Military history


Seraph and Husky

BILL JEWELL STEERED the Seraph toward the jagged silhouette of the coastline as the wind whipped and wailed around the conning tower. It was past ten o’clock, and curtains of thick fog draped an irritable sea, the rear guard of a nasty summer storm. Jewell shivered inside his sou’wester. The weather, he reflected, was “moderately vile,”1 but the reduced visibility would work to his advantage. Once again, the Seraph was creeping toward the southern coast of Europe in the darkness to drop off an important item. Once again, she had been entrusted with a mission of profound secrecy and extreme danger. Once again, the lives of thousands depended on her success. The difference between this mission and the one successfully executed three months earlier was that the canister in the hold really did contain scientific instruments, a homing beacon to guide the largest invasion force ever assembled to the shores of Sicily. Having played her part in the secret buildup to “Husky,” the Seraph had been selected to lead the invasion itself.

A week earlier, Jewell had been summoned to submarine headquarters in Algiers and briefed by his commanding officer, Captain Barney Fawkes: “You are to act as guide and beacon2 submarine for the Army’s invasion of Sicily.” Jewell’s mission would be to drop a new type of buoy containing a radar beacon one thousand yards off the beach at Gela on the island’s south coast, just a few hours before D-day: July 10, 0400 hours. Destroyers, leading flotillas of landing craft carrying the troops of America’s Forty-fifth Infantry Division, would lock onto the homing beacon, and the assault troops would then storm ashore in the early hours of the Sicilian morning. Seraph should remain in position as a visible beacon “for the first waves3 of the invasion force” and retire once the attack was under way. The British submarine would act as the spearhead for a mighty host, an armada of Homeric proportions—more than 3,000 freighters, frigates, tankers, transports, minesweepers, and landing craft carrying 1,800 heavy guns, 400 tanks, and an invasion force of 160,000 Allied soldiers, composed of the United States Seventh Army under General George Patton, and Montgomery’s British Eighth Army.

Sicily may be the most thoroughly invaded place on earth. From the eighth century B.C., the island has been attacked, occupied, plundered, and fought over by successive waves of invaders: Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards, and British. But never had Sicily witnessed an invasion on this scale. If Operation Mincemeat had succeeded, then Allied troops would face only limited resistance. Jewell had no idea whether his strange cargo had ever reached the coast of Huelva, but as he absorbed his new orders, he found himself wondering whether the dead body “had delivered his false information4 to the Germans and whether, as a result, the thousands of troops preparing to assault the island would meet less resistance.” If the ruse had failed and tipped off the Axis to the real target of Operation Husky, then the Seraph might be leading the vast floating host into catastrophe.

After receiving his orders, Jewell had reported to the Seventh Army headquarters for a briefing from General Patton himself. Swaggering, foulmouthed, and inspirational, Patton was a born leader of men and a deeply divisive figure. Jewell detested him on sight. With an ivory-handled revolver on each hip, the general strode around the briefing room, barking orders at Jewell and the two other British submarine commanders who would help guide in the American ground troops. “His force was to land in three parts,5 each on its own beach; he wanted reconnaissance checked and the submarines allocated to the beaches to stay in their position over the beacon buoys to ensure that the right forces landed on the right beaches.” The briefing lasted all of ten minutes. “He was really very short with us,6 somewhat conceited and very rudely outspoken,” Jewell recalled. Outside the conference room, Jewell heard a loud American voice call his name and turned to find Colonel Bill Darby of the U.S. Army Rangers, his friend from the earlier Galita reconnaissance. Darby explained that he would be leading his troops ashore in Seraph’s wake, at the head of Force X, made up of two crack Ranger battalions. “Do as good a job for us7 as you did at Galita,” said Darby, “and we’ll be mighty grateful.” Jewell promised to do his best. Yet the submarine commander was privately apprehensive. If the enemy spotted the Seraph laying the beacon buoy, it would certainly realize that an invasion was imminent and rush reinforcements to that section of the coast. “Discovery,”8 Jewell reflected, “would throw the whole Husky plan into jeopardy.”

Dwight Eisenhower himself had warned that if the Germans were tipped off, the attack on Sicily would fail. The American general told Churchill: “If substantial German ground troops9 should be placed in the region prior to the attack, the chances for success become practically nil and the project should be abandoned.” Even a few hours’ warning would be paid for in greatly increased bloodshed. Surprise was essential; lack of it was potentially fatal. Patton’s closing remark also stuck in Jewell’s mind, both irritating and alarming him: “The submarines would be less10 than a mile from the enemy, but come what may they must stay there until the Task Force with the Army arrived, no matter how late.” Seraph, code-named “Cent,” would be left on the surface as the sun rose, isolated and defenseless, a sitting duck for the Italian guns ranged along the coast. This was undoubtedly Jewell’s most dangerous mission, with every probability that it might also be his last.

Jewell was sublimely indifferent to his own safety. He had faced danger and discomfort on an extravagant scale in a gruesome war. Time after time he had demonstrated his willingness to die. But now he had something new to live for. Bill Jewell had fallen in love.

After performing his part in Operation Mincemeat, Jewell had returned to Algiers for some well-earned shore leave. Among the new arrivals at Allied headquarters in the city was Rosemary Galloway, a young officer in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Rosemary was a cipher clerk, coding and decoding the messages passing in and out of Allied headquarters, and thus was privy to secret and sensitive information. She was vivacious, intelligent, and exceedingly attractive. Jewell and Rosemary had met once before, in Britain, and in the sultry heat of wartime Algiers that acquaintance rapidly bloomed into romance. Once Rosemary was in Bill Jewell’s emotional periscope, he pursued her with unswerving determination. She proved a most cooperative quarry. There were limited opportunities for courtship in wartime Algiers, and Jewell seized all of them. At Sidi Barouk, just outside the city, the American forces had created a rest camp that was the nearest thing in Algeria to an American country club, with bar, restaurant, tennis court, and swimming pool. Jewell recalled: “The American High Command11 had taken possession of a strip of beach and olive grove and converted it into an Arabian Nights’ dream—barring the houris, of course!” (Actually, these were available too.) An evening at Sidi Barouk was, in Jewell’s words, “a really de luxe experience.”12 Jewell’s friendly relations with senior American officers earned him access to this “most exclusive spot,”13 and even the use of an American driver, one Private Bocciccio, a Brooklyn native, who drove with one leg permanently hanging out of his Jeep. When Bocciccio was unavailable, Jewell squired Rosemary around town in an ancient Hillman acquired by the Eighth Flotilla and known as “The Wren Trap,”14 less for its romantic allure, which was zero, than for its captive potential: “None of the doors opened15 from the inside and, no matter how urgent the need for fresh air, Wrens who accepted the risk had to rely on the chivalry of their companions to release them.” Bocciccio, who had picked up some fruity British slang, was scathing about the Wren Trap and what went on in it: “Bloody heap ain’t got no springs16 left.”

The Hotel St. George was the best hotel in Algiers and Eisenhower’s headquarters. Built on the site of an ancient Moorish palace, it was surrounded by botanical gardens with hibiscus, roses, and flowering cacti; in both war and peace, visitors sipped cocktails in the shade of vast umbrellas beneath the palms and banana trees, served by Algerian waiters in starched uniforms with epaulettes. The hotel chef, in Jewell’s estimation, “could turn out a meal,17 even in the depleted Algiers of that day, in keeping with the finest traditions of French cuisine.” Rudyard Kipling, André Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, and King George V of England all stayed at the St. George. On June 7, 1943, the hotel hosted the crucial conference at which Churchill and Eisenhower finalized plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. That same month, it was the setting for the culmination of Jewell’s campaign to win Rosemary Galloway. For two joyful weeks, he had wooed her with every weapon at his disposal: French food, an American swimming pool, and a British car with doors that wouldn’t open. Rosemary was in no mind to resist, and at the end of this sustained bombardment she had sunk, unresistingly, into Lieutenant Jewell’s arms.

It was therefore with even more than his usual alertness that Jewell scanned the foggy seas off the Sicilian coast at midnight on July 9: he had captured Rosemary Galloway’s heart, and he did not intend to lose his prize by getting killed. If Mincemeat had failed—or worse, had backfired—then Jewell, his crew, and the thousands of British and American troops streaming into battle behind him might not live through the next few hours. If the plan had worked, then perhaps he would see Rosemary again. Jewell was surprised at how much this mattered to him. Before meeting Rosemary, Jewell had not cared very much whether he lived or died. Now, he discovered, he cared very much indeed.

The crew of the Seraph had already laid out a trail of small marker buoys, each primed with a fuse that would set off simultaneous blinker lights in exactly four hours, to lead the flotilla to shore. The heavier beacon buoy was brought up on deck, and the submarine slowly edged toward the drop point. Jewell was about to give the order to lower the buoy, when the lookout’s hushed voice cut through the darkness. “E-boat on port quarter, Sir.”18

The German Schnellboot, known to the Allies as the E-boat, was a motor torpedo launch with three two-thousand-horsepower Daimler-Benz engines, carrying four torpedoes, two 20 mm cannons, and six machine guns. It was better armed and three times faster than the Seraph. And it was about four hundred yards away, motionless, “a clearly visible silhouette19 standing out blackly against the dark blueness of the night.” The E-boat had also spotted the British submarine and was attempting to determine whether it was friend or foe. “It was a ticklish moment,”20 wrote Jewell. “That Nazi, I knew, was faster than we and much better armed. I knew her gunners were at battle stations, manning their weapons and waiting for the word to fire.” For what seemed like minutes but was only seconds, Jewell “waited tensely for the E-boat to make its move.” At a whispered order, the submarine’s gun crews and torpedo men moved to action stations. If the Germans attacked, the Seraph would have to try to fight it out. Even if he won that duel, the coastal defenders would be alerted to what was coming over the dark horizon. Jewell knew that then “the fat would have been21 in the fire.” The British submarine lay low in the water, and the swirling fog made identification doubly difficult. The German captain was plainly “undecided about her identity,22 expecting only friendly submarines so near his coast.” Suddenly, he flashed his navigation lights. “I knew that would be a recognition23 signal of some sort that I’d be expected to answer immediately.” The German captain’s challenge gave Jewell the vital few seconds he needed. The decks were cleared, the buoy manhandled below, and the hatch slammed shut, and Jewell barked the order to dive. “Down she went in a few seconds.24 To the enemy she must have seemed literally to vanish.” With luck, reflected Jewell, the encounter would not tip off the defenders to the impending invasion: “The captain of the E-boat25 would still be victim to his own indecision [and] so long as he couldn’t be sure whether we were friend or enemy it was not likely the Germans would take alarm.” But time was short. The buoy would have to be laid within the next hour, for the mighty Allied army of invasion was now only a few hours away, strung out in a vast flotilla just over the horizon to the south.

The broad plan for the invasion of Sicily had been agreed at Casablanca back in January 1943, but the process of working out the specifics of Operation Husky had turned into a dogfight, with intense disagreements among commanders and rising tensions between the British and American allies. Patton found Montgomery “wonderfully conceited”26 and noted that General Alexander, the commander of the Allied ground forces, had “an exceptionally small head.”27 This from a man whose bigheadedness was legendary. Montgomery said of Eisenhower: “His knowledge of how to28 make war, or to fight battles, is definitely nil.” The British general flatly refused to accept Eisenhower’s initial battle plans, which called for an American invasion in the west of Sicily aimed at Palermo while the British took Augusta and Syracuse on the southeast coast. Monty insisted that he knew better, which he did, and predicted a “military disaster”29 if the plan was not scrapped. Montgomery was adept at tactical maneuvers: he finally got his way after cornering Major General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, in the toilets at Allied forces headquarters in Algiers. First at the urinal, then by drawing a map of Sicily on the steamy mirror above the washbasin, Montgomery laid out his alternative plan: a consolidated assault on the southeast coast by both armies.

Agreement was reached. Before dawn on July 10, Patton’s Seventh Army would assault the coast at the Gulf of Gela, while Montgomery’s Eighth Army would storm ashore farther east at the Gulf of Noto and Cassibile. In all, some twenty-six beaches would be attacked along one hundred miles of Sicily’s southern coast by troops assembled in the ports of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The invasion would be preceded by intensive bombing of Sicilian airfields. Immediately before the assault, paratroopers would drop behind enemy lines to sever communications, forestall counterattacks, secure vital road junctions, and confuse the enemy. The Combined Chiefs approved the plan for Operation Husky on May 12, the very day that London intercepted the first message indicating that Hitler had seen, and believed, the documents in Major Martin’s briefcase.

The logistics of the operation would have boggled most minds: the American contingent alone called for 6.6 million sets of rations, five thousand crated airplanes, five thousand carrier pigeons and accompanying pigeoneers, and a somewhat unambitious 144,000 condoms, fewer than two each. The task of assembling this plethora of gear was rendered yet more complex by the need for absolute secrecy. Amphibious landings are notoriously hard, as Gallipoli and Dieppe attested. They are all but impossible if the defenders are ready and waiting. Eisenhower was insistent on the paramount importance of surprise, predicting that the operation would fail if more than two divisions were waiting and the defenders put up strong resistance. The Germans could hardly fail to spot the 160,000 soldiers and three thousand boats assembling on the north coast of Africa: the key would be to keep them guessing as to where, exactly, the attack might come. Once the offensive was under way, a secondary deception plan, Operation Derrick, would try to convince the enemy that the assault on the south was diversionary and the real attack would still come in the west of Sicily, keeping more troops out of the battle zone. Maps of Sicily were kept under lock and key. The soldiers of the invasion force would not be told where they were going until the task force was at sea. Letters home were strictly censored to ensure that the intended target remained secret, with officers only half joking when they instructed their men that when writing home, “You cannot, you must not, be interesting.”30

Yet word, inevitably, had leaked out, onto the docks of North Africa. The “Soldier’s Guide to Sicily” was accidentally distributed too early. A British officer in Cairo sent his uniform to be cleaned with the Husky battle plans in the pocket. The papers were retrieved, but not before several pages had been used to write out customer invoices: somewhere in Cairo was a person with clean clothes and the Allies’ most secret plans. Still more alarmingly, Colonel Knox of the British First Airborne Division had accidentally left a top secret cable on the terrace of the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo. The document gave not only the date and time of the Sicily invasion but also the timing for the dropping of paratroops and even “the availability of aircraft and gliders31 for such operations.” The paper was missing for at least two days before the hotel manager returned it to the military authorities. Dudley Clarke was confident, however, that if it had fallen into enemy hands through such an obvious and “gross breach of security”32 then it would probably be dismissed as a plant, pointing to Sicily as the cover target in accordance with Mincemeat. He concluded that “Colonel Knox may well have assisted33 rather than hindered us.”

Operation Barclay, the overall deception plan to disguise Allied intentions and keep as many Axis forces as possible away from Sicily, reached a climax in the days leading up to July 10. Submarines had dropped men on the coasts of Sardinia and the Greek island of Zante, to leave behind unmistakable signs of reconnaissance for the Germans to find, as if in preparation for major assaults. Operation “Waterfall,” simulating the gathering of an army in the eastern Mediterranean, as if to invade the Balkans, assembled huge numbers of dummy tanks and planes. SOE organized a genuine sabotage operation by Greek resistance fighters, code-named “Animals,” to suggest increased partisan activity in the Greek target area.

Double agents were used to bolster the deception, most notably André Latham, a dodgy, high-living French aristocrat and career army officer with a rabid loathing for communism who had been recruited by the Abwehr in Paris in 1942. Latham was introduced to the rest of his spy team in the Elizabeth Arden Beauty Parlour on Faubourg St. Honoré: a playboy called Dutey-Marisse (or possibly Duthey Harispe), a former French naval officer named Blondeau, and a pimp and saboteur called Duteil who, unbeknownst to Latham, had orders from the Germans to kill him if he showed any sign of betrayal. The team had headed to Tunis with orders to gather information for the Abwehr. On May 8, as the preparations for Sicily were gathering pace, Latham—“athletic, middle-aged, of medium height,34 with grey hair and military moustache”—presented himself to the head of French intelligence in North Africa and declared his intention to spy against the Germans. He was given the code name “Gilbert” and put to work sending false information to his German spymasters, who considered him “an agent of very high class.”35 Gilbert reported that a large invasion force was assembling at the Tunisian port of Bizerte, which was in fact composed of dummy landing craft, to divert attention from the genuine preparations.

The Garbo network was deployed to muddy the waters still further: Agent 6 in Garbo’s stable was Dick, an anticommunist South African recruited in 1942 by Pujol, “who had promised him36 an important post in the New World Order after the war” if he would spy for Germany. Dick had been taken on by the War Office “on account of his linguistic abilities”37 and sent to Allied headquarters in Algiers. Pujol supplied him with secret ink, and the South African was soon reporting back via Garbo to Kühlenthal in Spain on preparations for the coming assault. The Germans were “delighted with their new agent,”38 Garbo’s MI5 handler reported. To draw attention away from Sicily and further disperse the available German forces, Agent 6 “speculated that on account39 of certain documents which had come to his notice whilst working in the Intelligence Section at Headquarters the landing would probably be made in Nice and Corsica.” Soon after, Dick managed to “steal some documents relating40 to the impending invasion” and promised to forward these to Pujol hidden in a packet of fruit.

On July 5, however, Garbo relayed sad news to Kühlenthal: Dick’s “unmarried wife,”41 Dorothy, had informed him that Agent 6 had been killed in an air crash in North Africa. The Germans had lost a key spy just as he was getting into his stride. This small tragedy was, of course, entirely fictitious. Dick and Dorothy did not exist. The invented spy had been terminated because of a real death: the “officer who had been42 acting as scribe for Agent No. 6 met with a fatal air accident whilst returning from leave in Scotland.” Dick had distinctive handwriting. MI5 debated whether to “pretend that the agent43 had damaged his right hand and was therefore obliged to write with his left, or to attempt to forge his handwriting.” Neither option seemed safe, so Dick, the South African spy who never was, was summarily put to death.

Despite the tight security surrounding the Sicilian campaign and the vast clouds of disinformation thrown up by Operation Barclay and the double agents, German and Italian intelligence could hardly fail to spot the signs of an imminent invasion: the hospital ships assembled at Gibraltar; the eight million leaflets dropped over Sicily warning that Hitler was a fickle ally and that “Germany will fight to the last Italian.” Even more significantly, the fortified island of Pantelleria, sixty miles southwest of Sicily, surrendered on June 11 after a three-week bombardment in which 6,400 bombs were dropped. The assault on Pantelleria, “Operation Corkscrew,” was the obvious prelude to a full-scale invasion of Sicily itself, since its capture would furnish the Allies with an air base within range of the larger island. In London, it was feared that the successful capture of the island “would give the game away altogether.”44 Double agent Gilbert told his controllers “not to be alarmed as the attack45 on Pantelleria was merely a feint” and the real attack would come elsewhere.

Even so, some on the German side correctly anticipated what was to come, and German messages deciphered at Bletchley Park suggested that the Germans were increasingly concerned about Sicily. Even Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, watching from Spain, began to wonder whether the plans detailed in the intercepted letters had changed. After the capture of Pantelleria, Kühlenthal “received increasing reports46 that Sicily would be the next invasion goal. Numerous reports to that effect were sent to Berlin, but Berlin discounted the validity of such information.” Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the canny German commander in the Mediterranean, had believed for six weeks before D-day that the most likely point of attack would be Sicily. Yet for the most part, the German high command appeared wedded to the belief that the main assaults would come in the eastern and western Mediterranean, while the assault on Sicily might still be a feint.

The false picture of Allied strength painted by Mincemeat and the other deception operations had left Germany attempting to mount defenses across an impossibly wide front. “Operation Cascade” had successfully convinced the Germans that the Allies had some forty divisions available to participate in the offensive (almost twice the real figure) and could therefore easily mount two or more attacks simultaneously. In truth, the Allies never had enough landing craft for more than one operation. In the same way, the Allies’ strategic thinking rejected the launching of an amphibious assault without adequate air cover: realistically, this ruled out Sardinia and Greece as objectives for major landings. The two targets identified by Mincemeat were simply not on the genuine Allied agenda. The Germans never realized this.

German intelligence was quite unable to tell the high command where or when the main attack would come. Confusion and hesitation reigned as the Germans struggled to see through the murk of deception and their own flawed and limited sources of intelligence. The list of possible landing sites included not only Sardinia and Greece but also Corsica, southern France, and even Spain, while Hitler’s fear for the Balkans colored his every strategic move. In Sardinia, which the Japanese chargé d’affaires in Rome reported “was still regarded as the favourite47 target,” troop strength was doubled to more than ten thousand men by the end of June and bolstered with additional fighter aircraft. At the critical moment in the Kursk tank battle on the eastern front in July, two more German armored divisions were placed on alert to go to the Balkans. German torpedo boats were ordered from Sicily to the Aegean; shore batteries were installed in Greece, and three new minefields were laid off its coasts. Between March and July 1943, the number of German divisions in the Balkans was increased from eight to eighteen, while the forces defending Greece increased from one division to eight. Despite Italian intelligence warnings that an attack on Sicily was coming, and urgent Italian calls for German reinforcements, “no measures were taken to reinforce the island.”48 As the official assessment of Operation Mincemeat later noted, “it was never possible for the Germans49 to cease reinforcements and fortifications of Sicily altogether, as we might have changed our plans and it was always too vulnerable a target.” Yet the Germans clearly continued to believe that Sicily, if it were attacked at all, would not face a full Allied onslaught. At the end of May, an Ultra intercept from Kesselring’s quartermaster revealed how woefully underprepared the German forces were: rations for just three months and less than nine thousand tons of fuel. Confidence that Mincemeat was doing its job rose higher still. “Compared with the forces employed50 in Tunisia, this was a tiny garrison,” one historian has written. Four days before the invasion, Kesselring reported that his troops in Sicily had “only half the supplies they needed.”51 Eisenhower’s fears of meeting “well armed and fully organised52 German forces” on the shores of Sicily were unfounded. Germany simply did not know what was coming, or where, and by the time it became clear that Sicily was the real target after all, it was too late.

The Allies, by contrast, had a clear-cut idea of Sicily’s defenses and the Axis failure to reinforce them. The British and American invaders would face some three hundred thousand enemy troops defending six hundred miles of coastline. More than two thirds of the defenders were Italian, poorly equipped, and ill trained. Many were Sicilian conscripts, men with little stomach for this fight, old, unfit, unenthusiastic, and, in some cases, armed with ancient weapons dating back to the previous war. The Italian coastal defense troops, according to one Allied intelligence report, suffered from “an almost unbelievably53 low standard of morale, training and discipline.” The German forces, some forty thousand men in two divisions, were made of more resilient material. The newly rebuilt Hermann Göring Armored Division, three battalions of infantry, had seen hard fighting in Tunisia and was transferred to Sicily by Kesselring after the seizure of Pantelleria. The Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division was a battle-scarred, war-toughened unit with 160 tanks and 140 field artillery guns. The Italian defenders would probably put up little resistance, it was predicted, but the Germans would be “hot mustard,”54 as one officer put it. Montgomery predicted with cold realism: “It will be a hard and very bloody55 fight. We must expect heavy losses.” Bill Darby was also expecting the worst, and rather looking forward to it: “If casualties are high,56 it will not be a reflection of your leadership,” the Ranger commander told his officers. “May God be with you.”57

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