Near Point 59, North of Ortona, Italy, January, 1944.
Historical Section of the General Staff, Canadian Military Headquarters in Great Britain, From Pachino to Ortona: The Canadian Campaign in Sicily and Italy, 1943 (Ottawa: King's Printer, [1945]).

Near Point 59, North of Ortona, Italy, January, 1944.

After the Battle of Ortona had been won, soldiers of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment still had to contend with 1st Parachute Division, which had withdrawn to positions north of the town. There, soldiers had to be constantly wary of enemy attacks. The artillery forward observation officer shown here wastes no time in covering ground swept by enemy fire.

In January, the battalion spent a few weeks recovering and then began a long winter of training with the recently arrived 5th Canadian Armoured Division and static warfare with the Germans across the valley of the Arielli River. At the end of January, Colonel Jefferson was promoted command of the 10th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division and left for England. Major E.W. Day took over command of the battalion, and Major Stone moved up to second in command. Since the opposition across the river were still the 1st Parachute Division, patrolling was a hazardous enterprise, and the battalion sustained a constant drain of casualties as they had in the trenches during the First World War. In March, the LER got two weeks of recreation in Ortona, where they renamed one of the streets Jasper Avenue, and at a camp on the seashore. By early April, preparations were beginning to move the entire 1st Canadian Corps across the mountains to spearhead the breakout past Monte Cassino into the Liri Valley, which would open the way to Rome.

The Liri Valley was the first major action in this war in which Canadians were exercising command at the corps level; Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns headed 1st Canadian Corps, Major-General Chris Vokes remained in command of 1st Canadian Infantry Division, and Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister left 2nd Brigade to take over 5th Canadian Armoured Division. The lack of higher command experience began to show as final preparations for the offensive were put in place. On 5 May, while the LER was in the process of moving across Italy to take its part in breaking through the Gustav and Hitler lines, Colonel Day was replaced as CO by Lieutenant-Colonel R.C. Coleman of the Patricias and Major Stone was sent off on a unit commander's course. An earlier historian of the regiment refers to this change in command a few days before going into a major battle in a masterful understatement as 'rather startling.' (17)

General Bernard Montgomery in Conversation with Major-General C. Vokes, Italy, December, 1943
Historical Section of the General Staff, Canadian Military Headquarters in Great Britain, From Pachino to Ortona: The Canadian Campaign in Sicily and Italy, 1943 (Ottawa: King's Printer, [1945]).

General Bernard Montgomery in Conversation with Major-General C. Vokes, Italy, December, 1943

A lack of seasoned leadership would hamper the effectiveness of Canadian-led operations as the Allies embarked upon a major offensive campaign in the Liri Valley in May 1944. Major General Vokes, pictured here with Montgomery, was still in command of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. However, an ill-advised change in the command of the LER took place just a few days before the offensive would begin. The move was imprudent because Lieutenant-Colonel R.C. Coleman, the new Commanding Officer, simply did not have the time to familiarize himself with his new unit, nor did his troops have the time to get used to him.

There was nothing wrong with Colonel Coleman, who had commanded a company with distinction with the Patricias since the landings in Sicily and would later command the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. To throw a new commanding officer into these circumstances without giving him the opportunity to get to know his unit, however, was bad management at best and irresponsible at worst. This analysis is particularly true for Colonel Coleman since both his immediate superior, Brigadier T.G. Gibson, and his second in command, Major Alan Macdonald, were also new to their jobs.

The 'Hitler Line' that the Germans had constructed across the Liri Valley was extremely strong. As always with the Germans, their position took maximum advantage of rivers and other terrain features. It also featured panzerturms, Panther tank turrets installed on concrete emplacements with carefully prepared fields of fire, barbed wire, and many thousands of mines. 1st Canadian Infantry Division was supposed to break through the line between the towns of Pontecorvo and Aquino, then let 5th Canadian Armoured Division move through to exploit. 2nd Brigade was assigned the right side of the advance (as luck would have it the most strongly fortified portion of the line), with the Seaforths and PPCLI up and the LER in reserve. The British 78th Division on the right was supposed to protect the flank of the advance by keeping pressure on the 1st Parachute Division troops occupying Aquino. The largest barrage mounted by the Allies so far in the war with more than 800 guns taking part was supposed to pave the way.

Early on 23 May, the attacking forces went in, but it quickly became apparent that the preliminary bombardment had not greatly bothered the defenders. The PPCLI on the right ran into murderous fire from both the front and from Aquino on the flank, where the 78th Division failed to keep them under fire. At 0800, the Edmontons moved up to support the PPCLI and ran into the same crossfire. A Company managed to get through the German wire but in the process was badly hit, losing most of its officers. When Colonel Coleman came forward to expedite the advance, he was twice wounded. Tank support foundered on minefields, and the LER remained pinned down for the rest of the day. Major Macdonald, coming forward to take over command, was wounded by a sniper, and Colonel Coleman finally turned command of the battalion over to D Company commander Major F.H. McDougall in mid afternoon. The day had been a bad one for 2nd Brigade, which suffered the heaviest single day casualties of any brigade in the Italian campaign. By the time they were pulled out of the line in the evening of the 23rd, 50 of the LER were dead and 125 wounded. The effective strength of the battalion was down to 160 men.

General Bernard Montgomery in Conversation with Major-General C. Vokes, Italy, December, 1943
National Archives of Canada (PA-140208, photo by Strathy Smith).

Canadian Forces Advancing, Liri Valley, Italy, 24 May 1944.

Canadian soldiers are pictured here moving from the Gustav Line to the Hitler Line in Italy's Liri Valley. The defensive positions that the Germans had constructed were extremely strong, and despite fierce bombardment by Canadian forces, the LER suffered heavy casualties during these offensives.

The battalion was allowed a few days to recover and then rejoined the pursuit of the retreating Germans up the Liri Valley. At the end of May, the LER was involved in a few skirmishes around Frosinone. On 4 June, the Americans marched into Rome. It would have made more military sense to cut off and destroy the retreating German 10th Army, but the commander of the US 5th Army, General Mark Clark, was determined not to be upstaged by the D-Day landings in Normandy. No units of the 8th Army were invited to take part in the triumphal entry into the Italian capital. The surviving members of the LER were undoubtedly happier relaxing in their rest camp in the hills south of Cassino than taking part in ceremonial parades. They had two months of recovery time before going back into line. There was a new CO as of 6 June, Lieutenant-Colonel H.P. Bell-Irving, formerly of the Seaforths. Swimming and sports were available as well as the best food the regiment had enjoyed for some time. In early July, training resumed and increased steadily until the end of the month. Early on the 28th, the troops got aboard their trucks and headed north through Rome and into Tuscany. The Germans had by this time withdrawn to their next prepared position, the Gothic line, which ran across the peninsula from Pisa to Pesaro on the Adriatic. In this part of Italy, the Appenines form a continuous barrier except for a narrow coastal plain on the Adriatic. General Leese planned to send the Canadians briefly into the line around Florence in an effort to convince the Germans his main effort would be there, then switch them across to the Adriatic for the real attack. The LER along with the rest of 2nd Brigade made a rather leisurely tour past Lake Trasimene, through Siena, and on to the Arno River. After three days in line, the regiment was pulled back and, on 20 August, moved south through Foligno and on to the Adriatic coast south of the Metauro River.

Sienas Cathedral, Italy, n.d. (Item 2178298). Available online at [4 March 2002].

Siena's Cathedral, Italy, n.d.

In their northwards pursuit of the enemy in the summer of 1944 personnel of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment passed through the town of Siena, in southern Tuscany.

The allied forces in Italy now appeared to be close to final victory. The Gothic line was the last remaining German position as well as the final mountain barrier before the flat and inviting stretches of the Po Valley. One final push in the late summer and early fall of 1944 might bring them out of the hills and allow their superiority in armour and near total control of the air to take effect. As in all the fighting on the Italian mainland, the prospect of a swift campaign through the Po Valley proved an illusion. The lower reaches of the valley where the Canadians were attacking is part of a huge delta. The land is flat, low-lying, waterlogged, and crisscrossed with numerous canals. As defensive country, it is almost as good as the mountains and bears a strong resemblance to the areas of Belgium and the Netherlands where soggy conditions had been such a factor in the previous war and would be so again for the Canadians in the winter of 1944-5. On the western end of the Gothic line the US 5th Army had been seriously weakened when several experienced divisions were withdrawn to take part in the landings in southern France.

As usual, the German retreat to the Gothic Line would be contested at every location that could be temporarily defended. At first, however, advance beyond the Metauro River went easily for the LER on 26 August. They advanced 13 kilometers without serious opposition. Then, on 28 August, A and B Companies ran into a strong German force in the village of Monteciccardo. An intense fire fight ensued and went badly at first for the LER when German tanks arrived before the supporting Churchills from the 145th Royal Tank Regiment. After retreating and waiting for the armour, the LER drove the Germans out of the town and into an adjoining monastery. At nightfall, just as the battalion was mounting a new attack on the monastery, the Germans pulled out. The action cost the LER eleven dead and 53 wounded. After a couple of days rest, the LER moved across the Foglia River with the 12th Royal Tank Regiment and pushed through the main Gothic Line positions with surprising ease. The battalion then moved to the seaside town of Cattolica, 15 kilometers south of Rimini for a longer rest.


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