Sapper Gallantry in the Liri Valley

Background

The Winter Line

By the winter of 1943, the Allies had moved up the Italian boot to encounter a series of well-built and effective defensive lines stretching from the west to the east across the rugged Apennine Mountain spine of Italy.  The defences started along the Volturno River, some strong, others weak, culminating in the main Gustav Line about 140 kilometres south of Rome.

With the goal of conquering Rome and ultimately defeating the Germans in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, the overall commander of Allied forces in Italy, had three options. Option 1 was to continue his advance up the Adriatic coast to Pescara and follow Highway 5 across to the other coast across the Apennine mountain range. Option 2 was to continue the advance on the west coast up Highway 7, the ancient Appian Way to Rome, but be would have to cross the Pontine marshes that the Germans had flooded. Option 3 was to use Highway 6 paralleling Highway 7, 20 Kilometres inland, running through the Liri Valley.  This is the option he chose and Canadians would play a major role in its execution.

The Gustav Line

The primary Gustav Line ran across Italy from just north of where the Garigliano River flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast just below Ortona in the east. The defences split into three lines at the western end around the town of Cassino. The road to Rome, Highway 6 ran through all three lines and was the key to any further Allied advance. The two subsidiary lines, the Bernhardt Line and the Adolf Hitler Line, called the Senger Line by the Germans ran to the south and the north respectively of the Gustav Line from the sea to just east of Cassino where they converged on the Gustav Line. Collectively they comprised the northern part of the Winter Line, they had been built by the Todt Organization for Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander of the Italian Front.

German Defense Lines South of Rome 1943-44

By the end of December 1943, the Canadians had broken through at Ortona in the east, but breaking it in the west was proving a much more difficult task.  Above the village of Cassino, stood an ancient abbey protected by steep rocky cliffs and affording the Germans excellent observation over any Allied routes of advance. The US Fifth Army had broken the Bernhardt Line in late December. By mid-January, they were positioned over the Gustav Line when partially as a diversion in support of the upcoming landings at Anzio, they launched an attack on the Bernhardt Line over the River Gari near Cassino that lasted four days.  It failed miserably and became the subject of a US congressional investigation after the war.  Another costly attempt was made in February, but it too failed. Hard fighting continued through into March. The Allies made only marginal gains and the Germans still controlled the heights even though New Zealand and Indian forces were within hundreds of yards of the monastery. As spring came, with the exception to the Ortona end of the line, the Germans still held the Gustav Line and encircled the Anzio bridgehead.  General Sir Harold Alexander, Commander of the Italian Theatre paused further action so he could move the British Eighth Army from the Adriatic Front to the west.  An all-out assault was scheduled for mid-May.

The Ground

Liri-Garigliano watershed

The sketch shows the Liri-Garigliano watershed. The Rapido runs into the Gari, the Gari into the Liri and the Liri into the Garigliano that flows into the sea.  These all mark the Gustav Line. To the north, the Melfa flows into the Liri north of the main defences of the Adolph Hitler Line.

The Gari River, sometimes misnamed the Rapido, is fast flowing but relatively shallow.  The water gap varies from 60 to 80 feet. The banks are steep and the ground on the approaches is muddy. It was a strong antitank obstacle and formed an integral part of the Gustav Line. The defenders reinforced the approaches with wire and minefields.

On the other side of the Hitler Line, the Melfa River, one of the last major obstacles on the road to Rome still had to be crossed. The river itself was a minor hindrance.  Often under enemy fire and observation, the steep banks prevented tanks from crossing. Again, the Germans had defended the approaches using the terrain, obstacles and minefields to provide excellent positions for enemy defences.

The Troops

During April and May 1944, General Alexander secretly moved the Eighth Army across Italy to join the Fifth U.S. Army south of the Gustav Line. Here, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division both came under command of 1st Canadian Corps Headquarters and trained together for the first time on the Foggia Plain to train for the advance on Rome in March and April.  There were now 12 RCE field companies and squadrons in the Italian theatre plus topographic and tunnelling units.

The map below shows the Italian Front in May 1944. The US 5th Army (Lieutenant General Mark Clark commanding) was on the left and the British 8th Army (Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese commanding) was on the right, facing Cassino. The 1st Canadian Corps (Lieutenant-General ELM Burns commanding) was in reserve.  Up the coast is the Anzio bridgehead including Canadian paratroopers of the 1st Special Service Force.  The ensuing battles through most of May would open the Liri Valley, clear the line of advance to Rome and relieve the Anzio Bridgehead.

The Operation

Eighth Army deployments against the Gustav Line 11 May 1944

General Alexander assigned the task of breaking the Gustav defences and opening the Liri Valley to the 8th Army. He gave Lieutenant-General Leese 11 divisions rather than the two or three previously used in attempts to break through -- two British corps, plus the Polish, New Zealand and Canadian corps.  Leese kept the 1st Canadian Corps in reserve ready to breakout and breach the Hitler Line once the main Bernhardt and Gustav defences were broken. He assigned the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade in support of the 8th Indian Division with the task to establish a bridgehead over the River Gari. The Canadian Division had a British tank brigade of Churchill tanks in support.

The Gustav Line – 12 May

Royal Engineers Crossing the Rapido 12/13 May 1944 - Terrence Cuneo

On 12 May, under the dominating peak of Monte Cassino, Leese launched his assault on the Gustav Line. The initial aim was to cross the River Gari, go around Monte Cassino and outflank the Hitler Line.  Although the Indian and British divisions of the 13th Corps were able to force two strongly opposed crossings over of the Rivers Gari and Rapido, a breakout was not possible as the Germans and the terrain absorbed Leese’s initial assault.

The shallow bridgehead was retained, but Leese had to switch to his contingency plan to break the Hitler Line rather than attempt an outflanking. The 13th Corps was withdrawn to take up the reserve.

The Gustav Line – 16 May

Success on the Gari forced the Germans to start withdrawing from their Gustav Line positions back to the Hitler Line on 16 May.  Leese decided the time was right for an attack on the Highway 6 axis and moved his reserve into the battle.  He needed two fresh divisions to continue the advance on the narrow Highway 6 axis. Here came one of the strange events of the Italian Campaign likely arising from Leese’s arguably unfair lack of confidence in his Canadian generals.  His obvious option was to give the task to 1st Canadian Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Burns, an ex-RCE officer, but instead, he split the task between two corps assigning it to the 78th British Division from the 5th British Corps on the left, and the 1st Canadian Division from the 1st Canadian Corps on the right to both advance on a very narrow front up the Liri Valley.  With no coordinating HQ, communications between the two divisions each in a separate corps were less than satisfactory. There was much confusion and delay, but that is a story for another day.

The 1st Canadian Division crossed the Gari on the night of 15 May 1944 led by the 1st Brigade. Their task was to continue through the Gustav Line and advance to the Hitler Line. They suffered badly on the first day against determined German rearguard actions.  On 17 May, the 3rd Brigade fared somewhat better and made good advances with the Van Doos in the lead. The 1st Brigade continued pushing on and by the time the Canadians were within three miles of the Hitler Line, the situation had stabilized. Up to this point in the war, the fighting on the Gustav Line was the most intense the Canadian Army had experienced. They acquitted themselves very well and by 18 May, the Gustav Line was broken in the west, the Polish 2nd Division stood atop Monte Cassino and the Germans had been forced back to the Hitler Line. 

The Adolf Hilter Line

Infantry advancing through the Hilter Line - Charles Comfort

On 20 May, Leese ordered the set-piece attack for which the Corps had been planning for the past week. The 1st Division got reinforcements, new equipment and reorganised itself bringing the 2nd Brigade up from reserve to share the lead with the 3rd Brigade. Early on 23 May, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division launched its attack on the Hitler Line. Under heavy enemy mortar and machine-gun fire, and at great expense in killed and wounded, the 2nd Brigade led by the Seaforth Highlanders and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry advanced under the Allied largest artillery barrage of the Italian Campaign. The Germans answered with massed fires from six-barrelled Nebelwerfers, artillery, mortars and machine guns. Both battalions suffer horrendously and one Seaforth officer described the fire as being more intense than Ortona. The PPCLI had 75 fighting men left at the end of the day and the Seaforths only had 100 men on their objective.  Despite the cost, the line was broken by the end of the day. The way was now clear for the 5th Canadian Armoured Division to continue the advance to Rome. As a parting comment, Major-General Chris Vokes, commanding the 1st Division, reportedly told Major-General Bert Hoffmeister, commanding the 5th, “Bert, this is the best we can do. There is not much of a hole, good luck.” 

Crossing the Melfa

Major-General Hoffmeister was ready to exploit through the gap.  His planning showed that despite the unfavourable terrain and the remaining German forces in the area, including an exposed right flank, force and surprise could carry the day. He organized the 4th Armoured Brigade into two battle groups. Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Vokes, younger brother of Chris Vokes the Sapper general commanding the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, would lead the charge. Despite rain and resistance, Vokes Force achieved its objectives and allowed the follow on Griffin Force to pass through the next day to seize the crossing about one kilometre north of a well-known and well-defended ford. This took the Germans by surprise and forced them to withdraw rapidly and in force to avoid getting trapped by the Americans moving quickly up the coast and the impending breakout from Anzio.

The Role of the RCE 

Planning and Preparation

Even though the 1st Canadian Corps was in reserve, they were not idle. Sappers started planning well in advance of their potential deployments. As mentioned, the Canadian Corps in reserve to carry out General Leese’s contingency plan should the plan to outflank the Hitler Line fail.  Canadian Corps Engineers started preparation and reconnaissance before the assault over the Gari was even launched. In one such mission, Lieutenant John Pierce, 12th Field Company, RCE, went forward across the German lines on the night of 8 May, returning on 10 May, to select a bridging site near the confluence of the Gari and Liri Rivers under the very sight of German defenders on the other side. He received a Military Cross for his efforts. 

The Gustav Line

Kingsmill Bridge - Calgary Regiment Museum

The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade had no integral RCE support.  In crossing the Gari, Sappers of the 8th Indian Infantry Division provided direct support to the Brigade and were instrumental in winning the battle.  Using an especially innovative technique developed by two Canadian officers – Captain Brown, RCE and Captain Tony Kingsmill, RCEME, the Indian sappers got a 100-foot Bailey bridge over the river in relatively short order.  The Canadians crossed the “Kingsmill” bridge and provided much needed support by occupying an area missed in previous attacks from where the inevitable counter-attacks from German tanks could be defeated. 

Kingsmill Bridge Schematic

Captain Kingsmill, attached the Calgary Tank Regiment, and Captain Brown had been experimenting for months with the idea of using tanks to carry complete Bailey bridges across rivers. By welding rollers atop a turretless Sherman tank and a pusher bar on a second pusher tank, sappers would build the bridge in a relatively safe location out of sight of the enemy and then push it forward into place.  They would use the first tank as a pier and the second to push it over the river once the carrier tank drove into the river and got as close to the centre as it could to act as a pier.  Once in place, the pusher tank separated itself using explosive bolts on the pusher bar. 

Captain Kingsmill ​ walked through enemy machine gun and artillery fire for 500 yards guiding the driver to the riverbank.  Despite being wounded by a shrapnel blast, he remained at the site until the tanks had successfully crossed the Gari. He received a Military Cross for his contribution and bravery at the site.

That same night, the Royal Engineers of 59th Field Company, RE built the ‘Amazon Bridge’, immortalised in Cuneo’s painting “Crossing the Rapido” under constant enemy fire secured the second crossing as immortalised in Cuneo’s painting “Crossing the Rapido”.  The British built more crossings as the bridgehead became more secure over the next two days.

The Hitler Line

The biggest task for the Engineers on the Hitler Line was breaching minefields.  Besides being covered by fire and defended by dug-in tank turrets and pillboxes, the minefield was over 200 feet deep with heavy barbed wire on either side.  It included Italian box mines, mostly surface laid.  Each brigade went into battle with a supporting field company.  The Sappers started during the night of 22/23 May, gapping minefields even before the assaulting troops were in position.

The 1st Division attack on the Hitler Line started just before 0600 hours on the 23rd supported by 800 guns.  On the right, the breaching party from 3rd Field Company supporting the 2nd Brigade was pinned down until Lieutenant Carr-Harris took a second party forward and pushed through with the PPCLI.  He was wounded and three sappers were killed.  In the end, he and two of his sappers were decorated for their actions – a Military Cross for him and Military Medals for Acting Corporal Harrison and Lance Sergeant Irvine.  The Seaforth Highlanders suffered the most on that day. They lost over 50 killed as well as scores wounded and taken prisoner. Despite the cost, they penetrated the deepest in that sector.

In the centre, the 3rd Brigade did better.  The Sappers of 4th Field Company had a relatively easy day with only a few soldiers wounded.  On the right, the 1st Field Company with the 1st Brigade worked to finish the breach they started during darkness, often working 400 yards ahead of the assaulting infantry with small infantry parties for local protection.  Once completed, they safely withdrew, but the infantry covering parties were all killed. Later in the day, they removed prepared demolitions from the route forward and by nightfall, the Hitler Line had been breached.  Lieutenant Osborne, Sergeant Shiers and Acting Corporal Parker were all decorated for bravery during the minefield breaching operations.

Crossing the Melfa

The 5th Division did not hesitate in their advance to the Melfa. The next morning, tanks and infantry of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division poured through towards the Melfa River.  

The story of Griffin Force is as much a unique armoured story as it is a sapper story.  Lieutenant Edward J. Perkins, commanding the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Reconnaissance Troop, had eleven light American General Stuart or Honey tanks with their turrets removed. Each had a crew of five that included three sappers in six of them. The tanks acted essentially as tracked scout cars but with a little bigger bite. They mounted a 50-calibre machine-gun, a pair of Browning machine-guns, PIATs (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) and Tommy guns. The sapper Honeys also carried prepared charges and grenades. The sappers cleared mines, cut diversions, filled in craters and built bridges—sometimes working without relief for stretches of 36 and 48 hours.

At the riverbank, the sappers created a crossing by knocking down the banks using charges.  Lieutenant Perkins took his squadron across and formed a small bridgehead. The larger Shermans were unable to negotiate the crossing, so the advance was handed over to a company of the Westminster Regiment who expanded the bridgehead outwards. By the end of the day, Perkins had won a Distinguished Service Order and Major John Mahoney of the Westminster Regiment, a Victoria Cross.  The Melfa River Crossing netted the RCE two Military Crosses and two Military Medals.  Perkins went on to serve in the Canadian Army after the war and was the first army officer to qualify as a helicopter pilot.

Tributes to the Fallen

The battles cost the Royal Canadian Engineers 27 officers and men.  The CMEA has compiled a series of stories about each of these so their sacrifice will not be forgotten. See Tributes to Sappers Killed During the Liri Valley Campaign for their stories.

Gallantry

The following Sapper officers and men were awarded five Military Crosses and eight Military Medals during the Liri Valley Campaign: