By the summer of 1943, the Allies were beginning a push into Italy to gain a foothold in southern Europe. This was one year prior to D-Day, and Canadians were pushing into Italy with the Battle of Sicily. The battle would last from July 9, 1943 to Aug. 17 and would be a huge success with the Allies taking back Sicily and opening the Mediterranean Sea lanes to Allied merchant ships for the first time since 1941.
This episode is not about that battle though. It is about a battle within the larger battle, and one that Canadians had a big hand in, the Battle of Assoro. For the Canadians, the first 10 days of the Battle of Sicily had been relatively easy, only encountering German and Italian rearguards. The Canadian First Brigade continued advancing on the island and on July 19, new orders were put forward, to take Leonforte and Assoro. The Second Canadian Brigade would be tasked with taking the village of Leonforte, while the First Canadian Brigade would go after Assoro, which provided the highest point for miles in any direction. Not quite a mountain despite being called Mount Assoro, it was more of a large hill with a relatively gentle slope on one side. It was still no small hill though, rising one kilometre into the air.
As the Canadians in the First Brigade attempted to cross the Dittaino River, which was dry but still provided an obstacle, they met their first significant resistance from the Germans who were watching from higher ground. The 48th Highlanders managed to secure a crossing, but the Royal Canadian Regiment would lose nine vehicles to mines and accurate fire from Assoro.
The terrain was not easy for the Canadians. They had to deal with a cliff 1,000 feet high with a castle overlooking the countryside. The only road to the town clung to rising land around Assoro with hairpin turns and without their nine tanks, the journey would not be an easy one.
Brigadier Howard Graham would tell Lt. Col. Albert Sutcliffe of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment that going up the road on the mountain would be a slaughter. The two men did notice there were goat tracks and looking at a map with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment’s Intelligence Officer, Captain Maurice Cockin, who had experience climbing mountains in the Andes, the three men agreed that the only way up was up the southeast cliff face, taking the goat paths when they could. Graham returned to the First Canadian Division Headquarters to device an artillery plan, while Sutcliffe and Cockin went to the regiment headquarters to study the cliff. At the same time, Lt. Col. Ralph Crowe took them to a clump of trees where the anti-tank gun platoon was concealed. Crowe then told Lt. Sheridan Atkinson to establish the range by firing a high-explosive tracer-fitted round at the German artillery position at the summit. Atkinson told his gun sergeant who said that doing so would draw German fire right on them. Atkinson agreed and returned to the senior officers only to be told to follow his orders by Crowe. He did so, as Crowe, Sutcliffe and Cockin stood nearby. As was expected, the Germans responded immediately with an 88-millimetre shell exploding right next to the gun, killing Sutcliffe, and giving Cockin wounds he would soon die from. Crowe and the gun crew were unharmed. As Cockin was dying in a stretcher, he told Major John Tweedsmuir, who was now in command after the death of Sutcliff, to not go up the road.
Due to this, movement in the daylight was abandoned.
To move at night without detection, Major Alex Campbell was ordered to form a special assault force made of volunteers that consisted of one platoon from each of the rifle companies. The men would be stripped of everything, but guns and ammunition and their task were to scale the cliffs and occupy the crest of the mountain before dawn.
Tweedsmuir would write in his report later, “By dusk we had sorted ourselves out, stripped for action and eaten an enormous meal. As warriors, we did not look particularly prepossessing. After 10 days with virtually no chance to repair or clean our clothing or ourselves, we were a dirty and ragged lot.”
In all four companies were at the base of the cliff. A Company under Campbell would go up the cliff, while Tweedsmuir would take B and C companies up the gentler path on the eastern slope, while D company would remain at the base of the mountain to protect the rear.
One man with A Company was legendary Canadian writer Farley Mowat.
As the men stood in the moonlight, Tweedsmuir recited part of Henry V’s speech at Agincourt. He would say:
“And gentlemen in England now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap, while any speak who fought with us.”
Tweedsmuir would say later, ‘of those tired officers, every back straightened, and light returned to their tired eyes as they walked away determined to tackle anything. And they did.”
The men began moving at dusk, moving through a maze of gullies, steep ridges and water courses strewn with boulders. Absolute silence was required to succeed, which almost seemed impossible at the time.
At 4 a.m., the assault company had scaled the last ridge and discovered that the base of the mountain was still separated from them by a gully 100 feet deep. They could not turn back so they went into the ditch, crossed the bottom, took a breath, and with dawn one hour away, they began climbing back up the side of the gully. Each man began climbing the cliff, pulling each other up, passing weapons and ammunition from hand-to-hand. One man, the signaler, made the journey carrying a heavy wireless set on his back. Not one man slipped or dropped a single clip of ammunition.
Mowat would say after that “each of us performed our own private miracle that night. Ledge to ledge we oozed upwards like some vast mold. To the east, where a ripple of light was spreading across the dawn sky was bursting upon us with sub-tropic swiftness. My companion jumped to catch the lip of what seemed to be the next terrace and disappeared above me.”
Sergeant Alfred Mountenay would say six decades later, “don’t ask me how we did it, we just climbed up the cliff at night.”
Corporal Bob Wigmore would say “The Germans never thought anybody could cross the rough country approaching Assoro from that direction. Of course, they didn’t know Canadians.”
The A Company finally made it to the crest of the hill and managed to take the summit from the sentries without losing a single man. The companies under Tweedmuir soon arrived and there were now 500 Canadians on the summit. Wigmore would say, “We dug in the best we could.”
With the Canadians now on the summit, the Germans began firing their light anti-aircraft guns directly at them and for the next three hours, the Canadians were subjected to between 200 and 300 shells. Whenever the artillery paused, the Canadians pressed forward. With the sun rising, water disappearing fast along with ammunition, the Canadians were fighting for their lives. The Canadians then began to direct shells directly on the German guns thanks to the Signaler who came up the cliff carrying his equipment. By noon, nearly all the German guns were knocked out.
The regiment on the hill was able to hold their spot through the night but had no food except for rations. On July 22, a party of 100 men from the Royal Canadian Regiment brought food and supplies. Also arriving were the 48th Highlanders, who provided tactical relief by attacking on the western side of Assoro, driving the enemy into the town. This allowed the men to fill in craters so that tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment could have passage through.
By 2 p.m. on July 22, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was finally relieved. Amazingly, only eight men were killed in the attack.
No decorations were awarded for Assoro despite the amazing heroics, but they did earn praise from both their Allies and the Germans. One German would later say:
“Good soldier material. English and Canadians harder in the attack than the Americans. In general, fair ways of fighting. In fieldcraft superior to our own troops. Very mobile at night. Surprise break-ins, clever infiltrations at night in small groups between our strong points.”
Farley Mowat would say of the battle, “While it was no great victory in terms of casualties inflicted on the enemy, Assoro was nevertheless a spectacular triumph of endurance and initiative, and the spirit of the men, subdued temporarily by their first baptism of heavy shell-fire, now rose to the unprecedent heights.”
After the battle, Lt. Col. Sutcliffe would posthumously receive the Distinguished Service Order.
By Aug. 17, the British Eighth Army and the U.S. Seventh Army entered the city of Messina, ending the Battle of Sicily, thanks in large part to the Canadians taking Assoro almost a month earlier.
Information comes from CanadianSoldiers.com, the Maritime Explorer, Legion Magazine, Royal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum, Don Moore War Tales, Canadian Archives, Canadian Army News Reels, Memory Project,