World War Two: Sicily (2-10): Beachhead Secure

Straightening Out the Sag: Gradually, around midnight of 11 July, the antiaircraft fire died down. The tragic show was over. As groups of 504th paratroopers made their way toward Gela, their advance sometimes marked by fire fights with other Americans, a relative stillness stole over the front. It was the lull before the next phase of operations, aimed at moving the Seventh Army to the Yellow Line, which would signify that the beachhead was secure.

Though the 1st Division fought primarily a defensive battle on 11 July, it would go over to the offensive the following day. Late on the afternoon of 11 July, after his troops broke the Hermann Gӧring Division counterattack and drove the Italians from Gela, General Allen announced his intention in blunt words: “Sock the hell out of those damned Heinies,” he ordered, “before they can get set to hit us again.”

The first task was to straighten out the sag in the 1st Division front, and in the very early hours of 12 July, three American columns departed their defensive positions fronting Gela and set out to do just this. A composite force under Colonel Darby captured Monte Lapa and Monte Zai on the Gela-Butera road by daylight to cover the 26th Infantry advance up Highway 117. [N2-10-2] The 26th Infantry, reinforced by Lt. Colonel Ben Sternberg’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, drove toward Monte della Guardia and the Ponte Olivo airfield. Quickly clearing a small Italian roadblock just north of Gela, the troops pushed on to Castle Hill (Castelluccio), an eminence topped by the ruins of a medieval tower. There they came under fire from an artillery battalion of the Livorno Division, and at dawn the three forward battalions were somewhat scrambled in the ditches and ravines below the hill.

Daylight facilitated reorganization and permitted observed artillery fire on the Italian lines and artillery positions. After the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion pounded the rocky eminence with telling effect, and the cruiser Boise lobbed in 255 rounds, the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, surged forward, gained the crest and the tower, and rounded up the remnants of a Livorno Division rifle battalion. While the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, swung left and took Monte della Guardia, the 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry dashed forward to take Ponte Olivo airfield. By 1000, the combat team’s objectives were secure. A large portion of the sagging center had been moved forward five miles. The third American column, the 16th Infantry, had harder fighting as it advanced astride the Piano Lupo-Niscemi road to secure the division’s eastern flank and to protect the 26th Infantry’s right during the advance to the Ponte Olivo airfield. The 16th Infantry struck the bulk of the Hermann Gӧring Division, reinforced by those Tiger tanks that had withdrawn across the Acate River after the fight at Biazzo Ridge. Though Conrath had decided to withdraw, the German forward units had had no opportunity to begin their retirement. Early morning patrols had reported the disquieting news of the Germans’ presence, but Colonel Taylor ordered the advance as planned.

[N2-10-2 Darby’s command consisted of the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions; the 1st Battalion, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment (minus Company A); the 1st Battalion, 39th Engineer Combat Regiment; Company A, 83rd Chemical Weapon Battalion; and a platoon of medium tanks.]

Colonel Crawford’s 2nd Battalion, with Colonel Gorham’s paratroopers leading the way, moved out from positions west of Piano Lupo, crossed the road, and advanced up the east side of the road toward Casa del Priolo. Without opposition, the battalion reached the ridge line just south and east of the Casa and quickly occupied the trenches and emplacements earlier dug by the Germans. On reverse slopes to their left, the Americans could hear German troops digging in.

Soon after first light, about 0530, heavy German fire struck the 2nd Battalion from the north and northwest. West of the road, between the forward battalion elements and a single rifle company left near Piano Lupo, the Americans saw Germans threatening to cut off the route to the rear. When Colonel Crawford and Captain Bryce F. Denno, the executive officer, left their command post to visit the front-line units, Crawford took a couple of machine gun bullets in the neck and shoulder. Denno carried the battalion commander back to the command post and saw to his evacuation.

Three hours later, the remaining company came up from Piano Lupo bringing with it an M7 105-mm. howitzer and a half-track 75-mm. howitzer. About the same time, the German infantrymen across the road pulled back to the north. With the German threat removed, the 1st Battalion moved up in echelon to the right rear of the 2nd Battalion and faced east toward the Acate River valley.

Near 1000, southeast of Piano Lupo, Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. York’s 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, supported by a platoon of medium tanks, had to fight off a column of three German tanks moving northwest along Highway 115. This American force had gone into position shortly after midnight as part of the army reserve, with the mission of screening between the two forward combat teams of the 1st Division and protecting the division’s east flank. Artillery fire from the 7th Field Artillery Battalion, plus fires from the five medium tanks, destroyed two of the three German tanks. The third withdrew out of range. Half an hour later, American artillery fire broke up another German tank reconnaissance effort in the same area. One tank burned, the others withdrew. Thirty minutes later, six Mark VI tanks, supported by armored cars, half-tracks, and two platoons of infantry, moved down the Acate River valley and turned westward against the 16th Infantry positions near Casa del Priolo, while artillery fire from Niscemi gave support.

In the 2nd Battalion area, Denno moved his two howitzers into position to fire on the approaching enemy armor. Hardly had the 75-mm. piece got out of defilade when it was hit and destroyed by an enemy artillery round. The 105-mm. howitzer managed to get off five rounds before it was knocked out by tank fire. Colonel Gorham, trying to repeat his bazooka work of the previous day, was killed by a direct hit from an enemy tank.

Despite the threat, the 16th Infantry was in good shape. The regimental Cannon and Anti-tank Companies were up and in position, armored support was nearby, and the 7th Field Artillery Battalion was giving excellent fire support. The 5th and 3rd Field Artillery Battalions were taken off reinforcing missions elsewhere to lend their weight. [N2-10-3] Two platoons of medium tanks arrived near the 1st Battalion and added their fire power-though they lost four of their own tanks, they got three Tigers.

By noon the German threat had petered out, but by this time the forward infantry battalions were badly battered. Colonel Denholm, the 1st Battalion commander, had been shot and evacuated. The rifle companies were at less than half strength. The 2nd Battalion was left with perhaps zoo men, including the few surviving paratroopers.

Despite the ragged strength of his elements, Captain Denno moved his troops forward and occupied Casa del Priolo with ease. Colonel Taylor urged further movement, but Denno was reluctan this companies were tired and understrength, his flanks were open, the enemy appeared strong between the Casa and Niscemi. Denno prevailed on the regimental commander to hold what had been gained. Increased German artillery fire, growing in intensity just before dark and continuing until midnight, seemed to indicate a possible attack. In reality the Hermann Gӧring Division was covering its withdrawal. The Piano Lupo road junction remained under heavy interdictory fire throughout the night. But no more German soldiers or tanks molested Casa del Priolo.

[N2-10-3 The 7th Field Artillery Battalion fired 15 missions, 914 rounds during the day. The 32nd Field Artillery Battalion fired 7 missions, 304 rounds. The 5th Field Artillery Battalion fired 6 missions, 583 rounds.]

The 16th Infantry had not taken its objective, Niscemi, and a sag remained in the center of the Seventh Army front. But enemy resistance, despite the heavy artillery fire, was lessening, and on the following morning, 13 July, as the Hermann Gӧring Division continued to pull back toward Caltagirone, the Americans entered Niscemi unopposed. The 16th Infantry, particularly the 1st and 2nd Battalions, had had by far the severest fighting thus far in the invasion. These two battalions had been largely responsible for blunting the Hermann Gӧring Division’s counter-attacks. Each battalion had lost its commander. And each subsequently would receive a citation for its outstanding performance.

Casualty figures alone indicated the severity of the fighting between Piano Lupo and Casa del Priolo on the 11th and 12th of July. During these two days the 1st Battalion lost 36 dead, 73 wounded, and 9 missing, the 2nd Battalion lost 56 dead, 133 wounded, and 57 missing. But if the sag had not been eliminated by nightfall 12 July, the bulge represented no serious threat to the 1st Division. Rather, American units on the flanks were threatening to outflank the German salient.

On to the Yellow Line

On the Seventh Army right, the town of Comiso fell without opposition to the 157th Infantry early on II July. The regiment then looked to the west for the arrival of the 179th Infantry, which was to comprise the left arm of the division’s deep pincer movement against the Comiso airfield. Stopped at times by enemy artillery fire, slowed occasionally by long-range machine gun fire, the 179th Infantry in the early afternoon was ready to attack the airfield in conjunction with the 157th. Co-ordination between the two direct support artillery battalions was quickly established, and the artillery radio net was used from then on to regulate the moves of the infantry units.

Soon after 1600, as artillery fires lifted, two battalions of the 179th Infantry moved into the airfield proper from the west, driving the defenders into a battalion of the 157th Infantry coming in from the southeast. Within twenty minutes, the field was in American possession, along with 125 enemy planes (20 in operating condition), 200,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, and 500 bombs. One German plane escaped.

[N2-20-66 II Corps Rpt of Opns, pp. 5-6; 15 7th Infantry Regt S-I Jnl, 11 Jul 43 (which reports approximately 150 planes captured or destroyed on Comiso airfield in one entry; over 200, in serviceable condition, in another entry); 179th Infantry Regt S-I Jnl, 11 Jul 43; McLain MS, Sicily Campaign, pp. 8-9.]

Turning over the job of clearing the airfield to supporting engineers, the Infantry continued inland, the 179th Infantry going due north along the secondary road leading to the Acate River, the 157th Infantry turning due east, and then north toward Chiaramonte Gulfi.

Disregarding the boundary line between the Seventh U.S. and British Eighth Armies, a rifle company entered Ragusa, captured the mayor and chief of police, and seized the city’s switchboard intact. The rest of the day, in addition to policing the city, the Americans amused themselves by answering phone calls from anxious Italian garrisons that wanted to know what was going on near the beaches.

As night fell on II July, the company had still not made contact with the Canadians. The 180th Infantry, which had been having some trouble, finally untracked itself and on 12 July began advancing. Having been allowed a day’s breathing spell by the paratrooper action at Biazzo Ridge, the regimental commander was able to reorganize his units and now moved through Colonel Gavin’s lines. That evening, by 2000, Biscari was secured.

The movement to Biscari was heartening, for the performance of the regiment had hitherto been less than impressive. General Middleton considered relieving the commander, and went so far as to request General Bradley for a replacement. Bradley asked General Patton for Lieutenant Colonel William O. Darby, the 1st Ranger Battalion commander. Though Patton offered the young Ranger commander the I80th Infantry and an immediate promotion, Darby turned down the offer. He preferred to stay with his unit. With no other qualified replacement immediately available, Middleton made no change, except to send the assistant division commander to that headquarters to exercise close supervision.

The 179th Infantry, which had met only minor Italian resistance on 11 July, next day encountered stiffer opposition north of Comiso as it began to meet increasing numbers of Germans. This resulted from General Conrath’s response to urgent messages from General Guzzoni directing him to make an immediate withdrawal to the east coast. Pulling some of his units out of line in the Gela area, Conrath sent them to the northeast, his intention to occupy first a line along Highway 124 from Caltagirone east to Vizzini. The sudden thrust by the 1st Division prevented him from denuding his defenses until the American advance from Gela was stopped. The 180th Infantry push posed another problem, for if the regiment crossed the Acate River north of Biscari it would threaten to cut the German withdrawal route. Thus, small German units, primarily interested in securing the routes of withdrawal to Highway 124, moved northeast and across the routes of advance of the 179th Infantry. Just before noon, part of the Hermann Gӧring Division armored reconnaissance battalion jumped the forward units of the 179th Infantry. Not until late in the afternoon did the regiment stabilize the situation. Further advance toward Highway 124, the Seventh Army’s Yellow Line, it seemed, would be hotly contested.

In contrast, the 157th reached Chiaramonte Gulfi, fourteen road miles northeast of Comiso, without incident. Here for the first time since landing, Colonel Ankcorn was able to pull his scattered battalions together. At Ragusa, where the rifle company was waiting for Canadian troops to show up before rejoining the regiment, a misdirected shelling from a British artillery unit preceded the arrival of 1st Canadian Division elements.

The contact followed good gains on the part of the British 30 Corps on the Seventh Army right. The corps had reached the Pozzallo-Ispica-Rosolini line at the end of 11 July, and next day, while the British 51st Division advanced and took Palazzolo Acreide, the 1st Canadian Division cleared Modica, entered Ragusa, and moved ten miles beyond to Giarratana.

The 30 Corps advance, paralleling the 45th Division inland movement, threatened to interpose a strong Allied force between the Hermann Gӧring Division and those Axis forces opposing the British 13 Corps north of Syracuse. If the British 30 Corps moved into the gap between these two Axis forces-a gap of eighteen miles from Vizzini to Lentiniit would prevent the Hermann Gӧring Division from joining the defenders blocking the road to Catania and, ultimately, Messina.

Progress in the British 13 Corps zone was slower. The stubborn resistance of Group Schmalz prevented the 5th Division from advancing north from Syracuse on 11 July. Despite his defensive success, Schmalz was concerned, for his Kampfgruppe could not hold indefinitely against the stronger British forces. If the British broke into the Catania plain, they would block the bulk of the Axis forces from access to Messina and would, themselves, have an unobstructed passage to this key Sicilian city. Because no units backed Group Schmalz on the east coast, because he needed reinforcement from the main body of the Hermann Gӧring Division, Schmalz decided to fight a delaying action along the coastal highway (Highway 114) in the hope of preventing an Allied breakthrough. During the night of 11 July, Colonel Schmalz withdrew to a defensive line centered on Lentini. The withdrawal uncovered the port of Augusta, and on 12 July British troops entered the city. But advance north to the Catania plain was impossible, for Group Schmalz held firm.

Schmalz’s situation remained serious. He did not have enough troops to hold for long at Lentini. Nor did he have sufficient troops to close the gap to the west between him and the bulk of the Hermann Gӧring Division, which had just started to move northeast from Niscemi. The British 50th Division, paralleling the British 5th Division’s advance, headed directly toward the gap, having moved from its landing areas at Avola through Cassibile, Floridia, and Sortino.

On the west flank of the Seventh Army, the 3rd Division, heavily supplemented by armored and reconnaissance units, highly mobile and readily employable in the terrain ahead, had gained an ideal position from which to exploit inland to Highway 124. Such an advance would cut the Sixth Army in two at Enna, the important hilltop town almost in the geographical center of Sicily.

General Guzzoni was concerned by the deep penetration of the 3rd Division toward Campobello, fourteen miles north of Licata, for continued advance would cut off the Axis forces in the western part of the island and would threaten the Hermann Gӧring Division’s right flank. To counter this movement Guzzoni gathered together what forces he could.

During the night of 10 July, Colonel Venturi, who commanded the Italian 177th Bersaglieri Regiment, had arrived with one of his battalions at Favarotta, where a makeshift force of Italian artillerymen and motorcyclists had managed to halt 3rd Division progress along Highway 123. Taking over the Italian units then on the ground, Venturi created a provisional tactical group-Group Venturiand ordered a counterattack the next morning to recapture Licata.

West of Licata, along Highway 115, the Italian 207th Coastal Division organized a tactical group near the Naro River bridge with the mission of advancing east toward Licata. Other Italian units arriving during the night and going into defensive positions at Agrigento and Canicatti were alerted to the possibility that at least one might move through Naro to Palma di Montechiaro in order to assist the attack on Licata from the west.

Meanwhile, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division was hurriedly retracing its steps to the central part of the island. Like other Italian and German units, the German division had received no specific orders on 10 July on its probable future operations. But from fleeing Italian coastal units, General Rodt was able to learn that the original Sixth Army plan to throw the Allies back into the sea was not having great success. He therefore decided to try to stop the several American columns moving inland on the roads emanating from Licata. The result of this decision was to embroil elements of the division during the transfer from west to east in numerous small actions, generally in battalion strength.

Arriving at his new command post south of Pietraperzia (some twenty miles northeast of Campobello) about 0400, 11 July, Rodt learned more about the invasion. From additional reports he concluded that the Americans who had landed in Gela were advancing north toward Piazza Armerina, while those American forces which had landed in Licata planned to drive on through Campobello to Canicatti.

Feeling that he could not block both major thrusts, he decided to strike the closer one, the advance of the 3rd Division from Licata. Sending the bulk of Group Ens (the reinforced 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment Faldella, Losbarto, p. 152, and corrections made available to Mrs. Bauer) to screen against the thrust from Gela and to protect his east flank, he planned to move one battalion from Pietraperzia through Riesi in a flanking movement from the east against the American column moving toward Canicatti. This attack would relieve pressure on both the Livorno and 207th Coastal Divisions.

The reinforced reconnaissance battalion of the division, known as Group Neapel, was to block the main roads north and east from Canicatti and delay the Americans as long as possible. Group Fullriede (the reinforced 129th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) would deploy along a line from Canicattl through Delia to Sommatino to halt advances inland along the roads leading from Licata, Palma di Montechiaro, and Agrigento to Caltanissetta. His main hope was to disrupt the 3rd Division advance by dealing it a damaging blow on its deep eastern flank by means of the battalion attack from Riesi. [N2-10-11]

General Truscott, meanwhile, had called his senior commanders together on the evening of 10 July and issued his orders for the next day’s operation. The 7th Infantry was to thrust westward to take Palma di Montechiaro and the high ground just beyond; the 15th Infantry was to continue north along Highway 123 to seize Campobello; General Rose’s CC-A, operating between these two combat teams, was to seize Naro, then assemble on the high ground to the north and east and prepare for further action. The 30th Infantry, guarding the division’s exposed right flank, was to send one battalion cross-country to seize Riesi, there blocking an important avenue of approach into the division’s eastern flank.

[N2-10-11 MS #0-077 (Rodt) and sketch; MS # 0-095 (Senger); DB SUED, Meldungen, 12 Jul 43·The commitment of the reconnaissance battalion from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division is controversial. It seems that part of the battalion was also deployed between Palermo and Canicattl at major road intersections. It is difficult to reconstruct the actions of this unit from the scanty Axis reports available.] 

The 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel John A. Heintges), led the advance on Palma di Montechiaro early on 11 July. Crossing the Palma River bridge without incident, the battalion encountered heavy fire from Italian troops who occupied strong positions along a line of low hills just south of the town. Deploying his troops, building up a base of fire, and using supporting weapons to excellent advantage, Heintges pushed slowly ahead and drove the Italians into the town itself. As the battalion prepared to push into Palma around 1100, numerous white flags appeared on buildings in the town.

Colonel Heintges dispatched a smaIl patrol to accept the surrender. Unfortunately, civilians, not soldiers, had displayed the white flags, and the small American patrol came under fire. Two men were killed, another two were wounded. Enraged, Heintges gathered together ten men and personally led them across an open field to a building which seemed to house the heaviest fire. They reached the building safely, planted demolitions on the lower floor, withdrew a short distance, and set off the explosives. The blast signaled start of the attack, and the battalion swept into town behind its commander.

The Palma defenders had been reinforced by a task force that had moved down from the Naro River, and heavy fighting erupted up and down the main street. For two hours the battle raged from house to house. Around 1300, having had enough, the surviving Italians began pulling out westward along Highway 115. Quickly reorganizing his battalion, Heintges followed in close pursuit, rapidly cleared the hills on the south side of the highway, and dug in there to await the rest of the combat team.

To Heintges’ right, General Rose’s CC-A had begun to move against Naro. With a reconnaissance company forming a screen and the 3rd Battalion, 41st Armored Infantry, reinforced by a company of medium tanks as the advance guard, the combat command proceeded slowly along the narrow, secondary roads and trails northwest of Licata. The terrain was difficult, the roads were poor, but the only opposition came from snipers, scattered long-range machine gun fire, and a strafing attack by two German aircraft. For the first time in a procedure that would become standard, the armored infantrymen mounted the tanks and rode the last few miles.

On 11 July, CC-A consisted of the 66th Armored Regiment; the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment, minus the 1st Battalion; the 14th Armored Field Artillery Battalion; the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion (which, at this time, had only one battery ashore); reconnaissance, engineer, and service units. The remainder of the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion closed at 1600, 11 July 1943.

Just outside Naro, a civilian volunteered the information that the town was unoccupied and the population friendly. Unwilling to take any chances on this rather nebulous bit of information, Colonel Sidney R. Hinds, the 41st Armored Infantry commander, placed the civilian and his small son on the hood of his halftrack and led the column into town while small tank-infantry teams cleared the flanks and secured the exits. The civilian was right. By mid-morning of 11 July, CC-A was in possession of Naro.

Continuing toward Canicattl, six miles north, a company of tanks was briefly delayed by an attack delivered by friendly P-38 aircraft, which, fortunately, caused no damage to men or equipment. Two miles northeast of Naro, on the approaches to a pass between two hills, the company ran into stiff resistance. An Italian infantry battalion had moved up from Agrigento that morning, and despite repeated Allied air attacks, had reached the pass minutes before the American tanks arrived. Halting and deploying, the tankers called for infantry support. The battalion of armored infantrymen under Lt. Colonel Marshall L. Crawley, Jr., came forward, and an attack at 1600 made slow progress against hard-fighting Italians. With the approach of darkness, the Italians withdrew. By nightfall, the Americans were in possession of the pass and were four miles short of Canicatti.

The mistaken strafing by friendly planes turned out to be a harbinger of things to come for CC-A. During the week of 11 July, CC-A was to lose fourteen vehicles and seventy-five men from such attacks. The friendly pilots, who were briefed to be alert for the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, mistook the CC-A armored vehicles for enemy vehicles despite the rather prominent display of yellow smoke-the agreed signal for the identification of friendly vehicles. One pilot, 1st Lieutenant R. F. Hood (86th Fighter-Bomber Group), shot down over Naro by CC-A’s antiaircraft fire, said that he had seen the yellow smoke but had not been informed of its meaning. Later, the 15th Army Group changed the method of recognition from smoke to peIinants, and this apparently solved the problem.

The 15th RCT, meanwhile, was advancing north along Highway 123 from Favarotta to Campobello. Under Colonel Johnson’s plan of attack, the 3rd Battalion moved directly up the highway to capture the high ground west of Campobello, while the 1st Battalion made a wide, ninety-degree envelopment of the enemy left flank, using for its approach a series of north-south draws, well defiladed from Campobello and the highway. With the 2nd Battalion in reserve and the 39th Field Artillery Battalion and a battery of the 9th Field Artillery Battalion in support, the attack started at 0445.

Because the 1st Battalion, east of the highway, was delayed almost an hour in assembling, the 3rd Battalion moved out cautiously. At Station Favarotta the leading elements ran into Group Venturi, which was moving down the highway to attack Licata. For four hours, Americans and Italians battled for the commanding terrain around Favarotta, American artillery units firing with devastating effect on Italian artillery pieces and armored vehicles emplaced near the small town.

 [N2-10-1616 The 39th Field Artillery Battalion fired 1,484 rounds in the day’s actions; the battery of the 9th Field Artillery Battalion, 86 rounds.]

The end came after a rifle company worked its way around the right of the Italian line on the west side of the highway. Under fire from four or five enemy machine guns on the western edge of Favarotta, the company called for support. Because these particular enemy positions were defiladed from the artillery, Colonel Johnson ordered his available elements of the 15th Infantry Cannon Company, a platoon of three half-tracks mounting 75-mm. howitzers, to come forward. To do so, the half-tracks had to move along a stretch of road that had several hairpin turns.

The hairpin area was no place for halftracks to leave the road, and besides, the enemy had several artillery pieces registered on the treacherous curves. The first half-track stuck its nose out from behind a hill and into the open and three enemy salvos checker boarded the road. The half-track quickly reversed and got back to shelter. Another try five minutes later brought the same result. The platoon commander decided to dash down the road on a dead run. First withdrawing farther into defilade in order to get a running start, he burst out from behind the hill at thirty miles an hour. The others followed at fifty-yard intervals.

The enemy laid down at least four salvos, and the bursts seemed to be within inches of the half-tracks, but the half-tracks kept going and managed to stay on the road. Through the hairpin area safely, they dashed into position to give support. With this added fire, the 2nd Battalion overwhelmed the roadblock. Having lost three artillery pieces and more than half its automatic weapons, and with the infantry battalion seriously reduced strength, Group Venturi withdrew to Campobello.

In the meantime, the 1st Battalion, advancing almost without resistance on its wide enveloping movement, reached high ground east of Campobello at 1500, just as the 2nd Battalion, following Group Venturi from Favarotta, gained high ground west of the town. Though Campobello seemed ripe for a squeeze play, it was harder than it appeared.

That morning, the XII Corps had ordered Generale di Brigata Ottorino Schreiber, commander of the 207th Coastal Division, to go from his headquarters at Agrigento to Canicatti and assume command of a counterattack aimed at retaking Licata. Schreiber was to take over all the Italian and German forces already at Canicattl and those who would arrive during the day. Colonel Augusto de Laurentiis, commander of the military zone of Port Defense Zone at Palermo, assumed command of the coastal division.

At Canicattl around 1150, Schreiber planned to attack south along Highway 125 with Group Venturi, already engaged, and Group Neapel, dispatched by Rodt. Schreiber immediately sent Group Neapel to Campobello to reinforce Group Venturi, both to be supported by Italian artillery at Casa San Silvestro, two miles south of Canicattl General Schreiber’s counterattack, scheduled to jump off at 1350, never started. Group Venturi had been mauled too severely to think of offensive action, Group Neapel became involved in defending Campobello, and American artillery fire and the threat to his right flank posed by the advance of CC-A into Naro prompted General Schreiber to withdraw to Casa San Silvestro. Group Neapel remained at Campobello temporarily to cover the withdrawal At 1500, behind a thunderous concentration laid down by the 39th Field Artillery Battalion, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 15th Infantry advanced on Campobello. The attack progressed slowly but steadily until just short of town where concentrated German fire forced a halt.

Another artillery preparation and the squeeze of the two American battalions hurried the Germans out of town. At 1600 the 3rd Battalion entered Campobello. In the final push on Campobello, 1st Lieutenant Robert Craig, Company L, 15th Infantry, singlehandedly knocked out two enemy machine gun positions, killing eight Germans and wounding three others before he, himself, was killed. Lieutenant Craig was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

That day also, the 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry, marched over fourteen miles of rugged mountains, overcoming scattered enemy resistance, and occupied Riesi. After making physical contact with the 1st Division on its right, the 3rd Division at nightfall on 11 July-a day ahead of time-was in possession of its invasion objectives. With the Yellow Line now extended to Palma di Montechiaro, Naro, and Campobello, the division front formed a broad semicircle from Palma on the west to Poggio Lungo on the east. Now that he had carried out the order to gain the YeHow Line so as to protect the army group left flank, General Truscott had no further mission. Nor had General Patton been instructed on how to develop the situation beyond the Yellow Line. General Alexander had been less than explicit in his instructions-the Seventh Army was “to prevent enemy reserves moving eastwards against the left flank of Eighth Army.”

Unwilling to sit still, Truscott ordered General Rose to reconnoiter toward Canicattl during the evening of 11 July as the prelude to a possible attack the next day. Since Caltanissetta and Enna appeared to be logical objectives, Truscott decided to seize Canicatti as a necessary preliminary first step.

At Casa San Silvestro, General Schreiber’s hasty development of new defensive positions was interrupted at 1800 when an Allied bombing attack on Canicattl severely damaged the town and railroad station and produced heavy casualties in the Italian infantry battalion that had retired from Favarotta earlier that day.

Not long afterwards, Schreiber received word from the XII Corps. He was to counterattack the next morning with several new units being sent to him-an infantry battalion from the Assietta Division, an infantry battalion and an anti-tank gun company from the Aosta Division, and two Italian artillery battalions. Apprehensive over the developments in the Licata sector, Guzzoni apparently hoped that Schreiber’s counterattack on 12 July would not only delay further American advances inland but would also block the major avenues of approach into central Sicily.

At 2000, 11 July, Colonel Fritz Fullriede reported in to General Schreiber as the commander of all German troops in the area and placed himself and his units under the Italian general’s tactical leadership. Fullriede reported American tanks [N2-10-22] had driven through to points west of Canicatti, thus threatening to cut off German and Italian units south of that town. Fullriede told General Schreiber that he had assembled the bulk of his German force north of Canicatti, leaving detachments at Sommatino and Delia, small towns to the east of Canicatti, to cover his flanks. He urged the Italian commander to do the same with the Italian units. Fullriede also stated that he had received instructions from Sixth Army headquarters to switch to the defensive in the Canicatti area and to await the arrival of additional German units.

[N2-10-22 ; IT gga, Sitrep, 2000, 11 Jul 43. There is no confirmation of this In German sources.]

What then of Schreiber’s counterattack? Several telephone calls to X II Corps and to Sixth Army cleared up the confusion. Guzzoni had changed his mind. On 12 July, Schreiber was to limit his actions to local thrusts only, those that would not seriously deplete manpower and material. In view of his amended orders, General Schreiber decided to withdraw his units during the night to positions north of Canicatti and behind Group Fullriede’s lines. American patrols hung on tenaciously to the withdrawing Italians; one Italian artillery battery, unable to fall back quickly enough, blew up its 105-mm. guns and surrendered.

The leading elements of Group Ens were by then arriving at Pietraperzia. Colonel Karl Ens was slightly wounded when Allied aircraft bombed General Rodt’s headquarters, but he continued in command of his battle group. He ordered one battalion to a position just south of Pietraperzia, its counterattack through Riesi called off because the 3rd Division occupied the town; a second battalion to Barrafranca; and the third to Piazza Armerina, to gain contact with the Hermann Gӧring Division which was known to be somewhere off to the east.

The Herman Gӧring Division was in the precarious position of operating with a gap in its center. Between its left flank and the 15th Panzer Grenadier right was another gap, this one covered by the Livorno Division. But the combat efficiency of the Livorno Division was near zero. If the Italians could not, as seemed likely, prevent the Allies from breaking through to Highway 124, the Germans would suffer disastrous consequences.

General Keyes, the Seventh Army deputy commander, visited General Truscott on the morning of 12 July. Though Keyes had no information on further missions for the division, he agreed with Truscott that Canicatti should be seized as a prelude to further advances into central Sicily. At Canicatti Highway 123 from Licata met Highway 122 fromCaltanissetta. Except for the mountain pass at Naro, the secondary road northeast to Canicattl. was a valley thoroughfare practicable for mechanized forces. The road went through the pass (occupied by CC-A late on 11 July) and emerged on a plain in front of Canicatti. East from Canicatti a good secondary road ran to Delia, Sommatino, and Riesi, the base of the secondary road net in the upper part of the Licata-Agrigento-Canicatti triangle. Quite certain that General Patton would approve, Keyes told Truscott to go ahead and take Canicatti.

Truscott immediately telephoned General Rose to get CC-A moving on Canicatti. At the same time, he ordered the 30th Infantry to move to Naro, leaving its 3rd Battalion in Riesi. He notified the 15th Infantry to move forward on the right of the armored command to seize Delia and Sommatino and then swing to the west to aid the armor in taking Canicattl. The 7th Infantry was to guard the division left flank. After taking Canicatti, General Truscott planned to place eCA in division reserve as a mobile force for exploitation north or west.

Preceded by a five-minute preparation from the two supporting armored field artillery battalions, CC-A jumped off at 1330, 12 July, through the pass and down the road toward the southern outskirts of Canicatti. A tank-infantry team (with infantry on the tanks) leading the advance was still some distance from the town when observers saw a white flag flying over one of the buildings. Colonel Hinds and another officer jumped into a jeep and drove toward town to accept the surrender. Hardly had Hinds started forward when enemy artillery fire from high ground north of Canicatti began to pattern the road. At that moment, Hinds noted that the white flag was actually a Red Cross flag on top of a hospital. By then white sheets, towels, and other signs of surrender began to appear. Taking no more chances, Hinds deployed his force on both sides of the road and called in the supporting artillery.

The 14th and 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalions obliged. For thirty minutes the two artillery units methodically worked over the town from end to end, shifting their fires periodically to batter the German positions in the hills north of town. [N2-10-28] As the last artillery rounds were being fired, a company of tanks roared down the road and into town. There was no opposition. Canicatti was secured at 1500.

Scarcely pausing, the company of tanks drove out the northern exit from town and ran into Colonel Fullriede’s main battle position. After expending all its ammunition and losing one tank, the company pulled back to town to await reinforcements. A tank-infantry team swung to the right and secured the eastern edge of a ridge line a mile north of town. Though the Germans fought stubbornly, they were driven off the ridge line by 2000. By darkness, CC-A had Canicatti, but Group Fullriede held the bulk of the hill mass northwest of the town. The enemy was in poor shape, however.

American counterbattery fire had destroyed most of the supporting Italian artillery. The German battalion holding the ridge line had been severely mauled. Other small German detachments east of Canicattl-on the road to Delia and Sommatino-suffered heavy losses from American tank-infantry teams that overran their positions. Deeming his forces too small to hold longer, Colonel Fullriede, with General Schreiber’s approval, pulled back that evening to a new line along the railroad running from Serradifalco to San Cataldo.

[N2-10-28 The 14th Armored Field Artillery Battalion fired a total of 1,862 rounds during the day, most of them at this time. The 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion fired a total of 627 rounds.]

The 15th Infantry had contributed to Fullriede’s decision. It moved smartly and by dark of 12 July had both Delia and Sommatino, although the former would not be entirely secure until the following morning. Here, the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, had quite a stiff fight with part of the Group Ens battalion which had gone into position earlier in the day. With the entire important secondary east-west road from Canicattl east to Riesi in 3rd Division hands, General Truscott again faced the problem of what to do. The 7th Infantry was patrolling vigorously westward toward Agrigento; the 30th Infantry closed in Naro and prepared to relieve CC-A at Canicattl; the 15th Infantry, with the 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry, at Riesi, lay along the secondary road running east from Canicattl. Truscott could go either west against Agrigento or north toward Enna.

Canicattl had been taken with General Keyes’ approval, but to go any further would require, Truscott thought, a nod from General Patton himself. To go ahead and take Caltanissetta and Enna, Truscott would need at least one more regimental combat team to guard his lengthy western flank. His front was almost fifty miles long, and both flanks were open. Though patrols had traversed with relative ease the area between Riesi and Butera, the area was far from secure. Less than two miles east of Riesi lay a strong enemy roadblock, and no one knew for certain how many other such positions were in the general area. Until the 1st Division on the right moved up from Ponte Olivo, Truscott would have to classify the area as uncertain, though not particularly dangerous. Truscott would also need a stronger reserve, stronger than the 3rd Ranger Battalion, which for two days had been the only uncommitted unit.

General Keyes, who had spent the day with General Truscott observing the capture of Canicattl, phoned General Patton that evening. He reported the successful attack and stated that the situation was favorable for a prompt operation against either Agrigento or Caltanissetta. But, concluded General Keyes, “Neither will be instituted tomorrow without your instruction.”

General Patton could give no instruction because he had none from General Alexander. And the 15th Army Group commander was primarily concerned with protecting the British Eighth Army left flank. With continued reports from pilots on sizable enemy movements from west to east, Alexander remained apprehensive over the possibility of a massive enemy counterattack.[N2-10-31] And thus he was not anxious to move the 3rd Division, which provided a solid block on the army group left.

 [N2-10-31 General Alexander feared that the road complex in central Sicily would be used by the Germans to launch an attack against the Eighth Army. Until the day the Seventh Army captured Palermo, Alexander continued to be worried about this possibility. Alexander Despatch, pp. 12,24; 15th AGp Radios J,P, 13 Jul 47; 184, 16 Jul 43; and 0165, 18 Jul 43, all quoted in Seventh Army Rpt of Opns. These are indicative of Alexander’s concern for Eighth Army’s left flank. See also, Interv, Smyth with Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott (Ret.) and Major General William W. Eagles, 19 Apr 51.] 

Still, Keyes was loath to leave the 3rd Division completely sedentary. Before leaving Truscott’s headquarters, he verbally approved a reconnaissance in force in battalion strength toward Agrigento. At the same time, the division was to gain the heights northwest of Canicatti and eliminate the troublesome enemy roadblock southeast of Riesi. Beyond this, Keyes would not go, though on the following afternoon, apparently after consulting with General Patton, Keyes restated his approval in writing. These small movements were to develop in a surprising fashion. They would help General Alexander make up his mind on how to use the Seventh Army in Sicily.

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: Sicily (2-11) Allies Push Inland

World War Two: Sicily (2-9); Allied Airborne Reinforcement July 1943

 

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