Chapter 8: The Axis Threat
On the evening of 10 July, Guzzoni had a far from clear understanding of the situation.1 Reports indicated that British and Canadian forces had established beachheads along the eastern coast between Syracuse and the Pachino peninsula. But because signal communications with the naval base had failed completely that day, General Guzzoni dismissed reports of British proximity to Syracuse as exaggerations. Not until 0300, 11 July, did he learn from General von Senger that Syracuse had fallen and that Augusta had been evacuated briefly by Axis forces.2 Until then, though he was aware that only isolated pockets of Italian troops still resisted near Noto and south of Modica, he counted on Group Schmalz and the Napoli Division to destroy the British and Canadian beachheads. General Guzzoni also knew that American troops had been located in Vittoria and near Comiso, apparently moving inland from a well-established beachhead near Scoglitti. The failure of the counterattacks against the Gela beaches disappointed him.3
About 2000, 10 July, Guzzoni ordered the XVI Corps to commit both Group Schmalz and the Napoli Division in a determined attempt to knock out the British beachhead south of Syracuse. He instructed the Hermann Göring Division and the Livorno Division to launch a coordinated attack against the American beachhead at Gela. He directed the reinforced 207th Coastal Division to strike the American beachhead at Licata.
At his headquarters near Rome, Field Marshal Kesselring, who lacked communications with Guzzoni and who had been receiving information from Luftwaffe headquarters in Catania and Taormina, was unaware of Guzzoni’s intention to counterattack on 11 July. Learning of the fall of Syracuse (and promptly notifying Comando Supremo), Kesselring concluded that this, plus the earlier breakdown of the Italian coastal defenses, meant the Italian units were putting up little resistance. There seemed little likelihood of a more determined stand in the future. Convinced that only the German units were effective, Kesselring sent a message through Luftwaffe channels to the Hermann Göring Division and ordered it to counterattack toward Gela on the morning of 11 July. If pressed home with great vigor and before the Americans could land the bulk of their artillery and armor the attack, he believed, would be successful.4
Conrath, the Hermann Göring Division commander, who had received a call from the XVI Corps commander, went to the corps headquarters at Piazza Armerina. He learned for the first time of his attachment to the corps and together with Generale di Divisione Domenico Chirieleison, the Livorno Division commander, also in attendance, he received word of Guzzoni’s plan for a coordinated attack against Gela. According to the plan, the attack, starting at 0600, would have the German division converging on Gela from the northeast in three columns, the Italian division converging on Gela from the northwest, also in three columns.5
Upon returning to his command post, Conrath received Kesselring’s order. But this posed no complication. He reorganized his division into three attack groups: two tank-heavy forces west of the Acate River, one infantry-heavy force east of the river. One tank battalion was to move from the Ponte Olivo airfield south along Highway 117, then east across the Gela plain, and meet with the other tank battalion at Piano Lupo. Several tanks of the Ponte Olivo force were to make a feint north of Gela to deceive the Americans into believing that the city of Gela was the main objective. Instead, the main effort was to be made by the other tank column south along the Niscemi–Piano Lupo road to occupy Hills 132 and 123 (the southern edge of Piano Lupo). Joined by the tank battalion coming across the Gela plain from the west, the tanks were to strike south for the sparsely wooded area between the Biviere Pond and the Gulf of Gela. The infantry-heavy force, meanwhile, was to cross the Acate River at Ponte Dirillo and join the tank forces on Piano Lupo. From the sparsely wooded area near the shore line, the entire force was then to roll up the 1st Division’s beachhead from east to west, while the Livorno Division, coming in from the west, was to overrun Gela and roll up the 1st Division’s beachhead from the west.6
Northwest of Gela, General Chirieleison ordered one column to strike at Gela from the north, a second to advance astride the Gela–Butera road and strike Gela from the northwest, the third, while guarding the division right flank against American forces near Licata, to move southeast from Butera Station to Gela. The remnants of the Italian Mobile Group E were to support the first column.
While the division commanders were completing their attack preparations, Guzzoni, at his headquarters in Enna, finally learned of the fall of Syracuse. The Syracuse–Augusta area, previously considered the strongest defensive sector in all of Sicily, had turned suddenly into a major danger area. If the British advanced quickly from Syracuse into the Catania plain and from there to Messina, they would bottle up all the Axis forces on Sicily.
Since all his reserves were too far away or already committed, Guzzoni modified his previous orders to the XVI Corps. Early on 11 July, he had instructed the corps to execute its counterattack as planned. But now, as soon as the Hermann Göring Division attack showed signs of success, the division was to wheel eastward, not to the west, and advance on Vittoria, Comiso, and Palazzolo Acreide
in succession. With the entire German division then reunited, a strong blow could be mounted against the British. At the same time, the move would knock out the 45th Division’s beachhead around Scoglitti. The Livorno Division, after taking Gela, was to wheel westward and destroy the American beachhead at Licata. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, returning from the west, would assist the Livorno Division against Licata.7
Before the Axis divisions could launch their attacks, the 1st Division acted. In keeping with General Allen’s confidence in the skillful use of night attacks, the 26th Infantry on the left and the 16th Infantry on the right jumped off at midnight, 10 July, toward the division’s major objectives, the Ponte Olivo airfield and Niscemi.
Lt. Col. John T. Corley’s 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, moved up Highway 117 toward Monte della Guardia (Hill 300), the commanding terrain west of the highway overlooking the airfield. But within thirty minutes, heavy enemy fire from the front and flanks brought the battalion to a halt.8
On the Niscemi–Piano Lupo road, Colonel Denholm’s 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, advanced north toward Casa del Priolo, while Company G of Colonel Crawford’s 2nd Battalion paralleled this movement on the west side of the road. Though the 1st Battalion reached Casa del Priolo without difficulty and began digging in, Company G spotted German tanks to its left front and returned to its original position near Piano Lupo. Dismayed at the return of his company and fearing the German tanks would pounce on the unprotected left flank of the 1st Battalion, Crawford ordered Companies E and F to move out and dig in on the little orchard-covered ridge at Abbio Priolo, about a thousand yards north and west of Casa del Priolo. Accompanied by Colonel Gorham’s paratroopers, these companies reached the ridge at 0530.9
In Gela, the Rangers and engineers continued to improve their defenses. Across the Acate River, in the path of the infantry-heavy German task force, the 180th Infantry remained in a disheartening situation. Though the 1st and 3rd Battalions had thrown back the German counterattack on the previous evening, the regiment still had no contact with the 1st Division on the left and with the 179th Infantry on the right. In addition, the regimental commander probably had no more than a faint notion of the location of his front. Whether he knew that most of the 1st Battalion had been captured by the Germans is not clear. Communications with Colonel Cochrane’s 2nd Battalion were tenuous at best, and often lost, and the regimental headquarters had no knowledge of the whereabouts of portions of Companies E, G, and H, which, in actuality, held a strongpoint astride Highway 115 near Ponte Dirillo and occupied the high ground just north of the bridge. The one bright spot in the 180th Infantry zone was that the bulk of the 171st Field Artillery Battalion was prepared to fire in support.10
Unable to make contact with the Livorno Division, but assuming that the Italian division would launch its attack, General Conrath at 0615, 11 July, sent
the three task forces of the Hermann Göring Division forward. (Map V) At the same time, one Italian task force, the one nearest Highway 117, jumped off, but on its own initiative, apparently after seeing the German tank battalion start south from Ponte Olivo airfield. To help support the converging attacks on Gela, German and Italian aircraft struck the beaches and the naval vessels lying offshore.
The 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, which had been advancing up the east side of Highway 117, bore the brunt of the German attack. Company K was driven to the south and west toward Gela, but the remainder of the battalion held firm. The Italian column passed the 26th Infantry, bumped into Company K, which was trying to get back to Gela, and headed directly for the city. Colonel Darby’s force in Gela laid down heavy fire on the approaching enemy. The 33rd Field Artillery Battalion began pounding away at both columns. The two batteries from the 5th Field Artillery Battalion joined in. The 26th Infantry’s Cannon Company and the 4.2-inch mortars in Gela also opened fire. The combination of fires stopped the Italians.
The German tanks then swung east across the Gela plain to join the force descending the Niscemi–Piano Lupo road. There, the situation had quickly dissolved into a series of scattered infantry-tank actions. First to feel the weight of the German attack was the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, at Abbio Priolo, where the
infantrymen and paratroopers had little time to complete more than hasty foxholes and weapons emplacements. German tanks, a conglomeration of Mark IIIs and IVs, appeared, flanking the 2nd Battalion from the west. The tanks rushed in, shooting their machine guns and cannon at almost point-blank range. With only a few bazookas plus their regular weapons, the infantrymen and the paratroopers fought back. Aided by fires from eight howitzers of the 7th Field Artillery Battalion and part of the regiment’s antitank company, which had finally managed to get across the Acate River that very morning, the battalion held.11 As yet, there was no naval gunfire support. Nor were there aircraft available to fly direct or close support missions.12
Personally directing the attack on the Niscemi–Piano Lupo road, General Conrath regrouped his forces and again sent them rushing at the American positions. This time, the tanks rolled directly down and tried to circle both flanks. The swinging German movement to the right brought the 1st Battalion at Casa del Priolo into the fight. As German tanks swept past the embattled Americans and joined with other German tanks at the eastern edge of the Gela plain, the Americans pulled slowly back to Piano Lupo under cover of supporting fires, both artillery and naval. By 1100, the Americans were back where they had started from around midnight.
East of the Acate river, the German infantry-heavy task force drove down from Biscari to Highway 115, where Company F, 180th Infantry, defending Ponte Dirillo, delayed it a short while. But the company could not hold, and retired to the beaches. North of the bridge, Colonel Cochran, with the remainder of the 2nd Battalion, 180th Infantry (less than 200 men), and the small group of paratroopers, lost all contact with regimental headquarters. Fortunately, he made contact with the 171st Field Artillery Battalion, and through the battalion with naval vessels. The artillery and the destroyer Beatty both gave heroic support.13
At that very moment, about 0900, as the German force pushed past the highway toward the mouth of the river, a group of American paratroopers led by Colonel Gavin appeared from the east and struck the enemy column.
Colonel Gavin had halted about noon on D-day to await darkness before continuing westward with his small party of paratroopers. As yet, he had made no contact with any American force. As the sun began to set on 10 July, Gavin and his men set forth. At 0230, 11 July, five miles southeast of Vittoria, the paratroopers finally made their first contact with an American unit, Company I, 179th Infantry. For the first time since landing in Sicily, Colonel Gavin knew his exact location. Entering Vittoria about 0500, and collecting the paratroopers and three airborne howitzers that had assisted in the capture of the city the previous afternoon, Gavin then turned west on Highway 115. Five miles west of the city, Gavin met 180 men of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry, led by Maj. Edward C. Krause. Krause had halted here the previous evening after he, too, had failed to make contact with other American forces.
Instructing Krause to organize the now sizable paratrooper force into march formation and to follow, Colonel Gavin and his S-3, Maj. Benjamin H. Vandervoort, continued westward along the highway. After covering another two miles, Gavin came upon a group of forty men from Company L, 180th Infantry, and twenty paratroop engineers. They told Gavin that the Germans were astride the highway farther to the west, but they could provide no details on strength or dispositions.
Wanting to see the German force for himself, and apparently not knowing the location of the 180th Infantry, Gavin took the paratroop engineers and began walking along the highway toward Biscari Station. A German officer and a soldier
on a motorcycle suddenly came around a bend in the road and were captured. Though the two made no effort to resist, they refused to give information. With enemy troops close by, Gavin sent Vandervoort back to hurry along the force of 250 paratroopers under Major Krause. Vandervoort was then to continue on to the 45th Division command post near Vittoria to let General Middleton know Gavin’s location.
Gavin took his engineers toward Casa Biazzo, a group of five buildings on high ground sloping gently westward and overlooking the Acate River. Across what the paratroopers would call Biazzo Ridge ran the road to Biscari.
A few hundred yards short of the buildings, Gavin’s little group came under small arms fire. Gavin pushed his men forward to the crest of the ridge where they drove a small detachment of Germans down the far slope. As they prepared to follow, enemy fire increased. Gavin ordered his men to dig in and hold until the arrival of Krause’s force.
The appearance of Gavin’s small unit drew German attention from Piano Lupo and the Gela beaches, where the entire 1st Division front was aflame. The bulk of the Livorno Division had by this time joined the Hermann Göring Division attack. General Conrath’s two tank battalions were once again united, and though he still contended with the 16th Infantry on Piano Lupo, he decided to send the bulk of his armored force across the Gela plain to the beaches. General Chirieleison, the Livorno Division commander, was also pushing for a concentrated attack that would surge over the American positions. He had already lost one hour waiting for contact with the German unit. He did have one column engaging the
Americans in Gela. Now he sent a second from Butera toward the city.
With most of the Rangers and engineers heavily engaged against the Italian thrust down Highway 117, only two Ranger companies on the west side of Gela stood in the way of Chirieleison’s second column. “You will fight with the troops and supporting weapons you have at this time,” Colonel Darby told them. “The units in the eastern sector are all engaged in stopping a tank attack.”14
When the Italian column came within range, the two Ranger companies opened fire with their captured Italian artillery pieces, and with their supporting platoon of 4.2-inch mortars. The Italian movement slowed. General Patton appeared at the Ranger command post in this sector, a two-story building, and watched the
Italian attack. As he turned to leave, he called out to Captain Lyle, who commanded the Rangers there, “Kill every one of the goddam bastards.”15
Lyle called on the cruiser Savannah to help, and before long almost 500 devastating rounds of 6-inch shells struck the Italian column. Through the dust and smoke, Italians could be seen staggering as if dazed. Casualties were heavy. The attack stalled. Moving out to finish the task, the Ranger companies captured almost 400 enemy troops. “There were human bodies hanging from the trees,” Lyle noted, “and some blown to bits.”16 As it turned out, a large proportion of the officers and more than 50 percent of the Italian soldiers were killed or wounded.
North of Gela, artillery and naval fire, small arms, machine gun, and mortar fires reduced the Livorno column to company size, and these troops were barely holding on to positions they had quickly dug. The third Italian column, in about battalion size, starting to move from Butera Station to Gela, ran into a combat patrol which had been dispatched by the 3rd Division to make contact with the Gela force. The company-size patrol inflicted heavy casualties on the Italians, who pulled back to their original position.
The battering received during this attack on Gela finished the Livorno Division as an effective combat unit.17
East of Gela, as General Conrath sent the major part of both his tank battalions toward the beaches, the Gela plain became a raging inferno of exploding shells, smoke, and fire. The lead tanks reached the highway west of Santa Spina, two thousand yards from the water. As they raked supply dumps and landing craft with fire, the division headquarters reported victory: “pressure by the Hermann Göring Division [has] forced the enemy to re-embark temporarily.”18 At Sixth Army headquarters, General Guzzoni was elated. After discussion with General von Senger, he instructed XVI Corps to put the revised plan into action—wheel the German division that afternoon to the east toward Vittoria and continue movement during the night to Palazzolo Acreide and the Syracuse sector.19
But the German tanks never reached the 1st Division beaches. Nor was there any thought of American re-embarkation.20 The 32nd Field Artillery Battalion, coming ashore in Dukws moved directly into firing positions along the edge of the sand dunes and opened direct fire on the mass of German armor to its front. The 16th Infantry Cannon Company, having
just been ferried across the Acate River, rushed up to the dune line, took positions, and opened fire. Four of the ten medium tanks of Colonel White’s CCB finally got off the soft beach, and, under White’s direction, opened fire from the eastern edge of the plain. The 18th Infantry and the 41st Armored Infantry near the Gela–Farello landing ground prepared to add their fires. Engineer shore parties stopped unloading and established a firing line along the dunes. Naval gunfire, for a change, was silent—the opposing forces were too close together for the naval guns to be used.
Under the fearful pounding, the German attack came to a halt. Milling around in confusion, the lead tanks were unable to cross the coastal highway. The German tanks pulled back, slowly at first and then increasing their speed as naval guns opened fire and chased them. Sixteen German tanks lay burning on the Gela plain.
On Piano Lupo, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 16th Infantry, had managed to hold the road junction, even though six German tanks had broken into their lines. The single remaining 37-mm. antitank gun in the 2nd Battalion disabled one. A lucky round from a 60-mm. mortar dropped down the open hatch of another. A bazooka round badly damaged a third. Colonel Gorham, the paratroop commander, put a fourth out of commission with bazooka fire. The other two retired. With almost one-third of his tank strength destroyed or disabled, General Conrath called off the attack shortly after 1400. Though fighting east of the river continued until late that evening, the tank units withdrew to the foothills south of Niscemi.21
At Enna, General Guzzoni again changed his plans. The fierce American resistance at Gela, the known arrival of additional Allied units, and the continued pressure of the 45th Division in the Vittoria–Comiso area indicated the difficulty of getting the Hermann Göring Division to the east coast by way of Vittoria and Palazzolo Acreide. In addition, a further American advance inland from Comiso might bypass the Hermann Göring Division and cut it off entirely from the east coast. Thus, during the afternoon of 11 July, Guzzoni ordered the XVI Corps to suspend all offensive action in the Gela area, to withdraw the Hermann Göring Division to Caltagirone for movement on the following day to Vizzini and commitment against the British, and to consolidate the Livorno Division along a line from Mazzarino to Caltagirone to cover the German withdrawal.22
Before Guzzoni’s instructions reached Conrath, General von Senger visited the Hermann Göring Division. Though disappointed because the tanks had not broken through to the beaches, Senger considered the situation favorable for turning the division eastward toward Vittoria and Comiso. This would cut off from the beaches those units of the 45th Division that had pushed well inland. Feeling that the 1st Division, which had borne the brunt of Axis counterattacks for two days, was in no position seriously to contest this movement, he ordered Conrath to the east.
Conrath was in agreement with Senger’s estimate. Still expecting his tanks to reach the beaches, he was sure his infantry-heavy task force could wheel to the east from Biscari to strike at Vittoria. Unfortunately for Conrath, his infantry-heavy force had been so manhandled by Gavin’s men on Biazzo Ridge that it was hardly in any condition to initiate any offensive action.
About 1000, a good many of the paratroopers, coming from Vittoria under Major Krause, had joined Colonel Gavin on Biazzo Ridge. Gavin directed this force to advance westward along Highway 115, seize Ponte Dirillo, and open a route to the 1st Division’s zone. Augmented by random troops of the 180th Infantry rounded up by Gavin, the paratroopers got going. After a mile of slow progress against increasing German resistance, the attack halted when four Tiger tanks, supported by infantrymen, came into view and began pressing the paratroopers back. Though American soldiers crawled forward singly with bazookas, they could not get close enough to register a kill. Fortunately, two of the three airborne howitzers came in behind Biazzo Ridge, went into position, and opened fire.
The fight continued until well after noon. As American casualties increased to the danger point, artillerymen manhandled one of the little howitzers to the top of the ridge just in time to engage
in a point-blank duel with a Tiger tank. In the face of heavy small arms fire and several near misses from the tank gun, the paratrooper crew got off several quick rounds, one of which knocked out the tank. Two half-tracks towing 57-mm. antitank guns arrived from the 179th Infantry, went into firing positions, and engaged the other three Tiger tanks. Around 1500, the Germans had had enough.
The antitank guns had arrived in response to Colonel Gavin’s request, through another staff officer dispatched to the 45th Division command post for assistance, especially for antitank guns, artillery liaison parties, and tanks. General Middleton had been quick to react. Shortly after the antitank guns rolled up, a naval gunfire support party and a liaison party from the 189th Field Artillery Battalion reached Colonel Gavin’s headquarters. Within a very few minutes, the field artillery battalion signaled rounds on the way and the Navy joined in blasting the German troops along the Acate River. Still later in the afternoon, eleven tanks from the 753rd Medium Tank Battalion arrived. At the same time, Gavin received word that Lieutenant Swingler, commander of the 505th’s Headquarters Company, was on the way with an additional one hundred paratroopers. With this growing strength, Gavin decided to switch to the offensive.
On trucks furnished by the 45th Division, Lieutenant Swingler and his men arrived shortly after 2000. Forty-five minutes later, after a tremendous artillery concentration, the paratroopers launched their second attack. Every available man was committed, including a few from the Navy who had enrolled in the unit during the day. Not long afterwards, the German force was scattered, most of the troops making their way north toward Biscari, a few crossing at Ponte Dirillo to rejoin the main body of the division, a smaller number remaining near the bridge in blocking positions. With the advent of darkness, Gavin called off the attack before his troops reached the river. Pulling his men back, he organized a strong defensive line along the ridge.
The paratrooper stand on Biazzo Ridge prompted General Conrath to change his plans. Learning of the heavy losses being sustained by his infantry-heavy force, he decided, apparently on his own initiative, to break off contact with the Americans near Gela. Ignoring General von Senger’s instructions to wheel eastward, he decided to withdraw to Caltagirone in compliance with Guzzoni’s orders. But instead of retiring at once to Caltagirone, Conrath planned to pull his Hermann Göring Division back in stages. He would reach Caltagirone during the night of 13 July, a day later than Guzzoni wished.23
Though bitter patrol clashes continued in the hills near Piano Lupo during the night, and though the 16th Infantry reported an enemy infantry and tank buildup, the 1st Division beachhead was no longer in any serious danger. General
Allen had established physical contact with the 3rd Division on his left. Almost all of the floating reserve was ashore. The Navy stood by to render gunfire support. More supplies and equipment were arriving.24
Despite the fact that the 1st Division had taken quite a battering on 11 July, in particular the 16th Infantry, and despite the fact that enemy air raids had caused some damage, notably the destruction of a Liberty ship filled with ammunition, General Patton was ashore urging General Allen to get on with the business of taking Ponte Olivo and Niscemi, objectives which, according to the Seventh Army’s plan, should have been taken that day.25