The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943

December 12, 2023 Topic: World War II Region: Italy Tags: World War IIItalyAlliesNazi GermanyMilitary History

The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943

James Holland's latest book chronicles the bloody campaign to liberate Italy from Nazi control. 


Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from historian James Holland’s latest book, The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943 (Atlantic Monthly Press 2023), reprinted with the permission of the publisher. 

Mid-August, 1943. A day crossing of the Straits of Messina, the slight sea breeze offering some relief from the relentless heat of the broiling sun. Leutnant Hans Golda stood on the ferry gazing back at Sicily. He was a sentimental fellow on occasion, and he couldn’t help feeling wistful about the island that had become so dear to him. The mountains rose up almost from the shore, looming magnificent and immutable against the deep-azure sky, and beyond, Etna, that still-smouldering volcano that so dominated the north-east of the island – the part over which they had been fighting these past seven weeks. And because he was prone to sentimentality but also optimism, Golda had rather filtered out the more disagreeable aspects of Sicily: the relentless burning rays of the sun, or the surly Sicilians with whom they’d associated so little. Italians who were still, on paper at any rate, allies. People who, for the most part, had struck him at earlier moments during his time there as dirty and distant. Weeks before, he’d been shocked by the squalor, by the garbage and filth left near the front door of almost every house. He had cursed the clouds of flies that swarmed around anything edible. And also the bitterness of battle. The blackened corpses. The destruction. The defeat. The knowledge that they had fought so hard and yet had been pushed back, leaving the dead and captured behind. The enemy had crushing material superiority, but Golda had put such considerations to the back of his mind, so that now, as he crossed those narrow waters, where Odysseus had skirted past the six-headed Scylla and survived being swallowed by Charybdis, he did not feel despondent or beaten up, but rather a sense of pride at how his men had performed and something close to affection for the magnificence of the island. The Battle of Sicily was over, but, as he was well aware, the Battle of Italy was surely soon to begin.


Not quite 40,000 German troops had managed to get away from Sicily, of whom only 26,000 were from the four fighting divisions – divisions that should have had around 15,000 men each. Golda and his men were part of the badly mauled 15. Panzergrenadier-Division. How that division had been dragged through the mill over the past few years! Sent to Africa in April 1941, it had been part of the spearheading Deutsches Afrikakorps; but then it had been savaged at Alamein eighteen months later and utterly destroyed in Tunisia six months after that. From a skeleton, and then from odds and ends – men recovering from wounds, an artillery company here, a panzer battalion there, office clerks and back-room boys – Division Sizilien had been formed, to which Golda’s Werfer-Regiment 71 had been attached; they were equipped with 210mm five-barrelled rocket launchers firing high-explosive warheads known as Nebelwerfers – literally, ‘fog throwers’. They gave a high-pitched moan as they sped through the air.

In July, Division Sizilien had grown enough to become 15. Panzergrenadier-Division – a motorized, all-arms unit of infantry, armour, artillery, engineers and reconnaissance troops, but also a reflection that the Wehrmacht had fewer tanks to spare than it once had. Golda still liked to call it ‘Sizilien’, but those days were over, and in any case most of its number had remained forever on the island. No one was under any illusion that the division now needed rebuilding yet again. It was like a phoenix, repeatedly reborn. It was also indicative of Germany’s parlous situation: it was losing the war.

None the less, they would fight on. And if 15. Panzergrenadier- Division were to emerge from the fire again, it would need a little time and space, and that meant heading north, more or less out of harm’s way. There, replacement troops would arrive, more equipment, more vehicles – if they were lucky – and then they would turn and face the enemy once more. How long did they have? That was anyone’s guess, but Golda was just glad to be alive, to still have his vehicles, at least some of his Nebelwerfers, and for the time being, at any rate, a break from the fighting.

Their orders were to head first to Palmi, a little over twenty miles away, where the remains of the regiment were due to reassemble. First, though, they needed to safely reach the other side. Earlier, as they’d waited to board, an enemy reconnaissance plane had buzzed over, but immediately more than 300 guns had opened fire either side of the Straits. Golda had watched the tracer, fingers of death reaching up into the sky, and the plane hurriedly scuttled off.

Relief. Soon enough everyone was across safely; no further Allied planes had dared to disrupt the evacuation. Slowly, carefully, Golda rolled his Volkswagen off the ferry at Villa San Giovanni in the toe of the Italian boot, mountains gazing down at them in almost a mirror of those the far side of the Straits. Golda was at the wheel, the compact car packed with boxes and with his trusted Franz sitting on top trying to keep these precious treasures together. Behind them, the Werfers of his 7. Batterie, these six-barrelled rocket mortars, towed by trucks and half-tracks. Gin- gerly they trundled their way along the coast road, the Tyrrhenian Sea wine-dark on their left, wheezing up switchbacks behind the coast towns of Bagnara and Sant’Elia until, crossing a valley thick with olive and citrus groves, they reached the little coastal town.

Golda’s heart ached to see what this once-charming little port had become since last he’d passed through. Dead and abandoned. Houses smashed, streets torn open by bombs. He was glad to push on through, away from the desolation, to Division Sizilien’s assembly area beyond. They rolled in, marching group after marching group threaded into a movement order marshalled by large numbers of field gendarmerie. Golda was happy to follow, no longer needing to look at a map or think about where to go. There was only one coast road, and he could always follow the vehicle in front. Where there were detours, posts had been erected to show them the right way. The sun bore down, dust swirled. Throats became parched, but they were used to that. Then night again. On they drove. Rosario was badly smashed, and an excited lone bomber dropped some fragmentation bombs as they passed through. But no one was hit; just a factory shed set on fire, the flames vividly bright against the night sky.

One day they reached Sapri, a quiet fishing town in a horseshoe bay, mountains once again rising behind. The mountains – they were never far away in Italy. The coast road wound its way through the little town, kissing the coast, and here they paused in the shade of an orange grove for a rest and a swim in the twinkling sea. Just a little way out a white hospital ship was at anchor, the red crosses shining in the sun. Small boats were ferrying out the wounded, and Golda found himself wishing for a light wound, just so that he could sail on this magnificent ship.

Precious hours. A little garden gift from God, he thought.

And then on again. At dawn they were climbing along another stretch of mountain road: steep sides to their right, a sheer drop to their left. Suddenly, a low-flying aircraft thundered over them. They were sitting ducks! One long sheaf of fire and the road would have been closed for a day, but inexplicably the pilot never opened fire; perhaps his ammunition was already out. Perhaps he felt merciful that day.

They reached the Bay of Salerno and a brief, narrow strip of coastline with the mountains pushed back a little way inland. Golda marvelled at the ruins of Paestum, for a brief moment a tourist, not a warrior, as he gazed at those ancient Greek temples, city walls and amphitheatre, thousands of years old and less touched than some of the shattered towns they’d passed through. On they rumbled, through Salerno itself, just as the bombers began circling for home. Following a hastily cleared path around bomb craters, dodging freshly collapsed buildings, through air still thick with smoke and dust. Up ahead, several vehicles had been struck. Anti-aircraft – flak –guns boomed, shells pumping the sky. Golda saw several of these deadly giants hit; one even broke up in the sky, its debris crashing down into the town below. A second bomber plunged into the mountains overlooking the port, while from a third, thick black smoke trailed across the sky in the distance. It was Thursday, 19 August 1943. Three days after Axis forces had abandoned Sicily forever.

Whatever gloom Golda and his men may have momentarily felt, he was cheered by the magnificence of Vesuvius and the glow of lava spilling from its summit, vividly blood-red against the night sky. Naples, that great city port, they bypassed and pushed on, then rumbled by Caserta with its vast, dominating palace that so dwarfed the rest of the town. On, further still, until they reached Capua, where suddenly, unexpectedly, as they crossed over the railway bridge – the road bridge had been smashed – they were drenched by a thunderstorm. Once across, they finally reached Cascano, the division’s primary destination.