The Canadians in the Italian campaign: The Battle of the Melfa River, Liri Valley



The Battle of the Melfa River & the heroic deeds of Maj John Mahony VC


After the fall of the Gustav line and the liberation of Monte Cassino the Canadians were ordered to advance through the Liri Valley and break the last german defensive line: the Adolf Hitler Line.


If you visit the Liri Valley where the breakthrough and breakout occurred, the challenges faced by the Canadians will be readily apparent. The town of Aquino located some 6 miles north of Cassino straddles a creek bed—the Forme d’Aquino—a kilometre south of Highway 6 and three kilometres from the seemingly vertical mass of Mount Cairo. The hole in the Hitler Line that 1st Canadian Div. punched through on 23rd May 1944 was a kilometre south of the town, and it was within visual as well as artillery range. In 1944, the narrow roads leading to the Melfa River—the initial objective for 5th Armd. Div.—were simply donkey tracks that passed through enclosed fields containing olive groves and vineyards, and located on frequent and deceptive terraces crossed by razor-backed ridges. Cross-country movement was further hampered by gullies and irrigation ditches.


The Battle of the Melfa Crossing of 24 May 1944, was a hard-fought action of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, during the exploitation of the 1 Canadian Infantry Division's rupture of the Hitler Line. In this legendary river-crossing, the reconnaissance troop of the Lord Strathcona's Horse and a small group of infantry from the Westminster Motorized Regiment scraped out a small bridgehead and sustained several armoured counterattacks which failed to eject the force.


On 24 May 1944 Major Mahony led his company across the Melfa River in Italy under heavy artillery fire. His task was to secure a firm bridgehead on the western side of the river, and was part of the operations by 1st Canadian Corps to break through the Adolf Hitler Line. Although threatened by vastly superior forces, Mahony’s company managed to hold the bridgehead for five hours under continuous fire until reinforcements arrived. In two German counterattacks, his men destroyed three enemy self-propelled guns and one tank – a significant feat considering they had no anti-tank guns. Though he suffered three wounds, throughout Mahony was a constant source of inspiration and determination as he tirelessly organized the defence, visited his men in their positions, and personally directed the fire of the light anti-tank weapons on hand. For his exemplary leadership and courage in this action, Major Mahony was awarded the Victoria Cross. 


John Mahony was born in British Columbia in 1911He became a reporter with the Vancouver Province but enlisted when the Second World War broke out. After the war, Mahony stayed in the Canadian army, serving in a number of leadership roles in London, at the Pentagon, and in Edmonton. He retired in 1962 and moved back to London, where he had continued a life of service. He became executive director for Junior Achievement in London. Ill health forced him to retire in 1974. Mahony died in London, Ontario on 15 December 1990.


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