Allied invasion of Sicily
The Axis forces defeated in Siciliy
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
The Allied landing in Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, captured Sicily from the Axis forces. Thus, the way towards continental Italy was opened.

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The Allied landing in Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major campaign of World War II. In this operation, the Allies attacked and captured Sicily from the Axis forces. Thus, they opened the way towards continental Italy.

The success of this invasion later allowed the Allies to land on continental Italy. Due to the invasion in Sicily, Hitler cancelled the offensive in Kursk on the eastern front, after only one week of fighting. He redirected part of his troops from Kursk to Sicily. This allowed the Russians to repel the German offensive and launch a powerful counter-attack.

The Sicilian invasion had its origins in the conclusions formed by the Allied leaders that an invasion of France would be impossible at that time. They decided to invade the Italian island, using North African troops, after obtaining victory in Africa. The invasion of Sicily was decided at the Casablanca Conference, once the alternative options of Sardinia and Corsica had been eliminated. The invasion was later confirmed at the Trident Conference in Washington.

Initially, the Americans didn’t agree to the invasion of continental Italy after the fall of Sicily. They only gave their agreement to this at the Quadrant Conference in Quebec. During this time, battles were already underway on the island. Thus, the Italian campaign was born, naturally, out of the invasion and occupation of Sicily. However, the delay in its authorization allowed a large number of Germans to escape from Sicily. An earlier landing on the far point of the Italian boot, at Reggio, could have prevented the evacuation of the German troops.

The Allies wanted to conquer Naples and control the airports around Foggia. In this way, they hoped to lessen the pressure placed on the Russians in the Eastern Front. General George Marshall acknowledged that the landing in continental Italy only served to delay an eventual invasion in north-western France. He always believed that the invasion of France was the most important step in destroying the Third Reich.

Operation Husky consisted of a main amphibious invasion together with an operation by airborne units from the Allied forces. The land forces of the Allies were mostly formed of Americans, Canadians and British troops. Thus, the United States mobilized their 7th Army. Great Britain had the 8th Army, while Canada sent the forces of the 2nd Army. The Allies landed on the south of the island.

For the invasion, the Allies took two strategies into consideration. The first proposal was to land two armies in different places, in the eastern and western extremities of the island. Then, they would try to surround the Axis forces. In this way, the enemies would not only be defeated, but also totally destroyed. This maneuver was considered to be risky, because it was possible that the two armies could each be defeated separately. Thus, the strategy was rejected, since the risk was too great.

The goal of this invasion was to eliminate the Axis navy and air forces from the island. Thus, free transit of Allied naval forces in the Mediterranean would be ensured. Also, through this action, it was hoped that pressure would be put on Mussolini’s regime, opening up the possibility of Italy leaving the war.

The second proposed strategy consisted of landing the two armies in southern Sicily. They would then advance into the interior of the island. This maneuver was much less risky than the first, but did not offer the possibility of surrounding the Italians. The Allies chose the second option, not wanting to risk defeat.

Supreme command of this operation belonged to the future American president, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Harold Alexander held control of the ground forces of Army Group 15. This group was formed of the British 8th Army, under the command of Bernard Montgomery, and the American 7th Army, commanded by General George S. Patton.

The 7th Army had the task of landing in the Mera Gulf on the southern-central coast of the island. As part of this action, the 3rd Division and the 2nd Armored Division attacked at Licata. The 1st Division attacked at Gela, and the 45th Division to the east at Scoglitti. The 82nd Airborne division landed behind the defensive troops in Gela and Scoglitti. The 8th Army landed in South-Eastern Sicily. The 30th Corps of this army had the task of attacking Passero Head, the most south-eastern corner of Sicily. The 13th Corps landed in the Noto Gulf and around the locality of Avola, in the north. Between the two armies was a distance of 40 km.

Once they arrived on land, the two Allied armies had the task of securing a large area along the beach, for the landing of the rest of the forces and equipment. Then, the 8th Army must advance north along the coast, with the destination of Messina. During this time, the 7th Army had the task of protecting the right flank of the British troops and securing the rest of the island.

Before the launch of the invasion, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was brought into operations at the insistences of the Canadian Military Base in Great Britain. The request was approved by the British, who demobilized the veterans of the 3rd Infantry Division from the operation. The change was not finalized until General Andrew McNaughton, commander of this Canadian division, considered that Husky was a viable operation. He agreed to involve the 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Brigade.

In Sicily, Patton and Montgomery, two equally egocentric personalities, fought together in the same campaign. Rivalry between them was inevitable. Also, the Allied war effort had nothing to gain when, later, the egos of Generals Mark Clark and Omar Bradley were added to this extremely flammable mixture.

Patton’s ambitions of taking supreme command in Italy ended prematurely. He insulted two soldiers who were hospitalized due to shell shock. He called soldier Charles H. Kuhl an “arrant coward”. One week later, he called soldier Paul G. Bennett a “yellow bastard”, adding: “I won’t have those cowardly bastards hanging around our hospitals. We’ll probably have to shoot them some time anyway, or we’ll raise a breed of morons.” At Eisenhower’s insistence, Patton had to apologize to his soldiers, many of whom supported him.

Eisenhower’s demotion of his old friend Patton led to the promotion of Omar Bradley as commander of the 1st American Army, during the invasion in France. Omar Bradley made a final courtesy visit to Patton’s official residence in Palermo. There he found Patton “in a near-suicidal state… This great proud warrior, my former boss, had been brought to his knees.”

In order to combat the general opinion of George Patton, the testimony of General John ‘Ed’ Hull must be taken into account. General Hull, who worked closely with George Marshall in the Pentagon, said: “General Patton was in a way a two-faced individual. At heart he was very gentle, he was modest, very friendly, not at all superior in his attitude towards you, but very kindly, very considerate. But he put on the other face – well, we’ve had a lot of generals in history that were people of that kind… but that face was the rough and ready face. Curse a little bit at times and he knew all the words; but when he left a formation where he bawled somebody out, he might sit down and write a prayer… So, all in all he was quite a character, interesting and very likeable if you knew him.”

The island was defended by the Italian 6th Army, under the command of Alfredo Guzzoni. This army included the 12 and 15 Corps, made up of elements defending the coast of the island, four front-line divisions and the 14th Panzer Corps. The latter was made up of German troops. The Axis had 350,000 soldiers stationed in Sicily; however only one-third were Germans. The Germans were tricked by the Allies concerning the landing place. The Allies had launched a spy operation which convinced the Germans that the Allied landing would take place in Greece. In consequence, the Germans redirected a large part of the forces stationed in Sicily, to Greece.

In order to distract the attention of the Germans and make them move their forces elsewhere, the Allies executed a series of operations to deceive them. The most famous and most successful was Operation Mincemeat. A human corpse, dressed in the uniform of a British officer, was thrown into the water and directed towards the coast of Spain. The corpse held a briefcase holding top secret, false documents. The documents suggested that the Allies were planning to invade Greece, not Sicily. The German secret services believed the documents, and the defensive effort was redirected from Sicily to Greece.

The success of Operation Mincemeat caused the Germans to lose faith in valuable documents they later found, even when the discovery was not an Allied ploy. For example, two days after the Normandy landings, the Germans discovered secret documents concerning future military targets in the area. Hitler, convinced that it was another Allied trick, ignored the information.

The German general Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, who studied at Oxford, considered that the Allies should have invaded Sardinia and Corsica, not Sicily. In this way, they would have jumped over the whole of Italy. However, this tactic would not have fulfilled its goal of tying down as many German units as possible on continental Italy.

The actual landings took place in conditions of very strong winds, thus were very difficult. But the weather also furnished the element of surprise. The American parachutists landed behind the enemy’s defensive lines. The troops which landed on the beach met with a very weak opposition from the Italians, who had been weakened by the Allied naval bombardment. Due to the inclement weather, many troops landed in the wrong place, in the wrong order, and up to 6 hours late. The British entered the Siracuse port without meeting any resistance. The Canadians met some determined Italian troops, which gave them trouble.

Due to the strong wind, the American paratroopers were launched incorrectly, and were not able to reach their rendezvous points. The British gliders did not do any better. Many of them crashed into the sea because they were too light. The Allied paratroopers did all they could, attacking enemy patrols and creating confusion as often as possible.

Montgomery convinced Alexander to swap the goals of the two armies. Thus, the British obtained the key role in the operation, while the Americans had to defend their flank. This decision turned out to be a mistake. In order to carry out this action, the 45th American Infantry Division had to return to the Gela beach, and then head north-west. This allowed the 14th Panzer Corps to escape future encirclement.

The actual invasion proceeded, generally, without resistance from the Italians. However, plans for after the landing were not finalized. Harold Alexander allowed each army to carry out its own campaign, with little coordination between them. In the first two days, progress was rapid, with Vizzini in the west and Augusta in the east taken. On the third day, however, progress in the British sector slowed down.

In the western part of the island, Axis forces managed to stop the Allied advance on the Castrofilippo - Napo area. The 55th Bersaglieri Battalion fought with courage and tenacity, but in the end was overcome by the fire power of the Allied forces. On the Naro river, the 73rd Bersaglieri Battalion and the remnants of the 35th Battalion and the 160th Coast Artillery were also fighting courageously. Thus, not all Axis troops lost their will to fight.

In total, in the 38 days of the campaign, the Allies landed 450,000 soldiers on the island. The Italian 6th Army fought bravely from the moment the Allies landed. At the same time, the German divisions from Gela and Licata almost managed to reach the invaded beaches in a counter-attack. Even so, western Sicily was taken.

After a week of fighting, General Patton decided to capture the capital of Sicily, Palermo. He captured the locality Agrigento, with the help of reconnaissance forces. Then, Patton convinced Harold Alexander to let him continue towards the Sicilian capital.

During the attack, Alexander changed his mind and cancelled the orders. However, he was too late, since Patton was already at the gates of Palermo.

On the southern part of the island, the British were having trouble capturing Messina. Montgomery suggested to Patton that the 7th Army take the city, since it was in a better position. The Axis forces, under the control of German General Hans Hube, prepared a strong defensive line around the city. The good training of the Axis forces in this area allowed them to make a progressive retreat towards continental Italy.

Patton began his assault on the line at Troina. However, the German-Italian forces resisted stubbornly. Despite the Allied landings on the island, the Germans had managed to avoid the capture of most of their forces. They also maintained viable their evacuation plans. Elements of the 3rd American Infantry Division entered the city shortly after the last German troops had been evacuated to Italy.

The 8th Army was halted for a week at Catania, due to a lively German defense. For this reason, the American 3rd Division arrived in Messina first. Up until then, however, 53,545 German soldiers, 50 tanks, 9,185 vehicles and 11,855 tons of provisions had successfully been evacuated from the island. This evacuation was the result of a grave strategic error on the part of the Allies. This was acknowledged later, to close acquaintances, by General Eisenhower.

The Mediterranean and the Suez Canal could now be opened as maritime routes of the Allies, ending the period of sending supplies through the Cape of Good Hope. This meant, as General Alan Brooke estimated, that an Allied fleet of over a million tons was released to be used in other areas of the world. The success of the invasion also contributed to the removal from power of the dictator Benito Mussolini.

The Sicily campaign cost the Americans 7,319 human lives and the British 9,353. Here, 132,000 Italians and 32,000 Germans were killed, wounded or, mostly, captured.

The landings in Sicily also contributed to the fall of Mussolini. Two weeks after the invasion, the Grand Council of Fascism gave him a vote of no confidence, with a score of 19 votes to 7. The Foreign Minister, and his son-in-law, Count Ciano, voted with the majority. For this action, he would later pay with his own life, together with four other members of the council. It seemed somewhat unfascist of the Council to vote, and even more unfascist for Mussolini to take note of the Council’s democratic will. When he visited the king to communicate the situation, the Duke was arrested.

Mussolini’s replacement, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, publicly engaged Italy in the fight against the Allied invaders with the goal of pacifying Hitler. At the same time, Badoglio initiated secret peace negotiations with Eisenhower. Even before the end of the Sicily campaign, Hitler asked Rommel, the commander of the new Army Group B, to attack the peninsula with eight and a half divisions. After Rommel left for France, this army group reorganized as the 14th Army.