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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Supermarina’s reply was short and to the point: “We are convinced that you will inflict the greatest possible damage upon the enemy. Long Live Italy!”

The next morning, despite the heavy bombardment of the town and port of Pantelleria, Pavesi held his normal morning staff meeting. Polling his staff officers, he found the overwhelming majority were in favor of capitulation. Pavesi decided to bypass the chain of command and at 9:50 am sent a message directly to Mussolini advising him of his plan to surrender.

At the same time Pavesi’s message was being sent to Mussolini, the dictator had been briefed by Supermarina that Pavesi was going to hold the island. Il Duce dispatched a message to Pantelleria praising the heroic resistance of the garrison and announced the award of the Cross of Savoia for Admiral Pavesi. However, by 11 am Mussolini had received Pavesi’s message that he was planning to surrender due to water shortages.

No doubt chagrined, Mussolini replied to Pavesi, concurring with his surrender plans and telling the admiral, “Only Stalin or the Mikado [the Japanese Emperor] can order a commander to fight to the last man,” and directing him to inform the British on Malta that he was surrendering due to the lack of water for the civilian population. Mussolini’s permission did not reach Pavesi until he had already surrendered.

At 10:30 am, June 11, the first wave of British landing craft left the invasion fleet en route to the Red, White, and Green landing beaches at the port of Pantelleria, their approach hidden by fog from lookouts on the island. The landing areas were being swept by gunfire from four Royal Navy cruisers and three destroyers while the town was simultaneously being bombed by hundreds of B-17s. This last fusillade of firepower directed against the defenders stopped, according to schedule, at 11:45 as British landing craft approached their landing zones.

Admiral Pavesi’s signal to Malta that he was surrendering was sent at 11 am, simultaneously with his order to raise a white flag in the town and display a white cross on the airfield. Delays in communicating the orders to all the defenders caused some isolated machine-gun fire against the landing craft as they beached, but they were quickly silenced and no Allied casualties were suffered.

Fighters making low-level strafing runs on the island reported seeing the white cross on the airfield, and the order was given to the Royal Navy ships off shore to cease fire. Due to a breakdown in communications, the Mediterranean air forces did not receive the cease-fire order and continued sporadic bombing of targets until late afternoon, an act for which Lt. Gen. Spaatz later apologized.

At noon, 20 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington Regiment set foot on European soil for the first time since the Dunkirk evacuation three years and one week earlier. They were greeted by the few Italian soldiers in the vicinity waving white flags. There was no more resistance offered by the beleaguered defenders, and the seizure of the island went off without a hitch, with one exception.

Winston Churchill, in his memoirs, said the only casualty was a British soldier “bitten by a mule.” The unfortunate soldier was Corporal Sanderson of the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, who had actually suffered a fatal kick in the head by a jackass.

The Comando Supremo of the Italian Armed Forces released war bulletin 1113 the next day, stating: “Pantelleria, subjected to massive air and naval actions with a frequency and intensity unprecedented in history, deprived of water resources for the civilian population, was yesterday forced to cease resistance.”

In his report to General Eisenhower, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, wrote: “When we landed, we realized that a garrison animated by another spirit could have continued fighting. The number of enemy killed has been extraordinarily low. In the underground hangars, little was damaged and their equipment was intact. There were still sufficient food and water on the island. What we destroyed was their will to fight.”

For Giuseppe Ferrara, the arrival of British troops meant the beginning of his journey to a prison camp. On the morning of June 11, he was at his post in the underground fuel storage depot near the airfield; his wife and child and dog were in a nearby tunnel. A patrol of about 30 British soldiers appeared at the entrance to his storage depot, and an officer with an Australian accent called out in Neapolitan dialect, “Are you the boss?”  “Yes,” Ferrara replied. “How many men do you have?” Twenty was his answer.

“Do you want to go into captivity? We will keep you here, and you can continue to do what you’ve always done. Tell me where there are munitions, fuel, and other material and you can stay working here and be next to your wife.”

Ferrara refused to cooperate, and he and the rest of his men were taken prisoner of “His Britannic Majesty.” He had no time to say goodbye to his family, but days later he saw a photograph in a British military newspaper of a long line of civilians being loaded aboard a transport for return to Italy. In the photo, he was relieved to see his wife and child. The British put him on one of the invasion ships and took him and his fellow prisoners to Tunisia, where they were turned over to the French for custody.

Ferrara recalled that the British were firm but fair captors and treated their prisoners well, but being prisoners of the French was another story. The French relegated the running of their North African POW camps to their colonial troops, the Senegalese. Ferrara described his internment in his postwar memoirs as “hell on earth.” The Italians suffered brutal treatment, inadequate food, lice, and exposure to the elements; many men succumbed to the conditions in captivity.

While at the POW camp at Ben Arous, Ferrara and some other men hatched an escape plan. They broke out of their camp and, while traveling by night and hiding by day, searched for an American Army patrol. After two days they found one and were taken to an American encampment where they were treated to their first showers, dusted with DDT, and given hot food and cigarettes.

Unfortunately, this respite lasted only a month until the French discovered their whereabouts and demanded their return. It was not until February 1946 that Ferrara was finally returned home to Naples and reunited with his family—and Iole.

A British postwar commission investigated the effects of bombing on Pantelleria and discovered that only 36 military and three civilians died during the attacks. Of the 118 guns on the island, only 16 had been destroyed and 43 damaged. The food and water supplies were adequate for prolonged resistance although the distribution system for the water relied on motor transport that was interrupted by the destruction of roads and trails on the island. Admiral Pavesi stated that the water supplies had been contaminated by the bombing, but the inquiry could find no proof of that.

Was Pantelleria’s surrender due solely to the application of airpower? Certainly the unrelenting aerial bombardment weakened the defenders’ will to resist; Hap Arnold’s observation to that effect was accurate. Italy’s German allies certainly expected a stiffer resistance from Italians that were defending their home territory for the first time. They expected Pantelleria to represent a line that could not be crossed, like the Rhine River was for the Germans in 1945. They were disappointed.

For the Italians, Pantelleria was another domino of defeat that began in North Africa. The Italians were faced with the prospect of either losing their independence to the Anglo-Americans or greater subservience to their German allies. In light of these two choices, defeatism spread first through military leadership, then through the ranks, and finally through the Italian population.

For the Germans, it confirmed suspicions that the Italians were unreliable allies and that in the upcoming battle for Italy the Wehrmacht would have to take increasing responsibility for her defense.

The fall of Pantelleria had other wide-ranging effects. Besides removing a threat to the Allied invasion of Sicily and furthering the collapse of Italian morale, Hitler was forced to postpone his upcoming Kursk offensive in Russia—Operation Citadel—due to his fears of an imminent Allied invasion in the south of France.

For the Allies, Operation Corkscrew was an unqualified success. Pantelleria had been seized from the enemy at little cost. Admiral Pavesi surrendered the garrison and all the supporting equipment and infrastructure intact. Within a week, the airfield runway was open, and a P-40 fighter group based on the island flew top cover for the invasion of Sicily the next month.

For the first time, air power had been able to fulfill the dreams of Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and Alexander de Seversky and compel an enemy to surrender without the need to seize territory by land forces.

By concentrating overwhelming power on a narrow front, aerial bombardment had reduced a seemingly impregnable fortress on its own. Unfortunately, the other consequence of the bombing of Pantelleria reinforced the mistaken belief that dropping large numbers of bombs on enemy positions would make land movements easy.