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Sicily | The Assault | Securing the Bridgehead | The Drive eastward | Campaign Map | Canadian Advance | Change of Plans | German Retreat | Further Reading  



Late on the 15th, when already there  were indications of a deadlock at the Simeto, the Army commander wrote to General Leese urging him in view of the slowdown in operations on the right to "swing hard with our left" and push the Canadians on with all speed to Caltagirone, Enna and Leonforte. The Canadian advance had been resumed after a 36 hour rest ordered by General Montgomery. On July 15th the 1st Canadian Brigade passed through the 51st Division at Vizzini to lead the attack on the Corps' left flank. The Canadian axis of advance was the Syracuse-Vizzini Enna highway, a section of which through Caltagirone lay within the area of the Seventh Army's bridgehead. The intra-army boundary was adjusted to give general Montgomery the exclusive use of the road, and the Ameciacn axis of advance was turned sharply westward.

From Vizzini the paved highway ran north-westward over the plateau, climbing beyond Caltagirone into the irregular chain of hills which strikes down the centre of Sicily from the main mountain barrier in the north. From the earliest days of Sicily's turbulent history the population have been forced to establish their inland communities on easily defended sites, usually on commanding heights. The main roads generally ascend to each of these lofty hill towns, and the Canadians were thus faced with the task of ousting the German defenders from a series of positions of  great natural strength.

The enemy fully realized the importance of delaying for as long as possible the Canadian advance through the hills. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who was the Commander-in-Chief of all German air and ground forces in Italy was directing the Axis operations in Sicily, was faced with the immediate problems of preventing the Allies from reaching Catania and pushing beyond to the Messina Strait in order to cut off the escape  route to the mainland, while at the same time holding open his communications in central Sicily so as to allow the evacuation of his troops from the west. He decided to use the Catania-Etna area as a pivot for a withdrawal into the north-east corner of the island. By his orders the bulk of the Herman Goring Division fell back to the north bank of the Dittaino River, a major tributary of the Simeto crossing the Catania Plain south of the Gerbini airfields. To protect the Herman Goring's open right flank and preserve a route for the passage of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division from the west became the important tasks of the German rearguards along he axis of the Canadian advance.

The first encounter of Canadian forces with the Germans took place on July 15th ten miles beyond Vizzini, when a mobile infantry and armoured column of the 1st Brigade was surprised by Herman Goring detachments of artillery and tanks lying in wait in a hilltop town. After a three-hour skirmish the enemy retired, having inflicted 25 casualties and achieved his purpose of halting a much larger superior force. From the time the Canadians met increasingly stubborn opposition, both in the skilful delaying actions fought by the enemy rearguards from strong positions of their own choosing and the ingenious demolitions carried out by the German engineers along the narrow and tortuous mountain roads. It was to take the 1st Division a whole week to reach and capture Leonforte, 70 miles by winding road from Vizzini.

Early on the 16th General Simonds sent forward from Caltagirone (which had been taken unopposed after destructive Allied air raids) the three battalions of the 2nd Brigade in troop carrying vehicles, supported by a regiment of the 1st Army Tank Brigade and two regiments of field artillery (one self-propelled). In a defile three miles south of Piazza Armerina the leading battalion and its accompanying squadron  of tanks came under heavy fire from the surrounding hills. The infantry, hampered by the failure of wireless communications fought their way up the steep hillsides, driving the defenders )a battalion of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division) from the summits, but it was early morning of the 17th before Piazza Armerina was finally secured, and noon before the advance was resumed.

For his next stand the enemy chose a highly defensible road junction narrowly enclosed between high hills eight miles north of Piazza Armerina. Here a side rod branched off from the main Enna highway towards Valguarnera, a hilltop town overlooking the Dittaino valley and the western Catania Plain. As soon as the presence of the Germans in the pass was established, General Simonds ordered an attack in force on a two brigade front, the 3rd Brigade, which was now in the lead, to seize the road junction and press on towards Enna, and the 1st Brigade to strike through the hills on the right and capture Valguarnera. The Germans repulsed with heavy mortar fire an attack up the main road by moonlight, but were driven from their posts on the afternoon of the 18th by a flanking thrust on the right supported by fire from four artillery regiments. In the meantime two battalions of the 1st Brigade had by dawn on the 18th made their way independently across a tangle of ravines and hills to the edge of a ridge overlooking the steep approaches to Vulguarnera. Companies had become separated in the uncompromising terrain, and the breakdown of communications prevented any artillery support. In such circumstances there was no co-ordinated effort by the two battalions against the town, and heroic attempts on a one or two company scale were repulsed by counter attack and by effective fire from the commanding German positions. It was late in the day when the enemy began to withdraw from Valguarnera as the remaining battalion came forward with artillery support to complete the brigade task. The 24 hours fighting, the heaviest yet experienced by the Division, had been costly to both sides.

The occupation of Enna was left to the U.S. 2nd Corps, and early on the 19th the 2nd Canadian Brigade moved northward from Vulguarnera towards Leonforte. During the day General Simonds announced new objectives for the Division, arising from a decision of the Army Commander to abandon temporarily the thrust by the 50th Division against Catania because of strong enemy resistance near the coast, and instead to increase the pressure farther west. General Montgomery ordered the 5th and 51st Divisions so the inner flanks of the two Crops to attack in the centre towards the northern edge of the plain, and the Canadians to turn eastwards from Leonforte and drive towards Adrano, on the south-western skirts of Mount Etna. General Patton, whose forces were meeting only very light resistance as they overran western Sicily, was directed by General Alexander to develop a two-pronged threat eastward along the northern coast and the interior road through Nicosia.

general Simonds now widened his front to two brigades in order to make simultaneous attacks on Leonforte and Assoro, two miles to the east, and cut the highway east of Leonforte. At the same time he directed the 231st Brigade, which had come under his command on the right flank, to advance northward across the Dittaino valley in a threat against Agira, which was to become the target of a full divisional attack.

Assoro, perched near the top of a 2900-foot hill, was taken in a surprise assault by a battalion of the 1st Brigade after a hazardous cross  country march by night, which cumulated in a daring ascent of the precipitous face of the mountain. The 2nd Brigades attack on Leonforte was made frontally, but here again our tactics caught the Germans by surprise. The enemy's destruction of the bridge carrying the main road across a deep ravine south of the town seemed to give the Germans immunity from attack by the Canadian armour. Late on the 21st infantry companies, under cover of a heavy bombardment, fought their way into Leonforte on foot while engineers began bridging the 50 foot gap. A fierce struggle developed in the streets, and the Canadians were cut off from outside support; but thanks to the strenuous and heroic efforts of the engineers under fire the bridge was completed during the night, and at daylight a "flying column" of infantry with tanks and anti-tank guns burst into the town. There was more butter street fighting, but by mid-afternoon Leonforte was clear. The enemies determined efforts to hold the Leonforte-Assoro ridge marked a change from his earlier rearguard tactics of "delay and withdraw" . from now on the Canadian advance was to be stubbornly opposed by strong forces charged with prolonged resistance at all costs.



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