Operation ‘Avalanche’ – The Allied descent on mainland Italy (Part 2)

At Paestum, the two leading battalions of the 36th Division’s 141st and 142nd Regimental Combat Teams were tackled by two companies of the Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’. The US division had not been in combat before and, as an unfortunate byproduct of the Italian surrender, many of its men had come to believe that the landings would be little more than another training exercise. As a result, therefore, the 141st RCT lost cohesion and failed to gain any depth during the day. This made it impossible to land supporting arms and stores, leaving the 141st RCT without artillery and anti-tank guns. The 142nd RCT did better, though, and with the support of the 143rd RCT reserve unit that had landed by 08.00, was able to push forward. By the end of 9 September the 5th Army had failed to reach all its objectives, but had nonetheless made a promising start: X Corps’ two assault divisions had pushed between 5 and 7 miles (8 and 11 km) inland, and the special forces had advanced north across the Sorrento peninsula to reach positions from which they could look down onto the Plain of Naples; and to the south the 36th Division had established itself in the plain just south of the Sele river and the higher ground to a depth of 5 miles (8 km), although the 141st RCT was still stuck near the beach. Both the British and US forces had made slow progress, and there was still a 10-mile (16-km) gap between them at the end of 9 September. The two beach-heads were combined into one the end of the following day, however, and by that time occupied an area stretching 35 to 45 miles (56 to 72.5 km) along the coast to a depth of 6 to 7 miles (9.7 to 11.25 km) inland.

Map showing Allied invasion of Italy  1943German build-up
Commanding the XIV Panzerkorps, Balck was satisfied that the 16th Panzerdivision’s Kampfgruppen had performed as planned, and had ordered both the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and 15th Panzergrenadierdivision to move south against the Allied beach-head. To the east, meanwhile, the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision of the LXXVI Panzerkorps had also been ordered to move to Salerno. Neither side had gained the initiative. For the next three days, the Allies fought to expand their beach-head while the Germans defended stubbornly to mask the build-up of their reinforcements for a counter-offensive.

On 10 September Clark visited the beach-head and decided that it was unlikely that the X Corps would be able to push quickly east past Battipaglia to link with the VI corps. Since the X Corps’ planned primary axis of advance was north-west toward Naples, Clark decided to move the VI Corps’ left-hand boundary north of the Sele river and move the bulk of 45th Division into the gap. In view of the approach of German reinforcements from the north, he also ordered a battalion-sized mixed-arms group to reinforce the Rangers on the following day.

Over the same period, German reinforcements began to reach the battlefield, but as a result of the Germans’ shortage of transport, the reinforcements were delayed and arrived in a piecemeal fashion, so they were formed into Kampfgruppen for immediate committal to action. By 13 September, all the immediately available reinforcements, including additional elements from the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision released by Kesselring from the area farther north near Rome, had arrived.

The Allied build-up was also constrained by the limited transport available for the operation, and also by the schedule of the build-up that had been fixed on the basis of how the planners had anticipated the development of the battle. Attempts to reinforce the beach-head were made unusually difficult by the possibility that these might have interrupted the all-important logistic effort to keep the two Allied corps supplied with ammunition, food and all the other necessities of war, but on 10 September and 13/14 September additional strength were to arrive in the form of the 45th Division and 82nd Airborne Division. By 12 September it had become clear that 5th Army had an acute shortage of infantry, and on the same day General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, Eisenhower’s deputy and commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, reported to London that he was dissatisfied with the ‘Avalanche’ situation as the build-up was too slow and the landed forces were pinned down in a beach-head of tactically insufficient depth. Alexander added that he was pushing for an acceleration of the rate at which follow-on units and equipment was being delivered into the beach-head as a major German counterattack was inevitable. By 12 September the X Corps had taken a defensive posture because every battalion was committed and there were no reserves available to group as an attack force. In the south the 36th Division made some progress but towards 12.00 a counterattack by part of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision overran the 1/142nd Infantry.

On 13 September, the Germans launched their counterattack. While the Kampfgruppen of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ attacked the beach-head’s northern flank, the main German effort was delivered onto the boundary between the X and VI Corps, which extended essentially from Battipaglia to the sea, with the greatest weight committed on the VI Corps’ side of the line. During the morning of 13 September elements of 36th Division attacked and captured Altavilla in the high ground some 9 miles (14 km) behind Paestum, but a counterattack forced its withdrawal as darkness fell. During the afternoon, two German battle groups, the Kampfgruppe ‘Kleine Limburg’ and the Kampfgruppe ‘Krüger’, had attacked Persano to the north-west and overrun the 1/157th Infantry before crossing the Sele river to fall on the 2/143rd Infantry and virtually destroy it. The Kampfgruppen continued their attacks to the south and south-west until reaching the confluence of the Sele and the Calore river, a large tributary of the Sele, where they were finally halted by a combination of artillery firing over open sights, naval gunfire and a makeshift infantry position manned by artillerymen, drivers, cooks and clerks and anyone else that Walker, commander of 36th Division, could muster.

Parachute reinforcement
The VI Corps had by this time lost the best part of three battalions, so both its divisions’ forward units were pulled back to reduce the length of the defensive line: the 45th Division consolidated at the Sele and Calore position, and the 36th Division was on the high ground on the seaward side of the La Caso stream, which flows into the Calore. The new perimeter was held with the assistance of the 82nd Airborne Division. After the cancellation of ‘Giant II’, two of the division’s battalions, totalling 1,300 men of the 504th Parachute Infantry, had been assigned to execute the final version of ‘ Giant I’ at Capua on the evening of 13 September, but instead jumped into the beach-head and immediately moved into the line on the right of the VI Corps. On the following night, with immediate crisis past, 2,100 men of the 505th Parachute Infantry also parachuted into the beach-head and reinforced the 504th Parachute Infantry. The fact that the crisis was effectively over lay in the fact that when, during the afternoon of 14 September, the 180th Infantry (final regiment of the 45th Division) landed, Clark was able to place it in reserve rather than in the line. The 325th Glider Infantry, reinforced by the 3/504th Parachute Infantry, landed by sea on 15 September. A night drop of 600 men of the 2/509th Parachute Infantry to disrupt German movements behind the lines in the vicinity of Avellino was widely dispersed and failed, and suffered heavy losses.

With strong gunfire support from British warships and the 5th Army’s artillery, the reinforced and reorganised infantry defeated all German attempts on 14 September to find a weak spot in the lines and the German losses, especially in armour, were severe. Moreover, on 14 September and the following night Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, heading the Allies’ Mediterranean Air Command, ordered all available aircraft (including heavy bombers) to support 5th Army: more than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped during the daylight hours of that day. On 15 September 16th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision went over to the defensive, and this marked the end of the German thrust toward Paestum. Farther north, the Kampfgruppe ‘Schmalz’ of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ achieved surprise in an attack on Brigadier M. A. James’s 128th Brigade of the 46th Division on the high ground east of Salerno, but the armoured column following up was intercepted and driven back, leaving the German infantry exposed. The Allied bombing continued on 15 September, although at a slightly reduced level than on the preceding day, as did the naval gunfire bombardment by the monitor Roberts, cruisers Mauritius, Uganda, Orion, Aurora, Philadelphia and Boise, and destroyers Loyal, Lookout, Tartar, Nubian, Brecon, Quantock and Eggesford operated close off the threatened assault area. But in German air attacks with FX-1400 and Hs 293 radio-controlled bombs and missiles, Uganda was seriously damaged by a direct hit and Philadelphia, Loyal and Nubian were slightly damaged by near-misses. The hospital ship Newfoundland was sunk. On 14 September the cruiser Penelope arrived and was soon followed by Euryalus, Scylla and Charybdis. A supply transport was heavily hit by bombs and sank on the following day. The arrival of the British battleships Warspite and Valiant, each armed with eight 15-in (381-mm) guns, provided the Allied troops with a major boost in morale. Valiant was not required to shoot, and Warspite’s 29 rounds were in fact only a minor contribution to the 2,592 naval rounds fired in that day.

On 15 September Kesselring reported to Berlin that the Allied air and naval superiority had forced the LXXVI Panzerkorps onto the defensive and that a decisive success would depend on the current attack by the XIV Panzerkorps: if this failed, Kesselring added, the 10th Army would have to disengage to avoid being savaged. On 16 September the Kampfgruppe ‘Schmalz’ renewed its efforts on the X Corps’ front but enjoyed no better success. The Allied air and naval forces continued to batter German targets, although during an air raid in which radio-controlled bombs were dropped, Warspite was hit and disabled, and had to be taken in tow to Malta for repair.

Montgomery moves north
Away to the south, meanwhile, on 9 September the 8th Army’s formations had been strung out along the coastal roads in the ‘toe’ of Italy. The build-up across the Strait of Messina had proved slow, and Montgomery’s forces were therefore short of transport. On 9 September, Montgomery decided to halt his formations in order to reorganise before resuming his advance, but on 10 September Alexander signalled the 8th Army’s commander that the greatest importance had to be placed on the 8th Army’s maintenance of pressure on the Germans so that they could not pull back units to reinforce their formations round Salerno. This message was further reinforced on 12 September by a personal visit from Major General A. W. C. Richardson, Alexander’s chief-of-staff. So while reorganising the main body of the 8th Army, Montgomery despatched light forces up the coast to reach Castrovillari and Belvedere on 12 September, still some 80 miles (130 km) south of the Salerno battlefield.

On 14 September Montgomery was able to start a more general advance, and by 16 September the 5th Division had reached Sapri, 25 miles (40 km) beyond Belvedere, where forward patrols made contact with patrols of the VI Corps’ 36th Division. On this day von Vietinghoff-Scheel told Kesselring that the Allied air and naval superiority were decisive, and that he lacked the strength to offset this. The 10th Army had succeeded in preventing troops being cut off, and continuing the battle would serve no purpose other than invite heavy losses. The 8th Army’s approach was now also posing a new threat.

von Vietinghoff-Scheel therefore recommended a German disengagement at Salerno to a new defensive line before starting a withdrawal on 18/19 September. Kesselring’s agreement reached von Vietinghoff-Scheel early on 17 September, the day on which ‘Avalanche’ may be said to have ended. The operation had cost the Allies 2,009 men killed, 7,050 wounded and 3,501 missing out of a total of 189,000 landed by 16 September, while the Germans had suffered 3,500 casualties out of 100,000 men. With the Salerno beach-head now secure, the 5th Army began its attack north-west toward Naples on 19 September. After suffering serious casualties near Altavilla Silentina, the 82nd Airborne Division was transferred to the X Corps, joining the Rangers and Brigadier R. H. E. Arkwright’s 23rd Armoured Brigade on the Sorrento peninsula to flank the German defences at Nocera Inferiore, Sant’Antonio Abate and Angri, which the 46th Division attacked. Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division, passing through the 46th Division, was assigned the task of taking Naples, while Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s newly landed US 3rd Division took Acerno on 22 September and Avellino on 28 September. The 8th Army had been making good progress from the south in the face of German engineer actions and linked with the 1st Airborne Division on the Adriatic coast. The left of the 8th Army linked with the right of the 5th Army right on 16 September, and advanced north along the Adriatic coast to capture the airfield complex near Foggia on 27 September. Foggia was a major Allied objective because the large airfield complex there would give the Allied air forces the ability to strike new targets in France, Germany and the Balkans. On 27 September there was an Italian rising in Naples, where the population believed that the Allies were at the gates of the city, but this uprising was very severely handled by the Germans in four days of incoherent fighting up to 1 October, when A Squadron of the King’s Dragoon Guards entered Naples. On 29 September a potent storm struck the Salerno area, and in this event one LCT was lost, 12 LCTs were damaged, and 58 small landing craft were broached onto the beaches.

The whole of the 5th Army, now comprising three British and five US divisions, reached the line of the Volturno river on 6 October. This provided a natural defensive barrier, securing Naples, the Campanian plain and the vital airfields on it from German counterattack. Meanwhile, on the Adriatic side of Italy the 8th Army had advanced to a line from Campobasso to Larino and Termoli on the Biferno river. The 10th Army had come close to defeating the ‘Avalanche’ beach-head at Salerno. The determined early resistance by 16th Panzerdivision’s Kampfgruppen combined with the ability of the Germans to reinforce them by land more quickly than the Allies could land follow-up forces by sea or air had almost managed to tip the balance of the battle for the beach-head.

The 5th Army planners had concentrated the main weight of their forces in the X Corps on its left wing, in accordance with the primary objective of advancing on Naples. This had left the right wing thinly manned to defend the X Corps’ right flank and left a particular weakness at the corps boundary. Ultimately the Germans, aware of the limited time available for them to deal with the ‘Avalanche’ beach-head because of the inevitable arrival of the 8th Army, had to make hurried and unco-ordinated attempts to force a quick decision, and thus failed to break through the Allied lines and exploit their gains in the face of total Allied air superiority and artillery and naval gunfire support.

The Allies had been fortunate that at this time Adolf Hitler had sided with the view of Rommel, and decided that the defence of Italy south of Rome was not a strategic priority. As a result, Kesselring had been forbidden to call upon reserves from Heeresgruppe ‘B’. The success of the 10th Army in inflicting heavy casualties combined with Kesselring’s strategic arguments led Hitler to agree that the Allies should be kept away from German borders and prevented from gaining the oil resources of the Balkans. On 6 November Hitler withdrew Rommel to oversee the build-up of defences in northern France and gave Kesselring command of the whole of Italy with a remit to keep Rome in German hands for as long as possible.

By a time early in October, the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands, and the Allied armies stood facing the Volturno river as the Germans pressed ahead with the completion of the ‘Reinhard-Linie’ and ‘Barbara-Linie’ between the Volturno and Garigliano rivers. These constituted the first of a series of prepared defensive lines running across Italy from which the Germans chose to fight delaying actions, giving ground slowly and buying time to complete their preparation of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, their strongest defence line south of Rome. The next stage of the Italian campaign became for the Allied armies an attritional and bitter struggle against skilfully sited and well prepared defences held by determined foes in terrain and weather conditions which favoured defence and hampered the Allied advantages in mechanised equipment and air superiority. It took until mid-January 1944 for the Allies to fight their way across the Volturno and through the ‘Barbara-Linie’ and ‘Reinhard-Linie’ to close up to the ‘Gustav-Linie’, thus setting the scene for the four Battles of Monte Cassino which took place between January and May 1944.