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Allied invasion of Italy
Following the defeat of the Axis Powers in North Africa, there was disagreement between the Allies as to what the next step should be. Winston Churchill in particular wanted to invade Italy, which he called the "soft underbelly of Europe". Popular support in Italy for the war was declining, and he believed that an invasion would remove Italy from the war, thus removing the influence of the Regia Marina in the Mediterranean Sea and opening it to Allied traffic. This would make it much easier to supply Allied forces in the Middle East and Far East, and increase British and American supplies going to the Soviet Union. However General George Marshall and much of the American staff wanted to undertake no operations that might delay the eventual invasion of France. When it became clear in 1943 that the invasion of France could not be undertaken that year, it was agreed that the forces in North Africa should be used to invade Sicily, with no commitment made to any follow-up operation.
Joint Allied Forces Headquarters AFHQ were operationally responsible for all allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre and it was they who planned and commanded the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland.
The invasion of Sicily in July 1943 (Operation Husky) was highly successful, although many of the Axis forces there were allowed to avoid capture and escape to the mainland. More importantly a coup deposed Benito Mussolini as head of the Italian government, which then began approaches to the Allies to make peace. It was felt that a quick invasion of Italy might hasten an Italian surrender and produce quick military victories over the German troops that would now be trapped fighting in a hostile country.
Very little time elapsed between the decision to invade Italian mainland and the date of the invasion. The first troops ashore on the mainland were the British Eighth Army, which included British and Canadian troops, under General Bernard Montgomery. Having already captured the town of Messina on Sicily, they crossed the Straits of Messina into the region of Calabria in the 'toe' of Italy on 3 September 1943. (Operation Baytown). The short distance from Sicily meant that the landing craft could launch from there directly rather than be carried by ship. The British 5th Infantry Division would land in the north of the 'toe' while 1st Canadian Infantry Division would land in the south.
At one point it was considered landing an airborne division near Rome, having it link up with now-friendly Italian troops, and capturing the capital in a single blow. However this was abandoned due to the difficulty of air support at that distance, and the unlikelihood of being able to provide reinforcements fast enough to repel the likely German counterstroke.
The main invasion was scheduled for 9 September 1943. The main invasion force would land in the area of Salerno on the western coast (Operation Avalanche). It would consist of the US Fifth Army under General Mark W. Clark, comprising the U.S. Sixth Corps, the British 10th Corps and the US 82nd Airborne Division, a total of about nine divisions. Its primary objectives were to seize the port of Naples to ensure resupply, and to cut across to the east coast, trapping the Axis troops further south.
The British 1st Airborne Division would be landed by sea near the port of Taranto in the 'heel' of Italy (Operation Slapstick). Their task was to capture the port and several nearby airfields and link with the Eighth Army before pressing north to join the Fifth Army near Foggia .
Approximately eight German divisions were positioned to cover possible landing sites, including the Hermann Goering, the 26th and 16th Panzer, the 15th and 29th Panzergrenadier and the 1st and 2nd Parachute.
Opposition to the Baytown landings was light, as the Italian units surrendered almost immediately, leaving a single German regiment to defend 17 miles of coast. The Axis preferring to withdraw and demolish infrastructure behind them. Then on 8 September 1943, before the main invasion, the surrender of Italy to the Allies was announced. Italian units ceased combat, and the Navy sailed to Allied ports to surrender. However the German forces in Italy were prepared for such an eventuality and moved to disarm Italian units and occupy important defensive positions. The landings near Taranto went ahead against virtually no opposition, and the port and area were quickly secured.
At Salerno the decision had been taken to assault without previous naval or aerial bombardment, in order to secure surprise. The surprise was less than total however. As the first wave approached the shore at Paestum a loudspeaker from the landing area proclaimed in English, "Come on in and give up. We have you covered." The troops attacked nonetheless.
The Germans had established artillery and machine-gun posts and scattered tanks through the landing zones which made progress difficult, but the beach areas were successfully taken. Around 0700 a concerted counterattack was made by the 16th Panzer division. It caused heavy casualties, but was beaten off. Both the British and the Americans made slow progress, and still had a 10 mile gap between them at the end of day one. They linked up by the end of day two and occupied 35-45 miles of coast line to a depth of six or seven miles.
Over the 12th-14th September the Germans organised a concerted counterattack by six divisions of motorised troops, hoping to throw the Salerno beachhead into the sea before it could link with the Eighth Army. Heavy casualties were inflicted, as the Allied troops were too thinly spread to be able to resist concentrated attacks. The outermost troops were therefore withdrawn in order to reduce the perimeter. The new perimeter was held with the assistance of strong naval and aerial support, although the German attacks reached almost to the beaches in places.
With the Salerno beachhead fully secure, the Fifth Army could begin to attack northwards again. The Eighth Army, having linked with the 1st Airborne, had been making quick progress from the 'toe' in the face of German delaying actions. It united its front with the Fifth Army on 16 September, and captured the airfields near Foggia, on the east coast, on 27 September. These would give the Allied air forces the ability to strike new targets in France, Germany and the Balkans. The Fifth Army captured Naples on 1 October, and reached the line of the Volturno River on October 6th. This provided a natural barrier, securing Naples, the Campainian Plain and the vital airfields on it from counterattack. Meanwhile the British Eighth Army had advanced to a line from Larino to Campobasso. The whole of southern Italy was now in Allied hands, and the drive northward could begin.
For the next stage of the Battle in Italy see Gustav Line.
- American operations at and after Salerno
- British Army museum on Italian Campaign
- Summary of the Italian Campaign
- Details of naval operations around the Italian landings
- Kansas University Electronic Library
- Online Canadian World War 2 Newspaper Archives - The Sicilian and Italian Campaigns, 1943-1945
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