How the Allies Invaded Fascist Italy

By Gade (Lt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit - is photograph NA 6813 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,
August 25, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: SalernoFascist ItalyWorld War IIMussoliniAllied Powers

How the Allies Invaded Fascist Italy

The landings at Salerno were just the first step.

The Germans also cut fuel and ammunition deliveries to Italian Army units, and wherever German forces were deployed near Italian coastal defenses, they were instructed to be ready to assume those defenses and disarm the Italians. The German military was in position to take control of Italy by force if necessary.

When the Germans moved to occupy Rome, which was to endure eight months of oppressive Nazi occupation, King Victor Emmanuel III, Marshal Badoglio, and members of the new government escaped to the south aboard a British warship.

Three Avenues of Attack Against the Italian Mainland

The success of Operation Husky in Sicily and the ouster of Mussolini caused the Allied war planners to rethink their strategy. Instead of moving against the islands of Sardinia or Corsica, whose strategic value was limited, it became reasonable to consider the advantages of an assault on the Italian mainland.

The political situation in Italy had a direct impact on the military situation. Initially, Allied planners had been conservative in directing the course of the war after the campaign in Sicily. In the spring of 1943, their considerations were limited to occupying as much of the German armed forces as possible to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Red Army in the east and potentially compel Italy to surrender.

A landing on the coast near Rome was ruled out because it was beyond the range of supporting aircraft, which would be flying from bases in Sicily. Naples, too, was eliminated because its built-up harbor and congested urban core would too quickly lead to tough street fighting. Although farther south, Salerno, with its broad, sandy beaches and plenty of maneuver room, offered the greatest chance of initial success.

Although the Germans were bound to contest such a landing fiercely, it was determined that planning for an invasion should go forward. A number of deception plans were implemented to keep the Germans guessing as to where the invasion of Italy­—if it came at all—would take place.

Three avenues of approach were authorized. First, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, hero of the North Africa campaign, was to command the British Eighth Army’s XIII Corps—which consisted of the 1st Canadian and Fifth British Infantry Divisions, attached armored and infantry brigades, and several Commando units—during the short amphibious run across the Strait of Messina to Reggio Calabria, on the toe of the Italian “boot.” The main effort, a landing by Clark’s Fifth Army at Salerno, would then take place. Montgomery’s command was to then advance northward 200 miles to link up with the Fifth Army lodgment and join in a combined movement northward to Naples and beyond.

In addition, on September 9, the same day as the Salerno landings, troops of the British 1st Airborne Division were to be put ashore from several cruisers in the harbor of Taranto and nearby Brindisi on the “heel” of the Italian peninsula. Taranto would provide a major port for resupply and, after Taranto was secure, these troops were to move up the eastern coast and take the airfields at Foggia.

The Salerno landing was code-named Operation Avalanche, while the Calabria landing was designated Operation Baytown and the attack on Taranto Operation Slapstick. British General Sir Harold Alexander was in overall command of XV Army Group ground forces, while Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder commanded sea and air operations.

Mark Clark and the U.S. Fifth Army

Clark’s Fifth Army consisted of both British and American units. The British contingent was X Corps, which included the veteran 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions, the 7th Armoured Division, and several Commando units. Tactical command of these forces was given to General Sir Richard L. McCreery when its original commander, General Sir Brian Horrocks, was wounded in an air raid. The American Fifth Army contingent was designated VI Corps and commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest J. Dawley. It included the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions, with the 3rd and 34th Divisions held in reserve.

The choice of Clark to command Fifth Army was scrutinized by senior military officials, particularly since both Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley had substantial combat experience. Both of these, however, were still engaged in the fighting in Sicily while planning for Salerno was under way. Patton’s infamous soldier-slapping incidents, which had occurred in Sicily, further discounted his potential for future command.

Eisenhower, a Clark fan, was prompted to write Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall that Clark was “the best organizer, planner and trainer of troops that I have met … the ablest and most experienced officer we have in planning amphibious operations…. In preparing the minute details of requisitions, landing craft, training of troops and so on, he has no equal in our Army. His staff is well trained in this regard. Clark impresses men, as always, with his energy and intelligence. You cannot help but like him. He certainly is not afraid to take rather desperate chances which, after all, is the only way to win a war.”

Clark expected to be in possession of Naples within five days, but the landing beaches and surrounding countryside at Salerno presented challenges of their own. While stiff German resistance was expected, the terrain around the landing zones included two rivers, the Calore and the Sele, which emptied into the Tyrrhenian Sea, creating a valley that split the low ground on the approaches to a series of imposing mountains. Artillery might play havoc with an invading force, and the Germans were sure to recognize this.

The beaches at Salerno were steep, which would allow landing craft to drop their ramps, emptying troops and supplies right onto them. Although Salerno was within the extreme limits of the range of Allied air support, an airfield at nearby Montecorvino could be captured and used. A rail line and coastal highway lay within reach of the beachhead, both extending through Naples and on to Rome, more than 130 miles to the northwest.

The Landings at Calabria and Taranto

Operation Baytown—Montgomery’s foray across the Strait of Messina—was to be the first of the three-pronged invasion. The timing of the Calabria landing was left up to Montgomery, who did not deem the situation appropriate until September 3. Eisenhower wrote that this was 10 days later than he had hoped.

Considerable air bombardment of the intended Baytown landing area had taken place prior to September 3, and during the predawn hours of that day four Royal Navy battleships––HMS Warspite, Valiant, Rodney, and Nelson––raked the coastline with repeated salvoes. Destroyers, cruisers, gunboats, and three monitors armed with 15-inch cannons joined in. Eighth Army artillery, XXX Corps artillery, and four battalions of American artillery added to the total of 600 guns. Aircraft from bases in North Africa and Sicily supported the effort and attempted to hold the depleted Luftwaffe at bay.

The landings at Calabria were executed with virtually no opposition as Canadian troops of the Carleton and York Regiment and the West Nova Scotia Regiment splashed ashore. A few Italians appeared on the beaches and pitched in to help unload British landing craft. But Montgomery’s progress was, in the eyes of onlookers, both British and American, painfully slow. His forces did encounter difficult terrain and the delaying tactics that the Germans had honed to perfection in Sicily, blowing up bridges and creating landslides with demolition charges.

Montgomery’s penchant for perfection may have cost some of the initiative in southern Italy. The master of the set-piece battle, Montgomery may have been somewhat ill suited for a campaign that called for audacity and rapid movement.

Years later, author Alistair Horne in collaboration with Montgomery’s only son, David, wrote, “Once into mainland Italy, in September, the early performance of Monty and his Eighth Army was not much better [than it had been in Sicily]. Both were tired. The Americans, in their freshness, sometimes didn’t seem to appreciate what nearly four years of war, reverses and privations had done to their British allies. A huge preparatory barrage, Alamein-style, across the Straits proved unnecessary: the Germans had all withdrawn. Ambling leisurely northwards, Monty’s men found it ‘like a holiday picnic after Sicily and Africa’. Meanwhile, the US Fifth Army landings at Salerno, just short of Naples to the north, had run into serious trouble.”

Six days after Montgomery’s landing at Calabria, the troops of the British 1st Airborne Division came ashore at Taranto. Operation Slapstick was unopposed, and the harbor facilities were found to be in working order. The only major casualty was the minesweeper HMS Abdiel, which was sunk by a mine, killing 48 sailors and 101 soldiers.

Securing the Flank of the Salerno Beachhead

At the time of the Salerno landings, the 16th Panzer Division, commanded by Generalmajor Rudolf Sickenius, was the only fully equipped German armored division in southern Italy, and was well positioned to meet the invading force. With 17,000 troops, 36 artillery pieces, and over 100 tanks, 16th Panzer was quite capable of disrupting the landings. The Germans had also taken control of six coastal batteries at Salerno, which had previously been serviced by Italian crews.