Monday, May 18, 2015

Operation AVALANCHE Part I

In the early morning hours of 9 September, the approximately 450 ships of Operation AVALANCHE assembled off the Salerno coast. Elements had sailed from Sicily and from Tripoli, Oran, and Bizerte in North Africa, some as early as 5 and 6 September.

German aircraft had attacked part of the fleet, so Kesselring knew that an Allied assault force was assembling but was uncertain where the blow would fall. German units were on alert, but were unable to defend all possible invasion sites.

General Sir Harold Alexander commanded the Allied 15th Army Group, composed of Montgomery’s British Eighth Army and Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army. Clark, a World War I veteran who had recently commanded a U.S. corps and had been Eisenhower’s deputy for Operation TORCH, commanded the invasion force. The Fifth Army comprised the British 10 Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir Richard L. McCreery, and the U.S. VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest J. Dawley. The invasion force’s assault echelon consisted of two British divisions (the 46th and 56th) from 10 Corps, but because of a shortage of landing craft, only one division from VI Corps participated: the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, a Texas National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker. Three U.S. Ranger battalions, commanded by Lt. Col. William O. Darby, and the 2d and 41st British Commandos were also in the assault element. Two regimental combat teams from the U.S. 45th Division, an Arizona National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, served as a seaborne reserve.

Clark expected to meet some 39,000 enemy troops on D-day and about 100,000 three days later after German reinforcements rushed to Salerno. He hoped to land 125,000 Allied troops. The British 10 Corps on the left was to land its two divisions abreast south of Salerno. The U.S. Rangers and the British Commandos were to land at beaches west of Salerno and secure the left flank by seizing key passes through the mountainous Sorrento peninsula between Naples and Salerno. Control of the passes would permit a rapid exit from the Salerno plain and protect the beachhead from German counterattacks from the north. Once the British 10 Corps was reinforced by the British 7th Armoured Division beginning on D plus 5, McCreery’s corps would swing north and advance toward Naples.

On the right, after the U.S. 36th Infantry Division was ashore, the U.S. 45th Infantry Division and other American units were to follow as soon as possible. The U.S. 34th Infantry Division, a North Dakota National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, and the U.S. 1st Armored Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest N. Harmon, would come ashore through Naples, which Clark believed would be in Allied hands by D plus 13, or 23 September. The U.S. 82d Airborne Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, was to be held in reserve on Sicily. Plans to drop the 82d as a diversion along the Volturno River, sixty miles north of Salerno, and on Rome, had been canceled. Eventually Clark’s Fifth Army would link up with Montgomery’s British Eighth Army advancing from BAYTOWN.

The amphibious assault began early on the morning of 9 September 1943. U.S. Rangers hit the beach unopposed at 0310, twenty minutes in advance of the main assault force, and moved quickly inland to seize their objectives. British Commandos captured the town of Salerno against light opposition. The British 10 Corps landed under a heavy naval bombardment, meeting significant opposition as its soldiers fought their way inland. The untested men of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division came ashore at 0330 without supporting fire, hoping to surprise the Germans. Although the leading elements took heavy casualties, all six waves of the 36th Division assault element were on the beach by 0610. Two companies of German infantry that had been on the Salerno beach judiciously withdrew inland as the assault began. Nevertheless, the Americans encountered small but intense resistance as they fought their way off the beaches.

Early German Luftwaffe attacks on the invasion force slackened near dawn as Allied aircraft from Sicily and supporting carriers appeared over the beachhead. Local German commanders reacted to the invasion force piecemeal. Fifteen tanks of the 16th Panzer Division made the first significant counterattack against the beachhead at 0700 but were driven off by a combination of naval gunfire, artillery, infantry, and engineers. However, German artillery and mortar fire, as well as continued forays by tank and infantry units, soon disrupted the orderly flow of Allied forces across the beach. Significantly, U.S. artillery and armor units were delayed coming ashore and disorganized when they arrived. Amid the confusion, many leading assault elements found themselves facing enemy tanks without adequate antiarmor weapons, and only through determination and individual heroism were some American forces able to move inland. In such cases, the actions of men like Sgt. Joseph M. Logan of Company I, 3d Battalion, 141st Infantry, were critical. When his unit was pinned down by machine gun fire coming from a stone wall near the beach, Sergeant Logan advanced some 200 yards toward the gun. With bullets striking around him, he killed three Germans who attacked from a gap in the wall. Under a stream of heavy fire, he rushed the machine gun position and killed the gunners and then turned the weapon on the enemy. For his heroic actions Sergeant Logan was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Operation AVALANCHE Part II

U.S. infantrymen push past the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, center of the American sector during the landings around Salerno Bay.

Small-scale and seemingly disorganized German counterattacks continued throughout the day but were repulsed as Fifth Army strengthened its lodgment. Reinforcements, support troops, and supplies poured ashore. By nightfall, the British 10 Corps was three miles inland and had advanced to the Montecorvino airfield. On the right, the U.S. VI Corps, which had met only limited opposition after leaving the beach, was some five miles inland. Separated by the Sele River, each corps operated independently with only minimal contact. But despite the fact that the landing force was in four separated beachheads, by dusk of D-day the situation looked favorable for the Allies.

While the AVALANCHE invasion force was moving ashore, German forces in southern Italy, as planned, were conducting a deliberate withdrawal northward following the Eighth Army landings. General Kesselring, although occupied with the Italian surrender, was not surprised by the Salerno invasion. With one division in place at Salerno and two others immediately available, and with LXXVI Panzer Corps withdrawing from southern Italy and soon available for employment, he directed General Vietinghoff to contain the beachhead. Vietinghoff, in turn, directed the 16th Panzer Division to prevent any deep Allied penetration until reinforcements arrived. On 10 September he concentrated the 16th Panzer Division against the British 10 Corps, blocking its progress while awaiting the arrival of LXXVI Corps. At first, Vietinghoff was optimistic, believing he could push the invasion force into the sea. Eighth Army was still 120 miles to the south and had to traverse difficult terrain to reach the beachhead. Coincidentally, General Montgomery had decided on 9 September to halt his advance for two days to rest and resupply his forces, buying more time for the German counterattacks at Salerno.

Meanwhile General Clark, who had yet to establish his headquarters ashore, was concerned because of the sketchy reports from the beachhead on D-day. General Dawley went ashore at 1300 and soon after began preparing to assume command of the VI Corps troops in the beachhead, earlier than originally scheduled. Elements of the U.S. 45th Division were also sent ashore during the night of 9 September to reinforce the 36th Division. Over the next two days, the 36th Division was able to consolidate its position ashore and expand the beachhead because of the withdrawal of most of the Germans in front of the VI Corps. However, in the British 10 Corps sector, intense fighting occurred as squads, platoons, and companies engaged in fierce exchanges with stubborn pockets of Germans who halted British advances and launched limited counterattacks.

On 10 September Clark visited both corps. Progress was satisfactory in the VI Corps sector, but the resistance in front of the British and the separation between the two Allied corps concerned him. Frustrated with the apparent stalemate, Clark narrowed the British 10 Corps zone of responsibility which would eventually allow an attack north toward Naples. This realignment necessitated moving the U.S. VI Corps’ boundary four miles to the north and assigning two regiments of the 45th Division responsibility for the added zone. On 12 September Clark moved his own headquarters ashore.

Although the shift in the corps’ boundary facilitated McCreery’s operations, it stretched Dawley’s American corps to the limit and forced him to commit the corps reserve to the battle. The VI Corps’ problems were exacerbated when Clark ordered Dawley to reinforce Darby’s Rangers, who were holding the northern passes in the British 10 Corps area, with a reinforced infantry battalion from the 36th Infantry Division. By 13 December the 36th Infantry Division was occupying a 35-mile front, well beyond what a full-strength division was expected to defend.

The Germans rapidly reinforced the battle area, and the Allied situation continued to deteriorate. Vietinghoff launched a major counterattack against the Allied beachhead on 13 September, albeit with divisions which were not yet fully reconstituted after the fighting in Sicily. The Hermann Goering and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions attacked the British 10 Corps, while elements of the 26th and 29th Panzer Grenadier and the 16th Panzer Divisions drove against VI Corps and the lightly defended area along the Sele River. The Germans penetrated the American lines on the afternoon of 13 September, overrunning a battalion of the 36th Division and threatening the rear of the Allied position. For a time, the situation was so precarious that Clark directed his staff to begin planning to evacuate one of the two beachheads and land its forces on the other. American resistance stiffened along the Calore River as artillery, tank, and tank destroyer units held their ground, pouring shot after shot directly into the attacking Germans. By nightfall the German attacks faltered, and the Allies began to regroup.

General Clark had recognized early on 13 September that his position was precarious. Seaborne reinforcements from Sicily could not arrive in time, and British Eighth Army advances were being slowed by heavily damaged roads and logistic problems. Eisenhower had earlier made the 82d Airborne Division available to Fifth Army, and Clark requested its use. The airborne unit represented the only force that could move to the area rapidly enough to make a difference. During the night of 13–14 September, 1,300 soldiers parachuted into the beachhead and immediately moved into defensive positions bolstering the 36th Infantry Division.

Throughout the daylight hours of 14 September, the Germans attacked the entire Allied front, searching for weaknesses. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Allied heavy bombers, diverted from attacks on strategic targets in Germany, interdicted German units and supplies flowing toward the beachhead and struck German units in assembly areas and attack positions. Reinforcements also arrived: the British 7th Armoured Division began landing in the 10 Corps sector, and the 180th Infantry, the remaining regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, landed behind VI Corps to become the Fifth Army reserve. That night another 2,100 82d Airborne soldiers landed on the beaches south of Salerno to bolster the defense. By the evening of 14 September, with more supplies ashore and reinforcements arriving, the crisis had passed.

Although the two night airborne drops into the Salerno beachhead had been executed flawlessly, another airborne operation was less successful. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion jumped some twenty miles north of the British 10 Corps on the evening of 14 September to disrupt German resupply and communications lines. The paratroopers had been ordered to harass the Germans for about five days and then either to infiltrate to the beachhead or to link up with advancing forces. Of the 40 planes involved in the operation, only 15 dropped their cargo within 4 miles of the drop zone; 23 planes scattered paratroopers between 8 and 25 miles from the intended target, and the drop site of the remaining 2 planes was unknown. Of the 600 men who jumped, 400 made it safely back to Allied hands several days later after launching small raids in the German rear.

On 15 September, with the British Eighth Army still some fifty miles to the south, Kesselring ordered a final effort against the beachhead. The failure of the attacks on 15 and 16 September indicated that the Allies could not be dislodged, so Kesselring directed German forces to begin an orderly delaying action and a withdrawal north. On 16 and 17 September, against diminishing resistance, Allied troops first consolidated their positions and then began slowly to push out toward the enemy. But many units needed time to rest, resupply, and reconstitute their forces. The 1st Battalion of the 142d Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, for example, had seen its effective strength reduced to sixty men; the 2d Battalion of the 143d Infantry, which had been in the Sele River corridor, had almost ceased to exist as a unit. Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army continued its advance as the Germans disengaged at Salerno and withdrew north. By 19 September, elements of Montgomery’s and Clark’s armies met at Auletta, twenty miles east of Eboli.

Salerno had been costly for both sides. German casualties were estimated at 3,500. The Americans, who assaulted the beaches under fire more lethal than that encountered in earlier Mediterranean landings, also suffered approximately 3,500 casualties, while British losses were some 5,500. After the battle for the beachhead had ended, the VI Corps received a new commander. General Dawley had not measured up to the expectations of his superiors and Clark was particularly concerned about Dawley’s failure to anticipate the threat to VI Corps’ weak left flank on 12 September. With the concurrence of Eisenhower, Clark replaced Dawley with Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas on 20 September.

'Operation Brimstone'

Sardinia/Corsica 'Operation Brimstone' were to be taken in October/November 1943. Brimstone was originally proposed at the January 1943 Symbol conference as the next Allied move, but Operation Husky was chosen instead.

Once the decision was made to invade North Africa, General George C. Marshall knew that an invasion of France in 1943 was off the table. So after Torch, we did Husky, the invasion of Sicily. After Sicily, the next logical step was to invade Italy, to knock Italy out of the war, to gain air bases and naval bases, and to try to stretch German military assets.

Marshall did make another fight for France in 1943 during the Symbol Conference (Casablanca) in January 1943. He and General Alan Brooke Chief of the Imperial General Staff went at it for a couple days over the issue until Roosevelt and Churchill decided for Italy. After that the discussions were over what approach to Italy. Sardinia and Corsica were actually proposed by the British to be run first sometime in the late spring or summer. Though after much more talk Husky was chosen instead as the leading operation, with Sardinia pencilled in for later.

One of the sources of friction during the Symbol conference was Eisenhower had to reiterate bad news about Tunisia. Although everyone had seen his reports many came to Casablanca hoping there would be good news awaiting from Ike. Instead he had to tell them it would be two more months before enough airpower was established far enough forward to wrest air superiority from the Axis. That and the poor transportation between the Algerian ports and Tunisia meant Ike could not guarantee driving the Axis out of Tunis/Bizerte before May. That complicated the discussions over strategy for 1943 as the number of variables emerging over six months reduced it to the level of a history forum What If discussion. At the end of the Symbol conference Ike was handed a schedule of midyear operations based on guesswork and told to 'take care of it'

Brimstone was set aside again for the execution of Operations Baytown and Avalanche. The USAAF wanted Corsica as a base for its medium bomber, and by January six wings of mediums (500+) were based there, plus fighter wings. The French government wanted Corsica as a source for recruits, and a base for covert ops in southern France.

Operation Anvil was originally pencilled in for March or April 1944. The intent was to use it to draw German reserves away from northern France in preparation for Operation Neptune. Op. Anvil was postponed to boost the number of landing craft available to Operation Neptune. The need to sustain the Anzio beachhead also drew down the amphibious transport available.

Leaving the Italians to work out their own problems could cut three amphibious assaults out of the Allied schedule in 1943. Avalanche, Baytown, and Shingle. This would allow Operation Brimstone to be executed earlier in September, or even late August. With no attack at Anzio there is a possibility for executing Anvil earlier allowing the amphibious fleet to be transferred to the UK in time for Neptune.

There is another factor to be considered. Marshall Pietro Badoglio and his government would never agree an armistice with Allies in September 1943 as long as Allies armies wouldn't land on Italian peninsula itself.

Simply put, the surrender of Italy was conditional upon a landing on the mainland. That was what had been negotiated. An argument could be made about the Italian will to fight (or lack thereof) for the Axis from 1943 onwards, but nevertheless, without a landing on the mainland, Italy stays in the war. While the Italian war industry wasn't spectacular, they were putting out some good quality equipment by 1943.

To look at the Italian campaign in a slightly larger picture, to include the Balkans and southern France. Most importantly the numbers of Italians engaged in occupation/anti-partisan duties in those areas, and the need for Germany to replace those numbers once Italy had. The campaign in Italy didn't just draw German troops into Italy. It also drew them into the Balkans and southern France, and northern Italy was well for anti-guerilla duties.

The Italian campaign wasn't a forgone conclusion. Unfortunately, it seems the Allies didn't anticipate the quick German reaction to the Italian collapse, and the subsequent occupation. Had the Allies launched a landing 1 or 2 weeks sooner, we might be talking about a completely different campaign. A quicker Allied reaction likely would have required end-run landings near Naples and Anzio, with the Anzio landings dashing for Rome in connection with an airborne drop. The Italians would have put up little or no resistance, with the landings part of the negotiated surrender. If done 'right', the Italian campaign should have happened differently than it did.