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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky - Part Two

Axis Dispositions


In terms of land forces, by early July, there were around 200,000 Italian and 32,000 German troops on the island, as well as around 30,000 Luftwaffe ground staff. The overall Axis commander was Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni, in charge of the Italian 6th Army, which was made up of XII Army Corps and XVI Army Corps, although specially designated Fortress Areas around the main ports, known as Piazze Militari Marittime, were commanded by admirals subordinate to Naval Headquarters, and acted independently of the 6th Army.


The overall Axis commander in Sicily was Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni.

Guzzoni had a total of twelve divisions: ten Italian and two German. Of the Italian divisions, only four - the 4th "Livorno", the 26th "Assietta", the 28th "Aosta", and the 54th "Napoli" - were infantry. The rest were coastal divisions mostly made up of inferior troops. The two German formations were also, nominally, under Italian tactical control. In truth, the German commanders in Sicily took their orders from Generalleutnant Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, the German liaison officer attached to the 6th Army HQ, who in turn, received his orders from Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the German Commander-in-Chief, Army Command South, based in Rome. Panzer Division Hermann Göring was placed under XVI Corps, while the 15th Panzergrenadier Division was assigned to XII Corps.


A Panzer VI (Tiger I) of the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504, which formed part of the Panzer Division "Hermann Göring", one of two German divisions attached to the Italian 6th Army.

Guzzoni was adamant that the coast could not be defended, but he hoped that the coastal divisions could at least buy some time for the four Italian infantry and two German divisions located further back, to intervene where and as required. He suspected, quite correctly, that any landings would likely take place in the south-east of the island, and so intended to keep the two German divisions and the Livorno, his best Italian division, in the central south-east area, ready to launch a counterattack. Ultimately, however, he was persuaded by Kesselring of the need to also cover the west of the island, as a result of which, instead of placing the German divisions near Gela and Catania, as he had originally intended, he sent the 15th Panzergrenadier Division west, and split up the Hermann Göring Division into two parts, one half around Caltagirone, under its commander, Generalmajor Paul Conrath, and the other half, under Oberst Wilhelm Schmaltz, near Catania.


D-Day


In the meantime, all along the coast of North Africa, from Algeria to Egypt, large-scale preparations for the biggest amphibious operation the world had ever seen continued at a steady rate. Huge numbers of guns, tanks and all sorts of military vehicles were being assembled. The first day of Operation Husky would see a vast armada of more than 2,600 ships and landing craft deliver some 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns to the coast of Sicily, with 3,500 aircraft flying in support.


Huge numbers of guns, tanks, and all sorts of military vehicles were assembled in ports across the North African coast in preparation for the invasion.

In the previous weeks, an incredibly detailed and complicated plan had been worked out with regard to the routes and timings of the naval convoys. Apart from troops already stationed in the Mediterranean, part of the invasion force was made up of units that had begun their journey from Britain, such as the 1st Canadian Division, and even further afield, such as the U.S. 45th Division, which had departed from the east coast of the United States more than a month before. The challenge of coordinating all these movements to make sure that they all arrived at the right place and at the right time was immense.


By the morning of 9th July, when all the ships were converging to the south of Malta, Generals Eisenhower, Alexander, and Montgomery, together with Admiral Cunningham and other top brass, were gathered in Valletta, in the underground Lascaris operations centre, which had been chosen as the advance Allied headquarters for the invasion. Cunningham, in particular, was concerned by the weather situation. Since the previous night, the wind had been increasing, creating a strong swell, which he knew could cause problems with the landings.


The underground Lascaris operations centre in Valletta was chosen as the advance Allied headquarters for the invasion.

To make matters worse, by this point, with less than 24 hours to go, it was too late to cancel the operation. Although the weather continued to deteriorate as the afternoon wore on, the meteorologists were confident that the situation would start to improve by the early hours of the 10th, which is when the landings were due to take place. Although it was clearly not going to be a comfortable last part of the trip for the men, the commanders hoped that they would still be able to achieve their objectives.


In the meantime, reports of Allied convoys in the central Mediterranean had reached the OKW (the German High Command). Both Hitler and General Alfred Jodl, the OKW’s Chief of the Operations Staff, were confident that they were heading to Greece, no doubt in part due to the success of the earlier deception operations. As German aircraft continued to shadow the convoys, however, it soon became clear that it was Sicily that they were headed towards, and by 4.40 pm, Kesselring had alerted all troops on the island that an invasion was imminent.


Airborne Operations


Just over two hours later, at 6.48 pm, gliders being towed by aircraft from 38 RAF Wing and the U.S. 51st Troop Carrier Wing, started taking off from six airstrips in the vicinity of Kairouan, in Tunisia. Operation Ladbroke was to be the first of the three missions assigned to the British 1st Airborne Division to seize key bridges across the Eight Army’s line of advance. Major General George F. Hopkinson, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, had given this first task to the 1st Airlanding Brigade. 144 gliders were to transport the brigade’s 2,075 men to an area about two kilometres south of Syracuse, where, coming in under the cover of darkness, they were to seize intact the Ponte Grande, thus clearing the way for the capture of the city.


The 1st Airlanding Brigade was to be transported by gliders to seize intact the Ponte Grande, thus clearing the way for the capture of Syracuse.

Unfortunately, the high winds were causing problems in the air as well, making the gliders difficult to steer. Most of the pilots were inexperienced and had received very little night-flying training, and the weather conditions, combined with low visibility due to the quarter moon, made navigation extremely difficult. To make matters worse, the gliders were to be released from their tugs at a distance of just over three kilometres from the shore, in an attempt to keep the tugs out of range of the anti-aircraft defences. This was at the extreme range of the gliders when flying at the agreed release heights, giving them very little room for error, and since most of them were in fact released even further out, 69 of them - more than half - failed to reach the coast and ditched into the sea, with no less than 252 men being drowned.


Of the 56 gliders that did land on the ground, the vast majority were wildly scattered and did not land anywhere near the target. Indeed, only one glider landed next to the bridge, carrying a single platoon from 'C' Company of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, who in the end were able to take the bridge on their own, and prepared themselves for the inevitable counterattack.


Only one glider landed next to the bridge, carrying a single platoon from 'C' Company of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, who in the end were able to take the bridge on their own.

To the west, another airborne operation was being mounted by the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. At 8.15 pm, 226 C-47s of the U.S. 52nd Troop Carrier Wing took off from roughly the same area of Tunisia, carrying 3,405 men of the division’s 505th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). Although the first flight of troop carriers, reaching their objectives at 11.32 pm, achieved total surprise, and dropped the first wave of paratroopers reasonably accurately, a mixture of inexperience, lack of training, enemy flak, strong winds, and unexpected cloud cover led to subsequent flights being driven increasingly off course, resulting in the later waves being scattered over wide areas, including some 33 sticks that were dropped over the British sector, many kilometres to the east. In all, just 53 aircraft managed to reach the rough area designated, and only nine sticks actually landed on the Piano Lupo and the other assigned drop zones (DZs).


The 505th Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was 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.

While a huge debacle arose as to who or what was to blame for these fiascos, the reality was that they were the result of a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that came together. The British and Americans had felt an obligation to test their new airborne units, having invested so much time, money and effort in their development. The problem was that although so much thought had been given to training these elite troops themselves, the same concentration had not been applied to those charged with delivering them into battle. Through no fault of their own, the pilots had not been properly trained for their task.


By contrast, the SRS operation at Capo Murro di Porco went much more smoothly. Landing from the sea at around 3.30 am, they succeeded in capturing their main objective, the Lamba Doria battery, by 4.30 am, without suffering a single casualty.


The Landings


While the airborne operations were taking place, the seaborne landings were also starting to get underway. The troop transports had been timed to arrive at the release positions just after midnight, allowing for the landing craft to be lowered and assembled, before they could begin their approach towards the beaches. H-Hour had been set for 2.45 am. Although the troops were expecting a hard fight, the landings were rather anti-climactic. Since the Italian defensive plan did not contemplate a pitched battle on the beaches, the enemy troops made little effort to defend them. Far bigger problems were caused by the weather conditions, as the heavy swell and the darkness inevitably created a fair amount of confusion. Most of the men were seasick, and in many cases completely soaked, although, by the early hours of the morning, the wind finally began to ease.



The conditions were especially bad in the American sector, particularly around Scoglitti, where the 45th Division was coming ashore. Strong currents and a lack of significant landmarks led to disruption, and the landings had to be delayed by an hour. Eventually, however, the division secured its beachhead and pushed rapidly inland: One of the battalions of the 179th Infantry Regiment reached Vittoria, only to find that the local garrison had already surrendered to three American paratroopers.


U.S. troops landing at Gela.

At Gela, the 16th and 26th Infantry Regiments landed on time, but Force X, consisting of the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions, was almost an hour late. When they finally hit the beaches at 3.35 am, the 1st Battalion assaulted a coastal battery at Capo Soprano, while the 4th Battalion took the town itself, despite some spirited resistance by the Italian 429th Coastal Battalion, which lost 45 per cent of its men. At Licata, on the westernmost part of the invasion front, the 3rd Division, which had experienced a particularly heavy ordeal by sea and wind during the passage, had secured the town by 11.30 am, with assistance from the 3rd Ranger Battalion, with losses of around a hundred men.


Conditions on the leeward side of the island, in the British sector, were slightly better. In the 5th Division’s area, around Cassibile, No. 3 Commando arrived on time and proceeded to silence an enemy battery. The 17th Infantry Brigade experienced some delays, but by 5 am, its beach at Fontane Bianche had been taken, and the 6th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, and the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment advanced on Cassibile, while the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, turned towards Syracuse. The 15th Infantry Brigade’s landings proved more troublesome, but by 10 am, it too was established ashore and organising its beaches for build-up. At Avola, the 50th Division’s single assaulting brigade, the 151st, also encountered problems due to the weather conditions, and most of its units were badly scattered and arrived late. Nonetheless, after meeting sporadic resistance, all troops were ashore by 6 am.


British troops coming ashore near Avola.

Further south, in XXX Corps' area, the landings by the 231st Brigade at Marzamemi went very well, and by noon, the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment; the 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment; and the 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment were on the road running north from Pachino. Despite some delays, the 51st (Highland) Division had cleared Pachino itself by noon, while the Canadians, landing further west, seized the airfield to the west of the town.


Landings by the 51st (Highland) Division.

The preparatory bombings of the previous weeks had clearly weakened the Axis air capability, and the heavy presence of Allied aircraft operating from Malta and Pantelleria kept most of the attempted Axis air attacks at bay. Nonetheless, on that first day of the invasion, some attacks did get through. As early as 4.30 am, as first light was creeping over Sicily, attacks on the invasion fleet had begun. The minesweeper USS Sentinel was sunk off Licata, while at Gela, German aircraft sank the landing ship LST-313 and the destroyer USS Maddox, which disappeared under the water in just two minutes after one of her magazines was hit by a bomb. Near Syracuse, Axis aircraft also sank the hospital ship HMHS Talamba. In reality, though, the Axis air response was proving negligible.


Axis air raids on Allied shipping at Gela.

In the meantime, at his headquarters in Enna, General Guzzoni was desperately trying to make sense of what was going on. By 4 am, he had formed a clear enough picture to order a counterattack by XVI Corps. The Livorno Division, together with Mobile Groups "E" and "H", and the half of the Hermann Göring Division that was based near Caltagirone, were to move on the Americans at Gela with all haste, while the 15th Panzergrenadier Division was recalled from the west of the island to the area of San Cataldo and Caltanissetta, about 60 kilometres north of Licata.


At the same time, a second force, composed of the 75th Infantry Regiment of the Napoli Division, together with Mobile Group "D" and the second half of the Hermann Göring Division, under Oberst Schmalz, was to reinforce the Syracuse area. Syracuse itself was not under Guzzoni’s command, as it formed part of the Augusta-Syracuse Naval Fortress Area, under Rear Admiral Priamo Leonardi. Since that stretch of the coast was one of the most heavily defended parts of the island, he could only hope that Leonardi would be able to hold out against the Allies.


The speed of the Axis counterattack at Gela was such that the units involved had no time to coordinate with each other. Instead, each of them acted independently of the others. Tanks from Mobile Group "E", moving south from Ponte Olivo, managed to penetrate the town, but were eventually driven off by the 1st Infantry Division, with the aid of naval gunfire, while to the west of the town, another attack by infantry from the Livorno Division was stopped in its tracks by the Rangers. The Hermann Göring Division launched its own attack, with tank support, at around 2.30 pm, but having encountered heavy naval fire as they approached the beachhead, they decided to pull back at dusk in order to regroup.


American troops near the cathedral in the centre of Gela. An Italian armoured column managed to penetrate the town, but was eventually driven off by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, with the aid of naval gunfire.

While all this had been taking place, fighting was still going on at Ponte Grande, to the south of Syracuse. The single platoon of the 2nd Staffords had since been reinforced by more troops of the scattered 1st Airlanding Brigade who had rallied to the sound of shooting, so that by 8.30 am, 89 men were holding the bridge. By 11.30 am, they had come under attack from units of the Napoli Division. In the course of the next hours, they were subjected to extremely heavy fire from artillery, mortars and machine guns, and with casualties mounting, ammunition running out, and with no sign of the 5th Division, the British force had no choice but to surrender, just 45 minutes before the leading elements of the 17th Brigade finally arrived, having marched around eight miles from the beaches.


Part of the original Ponte Grande, which has since been replaced by a more modern one.

By 5 pm, the bridge had been recaptured, opening the road to Syracuse. A panic now took hold, as Italian troops in the city began destroying their guns, and blowing up ammunition dumps and fuel stores, so that by 9 pm, the Royal Scots Fusiliers had taken the city virtually unopposed. The same night, the 5th Division also captured the nearby town of Floridia, ensuring that all D-Day objectives had been met. So far, Operation Husky had gone almost exactly according to plan, and casualty figures were much lighter than had been anticipated.

 

References


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




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