Invasion of Southern Italy

After completing the invasion and capture of Sicily by mid-August 1943, the next Allied objective was the invasion of the Italian mainland, only 2 1/2 miles from Sicily across the Straits of Messina.

Lt. General Mark W. Clark,
Commanding General, Fifth Army, United States Army, near Naples, September-October 1943
Lt. General Mark W. Clark, Commanding General, Fifth Army, United States Army, near Naples, September-October 1943.

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Background to the Invasion of Southern Italy

Following the success of the Operation TORCH landing in North Africa in November 1942 and the campaign in Tunisia ending in May 1943, the Allies crossed the Mediterranean for Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943. With the fall of Messina on 17 August 1943, the last objective in Sicily, the stage was set for the invasion of the Italian mainland, only 2 1/2 miles from Sicily across the Straits of Messina.

With the Italian Army defeated on all fronts and Sicily invaded, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed as head of the Italian government by King Vittorio Emanuele III on 25 July 1943. The replacement Italian government, under Badoglio, immediately began an initiative to seek peace with the Allies, contributing to Allied urgency to invade the Italian mainland.

The approval by the American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) on 26 July 1943 of an invasion of the Italian mainland signaled an Allied return to the European continent for the first time since the Blitzkrieg and Dunkirk in 1940.

Preliminary Moves Open the Invasion of Italy

Naples was the original target, but was out of range for fighter aircraft based in Sicily and very difficult to assault. Allied planners therefore decided on Operation AVALANCHE, the first landing in Italy, at Salerno, fifty miles south of Naples, within fighter range and relatively lightly defended. First, however, German forces in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, would have to be confronted.

At 0430 on 3 September 1943, British and Canadian troops of the Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery executed Operation BAYTOWN, crossing the Strait of Messina into Calabria.

The Badoglio government, in response to an Allied ultimatum, signed a secret armistice agreement on 3 September, the day of the BAYTOWN landings. On 8 September 1943, formal announcement of the Italian surrender was made. The Germans quickly disarmed the Italians and took control of the defense of the Italian peninsula. Hitler gave Field Marshal Albert Kesselring responsibility for defending southern Italy.

On 9 September, in a hastily planned operation named SLAPSTICK, with the collaboration of the Italians, 3,600 men of the British 1st Paratroop Division landed unopposed at the port of Taranto in the Italian heel.

BAYTOWN went smoothly. Supported by a secure chain of supply, and capitalizing on German withdrawals, Eighth Army slowly cleared the toe of the Italian boot and by 14 September was moving up the Italian east coast. The Salerno landing, on 9 September, in conjunction with the Italian capitulation, drew German forces northward away from Eighth Army.

Operation AVALANCHE, the Invasion of Italy at Salerno

Salerno Beach on D-Day.  LST's deliver trucks and tanks onto the sand. At right are rolls of beach matting used
in building roads over the sand. In the center are members of the medical battalions, which had collecting companies on the beaches as early as 0400 on D-Day, 9 September 1943
Salerno Beach on D-Day. LST's deliver trucks and tanks onto the sand. At right are rolls of beach matting used in building roads over the sand. In the center are members of the medical battalions, which had collecting companies on the beaches as early as 0400 on D-Day, 9 September 1943.

The main effort in the invasion of the Italian mainland was Operation AVALANCHE, at Salerno, where the US Fifth Army under General Mark W. Clark came ashore. Fifth Army was composed of the U.S. VI Corps, the British X Corps and the US 82nd Airborne Division, a total of about nine divisions. The plan called for Clark's Fifth Army to come ashore and eventually link up with Montgomery's British Eighth Army advancing north from BAYTOWN. Its primary objectives were to seize the port of Naples to ensure resupply, and to cut across to the east coast, trapping the Axis troops further south.

In the early morning hours of 9 September, the approximately 450 ships of Operation AVALANCHE assembled off the Salerno coast. Elements had sailed from Sicily and from Tripoli, Oran, and Bizerte in North Africa, some at sea as early as 5 and 6 September. To achieve surprise, there was no preliminary naval or aerial bombardment.

U.S. Rangers hit the beach unopposed at 0310, twenty minutes in advance of the main assault force, moving quickly inland to seize their objectives. British Commandos captured the town of Salerno against light opposition. The British X Corps landed under a heavy naval bombardment, meeting significant opposition as its soldiers fought their way inland. The untested men of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division came ashore at 0330 without supporting fire, hoping to surprise the Germans. Although the leading elements took heavy casualties, all six waves of the 36th Division assault element were on the beach by 0610. The Americans encountered small but intense resistance as they fought their way off the beaches.

German Luftwaffe attacks against the beachhead were driven off by dawn as Allied aircraft from Sicily and supporting carriers appeared.

Germans Regroup after the Allied Landings in Italy

While the AVALANCHE invasion force was moving ashore at Salerno, German forces in southern Italy, as planned, were conducting a deliberate withdrawal northward away from the Eighth Army landings. German General Vietinghoff was ordered to contain the Salerno beachhead until reinforced, to prevent a link up of the Allies. At first, Vietinghoff believed he could push the invasion force into the sea. Eighth Army was still 120 miles to the south beyond difficult terrain. Montgomery had halted his advance on 9 September for two days, buying more time for the German counterattacks at Salerno. The Allied positions were becoming overextended, and by 13 December the U.S. Army 36th Infantry Division was occupying a 35-mile front, much broader than a full-strength division was expected to defend. The Germans rapidly reinforced the battle area, and the Allied situation continued to deteriorate.

During 12 to 14 September, the Germans attacked the entire Allied Salerno front, searching for weaknesses, hoping to throw the beachhead into the sea before it could link with the Eighth Army. Although heavy casualties were endured by the thinly spread Allied units, the German efforts were unsuccessful. The outer perimeter of the Allied position was withdrawn, to make a more compact defense. Allied heavy bombers were diverted from strategic targets in Germany, to attack German positions and interdict German units and supplies flowing toward the beachhead. A fierce defense plus the naval, strategic and tactical air support kept the Germans from reaching the beach, although they came close in some areas.

Allied reinforcements came in by parachute drop and by further landings on the beaches. By the evening of 14 September, with more supplies ashore and reinforcements arriving, the crisis had passed. On 15 September, with the British Eighth Army still some fifty miles to the south, Kesselring ordered a final effort against the beachhead. But his attacks on 15 and 16 September failed, the Allies could not be dislodged. Kesselring directed German forces to begin an orderly delaying action and a withdrawal north.

Concluding the Campaign in Southern Italy

With the Salerno beachhead fully secure, the Fifth Army could begin to attack northwards. The Allies gathered their strength in anticipation of the attack toward Naples. From 9 September through 1 October, 190,000 troops, 30,000 vehicles, and 120,000 tons of supplies came ashore across the Salerno beach. The remainder of the British 7th Armoured Division, the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, and the last of General Ridgway's 82d Airborne Division disembarked along with the supplies which would facilitate the attack northward.

The Eighth Army had been making quick progress from the 'toe' in the face of German delaying actions. It united its front with the Fifth Army on 16 September, and captured the airfields near Foggia, on the east coast, on 27 September. These would give the Allied air forces the ability to strike new targets in France, Germany and the Balkans. The Fifth Army captured Naples on 1 October (the first major European city to be liberated during WW II), and reached the line of the Volturno River on October 6th. This provided a natural barrier, securing Naples, the Campainian Plain and the vital airfields on it from counterattack. Meanwhile the British Eighth Army had advanced to a line from Larino to Campobasso. The whole of southern Italy was now in Allied hands, and the drive northward could begin.

The capture of Naples and the Foggia airfield formally ended Operation AVALANCHE. The Allies suffered approximately 12,500 casualties (2,000 killed, 7,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing). Foggia, captured intact, would soon be used by Allied bombers.

Italian Campaign After the Invasion of Southern Italy

The Germans staged a fighting withdrawal and settled into a strong defensive position at the Winter Line, a set of three defensive perimeters of interlocking bunkers and fortifications that sealed off southern Italy. The formidable and sophisticated defensive belt of interlocking positions on the high ground along the Italian peninsula's narrowest point stopped the Allied advance. Both the west coast route and the Route 6 central mountain route blocked by the Germans. In late 1943, after a fierce battle at San Pietro, a stalemate developed that would not be broken until after the battles of Monte Cassino and the breakout from Anzio.

Recommended Books about the Invasion of Southern Italy

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