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.