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.
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.
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.
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.
Advance on Messina
However after these initial setbacks the Allied forces made good progress and they soon controlled at least a quarter of the island. A strategy was needed to consolidate these gains. The approach chosen was to split up the forces. This would allow them to advance along the north coast, while also carrying out the necessary defensive operations to keep the Axis forces at bay.
The British Eighth Army under General Alexander headed north while the American troops under the leadership of General George Patton headed along the Northwest coast to reach Palermo. The US troops made good progress taking control of Palermo on the 25th July. It took the British troops longer to meet their intended destination – Catania, half way along the east coast. They were delayed by the difficult terrain they had to cross. They had to travel through the most mountainous part of the island – home to the famous volcano Mount Etna.
The armies soon re-joined forces and jointly mounted a number of successful amphibious attacks. This allowed them to get their troops in behind the Italian and German lines. The Germans and Italians fought hard to defend their territory, but they soon started retreating to defensive positions close to the port of Messina in the Northeast.
On the 27th of July, the Axis forces began to withdraw from their defensive positions. This was just two days after Mussolini had fallen from power.
The capture of Messina was decisive: the Allies had achieved their objective. The final stage of the operation was the evacuation of the island. On the 17th of August, General Patton entered Messina. By this point, 70,000 Italian and 39,000 German troops had already been returned to the mainland.
Not surprisingly this defeat was harder on the Italian troops than the Germans and significantly damaged their morale. However, unknown to them, by this time the King had already begun secret surrender negations with the Allies after the fall of Mussolini.
The battle for Sicily, although it got off to a bad start for the Allies was, in the end, a significant victory. It marked the beginning of the long but ultimately successful Italian campaign which would lead to the surrender of Italy to the Allies and the end of the war.