The first Canadian sapper to set foot in Sicily was Captain George Wheelock Burbidge of the 4th Field Company. Captain Burbidge was attached to Combined Operations HQ and was assigned to 3 Combined Operations Pilotage Party in Malta. These parties gathered information on proposed landing beaches usually under the noses of enemy coastal defences and patrols.
This is the third of a five-part series on the role of the RCE during the Sicilian Campaign.
It was hazardous work of great importance to the planners. Parties were small, three of four in size. For the Sicily operation, they were unloaded from submarines and used collapsible canoes to get to shore. Captain Burbidge was the only Army officer on the team, the rest being members of the Royal Navy. He and his party disappeared on their last mission, but the information they had already gathered on the previous two missions was invaluable to the planners.
1st Canadian Infantry Division Engineers
The 1st Division was supported by three Field Companies, the 1 st, 3rd and 4th, and the 2nd Field Park Company. There were also tunnelling detachments in the force. Small parties of Sappers landed with the infantry ready to blow beach obstacles while the rest followed later that day. The landings were relatively unopposed and went well. With the infantry safely inshore, the sappers were able to regroup and got to work laying track on the beach for vehicle traffic, clearing some small minefields, as well as destroying captured enemy guns, equipment and fortifications. They also assisted the British in the restoration of the Pachino airfield. The Canadian bridgehead was two miles deep by the end of the day and the field companies moved up, each assigned to a brigade for the upcoming march into the hills.
Once in the hills, the Sappers provided close support for the advancing infantry. As mentioned, the roads were in rough shape, bridges and culverts were blown and there were mines everywhere. In every action, the Engineers played a key role. Simply keeping the roads open was a massive task demanding hard work and courage. In one action, typical of so many others, Sgt Henry Percy Charters of the 4th Field Company was recognized with the award of a Military Medal. Sgt Charters, it could be said, was just doing his job, but his bravery and leadership inspired so many others to do theirs.
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 Seaforths, leading 2 CIB, 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 under cover 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. Lieutenant Dickson was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. His Sergeant, Robert McPhee, was awarded the Military Medal.
With the bridge construction well underway, the company commander, took it upon himself to move forward of the bridge to assess how much more engineer work would be needed to support the attack. The following description is taken from The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945, the official history:
"While the Edmontons were battling through the night in Leonforte, outside the town the Engineers had been working vigorously but methodically to bridge the 50-foot gap. They were under constant mortar and machinegun fire which they later nonchalantly described as being “slightly high”. While the job was still in progress, their company commander, Major K. J. Southern, moved up the road with a few of the Edmontons to the outskirts of Leonforte, where they were confronted by a machine-gun covering the only approach to the town, and close beside it two enemy tanks and a small force of infantry. Here was a potential threat to the sappers toiling in the ravine below that might well have halted their efforts and spelled disaster for the isolated Edmontons awaiting reinforcement in the town. Catching the Germans by surprise, Major Southern’s little party discharged their small arms and made such a display of force that the more formidable enemy group was deterred from advancing. Shortly afterwards the commander of the 90 th Canadian Anti-Tank Battery, Major G. A. Welsh, who had come forward with the engineer party, re-crossed the ravine under heavy fire to bring two of his six-pounders into action. The machine-gun post and one of the tanks were destroyed, and Welsh kept up the good work by once more approaching the town and with the help of two engineers taking twenty German prisoners.” For his actions, Major Kenneth James Southern was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Major Southern, then Lieutenant-Colonel, was killed in the Liri Valley Campaign the following year.
At first light, fire on the bridge site increased and the sappers took more casualties. Sapper Lloyd Johnson , the platoon’s dispatch rider was awarded the Military Medal while evacuating wounded comrades under fire. He was killed days while on a reconnaissance patrol in Agira.
Meanwhile, the Loyal Eddies had been surrounded in the town. They were cut off and out of communication with Brigadier Chris Vokes. A tank and infantry assault column was organized to free them but stopped at the bridge due to heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. Vokes ordered them the press on despite the hazard. They did as directed and more infantry and tanks crossed and charged up the hill into the town to finish the job. With the avenue open for more reinforcements, the town quickly fell with only light casualties.
The bridging operation marked the first time that a Bailey Bridge had been erected under fire during the war. The challenge of the action at Leonforte and the role played by the RCE can be measured by the 21 awards given to the Canadians in the battle of which five were awarded to Engineers.
On the night of 28 July, the 3rd Field Company sent a reconnaissance patrol forward to Agira loaded with mines and anti-tank grenades. Their mission was to sow confusion among the enemy by planting mines across enemy withdrawal routes. They did the same the next day, and finding no resistance, the patrol leader, Lieutenant E.T. Galway, GM found himself and his patrol in the middle of Agira. As they withdrew, they, unfortunately, did meet some resistance. Five German soldiers were killed in the skirmish as well as Sapper Johnston. He is buried in the Agira Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily. Lieutenant Galway was later awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in Holland and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for outstanding leadership of the 23rd Field Squadron in Korea.
Catenanuova and Adrano
As the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was moving along the Dittaino River towards Catenanuova, the 4th Field Company, in support, cleared mines and built a mule track parallel and south of the main route and somewhat south, allowing vehicles to advance with the infantry, out of enemy observation. Their real work came during the battle at Catenanuova.
As described above, the infantry attack started just before midnight on 29 July. The fighting was fierce and by morning, the West Nova Scotia Regiment, who had advanced well, found themselves cut off from the rest of the Brigade. At 0130, two platoons of the 4th Field Company moved forward with two bulldozers and attempted to construct crossings at two sites. They came under immediate mortar and artillery fire and had to stop. At first light, they started again with efforts concentrated on one of these sites. They had 25% of the task completed when the sappers were pinned to the ground and machine-gun and rifle fire being added to the rest. Lieutenant R. O. Riley was wounded and, because of the fire, he could not be evacuated for some time.
A third site for the crossing was chosen at about noon. Lieutenant G. E. Atkinson and his platoon cut down the steep banks and graded the rough bed. By 1900 hours a route was available to get close-support weapons over to the now hard-pressed infantry. All afternoon the platoon had worked under mortar and machine-gun fire. In the end, Atkinson lost his left arm below the elbow and his right was badly mutilated. Nonetheless, he continued to lead and encourage his men until the task was complete and the other casualties evacuated. He was awarded an immediate Military Cross. The loss of one wounded officer and seven wounded other ranks was the highest of any RCE unit in the campaign, and except for the R22eR who lost five killed, the 4th Field Company suffered the highest loss in the Carenanuova battle.
The 4th Field Company had now lost four officers — all in 12 days, but their crossing was completed and the follow-on British division was able to pass through in strength and move on. Lieutenant Atkinson died from his wounds a few days later on 4 August 1943. By 3 August, they had captured Centuripe while to the north, Regalbuto also 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.
The above accounts for the direct support RCE units provided during the many battles in Sicily. However, when they were not directly facing the enemy, the Sappers’ days were taken up with a myriad of other tasks. Reconnaissance was constant. Teams continually looked for obstacles and alternate routes, often ahead or on the flacks of the advance. Water points were established, temporary roads and tracks were built, and bypasses were constructed around obstacles to ensure supplies continued moving forward. Thousands of mines were removed, bridges built, routes repaired and craters filled. Enemy supplies, stores and equipment were salvaged and used. There was little rest.
Although the landings were almost unopposed, action along the line of march from the beaches at Pachino in the south, over the mountains to the town of Adrano in the north, was hard and deadly. The RCE suffered twenty-three casualties from the time they left the United Kingdom until the enemy had been driven from the island. On a man-for-man basis, the RCE took casualties at a rate second only to the infantry. The personal stories are recorded here: Part 5: Tributes to the Fallen