Invasion of Sicily

Invasion of Sicily

Operation Husky : The Invasion of Sicily : 10 July 1943 

The hastily planned Allied invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) commencing on 9 September 1943 nearly ended in disaster.

The effects of naval gunfire support were a significant factor, if not the major factor, in preventing the Germans from defeating the landings (actually, bad decisions by Adolf Hitler in holding back resources from the overall German commander in southern Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring, were probably the primary factor).

The Allied plan relied heavily on surprise, which the U.S. naval commander, Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, argued would not be achieved. Hewitt reasoned that because Salerno was the closest beach near the key port of Naples that was still within range of land-based Allied fighter cover, the Germans would have no problem predicting where the landings would come. As it turned out, Kesselring was unwittingly in complete agreement with Hewitt’s analysis.

The Allies would find the sea approaches to Salerno heavily mined, and a crack Panzer division itching for a fight on the beach (and more divisions in support, although not enough as it turned out). In order to preserve the (non-existent) element of surprise, the senior Allied ground commanders decided on a night landing, with no pre-landing naval bombardment, over the objection of Admiral Hewitt. Instead of meeting Italian troops eager to surrender, the initial wave of Allied troops was met by German loudspeakers inviting the Allied troops to come in and surrender, because the Germans had them covered. The Allies came in anyway, but not to surrender, and a brutal and bloody fight commenced.

Operation Husky is important to the understanding of Avalanche.

British airborne troops wait to board an American WACO CG4A glider.

Although the purpose is to focus on U.S. naval operations, a little bit of the development of Allied strategy in the European Theater is necessary. After the success of the Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, and the British victory over Rommel’s Afrika-Korps at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt—also in November 1942—the Allies quickly forced the Germans back into Tunisia, and, with a few setbacks (Battle of Kasserine Pass), defeated German forces in North Africa, in large part because Allied control of the sea lanes (although contested) strangled the Germans of supplies.

As it became apparent that the Germans in North Africa would be defeated by mid-1943, the Allies had to decide what to do next. There was agreement between the U.S. and the British on the overall “defeat Germany first” grand strategy for the war, but after that things could become pretty contentious. Generally, “Allied” strategy meant the Americans and British agreeing on something, and everyone else (Free French, Free Poles, even the Russians) would be told about it later, to the frequent consternation of the French and the Russians. Although today there is the view that the U.S.-British alliance during World War II was one of the most successful and harmonious in history, only the successful part is completely true. Many of the high-level strategy meetings between the U.S. and British senior military leaders were knock-down, drag-out food fights.

To grossly oversimplify the differing viewpoints, the British were convinced that the Americans were fixated on diving headlong into a bloodbath in northern France à la World War I before the Allies were really ready. The American view was that the British (still shell-shocked by their Great War experience) just wanted to beat around the bush in places like Italy and Greece, and that ideas by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to invade places like the Dodecanese Islands (huh? where?) were a waste of time and resources that would be better spent going right at the Germans. Nevertheless, the British absolutely refused to budge on invading northern France any earlier than 1944—if that—but were willing to make landings in the Mediterranean. Neither CNO Admiral Ernest J. King nor U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had ever been keen on landing in North Africa to begin with, but since the Army was there, they might as well do something with it, and the plan for the invasion of Sicily was the result.

Sicily Invasion, July 1943

Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. holds the Seventh Army command flag he has just received from Vice Admiral H. K. Hewitt (left), U.S. Eighth Fleet commander, on board USS Monrovia (APA-31), en route to Sicily, circa 7 July 1943 (NH-96739).

There was extensive discussion amongst the U.S. and British military leadership as to where in the Mediterranean the Allies should invade next, such as Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, direct to the Italian mainland, Corfu, the Balkans (or the Dodecanese Islands). For a variety of reasons, Sicily was actually the obvious choice—the shortest distance from North Africa, air cover, etc. The fact that it was the obvious choice was the problem, which resulted in one the most extensive operational deception campaigns in military history, to include dropping a dead body with a fake identity and fake war plans off the coast of Spain from a submarine, with the intent that the neutral but Hitler-friendly government of dictator Francisco Franco would turn the plans (for the invasion of Sardinia and Greece) over to the Germans (Operation Mincemeat, also known as The Man Who Never Was in the movie). As it turned out, probably the only person really fooled by Mincemeat was Hitler himself, but that was sufficient. What really surprised the Italians and the Germans was how fast the Allies were able to marshal the required amphibious vessels, supplies, air cover, and troops to execute the attack. The Italians and Germans fully expected the attack on Sicily and were taking steps to counter it, but in many cases troop and aircraft reinforcements did not get there in time.

Between the landings in North Africa in November 1942 and the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, American shipyards were cranking out as a matter of top priority hundreds of new types of amphibious vessels, such as Landing Ship, Tank (LST) Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) Landing Craft, Mechanized and Utility (LCM/LCU) Landing Ship Medium (LSM), and numerous variations. Although world-wide demand for these kinds of vessels still greatly exceeded supply, hundreds were provided to the landings in Sicily (while U.S. operations in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea were hamstrung by the lack of such specialized amphibious vessels).

Allied leaders in the Sicilian campaign. General Dwight D. Eisenhower meets in North Africa with (foreground, left to right): Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur TedderGeneral Sir Harold AlexanderAdmiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, and (top row): Mr. Harold MacmillanMajor General Walter Bedell Smith, and unidentified British officers.

The fleet that was assembled to invade Sicily was the largest in history to that point, and included over 3,200 ships, craft, and boats, divided into two major forces: the Eastern Naval Task Force, to land the British Eighth Army on the eastern coast of Sicily (south of Sigonella) and the Western Naval Task Force, to land the U.S. Seventh Army (under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton) on the southeastern end of the southern coast of Sicily. The Eastern Naval Task Force was predominately British Royal Navy and the Western Naval Task Force was predominately U.S. Navy, although ships of both nations (and other allies) served in both task forces. The Western Naval Task Force (about 1,700 ships, craft, and boats) was under the command of Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt, USN.

General Alfredo Guzzoni, Supreme Commander of Italo-German forces in Sicily.

Vice Admiral Hewitt’s after-action report described the battle for Sicily thus: “The amphibious assaults were uniformly successful. The only serious threat was an enemy counter-attack on D plus one day against the 1st Infantry Division when a German tank force drove across the Gela plain to within 1,000 yards of the DIME beaches. The destruction of this armored force by naval gunfire delivered by U.S. cruisers and destroyers, and the recovery of the situation through naval support, was one of the most noteworthy events of the operations. The continued employment of naval gunfire against enemy positions on the north coast during the reduction of the island phase of the campaign, the unique employment of landing craft in providing a service of food, fuel and munitions to our front line troops on the north coast contributed to a marked degree to the rapid defeat of the enemy.”

Vice Admiral Hewitt’s report understates some of the challenges involved. The weather was bad enough that serious consideration was given to postponing the landings, which would increase the likelihood that the Italians and Germans would be able to reinforce their defenses. Hewitt took a great risk, and opted to proceed with the landings anyway, and got away with it. In many respects, the rough seas proved a much greater obstacle to conducting the landing than the enemy. However, the enemy was also caught by surprise, having assumed that no one would try to land in such adverse conditions. Because of the nature of the beachheads in the American sector (off-shore sand bars), the LSTs needed to use pontoon bridges to get their tanks and armored vehicles to the beach. Although the weather played serious havoc, the LSTs were eventually successful. Also, in an effort to ensure surprise, the largest amphibious assault in history was planned to be a night assault. Somewhat amazingly, the darkness was much less of an impediment than the sea state, and the initial landings in the dark were successful. The airborne drops that preceded the amphibious assault were much less successful as high winds scattered American paratroopers all over southeastern Sicily. It was worse in the British sector, where British gliders were cut loose too early by U.S. tow planes and crashed into the sea, killing 252 British troops and glider crews (some sources say 326 killed). Another effort to ensure surprise is that there was no pre-landing naval bombardment, which had been approved over Hewitt’s objection. Since the Italians and Germans had been caught off-guard, lack of pre-landing bombardment didn’t make much difference, although the consequences would be much more severe at the later Salerno landings.

However, the greatest weakness in the Sicily landings was that they depended on land-based air support, as there were no U.S. or British aircraft carriers to support the landing in the American sector. Both the U.S. Navy and Army would pay heavily. Hewitt’s after-action report stated, “the weakest link in the joint planning of the U.S. Forces was the almost complete lack of participation by the Air Force….The Air Plan gave no specific information to the Naval and Military Commanders of what support might be expected during the assault, or what, when or where fighter cover would be provided….Thus the Naval and Military Commanders sailed for the assault with almost no knowledge of what the air force would do in the initial assault or thereafter.” Following the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in February 1943, the U.S. Army Air Force successfully argued that a contributing factor in the defeat of U.S. forces by the Germans was partly due to the misallocation of air assets, i.e., assigning specific fighter squadrons to support specific army divisions resulted in an inefficient and ineffective use of available air power. The Air Force was right, but then for the Sicily invasion the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction, with the Air Force acting as a completely independent force (still trying to prove that by strategic bombing they could win the war all by themselves).

Sicily Invasion, June 1943

The 6-inch/47-caliber guns of a Brooklyn-class light cruiser bombards enemy forces at Licata, Sicily, during the Allied landings, 10 June 1943 (80-G-54550).

At dawn on 10 July, the German (and some Italian) air attacks commenced. Although some German aircraft came in high, where they were detected by radar, others came ripping down the valleys in Sicily at low level, surprising, bombing, and strafing troops on the beach, landing craft at the beach, and ships off shore. Within the first couple of hours, three of the light cruiser USS Savannah’s(CL-42) four observation/scout planes were shot down by German fighters. In one case, the radioman/observer was able to ditch the aircraft at sea successfully after the pilot had been killed in flight. By the second day, Savannah had lost all four of her planes.

The U.S. Navy suffered its most significant loss during Operation Husky on the first day of the invasion when German aircraft launched a counter-attack. The destroyer USS Maddox (DD-622) was located about 16 nautical miles off the coast, guarding the invasion force from submarine attack, when a lone German Ju-88 twin-engine bomber slipped through without being engaged by Allied fighters and attacked the ship (some accounts say the aircraft was a “Stuka” dive bomber or “Italian Stuka”). At least one, possibly two, 250-pound bombs were direct hits and the other one (or two) was a damaging near- miss. One of the bombs detonated in the after magazine, causing a massive explosion. The ship sank in less than two minutes with the loss of 210 of her crew, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Eugene S. Sarsfield, who received a posthumous Navy Cross for his heroic actions in supervising the abandon-ship evolution, which was credited with saving 74 (nine officers and 65 enlisted personnel) of his crew at the cost of his own life. This was the largest loss of life on a U.S. Navy warship in the Atlantic/European Theater during World War II.

An American crew checks their Sherman tank after landing at Red Beach 2, Sicily, 10 July.

Maddox had previously been commended by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox for her actions when the destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed and damaged by a German U-boat off Iceland during the undeclared war between the U.S. Navy and German submarine force in October 1941. Later, after war was declared, Maddox probably sank a German submarine while escorting a trans-Atlantic convoy. The Gearing-class destroyer DD-837 was named in honor of Sarsfield, but was completed too late to participate in World War II combat, although she did earn one battle star in Vietnam before being transferred to the Republic of China (Taiwan) as ROCS Te Yang in 1977. She is now a museum ship in Taiwan.

The Allen M. Sumner–class DD-731 would also be named Maddox and would survive a kamikaze hit off Okinawa in 1945. On 2 August 1964, she would engage and damage three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats (with the assistance of strafing by U.S. Navy F-8 Crusader fighters), when she was attacked while conducting a DESOTO signals intelligence (SIGINT) patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. Maddox and one of the F-8s suffered minor damage. Two days later, on 4 August 1964, Maddox and the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD-951) engaged what were probably phantom radar contacts off the coast of Vietnam. The two events were frequently conflated into the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” which led the U.S. Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson authority to greatly escalate the Vietnam War. There are still many who believe the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to have been a trumped-up (or even phony) event to justify greater U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The reality is that the first incident on 2 August was definitely real, and the second one, on 4 August, almost certainly not. Like the SarsfieldMaddox would end her career serving in the Taiwanese navy before being scrapped.

Back to Sicily…

Allied aircraft first showed up 15 minutes after Maddox exploded and sank. By the end of the first day, and despite occasional Allied fighter cover, German aircraft sank the minesweeper USS Sentinel (AM-115) and damaged other ships. Sentinel put up an incredible fight during repeated air attacks, despite serious damage in the earliest attacks, hitting at least two German aircraft and driving off others before finally succumbing to additional bomb hits, her after 3-inch gun driving off a sixth attack even as the vessel was sinking. Other ships were damaged or suffered near-misses throughout the day.

Just before nightfall, a single German Bf-109 got through and struck LST-313, which was heavily loaded with fully fueled vehicles and ammunition. Most of those aboard were able to escape via the pontoon bridge before the LST was destroyed by the explosions.  Heroic shiphandling by LST-311 saved about 40 men trapped on the stern of the flaming ship. The skipper of LST-311, Lieutenant Commander Robert L. Coleman, USNR, would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor. Beach operations in the vicinity of LST-313 had to be halted due to a continuing shower of shrapnel from explosions aboard the ship.

On 11 July, German bombers hit the liberty ship SS Robert Rowan with over 400 troops and Navy crewmen on board, along with several thousand tons of ammunition, and set her on fire. The “abandon ship” order was immediately given, and nearby ships, at extraordinary risk, saved everyone on board before the ship blew up in one of the largest explosions ever recorded, showering the whole area with debris, and her smoldering wreck serving to aid follow-on night attacks by German aircraft.

Over the course of the campaign, LST-158LST-318, an LCI and two LCT’s would be lost to bombs. Other ships would be damaged by bombs, mines and shore fire. Ninety-two landing craft (LCVP) would be lost. The U.S. Navy would lose 546 (killed or missing) compared to the U.S. Army’s 2,273 (killed or missing) in the Sicily campaign—mostly as a result of inadequate air cover.

Throughout the first several days, naval gunfire support from the light cruisers USS Boise (CL-47), USS Savannah (CL-42), and other destroyers proved exceptionally effective, until U.S. Army forces advanced out of range. In particular, the most determined German armored counterattack, on 11 July, which came dangerously close to getting through to the beachhead at Gela, was broken up primarily by gunfire from Savannah, which repelled several German attempts to re-group and re-attack, and destroyed or damaged many German tanks. Savannah’s sick bay also served as a hospital to numerous U.S. Army wounded. Savannah’s actions earned her the nickname the “[U.S. Army] Rangers’ favorite ship.” Although U.S. ships had shelled Japanese positions on islands in the Pacific, this was the first time U.S. Navy warships conducted direct fire support in an actual land battle, using coordination procedures that had been carefully rehearsed between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army in preparation for the landing; there was nothing ad hoc about it.

Remains of the Italian Navy armed train “T.A. 76/2/T“, destroyed by USS Bristol while opposing the landing at Licata.

Those who have seen the movie Patton will recall Patton being irate that British General Sir Bernard Montgomery had been given the “easy” route up the east coast of Sicily toward Messina, while U.S. troops had to slog through the mountains guarding Montgomery’s western flank. Patton then got frustrated and led his forces on a much longer “end around” via the western and northern coast of Sicily, and still got to Messina faster than Montgomery. It was basically true, although the scene of Monty triumphantly entering Messina only to find Patton and the band already waiting for him was “Hollywood.” Patton’s “end around” was significantly aided by a series of smaller amphibious operations, naval gunfire support, and timely supply of Patton’s rapidly advancing force by U.S. Navy landing craft.

Although the landings on Sicily were successful, they were marred by what is considered by many to be the worst “friendly fire” incident in U.S. military history—although several sinkings of Japanese “hell ships” full of Allied POWs by U.S. and Allied submarines may also claim that dubious distinction. On the night of 11 July, U.S. Navy ships and U.S. Army shore batteries downed 23 of 144 U.S. C-47/C-53 transport aircraft and damaged 37 more; 81 U.S. paratroopers were killed, including Brigadier General Charles Keerans, and 60 aircrew. In addition, 200 more were wounded. These numbers vary significantly from source to source—23 aircraft shot down and 318 killed or wounded appear to be the most reliable numbers. Vice Admiral Hewitt’s after-action report includes Lesson Learned  No. 42, “Air plans involving the transport of paratroopers should be submitted to the Naval Commander for approval,” which somewhat blandly masked the scope of tragedy. Morison’s account describes a scene where visibility was limited by the pall of smoke from the still-burning SS Robert Rowan, whose flames were used as a beacon by two heavy German air raids between 2150 and 2300 that night, when the flight of transport planes flew in at low altitude (400–700 feet, depending on the account) at the same time German dive bombers were attacking U.S. ships offshore.

Samuel Eliot Morison’s account states that Army batteries ashore opened fire first and the transport aircraft came out over water to avoid them, whereupon U.S. ships opened fire; not all accounts agree as to who fired first. But the result was a horror of sitting-duck transport planes being shot out of the sky by intense anti-aircraft fire from both ship and shore, with many aircraft crashing in the sea. General Patton was reportedly aghast watching the carnage, while the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Major General Matthew Ridgway, who came by ship, was in tears, having previously deemed the drop to be unnecessary, but having been unable to communicate a cancellation in time. Hewitt’s after-action report states, “This failure by the Air Force to correlate plans, and acquire the timely concurrence of the other services in order that information could be disseminated to all forces contributed to a regrettable incident. On the night of the assault a number of the transport planes were off the prescribed route and approached the transports from the same direction as the enemy and arrived over the ships simultaneously with enemy dive-bombers. One is brought to the conviction that that had the Air Force joined the naval and ground force planners, as they had been so often urged to do, and thereby had brought all Air Planes into harmony with the other services, the unfortunate loss of our transport aircraft might have been avoided.”

Salerno Operation, September 1943
USS Charles Carroll (APA-28) is silhouetted against the glow of a burning ship off the Salerno invasion beaches on “D-Day,” 9 September 1943. Photo probably taken from USS Ancon (AGC-4) (80-G-87394).

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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