Chapter 14: Now These Things Befell In Sicily
While Bomber Command was seeking to prove that a new form of warfare, first waged by the Zeppelins of Kaiser Wilhelm II a generation before, might, by its direct impact on the general population of the enemy, be able to achieve what had formerly been accomplished by armies and navies, the Allies pressed on with the policy decided upon at Casablanca. The Combined Chiefs of Staff had agreed that Sicily, the stepping-stone to Italy, should be invaded during ‘the favourable period of the July moon’.
A Combined Special Planning Staff was established in a High School on the outskirts of Algiers, and here the invasion, to which the code-name ‘HUSKY’ was given, was planned. The task was to be entrusted to General Montgomery and the Eighth (British) Army and General Patton and the Seventh American. The naval forces were to be under Admiral Cunningham, and Air Chief Marshal Tedder was to command the combined air forces. The Deputy Commander-in-Chief to Eisenhower was to be Alexander, who, occupied as he was with the critical battles which brought the North African campaign to its conclusion, was not able to review the labours of the planners until the end of April.
The island of Sicily has been compared to a ‘jagged arrow-head with the broken point to the West’. Within its area of about 10,000 square miles are many peaks of over 3,000 feet, separated or surrounded by plains of which the largest lies south and west of Catania and is dominated by the volcano of Etna. All round the coast, save for a short stretch to the north, runs a narrow strip of low-lying country traversed by a circular highway ringing the island. The main ports are Messina in the north-east, Palermo in the north and Catania and Syracuse in the east. To capture one or more of them was the first essential step and this in turn depended on the extent and amount of cover which could be provided by the air forces employed. Messina, the largest port, was beyond the range of fighters based on Malta and Tunisia and was, moreover, heavily defended. An assault on Catania could be given cover from the air only at extreme range, but its capture would ensure for the Allies the use of the main
group of airfields in Sicily. On the other hand, its unloading facilities were not large enough to maintain more than four, or at the most six, divisions, and the second main port, Palermo, would in the view of the planners also have to be captured.
Next, and indeed of equal importance, were the airfields of Sicily. Of these the Germans and Italians had originally constructed nineteen, a number which had risen to thirty by the time the Allied assault was launched. They were grouped in the east, south-east and west of the island and were all within fifteen miles of the sea. The most important were those forming the eastern group between Catania and Gerbini, and their capture would make it impossible for the enemy’s air forces to maintain themselves on the island. They would have to retreat to Naples and Brindisi, some 200 miles away, for the three airfields in the ‘toe’ of Italy were too small for use except as advanced landing grounds.
In considering his plans, Alexander thought first, as a modern general must, of the probable situation in the air. ‘From our bases in Malta and Tunisia’, he reports, ‘we could give air cover over the southern half of Sicily, south of a line running from Trapani to Catania. ... These two places, however, were near to the limit of effective air action. The plan, therefore, provided for an early attack on all three groups of airfields, but at the cost of a loss of concentration’. Such an attack would have to be made by seaborne invaders from Africa. Where they should land was the first and most important point. The vital spot was presently seen to be Avola, a small town on the east coast in the centre of the Gulf of Noto. Failure to seize this place would make it impossible to capture the ports of Syracuse, Augusta and Catania, and therefore to overrun the airfields. To provide a force large enough for so great an enterprise was, however, a matter of difficulty, especially when Tedder made it clear that Ponte Olivo ‘the airfield centre inland from Gela’ had to be taken if our air forces were not ‘to labour under an intolerable situation’. Alexander was thus faced with a considerable problem. He must make sure of capturing both the airfield and the ports. How could he do so?
The matter was discussed at a conference on 29th April, at which General Leese, on behalf of the Eighth Army, argued that the destination of the assault should be changed and that it should fall entirely on the east coast of the island so as to ensure the capture of the Pachino Peninsula. To this proposal Tedder raised strong objections. This plan, he said, would leave thirteen landing grounds in enemy hands, far too many to be effectively rendered harmless by attack from the air with the forces at his disposal. Faced with these
two opinions, both sound and both irreconcilable, Alexander did not hesitate to change his plan. Abandoning the original design to capture Palermo at an early stage, he decided that both armies, British and American, should assault side by side in the south-east of the island. In taking this decision he ran a grave risk; for, though the airfield at Ponte Olivo would thus be captured, no port large enough to supply both armies would fall into his hands immediately. The Seventh (American) Army would have, therefore, to be supplied entirely across open beaches and the Eighth (British) Army from two small ports of which one, Syracuse, was no more than a naval anchorage, Alexander showed himself to be a bold commander, for, it should be remembered, at that time the enemy was expected, by both Eisenhower and Montgomery, to resist desperately. Could the momentum and vigour of the assault be adequately sustained by supplies brought in in this manner? For two reasons Alexander believed thai they could: the weather in July would probably be favourable, and his armies would have at their disposal a newly invented amphibious vehicle, the DUKW, inevitably christened the ‘Duck’ as soon as it appeared. Thus he showed himself prepared to ‘take a calculated administrative risk for operational reasons’, the chief of which being the need to capture a group of airfields without delay. Already the conditions in which warfare in the air had to be conducted were imposing themselves upon those prevailing on land anil on the sea.
On 13th May, the day on which the German resistance in Tunisia came to an end, the final plan was approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The operation was divided into five phases. The first covered the preparatory measures to be taken by the navy and the air forces ‘to neutralise enemy naval efforts and to gain air supremacy’. The second phase, seaborne assaults, would be delivered just before dawn, helped by airborne landings, made ‘with the object of seizing airfields and the ports of Syracuse and Licata’. In the third a firm base would be established from which assaults would be made upon Augusta, Catania and ‘the Gerbini group of airfields’. The fourth and fifth phases were to come later and would result in the capture of the whole island.
In all five phases the combined air forces of Britain and America under Tedder’s command were to play a major part. He was assisted by Air Vice-Marshal Wigglesworth, an officer of great experience, who had served with the Americans in the Northwest African campaign and was well accustomed to their methods of thought and action. Under these two, who were responsible for the general conduct of the fight in the air, were three executive air commanders—
Major-General Carl Spaatz, with Air Vice-Marshal Robb as his deputy, who was in charge of the Northwest African Air Forces taking a direct part in the operation: Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas at the head of the Middle East Air Command: and Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park commanding at Malta. The parts to be played by the forces under the command of Douglas and Park in the Sicilian invasion were, after a footing had been gained on the island, less direct than those which fell to the lot of Spaatz and his two chief subordinate commanders Coningham and Doolittle. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, with his United States deputy, Major-General Cannon, commanded the Northwest African Tactical Air Forces which consisted of the Desert Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst, the United States XII Air Support Command, led by Major-General House, and the Tactical Bomber Force commanded by Air Commodore Sinclair. Thus, Coningham had under his control all those Allied air forces destined to appear over the Sicilian battlefields in immediate or close support of the armies. Major-General Doolittle was in command of the heavy bombers of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force, which consisted of two American bomber wings and the Royal Air Force Wellingtons of No. 205 Group, and operated behind the lines of the enemy. The exploits of Doolittle in leading the first raid on Tokio, and in due course the still more famous raid on the oilfields of Ploesti, provide a pleasing contradiction to his name. To keep watch and ward over Allied sea communications was the task of the Northwest African Coastal Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal Sir Hugh P. Lloyd. Finally, there were the Dakotas of Troop Carrier Command under Brigadier-General Dunn, of the United States, and the Photographic Reconnaissance Wing commanded by Colonel E. Roosevelt.
Considering the number of commanders and the multiplicity of their headquarters dotted over thousands of miles between Malta and Algiers, the degree of unity and therefore of success attained can only be described as remarkable. A certain simplification was presently seen to be inevitable, and as the fight continued through Sicily on into Calabria and then up Italy, the Headquarters of the Northwest African Air Forces merged into those of the Mediterranean Air Command to become Headquarters Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. The speed of the process was unremarkable—more that of the transport Dakota than of the fighting Spitfire—but in the end the required degree of unity was achieved.
The number of squadrons available was 267 of which 146 were American and 121 British. The Americans predominated in heavy
and medium bombers and transport aircraft, the RAF was stronger in fighters and lighter-bombers.
A single Tactical Air Force, to which both Allies contributed, had been created and was to render support to two armies fighting side by side. Thus, though administered separately, the two air forces, like the two armies and the two navies, were operationally one. This union on a lower plane was the natural consequence of that achieved on a higher, when in the autumn of 1942 General Eisenhower had been the Allied Commander-in-Chief of the invasion of Northwest Africa. The unity of the two allies aimed at by this appointment and achieved among the stony hills of that inhospitable land, was accepted as a matter of course for the next adventure, and so in the subjugation of Sicily and Italy every plan made, every movement executed, every peril encountered, every triumph won was shared in equal measure by both Alius. For a proper understanding of the war in the air as it was fought over Sicily and Italy it is essential to remember that the two air forces formed a single whole. It is impossible therefore when describing their exploits to separate those of the Royal Air Force from those of the United States Army Air Force. Both entered the battle simultaneously and together under a command common to both; and each contributed to the victory a full share, according to its means.
To them, four main directives were issued. They were first and foremost to maintain ‘sustained air operations’ in order to paralyse or destroy the air force of the enemy. This essential task, which involved winning the battle in the air before those of the sea and land were begun, was to be performed in the period immediately preceding ‘D Day’. Then, as soon as the convoys put to sea, they were to be given close cover from the air. Next, at the actual moment of the landings, which were to take place at eight beaches on the south-east corner of Sicily, their chief duty was to be the protection of ships lying off shore, and the assault by day and by night of the beach defences. Lastly, once the armies were firmly established on land, the air forces were to provide the closest co-operation above and behind the battlefield until Sicily should fall to the Allies.
Even before von Arnim and Messe had surrendered in Tunisia, the first item of this fourfold programme was put into operation by the launching of a series of air attacks against the main enemy airfields in Sicily, Sardinia and southern Italy. They endured for six weeks and throughout this period the Strategic Bomber forces kept the ports and submarine bases in the same areas under bombardment, sought to cut the ferry services in the Strait of Messina and attacked industrial targets in Naples and Bari. To this series of assaults must be added
the six attacks made by Bomber Command from bases in the United Kingdom against targets in the north of Italy.
These preliminaries were also marked by two special and necessary operations, the capture of Pantelleria and Lampedusa—two fortified islands lying in the path of those who would invade Sicily from Africa and providing airfields, from which fighters could operate, and valuable radar detection facilities. Pantelleria has been described as the ‘Italian Heligoland’. A forbidden zone since 1926, its defences by 1943 were formidable, at least on paper. Rocky and barren, its volcanic soil was sown like the field of Ares with dragon’s teeth, in this instance anti-aircraft guns, and, beneath the surface, underground hangars, impervious, it was claimed, to bombs, had been constructed. The garrison were well provisioned and with ample supplies of water. Nevertheless, after sustaining for five days, between the 7th and 11th June, a continuous series of attacks delivered by heavy, medium, light and fighter-bombers, they showed themselves to be in no mood to fight. By the evening of 8th June, the principal batteries to the north of the island had been gravely damaged, and by the morning of the 11th, all the northern defences had been destroyed. A bomb had even been successfully ‘skipped’ into the entrance of an underground hangar, where it failed to explode—very fortunately, as it turned out, since the hangar was soon one of those in constant use by our air forces after the fall of the island.
The demoralization of the enemy was completed by the dropping of 695 tons of bombs by the heavy bombers of the American Strategic Air Force and by a bombardment carried out by units of the Royal Navy, aided at night by Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm, which dropped flares. On the morning of 11th June, units of 3rd Infantry Brigade Group landed under the cover of heavy air attacks and soon after midday the commander of Pantelleria sent a wireless message to Malta offering to surrender. The offer being accepted, some 11,100 Italians and 78 Germans became prisoners of war. Though the bombing had pulverized the town and harbour, the underground galleries and tunnels had protected the inhabitants and the garrison, whose casualties had, therefore, been few. So bemused, however, were they by the quantity of high explosive which had fallen upon them that no demolitions had been carried out although extensive preparations to do so had been made. Large stocks of stores accordingly fell intact into our hands.
After Pantelleria, it was the turn of Lampedusa, a much smaller island, only fourteen square miles in extent, to be subjected to the new form of combined air and sea attack. On 12th June it received 268 tons of bombs besides numerous shells from bombarding ships
of war. Long before the attackers drew off its small garrison was fully prepared to surrender, and the unexpected arrival during the afternoon of ‘P for Percy’, an Air/Sea Rescue Swordfish, which had been compelled by a defective compass and empty fuel tanks to land upon the airfield, prompted the Italian commander, resplendent in ‘leather jacket, shorts and high boots’ with a Tyrolean hat set off by a huge plume upon his head, to come to immediate terms. Sgt. Cohen, the pilot of the Swordfish, accepted the surrender, refuelled with enemy petrol, took off, and landed near Sousse. On the evening of the 12th, the captain of a British destroyer completed the formalities and the still smaller islands of Linosa and Lampione surrendered a few hours later. The outposts of Sicily were in our hands a month before the assault was to be delivered.
These operations were mounted from bases in Northern Africa and also from Malta. For that island the wheel had come full circle. Set in the midst of an inland sea under the disputed control of the enemy for two long years, the life of its defenders had been hard. They had borne unflinchingly the insidious assault of hunger and the slings and arrows of bombing. Now, at long last, the Mediterranean was free again; supplies poured in, and by June 1943, Malta’s capacity as a base for air forces had been enlarged beyond recognition. A new landing strip, rapidly constructed by American engineers on the neighbouring island of Gozo, added to the airfields available, the latest radar devices were installed and spacious fighter control and filter rooms hewn out of the rock. Malta, it was decided, should be the headquarters of Alexander and those with him who were to direct the invasion. It was accordingly provided with a combined war room, in which the constantly changing situation, on the ground, on the sea and in the air, was recorded hour by hour. That these intense preparations in a war-torn island were so swiftly wrought was due very largely to the energy of Keith Park, the Air Officer Commanding, and to the Works Department of the Air Ministry, whose men laboured with efficiency and despatch, crowding the work of months into weeks, of weeks into days, till all was prepared. As the summer slipped by, more and more aircraft, larger and larger quantities of stores arrived, until upon the eve of battle forty squadrons of fighters awaited the advent of ‘D Day’ upon Malta, Gozo and Pantelleria.
Arrayed against them was a mixed Italian-German force of about 1,850 aircraft possessing bases in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and the south of France. Of these about 1,000 were serviceable at the beginning of July. The Luftwaffe was at a disadvantage. Not only had its strength in aircraft and spare parts dwindled, but the number of experienced
pilots and ground crews captured in Tunisia had much reduced its efficiency. It had proved impossible to replace these ‘old campaigners’ by men of similar calibre and experience, for the demands of the Russian front were too high. To these tactical difficulties, strategic were added. With the whole of the North African coast, except that of Spanish Morocco, in Allied hands, the position of the Axis forces in Italy and Sicily had greatly deteriorated. For three years the peninsula and the island had linked North Africa with Germany and had provided bases from which the enemy operated by air and sea in the Mediterranean. Now all was changed, and Italy was a vulnerable tongue of land thrusting a still more vulnerable island into a sea daily falling more and more under the dominion of the Allied naval and air forces.
Most serious misfortune of all, perhaps, was the relations of the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe. Tactical co-operation between them had never been achieved, not even when their combined presence in the Mediterranean had encountered no serious challenge. No uniform system of air to air or ground to air signalling or of aircraft safety and weather reporting procedure had been introduced, far less enforced, and the ill-assorted partners had throughout shown a marked tendency to keep their own signal codes a closely guarded secret from each other. Only when the campaign was almost over and the situation desperate was any improvement made in this, the most important factor in the operation of a modern air force.
In other scarcely less important respects, co-operation was equally absent. Never cordial, the relations of the German Air Force with its Italian opposite number became more and more strained with every month of war. Long before the invasion of Sicily was under way, the suspicion and distrust of the Italians for their more energetic and ruthless northern Ally had reached a very high pitch. With Latin ingenuity they had created a bureaucratic machine ‘of fantastic proportions’, whose ponderous revolutions, when they occurred at all, occurred so slowly as to make the movement to an airfield of even a few tons of cement or coal an administrative operation of the first magnitude. All dealings with the Luftwaffe passed through the hands of Italian liaison officers, experts in the art of pin-pricking and procrastination. Not even the telephone would perform its office, and slow and fatiguing journeys by car had to take the place of a simple long-distance call.
Nevertheless, the Germans were nothing if not persevering. By the end of June, the quantity of Allied shipping discovered by air reconnaissance in Algiers and Bizerta, combined with the presence of landing craft at Tunis and Malta, pointed with ever-increasing
certainty to the imminent invasion on a grand scale of Sicily, and possibly of Sardinia. Generalfeldmarschall Freiherr von Richthofen and his subordinate in Sicily, Generalleutnant Bülowius, hindered and obstructed though they were by their opposite numbers, General Ambrosio and his successor General Roatta, did their best to prepare for the forthcoming blow. Luftflotte 2 was reinforced and General Peltz, a young, energetic and capable officer, afterwards to mount the attacks on London in the early months of 1944, known as the ‘Little Blitz’, was given command of all bomber units in the Italian theatre. Forsaking their bases in Sicily they established themselves on airfields in Apulia between Lecce and Foggia. The fighters remained in Sicily grouped, for the most part, on airfields around Catania and Comiso, hastily enlarged and camouflaged. The torpedo-bomber units, whose duty it was to attack Allied convoys, were transferred to the South of France, to which a number of fighter and reconnaissance units, badly needed in Sicily, had to be sent for their protection. Here the 2nd Flieger division was formed as a general reserve which could be sent westwards to the Bay of Biscay or eastwards for operations in the western Mediterranean and the Tyrrhenian Sea. One of its Geschwader (K.G. 100) was provided with two Gruppen of Dornier 217s, equipped to launch radio-controlled glider bombs. The long-range reconnaissance Gruppe was moved from Trapani to Frosinone on the mainland and the transport units were sent as far north as Florence and Pisa. A small force was sent to Sardinia.
To these preparations in the air were added the reinforcement of flak units and their deployment in new areas. The flak defences of the all-important Strait of Messina were strengthened by units from northern Italy and by the battered remnants of those which had escaped from Tunisia. They were to prove efficient and well served. An attempt to add a balloon barrage to the defence was defeated by the difficulty of obtaining the necessary balloons. More light antiaircraft batteries were placed round the north Sicilian ports and the airfields and the men serving them attached to the Flakkampftrupps recruited from the anti-aircraft regiments and trained for special duties.
Thus did the enemy make ready for battle, the Germans stubbornly, the Italians without hope or heart. One advantage they did possess. The loss of Africa had made it possible to concentrate the forces available, and the German Air Force was now relieved of its heavy and unprofitable task of convoying shipping across the Mediterranean. In all other respects it was less fortunate. A constant watch had to be kept on the whereabouts and movement of Allied shipping,
and the photographic reconnaissance at frequent intervals of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli was of the highest importance. The only aircraft available for these duties were Ju.88s, which were far too slow, and in consequence their losses were heavy. In addition to reconnaissance, attacks had to be made on Allied shipping but not upon warships, for the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (Supreme Command of the Luftwaffe) believed that these were a smaller threat to the German army than a merchant vessel laden with stores for troops. Having lost command of the air, the Luftwaffe could only attempt to fulfil this part of the programme at night, and this it tried its best to do by flying sorties of fifty to eighty aircraft in loose formation led by ‘a master of ceremonies’. A certain success was achieved, and RAF night fighters did not destroy more than five per cent.
By 1st July, the first part of the Allied air attack was over. For the next nine days the bombers of the Northwest African Air Forces turned their attention away from lines of communication to the forthcoming battlefield. Sicilian landing grounds were assaulted by heavy, medium and light bombers, and special attention was paid to the Gerbini airfield and its satellites, upon which, as has been said, the fighters of the Luftwaffe were mainly concentrated. By the morning of ‘D Day’ seven of these were unserviceable and Comiso, Bocca di Falco and Castelvetrano were in the same condition. These attacks, delivered by the Americans by day and by Wellingtons of No. 205 Group by night, provoked the defence, but only spasmodically, the principal engagement being fought on 5th July between United States Fortresses and about 100 German fighters. The scale of attack on communications was, during this period, reduced, not more than seventy-five Wellington sorties being flown against Palermo and twenty-six against Catania.
The effect on the enemy’s airfields of the air assault in the period immediately preceding the invasion appears to have been very great. ‘In the last few weeks before the landing’, said Colonel Christ, Chief of the German Air Operations Staff in that theatre, ‘all the aerodromes, operational airfields and landing grounds on Sicily were so destroyed in continuous attacks by massed forces that it was only possible to get this or that airfield in running order again for a short time, mainly by mobilising all available forces, including those of the German and Italian armies’. When ‘D Day’ came, the Luftwaffe appeared to be paralysed and unable to exercise any effect on the course of events.
The second part of the preparatory phase ended on 9th July. On that afternoon the great convoys, made up in all of some 2,000 vessels,
began to arrive at their assembly areas east and south of Malta and then to move north. Those from the west were covered by the Northwest African Coastal Air Force, enlarged by the addition of a number of Beaufighter squadrons; those from the east were protected by lighter squadrons under the control of Air Headquarters, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean. Each half of these covering air forces flew some 1,400 sorties in two days. Opposition was negligible—a few bombs on shipping in Bizerta harbour on the night of 6th/7th July. The Germans were conserving such strength as they possessed with intent to use it against the beaches and the vessels anchored off them.
As the ordered lines of ships moved northwards, the wind began to rise and the sea became choppy. It was a bad beginning to an enterprise which was to culminate in a landing at dawn, but the armada, by then irrevocably committed, sailed on. To none could the worsening weather do more harm than to the airborne forces who, in accordance with the general plan, were to land in advance of the seaborne invasion. They were composed of troops of the British 1st Airborne Division carried from bases in North Africa in gliders towed partly by the Northwest African Troop Carrier Command, flying Dakotas, and partly by the Albemarles and Halifaxes of No. 38 Wing, Royal Air Force. In addition to the glider forces, the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division were to be dropped in the Gela/Licata area by the same American Command. High wind is dangerous, often fatal, to an operation of this kind, and it was therefore in a mood of more than ordinary anxiety that General Alexander went down after dusk to Cape Delimara, the south-eastern point of Malta, to watch the gliders pass. ‘As the tandem-wise pairs of tow and glider came flying low’, his majestic prose records, ‘now in twos and threes, now in larger groups, with the roar of their engines partly carried away by the gale and their veiled navigation lights showing fitfully in the half light of the moon, I took note that the first invasion of European soil was under way. On my right the quiet expanse of Marsa Scirocco waited for the Italian fleet, which two months hence was to anchor there in humble surrender’.
The airborne harbingers of the Eighth Army were carried in two types of gliders, the light Hadrian or Waco of which the maximum load was fourteen men and a handcart, and the larger Horsa which could carry thirty men within its plywood belly. The Horsas had been towed by No. 38 Wing from England to North Africa, a most difficult and hazardous undertaking. The squadron mainly concerned, No. 295, had had to fly within 100 miles of the enemy’s air bases in south-western France, and to make the long journey in daylight, for
the hazards of flying by night with a glider in tow over so great a distance were regarded as too great. It says much for the skill and determination of the pilots that by 7th July, twenty-seven out of thirty Horsas had reached North Africa. One which failed to do so landed in the sea, the Halifax towing it having been shot down by two Focke-Wulf Condors returning from a raid on an Atlantic convoy. The three glider pilots spent eleven days in a dinghy before being rescued. Major A. J. Cooper, another, had also to take to a dinghy when his Horsa fell into the sea after the tow rope had parted. After ten hours afloat he was picked up and within twenty-four was at the controls of another glider which he brought successfully to its destination.
The Horsas arrived at Kairouan only a week before they were due to take part in the invasion. The pilots of the Wacos had had three weeks’ intensive training, during which 1,800 night flights had been carried out without serious casualty. This period of training was not long enough, especially for the American pilots of the tugs, and its shortness was the main cause of the high losses suffered.
The plan was for the 1st Air Landing Brigade of the 1st Airborne Division to land from gliders put down near Syracuse and seize the bridge known as Ponte Grande, south of the town and also its western outskirts. While they were taking these objectives, American parachute troops of the 82nd Division were to drop in the Gela/Licata area farther west. The Air Landing Brigade, comprising some 1,200 men, were conveyed to the battlefield in 137 gliders towed by Dakotas of the U.S. Troop Carrier Command and by twenty-eight Albemarle and seven Halifax aircraft belonging to Nos. 296 and 297 Squadrons of No. 38 Wing. Of the gliders, 127 were the Wacos; the remainder Horsas. This force took the air from six airfields in the neighbourhood of Kairouan. Owing to the difference in speed between the various combinations, the timing had to be carefully calculated. The course flown was to the south-east corner of Malta, then to Cape Passero at the south-east corner of Sicily, and then along the east coast of the island to the landing zone south-west of Syracuse. To avoid anti-aircraft fire the orders were that no combination should approach closer to the shore than 3,000 yards. Covering the aircraft bearing the airborne troops, night-flying Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron, equipped with cannon, were to put out any searchlight which might be exposed. To distract the defences of the enemy, fifty-five Wellingtons from No. 205 Group were to attack targets in the Syracuse area, nineteen more to bomb Catania, and another nineteen, targets in the area of Caltanissetta and Caltagirone. It was during these attacks that dummy parachutists were dropped to create
confusion among the defenders on the ground, an object successfully attained.
From the start the airborne operation showed itself to be one of great difficulty. The pilots of the Dakotas were lacking in experience and were not fully trained in flying at night. They were unused to flak and to handling in a high wind an aircraft towing a glider. Though the weather moderated as they approached Sicily, conditions on arrival were far from ideal. They had to judge distance in uncertain moonlight, a difficult task even for very experienced pilots, and they had to do so flying at a low height, which gave almost no opportunity to correct errors. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that these were many, or that of the 137 gliders released, sixty-nine fell into the sea and fifty six were scattered along the south-eastern coast of Sicily far from their appointed landing places. Only twelve reached the chosen landing zone, and all of them had been towed by the Royal Air Force. One, a Horsa, landed within 300 yards of the bridge, and its passengers made resolutely towards their moonlight objective. It was seized, and by dawn eight officers and sixty-five other ranks were holding the Ponte Grande. Repeated assaults by the enemy delivered throughout the morning and early afternoon failed to dislodge them until half past three, when the survivors, reduced to fifteen in number, were overrun. By then, however, the first elements of the Eighth Army were almost at hand and its advance guard at once retook the bridge which the Germans had not been able to destroy.
The remainder of the force, though it inflicted but little hurt on the enemy—a coast defence battery and two pillboxes were captured—created much alarm and despondency among the tepid ranks of the Italians, whose apprehensions were increased by the arrival over an area of some fifty square miles of the first contingent of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division which was scattered for miles round Gela and Licata.
While the tugs and their gliders were battling with the high wind the seaborne expedition was moving steadily, if uncomfortably, towards the beaches.
At 4 a.m. on 10th July, 1943, the 5th, 50th and 51st Divisions of the Eighth Army, together with the 231st Brigade, landed at four places in the Gulf of Noto and on the extreme tip of Cape Murro di Porco, while the 1st Canadian Division went ashore upon their immediate left on the Peninsula of Pachino. To the left again the 45th Division, the 2nd Armoured Division, the 1st Division and the 3rd Division of the American Seventh Army assaulted four beaches in the Gulf of Gela. The landings, covered by a naval bombardment.
were everywhere successful. Dawn broke upon a scene of amphibious vehicles ‘scuttling through the shadows in line astern’ followed by infantrymen wading breast deep through the swell, rifles and packs held high above their heads, and behind them, in a series of arcs, a great fleet of vessels ranging from the small landing craft making for the shore and the sand dunes, to their parents, the Infantry Landing Ships farther out, and beyond these the steel-clad men-of-war. The latest of many invasions of Sicily had begun, and the British and American troops, plodding through the shallows and clinging sand, took their place at the head of past invaders. Red-shirted followers of Garibaldi, blue-coated French and red-coated British Marines of Nelson and Napoleon’s day, Alphonso’s Spaniards, Frederick I’s Germans, Guiscard’s Normans, Saracens with curved swords, Roman Legionaries with square shields, Athenians with plumed helmets—each in turn had trodden this land, and before them, 2,500 years back from this the new invasion of her soil, Sicily had known the men of Carthage and of Tyre. The fight was to be upon historic ground.
Above the great concourse of ships sped Spitfires and Warhawks, their wings flashing in the first beams of day, the first of the 1,092 sorties flown that day on beach patrol. Most of these were flown by fighters operating from Tunisia, Malta, Gozo and Pantelleria, fighter cover being provided throughout the sixteen hours of daylight over at least two of the beaches in turn, and over all the landing areas for the first two hours of daylight, for two hours in the middle of the day and for two hours at dusk. The adoption of this plan was necessary, for though many more fighter squadrons were available to provide a much greater degree of cover, airfields from which they could fly were not. As matters turned out, the air cover proved more than adequate. In the first twenty-four hours only twelve ships were lost, one of them a hospital ship, although the plan of invasion had allowed for the sinking of 300. The Luftwaffe had been powerless to interfere with the landings.
As the day wore on it showed itself equally impotent to prevent the long series of attacks by Allied bombers and fighter-bombers on airfields, defensive positions and lines of communication. The Gerbini group of landing grounds were again assaulted by United States Fortresses, and Mitchells of the same air force attacked the western airfields of Sciacca and Milo. The marshalling yards of Catania were also bombed and the explosions observed showed that ammunition had been hit. To the attacks of the heavy and medium bombers, those of the American A.36s, dive bombers developed from the Mustang, were added.
All these attacks, together with the patrols over the beach-heads,
cost the Allies no more than sixteen aircraft, of which eleven were fighters. The pilot of one of them provided an authentic version of the standard RAF tall story which begins, ‘There was I upside down at 20,000 feet’. In this instance, the pilot, seeking to fall from his Spitfire, which he had with some difficulty inverted, caught his foot beneath the instrument panel and hung upside down from a shattered aircraft about to plunge to destruction. With a great effort he disentangled himself, his parachute opened just in time, and he was able to make a safe, if prickly, landing in a patch of cactus.
From the outset success everywhere crowned the efforts of the seaborne invaders. By early afternoon the whole peninsula of Pachino was captured and by sunset Syracuse had fallen. To the left the United States Seventh Army had seized Licata and was moving on Vittoria. When darkness fell, the protection of the beaches was assured by Beaufighters of No. 108 Squadron based on Malta and intruder Mosquitos of No. 23 Squadron. Their operations, which continued throughout the period of the invasion, were made much easier by the putting ashore of a Ground Controlled Interception Unit on the evening of 10th July, and the subsequent speedy extension of warning systems.
The first day had gone well. ‘On our journey back to Berlin’, says Semmler, a jackal of Doctor Göbbels, ‘we heard at Erfurt at three in the morning that the enemy had landed in Sicily. Göbbels looked black and once again cursed our alliance with the “macaroni eaters’”. His irritation was justified. They made little or no attempt to resist. In twenty-four hours all the beach-heads had been firmly established. The airfield at Pachino, which had been ploughed up, was being hastily prepared by Royal Engineers assisted by members of No. 3201 RAF Servicing Commando Unit. Coming ashore immediately behind the assault troops they had established themselves on the morning of the 11th on its edge, and had hardly done so when a Spitfire of No. 72 Squadron piloted by Flying Officer D. N. Keith, out of petrol after shooting down two enemy aircraft, landed on the furrowed runway. It was refuelled, rearmed and dragged to a nearby road, from which the pilot contrived to take off, the first aircraft of the Royal Air Force to operate from the soil of Sicily.
Farther along the coast other servicing commandos were ashore at Gela, where presently they became involved in a German counterattack delivered by the Hermann Goring Division supported by tanks. No. 83 Auxiliary Embarkation Unit was for a short time under heavy fire, but the broadsides of the navy and the resolute handling of the anti-tank guns already ashore, of which one was served in person by
General Patton, the Army Commander, broke up the assault. Apart from this small episode, the all-important ground staffs, though subject to the nuisance of sniping and an occasional bomb, were able to perform their tasks with rapidity and effect.
By 13th July the first Spitfire squadrons of No. 244 Wing arrived from Malta and were in operation. Three days passed and six more RAF Spitfire squadrons had been installed at Comiso and six United States fighter squadrons at Licata and Ponte Olivo. ‘Thereafter the transference of Tactical Air Force squadrons to Sicily in accordance with the Air Plan occurred at regular intervals, and full air support to our advancing land forces was continued without a break’.
The conditions in which the pilots lived were not unlike those to which they had been accustomed in the desert, though the countryside, spread with olives and fruit trees, was very different. The ground was too rocky to cut slit trenches and they bivouacked, therefore, in small sangars, breast high. The Mess was often a tarpaulin from a lorry, stretched above a long table set in an olive yard. Aircraft were dispersed in the groves of almonds nearby, and soon the ground crews could be seen in their off duty moments cracking with the blows of a stone the hard shell of the almonds to win enough to send a pound or two home to their families. One luxury everyone enjoyed. The orange crop had long been gathered, but lemons, grapes, melons, tomatoes and wine were all available in the friendly farm-houses, for the population, from the soldier, who had thrown away his rifle, to the ragged urchin whining for chocolate in the dusty streets of baroque Noto, was, with few exceptions, delighted to see them. This first, fine careless rapture did not long endure. As the days advanced, the weather became more and more sultry, and the brownish-white houses, with their faded red roofs, began to waver in the noontide sun. With the heat came dust, flies and fever. At one time a quarter of the officers at the headquarters of the Tactical Air Force were suffering from malaria or dysentery.
While the first fighter squadrons were arriving, a second airborne operation was launched with the object of capturing the important bridge of Primo Sole which carried the main road to Catania across the Simeto. The 1st Parachute Brigade of the 1st Airborne Division, together with a number of glider-borne anti-tank units and some Royal Engineers, were called upon to make the attack, and on the night of 13th/14th July they flew from Kairouan in 107 aircraft and seventeen gliders towed by Halifaxes and Albemarles. On this occasion the ships of the Royal Navy had been warned of their advent, but they were unlucky enough to arrive over the invasion
fleet at a moment when it was being attacked by Ju.88s. The anti-aircraft fire in progress caused casualties and a scattering of the force. Twenty-seven aircraft carrying parachute troops lost their way, nineteen returned to base without dropping their passengers, and ten Dakotas, one Halifax and three Albemarles were shot down. This mishap was the cause of much concern to Admiral Cunningham and the Commander-in-Chief and was a partial and melancholy fulfilment of Tedder’s forebodings. He had from the start strongly advised the cancellation of the airborne operations for he maintained that they were a ‘serious misuse’ of airborne troops. Thirteen gliders landed in the correct zone and by dawn on the 14th some 200 parachute troops and live anti-tank guns were installed on the bridge. They removed the charges placed upon it by the Germans and held on until driven off in the evening. The next morning they counterattacked with the leading unit of the XIII Corps and retook the bridge which, like that at Ponte Grande, was intact. Once more an airborne operation had been successful despite mistakes which, added to the inevitable hazards of war, had caused only one-fifth of the force despatched to arrive at the right place at the right moment. Though these airborne operations were carried out in a confused and uncertain manner by eager but inexperienced men, there is no doubt that they were of considerable assistance to both armies whose commanders reported that the speed of the invasion and of the initial advance had been materially increased by their efforts.
Meanwhile, the resistance of the enemy in the air was daily, hourly, becoming less. The Spitfires and Warhawks based on Malta made attacks by the Luftwaffe in daylight hazardous and costly, and at night Beaufighters and Mosquitos in bright moonlight took heavy toll among Peltz’s bombers. On the night of 15th/16th July, for example, pilots of No. 256 Squadron shot down five out of six enemy aircraft encountered.
Nevertheless, some German bombers were, on occasion, able to reach their targets and to cause casualties, notably among commando troops making ready to sail from Augusta on a raid. Such incidents, however, were rare and confined for the most part to the hours of darkness. In daylight, by dusk on 13th July, only three days after the assault had begun, the enemy’s ability to influence the course of the battle in the air had virtually come to an end. On the 15th, offensive patrols flown over the areas of Catania and Gerbini met with not a single enemy aircraft, and the Allied bombers and fighter-bombers carrying out an almost continuous series of attacks by day and by night were equally unmolested. Their main targets had been Enna in the centre of the island, Messina, and the docks at Milazzo. In
addition, enemy transport was attacked wherever seen. Farther afield, the Wellingtons of No. 205 Group were striking at communications in Italy itself. They did so with the object of preventing the enemy’s bases in southern Italy from proving effective centres of supply. On the night 14th/15th July, the two Neapolitan airfields of Capodichino and Pomigliano were attacked, together with the docks of Naples, which received two especially heavy assaults on 17th July when the Royal Arsenal was hit. On the next day the marshalling yards of that city were bombed by United States Fortresses, which dropped upon them a load of 212 tons. This attack was in its turn followed on the next night by further attacks carried out by Wellingtons on other marshalling yards in the neighbourhood. To bombs, leaflets were added, 4,348,000 altogether being distributed by air over Rome, Naples and towns in southern Italy. They contained a joint message from Churchill and Roosevelt warning the Italian people of what was about to fall upon them and urging them to abandon a hopeless struggle.
In addition to these onslaughts at long range, the Northwest African Coastal Air Force had been far from idle and had attacked shipping wherever it was to be found. In all they had sunk or damaged ten vessels in a week. These shipping strikes were carried out largely at night by Wellingtons, capable of remaining airborne for ten hours. Skill in flying and the correct use of the radar equipment was necessary for success. The method followed was for groups of three aircraft to patrol the coasts sometimes as much as 300 miles apart in radio touch with each other so that should a convoy be sighted by one the other two would be able, eventually, to attack it. The attacks were made from a very low level with all the consequent dangers.
These squadrons of Coastal Air Force formed part of Mediterranean Air Command. Units of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force had by then been combined to form a single command with a common Operational Headquarters which co-ordinated the air war in the Mediterranean area. Air Headquarters, Egypt, had become Air Headquarters, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean, and was responsible for the protection of the coastline and convoys from the Levant to Tripolitania. Northwest African Coastal Air Force assumed, under Air Vice-Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd, a like responsibility from Tripolitania to French Morocco. It was a mixed force, giving protection to convoys and pursuing the anti-U-boat and anti-shipping campaign. It was also responsible for the fighter defence of an area bounded on the south by some 1,100 miles of African coastline and on the north by an imaginary line running fifty miles behind
the battle front. May was an outstanding month for this force because two convoys were able to sail through the Narrows on their way to the Middle East without losing a ship, the first to do so for two long years. The Mediterranean was open again and remained so until the end of the war. On occasion the Luftwaffe showed traces of its old spirit. On 26th June a force of over 100 attacked a convoy of forty-two merchant vessels and their twelve escorts passing from Gibraltar to the Middle East and pressed its assaults through the afternoon and into the night. The attack was held at bay by Northwest African Coastal Air Force fighters without loss to themselves, but it cost the enemy three Junkers 88s, one Focke-Wulf 190 and two Cant. Z1007’S.
By 16th July, not a week after the invasion had begun, the commanders, especially Tedder, could rightly claim that all prospered marvellously. The cover from the air provided in the assault phase had been most effective; in the short space of seventy-two hours the resistance of the Luftwaffe had been overcome and was now negligible; four airfields were in our hands and in use, the enemy had been denied the all-important group at Gerbini, and those in the west of the island, five in number, had either been, or were about to be, overrun by the troops of General Patton. The prospect was indeed bright.
Now, however, came a check—not to the forces in the air but to those on the ground. Though the Italians in Sicily were showing little or no resistance, the three German divisions were full of obstinacy and determination. They were now under their own commanders, the chief being the energetic General Hube, and their armoured units, which on ‘D Day’ had been left for sixteen hours without orders by the Italian officer in command, were now acquitting themselves very well. Moreover, reinforcements consisting of a parachute regiment of the 1st Parachute Division, despatched by air from southern France to Rome and thence to Sicily, had arrived and had gone straight into action. The fighting qualities of these men and of those to whose aid they had come were of the first order. They had food and ammunition, but were grievously lacking in transport. To this handicap Tedder had added another and a greater. The Germans found themselves fighting without the protection and help of an air force. The only service which the Luftwaffe was still able to perform was to carry reinforcements to the troops in the field, spare parts to tanks and ammunition to both tanks and infantry. This duty soon became very dangerous, indeed suicidal. By night the Ju.52s had to land and take off on airfields under almost continuous air attack. By day their situation was worse. Allied lighters, only too eager to shoot them down, ranged the pitiless skies. On 25th July, thirty-three Spitfires of No. 322 Wing, operating
from Lentini, met a number of Ju.52s circling to land upon an improvised strip on the seashore near Milazzo, on the north coast of Sicily. In a few moments, twelve had been shot down, each and all exploding and bursting into flames as they were hit, for they were loaded with petrol. Within ten minutes, twenty-one had been destroyed together with four Messerschmitt fighters, their outnumbered and outfought escort. ‘Flashes, flames, explosions and aircraft dropping into the sea’ made up the picture before the eyes of the Spitfire pilots, and the range was so close that fragments of the disintegrating transports struck the attackers and smoke filled their cockpits with acrid fumes.
Yet with every circumstance against them the German troops had no other thought but to fight on. It took them a bare week to recover from the initial shock of the invasion. In the first few days, when the Eighth Army set a confident foot on the south-east coast and the Seventh began to stride forward in the west, something akin to panic seems to have occurred. The immediate breakdown of all Italian resistance and the fact that some of the German units, particularly those which had been on lines of communication, were seeing action for the first time, momentarily upset Teutonic discipline and weakened Teutonic will. Matters were set right by two hard-bitten Generals, Mahncke and Stahel, who, as night fell on 15th July, arrived at Gerbini in Fieseler-Storches. With ruthless efficiency they cleared the roads in the Messina area of retreating Italian transport and succeeded in holding open the routes by which reinforcements and supplies could reach the German divisions south-west of Catania. Towards those who were still their nominal Allies their behaviour was particularly drastic. Italian officers and soldiers, many of them discovered in borrowed civilian clothing, were arrested and shot. By these means order was restored and a respite gained. It endured a month.
The intention of the Germans, having lost Augusta, was to hold Catania, and the troops available for this purpose included the tough Hermann Goring Division, now reinforced by elements of the equally tough First Parachute Division. They had not been able to prevent the Eighth Army from debouching into the plain, for its Commando troops had captured the bridge over the Lentini river and its airborne troops the bridge of Primo Sole, but they had checked a further advance. The next few days saw an increase in German resistance, which grew fiercer and fiercer, for they were determined to carry on their withdrawal from Sicily, which was now seen to be inevitable, in as orderly and as protracted a manner as they could. Their problem was two-fold. It was necessary to remove from the island all troops
and as much material as was not absolutely necessary to continue the fight. At the same time those divisions in contact with the Allies had to be kept supplied for as long as possible. The weak link in the chain of communications was the narrow Strait of Messina, and here the Germans established anti-aircraft defences of very great strength. Thirty-five reinforced heavy batteries and numerous light units from the Luftwaffe and the Army and Navy were set up to cover that stretch of water. How effective they were very soon became clear, for Allied fighter-bombers, which had been attacking from very low heights the stream of shipping ferrying troops or supplies to and fro, were soon forced to fly higher. The accuracy of their aim was thus spoilt and casualties to enemy shipping fell sharply. The Germans were successful at Messina, but the withdrawal from Palermo and Other coastal harbours in the north and west for the most part failed. Here allied air forces were too strong and the enemy suffered accordingly.
By 17th July his plan was clear. He would withdraw into the north-cast corner of Sicily and to do so would have to pivot on Catania. This city he had therefore to hold and, as long as he held it, he could continue to deny the Allies ‘the greatest prize of the island’, the airfields on the plain to the south.
By now the Eighth Army ‘were beginning to show definite signs of fatigue owing to the intense July heat and continual marching over the mountainous country’. Montgomery accordingly changed the axis of attack. He abandoned his advance up the east coast against the strongly held Catania position in favour of a move inland, his object being to come behind the enemy between Mount Etna and the northern coast of the island. The first task of the air forces was to attempt the isolation of the Catania area by maintaining a continuous onslaught. This followed what were by then classic principles—constant attacks on targets in the battlefield itself, delivered with the object of helping the infantry to move forward, and attacks made further off on all lines of approach to prevent the arrival of supplies and reinforcements. The ring of roads round the area was kept under constant air bombardment, the junction of Randazzo being singled out for special assault together with Regalbuto, Agira and Troina.
Meanwhile the heavy bombers were being used strategically against communications in southern Italy. The United States Fortresses and Liberators by day and the Wellingtons of the Royal Air Force by night maintained a steady series of raids on Naples, Salerno and Foggia, the object being to create a vast traffic block on roads and railways on both sides of the Apennines. As the days went by and
the Germans continued to hold fast to their positions round Etna, these attacks were seen to be not enough. On the morning of 19th July, therefore, after due warning had been conveyed by leaflets, 158 United States Fortresses of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force and 112 Liberators of the United States Ninth Air Force bombed the Lorenzo and Littorio railway yards at Rome, and in the afternoon a slightly larger force attacked Ciampino, its largest airfield. Photographs taken on the following day showed 130 direct hits on railway stock and tracks. Between fifty and sixty wagons were destroyed in Littorio, but the damage at Lorenzo was greater, though the main lines were repaired and in use again within forty-eight hours. The casualties to the Germans were five killed. Though, in general, the aim of the bombers was good, a few bombs fell outside the target and the ancient basilica of St. Lorenzo-without-the-Walls with its twelfth century frescoes was damaged by blast. But these attacks and those in the Naples area created a 200-mile gap in the railway system from the north of Rome to the south of Naples, while Italian aircraft on the airfields at Ciampano sustained severe damage.
The bombing of Rome caused a sensation throughout what was still pleased to call itself the civilized world. Though the squadrons used were all American, they belonged to the Allied Northwest African Air Forces and the British government accepted, as was right, an equal responsibility. Public opinion in England, if the results of a Gallup Poll taken seven weeks later are to be considered accurate, was strongly behind it. To faint protests voiced in the Commons, the Foreign Secretary returned an unequivocal reply. Rome would be bombed ‘as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful’, and he went on to imply that the attack was a belated retaliation for Mussolini’s attempt to bomb London during the Battle of Britain. A day or two later the Secretary of State for Air took a somewhat different view and maintained ‘that the policy of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is entirely foreign to our thought. We are concerned only with bombing important military targets’.
The reaction in America was similar to that in Britain, and the remark of the President that, after the failure of the Allies to persuade the Fascist government of Italy to declare Rome an open city, the bombing of it saved American and British lives in Sicily, was naturally not without great effect. Nevertheless, a number of Roman Catholic bishops protested strongly and their recriminations were echoed as far away as Australia. Though in public the two Allied governments appeared to be in agreement, behind the scenes
there was a difference of opinion. The American Government was mildly inclined to refrain from bombing the Eternal City at least while negotiations for declaring it ‘open’ were in progress. The British refused to agree and continued to urge the bombing of military targets in or near Rome whenever such a course might prove necessary. Their views prevailed and on 13th August the marshalling yards were once again assaulted. The efforts of the Axis powers to make capital out of the first attack had been frustrated by the Pope himself, who in a dignified letter to his Vicar-General in Rome reiterated his oft repeated and studiously neglected advice to all belligerents to concern themselves with ‘the safety of peaceful citizens and of religious and cultural monuments’.
Looking back on these two attacks it is hard to say that they were in a military sense indispensable. They were certainly useful for they helped to disrupt Italian communications at the height of a hard fought campaign; but it is at least possible to argue that had the assaults on the marshalling yards at Naples and Salerno, Battipaglia and Foggia been made with greater frequency and on a larger scale—there would have been no difficulty in increasing both—they would have rendered those on similar targets at Rome superfluous.
Meanwhile, the enemy still stood at Catania and in the little hill towns which were the outposts to Adrano. Only by heavy fighting ware they captured, one by one. The most easterly, Leonforte, fell to the Canadians on 23rd July, and Nicosia on the next day. The German 15th Armoured Division then retreated sullenly eastwards suffering heavy casualties from air attack, to make a short stand at Agira, which did not fall until the 29th. With the capture of Catenanuova on the 30th the way was open for an assault on Centuripe, a place ‘built on a very high mountain mass and reached by a single road which twists and turns’. If Adrano was the key to the Etna position, Centuripe was the key to Adrano. It was eventually captured by the 78th Division on 3rd August. To these operations the Tactical Air Forces contributed to the best of their abilities, and attacked these and other towns with persistence in an effort to fulfil their original and never abandoned intention to isolate Catania. This town itself was frequently bombed, special attention being paid to the marshalling yards and the railway bridge, while all the time Adrano, Paterno and Cesaro were kept under aerial bombardment to an extent which prompted Montgomery in writing about the campaign afterwards to record that ‘our mounting air offensive was achieving outstanding success’1.
Could that achievement have been greater? At the time, no. The Northwest African Air Forces were still ‘in statu pupillari’ so to speak. They had passed their first test with flying colours; the second was more difficult. The country of Sicily with its steep, folded valleys was very different from the wide, stony spaces of North Africa and made co-operation with the army on the ground no easy task. The positions occupied by the German infantry were often hard to discover and harder still to hit; a machine-gun on the roof of the principal church in Regalbuto, which the cannons of a single Spitfire could have destroyed in a few seconds, was able to hold up the advance for half a day. But this was, given the circumstances, probably unavoidable. The means at the disposal of Montgomery’s men for signalling targets to their air force comrades were inadequate. Word had to be sent through a chain of command beginning with company headquarters till eventually it reached the air force, which only then took action. Such an arrangement, which had proved far from infallible in mobile desert warfare, was even less readily adaptable to the semi-mobile conditions in Sicily, ana the need for a system under which it was possible for forward troops to call for immediate support direct to aircraft was becoming apparent. In due course the ‘Cab Rank’ and ‘Rover David’ method of sending fighters and fighter-bombers to immediate targets, to be described in a later chapter, was discovered and perfected. The result in its extreme form was to be seen over the fields of Normandy a year later. In the meantime both air force and army were learning, and if the results achieved in Sicily were by comparison with those of Normandy inadequate, they were at least a beginning, an early link in a chain which, before the war ended, was to bind the enemy fast and paralyse him.
Though the air forces could not quell resistance in the tenaciously held positions round Etna, they greatly discouraged it. This was clear from German reports in which the disappearance from the sky of the Luftwaffe was deplored or censured.
There were certain factors which militated against complete success in the air. Local airfields were scarce—not until near the end of the campaign was the Gerbini group opposite Catania in our hands—and the scarcity reduced the number of sorties which could be flown. The targets attacked were not always the most important, nor were they always hit. The town of Randazzo, for example, a road junction to the north of Etna, was not nearly so badly damaged as the reports show; 212 bomber sorties flown in one day against the town of Regalbuto might disorganize but certainly could not
overwhelm the enemy, and even in much-bombed Adrano the number of Germans put out of action was very small. On the roads a greater measure of good fortune awaited the air forces. The Germans had soon to abandon vehicles, targets which were vulnerable and easily destroyed from the air, and take instead to mules, stolen from the local peasants. The casualties among these animals were not low, but enough of them remained alive to enable the movement of ammunition and food, through the difficult country over which the battle was fought, to be maintained. The failure on the part of the air forces to achieve perfection does not greatly whittle down the solid core of their achievement. When all is said and done the Germans in Sicily were decisively beaten.
While the Eighth Army was thus heavily engaged in the east of Sicily, the American Seventh Army in the west had met with little resistance. It had therefore been able without much difficulty to reach the northern coast and then, turning eastwards, to make straight for Palermo. The city fell on the evening of 22nd July, and Patton’s men presently established themselves facing east before Cesaro. But the German army in the north-east corner of the island still held on, for General Hube was a man of great tenacity. His problems, however, were daily becoming more difficult, for the weight of the assault from the air on his lines of communication was making itself felt. Only through Messina, where the Strait was at its narrowest, could supplies be passed in any quantity. The use of Milazzo as an additional port of entry for his necessities was largely frustrated by a series of attacks carried out from the 24th to 31st July by heavy, medium and light bombers, and there was no other harbour available. Throughout this period the onslaught on the main communications passing through Italy was maintained, the most severe attacks being those made by Fortresses, Wellingtons and Mitchells on Salerno, Battipaglia and Foggia. The passage of supplies was thus made more difficult, but never became impossible. Among the airfields assaulted were Vibo Valentia, Crotone, Grottaglie and Leverano in the toe and heel of Italy, the airfields in the Naples area and those in that of Rome. These operations not only contributed to the conquest of Sicily, they also prepared the way for the next phase, the invasion of Italy.
By 4th August all was ready for the final assault on General Hube and bis men, and on the 5th the advance guard of the Eighth Army entered Catania, the troops being met ‘by a seething mob of citizens, who expressed delight at the departure of the Germans and begged for food’. ‘Relentlessly pounded from the air’, Adrano was now almost won and on the night of 6th/7th August its garrison, having fought with the grimmest determination, fell back towards Bronte.
With the capture of Adrano the line of defence across the northeastern part of Sicily had been broken. The Germans were now in full retreat and suffering heavy losses at the hands of the air forces which anon switched their main attack to Messina. By 8th August that unhappy town was reduced to a condition much the same as that in which it had been left by the earthquake of 1909. The riposte of the enemy in the air was spasmodic, but, in the early hours of 1st August, twenty-five Ju.88s and Dornier 217s made a successful raid on Palermo and put the largest dock temporarily out of commission. Ration and petrol supplies were also destroyed, an ammunition train was blown up and a vessel was sunk. The defence was inadequate and seven only of the enemy were shot down. Such an attack, however, was an isolated effort for by now it was beyond the power of the Luftwaffe to stay the onslaught of the triumphant Allied air forces.
After the fall of Adrano, Randazzo was attacked and fell on the 13th. Only one road to Messina was now left to the Germans and they held it as long as they could in order to evacuate such men and supplies as it was still possible to save. The end was now at hand. A tenacious but badly equipped enemy, whose air force had been rendered powerless in the first few days, had been overthrown in the space of little more than a month. By 14th August there remained to him nothing but the port of Messina, and this was to fall on the 16th. Could the Allied victory be completed by preventing the beaten Germans from leaving the island? The answer was No. Hindered he was, but the losses he sustained were not great, and this despite the fact that the beaches and harbours, which he was using on both sides of the Strait, were subjected to continuous attack by fighter-bombers and by the Wellingtons of No. 205 Group, which bombed stretches of shore all along the toe of Italy. As has been said the Strait was heavily defended and, being less than three miles wide, to cross it took but a short time. This physical fact goes far to explain our failure to prevent the enemy’s withdrawal. Between the 8th and 17th August some 1,170 sorties were flown against the shipping he used to bring away his defeated but still hard-fighting troops. The peak was reached on the 16th, when pilots of Kittyhawk bombers returned with such reports as ‘All bombs fell within thirty yards of Siebel ferry. Vessel stopped’. ‘Direct hit scored on two 100-foot barges; both were destroyed’.
Nevertheless, despite these efforts and despite the bombing of railways and roads in southern Italy the Germans could justly claim that they had withdrawn the bulk of the forces which had fought in Sicily. They carried out this hazardous operation with great skill and resolution, bringing back their troops in small parties over a
considerable period of time before the end came. Only between the 8th and 17th August did their departure become hurried; even then it was never disorganized.
Yet, when all is said and done, a notable victory had been gained; and the Allied commanders, gazing across the wrecked waterfront of Messina towards the nearby Italian shore, could congratulate themselves on a very successful operation carried out against an enemy who had every advantage but one, air superiority. That had been possessed by the Allies from the beginning, and the shattered remains of 1,100 enemy aircraft strewn over the airfields of Sicily, 189 at Gerbini and 132 at Catania, was proof of its significance. ‘The hangars and living quarters smashed into rubble; an ornamental garden with geraniums and oleander still in flower; a plaster statue freakishly wrecked in a garden, close to a solid building ground to dust; the whole area littered with letters and newspapers... blowing in the wind’—these and more which met the eyes of the advanced parties of the Royal Air Force when they reached the Gerbini airfields were but a few examples of the meaning of air power.
For a loss of fewer than 400 aircraft, they had destroyed or captured 1,850 aircraft of the enemy. On the ground the Axis had lost about 32,000 men killed and wounded and 162,000 prisoners, mostly Italians. A stepping-stone to Europe had been captured. It was a notable achievement of that combined land/sea/air technique which was to be the keynote of all future operations of the Second World War.