Chapter One

The Luftwaffe’s Sicilian Panzers

Following the German and Italian defeat in Tunisia, the Allies turned their attentions to the Italian island of Sicily.The invasion of Sicily was not a foregone conclusion. Ideally, the Allies wanted to open a new front in western Europe, but at this stage simply did not have the resources in place to conduct a landing in northern France. Options on the table for the Allied planners included invasions of the Italian island of Sardinia or the French island of Corsica, with subsequent advances into northern Italy and southern France respectively. It was decided that an invasion of Sicily and an advance into southern Italy was the preferred option as it offered shorter and safer lines of communication with Allied forces in North Africa. Fighter cover could also be provided from Malta. Crucially this Sicilian ‘right hook’ alternative was intended to serve much grander goals.

Strategically, it was hoped that an attack on southern Italy would draw the Germans away from Normandy and the Eastern Front, but this led to differences of opinion among the Allies. The Americans saw the Italian campaign as a way to sap Germany’s strength from more important fronts, rather than as a major effort to defeat the Axis powers in Italy. The British, on the other hand, saw a push north through Italy and into Austria and southern Germany as a way of striking at Hitler. This was an important schism because it meant that in mid-1944, at a crucial moment in the Italian campaign, the Allied armies were drained of resources to support the fighting in France.

The Germans had two armoured formations deployed on Sicily: the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Panzer Division commanded by General Paul Conrath and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division under General Eberhard Rodtfrom.These units could field a total of 159 tanks between them.They were reinforced by General Walter Fries’ 29th Panzergrenadier Division, which began to arrive in mid-July and came under General Hans-Valentin Hube’s 14th Panzer Corps.

In contrast, the Italian tank units were negligible, comprising a number of battalions of Renault R-35 tanks.The Italians had lost the bulk of their armour in the fighting in North Africa. Very limited numbers of armoured fighting vehicles remained scattered in Albania and Greece, while the few remaining medium tanks and assault guns were gathered for the defence of mainland Italy. They were so short of tanks that when Italian officers inspected the 6th Army formations on Sicily in June they confirmed that German armour would be needed to help defend the island.

The defence of Sicily was the responsibility of the Italian 6th Army, consisting of two corps, under General Alfredo Guzzoni. However, to confuse matters the specially designated Fortress Areas around the ports came under the Italian Navy. By early July Axis forces on Sicily numbered some 200,000 Italians and 62,000 German Army and Luftwaffe personnel. The Italians were organised into four frontline infantry divisions, while the rest formed immobile coastal divisions.

For the invasion the infantry divisions of General Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army were supported by the British 4th and 23rd Armoured Brigades and the Canadian 1st Tank Brigade.The latter, along with the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, was included at the insistence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army’s principal supporting armoured units were the 70th and 753rd Tank Battalions and the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, plus elements of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Under the US Provisional Corps was the US 2nd Armored Division. The US 45th Infantry Division was also supported by a tank destroyer battalion.

Overall command and planning for Operation Husky fell to General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group, which had the responsibility of getting Montgomery and Patton’s two armies ashore on southern Sicily. General Guzzoni’s 6th Army headquarters was based at Enna, in the centre of the island, while its subordinate commands consisted of General Matio Arisio’s 12th Corps to the west and General Carlo Rossi’s 16th Corps to the east. Reserves consisted of a single Italian division, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 15th Panzergrenadiers. The poor weather meant the Italians were not anticipating any amphibious operations, so they were not on alert along the southern coast.

Operation Husky commenced on the night of 9/10 July 1943. By the evening of 10 July the assault divisions (three British, three American and one Canadian) had secured the port of Syracuse and were well established. Two days later Kesselring himself arrived to assess the situation and rapidly came to the conclusion that his troops were on their own. They needed reinforcing as quickly as possible, and in order to shorten the front line it was decided to abandon western Sicily. As a result a defensive line was established from San Stefano on the north coast via Nicosia, Agira and Cantenanuova down to Catania on the eastern coast.

As the only armoured division supporting the invasion, the US 2nd Armored was divided between two of the US 7th Army’s task forces. To the left Combat Command A (66th Armored Regiment) was with the 3rd Infantry Division coming ashore at Licata.The bulk of the division was to act as a floating reserve to support the central invasion around Gela.

In the face of counterattacks by the panzers of the Hermann Göring and Italian Livorno Divisions, plus Mobile Force E, reinforcements from the US 2nd Armored were put ashore in the shape of Combat Command B (3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment). While forty panzers were overrunning the positions of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Shermans of the 2nd Armored struggled to get off the beaches. Four Shermans under Lieutenant James White finally reached the coastal highway and began to shell the Germans’ flank and they eventually withdrew with the loss of sixteen tanks.

At Licata, the westernmost US beachhead, Combat Command A suffered a major reverse when the Luftwaffe hit a landing ship carrying a company of Shermans, an infantry company’s vehicles and half the command’s HQ equipment. Nevertheless, on 11 July the division took Naro, only to be bombed by their own air force. On 16 July 2nd Armored was placed in reserve, and then went on to take part in General Patton’s attack on Palermo on the northern coast of the island.The division rolled into the city on 22 July. Once the island had been occupied, the 2nd Armored was sent to England to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

This photograph, showing a dozen M4 Shermans waiting to be loaded onto a Landing Ship Tank (LST) at La Pecherie, a French naval base in Tunisia, was taken just two days before the Allied invasion of the Italian island of Sicily. Operation Husky saw the first use of LSTs and LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) to put tanks ashore; in Algeria and Morocco the Allies had had to capture the ports first.

(Opposite): The Italians had four field divisions with about 100 French-built light tanks and five coastal divisions totalling 275,000 men to protect Sicily. The tanks consisted mainly of tankettes and old French Renaults as well as a quantity of Fiat 3000 light tanks (essentially a copy of the Renault FT-17), armed with a 37mm gun. These were supported by a number of Semovente M41 da 90/53 self-propelled guns, as shown here. It consisted of an Italian 90/53 90mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on an M14/41 tank chassis, which went into production in 1942. It was an effective anti-tank weapon as the 53 calibre gun was more powerful than the German 88mm gun, but too few were available.

Following the Axis surrender in Tunisia, seventeen Tiger Is serving with the 2nd Company, Heavy Panzer Battalion 504, remained on Sicily. This 504 Tiger is making its way through a Sicilian town. Although Hitler was not keen to strengthen German forces on Sicily, he decided to reinforce the hastily reconstituted 15th Panzergrenadier Division, which had capitulated in Tunisia, with an additional division. By July the Hermann Göring Division, now equipped with the Tigers, which had been originally assigned to the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, had joined them on the island. German defenders stood at some 75,000 men with about 160 tanks.

As a prelude to invasion the Allied air forces attempted to ensure that the Axis garrison was cut off and that enemy aircraft would not either hamper the landings or support their ground forces. On 5 April 1943 US B-17 Flying Fortress bombers pounded the Milo aerodrome on Sicily, catching up to eighty enemy aircraft. Many of them were German Ju 52 transport aircraft.Thirty received direct hits and many others were damaged.

This airfield at Catania on the eastern coast came under heavy attack by Liberator bombers from the US Army Air Force. The explosions straddling the main runway destroyed the administrative buildings to the left and the dispersal areas on the right.

Italian bombers, such as these Savoia-Marchetti SM 79 Sparviero (Sparrowhawks), operated from Sicily and Pantelleria in support of the Luftwaffe’s air war over North Africa. By June 1943 some 1,217 Sparviero had been built, and it had become the Italian Air Force’s key bomber. The Axis air forces were soon overwhelmed in the skies over Sicily.

The Italian island of Pantelleria was also subjected to ten days of Allied bombardment. This shot shows British troops from Major General Clutterbuck’s British 1st Division advancing from the island’s port to the airfield following Operation Corkscrew, launched on 11 June 1943. Despite being well fortified and provisioned, the 12,000-strong garrison quickly surrendered, as did those on Linosa and Lampedusa, opening the way for the invasion of Sicily.

The Sicilian port of Catania being bombed in a daylight raid just before the start of Operation Husky. Following the invasion, stalwart German defences at Catania stalled the British advance on Messina.

British airborne troops preparing to take off for Operation Ladbrooke. The 1st Air Landing Brigade was to capture the Grande Bridge over the River Anapo and then the western suburbs of Syracuse on 10 July 1943. This was designed to facilitate the advance of Major-General Berney-Ficklin’s British 5th Division along the eastern coast of Sicily towards Messina.

British troops embarking for Operation Husky. Armoured support was fairly limited, comprising three British and Canadian tank brigades, a number of US tank battalions and elements of the US 2nd Armored Division.

An early production American M4A1 Sherman (identifiable by the M3-type suspension) by the name of Eternity comes ashore on Red Beach 2 on 10 July 1943. The German panzers and the Italian Livorno Mobile Division, the best Italian unit on the island, were ordered to counterattack the American 1st and 45th Divisions in the vicinity of Gela. The Allies took Syracuse that day and Field Marshal Kesselring decided to abandon western Sicily in order to shorten his defensive line.

The Husky landings were not without hazard. On 11 July the Luftwaffe hit the US Liberty Ship Robert Rowan off Gela with devastating results after her ammunition cargo exploded.

US troops examine a captured Italian self-propelled gun. The Italian Mobile Group E, consisting of over fifty light tanks, counterattacked from Niscemi towards Gela and Piano Lupo, but became tangled up with the panzers of the Hermann Göring Division. One column of twenty Italian light tanks lost two of its number to American troops with naval gunfire support before turning back.

This Luftwaffe pilot was not so lucky; his aircraft was brought down near Gela on 12 July 1943.

A British M4A2 Sherman tank of 13th Corps, 8th Army, in the streets of Francofonte among Sicilian sightseers, 13 or 14 July 1943. As the British had the more direct route, General Montgomery was determined to get to Messina before the Americans; once they got there, the Axis garrison would be trapped on the island.

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