The Crisis Resolved: Early on 15 September, Vietinghoff described to Kesselring, who was visiting the Tenth Army headquarters, how he still hoped to destroy the Allied beachhead: the 26th Panzer Division would attack northwestward from Battipaglia to Salerno while the Hermann Gӧring Division attacked from the vicinity of Vietri south to Salerno; the juncture of the divisions would mark the first step toward annihilation of the Allied troops.
After approving the plan, Kesselring remarked that the LXXVI Panzer Corps seemed to be exhibiting a tendency to revert to positional warfare. “This must not happen,” he said. If attacks on the level ground of the Salerno plain were impractical because of Allied naval fire and air bombardment, perhaps the corps could attack in the hills around Albanella or even farther south. Vietinghoff was embarrassed. His engineers had carried out extensive demolitions in the Albanella area for defensive purposes and this made offensive operations virtually impossible.
Immediately afterward, Vietinghoff conferred with Herr on the possible chance that the LXX V I Panzer Corps could nevertheless attack near Albanella. Could the parachute regiment en route from Apulia be used? Herr thought not. He was discouraged. Troop and supply movements during daylight hours, he pointed out, were becoming more difficult because of Allied air operations. And the Allied naval fire made Herr doubt that he could ever reach the coast. The strong pressure that the Germans continued to exert during much of 15 September diminished by the end of the day to the point where the VI Corps G-3 could describe the action as “minor contacts and engagements.” That evening General Clark congratulated his troops: “… our beachhead is secure…. and we are here to stay.” In North Africa, General Eisenhower had decided that morning to send a regiment of the 34th Division to Salerno, but had changed his mind that afternoon upon the encouraging news from the beachhead. There was some talk of sending all or part of the division to Bari or Brindisi on the Italian east coast to work with the British Eighth Army, but his final decision was to move the entire division to the Fifth Army beaches, as originally scheduled.
So much better was the Allied situation on the evening of 15 September that the Americans took the initiative, though cautiously. To re-establish contact with the Germans who had pulled back from the juncture of the Sele and Calore Rivers, a battalion of the 179th Infantry entered the corridor and moved forward several miles with ease. The advance eliminated a good part of the German salient between the rivers, straightened the line, and made the Fifth Army command post more secure.
It was not long before Allied commanders began to suspect an impending German retirement from the battlefield. As reconnaissance pilots reported finding no German troops massed around the beachhead perimeter in offensive strength or formation, intelligence officers estimated that the Germans might be ready to withdraw in response to both the growing Allied build-up in the beachhead and the implicit threat posed in the south by the British Eighth Army.
Was it, then, time to think of recapturing Altavilla? When Colonel Forsythe, the commander of the southern sector in the 36th Division area, reported an absence of German activity along his outpost line on the morning of 16 September, General Walker suggested to General Dawley that VI Corps go over to the offense. Walker proposed to attack Altavilla that evening with the two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry, supported by a company of tank destroyers. When Dawley agreed, Walker directed Colonel Tucker, commander of the parachute regiment, to jump off from the vicinity of Albanella and seize the dominating hills in the Altavilla area, Hill 424 in particular.
While the paratroopers made their preparations, which included a difficult cross-country movement to an assembly area, the Germans on 16 September were launching what was to be their last major effort against the beachhead. Vietinghoff modified his plan, and early that morning the 26th Panzer Division attacked from Battipaglia northwest toward Salerno, while the 16th Panzer Division gave aid by driving southwest from Battipaglia. Both efforts were soon contained, the first by the 56th Division, which though close to exhaustion fought valiantly with the assistance of contingents of the 7th Armoured Division, the second by the 45th Division, which was hardly aware that it was turning back a German effort. When the Hermann Gӧring Division finally attacked in the Vietri area that afternoon with parts of the 3rd and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions in support, it too made little progress against the 46th Division, which was now bolstered by armored elements.
Late that afternoon Vietinghoff came to the conclusion that he could no longer hope to destroy the Allied beachhead. Word from the rear guards of the 26th Panzer Division that the advance guards of the British Eighth Army had at last made contact with roadblocks near Lagonegro, fifty miles south of Paestum, confirmed his judgment. The delaying units had repulsed early British probes, but they could not hold back the British army indefinitely. Vietinghoff ordered the rear guards to withdraw, thus opening the way to a British advance in force. Next Vietinghoff sent a message to Kesselring requesting permission to break off the battle at the beachhead. “The fact,” he reported, “that the attacks (which had been prepared fully and carried out with spirit, especially by the XIV [Panzer] Corps) were unable to reach their objective owing to the fire from naval guns and low-flying aircraft, as well as the slow but steady approach of the Eighth Army” made it essential that he occupy good defensive positions before the British troops came north in strength. Vietinghoff recommended a general withdrawal starting no later than the night of 18 September.
Before giving his approval, Kesselring asked Vietinghoff to send a staff officer to OB SUED to explain the situation in detail. The briefing by a Tenth Army staff officer on 17 September coincided with continuing deterioration of the German situation. On the heights around Salerno XIV Panzer Corps made little progress. Around Altavilla LXXVI Panzer CmjJs had to go over to the defense. The change at Altavilla resulted from the attack by the 504th Parachute Infantry, which started during the night of 16 September on a somewhat dubious note. The Germans had noticed the movement of the Americans and had brought intensive and accurate artillery fire down on the regimental avenues of approach. Small units temporarily lost touch with one another, and Colonel Tucker was driven from his observation post. But against dogged German resistance, the men continued to climb the slopes toward Altavilla. Soon after Tucker established his command post just below Altavilla on the following morning, German troops surrounded his command group.
Throughout much of 17 September the situation at Altavilla remained confused and obscure not only to the American and German troops who were fighting for the high ground but also to the headquarters on both sides that were trying to decide whether to commit additional forces.[n2-9-9] On the American side, Colonel Tucker’s messages were alternately optimistic and pessimistic according to the turn of events and Generals Ridgway and ·Walker discussed the predicament of the paratroopers. General Ridgway had just been appointed deputy commander of VI Corps, in part a reflection of General Clark’s growing dissatisfaction with General Dawley, in part a practical matter designed to give Ridgway a “home” on the beachhead. With his division headquarters still in Sicily, Ridgway as assistant corps commander could exercise some measure of control over his units committed under the command of other headquarters. After Ridgway and Walker talked of using a battalion or more of the 180th Infantry to reinforce the paratroopers, they decided instead to move the 3rd Battalion of the 504th to Albanella as a backup force and to have artillery and naval guns shell the Altavilla area heavily. Naval guns alone placed 350 rounds in the village that day.
[N2-9-9] An excellent description of the details of the combat may be found in Tregaskis, Invasion Diary, pp. 113ff. Colonel Reuben H. Tucker, Major Robert B. Acheson, and Major Don B. Dunham were later awarded the DSC, Major Dunham posthumously]
On the German side, the rear guard regiment of the 26th Panzer Division that had withdrawn from Calabria during the previous night arrived near Eboli; about the same time the regiment of the 1st Parachute Division dispatched from Apulia was arriving at the beachhead.
Vietinghoff might have used these troops to help hold Altavilla. Kesselring had just given his reluctant consent to break off the battle, asking only that Vietinghoff make a last attack with the paratroopers. If this final effort failed to dislodge the beachhead forces, Vietinghoff was to pivot his Tenth Army and withdraw to a temporary line across the Italian peninsula from Salerno to Foggia, the first of a series of defensive lines to be worked out by Kesselring’s headquarters, OB SUED. Kesselring cautioned Vietinghoff to pay particular attention to his right flank around Salerno and Amalfi in order to insure the success of the withdrawal, for he wanted the first defensive line to be held at least until the end of the month.
Since withdrawal was now Vietinghoff’s principal mission, he decided, despite Kesselring’s request, to commit no additional troops at Altavilla. Instead of attacking, the Germans began withdrawing. By late afternoon, as Allied reconnaissance pilots were reporting heavy traffic moving north, the American ground troops at Altavilla became aware of the withdrawal. Although the men of the 504th Parachute Infantry waited until the following day in order to enter the village unopposed, the resistance in the VI Corps sector obviously diminished. When General Eisenhower visited the beachhead on the afternoon of 17 September, he had reason to be cheerful. The battle seemed won.
In the 10 Corps area General McCreery began to feel easier about the 56th Division on the right but was “still anxious” about some of the “very tired” battalions of the 46th Division around Salerno and Vietri, where the German opposition continued strong. Expecting a German attack to cover the withdrawal and wishing to keep the 7th Armoured Division fresh for the subsequent advance to Naples, McCreery asked for the 180th Infantry, the regiment of the 45th Division Clark was keeping in army reserve. Even as he asked, however, he admitted it would be awkward to move the regiment over the poor and congested roads in the beachhead. Actually, he used part of his armored division to relieve troops in the Battipaglia sector, informed Clark that an attack by the 45th Division to clear the tobacco factory would be of inestimable help in cleaning up the Battipaglia area, and alerted Colonel Darby to be ready to buttress the Vietri defenses.
[n2-9-11 Memo. Lieutenant Colonel G. V. Britton. Rpt on Visit to 10 Corps. 17 Sep 43, and Msg. McCreery to Darby. 17 Sep 43, both in Fifth Army G-2 Jnl.]
Despite General McCreery’s concern, the Germans launched no covering attack. When they pulled back from the British right flank on 18 September, British armor entered Battipaglia without opposition.
As Allied intelligence reported a general German withdrawal, General Dawley looked toward pursuit. He instructed General Walker to advance in the Altavilla area during the night of 18 September and General Middleton to clear the Sele·Calore corridor. Awaiting nightfall turned out to be unnecessary. With little contact on the ground American troops pushed beyond Altavilla and Persano on the afternoon of 18 September without incident. When darkness came, the Americans at Ponte Sele were no longer in touch with the enemy.
Elsewhere on 18 September, the 3rd Division started to come ashore and move to an assembly area north of the Sele River. The 82nd Airborne Division headquarters air-landed at Paestum. A liaison party from the British 5th Division, part of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army, arrived at the 36th Division command post to arrange a meeting at Vallo, some twenty miles south of Paestum, between Eighth and Fifth Army staff officers. That evening an LCI transported a company of the 325th Glider Infantry to the island of Ischia, just outside the Bay of Naples, and the troops went ashore without trouble. As supplies and equipment came across the Salerno beaches in ever-increasing amounts, Clark and Dawley began to plan an advance to the north.
[n2-9-12 Msg. Hewitt to Clark. 2151. 18 Sep 43. Fifth Army G-2 Jnl; Msgs, Larkin to Eisenhower. 18. 19 Sep 43. and Alexander to Clark. 18 Sep 43. both in 15th AGp Master Cable File, VI; Dawley Directive,]
On the same day, 18 September, Vietinghoff was praising his troops. Claiming to have taken 5,000 prisoners and to have inflicted a large number of casualties on the Allies, Vietinghoff declared: “Success has been ours. Once again German soldiers have proved their superiority over the enemy.” In agreement with this observation and satisfied with the successful defense, Hitler promoted Vietinghoff to generaloberst and placed him in temporary command of Army Group B in northern Italy to replace Rommel, who was hospitalized with appendicitis. Hube, returning to Italy from leave, assumed temporary command of the Tenth Army.
Of the Fifth Army units on the front, only Darby’s Rangers on the Sorrento peninsula and the 46th Division north of Salerno remained on the defensive on 19 September. The 56th Division extended its lines into the interior to eliminate German artillery fire on the Montecorvino airfield, and American units entered Eboli and out-posted Highway 19 as far as Serre without finding Germans. On the following day, service troops of the XII Air Support Command began to rehabilitate the Montecorvino airfield and set up refueling facilities.
Several planes landed that day for gasoline, precursors of the planes eventually to be based at the field. As the roads in the beachhead, particularly the coastal highway between Paestum and Battipaglia, became jammed with traffic, the vehicles moving bumper to bumper, the 10 Corps took possession of all its initial Invasion objectives and the VI Corps, handing over control of beach operations and base dumps to army, started a new operation. The battle of Salerno, and with it the first phase of the invasion, had come to an end.
The Eighth Army Role
In the Eighth Army area, advance elements of General Montgomery’s troops reached Potenza. fifty miles east of Salerno, and cut the lateral highway between Salerno and Bari late on 20 September. At Auletta. twenty miles east of Eboli, American reconnaissance units met British contingents coming up the road from Castrovillari and Lagonegro toward Serre. These events. which might have been heralded with the blowing of trumpets several days earlier when the forces in the beachhead were in distress, now came as anticlimax. It was good, of course. to have the Eighth Army close by, but for Fifth Army the arrival of Eighth Army had no particular significance.
The troops at Salerno had fought it out alone. and they had won. The slow movement of Eighth Army from Calabria was disappointing to many Allied commanders who had hoped that General Montgomery would advance rapidly to Salerno and reduce the German threat to the beachhead.
Because the Germans had given way in Calabria without fighting. leaving only mines and demolitions in their wake, Clark, for one, believed that Montgomery could have done more to help the Fifth Army. He later described the progress of Eighth Army as “a slow advance toward Salerno, despite Alexander’s almost daily efforts to prod it into greater speed.”
From the beginning of Operation AVALANCHE, General Clark had counted on Eighth Army to help the Fifth. “BAYTOWN is proceeding with little or no resistance from the Italians,” he remarked in his diary on 6 September, three days before the Fifth Army landings, “and presumably they are ready to help us.” A day later he noted that Montgomery was making good progress against opposition “varying from light to none at all.” The demolitions holding up Montgomery, Clark was told, were not as serious as had been anticipated. Late on 9 September, D-day of the Salerno landings, when Clark learned that two German divisions were reported coming toward Salerno from the south, he saw the movement as ominous, but believed that it would “help bring the Eighth Army north.”
On 10 September, one of General Montgomery’s aides brought a penciled note to General Clark. “I send herewith Captain Chavasce, my A.D.C.,” Montgomery wrote, “to bring you my greetings and best wishes for future successes. Will you give him all details as to your present situation, to bring back to me. Good luck to you.” Whether the favorable prospects of that clay’s developments prompted General Clark to return an optimistic message is not recorded. But two days later, when the Germans threatened the beachhead, Clark turned to Alexander. “I hope that Eighth Army,” he wrote, “will attack with all possible vigor in order to contain 26th and 29th Panzer Divisions to maximum.” A message arriving at the Fifth Army headquarters on 13 September, when the army was fighting for its life at the height of the German attack, created some resentment. The 15th Army Group, in passing along guidance on press censorship problems, established a policy to “play up Eighth Army and particularly Taranto advances. Fifth Army having tough time. Likely continue till Eighth Army can relieve pressure by nearness.”
During a conference at Fifth Army headquarters on the morning of 15 September, before the commander and his staff realized that the crisis was in fact past, a message from General Alexander announced that he was placing all the facilities of Eighth Army at the disposal of the Fifth. There was no comment at the conference beyond the observation that the nearest British troops were then approximately sixty miles south of the beachhead.
On that day, General Montgomery’s aide brought another letter to the beachhead. “It looks as if you may be having not too good a time,” Montgomery wrote General Clark, “and I do hope that all will go well with you.” Declaring that he hoped to have the 5th Division in the Sapri-Lagonegro area, about fifty miles south of Paestum, in two days, with the 1st Canadian Division echeloned behind, Montgomery also informed Clark that he had directed the 5th Division to send detachments out beyond Sapri. “We are on the way to lend a hand.” “Please accept my deep appreciation,” Clark replied, “for assistance your Eighth Army has provided Fifth Army by your skillful and rapid advance.” He added: “Situation here well in hand.”
Actually, though Clark was not altogether confident about the security of the beachhead until the following day, he had to let Montgomery know that the Fifth Army had won without help. Yet he also had to keep in mind Eisenhower’s order that the Americans were to get along with the British. And as Clark informed Eisenhower, his relations with the British were excellent. The fact that Montgomery’s reputation and prestige far overshadowed his own made Clark swallow his resentment, and three days later, after he had won his first real battle as an army commander, he wrote Montgomery once more: “Again I want to tell you of our deep appreciation for the skillful and expeditious manner by which you moved your Eighth Army to the north …. we feel it a great privilege to operate alongside of your army.”
To write this note, Clark had to overlook the annoying periodic emanations from Alexander’s public information office. According to at least one BBC broadcast, which had its origin in an army group press release, Montgomery’s army was dashing up the Italian boot to rescue the Fifth Army, which was preparing to evacuate the beachhead. The correction issued a few days later failed to dissipate entirely the incorrect impression. “South flank Fifth Army no full dress withdrawal yet,” this curious message read. “BBC overdid it in bulletins Saturday.”
On 20 September a letter from General Montgomery alerted General Clark to look for British troops in the Potenza-Auletta area that evening, but General Walker, whom Clark had asked to fly over the area in a Cub plane, could find no signs of the British.
When the usual censorship guidance cable arrived from 15th Army Group headquarters on 22 September and expressed again the policy, “play up Eighth Army, mention Americans,” General Clark gave way to irritation. He had expected some support from Eighth Army and some glory for his Fifth, but instead, it seemed as if Fifth Army would have to go on fighting alone.
Yet when Montgomery visited Clark two days later, he found a warm welcome. “The Fifth Army,” Clark told Montgomery, “is just a young Army trying hard to get along, while the Eighth Army is a battle-tried veteran. We would appreciate your teaching us some of your tricks.” The words had the desired effect. Montgomery beamed, and, in Clark’s words, the ice was broken.
A month later, when General Clark felt that he had won his spurs, he received another annoying censorship guidance message to play up the British. This time he was angry enough to protest the guidance and turn down the Eighth Army commander, who wanted to visit him. He wrote Montgomery a courteous note to express his regret that he saw “no great urgency for a personal meeting.”
“Some would like to think-I did at the time-,” Montgomery’s chief of staff. Major General Francis de Guingand, wrote several years later, “that we helped. If not saved, the situation at Salerno. But now I doubt whether we influenced matters to any great extent. General Clark had everything under control before Eighth Army appeared on the scene.” General Alexander saw the battle at Salerno as won before the British Eighth Army arrived. In considering the question whether Montgomery might have provided direct assistance to Clark, he concluded that the Eighth Army, given its logistical problems, could have moved no faster.
The fact was that the mere presence of the Eighth Army in Italy weighed heavily on the Germans. No matter how slowly the army moved, the British would eventually reach the Salerno area. Because Hitler was unwilling to expend more troops to reinforce the units fighting at Salerno and because those committed could not dislodge Fifth Army from the beachhead, the Germans had to give way. With Eighth Army giving them a good excuse to do so, they implemented their original strategy of withdrawing from southern Italy. General Montgomery thus exerted an influence on the German decision to withdraw even though his troops took no direct part in the battle at the beachhead.
Could the Eighth Army have done more? Despite Montgomery’s problems distance, difficult terrain, poor roads, inadequate equipment, and insufficient supplies-and despite his need to push northeastward from the toe to link up with British troops in Apulia while at the same time moving north toward the Fifth Army, could the Eighth Army have reached the Salerno area more quickly?
An unequivocal answer is impossible. It was no mean achievement for the British 5th Division to advance over 200 miles of extremely rough ground and manage to send a patrol ahead to make contact with American troops on the evening of 16 September, thirteen days after the crossing from Messina.
Some indication of the kind of opposition the 5th Division faced can be discerned in the experiences of the public relations officer of the Eighth Army and three British war correspondents. At 1030, 13 September, with several drivers in two reconnaissance cars and a jeep, this party set out from Nicastro, not far from Catanzaro and about 150 miles south of Paestum, with the intention of driving overland to the Fifth Army. Taking to Diamante, 65 miles south of Paestum, where they passed the leading reconnaissance unit of Eighth Army. Twenty-five miles beyond Diamante, at Praia, they met several Italian soldiers. The Italians were friendly. They said they had seen no British vehicles along the road ahead of the party; they knew of no Germans in the area as far north as the Salerno beachhead; and they were sure Italian troops had cleared all the mines along the coastal road. Continuing to drive another 25 miles, the men then spent the night near Sapri. When a destroyed bridge across a river blocked their progress, civilians guided them to a ford.
After the chief of police at Vallo gave them gasoline and a guide, they spent a second night in a nearby village. On the following morning, at 1030, 15 September, forty-eight hours after leaving Eighth Army, without having encountered a single German, the public relations officer and his party met an American scout car about seven miles south of Ogliastro. From there a lieutenant of the 111th Engineer Battalion in charge of a reconnaissance group shepherded the British through channels to the VI Corps headquarters.
By this time, British patrols in front of the army were moving beyond Diamante to a point about 40 miles south of Paestum. Not until the following evening, 16 September, thirty-six hours after the British newspapermen had reached the Fifth Army, did the first patrol of the 5th Division, probably a platoon, make contact with the 36th Division right flank-and this at a point 35 miles south of Paestum. Not until three days later, on 19 September, did a British reconnaissance patrol in some strength, probably a company, reach Rocca d’ Aspide and establish more meaningful contact with the Americans. By then, the head of General Montgomery’s main column had reached Scalea, about 75 miles south of Paestum.
The movement of small groups of men lightly armed is, of course, quite different from the advance of an army, or even a battalion. Yet the absence of Germans in the area between Eighth and Fifth Armies, and the difficult time Fifth Army was having on 13 and 14 September indicate that a greater effort to get at least some Eighth Army troops to the beachhead might have been made. A token force, a battalion of infantry, even a company, arriving at the beachhead on 14 September would have given the troops battling with their backs to the sea a tremendous lift in morale.
If the rough country and other adverse conditions had, in fact, made a quicker advance impossible, thereby nullifying much of the intent of the landing in Calabria, then there was fault in delaying for several days, at General Montgomery’s insistence, the crossing of the Strait of Messina. Had he not held stubbornly to his desire for a full-scale amphibious operation, despite General Eisenhower’s declaration that the crossing could be made in rowboats, an observation later borne out by the lack of opposition, the Eighth Army could have entered the Italian mainland several days sooner. Not only would this have made more shipping available to the Fifth Army, it would also have enabled General Montgomery, assuming the same rate of overland advance, to get some units to the Salerno battlefield several days earlier.
Perhaps the ultimate comment was made by the enemy. As early as 10 September the Germans noted the pattern that characterized General Montgomery’s advance. “The withdrawal of our troops from Calabria continues according to plan,” they reported. “The enemy is not crowding after us.”
The Germans failed to dislodge the Fifth Army primarily because their strategic planning projected a withdrawal from southern Italy regardless of the outcome at the beachhead. The Germans would have liked to repel the invasion for political as well as military reasons, and a total victory would no doubt have changed the strategic plans, but resistance at the Salerno beachhead was postulated on assuring withdrawal. Thus, the Germans denied themselves the advantage of committing additional strength, for example from northern Italy, that might have moved the balance.
Hitler, Kesselring, and Vietinghoff were all satisfied with the results of the operations, which they regarded as a German triumph. They had denied the Allies quick access to Naples. They had inflicted severe losses on the Allied troops. Avoiding the dangers implicit in the simultaneous occurrences of the Italian surrender announcement and the Allied invasion, they had extricated their forces from southern Italy.
By preventing the Allies from breaking out of the beachhead, a feat the Germans accomplished despite shortages of fuel and lengthy lines of communication, they had prohibited the Allies from fully exploiting the Italian surrender. That the Germans were able to disarm the Italian forces and take control of Italy north of Salerno reflected in large measure the promptness and vigor of the German resistance around Salerno. German troops would now be able to pivot on the mountains northwest of Salerno and create a continuous front across Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. “The Germans may claim with some justification,” General Alexander admitted, “to have won if not a victory at least an important success over all.”
They might have gained more. “I still can’t understand,” General Clark wrote several years later, “why such an able general as Kesselring … used his plentiful armor . . . in piecemeal fashion at critical stages of the battle.” The inexperience of the troops who guarded the beaches and the long front they manned prevented the 16th Panzer Division from launching anything more than dispersed thrusts by small groups-ten or fifteen tanks supported by a platoon or a company, in rare instances a battalion, of infantry. These small counterattacks precluded decisive success.
The Italian surrender had had its effect on the Salerno landings. General Clark later felt that the armistice had actually hindered the Allied troops corning ashore, for Italians on the beaches would not have resisted as effectively as did the Germanys. On the other hand, some Italians would undoubtedly have manned the coastal defenses and the Germans might have had time to mass the 16th Panzer Division for an effective counterattack.
Yet the surrender, followed by the dissolution of Italian military forces, had been advantageous for the Germans. They were able to deal with Italian “traitors” in a way impossible to treat Italian “allies.” Having previously fought on Italian soil ostensibly to help the Italians defend their homeland, they were now freed of the necessity of catering to their former allies. They could act decisively and expect the swift execution of their orders. And according to Kesselring’s chief of staff, they were liberated “from the nightmare necessity of using their weapons against their former allies.”
Fighting with limited forces for a limited objective, the Germans suffered fewer losses during the battle of the beachhead than the Allies. The Hermann Gӧring Division sustained 1,000 casualties, the 16th Panzer Grenadier Division approximately 1,300. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division probably incurred similar losses, while the 26th Panzer Division, controlling only one regiment and in action only two days, could not have been greatly affected. Altogether, casualties probably totaled about 3,500 men. In contrast, the American losses totaled about 3,500 men, British casualties somewhere around 5,500.[n2-9-42]
The Allies were vulnerable to heavy losses, according to the commander of the 16th Panzer Division, Sickenius, not only because they were on the offensive but also because of what he considered to be the poor combat value of the British and American troops. The Allied soldier, Sickenius believed, lacked aggressiveness and was afraid of combat at close quarters, Although he knew how to make skillful use of terrain features and would usually try to penetrate German lines by infiltration, he normally depended on extensive artillery preparations, which precluded daring thrusts.
If Sickenius’ observation was true, it might be explained by a concern on the part of the Allied soldiers for their security. The knowledge of how few follow-up troops were available to bolster the first units ashore made the Americans, despite the paucity of opposition in the VI Corps zone, less than aggressive during the first days on the beachhead. The critical period of the invasion had occurred on the fourth and fifth days, when the troops ashore were tired, when they held as long a front as could be expected of them, and when the enemy had deduced their plan and was concentrating strength against the beachhead, That was when more ships on the horizon were necessary, when more men, more artillery, more supplies in follow-up convoys were required.
[n2-9-42 Fifth Army History, Part I, pp, 97-98; 9th Machine Records Unit. Fifth Army American Battle Casualties, 10 Jun 45, OCMH, American losses were approximately 500 killed, 1,800 wounded, 1,200 missing.]
The presence of the 82nd Airborne Division in Sicily and its readiness for commitment had been the fortunate result of the cancellation of its mission to seize the airfields around Rome; the use of the 82nd to reinforce the beachhead by drops behind friendly lines was a brilliant expedient. The value of the reinforcement stemmed less from the actual number of troops than from its psychological lift to the commanders and men in the beachhead who were beginning to feel uneasy; they had no way of knowing that the worst had passed. The two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry, nevertheless, provided valuable security to the beachhead perimeter, and their pressure around Altavilla on 17 September had hastened the German withdrawal.
How bad was the worst hour? Given the small size of the beachhead, which made almost every part vulnerable to enemy observation and fire, deeper penetrations in the areas where the Germanys mounted their strongest attacks-Salerno, Battipaglia, the Sele-Calore corridor, and Altavilla might well have proved fatal to the Fifth Army. That the Germans were unable to crack the Allied defenses is a tribute to troops who demonstrated their ability to take punishment.
With the support of artillery, tanks, tank destroyers, naval gunfire, and air attacks, they held the defensive line established during the critical night of 13 September against German pressure for five days.[n2-9-45] Some participants felt that the Fifth Army had come close to defeat. Yet others depreciated the extent of the German threat. One qualified observer stated categorically that the enemy attacks never seriously endangered the beachhead. General Walker himself later asserted that he never doubted the ability of his troops to hold. The small size of the beachhead made supply operations easier. The Allied forces lacked enough transportation facilities, particularly Quartermaster truck units, and therefore the short hauling distances were a boon. In control of logistics, the VI Corps headquarters established supply dumps about one mile inland and along the main roads to enable the divisions to draw their supplies directly from them. On 25 September, with more trucks ashore, truck heads were established and the Fifth Army took charge of unloading supplies over the beaches, moving them to the dumps, and transporting them forward to the di visions.
[N2-9- 45 Between 9 and 17 September, the 151st Field Artillery Battalion expended 10,500 rounds, over 2,500 shells more than the total fired by the battalion during the entire Tunisia Campaign. 151st FA Bn AAR, Sep 43. See also 645th and 601st Tank Destroyer Bn AAR’s, Sep 43. and 751st Tank Bn History, 1943. Engineers performing as infantrymen]
Naval gunfire played an obvious role in the battle of the beachhead, but some observers had serious reservations as to its usefulness. “The moral effect is, of course, terrific,” one officer noted, “as the shell is large and the muzzle velocity astonishing.” Though naval gunfire gave great psychological support to the Allied troops and adversely affected the Germans, the relatively flat trajectory of the shells limited their effectiveness in close support because of the larger safety distance required between shell-burst and friendly troop locations. And except in the case of masonry buildings, the usefulness of naval shells against ground targets was questionable. The fire was particularly satisfying when directed against towns because any fire direction center could hit a town every time, and the flying debris and dust, which proved the accuracy of the flight of the missile, gave observers and spotters a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Unfortunately, the resulting destruction, which brought misery and loss to noncombatants, usually had little effect on enemy military personnel, who were usually well dug in away from the obvious targets.
[NOTE: Units were from the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment; the 2nd Battalion, 337th Engineer General Service Regiment; The111th and 120th Engineer Combat Battalions; and the 36th Engineer Combat Regiment. Engr History, Fifth Army,]
The destroyed village of Altavilla, shelled by artillery and naval guns and bombed by planes, appalled General Walker. “I doubt very much,” he wrote in his diary, “if this bombardment of a village full of helpless civilian families, many of whom were killed or injured, contributed any real help in capturing the dominating ground in that vicinity.”
When he visited Battipaglia, he was greatly depressed at the complete destruction of this old town by our Navy and Air Force. Not a single building was intact. The town will have to be rebuilt, it cannot be repaired. One could smell the odor of dead bodies, not vet recovered from the rubble. Such destruction of towns and civilians is brutal and quite unnecessary and does not assist in furthering the tactical program… Italian people stood about looking at their destroyed homes in bewilderment. In the midst of their destruction and grief they tried to be cheerful.
American and British planners had, before the invasion, discussed and studied the possibility of using planes to spot naval gunfire, that is, to observe and direct the shells on target. They concluded that the technique was impractical.
In areas where enemy fighter aircraft were active, naval planes would be too vulnerable. To give naval spotting planes fighter protection was hardly worthwhile-fighters were unsuitable for prolonged escort missions at low altitudes, they had more important missions, and over Salerno they would be far from their land bases, But the attractiveness of getting accurate naval shelling on distant ground targets outside the range of artillery prompted the Americans to try. The plane judged best for the task was the P-51, but there was not enough time before the invasion to train naval observation pilots to fly this aircraft. Consequently, the pilots of an Army Air Forces squadron earmarked for tactical reconnaissance received some training in how to use the communications and codes involved in directing American naval gunfire. Two flights of two P-51’s each came over the assault area to spot for the naval gunners between 0800 and 1000 on D-day, but the planes could remain in the target area only thirty minutes.
A pilot needed this amount of time to become oriented. By the time he obtained some impression of the ground situation, he had to fly back to Sicily, Not until 16 September did P-51 pilots first successfully spot naval gunfire; by then the battle for the beachhead was about over and few opportunities remained for further application of the technique.
The difficulty of ground observation during the early days of the invasion had limited the ability of observers to adjust artillery fire at medium and long ranges, and the Fifth Army artillery officer consequently arranged with the 111th Reconnaissance Squadron to have P-51 pilots work with the 155-mm. howitzers of the 6th Field Artillery Regiment.
Two planes were to operate together, one pilot to observe and direct, the other to guard against the approach of enemy aircraft. This method was first used successfully on 18 September. Still later in the month, after reconnaissance aircraft were based in the Salerno area, P-51 artillery spotting missions became more frequent, yet they were never regularly used, even though the P-51 planes were better than either Cub planes or forward ground observers for directing artillery at extreme ranges with a reasonable degree of accuracy. During the next eight months of the Italian campaign, Allied planners would discuss whether they might secure special equipment and give special training to improve the P-51 method of artillery spotting. The reluctance of air commanders to divert planes from what they considered their more important missions inhibited planning to this end.
Two of these more important missions, providing fighter cover and close air support to the ground troops, together constituted, according to General Eisenhower, a serious problem of the invasion. Since a fighter plane based in Sicily needed about thirty minutes to reach the Salerno area, and since a fighter pilot engaging an enemy plane over the beachhead had to jettison his long-range gasoline tanks, thereby reducing his effective operational capability from thirty to ten minutes, the burden of meeting enemy aircraft attacking in quick successive waves fell on the naval fighters. Even though Sea fires operating from naval carriers flew more than 700 sorties during the first four days of the invasion to supplement the more than 20,400 sorties by aircraft based in Sicily, and even though naval and land-based planes prevented effective German air reconnaissance-Tenth Army complained on 13 September that no air reports had been received for more than twenty-four hours-they failed to stop the bombers.
Bombing the Allied anchorage in the Gulf of Salerno nightly and raiding the beachhead three or four times every day with low-flying fighter-bombers, the Germans, despite relatively few operational planes and comparatively antiquated equipment, flew more missions against targets in a given area than at any time since their attacks against Malta in 1942.
The construction of improvised landing fields in the beachhead, begun soon after the landings, did little to solve the problem of providing effective land-based fighter cover. A strip opened near Paestum on 13 September received two Army Air Forces reconnaissance planes, which remained only briefly. A second strip was opened near the Sele River two days later to receive twelve planes (half the aircraft strength of the 111th Reconnaissance Squadron), and a third strip was ready in the 10 Corps area to take eight RAF planes the same day.
All three were used only for emergency landings. Except for the twenty-six naval aircraft based near Paestum, no land-based planes landed in the beachhead until 16 September, and those were fighter-bombers rather than fighter-interceptors. The deficiency in Allied air cover permitted German planes to damage, by means of radio-controlled bombs, the British battleship HMS Warspite and cruiser HMS Uganda and the American cruiser USS Savannah in the Gulf of Salerno. In addition to the Liberty ship USS Bushrod Washington destroyed on 14 September, the Liberty ship USS James Marshall was seriously damaged on the following day by a rocket bomb. Other losses were sustained among lesser vessels in the gulf.
In giving close support to the ground forces, tactical air force planes flew more than 9,000 sorties during the first nine days of the invasion. Over 5,000 of these occurred on three days, 14, 15, and 16 September. During this period, more than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped daily on an area within a radius of fifteen miles from Salerno, Battipaglia and Eboli receiving the bulk of the loads. All these flights originated in Sicily and North Africa, except for a squadron of fighter-bombers, which started to operate from the Paestum airfield on 16 September.
On that day alone, this squadron flew 46 missions and 301 sorties for reconnaissance and bombardment-bombing road intersections, railroad tracks and stations, towns, enemy vehicles, and suspected strongpoints-before returning to Sicily before nightfall. Air commanders were reluctant to base aircraft in the beach head chiefly because the improvised airfields could not be used in bad weather. Not until pierced steel planks could be requisitioned from North Africa late in September to make possible all-weather fields would substantial numbers of planes be based in the area.
During the critical days at the beachhead, strategic bombers added their tonnages to the bombings even though Air Marshal Tedder disliked diverting them from their normal long-range missions. What concerned Tedder and other air commanders was not only the scale of the air effort at the beachhead, which exceeded planners’ estimates and seriously taxed crews and equipment, but also the violation of the precepts of air doctrine, which stipulated that air bombardment should be used only against those targets beyond the range of artillery. Not until late in the campaign, after the turn of the year, would Allied commanders gain the benefits of using air power, both strategic and tactical, together with artillery, and only then would the ground troops obtain what is now considered normal close air support.
Some Allied problems at the beachhead derived from the command. Like all successful commanders of coalition forces, General Clark exercised his authority over General McCreery and the British 10 Corps with discretion and tact. He tended to supervise and inspect rather than to direct, even though the operations on the 10 Corps front were the more critical. He gave his major attention to VI Corps and General Dawley. What complicated his position in American quarters was that his senior American subordinates, Generals Dawley, Walker, and Middleton, were older than Clark and had seniority in the Regular Army.
Sensitive of his prerogatives and understandably anxious to make good in this, his first command of combat operations in World War II, General Clark placed between himself and his American subordinates a distance that was perhaps more than the normal reserve consciously adopted for command purposes. He rarely, if ever, requested advice from his subordinate commanders or talked things over with them. His habit was to stride into command posts, receive reports, and issue instructions. While this may have conformed to the stereotype model of how a commander should act, it seemed to some to be an overdrawn portrait, and those who may have expected him to seek their guidance were disappointed that he did not.
When General Alexander visited the beachhead, he was impressed by General Clark’s calmness. Clark, he judged, was steady. General Eisenhower came to the beachhead a week after D-day and although he thought Clark not so good as Bradley at winning the confidence of everyone around him, including the British, and not so good as Patton in refusing to see anything but victory, he found Clark, as he said, “carrying Weight.”
In contrast to the Fifth Army commander, General Dawley relied to a much larger extent on his division commanders. He had great confidence in Walker and Middleton, both of whom had commanded troops in combat during World War I, and he welcomed their suggestions. But as Clark devoted increasing attention to VI Corps affairs and in the process indicated dissatisfaction with Dawley’s exercise of control, Dawley became harassed and nervous.
Always concerned about the lack of reserves, Clark was disturbed by Dawley’s seeming indifference to the threat to the corps’ left flank. It was Clark who instructed Dawley to lighten his forces on the right in order to strengthen those on the left, and it was Dawley who later suffered because his troop dispositions resembled a hodgepodge of units.
[n2-9-5959 At 0600, 11 September, the units on the VI Corps front were deployed from left to right as follows: 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry; 3rd Battalion, 36th Engineers; 2nd Battalion, 179th Infantry; 3rd Battalion, 179th Infantry; 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry; 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry; 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry; the 142nd Infantry; 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry; 1st Battalion, 39th Engineers; Company A, 751st Tank Battalion; 504th Parachute Infantry; 505th Parachute Infantry. VI Corps C-3 Sitrep, 0600, 18 Sep 43.]
On 20 September, after the battle of the beachhead had come to an end, General Clark relieved General Dawley from command of the VI Corps. The reasons since given for the relief have been various.
According to General Clark’s recollections after the war, General Dawley had been an impressive commander during training; he had caught the attention of Generals Marshall and McNair, and Clark himself had thought him vigorous and aggressive. General Eisenhower, who was skeptical about Dawley’s ability, asked Clark more than once whether Dawley would measure up, and Clark assured him that the corps commander was doing a good job in North Africa. Shortly before the Salerno invasion Clark saw the first sign that gave him pause and made him doubt Dawley’s capacity: Dawley told Clark that the V1 Corps might not be able to carry out its mission. As General Dawley remembered the incident, he had, during a planning conference, quoted Brigadier General Fox Conner, General John J. Pershing’s G-3, as having once said, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew and chew damn little.”
“Under the stress of the battle at the beachhead Dawley appeared to Clark to grow increasingly nervous and shaky, and seemed unable to take decisive action.” One night, Dawley reported his situation to Clark over the telephone. “Well, Mike,” Clark said, “what are you doing about it?” ”I’m praying,” Dawley said. “That’s OK,” Clark said, “but you better do something else besides.” Clark reached his decision to relieve the corps commander with difficulty, for he and Dawley had both been protégés of General McNair. and Clark felt uncomfortable about recommending the relief of a man who was in some respects his senior.
During General Alexander’s visit to the beachhead, the army group commander received the impression that General Dawley was not meeting the required standard of performance. Dawley’s briefing of the situation confirmed Alexander’s feeling, for, unlike McCreery, who seemed to Alexander to have his corps under control and to know what he was doing, Dawley was nervous; his voice shook, and his hands trembled. To Eisenhower, Alexander recommended that Dawley be relieved but suggested that Eisenhower see for himself first.
General Alexander’s American deputy, General Lemnitzer, who had accompanied the army group commander to the beachhead, later remembered that “General Clark was worried, especially about the VI Corps set-up.” In Lemnitzer’s presence, Clark informed Alexander that he had personally had to place some infantry battalions in the line because Dawley seemed unable to handle the matter. At the VI Corps command post, when Alexander asked Dawley what his future plans were, the response was embarrassing. “Obviously under great strain,” Lemnitzer recalled, “with his hands shaking like a leaf, General Dawley made a pitiful effort to explain the disposition of his troops and what he planned to do.” The explanation confirmed the impression that Alexander and Lemnitzer had sensed around the corps headquarters-the staff lacked confidence in the corps commander’s ability.
Not long afterward General Lemnitzer saw General Eisenhower in Algiers. When Eisenhower asked about the beachhead, Lemnitzer told him of Clark’s difficulty with the VI Corps. Eisenhower exploded. “Well, why doesn’t he relieve Dawley?” Lemnitzer supported Alexander’s recommendation that Eisenhower visit the beachhead to judge for himself.
During his visit, Eisenhower concurred in what by then was a unanimous opinion among the senior commanders. Eisenhower assured Clark he would arrange for someone to replace the corps commander. There is evidence that Dawley’s relief had been decided several days earlier, before Eisenhower’s visit.
The relief came as a surprise to General Walker, who had worked closely with the corps commander and who had heard Clark express no disappointment over Dawley’s conduct of operations. As he looked back after the war, Walker thought that two incidents might have contributed to the decision. When Eisenhower, Clark, Dawley, and Admiral Hewitt visited his 36th Division command post and received a briefing from Walker, the division commander had the feeling that Eisenhower was paying little attention to his words. At the end of Walker’s presentation, Eisenhower turned to Dawley and said, “How did you ever get your troops into such a mess?” Instead of explaining that there was no mess at all, Dawley replied in a manner that gave Eisenhower no inkling of the pains Dawley and Walker had taken to insure proper tactical control and co-ordination. Walker was about to add his explanation when Eisenhower changed the subject. Another time, when Walker accompanied Dawley, Clark, and Ridgway to Albanella, the generals drove in two jeeps, Walker riding with Ridgway. For their return trip, Clark asked Walker to ride with him and Dawley. On the way, Clark and Dawley engaged in what soon became an unfriendly discussion over a trivial matter. When Dawley intimated his disapproval of certain measures taken by Eisenhower and Clark, the army commander became ominously silent. General Marshall was also surprised to learn of Dawley’s relief, but he backed Eisenhower and Clark even before he had full knowledge of the facts.
When Dawley returned to the United States, he visited the Army Chief of Staff and explained what had happened. General Marshall had the impression that Dawley should have been relieved even sooner. There is something to be said in General Dawley’s defense. The VI Corps commander had not expected to assume command of operations ashore until after the beachhead was securely established. Clark had told Dawley before the landings to stay aboard ship and not to take command until D plus 2 or thereabouts, since Clark thought that the single American division in the assault was already overloaded with commanders. Furthermore, the 36th Division carried three days’ supplies, and the end of that 3-day period, Walker and Dawley estimated, would be the logical moment for the corps to take command of the operation. Thus, Dawley was not entirely prepared when ordered on D-day to take command-his staff was scattered and his headquarters and communications were scheduled for a later unloading. Trying to make do with what he had. he used the 36th Division facilities and strained them. “Neither Dawley nor Walker were very happy about the situation,” General Truscott later wrote, “and both attributed much of the early confusion to the disorganization of Command.” Finally, lacking an organized and fully staffed headquarters, General Dawley found it difficult to delegate authority to subordinates and equally difficult to get enough rest himself.
The inevitable confusion of the beachhead, the intermingling of units and the consequent lack of neat dispositions on a situation map. Dawley’s failure to impress visiting officers of high rank, his fatigue after several days and nights of strenuous activity and little sleep-these raised doubts in the minds of his superiors. On 16 September, Clark informed Eisenhower that Dawley “should not be continued in his present job. He appears to go to pieces in the emergencies.” On 17 September, when Clark appointed Ridgway deputy corps commander, Dawley’s relief was as good as accomplished, and three days later a replacement arrived from Sicily to take over.
Despite deficiencies and misfortunes, the Fifth Army had secured lodgment on the Italian mainland by 20 September and began to marshal its strength for the concluding episode of AVALANCHE, the capture of Naples. By that date, British units were occupying the east coast of southern Italy-several British naval officers had entered Brindisi on 16 September and found it empty of German troops-and were increasing their strength in that area. While General Montgomery sought to concentrate his widely dispersed forces for an attack to Foggia to secure the airfield complex there, General Clark prepared to drive to Naples to secure the port.
Additional gains of the three-pronged invasion of southern Italy were Sardinia and Corsica, which the Germans abandoned. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division began to leave Sardinia on 11 September, moving to Corsica first. This movement was completed by the morning of 18 September. Italian troops on Sardinia did little to impede the German forces, but Corsican patriots, armed with submachine guns and aided by a small Allied contingent, both dropped to them from Allied planes. harassed the Germans.
Concerned even before the German evacuation that the Corsican irregulars would be too weak to cope with the Germans, General Giraud, commander of the French troops in North Africa, pressed General Eisenhower to dispatch French units to the island. Eisenhower favored encouraging the local resistance forces in Corsica by sending French troops, but he had no vessels to transport them. The requirements of the battle of the beachhead were overriding.
He nevertheless approved establishing an improvised ferry service. On 11 September, a French submarine sailed from Algiers for Corsica with 100 French soldiers aboard. Two days later two French destroyers, the Le Terrible and the Le Fantastique, loaded several hundred men, somewhere between 500 and 800 according to estimates, and about 50 tons of supplies and sailed for Ajaccio, principal port of Corsica. Two French cruisers, the Jeane d’Arc and the Montcalm, recalled from duty in the Atlantic, two Corsican schooners pressed into service, and later two Italian cruisers formed a fleet that, for the next two weeks, nightly ferried men to the island. The underground fighters and the French troops failed to halt the German movement to the mainland, which was completed on 1 October.
Two small British ships had entered the harbor of Cagliari on 18 September, bringing General Eisenhower’s representative, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and a small staff to assume Allied control over Sardinia. General Eisenhower placed Corsica under the control of French military authorities and later sent a small liaison staff to represent him at the office of the military governor appointed by General Giraud.
Sardinia and Corsica, by virtue of their strategic location, represented a great prize won at slight cost. Allied possession of the islands made the Mediterranean still more secure for shipping. More important, the airfields, particularly those on Corsica, would bring Allied bombers close to enemy targets along the southern approaches to the Continent, especially those in southern France and northern Italy.
SOURCE: SALERNO TO CASSINO; by Martin Blumenson (United States Army Center of Military History)
World War Two: Italy; Beyond Salerno (ISC-2-10)
World War Two: Italy: Salerno-Beachhead; The Crisis (ISC-2-8)