Hello Readers! Happy first day of Spring!
Time has flown. Between finishing the third quarter of our school year, sending my second novel out to the editor, getting it BACK from the editor, starting a new writing project, and working with some other writers, I feel like I need to relearn how to post! It’s been far too long since I touched the series I started in January on World War II in the Italian theater. Today, I’ll rectify that.
Today we’ll continue the story, taking a look at the Allied struggle to gain a firm foothold on Italy’s shores.
Peace with Italy—Sort of
By the summer of 1943 Benito Mussolini (also known as “Il Duce”) was loosing his grip on Italy.
Having forced his way into the role of prime minister (soon to be dictator) in 1922, in 1939 Mussolini joined with Hitler in the so-called “Pact of Steel.” However, at least on the Italian end, the “steel” didn’t seem to be holding up in the furnace of war.
Between heavy losses of Italian troops in North Africa, the Balkans and the Soviet Union, support for Mussolini’s rule was low, and the Fascist regime in Italy was showing signs of collapse. The Allies watched to see what would happen. So did the Germans.
On July 25th, Mussolini was arrested. The new government under Marshal Badoglio began secret negotiations with the Allies.
Allied and Italian representatives signed an armistice on the third of September, 1943, exactly four years after Britain had declared war on Germany. On that same morning, the first group of Allies began their landings on Italian soil.
Operations BAYTOWN and SLAPSTICK
The Allied invasion plan consisted of three main landings.
First was Operation BAYTOWN. The British 8th Army, commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery, would cross the Strait of Messina onto the “toe” of Italy.
Then, on September 9th Operation SLAPSTICK (nicknamed “BEDLAM” because of the confusion over frequent changes in shipping plans) would land the British 1st Airborne Division on the “heel” of Italy, securing the port of Taranto.
Operation AVALANCHE, the main thrust, would also take place on September 9th. A joint group of British and American Fifth Army forces under General Mark Clark1 would land on Italy’s “ankle,” on the beaches of Salerno.
The plans for the three landings were somewhat constrained as far as men and materiel because of the ongoing plans for Operation OVERLORD—the invasion of Normandy. Still, BAYTOWN, went off smoothly. Following a bombardment of 400 tons of explosives and covered by aerial support, Montgomery’s forces met almost no opposition.
They met their stiffest resistance of the day not from Axis troops but from a puma that had escaped from its enclosure in Reggio’s zoological gardens where brigade headquarters was established. It seemed that the beast had taken a liking to the brigade commander, Brigadier M.H.S. Penhale (Doherty 1.)2
Montgomery’s force moved forward toward their planned meet-up with the Salerno invasion…slowly. The withdrawing Germans blew bridges, cut down trees, damaged roads and left mines and booby traps behind them.
Still, it was a promising start. The SLAPSTICK landings would also be very successful.
However, between BAYTOWN and AVALANCHE word of Italy’s surrender would become public. With that announcement, everything changed.
The German Response
Germany was aware of the rumblings of discontent in Italy. In anticipation of the fall of Mussolini’s regime, Hitler’s generals moved reinforcements into northern Italy to wait for developments.
On September 8th, General Dwight Eisenhower publicly announced Italy’s capitulation.
In response, Hitler activated Operation ALARICH, named for a German warlord who captured Rome centuries before. German troops moved in, disarming and detaining over a million Italian troops and taking Rome on September 10th. The government and King Victor Emmanuel were able to escape to Allied territory. Mussolini was rescued and put back in power—at least nominally.
As to the Italian army, those who escaped officially switched to the “Allied” side, along with local partisans in Italy. The detainees who refused to fight for Germany were labeled “military internees” instead of regular POWs, and as such were not protected by the Geneva Convention. Hundreds of thousands were forced into slave labor. 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps, though many were hidden by Italian neighbors and spared this fate.
AVALANCHE at Salerno
The German army also prepared their own response to possible Allied attacks. Field Marshal Kesserling correctly predicted that an assault on Italy would most likely aim for the beaches around Salerno. After all, they were the northernmost beaches that would work well for an amphibious landing and still be close enough for air cover from Sicily.
Salerno offered an excellent approach for ships with wide, flat stretch crescent of beach to land on. The beach was also split by the Sele River which flowed down to the sea, and surrounded by steep, rising ground. British forces would land to the north of the river with a group of American Rangers led by Lt. Col William Darby on their left flank. The main American force would go in south of the river.
The river. Months before, General Patton3 had looked over the battle plans for Salerno and predicted that if the Germans counter attacked, it would be down the river.
Before they could worry about counter attacks, the Allies needed to take the beaches. General Clark and the 36th Division Commander overrode Admiral Hewitt’s recommendation for a pre-landing bombardment to “soften up” enemy positions, hoping, instead to manage a surprise landing. (This is the only amphibious assault in WWII that I’ve read about that did not have any bombardment in advance. Perhaps the history experts out there know of others.) According to an article on Salerno from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Admiral “disagreed adamantly, arguing that there was no possibility for achieving surprise because German aviation assets had detected the force and surmised its intended destination well before the landings. He was overridden.
In the dark early hours of September 9th, the troops landing on Salerno faced machine gun, sniper and artillery fire from an unsurprised enemy who held the high ground.
The Navy did what they could to back them up. Indeed, during the week long battle, the ships brought their big naval guns in so close to the shore that it put the ships at risk, particularly of hits from a new German radio guided glide bomb. Still, when the German attack down the river came, it nearly split the Allied forces and drove General Clark out of his command post and back towards the sea. The 36th Infantry division—largely Texas National guardsmen—reportedly had one battalion that “lost more that 500 men captured or killed in a matter of hours” (Kagan, Hyslop 163.)4
The Battle of Salerno alone could merit a post or two or three.5. However, with tenacity and the help of naval guns and reinforcements, the Allies held on through the worst German counter attacks of the 12-14, and by the 18th, with the approach of the 8th army forces from the south, the Germans began to withdraw.
The Allies had officially arrived in Italy.
Following the landings, the Allies entered Naples on October 1st to find the city ravaged. The retreating Germans had not only destroyed tactical objectives like railways and ports. They had also destroyed the water and sewer systems, burned libraries, and left time bombs in public buildings. One, left in the city’s post office, didn’t go off until October 7th.
Montgomery’s 8th Army was sent to the Adriatic side of Italy and the Allies prepared for the next step of the journey up Italy, through the mountains and over the rivers. It was still unclear just how far into Italy they would be expected to go.
Thank you so much for stopping by today! While I try to hit key points in these articles, there is ALWAYS more to the story. Do you have anything to add about this piece of history?
1According to the Naval History and Heritage Command (linked here) Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, USN, actually had official command of the operation until General Mark Clark had established a land-based command center, which makes their later disagreement interesting.
2Doherty, Richard. Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long, Hard Slog. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2007. Print
3General Patton was not part of the Italian campaign. Following some incidents on Sicily—including his slapping two American soldiers who were hospitalized for shell shock—he was removed from the Mediterranean theater, though he would return to command in Europe.
4 Kagan, Neil and Hyslop, Stephen G. Eyewitness to World War II: Unforgettable Stories and Photographs from History’s Greatest Conflict. Wasghington: National Geographic, 2013. Print
Other books I used for reference:
Keegan, John (Editor). World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia. London: PRC Publishing Ltd., 1999. Print. (My edition is from 2002.)
Ford, Ken. Battleaxe Division: From Africa to Italy with the 78th Division 1942-45. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999. Print
Majdalany, Fred. Cassino, Portrait of a Battle. London: Cassell and Co, 1957. Print