Sicily 1943 – Sicilian Feud II

Lt. Gen. George Patton with the signal corps, July 11th 1943, Sicily. (General George Patton Museum)

Lt. Gen. George Patton with the signal corps, July 11th 1943, Sicily. (General George Patton Museum)


Oliver Leese read out a paper from Montgomery that reiterated his arguments for a concentrated assault on the beaches south of Syracuse. However, Tedder and Cunningham were already furious with Montgomery, and they were not about to listen to one of his corps commanders or agree to his plan. They reiterated their argument that they refused to adopt a plan that left significant airfields in Axis hands within 30 miles of the landing beaches and massed so many ships in one location. The conversation came to a deadlock. Alexander simply refused to take sides, saying that he ‘accepted [the] Eighth Army Plan from a purely military point of view, but, of course, did not reject the RN and RAF views’. Not surprisingly, Patton considered that Alexander was a ‘fence walker’. Patton had supported Tedder and Cunningham during the meeting by pointing out that his landings were widely separated, but had also stated that he himself was prepared to take the risk. He considered this stalemated meeting as ‘one hell of a performance. War by committee.’ It was precisely the kind of event Marshall had sought to avoid by pressing the concept of the Supreme Commander on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Eisenhower had also feared the re-establishment of the British committee system, and those fears had now apparently been realised. A large group of senior British commanders were arguing amongst themselves without reference to their own commander, and consequently failing to agree upon a viable plan.

Yet since there was a complete impasse, Eisenhower became involved in the controversy whether he liked it or not. He had experienced similar situations over the Torch planning but it would appear that he did not entirely understand the relationship between Alexander and Montgomery. While Montgomery was theoretically Alexander’s subordinate, the reality was that Alexander would not gainsay the commander of the Eighth Army. By 1 May, with Montgomery now demanding an extra two divisions for his task force, Gairdner believed that:

General Ike is evidently going to be put on the spot. As far as I can see it, he will have to adopt one of three courses:

(a) Adopt Monty’s plan

(b) Adopt our plan and sack Monty

(c) Say the operation isn’t on.

As neither (b) or (c) are ‘on’, the result would appear to be fairly obvious!

Gairdner had correctly divined Montgomery’s method of winning an argument. Montgomery had quite deliberately created a crisis over Husky in ‘a technique whereby he would paint a picture of deadlock or failure, only to produce, deus ex machina, a practicable solution – if all was left up to him’. He may have sincerely believed that only his plan was practical and that the original plan would lead to disaster, and he clearly believed that neither Eisenhower, Alexander nor Gairdner had a clue about what he called the practical realities of battle, but the bombastic and egotistical tone he adopted in his telegrams and statements ensured that he alienated almost every one of the other commanders involved in Husky.

Montgomery finally arrived in Algiers on 2 May. After a brief meeting in the hotel bathroom, he convinced Bedell Smith to take his latest amendment to Eisenhower. In the new plan, Montgomery’s Eighth Army would land on the Pachino peninsula and at the beaches around Avola, while the US forces would land not around Palermo but instead on the beaches at Gela and Scoglitti, which had originally been earmarked for the Eastern Task Force. This would meet the objections of the air force but completely alter the role of the US forces, who would have to come ashore over the open beaches, for there was no port of any size on the south coast of the island. While each task force would land en masse, the British and American forces were still separate and would not be mutually supporting in the initial phases of the operation.

Eisenhower, who had originally favoured a concentrated assault on the south-eastern corner of the island, gave the new plan his approval. It had been Eisenhower’s apparent disinterest in the planning for Husky and lack of clear direction, combined with Alexander’s refusal to confront his subordinate, that had allowed Montgomery to undermine and then entirely dominate the planning for the operation. Bedell Smith apparently admitted to Patton that ‘the reason everyone yields to Monty is because Monty is the national hero and writes direct to the Prime Minister; and that if Ike crossed him, Ike might get canned’.

Winning the argument over Husky certainly seemed to strengthen Montgomery’s already unshakeable position. He had, in effect, been able to dictate terms to the Anglo-American alliance over how the campaign should be conducted. Beloved by the British public, and with the clear support of both the Prime Minister and CIGS, Montgomery was at the zenith of his strength and prestige. However, having indulged in such brinkmanship successfully, he would continue to use these methods in the future. Meanwhile, the suspicion of American officers that ‘the British Empire is being run by Monty’ now only intensified their dislike and distrust of him. Yet although attitudes to Montgomery have often been seen in terms of an Anglo-American divide, the Sicilian episode demonstrated that antagonism was not confined to American officers. Montgomery’s behaviour had made enemies of Cunningham and Tedder as well as their staffs. The much-vaunted rivalry between Patton and Montgomery was minor compared to the depths of hostility that developed within the Royal Air Force; at one point Tedder gossiped to Patton that Montgomery was ‘a little fellow of average ability who has had such a build-up that he thinks of himself as Napoleon – he is not’. These Anglo-American and interservice rivalries and resentments would fester with unfortunate repercussions in the years to come.

Montgomery’s triumph seemed complete when he pushed his argument one step further. Given that it was his headquarters that had developed the accepted plan, and given that all the forces would now come ashore at the south-eastern end of the island, he believed that he should command the entire operation and that the forces of the US II Corps should be subordinated to Eighth Army headquarters. Gairdner, who felt that his own position was untenable, discussed with Patton whether ‘8th Army should now de jure as well as de facto take over the whole operation. That is the logical answer but it may be that the Americans are not prepared to face up to such a complete elimination.’ Not surprisingly, Bedell Smith baulked at this latest gambit and made it clear that ‘no Americans are to be put under Monty’. Montgomery could see nothing other than military logic in his suggestion and seems to have been entirely ignorant of the damage caused by such an argument. As far as he was concerned, there was only one island to be attacked and it thus made perfect sense to have one headquarters in control of the whole operation. He may have understood the command of an army intimately, but he remained ignorant as to how to manage the more complicated relationships required of a multinational and interservice operation, and seems to have been blissfully unaware that his brinkmanship had entirely wrecked any real chance of smooth cooperation between the air, naval and ground forces involved.

Marshall would not tolerate such behaviour, but his response from Washington also revealed his acute political awareness. He signalled to Eisenhower that if Montgomery was to command a British Army in Sicily, then there was no reason why there should not also be an American Army commanded by Patton. It was decided that once Patton was ashore, the I US Armored Corps headquarters would transform into the Seventh US Army. This simple mechanism ensured that the American forces could not suffer complete ‘elimination’ at the hands of the British. Patton had begun to resent the seeming domination of British decision-making in the Mediterranean theatre. He now saw Eisenhower as a ‘straw man’ in thrall to the British and objected to the occupation of so many senior command positions by British officers. For Patton, and many other American officers, the coming operation in Sicily would be as much a fight for national prestige and a demonstration of what the US Army could achieve as it was a military campaign to defeat the Axis.

Nonetheless, Patton’s sense of destiny and the personal rivalry that developed between him and Montgomery should not be misunderstood. Patton could be very generous to British officers who had gained his respect. In June 1943, with the preparations for Husky reaching their climax, he met Charles Dunphie again in Marrakesh. Patton asked Dunphie sharply, ‘Why aren’t you wearing the Silver Star ribbon?’ Patton had recommended the award of the medal for Dunphie’s service in US II Corps, but the British officer had to reply that he had not heard anything about it. Patton duly took the ribbon off his own uniform for Dunphie to wear on his. That small piece of ribbon became one of Dunphie’s most treasured possessions.

With Eisenhower’s assent to Montgomery’s plan, the preparations for Husky could begin in earnest. Each of the task forces began training and exercising for amphibious landings, but this was complicated by the continuance of the Tunisian campaign, and the overall effect of muddled and amateurish rehearsals did not inspire much confidence that the amphibious assault would go smoothly. Part of the problem was that while the Eighth Army (with the exception of the 2nd Canadian Division) would go ashore with veteran divisions, the majority of US formations allocated to the operation were filled with fresh troops. Although the 1st Infantry Division had seen combat in Tunisia, neither the 3rd nor the 45th, which were tasked with making the assault landings, had been in action before. However, while the troops may have been inexperienced, their commanders most certainly were not. Troy Middleton, the commander of the 45th Division, had already gained a fine reputation as the best regimental commander in the AEF in 1918, while Lucian Truscott, now in command of the 3rd Division, was acknowledged as having ‘trained the 3rd Division . . . to the most effective degree of any US Division in the Mediterranean’. The rapid marching pace he insisted upon during both training and action soon became famous as the ‘Truscott trot’.

Nonetheless, many senior British officers continued to take a dim view of American military efficiency. Clarence Huebner had the unenviable task of acting as the US liaison officer at Alexander’s 18th Army Group Headquarters, and there is no doubt that he found it a difficult role. He complained to Penney over a particularly tactless exchange overheard between two British officers, one of whom remarked: ‘Hope you’ve seen that no American commander is in a position of responsibility.’ To which the other replied, ‘Of course I have, in accordance with your own particular orders.’ As Huebner pointed out, this was deeply unfair, and he resented British interference in American preparations. It seemed the US Army would have to prove itself all over again to its rather disdainful and dismissive ally. Not surprisingly, the preparations for Husky were a febrile time of frantic activity mixed with reserve and suspicion between the allies.

Although Operation Husky has faded from popular consciousness today, in 1943 it represented the greatest Anglo-American effort of the war so far. As the forces embarked on to the ships that would transport them across the Mediterranean, the scale of the invasion fleet was breathtaking: more than 2,500 warships, troopships, merchant ships and landing craft were assembled in five task forces. This armada also represented the second stage of development for one of the trump cards of the Anglo-American alliance that is often taken for granted: their ability to project air, land and maritime power across considerable distances. These convoys converged on Malta before sailing on to the landing beaches on the southern and eastern coast of Sicily.

While the high seas and bad weather on the morning of 10 July 1943 produced many awkward moments for the naval commanders, these conditions were disastrous for the airborne assaults that preceded the landings. The high winds over the parachute drop zones meant that the men of the US 82nd Airborne were scattered all over southern Sicily. Despite this, a much-denuded party of determined men were able to seize their objectives around the Ponte Dirillo and hold them against numerous Italian counter-attacks. The British glider assault, however, met with tragedy: more than 260 paratroopers drowned when their gliders ditched in the sea. The small numbers of troops that landed near their target, the Ponte Grande, fought a fierce battle against the Italian defenders of Syracuse. The amphibious landings themselves met with only light and patchy resistance. By the end of the first day, both the British and American forces were strongly established ashore. Charles Gairdner, who had returned to England under a cloud and dropped from his wartime rank of major general back to his substantive rank of colonel, heard about the successful invasion on the radio. He commented bitterly: ‘What a pathetic way for me to have to listen to this news!’

The initial Italian reaction to the landings had been weak, giving the lie to Montgomery’s dire predictions of immediate and fierce Axis resistance. The majority of the men in the Italian coastal divisions simply melted back into their nearby homes when confronted with one of the largest invasion forces in history. Alexander later commented in his dispatch that these divisions, ‘whose value had never been rated very high, disintegrated almost without firing a shot and the field divisions, when they were met, were also driven like chaff before the wind’. However, on 11 July, the mechanised battle groups of the Hermann Goring Division, one of only two German divisions on the island, moved forward with the intention of driving the invading forces back into the sea. It was the American units holding positions around Gela, not the Eighth Army, that took the full brunt of the German and Italian counter-attacks. The desperate fighting lasted all day, and at one point German tanks were just a thousand yards from the beach. Although one German commander had sent an enthusiastic signal claiming that his attack had forced the Americans to re-embark, there was no repeat of Kasserine on Sicily. A combination of staunch defensive tactics and heavy naval gun fire finally drove off the depleted German forces.

Meanwhile, the Eighth Army had consolidated its hold over the southern tip of the island and was pushing north towards the vital Catanian plain. However, in the expectation of immediate combat, it had landed its numerous infantry divisions without all their transport, which meant that the foot-bound infantry could only march slowly across the rugged terrain. The British were thus simply not able to move fast enough in the first few days to take full advantage of the Axis disarray and bounce the relatively weak German rearguards out of their blocking positions towards Catania. Montgomery launched a bold airborne operation to capture the Primasole Bridge, the last major obstacle before the plain, but this failed by the narrowest of margins. In a textbook operation, the lead elements of the German 1st Parachute Division landed on the very same drop zones the British 1st Parachute Brigade used one night later. A messy, confused and desperate fight developed, and even when troops from the main force arrived, they were unable to drive the German paratroops away. Eventually the British were able to take the bridge, but the delay had given the Germans time to prepare defences further back, which meant there would be no easy or swift march into Catania. Montgomery’s dogfight had finally developed, but it would not bring an early end to the campaign. With his main advance stymied, Montgomery looked to shift one of his corps further west to try and outflank the German defences. It was Montgomery’s change of plan and his attempted imposition of a secondary role on the US Seventh Army that caused the greatest controversy of the campaign.

On 13 July, a directive from Alexander arrived at Seventh Army Headquarters. This stated bluntly that after the development of the initial operations, ‘Eighth Army will . . . drive the enemy into the Messina peninsula advancing by three main axes’. These routes would take the Eighth Army north of Catania, across the centre of the island from Leonforte to Regalbuto and on to Adrana at the base of Mount Etna, and on the eastern side of the island from Nicosia to Troina and on to Randazzo in the north. The directive instructed: ‘Seventh Army will protect the rear of Eighth Army in two phases. (1) Establish a secure base with one division . . . (2) Thrust north to hold the road junctions at Pethalia and . . . south of Resuttano.’ The Seventh Army’s only projected offensive operation was to capture Agrigento and Porto Empedocle, but only if it could be achieved without ‘getting committed seriously’.

This directive made the roles of the two Allied armies on Sicily quite clear: the Eighth Army would drive north towards Messina while the Seventh Army protected the flank and rear of the British. What was not made clear to the Seventh Army was that this directive had originated in a suggestion from Montgomery. He had signalled Alexander’s headquarters on 12 July, arguing that ‘the maintenance and transport and road situation will not allow of two Armies both carrying out extensive offensive operations. Suggest my Army operates offensively Northwards to cut the island in two and that American Army holds defensively.’ Montgomery was attempting to provide ‘grip’ on the campaign, which he felt was lacking, and in effect to exercise overall command (which had been denied him) through Alexander’s 15 Army Group headquarters. His suggestion chimed not only with Alexander’s low opinion of American capabilities but also with the supply situation. Without access to a major port, the American forces had to rely upon supply across the open beaches, which was very much an untested experiment at the time. They were also receiving 1,000 tons of supplies per day from Syracuse, but this was an awkward arrangement given the port’s location on the south-eastern corner of the island. It thus seemed to make sense to give the Seventh Army a defensive task that would not unduly test its green troops and would limit its supply needs, while the veteran Eighth Army would drive north sustained by the ports it had already captured.

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