Chapter 19: Evacuation
The Tarvis Conference
While the Italian emissaries, D’Ajeta and Berio, were sounding out the Allies in Lisbon and Tangiers, Comando Supremo was continuing its wary cooperation with the Germans on the basis that its primary mission was to defend Italy against the Allies, the secondary one to guard against a German coup. Ambrosio and Castellano knew of the diplomatic missions to the Allies; Roatta, the Army chief of staff, knew nothing of this.
German strategic planning at this time was quite fluid. On 5 August OKW canceled its plan drawn up for the rapid seizure of Rome and of the members of the Italian Government. By this time the Italians had assembled such forces around the capital as to make its capture appear more formidable than before. Furthermore, Skorzeny, busy with a variety of false leads provided by the Italian counter-espionage service, had been unable to locate Mussolini.
Kesselring had helped induce OKW to postpone its program of seizing Rome with the argument that he would, in that event, be forced to withdraw all his units from Sicily and southern Italy. Believing that the Italian Government showed a genuine will to cooperate, and hoping that personnel losses could be restored and sufficient munitions supplied, he was sure that the Axis could hold Sicily for a relatively long period and thereby tie down eleven or twelve Allied divisions.
The weakness of Kesselring’s position lay in Calabria and southern Italy, where he had only alarm units (in the Naples–Salerno area) and the 16th Panzer Division (dispersed over the interior). Because he could not guard Puglia and the west coast at the same time, Kesselring asked for reinforcement so that he might have at least one division for each of the three critical areas: Calabria, Puglia, and Naples–Salerno.
Jodl, chief of the OKW operations section, the Wehrmachtführungsstab, held the opposite view. He argued that the Allies in Sicily were tying down German divisions. He feared that if the Allies were to land in force in Calabria, they would bag the entire XIV Panzer Corps in Sicily and be able to advance at will to the northern Apennines. Jodl wanted an immediate withdrawal from Sicily and southern Italy.
Hitler refused to send reinforcements to southern Italy, but he could not make up his mind to withdraw from Sicily. Intent on finding and liberating Mussolini, he believed that the rescue would be such a shock to the “English” as to deter them from any further large-scale landings. Student’s and Skorzeny’s search for Mussolini therefore continued. And until they found Mussolini, the German commanders in Italy were to observe the appearance of
good faith toward the Badoglio government.1
Just before the Tarvis conference scheduled for 6 August, the Germans considered asking for a greater share in the command of the Axis armed forces in the Mediterranean area. To this end they wanted a liaison staff attached directly to Comando Supremo or to the Army General Staff (Superesercito), a staff that would represent Kesselring’s views on the use of forces in central and southern Italy. They also wanted a German Army headquarters to exercise command over all the German and Italian ground forces in northern Italy under the supreme command of the King. They thought of bringing up for discussion the matter of possible withdrawal from Sicily. But on the day before the conference, they decided not to mention the change of command or a withdrawal.
The conference itself between German and Italian foreign ministers and chiefs of staff was marked by solemn statements by each group which it did not mean, and which the other group knew it did not mean. Despite Badoglio’s intention, the conferees explored the means of continuing the war rather than the possibilities of achieving peace. The Italians, intent on keeping up the appearance of being a faithful ally and on maintaining the notion that German troops in Italy were under operational control of Comando Supremo, pressed for agreement on the movement of German reinforcements to the south and away from the capital and from the naval bases of La Spezia and Pola (where the bulk of the Italian Fleet was stationed). The Italians also hoped to reach agreement on withdrawing to the homeland the Italian divisions in southern France and the Balkans. Fundamentally, the Italians were stalling for time until they received word of the Allied reply to the overtures of D’Ajeta and Berio.
Ribbentrop, Keitel, Guariglia, and Ambrosio met on the morning of 6 August. Guariglia declared the change of government in Italy to be purely an internal matter; Italy held to Badoglio’s declaration that the war was to continue. Ambrosio complained that Germany appeared to place little faith in Italy’s word; he was astonished at the numerous German divisions coming, in part, unannounced. Though southern Italy was threatened, Ambrosio said, the Germans were concentrating near Rome and in the north, creating the suspicion that the Germans had other intentions than the defense of Italy. Keitel said that questioning German good faith was quite unacceptable, and he expressed indignation that the Italians were not thankful for generous German aid. Ribbentrop asked directly whether Guariglia had had any conversation with the English or Americans. Guariglia replied in the negative, admitting, however, that he had spoken with the Turkish Foreign Minister. Ambrosio reaffirmed the intention of the Italians to march with all their strength by the side of the Germans.
At the afternoon session, attended by Keitel, Rintelen, Warlimont, Ambrosio, Marras, and Rossi, Ambrosio suggested that Italian assurances regarding German divisions in transit to Italy were not final. Keitel insisted that the north would first have to be fully protected before German reinforcements could move to the south. Ambrosio stated his intention of withdrawing
the Italian Fourth Army from France and three divisions from the Balkans, and he expressed the hope that the Germans would provide for the protection of the areas vacated by the Italians. Keitel replied by saying a decision on this matter was beyond his authority, but he agreed to present the Italian proposal to Hitler. He recommended that the movement of German reinforcements to southern Italy, on which the Italians placed such emphasis, receive priority over the withdrawal of Italian troops from occupied territories.
Except for an understanding that the German units in Sicily and southern Italy were to be brought to full strength and adequately supplied, no real agreement was reached at Tarvis. Pious declarations of alliance were exchanged. The Germans believed, or professed to believe, that the conferees were in accord that protection not only of the Brenner Pass but of all the Alpine passes into Italy had become a joint responsibility. The Italians
understood that joint protection by ground forces applied to the Brenner Pass alone, the other passes remaining under Italian competence except for antiaircraft batteries.2
The fundamental question of the command and distribution of forces was in no way resolved. The Italians, maintaining the sham that all German forces in Italy were under the Comando Supremo’s operational control, complained that the German troops in the north behaved as though they were in an occupied country. When Ambrosio asked whether Kesselring commanded the new troops entering Italy from the north, Warlimont replied: “Up to now, yes. However, it will be necessary to establish a command over the German divisions in North Italy. Notification will be given at an appropriate time.” Until the traffic crisis was overcome or dissipated, the Germans insisted on keeping their new forces concentrated in the north. The Italians had no chance to expound a plan of joint defense that would have left not a single German division in the Po valley.3
The conference had opened in an atmosphere of gravest mutual suspicion. It closed in the same spirit. Ribbentrop brought up the matter of a future meeting of Hitler with the King and Badoglio on German soil and suggested that the Heir Apparent also attend. Guariglia did not press the subject because he feared that the King might be seized and held in custody or as a hostage. He had, in any case, already started on another course.4
Leonardo Vitetti complained that the trip to Tarvis was like Columbus’ first voyage: he did not know where he was going and when he came back he did not know where he had been or what he had done.5
The Italian Dilemma
With the Tarvis conference providing formal Italian concurrence for reinforcing the north, German troops continued to move into north Italy, General Gloria reporting on 7 August that approximately 30,000 troops had crossed the Brenner Pass by that date.6 OKW’s policy in this respect, representing an uneasy day by day compromise between its own views and OB SUED’s wishes, exploited the willingness of Comando Supremo to receive reinforcements. Although Hitler remained convinced that Italy was planning treason, although plans and preparations for seizing Italy were constantly reviewed and kept up to date, there existed a wide divergency in strategies to be followed in case of Italian betrayal or of Allied attack in southern Italy.
Skeptical and pessimistic of German success, Rommel was disappointed in the number of forces actually assigned to his Army Group B (for the most part infantry
divisions). They were so meager in comparison with the Panzer army originally planned in June that he estimated he could defend northern Italy against Allied invasion only with Italian cooperation. To oppose an invasion without Italian support or while fighting the Italians would be, he felt, an impossible task. Unaware of how thoroughly the Italian officers hated him—he doubted, for example, that an announcement of his command would cause much reaction among the Italians—he wished to move his headquarters from Munich to northern Italy, hoping in that way to gain the cooperation and good will of the Italian generals.7
Kesselring, who no doubt had little relish for the prospect of merging his command into Rommel’s, continued to take an optimistic view. He and Rintelen, in agreement on the matter, made great efforts to prevent the harsh and suspicious attitude of OKW from completely alienating the Italians.8
The full scope of German intentions—to compel the Italian Government to continue the war whether it wished or not, to seize the Italian Fleet and capital, and to convert the Italian peninsula into a battlefield for the defense of Germany—was abundantly clear after the Tarvis conference. The German occupation of Italy, which had been Ambrosio’s greatest fear since May, was rapidly becoming an accomplished fact. Though the Italian Government had formally accepted unwanted German reinforcements, and though the unwelcome guests were already in the house, Comando Supremo did not wish them to have the keys to all the rooms. Ambrosio therefore ordered certain troop movements to counteract the German strangle hold. He strengthened the forces guarding Rome and alerted them to take increased precautions against German moves. He had the 105th (Rovigo) Infantry Division and the 6th (Alpi Graje) Alpine Division moved from Turin, where they had been maintaining public order, to La Spezia, the main base of the Italian Fleet, from which the Germans were to be excluded.9
In the Brenner Pass area, General Gloria’s XXXV Corps had had only the 2nd (Tridentina) Alpine Division, a unit in the process of reconstitution after return from the Russian front. The 4th (Cuneense) Alpine Division, which also shared bitter memories of German behavior in the retreat from Stalingrad, had been moved to Cosenza (in Calabria) in July. Now, however, Ambrosio ordered that division moved northward up the whole length of the Italian peninsula to become part of Gloria’s corps.10
On 8 August, in accordance with instructions, Gloria sent a note to General Feurstein. He stated that Roatta, the Army chief of staff, had directed the two Alpine divisions to take over the protection of the Brenner Pass in order to free the German 44th Infantry Division for further movement southward. German antiaircraft batteries were to remain, but under Gloria’s command. Feurstein replied
firmly that the 44th Infantry Division would stay where it was and be wholly responsible for protecting the Brenner–Bolzano sector. Professing great indignation over the northward movement of Italian troops while German divisions were not only moving south to defend Italy against Allied invasion but also carrying the main burden of the campaign in Sicily, Kesselring submitted a formal note of protest to Ambrosio. He demanded the withdrawal of all the Italian troops that had moved into the Trentino after 5 August. Otherwise, he threatened, responsibility for the consequences would fall upon the Italian Government.11
Confirming all the points in the Tarvis agreement, Ambrosio nevertheless refused to suspend the movement of the Cuneense Alpine Division into the South Tyrol. It was to complete its mountain training, he said, before commitment against the Allies. An uneasy compromise resulted, as German and Italian troops continued to share the protection of the Brenner area.12
A new misunderstanding in the South Tyrol occurred on 9 August, when Feurstein notified Gloria of new troop movements and requested the plans and keys of installations suitable for accommodating the German units. Informed by Gloria and interpreting the request as a demand for the plans and keys of all the Italian fortifications in the Reschen and Sillian Passes, Roatta energetically protested to Kesselring the presumptious German behavior. Kesselring notified OKW, which agreed to confirm all troop movements with Comando Supremo through Kesselring, in accordance with the Tarvis conference. Yet OKW directed Army Group B to prepare to occupy the Tarvis Pass, the northeastern gateway into Italy from Ljubljana and from Villach-Klagenfurt.13
By this time, Comando Supremo had developed schizophrenic tendencies under the contradictory pressures of opposing the Allies in the south and the Germans in the north. In accordance with Ambrosio’s order, Castellano on 9 August traveled to Monterotondo, just outside Rome, whither the Army staff was moving in anticipation of the proclamation of Rome’s open city status, and directed Roatta to make certain troop dispositions in view of a probable conflict with the Germans. Roatta objected. The orders implied a change in policy, and Roatta did not wish to act unless the order for the change came from the King and Badoglio. Calling on Ambrosio that evening, Roatta urged him to take the matter to the King. At an audience with Victor Emmanuel III on 10 August, Ambrosio secured the King’s approval of the proposed troop movements and informed Roatta, who issued a written directive to his subordinate commanders.
The directive confirmed and elaborated the verbal orders Roatta had issued at the end of July. Italian forces were to react positively against German violence, safeguard command posts and assembly areas against German surprise attack, reinforce the protection of hydroelectric plants and other important installations, observe closely and report all German troop movements and all supporting actions by Fascists, plan and prepare for action against
such vital German installations as motor parks, munition depots, and airfields. Unless the Germans took the initiative and resorted to force, Italian units were to execute these plans only upon order from Roatta’s headquarters. Like previous instructions of this nature issued by Roatta, these orders were defensive in nature. There was no anticipation of possible cooperation with the Allies against the Germans. Roatta still knew nothing of the missions of D’Ajeta and Berio.14
The Decision to Evacuate Sicily
The Tarvis conference had not settled on a future course of action to be followed by the Axis armies in Sicily, for Sicily had been discussed only incidentally. Wanting to avoid a repetition of the Tunisian disaster and fearing that Hitler would delay a decision until too late, Kesselring took it upon himself to solve the problem.
Kesselring had received the OKW order of 26 July to prepare for an eventual evacuation of the island. To prevent leakage of German plans to the Italians as directed by OKW, Kesselring had called a conference on 27 July to brief the German commanders on the planned conduct of future operations on the island. “If the Italians should leave the alliance with Germany,” Kesselring said, “the XIV Panzer Corps will immediately disengage from the enemy and evacuate all troops from Sicily. Preparations for the evacuation will start right away in coordination between XIV and LXXVI Panzer Corps and other headquarters involved.” Col. Bogislaw von Bonin, chief of staff of XIV Panzer Corps, who attended the meeting, informed General Hube when he returned the same day to Sicily. Hube directed Colonel Baade, the commandant of the Strait of Messina, and the German sea transport commander, Fregattenkapitaen Gustav von Liebenstein, to start preparations for the evacuation. Hube also authorized the withdrawal of the ground forces from Nicosia that evening and informed General Guzzoni the next day that German forces would no longer execute a stubborn defense of Sicily.15
On 2 August Kesselring approved the detailed evacuation plan submitted to him by Colonel von Bonin, asking only to be notified before Hube implemented the plan. The next day he informed OKW that the evacuation plan was ready and that the transfer of troops and matériel to the Italian mainland could be made in five nights.
The fall of San Fratello on 8 August coincided with several other notable events on Sicily. On that day, the 9th Division entered Cesarò; the British 78th Division seized Bronte; and the British 13 Corps on the east coast was eight miles beyond Catania striving to break the Hermann
Göring Division’s hold on Highway 114.
On that day, too, General von Senger visited Kesselring and reported the seriousness of the situation on Sicily. Kesselring then ordered Hube to go ahead with the evacuation. He did not directly inform Hitler or ask his approval. He depended on his chief of staff, General Westphal, to set matters straight with Comando Supremo.16 When OKW on 9 August learned of Kesselring’s order, Hitler accepted the decision as a fait accompli. General Warlimont, Jodl’s deputy chief, recalled after the war that the decision to evacuate Sicily was one of the instances where Jodl “in his calm way ... succeeded in guiding Hitler to undesirable but necessary decisions. ...”17
The decision could not be kept from General Guzzoni and his staff. Guzzoni accordingly examined the possibility of continuing to defend Sicily with Italian forces alone. He concluded that such a course of action was not feasible. The Italian forces on the island might delay the Allied occupation of all of Sicily by a few days, but only at the price of human sacrifice and loss of equipment out of proportion to any advantages that might be gained. He informed Comando Supremo of his views, and on 9 August Comando Supremo ordered Guzzoni to take over the defense of part of Calabria and to start evacuating Italian forces from Sicily.18
With Kesselring finally giving the word to evacuate, Hube instructed Baade and the three German division commanders to prepare for final transfer of troops and equipment to Messina and across the Strait to the Italian mainland.19 Late on the afternoon of 10 August, Hube issued the formal order for evacuation, designating the night of 11 August as the first of five nights for ferrying troops across the strait in Operation LEHRGANG.
By this time, Baade had practically completed his preparations for receiving and transporting the troops and equipment from the front-line divisions. Within the large, oval-shaped area of his command—including the northeast tip of Sicily and an area directly across the Strait of Messina in Calabria—Baade exercised command not only over all German Army troops, but over the German antiaircraft installations and their personnel, even though the latter were administratively part of the German Second Air Fleet.
To counter Allied air and naval supremacy, Baade had under his control about five hundred guns, a majority of them dual-purpose weapons.20 In addition,
just before the evacuation started, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division relinquished to Baade the two most powerful batteries on Sicily (170-mm. guns with an effective range of over ten miles) for commitment as part of the coastal defenses on both sides of Villa San Giovanni (just across the strait from Messina).21
Thus, what many Allied officers had regarded as one of the most heavily defended areas in Europe during 1942 and early 1943 had perhaps become the most heavily defended. One Allied officer was later to call the antiaircraft fire at Messina “the heaviest ever encountered in the Mediterranean—heavier than ‘flak alley’ between Bizerte and Tunis—greater than the inner artillery of London.”22 The single weakness in Baade’s antiaircraft defense system was the limited range of his guns. A large number would not be able to reach high-flying Allied bombers, aircraft like the B-17, the B-24, and the British Wellington. This was one reason why Baade had taken over the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division’s large weapons. If the Allied air forces attacked the strait using fighter, fighter-bomber, light and medium bomber aircraft, then the antiaircraft fire would be most effective. If the Allied air forces sent mainly high-flying heavy bombers, Baade’s defenses would prove woefully inadequate. In the latter case the German infantrymen on Sicily would have to depend on the German Second Air Fleet to cover the withdrawal. But this was a task that the German air force in Italy could not possibly hope to perform, for the air force was decimated by the previous fighting, frustrated by Italian officials who demanded conformity with impossible regulations, and left with less than three hundred operational aircraft of all types.
In addition to controlling the defenses of the Messina Strait area, Baade also coordinated the German naval ferrying service, although this function remained the direct responsibility of Captain Liebenstein, the Sea Transport Commander, Messina Strait. Liebenstein had command of three naval flotillas, an engineer landing battalion, two or three engineer fortification battalions, and two port maintenance companies. The flotillas had, by the end of July, 33 naval ferry barges (somewhat similar to American LCTs), 12 Siebel ferries (10-ton, flat-bottomed, multipurpose supply and troop carriers), 2 naval gun lighters, 11 large engineer landing craft capable of transporting 2 trucks, and 76 motorboats designed to transport personnel only.23
At Hube’s request, four of six ferrying routes developed by Liebenstein during the course of the campaign (with each route having several landing places on both coasts) were set aside to evacuate German troops, all starting from points north of Messina. A fifth route, south of Messina, was designated a spare route, to be used only in emergency. Routes 1 and 2, near the northeastern tip of the island, were reserved for the 15th and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions; Route 3, two miles north of Messina, was to be used by XIV Panzer Corps headquarters and headquarters troops; Route 4, a mile north of Messina, was set aside for the Hermann Göring Division and attached elements of the 1st Parachute Division. Other German units were to adjust their movements
to those of the divisions and were to be evacuated on a space-available basis. Personnel were to cross the strait only during the hours of darkness; weapons and miscellaneous equipment were to be evacuated during both the day and the night and in line with a priority of antitank weapons first, then artillery pieces, then self-propelled weapons of all kinds, and, finally, trucks and motor vehicles. All matériel that could not be evacuated was to be destroyed.24
On 10 August, the day Hube announced the formal evacuation order, the German ferrying service was ready to transport about 8,000 men each night, with ferry barges, Siebel ferries, and engineer landing craft ready to go into action at each of the four designated ferrying sites. All that remained was for General Hube to get the right number of men to the proper embarkation points at the right time in order to make full use of the available shipping without creating bottlenecks.
All troops at the front or in the rear areas had, by 10 August, received orders to move toward the ferrying routes. Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, commander of the 1st Parachute Division,
drew the assignment of organizing the reception of the troops in Calabria. The Tortorici, or shorter, bridgehead line was to be held until 12 August, when Hube planned to begin moving the entire front back in three big strides, delaying at phase lines across the northeastern tip of the island. To prevent overcrowding on the north coast highway, Hube picked the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to start moving through Randazzo toward ferry Routes 1 and 2 on 10 August so that its transfer to the Italian mainland could be completed by 15 August. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was to follow along the north coast. At the same time, the Hermann Göring Division, withdrawing around both sides of Mount Etna, was to fall back toward Route 4. Hube planned that each of the three major displacements to the rear would be made at night, and only on dates that he would specify. Upon arrival at each of the phase lines, the divisions would release up to two-thirds of the troops then on line and start them moving toward the embarkation points. Since each line was shorter than the preceding one, Hube felt this procedure was feasible and that it assured a steady stream of men to and across the strait.25
For the Italians, who had started a limited evacuation on 3 August, official word to evacuate the island came from Comando Supremo on the 9th, when General Guzzoni was ordered to help defend Calabria. On the following day, after giving Hube command authority over all Italian and German units still in Sicily, Guzzoni and his Sixth Army headquarters moved across the strait.26 Like the Germans, the Italians organized four ferrying routes, two starting from Messina itself, the other two from points north of the city. Operating independently of the German service, the Italian ferrying service consisted of one train ferry (capable of lifting 3,000 men at a time), two small steamboats, and four navy-manned motor rafts. Since the Italian vessels were not capable of lifting heavy equipment, General Hube offered to take over some of it, if space should become available on the German craft.
Allied commanders and Allied intelligence agencies seemed quite aware of the Axis intention to evacuate Sicily, although they refused to hazard a guess as to when this evacuation might begin. General Alexander, himself, as early as 3 August, felt that the Germans would start back across the strait at almost any time and he requested Admiral Cunningham and Air Chief Marshal Tedder to coordinate the Allied forces’ naval and air efforts to prevent an enemy evacuation from the island.27 On 5 August, the Seventh Army G-2 announced that “in all probability evacuation is taking place. The entire operation from the enemy viewpoint, therefore, is to delay advance against time.”28 Two days later the same officer again indicated evacuation of German troops as the most likely enemy course of action, a report issued daily thereafter.29 From a British intelligence
office on Sicily came the following statement on 9 August: “From now on it seems to be a question of who can walk back the fastest. The Germans are definitely getting out everything they can.”30
While it appears that Allied commanders knew of the impending enemy evacuation, if not the exact date when the evacuation would start, it also appears that these same commanders had no over-all plan for thwarting such an operation. To General Alexander’s query of 3 August requesting a coordination of the Allied air and naval efforts to prevent an enemy evacuation from Sicily, Admiral Cunningham replied that he was aware of the possibility of the enemy forces leaving Sicily, that he had small craft operating at night in the strait, but that he could not employ larger warships in the strait area until the air forces knocked out the enemy’s strong coastal batteries. Cunningham promised that the activities of the small craft would be “intensified,” and that once the air forces knocked out the coastal batteries he would send “surface forces to operate further in the straits.”31
Air Chief Marshal Tedder agreed with Cunningham’s proposal to knock out the coastal batteries, as well as with another proposal of Cunningham’s to permit Allied air forces to operate without “let or hindrance” over the whole of the Messina Strait area, and he notified his American subordinate, General Spaatz (commander of the NAAF), to put the air forces to work immediately. Thus, Spaatz’ two major combat air forces—NATAF and NASAF—were committed to blocking Hube’s evacuation. An order issued on 2 August which had prohibited the use of General Doolittle’s NASAF heavy bombers against the strait was rescinded, with the provision that the heavies would not be used during the day except at Doolittle’s discretion, and then only on a request from Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (NATAF’s commander) with a twelve-hour notice. General Doolittle’s command was suffering from combat fatigue and it had been found necessary to decrease the frequency of NASAF’s operations during the last week in July in order to give the combat air crews more rest. Too, NASAF had many targets on the Italian mainland: airfields, lines of communications, marshaling yards, and rail and road bridges that had to be destroyed before the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland. Coningham felt that his NATAF could handle any enemy evacuation that might take place during daylight hours, provided NASAF could handle the night hours. Thus, from 5 to 9 August, although British medium Wellington bombers struck nightly at the beaches north of Messina, American B-17 heavy bombers flew only three daylight missions against Messina. Despite this round-the-clock aerial bombardment, Air Vice Marshal Coningham felt that unless the Navy could provide a “positive physical barrier” at night across the strait NAAF could not prevent an enemy evacuation from Sicily.32
Unfortunately, Admiral Cunningham, after giving “the matter very careful thought,” concluded that regardless of the method used by the Allies, “sea or air,” there was no “effective method” of stopping an enemy evacuation. Admiral Hewitt, the American naval commander,
agreed. Admiral McGrigor’s small “Inshore Squadron,” originally created to work with the British Eighth Army, was left on its own to do what it could to establish the “positive physical barrier” in the strait; no larger warships were ordered to help out.33
From the point of view of the ground fighters, only two possibilities existed for getting sizable numbers of Allied ground forces into Messina before the enemy could evacuate: additional amphibious landings of the type conducted by the Seventh Army at San Fratello, and airborne drops designed to sever the last few remaining routes of enemy withdrawal to Messina. Both the Seventh and Eighth Armies, on 8 August, were still some distance from Messina—seventy-five and fifty-two miles, respectively—with little possibility of moving any faster than they had during the preceding eight or nine days unless they sailed around or flew over the enemy’s defensive lines.
General Patton, pleased with the results of the II Corps first seaborne end run, kept Bernard’s small task force intact, intending to use it again to expedite the Seventh Army advance along the north coast road. If such landings in the future could be made deeper in the enemy rear than at San Fratello, they might be able to cut off sizable numbers of German soldiers; they might even cut off the entire 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. Patton also wanted to use an airborne drop to further speed up the Seventh Army advance, and he directed preparations aimed at using a parachute battalion, the 509th, to drop behind the German lines either in conjunction with an amphibious landing or alone to cut off more German units.
As of 8 August, General Montgomery still had indicated no desire to use any of Admiral McGrigor’s Inshore Squadron to speed the Eighth Army’s advance up the east coast, although McGrigor was ready and willing to undertake such an operation. In fact, McGrigor twice before had embarked a large Commando force (one had actually sailed) to land it behind the Germans’ Catania defense line to cut the vital east coast highway. Both times Montgomery had canceled the operation. Four small British airborne missions designed to harass enemy communications and supply areas in northeastern Sicily had been tried; all had failed. Montgomery gave no hint of a desire to employ larger numbers of airborne troops to aid his army’s advance.34 The Eighth Army commander apparently preferred to slog his way slowly around the Mount Etna massif, using much the same plan he had developed four days after the invasion.35
With the Allied naval forces practically out of the picture, with the Allied ground forces miles away from Messina, the entire burden of stopping Hube’s evacuation initially fell on the Allied air forces, who were not quite ready to assume the task. Instead of calling on Doolittle’s NASAF to help out after 9 August, Air Vice Marshal Coningham relied almost exclusively on his NATAF to stop the evacuation. From 9 August on, the NATAF pilots tried desperately to halt the flow of traffic across the strait, but they found it difficult
to penetrate Baade’s antiaircraft defenses. “My squadron lost two out of twelve planes yesterday,” said one American flyer. “And I lost two wing tips,” reported another. “And I lost my tail wheel,” said a third. “They put up a hell of a lot of flak,” stated a fourth.36 But on the same day (11 August) that Hube started his evacuation, Coningham reported that should “withdrawal develop on a big scale ... we can handle it with our own resources and naval assistance.” He recommended that Doolittle’s heavy bombers be released from their commitment to bomb Messina by day, if requested, but asked that the British Wellington bombers keep up their night strikes.37
Despite Coningham’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, it appeared that unless the ground troops could hurry their forward movement and exert sizable pressure on Hube’s retiring divisions, it was unlikely that Allied air alone, with only
limited naval support, could do much to stop Hube from getting most of his men and equipment off the island.
The Evacuation Begins
The three German divisions reached the Tortorici line by 10 August, pressed by the American and British forces only on the extreme eastern and northern wings. (Map 7) Still holding positions west of the northern hinge of that line, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division tried to delay the 3rd Division’s advance forward of the Tortorici line for as long as possible, giving way only to extreme pressure and completing its withdrawal by 12 August. Here again, General Fries’ division would occupy strong natural defensive positions, ideally suited to fighting a delaying action. Here again, the coastal anchor of the line had the same washboard ridges as the San Fratello line, and the Zappulla River crossings corresponded with those of the Furiano. Highway 116, running south across the Caronie Mountains from Cape Orlando through Naso and Ucria to Randazzo (on Highway 120), runs over high and mountainous terrain like the San Fratello–Cesarò, road. Roughly halfway between Cape Orlando and Randazzo, commanding terrain offered the Germans positions from which to cover the southern terminus of the northern portion of the Tortorici line.
On 9 August, the 71st Panzer Grenadier Regiment still occupied a salient extending westward of the Zappulla River. The regiment was under orders to hold until forced to withdraw. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment deployed west of Highway 116, south of Naso. Most of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division’s artillery battalions were in positions near the coast. The Italian elements, reduced to a handful of Assietta Division infantrymen and a few artillery pieces, were intermingled among the German units.
South of the mountain chain, the remnants of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division slipped into place along Highway 116 between Floresta and Randazzo. This was the division Hube had earmarked as the first to be evacuated from Sicily. Forward of this main battle line, General Rodt deployed strong rear guards astride Highway 120 to delay a quick American follow-up from Cesarò. He also resorted to extensive use of mines and demolitions, taking full advantage of the rough terrain, narrow road, numerous bridges, and difficult bypasses to aid the defense.
From the German viewpoint, if the evacuation was to succeed, the advance of the Allied ground forces had to be slowed considerably. In particular, Rodt had to hold Randazzo—now threatened by both the 9th U.S. Division and the British 78th Division—until both his own and those elements from the Hermann Göring Division north of Mount Etna could withdraw through the only exit now available in the central sector of the Axis front. Randazzo was a prime target for the Allied air forces—at least for those air units not committed to the Messina Strait area. A quick movement by the two Allied divisions into and through Randazzo would not only cut off portions of two German divisions, it would endanger the German units on both the northern and eastern coasts.
Colonel Smythe’s 47th Infantry, committed to taking Randazzo, retained positions around Cesarò, during the night of 8 August, despite Smythe’s repeated urgings to his battalion commanders to move on to the high ground which overlooked
the Simeto River, about one-third of the way to Randazzo. Since the advance was to continue the following morning, Smythe wanted to be in position to jump across the river quickly. General Eddy, also concerned with getting to Randazzo as fast as possible, brought all but one battalion of DeRohan’s 60th Infantry out of the mountains to follow Smythe’s advance. This, Eddy felt, would strengthen the division’s main effort; for the time being, he was content to give up the mountain-scaling strategy to which the 60th Infantry had been committed since 6 August.
Colonel Smythe’s worries were justified when, after jumping off at 0600, 9 August, his battalions just barely got to the Simeto River’s west bank where they were halted by heavy enemy fire. A try that night also failed to get them across the river. Although the regiment managed to clear the west bank of the river for some distance on 10 August and make contact with the British 78th Division off to the south, it could not cross the river. General Eddy thereupon sent the 60th Infantry back into the mountains to outflank Randazzo from the north, and brought up Flint’s 39th Infantry (now almost fully recovered from the Troina battle) to resume the advance along Highway 120.
At 0645, 11 August, the 39th Infantry crossed the Simeto River without incident, continued to the east for another several miles, but at the Maletto road junction ran into an area where the ground was practically interdicted by German mines. Moving for the most part north of the highway, the 39th Infantry at midnight had two battalions just west of a long ridge about three miles west of Randazzo. Despite the almost total lack of opposition—there was only some artillery and small arms fire along the highway during the day—the 39th Infantry had covered only three and a half miles, obvious testimony to the effectiveness of the German mines.
Coupled with an equally slow advance by the British 78th Division, the ground movement was doing little to halt German evacuation. Not only was the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division still holding the Randazzo escape route open, but General Rodt was even depleting his front-line units in accordance with Hube’s withdrawal plan. Not all was going according to plan, however, for Rodt’s units found it increasingly difficult to pass through the Randazzo area because Allied air had destroyed two important highway bridges while other aircraft worked over the entire area almost incessantly. Randazzo itself quickly became one of the most heavily bombed targets in Sicily.38 German troops began calling the highway through Randazzo the “death road.” Despite these difficulties, German casualties were kept comparatively low by strict traffic discipline and by the fact that the German troops, through necessity, had long since learned how to take care of themselves during Allied air attacks.39
Early on 12 August the 39th Infantry resumed its advance on Randazzo. On its right, and almost abreast of Flint’s front lines, the British 78th Division attacked for Maletto. The British unit took its objective; Flint did not take his. General Rodt required only a few more hours of delay at Randazzo, and he picked out
the 39th Infantry as the Allied unit representing the most serious threat to the town. Accordingly, heavy fire was laid on the approaching Americans.
In the meantime, DeRohan’s 60th Infantry tried to make its presence felt. But the distance the regiment had to travel and the mountainous country through which it had to move precluded its having any real effect on the situation along the highway. The 2nd Battalion, 60th Intantry, finally managed to make its way into Floresta (on the road north of Randazzo) early on 13 August, but the advance fell hours short of catching any of Rodt’s troops. During the evening of 12 August, Rodt had pulled his units out of Randazzo and Floresta, one group going back through Novara di Sicilia, the others north to and along Highway 113, preceding the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division.
The closing scene of the Randazzo operation came early on 13 August. American patrols probed cautiously into the shattered town, followed by an infantry battalion. Just a short time later, the British 78th Division arrived on the scene. Like Troina, the capture of Randazzo was anticlimactic. Rodt had been able to make good his escape by excellent use of
the terrain, liberal use of mines and demolitions, and by the almost complete absence of any Allied ground threat to his escape routes.40
The advances registered by the U.S. 9th and British 78th Divisions, while slow, were faster than those made by units of the British Eighth Army on the eastern side of Mount Etna. Montgomery, still ignoring Admiral McGrigor’s Inshore Squadron as a possible means of speeding up his advance, even went so far as to try a two-division attack across the southern slopes of Mount Etna. The push was slow and costly and gained little ground. With every advantage of terrain, General Conrath, using the Hermann Göring Division, fought an almost leisurely withdrawal battle, fending off the British with a part of his force, sending the remainder to Messina to cross the strait.