Monday, May 18, 2015

Operation AVALANCHE Part I

In the early morning hours of 9 September, the approximately 450 ships of Operation AVALANCHE assembled off the Salerno coast. Elements had sailed from Sicily and from Tripoli, Oran, and Bizerte in North Africa, some as early as 5 and 6 September.

German aircraft had attacked part of the fleet, so Kesselring knew that an Allied assault force was assembling but was uncertain where the blow would fall. German units were on alert, but were unable to defend all possible invasion sites.

General Sir Harold Alexander commanded the Allied 15th Army Group, composed of Montgomery’s British Eighth Army and Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army. Clark, a World War I veteran who had recently commanded a U.S. corps and had been Eisenhower’s deputy for Operation TORCH, commanded the invasion force. The Fifth Army comprised the British 10 Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir Richard L. McCreery, and the U.S. VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest J. Dawley. The invasion force’s assault echelon consisted of two British divisions (the 46th and 56th) from 10 Corps, but because of a shortage of landing craft, only one division from VI Corps participated: the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, a Texas National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker. Three U.S. Ranger battalions, commanded by Lt. Col. William O. Darby, and the 2d and 41st British Commandos were also in the assault element. Two regimental combat teams from the U.S. 45th Division, an Arizona National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, served as a seaborne reserve.

Clark expected to meet some 39,000 enemy troops on D-day and about 100,000 three days later after German reinforcements rushed to Salerno. He hoped to land 125,000 Allied troops. The British 10 Corps on the left was to land its two divisions abreast south of Salerno. The U.S. Rangers and the British Commandos were to land at beaches west of Salerno and secure the left flank by seizing key passes through the mountainous Sorrento peninsula between Naples and Salerno. Control of the passes would permit a rapid exit from the Salerno plain and protect the beachhead from German counterattacks from the north. Once the British 10 Corps was reinforced by the British 7th Armoured Division beginning on D plus 5, McCreery’s corps would swing north and advance toward Naples.

On the right, after the U.S. 36th Infantry Division was ashore, the U.S. 45th Infantry Division and other American units were to follow as soon as possible. The U.S. 34th Infantry Division, a North Dakota National Guard unit commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, and the U.S. 1st Armored Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ernest N. Harmon, would come ashore through Naples, which Clark believed would be in Allied hands by D plus 13, or 23 September. The U.S. 82d Airborne Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, was to be held in reserve on Sicily. Plans to drop the 82d as a diversion along the Volturno River, sixty miles north of Salerno, and on Rome, had been canceled. Eventually Clark’s Fifth Army would link up with Montgomery’s British Eighth Army advancing from BAYTOWN.

The amphibious assault began early on the morning of 9 September 1943. U.S. Rangers hit the beach unopposed at 0310, twenty minutes in advance of the main assault force, and moved quickly inland to seize their objectives. British Commandos captured the town of Salerno against light opposition. The British 10 Corps landed under a heavy naval bombardment, meeting significant opposition as its soldiers fought their way inland. The untested men of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division came ashore at 0330 without supporting fire, hoping to surprise the Germans. Although the leading elements took heavy casualties, all six waves of the 36th Division assault element were on the beach by 0610. Two companies of German infantry that had been on the Salerno beach judiciously withdrew inland as the assault began. Nevertheless, the Americans encountered small but intense resistance as they fought their way off the beaches.

Early German Luftwaffe attacks on the invasion force slackened near dawn as Allied aircraft from Sicily and supporting carriers appeared over the beachhead. Local German commanders reacted to the invasion force piecemeal. Fifteen tanks of the 16th Panzer Division made the first significant counterattack against the beachhead at 0700 but were driven off by a combination of naval gunfire, artillery, infantry, and engineers. However, German artillery and mortar fire, as well as continued forays by tank and infantry units, soon disrupted the orderly flow of Allied forces across the beach. Significantly, U.S. artillery and armor units were delayed coming ashore and disorganized when they arrived. Amid the confusion, many leading assault elements found themselves facing enemy tanks without adequate antiarmor weapons, and only through determination and individual heroism were some American forces able to move inland. In such cases, the actions of men like Sgt. Joseph M. Logan of Company I, 3d Battalion, 141st Infantry, were critical. When his unit was pinned down by machine gun fire coming from a stone wall near the beach, Sergeant Logan advanced some 200 yards toward the gun. With bullets striking around him, he killed three Germans who attacked from a gap in the wall. Under a stream of heavy fire, he rushed the machine gun position and killed the gunners and then turned the weapon on the enemy. For his heroic actions Sergeant Logan was awarded the Medal of Honor.

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