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Battle of Sicily

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The Battle of Sicily was part of the Italian Campaign of World War II. The battle began on the night of 9 July, 1943, and ended 17 August in an Allied victory. The invasion of the island was codenamed Operation Husky and was the largest amphibious operation in history to that date in terms of men landed on the beaches and of frontage. The amount of actual fighting was relatively small. German and Italian forces successfully escaped with most of their men and most of their equipment. However, the Italians overthrew Mussolini and switched sides, and were in turn invaded and controlled by Germany. The invasion opened the way to the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland, crossing the Strait of Messina which had not necessarily been seen as a follow-up to this battle.

Background

Participants

The invasion of Sicily was a major Allied amphibious and airborne operation involving American, British, and Canadian forces, tasked with taking the island, part of Italy, from the Axis. The ground forces were organized as an army group.

Two Allied landing forces came under control of the Allied Fifteenth Army Group, with the Seventh United States Army tasked to land at Gela and the British 8th Army making separate landings at Pachino. Each Army had two corps under command. Defending the island was the Italian 6th Army made up of two Italian Corps (XII and XVI) of coastal defence units plus four front line division and miscellaneous units under army command together with one German Panzerkorps (Panzer Corps XIV).

Planning

In the early part of 1943, after coming to the conclusion that a successful invasion of France across the English Channel would be impossible that year, it was decided to use troops from the recently won North African Campaign to invade the Italian island of Sicily. The strategic goals were to remove the island as a base for Axis shipping and aircraft, allowing free passage to Allied ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and to put pressure on the regime of Benito Mussolini in the hope of eventually having Italy struck from the war. The attempt to knock Italy out of the war was partially successful, especially after Allied aircraft bombed the large railroad marshalling yards of Rome. However, the campaign could also act as a precursor to the invasion of Italy, although this was not agreed by the Allies at the time of the invasion. The Americans in particular were resistant to any commitment to an operation which might conceivably delay the Normandy landings, or divert Allied power from the main theater of France.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in overall command, with General Sir Harold Alexander as commander of land forces. The land forces were designated the Fifteenth Army Group, and comprised the Eighth British Army, under General Bernard Montgomery, and the Seventh United States Army under General George S. Patton. The Canadian 1st Infantry was included at the insistence of Canadian Military Headquarters in Britain, a request granted by the British, displacing the veteran British 3rd Infantry Division. The change was not finalized until 27 April, when 1st Canadian Army Commander, General Andrew McNaughton, deemed Operation Husky to be a viable military undertaking and agreed to the detachment of both 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Tank Brigade both of which had arrived in the United Kingdom following a request by Prime Minister Winston Churchill for troops to oppose a threatened invasion of the United Kingdom by the Germans.

The Canadian forces were initially commanded by Major General H. L. N. Salmon who was later succeeded by Maj. Gen. Guy Simonds after Salmon's death in an airplane accident in the early days of planning. The Canadians faced another hurdle, as they underwent commando training in Scotland prior to embarkation. Their lack of opportunity to acclimate to the weather was an issue in the opening days of the campaign. By contrast, the majority of Allied formations going into Sicily were coming from North Africa.

The Axis defenders comprised around 365,000 Italian and around 40,000 German troops, with at least 47 tanks and about 200 artillery pieces, under the overall command of Italian General Alfredo Guzzoni.

Battle

Allied landings

The landings took place in extremely strong wind, which made the landings difficult but also ensured the element of surprise. Landings were made on the southern and eastern coasts of the island, with the British forces in the east and the Americans towards the west.

Four airborne drops were carried out just after midnight on the night of the 9 July-10 July, as part of the invasion, two British, two American. The American paratroopers consisted largely of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, making their first combat drop. The strong winds caused aircraft to go off course and scattered them widely; the result was around half the U.S. paratroopers failed to reach their rallying points. British glider-landed troops fared little better; only 1 out of 12 gliders landing on target, many crashing at sea. Nevertheless, the scattered airborne troops maximized their opportunities, attacking patrols and creating confusion wherever possible.

The sea landings, commencing some three hours after the airborne drops, despite the weather, met little opposition from Italian units stationed on the shoreline because the defenders lacked necessary equipment. Regia Marina, the Italian Navy, however, made several attacks against the invasion fleet with torpedo boats and submarines, sinking several warships and transport vessels, but they lost several of their own vessels while doing so.[1] As a result of the adverse weather, many troops landed in the wrong place, wrong order and as much as six hours behind schedule.[2] The British walked into the port of Syracuse virtually unopposed. Only in the American centre was a substantial counterattack made, at exactly the point where the airborne were supposed to have been. On 11 July, Patton ordered his reserve parachute regiments to drop and reinforce the center. Not every unit had been informed of the drop, and the 144 C-47 transports, which arrived shortly after an Axis air raid, were fired on by the Royal Navy; 33 were shot down and 37 damaged, resulting in 318 casualties to [[fratricide |friendly fire]].

Landing battle

The plans for the post-invasion battle had not been worked out; the Army Group commander, Alexander, never developed a plan. This left each Army to fight its own campaign with little coordination. Boundaries between the two armies were fixed, as was normal procedure. In the first two days progress was excellent, capturing Vizzini in the west and Augusta in the east.

Then resistance in the British sector stiffened. Montgomery persuaded Alexander to shift the inter-Army boundaries so the British could by-pass resistance and retain the key role of capturing Messina, while the Americans were given the role of protecting and supporting their flank. Historian Carlo D'Este has called this the worst strategic blunder of the campaign. It necessitated having the U.S. 45th Infantry Division break contact, move back to the beaches at Gela and thence northwest, and allowed the German XIVth Panzer Corps to escape likely encirclement. This episode was the origin of what would become greater conflicts between Montgomery and the II Corps commander, Omar Bradley. Patton, however, did not contest the decision.

After a week's fighting, Patton sought a greater role for his army and decided to try to capture the capital, Palermo. After dispatching a reconnaissance toward the town of Agrigento which succeeded in capturing it, he formed a provisional corps and persuaded Alexander to allow him to continue to advance. Alexander changed his mind and countermanded his orders, but Patton claimed the countermand was "garbled in transmission", and by the time the position had been clarified Patton was at the gates of Palermo. Although there was little tactical value in taking the city, the rapid advance was an important demonstration of the U.S. Army's mobility and skill at a time when the reputation of U.S. forces was still recovering from the Battle of the Kasserine Pass.

The fall of Palermo inspired a coup d’état against Mussolini, and he was deposed from power. Although the removal of Italy from the war had been one of the long-term objectives of the Italian campaign, the suddenness of the move caught the Allies by surprise.

After Patton's capture of Palermo, with the British still bogged down south of Messina, Alexander ordered a two-pronged attack on the city. On 24 July, Montgomery suggested to Patton that the Seventh U.S. Army take Messina, since they were in a better position to do so. The Axis, now effectively under the command of German General Hans Hube, had prepared a strong defensive line, the Etna Line around Messina that would enable them to make a progressive retreat while evacuating large parts of the army to the mainland. Patton began his assault on the line at Troina, but it was a linchpin of the defense and stubbornly held. Despite three end run amphibious landings the Germans managed to keep the bulk of their forces beyond reach of capture and maintain their evacuation plans. Elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division entered Messina just hours after the last Axis troops boarded ship for Italy. However Patton had won his race to enter Messina first. Operation Baytown was planned to land troops near the tip of Calabria (the "toe" of Italy) in connection with the invasion of Italy, and to not prevent an Axis escape from Sicily was a major strategic blunder.[3] As a result, instead of a major Axis defeat and the fall of an enemy government, Husky served as a prelude to a long, bloody campaign, strategically questionalble campaign in Italy.

Aftermath

The casualties on the Axis side totaled 29,000, with 140,000 (mostly Italians) captured. The U.S. lost 2,237 killed and 6,544 wounded and captured; the British suffered 2,721 dead, and 10,122 wounded and captured; the Canadians suffered 1,310 Casualties including 562 killed and 748 wounded and captured. For many of the American forces, and the entire Canadian contingent, this was their first time in combat. The Axis successfully evacuated over 100,000 men and 10,000 vehicles from Sicily, which the Allies were unable to prevent. Rescuing such a large number of troops from the threat of capture represented a major success for the Axis. In the face of overwhelming Allied naval and air superiority, this evacuation was a major Allied failure.

The invasion may also have had a minor impact on the Eastern front. One Waffen-SS Panzer-Division was diverted from the failed offensive near Kursk to Italy.

The Allied command was forced to improve inter-service coordination, particularly with regard to use of airborne forces. After several missed drops and the deadly friendly fire incident, increased training and some tactical changes kept the paratroopers in the war. Indeed, a few months later, Montgomery's initial assessment of the Operation Overlord plan included a request for four airborne divisions.

American soldiers were later found guilty of killing seventy-three Italian prisoners of war at Biscari airfield.

Constituent operations

  • Operation Barclay/Operation Mincemeat: Deception operations aimed at misleading Axis forces as to the actual date and location of the Allied landings.
  • Operation Chestnut: Advanced air drop by 2 SAS to disrupt communications on 12 July 1943.
  • Operation Corkscrew: Allied invasion of the Italian island Pantelleria on 10 June 1943.
  • Operation Fustian: Airborne landing at Primrose Bridge ahead on 13 July - 14 July 1943.
  • Operation Ladbroke: Glider landing at Syracuse on 9 July 1943.
  • Operation Narcissus: Commando raid on a lighthouse near the main landings on 10 July 1943.

Notes

  1. Bauer, Eddy; Kilpi, Mikko (1975). Toinen maailmansota : Suomalaisen laitoksen toimituskunta: Keijo Mikola, Vilho Tervasmäki, Helge Seppälä. 4 (in Finnish). Helsinki: Werner Söderström. 
  2. Carver, p31
  3. John Grigg, 1943: The Victory that Never Was

References

External links