Chapter 20: The End of the Campaign
Clearing the Granarolo Salient, 3–5 January
When the decision was reached to go on the defensive for the winter two local operations still faced the Eighth Army, and more especially the Canadian Corps. The close of the December offensive had left the enemy in possession of two considerable areas east of the Senio. On the Canadian right, between Ravenna and the Valli di Comacchio, he held a line which ran inland from Porto Corsini, crossed the Fosso Vecchio at Highway No. 16 and met the Senio south-west of Alfonsine. On the left he retained a salient which rested on the Naviglio opposite Cotignola, extending southward beyond Granarolo. All this territory the Eighth Army had to clear before it could establish a satisfactory winter defence line.1
The south shore of the Valli di Comacchio was of particular value to both sides. It provided the Germans with an avenue through which they could reinforce via the narrow spit on the Adriatic side of the lagoon, as well as giving them a base from which to strike at Ravenna; its possession by the Eighth Army would make it possible to launch amphibious attacks in support of a major thrust along Highway No. 16 once the main offensive was resumed. By cutting the south-western dykes of the Comacchio on one side of the road and the high banks of the Reno River on the other, the enemy had flooded extensive areas and so created an easily defensible defile through which the highway passed at Argenta, fifteen miles north-west of Alfonsine. Flanking waterborne operations might therefore be expected to play an important part in accelerating an Allied advance.2
This concept of an attack through the Argenta Gap represented a departure from the plan issued at the end of November, which had called for the westward drive to continue along the Russi–Lugo axis at least as far as Massa Lombarda “with a view to the further advance of 1 Canadian Corps either to the north or to the west.”3 Some credit for the change belongs to General Foulkes, who shortly after his arrival from North-West Europe had proposed such a scheme to General McCreery. The new Corps Commander
had had considerable experience of operations in very similar terrain in Holland and he was much disturbed at the prospect of employing his forces in frontal assaults against the numerous river lines which lay athwart a westward advance.4
The probable course of future operations against the Tenth Army’s left flank was evidently disturbing the German High Command at about the same time. On 9 December General Jodl, Chief of the Armed Forces Operations Staff, speaking on behalf of the Fuhrer, emphatically told von Vietinghoff that the Valli di Comacchio was not to be regarded as impassable terrain in which economy of troops could be practised. Experience in Belgium and Holland had proved that the Allies, aided by their special equipment, could easily overrun the sector in strength. (The German High Command was apparently unaware of the shortage of these amphibious vehicles in the Italian theatre, where, as General Foulkes put it, “the Eighth Army was operating across Caesar’s rivers using almost the same equipment.”)5 Jodl insisted that holding this Adriatic sector must “remain the principle for the further conduct of operations” in order that a surprise penetration and a resultant collapse of the whole front might be avoided. Ten days later von Vietinghoff reported having taken special measures (“laying of mines, establishment of strongpoints” and the provision of reinforcements) for the defence of the Comacchio area.6
The operations undertaken early in January against the Granarolo salient were actually a continuation of the 5th Corps’ northward push from Faenza which had started on 19 December. Advancing against stubborn resistance and in bad weather – snow fell in the plains on the 23rd – the 56th Division on the west side of the Naviglio and the New Zealanders to the east had by the end of the month cleared almost to the inter-corps boundary, which crossed the canal at the village of Granarolo, 3000 yards south of Cotignola.7 The defenders of the German pocket were thus threatened from two directions, although between them and the Canadians to the east they had the Naviglio barrier. General McCreery’s plan was to launch the main effort from the south, using an infantry brigade of the 56th Division, and the 7th Armoured Brigade supported by an infantry battalion carried in “Kangaroos.”*
* These armoured personnel carriers had been introduced into operations in Normandy by Lt-Gen. Simonds, GOC 2nd Canadian Corps. This was the first time that they had been used in Italy.8 It is of interest to note that in the spring of 1944, on the suggestion of the 1st Canadian Corps, the Mechanical Warfare Experimental Establishment, situated near Naples, converted 50 universal carriers for the transportation of troops or urgent stores such as ammunition. All propulsive machinery was removed, the carrier being towed by a tank.9
Several hours before this attack the 1st Canadian Division would make a surprise assault across the Naviglio above Granarolo.10
Maj-Gen. Foster named the 2nd Brigade for the Canadian task. On the afternoon of 3 January the Royal 22e, with artillery, mortars and
flamethrowers in support, fought a stiff diversionary action west of Bagnacavallo, making an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of the Senio right bank south of the railway.11 The noise of this deception was just dying down when the Patricias crossed the Naviglio half a mile south of Granarolo. After an overpowering barrage had driven the enemy back to the shelter of some houses about 600 yards to the west the infantry stormed through and rounded up 50 prisoners. By 10:30 p.m. they had captured intact a bridge across the Vecchio 1000 yards west of Granarolo. (In its upper reaches the Fosso Vecchio lay west of the Naviglio Canal, crossing under it a few hundred yards north of Granarolo.) An hour later the Seaforth began passing through the Patricias and advancing northward to cut off Granarolo from the rear.12 There was hard fighting at two bridges in the vicinity of the village; it took Lt-Col. Bell-Irving’s men until 11:00 a.m. on the 4th to reach the intersection of the two canals.13 In the meantime the Edmontons, completing the third phase of the brigade operation, had entered Granarolo at first light unopposed.14
The 5th Corps’ attack from the left, launched early on the 4th, made excellent headway. Air attacks and counter-battery fire almost silenced the German artillery, and as the tanks swept north-eastward (keeping well over towards the Senio in order to encircle the enemy) the frozen ground gave freedom of movement which enabled them to avoid the thickly-mined roads. The Kangaroos were an outstanding success. By midday infantry of the 167th (London) Brigade had made contact with the Patricias at the Vecchio,15 and before the day ended the east bank of the Senio was clear as far north as San Severo (between Granarolo and the river), and 200 Germans had fallen into 5th Corps hands.16 That night the enemy gave way all along the front. North of Granarolo the Carleton and Yorks and the West Novas were across the Naviglio by midnight, and on the 5th they reached the Senio opposite Cotignola.17 On their left the 56th Division was by then along the river to the east of the 2nd Brigade. Lt-Col. Bogert’s troops had killed or wounded an estimated 60 enemy and taken 75 prisoners, all at a cost of 29 Canadian casualties. His subsequent report justly described the operation as “one of the neatest battles this Brigade has ever had.”18
The 5th Armoured Division’s Advance to the Valli di Comacchio, 2-6 January
On General Foulkes’ other flank an attack by the 5th Armoured Division to secure the German-held ground south of the Valli di Comacchio was now in its fourth day and meeting strong resistance which demonstrated the tactical importance that the enemy placed upon that sector.
Hoffmeister had appreciated that the lie of the ground favoured a drive north-eastward between the Lamone and the Fosso Vecchio, and hence parallel to the main obstacles. The canalized lower reaches of the River Reno skirted the southern shore of the Comacchio, and therefore would not affect the operation. Indeed only one water barrier lay athwart an advance in this direction – the Canale di Bonifica,*
* The canal is known locally as the Destra Reno, from its full title, Canale di Bonifica Destra del Reno.
which ran eastward about a mile on the near side of the Reno. It was recognized by the planners that the proposed thrust would be dangerously exposed to counter-attacks from the Alfonsine area against its left flank and rear, but this risk, which as will be seen was a real one, was accepted.
At Highway No. 16 the Lamone and the Vecchio are about a mile and a half apart, but just south of Conventello this space was reduced to a gap of 1,000 yards by a drainage canal – the Fosso Basilica – which ran north-westward into the Fosso Vetro. South of this ditch the ground was marshy and impassable to vehicles. Opposite the Basilica the Lamone had been turned into a new course eastward, but the former river bed continued northward past Conventello as the Lamone Abbandonato, and the Via Savarna running along its high eastern bank offered Canadian armour a good means of advance. As might be expected, the enemy was conscious that the Conventello area provided the most promising approach for a Canadian attack, and on 1 January Hoffmeister’s intelligence staff was able to identify the 3rd Battalion of the 721st Jäger Regiment, approximately 250 men strong, astride the narrow gap. Of the remaining two battalions of the regiment one was stretched across the marshes to the coast while the other was west of the Fosso Vetro. Maj-Gen. Ehlert’s second regiment, the 741st Jäger, was believed to be in divisional reserve north of the Bonifica.19
The Canadian GOC planned his operation in two phases: first the 11th Brigade would deliver a set-piece attack to smash the enemy’s defence system at Conventello, after which the 5th Armoured Brigade, closely followed by embussed infantry, would exploit to the Canale di Bonifica, secure a bridgehead, and capture Sant’ Alberto, beside the southern dyke of the Comacchio.20 Two factors were calculated to contribute to the rapid advance of the armour, which was the essential part of the plan. The attack would not be launched until the ground was sufficiently frozen to allow tanks to operate, and as added insurance of mobility fifteen of the armoured brigade’s tanks were equipped with Platypus “grousers” – special track extensions which almost doubled the surface in contact with the ground, thereby not only improving traction but also distributing the weight of the tank over a wide area and thus reducing the risk of bogging down.21 In order to free the two formations for their task the 12th Brigade had taken over the line of the Senio; while on its right the 9th Armoured Brigade, which since mid-December had held
under Corps command the quiet sector from the railway to the coast, came under Hoffmeister on 30 December and extended its responsibilities westward to the Via Sant’ Antonio.22
During the early hours of 2 January the two assaulting battalions of the 11th Brigade formed up about a mile north of Mezzano, between the Via Reale and the Lamone. At five o’clock the guns of the divisional artillery*
* Commanded now by Brigadier J. S. Ross, who early in December had succeeded Brigadier Sparling as CRA 5th Armoured Division. The latter had become Commander, Corps Royal Artillery upon Brigadier Plow’s appointment as Brigadier Royal Artillery, First Canadian Army.
began firing into the German lines, and under the dim glow of artificial moonlight the infantry, supported by a squadron of the 8th New Brunswick Hussars, broke forward across the frozen ground – the Irish on the right near the river bank and the Perths on the left heading for the eastern end of the Fosso Basilica. Meeting only moderate resistance they were soon in the midst of the enemy defences and rooting the Germans from one strongly-built stone farmhouse after another. Daylight brought close and effective aid from low-flying aircraft of the Desert Air Force. By three o’clock the infantry’s job was done. The Irish had cleared Conventello and the Perths were covering the narrow defile from firm positions north of the Basilica ditch. The ten-hour action had cost the two units 15 killed and 42 wounded; they had inflicted heavy casualties on the 721st Jäger Regiment, and had captured 73 prisoners.23
With the success of the first phase assured General Hoffmeister started his armoured brigade moving forward from Mezzano about midday. The British Columbia Dragoons pushed northward along the Via Savarna, engaging “all houses, barns and haystacks on the way”,24 while the New Brunswick Hussars (commanded from mid-December by Lt-Col. J. W. Eaton) struck out across country through the Perths’ positions. By mid-afternoon tanks had reached the narrow Strada Molinazza, which crossed the front about a mile north of Conventello. Here the Hussars were stopped by a deep roadside ditch which was defended by “numbers of SPs and Panthers firing from the north.”25 There was work here for the infantry, and the Dragoons halted at the road junction on the Via Savarna for The Cape Breton Highlanders to catch up, the leading company arriving in Bren carriers soon after dark.26 Just before dawn on the 3rd the Canadian positions along the Lamone Abbandonato were heavily shelled for more than an hour. A series of enemy counter-attacks followed, the most serious coming from a force of about 50 Germans who debouched from the wide, tree-grown river bed against the right-hand Cape Breton company. The fighting was brisk. By eight o’clock the last of the attackers had been driven off, although not before they had destroyed a jeep and put a tank out of action with Faustpatrone fire.27
These efforts by the enemy failed to delay for long the armoured brigade’s progress. That evening the New Brunswick Hussars discovered a crossing over the Molinazza ditch, and by 9:00 a.m. both regiments were again on their way. The country west of the old Lamone bed was very close. The small fields were lined with rows of low pollarded trees between which grapevines hung from steel wires stretched six or seven feet above the ground. These limited visibility in many places to as little as forty yards, while the wires were forever catching in the turret hatches and restricting the free turning of the turrets themselves.28 Fortunately enemy opposition on this flank was light, and midday found the leading tanks within a half a mile of the Bonifica. Farther east The British Columbia Dragoons, advancing with a squadron on either side of the Abbandonato, had met and driven back five separate groups of German tanks and self-propelled guns.29
Early in the afternoon, when air reconnaissance reported that the enemy armour had withdrawn to the Bonifica, Brigadier Cumberland directed the New Brunswick Hussars to make a dash eastward to secure the bridge which carried the Via Savarna over the canal about a mile south-west of Sant’ Alberto. Just as the first tanks reached the crossing however, the enemy blew the span, leaving the Hussars facing a major obstacle, 80 feet wide, with a water gap of 25 feet, partly ice filled.30 Cumberland thereupon ordered Lt-Col. Angle’s Dragoons to make for a second bridge two miles farther east along the canal; but a German post in a farmhouse about 1000 yards from the Savarna held them up, and by the time this was dealt with the daylight had gone.31 During the night the Perths came forward to join the armour in front of the Bonifica.32
In the meantime the enemy had been preparing a strong counter-blow designed to cut off the Canadian armour from its base and drive it into the trackless marshlands north of Ravenna. He gathered together behind the Fosso Vetro a battle group of four battalions*
* The 1st Battalion, 36th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Regiment and the three divisional reconnaissance battalions.33
drawn from the 16th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division (which had been transferred from the front south of Bologna “as the strongest combat division”, to relieve the exhausted 98th Infantry Division),34 the 26th Panzer Division, and the 114th Jäger Division;35 with this force he hoped to drive a wedge through to the Lamone south of Conventello.36 Fortunately the Canadians were disposed to meet just such an eventuality. To the west of Conventello between the Strada Molinazza and the Fosso Basilica stood the Westminsters, brought in from the 12th Brigade to replace the Perths. On their left were the 1st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps and dismounted elements of the 12th Lancers, both under command of the 9th Armoured Brigade. In reserve about Conventello was The Irish Regiment of Canada.37
The German attack came in through the darkness at 4:30 on the morning of the 4th, preceded by a sharp artillery bombardment which lasted thirty minutes. Near the Fosso Basilica the enemy succeeded in penetrating between the flank companies of the Westminsters and the British rifle battalion, and ere long he had pushed to within 500 yards of the Lamone River. But that was the limit of his success. Canadian artillery brought down heavy fire to seal the breach, while from all sides of the pocket the defenders poured such an effective volume of small-arms fire that at dawn a company of Irish working with a troop of New Brunswick Hussars easily mopped up the surviving Germans.38 Captured officers admitted that the weak point in the enemy’s plan had been his inability to get supporting arms forward over the multiple water obstacles east of Alfonsine – a problem only too familiar to the Canadians. His difficulties had been enormously increased by the Desert Air Force, which from 8:15 a.m. kept the line of the Fosso Vetro under continual attack.39 Nevertheless the German attempt might have succeeded had it not been for the steadiness of the defending infantry coupled with the devastating fire of the Canadian artillery. The cost to the attackers was heavy. They left. 200 behind as prisoners and lost a large number of killed and wounded. The defending force got off lightly; the Westminsters, for example, reported only seven wounded.40
Two miles to the north the Canadian advance had been temporarily checked. During the morning of the 4th dismounted troops of The British Columbia Dragoons captured intact the road bridge south-east of Sant’ Alberto, but could not get their tanks on it because of a minor intervening waterway, named it Canalone. By early afternoon, however, a second squadron arrived with a company of Perths along the far bank of the obstructing Canalone and crossed the Bonifica.41 While this was taking place, prospects of securing a bridgehead at the Via Savarna without the necessity of a major operation had improved when a Cape Breton patrol forded the Bonifica on the ruins of the blown bridge and brought back 28 prisoners as proof of low enemy morale. During the afternoon the battalion crossed the canal in strength, and at last light it was joined on the far side by BCD tanks arriving from the newly-won bridge to the east. Early on the 5th a patrol reported that the enemy had withdrawn from Sant’ Alberto.42
The next two days saw the Canadians sweep through to the coast against negligible opposition. The Cape Bretons mopped up 50 German stragglers in Sant’ Alberto and cleared the right bank of the Reno River as far west as the Vecchio. (The presence of prisoners from the 710th Infantry Division, elements of which had been brought down the Comacchio isthmus to support the 741st Jäger Regiment, testified to the enemy’s determination to hold the line of the Bonifica. The division was von Vietinghoff’s latest acquisition to the theatre, having arrived in Italy on 15 December after a non-stop move from Norway. )43 On the right the Dragoons and the Perths, opposed only by desultory enemy artillery fire, occupied Mandriole on the 5th, and next
morning reached the coast at Casal Borsetti and cleared the base of the Comacchio spit. On the same day patrols of the 12th Lancers, operating under Brigadier Cumberland’s command, swept the narrow coastal strip northward from Porto Corsini to complete the 5th Division’s assignment.44
Thus ended an undertaking which demonstrated convincingly the principle of cooperation between all arms. Against eight enemy battalions identified in the battle area General Hoffmeister had committed two armoured regiments and the equivalent of five infantry battalions. In five days he had gained all his objectives, taken 600 prisoners and killed and wounded a great many more – 300 enemy dead were counted in the area. Total Canadian casualties numbered less than 200. German equipment destroyed or captured included eight Panther tanks and twenty anti-tank guns.45 The Desert Air Force, like the artillery, had rendered yeoman support. In the first four days of the operation, its aircraft flew 746 sorties, delivering low-level strafing attacks and dropping 276 tons of bombs.46 Nor must the contribution of the Engineers be forgotten – such as the work of the two sappers who removed a ton of explosives from the Bonifica bridge to enable tanks to cross.47 With such diversified support given to the infantry it is perhaps not surprising that no occasion was found to use the Crocodile tanks of the 12th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, which were available throughout the operation. There seems to have existed a Canadian preference for the carrier type of flamethrower. (Canadian humour is probably behind a complaint by the British unit – in its report of what it styled an “abortive visit” – that among various tasks the flamethrowers were told “to be prepared to engage a Tiger tank and to thaw the River Reno!”)48
The successful liquidation of the enemy-held areas east of the Senio brought General Foulkes laudatory messages from both the Army Group and Army Commanders. General Mark Clark’s read:
My sincere congratulations on the successful attacks by your troops during past few days. The operation was thoroughly planned and executed. Despite strong enemy resistance and counter-attacks Canadian Corps and 5th Corps pressed forward taking a heavy toll of enemy dead and many prisoners.49
General McCreery paid tribute in the same vein, praising the “splendid fighting spirit and great skill” shown by the two formations. In passing these commendations on to the troops under his command the GOC added his appreciation for “the way that all the soldiers have conducted themselves during these operations.”50
Holding the Winter Line
Having thus tidied up affairs on its flanks, the Canadian Corps settled down into its second winter line. It was the Eighth Army’s purpose to hold the front with as few troops as possible, relying on immediate counter-attack
should the enemy attempt a sudden break-through (although the state of his reserves seemed to preclude the likelihood of any such effort on a major scale).51 To prevent any considerable German penetration the Army Commander ordered two “stop lines” to be organized along the rivers Lamone and Montone, with switch-lines between them. All bridges forward of these stop lines were prepared for immediate demolition.52
For the majority of the Canadians there were depressing memories of static positions maintained a year before in the chilly dampness and mud north of Ortona. But this time the weather started off more propitiously. Most of January was clear and cold; there were light falls of snow, but hardly any rain, and the frozen ground remained firm (although the rivers stayed open). Such relatively favourable conditions helped to keep up morale, which seems to have received a further lift from the close proximity of the foe. From Alfonsine to the Reno the enemy was still between the Senio and the Fosso Vetro; south of the Via Reale the line hugged the right bank of the Senio, with the dyke itself being held in some places by the Germans, in others by the Canadians. Frequently the German slit-trenches were only a few yards from the Canadian positions. In such cramped quarters patrol clashes and fire fights came often, and in the intervening lulls inventive minds improvised new weapons of war or devised unorthodox uses for existing ones. The RCR found a PIAT fired at a high angle most effective against German footbridges across the Senio.53 The Seaforth produced the “V-2” – a large catapult made from the inner tube of a car tire, capable of throwing a No. 36 grenade fifty yards. Another ingenious creation (inherited from the Lanark and Renfrews) was the “Dagwood”, which sandwiched a 36 grenade between two Hawkins 75s in a sandbag. When thrown the 36 set off the other two; according to a unit account, “the resulting explosion was terrific, and reports state that they had a bad effect on the morale of the enemy.” The effect on the Seaforth was of course just the opposite. “The end of the Senio tour will find the regiment in better spirit than for a long time”, declared the same writer. This was shortly after some experimenters had filled a motor car with high explosive and sent it careering down the floodbank into an enemy post.54
A week before Christmas General Heidrich had issued to his 1st Parachute Corps a comprehensive directive on defence and training, and on Kesselring’s orders this had been circulated throughout all Army Group “C”. Defence, like attack, was to be aggressive. “In static battle conditions such as the present,” Heidrich wrote, “fighting should never cease. The ‘leave me alone and I will leave you alone’ attitude must be entirely absent.”55 Now, along the 27-mile front which the Canadians were holding, it seemed as though both sides were following this precept. Scarcely a night passed without patrol activity of some kind. It might be a reconnaissance to confirm the whereabouts of a suspected enemy position, an ambush to waylay his supply traffic,
or a more pretentious attack to seize a disputed vantage point on the dyke or destroy a particularly annoying weapon post. These larger raids could be costly to the attacker, as the Patricias found in one such venture on 2 February: two of their platoons suffered 37 casualties when the explosion of a German demolition charge buried a complete section in the rubble of a building and a rescue party was almost wiped out by heavy mortar fire.56 Retaliatory measures followed, and each side scored its measure of successes; but credit for the most neatly executed raid of the whole period must go to the enemy. In the early hours of 16 February near Conventello a German platoon penetrated an RCR company area after a mortar bombardment had boxed it in from the remaining battalion positions. The raiders carried off 17 prisoners from a large building without having to fire a shot.57 It should be noted that in these various encounters the Canadian infantry could not count on substantial support from their artillery, for there had been a drastic reduction in the Corps’ allotment of ammunition. AFHQ had taken over control of all stocks when the period of “active defence” started, and had fixed a quota of ten rounds a day for field guns and five for mediums. The air support available was similarly reduced as the Desert Air Force cut down the number of its daily sorties in order to rest and train for the spring offensive.58
One result of the 5th Armoured Division’s successful operation south of the Comacchio had been a further strengthening of the German Tenth Army’s left wing at the expense of the Bologna front. On 8 January the 42nd Jäger Division relieved the badly shaken 114th Niger Division, which was moved north of the lagoon, and two days later the 362nd Division was inserted on the 16th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division’s right in the Lugo area, opposite General Foster’s left flank. The 76th Panzer Corps was now in control of all formations south of the Valli di Comacchio, General Dostler having taken his headquarters northward to supervise the 114th Division’s coastwatching duties south of the Po.59 Early in February Kesselring (who had resumed command of Army Group “C” on 16 January) had to give up the 16th S.S. Division to the Eastern front,*
* The 356th Infantry Division had preceded the 16th S.S. Division to Army Group South, having been withdrawn from the 76th Corps’ right wing during the third week in January.60
where the outstanding successes of the great Russian winter offensive which began on 12 January were bringing urgent demands for reinforcement from Italy. On its departure the 362nd Division and the 42nd Jäger closed in to fill the resulting gap.61 The only other change opposite the 1st Canadian Corps came early in February when the regimental group from the 710th Division which had been holding the Comacchio spit transferred its responsibilities to the 114th Jäger Division and moved northward to rejoin its parent formation at Venice.62
After a series of brigade and battalion reliefs, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division went into reserve on 14 January, handing over its sector south of the Comacchio to the Gruppo Combattimento Cremona (commanded by General Clemente Primieri) – the first major Italian formation to come under command of the Canadian Corps.63 This was formerly the Cremona Division of the Italian regular army. It had helped expel the Germans from Corsica in September 1943, and a year later had moved to Southern Italy, where it was reorganized and given British weapons and transport. It was one of five such Italian combat groups (each roughly the size of a British brigade, although much stronger in infantry) *
* Total strength of the Gruppo Cremona (on 7 January) was 445 officers and 7121 other ranks. In addition to two regiments of three infantry battalions each the group included a field artillery regiment of four batteries, an anti-tank and an anti-aircraft battery, two engineer companies, a signal company, and appropriate medical, supply, and ordnance units.64
to enter the line after being equipped and trained by AFHQ. The Germans, quick to realize that the Canadian division had been relieved, tested the newcomers with a series of sharp raids and night attacks. At first these won them some forward outposts, but once the Cremona Group had settled down it gave a good account of itself, proving its fighting spirit in vigorous and successful counter-attacks.65
On 10 February responsibility for the whole Canadian front passed to General Foster, as Corps Headquarters prepared (according to instructions which were actually the cover plan for a much more significant assignment) to “move into Army Group reserve ... to train for operations in the spring.” For the time being the 1st Division remained in the Senio Line, on 16 February passing to the command of the 5th Corps.66 A week later the Canadians fought what proved to be their last action in Italy. During the night of the 24th–25th two companies of the 362nd Division came in twice upon the Seaforth and Loyal Edmontons in their positions south of Fusignano. With the aid of skilfully directed defensive fire (the Seaforth three-inch mortars were “firing more or less straight up in the air”) both attacks were beaten off, the second being neatly caught as it was sky-lined on top of the Senio dyke. Seven Germans were taken prisoner, while their wounded kept stretcher bearers busy throughout the night. The two Canadian battalions suffered casualties of nine killed and 26 wounded.67
Meanwhile on 1 February The Calgary Regiment of the 1st Armoured Brigade had arrived in the Adriatic sector. It was the first step in a move which would have seen the brigade serving once again with the Eighth Army, had not other plans intervened.68 Since the end of October Brigadier Murphy’s three armoured regiments had found their support of the 13th Corps reduced almost to a static role. Worsening ground conditions had brought a further deterioration in communications, and supply routes could only be maintained with the utmost difficulty. On 7 November the diarist of the
Three Rivers Regiment noted that a horse was being sought for the use of Lt-Col. F. L. Caron, the Commanding Officer. “Under present conditions when even jeeps cannot make some of the roads and tracks, several horses would be a most useful addition to the Regimental War Establishment”.69 The extreme case occurred in the 1st British Infantry Division’s sector, where The Ontario Regiment’s “A” Squadron, sent to relieve an American unit on Mount Grande (see Map 23) had to take over the US tanks in situ, since movement by armour over the snow-blocked mountain trails was impossible.70 Under such conditions the Ontarios could at best provide artillery support for the limited attacks made by the infantry. On at least one occasion “B” Squadron, in the divisional “Gun Line” west of Gesso, fired at ranges of from 8000 to 11,000 yards, obtaining sufficient elevation for these distances by running the noses of their tanks up a steep bank.71
Hemmed in by winter the troopers made the best of their unenviable environment. Many found satisfactory quarters in substantial shelters which they had excavated from the hillside and walled in with ammunition tins filled with earth and fine rock. Roofs of wood waterproofed with a pup tent or tarpaulin shut out the weather, and what one unit diarist described as “the central heating of a 25-pounder ammo tin”72 kept the interiors comfortably warm. Here the men were safe from anything but a direct hit.73 Not so fortunate however, were the Ontario crews manning the immobile Shermans on Mount Grande. Exposed to continuous observed fire from mortars and machine-guns, they had virtually to live inside their tanks.74 Small wonder that two of the crews returning to Borgo San Lorenzo for a rest after “twenty consecutive days and nights in their tanks said it was the toughest time they had ever experienced.”75
Apart from The Ontario Regiment’s move there was little change in the dispositions of the Canadian armour during the last two months of 1944. The Three Rivers Regiment, supporting the 78th Division and the 6th Armoured Division in the Santerno valley, spent Christmas at Castel del Rio, with two troops of tanks frozen in at Gesso and the balance of its forward squadrons at Fontanelice on the Imola road.76 On the 13th Corps’ extreme right flank “B” Squadron of The Calgary Regiment assisted Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Division in cleaning up around Modigliana in mid-November, and on the 25th it crawled forward another two miles toward Faenza.77 By this time, however, the Polish Corps’ westward drive on the Eighth Army’s left was carrying it across the Indian front, which by 17 December was held by only one brigade. “To reach the enemy we would have had to cut North-West into the mountains and bare escarpments,” wrote the Calgary diarist on the 8th. “This we could not do ... Our
usefulness to 8th Indian Division was ended.” For the rest of December Lt-Col. Richardson concentrated his regiment in the Marradi area, to await the next move.
This was not long in coming. At Christmas the threat against the Fifth Army’s left flank sent the bulk of the 8th Indian Division, as we have seen, hurrying westward to Lucca, and on 30 December the Calgaries began moving into a rest area at San Donato, near Florence.78 The perilous journey over the eighteen miles of treacherous mountain roads to Borgo San Lorenzo, took seventeen hours. Ice lay in sheets over the steep gradients, and “for every foot tanks moved forward, they. slipped a yard”; at the end of the ordeal some speedometers registered 70 miles. By great good fortune and the skill of the drivers the expedition was completed without mishap. A warm tribute came to Richardson from the Brigade Commander. “I consider the feat of your regiment one of the finest it has performed”, he wrote, “and I bear in mind in saying so the most outstanding work which it has performed in the face of the enemy from Sicily to the Northern Apennines.”79
After spending most of January at San Donato the Calgaries embarked upon what was to prove their final operational role in Italy. A long rail trip by way of Arezzo and Iesi brought them to the Forli area, where they came under command of the 5th Corps and were assigned to support the 56th Division in its Senio positions opposite Cotignola.80 Here the squadrons spent the first three weeks of February in a more or less static role, occasionally carrying out individual tank shoots which were usually followed by reports of “Jerry stretcher bearers carrying away casualties.”81
Late in January the remainder of the armoured brigade had received orders to concentrate on the Adriatic coast for a period of rest and training at Porto San Giorgio, 45 miles south of Ancona. This would make the Canadian armour available for the Eighth Army’s spring offensive acid preclude the necessity of the hazardous journey across the mountains when the winter snows were melting.82 As it was, the Three Rivers Regiment was forced to leave to the 78th Division the six immobile tanks in the Gesso area.83 The transfer to the coast began on 31 January, with the Ontarios being the first to ship their tanks. Four days later, however, as Brigadier Murphy’s headquarters was preparing to leave Borgo San Lorenzo, further movement of the brigade was suddenly cancelled.84
The Case for Reuniting the First Canadian Army
It will be recalled that when it was decided in the autumn of 1943 to build up the Canadian strength in Italy to a full corps, the Canadian Government had accepted the possibility that such a dissipation of its forces
might necessitate the disbandment of its overseas Army Headquarters. That Army Headquarters had survived, however, and from the end of July 1944 had been playing an important role in the campaign in North-West Europe, with British and Allied formations replacing the 1st Canadian Corps in its order of battle. Canadian soldiers in both theatres cherished the hope of serving together before the end of the war, and in Ottawa it had become a matter of national policy that the enforced separation of the Canadian forces should be ended as soon as a reunion could be justified on military grounds.
An opportunity for impressing this view upon the British Chiefs of Staff came in May 1944 when the War Committee of the Cabinet was preparing a directive to General Crerar authorizing his troops to participate in the invasion of Western Europe in combination with forces of the United Kingdom. No other part of the instructions sent to the Army Commander underwent so many changes in drafting as the paragraph suggesting a reunion of the Canadians in Western and Southern Europe. Even after the formal directive had been cabled to London the War Committee further amended it to read:
At the request of the Government of Canada certain formations of the First Canadian Army were despatched to the Mediterranean theatre with the objects at that time of increasing the effectiveness of the Canadian participation in the war and obtaining battle experience. Now that those objects have been gained the Government of Canada regards it as highly desirable that, as soon as military considerations permit, such formations now serving in the Mediterranean theatre as well as field formations and units elsewhere, should be grouped under unified Canadian command.85
It was, however, the unamended version (which included a statement that the reunion was desirable from a national point of view and in order to make the most effective contribution under existing circumstances)86 that General Stuart quoted a month later to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He took care to underline the phrase “as soon as military considerations permit”, while Sir Alan Brooke promised to see that these requests were met as soon as military and shipping considerations allowed.87
The matter came up again that autumn. When the Combined Chiefs of Staff met in September for the second Quebec Conference the defeat of Germany in the near future was accepted as a foregone conclusion, and discussion centred mainly about the war against Japan. In considering the provision of troops for zones of occupation in Europe the Combined Chiefs recognized that it would “probably be the policy to withdraw Dominion forces as early as possible after the defeat of Germany for repatriation at an early date”, and in the Mediterranean theatre General Wilson was instructed that these “should not be employed on occupational duties in Austria, Greece or Dodecanese or for internal security duties in the Middle East until after discussion with Dominion Governments, which is being initiated forthwith.”88 On 26 September the British Government formally inquired whether Canada
would permit her forces to be used on these specific duties while waiting for shipping to become available for their repatriation.89
The War Committee of the Cabinet deferred its decision until 9 November, when General McNaughton reported that the CGS, Lt-Gen. J. C. Murchie, had recommended against the Combined Chiefs’ proposal (“on the ground that it had always been the intention that the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy should join the 1st Canadian Army in Northwest Europe, as soon as practicable”).90 Emphasizing the desirability of repatriating Canadian troops as soon as possible after the defeat of Germany, the formal reply (sent on 14 November) explicitly forbade their use in such diverse fields, with the possible exception of a short period of occupation duty in Austria or North-East Italy. It further stated that the Government of Canada would welcome the transfer of the 1st Canadian Corps from Italy to join the First Canadian Army “even before the defeat of Germany”.91 In reply, the British Government “noted” the Canadian wishes, but pointed out that such a move might prove impossible, not only for reasons of transport but because “the resulting weakening of our forces in the Mediterranean might involve risks which could not be accepted.”92
A new development was revealed by Brigadier E. G. Weeks on his return. from Italy early in December to take up the appointment of Maj-Gen. in Charge of Administration at CMHQ. From Field-Marshal Alexander he had learned that the 1st Canadian Corps would be withdrawn for the months of January and February for a rest in the Naples–Campobasso–Salerno area. Moreover, from conversations with staff officers he had gained the impression that the Canadians might be used in an operation against the Dalmatian coast and that they would certainly undergo amphibious training while at rest.93 (At the end of October, when proposing to General Wilson that the 1945 operations should open with a major offensive in Yugoslavia by the Eighth Army, Alexander had asked for assurance that his Canadian divisions would not be removed “to join their comrades in France,”94 and had been told that there was “no present intention to withdraw any of the forces now at your disposal.”)95 When Brigadier Weeks’ information reached Ottawa, the Minister of National Defence at once instructed General Murchie to convey through CMHQ to the GOC 1st Canadian Corps (with copies to the War Office and Field-Marshal Alexander for information) a notification that Canadian troops would not be employed outside Italy without the concurrence of the Canadian Government. At the same time Mr. Mackenzie King telegraphed Mr. Churchill informing him of the amended instructions to General Foulkes. “This formal step seems necessary”, he said, “since I have given a public assurance* that Canadian troops will not
* The Prime Minister was presumably referring to an answer made by him to Mr. Fred Rose, M.P., on 6 December, to the effect that no Canadian troops were stationed in Greece, and that “this government has no wish to interfere in the internal affairs of liberated countries where that can possibly be avoided.”96
serve in Greece without the consent of the Canadian Government.”97 A prompt answer from London expressed Mr. Churchill’s surprise and grief “at the suggestion that you might find it necessary to issue a public statement that Canadian troops shall not be used in Greece. Such a statement could only increase our difficulties and postpone a settlement of the present troubles in that country.”98 In his reply Mr. King remained firm. He reiterated that his assurance had been given that Canadian forces should not be sent to Greece “without the consent of the Canadian Government. That is a very different matter which is open to no objection and does not increase your difficulties.”99 It was a significant development, marking as it did the first occasion on which the Government of Canada insisted upon its right to consider and sanction a plan of campaign in which Canadian troops were to be employed. The year came to an end with an understanding having been reached that “without prejudice to their early repatriation” Canadians in the Mediterranean might be used for occupation duties, “but not outside Austria or North-east Italy”.100
In London CMHQ continued to raise the issue whenever a chance presented itself. At a meeting of the British Chiefs of Staff with the Canadian Joint Staff Mission in mid-January, Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke named three possible courses of action that were under consideration for the conduct of future operations in Italy. The first was to continue to drive northward, the second was to cross the Adriatic and join forces with Marshal Tito in cleaning up Yugoslavia, and the third was to transfer the bulk of the 15th Army Group to France. Asked to comment, Lt-Gen. The Hon. P. J. Montague, Chief of Staff at CMHQ, seized the opportunity to state that if the third course were adopted the Canadians would definitely desire their troops in Italy to rejoin the First Canadian Army.101
Thus briefed the British Chiefs of Staff met their American colleagues less than a fortnight later at Malta en route to the Crimea Conference. It was agreed that the primary object in the war against Germany should be to build up the maximum possible strength on the Western Front and to seek a decision in that theatre.102 In pursuance of this policy it was decided to reinforce General Eisenhower’s armies at the expense of the Mediterranean theatre. The British Chiefs of Staff proposed that up to six divisions (not more than two of them armoured) might be spared. In suggesting that this number be reduced to five, General Marshall pointed out “that it was felt wiser to leave the Fifth Army intact as a well-balanced organic force, and that it would be preferable to reinforce France with British and Canadian divisions in order to increase the strength of Field-Marshal Montgomery’s Army.”103 Sir Alan Brooke pointed to the obvious “great advantages in moving the Canadian divisions to enable them to join up with the remainder of the Canadian forces in France”, and Field-Marshal Alexander (who was present for-only part of the Conference) added that “the Canadian divisions
were the easiest to move quickly; one was already out of the line and could be moved at once and the other approximately a fortnight later.”104
The matter was settled along these lines, and a directive to Lord Alexander advised him that three divisions should be withdrawn at the earliest possible date, with further complete formations to follow when forces in Greece could be released. The United States Twelfth Air Force was to be made available for transfer, with two fighter groups to be sent at once.105 CMHQ received the news from the War Office on 5 February, and promptly informed Ottawa,106 where the War Committee of the Cabinet noted with approval the proposed move.107 “I am very glad to learn from you”, Mr. King cabled Mr. Churchill on the 9th, “that operational considerations now make it possible for the Canadian Army to be united again.”108
Operation GOLDFLAKE, the Move to North-West Europe
There was need for speed if the troops from the Mediterranean were to reach their new battle positions in time to take part in the spring offensive. Immediately upon receiving the directive of 2 February, AFHQ proposed that all Canadian formations, together with the 5th (British) Infantry Division (which had but recently arrived from Palestine), be sent from Italy via Marseilles; the 46th and 1st Divisions were to follow from Greece and the Middle East.109 (It may be noted here that the directive was later amended and only three divisions moved to the Western front.)110
Following a two-day conference at General Eisenhower’s main headquarters in Paris details of the proposed route and the method of movement were incorporated in an administrative order issued under the code name GOLDFLAKE. This assigned overall coordination to SHAEF, the responsibility for embarkation to AFHQ, and control of the force while in transit through their respective areas to the Communications Zone of the European Theatre of Operations United States Army (ETOUSA) and the 21st Army Group. Sea movement from Italy was to be carried out by LSTs, cargo vessels for mechanical transport, and troopships, sailing at regular intervals from Leghorn and Naples. The schedule arranged for a rate of discharge at Marseilles of 40 tanks, 650 wheeled vehicles, 50 carriers, and 3700 personnel per day. Accommodation was provided at the French port for 10,000 troops in tents and 200 vehicles.111
The first official intimation of the impending move reached Headquarters 1st Canadian Corps on 4 February,* and initiated a series of daily conferences
* Actually Foulkes had learned of the move from General Marshall, whom he met at Headquarters 15th Army Group in Florence immediately after the Malta Conference. Without breaking security he instituted indoor staff exercises at Corps Headquarters, with the result that much of the preliminary planning was completed by the time the official notification was received.112
at which the very considerable amount of administrative detail was worked out.113 The immensity of the task was increased by the fact that the Canadian units and formations in Italy were so widely scattered. Corps Headquarters was then at Ravenna. To the north-west the 1st Division was dug in along the River Senio. On its left the tanks of The Calgary Regiment were supporting the 56th (London) Division, while those of the Ontarios had reached Porto San Giorgio.114 The Three Rivers Regiment and the headquarters of the armoured brigade, en route from the Fifth Army’s mountainous front to the Adriatic, were then at Borgo San Lorenzo, north of Florence.115 The 5th Armoured Division was in reserve and spread along the coast for 30 miles from Cervia to Cattolica, with troops of its 12th Infantry Brigade stationed inland at Camerino, 30 miles south-west of Iesi.116
Administrative centres were even more widely dispersed. 1st Echelon was in Rome, with 2nd Echelon and No. 1 Canadian Base Reinforcement Group at Avellino. There were Canadian General Hospitals on the east side of the peninsula at Iesi (No. 1) and Cattolica (No. 3), in the centre at Perugia (No. 14), and west of the Apennines at Rome (No. 5), Caserta (No. 15) and Avellino (No. 28). Sprinkled throughout both army areas and the rear administrative districts were the Field Punishment Camps, Leave Centres, Convalescent Depots, Medical and Dental Stores, Graves Registration Units, Town Majors, and other miscellaneous units falling into the category of GHQ and L. of C. Troops.*
* Not involved in the forthcoming move were some 35 Canadians numbered among the 1300 Civil Affairs Officers who were serving in Italy with the Allied Commission (before November 1944 the Allied Control Commission). Besides controlling the operations of Allied Military Government in the combat zones, the Commission supervised administration of the rearward areas which had been progressively handed back to Italian jurisdiction. To the tasks of safeguarding military operations from interference at the hands of a hungry, dissatisfied population, of bringing effective government to regions disorganized by the ravages of war, and helping to restore democratic life to a society oppressed and stratified by Fascism, this small group of Canadians, many of whom could draw on experience in law, finance, medicine or some other specialized field, made a contribution beyond the implication of their numerical strength.117
All these forces had to be funnelled through the two ports on the west coast, and the task of directing the bulk of them across the 15th Army Group’s lines of communication without interrupting ‘ the normal maintenance of the Eighth and Fifth Armies required careful planning and skilful timing of the necessary trains and road convoys.118
As word of the impending move spread through the troops there was widespread gratification that the longed for reunion with the rest of the First Canadian Army was indeed to become a reality. Italy held no great attraction to the majority, and war diaries convey the impression that there was generally less regret at leaving the country than at ending the long and happy associations with the Eighth Army – the common task not yet finished. As members of that army the Canadians had enjoyed a certain freedom from the rigid adherence to laid-down establishments and drill-book procedures which had properly been demanded by Headquarters First Canadian Army
during the long period of training in the United Kingdom; so that to many officers the prospect of a return to more or less rigid standard practices just for the sake of being “correct” held no great appeal.119 Yet there must have been few whose sense of national pride was not stimulated by the thought of again becoming part of a unified Canadian army. The understandable feeling of frustration of serving in a theatre which was recognized as secondary in importance to North-West Europe was now replaced by the inspiriting prospect of rejoining their comrades of the 2nd Canadian Corps for the final march on Berlin. To one small section of the Canadian troops in Italy, the absentees and deserters, the news of GOLDFLAKE, when it somehow got around to them, was of special significance. During the final year of the campaign the number of Canadian deserters not apprehended ran about 100 at any one time, with another 100 absent without leave but not yet struck off strength.120 To avoid being stranded in Italy these hastened to give themselves up either to their respective units or the base reinforcement battalions at Avellino.121
Small advance parties from each Canadian formation and the majority of the senior commanders and their staffs travelled by air from Florence (General Foulkes and a small planning staff flew to General Crerar’s headquarters in Holland to start immediate work on plans for the crossing of the Rhine),122 but for the main body of troops the long trek began on 13 February, when Corps Headquarters and about half the Corps Troops left Ravenna on wheels for Naples.123 The route lay south over the Via Adriatica, along which the northward journey had been made so slowly and at such great cost. The convoys, staging three nights on the way, rolled through Ortona and Rocca San Giovanni (where Corps Headquarters had been introduced into operations more than a year before), and from Termoli turned inland to cross Italy by way of Foggia and Avellino to Naples. The first flight sailed on 22 February aboard the troopship Esperance Bay, docked at Marseilles two days later, and early on the 26th set off northward across France, following a route whose temporary road markers read “GF”. It was a five-day drive by way of Lyon and Dijon, skirting Paris on the east side and passing through St. Quentin and Cambrai (with their memories of the First World War) to cross the Belgian frontier near Mons*
* Canadian units assigned to duty on the lines of communication in France and Belgium included Now. 41 Army Transport Company and 1 Motor Ambulance Company RCASC, 3 and 16 Field Dressing Stations RCAMC, 3 Light Recovery Section RCEME, and a strong representation of the Canadian Provost Corps.124
– in all a distance of 674 miles from Marseilles to the dispersal point at Renaix.125 As might be expected, the troops were in excellent spirits, and if any boosting of morale were needed, the Auxiliary Services were on hand at all staging camps providing picture shows and distributing free chocolate bars and cigarettes.126 On arrival in Belgium the Corps passed to General Crerar’s
command and was given responsibility for the left wing of the 21st Army Group. At midday on 15 March, while Canadian formations continued to arrive from Italy, General Foulkes’ headquarters became operational again north of Nijmegen, with the 49th (West Riding) Division under command.127
In the meantime the 5th Armoured Division, routed through Leghorn, had begun the transfer of approximately 20,000 troops, 5,600 wheeled vehicles, 450 tanks and 320 carriers. The tracked vehicles went first by rail, heavy tanks loading at Rimini on 10 February, and lighter tanks and carriers at Riccione. After a fifty-hour journey to the west coast they were shipped by LST to Marseilles, and reloaded on flat-cars to be hauled northward to Ath in Belgium.128 Hoffmeister’s wheeled convoys crossed Italy by a circuitous route of 315 miles which led through Porto Civitanova, Perugia and Florence. Embarkation at Leghorn began on 15 February, and twelve days later the first troops reached their new area at Dixmude.129 On arriving in Belgium Headquarters 12th Infantry Brigade was disbanded and its units returned to their original roles, as the 5th Armoured Division resumed its normal organization.130 Re-entering the line south of Arnhem on the last day of the month, the Division was employed by General Foulkes in a rapid drive northward which penetrated to the Ijsselmeer and sealed off Western Holland.131
Despite its wide dispersion, the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade concentrated in Leghorn with the utmost dispatch. Ontario and Calgary tanks arrived by ten special trains from Iesi and Forli respectively, while the Three Rivers sent theirs by 24-wheeled Army Service Corps transporters across the Apennines and down the Arno Valley.132 Embarkation was completed by 8 March and a week later the brigade was in the vicinity of Lauwe in Belgium.133 Within a month of breaking off action in the mountains of Italy it had a regiment committed with the 49th Division on the Nijmegen “island”, and was proudly claiming the distinction of having been in action longer than any other Canadian formation in the war.134
Maj-Gen. Foster’s 1st Infantry Division was the final formation to move. Its relief along the Senio by the 8th Indian Division began on 23 February, and the honour of being last to leave the line fell to Brigadier Bernatchez’s 3rd Brigade, which relinquished its positions to the 19th Indian Brigade at 6:00 p.m. on 27 February.135 Embarkation began at Leghorn on 7 March. “Thus we leave Italy,” wrote the diarist at divisional headquarters, “a country we neither loved nor hated, a country so full of history, so beautiful and at the same time so dirty, so modern in its antiquity. ...”136 A journey of more than 800 miles brought the Division to Itigem, north of Brussels. Of all the Canadian formations which came from Italy it alone saw service on German soil, and that for barely three days. On 3 April it concentrated in the Reichswald Forest, temporarily becoming part of Lt-Gen. Simonds’ 2nd Canadian Corps. It moved thence north
of Zutphen to storm across the Ijssel River on 11 April. On the 13th the Division reverted to General Foulkes’ command for the final operation of clearing Western Holland.137
Army Troops and the balance of Corps Troops followed, and by the end of March 3534 officers and 54,638 men had been transferred to NorthWest Europe.138 There were still some administrative units to be moved. Nos. 1, 3 and 5 Canadian General Hospitals had already gone to the northern theatre, but Nos. 14 and 15 Hospitals were slated to return to England for disbandment. As the other hospitals left Italy their patients were taken over by No. 28 General Hospital (which had been formed in October 1944 as No. 1 Field Hospital). It was the last Canadian hospital to serve in Italy, and was disbanded at Avellino on 19 April 1945.139 Because of the limitations of the staging camps in Italy most of the nursing sisters went by road to Rome and were lodged at the Canadian Officers’ Hotel (“The Chateau Laurier”) until called forward at the latest possible date for embarkation.140
The movement of the Canadians from Italy necessitated the transfer of huge quantities of equipment in addition to what accompanied the troop convoys. GOLDFLAKE occurred in the midst of a vast re-equipment programme, when barely half of some 9,000 Canadian vehicles received since September 1944 had been issued to units. The remainder were ferried from Naples to Marseilles and from there convoyed to Belgium by No. 1 Special Vehicle Company R.COC. This ad hoc organization moved 4,500 vehicles a total distance of more than two and a half million miles, meeting with only 28 road accidents.141 A special ship took nearly 600 tons of stores, mostly Canadian uniforms which had arrived too late for issue, direct from Naples to Antwerp. Many tons of material which would not be needed in NorthWest Europe – canteen supplies, office stationery and equipment, surplus kit and the like – went back by freight to the United Kingdom.142
It was obviously of the utmost importance to conceal from the enemy as long as possible the shifting from one theatre to another of such a large body of troops, and, as we have already indicated, a cover plan had been adopted to disguise the move as no more than a mere regrouping in rear areas.143 Perpetration of the deception, which was code-named “Penknife”, was the responsibility of a specially formed organization called the 1st Canadian Special Basra* Unit, made up of some 230 officers and men drawn from No. 1 Anti-Malaria Control Unit and similar small groups which were being disbanded. From their headquarters at Macerata Basra personnel drove hither and thither putting up formation and unit signs and pulling them down again. Widely scattered detachments of the Royal Canadian Signals maintained the normal flow of wireless traffic by filling the
* “Basra” was a code name allotted by the 15th Army Group to Canadian Corps Headquarters for the cover plan. The 5th Armoured Division was known as “Haifa”, the 1st Infantry Division as “Poona”, and the 1st Armoured Brigade as “Simla”.
air with dummy messages: the measure of their success was the enemy’s frequent attempts to “jam the air.” To aid in the deception all Canadian clubs, hostels, leave centres and hospitals were kept open as long as possible, while The Maple Leaf continued to be published daily in Rome until mid-March.144
More than once before the enemy had fallen victim to Allied stratagem, and an examination of his Intelligence records reveals how completely he was hoodwinked by “Penknife”. A situation map which was issued by the Armed Forces Operations Staff on 26 February showed the 1st Canadian Infantry Division still in the line, with the 5th Armoured Division in reserve near Rimini, and Corps Headquarters on the Savio; the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was identified at Ravenna.145 On 17 March (by which time all formations were either in Belgium or well on their way) both Canadian divisions and Corps Headquarters were shown in 15th Army Group reserve in the Ancona area, although the exact position of the armoured division was queried and the whereabouts of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was admittedly unknown.146 Subsequent maps issued during March indicated an increasing bewilderment concerning the Canadian movements, and it was not until 19 April that the Italian theatre was shown free of all Canadian formations.147
It was doubtless due in no small part to these security measures that the bulk of the GOLDFLAKE forces were transported from Italy to France with little interference from either the German Navy or Air Force. Throughout the entire movement the Allied navies kept close watch on the enemy-held coast from north of Pisa to the French border, carrying out extensive minesweeping operations and on several occasions bombarding Italian ports.148 One “genuine naval action” occurred.149 On the night of 17–18 March, the Premuda, a fast and well-armed British-built destroyer (which from being the flagship of the Yugoslav Navy had passed through Italian into German hands) sailed from Genoa with two other German-manned destroyers to lay mines off the north-western tip of Corsica. While returning from this task the enemy flotilla*
* No evidence has been found to suggest that these enemy craft were attempting to intercept one of the Leghorn–Marseilles convoys. An entry (18 March) in the war diary of the German Naval Operations Staff describes the minelaying operations, and goes on to report: “After the mines had been laid as planned the three boats were encircled on the way back by enemy destroyers. Up to now only TA 32 has returned and has not yet reported details.”150
was engaged by two destroyers of the Royal Navy, HMS Meteor and Lookout, and both the Premuda’s companion vessels were sunk.151 Thereafter Canadian convoys took a more southerly route, passing through the Strait of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia.152
The manner in which the Canadian public should be informed that its army was at last reunited was as carefully considered in Ottawa as had been
the announcement of the landings in Sicily twenty months before. As long as the enemy remained in ignorance of the move silence was imperative, but it was hoped that when in due time the news was released from the European theatre, it could simultaneously be disclosed in Ottawa by the Canadian Prime Minister.153 By the middle of March however, knowledge of the movement had become common throughout Canada. Anxious to make an announcement in the House of Commons, which had reconvened on 19 March, Mr. King sought the good offices of Mr. Churchill, pointing out that the news had “through interruption of the mails from Italy and other causes become known to a considerable number of people including our press whose silence is being maintained only through censorship.”154 It was to no avail. There were strong grounds for believing that the enemy had not yet appreciated the extent of the weakening of the forces in Italy,155 and the British Prime Minister replied that General Eisenhower, in consultation with Field-Marshal Alexander, had recommended to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the information should only be made public as each individual formation became identified in North-West Europe by the enemy.156
Eventually security was broken through a Canadian Press. despatch, dated 3 April, which revealed that all Canadian infantry and armoured formations were together once more as an army under General Crerar’s command.157 In view of the open speculation and comments which followed in press and Parliament, on 10 April Mr. King directly appealed to General Eisenhower “to release the news within the next day or so.”158 Although the Germans were not believed to have identified elements of the 1st Canadian Corps in his theatre, Eisenhower agreed on 12 April to allow publication, provided that current operations in Italy were not prejudiced.159 It was not until the 20th, however, that AFHQ felt free to give the necessary clearance.160 By then Parliament had been prorogued and Mr. Mackenzie King was attending the San Francisco Conference. The official announcement of the transfer was made by General Crerar on 23 April, with a simultaneous statement in Ottawa by Mr. J. L. Ilsley, the Acting Prime Minister.161
The 1st Special Service Battalion on the Riviera
The troops who sailed from Italy in mid-February in the opening stages of GOLDFLAKE were not the first Canadians to leave the Mediterranean theatre. The previous December had seen the disbandment of the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, which as a component of the First Special Service Force had found itself consistently pursuing a course apart from the main body of Canadian troops.
It will be recalled that after the capture of Rome the joint Canadian-American Force had left the Fifth Army to prepare for the Allied assault
upon Southern France, the code name of which for greater security was changed early in July from ANVIL to DRAGOON.162 After a brief rest on the pleasant shores of Lake Albano,163 twelve miles south-east of Rome (Map 15), the Force carried out six weeks of intensive “invasion” training at Santa Maria di Castellabate, at the south end of the Gulf of Salerno.164 This gruelling period of preparation ended with a rehearsed landing, conducted in company with a French commando group, on the Pontine Islands, 60 miles off the Naples coast. On 11 August the Force embarked for a staging area in Corsica.165
Detailed planning for DRAGOON had been going forward since the beginning of March at Maj-Gen. Alexander M. Patch’s Seventh Army Headquarters, which until 4 July was designated for security reasons “Force 163”.166 The final pattern of invasion called for an assault landing east of Marseilles by Maj-Gen. Truscott’s 6th Corps (the 3rd, 36th and 45th US Divisions), assisted by French commando forces and backed by overwhelming naval and air support. The immediate “follow-up” would bring in the French 2nd Corps (composed of divisions formerly with the Corps Expeditionnaire Français) under General de Lattre de Tassigny, who as the build-up proceeded would assume his original position as GOC-in-C Army “B”*
* In April 1944 the French Committee of National Liberation had confirmed General de Lattre’s appointment to command Army “B”, consisting of “all the French land forces summoned for the landing in the south of France.”167 The arrangement subsequently agreed upon by AFHQ and General de Gaulle left General Patch’s Seventh Army with sole direction of the planning of ANVIL and the initial phase of the operation, while assuring de Lattre of his full Army Command when the time was appropriate. On September he took over Army “B”, which ten days later became the First French Army.168
with two French corps under his command.169 Prior to the 6th Corps’ landings the First Special Service Force, operating directly under the Seventh Army, was to remove a threat to the left flank by capturing the German-held islands of Levant and Port Cros, the two easternmost of the Iles d’Hyeres, seven miles off the French coast170 (see Sketch 13).
The main amphibious assault was delivered at 8:00 a.m. on 15 August by the three American divisions on a fifteen-mile front between Toulon and Cannes, the landings being watched by Mr. Churchill from the deck of a British destroyer.171 Earlier that morning more than 5000 troops of a combined British-American Airborne Task Force†
† This force had been organized and was commanded by Maj-Gen. R. T. Frederick. Composed of units formerly comprising the Seventh Army Provisional Airborne Division, on 15 August it became the 1st Airborne Task Force. Frederick was succeeded in the command of the First Special Service Force by Colonel E. A. Walker.172
had dropped by parachute some ten miles inland to block the enemy’s reinforcement routes from the interior.173 Extensive glider-landings followed; in all 9000 airborne personnel were carried over from the Rome airfields into the bridgehead.174 The honour of making the first sea landing on the French mainland fell to the French commando troops, who were carried to their assignment on HMCS Prince David,
one of two Canadian Landing Ships Infantry sharing in Operation DRAGOON.175
Shortly before midday on the 14th the First Special Service Force sailed from Corsica aboard HMCS Prince Henry, HMS Prince Baudouin, and five transport destroyers, escorted by five American torpedo boats.176 Before midnight the ships had taken station about three miles south of the Hyères, and in the early hours of the first anniversary of the Kiska enterprise the
troops began paddling ashore in inflated rubber dinghies, which assault landing craft had quietly towed to within a quarter of a mile of land.177
Resistance on the island of Levant was overcome without much trouble. The 2nd and 3rd Regiments (the latter commanded by a Canadian – Lt-Col. R. W. Becket) beached on the east shore, and scaling eighty-foot cliffs overran the five-mile length of the island, finding the eastern battery merely wooden guns manned by stuffed dummies. Before the end of D Day Force Headquarters had landed and the fighting on Levant was over. A mile to the west the smaller Port Cros proved more formidable. Roping their way up the vertical cliffs battalions of the 1st Special Service Regiment, led by Lt-Col. Akehurst, occupied the eastern half of the island without difficulty, but were stopped by a cluster of forts in the port area. Most formidable of these was Fort de l’Eminence, a Napoleonic stronghold with twelve feet of concrete and rock protecting the sides and top of its central chamber. Rounds from the eight-inch guns of the cruiser USS Augusta caromed off like ping-pong balls. Rockets from sixteen Maurauder aircraft made no impression. Heavy bombers were not available, and it was not until the afternoon of the 17th, when the battleship HMS Ramillies steamed up to put a dozen 15-inch shells into the target, that the battle ended abruptly.178 Canadian casualties in the capture of the two islands numbered 10 killed and 32 wounded.
Relieved by French garrison troops, the Special Service Force moved over to the mainland and on 21 August re-entered operations just west of Cannes, where it replaced the 2nd Parachute Brigade, the British component of the First Airborne Task Force.179 While the main Franco-American forces (which on 16 September became the 6th Army Group*
* Prior to this date (on which command of the enterprise passed from General Wilson to General Eisenhower) General Devers’ Headquarters was designated Advance Allied Force Headquarters Detachment.180
under Lt-Gen. Jacob L. Devers)181 drove the German Nineteenth Army northward through the Rhone valley, the Special Service regiments began a series of rapid advances along the Riviera coast that was to bring them in less than three weeks almost to the Italian boundary – a distance of some 45 miles. They pushed eastward on foot against light opposition on a front ten miles wide – each day bringing its quota of two or three towns liberated, a number of machine-gun positions destroyed, and a score or so of prisoners captured. During the first week the briskest fighting took place on 25 August for possession of Villeneuve Loubet, a town on the Loup River, ten miles east of Cannes.182
The pursuit continued with the Canadians and Americans close on the heels of the retreating Germans. At a small inn east of the Loup Colonel Walker and his staff signed the register immediately below the signatures of Lt-Gen. Fretter-Pico, GOC 148th Division, and his staff, “who had checked out hurriedly the previous evening.”183 On the 30th the Force forded
the Var River without incident; but here the narrow coastal plain ended, and resistance stiffened amid the mountains behind Nice. Up to this point the Special Service Force, advancing under the command of the First Airborne Task Force, had been flanked on either side by American airborne units, but on 3 September the 2nd Regiment relieved the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion immediately west of Monaco (special orders were issued against entering the principality),184 and thenceforward the coastal sector was included in Colonel Walker’s commitments.185 Three days later patrols into Menton, only two miles from the international boundary, found the city evacuated,186 and by the 9th the Force had taken up positions which they were to hold unchanged for the next seven weeks. The German 34th Division, which had replaced the 148th, was firmly ensconced in the fortifications of the Little Maginot Line, where the French had blunted the Italian invasion in 1940. Aided by fire from American destroyers and the French battleship Lorraine,187 Special Service regiments reduced these forts one by one, Fort Castillon, five miles north of Menton, alone putting up a prolonged fight. When it fell at the end of October the enemy withdrew across the Italian border.188
By this time General Devers’ armies were far to the north, fighting in the Vosges Mountains preparatory to essaying a break through the Belfort Gap to the Rhine.189 For the forces on the Mediterranean coast, however, the campaign seemed to be petering out in a long and unpleasant anti-climax, as they found themselves “sitting up on the mountains day after day”, exposed to cool, wet weather that contradicted all popular conceptions regarding the climate of the sunny Riviera.190 There were no regrets among the First Special Service Force when it was relieved on 28 November by Japanese-American troops of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.191 The First Airborne Task Force had already been disbanded, and its parachutists had gone north to reinforce formations of the First Allied Airborne Army.192
For the Special Service Force General Eisenhower’s headquarters had no requirement which would enable it to preserve its identity. At the Quebec Conference in September General Marshall had pointed to the availability of the “Plough” force for winter operations in the Alps,193 but no such role had materialized. As its name indicates, the Force was a highly specialized assault team, even though, as we have seen, it had fought for considerable periods as normal infantry. That it should continue to be employed in a general role was inevitably regarded by many as a military waste. As early as January 1944, when the provision of suitably trained reinforcements was creating a difficult problem in Ottawa, the withdrawal of the Canadian component had been seriously considered on both sides of the Atlantic. The Canadian viewpoint was that the special type of training which the Canadian personnel had received could “be used to better advantage for the common cause in prospective operations being planned for the forces in the United
Kingdom.”194 A Canadian withdrawal, however, would have meant breaking up the Force, which was then fighting in the Anzio bridgehead. Neither the Combined Chiefs of Staff nor the Commanders in the Mediterranean favoured such a course. Accordingly arrangements were made to reinforce both the Canadian and United States elements with non-parachutists.195 By October, however, the feeling in Ottawa had grown that “the continued employment of this Special Force on operations detached from those upon which the main forces of the Canadian Army were employed constituted a dispersion of our forces for which there is no special necessity.”196 When, therefore, the Department of National Defence learned from Washington that SHAEF recommended the disbandment of the First Special Service Force, it immediately gave its approval.197
On 5 December the Canadian members of the Force paraded past their American comrades in a final salute at Villeneuve Loubet, and shortly afterwards embarked at Marseilles for Italy. Their operational tour in France had lasted 107 days, during which Canadian casualties had numbered 30 killed, 156 wounded, and four taken prisoner. Landing at Naples on the 9th, by evening they were all at Avellino, where they “received a good reception back into the Canadian Army.”198 Those who had not trained as parachutists re-entered the stream of infantry reinforcements for the 1st Canadian Corps; the remainder, approximately two thirds of the officers and one half of the men, sailed immediately for England to reinforce the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.199
A remarkable experiment in military cooperation thus came to an end. In the Force’s two and a half years of existence Canadian and American soldiers forgot differences of nationality in the performance of a common task*
* Yet it must be recorded that as they compared their lot with that of their American companions-in-arms and the rest of the Canadian army from which they were separated, the members of the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion could observe certain inequalities that arose almost inevitably from the administrative problems peculiar to their unit. As already noted, these problems are discussed in Volume I of this History.
– whether in training together on the snowy plains and hills of Montana and the rain-soaked Aleutian tundra, or fighting shoulder to shoulder in the mountains before Cassino, in the Anzio beachhead and along the Riviera coast. In these operations the Force lost some 450 killed, of whom 155 were Canadians. It gained an enviable reputation as a first-class international fighting unit.
The Final Allied Offensive in Italy, 9 April–2 May
Although the 1st Canadian Corps had left the Mediterranean before Field-Marshal Alexander opened his final offensive in that theatre, it seems appropriate to include a brief account of the fighting that ended the campaign in which Canadians had played so important a part.
When the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Malta decided (in the words of Lord Alexander) “to strip Italy once more of tried and tested divisions for the benefit of the Western Front”,200 they re-defined the Supreme Commander’s role in a directive which set very modest aims, and appeared to limit him “to a mere offensive-defensive”. He was to continue to hold solidly the existing front and contain the enemy formations then in Italy, but was “to take immediate advantage of any withdrawal or weakening of the German forces.”201 In spite of the reduction of their strength the Allied commanders in Italy considered that they could “do something more drastic and decisive” than this, and Alexander was able to persuade the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, that his original plan of the previous winter might still be followed, with certain modifications.202 On 12 February General Clark directed both his armies to submit plans for an operation to cross the Po.203 During the next six weeks the final pattern of the offensive was worked out, and on 24 March Army Group Headquarters issued orders for “an all-out attack 10 April 1945 to destroy maximum number enemy forces south of the Po, force crossings over the Po River and capture Verona.”204
The winter lull in operations had allowed the enemy to develop a formidable array of defences in Northern Italy, although it was apparent that he had no intention of withdrawing from his existing positions unless compelled by heavy Allied pressure or a further weakening of his own forces through the transfer of troops to other theatres. Since mid-February two more formations (the 710th and 715th Infantry Divisions) had been withdrawn;205 but at the beginning of April von Vietinghoff (who had resumed command of Army Group “C” on 11 March when Kesselring was appointed C-in-C West)206 still had 24*
* On 10 April a shortening of Army Group “C”‘s eastern boundary placed the 97th Corps, which had been guarding the head of the Adriatic with two divisions, under the command of Army Group “E”, whose responsibility was the Balkan theatre of operations.207
German and four Italian divisions208 opposing a total of 17 Allied divisions and nine independent brigades together with four Italian Combat Groups.209 The eastern end of his static winter front was strongly backed by a series of river lines behind the Senio – the Santerno, the Sillaro and the Idice (see Sketch 14). Italian and other enforced labour had been employed to honeycomb with fortifications the floodbanks beside these tributaries of the Reno, special attention being paid to the positions along the Idice.210 This was the “Ghengis Khan” line, which was anchored in the flooded country west of the Valli di Comacchio, and from the northern fringe of the Apennines in front of Bologna led over the central heights of the chain to merge with the western stretches of the Gothic Line. In the German rear considerable work had been done on two other main defence lines – a series of positions along the left bank of the Po and its tributary the Ticino (west of Milan), placed to cover a withdrawal of the Army of Liguria
from the north-west; and the main Adige (or Venetian) line, which crossed the 80-mile gap between the Adriatic and the Alpine rampart behind Lake Garda, and was designed to guard the approaches to the north-eastern passes which led into Germany.211
It was General Clark’s intention to employ the “strategy of the two-handed punch” which had been used so successfully in the battle for Rome and the assault on the Gothic Line. An advance north-westward on Ferrara by the Eighth Army and an American thrust northward past Bologna to Ostiglia would complete a pincers movement aimed at entrapping the majority of the German forces between the Apennines and the Po. The Fifth Army would then drive for Verona and Lake Garda in order to cut off the Axis forces in north-west Italy, while on the right the Eighth Army exploited towards Venice and Trieste.212 The Eighth Army’s attack would open three days before the Fifth Army’s offensive, in order that each might benefit from the full support of the Allied air power, and in the hope that this initial assault against the enemy’s left flank might draw off his reserves from the area in which General Truscott’s main blow was to be delivered.213 There were, however, certain preliminary operations to be undertaken by both armies.
General McCreery’s main problem was how to force the strongly held Argenta Gap and thereby turn the Genghis Khan line and its outlying positions. The belated allotment to the Mediterranean theatre of 400 Landing Vehicles, Tracked*
* In the previous December AFHQ had asked the Combined Chiefs of Staff to supply LVTs for river crossing operations in the Po Valley, on the scale of 200 per assaulting brigade, basing its requirements on “information given by Commander I Canadian Corps from his experience in Walcheren operations.”214
(called in North-West Europe “Buffaloes” and in Italy “Fantails”) brought a solution. He decided to use these for an amphibious right hook across Lake Comacchio and the adjoining flooded area so as to outflank the defences in the gap.215 Early in April steps were taken to gain local advantages for the coming attacks and confuse the enemy. In the first three days of the month the 2nd Commando Brigade, landing on both sides of the long Comacchio spit, cleared it to the north-east angle of the lagoon, taking nearly 1000 prisoners from the 162nd (Turcoman) Division. Next, islands in the middle of the lake were secured, and at the end of the same week the 56th Division, attacking across the Reno west of Sant’ Alberto behind heavy artillery and bomber support, secured a substantial bridgehead as a base for further operations.216 On 5 April, at the extreme left of the Allied line, the 92nd Division launched a diversionary attack along the Ligurian coast. In spite of strong resistance in the mountainous terrain by the 148th Division (which, it will be recalled, had opposed the First Special Service Force on the Riviera) Massa, the western anchor of the Gothic Line, was captured on the 10th;217 equally gratifying was the intelligence that the Fourteenth Army
had dispatched to the west coast a strong battle group of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, the only Army Group reserve*
* At the end of March von Vietinghoff, fearing an Allied landing north of the Po, sent his other remaining motorized formation, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, to watch the coast between Venice and Treviso.218
south of the Po.219
On the evening of 9 April the 5th Corps and the 2nd Polish Corps stormed across the Senio. During the afternoon 825 heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Force, employed in close support of the ground forces for the first time in Italy, had drenched with fragmentation bombs a wide strip 3000 yards west of the river, and the ensuing artillery bombardments were interspersed by concentrated attacks from large numbers of medium bombers and fighterbombers.220 An hour before dark 150 Wasps and Crocodiles began flaming the Senio banks, and close behind them the infantry plunged into the attack – the 8th Indian Division north of Lugs, the 2nd New Zealand Division at the Cotignola bend, and the Poles on their left, north of the Via Emilia.221 The German 98th and 362nd Divisions, on whom the brunt of the 5th Corps attack fell, resisted strongly, but by the morning of the 12th the assaulting divisions had gained a foothold across the Santerno, and the same afternoon the New Zealanders captured Massa Lombarda.222
By that time General McCreery had successfully launched his flanking operations. Early on the 11th a brigade of the 56th Division crossed the floods in Fantails to seize Menate, six miles behind the Senio. On the following night the same division carried out another landing opposite Argenta, but ran into stiff opposition; for von Vietinghoff, now that the point of the Allied attack was disclosed, had rushed the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division south across the Po to join in the defence of the gap.223 On 14 April the 78th Division, attacking northward through the Indians to Highway No. 16, captured the vital bridge over the Reno at Bastia and entered the battle for Argenta, but it was 18 April before the last German positions in the defile were overcome. South of the inundated area the 13th Corps Headquarters with the 10th Indian Division under command had been brought in on the Polish right, and by April the New Zealanders, now with General Keightley, had crossed the Sillaro. On the same day the Poles entered Imola, having inflicted heavy losses on the 26th Panzer Division and the 4th and 1st Parachute Divisions as these formations successively side-stepped northward across the line of the Allied advance.224
With the German left wing reeling under the Eighth Army’s savage blows, General Truscott unleashed the Fifth Army. On the morning of the 14th, after a preliminary attack by 500 aircraft of the Tactical Air Force, the 4th Corps assaulted with three divisions west of Highway No. 64, on the left bank of the Reno.225 Next day the Strategic Air Force, switching from its tasks with the Eighth Army, launched “the most sustained heavy bomber close support effort ever undertaken in the Mediterranean.”226 In three days
more than 2000 bombers struck repeatedly at targets between Bologna and the fronts on which both Allied armies were advancing.227 Late on the 15th four divisions of the 2nd Corps attacked east of the Reno and astride Highway No. 65, the easterly of the two main routes converging on Bologna from the south. In bitter fighting the Americans dislodged the stubborn defenders from their last Apennine positions, and on 20 April the 4th Corps’ 10th Mountain Division broke out of the hills to cut the Via Emilia west of Bologna.228 On the same day von Vietinghoff, having reported to Hitler that “as a result of heavy battle losses our forces in the Italian theatre are strained to such an extent that, if we persist in our policy of static defence, an enemy breakthrough at Lake Comacchic, Bologna and Spezia can in all probability not be prevented”,229 ordered a general withdrawal to the Ticino–Po positions.230
He was too late. The next two days saw the Allied pincers close upon a large part of the badly disorganized German formations. On the 22nd the 6th Armoured Division, leading the 5th Corps’ breakout from the Argenta Gap, met the Fifth Army’s right flanking formation, the 6th South African Armoured Division, west of Ferrara. Trapped in the bend of the Reno the German 65th and 305th Divisions were virtually annihilated, the US 88th Division alone taking 7000 prisoners in the area.231 The Polish Corps, having killed more than 1000 Germans in its advance from the Senio, entered Bologna on the 21st, two hours before American troops of the 34th Division came in from the south-west.232 Late next day the 10th Mountain Division reached the Po west of Ostiglia, beating by a few hours in the race for the river units of the 6th Armoured Division and the 8th Indian Division.233
As the Allied Armies closed up to the Po the Tactical Air Force struck vigorously against the congested ferry sites and temporary crossings; by 23 April the last pontoon bridges had gone the way of the permanent bridges destroyed in the previous summer (above, p. 464).234 Many of the Germans (including General Heidrich, now commanding the 1st Parachute Corps) escaped by swimming,235 but the bulk of the equipment of three army corps was left behind. Every approach was choked with vehicles, guns and tanks which had been destroyed by air attacks or artillery shelling or abandoned by the enemy in his headlong flight. By the evening of the 25th nearly 50,000 German front line troops had fallen into Allied hands.236
The remnants of the German armies in Italy were now ripe for destruction. Carefully prepared plans for set-piece assault crossings over the Po were discarded as the enemy showed no inclination to defend the north bank. First of the Allied formations to cross was the remarkable 10th Mountain Division, which was ferried over in DUKWs south-west of Mantua on the 23rd and 24th.237 Within three days it had seized Verona and was heading for Lake Garda. Following closely behind, other American formations turned northeast towards the Adige in a race with divisions of the 5th and 13th Corps, which had crossed the Po respectively east and west of Ferrara. There was
hardly a check at the Adige, which light forces in DUKWs, Fantails and DD tanks*
* These British amphibious Duplex Drive tanks, which had been used successfully in the Normandy landings, were first employed in Italy at the Po crossings.238
crossed on the 27th – for the Venetian line now lacked the troops to man it.239
Five days of pursuit remained. At the call of the Italian Committee of National Liberation of Upper Italy the Partisans had risen to harry the fleeing enemy columns, and in town after town the Allied pursuers found the German garrisons already ousted. The Fifth Army’s thrust to the Alpine foothills had split the German forces in two, sealing the fate of the 51st Mountain Corps in the western Apennines and Graziani’s Army of Liguria, spread over north-west Italy from the Gulf of Genoa to the Swiss border. While the 10th Mountain Division fought its way up the shores of Lake Garda to close the Brenner Pass, other formations of the 4th Corps fanned out across the upper Po Valley to block the remaining escape routes into Austria and round up the entrapped enemy; on the extreme Allied left the 92nd Division cleared along the Ligurian coast.240 North of the Adige the two British Corps raced across the flat plains for Venice, which fell to the 56th Division on 29 April. General McCreery’s destruction of the Tenth Army was now virtually complete. While his armour struck north towards the Austrian border, the New Zealanders rounded the Gulf of Venice to. Trieste, where General Freyberg took the capitulation of several thousand German troops on 2 May.241
All hostilities in the theatre ended at noon that same day, as an instrument of unconditional surrender signed three days earlier came into effect. Secret negotiations for a capitulation had been started in February through the good offices of a prominent Italian industrialist, Baron Luigi Parilli, and two Swiss intermediaries, Dr. Max Husmann and Major Max Waibel.242 There were discussions in Switzerland during March between Dr. A. W. Dulles, Chief of the American Office of Strategic Services, and General Karl Wolff, who in addition to holding the important office of “Highest SS and Police Commander in Italy” was at that time the Plenipotentiary-General of the German Armed Forces in Italy.243 By mid-April Wolff had gained the agreement of von Vietinghoff and his army commanders to the necessity of surrender, and on 2 April, after delays caused by both sides, the final instrument was signed in the Palace at Caserta by representatives of von Vietinghoff and Wolff and by Lt-Gen. Sir William Morgan, Alexander’s Chief of Staff.244
An unforeseen complication now arose, when Field-Marshal Kesselring, who from 28 April was Supreme Commander of both the Western and Southern fronts, refused to sanction the capitulation and on 30 April replaced von Vietinghoff and his Chief of Staff, Rottiger, with General of Infantry Friedrich Schulz (former C-in-C Army Group “G”) and
Maj-Gen. Wentzell. Wolff and Rottiger (who did not immediately follow his chief to join the Army Group Commanders’ Reserve in Germany) made desperate last-minute efforts to win over Kesselring, even going so far as to arrest Schulz and Wentzell to prevent their countermanding orders to cease fire. Then, at 11:00 p.m. on 1 May, the announcement of Hitler’s death released the German commanders from their oath of allegiance, and at 4:30 next morning Kesselring gave his consent to an armistice.245 Hostilities ended promptly at midday. In the first mass German capitulation of the war 207,425 survivors of Army Group “C”*
* On 9 April Army Group “C” had a total strength of 439,334 Germans (plus 160,180 Italians). German casualties during the last offensive were estimated at 5000 killed, 27,000 wounded and sick, and some 200,000 taken prisoner (before the final capitulation).246
laid down their arms.247
From Pachino to the Senio – The Balance Sheet
It remains only to attempt to assess the value of the Allied effort in Italy. The Italian campaign’s major contribution to the general victory in Europe may not be denied; but whether equal results might not have been more economically gained had Allied strategy taken a different course is a question which will long be debated. The directive given to General Eisenhower in May 1943, to carry out such operations in exploitation of the conquest of Sicily as would be best calculated “to contain the maximum number of German forces”,248 had remained in effect throughout the campaign.249 Moreover, as Lord Alexander points out, “The supreme directors of Allied strategy were always careful to see that our strength was never allowed to grow above the minimum necessary for our task.”250 At one time or another during the twenty months of the fighting in Italy they withdrew no less than 21 Allied divisions to benefit other theatres.
A rough measure of how well the role was fulfilled is given by the number of divisions which each side found it necessary to maintain in the Mediterranean theatre. On such a basis of comparison the Allies would seem to have achieved their purpose. In mid-October 1943, six weeks after the invasion of the Italian mainland, there were 19 German against 15 Allied divisions in Italy,251 and with the exception of a brief period in the spring of 1944, when Alexander had 27 divisions opposing 23 of the enemy’s,252 the number of Axis formations in Italy consistently exceeded that of the Allies. In the summer of 1944, when according to the Supreme Commander “the value of our strategic contribution was at its greatest,”253 20 Allied divisions faced 25 of the enemy’s in Italy, besides helping to tie down 17 in the Balkans†
† According to General Westphal the Allied campaign in Italy kept about forty German divisions, “that is to say, one-fifth of the German ground forces”, distributed throughout Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece.254
and eleven in Southern France, whose presence in those areas was in part due to the threat offered by the forces under Alexander’s command.255
On the surface these are satisfying figures, but a little consideration will show that mere numbers of divisions engaged on either side afford an inadequate basis of comparison. Such statistics exclude the large number of non-divisional troops employed all the way from the front line to the rearmost areas, and reflect neither the differences in the establishments of the opposing formations nor the considerable fluctuations which casualties and shortages of replacements caused in their manpower – as we have seen, there were times when German formations were reduced to a mere fraction of their authorized strength. Moreover, they take no account of the fact that the Allies had very large air forces in the theatre, and the Germans almost none. Yet to determine the actual number of opponents that each side was containing on any given date is extremely difficult, for not only is there a dearth of statistics from enemy sources but such as have become available from captured documents were not rendered in a form which permits an exact comparison with Allied strength returns. A German High Command graph of the “Actual Strength of Army Group ‘C”‘ for the first year of the Italian campaign (it includes ground forces committed by Air Force and S.S. formations) shows a fairly steady increase from 195,000 on 1 July 1943 to 411,000 twelve months later. On 1 April 1944, when the German total was 393,000,256 the British Eighth Army gave its “fighting state” as 190,182,257 while the US Fifth Army reported an “effective strength” of 359,565.258 This total of 549,747, however, made up little more than one third of the Allied strength in the theatre (including the air forces), which on 31 March was 1,577,932 all ranks.259 Throughout 1944 the total strength of Allied forces in Italy continued to exceed one and a half million,260 with that of the two armies fluctuating in the neighbourhood of 600,000. When the final offensive opened in April 1945, Army Group “C”, which as we have seen (p. 678) was then 599,514 strong, faced a total of 616,642 all ranks (including 70,468 Italians) in the Fifth and Eighth Armies.261
In the matter of casualties there is no question as to which side had its strength drained more by the campaign. From D Day for Sicily (10 July 1943) to the opening of the final offensive (9 April 1945) the losses to the Allied ground forces in killed, wounded and captured numbered 304,208 all ranks.262 Figures based on enemy records show for the same period an estimated total of 426,339 German casualties.263 By 2 May, when the fighting ended, Allied losses had increased to 320,955,264 while the enemy total (excluding those involved in the final capitulation) had reached 658,339.265
Most readers will agree with Lord Alexander that the assistance given the general Allied cause by the operations in Italy reached its peak before’ the attack on the Gothic Line. Up to that time the campaign had yielded notable strategic gains. The twelve months which followed the invasion of Sicily had
deprived Germany of her Axis partner; opened to Allied shipping the important sea route through the Mediterranean to the Middle East and India; gained air bases on the Italian mainland which considerably increased the effectiveness of the great bombing programme against Germany; and enhanced Allied prestige by winning a decisive victory which led to the capture of Rome and set the stage for a successful invasion of Southern France.
In July 1944, however, there seemed little in Allied plans likely to produce any further spectacular contribution by the forces in Italy. When the decision to invade Southern France killed the proposal by Generals Wilson and Alexander for a full-scale drive into the plains of Hungary, the need for an assault against the Gothic Line lost its urgency, even had the withdrawal of troops for ANVIL left General Alexander with sufficient strength for the task. The validity of the arguments put forward in 1943 still held. At the White House meetings which followed the Quebec “Quadrant” Conference, Mr. Churchill, in reiterating his conviction that “having regard to the requirements of ‘Overlord’” the Allies “should be very chary of advancing northward beyond the narrow part of the Italian Peninsula”, had proposed an alternative more within Allied capabilities.
I should like it to be considered whether we should not, when we come up against the main German positions, construct a strong fortified line of our own, properly sited in depth. Italian labour could be used on a large scale for the purpose. Italian troops could naturally take part in defending the line. Thus, by the spring, we should be able in this theatre either to make an offensive if the enemy were weak, and anyhow to threaten one, or on the other hand stand on the defensive, using our air power, which will in the meanwhile have been built up, from behind our fortified line and divert a portion of our troops for action elsewhere either to the West or to the East.266
Had such a plan been adopted in the summer of 1944, all the evidence and experience of the campaign up to that time argue that the Germans would have continued to retain large bodies of troops in Northern Italy, for Hitler’s frequently demonstrated policy of “clinging to ground” would not have permitted a withdrawal across the plains to the Alpine barrier. But the directors of Allied strategy fell between two stools. Having ruled out a full-scale offensive into the Balkans they did not call a halt in front of the Gothic Line. Instead, they ordered General Alexander’s weakened forces “to advance over the Apennines and close to the line of the River Po” (above, p. 464). The result was the bitter and unprofitable struggle which wore out the last four months of 1944, and cost Canada her heaviest casualties of the campaign.
None of these strategical considerations can alter the fact that the Allied Armies in Italy had waged and won a hard and well-fought campaign. Always the attacker, they had carried out four major amphibious landings, and three times attacked the enemy with the full strength of an Army Group.267
Fighting much of the time in country where, in the words of Lord Alexander, “it is generally agreed, a superiority of at least three to one is required for successful offensive operations”,268 their polyglot forces, in which 26 nations were represented,269 drove the enemy from one position after another up the whole length of the peninsula to complete his destruction on the northern plain. We have noted, that the needs of other theatres deprived the Allied commanders in Italy of the use of airborne troops or amphibious forces*
* German strategists, lacking full knowledge of these limitations, have criticized what they term “the methodical ways of the Allies” and their “desire to undergo as little risk as possible.” They declare that by landing near Rome instead of Salerno the Allies could have seized the whole of central and Southern Italy by the autumn of 1943, and that a landing near Leghorn early in 1944 “would almost certainly” have cut off Army Group “C” and led to the reduction of the whole peninsula that summer.270
with which they might have offset the advantages that the narrow and mountainous Italian frontage gave the enemy. That they were forced to advance by attacking through the defensible defiles of restricted valley or narrow coastal plain was the greater challenge to their generalship.
To these successes Canadian troops had made no small contribution. Except for the last two months of the war Canadian, formations were engaged in all the major phases of the campaign; when it left Italy the 1st Division had served continuously in the theatre for a longer period than any other division in the Eighth Army.271 In the long advance from Pachino to the Senio the Canadians had fought against twenty different German divisions. At least four of these – the 1st Parachute, the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier and the 26th Panzer Divisions – stand out both for the quality of their performance and the frequency with which they were encountered; for, as we have learned from enemy records, the reported appearance of the Canadians in a given sector was generally the signal for the Germans to commit there the best formations in the theatre.
Of the 92,757 Canadians of all ranks who served in the Italian theatre (the figure includes 1,178 members of the 1st Special Service Battalion) more than a quarter became casualties. The killed numbered 408 officers and 4,991 men; the wounded 1,218 and 18,268 respectively; and 62 officers and 942 men were taken prisoner. The addition of 365 who died from causes other than enemy action brings the total Canadian casualties to 26,254. Approximately 60 per cent of these were suffered in the five major operations†
† Total Canadian battle casualties in these operations were: Sicily, 2227; the Moro River and Ortona, 2605; the Liri Valley, 3713; the Gothic Line and the Battle of the Rimini Line, 4511; and the advance from the Montone to the Senio, 2581.
in which the Canadians were engaged, for, as we have seen, the men who wore on their shoulders the name of Canada were identified with the costliest struggles of the entire campaign.
The Canadians’ departure from Italy before the last blow was struck deprived them of a share in the final triumph. As they moved to fresh fields of endeavour, however, an experienced fighting body of the highest calibre,
they might look back with satisfaction upon their share in a long and hard task. The reputation gained by their fellow countrymen in other campaigns had not suffered at their hands, and to the growing record of their nation’s military achievements they had added new and worthy battle honours. The names of Ortona, the Hitler Line and the Gothic Line will live the longer for the Canadians who fought and died there. It was good to have earned the tribute expressed in Field-Marshal Alexander’s generous farewell message to General Foulkes:
It is with great sorrow and regret that I see you and your famous Canadian Corps leaving my command.
You have played a distinguished part in our victories in Italy, where you leave behind a host of friends and admirers who will follow your future with the liveliest interest.
Good luck and Godspeed to you all in your coming tasks in the west, and may victory crown your new, efforts as it has done in the past.272