15 June 2023
Mark Simner explores how the soft underbelly of the Axis turned out to be one tough gut.
The Axis powers had been defeated in North Africa. It had been a hard fought campaign that had lasted almost three years, costing the Allies over 250,000 casualties. Now, in their moment of victory, the British and Americans found themselves in disagreement as to what to do next.
Winston Churchill favoured attacking what he called the soft underbelly of the Axis, invading Italy and forcing it out of the war. Stalin was also pressuring Britain and America to open a second front to draw German troops away from the Eastern Front. But the Americans did not want to do anything that might cause delay in the future invasion of northern France. On the other hand, they simply could not do nothing, and so an invasion of Sicily was agreed.
Operation Husky began in early July 1943, a campaign that lasted until mid-August. It proved a success for the Allies, although Axis units were able to withdraw largely intact to the Italian mainland. However, a coup deposed Mussolini and Italy suddenly became a tempting target, for it was believed the Italians were about to surrender.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff informed Dwight D. Eisenhower that the Allies now intended to invade Italy. He was to make necessary preparations and commence operations as early as possible.
The Allied plan
Planning of the invasion fell to the Joint Allied Forces Headquarters, which originally envisaged a limited operation involving the British Eighth Army crossing the Straits of Messina and the landing of a force at Taranto in the heel of Italy, followed by an advance up the toe. Following the success of Husky, the AFHQ decided upon a more extensive plan: The British Eighth Army would still land at Reggio Calabria but a much larger force would land near Naples, securing its vital port.
Two areas were considered for the main landing, including the Volturno River basin and Salerno. Salerno was deemed the better choice because it was nearer to Allied airbases in Sicily and allowed for anchoring of transport vessels closer to its beaches. There was also an established network of roads nearby, essential for the subsequent advance inland.
The overall plan consisted of three separate operations, the first codenamed Operation Baytown, which would see the British XIII Corps of Eighth Army, under command of Bernard Montgomery, make its way across the Straits of Messina on 3 September 1943. The British 5th Infantry Division was to land on the northern side of the toe, with 1st Canadian Infantry Division landing on the southern side at Cape Spartivento, the intent being to draw away German troops from Salerno and tie them down.
Montgomery was not in favour of the plan, writing after the war: ‘We proposed to invade the mainland of Europe without any clear idea how operations were to be developed once we got there … So far as the Eighth Army was concerned I was to launch it across the Straits of Messina … but was given no object.’
Left: Men of No. 3232 Servicing Commando in Sicily waiting to cross the Straits of Messina for Operation Baytown
Six days after XIII Corps’s landing, the main Allied invasion force would commence Operation Avalanche. This force of 165,000 men consisted of the US Fifth Army, under Lieutenant-General Mark W Clark, which included the US VI Corps, under Major-General Ernest J Dawley, and the British X Corps, under Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery, while the US 82nd Airborne was to be held in reserve. The invasion force was to be supported by a naval taskforce of over 600 vessels. Once established ashore, it was to cut across country to the east coast, trapping Axis forces in the south.
Right: The 15-inch guns of HMS Warspite in action off Reggio
Simultaneously, the British 1st Airborne Division was to seize the port at Taranto and a number of nearby airfields. Once secure, the British V Corps and some fighter squadrons were to follow. The capture of the port at Taranto had been earlier considered, but its defences were deemed too strong. However, when the armistice with the Italians was signed on 3 September, it was decided to go ahead with what was codenamed Operation Slapstick.
The south of Italy was the responsibility of Army Command South, under Albert Kesselring. There was also the Tenth Army, under Heinrich von Vietinghoff, consisting of two corps of six divisions. These divisions were deployed to cover areas where it was thought the Allies might attempt a landing. There was also XIV and LXXVI Panzer Corps, with 16th Panzer Division of the former positioned on the hills above Salerno.
The invasion began on 3 September 1943, when XIII Corps commenced Operation Baytown. Little in the way of resistance was encountered by the British and Canadian troops, with Italian forces immediately surrendering. Despite the appearance of Allied troops in Calabria, Kesselring realised they were not the main invasion force, which would likely land more to the north. Kesselring, therefore, ordered LXXVI Panzer Corps to withdraw, although the 15th Panzergrenadier Regiment was to remain in opposition.
The day after, the British 5th Division arrived at Bagnara and, along with the 1st Special Reconnaissance Squadron, forced the German 15th Panzergrenadier Regiment to pull back. On the 8th, the 231st Brigade landed at Pizo, where they were attacked by elements of 26th Panzer Division from the north and the Krüger Battle Group from the south. Nevertheless, the Germans withdrew at dusk.
Meanwhile, Kesselring ordered Vietinghoff to position Tenth Army to be ready to respond to the main Allied landing, while LXXVI Panzer Corps deployed two of its divisions around Castrovillari with a third sent to Taranto. Likewise, XIV Panzer Corps was positioned in readiness for landings from the sea, while 16th Panzer Division was ordered to the Gulf of Salerno, the Hermann Göring Division to Naples and 15th Panzergrenadier Division to the Gulf of Gaeta.
Left: The airfield at Reggio following its capture
In preparation for this supporting operation, which took place on the same day as the landings at Salerno, the British 1st Airborne Division was split into two parts. The first, which also included the divisional headquarters, the 1st and 4th Parachute Brigades and the 9th Field Company, Royal Engineers, boarded ships at Bizerta in Tunisia. To protect the overloaded vessels, Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Cunningham ordered HMS Howe and HMS King George V to depart Malta and join the flotilla headed for Taranto.
As the British flotilla approached, a minefield lay in its path, and so HMS Javelin was sent ahead to enter the harbour and return with the Italian harbour pilot, which had been pre-agreed with the Italians. Safely through the minefield, the flotilla began disembarking its troops in the harbour at 3pm.
Left: Men of British 1st Airborne Division approaching Taranto harbour on 9 September 1943
First ashore were the 4th and 10th Parachute Battalions, which moved inland to protect further landings. As the first British soldiers entered Taranto, they were greeted warmly by the Italians, the Germans having already withdrawn. Defensive positions were taken up and a headquarters established in the Albergo Europa Hotel. The flotilla returned to Bizerta to embark the second part of the division, including 2nd Parachute Brigade, the Air Landing Brigade and the Glider Pilot Regiment.
On 10 September, the 4th Parachute Brigade advanced to Massafra, where they were again made welcome by the Italians. However, as the British moved on Mottola they clashed with German forces who, despite an initial stubborn resistance, later withdrew. The British continued to advance and during the ensuing clash with the German rear-guard Major-General George F Hopkinson, commander of 1st Airborne Division, was hit by German fire. He died the next day, command passing to Brigadier-General Ernest Down.
The next day, 1st Airborne Division made contact with leading elements of 1st Canadian Infantry Division. Having linked up with Montgomery’s XIII Corps, 1st Airborne looked to securing the Gioia del Colle airfield for the RAF, an objective that was achieved by the night of 16/17 September. Within 48 hours the RAF began operating from the airfield, supporting the landings at Salerno. The main landing, however, was not going well.
Right: American troops and artillery landing on the beach at Salerno while under fire
For Operation Avalanche there was no preliminary naval or aerial bombardment prior to the leading men of the US 5th Army going ashore. The reasoning for this had been in an attempt to achieve surprise, but as the soldiers of the US 36th Infantry Division approached the ancient city of Paestum a loud speaker ominously called out in English, “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” The Allies had utterly failed to achieve surprise.
Lying in wait was 16th Panzer Division, under Rudolf Sieckenius. Sieckenius had split his force into four battle groups, each named after their respective commanding officers and positioned six miles apart and three to six miles from the beaches. Facing the British 46th Division east of Salerno was the Dőrnemann group, while the Stempel group faced the British 56th Division between Pontecagnano and Battipaglia. In reserve was the Holtey group at Persano, while the Doering group held the area between Albanella and Rutino.
Dennis Hope, a British soldier, recalled his experience of the landings: ‘As usual things went wrong from the beginning. The beach on which we landed was divided into two sections called Red Beach and Green Beach. We were safely deposited on the first one, but those for the second were landed too far down the coast. Consequently when the enemy, who had withdrawn, realised this they came back again, and as the second wave of troops landed they met with stiff resistance. For a long time after this it was touch and go and the Salerno landing nearly became a second Dunkirk.’
As X Corps got ashore, the attached US Rangers met with little opposition and achieved their objective of capturing a mountain pass. The Royal Marines of No. 41 Commando and the British Army soldiers of No. 2 Commando similarly secured the high ground either side of the road through the Molina Pass. No. 2 Commando would later advance towards Salerno itself, coming into contact with a light reconnaissance force from 16th Panzer Battalion.
Both 46th and 56th Divisions, however, faced stubborn opposition, doggedly fighting their way off the beaches under cover of the guns of the navy. The intention of the British had been to push forwards and link up with US troops to the south, but the Germans had other ideas.
Left: American troops hit the deck during a German air raid on the Salerno beach
US troops were also having a hard time at Paestum, the inexperienced battalions of 36th Division facing a deadly fire from Doering’s group. The 141st Regimental Combat Team fared badly, failing to achieve anything, losing cohesion and remaining stuck near the beach. More fortunate was the 142nd RCT, which at least pushed forwards enough to allow the 143rd RCT to land.
The Allies did achieve a number of objectives before the day was out, although not as many as hoped. The 46th and 56th Divisions had advanced between five and seven miles inland, while special forces had got as far as the Plain of Naples across the Sorrento Peninsula. 36th Division had also got onto the plain on the right-bank of the Sele. Herman Balck of XIV Panzer Corps ordered both the Hermann Göring Division and 15th Panzergrenadier to support 16th Panzer Division, while 29th Panzergrenadier Division also advanced on Salerno.
Joe Pearson, a radio operator in the United States Navy, recalled his surprise when he found his ship acting as a field hospital receiving British casualties in great numbers: ‘It was a sad situation because we only had two first aid medics on board and no doctor. Every man on board, who could be spared, came to give a hand to do what we could to help the wounded troops ... I was 21 and most of the casualties were in their 20s.’
Neither side had gained the initiative on 9 September. However, as the Allies began consolidating their beachhead, the Germans were preparing a counter-attack.
The German counter-attack
On 13 September the Germans struck, the main thrust coming in the region near Battipaglia. The Hermann Göring Division attacked the northern flank of the beachhead, and later the Kleine Limburg and Krüger battle groups assaulted the Allies at Persano, smashing their way through the 1st Battalion of the 157th Infantry before crossing the Sele. The Germans then struck again, ruthlessly slamming into the 2nd Battalion of the 143rd Infantry, virtually wiping it out.
In a desperate attempt to stop the Germans, the Allies hastily established a defensive position manned by anyone who could be found to hold a weapon, including cooks and clerks. The German onslaught only ground to a halt in the face of intense Allied artillery and naval fire.
Nevertheless, VI Corps had to withdraw after suffering many casualties, while US 45th Division attempted to gather itself between Sele and Calore. The 36th Division similarly took up position on high ground along the La Caso stream. Reinforcing the new perimeter was 82nd Airborne Division, the men of the 504th Parachute Infantry jumping inside the beachhead. They were followed next day by the 505th Parachute Infantry. Fortunately for the Allies, the crisis of the counter-attack had subsided by the 14th. Allied aircraft dropped in excess of 1,000 tons of ordnance during the day of the 14th alone. Although the 16th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions were forced to go on the defensive, the Schmalz group of the Hermann Göring Division launched an assault on the 128th Infantry Brigade east of Salerno, only to be driven back. To add to German woes, further Allied naval forces arrived off the coast, in the form of the battleships HMS Warspite and Valiant.
In the face of Allied air and naval superiority, Kesselring on the night of 18/19 September, following Vietinghoff’s suggestion of calling off the offensive and withdrawing to form a new defensive line, began the retirement of his forces from Salerno. He believed the inner terrain of Italy would form a formidable defence against further British and American advances.
Fifth Army next pushed north-west towards Naples, while 46th Division attacked German positions at , and . 7th Armoured Division was ordered to take Naples, while XIII Corps linked up with 1st Airborne Division at Taranto and later captured a large airfield near Foggia.
Left: A German soldier wounded during the fighting has been taken prisoner by US forces
On 27 September, the population in Naples rebelled against German troops, the city then being entered by a squadron of the 1st King’s Dragoon guards on 1 October. Fifth Army arrived at the Volturno five days later, effectively securing Naples and vital Allied airfields.
The fighting, however, was still bitter and intense. According to British soldier Ronald Colombo: ‘We were … fighting our way up to the Voltuno [sic] river. There we were held up because the bridge was blown. We dug near the river, then in the afternoon platoon NCOs were told that we would be making a crossing supported by artillery. My section would be in the first boat to cross. As we were in mid stream everything opened up, shells flying over then the Germans opened up with their machine guns. Bullets where whizzing over our heads.’
Right: A knocked out German Panzer has been pushed off the road to leave it clear for Allied forces
XIII Corps advanced along the Adriatic coast, reaching Termoli on the Biferno River. The Allied campaign in Italy had only just begun, but they had a firm hold that the Germans could not break.
The Allied landings in Italy had been a tough fight, one that the German counter offensive almost threw back into the sea. So bitter was the fighting that Mark W Clark, in contrast to Churchill, said Italy had been: ‘One tough gut’. Indeed, the invasion had cost over 2,000 Allied troops killed and 7,000 wounded.
Left: A knocked out German PzKpfw IV tank at Pasanara, 9 September 1943
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