Thursday 12 April 2012

Operation Husky, Sicily (1943)

Sicily is a beautiful place at this time of year. The weather is generally good, the fields are a riot of spring colours and the historic sites are not heaving with tourists. My wife and I have just come back from a week on the island. A week that was full of pleasures and interest - one aspect being the opportunity to visit sites associated with the Allied invasion in July 1943.

82nd Airborne Memorial
We spent a few days in the fantastically well preserved medieval town of Modica before moving up to Taormina in the shadow of the awesome Mount Etna. These places have the added advantage of being close to the main 'Operation Husky' battlefields.

The allied armies came ashore in the South East of the island. The British and Canadians on the right in the vicinity of the Pachino Peninsular and the Americans on the left primarily through the flatlands around Gela and Scoglitti.

Our first stop was at the Point Dirillo where, on the 11th July, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (82nd Airborne) under Colonel James M. Gavin fought a series of actions in the Acate Valley and the Biazza Ridge to support the American beach assaults which had happened the previous day.

The 82nd Airborne memorial (above) is located at the strategically important Point Dirillo pass which lies between the two primary American beachheads. Above the monument the Italian defences are easily explorable. There are a couple strongpoints linked by a system of trenches on two levels.

Point Dirillo, Sicily
We visited the beach at Scoglitti where the US 45th Infantry Division came ashore - a huge expanse of flat sand giving easy access to the plain beyond.

Somewhat to the North of the American landing beaches the British 5th Division landed at Cassible and immediately struck out towards Syracuse via the Ponte Grande where a force of British Paratroopers Had been badly battered by a strong Italian counter attack on the morning of the 10th July. The bridge was forced by the Bren Gun Carriers of 5th Division and Syracuse fell to the Allies on the evening of the first day. The 926 burials at the CWGC cemetery at Syracuse bears silent testimony to the intensity of the fighting.

Commonwealth War Graves  at Syracuse
Striking North form Modica we chose to follow the route of the 50th Division up towards Catania. We headed for Lentini to find the Ponte dei Malati where, on the night of the 13th/14th July, No. 3 Commando landed behind enemy lines to attack the bridge over the Lentini River which was protected by four strongpoints. They took the North end but were pushed off by an armoured German counter attack.

Later in the afternoon the 5th East Yorks reached the bridge and crossed the river having beaten back the axis defenders. After the action Montgomery asked Lieutenant J.F. Durnford-Slater to find a stonemason and have the crossing renamed 'No. 3 Commando Bridge'. These blocks remain in place to this day.

No. 3 Commando Bridge, Lentini, Sicily

Nowadays the bridge, which lies off the new Autostrada is 'guarded' by women of a profession that probably has a longer history than soldiering. When we visited there was a 'woman of easy virtue' at each end - both waiting for clients whom they would presumably 'service' in the old fortifications!

Unfortunately time precluded a visit to the Primosole Bridge and the defence lines that run parallel to Route 114. It was here that the allied forces in the East hit the main  defence forces which had, by then, been bolstered by a fourth contingent of German paratroopers (Fallschirmjager).

Strongpoint North of No. 3 Commando Bridge
By the middle of July the South East of the island covering Catania and Messina was protected by some crack troops including Kampfgruppe Schmalz (of the 15th Panzer Grenadiers) and the Herman Goring Division. As the British and Commonwealth battled up towards Etna, Patton's US contingent had broken out in the West taking Palermo on July 22nd.

German strategy changed at this point. Hube took command with a brief to evacuate 40,000 German personnel with accompanying armour and equipment. The Germans held what they described as the 'Etna Line' until this had been achieved. A triumph of logistics and planning which involved putting a third asset into the line to plug the defences to the West of Messina - the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division.

German Ossuary at Motta San Anastasia
Over 4,500 German dead are interred in the cemetery at Motta San Anastasia. The allied casualties in similar numbers are spread between Syracuse, Agira (Canadian) and Catania. The US casualties were repatriated in line with common American practice.

On July the 25th the Italians dismissed Mussolini and the new Commando Supremo, Marshall Badaglio, although declaring an intent to continue the fight alongside Germany, effectively resided over a standing down of the Italian Army.

The final act came with the US II Corps battling Eastwards along two axes of advance. On other fronts, the 1st Canadian Division with 231st Brigade drove North along Route 121 to Adrano. On the 31st July the British 8th Army joined the offensive with 13 Corps feigning an attack on Catania whilst 30 Corps struck out to join up with the Canadians at Adrano.

Etna from Motta San Anastasia
Adrano fell on the August 6th as the German defenders withdrew towards Messina leaving the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division holding firm at San Fretello as a rearguard. By then the withdrawal to mainland Italy across the Messina Straits was in full swing and by the 17th August the Germans had withdrawn their entire force with the loss of just 15 Naval vessels. The Allied response has since been heavily criticised and is now seen as a strategic blunder.

Our trip ended at Taormina however. The nearest I got to the Messina Straits was gazing at the seemingly close Italian mainland over the rim of a large Mojito cocktail!