The Winter Line

As spring 1944 came, the Allies planned an offensive with the aim of breaking through at Cassino and relieving the force at Anzio. There was one small group of Canadians with the Americans at Cassino, in the joint U.S. Canada Special Service Force, what the Germans called the Devil’s Brigade (the first official special forces unit)

In March 1944 lieutenant-general Crerar returned to England to take command of the First Canadian Army, preparing for the D-Day landings in France and was succeeded by major-general E. L. M. Burns as commander of the First Canadian Corps.

In late April 1944, the Eighth Army, including the Canadians, secretly turned west to help the portion of the U.S. Fifth Army which had been stopped by the Germans on the Gustav Line at Cassino.

On May 12, the Eighth Army attacked the Germans in the Liri Valley as the Fifth army began a new offensive at Cassino, with tanks from the First Canadian Armoured Brigade supporting the attack. On May 18, Polish troops took the Monte Cassino monastery which dominated the valley.

The Fifth Army moving up the coast, broke through the Germans surrounding Anzio to join up with their colleagues while the Eighth Army continued to battle through the Liri Valley.

The next objective was the Hitler Line, about 15 kilometres to the north of the Gustav Line. The attack began on May 23, supported by 800 artillery pieces, tank and mortar fire.

It was the Canadians who breached the line, infantry including the Royal 22nd Regiment (The Vandoos) Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Seaforth Highlanders and the Carleton and York regiment. The Canadian Fifth Armoured Division raced through the breach to the Melfa River, the next German line of defence, where they faced Panther tanks. Light reconnaissance tanks from Lord Strathcona’s Horse and the Westminster Motor Battalion made it across the river and held the bridgehead until reinforcements arrived.

The Canadians then took Ceprano and Frosinone and then were ordered to reserve status for about a two-month rest. The Americans entered Rome on June 4, 1944.

The next Allied objective was the strategic industrial heartland of northern Italy and the German’s last fortified defences there, the Gothic Line.

The Allies planned a surprise attack on the eastern Adriatic and a swing toward Bologna. As a feint, the First Canadian Division massed near Florence, then secretly rejoined the rest of the Canadian Corps for the attack on Rimini.

A Polish division was on the coast, Canadians from the First and Fifth Divisions the spearhead in the centre with British and Indian divisions to the west. They had to cross six rivers, one after another.

The attack began in the last week of August 1944. The Canadians easily crossed the Metauro River but then faced heavy German defences at the Foglia River. By August 30, the Canadian Corps broke through the Gothic Line and reached the River Conca. The Germans massed troops outside Rimini, a highway crossroad that was easily reinforced. and battled in front of the town for three weeks before the Germans withdrew and the Canadians entered a nearly deserted town on September 21.

Fall brought more rain to northern Italy and in October the First Canadian Division fought a soggy battle at Romagna as the Americans headed toward Bologna.

Later that month, the Canadians were once again placed in reserve for a rest after 10 weeks of fighting, then rejoined the fight as the Eighth Army continued the battle for the Lombardy Plain against increasingly desperate German defenders who stopped the Allies at the Senio River. The winter again brought a stalemate. In February 1945, the Canadian Corps was withdrawn from Italy to join the advance in Europe against Germany.