Operation Avalanche – The Battle of Salerno

aszu August 27, 2014 0
Operation Avalanche – The Battle of Salerno

At 11 AM, Major Herbert Duppenbecker watched as a single-engine RAF plane appeared in the sky and slowly circled for no obvious reason.  After a moment, it disappeared.

Duppenbecker was in charge of three companies, an approximately 600 soldiers. His orders were to defend 9 miles of Italian coast. He knew, he had done everything he could to prepare for the possible assault, but he was also aware, he didn’t have enough men to do it properly.

Shortly after 11 AM, the 16th Panzer Division’s Headquarters started sending messages to all its units.  Initial reports informed of a large fleet of approximately 100 ships approaching the coast.

At 15.40 code word “Orkan” was sent to the troops. It meant a major Allied landing. As Germans were suspecting that Salerno Bay might have been an invasion point, the 16th Panzer Division was reinforced and had already practiced anti-invasion exercises.

General major Rudolf  Sieckenius decided to establish machine-gun and artillery posts throughout the area and divided his main forces into four groups.

Major Dörnemann was in charge of „Kampfgruppe ‘Dörnemann” East of Salerno. Oberst Stempel’s Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’ was located between Pontecagnano and Battipaglia.  Oberst von Döring’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’ was placed south-east of Ogliastro. The last one, Oberst Holtey’s Kampfgruppe ‘Holtey’ stood in reserve at Persano.

800px-SalernoDDayPlans1943

There were about 100,000 British and 69,000 American men on board the fleet approaching the Gulf of Salerno, just south of Naples on the west coast of Italy. On 8th September 1943, at approximately 19.20, all were listening to a BBC newsreader, announcing an armistice with Italy. The soldiers couldn’t believe what they had just heard.

Many senior officers rushed to inform their men that they could still expect a savage resistance from German troops. They were trying to prevent relaxation, but the psychological blunder had been already done.

Main landings were scheduled for 9th September in the Salerno area. An American Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark was put in charge of the newly formed 5th Army. The main Allied forces were divided into two corps – Major General Ernest J. Dawley’s U.S. VI Corp, comprised of 4 divisions and the three divisions British X Corp, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery. The US 82nd Airborne Division has been left in reserve.

The operation’s main objective was the capture of the port of Naples, and according to optimistic forecasts, Naples could be captured on the 3rd day, as the beaches of Salerno Bay were ideal for an assault. A working port would provide an effective way to supply Allied forces and its advance through the mainland to trap German forces in the south.

There were so many last minute amendments to the plan,that junior commanders were still going through details on board landing ships. One of the most important, yet most surprising, was the decision of General Clark denying permission for naval bombardment. He thought a silent approach would guarantee a tactical surprise. No softening gun-fire was one of the major mistakes in planning operation Avalanche. Although many British and American commanders were trying to influence Clark to change his mind, all of them ultimately failed. His idea might have been that if the Italians would fulfill their part of the armistice, the coastal battery should not open fire or even be unmanned. General Clark was also planning to use 82nd American Airborne Division to support the landing, but all plans of using airborne forces were dropped as the Air Force experts were vetoing each one.

 Finally, the 82nd was left out of the initial assault, but would serve as an additional reserve unit, should it be needed.

Heinrich von Vietinghoff

Heinrich von Vietinghoff

After the Allied victory in Sicily, Adolf Hitler, advised by Erwin Rommel and Alfred Jodl  decided that the holding of the Italian Peninsula would be impossible without the assistance of the Italian Army. Kesselring was ordered to withdraw from Southern Italy and consolidate with Rommel’s Army B in Northern Italy. Kesselring submitted his resignation, being appalled by Hitler’s decision, but Hitler did not accept it.

Field-Marshall Kesselring was controlling 8 divisions organized into 2 Corps – South and North. Only small forces were located at the Salerno beaches but the reserves were tactically located near Naples, ready to quickly reinforce, where needed.

In Northern Italy Erwin Rommel had another eight and a half  divsions, but the Desert Fox believed, and managed to convince Hitler, that fighting in the South is useless. Hitler did not order Kesselring to retreat, leaving his troops to its fate. That was a major mistake, as even 2 divisions sent by Rommel would probably change the course of the battle and push the Allied 5th Army back to the sea. Despite this situation, the morale of German troops was high, as everyone was expecting the treachery of the Italians. When it actually happened, it was not considered a loss.

In August, the Germans established the new 10th Army, under the command of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel.  The 10th Army, comprised of 6 divisions, divided into two corps,  were located at possible Allied landing sites. The Salerno region was covered by 16th Panzer Division, under the command of General major Rudolf Sieckenius.

General major Rudolf Sieckenius well prepared his 16th Panzerdivison for the landing. His forces were organized into four groups and he also established artillery and machine gun posts and spread his tanks throughout the landing zone.

Operation Avalanche started on 9th September 1943.

The vessels were approaching the beaches. At 01.35 a battery of coastal guns opened fire at the vessels carrying Commandos, but the German forces in the south remained quiet. Ship Number 357, with American Rangers on board, received a direct hit, killing many of the soldiers. The battery was quickly silenced, when HMS Brecon and HMS Blankley, two British destroyers opened fire and the USS Biscayne set off a smoke screen.

The landing in the North zone was made by  British X Corps , commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery.  The landing in the Southern zone by  the American VI Corps, commanded by Major-General Ernest K. Dawley. The US Rangers and British commandoes were supporting 46th and 56th Divisions on their left flank by landing at Maiori and Vietri.

In the American sector, the 36th Division was assaulting the beach, with the 45th being kept as a floating reserve. All three assault divisions were put ashore onto one beach-head. Out of the Allied landing troops, only few of them had any battle experience, with the American 36th Division being the prime example. It was completely inexperienced, being the first US troops to land in Europe.

At 03.15 am, the Royal Navy opened fire in British sector. The barrage lasted approximately 15 minutes and was meant to soften-up the beach defences. In the northern American sector, the naval guns remained quiet, as per Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark instructions. At 03.20 the American Rangers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Darby landed with no problems “in the extreme north on the Sorrento peninsula”. At 03.30 the landing crafts carrying the British Commandos approached the beaches near the port of Vietri, north of Salerno. By the time Germans opened fire, the commandos were already ashore. The fight did not last long and the first German prisoners were taken. At 04.00, behind the commandos, came the 41st Royal Marine Commando. The British Commandos and the US Rangers had managed to capture all objectives.

The Germans started attacking the Allied forces, concentrating mainly on the fleet, not on the beaches. At one point, the defenders’ mortars and guns started to concentrate on vessels landing ashore with reinforcements and ammunitions. Several were hit directly and at one point, under the impression the Germans had retaken the beach, panic started to spread among Allied troops.

In the British sector, on Amber Beach, the troops of the 46th and 56th Division of The British X Corps had landed but many things did not go according to plan. The British troops were shocked, as the Germans did not intend to surrender and were fighting ferociously. Although the British had taken a lot of prisoners of war, they had lost a lot of men themselves and the radio operators on board destroyers were constantly receiving calls for support, often mixed with screams of men burned by flamethrowers.

The situation in the American sector was worse than in the British one. The officers responsible for planning the operation had left a gap about 10 miles wide between the American and British sectors. As sand bars were obstructing the mouth of the River Sele they decided not a single soldier should be there. That was a tactical error that was meant to be very quickly discovered by Germans and used to their advantage.

As Americans decided not to open fire, their crafts were approaching the beaches in silence, hoping to surprise Germans. At 03.30 when the leading craft had landed, the defenders opened fire with mortars, machineguns and 88-mm. cannons. The Germans even shouted through a loud speaker in English “Come on in and surrender, we have you covered”, but to no avail.

Mark W. Clark

Mark W. Clark

The German troops were well prepared for the invaders. Two companies from the “von Doering” group fought fiercely against battalions of the 36th Texas Division. As the Americans were struggling, the Army commanders were desperately asking for  Naval support, but the ships were still too far away. Many of the soldiers were facing gun fire for the first time in their life. Luftwaffe pilots were attacking the beaches and even the vessels almost unopposed. The Wehrmacht was supreme in the initial stages, mainly due to presence of Panzer  IV and Tiger tanks, against which the infantry could do little.

Despite fierce German resistance by the end of the first day of Operation Avalanche most of the objectives were achieved but the Allies had failed to gain the initiative. For the following 3 days the Allied forces were trying to expand the beachhead but the Germans were ferociously defending, while gathering forces for the counter-offensive. On 12th September, General Alexander reported his dissatisfaction to London. The build-up was slow and the forces were pinned down at a bridgehead. X Corps started to prepare to defend its position, as General Alexander was expecting imminent German counter-attack.

The German forces struck on 13th September, with the main attack concentrated on the boundary between two Allied Corps. The US 36th Division attacked and captured Altavilla that day, but was forced to withdraw as darkness fell. Two Nazi battle groups were rapidly advancing with one of them virtually wiping out the 2nd battalion of the 143rd Infantry Unit. They were eventually stopped by artillery fire, naval gunfire and infantry positions manned by everyone the commander of the 36th Division could find, including drivers, cooks and clerks.

By that time VI US Corps suffered greatly from the German counter-attack, losing the best part of three battalions. It was decided to withdraw the forward unit of both divisions, effectively reducing the length of the defensive line. The new perimeter was set up and held with the help of the 82nd Airborne Division. Two battalions, counting approximately 1300 paratroopers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment landed inside the beachhead and moved straight away into the line on the right of VI Corps.

The following night, another 2100 men of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment parachuted into the beachhead, reinforcing the 504th. On the afternoon of the following day, 14th of September, Clark was able to place the last regiment of the 45th Division that had landed on the beach in the reserve, indicating the worst was over for the Allies.

Supported by gunfire from the British Royal Navy and the 5th Army artillery, the reinforced Allied forces were able to defeat all attacking German units, whose losses, especially in tanks, were severe. The next day, on 15th September both German divisions, the 16th Panzer Division and 29Panzergrenadier Division stopped all offensive actions. Farther northward, despite initial success, one of the groups of the Hermann Goering Division was driven back by Allies.

The same day, 15th September, Albert Kesselring reported the current situation to the German High Command. Due to Allied air superiority and arrival of the British battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant, 76th Panzer Corps was pushed into a defensive. The success of German efforts would depend on current attacks by 14th Pazner Corps. If that failed, the 10th Army would have to retreat to avoid being destroyed.

This very unusual situation took place on 16th September, when approximately 600 men of the Bristish X Corps refused assignment to new units. McCreery had managed to convince most of them to follow orders. The non-commissioned officers who led the mutiny were sentenced to death, but this was eventually recalled and they were allowed to rejoin units.

Finally, on 16th September von Vietinghoff informed Kesselring that his forces had no power to neutralize British and American forces. von Vietinghoff suggested breaking off the battle and Kesselring agreed.

The German 10th Army under command of von Vietinghoff was very close to defeating Allied forces at Salerno thanks to the fierce defence of the 16th Panzer Division and its ability to quickly reinforce fighting groups.

The biggest mistake was made by Hitler, listening to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who claimed that defending Southern Italy was not a priority. Because of that, Kesselring was denied any reserves from the northern Army Group, which in turn, could and probably would, change the outcome of the battle.

The heavy casualties inflicted by von Vietinghoff’s 10th Army and Kesselring’s strategic arguments led Hitler to realize he had made a mistake listening to Rommel.  As a result, his Field Marshall was sent to France on 6th November to oversee the build-up of defences and Kesselring was given command of all German forces in Italy.

General Mark W. Clark was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership during the assault, as he was frequently seen on the front-line, encouraging his troops. Unfortunately his decisions and poor planning caused most of the problems in the first place. He was a man with a big ego, but with few skills and personality, as was shown later, in the Italian campaign.

Notes:

1) Artillery landing. This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

2) Map. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

3) Heinrich von Vietinghoff. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 101I-313-1019-14 .

4) Mark W. Clark. This image is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of theU.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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