The Allies Target Italy
When the Allies won the North African Campaign on May 13, 1943, a quarter-million German and Italian troops surrendered at Tunisia, on the north coast of Africa. With the huge Allied army and navy in the southern Mediterranean now freed for further action, British and American strategists faced two options: Transfer these forces north for the impending invasion of Europe from the English Channel, or remain in theater to strike at southern Italy, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) called “the soft underbelly of Europe.” At this crossroads, the Allies, after some dissension, decided to press north into Italy. The stepping stone to its mainland would be the island of Sicily, in part because the Allies could depend on fighter cover from air bases on British Malta, 60 miles south of Sicily and recently freed from a siege by Axis forces.
The invasion was assisted by some subterfuge. In April 1943, a month before the Allied victory in North Africa, German agents recovered the body of a British Royal Marine pilot from the waters off a Spanish beach. Documents in an attaché case handcuffed to the officer’s wrist provided a goldmine of intelligence about the Allies’ secret plans, and German agents quickly sent the documents up the chain of command where they soon reached German leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Hitler studied the captured plans carefully, and, taking full advantage of their top-secret details, directed his troops and ships to reinforce the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, west of Italy, against an impending Allied invasion. There was only one problem: The recovered body–which was not a Royal Marine but actually a homeless man from Wales who had committed suicide–and its documents, were an elaborate British diversion called Operation Mincemeat. By the time Hitler redirected his troops in the summer of 1943, a massive Allied invasion force was sailing to Sicily.
The Allies Land at Sicily
The invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky, began before dawn on July 10, 1943, with combined air and sea landings involving 150,000 troops, 3,000 ships and 4,000 aircraft, all directed at the southern shores of the island. This massive assault was nearly cancelled the previous day when a summer storm arose and caused serious difficulties for paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines that night. However, the storm also worked to the Allies’ advantage when Axis defenders along the Sicilian coast judged that no commander would attempt amphibious landings in such wind and rain. By the afternoon of July 10, supported by shattering naval and aerial bombardments of enemy positions, 150,000 Allied troops reached the Sicilian shores, bringing along 600 tanks.
The landings progressed with Lieutenant General George S. Patton (1885-1945) commanding American ground forces and General Bernard L. Montgomery (1887-1976) leading British ground forces. Allied troops encountered light resistance to their combined operations. Hitler had been so deceived by “Mincemeat” that he had left only two German divisions in Sicily to battle Allied soldiers. Even several days into the attack he was convinced that it was a diversionary maneuver and continued to warn his officers to expect the main landings at Sardinia or Corsica. The Axis defense of Sicily was also weakened by losses the German and Italian armies had suffered in North Africa, in casualties as well as the several hundred thousand troops captured at the end of the campaign.
The Allies Advance
For the next five weeks, Patton’s army moved toward the northwestern shore of Sicily, then east toward Messina, protecting the flank of Montgomery’s veteran forces as they moved up the east coast of the island. Meanwhile, jarred by the Allied invasion, the Italian fascist regime fell rapidly into disrepute, as the Allies had hoped. On July 24, 1943, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was deposed and arrested. A new provisional government was set up under Marshal Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956), who had opposed Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and who immediately began secret discussions with the Allies about an armistice.
On July 25, the day after Mussolini’s arrest, the first Italian troops began withdrawing from Sicily. Hitler instructed his forces to make contingency plans for withdrawal but to continue to fight fiercely against the Allied advance. As July turned to August, Patton and Montgomery and their armies battled against determined German troops dug into the mountainous Sicilian terrain. The U.S. and British soldiers pushed back the Axis forces farther and farther until most were trapped in a northeast corner of the island.
Axis Troops Leave Sicily
As Patton and Montgomery closed in on the northeastern port of Messina, the German and Italian armies managed (over several nights) to evacuate 100,000 men, along with vehicles, supplies and ammunition, across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland. When his American soldiers moved into Messina on August 17, 1943, Patton, expecting to fight one final battle, was surprised to learn that the enemy forces had disappeared. The battle for Sicily was complete, but German losses had not been severe, and the Allies’ failure to capture the fleeing Axis armies undermined their victory. The advance against the Italian mainland in September would take more time and cost the Allies more troops than they anticipated.