The Last Few Miles of Sea: The darkened ships of the Allied assault convoys, maintaining radio silence, reached their destination near the Salerno beaches after dark on 8 September. At 2300 the call to general quarters sounded. Soon thereafter ships’ winches began to move landing craft into position for their descent into the water. Troops placed ammunition, weapons, and radios inside the craft, collected their packs and individual equipment. and awaited the signal to depart. In the first minute of 9 September, loudspeakers called boat teams to their stations. Soon afterward assault craft and landing nets were lowered, and the men clambered from the transports into the boats “with the usual orderly confusion.”
The Americans wore wool uniforms. Each man had a full canteen hanging from his cartridge belt. On his back he carried a light pack with his toilet articles and mess kit, two chocolate bars known as D rations, and one boxed K ration meal. Each rifleman had two extra bandoleers of ammunition. Blanket rolls and one suit of fatigues he had left with his company supply sergeant aboard the transport, to be brought ashore later.
The first boat waves pulled away from the transports and headed for the rendezvous area three to five miles offshore.
As they arrived, the craft formed behind the faint red taillights of wave-leaders’ boats, which had navigational equipment, and began to circle slowly. The moon had set and the night was pitch black. Water gently slapped the sides of the boats. The smell of diesel oil was in the air. Despite the smooth sea and slight wind, a good many soldiers were seasick. It took about three hours to get all the assault troops and their equipment to the rendezvous area. Behind them came more craft and DUKW’s carrying tanks, guns, heavy weapons, artillery and antitank pieces, crews, and ammunition. At 0200 on 9 September, in the Northern Attack Force area, enemy shore units opened fire on the ships carrying and supporting 10 Corps. The warships replied with a steady bombardment.
Among the 10 Corps forces, the U.S. Ranger battalions, which were to land on the northernmost beaches at the extreme left, were experienced in amphibious operations. Their commander, Colonel Darby, had, as he later said, got “together with the Navy and decided that we had to have closer cooperation and closer communications than ‘we had ever had before, because we had another situation of finding a bad beach in the darkness.” A British destroyer was to render direct gunfire support for the Rangers, and because it was to deliver fire over the heads of his troops, Darby was concerned about maintaining good signals between ship and shore. He told the destroyer captain he would feel more comfortable if he knew that his own radio operator and his own radio set were on the bridge of the ship during the landings. The sympathetic captain obliged.
Rangers climbed into British LCA’s while the craft were still on the transport davits and hanging over the sides of the ships. When a boat was full, a sailor called “Off gripes,” and released the brakes on the davits. The LCA then fell about eight feet into the water with a resounding splash.
When all the LCA’s were in the water, they came alongside the destroyer and moved forward in two columns, Darby in the leading boat with the flotilla commander. Abreast of the bridge of the destroyer, Darby “hollered up.” “Are you there?” the destroyer captain shouted back. “We are here,” Darby said. “Let’s go.” Locating a beach in the dark is not easy. “You don’t see very much,” Darby later explained. “Your compasses, no matter how many times you swing them, in a small craft are practically worthless after 35 soldiers with helmets and rifles and everything else that contains metal get into the boat.” Because the destroyer had a relatively firm base and a good compass and had made sightings and corrections, Darby had arranged to have it guide the flotilla to the beach, agreeing beforehand that no matter which way his own compass was pointing he would not change course. “There was one little beach we had to hit, and we just had to be right if our landing was going to be successful. ”
So the destroyer paced the boats until they were about a mile offshore. Then the destroyer captain shouted down: “Continue on your course.” The landing craft went in and hit the correct beach at 0310, the appointed time, twenty minutes before the main assault of 10 Corps was scheduled to go ashore. Five minutes after the Rangers touched down, naval groups in the northern area opened an intensive 15-minute preparation of gun and rocket fire in support of the major assault at H-hour, 0330, landings that would, as could be seen from the flashes of fire coming from shore, be opposed.
In the American rendezvous area the boats had ceased circling. Assuming a V-formation, they followed a control vessel to the line of departure a mile and a half offshore. Four scout boats, one for each battalion landing beach, had taken a radar fix on Monte Soprano, the most conspicuous landmark, and had preceded the assault boats shoreward. Each had located his area, had determined the exact center of it, and had anchored there about 1,000 yards offshore. At 0310, H-hour minus 20 minutes, each began to show seaward a steady directional light colored red, green, yellow, or blue to correspond with the designated beach. Ten minutes later each scout boat began to blink seaward every five seconds in order to guide the waves of assault boats toward land. The assault waves of each beach were to pass the scout boat by splitting equally on the two sides of it.
After the assault waves were on shore, the scouts were to locate and mark suitable landing points for LST’s and LCT’s. Rocket boats – LCT’s converted to mount rocket projectors-had preceded the assault waves, passed the scout boats, and gone in closer to shore. Deployed abreast, fifty yards a part, the rocket boats, equipped with barrage rockets, smoke floats, smoke generators, and .30 and .50-caliber machine guns, were to hold their fires before daylight unless they were discovered and fired upon. In that case, they were to fire until the first-wave was 100 yards from the shore line.
In the 36th Division zone, where two reinforced regiments were landing abreast, each regiment employed two reinforced battalions abreast. The 141st Infantry on the right (south) had two rifle companies from each assault battalion and engineer obstacle-removing teams in the first wave, going ashore in 24 LCVP’s (12 on Yellow Beach and 12 on Blue Beach) . The second wave, scheduled to land seven minutes later, had the reserve rifle companies, mine detector personnel, shore engineers, and a reconnaissance party in 12 LCVP’s (6 to a beach) . Eight minutes later a third wave was to land the heavy weapons companies, battalion headquarters, medical personnel, and mine detector beach party in 12 LCVP’s. Fifty minutes after H-hour, bulldozers, 40-mm. guns, .50-caliber machine guns, 75-mm. self-propelled guns, and several jeeps were to go ashore in 12 LCM’s. Sixty-five minutes after H-hour, the reserve battalion was to start landing in waves. At H plus 140 minutes, or on call, depending on the situation, antitank weapons, tanks, and field and antiaircraft artillery were to go ashore in LCVP’s and LCM’s. As soon as mines and obstacles were cleared, estimated to be around H plus 100 minutes, DUKW’s carrying artillery pieces and ammunition were to landed. LST’s, the planners estimated, could probably beach five or six hours after the initial landings.
Each assault battalion of the 141st Infantry had attached platoons of the Cannon Company, the Antitank Company, and the 111th Engineer Battalion, as we)) as a detachment of the 36th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop. The 131st Field Artillery Battalion was in direct support. The 3rd Battalion, 351st Engineer Shore Regiment, with attachments, was to open and stock Yellow and Blue Beaches so that supplies could be drawn by daylight; it was to have roadways ready for vehicular traffic two hours after H-hour.
The 142nd Infantry was landing special beach-clearing detachments in 6 LCVP’s (3 on Reel Beach and 3 on Green) along with the first wave of assault rifle companies. Reserve and heavy weapons companies and shore engineers, in that order, were then to land in LCVP’s and LCM’s. The reserve battalion was to start landing an hour later. Twenty DUKW’s carrying field artillery and antitank pieces were to land in the fifth wave an hour and a half after H-hour. Reconnaissance troops, tanks, and more artillery pieces were then to go ashore.
The 143rd Infantry, initially in reserve, was to land two battalions in the following sequence: assault infantry troops, reserve rifle companies, heavy weapons and command, supporting and antitank weapons, and vehicles; the reserve battalion was to debark on call in waves similarly organized and in whatever boats became available.
Command posts were located aboard various ships, the VI Corps headquarters having provided men to operate message centers and radio sets in conjunction with naval personnel. There was to be radio silence until H-hour. Ten minutes later, company commanders would land. At the same time, a Navy beach signals team was to establish a radio station on shore. Five minutes later a communications team was to set up a radio station in the naval gunfire control net, an engineer shore company communications team was to establish another radio station, and infantry battalion headquarters were to set up their radio nets. Regimental communications, the engineer shore battalion radio operators, and Navy beach signals personnel were to be ashore completely an hour and a half after H-hour. Two hours after the initial landings the air support party was to go ashore.
Coxswains and crews of the landing boats had been thoroughly briefed on the appearance of the beaches and the locations of the landing sites. Having studied beach sketches, models, aerial mosaics, oblique photographs, and information obtained from submarine reconnaissance, they knew the silhouette of the shore line and its conspicuous landmarks-Monte Soprano and Monte Soltano, the heights around Agropoli, the flat plain of Paestum, houses and towers, and the mouths of streams flowing into the gulf, all of which helped to identify the beaches on which they would try to place the troops confided to their care.
The beaches on which the 36th Division was to land were near the ancient town of Paestum. originally a Greek colony settled in the 6th century B.C. Twenty-five hundred years later only the ruins of several Doric-columned temples still stood, hauntingly graceful and aloof. In striking architectural contrast. Blunt ramparts or what remained of a city wall, 5,000 yards long and in some places 50 feet high, constructed of large stone blocks, probably Etruscan in origin, would offer cover and concealment to defenders armed with machine guns. A medieval stone tower nearby would give good observation of the beaches and the plain.
Very close to H-hour, 0330, 9 September, the LCVP’s comprising the first waves of the assault regiments grounded on the dark and silent beaches south of the Sele River. As the troops stepped into the shallow water along the shore line, the portents for success seemed good-the weather was excellent, the sea was calm, and. in contrast with the rumble and flash of gun and rocket fire on the beaches to the north, the shore was quiet. But the hope that jubilant Italians would welcome the Americans with open arms quickly vanished. Flares suddenly illuminated the beaches and enemy fire from machine guns and mortars began to rain down on the invaders.
The Initial American Waves
Exactly what happened on the Salerno beaches during the hour and a half of darkness between H-hour and daybreak is confused and obscure. Yet one thing is clear-the troops met more resistance than did the soldiers who had invaded North Africa and Sicily. Not all the initial waves of the American assault south of the Sele River hit their assigned beaches on schedule. Enemy fire disarranged the assault waves and prevented an inland advance in the orderly manner prescribed by the plans.
On the extreme right of the landings the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, came ashore about 500 yards south of its designated Blue Beach. The first two boat waves moved across the beach without interference and eventually worked their way slowly about a mile to the railroad near the Solofrone River. The third wave met German fire so intense that it and subsequent waves were Immobilized on or near the beach.
The 3rd Battalion on Yellow Beach ran into German fire from the beginning. Despite the bullets and shells, small groups of men moved inland. Approximately 400 yards from the shore they met enemy defenders.
In the 142nd Infantry zone the 2nd Battalion on the right on Green Beach and the 3rd Battalion on Red encountered enemy flares and machine gun fire immediately upon landing. A rocket boat off Green moved to within 80 yards of the shore line and fired salvos of three to four rockets in the pattern of an arc at a range of about 750 yards. After the boat fired 34 rockets over the heads of troops pinned down on the shore, all enemy fire in that sector ceased for a brief interval, then resumed in noticeably less volume and intensity. During the lull infantrymen began to move inland.
On all the beaches, as enemy guns fired and boats grounded, men stumbled ashore in the darkness. Scared, tense, excited, some soldiers blundered across the loose sand. Others ran for cover across the open ground to the dunes. Some threw themselves into shallow irrigation ditches or huddled behind rock walls in the fields. Still others sought the scant protection afforded by scattered patches of scrub.
From the massive heights that loomed over all the beaches, and from Monte Soprano in particular, came the flashes and sounds of the enemy fire. Flares of all colors illuminated the sky, while the crisscrossing tracers of machine guns flashed over the beaches, the heaviest concentrations coming from the right near Agropoli. Some boat pilots who judged the fire too strong for them to land their troops turned around and headed back toward the ships until intercepted by control vessels and sent again to shore.
Landing craft struck by enemy fire burned near shore or drifted helplessly. Equipment floated in the water. Radios were lost in the surf. Men swam for shore as boats sank under them. As a 60-mm. mortar squad debarked, the gunner tripped on the ramp and dropped the piece into the water; machine gun fire scattered the men in the darkness; individuals joined whatever unit happened to be near them. An 81-mm. mortar platoon came ashore intact but without ammunition; the boat carrying its shells had sunk.
Somehow m the melee of boats and men and weapons, soldiers found their wits, exercised self-discipline, manhandled ammunition, set up mortars, fired their pieces, got on with their jobs. Some began to clear the beaches of mines and wire; others, their rifles blazing, headed inland to root out the German defenders.
Staff Sergeant Quillian H. McMichen, hit in the chest and shoulder by machine gun bullets before his assault boat grounded on the beach, found the ramp stuck. Despite his wounds, McMichen kicked and pounded the ramp till it fell. Then he led his men to a firing position on the beach where he received a third and fatal wound.
In the sand dunes, Sergeant Manuel S. Gonzales crept under machine gun fire toward an enemy weapon. A tracer bullet creased the pack on his back and set it afire. Slipping out of his pack, he continued to crawl even after grenade fragments wounded him. At last he was close enough to toss hand grenades into a German machine gun position and destroy the crew.
Private J. C. Jones gathered a few disorganized men around him, led them against several enemy machine guns, and took them inland to his unit’s objective. Sergeant Glen O. Hiller, though painfully wounded, refused medical treatment in order to lead his squad across the sand. Most infantrymen worked their way in small groups toward a railroad running parallel to the beach a mile and a half inland. It was a good landmark, one that could not be mistaken even in darkness, and there men found and rejoined their units and leaders counted and organized their troops. To get to the railroad across the sand, the dunes, small swamps, irrigation ditches, rock walls, and patches of trees proved an individual adventure for each soldier, a hazardous journey under the fire of enemy machine guns, mortars, and artillery pieces.
Lieutenant Colonel Samuel S. Graham, a battalion commander who arrived on the beach ahead of his troops because they were delayed by disrupted boat schedules, organized about seventy men and led them inland to clear enemy machine gun and mortar positions. Sergeant James M. Logan, lying on the bank of an irrigation canal, killed several Germans coming through a gap in a rock wall 200 yards away. He then dashed across open ground, seized a machine gun position after destroying the crew, swung the gun around, and opened fire on the enemy.
Meeting the Americans, and the British as well, on the beaches of Salerno were troops of the reconstituted 16th Panzer Division, the only fully equipped armored division in southern Italy. Not quite at full strength, the division had 17,000 men, more than 100 tanks, and 36 assault guns organized into four infantry battalions, one equipped with half-tracks for better support of tank attacks, and three artillery battalions. Morale was good. Shortcomings were lack of combat experience, a shortage of gasoline, which restricted training of tank crews, and a long front of more than twenty miles.
[NOTE: Staff Sergeant Quillian H. McMichen, Sergeant Manuel S. Gonzales, Sergeant Glen O. Hiller, and Lieutenant Colonel Samuel S. Graham were awarded the DSC; Sergeant James M. Logan was awarded the Medal of Honor.]
The 16th Panzer Division had deployed its strength in four combat teams, each composed of an infantry battalion augmented by tanks and artillery; three were in position two or three miles from the coast and ready to launch counterattacks; one was in division reserve.
Nearer the shore line, the division had constructed eight strongpoints between Salerno and Agropoli, each manned by a platoon of infantry supported by heavy machine guns, mortars, and antitank and antiaircraft pieces, all designed to bolster the coastal defenses earlier manned by Italian troops. When the Italian coastal units left their positions upon news of the surrender, German troops came up to take over six Italian coastal batteries, but no continuous defensive system existed along the beaches. Deprived of Italian support and guarding an excessive length of coast line, the division was at a disadvantage.
The defenses in the immediate landing areas were not well organized. There were no mine fields in the surf and the few mines along the beaches were scattered. Barbed wire obstacles were scanty, most of them single-concertina double apron type. Some trip wires existed. A few machine guns covered the most likely landing spots. Italians or Germans had felled a grove of small pine trees near the tower of Paestum to create a field of fire. Several artillery pieces inland covered the plain, the beaches, and the water approaches.
About two companies of infantry occupied the VI Corps beaches. They withdrew soon after the landings and offered little resistance at close range. They saw the mass movement of American troops from beach to railroad as a skillful maneuver, a deliberate bypass of the strongpoints near the shore. Unable to muster enough strength to block the landings, the 16th Panzer Division sought to delay the Allies and disrupt the schedules of the amphibious operation.
German tanks got into action only after daylight. They worked in small groups, supported by infantry units usually no larger than platoon size. A lone tank, reaching the shore line shortly after dawn, fired on approaching craft. Antiaircraft guns on LST’s, machine guns on landing craft, and men on the beaches took the tank under fire and soon drove it off. Other tanks spotted on the road behind the dunes were also fired upon.
It was the individual American infantryman who kept the German tanks at bay during the early morning hours of 9 September. Corporal Royce C. Davis destroyed a tank after crawling under machine gun bursts to a place where he could use his rocket launcher effectively. He pierced the armor, then crept beside the disabled and immobile vehicle to thrust a hand grenade through the hole and destroy the crew. Sergeant John Y. McGill jumped on a tank and dropped a hand grenade into the open turret. Private First Class Harry C. Harpel kept at least one group of tanks from reaching the beach when, under enemy fire, he removed loose planking of a bridge across an irrigation canal and rendered it impassable.
The reserve battalions of the assault regiments came in after daylight-the 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry, around 0530, fifty minutes behind schedule, on Yellow Beach; the 1st Battalion, 142nd, an hour later in some disorganization on Red. Two battalions of the reserve regiment, the 143rd, landed on Red Beach between 0640 and 0800, the third battalion coming ashore later that morning. While infantrymen fought off tanks at close range with bazookas, grenades, machine guns, and a few pieces of regimental cannon, American tanks and artillery were trying to get ashore.
[NOTE: Corporal Royce C. Davis and Private First Class Harry C. Harpel were awarded the DSC, posthumously.]
Tanks and artillery were scheduled to be on the beaches before daylight, but they had difficulty landing because work to open the beaches was delayed. Enemy fire had scattered the landing craft carrying reconnaissance parties of the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Russel S. Lieurance) that had accompanied the early assault waves, and as a result, mine-clearing teams, road construction crews, and equipment did not land as units. It was necessary to round up the men and organize them, in some cases to keep them from joining infantrymen in search of the enemy, before the beaches could be cleared to receive the heavier weapons and equipment. This, plus enemy fire on boat lanes, prevented tanks and artillery from landing as early as had been hoped. A group of about sixty DUKWs carrying artillery pieces, ammunition, and troops arrived off Green Beach around 0500, but because enemy fire on the beach and on the nearby water area made landings impractical, the DUKW’s stood offshore out of range. Thirty minutes later, naval control vessels signaled them to go in anyway. About thirty DUKW’s went in under smoke laid by support boats and troops ashore, but the smoke also obscured landmarks and hampered the visibility of the crews.
About sixty DUKW’s scheduled to land at Yellow and Blue Beaches remained offshore for the same reasons. When the beach-master on Red noticed these craft, he called to occupants of a small boat, who delivered a message to divert the DUKW’s to Red. By this time, around 0530, approximately 125 DUKW’s were circling or lying off Red Beach. These came ashore sporadically and in small groups. Some delays occurred because many DUKW’s were low in gasoline and had to refuel.
The result was a piecemeal landing of artillery. Some howitzers and crews were ashore two and a half hours after the first wave, but not until afternoon was most of the division artillery on land. The 131st Field Artillery Battalion landed at various times during the day on Yellow Beach and supported the 141st Infantry. The 132nd Field Artillery Battalion went ashore on Green, starting at 0730, and took up positions on Yellow Beach until noon, when it moved to positions north of Paestum in support of the 142nd Infantry. The 133rd Field Artillery Battalion began to move ashore on Red around noon and went into positions with mixed equipment, then moved north of Paestum in the early afternoon, leaving three pieces detached for antitank protection of the division headquarters. The 155th Field Artillery Battalion (155-mm. howitzers) landed on Green during the afternoon and went into position 2,000 yards north of Paestum for general support.
The tank landings were also disorganized. A company of the 751st Tank Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Louis A. Hammack) , which was to have landed a platoon before daybreak to support a flying column movement to Agropoli, saw the LCM’s carrying the platoon make two unsuccessful efforts to land on Blue Beach.
At 1500 the first tank of this contingent got ashore on Red Beach and four more came ashore around 1730. Another platoon had better luck-one tank landed on Red at 0830, another on Blue at 0930, three on Red between 1000 and 1330, and three more after nightfall. Six LCT’s carrying tanks of the 191st Tank Battalion and moving toward Blue Beach about 0630 were struck by enemy shells, four receiving direct hits. The LCT’s turned back to sea. One tank was burning; fortunately it was next to the ramp, and the tank behind it pushed it over the ramp and into the gulf. This damaged the ramp, and several feet of water flooded the boat. For almost five hours the six LCT’s circled aimlessly. Finally, at 1100, they approached the shore and beached their cargoes.
With neither division artillery nor tanks in support, the infantry during the first four hours of the landing depended to a large extent on a few 40-mm. antiaircraft guns, which came ashore about daylight, and on the regimental cannon companies. Antiaircraft units coming ashore on D-day were the 630th and 354th Coast Artillery Battalions, a battalion of the 213th Coast Artillery Regiment, and a battery of the 505th Coast Artillery Regiment. A detachment of the 102nd Barrage Balloon Battery raised its balloons against low-level strafing; enemy artillery destroyed at least one balloon while it was being inflated shortly after dawn.
Three 75-mm. self-propelled howitzers of the 141st Infantry had started ashore as part of the third boat wave. Naval control vessels turned back the landing craft carrying one cannon, but two grounded on the beach. One howitzer immediately struck a mine and was disabled. The other pulled into a defile on the dunes. Enemy machine gun fire that swept the defile from both flanks put the gun sight out of commission. 1st Lieutenant Clair F. Carpenter ran across the beach, took the gun sight from the disabled cannon, and brought it back under fire to his own weapon. As Corporal Edgar L. Blackburn tried to fix the new sight in place, machine gun fire cut him down. Carpenter then tried to adjust the sight but was severely wounded. The piece remained out of commission for the rest of the day.
Fortunately, other howitzers of the regimental cannon companies managed to get ashore in operational condition. At least one crew found itself not far from some enemy tanks. Unloading the piece and setting it in position without cover or concealment, the men opened fire at once.
The 151st Field Artillery Battalion lost a 105-mm. howitzer and forty rounds of ammunition when a DUKW was accidentally rammed at the rendezvous area and sunk. The men clambered aboard other DUKW’s, and the battalion headed for shore, making its first landing at 0725. As the pieces were unloaded, they went to positions; no attempt was made to organize them according to battery. Since the infantry was requesting immediate supporting fires, an improvised battery, reinforced by three pieces of another battalion already ashore and equally unorganized, went into firing positions just forward of the dune line, in a grove of trees near the south wall of Paestum. Around 0930, this battery fired on enemy tanks and helped repel a counterattack.
By this time the commanders of the assault regiments were ashore, having arrived about daylight, after a two-to-three-hour voyage from transport to beach. On Yellow and Blue Beaches Colonel Richard J. Werner, commanding the 141st Infantry, found his 1st Battalion pinned down and isolated on the right, his 3rd Battalion on the left several hundred yards inland, and his reserve battalion advancing along the regimental left flank against heavy enemy fire. Estimating that he lacked the firepower to eliminate the Germans on his front, Werner requested the naval gun observer on the beach to call in naval fires. The officer could not make radio contact with the ships, either because they were too far out at sea or because his set failed to operate effectively.
The regiment was still without naval fire support or even naval contact at 0730, when German troops and about eight tanks attacked into the gap that separated the 1st Battalion from the rest of the regiment. About five Mark IV tanks overran a rifle company of the 1st Battalion. Men who took cover in ditches were unharmed as the tanks rolled over them; those caught in the open fields were run over or shot.
Infantrymen with bazookas and the crew of a 40-mm. antiaircraft gun depressed for ground fire fought the Germans effectively. A group of soldiers nearby who had very early captured three Italian railway guns and who planned to use them had to destroy the weapons because they could not defend them. In the midst of the action an hour later, two 105-mm. howitzers of the 131st Field Artillery Battalion came ashore and gave the regiment its first artillery support. [n2-6-13] The 3rd Battalion S-3, Captain Hersel R. Adams, assumed leadership of a scattered rifle company, organized an attack against the tanks, and helped beat off the Germans. [n2-6-14] Finally, around 0800 the naval gun observer made radio contact with the ships. The first naval shells arrived about fifteen minutes later. The naval gunfire, artillery shelling, and infantry rockets began to take effect. Two of their tanks destroyed, the Germans withdrew to the hills east and south of the landing beaches. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 141st Infantry then advanced to the railroad in strength.
[n-2-6-13 Private Richard Ferris, who remained at his artillery piece though wounded and who was killed when struck by a second shell fragment, was posthumously awarded the DSC.]
[n2-6-14 Captain Hersel R. Adams was posthumously awarded the DSC.]
Despite the advance, German artillery fire continued to fall on Blue and Yellow Beaches so intensively that later landings there were halted and the boats were diverted north to Green and Red. Efforts to restore communication with the isolated 1st Battalion on the right still proved unavailing. Enemy machine gun and artillery fire formed a barrier in the gap that prevented patrols from getting through. Naval observation planes dispatched at 1430 to locate the German gun positions were unsuccessful.
Pinned down in flat terrain cut by shallow irrigation ditches bordered by bushes and trees, reduced to crawling and creeping, the men of the 1st Battalion through a long day awaited the coming of darkness and the protection of night. Only small groups could maneuver, and the most they could do was to try to get within grenade range of machine gun positions. Hills a mile away dominated the ground to the immediate front and on the right, and at least a battery of four guns and two 75-mm. mortars covered the area. Cut off, the beach behind them closed, the men of the battalion fought inland in groups of two and three, trying to knock out about eight German tanks that seemed to be running up and down the front most of the day.
In the 142nd Infantry zone, where enemy fire was somewhat less intense though constantly a problem, Colonel John D. Forsythe, the regimental commander, found a more encouraging situation. The 3rd Battalion on the left had advanced to the railroad, then beyond it to the highway, and still farther to its initial objective, Hill 140, where around 0730 the men began to dig defensive positions. The 2nd Battalion, after partially clearing resistance in Paestum, moved beyond the railroad and established hasty defensive positions along La Cosa Creek.
German machine gun crews remaining in and around Paestum later harassed troops coming ashore to such an extent that Colonel William H. Martin, commander of the reserve regiment, the 143rd Infantry, dispatched a rifle company to clear the town while the regiment assembled and organized at the railroad. Paestum was clear by midmorning, the regiment organized by noon. But Martin held up an immediate move inland because of reports that German tanks were concentrating nearby for an attack.
Prompt action by the 151st Field Artillery Battalion dispersed this tank attack. A battery recently arrived on shore sited a piece on a beach exit road to obtain an emergency field of fire. Because trail spades could get no purchase in the hard surface of the road, each round fired drove the gun into the ditch. The piece then had to be manhandled back to its firing position. Brigadier General Miles A. Cowles, the division artillery commander, helped the gun crew. “He shifted trails with the efficiency of a finished cannoneer,” the sergeant later remarked, “the highest priced number five man” the sergeant had ever commanded and also one of the most dexterous and cooperative. By this time the division commander, General ‘Walker, had established his command post ashore. He had arrived on Red Beach about 0700 and had been rather disappointed-no roadway had yet been prepared, his two personal vehicles had been destroyed by mines while being driven over the sand, and he had no way to get word to LCM’s, still loaded and moving aimlessly offshore, to come in and land. A little after 0700 Walker reported to General Dawley, the corps commander, that heavy enemy gunfire was preventing not only the landing of vehicles but also the clearing of beaches.
[n2-6-11; Near the beach General Walker passed several abandoned German radio sets from which emerged the sound of voices. These sets may have given rise to the fanciful story that Germans on the beaches greeted the initial assault waves with the words carried over loudspeakers: “Come on in. we have you covered.” (AMERICAN FORCES IN ACTION, Salerno: American Operations from the Beaches to the Voltumo (Washington, 1944) , p. 19; Fifth Army History, Part I, p. 32.) Or perhaps the story originated from the sight of American beach personnel using loudspeakers to direct incoming landing ships and boats. (See photo in Salerno: American Operations from the Beaches to the Volturno, p. 24.) See also Interv, Westover with Walker, and General Walker’s Comments Relating to Salerno.]
Concerned by this unfavorable report, the first direct word he had received, Dawley urgently requested naval fire
support. The beach engineers were also having a difficult time: they were shorthanded because special attached units were not ashore until late afternoon and in some cases after dark; and they lacked sufficient equipment, for example, the first bulldozer on the beach took a direct hit and was put out of commission, and enemy fire had destroyed three bulldozers by 1000. Yet the engineers had Red Beach open by midmorning, and landing craft were disgorging men and materiel in a steady stream.
At his headquarters in a group of buildings called Casa Vannula and located north of Paestum, General Walker emphasized to his subordinate commanders that it was essential for the units to seize and secure their initial objectives. He was also concerned about antitank defense. Battalions were moving toward and in some cases had reached their initial objectives, and General Cowles’s central antitank warning system, which tied in the reconnaissance troop, the artillery battalions, and the tank units with the division artillery headquarters, was working well. In midmorning, for example, when headquarters personnel spotted a small group of German tanks on the north flank and flashed the warning, artillery elements that had recently landed and were moving up from the beaches immediately positioned their pieces and opened fire, dispersing the tanks.
Naval gunfire was by then adding its power. Destroyers had come a few miles closer to shore and were firing in response to requests from combined Army-Navy artillery observer-spotter parties on the beach. Other spotters in the air coordinated the shelling.
By noon the development of the beachhead in the VI Corps area was progressing well. German artillery continued to fire on the beaches, and a few German planes appeared from time to time to bomb and strafe the beaches and shipping in the gulf. The 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, on the right was still isolated, and two of the four landing beaches could not be opened. Yet men and materiel were coming ashore in substantial quantities, and control and discipline were bringing order to the amphibious landing.
Despite the satisfactory progress, the commanders aboard ships in the gulf knew little of the situation ashore. Communications between shore and ship were poor, and few details reached Generals Clark and Dawley. Receiving a distorted picture from fragmentary reports and from what the returning wounded told them, their concern intensified by their inactivity, their impatience heightened by their inability to influence the action directly, Clark and Dawley came to believe that the situation ashore was much worse than it actually was. “Hewitt and I on bridge,” General Clark wrote in his diary, “-helpless feeling-all out of my hands until we get reports.” The enemy seemed to be opposing the landings on all beaches, enemy tanks were active, and hill-emplaced artillery was firing into boat lanes. As late as noon Dawley received word that beach mines and enemy artillery were still preventing vehicles from coming ashore in sufficient numbers and that shore fire control parties had still not established adequate communications. So far as Dawley could tell, conditions in the beachhead were precarious.
The American Beaches
Like most military forces, who have a tendency to overestimate the numbers, experience, and weapons of the enemy, the Germans at Salerno first felt overwhelmed by the invasion. They were also shaken by the Italian surrender. At the same time, they were beset by other difficulties.
The Allied invasion, occurring as it did entirely in the 16th Panzer Division sector, came as a surprise to the Germans, and the absence of effective communications among the command echelons handicapped their reaction to the landings. German commanders were often out of touch with each other. When using the Italian civilian telephone system, they were uncertain whether the lines were altogether secure. Furthermore, saboteurs cut a few cables. When the Germans turned to radio transmission, they found that atmospheric disturbances, especially at night, frequently interrupted their messages.
At Tenth Army headquarters, Vietinghoff had yet to receive his full complement of signal personnel because his command had been activated so recently; he lacked the signal regiment normally assigned to an army headquarters, and his communications troops were poorly trained, without experience, and overworked. Kesselring was wholly occupied by developments in the Rome area resulting from the Italian surrender and had little time to guide Vietinghoff. Vietinghoff realized as early as 0800, 9 September-four and a half hours after the initial landings at Salerno-that the extent of the Allied effort made another major invasion farther north unlikely, but in the absence of word from Kesselring he had to make a hard choice in terms of conflicting orders: was he to withdraw to Rome or repel the invasion? Deciding for the latter, he ordered the XIV Panzer Corps to make a “ruthless concentration of all forces at Salerno” and drive the Allies into the sea. At noon OB SUED approved his course of action.
The XIV Panzer Corps commander, Generalleutnant Hermann Balck, was acting for General der Panzertruppen Hans-Valentine Hube, who was on leave. Balck had telephone contact with neither Tenth Army nor OB SUED) and only tenuous radio contact with either. Consequently, several hours usually elapsed before he could receive instructions or approval of an action, and most of his decisions were independent. What concerned him most of all was the absence of reliable intelligence. Without information on the location and movement of Allied convoys, without knowledge of other actual or potential landings, he felt too insecure, despite Vietinghoff’s clarion call, to denude some sectors of his large defensive area in order to reinforce his troops at Salerno.
Thus he ordered the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to assemble a regimental combat team containing most of the division’s tanks and an artillery battalion, concentrate the troops along the two sides of the Volturno River, and be ready for possible commitment against landings at the mouth of the Volturno or in the Hermann Gӧring Division’s sector immediately to the south. When the 16th Panzer Division commander, Generalmajor Rudolf Sickenius, became alarmed at 0800 of D-day by the rumor of landings near Castellammare, on the northern shore of the Sorrento peninsula, and sent an urgent call for help, Balck reacted cautiously. Unsure of the scope of the Allied landing, he hesitated to change his dispositions. All he felt he could do was order the Hermann Gӧring Division to send its reconnaissance battalion at once to Nocera, ten miles north of Salerno, and to prepare to dispatch a reinforced regiment later if necessary. This order had no immediate effect on the action.
The 16th Panzer Division thus fought alone, taking the full force of the invasion. The six Italian coastal batteries it had manned were soon silenced by naval gunfire. Spread thin over a large area, the division launched small counterthrusts by tank-infantry teams. In many instances groups of five to seven tanks worked without supporting infantry and, so it seemed to the Americans, without reference to an over-all plan or a single coordinating agency. Such piecemeal efforts were ineffective. Had the Germans been able to use their armor in mass very early in the day, they could have caused the Allies serious trouble. The terrain, crisscrossed by irrigation and drainage canals and obstructed by fences and walls, imposed caution on the German tankers, who were generally inexperienced, and increased tank dispersal, as did the Allied artillery fire, the high-velocity fire from tanks in hull defiladed positions, the infantry rocket launchers, naval shelling, and air bombardment.
Although the higher terrain gave the Germans observation of much of the beachhead, it also forced them to counterattack downhill in full view of Allied observers. Even the weather was a problem-the first shot fired at a German tank usually raised a great cloud of dust that enveloped the tank and blinded driver and gunner. Their eyes, in effect, shot out, the tanks were easily destroyed or dispersed. By the end of the first day of action, only thirty-five tanks of the 16th Panzer Division) about one-third of those in operation at the beginning of the day, were still in condition to fight.
The German predicament was far from apparent to the Allied commanders aboard ships in the gulf, where destroyers dashed about laying smoke, small boats darted about delivering messages, and landing craft nosed up to shore, opened their mouths, and threw down their ramps “like the lower lip of a giant Ubangi.” To the observers who had no military responsibilities, “D-Day was beautiful. The air was soft and the skies were clear, except when the [German air] raiders came, and then the sky was pockmarked with ugly black bursts where shells from our anti-aircraft guns exploded.” But to General Dawley, who was still without adequate reports from the beachhead, the situation was full of frustration. Unable to restrain his concern and impatience, he departed his ship at 1300 to make a personal inspection of the beach in the company of his G-3.
At 1000 Admiral Hewitt had sent a message to General Dawley ordering him to take command of the troops ashore because seaward communication from the 36th Division was unsatisfactory. Dawley went ashore without receiving the message. Around noon Hewitt sent another message directing Dawley to remain aboard ship in order to confer with General Middleton, commander of the 45th Division, on the early commitment of one of Middleton’s follow-up regiments. This second message arrived at the corps command post aboard ship before the first one, around 1500, but Dawley was by then on the beach. When Hewitt’s 1000 message arrived at 1520, Dawley’s G-2 carried the messages ashore. Dawley then began an immediate inquiry to determine frontline and flank locations of his own troops and identifications of hostile forces with a view to assuming command.
Despite General Dawley’s efforts to get information back to General Clark, Admiral Hewitt, and his own headquarters that afternoon, those aboard the ships in the gulf continued to have only the vaguest notion of what was happening ashore. Most of the un-loadings seemed to be taking place over Red Beach. The enemy continued to shell all beaches. German tanks seemed to appear frequently around Paestum. The USS Savannah was furnishing fire support to the forces on Blue Beach. Enemy air activity was harassing in nature as though to test the Allied cover strength.
Since clear weather at high altitudes permitted incoming aircraft to be spotted, Spitfires intercepted and turned back several formations; but a haze at lower levels aided the enemy, and low attacks and beach strafing were nuisances. The Germans directed much of their air effort against vessels at anchor-fourteen attacks recorded in one 8-hour period though damage was slight. Hewitt appealed to General House for increased air raids on airfields around Naples, Benevento, and Foggia.
On shore, the operation in the VI Corps area went well during the afternoon of D-day. Along the water’s edge, Brigadier General John W. O’Daniel, attached from the Fifth Army to the 36th Division, had been supervising landing operations on Red and Green Beaches since about 0430, and had done much to bring about order. Although Blue Beach remained closed most of the afternoon, Yellow Beach, closed during the morning because of enemy fire, was opened soon after noon, and about 1300 two LST’s pushed up to shore under cover of smoke and began to discharge materiel. Enough supplies were getting ashore, but boxed ammunition and baled rations lined Red and Green Beaches. Landing craft sometimes found it difficult to locate space on which to let down their ramps. A few destroyed craft blocked boat lanes. Many crews had to clear the boats of cargo themselves, thereby delaying their return to the transports for additional loads. Stocks placed on the beaches could not be moved inland quickly because of a shortage of DUKW’s and trucks.
Tanks, coming in piecemeal throughout the afternoon, were on hand in sufficient numbers to be organized and employed as units. Around 1430 the 751st Tank Battalion began to exercise central control over the armored elements; most of the tanks were being used for antitank protection, many in hull-defiladed positions on the north flank. De-waterproofing was difficult in many cases; shrouds on many tanks had to be pulled off by other tanks or cut with an axe.
Vehicles of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion began to land on Red Beach around 1630. After dewater proofing, some moved south to support the 141st Infantry, others moved north to the Sele River. The 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion disembarked in the early evening, then moved north to take positions astride Highway 18 to help cover the gap between the VI and 10 Corps. Liaison parties controlling naval gunfire were operating with the battalions of the 36th Division Artillery, the artillery headquarters, and a few light planes that had managed that afternoon to get off the improvised flight decks ingeniously constructed on several LST’s.
Tactical aircraft patrolled the assault area throughout D-day and forayed inland to intercept enemy planes, bomb airfields, and attempt to disrupt communications. Admiral ‘Willis’ cover force alone maintained an umbrella of eight planes constantly aloft over the beach-head from 0550 to 1915. There were no missions undertaken in direct close support of the ground troops, though an air support party at the 36th Division command post was in contact with General House’s XII Air Support Command headquarters aboard Admiral Hewitt’s flagship.
The first detailed report of conditions ashore reached shipboard headquarters a little after 1700. The news was good. Intelligence officers had expected the Germans to destroy the bridges across the drainage canals and streams, to place mines along bypass sites and fords, and to block the roads.30 Instead, beach engineers reported no wire obstructions hindering unloadings, exit roads generally in good condition and usable, drainage ditch bridges for the most part intact. Steel matting was in place for roadways and supply dumps.
Soon afterward, Dawley sent word to Clark that supply operations over Green Beach, like those over Red and Yellow, were going well. More important, the 36th Division was holding positions along the line set as the objective for daylight, 10 September. At 1800 the corps G-2 reported that the 36th Division had no contact with German troops. The division had made good progress that afternoon. The 143rd Infantry, in the center, advanced to Monte Soprano and took the western slope of the nose, part of Monte Soltano, and the village of Capaccio. The 142nd Infantry on the left was in the foothills below Albanella. Only on the right the 141st Infantry was still virtually immobilized, but after darkness it too would push forward and find evidence-in burned and wrecked vehicles, in supplies hastily abandoned of a precipitous German withdrawal. If there was any cause for concern, it was on the left, where the division had not established its flank firmly on the Sele River-a gap of seven miles remained between American and British forces.
More than satisfied by the developments, General Walker made a formal request at 1740 for a regiment of the 45th Division-part of the floating reserve-to land during the night on Red Beach. Its general area of operations, he suggested, should be on the 36th Division left, specifically between the Calore and Sele Rivers. Generals Dawley and Clark approved at once and Clark decided soon after to send the 179th Infantry ashore. At 2045, General Clark informed General Alexander that the entire 36th Division, including its attachments, was ashore.
The Results of the First Day
North of the Sele River the 10 Corps had had very little difficulty landing and had secured the beaches by 0445. But as the troops began to move inland they met bitter resistance from German tanks and infantry. On the right flank, the 56th Division (Major General G. W. R. Templer) received a strong tank attack, which naval gunfire helped to break up. Patrols then advanced into Battipaglia, but German troops soon drove them out. An attempt to take the Montecorvino airfield failed. Yet the British threat in the Battipaglia area affected other parts of the beachhead. It prompted Sickenius to divert units of his 16th Panzer Division from both north and south flanks to hold the town. Loss of Battipaglia and its commanding ground would give the Allies good access to the interior and deny the Germans control of the road net immediately behind the front. In the left portion of the 10 Corps area, the 46th Division (Major General J. L. T. Hawkesworth) beat back recurring counterattacks, partially surrounded the Montecorvino airfield, and moved toward Salerno under heavy fire.
Commandos and Rangers
By the end of the first day the main forces of 10 Corps had secured a shallow beachhead, but, like VI Corps, had been unable to establish a flank on the Sele River. The gap between British and Americans was sharply defined on the evening of 9 September, when the Germans destroyed the bridge across the Sele on Highway 18, the coastal route.
A gap also separated the two divisions of 10 Corps from the Commandos operating on the left in the Sorrento peninsula. The Commandos had landed unopposed at VietrisuI Mare, but German troops quickly infiltrated the town and placed mortar fire on the beach, thereby delaying the landing of several subsequent assault and support waves. Against determined opposition, the Commandos, aided by Rangers, expanded their beachhead, fought into Salerno, and established a tenuous hold over the city.
On the left of the Commandos, the 4th Ranger Battalion had landed on the Maiori beach without opposition. After crossing the small beach and scaling a high sea wall, the men found Maiori empty of Germans. “While one company formed a perimeter defense, two companies moved off to probe the winding coastal road toward Salerno to the east and Amalfi to the west. Resistance along the road was slight-a German officer courier on a motorcycle, a concrete pillbox protecting a small roadblock force on a sharp bend, a naval observation post near a hairpin tum, and an undefended roadblock at Minori.”
The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions came ashore and pushed inland up the narrow mountain road to Monte di Chiunzi. After destroying two German armored cars with bazooka fire, Rangers seized the ground commanding the Chiunzi pass at the top of the mountain without further opposition. By dawn of D-day, 9 September, they held firmly the peaks on both sides of the pass, with a breathtaking view of the Bay of Salerno behind them and excellent observation of Highway 18, the main artery leading north to Naples. These positions, as well as others plugging the coastal road to Amalfi, secured the left flank of the Fifth Army.
The invasion, from most indications at the end of the day, was a success. Despite the more or less normal confusion of an amphibious operation, troops had scrambled ashore and gained lodgment. Intelligence officers judged the initial resistance to have been heavy though of brief duration. The enemy had soon withdrawn from the beaches. Though some beaches still remained under direct artillery fire, the greater part of the shore line was usable for landing additional troops and supplies.
How difficult were the landings? For any man coming ashore on a hostile beach under fire, particularly during the hours of darkness, a landing is difficult. News of the Italian surrender had relaxed tensions among the troops on the convoys and, despite warnings from commanders, the general belief had persisted among the soldiers that the landings would be purely routine. Thus any opposition was disconcerting.
Perhaps the best way of judging the actual difficulty of the invasion is by the number of casualties sustained. The 36th Division incurred approximately 500 casualties, relatively few for an opposed amphibious assault, particularly since the infantry components were over strength and the division was augmented by the attachment of numerous units. The dead accounted for about 20 percent of the casualties. Very few men drowned.
It was the lack of communications between shore and ship and the resulting absence of precise information for most of the day that made the higher echelons of command uneasy, and this contributed to shipboard impressions that the Salerno invasion was inordinately difficult. With the shore obscured first by darkness and later by smoke, rumors were rife, and the sketchy reports did little to dissipate the natural concern of those who could do little to help. The most critical moments on shore for the Americans probably occurred during two serious German tank attacks. One came at 1120 and employed 16 Mark IV tanks, of which 6 were destroyed, and another was launched somewhat earlier with 13 Mark IV’s. The rest seemed to be small probing attacks, hastily conceived and poorly executed. Antitank weapons and naval gunfire had arrived in time, and a coordinated antitank defense was functioning in the VI Corps area by midmorning, The bazooka turned out to be, as one regiment reported, “a really great defensive weapon,” accounting for at least seven tanks, even though a majority of the operators had fired only a few rounds in training and even though some men became excited and forgot to arm the bazooka shells, The rifle grenade was not particularly effective against tanks but was used with good effect against machine guns and strongpoints.
[n2-6-37 According to regimental records, the 141st Infantry lost 51 killed, 121 wounded, 31 missing; the q2nd Infantry had 32 killed, 109 wounded, 8 missing. Regimental . Sep 43.]
The naval arrangements for debarking and assembling the boat waves and getting them away from the transports had been well carried out. True, many waves did not arrive at the proper places or on schedule; landing craft and DUKW pilots were often cautious to the point of milling around aimlessly offshore; and naval shore fire control parties, landed very early to observe and direct gunfire before artillery and tanks arrived in large numbers, did not get into operation immediately; but these were unfortunate and not disastrous circumstances. Sea mines, both actual and suspected, had at first hampered naval operations and delayed gunfire support-it was necessary to sweep areas in the gulf before cruisers and destroyers could approach close enough to shore to fire effectively. Mines also inhibited the movements of landing craft and LST’s and prevented the transports from coming close in to reduce the length of boat voyages from ship to shore. The distance between transports and shore, in some instances about ten miles, led to long trips by DUKW’s and boats and retarded the build-up. At the end of D-day the transports of the Southern Attack Force were only partially unloaded.
Late in the afternoon of 9 September Allied reconnaissance pilots reported an ominous development. They had observed enemy units moving north from the toe of Italy toward Salerno. German reinforcements could be expected at the beachhead during the night. These were the troops of the LXXVI Panzer Corps from Calabria.
To Vietinghoff it seemed that his 16th Panzer Division had contained the Allied troops in a constricted beachhead. If the reinforcements arrived quickly the invasion might yet be repelled.
The battle at Salerno was still to come. Taking place on the extensively cultivated but thinly settled plain, an area devoted to truck gardening and the raising of cereals on the low ground and to the growing of grapes in the foothills of the mountains, the battle would decide whether the Allies had come to southern Italy to stay.
In North Africa on the first day of the AVALANCHE landings, General Eisenhower had only the most meager reports from the beachhead. He knew by noon there was sharp fighting on the 10 Corps front; he had no news at all from the VI Corps. Confident of the eventual success of the operation, he was nevertheless concerned by the movement of German troops north from Calabria. General Montgomery had promised to advance up the peninsula as fast as he could. But extensive demolitions by German rear guards, it was apparent to Eisenhower, would prevent Montgomery from helping Clark “for some days.” During those days, in Eisenhower’s opinion, would come the critical period of AVALANCHE.
Seeing his major task as the need to match the German reinforcement by accelerating Clark’s build-up, Eisenhower offered Clark the 82nd Airborne Division at noon of D-day, provided a feasible plan could be devised to use it. Eisenhower would have available the next morning, 10 September, some LCI (L) ‘s from Malta; the craft had a lift capacity of 1,800 troops with light equipment and could be used to send reinforcements to Clark. Perhaps some of the 82nd paratroopers could be transferred from Sicily to the beachhead. The main problem, in Eisenhower’s eyes, was assault shipping; if he had enough lift to put one more division into the beachhead immediately, he believed he could almost guarantee success at Salerno. But if the enemy appreciated correctly the slowness of the immediate Allied follow-up, “we are in,” he informed the CCS, “for some very tough fighting.” He could expect no help from the Italian Army. AVALANCHE would be “a matter of touch and go for the next few days.”
“While I do not discount the possibility of a very bad time in the AVALANCHE area,” Eisenhower reported to his superiors, he remained optimistic. My belief is that the enemy is sufficiently confused by the events of the past twenty-four hours that it will be difficult for him to make up a defensive plan and that by exploiting to the full our sea and air power, we will control the Southern end of the Boot to include the line Naples-Foggia within a reasonable time. Our greatest asset now is confusion and uncertainty which we must take advantage of in every possible way.
General Eisenhower hoped that Operation SLAPSTICK, the quick movement of British paratroopers in cruisers to Taranto, would promote additional confusion and uncertainty among the Germans. The decision to execute SLAPSTICK, made in the early days of September, was in the nature of an afterthought, and, as General Alexander later remarked, the code name well illustrated the ex tempore nature of the planning. Despite the suddenness of the decision to launch the operation, the reasoning behind it was complex and the action exerted a considerable influence on the development of the campaign in southern Italy.
Suggested by the Italians during the surrender negotiations, SLAPSTICK was planned to take advantage of the fact that few German troops were in the heel, though the Allied commanders had expected the area to be well defended because of its strategic proximity to Yugoslavia. If the Allies could quickly seize the major port of Taranto, together with the excellent harbors of Brindisi and Bari on the east coast, with little expenditure of men and equipment, they would gain another complex of entry points to the Italian peninsula that would facilitate the general build-up.
They would then have two independent lines of communication in Italy, one based on Salerno and Naples for the Fifth U.S. Army, a second based on the other side of the Italian peninsula for the British Eighth Army. Supporting General Montgomery’s Eighth Army from Taranto and east coast harbors would eliminate the problems of relying on the minor Calabrian ports, which had limited unloading capacity and would necessitate long overland truck hauls from the toe.
The resources for SLAPSTICK were fortunately at hand. First, the Italian armistice, which included the surrender of the Italian Fleet, made it possible on 7 September to divert four cruisers from guarding the Italian warships to transporting the paratroopers. Second, since the shortage of air carriers in the theater made it impossible to use the 1st British Airborne Division in AVALANCHE, its troops were available, and General Alexander alerted Major General G. F. Hopkinson, the division commander, to be ready to make what was hoped would be an administrative rather than an assault landing. Third, a reservoir of additional strength could be drawn upon to build up the forces in the heel: the British 78th Division was in Sicily and free for commitment; the 8th Indian Division was in the Middle East and already loading on ships for a scheduled movement to Italy on 25 September; and other divisions in the Middle East and in North Africa could be sent to the heel if the Allies controlled a complex of ports capable of receiving them. Fourth, a headquarters was available to command a large number of troops.
When Montgomery’s Eighth Army secured easy lodgment in the toe after crossing the Strait of Messina on 3 September, 10 Corps was definitely committed to participate in the AVALANCHE landings. At that time the amphibious operation at Crotone was canceled. This left the British 5 Corps headquarters unemployed and, consequently, free to exercise control over the Allied combat troops that might be committed in the province of Apulia. Eventually, after advancing beyond the toe, Montgomery’s Eighth Army would be established in Apulia, but until then Lieutenant General Sir Charles Allfrey’s 5 Corps headquarters would be ready to take responsibility for whatever operations developed in the area remote from both Salerno and Calabria.
For these reasons, 3,600 troops of the 1st British Airborne Division sailed in light cruisers and mine layers, preceded by mine sweepers, to Taranto and entered the harbor on 9 September, the day of the Salerno landings. No German forces were in the city, and the Italians manning the port defenses gave the arrivals a friendly welcome. The only untoward incident was the tragic sinking, with heavy loss of life, of the British mine layer H.M.S. Abdiel, which struck a mine while waiting to be unloaded.
The port of Taranto was in excellent condition, and British troops immediately began to organize its facilities. The 1st Airborne Division moved off in search of Germans and two days later occupied the port of Brindisi without opposition.
Unfortunately for General Eisenhower’s hope, SLAPSTICK created little confusion and uncertainty for the Germans. The lack of opposition in the heel and along the east coast had resulted from an independent decision made by the commander of the 1st Parachute Division, the only German unit in Apulia.
With Kesselring busy putting down the Italian show of force at Rome and Vietinghoff occupied by meeting the Allied landings at Salerno, the division commander, Generalmajor Richard Heidrich, acted on his own initiative. Since his forces were dispersed over a wide area and there were several points of entry vulnerable to Allied invasion, and since two of the division’s infantry battalions were detached from his control, he concluded he would be unable to offer effective resistance anywhere against what would obviously be superior invading forces. He assembled his troops and insured their security by withdrawing, though he maintained light contact with the British troops and delayed them where he could.
To those engaged at Salerno, SLAPSTICK was far less important than the progress of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army, which was moving slowly up the toe, retarded by demolitions, skillful German delaying action, and the nature of the country itself. If, as seemed likely, the Germans escaped the Eighth Army advance, moved quickly out of the toe, and reached the Salerno area in time to reinforce the defenders, the Fifth Army was in for real trouble.
SOURCE: SALERNO TO CASSINO; by Martin Blumenson (United States Army Center of Military History)