The Battle of Assoro

Miracle at Monte Assoro-

July 20, 1943 brought 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade up against a major obstacle in Sicily—the 906-metre high summit of Monte Assoro. Monte Assoro dominated all routes that 1st Canadian Infantry Division needed to continue advancing by. The Germans had transformed it into a defensive bastion.

The village of Assoro clung to the side of the summit’s western flank. A winding road switch backed up to the village and on to the ruins of a Norman castle on the summit. Brigadier Howard Graham assigned Monte Assoro’s capture to Ontario’s Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Graham realized the road would be covered by countless machine-gun and sniper positions and was exposed to artillery and mortar fire. “To hope for success by moving up the torturous road was out of the question,” he said. “The regiment would be slaughtered.”

Graham and Lieutenant Colonel Bill Sutcliffe, commander of the Hasty Ps, decided the only chance was to carry out a right hook up the summit’s virtually sheer southeast face by following “what appeared to be goat tracks in some places.” Worse came to worse, the regiment would just have to scale it. The assault would have to take place under cover of darkness. The troops must gain and capture the summit before dawn or end up easy targets for the German defenders. The assault teams would carry minimal gear—weapons, ammunition, and precious water bottles.

No sooner was this decision taken than Sutcliffe was killed by German artillery. Regimental command passed to Major John Tweedsmuir—a British lord posted to the Hasty Ps.  Tweedsmuir hurriedly organized the attack and the troops moved off at 2130 hours. Leading the way was a special assault company of hand-picked men under Captain Alex Campbell. It consisted of about sixty men broken into three platoons of twenty each. Among the platoon leaders was Lieutenant Farley Mowat.

The assault company, leading the Hasty Ps set off single file into the darkness. Because of the difficult terrain it was not until 0400 hours that they reached the summit’s base. Campbell’s men led the way up the cliff face. Centuries before, the mountain had been sculpted into forty-seven steep, now badly overgrown terraces. The men moved up ledge to ledge, passing weapons and ammunition up to those leading, and then clawing their way up. It was gruelling work. Yet not a man slipped and fell. Not a rifle clattered against stone to betray them. Shortly before dawn, the Hasty Ps gained the summit and surprised three Germans guarding that section. Believing the cliff impossible to scale, the Germans had concentrated their forces overlooking the road. A wild melee ensued that the Hasty Ps won in a fierce day of fighting. Monte Assoro no longer impeded the Canadian advance. Only eight Hasty Ps died in an action Canadian Press correspondent Ross Munro declared “the most daring and spectacular…of all the actions in Sicily.”