The Allies had originally planned to cross from the island of Sicily into the “arch” area (Taranto) of the Italian mainland, envisioning a limited invasion of the Italian “boot”. Anticipating a strong defence by both German and Italian forces, they would advance up the Adriatic Coast. The success of Op Husky as anticipated led to the ouster of Mussolini and the Fascisti. Subsequently, the new Italian government sued for peace, leaving the Germans to fight the Allies alone. This opened the door to a more aggressive plan.
The Allied assault of mainland Italy occurred on three fronts. The British XIII Corps, including the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, would cross the Straits of Messina and land at Reggio di Calabria under Operation Baytown. A combined US and British assault would mount an amphibious assault at Salerno under Operation Avalanche. The third assault, also amphibious, was launched against Taranto as Operation Slapstick.
The objective of Op Baytown was to tie down German forces in the area and gain an Allied foothold at the ‘toe’ of Italy. General Montgomery, commanding the British Eighth Army, opposed Op Baytown as being ineffective. He preferred to prioritise Op Avalanche, the main assault at Salerno.
The operation was launched on 3 September 1943 with the British XIII Corps, supported by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under command of Major-General Guy Simonds, crossing the Straits of Messina at Reggio di Calabria. The operation was supported heavy artillery barrage and air cover from captured airfields in Sicily.
German troops refused battle and the Eighth Army tied down none of them, proving the accuracy of Montgomery’s initial concerns. The German commander, Field Marshal Kesselring, had ordered the German defenders in Calabria to minimise their engagement with the British Eighth Army and to employ route denial actions to slow the Allies down. The main obstacle to the Allied advance was the terrain and German delaying tactics.
Some Italian troops on the coast were unaware of the impending fall of their government and armistice. They were poorly equipped, demoralized by the political situation and the massive Allied bombardment and generally offered no resistance to the landing. An exception was the 185th Paratroopers Regiment which provided determined resistance on the Aspromonte massif overlooking Reggio di Calabria. This was eventually overcome by the Canadians on 8 September 1943. During the fighting, the Canadians killed six and took 57 prisoners, suffering two officers killed.
The main thrust of the Allied assault on mainland Italy, Operation Avalance, was launched on 9 September 1943. It had been timed to coincide with the announcement of the capitulation of the Fascisti Italian government. In doing so, the Allies anticipated minor or no resistance on the beaches. However, Field Marshal Kesselring had other ideas.
The main force, consisted of the U.S. Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark and comprised the U.S. VI Corps, the X British Corps and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in reserve, a total of about nine divisions. Its primary objectives were to seize the port of Naples to ensure resupply, and to cut across to the east coast, trapping Axis troops further south.
The plan was deeply flawed. At the outset, in the hope of achieving operational surprise, Clark decided that there would be no naval or aerial preparatory bombardment. This was maintained even though the Luftwaffe kept an aerial watch on the approaching convoy and even made small attacks on it. The Fifth Army would be landing on a very broad 35-mile front, using only three assault divisions, and the two corps were widely separated both in distance and by a river. to make it all the worse, the terrain was highly favourable to the defender. A U.S. Army Ranger force with three 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 X Corps’ follow-up units.
The Germans had established artillery and machine-gun posts and scattered tanks through the landing zones which made progress difficult, but the beach areas were successfully taken. Around 07:00 a concerted counterattack was made by the 16th Panzer division. It caused heavy casualties, but was beaten off with naval gunfire support. Both the British and the Americans made slow progress, and still had a 10-mile gap between them at the end of day one. They linked up by the end of day two and occupied 35–45 miles of coast line to a depth of six or seven miles.
The German 10th Army had come very close to overwhelming the Salerno beachhead. The Allies had been fortunate that Kesselring had been forbidden by Adolph Hitler to call upon reserves from the northern Army Group. However, as Hitler was eventually convinced to accept Kesselring’s advice, but not until October. By then, the U.S. 5th Army had linked up with the British VIII Army and the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands
As a result of the poor planning and the lack of advanced bombardment coupled with German preparations, Allied casualties were extremely high. The combined Allied losses were heavy, with 2,349 killed, 7,366 wounded and 4,100 missing, while German casualties were only 840 killed, 2,002 wounded and 603 missing.
Operation Slapstick, launched on 9 September 1943, was an amphibious operation that saw the British 1st Airborne Division, embarking from Bizarre, Tunisia, to capture the seaport of Taranto at the instep of the “Italian boot”.
The port of Taranto was captured intact, and became a crucial supply base for the British Eighth Army. The British spread out into the nearby countryside, but only had limited contact with the retreating German 1 Parachute Division, which pulled back towards the airfields at Foggia. In their advance, the British captured the harbours in Monopoli, Bari and Brindisi without resistance.
By early October, the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands, and the Allied armies now stood facing the Volturno Line, the first of a series of prepared defensive lines running across Italy from which the Germans chose to fight delaying actions, giving ground slowly and buying time to complete their preparation of the Winter Line, their strongest defensive line south of Rome. The next stage of the Italian Campaign became, for the Allied armies, a grinding and attritional slog against skillful, determined and well prepared defences in terrain and weather conditions which favoured defence and hampered the Allied advantages in mechanised equipment and air superiority.
By the fall of 1943, the advance had bogged down in the face of determined German resistance. Their defence was anchored on two defensive positions – the Gustav Line and the Bernhard Line. Between these lines lay the nearly impassible Apennines Mountains. In early November 1943, General Montgomery decided that a bold advance up the Adriatic coast could enable a left hook from the town of Pescara inland to Rome.
Honour the Fallen, Help the Living