The Allied invasion of Sicily – Experience Part I


The Allied invasion of Sicily and subsequent reduction of the island accomplished the objectives laid down by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Casablanca in January 1943: to make more secure the Allied lines of communication in the Mediterranean; to divert as much German strength as possible from the Russian front during the critical summer period; and to intensify pressure on Italy. More, the invasion of Sicily on 10 July and the attendant heavy bombing raids on key Italian cities and installations led directly to the overthrow of Mussolini and of the Fascist regime, Italy’s first step toward leaving the war. Allied armies had taken from the Axis Powers the Sicilian Bridge to the European mainland, and had placed on one end of that bridge a force which constituted a serious threat to all Axis-held portions of the European continent. All this had been accomplished at a cost of less than 20,000 men-7,402 in the Seventh Army, 11,843 in the British Eighth Army. Measured against Axis losses of 12,000 German dead and captured and 147,000 Italian dead, wounded, and captured, the Allied losses were slight.

From the American point of view, the Seventh Army-the first United States field army to fight as a unit in World War II-had done more than well. Landing on exposed beaches, its airborne mission an almost complete failure, initially facing the bulk of the German defenders, hit by strong Axis counterattacks within hours after landing, the men of the Seventh Army had clawed their way inland. Within seventy-two hours after the initial seaborne landings, the army had established a firm and secure beachhead. Stopped by General Alexander from continuing on to Messina, the Seventh Army refused to relinquish all thought of offensive action and punched its way across the western tip of the island and into Palermo. Allowed to turn to the alternately bucking and plunging, it traveled the mountainous roads on and near the north coast to enter Messina just a few hours before the Eighth Army.

There were many noteworthy accomplishments in the thirty-eight days of fighting. Chief among these was the performance of the American fighting man. What he may have lacked in North Africa, if indeed he lacked anything but experience, he more than made up for in Sicily. On this Italian island, the American infantryman was a first-class fighter, in top physical condition, aggressive, always pushing ahead. The tenacious defense by the 1st Division at Gela; the aggressive, hard-moving actions by the 157th and 179th Combat Teams at Comiso, Scoglitti, and Vittoria; the 3d Divsian’s capture of Agrigento; the 505th Parachute Infantry at Biazza Ridge; the sweep across western Sicily, where daily thirty- and forty-mile foot marches were common; the fighting at Bloody Ridge and San Fratello; Troina; Randazzo; Brolo; all stand in testimony to this man’s fighting ability.

Scarcely less notable were the accomplishments of the supporting arms. All of these played key parts in keeping the infantrymen moving forward. From the first day of the campaign, the field artillery battalions, divisional and nondivisional, provided tremendous support, and their actions in Sicily were marked by a high degree of success. Events clearly demonstrated that well-trained artillery units could maintain effective and continuous fire support despite the difficulties imposed by mountainous terrain, scarcity of good position areas, limited and congested roads, and, at times, a rapid rate of advance. Probably the most important lesson learned by the artillerymen was the necessity for vigorous and aggressive employment requiring continued rapid displacements in order to maintain fire support in a fast-moving situation. At no time did the artillery fail to deliver requested fires, although there were times when the infantrymen complained that they were not receiving enough. While the island’s road net did not permit all of the artillery units to stay near the front lines at all times, their fires were massed when real resistance was encountered. As many as nine battalions of artillery were placed on a single important target; four and five battalions frequently were used on a single target. By the end of the campaign, in II Corps alone, over 120,000 rounds of 105-mm. howitzer, 34,000 rounds of 155-mm. howitzer, and 6,000 rounds of 155-mm. gun ammunition had been expended.

Vital, too, was the information gained on the value and versatility of the artillery observation aircraft. These small aircraft -grasshoppers, puddle-jumpers-proved most effective in carrying out fire missions and, in addition, served in a variety of important secondary roles despite the difficulties posed by scarce and restricted airfields.

The rugged, mountainous country and the difficult and limited road net precluded any mass action by the one armored division which participated in the campaign. Thus, the major role of the tanks took the form of rapid pursuit action and, where necessary, of assistance to the infantry in small units. The confined areas and narrow valleys flanked by high mountains provided little space for large-scale armored operations. The main operation of the 2d Armored Division as a whole was the rapid and successful dash for Palermo which involved a pursuit action from Agrigento to the latter city in only three days.

The administrative and technical services also provided outstanding support to the infantrymen. Engineer support rendered throughout the Seventh Army’s various zones of action bordered on the spectacular. After operating the assault beaches, Engineer units pushed inland to repair airfields, roads, and bridges, and sometimes to act as infantrymen. Despite extensive road demolitions (the Axis forces on Sicily demolished 130 highway bridges and cratered roads in 40 places), mines, and enemy opposition, the Engineer units managed to maintain the Seventh Army’s limited road net in a most satisfactory manner and contributed largely to the successful ground operations. Military police of the Seventh Army, too, operating with a limited number of units, contributed to the successful ground operations by relieving the combat units of the staggering total of 122,204 prisoners of war, of whom almost 75,000 were evacuated to North Africa, while another 34,000 were granted island paroles. The almost 9,000 Seventh Army Signal Corps troops rehabilitated 4,916 miles of telephone wire; laid almost 1,800 miles of spiral-four cable; and handled over 8,000 radio messages. The Seventh Army Medical Corps personnel, usually the unsung heroes of any campaign, processed 20,734 hospital admissions of U.S. personnel and established two field and six evacuation hospitals. Of the total admissions, 7,714 were for wounds or injuries; the other 13,320 were for diseases, with malaria and diarrhea accounting for two-thirds of these. Roughly half of the hospital cases were evacuated to North Africa, an equal number each by air and water.

Outstanding, too, was the close cooperation between the ground forces and the supporting naval units. Even with the mistakes made at some of the assault beaches-notably in the 180th Infantry’s sector-the amphibious phase of the operation was an almost unqualified success. Certainly no complaints could be raised by the ground forces about the naval gunfire support so lavishly rendered during the first forty-eight hours. Naval gunfire support on both the 10th and 11th of July played a key role in throwing back the strong Axis counterattacks near Gela, and in paving the way for a resumption of the inland movement the following day.

Throughout the campaign, American naval elements continued to furnish support for the Seventh Army divisions, and not only in the form of naval gunfire support. On the north coast in particular, in addition to the three amphibious end runs, the Navy furnished landing craft to ferry troops, supplies, and artillery pieces around badly damaged sections of the coastal highway to facilitate the ground advance. And while some complaint might be registered over the lack of continuous naval gunfire support at Brolo, this would have to be weighed against the performance of the naval gunners at Gela, Niscemi, Biscari, Scoglitti, Agrigento, and San Fratello.


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