In early 1943 the Battle for North Africa was raging on. But at the same time Allied leaders were meeting in Casablanca to decide on their next target. Their decision would change the course of the Second World War.
The Americans wanted to focus on delivering a killer blow to Nazi Germany, with a cross channel invasion of Northern France as soon as possible. But the British believed there was a chance to knock Italy out of the war by targeting what they called the soft underbelly of Europe. After days of heated debate, the Americans grudgingly agreed that attacking Sicily would help to further multiple Allied objectives.
The Allies were about to begin one of the most contentious episodes of the Second World War – the Italian Campaign.
The largest amphibious assault of the Second World War
Voice over: "In early 1943 the Battle for North Africa was raging on. But at the same time Allied leaders were meeting in Casablanca to decide on their next target. Their decision would change the course of the Second World War. The Americans wanted to focus on delivering a killer blow to Nazi Germany, with a cross channel invasion of Northern France as soon as possible. But the British believed there was a chance to knock Italy out of the war by targeting what they called the soft underbelly of Europe. After days of heated debate, the Americans grudgingly agreed that attacking Sicily would help to further multiple Allied objectives."
Simon Offord: "Its size and location as well as its 30 airfields made it a huge threat to air and sea routes in the rest of the Mediterranean. But with its capture, the island would act as an airbase and a jumping off point for the invasion of Italy. A final objective would be to reduce pressure on the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front by diverting Axis strength from there to protect southern Europe. For the first time the Allies would be bringing the fight to the Axis on their home soil."
Voice over: "The Allies were about to embark upon one of the most contentious episodes of the Second World War – the Italian Campaign. Although there were some initial successes, there would be no easy victory. Instead, the fighting would be fierce and bloody, with places like Salerno, Anzio and Monte Cassino going down in history as some of the toughest battles of the Second World War. In this new three-part series, sponsored by Company of Heroes 3, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Italian Campaign. From the invasion of Sicily to the capture of Rome, we’ll explore the key moments and decisions that shaped the fighting and try to understand – was it really worth it?"
Voice over: "As the conference at Casablanca came to an end, planning for Operation Husky began immediately. With a date set for June 10th, time was of the essence. The key target of the invasion was the port of Messina, the link to the Italian mainland. But its heavy defences and distance from North Africa meant the Allies could not attack it directly. Their choices were to land either in the Northwest or Southeast where their other objectives in the island’s ports and airfields were concentrated. It took a few months, but by the time Axis forces in North Africa had surrendered in May, the Allies finally settled on a plan.
Four British and Commonwealth Divisions under Bernard Montgomery would land at Syracuse, while three American divisions under George S. Patton would land around Gela. In front of them elements of two Airborne divisions would capture important bridges and crossroads.
After the debacle at Kasserine Pass, the overall commander, General Alexander, had little faith in the American soldiers. So once ashore, Montgomery’s 8th Army would do the heavy lifting, advancing north towards Augusta, Catania and then Messina. Meanwhile, Patton’s 7th Army were to support them on their flank. The Allies expected tough Axis resistance, similar to what they had seen in North Africa. But the Germans and Italians were taken off guard."
Simon Offord: "The Allies used several deception operations to make the Axis forces think that the attack was going to be somewhere else. This oar was used in one of the best known deception operations - Operation Mincemeat. A dead man was dressed as a fictitious Royal Marine officer and documents were planted on him that hinted that the Allies were going to invade Greece and Sardinia with only a faint attack on Sicily. The body was rowed out from the Submarine HMS Seraph using this oar and dropped off on the Spanish coast. It was picked up by a fisherman and handed over to the Spanish authorities who shared the documents with German agents. As a result of this operation and other misinformation, German reinforcements were sent to Sardinia in Greece rather than to the real target."
Voice over: "Without the forces to hold the Island, the Axis commander, General Guzzoni wanted to smash the Allied beachheads before they could consolidate their positions. Coastal units held a thin line around the edge of the island, while two German and 4 Italian divisions stood ready in the Northwest and Southeast ready to counterattack whichever beach the Allies chose. On the night of the 9th of July, while a huge storm whipped up in the Mediterranean, the invasion of Sicily began. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, the Allies had launched a concerted aerial bombardment of the Axis air forces on Sicily – winning air superiority. However, as the paratroopers took to the sky, the threat from the weather conditions created a disaster."
Simon Offord: "The American pilots dropping the paratroopers had had little training in such operations and the British glider pilots themselves had no experience in the American Waco gliders which had arrived in North Africa too late for testing. The strong winds caused some gliders to separate from their towing planes, while many pilots released their gliders too early.
Geoffrey Glassborow was a 2nd Lieutenant in 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, which landed on the first night. He described the injuries that he and his men came off with - "The tail was twisted right round. We had gone straight into a brick wall and landed in an olive grove. I came off with a terrific bump on my head, dislocated thumb and finger and left hand cut about a bit. Most of the men also had cuts etc. Two of them had had their legs trapped between the hand cart and rocks".
Glassborow and his men were eventually captured but managed to overpower their Italian guards and escape. They were then withdrawn from the battle and returned to Tunisia."
Voice over: "Most of the airborne forces found themselves miles from their planned drop zones. However, because they were so spread out, the Axis forces struggled to contain them. They improvised – taking bridges and strongpoints and causing as much chaos as possible. Then, as morning arrived on the 10th, Allied landing craft began to hit the beaches of Sicily. The British faced almost no resistance from the ill equipped and demoralised Italian coastal units, quickly taking Syracuse and moving on towards Augusta.
Meanwhile at Gela it was a different story. Ships near the town had been under constant air attack from the few remaining Axis aircraft on the island. When paratrooper reinforcements flew over the town the following night, they were shot at by jittery AA gunners, resulting in the worst US friendly fire incident of the Second World War.
At the same time, Axis armour attempted to throw the Americans back into the sea. Over the next two days they broke into Gela itself and came within a few kilometres of the beaches. But thanks to a lack of co-ordination between Italian and German forces they were eventually repelled. The Allied beachhead was secure, and Axis forces had missed their chance."
Simon Offord: "Technically the German units in Sicily were under Italian command. But the German commanders didn't think much of their Italian Allies so the German units effectively took their orders from Field Marshal Albert Kesselring back in Italy. Leading to poor coordination between the two armies. The Axis defence of Sicily had been weakened by losses they had suffered in North Africa. The Italians in particular had lost several hundred thousand men captured. Axis air capability on the island had been decimated by bombing and strafing as well as in air-to-air combat. Morale was low as was confidence in their leaders. They were now also fighting on home soil, a far cry from the promises of a new Roman Empire made by Mussolini."
Voice over: "The Allied advance was steady, taking Augusta and yet more Italian prisoners. But when the British tried to move on Catania they were blocked by Axis units redeploying from the west of the island. The town was surrounded by open plains and was well defended. As his attack bogged down, Montgomery began to use roads in the American sector in an effort to maintain his advance. This move infuriated Patton and exacerbated the already deep divide between the British and American commanders."
Simon Offord: "These were two men with big personalities and they had their own thoughts on how battles should be fought. Montgomery's military approach was slow and methodical building up numbers, meticulous planning, minimising casualties. Patton's approach was characterised by his emphasis on speed. Relentless, energetic advance, stopping for nothing. They did not get on at all and this hindered collaboration among the Allies. Patton was supposed to support Montgomery and his 8th Army by protecting his flank and rear as they progressed steadily along the east coast. Instead he decided on his own initiative to roll up the Axis right flank and show what the Americans could really do."
Voice over: "While Montgomery stagnated, Patton broke through the thin Italian lines and raced to Palermo. In less than a week he took over 50,000 prisoners for loss of under 300 casualties. But two weeks into the campaign an even bigger surprise was about to arrive, which would send the entire war in a different direction. By the beginning of 1943 Italian military elites were already disillusioned with the war. Now, after recent setbacks in Sicily and the aerial bombing of Rome, they decide to act. On July 24th, the Grand Council of Fascism met in Rome. There, they voted the Italian leader Benito Mussolini out of power.
For the Allies, this was exactly what they had hoped for. It convinced them to continue attacking Southern Europe and planning soon began for an invasion of mainland Italy. For Germany, despite assurances from Mussolini’s successor, Hitler believed an Italian defection was only a matter of time and he soon began planning to occupy mainland Italy.
Meanwhile on the frontline in Sicily, Kesselring now took overall charge of the Axis forces, including new reinforcements from France. He planned to withdraw to the fearsome Etna line, where he would hold for as long as possible while preparing to evacuate his forces at Messina. The mountain towns of Troina, Centuripe and Adrano became the Allies new key objectives, the fighting to capture them would be some of the bloodiest of the campaign."
Simon Offord: "The mountainous country had few roads and the main routes were commanded by remote towns which were much easier to defend than attack. German artillery and armour held the high ground and even when the Allies superior numbers drove the defenders back they could fall back to the next prepared positions and hold up the advance with mines and the destruction of roads and bridges. Malaria and other fevers affected over 10,000 Allied soldiers and heat exhaustion brought on by Sicily's summer temperatures of almost 40 degrees celsius or 100 degrees fahrenheit also incapacitated many."
Voice over: "After holding up the Allies for two weeks the Axis losses became unsustainable, and they began to withdraw. Now Kesselring set his evacuation in motion and Patton and Montgomery began an unofficial race to Messina. As they advanced, the Allies attempted a number of amphibious operations in an attempt to outflank their retreating enemy – but the Axis forces escaped the trap each time, blowing bridges, roads and mountain passes in their wake. The terrain and geography effectively funnelled the Allies towards their objective, allowing Kesselring to naturally shorten his line and evacuate his men. If the Axis withdrawal was going to be interdicted, it would have to be by air or sea."
Simon Offord: "German troops protected the Strait of Messina with about 230 anti-aircraft guns, meaning that Allied aircraft could not easily attack the retreating troops. The Allies concentrated on night bombing of Messina when the Germans were actually traveling mostly by daylight under their impressive anti-aircraft defence. Similarly for the Allied naval forces the narrow straits, enemy coastal guns, and strong currents meant Allied ships were reluctant to enter the strait to attack the retreating force. As a result, 120,000 enemy troops were able to withdraw to the mainland largely unharassed."
Voice over: "As the last Axis forces escaped to Italy, Patton arrived in Messina a few hours before Montgomery. After 38 days, the battle for Sicily was over. But the fallout from the campaign was only just beginning. At the strategic level, the Allies had succeeded in all of their objectives. Sicily was clear of enemy aircraft and sea lines were open in the med once again. Mussolini had been toppled and Mainland Italy was now just two miles away. Even better, Adolf Hitler called off his Eastern front offensive at Kursk, taking pressure off the Soviets.
The battle was also a significant operation achievement. The Allies had pulled off the largest amphibious invasion of the Second World War with over 180,000 men, 4,000 aircraft and over 3,000 ships and boats. But important lessons would also have to be learned."
Simon Offord: "Many troops landed in the wrong place and in the wrong order and beach exits were congested. Luckily in Sicily the Axis coastal troops offered little resistance and the defenders did not attack the beaches in strength. But planners knew that this would not be the case with Normandy. Friendly fire incidents would be reduced by planning airborne flight paths well away from shipping lanes and by painting Allied aircraft with recognition symbols. In the case of D-Day, three white stripes on the wings."
Voice over: "The death toll in Sicily was also far lighter than anticipated. The Allies expected to lose 10,000 killed and wounded in the first week. Instead by the end of the campaign around 6,000 British, Canadian and US personnel were killed, and around three times that number wounded or missing. On the Axis side, 9,000 Germans and Italians were killed. In addition to around 45,000 wounded and 125,000 captured – mostly Italian.
But there were problems. Friendly fire incidents, inter-service rivalry, and a lack of co-operation by the Allied commanders, led to poor coordination and an ineffective employment of their superior numbers. As a result, they would have to fight 120,000 Axis troops all over again on the Italian mainland. This controversial campaign had only just begun."