By the autumn of 1943, the Allies had advanced up the boot of Italy to the Winter Line. The main defence was the Gustav Line stretching across Italy from Ortona in the east to the hilltop fortress of Monte Cassino in the west. There it was reinforced in the south by the Bernhardt Line, and to the north by the Hitler Line. US Forces including British and French troops, along with Canadian paratroopers of the 1st Special Service Force, broke the Bernhardt Line by late December 1943 but the combination of difficult terrain, bad weather, and disease and the strong defence based on Monte Cassino brought further advances to a halt. Concurrently, the 1st Canadian Division supported by the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade broke through the Gustav Line at Ortona just before the New Year and came to a similar halt.
By mid-January, the Allies in the west were entrenched in positions overlooking the Gustav Line blocking the entrance to the Liri Valley, the only viable approach on the Road to Rome. US, British, Indian, New Zealand and Free French troops continued to assault the Gustav Line focussing on Monte Cassino through the early months of 1944 at great cost and little success. In March, General Sir Harold Alexander, Commander of the Italian Theatre, called a stop to further attempts to allow time to move the British Eighth Army from the Adriatic to the west to join the US Fifth Army in one determined assault on the Gustav Line to gain the Liri Valley and Highway 6 Road to Rome It was nearly two months later on 11 May that the assault was launched. By May 18, the Germans had abandoned Monte Cassino and withdrawn to the Hitler Line, five miles closer to Rome.
The Canadian contribution was significant. Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese's initial plan for Eighth Army was an assault over the River Giri and an outflanking of the Hitler Line by striking around Monte Cassino and joining Highway 6 just south of the Anzio Bridgehead. Should the German defences prove too strong, the 1st Canadian Corps, who made up his reserve, would exploit through breaches in the Gustav Line and break through the Hitler Line and exploit along the Highway 6 axis up the Liri Valley. Despite gaining two crossings across the Giri, one by the 8th Indian Division supported by 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and strengthening the bridgehead with two more bridges the next day, Leese's forces did not have the power to continue with the first plan. The fighting slowed until 23 May when the Canadian Corps, 1st Infantry Division leading, smashed up against the Hitler Line. Two days later, the 5th Armoured Division passed through and seized crossings over the Melfa River to open the Highway 6 axis.
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. Names will be added as we complete our research.