Operation Avalanche, the battle of Salerno, 9-18 September 1943

Operation Avalanche, or the battle of Salerno (9-18 September 1943) was the main part of the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland, and saw a joint Anglo-American force land in the Gulf of Salerno, where it had to fight off a severe German counterattack before the position was fully secured.

The Allied invasion of Italy was one of the more controversial campaigns of the Second First World. Many American leaders, including General Marshall, hadn’t wanted to get involved in the Mediterranean at all, but they eventually agreed to Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa when it became clear that no invasion of France would be possible in 1942. The decision to invade Sicily was made during the Tunisian campaign, by which time it had become clear that Overlord couldn’t happen in 1943 either. The original objective was to take Sicily to keep the experienced Allied troops in the Mediterranean busy, but then to stop. However Sicily fell more easily than expected, and the invasion triggered the downfall of Mussolini. An invasion of southern Italy became increasingly enticing (especially after the new Italian government entered into armistice negotiations), and gained the support of General Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean. The operation was eventually approved, with the hope that it would knock Italy out of the war. There would be three landings. The invasion would start with an Eighth Army invasion of Calabria from Sicily (Operation Baytown), at the start of September. Montgomery would then advance up Calabria. A second landing would be made further to the east at Taranto, eventually with Italian support (Operation Slapstick).

The Gulf of Salerno wasn’t the ideal place for an opposed landing, but it was just about the best available to the Allies. Their initial objectives in Italy were Naples in the west and Foggia and its airfields in the east. A direct attack on the Bay of Naples was ruled out by the difficult terrain just inland, dominated by Vesuvius. A landing further north was ruled out by the limited range of Allied fighters based on Sicily. Further to the south the coast was too rugged. At Salerno the beaches themselves were suitable, and there was enough level ground inland from the gulf to allow the Allies to build up their forces. There was also an airfield at Montecorvino and the port at Salerno town that would aid the invasion. The main railway and road from the south to Naples and Rome also ran through the proposed beachhead.

There were two main problems with the area. The plain inland from the gulf was surrounded by mountains that would be ideal for artillery observers, and also good defensive positions. It was also split in half by the River Sele, which was too wide and deep for vehicles to cross for most of its length, splitting the beachhead in two. This was especially bad near the coast, where there would be an eight mile gap between the American and British landing beaches. When the Allies were eventually ready to push towards Naples, there were only two valleys through the Sorrento hills, on the road to Naples. Finally the area was 200 miles to the north of the other main Allied landing in Calabria, where the British Eighth Army was slowly advancing north after landing on 3 September.

Allied Forces

The invasion was to be carried out by General Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army. Clark was an untested commander, although he had demonstrated plenty of personal bravery so far. He had two corps under his command. The US VI Corps (Major General Ernest J. Dawley) consisted of the 36th and 45th Divisions. The corps reserve was made up of the 3rd and 34th Divisions, but they were still in Africa, too far away to be rushed to the scene in an emergency (and were originally expected to land at Naples). The British X Corps (General Sir Richard McCreery) had the 46th and 56th Divisions, with the 7th Armoured Division in offshore reserve. The US 82nd Airborne was also available and could be airlifted to Italy, but changing plans meant it didn’t take part in the initial invasion. The first plan had been to drop the division 40 miles north of Salerno to cut bridges across the Volturno River and prevent German reinforcements moving south. On 3 September this was changed after the Italians asked for an airborne landing at Rome, but at the last moment Eisenhower decided that this was too risky and cancelled the operation. It was thus too late for the division to be switched back to the Salerno mission. 

The Allies thus had 70,000 men in four divisions for the initial landing. The plan was for three battalions of American Rangers and British Commandos to land on the left to capture the passes through the Sorrento peninsula. X Corps was to land on the left, with the 46th Division on its left, with orders to take Salerno town and the 56th Division on the right, with the Montecorvino airfield and the road and rail junction of Battipaglia as its objectives. The VI Corps was to land to the south of the Sele. The 36th Division would land first to secure the right flank of the beachhead. Two regiments of the 45th Division were to act as a floating reserve. The Allies hoped to advance to the surrounding hills before the Germans could occupy them in force, and take the key positions overlooking the point where the Sele flowed into the plains, thus securing the beachhead against any counterattack.

German Forces

The Germans only had one division, the 16th Panzer, at Salerno when the invasion began, but this was a full strength armoured division with 17,000 men and over 100 tanks, and was familiar with the area. The Germans had built eight strong points along the thirty miles of coast in the Gulf, and took over six Italian coastal gun batteries on the eve of the invasion. Field Marshall Kesselring, the German commander in chief in southern Italy, also had several other divisions near enough to be able to move them to Salerno before the Allies could break out. The 26 Panzer Division and 29 Panzer Grenadier Division were in Calabria, in the toe of Italy, where they faced Montgomery’s Eighth Army, but with orders to conduct a fighting retreat and avoid any serious engagements. Apulia, the eastern tip of Italy, was defended by the weakened 1 Paratroop Division. The 15 Panzer Grenadier Division and the Hermann Goring Panzer Division were posted north of Naples. The 2 Paratroop division and 3 Panzer Grenadier Division were around Rome. The 90 Panzer Grenadier Division was on Sardinia and Corsica. There was also a second German army in northern Italy, commanded by Field Marshal Rommel, but these troops wouldn’t be released for the fighting at Salerno. Kesselring’s troops in the south were organised into the 10th Army under General Vietinghoff.

The Landings

The invasion fleet began to leave its ports in North Africa and Sicily on 5 September, and assembled in the southern Tyrrhenian Sea on 8 September. When it was fully assembled the invasion force had 450 ships with 169,000 soldiers and 20,000 vehicles, another massive invasion force. The entire fleet was designated the Western Naval Task Force, under the command of Vice-Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, USN, and was split into four main components. The Southern Attack Force (Rear-Admiral John L. Hall, USN), was to carry the US 6th Corps. The other three all had British commanders. The Northern Attack Force (Commodore N.G.N. Oliver) carried the British 10th Corps. The Naval Air Support Force (Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian) was built around one fleet aircraft career and four escort carriers, and as to provide much of the air support early in the invasion. The Naval Covering Force (Vice-Admiral Sir Algernon Willis) had four battleships, two aircraft carriers and a cruiser squadron, and was to guard against any possible intervention by the Italian fleet. However this wouldn’t be needed, as almost all of the main units of the Italian fleet surrendered to the Allies as the invasion was about to get underway.

The invasion would be supported by two air forces - the British/ French/ American Coastal Air Force would protect the convoys for most of their voyage. The Tactical Air Force, and in particular the US 12th Air Support Command (General Edwin J. House), would cover the convoys as they approached Salerno and then support the invasion itself.

At 6.30pm on 8 September, as the invasion fleet was approaching the Italian mainland, the Italian Armistice was announced. This had the unfortunate effect of convincing many of the troops that the invasion would be a walkover, with the Italians welcoming them into Naples without a fight. This made the hard fighting that was about to begin harder to face, at least at first. The Germans reacted quickly, and had soon disarmed the sizable Italian army, although there was some fighting around Rome. The new Italian government, under Marshal Badoglio, and the Royal Family, fled to Allied occupied territory. Most of the Italian fleet also sailed into Allied hands.

The Salerno landings were one of the few Allied amphibious invasions of the war not to catch its opponents by surprise. Salerno was an obvious target, and the massive invasion fleet, consisting of 500 ships, was spotted by the Luftwaffe as it approached the mainland. 16th Panzer was warned that an Allied fleet was heading its way at 3.40pm on 8 September, the day before the landings, and was thus ready and waiting when the invasion began. By 0800 Vietinghoff was convinced that this was the main Allied invasion, and on his own initiative ordered 16th Panzer to concentrate all of its forces at Salerno and make a stand. Kesselring approved this order at noon.

On the British front the landings were preceded by a 15 minute naval bombardment. The US Rangers attacked towards the Chiunzi pass across the Sorrento peninsula. To their right British Commandos landed at Vietri sul Mare, to the right of Maiori, supported by fire from the destroyer HMS Blackmore. The Germans then concentrated their fire against the landing craft, briefly causing a crisis at the beach. On the main front there was some disorganisation caused by a new weapon, the rocket firing Hedgerow landing craft. Each of these could fire 800 3in rockets, but they were a very new weapon in 1943, and some of their fire was extremely inaccurate. As a result the 56th Division, which was under orders to follow the rockets, landed on the wrong beach and got mixed up with the 46th Division. Despite these early problems the British Commandos managed to capture Salerno town, and reached the edge of the airfield at Montecorvino, although an attempt to take the airfield failed. The Royal Fusiliers had reached Battipaglia, to the south of the airfield, but were unable to hold onto the town.

On the American front there was no naval bombardment, as General Walker didn’t believe that there were any suitable targets. The 36th Division landed at 3.30am, and managed to establish a narrow beachhead. At 7am the Germans launched their first large scale counterattack, supported by at least fifteen Panzer IVs. This hit the 3rd and 2nd Battalions of the 141st Regiment, and wasn’t fought off until after noon. Eventually the Americans got organised and pushed inland, reaching up to 4 miles from the coast. The division captured part of Highway 18, the main coastal road, and seized the approaches to Monte Soprano, towards the south-eastern corner of the beachhead.

By the end of the day the Allies had established two separate and shallow beachheads, and two thirds of 16th Panzer’s tanks were damaged or destroyed, leaving the Germans with only 35 in working order. However the main crisis of the campaign was yet to come. Vietinghoff ordered the 29th Panzer Grenadier (although it took several days for the first troops to arrive) and 26th Panzer Divisions to rush north to Salerno, leaving only small rearguard parties to delay Montgomery with demolitions and rearguard actions. The Hermann Goering Division and 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, both still recovering from the battering they had received on Sicily, were just to the north, and the first of their 27,000 men were able to reach the battlefield on the night of 9-10 September. The Germans were also helped by an unusually powerful Luftwaffe response for the period, with 550 sorties flown during the first three days of the campaign, including the successful use of two types of remote controlled glide bombs. However an attempt by Kesselring to gain control of two of Rommel’s divisions in northern Italy was turned down.

On the Allied side reinforcements were actually harder to come by. Clarke was able to land the two regiments of the floating reserve, and used them in an attempt to close the gap between the beachheads, but the reserves on Sicily and in North Africa would take time to arrive. By 13 September Montgomery’s advance guard was still 120 miles away and his main forces 160 miles away, with many miles of difficult terrain to cross. Although at the time many in the Eighth Army believed that their advance had saved the day at Salerno, the crisis had actually passed by the time the two armies made contact.

The Germans Counterattack

On 10 September the main fighting came on the British flank, after Vietinghoff ordered 16th Panzer to concentrate against them. The 56th Division pushed towards Battipaglia, but the Fusiliers were pushed out of the town, and the British were thus unable to take the high ground that dominated the Montecorvino airfield. On the US front there wasn’t much contact with the Germans, as the 29th Panzer Grenadiers had yet to arrive at Salerno. In order to cope with the pressure on the left, Clark moved the US 45th Division (Troy H. Middleton) to a position north of the Sele.

On 11 September the Americans launched an attack towards the heights of Eboli and Altavilla, which dominated the Sele valley where it ended the coastal plains. Altavilla and Hill 424, on the southern side of the river, fell to the Americans, but Eboli remained in German hands. On the same day the British captured Montecorvino airfield, but it was still under German artillery fire and couldn’t be used. The Germans took 1,500 prisoners during the day.

On 12 September the Germans counterattacked (after parts of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division arrived) and retook Altavilla and Hill 424, reopening the Sele corridor. In the British front the Germans attacked the 56th Division to the south-east of Battipaglia, but were unable to dislodge the Coldstream Guards and the 19th Royal Fusiliers. 16th Panzer kept the Americans away from Eboli, and the British 56th Division was forced back from Battipaglia. At sea HMS Uganda and USS Philadelphia were both damaged by glider bombs.

The most dangerous German attack began on 13 September. Vietinghoff somewhat misjudged the situation, believing that the Allies were already planning to evacuate the beachhead. The Germans attacked from several directions. In the north one force attacked towards Vieitri, on the coast between Salerno and Maiori, and almost cut of the Rangers fighting to the west. In the British front the Germans attacked the 56th Division to the south-east of Battipaglia, but were unable to dislodge the Coldstream Guards and the 19th Royal Fusiliers. On the left a German attack from Altavilla defeated a US force that had been attacking in that direction. In the centre, between the Sele and Calore rivers,  they overran the 2nd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment, inflicting around 500 casualties. The Germans reached the junction of the Sele and Calore Rivers, only two miles from the beach (just to the north-east of Ponte Barizzo). At this point the beach was only defended by two batteries of 105mm guns (the 189th Field Artillery Battalion, Lt Col Hal L. Mudrow Jr and the 158th Field Artillery Battalion, Lt. Col Russell D. Funk) and a thin line of infantry. Clark’s own HQ was also under threat, a few hundred yards behind the artillery. However the Germans still had to cross the Calore, and their only route across was a ford near a burnt out bridge. This made their tanks an ideal target for the artillery, and the two units fired 4,000 rounds into the advancing Germans during the day’s actions. Eventually the Germans were forced to retreat back up the corridor between the rivers.

13 September also saw the British cruiser USS Uganda hit by one of the glide bombs, at a time when no air attack was expected. The bomb actually penetrated the entire depth of the ship and exploded underneath her, and despite heavy damage the Uganda survived. USS Pennsylvania was also hit by a glider bomb.

That night Clarke seriously considered evacuating the American half of the beachhead and shifting the American troops to the British half, despite advice from his naval commanders that this would be difficult and dangerous (in particular because the landing craft would have to be beached empty and would probably end up stuck on the beach when fully loaded). Clarke also made more sensible moves during the night of 13-14 September, flying 1,300 men from the US 82nd Airborne into the beachhead (Operation Giant I (Revised)) and shortening the Allied lines in several positions. In order to make sure that the paratroop drop went off without any friendly fire incidents, after General Ridgway insisted that all anti-aircraft guns at Salerno were ordered to hold fire during the drop times. On the following day the last regiment of the 45th Division landed, as did part of the British 7th Armoured Division.

On the German side Vietinghoff believed that Allied resistance was collapsing and reported to Kesselring that his army was ‘pursuing on a wide front’.

On 14 September the Germans attacked again, but they hadn’t detected the new American positions, and this attack was repulsed. During the day the artillery from the 36th Division fired 4,100 rounds, that from the 45th Division 6,687 rounds, the highest single day total during the fighting at Salerno. The tank destroyers of the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion were also effective, claiming twelve tanks. On the left the British 46th Division around Salerno came under heavy pressure, but held on. The Germans then attacked the 56th Division around Battipaglia, but again were repulsed. The efforts of the Northwest African Air Forces were also concentrated on the Salerno front, attacking the German positions at Eboli and Battipaglia. Naval gunfire also played a part in repelling the attack.

On the night of 14-15 September the 509th Parachute Battalion was dropped behind enemy lines (Operation Giant III), but it was so scattered that it had little impact. More useful was the arrival of another 2,100 men from the 82nd Airborne within the beach head (Operation Giant IV).

The main crisis was now over. The two parts of the beachhead were united to the south-east of Battipaglia. The failure of the attack on 14 September punctured Vietinghoff’s previous optimism. He now asked for permission to withdraw, citing Allied naval gun fire, low flying aircraft and the approach of the 8th Army as the main reasons he needed to get his troops away from Salerno. The Allies were also able to get more reinforcements into the beachhead. On 15 September the 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Division, reached Monte Soprano. The 505th Parachute Regiment was dropped near Paestum, on the right flank of the beachhead. The 325th Glider Regimental Combat Team landed on the beaches.

On 16 September HMS Warspite was hit by another glide bomb, and very badly damaged. She survived, but had to withdraw from the invasion area. She was never fully repaired, although did take part in the D-Day invasions with one of her main turrets still out of action.

On 18 September the Germans pulled back from the Salerno beachhead. British tanks finally entered Battipaglia. The US 3rd Division began to land, and the first liaison party from the Eighth Army reached the beachhead.

On 19 September most Allied troops were able to go onto the offensive. The British 56th Division finally managed to push the German artillery away from Montecorvino, while the US 45th Division reached Eboli. Only on the left flank were the Germans still attacking, and the Rangers at Chiunzi Pass, the British Commandos and the 46th Division around Salerno were still on the defensive

The German attempts to throw the Allies back into the sea had failed, but Kesselring wasn’t defeated. He was now withdrawing into the first of the series of defensive lines that would dominate the rest of the Italian campaign, the Volurno Line.

The Allies had suffered heavy casualties to establish their beachhead. The British had lost 5,500 killed, wounded and missing, the Americans 3,500 casualties (500 killed, 1,800 wounded and 1,200 wounded). Soon after the fighting ended General Dawley was fired as corps commander, for the near-disaster on the Sele. The Germans lost 3,500 casualties, despite their own counterattacks.

The link up with the Eighth Army finally took place on 20 September, when troops from both Allied armies reached Auletta, 20 miles to the east of Eboli. To the east the Eighth Army reached Potenza, and cut the road between Salerno and Bari.

Aftermath

Once the Germans withdrew from the beachhead, the Allies were able to prepare for their advance on Naples and Foggia. The Eighth Army, coming up from the south, was given the task of crossing to the Adriatic coast and taking Foggia and its associated airfields. The troops at Salerno were to take Naples and advance to the Volturno River. The British were to advance on the Allied left, heading through the passes in the Sorrento Peninsula. The 46th Infantry Division and 7th Armoured Division would advance towards Naples, while the 56th Division would bypass the city and head for the Voltuno River. The Americans would advance on the Allied right, sending the 3rd and 45th Divisions on an inland march to threaten Naples from the north-east.

The terrain meant that there were a limited number of possible routes for the Americans, and the Germans knew exactly where they would have to travel. They conducted a skilful defence, similar to the one that had held up Montgomery further south. They would blow up bridges or other choke points, and then position a single tank or self propelled gun, supported by a small force of infantry, on the far side of the new barrier to attack anyone attempting to repair it. The American infantry would have to laboriously work its way around these obstacles on the mountains, at which point the Germans would withdraw to the next position. Kesselring had two objectives at this point. The first was to win enough time to allow his demolition teams to destroy anything that might be useful to the Allies in Naples (excluding any cultural or historical monuments, which he ordered to be protected). The sewage system was severely damaged, as was the water supply. The main focus was on the port, where the wrecks of more than 130 ships were sunk, and all sorts of extra waste dumped on top of them. The dockside cranes were destroyed as were most of the buildings around the port. The Germans had also hidden time delayed bombs in the city, even going as far as hiding some of them behind new brickwork. The most notorious of these was in the post office, and exploded six days after the Allied occupation, killing or wounding more than seventy people.

His second objective was to win time for his engineers to build what became known as the Winter Line, the strongest of a series of defensive lines built across the Italian Peninsula, and that would keep the Allies out of Rome until June 1944.

The American advance began on 20 September. They encountered more than twenty five blown bridges in the first stage of the advance, the short distance inland from the beachhead to Oliveto. The engineers and their bulldozers were essential to the Allied advance, but also very vulnerable. Fortunately at about this time the first ‘tankdozers’, Sherman tanks with bulldozer blades added, reached the front. These allowed the engineers to work in relative safety, as the Germans didn’t want to risk losing their few anti-tank weapons at this stage of the campaign. The Americans also needed to relearn the ability to use mule trains, only recently abolished when the cavalry divisions and mule pack artillery units had been abolished. They now had to be rebuilt as the Americans advanced further into the hills, and further away from good roads.

The British faced the main German defensive effort, as they attempted to advance across the Sorrento peninsula and onto the plain of Naples. The Germans had less space to play with here, and needed to hold the mountain passes to stop the British from deploying their armour. The British were held up for most of the rest of September, but by the end of the month both wings of the Allied attack were finally approaching Naples. On 1 October the first British units reached Naples, which was then occupied by the US 82nd Airborne. The British continued to push north, until they were finally stopped at the Volturno River, where the Germans had spent two weeks preparing the first of their defensive lines, the Volturno Line.

The German efforts to put the port of Naples out of action failed. The Allies had expected the Germans to do this, and had a team in place ready to deal with it. Under the command of Commodore William A. Sullivan this international team managed to repair the port so quickly that the first Liberty ship was able to enter the port and unload after four days! Within two weeks the port could handle 3,500 tons of cargo per day and within a month that had risen to 7,000 tons, close to the pre-war average of 8,000 tons. 

On the Adriatic coast the Eighth Army captured Foggia and its airfields intact, giving the Allies air bases that could be used to carry the strategic bombing campaign into parts of southern German and Austria that had previously been almost immune to attack. The British then advanced to the Biferno River, where they also ran into the new German defences.

At this point the Allies had achieved their initial aims in Italy - to knock Italy out of the war and to tie down as many German troops as possible (this doesn’t just include the troops fighting in Italy, but also the German forces that had to replace the Italian troops in the Balkans and Aegean. However the lure of Rome was irresistible, with Eisenhower claiming that it was essential to provide a suitable buffer zone for Milan and Foggia.

On 21 November Kesselring was appointed as Commander-in-Chief South-West (Army Group C), with command of the entire Italian theatre. The original German plan to pull back to northern Italy was abandoned, and Kesselring’s plan to defend the south was approved by Hitler. The Allies ended up stuck south of Rome, facing the ‘Winter Line’ until May 1944, so Kesselring’s efforts met with great success. Even after the fall of Rome, he was still able to stop the Allies at the Gothic Line, and the Italian campaign dragged on almost to the end of the war in Europe.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 June 2018), Operation Avalanche, the battle of Salerno, 9-18 September 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_avalanche_salerno.html

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