The Eighth Army Attempt To Break Through: General Montgomery’s Major effort to break through into Catania got under way on the evening of 13 July when Commando units landed and seized the Lentini bridge soon after dark. Though the commandos removed the demolition charges from the bridge, the Germans soon drove off the British raiders. The airborne operation (code named FUSTIAN) on the same evening to seize the Primosole bridge (seven miles south of Catania) over the Simeto River and establish a bridgehead on the river’s north bank suffered double bad luck. In the first place, the American and British troop carrier pilots ran into heavy antiaircraft fire from Allied ships massed along the southeastern shores of Sicily. A route supposedly cleared proved to be replete with ships, and the aircraft began to receive fire from the time they rounded Malta.
Off Cape Passero, the real trouble started-more than one-half of the aircraft reported receiving fire from friendly naval vessels. Though only two troop carriers were hit and downed, nine turned back after injuries to pilots or damage to planes. Those aircraft that flew on soon ran into what seemed to be a solid wall of antiaircraft fire thrown up by the enemy along the coast line. A large number of the pilots lost formation and circled up and down the coast trying to find a way through the fire into the four drop zones. Ten more aircraft turned back, each with a full load of British paratroopers. Eighty-seven pilots managed to thread their way through the fire, but only 39 of these dropped their paratroopers within a mile of the drop zones. All but four of the remainder managed to get their sticks within ten miles of the Primosole bridge; the other four sticks landed on the slopes of Mount Etna, about twenty miles away. Of the 1,900 men of the British 1st Parachute Brigade who jumped into Sicily on the evening of 13 July, only about two hundred men with three anti-tank guns reached the bridge. Though they seized it and removed the demolition charges, they comprised a dangerously small contingent for holding the bridge until the ground forces arrived.
The second piece of bad luck was that the main drop came in almost on top of the machine gun battalion of the German 1st Parachute Division (Fallschirmjaeger). The German paratroopers themselves had jumped just north of the river only a few hours earlier, and they reacted in a savage manner. Yet the little band of British paratroopers managed to hold on to the bridge all day long. At nightfall, the paratroopers withdrew to a ridge on the south bank of the river, where they could cover the bridge with fire and prevent the Germans from damaging it.
[N2-12-1 Warren, USAF Hist Study 74, pp. 47-54; By Air to Battle, pp. 60-64; Montgomery, Eighth Army, p. 100. See also 99-66.2, sub: AFHQ Report of Allied Forces Airborne Board in Connection With the Invasion of Sicily: 0100/4/78, sub: Airborne Operations in HUSKY; 0100/21/1072, sub: Airborne Employment, Operation, and Movement of Troops, vol. 2; NAAFTCC Rpt of Opns; Alexander Despatch, p. 23. Cf. B. H. Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill, rev. ed. (London: Cassell, 1951), p. 355; DB SUED, Meldungen, 14-16 Jul 43 (implicit testimony of the toughness of the British para troopers) ; Schmalz in MS #T-2 (Fries et al.), pages 11-12 criticizes the operation as incorrect use of para troopers.FUSTIAN started with 145 aircraft, 126 carrying paratroopers, 19 towing gliders. There were 1,856 paratroopers and 77 glider-borne artillerymen starting out on the mission.]
General Montgomery’s main assault was executed by the 50th Division and a brigade of tanks against the Group Schmalz Lentini positions. On the afternoon of 14 July, some of the British tanks worked their way between the German positions along Highway 114 and the two German parachute battalions east of the highway, thereby threatening to isolate the paratroopers from the rest of the German battle group. Colonel Schmalz, who had been apprehensive all along of being outflanked and cut off from withdrawal, decided to leave the Lentini positions and fall back faster than he had anticipated. Leaving small delaying forces behind, he pulled back in two steps, first, eight miles to the north behind the Gornalunga River, then, early on 15 July, three miles farther north behind the Simeto River.
In the wake of the German withdrawal, the British 50th Division moved forward readily and joined the British paratroopers at the southern end of the Primosole bridge. A thrust north of the river on 15 July netted nothing. Additional German reinforcements rushed forward to strengthen the Simeto line, and Colonel Schmalz finally made contact with the bulk of the Hermann Gӧring Division. On 16 July, a heavier British attack regained the bridge that the Germans had been unable to destroy and pushed a shallow bridgehead across the river, extending it by the 17th to a depth of 3,000 yards. Another attack by the 50th Division during the night of 17 July made little headway. The British had failed to break Schmalz’s Catania defenses. The Germans were in strong positions, and after the 17th they felt certain they could block the east coast road.
[N2-12-2 DB SUED, Meldungen, 15 Jul 43, Second-Report; Schmalz in MS #T-2 (Fries et al.), p.sub: Airborne Operations in HUSKY; 0100/21/George Aris, The Fifth British Division, 1939-1945 (London: The Fifth Division BenevolentFund, 1959), pp. 123-25.]
The II Corps Front
The bulk of the Hermann Gӧring Division, retiring to the northeast to gain contact with Colonel Schmalz’s battle group, had not had an easy time making it back to the Simeto River line. Successful on 13 July in holding General Guzzoni’s intermediate defensive line along Highway 124, the division began to run into trouble on the 14th. The Germans had to contend not only with American attacks against the entire front from Caltagirone on the west to Vizzini on the east, they also had to face the British 30 Corps attacking along the axis of the highway toward Vizzini.
Opposite the eastern flank of the German division, Colonel Ankcorn, the 157th RCT commander, found himself on the evening of 13 July in a rather uncomfortable position: his forces were between the British on the south and east and the Germans to the north. By this time, through British liaison officers, Colonel Ankcorn knew that the British 30 Corps was intent on taking Vizzini. Ankcorn had no objection. He pulled one battalion away from Vizzini and sent it to occupy the high ground northeast of Licodia Eubea. He assembled the rest of his combat team in the same general area.
On the morning of the 14th, Colonel Ankcorn again made contact with the British south of Vizzini. Despite a two pronged advance, the 30 Corps was having some trouble securing Vizzini. An attack during the night by the British 51st Division had been thrown back, as had another by the armored brigade in the early morning. Together with British officers, Colonel Ankcorn surveyed the situation at Vizzini and agreed to furnish what support he could to the British 51st Highlanders in a renewed attempt to wrest that town from the Germans’ grasp. Returning to his command post at Monterosso Almo, Colonel Ankcorn reached up to an abandoned Italian railway car, tore off an old shipping ticket, and across the back of the ticket scrawled a note to Colonel Murphy, the 1st Battalion commander: “Murphy, go help the British.”
[N2-12-3 The Fighting Forty-Fifth, compiled and edited by the Historical Board (Baton Rouge, La.: Army and Navy Publishing Co., 1946), p. 23; History of the [57th Infantry Regiment, p. 25; 45th Inf Div G-3 Jnl, entries 34, 42, 43, 51, 14 Jul 43]
From positions northeast of Licodia, Murphy’s 1st Battalion struck at Vizzini at noon in conjunction with the renewed British attempt from the south and east. The added weight of the American battalion, ably supported by the 158th Field Artillery Battalion, was not enough. As on the day before, the Germans, fighting to hold their withdrawal route open, threw back every Allied thrust.
Staunch opposition also developed from the Hermann Gӧring elements west of Vizzini. Early in the morning, a strong German tank-infantry force struck the leading battalion of the 179th RCT. Close-in fighting raged throughout the morning, additional infantry and artillery units finally turning the tide. Resuming its advance, the 179th reached a point just two miles south of Grammichele by nightfall.
On the favorable side, the sag that had existed on the left of the II Corps zone straightened out nicely on 14 July after Darby’s Ranger force took Butera. A typical Sicilian town with feudal antecedents, Butera lies on high, almost inaccessible ground, an objective to intrigue the military imagination. Flouting an old tradition that previous conquerors of Sicily had always bypassed the town, the Rangers occupied Butera after a swift night approach and a dash into the center of town past startled Italian defenders. On the right side of the sag, the 180th RCT finally secured Biscari airfield, despite several strong German counterattacks which came after two infantry battalions gained the field by surprise. The German counterattacks persisted throughout most of the day, but were all turned back. Toward evening, the Germans began pulling back to the north and the 180th set out in pursuit. Its leading battalion finally caught up with the Germans early the next morning at the very outskirts of Caltagirone. In the center, that is, in the vicinity of Niscemi in the 1st Division’s sector, the line also pushed forward, not because of any action by the 16th RCT but because of the general withdrawal of the German forces to the northeast. Though the town of Niscemi remained a hot spot during the morning, by early afternoon the rate of enemy firing decreased and 16th Infantry patrols moved almost into Caltagirone before meeting German resistance. The 16th Infantry did not follow up this advantage; the advance of friendly units to the east and west made the move unnecessary.
While inclined to keep the 16th RCT in position, General Allen was in no way disposed to let the retiring enemy get away without some action. Early on 14 July a few hours after the Rangers jumped Butera-the 26th RCT moved toward Mazzarino, its Yellow Line objective. The 26th met little opposition-the Livarna Division’s few remaining battalions had withdrawn the previous evening-and before noon consolidated on high ground north and west of Mazzarino. With the 26th RCT pushed out this far, General Allen ordered the 18th RCT straight north toward Bivio Gigliotto-the juncture point of Highways 117 and 124-to secure the 26th’s right flank. By late afternoon, the 18th RCT came to rest on two high hills, some two miles south of the road junction.
By early morning of 15 July, then, both the 1st and 45th Divisions stood at or near the Seventh Army’s Yellow Line across the entire II Corps front. But in the higher echelons of American command, the impact of General Alexander’s directive of 13 July to Seventh Army began to be felt. At II Corps headquarters just before 0900, 14 July, General Bradley received from Seventh Army a general outline of the army group’s order. Accordingly, before going to the army headquarters to receive the specifics, General Bradley notified the 45th Division to halt its forward unit, at least two miles south of Highway 124: that road was now in the British zone and had been turned over to General Montgomery. General Bradley later visited the 1st Division and left the same instructions. Still later, American artillery units were instructed not to fire within an area extending from one mile south of the highway north to and past the highway, this to prevent the artillery from firing on British troops. The initial effect of these orders was slight. Only the 157th RCT had by then come within two miles of Highway 124.
General Bradley’s instructions stopped the 179th and 180th RCT’s from entering Grammichcle and Caltagirone, although the 2nd Battalion, 180th Infantry, had quite a tussle with the Germans in the southern outskirts of Caltagirone early on the morning of 15 July. Since the 26th RCT stood on it’s Yellow Line objective at Mazzarino, it was in no way bothered by the change of plans. On the other hand, the new instructions would have affected at least one American unit on 15 July had not the 1st Division commander, General Allen, chosen to persist in his advance. The 18th RCT, striking for Bivio Gigliotto, had just a little way to go before reaching the highway. General Allen declined, apparently with General Bradley’s tacit approval, to halt the 18th R CT two miles south of the highway. On the morning of 15 July, the 18th RCT continued its advance and after mauling a battalion from the Livorno Division in a cork tree grove just south of the road junction (taking 200 prisoners and 11 artillery pieces in the process) sent patrols into Bivio Gigliotto. Only there did General Allen halt the combat team.
The American thrusts caused General Conrath to become increasingly worried about his situation. News in the late afternoon of 14 July of Group Schmalz’s withdrawal from the Lentini positions along the east coast highway deepened his concern, for this move left the Hermann Gӧring Division’s left flank open. Conrath therefore decided to take the bulk of his division back in one movement, not pausing to defend until after he reached the Simeto River line. When Conrath notified the XVI Corps of his decision, the corps chief of staff, with Sixth Army’s approval, went to General Conrath’s headquarters near Caltagirone and begged the German commander to hold the Vizzini-Caltagirone line through 15 July so that the Axis troops holding the remainder of the front would have time to withdraw. Conrath agreed. But later in the day, General von Senger, urged by Kesselring to strengthen the endangered eastern wing by weakening the center, ordered the Hermann Gӧring Division to move immediately to the Catania area.
With General Conrath’s verbal agreement, Sixth Army formally ordered the German division to stay in the Vizzini-Caltagirone line until nightfall on 15 July. During that night, the division was to move back to the Gornalunga-Raddusa line, starting its movement with it’s eastern wing. The Livorno Division was also to withdraw at the same time, adjusting its movements to those of the German division. Not long afterwards, General Conrath reported to XVI Corps that Allied pressure made it impossible for him to hold his positions along Highway 124. Sixth Army then authorized General Conrath to start his withdrawal.
In the confusion of the previous contradictory orders, beset by the British and the Americans, apprehensive of his eastern flank, unable to contact the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to the west, Conrath ordered his units to withdraw immediately. In executing this withdrawal, elements of the division in Vizzini and Caltagirone lost several tanks and suffered light casualties during the morning of 15 July. The bulk of the division moved to the rear in good order and took up positions (along with Group Schmalz) on a line from the mouth of the Simeto River along the Dittaino River to Castel Judica and Radnusa, with outposts further south. On its right, a wide gap separated these troops from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which stuck far out to the south.
The tenacious defense put up by the Germans in Vizzini caused another change in plans for the British 30 Corps. Although the armored brigade and the 51st Division entered Vizzini early on 15 July, the two British units had been severely strained in the process. Aware of this even before the town fell, General Leese, the corps commander, ordered the 1st Canadian Division to pass through the 51st Division and press on to Enna.
At 0600, 15 July, one Canadian brigade moved west along Highway 124 toward Grammichele. Unfortunately, the 45th Division’s artillery was silenced by the previous day’s order and could provide no assistance. The 157th and 179th RCT’s could only watch helplessly as the Germans, then pulling out to the northeast, massed a small rear guard to block the Canadian approach. At 0900 as the Canadian advance guard neared Grammichele, which was situated on a high ridge well above the surrounding countryside, it was halted by German tank and anti-tank guns firing at almost pointblank range. Not until noon were the Canadians able to clear the road center. Pushing on to the west, but delayed by mines along the road, the Canadian’s entered an undefended Caltagirone by midnight. General Montgomery, his Major effort on the east coast stalled at the Simeto River, then ordered the 30 Corps to push on “with all speed to Valguarnera-Enna-Leonforte.”
General Patton paid his first visit to the 3rd Division shortly after noon on 14 July and told General Truscott something of his future plans. With his eyes set on Palermo, Patton said he would need Porto Empedocle to support such a drive. But because of the limitations imposed by General Alexander, Patton declared, the Seventh Army could not attack the port in strength for fear of becoming involved in a costly battle which might expose the Eighth Army’s left flank to an Axis counterattack.
General Truscott, who with army approval had already conducted one small scale reconnaissance effort against Agrigento and Porto Empedocle on the 13th, felt that the 3rd Division could take both towns without too much trouble. All he needed was General Patton’s approval. The Seventh Army commander agreed to another reconnaissance in force, this time in greater strength than the one battalion used previously. But Patton specified that the move was to be made on Truscott’s own responsibility. For General Truscott, there was much to gain and little to lose. If he could take Agrigento and Porto Empedocle, everybody would be happy. If he failed, he nevertheless would have gained valuable information on the status of the enemy’s defenses. Porto Empedocle serves Agrigento in somewhat the same fashion as Piraeus serves Athens. A town of 14,000 people, Porto Empedocle had a town mole, almost completely surrounded by two breakwaters jutting from a narrow shelf of land slightly above sea level. On the eastern and western sides of town, abrupt cliffs rose in some places two hundred feet or so above the level of the shelf, and parts of the residential area faced the sea on these heights. In the center of town, a deep ravine cut through the cliffs to the lower shelf, sharply dividing the upper part of town into eastern and western halves. The daily capacity of the port was 800 tons, approximately the same as that of Licata.
Agrigento, a city of some 34,000 inhabitants, was perched on a hilltop about three miles from the coast. Seventeen miles west of Palma di Montechiaro and twenty-two miles southwest of Canicatti, Agrigento was the most important road center along the southwestern coast of Sicily. Highway 115 connected Agrigento with Licata and Gela. Highway 122 linked it to Caltanissetta, Canicatti, and Favara.
For the Seventh Army, Agrigento represented the gateway to western Sicily. From there, Highway 115 continued northwestward along the coast to Marsala and Trapani; Highway 118 zigzagged northward over the mountains through Raffadali, Prizzi, and Corleone to the north coast and Palermo. Veering at first northeastward, a second-class road also led to the north coast by way of the inland towns of Conistini and Lercara Friddi. The seizure of Agrigento thus was essential for a drive on Palermo, while Porto Empedocle would give Seventh Army a port twenty-five miles closer to its front.
General Patton’s preoccupation with Palermo amounted to an obsession. Porto Empedocle was a logical objective in terms of augmenting the minor capacities of Gela and Licata. But with Porto Empedocle in hand, why Palermo, too? Perhaps he thought of a rapid, dramatic thrust to draw public attention to the capabilities of U.S. armor. Perhaps it was the only objective that could compensate partially for having been relegated the mission of acting as Alexander’s shield. “Palermo,” General Truscott would write after the war, “drew Patton like a lode star.”
[N12-18 Truscott, Command Missions, p. 222. Truscott remarks elsewhere: “It was perfectly clear to me why General Patton was obsessed with Palermo, it had been made so by all planning connected with the Sicilian operation from the first. . . . The reasons had also been made clear in many discussions with both General Patton and General Keyes …. General Patton made no secret of the fact that he was not only desirous of emulating Rommel’s reputation as a leader of armor, he wanted to exceed it. General Patton was also anxious for the U.S. armor to achieve some notice…. The capture of Palermo by an armored sweep through western Sicily appeared to suit this purpose. . .. ” Comments of Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. (Ret.) on MS.]
The 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, which had conducted the reconnaissance toward Agrigento on 13 July, had reported considerable enemy artillery defending Agrigento along the eastern perimeter. There appeared to be at least twelve direct fire, high-velocity weapons and one or more battalions of field artillery positioned against an approach along Highway 115. Too, the enemy appeared dug in east of Agrigento along the Naro River. Although General Truscott estimated the enemy’s infantry strength at no more than one coastal regiment-a fairly accurate appraisal-he ruled out a frontal assault because of the strength of the enemy artillery. He determined instead on a flanking movement to strike at Agrigento from the northeast by way of Favara on Highway 122. To do the job, General Truscott selected the 7th Infantry Regiment, the loth Field Artillery Battalion, and one battalion from the 77th Field Artillery Regiment.
The route to Favara had already been checked by a company of the 7th Infantry that had worked its way cross-country during the night of 13 July, entered Favara early the next morning, and stayed there. Basing his decision on the information sent back by this company, General Truscott directed Colonel Sherman, the 7th Infantry commander, to move two battalions in the company’s path, one to go all the way into Favara, the other to advance on the north side of Highway 115 to high ground before the Naro River. The 3rd Ranger Battalion, which was in division reserve, was to move to Favara, then reconnoiter to the west of Agrigento.
Until the ground troops could get within striking distance of both towns, the enemy was to be allowed no rest. The Navy agreed to furnish the maximum possible gunfire support. Since 12 July, the cruisers Birmingham and Brooklyn had been firing missions against Agrigento and Porto Empedocle. On 14 July, the Birmingham concentrated on Italian shore batteries, and as the foot troops moved out to the new areas that night, the British monitor, H.M.S. Abercrombie, joined the Birmingham. The next day, the guns of the Philadelphia added their fires.
Before daylight on 15 July, the two infantry battalions occupied their objectives without difficulty. Now General Truscott attached the Ranger battalion to the 7th Infantry and ordered a continuation of the reconnaissance effort against Agrigento. That night the 3rd Ranger Battalion was to move from Favara to the little town of Montaperto, situated on commanding ground northwest of Agrigento. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry, at Favara was to move on Agrigento to take Hill 333, which commanded the northern approaches into Agrigento. These two moves would block the northern and western exits from Agrigento. Then the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, along Highway 115 was to push straight to the west, cross the Naro River, and drive on Agrigento. Only one change was made in this plan: after taking Montaperto, the 3rd Ranger Battalion was to swing south over Hill 316 to take Porto Empedocle.
As night fell on 15 July, the Rangers moved out from Favara. Though they came under scattered artillery fire, they suffered no casualties. A half hour after midnight, 16 July, the Rangers ran into an Italian roadblock just east of the junction of Highways 122 and 118. While scouts uncovered the Italian position, Major Herman W. Dammer, the Ranger battalion commander, deployed his men and sent them in. Within an hour the action was over; one hundred and sixty-five Italians surrendered.
At daylight, 16 July, Major Dammer started his men westward cross-country toward Montaperto. The Rangers had crossed Highway 118 and were on high ground some two hundred yards west of it when an enemy column composed of ten motorcycles and two truckloads of troops came unsuspectingly down the highway toward Agrigento. Deploying along the high ground, the Rangers permitted the enemy force-all Italians-to come fully abreast before opening fire. The first shots threw the enemy column into complete confusion. Many Italians were killed; forty were added to the bag of prisoners.
Without further incident, the Rangers moved into Montaperto. From the hilltop, they had a commanding view of the valley below where four batteries of Italian artillery were emplaced. Major Dammer quickly set up his 60-mm. mortars and opened fire. Individual Rangers joined in with their small arms. Though a few Italians escaped toward the south, most came up the hill with hands held high.
Meanwhile, the two battalions of riflemen from the 7th Infantry were executing their roles in what was euphemistically called a reconnaissance in force. The 2nd Battalion, advancing westward along Highway 122 from Favara, gained two hills about a thousand yards east of its objective by 0900. Little resistance was encountered, but loss of contact with the Rangers and spotty communications with combat team headquarters prompted Major Duvall, the battalion commander, to hold his attack until he could further develop the situation to his front and flanks. The 1st Battalion, along Highway 115, was having a hard fight trying to get into Agrigento. After dark on 15 July, Colonel Moore, the battalion commander, sent his men across the Naro River and onto three barren hills which fronted the city. His companies soon found themselves hotly engaged with Italian infantrymen representing parts of two infantry battalions. By early afternoon of 16 July the 1st Battalion was still unable to move forward.
In the early afternoon, General Truscott ordered the 3rd Battalion, which had been in reserve, to move south of Highway 115 to assist the 1st Battalion. Just after 1400, Colonel Heintges led his 3rd Battalion down to the highway. Quickly, the battalion finished off one of the Italian forces opposing the 1st Battalion. Together the two battalions started for Agrigento, as Italian resistance slowly crumbled. In Agrigento, Colonel de Laurentiis, commander of the defense forces, was undergoing some trying moments. His command post had been the object of heavy Allied naval and ground bombardments during the day. By early afternoon of 16 July all of the Italian artillery batteries had been silenced. Fires had broken out in many places. The town was completely enveloped. The Americans were nearing the town. Finally, after the 1st Battalion had broken into the city proper, Colonel de Laurentiis, his staff, and his troops surrendered to Colonel Moore. By this time, too, Porto Empedocle had fallen to the Rangers.
[N2-12-2121 7th lnf Regt S-3 Rpts, 14-17 Jul 43; 7th Inf Regt S-3 Jnl, 14-17 Jul 43; 3rd Inf Div G-3 Jnl, 14-17 Jul 43; 10th FA Bn, 77th FA Regt, 3rd Inf Div Arty, and 3rd Ranger Bn AAR’s; Truscott, Command Missions, pp. 217-218; Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, pp. 174-76; Lieutenant Colonel Roy E. Moore, A Reconnaissance in Force at Agrigento, Sicily, 12-16 July 1943 (Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1947); Major Edward B. Kitchens, Operations of the 3rd Ranger Infantry Battalion in the Landings at Licata and Subsequent Attack on Porto Empedode, 10-17 July 1943 (Fort Benning, Ga.: 1950); MS #R-141, Withdrawal, Second Phase (12-21 July 1943), ch. XI of Axis Tactical Operations in Sicily (Bauer), pp. 1-10. In an action west of Agrigento, 1st Lieutenant David C. Waybur, 3rd Reconnaissance Troop, 3rd Infantry Division, earned the Medal of Honor when, though seriously wounded, he stood in the middle of a road and opened fire with a submachine gun on a column of Italian tanks. Waybur knocked out the leading tank and brought the -others to a halt. See 3rd Recon Troop AAR, 16 Jul 43.]
Army Directive of 15 July 1943
The 7th Infantry’s thrust against Agrigento and Porto Empedocle was only one of a number of events growing out of General Alexander’s directive of 13 July, which turned the Seventh Army’s axis of advance from the north to the west. On 15 July, even as the 7th Infantry’s reconnaissance in force gathered momentum, General Patton outlined his plan and issued his instructions for executing the army group’s order. Apparently still anticipating a drive on Palermo, he rearranged his forces in the belief that he could win sanction for a thrust to the north coast.
While recognizing the initial line of advance as spelled out by General Alexander to be a line from Caltanissetta to Palma (a line already out “tripped by the 3rd Division”) , General Patton extended the army boundary past Enna (where General Alexander’s army boundary stopped) to the north coast just west of Santo Stefano di Camastra. Within this new zone, he disposed his forces under two corps headquarters, the existing II Corps and a newly created Provisional Corps. To each of the corps, General Patton assigned roughly one-half of the new zone of operations.
The right sector, running from just east of Serradifalco to Mussomeli, Lercara Friddi, Manneo, and Palermo, went to General Bradley’s II Corps. The newly organized Provisional Corps, under the command of General Keyes, the Seventh Army deputy commander, took over the left sector. To the new corps went the 3rd Infantry Division, minus CC-A and other supporting units; the 82nd Airborne Division; units from the 9th Infantry Division; and artillery units which had been supporting the 3rd Division. The 3rd Division was to continue on its mission of taking Agrigento and Porto Empedocle and of securing Highway 122 in its sector before passing to Provisional Corps control. The 2nd Armored Division was to form the army reserve.
Once the II Corps had shifted the 45th Division from the east to the west of the 1st Division, the divisions were to drive to the northwest to secure Caltanissetta and a stretch of Highway 122 by nightfall on 19 July. Expecting the 3rd Division to secure the line Serradifalco-Agrigento by dark on 17 July (which was an extension forward of the anny group’s contemplated line), General Patton directed the 82nd Airborne Division, plus the 9th Division’s units then on the island, to relieve the 3rd Division along Highway 115 by dark on 19 July as a first step in continuing the drive to the west. The 2nd Armored Division was to be prepared to exploit any offensive operation toward the north coast, operating principally in the Provisional Corps zone.
Thus, General Patton apparently hoped that by the end of 19 July the situation on the island would have developed sufficiently to enable the Seventh Anny to start on a thrust to the north coast. As indicated by the extension of the army boundary past Enna, General Patton was not thinking at this time of Messina as a Seventh Anny objective. Seventh Anny, of course, could not launch out to the west until General Alexander gave approval. But General Patton fully intended to be ready to go as soon as General Montgomery had firmly established the Eighth Army on a line from Catania to Enna.
General Bradley, with the problem of pulling his front apart and putting it together again, started the 45th Division to a new assembly area near Riesi on 16 July. Thus the 1st Division became the right guide for the Seventh Anny, responsible for maintaining contact with the British on the right. Since the east boundary of the “Enna loop” belonged to the British, the 1st Division’s axis of advance was along an axis to the west of that boundary, cutting the middle of the loop roughly parallel to the Salso River.
The 26th RCT, on 15 July, held the old Yellow Line positions on the hills in and around Mazzarino and was astride a secondary north-south road that paralleled Highway 117 and joined Highway 122 about midway between Enna and Caltanissetta. The latter road was the division objective and the 26th RCT had a direct line of advance to it. Because of the rough terrain ahead, General Allen ordered the combat team to advance on 16 July by leapfrogging battalions. Barrafranca was the first intennediate objective.
The 16th RCT shuttled over from Niscemi, while the 18th RCT, after making contact with the 1st Canadian Division along Highway 117, began moving south to follow the division’s main Axis of advance. On the first day of the advance, the 26th RCT quickly developed a pitched battle with Group Ens at a point just forward of Barrafranca. Because the retiring Germans had not destroyed the bridge north of Mazzarino, the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, had no trouble crossing. The mile and a half stretch before the road entered the plain in front of the first intermediate objective was also traversed without incident. But from this point on, German reaction to the advance became heavy. From the approach taken by the 1st Battalion, the town of Barrafranca gave the impression of being “over behind” rather than “up on top” the high ground.
Pocketed in a hill plateau, the town was shielded by lower hill masses west of the Mazzarino road. At the town’s left front, a stream made a corridor from the Mazzarino road to a traverse road at the rear, and below this narrow valley a line of lesser hills screened the town from a larger plain. Barrafranca was well suited for defense. The Germans, expert in such matters, had dug in well, and controlled all approaches and most of the plain where tanks could be employed. The Germans sat in positions of their own choosing, looking down the throat of the American advance.
On reaching the plain in front of Barrafranca, the 1st Battalion swung to the left of the road and took position on Hill 432, close to the road. The 2nd Battalion bypassed to the left of the 1st Battalion and moved on Hill 504. Here, the 2nd Battalion came under heavy fire from positions west of the town and was driven back. Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion entered the low line of hills to the right of the road, fronting the plain. From these low hills, covered by Hills 432 and 504 on the left, the 3rd Battalion was to debouch onto the plain and advance on Barrafranca in a frontal attack. But even as the 2nd Battalion fought to get Hill 504, the Germans sent a column of tanks down into the plain toward the 3rd Battalion. American light tanks (the 70th Light Tank Battalion) from positions on the rim of Hill 432 opened fire on the German tanks, but their guns were not heavy enough to be effective and a number of the light tanks lost out in the ensuing encounter.
Though three supporting artillery battalions opened a steady fire on the approaching German armor, the advance was not halted. Unable to counter the tanks from its exposed positions on the low hills, the 3rd Battalion pulled back across the road to Hill 432 where it tied in with the 1st Battalion and where the remaining light tanks continued their efforts to slow down the enemy armor. The 3rd Battalion’s withdrawal also permitted the supporting artillery battalions to tum the plain into a killing zone. Concentration after concentration patterned the plain. Slowly the enemy drew back to Barrafranca; eight German tanks lay smoldering in the fields.
In the afternoon, the reorganized 1st and 3rd Battalions again made for Barrafranca. Their advance was unopposed; the Germans had gone. Immediately, the 16th RCT moved up to keep the pressure on the withdrawing enemy. That night the 16th passed through Barrafranca, leapfrogged the 26th RCT, and pushed on to Pietraperzia. Though they met some resistance, the advance detachments occupied the high ground northeast of the town. Late on 17 July, the 16th forced a crossing over the Salso River and reached Highway 122.
The 1st Division’s advance from Mazzarino was closely paralleled by that of the 45th Division. Faced with the extremely difficult task of moving his combat teams from the far east of the Seventh Army sector facing north to the center of the Seventh Army sector facing west, General Middleton, the 45th Division commander, at daylight on 16 July began to move his units, pulling them from right to left away from Highway 124.
[N12-24 As General Middleton points out, the move had to be made through the rear areas of the 1st Division and over a limited road net. See comments by Lieutenant General Troy H. Middleton (Ret.) on MS.]
The 157th RCT was the first to move; its front had been the first uncovered by the 1st Canadian Division thrust along Highway 124. On trucks borrowed from other units throughout the II Corps zone, the combat team was forced to retrace its steps south to Highway 115, through Gela, and then northwest toward its new sector. At midnight, 16 July, after a ride of almost ninety miles, the 157th RCT reached Mazzarino. Close behind came the 753rd Medium Tank Battalion and two battalions of division artillery. Four hours later, at 0400, 17 July, the 157th jumped off in the attack. It passed through Pietraperzia, already cleared by the 1st Division, and went up to the Salso River where a demolished bridge stopped its advance. By nightfall crossing sites had been reconnoitered, and at 0100 on 18 July the 157th RCT crossed with Caltanissetta as the first objective and, if opposition proved weak, Santa Caterina (another ten miles away) the final objective.
The attack met no serious opposition. By 1600, Caltanissetta was secured and three hours later Santa Caterina fell. Practically the only opposition came when patrols pushing out from Santa Caterina along Highway 121 ran into a strong, Italian-defended roadblock which had been established the day before at Portella di Recattivo, one of several bottlenecks on the highway. There was no town here, but the road at this point had narrow curves and a steep incline. Moreover, it was close to one of the rare side roads which ran through the barren, hilly area to Highway 120, and thus was an important point for the enemy to hold.
[N12-25: 157th Inf Regt AAR, 18 Jul 43; MS #R-141 (Bauer), pp. 30-33. The designation “Portella” which appears frequently on Sicilian maps -literally translated “narrow passage”-indicates a particularly difficult spot in the road net.]
The rest of the 45th Division, following the same difficult route traversed by the 157th RCT, closed in the Caltanissetta area on 18 July. From all appearances, and though it was now held up at Portella di Recattivo, the 157th had scored a clean breakthrough of the enemy’s defensive line and little or no resistance appeared to confront the division farther to the west. In contrast to the 1st Division which confronted the Enna loop and an apparently strong enemy force, the 45th Division appeared ready for a dash on Palermo.
The Germans had indeed fallen back. General Rodt, commander of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, had received orders from General Guzzoni to withdraw northeastward and to take up a defensive line running from Agira to Leonforte and on to Nicosia and Gangi to block an American advance from the west into the Catania area. As an additional measure, Guzzoni ordered Group Schreiber (minus Group Fullriede, which returned to Rodt’s control) to pull back from Serradifalco to Alimena and Portella di Recctivo to hold the roads open for the passage of the German division. By evening of 17 July, Group Schreiber was in position and fighting off the 157th RCT thrust from Santa Caterina.
General Rodt had started his rearward movement during the evening of 16 July. Group Ens drew back from Barrafranca, passed Valguarnera, and by daylight, 17 July, was in positions in the hills northeast and northwest of that town, opposing the advance of the 1st Canadian Division. Group Fullriede by that same morning had fallen back to a westward-facing salient running from the southwest to the northwest of Enna in line with the Imera River. From these positions, the German unit could maintain fire on the 1st Division advancing across the base of the Enna.
Discord and Harmony
Even as General Patton prepared to thrust to Palermo, General Alexander became increasingly worried about the problems of clearing the Messina peninsula the “long, mountainous, isosceles triangle with the great mass of Etna filling its base.” The German withdrawal from the west to a strong defensive line across the base of the peninsula was becoming apparent, and General Alexander was anxious for the British Eighth Army to strike hard around both sides of Mount Etna before the Germans could get set.
With this hope in mind, the army group commander on 16 July issued a new directive. In reality, this was nothing more than a modification of his 13 July order, slight at best, made to conform with what appeared to be a quick Eighth Army sweep around the western slopes of Mount Etna and the failure of the British 13 Corps to break through to Catania on the east coast. General Alexander for the first time spelled out his plan to exploit from the “firm line” -a term he used to refer to positioning Eighth Army along a line from Catania in the east to Enna in the west.
General Montgomery was to drive into the Messina peninsula along three main axes: along the east coast road through Catania; to Adrano on Highway 121 in order to cut the enemy’s lateral communications; and from Nicosia around the western slopes of Mount Etna. If the 30 Corps could reach the north coast and cut the island in two, General Montgomery would no longer have to fear an attack against his left flank and could concentrate on getting to Messina.
The Major task of the Seventh Army, its only task, was m protect the Eighth Army’s rear. General Patton was to do this by securing the Enna loop area, which would cut important roads, and by advancing to the north coast on the British left. Apparently ignorant of General Truscott’s reconnaissance in force, by then substantially completed, General Alexander authorized the seizure of Agrigento and Porto Empedocle. As for Palermo, or even the lesser course of moving beyond Agrigento, Alexander said nothing. For Patton and Bradley, the outlook seemed dim. Montgomery was to get the first prize, Messina; the Americans were to be denied even the consolation prize, Palermo.
Having accepted General Alexander’s earlier directive without audible comment, Patton was “mad as a wet hen” when he got the new directive. What rankled was not the assignment of Messina to the British (and with it assignment of three of the four main roads leading to Messina) but what he considered a slight to the U.S. Army: the passive mission of guarding Montgomery’s rear. The directive also knocked out Patton’s hope of gobbling up Palermo.
After conferring with General Keyes, Major General John P. Lucas, Brigadier General Albert C. Wedemeyer, and Brigadier General Hobart R. Gay, Patton decided to protest his asSigned mission, and he did so by presenting an alternate plan whereby the Seventh Army would make an enveloping attack on Palermo through Castelvetrano (sixty-eight miles west of Agrigento) and Corleone (fifty-eight miles northwest of Agrigento). Impinging in no way on Montgomery’s operations, the plan led the Americans westward toward the only objective of consequence after Messina, Palermo.
Meeting with Alexander in La Marsa, Tunisia, on 17 July, Patton argued his case. Since the enemy had been knocked back, he declared, aggressive action was not only imperative but the only way to give Montgomery complete protection of his left flank and rear. An American drive to Palermo would split the enemy forces irreparably. Alexander reluctantly agreed and gave his consent to Patton’s proposal.
At the same time, General Lucas was meeting with Major General Lowell Rooks, the AFHQ G-3, General Eisenhower being absent from Algiers on that day. Not until General Eisenhower returned on the 20th could Lucas unburden his soul. By then his resentment over seeming British determination to keep the Americans in a secondary role had been erased by news that Alexander had accepted Patton’s plan. In any case, Lucas thought the situation was rapidly becoming dangerous and that something should be done about it. General Eisenhower stated that he had never encountered a case where the British had deliberately tried to put something over on the Americans. In the circumstances, Eisenhower continued, Alexander should not be blamed for being cautious. But, said Eisenhower, Patton should be made to realize that “he must stand up to Alexander” or else Eisenhower would relieve Patton from his command.
Whereas there was widespread indignation among American officers regarding the original scheme of maneuver, British officers apparently were hardly aware of this feeling. Patton was the only American officer to raise the point about pushing out to the west, and until he went to Alexander the army group commander did not know how strongly the Americans felt about carrying out only a passive role. When confronted with this sentiment, Alexander realized that he probably could not restrain Patton indefinitely from pushing out; if he waited too long Patton would probably say, “To hell with this,” and push out anyway. With the situation then developing and with the enemy withdrawing into the Messina peninsula, Alexander was now willing to go along with Patton’s plan, albeit reluctantly.
Somewhat paradoxically, even as the element of disunity emerged between the British and Americans, the politically enforced co-operation between Germans and Italians on Sicily was going through a period of relative calm. Two command changes in the German structure might have led to friction, but both took place smoothly.
The first was the arrival on 15 July of General Hube, XIV Panzer Corps commander, who was to take charge of all the German forces on the island. On the same day, Kesselring gave Colonel Baade increased responsibility for protecting the Messina Strait.
After establishing his command post in the eastern portion of the island, Hube reported to General Guzzoni on 16 July and was briefed on Guzzoni’s plans for the Italian XVI Corps to organize the Etna line as a final defensive line behind temporary positions toward which the Axis forces were then moving. When the two German divisions reached the forward defenses, Hube was to supplant General von Senger but remain under Guzzoni’s tactical control.
Kesselring, too, visited Guzzoni’s Sixth Army headquarters that day. He found no fault with Guzzoni’s plans, both for deploying the troops in Sicily and for holding the Etna line. The two divisions in Hube’s corps, the Hermann Gӧring and the 15th Panzer Grenadier, were to be held in reserve for counteroffensive operations provided they were not needed to man the line itself, though Kesselring agreed to let the latter relieve the Livorno Division in the line so that the Italian unit could have needed rest and rehabilitation. Kesselring promised to try to reinforce the troops on Sicily by dispatching units from the Italian mainland, and Guzzoni promised to capture the initiative as soon as possible. As a result of conversations during two days, Kesselring and Guzzoni, though aware that the Allies might resort to additional amphibious operations, agreed that they would not evacuate the island of Sicily.
To forestall command difficulties, Guzzoni entrusted Hube’s XIV Panzer Corps with the eastern sector of the front. He gave the Italian XII Corps responsibility for the western half. He placed the Italian XVI Corps in reserve and in command of the northeastern portion of Sicily, where it was to receive and process units expected from the mainland, in particular the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division.
Another problem Guzzoni tried to deal with was the Italian ferry service across the Strait of Messina. Though the Germans operated an independent ferry service with utmost regularity and started to move the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to Sicily (as authorized by Hitler on 19 July), the Italian movements were on the verge of breakdown. From all over Italy came Sicilians, including military personnel on leave, who converged on Reggio di Calabria, demanding transportation to the island on the pretext of defending their homeland. Many who reached the island disappeared at once, presumably having rushed off to join their families. Other Italian troops in Sicily used all their ingenuity to move in the other direction. In an attempt to tighten the water service, Guzzoni urged the Naval Base Messina commander to enforce rigid discipline and regulate traffic across the strait in the strictest conformance with military necessity.
[N12-37 IT an. 51, signed Guzzoni. Effective 2400, 18 July Ig43, Rube assumed tactical command over the Hermann Gӧring, the 15th Panzer Grenadier, and the Livorno Divisions.]
Meanwhile, during the evening of 16 July, Guzzoni learned of the fall of Agrigento. The way was now open to the Americans to advance and cut off all the remainder of the XII Corps. The last moment had obviously come to move these forces to the east. Early on the following morning, Guzzoni ordered the XII Corps to begin withdrawing immediately to a defensive line running from Nicosia west along Highway 120 to Cerda. Two coastal divisions were to be left in place to ward off any Allied amphibious attack.
The XII Corps thus had to execute a difficult tactical maneuver. The Major units-the Assietta and Aosta Divisions mobile in name only, had to make flanking movements from the west to east across the spearheads of the American columns advancing toward Palermo and the north coast. To defend Palermo, Guzzoni ordered Generale di Divisione Giovanni Marciani, commander of the 208th Coastal Division, to take charge of all coastal units in and around Palermo and to keep the Palermo-Cerda portion of Highway 113 open. All told, the Italians had almost 60,000 men in the western portion of Sicily, including the units at the Palermo and Marsala naval bases.
The aura of accord between Italians and Germans in the face of adversity as demonstrated on Sicily failed to extend back to the Continent. Here, rifts in Italo-German unity widened to great proportions.
SOURCE: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy: BY; Lieutenant Colonel Albert Nutter Garland & Howard McGaw Smyth (United States Army Center of Military History)