The Invasion of Sicily


Troops of the 1st US Infantry Division coming ashore near Gela on the 10th July 1943

The US ammunition ship "Robert Rowan" after receiving a direct hit from German bombers


Until the Normandy landings of June 1944, the invasion of Sicily was the largest amphibious assault that the world had ever seen. The Royal Navy and the US Navy supported the operation with 2,590 vessels of all sizes, from battleships to assault craft, and over the following weeks these would help to land a total of 250,000 British and Canadian, and 228,000 American soldiers in Sicily, together with 400 tanks, 14,000 other vehicles, and 1,800 artillery pieces.


The conditions for the invasion were not ideal. The 40mph winds that had played havoc with the airborne landings also caused considerable difficulties for those at sea; many troops were suffering from sea sickness, and some of the smaller vessels were in danger of being swamped by the waves. Despite these problems, the landings, for the most part, proceeded smoothly enough. They began with a naval bombardment of the shore defences, coastal batteries and other strong points, and the intensity of this fire caused much of the Italian first-line positions to disintegrate.


When the Allied troops came ashore they found surprisingly little resistance on the beaches, indeed the weather proved to be the biggest impediment to their progress. During the night, several landing craft in the American sector had drifted in the rough seas with the result that these units came ashore a little fragmented. The British in particular struggled with their tank landing craft, which were to have arrived on the beaches in time to help the first wave of infantry win possession of them. At best these tanks landed half an hour late, one group had been so badly hindered by rough seas that it took them a further six hours to reach their beach.


Fortunately resistance on the shoreline had either been light, half-hearted, or as in many cases it was not encountered at all. Several of the American sectors, however, were hotly contested, but in the main the 15th Army Group encountered negligible opposition and so the first wave had little difficulty in securing their initial objectives as well as a firm foothold in Sicily.


The British and Canadians found that resistance beyond the beaches was every bit as fragmented and they met little organised opposition worth speaking of. Enemy shelling caused some difficulties, but much of this was quickly silenced by counter-battery fire from the Navy. As a consequence the landing areas were swiftly organised and the process of unloading men, vehicles, equipment and stores was soon efficiently underway. By the end of the 10th July, the 8th Army had captured Syracuse with its important port intact, and was well inland on all fronts, and 48 hours later the line had been extended 20 miles beyond the beachhead.


Most of the American units pushing inland fared similarly, but the troops in the centre of 7th Army's area were put under considerable pressure by counter-attacks mounted by the Axis mobile forces that had been grouped inland with orders to move immediately against the invasion when it came. The Italians put in the first attack at a time when the 7th Army had been not yet been able to firmly establish itself, but they came on in a poorly coordinated fashion and were soon repulsed. Later in the day, the German heavy armour of the Hermann Goering Division attacked the same sector and made far more serious inroads, overrunning a battalion of the 45th Division. Having first been halted by dogged resistance from both seaborne and airborne elements, the Germans were eventually thrown back when the guns of the US Navy were brought to bear.


On the 11th July, yet more serious attacks were put in against the 7th Army, who had great difficulty in meeting them effectively due to heavy congestion around their beachhead, hampering the rapid movement of their armour. The 1st and 45th Divisions in particular were hard pressed as they fought desperately to contain the enemy thrusts. Despite their best efforts, two battalions of German armour came uncomfortable close to one of the beaches before they were at last repelled by artillery and naval gunfire. By the end of the day the 7th Army had suffered many casualties but their beachhead was secure.


Back in North Africa, the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division waited for news of how the 1st Airlanding Brigade had fared. The first reports were swift and they came from the men in those gliders that had been towed back to base when their American tug pilots, terrified of the flak, had refused to take them to the release point. Further accounts of how some of the aircrews had behaved continued to arrive, confirming, in some cases, blatant cowardice or actions that were tantamount to murder, such as deliberately releasing gliders at low altitudes, miles out to sea, with no hope of them reaching land. As one would expect, the airborne troops were livid, and, fearing that there was a chance that American pilots could be lynched, Brigadier Hackett, the commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade and in temporary command of the Division, confined all men to camp.


The disaster that had unfolded was a bitter blow to the Division, and with the 2nd Parachute Brigade only hours away from taking part in its first action, Operation Glutton, the capture of a bridge and the port of Augusta, there was an ominous feeling in some quarters. Yet the drop never took place. It was to have been made during the early hours of the 11th July, at the beginning of the second day of the invasion, yet the drop was postponed for 24 hours, and on the following day it was cancelled altogether as British ground forces had already reached and captured both the bridge and the town. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the 2nd Parachute Brigade as their landing places were known to be hard to locate from the air, and indeed they barely existed as suitable drop zones in the strictest sense. It can be assumed that if Operation Glutton had taken place, the Brigade would have been every bit as scattered as the glider landings and many casualties would have been suffered on the drop.


The British had not been alone in suffering an airborne calamity during the invasion. Further to the west, the 82nd US Airborne Division had landed 3,400 of their own troops, primarily to capture the high ground around Gela and so secure the 7th Army's eastern flank as the landings took place. The flight of the 505th Regimental Combat Team to Sicily was mired by all the same problems that had thwarted the British landings. High winds and navigational difficulties fragmented the formation as they flew over the Mediterranean, and as they neared their drop zones accurate enemy ground fire brought down several aircraft and threw the remainder into confusion and panic. As a consequence, the Regiment was scattered up to 25 miles from its drop zones, and some of the aircrews had given their paratroopers the order to jump at altitudes so low that their chutes could not open before they hit the ground; many died as a result, or at best escaped with broken bones.


Nevertheless, the threadbare elements of the 505th Regimental Combat Team that had landed in their correct places went about their business with great speed and aggression. Above all, the 3rd Battalion, consisting of just 250 men, managed to secure the vital high ground despite finding it to be held by German troops of the Hermann Goering Division, instead of the Italians that they had been expecting. This veteran Division, supported by Tiger tanks, against whose armour the lightly armed airborne men could do little, made repeated attacks throughout the day in an attempt to regain control of the ridge, and they may well have succeeded if the paratroopers had not been able to contact the 45th Infantry Division and request artillery support. A heavy barrage from the US Navy was duly brought down and the Germans were forced to pull back, leaving the 505th in command of their objective. Their landing may have been a disaster, their casualties had been very heavy, but in spite of this the Americans, fighting their first airborne action, had performed admirably, held their ground, and in so doing greatly assisted the landing of the 7th Army.


No such consolation awaited their next operation. On the second night of the invasion, 11th July, the 82nd Airborne Division flew in some 2,000 men of their 504th Regimental Combat Team to reinforce the 7th Army, landing on unopposed drop zones already secured for them by the 505th. The weather was good, the wind had receded, so the operation should have been a formality. Their flight, however, was encumbered by the same navigational difficulties that had hampered the first drop 48 hours earlier, but the worst came as they approached Sicily and passed over the American fleet. The ships anchored off-shore had been subjected to air attack since the invasion began, and they had only just seen off the last wave of enemy aircraft. The tendency of all naval forces, for some years, had been to fire at any aircraft that came within range, and when one machine gun opened up at the Dakotas overhead, it was quickly joined by the anti-aircraft guns of the rest of the fleet. As the formation came overland and the paratroopers began to jump, the ground batteries took them for Germans and also opened fire. The slow, unarmoured Dakotas, flying at just 700 feet, were easy targets for the gunners and 23 were shot down, about a fifth of the entire force, and half of the remainder were so badly damaged that they were scrapped rather than repaired. The 504th Regimental Combat Team suffered 10% casualties and had come down in such a fragmented state that it was incapable of functioning as a unit; only a quarter of its men were accounted for on the following day.