While the ground dictated that the infantry would bear the brunt of the battle, and indeed they did, the ground also dictated that the sappers would be front and centre in every action of the Sicilian Campaign. In less than two months, the Canadians would be on the Italian mainland and in a fight that would last into the winter of 1945 and become known as 'An Engineers War'.
This is the first of a five-part series on the role of the RCE during the Sicilian Campaign.
More than 600 Canadian soldiers died in the Sicilian Campaign - 24 were men of the Royal Canadian Engineers. Many more were wounded. This article describes the high-level planning for the operation, the series of battles through the Sicilian hills, the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers and the stories of each heroic act and of each sapper who died. This is the first of five parts telling the story of the gallantry and sacrifice of the Royal Canadian Engineers during Operation HUSKY.
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 after 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.
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 organized into four frontline infantry divisions along with coastal divisions and brigades. The Germans had two divisions on the island numbering about 32,000 troops, ostensibly to support their Italian allies. There was 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 and to hold 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.
The 15th Army Group, commanded by General Harold Alexander, would land two armies, each landing on opposite ends of the island. The British 8th Army including the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade was commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery and was responsible for the eastern part of the island. Its mission was to capture the port of Messina on the northeast corner of the island. Lieutenant General George S. Patton commanded the American 5th Army. It landed on the western half of the island with the task of capturing Palermo on the north coast and then driving the enemy east. The Army plan was to push the enemy into a pocket north of Mount Etna and prevent them from escaping to the mainland.
General Alexander's initial plan was to establish his forces on a line between Licata in the west and Catania in the east before embarking on operations to reduce the rest of the island. Just after dawn on July 10, the seaborne assault began. Montgomery’s 8th Army was assigned the tasks of neutralizing the area around Pachino and Syracuse and moving up the east coast capturing the port cities of Augusta and Catania. General Patton’s US 7th Army, whose task was to capture the port of Licita and prevent the enemy reserves from moving eastward against the Eighth Army's left flank, landed to the west of the 8th Army.
The Canadians were on the left flank of the British Army and landed near Pachino.
This map shows the Op HUSKY objectives after Montgomery had Highway 124 assigned
There was little resistance in the 8th Army sector - most Italian soldiers and generals had come to hate the Germans and were ready to welcome the Allies. They surrendered in droves.
Early the next morning when follow-on men, equipment and supplies were still being unloaded on the beach, the Canadians started pushing 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. By 13 July, the beachheads were secure and airborne assaults had captured any remaining airfields on the island.
With the Italian Army defeated in the 8th Army’s sector, Montgomery thought he saw an advantage and convinced General Alexander to allow his XXX Corps to use routes west of Mount Etna originally assigned to General Patton’s 45th US Division to secure the Catania Plain west, despite the Americans making good progress in their sector.
Meanwhile, with their Italian allies having let them down, the Germans focussed on establishing strong defences by fortifying hilltop towns and villages and building almost impregnable positions. Of special significance to the Canadians was that by disrupting Alexander’s original plan, Montgomery had also allowed two German parachute regiments to move into the area the 45th Division would likely have taken with less effort had their momentum not been stopped. Montgomery also knew that the Canadians had lost most of their transport to German torpedo attacks and needed time to reorganize and had thus committed one of his greatest tactical errors of the war. These lapses in judgment would later come back to haunt him as the battle progressed.
Armed with new orders aiming for the base of the imposing volcanic cone of Mount Etna, General Guys Simmons and his Canadians moved through the mountains and hills along Highway 124, cutting across the initially assigned route of the US 45th Division. This effort was designed to trap the enemy between Etna and the Catania Plain to the east where the rest of the 8th Army would attack. Patton, in his turn, faced his forces west to Palermo which had not been among the original objectives. By 15 July, the Germans, in turn, abandoned the west of the island in favour of building a new defensive line around the base of Mount Etna.
Click here to read Part 2: Fighting in the Hills