Chapter 11: Continuing the Campaign: The Decisions
Sixth Army and OB SUED
At Sixth Army headquarters in Enna, it was clear by the morning of 12 July that the period of counterattacks against the various Allied beachheads had ended. Until further decisions were made at higher levels in Rome and Berlin on whether or not to reinforce the island’s defenders, Sixth Army had no choice but to go over to the defensive.1
Lacking the manpower to erect a solid line around the Allied beachheads, General Guzzoni planned to shorten his front to a line across the northeastern corner of Sicily—from the east coast south of the Catania plain to Santo Stefano di Camastra on the north coast. He planned to withdraw slowly the forces in contact with the British and Americans to the eastern end of this line—from Catania to Nicosia—while the forces in the west moved to the sector of the line running between Nicosia and the north coast. Seeing this as a final defense line, Guzzoni planned to pull the units back first to intermediate defensive positions, along a line from Priolo on the east coast, through Melilli, Vizzini, Caltagirone, Canicatti, to Agrigento on the southwestern coast. After temporarily delaying the Allied advance from the southeastern corner of the island, Guzzoni would fight a delaying action while falling back to the Catania—Santo Stefano line. But if this line was breached, Guzzoni intended to establish a third defensive line—a final battle line that was to be held at all costs. Guzzoni did not immediately determine the location of this third line, except that he wanted it anchored on the east coast south of the Catania plain.2
Guzzoni realized that the success of this withdrawal maneuver depended on preventing an Allied breakthrough at the eastern hinge: Catania. This was the critical spot. This was the reasoning behind the order of 11 July that had directed the bulk of the Hermann Göring Division to disengage and move northeast, first to the new intermediate defensive line, then to the southern edge of the Catania plain. The Livorno Division was also to fall back to this new line, screening the area between the Hermann Göring Division on the east and the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division on the west. For the Italian division, this meant a withdrawal of fifteen miles, from Mazzarino (where contact with the German Group Ens was to be made) east to San Michele di Ganzeria (on Highway 124 northwest of Caltagirone), where contact with the Hermann
Göring Division was to be made. With part of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division even then nearing Mazzarino, Guzzoni hoped the Livorno Division would be strong enough to block any American penetration into the important network of roads near Enna. But his entire plan relied on transferring the bulk of the Hermann Göring Division quickly to the northeast.3
While Guzzoni was making his tactical arrangements, higher headquarters in Italy and Germany were following the campaign closely. In Germany OKW, after Pantelleria, had modified its views that the Allies were preparing a twin invasion of Sardinia and Greece. But as late as 9 July, OKW still considered that the Allies were preparing an invasion of Greece, with the first step being the occupation of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. OKW had considered that an Allied landing in Calabria might take place in conjunction with the landing in Sicily, but that a subsequent Allied landing on the Italian mainland was far less probable than the use of Sicily (or Sicily and Calabria) as a springboard for a jump to the Peloponnesus.
On the basis of this appreciation, OKW on 9 July had directed Kesselring to move the German 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to the area north of Cosenza (ninety miles north-northeast of Reggio di Calabria); to shift the German 26th Panzer Division to an area east of Salerno; and to retain the German 16th Panzer Division near Bari, on the Adriatic Sea. Under the XIV Panzer Corps, the German units were to cooperate with the Italian Seventh Army in opposing an Allied landing in southern Italy. With one jaundiced eye directed at Mussolini’s unstable control of Italy, OKW retained the German 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division and LXXVI Corps headquarters north of Rome. On Hitler’s order, OKW alerted the German 1st Parachute Division, stationed near Avignon in southern France, for possible air movement to Sicily.4
The first reports of the fighting in Sicily did not give Hitler or the OKW a clear picture of the situation. Kesselring reported during the evening of 10 July that he had issued orders to General von Senger directing the bulk of the Hermann Göring Division to destroy the American forces advancing toward Caltagirone and Group Schmalz to counterattack immediately and recapture Syracuse.5
With a better grasp of the situation on 11 July, Hitler decided to reinforce the German units in Sicily. Specifically, Kesselring was to transport the 1st Parachute Division by air to Sicily; transfer the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to that island; and, upon commitment of the latter division, shift the headquarters of the XIV Panzer Corps to Sicily in order to give unified direction to all the German units there.6
Kesselring, too, by 11 July, had a much better appreciation of the strength which the Americans and British had landed on the 10th, and he also realized that his plan to throw the invading Allied forces back into the sea had failed. He believed that he had an accurate view of the developments on the island
from reports furnished him by the German Second Air Force. He attributed the failure of the Axis counterattacks chiefly to what he considered was Guzzoni’s delay in ordering the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division back to the central part of the island and to General Conrath’s slowness in counterattacking at Gela early on the morning of 10 July.7
Kesselring flew to Sicily on 12 July to see the situation at firsthand. At Sixth Army headquarters, Guzzoni and Senger were pessimistic about repelling the Allied invasion, and Kesselring had to agree. Resuming the offensive would have to await the arrival of reinforcements. Guzzoni doubted that he could hold all of Sicily. His main concern was no longer defending the entire island, but holding eastern Sicily until help arrived. Then a new counteroffensive could be started. He felt that his immediate tasks were to prevent any Allied breakthroughs into the interior of the island, and to consolidate all Axis forces then on Sicily in one strong battle position forward of Mount Etna.
Kesselring shared Guzzoni’s doubts on the ultimate outcome of the battle of Sicily. But he also felt that the Allies had not yet gained a free hand on the island. Strong and immediate countermeasures might delay the Allies indefinitely.
The prospective arrival of the 1st Parachute and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions brought mixed feelings to Guzzoni and Senger. Both feared that the additional troops would accentuate an already serious strain on transportation and supply lines. Moreover, Senger privately opposed the introduction of more German forces into Sicily because he was convinced that the best course of action was an immediate evacuation from the island.
Accompanied by Senger, Kesselring flew to the Catania airfield, where he met with Colonel Schmalz. Pleased with the steady and sure leadership demonstrated by Schmalz, Kesselring assured Schmalz that reinforcements were on the way. The 3rd Regiment, 1st Parachute Division, was en route and would be placed immediately at Schmalz’s disposal.
Like Guzzoni, Kesselring believed that the Axis might, at best, establish a tenable position across the northeastern neck of the island. But even this, Kesselring believed, required a strong directing headquarters such as the XIV Panzer Corps, reinforcement by at least one additional German division, and great improvement in the system of tactical communications.
About 1800, while Kesselring waited to take off for Frascati, the three infantry battalions of the 3rd Regiment, 1st Parachute Division, flew in under fighter plane escort and dropped near the Catania airfield. The successful execution of this operation convinced Kesselring that more paratroopers could be brought safely to Sicily by air.8
As Kesselring departed the Catania airfield, the three paratrooper rifle battalions loaded on trucks and moved into line to reinforce Group Schmalz, two battalions
south of Lentini, between the coastal highway and the coast line, the third battalion to Francofonte, a crucial point for the link-up with the main body of the Hermann Göring Division.
General Conrath had executed only minor withdrawals during the night of 11 July when General Guzzoni ordered him early on 12 July to hurry his withdrawal to the Caltagirone–Vizzini–Palazzolo Acreide area. Still, Conrath did not appear in any rush to conform. While the Hermann Göring Division fought near Niscemi and Biscari, Guzzoni repeated his order—Conrath was to disengage from the Gela sector and move back as quickly as possible to Highway 124. General von Senger confirmed and amplified this order in two radio messages dispatched before noon, directing Conrath to make contact at Palazzolo Acreide with the Napoli Division and Group Schmalz, while the Livorno Division covered his western flank.
Planning to wait until nightfall to pull his major units out of line, Conrath started his reconnaissance battalion back during the afternoon. After encountering the 179th Infantry north of Comiso, the battalion reached Vizzini during the late afternoon of 12 July. There it was reinforced by an infantry replacement battalion.9
At 2140, 12 July, General von Senger dispatched another radiogram to Conrath instructing him to speed up his withdrawal to the Caltagirone line (Highway 124). The division’s slow movement was causing apprehension at Sixth Army headquarters, for the division was needed not only to strengthen the eastern wing but also to stop the American and British thrusts northward from Comiso and Ragusa. Just before midnight, Sixth Army ordered General Conrath to attack from Vizzini toward Palazzolo Acreide the following day. But by the morning of 13 July, the division was still south of Caltagirone, along a line running from Vizzini on the east almost to Highway 117 on the west.10
To top off an extremely trying day for Sixth Army, the headquarters at Enna received a heavy Allied bombing attack late in the evening, making a transfer to Passo Pisciaro, east of Randazzo, imperative. The transfer was completed late the next day.11
The Allied Problem: How to Continue
Even as the Axis commanders sought ways and means of slowing up the Allied advances, General Patton, late on the afternoon of 12 July, moved his headquarters ashore. He opened the first Seventh Army command post on Sicily at the eastern edge of Gela “in a very handsome mansion, abandoned in a hurry by the prominent owner, a doctor and fascist apparently, who lived there ... in a spot which was apparently a Roman villa or something.”12 Optimism pervaded the army headquarters. Despite the Hermann Göring Division’s resistance to the 16th Infantry’s advance on Niscemi, and German opposition along part of
the 45th Division’s front, General Patton and General Bradley were aware of the indications of Axis withdrawal from the 1st Division’s front. Reports from both the 16th and 26th RCT’s during the night were cheering. The 45th Division seemed to be encountering no more than delaying forces in its push to the YELLOW Line. And General Keyes returned from the 3rd Division’s area with a very satisfactory report. All in all, General Patton was happy with the performance of the Seventh Army units. A number of distinguished visitors that day had been most complimentary. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the chief of the Combined Operations Headquarters, was greatly impressed by the operation in the II Corps zone. General Eisenhower, though pleased with the extent of the beachhead, was unhappy with what he considered General Patton’s failure to get news of the Seventh Army’s operations back to AFHQ promptly. “Ike … stepped on him hard.”13
Determined to keep the Seventh Army moving aggressively, General Patton directed the II Corps to continue its movement inland to seize its portion of the YELLOW Line—from Mazzarino on the west to Grammichele on the east. He approved Keyes’ instructions to the 3rd Division for a reconnaissance toward Agrigento, the seizure of Canicatti, and the reduction of the roadblock southeast of Riesi. Without General Alexander’s approval, General Patton felt that he could not tell Truscott to exploit toward Caltanissetta and Enna, or toward Agrigento and the western part of the island.14
General Bradley’s two divisions moved quickly on 13 July. (Map VII) The 1st Division, with the 18th RCT returning to its control, entered Niscemi at 1000, advanced six miles north of Ponte Oliva airfield to seize two important hill masses astride Highway 117, and sent a third column seven miles northwest of Ponte Olivo to seize two other hill masses astride the Ponte Olivo–Mazzarino road. These advances were opposed only by long-range sniper and artillery fire.
The 45th Division, in contrast, met with an unexpected complication. Late in the evening of 12 July, General Middleton sent word to his combat team commanders to continue driving toward Highway 124, the YELLOW Line, by leapfrogging battalions forward and maintaining constant watchfulness to the flanks. On the left the 180th RCT was to cross the Acate River, secure the Biscari airfield, then push north toward Caltagirone. In the center, the 179th RCT was to push to Highway 124 in the vicinity of Grammichele. On the right, the 157th RCT was to drive northeast to Monterosso Almo, then swing northwest to take Licodia Eubea, almost on the highway. Because the 157th would be operating in part across the army boundary and in the British zone, Middleton warned Colonel Ankcorn to maintain careful liaison with the 1st Canadian Division on his right.
Unknown to General Middleton, as well as to Generals Patton and Bradley, General Montgomery, the Eighth Army commander, had decided that Highway 124
west of Vizzini (the Seventh Army’s YELLOW Line) belonged to him. Though the original invasion plan reserved the highway to the Americans, Montgomery halted the 1st Canadian Division at the small town of Giarratana and directed General Leese to use the rest of his 30 Corps in a drive on Caltagirone, Enna, and Leonforte. While the 30 Corps thus moved directly across the Seventh Army front, the 13 Corps was to continue to try to break through into the Catania plain. The Eighth Army would then advance on Messina on two widely separated axes: one up the coastal road on the east, the other into the interior through Enna, Leonforte, on to Nicosia, Troina, and Randazzo, in a swing around the western side of Mount Etna. The 13 Corps was to make the Eighth Army’s main effort. A second airborne drop was to seize the Primosole bridge over the Simeto River and a Commando landing was to capture the Lentini bridge. The operation was to start on the evening of 13 July. Without General Alexander’s approval, Montgomery ordered his units to start the operation.15
General Montgomery’s new plan gave to the British Eighth Army the use of all the roads leading to Messina. There were only four roads on the entire island leading toward the important port city, and of the four, only two went all the way. The first was the east coast highway, on which Montgomery had his 13 Corps. The other through road was the north coast highway. Two roads to Messina were inland routes that ran toward Messina from Enna. The southernmost of these ran along the rim of Mount Etna; the other, some fifteen miles south of the north coast road, passed through Nicosia and Troina. Both the inner roads converged at Randazzo, on the Messina side of Mount Etna, where one road headed for the east coast road, and the other ran toward Messina. Montgomery’s specified axis of advance for the 30 Corps, if carried through to the north coast, would give that corps the possession of the fourth one. The assignment of these roads would effectively restrict the Seventh Army’s activities to the southwestern part of the island.
In keeping with the Eighth Army directive, General Leese, commander of the 30 Corps, directed the British 23rd Armored Brigade to seize Vizzini during daylight of 13 July, Caltagirone during the evening of the same day. The British 51st Highland Infantry Division was to follow the armored brigade to secure Vizzini, and drive on the town of Scordia to protect the corps’ north flank. The 1st Canadian Division was to remain near Giarratana.16
Thus, when daylight came on 13 July, American and British units were heading toward the same objectives. Pushing out
of Biscari in difficult terrain, along a single, narrow, secondary road effectively blocked by the Germans, facing strong delaying forces of the Hermann Göring Division, the 180th RCT did not get across the Acate River until late in the afternoon and then pushed only a little way farther on before being stopped again at the narrow Ficuzza River. Though the Ficuzza was no more than a small stream, both banks were precipitous, and the Germans had destroyed the bridge and blocked the narrow road which wound down to the crossing site.17
On the 179th RCT front, the regiment quickly abandoned the leapfrogging procedure and advanced on a wide front, battalions abreast. Detachments from the Hermann Göring Division fought stubborn rear guard actions while withdrawing toward Highway 124. Often the leading battalions were delayed by a few German troops supported by one or two armored vehicles left on critical terrain features. To dislodge even these small units, the battalions either had to deploy or wait for the flank security elements to catch up and flush out the Germans. In one or two cases, the Germans, from positions on especially good terrain features, counterattacked sharply before withdrawing to the next hill. The supporting American tanks proved of little use in the rugged terrain, but the 160th Field Artillery Battalion, a platoon of 4.2-inch mortars, and a platoon of self-propelled howitzers from the regimental Cannon Company performed yeoman service in aiding the infantry’s advance. By late afternoon, the 3rd Battalion, 179th Infantry, entered the small village of Granieri, about five miles south of Highway 124. By this time, too, the advance on a wide front had been discarded in favor of a column formation. Because civilians indicated that the Germans had a large armored force (an estimated 500 men and 35 tanks) deployed in an olive grove about three miles north of Granieri, the 3rd Battalion commander pushed his men to gain the high ground just north of the village. It took a night attack to accomplish this, but by 2300 the 3rd Battalion was in position on the hill mass astride the narrow dirt road it had been following all day. The remainder of the combat team closed in near the village.
On the right Monterosso Almo fell to the 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry, at noon. A further advance by the battalion of almost three miles toward Vizzini was registered before increasing German resistance called a halt to the day’s activities. Licodia Eubea fell late in the afternoon to the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, but not before the battalion lost twenty men killed and forty wounded. Across its front, the 157th RCT stood less than three miles from the YELLOW Line.
Just before the news of the seizure of Licodia Eubea reached the combat team’s command post at Monterosso Almo, Colonel Ankcorn received an inkling of the Eighth Army’s new plan of action. Shortly after 1700, the leading elements of the 51st Highland Division began to arrive at Monterosso Almo. Surprised, Ankcorn learned that the Highlanders were on their way to take Vizzini. The 23rd Armored Brigade, advancing northeastward from Palazzolo Acreide, had run head on into the Hermann Göring Division (going the opposite way) and had been stopped by fierce resistance from
Germans and Italians (the remnants of the Napoli Division) east of Vizzini. The Highlanders had been committed to the south of Vizzini to clear the town for the armored brigade. Colonel Ankcorn had been told of the armored brigade’s move on Vizzini, but since he had neither seen nor heard anything from that column, he had continued his attack on Vizzini. Now it appeared to Colonel Ankcorn that the British were to take Vizzini after which the Eighth Army would swing northward along the army boundary. But as far as the 157th Combat Team commander was concerned, the rest of the highway was in the Seventh Army’s area and that part of the highway west of Vizzini was still his objective. Nevertheless, he radioed General Middleton news of the latest British movements.18
The news from the 157th Combat Team’s front near Vizzini must have created some confusion at Seventh Army’s command post late in the afternoon of 13 July. General Alexander had visited General Patton that very morning. Patton asked for approval to take Agrigento and Porto Empedocle, the ports which he felt would be needed to continue the logistical support of Seventh Army. The army group commander did not disapprove the request, but he did not want the Seventh Army to get entangled in a fight which might interfere with its primary mission: the protection of the Eighth Army’s left flank. Accordingly, he told General Patton that the Seventh Army could take Agrigento and Porto Empedocle provided this could be done by reconnaissance troops and provided the operation did not cost too much in manpower or material. Nothing was said about any change in the boundary between the Seventh and Eighth Armies. Nothing was said about the assignment of Highway 124 to the British.19
Just before midnight, any confusion that may have existed was cleared up when General Alexander radioed the following directive to the Seventh Army:
Operations for the immediate future will be Eighth Army to advance on two axes, one to capture the port of Catania and the group of airfields there and the other to secure the network of road communications within the area Leonforte–Enna. Seventh Army will conform by pivoting on Palma di Montechiaro–Canicatti–Caltanissetta—gaining touch with Eighth Army at road junction HOW 1979 [the junction of Highways 117 and 122 southwest of Enna]. Boundary between Seventh and Eighth Armies, road Vizzini–Caltagirone–Piazza Armerina–Road Junction HOW 1979–Enna; all inclusive to Eighth Army. Liaison will be carefully arranged between Seventh and Eighth Armies for this operation.20
The directive came as a surprise and a distinct disappointment to the Seventh Army staff, for the order gave the Americans a passive role in the campaign.
Patton’s staff had expected to advance to the general line Agrigento–Canicatti–Caltanissetta and the II Corps to advance inland along Highway 124. The Americans had expected to make the swing around the western side of Mount Etna toward Messina, while the British Eighth Army massed its power for a drive around the eastern side.
But General Patton did not dispute the order. On the morning of 14 July he called General Bradley to Seventh Army headquarters and explained the new directive. It entailed sideslipping the 45th Division to the west; giving up Highway 124; and shifting the II Corps advance from north to west.
General Bradley was keenly disappointed. “This will raise hell with us,” he exclaimed. “I had counted heavily on that road. Now if we’ve got to shift over, it’ll slow up our entire advance.” The II Corps commander asked whether he could use Highway 124 at least to move the 45th Division to the left of the 1st Division in order to maintain the momentum of his advance. The answer was, “Sorry, Brad, but the changeover takes place immediately. Monty wants the road right away.”
After reading General Alexander’s directive, Bradley returned it gloomily to Patton. He knew that the Germans were falling back toward the northeast. He felt certain that the Axis commanders were pulling back hoping to reassemble their forces across the narrow neck of the Messina peninsula. The delay encountered in pulling the 45th Division out of line and moving it around the rear of the 1st Division to a new position on the left of General Allen’s unit would take considerable pressure off the Hermann Göring Division and perhaps enable the Germans to recover their balance. To General Bradley, it appeared that General Montgomery planned to take Messina alone, while the Seventh Army confined its efforts to the western half of the island.21
Although there had been no prepared plan by 15th Army Group for the maneuver of the two armies after the seizure of the initial assault objectives, the assault plan itself contained by implication the general scheme which General Alexander hoped to follow. While the Eighth Army thrust forward into Catania and then into Messina, the Seventh Army was to protect the flank and rear of the main striking force because General Alexander was convinced that the Eighth Army was better qualified for the main task than the Seventh Army.22 On 13 July, when General Alexander issued his directive to General Patton, he felt it necessary to restrain the impetuous American commander, to keep the Seventh Army doing its primary job, and not to endanger the operation by movements which might expose the Eighth Army to strong Axis counterattacks. Events were going according to plan: the Eighth Army had secured a firm beachhead and was moving on Catania with seeming
good speed. The inexperienced American divisions could best be nursed along with limited assignments which would gradually build up their fighting morale and experience.
In addition to his confidence in the Eighth Army and his distrust of American troops, General Alexander was most concerned about the network of roads which converged in the center of Sicily like the spokes of a huge wheel—in the rough quadrangle bounded by Caltanissetta–San Caterina–Enna–Valguarnera Caropepe. As long as this network of roads remained in enemy hands, General Alexander feared that the Axis might use the area to launch a mighty counterattack against General Montgomery’s left flank. It was this concern that led Alexander to make sure that his armies held a solid front—meaning that the Eighth Army would be firmly established on a line from Catania to Enna—before pushing the campaign any further.
Seventh Army, General Alexander felt, should cover the Eighth Army’s left flank until the latter had secured the firm line. Once that line had been secured, the exploitation phase of the operation could begin. It would then be safe to thrust out. General Alexander feared that if the Seventh Army pushed out prematurely all over the western half of the island, the enemy might drive in on Eighth Army’s left flank. This could cause the Allied armies on Sicily a serious reverse, if not a disaster. Alexander wanted no defeat. He wanted to be certain that the Eighth Army was in a secure position before he let “Georgie” go and exploit.23
Comando Supremo and OKW
After telephoning a report of the situation in Sicily to General Jodl, Field Marshal Kesselring saw Mussolini on 13 July. Kesselring’s account of developments or the island shocked Mussolini.
News of the apparently successful counterattacks on 10 July had raised Italian hopes and prompted joyful celebrations in Rome. Disappointment was therefore greater when, less than two days later, the scanty war bulletins spoke of “containment” instead of “elimination” of the Allied beachheads. Even in those military circles where no one had seriously expected the coastal defense units to put up much more than token opposition, the resistance appeared disappointingly brief. The two mobile divisions, the Livorno and Napoli, had shown some good fighting qualities, but as soon as they had come into range of the Allied naval guns, they had halted their attacks and retired. The collapse of the naval base at Augusta and Syracuse was beyond comprehension.24 For Mussolini news of the fall of the naval base was the more depressing because it reached him through German channels and on the heels of the first favorable reports from Gela.25
The unfavorable developments on Sicily increased the already serious friction between the Italian and German high commands.
Discussions soon went beyond the defense of the island and entered the far-reaching problems connected with the Italo-German partnership in the war effort.
Examining the situation at the end of 12 July, Comando Supremo determined that the coastal defenses had indeed collapsed and that Axis inferiority in naval and aerial strength had made it relatively easy for the Allies to land additional troops faster and in greater numbers than the Axis countries could hope to match. Since the counterattacks had failed, the only effective defense now appeared to be to wage unrelenting warfare on the Allied sea lanes. But in order to do this, it was imperative to increase the Axis air forces committed to the defense of Sicily. Since Italy had no reserve of planes, Mussolini asked Hitler for help. In an appeal to the Führer, the Duce pointed out that German planes were needed immediately, but only for a short time. Once the crisis in Sicily had been overcome, the aircraft would again be available for other commitments. If Germany really came to Italy’s aid and German planes arrived promptly, Mussolini saw some hope for the defense of Sicily. Otherwise, “if we do not throw out the invaders right now, it will be too late.”26
On 14 July, Mussolini continued to find the situation on Sicily to be disquieting but not irretrievable. Before he would make any further decisions, the Duce wanted to know from Comando Supremo exactly what had happened, what the remaining potential was, and how that potential could be increased.27
But if Mussolini saw a possibility of saving the situation in Sicily—provided the Germans sent planes and reinforcements—Comando Supremo was ready to toss in the sponge. Ambrosio, on 14 July, notified Mussolini that the fate of Sicily had been sealed, and he urged the Duce to consider ending the war to spare Italy further waste and destruction.28
In Germany, Hitler’s spontaneous reaction upon learning of the Allied invasion had been to send help in the form of the 1st Parachute Division. But the news immediately after of the failure of the coastal defense troops and the collapse of the Naval Base Augusta–Syracuse called for a review of the situation.
Kesselring’s telephone report to General Jodl on 13 July described the situation on the island as critical. Because of Allied strength, the failure of the Italian coastal units, and the lack of mobility of the German units, Kesselring said there was no chance to mount another concerted counterattack against the Allied beachheads. The best that could be hoped for was to fight for time. This in itself, Kesselring believed, would be an accomplishment of great importance in view of the detrimental effect the loss of Sicily would have on Italian determination to continue the war. In Kesselring’s opinion, all was not yet lost. He proposed to move the remainder of the German
parachute division and all of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to Sicily; to reinforce the Luftwaffe; and to increase the number of submarines and small motor boats operating against Allied convoys.29
Aware of the danger inherent in fighting a two-front war, Hitler had known for months—at least since the defeats at Stalingrad and in North Africa—that he would have to weaken the Eastern Front if he wanted to strengthen the German position in the Mediterranean. The German offensive to retake Kursk on the Eastern Front—Operation ZITADELLE—had started on 5 July, only five days before the Allied invasion of Sicily. But in view of the changed military situation in the Mediterranean, and because of Hitler’s wish to have politically reliable troops in Italy, he decided to call off ZITADELLE on 13 July. This measure gave Hitler the troops for Italy, including in particular an SS Panzer corps on whose political attitude he could rely.
Although predominantly preoccupied with the events in Russia, Hitler saw the possible loss of Sicily principally in the light of a threat to the Balkans. Moreover, the probable loss of air bases on Sicily would decrease the radius of Axis air activity and increase that of the Allies, thus bringing Allied air power closer to the northern Italian industrial cities as well as to the German homeland.
If the Germans intended to hold on to the Italian mainland as a bulwark against an assault on the Balkan peninsula, or on Germany itself, they could do so only with Italian cooperation. The German high command knew full well that the Italians were tired of the war. Long before, Hitler had planned ALARICH to keep the Italians from going over to the Allies. But the invasion of Sicily by strong British and American armies renewed German fears of a possible overthrow of Mussolini and the withdrawal of Italy from the war.
General Jodl felt that Sicily could not be held for any great length of time. He decided that the moment had come to prepare for the defense of the Italian mainland and of the German homeland. He also felt that no German forces should be sent south of the line of the northern Apennines for fear that they would be cut off in the event of a military or political upheaval in Italy. But Kesselring’s recommendation to continue the defense of Sicily coincided with Hitler’s doctrine of holding whatever territory German soldiers occupied, and Kesselring’s recommendation helped override Jodl’s objections. Hitler decided to aid his Italian ally. He was prepared to take radical action in case of a political change in Italy, but as long as Mussolini remained in power, Hitler was willing to give him all possible support.
Hitler acknowledged that the German forces on Sicily were, alone, not strong enough to throw the Allies back into the sea, the more so since another Allied landing on the western coast had to be anticipated. He therefore redefined the task of the German troops on the island as “to delay the enemy advance as much as possible and to bring it to a halt in front of the Aetna along a defense line running approximately from San Stefano via Adrano to Catania.” In other words only eastern Sicily was to be held, western Sicily was to be abandoned. Hitler also confirmed the insertion of the XIV Panzer Corps under General Hube into the chain of command on the island—without
however, rescinding his previous orders that the Italians were to hold all tactical commands—and he ordered the rest of the 1st Parachute Division moved to Sicily. At the same time, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was to move to Reggio di Calabria to await possible transfer to Sicily. The final decision on its transfer across the Strait of Messina would depend on the amount of supplies within the German position on Sicily and on the maintenance of safe traffic across the Strait of Messina. The German Second Air Force was to receive three bomber groups (including one night bomber group) as reinforcements. One additional bomber group and a torpedo plane squadron were to be added at a later date. Hitler also ordered eight 210-mm. guns sent to the Strait of Messina, and demanded the addition of German personnel to the crews of the Italian coastal batteries, a measure to which Ambrosio agreed.
Hitler then issued special instructions to the XIV Panzer Corps, with the understanding that the instructions were to be kept secret from the Italians and that knowledge of the instructions was to be confined to a restricted group of German officers. Working closely with General von Senger and the German liaison staff then at Sixth Army, General Hube was quietly to exclude the Italian command echelons from any further German planning; assume complete direction of operations in the Sicilian bridgehead; and extend his command to the remaining Italian units on the island.
General Jodl, most anxious to save German manpower for the future defense of the Italian and German homelands, enlarged on Hitler’s secret instructions. Jodl directed Hube to conduct operations on Sicily with the basic idea of saving as much of the German forces as possible. This, too, was to be kept secret from the Italians.30
Kesselring may not have known of Hitler’s and Jodl’s secret orders to Hube when he informed Ambrosio and Roatta on 14 July that the existing line on Sicily could not be held with the then available Axis forces. After a general withdrawal all along the line, however, the northeastern part of Sicily could be defended on a line between Santo Stefano and Catania. This was in agreement with Guzzoni’s views. Kesselring also announced General Hube’s transfer to Sicily to assume command of the German forces, and he received assurances from Ambrosio that Comando Supremo had issued sharp orders for the restoration of discipline in the Italian Army.31
On the next day, 15 July, Mussolini, Ambrosio, Kesselring, and Rintelen met in a conference in Rome. The discussions satisfied no one. Mussolini wanted the proposed defensive line extended farther west to include all of the Madonie Mountains. Ambrosio pressed for the immediate transfer of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to Sicily and for the movement of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division into Calabria to protect the toe of Italy. Kesselring had the unpleasant task of explaining that the 29th Panzer Grenadier
Division could not be shifted into Sicily until its requisite supplies were assured. Meanwhile, everything should be done to protect the traffic over the Strait of Messina. Ambrosio, holding to his views, urged that since Calabria represented a most delicate zone, the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division should be moved immediately to that area. Here Kesselring was at a loss. The Führer insisted on holding that particular division near Lake Bolsena to protect the area of Livorno (Leghorn), Kesselring declared, but why Hitler had fears for Leghorn, Kesselring did not know. This concluded the conference.32 Although no specific decisions had been made, it was evident that at least some of the Axis leaders intended to defend Sicily as long as possible.
On the same day, Kesselring talked with Roatta, the chief of Superesercito, about the best place to defend Italy: in Sicily or on the northern Apennines line. Kesselring convinced Roatta that holding a bridgehead on Sicily was imperative for both military and political reasons. The two men then decided to establish a defensive front “around the Etna” from which the Axis forces on Sicily would first offer stubborn resistance and then resume the offensive. Since General Hube was scheduled to arrive in Sicily on this day to take over command of the German troops, Kesselring assured Roatta that in all circumstances the tactical command over the German forces on the island would remain in General Guzzoni’s hands. General von Senger was to retain only his function as liaison officer with Sixth Army. Kesselring also suggested that Italian units be intermingled with the German divisions, but Roatta deferred a decision on this point. The two generals estimated that the addition of the two German divisions and Hube’s corps headquarters would make it possible to hold a front on Sicily, at least until mid-August.33
Thus, by 15 July, Kesselring and Guzzoni seemed united in believing that at least a part of Sicily could be held. Kesselring wanted always to fight, as long a there was a chance. Guzzoni wanted to do his duty, but he fully realized that his only effective troops on Sicily were German, and that he would have to depend on full German support to hold even the northeastern corner of the island.
At the higher echelons of Axis military command, this unity of feeling was not so apparent. Ambrosio felt that the war was lost, and he wanted to save the Italian armed forces and to separate Italy from Germany. Jodl did not want to risk having the German forces in Sicily cut off, or to send good money after bad. Mussolini appeared undecided. He wanted to end the war but he needed a tactical success to achieve the proper time for making a peace move. Hitler did not want to withdraw, and he was willing to support Mussolini if the Italians would fight.
On Sicily itself after Kesselring’s departure Guzzoni found little good in the situation. Group Schmalz was barely holding on to its Lentini positions; the delay in the withdrawal of the bulk of the Hermann Göring Division prevented the blocking of the Allied advances toward Francofonte and Vizzini, and made it doubtful that the formation could be moved east fast enough to defend at the
southern edge of the Catania plain. There was, consequently, no assurance against an Allied advance into the Catania plain. Guzzoni did not know when he could expect the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. The Italian units had suffered heavy casualties and were exhausted. Italian morale was at a low ebb. The Allies seemed to be exerting their strongest pressure on both wings of the invasion front while, at the same time, maintaining dangerous pressure in the center.
General Guzzoni still expected to form and hold a main defensive line with its eastern hinge south of the Catania plain. Again, on 13 July, he urged the Hermann Göring Division to move to the Catania area with the greatest possible speed. Guzzoni also picked this time to define his main battle position farther to the rear, the position which would be held at all costs and from which the Axis forces could return to the initiative. He proposed the line running from Acireale (north of Catania)–Adrano–Cesarò–San Fratello, and he notified Superesercito to this effect, adding that he planned to start the withdrawal of the units immediately, delaying as much as possible.34 Superesercito reluctantly consented to Guzzoni’s proposal but qualified its approval by stating that such a movement to the rear was authorized only if it should prove impossible to prevent an Allied breakthrough into the Catania plain and only if the new eastern wing would be strong enough to permit Axis units in central and western Sicily to move to eastern Sicily in time.35
Just a short time later, though, Comando Supremo overrode the army command’s approval. The Italian high command insisted that the positions then occupied by Sixth Army be held at all costs. Specifically, the Catania plain and the airfields at Catania and Gerbini were to remain in Axis hands. The telephone message transmitting these instructions closed with the remark that “very numerous” German planes were on their way to Sicily.36
Because the British 13 Corps was regrouping preparatory to making its major effort that same evening, Group Schmalz had little difficulty in holding its positions just south of Lentini on 13 July. Colonel Schmalz received further reinforcements in the form of other units from the 1st Parachute Division: a parachute machine gun battalion; an airborne engineer battalion; and four batteries of airborne artillery. In addition, two separate German infantry battalions which had crossed into Sicily on the 11th were also attached to his command.37
In the late afternoon of 13 July, Colonel Schmalz was able to get through a telephone call to General Conrath. After some discussion, the German commanders agreed that both groups would fall back to a position along the northern rim of the Catania plain, there to make contact on the morning of 15 July. The whole of the Hermann Göring Division would then be united and would form its main line of resistance along the line Leonforte–Catenanuova–Gerbini–Catania. For the remainder of 13 and 14 July, Colonel
Schmalz would have to hold where he was.38
By late evening of 13 July, the Hermann Göring Division completed its withdrawal to the Caltagirone–Vizzini line, although it kept strong elements south of that line to blunt the various American thrusts inland from Niscemi, Biscari, and Comiso. The Italian Livorno Division also withdrew further into the interior to establish a new line between the two German divisions and to prevent a possible American breakthrough at Piazza Armerina.
In the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division area, the German units had little trouble holding their new line on 13 July. Only minor actions took place between American patrols and the German and Italian units. Group Fullriede, still under General Schreiber’s control, extended its front eastward toward Caltanissetta. Group Ens remained along a line running from Piazza Armerina to Pietraperzia. Sometime during the late evening of 12 July, General Rodt, the division commander, received word from Sixth Army to prepare to withdraw to the new line of resistance south of Mount Etna. The division was to fight delaying actions back to a new line which extended from Agira–Leonforte–Nicosia–Gangi, and at the same time establish contact with the Hermann Göring Division across the remnants of the Livorno Division. Accordingly, General Rodt moved his division headquarters to Grottacalda (two and a half miles southwest of Valguarnera) and started to transfer the division’s service elements to the new line.39
The Axis defenses were giving way, but they were not crumbling. The Allies had yet to conquer Sicily.