The Allied invasion of Sicily – Experience Part III

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As regards the execution of the plan, questions might well be raised as to the conduct of the ground phases of the campaign. The ground assault started auspiciously on 10 July with the greatest amphibious attack ever undertaken by any armed force. Within seventy-two hours after the initial seaborne landings, the two Allied armies advancing abreast had practically secured their designated objectives. On the east coast, the Eighth Army entered Augusta on the morning of 12 July. Thus far, its advance had not been seriously contested. The bulk of the defending forces, particularly the German contingent, was off to the west, one portion counterattacking the Seventh Army near Gela and Biscari, the other part hurriedly moving eastward to block any further American advances inland from Licata. Catania was almost in sight. The only force of any consequence opposing Eighth Army’s two assault corps was the German Group Schmalz, and this force was almost certainly not strong enough to stop an aggressive thrust north from Augusta. The Seventh Army, for its part and after the initial Axis counterattacks at Gela, had pushed on strongly, so strongly that its left task force-the reinforced 3d Division-had run out of objectives and was poised to strike inland at the key communications center of Enna. Highway 124, the important east-west highway, was almost in Seventh Army’s grasp. Several huge gaps had been created in the Axis line, gaps that were being held halfheartedly by remnants of the Livorno and Napoli Divisions.

It was at this very point on the evening of 12 July, when the Allied armies were in the best position of the entire campaign for finishing off the Axis defenders quickly and pushing on through to Messina, that General Alexander, for some unknown reason, permitted General Montgomery to change the Eighth Army’s plans. Instead of moving along a single major axis of advance, throwing his army’s entire weight against the German defenders at Catania, Montgomery split his assault corps into a two-pronged effort, one prong continuing along the east coast highway, the other prong swinging to the west across Seventh Army’s front around Mount Etna. At the same time, Alexander changed the Seventh Army axis of advance from the north to the west and again relegated Patton’s force to the passive role of guarding Montgomery’s flank and rear. For all practical purposes, Seventh Army could have stayed on the beaches; its brilliant assault achievements were completely nullified by the new British plan.

Why Alexander permitted this to happen has never been satisfactorily explained. Seventh Army was moving ahead nicely; it almost had Highway 124; the German and Italian forces in front of it had been practically dissolved or withdrawn. The German forces from the west, not really strong enough to contest an advance all along the line, were still scrambling to the east in a desperate effort to close the tremendous gap in the center of the Axis line. No enemy force of any size opposed either the 1st or 45th Divisions. General Bradley, the II Corps commander, was ready and willing to take Highway 124 and Enna, thus encircling the German defenders facing Eighth Army. In North Africa, the remainder of the 82d Airborne and 2d Armored Divisions lay ready to sail for Sicily to reinforce the American effort. But apparently it was Alexander’s distrust of the American fighting man that permitted him to accept Montgomery’s plan of a two-pronged British advance, of dividing Eighth Army in the face of the enemy. Or it may be that General Eisenhower’s opinion of Alexander-“At times it seems that he alters his own plans and ideas merely to meet an objection or a suggestion of a subordinate, so as to avoid direct command methods” -was correct.

Alexander’s permission given to Montgomery to launch Eighth Army on its ill-fated two-pronged offensive constituted the turning point in the Sicilian Campaign. From this date on the course of the campaign could not have proceeded much differently. The Axis forces, suddenly relieved of the tremendous American pressure along most of their front, were now given enough time to prepare strong defensive positions in the mountainous interior, and the rest of the campaign turned into little more-except for Patton’s spectacular dash into Palermo, almost a publicity agent’s stunt-than digging the enemy out of strongpoints and knocking him off mountain tops. It was not until 23 July, when General Alexander finally turned Seventh Army toward Messina, that even these tactics paid off.

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