Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ashore on Sicily: the main landing of Operation HUSKY

On April 30, 1943, British Intelligence launched one of the boldest military deception operations of all time: Operation MINCEMEAT. Its goal was to convince the Axis enemy that after North Africa, their next target would be anywhere except Sicily. In the pre-dawn hours of July 10, 1943, an Allied fleet transported the Seventh United States Army, Lieutenant General George S. Patton commanding, and the British Eighth Army, Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery commanding, to their landing points on Sicily's southern point.

The Sicily attack was the largest amphibious operation ever attempted to that point in time. Seven Allied divisions, of a force totaling 12 divisions plus attached units, were to land on July 10th. The lives of thousands of men hung in the balance. Had the deception plan worked, or were the British and American soldiers about to hit the beach heading into prepared defenses that would chew them up and spit them out?

About three hours before the main seaborne forces arrived off the Sicily coast, British and American airborne forces landed to capture key targets behind the beach. Unfortunately, poor weather, inexperienced transport pilots, and other unforeseen problems scattered the airborne forces widely.

As the assembled fleet began loading the assault troops into their boats and landing craft, surprise was almost lost because a fire started aboard a craft laden with explosives. A 23 year-old US Navy Reserve officer, Ensign John J. Parle, stopped the conflagration before the boat detonated and alerted the enemy.

Before dawn, soldiers scrambled down cargo nets hung on the sides of their transport vessels and into the waiting landing craft as the assembled fleet refrained from shelling the shore in hopes of maintaining surprise. For many of the men taking part in the assault - including those of the United States' 3rd Infantry Division and Canada's 1st Infantry Division - the Sicily attack would be their first time under fire.

The assault forces encountered their first opposition not from the Italian and German defenders but from uncharted sand bars that hung up many of the landing craft before they even reached the beach. When the troops did reach the shore, they were astonished to find that there was little to no resistance at the water's edge. Where was the enemy?

A couple of factors contributed to the lack of resistance to the landings. First, the Axis defense plan kept their most powerful units - in the case of the Sicily landing area the Italian 4th Mountain Infantry Division Livorno and the German Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring - were kept back from the shore to launch counter attacks as any invaders progressed inland, hopefully faster than supplies and support could keep up (This tactical disposition was proved to be faulty, resulting in the defenses of the Atlantic Wall being geared to stop attacks at the water's edge). Second, the British and American airborne attacks hampered the defender's movements enough far behind the coast to prevent their concentration and advance against the landing beaches. Finally, Operation MINCEMEAT had worked!

The Germans were so thoroughly hoodwinked by the Allied deception operations and were convinced that whatever was coming ashore on Sicily was a diversionary attack. So convinced, that they didn't reinforce Sicily for weeks.

Regardless of whether or not the Germans believed Sicily was a diversion, the invasion force came under intense air attack. The American destroyer USS Maddox (DD-622) was sunk by German bombers with the loss of most of her crew.

The Allies were hampered by the fact that their air cover had to fly at near maximum range from their bases in North Africa, Malta, and elsewhere while German and Italian planes could land, refuel, and rearm locally. Their air attacks put the early hours of the landings in question.

Yet, by the evening of July 10, both the British and Americans had their initial follow-on forces landed, even though they were still being subjected to near constant enemy air attack.

On the morning of July 11, the biggest problem facing the British and Americans was a lack of armored units ashore. The Hermann Göring division with tanks and armored infantry had started counter-attacking and threatened the safety of the beachhead. Thankfully, by mid-morning enough mines had been cleared and sandbars pushed through that tank landing ships could reach the beach and offload tanks. The battle ashore would now be fought on near-equal terms.

By July 12, the British and Americans had consolidated their beachheads and advanced up to twenty miles inland and secured the key costal cities of Gela, Licata, and Siracusa. As men, supplies, and equipment poured ashore, it remained to be seen whether victory would be quick, or if there would be a long, painful, costly slog over Sicily's punishing interior terrain.

The next several weeks would prove decisive for the course of war in the Mediterranean.

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