Trouble At Brolo: Patton's Army Had A Tough Time Taking Sicily From Nazi Germany

April 24, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIItalyGeorge PattonMilitaryWarNazi Germany

Trouble At Brolo: Patton's Army Had A Tough Time Taking Sicily From Nazi Germany

An American amphibious operation during the Sicily campaign ran into trouble from the start.

Fresh off a tense telephone conversation with Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., climbed into a jeep and rumbled over to Truscott’s 3rd Infantry Division headquarters east of Terranova, on Sicily’s northeastern coast. Dusk had fallen on August 10, 1943, and the gung-ho general with the ivory-handled pistols on his hips wanted action. Specifically, he wanted an amphibious operation scheduled for that night to go ahead as planned despite the protests of his subordinates.

“Goddamit, Lucian,” Patton roared, “what’s the matter with you? Are you afraid to fight?” Truscott brushed off his boss’s challenge. “You have ordered the operation and it is now loading. If you don’t think I can carry out orders, you can give the division to anyone you please.”

The problem, Truscott insisted, lay in linking his advancing infantry with the landing force before regrouping German defenders shoved them into the sea. But Patton would not be moved.

Ordering an Amphibious Landing at Brolo

A month into Operation Husky, the Allied campaign for Sicily, Patton was pushing his Seventh Army hard in an effort to seal the Axis escape route at Messina. While the 9th Division pressed the 15th Panzergrenadier Division northwest of towering Mount Etna, to the south Truscott’s 3rd Division was driving the 29th Panzergrenadier Division eastward from the ridges along coastal Highway 113 and the Tyrrhenian Sea. South of Etna, meanwhile, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army was hurtling toward Messina up the island’s mine-strewn southeastern coast. Keen to bag German prisoners and equipment, Patton was equally eager to outpace Montgomery and earn some accolades for his young army.

But Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Axis legions (by early August, mostly Germans under the direction of General Hans Hube) were moving grudgingly. Forced from the formidable Etna Line on August 5, the 29th Panzergrenadier Division withdrew behind blown bridges to new positions along the San Fratello Ridge. With the help of Admiral Lyal A. Davidson’s Task Force 88 transports, Lt. Col. Lyle Bernard’s 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry, leapfrogged the German position by sea on August 7-8, gaining 12 miles in a hair-raising raid.

Hoping for still better results, Patton ordered another amphibious operation for the night of August 9-10. Designed to skirt the new German defensive positions along the Naso Ridge, on the Cape Orlando-Randazzo line, this one would place American GIs just west of the town of Brolo. With luck, the balance of Truscott’s onrushing 3rd Division would roll up a tidy bag of German prisoners. But after allowing one postponement caused by a damaged LST (landing ship, tank), Patton was in no mood to heed the last-minute requests of Truscott and Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. II Corps, for another.

Lyle Bernard’s Plan of Attack

Once again, the job fell to the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry, a gritty bunch that reflected the spirit of its commander. Closer in appearance to a college professor than a typical infantry leader (he was destined for a post-Army career teaching mathematics), Lyle W. Bernard was spectacularly lean and sported a wisp of a moustache on his long face. Just 33, this thoughtful Idaho native habitually chewed on a pipe and referred to himself as “the Old Goat.” But he had also entered West Point from the soldiers’ ranks and was a smart, tough, and cool customer.

Bernard’s understrength command included perhaps 650 men, his weary 2nd Battalion backed by five medium tanks from the 756th Tank Battalion, eight self-propelled guns from the 58th Armored Field Artillery, and engineers from the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion and the 540th Amphibious Engineer Regiment. Tagging along to watch was an impressive squad of press men led by veteran battlefield scribes Jack Belden (Time and Life), Don Whitehead (Associated Press), and Homer Bigart (New York Herald Tribune). Each watched as Bernard spoke to assault troops gathered atop his LST before they climbed down into their assault boats.

“I didn’t want to make this operation,” he declared. “I didn’t think I had enough men, enough tanks, or enough time. And I, like you, am tired.” Noting the reassuring presence of three coast-hugging destroyers and the light cruiser USS Philadelphia, he added, “If we catch that bastard this time, we’ll be in Messina within a week.”

Bernard’s target was Monte Cipolla, the double-humped nose of a ridge that petered out 450 yards short of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Commanding both the coastal road and the stone-housed village of Brolo, just to the east, it was held by only the tiny headquarters force of Colonel Fritz Polack’s 29th Artillery Regiment, the balance of which was posted alongside portions of the 71st Panzergrenadier Regiment in and beyond Brolo.

After staking out a beachhead between the dry Brolo and Naso riverbeds that flanked Monte Cipolla, Bernard would cross Highway 113 and occupy it with two companies. But he expected quick and heavy counterattacks and was counting on assistance from the 7th and 15th Infantry Regiments backed by the 30th Infantry’s two remaining battalions which would quickly fight through General Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadier Division (the 71st and 15th Panzergrenadier Regiments) and across the rugged Naso Ridge.

Landing Under Cover of Darkness

Under a star-filled sky and the protective guns of the Philadelphia and six destroyers, landing craft lugged Task Force Bernard ashore between 2:43 and 3:30 am on August 11. Slowed only by barbed wire, Company E split up to secure the landing site’s flanks, bridges over the Brolo River to the east and the Naso River to the west. While engineers struggled to wheel the armor and field artillery into position, Companies F and G, fortified with the heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars of Company H and trailed by Bernard and his battalion headquarters, dashed inland.

In the quiet, predawn darkness, the extended line crept over a massive railroad embankment, through a large lemon grove, and over a high stone wall to cross Highway 113. Crouching low, the troops let an oblivious motorcyclist pass. Then came the ominous rattling clunk of metal on pavement.

An American amphibious operation during the Sicily campaign ran into trouble from the start.

Lieutenant Colonel Lyle W. Bernard (left) and radio man Private Joseph C. Boycik establish communications and rest in their makeshift command post on a Sicilian hillside after the successful landing at Brolo on August 11, 1943.

“We dived behind a stone wall,” newsman Bigart recalled, “waiting for what seemed an eternity. The clanking grew steadily louder and finally materialized as a German half-track.”  The lumbering vehicle slowed, and nervy Americans blasted its driver with rifle fire. When a German officer stopped to investigate moments later, a GI blasted his car with a bazooka.

“By this time,” Bigart noted, “the Germans in Brolo were thoroughly awake.”

Surprised Germans posted around Brolo fired off flares and opened fire as Bernard’s men struggled up the nose of Monte Cipolla, a treacherously steep, brick-hard height topped by scrub trees and Colonel Polack’s headquarters outfit. Polack’s outgunned party tore up the slopes around the scrambling Americans with small-arms fire, killing several, then beat a hasty retreat off the hill and into Brolo.

Trading their rifles for shovels, the Americans went to work digging slit trenches and setting up mortar positions with Company F on the first hump and G slightly behind and to its left. Others assigned the labor to a group of German soldiers found napping in a ditch, apparently unfazed by the fire. By the time Philadelphia began delivering supporting fire at 5:38, Monte Cipolla was secure.

Caught off guard by the American landing, General Fries ordered Polack to organize an attack on Bernard’s fragile, 2,000-foot-wide beachhead while he dispatched help from the west. He got further help from the terrain as gaping gullies and monstrous stone walls soon immobilized each of Bernard’s five M4 Sherman tanks, rendering them all but useless. Bernard’s 105mm self-propelled guns had no better luck maneuvering into the terraced rise below the highway, and their crews set up shop in the lemon grove below.

As the sun climbed into a cloudless sky above Bernard’s hilltop stronghold, German scouting parties crept down the Ficarra Road and dusty bed of the Brolo River to the southeast. Company G fire shattered both. Spotting a company of 15th Panzergrenadier Regiment reserves along the dusty bed of the Naso River to the west, Bernard’s GIs greeted them with rattling machine guns and thumping mortars. The attackers retreated minus 30 of their comrades.

Then, at about 9 am, a procession of trucks carrying 71st Panzergrenadier infantrymen rumbled down Highway 113 from Cape Orlando. From the deck of the Philadelphia, the procession resembled a bumbling line of ducks in a huge shooting gallery. Together with Bernard’s seaside artillery, her six-inch guns plastered the twisting highway and sent numbed German infantrymen diving for cover.

“Enemy Counterattacking Fiercely. Do something.”

By late morning, however, Bernard was beginning to worry. Provided with air cover only until noon, the Philadelphia and her destroyer escort steamed west for the safer waters off Palermo. Germans mowed down the Americans’ ammunition-carrying mules in their hillside tracks, squeezing off Bernard’s supply line from his parked DUKWs (amphibious vehicles better known as “Ducks”) and forcing his mortar crews to ration rounds.