World War Two: Italy; Salerno-Beachhead: German Build-up (ISC-2-7)

How to reinforce the 16th Panzer Division which alone was meeting the Allied invasion at the Salerno beaches, was one of Vietinghoff’s immediate tasks. At hand were two divisions north of Salerno, two divisions to the south.

In the south the 29th Panzer Grenadier and 26th Panzer Divisions) in that order and under the LXXVI Panzer Corps headquarters, were withdrawing from Calabria. They had been on the move since 3 September, when the Eighth Army had landed near Reggio. The 26th Panzer Division was to hold long enough at Catanzaro, about 75 miles from Reggio, to permit the evacuation of heavy materiel.

The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was to go about 75 miles beyond Catanzaro and assemble near Castrovillari. The British Eighth Army had exerted little pressure against German rear guard units and had thus interfered little with the withdrawal. Then on 8 September, the day before the invasion at Salerno, British troops had made a surprise landing near Pizzo, about 50 miles up the coast from Reggio, and almost caught the rear guard division, the 26th Panzer. A swift German reaction might have defeated the landing forces, but because of poor communications and consequent lack of co-ordination among its subordinate units, the 26th Panzer Division missed the opportunity. Making excuses about the unwillingness of the Italians to fight, the division disengaged and withdrew at once to Catanzaro, the movement probably at least partially prompted by the observation that day of the Allied convoy on its way to Salerno. British pressure again slackened, and while the 26th Panzer Division demolished communications and set up roadblocks, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division hastened northward.

Expecting the first of the panzer grenadiers to arrive in the Salerno area by the evening of 9 September and the remainder early the following day, Vietinghoff hoped to have at least parts of the 26th Panzer Division soon afterward. Then he planned to divide the battlefield into two corps sectors, the XIV in the north, the LXXVI in the south. On the basis of his projections, Vietinghoff permitted the 16th Panzer Division on the evening of 9 September to withdraw its elements opposing the U.S. VI Corps in order to concentrate against the British 10 Corps.

Not only the expected arrivals but the terrain and the objectives dictated this move. Of greatest importance to the Germans were the heights surrounding the Salerno plain; those in the north, barring access to Naples, were the most vital. As a consequence, few German troops faced the Americans on the 10th.

The German units just north of the Salerno beaches upon which Vietinghoff could draw were two divisions in the Naples and Gaeta areas, the 15th Panzer Grenadier and Hermann Gӧring Divisions, which, together with the 16th Panzer Division, were under the XIV Panzer Corps headquarters. Both had fought in Sicily, where they had taken severe losses, and both were in the process of rehabilitation. The Hermann Gӧring Division, with an effective strength of more than 15,000 men, had only 25 to 30 operational tanks and 21 assault guns but was strong in artillery. Because its panzer grenadier regiment was not yet organized, the division was weak in infantry.

As compensation, Vietinghoff attached to it two infantry battalions of the 1st Parachute Division, which was in Apulia and directly under Tenth Army control. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division had an effective strength of about 12,000 and a total of 7 tanks, 18 assault guns, and 31 antitank guns of 75-mm. and 88-mm. caliber.

Apart from the question of whether the divisions were sufficiently rested and retrained for commitment to battle, the German commanders had to be ready for additional invasions on the west coast after the Salerno landings. Kesselring still looked for other amphibious operations north of Salerno, and on 10 September ordered a regiment of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division shifted from the vicinity of Rome to strengthen the forces around the Gulf of Gaeta.

This eased the problem of coastal defense at Gaeta for the XIV Panzer Corps and made it possible for the corps to utilize the 15th Panzer Grenadier and Hermann Gӧring Divisions more freely in the defense of Salerno. Reserve elements of the two divisions moved against the 10 Corps on 10 September, and as the possibility of other Allied landings declined during the succeeding days, other increments followed.

The concentration of the XIV Panzer Corps thus put into motion against 10 Corps had its effects. On 10 September German patrols probed and small units engaged the Rangers in sharp skirmishes on Monte di Chiunzi on the extreme left of the Allied beachhead.

Strengthened German opposition made it difficult for units of the 46th Division and the Commandos to clear the town of Salerno and advance about two miles inland to the Vietri pass on the main route to Naples. Stubborn German resistance denied the 56th Division the high ground east of Battipaglia, necessary to control not only the village but also the Montecorvino airfield, and though British patrols managed to get into Battipaglia for a second time, German counterattacks drove them out again at nightfall.

In striking contrast were the events on the VI Corps front, where contact with the enemy on the evening of D-day diminished almost to the vanishing point. At 0830, 10 September, the situation in the VI Corps area, according to General Clark, was “well in hand.” By 1100, American troops were no longer in touch with the Germans. Only forty prisoners had been taken, including a few captured on 9 September. The Germans seemed to be withdrawing from the battlefield. “The worst is over,” an enthusiastic regimental commander announced, “we are more than a match for all that can meet us.”

There were few German forces because the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division failed to arrive from the south as expected. The division had been immobilized most of 9 September not far from the Gulf of Policastro for lack of fuel, but Vietinghoff did not know it. Instead of the troops arriving near Salerno, the division commander, Generalmajor Walter Fries, showed up at army headquarters with the bad news.

Part of the trouble over fuel came from the fact that the recently organized Tenth Army headquarters had no organic quartermaster section. OB SUED was still handling logistical matters for the army, and the arrangement was not working out satisfactorily. Tenth Army was not fully informed on the location of the fuel and supply depots in the army area, just one aspect of a generally uncoordinated logistical situation. More to the point, a panicky officer had destroyed a coastal tanker and a fuel depot at Sapri, at the head of the Gulf of Policastro, without proper authority. The depot commander, apparently a naval officer, had been under the mistaken impression that he was about to be attacked. By blowing up the storage facilities to prevent them from falling, so he thought, into Allied hands, he seriously depleted the Tenth Army supplies.

Emergency measures were necessary, not only to get the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division in motion again but also to prevent the 26th Panzer Division from bogging down in Calabria. While gasoline from Italian dumps and small amounts from the rather meager stocks of the 16th Panzer Division were rushed south, Vietinghoff urgently requested Kesselring to ship him fuel by air.

Strenuous efforts got the panzer grenadiers rolling again, but instead of arriving near Salerno on the night of 9 September as a strong striking force, the division came into the battle area piecemeal during the next three days. Units were committed as they arrived, but the entire division was not on hand until the 12th.

Doing his utmost to concentrate forces around Salerno for a major counterattack, Vietinghoff carried out his plan to divide the battle area into two zones on 11 September. He had the XIV Panzer Corps in the north, operating in an area that included the Sorrento peninsula and Salerno, with the 15th Panzer Grenadier and the Hermann Gӧring Divisions; in the south, the LXXVI Panzer Corps took control of the I6th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions.

To a certain extent the reorganization was a paper change. Though most of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had arrived, the division was not able to take responsibility for its zone because of continuing fuel shortages. Late on the afternoon of the 11th, a member of Vietinghoff’s staff flew to Kesselring’s headquarters to try to iron out this and other problems. The lack of an army quartermaster was particularly unsettling-no one, for example, coordinated fuel transfers between the corps-and delays and confusion inevitably resulted. But communications also still troubled and dismayed the Germans. The Tenth Army staff officer visiting Kesselring’s headquarters carried with him copies of most of the radio messages sent that day to OB SUED, and he discovered that most of the originals had not yet been received.

While Kesselring tried to straighten out the various difficulties, he confirmed his approval of Vietinghoff’s intention to employ all available forces at Salerno. Political and military considerations, he advised Vietinghoff, made victory at Salerno imperative, and “every man must know this.” Hampered by internal difficulties and the necessity to commit units piecemeal and intermingled, Vietinghoff could do no more than go through the motions of planning a counterattack at Salerno. Meanwhile, regimental and smaller sized units could and would exert pressure on the Fifth Army by local attacks directed for the most part against 10 Corps. The success they were to achieve by these less than all-out means would demonstrate how correct the Allies had been to characterize the invasion as a risky venture.

The Beachhead Developed

After absorbing the first shock of the landing, the 36th Division pushed east and south on 10 September toward the high ground that forms an arc between Agropoli, five miles south of the landing beaches, and Albanella, seven miles to the east. The 141st Infantry on the right moved steadily to the south toward Agropoli and Ogliastro, while the 143rd in the center sent patrols onto the imposing bulk of Monte Soprano. The 142nd took Albanella and with it control of the ridge line and country road to the village of Rocca d’Aspide. By the end of the second day of the invasion, the 36th Division had fulfilled the immediate requirement imposed on VI Corps-protecting the right flank of the Fifth Army.

To a division expecting to meet strong resistance climaxed by an armored counterattack at daylight of 10 September, the absence of opposition came as a welcome surprise. Aside from the obvious tactical advantages, the 36th gained an opportunity to bring order to the many activities that had, as a natural consequence of the amphibious landing, become somewhat disorganized. The units had come ashore “badly mixed due to sea mines,” according to General Clark, and General Walker bent his efforts “to disentangle the units as much as possible.”

To reinforce the 36th Division, a portion of the floating reserve-part of the 45th Division-had come ashore. Having departed Sicily in a convoy of LCT’s and LCI’s forty-eight hours earlier, the division headquarters, the 179th Infantry, and most of the 157th Infantry had arrived in the Gulf of Salerno with the invasion assault forces about midnight of 8 September; the troops had remained in the cramped quarters of their landing craft. Early on 10 September, the 178th Infantry debarked, moved into an assembly area along the coastal highway north of Paestum, and, together with the rest of the division, passed from army reserve to corps control. The division commander, General Middleton, set up a command post and received as attachments the 645th Tank Destroyer and 191st Tank Battalions, both of which were already in position near the Sele River.

By this time General Dawley had opened his VI Corps command post with a skeleton staff. That afternoon, after communications were established, he assumed responsibility from General Walker for the tactical operations on the beachhead south of the Sele River. The next day Dawley took control of unloading on the beaches, operating the supply dumps, and constructing and maintaining roads.

Visiting the beachhead on 10 September, General Clark found conditions in the VI Corps area satisfactory, morale high. In the 10 Corps area, where morale was equally high, he learned firsthand from General McCreery of the resistance the British were meeting. The German concentration of strength in the northern part of the beachhead, General McCreery estimated, made it doubtful that the corps, at its current strength, could advance eastward the fourteen miles through Battipaglia and Eboli to Ponte Sele, the projected meeting place with VI Corps. The 10 Corps needed assistance, and Clark promised to give it. Two areas were particularly sensitive: the extreme left flank on the Sorrento peninsula, where the Rangers were holding the Chiunzi pass, and the gap on the right flank of the 10 Corps, the low ground between Battipaglia and the Sele River.

Assistance for 10 Corps could come only at the expense of VI Corps, but in view of the differing strengths of the opposition, it was justifiable. To insure the integrity of the Fifth Army left, General Clark told General Dawley to send a battalion task force to support the Rangers. He was specific on the composition of the force and the time of its movement-a battalion of infantry, supported by artillery, engineers, tanks, and 4.2-inch mortars, was to be ready to embark from a VI Corps beach the next day, 11 September. Dawley, who was concerned over his relatively long front and comparatively few troops, protested. But Clark insisted, and on the following afternoon the troops, with three units of fire, three days of Class I and Class III supplies, and organic loads, began embarking on fifteen LCT’s and three LCI (L)’s for the trip across the gulf to Maiori and attachment to Darby’s Rangers.

To close the gap on the 10 Corps right, Clark shifted the VI Corps boundary north of the Sele River, thereby giving the task of filling the hole to Dawley. The VI Corps commander was to use the 179th Infantry, already in the beachhead, and the 157th Infantry, which Clark decided to bring ashore on the afternoon of 10 September. Only the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 157th were present because of the shortage of shipping; the 1st Battalion would not arrive from Sicily until 15 September. After ordering the two battalions placed ashore on the British right flank just north of the Sele River, Clark was surprised to discover that the troops were already being unloaded just south of the river. Admiral Hewitt, he later learned, had issued his order earlier because AFHQ had instructed him to release vessels for return to North Africa and Sicily, where they would be reloaded and sent back to augment the build-up in Italy. Hi Fortunately, the regimental landing site was near the place Clark had chosen. The difficulty for the regiment was that the Germans had destroyed the bridge across the Sele. At Clark’s direction engineers, working through the night, put in a new bridge and on the following morning, the 157th was able to cross the river into what had been the 10 Corps zone. Having taken care of the two sensitive areas in the beachhead, the Fifth Army commander assured General Alexander that he would soon be ready to attack north through the Vietri pass toward Naples. Part of his optimism came from the progress of unloading operations.

Small convoys departed the Northern Attack Force area at intervals throughout the loth as soon as the ships were emptied. By 2210 the larger APA’s and AKA’s of the Southern Attack Force had been unloaded and were on their way back to North Africa. Shortly before midnight, the contents of 80 percent of the D-day convoy were ashore. Though the beaches were still congested, partly because of the rapid pace of the unloading, partly because not enough troops were on hand to clear the supplies, this seemed relatively unimportant, for a naval party had visited Salerno to see about opening the port facilities.

So favorable did the situation appear that the Northwest African Tactical Air Force headquarters proposed to reduce the fighter cover over the assault area. Admiral Hewitt and General House protested. The planes allotted to AVALANCHE, they felt, were meeting no more than minimum requirements. Since Allied troops had not taken Montecorvino airfield, a change in the air assignments seemed unwise until fighter planes were actually based in the beachhead. The VI Corps was constructing a provisional airstrip near Paestum, but this strip would hardly insure the Allies a firm base for all-weather air support. About the time that Hewitt and House were protesting the proposed reduction of fighter cover, the Germans were deciding to step up their air attacks. Several weeks earlier Kesselring had given Luftflotte 2, the air force headquarters in Italy, a dual mission: to attack Allied shipping and protect Italian cities against air raids; and, in the event of an Allied landing on the Italian mainland, to give close support to the Tenth Army and cover the projected evacuation of troops from Sardinia.

When the British invaded Calabria, Kesselring had correctly judged it a subsidiary operation and ordered the air force to conserve its meager resources for the more decisive action sure to come. By the evening of 10 September, there was no doubt that Salerno was the decisive action, and Luftflotte 2 began to employ all its available aircraft against the Fifth Army. Enemy air activity increased noticeably that night.

German aircraft were far from equal to Allied planes, either in numbers or in performance. Of the 625 German planes based in southern France, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Italian mainland, no more than 120 single-engine fighters and 50 fighter-bombers were immediately available at bases in central and southern Italy. Yet their short distance from the Allied beachhead made it possible for a plane to fly several sorties each day. Thus, on 11 September Allied observers reported no less than 120 hostile aircraft over the landing beaches.

Barrage balloons, antiaircraft artillery, and Allied fighter planes markedly reduced the effect of the German air raids, but the threat could not be ignored even though the lack of mass air attacks seemed to indicate that the Germans were not holding a large air fleet in reserve to repel the invasion.

Despite the request of Hewitt and House to maintain the level of the Allied air effort, there were fewer Allied fighter planes in the air over Salerno on 11 September to oppose the increased German effort. “Admiral Hewitt protesting reduction of coverage,” General House radioed to the Tactical Air Force headquarters. “Suffering losses that cannot be replaced. Urgently recommend original plan until further instructions.” To the Tactical Air Force headquarters, this message was incomprehensible. “Our information from you,” the headquarters replied, “indicates light enemy air attack which has been well handled by patrolling fighters.” Yet the headquarters agreed “very reluctantly,” according to Hewitt, to return a P-38 squadron to patrol duty over Salerno. From Admiral Vian, who commanded the carrier force, came a more positive response. Hewitt had radioed to him: “Air situation here critical. Status air field ashore uncertain.” Could Vian remain on station and furnish early morning cover on 12 September? Vian’s reply was prompt: “Yes, certainly.”

Although Vian’s naval aircraft, along with those of Willis, maintained umbrellas of fighter cover over the invasion area, both commanders were becoming concerned about their diminishing supplies of fuel. The Montecorvino airfield provided the solution to the problem of air support, but the Germans hardly seemed disposed to oblige.

With at least the reconnaissance battalion of the Hermann Gӧring Division and probably additional units strengthening the 16th Panzer Division’s concentration of force against to Corps, the fighting in the British zone on 11 September, the third day of the invasion, became more intense, particularly in the Battipaglia area. Supported by effective naval fire, British troops finally captured the Montecorvino airfield at the end of the day, but German infantry on nearby hills and German artillery within range denied its use.

On that day VI Corps began its effort to bolster the 10 Corps right flank. While the two regiments of Middleton’s 45th Division moved to close the gap between British and Americans, a regiment of Walker’s 36th Division was to provide an assist.

The terrain in question was the flood plain of the Sele and Calore Rivers, a corridor of low ground. Starting about twelve miles inland near the village of Serre, at the edge of rugged hills, the corridor descends gently as it carries the Sele and Calore Rivers to their juncture five miles from the shore. The planners in defining initial objectives had bypassed this low ground, focusing their attention instead on the high ground dominating the plain. If 10 Corps seized the heights first around Battipaglia, then around Eboli on the northern rim of the plain, and if VI Corps captured high ground near Altavilla, specifically Hill 424, on the southern edge, British and Americans could move quickly to a meeting at Ponte Sele,

and the Sele-Calore plain would be pinched off in the process. Events had developed differently. The Germans stubbornly denied Battipaglia to the British, while the Americans erected a defensive barrier facing southeast to protect the beachhead against the German forces moving up the boot. Since the Germans possessed the dominating ground, particularly Battipaglia and Hill 424, they could, it became apparent, strike through the relatively open ground of the Sele-Calore corridor and split the beachhead forces. The VI Corps, having rather easily established the barrier on instructions.

The VI Corps plan for 11 September envisaged three separate but related attacks. On the left, the 157th Infantry was to cross the Sele River downstream from its junction with the Calore and attack north to Eboli. Seizure of Eboli, about eight miles from the Sele, would strike the German flank and rear and perhaps pry loose the German hold on Battipaglia; it would also facilitate 10 Corps’ capture of the heights immediately overlooking the Montecorvino airfield. In the center, the 179th Infantry was to enter the Sele-Calore corridor near the juncture of the two rivers. Covering the right flank of the 157th, the 179th was to drive seven miles northeast across the flood plain to seize a bridge, Ponte Sele, and cut Highway 19, a good lateral route still open to the Germans. On the right of the low ground, a regiment of the 36th Division was to secure Hill 424 near Altavilla and deprive the Germans of a commanding view over much of the beachhead, as well as the flood plain, the valleys of the upper Sele and Calore Rivers, and portions of Highways 19 and 91.

The attacks met with varying success. In the left of the VI Corps zone, a company of the attached 191st Tank Battalion led the two battalions of the 157th Infantry across the Sele River toward Eboli and moved into an area of undulating ground with small patches of woods. About four miles north of the river crossing site, having advanced without incident but somewhat suspicious because of the heavy fire in the Battipaglia area, the tankers cautiously approached a tobacco factory-five large buildings constructed in a circle. On the flat top of a gently sloping hill, the factory controlled access not only to Eboli and Ponte Sele but also to the Battipaglia-Eboli road, a German supply route.

Just that morning, 11 September, as a result of the increased strength available, the 16th Panzer Division had moved a battalion from Battipaglia to outpost positions in and around the factory. Letting the American tank company come close, the Germans struck with machine guns and antitank weapons and knocked out seven tanks. From positions dug along the railroad paralleling the coastal highway and from strongpoints in the factory buildings, as well as in the farmhouses nearby, German troops halted the advance of the 157th Infantry. By evening the Americans were digging in. The factory remained in German hands, as did Eboli, four miles away.

For its effort in the Sele-Calore corridor, the 179th Infantry divided its attack. Two battalions were to drive directly to Ponte Sele, while the third protected the regimental right flank in the shadow of Hill 424 and Altavilla. The main regimental body, the 3rd and 1st Battalions, in that order, followed by tanks and tank destroyers advancing by bounds, crossed the Calore River near its juncture with the Sele and entered the corridor against no opposition. By midmorning the infantry battalions had bypassed the village of Persano and were seemingly well on their way to Ponte Sele when machine gun fire suddenly erupted from Persano and artillery fire began to fall from the direction of Eboli. The fire cut communications between the infantry and its armored support. Tanks and tank destroyers tried to push to Persano, but German fire halted them. Remaining where they were, the armored troops protected the Cal ore River crossing site to prevent the entire force in the corridor from being cut off and isolated.

With neither communications nor fire support, the 1st Battalion turned back to mop up the Persano area, where it became heavily engaged for the rest of the day. The 3rd Battalion pushed on against increasing resistance to within a mile of Ponte Sele before coming to a halt. Wary of being isolated by German troops, the 3rd Battalion commander, upon the approach of darkness, withdrew to join forces with the 1st Battalion near Persano. Both battalions set up defensive positions a few miles east of the village. Four miles to the northeast, Ponte Sele remained in German hands.

Meanwhile, protecting the regimental right flank, the 2nd Battalion advanced over the low ground between the Calore River and the Altavilla heights. With a platoon of the 191st Tank Battalion at the head and the 160th Field Artillery Battalion in support, the battalion combat team crossed La Cosa Creek and moved toward that part of Highway 19 between Ponte Sele and Serre. By midmorning the battalion had reached a destroyed bridge across the Calore. Building a ford in the shallow stream was not difficult, and tanks and vehicles soon crossed, only to run into concerted fire from German tanks and artillery that forced the troops to take cover. There they remained until dark. Since the positions on the low ground seemed far too advanced and much too exposed, the battalion withdrew during the night almost three miles and dug defensive positions along La Cosa Creek.

In contrast with the opposition met by the two regiments of the 45th Division, a battalion of the 142nd Infantry took Altavilla and the nearby hills with no trouble at all. Troops entered the village during the morning and occupied dispersed positions on the heights without resistance. That afternoon, when patrols reconnoitered eastward as far as the Calore River, they found no German forces. American domination of the Sele-Calore corridor from the south now seemed established.

Ashore again on 11 September, General Clark was concerned by the manifestation of German strength against the British. Not only were the Germans exerting pressure in the Battipaglia area, they had pushed into the outskirts of Vietri and had come within twelve miles of Salerno. In the process they were inflicting heavy casualties. On that day alone, Tenth Army captured almost 1,500 prisoners, most of them British. General Clark was also impressed by the resistance the 45th Division met. To counter the German strength in the northern portion of the beachhead, Clark talked with General Dawley about shifting troops from the south. Although reconnaissance pilots ranging east of Eboli had only negative reports on German troop movements that evening, Clark advised Dawley to be alert to the danger of counterattack along his north flank. Use plenty of mines, Clark urged.

Late on the evening of 11 September when General McCreery requested General Clark to move the inter-corps boundary again to narrow still further the 10 Corps area, Clark responded. Reluctant to adjust his front-line dispositions, Dawley moved a battalion of the 36th Engineer Regiment into the line during the night. On the left of the 157th Infantry, the engineers occupied defensive positions around Bivio Cioffi, a few miles north of the mouth of the Sele, and there established tenuous patrol contact with British units at daylight. Paralleling the disturbing developments on the ground were conditions offshore. As Luftflotte 2 continued its all out effort, launching a total of more than 450 sorties by fighters and fighter-bombers and almost 100 by heavy bombers during the first three days of the invasion, German planes menaced the invasion fleet.

The aircraft were responding to urgent pleas passed up the chain of command from the XIV Panzer Corps commander, Balck. to concentrate the planes not against the Allied air forces or ground troops but against the ships. According to Balck, who was supported by Vietinghoff. eliminating the devastating Allied naval gun-fires was the prime prerequisite for success in repelling the invasion.

German pilots sank 4 transports, 1 heavy cruiser, and 7 landing craft, and scored a total of 85 hits on the Allied fleet. They had particular success with two new radio-controlled glider and rocket bombs. Introduced at Salerno, the bombs were carried by specially equipped DO-217 bombers and perhaps also by HE-111 bombers. The planes averaged one hit per fifteen sorties. Though the bombs had been available since July, shortly after the invasion of Sicily, Hitler had prevented their use “lest we give away our secret.”

[n2-7-2828 British Air Ministry Pamphlet No. 248, The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1948), p. 262; Führer Conferences, 1943, p. 95 (17 Jul 43). Fitted with wings, the bombs were assisted by rockets. Radio control or a homing device directed them. Nineteen inches in diameter, the bombs had low velocity, were armor piercing, had a delayed fuze, and weighed 1400 kilograms. AFHQ Ltr, 22 Sep 43, AG 471.]

On 11 September a near miss by a glider or rocket bomb damaged the cruiser Philadelphia, another severely damaged a Dutch gunboat, and a direct hit on the cruiser Savannah put it out of action. These losses, Admiral Hewitt judged, made his situation critical. He requested assistance from Admiral Cunningham, who promptly dispatched two cruisers, the Aurora and the Penelope, from Malta.

The most conspicuous target immediately offshore was Admiral Hewitt’s flagship, the Ancon. It had to be in the gulf because it was the center of naval, air, and ground command communications. Apprehensive over its safety during the night, Hewitt decided that defending the Ancon with the usual measures of smoke and massed antiaircraft fire would be too risky. He put out to sea for the night.

At daylight, 12 September, the Ancon was back on station to resume not only fighter direction control but also its place in the command network. Against the beachhead itself, the Germans continued to augment their strength and pressure. Enough of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division from Calabria was on hand to make its presence felt, and on 12 September troops of the 29th appeared in the American sector. Their first action took place at Altavilla.

The 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry, had moved into Altavilla and had established positions on Hill 424 without any trouble, but the American troops were not so firmly in place as they might have seemed. Not only were they spread thin over a large area, but the broken ground around Altavilla-terraced slopes covered with scrub growth and cut by ravines-restricted fields of fire and sharply limited visibility. Central control was a problem, and each rifle company had difficulty finding suitable ground for adequate defensive positions. In addition, the consolidation of the 179th Infantry on the left near Persano and along La Cosa Creek placed the infantry battalion around Altavilla in the most advanced position along the VI Corps front.

German troops infiltrated the battalion positions during the night, and soon after daylight, 12 September, they opened fire on the dispersed American units. Although the broken terrain gave many Americans the impression they were fighting alone and unaided, they resisted stubbornly. Yet their situation soon became critical. The regimental commander, Colonel Forsythe, tried to get trucks from division and corps to rush another battalion to Altavilla as reinforcement, but vehicles were not available. As the battalion commander headed forward to direct the most hard-pressed of his companies, he was cut down by German fire. Shortly thereafter, German troops pushed into the village and split the battalion in two. In splinters and with Germans apparently on all sides, the men fell back from Altavilla and the neighboring hills.

Loss of the Altavilla heights jeopardized the American positions in the SeleCal are corridor, where the 179th Infantry had tried again on 12 September to advance to Ponte Sele and Highway 19. Though tanks and tank destroyers forced a passage to Persano and re-established contact and communications with the two battalions of infantry, no further advance was possible. [NOTE 2-7-29 Captain Richard M. Strong, who was largely responsible for regaining contact, was awarded the DSC.] The 2nd Battalion, protecting the regimental right Rank, guarded the area between the Cal are River and Altavilla against German incursion from the heights. The loss of Altavilla exposed the 179th Infantry right Rank. However, the regimental left Rank became somewhat more secure after the 157th Infantry attacked the tobacco factory. Men of the 157th took the buildings and the commanding ground on which they stood, then fought a seesaw battle against a series of fierce German counterattacks. At the end of the day, the regiment was holding firm, blocking the Sele River crossing site immediately west of Persano and thus denying the Germans at least this access to the corridor.

The battalion of the 36th Engineer Regiment in the line on the left of the 157th Infantry helped sustain the corps’ left Rank. With the help of excellent naval gunfire, the fire of a few tank destroyers that had just come ashore, and the support of a battery of artillery, the engineers held at Bivio Cioffi against a German probe.

The defensive success on the VI Corps left could not obscure the seriousness of the loss of Altavilla. Without the high ground around Altavilla the 45th Division could make little progress toward Ponte Sele and Eboli and could give little assistance to 10 Corps. When General Dawley conferred with General Middleton around noon on 12 September, the division commander made this point. Agreeing, Dawley instructed General Walker to retake Altavilla. As Walker started to plan an attack, General Clark set into motion a reorganization of the front.

To General Clark, who came ashore again on 12 September and who found the 45th Division “badly bruised,” the German strength near Persano seemed to be a spear pointing toward the center of the beachhead. If the Germans pushed to the sea, they could turn the inner Rank of either or both of the corps. Uneasy over the threat, Clark began to question Dawley’s ability to handle the operations.

Enemy pressure that had for the most part been exerted against 10 Corps had obviously spread now to include part of the VI Corps sector, yet Dawley seemed unaware of the German concentration on his left Rank. Dawley, Clark believed, had either misinterpreted the failure of the 45th Division’s thrusts toward Ponte Sele and Eboli or was oblivious to its meaning. To Clark, it was clearly evident that the enemy intended to launch a major attack in that area, and that adequate measures had to be taken to meet it. Dawley had already committed all his troops in a cordon defense that left none in reserve to meet an emergency, though it is perhaps difficult to see what he might have otherwise done. Concerned because there had been no contingency planning for the possibility that Fifth Army might be driven into the sea, Clark thought of alerting the troops to the need of destroying equipment and supplies in the event of a German breakthrough to the beach.

[NOTE: Captain John T. Kershner, the artillery battery commander who lost his life after exposing himself to enemy fire for three hours in order to adjust his hattalion’s fires effectively, was posthumously awarded the DSC]

He did not issue the order for fear of the effect it might have on morale. General Clark made known his concern

to General Dawley, and during the afternoon of 12 September Dawley started what “‘as to be a considerable shift of forces into the gap on his left. Middleton was to move all his 45th Division troops north of the Sele to gain and maintain firm contact with the British troops still trying to take Battipaglia. When the 179th Infantry moved from the Sele-Calore plain to join the 157th Infantry north of the river, Walker’s 36th Division would therefore have to extend its left flank as far north as the Sele.

This extension gave General Walker a front of about thirty-five miles, an inordinate length for a division, particularly since the 36th, like the 45th, which had only five infantry battalions ashore, was well understrength. The 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry, after Altavilla, had only 260 men, and they were badly shaken; and the 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry, had been sent to the Sorrento peninsula to bolster the Rangers, with only seven effective infantry battalions and a mission to recapture Altavilla, General Walker could spare few troops to replace the 179th Infantry in the Sele-Calore corridor. General Dawley assured him that an infantry battalion would be enough. Middleton’s forces would provide strong protection on the left, and the recapture of Altavilla would secure the right.

Because the 142nd Infantry was stretched thin around Albanella in the center of the 36th Division zone and the 141st was stretched equally thin in the Agropoli area in the south, General Walker gave the task of retaking Altavilla to the 143rd Infantry. Colonel Martin, the regimental commander, had been moving a battalion into defensive positions to cover the Altavilla area when he was called to the division command post to receive his instructions. He learned that Walker was planning to send his division reserve, the 2nd Battalion, 143rd Infantry, to the Sele-Calore corridor to replace the 179th Infantry.

Since the 1st Battalion was operating with the Rangers, Martin had only the 3rd Battalion with which to retake the Altavilla heights. Because a single battalion had been unable to hold the high ground that morning, Walker borrowed a battalion of the 142nd Infantry to augment Martin’s attack force. He directed Martin to employ the two battalions in a pincer movement. While one battalion ascended the northern edge of the Altavilla hill mass and moved on the village, the other was to advance along the ridge line from Albanella and attack Hill 424. The depleted 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry, might, if necessary, also be used.

Colonel Martin’s preparations for the attack on Altavilla consumed most of the afternoon of 12 September. Bridges had to be repaired before trucks could be moved to assembly areas, and a shortage of trucks in the beachhead slowed supply movements.

By the time Martin had set up a new command post and conferred with artillery and tank commanders to co-ordinate the fire support, it was too late for daylight reconnaissance. That evening ‘Walker ordered Martin to launch his attack anyway, but Martin, still not ready, did not issue his field order until midnight. By then the battle that had raged over Battipaglia had turned definitely in favor of the Germans. Enemy troops drove contingents of the 56th Division out of the edge of the village, inflicting heavy casualties and exposing the north flank of VI Corps.

This reverse emphasized what was already apparent. After four days the beachhead was still dangerously shallow, and the number of troops available to man the long front was dangerously small. Despite Vietinghoff’s difficulties in building up the German troops in the Salerno area, his force seemed to be growing at a faster rate than that of the Allies.

The instability of the beachhead undoubtedly contributed to General Clark’s decision on 12 September to establish his

army headquarters ashore. It would indicate to the troops, as no amount of exhortation could, that the commander had no intention of quitting. There were other reasons, of course. A command poston the ground was more convenient than a headquarters aboard ship, and Clark was impatient to get ashore where he could see things for himself and where he could be available to his subordinates at all times. In addition, Admiral Hewitt’s flagship, which accommodated General House’s air staff as well as Clark’s headquarters, was conspicuous in the Gulf of Salerno, an inviting and tempting target. When the ground and air staffs moved ashore, Hewitt could transfer his flag to a smaller ship and release the Ancon for return to more tranquil waters.

Though Admiral Hewitt had been charged with exercising over-all command of the operation until the ground troops established a secure beachhead, the security of the beachhead was not the controlling criterion when the command shift took place. The beachhead was far from secure on 12 September when General Clark disembarked his headquarters, yet at that time Admiral Hewitt’s role became strictly one of support. “The Army having been established on shore and Clark having succeeded to the overall command,” Admiral Hewitt later wrote, “it became my duty … to comply as best I could with his wishes.”

[n2-7-31 Reverting to the command of the naval forces only, Hewitt moved to a smaller ship after dark on 12 September and dispatched the Aneon to Algiers. He also released Admiral Vian’s carrier force, even though the Montecorvino airfield was still under German fire and unusable for air operations. Some of Vian’s Sea fire fighters flew to a fighter strip constructed near Paestum and became the first land-based planes available for direct support of the ground operations.]

Finding a suitable location for the Fifth Army headquarters was no easy matter. An obviously good place centrally located was not to be found; indeed, adequate space anywhere in the constricted beachhead was hard to come by. The town of Salerno was receiving increasing numbers of German artillery shells and was too close to the front, while Paestum, the other most likely site, was full of administrative headquarters and supply dumps and was also some distance from the 10 Corps headquarters.

General Clark finally chose Bellelli Palace, a mansion in a large grove of pine trees not far from the inter-corps boundary. Here, about a mile southwest of the juncture of the Sele and Calore Rivers, near the Albanella Station. here the railroad and coastal highway come together-the Fifth Army headquarters opened.

To some observers it seemed that General Clark chose to establish his headquarters in the VI Corps area rather than with the 10 Corps because he had less confidence in Dawley than in McCreery. True or not, Clark’s choice was natural on other grounds. It was more convenient for an American headquarters with American personnel to be in an American area simply in terms of staff procedures, food habits, and human relations. Also, Clark’s command relationship with McCreery could not be the same as it was with Dawley. National considerations and the subtleties of coalition warfare dictated that Clark be much more directly concerned with Dawley’s operations than with McCreery’s. With Dawley he could, if necessary, be brutally frank; with McCreery he had to be tactful and discreet.

The site of the Fifth Army command post proved unfortunate. Telephone communications were difficult to establish and, once installed, not particularly good. Control of both corps thus remained less than satisfactory and always a problem, and partly for this reason the army temporarily left administrative responsibility for the beachhead in the hands of the corps. Only one good lateral road connected the VI and 10 Corps, and that road ran through Battipaglia. Although it was possible to travel from one corps to the other along a series of trails and tracks near the shore, the quickest route was by speedboat.

The main reason why the army headquarters was not well placed was its proximity to the front. Not only was it within range of German artillery, it was menaced by German infantry shortly after setting up. During one of the counterattacks launched against the tobacco factory during the afternoon of 12 September, eight German tanks and about a battalion of infantry temporarily forced the I st Battalion, IS7th Infantry, out of its positions. For an hour or so, until the Americans counterattacked and regained their positions, the army command post was in the unenviable position of sitting in the direct path of the German attack.

That evening General Clark decided that the location was unsatisfactory-the baronial mansion was too small for the headquarters personnel and too conspicuous a target for air attack. Together with a few of his closest staff members, he drove south on Highway 18 toward Paestum. Just north of the VI Corps headquarters, in a house surrounded by a thick growth of underbrush, General Clark set up his personal command post. The events of the day were somewhat

unnerving to most members of the headquarters

The German Attack

Still gathering forces to launch a massive attack, Vietinghoff on the morning of 13 September believed he would have enough troops by the following day. He informed General der Panzertruppen Traugott Herr, the LXXVI Panzer Corps commander, that he wished to discuss with him on the evening of the 13th how they might go about overwhelming the Allies and destroying the beachhead.

Shortly after his conversation with Herr, sometime during the morning of the 13th, Vietinghoff suddenly discovered the gap between the two Allied corps. With some astonishment he inferred that the Allies had voluntarily “split themselves into two sections.” To Vietinghoff this meant that the Allies were planning to evacuate their beachhead, and he seized eagerly upon that conclusion. The arrival of additional ships off the Salerno beaches he construed as those necessary for the evacuation.

The Allied use of smoke near Battipaglia he regarded as a measure designed to cover a retreat. The translation of an intercepted radio message, which seemed to indicate an Allied intention to withdraw, made him certain that the Allies had been unable to withstand the heavy and constant German pressure and were in fact about to abandon their beachhead. He interpreted German propaganda broadcasts claiming another Dunkerque as support for his conviction. Sensing victory, Vietinghoff wanted all the more to launch a massive attack, no longer to drive the Allies from the beaches but now to prevent their escape. More and more pressure, he urged his subordinates.

Shortly after midday on 13 September, LXXVI Panzer Corps complied. Elements of the 29th Panzer Grenadier and 16th Panzer Divisions struck from Battipaglia, Eboli, and Altavilla. Not long afterward the corps commander, Herr, reported his troops in pursuit of the enemy.

From the American point of view, the German efforts that day were at first less a concentrated attack than a sharp increase in resistance. Early that morning, when Colonel Martin finally launched his attack to recapture Altavilla with an artillery preparation beginning at 0545, the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Infantry, moving northwest along the ridge from Albanella, ran into fierce opposition. The battalion fought all day long, trying vainly to reach the village. The 3rd Battalion, 143rd, advancing up the other side of the Altavilla heights, had better success and was able to send a company into the village of Altavilla to protect the battalion flank. But when the battalion started toward Hill 424, the men were stopped by German infantrymen effectively using small arms and machine guns and calling in accurate artillery fire.

With the assault battalions bogged down, General Walker released the depleted 1st Battalion, 142nd, to Colonel Martin, who tried all afternoon to move the battalion to assault positions. Transportation difficulties and German artillery fire imposed delays. Not until late afternoon was the battalion ready to attack, and then, as the men were passing through a defile, a rain of German artillery shells cut the already battered unit to pieces.

This marked the change in the German tactics from those of defense to a more active response. While the 3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry, still in possession of Altavilla, was making ready to attack Hill 424 without its reinforcements, it received a counterattack at 1700, fifteen minutes before the scheduled jump-off. German troops who had bolstered the defenders of Hill 424 drove the Americans from their line of departure. As darkness approached, Germans infiltrating around the flanks of both battalions on the high ground threatened to encircle and isolate them. Allied artillery fire might have nullified the threat, but German shelling thwarted all efforts to maintain wire communications to the artillery, and radio reception proved too poor to enable forward observers to obtain accurate artillery support. His attack collapsing, Martin instructed both battalions to withdraw. This the 3rd Battalion, 142nd, did without difficulty. The 3rd Battalion, 143rd, had to wait until darkness, and even then Company K could not make it. Encircled in Altavilla, the company set up a perimeter defense. Not until the following night were the men able to break away and infiltrate by small groups back to American lines.

There was failure at Altavilla, but in the Sele-Calore corridor the situation came close to disaster. Here the 2nd Battalion, 143rd Infantry, had arrived during the night of 12 September and relieved the 179th Infantry. Assuming defensive positions two and a half miles northeast of Persano, the battalion set up antitank guns and laid a few hasty mine fields. Any uneasy feelings the men on the low ground of the Sele-Calore flood plain might have had were heightened when reconnaissance patrols reported no contact with friendly units on either flank.

On the right the nearest American units were three miles away and engaged at Altavilla. On the left the 157th Infantry on the north bank of the Sele was protecting the Persano crossing two and a half miles to the rear. Though Middleton had informed Dawley that the 157th Infantry covered the positions in the Sele-Calore corridor, he was mistaken, and Walker had accepted Middleton’s word without checking. But during the morning of 13 September and through most of the afternoon nothing happened in the corridor except the arrival of an occasional incoming round of artillery.

At the LXXVI Panzer Corps command post, Herr’s chief of staff was reaching the firm conclusion at 1430 that the Allies were in the process of evacuating during these attacks and withdrawals, three men in particular distinguished themselves. Corporal Charles E. Kelly (awarded the Medal of Honor.) was instrumental in the success of a small group of men who eliminated numerous enemy machine gun positions. Private William J. Crawford (awarded the Medal of Honor.)knocked out three machine guns after crawling under enemy fire to positions close enough to throw hand grenades. 1st Lieutenant Arnold L. Bjorklund (awarded the Medal of Honor.)similarly destroyed several machine gun and mortar positions at the beachhead. German troops, he reported to Vietinghoff, were in close pursuit of the retreating Allied forces. This optimism prompted Vietinghoff to instruct the LXXVI Panzer Corps to cease destroying supplies that for the moment could not be moved out of Calabria; the movements of Tenth Army, not only out of Calabria but north to the Rome area, were no longer, according to Vietinghoff, subject to the pressure of time.

As for the more immediate situation at the beachhead, Vietinghoff ordered the XIV Panzer Corps to assemble all available forces for an attack south of Eboli to hasten and disrupt the Allied withdrawal. About an hour later, more than twenty German tanks, a battalion of infantry, and several towed artillery pieces moved from the Eboli area toward the tobacco factory just north of the Sele River, where the 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry, occupied defensive positions. As artillery shells began to fall in ever-increasing numbers among the Americans, about half a dozen German tanks struck the American left flank and some fifteen hit the right.

Counteraction was immediate. Tanks and tank destroyers, Cannon Company howitzers and 37-mm. antitank guns rushed forward and opened fire. Division artillery, directed not only by forward observers but by two aerial observers, fired almost continuously.

The German attack rolled on. When two mark IV tanks and several scout cars suddenly appeared within 150 yards of the battalion positions, some American infantrymen gave way. Not long afterward, when German tanks temporarily encircled the battalion headquarters, control vanished. As men of the 1st Battalion straggled back into the positions of the 3rd Battalion, 157th, which by then was also engaged, the Germans pushed to the Persano crossing and drove the 1st Battalion from the tobacco factory.

Having uncovered the crossing over the Sele River, the Germans entered the Sele-Calore corridor and struck the left rear of the 2nd Battalion, 143rd Infantry. Other German tanks and infantry had by this time come into the corridor near Ponte Sele and cut around the battalion right. Both German thrusts outflanked the battalion. Improperly deployed, holding poor positions on the low ground, told by the battalion commander to remain under cover, the men stayed hidden while requests went out for artillery fire. Because calls were coming in from Altavilla at the same time and because the artillery was not altogether sure of the battalion’s location, the volume of fire did not arrive in the amount necessary to break up the attack. Nor was there much, if any, small arms fire from the men of the battalion. Continuing to push from both flanks, the Germans overran the American positions. More than 500 officers and men were lost, most of them captured. Only 9 officers and 325 men eventually made their way back to American lines.

By 1715 a sizable force of German tanks and infantry was in the corridor unopposed, and by 1800 enemy artillery was emplaced around Persano. Soon afterward, fifteen German tanks headed straight toward the juncture of the Sele and Cal ore Rivers. Their advance was accompanied by a display of fireworks an extensive use of Very pistols, pyrotechnics, and smoke-intended either to create the appearance of larger numbers or to denote the attainment of local objectives. By 1830 German tanks and infantry were at the north bank of the Calore.

Between them and the sea stood only a few Americans, mainly the 180th and 158th Field Artillery Battalions. In positions on a gentle slope overlooking the base of the corridor, the batteries of these battalions opened fire at point-blank range across the Cal ore and into heavy growth along the north bank of the river. At General Walker’s command, a few tank destroyers of the 636th Battalion coming ashore that afternoon hastened to the juncture of the rivers to augment the artillery. Howitzers of other battalions and tanks in the area added their fires where possible. Immediately behind the artillery pieces, only a few hundred yards away, was the Fifth Army command post. While miscellaneous headquarters troops-cooks, clerks, and drivers-hastily built up a firing line on the south bank of the Cal ore, others hurriedly moved parts of the command post to the rear. The spear that General Clark had visualized poised at the center of the beachhead had struck.

Finding the situation “extremely critical,” facing squarely the possibility “that the American forces may sustain a severe defeat in this area,” General Clark arranged to evacuate his headquarters on ten minutes’ notice and take a PT boat to the 10 Corps zone, where the conditions were better for maintaining what he called a “clawhold” on Italian soil. Events elsewhere intensified everyone’s concern. Offshore, a glider bomb severely damaged the British cruiser HMS Uganda that afternoon, while two near misses damaged the cruiser USS Philadelphia. Enemy planes bombed and struck two hospital ships, setting one on fire and causing its abandonment.

Opening Port of Salerno

The port of Salerno, opened on 11 September to receive supplies, had come under increasingly heavy artillery fire on the evening of the next day, and by the afternoon of 13 September, the waterfront installations were so extensively damaged and the enemy shelling was so continuous that it was no longer practical to continue unloading operations. The harbor was closed at 1500 and the men operating the unloading facilities were withdrawn. Almost two weeks would go by before the port could be reopened.

In the 10 Corps area, where units were much extended, the situation around Vietri became critical as contingents of the Hermann Gӧring Division entering the town threatened to split the main body of British troops from the Rangers. Without reserves, General McCreery could only make a hopeful request: could a Ranger battalion counterattack from Maiori to clear small groups of Germans who had infiltrated through Vietri as far forward as the coastal road?

The VI Corps situation near the juncture of the Sele and Calore Rivers, tense throughout the evening of 13 September, was the worst in the beachhead. At 1930 came word from the tank destroyers that a withdrawal might soon be unavoidable. At that moment, General Clark called Generals Dawley, Walker, and Middleton to the VI Corps command post. As the senior American commanders met, Fifth Army staff officers were preparing plans to evacuate the beachhead

should it become necessary. They drew two plans, code-named SEALION and SEATRAIN) one for each corps. Whether the planners were thinking of withdrawing one corps to reinforce the other, as was later claimed, or whether this was the ostensible rather than the real purpose of the planning, General Clark had, in General Dawley’s presence and despite Dawley’s protest, directed his chief of staff, Major General Alfred M. Gruenther, “to take up with the Navy” the task of evacuating the beachhead.

In North Africa, General Eisenhower remained determined if not altogether optimistic. Generals Clark and McCreery had reported the situation as being “unfavorable,” he informed the CCS, “tense but not unexpected.” The next few days would probably be “critical,” but “if the job can be done,” he promised, “we will do it.” To Vietinghoff, German success seemed to be within grasp. He was so sure of victory by 1730 that he sent a triumphant telegram to Kesselring. “After a defensive battle lasting four days.” he announced, “enemy resistance is collapsing. Tenth Army pursuing on wide front. Heavy fighting still in progress near Salerno and Altavilla. Maneuver in process to cut off the retreating enemy from Paestum.” Thirty minutes later, in conference with Herr, the LXXVI Panzer Corps commander, Vietinghoff was surprised to hear Herr express doubt over the collapse of the Allied beachhead. Resistance, Herr pointed out, had stiffened, and Allied tanks were countering the German attacks.

Vietinghoff refused to be shaken. It was obvious, he thought, that the Allies would guard their retreat with all possible strength; they might even essay a counterattack. But if they had voluntarily split their forces into two halves, he repeated, it was a sure sign of defeat. Again he urged both corps to throw everything into the battle to insure the complete annihilation of the Fifth Army.

The XIV Panzer Corps commander, Balck, meanwhile had received news of the impending Allied collapse with considerable skepticism. He could make out no signs of Allied withdrawal. Though he had orders from Vietinghoff to attack at once with two newly arrived regimental groups from the 15th Panzer and 3rd Panzer Grenadier Divisions, Balck did not see how he could commit them before the following night, 14 September, at the earliest. Despite the skepticism of his corps commanders, Vietinghoff remained persuaded of Allied defeat. A message from Kesselring that day reinforced his belief. Radio intercepts at OB SUED, Kesselring reported, seemed to confirm that the Allies were in the process of evacuating the beachhead. “The battle of Salerno,” the Tenth Army war diarist wrote that evening, “appears to be over.”

SOURCE: SALERNO TO CASSINO; by Martin Blumenson (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Italy: Salerno-Beachhead; The Crisis (ISC-2-8)

World War Two: Italy; Salerno-The Landings (ISC-2-6)


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