AVALANCHE in Italy II

tempio paestum

USA-MTO-Salerno-I

What sort of people shall I encounter there? On the morning of September 9, 1943, certainly many Germans. Neither Kesselring nor his lieutenants believed that Montgomery’s landing in Calabria a week earlier presaged an Anglo-American march up the entire length of Italy; in recent days, Salerno had seemed an increasingly likely place for the Allies to force open a back door to Naples and Rome. German reconnaissance on September 6 detected assembling British aircraft carriers, and a German naval analysis warned that “a strike in the direction of the gulf of Salerno is not precluded.” Another convoy was spotted north of Palermo a day later. A midafternoon alert on September 8 cited a “large naval force of more than 100 ships” approaching the southwest coast.

Following the capitulation announcement three hours later, Kesselring displayed the agility so characteristic of his generalship. With Hitler’s authorization, at eight P.M. he invoked Operation ACHSE, a secret contingency plan drafted in August to disarm Italian forces and take over key fortifications. Confirmation that the Allied armada was closing on Salerno restored Kesselring’s smile; at least he would not have to fight an invasion force near Rome while also subduing the capital. The invaders “must be completely annihilated and in addition thrown into the sea,” he declared. “The British and Americans must realize that they are hopelessly lost against the concentrated German might.”

That German might took the form of Tenth Army, created in mid-August and reinforced with retreating units from Sicily. Army command fell to a veteran of France, Yugoslavia, and Russia: General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, a capable Prussian infantryman with baggy eyes, graying temples, and a little Hitler mustache. Some 135,000 German troops now occupied southern Italy, and Kesselring channeled his resentment at Italy’s betrayal—he called it “a spiritual burden for me”—into demands for swift vengeance. “No mercy must be shown the traitors,” he cabled Vietinghoff. “Long live the Führer.” As Allied soldiers danced on the decks of their ships Wednesday evening, Wehrmacht troops burst through the oak door of the office belonging to General Don Ferrante Gonzaga, commander of the Italian coastal division at Salerno. “Hand me your pistol, General,” a German major demanded. Gonzaga stepped back from his desk, fumbling with the Beretta in his holster. “A Gonzaga never surrenders,” he shouted. “Viva Italia!” A burst of Schmeisser fire to the head and chest cut him down. “He died as a great soldier,” the major observed.

With Gonzaga’s troops melting away or in German custody, defense of the Gulf of Salerno fell to the 16th Panzer Division. Claiming to be the first German unit on the Volga, the division subsequently crawled away from Stalingrad with only 4,000 survivors. Now rebuilt under General Rudolf Sieckenius, the 16th Panzer was perhaps the best equipped division in Italy, with 17,000 men, 104 functioning tanks, and 700 machine guns.

Sieckenius had split his forces into four battle groups, positioned about six miles apart down the length of the Sele plain. Communications were poor and Highway 18, the coastal road that would bring any German reinforcements, lay within range of Allied naval guns. Still, the defenders had fashioned eight strongpoints, from Salerno in the north to Paestum and Agropoli in the south, each a quarter mile wide and fitted with mines, automatic weapons, mortars, heavy guns, and an abatis of felled trees. As Fifth Army’s landing craft swarmed across the bight, the Germans waited, alert and aggrieved, unburdened by delusion that the war might be over.

On the far right of the Allied line, scout boats spaced half a mile apart flashed red, green, yellow, and blue lights at 3:10 A.M. to signify the four beaches upon which the approaching assault battalions of the 36th Division were to make land at Paestum. As the two-hour run from the transport anchorage neared an end, a soldier in a plywood Higgins boat finished the pocket novel he had been reading and “stood up to see what this war was all about.”

For a moment—a long, queer moment—silence held sway except for the nattering boat engines. Down came the ramps with a clank and a splash, and the first riflemen scuttled nearly dryshod onto the shingle at precisely 3:30 A.M. Then a constellation of silver flares hissed overhead, bathing the beaches in cold brilliance, and the sawmill sound of a German machine gun broke the spell, followed by another and another and another. Mortars crumped, and from the high ground to the east and south came the shriek of 88mm shells, green fireballs that whizzed through the dunes at half a mile per second, trailing golden plumes of dust.

Bullets plumped the sea and slapped the boat ramps. “You can’t dig foxholes in a boat,” one sergeant observed with evident sorrow. To an artillery officer from Austin, the spattering shell fragments sounded like “spring rain on a taxi window going up Congress Avenue.” A second wave landed eight minutes behind the first, and a third wave eight minutes after that; but fire discomposed the four subsequent waves as coxswains swerved left or right or back to sea without unloading. “Shells were wopping in all around us,” a soldier in the third wave recalled. “We knew that when the ramp fell those red and yellow tracers would eat right into us.” A landing craft hit nose-on by a tank shell “seemed to rise completely out of the water,” one witness reported; a second shell caught the vessel’s stern, spinning it around and flinging bodies over the splintered gunwales. A medic described swimming to another blazing boat forty yards from shore. “Some of the boys were on fire,” he later wrote his wife:

We could hear the bullets hitting the water all around us…. I climbed up in the boat. There were four in there, a major and three enlisted men. The fire was so hot by then my clothes started steaming. Went over to the major. He was burnt, bad. The major was dead…. I drug the three soldiers to the ramp.

On the beach, soldiers wriggled out of backpacks ignited by grazing tracers. “I’d rather been born a baby girl,” one soldier muttered. Teller mines buried ten yards beyond the waterline exploded in geysers of sand and shredded tires from the first jeeps ashore. The dunes were as hellish as the beach, raked with fire from a dense wood line just inland and from a fifty-foot stone turret built centuries earlier as a watchtower against Saracens. German gunners on Paestum’s cyclopean walls poured plunging fire on every snapping twig, every rustle in the long grass. Panzers lurked in barns and sheds, firing point-blank on riflemen creeping past. “Great deal of confusion in landing,” a surgeon told his diary. “Tough going. I see I am going to lose weight.”

The first Luftwaffe planes arrived with the morning light shortly after four A.M., strafing and bombing, as the Navy’s official history recorded, “on a scale never before or since equaled in a Mediterranean landing.” An LST captain told his gun crews: “Steady now, steady, here they come…. Steady. Fire away, and good hunting.” After the rejoicing that had met Italy’s capitulation, an officer observed, many troops had “the feeling that someone had let them down.” As the battle intensified, the reporter Don Whitehead overheard someone suggest, “Maybe it would be better for us to fight without an armistice.”

By six A.M., two infantry regiments—the 141st and 142nd—had made land, with the 143rd soon to follow. But the foothold was tenuous. Each assault battalion carried two hundred smoke pots, big buckets of hexachlorethane that were ignited and dropped near the beaches to create a milky haze screening the landing craft. Offshore, destroyers darted through the anchorage and around the incoming LSTs, “trailing ribbons of white, choking smoke,” as John Steinbeck noted. Ventilation fans sucked smoke into LST tank decks—“the sound of coughing is deafening,” Steinbeck added—and some coxswains were forced to navigate through the miasma by compass heading.

Still, German observers on Monte Soprano and other high perches saw well enough to mass fires. DUKWs hauling artillery and antitank guns to Yellow and Blue Beaches sheered away under the sleeting fire; another sixty lay out of range off Green Beach, and 125 loitered near Red. Six LCTs attempting to land thirty tanks at 6:15 A.M. also hauled off rather than risk sinking. Three shells smashed into an LCT carrying part of the 191st Tank Battalion; the blasts shattered the pilothouse, killed seven men, and set fire to a Sherman tank, which was shoved into the sea only with enormous effort. LST officers scrambled from side to side of the bridge as German shells struck port, then starboard, then port again; LST 336 alone took eighteen hits. Drumfire fell the length of the beachhead: a Royal Navy cruiser intercepted a dozen vessels headed for Salerno port and warned, “The harbor’s under enemy fire. You’ll be jolly well shot up if you go in there.”

AVALANCHE planners had hoped the assault vanguard would be four thousand yards inland by daylight—to secure the beaches from mortar and machine-gun fire—and far enough by dusk on D-day to exterminate German artillery still capable of ranging the waterline. Instead, by midmorning the beachhead in a few spots hardly extended four hundred yards. A bulldozer crew trying to scrape an exit from the beach was incinerated by an 88mm shell. “They were completely black except for their teeth, which seemed whiter than living ones,” a witness reported. On Blue Beach in the far south, a battalion was pinned to the dunes and would remain pinned for twenty hours; hundreds of men burrowed into the laurel brakes and ice plant, filching ammunition from the dead. There was more to filch after Mark IV panzers broke through the American line. “It was like fighting tanks barehanded,” a lieutenant colonel in the 141st Infantry reported:

I saw riflemen swarm over the top of moving German tanks trying to shoot through slits or throw grenades inside. Other tanks would machine gun them off. They ran over wounded men…and spun their treads.

An intelligence officer later found that medics had laid the dead “in a row, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, with extreme precision as if about to present arms.” Their feet protruded from the covering blankets, “the stillest shoes the world could boast,” one staff officer wrote. Other bodies were propped into sitting positions, “so it wouldn’t look so bad to the troops coming in.” A radioed query to the Ancon—among the few coherent messages to get through—gave Clark and Hewitt a sense of conditions ashore: “On what beach shall we put our dead?”

Salvation arrived shortly after nine A.M. Minesweepers finished clearing an inshore channel, allowing warships to press toward the beaches. Fire control parties, whose operations had been hampered for hours by balky radios, smoke, enemy aircraft, and utter confusion on the beach, now began sprinkling gunfire around the beachhead rim. By late morning, destroyers steamed within a hundred yards of shore, pumping 5-inch shells into the face of Monte Soprano. The cruiser U.S.S. Savannah soon opened on German tank concentrations with scores of 6-inch shells. Her sister Philadelphia flushed three dozen panzers detected by a spotter plane in a copse near Red Beach; salvo upon salvo fell on the tanks for nearly an hour, reportedly destroying half a dozen and scattering the rest. Eleven thousand tons of naval shells would be fired at Salerno, almost comparable in heft to the bombardments at Iwo Jima and Okinawa later in the war, but no barrage was more timely than the D-day shoot.

As German troops backed into the sheltering hills, two American regiments pushed east past Paestum’s temples—“This place looks just like the cover of a Latin book,” one soldier remarked—and north toward the Sele River. A third regiment, the 141st, remained trapped near Blue Beach by enfilading fire from high ground to the south. Forty-eight DUKWs finally made shore, each carrying a howitzer, a six-man gun crew, and twenty-one rounds.

Near a tobacco barn at Casa Vannula, three miles inland, guns from the 151st Field Artillery arrived at noon, just as a dozen panzers closed on the 36th Division command post; in what one major called “hip-shooting with howitzers,” gunners demolished a stone wall for a better field of fire, cut their fuzes, then yanked the lanyards at two hundred yards’ range. By 12:30 P.M., greasy smoke boiled from four burning tanks and the others had dispersed.

“It was thrilling,” said Walker, the 36th Division commander, who had watched from the gun line. The shallow American beachhead was secure, for now.

A dozen miles to the north, the British also had won a lodgment on the hostile shore.

German air attacks had harassed the fleet even before the landing boats were lowered, and 88mm airbursts lacerated some of the approaching landing craft. Dive-bombers caught the U.S.S. Nauset, an ocean tug assisting the Royal Navy. Fire engulfed the boat deck, then scaled a ladder to the chart room before spiraling upward in fifty-foot orange flares behind the bridge. Powerless, rudderless, and listing, Nauset struck a mine, snapped in half, and sank in sixty-five fathoms, taking her captain and first mate. More than fifty other crewmen were killed or wounded.

But the preliminary naval bombardment eschewed by the Americans helped clear Red, White, and Green Beaches for the British. Hundreds of rockets flew from modified landing craft with a pyrotechnic swish-swish-swish that was “quite terrifying even when expected.” The 46th Division, on the left, and the 56th Division, on the right, began wading ashore at 3:30 A.M. At the water’s edge, a sailor escorting the Coldstream Guards stood waving a huge flag, urging, “This way to Naples, boys!” Among the “essential assault stores” first rolled from the landing craft ramps was a piano, soon followed by crated chickens, geese, and turkeys, all lashed to jeep hoods, as well as a sow for the officers’ mess.

By day’s end, X Corps would land about a third of its strength—23,000 soldiers, 80 tanks, and 325 guns—despite what one chronicler called “unutterable confusion” on some beaches as subsequent waves intermingled the two divisions. Besides the usual lost coxswains, confused soldiers, and fuming beachmasters, German gunfire soon intensified. LST 375 caught nine 88mm rounds, with many near misses. LST 357 suffered two dozen casualties. LST 365 collided in-shore with LST 430, knocking her beam-on to the beach; enemy shells wounded 430’s skipper in all four limbs, sprayed steel through the tank deck, set fire to an ammunition truck, and terrorized wounded soldiers as they hobbled aboard for evacuation from the shingle.

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