Decisive battles could be fought later, in Italy itself, where the invaders would find themselves greatly disadvantaged by its mountainous interior. Twenty-two centuries earlier, Carthaginian armies ravaged the Peninsula. Despite a series of humiliating defeats, the Romans never gave up, and eventually expelled the invaders. In the process, the Roman people grew tough, ultimately creating the greatest empire in history. Mussolini wanted the same for 20th Century Italians, whose reputation for frivolity he considered too well deserved. The inevitable loss of Sicily and Allied landings in southern Italy would be necessary to set the stage for a real contest of arms to take place in the interior.
“In 1917, some provinces of the Veneto were lost, but no one spoke of ‘surrender’. Then, they spoke of moving the government to Sicily. Today, if we must, we shall move it to the Po Valley. There, we shall fight the enemy on our terms, not his,” he confided to Field Marshal Graziani, forgiven and reinstated after his 1940 failures in the Libyan Desert. “And in an environment strange to him, but known to us like the back of our hand.” Fascist propaganda, Mussolini stressed, must make at least something of this strategy clear to the Italian masses, who could otherwise despair when confronted by so many apparent failures to stop the Allied occupation of their country.
“Believe me,” Mussolini fatalistically enthused to Marshal Graziani, as Allied landing-craft were about to hit the Sicilian beach-heads, “invasion will have a winnowing effect on our people! It will separate the wheat from the chaff among Italians. In a life-or-death struggle, a people either courageously confronts it and rises to greatness, or knuckles under and disappears. A fifth of the population may stand against us, but almost as many will rally to the fasces, more radicalized than ever before, and with them we’ll regain the upper hand. The innocuous majority, motivated always by self-interest, will sit it out on the sidelines to applaud whomever wins. We’ll have the Revolution all over again! For the time being, it’s important the enemy is delayed and wasted out of his supplies as much as possible at Sicily and, soon after, in southern Italy itself, thereby allowing us time to prepare for the real fight in the mountains.”
Mussolini was keenly aware of the drastic disparity between Axis and Allied forces for the upcoming invasion. Hence, his dream of luring the Anglo-Americans into Italy’s rugged interior, where he would deal with them in the same way Roman legions crushed the occupying Carthaginians more than twenty centuries before.
“At the end of June,” he wrote, “a thousand omens went to show that the landings in Sicily would take place in the first half of July.” To oppose them, his Navy operated a dozen submarines, half as many motor torpedo-boats, five heavy and light cruisers, and only two battleships–the stalwart Littorio and the new Roma. Also new was the Italian Air Force’s Reggiane Re.2002, the Ariete, or ‘Ram’, and Macchi’s MC205, the redoubtable Veltro. But less than 100 Greyhounds and only fifty Arietes were on hand to confront an Allied air armada of more than 3,000 warplanes flying toward Sicilian beach-heads from bases in Malta.
The invasion had been preceded by a number of attacks carried out by USAAF heavy bombers against Italy’s naval bases on 28 June. American strategists were not sure how many enemy warships still survived, and, all too aware that the Regia Marina had risen from the dead more than once to wreck havoc on Allied operations, ordered the aerial destruction of the Italian Fleet. In a massive raid against Livorno, the Bari, a heavy cruiser, was sunk, the only casualty of its kind. Other capital ships were either too well protected or camouflaged, and U.S. reconnaissance photographs could not account for additional vessels Allied commanders knew still existed. The unknown whereabouts of these missing enemy warships were to keep the Americans looking over their shoulders throughout the campaign, not without reason, as events confirmed.
Allied operations against Sicily began officially just before daybreak, 9 July, when 500 Allied landing-craft carrying 100,000 troops in ten divisions with 800 tanks and other armoured vehicles set out for the beaches at Avola, twenty-nine kilometers south of Syracuse. A massive air-drop by thousands more U.S. paratroopers got under way at the same time. The operation went virtually unopposed, until British commandos arriving in gliders near Syracuse during the pre-dawn hours seized a key bridge over the Anapo. Two companies of hastily assembled Italian naval personnel armed with bolt-action Carcano rifles pushed them back to the other side of the river after intense fighting. But as the Regia Marina sailors tried to retake the bridge, they were caught in automatic weapons’ crossfire that virtually annihilated them.
Odds against the Regia Marina’s two battleships, eight destroyers and three dozen other serviceable warships of all kinds were not much better than those confronting their comrades in the air. Between them, the Allies operated six battleships, seven aircraft carriers, seven battle-cruisers, three heavy cruisers, five light cruisers, approximately 100 destroyers, and literally hundreds more destroyer-escorts, torpedo-boats, anti-aircraft cruisers, mine-sweepers, submarines, and corvettes.
Against an Allied air armada of 3,680 machines, combined Axis forces could muster more than 2,000 of their own, but only as much as sixty per cent, or as few as forty per cent of Italian aircraft were operational. The dauntless pilots of these available mounts nonetheless rushed to the defense of Sicily with a dawn raid on 10 July. Thirteen unescorted Alcione bombers flying out of Perugia skimmed just above the waves beneath radar detection. The old tri-motors surprised the invaders to score hits on a number of ships and sink several landing craft, though at the price of four Kingfishers lost.
Their costly success heralded a day of ferocious fighting, during which Italian airmen flew no less than 500 sorties in the first twenty-four hours of the Campaign, inflicting damage on Anglo-American forces, but suffering terrible casualties of their own. From 1 July to the 10th, Mussolini closely followed the action: “Enemy losses in planes were also considerable. No fewer than 312 machines were shot down by the Axis fighters and A.A. artillery.” In truth, Italian pilots alone destroyed 375 U.S. and British aircraft by that time. Axis losses were almost as high, although the majority of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica planes were destroyed on the ground, not in aerial combat.
But as the massive invasion gathered momentum, operations became virtually suicidal. On the 13th, all but one of eight Picchiatellos–Italian-flown Stukas from the 121st Gruppo Tuffatori attacking the invaders at Augustus–were brought down. The following week, five of sixteen Ariete bombers belonging to the 5th Stormo d’Assalto were destroyed, even though they were vigorously protected by twenty Folgores and Messerschmitts. Regia Aeronautica fighter pilots were to fly an additional 152 sorties throughout July until 17 August, when Sicily fell. During the two-month campaign, some 800 Italian and 586 German aircraft were destroyed. Allied losses in the air approached 2,000.
While waves of assault troops washed ashore, engulfing all defensive installations around Syracuse, troops of the Italian XVI Corps rushed to relieve the outnumbered defenders, but were blocked by four-to-one odds on the ground. Even so, stiff resistance in southeastern Sicily threw the operation schedule off by three days, allowing Italo-German forces enough time to take up their pre-arranged positions. From these, they launched a series of counter offensives that threatened to hurl the invaders back into the sea, something more than Mussolini dared hoped for. As the British Second World War chronicler, Charles Messenger, observed, the Sicilian Campaign “proved to be much harder and longer than originally expected by the Allies”.
American troops landed in the southwest near the town of Gela situated atop a commanding hilltop, overcoming local opposition and digging in along a row of hills just south of Mount Castellucio, where they awaited the arrival of additional supplies before pushing further inland. The Italian 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment was detached from the Livorno (sometimes known as the Napoli) Division, stationed a day’s march away, to participate in a three-pronged operation aimed at expelling the invaders before their necessary resources could be put ashore. The Hermann Goering Panzer Division and Italian 33rd Infantry Regiment were supposed to attack from left and right, respectively, as the 3rd Battalion pinned down the enemy and pushed him into the arms of the pinchers.
While the Battalion column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel D.U. Leonardi was on the march, it was strafed by P-51 Mustangs just before sundown on 11 July. However, training for the aborted invasion of Malta kept losses down to just two soldiers killed, twenty wounded, and five trucks damaged. This low-level attack represented the only attempted interdiction by U.S. warplanes throughout the Gela phase of the invasion, because most Allied aircraft were diverted from the ground fighting on stand-by to oppose the momentarily expected appearance of the Italian Fleet. As events unfolded over the next few days, American infantry were made to keenly feel this absence of air cover.
On the morning of 11 July, the Axis pincer movement began with Leonardi’s officers and men storming across a flat, barren terrain offering little natural shelter, save for a few, widely scattered ditches. Intense and instantaneous American artillery fire dueled with the Battalion’s mortars and 75mm field guns, as casualties among the charging infantry soared. Helping to account for the carnage and responsible for slowing down the advance were eight American sharpshooters and a pair of machine-gunners firing from a small house on the battlefield. Hand-grenades lobbed through the window silenced them, and the attack surged forward. The Americans suddenly beat a quick withdrawal, during which Leonardi’s 3rd Battalion seized their positions, taking a number of weapons and prisoners from the U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment. Livorno heavy artillery arrived just then to blast the entire enemy line, from which the Yanks stampeded into the arms of the Hermann Goering Division and 33rd Infantry Regiment.
Responding to the G.I.s’ desperate pleas for help, Allied capital ships lying off shore opened up on the enemy’s pincer movement with a concentrated barrage unprecedented for its ferocity. Seasoned German infantry broke and ran for their lives, as the Italian regiment ground to a halt. Only 3rd Battalion infantrymen continued to move forward, although at an awful cost in human life. But in hand-to-hand combat, they eventually overran the new U.S. positions to take more prisoners and abandoned equipment. Colonel C. Martini, the Regiment commander, radioed the Battalion, praising its “superb behavior in battle,” and “the brilliant result attained”.
As the Yanks pulled away in a precipitous retreat resembling a rout, the shelling suddenly stopped, and the Italians sent out a reconnaissance platoon to determine the whereabouts of the invaders. Its leader, Lieutenant Baldassare, found “no traces of Americans in the area we patrolled. They are still falling back to Gela. Patrol stands near the Gela roadblock. Waiting for orders.”
“On Monday, the 12th, at 1 p.m.,” Mussolini proudly recalled, “all Rome and all the nation hung over the wireless with keen ears and eager hearts. Crowds gathered round the loudspeakers. Late that Sunday evening, it had been announced that Augusta had been retaken, and that following a counter-attack by the Napoli and Goering divisions, an enemy smokescreen in the Bay of Gela gave grounds for thinking that he might be re-embarking his men and material. Communiqué No. 1143 seemed to confirm these reports. It said, ‘In Sicily, the struggle continued bitterly and without pause throughout yesterday, during which the enemy tried vainly to extend the slight depth of the coastal strip occupied. The Italian and German troops after counter-attacking decisively have defeated enemy units at several points, compelling them in one sector to withdraw’.”