Monday, May 18, 2015

Operation AVALANCHE Part II

U.S. infantrymen push past the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, center of the American sector during the landings around Salerno Bay.

Small-scale and seemingly disorganized German counterattacks continued throughout the day but were repulsed as Fifth Army strengthened its lodgment. Reinforcements, support troops, and supplies poured ashore. By nightfall, the British 10 Corps was three miles inland and had advanced to the Montecorvino airfield. On the right, the U.S. VI Corps, which had met only limited opposition after leaving the beach, was some five miles inland. Separated by the Sele River, each corps operated independently with only minimal contact. But despite the fact that the landing force was in four separated beachheads, by dusk of D-day the situation looked favorable for the Allies.

While the AVALANCHE invasion force was moving ashore, German forces in southern Italy, as planned, were conducting a deliberate withdrawal northward following the Eighth Army landings. General Kesselring, although occupied with the Italian surrender, was not surprised by the Salerno invasion. With one division in place at Salerno and two others immediately available, and with LXXVI Panzer Corps withdrawing from southern Italy and soon available for employment, he directed General Vietinghoff to contain the beachhead. Vietinghoff, in turn, directed the 16th Panzer Division to prevent any deep Allied penetration until reinforcements arrived. On 10 September he concentrated the 16th Panzer Division against the British 10 Corps, blocking its progress while awaiting the arrival of LXXVI Corps. At first, Vietinghoff was optimistic, believing he could push the invasion force into the sea. Eighth Army was still 120 miles to the south and had to traverse difficult terrain to reach the beachhead. Coincidentally, General Montgomery had decided on 9 September to halt his advance for two days to rest and resupply his forces, buying more time for the German counterattacks at Salerno.

Meanwhile General Clark, who had yet to establish his headquarters ashore, was concerned because of the sketchy reports from the beachhead on D-day. General Dawley went ashore at 1300 and soon after began preparing to assume command of the VI Corps troops in the beachhead, earlier than originally scheduled. Elements of the U.S. 45th Division were also sent ashore during the night of 9 September to reinforce the 36th Division. Over the next two days, the 36th Division was able to consolidate its position ashore and expand the beachhead because of the withdrawal of most of the Germans in front of the VI Corps. However, in the British 10 Corps sector, intense fighting occurred as squads, platoons, and companies engaged in fierce exchanges with stubborn pockets of Germans who halted British advances and launched limited counterattacks.

On 10 September Clark visited both corps. Progress was satisfactory in the VI Corps sector, but the resistance in front of the British and the separation between the two Allied corps concerned him. Frustrated with the apparent stalemate, Clark narrowed the British 10 Corps zone of responsibility which would eventually allow an attack north toward Naples. This realignment necessitated moving the U.S. VI Corps’ boundary four miles to the north and assigning two regiments of the 45th Division responsibility for the added zone. On 12 September Clark moved his own headquarters ashore.

Although the shift in the corps’ boundary facilitated McCreery’s operations, it stretched Dawley’s American corps to the limit and forced him to commit the corps reserve to the battle. The VI Corps’ problems were exacerbated when Clark ordered Dawley to reinforce Darby’s Rangers, who were holding the northern passes in the British 10 Corps area, with a reinforced infantry battalion from the 36th Infantry Division. By 13 December the 36th Infantry Division was occupying a 35-mile front, well beyond what a full-strength division was expected to defend.

The Germans rapidly reinforced the battle area, and the Allied situation continued to deteriorate. Vietinghoff launched a major counterattack against the Allied beachhead on 13 September, albeit with divisions which were not yet fully reconstituted after the fighting in Sicily. The Hermann Goering and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions attacked the British 10 Corps, while elements of the 26th and 29th Panzer Grenadier and the 16th Panzer Divisions drove against VI Corps and the lightly defended area along the Sele River. The Germans penetrated the American lines on the afternoon of 13 September, overrunning a battalion of the 36th Division and threatening the rear of the Allied position. For a time, the situation was so precarious that Clark directed his staff to begin planning to evacuate one of the two beachheads and land its forces on the other. American resistance stiffened along the Calore River as artillery, tank, and tank destroyer units held their ground, pouring shot after shot directly into the attacking Germans. By nightfall the German attacks faltered, and the Allies began to regroup.

General Clark had recognized early on 13 September that his position was precarious. Seaborne reinforcements from Sicily could not arrive in time, and British Eighth Army advances were being slowed by heavily damaged roads and logistic problems. Eisenhower had earlier made the 82d Airborne Division available to Fifth Army, and Clark requested its use. The airborne unit represented the only force that could move to the area rapidly enough to make a difference. During the night of 13–14 September, 1,300 soldiers parachuted into the beachhead and immediately moved into defensive positions bolstering the 36th Infantry Division.

Throughout the daylight hours of 14 September, the Germans attacked the entire Allied front, searching for weaknesses. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Allied heavy bombers, diverted from attacks on strategic targets in Germany, interdicted German units and supplies flowing toward the beachhead and struck German units in assembly areas and attack positions. Reinforcements also arrived: the British 7th Armoured Division began landing in the 10 Corps sector, and the 180th Infantry, the remaining regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, landed behind VI Corps to become the Fifth Army reserve. That night another 2,100 82d Airborne soldiers landed on the beaches south of Salerno to bolster the defense. By the evening of 14 September, with more supplies ashore and reinforcements arriving, the crisis had passed.

Although the two night airborne drops into the Salerno beachhead had been executed flawlessly, another airborne operation was less successful. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion jumped some twenty miles north of the British 10 Corps on the evening of 14 September to disrupt German resupply and communications lines. The paratroopers had been ordered to harass the Germans for about five days and then either to infiltrate to the beachhead or to link up with advancing forces. Of the 40 planes involved in the operation, only 15 dropped their cargo within 4 miles of the drop zone; 23 planes scattered paratroopers between 8 and 25 miles from the intended target, and the drop site of the remaining 2 planes was unknown. Of the 600 men who jumped, 400 made it safely back to Allied hands several days later after launching small raids in the German rear.

On 15 September, with the British Eighth Army still some fifty miles to the south, Kesselring ordered a final effort against the beachhead. The failure of the attacks on 15 and 16 September indicated that the Allies could not be dislodged, so Kesselring directed German forces to begin an orderly delaying action and a withdrawal north. On 16 and 17 September, against diminishing resistance, Allied troops first consolidated their positions and then began slowly to push out toward the enemy. But many units needed time to rest, resupply, and reconstitute their forces. The 1st Battalion of the 142d Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, for example, had seen its effective strength reduced to sixty men; the 2d Battalion of the 143d Infantry, which had been in the Sele River corridor, had almost ceased to exist as a unit. Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army continued its advance as the Germans disengaged at Salerno and withdrew north. By 19 September, elements of Montgomery’s and Clark’s armies met at Auletta, twenty miles east of Eboli.

Salerno had been costly for both sides. German casualties were estimated at 3,500. The Americans, who assaulted the beaches under fire more lethal than that encountered in earlier Mediterranean landings, also suffered approximately 3,500 casualties, while British losses were some 5,500. After the battle for the beachhead had ended, the VI Corps received a new commander. General Dawley had not measured up to the expectations of his superiors and Clark was particularly concerned about Dawley’s failure to anticipate the threat to VI Corps’ weak left flank on 12 September. With the concurrence of Eisenhower, Clark replaced Dawley with Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas on 20 September.

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