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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part Four

The Biscari Massacre


Whilst the fighting at the bridges had been going on, on the morning of the 14th, the U.S. 45th Division had been attacking the Biscari airfield. The mostly Italian troops, together with some Germans, had put up a fight, but by around 7.30 am the Americans had won the battle. Shortly afterwards, Sergeant Horace T. West, of the 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, was tasked with escorting a party of 46 prisoners. Marching them off along a track that led away from the airfield, he suddenly opened fire on them with a Thompson submachine gun. When he had emptied the magazine, only three men were still standing, but as they made a run for it, they were cut down by some of the other guards. In the meantime, having fitted another magazine, West walked down the row of dead and dying men, shooting any who were still alive.


Sergeant Horace T. West, of the 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, was escorting Italian and German prisoners when he suddenly opened fire on them.

Later that day, a further 36 prisoners were also killed by a makeshift firing squad organised by Captain John T. Compton, from the same battalion as West. Although these incidents were initially hushed to avoid bad press for the Allies, both men were eventually charged with premeditated murder. Having been found guilty, West was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment, although he was eventually restored to active duty and continued to serve during the war, at the end of which he received an honourable discharge. Compton, on the other hand, was acquitted, but having been transferred to the 179th Infantry Regiment, he was subsequently killed in action in Italy later that year.


Back in the eastern part of the island, while XIII Corps had been continuing its push towards Catania, XXX Corps was advancing towards the area of Enna-Leonforte as planned. The 231st Brigade had launched an attack on Vizzini on the evening of the 13th. The town was held by the Reconnaissance Battalion of the Hermann Göring Division, who refused to budge and even launched a counterattack on the morning of the 14th. By noon, the 51st (Highland) Division, advancing from the direction of Palazzolo, had joined the battle, but it was not until later that night that the town was finally taken. The Canadian Division, which on the 13th had taken Giarratana, was now tasked with passing through Vizzini on its way towards Caltagirone, while the 51st (Highland) Division was directed northwards to form a firm base in the area of Scordia-Francofonte, on XIII Corps' left flank.


Men of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 51st (Highland) Division, advance inland.

In the meantime, Schmalz’s troops, having withdrawn from Lentini after their battle with the 50th Division on the 14th, had succeeded in falling back across the Plain of Catania by dawn the following morning, reaching the prepared defensive line which the Germans were calling the Hauptkampflinie. Schmalz’s new command post was located at Misterbianco, a small town to the northwest of Catania, on the lower slopes of Mount Etna. From here, he could clearly see the whole of the Plain of Catania laid out before him, and would be able to direct the coming battles. As a defensive position, the Hauptkampflinie was about as good as it got.


Battle of Primosole Bridge


Back at the Primosole Bridge, the 9th DLI had arrived too late on the 14th to go into battle straightaway. The following morning, however, an attack was launched at 7.30 am, supported by tanks from the 44th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and two regiments of field artillery. The majority of the enemy troops on the opposite side of the river consisted of men from the Machine Gun and Engineer Battalions of the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division, supported by part of a battery of parachute artillery equipped with 7.5 cm guns, and two 8.8 cm guns from the Hermann Göring Flak Regiment, as well as two battalions of Italian Arditi. As the men of the 9th DLI advanced across the bridge, they were cut to pieces by the enemy machine gunners, most of whom had survived the artillery barrage. 34 men, including nine officers, were killed, while three tanks were also knocked out.


The heavily guarded approaches to the Primosole Bridge.

Major General Sidney Kirkman, the 50th Division commander, immediately ordered another assault for that afternoon: The pressure to push on to the Plain of Catania as quickly as possible was immense, yet there was no reason to suppose that a second attack using the same tactics would fare any better than the first one. Fortunately, after some discussion, another plan was agreed upon. The attack would now go in after dark. Two companies of the 8th DLI would ford the river some 800 metres west of the bridge, before swinging right through a thick belt of vegetation to assault the northern end of the bridge. The rest of the battalion would then cross the bridge and establish a defensive perimeter on the opposite bank.


On the same day, the Canadians were moving up in trucks on their way to Caltagirone. As they approached the town of Grammichele, the lead tank travelling with them was hit, and all of a sudden, the column came under heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, causing them to leap out of their trucks and fight back. Despite the best efforts of the German garrison, the Canadian infantry, aided by the accompanying tanks, managed to secure the town by noon, having suffered 25 casualties. Some Canadian units attempted to give chase to the retreating Germans but were forced to slow down after discovering that the road ahead of them had been mined, and thus did not reach Caltagirone until around midnight. The town, until recently the headquarters of the Hermann Göring Division, had already been vacated, as the enemy forces had disengaged from the Vizzini-Caltagirone area and were regrouping with the rest of Kampfgruppe Schmalz at Misterbianco.


Back at the Primosole Bridge, the attack by A and D Companies of the 8th DLI had got underway as planned at 1.30 am, after an hour-long artillery barrage. Although they managed to get across the river unnoticed, the Germans soon realised what was happening, and heavy fighting now broke out. Sometime later, a green Very light was fired from the northern end of the bridge, indicating that a foothold had been gained there, and that it was time for the rest of the infantry and their supporting tanks to come across and reinforce their colleagues. As the first tanks began crossing the long metal bridge, however, the German 88s opened fire, and four tanks were quickly knocked out, blocking the way for the rest of the vehicles, and thus stalling the attack. The 8th DLI, stuck on the northern side, were forced to dig in and defend themselves in vicious close-quarters fighting, while yet another attack was planned for that night.



While all this had been going on, in the western sector, the Seventh Army was still mostly protecting the Eight Army’s flank. However, Patton had been given permission by Alexander to press west and capture Agrigento, which would offer the Americans the use of Porto Empedocle. On 15th July, Patton, who was also hoping to be allowed to strike towards Palermo, decided to reorganise his forces. Whilst the 1st and 45th Infantry Divisions were to continue as part of U.S. II Corps, under Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the 3rd Infantry Division, the 82nd Airborne, and the U.S 2nd Armored Division were to form part of the new U.S. Provisional Corps, under his own deputy, Major General Geoffrey Keyes.


Patton ordered II Corps to secure the area of Caltanissetta by 19th July, while the Provisional Corps was to capture Agrigento. On 16th July, the Rangers took Porto Empedocle, while by nightfall, the 7th Infantry Regiment was located on the outskirts of Agrigento itself. The following morning, having endured a naval bombardment throughout the night, the Italian garrison surrendered the town. The following day, II Corps also captured Caltanissetta.


U.S. Army Rangers move through Porto Empedocle, which they had captured on 16th July.

The Canadians were also continuing their advance. On the 16th, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade was moving towards Piazza Armerina, which was defended by units from the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. As usual, the Germans had selected good positions with a commanding view of the road leading to the town. Coming under heavy fire, the 1st Battalion, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, was ordered to move up and clear out the enemy on the high ground. Progress was slow as the enemy fought tenaciously, and it was not until artillery support was finally brought up that the Canadians gained the upper hand. The town was finally secured by 6 am the following morning after the Canadians had suffered 27 casualties. Once again, the enemy had fought an effective delaying action, holding up the Canadian Division for 24 hours. It was not until noon on the 17th that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was able to push through the town and take the lead in the advance towards Enna.


Earlier that morning, at 1 am, the Durhams had commenced their third assault to secure the Primosole Bridge. The attack this time was to be carried out by the 6th DLI, who were to ford the Simeto to the west of the bridge once more, before advancing to capture a track running along the northern bank that was seen as the key to unlocking the German defences. The 9th DLI would then follow behind, before swinging right towards the bridge. Next, the tanks would once more attempt to cross the bridge, since there was no other alternative route across the river for them. By this point, Major General Kirkman had amassed seven regiments of artillery, comprising a total of 159 guns, with which he intended to pulverize the enemy defences in the thirty minutes before the attack started.


The aftermath of the battle at the Primosole Bridge.

The 6th DLI managed to get across almost unopposed, followed about an hour later by the 9th DLI and some tanks. Heavy and confused fighting ensued over the next hours in the thick undergrowth around the northern bank, but by around 1 pm, both battalions had reached their objectives. Dead and wounded from both sides littered the ground. The 6th DLI had lost 120 men, about one in three of those attacking, and the 9th DLI another 100. The Fallschirmjäger, on the other hand, lost around 300 dead and 155 taken prisoner. Such losses left them with no choice but to pull back to the Fosso Bottaceto, a big, dry, irrigation channel, located about four kilometres north of the bridge. The battle of Primosole Bridge was finally over.


The Plain of Catania


While in the first days of the invasion, the heaviest fighting had been experienced in the American sector, particularly around Gela, it was now the Eight Army, on the eastern side of the island, that was struggling to make progress. After the battles at the Simeto, the chance to capture Catania and quickly charge on towards Messina had gone, but the eventual capture of the Primosole Bridge at least encouraged hopes that this line of advance could be resumed.


On 16th July, Alexander had issued a new directive to Montgomery and Patton. Once the Eight Army had captured Catania and the network of roads within the area of Enna-Leonforte, it was to drive the enemy into the Messina peninsula, advancing by three main lines: Northward from Catania; eastward from Leonforte, through Regalbuto and Adrano; and eastward from Nicosia, through Troina and Randazzo. The Seventh Army was to protect the rear of the Eighth Army, initially by establishing a firm base in the area of Caltanissetta, Villarosa, and Enna, followed by a northwards thrust to capture Petralia, located on the important east-west route through northern Sicily.



With the arrival of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division, there were now three German divisions ranged against the Allies, grouped together under a single, and hugely competent commander in Generalleutnant Hube. To make matters worse, the territory hugely favoured the defender. Despite its advantages in terms of firepower and air superiority, the Eight Army was clearly in for a very difficult time.


Montgomery was still hoping to burst through the Hauptkampflinie before the Germans managed to completely seal it off, and thus ordered a number of simultaneous thrusts along the whole of the Eight Army’s front: In the east, the 5th and 50th Divisions were on the southern side of the Plain of Catania; to their left, the 51st (Highland) Division was driving northwards towards Gerbini, having crossed the Gornalunga river on the 17th; and even the 231st Brigade had been committed, between the Highlanders and the Canadians. All these units were pushing forward along the dusty, mountainous roads of eastern Sicily, whilst enemy rearguards attempted to slow them down.


Montgomery had hoped that the capture of the Primosole Bridge would open the way for the Eight Army to get across to the northern side of the Simeto and attack across the Plain of Catania towards the lower slopes of Etna, where the Germans were digging in behind the Hauptkampflinie. Now that the bridge was finally under British control, however, it soon became clear that there was to be no rapid advance. The bridge itself was regularly coming under fire from German artillery located on the high ground around Misterbianco, making crossing it a hazardous operation.


Engineers carry out repairs to the Primosole Bridge.

Then, on the night of 17th/18th July, the 50th Division launched an attack by two of its brigades, hoping to push on to the Fosso Bottaceto. Although the attack was to be preceded by a heavy artillery barrage by eight field regiments and two medium batteries of artillery, a reconnaissance patrol erroneously reported that the enemy had withdrawn from south of the Bottaceto ditch, and was only holding the ditch itself with weak detachments. As a result, fire was only directed on the ditch, and as the infantry advanced, they were cut down by enemy positions south of it, which had been left practically untouched. The attack stalled, and the 50th Division was forced to take up defensive positions.


The stalemate in this part of the line increased the importance of the Eighth Army's other axes of advance further west. On 17th July, the 3rd Canadian Brigade, advancing from Piazza Armerina towards Enna, had reached a fork in the road, which was overlooked by Monte della Forma, an 800-metre-high peak. At its top was the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, lying in wait to prevent the Canadians from going both left towards Enna or right to Valguarnera. While the 3rd Brigade soon found itself caught up in a difficult battle, Major General Guy Simonds - commanding the Canadian Division - dispatched the 1st Brigade off to the east to outflank the town of Valguarnera in a difficult night-time cross-country march over steep terrain, without any artillery or tank support.


Men from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry march through the streets of Valguarnera.

Having successfully completed this manoeuvre, the 1st Battalion, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment - the Hasty P’s - managed to reach the outskirts of Valguarnera by dawn the next day, but after setting up a couple of roadblocks and taking some prisoners, they were forced to retreat back into the hills when artillery up in the town opened up on them. In the meantime, though, fearing that their line of retreat was about to be cut off, the Germans on top of Monte della Forma had started to pull back, enabling the 3rd Canadian Brigade to resume its advance after having been held up for fourteen hours. The Royal Canadian Regiment was sent to assault Valguarnera, but it was not until after dark that the town was finally secured by the 1st Battalion, 48th Highlanders of Canada. The Canadian Division had suffered 145 casualties, 40 of whom had been killed. Simonds now decided to bypass Enna, instead directing the 2nd Canadian Brigade to Leonforte and the 1st Brigade to Assoro.


On 18th July, Montgomery decided that while the 50th Division would hold fast in the Primosole area, the 5th Division, now on its left, was to strike for Misterbianco. The 13th Brigade was to advance at a point around eight kilometres west of the Primosole Bridge, where a narrow concrete bridge had been discovered intact. 'Lemon Bridge', as the British renamed it, was given to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, while the 2nd Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment was to ford the Simeto a little way to their right. Once a bridgehead had been established, the rest of the 5th Division was to move across and into the Plain of Catania.


The task of capturing 'Lemon Bridge' was given to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

The north bank was defended by the Hermann Göring Division, and the Inniskillings soon came under heavy fire, but a platoon was dispatched to ford the river at a point further east in an outflanking manoeuvre, forcing the Germans to withdraw. By dusk, the Inniskillings had a tenuous bridgehead, although they were forced to repulse numerous heavy counterattacks throughout the night, and the bridge was not fully secured until dawn. The Wiltshires had in the meantime also completed their crossing, but it was clear to Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, XIII Corps' commander, that this had not been quite the breakthrough that he had been expecting. Another attempt would be made that night, this time with the 15th Brigade leading the line.


This attack was launched at 1.30 am on the 20th, supported by a heavy, creeping barrage, behind which the infantry was to advance: The 1st Battalion, Green Howards on the right, and the 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment on the left. As the barrage finally ended, the men, who had been struggling across open ground crossed with ditches and watercourses, discovered that they were still some way short of the enemy positions, leaving them exposed and isolated. As enemy flares rose up into the sky, lighting up the ground as clearly as daylight, the advancing troops came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. The British artillery was unable to resume its support, as in the confusion of the battlefield, there was no way of telling friend from foe. By 4.30 am, it was all over, the attack a failure. The 15th Brigade had advanced less than three kilometres, despite incurring heavy losses, and it was now agreed that there was no point in trying to continue on this axis. As in the case of the 50th Division, the 5th Division was ordered to consolidate its bridgehead for the time being.


Montgomery’s hopes of reaching Misterbianco by that evening had evaporated, but he now attempted to bypass Catania further to the west, by sending the 51st (Highland) Division towards Paternò. The Highlanders had got to within spitting distance of the Gerbini airfield and the nearby town of Sferro on 18th July, having crossed the Dittaino river. An attack later that night had met considerably stronger resistance than expected, although, by daylight on the 19th, a small bridgehead had been created at Sferro. However, an effort to enlarge it on the following night met little success, and so Major General Douglas Wimberley, commanding the 51st Division, now decided that the 154th Infantry Brigade and a squadron of the 46th (Liverpool Welsh) RTR, supported by three regiments of artillery, should take Gerbini during the night of 20th/21st July.


The plan for the attack on Gerbini by the 154th Infantry Brigade on the night of 20th/21st July.

Gerbini consisted of a crossroads, a railway station, barracks, and the airfield. Beyond it was the Simeto river, and then the Plain of Catania. The 1st Battalion, Black Watch, were to take the crossroads to the south of the town, before moving on to take the barracks and the railway station. To their right, the 7th Battalion, Black Watch, were to move through the airfield to the river and seize the bridge if it was still intact, allowing the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to pass through and secure the entry onto the plain. Although a number of objectives were initially completed, by morning, a major German counterattack had forced the Highlanders to fall back to the south of the town. Even here the British had been checked. With the 51st (Highland) Division also being placed on the defensive, the Eight Army’s last hope of breaking through now rested with the Canadians.

 

References


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




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