Canadians at the vanguard of the Italian Campaign

Canadian soldiers enjoying a few drinks on Christmas Day 1943 at Ortona, Italy. Photo by Lieutenanat Frederick G. Whitcombe / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Canada’s military history is filled with courage and sacrifice. Since Confederation, two million Canadian sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen of many backgrounds have served Canada with distinction overseas. More than 100,000 of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. To help commemorate that heritage and mark Canada’s 150th year as a nation, we are presenting a series of stories to salute the bravery of our military predecessors who fought to defend Canadian values at home and abroad. In this installment, we look back at the Italian Campaign.

Ottawa, Ontario — The fight to liberate Italy was the longest of Canada’s many Second World War campaigns and, while our troops would play an invaluable part in its eventual success, they would find themselves deployed elsewhere before its conclusion.

The invasion of Sicily began July 10, 1943. It was a deceptively easy start to what would ultimately be a 20-month struggle. Italian troops were surrendering by the thousands in the first few days but their German allies were in the meantime establishing defensive lines and would not be driven from the island until mid-August.

Canadians were the vanguard of the invasion of the Italian mainland. While Italian forces continued to surrender in the face of the advance, followed by the Italian government itself in early September, the Germans offered fierce resistance, fighting as they withdrew and creating a series of defensive positions. One two-week period of fighting in October saw the Canadians advance just 40 kilometres.

That December, amidst heavy rains, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Quebec City-based Royal 22e Regiment made significant advances, helping to drive the Germans back to the town of Ortona. It was in Allied hands by December 28 at a cost of more than 2,600 Canadian casualties.

Early 1944 saw many small Allied victories, although the German defensive lines remained strong overall. The Germans’ ‘Hitler Line’ was breached in a massive assault launched May 23. The ensuing fight resulted in the highest number of casualties suffered on any single day of the campaign, with more than 400 Allied troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

This paved the way for the liberation of Rome on June 4 after three weeks of fighting. The Allies continued northward in August and came up against the Germans’ Gothic Line, which held until late September. It would take another month for the Allies to advance 20 kilometres past their next starting point and capture the city of Cesena. It was here that the late Private Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, earned the Victoria Cross for his role in stopping a counter-attack by German tanks.

Canadian troops were part of the liberation of Ravenna in December before being re-deployed to the Netherlands. More than 5,000 Canadians were killed in the Italian Campaign, and nearly 19,000 wounded.

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Related Links

Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry
Royal 22e Regiment
Private “Smokey” Smith (video)
Ernest Alvia Smith,Victoria Cross
The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada

Image gallery

  • An unidentified gunner of the Saskatoon Light Infantry (M.G.) laying down harassing fire with a Vickers machine gun near Ortona, Italy, January 7, 1944.
  • An unidentified member of the West Nova Scotia Regiment fires a PIAT anti-tank weapon at the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade's training school west of Ortona, Italy on January 10, 1944.
  • Canadian soldiers enjoying a few drinks on Christmas Day 1943 at Ortona, Italy.

Article / July 11, 2017 / Project number: 16-1049

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