The RCR Lands in Sicily, 10 July 1943
Capt RA Appleton
General Bernard Montgomery at Pachino Beach
"The time has come to carry the war into Italy and into the continent of Europe.
General Bernard Montgomery
The date 10 July is commemorated annually by The Royal Canadian Regiment (The RCR). This day marks the anniversary of the Regiment's amphibious landing in Sicily, on the Pachino Peninsula, on 10 July 1943. Significantly, this was the very first occasion during the Second World War that the Regiment had been committed to battle. By 10 July 1943, Canada, as part of the Grand Alliance against Nazi Germany, had officially been at war for nearly four years. The RCR, as well as most of the Canadian Overseas Army, had spent the previous three years in increasingly realistic and rigorous training in the United Kingdom. It was now time to send these Canadians into action against the enemy.
Germany and Italy, the Axis powers, had just been comprehensively defeated in North Africa. The destruction of the last Axis bridgehead in Africa, in northern Tunisia in May 1943, saw the capture of 250,000 German and Italian troops. The Italian navy (Regia Marina) and air force (Regia Aeronautica), as well as the German Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean, had been severely crippled. By mid-1943, not only had 14 Italian army divisions been lost in North Africa, but a further 10 divisions of the Italian Eighth Army had been destroyed on the Russian Front. The Allied assault on Hitler's Fortress Europe (Festung Europa) was now imminent. The island of Sicily, just miles from the toe of Italy, would be the immediate objective of British, American, and Canadian forces operating in the Mediterranean. Their ultimate objective would be the liberation of all occupied Europe.
The 154th Bde Landing
As had been the case throughout most of its history, the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 found The Royal Canadian Regiment dispersed in different garrisons across the country. A Company was stationed at Wellington Barracks, Halifax; B Company was located at the Horse Palace, Canadian National Exhibition Grounds, Toronto; C Company and Headquarters Company were at Wolesley Barracks, London, Ontario; and D Company garrisoned St.-Jean, Quebec. However, unlike the First World War, the Regiment was destined nevertheless to quickly deploy overseas with the first contingent of the Canadian Active Service Force. The Royal Canadian Regiment, as the senior infantry regiment in the Canadian Army, took pride of place in the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, an all Ontario brigade. Alongside The RCR served two proud Ontario militia regiments: the 48th Highlanders from Toronto, known as the "Glamour Boys," and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the "Plough Jockeys," from such south-central Ontario communities as Picton, Trenton, Wellington, Bancroft, and Madoc. Within the Brigade, The RCR was nicknamed the "Pukkas."
This Brigade was part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, the "Old Red Patch," at the time of the Sicily campaign commanded by Major-General Guy Granville Simonds, considered by some historians as the ablest Canadian general officer of the war. Field Marshal Montgomery himself referred to Simonds as the "most brilliant Canadian field general." Having commanded 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade during 1942-43, he was well known to his new command. All three of the pre-war Permanent Force infantry regiments, The RCR, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), and the Royal 22e Regiment (the "Van Doos") had been allocated to this Division. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division would be part of British XXX Corps (commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese), a formation of the renowned British Eighth Army. This proud army was commanded by none other than General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, the victor of El Alamein and, by now, the most famous and recognizable of British generals.
After extensive training in combined operations and amphibious landings in the United Kingdom, The RCR, as part of the invasion fleet, set sail from Gourock, Scotland on the Firth of Clyde on 28 June. With the exception of the Battalion's vehicles and drivers and a small rear party, all members of The RCR were aboard the Dutch transport SS Marnix Van Sint Aldegonde. On 07 July, now in the Mediterranean Sea, in the waters off Cape Passero between the islands of Sicily and Malta, this convoy merged with another fleet coming from North Africa. The invasion force, based on the 15th Army Group (Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Harold Alexander) and comprising two armies, the British Eighth Army and the U.S. Seventh Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr., was borne in 3,000 ships. It included 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns. Some 670 front-line aircraft had been assembled to support the invasion. The Canadian component of this amphibious operation consisted of some 26,000 men, comprising the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier R.A. "Bob" Wyman ). The overall commander was the American general, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Codenamed "Operation Husky," the Allied landings in Sicily would be the largest seaborne invasion mounted up to this point in history.
The Allies would be opposed by the 270,000 Axis troops of the Italian Sixth Army, commanded by Generale Alfredo Guzzoni. This army was composed of the Italian XII (Generale di Corpo d'Armata Francesco Zingales) and XVI (Generale di Corpo d'Armata Caeto Rossi) Corps and two divisions of the German XIV Panzer Corps (General der Panzertruppen Hans Valentin Hube): the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division (Generalleuntnant Eberhard Rodt) and the Hermann Goering Division (Generalleuntnant Paul Conrath). At the outset of the campaign, the German strength on Sicily was initially 30,000 men. German and Italian air and naval forces in the Mediterranean would play only a negligible role in the coming battle. The Axis concept of defending the island involved utilizing local Italian forces to meet the Allies on the invasion beaches. The German formations would be held in strategic reserve until the main Anglo-American threats became clear and then would be employed in a counter-attack role. The 15th Panzer (Pz) Grenadier Division would be focused on western Sicily. The Hermann Goering Division was concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the island (and thus would eventually be the first German formation to face the British and Canadians).
Pachino Landing Beach
Despite a heavy gale that struck the invasion fleet on 09 July, the fateful decision was taken to commence landings on the Sicilian coast on schedule, the following day. The British XXX Corps would land on and clear the Pachino Peninsula, in the southeast corner of Sicily. The Anglo-Canadian assault would cover some 40 miles of coastline. The Canadians would come ashore on the golden sands of the Costa Dell'Ambra (the Amber Coast), on the western side of Pachino Peninsula, on Roger and Sugar Beaches. Collectively these Canadian beaches were designated "Bark West." The 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade would land on the right on Roger Beach, while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Chris Vokes) would land on Sugar Beach on the left. Meanwhile, the British 51st Highland Division (Major-General Douglas Wimberley), the other formation in XXX Corps, would land astride the tip of the peninsula to the south; this shoreline was designated "Bark South." Further to the north of the Pachino Peninsula, in the Gulf of Noto, the British XIII Corps would come ashore south of Syracuse. The Americans would simultaneously land some 40 miles to the west of the peninsula, in the Gulf of Gela. The landings would take place under cover of massive naval and aerial bombardments and would also include mass parachute drops and glider landings further inland, beyond the invasion beaches. These would be carried out at midnight on 09/10 July, executed by the British 1st Airborne Division (Major-General G.F. Hopkinson) and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division (Major-General Matthew B. Ridgway).
The Pachino Peninsula was a barren thumb of land, 20 square miles. The peninsula was defended by troops of the 206th Coastal Defence Division (Generale di Divisione Achille d'Havet; D'Havet would be captured by a Canadian sergeant at Modica on 12 July, two days after the landings) of the Italian XVI Corps. The coastal defence divisions were low-grade, static formations, consisting of older men, recruited locally, and armed with mostly antiquated weaponry. The six coastal defence divisions responsible for defending Sicily's shoreline were considered to be unreliable, inadequately trained, and poorly disciplined. The market town of Pachino, inland from the coast, and the airstrip beyond the town, were the only objectives of real military value. The airfield was the primary objective of 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
Brigadier DC Spry
Capt R.M. Dillon, MC
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division would land on the west side of the peninsula. The Royal Canadian Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Crowe) would be on the extreme right of this formation in contact with British troops of the 51st Highland Division, veterans of El Alamein and the North African campaign. To the immediate left of The RCR would be the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the "Hasty Ps" (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe ). It was intended that the initial landings would clear beach defences and obstacles, knock out coastal artillery, and establish a base for the advance inland.
LCol Crowe & Maj Pope (2IC) orient their map en route to Piazza Armerina. Sicily, July 1943.
During the last night on board ship, equipment was checked, faces blackened, and web gear adjusted. Eventually most men slept, while those who were too excited to rest played cards or dice. Just before midnight bombers flew overhead to strike at targets on the island, including the Pachino Airfield. The ships now anchored and the naval barrage of coastal defences began. It had been intended that by 0130 hours on 10 July, the assault troops of 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Howard Graham ) would be loaded from their transports onto smaller, amphibious landing craft (Landing Craft, Assault or LCA ) that would carry them onto the hostile shore. H-Hour, the time at which the first assault wave was to storm the beaches was set for 0245 hours. The RCR, 756 all ranks strong, would land on Roger Green Beach with C and D Companies (commanded by Captain Ian A. Hodson and Major T.M. "Pappy" Powers respectively) leading in the first wave. Their mission was to clear the beaches.
However, it had been discovered by a Royal Navy submarine conducting a reconnaissance on the night of 25-26 June, that there was a submerged obstacle in the form of a sandbar 80 yards offshore Roger Beach. The sandbar was 600 yards long, 20 yards wide, and covered by only 18 inches of water. Significantly, the water between the sandbar and Roger Beach was as deep as nine feet in many places. This information was only confirmed by Naval Intelligence with Major-General Simonds on 07 July. The danger was that the LCAs would ground on the sandbar, stranding the assaulting infantry 80 yards offshore from where they would be unable to wade ashore. Simonds decided that three of the four assault companies of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade would instead be carried to the enemy shore in three of the larger Landing Craft, Tank or LCTs, one rifle company per LCT. Two of those companies would be from The RCR and one from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Each LCT carried seven of the DUKWs, a six-wheel-drive amphibious truck. If the LCTs became hung up on the sandbar, the DUKWs could then swim ashore with the infantry. Regrettably, the LCTs were not with the fleet, but would have to come from Malta. These LCTs were due to rendezvous with the transport ships carrying 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade off Cape Passero at 1215 hours, 10 July.
Unfortunately, the three landing craft had not appeared by 1215 hours. In the event, the first of the LCTs did not arrive until 0140 hours. The transferring of C and D Companies from the Marnix to their respective landing craft could only now begin. This process was further complicated and prolonged by a heavy swell in the sea, a product of the gale that had struck the day before. Finally, at 0400 hours, the two LCTs carrying the beach assault troops from The RCR cast off from the side of the Marnix. In due course these landing craft grounded on the sandbar and disgorged the 14 DUKWs. These "Ducks" now swam the 80 yards to Roger Green Beach to unload their compliments of infantry. The initial assault wave consisting of C and D Companies now stormed ashore at 0530 hours. The first wave was landing nearly three hours late and in broad daylight. Much to the surprise of the lead companies, the Italians were not manning any of the coastal defences. Although these spearhead companies were subjected to intermittent shelling by Italian artillery, a beachhead was quickly established and patrols dispatched to make contact with flanking units.
A and B Companies (commanded by Captains R.G. "Slim" Liddell and A.S.A. "Strome" Galloway, respectively) now came ashore in their LCAs and quickly moved through C and D Companies, exploiting inland and heading for the next set of objectives. A Company captured an Italian Army barracks at Maucini without resistance, taking 24 prisoners. Assaulting through wire obstacles, B Company stormed a coastal artillery battery, capturing a further 38 prisoners. C and D Companies now leapfrogged A and B Companies, continuing the advance by pushing on in the direction of the Pachino Airfield. C Company rounded up a hundred prisoners in their drive to the eastern edge of the airfield. Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Crowe, Commanding Officer (CO) of The RCR, now ordered B and D Companies to occupy the high ground to the north of the airfield. Allied aircraft would be flying in and out of the airfield by noon.
Meanwhile, advancing from Maucini and moving across the airfield in extended line, A Company ran headlong into a series of concrete strongpoints or pillboxes, protected by barbed wire and interlocking arcs of machine-gun fire. This whole defensive complex was designed to protect a powerful Italian battery, located a few hundred yards north of the airfield. Here for the first time the Italians resisted with determination and much of the company was pinned down. Private George C. Hefford was now killed in action, becoming the Regiment's first fatal battle casualty of the war. Rifle sections reacted with resilience and initiative, working their way forward in order to come to grips with the enemy.
The terrain of Sicily
A section consisting of Privates Grigas , Gozds , Butler, Gorham, Gardner, and Allison, now reached the wire in front of an Italian machine-gun emplacement. Their section commander had been wounded and knocked out of action, but dauntless they had pushed on with Private Joe Grigas assuming command. While the rest gave covering fire, Private Gorham crawled forward and cut a way through the wire obstacle. The section rushed through the gap and aggressively stormed the enemy bunker with rifles and bayonets, tommy guns and grenades. Private Gozds was wounded in the shoulder, but the Italian gun crew surrendered. A flanking machine-gun position was now assaulted and also captured. A third emplacement was rushed in succession and knocked out, even though Private James M. Butler was killed in the process. At this point, stunned by the bravery and violence of these Canadians, the Italian defenders surrendered en masse. As well as 200 prisoners, A Company captured four howitzers, four medium machine-guns, eight light machine-guns, and large numbers of rifles. Subsequently, Private Joseph Grigas of A Company would be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). His comrade in arms, Private Jack William Gardner, would win the Military Medal (MM). These marked the first decorations for gallantry bestowed upon the Regiment during the campaign in Sicily. They were also the first awards for bravery won by Canadians in Italy.
Map of Sicily
Advancing on its objective, the high ground north of the airfield, D Company now came under heavy fire. Private R.W. Thoms was killed. Several men, including Lieutenant A.W. Roy (who was shot through the chest by a sniper), were wounded. Despite these losses, the company pushed on and the high ground was seized. Support weapons, including anti-tank guns and mortars, were set up on the heights. All the Regiment's objectives had now been taken. By mid-afternoon the men were able to enjoy their first meal in over 20 hours. The Regiment had taken more than 500 enemy soldiers prisoner. Everywhere the invasion had gone well. The Italian defenders had been routed and the Allied troops were rapidly exploiting their initial successes.
Private Jack William Gardner, MM
In the days to follow, The Royal Canadian Regiment, as part of the British Eighth Army, pushed steadily inland, driving north towards the Strait of Messina and the shortest crossing point to the Italian mainland. Initially, the Regiment faced only Italian Fascist militia. However, on 18 July, The RCR faced crack German troops, of the Hermann Goering Division, in battle for the very first time at Valguarnera, a crossroads town atop a line of ridges. There the Battalion Second-in-Command, Major Billy Pope, died valiantly while single-handed attacking three German Mark IV Panzers at close range with the notoriously unreliable PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) anti-tank weapon. On 24 July just east of Nissoria, during the battle for Agira, the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Crowe, was killed in action while leading a Battalion attack on enemy positions held by the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. He fell just ten yards in front of an enemy machine-gun emplacement, leading by example until the very end. For this act he was posthumously mentioned in despatches.
On 02 August the Regiment captured the town of Regalbuto and this effectively and successfully marked the end of the Sicilian campaign for The RCR. Canadian casualties in Sicily amounted to 2,290, including 562 killed, 1,644 wounded and 84 taken prisoner. Casualties suffered by The Royal Canadian Regiment in Sicily included 32 killed, 12 missing, and nearly 100 wounded. The 32 officers and men of the Regiment who fell on the island lay buried together at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery in sight of Mount Etna. The Landing in Sicily marked the beginning of the Italian campaign. This campaign would last 658 days and would be the longest, continuous campaign conducted against the Axis by the Western Allies. Before it was over, it would cost Canada 24,885 casualties, including 5,399 killed and 19, 486 wounded.
For the Regiment, beyond Sicily lay the bloody campaigns in Italy and North-West Europe. These included the bitter battles fought against an implacable German enemy in such places as Motta Montecorvino, Campobasso, San Leonardo, the Gully, Ortona, the Liri Valley , the Hitler Line, the Gothic Line, and Apeldoorn, to name but a few. Throughout the Second World War The Royal Canadian Regiment would suffer total losses of 370 officers and men killed, with 2,207 wounded. However, in those years of desperate struggle and trial the Regiment established traditions of victory and honour that have been stoutly maintained ever since from Korea to the Panjwaii.