Landing under fire. Ammunition transport ship Robert Rowan explodes after being hit by a German bomber off Gela, but the Allied landing on Sicily continues.



Capitulation of the German and Italian divisions in Tunisia in May 1943 meant ending hostilities only on one theatre of the Second World War. The victory in North Africa only then would be valuable if followed by an invasion on the European continent and the ultimate defeat of the "Axis" forces. African ports had enlarged the basis for the would-be invasion forces. The Allies were already preparing the next powerful blow. The blow that would shake the so-called Festung Europa ("Fortress Europe"), the pride of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

At that time the fates of war had already clearly turned favourably to the Allies. After the capitulation of the German forces in the battle of Stalingrad the Russian steam-roller was gaining more and more momentum on the Eastern front. In April and May 1943 the Germans lost the strategic initiative in the Atlantic Ocean; the Allies were sinking more and more German submarines, and their convoy routes were becoming safer and safer. Fleets of British and American bombers, taking off the airfields in the British Isles and North Africa, were turning German cities and industrial centres into the ruins and ashes.

At the same time dozens of divisions and masses of equipment in the British Isles were readied for invasion in Europe, but the Allies were not concordant as to the way to end the war. The Americans, especially their chief of the general staff, General George Catlett Marshall, advocated concentration of the Allied forces on the British Isles and a thrust across the English Channel. Such an operation could open the so long awaited "second front" in West Europe. Naturally, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, supported that concept and constantly stressed the necessity of its execution, which would definitely help the Red Army facing the bulk of the German forces in the East. Americans and Russians were concordant that landing in France would bring the end of the war closer. They argued that waging the war on two fronts would exhaust the "Axis" powers and force them to capitulate. It was also expected that substantial resistance forces would greatly contribute to the success of the landing in West Europe.

The British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill had a different opinion. He insisted on landing in the Balkans, calling them "Europe's soft underbelly". In his calculations landing of the Allied forces in the Balkans could bring them to the basins of the Danube and Vistula before they would be reached by the Red Army. Churchill argued that that option had more potential benefits: one could count on support of huge resistance forces in Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania, and strike Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria out of the war. And of course Turkey might be involved in the war along the Allies.

The question of the "second front" was discussed during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Under the pressure of arguments presented by the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Churchill eventually abandoned the idea of landing in the Balkans in favour for the landing in France in 1944, but he insisted that the Allies would first land in southern Italy. Eliminating Italy from the war, according to him, would force the Germans to defend the Apennine peninsula and create so coveted dispersal of their forces. Churchill also expected that Turkey would unequivocally side with the Allies. In May, during the Allies' conference in Washington, the final decisions were made to launch the operation Trident, since this codename was given to the landing operation in southern Italy. The prelude to the operation Trident had to become the operation Husky, namely the landing on Sicily.

Meanwhile the Germans knew very well that the invasion was pending, just they did not know the time and place where would it happen. Already in January 1943 German staff officers made case studies, from which they drove the following conclusions: Sicily will be the first objective of the seaborne operations; with the fall of Sicily the enemy will gain a bridgehead for further operations on the Apennine Peninsula; having secured the communications in the Mediterranean Sea, the enemy will augment concentration of its forces in the Middle East.

Those studies, of course, were not known to the Allies, but intensive fortifications and deployment of fresh German and Italian divisions indicated that troops landing on Sicily would encounter a more than warm welcome. That meant heavy fights, which had to be avoided at any price. The experience of the abortive landing at Dieppe in 1942 was still a fresh memory. That "reconnaissance in force", as Churchill put it, claimed the toll of 4,000 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen, killed or taken prisoners, and losses in equipment amounted to 106 aircraft, 30 tanks, 33 landing crafts and a destroyer.

On the beaches of Sicily, hecticly prepared for repulse of amphibious operations, losses could be bigger. In order to divert the Germans' attention from the actual objective, the British intelligence prepared an operation codenamed Mincemeat, designed to convince the German command that the Allies would invade the Balkans and Sardinia rather than Sicily. The main role in that deceit had to play a certain Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, whose dead body, preserved in dry ice, was transported in submarine Seraph to the shores of Spain, and left at sea with attached briefcase containing bogus documents detailing future Allied war plans. The body was recovered by Spanish fishermen, and before the briefcase was returned to the British embassy in Madrid, its contents was meticulously examined by the German intelligence. A letter, found on "Major Martin", and ostentatiously addressed to the commander of the 15th Army Group, Gen. Harold Alexander, read that

Jumbo Wilson had proposed to select SICILY as cover target for 'HUSKY'; but we have already chosen it as cover for Operation 'BRIMSTONE'. The C O S Committee went into the whole question exhaustively again and came to the conclusion that in view of the preparations in Algeria, the amphibious training which will be taking place on the Tunisian coast and the heavy air bombardment which will be put down to neutralise Sicilian airfields, we should stick to our plan of making it cover for 'BRIMSTONE' - indeed we stand a very good chance of making him think we will go for SICILY. [Montagu E. (2001).]

Major Martin, "a victim of an air crash", and in fact the corpse of a man from the mortuary in one of London hospitals, had played his role perfectly. The Germans had believed in operation Brimstone, and singled out Corsica, Sardinia, Peloponnese and Dodecanese as the most likely landing places. To Greece and Yugoslavia were transferred the 104th and 107th Infantry Divisions, elements of the XI Air Corps, and the staff of the LXVIII Armoured Corps with some tank units pulled out from the Eastern front. The Germans had intensified fortifications on the Greek coasts, put there barbed-wire lines, mined beaches, planted mines in the Ionian Sea, and deployed coastal artillery in Albania. The Italians too strengthened their fortifications and coastal artillery in Greece, and moved their troops, deployed around Syracuse, to the western shore of Sicily. Mislead German and Italian staff officers reasoned that after taking Sardinia and Corsica the Allies would attempt to land on Sicily near Palermo. There they were supposed to be driven back to the sea by the 4th, 26th and 28th Infantry Divisions, and 202nd and 208th Coastal Divisions, supported by the German 15th Armoured Grenadiers Division.

Meanwhile in the continental Italy defences were readied along the Tyrrhenian coast, which is within equal distances from Sicily and Sardinia. In order to avoid dispersion of their forces, neither the Germans nor Italians had planned any strong defence of Sardinia or Corsica. The Apennine Peninsula and Sicily were more important. In fact Mussolini and the commander of the Army Group South, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, expected an Allied landing rather in Sicily, but Hitler chose to trust his staff and Major Martin's letters. This way a man, who never was, opened the way for the Allies' landing forces.

To make Major Martin's success complete, in the ports of North Africa had been concentrated the 15th Army Group composed of British and American troops. American forces (7th Army, Gen. George Patton) comprised the 3rd Infantry Division, reinforced with two marines' battalions, 1st Infantry Division, reinforced with a tank battalion and a marine battalion, and 45th Infantry Division. They were assigned to land in the western sector - near towns of Licata, Gela and Scoglitti. Troops had to be transported by 580 ships, escorted by cruisers Brooklyn, Birmingham, Savannah, Boise, Philadelphia, and 38 destroyers.

The British (8th Army, General Bernard Law Montgomery) had to land in the eastern sector - on the south-eastern shore of Sicily, near Cap Passero and in south of Syracuse. British forces comprised the 5th, 50th and 51st Infantry Divisions, 23rd Infantry Brigade, and the Canadian 1st Infantry Division. Anglo-Canadian troops were to be transported on 800 ships and 715 landing crafts.

The landing had to be preceded by heavy bombardment of the enemy defences: ship artillery had to knock out batteries of coastal artillery, while air forces had to destroy airfields at Camiso, Biscari, Ponto Olivo, Castelvetrano, Sciacca and Gerbini. There was also a job for airborne troops: the US 82nd Airborne Division - 2700 paratroopers - had to land near Gela, take the local airfield, assume defence positions in the hills, and wait for the seaborne troops.

Convoys, bringing invasion forces to Sicily, had to be covered by two strong naval units: Force H and Force Z. Apart from 24 destroyers, they included battleships Nelson, Rodney, Warspite, Valiant, Howe and King George V, and aircraft-carriers Indomitable and Formidable. Such a strong escort was deemed necessary, because the Italians had concentrated in the south three modern and three modernized battleships, several cruisers, about a hundred of destroyers and torpedo boats, and a fleet of dozens of submarines. From the ports of Sardinia, Corsica, Naples and Taranto Italian ships could easily attack invasion fleets, destroy them, and then, with their powerful artillery, crush the landing troops.

There were planned two decoy operations to confuse the Italian navy. One had to fake an attack in Greece (that is according to the fictitious operation Brimstone), and the other one - on the western coast of Sicily. Allied submarines had to intensify their operations around Sardinia, Corsica, Naples, Taranto, Palermo and Aeolian Islands; they also patrolled the Otranto Strait, Ionian Sea and Tyrrhenian Sea.

While preparing for the invasion, the American command decided to transfer from Arzew to Bizerta some landing crafts (LST). Three of them did not reach Bizerta - an unidentified submarine sank two of them, and the third one sank overloaded. A month later the 45th Infantry Division was scheduled to rehearse the amphibious landing. Although the command of the exercise did everything possible to show off before Patton, two of the three regiments landed several miles wide of their designated beaches. Although faulty navigation was blamed for the error, Patton was less than displeased.

However, such minor problems were not able to stall the overall preparations for the Husky. British and American air forces intensified bombings of the ports and airfields on Sicily and in Italy; they appeared over Sardinia and Corsica, as well as German-occupied Peloponnese. They dropped a shower of bombs on Trapani, Palermo, Messina, and Taranto. In May and June alone Allied submarines sank dozens of enemy transports, tankers and other ships. In the Strait of Messina, and in the waters between Sicily and Sardinia, British destroyers operated on the Italian convoy routes. Among others, on 7 June British destroyer Jarvis and the Greek Vasilissa Olga scattered a big Italian convoy.

And there was yet another task to do before the landing on Sicily... Half-way between Tunisia and Sicily there is a little island called Pantelleria. The Italians had fortified it, installing there numerous coastal and anti-aircraft batteries, as well as 80 planes in underground hangars. Aircraft from Pantelleria had taken part in raids on Malta; they also co-operated actively with the Italian navy on the Allies' convoy routes in the Mediterranean Sea. Also was dangerous a flotilla of torpedo boats deployed on the island; it had caused a lot of headache to the convoys steaming for Malta, and Italian boats also used to venture as far as to the northern shores of Africa.

The garrison of Pantelleria numbered 3,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Well armed and supplied, they had excellent conditions for defence. Pantelleria has no beaches, and rocky coast would spell a no means problem to any attempt of amphibious landing. Italian batteries, almost invisible in the rocky terrain, could fight long and stubbornly; they were able to sink any ship and shoot down any plane. Also, they could count on support of the Italian navy from the bases on Sicily, and air forces units deployed on nearby islands of Lampedusa and Linosa.

Without taking Pantelleria, Lampedusa and Linosa, operation Husky could be exposed to many troubles, and even fiasco - in case if the invasion fleet had been detected at sea early enough. At the end of April 1943, officers, planning operation Husky, gave a firm and unequivocal answer to the question of the fate of the three tiny islets: they had to be taken before the convoys with invasion troops sail out from Oran, Algiers, Bizerta, Benghazi, Alexandria and Port Said. The main role in that task was given to the heavy naval artillery and air forces. Ships were scheduled to go to the action on 13 May, while bomber and ground-attack planes were to reinforce them later.

Pantelleria's defences had been "softened" for days. First shells were fired on 13 May in the morning from heavy guns of cruiser Orion, and destroyers Petard and Isis. Then as many as 200 bomber planes gradually joined the action, while ships rotated as they expended ammunition. As many as 6,500 bombs and shells fell on 82 square kilometres of the island, bringing death and destruction. And although the Allies even after that thought that the guns of Pantelleria had not been destroyed and might have been dangerous to the landing troops, the commandant of the Pantelleria garrison, Admiral Gino Pavesi, informed Rome that the Allied bombing could be endured no longer.

In spite of its promises, Italian Commando Supremo had left the garrison of Pantelleria without aid. So, when a flotilla of landing crafts, under the cover of cruisers Newfoundland, Aurora, Orion, Penelope and Euryalus, approached the island, the Italians promptly hoisted a white flag on the Semaphore Hill. Next day, after a short artillery bombardment, surrendered the garrison of Lampedusa, and on 13 June - Linosa. The way to the Sicily was opened.

Then came a lull in the fights, during which the Allies expected the Italian command, alarmed by the assault on Pantelleria and neighbouring islands, to come back to the belief that the Sicilian option was still a "decoy". At the same time bombers kept pounding Sicily, and the invasion flotilla was assembled.

The British intelligence knew about Sicilian defences virtually everything, thanks to the agent called John Murphy, who as Lieutenant Matello Panini had infiltrated construction of fortifications conducted by the German Todt's Organization. According to the agent, Sicily was a natural fortress, but fortifications being built were not adequate, vulnerable to ship artillery bombardment and air bombing. On top of that the morale of the Italian troops, weary from the war, was low. German units were scarce. And the most worthy German units were transferred to the area "Major Martin" designated for amphibious operations. Other German units were still awaiting reinforcements after being pulled out of Africa with big losses.

In the beginning of July from African ports sailed off convoys carrying 160,000 troops, 1008 guns and 600 tanks. To the points of rendez-vous transport ships, supply ships, and of course escort ships (cruisers, destroyers, submarines) were coming via different routes along the African coast. That manoeuvre was made to mislead the Italian and German intelligence, and make it difficult to detect invasion forces by the enemy ships and aircraft. The point of rendez-vous for the western group, carrying the American 7th Army, was foreseen off the island Gozo, while the convoys of the eastern, "British" group had to meet 25 miles off Malta at the same time on 9 July in the afternoon.

Allied blockade of the Italian and German naval bases on the Mediterranean coasts was so tight that convoys passed unmolested. Only some unidentified submarines were detected in their patrol sectors, but the size of the invasion armada and the power of the escort forces must have convinced the potential enemy that attacking them would be a risky task, for not a single torpedo was fired at the invasion forces. Also, there were no traces of the aircraft, which aroused way more concerns than the submarines.

The only factor that bothered the Allies was strong wind and stormy waves. Sailors from the escort ships were used to that, but the troops, especially those transported in light landing crafts, had a hard time to stand the gale. People looked awfully. Waves were flooding the decks, everyone was wet head over heels, and shivering from the cold wind. Some of them vomited, others just sat down pale and terrified, as the small landing crafts seemed rather like cockleshells, threatening to capsize any moment together with the men and their equipment.

In those atmospheric conditions the convoys did not make more than 3 knots, and yet, they assembled at the points of rendez-vous on time, and without losses or damages. Optimistic meteorological reports about expected change of the force and direction of the wind at night induced the decision to continue the operation; otherwise seaborne landing would not be possible.

At the points of rendez-vous convoys changed their courses and moved northwards. Simultaneously, from the airfields in Tunis took off aircraft with the paratroopers from the American 82nd and the British 1st Airborne Divisions. Some of the transport planes towed gliders with the troops. They flew, and what is worse - had to land - in the strong gale blowing with the velocity of 40 to 50 kmph. And the way from Tunisia to the landing zones was over the stormy sea, where any crash would leave the castaways no chance for rescue. Yet, the command of the Allied forces more than storm and gale feared its own ships, which might have opened fire at the planes descending over Sicily.

After few hours of exhausting flight, at night, the planes arrived to Sicily. Some pilots lost their way in the clouds; winds pushed some planes away from the formations. Several gliders crashed into the sea - the weather conditions made a rescue operation impossible. Some planes missed Sicily and dropped parachutists wherever they spotted a piece of land. Gliders were crashing during the landing; many soldiers died because strong winds prevented them from controlling the lines of their parachutes. Survivors very often found themselves in completely unfamiliar environment, in small groups or often alone. There were round-ups everywhere, and those, who evaded them, usually owed it not to their own intelligence, but to the help of the local peasants.

The first wave of the airborne landing failed and exposed the units of the second wave to a tremendous danger. They took off and flew at night from 11 to 12 July, during the fights on the beaches, where first infantry divisions landed on 10 July. Although an elaborate system of signals between the ships and anti-aircraft artillery had been established, transports descending over the beaches were met with the intensive fire. That landing failed too, as the British and American guns and machine-guns shot down 23 aircraft, and damaged many more. More than 400 parachutists were killed, and many of them - already on the beaches; troops shot at them out of the fear that they were German airborne troops sent to push the landing troops back into the sea.

The Germano-Italian air forces, which had been counter-attacking incessantly since the first hours of the landing, had augmented the chaos. As the consecutive waves of the landing widened the bridges, and advanced beyond the beaches, the whole fury of of the defenders turned towards the ships. The Italian artillery was actually quickly knocked out, but the lack of direct air cover of the landing troops played in the hands of the enemy. Although British planes from Malta and Pantelleria came to the aid, German and Italian planes deployed on the bases in Sicily enjoyed a lot of easiness of operating in the combat sectors. They sank minesweeper Sentinel, and the transport Robert Rowan laden with ammunition and explosives. There was also a landing craft sunk, and many others were damaged. German fighters were hunting for reconnaissance planes taking off from the cruisers, and straffing landing troops.

After few hours of fights, many failures and a tragic toll of unnecessary casualties, units of the 7th Army grasped bridgeheads around Licata, Gela and Scoglitti. The British from the 8th Army, landing in four groups near Cape Passero and in south of Syracuse, did not have troubles with seizing the beaches. The command of the coastal defence did not think that landing in such a weather conditions would be possible at all. But Alexander, who arrived from Malta on 17 July, seemed satisfied, noted in his memoirs Harold MacMillan, a future British prime-minister, who during the war represented the interests of Great Britain in the Mediterranean region:

He told me an interesting thing about the landings. When they were all in Malta - Eisenhower, Cunningham, Tedder and he - waiting up through Friday night and in the early hours of Saturday morning, they were all much disturbed by the quite unexpected (and for the time of year almost unprecedented) phenomenon of the gale. The wind varied from 25 to 40 miles an hour and they worried terribly about the effect which this might be expected to to have on the landings. In point of fact, it proved a double advantage. First, the enemy were certain no possible disembarkation could be attempted on such a night. One of the captured Italian generals described it as a 'pyjama night', i.e. they had thought this a perfectly safe night for a good sleep. Secondly, the sea, driven by the wind, carried the landing-craft safely over the many treacherous sand barriers which otherwise might have proved a serious impediment. [MacMillan H. (1968).]

There is a lot of exaggeration in his words about the benefits of the storm during the execution of the Husky, but the truth is that the Italian command at that "pajama night" night disregarded even the reports of the radar stations, which detected "a large number of unidentified objects". Also was disregarded earlier intelligence information reporting embarking troops on the ships and landing crafts in the African ports, forming convoys, and even distribution among the American and British soldiers... tourist guides about Sicily!

So, German commanders were organizing defences under the enemy fire, and amidst numerous reports about American and British parachutists being spotted in various places of Sicily. There were also reports about Italian soldiers abandoning their positions, surrendering without fighting, or changing their uniforms for civilian clothing with full support of the local population.

Nevertheless, the battle for Sicily continued, and nothing indicated that it would end as soon as the Allies expected.