The Fellre Conference: In the early summer of 1943 Benito Mussolini’s hopes and plans were all based on a successful resistance to an Allied invasion of the Italian homeland. Though convinced that the Axis had lost the war, he was caught in the dilemma between Hitler’s insistence on continuing the war and the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. The only solution seemed to be Victor Emmanuel’s, for the King had, in May, given Mussolini three memorandums suggesting a separation from Germany as a means of terminating the war. Mussolini’s halfhearted efforts to convince Hitler of the need for peace had failed. Perhaps the Western Allies might relent in their demand for absolute defeat. Mussolini had therefore asked the King to give him three more months to prepare for a peace move.
The Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Bastianini, on 15 June had presented the Duce with a memorandum suggesting the close collaboration of Italy with the Danubian countries as the path to a political solution of the war. On 1 July, when Mussolini met with Ion Antonescu, and listened to the Rumanian premier speak long and openly in advocating a joint approach to the Western Powers, he apparently agreed except with respect to the timing. What he needed, he said, was a better bargaining position, an improved military situation, a time when the Italian Anny would have repulsed the then impending invasion of Sicily or Sardinia. Sometime later that month, though neither his political nor his military situation had ameliorated, he orally requested his ambassador at Madrid, the Marchese Giacomo Paulucci di Calboli, to sound out the Western Powers on a compromise peace.
[N13-3 Bova Scoppa, Colloqui con due dittatori, pp. 112-15; Gheorghe Barbul, Memorial Antonesco: Ie IIIe Homme de l’Axe (Paris: Editions de la Couronne, 1950), vol. I, p. 98; Cf. Andreas Hiligruber. Hitler, Konig Carol und Marschall Antonescu: Die deutsch-rumiinischen Beziehungen 1938-1944 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1954), p. 171.]
The King, with great confidence in Mussolini’s political skill, gave no encouragement to those who since February had suggested the dismissal or arrest of the Duce in order to save Italy from total defeat. The King considered Mussolini much better qualified to achieve a compromise peace than any of his possible successors.
The entire Fascist propaganda system in early July turned to the theme of an impassioned defense of the homeland by the Italian armed forces and people. However indifferently the Italian soldier had previously fought in overseas theaters, Mussolini fully expected an improvement in fighting morale when the war reached Italian soil. He himself definitely proclaimed that the invaders would be hurled back at the shore line.
Always a journalist and therefore tending to regard the published account of an event as of equivalent importance to the action itself, Mussolini helped delude the Italian people with optimistic initial bulletins on the campaign in Sicily. The third bulletin, which on 12 July conceded the Allied occupation of the coast line from Licata to Augusta, pricked the bubble of popular enthusiasm and faith. With Allied success a rude jolt not only for the Italian people but for the Duce himself, who had believed his own propaganda, Mussolini had sent his impassioned plea to Germany for rescue.
To Hitler and the OKW the complete failure of the defense of Sicily appeared to be due essentially to the collapse of the Italian armed forces-the refusal of the Italian units to fight. Colonel Schmalz had submitted through channels a critical report on the conduct of Contrammiraglio Priamo Leonardi at Augusta, accusing Leonardi of blowing up his guns and throwing his ammunition into the sea before the Allies arrived. Forwarding this report to Mussolini, OKW seemed to request Leonardi’s punishment. In a personal reply to Mussolini’s message for help, Hitler declared that he shared the view of the seriousness of the developments in Sicily, promised additional planes, but sharply criticized the faulty Italian ground organization for its failure to provide for protective dispersal of planes on the ground: “In the last three weeks alone in Sicily and southern Italy,” he wrote, “there have been more than 320 fighter planes destroyed on the ground as a result of enemy aerial attack, a Majority of which could have been employed against the enemy.”
[N13-66 Translation of Msg, Mussolini to Hitler, sent through OKW, in folder OKL, von Rhoden Collection, 4576/5; Msg, Hitler to Mussolini (Italian translation), 13 Jul 43, IT 3029, folder V, an. I.]
Mussolini swallowed the bitter cup and on the same day that he received Hitler’s message, 13 July, he assured Field Marshal Kesselring that the XIV Panzer Corps might be committed in Sicily. The Comando Supremo, much closer to the visible manifestations of Anglo-American power than the OKW, now concluded that continuation of the war was without military justification. In a memorandum presented to Mussolini on 14 July, Ambrosio stated: The fate of Sicily must be considered sealed within a more or less brief period. The essential reasons for the rapid collapse are: the absolute lack of naval opposition and the weak aerial opposition during the approach to the coast, the debarkation, the penetration of the adversary and during our counter offensive reactions; the inadequacy of the armament and of the distribution of our coastal divisions; the scarcity and lack of strength of our defensive works; the slight efficiency (armament and mobility of Italian reserve divisions.
It is useless to search for the causes of this state of affairs: they are the result of three years of war begun with scanty means and during which the few resources have been burned up in Africa, in Russia, in the Balkans.
The memorandum continued by stating that the Allies would be able to invade the Italian peninsula at will, unless the main weight of the Axis effort were shifted to the Mediterranean. A second front would be opened up with the invasion of Italy, and as long as the Russian campaign continued there was no hope of Axis victory unless the constitution of such a second land front could be prevented If not, “it pertained to the highest political authorities to consider if it be not appropriate to spare the country further fighting and defeats, and to anticipate the end of the struggle, given that the final result will undoubtedly be worse within one or a few years.” What the Comando Supremo hoped for was that a meeting of the Duce and the Führer could be arranged for a real showdown.
Hitler’s immediate military advisers in OKW also hoped for a showdown, for they were disgusted with the feeble Italian resistance in Sicily, with the ineptitude of Mussolini’s government, and with the perpetual bickering’s of Comando Supremo. On 14 July the OKW revised and brought up to date plans ALARICH (occupation of northern Italy by Rommel’s Army Group B) and KONSTANTIN (reinforcement of German troops in the Balkans and Greece).
On 15 July, Jodl had reached the conclusion that Sicily could probably not be held. He advocated evacuating the troops from the island. Together with Rommel, he prepared a memorandum suggesting that Hitler make certain demands of Mussolini: for full unity of command in the Mediterranean theater under the Duce; for this supreme command over both German and Italian ground forces to be entrusted to a German commander in chief, most likely Rommel; for the key positions in Comando Supremo to be filled with officers whom the Germans considered competent and trustworthy; and for a unified command of the air forces under Feldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen.9
Meeting on 17 July with Doenitz, Keitel, Jodl, Rommel (who was present only during part of the conference), and others, Hitler admitted that Sicily could not be held. The units were to be denied no supplies, but ultimately they would have to withdraw. For the moment, until the issues with Italy were clarified, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was not to be moved to Sicily. If Italy collapsed politically, the Germans would execute ALARICH and take over the positions formerly held by Italian units. In this case, the Germans would have to withdraw to a shorter line in Italy, for “without the Italian army we cannot hold the entire Italian peninsula.” If there was no political collapse in Italy, the Germans could defend the entire Italian peninsula, but only with Mussolini’s full support. Jodl accordingly urged Hitler to present Mussolini with his memorandum of 15 July as an ultimatum.
[N13-9: 0KW/WFSt, KTB, I.-3I.VII.43, 15 Jul 43; MS #C-093 (Warlimont), pp. 27-29. Some inkling of this German plan reached the Italian Government. See Simoni, Berlino, Ambasciata, pp. 359-60; Dino Alfieri, Due dittatori di fronte (Milan: Rizzoli, 1948), p. 306.]
Or, Hitler had to convince the Duce of the need to take radical measures to improve Italian morale. The Italian Army was demoralized, Hitler declared, and only the most severe measures, like those taken by the French in 1917 or by Stalin in 1941, could save it. As for the competent Italian officers available, Rommel mentioned Roatta. Though the Germans considered him abler than the others, they did not trust him and thought him devoid of character. Hans Georg von Mackensen, Ambassador to Italy, suggested-and Hitler decided to say nothing about it to Mussolini–that Rommel become the German commander in chief in Italy. Still hoping that the Führer would present an ultimatum to Mussolini and secure unified command under a German general, Jodl urged the value of a political revolution in Italy that would eliminate the monarchy and retain Mussolini in full power.
[N13-1010 Min of Conf of CinC with Führer at Hq Wolfsschanze, 17 Jul 43, ONI, Führer Conferences, 1943; Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Private KTB, 9 May 1943-6 September 1943, entries for I7 and 18 July, copy in OCMH (X-743).]
On 18 July Mussolini adopted the view of the Comando Supremo and sent Hitler a long telegram. He refuted the charge that the Italian units had failed to fight; he criticized the delay in the dispatch of German reinforcements. The final paragraphs, which followed closely the Comando Supremo’s memorandum of 14 July, were ominous: In Italy the enemy has opened up the second front on which the enormous offensive possibilities of England and America will be concentrated, not only to conquer Italy but also to open up the Balkan route precisely at the moment in which Germany is heavily committed on the Russian front.
The sacrifice of my country cannot have as its principal purpose that of delaying a direct attack on Germany. Germany is stronger economically and militarily than Italy. My country, which entered the war three years earlier than was foreseen and after it already had engaged in two wars, has step by step exhausted itself, burning up its resources in Africa, Russia, and the Balkans.
I believe, Führer, that the time has come for us to examine the situation together attentively, in order to draw from it the consequences conforming to our common interests and to those of each of our countries. [N13-11] It was not, then, that the faithful Duce’s work was being sabotaged by his incompetent collaborators as Hitler had hitherto preferred to believe: Mussolini himself was weakening. The Führer immediately forgot his fears of being poisoned and discarded the scruples which had restrained him since the spring from visiting Italy. In the greatest haste arrangements were made for a new meeting of the two dictators at Feltre in northern Italy.
[N13-11 Telg, Mussolini to Hitler, 18 Jul 43, IT 3029. Rossi, in Comearrivammo, page 42, prints the final sentences of this telegram, states that it was drafted in the Coman do Supremo and presented to Mussolini on 18 July, but doubts that it was sent. It is filed in a folder marked Scambio messagi fra Führer El Duce, and the folder heading describes it as telescritto allegato 2, which would indicate that it was sent.]
Hitler’s whole purpose was to put Mussolini back on the rails. F or this reason he discarded the tentative plans for an ultimatum demanding German command in the Italian theater. In his own peculiar fashion Hitler again prepared to treat Mussolini with deference, to reinfuse him with faith in ultimate Axis victory, to concentrate his criticisms on the work of Mussolini’s subordinates, and at the same time to offer whatever was possible in the way of German reinforcements.
Mussolini was accompanied to Feltre by Ambrosio and Bastianini. Ambassador Dino Alfieri flew down from Berlin. The Italian delegation was not briefed in advance: neither the military men nor the diplomats had any knowledge of the purpose of the meeting. The military men, however, had shown Mussolini the complete military weakness of Italy, and had prepared him for a frank declaration to Hitler that Italy could not continue the war.
The plenary session consisted of one item: a harangue by Hitler which lasted a couple of hours and left everyone but himself worn out. Hitler made it quite clear that the faulty Italian ground organization was responsible for plane losses in Sicily and southern Italy. “If, as had happened,” he declared, “some 300 or 400 machines out of 500 or 600 were destroyed on the ground, that meant that the organization was bad.” The Führer said it was “absolutely intolerable that in Sicily, through unskillful and unsoldierly conduct of the ground personnel, on one day 27 machines should have been destroyed on the ground and on another day 25.”
Turning to the question of Sicily, Hitler said that “he was of two minds on this subject. If it were possible to insure the supply line, Sicily should be defended and at a certain point the defense should be transformed into an attack.” He advised that Reichsmarshall Gӧring was prepared to concentrate a large number of flak batteries at Messina. It would be far better, Hitler urged, to fight the decisive battle in Sicily rather than in Italy. If such a decision were made, “Germany would send superior troops down there. Such a decision required great capacity in the way of leadership. What was now done in Sicily could not be recalled. Many German units must be dispatched down there in order first to establish a defensive front and, following that, a front suitable for an attack.” Italy, in such a case, should send additional divisions. Germany, Hitler said, did not have 2,000 planes available but would send two special bomber groups.
[N13-1313 “Memorandum of Conversation Between the Führer and the Duce in North Italy on July [9, [943,” (translation from the German) U.S. Department of State Bulletin, XV, No. 349 (6 October [946) 607-[4, 639; Breve sintesi questioni militari trattate al convegno di F eltre [9 luglio [943, IT 303 [ II; Relazione sopra Ie dichiarazioni del Führer in oCC-Asione del suo incontro col Duce nell’ [talia settentrionale il [9/7/1943, IT 3029. With some artful deletions of Hitler’s sharpest specific criticisms, this document is printed by Rossi, in Come arrivammo, pages 324-35]
During the course of Hitler’s speech reports were brought in to Mussolini that the Americans were bombing Rome. Following a few questions by the Italian representatives the session ended. Hitler and Mussolini then had lunch together, apart from the rest.
Ambrosio was perplexed and disillusioned. After the luncheon he, Bastianini, and Alfieri saw Mussolini and bitterly reproached him for his silence. They urged that it was his duty to save Italy from the situation into which he had plunged it, and that he should take the opportunity which still remained for direct contact with Hitler and explain the true situation.
Mussolini, a sick man, listened impassively-made some dry remarks-but failed to pluck up his courage. Ambrosio had two discussions with Keitel during the course of the Feltre Conference. During the automobile trip from the Treviso airfield to the Villa Gaggia at Feltre the conversation was a brief bit of fencing, Ambrosio revealing what was in his mind and Keitel what was in Hitler’s. Keitel asked for information regarding Sicily and Ambrosio asked how things were going on the Russian front. The German replied in substance that they were wearing the Russians down. “This,” said Ambrosio, “is not an active program but the renunciation of the initiative in operations. In substance the Axis is besieged, it is closed in a ring; it is necessary to get out. What prospects have you for doing this?” The question was eluded and the subject switched back to the Mediterranean.
[N13-15 Comando Supremo, 20 July 1943, Convegno ifi Feltre (19 luglio 1943): Sintesi primo colloquio Ecc. Ambrosio Mar. Keitel, IT 3029, folder VII, an. 3. Rossi, in Come arriuammo, pages 335-36 prints a portion of this document, but his whole document, (pages 335-38) is incomplete and is a fusion of the record of two separate discussions.]
On the return trip Keitel again rode with Ambrosio, and, at Hitler’s orders, the discussion was confined to those matters which Hitler had mentioned in his speech. If Italy would contribute two additional divisions, preferably Alpine divisions, then Germany, said Keitel, was prepared to send two additional divisions to reinforce Sicily and southern Italy. It was up to Italy to decide whether or not Sicily would be defended to the limit.
Keitel declared that the two additional German divisions would be sent immediately once the Italian High Command made the decision to fight to the limit in Sicily. There were three essential points on which the OKW would insist: (1) From the tactical point of view, the increase of the forces so as to permit the forming of a strong line and withdrawal of the mobile forces (15th Panzer Grenadier Division and Hermann Gӧring Division) to a secondary line; (2) From the operational point of view, the assurance of supplies and the creation of a strong defense in Calabria and Puglia; (3) From the organizational point of view, firmness and rigor in arrangements giving maximum liberty to the military authorities of southern Italy for organizing and strengthening the defense-aviation fields, railroads, roads, depots, etc. Keitel reiterated the demand for a formal pledge by Italy to fight to the limit in Sicily and to accept the three points. Ambrosio promised to examine the possibility of sending two additional Italian divisions to Calabria. But as to the three points, which concerned the civil power, the decision would be placed before Mussolini.
[N13-16 Comando Supremo, 20 July 1943, Convegno di Feltre, IT 3029, folder VII, an. 4; OKW/WFSt, KTB, I.Vll.-31.VII.43, 19 Jul 43; Cf. Rossi, Come arrivammo, pp. 336-38.]
Planning the Western Sweep
This friction on the Axis side obviously could not be so quickly nor so happily resolved as the relatively minor discord in the Allied camp. Having returned during the evening of 17 July from his visit to General Alexander’s headquarters in North Africa, General Patton the next day issued his directive spelling out Palermo as the Seventh Army objective. General Bradley’s II Corps (the 1st and 45th Divisions) was assigned a dual mission. First of all, using the 1st Division, the corps was to gain control of the western half of the Enna loop (the eastern half of the loop and Enna belonged to the Eighth Army). Thereupon, the 1st Division was to strike for the north coast along the axis Alimena-Petralia-Cefalu, thus paralleling the advance of the British 30 Corps, which was expected to reach the north coast by using the axis of Highway 117 through Enna-Nicosia-Santo Stefano di Camastra.
Meanwhile, the 45th Division was to advance to the northwest toward Palermo, using Highway 121 as its main axis of advance. Once the division reached the north coast road, it was to wheel to the west and, if necessary, strike at Palermo. II Corps’ eastern boundary, and the army’s as well, was a line running due north from Enna to the north coast just west of Santo Stefano di Camastra. The corps’ western boundary, and the boundary with the Provisional Corps, ran from Serradifalco (entered by the 3rd Division on 18 July) northwestward to Palermo, paralleling Highway 121.
On the II Corps left, the Provisional Corps was assigned the zone from Highway 121 (exclusive) on the east to the sea on the west and north. With the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions, General Keyes was to advance on Palermo from the south and southwest. The 2nd Armored Division was to remain in army reserve, follow the Provisional Corps advance, and be prepared to exploit a breakthrough or to extend the envelopment of Palermo to the west.
General Patton designated three phase lines for control purposes, but he specified that the units were not to stop unless ordered to do so. He expected to coordinate the final assault on Palermo himself, and he planned to use the 2nd Armored Division for the final thrust into the city.
[N13-17 Seventh Army Directive, 18 Jul 43, in Seventh Army Rpt of Opns, p. D-11, with accompanying opns map on p. D-12; Truscott, Command Missions, p. 222; Harry H. Semmes, Portrait of Patton (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955), p. 162.]
Though the mountains in western Sicily are not high or rugged, they are not easy to cross. A network of secondary roads, spaced at intervals of about twenty miles, are good near the coast but become progressively poorer inland. Following the intermediate slopes and ridges rather than the valleys because of winter floods, the roads are easily blocked by demolition work. The towns, located on hilltops or on the upper slopes of the mountains, are difficult to approach, for the access roads are usually steep. The Platani and Belice Rivers, though insignificant as water courses during the dry summer season, run through valleys which offer excellent sites for interrupting road traffic. The Salso River, a potential barrier, had already been crossed by the 1st and 45th Divisions. The mountainous terrain and the poor road network would constitute the main obstacles to a rapid advance.
Seventh Army intelligence officers painted a picture of fluidity on 19 July, noting the difficulty of locating the enemy front. They deemed the Italian units capable of only limited defensive action, but the Germans might be dangerous, even though they seemed to have withdrawn from the entire Seventh Army front in favor of final defensive positions protecting Messina.
Four hours after Patton ordered the advance to Palermo, Seventh Army received General Alexander’s written confirmation of approval. But instead of giving Patton carte blanche, Alexander imposed certain restrictions, conditions which he had not indicated to Patton during the conference the preceding day. Now Alexander said go ahead, and exploit, but first, capture Petralia; then send detachments to the north coast from Petralia, cutting the island in two at Campofelice, eleven miles west of Cefalu; and, finally, establish the Seventh Army along a line running from Campofelice on the north coast, through Petralia, Santa Caterina, Caltanissetta, to Agrigento on the south coast-a long, curving line established across the width of Sicily that would provide protection to Eighth Army’s rear as it swung around Mount Etna. Only then, after establishing this line, was the Seventh Army to advance and mop up the western end of the island. Alexander was willing to let Patton exploit, but only on his terms, and not on the terms laid down in the 17 July conference.
General Gay, the Seventh Army’s chief of staff, apparently kept Alexander’s order from reaching the army commander. Instead, Gay used only the first portion of the message as an order to General Bradley to modify II Corps’ instructions: the 1st Division was to advance through Petralia to the north coast, coming out now at Campofelice instead of at Cefaill. Gay ignored the rest of the message.
[N13-20 Seventh Army G-3 Jnl, entry 85, 18 Jul 43, TOO 2256, is a message to II Corps; II Corps G-3 Jnl, entry 43, 19 Jul 43, TOR 0401, is the message received in II Corps headquarters. According to Semmes (Portrait of Patton, page 168), Gay saw to it that the message (after taking out the portion he planned to use) was a long time in being decoded and then, saying the original message had been garbled, asked 15th Army Group for a repeat. By the time this process was completed, the Seventh Army was on the outskirts of Palermo.]
There is no verification in Seventh Army’s G-3 Journal for this statement. But if Gay did hold General Bradley was disappointed at the role assigned to II Corps. He had wanted all along to join with the Eighth Army in a drive against Messina. Indeed, the II Corps commander completely misinterpreted the motives behind Patton’s visit to Alexander’s headquarters on the 17th. Bradley thought that Patton was going to propose using the Seventh Army against Messina. Thus, Gay’s message to II Corps on 19 July meant to General Bradley that the worst had come: Seventh Army would be confined to the western half of the island where “there was little to be gained” and where “there was no glory in the capture of hills, docile peasants, and spiritless soldiers.” General Bradley sided with an officer from General Patton’s staff who noted that after the Seventh Army reached the north coast “we can sit comfortably on our prats while Monty finishes the goddam war.”
But II Corps was encountering problems of its own in the loop area south and west of Enna. The corps mission had called for the securing of Caltanissetta and Highway 122 by dark on 19 July. The first objective had been taken care of. To secure the highway within II Corps’ zone, which would also secure up the message, he almost certainly would also have seen to it that no entry would be made in the journal where Patton would probably have picked it up. Semmes further states that Patton did not know of Gay’s action until days afterward. Be that as it may, the Seventh Army did not delay the start of the advance, moved without the southern half of the loop area being established, and reached Palermo before cutting the island in two. Semmes’ story, apparently based on an interview with General Gay, gains strong credence from the course of these operations.
The American portion of the loop, General Bradley decided that, while the 45th Division was taking Santa Caterina, the 1st Division would move as far as Santa Caterina, turn eastward on Highway 121, and take the small town of Villarosa, seven miles northwest of Enna. With elements of the two divisions along this road, Highway 122 would be secure from an enemy attack from the north. The Canadians on the right, then nearing Enna, would secure the highway from the east.
Accordingly, the 18th RCT moved to Santa Caterina on the evening of 18 July, and next morning, the 19th, started eastward toward Villarosa. Though some German resistance slowed the 18th RCT at the stream crossing some three miles west of Villarosa, by noon the combat team had forced a crossing and was on high grand overlooking the approaches to the town.
By this time, however, the new Seventh Army directive had arrived. This called for a change in the 1st Division’s mission, from one of securing the loop area to me of pushing on to the north coast. Before General Bradley could draw up his own plans to carry out the army’s directive, word came from the 1st Division that the British 30 Corps, which had finally cleared Piazza Armerina on the morning of the 17th but then had been delayed by strong German resistance farther along Highway 117, had also received new orders: the 30 Corps was now to bypass Enna to the east and advance instead on Leonforte and Assom. The 1st Canadian Division, which had been leading the corps advance, was now to swing its axis of advance to the north.
This was in keeping with a new Eighth Army plan which called for a renewed push on Messina. On the night of 17 July, the British 50th Division had tried once again to break through into Catania; again, a breakthrough had not been made. General Montgomery then decided to shift the weight of his advance to the 13 Corps left flank. He brought the British 5th Division up on the left of the 50th Division and directed an attack toward Mister-bianco. But here, too, the Germans offered stubborn resistance, and the 5th Division could do little more than draw even with the 50th Division’s bridgehead north of the Simeto River.
It soon became apparent to General Montgomery that the Eighth Army was not strong enough to encircle Mount Etna on both sides. Accordingly, he got General Alexander’s permission to bring in his reserve, the British 78th Infantry Division, from North Africa. This would enable the Eighth Army to shift the main axis of its advance from the east coast highway to the western side of Mount Etna. If sufficient pressure could be brought to bear there, Montgomery felt, the Germans would have to withdraw from their Catania positions. Until the 78th Division arrived, the 13 Corps, on the east, was to confine itself to patrol activity to keep the Germans pinned down at Catania. The 30 Corps was to continue pushing the 1st Canadian Division around Mount Etna, not on the route originally planned, that through Nicosia and Randazzo, but instead, to the northeast. Before reaching Enna, the division was to take the secondary road leading from Highway 117 to Leonforte, and push along Highway 121 toward Agira and Regalbuto. General Montgomery planned to commit the 78th Division in the 30 Corps zone, but he could not do so before I August. On that date, Montgomery hoped to start the final offensive to throw the Axis forces out of Sicily.
General Bradley, whose II Corps had been tied in tightly with the 30 Corps since 11 July, felt that the change in British plans endangered his right flank too much to be ignored. Unwilling to take any chances on the Germans using this entree from Enna into his rear areas, Bradley dashed off a note to General Leese and told him of his intention to take Enna: “I have just learned you have side-slipped Enna leaving my flank exposed. Accordingly, we are proceeding to take Enna at once even though it is in your sector. I assume we have the right to use any of your roads for this attack.” Leese, who had assumed that his staff had notified the Americans of the bypassing of Enna and the shift in the Canadian axis of advance, replied immediately. Bradley, he said, was to use whatever roads he needed to take the town.
[N13-23 Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, p. 143; II Corps G-3 Jnl, entry 61,19 Jul 43; II Corps G-3 Jnl, entry 90, 20 Jul 43 (a letter from Bradley to Patton outlining what had happened at Enna and giving Bradley’s strong feelings toward having his right flank left open); II Corps G-3 Jnl, entry 96, 20 Jul 43 (Bradley’s letter to Leese).]
With this settled, Bradley then told General Allen to send the 18th RCT into Villarosa and then against Enna from the west, while the 16th RCT advanced to the north from its Salso River crossings to strike Enna from the south. Until such time as the Enna situation was clarified, General Bradley was going to send the 1st Division neither to Petralia nor to the north coast.
The 45th Division, on the other hand, was not involved in the Enna crisis. To General Middleton’s Thunderbirds, then, fell the task of cutting the island in two. By the afternoon of 18 July, the 45th Division was ready to go for the north coast. The 180th RCT began moving up to pass through the 157th RCT. Once this had been accomplished, and the Italian roadblock at Portell a di Recattivo cleared, the 180th was to continue pushing just as hard as it could along Highway 121. The north coast was eighty miles away; it would take aggressive and hard-hitting leadership to get the 45th Division to the sea.
Elsewhere, the Provisional Corps, without a worrisome problem like that faced by General Bradley’s II Corps, regrouped its newly assigned forces for the thrust at Palermo. Drawing a boundary that extended from Agrigento northwestward between Highway 115 on the south and Highway 118 on the north, General Keyes disposed the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforced by the 39th RCT (from the 9th Division), on the left and the 3rd Infantry Division on the right. Both divisions were to advance by phase lines; both were to advance within their zones and were not to halt at the phase lines unless ordered to do so by corps headquarters; and both were to get to the north coast and to Palermo as rapidly as possible.
By the late afternoon of 18 July, the Provisional Corps was ready to go for Palermo. In a meeting held during the early evening, General Keyes passed the word: the attack would begin at 0500 the following morning, 19 July.
The Pounce on Palermo
Jumping off on 19 July for Palermo, more than a hundred miles away, the Provisional Corps would strike through rough, mountainous country for the first fifty miles, then through forty miles of undulating interior plateau terrain, and finally through rugged highlands blocking Palermo on the west and south.
The advance turned out to be little more than a road march. Swarms of planes struck at targets of opportunity. Naval vessels standing by to render gunfire support were, as it turned out, not needed. On this same day, Hitler and Mussolini were meeting at Feltre; on this day, too, more than 500 U.S. heavy bombers struck in the first large-scale Allied bombing attack on Rome.
The initial advance forecast the shape of things to come. Paratroopers of Colonel Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry swept through the 39th Infantry two hours ahead of schedule, and six hours later had crossed the Platani River, seventeen miles from their starting point. A demolished bridge had threatened to hold up the advance, but quick engineer work produced a vehicular bypass, and the movement continued with hardly a stop. Reconnaissance troops screening the advance brushed aside the few opposing Italians. A few rounds of cannon fire, a few rounds of small arms fire, the deployment of a squad or two of infantry, were usually enough to convince the Italians they had no chance of success.
The most serious resistance occurred in early afternoon, when an Italian anti-tank gun concealed in a pillbox across the Verdura River fired on the lead American vehicle-a 75-mm. gun mounted on a half-track. Backing off, the half-track slid into a fairly deep ditch. Fortunately, when the vehicle came to rest, its gun pointed directly at the pillbox. The gunner opened fire at once. As the reconnaissance troops deployed along the river bank, and as the supporting weapons-machine guns, mortars, and several 37-mm. guns-began to fire, seventy Italian soldiers came out of their positions with their hands held high. By nightfall, when General Keyes halted the advance, the paratroopers had gained twenty-five miles.
The second day’s advance was the same-scattered Italian garrisons offering little resistance, occasional mine fields, and surrendering enemy troops. By the end of the day, the Americans were in possession of Sciacca and its abandoned airfield and had moved another twenty miles toward Palermo.
Convinced that the lack of resistance offered an opportunity for armored exploitation, Keyes decided to commit General Gaffey’s 2nd Armored Division. With General Patton’s approval, Keyes ordered Gaffey to assemble his division, which stretched over an area of more than twenty-five miles between Ribera and Agrigento. While the armor assembled, Keyes formed Task Force X, composed of the two Ranger Battalions (reinforced by artillery and the 39th Infantry, which had landed just three days before ) , and put it under Colonel Darby for another push to the west. The task force was to secure the Belice River line astride Highway 115, and then push on through Castel vetrano to establish a line covering the flank of the armored division as it moved into an assembly area along the Belice River line.
At the same time, Keyes turned Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division north to cover the armored division’s assembly along the Belice River line on the east. From this assembly area, the 2nd Armored Division was to thrust to the northeast to take Palermo.
Wasting little time assembling the units to make up Task Force X, Darby moved out from Menfi on the morning of 21 July. Because the Italians had demolished both the highway and railroad bridges across the Belice River and because the river was a hundred feet wide and four feet deep, engineer support was needed to get the task force vehicles across. Pending the arrival of engineers, Darby directed one of the Ranger battalions to ford the river to establish a bridgehead. Pillboxes and field fortifications on the far side might have been used to obstruct the crossing, but the Italians had abandoned them. By the time the battalion had a secure bridgehead, Rose’s CC-A of the 2nd Armored Division had arrived. His engineers lost little time constructing a bridge.
While waiting for the bridge, a reconnaissance platoon of Darby’s force managed to snake several light tanks and jeeps across the river. After removing a mine field along the highway, the platoon raced to Castelvetrano where four hundred Italians surrendered without a fight. After a bridge was in, Darby sent his regiment of infantry, the 39th under Lieutenant Colonel John J. Toffey, Jr., in pursuit of the reconnaissance platoon, which was by then rushing toward Akamo, thirty-five miles to the northeast and only twenty-seven miles from Palermo. At Akamo 800 Italians surrendered and a large stock of gasoline was discovered.
Moving like wildfire through the Task Force X zone of advance, Rangers and infantry collected almost 4,000 Italian prisoners that day. The time was obviously ripe for a swift thrust and Rose moved his units across the river and prepared for what Patton would later characterize-despite the paucity of opposition-as “a classic example of the use of tanks.”
Meanwhile, Truscott’s 3rd Division, after marching to the Belice River in three days of grueling effort, was also ready to drive on Palermo. The division’s advance, like that of the units following the coastal road, had been marked for the most part by only spotty enemy resistance. By this time, too, the 45th Division, which had been driving for Palermo, had been diverted farther to the east, and its plan now was to come out on the north coast near Termini Immerse, thirty miles east of Palermo.
As events developed, there was to be no concentrated, powerful assault on Palermo. Both the 3rd Division and the 2nd Armored Division by the evening of 22 July were in position to launch such an assault. But the city’s defenders and the civilian population had had quite enough of the war and were willing to give up without a fight. In fact, one delegation of civilians arrived at the 7th Infantry’s command post in the early afternoon of the 22nd and offered to surrender the city to Brigadier General William W. Eagles, the 3rd Division’s assistant commander. The offer was declined; General Eagles had instructions from General Truscott that General Keyes was to accept the surrender of the city.
General Marciani, commander of the Italian defense forces, fell prisoner to the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, and the final act of the drama devolved on Generale di Brigata Giuseppe Molinero, the commander of Port Defense Force, Palermo. Late in the afternoon, one of CC-A’s patrols returned with General Molinero; the patrol had pushed into the city without encountering any opposition.
Molinero offered to surrender the city to General Keyes. Together with the Italian general, Generals Keyes and Gaffey entered Palermo. At the royal palace, shortly after 1900, 22 July, the American officers formally accepted Palermo’s surrender. With this, General Patton, trying to get up to the armored division’s leading elements, sent word to occupy the city. At 2000, from the east and from the west, the two American divisions marched into the largest city on the island. General Patton, with Colonel Perry, the 2nd Armored Division’s chief of staff, serving as guide, threaded his way into Palermo an hour later. Palermo was his.
After the capture of Palermo, only the now isolated ports of western Sicily remained to be mopped up. Early on 23 July, Keyes instructed General Ridgway to shift the 82nd Airborne Division from the Belice River line, move behind the 2nd Armored Division, and seize Trapani and the extreme western tip of the island. Colonel White’s CC-B, 2nd Armored Division, was to take care of the port cities along the north coast east of that line, a move accomplished the same day. To assist in the mopping-up operations, General Ridgway was given Colonel Darby’s Task Force X.
Accordingly, the airborne division commander directed Darby to Marsala (twenty-seven miles west of Castelvetrano); Colonel Gavin and the 505th Parachute Infantry to Trapani (nineteen miles north of Marsala); and Colonel Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry to Castellammare (forty miles north of Castelvetrano ).
At noon on 23 July, Colonel Darby moved the 39th RCT west along Highway 115 toward Marsala. By late afternoon the RCT was halted by a demolished bridge over the Marsala River and as engineers moved forward to construct a bypass, enemy artillery began shelling the crossing site. Colonel Toffey, the RCT commander, thereupon decided to halt his advance for the night. Early the following morning, 24 July, Toffey sent two battalions across the river under covering fire laid down by the 26th Field Artillery Battalion and quickly overran the city.
Meanwhile, on the 23rd, Colonel Gavin had started his 505th Parachute Infantry moving by truck toward his objective Trapani. Without opposition, the column rolled through Santa Ninfa and Salemi, then to Highway 113, where it turned and started west for Trapani. The motor march proved to be a pleasant parade; all along the route west of Santa Ninfa the local population exuberantly welcomed the paratroopers, showering the Americans with fruit, bread, and chocolate-the fruit obviously home-grown, the chocolate obviously pilfered from abandoned Italian military stores.
The mood suddenly changed at 1600 just before the column reached the eastern outskirts of Trapani. Here, the lead vehicles ran into a defended roadblock and mine fields, and as the advance guard de-trucked and deployed to return the small arms fire, the Italians, from positions on the hills southwest and north of the city, laid down a concentration of artillery fire on the road.
F or the next two or three hours the Italians kept up a steady drumfire of largely ineffective shelling. While the paratroopers moved against the roadblock, the 376th Parachute Field Artillery and the 34th Field Artillery Battalions rolled onto position and began answering the Italian fire. This fire, coupled with the clearing of the roadblock and the envelopment of the positions in the hills, persuaded Contrammiraglio Giuseppe Manfredi, commander of the Trapani naval district, to give up the fight, the city, and his sword and field glasses. Even as Gavin’s men entered Trapani, the trucks which had transported the unit this far turned and headed back to shuttle the 504th Parachute Infantry to its objective on the north coast. By noon, 24 July, the 504th was in Alcamo; by 1730, in Castellammare.
The Provisional Corps’ combat operations in Sicily ended on this happy note. At a cost of 272 casualties (57 killed, 170 wounded, 45 missing), the corps captured 53,000 of the enemy (mostly Italians), and killed or wounded another 2,900. In addition, a grab bag filled with 189 guns of 75-mm. caliber or larger, 359 vehicles, and 41 tanks was collected. For the rest of its existence, until 20 August, the Provisional Corps would concentrate on garrisoning and administering western Sicily. For the 2nd Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division, the fighting in Sicily was over, and under Provisional Corps control, they settled down to occupation duties. Palermo, the objective of this drive to the west, would now become the center of the Seventh Army’s logistical operations. The preparation of the port and of the city for this function became a matter of great urgency. Though the opening of the port would not signal an end to supply operations across the assault beaches (now over a hundred miles away), it would mark a gradual reduction in the amount of supplies unloaded in the southeastern part of the island.
[N13-2929 Scoglitti was closed on 17 July and Porto Empedocle opened the following day; Gela was closed on 7 August except for tankers–by this time, pipelines extended from the Gela pier to Comiso and Biscari airfields; Licata was kept open during the entire campaign. For details on the unloading of men and supplies in Sicily, see Seventh Army Rpt of Opns, pp. E-15-E-16.]
By 19 July, the 1st Engineer Special Brigade had taken over the operation of the beaches and ports and was operating the supply services in the south directly under Seventh Army control. New supply points had been opened as the army advanced inland, with the main axis of supply running to the north and northwest.
But the capture of Palermo placed in the army’s hands for the first time a deep water port capable of handling ships bringing stores and supplies directly from the United States. On 24 July, the 540th Engineer Shore Regiment and the 20th Engineer Combat Regiment moved into Palermo to open the port. A great amount of work had to be done in cleaning up the harbor area and the piers, opening road exits, and bridging over wrecked vessels so as to secure more berthing space. On 28 July the first supply ships-six coasters (two of which unloaded at Termini Immerse) from North Africa-entered the harbor. By this time, the engineers could operate the port at only some 30 percent of its full capacity because of the still un-cleared wreckage of forty-four enemy vessels that had been sunk alongside of moles and in the channel.
On 27 July, the Seventh Army directed that the main axis of supply be transferred as quickly as possible from the southeastern beaches to Palermo, a move made even more necessary by the turn of the fighting forces to the east. But until the port could be placed in better operating condition and until the stocks of supplies already gathered in the south had been reduced, the 1st Engineer Special Brigade was to remain responsible for supply to the north in the direction of Caltanissetta and to the northwest toward Alessandria and Sciacca. The troops moving to the east were thus to be supplied from two directions: from Licata and Porto Empedocle in the south, from Palermo in the west.
By this time, too, the railroad lines on the island could be counted on to carry a heavy share of the supply burden. The entire 727th Railway Operating Battalion had arrived in Sicily by the end of July and had rapidly restored rail service in southern and central Sicily. The line east along the north coast from Palermo was usable as far as Termini Immerse at the seacoast end of Highway 120. The line from Termini to the Enna loop area at Caltanissetta was put into operating condition, as was the lower section running from Licata to Caltanissetta. The first train moved eastward from Palermo on 29 July, and with Italian help, the line was opened along the north coast as far as Cefalu.
[NOTE: Palermo’s operating capacity was raised to 60 percent by 29 August. During the period from 28 July to 31 August, the port received forty-eight ships, excluding craft. During this same period, 120,706 dead-weight tons of supplies were discharged at the port. See Seventh Army Rpt of Opns, p. E-15; Joseph Bykofsky and Harold Larson, The Transportation Corps: Operations Overseas (Washington, 1957), p. 198. 31 Seventh Army Rpt of Opns, p. E-15.]
With the build-up of supplies through Palermo, General Patton could now turn his full attention to getting the Seventh Army moving to the east on Messina. The use of the Seventh Army in a drive on Messina had finally been ordered by General Alexander. But elsewhere, in Italy and in North Africa, events of great importance, though not directly influencing the operations on Sicily, were taking place, events that would have a profound effect on the future course of the war.
SOURCE: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy: BY; Lieutenant Colonel Albert Nutter Garland & Howard McGaw Smyth (United States Army Center of Military History)