Operation HUSKY an Overview by Mark Saliger



Operation HUSKY Overview.

As the dawn set on the North African campaign Churchill and Roosevelt met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. They next decided to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europe though the ‘soft underbelly’ of Italy and race northwards towards the German Reich itself. Therefore the invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, would be the ‘stepping-stone’ between Africa and Europe.

With General Eisenhower in overall command, along with his deputy General Sir Harold Alexander, the invasion force was designated the Allied 15th Army Group. The Allies would land in the south east corner of the island with Montgomery leading the British 8th Army towards the ultimate prize of Messina whilst Patton would lead his US 7th Army on a wide flanking move towards the west of the island.

The Invasion of Sicily began on the night of 9/10th July with a two-pronged airborne attack, by both British and American airborne troops, followed by seaborne landings the following morning.

As the Allied air armada passed over Malta on its way to Sicily, watching below on the ground was Eisenhower. He rubbed his seven lucky coins together that he kept in his pocket as the armada passed overhead on its way to combat. They didn’t bring much luck though. The British mass glider-borne assault ended in near disaster with half of the gliders ditching in the sea. The American jump was badly scattered. Therefore further American reinforcements were flown in on the second night which then suffered heavy friendly-fire casualties from their own naval artillery.
The seaborne element of the Sicily Invasion was launched by Admiral Cunningham with the straight-forward order to the invasion fleet – ‘Carry out Operation HUSKY’. With this order, the amphibious force set off from various ports in North Africa and headed for the 26 landing beaches in Sicily. Operation HUSKY constituted the largest amphibious operation of World War II in terms of the size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day.

The first troops ashore were Special Forces and Commandos followed by the Canadian 1st Division and the British 50th, 51st and 5th Divisions. The 5th Division was the most travelled division of the British Army during the Second World War. The British and Canadians immediately pushed inland capturing key towns as they went.

Further to the west, the American 1st, 3rd and 45th Divisions began moving inland until they met resistance from the Hermann Goering Division. The pace of advance now slowed and Alexander only had resources for one major thrust. With the ultimate goal of capturing Messina, he chose Montgomery’s advance over Patton’s and sowed the seed of their simmering rivalry for the remainder of the War.
In the meantime, Field Marshal Kesselring arrived in Sicily to take over its defence from the Italian General Guzzoni. Kesselring swiftly created a plan to effectively concede the western half of the island to the Americans whilst preparing a strong defensive line, the ‘Hauptkampflinie‘, on the slopes of Mount Etna. The Germans rushed their paratroopers, the elite ‘Fallschirmjaeger’ known as the ‘Green Devils’, in to Sicily to hold the Primosole bridge which was identified by both sides as being key to the Sicilian Campaign. Simultaneously the British 1st Parachute Brigade, known as the ‘Red Devils’, were preparing to parachute in and seize the bridge also.

These two sets of elite ‘Devils’ now engaged each other in a Hellish battle for control of the bridge. It was a pivotal battle of the entire campaign and helped shape later operations at Arnhem for the Airborne Forces. Late-arriving Allied ground forces eventually crossed the bridge with tank and artillery support. However, the German defensives between Primosole and Messina had solidified, meaning that the Allies would have to fight a slow-moving slogging-match northwards, a scene to be repeated in the later Italian campaign.

On 16thJuly General Hube arrived on Sicily with orders to carry out Operation LEHRGANG, the evacuation of German forces from the island. Sicily effectively became one large rear-guard action to delay the Allies and allow Axis troops to withdraw to Italy. He eventually evacuated 135,000 troops and 124,00 vehicles to live to fight another day in Italy.

With the end in sight in Sicily, on 25th July King Victor Emmanuel of Italy took the steps to officially remove Benito Mussolini as Il Duce. He was immediately replaced by the Head of the Army, Marshal Pietro Badoglio.

Momentum was increasingly with the Allies. With the British fighting their way slowly forward in the east of the island, Patton seized the opportunity to turn his forces in a hook around the back of Mount Etna – the race for Messina was now on.

Patton ordered a flanking amphibious assault to get behind the enemy positions. This move by Patton, known as an ‘end-run’ in American football terminology, literally involved Patton landing his men around the end of the German lines via the sea. They managed to catch the enemy by surprise and repeated the manoeuvre twice more in the next few days, driving ever closer to Messina to firmly put the cork in the Axis escape bottle. The fighting remained bloody though. The Americans only captured the hilltop town of Troina after their twenty-fifth attack.
Axis defences were now thin on the ground and this allowed the stalemate to be broken all along the front. Montgomery’s forces were at last able to race for their prize of Messina. However, the Americans were already there. On the 16th August, the US 3rd Division entered the city and accepted its surrender. A victory ceremony was then hastily arranged for the arrival of Patton himself the next morning. Patton completed his victory ceremony in Messina at 10:00 on the 17th. Shortly afterwards the senior British commander arrived and declared to Patton ‘It was a jolly good race. I congratulate you’. The closeness of the race for Messina and the bragging rights to claim victory on Sicily had gone to Patton.
Allied politics aside, the Invasion of Sicily had succeeded in achieving its key objectives. It had established a foothold on continental Europe, knocked Italy out of the War and relieved pressure on the Russian Front.

The victory had come at a heavy cost though. The Allies had lost 14,000 killed, wounded or missing. Axis losses were estimated at 32,000 killed or wounded, along with 116,500 Italian conscripts captured. The delay in securing Sicily had inadvertently allowed masses of German troops to evacuate the island and regroup in Italy where they were to turn the Italian campaign into one of the hardest-fought of the entire War.

Mark Saliger

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