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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part Six

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

The Etna Line


The 1st Infantry Division was also fighting its way eastward against stiffening German opposition, and on 28th July had captured Nicosia. With San Stefano, Agira, Catenanuova, Sferro, and Gerbini all having been taken at around the same time period, the Hauptkampflinie had been completely broken. The Axis forces had now settled on the second defensive line - the Etna Line - running from San Fratello in the north, through Troina, Adrano, and down to the eastern coast of Sicily. On 31st July, the exhausted 1st Infantry Division reached Troina. Although Patton planned to take the division out of the line once Troina fell, and had already called up the U.S. 9th Infantry Division from reserve in North Africa, the 1st Division’s last battle in Sicily would prove to be the toughest they had faced, as well as one of the most protracted battles of the entire campaign.



Troina was held by the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, together with the remnants of the Aosta Division. To their advantage, once again, was the fact that the town was located on top of high ground, with great views of the approaches. To make matters worse, American intelligence underestimated the Axis' strength. As soon as the first attack began on 1st August, the defenders launched the first of some 24 counterattacks that the Americans were to face during the six-day battle that ensued, which saw key strategic positions change hands multiple times. Yet, it was not until 3rd August that the divisional commander, Major General Terry Allen, seemed to realise what he was up against, launching a full divisional attack.


Artillery fire being directed on Troina in the distance.

On 6th August, the U.S. 18th Infantry Regiment, of the newly arrived 9th Division, captured Monte Pellegrino, overlooking Troina, which allowed accurate direction of Allied artillery. The 15th Panzergrenadier Division was withdrawn towards Randazzo, having lost around 1,600 of its men, amounting to about 40% of its current fighting strength. The 1st Infantry Division had also suffered heavy losses, leading to both Allen and his subordinate, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., being relieved of their command. The 1st Division was now halted on the scene of its victory, while the 9th Division took over the advance on the Troina-Cesarò axis.


On 4th August, Montgomery ordered XXX Corps to continue its thrust towards Adrano, and then to head off up towards the left, western side of Etna, through Bronte and on to Randazzo, while XIII Corps was to finally resume its advance northwards towards the direction of Catania and Misterbianco. With plans for the invasion of mainland Italy now underway, Montgomery also had to plan how he could start withdrawing some of his units in Sicily in preparation for that next phase of the war. He decided that while the Canadians would be withdrawn out of the line once Adrano had fallen, the 5th Division would be pulled out after Belpasso had been taken. This gradual withdrawal of Allied units was now becoming possible because of the continuously narrowing front, as Axis forces continued to fall back into the ever-shrinking north-eastern corner of the island.


As early as 27th July, the Axis commanders had come to the conclusion that an evacuation from Messina would eventually become necessary. It was imperative that there would be no repeat of what had happened in Tunisia: The German troops on the island were not to become trapped there. Thus, on 28th July, Hube had ordered Oberst Ernst-Günther Baade to start making plans on how to get as many of them as possible out of Sicily when the time came. On 30th July, Guzzoni sent a dispiriting report to Comando Supremo, outlining the poor morale of the Axis forces on the island, but vowing to fight on to the end. The Germans clearly thought otherwise: On 2nd August, plans for Operation Lehrgang - an evacuation based over five nights - were submitted.


Oberst Ernst-Günther Baade

The narrowing of the Messina peninsula would greatly aid the Axis forces, as it allowed them to create ever shorter defensive lines. As fewer troops would be needed to maintain each narrower line, the majority of the men would be able to get across the Strait of Messina before the last line was overrun. Baade was also assembling an astonishingly large number of anti-aircraft guns on either side of the Strait, to make it difficult for the Allied air forces to interfere with the evacuation. In the meantime, Hube proposed a third defensive line which was to be occupied when the Etna Line fell, stretching from San Fratello to Cesarò, Bronte, and then over Etna to Riposto. It was vital to ensure that no units would become cut off and surrounded, and thus the withdrawal had to be done with as much cohesion as possible.


In the Plain of Catania, just beyond the Primosole Bridge, the exhausted 50th Division had been on the defensive since 18th July. Both sides, separated by as little as 100 metres in some places, had been losing men from haphazard shelling and malaria. Now, more than two weeks later, they were to start moving once more. Lieutenant General Dempsey, XIII Corps' commander, had begun to realise that the Germans were thinning out their line in preparation for a withdrawal. He thus ordered an attack by both the 5th and 50th Divisions on the night of 3rd/4th August.


British soldiers in Piazza del Duomo, Catania.

That same night, Schmalz, on Hube’s orders, started to pull out his men from the Catania area. Although XIII Corps had to deal with rear guards, minefields, and demolished infrastructure as it advanced, when the 9th DLI entered Catania at first light on 5th August, no enemy troops were to be seen. Although the streets of the city were blocked with debris resulting from Allied bombing raids, the harbour was found to be almost undamaged. On the same day, British troops entered Misterbianco, while Belpasso and Paternò were taken the day after.


Meanwhile, on 4th August, the 78th Division had been ordered to force the Salso river, north of Centuripe, later that night, followed by the Simeto the night after, and then assaulting Adrano on 6th/7th August. Simultaneously, the Canadian Division was to secure the left flank of the advance by taking Monte Seggio, before also crossing the Simeto, while the 51st (Highland) Division would protect the right flank, taking Biancavilla on the night of 6th/7th August. All these objectives were completed according to schedule, largely due to the lack of serious opposition encountered: The retreating Axis forces also had to contend with the ever-increasing air support being provided to the attacking forces. With Troina and Adrano now both in Allied hands, the second defensive line had also collapsed, and it was now time for the remaining Axis forces to fall back to the next one, which Hube had recommended on 4th August.


The New Hube Line


While the U.S. 1st Infantry Division had been fighting at Troina, the 3rd Division had also been facing equally stiff opposition at San Fratello, on Sicily’s northern coast. Here, the 29th Panzergrenadier Division and part of the Assietta Division had entrenched themselves on a ridge overlooking the coastal highway, and despite repeated attempts by the 3rd Division to break through, it failed to make much ground. As a result, Patton ordered an amphibious landing at Sant'Agata, a few miles behind the San Fratello Ridge, on the night of 7th/8th August. The small force achieved complete surprise and both San Fratello and Sant'Agata were finally taken.



Also on 8th August, the British 78th Division moved north from Adrano and captured Bronte, while the U.S. 9th Division, advancing from Troina, took Cesarò, both valuable positions along the New Hube Line. The two divisions then converged towards Randazzo. The 3rd Division also pressed on, capturing Brolo on the 11th, and thus, by the following day, II Corps had secured the route from Naso, through Floresta, and on to Randazzo. On the other side of Etna, XIII Corps had reached the line from Riposto to Milo by the evening of the 12th, helped during its advance by a series of naval bombardments.


American troops in Randazzo.

The town of Randazzo, nestling beneath the northern slopes of Etna, was another key objective for the Allies because it stood halfway between the north and east coasts. Although Hube had already prepared three further defensive phase lines beyond the New Hube Line, the Allies knew that the fall of Randazzo would really seal the fate of the island. On 13th August, the U.S. 9th Division entered the town, while the 78th Division linked up with it the following day. By this point, the place was in ruins after having been the target of no less than 1,200 bombing sorties by the Allied air forces. Now, while the 78th Division went firm at Randazzo, the Seventh Army took over the advance towards Messina along the northern part of the Allied line, while on the east coast, the 50th Division continued advancing northwards. The 51st (Highland) Division relieved the 5th Division, allowing it to start preparations for the landings on the Italian mainland.


Axis Evacuation


While these closing battles of the campaign had been taking place, Oberst Baade had been overseeing an extremely well-planned evacuation operation in his role as Commandant, Strait of Messina. Baade had been given complete control of all German units in the area, including army, navy, and air force troops, as well as transport, administration, and other specialist units. Since his appointment to the role, he had managed to gather, with the assistance of Fregattenkapitän Gustav von Liebenstein, commander of the 2. Landung Division, some 140 vessels of all kinds.


German ferries in Messina harbour.

Baade had also amassed a staggering 333 guns on either side of the Strait, including a number of Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine flak batteries, turning the area into one of the most heavily fortified stretches of coastline anywhere in the world. The Germans would use four distinct crossing routes, with troops being ferried across by night, although weapons and equipment could also be transported by day. Strict discipline was to be maintained at all times, to avoid any outbreaks of panic.


Although the Allies were by now aware that the Axis evacuation was due to begin any day, and were keen to stop as many of the enemy forces from getting away, the geography of the area was against them. At its narrowest point, the Strait of Messina is just over three kilometres wide, and this confined space was closed in further by steep cliffs on either side. When factoring in the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns, the chance of successfully targeting shipping from the air was very low. Allied bombers nonetheless continued to pound Messina day and night, but mostly from height, which significantly reduced accuracy. Admiral Cunningham, for his part, dispatched a number of motor torpedo boats to launch fast, in-and-out raids, but there was no way that he could send any of his larger warships into such a heavily defended and confined space, especially with a follow-up invasion of mainland Italy to come in which every vessel in the Mediterranean would be needed.


Operation Lehrgang officially began on the afternoon of 10th August, three days before Randazzo had fallen, with the full-scale withdrawal of German troops starting on the evening of the 11th. The Italian 6th Army had been evacuating its units since 3rd August, without any coordination with XIV Panzer Corps, and Guzzoni himself had arrived on the mainland on the 10th. In the meantime, Hube continued to order successive withdrawals each night in carefully staged phases, each defensive line being shorter than the one before it, thus allowing more men to be evacuated whilst keeping the chasing Allied units at arm's length with the use of mines, demolitions, and other obstacles. On 15th August, the Germans fell behind the last phase line, and during the night of the 16th/17th, the evacuation was completed. At first light, the leading British troops from Eighth Army reached Tremestieri, just five kilometres to the south of Messina, but were then halted by a blown bridge. Shortly after 7 am, the city’s mayor formally surrendered to an American patrol which had been the first Allied unit to enter Messina. The Sicilian campaign was finally over.


Allied troops in Messina, which was finally captured on 17th August, bringing the Sicilian campaign to an end.

The Italians had succeeded in evacuating 62,182 men, although most of their equipment had been left behind, with only 41 guns and 227 vehicles being saved. The Germans, on the other hand, evacuated 39,569 men, along with 9,605 vehicles, 94 guns, and 47 tanks. In spite of this, their four divisions had been badly mauled and now found themselves very much under-strength. Total battlefield casualties for the Germans numbered 4,325 dead and a further 4,583 missing. The Italians had lost 4,678 killed and a staggering 36,072 missing, most of whom were men recruited from Sicily itself and had most likely abandoned their uniforms and weapons and blended back into the local scene. Many others had been taken prisoner: The Allies had captured a total of 116,861 Italian and 5,523 German POWs. On the Allied side, British and Canadian dead totalled 3,283 men, while the Americans lost 2,811. The figures for wounded were roughly three times those killed, while a total of 11,590 British and 9,892 American troops caught malaria - more than had been killed and wounded.


Despite the Allies’ failure to stop the Axis forces from withdrawing their remaining units from Sicily, Operation Husky had been a great success. The island had been captured in just 38 days, leading to the Mediterranean lanes being reopened to Allied merchant shipping. The invasion had also led to the toppling from power of Mussolini, and paved the way for the Allied invasion of Italy, starting from 3rd September. On that same day, the Armistice of Cassibile was signed by representatives of the Allies and the new Italian government, with the official announcement coming five days later. In response, German troops immediately launched Operation Achse - their plan to forcibly disarm the Italian armed forces in Italy itself, and to a lesser extent in the Balkans, resulting in one-fifth of the entire German army being diverted from the Eastern Front to southern Europe.


Montgomery and Eisenhower looking across the Strait of Messina towards Calabria and the Italian mainland, where the next amphibious assault would be made in September 1943.

Whilst heavy fighting in Italy would continue right up until the end of the war, by the end of 1943, most of those who had played a role in Operation Husky had left the Mediterranean to prepare for the greatest amphibious operation of them all: The landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944.

 

References


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




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