Operation Husky – The Canadian Army in Sicily
A Dagger Pointed At the Heart of Berlin
On July 10, 1943, the Canadian Army finally became involved in a land campaign. Units of the Canadian Army had previously fought; two infantry battalions in the sacrificial defence of Hong Kong in 1941, and two infantry brigades and a tank battalion in the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942. Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was the first campaign of the Second World War that the Canadian Army fought in.
The inactivity of the Canadian Army was not their fault. The 1st Canadian Division had arrived in Britain during the closing stages of the Battle of France. Units were dispatched to France, but quickly withdrawn as the futility of the situation became clear. Australian divisions on the way to Britain were held up in Egypt, as were the New Zealand and Indian Divisions. Those divisions fought with the 8th Army. The Canadians, however, were held up in Britain, as they were one of the only full strength divisions available in Britain after Dunkirk.
The Canadians watched their Commonwealth cousins earn glory in North Africa while they guarded the shores of Britain. The Canadian commanding general, Lt-Gen. McNaughton, called them, “a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin”. The Canadian force in Britain built up to three infantry divisions, two armoured divisions, and three army tank brigades. It was a lot of volunteer power to leave on the sideline while world-shaping events were happening elsewhere. To many in the Canadian press and in English speaking Canada, the Canadian divisions needed to get into the action, they feared that the dagger was getting rusty.
The Soft Underbelly
As the campaign in North Africa drew to a close, it was decided that the next step in the war was to capture Sicily. The Americans would have preferred to invade France, but the British wanted the German forces in France to weaken, and they wanted more shipping. With the Axis in control of the Mediterranean, ships carrying supplies to and from Britain’s eastern outposts, whether Egypt, India, or Australia, had to sail around Africa adding 45 days to the journey. With Sicily and southern Italy in Allied hands, the Mediterranean would be reopened to Allied ships, making a million tons of shipping available for the invasion of France.
The Canadians were not originally included in Husky. General Bernard Montgomery, in his notes on the planning for the campaign even wrote, “I cannot take on HUSKY a division that has never fired a shot in this war.” Montgomery had requested his old 3rd Infantry Division, the division that he had commanded during the Battle of France, but the Canadian government had requested for a Canadian division to be included in the Sicilian campaign, and the 1st Canadian Division was selected instead, with the 1st Army Tank Brigade, to accompany them.
Canadian participation in the campaign began with tragedy. The general commanding the 1st Division was to fly to Cairo with some of his staff to meet with the planners. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff killing everyone aboard. The general commanding the 2nd Division was transferred, and Maj-Gen. Guy Simonds flew to Cairo.
The Canadian formation was transported directly from Britain to Sicily. They were shipped in four convoys, a slow convoy carrying transport and signals, a fast convoy carrying the landing force, and two slow convoys carrying follow on troops and supplies. To ensure that no disastrous sinking would occur, no units transport was loaded into a single ship, but was divided among several. The Divisional Headquarters transport and signals equipment was divided among three ships, which sailed in different sections of the slow convoy. On July 4th disaster struck, the three ships carrying the transport were sunk by U-boat action. Five hundred vehicles including twenty-two of the twenty-six HQ vehicles, forty artillery pieces, and a significant portion of the signals equipment was lost. Fifty-eight soldiers also lost their lives. The Canadians would walk in Sicily.
The sector that the Canadians were assigned to assault was code-named Bark West. It was divided into two beaches, Roger on the right, and Sugar on the left. The 1st Brigade with two battalions up assaulted on Roger, while the 2nd Brigade with two battalions up assaulted on Sugar. Their objective was three miles inland, the airfield near the town of Pachino. Among the squadrons providing air cover was the only RCAF fighter squadron to serve in the Mediterranean, 417 Squadron (City of Windsor).
As with most landings there was incredible confusion. The 2nd Brigade’s Seaforth Highlanders were landed on the right instead of on the left of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). Some boats unloaded their unlucky soldiers into water over their heads, forcing the soldiers to abandon their equipment to avoid drowning. Fortunately, there was almost no resistance and the beach was secured in a little over an hour.
The confusion was much worse on Roger. A sandbar had been discovered off the beaches, which the LCAs of the landing force could not sail over. It was decided to use LCTs up to the sand bar, and then launch the assault force on DUKWs. The transfer to the LCTs caused considerable delay. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps) landed two hours late, the Royal Canadian Regiment more than three hours. As at Sugar, the landings were only lightly opposed and the beaches quickly secured. The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCRs) pushed quickly to the Pachino airfield and captured it, two privates earning the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and Military Medal (MM) respectively. The first day of combat had cost the Canadians 7 dead and 25 other casualties.
Italian towns quickly surrendered to the marching Canadians. Ispica was the first to fall, followed by Modica. The surrender of Modica was one of the few comic operas of the war. The Italian General D’Havet wanted to surrender, but felt it only proper that he surrender to a General officer. The Canadians made the necessary preparations and the Italian general was escorted to divisional HQ. The 1st Cdn. Division had been tasked with capturing Ragusa, but the American 45th Division with its transport, beat the transportless Canadians to the town.
The first German soldiers encountered were elements of two battalions of the Herman Goering Division. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps) were riding on the tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment. As the Canadian force reached the town of Grammichele, they were ambushed by the Germans. British self-propelled guns arrived to assist the Canadians and the town was cleared. The Canadians had suffered another 25 casualties; the Germans had left the hulks of 3 Mark IV tanks along with some flak guns as evidence of their brief defense.
The advance on the Eighth Army’s right flank had stalled by July 15th. The Canadians on the left flank were ordered to drive hard. The town of Caltagirone was taken without a fight, but the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division made a stand just south of Piazza Armerina. In this delaying action, the Germans inflicted another 27 casualties on the Canadians. The next town on their route of march was Valguarnera. The 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment skilfully slowed the Canadian advance by a blown bridge, a cratered road, and occasional skirmishes. The Canadians were able to initiate an ambush of their own, using the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank, the British equivalent of the Bazooka) for the first time. The Germans were forced out of Valguarnera at a cost of 40 dead and 100 other casualties to the 1st Division. Known German casualties were 240 killed and wounded with another 250 taken prisoner.
Assoro and Leonforte
The 1st Division’s next assignment was to capture the towns of Assoro and Leonforte. These two towns were on a ridge and separated by only two miles. From the heights, the Germans were able to rain down accurate artillery and mortar fire. The Three Rivers Regiment lost nine of its tanks to mines. It was decided to attack under cover of darkness. The Hasty Ps of the First Brigade sent a special assault company up a steep cliff to capture the ruins of a castle overlooking the town. During their ascent, they overran a German observation post, killing the crew and capturing a spotting telescope. Once on the summit they overlooked the German positions in the town and opened fire. The Germans responded with artillery fire, including Nebelwwerfers. Major Bert Kennedy, the regimental 2ic, and a former artilleryman, used the German spotting telescope to call down accurate counterbattery fire on the German artillery. The force was too small to advance into the town, but too large for the Germans to dislodge. The Hasty Ps were resupplied overnight by two hundred soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment. The next morning the 48th Highlanders assaulted the town and the Germans withdrew.
The Second Brigade was meanwhile busy with Leonforte. This was a much larger city than Assoro and could only be approached frontally. An attempt to outflank it failed. The Seaforth Highlanders were originally assigned to the attack, but during an Orders group, a friendly artillery barrage killed or wounded 30 officers and other ranks. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment was then assigned the task. Successfully fighting into the small city, the Edmontons were counterattacked by an armored force. Ordered to withdraw, only three companies successfully did so, C Company being trapped in the town. Tanks could not be brought forward as the only road to the town had to cross a bridge, which had been destroyed by the Germans. Working feverishly and under fire from the Germans, the 3rd Field Company put a Bailey Bridge across the chasm. A flying column of four tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment, trucks with 6-lb anti-tank guns, and troops of the PPCLI rushed across to rescue C Company of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. It would take another twelve hours of fighting to secure the city. The men of the Second Brigade earned twenty-four decorations for bravery at Leonforte, including three Distinguished Service Orders, the second highest award for bravery in the British Empire. It had taken three days of fighting for the 1st Division to capture its objectives. The fighting had cost 275 casualties, mostly to the Second Brigade.
The rest of the Eighth Army had been ordered on to the defensive, but the 1st Division was ordered to move on Adrano “without restraint”. Between Leonforte and Adrano lay a number of towns, Nissoria being the first. The Germans appeared to have switched to a holding action rather than simply delaying. Maj-Gen. Simonds decided on a set piece attack. The Royal Canadian Regiment, accompanied by tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, was tasked with attacking Nissoria, and it was to be supported by the guns of five Field Regiments and two Medium Regiments, 150 guns in all. Kittyhawk fighter-bombers (P40) were to provide air support.
The barrage started at 1530 and by 1615, the town of Nissoria was in Canadian hands. The RCRs immediately set out for the next town, Agira. As they left Nissoria, they ran into the Germans. Ten Shermans of the Three Rivers Regiment were quickly knocked out. While the Germans were outflanked, the radio communications of the RCRs broke down and the assault companies, who had specific orders not to advance without permission, halted. The commander of the RCRs was killed in the battle, and neither at Brigade nor Division level did anyone know what was happening. As darkness fell, it was decided to advance the Hasty Ps. In the darkness, they ran into an enemy machine gun post and were trapped. They took eighty casualties by the time they withdrew to safety.
The last battalion of the First Brigade, the 48th Highlanders were now called on to complete the capture of Agira. They too had communications problems and would suffer forty-four casualties without reaching their objective.
The task of capturing Agira was now given to the Second Brigade. This time intermediate objectives were set. The PPCLI would capture the high ground and ridge outside of Nissoria, the Seaforth Highlanders were to advance and capture the high ground outside of Agira. A bigger barrage than had been provided for the RCRs was laid on. The attack was made at 2000 hrs, and in spite of troops getting lost the attack succeeded. The battle for Agira had taken five days and cost the 1st Division 438 casualties.
The Third Brigade had been attached to the British 78th Division. The West Nova Scotia Regiment captured the town of Catenanuova and held it against counterattack. On August 3rd the brigade reverted to command of the 1st Division.
The next battle for the 1st Division was Regalbuto. The British 231st Brigade had been assigned to the 1st Division for the capture of Agira, with that accomplished they moved on to Regalbuto, capturing the high ground around the town. The RCRs unsuccessfully attacked the town. The Hasty Ps then put in an assault which captured a position outside of the town, the 48th Highlanders discovered that the town had been abandoned by the Germans.
The remaining fighting was to capture high ground along the route of advance toward Adrano. The 1st Division would successfully advance to Adrano, entering it on August 6. They were now pinched out of the line, and rested for the upcoming invasion of Italy. The four weeks of fighting had cost the 1st Division 562 dead, 1664 wounded, and 84 taken prisoner.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division had entered the Sicilian campaign as a well trained but untried formation. From their opening battles to the close of the campaign four weeks later, they proved themselves to be capable soldiers, earning the respect of both friend and foe.
Casualties in Sicilian Campaign
Missing and Prisoner
Eighth Army, includes Canadians
- The Canadians In Italy: 1943-1945
Official History of the Canadian Army in Italy, a downloadable pdf file.
The entire campaign of the 1st Canadian Division and 1st Tank Brigade.