Sapper Bravery in Sicily

Date 
Jul 09
Op HUSKY Jul - Aug 43
COPPist canoe of the type used by Captain G.W. Burbidge, RCE
Captain George Burbidge, RCE
Bridge at Leonforte

Background

Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily, was launched on 9 July 1943 marking the beginning of the Italian Campaign. It was also the first major engagement for the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The goal was to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front and open Mediterranean sea lanes for Allied merchant ships for the first time since 1941. In a combined airborne and amphibious operation, Allied forces took the island from the enemy in six weeks of fighting.  The Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, was toppled from power and the stage was set for the invasion of Italy. On the Eastern Front, the Germans cancelled a major offensive at Kursk after only a week and diverted forces to Italy, partly in reaction to this new threat.

Enemy Forces

Sicily was defended by two Italian corps and designated Fortress Areas around the main ports on the island.  In early July, there were approximately 200,000 Italian troops organised into four frontline infantry divisions along with inferior coastal divisions and brigades. The Germans had two divisions on the island numbering about 32,000 troops, ostensibly to support their Italian allies. There also about 30,000 Luftwaffe personnel. The defence plan was for the coastal formations to form a screen to fight the invasion where it occurred, holding the field divisions in reserve to deploy once the main axes of advance were determined.  When the invasion was launched, 40,000 more German troops were sent to the island as reinforcements. As time passed, German commanders became increasingly contemptuous of the Italians and by early August had taken over command of all sectors in which there were German troops.

Allied Forces

Allied forces were organised into two task forces. Task Force 545, responsible for the eastern part of the island, was built on the British 8th Army including the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade. It was commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery. The Task Force 343 in the west was based on the 7th US Army commanded by Lieutenant General George S. Patton.  Both Armies reported to General Alexander, Commander 15th Army Group.

The Landings

Just after dawn on July 10, the seaborne assault began.  The Canadians were on the left flank of the British landings that spread over 40 miles of shoreline, landing near Pachino. The Americans established their beachheads to the west.  The plan saw the British fighting up the east coast of the island while the Americans cleared the west and moved eastwards towards Messina. The Canadians moved through the mountains and hills aiming for the base of the imposing volcanic cone of Mount Etna.  The plan was to push the enemy into a pocket north of Etna and prevent them from escaping to the mainland.

The next day, the Canadians pushed forward from Pachino on dusty mine-filled roads, meeting only light resistance from Italian coastal troops.  Progress was hampered by the thousands of Italian troops wanting to surrender. With the Italian Army crumbling, the Germans focussed on establishing strong defences by fortifying hilltop towns and villages and building almost impregnable positions.

Fighting in the Hills

As they moved into the hills, the Allies experienced 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 the came closer to contact with German forces. 

Grammichele

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring reported that his men were fighting highly-trained mountain troops. “They are called ‘Mountain Boys,’ he said, “and probably belong to the 1st Canadian Division.”

As expected, resistance stiffened as the Canadians engaged more determined German troops 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 continued with much vigour, hampered again by mines and poor road conditions.

This sort of thing went 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. 

Leonforte

On 18 July, the Canadians met heavy resistance at Valguarnera. There were 145 casualties, including 40 killed. German casualties were higher. With Sapper support in the approach, the Canadians were able to take the dominating 904-metre high Monte Assoro and after a night of house-to-house fighting, Leonforte fell on the 22nd while a Sapper party led by OC 1st Field Squadron, took out a machine gun post and bagged 20 prisoners while building a Bailey bridge just outside the town. The cost of the three-day fight for Leonforte was close to 275 casualties, 100 of whom were killed.

The Canadians Take Up the Pressure

Meanwhile, on 21 July, General Montgomery called another halt for the 8th Army, this time excluding the Canadians.  They were ordered to “continue without restraint directed on Adrano”.  The rest of the 8th Army was running critically short of fuel and ammunition and the US 7th Army needed time to reposition itself as Patton changed his plans in the west.  It was for the Canadians to maintain the pressure.

Agira and Adrano

Before Adrano was Agira, only eight miles from Leonforte, and before Agira was Nissoria blocking the route. The Germans made a determined stand along the approach route extracted everything they could from the advancing troops. It took five days to get the Germans out of Agira, and 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.

While the 1st and 2nd Brigades were engaged in the Agira action, the 3rd Brigade was moving through the Dittaino Valley with the eventual aim of meeting the rest of the division at Adrano. Major action on this route occurred near the town of Catenanuova where bridgehead had to be established over the Dittaino River.  Germans resistance was varied, but with the exception of one unit that deserted en masse, the fighting was fierce.

Regalbuto

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 coming to a close.

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.

RCE Role

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. 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 1st, 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.  The landings were relatively unopposed and went well. With the infantry safely inshore, the sappers were able to regroup got to work laying track on the beach for vehicle traffic, clearing some small minefields and 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 Cross. Sgt Charters, it could be said, was just doing his job, but his bravery and leadership inspired so many others to do theirs.

The Road to Etna

By the 21st of July, the infantry had reached Leonforte and advance companies had entered the town.  The sappers of the 1st Field Company, still under fire and observation, built a Bailey bridge over the ruins of a masonry structure blown by the retreating Germans. The bridge was completed at midnight and more infantry, now supported by tanks, crossed over and up the hill into the town to finish the jab. With the avenue open for more reinforcements, the town fell the following morning. 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, five of which were awarded to Engineers.

Engineer Gallantry

The degree to which the Royal Canadian Engineers contributed to the Sicilian Campaign can be measured by the degree to which they were recognised for bravery. An article that appeared in newspapers across Canada around 23 September 1943, specifically calls out the RCE for special attention.  Click here to read the article Sicilian Field Awards to Canadian Soldiers Made Public by Ottawa.

Stories and Citations

Click on any of the following names to read citations and short descriptions of the action in which the awards were given. The names are listed alphabetically