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

Allied Build-up: The Fifth Army found itself at the edge of defeat on the evening of 13 September for one basic reason: the army could not build up the beachhead by water transport as fast as the Germans, for all their difficulties, could reinforce their defenders by land. A lack of lift for the immediate follow-up, attributable to the shortage of vessels and landing craft in the Mediterranean, had been recognized well before the event. Now the German threat to split the beachhead made the implications of the shortage a sharp reality.

Although the German thrust into the Sele-Calore corridor brought the crisis to a head, the problem of the build-up was an old concern. On 13 September, the major planning revolved around the question of how to move more troops into the beachhead fast. [n2-8-1 Eisenhower to ‘Var Dept, 13 Sep 43. OPD Exec 3. Item 3] The 45th Division’s 180th Infantry and the initial increments of the British 7th Armoured Division were on their way to the beachhead, but this small number of men promised no real solution of the deficiency and, besides, might arrive too late to have any effect at all.

Three possible solutions were discussed: (1) If General Montgomery’s Eighth Army could either tie down the German forces in Calabria or reach the Salerno area early enough, the balance might be redressed. (2) If naval and air support at Salerno could be increased, the growing advantage of the German ground forces might be counterbalanced. (3) If any of the four divisions available to the Fifth Army-the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions in Sicily, the 1st Armored and 34th Infantry Divisions in North Africa-could be brought to Salerno quickly by readjusting craft allocations or rescheduling loadings to substitute combat troops for service elements, the German build-up might be offset.

Given the distance of Salerno from Sicily and North Africa and the time required for sea voyages, the most direct action was to spur on the Eighth Army. As early as the second day of the AVALANCHE invasion, the afternoon of 10 September, General Alexander had sent a radio message to General Montgomery, advising him that it was absolutely essential to tie down the Germans in Calabria and prevent them from reaching Salerno; to do so, Alexander made explicit, Montgomery had to maintain firm contact and exert great pressure. In order to emphasize the urgency of the need, Alexander sent his chief of staff to Montgomery’s headquarters to explain the situation personally.[n2-8-2 2 Alexander Despatch, p, 2896.]


Before Alexander’s message arrived, Montgomery had halted his troops. He had found it necessary, shortly after his amphibious hook to Pizzo on 8 September, to “have a short pause” near Catanzaro because his army was “getting very strung out.” The heavily damaged roads were wearing out his vehicles after comparatively brief periods of service, and the rate of build-up in Calabria was too low to provide him with the service and transportation units required to maintain a faster rate of advance. He was stopping, he informed General Clark, and giving his men two days’ rest while he built up supplies and replaced his exhausted stocks of Bailey bridging; Early on 11 September, Alexander’s radio message urging a quickened advance finally got through to Montgomery. About the same time, Alexander’s chief of staff arrived. Not only did he emphasize Alexander’s instruction but he gave Montgomery additional news that provided even greater impetus for Montgomery to move forward rapidly.

The news was that the landing of the British 1st Airborne Division at Taranto two days earlier had made it logical to assign ‘Montgomery to take control of that division and any other forces that might be sent to the heel. Though Montgomery still felt that his army “was administratively very stretched,” he planned to push ahead out of Calabria at once. But since he was already engaged in securing and opening the port of Crotone, 100 air miles from Reggio, in order to ease his logistical problems, he decided to continue his operations at Crotone. He rationalized his decision by the thought that opening the airfields around Crotone would help the situation at Salerno.

When British troops took Crotone on the 11th, Montgomery designated Castrovillari, seventy miles up the peninsula, as his next objective, not only to cover the Crotone area but also as a preliminary for mounting a threat against the Germans at Salerno. By taking what he saw as “considerable administrative risks,” he thought he could have troops at Castrovillari in four days, by 15 September. From Castrovillari, it was about seventy-five miles to Paestum; it was the same distance to Taranto.

General Montgomery accepted responsibility for Taranto on 13 September, though he was still far from it. By controlling Taranto, he could and did make adjustments in ship allocations to accelerate the movement of badly needed supplies to Crotone. This would, he thought, help speed an advance toward Salerno. These activities did nothing to ease the critical situation in the Salerno beachhead on 13 September. Though leading elements of the Eighth Army were operating in advance of Montgomery’s main body of troops, they were too far from Salerno to have any effect on the battle during the crucial days. Timely Eighth Army help for Fifth Army had to be written off.

To increase naval support in the hope of offsetting the German build-up at the beachhead, Admiral Cunningham had already on the 11th dispatched from Malta two cruisers, the HMS Aurora and the HMS Penelope) to replace damaged ships.

When Admiral Hewitt asked whether heavier naval forces could be made available, Cunningham ordered the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Warspite from Malta to Salerno and informed Hewitt he would send the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney to the Gulf of Salerno later if Hewitt wished them. Cunningham also ordered three cruisers to sail at top speed to Tripoli to pick up British replacements and rush them to the beachhead. But no immediate results could be expected from these efforts either. It would take the HMS Valiant and HMS Warspite two days to arrive in the Gulf of Salerno and not until then, 15 September, would they get improvised gunfire observation parties ashore and add the fire of their guns to the shore bombardment.

More air support was possible, but not immediately. General Eisenhower requested permission from the Combined Chiefs of Staff to retain temporarily three squadrons of ‘Wellington’ bombers because of the “critical nature of the AVALANCHE situation.” He also ordered the strategic air force to cease for the moment its long-range hammering of railroads, dumps, and communications in the distant rear of the enemy and concentrate instead on targets closer to the ground forces.

Eisenhower’s instructions to the heavy bombers were necessary not only because of the German threat to the beachhead but also because the air cover arrangements at Salerno had worked out less satisfactorily than had been hoped. By retaining control of the high ground near Battipaglia and keeping the Montecorvino airfield under artillery fire, the Germans had thwarted Allied plans to have land-based fighters operating from the beachhead by 10 September. Since the airfield was unusable, the escort carriers, which were prepared to provide naval air support for only two days, had remained in the Gulf of Salerno. The stopgap landing strip that General Clark had ordered Dawley to construct near Paestum was ready at dawn of the 12th, but no aircraft arrived until twenty-six naval planes flew ashore late that afternoon and set up shop.7 By order of General House’s XII Air Support Command, two planes of the 111th Reconnaissance Squadron landed at the Paestum airstrip on the morning of 13 September. But after executing one air tactical mission, the pilots were dispatched on a vital errand to Sicily. Thus, except for the few naval planes based ashore, no land-based aircraft were immediately available on beachhead airfields to help counter the German threat.

The third possible solution to increase the build-up lay with the commanders and logisticians who were continuing their efforts to get more vessels to transport available men and materiel to Salerno. The CCS granted General Eisenhower permission to retain and employ in support of the beachhead for one month eighteen LST’s that were en route to India and happened to be at Oran. Eisenhower thought of using these ships to move at least part of the 34th Division from North Africa or as much of the 3rd Division as possible from Sicily to Salerno.[n2-8-9] But neither course of action promised an immediate remedy because of the time required for the sea voyage. Moving the 1st Armored Division from North Africa would be even more complicated and time consuming because of the equipment involved.

[n2-8-8 10 Corps Invasion of the Italian Mainland, Summary of Operations Carried Out by British Troops Under Command, Fifth U.S. Army, n.d. (draft copy), OCMH. See also AFHQ G-3 Div Opns 46/5, Italian Military :Mission 1, photostats, OCMH.]

[n2-8-9 CinC Mtgs. Salmon Files. OCMH. See also Alexander Despatch, p. 2896.]

General Alexander found a quicker way of getting the 3rd Division to Italy. He seized upon some of the ships and landing craft that had moved the 10 Corps in the invasion. Loadings on these vessels had generally been heavier than expected, and ship losses to enemy action lighter. Instead of using these bottoms as originally intended to carry service troops to Salerno, Alexander diverted them to the task of transporting the 3rd Division. He sent word to General Patton in Sicily during the evening of 13 September to alert the 3rd Division, and General Truscott, the division commander, began to move his troops to a staging area. The transfer of equipment and about 2,000 men from the 1st and 9th Divisions, which were scheduled to sail for England, brought the 3rd Division to full strength. After instructing his staff on the final details of the move and talking briefly with General Patton, Truscott boarded a vessel for Salerno to confer with General Clark on how best to employ the division in the beachhead. [n2-8-10 Alexander to Clark, 13 Sep 43. 15th AGp Master Cable File. VI; Lucian K. Truscott. Command Missions (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.. 1954).P·249·]

Even the movement of the 3rd Division was no immediate solution to the problem of the Fifth Army build-up. It would take several days to get the division to Italy, and the crisis at Salerno required immediate action. The only hope for quick help appeared to rest with the 82nd Airborne Division. Because it had prepared to drop near Rome on the day before the invasion, the division was primed for combat. When the Rome operation was scratched and Eisenhower made the division available for AVALANCHE, Alexander had notified Clark-the night before the Salerno landings-and requested information on how Clark wished to use the airborne troops. [n2-11 Alexander to Clark, 2215, 8 Sep 43 (received 0520, 10 Sep 43) , and 1330, 9 Sep 43 (received 2039, 9 Sep 43) , both in Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

Clark was still thinking regretfully of the early plan to drop the 82nd near Capua in order to block the Volturno River bridges, the plan canceled by the contemplated operation at Rome. But by the second day of the invasion, Clark deemed a drop near Capua inadvisable until the situation at the beachhead became clearer. More interesting was the possibility of using the division to help capture the port of Naples.

Since the 10 Corps would have to attack through the passes north of Salerno, Clark discussed using airborne troops to help secure passage through the Sorrento barrier, perhaps by an amphibious hook around Sorrento and a landing over the beaches near Torre Annunziata and Castellammare on the northern shore of the peninsula. He asked General Ridgway to prepare plans for possible operations in this context. Clark’s visit to the 10 Corps area on the afternoon of the 10th apparently strengthened his idea, for he sent Ridgway some of the British standing operating procedures,[n2-8-12] Communications difficulties-because of the distances involved and the dispersal of headquarters-were hampering the dialogue between Alexander and Clark. Still without a reply on the evening of 10 September to his question of how Clark wanted to use the 82nd, Alexander sent another message.

This time he suggested transporting the airborne troops to Salerno by water. Unfortunately, Alexander added, since only nine LCI (L)’s were available, they could carry but part of the division and they could transport men only, no heavy equipment. [n2-8-13] These craft, having come from Montgomery’s BAYTOWN operation, were already at Licata, Sicily, where they had arrived on the evening of 9 September.[n2-8-14]

The landing craft remained there unused until 11 September, when General Clark requested that they bring as much of the airborne division to Salerno as possible.[n2-8-15] Although the 325th Glider Infantry began embarking at once, the regiment would not sail until 15 September-probably because of a continuing possibility that the troops might be moved into the beachhead or elsewhere by glider-and would not arrive at the beachhead until late that night.[n2-8-16] But on the afternoon of 11 September Alexander, who still had received no definite word from Clark, tried again to find out how Clark wished to employ the 82nd Airborne Division. “I want to make it clear,” he informed Clark, “that you may use [it] … in any manner you deem advisable” -as infantry reinforcement of the ground troops, moving by sea or air or in a combined airborne-seaborne operation.[n2-8-17]

Shortly thereafter Alexander received a message from Clark that Clark had dispatched thirteen hours before Alexander had sent his. Clark wanted two airborne operations executed: a battalion dropped near Avellino, north of Salerno, to block roads along which German reinforcements might move against the 10 Corps; and a regiment dropped somewhere northeast of Naples to disorganize enemy movements and communications and later to assist the 10 Corps advance to the north. General Clark requested that both missions be launched as early as possible. If arrangements could not be completed in time to get the troops off by the night of II September, the following night would be acceptable. [n2-8-18]

[n2-8-12 Clark to Alexander, 1000, 10 Sep 43, and Clark to Ridgway, 1630, 10 Sep 43, both in Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

[n2-8-13 Alexander to Clark, 1825, 10 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl]

[n2-8-14 Alexander to Patton, 9 Sep 43, and 15th AGp Msg, 10 Sep 43, both in 15th AGp Master Cable File, VI]

[n2-8-15 Clark to Alexander, 0108, 11 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl. General Clark later said (Calculated Risk, page 196) that he learned suddenly on the afternoon of 11 September that the 82nd Airborne Division was available to him. Either his memory was faulty or his staff officers failed to inform him of the messages exchanged on the subject.]

[n2-8-16 325th Glider Inf AAR, Sep 43; Alexander to Clark, 2325. II Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

[n2-8-17 Alexander to Clark, 1438, 11 Sep 43 (received morning, 12 Sep 43), Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

[n2-8-18 Clark to Alexander, 0108,11 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

Clark’s message to Alexander arrived so late on the 11th that the suggested operations were impractical for the 11th and doubtful for the following night, even though the 82nd Airborne Division prepared at once to execute them.[n2-8-19] On the morning of the 12th, General Clark requested postponement of the operations. Since the 10 Corps, he reasoned, would be unable to break out of the Salerno beachhead as early as he had previously hoped, the night of either 13 or 14 September might be better for the airborne drops.[n2-8-20]

[n2-8-19 Alexander to Clark, 2325, 11 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

[n2-8-20 Clark to Alexander, 1202, 12 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.]

Later on 12 September, the Fifth Army staff analyzed the feasibility of reinforcement by airborne troops dropped into the beachhead behind friendly lines. Although a glider strip near Paestum was scheduled for completion by the night of 13 September, the chance that it might not be finished in time-even if sufficient gliders could be assembled, which was far from certain-made a parachute drop the only possibility.[n2-8-21] General Clark made his final decision on airborne reinforcement during the morning of 13 September. Whether it was his own idea or whether he took the suggestion of a subordinate, he acted even before the dramatic German thrust down the Sele-Calore corridor late in the day.[n2-8-22] To General Alexander, General Clark sent a message of information and to the 82nd Airborne Division commander, General Ridgway, an order.

[n2-8-21] Warren. Airborne Missions in the Mediterranean (USA.F Historical Studies, 74); Fifth Army (Rear) Msg, 130R, 13 Sep 43, AG 373]

[n2-8-22 Disturbed over thinning his right flank to strengthen the left flank of the VI Corps, General Walker had suggested to General Dawley, the corps commander, that a regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division he dropped into the beachhead south of Paestum on the evening of 13 September. 36th Div AAR, Sep 43.]

The fighting had taken a turn for the worse, Clark told Ridgway. “I want you to accept this letter as an order,” he went on. “I realize the time normally needed to prepare for a drop, but … I want you to make a drop within our lines on the beachhead and I want you to make it tonight. This is a must.” He entrusted the letter to the pilot of a reconnaissance plane that had landed at the Paestum airstrip, and the pilot flew it to Ridgway in Sicily. Not long afterward Ridgway replied that he could make the drop, and by evening the 504th Parachute Infantry (less its 3rd Battalion, which went to Licata for attachment to the 325th Glider Infantry and eventual water movement to Salerno) was embarking on planes at various airfields in Sicily for flight to the beachhead.

While the parachute troops were boarding their planes, Admiral Hewitt was making preparations, in compliance with General Clark’s request, to withdraw the ground troops from the beachhead if Clark should give the order. Regarding Clark’s request as a firm warning order for a course of action already decided upon rather than as an alert for a possible contingency, Hewitt voiced his objection to the Fifth Army headquarters. He opposed the withdrawal on the ground that it was technically impractical.

Beaching a loaded landing craft and retracting it after it was unloaded and lightened, he pointed out, was quite different from beaching an empty craft and retracting it when it was full. Hewitt nevertheless proceeded with plans to meet Clark’s request. Since he would need the Ancon, which he had already released for return to Algiers, he radioed the ship to reverse course for Palermo, Sicily, there to await a possible recall to the Salerno assault area. But because it might be necessary to re-embark the Fifth Army staff before the A neon returned, Hewitt called Admiral G. N. Oliver to a conference. Oliver’s flagship, the Hilary, he reasoned, might take at least part of the army headquarters aboard.

Admiral Oliver went by barge to Hewitt’s flagship, the Biscayne, where he found, as he remembered later, an atmosphere of “intense gloom.” Hewitt informed him that Clark wanted two emergency plans prepared immediately, one to withdraw 10 Corps and disembark it again across the VI Corps beaches; the other, the more likely, to withdraw VI Corps for disembarkation across the 10 Corps beaches. Could Oliver find room on the Hilary for Clark and his staff should the evacuation be ordered?

Oliver protested. Re-embarking heavily engaged troops from a rather shallow beachhead, he said, followed by disembarkation was “simply not on, quite apart from other considerations.” He thought it would be “suicidal” to shorten the front and allow enemy artillery “to rake the beaches” and destroy the immense amount of ammunition and supplies ashore. Had General McCreery been consulted, he wanted to know. No one could say for sure.

Returning to his ship, Oliver personally got in touch with McCreery and informed him of the possibility of evacuation. McCreery, according to Oliver’s recollection, was furious. He knew nothing of the plan, but he would go to army headquarters and protest it. Oliver passed this word along to Admiral Cunningham in the hope of enlisting additional support for his position.

Admiral Hewitt recalled no gloom on the Biscayne-“except for our thorough dissatisfaction with the withdrawal idea” -and although he took note of Oliver’s bitter opposition, he began the preliminary arrangements necessary for a possible withdrawal from the VI Corps beaches. Halting unloading operations in that area, he placed ships and landing craft on a half-hour alert for movement seaward beyond the range of shore artillery. Meanwhile, until General Clark actually ordered the evacuation, the guns on the ships continued to pound German installations and troop concentrations.


On the evening of 13 September, near the juncture of the Sele and Calore Rivers, less than five miles from the shore line and a stone’s throw from coastal Highway 15 and the Fifth Army headquarters, men of the 155th and 158th Field Artillery Battalions, supported by several tanks and tank destroyers and a few miscellaneous troops, were trying to hold the most critical portion of the VI Corps front. Against the company of German tanks and the battalion of German infantry that had come roaring down the Sele-Calore corridor, the Americans fired a total of 3,650 artillery rounds in about four hours. Arriving during the height of the action, a battery of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion added 300 rounds to the fire. This, together with the shells of the tanks and tank destroyers and the resistance of the improvised infantry firing line built up at the base of the corridor, stopped the German attack. With no immediate reinforcement available, the Germans pulled back toward Persano at nightfall.

[n2-8-25 Admiral Oliver, Some Notes on the Project to Shorten the Front at Salerno, September 1943, for Captain Roskill, RN, 20 Jan 55, OCMH.]

[n2-8-26 Ltr, Hewitt to Roskill, 20 Jan 55, OCMH; Hewitt, “The Allied Navies at Salerno,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (September, 1953).]

The situation remained tense, however, as the senior American commanders assembled at the VI Corps command post. It was the dearth of ground troops to counter the German threat as much as the threat itself that disturbed them. The 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry, almost destroyed at Altavilla, had now been reduced to sixty men. The 2nd Battalion, 143rd, which had been placed in the Sele-Calore corridor, had ceased to exist as a unit. The 3rd Battalions of both the 142nd Infantry and the 143rd Infantry had incurred heavy losses around Altavilla. The 1st Battalion, 157th, had been hard hit at the tobacco factory. The commanders had little choice but to try to shorten the front by pulling their troops back to a line where they might hope to make a last-ditch stand.

General Dawley issued the orders, and units began to shift. The 45th Division refused its right flank by moving parts of the 157th and 17gth Infantry Regiments back along the Sele. The 1st Battalion, 179th, moved to the base of the Sele-Calore corridor to strengthen the line of artillery and miscellaneous troops holding at the juncture of the rivers. In the center of the corps zone the 36th Division withdrew about two miles to the La Cosa Creek, the 1st Battalion, 141st, coming up from the right flank to Monte Soprano and the 2nd Battalion, 141st, moving from the corps left flank to bolster the area immediately south of the Sele River and east of Highway 15. The extreme right flank, virtually stripped of infantry, was entrusted to a battalion of the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment. The left flank of the corps, on mosquito ridden, swampy ground, was held by the 3rd Battalion of the 141st, alongside the engineer battalion still at Bivio Cioffi. The natural features of the positions selected for all-out defense were not particularly strong, but nothing better was available.

Because the infantry battalions had been shuffled and intermingled, because the front was inordinately long for the number of troops manning it, and perhaps partially because his regimental commanders were tired, General Walker divided his division area into three defensive sectors and placed a brigadier general in command of each. Brigadier General William H. Wilbur, attached from Fifth Army headquarters, took command of the forces on the left-part of the 143rd Infantry, a battalion of engineers, and a company each of tank destroyers and tanks. General O’Daniel, also attached from Fifth Army, took command of the center-the 2nd Battalion and two rifle companies of the 141st, plus elements of the 3rd Battalion, 142nd. Brigadier General Otto F. Lange, the assistant division commander, took command of the forces on the right-mostly tank, tank destroyer, and engineer units.[n2-8-27] General Walker kept the remaining elements of the three infantry battalions withdrawn from Altavilla in division reserve. The new defensive line, he directed, was to be dug in, wired in, mined, and held at all costs. The division was to “fight it out on this position.”

[n2-8-27 When General Lange was relieved on the following day because of physical exhaustion, no one replaced him as sector commander on the right. General Wilbur replaced Lange as the assistant division commander.]

Desperate as the situation seemed, help was on the way. When General Ridgway had received General Clark’s request for parachute troops to be sent into the beachhead, his first thought was to prevent a recurrence of the tragic incident at Sicily two months earlier, when antiaircraft guns of the invasion fleet and of the ground troops had shot down air transports. “Vitally important,” Ridgway had replied to Clark’s message, that all ground and naval forces … be directed to hold fire tonight. Rigid control of antiaircraft fire is absolutely essential for success. Calling Hewitt and Dawley to inform them of the airborne operation, Clark directed that from 2100 on 13 September until further notice all antiaircraft guns in the Salerno area were to be silenced, all barrage balloons lowered to the ground. To make doubly sure of safety for the paratroopers, Clark sent staff officers to antiaircraft batteries in the beachhead to make certain that the order had been transmitted and was understood.

Only by using the staging and loading plans prepared for the drop at Capua could the airborne troops depart Sicily on such short notice. Because there was no time even to establish a safety corridor for the transport planes, the aircraft followed the Italian coast line to a drop zone about five miles north of Agropoli, an area of flat land about 1,200 yards long and 800 yards wide lying between the sea and the coastal highway.

A pathfinder group set up radar equipment to lead the flights toward the jump field, where ground troops furnished flares for further identification of the drop zone. At 2326, 13 September, four minutes ahead of schedule, men of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, led the regiment in by jumping from thirty-five planes at a height of 800 feet.

Most troops landed within 200 yards of the jump zone and all within a mile of it. Forty-one aircraft starting from Sicily several hours late because of mechanical difficulties dropped troops about 0130, 14 September. The pilots of some of these planes were unable to find the drop zone, and one company of paratroopers came to earth eight to ten miles away. Fourteen planes disgorging their troops still later completed the drop. In all, ninety planes brought about 1,300 troops to the beachhead within fifteen hours of General Clark’s request. Within an hour after landing, most of the men had assembled, got into trucks, and moved to an area southwest of Albanellal [n2-8-32] Colonel Reuben H. Tucker, the regimental commander, reported to corps headquarters at 0300, 14 September. Later that morning the two battalions moved into the line in the Monte Soprano sector. Attached to the 36th Division, the regiment provided welcome reinforcement to the units on the division and corps right flank and perhaps, in view of its relatively small size, a disproportionately high boost to morale throughout the beachhead.

[n2-8-32 504th Para Inf AAR, Sep 43. Seventy-three men were injured in the jump.]

The Germans had every reason to expect the events of 13 September to develop quickly in their favor. Adding to

their optimism was the arrival from Calabria of the main body of the 26th Panzer Division. Because British pressure had slackened after the Pizzo landings on 8 September to the point where contact vanished, the rear guard of the 26th Panzer Division had had ample time to destroy culverts along the roads and to demolish all the bridges south of Castrovillari by 12 September. ‘While the rear guard set up roadblocks in the Lagonegro area near Sapri, at the head of the Gulf of Policastro, and awaited new contact with British troops, the rest of the division, hampered only by occasional air attacks, moved over difficult mountainous terrain to Eboli. In the process, the 26th had incurred only 113 casualties, of whom 30 were killed, and as not obliged to destroy any of its antiaircraft pieces, trucks, or other equipment and weapons. Yet the arriving troops that went into reserve near Eboli were far from being the complete division. The division’s armored regiment was detached and near Rome, while a regimental combat team forming the rear guard was waiting to retard the British advance. In effect, the 26th Panzer Division at the beachhead was of regimental strength, but it was available for immediate commitment.

This was what Vietinghoff suggested on the morning of 14 September, during a conference with Herr, the LXXIV Panzer Corps commander. If the 26th Panzer Division took Over the northern portion of the 16th Panzer Division area and attacked toward Salerno, it might cut through the British defenses and make contact with the Hermann Gӧring Division, which was scheduled to attack in the Vietri area toward Salerno.

While the conference was in session, a message from the XIV Panzer Corps arrived. Balck, the corps commander, reported that the British were fighting desperately to regain the heights immediately west of Salerno in the Vietri area. He could discern no indications of a withdrawal on the part of the Allies. It was the same in the area south of Salerno, between Salerno and Battipaglia, where no large-scale German attack would be feasible unless the troops made more progress and caused more confusion among the Allied defenses in the Sele area.

Despite the pessimistic but more realistic views of his subordinate commanders, Vietinghoff urged both Balck and Herr to attack with all their resources.[n8-33] The German pressure in the 10 Corps area that day concentrated at first against the town of Salerno. German artillery firing at an increased tempo opened an attack from the Vietri area, which gave General McCreery, as he later said, several anxious moments. The 46th Division, dug in on the hills around Salerno, had committed every unit in defense.

When the Germans then shifted their attack to the Battipaglia area, the 56th Division fought tenaciously on open

ground in full view of the enemy. At the end of the day, the situation remained about the same. The British had

held. With perhaps some studied nonchalance, McCreery summed up the activities: “Nothing of interest to report during daylight.”

In the VI Corps sector on 14 September, the Germans attacked at 0800, when eight tanks and a battalion of infantry, elements of the 16th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions) moved out of the mist covering the Sele River south of the tobacco factory. Because of the American reorganization the night before, the German advance unwittingly paralleled the front of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 179th Infantry. Supported by effective fires from artillery, tanks, and tank destroyers, the infantry blasted the Germans with flanking fire. Seven German tanks were destroyed almost at once, the eighth was immobilized. Not long afterward, the German infantry pulled back.

[n8-33 Besprechung mit General Herr, 0800, 14 Sep 43, Tenth A KTB Anl.34 10 Corps Sitrep, 1700, 14 Sep 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl]

In midmorning, closer to the river, a German company probed toward the 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry, while at least six tanks and a small infantry unit struck the 3rd Battalion, 179th Infantry, protecting the coastal highway. The Americans refused to budge. Effective supporting fires, including the power of naval guns, helped stop the attack.

Though the Germans launched at least two other attacks against the 45th Division in the early afternoon, the steam had gone. Nothing more than sporadic German artillery fire fell in the area during the remainder of the day.

Against the 36th Division the pattern was similar. When a company of German infantry and tanks tried to cross the Calore River, American fires repelled the attack. A heavy volume of artillery and naval fire discouraged probes during the early afternoon. By the end of the day, the VI Corps was in firm command of its front and could claim to have knocked out almost thirty German tanks.[n2-8-35 See VI Corps G-3 Rpt 6, 1700, 15 Sep 43.]

On the beaches that day all unloading had ceased. Men working the supply system joined combat troops and helped them improve their defenses, wiring in and mining likely approach routes, digging for cover, erecting rock parapets for shelter. From offshore, naval guns blasted the Germans with particularly good results along the Battipaglia-Eboli road. While naval vessels placed 100 rounds on Altavilla alone, heavy bombers, diverted to work with the tactical planes, struck Battipaglia and Eboli and damaged the road network around the beachhead perimeter. A total of 187 B-25’s, 166 B-26’s, and 170 B-17’s operated over the Salerno plain that day, and the liberal use the Germans made of smoke to screen their positions and movements indicated the effectiveness of the bombings. Six planes of the 111th Reconnaissance Squadron landed at the Paestum airstrip and performed several missions before returning to Sicily just before nightfall. The air cover for the whole area was more effective, even though German planes continued to harass the vessels in the gulf; one bomb struck a Liberty ship, the USS Bushrod Washington, and an LCT alongside it and destroyed both.

General Clark toured the front on 14 September to encourage the troops to hold, taking partiGular pains to show himself in the Sele-Calore sector. General Alexander made his first visit to the beachhead that day and found the Allied defense impressive. Though he requested that an additional 1,500 British infantry replacements be rushed to 10 Corps from North Africa, he felt that the crisis had passed.[n8-38]

[NOTE: General Clark was later awarded the DSC for his conspicuous bravery.]

By the evening of 14 September, plans to evacuate the beachhead were no longer even being considered. The line would be held at all costs. There would be no retreat.[n8-39] There was no doubt that the situation was much improved. The seam between 10 and VI Corps southeast of Battipaglia was solidly knit. Perhaps more important, the British 7th Armoured Division started to come ashore in the 10 Corps area. The 180th Infantry, the last regiment of the 45th Division, arrived in the beachhead and assembled in army reserve near Monte Soprano, indicating that General Clark could at last afford the luxury of an army reserve. The night of the 14th when 125 planes dropped about 2,100 men of the 505th Parachute Infantry into the beachhead south of Paestum, the men jumped successfully, assembled quickly, and moved by truck to positions on the southern flank near Agropoli. “I have every confidence that we will come out all right,” General Eisenhower informed the CCS that night, even though he cautiously admitted the possibility of a setback.[n8-40]

[n8-38 Alexander Despatch, pp. 2896-97.]

[n8-39 See 45th Div AAR, Sep 43.]

[8-40 Eisenhower to CCS, 14 Sep 43, OPD Exec 11,Item 3.]

Vietinghoff, despite all the indications to the contrary on 14 September, was loath to abandon his belief that Fifth Army was evacuating the beachhead. Yet as reports from the LXXVI and XIV Panzer Corps related the difficulties their troops were having in deploying under naval and air bombardment, he had to recognize the growing doubt of success.[n8-41] Kesselring on 14 September outlined the course he wished the Tenth Army to pursue. Regardless of whether Vietinghoff dislodged the Fifth Army, he was to withdraw gradually to the vicinity of Rome in accordance with previous plans. But because of the political and military advantages to be gained, he urged Vietinghoff first to make a final effort to drive Fifth Army into the sea. As reinforcement, Kesselring directed the 1 st Parachute Division) still near Foggia in Apulia, to release a regiment to the Salerno forces.[n8-42]

The Avellino Mission

While a regiment of the 1st Parachute (Fallschirmjäger ) Division rushed overland toward Salerno during the night of 14 September, the Allies were launching a daring airborne operation designed to assist the 10 Corps, which had been bearing the brunt of the German attacks. American paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry, were to drop far behind the German front to harass lines of communication and disrupt the movement of reinforcements from the north, thus helping to stabilize the British sector of the beachhead.[n8-43]

[n8-41 See LXXVI pz C Rpt to Tenth A, 15 Sep 43, Tenth A KTB AnI.]

[n8-42 Kesselring Order, 14. Sep 43, Tenth A KTB Ani.; # R-85 (Mavrogordato), OCMH.]

[n8-43 For the motivation involved, see Truscott, Command Missions, p. 252.]

Members of the Fifth Army staff had long been searching for an appropriate mission for this separate unit, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Doyle R. Yardley and sometimes called the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. A drop near Avellino, twenty miles north of Salerno, seemed suitable. General Clark had originally requested the operation for the night of 12 September, but insufficient time for preparation had prevented its execution.

On the morning of 13 September, when General Clark had informed General Alexander of his request to General Ridgway for an airborne drop into the beachhead near Paestum, he had also asked for the Avellino operation. If not enough paratroopers or planes were available for both operations, he asked Alexander to “please give priority to Avellino.” [n2-8-44] The mission was scheduled for the following night.

The drop zone selected was a crossroads about three miles southeast of Avellino. After harrying the Germans for five days, the paratroopers were to withdraw to Allied lines by infiltration unless Fifth Army troops had by then made contact with them. If possible, the battalion was to attack Avellino in order to disrupt traffic on the roads through the town.[n2-8-45]

[n2-8-44 Clark to Alexander. 13 Sep 43, Fifth ArmyG-3 JnI.]

[n2-8-45 509th Prcht Inf Bn AAR, Sep 43.]

Despite the postponement of the operation, haste marked the preparations. The battalion headquarters could obtain

no intelligence information of the area. Even aerial photographs and maps became available only in midafternoon of 14 September. About that time, each officer received one map of 1/50,000 scale, too large for company and platoon leaders, showing only Avellino and its immediate environs. Since the battalion had to leave Licata, Sicily, where it was stationed, for Comiso, Sicily, where it was to em plane at 1700, commanders had less than two hours to study their maps, draw detailed plans, and move their troops to the airfield. The dispersal of aircraft at Comiso made it impossible to have even a short meeting of key personnel. About forty planes carried the 600 men of the battalion. Navigational errors and ineffectiveness of radar and Aldis lamps carried by the pathfinder group scattered the air transports, while the high jump altitude of 2,000 feet further dispersed the parachutists. Jumping around midnight, the troops in eleven planes came to earth ten miles from the drop zone; those in twelve other aircraft landed between eight and twenty-five miles away; and two planeloads were still unaccounted for a month later. Only fifteen air transports placed troops within four or five miles of the target.

The broken terrain in the Avellino area made it impossible for the scattered troops to concentrate. Thick woods and vineyards made it difficult even for those who landed in the same valley to get together. Most of the equipment, including mortars and bazookas, was lost or became hopelessly entangled in treetops. Briefed to expect the speedy arrival of the Fifth Army, the paratroopers generally coalesced into small groups of five to twenty men and tried to avoid detection.

Lurking in the hills, they mounted small raids on supply trains, truck convoys, and isolated outposts.[n2-8-47] No word of the paratroopers reached Fifth Army headquarters for several days and the battalion was presumed lost. But eventually, in small groups, more than 400 men trickled back.[n2-8-48] Too small a force and too dispersed to be more than a minor nuisance to the Germans, the battalion had no effect on the battle of the beachhead.[n2-8-49]

[n2-8-47 509th Para Inf Bn AAR, Sep 43.]

[n2-8-48 1st Lieutenant William C. Kellogg was awarded the DSC for extraordinary heroism during the period 14-28 September.]

[n2-8-49 The battalion listed the following reasons for the ineffectiveness of the operation: (1) insufficient time was allowed for briefing and equipping the troops; (2) ordered to carry five days of rations and five days of ammunition, the troops were physically overburdened; (3) no radio procedures or schedules were worked out to insure communication, nor was there an opportunity to secure special radio equipment to maintain contact with the Fifth Army. 509th Para Inf Bn AAR, Sep 43.]

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

World War Two: Italy; Salerno; End of the Battle (ISC-2-9)

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


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