Baade’s 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, which was holding the south half of the valley, and Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division.17 The bed of the river was here some 50 yards wide, with little water flowing, but to reach it Perkins had to find a tank descent down a sharp 20-foot bank, tangled with saplings and underbrush. After a quick reconnaissance, which revealed many hastily abandoned enemy positions above the river, he discovered a crossing-place. Under intense shell and mortar fire, and with considerable exertion, which included hewing a rough track out of the far slope, he managed to get his three remaining Stuarts*

* A light American tank in which a mounted .5-inch Browning machine-gun replaced the original turret. Six of the troop’s Stuarts were being used to carry engineer parties accompanying Griffin Force.18

across the river and on top of the west bank. Within half an hour of their arrival at the Melfa the little party of 15 had taken possession of a house on the west bank of the river, capturing its eight German occupants, and with their tanks in “hull-down” defensive positions were preparing to hold their small bridgehead until reinforcements should arrive.19

The Battle at the Melfa, 24-25 May

In the meantime “A” Squadron of Strathcona’s had reached “Benedictine” crossroads (code names for successive bounds and report lines along the route of advance were chosen from alcoholic beverages), a track junction 500 yards short of the Melfa, and about three-quarters of a mile south-west of Roccasecca Station. One thousand yards downstream was a ford by which the enemy had been withdrawing, and where he obviously expected the Canadians would attempt to cross. Here he had prepared his defences, and with a view to diverting our forces into his field of fire, farther north he had sited some cleverly constructed dummy tanks in the bushes along the bank.20

From the area of the ford a number of German SPs and Panthers now engaged “A” Squadron. “C” Squadron, on the left, quickly became involved, and a desperate tank battle ensued. With visibility restricted by the trees and hedges, squadron control was almost impossible, and the action developed into a series of bitter duels between individual Shermans and Panthers. By half-past four the German force had been destroyed or driven across the river; but the enemy had moved up reinforcing armour and guns to the far bank, and a heavy fire fight raged back and forth across the river until dark. When the battle ended Strathcona’s had lost 17 Shermans. They

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claimed the destruction of five German tanks,*

* For once German statements of losses on both sides agreed remarkably closely with Allied figures. The war diary of the 51st Mountain Corps recorded on the 24th “embittered battles in the sector of 90 Pz Gren Div” in which “18 enemy tanks were destroyed while we lost four.”21

eight SP guns, a considerable number of anti-tank and other weapons and several vehicles.22

Between Mancini and the Melfa Griffin Force had by-passed various elements of enemy infantry, who appeared completely demoralized by the rapidity of the armoured advance and by the weight of our artillery. These were taken care of by the fast-moving squadrons of The Governor General’s Horse Guards, whose light reconnaissance tanks in particular showed great dash and initiative in engaging the enemy and preventing infiltration behind the armoured column. All three squadrons fought almost continuously throughout the day under very heavy shell and mortar fire. They knocked out at least five SP guns, and killed more than 50 enemy, taking prisoner as many more.23

Around Benedictine crossroads and overlooking the main German crossing-place downstream the two battered Strathcona squadrons took up defensive positions for the night. Tired tank crews dug slit-trenches by the light of the burning Shermans that marked the scene of the battle. “B” Squadron remained on the right flank, where during the afternoon it had carried on profitable operations against enemy traffic rolling westward along the Via Casilina. Although the original plan had been for the armour to push across the Melfa at the earliest opportunity, in view of Strathcona’s weakened condition and the enemy strength on the far bank, Griffin realized the need for first securing a firm bridgehead. This was a task for infantry, and already Westminsters were across the river.24

“A” Company of the motor battalion had reached Benedictine crossroads at the height of the tank battle; a knocked-out Strathcona tank blocking the narrow road had halted the column and forced the infantry to dismount half a mile from the river.25 Under heavy artillery fire the Westminsters covered the intervening ground in extended line and slid down the steep bank into the shallow stream. As the leading sections reached the far side they fanned out and began cleaning up small pockets of enemy. By half-past four the entire company had crossed, with the loss of only one man, and had joined the little party of Strathconas, who were putting up a stout fight from their limited holding. The company commander, Major J. K. Mahony, set up his headquarters in the farmhouse captured by Perkins; his flanking platoons began to dig in about 200 yards to right and left. On the open ground beyond the river only a few isolated groups of trees and exposed farm buildings interrupted the view from the wooded fringe along the bank. Thus, while the Westminsters could quickly spot any threatening move by the

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enemy, he could only guess what strength – particularly in anti-tank weapons – might be concealed in the shallow Canadian bridgehead.26

The first major success came when a PIAT gunner with the platoon on the left knocked out a German self-propelled 88 firing at Strathcona tanks east of the Melfa.27 Then, about six o’clock, four enemy tanks were seen advancing slowly across the stubble fields towards the centre of the bridgehead, followed by about fifty infantry on foot. Mahony had no anti-tank guns, but he ordered his PIATs to engage the armour at long range with high-angle fire, and as the enemy force came closer it was greeted by a fusillade from every rifle and machine-gun in the bridgehead. The German infantry went to ground, and the tanks, unharmed by a hail of bullets bouncing off their steel hulls, but evidently suspecting a trap, turned and withdrew when they were only 200 yards away.28

Within an hour enemy tanks (possibly the same four) approached the northern flank of the bridgehead, where “A” Company’s right-hand platoon was partly dug in. The foremost section was overrun, but not before one of the Westminsters, Private J.W. Culling, had single-handed disposed of a tank and its entire crew. As the tank commander stopped to reconnoitre, Culling rose from his unfinished slit-trench and killed him with a No. 36 grenade. In full view of the remaining enemy armour he lobbed a second grenade into the open turret, killing the driver and expelling the crew. As these ran for cover the cool Westminster shot two of them with his Bren gun and took the third prisoner. Culling received the Military Medal.29

Meanwhile, attempts by the platoon in the left of the bridgehead to clear a group of farm buildings which were sheltering an enemy tank and SP gun had been unsuccessful; continuous shelling and Nebelwerfer barrages were inflicting many casualties on the Westminsters. Accordingly, as darkness fell, Mahony ordered his, little band to draw in closer to his headquarters, and so make the bridgehead more compact. By this time there were no stretchers left, and while some of the able-bodied men helped the more seriously wounded back across the river others dug in, loosening the stubborn, sun-baked ground with No. 75 (Hawkins) anti-tank grenades. The anti-tank platoons with the six-pounders which Mahony so desperately needed were still east of the Melfa, unable to cross in daylight because of the small-arms fire which was sweeping the river from enemy positions upstream. With no adequate defence against the German armour, the holders of the bridgehead waited grimly for the next counter-attack.30

The remainder of the Westminster Regiment, called forward by Lt-Col. Griffin, had reached the Melfa about five o’clock. The Commanding Officer, Lt-Col. G. C. Corbould, ordered “B” and “C” Companies to cross and seize objectives about 2000 yards apart, and to link up with “A” Company from the right and left. “B” Company crossed under heavy fire about half a mile

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upstream from Mahony’s positions, and by 8:30 had reached the railway at a road-crossing 1500 yards west of the river. The attempt on the left failed. Tank and machine-gun fire from the German side of the Melfa caught “C” Company in the open ground south of the centre line and stopped it short of the river bank. Revising his plan, Corbould sent the company over directly into “A” Company’s positions.31 Shortly after nine o’clock these welcome reinforcements began to filter across the river. They were used to “thicken up” the small bridgehead, which was further strengthened soon after midnight by the arrival of the first of the long-awaited six-pounders. Under cover of darkness the Westminsters lowered the eight heavy anti-tank guns down the steep eastern bank and laboriously manhandled them across the rough river bed and up the far side. The bridgehead now seemed secure until daylight, and Corbould called his “B” Company back across the Melfa from its isolated positions on the right flank.32

During the evening the Irish Regiment had come forward from Mancini. They reached the Strathcona area at 11:00 p.m. and dug in for the remainder of the night.33 Brigadier Smith had planned an early morning crossing of the river, but difficulty in bringing up supporting arms delayed the attack for several hours. Heavy artillery and mortar fire continued to harass the Westminsters, and both companies suffered casualties. Major Mahony was wounded in the head and leg, but carried on.

Shortly before midday on the 25th the Irish assaulted at the main German crossing, while simultaneously the Westminster’s “C” Company broke out from the left flank of their bridgehead. “C” Squadron of The British Columbia Dragoons, supporting the Irish across the river, met the full force of the enemy’s anti-tank fire and lost seven tanks.34 But the infantry attack went well. Within an hour both battalions were holding the lateral road 1000 yards west of the river, and the battle for the Melfa crossing was won.35 Other units of the 11th Infantry Brigade now entered the bridgehead. In the late afternoon The Cape Breton Highlanders, supported by the 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars, drove forward another 1000 yards, and by nightfall The Perth Regiment had been brought forward on their left flank.36

Much of the credit for the armoured division’s success in its first operational task belongs to the Strathcona Reconnaissance Troop, which seized the first foothold, and the Westminsters’ “A” Company, which secured and held the bridgehead for several hours against an enemy force vastly superior in armoured support and fire power. Failure on their part would have meant “delay, a repetition of the attack, probably involving heavy losses in men, material and time, and would have given the enemy a breathing space which might have broken the impetus of the Corps advance.”37 Strathconas and Westminsters in the bridgehead were given inspired leadership

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by their respective commanders, each of whom performed individual deeds of gallantry during the course of the battle. Early in the action Lieutenant Perkins temporarily recrossed to the east bank of the Melfa, and standing in turn on two of the Strathcona tanks, fully exposed to the enemy’s shelling, directed fire against a concealed German 88. His brave and skilful leadership in this and a subsequent action (on 30 May, at Torrice) won him the DSO, an award rarely conferred upon subalterns.38

To the Westminsters, huddled in their narrow bridgehead, their numbers steadily diminishing under the fire which raked them continuously, and menaced at all times by the grim prospect of being overrun by armour, their company commander was a constant source of inspiration. Having skilfully organized his defences, throughout the entire action, even after he had received painful wounds, he was energetically on the alert, visiting each of his section posts in turn, and personally directing the fire of his PIATs. He “never allowed the thought of failure or withdrawal to enter his mind, and infused his spirit and determination into all his men. At the first sign of hesitation or faltering, Major Mahony was there to encourage, by his own example, those who were feeling the strain of battle.”39 His heroism brought him the Victoria Cross. He was decorated by King George VI on 31 July, when His Majesty, travelling incognito as “General Collingwood”, reviewed Canadian troops near Raviscanina in the Volturno Valley.40

While the 5th Armoured Division was playing the major role in the exploitation phase of Operation “Chesterfield”, a composite force from the 1st Division made an important contribution on the Corps left. On 23 May, while the battle for the Hitler Line was still in progress, General Vokes had been authorized by the Corps Commander to make a thrust forward to the junction of the Melfa and the Liri with his Reconnaissance Regiment, supported by tanks “and his freshest infantry brigade.”41 Accordingly, early on the 24th the commander of the Princess Louise, Lt-Col. F. D. Adams, led a battle group consisting of his own regiment, two squadrons of The Royal Canadian Dragoons, one squadron of the Three Rivers, and the Carleton and Yorks, along the river road running north-westward from Pontecorvo. Progress was slow as the force engaged small pockets of enemy resistance in a series of running fights throughout the day, and consolidation for the night came two miles short of the Melfa.42

At first light on the 25th Adams Force pushed on to its objective. Immediately above its junction with the Liri the Melfa is 500 yards wide and is commanded from the west side by forty-foot cliffs; but the Carleton and Yorks discovered a fording place about 1000 yards upstream. Covered by the guns of the tanks “D” Company made a quick crossing which caught the enemy – remnants of the 361st Grenadier Regiment43 – by surprise. Then defensive fire began to fall along the river, and the remaining rifle companies suffered heavily as they crossed. About midday a troop of the Three Rivers

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tanks joined the Carleton and Yorks in the flat wheatfields west of the Melfa, but shelling and mortaring kept infantry and armour pinned down all day, and casualties mounted. Contact was established with the 5th Division’s bridgehead, and towards dusk the situation eased. The West Novas with more tanks crossed the Melfa and established themselves on the Carleton and Yorks’ left;44 by nightfall Canadian holdings west of the river extended from the Liri to the line of the railway. The Melfa had been bridged in each divisional sector, and artillery and supporting arms were moving forward.

On General Burns’ right a number of factors had delayed the parallel advance by the 13th Corps, scheduled to follow the breach of the Hitler Line. In the first place, the continued presence of the enemy at Aquino after the Canadian break-through had prevented the 78th Division from moving forward, as planned, on the 24th. It was therefore decided that the 6th Armoured Division should pass south of Aquino along the route which had been earlier assigned to the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade, and advance on the Canadian right flank to capture the foothill towns of Castrocielo and Roccasecca (the thirteenth century birthplace of Thomas Aquinas, one of Monte Cassino’s most illustrious alumni). It was arranged that the route would be clear of Canadian units by 2:30 that afternoon. “However”, wrote Burns in his war diary, “through the rest of the afternoon and evening, due to difficulties caused by bad roads and stream crossings, congestions and unexplained delays occurred, and the 5 Canadian Armd. Div. did not get clear of the point where 6 Armd. Div. was to come in until about 2100 hours.”45 As a result the advance of the 13th Corps was postponed for another day.46

Early on the 25th patrols found Aquino and Piedimonte clear of the enemy. Members of The Calgary Regiment, mopping up around Aquino, discovered in a dug-out the operation order for the withdrawal of the 1st Parachute Division’s Artillery Regiment. The document was relayed back through Intelligence channels; Eighth Army Headquarters received it actually before the enemy had completed the operation.47 Enemy sources disclose that the order to withdraw his division to the west bank of the Melfa had reached Heidrich only at four o’clock on the previous afternoon, as Canadian tanks were reported at Roccasecca Station.48

As the 6th Armoured Division started in pursuit, it encountered unexpected trouble with uncleared mines on the west bank of the Forme d’Aquino.*

* The information that the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade had been compelled to switch its intended route in this area to the left had not reached the leading units of the 6th Armoured Division.49 Failure of Canadian sappers to remove the mines on their front was attributed by General Burns to enemy sniping from south of Aquino. “For some unexplained reason”, he wrote, “2 Canadian Inf. Bde. had been withdrawn from the line, and this may have allowed certain German elements who had not been mopped up to come to life again.”50 (The brigade, as we have seen, had suffered heavy casualties – next day PPCLI reported only 79 effectives, the Seaforth 280 and the Edmontons 245 – and the consequent need for reorganization, coupled with a premature report that the enemy was in full retreat, brought an order from the Brigadier to take up defensive positions in their present battalion areas, about 1000 yards east of the Pontecorvo-Aquino road.)51

The advance was delayed five hours,52 and it was late afternoon

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when the British spearhead reached the Melfa. Infantry and light tanks forded the stream 500 yards south of Highway No. 6; they encountered stern resistance, and all eight tanks were destroyed.53 The steep river banks prevented the passage of supporting arms, and when darkness fell the small bridgehead was relinquished. Meanwhile two squadrons of The Calgary Regiment leading the 78th Division along Highway No. 6 (while an Ontario squadron covered the division’s right) had reached Roccasecca Station. There they halted for the night, while the British division closed up to the river.54 On the Eighth Army’s right flank the 8th Indian Division had occupied Castrocielo during the day without meeting any opposition.55

The Enemy’s Plans for Retreat

At midday on the 25th General von Vietinghoff had telephoned Feurstein: “I would like to emphasize that according to the Fuhrer’s orders the Melfa line must be held for several days. An early withdrawal is out of the question. Enemy elements that have crossed the river must be thrown back. ...”56 The Commander of the Tenth Army was relaying to his subordinate instructions which he had received from Kesselring at four that morning calling for “fanatical defence of the designated main defence lines” and forbidding “the withdrawal of any division and the giving up of any strongpoint without my prior explicit consent.”57 But while commanders in high places might issue peremptory demands to stand fast, those nearer the scene of action knew that such orders could not be obeyed. General Feurstein was aware that Baade’s forces were now reduced to only 300 men of the 200th Grenadier Regiment and 100 survivors of the 361st.58 An “Official Note of Fact” by the 51st Mountain Corps’ Chief of Staff preserves the telephone conversation which took place shortly after midday on the 25th.

Feurstein: I report as a matter of duty that we will not bring back many men if we have to hold at all costs.

Colonel-General [von Vietinghoff]: We must accept that risk; Army Group has given explicit orders to hold the line for several days.

Feurstein: I report to the Colonel-General that the enemy has already crossed the Melfa in two places and that no forces are available to rectify the situation.59

Vietinghoff’ s attempts to convey to the Army Group Commander the hopelessness of the situation failed. In a prolonged and painful telephone conversation next day the two wrestled with the problem of reconciling reality with Hitler’s orders. Kesselring could not be convinced. “It is the Fuhrer’s explicit order and also my belief that we must bleed the enemy to exhaustion by hard fighting”, he declared. “You have always been optimistic; why has your attitude changed?”60

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During the early phases of the Allied offensive the High Command’s concern had been mainly with events in the Anzio bridgehead, for it was from that quarter that Hitler expected the major blow to be struck. Thus, on 22 May he had approved the transfer of the Hermann Goring Panzer Division to the Rome area, and its replacement at Leghorn by the 20th Luftwaffe Field Division from Denmark (where the likelihood of an Allied attack was assessed as being “far lower than that of a landing on the Ligurian coast”).61 Beyond this action the Supreme Command had taken no further hand in the direct control of operations. It was in general agreement with the conduct of the battle by Kesselring, whose immediate concern was to frustrate the Allied efforts on the southern front without having to withdraw all the main reserves needed to cope with a possible new landing.62 But after the surprise of the Canadian break-through in the Senger position on the 23rd, the deterioration of the situation farther south in the sector of the 14th Panzer Corps, and the breakout from the bridgehead, Kesselring did not lack instructions from Hitler. As we have seen, these sounded the familiar Hitlerian keynote of clinging to ground. “Only a short while ago”, Westphal told von Vietinghoff on the afternoon of the 24th, “Jodl rang up: ‘The Fuhrer absolutely demands that any withdrawal be carried out step by step and with the consent of Army Group.’ If at all possible, no withdrawal is to be made without the personal concurrence of the Fuhrer.”63

By the night of 25 May a crisis had developed on the Fourteenth Army’s front. During the day the 6th Corps, having overrun two German divisions in its path, had captured Cisterna, midway between Anzio and Valmontone, and was pushing a spearhead northward towards the latter town (see Map 15). On Truscott’s right flank a task force had made contact with troops of General Keyes’ 2nd Corps advancing along the coast from Terracina.64 As a result of these developments, the Fourteenth Army and the right wing of the Tenth Army were now deployed along a great straggling curve which was quite unsuited for protracted defence. Should the Fifth Army succeed in blocking the German line of retreat by cutting the Via Casilina at Valmontone, there was the danger that a rapid advance by the Eighth Army might lead to the encirclement of the 14th Panzer Corps.*

* On the afternoon of 25 May, however, General Clark decided on his own volition to shift the main axis of the 6th Corps away from Valmontone to the western side of the Alban Hills. The result was that Valmontone did not fall until 1 June, and a great opportunity to cut off and destroy the Tenth Army’s right wing was lost.65

To the Armed Forces Operations Staff it was quite apparent that the retirement of the entire front to the Caesar position could not long be postponed.66 Plans were made for a methodical and economical withdrawal. While the northern wing of the Fourteenth Army held firm between Velletri and the sea, von Mackensen’s left wing would pivot about Cisterna, and with the Tenth Army’s right fall back in a delaying action, nursing and saving their

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troops to the utmost so as to gain all possible time for the occupation and improvement of the “C” position. To block the vital Valmontone gap, the most seriously threatened part of the line, it was decided to move the 356th Infantry Division down from the Genoa area, replacing it with a division (the 42nd Jäger) from the Balkans. The remnants of the 71st and 94th Infantry Divisions would be put into the line immediately, and brought up to strength.67

Hitler approved these proposals, and appropriate instructions reached Kesselring on the 25th, and again on the 26th. He was to defend the “C” position at all costs. The immediate object was not however (as Kesselring forcibly reminded his Army Commanders) “to reach the Caesar line soon; rather, whilst stubbornly holding the sectors designated from time to time, to inflict such heavy casualties on the enemy that his fighting potentiality will be broken even before the Caesar line is reached.”68 Construction work on the line itself was to be accelerated by committing not only all the labour forces already on hand, but also the security garrison, the able-bodied natives living in the neighbourhood, and, if the opportunity arose, Organization Todt forces withdrawn from other sectors with all available equipment.69

In the early hours of the 27th Kesselring, after discussion with his Army Commanders, designated a number of lines of defence to which successive withdrawals might be made only at his express orders.70 In the Tenth Army zone the first of these lines (which were from six to ten miles apart) crossed the Via Casilina behind Ceprano, and followed thence the west bank of the Liri into the mountains north of Arce; the second cut the highway a few miles south-east of Frosinone, along the line Ceccano–Arnara–Ripi; a third ran through Ferentino to Alatri. A decisive and prolonged stand was to be made at the final position before Valmontone – a line running east and west through Anagni.71

The German commanders chose shrewdly when they sited the first of their delaying lines in the Ceprano area. Here. the main valley divides into the valley of the upper Liri, leading northward to Sara and Avezzano, and that of the Sacco, which runs north-westward towards Rome. The right wing of the Tenth Army was pulling back through both these avenues of escape, following Highway No. 82 to Sora and Highway No. 6 to Frosinone. Natural obstacles gave the Germans a chance ‘to block the mouth of each. At the north side of the main Liri Valley the Via Casilina passed through a narrow defile between commanding hills before it joined Highway No. 82 at Arce; on the south side the entrance to the Sacco Valley was blocked by the upper Liri, which the main road bridged at Ceprano, and the Isoletta Reservoir, an artificial lake created by damming the Liri below the confluence of the two streams. Thus the Eighth Army was faced with a defile to be forced on the one side and a serious water obstacle on the other.72

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Bridgeheads Over the Liri, 26–28 May

On the morning of 26 May General Burns issued orders for a rapid exploitation along the general axis Ceprano–Pofi–Frosinone. The direction of the advance turned almost due west. The first objective was the lateral road west of the Liri joining Ceprano with its railway station. Gaining this line would complete the second phase of “Chesterfield” (see above, page 427). The infantry division would then pass into reserve, while the 5th Armoured Division pushed on alone to the north and south road which connected Pofi with the railway.73

At 7:00 a.m. General Hoffmeister sent his infantry brigade forward from the Melfa. The Commander, Brigadier T. E. D’O. Snow, used two battalions – The Cape Breton Highlanders on the right and The Perth Regiment (now commanded by Lt-Col. J. S. H. Lind) on the left, each supported by a squadron of the New Brunswick Hussars. Progress was slow. The difficulties of negotiating the rough and narrow tracks through the thick bush were aggravated by the presence of numerous mines and booby traps, and it was necessary to build several diversions for tanks and vehicles. There was continuous mortaring and shelling over the area, and from the uncleared woods on the high ground to the north enemy snipers maintained troublesome fire.74 These conditions might have presented no serious problem to seasoned troops, but the two battalions of the 11th Brigade, lacking the experience of the veteran units of the 1st Division, allowed their advance to be delayed unnecessarily.75 It took a sharp attack about midday by the Cape Bretons with artillery support to win a crossing for the armour over the railway. Then the tanks ran short of petrol, and while they retired to refuel, both infantry battalions remained halted for most of the afternoon.76 As darkness fell, the Highlanders and the Perths consolidated on high ground a mile east of Ceprano and prepared to resist the counter-attack which the long exposed right flank in front of the 78th Division seemed to invite. The brigade had then advanced about four miles and had suffered casualties of 22 killed and 54 wounded – most of these by shellfire. Urged by the divisional commander to keep on pressing, Brigadier Snow ordered the CO of the Irish Regiment, Lt-Col. R. C. Clark, to send two companies forward to the Liri.77 These found all bridges destroyed. During the night patrols swam the river and reported Ceprano free of enemy.78

In the 1st Division’s sector on the Corps’ left flank Adams Force had pressed forward again in the early hours of 26 May with the object of seizing a bridgehead over the Liri south of the reservoir. The advance was virtually unmolested, for the enemy had been driven off in bitter fighting by the French, who on the previous evening had taken the hill village of San Giovanni Incarico, overlooking the reservoir from Highway No. 82.79

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The Canadians found the bridge below the dam blown, but a patrol of the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards waded the river and, making its way on foot two miles westward, crossed the Sacco and spent the night just south of Ceprano Station.80

Next day (27 May) the 11th Brigade established its bridgehead over the Liri. The river was under heavy shelling from high ground north of Ceprano, but about 1000 yards below the town the Perths found a place where a break in the steep banks, screened by trees from the enemy’s view, furnished a suitable launching site for assault boats. In the limited cover there was room to use only one boat, and this was shuttled forward and back on a rope until “B” and “D” Companies were on the far bank.81 During the crossing 4.2-inch mortars of the Brigade Support Group (The Princess Louise Fusiliers) effectively masked German self-propelled guns on the far bank.82 The Perths entered Ceprano about 9:30 a.m. and in short order cleaned up a few remaining pockets of machine-gunners and snipers; early afternoon found the whole battalion over the river. Towards evening “C” Company was repulsed when trying to clear a troublesome enemy rearguard from a hill about 600 yards south-west of the town.83 The Cape Breton Highlanders then entered the bridgehead, and by midnight the brigade was holding the road from Ceprano to the railway station. At daybreak the Perths took their hill objective without meeting further resistance.84 The enemy had been dislodged from the first of his delaying lines west of the Melfa.85

In the course of their advance from the Melfa the Canadians had cut obliquely across the enemy front, and had thus met remnants of unfamiliar units of von Vietinghoff’ s battered forces. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division was now in the path of the British 13th Corps, and the resistance to Brigadier Snow’s battalions came from elements of Lt-Gen. Smilo Baron von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzer Division. On 26 and 27 May von Lüttwitz was holding the Ceprano area with the 26th Panzer Battalion (down to 150 men) and a battalion of the 1027th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. He was also using (for what they were worth) the pitifully small remnants of his two infantry regiments – the 9th and 67th Panzer Grenadier Regiments – each reduced to 100 men or less, in unprofitable attempts to halt General Juin’s fierce mountain fighters.86

On 27 May the 26th Panzer Division reported: “Numerous tanks in assembly positions on the east bank of the Liri indicate that after dark, and when the bridges are ready, the enemy will cross the river with the intention of carrying out an armoured break-through along the Via Casilina on 28 May.”87 During the night, therefore, von Lüttwitz withdrew five miles to positions west of Pofi.88 But the expected onrush of Allied armour along Highway No. 6 did not materialize on the 28th, and Tenth Army staff officers

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who had insistently demanded permission to withdraw covered their embarrassment by numerous references to the efficacy of German minefields. “Advance tanks of the Moroccan Division made their appearance at Ceccano”, reported the 14th Panzer Corps’ Chief of Staff to Vietinghoff at 6:15 p.m., “but in the centre the enemy did not show up. They have tremendous difficulties with our minefields.”89 Kesselring received with satisfaction the news of the slow-down in the Eighth Army’s advance, coupled with the report of a temporary stabilization on the Fourteenth Army’s front, where the Hermann Goring Panzer Division had successfully counter-attacked south of Valmontone.90 He felt that he had done well to sit tight when others wavered and his directive to the Fourteenth Army that evening reflected a degree of optimism greater than usual.91

It was not, however, German minefields which had held up the Eighth Army’s advance and given Vietinghoff’s forces a valuable extra day in which to maintain a reasonably unhurried and orderly retreat. Trouble in bridging the Liri had caused the delay. Throughout the night of the 27th–28th Canadian engineers had laboured to construct bridges to carry the armour forward. The Liri had been bridged below the Isoletta dam during the previous night, and by 4:30 on the morning of the 28th (enemy shelling on the 27th had prevented bridging material being brought up in daylight)92 sappers of the 1st Division had spanned the Sacco and a route had been opened around the Corps’ left flank.93 At the site of the Perths’ crossing, south of Ceprano, however, where the 5th Armoured Brigade was waiting to pass its tanks over the Liri, efficiency was apparently sacrificed to speed. Two troops of the 1st Field Squadron RCE worked through the night, but at 7:30 a.m., as the 120 foot Bailey bridge was being pushed to the far bank, an improperly constructed launching nose buckled, and the whole span collapsed into the river.94 A troop of the 10th Field Squadron*

* Up to this time the 5th Armoured Division’s order of battle included only two Field Squadrons-the 1st and the 10th. On 27 May, however, the CRE was notified that as the result of an Eighth Army decision that an armoured division required three field companies or squadrons, the 11th Field Company South African Engineer Corps would come under command the 1st Canadian Corps Troops, which could then release the 14th Field Company RCE to the 5th Armoured Division. “It has been necessary”, the CRE recorded in his diary, “to get the troops to work 36 hours at a time before people finally realized that a third Fd Sqn was absolutely essential in an Armd Div.”95

was called forward, and under the direct supervision of the Division’s Commander, Royal Engineers, Lt-Col. J. D. Christian, the bridge was ready for traffic at 5:30 p.m. “This delay”, recorded the CRE in his diary, “caused a change in the Army plan, and has given us a bit of a black eye.”96

Earlier in the day, when it was seen that no crossing would be possible before evening, the 13th Corps had been given priority over the Canadian armoured division in the use of the bridge. General Kirkman’s axis of advance along Highway No. 6 was still blocked by the Germans in the defile

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south of Arce, and on 27 May he had begun to move the 78th Division across country to the east bank of the Liri opposite Ceprano, in order, when the town had fallen to the Canadians, to cross the river and so frustrate the enemy’s delaying manoeuvre. As soon as the bridge was completed a British brigade moved over to the west bank and established a small bridgehead north of Ceprano to cover their own bridging.97 In the meantime, not wishing to delay his start any longer, Brigadier Smith had dispatched a strong force from the 5th Armoured Brigade by the route which the 1st Division had developed on the left. The group began the long detour around the Isoletta Reservoir at four o’clock but did not reach the 11th Brigade area until midnight. Further advance was postponed until morning.98

The phase of operations upon which the 1st Canadian Corps was now embarking had been forecast by General Leese before the battle for the Hitler Line, and he had issued the necessary orders to the Eighth Army on 22 May.99 Although the eyes of all Allied forces west of the Apennines were directed on Rome, it had already been decided that the honour of taking the city was to go to the Fifth Army. It was General Alexander’s intention to take advantage of the German determination to retain Rome at any cost, by driving against the enemy’s weakened centre while the Allied left kept his forces fully engaged in the defence of the capital. “There were, therefore, topographically considered, two objectives”, he notes; “to capture Rome and to pass a force east of Rome up the axis of the Tiber where it flows southwards from the mountains of Umbria. These two objectives I allotted to the two Armies, the former to General Clark and the latter to General Leese.”100 The Eighth Army’s task was to break through the Caesar Line in the Valmontone–Subiaco sector, and then exploit northwards to Rieti and Terni.101

For the advance to the Caesar Line Sir Oliver directed that from the line Arce–Ceprano the Canadian Corps would move westward along the secondary roads south of Highway No. 6 as far as Ceccano, and then follow the Highway in order to link up with the Fifth Army at Valmontone (see Map 15). The 13th Corps would have the use of Highway No. 6 to Frosinone, and would then be prepared to carry the pursuit on a more northerly axis on either side of the Simbruini Mountains – through Sora on the Arce–Avezzano route (Highway No. 82), and along the road which led north-westward from Frosinone to Alatri and Subiaco.102

Up the Sacco Valley to Frosinone, 29-31 May

Early on the 29th the Canadian armoured force moved off towards Pofi. Westward from Ceprano the uneven, closely cultivated country between the Via Casilina and the River Sacco became increasingly difficult for tank

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Map 14: The Breakout from 
the Hitler Line, 24–28 May 1944

Map 14: The Breakout from the Hitler Line, 24–28 May 1944

manoeuvre. Across the axis of advance ran sharp, thickly wooded ridges, and through intervening gullies flowed troublesome streams with their bridges blown. Brigadier Smith had decided that in such terrain he could not deploy more than one armoured regiment. He had therefore given to The British Columbia Dragoons, with two companies of the Westminsters and the 98th (Self-propelled) Anti-Tank Battery RCA under command, the task of outflanking the hill on which Pofi stood by seizing a stretch of high ground between Pofi and Arnara, a village two miles farther west.103

Lt-Col. Vokes moved his force on two axes, about a mile apart, in order to take advantage of any possible route forward that might be found. Progress was exceedingly slow. The narrow twisting trails were blocked by mines and demolitions; and two tributaries of the Sacco – the Fornelli and the Meringo, about half way to Pofi – proved major obstacles. Bridging tanks accompanied the force, but at the second of these streams there was a delay of six hours before a scissors bridge was in position.104 The crossing came under intermittent enemy shelling, and when the advance was resumed, German self-propelled guns north of Highway No. 6 knocked out several BCD tanks. The Dragoons kept battling forward, and the two leading squadrons arrived in the Pofi area about 7:00 p.m. with only nine tanks left. “Of the remainder”, records the unit account of the operation, “five had been destroyed by enemy action and the rest were bogged down, stuck on banks, rocks, tree stumps. ...”105 As early as 9:00 that morning “B” Company of the Westminsters had reached Pofi, but had been pulled back because of an impending air strike against the town. The infantry remained with their respective armoured squadrons until eight in the evening, when they reverted to the command of their own battalion, which had moved up from the rear, and pushing on without the tanks occupied their objective in the face of surprisingly little resistance.106 The motor companies had had their own troubles in getting their wheeled transport over the adverse terrain. Their diarist reported that night that “bits and pieces of the Regiment were all over the countryside, numerous vehicles being suspended over cliffs or jammed in sunken roads.”107

Direct artillery support of the armoured brigade’s advance had been well provided by two self-propelled regiments, the 8th Field Regiment RCA and the 142nd Field Regiment RA (Royal Devon Yeomanry). Old friends of the Sicilian campaign, the 142nd had supported the 25th Tank Brigade (and thus indirectly the 1st Canadian Division) in the Liri Valley, coming under General Hoffmeister’s command on 28 May. The decision of the Divisional CRA, Brigadier H. A. Sparling, to decentralize these regiments to the armoured brigade proved justified. The self-propelled guns were invaluable in negotiating the difficult routes, and by leapfrogging forward the two regiments were able to give Brigadier Smith’s armour continuous support.108

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The capture of Pofi itself was completed by the 11th Infantry Brigade, which had moved up behind the armoured group during the afternoon of the 29th. In the early evening the town was bombed by the Desert Air Force, and after dark the Perths climbed the steep hill and mopped up a few remaining snipers.109

Because the country between Pofi and Frosinone was so unsuitable for armour, Burns had issued orders on the 28th for the 1st Canadian Division to pass into the lead; it would relieve the armoured division a brigade at a time, that there might be no sudden halt in the pursuit.110 On 30 May, the final day of his division’s participation in the battle for Rome, Hoffmeister employed both his brigades to form a firm base from which the 2nd Infantry Brigade, first of the relieving formations, could advance to attack or outflank Frosinone. He assigned his armoured regiments three hill objectives, “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”, respectively one and a half miles north, two miles west, and two and a half north-west of Arnara. A battalion of the 11th Infantry Brigade would follow each armoured unit to secure the position.111

At daybreak a company of the Perths entered Arnara unopposed, to receive the usual warm welcome from the inhabitants.112 At 5:00 a.m. the armour began to advance from the Pofi area over extremely bad tank-going – Lord Strathcona’s Horse towards “Tom”, the right-hand objective, and the New Brunswick Hussars (commanded by Lt-Col. G. W. Robinson) heading for “Dick” on the left.113 The infantry soon pushed into the lead, and by midday the Cape Bretons had taken “Tom” without trouble, while the Irish had driven enemy rearguards from “Dick”.114 During the afternoon the New Brunswick tanks, assisted by the Irish pioneer platoon, worked their way slowly along the mine-strewn road from Arnara to Ceccano. The armoured regiment laagered for the night immediately north of Ceccano, which Moroccan infantry of the Corps Expeditionnaire Francais, advancing up the west bank of the Sacco, had entered about midday.115

Meanwhile on the right flank a sharp tank battle was taking place. At about three o’clock Lord Strathcona’s Horse, advancing behind The Cape Breton Highlanders, was ordered to proceed with all haste to the junction of the Via Casilina and the lateral road from Arnara to Torrice, in order to halt the westward flow of enemy traffic that was reported to be fleeing before the advancing 78th Division. Two troops of “B” Squadron pushed northward from Arnara along a thickly wooded “hog’s back” ridge. Just south of Highway No. 6 the route emerged as a bare stretch of road, twenty or thirty yards long, with steeply falling banks on either side which made it impossible to get tanks off the skyline. From positions covering the road junction (remembered by Strathconas as “Torrice Crossroads”) tanks and self-propelled guns of the 26th Panzer Division engaged the leading Canadian tanks, knocking out three as they crossed the dangerous open space, to block

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the route completely. Only one Strathcona tank reached the highway, where it had the satisfaction of accounting for a Panther tank.116 From the exposed ridge the sole remaining Sherman, which was commanded by an NCO of “B” Squadron, Corporal J. B. Matthews, carried on the fight against the German armour. Although under direct fire, Matthews coolly manoeuvred his tank backwards and forwards so as not to present a stationary target, and destroyed a Panther, a 75-mm. self-propelled gun, and a Mark IV tank. This outstanding performance brought him the DCM117 The rest of “B” Squadron came forward in time to share in the action. Shortly afterwards a platoon of The Cape Breton Highlanders joined the armour, and nightfall found Torrice Crossroads securely in Canadian hands. Besides losing five tanks Strathcona’s had suffered casualties of sixteen wounded (including the Commanding Officer, Lt-Col. Griffin) and seven killed.118

In the late evening the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade relieved Brigadier Snow’s weary troops, and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, supported by “A” Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s, reached “Harry”, the last of the 5th Armoured Division’s objectives.119 That night the enemy methodically fell back to a new defence line about a mile behind Frosinone.120 A 14th Panzer Corps’ situation map identifies the infantry forces opposing the Canadian advance as a conglomeration of the remnants of von Lüttwitz’s two Panzer Grenadier regiments with fragments of battalions drawn from four other divisions.*

* The 1st Battalion, 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (15th Panzer Grenadier Division), the 334th Division’s Fusilier Battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 578th Grenadier Regiment (305th Infantry Division), and the 1st Battalion, 134th Grenadier Regiment (44th Infantry Division).121

At 6:15 on the morning of the 31st command of the Canadian sector passed to General Vokes, as the three battalions of the 2nd Brigade began closing in on Frosinone. Perched on a rocky hill 300 feet above the plain to the west, the provincial capital commanded the vital junction of Highway No. 6 with the alternative escape route northward through Alatri. The Germans had left in the city a battalion of the 134th Grenadier Regiment with some Panther tanks, and when the Edmontons entered, they met sharp resistance from this rearguard.122 (Enemy accounts of “violent street fighting” appear to exaggerate the strength of the German opposition.)123 While Frosinone was being cleared, the Seaforth were carrying out an encircling movement on the left flank, and by mid-afternoon two companies had driven the Germans from the important crossroads west of the town. The Canadians were heavily mortared and came under some tank fire, but they held their position and successfully ambushed a small enemy party moving down the road from the north.124

Nightfall on the 31st found the 2nd Brigade consolidated in a position of vantage overlooking the rolling plain that stretched towards Rome.125 The

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1st Brigade had come up on the left flank, and General Vokes’ division was once more in the line on a two-brigade front, supported by the same regiments of the 25th Tank Brigade as before.126

The withdrawal of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division into reserve marked the end of a week of difficult operations; its achievements in its first fight as a division were summed up in the Army Commander’s congratulations to General Hoffmeister.

To you was given the arduous task to exploit the break of the 1st Canadian Division through the Adolf Hitler Line and continue the pursuit. Owing to physical difficulties, it was particularly difficult for you to pass your Division quickly through the bottle-neck of the breach in the Hitler Line. That you accomplished this task is to the credit of you all.

You then advanced with great dash to the Melfa Line, where brilliant actions were fought; in particular by The Governor General’s Horse Guards, Strathcona’s Horse, and the Westminster Regt. After that you had considerable fighting with your infantry brigade, culminating in the passage by swimming and boating, under fire, by The Irish Regiment of Canada and The Perth Regiment, at Ceprano.

I congratulate you particularly on the work of your infantry, tanks, and sappers. I am very proud to have the 5th Canadian Armoured Division in the Eighth Army; and I have learned in this battle how greatly I can rely on you in the future. ...127

During the pursuit from the Hitler Line, traffic congestion had caused many delays, for, as we have seen, the narrow Liri–Sacco corridor with its one good highway provided very limited facilities for a parallel advance by two corps. A particularly confused tangle occurred on 31 May as the 5th Armoured Division began making its way eastward against the current of the 6th South African Armoured Division marching up to relieve the 1st Canadian Division; and on the night of 1–2 June the forward move of the 1st Army Group RCA from behind the upper Liri to an area west of Pofi created the worst traffic jams of all.128 Faulty control and poor traffic discipline among formations and units were blamed in an instruction issued on 1 June by the Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General, 1st Canadian Corps.129 “We have attempted to feed the absolute maximum number of vehicles on to our system ...” said Brigadier Lister. As a result roads had given way at various points and it had been necessary to lower the classification of a number of weakened bridges. Chaotic conditions had arisen from Provost personnel not having a thorough understanding of the current traffic plan; drivers thought only of themselves, and continually caused bad blocks by breaking out of line, only to find themselves halted by oncoming vehicles, and with the gap in their own traffic lane, closed behind them. To remedy these conditions Lister ordered the immediate organization at Corps Headquarters of a special Traffic Control Office to be headed by the Corps Assistant Quartermaster General.130

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The Final Phase

The Eighth Army’s operations against the Caesar Line were now moving into the final phase.131 In the 13th Corps’ sector the 78th Division, after difficult fighting along the line of hill villages overlooking the Via Casilina from the north-east, had drawn level with the Canadians opposite Frosinone. On General Kirkman’s right flank the 8th Indian Division had turned off Highway No. 82 and was battling westward through the Simbruini foothills towards Alatri.132

General Leese’s planning had still to include the possibility of a full assault by both Allied Armies on the Caesar Line, for on 31 May General Mark Clark’s forces were still a few miles short of Valmontone, locked in a tense struggle for the Alban Hills.133 In order to allow the Fifth Army freedom of manoeuvre while it continued the attack single-handed, General Alexander moved the inter-army boundary northward, so that Highway No. 6, which had previously been allotted to the Eighth Army as far as the eastern outskirts of Rome,134 now became available to Clark from a point midway between Ferentino and Valmontone.135 Should a combined assault become necessary, the original boundary would be reinstated; in the meantime the three corps*

* The 1st Canadian, the 13th and 10th British Corps. The 2nd Polish Corps, weakened by heavy casualties and a shortage of replacements, had been withdrawn into army group reserve on 29 May.136

under Leese’s command were instructed to maintain their thrusts to the north and west.137

About midday on the 31st General Burns issued orders for the 1st Canadian Division to continue the advance towards Valmontone.138 General Hoffmeister’s division was to remain in reserve, but the 6th South African Armoured Division (commanded by Maj-Gen. W.H. E. Poole), which had joined the 1st Canadian Corps on 29 May,139 would send forward an infantry brigade group on 1 June to come under Vokes’ command. An armoured brigade group would follow, and when the South African Division was fully committed, it would take over control of the forward sector.140

From the top of the Frosinone hill the Canadians could look straight up Highway No. 6 to their next objectives. Seven miles to the north-west the pinnacle of Ferentino rose 500 feet above the surrounding plain; while north of the highway, and about three miles east of Ferentino, a large rounded hill, Mount Radicino, overtopped the town by 350 feet. The GOC directed the 1st Brigade to capture Ferentino; the 2nd Brigade would secure the right flank by occupying Mount Radicino.141

About the same time that General Vokes was issuing these orders the Commander of the 14th Panzer Corps, unaware of the withdrawal of the

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5th Canadian Armoured Division, and unpleasantly conscious of the open nature of the country west of Frosinone, urgently signalled the Tenth Army: “Situation imperatively demands immediate dispatch of considerable tank and anti-tank formations for defence against imminent attack by massed tanks between Morolo [eight miles west of Frosinone] and Ferentino.”142 But no such large-scale armoured action was forthcoming; for it was the opinion of the Eighth Army Commander that the greatest progress could be made by sending infantry groups forward behind strong reconnaissance forces. This was to be the pattern of the 1st Division’s advance, and the method of relief by the South African Division was adjusted to conform.143

Occasional light shelling and demolitions were the only resistance met by the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards as they preceded The Royal Canadian Regiment across the Ferentino plains on 1 June. In the evening an RCR patrol found Ferentino but lightly held; the main enemy forces had withdrawn to Anagni, half a dozen miles to the west.144 Before daylight on the 2nd a company of the RCR had cleared the town, taking ten prisoners.145 Opposition to the 2nd Brigade’s advance on the right was also light. After some delay from demolitions on Highway No. 6, the Edmontons, supported by a squadron of the North Irish Horse, cleared Mount Radicino to its rocky summit. “C” Company, attacking a small hill north-east of the main objective, was held up for several hours by machine-gun fire from a large building on the eastern slope, the Convent of Ticchiena, which was reported by prisoners to be garrisoned by 200 Germans. Tank, artillery and mortar fire brought to bear upon the position hastened the enemy’s withdrawal, and “C” Company, assaulting at 10:00 p.m., found the place deserted.146

Ferentino, like Frosinone and Ceprano, had suffered heavily from bombing. Much of this damage had arisen from attacks which had been made on specific targets within these towns because they lay astride a major German escape route. The 239th (Fighter-Bomber) Wing of the Desert Air Force – the formation which provided direct air support for the Eighth Army throughout the fighting in the Liri Valley – had refused requests for the destruction of these and other centres, for Cassino had taught that not even mass attacks by all the air resources in the theatre could entirely eliminate determined enemy resistance in a. town.147 Far more profitable targets during this period were to be found in the crowded roads leading out of the battle area, and along these 239 Wing’s “armed reconnaissances” took a heavy toll of the retreating enemy’s transport*

* One such effort in support of the Canadian advance was the bombing of a column of fifty German vehicles near Frosinone on 31 May; afterwards the Air Force claimed 22 set on fire.148

and guns.149

Spurred on by instructions from Eighth Army Headquarters, the Canadians continued their effort to establish contact with the main German

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forces, as all three battalions of the 1st Brigade pressed forward on foot from Ferentino on the afternoon of 2 June. By midnight the Hastings and Prince Edwards had advanced astride Highway No. 6 to the road junction south of the town of Anagni, which the RCR, following through, found in the hands of Italian Partisans.150 The rapidity of the move forward presented special problems to the artillery. Early on the morning of 3 June Brigadier Ziegler dispatched the 1st and 3rd Field Regiments and the 5th Medium Regiment from gun areas near Frosinone to take up positions west of Ferentino, from where they might supply supporting fire for the 1st Canadian Brigade, and subsequently for the 6th South African Division within the limits of range. Because of the very tight road allocations on the Via Casilina the regiments, stripped to the barest minimum of vehicles, proceeded along the highway at top speed, deploying in their new gun areas within minutes of the arrival of their reconnaissance parties. The risks thus taken proved justified; for the same road limitations later delayed the South African divisional artillery, and the Canadian guns were able to provide the necessary fire support until late afternoon.151

That same afternoon (3 June) a patrol of five jeeps from the Princess Louise met soldiers of the French Expeditionary Corps at Colleferro, ten miles up the Highway from Anagni.152 The honour of first establishing contact between the two armies, however, fell to an enterprising American technical sergeant, who earlier in the day lost his way in the 2nd Corps’ sector, and having driven his jeep down Highway No. 6 from Valmontone without seeing any enemy or encountering demolitions or mines, turned up at the 1st Brigade Headquarters in time for lunch with the Brigade Commander.153

By 3 June the Fifth Army’s part in the battle for Rome was drawing to a successful close. On the 1st General Mark Clark had unleashed two powerful offensives against the stubbornly resisting Fourteenth Army. Striking northward on the east side of the Alban Hills, General Keyes’ 2nd Corps met intense opposition from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, but by nightfall had cut Highway No. 6 at Valmontone. Next day infantry and armoured units reached the Prenestini foothills in the Palestrina area, thereby effectively sealing the upper end of the Liri–Sacco Valley. Keyes now ordered a great wheeling movement to the left which sent three divisions marching down the Via Casilina to Rome.154 In the meantime General Truscott’s 6th Corps, attacking westward into the volcanic heights behind Velletri, found resistance suddenly slacken on the night of 2-3 June, as von Mackensen, in fear of having his left flank turned by the 2nd Corps, abandoned all thought of holding the Caesar Line and pulled out of the Alban Hills, leaving the Via Appia (Highway No. 7) an open road to Rome.155 At the same time Kesselring ordered von Vietinghoff to withdraw the Tenth Army’s right

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Map 15: The Battle for 
Rome, 11 May–4 June 1944

Map 15: The Battle for Rome, 11 May–4 June 1944

wing to the general line Tivoli–Subiaco, roughly a dozen miles north of Highway No. 6.156

The Canadian advance towards Rome had reached its limit. On 1 June General Burns had been ordered by Sir Oliver Leese to halt the 1st Canadian Corps when it reached Anagni, so that the French might come on to Highway No. 6 from the south and press the pursuit on the Fifth Army’s right flank.157 Command of the 1st Canadian Division’s sector passed to General Poole on the afternoon of 3 June, as the 24th Guards Brigade Group (which was fighting with the South African Division) passed through the 1st Canadian Brigade at Anagni. General Poole’s immediate task was to loosen resistance in front of the 13th Corps.158 The Guards turned northward toward the Via Prenestina, while the 12th South African Motorized Brigade, which had been advancing along the Sacco on the Canadian left flank, pushed on north-westward and entered Paliano on the morning of the 4th.159 The South African Division’s stay under Canadian command was brief. At 6:00 p.m. on 4 June it came under the 13th Corps Headquarters, and the 1st Canadian Corps passed into army reserve.160

That evening news came of the capture of Rome. During the day flying columns from a half a dozen formations of the Fifth Army had entered the city, and seized intact the all-important Tiber bridges,*

* According to Kesselring’s Chief of Staff, the Field Marshal, who had made it a matter of pride to see that Rome remained unscathed, had spared the bridges because destruction of the gas and water conduits attached to them would have caused the civilian population to suffer.161

which by Hitler’s express orders,162 had escaped demolition. The majority of the men in the Canadian Corps, having little knowledge of the tactical considerations which influenced the decisions of the higher command, had looked forward to an entry into Rome as a logical sequence to their hard-won victory in the Liri Valley. They were disappointed that that good fortune should go exclusively to the Fifth Army; but although they missed the hysterical reception given by the citizens of Rome to General Clark’s forces, they were able to join wholeheartedly in the general jubilation that broke out in the small towns which they had just liberated.163 To add to the general enthusiasm came the BBC announcement on 6 June of the Normandy landings. Next day the Canadian formations began the long journey back through the battlefields of May to training areas near Piedimonte d’Alife in the upper Volturno Valley.164

General Leese’s decision to bring the Canadian Corps into reserve and to use the 10th and 13th Corns in the Eighth Army’s advance north of Rome was made with a view to giving the Corps Headquarters and the 5th Armoured Division “time to absorb the lessons which they had learned in the recent fighting”; he considered the Corps Headquarters not yet capable “of handling a corps of several divisions in mobile warfare”. He also wished

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to give the 1st Canadian Division a much-needed rest after eleven months of almost continuous fighting.165 Indeed, General Alexander and the Eighth Army Commander put forward a proposal “that the Corps be broken up and the divisions placed under command of a British Corps.”166 In suggesting this to the CIGS, Alexander pointed out that a corps of one infantry and one armoured division was “sadly unbalanced” and “very extravagant in overheads”, and that Leese was loath to put a British or Indian division under a headquarters in which he did not have full confidence.167 It will be recalled that the 15th Army Group had not wanted another corps headquarters in 1943, and in these circumstances it was natural that the work of Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps should be subjected to unusually searching scrutiny. In General Crerar’ s personal opinion the views held by Generals Alexander and Leese regarding the 1st Canadian Corps were influenced by some degree of national bias as well as by “the ‘military inconvenience’, if nothing less, of restrictions on the complete interchangeability of formations, units, etc., under a higher command.” In a memorandum to General Stuart, now Chief of Staff at CMHQ, he observed, “In practice, this means that no Canadian, or American, or other ‘national’ commander, unless possessing quite phenomenal qualities, is ever rated quite as high as an equivalent Britisher. It also means that, to a British Army Commander, such as Leese, the Canadian cohesiveness created by the existence of a Canadian higher formation, such as a Corps, is a distinctly troublesome factor.”168

As we have seen, the Eighth Army’s advance had been slowed by many avoidable delays, the cumulative result of which had been to allow the enemy to withdraw in his own time, and even break off contact.169 For this the 1st Canadian Corps must take its share of responsibility;*

* After the offensive the Brigadier General Staff and Chief Engineer of the Corps and also the Commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade were replaced. When Leese requested a change in the Corps command (he offered the “best British officer that could be made available” if no suitable Canadian could be found)170 as an alternative to disbanding the Corps,171 General Stuart, at the instance of General Crerar (who as Senior Combatant Officer overseas was responsible to the Canadian Government respecting senior appointments in the 1st Canadian Corps), flew to Italy for discussions with the Eighth Army Commander.172 With the Corps Commander’s concurrence Stuart interviewed the commanders of the two Canadian divisions, and received assurance of their confidence in General Burns’ leadership. He then obtained the agreement of Alexander and Leese that Burns should remain in command for another phase of operations, after which the matter could be reviewed.173

its success in the pursuit phase had not equalled its achievement in the assault.174 Both the Corps and the armoured division were fighting their first battle, and it is understandable that lack of experience should show itself in the staff work of the two headquarters. This was particularly the case with the armoured division, which, as already noted, was beset by traffic difficulties and problems arising from unexpected changes in operational plans. One specific shortcoming was its failure to pass back information; it was reported that

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not more than three routine “sitreps” reached Corps Headquarters from the 5th Armoured Division during the whole of the operations.175 Both General Bums and his Brigadier General Staff laboured to correct this neglect,176 which caused the Eighth Army to send an experienced GSO1 to assist the divisional headquarters staff.177

Yet the Corps’ contribution to the Allied victory had been an important one. In its three weeks of action it had broken one of the strongest defence lines in Italy and advanced a distance of 41 miles in a straight line. It had inflicted heavy casualties, killing and wounding an unknown, but certainly large, number of the enemy, and capturing more than 1400 prisoners.178 This had been accomplished at no small cost. In the fighting from Pignataro to Anagni between 15 May and 4 June the 1st Canadian Corps had lost (excluding British units under its command) 789 killed, 2463 wounded and 116 taken prisoner.

Could the battle have been won more cheaply, and with more damaging effect on the enemy? There will be some critics of the Army plan who will question the soundness of trying to advance with two corps abreast through the narrow defile of the Liri Valley. They will suggest that operations should have been under the control of a single corps headquarters – a practice which, it will be noted, was followed by the Germans throughout the battle. Significant of the difficulties attending the attempt by two separate corps to fight side by side in such restricted space were those that arose when the lack of suitable routes compelled General Leese, on two occasions as we have seen, to send one of the lath Corps’ formations forward through the Canadians. “To change boundaries in the middle of an operation like this”, wrote General Burns afterwards, “and still more, to endeavour to pass a division under command of one Corps through the area of another is bound to result in traffic confusion and delay.179 Again, bearing in mind the fact that the heaviest casualties suffered by the 1st Canadian Division in its assault of the Hitler Line were those inflicted from the right flank, and that this exposed flank remained a source of embarrassment to the 5th Armoured Division in its subsequent advance, the question must be asked whether greater pressure might not have been maintained in the Aquino sector by a Corps Commander in command of the entire front. Above all, control by one headquarters instead of two would have meant a reduction in the number of wireless channels in use (actually some frequencies were duplicated in adjacent corps)180 and a consequent elimination of much of the interference which caused such trouble during the fighting.

Eight months later General Crerar, striking a similar blow on a narrow front against the strong defences in the Reichswald area, was to launch an attack by seven divisions and three armoured brigades under the control of a single corps.181 It is interesting to speculate how much more effective might

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have been the results obtained in the Liri Valley had General Leese adopted a like plan. In such a case, however, it is by no means certain that the control of the battle would have been placed in the hands of the 1st Canadian Corps.

The First Special Service Force in Italy

Although the Eighth Army did not share directly in the occupation of Rome, some Canadians were among the first troops to enter the city. In the vanguard of the United States 2nd Corps’ thrust from Valmontone were elements of the joint Canadian-American First Special Service Force.182

This force, which was commanded from its inception by Colonel Robert T. Frederick, US Army, had been specially organized in 1942 to undertake tasks more difficult and hazardous than were usually assigned to regular troops.*

* The organization of the Force and the administration of its Canadian component are discussed in Volume I of this History.

It comprised a Combat Force of three regiments, each of two battalions, and a Base Echelon or Service Battalion. Personnel of the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, the designation given for administrative purposes to the Canadian component, were distributed through the combat regiments. The number of Canadians fluctuated between 600 and 800 all ranks, and made up a little more than one third of the Force’s fighting strength. Plans for the Force’s employment in Operation “Plough” in northern Norway during the winter of 1942-43 fell through, but in the following August it formed the spearhead of the Allied landings on Kiska. It returned to the United States immediately, and late in October sailed for the Mediterranean,183 the Combined Chiefs of Staff having decided at the Quebec Conference that there might be employment in the Apennines, “or better still in the Alps if we get as far north”, or “in collaboration with patriot forces in the mountains of the Dalmatian Coast.184 After a brief stay in North Africa the Force reached Naples in mid-November and entered the Fifth Army, which was regrouping for a renewed offensive against the Bernhard Line (see above, page 275).185 At that time Colonel D. D. Williamson, commanding the 2nd Regiment, was the senior Canadian officer, and Canadians commanded five of the Force’s six battalions.186

At the beginning of December General Mark Clark launched his main blow against the Camino hill mass, a formidable group of peaks and ridges dominating the Mignano Gap from the west (see Map 16). While the British 10th Corps on the left attacked Mount Camino, the United States 2nd Corps was ordered to seize adjoining heights in the northern half of the massif, which was held by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division.187 The capture of two

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of the highest features, Mount la Difensa and Mount la Remetanea (Hills 960 and 907), was assigned to the First Special Service Force. On the night of 2-3 December Colonel Williamson’s 2nd Special Service Regiment climbed the almost precipitous side of Mount la Difensa, using scaling ropes at the steepest places. In the early dawn the assault battalion, which also was commanded by a Canadian, Lt-Col. T. C. MacWilliam, drove the stubbornly resisting enemy from their caves and pillboxes around the summit.188

For two days the 2nd Regiment held Hill 960, repelling a counter-attack by the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment early on the 4th. On 5 December Williamson’s 1st Battalion pushed forward along the narrow ridge which led to Mount la Remetanea, 1000 yards to the north. The attackers came under mortar and machine-gun fire from Mount Camino, which was still in enemy hands, but gained the crest of their objective without meeting direct opposition.189 On the following day Mount Camino fell to the 56th (London) Division, and by 8 December the whole Camino hill mass had been cleared of the enemy.190 The Winter Line had been pried loose from its southern anchor. The First Special Service Force had fought its first action with distinction; it had incurred more than 400 casualties, of which Canadian losses numbered 27 killed (including Lt-Col. MacWilliam) and 64 wounded.

To complete the freeing of the Mignano Gap it was next necessary to capture Mount Sammucro – a huge mass of towering cliffs and ridges which from the north dominated Highway No. 6 and the village of San Pietro Infine, eight miles east of Cassino.191 The main 4000-foot peak (Hill 1205) fell to the US 36th Division on 7 December, and after two bitter battles (in which Italian troops – the 1st Italian Motorized Group – entered the campaign on the Allied side),192 the Division occupied San Pietro on 17 December.193 On Christmas Day, in bitterly cold weather, the 1st Special Service Regiment stormed Hill 720, a rocky feature half a mile west of Hill 1205. The attack came under heavy shellfire (four Canadians were killed and 13 wounded), but the stubborn defenders, members of the 7 1st Panzer Grenadier Regiment (of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division), were driven from their positions. Canadians and Americans ate their Christmas dinner of field rations on their snow-covered objective.194

By the end of December the 2nd Corps had secured favourable positions from which to launch new attacks, which were designed to force the enemy back to his Gustav Line positions along the Rapido River.195 Early in the New Year, while fresh American formations prepared to strike against Mount Porchia and Mount Trocchio, the remaining obstacles south of Highway No. 6, on the northern flank the First Special Service Force was ordered to oust the enemy from the great mass of Mount Majo, whose 4000-foot peaks dominated the Rapido valley north-east of Cassino. The Force’s special training and equipment for mountain fighting once more stood it in good

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Map 16

Map 16. Operations of First Special Service Force, 2 December 1943–17 January 1944

stead. Striking northward from the region of Mount Sammucro on 4 January, the 1st and 2nd Special Service Regiments captured in quick succession three outlying peaks (Hills 670, 724, 775). Two infantry battalions and additional artillery were placed under Colonel Frederick’s command for the assault on the main objective, which comprised three of the highest pinnacles on the 2nd Corps front – Mount Majo (Hill 1259), Vischiataro Hill (Hill 1109), and Hill 1270.196

During the night of 6-7 January the augmented 3rd Regiment, led in the assault by its 1st Battalion (which was commanded by a Canadian, Lt-Col. T. P. Gilday),197 swept to the ragged crest of Mount Majo and drove a battalion of the 132nd Grenadier Regiment (of the 44th Infantry Division) from its rock-ribbed positions. For the next three days the 3rd Regiment, using German machine-guns, captured with large supplies of ammunition, beat off a series of desperate counter-attacks. Farther west the 1st Regiment’s initial efforts to take Vischiataro Hill were repulsed, but on the following night (7–8 January) it made a wide flanking movement which caught the enemy completely by surprise. Attacking westward from Mount Majo the regiment captured its second objective, Hill 1270, and then swung southward to take Hill 1109 against relatively light resistance.198

For another week the Special Service Force continued to clear stubborn enemy rearguards from the mountain slopes opposite Cassino, while other 2nd Corps formations loosened the German hold on Highway No. 6. The capture of Mount Porchia on 7 January, and Cervaro, north of the Highway, on the 12th, made Mount Trocchio untenable, and the position fell to the US 34th Division on 15 January. By nightfall enemy opposition east of the Rapido had virtually ceased.199

The six weeks of action in the mountains had exacted a heavy toll on the First Special Service Force. Frostbite and exposure had caused almost as many casualties as the enemy’s fire.200 The operations against Mount Majo and its surrounding hills cost the Canadian Special Service Battalion 14 killed or died of wounds, and 53 wounded. By the end of January these and earlier casualties had reduced the unit’s effective strength to 26 officers and 323 other ranks.201

With its Canadian element in this weakened state – for it was then the policy of National Defence Headquarters that the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion would not be reinforced202 – the Special Service Force landed at Anzio on 1 February, and went into the line next day under Maj-Gen. Lucas’ 6th Corps. Lt-Col. J. F. R. Akehurst had taken over the Canadian command from Colonel Williamson, who had returned to Canada on medical grounds. In the first ten days of the operation British and American forces had developed the bridgehead approximately to the

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extent which it was to maintain until the May breakout.*

* The members of the Special Service Battalion were not the only Canadians to take part in the Anzio operation. From 27 March to 6 May a party of 42 tunnellers from the 1st Drilling Company RCE worked with an American Engineer Company in the construction of an underground command post for Fifth Army Headquarters.203 In the air the RCAF City of Windsor Squadron, transferred from the Adriatic front, helped provide cover for the bridgehead. The squadron fought over the sector for sixteen weeks, achieving a gratifying hag of nineteen enemy fighters destroyed, five probables and thirteen damaged.204

The right flank was at the Mussolini Canal, which entered the sea twelve miles east of Anzio205 (see Map 15). For the next fourteen weeks the First Special Service Force held a line about a mile east of the canal.

The length of General Frederick’s† seven-mile front

† He was promoted to Brigadier-General at the end of January.

– almost a quarter of the entire bridgehead perimeter – precluded defence in normal depth (according to a Canadian officer with the Force, the ratio was one man to twelve yards of frontage).206 It necessitated active patrolling and large-scale raids out into the Pontine flats. Retaliatory enemy measures were successfully dealt with – such as the German counter-attack near the coast on 29 February, which cost a mixed group from the 715th Infantry and Hermann Goring Panzer Divisions 111 prisoners, as against five Special Service men wounded.207 The Force carried out one of its larger raids early on 15 April, when three companies of the 2nd Regiment, supported by twelve tanks of the 1st US Armoured Division, attacked the village of Cerreto Alto, three miles south-west of Littoria, killed a score of Germans, and took 61 prisoners at a cost of one casualty and the loss of two medium tanks.208

On 9 May the Force was withdrawn into the centre of the bridgehead, where for the next twelve days, while still under artillery fire and almost daily air raids, it prepared for further offensive operations. The Canadian Special Service Battalion, which had suffered 117 casualties since landing at Anzio, absorbed infantry trained reinforcements of 15 officers and 240 other ranks who had been specially selected from No. 1 Canadian Base Reinforcement Group and given training there with US weapons.209

In the early morning of 23 May, as the 6th Corps struck out from the bridgehead, the First Special Service Force attacked north-eastward towards the Via Appia. By midday the 1st Regiment, in the spearhead of the advance, had cut the highway and the railway beyond, isolating Cisterna to the north and Littoria to the south. Then a counter-attack by twelve Tiger tanks with infantry of the 715th Division cut off and destroyed one company and forced a temporary withdrawal south-west of the road.210 During the next two days the Force continued its attack towards the Lepini Mountains, which command from the east the narrow valley leading north to Artena and Valmontone. The 3rd Regiment took Mount Arrestino at dusk on 25 May, and next morning “caught the welcoming wine” in the nearby town of Cori,

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which had fallen on the 25th to 3rd Division troops moving forward from the capture of Cisterna.211 Under the command of the 3rd Division the Force worked northward along the heights, while on its left the infantry cleared the corridor between the Lepini Mountains and the Alban Hills. Artena was occupied on the 27th, but stiff resistance by the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, which Kesselring had hurriedly thrown into the Valmontone sector, stopped further advance and put the 3rd Division on the defensive for the next three days. Special Service Force forward troops threw back armoured counter-attacks at dusk on the 28th and early on the 30th.212

On 1 June the Force, now under the command of General Keyes’ 2nd Corps, which had taken over the sector east of the Alban Hills, joined in the thrust which cut Highway No. 6 at Valmontone. Next day Akehurst’s 2nd Regiment attacked eastward along the highway and captured Colleferro, with 400 prisoners, and joined hands east of the town with Algerian troops of the Corps Expeditionnaire Français.213

The First Special Service Force, with a composite armoured task force attached, led the 2nd Corps in the final drive into Rome. During 3 June the armour advanced fifteen miles westward from Valmontone, and that evening the 2nd and 3rd Regiments passed through to clear the last ten miles into the city. Early on the 4th two companies of the 1st Regiment were hurried forward on tanks to secure the seven Tiber bridges in the northern half of the capital. The group entered the city limits at 6:30 a.m. (thereby establishing the claim of being the first Allied troops into Rome),214 but was stopped by anti-tank and machine-gun fire from Hermann Goring rearguards still holding out in the eastern suburbs. It was not until six that evening, after the 2nd and 3rd Special Service Regiments had attacked into the city from the north-west, that resistance was broken, and the bridge force could proceed to its allotted task. By 11:00 p.m. all the bridges had been secured intact.215

The breakout battle and the subsequent fighting for Rome had cost the Special Service Regiments dearly: Canadian losses alone numbered 37 killed, 135 wounded and 13 taken prisoner. The Force’s operations in Italy were now ended; at the end of June it left the Fifth Army to prepare for participation in the invasion of Southern France. General Clark’s farewell message to the Force Commander paid high tribute.

The part played by your elite American-Canadian Force is so well known that it hardly needs to be rehearsed at this time. The gruelling fighting which you went through on the main front in the dead of winter, the important part which you took in the establishment and in the defence of the beachhead during its historic four months’ siege, the way in which your relatively small Force maintained an aggressive offensive on a front equal to that held by a full division, and finally your brilliant performance in the final breakout and in the strong fighting which culminated in the capture of Rome have entered history and forged a bright, new link in our military tradition.216