Sicily 1943 – Sicilian Feud I





Sicily is a large three-cornered island that sits just off the south-western tip of mainland Italy, between the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean Sea. This strategically important location has meant that it has attracted the attention of almost every group of peoples who have used the Mediterranean as their highway. As Major General John Lucas commented, ‘Sicily has been invaded at times by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Saracens, Goths, Vandals, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish and maybe some others. Now by the British and Americans. What a life.’ The Anglo-American allies of 1943 were simply the latest in a long line of armies to have set foot there.

The island had loomed large in British thoughts ever since June 1940, when the Italian air force had begun using it as a giant airbase to attack the British island of Malta and the convoys sent to its aid. Malta became the most heavily bombed place on earth in April 1942, and the vast majority of those bombs had been loaded on to Axis planes on Sicilian airfields. The capture of Sicily would deny the Axis those airfields and ensure a clear sea passage through the Mediterranean, thus saving nearly one million tons of Allied shipping space. This was why the British had pressed so hard at Casablanca for what became known as Operation Husky: the conquest of Sicily.

Any Allied landing on Sicily had to expect to encounter a determined Axis defence. This demanded a ‘triphibious’ approach to the problem, in which naval, air and ground forces were all utilised to best effect to ensure a successful landing on a hostile shore and the subsequent capture of the island. It was the need to reconcile the competing demands of all three services that led to the majority of the troubles in planning Operation Husky. The arguments and controversy that surrounded the process eventually moved in an entirely unexpected and unintended direction, and the consequent feud not only engulfed all three services but did untold and long-lasting damage to the relationship between the British and American armies in Europe.

The original strategy for Operation Husky was prepared in London by the British Joint Planning Staff. As with any plan involving the combined action of the three military services, it had to be a compromise between the needs and demands of the naval, air and ground elements, with each conferring particular but different advantages and limitations on the conduct of the operation. Reconciling those differences while developing a workable plan was never going to be easy; indeed, the various requirements for Husky simply brought the differences into sharp focus.

Sicily had first been chosen as an appropriate objective for an Allied attack because it lay within the (short) range of Allied fighters flying from Tunisia and Malta. Nonetheless, air support of the naval task forces at sea and the armies ashore would be limited until the Axis airfields on the island were captured. As far as the air planners were concerned, the capture of the groups of airfields around Syracuse, Comiso, Ponte Olivo and Palermo was of the first importance. But for the British naval planners, the prevention of heavy Axis air attack on the naval task forces was also critical. The Royal Navy had suffered grievous losses from air attack while defending the passage of convoys to Malta over the past two years, and was understandably anxious to avoid this, particularly while the naval task forces were at their most vulnerable during the landing phase of the operation, when they would be stationary off the Sicilian beaches. This meant that the naval planners wanted widely dispersed landings that would limit the impact of air attacks while also maximising the ability of amphibious forces to stretch any defence by attacking multiple points simultaneously. The early capture of the main ports on the island – Syracuse, Augusta and Palermo – was also seen as vital to the operation, as this would enable rapid build-up and maintenance of the ground forces once ashore, while also reducing the naval commitment to bring those forces on to the island across open beaches. The nature and capacity of available shipping was critical, as this would determine the number of troops that could be not only landed on the island but also sustained during the subsequent fighting.

Reconciling these competing demands was a complex problem in itself, but the entire enterprise was further complicated by the number of different military headquarters that all had to play a part in the development of the plan. In January 1943, Alexander’s 18th Army Group headquarters was given the task of fusing all these elements together and developing the outline plan received from London into a detailed and workable assault. However, neither Alexander nor his Chief of Staff, Richard McCreery, felt able to devote sufficient attention to Husky while the difficult fight for Tunisia continued. Alexander delegated the task to Force 141, a small headquarters staff based in Algiers. Major General Charles Gairdner was appointed as the Chief of Staff of Force 141. The team of planners for the Eastern Task Force, known as Force 545, were based in Cairo, while the headquarters for the US Western Task Force, known as Force 343, resided at Rabat in Morocco. Admiral Cunningham, as the naval commander-in-chief, had his headquarters in Alexandria, and Air Marshal Tedder, the air commander-in-chief, had established his headquarters firstly in Algiers but moved subsequently to Tunis. Thus the headquarters of the relevant forces and services were dispersed across 2,000 miles of the Mediterranean coast. This was hardly an auspicious start for Husky.

Nonetheless, Gairdner set to work establishing his team and preparing the plan. In this he was ably supported by Brigadier General Arthur S. Nevins, an experienced American planning officer who had worked in London on the British Joint Planning Staff since April 1942. However, the fact that Alexander, his nominal commander, was actually at the front in Tunisia and ‘naturally uninterested’, while Eisenhower ‘made it abundantly clear that at the moment he did not want to be worried with Husky’ did not bode well, and Gairdner quickly realised that he would not be able to ask either man for any decisions regarding the plan. Eisenhower did in fact have his own preferred concept, which was for a concentrated attack on the south-eastern corner of the island, but remembering his bruising experience during the planning process for Torch in North Africa, the Commander-in-Chief had clearly decided to leave Husky well alone. This lack of interest from the responsible commanders was to be the root cause of many of the subsequent difficulties. As early as late February 1943, Gairdner had started to feel that ‘The problems are beginning to multiply at an alarming rate. Washington, London, AFHQ and ME all have a big finger in the pie – and yet we are the people who are to be ultimately responsible. I feel that I am hardly up to the job – but I certainly didn’t ask for it and no man can do more than his best.’ As it turned out, the entire episode of Husky planning revealed a real weakness in the Anglo-American alliance. While there were mechanisms, however flawed, for thrashing out Allied strategy, there remained a gap in translating that strategy into realistic operations.

By mid-March, after a month of concentrated effort by Gairdner and his staff, the overall plan was accepted by a ‘high powered conference’, which was attended by Eisenhower, Cunningham, Alexander, Tedder and General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the Allied Northwest African Air Force. This amended plan involved two main naval task forces. The Eastern Task Force would land British troops on the southern coast of Sicily around Gela to capture the airfields at Ponte Olivo, as well as further forces on the south-eastern shore of the island around Avola and the Pachino peninsula. These forces would then move north-east to capture Syracuse and Augusta. The Western Task Force would land US troops around Palermo to secure the capture of that port and its surrounding airfields. While the plan certainly met the requirements of the navies, air forces and supply, the Allied ground forces would land at either end of Sicily, which would make any concentration of force or mutual support once ashore impossible. Unfortunately, the total shipping requirements also meant that the landings had to be staggered over three days, with the Western Task Force making its assault two days after the Eastern Task Force. Nonetheless, ‘the plan was approved in every particular’.

Gairdner also met with Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, Montgomery’s deputy for Husky, who had discussed the plan with Montgomery for four hours; he now felt confident that we will get a measure of agreement’ from Montgomery. The very next day, however, a telegram arrived from Montgomery addressed to Alexander. His message was blunt:

Dempsey and Ramsay visited me today on way to Algiers and before they came I studied Husky. In my opinion the operation as planned in London breaks every commonsense rule of practical battle fighting and is completely theoretical. It has no repeat no hope of success and should be completely recast. Have given Dempsey letter for you stating my views as to lines on which planning should proceed.

Gairdner was, not surprisingly, upset by Montgomery’s intervention, particularly given that Montgomery had had the original outline plan for four weeks but had left it until now to signal his disapproval. He speculated that perhaps Montgomery wanted ‘his Army etc. to think that it was he & he alone that got it changed or what? Anyhow it is a nice baby for me to hold.’

Montgomery’s main objection was based on the fundamental principle of war that an army had to be able to concentrate its forces to achieve success and ensure against defeat. Widely dispersed landings staggered over three days seemed to offer the Axis forces on the island the opportunity to focus on each of the Allied forces and overwhelm them in turn. Montgomery was a convinced advocate of the concentration of force and demanded the provision of at least one more division for the assault against Gela in the south-east. While Gairdner understood that the south-eastern assaults were an essential part of the operation, he was also aware of the shipping and logistic implications, which made Montgomery’s demand very difficult to fulfil. As the question was examined, it became clear that the extra division could not come from British sources, but it might be possible to use an American division. This, of course, would weaken the Western Task Force and place an American division under British command. When this modification was accepted by Eisenhower and Bedell Smith, Gairdner found that ‘a horrible feeling of hostility at once arose’ in his headquarters. Arthur Nevins felt so strongly about this fresh subordination of US troops to British command that he wrote a memo to Eisenhower pointing out the dangers of the new plan. With his staff officers now thoroughly unhappy about the changes, there remained uncertainty over whether Montgomery would actually agree to the operation. Gairdner felt convinced that there would be a showdown, and on 1 April confided to his diary that:

I can see that Monty is going to be a prima donna who will act as a hair-shirt to me. I can get no decision re the outline Plan. Alex won’t come to a definite decision because of Monty & he doesn’t realise how short time is. The best I could do was to say I would come up again in 3 days and we would then go and see Monty. It is the devil.

While Gairdner could see the gathering storm, there was little he could do to avert it. Alexander was not willing to come to a definite decision while Montgomery remained unhappy about the plan. Even when Gairdner attempted to arrange a final conference by flying with Alexander to see Montgomery, Eighth Army Headquarters replied that the army commander was far too busy preparing for another battle. Eventually, on 5 April, Gairdner was able to meet with Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, Freddie de Guingand, who agreed with all the main points in the plan. Unfortunately, Gairdner seems to have taken de Guingand’s agreement as also signifying Montgomery’s assent, which was to prove a costly miscalculation. With the seeming agreement of all the main commanders, he flew to London to explain the plan to the Prime Minister and the Chiefs of Staff.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower also miscalculated over a report he sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 7 April warning that if there were more than two German divisions on Sicily, the operation offered ‘scant promise of success’. This misplaced comment drew Churchill’s ire, as he was astonished to learn that an additional two German divisions could wreck all the Allied plans. He thundered that it was perfectly clear that the operations must either be entrusted to someone who believes in them, or abandoned. I trust the Chiefs of Staff will not accept these pusillanimous and defeatist doctrines from whoever they come.’ This was one of the few times during the war that Churchill criticised Eisenhower more or less openly, and Gairdner was severely heckled by the Prime Minister when he presented the plan to the Chiefs of Staff.

Gairdner returned to Algiers believing that the outline for Operation Husky was now accepted and that the detailed planning for the naval task forces, air forces and ground elements could begin in earnest. It was at this point, on 24 April 1943, that a further cable was received from Montgomery’s headquarters. Montgomery claimed that this was the first occasion he had been able to thoroughly examine the problems confronting the Eastern Task Force with his corps commanders. He argued that the existing plan had been ‘based on the assumption that opposition will be slight and that Sicily will be captured relatively easily. Never was there a greater error.’ He believed that since the Germans and Italians were fighting hard in Tunisia, it must be assumed that they would do the same in Sicily, and that this, combined with the ‘dispersion of effort’ in the plan, would lead to ‘a first-class military disaster’. Instead, he argued, ‘We must plan the operation on assumption that resistance will be fierce and that a prolonged dogfight battle will follow the initial assault.’ So far Montgomery was simply expounding a difference of military opinion that he should have expressed perhaps two months previously. However, he went on:

I am prepared to carry the war into Sicily with the 8th Army but must do so in my own way. The fight will be hard and bitter.

In view of above considerations my army must operate concentrated with corps and divisions in supporting distance of each other. CENT and DIME [between Licata and Scoglitti] landings must be given up and the whole initial effort be made in the area of ACID and BARK [between Avola and Syracuse]. Subsequent operations will be developed so as to secure airfields and ports and so on. The first thing to do is to secure a lodgement in a suitable area and then operate from that firm base.

Time is pressing and if we delay while above is argued in LONDON and WASHINGTON the operation will never be launched in July. Whole planning and work in CAIRO is suffering because everyone is trying to make something of a plan which he knows can never succeed.

I have given orders that as far as the army is concerned all planning and work as regards ETF [Eastern Task Force] is now to go ahead on lines indicated.

Admiral RAMSAY is in complete agreement with me and together we are prepared to launch the operation and see it through and win. It is essential that the air plan should provide close and intimate support for 8th Army battle.

Montgomery was essentially stating that whatever had been agreed, he was now going to plan on a different basis without reference to Force 141, Alexander or the naval and air chain of command. Gairdner believed that the telegram would lead to a first class crisis . . . It is impossible to treat admirals of the Fleet and air chief marshals as if they were ignoramuses in the art of war. Furthermore the Americans are beginning to feel that the British Empire is being run by Monty.’ Admiral Ramsay had rather unwillingly allowed his name to be mentioned in the telegram, and Admiral Cunningham, furious that his subordinate was now working on a plan without any reference to his headquarters, ordered that Ramsay was not to do anything without his permission. Montgomery sent a further telegram stating that he would stake his military reputation on his plan and suggested a meeting to explain his ideas; he seems not to have understood that he was not the only commander involved in Husky. His intervention and declaration that he would now only follow his own plan gave the Americans ‘the impression that Force 141 was unable to issue orders to its subordinate British formations which would be obeyed by them.’

A further conference had to be convened at which Montgomery could expound his plan to all of the main commanders. However, Montgomery came down with an attack of tonsillitis and was confined to bed. He sent Freddie de Guingand in his place, but Guingand’s plane crashed in the desert and so one of Montgomery’s corps commanders, Oliver Leese, was sent in his stead. At the meeting, which took place on 29 April, Patton and Nevins were the only Americans present amongst the large number of British senior officers, who included Alexander, Leese, Cunningham, Tedder, Ramsay, Air Marshal Arthur Coningham, Air Marshal Philip Wigglesworth, Commodore Dick, Major General Frederick Browning, Gairdner and Brigadier Charles Richardson. It was not surprising given this situation that Patton felt that the British were unfairly dominating Allied strategy. Yet far from this being a matter of the British presenting a united front and sewing up the Husky plan between them, Patton was instead about to witness the full range of jealousy, resentment and suspicion that pervaded many of the relations between high-ranking British commanders.


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