THE PLAIN OF CATANIA – 1943 Part II

local_children_crowd_aboard_a_sherman_mk_iii_tank_of_the_county_of_london_yeomanry_in_the_village_of_milo_near_catania_in_sicily_august_1943-_tr1244

Sherman tank of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) in the village of Milo near Catania, Sicily, August 1943.

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The 3.7 inch howitzers gave what support they could, as did the Middlesex’ machine guns from the south of the river, but at extreme range they had little affect. The Shermans, despite efforts by the engineers to make the track suitable, were unable to move forward. By 1100 hours withdrawal was inevitable. This was far from easy because of the exposed positions, but seven hours later the battalion was back, some 200 yards across the river.

The other crossings to the east, at LION and JAGUAR, had some initial success but XXX Corps was not able to exploit forward from the bridgeheads. AT LION, the Highland Division had reached the outskirts of the Gerbini airfield, whereupon they had been counterattacked by tanks and driven back. This setback caused the British advance to be paused for a week to allow time for reorganisation and to give the troops time to gain a second wind.

Montgomery visited Wimberley at midday on 21 July. With the strength of the opposition facing the Highland Division and XIII Corps, he had come to the decision to stop attacking on these fronts, and was ordering 78th Division to Sicily from North Africa. Once they had arrived, the offensive would be resumed using the 78th and the Canadian Division. Meanwhile, the right flank of the Eighth Army would go on the defensive.

To the west, 1st Canadian Division had been moving on Leonforte and Assoro since 15 July. Its route had been through mountainous country, where the enemy had made good use of the small villages which sat astride the tortuous roads to make easily defensible redoubts. These were strengthened by use of demolitions, road blocks and mines, and had to be reduced by a series of small battles.

On 17 July 231 (Malta) Brigade was given the independent role of covering the gap between the 51st (Highland) and 1st Canadian Divisions, and moved northwards towards Raddusa. Its advance was held up by enemy demolitions, but the route was soon cleared and by 1900 hours that day contact was made with German forces on the line of the Gornalunga River, a mile or so south of Raddusa.

To the Canadians’ left, Seventh (US) Army advanced against less opposition, the Germans having abandoned any thought of defending the west of Sicily, and many of the Italians having no other thought but to surrender. On 17 July 1st (US) Division was abreast of the Canadians about eight miles to the west of Piazza Armerina, approaching Caltanissetta. 45th (US) Division was further west again, approaching the same town from the southwest. The race was still on between the Americans and the Canadians for Enna. The latter had the main road leading to the town from the southeast, but enemy resistance was stiffening, and was much more determined than the Canadians had experienced hitherto.

General Simonds directed 3 Brigade towards Enna and the 1st northeast towards Valguarnera. 3 Brigade were delayed at a narrow pass, the Portella Grottacalda, for some fourteen hours on 17 July until they attacked the enemy frontally with the Royal 22e Regiment, and from the flanks with the Carleton and Yorks, and the West Nova Scotia’s. At Valguarnera 1 Brigade entered the town, against resistance, after nightfall. The two encounters cost the Canadians 145 casualties.

The enemy – the 2nd Battalion of 1st Panzer Grenadier Regiment was thought to have been reinforced by the regiment’s 1st Battalion – held a position on a road junction southwest of Valguanera. Having had their advance held up by a blown bridge, 3 Canadian Infantry Brigade encountered the Germans here, and came under mortar and machine-gun fire. The infantry disembarked from their transport, the tanks took up hull-down positions to the west of the road, and the enemy were forced to retire, leaving three Italian guns and three small tanks out of action behind them.

At this stage Simonds decided to by-pass Enna. On 19 July he broadened his front by taking advantage of the road fork north of Valguarnera, sending 2 Infantry Brigade towards Leonforte and 1 Brigade to Assoro. The Canadians did, however, send a patrol from the Reconnaissance Squadron to try to enter Enna before the Americans, who were rapidly approaching it from the southwest. Halted about five miles from the town by a badly cratered road which prevented any further motorised progress, a group consisting of a sergeant, two corporals and a trooper proceeded to complete their mission on foot.

They had a walk of some four and a half miles to do uphill, but became ‘browned off’ after a short while, so commandeered a donkey to help them on their way. A patrol comprising a man mounted on a donkey, leading three others, proceeded with the mission of capturing Enna for the Canadians. In front of them they saw two truckloads of troops, but it was a little while before these were identified as being Americans rather than Germans. The GIs had just arrived, and gave the Canadians a lift into town, whereupon one of the Canadian corporals later claimed to be the first to dismount from the jeep in the town centre – thus claiming the honour of the capture for Canada. No doubt the Americans disputed this8.

Leonforte sat at the western end of the Etna Line before it turned northwards to the sea. Three battalions of the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15th Panzer Grenadier Division held the town and Assoro. The German defences were centred on demolitions and minefields, and small stay-behind parties armed with machine guns and mortars were deployed around destroyed culverts and cratered roads to further delay the Allied troops. The Canadian approach to the two towns had to cross the Dittaino valley, in full view of enemy observation posts, and artillery fire on them was continuous.

The route forward was hazardous. Although no enemy were encountered at close range, the Canadians were harassed by artillery, and C Squadron, 12th Canadian Tank Regiment (The Three Rivers Regiment) drove straight into a minefield, where nine tanks had their tracks blown off before the crews realised their predicament. They had to stay in their Shermans for nearly five hours while the Germans rained down mortar and artillery fire on them. The danger increased when the stubble on the ground around them caught fire, setting off petrol and ammunition dumps nearby. The Sappers distinguished themselves by starting to clear the mines while under fire, and it was yet another unpleasant experience in the campaign for those involved.

The lead battalion nominated for the attack on Assoro, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, lost both its commanding officer and intelligence officer while carrying out a reconnaissance for a night assault on the village. The Canadians’ approach had been impossible to carry out unannounced, and the Germans were ready. The light was fading, but the Canadians could see that all along the horizon stretched an escarpment running from Leonforte through Assoro and on eastwards to Agira. Directly ahead the Assoro feature dominated, and it was clear that the Germans would have the only direct approach, a winding road, well covered. Major The Lord Tweedsmuir (the son of John Buchan, the author and former Governor-General of Canada) took command of the Hastings. He identified a route up a steep slope on the east of the feature to the 12th Century Norman castle which dominated the village, which might be practicable, and determined to attempt it. To divert the Germans’ attention from the Hastings’ approach, three carriers of the 48th Highlanders were sent down the road at dusk, with orders to swing about and return as soon as they came under fire, and artillery laid on harassing fire.

At 2130 hours Tweedsmuir led a hand-picked group of twenty men, followed by the rest of the battalion, up the terraces to the summit. Armed with no more than rifles and a few Bren Guns, they scaled the heights in bright moonlight, on their way awakening a sleeping boy on the back of a donkey, who closed his eyes and went straight back to sleep, not realising how tense the men around him were, and how close he might have been to being shot. The Hastings gained the summit a quarter of an hour before dawn, and the position was taken without a casualty. The enemy expected no-one but their own men to be there, and were completely surprised by the manoeuvre. The Germans mounted two counterattacks in attempts to dislodge them, but the Hastings held on until, on the morning of 22 July, the 48th Highlanders fought their way into the village through its western defences, which had been weakened in an attempt to dislodge the Canadians on the castle heights.

The fall of Assorto made it more difficult for the Germans to defend Leonforte. They had to hold the whole ridge, or withdraw from it altogether.

On 21 July the Seaforth of Canada had been halted in the steep approaches to Leonforte, but towards 2100 hours the Edmonton Regiment succeeded in gaining a foothold in the town. House-to-house fighting continued through the night, and early the next day the Canadians managed to repair a bridge over a ravine below the town, allowing four tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, a troop of antitank guns and a company of the PPCLI to enter. After a morning of hard fighting the Germans were driven out. They retired to two hills, from where the PPCLI removed them at about 1730 hours. Leonforte cost the Canadians 175 casualties; Assorto nearly a hundred.

The Divisional Intelligence Summary of 23 July made the following statement:

For the first time, the Germans fought all three battalions of 1 Pz Gren Regt as one tactical formation. After the fall of ASSORO the coys (3 Bn?) fighting there were moved in to defend LEONFORTE. During 22 Jul all three bns were identified in and about the latter town. At first light 5 tks and about 75 inf penetrated back into LEONFORTE. This resolute defence is something new. Hitherto the German rearguard has pulled stakes cleanly and retired some 8 or 10 miles to a new posn. The fact that they are not voluntarily retiring from their latest strong point but are fighting for every yd of ground indicates that we are nearing something like a serious defence zone. Beyond doubt they would have held LEONFORTE had they not been driven out of it.

 

The point regarding nearing ‘a serious defence zone’ was not far off the mark. Ahead lay Agira.

While the Eighth Army was engaged in the events described above, Alexander was giving consideration to the future. On 19 July he signalled Montgomery, pointing out that the enemy defences stretching from the northern to the eastern coasts (in effect, the Hauptkampflinie) might prove to be too strong for the Eighth Army to pierce. He suggested placing one of the American divisions under Monty’s command, which would work in the northern sector. He still saw Seventh Army’s task as being to occupy western Sicily, very much a secondary role.

Montgomery’s reply enumerated the four thrusts that he had launched: Catania (which was now called off), Misterbianco, Paterno, and Leonforte-Adrano. He considered these to be very powerful, and if his troops could be in Misterbianco the following night (20 July), and Adrano the next day, he thought that he would be in a strong position to move around either side of Etna. The Americans, he suggested, might provide one division to push along the north coast towards Messina. This would stretch the enemy’s defences and might divert them.

After visiting Montgomery on 20 July, Alexander reported to Brooke that the Catania offensive was to be suspended because it would prove too costly. However, Agira had fallen, the Canadians had captured Enna and Leonforte, and the Americans were expected to be in Petralia that day. They would then provide one division to cut the northern coast road and to work to the north of the Eighth Army. His intention was for the Seventh Army to be based on Palermo, before operating to the north of the Eighth in the final thrust for Messina.

One has to question where Alexander got his information. Leonforte did not fall until the 22nd, and Agira on the 28th. Whether it was Montgomery’s over-optimistic view of things, or Alexander’s, is debatable – but the Eighth Army situation reports for 19 and 20 July gave the correct state of affairs, and it would appear that Monty’s rosy assessments were not checked before Alexander reported to the CIGS10.

During the evening of 21 July Montgomery again signalled Alexander, reporting that enemy resistance around Catania and in the foothills about Misterbianco and Paterno was ‘very great’. Although he ‘had won the battle for the plain of Catania… heat in the plain is very great and my troops are getting very tired’. He was therefore going to hold his right wing, while continuing operations against Adrano. XXX Corps would be strengthened by 78th Division, to assist in operations north towards Bronte.

Meanwhile the Americans should thrust along the northern coast road towards Messina, and the full weight of Allied airpower from North Africa should be brought to bear on the enemy in the northeast corner of Sicily. The four-thrust strategy which he had outlined only two days previously was no longer mentioned; the prospect of extending the battle on both sides of Etna with the assistance of an American division had gone. Instead, he was calling forward his reserve, 78th Division, from Africa, and XXX Corps would be committed to a ‘blitz attack’ on the line Adrano-Bronte-Randazzo, northwards up the western side of Etna. Possession of Adrano would put Etna between the two halves of the Axis forces, robbing them of their lateral communications on the southwest and south of the mountain. What Monty now wanted was more commitment from the Americans on the northern coast road.

Alexander accepted Montgomery’s fresh strategy. Patton had already been ordered to bring pressure against the enemy on Highways 113 and 120, the coast road and that some twenty miles inland, running west to east through Nicosia and Troina to Randezzo, On 23 July Patton was given directions to transfer his supply lines through Palermo, and to use the maximum strength he could maintain to thrust along these two roads, striking at the enemy’s northern flank while the Axis communications system in the north-eastern corner of Sicily was subjected to a bombing campaign.

He ordered the remainder of his reserve, 9th (US) Infantry Division, to the island (39th RCT had been brought over on 15 July, landing at Licata, and had been attached to 82nd Airborne Division to assist in clearing western Sicily). On 24 July, Alexander visited Montgomery, and the following day the two generals held a conference with Patton – the first time during the campaign that the land force commanders met together.

It is notable that the conference was held at the instigation of Montgomery rather than Alexander. Monty signalled an invitation to Patton and his chief of staff to attend the meeting, in Syracuse, to discuss the capture of Messina. Despite the campaign now being two weeks old, there was still no strategy agreed for its completion. Montgomery was coming to recognise that the enemy facing the Eighth Army was too strongly ensconced to push through, and that a greater degree of coordination was needed between Patton and himself to resolve the impasse. Alexander, on the other hand, was continuing with his ‘handsoff’ style of leadership, refusing to become involved in the detailed direction of the campaign. This may have been acceptable in North Africa when he let Montgomery run Eighth Army’s battles as he saw fit, but in Sicily there were two Allied armies operating, and thus far Alexander had rather ignored the American role in the campaign.

Patton’s – understandable – suspicions notwithstanding, the two army commanders quickly agreed that Seventh (US) Army was to have the exclusive use of Highways 113 and 120, and Montgomery even proposed that it should be Patton who was to have the privilege of taking Messina, and striking through Randazzo to Taormina, across the north of Etna. If necessary, the Americans were given full permission to cross the inter-army boundary in pursuit of this aim, which if successful would mean that two German divisions would be cut off from their line of retreat. With the legacy of Monty’s commandeering Highway 124 from the Americans only eleven days earlier, it was not surprising that Patton should be suspicious of Montgomery’s motives. But the Eighth Army commander was aware that his strategy of launching separate attacks by various divisions along the Catania front was proving unsuccessful and that the campaign needed greater inter-Allied cooperation.

Three days later Montgomery paid a return visit to Patton in Palermo, narrowly avoiding disaster when the airfield proved too short for the B-17 bomber in which the British delegation was travelling. An accident was prevented only by the skill of the pilot. At last, Allied strategy – at least on the ground – was coming together. But Alexander appeared to be taking little part in this, for he arrived late at the Syracuse meeting, to be told by Montgomery that everything had been settled by Patton and himself. In Palermo, the Montgomery-Patton agreement was confirmed, although Patton remained mistrustful. With memories of Anglo-American problems since TORCH, he had little faith in Monty’s good intentions, and saw Messina as the prize that must be competed for, as a way of establishing American military prestige.

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