Operation ‘Avalanche’ – The Allied descent on mainland Italy (Part 1)

by Chris Chant on 23/04/2012

Troops and vehicles being landed under shell fire during the invasion of Italy at Salerno, September 1943

Operation ‘Avalanche’ was the first Allied strategic landing on the Italian mainland, and took place in the Gulf of Salerno, just south of Naples on the west coast of Italy, on 9/17 September 1943. The operation was undertaken by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army, totalling the equivalent of nine divisions including Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US 82nd Airborne Division. The primary objectives of the operation, which was planned as ‘Top Hat’, were the seizure of Naples, some 30 miles (48 km) north-west, as a working port for the effective supply of the increasing numbers of Allied troops scheduled to arrive on the Italian mainland, and a rapid advance across this mainland east coast and the Adriatic Sea in an effort to trap the Axis troops in the south of the country.

Allied disagreement
After the defeat of the Axis powers in North Africa, where Operation ‘Vulcan’ had forced the surrender of the German and Italian forces in Tunisia on 13 May, there was disagreement between the Allies about their next move. Prime Minister Winston Churchill in particular wanted an invasion of Italy, which in November 1942 he called ‘the soft underbelly of the axis’ and where popular support for the war was declining. Churchill believed an invasion would result in Italy’s surrender, and thus radically weaken the Axis strength in the Mediterranean theatre. This, Churchill believed, would fully open the Mediterranean Sea to Allied shipping, and thereby significantly reduce the tonnage of scarce shipping capacity needed to supply the Allied forces in the Middle East and Far East at a time when there was crisis in the allocation of Allied shipping capacity, and also allow an increase in the delivery of British and US matériel to the USSR. Churchill further believed that an Allied commitment in Italy would pin German forces that would otherwise be redeployed to the Eastern Front. Premier Iosif Stalin had been pressing the Western Allies to open a ‘second front’ in Europe to weaken the German effort on the Eastern Front.

On the other hand, General George C. Marshall, the US Army chief-of-staff, and much of the US staff wanted to avoid operations that might delay the planned primary invasion of North-West Europe on the shortest axis to Berlin, which had been discussed and planned as early as 1942 and finally materialised as Operation ‘Overlord’. As it became clear that no primary invasion could be undertaken in 1943, it was agreed to invade Sicily in Operation ‘Husky’, but without any commitment to any successor operations in the Mediterranean theatre. However, Roosevelt and Churchill each accepted the need for the Western Allies to continue their engagement with the Axis powers in the period after the conclusion of a successful ‘Husky’ and before the start of ‘Overlord’ in North-West Europe. The discussion continued through the ‘Trident’ third Washington conference in May, but it was not until a time late in July, after the course of the Sicily campaign had become clear and Benito Mussolini had fallen, that the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean theatre, to launch an invasion of the Italian mainland at the earliest possible date.

The Joint Allied Forces Headquarters were operationally responsible for all Allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre, and it was this body which planned and controlled the invasions of Sicily and then of the Italian mainland. The ‘Husky’ invasion and conquest of Sicily was highly successful even though many of the Axis troops managed to cross the Strait of Messina and reach the mainland. More importantly, on 24/25 July a coup deposed Mussolini as head of the Italian government, which then approached the Allies to make peace. It was believed a quick invasion of Italy might hasten an Italian surrender and produce quick military victories over the German troops that could be trapped fighting in a hostile country. Before ‘Husky’, Allied plans envisaged a crossing of the Strait of Messina, a limited invasion in the ‘instep’ area of the mainland in the area of Taranto, and an advance north-east along the ‘toe’ of Italy from the area of Reggio di Calabria on the eastern side of the Strait of Messina in the face of German and Italian resistance.

Basic plan
The overthrow of Mussolini and his Fascist party made a more ambitious plan feasible, and the Allies decided to supplement the crossing of the British 8th Army with a US-led seizure of the port of Naples. The Allies had a choice of two landing areas: one on the coast of the Volturno river basin just north of Naples and the other in the Gulf of Salerno just south of Naples. Both lay at the range limit of Allied fighters based in Sicily, but Salerno was chosen because it was slightly closer to these air bases, generally possessed milder surf conditions, allowed transport ships to anchor closer to the beaches, had narrower beaches for the rapid construction of exit roads, and possessed an excellent road network close behind the beaches.

The first step in the Allied progress onto the Italian mainland was Operation ‘Baytown’, in which elements of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s V Corps of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army would be delivered from Messina, on the north-east corner of Sicily, across the Strait of Messina directly by landing craft to come ashore near the tip of Calabria on 3 September 1943: Major General C. G. Bucknall’s 5th Division would land on the north side of the ‘toe’ while Major General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian 1st Division would land at Cape Spartivento on the south side. Montgomery was strongly opposed to ‘Baytown’ which, he predicted, would be a waste of effort since it assumed the Germans would give battle in Calabria; if they failed to do so, the diversion would not work, and the operation’s only effect would be to place the 8th Army 300 miles (480 km) south of the main landing at Salerno. Events proved Montgomery to be entirely correct: after ‘Baytown’ the 8th Army had to march 300 miles (480 km) north to the Salerno area against no opposition other than engineer obstacles.

Plans for the use of airborne forces in support of the Salerno landing took several forms, all of which were cancelled. The initial plan to land gliderborne troops in the mountain passes of the Sorrento peninsula north of Salerno was abandoned 12 August. Six days later this initial thought was replaced by Operation ‘Giant I’, in which two regiments of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US 82nd Airborne Division would descend on, seize and hold the crossings over the Volturno river to prevent the arrival of fresh Axis forces from the north. This plan was at first expanded to include the whole division, including an amphibious landing by the glider regiment, then deemed logistically unsupportable and reduced to a two-battalion drop at Capua to block Highway 6. The 3 September knowledge of the Italian armistice, to become effective on 8 September and be announced on the following day, led to the replacement of ‘Giant I’ by Operation ‘Giant II’. This was to be a drop by the 504th Parachute Infantry on Stazione di Furbara and Cerveteri airfields, 25 miles (40 km) north-west of Rome, to aid Italian forces in saving Rome from the Germans, a condition of the Italian armistice. Because the distance from the Allied beach-heads precluded any substantial Allied support of the airborne troops, Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor was infiltrated into Rome to assess the willingness of Italian troops to co-operate with the Americans. Taylor’s judgement was the operation would be a trap and he advised cancellation, which occurred late on the afternoon of 8 September as troop carriers were preparing to take off.

Amphibious assault
The main landings were ‘Avalanche’ scheduled for 9 September, when the main force would land around Salerno. This force was Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army, comprising Major General Ernest J. Dawley’s four-division US VI Corps and Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s three-division British X Corps, with the 82nd Airborne Division in reserve, a total of eight divisions and two brigade-sized units. Its primary objectives were to seize the port of Naples and thus ensure a means of resupply, and to drive across the ‘leg’ of Italy to the east coast, trapping the Axis troops farther south.

In the original planning, the great attraction of capturing the important port of Taranto in the ‘heel’ of Italy had been evident and an assault had been considered but rejected because of the very strong defences there. However, with the signing of the armistice with the Italians on 3 September the picture changed. It was decided that Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s British 1st Airborne Division would be delivered to Taranto in British warships, seize the port and several nearby airfields, so facilitating the subsequent delivery of Allfrey’s V Corps and a number of fighter squadrons. On 4 September the airborne division, which was undergoing training exercises in two locations some 400 miles (640 km) apart, was ordered to embark on 8 September. With such short notice to create plans, Operation ‘Slapstick’ was soon nicknamed ‘Bedlam’.

Planned as Operation ‘Top Hat’ and supported by the ‘Boardman’ deception plan suggesting the imminence of an Allied invasion somewhere in the Balkans, ‘Avalanche’ was daring but possessed considerable dangers. The 5th Army was to land on a front 35 miles (56 km) wide only three assault divisions (two British and one US in the X and VI Corps respectively), and the two corps were widely separated laterally by 12 miles (19 km) and also by the Sele river. Clark initially provided nothing to cover the river, which offered the Germans an easy route down which to launch a counterattack, and only belatedly landed two battalions to protect it. Moreover, the terrain favoured the defence. The planning of ‘Avalanche’ was completed in just 45 days rather than the several months that might have been expected. A US Army Ranger force under Colonel William O. Darby, comprising three US Ranger battalions and two British Commando units, was tasked with holding the mountain passes leading to Naples, but no plan existed for linking the Ranger force with the X Corps’ follow-up units. Finally, although tactical surprise was unlikely, Clark ordered no preparatory naval bombardment or naval gunfire support even though experience in the Pacific theatre had clearly demonstrated by this time that such support was essential. This omission resulted, at least in part, from the belief of Major General Fred L. Walker, commanding the US 36th Division that was to land in the southern half of the beach-head, that General Traugott Herr’s defending LXXVI Panzerkorps was scattered too widely to be effective.

On the German side, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, did not have the forces with which to push the Salerno landing back into the sea, and was refused reinforcement by two Panzer divisions in northern Italy. On 14 July the Germans had activated Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to control the German forces in northern Italy to a point as far south as Pisa, with Kesselring commanding those in southern Italy. On 22 August the Germans also established a new formation, Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army, to exercise direct control of Kesselring’s field formations. The 10th Army comprised two corps with six divisions positioned to cover possible landing sites. The XIV Panzerkorps, under the temporary command of Generalleutnant Hermann Balck and just in the process of taking over positions that had been held by the Italians, comprised Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’, Generalmajor Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s 16th Panzerdivision, and Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps comprised Generalmajor Smilo Graf von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision, and Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.

The tactically astute von Vietinghoff-Scheel specifically positioned the 16th Panzerdivision in the hills above the Salerno plain. As the launch date for ‘Avalanche’ approached, the Allies completed their plans for the ‘Baytown’ and ‘Slapstick’ subsidiary landings farther south, to be made respectively six days and on the same day as ‘Avalanche’. The Salerno landings went in just over three hours after the announcement of the armistice between the Allies and Italy. The landings were made by McCreery’s X Corps on the left and Dawley’s VI Corps on the right, the former putting ashore Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division and Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 56th Division (supported on their left flank by US Rangers and British commandos coming ashore at Maiori and Vietri) between Salerno in the north and the mouth of the Sele river in the south, and the latter putting ashore Walker’s 36th Division with Major General Troy H. Middleton’s 45th Division as the corps’ floating reserve. The three assault divisions and their various supporting units were delivered onto a single large beach-head between Maiori and a point north of the mouth of the Sele river (British divisions) and the mouth of the Sele river and Agropoli in the south (US division).

Major naval assets
In overall command of the amphibious operation was Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham based in Malta, and the primary operating formation for the delivery and support of the 5th Army was Task Force 80 (otherwise the Western Naval Task Force) commanded by Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt on the headquarters ship Ancon. Attached were the anti-aircraft ships Ulster Queen and Palomares, and the beacon submarine was the British Shakespeare. TF81 (otherwise the Southern Attack Force) was commanded by Rear Admiral John L. Hall from the headquarters ship Samuel Chase, and comprised 18 transports, three LSTs (Boxer, Bruiser and Thruster), 27 LSTs, 32 LCIs, six LCTs, four LCSs, eight PCs, four SCs, nine AMs, 12 YMSs and 32 smaller vessels. These were to transport and land the VI Corps with the 36th Division and 45th Division off Paestum. Rear Admiral Lyal A. Davidson’s support group and escort comprised the US light cruisers Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Savannah, British monitor Abercrombie, Dutch gunboat Flores, and US destroyers Wainwright, Trippe, Rhind, Rowan, Plunkett, Niblack, Benson, Cleaves, Mayo, Knight, Dallas, Bernadou, Cole, Woolsey, Ludlow, Bristol and Edison. Rear Admiral Richard L. Conolly’s TF85 controlled Commodore G. N. Oliver’s Northern Attack Force with the headquarters ships Hilary and Biscayne, eight transports, four LSIs, 90 LSTs, 96 LCIs, 84 LCTs, 23 SCs and MLs, seven minesweepers and four tugs. These were to transport and land the X Corps with the 46th Division, 56th Division, 7th Armoured Division, US 3rd Ranger BLT and two Royal Marine commandos. Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt’s support group and escort comprised the British light cruisers Mauritius, Orion and Uganda, anti-aircraft cruiser Delhi, monitor Roberts, destroyers Laforey, Lookout, Loyal, Nubian and Tartar, and escort destroyers Mendip, Dulverton, Tetcott, Belvoir, Brocklesby, Quantock, Blackmore, Brecon, Beaufort, Exmoor, Ledbury, Blankney and Greek Pindos (21st Destroyer Flotilla).

Providing air support over the battlefield as Salerno lay at the extreme range of tactical warplanes operating from Sicilian airfields, Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian’s TF88 (otherwise Force ‘V’ and the Support Carrier Force) comprised the light carrier Unicorn, escort carriers Battler, Attacker, Hunter and Stalker, anti-aircraft cruisers Euryalus, Scylla and Charybdis, and escort destroyers Cleveland, Holcombe, Atherstone, Liddesdale, Farndale, Calpe, Haydon and Polish Krakowiak and Slazak. Powerful overall cover was provided by Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Willis’s Force ‘H’ comprising the battleships Nelson and Rodney (Rear Admiral J. W. Rivett-Carcac) and Warspite and Valiant (Rear Admiral A. W. La T. Bisset), fleet carriers Illustrious (Rear Admiral C. Moody) and Formidable (Rear Admiral A. G. Talbot), and destroyers Quilliam, Queenborough, Quail and Petard (4th Destroyer Flotilla), Troubridge, Tynan, Tumult, Offa and Polish Piorun (24th Destroyer Flotilla) and Faulknor, Intrepid, Eclipse, Inglefield, Fury, Ilex, Echo, Raider and Greek Vasilissa Olga (8th Destroyer Flotilla) as well as the large Free French destroyers Fantasque and Terrible. In an attack by German torpedo-bombers during the night 8/9 September, Warspite and Formidable were only narrowly missed.

The landing succeeded on 9 September against strong and increasing German resistance, but at first the disembarked troops failed to reach their target positions in spite of strong gunfire support from the cruisers and destroyers. The monitor Abercrombie was damaged by a mine and the destroyer Laforey by five shell hits. Also damaged were LST-336, LST-357 and LST-385 by artillery fire, LST-375 by a bomb and LST-386 by a mine. As the troops made slow progress on 10/11 September, during the night S-151, S-152 and S158 of Kapitänleutnant Albert Müller’s 3rd Schnellboots-Flottille attacked a US convoy and sank the destroyer Rowan. On 11 September heavy German air attacks began, and in these Dornier Do 217 motherplanes of the II and III/Kampfgeschwader 100 launched FX-1400 radio-controlled glide bombs and Henschel Hs 293 air-to-surface missiles. On 11 September Savannah was badly damaged by a direct hit and Philadelphia was only narrowly missed. Committed soon after Eisenhower had broadcast the news of the Italian armistice with the Allied powers, the landings were carried out without the normal naval and/or aerial bombardment in an effort to achieve surprise, but the surprise was nevertheless far from total, as the naval commanders had predicted. Sieckenius, commanding the 16th Panzerdivision, had established artillery and machine gun posts and scattered tanks through the landing zones, which made progress difficult, and deployed the bulk of his strength in four mixed-arms Kampfgruppen disposed about 6 miles (10 km) apart and between 3 and 6 miles (5 and 10 km) behind the beaches. Major Dörnemann’s Kampfgruppe ‘Dörnemann’ was just east of Salerno and therefore opposite 46th Division’s landing, Oberst Stempel’s Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’ was between Pontecagnano and Battipaglia and therefore faced the 56th Division’s landing, Oberst Holtey’s Kampfgruppe ‘Holtey’ was in reserve at Persano on the Sele river which formed the corps boundary between X and VI Corps, and Oberst von Döring’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’, which was responsible for the sector between Albanella and Rutino, was 4 miles (6.5 km) south-east of Ogliastro, somewhat south of the 36th Division’s landing. X Corps (46th and 56th Divisions and a light infantry force of US Rangers and British Commandos of Brigadier R. E. Laycock’s 2nd Special Service Brigade) experienced a mixed assortment of German reactions to its landings. The Rangers met no opposition, and with support from the guns of Ledbury, seized their mountain pass objectives.

The Commandos of No. 2 Commando and No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando were also unopposed and secured the high ground on each side of the road through the La Molina pass on the main route from Salerno to Naples. At first light units of No. 2 Commando moved toward Salerno and pushed back a small force of tanks and armoured cars of the 16th Aufklärungsabteilung. The two British infantry divisions, however, met determined resistance and had to fight their way ashore with the assistance of naval gunfire. The depth and intensity of German resistance forced British commanders to concentrate their forces, rather than driving south-east to link with the Americans to the south.

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