World War Two: Mediterranean (1-3); Allied Preparations and Preliminaries 1943

The Beginnings: In directing General Eisenhower to execute an amphibious operation to seize Sicily, the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Casablanca had in mind securing Allied sea lanes through the Mediterranean, trying to knock Italy out of the war, and diverting German strength from the Russian front. Whereas almost any objective in the Mediterranean might have contributed equally well to the last of these aims, the very location of Sicily made the island a particularly likely target for contributing to the other two. For Sicily lies only ninety miles across the Sicilian channel from the tip of Africa at Cape Bon and a scant two miles across the Strait of Messina off the southwestern tip of the Italian peninsula.

The Greeks had a word for Sicily, Trinacria, the three-cornered, a great triangle encompassing an area of approximately 10,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Vermont. The northern side measures some 180 miles; the southwestern side is almost as long, approximately 170 miles; the eastern edge, running in a general north-south direction, is considerably shorter, about 125 miles.

Of strategic importance since the earliest history of migrations and wars in the Mediterranean, a steppingstone for Romans, Carthaginians, and Moors, Sicily in the modern age of air power had assumed new significance. When Mussolini was building up the Italian Fleet, he made no provisions for aircraft carriers because he felt that Italy already had them in the existence of the southern extremity of the Italian peninsula, Sardinia, and, above all, Sicily. Sicily and its airfields had forced Britain to abandon the direct Mediterranean route for maritime traffic with the Near and Middle East and had compelled the Admiralty to maintain two fleets in the Mediterranean, one based on Gibraltar, the other on Alexandria and Port Said. Sicily, together with the small island of Pantelleria, which lies between the western tip of Sicily and Cape Bon, had given the Axis a domination of the air over the central Mediterranean that might have been complete had not the British held on to Malta, some 55 miles off the southeastern tip of Sicily.

Scalloped with wide, sweeping bights separated by capes, the coast of Sicily has numerous beaches of sand and shingle. They range in length from less than a hundred yards to several miles. A narrow coastal plain backs the beaches in the blunt northwestern corner of the island, then widens somewhat midway along the southwestern coast opposite the Gulf of Gela and maintains this width on either side of the sharp southeastern corner, the Pachino peninsula. Less than halfway up the cast coast ncar the port city of Catania the plain widens into the only sizable stretch of flat land in Sicily, the plain of Catania, the island’s airfields were located on the coastal plains, none more than fifteen miles inland. [N3-1AF] From Catania northward on the east coast and all along the north coast, steep slopes and precipitous cliffs face the sea. In the northeastern triangle stand the highest and most rugged mountains of the island whose surface is almost all mountainous, the Caronia Mountains with peaks from 4,500 to 5,400 feet, and massive Mount Etna itself, 10,000 feet high and twenty miles in diameter at its base.

Throughout the island the more important and better roads were close to the coast, including those riding a narrow shelf between beach and mountain in the north and northeast. In the interior the roads were poorly surfaced and narrow, with sharp curves and steep grades. The roads were particularly difficult for military traffic in the towns and small cities, for most of the settlements were established in classical or medieval times, and they were built on hilltops for the sake of defense, with steep, winding approaches and narrow streets designed not for trucks and tanks but for pedestrians, chariots, and mule carts. The bulk of the island’s dense population of some four million was located in the towns and cities.

[Note 3-1AF: The listing of airfields and seaplane bases on Sicily is contained in S.S.O. 17/3 (Final), par. II, and mentions nineteen known airfields and landing grounds in Sicily (Salmon Files, 5-G-3. item 5). Likewise the same figure of nineteen known airfields, later raised to thirty at the time of the Allied attack, is mentioned in The Conquest of Sicily. 10 July 1943-17 August 1943,Despatch by His Excellency Field Marshal the Viscount Alexander of Tunis (cited hereafter as Alexander Despatch), p. 2, in ARS, The figure of thirty at the time of the Allied attack is not borne out by enemy accounts and is probably achieved by counting landing strips, Cf. Samuel Eliot Morison, “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.” vol. IX, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, January 1943-June 1944 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954), p, 2n. For information on the Sicilian ports see Alexander Despatch, p. 65. and S.S.O.1 (Final), par. 10.]

The major ports were Messina near the northeastern tip, Catania and Syracuse on the eastern side, and Palermo near the western end, each with a daily capacity of more than 1,000 tons. Messina, the largest port, was closest to the mainland. There, ferry service across the strait to Calabria connected the Sicilian railroads with the continental system. Messina was clearly the most strategic objective on the island, for, as the link with the mainland, its capture by an invading force would seal off the island’s defenders and deny them reinforcement or resupply. Catania, with a port capacity somewhat less than Messina and Palermo, was scarcely less important by virtue of its location and its relative proximity to the Italian mainland.

The problem of attacking Sicily had been blocked out in a general way in London and submitted to the CCS at the Casablanca Conference. The ground forces to be committed, the planners predicted, would have to be in sufficient strength to attain a decisive superiority over an Axis force estimated to have a maximum potential of eight divisions. If Axis strength did not reach this figure by the time of the invasion, the rate of build-up was calculated at one German or one and a half Italian divisions per week by the Messina ferry service alone. On the other hand, Messina was vulnerable to air attack and might be eliminated or severely crippled before the invasion. Of the eight Axis divisions likely to be defending Sicily, the planners estimated, four could be concentrated against anyone allied landing within two or three days. The Allied forces, it appeared, would have to total at least ten divisions, and if separate landings were made, each would have to be strong enough to defeat a force of four enemy divisions.

The heavy fortifications known to exist along the strait ruled out a direct blow against Messina. Similar defenses excluded direct assaults against the naval bases of Syracuse, Augusta, and Palermo. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s adage, “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” was as relevant for battleships and modern harbor defenses as it was in the days of wooden vessels and stone forts. Because the technique of bringing supplies across the assault beaches was still only theoretical, the Allies would have to secure ports at once. They would have to come ashore along the relatively unfortified stretches of coast line close to one or more major ports.

Another reason militating against a direct assault on Messina was its distance from fighter aircraft bases on Malta and in North Africa. The range of the planes would preclude adequate fighter protection of an amphibious landing. The Catania area, within the extreme range of fighter aircraft, was also more attractive because of the assault beaches and a nearby group of airfields, but the port could be expected to handle initially the needs of only four divisions and later, after expansion of the port facilities, only six, four less than the ten needed for Invasion. Palermo was adequate to supply ten divisions, but a landing near Palermo alone would leave the enemy in possession of the two other major ports Messina and Catania-and a majority of the airfields. Also, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to land at Palermo alone forces superior to those that the Axis might quickly concentrate. The London planners thus suggested two simultaneous assaults in the general areas of Palermo and Catania. Landings there would deny the Axis two of the island’s major ports and most of the airfields; would block the major routes to Messina; and would reduce the enemy’s ability to concentrate against a single landing.

The disadvantages of the Palermo-Catania scheme derived primarily from the great resources required. The two areas would not be mutually supporting. Each attacking force would have to be in sufficient strength to avoid defeat in detail. The forces and shipping required would be greatly increased over those for a single, concentrated attack. And unless the Italian Fleet were driven back into the Adriatic before the assaults, two naval covering forces would be required. Nevertheless, the planners concluded that a single assault would be feasible only if the Axis forces in Sicily numbered distinctly less than eight divisions, and only if enemy ability to make rapid reinforcements within the island and from the mainland were drastically reduced. If these conditions prevailed, a single assault could be considered in the Catania area.

Sicily also established the chain of command and determined the organization for planning. General Eisenhower as Supreme Commander had the ultimate responsibility. General Alexander, named Deputy Commander in Chief, was charged “with the detailed planning and preparation and with the execution of the actual operation when launched,” in effect, the ground command. Admiral Cunningham was to command the naval forces; Air Chief Marshal Tedder the air forces. Contemplating the use of two task forces, one American, the other British, the Combined Chiefs directed General Eisenhower to recommend the officers to be appointed to the subordinate command positions. Because the Tunisian campaign was still under way and attracted the major energies of AFHQ, the CCS also directed Eisenhower, in consultation with Alexander, to set up a special operational and administrative staff, separate from AFHQ, to plan the invasion.

To command the British task force in the invasion, Eisenhower settled quickly on General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, the experienced Eighth Army commander. To lead the American force, he gave serious consideration to General Clark, who commanded the Fifth U .S. Army in French Morocco and who had demonstrated great diplomatic skill. But because Clark and his army, organized only in early January 1943, were charged with keeping French Morocco under control and with being ready to invade Spanish Morocco should Spain become less than neutral, Eisenhower turned instead to Major General George S. Patton, Jr. Having commanded the Western Task Force in the North Africa can invasion, having gained considerable combat experience in North Africa, and soon to be promoted to lieutenant general, Patton was, moreover, free for a new assignment. As commander of the U.S. I Armored Corps, not actively engaged in Tunisia, Patton had a staff already available to plan the American role in the Sicily invasion. CCS approval of Eisenhower’s nominations set the scene for the contrasting operations of two of the most highly individualistic ground commanders of World War II. Patton was of the “rough and ready” school, Montgomery the” tidy” type. These differences in temperament, technique, and personality, to become markedly apparent ill northwest Europe in 1944, were not pronounced during the early days of planning for Sicily; but before the campaign was over, the differences would be more than noticeable.

In conformity with the CCS instructions to set up a separate headquarters to plan the invasion of Sicily, General Eisenhower in late January 1943 established in Algiers the nucleus of what became known as Force 141-from the number of the room in the St. George’s Hotel where the originally assigned officers first met. The headquarters eventually moved into the Ecole Nonnale in La Bouzarca. Without administrative responsibilities, the staff remained a part of the AFHQ G-3 Section until the end of the Tunisian campaign, when, on 15 May, it became an independent operational headquarters. American officers assigned to Force 141 came for the most part from the United States, though some were transferred from the Fifth Army headquarters and others from the I Armored Corps. British personnel came largely from the United Kingdom and the Middle East. At the end of the Tunisian campaign, Alexander’s 18 Army Group headquarters was deactivated and merged into Force 141; and on D-Day of the Sicily invasion the whole organization became the 15 Army Group headquarters, commanded by Alexander and with a staff of American and British officers who had served together and could make a combined headquarters work.

As deputy chief of staff and senior American representative in Force 141, General Eisenhower initially appointed Maj, General Clarence R. Huebner, who soon found himself in a situation of friction. In this period of the war, in February 1943, General Alexander had a rather low estimate of the combat effectiveness of American troops. Though he considered the material, human and otherwise, magnificent, he deemed the American troops inexperienced and of little value in combat. Even at the end of the Tunisian campaign, Alexander would still consider them below the standard of the British fighting man. Apparently resenting this attitude, Huebner felt impelled to become the protector of American interests. Not until Brigadier General Lyman L. Lemnitzer succeeded Huebner in July 1943 would American relations with Alexander show marked improvement.

Force 141 had difficult problems to solve. Lacking a G-2 Section, the force had to co-ordinate intelligence matters with AFHQ. Commanders who had been selected for roles in the invasion were actively engaged in Tunisia (Patton commanded the U.S. II Corps during most of March and April I943) or scattered on three continents. Units were coming from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East. Because all the key personnel involved in the ground, sea, and air planning could not be gathered in one place, co-ordination of some aspects of the operation would still be somewhat lacking even on D-day.

Designating Patton’s I Armored Corps to head the American forces led to some confusion in command relationships, for another corps headquarters was also scheduled to take part in the operation. To clarify command channels and also to match the British organization, the I Armored Corps (Reinforced), known as Force 343 during the planning phase, would become the Seventh U.S. Army headquarters on D-day of the invasion.

The major elements under Seventh Army control were to consist of one corps headquarters and six divisions; four infantry (one to be the follow-up force), one armored, and one airborne. Because of the desire to employ experienced units, the II Corps headquarters replaced the VI Corps, which had been originally assigned, and the 1st Infantry Division replaced the 36th Infantry Division. The British force, known as Force 515, as well as the Twelfth Army during the planning period, was somewhat larger. Under Eighth Army there would be two corps headquarters, the 13th and the 30th (a third, the 10th, was held in Tripoli), six infantry divisions, one armored division, one airborne division, a tank brigade, and an infantry brigade.

Detailed planning started on 12 February when Force 141 distributed copies of the basic design formulated by the London planners before the Casablanca Conference and accepted by the CCS. Since General Alexander and his staff had not had an opportunity to study the plan in detail, Alexander accepted it as preliminary and tentative, recognizing the need of some modification. This plan sought to secure adequate port facilities and sufficient airfields by means of two simultaneous assaults: one in the west, the other in the southeast. Subsequent landings closer to the principal objectives were to follow at Palermo and Catania. Ten divisions were to be ashore in a week.

Though this plan in some respects looked like an intended double envelopment of the enemy forces in Sicily, it was in reality focused less on enemy troops than on the ports of Palermo and Catania. A provision for the immediate seizure of all the important airfields would add to the dispersal of the assault forces because the airfields were widely scattered throughout the island. The great disadvantage, as already mentioned, was the fact that the two task forces would not be mutually supporting. Thus, the enemy might concentrate against either one and roll it back into the sea.

Though General Alexander considered landing both task forces together in a concentrated assault against the southeastern corner, he rejected the idea temporarily because his staff believed that the port facilities that could be seized in a single assault (Catania, Syracuse, and Augusta) would be inadequate to support the total Allied forces required for the operation.

The commander of the British invasion force, General Montgomery, found the CCS concept objectionable on another ground. His Eighth Army was to land in a great arc around the southeastern tip of Sicily, with part coming ashore on the southwestern side near the ports of Gela and Licata, the remainder on the eastern face. Those forces landing on the eastern side were more important because they were oriented toward the ports of Syracuse and Augusta as immediate objectives.

Yet the CCS had designated only about a third of the initial British assault force of one division plus a brigade-to make these landings. This seemed hardly enough, and in mid-March Montgomery emphatically indicated that he could not accept the plan as presented. To Montgomery the plan was valid only against weak Italian opposition. Against German troops, or against Italian troops backed by Germans, the plan seemed to be of little value. Montgomery wanted another division in his main assault on the eastern face of Sicily, and to get it he recommended elimination of the landings in the Gela-Licata area.

Not only would this make his main landings stronger, but his army would be united, an important point in Montgomery’s concept of any tactical operation, Though he realized that his substitute plan did not provide for the seizure of some airfields, it seemed to him that even if he took the airfields, he would be unable to hold them with the two divisions allotted for that task.

Air force and naval commanders immediately raised a hue and cry. Air Chief Marshal Tedder pointed out that failure to land in the Gela-Licata area and to occupy the group of airfields there would not only “gravely affect the whole air situation in the Southeast corner of Sicily” but would also “seriously increase the risk of loss of the big ships involved in certain of these assaults.” To Tedder, this was intolerable, even when he made allowance for the weakening of the enemy air strength which Tedder was “determined to achieve before the assault takes place.” To the Allied air commander, air superiority was as vital as securing the ports and the only sure way to weaken air opposition critically was to capture the enemy’s airfields; Admiral Cunningham agreed with Tedder.

He preferred attacking with widely dispersed forces instead of concentrating against what Cunningham considered the most strongly defended part of the island. Furthermore, Montgomery’s plan would involve a large number of ships lying offshore with protection against air attack severely lessened by failure to take the airfields in the Gela-Licata area.

While General Alexander recognized as valid the points raised by the air and naval commanders, he nevertheless accepted Montgomery’s modification “from a purely military point of view.” He agreed to transfer the British forces from the Gela-Licata landings to strengthen those on the east coast. But to satisfy the air and naval requirements, Alexander reached into the U.S. task force and plucked the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division for use in the British sector under Montgomery’s command. The 3rd division, scheduled for a D-day landing far up the southwestern coast near the western end of the island, was to side-;lip southeastward to make the Gela-Licata landings. To compensate in some degree for this weakening of the American assault, he proposed that the American landings be delayed several days until the British were ashore and thus, presumably, had attracted the bulk of the opposition.

General Patton objected to the loss of the 3rd Division. The Montgomery plan assumed, Patton felt that enemy airfields in the American sector would be so neutralized prior to the invasion that adequate air support for the main American landings would be assured. But since the same thesis when applied to the Gela-Licata airfields had been acceptable neither to the air forces and Navy, nor “presumably” to Montgomery and Alexander, it was “no less unacceptable” to Patton when applied to the Palermo airfields.

For under the Montgomery plan, the American assault on Palermo could be made only if the British were highly successful, that is, if the enemy defenders cracked completely. Furthermore, withdrawal of a division from the U.S. troop list would not only weaken the American assault force but also would deprive the Americans of close air support from the airfields the 3rd Division was to have taken. If the British were stopped after getting the bulk of their divisions ashore, would all the forces be withdrawn from Sicily? Or would Patton continue trying to carry out an operation predicated on prior British success? Under Montgomery’s plan, Patton believed, the Americans were provided with inadequate forces.

Despite Patton’s protest, General Eisenhower approved the new plan became of “the obvious fact that initial success in the southeast is vital to the whole project.” Even though the change made the later U.S. landings more difficult because air support expected from Montgomery’s area would not equal that which the original plan had contemplated, as Eisenhower admitted, “the decision must stand, under the existing circumstances.” At the same time, Eisenhower began to seek another division he could assign to Montgomery in order to move the U.S. division back to its original landing area. The problem was less that of finding additional troops than of finding the shipping necessary to transport an additional division to Sicily.

When the British eventually provided another division and the necessary shipping for Montgomery’s assault, Alexander on 6 April returned the U.S. 3rd Division to Patton, But he still retained the features of staggered landings. The 3rd Division was to assault on D plus 2 rather than on D-day as originally planned, and the other American landings in the Palermo area were moved back to D plus 5, by which time the 3rd Division would have secured the airfields in its zone, thereby affording air support for the Palermo landings.

None of the ground force commanders selected for the Sicily operation could, in this early period, devote much attention to planning. Alexander was busy with ground operations in Tunisia. Patton had been shifted on 7 March to temporary command of the U.S. II Corps, also in Tunisia. Montgomery’s attention was devoted to the immediate task of commanding the British Eighth Army. It was, as Montgomery subsequently put it, a period of “absentee landlordism.” The planning staffs of Forces 343 and 545 largely functioned without benefit of the views of those on whom the responsibility for successful execution of the plan would fall.

For all their inability to devote full attention to the Sicilian planning, few of the commanders involved were satisfied with Alexander’s latest solution. Still concerned over what he considered too dispersed landings, Montgomery sent his own chief of staff, Major General Francis de Guingand, to Cairo to serve at Force 545 headquarters as his deputy and chief of staff. Arriving in Cairo on 17 April, de Guingand for the next several days carefully studied the 6 April outline plan, and discussed it with Lieutenant General Miles C. Dempsey, commander of the British 13 Corps, earmarked to participate in the operation. De Guingand’s analysis of the new plan agreed with that of his chiefs much greater concentration would be required if the Allies were to overcome resistance on a scale similar to that encountered in North Africa.

His reasoning having been confirmed, Montgomery himself flew to Cairo on 23 April for additional study and consultation. Though Montgomery appreciated the need to seize ports and airfields, he considered the plan to be based on an underestimate of enemy capabilities. “To spread four divisions, with a relatively slow build-up of forces behind them, between the Gulf of Catania and the Gulf of Gela,” he wrote later, “obviously implied negligible resistance to our assault and a decision by the enemy not to send reinforcements from Italy to oppose us.” On 24 April he made known his objection in a message to Alexander. “Planning so far has been based on the assumption that the opposition will be slight and that Sicily will be captured rather easily,” he wired. “Never was there a greater error. The Germans and also the Italians are fighting desperately now in Tunisia and will do so in Italy.”

What Montgomery wanted was to confine the British landings within a much more restricted area in order to give his force more strength in the assault. He urged that his landings be restricted to the Gulf of Noto (south of Syracuse) and the two sides of the Pachino peninsula. Since this area was within range of fighter planes based on Malta, the landings would have adequate air cover. From a beachhead in the Gulf of Noto, the port of Syracuse might be captured rapidly, and operations could then be extended northward to secure Augusta and Catania. Most important of all, his whole force would be concentrated. Montgomery’s proposed plan received no enthusiastic reception in Algiers. Alexander again faced conflicting army and air-naval demands. Tedder and Cunningham still pointed to additional airfields (at Ponte Olivo, near Gela, and Comiso) which they wanted included in the beachhead. Montgomery countered by asking for two more assault divisions. Only with additional strength, he said, could he extend the beachhead as far as Gela.

Though Alexander called a new conference for 27 April in Algiers to iron out the differences, it had to be postponed two days when Montgomery’s representative, de Guingand, suffered injuries in an aircraft crash en route to the conference. Lieutenant General Oliver Leese, commander of the British 30 Corps, took his place.

The conference at Algiers of 29 April was less than conclusive. After ably presenting Montgomery’s arguments, Leese introduced a new concept. He proposed that the basic design of the two-pronged attack be abandoned and that both the United States and the British forces assault the southeastern corner, the British along the Gulf of Noto and the Americans close by on both sides of the Pachino peninsula. Admiral Cunningham at once demurred, citing his conviction that amphibious landings should be dispersed, not concentrated, and that the enemy airfields had to be taken at the earliest possible moment in order to protect the shipping which would be lying off the beaches, less than thirty miles away. Air Chief Marshal Tedder objected even more vigorously. He pointed out that the new plan would leave thirteen airfields in enemy hands, far more than could be neutralized by air action alone. Tedder declared he would oppose the whole operation unless the plan included prompt seizure of the principal Sicilian airfields. The deadlock was now complete. The contradictory demands of army, navy, and air could not be reconciled on the plan proposed either by Alexander or by Montgomery.

To break the deadlock, General Eisenhower called another conference in Algiers on 2 May. Though Alexander was unable to attend because of bad flying weather, Montgomery appeared in person to state his views. On the following day, Eisenhower accepted the new Montgomery proposal. The invasion of Sicily, the first large-scale amphibious assault to be made by the Allies against a coast line expected to be staunchly defended, was to be a concentrated thrust limited to the southeastern part of the island.

Alexander’s plan of 3 May, issued as an order later that month, embodied Montgomery’s strategic conception. The independent American assault on the western corner of Sicily was discarded. The whole weight of the U.S. force was shifted to the southeastern corner with landings to be made along the Gulf of Gela from Licata eastward to the Pachino peninsula. The whole weight of the British force was concentrated on the coastal sector from the Pachino peninsula almost to Syracuse. The new plan did not embody such a radical bunching of assaults as General Leese had proposed on 29 April because the American sector was considerably extended to the northwest.

Moving the entire assault to the southeastern corner of Sicily in effect rejected the CCS concept of the necessity to take major ports and airfields quickly. For the Americans, it meant no major port at all- they would have to rely for their supplies on maintenance over the beaches for an indefinite period of time. The exclusion as immediate objectives of both the cluster of airfields in the southwest and the complex in the Catania-Gerbini area disturbed air officers, as well as Admiral Cunningham, who continued to have misgivings on what he considered the sacrifice of the tactical advantage of dispersion. Whatever the merits of dispersion versus concentration, there was no gainsaying the loss of airfields. And this led to a new Allied focus on the island of Pantelleria.

(NOTE:12 Hq Force 343, FO I , 20 Jun 43, a n. II , Seventh Army Rpt of Opns, p . d-7ff ; Alexander Despatch , pp. 15-16. For some time, Allied intelligence officers mistakenly believed that the 103rd ( Piacenza ) Infantry Division was south of Catania . The mistake, as Alexander stated , ” was discovered before it could have any untoward effect.”)

Other Factors

One of the major questions that concerned the planners was whether the Axis would reinforce the island defenders beyond Allied expectations. According to Allied estimates the Axis garrison consisted of three major elements: Italian coastal divisions, Italian field divisions, and German units. All were under the Italian Sixth Army headquarters at Enna which controlled two corps and four Italian field divisions. The XII Corps commanded the 28th (Aosta ) and the 26th ( Assietta ) Infantry Divisions in the northwest corner of the island. The XVI Corps controlled the 4th (Livorno ) and the 54th (Napoli ) Infantry Divisions, in position to counter a landing on both sides of the Pachino peninsula in the southeast. Five or six coastal divisions added to this strength.

How well would the Italian units fight? A few bold spirits among Allied planners predicted that the Italians would be a pushover. Their arms and equipment were well below the standards of German, British, and American divisions. The Sixth Army had no combat experience. Sicilians made up a high proportion of all units. “Ersatz stuff, all of it,” one American officer said. “Stick them in the belly and sawdust will run out.” But no one really knew. Fighting on home soil, they might have higher morale than in North Africa. To be safe, the Allies assumed that the Italians on Sicily would resist strenuously.

Allied intelligence discovered two German divisions in support of the Italians. Though definite data on the German order of battle in Sicily was hard to come by, the information was accurate. Not until the approach of D-day, however, did a relatively clear picture emerge. Of the two German divisions identified in Sicily, the 15th Panzer Grenadier and the Hermann Gӧring, the latter was somewhat puzzling, for it had been destroyed in Tunisia. Apparently, then, it had been reconstituted. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division was divided into three battle groups, one in the extreme western part of the island, the second near the center (together with division headquarters), the third near Catania. Shortly before D-day, division headquarters and the center battle group moved to the west.

The Hermann Gӧring Division was also divided, but into only two battle groups, one in the Catania area, with supervision over the panzer grenadier battle group already there, the other poised for action in the southeast and capable of operating against the Gela and Comiso airfields. The distribution of forces indicated that the enemy anticipated landings on the southwestern corner, along the Gulf of Gela, near Catania, and along the Gulf of Noto. The Germans had not reinforced Sicily to the extent possible, a failure the Allies correctly attributed to their cover plan.

The efforts of the Allies to disguise their intentions were based in the main on a central cover plan requested by Force 141 and developed in London by British intelligence. One part of this plan, known as Operation MINCEMEAT, was designed to convince the enemy high command that the objectives of the impending Allied offensive in the Mediterranean were Sardinia and the Peloponnesus rather than Sicily. The plan itself was simple but highly imaginative. With painstaking care a counterfeit letter from “Archie Nye” of the British War Office in London was drawn up and addressed to General Alexander. Indicating that a feint against Sicily would be a deception maneuver to screen an invasion of Sardinia, the letter suggested that General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the British commander in chief in the Middle East, veil his thrust against the Greek mainland by simulating action against the Dodecanese islands.

To get this letter into Axis hands, British intelligence obtained with great difficulty the body of a service man who had been a victim of pneumonia. Endowed with the fictitious personality of Major Martin of the Royal Marines, the corpse, whose lungs and general condition would indicate death by drowning, was carried in a sealed container by a British submarine to the coastal waters of Spain.

With a courier’s briefcase realistically chained to the wrist, the body was cast adrift at a predesignated spot where tide and current would carry it to shore. Three days after the submarine accomplished its mission, London received a telegram from the British Naval Attache in Madrid to the effect that the counterfeit body of Major Martin, “the man who never was,” had been picked up by friends of the Axis, who believed him to be an official messenger drowned after an aerial mishap. Subsequent scrutiny of the contents of the brief case, after the body had been duly transferred to British authorities in neutral Spain, indicated that Archie Nye’s letter had been opened, then refolded and replaced. The information reached the Germans who accepted it as authentic. On 12 May the OKW directed that measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnesus were to have priority over any others.

The other part of the HUSKY cover-plan, Plan BARCLAY, sought to inspire the Axis to give priority to maintaining and reinforcing its sizable forces in southern France and in the Balkans. If these areas appeared subject to imminent attack, the Germans would be loath to weaken them in favor of reinforcing Sicily. By the end of June, German intelligence could not yet decide the ultimate purpose of bogus shifts of Allied troop, along the North African coast and other signs of impending invasion. Corsica seemed in no immediate danger, but whether the Allies would attack the Balkans, Sicily, Sardinia, or any combination of targets was far from clear.

Not all the Axis commanders were deceived. To some the signs were unmistakable. Increased Allied air attacks, increased naval activity, and the concentration of ground forces near North African ports of embarkation argued for the contention that Sicily was next. While Allied feints were in process, some Allied planners began to wonder whether an earlier invasion of Sicily might be advantageous. If the Axis forces on Sicily were actually as confused and unprepared as they seemed, would it not be better to strike at the island just as soon as the Allies destroyed the Axis armies in North Africa? The prospect particular attracted planners in Washington. Several times during April and May they raised the question of the feasibility of what would be in effect an ad hoc planners were working on a plan for a surprise landing in Sicily in conjunction with an amphibious assault-Operation VULCAN-against the remaining Axis forces still holding out on Cape Bon.

To General Eisenhower and his principal subordinate commanders, however, an ad hoc HUSKY seemed impractical and almost impossible. As Eisenhower informed the Combined Chiefs in April, AFHQ was finding it difficult enough to meet the requirements of a formal invasion in the time required. To prepare alternate plans would undoubtedly cause a delay.

In response, General Marshall suggested that “your planners and mine may be too conservative in their analyses.” The element of surprise contained in a modified HUSKY, Marshall continued, and the lack of time afforced the enemy to strengthen his forces in Sicily lent tremendous advantages to an early HUSKY and “may justify your accepting calculated risks.” Planners were notoriously orthodox, Marshall added. They lacked the boldness and daring “which won great victories for Nelson and Grant and Lee.” Eisenhower’s conclusion, he noted, might “suggest a lack of adaptability.”

General Eisenhower was quick to reply. AFHQ planners were continually searching, he said, for ways to exploit success. Quite obviously, stronger invasion forces would be necessary after the Axis had had two months to prepare Sicily’s defenses. “I am willing,” he wrote,to take the risk of capturing important Southeastern airfields with no greater strength than that necessary to hang on to a bridgehead while all of the later strength is brought along to exploit the initial success.” But AFHQ was having enough trouble getting the ground, naval, and air commanders to agree on the landing sites; securing their agreement on an earlier operation would be almost impossible. Making his final decision on 10 May, Eisenhower concluded there would be no impromptu invasion to try to exploit the confusion among the Axis forces incident to their final defeat in North Africa. He so informed the Combined Chiefs on the following day. “We have not sufficient landing craft at the moment,” he wrote, “to carry a total of more than one division and, of this, assault landing craft for one regimental combat team only reconsider an attack with less than two divisions…too great a risk….” The prospect of having more landing ships and craft later in the year made a thoroughly planned operation infinitely more desirable.

Hardly had this matter been settled when a new CCS directive arrived. It embodied the decision reached at the TRIDENT Conference: to continue Mediterranean operations after Sicily with the purpose of eliminating Italy from the war and containing the maximum number of German forces. While Mr. Churchill was in Algiers immediately after TRIDENT, AFHQ continued its planning of future operations in the Mediterranean. Despite Churchill’s efforts to badger General Eisenhower and his staff into a direct attack on the Italian mainland, AFHQ studied several alternative courses: attacks against Sardinia and Corsica, followed by an invasion of the Tyrrhenian coast, and attacks against the toe and sale of the Italian boot. The chief tangible result of Churchill’s visit was his definite offer to make some eight British divisions then in the Middle East available to AFHQ.

General Rooks, the AFHQ G-3, on 3 June outlined the general scheme of AFHQ’s alternative operations. It differed from earlier plans drawn in May only in its elimination of MUSKET (an amphibious attack against Taranto) as a possibility. BUTTRESS, an assault on the toe near Reggio, and GOBLET, an assault near Crotone, were the operations proposed. Provided that conditions were auspicious, the two assaults would be closely correlated and the objective would he, not the mere occupation of the Calabrian peninsula, but the seizure of Calabrian ports and airfields to enable Allied forces to march overland and gain control of port facilities adequate to maintain a larger force in southern Italy. An advance up the west coast to Naples or a drive to Taranto and the southern Adriatic ports in the heel were alternatives.

Invasions of Sardinia and Corsica were considered to be easier. The Allies would need a separate headquarters to plan and execute the operation, though follow-up forces might be drawn from Sicily. The U.S. Fifth Army, under General Clark, appeared to be the logical headquarters for the task, which might be launched by 1 October. It was also decided that the Fifth Army would be directly under AFHQ’s command.

On 10 June, therefore, General Eisenhower directed General Clark to prepare plans for seizing Sardinia, a task Fifth Army completed by the end of the month. Eisenhower also asked General Giraud, French commander in North Africa, to name a commander and a staff to plan an assault on Corsica as a purely French operation.

The plans for seizing Sardinia and Corsica at this time were alternative courses to be followed in case AFHQ judged an attack on the Italian mainland too risky. This denoted a change in AFHQ strategy. Before the Casablanca Conference, General Eisenhower would have preferred Sardinia over Sicily if, at that time, the ultimate objective had been fixed as; the invasion and occupation of the Italian mainland. In early May, likewise, Eisenhower endorsed Rooks’ strategic concept that the next operations after Sicily should be the occupation of Sardinia and Corsica. Once the Allies controlled the airfields on those islands, they would be able to mount amphibious attacks against southern France or against any point along the western coast of Italy. But since the CCS after the TRIDENT Conference had defined AFHQ’s mission as eliminating Italy from the war, the occupation of Sardinia and Corsica and intensified aerial bombing attacks hardly seemed likely in June to be sufficient to force the Italian Government out of the war. The considered opinion of AFHQ’s intelligence agencies was that Italy would collapse only after the Allies had invaded the mainland and were marching on Naples and Rome.

By the last week of June, AFHQ had delegated the detailed planning of mainland operations to 15 Army Group (still using the code name Force 141), while the Fifth Army worked on the invasion of Sardinia. By then, BUTTRESS, the invasion of the toe, had been assigned to the British 10 Corps, and GOBLET, the invasion of the sole, to the British 5 Corps. No time schedule for these operations could be forecast, but their sequence seemed evident. BUTTRESS would have to wait one month after Sicily and GOBLET one month after BUTTRESS. Thus, if the Sicilian Campaign ended 1 August, BUTTRESS might be launched 1 September, GOBLET the following month. If no mainland operations were undertaken, the assault on Sardinia might be launched, Eisenhower believed, by 1 October.

These cautious plans for attack on the Italian mainland inspired little enthusiasm at AFHQ. BUTTRESS and GOBLET promised only a toe hold on the Calabrian peninsula. They offered small hope of striking a blow to Italy capable of eliminating it from the war; they did not even guarantee an area suitable as a base for future large-scale operations. What the Allies needed was a strike at Rome. But such a step demanded the prior seizure of ports. And this in turn led to preoccupation with Naples. Various proposals for overland approaches ran into the problem of the intervening terrain—the ground in southern Italy favored the defense. Until there were more definite indications of a weakening of Italian morale, Allied commanders fitted all the schemes for gaining adequate ports on the mainland into a cautious framework–capturing the toe of Italy first. The Allies were aware, however, that success in Sicily might open new and exciting courses of action.

SOURCE: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy: BY; Lieutenant Colonel Albert Nutter Garland & Howard McGaw Smyth (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Mediterranean (1-4); Axis Situation-Italy

World War Two: Mediterranean (1-2) Axis on the Defensive 1943


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.