Operation Avalanche (September 1943)

Although the invasion of Italy followed closely on from the conquest of Sicily and may be regarded historically as a sequel to it, from the point of view of the Grand Strategy of the war there is a great division between the two operations. The conquest of Sicily marked the conclusion of the North African campaigns which cleared the Axis forces from the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The invasion of Italy was part of the next phase of Grand Strategy, which was targeted at removing Germany from the war by way of the cross-Channel invasion. Italy would no longer be high on the priority list for men and matériel; operations here would be subsidiary to the preparations for OVERLORD, and the armies which had been successful in Africa would be broken up and selected divisions would be removed from the Mediterranean theatre and redeployed to the United Kingdom. Those formations that remained to carry out the campaign included many that were understrength or not fully trained or equipped.

The clear break between the Sicilian and Italian campaigns is reflected in the differences in the objectives that the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) had for the two operations. For the former the intention was clear cut and definite - firstly, to make the Mediterranean line of communications more secure; secondly, to divert German pressure from the Soviet front; and thirdly, to intensify pressure on Italy. 2 The possibility of removing the enemy forces which defended Sicily from the Axis order of battle by cutting their escape route to mainland Italy was not seriously attempted. For Italy the CCS informed Eisenhower that the major strike against the Axis would be made in North West Europe, and that he should plan to remove Italy from the war and to tie down the maximum number of German divisions with the purpose of keeping them away from Normandy. Taking Italy out of the war would play its part in this, for Italy had about two million men under arms in some sixty divisions; these were not necessarily first-class troops, but they were deployed in garrisons in southern France (seven divisions) and the Balkans (thirty-two divisions), as well as in many anti-aircraft and coastal defence units in both areas. Their removal would force the Germans to replace them with their own forces, which could now not be employed against OVERLORD.

The CCS also set forth a general pattern of Mediterranean operations for 1943-44, dividing it into three main phases: (1) the elimination of Italy from the war and the establishment of air bases as far north as the Rome area, and, if feasible, including the Ancona area; (2) the capture of Sardinia and Corsica; and (3) the eventual entry of Anglo-American forces and the bulk of the re-equipped French forces into southern France.

The CCS orders to remove Italy from the war could only be achieved by invading the mainland. The intelligence staff believed that capturing Sicily would not be sufficient. Nor would taking Sardinia guarantee Italy’s capitulation - it had to be the mainland itself. In any event, even should Italy surrender once its islands fell, it would be necessary to occupy Italy to prevent the Germans moving into the country in strength. For Alexander the obvious way forward was to invade, and to do so in such a way that the Allied force was as concentrated as possible - the forthcoming withdrawal of formations to the United Kingdom, together with the requirement to tie down yet more for garrison and defensive purposes elsewhere in the Middle East, left the Allies with less than the optimum force levels for Italy; as Alexander pointed out in his report on the campaign, the Allied forces ‘never at any time enjoyed any but the slenderest margin of superiority over the Germans, and usually not even that, and, above all, the invasion of the West was never deprived of any resources in men or materials by the needs of the operations in Italy’. To compound the difficulties, the CCS were unable to define any geographical objectives because the campaign in Italy would be defined by the outcome of Sicily - the factors which would shape the later campaign were not yet clear. The very geography of Italy was ready-made for defence with its long ‘leg’ bearing difficult mountains running down its length, rivers running across its width, and many places where nature could be reinforced to produce defensive lines which would prove to be almost unbreakable. What man had been able to make in the years before the invasion to improve communications by building roads through the mountains could be undone in a matter of less than a day with the aid of modern explosives.

From Alexander’s perspective as commander of 15th Army Group, operations in Italy would be determined by geography - which was ready-made for defence. Where nature had not provided readily defensible positions, the enemy was sure to reinforce their lines by demolishing the communication system which previous generations had striven to put in place. The roads and bridges that had taken years to build could be removed in a matter of hours by explosives, and it would take far longer to replace them in order to facilitate an Allied advance; certainly not swiftly enough to guarantee keeping the Germans on the back foot and unable to construct fresh defences farther back.

On the positive side, the Allies were permitted a measure of flexibility by their amphibious capabilities - so long as they remained available and were not withdrawn for OVERLORD. There was a constraint on their use, however - that of the range of air cover. Having regard to the vulnerability of naval vessels, evidenced by the losses of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to Japanese aircraft off Malaya earlier in the war, Alexander was not about to risk a repeat in the Mediterranean. Whereas in the Pacific large numbers of American aircraft carriers were able to provide cover, no such situation pertained in the Mediterranean: carriers were few. The Fleet Air Arm capability could provide a maximum of eighty sorties on the first day of an operation. The sortie numbers dropped each day thereafter, and after three days were negligible. 5 Spitfire range (with 90-gallon tanks) was 180 miles from north-east Sicily, once airfields had been constructed in that region. At the time of planning, the Sicilian operation had not been completed, and there was only one small airstrip known to be available there. The arc of operations drawn from Sicily extended to the island of Capri, just north of Salerno, and included the Italian provinces of Calabria and Basilicata. Nowhere here were any targets of major strategic importance; the area was the poorest in Italy and was one of mountains and difficult communications. Just beyond fighter range were two targets worth taking - the city and port of Naples, and the Italian naval base of Taranto - but a direct assault on either of these heavily defended locations, especially without air cover, was out of the question.

Calabria appeared to be the only route into Italy, with a relatively safe passage across the Straits of Messina, but this way led into a narrow region with mountains rising to 6,000 feet in height, which offered the defender a number of points on which to base his resistance. The danger of focusing- the invasion solely at this point was that the Allies could find themselves stuck in a barren region as winter approached, unable to advance sufficiently far to tie down significant German forces. It was evident to Alexander that an effort must be made to identify somewhere - risky that it might be - at the extremes of fighter cover but closer to strategic objectives. Detailed planning started in Allied Force Headquarters on 3 June 1943, but much would depend upon the progress of the operations in Sicily. The first few days there gave promise for the future: the Italian forces on the island, which might have strongly resisted the landings on their homeland, had little heart for the fight. Many units, especially the coastal defence formations, put up virtually no fight at all, and mass desertions were frequent. The civilian population seemed welcoming, seeing the Allies as liberators. These indications, together with the comparatively light Allied casualties and the limited damage imposed upon the landing craft employed during the invasion, contributed to a more ambitious plan for Italy than would otherwise have been the case.

Fifth Army , A Coalition At War - Ian Blackwell


On 17 July Alexander met Eisenhower and the naval and air commanders, Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder, and together they drew up an initial series of objectives for the invasion of Italy. These included a swift exploitation of the anticipated success in Sicily to launch an attack across the Straits of Messina by the Eighth Army, which would be followed by a move up the ‘toe’ of Italy to Cotrone, on the ball of Italy’s foot, where an amphibious landing would be made. Should sufficient landing craft be available, then Fifth Army would mount an operation against Taranto and - in the fullness of time - once the Allied advance had secured Naples, reinforcements would be sent to Italy via that port. Five days after this meeting, on 22 July, Fifth Army was ordered to prepare plans to seize the ‘heel’ of Italy and to secure the area east of a line running from Taranto to Bari. The target date was 1 October 1943.

It was hoped, with the rapidly-collapsing Italian Army and the Germans retiring northwards, that a small mobile force could advance swiftly across the mountains and seize Naples. On 15 July Fifth Army had been directed to prepare plans for an unopposed landing in Naples, but now Taranto was given priority. Naples was too good a target to ignore, however - its occupation would give the Allies a base from which to maintain an army which would be well placed for an advance northwards to Rome and the presence of Allied troops there would force the Germans to withdraw from Calabria. However, any force that landed in Naples had to be capable of being supported by troops advancing from the south, especially as the port lay beyond air cover.

News came from Rome on 25 July that Mussolini had fallen, which led the Allies to reconsider more adventurous options. Although there was, as yet, no indication that the Italians were about to surrender, the prevailing expectation was that it would be only a matter of time. The discontent of a number of senior Italian officers was well-known, and already some cautious approaches had been made to the Allies. With an enhanced possibility that Italy would collapse, General Clark was again ordered to prepare plans to seize Naples. The target date was 7 September, the earliest that the availability of troops allowed. All of these were currently involved in Sicily, including the two reserve divisions: 9th (US) and 78th (British). The end of the Sicilian campaign was hopefully to come in mid-August; the first week in September would mark the date when sufficient landing craft would become available; and the moon would be at its most suitable for the operation between 7 and 10 September.

Operation AVALANCHE, the landing to seize Naples, was to be carried out by VI (US) Corps and X (British) Corps, each of which theoretically comprised one armoured, two infantry and one airborne division. In practice they could not all be used because shipping was only available for an assault force of little more than three divisions, and there were sufficient aircraft for only one airborne division. Additionally, because the plans for operations in Calabria were still under consideration - for which General Montgomery wanted X Corps - that formation had to be prepared for both AVALANCHE and Calabria; the final decision would be taken once the situation clarified.

The AVALANCHE landings were to be made in the Gulf of Salerno for several reasons. To sail directly into the Bay of Naples, which was well-defended by minefields and coastal batteries, as well as being an area in which the Germans would concentrate their forces, was out of the question. The decision, therefore, had to be taken on landing to the city’s north or south. To the north the Plain of Campania lay between Naples and the mouth of the Volturno river, and offered landing sites which were not dominated by mountain ranges. The opportunity here existed for a swift landing and deployment of forces which would permit Allied armour to be used to its best advantage to cut enemy communications from the south. It appeared that the Germans expected a strike to be made in this area, for they had moved two divisions there. However, the beaches were less suitable for landings than the alternative, Salerno, and had sandbanks lying offshore. They were also beyond the range of air cover.

South of Naples there lay a twenty-mile stretch of suitable landing beach with clear approaches and gradients which permitted landing craft to come close inshore; the coastal defences were comparatively weak; there was an airfield less than four miles from the coast which could be seized to accommodate four fighter squadrons; and the landing area was within air cover from north-east Sicily. On the debit side, the beaches were overlooked by a semicircle of mountains which were located at distances of between two and ten miles from the shore, and which gave the defenders positions from which to both observe and locate artillery. Furthermore, between the landing area and Naples there ran a spur of the Monti Picentini which ran down to Sorrento, and through which there were only two, easily defensible, passes. The question of air cover was the deciding factor, and Salerno it was to be.

The question of X Corps’ participation in AVALANCHE was decided when Alexander ruled that Montgomery would have to make the crossing of the Straits of Messina with the resources he had. Neither X Corps nor the landing craft required to carry it to Salerno would be available to him.

On 16 August the Commanders-in-Chief conference in Carthage made the final decisions on the Italian invasion. With the Sicilian campaign virtually over, the Germans being able to evacuate their troops from the island more successfully than the Allies had anticipated, and German forces moving into Italy from the north in great numbers, it was expected that there would be as many as eighteen enemy divisions in the country by the end of the month. The Allies could not anticipate being able to match that strength until December. Nonetheless, it was agreed that the invasion should go ahead as soon as possible. XIII Corps would cross into Calabria between 1 and 4 September, and AVALANCHE was timetabled for the 9th.

Fifth Army came under Alexander’s command on 17 August, only three weeks before it was to land at Salerno. It had prepared its plan for the invasion, which was presented two days earlier. With a few modifications, largely concerning the use of 82nd Airborne Division, the plan was accepted and the Operation Order was issued on 26 August. The plan called for an initial assault by three divisions, supported by a floating reserve of one Regimental Combat Team. To the left, X Corps (46th and 56th British Divisions) was to land between Salerno and the Sele river. Its task was to seize Salerno and the airfield at Montecorvino, to establish a firm base and to take control of the passes which led to Naples. Having done this, the Corps was to advance to Naples and the airfields at Capodichino and Pomigliano. For the landings themselves the Corps would be supported by three US Ranger battalions and two Commandos, all operating on its left flank; and on D + 4 reinforcements in the shape of 7th Armoured Division would be landed.

On the right VI Corps would land with 36th (US) Division and one tank battalion. Its task was to secure the right flank and to establish a firm beachhead. The Fifth Army reserve was one Regimental Combat Team from 45th Division, under the divisional commander. Once the initial landings were made and sufficient shipping became available, the rest of 45th, and later the 34th Divisions, would be brought across. In the initial plan 82nd Airborne Division would provide a Regimental Combat Team to drop north of Naples in the Volturno valley. Its task was to capture bridges at Cancello, Capua and Triflisco and prevent enemy reinforcements moving into the region from the north, but this operation was later cancelled.

The forces assigned to AVALANCHE were not great, but they were all that could be carried to the Bay of Salerno by the numbers of landing craft available. With priority now being given to preparations for OVERLORD, the Mediterranean theatre was left with limited resources, and landing craft which had been used in Sicily had to be refitted in Bizerta before being reemployed for this operation. Some Landing Ships Tank (LSTs) were taken away from the Messina crossing as soon as they had finished ferrying their loads across the Straits, and sent to be loaded for their next task later on the same day.

To highlight the constraints which shipping and aircraft limitations imposed on the invasion, it is worth comparing the strengths of Allied forces that formed the initial assault waves during Operation HUSKY, the landings in Sicily (seven infantry divisions, one infantry brigade, elements of two airborne divisions, three Ranger battalions and three Commandos, with an armoured division as floating reserve) and AVALANCHE (three infantry divisions, a tank battalion, three Ranger battalions and two Commandos). The Italian campaign was firmly relegated to a secondary position when resources had to be assigned to OVERLORD, and the commanders had little option but to make the best of what they could pull together.

With initial discussions being held about surrender terms, there was hope that the landings could be made without facing resistance from the Italians. However, the Allies believed that in addition to the German divisions that were withdrawing from Sicily there were another ten or twelve in Italy. Two of these were situated close enough to Rome to occupy it should the Italian government declare a unilateral surrender. Understandably, the Italian government feared reprisals from the Germans once news of their dealings with the Allies broke, and wanted reassurances that the Allied landing would be made north of Rome with a strength of not less than fifteen divisions. As has been illustrated, this was completely impossible. The best that could be done was to offer to send an airborne division to land on airports that had already been seized by the Italians. The combined Italian-American force (the Italian forces in the area, together with the 82nd Airborne Division which was nominated for the task) would then defend Rome against the Germans until the seaborne force reached it. This, of course, meant that 82nd Airborne would not be available for AVALANCHE. At 0515 on 3 September, thirteen hours after Eighth Army opened its assault across the Straits of Messina, General Castellano on behalf of the Italian Government, and General Bedell Smith on behalf of General Eisenhower, signed the Italian Surrender Terms in a tent in an almond grove near Cassibile in Sicily.

Fifth Army , A Coalition At War - Ian Blackwell


Germans In Italy during September 1943

On 3 September Army Group B under command of Field Marshal Rommel was situated in the north of Italy above a line running from Grosseto to Rimini. It consisted of ten divisions, two of which were armoured, and one-and-a-half of which were stationed in Sardinia and Corsica. These forces controlled the north of the country from their headquarters on Lake Garda, and had established a very big staging and maintenance area around Verona. There had also been a major effort to improve the lines of communication throughout the area, which would serve the Germans well in the forthcoming months. Germans and Allies alike anticipated that the Italian population in this region would present the Germans with a significant security problem, should Italy defect from the Axis.

German dispositions in south Italy under Kesselring were positioned to resist any invasion attempt. They included the four divisions which had been evacuated from Sicily. Of these, 29th Panzer Division was in Calabria, 15th Panzer Grenadier and the Herman Göring Panzer Grenadier Divisions were refitting in the Naples area, and the bulk of 1st Parachute Division in Altamura. Two other divisions, both newly-formed, were south of Naples: the 26th Panzer in Calabria and 16th Panzer covering the Gulf of Salerno, having been moved there at the end of August. The 2nd Parachute Division was near Ostia and 3rd Panzer Grenadier was around Viterbo, both in the area of Rome. These eight formations were under the command of Colonel General von Vietinghoff’s Tenth Army, and organized into XIV Panzer Corps in the north and LXXVI Panzer Corps in the south.

The lesson that the Germans had taken from Sicily - although not every German general subscribed to it, as was evidenced by the response to OVERLORD the following year - was that an invasion should be defeated on the beach. The difficulty was in identifying on which beach the Allies would land, and ensuring that there were sufficient forces in its proximity to deal with whatever came ashore. The odds on pinpointing the correct stretch of coastline was not as unscientific as sticking a pin into a map, however, because the Germans were well able to weigh up the factors which the Allies would consider when making their choice - range of air cover, closeness to a sizeable port, and so on. They were also sufficiently suspicious of the Italians to have prepared contingency plans to take over their defences should it prove necessary to do so. German dispositions covered the Naples, Rome-Civitavecchia, and Genoa-Spezia areas, although the distances involved meant that the defenders were spread relatively thinly. In the Salerno area four infantry and one tank battalions, supplemented by the divisional engineer and reconnaissance battalions, covered over thirty miles of coast. General Alexander did not believe that this indicated that the enemy had correctly identified the AVALANCHE beaches.

With the Italian surrender agreed, albeit not made public, planning proceeded for the 82nd Airborne Division to drop on the Rome airports. There were not sufficient aircraft to use the other airborne division available to Alexander, 1st (British) Airborne, in the role for which it had trained; neither were there spare landing craft for it to participate in an assault landing. The Italian surrender opened another possibility, however: to land the division at Taranto. If the Italians were not going to oppose the operation, then 1st Airborne could be carried to the port aboard Royal Navy warships and disembarked in the harbour. The opportunity to capture a port which was well-placed to support Eighth Army’s future operations on the Adriatic was too good to be missed. With only five days’ notice Operation SLAPSTICK was mounted and 1st Airborne Division was to arrive in Taranto on 9 September. Alexander’s intention was that the division should secure the port, the neighbouring airfields and other installations, and prepare for the arrival of 78th Division once landing craft became available to transport it thence from Sicily. The force would be reinforced by 8th Indian Division from the Middle East, and V (British) Corps Headquarters would take command. The Corps would come under Eighth Army as soon as it had made contact after advancing through Calabria.

The AVALANCHE convoys set sail from their various ports of departure each day from 3 to 7 September. The proposal to drop 82nd Airborne Division on Rome was still under consideration, however, and because of the uncertainty surrounding Italian intentions and capabilities to support the operation, it was decided to send Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, the division’s artillery commander, to the city to gauge the situation there. With AVALANCHE scheduled for only two days later, he and Colonel Gardener USAAF sailed from Palermo on a British motor torpedo boat on 7 September. Because of the laws of war both officers carried out the mission in American uniform despite the possibility that such dress could lead to their immediate capture. Transferring to an Italian corvette off Ustica Island they were received by Rear Admiral Maugeri, head of Italian Naval Intelligence. After landing in Gaeta they then proceeded to Rome, travelling part of the way in an Italian ambulance, where they found that all was not what had been promised. Marshal Badoglio was not able to guarantee that the airfields which had been intended for the 82nd would be secure - according to General Carboni, commander of the Italian Corps in the Rome area, the Germans were too close and too strong - some 12,000 (mainly parachutists) were in the Tiber valley and a further 24,000 Panzer Grenadiers nearby. The proposal for the airborne operation (codenamed GIANT II) was greeted with dismay by Badoglio, who had no plans in place for an Italian uprising against the Germans. Faced with this disarray, Taylor made the decision to cancel the operation. His message to do so arrived as American paratroops were preparing to depart - according to the Divisional History the aircraft were loaded and the engines being warmed up. The tightness of the schedule meant that not only was the 82nd Airborne not dropped on the Rome airfields, but they were unavailable for their original task (GIANT I), which had been to seize crossings over the River Volturno as part of the AVALANCHE operation.

The date for AVALANCHE was selected because of the moon cycle, and because it was hoped that by then the Eighth Army would have progressed far enough towards Salerno to support the landings. The available numbers of landing craft limited the invasion force to two British and one American divisions: 46th British Infantry Division was made up of two North Midland brigades and a third which had three battalions of the Royal Hampshire Regiment; 56th (London) Infantry Division, which included 201st Guards Brigade; and - for the Americans - 36th (US) Infantry Division. In addition, there were three US Ranger battalions and No. 2 Army and No. 41 Royal Marine Commandos. The chain of command descended from Eisenhower at Allied Forces Headquarters, through Alexander at Headquarters 15th Army Group, to Clark at Headquarters Fifth Army. Below this level came Lieutenant General Richard McCreery, commanding X Corps, and Major General Ernest J. Dawley, commanding VI Corps. In terms of nationalities the sequence ran American-British-American, and then British and American at corps level. The length of time that some of these officers had to get to know and to learn to work with each other was not long, particularly when they came from different nationalities. Alexander had first met Eisenhower and Clark in 1942. Eisenhower and Clark had known each other since being at West Point and had worked together since June 1942. Alexander had worked with McCreery before Dunkirk when the former had commanded 1 st Division with McCreery as his GSO1. He had later appointed McCreery as his Chief of Staff Middle East Command in 1942, and then his Chief of Staff when Alexander took command of 18 Army Group. McCreery was given X Corps in July 1943 when its commander, General Horrocks, was wounded, but the corps was only confirmed as being part of Clark’s Fifth Army when AVALANCHE was given the go-ahead. Until then X Corps had prepared both for AVALANCHE and BAYTOWN so as to be capable of being employed in either operation, as the situation demanded, and there was no real time for Clark and McCreery to get to know each other, let alone work together. Clark had appointed his other corps commander, Dawley, with reluctance. He had wanted a younger officer for the job, but Dawley had seen service in Mexico and France and was both older and senior to Clark. Their relationship was not helped when Clark felt that he had to reprimand Dawley about the appearance and behaviour of his soldiers, which Clark considered to be lax.

The links, as might be expected, were strongest along national lines. If it can be accepted that mutual trust and understanding based upon shared experiences help to ensure effective and efficient working relationships, then the senior officers involved with the Salerno landings were largely missing that advantage. Although some of these officers had learned to trust each other, the reverse was also true. Past experience could breed dislike or distrust. Clark, because of his appointment as Army Commander, is particularly important in this respect, and several of the officers who worked in subordinate positions for him during the campaign - including Americans - held him in poor regard. Dawley, Truscott (3rd Division, then VI Corps and later Fifth Army Commander), and Walker (36th Division) were among these officers. British officers would join their ranks.

Fifth Army , A Coalition At War - Ian Blackwell