German Counterattack at Gela 1943

Italy-1943-01

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East of Gela, as General Conrath sent the major part of both his tank battalions toward the beaches, the Gela plain became a raging inferno of exploding shells, smoke, and fire. The lead tanks reached the highway west of Santa Spina, two thousand yards from the water. As they raked supply dumps and landing craft with fire, the division headquarters reported victory: “pressure by the Hermann Goering Division [has] forced the enemy to re-embark temporarily.” At Sixth Army headquarters, General Guzzoni was elated. After discussion with General von Senger, he instructed XVI Corps to put the revised plan into action wheel the German division that afternoon to the east toward Vittoria and continue movement during the night to Palazzolo Acreide and the Syracuse sector.

But the German tanks never reached the 1st Division beaches. Nor was there any thought of American re-embarkation. The 32d Field Artillery Battalion, coming ashore in Dukws moved directly into firing positions along the edge of the sand dunes and opened direct fire on the mass of German armor to its front. The 16th Infantry Cannon Company, having just been ferried across the Acate River, rushed up to the dune line, took positions, and opened fire. Four of the ten medium tanks of Colonel White’s CCB finally got off the soft beach, and, under White’s direction, opened fire from the eastern edge of the plain. The 18th Infantry and the 41st Armored Infantry near the Gela-Farello landing ground prepared to add their fires. Engineer shore parties stopped unloading and established a firing line along the dunes. Naval gunfire, for a change, was silent-the opposing forces were too close together for the naval guns to be used.

Under the fearful pounding, the German attack came to a halt. Milling around in confusion, the lead tanks were unable to cross the coastal highway. The German tanks pulled back, slowly at first and then increasing their speed as naval guns opened fire and chased them. Sixteen German tanks lay burning on the Gela plain.

On Piano Lupo, the Ist and 2d Battalions, 16th Infantry, had managed to hold the road junction, even though six German tanks had broken into their lines. The single remaining 37-mm. antitank gun in the 2d Battalion disabled one. A lucky round from a 60-mm. mortar dropped down the open hatch of another. A bazooka round badly damaged a third. Colonel Gorham, the paratroop commander, put a fourth out of commission with bazooka fire. The other two retired.

With almost one-third of his tank strength destroyed or disabled, General Conrath called off the attack shortly after 1400. Though fighting east of the river continued until late that evening, the tank units withdrew to the foothills south of Niscemi.

At Enna, General Guzzoni again changed his plans. The fierce American resistance at Gela, the known arrival of additional Allied units, and the continued pressure of the 45th Division in the Vittoria-Comiso area indicated the difficulty of getting the Hermann Goering Division to the east coast by way of Vittoria and Palazzolo Acreide. In addition, a further American advance inland from Comiso might bypass the Hermann Goering Division and cut it off entirely from the east coast. Thus, during the afternoon of 11 July, Guzzoni ordered the XVI Corps to suspend all offensive action in the Gela area, to withdraw the Hermann Goering Division to Caltagirone for movement on the following day to Vizzini and commitment against the British, and to consolidate the Livorno Division along a line from Mazzarino to Caltagirone to cover the German withdrawal.

Before Guzzoni’s instructions reached Conrath, General von Senger visited the Hermann Goering Division. Though disappointed because the tanks had not broken through to the beaches, Senger considered the situation favorable for turning the division eastward toward Vittoria and Comiso. This would cut off from the beaches those units of the 45th Division that had pushed well inland. Feeling that the 1st Division, which had borne the brunt of Axis counterattacks for two days, was in no position seriously to contest this movement, he ordered Conrath to the east.

Conrath was in agreement with Senger’s estimate. Still expecting his tanks to reach the beaches, he was sure his infantry-heavy task force could wheel to the east from Biscari to strike at Vittoria. Unfortunately for Conrath, his infantry-heavy force had been so manhandled by Gavin’s men on Biazzo Ridge that it was hardly in any condition to initiate any offensive action.

About 1000, a good many of the paratroopers, coming from Vittoria under Major Krause, had joined Colonel Gavin on Biazzo Ridge. Gavin directed this force to advance westward along Highway I 15, seize Ponte Dirillo, and open a route to the 1st Division’s zone. Augmented by random troops of the 180th Infantry rounded up by Gavin” the paratroopers got going. After a mile of slow progress against increasing German resistance, the attack halted when four Tiger tanks, supported by infantrymen, came into view and began pressing the paratroopers back. Though American soldiers crawled forward singly with bazookas, they could not get close enough to register a kill. Fortunately, two of the three airborne howitzers came in behind Biazzo Ridge, went into position, and opened fire.

The fight continued until well after noon. As American casualties increased to the danger point, artillerymen manhandled one of the little howitzers to the top of the ridge just in time to engage in a point-blank duel with a Tiger tank. In the face of heavy small arms fire and several near misses from the tank gun, the paratrooper crew got off several quick rounds, one of which knocked out the tank. Two half-tracks towing 57-mm. antitank guns arrived from the 179th Infantry, went into firing positions, and engaged the other three Tiger tanks. Around 1500, the Germans had had enough.

BATTLE OF GELA (JULY 1943) & LIVORNO DIVISION COUNTERATTACK

The Italian 4 Mountain Infantry Division Livorno was positioned near Niscemi and supported by the Italian Mobile Group E at Ponte Olivo with 38 obsolescent Fiat 3000 tanks to respond when invasion points became known. They were joined on the afternoon of the first day by the German Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring with 46 Panzerkampfwagen III and 32 Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks from Caltagirone, reinforced with a regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadiers with the 215th Panzer Battalion attached with 17 Tiger I tanks.

10 July 1943

Boise and Savannah launched Curtiss SOC Seagull observation seaplanes at 06:00 to locate targets and perform gunnery spotting. Bf 109s had shot down both Savannah planes by 07:30 as the Italian Livorno Division launched a three-prong counterattack to recapture Gela. The Italian counterattack was reported by an American newspaper: “Supported by no less than forty-five tanks, a considerable force of infantry of the Livorno Division attacked the American troops around Gela. The American division beat them back with severe casualties. This was the heaviest response to the Allied advance.” An infantry column from Butera approached Gela from the west while a second infantry column preceded by 13 Fiat 3000 tanks approached Gela along the road from Ponte Olivo, and a third infantry column preceded by about 25 Fiat 3000 tanks approached the beachhead east of the Gela River from Niscemi. Savannah launched its two remaining SOCs at 08:30 as Rangers directed Shubrick gunfire destroying three of the tanks approaching Gela along the Ponte Olivo Road. Surviving tanks entered the town of Gela while the Italian infantry was immobilized by gunfire from Shubrick. The Rangers destroyed three of the tanks before the remaining seven retreated with their accompanying infantry. The Rangers used the captured 8 cm Italian artillery to repel the Livorno Division infantry column approaching Gela from Butera. Although unable to retake Gela, Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Hugo Leonardi’s 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment took a number of prisoners from leading elements of the 26th Infantry Regiment.

The Italian column from Niscemi pushed through a 505th Regiment roadblock to reach the Piano Lupo road junction before troops from the 16th Regiment arrived. Boise opened fire at 09:10 after their SOCs observed the Italian column approaching along the Niscemi Road and radioed coordinates before being chased off by Bf 109s. The Livorno infantry remained in previously prepared defensive positions to avoid the naval gunfire while the tanks continued toward the beachhead until they encountered the two forward battalions of the 16th Regiment. Bf 109s shot down another Savannah SOC and the last SOC returned to the ship damaged. Boise, Savannah and the British monitor HMS Abercrombie fired on the Italian column from 10:47 to 11:08. The 16th Regiment occupied Piano Lupo as the tanks and infantry from Niscemi withdrew under combined pressure from naval gunfire and the 16th Infantry Regiment. Boise launched the last operational SOC at 12:19 and it was shot down by Bf 109s as Boise fired on the Italians from 12:45 to 12:51. The naval artillery destroyed two tanks and the 16th Infantry destroyed two others.

11 July

The first American tanks were landed at 02:00 and these 67th Armor Regiment vehicles promptly became stuck in soft beach sand. USS Butler replaced Shubrick as the western gunfire support destroyer at 05:30 and USS Glennon replaced Jeffers as the eastern destroyer at 06:20. Twelve SM 79s bombed the transport anchorage at 06:35 holing Dickman and Orizaba with near miss bomb fragments and striking Barnett with a bomb killing seven army personnel, wounding 35 more, and starting a fire. It was the first of 14 Axis air raids on the beachhead that day, and covered a coordinated Axis attack. While the Livorno Division attacked the Rangers at Gela in three columns from the west side of the Gela River, the Hermann Göring Division attacked the 1st Infantry Division beachhead on the east side of the Gela River. Sixty Panzerkampfwagen III and Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks surviving the previous day’s naval gunfire advanced in two columns. The 1st Battalion advanced from Niscemi and the 2nd Battalion from the Ponte Olivo Airfield while the 15th panzergrenadiers again advanced down the Acate River valley to the east. The German forces from the east planned to meet the Italian forces from the west at the Gela beachhead.

LST-2 landed five American tanks at 08:45 and they immediately went into action without being dewaterproofed. By that time, the German tanks were within 2,400 yards (2,200 m) of the beachhead. Every man on the beach, including yeomen, electricians, carpenters, and intelligence and supply officers of the Advanced Naval Base Group, was hastily armed and formed a firing line along the dunes with engineers of the Army shore parties. Ships began gunfire support requested by shore parties at 09:15, and Boise fired on the tanks from 10:40 to 11:42. Army observers reported 13 tanks destroyed by Boise, but after the war it was claimed that majority of these had been destroyed by the four mobile tanks of CCB, 2nd Armored Division. The 15th panzergrenadiers in the Acate River valley were stopped by the 505th airborne infantry troops who had landed 36 hours earlier; and the westernmost column of the Livorno Division was stopped by the 3rd Infantry Division. Savannah fired 500 rounds of 6-inch (150 mm) shells killing more than half of the Italian infantry advancing on Gela and leaving human bodies hanging from trees. Rangers took 400 prisoners from the dazed survivors.

 

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