‘It must be remembered when considering the frame of mind in which we set out on this expedition that this was the first large-scale amphibious operation in the war against a defended coastline… No care was too great to ensure our first landing in Europe should be successful beyond doubt.’
So wrote General Sir Harold Alexander when reflecting on planning the invasion of Sicily in 1943, and it is this theme that underlies James Holland’s brilliant new book, Sicily ’43.
Holland has written a series of nine excellent campaign histories over the last few years, looking at fighting World War II in a new light. In each, he plays up British and American martial successes against Axis failings in Europe. And each book represents the type of military history written, as it were, from the bottom up.
Holland uses a vast number of memoirs, biographies, and post-war interviews to tell the soldiers’ stories. They capture the favour of what it was like to engage in combat, to fly over enemy territory, to advance against a well-fortified enemy, or to be on a warship at battle stations.
One criticism of Sicily ’43 is that it is a long book and there are so many characters – so many soldiers, sailors, and airmen whose stories we read, whose background narratives bring them alive – that it is difficult to keep up with who is who. When, after a hundred pages or so, we return to the story of a particular individual, it is difficult to recall who he is.
The largest amphibious operation
But, without doubt, in this book as in Holland’s previous histories the personal stories told from both Allied and Axis sides of the conflict offer a vivid, immersive experience of battle.
Holland argues that the invasion of Sicily was the largest amphibious operation of the war, even larger than D-Day in terms of the number of men landed: 160,000 on the first day. Supporting them was a huge force of 14,000 vehicles, 3,500 aircraft, and more than 2,500 ships, including two aircraft carriers, six battleships, 15 cruisers, 128 destroyers, and 1,734 landing craft.
British, American, and Canadian troops arrived off the landing beaches having come direct from the US, from Britain, and from several ports in North Africa, all scheduled to link up at a preordained rendezvous.
Apart from anything, Operation Husky was a masterpiece of complex logistical planning, carried out by commanders still occupied full-time with the ongoing struggle in North Africa.
The decision to invade Sicily was confirmed at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, when the Brits were keen to find an alternative to the American-favoured plan for an invasion of northern France that year. Churchill and the British General Staff believed the Allies were not ready for this and persuaded the Americans, albeit reluctantly, to concentrate on the Mediterranean theatre. Sicily was the obvious next step.
The first third of Holland’s book is taken up with the planning of this complex combined operation, involving British and American-led forces in two Army Groups, two naval Task Forces, and two air forces.
Special Forces cleared the way, and British and American airborne troops were used for the first time to capture key targets ahead of the landing forces. Planning took place in military headquarters across the Mediterranean from Algiers to Cairo. What could possibly go wrong? The Allies carried out various deceptions to persuade the Axis Powers that, after North Africa, they would not be heading for Sicily but elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
The most famous of these, Operation Mincemeat, or ‘the man who never was’, involved floating a dead body on to the Spanish coast carrying secret details of a plan to invade Sardinia. In the meantime, sabotage operations in Greece were intended to convince the Germans that this country was the Allied objective.
Although the Allies had hundreds of fighter aircraft based in Malta that could dominate the skies over Sicily, the British and Americans were fortunate that Hitler was convinced Greece and the Balkans would be next stop in the Allied advance. This was despite the fact that the Allies did not control the skies over this region. Had Hitler forgotten the lesson of 1940, when he abandoned his plans to invade Britain? You cannot mount an amphibious operation without aerial supremacy.
Mafiosi and paratroopers
Sicily ’43 draws out many fascinating aspects of the campaign. The contempt of German High Command for the Italian commanders is intense – and surprising, in that the Italians had fought with great determination in Tunisia. But the best Italian troops were now in the bag in North Africa, and the poorly trained and equipped militias left to protect Sicily had no heart for a fight. When the fighting got heavy, many just disappeared.
Another feature of the campaign was American use of the Mafia to create a power base in the occupied island after their armies had gone through. Many immigrants to the States had come from the west of the island and had taken their techniques of organised criminal protection rackets with them. Mussolini had run an effective campaign to destroy the Mafia in Sicily, whom he saw as rivals.
But using contacts between American mafiosi like ‘Lucky’ Luciano with their families back home, the Americans encouraged mafia bosses who were both anti-fascist and, equally importantly, anti-communist, to take power. Interestingly, the Mafia hold on Sicily right up to the 1970s was strongest in the west of the island, the zone liberated by the Americans, and not in Catania and the east, which were liberated by the British.
Holland’s book gets into its stride when the fighting starts with the invasion on 10 July, but rather plays down the disasters of the airborne assault. The British opted for a glider attack but only 12 out of 137 gliders made it to their target zone, with 69 crashing into the sea and hundreds of men drowned. Meanwhile, the American 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment – led by legendary Colonel James Gavin and in combat for the first time – was scattered over a vast area, some men 50 miles from their Drop Zone.
The disasters of this day could have spelled the end of the use of airborne troops dropping behind enemy lines. But highly motivated and well-trained elite British and American paras fought with extreme vigour, even if in the wrong place.
Landings against defended beaches are full of drama. The heavy bombardment from the warships, the terror of the infantry in their landing craft as the ramps go down, the confusion of men clambering ashore on the wrong beach, the relief of the survivors as they seize their first objectives. With the British landings at Avola and the Americans at Gela and Scoglitti, Holland gets every ounce of excitement from the action.
In the combat that follows, several actions stand out, like the battle for Gela, when Tiger tanks of the Herman Göring Division nearly threw the Americans back into the sea; the capture and recapture of the Ponte Grande by British paras supported by the South Staffordshire infantry; and the four-day battle for Primosole bridge outside Catania.
Monty and Patton
Most remarkable was the assault up the 2,000-foot peak around Assoro in the foothills of Etna. Roger II of Normandy had built a castle on this high spot, and from here German Panzer Grenadiers poured fire down on to troops on the plain below.
The assault was led by the Canadians of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, known as the ‘Hasty Ps’, commanded by Lord Tweedsmuir, son of the novelist John Buchan. Incredibly, they made it up an almost vertical cliff and survived two nights, exhausted by the heat and covered in dust and debris. The only way to know the living from the dead was that the latter had flies crawling over them.
As Montgomery led the British Eighth Army in their slog north, General George Patton detoured to Palermo and made a grand entrance as the conquering hero. Then he decided to race Monty to Messina.
Patton emerges as a paranoid and pig-headed commander. His diaries reveal fanatical hostility towards the Brits. By racing to Messina, he invented an encounter that was utterly pointless other than in bringing glory to himself. But, by distracting the Allies, it allowed 40,000 German troops to escape into Italy to fight another day. Holland, rightly, does not big him up.
In just 38 days, the whole of Sicily was liberated. The consequences were huge. Mussolini lost power. Hitler lost an ally and was forced to divert German troops to occupy the whole of Italy. The Allies learned much that would be put to good use in June 1944 in Normandy.
Historians have generally been critical of the campaign in Sicily, accusing the Allies of poor planning and excessive caution. Holland makes the capture of the island one of the great turning-point battles of the war, involving all three armed services and, for the first time, putting Anglo-American combined operations to the test. It is impossible not to accept Holland’s conclusion that in Sicily they passed with flying colours.
Review by Taylor Downing
This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.