Beyond the beaches, the invasion unfolded with heady initial promise. Tommies rushed three miles inland to seize Montecorvino airfield, the preeminent D-day objective. Astonished Luftwaffe pilots pelted across the runway to their cockpits only to be shot down by tanks and self-propelled guns that blew apart three dozen parked planes. Yet the field remained within easy range of German guns, a misfortune discovered by an unwitting American air force colonel, John G. Ayling, who landed in a B-25 with a cargo of radio equipment. The aircraft had hardly taxied to a stop when 88mm shells riddled the fuselage, killing Ayling and his pilot, burning the plane to the spars, and, as it transpired, ending Allied hopes of using Montecorvino for the next eleven days.
For every heartening advance, the British front suffered a disheartening setback. The 5th Battalion of the Royal Hampshire Regiment had pushed six hundred yards inland down a narrow lane hemmed in with high stone walls when a German counterattack caught two companies and the battalion headquarters like sheep in a slaughterhouse chute. Three assault guns fired point-blank as the Hampshires clawed at slick stones soon made slicker with blood. Grenadiers in half-tracks rumbled through the lane, crushing the living and the dead alike; a Hampshire radio operator was found with working headphones on his ears and his legs flattened to the thickness of a table leaf. Forty Hampshires died and more than three hundred others were wounded or led away to German cages.
Past Montecorvino, Tommies in khaki drill hurried east toward the town of Battipaglia, soon known as Batty P, a squat, melancholy Fascist showcase straddling the key intersection of Highways 18 and 19, five miles inland. The 9th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers capered forward by tractor, dray horse, barrow, and bicycle. Crossing dikes and tobacco fields, they entered Batty P shortly after midnight on Friday, September 10, exultant but isolated. German infiltrators in camouflage face paint soon crept through swales and irrigation ditches to flank the British salient. One wary Guardsman detected “a feeling of looseness, of porosity, where all should have been tightly sealed.”
As another hot, luminous Mediterranean day dawned on Friday, German counterattacks added panic to that loose feeling. Fusiliers scoured westward past the Lombardy poplars and oleander, warning of Tiger tanks “like bloody great battleships.” Some flung away their weapons, yelling, “Back to the beaches! We’re overrun!” By Friday afternoon, a Guards officer wrote, “the small roads were full of frightened soldiers, many retiring pell-mell regardless of officers.” Short, violent scraps flared across the beachhead, gunfights rather than battles. Outside Battipaglia at a three-acre complex encircled with an eight-foot spiked fence—labeled “Tabacchificio” on military maps, it was in fact a tomato canning plant—the 2nd Scots Guards made a valiant but bootless attempt to oust German squatters with grenade volleys and bursts of fire down darkened corridors. After reverses on the left flank, some Grenadiers clung to an overloaded truck, shouting in alarm. “They’re coming! They’re through!”
They were not coming, nor were they through. The line stiffened, shoving the Germans back to Batty P, and by early Saturday the British held roughly eight miles of beachfront that extended inland for two to four miles. British Commandos held a smaller, shallower adjacent plot at Salerno town, including the port. Every occupied inch was vulnerable to German guns—the “demented choirs of wailing shells,” as Wilfred Owen had written on a different battlefield—and those without shovels soon dug with their hands. As one artillery major observed, “We’ve got them just where they want us.”
Only on the extreme left of the Allied line could the invaders report unqualified success. Bill Darby’s Rangers had captured the resort villages of Maiori, Minori, and Amalfi without opposition, then climbed a serpentine road through groves of thick-skinned lemons the size of a child’s skull to seize the hogback crest of the Sorrento Peninsula. Five hours after crossing the black-sand beaches, Rangers held Chiunzi Pass, six miles inland and four thousand feet up.
“If ever there was an artilleryman’s dream,” Darby later said, “here it was.” The windswept defile offered a panoramic view of Naples, Vesuvius’s purple shoulders, and all German military traffic crawling south toward Salerno on Highway 18. “This is the place for fighting,” said Robert Capa upon reaching Chiunzi. “It reminds me of Spain.” Rangers nested like cliff swallows in the ridge face, then trimmed the chestnut branches for a better view and called for fire. “We have taken up a position in the enemy’s rear,” Darby radioed Clark on Ancon. “We’ll stay here until hell freezes over if necessary.”
Soon a battleship, two cruisers, and a plug-ugly, flat-bottomed British monitor crowded the Amalfi hollow, where Sirens once lured sailors onto rocks “white with the bones of many men.” With their guns cocked like howitzers to clear the mountain crest, the ships unlimbered in a concussive mêlée of smoke rings and shrieking shells that soared above the pass like “a freight train with the caboose wobbling from side to side,” one Ranger recalled. German infantry in long-billed caps furiously counterattacked Chiunzi, firing mortar barrages through holes chopped in farmhouse roofs below the pass and trying to flank the Ranger pinnacles by scaling higher pinnacles. The reporter Richard Tregaskis described “showers of white phosphorus rising like luminous fountains” from the saddles. Wounded Rangers sheltered in a stone roadside tavern at the top of the pass—now renamed Eighty-eight Junction—with mattresses wedged against the window; others filled a Catholic church in Maiori that had been converted to a hospital. OSS agents hired three hundred Italians—$1 a day for men, 75 cents for boys, plus two cans of C rations—to lug mortar shells and water up the switchback road, where poppies danced like candle flames. One officer forever remembered “that long line of men and boys in rags winding up Chiunzi Pass, each with his load.”
Others forever remembered deep-chested Darby, ubiquitious and apparently sleepless, still a lieutenant colonel but leading a force that soon swelled in size to that usually commanded by a major general. Always washed and shaved, his uniform somehow always creased, he radioed orders using the call sign Snow White from a command post in the ramshackle, eight-room San Francisco Hotel. To various Bashfuls, Grumpys, and Dopeys he dictated map coordinates: “I want to give this a hell of a pasting…. I want to blast the crap out of this hill.”
Until hell freezes over, Darby had vowed. Of all the commanders ashore in Fifth Army, only he could truthfully radio Clark, “We are sitting pretty.” For the rest, American and British, in VI Corps and in X Corps, Naples still lay far to the north, and no man doubted that the beachhead had become a magnet for every Gefreiter in southern Italy with a machine pistol. At a cost of a thousand Anglo-American casualties, Fifth Army in two days had won a footing ashore; yet the struggle at Salerno would not be for the beach but for the beachhead.
“Corpses lay on the sand. The living ran for cover,” wrote one soldier after slogging ashore near Salerno. “There was,” he added, “an uneasy feeling of a hitch somewhere.”
“In the land of theory…there is none of war’s friction,” the official British military history of Salerno observed.
The troops are, as in fact they were not, perfect Tactical Men, uncannily skillful, impervious to fear, bewilderment, boredom, hunger, thirst, or tiredness. Commanders know what in fact they did not know…. Lorries never collide, there is always a by-pass at the mined road-block, and the bridges are always wider than the flood. Shells fall always where they should fall.
Salerno did not lie in the land of theory. Frictions had accumulated since H-hour. Mistakes were made. Hitches occurred. Three miscalculations in particular would shape the battle, taking the Allied force from the benighted, braying optimism of invasion eve to the brink of obliteration five days later.
The first hitch involved command of the American force. With General Walker leading the 36th Division at Paestum, Clark intended to keep his VI Corps commander, Major General Dawley, out of the battle until September 11, the third day of AVALANCHE, when there would be enough troops ashore to warrant a corps headquarters. A decade older than Clark and also his senior in permanent rank, Mike Dawley was a stocky, cautious artilleryman from Wisconsin who had been described in his West Point yearbook as “a quiet lad that one seldom sees or hears of.” A decorated protégé of George Marshall in the Great War, he had a small mouth, a pushbroom mustache, and a worried look. The brow would only become more furrowed. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he had warned Clark during the Salerno planning, “and chew damn well.”
Clark’s plan to leave Dawley on the sidelines until D+2 lasted less than seven hours. With little information trickling out to Ancon from the beach, the army commander concluded that he needed another major general on the shingle to oversee the landings. Just after ten A.M. on September 9, Clark abruptly directed Dawley to “assume command of all American operations ashore.” That order, however, was not decoded aboard the U.S.S. Funston until after three P.M., by which time Dawley had left his ship to explore the beachhead. A staff officer sent to find the corps commander returned empty-handed. Clark’s message finally caught up with him at Paestum, and at nine P.M. Dawley departed to return to the Funston only to spend most of the night wandering the Mediterranean: German air attacks had scattered the anchorage, leaving no ship where it had been that afternoon. “Coxswain got lost, started for Naples, then Sardinia,” Dawley told his diary. He finally reboarded Funston at four in the morning.
With his dispersed staff in disarray, Dawley returned to Paestum at eleven A.M., September 10, appearing at Walker’s command post as an unwanted guest who now required radios, jeeps, and other support. Nominally in command of the battle since the previous morning, Dawley had actually commanded nothing. “Confusion and disorganization” beset VI Corps from the beginning, one staff colonel admitted. Dawley himself was exhausted and off balance. Another officer described him crouched in a ditch at Paestum watching howitzers battle panzers “pretty much as one would sit in the middle section of the stands at a tennis match and watch opponents bat the ball back and forth.”
The second hitch had been foreseen by George Patton, who at Eisenhower’s request reviewed the AVALANCHE plan on September 1. Patton noted that the Sele River had been chosen as the boundary between British forces in the north of the Salerno plain and Americans in the south. “Just as sure as God lives,” Patton said, jabbing his finger at the map, “the Germans will attack down that river.” As X Corps and VI Corps fought their separate fights on D-day, a seven-mile gap, bisected by the Sele, persisted between the two forces; neither could support the other. Clark recognized the rift, but not its vulnerability. “The gap,” he had told Hewitt on Thursday night, “is not too serious.”
On Friday morning, as Dawley struggled to take command, Clark also went ashore to inspect the beachhead. In the Paestum tobacco barn that served as the 36th Division command post, General Walker described the situation as being “well in hand.” The gap between his force and the British persisted, but German troops seemed to be pulling back. The American beachhead had expanded, unloading proceeded apace, and another six-thousand-man regiment—the 179th Infantry, from the 45th Division—had splashed ashore. At one P.M., back aboard Ancon, Clark radioed Alexander: “Have just returned from personal reconnaissance of VI Corps sector. Situation there is good.” To help unite his two corps, Clark ordered his last reserves, two battalions from the 157th Infantry, to make shore at the Sele. Yet the yawning gap remained, an ominous corridor to the sea between Batty P and the south bank of the river.
The third hitch derived from the failure to secure Montecorvino airfield. Consequences descended, like clattering dominoes. Instead of having more than twenty Allied fighter squadrons ashore in short order, Fifth Army was forced to depend on aircraft from distant Sicily and on little escort carriers like H.M.S. Battler and H.M.S. Stalker, which had intended to withdraw on September 10. Pilots grew fatigued and the number of accidents soared; more than forty carrier-based Seafires crashed, mostly during deck landings hampered by light winds, callow aviators, and flimsy undercarriages. (The accident rate later improved after mechanics sawed nine inches off each propeller blade, giving more clearance from the flight deck.) When a naval officer told Ancon’s crew over the public address system that “the operation in the bay of Salerno is going according to plan,” a British pilot rescued at sea after bailing out heaved his shoe at the loudspeaker and barked, “Bloody nonsense.”
Using flashlights for illumination and the stars as reference points, aviation engineers worked nights to build four emergency strips at Paestum and elsewhere on the littoral. But even such heroic “cow-pasture engineering”—filling ditches, felling trees, and chopping up rail fences for runway paving—produced only narrow, dusty, accident-plagued fields that were useless in wet weather. And although Allied air forces remained superior in quantity and quality, the Luftwaffe, which would fly 450 sorties against the beachhead on September 10 and 11, now displayed a pugnacity unseen in Sicily. Hewitt reduced his anxiety to four words in a message from Ancon on Saturday: “Air situation here critical.”