Not a lot has ever been written, or said, in Australia about the long and bitter campaign conducted against the Axis (mostly German) forces in Italy during the Second World War.
This is probably understandable, given the remaining Australian troops in the Middle East had been withdrawn to deal with the growing threat from Japan. Nevertheless, what took place in Italy – designed to destroy the junior Axis partner – was vital to the outcome of final victory in Europe.
Following the defeat and surrender of the Axis army in North Africa on 13 May 1943 with the loss of 250,000 men and all their equipment, the next obvious step was the invasion of the Italian mainland to knock-out the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and his fascist regime. But exactly where would the blow fall? Would it first be an attack on the islands of Sicily or Sardinia, as the Germans believed, or an invasion of the mainland itself? Chasing the enemy out of North Africa with land forces was one thing, but to mount an invasion by sea was something quite different, as Hitler discovered following the fall of France. Such an undertaking had not been attempted on this scale in modern times.
In the event, Sicily was the chosen target as a pre-cursor to an assault on the mainland itself and on 10July 1943 a vast convoy which had set out from Egypt, North Africa, Malta and the United States assembled off the coast at Syracuse on the southern tip of Sicily to launch ‘Operation Husky’. The invasion of the so-called ‘soft-underbelly’ of Europe had begun. It was to be a joint Anglo/American operation. Montgomery’s victorious EighthArmy was to fight its way east of the active volcano of Mount Etna; the American Seventh Army, under General George Patton,was to fight westwards to Palermo. Both armies were to converge at Messina, the jumping- off point for the mainland of Italy. Monty, no great fan of Patton, fully intended to get to Messina first and an extraordinary race now developed between the two armies.
However, as is so often the case in war, not everything went according to plan. A sudden severe storm threatened to disrupt the invading armada in their flat-bottomed landing craft. Sixty-nine British gliders carrying assault troops crashed into the sea. Two hundred men were drowned. American paratroopers fared little better. With inexperienced pilots and poor night-time navigation, most of them were scattered over a wide area and failed to reach their objectives.
Nevertheless, by dawn of the first day 150,000 Allied troops were safely ashore with a further 320,000 ready to join them a few days later. Insufficient numbers of tanks were landed during those first critical days and the Americans quickly came up against the 56-ton ‘Tiger’ tanks of the elite Herman Goering Panzer Division against which the ‘Sherman’ was no match, and which were only dispersed by heavy off-shore naval gunfire. It was calculated that it took five ‘Shermans’ to deal with one ‘Tiger’, such was the strength of their 100mm frontal armour and the power of their high-velocity 8.8cm gun – a fearsome weapon indeed.
The Eighth Army also encountered stiff resistance, particularly against German paratroopers whose 88mm anti-tank guns again proved formidable weapons against the lightly armoured British tanks and became stalled near Catania where there were a number of large German air bases. Compounding the problems of the battlefield, a furious row erupted between the two army commanders when both invading forces found themselves fighting in the same vicinity without clear lines of demarcation. This pique and rivalry between the two commanders was to re-emerge during the Normandy landings a year later.
While the fighting raged in Sicily, Patton’s troops swept down from the mountains and raced along the coast road to capture Palermo as the Axis garrison fled in disorder. On 25July Mussolini was deposed and arrested by the king of Italy who appointed the anti-Fascist Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister. Although declaring Italy’s determination to fight on, fearing German occupation, he secretly began to negotiate peace with the Allies to take Italy out of the war.
Troops of the US Third Infantry Division entered the historic city of Messina at 10 am on 17 August, just fifty minutes before the first units of the British Eighth Army arrived. The race for Messina was decided and Montgomery had lost by the slimmest of margins. The capture of Sicily had taken thirty-nine days of brutal fighting and cost 12,843 British and Canadian casualties. The Americans lost a total of 9,968 killed and wounded. It was estimated that 164,000 Axis troops were either killed or captured and 100,000 escaped to the mainland – a surprisingly large number given the Allies had virtual control of the air and sea.
The Germans conducted an orderly evacuation, taking much of their equipment with them. Even so the booty of captured weapons, fuel and ammunition was huge, but nothing could compensate for the sight of the civilian population emerging from their cellars to see their beloved Messina almost flattened, not only by Allied bombs and artillery but also now from guns from the Italian mainland. This was to be the pattern over the next two years with Italian towns laid waste in a war that would bring the country untold misery and suffering.
Invasion of the Italian mainland was not long in coming when British troops crossed the straits of Messina in force following a bombardment by four battleships on 3September, the fourth anniversary of the declaration of war. Montgomery took no chances. Every available artillery piece was lined up on the Sicilian coast and rained shells on beaches near Reggio di Calabria before the British Fifth .and the First Canadian Infantry Divisions came ashore against negligible opposition – Italian soldiers even volunteered to unload landing craft! (The Germans had shrewdly movedtwo panzer divisions known to be in the area north in anticipation of a second landing which was exactly what happened)
The plan – known as Operation ‘Baytown’- aimed to draw German forces away from the resort town of Salerno south of Naples where a second British and American landing, under the command of General Mark Clark, was planned. Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army, continued to fan out into the hilly countryside of Calabria, soon discovering that the lack of roads, the rough terrain and the effects of German demolition teams methodically destroying bridges, ripping up railway lines and laying large numbers of mines seriously impeded any hope of a quick advance up the toe of Italy and a link-up with the forces about to be landed further up the coast.
It also soon became obvious that tanks were not destined to play a major part in this phase of the campaign, having to stick to such roads as there were, and unable to be deployed in any meaningful numbers. A tank destroyed or broken down on a narrow road could block a whole column of vehicles attempting to advance and allow the enemy to escape or, worse still; infiltrate the flanks with anti-tank fire.
This was to be largely a battle between infantry forces often at close quarters and it would be the determination and resolution of those engaged that would decide the outcome in a terrain that heavily favoured the defence. In these circumstances, the Italian campaign was about to enter into a slow and painful slogging match that began to devour more and more resources and to seriously jeopardise the planned invasion of Normandy the following year – just as the Germans had hoped.
The war in Italy was to be no cakewalk.
Contact Brian Burton about this article.