Operation Hardgate

This was the British offensive from the Dittaino river to Aderno in Sicily by Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army in the middle stages of 'Husky' (i) (23 July/7 August 1943).

This area, to the south-west of Monte Etna, was the key to Messina and the north-eastern tip of Sicily, and was strongly defended by Generalmajor Wilhelm Schmalz’s Gruppe ‘Schmalz’ of Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ (under the overall command of Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s Italian 6th Army though tactical command was exercised by General Hans-Valentin Hube, commander of the XIV Panzerkorps that was bolstering the Italian defence of the island).

The operation was designed as the Allies’ major effort to break the Hauptkampflinie (main battle line) into which all the Axis mobile field formations had moved or were moving by 23 July. This was a substantial battle to which the British committed the equivalent of 3.5 divisions in the primary thrust against Aderno (‘Hardgate’ proper) and the Americans four divisions, in depth on a two-divisional front, against the northern sector of the Axis defence line.

On 20 July General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, deputy Allied command-in-chief of the Allied Forces in North Africa and commander-in-chief of the Allied 15th Army Group, had given Highway 120 (linking Petralia and Randazzo via Nicosia, Troina and Cesaro) and Highway 113 (the road along the north coast of Sicily) to the US 7th Army and had ordered Lieutenant General George S. Patton, it commander, to make strong reconnaissances to the east, and to back these strongly if such an opportunity offered. This direction, suggested in part by Montgomery and strongly requested by Patton, transferred from the 8th Army to the 7th Army responsibility for the thrust toward Randazzo, one of the three which had been ordered by Alexander on 16 July. On 21 July Montgomery discarded a second of these thrusts, that straight to the north along Sicily’s east coast via Catania, in order to concentrate his strength on the third thrust, that to Aderno and thence Bronte. Montgomery believed that a thrust to the east in the direction of Messina by the 7th Army would greatly aid his 8th Army. On 23 July, therefore, Alexander directed Patton to more forceful action: he was to make his thrusts to the east as strong as he could maintain logistically and administratively, and to maintain constant pressure.

On 21 July Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commanding the North-West African Tactical Air Force, had defined the main tasks of his tactical air forces as disruption of Axis logistics by sea, road, and rail, direct air support to the land forces, and day and night fighter protection of the forward troops and Allied shipping off the east coast of Sicily. Air Marshal H. Broadhurst’s Desert Air Force was to continue to support the 8th Army and Major General Edwin J. House’s US XII Air Support Command the 7th Army, helping each other as required. Because of the dark night period ahead, Air Commodore L. F. Sinclair’s North African Tactical Bomber Force would be able to concentrate on day bombing. From Malta the Douglas Boston and Martin Baltimore warplanes of the British, South African and US air forces were most the most part on call by the Desert Air Force, and from North Africa the US North American B-25 Mitchell and British Boston warplanes to the US XII Air Support Command, but both forces were to be mutually supporting.

Montgomery plan for the drive on Aderno was to be based on Leese’s XXX Corps, which was to undertake eight separate but synchronised operations between the nights of 29/30 July and 1/2 August. The main phases of this series demanded that by the night of 1/2 August the corps secure the dominating tactical features on the approaches to Aderno; Major General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian 1st Division, on the left, take Regalbuto; Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division, in the centre, take Centuripe; and Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division, on the right, take Monte Serra di Spezia (Point 433). The corps artillery would then move to positions better suited to support of the assault on Aderno from the south-west and west by the 78th Division and Canadian 1st Division respectively.

On 23 July Patton instructed Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US II Corps to thrust to the east with the maximum force along Highways 120 and 113, and reinforced him for the purpose. These US movements resulted in a fierce battle for Troina and some hard fighting on the northern coastal road. Most of the air support for the Allied armies was pre-arranged with the object of halting all Axis movement in a large area behind the Hauptkampflinie and destroying the Axis supply dumps in the area.

The Axis command appreciated that the Hauptkampflinie could not be held indefinitely, and preliminary arrangements to were already being made for the evacuation of the Axis forces from Sicily in the not-too-distant future. However, at a conference on 27 July Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, emphasised to his senior subordinates that in the aftermath of the fall of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, two days earlier, the political situation in Italy was difficult to predict and that Sicily was to be defended, regardless of cost, until the evolving situation demanded otherwise. The island’s defence was the task of Guzzoni’s Italian 6th Army, and on 18 July the two battalions of Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision already on the island were supplemented by the rest of the same division’s 15th Panzergrenadierregiment and a battery of artillery. The rest of the division, less its tank and reconnaissance battalions that were left on the mainland under command of Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, was ordered to Sicily on 22 July. When Fries arrived on the island two days later, he thus had under command his 15th Panzergrenadierregiment and 71st Panzergrenadierregiment, the 29th Artillerieregiment (mot.), the 313rd Heeres-Flakartillerieabteilung, the 29th Pionierbataillon (mot.) and one company of the 29th Panzerjägerabteilung.

This was a useful reinforcement for Hube who, up to this time, had been trying to rationalise the miscellany of units, most of them independent Gruppen and Kampfgruppen such as the Gruppe ‘Schmalz’ of Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’, which had been involved in the campaign since 10 July. By 25 July the Axis line of defence had been reorganised more rationally in three sectors. On the right, in the north and under Fries’s control, was the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and the remnants of Generale di Divisione Francesco Scotti’s (from 26 July Generale di Divisione Ottorino Schreiber’s) 26th Divisione di fanteria da montagna ‘Assietta’ holding the line from the sea at San Stefano to a point to the south of Mistretta. In the centre was Generalmajor Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision and the 5th Reggimento fanteria of Generale di Giacomo Romano’s 28th Divisione di fanteria ‘Aosta’; this sector’s southern boundary included Nicosia. And on the left, from a point to the north of Leonforte to the east coast at Catania, was Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and part of Generale Giulio Cesare Gotti Porcinari’s 54th Divisione di fanteria ‘Napoli’. The Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ still had under command the 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment and 4th Fallschirmjägerregiment, and had received two more German units, the 923rd Festungsbataillon and the Festungsbataillon ‘Reggio’. The morale of the Italian troops was low despite the fact that the 26th Divisione di fanteria da montagna ‘Assietta’ and 28th Divisione di fanteria ‘Aosta’ had not yet been heavily engaged. The morale of the German troops was high, although Conrath had had occasion earlier to condemn some instances of confusion and panic in his division, principally in administrative units.

The Axis forces had prepared two secondary lines, each pivoted on Centuripe and extending to the sea north and south of Catania. The Axis forces thus intended to fight hard in their current positions and saw the Centuripe massif as an extremely important pivot in the defences of Aderno.

Most of the 8th Army was occupied in the period from 23 to 29 July in the process of regrouping and refitting. The task of Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s XIII Corps was to hold its bridgehead across the Gornalungo river and extend its left wing to take over the positions of the 51st Division in the Stimpato area. In the XXX Corps’s sector, the 51st Division was thus able to concentrate for the coming ‘Hardgate’, and in a night attack by 2/4th Hampshire Regiment on 25/26 July took Monte Judica, a hill on its left flank, from which patrols established contact with the Axis forces on Monte Scalpello in front of Catenanuova. The Canadian 1st Division, now with Brigadier R. E. Urquhart’s British 231st Brigade under command, launched operations against Agira on 23 and 24 July. The 78th Division which, since its hard fighting in Tunisia, had been training at Hammamet, landed on the beach at Cassibile between 25 and 28 July, began to move into its assembly area to the south of Scalpello on 26 July and completed its move on 30 July, which offered the formation only a very short time in which to learn anything about the area in which it was to fight. There were no special difficulties in the administrative process to ready the XXX Corps for ‘Hardgate’, and this included sending forward 142,000 rounds of ammunition (the estimated requirement for the period between 28 July and 2 August) for the corps’ 264 25-pdr and 88 medium pieces of artillery. About 400 mules and donkeys had been collected locally for the establishment of an improvised train of pack transport for the 78th Division.

The projected sequence of the XXX Corps operations to capture Aderno included the 1st Canadian Division’s capture of Regalbuto on 30/31 July; the 78th Division’s seizure of a bridgehead across the Dittaino river at Catenanueva on 29/30 July with the support of Brigadier M. H. S. Penhale’s Canadian 3rd Brigade, which was to be released back to the Canadian 1st Division as the 78th Division enlarged its bridgehead between 30 July and 1 August, and capture of Centuripe on 1/2 August; and the 51st Division’s establishment of a bridgehead across the Dittaino river between Catenanueva and Sferro on 31 July/1 August, and the enlargement of the bridgehead and the seizure of Monte Serra di Spezia on 1/2 August. Once the corps’ artillery had moved forward on 2/3 August to provide support, the Canadian 1st Division and British 78th Division would then take Aderno with their right flank secured by the 51st Division, which would also protect the artillery positions.

The approaches to Aderno to be followed by the Canadian 1st, 78th, and 51st Divisions were the most direct from the positions to which the campaign had brought them. The country in which the XXX Corps was about to fight lies between the Salso river in the north and the Dittaino river in the south. Both rivers flow almost west/east in this area on approximately parallel courses some 8 miles (13 km) apart. Between the river is a spur of the Erei mountains about 25 miles (40 km) in length, ending at its eastern end in the Centuripe massif. To the north-east of and beneath Centuripe is the confluence of two rivers which are torrents in the winter and boulder-littered, almost dry beds in the summer: this is where the Salso river, already joined by the Troina river flowing from the north, meets the Simeto river, running from north to south. About 2 miles (3,2 km) to the east of the Simeto river is Aderno, on the lowest terrace of Monte Etna but still at an elevation of 1,800 ft (550 m). Along the spur between the Salso and Dittaino rivers extends Highway 121, and along it are the hill towns of Leonforte, Assoro, Agira and Regalbuto.

From the Dittaino river valley only three narrow roads climb the spur to the north: one from Raddusa-Agira station to Agira; one to Regalbuto from Catenanueva, and one to Centuripe from Catenanuova. On the right of the Centuripe road are tangled hills, one of the whose summits os Monte Serra di Spezia. Any movement to the east along the spur or up it from the south involves crossing the grain of the country, formed by a series of rocky ridges astride the roads. Thus the terrain is a chaotic mass of ridges and hills covered in place with vineyards characterised by cactus or prickly pear hedges, olive and almost groves, and where they could be irrigated, orange and lemon orchards.

Elsewhere the terrain was covered with scrub and riven by razorback ridges and ravines, at the foot of which were boulder-littered streams now little more than almost totally dry wadis in the summer heat.

The complexity of the terrain prevented ambitious deployment of troops with little or no pack transport. The terrain was in theory well suited to infantry operations, but Allied tactics often revealed the tendency of men brought up in flat country to underestimate the size of features and therefore to employ one battalion where two or three battalions were actually needed. The terrain allowed the defenders to lurk on reverse slopes, among boulders, and in gullies and caves. Thus the Germans and Italians, with good fields of vision, were well situated to handle any attack most severely until overwhelmed by greater numbers or ordered to fall back.

One day after his Canadian 1st Division had taken Assoro on 22 July, Simonds directed Brigadier H. D. Graham’s Canadian 1st Brigade along Highway 121 to capture Agira with the aid of a simultaneous attack from the south by 231st Brigade. Since 17 July, this latter had been advancing to the north along the Raddusa road in an independent role. On the night of 18/19 July the brigade crossed the Dittaino river, in the process taking 200 Italian prisoners, and pressed forward toward Agira. But when this came into sight, it became clear that German troops, identified by prisoners as men of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, had just arrived on Points 462 and 532 on each side of the road 3 miles (4.8 km) below the town. Simonds ordered 231st Brigade to capture these heights and exploit to within 900 yards (825 m) of Agira, which was about the limit of the range of the Canadian divisional artillery supporting the whole attack. The brigade took all its objectives on 23 July, but the attack of the Canadian 1st Brigade was delayed, as a result of divisional regrouping, until the following day, when it was ordered to capture Agira by the fall of night. The 231st Brigade’s task now to penetrate round Agira and cut the Germans line of retirement by taking a height rather more than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of the town.

A short distance to the east of Nissoria, and thus to the west of Agira, a rugged ridge crosses and commands Highway 121. The Royal Canadian Regiment and a squadron of Sherman medium tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment attacked this at 16.30 on 24 July with the support of five field and two medium regiments of artillery. The infantry could not maintain the schedule set in the artillery’s fire plan and thereby lost its support, while 10 of the tanks, limited by the terrain to movement along roads, succumbed to German anti-tank guns. In the end a German Kampfgruppe, based on the 2/104th Panzergrenadierregiment, was able to maintain its position. At midnight on 24/25 July the 1/Hasting and Prince Edward Regiment and the Prince Edward Regiment renewed the attack without success in the face of heavy machine gun and mortar fire. On the evening of 25 July the Canadian 1st Brigade’s remaining battalion, the 1/48th Highlanders of Canada, attacked but fared no better. These reverses made fruitless the effort of a pair of companies of the 1/Hampshire Regiment which had taken Monte Campanelli to the east of Agira and had held until they were withdrawn during the evening of 25 July.

On the evening of 26 July, Brigadier C. Vokes’s Canadian 2nd Brigade entered the battle as Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry attacked under a barrage of some 80 guns, which each fired an average of 139 rounds per gun. Fighter-bombers also maintained the close support which they had been giving at intervals during the past three days. This attack succeeded, and on 27 July the 1/Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the 1Loyal Edmonton Regiment fought their way to the east, with strong artillery support and the aid of US A-20 attack bombers, which struck at Agira while British Curtiss Kittyhawk fighter-bombers strafed and bombed German positions to the west of that town. Meanwhile the 1/15th Panzergrenadierregiment had arrived to reinforce its sister battalion in Agira, but on 27 July the Edmonton Regiment scaled the precipitous Monte Fronte and had taken it by the morning of 28 July, when Monte Crappuzza fell to the 1/Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. The loss of these heights overlooking Agira made their position in the town untenable, so the Germans pulled back. Meanwhile on each of the nights the men of the 1/Hampshire Regiment had regained their height, only to be withdrawn as often, by orders from Simons, from a position too isolated to hold. The 1/Dorsetshire Regiment too advanced toward Agira, and both British battalions attacked successfully on 28 July but could not intercept the retreating Germans. The 231st Brigade had suffered more than 300 casualties in faithfully carrying out its task, and was deprived of its reward by the fortunes of the main attack. The Canadian Division had suffered 438 casualties in what was its biggest battle of the Sicilian campaign. Because the ground prevented wide deployment six Canadian battalions had been committed, in the early stages, one a one-by-one basis against a skilled and determined defence, and had therefore been unable to keep their attacks moving on narrow fronts saturated by cross-fire.

While awaiting the outcome at Agira, farther to the east the Canadian 3rd Brigade had been halted since 24 July in the area of Libertinia station in the Dittaino river valley, but during the evening of 26 July it was able to advanced once more, toward Catenanuova. The Royal 22e Regiment took Monte Santa Maria and Monte Scalpello, 800 and almost 2,000 ft (245 and almost 610 m) high respectively, which dominated the Dittaino river valley and the approaches to Catenanuova from the west and south. The Axis forces retook Monte Santa Maria on 27 July but then withdrew toward Catenanuova on the following day. On 29 July the Canadian 3rd Brigade passed to the 78th Division, under whose command it was to start the main ‘Hardgate’ offensive by taking Catenanuova. On the same day the rest of the Canadian 1st Division, led by the 231st Brigade, moved east along Highway 121 toward Regalbuto.

On 29/30 July, the Canadian 3rd Brigade took Catenanuova against little more than token resistance from the 923rd Festungsbataillon. On 30/31 July Brigadier E. E. E. Cass’s 11th Brigade of the 78th Division enlarged this position in action against units of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment without great difficulty and despite two interventions by Axis warplanes.

During the night of 31 July/1 August, to the right of the 78th Division, the 51st Division started to cross the Dittaino river and thereby protect the right flank of the 78th Division. Brigadier T. G. Rennie’s 154th Brigade and Brigadier G. H. A. MacMillan’s 152nd Brigade, on the left and right respectively, attacked the Iazzovecchio ridge, about 1 mile (1.6 km) beyond the river. The fighting which followed against the 1/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ was severe at times, and on 1 August the Kampfgruppe ‘von Kluge’, of which the battalion was a part, attempted an armoured counterattack. But the two Highland brigades and tanks of 50th Royal Tank Regiment were not unduly troubled, and in the course of the night of 1/2 August the Germans pulled back as a result of the pressure being exerted on their right. During the next few days the 51st Division continued its advance towards the lateral road linking Carcaci and Paterno in conformity with the events occurring on the XXX Corps’ left flank.

Soon after midnight on 31 July/1 August Brigadier B. Howlett’s 36th Brigade of the 78th Division began its advance from Catenanueva to attack Centuripe. This town stands on a ridge jutting out from the main massif which look like a rampart when seen from the south. Access to the town was provided by narrow hairpin road commanded over almost all of its length by higher ground. On each side there were many hillside terraces staggered backward in about 6 ft (1.8 m) steps, and where there were no terraces the ground was covered with coarse but slippery grass or loose stone.

The defenders of Centuripe were men of the 1/3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment reinforced by elements of the 2/3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment, one battery of field battery, and one anti-tank troop of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’. Evelegh had intended that his division attack on the night of 1/2 August, but the quick success at Catenanuova combined with the fact that his preparations were already complete persuaded him to advance this schedule by one day. The 36th Brigade was to gain the high ground to the west and south-west of the town and deliver the main assault from there. Brigadier N. Russell’s 38th Brigade stood ready to drive though Centuripe and down to the crossing of the Salso river above its confluence with the Simeto river. Support was to be provided by the divisional artillery deployed wherever positions could be found for it along the road from Catenanuova.

The movement of the 36th Brigade across very demanding terrain was accomplished without undue difficulty despite the limited interference of small German units located in delaying positions. But at dawn on 1 August 5/Buffs on the right and the 6/Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment on the left found themselves under fire from well-placed machine guns and mortars. The tactical situation demanded small but incremental advances, and on this occasion the 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at length passed through the 5/Buffs but was checked to the south of the town. There followed a night attack was staged: the 8/Argylls on the right was directed straight into the town; the 1/East Surrey Regiment, on loan from the 11th Brigade) in the centre was launched toward the cemetery some 500 yards (460 m) to the west of the town and separated from it by a deep ravine; and the 6/Royal West Kents was sent up the spurs from the south-west. The fighting was difficult, and by the morning light of 2 August the Germans had halted the 36th Brigade. The British gained the impression, however, that the Germans were on the verge of a withdrawal as a result of the pressure at Centuripe and also at Regalbuto, and additionally from the Americans at Gagliano and Cerami on Highway 120, and in the north, where Allied progress would turn the flank of the German defender of the Hauptkampflinie.

On 1 August the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ was ordered to start thinning its line at about midnight but not to withdraw, and the Kampfgruppe ‘Heilmann’ of Oberstleutnant Sebastian Ludwig Heilmann, commander of the 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment, who had become commander of what had hitherto been the Kampfgruppe ‘von Carnap’ after the death of Oberst von Carnap on 20 July, to begin thinning its positions 21.00 on 2 August from the area of Regalbuto and Centuripe.

Evelegh decided to commit the 38th Brigade against Centuripe during the afternoon with the artillery support of the 17th, 132nd and 138th Field Regiments Royal Artillery and the 57th and 142nd Field Regiments and the 70th Medium Regiments Royal Artillery from the XXX Corps’ artillery. At about 18.00 the 2/London Irish Rifles, with powerful artillery support, started the attack and in two hours took tactical significant heights to the west of Centuripe. Then the 6/Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the right struck the town itself, and the 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers at the cemetery. There was much close-quarter combat before the German had been driven from all their positions by the break of day on 3 August.

As the fighting continued in the 78th and 51st Divisions’ areas, the Canadian 1st Division was once more in action, at Regalbuto. In this area Monte Serione, to the north of Highway 121, and ‘Regalbuto Ridge’ running alongside it to the south and ending in the 2,000-ft (610-m) Monte Santa Lucia, commanded the western approaches to the town. This stood between three hill features, and just to its south was the 1,800ft (550-m) Monte Tiglio on the edge of a deep ravine, and less than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of this hill was the 2,100-ft 640-m) Monte San Giorgio. To complete the ring of heights enclosing Regalbuto was Point 622 (‘Tower Hill’) on the south-eastern edge of the town. There were a number of olive and almond groves in this broken and difficult ground.

The garrison was provided by the Panzerpionierbataillon ‘Hermann Göring’, a strengthened tank company, one battery of the Panzerartillerieregiment ‘Hermann Göring’, and one company of the 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment. The Germans were under orders to hold Regalbuto regardless of the cost.

On 29 July the 231st Brigade spearheaded the advance, and late in the afternoon the 1/Hampshires was halted by a heavy cross-fire from machine guns, mortars, and Nebelwerfer artillery rockets on the western end of ‘Regalbuto Ridge’, though the 1/Dorsets on the right made better progress. Urquhart made a personal reconnaissance and decided to use the 2/Devonshire Regiment for an attack on ‘Regalbuto Ridge’ during the night of 30/31 July. At 23.00 the 2/Devons attacked from the north-west, a direction perhaps unexpected by the Germans, with the support of 144 pieces of artillery, and at 02.35 on 31 July the battalion’s success was signalled by a flare of the agreed colour. The battalion had already suffered some 200 casualties in the Sicilian campaign up to this time, and was therefore below strength when the Germans launched their inevitable counterattack. The Germans regained the eastern end of the ridge, but were then driven back by the counterattack of the 1/Devons’ reserve company. Kittyhawk fighter-bombers also proved useful, as always, when they attacked the German artillery positions.

Meanwhile three companies of the 1/Dorsets attacked Monte Serione and took it in close-quarter fighting. When relieved by the 1/48th Highlanders of Canada of the Canadian 1st Brigade, the 1/Dorsets prepared for a further attempt on Regalbuto itself. Meanwhile the battalion’s reserve company had been launched on a battle patrol toward ‘Tower Hill’, moving by a detour to the south of ‘Regalbuto Ridge’. All was now ready for the Canadian 1st Brigade to attack into Regalbuto. On the night of 31 July/1 August the Royal Canadian Regiment made a flank move towards ‘Tower Hill’, following more or less the route of the 1/Dorsets, but was checked on the shale-littered slopes of the gorge below the town during 1 August. Strong fighting patrols of the 1/Dorsets managed to enter the town’s central square from the west, but here the patrols were held by German positions in side streets.

During the night of 1/2 August, the 1/Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment made another flank move to capture Monte Tiglio and thus be in a position to attack Regalbuto from the south-east. The Canadians found Monte Tiglio deserted by the Germans, and before they could attack Regalbuto, a patrol of the 1/48th Highlanders of Canada at 04.00 on 2 August discovered that the whole town was empty. Conrath had ordered a withdrawal to begin at midnight.

At Regalbuto the Panzerpionierbataillon ‘Hermann Göring’ had effectively been destroyed. Of the British and Canadian forces, the 2/Devons had suffered the worst losses, in the form of 27 men killed and 82 wounded on ‘Regalbuto Ridge’.

Meanwhile Canadian 2nd Brigade had despatched patrols to the north-east into the Salso river valley, and on 2 August the 1/Loyal Edmonton Regiment, aided by a pack mule force, plunged into the wilderness to the north of this river to operate as a flank-guard for the Canadian 1st Division as it advanced toward Aderno. The Canadian 1st Division’s artillery, and 165th Field Regiment, and the 7th and 64th Medium Regiments Royal Artillery of the XXX Corps had now completed the first main phase of their task, and in general on schedule.

During this period the reactions of the Axis commanders to their reverses late in July and early in August are difficult to assess, for there was no single set of designations for the defence lines they had sought to establish. San Stefano, Agira, Regalbuto and Catenanuova were major locations in the Hauptkampflinie main defence line. By 2 August the Allies had taken each of these places, and the Hauptkampflinie was a concept which was now virtually obsolete as, at its eastern end too, in the area of Catania, on 3 August Dempsey’s XIII Corps found that the Axis forces were on the verge of general withdrawal. San Fratello, Troina and Aderno were key points on the ‘Etna-Linie’ (‘Old Hube Line’), and the US forces had broken though this at Troina on 5/6 August, with other penetrations following two days later. Next to the east was the ‘New Hube Line’ between Monte Pelato, Cesaro, Bronte and notionally across Monte Etna to Riposto.

From 27 July Axis commanders clearly believed that the ‘Husky’ (i) campaign would end in an evacuation to the Italian mainland, but they edged toward this in a very deliberate fashion in a series of tactically timed fall-back undertakings toward the north-east of Sicily. Up to 6 August it was tactical considerations which dominated the Axis plan, and not the plan which controlled the tactical situation. On 30 July Guzzoni sent a discouraging report to the Comando Supremo, and this revealed that the combat capability of the Italians was now slight, and that of the Germans much reduced by losses of men and equipment, and also by exhaustion. The tactical situation meant that a succession of withdrawals must be undertaken, and that the retreat into a last defence line was not far distant. The Allied assault on the Axis forces from the air was constant, communications were chaotic, and administrative traffic from the mainland was irregular. The Italian troops were sure that negotiations for an armistice were already taking place, and the Germans were clearly preoccupied with the current political situation. Even so, Guzzoni advised the Comando Supremo that the Axis forces would continue their defence with vigour.

Guzzoni’s opinion was not accepted by Kesselring who, on 29 July told Adolf Hitler that three final defence lines had been readied and that an evacuation could be completed in three nights. The initial evacuation plan, ‘Lehrgang Ia’, was completed on 1 August.

On 3 August Alexander informed Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commanding the Allied naval and air forces in the Mediterranean theatre, that it seemed clear that the Axis forces were preparing an evacuation of their forces from Sicily to the Italian mainland, and that this might start before the Axis front collapsed, and indeed somewhat sooner than might otherwise have been expected. Alexander assumed that co-ordinated naval and air plans existed, and indicated that he would provide timely warning of the right moment for these plan to be implemented. In fact there was not completed plans against such an eventuality, and other Allied commanders seem to have been more cautious in their views than they had been in July, for on 5 August Eisenhower reported to the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff that ‘No certain indications that enemy already intends withdraw behind Etna, but ability to maintain anticipated line depends mainly on successful defence of Adrano. My present estimate is that a feeling of restrained optimism with regard to Sicily is justified and that the clean up may come sooner than the 30 days estimated by some of our commanders last week.’

On 4 August Montgomery ordered the XXX Corps to continue its offensive first to Aderno and then through Bronte to Randazzo, and the XIII Corps to press its coastal advance to the north, maintaining contact but without incurring heavy casualties. He also informed the headquarters of the XIII Corps that it would be required, in the near future, to prepare an amphibious assault on the south of Italy, and that the Canadian 1st Division of the XXX Corps was to be withdrawn into army reserve after the capture of Aderno, and Major General G. C. Bucknall’s British 5th Division of the XIII Corps after the capture of Belpasso, in preparation for the Italian mainland operation. On the same day Leese ordered the 78th Division to force the Salso river to the north of Centuripe on the night of 4/5 August and the Simeto river on the following night, and then to attack and take Aderno on the night of 6/7 August. The Canadian 1st Division was to secure the left flank by taking Monte Seggio on 5/6 August and then crossing the Simeto river. The 51st Division was to shield the right flank and attack Biancavilla on the night of 6/7 August. The objectives for the XIII Corps were the general line of the road linking Catania and Misterbianco road, and Catania itself.

These advances were achieved without undue difficulty, although there were some instances of sharp fighting. The 38th Brigade of the 78th Division took the British advance across the Salso river, and then the Simeto river on 5 August with the aid of heavy artillery support. On 5 August a Canadian mobile force had linked with the 38th Brigade, and on 6 August the Canadian 2nd Brigade took Monte Seggio. B-25 Mitchell medium bombers of the US Army Air Forces supported the Canadians and knocked out some of the German 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose guns which were slowing their advance. On 6 August the 51st Division occupied Biancavilla, after the Axis forces had abandoned it, and during the night of 6/7 August the 78th Division entered Aderno without opposition.

This marked the end of ‘Hardgate’ proper in something of an anti-climax. For this the Axis tactic of delay and withdrawal was in part responsible, but still more it was the result of the fact that the Allied forces had driven in each succeeding front, spoiling the Axis commanders’ intention to delay in each position until it suited them to depart.

The XIII Corps meanwhile had been dealing with Axis rearguards, minefields and demolitions, but occupied Catania and Misterbianco on 5 August, and entered Belpasso and Paterno on the next day. Catania’s streets were clogged with debris, but its harbour was almost undamaged, as were four large tanks for bulk petrol.

On 5 August Generalleutnant Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin, the German liaison officer at the Italian 6th Army, told Guzzoni that it was the opinion of Hube, the commander of the XIV Panzerkorps, that retreat to the line linking Zappulla and Riposto was unavoidable, and that the headquarters of the 6th Army should remove itself across the Strait of Messina to Calabria on the Italian mainland. Guzzoni refused even to consider this, and asked von Senger und Etterlin if Hube had decided to evacuate Sicily. von Senger und Etterlin replied that Hube had not, but failed to add that full preparations for this eventuality had been made. During the morning of the following day, Guzzoni was surprised and very unhappy to learn from his intelligence officer of the German plan for evacuation. Guzzoni then informed the Italian army general staff in Rome that there was no longer any doubt that the Germans intended to evacuate, and that they presumably wished to obtain a free hand by getting the Italian 6th Army headquarters out of the way. On 7 August Guzzoni informed his superiors that it seemed that the Germans no longer intended to fight to the last, and he had laid plans for a final defence of Sicily’s north-eastern tip, this could not last long without German support.