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The Liri Valley: Canada's World War II Breakthrough to Rome (Book Review)


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At the beginning of 1944 the two Allied armies in Italy found themselves locked in a stalemate by their German counterparts. The easy advances up the Italian Peninsula of the previous year at ended. Strong German defensive lines south of Rome were proving harder to breakthrough than thought.

To make matters worse Field Marshall Alexander the overall Allied commander knew that with the coming planned invasion of France his theatre would no longer receive priority on men and equipment. He would have to breach the German defences with what he had.

The Key to the German defences south of Rome were two lines, The Gustav Line and the Hitler Line, both cutting across the country. Each was a series of trenches, pillboxes, minefields and other obstacles taking maximum use of terrain features such as rivers and hills to maximize their defensive potential.

The first line, The Gustav Line was anchored by the almost impenetrable Abbey on Monte Cassino defended by elements of the elite 1st Parachute Division. Attempts by almost every nation in the allied forces, American, British, New Zealanders and Indians had all failed to take it.

Alexander then tried something different. If he couldn’t breakthrough the German defences then he would go around them. On January 22, 1944 he launched “Operation Shingle” where an Anglo American Corps made a surprise landing behind the German lines at a small seaside town of Anzio south of Rome. The Corps achieved complete surprise and landed almost totally unopposed. However rather than rapidly move inland and possibly seize the Italian capital they sat there and began to build up their supplies.

Field Marshall Kesselring the German commander in Italy was not as slow and cautious as his America counterpart at Anzio. He quickly moved armoured formations to Anzio and succeeded in containing the beachhead.

With Anzio for all intents and purposes a stalemate, Alexander was forced to reconsider a frontal assault on the Gustav and Hitler Lines. He determined the only way to breakthrough would be to concentrate both his armies, the American 5th Army and the British 8th Army in one sector and smash through with overwhelming force. The breakthrough known as Operation Diadem would occur in the wide river valley between Cassino and Rome, the Liri Valley.

The Liri Valley, Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome is the second of Mark Zuehlke’s trilogy covering the Canadian Army’s actions during the Italian campaign and begins shortly after the events in Ortona

As with his earlier work he combines the official histories and war diaries of the units involved with personal accounts of the combatants, Canadian and German as well as those of Italian civilians caught in the battle. The result is again a fast paced well-written account of one of the crucial battles of the campaign and the Second World War.

Zuehlke spends a fair bit of time covering the arrival of the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division (5CAD) to the theatre and the formation of the First Canadian Corps in Italy both crucial to he upcoming operation yet initially neither wanted by the Allied commanders in Italy.

After their initial reluctance to split Canadian Divisions up and allow them to operate under British command the Canadian military and political leadership made a complete change and decided that having Canadian troops fighting and gaining experience prior to the planned invasion of France was an asset. It would allow Canadian senior officers including the Generals who would lead the Canadian Army in Europe to gain some practical experience in their jobs. All the exercises in England could not compare to the real thing being waged in Italy in 1943.

There were four Canadian Divisions training in England, two Infantry and two Armoured as well as a separate Armoured Brigade and the necessary headquarters and support troops to from two Army Corps and an Army Headquarters. It was decided to transfer the Fifth Armoured Division to Italy to join the 1st Canadian Infantry Division (1CID) and as there would now be two Divisions there and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade (1CAB) a Corps HQ would also be transferred to the Med and all Canadian forces place under their command.

Unfortunately no one asked Lt. General Leese the new commander of the 8th Army if he needed or even wanted a new Corps HQ, he didn’t especially an untried and untested one. 8th Army already had three Corps in it. Leese would have welcomed another Division especially a Canadian one after the performance of 1CID at Ortona. He now considered the Canadians battle tested veterans d some of his best troops.

The terrain in Italy however was not suited for tanks and he had enough to support his infantry already. Canadian high command however was not willing to send one of the two remaining Infantry Divisions in England, one of which was slated to assault one of the Normandy beaches, as it would leave the Canadian Army “unbalanced.”

5CAD was to be sent to Italy as a replacement for the British Seventh Armoured Division (7AD) “The Desert Rats” veterans of the North African campaigns who would return home to take part in D-Day. Slated to command 5CAD was Major General Guy Simmonds. Simmonds had commanded 1CID in Sicily before falling ill and turning over command to Major General Chris Vokes. Now recovered he ready for a new command. It was thought that command of both an Infantry and Armoured Division would prepare Simmonds for command of one of the two Canadian corps.

The first problem Simmonds encountered with 5CAD’s arrival in Italy was equipment. The division was being sent out without any of its tanks, other vehicles, or equipment. It was presumed they would take over those of the 7AD who would I turn take over the new Canadian tanks and vehicles in England.

Simmonds knew full well that most of the British tanks had been in use for to 2-3 years and were worn out and unserviceable. In addition when other Eighth Army units realised the 7AD were leaving their tanks behind they began to scavenge any serviceable ones to replace their own losses. Simmonds refused to declare 5CAD ready for operations until new tanks and other essential vehicles arrived from North America.

The second problem Simmonds had was the officer slated to command 1st Canadian Corps, Lt. General Harry Crerar. Simmonds was well liked by the British and had easily adapted to the casual professionalism that was the standard in Eighth Army.

Crerar on the other hand had spent the war up until then training or on staff duties in Canada and England. As such he was a strict by the book commander and soon at odds with he seasoned professionals in Italy. In addition he had not held a battlefield command since WW1 and then only as a Colonel.

When Crerar first arrived in the theatre and before the arrival of his Corps HQ, Leese suggested he take temporary command of 1CID, allowing Vokes a much needed rest and giving him, Crerar, the opportunity to gain some experience in commanding a modern military formation. Crerar saw this as beneath him and refused outright. He quickly established his HQ without any troops, 1CID was still engaged in mop up operations near Ortona and 5CAD still enroute to Italy.

Crerar’s by the book attitude and arrogance soon irritated both his British counterparts and superiors and his Canadian subordinates especially Simmonds who made it quite clear that he would prefer to be under competent British Command.

Crerar responded by trying to have Simmonds relieved of command going as far as to have a senior Canadian medical officer flown in from England to have Simmonds declared mentally incompetent.

In the end it was all for naught. Back in England The Canadian Army Commander, General McNaughtan and resigned over how he thought the Canadian politicians were mishandling the Army. Crerar despite his inexperience was promoted to Army Commander and returned to England to take overall command.

Simmonds soon followed promoted to command 2nd Canadian Corps. Both 1st Canadian Corps and 5CAD would fight their first battle under new and untried commanders. Lt. General Tommy Burns a Division commander in England was promoted and flown to Italy to take command of the Corps and Burt Hoffmeister one of the Brigade Commanders in 1CID was promoted and took command of 5CAD.

Crerar’s initial hopes of having all the Canadian troops in Italy under one command were for naught. Leese refused to transfer the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade (1CAB) to the 1st Canadian Corps, and instead transferred a British Brigade to serve under Burns command.

The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade were considered by Leese to be one his best and most experienced units now and as such were the only Canadian units to take part in the first part of the operation forcing a crossing across the Rapido River and breaching the Gustav Line in support of an Indian and a British Division on May 11-12, 1944. At the Same time Polish troops finally succeeded in dislodging the German defenders from Monte Cassino. With the first phase of Diadem over, it was time for the second, the advance and breach of the Adolph Hitler Line.

This task fell to 1st Canadian Corps. On May 24, 1944 1CID launched a frontal attack on the heavily fortified line, defended by their old enemies form Ortona, the 29th Panzer Grenadiers and the 1st Parachute Division. Despite heavy opposition and even heavier casualties, some of the worse suffered by Canada in the entire Italian campaign the Canadians secured a breach in the line, as did the Poles and Free French attacking on their flanks.

Through this breach charged the new and inexperienced 5 CAD leading the Allied advance up the Liri Valley and quickly securing a bridgehead over the Mefla River one of the few obstacles before Rome. This bridgehead was seized and then held by a small force of recce and infantry under the command of Major John Mahoney whose determined defence of the bridgehead against repeated counter attacks until relieved would earn him the Victoria Cross.

The German defences began to quickly collapse and the Anglo American Corps at Anzio finally began its long delayed breakout from its bridgehead. The possibility to encircle most of the German 10th and 14th Armies now existed for the rapidly advancing allies.

However 5th Army Commander General Mark Clark an adamant Anglophobe had become obsessed with capturing Rome before the British, shifted his forces towards the city capturing it on June 5, 1944. The Germans were able to extract most of their forces from the Liri Valley and regroup them along a new defensive line north of Rome.

Clarke’s triumph was overshadowed by the Normandy landings in France the next day. The Battle for the Liri Valley Canada’s bloodiest month of combat in Italy was over.

As with Ortona, Zuehlke is forthright in his opinions of the combatants in The Liri Valley. For the average Soldier, both Canadian and German he has nothing but praise for their bravery and dogged determination as is evident in the numerous personal accounts.

Some of the higher commanders especially the German, British, Polish and some Canadians in the 1CID also come off well. Several of the 1CID Battalion Commanders and the Divisional Commander Chris Vokes seem to have learned the lessons of the Moro River and Ortona and applied them at the Liri. Vokes though as Zuehlke notes while a now a competent Divisional commander has advanced as far as he would go.

The commanders of the 5CAD in contrast are for the most part not treated well. Hoffmeister the former Battalion and Brigade Commander does not fare too badly in his first action as a Divisional commander. The most common criticism of him as Zuehlke is quick to point out is his lead from the front style, which often leaves him away form his headquarters at crucial times and unable to adapt to a swiftly changing battle.

His staff and subordinate Brigade and Battalion/Regimental Commanders, are often not up to the task in his absence, and the failure of the 5CAD to fully exploit the breach in the Hitler Line made by 1CID is laid at their feet. General Vokes’ younger brother, the commander of the British Colombia Dragoons one of 5 CADs tank units shortcomings both professional and personal are especially well documented.

Zuehlke also has some criticism for the US commander Mark Clarke and his blatant Anglophobia and quest for personal glory are cited as the reason for the lack of cooperation between the two armies and the failure of 5th Army to stop the retreating Germans escaping from the Liri Valley. Ironically Clarke’s quest for personal glory as the liberator/conqueror of Rome is overshadowed by the D-Day landing. In addition the first Allied troops to enter the city are Canadians part of the Canadian/American First Special Service Force.

Most of Zuehlke’s criticism though is directed at Lt. General Tommy Burns the Canadian Corps Commander. Zuehlke notes that Burns inexperience and indecisions were major factors in limiting the Canadian’s exploitation of the major victory they won in breaching the Hitler Line.

The Liri Valley like the others in the series is illustrated with several maps covering the Canadian advance and actions and a selection on black and white photographs including some of the personalities involved.

The Liri Valley is not the most definitive work on the battles for Cassino, Anzio and Rome, but it does cover in detail the not insubstantial contributions of the Canadian soldiers in this campaign and in concert with the other two volumes in this series OrtonaOrtona and Gothic Lineis a good addition to any serious collection.

Again, a good writeup Danjanou
Thanks much....