The 8th Army in Sicily

British troops come ashore in southern Sicily with the help of a rope to get through the heavy surf.

Situation Map for the Sicily Scenario, for the SSG Battlefront Game System

The Americans and British were ashore, but Operation Husky, as the Allied invasion of Sicily was code named, was only at the beginning of a long, frustrating struggle that would last 38 grueling days. The invasion consisted of a series of battles pitting the Allies against veteran and fanatical German forces.

Operation Husky marked the largest amphibious landing to date in world history with seven divisions initially put ashore, two more than would land at Normandy on June 6 the following year. Nevertheless, poor and incomplete planning, insufficient communications, indifferent tactical air support, rivalry, and fratricide marked the Sicilian campaign.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring shifted four elite divisions and a large number of Italian troops to the island to fight the Allied invaders.

Planning for the invasion began even before the last shot was fired in the preceding North African campaign. But even then there were signs of problems to come. Great Britain had been at war for nearly four years, and it was stretched thin with more than 100,000 battle deaths and the loss of another 65,000 civilians and merchant mariners to the German onslaught.

British General Bernard Montgomery, who was to lead the British efforts on Sicily, continually put off planning for the invasion, contending that he needed to focus first on mopping up the Axis in North Africa. The initial planning went ahead without Montgomery and called for the British to land in southeastern Sicily and the Americans to take Palermo, the capital, on the northwestern coast. From there the Allies would move forward to squeeze the enemy into submission. Little substantial thought was given to air cover or in closing off the Straits of Messina, the gateway to the Italian mainland.

When the prickly Montgomery, whose ego was inflated as a result of his recent victory at El Alamein, finally got around to reviewing the plans, he called for a nearly complete revision. Never at a loss for words, Monty said the initial plan “breaks every common-sense rule of practical battle fighting and is completely theoretical. It has no hope of success and should be completely recast.”

Montgomery disagreed with the dispersal of forces stating correctly that “The Germans and also the Italians are fighting desperately now in Tunisia and will do so in Sicily”. Monty preferred a concentration of forces in one area.

His criticism unleashed harsh comments from others who also had reservations about the plan. Much of the concern centered on the idea that the enemy might crush one of the two invading forces before taking on the other; mutual Allied support would not be possible with such a widely separated, two-pronged amphibious invasion of the island. For that reason, Montgomery held out for an additional division as part of the overall effort to subdue Sicily.

The clamor for additional troops and matériel, as well as a call to rethink the entire plan, eventually reached Churchill. The British prime minster dashed off an acid-laced letter on April 8, 1943, to the British chiefs of staff. He chided those with “pusillanimous and defeatist doctrines” who shied at attacking the two German divisions on the island. He also lashed out at the planning staffs “playing on each other’s fears” and the “total absence of one directing mind and commanding willpower.” Churchill chided their timidity when faced with two enemy divisions at the very time the Soviet Union was entangled in a life-or-death struggle with 185 German divisions.

The plan was revised, with four British and three American divisions landing along a 100-mile stretch of beach on southeastern Italy. Palermo would have to wait. In addition, portions of two airborne divisions and eventually 13 Allied divisions would be committed to the invasion.

On the 2nd of May 1943,  Montgomery put forward his alternative plan. This involved the landing of the British forces on the south eastern tip of Sicily and the American forces along the southern coast. Montgomery regarded his forces as a sword cutting their way to Messina while Patton on his left acted as  his shield. Unfortunately for Monty his swordsman was left-handed.

Montgomery’s plan was accepted and was put into effect as Operation Husky. The landings were to be preceded by airdrops designed to give the amphibious force time to get off the beaches before a counterattack hit.

Despite the revised planning and the increased troop strength, the Allies missed seeing the need to seal off the two-mile-wide Strait of Messina to prevent Axis resupply and later prevent the escape of German and Italian forces to the mainland. The planning was so heavily focused on the capture of southern ports and nearby airfields that little thought was given to areas beyond the beachheads. What is more, the Americans would not have a large port to support their movement inland.

One aspect of the planning did go well. Efforts at misdirection and misinformation proved exceptionally helpful. The clever deployment of a supposed British officer’s corpse found floating off the coast of Spain with detailed but false plans in his briefcase convinced many high-ranking Nazis that the coming Allied invasion would occur in southern Greece rather than Sicily. That area was beefed up rather than Sicily’s defenses.

The landings were set for before dawn on the 10th of July and very nearly got off to a disastrous start. With the invasion fleet 12 hours out from their objective a sudden violent storm appeared out of nowhere. It was too late to call off the operation and the participants simply had to make the most of it. Then, as suddenly as the storm had blown up, just before midnight it disappeared. If anything, the storm was to the Allies advantage as it convinced a good many of the defenders that an invasion was impossible.

As it steamed toward Sicily, the Allied invading force with its 3,200 ships was the largest amphibious operation of World War II up to that time. There were an estimated 300,000 Axis troops on Sicily, mostly Italian troops of questionable quality backed by two top-flight German divisions, Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Luftwaffe Panzer Division Hermann Göring and Generalmajor Eberhard Rodtfrom’s 15th Panzergrenadier Division. Operation Husky also included the largest Allied airborne assault yet attempted.

The British landings were led by commandos who landed early and took out Italian coastal artillery batteries at Cape Murro di Porco and Cassible. Subsequent landings were made by the Canadian 1st Division and the British 5th, 50th, and 51st Divisions. The rough seas played havoc in this sector, too, and the naval transports dropped anchor some 12 miles off the coast rather than the planned seven. As a result, many of the men were confined to their small landing craft for several hours and were wet, cold, and seasick as their craft putted toward shore.

The poorly equipped and poorly led Italians put up some resistance to the British and Canadian invaders before either surrendering or retreating into the island’s interior. The British Eighth Army continued to land throughout the day, taking the vital Ponte Grande Bridge just south of the crucial port city of Syracuse and pushing on toward that city located farther up the eastern coast. Air or naval gunfire took out any remaining Italian batteries in the area, while Canadian troops took the abandoned Pachino airfield. The British and Canadian beaches were soon jammed with artillery, vehicles, and related war matériel.

The taking of the key Ponte Grande Bridge was not without problems. Montgomery had planned to have 1,700 men in 144 gliders land in the dead of night, capture the bridge, and secure Syracuse, which would give the Eighth Army a major port. At that point in the war, experience was at a premium, and the pilots of the tow planes had little nighttime navigation experience and even less experience towing packed seven-ton gliders at the end of 350-foot-long nylon rope tethers. And the glider pilots themselves lacked sufficient experience for the undertaking.

As the glider disaster unfolded in the turbulent nighttime sky, one glider pilot actually put down on Malta, thinking it was Sicily, and another inexplicably landed in Tunisia. Most of the gliders did arrive in Sicily, but many were cut free of their tug planes too early. Fifty-four gliders made land, a large number ditched in the Mediterranean, and 10 vanished. The Allies managed to make the bridge, tear out the demolition charges, and seize the structure.

The taking of the Ponte Grande Bridge came at an exceedingly high price. More than 600 men were lost, most of them drowned. Anger at the American tow pilots grew to the point where surviving British arriving back in Tunisia were kept well away from the Americans to prevent possible problems.

Montgomery came ashore near Pachino early on Sunday, July 11, shortly after Syracuse had fallen and the vital port was seized intact.

By Monday, July 12, the Allies had a firm foothold on a 100-mile arc with some 80,000 men ashore along with 300 tanks, 7,000 vehicles, and 900 guns. The British had Syracuse and had begun moving toward Catania, one of the last perceived obstacles before Messina, some 45 miles farther away at the northeastern tip of Sicily. The strutting Montgomery predicted that Catania would fall soon, possibly by Tuesday evening.

But it was Tuesday, July 13, when Montgomery unilaterally ordered his troops to cut across Patton’s front on Highway 124 as part of the British Army’s two-pronged effort around Mt. Etna. Patton’s army was left protecting the British flank, and the American 45th Division was turned back toward the beach for a shift to the west. This turn of events proved controversial because if the Americans had seized the road near the town of Enna they probably would have prevented the Axis forces in the west from fleeing eastward to form a defense around Mt. Etna.

The British had maintained a steady, cautious advance north and west from their beaches and was beginning to look perilously like cutting off the Axis units engaged with the Americans. Guzzoni the local Italian commander ordered 12th Corps to retire into eastern Sicily and withdrew the bulk of his eastern forces to face the advancing British.

The failure of the Axis counterattacks convinced Kesselring that the forces on Sicily must adopt an entirely defensive posture. He began to take control from Guzzoni. Reinforcements were rushed into the island. Two thirds of Student’s 1st Falschirmjager Division were dropped south of Sicily on the night of the 13th.

This coincided with a British operation wherein elements of the 1st Airborne Division were dropped to take the vital Primosole Bridge south of Catania. The British dropped almost on top of the machine gun battalion of 1st FJ Division who had themselves only just completed their drop. The result was that of 1900 men in the initial drop, only 200 reached the bridge. These men managed to hold the bridge for the entirety of the 14th before retiring at nightfall. During the night they were relieved by troops from the 50th Division who assaulted the bridge unsuccessfully on the 15th before taking it on the 16th.

Montgomery now considered he was in a position to take Catania. Rather than pushing on immediately he waited until the night of the 17th before attacking once again with 50th Division. Unfortunately for the British, by this time the Catania line had been reinforced by the Hermann Goering Division and little progress was made.

On the 18th of July, the same day as the 29th Panzergrenadier Division were transported across to Messina, Montgomery switched the 51st and Canadian Divisions to his left, technically into the American sector. The aim of this maneuver was not to antagonise Patton, which it nevertheless succeeded in doing, but to outflank Catania by moving around the west of Mt Etna and cutting the supply lines to the city.

As the British slowly ground their way around the western flanks of Etna the Americans were far from idle. Patton sent one of his corps north through Enna to the coast while the 3rd Division and most of 2nd Armored were sent on a sweep along the coast road around the western end of Sicily capturing Palermo on the 22nd.

Meanwhile the 2nd Corps took Enna on the 20th and swinging west, reached the coast on the 23rd. The Americans now came up against a solid line much as the British had done. Their spectacular successes in the west of the Island had been more to do with the withdrawal of Axis troops than any brilliance on the part of Patton. By the 23rd of July it was clear that the Axis forces had stabilised their line. The British had been assaulting the Catania line for some days and it had become clear that, with the movement into the line of 29th Panzergrenadier, the Germans were getting stronger rather than weaker.

As the front stabilised, the Allies called for reinforcements. The American 9th and British 78th Divisions were landed and moved up to the front. Meanwhile on the 19th of July the first Allied air raid was carried out over Rome. The members of the Fascist Grand Council were appalled and on the 26th of July Mussolini was deposed and replaced by Marshal Badoglio who immediately entered into negotiations with the Allies.

In Sicily the battle continued. It was 1st August before Montgomery’s left hook around Etna got under way. Progress was painfully slow with the Germans concentrating on inflicting casualties and retiring before any position became untenable. Each hilltop was practically a fortress and the German defenders made full use of the terrain.

In the American sector the progress was faster, but still slow and costly. Maximum gain was made along the north coast road as the front line swung like a gate around the easternmost British Divisions stationary in front of Catania.

On the 3rd of August a coordinated push was made with both Allied armies simultaneously throwing their new divisions in for the first time. The 15th Panzergrenadier, fighting in the centre of the Axis line was only forced to pull back after three days of solid fighting, and that to conform to the Italians on their right who had been pushed back. Even when a limited landing was made behind German lines on the north coast, the defenders simply retired with no losses. 3rd August also saw the commencement of the Axis evacuation as the routed Napoli Division was shipped across to the mainland. The Axis were being put under no pressure. They were retiring at their own pace and their frontage was becoming shorter and shorter. The Livorno Division was next, and still the Axis presented a n unbroken front.

As the British moved around the west of Etna the Hermann Goering Division found themselves in a salient at Catania. Therefore they began retiring, allowing the city to be taken on the 5th. Adrano fell to the Canadians on the 7th and the pace of the advance picked up.

Kesselring was no fool. As early as mid-July he had privately acknowledged that his veteran infantry must be saved to fight another day. Kesselring relied on Colonel Ernst-Gunther Baade, who managed to have some 500 guns placed along the shores of Messina Strait. He rustled up 33 barges, 76 motorboats, and a dozen “Siebel ferries” (large rafts propelled by a pair of airplane engines mounted on pontoons). German engineers built a dozen ferry sites designed so motorized vehicles could both drive on and off the ferries, thereby speeding the evacuation of Sicily when the time came. Equipment that could not be taken from the island was destroyed.

On the 8th of August the order came through from Kesselring to evacuate all troops from the island. Massive numbers of anti-aircraft guns were positioned around Reggio to cover the withdrawal. The straits of Messina were protected by E-Boats and submarines of the German and Italian navies. Even so, the Allied attempts to interdict the Axis movements were pathetic.

Despite 250 sorties a night against the Messina-Reggio area the Allied air forces had almost no effect on the withdrawal. The main area to be targetted were the ports themselves, with the result that many civilians were killed, and the vessels were allowed to make the exposed two mile crossing unimpeded.

The navy also failed to act to block the flow of evacuees. One squadron of destroyers moved into the straits, against orders, and succeeded in sinking an Italian motorised raft before being chased off by an Italian light cruiser.

All up during the evacuation over 100 000 men, 10 000 vehicles and nearly 20 000 tons of supplies were withdrawn from Sicily. The operation was a complete success, the vast majority of the German troops (and given the capitulation of Italy in early September they were the only ones who counted) got away.

Barely 50,000 determined Germans, aided by poorly led Italian troops, managed to tie up nearly a half million Allied infantry for five weeks despite superior Allied air and sea power. And all this was at a time when the Soviets were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with some 185 German divisions at Kursk and elsewhere on the Eastern Front.

Operation Husky resulted in 21,600 American and British casualties, including nearly 5,000 dead. Axis dead and wounded were more than a third higher at 29,000, including 4,300 German dead and 4,700 Italians killed in battle. The total number of enemy captured was 140,000, mostly Italian soldiers.

The Western Allies still had much to learn in terms of planning and interservice cooperation. The need for dramatically improved tactical air support would be shown again with the landings on the Italian coast, lessons well learned by D-Day in Normandy. The need to seal off escape routes would be shown yet again at the Falaise Gap a year later in France.

 

#

The British had maintained a steady, cautious advance north and west from their beaches and was beginning to look perilously like cutting off the Axis units engaged with the Americans. Guzzoni the local Italian commander ordered 12th Corps to retire into eastern Sicily and withdrew the bulk of his eastern forces to face the advancing British.

The failure of the Axis counterattacks convinced Kesselring that the forces on Sicily must adopt an entirely defensive posture. He began to take control from Guzzoni. Reinforcements were rushed into the island. Two thirds of Student’s 1st Falschirmjager Division were dropped south of Sicily on the night of the 13th.

This coincided with a British operation wherein elements of the 1st Airborne Division were dropped to take the vital Primosole Bridge south of Catania. The British dropped almost on top of the machine gun battalion of 1st FJ Division who had themselves only just completed their drop. The result was that of 1900 men in the initial drop, only 200 reached the bridge. These men managed to hold the bridge for the entirety of the 14th before retiring at nightfall. During the night they were relieved by troops from the 50th Division who assaulted the bridge unsuccessfully on the 15th before taking it on the 16th.

Montgomery now considered he was in a position to take Catania. Rather than pushing on immediately he waited until the night of the 17th before attacking once again with 50th Division. Unfortunately for the British, by this time the Catania line had been reinforced by the Hermann Goering Division and little progress was made.

On the 18th of July, the same day as the 29th Panzergrenadier Division were transported across to Messina, Montgomery switched the 51st and Canadian Divisions to his left, technically into the American sector. The aim of this maneuver was not to antagonise Patton, which it nevertheless succeeded in doing, but to outflank Catania by moving around the west of Mt Etna and cutting the supply lines to the city.

As the British slowly ground their way around the western flanks of Etna the Americans were far from idle. Patton sent one of his corps north through Enna to the coast while the 3rd Division and most of 2nd Armored were sent on a sweep along the coast road around the western end of Sicily capturing Palermo on the 22nd.

Meanwhile the 2nd Corps took Enna on the 20th and swinging west, reached the coast on the 23rd. The Americans now came up against a solid line much as the British had done. Their spectacular successes in the west of the Island had been more to do with the withdrawal of Axis troops than any brilliance on the part of Patton. By the 23rd of July it was clear that the Axis forces had stabilised their line. The British had been assaulting the Catania line for some days and it had become clear that, with the movement into the line of 29th Panzergrenadier, the Germans were getting stronger rather than weaker.

As the front stabilised, the Allies called for reinforcements. The American 9th and British 78th Divisions were landed and moved up to the front. Meanwhile on the 19th of July the first Allied air raid was carried out over Rome. The members of the Fascist Grand Council were appalled and on the 26th of July Mussolini was deposed and replaced by Marshal Badoglio who immediately entered into negotiations with the Allies.

In Sicily the battle continued. It was 1st August before Montgomery’s left hook around Etna got under way. Progress was painfully slow with the Germans concentrating on inflicting casualties and retiring before any position became untenable. Each hilltop was practically a fortress and the German defenders made full use of the terrain.

In the American sector the progress was faster, but still slow and costly. Maximum gain was made along the north coast road as the front line swung like a gate around the easternmost British Divisions stationary in front of Catania.

On the 3rd of August a coordinated push was made with both Allied armies simultaneously throwing their new divisions in for the first time. The 15th Panzergrenadier, fighting in the centre of the Axis line was only forced to pull back after three days of solid fighting, and that to conform to the Italians on their right who had been pushed back. Even when a limited landing was made behind German lines on the north coast, the defenders simply retired with no losses. 3rd August also saw the commencement of the Axis evacuation as the routed Napoli Division was shipped across to the mainland. The Axis were being put under no pressure. They were retiring at their own pace and their frontage was becoming shorter and shorter. The Livorno Division was next, and still the Axis presented a n unbroken front.

As the British moved around the west of Etna the Hermann Goering Division found themselves in a salient at Catania. Therefore they began retiring, allowing the city to be taken on the 5th. Adrano fell to the Canadians on the 7th and the pace of the advance picked up.

On the 8th of August the order came through from Kesselring to evacuate all troops from the island. Massive numbers of anti-aircraft guns were positioned around Reggio to cover the withdrawal. The straits of Messina were protected by E-Boats and submarines of the German and Italian navies. Even so, the Allied attempts to interdict the Axis movements were pathetic.

Despite 250 sorties a night against the Messina-Reggio area the Allied air forces had almost no effect on the withdrawal. The main area to be targetted were the ports themselves, with the result that many civilians were killed, and the vessels were allowed to make the exposed two mile crossing unimpeded.

The navy also failed to act to block the flow of evacuees. One squadron of destroyers moved into the straits, against orders, and succeeded in sinking an Italian motorised raft before being chased off by an Italian light cruiser.

All up during the evacuation over 100 000 men, 10 000 vehicles and nearly 20 000 tons of supplies were withdrawn from Sicily. The operation was a complete success, the vast majority of the German troops (and given the capitulation of Italy in early September they were the only ones who counted) got away.

 

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