At 3:10 am on September 9, less than half an hour ahead of the first wave of assault troops, the Rangers and Commandos came ashore to capture several key points on the northern flank of the Salerno beachhead, including the low ground along the approaches to Naples.
South of the gap created by the mouth of the Sele River, Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker’s 36th Division, which included a large number of soldiers from the Texas National Guard, was to take the main roads leading in the direction of Montgomery’s Eighth Army and secure the right flank of the beachhead.
To the left of the 36th Division, the British 56th Division was to capture the Montecorvino airfield and the crossroads at Battapaglia. On the other side of the Sele, the 46th Division was to take the city of Salerno and maintain contact with the special forces to its left. Two regiments of Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton’s U.S. 45th Division were held in reserve. While the British chose to take advantage of a pre-invasion naval barrage, Walker opted to forego such a preparation.
Contesting the Skies and the Seas
Both the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy would play vital roles in the success of Operation Avalanche, just as they had in Sicily. At Salerno, Allied warships fired more than 11,000 tons of shells in support of the ground forces. In evaluating the performance of German forces that opposed the Allies at Salerno, General Siegfried Westphal, Kesselring’s chief of staff, acknowledged the contribution the Allied navies made. “But the greatest distress suffered by the troops was caused by the fire of ships’ guns of heavy caliber, from which they could find no protection in the rocky soil.”
The contribution, however, was not made without a price. Three American destroyers, the Rowan, Buck, and Bristol, were lost to torpedoes, along with a minesweeper, six LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank), and a fleet tug. The Royal Navy lost the hospital ship Newfoundland and five LCTs. Numerous other vessels were damaged.
Unlike during the later Operation Overlord––the Normandy invasion––ownership of the skies above the beachhead was bitterly contested. The resourceful Luftwaffe was still a formidable force and attacked the Allied armada with a vengeance. In addition to traditional ordnance, the Germans also employed radio-controlled glide bombs known as Fritz X, which many consider the ancestor of the modern cruise missile, and they wreaked havoc among American and British warships.
When the surrender of Italy was announced, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the Italian Royal Navy––the Regia Marina––sailed to ports in North Africa or Malta and surrendered. Some were scuttled, but others were pounced upon by Italy’s one-time ally. For example, on September 9, a large battle group of eight cruisers, eight destroyers, and the battleships Roma and Italia (formerly the Littorio) that the Germans thought had steamed out of port to intercept the Allied invasion fleet, was actually heading for safe waters at Malta. The Luftwaffe swooped down on the group in the Strait of Bonifacio, inflicting heavy damage with Fritz X glide bombs and sinking the battleship Roma; more than 1,300 of her crew, including Admiral Carlo Bergamini, were killed.
“The Shells Almost Parted Our Hair”
When the British X Corps came ashore at Salerno at 4:45 am, opposition to the initial landing was relatively light. However, soon after the British units began to advance inland, Maj. Gen. Gerald W.R. Templer’s 56th Division was confronted by a force of German tanks that was beaten back with the help of naval gunfire from the destroyer HMS Nubian and warships of the Royal Navy’s Cruiser Squadron 15, which included HMS Mauritius, Orion, and Uganda, along with the monitor HMS Roberts, and several destroyers. The 56th Division sent probing attacks into Battapaglia and attempted to capture the Montecorvino airfield but was unable to do so.
Naval gunfire also threw back several counterattacks against the 46th Division, commanded by General J.L.T. Hawkes- worth. The destroyers HMS Blankney, Mendip, and Brecon added their fire against mobile batteries of German 88mm cannons. The 88mm could be used as an antitank, antipersonnel, or antishipping weapon, although it was originally intended as an antiaircraft gun.
Shortly after they came ashore, soldiers from the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers were fired on by a battery of German rocket launchers. The Fusiliers called for support, and a Royal Navy destroyer obliged. “The shells almost parted our hair,” remembered one of the Fusiliers. “The rockets were wiped out but a machine gun nest, spared in the barrage, had to be taken by the troops.”
The job of silencing the machine guns fell to Lieutenant David Lewis, who had already gained fame as a rugby player in Wales. Lewis was mortally wounded during the attack, but the machine guns were put out of action and 25 prisoners were taken.
Successive waves of Allied troops also encountered early and stiff resistance. The 141st and 142nd Infantry Regiments of the 36th Division came ashore on hotly contested beaches as knocked-out landing craft drifted ablaze near the shoreline. One 81mm mortar platoon waded in with its weapons but no ammunition because the boat carrying it had been blown up.
After moving inland only a short distance, much hard fighting swirled around a 50-foot-tall medieval stone tower that held a machine-gun nest. Pinned down, men of the 36th Division eventually knocked out the German position.
Heroism on the Salerno Beachhead
Individual acts of heroism were numerous that morning on the beaches at Salerno. Corporal Royce C. Davis used a bazooka to disable a German tank, then crawled close enough to the disabled vehicle to flip a hand grenade inside the hole his weapon had made. Pfc. Henry C. Harpel took the loose planking from a bridge and threw it into the water of an irrigation ditch so that approaching enemy tanks could not cross. Sergeant John Y. McGill dropped a hand grenade through the open turret of a German tank. Sergeant Manuel S. Gonzalez advanced toward a machine-gun nest, wriggled out of his pack, which had been set on fire by a tracer bullet, and blew up the position with a grenade.
Sergeant James M. Logan killed several Germans from a concealed position along an irrigation canal while they advanced through a gap in a rock wall 200 yards distant. He then crossed an open field, wiped out a machine-gun nest, and turned the German weapon on the enemy. For his daring exploits, Logan received the Medal of Honor.
One counterattack against the 36th Division by 16 German Mark IV tanks was scattered just before noon on the 9th by the concentrated 6-inch gunfire of the cruisers USS Boise and Philadelphia. Six of the tanks were destroyed and the remainder were ordered back out of range of the big naval guns.
The Germans managed to destroy a key bridge across the Sele River on Highway 18 and prevented the British and American forces from closing the gap between them on the first day. The Commandos were still separated from the left of the 46th Division, but the small force held the city of Salerno. The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions destroyed a pair of German armored cars and claimed the high ground on both sides of the Chiunzi Pass, a commanding position above Highway 18, which was the best route over the rugged Sorrento Peninsula into Naples.
Clark knew that German reinforcements could be expected around Salerno and brought two regiments of the 45th Division ashore. Later, a drop by the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division was ordered around Avellino on the 14th, while the third regiment of the 45th Division, elements of the 7th Armoured Division, and more airborne troops would reach the Salerno beachhead by September 15.
Montgomery’s Slow March to Salerno
On the evening of September 9, however, Montgomery was still over 120 miles from Salerno. His troops were exhausted by their march, and Montgomery paused on September 10 for 48 hours. He lamented the difficulties, writing later, “The roads in southern Italy twist and turn in the mountainous country and are admirable feats of engineering. They abound in bridges, viaducts, culverts and even tunnels, and this offers unlimited scope to military engineers for demolitions on the widest possible scale.”
Meanwhile, the men fighting for their lives at Salerno were fuming at Monty’s leisurely pace.
During the first 24 hours, the Allied beachhead was in jeopardy, with the 36th Division occupying an extended front and the British X Corps taking the brunt of the German counterattacks on September 10. The Commandos were fighting pitched battles with the parachute battalion of the Hermann Göring Division, while the Royal Fusiliers and the 167th Infantry Brigade at Battipaglia and Vietri, a mere 12 miles from Salerno, had lost 1,500 men taken prisoner.
Although the 16th Panzer Division had withdrawn from the immediate vicinity of the invasion beaches, Vietinghoff was convinced that the division had fought well. While it had not been strong enough to throw the invasion back into the sea, the landing force had been contained reasonably well thus far.