The battle at Leonforte occurred on 21 and 22 July near the very centre of Sicily just west of Mount Etna. On the morning of 21 July, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (SH of C), leading the 2nd Brigade, reached the outskirts of the town along Route 121 only to find the bridge crossing a steep ravine had been blown and the approaches swept with registered machine gun and mortar fire. As they were preparing an attack into the town, their Battalion HQ was shelled causing 30 or more casualties.
Brigadier Chris Vokes, himself a sapper officer, postponed the attack and ordered the Loyal Edmonton Regiment (LER) to take over while the engineers built a bridge across the ravine to allow the later passage of supporting arms. The attack started at 2100 hours and initially went well. The assault companies clambered down into the steep ravine, scaled the far side and entered the town with little difficulty. The LER got three of their rifle companies into the town, with a Seaforth company taking up a cut off position on the exit route at the northeast corner of the town. Brutal house-to-house fighting ensued.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Neil Dickson's 1 Platoon, with Sergeant Robert McPhee as bridge commander, started the bridge build at 2130 hours undercover of darkness, but not undercover from continuing enemy machinegun and mortar fire. Bullets ricocheted from bridge members and mortars threw dirt and shrapnel at the men, but miraculously, there were no serious sapper casualties. Two companies of the LER were forced back across the ravine, while the battalion HQ was trapped in the centre of the town with the third company. The Seaforth company was scattered and slowly made its way back, but with heavy casualties. Meanwhile, the sappers, continuing the build, declared the bridge open at 0200 hours on the 22nd of July, long before it could be used due to the crossing and the road on either side were still being swept by enemy fire. The bridging operation marked the first time ever that a Bailey Bridge had been erected under fire.
There were 21 awards for the action at Leonforte. Five awards went to Engineers.
Sergeant McPhee was in charge of a platoon constructing a bridge in the face of the enemy fire on the night 21/22 July 1943 south of Leonforte. Although enemy small arms were covering the site and ricochetting from the bridge members, Sergeant McPhee ignored his personal safety and continued supervising the work of his platoon. By his fearless disregard of personal danger, his coolness under fire and his technical skill, Sergeant McPhee set an inspiring example to the remainder of his men.