With the Loyal Edmonton Regiment in Italy
Harris G. Field
Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War
Included among the units in the Canadian forces in Italy during the Second World War was the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, founded at Edmonton in January 1915, under the leadership of William A. "Billy" Griesbach. The Regiment as I shall call it, had distinguished service in the First World War, and survived as a Militia Unit based in Edmonton between 1918 and 1939.
When the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Canadian Army was in a state which might kindly be described as inadequate, although harsher critics have described it as virtually non-existent. When the Regiment was being mobilized in Edmonton that September and October, there were lots of sturdy volunteers, but experienced military personnel were limited, and there was no decent equipment or weapons.
In spite of these difficulties, the Regiment was selected as one of the nine infantry battalions forming the First Canadian Infantry Division. It also was fortunate to be brigaded with two other fine units, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada [based in Vancouver], and the only permanent prewar infantry force in Western Canada, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
The first Canadian Infantry Division was sent to Britain late in 1939; with the exception of an expedition by a detachment of the Regiment to Spitsbergen in the summer of 1941, which did not meet any enemy resistance, the Canadians sat. They went on exercises, they went on schemes, they went on leave, but they went nowhere for three and a half years.
On 13 May 1943 the War in Africa ended, and questions started flying ¬where would the Allies' next attack be, and who would launch it? At the end of June 1943 the Division's questions were answered when it set sail for the Mediterranean.
On 10 July 1943 the Allies, including First Canadian Division Forces which were now part of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army, landed in Sicily. The long slow bitter struggle which would rage over the whole Italian peninsula now began in earnest. It is my recollection that we were told that this Division of Canadian Forces, numbering about 15,000 to 16,000 well trained and well equipped troops, were committed to the Italian campaign because in mid¬1943 a strike against Italy was judged by the strategy planners to be critical. This was for several very good reasons: it could quickly knock Italy out of the war; it would open a new European front, thus relieving some pressure on the Russians, and Churchill, who distrusted the Russians, could see that a strike into Austria from Italy would keep Russian forces out of Western Europe.
As it turned out, US strategy, to the Allies' lasting regret, did not perceive this danger from the Russians, and by 1944, Allied military strength and strategic emphasis was shifted to France and North-Western Europe at the expense of the Italian Campaign.
Italy from May through September has bright hot weather which can stretch for six weeks or more with no rain. In the winter months of November through into March, it is cold, very grey, very wet, and there may be no sunshine for weeks on end.
The Italian peninsula is a very long chain of rugged mountains running parallel to both coasts from the Po Valley to the toe of the peninsula. Cutting across the mountain chains are many deep valleys with quite steep slopes which may be dry or have modest rivers in summer, but which can be torrential in winter. This landscape lends itself well to military defence, because every few miles there will be another deep gully with its water course cutting across the line of advance from the south. There is a major exception in the plain near Rome, which probably explains why the Germans made no attempt to defend it. Elsewhere, however, the defenders had plenty of ideal defensive sites. The Eighth Army was on the east side of the peninsula [the Adriatic side], with American forces on the west side. Canadian forces landed on the west side of the toe of Italy, but after the initial advances they were committed along the Adriatic coast, except for "the Hitler line" battle above Monte Cassino.
The Italian people had little sympathy for Mussolini's commitment of the nation to a devastating war with Italy's traditional ally, Britain. At the first opportunity, in September 1943, Mussolini's government was overturned and Italy was out of the war. The German reaction was to strengthen its forces in Italy on the basis that it was essential to defend Germany's southern flank, and Italian terrain was ideal for that defence.
We Canadians were of the opinion, whether justifiably so or not, that the German forces in Italy in 1943 and 1944 were roughly equal in strength to the Allied forces. The advantage the Germans had was that they had over-land supply routes from Germany and Austria, while the Allies had to ship everything in by sea. The reason the Allies were successful in forcing the Germans back was the total domination of the air and ocean by Allied forces. These could move in daylight, while theirs could not. Consequently, concentration for a strike at any particular sector was possible for the Allies, but very difficult for the Germans.
The campaign by the Allied forces consisted of a series of diversionary tactics, trying to keep the enemy guessing as to which particular sector would be attacked in force. The Allies would regroup behind the lines for a major assault at a particular point on the front. When that assault was launched it would at first be successful, but within a few days enemy reserves would be assembled in the threatened area and the attack would grind to a halt. The whole procedure would then start over again.
Night Patrolling North of Ortona
After the battle of Ortona ended on 28 December 1943, the main thrust of the Allied attack shifted to "the road to Rome," with attacks up the Rapido River toward Monte Cassino and the American attack at the beachhead of Anzio. The Canadians were left on the Adriatic coast to hold that sector, and to do what they could to keep the Germans committed there so as to prevent those forces moving as reinforcements to other sectors. A vigorous patrol policy was initiated. Those patrols varied in strength from two- or three-man reconnaissance ["recce"] patrols, to fighting patrols consisting of up to thirty or forty men, depending on whether the patrol's objective was to gain information or to try a sneak attack on an enemy position.
The purposes varied, but patrols were intended to achieve one or more objectives: to attempt to locate exactly where the enemy defensive positions were, and what areas were covered by their "fixed lines of fire" by machine guns; to attempt to locate holes in the defensive positions; to find out which specific units or formations were holding the sector - for example, German paratroopers were formidable, and were always to be found where the German high command expected trouble; to deceive the enemy into thinking your side of "no man's land" is more strongly held than it really is; to take prisoners or inflict casualties in a surprise attack on an outpost; or to dominate "no man's land," so that if you must later traverse it in a major attack, you would find few surprises such as land mines or wire entanglements.
Let me describe a patrol. A deep gully with the Arielli River at the bottom separated the forces. Each night patrols would go out into the gully. As a Platoon Commander I was expected to lead every patrol in which any of my platoon were involved. A platoon, if up to strength, was at that time about 3S men.