Sicily 1943 – Sicilian Feud III



However, what might have appeared like plain military logic to Alexander or Montgomery caused a storm of protest in Seventh Army headquarters: here was yet another attempt by the British to hinder the progress of the American Army. The implications of Alexander’s directive were that the Seventh Army, starved of supplies, would perform only a secondary role to the British Eighth Army. Albert Wedemeyer, who was serving as a War Department observer during Husky, told Patton:

I felt that the operations visualized were incompatible with American participation in the HUSKY effort, and were not justified by the developing situation; that we had the enemy back on his heels and continued aggressive action was indicated and, in my opinion, imperative; further, that such aggressive action on the part of the Seventh Army would provide incidental but effective security for the rear of the British Eighth Army.

Wedemeyer’s forcefully expressed opinion gave Patton indirect War Department permission for his next move. The following day, the two men flew to see Alexander and protest against the directive. They ‘courteously and tactfully’ put their point of view with the help of three maps that had been made up depicting Patton’s vision of future operations for the Seventh Army. Patton wanted to advance northwards towards Palermo. The capture of this major port would then enable the Seventh Army to sustain itself on a push into the northern corner of the island. Alexander approved his request.

General Lucas gratefully noted in his diary on 21 July that ‘Seventh Army had been given the mission of advancing on Messina north of Mount Etna. Three rousing cheers. By the Grace of God, we are still a Republic!’ Alexander had certainly abdicated his responsibility to properly coordinate the operations of the two armies on Sicily, but at least Patton now had a chance to prove what the Seventh Army could do. Indeed, Robert Henriques, the British liaison officer at Seventh Army Headquarters, remarked to General Lucas that ‘the British High Command has no clear conception of the power and mobility of the American Seventh Army. The British vehicles are so inferior that neither commander nor staffs understand what can be accomplished by good equipment.’

Unshackled from Alexander’s directive, the Seventh Army was now able to demonstrate the speed and mobility of the American infantry division. US Army doctrine emphasised the importance of rapid movement, and US formations were liberally equipped with highly effective vehicles. Lucas commented in his report on Husky that ‘the 2½ ton truck is the outstanding cargo vehicle in the Army and without it this rapid campaign would have bogged down long before its completion because of lack of supplies. I have seen nothing belonging to our enemies or our Allies that can compare with it.’ The US Army had another equipment success in Husky that made their rapid movement possible. The DUKW was essentially an amphibious truck that made possible the rapid unloading of stores from ships across open beaches. These two types of vehicles kept the Seventh Army supplied on its rapid march. As the Axis forces withdrew from the south-western part of the island, so Patton’s men drove rapidly north to Palermo, which was entered on 23 July 1943 to much rejoicing by the local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the Eighth Army had been encountering fierce resistance and numerous delays as it fought across the grain of the island. Lucas in fact commented that:

The British are rather surprisingly slow. Two reasons, I think: (1) Strong opposition and (2) Montgomery is notorious for the meticulous care with which he prepares for his operations. This virtue, like any other, can become an obsession that finally defeats its object. He will not move until everything, every last ration and round of ammunition is ashore and in its proper place.

Lucas was expounding a perspective that would come to form the received American perception of Montgomery’s generalship, and indeed the entire performance of the British Army in the Second World War. The accusation that Montgomery was cautious and that the British were slow would grow as the war developed. However, the accusation was unfair with regard to Sicily. Montgomery’s original plan for a rapid seizure of the island had been bold but had been checked at the Primasole Bridge by the Germans. The Eighth Army was held back not by Montgomery’s caution but by the fierce resistance of a determined enemy who made full use of the very difficult country. The German general Hans Hube had shouldered the nominal Italian commander, General Guzzoni, aside and taken control of the Axis defence of the island. Hube, a hard-bitten veteran of the Eastern Front, was under no illusions about the contest on Sicily; he developed a series of strong defensive lines, anchored on hilltop villages, to hold the Allies for as long as possible so that his forces could slowly withdraw and eventually evacuate the island. In the absence of any better approach, the Allies were forced to fight for every hilltop to slowly press the Germans and Italians back.

While the fighting in Sicily continued, Lucas, who travelled back and forth between the island and Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers, had detected dangerous undercurrents. He wrote in his diary that:

The feeling about the British domination seems to run high among the junior members of the staff. I think the situation, which may be dangerous if not watched, is more the fault of senior members of the staff than of Ike. Ike has to lean in that direction from matters of policy. I think he is getting blazed for many things that he knows nothing about. If I get the chance I will tell him so but it is like talking to a man about his wife.

Matters became worse before they got better because these Allied tensions exhibited themselves most clearly in Alexander’s own headquarters. While Alexander saw Montgomery’s suggestions concerning the development of the campaign as a purely military matter, American officers regarded the subordination of the Seventh Army as a devious, politically motivated manoeuvre. American officers might have been overly wont to read Machiavellian scheming into every British action, but British commanders and their staff were equally at fault in apparently remaining blithely ignorant of the impact of their actions and behaviour on American sensibilities. Relations between Clarence Huebner, the American liaison officer at Alexander’s headquarter, and the rest of Alexander’s staff became increasingly frosty, and Penney remarked in his diary that ‘Rightly or wrongly it is getting near murder with most of us!’ A few days later, Penney recorded that the rest of the staff had simply decided to ignore Huebner. This breakdown in relations simply reflected the wider and growing tension between the two armies on Sicily, culminating in Alexander sacking Huebner on 28 July.

Although this incident might well have been dangerous, it actually marked the start of a certain degree of rapprochement. Huebner was replaced by Lyman Lemnitzer, who Penney described as ‘a much more cheerful soul’. Lemnitzer found it easy to work with Alexander and his staff and became an accomplished and highly effective liaison officer who helped to smooth over similar difficulties throughout the Italian campaign. Huebner was not returned to the States under a cloud, but instead took over command of the 1st Infantry Division from Terry Allen. Commanding one of the best American divisions proved much more suitable to his undoubted talents as an infantry officer than the very awkward role of liaison.

Meanwhile Lucas felt that the growing resentment among the ‘rank and file of American officers against British arrogance and calm assumption of authority was a dangerous thing’ but the fact that ‘no harm was done was due, not to any effort on our Allies part, but entirely to the firm hand of Eisenhower. The British owe him a debt of gratitude because any serious cleavage would have done more immediate damage to the Empire than to America.’ While Eisenhower’s solution to these tensions remained careful and patient negotiations between the allies, Patton’s approach was more direct. He informed Troy Middleton, commander of the 45th Division, that the campaign was now ‘a horse race, in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake. We must take Messina before the British. Please use your best efforts to facilitate the success of our race.’ Patton wanted to win this race not only to enhance his own prestige but also to prove that the American Seventh Army could match and indeed beat Montgomery’s Eighth Army.

It was the BBC that caused the last breach between the Allies on Sicily. The BBC’s broadcasts were the only Allied programmes that could be picked up by wireless sets in either army. The BBC had infuriated commanders and soldiers in both armies during Tunisia – Montgomery had been particularly incensed when a careless broadcast had revealed his intentions during the Mareth battle – and American soldiers already considered its reporting openly biased against them. However, an off-hand remark at the end of one news report claiming that the Eighth Army had engaged in heavy fighting while their American allies were sunning themselves and eating grapes in the olive groves of western Sicily caused a storm of protest amongst the Seventh Army. Eisenhower was furious and immediately wrote to Churchill demanding a retraction. Lucas commented that with ‘the Boss, being mad at our Allies, all the little people are running for cover. At great expense to ourselves we are saving the British Empire and they aren’t even grateful.’ This incident forced the BBC to attempt to balance its coverage, but thoughtless reporting would continue to cause problems between the allies during the war.

Ultimately, Patton’s men won the race for Messina by a few hours. When the leading troops of the Eighth Army reached the town, they were greeted by American calls of ‘Hey! Where’ve you tourists been?’ Patton had achieved the victory and recognition for his army that he sought – but at a heavy price. Lucas described the outstanding characteristic of the campaign as ‘a continuous and unrelenting attack. From the time American troops landed on the beach until they entered Messina the pressure on the enemy was never relinquished . . . The men of the Seventh Army marched tremendous distances over the roughest terrain I have ever seen. They, in many cases, reached the limit of physical exhaustion.’ But despite these hardships, Lucas stressed the importance of what the Seventh Army had achieved: ‘the speed with which the Sicilian show was brought to its culmination filled many people with astonishment, especially our allies, the British, who regarded us with the oblique eye a professional always turns on one he considers an amateur’. The performance of the Seventh Army had restored the prestige of the US Army and proven its British critics wrong. This ensured that British senior commanders, however grudgingly, now had to recognise US troops as equals rather than as inexperienced allies who needed to be subordinated to British command.

As Lucas had noted, Patton’s relentless offensive had cost many casualties and had been mounted at an exhausting pace. When Patton made two visits to field hospitals on the island, he was confronted with the human price of the Sicilian campaign. He treated soldiers suffering from physical wounds pleasantly, but when he saw men with psychological wounds caused by exhaustion and the stress of combat, he behaved disgracefully. On two separate occasions he ‘slapped’ soldiers suffering from combat fatigue and verbally abused them as cowards. The reaction from Eisenhower was immediate, and he sent a letter to demand that Patton apologise to everyone involved. At the same time, however, he attempted to prevent the incidents from reaching the American press. Nonetheless, Patton’s entire career was placed in jeopardy and he spent many months in limbo. It was only Eisenhower’s protection of his old friend that saved him from military oblivion.

Sicily has often been viewed in retrospect as a ‘bitter victory’ and indeed almost a failure for the Allies because the Germans were able to evacuate virtually their entire force from the island. Montgomery railed in his diary at the lack of ‘grip’ by senior commanders without once acknowledging that his heavy-handed interventions had wrecked any real chance of the interservice cooperation essential to preventing the Germans’ escape. But Operation Husky had achieved the goals that the Chiefs of Staff had set at Casablanca. The Mediterranean sea route could now be opened, Mussolini had been removed from power, and the Allies had successfully carried the war into Europe. The Germans may have accomplished a highly professional evacuation of the island, but it remained a retreat. And while the British and Americans had been fighting in Sicily, the Red Army had comprehensively blunted the Wehrmacht’s summer offensive at Kursk. These two widely separated battles marked the passing of the initiative to the Allies. After Sicily and Kursk, there would never be another ‘Blitzkrieg’ that reshaped the map of Europe; retreat would become all too familiar to the Wehrmacht.

Operation Husky also marked another important watershed. Its completion represented the limit of British domination of Allied policy. Casablanca had seen the imposition of a British Mediterranean strategy on the Anglo-American alliance. Montgomery’s intervention in the planning process for Husky had signified virtually complete British domination over the execution of that strategy. Neither would be tolerated again by the United States, whose army had categorically demonstrated its prowess during the campaign. Unfortunately, the battle for Sicily, marked by its harsh terrain and bitter fighting against a determined opponent, was also simply a taste of what was to come in the rest of the Italian campaign.

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