Operation HUSKY

Before I get into a discussion of the campaign to liberate Sicily, I would like to welcome back a couple of my Corporate Sponsors. Back again this year are Oyama Zipline and Adventure Park (check out the post of 24 February – there will be more about them in a future post about Wounded Warriors Day) and Budget Blinds of Vernon and Kamloops (the new blinds that we have in the house are outstanding!).

New this year is Sun City Physiotherapy (Graham at the Lake Country office has been my physiotherapist for the last 10 years. He is doing outstanding work getting my knee ready for the ride!). There will be more corporate sponsors returning and new to the program. Please support them as they have supported me.

Following the defeat of the German Afrika Corps, the leading Allied powers looked ahead to the invasion of occupied Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The decision was made that the move would be against Italy.  The Axis had strengthened their forces in Sicily.  German and Italian air forces on the island endangered Mediterranean shipping lanes.  For the Allies, maintaining control over the shipping lanes relied heavily on a small air base on Malta for their single-engine fighters.  Control of Sicily by the Axis had almost resulted in the loss of Malta in 1942.  It was the maintenance of these shipping lanes that was one of the final factors that tilted the Allies towards the invasion of Sicily rather than an early assault on the northern French coast. Eliminating the Axis forces from the Mediterranean would free the entire region for safe movement of Allied ships.

It was anticipated that an Allied invasion of Italy would deliver three objectives:  First, to remove the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini from the war: second, to secure the central Mediterranean; and finally, to divert German divisions from the northwest coast of France and to trap and capture German Forces in Sicily.  With the success of Operations Barclay and Mincemeat, significant German forces were re-deployed to the Balkans and to Northern Europe.

Under the overall command of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Operation Husky called for the amphibious assault of Sicily by two Allied armies, the British 8th Army, under the command of General Bernard Montgomery, landing on the south-eastern coast and the U.S. Seventh Army, commanded by Lieutenant General George S. Patton on the central southern coast. Included in Operation Husky, at the insistence of the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, the “Red Patch Division”, became part of the British Eighth Army. The Division comprised both the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade. The Canadians, under the command of Major-General G.G. Simonds, sailed from Great Britain in late June 1943, arriving late in the night of July 9 to join the invasion armada of nearly 3,000 Allied ships and landing craft.

Op HUSKY – The Assault

Operation Husky began on the night of 9 July with an airborne assault by British airborne and glider units and U.S. airborne units. Both divisions suffered heavy losses in men and equipment as they carried out their objectives. Only 12 of the 147 gliders of the 1st Airlanding Brigade landed on target. Another 69 gliders crashed into the sea, with the loss of over 200 lives. Strong winds of up to 70 kph blew the troop-carrying aircraft off course and the American force was scattered widely over south-east Sicily between Gela and Syracuse. By 14 July, about two-thirds of the American force had managed to concentrate while half the U.S. paratroopers failed to reach their rallying points. In spite of the adversity faced by the airborne force, the widespread distribution of troops had a positive effect on the operation.

The amphibious assault began in the early hours of 10 July supported by naval gunfire, as well as tactical bombing, interdiction and close air support by the combined air forces.  The strong winds also affected the amphibious landings, but had the benefit of surprising the defenders. The defenders thought that the conditions were so bad that no one would attempt an assault. Canadian troops went ashore near Pachino, close to the southern tip of Sicily, forming the left flank of the Eighth Army. The five British landing sites spread along more than 60 kilometres of the eastern shoreline. Three more beachheads were established by the Americans over the 60 kilometres to the west of the Canadians.

© Canadian Geographic

From the Pachino beaches, where resistance from Italian coastal troops was light, the Canadians pushed forward through choking dust, over tortuous mine-filled roads. Author Farley Mowat, a Second World War infantry officer himself, described the subtropical heat and unforgiving terrain of Sicily as the “inanimate enemy.”

At first all went well, but resistance stiffened as the Canadians were engaged increasingly by determined German troops who fought tough delaying actions from the vantage points of towering villages and almost impregnable hill positions. On July 15, just outside the village of Grammichele, Canadian troops came under heavy fire from Germans of the Hermann Goering Division. The village was taken by the men and tanks of the 1st Infantry Brigade and Three Rivers Regiment.

Montgomery’s British Eighth Army was tasked to capture the Pachino Airfield on Cape Passero and the port of Syracuse before moving northwards to take the ports of Augusta and Catania. Their objectives also included the landing fields around Gerbini, on the Catania plain.  On 12 July, the British 1st Parachute Brigade made an attempt to capture the Primosole Bridge over the river Simeto, on the southern edge of the Catania plain. The British paratroopers suffered heavy casualties over their designated drop zones due to heavy fire from alert Italian anti-aircraft gunners, but managed to seize and hold the bridge against fierce Axis attacks. 

The objectives for Patton’s U.S. Seventh Army included capturing the port of Licata and the airfields of Ponte Olivo, Biscari and Comiso. With those facilities safely in Allied hands, the Seventh Army was tasked to prevent enemy reserves from moving eastward against the Canadians and the British Eighth Army’s left flank.

Capturing Adrano

Soldiers of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry advancing past a ‘Sherman’ tank. Credit: Jack H. Smith

The final Canadian task was to break through the main enemy position and capture Adrano. Here, they continued to face not only enemy troops, but also the physical barriers of a rugged, almost trackless country. Mortars, guns, ammunition, and other supplies had to be transported by mule trains. Undaunted, the Canadians advanced steadily against the enemy positions, fighting literally from mountain rock to mountain rock.

With the approaches to Adrano cleared, the way was prepared for the closing of the Sicilian campaign. On 7 August, following the fall of Adrano, the 1st Canadian Division was withdrawn into Army Reserve. Eleven days later, British and American troops entered Messina. Sicily had been conquered in 38 days.

Victory in Sicily

The Sicilian campaign was a success. Although many enemy troops had managed to retreat across the strait into Italy, the operation had secured a necessary air base from which to support the assault and liberation of mainland Italy. The success of Operation Husky led to the downfall of Mussolini, allowing for a war-wearied Italy to sue for peace.

British and Canadian troops meet in the main square of Caltagirone after entering the town from opposite sides. Copyright: © IWM.

The Canadians had acquitted themselves well in their first campaign. They had fought through 240 kilometres of mountainous country—farther than any other formation in the Eighth British Army. During their final two weeks, they had borne a large share of the fighting on the Allied front. Canadian casualties throughout the fighting totalled 562 killed, 1,664 wounded and 84 prisoners of war.

One of the key objectives of the Allies in the assault of Sicily was to contain as many German Forces as possible as the Allies liberated and secured Sicily. Unfortunately,  Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the German C-in-C of Army Command South, visited Sicily early in the fighting and determined that the, while the German defenders were fighting well, they needed reinforcement and eventually require evacuation. To that end, Kesselring ordered evacuation behind delaying tactics of the Axis Forces. As a result, the Kesselring plan allowed over 12,000 men, 4,500 vehicles and 5,000 tons of equipment to evacuate Sicily from 1–10 August. 

The three-pronged invasion of the Italian mainland was to be the next great operation. The main invasion force landed around Salerno on 9 September on the western coast in Operation Avalanche, while two supporting operations took place in Calabria (Operation Baytown) and Taranto (Operation Slapstick). The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, under the command of Major-General Guy Simonds, would land at Cape Spartivento on the south side as part of Operation Baytown.

In doing my research for this post, I came across an article from Canadian Geographic by Connie Anderson. This is an account of a pilgrimage to Sicily 70 years after Operation Husky. I would highly recommend reading this short article by clicking on the logo to the right.

Honour the Fallen; Help the Living

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