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H-021-2: Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily, and Operation Avalanche, the Invasion of Italy

Sicily Invasion, July 1943
Sunrise off Sicily, as seen from a U.S. Navy attack transport. Taken on the morning of the invasion, 10 July 1943. Note the already-empty davits (80-G-K-2143).

H-Gram 021, Attachment 2
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
September 2018 

Operation Husky: The Invasion of Sicily, 10 July 1943 

The hastily planned Allied invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) commencing on 9 September 1943 nearly ended in disaster. The effects of naval gunfire support were a significant factor, if not the major factor, in preventing the Germans from defeating the landings (actually, bad decisions by Adolf Hitler in holding back resources from the overall German commander in southern Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring, were probably the primary factor). The Allied plan relied heavily on surprise, which the U.S. naval commander, Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, argued would not be achieved. Hewitt reasoned that because Salerno was the closest beach near the key port of Naples that was still within range of land-based Allied fighter cover, the Germans would have no problem predicting where the landings would come. As it turned out, Kesselring was unwittingly in complete agreement with Hewitt’s analysis. The Allies would find the sea approaches to Salerno heavily mined, and a crack Panzer division itching for a fight on the beach (and more divisions in support, although not enough as it turned out). In order to preserve the (non-existent) element of surprise, the senior Allied ground commanders decided on a night landing, with no pre-landing naval bombardment, over the objection of Admiral Hewitt. Instead of meeting Italian troops eager to surrender, the initial wave of Allied troops was met by German loudspeakers inviting the Allied troops to come in and surrender, because the Germans had them covered. The Allies came in anyway, but not to surrender, and a brutal and bloody fight commenced.

In my previous H-gram (H-020), I ran out of gas in discussion of the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky), so I will backtrack some because Husky is important to the understanding of Avalanche. Although the purpose of H-grams is to focus on U.S. naval operations, a little bit of the development of Allied strategy in the European Theater is necessary. After the success of the Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, and the British victory over Rommel’s Afrika-Korps at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt—also in November 1942—the Allies quickly forced the Germans back into Tunisia, and, with a few setbacks (Battle of Kasserine Pass), defeated German forces in North Africa, in large part because Allied control of the sea lanes (although contested) strangled the Germans of supplies.

As it became apparent that the Germans in North Africa would be defeated by mid-1943, the Allies had to decide what to do next. There was agreement between the U.S. and the British on the overall “defeat Germany first” grand strategy for the war, but after that things could become pretty contentious. Generally, “Allied” strategy meant the Americans and British agreeing on something, and everyone else (Free French, Free Poles, even the Russians) would be told about it later, to the frequent consternation of the French and the Russians. Although today there is the view that the U.S.-British alliance during World War II was one of the most successful and harmonious in history, only the successful part is completely true. Many of the high-level strategy meetings between the U.S. and British senior military leaders were knock-down, drag-out food fights.

To grossly oversimplify the differing viewpoints, the British were convinced that the Americans were fixated on diving headlong into a bloodbath in northern France à la World War I before the Allies were really ready. The American view was that the British (still shell-shocked by their Great War experience) just wanted to beat around the bush in places like Italy and Greece, and that ideas by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to invade places like the Dodecanese Islands (huh? where?) were a waste of time and resources that would be better spent going right at the Germans. Nevertheless, the British absolutely refused to budge on invading northern France any earlier than 1944—if that—but were willing to make landings in the Mediterranean. Neither CNO Admiral Ernest J. King nor U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had ever been keen on landing in North Africa to begin with, but since the Army was there, they might as well do something with it, and the plan for the invasion of Sicily was the result.

(Back to H-Gram 021 summary) 

Sicily Invasion, July 1943
Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. holds the Seventh Army command flag he has just received from Vice Admiral H. K. Hewitt (left), U.S. Eighth Fleet commander, on board USS Monrovia (APA-31), en route to Sicily, circa 7 July 1943 (NH-96739).

There was extensive discussion amongst the U.S. and British military leadership as to where in the Mediterranean the Allies should invade next, such as Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, direct to the Italian mainland, Corfu, the Balkans (or the Dodecanese Islands). For a variety of reasons, Sicily was actually the obvious choice—the shortest distance from North Africa, air cover, etc. The fact that it was the obvious choice was the problem, which resulted in one the most extensive operational deception campaigns in military history, to include dropping a dead body with a fake identity and fake war plans off the coast of Spain from a submarine, with the intent that the neutral but Hitler-friendly government of dictator Francisco Franco would turn the plans (for the invasion of Sardinia and Greece) over to the Germans (Operation Mincemeat, also known as The Man Who Never Was in the movie). As it turned out, probably the only person really fooled by Mincemeat was Hitler himself, but that was sufficient. What really surprised the Italians and the Germans was how fast the Allies were able to marshal the required amphibious vessels, supplies, air cover, and troops to execute the attack. The Italians and Germans fully expected the attack on Sicily and were taking steps to counter it, but in many cases troop and aircraft reinforcements did not get there in time.

Between the landings in North Africa in November 1942 and the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, American shipyards were cranking out as a matter of top priority hundreds of new types of amphibious vessels, such as Landing Ship, Tank (LST) Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) Landing Craft, Mechanized and Utility (LCM/LCU) Landing Ship Medium (LSM), and numerous variations. Although world-wide demand for these kinds of vessels still greatly exceeded supply, hundreds were provided to the landings in Sicily (while U.S. operations in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea were hamstrung by the lack of such specialized amphibious vessels).

The fleet that was assembled to invade Sicily was the largest in history to that point, and included over 3,200 ships, craft, and boats, divided into two major forces: the Eastern Naval Task Force, to land the British Eighth Army on the eastern coast of Sicily (south of Sigonella) and the Western Naval Task Force, to land the U.S. Seventh Army (under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton) on the southeastern end of the southern coast of Sicily. The Eastern Naval Task Force was predominately British Royal Navy and the Western Naval Task Force was predominately U.S. Navy, although ships of both nations (and other allies) served in both task forces. The Western Naval Task Force (about 1,700 ships, craft, and boats) was under the command of Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt, USN.

Vice Admiral Hewitt’s after-action report described the battle for Sicily thus: “The amphibious assaults were uniformly successful. The only serious threat was an enemy counter-attack on D plus one day against the 1st Infantry Division when a German tank force drove across the Gela plain to within 1,000 yards of the DIME beaches. The destruction of this armored force by naval gunfire delivered by U.S. cruisers and destroyers, and the recovery of the situation through naval support, was one of the most noteworthy events of the operations. The continued employment of naval gunfire against enemy positions on the north coast during the reduction of the island phase of the campaign, the unique employment of landing craft in providing a service of food, fuel and munitions to our front line troops on the north coast contributed to a marked degree to the rapid defeat of the enemy.”

Vice Admiral Hewitt’s report understates some of the challenges involved. The weather was bad enough that serious consideration was given to postponing the landings, which would increase the likelihood that the Italians and Germans would be able to reinforce their defenses. Hewitt took a great risk, and opted to proceed with the landings anyway, and got away with it. In many respects, the rough seas proved a much greater obstacle to conducting the landing than the enemy. However, the enemy was also caught by surprise, having assumed that no one would try to land in such adverse conditions. Because of the nature of the beachheads in the American sector (off-shore sand bars), the LSTs needed to use pontoon bridges to get their tanks and armored vehicles to the beach. Although the weather played serious havoc, the LSTs were eventually successful. Also, in an effort to ensure surprise, the largest amphibious assault in history was planned to be a night assault. Somewhat amazingly, the darkness was much less of an impediment than the sea state, and the initial landings in the dark were successful. The airborne drops that preceded the amphibious assault were much less successful as high winds scattered American paratroopers all over southeastern Sicily. It was worse in the British sector, where British gliders were cut loose too early by U.S. tow planes and crashed into the sea, killing 252 British troops and glider crews (some sources say 326 killed). Another effort to ensure surprise is that there was no pre-landing naval bombardment, which had been approved over Hewitt’s objection. Since the Italians and Germans had been caught off-guard, lack of pre-landing bombardment didn’t make much difference, although the consequences would be much more severe at the later Salerno landings.

However, the greatest weakness in the Sicily landings was that they depended on land-based air support, as there were no U.S. or British aircraft carriers to support the landing in the American sector. Both the U.S. Navy and Army would pay heavily. Hewitt’s after-action report stated, “the weakest link in the joint planning of the U.S. Forces was the almost complete lack of participation by the Air Force….The Air Plan gave no specific information to the Naval and Military Commanders of what support might be expected during the assault, or what, when or where fighter cover would be provided….Thus the Naval and Military Commanders sailed for the assault with almost no knowledge of what the air force would do in the initial assault or thereafter.” Following the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in February 1943, the U.S. Army Air Force successfully argued that a contributing factor in the defeat of U.S. forces by the Germans was partly due to the misallocation of air assets, i.e., assigning specific fighter squadrons to support specific army divisions resulted in an inefficient and ineffective use of available air power. The Air Force was right, but then for the Sicily invasion the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction, with the Air Force acting as a completely independent force (still trying to prove that by strategic bombing they could win the war all by themselves).

(Back to H-Gram 021 summary) 

Sicily Invasion, June 1943
The 6-inch/47-caliber guns of a Brooklyn-class light cruiser bombards enemy forces at Licata, Sicily, during the Allied landings, 10 June 1943 (80-G-54550).

At dawn on 10 July, the German (and some Italian) air attacks commenced. Although some German aircraft came in high, where they were detected by radar, others came ripping down the valleys in Sicily at low level, surprising, bombing, and strafing troops on the beach, landing craft at the beach, and ships off shore. Within the first couple of hours, three of the light cruiser USS Savannah’s (CL-42) four observation/scout planes were shot down by German fighters. In one case, the radioman/observer was able to ditch the aircraft at sea successfully after the pilot had been killed in flight. By the second day, Savannah had lost all four of her planes.

The U.S. Navy suffered its most significant loss during Operation Husky on the first day of the invasion when German aircraft launched a counter-attack. The destroyer USS Maddox (DD-622) was located about 16 nautical miles off the coast, guarding the invasion force from submarine attack, when a lone German Ju-88 twin-engine bomber slipped through without being engaged by Allied fighters and attacked the ship (some accounts say the aircraft was a “Stuka” dive bomber or “Italian Stuka”). At least one, possibly two, 250-pound bombs were direct hits and the other one (or two) was a damaging near- miss. One of the bombs detonated in the after magazine, causing a massive explosion. The ship sank in less than two minutes with the loss of 210 of her crew, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Eugene S. Sarsfield, who received a posthumous Navy Cross for his heroic actions in supervising the abandon-ship evolution, which was credited with saving 74 (nine officers and 65 enlisted personnel) of his crew at the cost of his own life. This was the largest loss of life on a U.S. Navy warship in the Atlantic/European Theater during World War II.

Maddox had previously been commended by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox for her actions when the destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed and damaged by a German U-boat off Iceland during the undeclared war between the U.S. Navy and German submarine force in October 1941. Later, after war was declared, Maddox probably sank a German submarine while escorting a trans-Atlantic convoy. The Gearing-class destroyer DD-837 was named in honor of Sarsfield, but was completed too late to participate in World War II combat, although she did earn one battle star in Vietnam before being transferred to the Republic of China (Taiwan) as ROCS Te Yang in 1977. She is now a museum ship in Taiwan.

The Allen M. Sumner–class DD-731 would also be named Maddox and would survive a kamikaze hit off Okinawa in 1945. On 2 August 1964, she would engage and damage three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats (with the assistance of strafing by U.S. Navy F-8 Crusader fighters), when she was attacked while conducting a DESOTO signals intelligence (SIGINT) patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. Maddox and one of the F-8s suffered minor damage. Two days later, on 4 August 1964, Maddox and the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD-951) engaged what were probably phantom radar contacts off the coast of Vietnam. The two events were frequently conflated into the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” which led the U.S. Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson authority to greatly escalate the Vietnam War. There are still many who believe the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to have been a trumped-up (or even phony) event to justify greater U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The reality is that the first incident on 2 August was definitely real, and the second one, on 4 August, almost certainly not. Like the Sarsfield, Maddox would end her career serving in the Taiwanese navy before being scrapped.

Back to Sicily…

Allied aircraft first showed up 15 minutes after Maddox exploded and sank. By the end of the first day, and despite occasional Allied fighter cover, German aircraft sank the minesweeper USS Sentinel (AM-115) and damaged other ships. Sentinel put up an incredible fight during repeated air attacks, despite serious damage in the earliest attacks, hitting at least two German aircraft and driving off others before finally succumbing to additional bomb hits, her after 3-inch gun driving off a sixth attack even as the vessel was sinking. Other ships were damaged or suffered near-misses throughout the day.

Just before nightfall, a single German Bf-109 got through and struck LST-313, which was heavily loaded with fully fueled vehicles and ammunition. Most of those aboard were able to escape via the pontoon bridge before the LST was destroyed by the explosions.  Heroic shiphandling by LST-311 saved about 40 men trapped on the stern of the flaming ship. The skipper of LST-311, Lieutenant Commander Robert L. Coleman, USNR, would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor. Beach operations in the vicinity of LST-313 had to be halted due to a continuing shower of shrapnel from explosions aboard the ship.

On 11 July, German bombers hit the liberty ship SS Robert Rowan with over 400 troops and Navy crewmen on board, along with several thousand tons of ammunition, and set her on fire. The “abandon ship” order was immediately given, and nearby ships, at extraordinary risk, saved everyone on board before the ship blew up in one of the largest explosions ever recorded, showering the whole area with debris, and her smoldering wreck serving to aid follow-on night attacks by German aircraft.

Over the course of the campaign, LST-158, LST-318, an LCI and two LCT’s would be lost to bombs. Other ships would be damaged by bombs, mines and shore fire. Ninety-two landing craft (LCVP) would be lost. The U.S. Navy would lose 546 (killed or missing) compared to the U.S. Army’s 2,273 (killed or missing) in the Sicily campaign—mostly as a result of inadequate air cover.

Throughout the first several days, naval gunfire support from the light cruisers USS Boise (CL-47), USS Savannah (CL-42), and other destroyers proved exceptionally effective, until U.S. Army forces advanced out of range. In particular, the most determined German armored counterattack, on 11 July, which came dangerously close to getting through to the beachhead at Gela, was broken up primarily by gunfire from Savannah, which repelled several German attempts to re-group and re-attack, and destroyed or damaged many German tanks. Savannah’s sick bay also served as a hospital to numerous U.S. Army wounded. Savannah’s actions earned her the nickname the “[U.S. Army] Rangers’ favorite ship.” Although U.S. ships had shelled Japanese positions on islands in the Pacific, this was the first time U.S. Navy warships conducted direct fire support in an actual land battle, using coordination procedures that had been carefully rehearsed between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army in preparation for the landing; there was nothing ad hoc about it.

Those who have seen the movie Patton will recall Patton being irate that British General Sir Bernard Montgomery had been given the “easy” route up the east coast of Sicily toward Messina, while U.S. troops had to slog through the mountains guarding Montgomery’s western flank. Patton then got frustrated and led his forces on a much longer “end around” via the western and northern coast of Sicily, and still got to Messina faster than Montgomery. It was basically true, although the scene of Monty triumphantly entering Messina only to find Patton and the band already waiting for him was “Hollywood.” Patton’s “end around” was significantly aided by a series of smaller amphibious operations, naval gunfire support, and timely supply of Patton’s rapidly advancing force by U.S. Navy landing craft.

Although the landings on Sicily were successful, they were marred by what is considered by many to be the worst “friendly fire” incident in U.S. military history—although several sinkings of Japanese “hell ships” full of Allied POWs by U.S. and Allied submarines may also claim that dubious distinction. On the night of 11 July, U.S. Navy ships and U.S. Army shore batteries downed 23 of 144 U.S. C-47/C-53 transport aircraft and damaged 37 more; 81 U.S. paratroopers were killed, including Brigadier General Charles Keerans, and 60 aircrew. In addition, 200 more were wounded. These numbers vary significantly from source to source—23 aircraft shot down and 318 killed or wounded appear to be the most reliable numbers. Vice Admiral Hewitt’s after-action report includes Lesson Learned  No. 42, “Air plans involving the transport of paratroopers should be submitted to the Naval Commander for approval,” which somewhat blandly masked the scope of tragedy. Morison’s account describes a scene where visibility was limited by the pall of smoke from the still-burning SS Robert Rowan, whose flames were used as a beacon by two heavy German air raids between 2150 and 2300 that night, when the flight of transport planes flew in at low altitude (400–700 feet, depending on the account) at the same time German dive bombers were attacking U.S. ships offshore.

Samuel Eliot Morison’s account states that Army batteries ashore opened fire first and the transport aircraft came out over water to avoid them, whereupon U.S. ships opened fire; not all accounts agree as to who fired first. But the result was a horror of sitting-duck transport planes being shot out of the sky by intense anti-aircraft fire from both ship and shore, with many aircraft crashing in the sea. General Patton was reportedly aghast watching the carnage, while the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Major General Matthew Ridgway, who came by ship, was in tears, having previously deemed the drop to be unnecessary, but having been unable to communicate a cancellation in time. Hewitt’s after-action report states, “This failure by the Air Force to correlate plans, and acquire the timely concurrence of the other services in order that information could be disseminated to all forces contributed to a regrettable incident. On the night of the assault a number of the transport planes were off the prescribed route and approached the transports from the same direction as the enemy and arrived over the ships simultaneously with enemy dive-bombers. One is brought to the conviction that that had the Air Force joined the naval and ground force planners, as they had been so often urged to do, and thereby had brought all Air Plans into harmony with the other services, the unfortunate loss of our transport aircraft might have been avoided.”

(Back to H-Gram 021 summary) 

Salerno Operation, September 1943
USS Charles Carroll (APA-28) is silhouetted against the glow of a burning ship off the Salerno invasion beaches on "D-Day," 9 September 1943. Photo probably taken from USS Ancon (AGC-4) (80-G-87394).

Operation Avalanche: The Invasion of Italy, 9 September 1943

As the Allied forces continued to advance in Sicily, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was ousted in a coup and arrested on 25 July, as other Italian senior leaders (and most of the population of Italy) became disillusioned by what seemed like a never-ending string of defeats for the Italians. Mussolini was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio (the “conqueror of Ethiopia” in 1936), who publically voiced support for continuing to fight as an ally to Nazi Germany, while secretly opening discussions with the Allies for an armistice. Badoglio was trying to avoid the humiliation of an “unconditional surrender” (which was the Allies’ stated war aim) and instead to switch sides and join the Allies. At the time the United States and Britain had agreed to invade Sicily, the Americans had not committed to an invasion of Italy. However, the prospect that Italy could be quickly knocked out of the war represented an unexpected opportunity. The British pushed hard for the invasion, believing that if Italy switched sides, then that would take enormous pressure off the supply line through the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and Suez (and by extension to India and the Far East). The United States reluctantly agreed to go along, but remained concerned about the possibility of getting bogged down in a campaign in Italy (which is exactly what happened). The British made a bad assumption that when Italy switched sides the Italian army would fight the Germans. Instead, the Italian army would literally dissolve, and the Germans would take over all of Italy and continue to fight, continuing to attack the vulnerable Allied supply route through the Mediterranean with their own aircraft and U-boats operating from Italian bases.

The result was a rushed plan for the invasion of Italy, with landings at Salerno. Many lessons learned from the landings in Sicily were incorporated, but the plan still had some major flaws. On the plus side, General Eisenhower put his foot down and ordered the Air Force to participate in the planning process. This time, Vice Admiral Hewitt’s flagship, USS Ancon (AGC-4), had an effective fighter-director team embarked under the command of Brigadier General Edward House, U.S. Army Air Force, perhaps the earliest version of a “JFACC afloat,” and two other ships were equipped with “joint” fighter-director teams as back-up. The British also committed one light carrier and four escort carriers to support the landings. Two additional British fleet carriers, HMS Illustrious and Formidable, were in the covering force. Ancon was an ocean liner that had been converted to a joint and combined forces flagship and was festooned with the latest in radar, radio, and command-and-control equipment (a lot like USS Blue Ridge—LCC-19—and ahead of her time). U.S. Army General Mark Clark would be aboard during the initial landings.

Salerno was chosen because it had the best beaches closest to the Italian port city of Naples (about 30 miles) but was still in range of land-based fighter cover operating from Sicily. However, the terrain favored defense, and to get to Naples, Allied forces would have to get through a chokepoint between mountain ranges. A river bisected the landing area, separating the U.S. forces and British forces, and the valley provided an avenue of approach for defenders. The nature of the beach was such that to get enough forces ashore required a front of about 35 miles, which also gave the defense the opportunity to separate Allied units and defeat them in detail.

The overall commander of the Allied ground force was U.S. General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, with the U.S. VI Corps and the British army’s X Corps for the attack, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in reserve. Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was in charge of all amphibious forces in Avalanche, while the covering forces were under Royal Navy command. Hewitt’s force included a Northern Attack Force (mostly British) landing British troops, and a Southern Attack Force, under the command of Rear Admiral John L. Hall, USN, to land U.S. troops.

Like Operation Husky, Army commanders made the decision to land at night, without preparatory air strikes or naval gunfire, so as to maintain an element of surprise. Vice Admiral Hewitt again argued strongly to use naval gunfire to prepare the beachhead, stressing that with the size of the force that would converge on Salerno from the sea, and the fact that Salerno was the obvious place to land, there would be no way that the landing would achieve surprise. As it turned out, there were eight German divisions deployed to directly oppose the landing or moving to support. In particular, the 16th Panzer Division had arrived on the Salerno plain on 6 September and set up effective defensive positions. Some of these German forces had been successfully evacuated from Sicily across the Strait of Messina. Not all of the divisions were at full strength, but they were ready to fight. In addition, the Allies discovered (fortunately in advance) that the Gulf of Salerno had been heavily mined, which meant that the Allied troop ships would have to hold 9 to 12 miles from the beach, while minesweepers cleared paths, which necessitated very long runs by the landing craft. Fortunately, unlike Sicily, the weather cooperated and was ideal.

On 3 September, elements of the British Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina from Sicily onto the “toe” of the Italian “boot” as part of a deception plan called Operation Baytown. The Germans were not fooled; they were not about to give battle where they could be easily outflanked by amphibious assault and withdrew up the toe of Italy toward Salerno. A second improvised deception operation (Operation Slapstick) took place the day before the Salerno landing. The light cruiser USS Boise (CL-47) was pressed into service with three other British light cruisers to help lift troops of the British 1st Airborne Division and capture the Italian naval base at Taranto (many Italian navy ships based there had been repositioned to bases in the north of Italy earlier in the war). Boise carried 788 British troops and 60–70 jeeps (instead of her observation/spotting planes). The British battleships HMS Howe and HMS King George V joined the forces to provide cover in the event of Italian navy opposition. Two Italian battleships and three cruisers sortied from Taranto, but they surrendered. Boise and the other cruisers steamed into Taranto to offload their troops. For some reason, Captain Thebaud of Boise declined the first berth he was offered by an Italian pilot and berthed at the mole instead. HMS Abdiel, a fast minelayer being used as a troop transport, took Boise’s berth instead, which turned out to have been mined. Abdiel struck an undetected mine several hours later and sank, with the loss of 48 crew and 101 soldiers. Other than that, the landing in Taranto was unopposed, but it did not fool the Germans.

The convoys carrying troops left from multiple North African ports beginning around 6 September. The main convoy of the Southern Attack Force, carrying U.S. troops, reflected the intermingled multi-national nature of the force, consisting of 13 U.S. transports, three British LSTs and three British LCIs, escorted by the light cruisers Philadelphia, Savannah, and Boise (although Boise was detached on short notice to join Operation Slapstick). Hewitt’s flagship, Ancon, was escorted by one British and three U.S. destroyers. The convoys proceeded by disparate routes, joining up in the Gulf of Salerno. Multiple attacks by significant numbers of German aircraft were surprisingly ineffective, succeeding in sinking only LCT-624 and putting a dud bomb into LST-375.

The armistice with Italy was reached in secret on 3 September 1943, and was announced by the Allies (by General Eisenhower himself) at 1830 on 8 September, nine hours before the scheduled landing at Salerno, in the hope that it would eliminate any Italian resistance. That part worked, but no Italian had been entrusted with the knowledge of the impending landing, so the Italians were in no position to help either, not that it would have made much difference. The Germans immediately executed their planned take-over of Italy and quickly disarmed those Italian army forces that did not melt away. An unfortunate by-product of the announcement was that word spread among the troops in the Allied invasion force, giving them the false sense that the landings might be unopposed.

At midnight on 9 September, the operation began with scouting and minesweeping operations, and landing craft in assembly areas. Scout boats could hear, but not see, German armor moving practically to the water’s edge. But, all went reasonably smoothly except for one landing craft blown up by a mine. The minesweepers would eventually clear 275 mines. The initial wave of U.S. troops arrived at the four designated beaches within seven minutes of each other at first light about 0335. Then all hell broke loose. Many U.S. troops were killed while still in the landing craft, by well-emplaced German guns. German aircraft arrived over the beach, bombing and strafing. It was the largest and most concerted German air attack against any landing in the Mediterranean. Seafire fighters from the British escort carriers were able to keep most attacks away from the amphibious craft offshore. Despite high casualties, U.S. troops pushed ashore, aided by DUKW amphibious vehicles carrying field artillery, put ashore by the three British LSTs. On Blue Beach, four of six LCTs carrying tanks were hit by German 88-milimeter anti-tank guns. The crew of LST-389 rigged their pontoon bridge under heavy enemy fire, but succeeded so that the embarked tanks could get ashore. The landings in the British sector were just as bloody.

At about 0510, a large bomb from an undetected aircraft exploded close aboard the ocean tug USS Nauset (AT-89), which had carried and offloaded a British small craft equipped with “hedgehog” projector charges intended to clear a path through any mines in the surf zone. Nauset caught fire and began to list. Although her crew fought valiantly to save her, fires below decks could not be extinguished. After being abandoned, the tug righted herself, and the skipper, Lieutenant Joseph Orleck, and two others went back aboard to try to save her, whereupon she exploded after probably striking a mine and went down with the skipper and one of the boarding party. Of Nauset’s complement of 113, 18 were killed and 41 were seriously wounded. Orleck was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, and the Gearing-class DD-886 was named for him (now a museum ship in Lake Charles, Louisiana).

The light cruisers Philadelphia and Savannah, four U.S. destroyers, and HMS Abercrombie (a monitor with twin 15-inch gun turrets) bombarded German tanks, gun positions, and troop concentrations. Abercrombie hit a mine and had to withdraw. Delays in getting through the minefields and establishing communications with shore fire-control parties, kept the naval gunfire on the first day from being as effective as it might have been early in the day. Nevertheless, Savannah fired on a concentration of German tanks and forced them to withdraw. The light cruiser had also been the first ship to open fire on the morning of 9 September, silencing a railroad artillery battery with 57 rounds. Savannah responded to 11 calls for fire support, expending 645 rounds of 6-inch ammunition. Unlike at Sicily, where all her planes were shot down, this time the ship had the benefit of U.S. Army Air Force P-51 Mustang fighters flying in pairs to defend themselves from German fighters and specially trained to spot naval gunfire.

Philadelphia also engaged German tanks, hitting a bridge that held up a column of armored vehicles and, with the aid of her scout plane (and the scout plane from Savannah), flushed 35 tanks out of hiding, destroying seven of them while forcing the rest to flee. The U.S. destroyers, putting themselves at risk in minefields, were also effective in destroying German gun positions that were inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. troops. Much credit goes to the bravery of the U.S. Army troops in holding on to the beachhead, but much credit is also due to naval gunfire support. However, more German reinforcements were closing in.

On the night of 10 September, German E-boats (torpedo boats, similar to U.S. PT boats but heftier) attacked an Allied convoy of emptied transport ships as it was leaving the Gulf of Salerno. The destroyer USS Rowan (DD-405) engaged two of the E-boats and drove them off. However, when returning to the convoy, Rowan encountered a third E-boat that rapidly closed range to 2,000 yards. Rowan took evasive action to put her stern toward the direction of the anticipated torpedo attack, but her turn was not fast enough. She was hit in the after quarter and her magazine exploded. She sank in less than 40 seconds, taking 202 of her crew with her. Only 71 survived.

Heavy fighting continued into the second day in both U.S. and British sectors, with U.S. and Royal Navy ships answering numerous calls for fire. Two German divisions conducted major counterattacks. Gunfire from Savannah was significantly responsible for halting the attack of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division down the Sele River valley, which threatened to divide Allied forces. Multiple German attacks came close to reaching the beaches. The same pattern continued over the next days, as more German forces poured into the area, along with more U.S. and British troops getting ashore in bitter see-saw combat. After the first day, German air attacks ashore were mostly ineffective, but the Luftwaffe concentrated their attacks on the things that were hurting the Germans the most: the Allied ships providing gunfire support.

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"One that didn’t get away"
U.S. soldiers examine the wreckage of a German Panzerkampfwagen IV tank, destroyed by Allied fire during Operation Avalanche. This may be one of the tanks knocked out by naval gunfire support during the battle for the beachhead (NH-95563).

During the 0900 hour on 11 September, Allied forces received warning of inbound German aircraft, but the planes remained a high altitude, over 18,000 ft. At about 0950, a large bomb exploded close aboard Philadelphia, wounding 15 men. Other ships began evasive action, but 10 minutes later, Savannah could not avoid another bomb, because it was a guided Fritz X (see H-021 overview and attachment H-021-1 for more). Heroic damage control saved the ship from nearly catastrophic damage that killed 197 of her crew and seriously wounded 15 more. Four sailors who were trapped in a forward compartment could not be rescued for 60 hours until the ship arrived in Malta under her own power. I could find no record that the skipper of Savannah, Captain Robert Webster Carey, USN, was awarded a medal for valor in saving his ship, and my presumption is that one of his five Legion of Merits covered it. Carey was one of the most decorated officers in the Navy, having been awarded a Medal of Honor shortly out of the academy for his actions during a boiler explosion (actually five boilers exploded) in 1915 aboard the armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR-6) indirectly saving the lives of three men while dragging them to safety and for putting out the fires in the adjacent boiler room, thus preventing the boilers from exploding and inflicting even more damage. San Diego would later be the largest U.S. Navy warship lost in World War I, after Carey detached. During that conflict, Carey was awarded a Navy Cross while aboard the destroyer USS Sampson (DD-63) for his actions in securing a live depth charge that had come loose and was rolling about the deck in heavy seas. Carey retired in 1945 as a rear admiral.

German counter-attacks increased in intensity on 13–14 September, and General Mark Clark was seriously considering evacuating the southern (American) beaches and concentrating troops on the northern sector. Clark, who was now ashore, sent an urgent request to Hewitt to prepare to evacuate the U.S. VI Corps from the beaches and re-locate them to the beaches north of the Sele River. Boise, having arrived after her participation in Operation Slapstick, was instrumental in blunting one of the more serious German attacks. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe attacks with Fritz X guided glide bombs continued. Philadelphia narrowly avoided being hit by two Fritz X, one within 100 yards and one within 100 feet. At 1440, the British light cruiser HMS Uganda was conducting close fire support missions when she suffered a direct hit from a Fritz X dropped from a plane that was never seen. The bomb penetrated through seven decks, out the bottom, and exploded under the keel, snuffing out all the boilers and killing 16 men. A U.S. tug was able to tow Uganda to safety, but she was out of action for many months. Other British destroyers suffered near-misses from guided bombs. Two British hospital ships were also attacked by guided bombs, with several near-misses, and one hit HMHS Newfoundland, killing all of the medical officers and six nurses. The two hospital ships had previously been carrying 105 U.S. nurses, who had already gone ashore. Newfoundland had to be towed to sea and scuttled.

Intense German counter-attacks continued on 14 September on land, as did guided-bomb attacks at sea. Philadelphia and Boise continued to provide fire support. Two transports, SS Bushrod Washington and SS James W. Marshall, appeared to have been hit by guided bombs, probably the smaller rocket-assisted version. Bushrod Washington was a total loss after her cargo of gasoline went up, while James W. Marshall suffered heavy casualties among her merchant marine crew. Marshall would end up being deliberately scuttled and used as part of a “Mulberry” artificial harbor during the Normandy landings.

Due to the desperate situation ashore, the British brought the battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant in close. On 16 September, Warspite suffered a direct hit and a near miss from two Fritz X glide bombs. The first bomb penetrated six decks, detonated in the No. 4 boiler room, and put out all boiler fires, leaving her dead in the water. Over 5,000 tons of water flooded into the ship, but her crew was able to take action to save her and she was towed to Malta. Warspite was never completely repaired, but she was able to participate in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. By 16 September, however, Allied fighters had become better at intercepting and driving off the high-altitude attacks—or in disrupting them during the vulnerable period where the bomber had to remain straight and level. The Allies also learned that making smoke was a reasonably effective means to disrupt the attacks since the bomb operator would lose sight of the target while the bomb was in flight. Radio jammers would first become available later in September.

A report by a senior German commander (General Vietinghoff) stated, “The attack this morning pushed on to stiffened resistance; but above all the advancing troops had to endure the most severe fire that had hitherto been experienced; the naval gunfire from at least 16 to 18 battleships, cruisers and large destroyers lying in the roadstead. With astonishing precision and freedom of maneuver, these ships shot at every recognized target with very overwhelming effect.” Obviously naval gunfire earned the Germans’ respect.

In the end, had the Germans committed more divisions from northern Italy they might have won at Salerno, as there were times when German forces in the landing area outnumbered the Allies, and almost twice as many Allied troops were killed as German. Nevertheless, Hitler refused to commit the additional troops and, between 15 and 17 September, the Allied forces ashore slowly gained the upper hand. On 16 September, Field Marshall Kesselring, commander of German forces in southern Italy, gave orders to conduct a fighting withdrawal. Philadelphia was narrowly missed by more glide bombs as she supported the Allied advance. Naples would fall on 1 October (after the Germans conducted extensive sabotage and destruction of the port facilities, water distribution, and civilian food supplies), which would be just one more event in what would turn into a long and bloody campaign.

The German navy got in another blow during the Salerno operation when the submarine U-616 torpedoed and sank the destroyer USS Buck (DD-420) south of Capri in the Gulf of Salerno just after midnight on 9 October 1943. Buck apparently detected the U-boat by radar and commenced an attack run to lay a depth charge pattern, when Oberleutnant zur See Siegfried Koitschka fired an acoustic-homing torpedo from his stern tube. (Some sources do not credit U-616 with firing an acoustic torpedo). The torpedo struck Buck’s starboard bow, followed almost immediately by a massive explosion that blew off the bow and killed almost everyone in the forward section of the ship and on the bridge, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Millard J. Klein. As the aft section of the ship rolled on its side, and the stern rose toward vertical, crewmen desperately tried to set the depth charges on safe, but were only partially successful. The ship sank in less than four minutes, and soon thereafter the starboard depth charges detonated, killing and wounding many more sailors in the water. There had been no time to send a distress call, so it was many hours before rescue came during daylight. Of Buck’s crew, 168 were killed and 95 survived.

After the sinking, Lieutenant Commander Klein would be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for a previous engagement on 3 August 1943, when Buck was escorting six Liberty ship transports from Sicily to Algeria, when she depth-charged and forced the Italian submarine Argento (then still on the Germans’ side) to the surface and sank her with gunfire. Buck rescued 45 of Argento’s 49 crewmen. Buck had also previously survived a serious collision at sea with a New Zealand troop transport in the fog off Nova Scotia on 22 August 1942. Buck’s keel had been broken, fantail severed, and seven men lost, but her crew saved her. However, the destroyer USS Ingraham (DD-444), coming to Buck’s aid, collided with the oiler USS Chemung (AO-30) and sank. Ingraham’s depth charges exploded; only 11 of Ingraham’s crew of 208 survived. The Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer (DD-761) was subsequently named Buck, but was completed too late to see combat in World War II, although she earned six battle stars during the Korean War before eventually being transferred to the Brazilian navy. World War II ended before any ship was named for Lieutenant Commander Klein.

And finally, on 13 October, the German submarine U-371 attacked a convoy returning from Salerno to Oran near the coast of eastern Algeria. The destroyer USS Bristol (DD-453) detected the submarine, but was hit ten seconds later by a torpedo, which broke the back of the ship and she quickly sank. Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Patrick J. Phillips was able to set the depth charges to “safe” before the ship went under, and the ship’s executive officer was credited with conducting an orderly abandon ship which saved many lives (the commanding officer had been seriously wounded by the explosion). Five officers and 47 enlisted men were lost out of her crew of 293.

Including Buck and Bristol, Vice Admiral Hewitt’s initial casualty report listed 296 U.S. Navy sailors killed, 551 missing, and 422 wounded during Operation Avalanche. Almost all of those listed as missing were subsequently declared dead, so over 800 U.S. Navy sailors were killed during the operation, making the invasion of Salerno one of the most costly battles in U.S. Navy history. Three destroyers, Rowan, Buck, and Bristol were lost, and the light cruiser Savannah was severely damaged, but saved. The invasion, however, was a success.

(Sources include: History of U.S. Navy Operations in World War II, Vol. IX, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, January 1943–June 1944 by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison; Action Report, Western Naval Task Force, The Sicilian Campaign, Operation “Husky,” July–August 1943,” signed by Vice Admiral H.K. Hewitt, USN, Naval Commander, Western Task Force; History of the U.S. Navy, Vol. Two 1942–1991 by Robert W. Love, Jr.; Sea Power by E.B. Potter; NHHC report, "The U.S. Navy and the Landings at Salerno, Italy, 3-17 September 1943"; and NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships—DANFS—entries for various ships involved.)

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Published: Wed May 08 10:30:01 EDT 2019