Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr. discusses the tactical situation with Lieutenant Colonel Lyle Bernard, 30th Infantry Regiment, commander of the second amphibious landing behind enemy lines on Sicily's north coast, near Brolo, August 1943. Click here for high resolution version of this photo.
Sicily is located at the tip of the Italian peninsula, across the Straits of Messina, only 2.5 miles from the mainland. It is also only 90 miles north of the coast of Africa, providing a natural bridge between Africa and Europe and a barrier dividing the Mediterranean Sea.
The invasion of Sicily was conceived at the Casablanca Conference, in January 1943. Building on the momentum of the success of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, Roosevelt and Churchill wanted a new operation to meet Stalin's demands to divert Germany's attention from the war on the Eastern Front. The buildup of soldiers and materiel in the Mediterranean for the soon-to-be-concluded North African campaign made additional operations in that theater attractive. The British were highly motivated to drive Germany out of the Mediterranean to reopen the sea lanes, re-establishing British control of the trade and military routes to the Middle East, the Suez Canal, and beyond. Although the American strategists favored an early attack in western Europe, the British pushed for further operations in the Mediterranean and against "the soft underbelly of Europe." Since logistical support for operations in Europe would not be ready until mid-1944, Sicily was chosen as the next Allied target.
Preparations for Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily
Operation Husky, the code name for the invasion of Sicily, was put into motion right after the Casablanca Conference. A target date of 10 July was set for the invasion. The Combined Chiefs of Staff chose General Dwight D. Eisenhower as supreme Allied commander for Husky, with British General Sir Harold Alexander commanding the land component, consisting of the U.S. Seventh Army, led by Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and the British Eighth Army commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery.
Sicily features rugged topography topped by the 10,000 foot-high volcano Mount Etna. From Etna, a rugged spine of ridges runs northeast to the port of Messina at Sicily's northeastern corner, where the narrow Straits of Messina separate Sicily from the Italian mainland. Messina had to be taken to cut off supplies and reinforcements to the Axis troops on the island. But Messina was heavily fortified and beyond the range of Allies' Africa-based fighters, making the city unsuitable as the initial objective. Instead, the wide beaches in the south were chosen for the invasion route, near the ports and airfields of Palermo, Catania, Augusta, and Syracuse. After the landing, the basic plan was for the veteran Eighth Army to move up the Sicilian east coast toward Messina, while the less experienced U.S. Seventh Army protected their flank.
The Invasion of Sicily Begins
On the night of 9-10 July 1943, one of the largest combined operations of World War II, the invasion of Sicily, was launched. The Allied flotilla of 2,590 vessels was the largest fleet ever assembled for an invasion. Over the next thirty-eight days, and Allied force of half a million struggled with German and Italian forces for control of this rocky outpost of Hitler's "Fortress Europe."
Sicily had between 200,000 and 300,000 Italian troops of questionable quality and about 30,000 German troops under the overall command of General Alfredo Guzzoni's Italian VI Army. They knew they had to repel the Allied invasion on the beaches or they would have a hard time holding Sicily. However, at the outset, the German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, committed a critical blunder by refusing Guzzoni's orders to concentrate on the beaches and instead transferred the most capabile German troops to a reserve in western Sicily, held ready for a counterattack but not available at the beach.
The invading troops moved through heavy seas to the beaches, starting to land before 3AM on 10 July. Airborne glider and parachute troops preceeded the landing craft, all disrupted by bad weather, but ultimately successful in their missions. During the first three days of the invasion, the U.S. Army and Navy moved 66,285 personnel, 17,766 tons of cargo, and 7,396 vehicles over Sicily's southern shores. A new generation of landing craft and ships, the soon-to-be-famous LSTs, LCTs, LCIs, LCVPs and DUKWs, greatly facilitated the logistical effort and provided critical esperience for future operations such as D-Day in Normandy and the Pacific Island campaigns.
Fighting Across Sicily
Both the British in the east and the Americans in the west overcame German and Italian counterattacks, then made rapid progress off the beaches and along the coastlines. Seventh Army took Gela, Licata and Vittoria on the first day and Biscani and Niscemi on 14 July, while Montgomery's Eighth Army took Syracuse on the first day, followed by Palazzolo on 11 July, Augusta 13 July, and Vizzini on 14 July.
Encouraged by the success, in a controversial decision on 13 July, Gen. Alexander assigned a larger territory to Montgomery, squeezing Patton to the west and allowing the Eighth Army to bypass German resistance by going through Central Sicily, allowing the Eighth Army to monopolize the primary approaches to Messina and giving it complete responsibility for the Allied main effort.
Patton was furious, but turned his attention to an ambiitous goal: Palermo, Sicily's capital. On this course, never authorized in detail by Alexander, Patton sent General Truscott to seize Agrigento on 15 July, providing a port for Seventh Army in the west. Patton then sent a provisional corps under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes on a 100-mile dash to Palermo while General Bradley's II Corps pushed north to cut the island in two east of Palermo. Seventh Army secured Palermo on 24 July.
Palermo's capture by Patton conincided with Alexander's recognition that Eighth Army had bogged down at Catania, and was unlikely to get to Messina on schedule. On 23 July Alexander ordered Patton to move toward Messina from the west while Montgomery continued to push from the south.
Massina was protected by the heavily fortified Etna Line, backed by mountainous terrain, where a stubborn defense could be anchored. But Italian units were disintegrating and the German high command decided to withdraw from Sicily with as much of its force intact as possible, changing the nature of their defense to a fighting withdrawal.
Onward to Messina, the Last Sicilian Objective
Patton was stung by the obvious mistrust the British commanders had for the American forces. He became determined to get to Messina first, ahead of the British, to redeem American honor. The deeply entrenched Axis forces in the Sicilian mountains held up the advance, especially at Troina where days were needed to take the small town. Allied success at Troina, San Fratello, and in the British sector finally broke the Etna Line, but the Germans still were able to manage their withdrawal to Messina, keeping the Allies at bay. Several amphibious assaults attempted to leapfrog the lines and cut off the retreat, but the Germans and Italians continued to withdraw to the Italian mainland. On the morning of 17 August, elements of the 3d Infantry Division's 7th Infantry Regiment entered Messina, just hours after the last Axis troops shipped out for Italy and also before the British got there. Patton won the race.
Summary of Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily
Sicily was the first opportunity in World War II for a complete U.S. field army, the 200,000 man U.S. Seventh Army, to fight as a unit. The U.S. ability to team with the British in combined Allied air, sea and land operations was put to the test and largely succeeded, although with many rough spots. Sicily was a training ground for many of the officers and enlisted men who eleven months later landed on the beaches of Normandy, 6 June 1944.
Sicily was the first Axis home territory to fall to Allied forces during World War II. Allied advances in Sicily destabilized the Italian government, and Mussolini's opponents ousted the dictator on 25 July, although it did not end Italy's participation in the war.
In thirty-eight days on Sicily, U.S. and British soldiers inflicted 29,000 enemy casualties and captured over 140,000 more. American losses were 2,237 killed plus 6,544 wounded and captured. The British suffered 12,843 casualties, including 2,721 dead. Allied aircraft losses were 274 planes, while 1,691 enemy aircraft were destroyed.
At Messina, the Allied failure to interdict allowed the Axis to evacuate over 100,000 German and Italian troops and 10,000 vehicles from Sicily, August 1-17. When the Allies invaded the Italian mainland in September 1943, they were confronted by many of the same units who had escaped from Sicily.
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