Douglas & McIntyre
Operation Husky

Book details:

November 2008
ISBN 978-1-55365-324-0
Hardcover
6" x 9 1/4"
480 pages
5 b&w illustrations
History
History / Military
$36.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

Operation Husky

The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10–August 7, 1943

Excerpt / Additional Content

from

The Introduction: The Supreme Tragedy

Canada could have avoided invading Sicily. Indeed, it required the intercession of senior generals and the minister of national defence, Colonel John Ralston, as well as a personal plea by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to Sir Winston Churchill before Britain reluctantly invited Canadian troops to join the venture. From the British perspective, there was little to recommend diverting forces from First Canadian Army in England for service in the Mediterranean theatre.

Ever since the first flight of 1st Canadian Infantry Division had disembarked in Greenoch, Scotland, on December 16, 1939—just ninety-eight days after Canada declared war on the Axis powers in response to the assault on Poland—the British had resisted committing this increasingly potent force to combat operations. By April 6, 1942, when First Canadian Army headquarters opened for business at Headley Court, it had under command about 170,000 men organized into five divisions, two tank brigades, and various supporting arms. This was, however, an army still in a formative phase. Every Canadian soldier overseas had volunteered for combat duty, but only a relatively small number had any militia service and, because it had been so depleted during the interwar years, even fewer came from the regular army. The Imperial General Staff had immediately recognized that the Canadians—particularly the officers—needed a great deal more training before the army could be considered combat effective. With planning already begun for an eventual cross-channel invasion of northwest Europe, First Canadian Army was tapped to play an important role. Its strength was to be nurtured.

This sentiment perfectly suited First Canadian Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton. Meeting with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 9, McNaughton had explained his army’s purpose as being, first, to ensure the security of the United Kingdom and, second, to maintain “our foothold for an eventual attack on the Continent of Europe . . . There could be no question but that the war could only be ended by the defeat of Hitler and the only way of doing so was to attack him from the West.” McNaughton emphasized that he “had never lost sight of this object and . . . had always been convinced that an offensive would sooner or later have to be launched from the United Kingdom across the narrow seas.” The general assured Roosevelt that the Canadian government had “accepted” this view the previous week during an Ottawa meeting.

The fifty-five-year-old McNaughton had served as an artillery officer in Lieutenant General Arthur Currie’s I Canadian Corps during the Great War, rising in 1918 to command the heavy artillery unit. During the latter phase of the war, McNaughton duly noted Currie’s refusal during the great German spring offensive to allow Canadian divisions to be severed from the corps to fill endangered sections of the British Expeditionary Force front. Currie had been adamant that the Canadians fight as one or not at all. McNaughton felt the same about First Canadian Army.

His position was unpopular with some subordinate senior officers and even with many of the troops idling the months away in southern England while battles raged in distant lands. Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, who in 1942 commanded one of McNaughton’s corps, was the most vocal advocate for sending Canadian soldiers into harm’s way at any opportunity. As Canada’s chief of staff in 1941, Crerar had convinced a reluctant Mackenzie King to accede to a British call for men to reinforce Hong Kong’s weak garrison against Japanese attack. When the colony surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941, all 1,975 men of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were lost. In the winter of 1942, illness had forced McNaughton to return to Canada and temporarily relinquish command to Crerar. Believing army morale was poor due to lack of action and that people at home were impatient for their soldiers to fight, Crerar hectored the British chiefs of staff for a role in cross-channel raids. When McNaughton returned from sick leave that spring, the decision was already made that 2nd Canadian Infantry Division would star in a raid on Dieppe. On August 19, 1942, the raid ended in disaster, with 907 men killed and another 1,946 lost as prisoners.

Crerar never faltered, constantly undermining McNaughton’s determination to keep First Canadian Army together. Although he was McNaughton’s subordinate, Crerar had greater political clout and better contacts within Canada and Britain’s military hierarchy. The chief of imperial general staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, and Crerar had been cronies during the Great War. Brooke considered McNaughton “devoid of any strategic outlook, and [that he] would sooner have risked losing the war than agree to splitting Canadian forces.” Crerar also had Canadian defence minister Ralston’s ear and that of the Canadian chief of staff, Lieutenant General Kenneth Stuart. Both agreed the time was nigh for some element of First Canadian Army to fight—where mattered little.

Taking advantage of an October 1942 meeting with Churchill, Ralston urged that “active employment should be found for the Canadian Army at the first opportunity.” There were no strings attached; it could “be used in whole or in part.” Fighting a rearguard action, McNaughton conceded that the army should be employed where it could make “the maximum possible contribution,” and that this might mean its fragmentation. But, he countered, “there was no reason to doubt that morale could be maintained even if we had to remain in England on guard for another year; that was therefore no reason in itself for advocating active operations for their own sake; that anything we undertook should be strictly related to military needs and objectives.” And what could be more important than keeping the army together so it could eventually participate in the cross-channel invasion?

Even Prime Minister King, who shared McNaughton’s belief in a unified Canadian army overseas, was wavering by New Year’s Day, 1943. In his national broadcast, King announced that “all our armed forces” would be fighting before the year was out. With the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy long engaged in combat operations, the reference could only pertain to the army.

Concerns about First Canadian Army morale were unwarranted. Certainly there were cases of men not returning on schedule from leaves, but outright desertions were rare. Open insubordination was equally absent. Not that the men were angels. They chased women, drank too much, gambled fiercely, and brawled at the slightest provocation. For an army of young men on an overseas posting, this was just normal behaviour.

Occasionally a company or even a battalion lost its edge. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, its men growing increasingly restless in early 1943, showed a decline in efficiency that did not go unrecognized by 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade’s commander Brigadier Chris Vokes. Fortunately, the Seaforths had just gained a new commander. Lieutenant Colonel Bert Hoffmeister, known as “Hoffy” in the regiment, had been a Seaforth since he was a boy cadet in Vancouver. Hoffmeister had just completed several months’ instruction at the Canadian Junior War Staff College. Although he had risen from the ranks to command, Hoffmeister was a businesslike, hard-working soldier who expected the best of officers and men alike. He mixed easily with the troops and was often informal, even casual in their company. But he brooked no nonsense. When Vokes pronounced his opinion of the Seaforth’s current state, Hoffmeister set the matter right with a will.

A major issue for most 1st Division battalions was that many of their officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOS) were too old for combat soldiering. The commander Hoffmeister replaced, Lieutenant Colonel J.M.S. Tait, had been a Seaforth officer throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Age and the long years of training in Britain had taken their toll on these men. Private Richard Latimer, a soldier with a predilection for mischief, noted that it “was only because of the lassitude and indifference of the officers and NCOS (most of whom, after all, had been overseas for over three years themselves) that we were able to stay out of serious trouble.”

Hoffmeister quickly rid the battalion of many old-guard officers and NCOS by arranging transfers back to Canada or to other, less demanding duties in Britain. As “a result of the new, firm hands which now controlled the Seaforths,” the regimental historian later wrote, “a steady improvement in the morale of the unit was noticeable. Hoffmeister demanded a lot from all ranks, and not only did they respond to the challenge but their confidence in Hoffmeister grew weekly.”

The most pervasive problem was boredom, particularly among the men of 1st Canadian Infantry Division, rather than abnormal rates of ill discipline or decline in soldierly skills. Most 1st Division men had been in Britain for more than three years. Syd Frost, arriving from Canada in April 1943 as a freshly minted lieutenant and assigned to command a platoon in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), noted that “the officers and men had been soldiering in England since 1940 and were a highly skilled team. All the young NCOS and men had been brought up during the Depression; many had been unemployed. When the call went out for recruits in September 1939, they were the first to join. They could take care of themselves in any situation and were tremendous fighters in action.

“The men in my platoon were a tough bunch. They knew all the tricks of the professional soldier and were not at all impressed with my two pips and neatly pressed service dress. Luckily, my platoon sergeant understood my problem and came to my rescue with helpful hints on how to deal with this bunch of desperados. He told me, quite frankly, that the men were over-trained and would not brook any nonsense from a young officer out of the Officer Training School; they would take their time to assess me and, until they were satisfied I knew what I was doing, I would have a pretty rough time.”

At first the Canadians had felt a sense of purpose as defenders of the British Isles against possible German invasion. By 1942—with the Germans heavily engaged in Russia—that danger had passed. “Soldiering in Britain had become humdrum,” observed Captain Strome Galloway of another 1st Division Permanent Force battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment. “With the Battle of Britain long over and the prospect of action against the enemy none too promising for some time at least, most of the adventure of soldiering had faded before our eyes. Our Army Commander, General Andy McNaughton, said that the Canadian Army was a ‘dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin.’ Most of us thought he was living in a dream world. Possibly we would never fight at all. The Russians would beat the Germans and Canada’s overseas army would return home unblooded.” Offered the chance in early 1943 to gain battle experience as one of 348 Canadian officers and NCOS posted to British units in Tunisia, Galloway jumped at it.

Given command of a company in 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles, Galloway saw some tough fighting that culminated in the capture of Bizerte and Tunis and the surrender of 240,000 enemy troops—about 125,000 from Germany’s Afrika Korps. During the three-month posting, four officers and four NCOS were killed, another sixteen wounded, and one lost as a prisoner. But Galloway believed the survivors gained “a splendid introduction to the realities of our wartime career” that “gave us the edge over our stay-in-England comrades.”

Back in England, the training increasingly concentrated on combined operations involving amphibious landings against contested shores—a clear indication, everyone hoped, that the Canadians were being readied for an offensive operation. “We’ll never be readier,” Lieutenant Farley Mowat of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment wrote in his journal. “God knows . . .” The disappointment was palpable throughout the regiment’s ranks when one training scheme ended in early January 1943 only to be followed by more interminable waiting. “Wet, cold and dreary, our spirits sank from day to day as we wallowed in the mindless ritual of barrack life. The real war was becoming increasingly chimerical . . . something to read about or hear described on the BBC.”

Various Canadian newspaper correspondents observing from the sidelines were quick to lament the fact that—with the exception of one bloody day at Dieppe—the nation’s army had yet to see action. Lionel Shapiro reported in the Montreal Gazette that the troops considered themselves no more than “a sort of adjunct to the British Home Guard” and were regarded by Britons as “the country constabulary in the English countryside.”

At home, newspaper editors, old soldiers, and politicians ever more loudly demanded the troops be deployed. Speaking to the Canadian Corps Association in Vancouver, Great War veteran Colonel J.A. Clark thundered: “It strikes me as one of the supreme tragedies of this war that the United States, following one year in the struggle, has already placed men in battle engagements in Africa while Canadian soldiers are sitting idle in England. This constitutes the greatest disgrace of the present war.”

Government conspiracy was behind it, suggested the Ottawa Citizen. “All other Empire troops have had battle experience in this war . . . The British have been everywhere. Only Canadians, among the Allied combatants have not been tried . . .

“This, we confess, seems strange. To a great many it is disturbing.”

In the House of Commons, opposition member R.B. Hanson complained that it was regrettable Canada’s soldiers overseas should “have it thrown in their faces that while Australia and New Zealand are fighting gallantly on the sands of Africa personnel of the Canadian Army are not there.”

From Toronto, R.B. Bennett, the former Conservative prime minister whom Mackenzie King’s Liberals had swept from power in 1935, chided that he saw no reason the Canadian Army should see another Christmas without having fired a shot.

Such criticisms prompted Assistant Under-Secretary for External Affairs Hume Wrong to warn King that Canada was likely to “become the object of taunts similar to that which Henri Quatre addressed to a tardy supporter who arrived too late for the battle: ‘Go hang yourself, brave Crillon, for we fought at Arques and you were not there!’ ”

Assailed from without and equally from within his cabinet, King abandoned McNaughton on March 17, 1943, in a personal telegram to Churchill asking that he intervene to ensure that the Imperial General Staff consider “employment of Canadian troops in North Africa.” The following day, Lieutenant General Stuart signalled McNaughton that, unless the cross-channel invasion occurred in summer 1943, “we should urge re-examination for one and perhaps two divisions going as early as possible to an active theatre.”

McNaughton doggedly resisted. “I do not recommend that we should press for employment merely to satisfy a desire for activity or for representation in particular theatres however much I myself and all here may desire this from our narrow point of view.”

Responding to King, Churchill advised that plans were under way to move a division from Britain to North Africa. But it would be British, for the selected division was well into training for a mission where plans were too far advanced for a substitution by Canadians. King pressed his case with British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, who asked Churchill to reconsider. What words passed between the two men went unrecorded, but in the late afternoon of April 23, General Brooke advised McNaughton that Churchill had instructed that any forthcoming operation should include Canadian troops. Brooke told McNaughton to determine whether his government would accept such an invitation. Without waiting for a response from Ottawa, Brooke informed Allied commanders in the Mediterranean theatre that Canadian troops would join the invasion of Sicily. “Both political and military grounds make it essential that Canadian forces should be brought into action this year. It had been hoped to employ them in operations across the channel from U.K. but likelihood of such operations has now become extremely remote owing to recent addition to Husky of practically all remaining craft.

“It has therefore been decided that 1 Canadian Division and a tank brigade similarly organized to 3 [British] Division and its tank brigade will replace latter in the Eastern Task Force for the Husky operation subject to confirmation from the Canadian Government which we hope will be immediately forthcoming.

“I very much regret this last minute change. We have been very carefully into its implications and consider it quite practicable. The Canadian Division is in a more advanced state of combined training than 3 Division and the Canadian planning staff have already started work with full assistance of 3 Division so no time is being lost.”

On April 25, McNaughton advised Brooke that the Canadian government had accepted the invitation. But there was one proviso: McNaughton must be allowed to study the operation’s general plan. If the plan looked likely to produce another Dieppe, the Canadians would bow out. McNaughton quickly got down to studying Operation Husky, as the invasion of Sicily was code-named. In the early morning of April 26, he cabled Lieutenant General Stuart in Ottawa. “I have satisfied myself that these plans represent a practical operation of war,” he said. “I therefore recommend your approval of Canadian participation.”

Approval was granted the following day. The long wait was over. In less than three months, about 26,000 Canadian soldiers would join in the largest amphibious invasion in history.