Not all Allied commanders were comfortable with the invasion plans. Clutterbuck, a more traditional ground commander, expressed grave doubts as to the ability of airpower to reduce the defenses of the island and prevent his troops from enduring heavy casualties. His protests so exasperated Spaatz that in private he began to refer to the general as “Clusterbottom.” McGrigor had no such misgivings and gave the plan his full support.
Consultation With Professor Solly Zucherman
In planning the operation, Spaatz sought the help of his scientific adviser, Professor Solly Zuckerman. Zuckerman was an expert in what was then the new field of operations research, which attempts to apply mathematical concepts to determine optimal plans of action. Zuckerman analyzed the problem with his Operations Analysis Unit and produced a detailed bombing plan that provided precise aiming points, called for detailed reports and analysis of each sortie, required extensive photo reconnaissance, and demanded plotting of every bomb burst on a grid noting any damage caused.
Due to the accuracy of bombing in 1943, Zuckerman recommended that the bombs be concentrated on those gun batteries that threatened the proposed landing beaches. All bombing sorties were registered by target, and daily photo reconnaissance was conducted by the 248th PR Wing. If it was determined that a target was eliminated, the bombing missions were adjusted. If not, strikes continued until the target was assessed as destroyed.
The effort also included psychological operations with several leaflet drops. The first was on May 13, 1943, warning the civilian population of the upcoming raids and giving them a five-day grace period to evacuate. Additional leaflet drops encouraged the surrender of the garrison.
1,500 Sorties Over Pantelleria
The air offensive began on May 18 with the first daylight sorties. At night, RAF bombers dropped 4,000-pound blockbuster bombs, and RAF Hurricane fighters dropped additional bombs to cause the inhabitants to lose sleep. On May 21, P-40 and P-38 fighters destroyed the Wurzburg radar apparatus, and on May 23, the Freya radar was abandoned. This effectively rendered the island blind to incoming Allied air attacks and prevented warnings to Axis air bases in Sicily.
From May 18 to May 29, over 1,500 sorties were flown against the island with 1,300 tons of bombs dropped. These sorties targeted the harbor, airfield, and shore batteries with 900 tons of bombs dropped on the port and airfield and 400 tons devoted to the shore batteries. The heavy B-17s commenced operations on June 1.
The second phase of the bombing campaign began June 6 and lasted six days. The attacks increased in ferocity from 200 sorties on the first day to 1,500 by June 11. During this phase an amazing 5,324 tons of bombs and 3,712 sorties were flown against the island. All this bombing reduced the developed areas of Pantelleria to destruction and chaos. Damage to the port, roads, housing, and phone lines was extreme. The electricity production facilities were knocked out, and several of the shore batteries were destroyed.
The Axis Response
Axis forces tried to respond to the aerial siege as best as they could. Three small cargo ships braved the blockade and managed to land their cargoes but were then sunk. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) flew 324 sorties during the first 10 days of June, losing 16 aircraft and made unsubstantiated claims of 24 Allied aircraft shot down. The Italian losses also included seven Macchi MC-202 fighters in one day of air combat.
The Regia Aeronautica flew nightly resupply missions to the island, bringing in small amounts of critical supplies and evacuating wounded personnel. The Italian government maintained radio communication with the island throughout the siege and implored the defenders to resist to the end.
The Luftwaffe flew several hundred sorties, but its support was halfhearted at best. Most of the Luftwaffe sorties were against Allied airfields or fighter sweeps in the vicinity of the island. The Luftwaffe lost 10 aircraft and claimed more than 20 Allied planes.
The Allies conducted a naval demonstration off Pantelleria to test the island’s defenses. The Royal Navy dispatched the cruisers HMS Aurora, Newfoundland, Penelope, and Orion, the antiaircraft cruiser Euryalus, the destroyers Whaddon, Troubridge, Tarter, Jervis, Nubian, Laforey, Lookout, and Royal, and the gunboat Aphis.
With McGrigor aboard his flagship, HMS Whaddon, were Spaatz, Clutterbuck, and Zuckerman. Eisenhower and Admiral Andrew Cunningham, commander in chief of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, were aboard Aurora. During the course of the naval bombardment, which began about 10 am, the Italian shore batteries responded weakly. An hour later, medium and heavy bombers attacked two shore batteries.
The naval task force was attacked by German and Italian planes, which were quickly driven off. Both Eisenhower and Cunningham were pleased with the results of the combined naval and air operations. Eisenhower informed Marshall that they “were highly pleased both with the obvious efficiency of the air and naval bombardments and with the coordination achieved as to timing.”
On June 10, 1943, leaflets calling on the island garrison to surrender were again dropped. The only radio station still working on the island broadcast that “despite everything Pantelleria will continue to resist.” Over 20 additional messages were sent that night reporting the damage done to the island. Allied intelligence had decoded these messages and also knew that the garrison was in a desperate situation.
Storming the Island
That same day, the British 1st Division embarked on the infantry landing ships HMS Queen Emma, Princess Beatrix, and Royal Ulsterman. Tanks, guns, and equipment were carried aboard numerous landing ships. The invasion force set sail on the night of June 10. The following morning found the invasion fleet eight miles off the harbor of the port of Pantelleria. The sea was calm. The troops took to their assault boats, and B-17s timed their last raid just prior to the landing around 11 am.
With the invasion imminent, Pavesi met with his senior staff that morning. They reviewed the situation, and with dwindling supplies of ammunition, the destruction of communication systems, the loss of the main water and electric plants, and no hope of resupply or reinforcement it was determined that the garrison should surrender.
Pavesi had wired his superiors several hours earlier, stating, “The situation is desperate; all possibilities of effective resistance have been exhausted.”
Unknown to the admiral, Mussolini had sent him a message at 10:10 am on June 11, instructing Pavesi to surrender at noon. As it was, Admiral Pavesi took action himself and instructed his air forces commander to place a large white cross on the airfield runway to signal surrender. He sent instructions to all his forces to cease firing as of 11 am local time.
As the garrison was making preparations to surrender, the Allies were making their amphibious assault on the island. The Royal Navy warships started their shore bombardment around 11 am, and the landing craft made their way toward the island at 10:30. The Luftwaffe executed a series of attacks, as several dozen FW-190s attacked the flotilla and five Me-109s attempted to strafe the landing craft. The FW-190s missed the ships, and the Me-109s were driven off by P-40s of the 57th Fighter Group. At 11:45, B-17s added a crescendo of bombing to the island as the landing force approached.
The first wave of the landing consisted of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, which included the 1st Duke of Wellington Regiment, 1st Shropshires, and 2nd Sherwood Foresters Regiments reinforced with a squadron of tanks and a field artillery regiment. By noon, the entire first wave was ashore near the harbor. All of the Italian batteries had ceased firing at 11:30, and white flags began to appear all over the island. Allied naval shelling ceased, and all air and naval bombardments were canceled as of 12:45.
The only casualty suffered by the Allies during the landing and occupation occurred when an unlucky corporal of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters was kicked in the head by a mule and perished. Clutterbuck came ashore at 1:30 after most of the island’s garrison had already surrendered. The formal surrender documents were signed in the underground hangar by Clutterbuck and Pavesi at 5:30.
The Strengths and Limitations of a Bombing Campaign
After the fall of Pantelleria, Lampedusa was subject to two days of violent bombing. The Luftwaffe responded only with long-range fighter sweeps that resulted in 14 Axis fighters shot down. The island was then bombarded by four light cruisers and six destroyers on the morning of June 12. The island garrison tried to surrender to an RAF pilot who landed on the island’s airfield due to engine failure. When bad weather cleared, the 4,600-man garrison surrendered, and Lampedusa was occupied on June 13.
Operation Corkscrew was a splendid victory for the Allies. The island was taken on schedule, and 11,621 Italians and 78 Germans were taken prisoner. When prisoners from Lampedusa are included, over 16,000 Axis soldiers were captured.
As for airpower’s overall effectiveness during Operation Corkscrew, post-campaign analysis showed varying results. While all the mission objectives for airpower were achieved, only 108 Axis soldiers were killed and 200 wounded by Allied air attacks. Considering the size of the garrison and the weight of the bombing, these were meager casualties indeed.