Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Context: Sicily Blasted as Operation HUSKY Nears

July 6, 1943 - WW2, Allied News Sounds Positive

The Allied Forces landed in Sicily in July 1943 in a campaign that changed
the course of World War II. Photo Credit - Italy Magazine

Articles printed in The Montreal Star on July 6, 1943, inform us of a few events that were occurring just days before Operation HUSKY, i.e., the invasion of Sicily. Canadians in Combined Operations would soon be sailing north for Malta.... and beyond.

While the Russians and Germans slugged it out along the Eastern Front, Churchill's plan to strike at the soft underbelly of Europe continued. About "Shattering Air Blows" over Sicily, The Montreal Star reported the following on July 6:

ALLIED HEADQUARTERS, NORTH AFRICA, July 6 - (B.U.P.) - Allied aircraft of all types teamed up Monday to smash nine Axis invasion base targets in Sicily and Sardinia and to shoot down 45 more enemy fighters in one of the biggest aerial onslaughts in the Mediterranean theatre.

Striking a series of devastating blows at Axis air power, U.S. Flying Fortresses fighting against three-to-one odds bombed Gerbini airdrome in Sicily into ruins, while more than 60 liberator bombers from the Middle East dumped almost 375,000 pounds of explosives on the Sicilian terminal of Messina, causing vast damage.

Thirty enemy aircraft were destroyed in 15 minutes of fighting when less than 30 unescorted U.S. Flying Fortresses were attacked by about 100 enemy fighters over the Sicilian airfield of Gerbini.

Huns Shot Down At Record Rate

Axis air power was crippled at the rate of two planes per minute as a double record was set by one Fortress, which knocked down 13 Axis fighters, including an unprecedented seven destroyed by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Warmer, of San Francisco.

The 24-hour period of huge-scale attack centred on Sicily, although Villacidro airdrome on Sardinia also was hammered as the day and night offensive from Northwest Africa and the Middle East gained momentum. Crushing blows were dealt to airfield installations, shipping and radio stations at Gerbini, Marsala, Licatz, Comisso, Biskara and Messina, all on Sicily, and in the main invasion path toward Italy.

Huge explosions were reported at Comisso, where workshops and grounded aircraft were destroyed. The blows against enemy air power and air bases were described as "paralyzing."

Shipping Blasted By Day Bombers

American daylight bombers also blasted enemy shipping and motor transport at Sciacci, in South-western Sicily. The effect of the air battle over Gerbini appeared to be a heavy blow to the enemy as Allied bombers which flew over Sicily later encountered very little opposition. Once, U.S. Lightnings encountered 10 enemy fighters and shot down five.

The Italian communique said today that german air formations bombed the port of Bizerte, where Allied invasion ships had been reported massing. The communique reported "damage and casualties" from Allied bombing of Messina, and said that 22 Allied planes were shot down by Italian fighters, 15 by German fighters and 14 by flak. 

Landing craft massed in Bizerte Harbor for the invasion of Sicily. Third Division
troops march aboard, 6 July 1943. Photo Credit - U.S. Army in WW2, Pg. 109

Messina Pounded By Day Assault

A Middle East communique said that more than 60 U.S. Liberator bombers attacked Messina, the Sicilian ferry terminal, in daylight Monday, dropping almost 375,000 pounds of high explosives and causing huge damage. The bombs landed along the entire length of the railroad tracks and an explosion at the roundhouse was followed by fire. Other large fires were seen in the central railroad sheds and engine sheds, as well as in a large warehouse and a stock maintenance yard.

Hits were scored on freight yards, oil tanks and barracks and one string of bombs fell across the Lazaretto mole. Three enemy fighters were destroyed, another probably was destroyed and five others were damaged.

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Map of Mediterranean Sea as found at Online Atlas

The following was filed concerning more damage caused by British forces at Crete:


 LONDON. July 6 - (B.U.P.) - Slipping past the Nazis' vaunted defences, British troops from the Middle East swarmed ashore on Crete Sunday night and destroyed a number of enemy planes aground before withdrawing safely in the first pre-invasion land raid against the Axis Mediterranean defence ring, a Cairo communique reported last night.

"Small British Landing forces carried out raids on airfields in Crete last night," the communique said. "The operations were successful, a number of enemy aircraft being destroyed aground. All patrols withdrew safely."

It was learned in cairo that in addition to destroying grounded planes the raiders burned up a large quantity of gasoline.

Editorial Cartoon as found in The Montreal Star, July 6, 1943

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Under the above headline the following news report appeared, in part:

MOSCOW, July 6 - (B.U.P.) - The Red Army reported today that it had stopped cold the first onslaught of a powerful German offensive along a 165-mile front which in 36 hours cost the Nazis 10,000 men killed, 738 tanks and 203 planes. (A Berlin broadcast said the Russians had launched a "relieving attack" south of Orel, where savage fighting was going on. The Soviets also threw in considerable quantities of troops and tanks on the Belgorod front, the Radio said.)

Late reports from the blazing battlefield said that after absorbing the initial impact, the Russians braced along a curving line between Orel and Belgorod, regained all lost ground, and wiped out armoured wedges driven into their positions.

Adolf Hitler's third and long-delayed summer offensive appeared to be developing with great strength, but it lacked the customary speed and spectacular early successes characteristic of its previous drives, and the toll was the heaviest suffered by the Nazis at the start of any of their offensives in Russia. (By Henry Shapiro)

Ad as found in The Montreal Star, July 6, 1943

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Waverly Root wrote a lengthy piece in The Montreal Star, July 6, 1943, asking the above question. It follows, in part:

Max Werner, the military expert whose chief fame resides in the fact that he was almost alone in assessing correctly the power of the Russian Army, makes a very good case in his latest book for his thesis that the war in Europe can be won in 1943, but that if this year's opportunity is missed it will take much longer - seven years longer is his guess, though that seems unduly pessimistic.

If the opportunity for attack is muffed, Mr. Werner says, it does not come again. He points to those who consider that germany is now beaten and that we can take our time about striking the decisive blow. This, he says, was precisely the mistake Germany made in June, 1940, when she thought England was defeated, and instead of following up the conquest of France by the invasion of Britain, elected to try to knock out the Royal Air Force first, to make the invasion easier - thus giving England time to get her second wind.

Similarly, it may be asked if the United Nations are not today making the mistake of delaying their invasion until Germany has been softened up from the air. Is it not possible that, instead of weakening her, they will instead give her time to recover from the first blows, and devise protection against their continuation? For it is an action of warfare that defence always catches up to offence, if you give it time enough.

But is this the strategy which has been adopted? There seem to be several signs which point to the probability that an immediate attempt to invade the mainland of Europe is not in the cards.

Waverly Root then goes on to list three signs the Allies are not prepared to invade Europe's mainland. The third is most pertinent:

Finally, it is only necessary to look to Mr. Churchill's Guildhall speech to find in it a definite statement which indicates that this year's strategy for Europe is air attack, not invasion. The phrase from his speech which was played up was Mr Churchill's: "Very probably there will be heavy fighting in the Mediterranean and elsewhere before the leaves of autumn fall."

This is not actually as strong a statement as it seems to be to the casual reader. First. Mr. Churchill said only "very probably," not "certainly." Secondly, there could easily be "heavy" fighting - a vague term - in the Mediterranean and elsewhere without any invasion of the continent being involved. Attacks on Crete and Munda would fit that phrase. Thirdly, Mr. Churchill only made that remark after heavily discounting it in advance. He spoke of Italy's anxiety and said: "It is no part of our interest to relieve that anxiety," and, a moment later, "I can do nothing to....resolve their fears," after which the Mediterranean prophecy might have seemed nothing more than a blow struck in the war of nerves - even if Mr. Churchill had not also warned that "any mood of over-confidence should be severely repressed," and pointed out that "all large amphibious operations, especially if they require the co-operation of two or more countries, require long months of organization." 

Does that sound to you as if Mr. Churchill envisaged the invasion for tomorrow? It doesn't to me.

But the real message was in this phrase of the Prime Minister's speech: "During the summer our main attack has been upon the mainspring of the German war industry - the Ruhr - but as nights become longer and as the United States Air Force becomes more numerous, our strong arms will lengthen both by night and day and there is no industrial or military target in Germany that will not receive.... the utmost application of exterminating force."

(Editor - I think Prime Minister Churchill played his cards very well, with D-Day Sicily, Operation HUSKY, but a few days away.)

Caption: PONTON CAUSEWAY* extending from an LST to shore was first
used in invasion of Sicily. Photo Credit - - U.S. Army in WW2, Pg. 104

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While articles were written about when a second front should be launched, the Allies prepared to strike in the Mediterranean Sea, at "Europe's soft under-belly" as Churchill  said. During the pause between the Allied invasion of North Africa and D-Day Sicily, new types of equipment were developed to make amphibious landings more efficient.

*About new developments we read the following:

Before the assault against Sicily specialized crafts and techniques for amphibious operations were developed. Very important were the LST (landing ship, tank), the LCT (landing craft, tank), the LCI (landing craft, infantry), and the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle or personnel). "Their function was to come aground on the shore and disgorge men and matériel rapidly."

Another important vehicle was the Dukw, "able to swim and roll", i.e., an amphibious truck able to carry troops and equipment, or general cargo.

The Sicilian beaches, however, were particularly hazardous. "Between the false beaches and the true beaches were depressions, or runnels" into which heavily-laden men could fall and drown. To cross these hazards a causeway was developed, sturdy enough to transfer men, vehicles and cargo from ship to shore. 

"The first was the ponton causeway, several of which were constructed at Bizerte and Arzew" in North Africa. 

Much more valuable information can be found on pages 103 - 105, U.S. Army in WW2.

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From The Montreal Star, July 6, 1943, we read the following about "the closest-held secret" that involved many Canadians in Combined Operations who had been trained well to man various landing crafts during the upcoming invasion of.... (shhhh) Sicily:

What makes the underbelly of the Axis quiver?

Across the blue Mediterranean, opposite the 3,000-mile coastline from Perpignan in France to Alexandroupolis in Greece, more than 1,000,000 men of the Allied armies, with air forces such as the world has never seen, are poised to spring against any one of several places.

When it will come is the closest-held secret in the world.

No one can fight like well-trained, superbly-equipped men who have tasted the sweets of victory. And in the five Allied armies in North Africa and the Middle East - there are at least that many - there are hundreds of thousands of veterans of the memorable campaign that drove the Axis armies from Africa. 

On the defensive along the underside of Europe of Europe from Southern France to the Dodecanese Islands are probably 2,000,000 soldiers, three-quarters of them Italians, and an airforce of something like 2,000 planes, about half of it the deficient Italian craft. There also is the Italian Navy, a formidable array of ships on paper, but loathe to leave home ports for two years.

The size of the Allied Navy in the Mediterranean is nothing to estimated offhandedly - and those who know don't talk - but Axis reports from the Spanish observation post within view of Gibraltar have announced the westward passage of enough aircraft carriers, capital ships, destroyers and invasion craft of all sizes to deal with the whole of Mussolini's force even if, cowed in their bases, they would not be at the mercy of land-based aircraft as soon as Sicily and Sardinia are taken.

Italy, it is authoritatively estimated, has seven capital ships, fast but lightly armored, one heavy cruiser left out of eight since the british Fleet caught some of them at sea, and about 40 destroyers, some of them quite old.

Here is the pre-invasion picture on the north side of the Mediterranean from reliable information in London.


SICILY - Thirteen established around the coast, most of which have been hammered with little letup; a few scattered landing grounds and seaplane anchorages.

SARDINIA - Five airfields, only two of them good.

CRETE - Six airfields and two seaplane bases.

DODECANESE - Rhodes has an airport and a seaplane base and there probably are landing grounds in some of the smaller islands.

Axis Air Strength

The Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean area is probably about 2,000 planes with precious few available reserves.

All the first-line planes the Italian Air Force has wouldn't be more than that number and none of them are considered anywhere near comparable to Allied craft. Poorly developed technically, it is not expected to be very troublesome, even though it may put up its best scrap at home.

Land Forces

At the start of the war the Italian Army consisted of about 1,500,000 men and even with losses it is quite reasonable to suppose that she still has at least that number. Italy always has had trouble equipping her forces and the situation germany finds herself in poses an acute equipment problem for the Italians.

Italy probably has about 300,000 men (with 12,500 to a division) in the boot itself, exclusive of men concerned with coast defences and other static installations. There are few German fighting units in Italy itself but undoubtedly some would be available.


The garrison here is probably 200,000 to 250,000 troops with no Germans save the ground defence and maintenance crews of air force units.

(Details re Sardinia and then Southern France are listed.)

Ad as found in The Montreal Star, July 6, 1943

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Caption: Troops queue for a mug of tea at an Egyptian port while waiting to embark
on ships bound for Sicily. Photo Credit - World War 2 Today

Relevant notes that accompanied above photo:

The largest amphibious invasion force in history was now assembling at sea. Convoys from the UK would be joining ships from the North African naval bases. This was a far larger operation than Torch and the prospect of a hostile reception was much greater. Yet levels of secrecy remained high and many men did not know where they were headed until the last few days.

Please link to Context: Tide Turns as Operation HUSKY Nears

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