Operation Husky – The Allied invasion of Sicily

 
 
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Operation Husky was the unlikely codename for the invasion of Sicily by Allied forces in the summer of 1943. The operation, which got off to a disastrous start, lasted for six weeks. It was an important action because it marked the beginning of the Italian Campaign.

The Allies Attack

The purpose of the operation was to remove the air and sea potential of the Axis powers from the island. Doing this would give the Allies access to the Mediterranean Sea for their own ships. These routes had been closed to the Allied ships during the early years of the war.

The Allies mounted amphibious attacks on two fronts. This two-pronged attack involved British and US forces landing on the South-Eastern and the Central Southern Coast. The initial maneuvers were supported by additional naval and air defenses. It was a complex operation requiring a high level of precise coordination. The overall commander of the whole Operation was future American president General Dwight D Eisenhower, with British General Sir Harold Alexander as second in command.

personnel of a Beach Balloon Detachment bring gas cylinders ashore at "Cent" Beach near Scoglitti, Sicily. © IWM (CNA 4180)
Personnel of a Beach Balloon Detachment brings gas cylinders ashore at “Cent” Beach near Scoglitti, Sicily.

The Axis defends

The island was under the control by the Axis forces, most of whom were Italian. There were about 200,000 Italian soldiers stationed on the Island at the beginning of the campaign. The Italian forces were bolstered by 60,000 German troops made up of both air and ground forces. They would soon be joined by members of the 1st parachute division, the 29th Panzgrenadier and, the XIV Panzer Corps. These reinforcements would bring the German forces to about 70,000.

The Axis forces were led by General Alfred Guzzoni. He had a small group of admirals under his command, who would lead each of the smaller units while Guzzoni took overall charge of the defence operation. The tactic Guzzi chose to apply was to create a “screen” to face the initial invasion while backup troops behind the screen prepared to take on the incoming Allied soldiers.

Map of Sicily - July 1943 (Wikipedia)
Map of Allied Troop movements in Sicily – July/August 1943.

The Battle Begins

In the early hours of the 10th July 1943, the Allied British 8th Army and US 7th Army made their first landing on the South Eastern coast.

Unfortunately for the Allies, the initial landing was fraught with difficulties and almost ended in disaster as they struggled against ferocious weather conditions. Ironically, this gave the early morning attacks an even greater element of surprise: no one expected the landing to take place in such brutal conditions.

Strong winds reaching up to 45 miles (72km) per hour caused the US paratroopers to be blown off course. As a result, they were dispersed across a much wider area than had been planned. Several days after the initial landings about half of the US paratroopers had still not arrived at their intended rallying point.

The initial British attack did not fare any better. Out of 147 gliders, only 12 managed to land on target. Even worse, 69 of them landed in the sea. Among those who managed to land on target was a platoon from the British South Staffordshire Regiment. Under the direction of Lieutenant Louis Wither, this group was able to assist in the capture of the Ponte Grande and fight off counter attacks. However, when some of their ranks were drawn away by the sound of shooting elsewhere, the Italians took advantage of the Allies’ depleted numbers and staged an attack.

British and U.S. Troops landing in Sicily. Wikipedia / Public Domain
British and U.S. Troops landing in Sicily.

The British forces fought to hold the bridge for several hours but eventually surrendered when the reinforcements from the Italian 54th Infantry Division Napoli arrived. The Allied troops didn’t realize that reinforcements for their own side were on their way, and their surrender took place less than an hour before the British 5th Division arrived to offer assistance.

The operation certainly had to contend with some setbacks. On a more positive note, it could also be said that it demonstrated the power of small groups which, although by chance were scattered across the area, were able to show a good deal of strength and cause confusion for the enemy.