Chapter 15: The Fight at Salerno
While these things were happening in Sicily, ‘by the yellow Tiber was tumult and afright’, especially in high Fascist circles. On 25th July the Grand Council at last found courage to depose Mussolini, and his arrest that same day was ordered by the King. Within a few hours, the latest of Italy’s tyrants quitted Rome, to which he had marched twenty years before in the comfort of a first-class sleeping compartment, for the solitude of the Gran Sasso, whither he was conveyed in a closed and guarded ambulance. From this mountain top he was presently rescued by a striking and melodramatic use of air power and established north of the Po, where he sought to pick up the scattered pieces of Fascism with the aid of a yellow-haired mistress, some thousands of fanatical black-shirts and a sullen, but far from conquered, ally. His place at the head of affairs was taken by Badoglio, who, emerging from a retirement which had been almost a prison, sought to alleviate the consequences of his country’s folly. The task needed not only cunning, which he felt himself to possess, but courage. An immediate announcement that the war would continue might serve to allay Teutonic suspicions, but for a little while only. At least ten German divisions occupied the north, two of them poised ready to strike an immediate blow at Rome. What remained of four more would shortly arrive in Calabria after their defeat in Sicily, now imminent, and reinforcements of unknown strength were to be expected from beyond the Alps as soon as the news of Mussolini’s fall reached the ears of the German General Staff.
Battling in Sicily or waiting poised in Africa, their faces turned northwards, were the British and American armies, and none could doubt that their advent was certain. As soon as the Allies appeared in strength on the mainland, it would be possible to spring to the aid of the victors. For this time there must be no mistake. Having guessed wrong in the summer of 1940, the Italian General Staff were determined not to repeat the blunder in the summer of 1943. Together with their ambiguous chief and his forces of uncertain allegiance they would rally to the true cause; but in the meantime when would its
protagonists arrive? For how long would it be safe to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds especially when the hare bore a striking resemblance to a wolf and the hounds appeared to be still so Car away? Though the Allies expected overtures of peace, they did not count upon them and continued to press the war-weary and disillusioned Italians with unabated vigour. On 27th July, however, President Roosevelt offered honourable terms in exchange for capitulation, and his words were echoed by General Eisenhower, who, nevertheless broadcast, on the 1st day of August, a sharp reminder that more and heavier air bombardment would follow if the Italians dallied. A week passed, and Bomber Command gave effect to his words.
Milan was subjected to four heavy attacks on the nights of the 7th/8th, 12th/13th, 14th/15th and 15th/16th August, the bombers being led to their targets by Pathfinders using H2S. Smaller forces attacked Turin and Genoa. During the second of these attacks, Flight Sergeant Aaron of No. 218 Squadron, flying a Stirling, was severely wounded in an encounter with a night fighter whose fire hit three out of the four engines, shattered the windscreen, put both turrets out of action and damaged the elevator cables. With his jaw smashed, part of his face torn away, a lung perforated and his right arm broken, the flight sergeant sat beside the bomb-aimer, who had taken over the controls, and showed him by means of directions written with the left hand how to keep the crippled aircraft in the air. By so doing he brought it safely to Bone in North Africa, where, dying of his wounds, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for—an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed—.
The destruction caused in Milan by these raids was considerable, and after the last of them parts of the city burned for two days. Forty churches, ninety-nine schools, and some hundred factories were damaged or destroyed. About 1,500 houses were razed to the ground and 1,700 badly damaged. The raid of the 12th/13th August was the worst. The Duomo escaped, but the Basilica of San Ambrogio, where Saint Augustine was baptized, was ringed with lire, its northern aisle destroyed and its famous frescoes hideously defaced. Hard-by, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was hit, and when day dawned, of its Refectory only one wall remained. Upon it still mouldered, untouched by the blast of bombs and yielding only to the slow assault of time,—The Last Supper—of Leonardo da Vinci.
Whether the object of these raids, which was to hasten the surrender of Italy, was achieved is hard to say. The Milanese endured them in
much the same spirit of indignant fortitude as Londoners had displayed three years before in a worthier cause, and Badoglio remained unmoved. He had already begun negotiations for an armistice by dispatching one Castellano to Madrid. This General arrived on 15th August and at once sought and was granted an interview by Sir Samuel Hoare, our Ambassador. Castellano made it clear that his purpose was not to learn the terms upon which his country might surrender, but the means by which she could transfer her allegiance from Germany to the Allies. By so doing she hoped to assume, when the time came, a modest place in the rear rank of the victorious powers.
There was the rub; for the soldiers of Italy, though in numbers far greater than those of the ally whom she now wished to abandon, were no match for them in the field. The rank and file were dispirited, in this taking their tone from their officers. Yet, given a stiffening, they could still fight. Were the Allies prepared to provide it? The Italian General Staff hoped that they were, but based their calculations on highly misleading information supplied by their Intelligence Services. This together with their own ignorance of—the difficulties of amphibian warfare—, induced them to believe that Eisenhower could put ashore at any point on the coastline of Italy a force so large that, together with the Italian troops available, the Germans would be destroyed or sent reeling back to the Alps. At one moment Castellano even expressed the hope that not less than fifteen divisions would be landed north of Rome, preferably in the country around Leghorn. Among its many deficiencies, such a plan ignored the limitations of air power. These, however, had been constantly in the mind of General Eisenhower and his staff, who, when Castellano arrived, were preparing to initiate the invasion of Italy.
This project, known as Operation AVALANCHE, involved the putting ashore of three divisions at Salerno, the farthest point up the west coast of Italy at which protection from the air could be adequately provided. It was to be preceded by Operation BAYTOWN, to be carried out by the Eighth Army which would cross the Strait of Messina and land in the toe of Italy. The advent of Castellano followed by that of another general, Zanussi, did not change these plans. They were kept a close secret from the Italians, who were informed, first at Lisbon whither the negotiations had been transferred and later at Cassibile, in Sicily, that if the Italian Government accepted our terms, the end of the war with Italy would be announced five or six hours before the main force of the Allies landed on her soil. When that moment came, the Allied Commander-in-Chief would broadcast the announcement of an armistice and Badoglio would
make a similar announcement at the same time ordering the forces and people in Italy to co-operate with the Allies in fighting the Germans. The Italian fleet was to sail for Allied ports, all units of the Regia Aeronautica were to fly to Allied bases, and all Allied prisoners of war were to be released. These terms were set down in two Instruments—one long, detailed, and containing political, financial, and economic clauses, the other short and confined solely to military matters. The Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed that Italy’s acceptance of the short instrument would entitle her to be granted an armistice.
While Castellano and Zanussi were flitting uneasily and in great secrecy to and fro between Badoglio and Eisenhower, the war in the air against Italy continued. The Northwest African Air Forces fulfilled an extensive programme of bombing, the targets chosen being railways and airfields. The intention was to isolate the German divisions in southern Italy and to drive what remained of the Luftwaffe from its landing grounds. During the last fortnight of August, 736 heavy bomber, 1,696 medium, 88 light and 1,009 fighter-bomber sorties were flown with this object. Most effective of these were the attacks on the Foggia marshalling yards carried out on the 19th and 25th August. They undid all the work of repair which had been laboriously completed after the heavy attacks of the 15th and 22nd July, when severe damage had been caused, together with heavy casualties among railway staff, including the station-master and his live immediate subordinates.
The weight of the air attacks increased during the last week of August, and by the 27th a total of 1,542 tons of bombs had been dropped on marshalling yards at Battipaglia, Salerno, Bagnoli, Taranto, Villa Literno, Aversa and Torre Annunziata, and on the airfields at Foggia, Capua and Grazzanise. These assaults were not considered adequate and forty-seven more, in which 2,835 tons of bombs fell, mainly on railway targets as far north as Pisa, were therefore carried out. A glance at the map will show how dependentthe northern and southern parts of Italy are for supplies upon therailways which connect them with the industrial north, and this dependence increased as the War went on, for Italian coastal shipping was, by the middle of 1943, almost at a standstill owing to the activities of the coastal air forces. The railway system had to carry not only supplies but also reinforcements, and these had to come from Germany over the Brenner Pass. They followed three main routes—the line running from Bologna to Rome and two lines running along the west and east coasts respectively. On these three lines were three main junctions at Rome, Naples and Foggia. These,
it was held, were the crucial points and must therefore be singled out for attack.
While the Northwest African Air Forces were taking the air almost unopposed above Italy, behind the scenes negotiations between Badoglio’s emissaries, on the one hand, and General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, and Brigadier Strom, the Head of his Intelligence Service, on the other, had reached a critical stage. The Allies remained firm in their refusal to reveal their plans and made it clear that the Italians would be judged by their deeds alone. From the calm heights of Abraham, beside which the Prime Minister and President were in conference with their Chiefs of Staff, the situation in the smoke-covered streets of Milan and the rumour-ridden capital of Italy may have been viewed in too rosy a light. Fascism had certainly fallen, but its collapse had been due to inherent rottenness. The burning spirit of the Risorgimento, which nearly a century before had sent Italian youths shouting to their deaths on the dusty slopes beyond the Janiculum, was conspicuous by its absence. The Germans, however, were present in force, and though the Italians had the weapons, they lacked the will to overcome them. This was made abundantly clear when Bedell Smith and Strom met Castellano and Zanussi for the second time on the Sicilian shore in almond-ringed Cassibile.
For one moment it seemed as though the negotiations might break down, and indeed if the Italians had been aware at that stage that the largest number of Allied troops which could be landed was no more than three divisions, they would undoubtedly have decided—to postpone capitulation to a more propitious date—. Some action had to be taken to mitigate their far from groundless fears. General Eisenhower offered, therefore, to fly an airborne division to airfields near Rome, provided that the Italians would seize and hold them against German attacks. This they somewhat hesitatingly undertook to do and plans were therefore hastily made to divert the American 82nd Airborne Division, then preparing to drop in the country round Volturno a few hours before the landings at Salerno, to four airfields in the neighbourhood of Rome. Upon these they would alight at 2130 hours British Time on 8th September, the day fixed for the opening of Operation AVALANCHE. Their strength would then be built up on succeeding nights and supplies of ammunition and heavy weapons despatched to them up the Tiber from a beach-head to be established at Ostia by landing craft. To assist the defence of the airfields and of the Eternal City itself, fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force, flying Spitfires, and American squadrons of P.40s from their 33rd Fighter Group were to be flown in, together with two Whitley
aircraft carrying fighter control equipment. Throughout the early Stages the Italians were to provide petrol and maintenance.
So it was planned, and Castellano hurried off to Rome. He returned to Cassibile on 3rd September, and there, at a quarter past live in a tent pitched in an almond grove, he and Zanussi signed the short Instrument containing the armistice terms. Some thirteen hours earlier the clamour of 900 guns firing across the Strait of Messina had announced the advent of the Eighth Army.
In advance guard landed on the Calabrian shore without opposition at Reggio, Gallico and Catona. They were covered by patrols from the Desert Air Force, which on that day and on those which immediately followed, found few targets and almost no enemy aircraft opposed to them, Photographic reconnaissance showed that all air-fields in the neighbourhood had been abandoned by the enemy. So negligible was the resistance that, on the 7th, two squadrons of Kitty-hawk light bombers brought their bombs back, and the only attack of importance was an assault on the Crotone marshalling yards.
It had been decided to make public the armistice concluded between the Allies and Italy on 8th September, when both sides should broadcast its general terms to the world. While awaiting the announcement, preparations were hastily made throughout the Mediterranean area for the reception of surrendering Italian aircraft. They were to arrive at certain named airfields in Libya, Cyrenaica, Cyprus and Sicily, and since it was essential that when on passage they should not interfere with the Northwest African Air Forces, which would then be fully engaged in supporting the landings at Salerno, a rectangular area covering the battle zone was created, in which all but Allied aircraft were forbidden to fly. The Regia Aeronautica had, therefore, to make a detour and at night to burn navigation lights. Their crews were to be treated neither as Allies nor as prisoners of war; but were to be disarmed, segregated, and given certain amenities as an encouragement to hope for better things as soon as the co-operation of their country became more active.
The necessity for extreme secrecy complicated these arrangements, and the orders issued to wings and squadrons and to the antiaircraft units, created, in consequence, some bewilderment. A hint that a listening watch should be kept on the Rome and Algiers radio was sufficient to man all listening posts by 1830 hours on 8th September. Throughout that day Italian broadcasts had given no hint of what might be in store. Their announcers continued to blare out defiance mingled with assertions of the importance of Italy in Europe. Towards midday a German agency
went so far as to say that if Churchill and Roosevelt were awaiting, as was rumoured, the surrender of Italy, they might as well wait for Father Christmas. This taunt was nearer the truth than those who made it knew, for at the last moment the inevitable hitch occurred.
As soon as the terms had been signed on the 3rd, preparations were at once put in hand for the descent of the 82nd Airborne Division on the chosen Roman airfields. First-hand knowledge of the situation in Rome itself was, however, essential before the risk of committing the division to its perilous mission could be taken. Accordingly, Brigadier-General Taylor, an American, later to achieve fame as the defender of Bastogne in December 1944, was sent to Rome, where he arrived late on 7th September, having travelled from Palermo in a British motor torpedo-boat and an Italian naval craft, to which he had trans-shipped at Ustica. He carried with him a code-word, to be broadcast at the appropriate moment. For this purpose he was to use the direct wireless channel which had been established between Allied headquarters and Badoglio.
By the time Taylor had arrived in Rome, the Allied invasion force was already at sea, steering a northerly course before turning east for Salerno; the 1st (British) Airborne Division was ready at Bizerta to sail for Taranto as soon as the armistice was announced; the 82nd (United States) Airborne Division were waiting at Kairouan ready to fly to Rome; in Calabria the Eighth Army was already well established.
All seemed well, when to Eisenhower, Alexander, Tedder and Coningham, assembled in conference at Bizerta, two messages were brought. The first was from Brigadier-General Taylor, and ran simply—Situation Innocuous—. It was the pre-arranged code and meant that conditions in Rome were not such as to make it possible for the 82nd Airborne Division to carry out its task with any hope of success. The mission was therefore cancelled a bare half hour before the aircraft of Troop Carrier Command were due to take off. This was a serious blow, for by then it was too late to switch the Division to its original target, the country round Volturno.
Its tough and valiant troops would therefore be able to play no part in the impending invasion. The second message was even graver. It came from Badoglio himself. The strength of the German forces in Rome and its neighbourhood, he said, was so great that he could not guarantee the security of the airfields, and that in consequence, since the airborne division could not land upon them, he would not be in a position to announce the armistice until after the invasion by sea had been successful. Was the Marshal seeking
to denounce the armistice which his representatives had signed? Was he about to fall into German hands? No one knew, but for Eisenhower the hour for decision had struck. Picking up the telephone he dictated there and then a strongly worded message to General Bedell Smith in Algiers for immediate transmission to Badoglio. I intend’, said Eisenhower, ‘to broadcast the existence of the armistice at the hour originally planned. If you or any of your armed Forces fail to co-operate as previously agreed, I will publish to the world the full record of this affair. Today is ‘X Day’ and I expect you to do your part’. The message went on by a skilful blend of threats and encouragement to draw attention to the serious consequences to Italy which a failure to carry out the terms of the armistice would entail.
Half past six came and went, but Badoglio was silent. Eisenhower made his broadcast, and the world waited lor confirmation from Rome. At last it came. At a quarter to eight Badoglio, having overcome a final spasm of vacillation, announced in lugubrious tones that his country had surrendered unconditionally. He then fled hastily with the King and some of the government to Pescara and thence to Brindisi.
The seaborne invasion swept onwards through the night, ready to meet at dawn whatever Fate held in store. In this case it was a hostile, strong and determined enemy. Though taken by surprise the Germans reacted with speed and address to the announcement of the Armistice, heralded as it had been by the news that an invasion fleet had been seen at sea steaming for Salerno. Kesselring had nine hours in which to make his dispositions: it was enough. Germans at once took over all the coastal defences, disarmed their Italian garrisons—‘As I expected, they threw their weapons away’, wrote a German officer in his diary, ‘and showed their joy that the war was now over for them’. The Germans, however, prepared to dispute the imminent landing with the utmost fury.
It took place at dawn on 9th September, 1943, the 36th (United States) Division landing on the right, the 46th and 56th (British) Divisions on the left of the chosen beaches. These were situated on the edge of a level plain running from Salerno in the north to Agropoli in the south. Standing back from its fertile fields and orchards, traversed by three rivers, the Asa, the Tusciano and the Sele, rise the mountains in a semi-circle. At their feet, between the little town of Battipaglia, with its marshalling yards, and the eastern edge of the plain, lay the one airfield, Monte Corvino, of which the capture was an important part of the plan. Though the beaches chosen were very suitable for an amphibious operation, the position
to be assaulted was very strong, for the whole plain is dominated by the hills and mountains which surround it on all sides but one. To the north rise the pale yellow and grey buildings of Salerno, broken here and there by a red-tiled roof, and these reach out to the darker grey of the hills where stands the ancient Castello, the crumbled home of Lombard princes long forgotten.
From the town two roads lead to Naples. Of these, one was impassable against even light opposition. Among the more beautiful of the world, it clings to the vine-embroidered skirts of the mountains which rise above the little fishing ports of Vietri and Amalfi, and winding with the convolutions of a snake, reaches at last the dead city of Pompeii, where it joins the main road running through the cleft in the hills by Nocera. It was along this main road that the advance would have to move once the plain of Salerno and the hills beyond were in our hands. Herein lay the difficulty of the operation, for the Germans held the hills which dominated the plain.
Many days before the invasion fleet sighted the beaches, a great and continuous effort had been made by the Northwest African Air Forces to make the position of the enemy as uncomfortable as possible. Railways and highways leading to what was to be the battlefield had been attacked with considerable success—on the north at Aversa, Villa Literno, Grosseto, Cancello and Salerno itself; to the east at Battipaglia and Potenza, and to the south at Cosenza, Lauria and Sapri. The attacks met at first with some opposition from the Luftwaffe. As high an average as forty fighters had at one time sought to interfere with daylight raids, but by the first week in September its efforts to defend the situation in the air had almost entirely died away, no more than 300 sorties being flown in the last seven days before the invasion.
The fact was that the Luftwaffe was in no position at the time to offer serious resistance. The attacks on its airfields had been too severe. Whereas its aircraft situated at the large bomber bases at Foggia and Viterbo, which were well defended by anti-aircraft guns, had not suffered unduly high losses, the fighter squadrons, especially those in south-eastern Apulia, had been gravely reduced in strength. For fighters to remain in readiness, a higher degree of concentration on the ground is necessary than with bombers. Thus the attacks made on fighter airfields accounted for a larger number of victims, especially when, as happened more than once, the raids of the Northwest African Air Forces were so timed as to surprise the German fighters as they were about to land or when they were taxying to their dispersal points. Night attacks on the airfields—there was a particularly severe series against that at Aquino—also
took heavy toll, for the grounded aircraft were not protected by blast- or splinter-proof shelters.
So it was that, at the moment of the invasion, the Luftwaffe had been paralysed, thanks to the efforts of the Allied air forces. For three months the assaults upon it had steadily continued, and they had followed principles of air warfare which the Allies had long known in theory to be sound, but which, lacking crews and aircraft, they had not been able to prove by experiment on a large scale. By the high summer of 1943, schemes of expansion, drawn up years earlier, were beginning to achieve results. Aircraft were pouring from the factories of the United States and Great Britain, crews from the training centres in Canada, Texas, Rhodesia and elsewhere; and when the moment came to invade Italy, 461 heavy bombers, 162 medium (night) bombers and 703 medium and light (day) bombers, 1,395 fighters and fighter-bombers and 406 transport aircraft, reaching the imposing total of 3,127 aircraft, were ready for action.
As a climax to a week, which was itself a climax in the air assault, 31 Fortresses attacked the headquarters of the German Army at Frascati, south of Rome. This lovely town, set among the vineyards which produce the golden wine of that name, was gravely damaged, but Kesselring escaped unscathed and casualties among the headquarters of the Luftwaffe staff, who numbered more than 1,000, were only some eighty killed. The signals network was disrupted for a certain time, but six hours after the attack headquarters were again in control of their armies.
At a quarter to four on the morning of 9th September, the fust wave of the assaulting troops reached the Salerno beaches on time. As dawn broke, above their heads a force of twelve United States Mustangs as low cover, twenty-four Lightnings as medium and eight Seafires of the Fleet Air Arm as high cover were on patrol. The shore-based aircraft came from airfields in Sicily as far distant as Gerbini, and had therefore had to fly a minimum of 175 and a maximum of 220 miles to the scene of action. They were enabled to do so by the use of long-range petrol tanks which could be jettisoned when empty. With this addition to their petrol supply Spitfires arriving at 0830 hours were able to maintain patrols of twenty-five minutes—duration over the beaches, the squadrons succeeding each other throughout the long day. Squadrons of Seafires, based on aircraft carriers, made it possible for high fighter cover to be extended from dawn to dusk over the beaches by maintaining patrols from dawn until 0830 hours, when they were relieved by the shore-based Spitfires, and again in the evening from
1830 hours till dusk. They also provided high and low fighter patrols throughout the day over the northern approaches to the anchorage. At night the work of protection was carried out by Royal Air Force Beaufighters based on Sicily. The assaulting troops had reached the beaches covered by squadrons of the Tactical and Coastal Air Forces. From the beginning of the campaign in July Coastal Air Forces had protected some 140 convoys of which those moving to Salerno were the latest. Pilots and crews, flying many thousands of hours, had sighted thirty-five submarines, made twenty-one attacks and sunk two.
By the hour the first troops set foot upon the beaches, and indeed before it, the Northwest African Air Forces, their Order of Battle very similar to that used for the invasion of Sicily, were in full operation. As before, their composition was international. Broadly speaking, the Twelfth Air Support Command was American, the Tactical and Strategic Bomber Forces of mixed composition, and the Desert Air Force British. But squadrons of other Allies were also present and in action under Tedder’s general command.
The attempts of the Luftwaffe to attack the assault convoys before they sailed or during passage were very half-hearted. The most considerable was the raid on Convoy FSS.2, at anchor in Bizerta Bay, on the evening of 6th September. A tank landing craft of the Royal Navy, No. 624, sailing in Convoy FSS.1, was sunk on the 8th, fortunately without casualties; but that was the only loss during operations on which some 700 warships and other craft were employed. At the time, the Force Commanders believed this comparative immunity from air attack to be due to shortage of petrol and the damage done to the enemy’s airfields, a view substantiated by post-war investigation.
Against their former allies, however, the Germans had better fortune. A number of Dornier 217E’s of 2nd Gruppe of KG.100, stationed at Istres in southern France, turned their attention to the Italian fleet, then on its way to surrender. Allied reconnaissance aircraft had been keeping its units under close observation, and on 8th September the ships in Taranto, and those, the larger number, in Spezia were seen to be preparing for sea. That evening and on the following morning they put out, those from Taranto proceeding unmolested to Malta, where they surrendered. The three battleships, six cruisers and thirteen destroyers which sailed from Spezia, however, were less fortunate. In the middle of the afternoon of the 9th, Wing Commander H. Law-Wright, the pilot of a Royal Air Force Marauder, flying at a low height round them, was suddenly met with anti-aircraft fire. It was directed not against him, but
against a number of Ju.88s, which were attacking the Italian fleet. A hit by a radio-controlled glider-bomb was made on the battleship Roma and the Wing Commander saw he ‘fold up, break in two and sink’.
In its surrender the Regia Aeronautica was luckier than the Italian navy, perhaps because only a small number of its pilots obeyed the order to go over to the Allies. These, to show their enthusiasm and skill, indulged in aerobatics before landing upon the airfields set aside to receive them, but the number of aircraft which thus reached the Allies was little more than 300. They were formed into squadrons and fought for the rest of the war beside the Northwest African Air Forces.
To attack the troops newly arrived on the beaches, the Luftwaffe used some thirty or forty Focke-Wulf 190s. Patrolling Spitfires, Lightnings and Mustangs went immediately into action against them and, for the most part, succeeded in keeping them away from the beach-heads. Low-flying German aircraft encountered balloons, which went ashore flying at a height of 200 feet. The crews in charge of them were a happy company and had seen much service from El Alamein onwards up the long length of North Africa to Tunis and Sicily. Now they were among the first to set foot upon European soil, and with them went Blondie, their hen, which ‘fed on rice, tea leaves and flics, had laid eggs valiantly since the Battle of the Mareth Line’.
All this time heavy and medium bombers of the Northwest African Air Forces continued to attack roads, railway junctions and bridges in the area of Naples and in the neighbourhood of the Volturno river. The most successful of these operations was that directed against the two bridges at Capua, which were almost completely destroyed.
Though unable to be of great effect over the beaches, the Luftwaffe scored a number of successes against ships, the most notable being the severe damage inflicted upon HMS Warspite by two radio-controlled glider-bombs. She was forced to withdraw from the fight and remained out of action for six months. These bombs were of two kinds—the PC.1400FX, a modified armour-piercing type of bomb with cruciform stabilizing fins forward and a box tail aft, weighing somewhat more than 3,000 lb., and the Hs.293, a jet propelled missile, in shape and form a miniature monoplane, intended for attacks on merchant vessels. Both were launched from Dornier 217s which carried them beneath their wings. All things considered, it is surprising that the Luftwaffe was not able to achieve more in the early days at Salerno, for the Allied fighters, it must be
repeated, were operating at extreme range. This state of affairs continued for some days, for though the airfield at Monte Corvino had been captured almost at once it remained dominated by the guns of the enemy situated in the hills above the plain. Recourse was therefore had to the skill and courage of the Allied airfield construction engineers. They were ordered to make four landing strips, one close to each of the three rivers which traversed the plain of Salerno and the fourth to the south hard by the honey-coloured temples of Paestum. Working without pause and under fire, they completed their task by 15th September, but since the strips were small and built on friable soil they could only be used in daylight and in fair weather. The first, at Paestum, some 1,300 yards long and 50 yards in width, was completed by the evening of the 10th and occupied by Lightnings the next day. Twenty-six Seafires landed there on 12th September and they were soon followed by three Spitfire squadrons of No. 324 Wing of the Royal Air Force. These and the other fighters and medium bomber squadrons still based on Sicily were badly needed in the critical days of the 12th to 14th September.
For the first three days of the battle in the beach-head, success seemed to be within the grasp of the Allies. Though progress had not been quite so fast or so far as had been hoped, it had nevertheless been considerable. By the night of 11th September, on the southern flank, VI Corps had penetrated to a line running from Altavilla and Albanella in the foothills of the Apennines down to the coast at Agropoli, an advance at its farthest point of some ten miles. To the north-west Salerno was in our hands and, in the centre, a battalion, fiercely engaged by the enemy, was fighting a desperate battle in the streets of Battipaglia. It was on the 12th that a number of heavy German counter-attacks began, and these were soon to cause ‘grave anxiety’. ‘The critical period was from the 12th to 14th September’. Issuing from the foothills, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division and what remained of the 15th and 16th Panzer Divisions advanced with great resolution into the flat plain before them, moving over the cultivated fields, between the olives and the wide-flung coppices of oak trees. Behind the assaulting troops, the gunners firing in their support could survey the whole battlefield from the heights upon which their batteries were sited. No such advantage favoured the invading Allies, whose forward observation officers were forced to look across the plain from a low level. They could not look down upon it and their vision was therefore limited. The troops themselves were inexperienced. Some, like those of the 36th Division, had never been in action before and
others had not seen much fighting. Yet they were to be victorious, and this for two reasons. The Northwest African Air Forces were in control above the beaches and were able, therefore, to provide observation for the guns beneath, while their bombers attacked targets which those guns could not hit. Moreover, the warships out to sea could bring their broadsides to bear with what proved to be devastating effect. Nevertheless, for three days the issue was in doubt.
By the end of the 13th, Altavilla had been abandoned and the enemy had advanced down both banks of the river Sele and had almost achieved his object, which was to cut the beach-head in half. That night, VI Corps withdrew from Albanella, and Battipaglia was lost. The critical nature of the situation was realized at once at Headquarters at La Marsa, where, at a conference, Tedder, turning to Alexander, promised all the aid the air could muster. The same undertaking was given by Admiral Cunningham speaking for the Navy and he ordered the Warspite and Valiant at full speed to the scene in spite of the danger of radio-controlled glider-bombs, which as has been recorded, were to put the Warspite out of commission for six months.
While the Allied naval forces maintained a fierce bombardment of German positions, the whole weight of the Allied air force available, including all the strategic bombers, was directed against German counter-attacks. On 12th September, fighters sped up and down the battlefield from dawn to dusk. Fighter-bombers were equally active and attacked transport upon roads in the areas of Sapri, Potenza and Auletta. These efforts continued unabated on the 13th and were increased upon the 14th, which witnessed the crisis of the battle. On that day the fighters and fighter-bombers of the Tactical Air Force flew somewhat more than 700 sorties against targets of opportunity wherever they presented themselves. The weight of the fighter-bomber attacks were especially directed against Battipaglia in the battle zone, and Torre Annunziata, the railway junction near Naples. The Desert Air Force took a hand from airfields near Reggio, and attacked German transport near Eboli. The heavy bombers, the United States Fortresses, also joined the battle, bombing Pompeii—it was not safe even among the ruins—was the comment of an unhappy inhabitant—and Torre Annunziata, and at night Wellingtons of the indefatigable No. 205 Group attacked the same targets, and also road junctions, such as that at Castelnuova, a bridge at Benevento, and stretches of road near Formia.
During these three days the German Air Force made what attempt it could to hold its own, but, as in Sicily, it was overwhelmed and could do little to check the determination of Tedder’s combined air forces to help their hard-pressed comrades of the army to the utmost of their ability. Realizing its impotence, the Luftwaffe, operating almost entirely at night, concentrated such strength as it still possessed against the beaches and the shipping lying off them, and left the German army units carrying out the counter-attacks without any protection except that which anti-aircraft could provide. These tactics gave our night fighters an opportunity to show their mettle and they took it in no uncertain manner.
One further service the air forces could, and did, render. A bold and imaginative use of airborne troops was made both to reinforce the hard-pressed front line and to harass the enemy in his immediate rear. While on the 14th the Navy was struggling to put more armour ashore on the beaches, the 504th Airborne Regiment of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division was dropped in friendly territory some five miles behind the thinly held line of the VI Corps on the south-eastern perimeter of the beach-head. They found their dropping zones without difficulty, for they had been marked by navigational aids dropped by three Pathfinder aircraft. All the troops landed within 200 yards of the agreed point and were in the line before dawn. On the next night, the 14th/15th, the 505th United States Airborne Regiment belonging to the same Division was dropped in the same place and with the same happy results. Less than three quarters of an hour after the last aircraft had turned for base, some 2,100 parachute soldiers were on their way to the front near Agropoli. That night, too, a third airborne operation took place, the 509th Airborne Regiment being dropped at Avellino, or rather somewhere in the neighbourhood of that town. Because of the height of the mountains, most of the parachute troops had to leave their aircraft at between three and four thousand feet, and the Regiment was in consequence scattered far and wide. ‘I was awakened suddenly by a violent shaking of my arm’, says a German officer of the 16th Reconnaissance Unit, 16th Panzer Division, in his diary, ‘and found a guard bending over me and pointing towards the sky. ... I was still half asleep but forced my eyes open and saw the amazing sight for myself... fifty to sixty paratroops, still at a height of some 150 metres, swinging towards the ground... As it was a bright moonlight night one could recognise every white fleck in the heavens... Like cats, the gunners sprang into the turrets and soon... some twenty machine-guns were firing on the descending enemy’. The swift use of airborne troops was one of the factors which
kept in good heart the hard fighting Fifth Army during the six days when it was engaged upon that most hazardous operation of war, the carrying out of an opposed landing and the subsequent consolidation of the beach-head thus secured. The two other factors were the bombing of the enemy by the air forces and the gun-fire of the men-of-war. The aid thus given was gratefully acknowledged in a signal sent to Eisenhower by Alexander, who, on the critical 14th, was present in the beach-head and could see the situation for himself. In those three days and nights somewhat more than 2,300 tons of bombs were dropped on the battlefield or on its approaches, while the navy engaged in 129 bombardments of land targets. It was enough. The author of the German war diary kept by General von Vietinghoff, was soon sorrowfully recording that ‘the fact that the attacks... were unable to reach their objectives owing to the fire from naval guns and low flying aircraft, as well as the slow but steady approach of the Eighth Army, caused the Army Commandant to withdraw from the battle...’.
By 15th September, ‘Our hold on the mainland of Italy could be considered firm’, and those directing the war on behalf of the Allies were able to draw the conclusion, which the raid on Dieppe of a little more than a year before had seemed to contradict, that an amphibious landing, even on coasts held by a resolute and well-prepared enemy, was possible, always provided that air supremacy had been attained. More, it had also been proved that the foothold, once secured, could be maintained by exploiting that supremacy. The Battle of Salerno was won by all three arms. ‘The accurate and deadly shooting of the Navy’, the stubbornness of the Army, the dash and ubiquity of the Air Forces had each made a vital and co-ordinated contribution, and together, the tria juncta in uno had secured victory. The portents were clear, and those already deep in the study of plans for the liberation of France could feel that a way had at last been found to secure the success of the most difficult part of the operation, the initial landing.
Though success was achieved after hard fighting at Salerno, failure attended the efforts of the Allies to mount another, if minor, invasion farther east. While the position in Italy was being secured, preparations were under way in the Middle East to gain a foothold in the Aegean. To seize Rhodes was of special importance, for its capture would prepare the way for the ultimate invasion of Greece. The island would provide the fighter airfields indispensable for such an operation, but its capture required strong air forces. They were not forthcoming, for, though the strength of the Allies in the air was very considerable, it lay rather in bombers and short-range fighters
than in long-range fighters. These, however, were indispensable for the success of such an enterprise because of the distance, some 310 miles, separating Rhodes from the nearest Allied air bases in Cyprus and Cyrenaica.
Any hopes that the island would fall into our hands without fighting were still-born; for the Germans, never blind to the importance of Rhodes, had increased their garrisons and, though still far outnumbered, took immediate steps to overcome their erstwhile allies, the Italians. In three days they were in full control. The Allied commanders had, therefore, either to abandon their design altogether or to be content to turn aside, avoid Rhodes, and lay hands instead on Kos, Leros and Samos. This was the course they chose. The position of Kos, with its airfield at Antimachia, made it the pass-key of which the possession would unlock the Aegean. Seize it, and Rhodes would fall, and with Rhodes the other islands of the Archipelago, garrisoned as they were for the most part by Italians, who would certainly surrender at the first approach of invading forces.
Kos was to be taken by a combined assault of all three arms and the part to be played by the air forces followed the usual pattern—first, the bombing of enemy airfields within range in Greece, Rhodes and Crete, and the despatch to them of intruders to prevent the Luftwaffe from using them; secondly, attacks on all enemy shipping found in the Aegean; thirdly, the protection of the convoys conveying the assault troops. To these general tasks were added the reconnaissance of Leros, Samos and other islands and the dropping of leaflets by a flight of Wellingtons operating from the Nile Delta. Eight Dakotas from No. 216 Squadron were detailed to carry airborne troops, and departed to Palestine for the purpose of training with them.
The air forces detailed for the conduct of these operations were not large. Apart from the troop-carrying and transport Dakotas, there were two day and two night Beaufighter squadrons, a Wellington (Torpedo Bomber) squadron, three Baltimore and one Hudson (General Reconnaissance) squadrons, three Spitfire and two Hurricane (Fighter) squadrons and a detachment of Photographic Reconnaissance Spitfires. This force was based on the mainland of Africa and in Cyprus. In addition, two heavy bomber squadrons of No. 240 (Royal Air Force) Wing of IX United States Bomber Command took part at a later stage. In all, the number of aircraft amounted to 144 fighters (single and twin-engined), and 116 heavy, medium and torpedo bombers.
By the end of August, No. 680 Squadron had photographed the whole area to be attacked and operations began nine days later. The island of Castelrosso fell into our hands immediately, but since the Germans held Rhodes, its three airfields, Marizza in the north, Calato in the middle and Cattavia in the south, had to be put out of action. This was accomplished for a time by the attack of thirty-eight Liberators detached for this purpose from the Northwest African Strategic Air Force. Their bombs prevented the Luftwaffe from operating on 13th September, the day on which a British force set foot on Kos and occupied the port and the airfield at Antimachia, which was found to be serviceable. At dawn on the following day, two Beaufighters landed and their crews set up a point-to-point W.T. station. They were followed soon afterwards by Spitfires of No. 7 Squadron, South African Air Force, and that night 120 parachute troops were dropped by the Dakotas of No. 216 Squadron on Kos, in order to strengthen the Italian garrison, which was showing signs of a lack of moral fibre. That day, too, Leros was occupied without opposition and on the 16th, Samos.
At first light on the 15th, a standing patrol of two Spitfires was maintained over Kos to give cover to the transport aircraft and ships bringing stores and reinforcements. Among these were the first units of the Royal Air Force Regiment. With nine Hispano anti-aircraft guns, they flew from Palestine, and were followed two days later by a second detachment, which brought up to strength one of the first of the Regiment’s squadrons to be transported to the battlefield by air with all its weapons. Their position on Kos, never enviable, soon became serious and, presently, desperate, for the Italian anti-aircraft defence was negligible and their own resources meagre. To add to their troubles, the area round the airfield they had to protect was too rocky to permit digging in, and there was no time to build blast walls before the enemy was upon them. The Germans began their counter-attack by an air bombardment which opened on 17th September and proved to be severe. The Me.109s and Ju.88s involved met at first with varying success, for the Royal Air Force gunners on the ground and the South African Spitfires in the air gave a good account of themselves ‘Butterfly’ bombs, however, dropped on the 19th, made Antimachia temporarily unserviceable and damaged the transport Dakotas.
During the next two days, bombing and cannon-fire attacks continued to harass the garrison, who, in order to increase the area in which fighters could land, made great efforts to build an alternative strip near Lambia, at a spot where, on the 18th, seeing that
Antimachia was under attack, the pilot of a Dakota had landed rather than return to Cyprus with his load. It was completed on the 21 si and then ensued a lull which lasted a week. The Luftwaffe was building up, and by the end of the month had transferred over 100 aircraft to the Aegean area to bring its strength to over 350, which included ninety Ju.88s and He.111s, fifty Me.109s and sixty-five Ju.87s. These forces had had to be withdrawn from other theatres of operations, and at this time there were only a little over 400 aircraft left in Italy, Corsica and the south of France.
In an attempt to interfere with the enemy’s plans, which were daily becoming more obvious, Liberators, Halifaxes, Wellingtons and Hudsons, of No. 240 Wing and No. 201 Group, attacked airfields near Athens on four nights between the 20th and 25th September. Those on Crete and Rhodes also received attention. The attacks do not appear to have had much effect, for on the 26th the enemy was able to resume his air offensive and soon made conditions in Kos very difficult. By the end of that day only four of the Spitfires of No. 7 Squadron were still able to fly, and antiaircraft gunners of the Royal Air Force Regiment, though reinforced by Bofors manned by the army, were not strong enough to beat off the German bombers. Reinforcements in the form of nine Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron arrived, but were too few to prevent or drive away an enemy smarting under recent reverses and determined to use to the full the local air superiority he had created by moving squadrons so swiftly from bases as far distant as the south of France. A determined raid on 29th September scored forty direct hits on Antimachia, and caused a move to Lambia, where, during the night of 2nd October, urgent supplies were landed by five Dakotas. During their unloading, news came that a small German invasion fleet of ten vessels was at sea. The 880 men of the Army and the 235 of the Royal Air Force Regiment on Kos prepared to defend the island unaided, for by then the Italian garrison had made it clear that in their view the better part of valour was discretion.
At dawn on the 3rd the Germans landed by sea and air, and by midday 1,500 men, well-armed with light artillery and armoured cars, were ashore and in action. Dive-bombing by Ju.87s added to the difficulties of the defence, and in the afternoon Antimachia was overrun. Lambia fell at 0600 hours on the following morning, and what was left of the garrison signalled laconically: ‘Kos town untenable. Intend continuing to fight elsewhere. Destroying wireless set’. Kos had been in Allied hands for a bare three weeks.
The next island to be regained by the enemy was Leros,and the same tactics were used. A superior force of the Luftwaffe based on
airfields in Rhodes, Crete and Greece, all most conveniently close at hand, bombed the island almost at their pleasure. No fighter cover could be given to its small garrison, for the nearest Allied airfields were some 390 miles away. The invasion began on 12th October and by the 16th all was over. As at Kos, it was carried out partly by seaborne troops and partly by airborne, whose standard of training and marksmanship was high. On more than one occasion the magazines of the Bren guns in the hands of the defenders were shot away as soon as they were inserted. The Germans also showed that the link between the Luftwaffe above and the troops below was strong and effective, the first instantly responding to all demands made on them by the second.
Mediterranean Air Command had not remained indifferent to the situation in the Middle Eastern theatre. Between 14th October and 16th November, United States Mitchells were sent to attack Greek airfields, and in so doing flew 317 sorties, and the heavier Liberators made a single attack on the airfield at Eleusis. Arrangements were also made for a Mitchell group, armed with 75-mm. cannon, to attack shipping in the area of Kos and Calino, and to do so it flew a total of eighty-six sorties between 16th October and 16th November. These assaults, by sinking a number of the invasion craft, delayed, but could not prevent, the enemy from accomplishing his purpose, and long before the middle of November the situation was lost beyond retrieving. Nevertheless, the bombers, both the Mitchells and the Liberators, continued to operate until 8th December, their targets for the last month being the airfields at Larissa, Eleusis and Kalamaki. The reinforcements of fighters sent were smaller, but No. 603 (Beaufighter) Squadron was transferred to the Aegean on 12th October and was joined by No. 47 Squadron at the end of the month. These reinforcements were adequate to meet the situation, but, though sent as soon as demanded, they arrived too late.
The fact was that the Allies were trying to accomplish too much. Their reach exceeded their grasp and the hoped for heaven turned out to be an operation which was not in fact a feasible operation of war with the means made available.
In this unhappy story the gallantry of the Dakota crews of No. 216 Squadron must not be forgotten. Shortage of shipping placed a great responsibility on transport aircraft for keeping the invading forces supplied and in these operations the Squadron played a notable part. Many of the flights involved had to be undertaken by aircrew inexperienced in supply-dropping. Altogether from the night of 5th/6th October to that of 19th/20th November, when the last sortie was flown to the third of the ill-fated islands—Samos, regained by the
enemy on 22nd November—these missions were attempted on twenty-six occasions, involving a total of eighty-seven sorties. The despatchers were volunteer airmen or soldiers who, inspired by the army officer in charge, carried out their task with stout hearts. The outstanding achievement of the Squadron was the dropping on two nights of 200 officers and men of the Greek Sacred Squadron on to the island of Samos, from which they were very soon withdrawn. When the last ship bearing them had sailed away under cover of darkness, the British and Americans in the Aegean were back where they had started.
This rash experiment had cost the lives of some hundreds of troops and airmen, a large quantity of valuable stores and equipment, a number of naval vessels and 115 aircraft. The German losses were as heavy, if not heavier, but they had regained lost ground and by so doing received much-needed encouragement. The operation, ill-judged from the beginning, had been the result of over-confidence, an unconscious flouting of a cardinal principle of modern warfare. Troops and ships in isolated positions without air support cannot long survive if their enemy, moving on interior lines, can bring his air power to bear at the crucial point. Nevertheless, when all is said, the Aegean episode was no more than a setback, humiliating indeed, but with no effect on the final issue.