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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part Three

Consolidating the Beachhead


By dawn on the 11th, the Italian XVI Corps was ready to renew its counterattack on the Americans at Gela, using the whole of the Livorno Division and Conrath’s Hermann Göring Division. The Italians attacked in three columns from the north-west, but were once again beaten back by heavy naval artillery fire, while the Germans attacked from the north-east. Despite resolute defending from the 1st Infantry Division and the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, at one stage, German armour managed to break through and almost reached the beaches, at which point naval gunfire yet again came to the rescue, forcing them to pull back with twelve tanks destroyed and twelve more badly damaged.


The aftermath of the Battle of Gela.

By around midday, the threat to the Gela beachhead was over, and with it, the Axis forces’ last chance of pushing the Allies back into the sea. The Livorno Division had been effectively destroyed, and the badly mauled Hermann Göring Division was forced to retreat to the area between Caltagirone and Vizzini. The Axis commanders had already decided that the next phase must be one of defence.


Despite the successes of the Americans on those first couple of days, there was to be one tragedy later that night of the 11th. Earlier that day, Patton had ordered the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) of the 82nd Airborne Division to be parachuted in that evening to reinforce 1st Infantry Division’s beachhead. They originally had been intended to arrive the night before, but Patton had been dissuaded by the 82nd Airborne’s commander, Major General Matthew Ridgway, who feared a repeat of what had happened to the 505th RCT on the first night. Now, however, Patton changed his mind again. Ridgway was particularly concerned that the flight path of the troop transports would take them directly over the U.S. invasion fleet, and he feared that they might be mistaken for enemy bombers. Sure enough, his worst fears were realised.


Paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division on their way to Sicily.

The 144 aircraft of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing arrived over Gela at around 10.30 pm, just after a Luftwaffe air raid. Throughout the day, air attacks had damaged a number of ships and sunk the SS Robert Rowan. Thinking that more enemy bombers were arriving, anti-aircraft gunners from the ships opened fire, shooting down friendly aircraft and forcing paratroopers to jump far from their DZs. 23 C-47s were brought down and a further 37 were badly shot up. The 52nd Troop Carrier Wing suffered 90 casualties, including seven killed and 53 missing, while the 504th PIR lost 81 dead, 132 wounded and 16 missing: around ten per cent of their number.


That same day, the Eighth Army had been advancing inland. In the south-east of the island, XXX Corps had met very little resistance. The 231st Brigade had taken Noto and was pushing northwards, while the 51st (Highland) Division had cleared Rosolini. Further north, however, in XIII Corps’ sector, opposition was stiffening as Kampfgruppe Schmalz entered the fray.


Oberst Wilhelm Schmalz would prove to be one of the most capable Axis commanders during the Sicilian campaign.

Schmalz, distrustful of the Italians and aware that the other half of the Hermann Göring Division was counterattacking at Gela, decided to act on his own initiative. The key, he realised, was to delay the Allied advance northwards along the eastern coast of Sicily for as long as possible, to ensure that should the counterattacks against the Americans fail, the rest of the Hermann Göring Division and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division could pull back into a line that cordoned off the entire northeast of the island.


Having already established defensive positions at the foot of Mount Etna, and overlooking the Plain of Catania, Schmalz was convinced that delaying actions would be vital to the entire course of the campaign. His men would lie in wait for the advancing British, on ground of their own choosing, hold them for as long as possible, and then pull back. That is exactly what he did to the 17th Brigade at Priolo on the 11th, although at Solarino, 13th Brigade drove away two battalions of the Napoli Division. During the night, Schmalz’s men fell back as planned.


The Capture of Augusta


Although it was clear that the next key objective of the Eight Army would be Augusta, Schmalz was concerned that his men could become trapped there should they try to defend the city, located as it was on a narrow peninsula. Instead, he preferred to fight his delaying battles on the main roads further inland that led north towards Lentini and the Plain of Catania. That night, Schmalz withdrew his units from Augusta, even as a number of British warships appeared to be gathering off the coast, in preparation, as it turned out, for an attack on the harbour.


The sight of these warships, and that of the German troops being pulled out of the city, soon led to another wave of panic and mass desertions, such as that witnessed at Syracuse the day before. Nonetheless, when the attack was made the following morning, by the destroyers HMS Eskimo, HMS Exmoor and RHS Kanaris, of the Royal Hellenic Navy, it was repulsed following an exchange of fire with a number of shore batteries. One of the guns was being operated by Admiral Leonardi and two members of his staff, who had taken on the role of gunners in place of a crew that had deserted. The assault was called off for the time being.


In the meantime, on that same day, 12th July, Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring had flown into Sicily to assess the situation for himself and had quickly concluded that the Italians could not be relied on. Thus he decided that the German formations needed to be reinforced, ordering the immediate deployment of the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division. These paratroopers were some of the best fighting men in the Wehrmacht - the German armed forces - and certainly much better than any of the units already on the island.


On 12th July, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring flew into Sicily to assess the situation and concluded that additional German formations were needed.

Kesselring also agreed with Schmalz’s view that the best approach now was to delay the British advance while the Axis units in the west of the island could be withdrawn to form a defensive line, running from Santo Stefano on the northern coast, through Nicosia and Agira to Catenanuova, and from there to the eastern coast south of Catania. It was here that the Allied advance could then be halted.



As the 50th Division advanced from Floridia in the direction of Sortino, it ran into one of the delaying positions set up by Kampfgruppe Schmalz. The 6th and 7th Green Howards came under heavy mortar and machine gun fire but eventually forced the Germans to fall back. To the east, on the other hand, the 5th Division, led by the 1st Green Howards, easily took Melilli from shell-shocked elements of the Napoli Division, following a heavy naval bombardment.


In the meantime, despite the failure of the 504th PIR's parachute drop, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division had succeeded in taking the Ponte Olivo airfield and were now pushing north, while on their right, the 45th Division had captured the airfield at Comiso, before entering Ragusa, where they linked up with the Canadians. On the left, the 3rd Division, having landed at Licata, had advanced 40 kilometres west along the coast almost to Agrigento, and 30 kilometres north towards Canicattì, despite coming into contact with elements of 15th Panzergrenadier Division. Thus, by the afternoon of the 12th, the Americans had created a beachhead some 80 kilometres wide, and had not only linked up all three of their divisions, but were also in contact with the Canadians on the left of the British Eight Army.


Augusta was captured after a daring seaborne assault launched by the Special Raiding Squadron from their converted Irish Sea ferry HMS Ulster Monarch.

That evening, another attack on Augusta was launched, this time by the SRS, who entered the harbour on board the converted Irish Sea ferry HMS Ulster Monarch, escorted by three destroyers and a cruiser, before being landed on the eastern side of the city in two waves from six assault landing craft. Splitting into sections, they began clearing the town, which appeared to be completely devoid of any civilians. Although some pockets of enemy resistance persisted, by 4 am on 13th July, the lead elements of the 5th Division, who had been advancing from the direction of Melilli, entered Augusta to complete the capture of the city. Incredibly, the SRS had lost just two men killed and eight wounded.


Operation Fustian


Now that the beachheads had been secured, General Alexander intended to proceed with his plan of splitting Sicily in half, in order to cut off the enemy’s east-to-west communications. By thrusting north through the Caltanissetta and Enna region, the enemy would be denied the main east-west routes in the centre of the island. Once that had been achieved, a further move northwards to Nicosia would cut off the next east-west route, and then only the north coast road would remain, which could be cut near Santo Stefano. Any Axis forces in the west of Sicily would thus be trapped there, with no means of reaching Messina, where they could otherwise be evacuated. Alexander now gave the main task of advancing northwards to Montgomery’s Eighth Army, while the Seventh Army was to continue its holding role, shielding the Eight Army’s left flank.



The orders for the Eight Army were for an advance on two axes: XXX Corps was to secure the network of roads within the area Enna-Leonforte, while XIII Corps was to continue its advance along the eastern coast, traversing the Plain of Catania, before seizing the port city and continuing northwards towards Messina. Here, speed was the key: XIII Corps had to move quickly before the Axis forces could get themselves into an organised defensive position. While the 5th Division was to press northwards along the main coast road, the 50th Division would advance in the same direction along a secondary road further inland. Both roads eventually converged at Carlentini.


To hasten their progress, two special operations would be launched ahead of XIII Corps on the night of 13th July: The Malati Bridge, to the north of Lentini, would be seized by No. 3 Commando in an amphibious assault, while further north, the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River would be captured by the 1st Parachute Brigade. The Primosole Bridge was particularly important as it was here that all the roads heading north towards the Plain of Catania converged. Montgomery hoped that both bridges could be seized intact, so that XIII Corps’ infantry and armour could then quickly pass through after dawn on the morning of 14th July.


All the roads heading north towards the Plain of Catania converged at the Primosole Bridge, which lay across the Simeto River.

In truth, the plan was overly ambitious. Whilst it was true that enemy resistance had thus far been somewhat limited, things were about to change, as elements of the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division had started to arrive in theatre. On the evening of 12th July, three battalions of the 3. Fallschirmjäger Regiment - some 3,200 men in total - were parachuted in near Lentini, while the rest of the division was getting ready to be flown into Catania the following day.


Some of the German paratroopers were immediately dispatched to reinforce Kampfgruppe Schmalz, while others were sent to the Primosole Bridge. The following morning, Adolf Hitler also ordered the 29th Panzergrenadier Division to be sent to Sicily. Furthermore, all German forces on the island were now to come under the direct control of XIV Panzer Corps, which was to be led by a highly experienced German commander, Generalleutnant Hans-Valentin Hube, one of Hitler’s favourite generals, although he would not arrive in Sicily until the 17th.


Generalleutnant Hans-Valentin Hube was dispatched to Sicily to take control of XIV Panzer Corps.

At 5 am on 13th July, the 5th Division set off from its starting line, and three hours later, at a point some ten kilometres from Villasmundo, encountered one of Kampfgruppe Schmalz’s delaying positions, sited around a wooded ravine. Unable to outflank, the 15th Brigade had to wait for the arrival of artillery support, with the position not being cleared until 7 pm, when under Schmalz’s orders, the Germans fell back towards Lentini, having successfully completed their mission of slowing down the British advance. Villasmundo was not occupied until the early hours of the 14th.


In the meantime, the 50th Division was also advancing northwards, further inland. The 69th Infantry Brigade left Sortino at 1.30 pm, but three hours later, they too were checked by yet another of Kampfgruppe Schmalz’s positions located on top of a high ridge near Monte Pancali, just to the south of Carlentini. The position was not cleared until 10 am the following morning. According to the plan, Lentini was supposed to have been taken by dawn, enabling XIII Corps to continue towards the Primosole Bridge. As it turned out, Lentini was not cleared until the late afternoon, and it was not until 6.45 pm that the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), together with lead elements of the 4th Armoured Brigade newly landed in Augusta, were able to head north towards the two bridges.


A blown bridge along the road to Carlentini. Such delaying tactics managed to slow down the advance of XIII Corps towards the two bridges.

No. 3 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, had landed at Agnone from their landing ship, HMS Prins Albert, at 10.30 pm on the 13th as scheduled. The 400-strong unit then advanced several kilometres inland to the Malati Bridge, driving off the Italian defenders and seizing it intact by 4 am. Although Durnford-Slater had been instructed to pull back towards friendly lines should the 50th Division not manage to link up with his men by morning, he decided to try and hold on for as long as he could. By this point, however, the Germans had launched a strong counterattack by two battalions of the 3. Fallschirmjäger Regiment newly arrived in the area, who were reinforced by a Panzer Mk IV of Kampfgruppe Schmalz. After several hours of repeated shelling and heavy mortar and machine gun fire, Durnford-Slater reluctantly ordered his men to fall back. By now, the Commandos had lost 28 men killed, 66 wounded and 59 captured or missing. Shortly afterwards, however, the 50th Division finally arrived, forcing the Fallschirmjäger to abandon the bridge before they had the chance to fix explosive charges and blow it up, while the British column pressed on towards Primosole.


The Malati Bridge.

At the Primosole Bridge, the second coup de main operation had also got underway according to schedule on the evening of the 13th. The 1st Parachute Brigade, under the command of Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, was to be transported in C-47s of the 51st Troop Carrier Wing, and Albemarles and Halifaxes of No. 38 Wing RAF. The 1st Battalion was to capture the bridge itself, while the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were to cover the approaches from the south and the north respectively.



The first flights took off from Kairouan Airfield just after 7 pm, aiming to arrive at the DZs by 10 pm, followed shortly afterwards by a second wave of aircraft towing nineteen gliders that would be bringing in 77 glider-borne gunners, ten 6-pounder anti-tank guns and eighteen jeeps. The aircraft were to fly northwards just off the eastern coast of Sicily, before turning inland once they reached the mouth of the Simeto. All the mistakes of the previous airborne operations were repeated: It was another night-time drop near the coast, flying in from the sea, and passing over Allied warships.


55 aircraft were subjected to friendly fire from naval anti-aircraft gunners. Although 39 C-47s managed to drop their sticks on or near the allocated DZs, 49 did not, with some of the men ending up as much as 30 kilometres from the target. Of the rest, three had been forced to turn back shortly after take-off, twelve failed to locate their DZs, and eleven turned back with all their troops still on board. In all, eleven transports were shot down, with many more damaged, while out of the nineteen gliders, only eleven successfully came down on or near the landing zones. The strength of the brigade in action was twelve officers and 283 men out of the 1,856 that had set off.


The south end of the Primosole Bridge.

Despite these mishaps, the 1st Battalion proceeded to storm the bridge as planned, taking around 50 Italian prisoners, and removing the demolition charges. By 6.30 am, around 120 men were dug in around both ends of the bridge and had even managed to bring up three of the 6-pounder anti-tank guns to reinforce their positions. They were soon to be further reinforced by around two platoons of the 3rd Battalion, which had suffered the worst in the scattered parachute drop. With only three of their aircraft having delivered their troops to their DZ north of the bridge, they were left without a command structure and were thus attached to the 1st Battalion.


To the south of the bridge, the 2nd Battalion had planned to seize three small hills, known as Johnnies I, II and III, but unbeknownst to its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, these same positions were already being held by the 1st Fallschirmjäger Machine Gun Battalion. Although Frost, together with around 140 of his men, managed to take Johnny I, the Germans were firing on them with machine guns and mortars from Johnny II, and could not be dislodged.


Lieutenant Colonel John Frost was in command of the 2nd Parachute Battalion.

By early morning, Lathbury had realised that while his men held the bridge, they were sandwiched between enemy forces to the north and south. The lightly armed paratroopers desperately needed the arrival of the 50th Division sooner rather than later if they were to hold on to their objective. For the time being, they received some assistance from the Royal Navy instead, as the cruiser HMS Newfoundland, lying off the coast, fired a number of salvos from its 6-inch guns towards the Germans on Johnnies II and III, giving Frost’s men a much-needed breather. Yet, as the day wore on, with still no sign of XIII Corps, and with ammunition now running dangerously low, Lathbury first ordered all men north of the bridge to pull back to the southern side, and by 7.30 pm, they had abandoned the bridge altogether, joining Frost and his men on the high ground.


Shortly afterwards, the first tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade arrived on the scene, followed by the infantry of the 151st Brigade. The enemy fell back in their turn, but only as far as the northern bank of the Simeto. Of the 295 men of the 1st Parachute Brigade who had fought at Primosole, 27 were killed, 78 were wounded, and a further ten were missing. Yet again, Allied airborne troops had achieved their objectives at huge cost, and Alexander now decided to call a halt to any further such operations until considerably more inter-service training could be carried out.

 

References


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




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