Amphibious Warfare: Second World War

1943 - Allied landings in Sicily (Operation HUSKY)

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allies decided to invade Sicily to open a western front against the Germans, reopen sea lanes to the eastern Mediterranean, provide a base for further offensives in southern Europe, and hopefully knock Italy out of the war. Planning began immediately for one of the largest combined operations of World War II - Operation Husky - scheduled for 10 July.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was designated supreme allied commander. His deputy, British General Sir Harold Alexander, was also chosen to be the land force component commander. Eisenhower's component commanders for sea and air forces were also British. The Allied force totaled 478,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen (250,000 British, 228,000 American). Seven amphibious divisions of some 160,000 soldiers, 4,000 aircraft and 2,590 vessels participated in the invasion.

Sicily is a rugged, mountainous island whose terrain amplifies the inherent advantages of the defense. Messina, in the island's northeastern corner, was a key port city and would be the most important Allied objective. Messina's loss would prevent Axis forces from receiving reinforcement and supplies or escaping to the Italian mainland less than three miles away. But despite the city's importance, the Allies chose not to assault it directly. It was too well fortified, was beyond the range of North Africa land-based air support, and did not have suitable beaches nearby.
Instead, the Allies chose the more expansive beaches on the southern end of Sicily for the amphibious assault.

The British Eighth Army under General Sir Bernard Montgomery would come ashore in a sector stretching from Syracuse to Cape Passero on the southeastern side of the roughly triangular island. The American Seventh Army under Lieutenant General George Patton would land on the southwestern side's Gulf of Gela. The northwestern corner of Sicily also offered favorable beaches and good port and airfield access. However, the Allied command chose to concentrate forces on the southern end of the triangle, rather than assault on both coasts, so that the two armies could provide better mutual support in the face of what was expected to be stiff Axis resistance.

Responsibility for Sicily's defense lay mainly with the Italian VI Army under Italian General Alfred Guzzoni. With 300,000-365,000 troops, the VI Army appeared extremely formidable, but Sicilian reservists comprised the bulk of its units. Guzzoni had only six regular divisions, four Italian and two German, at his disposal. In addition, many Italian units, including some in the regular divisions, were ill equipped, poorly trained, and not highly motivated. Hence, for the Allies the challenge of the Sicilian invasion would come principally from the battle-hardened German divisions and Sicily's difficult terrain.

The original Allied plan called for the Eighth Army to turn north as it moved out of its beachhead, capturing ports and airfields on the eastern side of the island en route to taking Messina. Alexander had confidence that British troops - veterans of years of combat in North Africa - could handle the main mission better than their less-experienced U.S. colleagues. The Americans, in a clearly supporting role, were to seize several key Axis airfields and then move to an inland phase line to secure the British flank. Once there, they would await developments in Montgomery's zone.

While the plan was simple (only one army was moving on Messina) and flexible (the Seventh Army was available to exploit opportunities or salvage a setback), it left Patton without an objective after he reached his terrain-commanding phase line in the central part of the island. However, this would not a problem for the aggressive American commander - Patton would choose his own objectives after his army hit "Line Blue.“

Map of Allied Operations on Sicily, July - August 1943

Map displaying the course of Allied operations on Sicily, July - August 1943.
U.S. Military Academy, Department of History.

In the weeks preceding the scheduled invasion date of 10 July, Allied aircraft raided the western portion of Sicily, misleading the Axis defenders as to where the assault would take place. Fortunately for the Allies, German concern over the northwestern beaches led them to position one of their two divisions in that far corner of the island, where they were useless during the initial Allied landings.

The Allies, however, were facing problems of their own in the hours leading up to the invasion. On 9 July, strong west winds buffeted the amphibious task force, causing severe seasickness among the landing force troops, blowing vessels off course, and almost forcing postponement of the operation. Nevertheless, the landings began as planned in the early hours of 10 July.

Allied units were not seriously opposed at first, probably because Axis commanders were not expecting an attack in such foul weather. As a result, Allied forces were able to consolidate their position by the end of the first day, despite scattered enemy resistance and insufficient air support. Local Axis efforts to counterattack the Gela beachhead were thwarted by American infantry with naval gunfire support, and German air raids did not prevent the unloading of supplies and equipment. Meanwhile, the use of amphibious craft, such as the new DUKW (amphibious truck), the LST (Tank Landing Ship), LCT (Tank Landing Craft), LCI (Landing Craft Infantry), and the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) enabled landing force elements to come ashore more efficiently. By the night of the 10th, Patton was even able to order his floating reserve ashore.

Photo:  U.S. LSTs and landing craft unloading on Gela beachhead, 10 July 1943

U.S. LSTs and and landing craft unload on the Gela beachhead, 10 July 1943.
National Archives.

The Allied plan also included airborne assaults to provide an inland covering force for the beach assault, but the same high winds that bedeviled the surface assault scattered the American regiment of paratroopers over the southeastern portion of Sicily. Nevertheless, individual elements of the American unit took up blocking positions on roads, slowing and confusing Axis reaction to the beach assaults. Meanwhile, British airborne forces seized important terrain in their zone that facilitated initial Eighth Army successes, including the capture of Syracuse.

Photo of U.S. cargo ship exploding after being bombed by German aircraft

A U.S. cargo ship carrying ammunition explodes after being bombed by German aircraft.

The following five days were crucial to the success of the campaign. On 11 July, German armored forces launched a major counterattack towards Gela. American combined arms - infantry, tanks, artillery and naval gunfire - beat back the thrust, but U.S. forces suffered their heaviest one-day toll of casualties in the entire campaign. On 13 July, uncommitted German and Italian units in northwestern Sicily moved to join those already resisting the Allies' northward advance towards Mt. Aetna and Messina. As they waited for reinforcements from the Italian mainland, Axis forces employed delaying tactics to slow down and wear down Allied units moving through constricted terrain. Nevertheless, by 15 July, Allied forces had linked to form a continuous line, roughly along pre-designated "Line Blue," across southern Sicily. They had captured several important airfields, and the Eighth Army was moving toward Catania, although it was encountering greater resistance as it pushed north.

Photo of USS Boise (CL47), 11 July 1943

USS Boise (CL 47) provides naval fire support for U.S. troops, 11 July 1943.
National Archives.

As the Eighth Army ground toward Messina, Patton moved on the town of Agrigento, taking it 17 July. He then gained Alexander's permission to slash north to the Sicilian capital of Palermo. A provisional corps from Seventh Army advanced 100 miles in four days and took Palermo 22 July. Patton's forces then turned east and began advancing along Sicily's northern coast towards Messina, even as Alexander and the Eighth Army continued their drive toward the same objective.

By 2 August, the Allied line arced from San Stefano on the northern coast to a point below Catania on the eastern coast. The Axis forces knew time was against them, and on 3 August, Italian forces began evacuating through Messina to the mainland (German forces would wait until 11 August to begin their evacuation). The Germans under General Hans Hube made skillful use of terrain, mines, obstacles, and demolition, to make every Allied advance a grueling affair. Patton used two ranger battalions to execute three separate amphibious envelopments on 8, 11 and 15 August, to head off and annihilate retiring Axis forces. The moves hastened the enemy's retreat, but trapped few of the withdrawing units. The Germans efficiently evacuated Messina, leaving Patton's troops to occupy an empty city on 17 August. In all, some 100,000 Axis troops, nearly 10,000 vehicles and 47 tanks made it to mainland Italy.

During Operation Husky, U.S. forces sustained 7,319 casualties, British forces 9,353. Axis casualties totaled 164,000, including 32,000 German casualties. The 38-day campaign successfully opened a second front to help relieve pressure on the Soviet Union and precipitated the overthrow of Mussolini, hastening Italy's departure from the war. It also ensured Allied control over the Strait of Sicily.

The Sicilian invasion also increased Allied combined and joint campaign experience - experience that would be put to use in the subsequent invasion of the Italian mainland and the Normandy invasion the following year. Operation Husky saw the introduction of innovative craft such as the DUKW, and reinforced once again the importance of combined arms - such as naval gunfire and close air support - in joint warfare It also underscored the value of forces with amphibious capability and skill.

Sources:

Birtle, Andrew. Sicily: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II. Carlisle, Pa.: U.S. Army Center of Military History

Eposito, Vincent J., ed. The West Point Atlas of Wars, Volume II, 1900-1953. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1959.

Zook, David H Jr. and Robin Higham. A Short History of Warfare. New York : Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Back to Top