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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part Five

The Seventh Army Drives West and North


While all this had been going on in the eastern part of the island, the Americans had also been busy. When Patton had received Alexander’s directive of the 16th, he was outraged at the fact that his Seventh Army was being used simply to guard the Eight Army’s rear. On the 17th, he had flown to Tunisia to personally protest to Alexander. Patton explained how his forces could be used to take Palermo and Trapani, and, as it turned out, Alexander was only too happy to give his go-ahead for the Americans to secure the western half of the island, on the condition that they would also secure the key central roads through Caltanissetta up to Petralia as previously instructed. A delighted Patton flew back to Sicily, where he sent II Corps northwards to Petralia, and his new Provisional Corps west and north-west to clear the rest of the island.


Lt. Gen. George S. Patton was outraged at the fact that his Seventh Army was being used in a defensive role. He argued that his forces would be better employed in more offensive operations in the west of the island.

In the meantime, Alexander had been giving more thought to how the final part of the campaign might unfold. The failure to capture Catania quickly was causing him to become increasingly worried that the narrow north-eastern triangle of Sicily would be very difficult to break through, and so on 19th July, he had signalled Montgomery, suggesting that once the Seventh Army had captured the western part of the island, it could take over the northern sector from Santo Stefano to Troina from the Eight Army.


On that same day, the Provisional Corps began its drive west. The 82nd Airborne Division set off at 5 am, using the southern coastal road as their axis of advance. By nightfall, they had taken Ribera and pushed on to the airfields at Sciacca. The following day, II Corps, advancing northwards, took Enna, Guzzoni’s former headquarters, while the Provisional Corps continued to surge west, with opposition melting away along its path.


Residents of Palermo line the streets to greet American troops after their capture of the city on 22nd July.

On the 21st, Force X took the town and airfield of Castelvetrano, then pressed on to Mazara del Vallo. The following day, the 505th RCT took Erice, overlooking Trapani, while the 3rd Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division closed on Palermo. Despite being prepared for a fight, yet again they encountered minimal opposition, and by evening on the 22nd, the city had been surrendered without a shot. The following day, 23rd July, the 505th RCT captured Trapani, while Force X took Marsala, yet another port. The Provisional Corps had succeeded in taking the whole of western Sicily in just four days, at a cost of only 272 casualties, of which 57 had been killed. In return, the Americans had captured a staggering 53,000 Italians and killed and wounded a further 2,900. Added to the bag were 189 guns, 359 vehicles and 41 tanks.



In the meantime, II Corps had been driving northwards from Enna. The German Hauptkampflinie had now developed into an almost continuous curve reaching northwards towards the coast. Holding the north-western stretch was the 129th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. This was a very different unit from those that had been encountered by the Provisional Corps. As they approached the town of Bompietro, just a few kilometres south of Petralia, the Americans were halted by a blown bridge, and soon came under fire from anti-tank guns and Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. The bridge was not repaired until the following day, 22nd July, allowing II Corps to resume its advance, and finally take Bompietro by 7 pm that evening. By 9 am the following morning, Petralia had also been captured. The Seventh Army was now in a position to turn eastwards along the northern coast of Sicily and assist the Eight Army in pushing the enemy into the small north-eastern corner of the island, towards Messina.


In the meantime, because of the difficulty encountered by the Eight Army in trying to pierce the Hauptkampflinie in the eastern part of its sector, the Canadian Division, on the Eight Army’s left flank, was now preparing to try doing so in the centre of the Allied line. Here, the Hauptkampflinie was anchored by a series of mountaintop towns, the westernmost of which were Leonforte and Assoro. On 19th July, as they advanced northwards from Valguarnera, the Canadians had attempted to cross the Dittaino, but were stopped in their tracks by artillery fire directed on them from the heights above. Overnight, however, the Loyal Edmontons managed to secure a crossing, allowing the 1st and 2nd Canadian Brigades to move up towards their respective targets. The two towns, located on adjacent hilltops, and separated by a narrow, plunging valley, were defended by the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment, who had at their disposal five tanks and about 50 guns in total.


View of Assoro.

On the morning of the 20th, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe, the commanding officer of the Hasty P’s, who were to lead the attack on Assoro, was taking a closer look at the target, together with his Intelligence Officer, Captain Maurice Cockin. They were reflecting on how difficult it was going to be to assault the ancient strongpoint, perched some 600 metres above them, with only a single, winding road leading up to it, when an enemy shell landed nearby, killing both men. The battalion second-in-command, the Lord Tweedsmuir, now took over as the new CO and devised an alternate plan which he believed had some chance of success. During his own recce, he had noticed a path leading to a very steep cliff, which he reckoned his men might be able to climb. The cliff led right to the highest point of Assoro and would give them an unrivalled vantage point, but more importantly, the path that led to it was not visible from the town itself, meaning that they could attack using the element of surprise.



The battalion moved off at dusk, led by a special assault company of just twenty men and an officer from each of the rifle companies, who would check if it was even possible to climb the cliff. The men carried only their weapons and ammunition, having got rid of anything that might make any noise. As they climbed through very difficult terrain, they kept expecting to be discovered, but surprisingly, no flurry of shots arrived. By 4 am, they had only reached the base of the 300-metre cliff that would take them to the summit, and they were aware of the need to reach their objective before the first rays of the sun gave their position away to the enemy. Luckily, the cliff was not as steep as first thought, and so up they went, with the assault company cresting the hill just as dawn broke.


The ruins of the old castle on the highest part of Assoro, where the Canadians crested the hill to begin their assault on the town.

The Germans, clearly believing Assoro to be impregnable from the cliffs on this side of the town, were taken completely by surprise, with firing now coming from above rather than below them. The German artillery soon came into action, but Allied artillery opened up in response, silencing most of the German batteries. The problem was that the Hasty P’s were now isolated on the summit, with no way of getting any supplies or ammunition to them, and with water being in particularly short supply, they struggled as the sun bore down on them. Having held on throughout the following night, however, they were finally relieved on the morning of the 22nd, when a party of around 100 men from the Royal Canadian Regiment was able to deliver emergency supplies, while the 48th Highlanders attacked Assoro from the west, finally driving the enemy from the town.


The view of Assoro from the area of the castle.

In the meantime, the 2nd Canadian Brigade was fighting its own battle at Leonforte, just over three kilometres away. The attack had been due to start at 4 pm on 21st July, but just as the 1st Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were receiving their orders, their command post was hit by artillery, with around 30 officers and men being killed or wounded. Brigadier Christopher Vokes decided to give the task to the Loyal Edmontons instead, who were to launch their assault under cover of darkness and behind an artillery barrage at 9.30 pm.


The first part of the attack went exactly as planned, but once the battalion was inside the town, the Allied artillery was helpless to assist further. The Edmontons were heavily counterattacked by panzergrenadiers, assisted by tanks and assault guns, and with no heavy weapons of their own, they fell back in disarray. Small groups, cut off from each other, fought their own battles in bitter house-to-house fighting, eagerly awaiting to be reinforced. Brigadier Vokes, fearing that the Edmontons had been wiped out, was initially reluctant to send in more units, until a 10-year-old boy arrived with a written message from the Edmontons’ CO, Lieutenant Colonel James Jefferson, informing Vokes that his men could hold on until anti-tank guns and armour could be brought up.


Destroyed German armour in Leonforte.

In the meantime, a platoon of the 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, had been working to bridge the 15-metre gap over the Dittaino, and despite being under constant mortar and machine gun fire, had achieved their objective by 4.30 am on 22nd July. Although fighting continued for the rest of the day, by nightfall, Leonforte had also been declared secure. In the battles for the two towns, the Canadians had suffered 276 casualties. The 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment, now falling back towards Agira, came off far worse, with losses of more than 600 men.


Breaking the Hauptkampflinie


By 23rd July, all Axis troops in Sicily had moved, or were moving, behind the Hauptkampflinie. The Allied commanders were determined to finally break this line, allowing them to launch a joint, all-out offensive against a secondary line of defence which the Germans were now creating around the base of Mount Etna: the collapse of this Etna Line, as the Allies were calling it, would finally drive all Axis forces from Sicily for good.


Alexander now gave the Americans the north coast road and Highway 120, which led from Petralia to Nicosia, Troina, Cesarò and Randazzo, thus transferring to them from Eight Army, one of the three thrusts he had ordered on the 16th. With the northwards thrust through Catania having been temporarily halted, this left only one more, that towards Adrano, a task which Montgomery gave to XXX Corps, soon to be reinforced by the British 78th Infantry Division, which had thus far been kept in reserve.



While all this had been going on in Sicily, internal dissent and concerns about the fate of Italy had been growing, leading to Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Prime Minister, being voted out of power by his own Grand Council on 25th July. After leaving a meeting with King Vittorio Emanuele III, who informed him of his dismissal, Mussolini was placed under arrest, with Marshal Pietro Badoglio taking his place. Upon hearing the news, the Germans became concerned that Italy was now preparing to throw in the towel, and while the Italians offered assurances that they intended to continue the war, preliminary arrangements now started being made for a possible evacuation of the island at some future date.


In spite of this, at his conference on 27th July, Kesselring impressed upon his subordinates the need to continue defending Sicily at all costs, until such a time when they would be left with no other option but to pull out. By this point, the Axis line was very well organised with the 29th Panzergrenadier Division and the remains of the Assietta Division at its northern end, the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and part of the Aosta Division in the centre, and the Hermann Göring Division, with the attached 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division and what remained of the Napoli Division in the eastern part.


After their capture of Assoro and Leonforte, the next mountaintop target for the Canadians was Agira, further to the east, and part of the same long ridge, which continued all the way towards Paternò. The Canadian Division was now reinforced by the addition of the 231st Brigade under its command, and the first attack on Agira was scheduled for the night of 22nd/23rd July. While the Canadians were to launch the main assault from the west, a synchronised attack was to be carried out from the south by the 231st Brigade, which had been advancing from the Dittaino valley.


View of Agira.

Although the 231st Brigade succeeded in its objective of securing a height located some two kilometres to the east of Agira, it was left in an exposed position when the Canadian attack faltered under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. A second attack after midnight on the 24th was once again halted at Nissoria, a small village located in low ground between two ridges, around halfway between Leonforte and Agira. Although the Germans had not been expected to defend this area, they had in fact reinforced the two ridges and were not planning on giving them up easily.


In the early hours of the 25th, the Hasty P’s secured the first ridge and Nissoria itself, but became bogged down after coming under fire from the second ridge and suffering 80 casualties - the highest single-day loss of any Canadian unit during the whole of Operation Husky. The 48th Highlanders, thrown in the next night, were also forced to withdraw, and thus, on the night of 26th/27th July, the 2nd Canadian Brigade was brought into the battle, with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry finally dislodging the enemy from the area of Nissoria. The following night, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Edmontons fought their way eastwards, each capturing a height directly overlooking Agira. The loss of these heights made the town untenable, forcing the Germans to finally abandon it. Agira had cost the Canadians 438 casualties, and the 231st Brigade some 300.



In the meantime, the 51st (Highland) Division, still holding its bridgehead around the area of Sferro, was also preparing for the next phase of operations. In this section, the Hauptkampflinie ran south-east, in the direction of Gerbini, which the Highlanders had already tried and failed to take, and north-west to the town of Catenanuova, twelve kilometres away from Sferro. Catenanuova was to be attacked on the night of 29th/30th July by the newly arrived 78th Division, which had started to land on the beaches at Cassibile on 25th July. In truth, since the move to the frontline was not fully completed until the 30th, the attack was launched by the 3rd Canadian Brigade, which was already in theatre and had been assigned to the 78th Division the day before. With the fall of Agira on the 28th, which had pierced the central part of the Hauptkampflinie, the Germans were falling back towards the Etna Line, and thus the Canadians encountered minimal resistance. The following night, the Highlanders also pushed forward and finally succeeded in taking Gerbini, allowing them to resume their advance towards Paternò.


In the Canadian Division’s sector, the next town to the east of Agira was Regalbuto, which was held by a strong battlegroup of the Hermann Göring Division, including its Engineer Battalion, a company of Fallschirmjäger, eight tanks, and various artillery pieces and nebelwerfers. The defence was being overseen by the divisional commander himself, Generalmajor Conrath, who had impressed upon his men the need to hold on to the town at all costs: Yet again, the Canadians and the 231st Brigade were in for another tough battle.


The Hampshires were the first to go in, on the night of 29th/30th July, but as they moved towards their objective - a long ridge running parallel and to the south of the highway that passed through Regalbuto - they came under a heavy crossfire from machine guns, mortars, and artillery, forcing them to abandon the attempt. The position was seized the following night by the Devons, while simultaneously, the Dorsets seized Monte Serione to the north of the town. In the early hours of 1st August, the Royal Canadian Regiment launched an attack on the precipitous Tower Hill, on Regalbuto’s south-eastern edge, but by daybreak, they were still out in the open, where they remained pinned down until pulling back under cover of darkness later that evening. As they were doing so, the Hasty P’s launched their own attack on Tower Hill, successfully capturing it after adopting a longer, flanking route to the south. When this was followed up by an assault on Regalbuto itself in the afternoon of 2nd August, the 48th Highlanders discovered that the town was empty: Conrath had pulled out his men during the night.


Devastation in Regalbuto following yet another intense battle.

With the capture of Regalbuto, the last of the mountaintop towns located on the same commanding ridge was Centuripe. Located roughly in between the Hauptkampflinie and the new Etna Line, it guarded the approaches to Adrano and Paternò, and the British knew that were they to capture it, they would be able to look down upon both of these locations, putting pressure on the Germans to abandon them, and with them all their positions south of Etna, including Misterbianco and Catania. The problem was once again the height of the town and the fact that it could only be reached via one winding, narrow road. In addition, Centuripe was guarded by some of the best German troops on the island, men from the 3. Fallschirmjäger Regiment, reinforced by tanks, an artillery battery and an anti-tank troop from the Hermann Göring Division.



The unenviable task of taking Centuripe was given to the recently arrived 78th Division, and on 31st July, the 36th Infantry Brigade moved across open country, before assaulting the high ground to the west and south-west of the town. Despite initial progress, by dawn on 1st August, they found themselves under a deadly fire from well-placed machine guns and mortars. A second attack launched on the following night was similarly checked, and thus the divisional commander, Major General Vyvyan Evelegh, decided to bring in a second brigade, the 38th Irish, to attack the town again that afternoon, supported by heavy artillery fire.


View of Centuripe.

The 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles, were to carry out a flanking manoeuvre around the west of the town and capture three high features to the north-west of Centuripe. From there, they would provide mortar and machine-gun support for an assault by the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, who were to attack the cemetery at the western end of the town. At the same time, the 6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were to attack from the south-west up ‘Suicide Gully’. At about 6 pm, the London Irish, supported by a heavy barrage, opened the attack and proceeded to capture their objectives within two hours. Thereupon, the Inniskillings obtained a foothold on the southern edge of Centuripe after scaling a 30-metre cliff, while the Royal Irish pushed through the northern end of the town. After bitter house-to-house fighting, the enemy was driven from Centuripe by first light on 3rd August. As expected, the capture of the town forced the Germans to realise that their position around Catania had now become untenable.


Men of the 6th Inniskillings, 38th Irish Brigade, searching houses during mopping-up operations in Centuripe.

While XXX Corps had been making inroads into the central part of the enemy’s defensive line, to its north, the Americans had also been trying to pierce the northern part of the Hauptkampflinie. Patton had given Highway 120 to the 1st Infantry Division, and the north coast road to the 45th Division. The Seventh Army was now discovering that there were no more easy victories to be had, as they had previously experienced in the western half of the island. Like the British and Canadians, they were now having to assault over difficult terrain that favoured the defender.


The enemy in this sector consisted of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division, a much more determined foe than the demoralised Italian units that had been surrendering to the Americans in droves. On the north coast road, the 45th Division struggled to get over the Tusa Ridge, and when it was finally within reach of Santo Stefano, the Germans launched a heavy counterattack, forcing it back almost all the way to its starting point. After the Germans were checked by American artillery, the 45th Division finally took Santo Stefano on 31st July, at which point it was withdrawn from the line. Patton replaced it with the fresher 3rd Division, which took over the advance towards San Fratello.

 

References


Holland, J. (2020). Sicily '43: The assault on fortress Europe. London: Bantam Books UK.




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