SICILY - 9/10 JULY 1943
Operation Husky - the Invasion of Sicily was the start of the Allies assault on German occupied Europe. Churchill described Sicily and Italy as the soft underbelly of Europe but there were many hard fought battles before the job was done.
With the successful North Africa Torch landings behind them and the gradual clearance of Axis forces from Tunisia underway the resources were becoming available to undertake a series of amphibious landings in the Mediterranean. The ambitious "Round Up" (Normandy) was still not feasible so the objective of the next phase in the conduct of the war was to tie down Axis forces thus relieving pressure on the Eastern (Russian) front, and to force Italy out of the war. This was agreed at the Casablanca conference of January 1943 although for a while the Americans were inclined towards increasing pressure in the Pacific and later attacking Germany directly. In the end it was agreed to plan for a large scale assault via the periphery of Europe, or as Churchill preferred to call it "the soft underbelly of Europe" - initially Sicily.
General Guzzoni had 12 divisions - two German and 10 Italian to defend the island; five of the latter were infantry and five immobile coastal defence divisions. The garrison was 350,000 strong but included only 35,000 Germans and even they were not fully mobilised. Beach defences, including pillboxes and barbed wire, were less formidable than those encountered in Normandy the following year and modern tanks were relatively few in number. However the rugged rolling country favoured the defenders.
The Allied Commander was General Eisenhower supported by Admiral Cunningham the Sea Forces Commander. General Alexander was Land Forces Commander and Air Marshal Tedder was Air Forces Commander.
The original Allied plan was to launch two widely separate landings in the north-west and south east of the island. General Montgomery objected on the grounds that this approach violated the principle of a combined and closely coordinated force. The plan was changed with the British 8th Army landing on the south east of the island and the US 7th Army landing on the south.
There were 2,760 ships and major landing craft converging on their rendezvous near Malta. They were from the River Clyde in Scotland, from Norfolk and Virginia in the USA and from ports from Beirut to Algiers in the Mediterranean. Seven and a half Divisions and all their equipment were at sea and eager for action.
The operation was the most meticulously planned to date and benefited from the experience gained at Dieppe (Jubilee), North Africa (Torch) and other raids and landings. However the Commanders in Chief, notably Cunningham and Tedder, failed to set up a joint HQ to co-ordinate all land, sea and air elements and to provide all the advantages of speedy and effective communications that such an arrangement would bestow. There might well have been a price to pay had any unexpected event arisen that required a swift response at this high level. In the event the operation went well despite senior officers being scattered around the Mediterranean from Malta to Bizerta. Eisenhower and Mountbatten were in Malta when they heard a BBC announcer tell the world that Allied forces had landed in Sicily. This was the first definite news they received of the landing!
The disposition of the forces was as follows;
There were potential conflicts of interest between the services in the timing of the operation. On the one hand the parachutists needed bright moonlight conditions but the thousands of ships lying off shore felt vulnerable to air attack in such conditions. However since the Allies now had air superiority the matter was resolved in favour of the parachutists.
An Allied deception plan convinced the Germans that Greece or Sardinia were the most likely targets for the invasion and the CIC of the Luftflotte 2 concentrated his resources to the defence of the latter. Pantelleria and Lampedusa had surrendered in mid June after sustained and heavy aerial bombing by the Allies and the bombing of Sicilian Airfields, in the 7 days prior to Husky, had been so successful that not a single Axis plane put out to harass convoys approaching Sicily.
In the afternoon of D-1 an unseasonable force 7 north-westerly gale blew up and the smaller craft were tossed about like corks. On D Day itself the Canadians and Americans landed in very rough conditions suffering the double discomfort of seasickness and a drenching through to the skin. The British conditions on the leeward side of the island were better as the landing craft moved inshore. However these unfavourable conditions had a beneficial side effect - the enemy relaxed their guard in the mistaken belief that a landing in such conditions was most unlikely and initial resistance was consequently less than expected.
The high winds caused problems in the air too. British and American troops were flown from Kairouan in Tunisia in some 400 transport aircraft and 137 gliders. The planes taking part in a British glider-borne landing and an American parachute drop were badly scattered. Poor flying and navigational conditions, combined with inadequately trained pilots, were the main contributory factors. Only a fraction of the elite troops reached their targets but sufficient to complete their tasks. Of the gliders in the British sector about a dozen were released early and lost in the sea. There were many casualties. Around D + 3 a number of Allied supply aircraft were shot down by friendly fire as they strayed over the area of activity. Whatever the reason for the aircraft being off course a failure in aircraft recognition was the primary cause of the losses.
There was also concern over the disappearance of 9 of the 13 officers and ratings sent ashore in advance of the operation to reconnoitre the beaches. The task of these Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPPs) was to provide vital information about conditions but not without risk to the element of surprise - if discovered by the enemy their presence would give advance warning of an impending operation. However Sicily was an obvious target and feints had been set up in the Balkans and in attaching Greek interpreters to battalions. This and other deceptions gave the Allies the surprise the needed. When the scale of the invasion of Sicily became clear to Hitler he immediately cancelled a planned offensive at Kursk on the Russian front, and ordered the transfer of troops to the defence of Sicily.
Below is a diary of events in support of the British Eighth Army by an unknown author kindly provided by Howard Wallace-Sims whose father served in Combined Operations in WW2.
Syracuse fell on July 10 and Augusta on the 13th to the advancing British 8th Army with the XII Corp advancing on Catania. On July 13 the leading troops were held up by an enemy rearguard at Lentini. To speed up the advance, landings were made to capture the bridges to the north of the town. No 3 Commando landed at Agnone and prevented the destruction of the Ponte del Malati while the 1st Parachute Brigade and 151 Brigade captured the Primasole Bridge over the Simeto giving the British forces a route to the plain of Catania. These gains were made at considerable cost because of resistance from the Hermann Goring Division. Firmly established on the slopes of Mount Etna the Germans held up the British advance. The plain with the Gerbini airfields was in dispute for almost three weeks.
The only serious opposition encountered by the Americans was at Gela when the 1st US Division and a tank battalion were, after an unimpeded landing, met with a counter attack by German troops and armour. By D + 2 the invaders were back on the beaches. At one stage German tanks broke through the bridgehead but were engaged by the cruiser Savannah and the destroyer Shubrick. Order was restored as the 30 six inch guns bore down on the Germans from point blank range. This temporary German success was attributed in part to delays caused by the swell but also to General Patton's eagerness to push inland before the required supporting arms were in place. The troops soon came up against the formidable 15th Panzer Division in full array. Without the naval intervention there was a serious risk of the US forces being pushed back into the sea. Patton himself was obliged to move back on board Hewitt's HQ ship. Later Mountbatten, in all innocence, enquired by loud hailer from his destroyer to Hewitt "How far has General Patton got?" Hewitt replied "He has not! The General is back on board this ship." History does not record Patton's words when he and Mountbatten met shortly afterwards.
The Canadians near Pachino had at their disposal the newly introduced Landing Craft Gun (LCG). One lucky round blew up an ammunition dump but more generally the effectiveness of the weapon would have been improved had radio communications between the advancing troops and the LCGs been better. Six Landing Craft Tanks (Rocket) were in support of the Highland Division and they performed superbly under the command of Lieut-Commander Hugh Mulleneux. Each of the 2,500 rockets fired as the "Jocks" approached the beaches delivered a punch 25% greater than that delivered by a 6-inch shell. The Highland Division got ashore with only a handful of casualties.
On July 22 the Americans under General Patton entered Palermo but by the end of July their advance was slowing down as they approached Mount Etna. However German resistance at Adrano was overcome on Aug 6 by the British 78th Division and with the capture of Randazzo on the 13th by US forces the German position was no longer viable. (Maps Courtesy of Bison Books Ltd).
The beach organisation was better than 'Torch' but there were still problems caused mainly by human frailties. One example was the misuse of the miraculous DUKW - a 2.5 ton American amphibious lorry. Many were driven ashore with troops on board and then continued inland to deliver their cargo close to the front line. The congestion in the narrow Sicilian streets and roads was a sight to behold at a time when the movement of supplies and weapons was a priority. One DUKW was loaded with 10 tons of ammunition when the limit was a quarter of this. To the considerable consternation of the driver his DUKW disappeared below the waves on reaching the bottom of the ramp!
Improved waterproofing of vehicles and recovery measures for stranded or broken down craft reduced losses to as little as 1.5% on the British beaches. On the more exposed western beaches losses were around 12%. It was found that the small harbour of Licata had a greater ship handling capacity than envisaged and this relieved pressure on supplies and communications as well as reducing dependence on Syracuse and Augusta.
Human frailty was a problem in the key area of the management and control of men and materials onto and off the beaches. This unenviable and arduous job was that of Beachmaster. There were abuses in the deployment of men and materials. One divisional commander re-deployed men engaged on shifting supplies. Within 12 hours they were on the front line. He later complained about the delay in supplies reaching the front lines! Pilfering was rife. Too many senior officers who should have known better regarded the Beach Groups as a "God-sent pool of everything." Later reports from different sources criticised this phase of the operation;
The American's had a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the landing of men and materials. This involved loading in the same ship all the men and materials for the first battalion ashore. No one ship could carry all the landing craft needed so others were drafted in from nearby ships. This arrangement required a high degree of training and complete immunity from enemy interference. Potentially as landing craft moved around in the dark going from one vessel to another some might get lost and others delayed. Henriques put his concerns to Patton who seriously considered adopting the British technique but decided that it was too near the operational date to make last-minute changes. In the event thorough rehearsals by the Americans and the lack of opposition from the enemy enabled the system to work.
The British men and equipment for each phase of the landings were distributed amongst a number of ships in such a manner that only their own landing craft were needed to transport the troops and equipment onboard to the beaches. Under these arrangements there was no need to use landing craft from other ships thus avoiding the inherent difficulties mentioned earlier. Truscott's landings using the British method were particularly successful. Principles for amphibious landings honed and developed over years of Combined Operations experience were put into practice. Henriques attributed his success to;
Henriques was also very impressed with US Navy crews. "Their coolness and discipline were quite outstanding and could never be forgotten by any of the soldiers taking part in the operation."
Other lessons were learned from the Americans. Whereas the British basic unit of the beach group was an infantry battalion the Americans had an Engineer Shore Unit with a high proportion of technically qualified men. Such skills were invaluable in quickly resolving unforeseen problems in the area of the beachhead. In addition the Americans had an efficient and effective method of loading store ships with groups of stores secured together for loading into DUKWs for dispatch to the shore.
Husky was a great triumph and Mountbatten could not disguise his delight at the important part Combined Operations had played in the operation. For his part Hewitt's report included 178 recommendations and ended with the warmest praise for the co-operation and comradeship between the Royal Navy and that of the USA. He recalled that it was only barely 14 months since he had visited Admiral King's office in Washington. They and their respective teams had shared much in the planning of the operation and the rewards were there for all to see.
"I accompanied Admiral Ramsay on board the Antwerp on D minus 1, and saw all the convoys as they passed on their way to their rendezvous south of Malta. I have been 27 years at sea and I have never seen a sight like it in my life. It was like the Spithead Review multiplied by twenty. There were just forests of masts in every direction, as far as the eye could see. It was the most imposing and inspiring site, and all troops and sailors had their tails so obviously vertical that when you went anywhere near them they broke into cheers."
Allied Forces: Air - varied; Sea - varied; Land - British 8th Army under Montgomery, US 7th Army under General Patton
Axis Forces: Air - Varied units of German and Italian Air forces. Sea - Varied units of German and Italian navies. Land - Two German Divisions (later reinforced by Eastern front troops) and Ten Italian Divisions.
Outcome (positive): Allied victory. With the capture of Sicily the Allies made ready for the invasion of Italy. 37,000 German and 130,000 Italian losses mostly prisoners. Gain of naval and air bases in the Mediterranean.
Outcome (negative): 31,158 killed, wounded or missing.
Italian Star Veterans 1943 - 1944 website and memorial appeal. Click here.
Sicily Landing Siracusa - Impavidus Cultural Association. As president of the Association I would like to invite your readers to visit our website to find out about our Association. Veterans of the landings, who would like to join us, are particularly welcome - there is a page on the website to register your interest. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub. 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub. by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1
Commando by Dunford-Slater. Pub. by Kimber 1953 - from the pen of one of the major players.
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub. 1961 by Collins.
Please let us know if you have any information or book recommendations to add to this page.
This account of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was compiled from information contained in the following books; Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub. by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1, Commando by Dunford-Slater. Pub. by Kimber 1953 - from the pen of one of the major players. The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub. 1961 by Collins.
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