Study This Battle: Why Air Powered Rule That Day at Pantelleria

By Radford (Sgt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit - This is photograph NA 3668 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-39), Public Domain,

Study This Battle: Why Air Powered Rule That Day at Pantelleria

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Key point: The Allies had fought in this same area before and failed. But this time they had superior air power and it changed the result.

Pantelleria is a small volcanic island rising out of the Mediterranean Sea 37 miles east of the Tunisian coast and some 63 miles southwest of Sicily. Since its occupation by the Carthaginians in the 7th century bc, the island has been used as a military outpost by a succession of conquerors: Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Aragonese, Turks, the Kingdom of Sicily, and finally the Kingdom of Italy.

The island’s strategic location midway in the Sicily Channel made it the ideal location for controlling access of shipping sailing from the eastern to western basins of the Mediterranean. It was Pantelleria’s misfortune to be located in such a critical area and along the corridor that the Allied forces invading Sicily would travel that caused it to become the target of an unprecedented bombing campaign in the summer of 1943.

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1943 to decide the future joint strategy of the Allied powers.The conference started with the British and American general staffs at odds on the way ahead.

General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, advocated a cross-Channel invasion of France from Britain as soon as possible. The British did not feel there would be sufficient resources, especially landing craft, to support an invasion until 1944 and so, instead, pushed for action against what Winston Churchill famously called “the soft underbelly of Europe.”

Both Churchill and Roosevelt were well aware of the incessant complaints of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin that the Red Army was the only one fighting the Nazis and demanding that Churchill and Roosevelt open another front in Europe to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union. Underscoring his point was his absence at the conference due to his preoccupation with the desperate fighting around Stalingrad at that moment.

A Mediterranean strategy was agreed upon by the Anglo-Americans, but exactly where to launch an attack was also debated. For Churchill, with an eye on protecting the British Empire in the postwar world, the obvious choice was German-occupied Greece. Here Allied troops would be able to tie down German divisions that might otherwise be used elsewhere and, perhaps more importantly, halt the advance of any post-war Soviet march toward Egypt and the Suez Canal.

The Americans wanted to invade Corsica to threaten an invasion of the peninsula of Italy or the south of France, thus keeping the Germans wondering. In the end, the two Allies agreed that Sicily offered the best invasion option due to its short distance from their forces in North Africa, the element of surprise, and the ability to provide air cover from existing bases in North Africa.

Invading Sicily had the added advantage of taking the fight to an Axis homeland and requiring the Germans to divert divisions from the Eastern Front to shore up their Italian allies. Allied intelligence estimated that the poor state of Italian transportation infrastructure would limit the Germans’ ability to extricate their divisions and turn Italy into a giant sponge for Wehrmacht resources.

But before the Allies could invade Axis-occupied Europe, Pantelleria, the five-by-eight-mile bone in the throat of the Sicily Channel, would have to be dealt with.

Pantelleria had some obvious physical advantages that favored its fortification. It had little in the way of beaches. The island has steep cliffs that plunge almost vertically into the sea around most of its circumference. Its only natural landing area for amphibious assault craft is the port area on the island’s north coast.

It has little vegetation; its few crops are largely caper bushes and grape vines. It has few livestock and a relatively small civilian population. The island rises to more than 2,700 feet above sea level on the summit of aptly named Montagna Grande (Big Mountain), from which a commanding view of most of the Sicily Channel is available.

In the 1920s, Italian leader Benito Mussolini established a penal colony on the island and in 1936 began fortifying it during his war in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Fascist propaganda called Pantelleria the “Italian Gibraltar,” with the aim for it to act as a counterweight to the British base at Malta and the French at Bizerte.

The island was defended by coastal artillery placed in open revetments protected by rocks and concrete. Twelve Schneider-Ansaldo 152mm guns with a 10-mile range were complemented by 13 120mm guns with an effective range of eight miles. Antiaircraft protection was provided by 75 76mm dual-purpose guns, as well as 18 20mm rapid-fire guns and more than 500 8mm machine guns.

The coastline was dotted by grottos, some of which had been enlarged by engineers to hold refueling and replenishing anchorages for submarines and motor torpedo boats. By 1940, the island garrison had grown to 11,420 Italian defenders and some 600 German troops that manned the Freya radio direction-finding stations on the summit of Montagna Grande.

In addition to fixed gun emplacements and protected anchorages, Pantelleria hosted an enormous underground hanger at its airfield that had been blasted out of a rocky cliff. The structure was the largest underground hangar built by any nation in World War II.

Measuring more than 1,000 feet in length, 85 feet wide, and 60 feet high, the cavernous space was built to accommodate 60 Macchi C.202 fighters and six Savoia-Marchetti 79 three-engine torpedo bombers, plus workshops, storage areas, and 400 cubic meter storage tanks for gasoline. All this was protected by blast-proof steel doors covering the entrance.

Even before the final surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia on May 13, 1943, planning for Operation Husky, the Allies’ invasion of Sicily, had begun. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been given the overall command of Allied forces for the invasion, and his staff was given the lead for invasion planning.

Their initial thoughts were that Pantelleria would be too tough a nut to crack and the Allies would risk losing valuable resources taking the island that would be better used in the main invasion of Sicily. Eisenhower, in his memoir Crusade in Europe, agreed.

He observed, “Topographically, Pantelleria presented obstacles almost scary for an assault. Many of our commanders, officers of staff, and experts were strongly opposed to the operation because a failure would have had a discouraging effect on the morale of troops to be used against the coast of Sicily.”

Yet Eisenhower saw great advantages to having Pantelleria in his hands: enhanced air cover for the Allied landings and naval operations in Sicily, use of the Pantelleria airfield for search and rescue forces, removal of the German early warning radio direction-finding equipment, installation of a navigational aid on Montagna Grande, and eliminating the island as a refueling base for enemy torpedo boats and submarines.

Intelligence reported that the island was garrisoned by only five Italian infantry battalions that had not seen combat, eight machine-gun companies recruited from the Frontier Guard that kept watch on alpine borders, and artillery units and antiaircraft gunners drawn from militia units. In the opinion of the intelligence analysts, the morale of these troops was probably not high, and they could be expected to perform poorly under the terror of intense bombardment.

However, the state of the defenders’ morale was just a guess. To provide a realistic estimate of the fighting ability of the enemy troops, the British launched three small-scale commando raids to capture prisoners for interrogation.

The first two raids were unable to put a raiding party ashore due to rough sea conditions, but the third landed nine commandos at night along the north coast. The commandos discovered the Italians had posted sentries approximately every 100 yards along the coast; they captured one, but not before he sounded an alarm. In their ensuing rush back to the rubber boats they had left at the foot of a cliff, the commandos got into a firefight, killing three defenders and having one of their own badly wounded.

It quickly became apparent that the raiding party would be unable to descend the cliff with an uncooperative prisoner, so they let him go and left their badly wounded comrade behind.

By early May, Eisenhower had changed his mind about not assaulting Pantelleria. On May 10, he directed his staff to begin planning Operation Corkscrew, the seizure of Pantelleria.

This was not the first time the Allies had drawn up plans to invade Pantelleria. In 1940, the British had planned an assault on the island to eliminate the threat to British shipping in the Mediterranean, but the threat of enemy air attacks by the movement of German fighter and dive bomber squadrons to Sicily caused the plan to be abandoned. This time, however, the Allies anticipated having total air superiority, and the planning went ahead.

The date picked for the invasion of Pantelleria was June 12, 1943. The date was chosen as the latest that the island could be seized and the airfield and supporting infrastructure repaired for Allied air forces to use to support the July invasion of Sicily.