Friday, September 11, 2015

Salerno Invasion (Operation AVALANCHE, 9 September 1943)





Allied invasion of southern Italy. The Allied plan for the invasion of the Italian mainland called for a three-pronged effort. In Operation BAYTOWN, General Bernard L. Montgomery’s Eighth Army would cross the Strait of Messina and land at Calabria on 3 September; then it would work its way north. The following day, in Operation SLAPSTICK, 3,600 soldiers of the British 1st Paratroop Division would drop on the Italian port of Taranto. The third part of the invasion, Operation AVALANCHE, was the largest. It involved the landing of two corps, the British X and the U.S. VI, at Salerno on 9 September. The goal was to then secure the port of Naples 30 miles to the northwest.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt had overall command of the operation. U.S. Rear Admiral John L. Hall had charge of the mainly American Southern Attack Force, and Royal Navy Commodore G. N. Oliver commanded the largely British Northern Attack Force. British Navy Rear Admiral Philip Vian commanded one fleet carrier and four escort carriers assisting with air cover. In all, 627 vessels participated in the operation.

Lieutenant General Mark Clark commanded the Fifth Army, the ground force for AVALANCHE. The Fifth Army consisted of the British X Corps of the 46th and 56th Divisions and the U.S. VI Corps of the 36th and 45th Divisions. Two battalions of U.S. Rangers and two of British commandos were included to secure key passes northwest of Salerno.

The Allies expected no opposition. On 8 September 1943, hours before the assault forces landed, General Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast that Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies. Clark fully expected to be able to secure Naples quickly and then throw a line across Italy, trapping German units between his own army and the British Eighth Army to the south. Clark decided to forego a preliminary bombardment, which meant German forces that had occupied the Italian positions were virtually undisturbed. As it evolved for the Allies, the battle was confusing and hard to control, developing its own momentum.

At 3:10 A.M. on 9 September, the Rangers began going ashore to secure the Allied northern flank. They were followed 20 minutes later by men of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, who secured the southern flank. The British X Corps then landed between the Rangers and the 36th Infantry Division. The 56th Infantry Division secured the southern sector of the British corps area, and the 46th Infantry Division secured the north sector. With the support of the Rangers and X Corps, British commandos were able to land at the town of Salerno itself.

On the first day, the Germans mounted only sporadic, small-scale counterattacks. German Theater commander Field Marshal Albert Kesselring immediately ordered his forces south of Salerno to withdraw from southern Italy to prevent them being cut off. The German 16th Panzer Division was to oppose the Salerno landings and prevent any Allied deep penetration there until German troops from the south became available. The Germans concentrated the limited forces initially available against the British X Corps.

On the morning of 10 September, General Clark visited both corps zones. Because VI Corps was making better progress, Clark assigned it 4 miles of the X Corps’ area. This, however, stretched the Americans thin. Meanwhile, more men and equipment came ashore, although a shortage of landing craft hampered operations. Naval gunfire, however, strongly supported the troops ashore. During the Salerno operation, Allied warships fired more than 11,000 tons of shell to assist shore operations. On 11 September, German aircraft launched glide bombs at the Allied ships, damaging 2 cruisers, and other attacks followed. On 16 September, 2 glide bombs badly damaged the British battleship Warspite.

On 13 September, the Germans launched their first major counterattack, overrunning a battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, but they then encountered stiff resistance along the banks of the Calore River. Tank, tank-destroyer, and artillery units poured fire into the ranks of the attacking Germans, and accurate naval gunfire played an important role. With the beachhead seemingly in jeopardy, on the night of 13 September two battalions (1,300 men) of the 82nd Airborne Division were air-dropped into the 36th Infantry Division sector and quickly thrown into the line.

Throughout 14 September, German units attacked all along the line, probing for weak spots. Meanwhile, Allied aircraft pounded German lines of communication and frontline positions. Elements of the British 7th Armored Division now landed to reinforce X Corps, and the 180th Infantry Regiment landed in VI Corps’ sector. That night, another 2,100 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived, further reinforcing the line.

Another airborne operation occurred on the night of 14 September to insert the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment 20 miles north of the X Corps zone. Its assignment was to harass German lines of communications for 5 days, then either infiltrate back into the beachhead or link up with advancing units. Only 15 of the 40 transport aircraft involved dropped their men near the target area; most of the paratroopers landed far from their intended drop zones. Although the men of the battalion caused some disruption in the German rear areas, they paid a heavy price; of the 600 men who participated in the jump, only 400 gained friendly lines.

On 15 September, Kesselring ordered another counterattack, which failed in the teeth of the Allied reinforcement. Clark now had more than 150,000 men ashore. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s Eighth Army was still 50 miles to the south, making slow progress against only light German resistance. Kesselring knew he could no longer hope to defeat the Allies at Salerno, and on 16 September the Germans began a deliberate, well-executed withdrawal northward. The Eighth and Fifth Armies finally linked up on 19 September. The Allies first entered Naples on 1 October.

The Salerno battle had been costly for both sides. The British had suffered 5,259 casualties and the Americans 1,649. German killed, wounded, and missing were 3,472. The next target was to secure Naples. Salerno was a clear indication that much hard fighting lay ahead.

References Blumenson, Martin. United States Army in World War II; The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Salerno to Cassino. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969. Hickey, Des. Operation Avalanche: The Salerno Landings. London: Heinemann, 1983. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 9, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio: January 1943–June 1944. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954. Morris, Eric. Salerno: A Military Fiasco. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

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