Friday, September 11, 2015

Salerno Invasion (Operation AVALANCHE, 9 September 1943)

Allied invasion of southern Italy. The Allied plan for the invasion of the Italian mainland called for a three-pronged effort. In Operation BAYTOWN, General Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army would cross the Strait of Messina and land at Calabria on 3 September; then it would work its way north. The following day, in Operation SLAPSTICK, 3,600 soldiers of the British 1st Paratroop Division would drop on the Italian port of Taranto. The third part of the invasion, Operation AVALANCHE, was the largest. It involved the landing of two corps, the British X and the U.S. VI, at Salerno on 9 September. The goal was to then secure the port of Naples 30 miles to the northwest.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt had overall command of the operation. U.S. Rear Admiral John L. Hall had charge of the mainly American Southern Attack Force, and Royal Navy Commodore G. N. Oliver commanded the largely British Northern Attack Force. British Navy Rear Admiral Philip Vian commanded one fleet carrier and four escort carriers assisting with air cover. In all, 627 vessels participated in the operation.

Lieutenant General Mark Clark commanded the Fifth Army, the ground force for AVALANCHE. The Fifth Army consisted of the British X Corps of the 46th and 56th Divisions and the U.S. VI Corps of the 36th and 45th Divisions. Two battalions of U.S. Rangers and two of British commandos were included to secure key passes northwest of Salerno.

The Allies expected no opposition. On 8 September 1943, hours before the assault forces landed, General Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast that Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies. Clark fully expected to be able to secure Naples quickly and then throw a line across Italy, trapping German units between his own army and the British Eighth Army to the south. Clark decided to forego a preliminary bombardment, which meant German forces that had occupied the Italian positions were virtually undisturbed. As it evolved for the Allies, the battle was confusing and hard to control, developing its own momentum.

At 3:10 A.M. on 9 September, the Rangers began going ashore to secure the Allied northern flank. They were followed 20 minutes later by men of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, who secured the southern flank. The British X Corps then landed between the Rangers and the 36th Infantry Division. The 56th Infantry Division secured the southern sector of the British corps area, and the 46th Infantry Division secured the north sector. With the support of the Rangers and X Corps, British commandos were able to land at the town of Salerno itself.

On the first day, the Germans mounted only sporadic, small-scale counterattacks. German Theater commander Field Marshal Albert Kesselring immediately ordered his forces south of Salerno to withdraw from southern Italy to prevent them being cut off. The German 16th Panzer Division was to oppose the Salerno landings and prevent any Allied deep penetration there until German troops from the south became available. The Germans concentrated the limited forces initially available against the British X Corps.

On the morning of 10 September, General Clark visited both corps zones. Because VI Corps was making better progress, Clark assigned it 4 miles of the X Corps’ area. This, however, stretched the Americans thin. Meanwhile, more men and equipment came ashore, although a shortage of landing craft hampered operations. Naval gunfire, however, strongly supported the troops ashore. During the Salerno operation, Allied warships fired more than 11,000 tons of shell to assist shore operations. On 11 September, German aircraft launched glide bombs at the Allied ships, damaging 2 cruisers, and other attacks followed. On 16 September, 2 glide bombs badly damaged the British battleship Warspite.

On 13 September, the Germans launched their first major counterattack, overrunning a battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, but they then encountered stiff resistance along the banks of the Calore River. Tank, tank-destroyer, and artillery units poured fire into the ranks of the attacking Germans, and accurate naval gunfire played an important role. With the beachhead seemingly in jeopardy, on the night of 13 September two battalions (1,300 men) of the 82nd Airborne Division were air-dropped into the 36th Infantry Division sector and quickly thrown into the line.

Throughout 14 September, German units attacked all along the line, probing for weak spots. Meanwhile, Allied aircraft pounded German lines of communication and frontline positions. Elements of the British 7th Armored Division now landed to reinforce X Corps, and the 180th Infantry Regiment landed in VI Corps’ sector. That night, another 2,100 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived, further reinforcing the line.

Another airborne operation occurred on the night of 14 September to insert the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment 20 miles north of the X Corps zone. Its assignment was to harass German lines of communications for 5 days, then either infiltrate back into the beachhead or link up with advancing units. Only 15 of the 40 transport aircraft involved dropped their men near the target area; most of the paratroopers landed far from their intended drop zones. Although the men of the battalion caused some disruption in the German rear areas, they paid a heavy price; of the 600 men who participated in the jump, only 400 gained friendly lines.

On 15 September, Kesselring ordered another counterattack, which failed in the teeth of the Allied reinforcement. Clark now had more than 150,000 men ashore. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s Eighth Army was still 50 miles to the south, making slow progress against only light German resistance. Kesselring knew he could no longer hope to defeat the Allies at Salerno, and on 16 September the Germans began a deliberate, well-executed withdrawal northward. The Eighth and Fifth Armies finally linked up on 19 September. The Allies first entered Naples on 1 October.

The Salerno battle had been costly for both sides. The British had suffered 5,259 casualties and the Americans 1,649. German killed, wounded, and missing were 3,472. The next target was to secure Naples. Salerno was a clear indication that much hard fighting lay ahead.

References Blumenson, Martin. United States Army in World War II; The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Salerno to Cassino. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969. Hickey, Des. Operation Avalanche: The Salerno Landings. London: Heinemann, 1983. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 9, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio: January 1943–June 1944. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954. Morris, Eric. Salerno: A Military Fiasco. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

The Italian Campaign, May–September 1944

The offensive in Italy that began in mid-May represented the pinnacle of Allied strength in the theater. Substantial French and Polish forces, trained and equipped by the Americans, proved a crucial addition. The French troops came from North Africa and other colonies. The Poles had found their way to the Middle East after release from Stalin’s camps; despite the certainty that either the Germans or the Soviets would control their homeland after the war, they still fought with extraordinary bravery.

Plans called for Eighth Army, which had taken over the front at Monte Cassino, to make a major thrust up the Liri valley; to its left, Fifth Army would break through to Anzio, while the six divisions in the pocket would, at the appropriate time, break out toward Valmontone. There, Route 6 represented both the main logistic link for the German Tenth Army as well as its main escape route. The campaign intended to destroy German forces south of Rome. However, Clark never accepted this fundamental goal of Allied operations. He was much more interested in ensuring that his Fifth Army and his American troops would liberate the Eternal City and bask in the international publicity a grateful press would shower on this moment in history.

With an overwhelming superiority in firepower, the Allies plastered German frontline positions on 11 May. The firing of 1.2 million heavy shells suggests the Allied advantage. At first the offensive achieved little. Eighth Army gained minimal ground, while the Poles suffered heavily in attacks on Monte Cassino. Fifth Army’s veteran units had no greater success. But in the middle of the Allied lines, the four French colonial divisions proved startlingly effective. Because the mountainous terrain seemed impassable, the Germans covered the sector in front of General Alphonse Juin’s divisions with one weak division. Clark himself had little respect for the French, which is why they drew a sector with such formidable terrain. For his part, Juin showed a mutual disrespect for Clark’s plans and, in French fashion, proceeded to march off on his own line of attack.

After heavy fighting, the North African troops destroyed the German defending force, broke through the Gustav Line, and proceeded across the mountains. Unlike many other Allied generals, Juin understood and accepted his operational goal: to penetrate the rear of the German Tenth Army and allow the breakout of Fifth and Eighth Armies. The French success opened the way for the American II Corps. Equally important, Juin’s Goums (his Moroccan mountain infantry) crossed the escarpment and broke into the Liri valley before the Germans could man the backup Hitler Line. Thoroughly taken in by Allied deception efforts, Kesselring responded slowly. Adding to his troubles were the absence of his competent Tenth Army commander, General Frido Senger von Etterlin (who was home on leave), and the failure of commanders on the scene to respond quickly.

The plans of Alexander’s chief of staff, Major General John Harding, called for Fifth Army to link up with the six divisions in the Anzio bridgehead. The combined force was then to drive north to Valmontone on Route 6 and cut the main avenue for any German withdrawal. With Valmontone in Allied hands, Fifth Army would possess good prospects for encircling much of the German Tenth Army. The Germans expected a drive out of the Anzio bridgehead northwest toward Rome, an expectation VI Corps cultivated. However, on 23 May the Americans struck out of the beachhead due north toward Valmontone, and in two days of heavy fighting achieved a breakthrough. The road was open to Route 6. At this point Clark’s G-3 (operations officer), Brigadier General Donald Brann, arrived at VI Corps headquarters, where Major General Lucian Truscott was in command. Clark, defying Alexander’s orders, sent only one division toward Valmontone, while the whole weight of VI Corps was to push straight toward Rome. Truscott demanded to see Clark, but the Fifth Army commander had conveniently taken himself out of circulation.

In fact, Alexander had some intimation that Clark might disobey his orders, but he was not prepared to call his American commander on the carpet. In some ways Clark’s insubordination was similar to Montgomery’s disobedience in 1944 in not making the opening of Antwerp his first priority. But the difference was that Montgomery’s disobedience reflected the field marshal’s operational analysis of the situation, while Clark’s disobedience reflected a vainglorious pursuit of publicity and prestige.

The Germans held Valmontone long enough to allow most of Tenth Army to escape. As Fifth Army pushed on toward Rome, it immediately ran into strong German defenses. However, the German I Airborne Corps failed to cover the steep slopes overlooking Velletri, and troops of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division seized the position. Kesselring now had to admit that he could not hold Rome, and German troops pulled north in good order. On 4 June Clark and his troops marched into an undefended city— whereupon the Pope highlighted his ambiguous record by asking that the Allies keep black troops out of the Eternal City. For a few brief moments, Clark basked in publicity on the front pages of American newspapers, but within two days Operation Overlord—the invasion of northern France— subsumed events in Italy, and Clark found his army and himself relegated to the back pages.

Still, the fighting in Italy did not cease. The Germans fell back toward their new Gothic Line in front of the Po River valley just north of Florence. There, they intended to take a strong stand, since industrial production in northern Italy, largely untouched by Allied bombing, was supplying weapons and other materiel in considerable quantities to the Reich. Over the course of the summer, Kesselring fought a series of delaying actions as his troops withdrew, and for once Hitler—distracted by events elsewhere in Europe—did not object to withdrawals. Kesselring was merely retreating to a line that Hitler had considered holding in fall 1943.

As their advance ground slowly northward, the Allies pulled seven divisions out of the theater for the invasion of southern France (its codename now changed from Anvil to Dragoon). Clark gave up three veteran U.S. divisions, his special forces of divisional strength, and all six of his French divisions. He was probably not sad to lose the last, since the French not only had proved cavalier in following his instructions but then had been successful in their disobedience to boot. After the war, a number of British commentators suggested that removal of these divisions from the Italian theater prevented Alexander from capturing the Po River valley and driving on to Trieste and Vienna. Given the record of Allied Armies Italy, it is possible that they might have captured the Po River valley, but the idea that they might have pushed on over the Alps to Vienna is inconceivable. After all, the Austrian Army had managed to use the mountains to hold off innumerable Italian attacks in World War I (and kill 600,000 Italians), and this time the defenders in the Alps would have been Germans, not Austrians. Moreover, Dragoon’s contribution in opening up the ports of southern France proved crucial in meeting the Allies’ supply crisis in France in fall 1944, especially after Montgomery’s failure to open the Scheldt. Even more to the point, it hardly seems reasonable that France would leave its troops in Italy, while its own countryside was being liberated from the Germans.

In late August, Alexander’s forces tried to break through into the Po with the remaining 18 Allied divisions. The Canadians delivered a skillful blow that came close to penetrating German defenses near the Adriatic and gaining the Po River valley. But the Eighth Army commander, General Oliver Leese, failed to position his reserves to take advantage of such a possibility. A plodding infantryman, Leese had been the XXX Corps commander at El Alamein, where his performance had been less than spectacular. As always, the Germans responded more quickly than did the Allies, and the possibilities opened up by the Canadian success disappeared. Moreover, the rainy season arrived to turn the battlefield into a morass that slowed movement to a crawl.

Clark’s drive on Bologna opened on 10 September; the sterling U.S. 88th Infantry Division, one of the best in Italy, attempted to outflank the city to the east but failed. Clark followed up that effort with a series of straight-ahead attacks that bled his divisions white. In fact, the U.S. Army was facing a worldwide crisis in manpower, and the Italian theater was well down on the priority list for infantry replacements. This crisis finally brought home to Clark why the British were so much less willing than he to drive their divisions to exhaustion. As a result of their failures, the Allies could maintain only a weary watch on the Po River valley over the winter of 1944–45.

Mark Clark would move up to take command of the Allied army group in Italy, but that could hardly have assuaged his thirst for glory. In April 1945, Allied forces in Italy finally broke their German opponents, but largely as a result of the collapse of German forces elsewhere. To Allied strategists, the Italian theater had been a major disappointment; but to the troops who fought there it had been a horror, and for the Italian people it was nothing short of a catastrophe.

US Army - The Situation on V-E Day

As V-E Day came, Allied forces in Western Europe consisted of 4.5 million men, including 9 armies (5 of them American—1 of which, the Fifteenth, saw action only at the last), 23 corps, 91 divisions (61 of them American), 6 tactical air commands (4 American), and 2 strategic air forces (1 American). The Allies had 28,000 combat aircraft, of which 14,845 were American; and they had brought into Western Europe more than 970,000 vehicles and 18 million tons of supplies. At the same time they were achieving final victory in Italy with 18 divisions (7 of them American).

The German armed forces and the nation were prostrate, beaten to a degree never before seen in modern times. Hardly any organized units of the German Army remained except in Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans; these would soon capitulate. What remained of the air arm was too demoralized even for a final suicidal effort, and the residue of the German Navy lay helpless in captured northern ports. Through five years of war, the German armed forces had lost over 3 million men killed, 263,000 of them in the west, since D-Day. The United States lost 135,576 dead in Western Europe; while Britain, Canada, France, and other Allies combined incurred after D-Day approximately 60,000 military deaths.

Unlike in World War I, when the United States had come late on the scene and provided only those forces to swing the balance of power to the Allied side, the American contribution to the reconquest of Western Europe had been predominant, not just in manpower but as a true arsenal of democracy. American factories produced for the British almost three times more Lend-Lease materials than for the Russians, including 185,000 vehicles, 12,000 tanks, and enough planes to equip four tactical air forces and for the French all weapons and equipment for 8 divisions and 1 tactical air force plus partial equipment for 3 more divisions.

Although strategic air power had failed to prove the decisive instrument many had expected, it was a major factor in the Allied victory, as was the role of Allied navies; for without control of the sea lanes, there could have been no buildup in Britain and no amphibious assaults. It was nonetheless true that the application of the power of ground armies finally broke the German ability and will to resist.

While the Germans had developed a flying bomb and later a supersonic missile, the weapons with which both sides fought the war were in the main much improved versions of those that had been present in World War I: the motor vehicle, the airplane, the machine gun, indirect-fire artillery, the tank. The difference lay in such accoutrements as improved radio communications and in a new sophistication in terms of mobility and coordination that provided the means for rapid exploitation that both sides in World War I had lacked.

From North Africa to the Elbe, U.S. Army generalship proved remarkably effective. Such field commanders as Bradley, Devers, Clark, Hodges, Patton, Simpson, Patch, and numerous corps and division commanders could stand beside the best that had ever served the nation. Having helped develop Army doctrine during the years between the two great wars, these same men put the theories to battlefield test with enormous success. Some indication of the magnitude of the responsibilities they carried is apparent from the fact that late in the war General Bradley as commander of the 12th Army Group had under his command 4 field armies, 12 corps, and 48 divisions, more than 1.3 million men, the largest exclusively American field command in U.S. history.

These commanders consistently displayed a steady devotion to the principles of war. Despite sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles of weather, terrain, and enemy concentration, they were generally able to achieve the mass, mobility, and firepower to avoid a stalemate, maintaining the principles of the objective and the offensive and exploiting the principle of maneuver to the fullest. On many occasions they achieved surprise, most notably in the amphibious assaults and at the Rhine. They were themselves taken by surprise twice, in central Tunisia and in the Ardennes; yet in both cases they recovered quickly. Economy of force was particularly evident in Italy, and simplicity was nowhere better demonstrated than in the Normandy landings, despite a complexity inherent in the size and diversity of the invasion forces. From the first, unity of command abided in every campaign, not just at the tactical level but also in the combined staff system that afforded the U.S. and Britain a unity of command and purpose never approached on the Axis side.