The first signs of German counterattack came on the evening of September 11. That day, General Clark had ordered his floating reserve to land on the bank of the Sele River to close the wide gap between the American and the British landings. One regimental combat team was to go up the south bank and seize the Ponte Sele bridge; the other combat team was to advance along the north bank to 10th Corps in the Battapaglia–Eboli area. But these moves had not been made that evening of the 11th when the German counterstrike caught Clark off balance.
At the first signal of German attack, the 56th Infantry Division was hit by the leading elements of the 26th Panzer Division, which arrived in the area up Route 19 and attacked virtually without pause. The Royal Fusilier Battalion in Battapaglia was surrounded by the Germans and 450 men were taken prisoner. At the same time, the U.S. 45th Infantry Division thrusting toward the Ponte Sele bridge was stopped by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. Overhead the Luftwaffe flew more sorties and damaged one British cruiser and two American cruisers. The German aircraft were up at 18,000 feet, too high for any Allied fighters except the P-38s, but most of these had been sent back to England.
The Germans had planned their countermove carefully. They would attack the 10th Corps from the north while moving their reinforcements around the Ponte Sele bridge into the Battapaglia area. Then they would attack along Route 19 to the west, to crush 10th Corps against the anvil of the northern force. Then they would move southwest along the Sele River and break through to the sea between 6th Corps and 10th Corps.
Then the two corps would have to either escape by sea or face destruction.
During the next two days they nearly succeeded. The 10th Corps lost heavily in fighting around Battapaglia and the Montecorvino airfield, but managed to hold on because of excellent air support and naval gunfire.
The American 36th Infantry Division was forced off Altavilla and Point 424 (a strategic defense point) on September 12. On September 13, the critical point of the battle came. A mixed force of tanks, self-propelled guns, and infantry from the 16th Panzer Division rushed through the American 45th Infantry Division positions along the Sele River and reached a point two miles from the beaches. It was the American artillery that stopped them, firing almost point-blank into the tanks and infantry. There were no American reserves left, and that night of September 13– 14 General Dawley had to draw his perimeter back to a point not far from his D-Day beachhead line.
The situation looked so bad on September 14 that General Clark ordered his staff to draw up a contingency plan to reembark one of the two corps to reinforce the beachhead of the other, but his naval commanders pointed out that the plan was totally impractical. It would involve getting men from shore to ship under constant enemy artillery fire. The plan was dropped when General McCreery and Admiral Cunningham argued against it, and the next day General Alexander opposed it.
But by September 14, the Allied position was getting stronger because a regimental combat team from the 82nd Airborne Division had been dropped in the American sector of the beachhead. This time the Allied navies made sure that no one disrupted the landings. Although a Luftwaffe air raid came just before the troops dropped, the gunners held their fire and did not shoot down their own troops.
Back in his forward headquarters at Bizerte, General Eisenhower secured permission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use the strategic air forces to help in the battle. Admiral Cunningham brought the battleships Warspite and Valiant from Malta to use their 15-inch guns in support of the landings. Churchill signaled General Alexander that he could ask for anything and it would get the highest priority, but Churchill could not resist fighting the Battle of Gallipoli over again. He gave some advice: He urged Alexander to get to the front because the Battle of Suva Bay had been lost when Sir Ian Hamilton stayed far from the front on the advice of his staff at Gallipoli. Alexander was wise enough to ignore the Churchillian wisdom. Alexander was not in the rear; he was at Salerno watching the effect of reinforcing moves he had made two days before.
The British 7th Armoured Division started to land units in the 10th Corps sector on September 14. The 3rd Regimental Combat Team of the U. S. 45th Infantry Division arrived in the American sector. The U. S. 3rd Infantry Division was en route from Sicily, and a second regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division landed on the beachhead that evening and another dropped at Avellino. That drop was not very successful because of the mountainous nature of the area. The paratroopers were scattered all over the area. Most of them had to hole up in farms and mountain villages until the Allied advance liberated them from the fear of capture. But the beach drops were successful.
During September 14–16, the Fifth Army received massive naval and air support. The battleships with their 15-inch guns were particularly accurate in firing and in demoralizing the Germans. The strategic bombers did carpet bombing in the Battapaglia–Eboli–Ponte Sele area, and the Eighth Army began to come up. On September 16, a leading patrol met a patrol from 6th Corps 20 miles south of Paestum. The Luftwaffe managed to hit the battleship Warspite with a glider bomb, forcing it back to Malta for repairs, but the Allied reinforcements had come up in time to save the beachhead. It had been a very narrow escape, but the Allies had won the race.
After that linkup, von Vietinghoff advised Kesselring that the Allies were too firmly established to be thrown back into the sea or destroyed. He recommended disengagement so he could redeploy before the Eighth Army threatened his rear. So Kesselring authorized a slow withdrawal to the Volturno River north of Naples. Here the Germans were to stop and hold until the engineers could fortify the Gustav Line. Von Vietinghoff made one more attack on September 17 against 10th Corps. Hube’s and Herr’s corps were sent to catch 10th Corps between them to try to crush it. But both attacks came under heavy bombardment that soon brought them to a halt. The Germans switched to the defensive as they had intended to do, and began to disengage on the south. The Battle of Salerno ended in a stalemate.