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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part One

In early July 1943, in ports all across North Africa, Allied troops were getting ready for what was to be the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. The Second World War had reached a turning point: On the Eastern Front, the Germans had been forced to retreat from Stalingrad; in the Atlantic, German U-boats had been withdrawn after suffering huge losses; while Germany itself was being bombed by Allied bombers on a daily and nightly basis. Crucially, on 13th May, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim had surrendered all German and Italian forces in North Africa - some 250,000 troops - bringing to an end the three-year campaign in the region.


On 13th May, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim surrendered all German and Italian forces in North Africa - some 250,000 troops - bringing to an end the three-year campaign in the region.

Next on the agenda for the Allies was to be the invasion of Sicily, launched on the night of 9th/10th July. Although it would eventually be overshadowed by the Normandy Landings the following year, Operation Husky would be the largest amphibious operation of World War Two in terms of the size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day of the invasion.


Choice of Sicily


With the end of the North African campaign in sight, the political leaders and military Chiefs of Staff of the United States and Britain had met at Casablanca in January 1943 to discuss future strategy. It soon became clear that there were fundamental differences of opinion between the Americans and the British as to what the next move should be. The Americans, who had somewhat reluctantly accepted the decision to invade north-west Africa in Operation Torch the previous November, now preferred to cross the English Channel into France, before targeting Germany itself, but the British argued that the Allies were not yet strong enough to embark on such an ambitious undertaking. They preferred to continue operations in the Mediterranean, in the hopes of knocking Italy out of the conflict.


With the end of the North African campaign in sight, the political leaders and military Chiefs of Staff of the United States and Britain met at Casablanca in January 1943 to discuss future strategy.

Dubbed “the soft underbelly of Europe” by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Italy had entered the war on Germany’s side in June 1940 massively underprepared. The Italian armed forces were for the most part poorly equipped by modern standards and severely undertrained. After a series of military defeats, the country’s future looked bleak, with its economy in tatters and plummeting public morale, making it an easy target.


Although an attack on Sardinia had been considered, Sicily was seen as the more realistic choice, due to the need for air cover, which could be provided from nearby Malta. The British argued that an attack on Sicily could divert German divisions from the north-west coast of France, in readiness for when the cross-Channel invasion could be undertaken, whilst also further stretching Axis resources, and relieving pressure on the Russian front in the east.


Reluctantly, the Americans accepted that the cross-Channel operation would have to wait. One of the biggest obstacles was the lack of shipping. Currently, shipping headed to and from the Far East was still having to take the long route around South Africa, as the eastern Mediterranean route via the Suez Canal remained too dangerous. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff conceded that capturing Sicily would open up the Mediterranean and free up more shipping, which would in turn make the invasion of France more feasible. They agreed to Operation Husky, on condition that the British would commit to the cross-Channel invasion of France the following year. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was made Supreme Allied Commander, tasked with overseeing Husky, while British General Sir Harold Alexander was brought in as his deputy.


Initial Planning


Planning for Operation Husky was a huge challenge for the Allies, for a number of reasons. No amphibious operation on this scale had ever been attempted, and the challenges in terms of logistics and the levels of coordination needed between the coalition partners and the different branches of their armed forces were immense. The Allies had learned important lessons from the disastrous Dieppe Raid in August 1942, and the more successful Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November. But whereas in the latter case, they had taken on poorly trained and equipped Vichy French troops who barely put up a fight, an attack on Axis home soil was going to be a much harder proposition. In addition, the ability to launch the cross-Channel invasion in 1944 depended on the Sicilian campaign going to plan - it could not be allowed to fail.



Eisenhower believed that for Husky to have any chance of success, very close cooperation would be needed between the Allied land, naval, and air forces, and so, on 11th February, he announced his choice for the three service chiefs: Alexander would be in charge of the land forces as commander of Allied 15th Army Group; the naval forces would be under the command of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, of the Royal Navy; Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, of the Royal Air Force, would oversee the Allied air forces as head of the Mediterranean Air Command (MAC).



Three days later, Axis forces in North Africa launched an attack on the Americans at Sidi Bou Zid, in Tunisia, which would lead to the Axis offensive through the Kasserine Pass, and Alexander was diverted to take charge of the situation there, leaving him with little time to plan for Husky.


His 15th Army group would consist of two task forces. Force 545 was led by General Sir Bernard Montgomery and consisted of the British Eight Army. Its headquarters was to be based in Cairo, Egypt, even though for the time being, it was still fighting in Tunisia. Force 343, which would become the U.S. Seventh Army, was commanded by Lieutenant General George S. Patton and would have its headquarters at Rabat, Morocco. Yet, once again, Patton would soon have his hands full in Tunisia, where he was despatched to take over command of U.S. II Corps from Major General Lloyd Fredendall following the fiasco at Kasserine. With similar issues being encountered also by the naval and air commanders, it was very difficult not only to formulate their own individual plans but also for them to come together in the same place, which was hardly ideal.



While the planners of Operation Husky agreed that air and naval superiority would be crucial for the success of the operation, they recognised that it was also vital for the invading forces to be landed and resupplied at a faster rate than that at which Axis reinforcements could be poured into the area. Thus the early capture of a number of enemy ports was deemed crucial to the success of the whole undertaking. This would be a deciding factor when choosing where in Sicily the landings would be made.


By far the largest Sicilian port was Messina, in the north-eastern corner of the island, but an attack here was considered out of the question, as its close location to the Italian mainland meant it was too strongly defended, not to mention that it was out of the range of Allied air cover. Further west was Palermo, the second largest port, followed by Catania along the central-eastern coast, while south of that were Augusta and Syracuse.



The issue of air superiority also needed to be taken into consideration. While there were numerous enemy airfields scattered around the whole of Sicily, Allied fighter cover from Malta could cover the eastern side of the island, but not the west. Landings around Palermo were however just within reach of cover provided from Cape Bon in Tunisia. Since most of the main ports were located in both the east and west of Sicily, it made sense that landings should be undertaken in both extremities of the island, both to be covered by their respective air support. They would then proceed to take out key enemy airfields in their sectors, before swiftly capturing Palermo, Catania, Augusta, and Syracuse, to allow for a rapid build-up of reinforcements and supplies.


Since most of the British forces would be sailing from Egypt and the Middle East, it made sense that they should be the ones landing in the eastern sector, while the Americans, mostly setting off from Tunisia, would land in the west. By around mid-April, it appeared that the Allied commanders had agreed on this rough plan.



By 24th April, however, Montgomery had changed his mind. The recent tough battles in Tunisia had convinced him that the Italians and their German allies would put up a much stronger resistance than everyone seemed to be expecting, and he was concerned that by having two separate landings on different sides of Sicily, the Axis forces could defeat each one in turn before allowing them to unite together. He convinced Eisenhower and Alexander to abandon the western sector altogether and instead have the Americans land on the southern coast at Gela and Licata instead. By 3rd May, the final plan for Operation Husky had been agreed upon.


The Revised Plan


The date of the invasion - D-Day - was set for Saturday 10th July. The amphibious assault by two Allied armies, one landing on the south-eastern and one on the central-southern coast, would see the equivalent of 67 battalions of infantry, together with substantial supporting units of artillery, engineers, signals, and medical units and their equipment, being landed on 26 beaches, along a stretch of coast some 170 kilometres long. Once the two armies were established on a line from Catania to Licata, they were to drive towards Santo Stefano on the northern coast, to split the island in two and cut off the enemy’s east-to-west communications, whilst capturing enemy airfields and ports so as to facilitate the build-up of the invading forces.



The Eight Army was assigned to land in south-eastern Sicily: XIII Corps, consisting of the 5th Infantry Division and the 50th Infantry Division, would come ashore around the area of Avola, in the Gulf of Noto, while further south, XXX Corps would land on either side of Capo Passero. Apart from the 51st (Highland) Division and the 231st Independent Infantry Brigade, XXX Corps also included the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, whose involvement came at the insistence of the Canadian Prime Minister, William Mackenzie King, and the Canadian Military Headquarters in the United Kingdom. Eight Army’s task was to capture the Pachino airfield on Capo Passero and the port of Syracuse, before moving northwards to take the ports of Augusta and Catania and the Gerbini airfield.


The Seventh Army, consisting of three infantry divisions organised under II Corps, was assigned to land in south-central Sicily, in the Gulf of Gela. The 3rd Infantry Division would land on the left at Licata, the 1st Infantry Division in the centre, at Gela, and the 45th Infantry Division on the right at Scoglitti. Their objectives were to capture the port of Licata and the airfields of Ponte Olivo, Biscari, and Comiso. The Seventh Army was then to prevent enemy forces in the western half of the island from moving eastward against the Eighth Army's left flank.


In addition, the amphibious landings were to be supported by a number of airborne operations. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was to be parachuted in ahead of the Seventh Army landings to capture and secure the Piano Lupo - an area of high ground to the east of Gela. They were also to disrupt enemy lines of communications and then assist the 1st Infantry Division in its task of capturing Gela and the Ponte Olivo airfield. To the east, the British 1st Airborne Division would carry out three brigade-sized operations on subsequent nights, designed to capture vital crossing points over a series of rivers that lay across the Eight Army’s line of advance along Sicily’s eastern coast towards Messina, via Syracuse, Augusta, and Catania. Another special operation was to be carried out by the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), who would land from the sea in the early hours of 10th July to silence an Italian coastal defence battery on Capo Murro di Porco, south of Syracuse.



Just like the land forces, the Allied naval forces were also divided in two to transport and support their respective armies. The Eastern Naval Task Force was formed from the British Mediterranean Fleet and was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, while the Western Naval Task Force was formed around the U.S. Eighth Fleet, and was commanded by Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt. In addition, a covering force was tasked with preventing the Italian navy from attacking the invasion forces. The Allied air forces consisted of numerous North African and Mediterranean commands, which were grouped together under the MAC of Air Chief Marshal Tedder.


Deception Plans


Following the end of the North African campaign, the Axis powers were aware that the Allies had now built up a vast array of military forces in the Mediterranean region, and were desperately trying to work out where they planned to use them next. The German Führer, Adolf Hitler, was convinced that the Allies would target the Balkans, mainly because this was the area he feared losing most, but his military intelligence was aware that a number of factors, such as a lack of air support, made this impracticable, and that an assault on one of the Mediterranean islands, such as Sicily, Sardinia or even Corsica was much more likely.


Determined not to let them guess correctly, the Allies engaged in several deception operations, the most famous of which was Operation Mincemeat, undertaken by British intelligence. The corpse of a homeless man named Glyndwr Michael was obtained from a mortuary, before being dressed as an officer of the Royal Marines, and having personal items placed in his possession identifying him as the fictitious Major William Martin. The body was then transported by submarine and left to drift ashore on the coast of Spain whilst carrying a briefcase containing fake secret documents, suggesting that the Allies intended to invade southern Greece and possibly Sardinia and that an attack on Sicily would be merely a feint.


As the Allies expected, after the body was discovered by Spanish fishermen, who presumed that he had been the victim of an air crash, the nominally neutral Spanish government shared copies of the documents with the Abwehr - the German military intelligence service. Sure enough, British cryptanalysts decoded German ciphers warning that an Allied invasion was expected in the Balkans.


This naval identity card was one of several personal items placed on the corpse of Glyndwr Michael to fool the Germans into believing that he was the fictitious Major William Martin of the Royal Marines.

Other deception operations included the setting up of the fictitious Twelfth Army, purportedly based in Egypt and preparing to invade Greece, whilst Operation Animals, organised by the British Special Operations Executive in cooperation with Greek resistance groups, saw an organised campaign of sabotage in Greece, once again to fool the Germans into thinking that the invasion would take place there. As a result of these deception operations, German reinforcements that could potentially have been sent to Sicily were instead dispatched to Greece and Sardinia.


Preliminary Operations


Following the end of the North African campaign, Tedder and his deputy, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz of the U.S. Army Air Forces, had immediately started to plan the role of the Allied air forces in the upcoming Operation Husky. Even before the invasion began, they were to neutralize the enemy air forces as much as possible by bombing their airfields. Other bombing targets would include enemy communications facilities and transport infrastructure, to make sure that once the invasion began, enemy reinforcements would be slowed down as much as possible. Once Husky was underway, they would then provide close air support to the ground troops, and air cover for naval convoys, as well as transport airborne troops into battle, and a myriad other tasks.


Following the end of the North African campaign, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder and his deputy, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz immediately started to plan the role of the Allied air forces in the upcoming Operation Husky.

A timetable was soon agreed upon. From 16th May to 6th June, Allied bombers would hit enemy targets across the Mediterranean region, without focusing specifically on Sicily. The main objectives were to be airfields, ports, railway lines, bridges, and supply depots. From 6th to 13th June, the focus would be on the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, after which the bombing of strategic targets would be resumed. Finally, from 3rd to 9th July, the attention would be turned toward Sicily.


The need to capture Pantelleria provided the Allies with the perfect opportunity to test their air superiority, and the effect of heavy aerial bombardment on strongly fortified positions. The island, located roughly halfway between Tunisia and Sicily, had been an Italian military zone since 1926. Its single airfield was located within range of the planned American landing sites at Licata and Gela, and once captured, could be used by Allied fighters to provide cover for them. The problem was that the island was very well defended by some 12,000 Italian troops, over 300 concrete gun emplacements, and numerous pillboxes. To make matters worse, there was only one beach where an amphibious landing could be made.


Operation Corkscrew was preceded by a heavy air assault, intended to destroy as much of the defences as possible.

Although the British 1st Infantry Division, supported by a powerful naval striking force, was given the task of taking Pantelleria, Operation Corkscrew was to be preceded by a heavy air assault, intended to destroy as much of the defences as possible. Air and naval bombardments began in May but were intensified from 6th June, as planned. By the morning of 11th June, when the assault by the 1st Infantry Division was due to go in, the will of the defenders had been broken: When the British came ashore as planned at 11.55 am, they were surprised to find no opposition - Vice Admiral Gino Pavesi, the island’s commander, had already issued the order to surrender. By the end of the day, over 11,000 Italian troops had been taken prisoner, along with 84 enemy aircraft. The Pelagie Islands of Lampedusa and Linosa followed on 12th and 13th June respectively.


The sustained air attacks were also being badly felt elsewhere. On 22nd June, the Luftwaffe decided to move all its bombers from Sicily to mainland Italy and Sardinia, copying the example of the Regia Aeronautica, which had already done the same. Rail links were also being badly hit, grinding rail traffic almost to a stop, and leading to all kinds of shortages. By early July, the Allied air forces were ready to launch the last phase of their preliminary operations, hitting the Sicilian airfields as hard as possible. By 9th July, hours before the invasion was to be launched, the Luftwaffe only had 78 serviceable fighters left on Sicily, having lost 323 aircraft - a similar number to the Italians - since the start of Allied air operations on 16th May. Of the 30 airfields at the end of June, only those at Sciacca and Milo were still serviceable.

 

References


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




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