Chapter 8: From Calabria to the Foggia Plain
The Capitulation of Italy
When Marshal Pietro Badoglio, succeeding the deposed Mussolini as head of the Italian Government, declared that Italy would remain in the war on the side of Germany, he was speaking with his tongue in his cheek, for his country had neither the resources nor the will to continue the struggle. The quantities of men and material which the Italians had poured into Libya, the Balkans and Russia had all but disappeared. Their air force had been destroyed in North Africa; their navy was crippled; and the greater part of their mercantile marine had been sunk or captured. Nothing could show more clearly the apathy of the people than the ease with which the Fascist Party, once the very core of the Italian war spirit, had been cast down.1
It was this military weakness that prevented the new administration from immediately taking open steps to get out of the war; for the Marshal was well aware that his government existed only on the sufferance of the German Command, which had at its disposal strong and continually growing forces in both northern and peninsular Italy. Any overt peace move would result in replacing the present administration by one in accord with German wishes. Important as it was, however, for the new regime to persuade the Germans of its good intentions, it was scarcely less vital that the Allies be similarly convinced, for Badoglio and his circle had now no doubt as to which side would gain the final victory.2
Accordingly towards the end of July Badoglio’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Raffaelo Guariglia, approached the British and American diplomatic representatives at the Vatican to see if they were in a position to communicate secretly with their respective governments. But neither was able to assist – the Englishman claiming that his code was too old, the American that he had none.3 The next move came on 6 August with an approach to the British diplomatic representative in Tangier; and on 15 August, as we have already seen, Castellano arrived in Madrid and informed
the British Ambassador that he was the bearer of a message from Badoglio to the effect that when the Allies invaded Italy the Italian Government was prepared to order the immediate cessation of hostilities against them, and to join at once with all its forces in the fight against the Germans.4 The time was well chosen. Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt and their staffs were then on their way to the Quebec Conference. On receipt of the news from Madrid they at once instructed General Eisenhower to send representatives to meet Castellano and discuss the terms of an Italian surrender.5
Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Maj-Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, accompanied by a British officer, Brigadier K. W. D. Strong, Chief of AFHQ Intelligence, met Castellano in Lisbon on the 19th, and handed him a document detailing the military terms of an unconditional surrender. Political, economic and financial requirements were to be communicated later. On the authority of the Prime Minister and the President he gave an assurance that the final terms would be modified in proportion to the active aid which Italy might render the United Nations.6 Bedell Smith refused to discuss the Italian offer to “switch sides”, or to satisfy Castellano’s request for details of the Allied plans for landings on the Italian mainland; and he insisted that the announcement of the signing of the armistice would be made simultaneously by both parties at a time to be set by Allied Force Headquarters.7 It was Eisenhower’s intention to proclaim the cessation of hostilities five or six hours before the main landings.8
A second meeting took place on 31 August at Alexander’s headquarters at Cassibile. In attendance with Bedell Smith to receive the Italian capitulation were General Alexander, General Mark Clark, Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder.9 But Castellano had come to parley, not to sign. He declared that the German strength in Italy had so rapidly and considerably increased that his government would not dare to announce an armistice unless the Allies first landed at least fifteen divisions north of Rome to guarantee the security of the capital. The Allied representatives refused to consider these conditions and impressed upon the Italian spokesman that his country must either accept unreservedly the terms offered or refuse the armistice.10
The Italians were in a difficult position. Refusal would mean losing the opportunity to participate in the overthrow of the Germans – the only way in which they might hope for modification of the peace terms. Yet their dread of German reprisals surpassed even their fear of Allied bombing or the threat of invasion. Realizing this dilemma, the Allied leaders acceded to Castellano’s request that before the main landings an airborne division should be dropped at Rome on airfields to be seized and held by the Italian Army. His plea for an armoured division was countered by an offer to furnish 100 anti-tank guns at the mouth of the Tiber. The Italian
Government’s acceptance of these terms had to be transmitted to Eisenhower by secret radio on 2 September.11
At Rome early on the following morning Castellano reported to Badoglio and some of the Marshal’s chief advisers his failure to achieve postponement of the armistice until after the main Anglo-American landing had taken place. The disconcerted Italians agreed that their only course was to accept the Allied terms.12 Castellano returned to Cassibile on the 2nd, and late on the afternoon of the following day signed the military terms of armistice on behalf of his government.*
* The complete Instrument was signed on board HMS Nelson at Malta on 29 September by Eisenhower, Alexander and Badoglio. On 13 October Italy declared war against Germany.13
By that time the first Allied landing on the mainland of Italy was well under way at Reggio.14
For the airborne enterprise at Rome it was decided to divert from the Salerno operation the United States 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier-General Maxwell D. Taylor. By 8 September preparations were complete and the aircraft of the first lift were ready to take off. Plans were made for LCTs to sail into the Tiber with the promised ammunition and artillery. Taylor was sent secretly by sea to Rome to check the arrangements at the Italian end.15 He saw Badoglio late on the 7th, and to his amazement learned that the Italian Government wanted the armistice postponed until 12 September and the Rome operation cancelled. The Marshal declared that the situation had changed, and that Castellano had not been in full possession of the facts. He asserted that the Germans had 12,000 troops in the Tiber Valley, and had expanded the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division in the Rome area to a strength of 24,000. All supplies of gasoline and ammunition to Italian divisions had been cut off. Thus virtually immobilized, Italian troops could neither defend the capital against the German occupation which announcement of the armistice was certain to provoke, nor provide the logistical aid promised to the Allied airborne troops.16 It was apparent that the Italians had now deduced that the main landings would take place in the Naples–Salerno area, too far south to protect Rome, and rather than risk open hostilities against their Axis partners they preferred to wait until the Allies should rescue them. In the face of this vacillating attitude General Taylor had to advise AFHQ to call off the airborne operation. At the same time he secured from Badoglio a signed message revoking all his earlier commitments.17
shortly after midday on the 8th Eisenhower received word of the Italian change of attitude. He at once sent a strongly-worded message to Badoglio, informing him that the Allied Command would announce the armistice as originally planned. “I do not accept your message of this morning postponing the Armistice”, he signalled. “Your accredited representative has signed an agreement with me and the sole hope of Italy is bound up in your
adherence to this agreement.”18 No reply came from Rome, and when at 6:30 p.m., a few hours before the landings were to begin at Salerno, Eisenhower’s announcement was broadcast as arranged, Badoglio remained silent. But last-minute discussions with King Victor Emmanuel and his advisers brought a decision to agree to the Allied terms, and at 7:45 Badoglio announced over the Rome Radio that Italy had capitulated. He directed that all hostilities by Italian armed forces against the Allies were to cease.19 He named no new enemy, but instructed Italian troops to “repel attacks from whatever quarter they may come.”20 That night the Marshal, the King, and a few members of the Government fled to Brindisi.21
Although the news came as a shock to the Germans, it found them well prepared to deal with the situation. On the 9th, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, was to write in his diary,
The Führer, thank God, can rightly claim that he suffered no disappointment on the human side regarding Badoglio. Ever since Mussolini’s exit we have anticipated and expected this development. We therefore won’t have to make essential changes in our measures. We can now set in motion what the Führer really wanted to do immediately after Mussolini’s fall.22
Such action had begun in Italy at eight o’clock on the previous evening with the notification of the codeword “Achse” (Axis) to all German forces in the country.23 This was the prearranged signal to announce the surrender of the Italians and to put into effect the measures prescribed in a secret order which had been drawn up by Keitel shortly after the deposition of Mussolini and subsequently revised in pace with the changing situation. It enumerated the steps to be taken by the German commanders in Italy, the Balkans and Southern France to ensure the speedy disarmament of the Italian armed forces and the maintenance of essential civilian services.24
Within a few days the Army of Italy practically ceased to exist. Italian commanders, in the main taken by surprise by the turn of events, and having no clear direction as to the course of action to be followed, merely laid down their arms when ordered to do so by the Germans. In Rome, whither the Allied Command had so nearly dispatched an airborne division to the aid of the garrison, the Germans had long been prepared to take control by force. In strategic positions nearby they had placed two over-strength divisions, the 2nd Parachute and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier. On receipt of the “Achse” signal these two formations marched on the capital, and by the 10th had disarmed the five Italian divisions responsible for its defence and assumed complete control of the city.25 With minor exceptions (there was some spirited resistance for a few days in the northern cities of Milan and Cremona) this was the pattern for all Italy.*
* By prearranged plan the Germans abandoned Sardinia, transferring the garrisoning 90th Panzer Grenadier Division to Corsica.26 On 12 September Hitler ordered Corsica to be evacuated. Italian and French forces on the island harassed the withdrawal, which was completed on 4 October.27
Only in the north-east did the
Germans experience any real difficulty. There the Slovenes, taking advantage of the loosened grip on the Irredentist coast, and lavishly equipped with the hastily abandoned arms of the Italians, menaced for a time Trieste and Fiume. The Germans eventually established control over the main lines of communication and the chief towns in the area, but the Partisans, rallying under the banner of Josip Broz – later known to the world as Marshal Tito – and increasingly aided by British and American supplies, maintained their guerrilla operations until the end of the war.28
The Battle of Salerno, 9–16 September
By nightfall on 8 September the AVALANCHE convoys bearing the assaulting divisions of General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army had deployed and were approaching the anchorages in Salerno Bay. On board the transports the troops had heard the news of Italy’s surrender, and although officers made every effort to warn them against complacency, there were many who felt that a bargain had been struck and that the force would simply “walk in”.29 Yet the fighting on the beaches of Salerno was to be among the fiercest of the whole Italian campaign.30 The moon went down shortly after midnight, and under cover of the ensuing darkness the troopships reached the release positions. By 3:30 a.m. the first assault waves were on their way to the beaches31 (see Map 8).
The main blow was delivered on the left by two divisions of the British 10th Corps, commanded by Lt-Gen. Sir Richard L. McCreery; a dozen miles to the south Maj-Gen. Ernest J. Dawley’s United States 6th Corps assaulted with one division.32 At almost all points the enemy offered immediate resistance, using tanks to engage the troops as they advanced inland from the beaches.33 As we have seen, von Vietinghoff had been warned by Hitler of the threat to the Naples–Salerno area, and he had been on the alert since early on the 8th, when word came of an Allied invasion fleet at sea, its destination unknown. At that time the defending forces had consisted of the 16th Panzer and the 222nd Italian Coastal Divisions, but on receipt of the “Achse” signal the Germans had disarmed their former allies and had taken over all their positions.34
During the first three days of AVALANCHE the Fifth Army made steady progress. The chief gains were on the right, where the 6th Corps, having broken through the beach defences at Paestum, by the evening of D plus 2 held a bridgehead extending ten miles inland across the southern tip of the Salerno plain. The 10th Corps, meeting considerably stronger resistance, secured the town of Salerno on the 10th, and on the next day the airfield five miles to the east. Around Battipaglia, a crucial road junction at the eastern
edge of the widest part of the plain, a fierce but indecisive struggle was being waged. By the night of the 11th this part of the beachhead, at the junction of the British and American sectors, was still insecure.35 From early on D Day Sicily-based fighters and fighter-bombers of the 12th Airsh Support Command (the component of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force assigned to support the Fifth Army) had provided continuous daylight air cover over the invasion area.36 They were augmented by Seafires from a force of five British escort aircraft carriers (Force V, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian), which was itself covered by seaborne fighters of the fleet carriers Illustrious and Formidable.37 The Luftwaffe’s reaction was unexpectedly weak and was confined in general to small hit-and-run raids; 108 sorties on D Day are listed in captured enemy documents, as against 700 sorties by Allied land-based fighters and 250 by the Seafires.38 The most effective German air effort came on the 11th, when the United States cruisers Philadelphia and Savannah were damaged by radio-controlled bombs.39
The enemy had used these three days to rush the bulk of his forces into the Salerno area. He almost stripped his southern sector,*
* The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division reached the Salerno perimeter late on 10 September; the bulk of the 26th Panzer Division from Calabria followed four days later.40
and brought in as well the greater part of the divisions which were disposed about Naples and Gaeta.41 Counting on the difficult terrain and the problem of supply to prevent the intervention of the Eighth Army in time, he sought to inflict a decisive defeat on General Clark’s forces before the necessary build-up could be completed. Alert to this danger General Alexander signalled to General Montgomery on the 10th:
If the Germans have dealt successfully with the Italians in the Naples-Rome area I am anxious about their possible rate of concentration against Fifth Army. It is of the utmost importance that you maintain pressure upon the Germans so that they cannot remove forces from your front and concentrate them against ‘Avalanche’.42
But Montgomery appears to have taken little notice of this order, and his reaction to a more urgent summons two days later was very deliberate (see pp. 220 and 223 below). While the Eighth Army was still nearly 200 miles to the south, and before a stepped-up Allied reinforcement programme could take effect, German large-scale counter-attacks placed the Fifth Army in a precarious position.
The first of these was launched on the 12th; it wrested from the 6th Corps a key height overlooking the bridgehead and pushed the 10th Corps out of Battipaglia with heavy losses. During the same day, however, Allied light forces which had landed on D Day in the Sorrento peninsula held, their ground against German reaction. On the 13th the main German blow fell on the 6th Corps in an apparent effort to break through to the beaches. Under cover of a violent dust storm the enemy launched vicious tank and infantry
attacks down the valley of the Sele near the Allied inter-corps boundary. They smashed through the front line of infantry and were only halted by the defence’s commitment of every reserve and the determined fire of all available tank and anti-tank guns, light howitzers and anti-aircraft guns in the area. By nightfall the Americans had been compressed into a bridgehead about five miles deep. On the left General McCreery’s forces, aided by accurate gunfire from heavy naval units and close-support bombing by low-flying aircraft, managed to hold their ground against strong counter-attacks which struck them south of Battipaglia.43
For another three days land, sea and air forces put forth their strongest combined efforts to save the bridgehead. The ground troops, although heavily hit by casualties and exhausted by nearly a week of uninterrupted struggle, doggedly hung on to their positions. The heavy bombardment of enemy troop concentrations and gun positions by Allied cruisers and destroyers played an important part in breaking up German counter thrusts before they could be mounted.44 On the 15th the battleships Warspite* and Valiant arrived from Malta
* On the afternoon of the 16th HMS Warspite was attacked by a number of German aircraft and disabled by a radio-controlled glider-bomb,
to bring their 15-inch guns into action, although by now the most critical stage was over.45 In the skies Allied aircraft kept up their devastating bombing. The full resources of the Northwest African Air Forces had been thrown into the battle. In three missions on the nights of the 13th–14th and 14th–15th Troop Carrier Command dropped 3800 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division to reinforce the 6th Corps, some of them parachuting down behind the enemy lines to disrupt the movement of German troops through the Avellino area.46 The Strategic Air Force became temporarily a tactical force as its heavies and mediums directly supported the ground forces with concentrated attacks on targets immediately behind the battle front. On 14 September their 1200 sorties brought the day’s total for Allied aircraft of all types to more than 2000. From the 12th to the 15th an average weight of 760 tons of bombs per square mile fell in the target areas. “Never before”, reported Headquarters of the Mediterranean Air Command, “have bombs been employed on a battlefield in such quantities or with such telling effect.47 Battipaglia and neighbouring villages were all but obliterated, and every road leading into the battle area was heavily cratered and strewn with the debris of destroyed enemy transport.
Although the battle still raged furiously on the 14th, the Fifth Army had by then stabilized its front and the crisis had passed. The enemy had spent his strength and had no new reserves for further onslaughts, and the Allied build-up was beginning to take effect. The British 7th Armoured Division was unloading, bringing needed strength to cope with enemy armour. Next day forward elements of the Eighth Army, leading what Kesselring termed
On the evening of 16 September von Vietinghoff’s war diary recorded that the failure of the counter-attacks “as well as the slow but steady approach of the Eighth Army, caused the Army Commander to withdraw from the battle in order to occupy good positions before the intervention of the Eighth Army with fresh troops.”50 On that same evening patrols of the two Allied Armies met on the American right flank.51 By the 19th Canadian troops were at Potenza, 50 miles east of Salerno, the whole of the ‘Salerno plain was in the Fifth Army’s hands, and the battle for the bridgehead was over.52
The Canadian Advance up the East Coast
When Operation AVALANCHE began, the Eighth Army was still only about half way to the Catanzaro neck – its first main objective. This narrow isthmus formed a comparatively low-lying trough between the Sila and Serre massifs, which flanked it to the north and south respectively. Catanzaro itself, a city of 20,000, lay on the southern slopes of the Sila mountains, five miles from the east coast. About fifteen miles to the west was the town of Nicastro; Montgomery intended to halt for a few days in the Catanzaro–Nicastro area, in order to “pull up the tail” of the Eighth Army.53
On 9 September General Dempsey ordered his two divisions to establish themselves as soon as possible astride the isthmus and thence send reconnaissance parties forward to locate enemy troops and demolitions and assess the amount of work required to restore communications.54 The 5th Division had been making good headway, and its leading brigade had already reached the south-western comer of the depression. The pursuit up the west coast had been speeded by a landing of the 231st Brigade and commando troops near Pizzo in the Gulf of Sant’ Eufemia, on the 8th.55 The seaborne force encountered the enemy rearguard, and there was sharp fighting before the Malta Brigade linked up with the main body of the 5th Division moving up from the south. Only demolition and very light opposition hampered further advance, and late on the 10th leading elements reached Nicastro.56
In the meantime, on the other side of the peninsula, General Simonds had ordered the mobile “X” Force to secure Catanzaro.57 Already it had reached Marina di Badolato, a coastal village 35 miles north of Locri, having suffered some delay from demolitions and from the unexpected opposition of an Italian artillery battery. Fortunately no casualties resulted from this somewhat belated display of Italian fighting spirit, which was quickly dissipated upon the deployment of the Carleton and York company under
Lt-Col. Neroutsos’ command.58 At 7:30 a.m. on the 10th armoured cars of the Princess Louise squadron led the force forward, with 1st Brigade units following in TCVs. The only opposition was from the numerous demolitions, which prolonged the 20-mile journey until late afternoon, when the reconnaissance troops, closely followed by the RCR, reached Catanzaro.59
In order to relieve some of the congestion along the 60-mile stretch of road between Locri and Catanzaro, units of the 3rd Brigade were lifted forward to Marina di Catanzaro in three large landing craft.60 Throughout the journey they saw evidence of the thoroughness with which the Northwest African Air Forces had bombed installations along the coastal railway during the preceding three days, putting it completely out of commission.61 The marshalling yards at Marina di Catanzaro were in a state of utter ruin. When the RCR arrived there, the stock-piles of coal were still burning, and the men were able to cook their meals on what was to all intents and purposes a vast outdoor stove.62
While these moves were in progress, a patrol of the Edmontons, comprising a rifle platoon and a section of pioneers, with 6-pounder support, had struck out on 9 September from Cittanova to reconnoitre an inland route to Catanzaro. For 100 miles the party followed the tortuous secondary roads running northward through the Serre Mountains, until on the 13th it reached the coast about ten miles south of Catanzaro. It was fortunate that the Division was not dependent on this inland axis for its advance; for a German demolition party had left it a succession of blocked turns, cratered roadbeds and blown bridges.63
For four days the 1st Division remained concentrated in the open country between Catanzaro and its Marina, and on the edge of the wooded slopes to the north. The broad sandy beaches of the Gulf of Squillace and the clear streams which flowed from the neighbouring hills gave all ranks a welcome opportunity for bathing and washing. There was the added treat of a distribution of mail – the first in Italy.64 On the 13th General Montgomery visited Divisional Headquarters and presented decorations to a number of officers and men for their actions in the Sicilian campaign. Among those honoured was General Simonds, who received the Distinguished Service Order.65
The halt provided a breathing-space for the hard-used supply and maintenance services. The rapid advance to Catanzaro had imposed on the Canadian administrative staffs and units many complex problems, which had been solved only by considerable improvisation. The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, with only half its transport available on the mainland, had successfully maintained the Division over supply lines three to four times as long as those considered normal for a full complement of vehicles. By the expedient of temporarily dumping reserve ammunition at Reggio the Service Corps was able out of its own resources to troop-lift up to two of the infantry
brigades at a time. At Locri the situation was eased somewhat by the addition of 35 Italian TCVs and the arrival of the three landing craft (which were later increased to six). Besides their usefulness as troop transports, these craft were to prove valuable for conveying supplies up the coast, at first from Reggio and later from Crotone.66
While the main bodies paused at Catanzaro, strong patrols explored northward. On the morning of 11 September the Princess Louise squadron, strengthened by a company of the Hastings and Prince Edwards in troop carriers, drove forty miles up the coast to Crotone. The ancient Croton, once the home of Pythagoras, had prospered as the chief seaport between Tarentum and Rhegium. Its busy modem counterpart had been carefully dealt with by Allied bombers; the town’s big electro-chemical plant had suffered heavily, but the port itself was undamaged. It was quickly put into operation, and for a short time supplied the Eighth Army’s needs to the extent of 2000 tons a day.67
In the meantime a bold stroke had placed Allied troops well up the east coast. On the evening of 9 September, while the Fifth Army was still pouring ashore at Salerno Bay and Montgomery’s lines of communication were being steadily extended up the long Calabrian peninsula, the 15th Army Group struck its third blow at the enemy on the Italian mainland with the unopposed landing of elements of the 1st British Airborne Division at Taranto. Although the original proposal for a major amphibious operation (“Musket”) in the area of the great naval base had been dropped in favour of AVALANCHE, interest in the project was revived with the Italian acceptance of the terms of surrender; for of all the places garrisoned chiefly by Italian troops which might be expected to fall easily into the hands of the first claimant, Taranto seemed best suited to accelerate the Eighth Army’s build-up. The landing represented no diversion of force. Indeed, the Airborne Division was available only because there were insufficient transport aircraft in the theatre to employ it in its normal role elsewhere. In the absence of assault landing craft the Division was carried direct from North Africa to Taranto harbour in a minelayer and six cruisers, of the Mediterranean fleet.68
Exploitation was rapid. By the 11th the whole of the heel of Italy was clear of the enemy, and by the 13th the Airborne Division (which was under direct command of HQ 15th Army Group) held a perimeter twenty miles west and north-west of Taranto, the inner defences of which were manned by the former Italian garrison. It was not a strong line, but there was little likelihood that the 1st Parachute Division, the only German force in Apulia, would attack.*69|70 The port rapidly assumed an important role in the maintenance of the Eighth Army. On 18 September Lt-Gen.
* On the morning of 9 September Heidrich had received orders to concentrate the Parachute Division at Foggia as protection for the Tenth Army’s deep eastern flank. On his way north he found time to destroy 20,000 tons of merchant shipping in Bari harbour.
C. W. Allfrey’s 5th Corps Headquarters (available as a result of the cancellation of the Crotone operation) assumed command in the area in readiness to bring in reinforcing formations from Sicily and the Middle East.71
Montgomery’s main problem now was how to come within striking distance of the German Tenth Army. The greater urgency lay on his left flank; on 12 September he was ordered by General Alexander (who sent his Chief of Staff, Maj-Gen. A. A. Richardson, to emphasize the critical nature of the situation) to push forward with all speed in order to ease the pressure on General Clark’s forces at Salerno.72 The stay at Catanzaro, however, had been scarcely long enough to achieve any considerable improvement in the Eighth Army’s administrative position, and there was the risk that an accelerated advance might cause a complete breakdown in the system of maintenance. Nevertheless, the issues at stake were of the utmost importance, and there was no other course than to accept the risks.73 On 13 September the Army Commander ordered General Dempsey, while keeping light forces operating as far forward as possible, to concentrate the 5th Division in the Castrovillari neck at the northern end of the Calabrian peninsula by 15 September, and to bring the Canadian Division into the same area by the 17th.74
During the next few days the 5th Division moved rapidly up the west coast. From the seaside town of Belvedere, in the Castrovillari isthmus, one brigade leaped forward to Sapri, and by the evening of the 16th, as we have seen, patrols had linked up with the United States 6th Corps south of the Salerno bridgehead.75
The Canadian advance began on the 15th, when the Division’s reconnaissance squadron, with a company of the Carleton and Yorks and a troop of anti-tank guns under command, pushed up the coast road from Marina di Catanzaro.76 As other formations followed, a shuttle service by landing craft again supplemented the 1st Division’s limited transport. Road convoys ran into traffic congestion about Crotone, where General Montgomery was utilizing the newly-acquired port to bring in the Desert Air Force.77 Castrovillari, the old Norman town in the mountainous centre of the isthmus, controlled all northward passage from the Calabrian peninsula, but its tactical value to the Germans had passed with the Allied landings to the rear. News from Salerno had sent General Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps Headquarters hurrying away to the north-west a week before the Canadians reached the area.78 Nightfall on the 17th found Simonds’ forces concentrated in the malarious plain in the eastern half of the isthmus, where a few days before the 26th Panzer Division had paused briefly on its retreat northward. Brigadier Graham’s troops were at Spezzano, on the southern edge of the plain; the 2nd Brigade was at Cassano, ten miles east of Castrovillari; while farther north at Villapiana, near the coast, was Brigadier Penhale’s 3rd Brigade,79
While these moves were being completed, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards were patrolling deep into the country north of Castrovillari, and on the 16th they encountered a patrol of the 1st Airborne Division, forty miles south-west of Taranto.80 The meeting of British and American troops near Vallo on the west coast took place a few hours later.81 In only thirteen days from the first landings in the toe the Allied Armies were thus linked across the Italian foot from coast to coast.
The Drive to Potenza, 17–20 September
The Eighth Army was now presenting a serious threat to the German rear at Salerno. General von Vietinghoff had begun loosening the cordon around the bridgehead, and a quick stride forward by Montgomery’s forces would undoubtedly hasten the process. A key point in the enemy’s line of withdrawal was the road and rail centre at Potenza, midway between Salerno and Taranto; and in a directive issued on 17 September General Alexander named it as the Eighth Army’s principal objective in the next phase of the Allied advance. At the same time he ordered the Fifth Army to seize the high ground south-east of the Gulf of Naples and pivot thereon to bring its right wing forward to a line running inland through Avellino to the headwaters of the Ofanto River. Once it had gained these objectives the 15th Army Group would pause in order to build up its strength, particularly in the Taranto area, before proceeding to the capture of Naples and Foggia.82
In the enemy camp von Vietinghoff, taking steps to meet the expected Allied advance, issued orders on the 18th for the immediate withdrawal of the Tenth Army’s left wing into new battle positions. The 14th Panzer Corps would remain generally where it was in order to hold an Allied attack to the north or north-west, and guard against landings in the Gulf of Naples. On the German left, however, the 76th Panzer Corps was to wheel back from the Salerno front, fighting a delaying action and carrying out extensive demolitions as it went. All roads and, traffic lines were “to be lastingly destroyed and mined in great depth”; and the order that all non-removable equipment and supplies of military importance be rendered useless specifically cited the destruction of the extensive aqueduct system of Apulia. It was the German intention that by the night of 21–22 September the Corps should have reached a line extending from Salerno through Potenza to Altamura, a communications centre about fifty miles north-west of Taranto. The left wing would then continue to swing back until Herr was holding a defence line passing to the south of Foggia and reaching the Adriatic at Manfredonia, just below the Gargano peninsula. These positions were to be retained until 30 September.83 Could the Eighth Army accelerate this programme?
Anticipating Alexander’s directions, Dempsey had already given the Canadian Division the task of seizing Potenza. With part of his force still making its way up the coast from Catanzaro, the Canadian GOC had now to consider a further advance of 125 miles by road, possibly against enemy opposition. The route prescribed by the 13th Corps Headquarters followed the coast road northward from Villapiana for 25 miles, turning inland through Rotondella along a highway (No. 92) which wound north-westward across the mountainous and river-strewn terrain of Lucania to Potenza, in the heart of the southern Apennines. Simonds had already given some thought to the problem of an advance along this axis, and early on the 17th he notified Dempsey of his intentions. He could not use the divisional reconnaissance regiment to provide the necessary speed and power, for its single available squadron*84 was in very bad shape mechanically, and only fit for flanking patrols.85
Simonds therefore proposed to develop a quick threat by a heavily armed motorized battalion group from the 3rd Brigade – which would be in effect an advanced guard to the brigade. This mobile force would advance from Villapiana on the 17th, followed early next morning by the balance of Brigadier Penhale’s units. On the same day the 1st Brigade, with supporting artillery and armour, would take up a firm stand inland from Scanzano, a town on the coast road about ten miles north of the Rotondella lateral. Brigadier Graham’s role was to guard the Canadian right flank, for although the 1st Airborne Division was now holding the Italian heel as far north as Bari, enemy estimated at divisional strength were believed to be in the Altamura area.86 The 2nd Brigade, which was due to reach Cassano on the 17th, would remain there temporarily in reserve, prepared to follow to Potenza.87
Penhale assigned the task of leading the advance on Potenza to Lt-Col. M. P. Bogert, the West Nova Scotia CO, giving him for striking power, in addition to his own battalion, a squadron of the Calgaries, a battery from the 1st Field Regiment RCHA, one troop each of anti-tank and light anti-aircraft artillery, and a platoon of medium machine-guns from the Saskatoon Light Infantry. An engineer platoon from the 1st Field Company and a company of the 9th Field Ambulance RCAMC completed the force.88 Shortly after midday on the 17th “Boforce”, as it was named from its commander, was on its way.89 During the remaining hours of daylight the column rolled rapidly up the coast road to Nova Siri Station – the railway station for Rotondella. There it turned its back on the Gulf of Taranto, passed through Rotondella,90 and halted for the night ten miles south-east
* Concentration of the regiment, which was commanded by Lt-Col. F. D. Adams, had been delayed by the non-arrival in Sicily of the bulk of its vehicles in the D plus 42 convoy. A composite squadron joined “A” Squadron on 18 September, but the balance of the regiment did not reach Adams’ headquarters until the end of the month.
of Sant’ Arcangelo, the Reconnaissance Squadron having explored as far as that place earlier in the day.91
Next morning Boforce drove by the old grey town overlooking the River Agri without incident, but about midday it was halted at Corleto, first by a blown bridge, around which the engineers quickly constructed a diversion, and then by rubble-choked streets in the town itself, which had been heavily bombed by the RAF. While one company of West Novas worked to clear a passage for vehicles through the debris, a second company pressed forward on foot towards Laurenzana, ten miles along the highway. As the leading patrol neared this village, a German demolition party blew up a bridge in their faces. It was now dark, and Bogert called a halt for the night while the hard-working sappers prepared a way around this latest obstacle.92 About the same time the main body of the 3rd Brigade pulled off the road to bivouac at a point a few miles south of Corleto.93
Early on the 19th jeeps and motorcycles could pass the blown bridge, and two companies of West Novas moved forward on foot. Beyond Laurenzana they had a brisk exchange of mortar and small-arms fire with the German demolition squad, which had just dealt with a bridge across the all but dry bed of the Camastra – a tributary of the Basento River. The enemy hastily withdrew, leaving one of his lorries burning beside the broken bridge. About midday the West Novas entered Anzi, a village five miles farther north, and seventeen from Potenza.94
Early in the afternoon, thanks to the combined efforts of engineers and infantry at the various obstacles, the advance was resumed, with the troops once more riding and the tanks leading the column. From Anzi the road was “studded with Tellermines”,*
* The Tellermine – one of forty different types of German anti-tank mines – had a flat, cylindrical metal body with a pressure cover to set off the main igniter, and could be equipped with anti-lifting igniters on the side and bottom. Various kinds contained from ten to twelve pounds of explosive.95
but by half-past seven the vanguard had reached the high ground overlooking the broad valley of the Basento, across which Potenza lay spread out on the hillside.96 It was too dark for Bogert to study the ground from his vantage point opposite the town, and he had to form his plan of attack from maps. Potenza’s chief defensive advantage was its commanding position above the wide river flats, which afforded an excellent field of fire. The Basento itself, running along the north side of the valley, like all other mountain rivers at that time of the year was practically dry, and presented no obstacle to infantry. More serious for the attacker was a steep embankment which carried the railway between the river and the town. Reports of enemy strength in Potenza were contradictory. On the 18th some Italian civilian and military sources indicated that the Germans were holding the town strongly with infantry and artillery, while
others declared that it had been evacuated on the previous night.97 Bogert proceeded on the first assumption, deciding to wait until after the moon rose at 11 o’clock before attacking with two companies of The West Nova Scotia Regiment.98
From the high ground south of Potenza Highway No. 92 spiralled in a westerly direction down into the valley, crossing the Basento and two of its tributaries by three bridges before it reached the built-up area and climbed into the centre of the town. Reconnaissance patrols discovered that the enemy had already demolished the first of these bridges (which was hidden from observation from Potenza by an intervening ridge) and had mined the river bed in the vicinity. Accordingly before the attack started the sappers, protected by “D” Company of the West Novas, went forward to clear a crossing-place. About 2:00 a.m. on the 20th the remaining infantry companies dismounted from their vehicles at the blown bridge, suffering seven casualties from an exploding mine. An hour later a patrol from “A” Company drove off a party of German engineers who were preparing to demolish the second bridge. “C” and “D” Companies now came up and crossed the river and the railway embankment beyond before they ran into resistance. Daybreak found them in the area of the railway yards, engaged in a bitter fire-fight with enemy paratroopers, who seemed to have an unusually large number of automatic weapons.99
Although Bogert had available a substantial concentration of artillery*
* On the afternoon of the 19th Brigadier Penhale had placed the whole of the 1st Field Regiment RCHA at the disposal of Boforce.100
and medium machine-guns, these could do little more than engage targets of opportunity because of the danger of hitting their own troops. The armour was still held up by mines and demolitions, while the enemy’s small-arms fire kept the remaining West Nova companies from advancing across the open valley. Accordingly Brigadier Penhale, who had brought the Royal 22e Regiment and the Carleton and Yorks forward during the night, decided to deploy the former battalion in a wide enveloping movement to cross the river east of Potenza and seize the high ground behind the town. The artillery would be able to support this flanking attack without endangering the West Novas in the southern part of the town.101
Shortly after midday, while the Royal 22e was sweeping around the right flank, a troop of the Calgaries passed the last of the obstacles on the main road and entered Potenza. At once resistance collapsed. The West Novas, some riding on the tanks, quickly pushed up the long hill through the town. Apart from a few snipers they met no opposition, but instead a wild ovation from those inhabitants bold enough to venture into the streets. The Carleton and Yorks followed through promptly and secured an important road junction two miles to the north.102 Patrols pushed out at once to the west and late that evening established contact with elements of
the 5th British Division near Brienza.103 Early on the afternoon of the 21st the 2nd Canadian Brigade, ordered forward from Cassano, rode through Potenza and took up positions covering the approaches to the town from the north-west.104 Thus was successfully concluded the special assignment given to the 3rd Canadian Brigade and Boforce – the most extensive operation that the Canadian Division had yet carried out on the Italian mainland. Canadian casualties had been light, the West Novas losing six killed and 21 wounded. Congratulating the Division, the GOC 13th Corps wrote to General Simonds, “I hope you realize what a great achievement the capture of Potenza in sixteen days has been and what a very big effect*105 it has had on Avalanche.”106
The sixteen prisoners taken at Potenza belonged to a battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment of the 1st Parachute Division.107 This unit, 100 strong, had been hurried over from Battipaglia on the eastern edge of the Salerno perimeter, and had reached Potenza on the afternoon of 19 September, in time to do no more than postpone the fall of the town for a few hours.108 Its late arrival without supporting tanks or artillery is striking evidence of the manner in which the rapid advance of Boforce had caught the enemy unawares.
Potenza, with its population of 30,000, was the second modem city encountered by the Canadians in Italy; most of its buildings were less than 90 years old, for, like Reggio Calabria, the town had been rebuilt after almost total destruction by an earthquake. But its importance as the main inland communications centre south of Foggia had made it a target of high priority for air attack, and it had been roughly handled by medium and light bombers on the nights of 8 and 12 September.109 In these raids a large number of inhabitants had been killed – estimates went as high as 2000110 – and many rotting corpses were still unburied when Boforce arrived.111 For the Canadians Potenza’s fine modern buildings and pleasant environment of wooded hills provided a welcome change from the strenuous days in the enervating atmosphere of the coastal plain. One of the most appreciated of the city’s facilities was its up-to-date sports stadium, in which the 1st Division found time to conduct a keenly contested track meet before it moved on northward to new assignments.112
While the 3rd Brigade was pushing inland to Potenza, the 1st Brigade moved up the coast to the scrub-covered Scanzano plain at the mouth of the River Agri. Brigadier Graham’s forces had been expanded to include the 2nd Field Regiment, the 51st Anti-Tank Battery and the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery RCA, the 4th Field Ambulance, the 14th Canadian Army Tank (Calgary) Regiment (less the squadron with the 3rd
* Cf. Tenth Army war diary for 16 September (see above, p. 220). It should be noted, however, as Montgomery’s Chief of Staff has pointed out, that the situation at Salerno was well in hand before the Eighth Army was able to exert any pressure in that neighbourhood.
Brigade) and the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards (now with two squadrons).113 With this strength he was in a position to protect the 1st Division’s administrative area, which had been established at Nova Sin Station, and to meet any counter-attack against the Canadian right flank or an enemy thrust towards Taranto. During the remainder of the month the rest of the Division saw little of this group. Distance and unfavourable terrain made wireless communications unreliable, and direct liaison over the hundred-odd miles of mountain road separating the respective headquarters was extremely difficult. From “firm base” positions on the high ground between the Agri and Basento Rivers patrols ranged inland over a wide area. The only clash with the enemy worthy of note occurred on the 19th at Miglionico, a village overlooking the Basento from the north, midway between Taranto and Potenza. Here a patrol of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards surprised a superior force by attacking through a railway tunnel which led to the German bivouac area. Before the enemy could recover, the Canadians had inflicted a number of casualties and withdrawn the way they came.114 The Princess Louise themselves lost nine killed and seven wounded.
After 20 September there was no further contact with the enemy by any of Graham’s units. His patrols were in touch with those of the 1st Airborne Division, which was holding a wide front from the mouth of the Basento to the Adriatic coast at Bari. The main body of the Canadian Division had moved forward to Potenza, where it was flanked by the British 5th Division, which had reached Auletta, about twenty miles farther to the west. On the Eighth Army’s left flank General Clark’s forces were regrouping for a new offensive. Thus, by 21 September the two Allied Armies were firmly linked in a continuous front from Bari to Salerno.115
Patrols to the Ofanto
General Alexander now issued instructions to his two Army Commanders for future operations. In general terms he suggested a pattern for the campaign and indicated successive bounds for the advance. He defined the object of the forthcoming operations to be
the seizing of certain vital areas which contain groups of all-weather airfields, ports and centres of road communications. On these firm bases the Armies can be regrouped, reorganized and balanced, and from them strong offensive operations can be developed to destroy the German forces in the field. Light mobile forces and patrols will be operating ahead of these bases against the enemy continuously. This advance screen harasses the hostile rearguards, obtains information of all natures, and aids us to keep the initiative.116
The C-in-C indicated four phases into which the operations could be divided. The first, the consolidation of the present holdings on the line Bari–Salerno, was already practically completed; the second would include the capture of Naples and the important Foggia airfields; the third aimed at the seizure of Rome and its airfields and the important road and rail centre of Terni. For the final phase Alexander indicated as objectives the port of Leghorn and the communications centres of Florence and Arezzo; this last goal was well in the future, however, and its realization would depend largely on the enemy’s plans, the extent of the build-up of the Allied forces, and the rate at which our ports and lines of communication could be developed. Throughout the advance the Army Group Commander planned to take full advantage of Allied control of the sea and air to put “small but hard-hitting mobile forces behind the enemy so as to cut him off.”117 In the event he was unable, for reasons which will appear later, to mount more than two amphibious operations – one on each coast.
Any immediate major advance by the Eighth Army was out of the question. By the 21st maintenance problems had become so serious that it was apparent to General Montgomery that he would be unable to operate any main forces north of the line Bari–Potenza before 1 October.118 This situation had resulted from the unforeseen manner in which the operations in the Italian toe had developed. As we have noted, administrative planning had been based on the assumption that the Army would halt at Catanzaro, after being supplied that far from Sicily.119 Maintenance in the early stages had been carried out successfully through the small ports of Reggio and Porto San Venere, and over certain suitable beaches. But the advance had not stopped at Catanzaro; the rapid drive forward over inferior roads to that point and beyond had placed a considerable strain upon the administrative machine.120 and subsequent operations had brought it to the verge of complete breakdown.121
Every effort was made to overcome the crisis. The Army’s supply axis was switched from the Italian toe to the heel, in order to take advantage of the commodious ports of Taranto and Brindisi and the resulting shorter lines of communication, better roads, and even railways capable of operation. While the changeover was being effected, the 5th Division and the 13th Corps on the west coast were maintained by coastal vessels unloading at Sapri, the 1st Canadian Division drawing partly from dumps at Crotone and partly from Taranto.122 With great enterprise Royal Canadian Army Service Corps troops pressed into service some undamaged Italian rolling-stock which they found in the railway yards at Villapiana. After using their train to transport supplies along the coast, they drove it to Taranto, and from there on the 20th ventured forth towards Potenza with a load of petrol and ammunition. Unfortunately, about half way to its destination the train was derailed by a mine.123
It was Montgomery’s intention, before undertaking the advance on Foggia, to regroup his 5th and 13th Corps along the line Barletta–Melfi, which followed the right bank of the Ofanto River, about 25 miles north of his present forward positions. Accordingly, on 20 September he ordered General Dempsey to clear up any remaining enemy on the 13th Corps’ right flank and to dispatch light forces to Melfi, and to Spinazzola, 20 miles farther east. At the same time the 5th Corps would conduct similar operations in the coastal sector.124
General Simonds needed to make no substantial changes in dispositions to carry out the tasks which Dempsey passed to him. From its base at Scanzano the 1st Brigade continued to clear the right flank; from Potenza the 3rd Brigade directed its long-range patrols along the secondary road which wound north-east to Spinazzola; while the 2nd Brigade prepared to open Highway No. 93, running north to Melfi.125
To oppose these thrusts the enemy had in Apulia only the 1st Parachute Division, with a fighting strength (according to the 76th Panzer Corps’ Chief of Staff) of about 1300.126 On the 22nd, as Canadian patrols began ranging northward from Potenza, Heidrich’s forward positions extended eastward through the hills from Atella (a village on the Potenza road about ten miles south of Melfi) to Spinazzola, and thence north to Barletta at the mouth of the Ofanto River. He was charged with delaying the arrival of the Eighth Army in the Foggia plain until 27 or 28 September.127
The Canadians encountered the paratroopers’ defence line at two places on the 22nd. North-east of Potenza a patrol of the Royal 22e Regiment attempting to enter Spinazzola was turned back by artillery and small-arms fire, while a party of Patricias reconnoitring the road to Melfi found their way barred by a strong enemy post at Atella.128 Near Atella on the same day the Germans breached the great Apulian Aqueduct, thereby cutting off the chief source of water for the whole arid area from Foggia to the Italian heel.*
* The 150-mile main Aqueduct is supplied from the headwaters of the Sele (which flows into the Gulf of Salerno), and crosses the Apennines by a tunnel, emerging west of Atella.
By this action the enemy served notice that he intended making no real stand before reaching the mountains behind the Foggia plain.129
After the rebuff of their patrol on the 22nd the Patricias set up an advanced base at Castello di Lagopesole, a village about five miles south of Atella. From the battlements of the great square 13th century castle they had a clear view of Atella across the intervening plain and of the impressive and isolated peak of Mount Vulture, beyond. A battery of field artillery came forward on the 23rd and began shelling Atella. That night the paratroopers withdrew northward, but for two more days held on to Rionero on the eastern slope of Mount Vulture. When Patricia patrols
entered this village on the 26th, they found the inhabitants angrily lamenting the mass execution of 17 male civilians by the retreating Germans.130
By now the enemy had been pushed back along the Eighth Army’s right front to the line of the Ofanto River. The Royal 22e Regiment found Spinazzola clear on the 24th,131 and next day two squadrons of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards arrived there from the 1st Brigade’s area. One squadron drove north to Canosa, which was already in the hands of the 5th Corps. The other worked west, and after being held up by enemy rearguards and then delayed by mines and demolitions, reached Melfi on the 27th, just as PPCLI patrols entered the town from the south.132
Canadian patrolling did not extend across the Ofanto, for light British forces were already striking across the broad Foggia plain. Elements of the 78th Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade, pushing up the coast from Bari, had crossed the river on 26 September and advanced unchecked to within fifteen miles of Foggia. Next day the enemy abandoned the heavily bombed city, and the 78th passed through it to the northern edge of the plain.133 The capture of the much-needed Foggia airfields completed the Eighth Army’s task in the second phase of the operations prescribed by General Alexander on 21 September. The Fifth Army’s objective was attained four days later as the 7th Armoured Division, of General McCreery’s 10th Corps, entered Naples on the morning of 1 October.134
General Montgomery, now regrouped his forces. In the 13th Corps the newly arrived 78th Division replaced the 5th Division, which joined the 1st Airborne Division under the command of the 5th Corps. It was the Army Commander’s intention to resume his advance with the 13th Corps, leaving the 5th temporarily in reserve in the Taranto area.135 By 30 September Dempsey’s formations were concentrated on the rising ground south-east of the Foggia plain. Along the coast between Barletta and Bari were the 78th Division, the 4th Armoured Brigade and a Special Service Brigade136 Inland the 1st Canadian Division had moved up from Potenza to the Canosa–Spinazzola road, where it had been joined by the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade.
The Canadian armoured regiments had been widely dispersed during September. While the Calgaries were taking part in the 1st Division’s operations up the east coast, the Ontarios had supported the advance of the 5th British Division.137 Because of bad roads and unsuitable terrain they played a very minor role: in their fifteen days with the 5th Division they did not fire a single shot.138 The Three Rivers took no part in BAYTOWN, and remained in Sicily until 24 September.139 Both these latter units were now without their tanks; The Ontario Regiment’s were at Scalea on the west coast, waiting for shipment by water to the Adriatic sector; while those of the Three Rivers were en route from Sicily to Manfredonia, nearest seaport to Foggia.140
The absence of any heavy fighting by Canadians during their first month of operations on the mainland was reflected in the relatively light casualties 32 killed, 146 wounded and three prisoners of war. More surprising, in view of the malarious and unhygienic state of the country and the strain imposed by long moves and resulting lack of sleep, was the fact that the incidence of sickness remained slightly below normal.141 Of all the temporary losses through illness the most serious was that of Maj-Gen. Simonds. On 22 September he was confined to his quarters suffering from jaundice, and remained there with brief intervals of activity until the 29th, when he was evacuated to a British Casualty Clearing Station at Bari.142 Brigadier Vokes was summoned from the Sports Stadium at Potenza, where he was attending the finals of the Divisional Sports Competition, and placed in temporary command of the Division. Lt-Col. B. M. Hoffmeister, Commanding Officer of the Seaforth Highlanders, was ordered to take over the 2nd Brigade. Vokes then returned to Potenza Stadium and watched the team from his 2nd Brigade capture the “Sicily Cup” by a comfortable margin.143