Sunday, August 9, 2015

German Retreat from Sicily

A German Tiger tank in Sicily, 1943.

 Semovente da 90/53 in Sicily

Field Marshal Kesselring had long realized that Sicily would be lost even as he insisted that his forces on the island could tie up a dozen Allied divisions for some time. Berlin wondered who was tying up whom. Mindful of Stalingrad and Tunis, the high command had insisted as early as July 15 that “our valuable human material must be saved.” On July 26, Berlin ordered preparations made for the island’s evacuation; the message was hand-carried to Kesselring in Frascati to avoid alerting the Italians. With Mussolini deposed, Hitler feared that the Badoglio regime would use the abandonment of Sicily as an excuse to renounce the Pact of Steel.

The defense of the Strait of Messina fell to an unorthodox colonel from Schleswig-Holstein named Ernst-Günther Baade. A devotee of Aristotle and Seneca who printed small volumes of verse for his friends, Baade favored a kilt rather than trousers, with a holstered Luger worn instead of a leather sporran. By August 10, he had made Messina perhaps the most heavily defended spot in Europe. Five hundred guns bristled on the Sicilian shore and on mainland Calabria, two miles across the strait. Engineers prepared a dozen camouflaged ferry sites on both sides of the water and assembled thirty-three barges, seventy-six motorboats, and a dozen Siebel ferries, big rafts with twin airplane engines mounted on pontoons and originally designed in 1940 for an invasion of England. Baade even cached food, brandy, and cigarettes for the rear guard.

Twelve thousand German supernumeraries and more than four thousand vehicles quietly left Sicily in early August; Kesselring calculated that five nights would be needed to evacuate the rest. With precise choreography, combat units fell back on five successive defensive lines, a retreat aided by the tapering shape of the Messina Peninsula. Vehicles that could not be evacuated were sabotaged by bashing fuel pumps and distributors with hammers and hatchets. “The hand grenade is especially effective,” one directive advised. Enormous bonfires consumed surplus matériel, with German troops “yelling as they hurled it into the flames: crates, chairs, tents, camp beds, telephones, tools…all doused with petrol.”

Italian commanders quickly got wind of the evacuation scheme and began their own measured withdrawals on August 3. Without informing Berlin or awaiting Hitler’s approval, Kesselring authorized Operation LEHRGANG—“Curriculum”—to begin at six P.M. on Wednesday, August 11, just as Bernard’s battalion was fighting for survival at Brolo. The Hermann Göring Division went first, under a flotilla commanded by the former skipper of the airship Hindenburg; hundreds of shivering malaria patients also huddled on the ferries for the thirty-minute ride across the strait at six knots. Oil lamps flickered on the makeshift piers. Overhead screens shielded the glare from Allied pilots, but every anxious Gefreiter stared upward and listened for the sound of the B-17 bombers that would blow them to kingdom come.

The B-17s never came. Allied commanders had had no coordinated plan for severing the Messina Strait when HUSKY began, nor did any such plan emerge as the campaign reached its climax. Inattention, even negligence, gave Kesselring something his legions never had in Tunisia: the chance for a clean getaway.

British radio eavesdroppers had picked up many clues as early as August 1, including ferry assignments for the four German divisions, and messages about stockpiles of fuel and barrage balloons. But AFHQ intelligence in Algiers on August 10 found “no adequate indications that the enemy intends an immediate evacuation,” although General Alexander had noted signs of withdrawal preparations a full week earlier, in a cable to Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder. “You have no doubt co-ordinated plans to meet this contingency,” Alexander added. It was left to Montgomery to belabor the obvious: “The truth of the matter is that there is no plan.” Not until ten P.M. on August 14, four days into the evacuation, did Alexander signal Tedder, “It now appears that [the] German evacuation has really started.” Only a few hours earlier, AFHQ had again reported “no evidence of any large-scale withdrawal.”

Allied pilots had reason to fear the “fire canopy” that Baade’s guns could throw over the strait. But his antiaircraft guns, if plentiful, lacked range. The entire initial production run of the new German 88mm Flak 81, which could reach the rarefied altitude of 25,000 feet and higher where the B-17 Flying Fortresses flew, had been lost in Tunisia. Yet air commanders were reluctant to divert the Allied strategic bomber force, which included nearly a thousand planes, from deep targets in Naples, Bologna, and elsewhere. To be sure, swarms of smaller Wellingtons and Mitchells, Bostons and Baltimores, Warhawks and Kittyhawks raked the strait. Little sense of urgency obtained, however: of ten thousand sorties flown by bombers and fighter-bombers in the Mediterranean from late July to mid-August, only a quarter hit targets around Messina. B-17s attacked the strait three times before LEHRGANG began; yet, as the Axis evacuation intensified on August 13, the entire Flying Fortress fleet was again bombing Rome’s rail yards.

Naval commanders had equal reason to shy from Baade’s ferocious shore batteries and “the octopus-like arms of searchlights.” Admiral Cunningham in Tunisia had famously decreed, “Sink, burn, and destroy. Let nothing pass”; here, he issued no such commandment. “There was no effective way of stopping them, either by sea or air,” Cunningham said, and Hewitt agreed. Patrol boats and small craft staged nuisance attacks, but both British and American admirals declined to risk their big ships. “The two greatest sea powers in the world,” the strategist J.F.C. Fuller wrote, “had ceased to be sea-minded.”

Not once did the senior Allied commanders confer on how to thwart the escape. Increasingly preoccupied with the invasion of mainland Italy in September, they never urged Eisenhower to divert his strategic bombers and other resources for a supreme effort. Nor did he force the issue. On August 10, alarmed at signs of exhaustion, the commander-in-chief’s doctors ordered him to bed. There he remained for three days, “as much as his nervous temperament will permit,” Butcher noted. Perhaps sensing the missed opportunity, Eisenhower on Friday morning, August 13, “hopped in and out of bed, pranced around the room, and lectured me vigorously on what history would call ‘his mistake,’” Butcher added—the failure to land HUSKY forces “on both sides of the Messina Strait, thus cutting off all Sicily.”

“It is astonishing that the enemy has not made stronger attacks in the past days,” the commander of the Messina flotilla, Captain Gustav von Liebenstein, told his war diary on August 15. The evacuation was so unmolested that crossings soon took place by day, exploiting “Anglo-Saxon habits” during the early morning, lunch hour, and tea time. The Italian port commander departed Messina on August 16 after setting time bombs to blow up his docks. Two hundred grenadiers held a crossroads four miles outside the city, then fell back to board the last launches; German engineers cooled a wine bottle by towing it in the sea, and drank a toast as they neared the Calabrian shore. An eight-man Italian patrol inadvertently left behind was plucked from the shore by a German rescue boat at 8:30 A.M. on Tuesday, August 17, just as Allied troops converged on Messina.

They were among 40,000 Germans and 70,000 Italians to escape. Another 13,500 casualties had been evacuated in the previous month. German troops also carried off ten thousand vehicles—more than they had brought to Sicily, thanks to unbridled pilferage—and forty-seven tanks. The Italian evacuees included a dozen mules. “The Boche have carried out a very skillful withdrawal, which has been largely according to their plan and not ours,” a British major noted.

Kesselring declared the German units from Sicily “completely fit for battle and ready for service.” That was hyperbole; since July 10, Axis forces had been badly battered, by the Allies and by malaria. But those escaping divisions—the 15th Panzer Grenadier, the 29th Panzer Grenadier, the 1st Parachute, and the Hermann Göring—would kill thousands of Allied soldiers in the coming months. “We shall now employ our strength elsewhere,” Captain von Liebenstein wrote as he reached the mainland, “fully trusting in the final victory of the Fatherland.”


The thirty-eight-day campaign had ended, and another ten thousand square miles of Axis-held territory shifted to the Allied ledger. Patton deemed HUSKY “a damn near perfect example of how to wage war,” and without doubt clear benefits obtained. Mussolini’s downfall had been hastened. Mediterranean sea-lanes were further secured, along with southern supply lines to the Soviet Union and southern Asia via the Suez Canal. Allied air bases sprouted on Sicily as quickly as engineers could build them. German pressure had eased on the Russian front, where Hitler in July canceled a major offensive at Kursk after only a week, in part to divert forces to Italy and the Balkans.

American confidence, so badly battered at Kasserine Pass, was fully restored; four more Army divisions had become combat veterans, joining the four annealed in Tunisia. Cooperation between naval and ground forces had improved, and the many lessons learned, in mountain warfare and sniping tactics, in the arts of camouflage and combat loading, would be useful in Italy and beyond. The experience of launching a vast amphibious invasion against a hostile shore would be invaluable for the invasions yet to come, notably at Normandy. “We know we can do it again,” said Brigadier General Ray McLain, artillery commander of the 45th Division, “because we have succeeded.”
The butcher’s bill was dear for both sides. American battle casualties totaled 8,800, including 2,237 killed in action, plus another 13,000 hospitalized for illness. The British battle tally of 12,800 included 2,721 killed. Axis dead and wounded approached 29,000—an Italian count found 4,300 German and 4,700 Italian graves on Sicily. But it was the 140,000 Axis soldiers captured, nearly all of them Italian, who severely tilted the final casualty totals.

For the Allies the campaign had been “a great success, but it was not complete,” as a German admiral put it. Barely fifty thousand Germans had overcome Allied air and sea supremacy, and the virtual collapse of their Italian confederates, to hold off an onslaught by nearly half a million Anglo-Americans for five weeks. Kesselring considered much of the American effort misspent on seizing “uninteresting territory” in western Sicily; he detected an aversion to risk in Allied commanders, and now believed that he had a clear sense of his foes for future battles. HUSKY also exposed lingering combat shortcomings and revealed a few new ones. Rugged terrain could annul the advantage of a highly mechanized but roadbound army. “Vertical envelopment,” whether by parachute or glider, had yet to prove its value; in 666 troop carrier sorties flown over Sicily, the Allies lost 42 planes and had another 118 badly damaged, many from friendly fire. The meshing of infantry, armor, artillery, air, and other combat arms into an integrated battle force—the essence of modern combat—remained ragged; at times it was unclear whether Allied air and ground forces were even fighting the same campaign. Eisenhower claimed that the “international and interservice spirit” was now “so firmly established…that it was scarcely necessary any longer to treat it as a problem.” This was sheer fantasy. Relations between flyboys and ground-pounders were almost as badly strained as those between Brits and Yanks. As the historian Douglas Porch later wrote, “Sicily demonstrated the many limitations of interservice and inter-Allied cooperation, ones that foreshadowed problems that the Allies would encounter in Italy.”

If hundreds of combat leaders at all ranks proved their mettle under fire, others failed to measure up. The sorting out of the capable from the incapable continued, and Truscott’s critique in relieving a regimental commander in August showed how ruthless that sifting could be: “You lack clear, calm judgment and mental stability under stress of battle, and you are unduly influenced by rumors and exaggerated reports.”

But it was at higher echelons that leaders had yet to prove themselves entirely worthy of the led. Montgomery showed signs of being “a superb leader but a mediocre manager of armies in battle,” as the historian Geoffrey Perret put it, “unable to tell a sufficiency from a superfluity.” Patton had retired to the royal palace with his demons. Alexander had been conservative, unimaginative, and easily bamboozled by subordinates; his generalship in Sicily was “feeble from beginning to end,” the British biographer Nigel Hamilton concluded. As for Eisenhower, notwithstanding his growth since TORCH ten months before, all too often he still failed to grip the reins of his command, day by day and hour by hour. He had yet to become a great commander because he had yet to demonstrate the preeminent quality of a great captain: the ability to impose his will on the battlefield.

Still, they owned the island. Rome was closer; Berlin was closer. An enemy who a year earlier had been ascendant was now in retreat, everywhere. Half a million German soldiers lay dead, with as many more captured or missing. After Sicily, a Luftwaffe commander wrote, few could doubt “that a turning point had come and that we were on the road to final defeat.”

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