Additionally, the LXXVI Panzer Corps, which included the 26th Panzer Division and the 19th Panzergrenadier Division, was moving northward from Calabria as quickly as possible, while the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and the Hermann Göring Division, though roughly handled in Sicily, had been reconstituted and were positioned north of Naples.
Stiff German Resistance
The battle raged on land and sea for days. On September 11, the cruiser USS Savannah took a direct hit from a 660-pound Fritz X glide bomb on its No. 3 turret, causing such damage that the vessel settled by the bow until her forecastle was nearly at the waterline. With an escort of four destroyers, the wounded cruiser reached safety in the Grand Harbour at Malta.
On the afternoon of September 13, another radio-controlled bomb hit the cruiser HMS Uganda, penetrated seven decks, exploded, and damaged the ship so severely that she took on 13,000 tons of water before a U.S. Navy tug took her in tow. The battleship HMS Warspite was hit by two of these innovative weapons and shaken by two near misses three days later.
On September 11, two offensive efforts were mounted against the high ground at Eboli and Altaville, commanding both sides of the valley of the Sele and Calore Rivers. Moving against Eboli, two battalions of the 157th Regiment, 45th Division, were joined by a platoon of the 191st Tank Battalion. Just west of Persano, as the Americans approached a complex of five buildings arranged in a semicircle and known as the tobacco factory, a battalion of the 16th Panzer Division, ordered back from Battipaglia, was waiting.
When the Americans were within a few yards, the Germans sprang their ambush, fire erupting from a nearby rail line, positions along a parallel roadway, and the buildings. Seven American tanks were quickly out of action. The troops of the 157th were forced to dig in four miles short of Eboli while the buildings of the tobacco factory remained in German hands.
Another regiment of the 45th Division, the 179th, sent two battalions straight for Ponte Sele, while the third battalion guarded the right flank of the advance toward Hill 424 and Altaville. German artillery and small-arms fire hit the Americans before they reached Ponte Sele, and for a time the crossing of the Calore River appeared doubtful. Had the Germans captured the crossing site, the American infantry and armor might have been cut off. The two battalions from the 179th occupied defensive positions near Persano, four miles from Altaville.
The flank battalion of the 179th drove on with a platoon of the 190th Tank Battalion and the 160th Field Artillery Battalion, only to be stymied by further German resistance before retiring to defenses along La Cosa Creek. Ironically, the 36th’s 142nd Infantry Regiment managed to occupy both Altaville and Hill 424 against little opposition. The following day, a ferocious German counterattack dislodged the 142nd from its position, which was the most forward and exposed of any along the VI Corps perimeter.
Confident German Counterattacks
Vietinghoff’s confidence in his ability not only to drive the invasion force into the sea but to cut off its escape had grown steadily. By the afternoon of September 13, the 29th Panzergrenadier and 16th Panzer Divisions launched a devastating attack while elements of the 36th Division were attempting to retake Altaville. The American attack fell apart, and small groups of infantrymen were forced to thread their way back to their lines after dark. Three soldiers, Corporal Charles Kelly, 1st Lt. Arnold Bjorklund, and Private William J. Crawford, later received the Medal of Honor for their part in this heavy fighting.
Some confusion existed among American commanders as to the defensive positions covering the Sele-Calore valley. The head of the corridor was, therefore, thinly defended. The Germans at LXXVI Panzer Corps headquarters were convinced that the Allies were evacuating. As the afternoon wore on, German attacks grew in intensity, and scores of tanks and infantry roughed up a battalion of the 157th Regiment before hitting the 143rd Regiment on both flanks and taking 500 prisoners.
By 6:30 pm on September 13, German tanks were within two miles of the beaches, with only two American field artillery battalions and a firing line of cooks, clerks, musicians, and walking wounded opposing them; the Fifth Army command post stood only a few hundred yards behind and Clark made plans to evacuate on as little as 10-minutes’ notice. The artillerymen poured 4,000 shells into enemy lines and finally stopped the German attack.
A historian commented, “The only troops who stood between the Germans and the sea were some supporting artillery of the 45th Division. These guns saved the day and quite possibly the battle.”
The invasion had come within an eyelash of disaster.
On September 14, German attacks were much less productive. Clark had consolidated and shortened his line during the night, and the combined artillery of the 45th and 36th Divisions fired over 10,000 rounds. Heavy bombers, diverted from missions against targets in Germany, added support. One tank destroyer of the 636th Battalion knocked out five German tanks and a truck filled with ammunition in 30 minutes. Altogether, 30 German tanks were destroyed. The VI Corps line had almost miraculously held.
Fighting continued at Hill 424 and Altaville, and one American soldier remembered, “Darkness was falling as we began to climb the foothills, shells screaming over us … each explosion covering us with dirt and rocks. I’d never known real terror until that moment…. Cadavers of men from previous attacks lay scattered all over the hill. It was a horrible experience for us to see these countless dead men, many of them purpled and blackened by the intense heat.”
Vietinghoff also struck back hard at the British on September 13 and 14, his armor hitting the 56th Division southeast of Battipaglia. The Coldstream Guards, Royal Fusiliers, and infantrymen of the 167th Brigade were bolstered by heavy naval and air support and beat back the attack.
Peter Wright’s Victoria Cross at Salerno
A few days later, Company Sgt. Maj. Peter Wright took command of his company of the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, after all of its officers had been killed or wounded. Wright destroyed three machine-gun nests with hand grenades, relocated his company to a more favorable position, and captured important high ground. The action earned Wright the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but a year later King George VI ordered the medal upgraded to the Victoria Cross.
Private Ernest Hulse of the Durham Light Infantry exhibited conspicuous courage on the 15th and 16th when he evacuated wounded from a hillside north of Salerno. “It is fair to say that he was responsible for evacuating some 30 casualties … and the majority of them under fire,” wrote Lt. Col. J.C. Preston, commander of the 16th Battalion. Captain Frank Duffy, commanding a company of the Durham Light Infantry on the evening of the 15th, organized a bayonet charge and counterattacked the Germans along the crest of a hill, killing 15 enemy soldiers and capturing 11.
After more than a week of tough fighting, it was clear that the Allies would not be dislodged from their clawhold on the Italian mainland and that the war was about to enter a new phase.
“General Clark Had Everything Under Control”
While the presence of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, still moving up from the south, was sufficient to cause concern for the Germans and to at least present them with the necessity of prioritizing their defensive assignments, the crisis at Salerno had passed by the time Monty’s troops made contact with the Fifth Army. Reinforcements from the VI and X Corps reserves bolstered the beachhead at Salerno, and both corps forged inland. On September 18, Vietinghoff realized that the game was up and directed his forces to withdraw northward to the Apennine Mountains.
Montgomery’s chief of staff, General Francis “Freddy” de Guingand, wrote, “Some would like to think—I did at the time—that we helped, if not saved, the situation at Salerno. But now I doubt whether we influenced matters to any great extent. General Clark had everything under control before Eighth Army appeared on the scene.”
“See Naples and Die”
The Allied victory did not come cheaply. In more than a week of desperate fighting, the British X Corps had lost over 5,500 casualties. The U.S. VI Corps had lost 3,500, with 500 killed and 1,800 wounded. One other casualty of Operation Avalanche was Maj. Gen. Dawley, the VI Corps commander. Some believed he had become unnerved by the strain of combat command, while others were surprised that he had been relieved by Clark on September 20; a telephone conversation with Dawley at the height of the fighting had left the Fifth Army commander concerned.
Eisenhower may have decided that the exhausted Dawley should be relieved before visiting the VI Corps headquarters himself. The official history of the U.S. Army in World War II relates, “When Eisenhower, Clark, Dawley, and Admiral [Kent] Hewitt visited his 36th Division command post and received a briefing from [General] Walker, the division commander had the feeling that Eisenhower was paying little attention to his words. At the end of Walker’s presentation, Eisenhower turned to Dawley and said, ‘How did you ever get your troops into such a mess?’”