From Africa to Italy
EARLY IN SEPTEMBER 1943, British and American armies invaded southern Italy, striking at the heart of a major Axis nation and breaching Hitler's "Fortress Europe." Behind the invasion lay long months of hard-won Allied victories. The Axis was cleared out of Africa in May, when British and American armies annihilated the German and Italian forces cornered in Tunisia. Sicily, the stepping stone from Africa to Europe, was next conquered in a 38-day battle, and on 17 August the last of its German garrison fled across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland. On 3 September the British Eighth Army crossed the Strait in pursuit and drove up the Calabrian Peninsula. Coordinated with the Eighth Army's attack, Allied landings at Salerno by the United States Fifth Army and at Taranto by the British 1 Airborne Division were made on 9 September. In the Salerno landings, strong American forces were fighting on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1918.
Even before the beginnings of the Sicilian operations, the staffs of Allied land, naval, and air forces had been planning an invasion of Italy. Once established on the Italian mainland, we might hope to secure complete naval and aerial domination of the Mediterranean and to obtain strategic ports and airfields for future operations against continental Europe. If we could knock Italy out of the war, we would force the Germans to retreat north of the Alps or to use in Italy armies which might be fighting on the Russian front.
MAP NO. 1
Plans for the Invasion of Italy
The extent and timing of the invasion depended on factors which could not be estimated accurately. In the early summer the Allied Chiefs of Staff did not know how strong Italian and German resistance in Sicily would be, or what direction political developments in Italy would take. First plans had called for an assault across the toe with a coordinated amphibious attack on the instep of Italy. In July and August, however, indications of changing temper of the Italian people dictated the bolder strategy of assaults farther up the west coast. After the fall of Mussolini from power on 25 July, the Fascist Party lost control in Italy, and the new government showed more and more clearly its desire to withdraw from the war. As our campaign in Sicily moved successfully ahead, the Italians, soldiers and civilians alike, gave further signs that they had grown war weary. Italy was ripe for attack.
The invasion across the Strait of Messina was the mission assigned to the British Eighth Army under General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery (Map No. 1, faces page 1). To take full advantage of the political and military situation, a landing of other forces farther up the west coast north of the toe was directed by the Allied Chiefs. Naples and Rome were obvious objectives, but a landing near Rome would be too far from air support based in Sicily. Naples, moreover, possessed the best harbor along the western coast, as well as excellent airfields. The mission of capturing the port and airfields of Naples as a base for future operations was assigned to the United States Fifth Army under Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark and was scheduled to follow a week or so after the Eighth Army had crossed the Strait. While the Fifth Army was landing at Salerno, the British 1 Airborne Division was also to land from the sea at the port of Taranto in the heel of Italy. As the Eighth Army drove up the west and center of Italy, the airborne division would push north along the east coast. Elements of both forces would then join to capture the important airfields at Foggia. If the Fifth Army could strike eastward sharply and quickly enough, it might establish a barrier across the boot and trap the enemy forces facing the Eighth Army in the south.
To secure Naples the Fifth Army could land either some 25 miles northwest of the city near the mouth of the Volturno River or 40
LT. GEN. MARK W. CLARK
Commanding General, Fifth Army, United States Army
miles southeast of the city on the beaches of the Gulf of Salerno. A landing in the Volturno area would put our troops on an open plain within easy reach of Naples but farther from necessary air support. This support would be difficult to provide, for our land-based fighter planes would have to operate from airdromes in Sicily, at least 200 miles from Naples, and could remain over the beaches only a. short time. A landing southeast of Naples would entail almost the same difficulty of distance for air support. Furthermore, the invasion forces would have to establish a beachhead on the narrow Salerno plain, which is commanded by lofty mountains. If our troops did not secure the passes in these mountains during the first rush, the enemy would have an excellent chance to make our drive on Naples slow and costly.
On the other hand, the Gulf of Salerno offered the most favorable conditions for landing (Map No. 2, faces page 5). Careful reconnaissance studies by the Navy revealed beaches with many practical advantages. In good weather there is little surf. The off shore gradient would permit transports to come close to shore; the narrowness of the strip of sand between water and dunes would make easy the construction of exit routes. The road net, lying close to the beaches, would be useful for transportation of troops and supplies; the terrain immediately behind the beaches would be suitable for supply dumps. Because of these advantages, the Gulf of Salerno was finally chosen.
The narrow Salerno plain, lying between the beaches and a great wall of mountains, was to become familiar ground to thousands of American soldiers. The steep and rocky Sorrento Peninsula, with the town of Salerno at its base, is the northwest bastion of the mountain wall, which sweeps inland and southward in a great bow to meet the sea again at Agropoli. From Salerno to Agropoli the line of beaches runs almost straight for 26 miles from northwest to southeast. The plain is roughly crescent-shaped, narrower at either end and some 10 miles wide in the center along the River Sele.
Mount Eboli, stretching westward more than 8 miles just north of the Sele, divides the plain into a northern half, where the British 10 Corps was to operate, and a southern half assigned to the United States VI Corps. On the lower western slopes of Mount Eboli is the town of Eboli. Southeast of the town, across the river plain of the Sele and Calore, lies a chain of hills running north and south. At the northern end of the chain, halfway up Hill 424, is the little town of
ORGANIZATION OF THE FIFTH ARMY AT SALERNO (9 September-6 October 1943)
MOUNT SOPRANO, towering over 3000 feet above sea level, dominated
beaches where Me Americans landed. Together with the knoll on its western slope, known
as Hill 386, it was a guide point for the troops. The ancient Greek Temple of Neptune,
at the lower right, and the ruins surrounding it were used by the 111th Medical Battalion
for its headquarters and clearing station.
Altavilla. At its southern end, the chain joins the great tilted table of Mount Soprano, with sheer cliffs over 3,000 feet above sea level dominating the view from the Paestum beaches. Mount Eboli and Mount Soprano, viewed from a distance, seem to rise sheer from the plain and tower high above their foothills. On these foothills, which jut westward from the mountain wall, much of the heaviest fighting took place.
Through the plain the two principal rivers, the Sele and Calore, run parallel for some 7 miles and join 4 miles from the coast. Each is fordable at several points before their Junction. Two of the major north-south roads of lower Italy cross the plain. Highway 18, the coastal road, and Highway 18, which was to be the chief German route of approach from the south and cast, meet at Battipaglia on the mountain slopes north of the Sele. Two railway lines follow almost the same paths as the roads.
The only settlement on the Salerno plain is at Paestum, near an ancient Greek temple. Battipaglia, Eboli, Albanella, Capaccio, and the other villages that were to figure so prominently in the battle are either at the very foot of the mountains or sprawled on their slopes. Below the hills, covered with olive orchards, stretch the orange groves and well-cultivated fields of the plain proper. The American forces were to fight their way from the beaches, across the level plain, over the foothills to the mountain passes, and through the passes to Naples.
Fifth Army Plans
General Clark's plans for the Fifth Army called for coordinated assaults on the Salerno beaches by two corps, one British and one American. After securing the beaches, the army was to advance inland to the mountains, then swing northwest to Naples. The Sele River, which bisects the Salerno plain, was to be the boundary between the British 10 Corps on the left and the United States VI Corps on the right. Under the command of Lt. Gen. Sir Richard L. McCreery, the
British 10 Corps included the British 46 and 56 Divisions, 7 Armoured Division, the 2 and 41 Commandos, and the United States 1st, 3d, and 4th Ranger Battalions.
The 10 Corps was to deliver the main blow; its mission was to capture Naples. In its zone, which extended nearly 25 miles from Maiori along the coast to the Sele River mouth, the immediate objectives were the port of Salerno, the Montecorvino airfield, the important rail and highway center of Battipaglia, and Ponte Sele on Highway 19. The left flank of the zone was entrusted to three battalions of Rangers and two battalions of Commandos, all under Lt. Col. William O. Darby. The Rangers were to land at Maiori and advance north to seize the broad Nocera-Pagani pass between Salerno and Naples. The Commandos were to land at Vietri sul Mare, turn east along the coastal road, and enter Salerno. Meanwhile, the bulk of 10 Corps assault forces would land on three beaches south of the Picentino River, with the 56 Division leading the assault on the right flank, and the 46 Division taking over the center. Between the 56 Division and the beaches of VI Corps to the south lay a gap of more than 10 miles which must be closed without delay as the two corps moved inland. The forces were to join at Ponte Sele.
The United States VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest J. Dawley, was to operate on the right of the 10 Corps and had the mission of establishing a beachhead south of the Sele River. Regimental combat teams of the 36th Division (reinforced), under Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker, were to launch simultaneous assaults on the Paestum beaches, advance inland to seize the high ground commanding the southern half of the Salerno plain, and prevent the movement of the enemy into the plain from the east and south.
Additional strength as floating reserve was to bc provided by two American forces, a reinforced regimental combat team of the 45th Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, and a reinforced regimental combat team of the 82d Airborne Division, under Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway. General Middleton's combat team was to be ready to land on D Day over any of the previously established beaches; General Ridgway's troops were to be prepared to land with light equipment on beaches which had not been previously established. Follow-up troops included the balance of the 45th Division and of the 82d Airborne Division, together with the 34th Division,
the 3d Division, the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, one armored division, one tank battalion, and supporting troops.
A special naval force, placed under the command of Capt. Charles L. Andrews, Jr., U.S.N., was to make a feint against the beaches at the mouth of the Volturno River, northwest of Naples, to draw enemy forces there and divert them from the main assaults. Arrangements were completed for naval fire support and for air support, from land-based planes and from one naval carrier and four auxiliary carriers, commanded by Rear Adm. P. L. Vian, R.N. Until the port of Naples became available, maintenance for both corps was to be primarily over the beaches.
It was a daring plan. The Fifth Army was to invade Italy with the equivalent of four divisions on D Day and was to double that strength with follow-up troops. Success depended on the ability of the British and American forces to establish a firm beachhead before the Germans could oppose them with units shifted from the east and south. General Clark chose 9 September as D Day; H Hour was set for 0330.
Preparing for D Day
With the approach of D Day, the Fifth Army was making final preparations for invasion. The loading of vessels assigned to each unit, the landing rehearsals, and the strategic bombing of enemy communications and supply routes filled the last days before the invasion. The shortage of vessels was critical. The British contingent of the expedition had already been set at two divisions (the 56 and 46, forming the 10 Corps), but the size of the American force could not be determined finally until just before D Day. At first it consisted only of the 36th Division; then vessels for one regimental combat team of the 45th Division were made available, and finally it proved possible to include nearly two regimental combat teams of the 45th in the D Day convoy. The 3d and 34th Divisions were to wait for subsequent convoys. Vehicles and equipment for every unit in the D Day convoy were cut to the bare minimum.
Final landing rehearsals to familiarize officers and men with the conditions they were soon to face were held at invasion training centers and amphibious training centers. British units and the 36th Division held "dry runs" on beaches in North Africa. The 36th Division, for
From an orthographic projection, observation point 10,000 meters above Punta Licosa, by Col. W. P. Burn, C.W.S.
PANORAMA OF THE SALERNO BATTLEGROUND, above, shows the
beaches, the mountains, and the plains over which soldiers of the Fifth Army
fought for 28 days to make good their invasion of western Italy.
example, carried out a practice operation called Cowpuncher between Porte aux Poules and Arzew, about 30 miles east of Oran, in an area especially selected to duplicate or at least to approximate the beaches at Paestum. Troops of the 34th Division played the enemy roles, wiring the beaches and manning the defenses. The 45th Division, already veterans of one amphibious operation, held a similar rehearsal on beaches in Sicily.
Air operations preparatory to the landings began several weeks before D Day. Bombings of important enemy airfields in southern and central Italy and of supply routes, railroads, and highways leading to the beachhead area and Naples took place late in August. On the night of 3/4 September a series of especially intense and well-coordinated attacks were begun against fighter bases at Capodichino and Capua, near Naples, and at Foggia. From 15 August until D Day the Northwest African Air Force destroyed 248 planes on the ground and damaged 93, reducing enemy air strength which might have been used against the landings. Reconnaissance planes patrolled the coasts to catch any changes in shore defenses or in the location of troops.
On the Convoys
When training had been completed, the divisions of the Fifth Army waterproofed their equipment and embarked in the ships. The Allied navies had set up three major Convoys, sailing from Oran, Tripoli, and Bizerte on staggered schedules in order to converge in the Gulf of Salerno opposite their objectives on D minus 1 (Map No. 1, faces page 1). Secondary and follow-up convoys were to sail from the same ports and from Sicily.
The Western Naval Task Force, under Vice Adm. Henry K. Hewitt, U.S.N., was responsible for the protection of the convoy and for support of the military operations by naval gunfire. Admiral Hewitt's command consisted of the Northern Attack Force, under Commo. G. N. Oliver, R.N., and the Southern Attack Force, under Rear Adm. John L. Hall. The Southern Attack Force, with the 36th Division on board, constituted the Eighth Amphibious Force. A United States Task Group, under the command of Rear Adm. Richard L. Conolly, U.S.N., which had trained with the British 46 Division
at the Advance Training Base in Bizerte, was to support the landing of the 46 Division.
The main body of the United States convoy sailed from Oran at 1700 on 5 September. Although its departure was reported by enemy reconnaissance, the convoy was not attacked. In clear, fine weather the ships plowed past the western tip of Sicily and into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Moving in 4 columns 11,000 yards apart, they were protected by the cruisers Philadelphia, Savannah, and Boise and circling destroyers. The Bizerte convoy, which sailed on 6 September, was attacked by 3 enemy aircraft on the 8th at 1400 and again at 1650 by 10 enemy planes, with the loss of one LCT (Landing Craft Tank).
Aboard the convoys, commanders distributed maps and orders and explained the landing plans in detail. Soldiers looked over the small booklets on Italy which they had received soon after embarkation. At 1830 on 8 September the most tense moment for all the convoys came with a radio announcement by General Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Hostilities between the United Nations and Italy have terminated, effective at once." Military commanders on each ship immediately made it clear to their bewildered men that the invasion was to go ahead as ordered. The armistice between the United Nations and Italy had been concluded on 3 September at Syracuse. Accepting terms of unconditional surrender, the Italian government agreed to transfer to the Allies its air and naval units and to withdraw its army from occupied territory and from the front line in Italy. Announcement of the surrender was delayed until the last minute to permit the Italian army to stop fighting and still not allow the Germans time to occupy the coastal defenses. The commanding officers, however, believed that even with such short notice the Germans might have been able to take over the entire defense and that resistance to the invasion would stiffen.
Twelve minutes after General Eisenhower's announcement, the Oran convoys formed in approach disposition about 20 miles off Salerno and started in for the transport area, some 8 miles nearer shore. The Tripoli and Bizerte convoys moved as ordered into the transport area. By 2000 on the evening of the invasion, the navy mine sweepers had already been at work, continuously for 30 hours, sweeping or repairing gear, and making the lanes safe for the transports and landing craft.
At 2350 the flagship Samuel Chase stopped her engines and lay
about 10 miles from the beaches south of the Sele River. The transports formed in three lines, followed by three more lines of landing ships and landing craft. The moon set at 0057, making concealment easier but increasing the difficulties of navigation to shore. The sea was smooth, the wind north to northeast, and the sky almost clear. An armada of 450 vessels lay ready for H Hour. Some fifty more vessels of all types were prepared for the first follow-up. The Fifth Army of 100,000 British troops and 69,000 American troops, with some 20,000 vehicles, was poised for a major attack over the Salerno beaches.
Enemy reactions to the landing of the Eighth Army at Reggio di Calabria on 3 September had indicated that the foot of Italy would not be strongly defended. Resistance to the landing was slight. Both German and Italian forces avoided major engagements and fell back rapidly after carrying out extensive demolitions. By 8 September British advance units were already halfway up the toe of the Italian boot. With the announcement that evening of the unconditional surrender of the Italian government, hostile action by the Italian Army in the south ceased, and the Italian fleet sailed from Taranto to surrender in Allied ports.
Without question, however, the landing of the Fifth Army at Salerno would cause an immediate and strong reaction from the Germans. It was expected that they would fight hard to prevent or at least delay a penetration inland which would trap their forces moving up from the south. The Fifth Army planners estimated that on D Day in the Salerno area, they would have to deal with 39,000 Germans and with more than 100,000 by D Plus 3. With their forces in favorable defensive positions, the Germans would probably make a desperate effort to hold the invaders within the confines of the Salerno plain until their units from the south could pass around the danger zone. Then the German army could fall back to the Volturno River, righting delaying battles which would be costly to the Allied troops.
Although after the Sicilian defeat some eight German divisions had been placed where they could move to meet an invading army in the extreme south, in the center, or in the north of the peninsula, it is apparent that the Germans expected the principal Allied landing to be
in the south. The 16th Panzer Division (armored) was in the Eboli-Battipaglia area, where it had moved late in August from the southeast coast of Italy near Bari. The Hermann Goering Division was on the plains of Naples, and the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division (armored infantry) was probably northwest of this force, in the general neighborhood of Gaeta. Both units had been reorganizing after heavy losses in personnel and equipment in Sicily. The 2d Parachute Division garrisoned the vicinity of Rome; some elements of the 3d Panzer Grenadier were at Frascati, 13 miles south of Rome, guarding the headquarters of Field Marshal Kesselring. Three other divisions were well to the south. The 1st Parachute Division held the Adriatic coast south of Bari; the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 26th Panzer Division were in Calabria but, for the most part, not in direct contact with the Eighth Army. Of these three divisions in the south, the 1st Parachute and the 29th Panzer Grenadier were veterans of the Sicilian campaign.
In the Salerno area, the 16th Panzer Division was assigned the defense of the beaches from the Sorrento Peninsula to Agropoli, sharing the defense of this coast with Italian troops (Map No. 2, faces page 5). On 7 September the German high command, learning of the Italian armistice, ordered the division to assume the entire coastal defense. Information gathered after D Day revealed that the Germans had placed artillery and mortars in a semicircle covering the whole coastal area. A concentration of heavy antiaircraft guns was emplaced in the Salerno port and in the Montecorvino-Battipaglia areas. Included in the mobile defenses was a railway battery of three cars mounting 132-mm guns, usually kept on a track just north of Agropoli. Observation from such dominating terrain features as Mount Soprano enabled the enemy to direct fire on the gulf, the beaches, and the plain.
The defenses on the beaches and on the plain were not so well organized. The Germans relied most heavily on small groups of tanks that could rove east of the beaches to throw any landing operation into confusion. Teller mines, however, were laid at random 10 to 15 yards from the water's edge in a belt extending 60 to 100 yards inland. Barbed-wire obstacles were placed to the front and rear of numerous machine guns, sited to cover the most likely landing spots. A few trees had been felled and the stumps wired.
On 8 September, the German forces in southern Italy were still
widely dispersed. As the result of enemy aerial reconnaissance reporting the Fifth Army approach, warning orders were undoubtedly transmitted to all units; at 1600 the 16th Panzer Division was ordered to be "ready for battle." It does not appear, however, that any major enemy units were shifted to the Salerno area until after the Allied landing early in the morning of the 9th. Then German motors began to roar, and column upon column swung onto the roads of southern Italy, heading for the Salerno plain. There the first decisive battle of the Allied assault on Fortress Europe was already beginning.
page created 23 July 2001
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