“According to the plan of the operation, the departure of the landing forces for the invasion of Sicily was to take place from many points widely dispersed. A section of the British force was planned to come from Suez, another from Tunisia and a third from Great Britain, while a division would remain as reserve in Tunisia.
Algiers, Bizerta and Oran were to be used as departure ports fro the 7th American Army, while a British and an American airborne division were to be based in Tunisia.
The Headquarters of the landing force (Eisenhower, Alexander and Cunningham) was based in Malta, an excellent choice because it’s geographic position and the available excellent telecommunication means of the Navy. The air Chiefs, however, remained in Tunisia.
With the prospect of sortie of the Italian Fleet, a very powerful British coverage force was available, formed by 4 battleships and 2 aircraft carriers and escorting destroyers, while another 2 battleships remained in reserve at Algiers. With the covering force, 2 squadrons would cooperate with 10 in total cruisers that were to be used for land target bombings. Other powerful American naval forces covered the landings of the American troops. The Greek Navy was very actively participating in these operations.
To deceive the enemy as to the point of landing, a few days ahead of it, the covering force appeared southwest of Crete. In addition, the day after the landing, the 2 battleships from Algiers with 2 cruisers and destroyers proceeded to briefly bomb Marsala and Marettimo on the west coast of Sicily, to create the impression that a landing was planned on that side too.
On July 1, 1943, the Allies with overwhelming weapon supremacy started air bombing the ports and air ports of Sicily. During that period the reconnaissance planes of the Axis suffered such destructions, that from July 6 and till the start of the landing operations the Command of the Italian Navy ignored the movements of the Allied ships. The Supermarina however, as reported, had on the basis of some information reached the conclusion that one landing area would be close to Licata and another at Syracuse and had informed accordingly the Supreme Command of the Axis. The Germans however insisted that the landing would take place on the west coast of Sicily and therefore the German armored division that formed the core of the resistance was deployed in the center of the island facing west. The system of deployment was so complicated that that much time was needed to deploy it towards the opposite direction and at the time of the landing that important force was unable to intervene with the required speed.
The big worry for the Allies during the landing was not the expected enemy resistance, especially after the destructions that the air force had caused to the defence installations of Sicily, but rather the weather condition on which the feasibility of landing on open shores depended. As Admiral Cunningham narrates, in case of bad weather just 24 hours before the landing hour, the numerous convoys could reverse course and the landing be postponed. After that deadline, whatever could happen, the landing should proceed with all consequences.
As hour ‘H’ had been set 02:45 of July 10, 1943. Since the morning of the 9th, when the various convoys from the two ends of the Mediterranean started converging towards their positions southeast of Malta, the weather started to deteriorate. A violent northwest wind was blowing, unusual for that period of the year. The wind and waves situation was quickly deteriorating and early in the afternoon the weather was very bad. For the British that were going to land east of Sicily conditions were relatively favourable. In the south shores however, where Americans were going to land, conditions were very difficult. It was very doubtful that all the landing crafts and the other small units would reach their destination at the predetermined time; it was even possible that some would sink.
On the other hand however, if the convoys were ordered to reverse course at the last moment, they would be unavoidable confusion, as it was possible that some units wouldn’t receive the relative signals. Taking therefore into account that usually these strong winds weaken at sunset, it was decided –after much hesitation- to get on with the operation as planned.
At landing time the weather had relatively improved, the wind and the waves continued strong. In the British landing areas, several landing and other small crafts suffered damages from the sea and some were delayed. The majority however reached the shore unharmed. The Americans’ landing on the south shores proved much more difficult, but was finally successful without major anomalies.
Especially adverse was the transport of Allied troops by transport planes and gliders towed by air planes. Many of the plane operators had no experience of such operations and at the time the parachutists were falling and the gliders were flying over Sicily, the wind continued blowing at 40 knots. The American air transported troops landed in small units in an area of 50 miles. From the 134 gliders that transported British troops from Tunisia, around 50 fell in the sea and only 12 descended in their exact positions.
The Axis forces didn’t put up an important resistance during the landing. Some air attacks were only executed. The Allies were expecting attacks form small naval units from the bases of Syracuse and Augusta, situated near the landing points, but such units didn’t show up. There was also no reaction from the garrisons along the Sicilian shores, although they were in alert for quite a while. It is possible however that discipline had relaxed that day, because it was assumed that under the prevailing weather conditions landing was not possible. On the other hand, the Allies had kept absolute wireless silence during the whole night.
The advance of the troops that had landed was fast and only at the American sector of Gela they met some serious resistance. On July 11, the Germans attempted a strong counter attack and momentarily their tanks reached the landing shore. Following a fierce battle that lasted 8 hours and with the intervention of the guns of the ships, they were forced to withdraw.
The British troops landed south of Syracuse and advanced to seize the naval defense area of Augusta-Syracuse. That region covered an area on the shore of around 35 kilometers with a depth of 5-6 kilometers and disposed 6 shore batteries of medium and large caliber and 15 antiaircraft with 76 mm guns. While serious measures had been taken for the defense of the area from attacks from the sea, for which the Navy was responsible, the means that the Army had disposed for the protection of the area from attacks by land forces were very limited. There was a garrison of 2,000 men distributed to a large number of resistance points, equipped with only a few machine guns. There was practically no artillery for land defense. That garrison was simply considered as a deceleration force against the initial attack, to give time the Army Corps to intervene from the interior of the island.
The Admiral Commander of the defense area was directly responsible to the General, Commander in Chief of Sicily’s armed forces, for operational maters against landings.
When, the afternoon of July 9, it was determined from the air reconnaissance that the attack against Sicily had started, the Italian and German submarines and torpedo boats based in Sicily were ordered to attack. The Italian torpedo boats however were located in Trapani, at the southeast coast of Sicily and because of the weather they couldn’t depart, while the German departed from the south coast, but the same night were repelled by the allied naval forces off Licata.
At around 22:00 of July 9, the defense zones around Augusta and Syracuse received an air attack, while air transported commando units attacked the gun batteries of the south sector. The Naval Commander sent all the available marines units to protect the shore installations of the sector and simultaneously requested reinforcements from the Army Corps. In the meantime however, units of the 8th British Army had landed and blocked the arrival of the reinforcements.
In the evening of July 10, British armored units were entering Syracuse and continued their advance towards Augusta, for the defense of which only a few hundreds of sailors were available. A few German tanks arrived that night, but failed to push back the British. In the base of Augusta some 400 German sailors were present; they left heading north in the morning of July 10, without advising and after having destroyed their installations, taking with them all isolated German and Italian units their were encountering.
The naval personnel in Augusta kept on fighting until July 13, helped by a few German tanks. When the tanks left, the naval personnel including the Admiral Naval Commander were forced to surrender. In essence, that short defense from land of the naval base was mainly carried out by the naval personnel, given that the military units that were destined for its protection were stopped by the enemy before reaching the area.
As far as the reaction of the Italian Navy against the invasion is concerned, as we have already mentioned, it had been assigned to only the submarines and the torpedo boats; their number was however very limited that period. With the exclusion of those that were busy in special missions in the Mediterranean, about 40 Italian submarines remained, half of which were undergoing repairs. Of the remaining several were operating in the Aegean and the upper Tyrrenian Sea and only about 12 had been assigned for the defense of Sicily at the start of the landing. They were soon limited to half that number, because of losses. The German submarine losses were equally important. From the 53 in total that entered in the Mediterranean, 38 were lost until the Italian armistice.
From the Italian torpedo boats, the enemy air force had sunk 18 in the last 3 months. Excluding those undergoing repairs and those operating in other sectors, 6 to 8 only were assigned to operate in Sicilian waters, while few German torpedo boats remained.
In the beginning of August, when the Allies had seized Palermo, in two instances, a team of 2 Italian cruisers was sent to execute a surprise attack against the allied ships in the harbor. Both missions failed, the cruisers having been detected before reaching their destination. In the second mission one of the escorting destroyers was sunk by a British submarine. Those were the only operations undertaken by the large units of the Italian Fleet.
An attack with human torpedoes was also attempted against the port of Syracuse on the night of July 25. The mission was however interrupted, following an air attack that damaged the submarine transporting them.
While the allied troops that landed in Sicily were advancing fast, a flow of supplies and reinforcements by sea followed the initial landing. The ports of Syracuse and Augusta were immediately used after their seizure and proved very useful for the Allies. The numerous merchant ships situated in open seashores were well protected by antisubmarine and antiaircraft patrols. Every night allied torpedo boats were operating in the Strait of Messina, where they had frequent encounters with torpedo boats of the Axis and were chasing its submarines. Between July 11 and August 22, 9 Italian and 4 German submarines were lost, of which 2 sunk by torpedo boats and 1 by the Greek destroyer RHN PINDOS. Admiral Cunningham reports that one of the Italian submarines, the RN BRONZO, surrendered unharmed to 4 British mine sweepers and towed to Malta.
The northward advance of the American Army under General Patton was very fast. After cleaning up the west side of the island, he seized the airports, captured many Italian prisoners and on July 22, entered Palermo. Next, his eastward advance towards Messina along the rocky shore met with difficulties, because the road had become impassable in many places from explosions caused by the retreating Germans. He helped his advance with landings at the rear of the enemy front.
The 8th British Army met stronger resistance advancing to Catania, naturally protected by the Etna Mountain and fiercely defended, was finally seized on August 5. The Americans, on the other hand, seized Messina and thus after 38 days of battles the whole of Sicily was seized by the Allies.
As Admiral Cunningham reports, it was now evident that Italy was facing collapse. Many hundreds of Italian soldiers were rejecting their arms and dressing in civilian cloths. Since the beginning of August the Germans had realized that the battle for Sicily was lost and started withdrawing through the Strait of Messina.
During these operations, including the period of troops and supplies transports from Great Britain and the USA to Sicily through the submarines area of the North Atlantic, total allied losses in merchant ships reached only 85,000 tons, even if the Germans pretend that they sunk 6 times more. During that same period the British Navy lost 2 submarines, 3 torpedo boats, 1 gun boat and some landing crafts in the Mediterranean. The aircraft carrier HMS INDOMITABLE was hit by a torpedo plane and was damaged and 2 cruisers were hit by submarine torpedoes. The losses of the American Navy were 1 destroyer, 2 submarine fighters and 3 landing ships.
During July and August, the British submarines sunk in the Mediterranean around 14 enemy merchant ships, 2 destroyers and 5 smaller units.
The Allies didn’t succeed to stop the evacuation of Sicily by the Axis armies through the Messina Strait. The Strait is only about 3 miles wide and on both sides gun batteries and projectors were installed and the transports took place at night only, when the air force action was not very effective. All kinds of small auxiliary units of the Italian Navy were used for the evacuation, as well as a few German. The Allies were executing against them attacks with torpedo boats, but not enough to stop the enemy evacuation.
In two weeks, 70,000 troops, 10,000 vehicles and large quantities of supplies, including 17,000 tons of ammunitions were transported. During the execution of these missions, 15 landing crafts, 6 mine sweepers and an important number of smaller ships of the Axis were lost, most of them from air attacks. Almost all the ships used suffered some form of damage.
Taking into account the conditions under which the transport took place, the mission that was accomplished by the crews of these small ships is worthy of all praise.”