Salerno by Graham Swain
This is an article written by Graham Swain in April 1996. A veteran of the Italian campaigns, Graham (now deceased) summarises the nine days of battle as Allied troops landed at Salerno.
‘D’ Day – an emotive phrase which to those of the older generation recalls June 6th 1944 when the Allies landed in Normandy and which is commonly regarded as the commencement of the ‘second front’.
To the troops who fought in Italy and who have been called the D-Day Dodgers, June 6th 1944 was just one more seaborne operation following the many which had gone before in other theatres of war. For those veterans of the Italian campaign, D-Day means Sicily, Calabria, Taranto and the most fearsome of all – Salerno. Salerno was the first large scale opposed landing on mainland Europe since the fall of Dunkirk. Allied forces successfully fought off determined efforts to throw them back in to the sea but they were never dislodged. They gained and held a toe-hold in what Winston Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe” and this signified the start of the defeat of the German Armies.
Following the landings and capture of Sicily – a costly operation in casualties – and after a great deal of political intrigue and disagreement between Allied politicians, Winston Churchill finally got his way for a landing in Italy. The site chosen for the main assault was the Gulf of Salerno – just south of Naples. The bay extended some 35 miles in a sweeping curve with the town of Salerno at the northern end and was mainly comprised of sandy beaches but dominated by mountains giving points of observation over the whole landing area.
There was also disagreement over strategy – 5th Army commander General Mark Clark favouring a ‘silent approach’ to achieve surprise and Admiral Hewitt wanting to lay a heavy naval bombardment. The Army Commander won the day – a great error in the light of subsequent events. Lessons learned from the Salerno landings were certainly noted when the Normandy landings were planned.
The objective of the landings was to capture and secure the port of Naples and the plans expected this to be achieved in three days. The fact that the landings did NOT take the Germans by surprise coupled with their very determined resistance completely upset the strategy and Naples was not finally entered until 1st October.
On 3rd September 1943 the 8th Army crossed the Straits of Messina from Sicily (Operation Baytown) and landed unopposed near Reggio. On 9th September, a second landing took place at Taranto (Operation Slapstick). The main assault (Operation Avalanche) commenced during the early hours of 9th September 1943 at Salerno. The British 10 Corps comprising 56th (London) Infantry Divisions, the 46th Infantry Division, British Army, R.M. Commandoes and U.S. Rangers landing in the northern sector of the bay. The U.S. 6th Corps made up of
36th Infantry Division, landing in the southern sector. In all some 100,000 British and 60,000 American troops.
Whilst still at sea, the news was broadcast to the invasion fleet that Italy had surrendered and the effect on the troops can well be imagined. It lead to the false impression that the landings would be unopposed and officers (some of whom were also caught up in the euphoria) had difficulty in persuading the troops that the Germans were still there in strength and would resist – as was found to be only too true.
From the outset, the invasion was a mis-managed affair which almost ended like another Dunkirk. The Germans were ready and waiting and what has been described by one historian – ’21 days of horror and carnage followed’. It was a shambles from the start. Troops were ordered into landing craft too early and suffered the ravages of sea sickness. Other troops were landed on the wrong beaches. Aerial photographs of flooded areas were not identified leading to confusion. One infantry battalion was attacked by tanks equipped with flame throwers – another was caught in open ground in an artillery barrage when 30 out of 100 troops survived. One battalion endured the loudspeaker taunts of a German psychological unit who constantly warned that another Dunkirk was happening. A landing craft suffered a direct hit whilst still loaded with personnel. One company suffered from an act of treachery when a white flag of surrender was displayed at a farmhouse and troops going forward to take prisoners were mown down by hidden machine guns. No prisoners were taken. Another battalion was caught in accurate fixed line machine gunfire and decimated. The Germans infiltrated a battalion network calling for a company commander by name – showing the extent of their intelligence. All of this occurred with a few hours of landing.
From these recorded events (and there were many more) the lack of security at all levels in the planning is obvious and the complete loss of surprise certainly contributed to the many casualties. After the war a German officer who was at Salerno claimed that they had three clear days warning of the site and timing of the landings. This is borne out by the demolition which took place in the preceding days in Salerno town. Winston Churchill said, “surprise, violence and speed are the essence of amphibious landings”. What a tragedy that the first element was missing at Salerno.
For several days the struggle continued with unabated violence – the Germans landing one counter attack after another. One such attack was on 12th September, the heaviest to date, supported by fierce artillery barrages from the high ground overlooking the beachhead and almost succeeded in breaking through.
During these many counter attacks General Mark Clark later recorded that he seriously considered and made plans to evacuate the bridgehead. However, the heroic resistance by troops of all nationalities and the landing of reinforcements enabled the bridgehead to be maintained. The powerful accuracy of naval guns was vital.
By 16th September, the battles turned in favour of the Allies and at the end of that day the Germans started to withdraw. Meanwhile the 8th Army had been making progress from the south-east towards the bridgehead; on 17th September there was a link-up with their armoured cars and the 5th Army troops. On 19th September, Salerno was considered safe. Many other famous battles followed – Anzio, Cassino, Sangro, Gothic line, Argenta, Po Valley – none of which would have been successful if the Salerno veterans had been defeated. British casualties (killed, wounded and missing) from D-Day to the 20th September totalled 5,211. The Americans suffered in equal proportions. In the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Salerno there are 1,849 graves.
AND THEY CALLED US THE D-DAY DODGERS
Acknowledgements: 2/7 Bn. Queens Royal Regiment history. Comrades in 2/7 Bn. Queens Royal Regiment. A true friend Corporal “Curley” Collett (deceased 7 Bn. Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. “Salerno” by H Pond.
An LCT carrying 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers received direct hits from an 88mm and they also met Spandau fire on fixed lines. In addition they were a mile off their designated beach. 169 Queens Brigade whose objective was the Montecorvino airfield encountered flooded areas with water up to waist height. A German parachute flare conveniently lit up the sky and gave unexpected aid. 2/7 Battalion (Bn.) Queens suffered from an act of treachery when some Germans in a farmhouse came out with hands raised in surrender and when the platoon advanced to take prisoners a hidden Spandau opened up and killed several Queen’s men. The Regimental history recalls that none of the Germans survived.
The 2nd Bn Hampshire Regiment met accurate fire from fixed lines MGs and every hedgerow and dyke contained concealed Germans. Despite this one platoon reached the town of Pontecagnano. 5th Bn Hampshire regiment who also landed on the wrong beach found themselves on the wrong side of the River Asa and when some 600 yards inland were attacked by tanks with flamethrowers and without anti-tank support were severely mauled. This became known as “Hampshire Lane” and was the scene of terrible carnage.
The 2/7 Bn. Queens made their objective the village of Faiano after facing tough opposition all day, but failed to reach and take the Montecorvino airfield. The Royal Fusiliers succeeded in getting patrols into Battipaglia – a temporary success. When the airfield was finally taken it was untenable because the Germans held strong positions in the hills which overlooked the bridgehead. By the end of the day the bridgehead was about 50 square miles in area but at no point more than six miles from the sea. There was as yet no link between the British and American Corps in fact a gap of 10 miles existed. The Royal Fusiliers were driven from Battipaglia the majority being captured. 201 Guards Brigade attempted to relieve the Fusiliers before they were over-run but were held up by strong opposition at the cross roads by the tobacco factory. Despite suffering heavy casualties they managed to advance a few hundred yards.
Actions such as these continued all over the sector and on all fronts the most determined counter attacks were made. The 2/5 Bn. Queens had taken the airfield but it was of no practical use. The Germans needed the airfield badly and were determined to retake it. The commanding officer visited every forward platoon to emphasise the serious situation. The comments were ‘that it must be serious for the old man to come around like this’. It paid dividends because the 2/5, 2/6 and 2/7 Queens stuck it out for ten days and the Brigade area was one of the few stable areas.
Whilst no reference is made in this summary to specific actions by the American forces, they were to suffer in equal terms from confusion and heavy counter attacks in no less ferocity and many individual acts of bravery were recorded in the region of Altavilla. At this time, General Mark Clark wrote in his memoirs that he seriously considered the possibility that we would be driven into the sea and told General Alexander that the British 56 Division was exhausted and an order was issued to prepare plans to evacuate. North of Salerno, the Commando Brigade had penetrated to high ground to the Commando Hill, which they held against determined attacks with phosphur bombs, suffering severe losses. They were relieved by the Lincolnshire Regiment and Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who were themselves driven off the hill. The Commandos were again called back to try to retake the hill and in this action the Duke of Wellington was killed. A German account of this action later recorded that ‘what the Commandos accomplished will rank with one of the best performances of the war’. At the end of day three, at one point the bridgehead was only one mile deep in the North and this was the consideration given by General Mark Clark about the possibility of withdrawal.
At sea, the naval forces were under constant attack from the Luftwaffe – over 110 planes attacking. Some 600 Allied fighters were in opposition. Some German planes did get through; the USS Savanagh was hit and the destroyer Rowan was sunk by U-boats, as was a 10,000 ton supply ship. The flag ship was running out of fuel and attacks by flying bombs were made. Queinton Reynolds, the celebrated American war correspondent on board the flag ship, said the senior officers were seriously talking about another Gallipoli.
On day four the main German infantry and tank attack drove down the gap between the British and American corps. It was severely resisted by the Coldstream Guards and Royal Fusiliers on the banks of the Fosso canal.
Tribute must be paid to the support of the naval forces whose guns wrought such havoc by their accuracy.
On day five, the BBC news reported that ‘Allies in the Salerno area have lost ground to the repeated and desperate German counter attacks. In fact they had five divisions in action. That day also saw 2000 American paratroopers as reinforcements in the Altivilla area.
Meanwhile, General Montgomery’s 8th Army were moving closer to a link up. On this day also, 2/7 Bn. Queens were bombed at Faiano by the American Air Force. 56 Division again mounted another attack on Battipaglia which was repulsed by half tracks. The Royal Fusiliers and Ox and Bucks Light Infantry were thrown back by tanks. They were supported by the Royal Scots Greys armour and by 36 H.A.A. whose guns were deployed to fire in ground support, which saved the day. A badly executed drop by more American paratroopers behind enemy lines lead to many being captured. They were off target by 25 miles.
On day six, the battleships Warspite and Valiant arrived with 15 inch guns and gave massive bombardment, which was described as naval gunnery at its best. Emergency reinforcements from North Africa were on their way. A number of journalists found their way from the 8th Army front line and joined up with the Salerno bridgehead. They encountered no opposition and there was some embarrassment. Later that day the formal link-up took place. Morale on the bridgehead was considerably raised by this. The 7th Armoured Division and the 82 American Airborne Division also arrived from Sicily.
On day seven, the 9th Panzer Grenadiers attacked 56 Division at Battipaglia and the 2/5 Queens were over-run but later repulsed by tanks of the Royal Scots Greys. An unpleasant incident occurred on this day when 700 reinforcements from North Africa staged a sit down on the beaches and refused to join the front line troops. They complained that as 8th Army men they wished to re-join their own units. General McCreery personally addressed them and gave the opportunity to reconsider and obey orders. 192 men failed to do this and were arrested and returned to North Africa. Subsequently all were sentenced to penal servitude. Many claimed they had voluntarily left hospital to re-join their parent battalions in the 8th Army and it was not until they were at sea they were told they were to reinforce the 5th Army at Salerno.
The Warspite and Valiant continued massive bombardments which had an overwhelming effect on the Germans. On this day however, the Warspite suffered an air attack and was hit, with casualties, finally having to be towed to Malta.
Day eight saw signs of the partial withdrawal by some Germans but at White Cross Hill 200 Panzer Grenadiers were ordered to fight to the death. They were eliminated by Phosphur bombs from the Americans after five and a half hours bombardment. The Scots Guards were again attacked south of Battipaglia suffering 11 killed.
Day nine saw a broadcast by the German news-service alleging ‘that it was the powerful accuracy of naval guns which threw an impenetrable curtain of fire round Salerno and prevented the Allied forces being thrown back into the sea’. It also saw that most front-line German forces had withdrawn to well-prepared positions in the hills. Battipaglia was re-entered by 201 Guards Brigade. White Cross Hill and Pimple Hills were taken, finding the crests littered with dead – both British and German.
Signed: Graham Swain – April 1996