Operation Avalanche: The Invasion of Italy, 9 September 1943

Operation Avalanche: The Invasion of Italy, 9 September 1943

Artillery being landed during the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno, September 1943. Troops bringing artillery ashore at Salerno in September 1943. The military policeman (MP) in the foreground is ducking from a near-by German shell hit. The LCVP is from USS James O’Hara (APA-90). Note the use of chicken wire to stabilize the beach sand. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Unit, College Park, MD. Photo Citation Number: 80-G-54600. Official Caption: “American fighting men pour out of their landing ships. The M.P. in the foreground was in the act of instinctively ducking from the blast of a shell from a German 88mm. gun.”

As the Allied forces continued to advance in Sicily, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was ousted in a coup and arrested on 25 July, as other Italian senior leaders (and most of the population of Italy) became disillusioned by what seemed like a never-ending string of defeats for the Italians. Mussolini was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio (the “conqueror of Ethiopia” in 1936), who publicly voiced support for continuing to fight as an ally to Nazi Germany, while secretly opening discussions with the Allies for an armistice. Badoglio was trying to avoid the humiliation of an “unconditional surrender” (which was the Allies’ stated war aim) and instead to switch sides and join the Allies. At the time the United States and Britain had agreed to invade Sicily, the Americans had not committed to an invasion of Italy. However, the prospect that Italy could be quickly knocked out of the war represented an unexpected opportunity.

The British pushed hard for the invasion, believing that if Italy switched sides, then that would take enormous pressure off the supply line through the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and Suez (and by extension to India and the Far East). The United States reluctantly agreed to go along, but remained concerned about the possibility of getting bogged down in a campaign in Italy (which is exactly what happened). The British made a bad assumption that when Italy switched sides the Italian army would fight the Germans. Instead, the Italian army would literally dissolve, and the Germans would take over all of Italy and continue to fight, continuing to attack the vulnerable Allied supply route through the Mediterranean with their own aircraft and U-boats operating from Italian bases.

The result was a rushed plan for the invasion of Italy, with landings at Salerno. Many lessons learned from the landings in Sicily were incorporated, but the plan still had some major flaws. On the plus side, General Eisenhower put his foot down and ordered the Air Force to participate in the planning process. This time, Vice Admiral Hewitt’s flagship, USS Ancon (AGC-4), had an effective fighter-director team embarked under the command of Brigadier General Edward House, U.S. Army Air Force, perhaps the earliest version of a “JFACC afloat,” and two other ships were equipped with “joint” fighter-director teams as back-up. The British also committed one light carrier and four escort carriers to support the landings. Two additional British fleet carriers, HMS Illustrious and Formidable, were in the covering force. Ancon was an ocean liner that had been converted to a joint and combined forces flagship and was festooned with the latest in radar, radio, and command-and-control equipment (a lot like USS Blue Ridge—LCC-19—and ahead of her time). U.S. Army General Mark Clark would be aboard during the initial landings.

Salerno was chosen because it had the best beaches closest to the Italian port city of Naples (about 30 miles) but was still in range of land-based fighter cover operating from Sicily. However, the terrain favored defense, and to get to Naples, Allied forces would have to get through a chokepoint between mountain ranges. A river bisected the landing area, separating the U.S. forces and British forces, and the valley provided an avenue of approach for defenders. The nature of the beach was such that to get enough forces ashore required a front of about 35 miles, which also gave the defense the opportunity to separate Allied units and defeat them in detail.

The overall commander of the Allied ground force was U.S. General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, with the U.S. VI Corps and the British army’s X Corps for the attack, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in reserve. Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was in charge of all amphibious forces in Avalanche, while the covering forces were under Royal Navy command. Hewitt’s force included a Northern Attack Force (mostly British) landing British troops, and a Southern Attack Force, under the command of Rear Admiral John L. Hall, USN, to land U.S. troops.

Like Operation Husky, Army commanders made the decision to land at night, without preparatory air strikes or naval gunfire, so as to maintain an element of surprise. Vice Admiral Hewitt again argued strongly to use naval gunfire to prepare the beachhead, stressing that with the size of the force that would converge on Salerno from the sea, and the fact that Salerno was the obvious place to land, there would be no way that the landing would achieve surprise.

As it turned out, there were eight German divisions deployed to directly oppose the landing or moving to support. In particular, the 16th Panzer Division had arrived on the Salerno plain on 6 September and set up effective defensive positions. Some of these German forces had been successfully evacuated from Sicily across the Strait of Messina. Not all of the divisions were at full strength, but they were ready to fight. In addition, the Allies discovered (fortunately in advance) that the Gulf of Salerno had been heavily mined, which meant that the Allied troop ships would have to hold 9 to 12 miles from the beach, while minesweepers cleared paths, which necessitated very long runs by the landing craft. Fortunately, unlike Sicily, the weather cooperated and was ideal.

On 3 September, elements of the British Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina from Sicily onto the “toe” of the Italian “boot” as part of a deception plan called Operation Baytown.

The Germans were not fooled; they were not about to give battle where they could be easily outflanked by amphibious assault and withdrew up the toe of Italy toward Salerno. A second improvised deception operation (Operation Slapstick) took place the day before the Salerno landing. The light cruiser USS Boise (CL-47) was pressed into service with three other British light cruisers to help lift troops of the British 1st Airborne Division and capture the Italian naval base at Taranto (many Italian navy ships based there had been repositioned to bases in the north of Italy earlier in the war). Boise carried 788 British troops and 60–70 jeeps (instead of her observation/spotting planes).

The Royal Navy battleship HMS Howe (32), flagship of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, passing through the Suez Canal on its way to the Pacific.

The British battleships HMS Howe and HMS King George V joined the forces to provide cover in the event of Italian navy opposition. Two Italian battleships and three cruisers sortied from Taranto, but they surrendered. Boise and the other cruisers steamed into Taranto to offload their troops. For some reason, Captain Thebaud of Boise declined the first berth he was offered by an Italian pilot and berthed at the mole instead. HMS Abdiel, a fast minelayer being used as a troop transport, took Boise’s berth instead, which turned out to have been mined. Abdiel struck an undetected mine several hours later and sank, with the loss of 48 crew and 101 soldiers. Other than that, the landing in Taranto was unopposed, but it did not fool the Germans.

The convoys carrying troops left from multiple North African ports beginning around 6 September.

The main convoy of the Southern Attack Force, carrying U.S. troops, reflected the intermingled multi-national nature of the force, consisting of 13 U.S. transports, three British LSTs and three British LCIs, escorted by the light cruisers PhiladelphiaSavannah, and Boise (although Boise was detached on short notice to join Operation Slapstick). Hewitt’s flagship, Ancon, was escorted by one British and three U.S. destroyers. The convoys proceeded by disparate routes, joining up in the Gulf of Salerno. Multiple attacks by significant numbers of German aircraft were surprisingly ineffective, succeeding in sinking only LCT-624 and putting a dud bomb into LST-375.

The armistice with Italy was reached in secret on 3 September 1943, and was announced by the Allies (by General Eisenhower himself) at 1830 on 8 September, nine hours before the scheduled landing at Salerno, in the hope that it would eliminate any Italian resistance. That part worked, but no Italian had been entrusted with the knowledge of the impending landing, so the Italians were in no position to help either, not that it would have made much difference. The Germans immediately executed their planned take-over of Italy and quickly disarmed those Italian army forces that did not melt away. An unfortunate by-product of the announcement was that word spread among the troops in the Allied invasion force, giving them the false sense that the landings might be unopposed.

At midnight on 9 September, the operation began with scouting and minesweeping operations, and landing craft in assembly areas. Scout boats could hear, but not see, German armor moving practically to the water’s edge. But, all went reasonably smoothly except for one landing craft blown up by a mine. The minesweepers would eventually clear 275 mines. The initial wave of U.S. troops arrived at the four designated beaches within seven minutes of each other at first light about 0335.

Then all hell broke loose.

Many U.S. troops were killed while still in the landing craft, by well-emplaced German guns. German aircraft arrived over the beach, bombing and strafing. It was the largest and most concerted German air attack against any landing in the Mediterranean. Seafire fighters from the British escort carriers were able to keep most attacks away from the amphibious craft offshore. Despite high casualties, U.S. troops pushed ashore, aided by DUKW amphibious vehicles carrying field artillery, put ashore by the three British LSTs. On Blue Beach, four of six LCTs carrying tanks were hit by German 88-milimeter anti-tank guns. The crew of LST-389 rigged their pontoon bridge under heavy enemy fire, but succeeded so that the embarked tanks could get ashore. The landings in the British sector were just as bloody.

At about 0510, a large bomb from an undetected aircraft exploded close aboard the ocean tug USS Nauset (AT-89), which had carried and offloaded a British small craft equipped with “hedgehog” projector charges intended to clear a path through any mines in the surf zone. Nauset caught fire and began to list. Although her crew fought valiantly to save her, fires below decks could not be extinguished. After being abandoned, the tug righted herself, and the skipper, Lieutenant Joseph Orleck, and two others went back aboard to try to save her, whereupon she exploded after probably striking a mine and went down with the skipper and one of the boarding party. Of Nauset’s complement of 113, 18 were killed and 41 were seriously wounded. Orleck was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, and the Gearing-class DD-886 was named for him (now a museum ship in Lake Charles, Louisiana).

The U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL-41) off New York City (USA) on 26 April 1943.

The light cruisers Philadelphia and Savannah, four U.S. destroyers, and HMS Abercrombie (a monitor with twin 15-inch gun turrets) bombarded German tanks, gun positions, and troop concentrations. Abercrombie hit a mine and had to withdraw. Delays in getting through the minefields and establishing communications with shore fire-control parties, kept the naval gunfire on the first day from being as effective as it might have been early in the day. Nevertheless, Savannah fired on a concentration of German tanks and forced them to withdraw. The light cruiser had also been the first ship to open fire on the morning of 9 September, silencing a railroad artillery battery with 57 rounds. Savannah responded to 11 calls for fire support, expending 645 rounds of 6-inch ammunition. Unlike at Sicily, where all her planes were shot down, this time the ship had the benefit of U.S. Army Air Force P-51 Mustang fighters flying in pairs to defend themselves from German fighters and specially trained to spot naval gunfire.

Philadelphia also engaged German tanks, hitting a bridge that held up a column of armored vehicles and, with the aid of her scout plane (and the scout plane from Savannah), flushed 35 tanks out of hiding, destroying seven of them while forcing the rest to flee. The U.S. destroyers, putting themselves at risk in minefields, were also effective in destroying German gun positions that were inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. troops. Much credit goes to the bravery of the U.S. Army troops in holding on to the beachhead, but much credit is also due to naval gunfire support. However, more German reinforcements were closing in.

On the night of 10 September, German E-boats (torpedo boats, similar to U.S. PT boats but heftier) attacked an Allied convoy of emptied transport ships as it was leaving the Gulf of Salerno. The destroyer USS Rowan (DD-405) engaged two of the E-boats and drove them off. However, when returning to the convoy, Rowan encountered a third E-boat that rapidly closed range to 2,000 yards. Rowan took evasive action to put her stern toward the direction of the anticipated torpedo attack, but her turn was not fast enough. She was hit in the after quarter and her magazine exploded. She sank in less than 40 seconds, taking 202 of her crew with her. Only 71 survived.

Heavy fighting continued into the second day in both U.S. and British sectors, with U.S. and Royal Navy ships answering numerous calls for fire. Two German divisions conducted major counterattacks. Gunfire from Savannah was significantly responsible for halting the attack of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division down the Sele River valley, which threatened to divide Allied forces. Multiple German attacks came close to reaching the beaches. The same pattern continued over the next days, as more German forces poured into the area, along with more U.S. and British troops getting ashore in bitter see-saw combat. After the first day, German air attacks ashore were mostly ineffective, but the Luftwaffe concentrated their attacks on the things that were hurting the Germans the most: the Allied ships providing gunfire support.

"One that didn’t get away"
U.S. soldiers examine the wreckage of a German Panzerkampfwagen IV tank, destroyed by Allied fire during Operation Avalanche. This may be one of the tanks knocked out by naval gunfire support during the battle for the beachhead (NH-95563).

During the 0900 hour on 11 September, Allied forces received warning of inbound German aircraft, but the planes remained a high altitude, over 18,000 ft. At about 0950, a large bomb exploded close aboard Philadelphia, wounding 15 men. Other ships began evasive action, but 10 minutes later, Savannah could not avoid another bomb, because it was a guided Fritz X (see H-021 overview and attachment H-021-1 for more). Heroic damage control saved the ship from nearly catastrophic damage that killed 197 of her crew and seriously wounded 15 more.

Four sailors who were trapped in a forward compartment could not be rescued for 60 hours until the ship arrived in Malta under her own power.
Robert Carey-USNA

I could find no record that the skipper of Savannah, Captain Robert Webster Carey, USN, was awarded a medal for valor in saving his ship, and my presumption is that one of his five Legion of Merits covered it. Carey was one of the most decorated officers in the Navy, having been awarded a Medal of Honor shortly out of the academy for his actions during a boiler explosion (actually five boilers exploded) in 1915 aboard the armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR-6) indirectly saving the lives of three men while dragging them to safety and for putting out the fires in the adjacent boiler room, thus preventing the boilers from exploding and inflicting even more damage. San Diego would later be the largest U.S. Navy warship lost in World War I, after Carey detached.

During that conflict, Carey was awarded a Navy Cross while aboard the destroyer USS Sampson (DD-63) for his actions in securing a live depth charge that had come loose and was rolling about the deck in heavy seas. Carey retired in 1945 as a rear admiral.

German counter-attacks increased in intensity on 13–14 September, and General Mark Clark was seriously considering evacuating the southern (American) beaches and concentrating troops on the northern sector. Clark, who was now ashore, sent an urgent request to Hewitt to prepare to evacuate the U.S. VI Corps from the beaches and re-locate them to the beaches north of the Sele River. Boise, having arrived after her participation in Operation Slapstick, was instrumental in blunting one of the more serious German attacks. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe attacks with Fritz X guided glide bombs continued. Philadelphia narrowly avoided being hit by two Fritz X, one within 100 yards and one within 100 feet. At 1440, the British light cruiser HMS Uganda was conducting close fire support missions when she suffered a direct hit from a Fritz X dropped from a plane that was never seen.

The bomb penetrated through seven decks, out the bottom, and exploded under the keel, snuffing out all the boilers and killing 16 men. A U.S. tug was able to tow Uganda to safety, but she was out of action for many months. Other British destroyers suffered near-misses from guided bombs. Two British hospital ships were also attacked by guided bombs, with several near-misses, and one hit HMHS Newfoundland, killing all of the medical officers and six nurses. The two hospital ships had previously been carrying 105 U.S. nurses, who had already gone ashore. Newfoundland had to be towed to sea and scuttled.

The Royal Navy hospital ship HMHS Newfoundland. Note the Red Cross designation “38” on the bow.

Intense German counter-attacks continued on 14 September on land, as did guided-bomb attacks at sea. Philadelphia and Boise continued to provide fire support. Two transports, SS Bushrod Washington and SS James W. Marshall, appeared to have been hit by guided bombs, probably the smaller rocket-assisted version. Bushrod Washington was a total loss after her cargo of gasoline went up, while James W. Marshall suffered heavy casualties among her merchant marine crew. Marshall would end up being deliberately scuttled and used as part of a “Mulberry” artificial harbor during the Normandy landings.

Due to the desperate situation ashore, the British brought the battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant in close. On 16 September, Warspite suffered a direct hit and a near miss from two Fritz X glide bombs. The first bomb penetrated six decks, detonated in the No. 4 boiler room, and put out all boiler fires, leaving her dead in the water.

Over 5,000 tons of water flooded into the ship, but her crew was able to take action to save her and she was towed to Malta. 
HMS WARSPITE of the Eastern Fleet and Flagship of Admiral Sir James Sommerville, underway in the Indian Ocean.

Warspite was never completely repaired, but she was able to participate in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. By 16 September, however, Allied fighters had become better at intercepting and driving off the high-altitude attacks—or in disrupting them during the vulnerable period where the bomber had to remain straight and level. The Allies also learned that making smoke was a reasonably effective means to disrupt the attacks since the bomb operator would lose sight of the target while the bomb was in flight. Radio jammers would first become available later in September.

A report by a senior German commander (General Vietinghoff) stated:

“The attack this morning pushed on to stiffened resistance; but above all the advancing troops had to endure the most severe fire that had hitherto been experienced; the naval gunfire from at least 16 to 18 battleships, cruisers and large destroyers lying in the roadstead. With astonishing precision and freedom of maneuver, these ships shot at every recognized target with very overwhelming effect.”

Obviously naval gunfire earned the Germans’ respect.

In the end, had the Germans committed more divisions from northern Italy they might have won at Salerno, as there were times when German forces in the landing area outnumbered the Allies, and almost twice as many Allied troops were killed as German. Nevertheless, Hitler refused to commit the additional troops and, between 15 and 17 September, the Allied forces ashore slowly gained the upper hand. On 16 September, Field Marshall Kesselring, commander of German forces in southern Italy, gave orders to conduct a fighting withdrawal. Philadelphia was narrowly missed by more glide bombs as she supported the Allied advance. Naples would fall on 1 October (after the Germans conducted extensive sabotage and destruction of the port facilities, water distribution, and civilian food supplies), which would be just one more event in what would turn into a long and bloody campaign.

The German navy got in another blow during the Salerno operation when the submarine U-616 torpedoed and sank the destroyer USS Buck (DD-420) south of Capri in the Gulf of Salerno just after midnight on 9 October 1943. Buck apparently detected the U-boat by radar and commenced an attack run to lay a depth charge pattern, when Oberleutnant zur See Siegfried Koitschka fired an acoustic-homing torpedo from his stern tube. (Some sources do not credit U-616 with firing an acoustic torpedo).

The torpedo struck Buck’s starboard bow, followed almost immediately by a massive explosion that blew off the bow and killed almost everyone in the forward section of the ship and on the bridge, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Millard J. Klein. As the aft section of the ship rolled on its side, and the stern rose toward vertical, crewmen desperately tried to set the depth charges on safe, but were only partially successful. The ship sank in less than four minutes, and soon thereafter the starboard depth charges detonated, killing and wounding many more sailors in the water. There had been no time to send a distress call, so it was many hours before rescue came during daylight. Of Buck’s crew, 168 were killed and 95 survived.

After the sinking, Lieutenant Commander Klein would be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for a previous engagement on 3 August 1943, when Buck was escorting six Liberty ship transports from Sicily to Algeria, when she depth-charged and forced the Italian submarine Argento (then still on the Germans’ side) to the surface and sank her with gunfire. Buck rescued 45 of Argento’s 49 crewmen. Buck had also previously survived a serious collision at sea with a New Zealand troop transport in the fog off Nova Scotia on 22 August 1942. Buck’s keel had been broken, fantail severed, and seven men lost, but her crew saved her.

However, the destroyer USS Ingraham (DD-444), coming to Buck’s aid, collided with the oiler USS Chemung (AO-30) and sank. Ingraham’s depth charges exploded; only 11 of Ingraham’s crew of 208 survived. The Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer (DD-761) was subsequently named Buck, but was completed too late to see combat in World War II, although she earned six battle stars during the Korean War before eventually being transferred to the Brazilian navy. World War II ended before any ship was named for Lieutenant Commander Klein.

And finally, on 13 October, the German submarine U-371 attacked a convoy returning from Salerno to Oran near the coast of eastern Algeria. The destroyer USS Bristol (DD-453) detected the submarine, but was hit ten seconds later by a torpedo, which broke the back of the ship and she quickly sank. Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Patrick J. Phillips was able to set the depth charges to “safe” before the ship went under, and the ship’s executive officer was credited with conducting an orderly abandon ship which saved many lives (the commanding officer had been seriously wounded by the explosion). Five officers and 47 enlisted men were lost out of her crew of 293.

Including Buck and Bristol, Vice Admiral Hewitt’s initial casualty report listed 296 U.S. Navy sailors killed, 551 missing, and 422 wounded during Operation Avalanche. Almost all of those listed as missing were subsequently declared dead, so over 800 U.S. Navy sailors were killed during the operation, making the invasion of Salerno one of the most costly battles in U.S. Navy history. Three destroyers, Rowan, Buck,and Bristol were lost, and the light cruiser Savannah was severely damaged, but saved. The invasion, however, was a success.

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

(Sources include: History of U.S. Navy Operations in World War II, Vol. IX, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, January 1943–June 1944 by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison; Action Report, Western Naval Task Force, The Sicilian Campaign, Operation “Husky,” July–August 1943,” signed by Vice Admiral H.K. Hewitt, USN, Naval Commander, Western Task Force; History of the U.S. Navy, Vol. Two 1942–1991 by Robert W. Love, Jr.; Sea Power by E.B. Potter; NHHC report, “The U.S. Navy and the Landings at Salerno, Italy, 3-17 September 1943”; and NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships—DANFS—entries for various ships involved.)

Operation Avalanche: The Invasion of Italy, 9 September 1943