~ OPERATION HUSKY ~
SICILY - 9/10 JULY 1943
Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily, was the first major Allied assault on German occupied Europe. Churchill described Sicily and Italy as the soft underbelly of Europe but the Italy campaign was hard fought and only came to an end in May 1945.
With the successful North Africa Operation Torch landings behind them and the gradual clearance of Axis forces from Tunisia underway, resources were becoming available for fresh amphibious landings in the Mediterranean. The Allies were still not strong enough to embark upon the ambitious "Round Up" invasion of Normandy, so the next phase of operations aimed to tie down Axis forces to relieve pressure on the Russian front in the east and to force Italy out of the war.
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]
This strategy was agreed at the Casablanca conference of January 1943 although, for a while, the Americans were inclined towards increasing pressure in the Pacific with direct attacks on Germany itself at a later stage. Plans were prepared to invade what Churchill called the 'soft underbelly of Europe' via Sicily.
General Guzzoni had 12 divisions comprising two German and 10 Italian to defend the island, five of the latter were infantry and five immobile coastal defence divisions. The garrison was 350,000 strong but included only 35,000 Germans, who were not fully mobilised. Beach defences, including pillboxes and barbed wire, were less formidable than those encountered in Normandy the following year and modern tanks were relatively few in number, however, the rugged rolling countryside, favoured the defenders.
The Allied Commander was General Eisenhower supported by Sea Forces Commander, Admiral Cunningham. General Alexander was Land Forces Commander and Air Marshal Tedder, Air Forces Commander.
The original Allied plan envisaged two widely separate landings in the north west and south east of the island. General Montgomery objected, because this approach lost the advantages of a combined, closely coordinated force. In the final plan, the British 8th Army would land on the south east of the island and the US 7th Army in the south west.
[Photo; Scene in the underground Operations Room at Malta from where Operation Husky was coordinated. Three British staff officers plot positions on large wall charts. The Operations Room was located in one of the caves on Malta as an air raid precaution. © IWM (NA 4094).]
2,760 ships and major landing craft from the River Clyde in Scotland, Norfolk, Virginia in the USA and from ports from Beirut to Algiers in the Mediterranean, converged on their rendezvous near Malta. They totalled seven and a half Divisions together with their equipment and supplies.
The operation was the most meticulously planned to date and benefited from the experiences gained at Dieppe (Jubilee), North Africa (Torch) and other raids and landings. However, the Commanders in Chief, notably Cunningham and Tedder, failed to set up a joint HQ to co-ordinate all land, sea and air elements, which would have delivered all the advantages of speedy and effective communications in the heat of battle.
Senior officers were scattered around the Mediterranean from Malta to Bizerta. Had any unexpected event arisen that required a swift response at the highest level, damaging delays and confusion might have arisen. In the event, the operation went well. Eisenhower and Mountbatten, who were in Malta, received confirmation that the landing had started from a BBC news bulletin!
The disposition of the naval task forces was as follows;
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]
There were potential conflicts of interest between the services in the timing of the operation. One such, concerned the parachutists who needed bright moonlight conditions to land safely. However, it was precisely these conditions that left the ships lying off shore most vulnerable to air attack. The matter was resolved in favour of the parachutists, since the Allies had air superiority which would deter the enemy.
An Allied deception plan convinced the Germans that Greece or Sardinia were the most likely targets for the invasion, so the Commander in Chief of the Luftflotte 2, concentrated his resources on the defence of the latter. Pantelleria and Lampedusa had already surrendered in mid June, after intense, sustained aerial bombing by the Allies and the bombing of Sicilian Airfields in the 7 days prior to Husky. This had been so successful that not a single Axis plane harassed convoys approaching Sicily.
In the afternoon of D-1, an unseasonable, force 7 north-westerly gale blew up, causing the smaller craft in the invasion fleet to toss about like corks. On D Day itself, the Canadians and Americans landed in very rough conditions, suffering the double discomfort of seasickness and a drenching through to the skin.
The conditions on the leeward side of the island were better, as the landing craft moved inshore. However, these generally unfavourable conditions caused the enemy to relax their guard in the mistaken belief that a landing in such conditions was most unlikely. Initial resistance was, consequently, less than expected.
[Photo; British troops wade ashore. © IWM (NA 4275).]
The high winds caused problems in the air too but, this time, with dire consequences for British and American troops being flown from Kairouan in Tunisia to Sicily in 137 gliders and 400 transport aircraft respectively. Due to poor flying and navigational conditions, combined with inadequately trained pilots, the planes and gliders were badly scattered.
Only a fraction of the elite troops reached their targets but in sufficient numbers to complete their assigned tasks. Of the gliders in the British sector, about a dozen were released early and were lost in the sea, with many casualties. To compound the self inflicted air losses on or around D + 3, a number of Allied supply aircraft were shot down by friendly fire, as they strayed over the battleground. The aircraft were certainly off their approved course but the primary cause was a failure in aircraft recognition by the spotters and gunners on the ground.
There was also concern over the disappearance of 9 of the 13 officers and ratings who reconnoitred the landing beaches prior to the Operation Husky. They were part of a small elite force that gloried in the deceptive name of Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPPs). Their task was to provide vital intelligence about tidal and beach conditions, to ensure the landing beaches were suitable for heavy vehicles etc. Their work was undertaken in darkness to avoid detection. If they, or their clandestine activities, were discovered, their presence would give advance warning of an impending operation, giving the enemy time to regroup and be reinforced. However, because Sicily was an obvious target, feints and deceptions were deployed consistent with a planned invasion in the Balkans. These included attaching Greek interpreters to battalions. These and other deceptions gave the Allies the surprise needed. When the scale of the invasion of Sicily became clear to Hitler, he immediately cancelled a planned offensive at Kursk on the Russian front and ordered the transfer of troops to the defence of Sicily.
Below is a diary of events in support of the British Eighth Army, by an unknown author. It was kindly provided by Howard Wallace-Sims, whose father served in Combined Operations in WW2.
On the south-east side of the island, Syracuse fell on July 10 and Augusta on the 13th, both to the advancing British 8th Army and the XII Corp which was advancing on Catania. On July 13, the leading troops were held up by an enemy rearguard at Lentini. To speed up the advance, landings were made to capture the bridges to the north of the town. No 3 Commando landed at Agnone and prevented the destruction of the Ponte del Malati, while the 1st Parachute Brigade and 151 Brigade, captured the Primasole Bridge over the Simeto. This gave the British forces a route to the plain of Catania. Because of resistance from the Hermann Goring Division, these gains were made at considerable cost. The Germans were firmly established on the slopes of Mount Etna, which held up the British advance. The plain, with the Gerbini airfields, was in dispute for almost three weeks.
On the south-west side of the island, the only serious opposition encountered by the Americans was at Gela, when the 1st US Division and a tank battalion were, after an unimpeded landing, met with a counter attack by German troops and armour. By D + 2, the invaders were back on the beaches.
At one stage, German tanks broke through the bridgehead but were engaged by the cruiser Savannah and the destroyer Shubrick. Order was restored as their 30 six inch guns bore down on the Germans from point blank range. This temporary German success was attributed, in part, to delays caused by the swell but also to General Patton's eagerness to push inland before the required supporting arms were in place.
The troops soon came up against the formidable 15th Panzer Division in full array. Without the naval intervention, there was a serious risk of the US forces being pushed back into the sea. Patton was obliged to move back on board Hewitt's HQ ship. Later Mountbatten, in all innocence, enquired by loud hailer from his destroyer to Hewitt "How far has General Patton got?" Hewitt replied "He has not! The General is back on board this ship." History does not record Patton's words when he and Mountbatten met shortly afterwards.
The Canadians near Pachino had, at their disposal, the newly introduced Landing Craft Gun (LCG). One lucky round from them blew up an ammunition dump but, more generally, the effectiveness of the weapon would have been improved had radio communications between the advancing troops and the LCGs been better. Six Landing Craft Tanks (Rocket) were in support of the Highland Division and they performed superbly under the command of Lieut-Commander Hugh Mulleneux. Each of the 2,500 rockets fired, as the "Jocks" approached the beaches, delivered a punch 25% greater than that delivered by a 6-inch shell. The Highland Division landed with only a handful of casualties.
On July 22, the Americans under General Patton entered Palermo but, by the end of July, their advance was slowing down as they approached Mount Etna. However, when German resistance at Adrano was overcome on Aug 6 by the British 78th Division and the capture of Randazzo on the 13th by US forces, the German position was no longer viable.
The beach organisation was better than 'Torch' but there were still problems caused, mainly by human error. One example was the misuse of the miraculous DUKW, a 2.5 ton American amphibious lorry. Those carrying troops should have deposited them on or near to the landing beaches but chose to deliver their human cargo close to the front line. The congestion in the narrow Sicilian streets and roads was chaotic, at a time when the movement of supplies and weapons was a priority. One DUKW was loaded with 10 tons of ammunition, when the limit was a quarter of this. To the considerable consternation of the driver, his DUKW disappeared below the waves as he left the ramp!
Improved waterproofing of vehicles and recovery measures for stranded or broken down craft, reduced losses to as little as 1.5% on the British beaches. On the more exposed western beaches, losses were around 12%. The small harbour of Licata had a greater ship handling capacity than thought and this relieved pressure on supplies and communications, as well as reducing dependence on Syracuse and Augusta.
Human errors of judgement in the management and control of men and materials, through the landing beaches, caused delays and loss of effectiveness. This unenviable and arduous job was that of Beachmaster. There was critical comment from senior staff about the selection criteria, recruitment and authority of the post holder. However, by the time of the Normandy landings, they had gained in respect and authority. One beachmaster is reputed to have ordered a general to "Get off my bloody beach!"
Pilfering was rife.
The Americans had a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the landing of men and materials. This required all the men and materials for the first battalion to go ashore, to be carried on one ship. However, there was no ship capable of carrying all the landing craft needed, so other landing craft were drafted in from nearby ships.
This arrangement required a high degree of training and complete immunity from enemy interference. Potentially, as landing craft moved around in the dark, going from one vessel to another, some might get lost and others delayed. Henriques put his concerns to Patton, who seriously considered adopting the British technique but decided that it was too near the operational date to make last-minute changes. In the event, thorough rehearsals by the Americans and the lack of opposition from the enemy, enabled the system to work.
Under the British system, the troops, their equipment and the landing craft they needed to reach the beaches, were distributed amongst a number of ships so that each was self contained and able to independently disembark their cargoes in their own landing craft. Under these arrangements, there was no need to use landing craft from other ships, thus avoiding the inherent difficulties mentioned earlier. Truscott's landings, using the British method, were particularly successful. Principles for amphibious landings honed and developed over years of Combined Operations experience, were put into practice. Henriques attributed his success to;
Henriques was also very impressed with US Navy crews. "Their coolness and discipline were quite outstanding and could never be forgotten by any of the soldiers taking part in the operation."
Other lessons were learned from the Americans. Whereas the British basic beach group unit was an infantry battalion, the Americans had an Engineer Shore Unit with a high proportion of technically qualified men. Such skills were invaluable in quickly resolving unforeseen problems in the area of the beachhead. In addition, the Americans had an efficient and effective method of loading store ships, with groups of stores secured together for loading into DUKWs for easier dispatch to the shore.
Husky was a great triumph and Mountbatten could not disguise his delight at the important part Combined Operations had played in the operation. For his part, Hewitt's report included 178 recommendations and ended with the warmest praise for the co-operation and comradeship between the Royal Navy and that of the USA. He recalled that it was barely 14 months since he had visited Admiral King's office in Washington. They and their respective teams had shared much in the planning of the operation and the rewards were there for all to see.
"I accompanied Admiral Ramsay on board the Antwerp on D minus 1, and saw all the convoys as they passed on their way to their rendezvous south of Malta. I have been 27 years at sea and I have never seen a sight like it in my life. It was like the Spithead Review multiplied by twenty. There were just forests of masts in every direction, as far as the eye could see. It was the most imposing and inspiring site and all troops and sailors had their tails so obviously vertical that, when you went anywhere near them, they broke into cheers."
Allied Forces: Air - varied; Sea - varied; Land - British 8th Army under Montgomery, US 7th Army under General Patton
Axis Forces: Air - Varied units of German and Italian Air forces. Sea - Varied units of German and Italian navies. Land - Two German Divisions (later reinforced by Eastern front troops) and Ten Italian Divisions.
Outcome (positive): Allied victory. With the capture of Sicily the Allies made ready for the invasion of Italy. 37,000 German and 130,000 Italian losses mostly prisoners. Gain of naval and air bases in the Mediterranean.
Outcome (negative): 31,158 killed, wounded or missing.
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.
Italian Star Veterans 1943 - 1944 website and memorial appeal. Click here.
Sicily Landing Siracusa - Impavidus Cultural Association. As president of the Association I would like to invite your readers to visit our website to find out about our Association. Veterans of the landings, who would like to join us, are particularly welcome - there is a page on the website to register your interest. For further information contact email@example.com.
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub. 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub. by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1
Commando by Dunford-Slater. Pub. by Kimber 1953 - from the pen of one of the major players.
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub. 1961 by Collins.
Please let us know if you have any information or book recommendations to add to this page.
My name is Peter Lankester, MBE, of
Bexhill-on-sea, East Sussex. I've just by chance come across your website which, as a WW2
Combined Operations veteran, I found interesting.
We were only there a short period when we moved to Saint Osyth on the Essex coast between Clacton and Brightlingsea. We used the nearby Martello Tower to practice pistol shooting and some beach huts on the sea wall served as our home, again with no heating. We lived in these timber framed, asbestos clad structures for about a month while we formed into the 143 LCM (Landing Craft Mechanised) Flotilla. By then, a certain amount of 'weeding out' had taken place and some of the trainees went elsewhere while, in our training group, twelve of us were selected as Cox’ns.
By then the Flotilla comprised over 100 men. We commenced our training on a whole variety of craft
including LCAs, LCPs, British LCMs, LCVPs, etc. We used the hulk of the Cutty
Sark, anchored in the River Blackwater, for our training in coming alongside. We
were joined by stokers, mechanics, signalmen, ERAs and other officers when we
arrived at our next destination, HMS Roseneath, Gareloch in the Clyde estuary, Scotland.
With a full complement we undertook further training on British LCMs until we took delivery of new LCMs from the US.
After familiarisation training, we boarded the converted train ferry,
the Royal Daffodil, bound for Liverpool, where we stayed for a time until the
Flotilla was dispersed amongst three liberty ships, each with four craft lashed
atop the holds. Living accommodation had been built between the decks on the Ocean
Wanderer (my Liberty Ship) and we were fed from the ship's galley.
We left HMS Hamilcar aboard HM dock ship, Eastway, in 1944. At the time of the occupation at Taranto in Italy we stayed in the accommodation ship Vienna, with our craft tied alongside.
We were then seconded to the Third American Amphibious Force in preparation for the invasion of the South of France, codenamed Operating Dragoon. I spent some time in the RN sick quarters of HMS Fabius in Taranto suffering from malaria but was able to rejoin the flotilla just before it took part in Operation Dragoon. We landed at Cavalier Bay west of San Tropez where elements of the Free French and French Colonials, from places like Chad, disembarked. We then moved west to Port de Bouc to assist with the disembarkation of transports as the German's had destroyed port facilities. After many weeks, we moved east to Marseilles where we left our craft to be shipped to the Far East for operations there.
We returned to HMS Hamilcar in Messina on
LCl(L) 113 until we took passage to Malta on the surrendered Italian cruiser Ceaserea Africana. From there, we returned to the UK on the troop ship Empress
of Scotland for another short spell at HMS Westcliff before myself and
half the flotilla transferred to Dover Harbour for duties there. We had six LCPs
manage the harbour traffic of mainly LCTs operating between the UK and France.
This account of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was compiled from information contained in the following books; Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub. by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1, Commando by Dunford-Slater. Pub. by Kimber 1953 - from the pen of one of the major players. The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub. 1961 by Collins.