Operation Corkscrew, the assault on the small Italian island of Pantelleria in June 1943, was partly operational and partly experimental. It would be a useful toe-hold for the planned invasion of Sicily and Italy and it would serve to test the effectiveness of large scale bombing of strong entrenched enemy defensive positions prior to the landing of troops.
Pantelleria is a small rocky island, measuring 8.5 miles by 5.5 miles. It lies in the channel between Tunisia and Sicily about 140 miles NW of Malta. As early as the latter half of 1940 Keyes all but persuaded Churchill that the taking of Pantelleria by amphibious landing was feasible. It would restore to UK control the waters of the East/Central Mediterranean and would contribute to the supply of the vital base of Malta. This was a time when a journey to Port Said was judged unsafe by the direct Mediterranean route and the alternative round the Cape of Good Hope was four times the distance - a return trip of 25,000 miles as opposed to 6,300.
Whilst the Chiefs of Staff agreed with Keyes that it was likely that the island could be taken there was less optimism that it could easily be held. Bluntly put it could double the problems then being experienced in supplying Malta. This reticent attitude reflected the forthright views of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham in the Mediterranean.
Despite these strongly held views Churchill was tempted and allowed Keyes to take personal command of the operation. He was authorised to withdraw 2000 of his commandos from the operational control of GHQ. They were sent for training at Inveraray and Lamlash on the Island of Arran in the estuary of the River Clyde. The plan was to load the men on the "Glen" ships and attach them to a fast convoy which was shortly to run the gauntlet of the Axis forces in the Mediterranean. Their destination was to be Malta but while passing Pantelleria the Glen ships would peel of and seize the island. Once ashore the two armies would be so enmeshed that the Italian air-force would be unable to intervene. It would be an unequal contest. On the one hand an eager well trained volunteer force against an Italian garrison taken by surprise. (Map of the Port of Pantelleria issued to Lieutenant Ovenston in June 1943 and reproduced here courtesy of his son Colin Ovenston of Kansas, USA.)
The convoy was ready to sail on the 18th December 1940 due at the Straits of Gibraltar on the 28th. At the 11th hour the risk assessment changed dramatically against the operation when German dive-bombers were positioned in Sicily. The operation was first of all postponed and then jettisoned. Keyes was furious and his already acrimonious relations with the Chiefs of Staff, the First Lord, Admiral Cunningham and everyone he considered had given craven advice, came to the fore. Churchill was bombarded with memos but to no avail. In the event the convoy minus the Glen ships had a tough passage through the Mediterranean and the aircraft carrier Illustrious was damaged by 6 heavy bombs and 3 near misses. With the benefit of hindsight it was clear that the diversion to Pantelleria was unlikely to have taken place in these changed circumstances.
However the focus once more turned on Pantelleria in the spring of 1943. The taking of the island was partly operational and partly experimental. There was a need to gain a toe hold on Italian soil prior to the invasion of Sicily and later the Italian mainland and a need to better understand the effectiveness of intensive bombing prior to a sea-borne assault. By then intelligence sources indicated that the garrison on the island was 12,000 strong in well-entrenched pillboxes and 21 gun batteries of a variety of calibres. Professor Sir Solly Zuckerman prepared a scientific assessment of the impact of a bombing raid amounting to 238 pages. He espoused the view that a 30% reduction in enemy material resources would greatly weaken resistance.
In the June of 1943 14,203 bombs amounting to 4,119 tons were dropped on 16 batteries. Out of 80 guns bombed 43 were damaged 10 beyond repair. All control communications were destroyed together with many gun emplacements, ammunition stores, air-raid shelters and all the elements of a WW2 artillery system. About an hour before the landing craft reached the beaches the ships opened fire. When the first of the Commandos landed the white flag was already flying. Churchill was to record later in his memoirs that the only casualty was a man bitten by a mule!
Zuckerman's analysis on the impact of the bombing and his recommendations as to the conduct of the bombing proved to be amazingly accurate. It was not necessary to disable all or most of the guns. The human factor was likely to be the weakest link. In the event the Axis defences were 47% effective at the time their forces surrendered - enough to have inflicted great damage on the invading force.
One unfortunate consequence of the bombing of Pantelleria was the developing belief that the dropping of a large number of bombs on strong points in advance of troop movements would ".. make land movements a matter of flitting from one dazed body of enemy troops to another." The views of those who knew better were reflected in a memo Air Chief Marshall Tedder of the Royal Air Force wrote, "Pantelleria is becoming a perfect curse."
Nonetheless it was a very successful operation achieving much at minimal cost.
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.
Roles and Contributions of Air Power to the Italian Campaign. [Slow page to load.] Allied Airpower Comes of Age by Major Robert A. Renner USAF
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson. Published 1961 by Collins.
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