Operation Husky and Canadian Signals

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OP HUSKY Battle Map.jpg
The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major campaign of the Second World War, in which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers (Italy and Nazi Germany). It began with a large amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign.[1] The operation was mounted by British, Canadian and American forces and lasted from 10 July until 17 August 1943. The Signals components of the Canadian force selected for Operation Husky were 1st Canadian Infantry Divisional Signals (1 Div Sigs) and 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade Signals (1 CATB Sigs).

The intent of this page is to address the aspects of the operation pertaining to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. For a detailed description of the overall Canadian actions during Operation Husky, a good source of information can be found at CanadianSoldiers.com.


In early May 1943 the two Signals units moved by road from their billets in Southern England to the staging area in Scotland. Owing to limited Middle East port facilities, it had been decided that some forces would come directly from the United Kingdom and the staging was in the area of Troon, Ayrshire, Scotland.[2] 1 Div Sigs HQ was established at Corraith House, Symington[3] while 1 CATB Sigs was established at Hoddom Castle[4].

The time in Scotland was spent undertaking intense preparations. On the equipment side there was work to do to gather much needed supplies and equipment including waterproof bags and wireless gear, as well as adopting new vehicles, vehicle kitting, painting and waterproofing. As the Canadian force was to be supplied over the Eighth Army's lines of communication, it was necessary for the sake of standardization to adopt, in the main, British types of equipment which were in use in the Mediterranean Theatre and which could be maintained or replaced from bases in the Middle East.[5] Perhaps the biggest shift was for 1 CATB as they were required to leave their Ram tanks in the South and had to quickly adopt Sherman tanks which 8th Army used. For 1 CATB Sigs that meant shifting wireless installations into the new tanks. Other vehicles arrived for the units to bring them up to strength and to prepare them for operations. Remote controls for certain wireless sets proved difficult to obtain and aerials for the wireless set No. 22 were in short supply.[2] Although there remained some shortages, through the efforts of Col. E. S. Cole, Chief Signal Officer Combined Operations at the War Office and Brig. Genet, Chief Signal Officer First Canadian Army, the units were able to turn in all sets and technical equipment for packing and loading on 1 June.

While the units were making their preparations, those planning the operation were busy as well. A myriad of details had to be worked out to ensure that the force, consisting of over 26,000 troops, arrived at the proper time despite traveling over 2,000 miles in ships of different speeds and from different ports. For the Canadians, the Navy assigned shipping to four main convoys; fast and slow "Assault Convoys" to support the initial attack with fast and slow "Follow-up" convoys dispatched to reach Sicily three days after the initial attack.[6]

In early June, long motor convoys began to arrive at ports along the west coast of Britain to be loaded aboard ships. Once a ship was finished loading, it sailed up the west coast into the Clyde and anchored in its respective assembly area. Assault troops of the 1st Canadian Division were loaded between 13 and 16 June. The troops were not to leave immediately and on 18 June Exercise Stymie, a landing rehearsal, was held. The weather interfered but overall the results for the Signals aspects were satisfactory. One last rehearsal for 1 Div Sigs took place five days later when the men went ashore in "Landing Craft, Personnel" (L.C.P.s) to carry out a setting-up drill.[7] Finally, on 28 June, 1 Div Sigs sailed aboard the HQ ship HMS Hilary in the "Fast Assault Convoy" while much of their equipment was in the "Slow Assault Convoy" which had left the United Kingdom in two groups on 19 and, with much of the Signals transport, on 24 June.

Secrecy was paramount to the operation and by all accounts, the location of the assault was a well guarded secret. The rank and file new that they were preparing for an assault and that it was somewhere for which tropical gear was needed but that was the extent of thir knowledge until after they sailed. Each ship had sealed bags that contained the necessary orders, signal plans etc for the assault as well as well wishes from Commanders at various Formations. These were opened on 1 July and all ranks cheered heartily at the news that they were entering the Mediterranean theatre of war and were to become part of the famous Eighth Army.[8]

The trip out was comparatively uneventful for the "Slow Assault Convoy" until, between Oran and Algiers, disaster struck on the night of 4-5 July. Axis submarines torpedoed two of its merchantmen, the St. Essylt and the City of Venice. The St. Essylt was abandoned in flames while an attempt to tow the sinking City of Venice to Algiers failed.[9] There was little loss of life from these sinkings but the loss of equipment was more serious. On the afternoon of 5 July the convoy was struck again and a third ship, the MV Devis, was sunk. Its main cargo included mechanical transport, heavy weapons and stores for the follow-up wave. Thus, the Devis carried 22 of the Division Headquarters' 26 motor transport vehicles, half of the division's 17-pounder antitank guns, some field artillery pieces and important signal equipment. On board, along with the Convoy's Commodore, were 35 British and 261 Canadian officers and men.[10] In all three ships sunk there were personnel and vehicles from the Signals units and the personnel losses to Signals included ten men[11]. Aboard the ship carrying The Three Rivers Regiment (12th Canadian Armoured Regiment), Signals were manning the anti-aircraft guns when it went down. Divisional Headquarters lost most of its vehicles and Signals equipment while "L" Section, supporting 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, lost its entire AFG-1098 equipment.[7]

The Landing at Pachino

Operation Husky landing map.jpg
Historians have described the initial assault of 10 July on Sicily as a "walkover", and for Signals at least there could be no more apt phrase. With a goodly number of vehicles lost, their introduction to the island was literally a walk-over. After re-shuffling the remaining sets so that vital links would not suffer, the operators had no choice but to man-handle them up the beaches. None had "baby carriages" to assist them. The majority managed to keep their sets dry while wading in from L.C.Ts. For several days sets which normally moved by transport were carried by perspiring operators. The most serious difficulties occurred at divisional headquarters, where it was 12 July before Signals actually operated a communication system. Until then, the G.O.C., Maj.-Gen. G.G. Simmonds, and his skeleton staff were obliged to rely almost exclusively upon despatch riders. On the morning of the 13th, the Divisional Signals convoy, with other arms, was moving up to establish a formal headquarters. Every lorry was overloaded, equipment and men bulging from the sides. The morning was hot, and clouds of dry sand were billowing into the air in the wake of the vehicles when a dozen German planes spotted the cavalcade and swiftly swooped to strafe their hapless victims. With screeching brakes the vehicles came to a stop, but not before most of the men had jumped for the ditch. One Signals lorry selected as a target was instantly riddled with machine-gun fire. That disaster cost the unit five men killed, seven wounded. At this stage, Signals had sustained more casualties than any other Canadian unit in Sicily.

1 Canadian Divisional Signal Instruction for Op HUSKY
So fluid was the battle and so rapid the advance against light opposition, that the brigades were soon out of wireless range. Line at this stage was impractical, and there were now no spare wireless sets to serve as relays. Fortunately, nothing untoward occurred for want of Divisional communications. By 14 July "A" Section had received some wireless replacements from 30th British Corps and managed to contact the 1st and 3rd Brigades in the area of Giarratana, 30 air-miles away. Communications by wireless telegraphy were opened to the 2nd Brigade at Ragusa shortly afterwards. In the first week of the campaign "C" Section laid lines only between Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters, and then only on rare occasions. "K" Section laid its first line, six miles of it, at Leonforte, and the brigade staff used it for exactly one hour before moving forward again. It was more than two weeks before 1st Divisional Signals' vehicle complement was made up, the replacements being North African veterans, many of whom were scarcely road-worthy. The Chief Signal Officer of the 30th Corps was able to make up most of the deficiency in wireless sets.

The Advance Inland

As the scene shifted northward into the mountainous territory between Leonforte and Agira, the struggle increased in severity. Each day some section reported men killed in action. At Nissoria, wireless operators of The Royal Canadian Regiment fell beside the C.O., Lt.-Col. R. M. Crowe, while he was trying to re-establish communications with three companies under heavy enemy attack, and Brigade Headquarters lost contact with most of the regiment during the crucial early hours in the advance of Agira. A corporal and two signalmen of "K" Section and one signalmen of "G" Section were among the early victims of shellfire, mines or snipers' bullets, while a signalman of "J" Section attached to the R.C.R. was probably the first Signals prisoner-of-war of the campaign. The nature of the country had a profound effect on the conduct of operations, particularly for Signals. Hilly and dry, with little cover and few good roads, it was almost ideal for defence. This meant that there was never more than one brigade forward and attacks were usually on a one- or two-battalion front supported by the whole of divisional artillery plus some Corps artillery. It meant greater distances between the headquarters of brigades, division, rear division and the administrative area. It made communications of all kinds difficult - wireless, due to the hills and bone-dry soil; line and D.R. because of heavy tracks on the few roads and the impracticability of getting anywhere cross-country. The Sicilians, who on the whole were indifferent to the war, included however some individuals who wished the invaders no good and who caused much extra work for line detachments by cutting telephone wires, chiefly at night.

Certain staff procedures and preferences also had a pronounced effect an Signals' organization at 1st Canadian Division Headquarters during operations in Sicily. These included a predilection for moving the entire headquarters at once, contrary to the time-tested stepping-up procedure; an insistence on rapid headquarters reconnaissances and quick moves to new sites; a reliance (except for the C.R.A.) on wireless for communication, as long as the R.T. nets were working, and a standard organization into Main and Rear Headquarters and Administrative Area. To cope with rapid reconnaissances and moves of headquarters, men in 'Sigs Billets' did not move at the same time, but were called up later after a proper search for a suitable location near Main Headquarters. The wireless officer would spot each wireless set, and another officer each of the other Signals vehicles allowed at Headquarters. Then the R.S.M. would reconnoitre the Signals Maintenance area and direct its deployment on arrival.

The usual line layout included Main to Rear Division, C.R.A. to regiments (party line or omnibus) and Main Division to the forward brigade if time and resources permitted. Forward of brigades, line could be used very seldom, except within the artillery regiments, the country being too difficult and moves too frequent. Wireless continued to be the mainstay of battle communications. The Artillery regiments were fully occupied for the first time in Sicily with tasks at Leonforte. That the regiments were in close support is to be seen by the fact that several signalmen with them were wounded by mortar fire. There were few lines laid forward to batteries, and the Forward Observation Officers and artillery representatives with the infantry had to depend solely upon wireless and D.R.L.S.

One of the many occasions when the operators on the battalion links were able to influence the tide of battle occurred atop the formidable peak at Assoro. Companies of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment had just gained the summit after an exhausting night climb when they were confronted with accurate fire from guns at Leonforte. A lance corporal of "J" Section attached as rearlink operator had scaled the cliff carrying a No. 46 set. The set belonging to the Forward Observation Officer who accompanied the regiment had broken down, and he was without communication to call for artillery support. The lance corporal netted his set to the artillery frequency, and within minutes Canadian 25 pounders were directed upon the enemy gun area, with complete success. On that particular foray, the lance corporal operated his set for 72 hours without relief.

The Role of Wireless

Loading mules in Sicily
When the Leonforte-Assoro-Nissoria triangle had been cleared on 27 July, the Corps Commander indicated his pleasure at the dependability of wireless. Recent battles had, he said, proved his theory that an engagement could be fought using wireless on all operational links. It is true that wireless communications behind brigade headquarters were uniformly excellent, but forward from headquarters they were less than satisfactory. Too often in the heat of action, advance units found their wireless useless at some critical juncture because the mountainous terrain drastically reduced the range of their sets. At the end of the campaign the G.O.C. reported that in his opinion the No. l8 set "did not meet the range demanded to control an infantry brigade when dispersed over a wide front and/or in great depth". In addition to this limit imposed by topography, the battery chemicals tended to deteriorate in the extreme heat. The whole communications problem was of course accentuated by the equipment shortage caused by the losses suffered in the slow convoy. General Simonds therefore ordered that six No. 22 sets mounted on mules be supplied to the forward units of each brigade. The "baby-carriages" were discarded because narrow-tired wheels had sunk deep in the sands of the beaches, and the light frames had broken down on the rough, stony tracks of the interior. One interesting sidelight on the difficulties encountered was the provision of wireless for Major-General Simonds' tactical headquarters during the attack on Nissoria. The G.O.C. had selected as his command post the dominating peak at Assoro. To place an SCR-299 set and vehicle in that position was, of course, impossible, but by skillful driving the lorry was manoeuvred to the base of the highest peak and a remote control extended to the top.

This consistent use of wireless put a great strain upon section electricians and instrument mechanics. On the eve of the battle of Leonforte the Seaforths and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment reported their rear-link sets out of action, and instrument mechanics were sent out to repair them. "Operations" could supply no information as to the whereabouts of either regiment, since they were on the move, and there was nothing to do but search. Several times the wandering mechanics found themselves in Forward Defended Localities but finally reached their destination; and under cover of a tarpaulin put the sets in order. The maintenance and supply problem was repeated on a grand scale at divisional level. With the "Q" staff working 20 hours a day, and equipment based at great distances, keeping batteries charged and replacing defective sets was a strenuous business.

The humble mule had come to the fore as the best means of transporting a wireless set. At times an intractable animal, he was nevertheless sure of foot on the treacherous mountain trails of Sicily and Italy. This newest method of transportation often carried a No. 22 set on one side, two six-volt batteries on the other. Thus the operator could walk alongside with microphone and earphones plugged to his set. It was not uncommon for the patient animal to be further burdened with rifles and other articles of kit. "Skinners" sometimes accompanied the mules but it was inconvenient, if forgivable, to find them absent when the situation became "sticky". Many were the occasions, too, when mules made for trouble. One Signalman, recording his experiences with these self-willed animals, wrote:

When troops stopped for a break you dared not let the mules stop. They might decide not to go on again. If they saw a patch of delectable green grass they invariably forgot about the war. Once things became hot at BHQ and, perhaps because of the tracers flying around, my mule decided to retreat. This he did, unannounced, leaving me holding the microphone and earphones.

"F" Section had one such animal known as "Maud the Mule". The euphony of the name concealed a refractory spirit that was the bane of the section. When mortar bombs began to fall she would lie down, but not on her battery side - always it would be the set that was underneath. It then became necessary to grasp front and hind legs, roll her over, and proceed to send the message! Another operator saw three mules carrying his sets shot within 36 hours.

Other means of transport, acquired out of necessity by "scrounging" during those first weeks, included so many Sicilian buses, cars and trucks that the vehicle state of the 1st Divisional Signals bore little resemblance to text-book establishments. As replacements came up, the makeshifts were sent back to Army pools. Special mention must be made of the despatch riders, on whom a great proportion of the communications burden fell at this time. Distances were great, and the hazards of war were aggravated by dust and oppressive heat. Nevertheless they kept their machines on the road continually, with no spare parts.

The system of supply of major items of signal equipment ran entirely through Signals channels, an arrangement resulting from 30th Corps' previous experience. All major items (wireless sets and vehicles, charging sets, line instruments, secondary batteries and wavemeters) for the entire division were demanded from the C.S.O., whose park in turn demanded from the C.S.O. Eighth Army.

At Division, brigades, and even battalions, Signals soon came to learn that one of their primary and more exciting assignments was the provision of wireless for a "commander's rover". It was Major-General Simonds' custom to travel as far forward as possible in a jeep and then transfer to a tank to complete his inspection of forward areas. Signals were required to provide a despatch rider who accompanied bim on these swift moves over incredibly dusty and tortuous roads. "A" Section supplied an operator for the tank set, whose duty was to keep the G.O.C. in constant communication with his main headquarters and with formations and units on the command net. Each of the brigadiers had a rover, frequently a jeep with one or two wireless sets, and many are the instances when these mobile wireless saved critical situations.

Last Days of the Sicilian Campaign

On 7 August the Canadian 1st Division camped at the foot of Mount Etna and went into reserve. Those were days when a signalman pitched his tent among the grape vines. There would often be figs and oranges for variety. It was in this same week that letters and parcels, rerouted from England, finally arrived. One sergeant in "A" Section was dismayed to receive a parcel containing nothing but waxed oranges and dried figs-which would, of course, have been a luxury in England. A brisk trading market developed, the Sicilians at first offering 20 oranges for five cigarettes, a bargain in spite of certain stomach trouble. A bottle of sparkling wine was to be had for 25 lire, a price that demand soon forced upward. On the other side of the ledger were the desert sores, malaria, jaundice, flies and other insects - from all of which Signals suffered heavily - and another period of waiting.

Ten days after the 1st Division went into reserve, 17 August, marked the final victory in Sicily and the end of a short but trying campaign in which communications had played a vital part. Signals operations during the 38-day campaign had been carried out under a most frustrating shortage of spare parts. The rear party did not arrive until the Sicilian Campaign was nearly over, and then one of its 3-ton stores lorries, loaded with badly needed spares, disappeared from the dock area, never to be seen again. R.C. Signals sections and detachments with Armour, Artillery, Engineers and Infantry had served these arms commendably. They had done so chiefly with wireless, and commanders owed no small part of their success to the reliability of operators. On more than one occasion the Corps Commander and his Brigadier General Staff had personally complimented Lieutenant-Colonel Eaman on his operators--on their good procedure, ability and general helpfulness. Before the assembled 1st Brigade Headquarters staff Brig. H. D. Graham praised "J" Section, Signals. While loath to single out a specific unit, he said he felt that he owed Signals special mention for the excellence of wireless communication. Never for a moment during the month had he been out of communication because of faulty operation or maintenance of wireless sets-a fitting tribute to conclude a campaign.


Signalman J.H.M. Dehler was awarded the Military Medal for his devotion to duty and disregard for his own safety.[12] The recommendation stated:

On the evening of 22 Jul 43 the enemy heavily shelled our position at Linertina. Sigmn Dehler was on duty as operator of the 22 wireless set working to Bde. The wireless vehicle containing the set was in a small wood. Enemy shells began falling close to the vehicle, one about 30 feet in front and one about 15 feet in rear. Fires broke out. Then an ammunition truck about 20 yards from the wireless vehicle caught fire and A.Tank shells and other ammunition began to explode. While this was going on another enemy shell dropped about 6 or 7 feet in front of the wireless vehicle and other fires started nearby. Shelling in the immediate vicinity lasted about an hour. All personnel in the vicinity of the wireless vehicle took cover at the beginning of the shelling and, except when required to leave cover to perform duties, remained under cover while the shelling lasted. Sigmn Dehler might have taken cover or lain down beside his vehicle at least for short periods, however he remained at his set in a very exposed position throughout the shelling and maintained communication with Bde H.Q. He showed great devotion to duty and disregard for his own safety.


1st Canadian Divisional Signals suffered a total of 19 fatalities during Operation Husky and its lead up while 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade Signals suffered none.

Name Date of death Burial location Circumstances
Sigmn H.A. Ball Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn C.G. Brown Jul 12, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed by low-flying aircraft which attacked the Div HQ convoy.
Cpl R.W. Devlin Jul 19, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed when carrier struck a mine.
LSgt G.F. Glover Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn J.C. Hall Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Cpl G.J.B. Henry Jul 27, 1943 La Reunion War Cemetery Was severly burned on 5 July when MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn E. Jantzi Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn H.W. Jinssen Jul 12, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed by low-flying aircraft which attacked the Div HQ convoy.
Sgt T.S.S.H. Kroon Jul 12, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed by low-flying aircraft which attacked the Div HQ convoy.
Sigmn W. Moore Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn M.S. Quick Jul 12, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed by low-flying aircraft which attacked the Div HQ convoy.
Sigmn R.A. Quinn Jul 12, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery Killed by low-flying aircraft which attacked the Div HQ convoy.
Sigmn W.H. Semple Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn T.W. Simpson Jul 21, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery
Sigmn D. Smith Jul 5, 1943 La Reunion War Cemetery MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
LCpl B.G. Stiles Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn M.A. Taylor Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn F.C. Thompson Jul 5, 1943 Cassino Memorial MV Devis was torpedoed off the coast of Africa when the convoy was proceeding to Sicily.
Sigmn N.A. Walker Jul 18, 1943 Agira Canadian War Cemetery

References and Notes

  1. Wikipedia - Allied invasion of Sicily
  2. 2.0 2.1 History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals 1903-1961
  3. War Diary, 1st Canadian Divisional Signals
  4. War Diary, 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade Signals
  5. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume II, The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945. Lt.-Col. G.W.L. Nicholson. Page 37.
  6. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume II, The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945. Lt.-Col. G.W.L. Nicholson. Page 40.
  7. 7.0 7.1 History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals 1903-1961. Page 126.
  8. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume II, The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945. Lt.-Col. G.W.L. Nicholson. Page 44.
  9. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume II, The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945. Lt.-Col. G.W.L. Nicholson. Page 45.
  10. Valour at Sea, The Sinking of MV Devis, July 1943. Fowler, Robert (1998). Canadian Military History: Vol. 7: Issue 3, Article 9.
  11. Note: An eleventh, severely burned, succumbed to his injuries and died on 27 July.
  12. The London Gazette, Supplement 36232. 2 November, 1943. Page 4848.