Op HUSKY - Fighting in the Hills

Jul 10

In the early days of the advance, the Allies moved steadily and continued to experience success as Italian garrisons surrendered. Montgomery saw an opportunity to exploit this weakness and lobbied General Alexander to shift the inter-army boundary slightly west into areas that had initially been assigned to the Americans so that the 8th Army could move on a wider front, and at the same time protect his left flank by preventing German reinforcements from the mainland pouring into the Plains of Catania.

This is the second of a five-part series on the role of the RCE during the Sicilian Campaign.

As they moved into the hills, the Allies continued to experience success as Italian garrisons surrendered. General Montgomery, showing deference to the extremely hot conditions, called for a 36-hour rest during which time he expected troops to prepare for harder fighting as they came closer to contact with German forces. More importantly, this allowed time for his dviisions to reorganize to meet the needs of the changed plan.


As expected, resistance stiffened as the Canadians engaged determined German troops of the Hermann Goring Division at Grammichele on the morning of 15th of July. In a move that would describe German tactics for the rest of the Sicilian Campaign, and indeed much of the Italian Campaign to come, the Germans caused damage and casualties but withdrew at mid-day before the Canadians were able to close with them. The advance northwards continued with much vigour, hampered again by mines and poor road conditions.

This sort of thing would go on for the next five weeks. Town by town, hill by hill and mountain pass-by-mountain pass, gulley-by-gulley, the Canadians fought onwards. For the next 17 days, the Canadians were hotly engaged in fighting.


Mountain Boys - KesselringThe next town to fall was Piazza Armerina on after a day-long battle on 17 July. On 18 July, the Canadians met heavy resistance at Valguarnera, the first divisional-level battle for the Canadians in the war. There were 145 casualties, including 40 killed. German casualties were higher.

From here, the Canadians split on two axes - the 1st and 2 nd Canadian Infantry Brigades moving north towards Leonforte, and the 3rd Brigade moving east through the Dittaino Valley.


With sapper support in the approach, the two Canadian brigades on the northern axis were able to take the dominating 904-metre-high Monte Assoro clearing the way to the challenge of Leonforte, a significant hill town. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade (2 CIB) advanced with the Seaforth Highlanders (Seaforths) in front, as far as the ravine guarding the approaches to the town. The Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment (Hasty Ps) followed on and in a remarkable feat of arms, scaled the heights into the town. At the same time, sappers of the 1st Field Company struggled to build a Bailey Bridge across the ravine, under fire from the Germans above. When the bridge opened, a column of tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment (TRR) supported by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), crossed and soon brought the battle to an end. While his sappers worked on the bridge, their commander, with a small party, took out a machine gun post and bagged 20 prisoners. After another night of house-to-house fighting, Leonforte fell on the 22nd of July. The cost to 2 CIB over the three-day fight for Leonforte was close to 275 casualties, 100 of whom were killed.

Meanwhile, by 21 July, the 8th Army was running critically short of fuel and ammunition in its advance to Catania. British troops moving along the east coast were stopped at Catania. General Montgomery’s earlier decision to bite off more than he could crew had returned to haunt him. He called another halt for everyone except the Canadians. It was for them to maintain the pressure in the centre and they were ordered to “continue without restraint directed on Adrano”.


The Germans would make certain the Canadians would pay a high price to get to Adrano. They, along with the Italians, made a determined stand with heavy fire from machine guns, artillery, and tanks along the approach routes and extracted everything they could from the advancing troops capitalizing on the terrain to their great advantage.

Before Adrano was Agira, only eight miles from Leonforte and before Agira was Nissoria blocking the route. Between Nissoria and Agira were three lines of defence – Lion, Tiger, and Grizzly. Based on their experience so far, the Canadians had not expected Nissoria to be occupied and were surprised by the ferocity of the defences they faced. Up until now, the enemy could fight when and where it wanted but as the British were pressing in Messina and the escape route from Sicily, the time had come to stop moving back in leaps and bounds, and fight where they stood.

On the afternoon of 24 July, the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) led the 1 CIB advance to Agira. They marched nearly unopposed through the town of Nissoria but met with a costly surprise as they approached Line LION. The TRT lost ten tanks. The RCR companies turned south of the town, and although they reached Line TIGER, they were out of touch with brigade HQ and supporting artillery. In working to link the scattered RCR companies, the battalion HQ came under fire, wounding several and killing the CO. General Simmons ordered the offence to continue and just after midnight, the Hasty Ps took over the attack on Line LION. They fought through the night as the RCR continued to cause casualties from their positions on Line TIGER. By morning, the Hasty Ps had suffered 80 casualties, the highest single-day loss of any regiment in the Sicilian Campaign, including their just-appointed CO.

Chris Vokes in Italy
Major General Chris Vokes, originally
a Sapper officer, commanded the
2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade in Sicily

On the morning of 25 July, preparations were being made for a deliberate attack to carry through to Agira. The 48th Highlanders had carried out aggressive patrols on the heights to the north and the RCR were withdrawn to allow heavy artillery bombardment of the way ahead. 2 CIB, commanded by Brigadier Chris Vokes, relieved 1 CIB and took over the lead on 26 July. At 2200 hours that night, following a the biggest barrage used to date in Sicily, the 2 CIB infantry set off through Line LION and fought hard to Line TIGER. By the next afternoon, with control of the high ground, the Canadians drove to enemy from their reverse slope positions back to Line Grizzly, a line of hills blocking the approaches to Agira, now just two long miles away.

On the morning of 27 July, it was clear the enemy had been badly mauled but were still determined. Two battalions of reinforcement were brought in to strengthen Line Grizzly. While fire poured down on Line TIGER, the Seaforths took the initiative to move around to the southern edge of Line GRIZZLY. They scaled the rocky ridge of Monte Fronte and established a firm high-ground position to accurately direct artillery onto the defenders below. They were soon joined by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment (Loyal Eddies) who moved on Monte Cimitero. The two battalions fought off counterattacks through the night. As reported by the Loyal Eddies’ War Diary, “It was not until the enemy were engaged with the bayonet that the situation began to clarify itself.” By the morning of the 28 July, Line GRIZZLY was in Canadian hands. The cost had been high on both sides.

General Simmons’s next step called for a bombardment of Agira. However, when an artillery forward observation officer was looking for a good position, was met by townspeople reporting the Germans has left, back towards Nicosia in the American sector and north towards Regalbuto. Patrols of the PPCLI confirmed this information and by that evening facing light opposition had moved into the town with the Three Rivers Regiment. It had taken five days to get the Germans out of Agira, the toughest battle the Canadians would face in Sicily. Again, the cost was heavy. By the morning of the 28th, the two brigades fighting that action counted 438 casualties in what was the biggest Canadian engagement to date.

Catenanuova, Adrano and Regalbuto

While the 1st and 2nd Brigades were engaged in the Agira action, the 3rd Brigade was placed under command of the British 78th Division who were to advance through the Dittaino Valley with the eventual aim of meeting the rest of the division at Adrano. Initially, the going was relatively easy for the Canadians as they cleared the route for the follow-on British Division. Their task was to capture the town of Catenanuova to establish a crossing over the dry riverbed to allow the Britsh to carry on the Centuripe and on to Adrano.

The attack on the town was launched before midnight on 29 July under a heavy barrage. Sappers from a 4th Field Company platoon were split between the Royal 22e and the West Nova Scotia Regiments. The initial assault was quite successful and the West Nova Scotia Regiment forced most of the defending 923rd Fortress Battalion to run away. However, there was still determined opposition from commanding positions and particularly from a high spur to the southwest. The Royal 22 e Regiment attacked the high ground and by late morning, the heights were under Canadian control. However, small elements of the vanquished Fortress Battalion were still holding excellent observation posts north of the town and stopped the further advance of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, but more importantly, prevented any support from being pushed forward.

While the infantry was fighting, the other two platoons of the 4 th Field Company started working on two potential riverbed crossings with men and heavy equipment. Mortar and artillery fire stopped work and at first light machinegun and small arms, fire pinned them all down in the open. At around noon they concentrated all effort on one of the sites and by 1900 hours had a rough route ready to get close-support weapons over to the now hard-pressed infantry.

Catenanuov was taken on 30 July and Centuripe on 3 August. To the north, Regalbuto fell to combined Canadian and British attacks also on the 3rd of August. The Canadians moved forward through continued opposition to Adrano. They were briefly held up along the Simeto River and arrived on the outskirts of Adrano on the morning of 7 August. The British, back in action, advanced and converged on Adrano, to whom the city fell. After Adrano, the Canadians were moved back to Simeto and their fighting days in Sicily were ending.

German Withdrawal

The Germans started their withdrawal from the island on 10 August. They had planned their retreat masterfully. Despite the efforts of an American and two British divisions in their pursuit, the German engineers had used the natural defiles along the coast to their great advantage. Every conceivable obstacle was put in the way. A British division took a week to advance 16 miles along a coastal road. By 14 August, the Germans were able to break contact with the Allies and the rate of advance equalled the ability of engineers to open the routes. By 17 August, the Germans evacuated nearly 40,000 troops, 9600 vehicles, 47 tanks, 94 guns and 17,000 tons of ammunition, fuel and equipment from Sicily.

Sicily had been conquered in 38 days. The campaign was a success and even though a sizable number of Germans got across the Straights of Messina into Italy. The operation secured an air base to support the rest of the campaign on the mainland. The Mediterranean sea lanes were finally opened, and Mussolini was about to fall. Italy was able to sue for peace, and the new southern front had taken pressure off the Russian armies in the north.

The Canadians had acquitted themselves well in their first campaign. They had fought through 150 miles of mountainous country—farther than any other formation in the Eighth Army—and during their final two weeks had borne a large share of the fighting on the Army front. Canadian casualties totalled 562 killed, 1,664 wounded and 84 prisoners of war.

Read Part 3: The Role of the RCE