Sometime I meet Canadians following the footsteps of their Granfathers, or fathers here in Cassino region. They are usually surprised to know that the Canadians with the help of the Indians were the first to force the Gustav Line on the Rapido River. They usually ask me to have a guided tour of the Canadian battlefields of Montecassino, to know everything happened here, and to see the place in which the attack took place. But do you know that to prepare this successfull attack it was very important to organise a training for Canadians and Indians together? let's talk about it.
At the end of March 1944 the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade had been relieved with 8th Indian Division in the Adriatic sector and moved fist of all into a training area south-east of Venafro to work in cloose cooperation with the 13rd Corps and to attend an intensive course of infantry-cum-tank training in preparationto a coming operationh against the Gustav and Hitler Line. The original intention had been for the Canadians to support the 4th British Brigade in the coming operations, but because of the great friendship and admiration which had been built up between Canadians and Indians, the plan was changed and the Brigade was informed that it would be sopporting the Indians. However because of the 8th Indians Division could arrive in this area not before the 20th April, the Canadians continued their training with the 78 Division and the 4th British Division, that had to be employed in a similar operation in an other sector on the Cassino front. It is very interesting to read on the Canadian reports why it was so important for infantry and tans to train together. First af all infantry had to familiarize with the characteristics of the tanks and the tactics, but it was also very important to practise the various methods of intercommunications between tanks and infantry, and naturally the first thing to do was to creat a friendship between the men of the armoured regiments and those of the infantry units. During this traning periode a considerable amount of time was used to improve communications, and so each tank was fitted with an outside telephone held in a clip welded to the skirting plate. This was a great solution but its disadvantages for target identification were that the infantryman had to expose himself to much to reach the phone, and usually he could not see the target while attending to describe it to the telephone. an other advice to be adopted was the installing of a No 38 set in 2 tanks of each troop to permit intercommunication between tank troop and infantry platoon. An No 18 set was fitted on one tank of each squadron to permit to the infantry battalion commander to keep in touch with its squadron dcommander. They also planed to use other methods to let the men know the target theu must fire, but the most satisfactory were tracer bullets fired from the rifle and pointing with the rifle in the direction of the target. But the biggest problem they had was that the Indian Battalion had not English speakers at platoon level and wireless communication had to be mainly on a company and troops level. The training with the 8th Division began on 23rd April and continued untill all units of 17 and 18 Infantry Division had completed the course on 8 May. All the accounts of this periode writen by veterans spoke with entusiasm of this period of training. It means that one of the goals of this project had been reached.
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While the "C" and "B" Squadron where having slowly slowly success the 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Calgary Regiment) had done much to relieve the pressure on their infantry brigade. On 12 May 1944 a Canadian Captain called Hugh Antony Gualt Kingsmill developed a new experimental bailey bridge.He was a captain of the 1st Light Aid Detachment attached to 14th Canadian Armoured Division, working in conjunction with a Royal Engineer officer from 8th Indian Division. Captain Kingsmill had the great idea of building very quickly the Plymouth Bridge in a very unusual way. He constructed a bailey bridge well back from the river bank and carried it forward on two specially fitted sherman tanks, the first tank having the turret removed and being fitted with rollers to alow the free forward and backward movementn of the bridge. The secondn one was fitted with a bracket which supported the hind end od the bridge. The two tanks moved forward together, the front tank driving into the water while the second tank continuing to move forward, would slide the bridge forward untill it came to rewst on the far bank. The second tank would then disengage and the bridge would be ready to be used. Many experiment had already been done on the Volturno river, and they were all successful, but in this case the operation was very unluky. First the mist and smoke delayed the bringing of the briedging supplies, and then when the bridge and the two tanks were finaly ready, the first tank with the first part of the bridge bogged down in the soft ground. Working under continual heavy fire in totaly adverse conditions it took a while to put the bridge in the right position. By 9.50 a.m., covered by smoke and high esplosive fire the bridge was put in the right position the enemy were holding position only 250 yards from the bridging site and under such circumstances no other type of tank-bearing bridge could have been launched over a gap of 57 feet. Because of he contributed directly in the smashing of the Gustav Line, he was awarded with the Military Cross, the third most important award after the Victoria Cross for British or Commonweath officers.
Book our Second World War tour on the footsteps of the Canadians, and i will show you all the places described in the war reports, and i will tell you what Veterans told me, about their experience in Cassino and on the Gustav Line.
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Dr. Anna Maria Priora Ph.D
WW2 Monte Cassino Battlefield expert, researcher and tour guide