The Winter Line
By the winter of 1943, that Allies had moved up the Italian boot to a series of German fortifications across peninsula collectively called the Winter Line, built by the Todt Organization and commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. On the western end, there were three lines 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 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 two subsidiary lines, the Bernhardt Line and the Adolf Hitler Line 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.
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. In mid-January 1944, and partially as a diversion in support of the upcoming landings at Anzio, elements of the US Fifth Army launched an attack on the Bernhardt 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 March and into April and some gains were made, but 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 the Anzio bridgehead was still bottled up. A serious effort would now be needed to support the advance in the west.
Eighth Army Moves West
During April and May 1944, the Eighth Army, including the 1st Canadian Corps, was secretly moved across Italy to join the Fifth U.S. Army in the struggle for Rome. Here on 12 May, under the dominating peak of Monte Cassino, the Allied armies launched themselves against the Gustav Line.
The Eighth Army was successful in forcing two strongly opposed crossings over of the Gari River. Indian sappers succeeded in bridging the river so that the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade could cross and provide much needed support by occupying an area missed in previous attacks from where the inevitable counter-attacks from German tanks could be beaten off. 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 1st Canadian Corps had already started moving forward around Cassino in anticipation of attacking the Hitler Line. Early on 23 May, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division launched a three-brigade attack on the Hitler Line. Under heavy enemy mortar and machine-gun fire, and at great expense in killed and wounded, the Canadians breached the defences that day. At 1st Division HQ, Major-General Chris Vokes, commanding the 1st Division, reportedly told Major-General Bert Hoffmeister, “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 a crossing n the Melfa. Griffin Force passed through and seized a crossing of the Melfa about one kilometre north of a well-known and well-defended ford. This took the Germans by surprise and they moved back rapidly and in force to avoid being trapped by the Americans moving quickly up the coast and the impending breakout from Anzio.
Role of the RCE
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 main 1st Canadian Infantry 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. The Seaforth Highlanders on the far left lost over 50 killed but 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. Early the next morning, tanks and infantry of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division poured through towards the Melfa River.
Crossing the Melfa
As described above, the 5th Division did not hesitate in their advance to the Melfa. 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. The tanks still mounted a 50-calibre machine-gun, a pair of Browning machine-guns, (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank gun), Tommy guns and a crew of five. The Honeys also carried prepared charges and grenades. During the Liri Valley campaign, Perkins had three sappers from the 10th Field Squadron in six of his tanks. 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. Perkins went on to serve in the Canadian Army after the war and was the first army officer to qualify as a helicopter pilot.
The following paragraphs are the citations for four Military Crosses and five Military Medals awarded for the Hitler Line battle. More were awarded in the following days for action on the Melfa River.