The Invasion of Italy

On 3 September 1943, General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army crossed the Straits of Messina and invaded the toe of Italy in Operation Baytown. There was very little German and no Italian resistance. Montgomery correctly predicted that the Germans would withdraw from the toe and heel of the Italian boot. However, when Allied planners acted on this and reduced Baytown to just four battalions, Montgomery vehemently protested and due to his stature in Britain, increased the force size to two full divisions. Critical shipping and landing craft that were in desperate short supply in the Mediterranean theater was diverted to Baytown at the expense of the other invasion of Italy at Salerno, Operation Avalanche.

Operation Avalanche landed at Salerno six days later, supposedly to cut off escape of the Germans opposite Monty, and “then seize Naples for the ports, establish airbases around Rome and, if feasible, farther north”. But the only Germans in front of Monty were engineers which blew bridges, mined roads, cut abatis, and slowed down the already cautious British Eighth Army. The Eighth Army wouldn’t see a German for days. The loss of shipping to Baytown meant that only three divisions made the landing at Salerno, and not the six required by the original plan (and what was used in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily). The deficiency was expected to be made up by defecting Italian units as Avalanche was timed to coincide with the armistice with Italy.

After Mussolini was ousted in July, King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio professed Italy’s continued dedication to the “Pact of Steel” made with Germany, but simultaneously had agents secretly meeting with the Allies. After much cloak and dagger skullduggery, the armistice was signed on 3 September and announced on 8 September. The BBC broadcast followed by Badoglio’s radio confirmation was the first the Italian army had heard about the armistice, and they were paralyzed. The “sound of armistice” was said to be “the ringing of phones” as stunned Italian commanders sought instructions from their superiors. Though also surprised, the Germans were quicker to react. Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, a German Italophile of the highest order, dismissed previous concerns of Italian treachery but prudently planned for it. On the evening of 8 September, he, like a scorned lover, turned his newfound hatred of the Italians into immediate action. German units across the Italian peninsula disarmed and detained nearby Italian army formations and crushed those that resisted.

The timing of the Italian armistice had serious repercussions for the Allied landings at Salerno. No longer would the American and British troops confront its Italian defenders, who were most likely to surrender or even assist the invaders, but the Germans. The veteran German 16th Panzer Division quickly took over the defense of the Salerno beaches. The 16th Panzer was a veteran of the Eastern Front and was withdrawn from Stalingrad after losing all of its tanks. It was reconstituted with a full complement of replacements and new equipment, and placed in the German strategic reserve. Slated for the Battle of Kursk, it was redeployed to Italy to oppose the Husky landings on Sicily but didn’t arrive in time. The 16th Panzer was arguably the freshest, best equipped and best trained panzer division in the Wehrmacht at the time. And they were waiting in the captured Italian positions overlooking the Salerno beaches for an Allied invasion they knew was imminent. The invasion arrived the next morning.

On 9 September 1943, Gen Mark Clark’s Fifth Army landed on two sets of invasion beaches near Salerno, which were separated by the Sele River. Clark was advised to land both of his corps north of the river, but decided against this to increase the chances of capturing the Germans to the south. He wrote to his wife that he expected “a pursuit, not a battle”. The northern corps, the British X Corps, landed just south of Salerno and initially fared well. The corps commander opted for a pre-invasion bombardment which was highly effective due to Italian deserters which pinpointed every artillery position, headquarters’ building, and machine gun nest. To the south the 36th Infantry Division’s MG Fred Walker declined the pre-invasion bombardment in order to surprise the defenders and limit Italian casualties. As a result, the guardsmen from Texas landed directly into the teeth of the German defense.

Twelve hours before, the division celebrated the armistice, and expected to be met by Italians on the beach with “wine and opera tickets”. Instead they were met with barbed wire, MG42s, 88s, and PzIVs, with predictable results. The 16th Panzer surprised everyone, including the British, and nearly threw the invasion back into the sea despite only assuming the defense hours before. That they didn’t was solely due to prodigious Allied naval gunfire support. There were no airborne landings the first day because Matthew Ridgeway’s 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with the abortive Operation Giant II, where the division was supposed to reinforce Italians defending Rome from German attack. The operation was cancelled at the last minute (transports were in the air) because it was rightfully recognized to be a suicide mission. (Giant II is a great story, and a cautionary tale about politics overruling military realities. Fortunately sensible minds prevailed, but only just, and only after a covert commander’s reconnaissance. I really need to do a post on it.) The only unqualified success on the first day was LTC William Darby’s Ranger regiment and Brigadier Laycock’s Commandos which landed northwest of the British X Corps. The Rangers and Commandos quickly occupied the mountain tops to the north of the invasion where they could observe the roads to the north, down which Kesselring’s reinforcements would have to arrive. And arrive they did.

Kesselring concentrated all of his considerable might on Salerno: six veteran German divisions to Clark’s two British and one American, but it would take a few days. In the meantime it was a race between reinforcing the confused and shallow Allied lodgment, which was far too long for the troops available, and massing the necessary counter attack force, under the guns of the invasion fleet, to throw them back into the sea. Fortunately for Kesselring, the Germans mostly had air superiority. Allied aircraft, though more numerous, had to fly from a few small escort carriers in the bay or from far off Sicily. The Luftwaffe attacked the invasion fleet numerous times each day, including one of the first uses of a guided bomb, and increased the confusion on the beach. Clark expected to take the Montecorvino Airfield on the first day, and forward base his fighter cover from there. However, the airfield was swept by German direct fire and unusable for the next two weeks.

Clark had further issues, especially command. He quickly activated the VI Corps in Walker’s area to help sort out the confusion, adding a three star general to the beach, and then landed his own headquarters there in the south. With the gap between the southern American beachheads and the British in the north, Clark only really had control of VI Corps, which only had control of one division, Walker’s 36th. So the poor men of the 36th had three echelons of command controlling just them (proto-SETAF) and the confusion that generated. Clark did have a few battalions of the US 45th Infantry Division for a reserve and he committed them to the Sele River gap to connect the British X Corps and US VI Corps, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

George Patton, essentially relieved of command for slapping a soldier in Sicily, was asked by Eisenhower to review the Avalanche plan. After just minutes looking at the plan’s graphics, he stated, “As sure a Jesus lives, the Germans will counterattack down the Sele River.” And they did.

In the early morning of 13 September 1943, Kesselring’s newly formed Tenth Army under Heinrich von Veitinghoff (we will hear his name again), assaulted Clark’s perimeter with a main effort down the Sele valley to split the Fifth Army and defeat both corps in detail. Entire Allied battalions vanished as if blown away in a fiery crimson mist. Clark seriously considered evacuation, at very least of the 36th to the British side of the beachhead. Clark’s boss, British Gen Harold Alexander, angrily ceased it immediately after he flew down to the fleet lest it affect morale. Clark sacked the VI Corps commander. But angry generals weren’t going to stop the Germans.

The only reasons the German offensive on “Black Monday” the 13 of September didn’t reach the beaches was simple American firepower, and the tenacity of small units of Allied troops with their backs to the wall. B-17s in a rare tactical strike bombed the Sele plain, and the US light cruisers USS Philadelphia and Boise with their quick firing 6” guns melted the paint off their barrels, and then fired them til they drooped and could no longer guarantee accuracy. Moreover, much to the chagrin of the Germans, entire companies of the 36th and 45th unexpectedly fought to the last round as their compatriots to their flanks broke and fled. This random phenomenon of American resilience would confound the Germans for the entire war. On the 36th’s left flank was the infamous “Burnt Out Bridge” over the Sele River which had it fallen would have doomed the American side of the beachhead. Firing over open sights, two battalions of American artillery stopped the Germans cold from penetrating a hasty defense consisting of cooks, bakers, mechanics, staff officers and various and sundry rear echelon personnel who found themselves as infantry, leavened by a few recently arrived tank destroyers.

The Germans tried a final time to break Avalanche on the 16th but ran into reinforcements hastily brought in from other areas of the Mediterranean. The entirety of the 45th was eventually landed, giving Clark a two-division American corps. The 82nd Airborne, off the hook for Giant II, was parachuted inside the beachhead perimeter or landed by boat and sent directly into the line. Admiral Cunningham of the British Mediterranean Fleet packed his battleships with troops from Libya and Malta and used his ships life boats to row them ashore.

Clark had won the race to reinforce the Salerno beachhead before Vietinghoff reduced it, but just barely. The battle was a near run thing, to steal a quote from Wellington. Kesselring requested two panzer divisions from Rommel’s army defending Italy north of Rome and was denied by Hitler. Had they been approved, there is no doubt among historians of the Italian campaign of the Second World War that the Allies would have been thrown back into the sea.

Monty continued his stroll up the boot and didn’t link up with the Clark fully until 20 September. After the failed counterattacks at Salerno, Vietinghoff retreated to the prepared fortifications on the Volturno Line, in order to further delay the Allied advance.

Kesselring planned to make the Allies fight up the entire Italian peninsula to keep them as far from Germany as possible, for as long as possible. The Allies established the beachhead at Salerno but would not secure Naples until 1 October, and would not secure Rome until nine months later on 5 June 1944.

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