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The Fiercest Fighters in The Italian Campaign

For the week of Monday, September 5, 2016

On September 8, 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, ending its alliance with Germany during the Second World War. The Italian Campaign came to a close after 20 months of relentless fighting, during which Canadian troops proved to be invaluable at the battlefields in Sicily, Ortona, and along the Gothic Line.

The 1st Canadian Division in Italy, December 1943
© Library and Archives Canada / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / PA-136332

On July 10, 1943, Allied troops, including the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade, landed on the coast of Sicily as part of Operation Husky. After five weeks of fierce fighting, the Germans were forced to retreat to mainland Italy.

The Canadian Forces steadily advanced up the Italian peninsula and on December 20, attacked Ortona, located on Italy’s east coast. Narrow streets limited the use of tanks and artillery, increasing the need for close quarters combat. To avoid snipers, the Canadians devised a tactic called “mouseholing.” Soldiers would enter a building by blasting a hole in a wall to surprise the enemy inside, and then advance through the wall of the adjoining building. Meanwhile, an Allied attack northwest of Ortana threatened to surround the German position, forcing their retreat. Canadian troops liberated the city on December 28.

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Members of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division ride a Priest self-propelled howitzer during the attack on the Gothic Line
© Library and Archives Canada / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / PA-184998

During August 1944, the Allies were faced with the challenge of penetrating the heavily fortified Gothic Line. Running between Pisa and Pesaro, this German line of defence protected the crucial supply-producing factories of northern Italy. German defences included machine gun posts, anti-tank guns, mines, and wire obstacles.

The Allies launched a surprise attack in the last week of August, which intended to capture Rimini, a town on the Adriatic Coast behind the Gothic Line. Although Canadian troops initially broke through the Gothic Line on August 30, the Germans quickly sent reinforcements to slow the Allied advance. After three more weeks of bitter fighting Canadian troops entered Rimini on September 21, 1944.

Canadian casualties in the Italian Campaign numbered 26,000, with 6,000 fatalities. The Landing of Sicily, the Battle of Ortona, and the Breaching of the Gothic Line are all national historic events.To learn more about Canada in the Second World War, read Operation Husky: The Canadian Landing in Sicily and Christmas at the Front in the This Week in History archives.

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