Operation Slapstick, the Taranto Landings, 9 September 1943

Operation Slapstick, 9 September 1943, was an amphibious operation that saw the British 1st Airborne Division capture Taranto without any resistance, giving the Eighth Army a second foothold in Italy and allowing them to gain control of the Adriatic coast around Bari and Brindisi.

The first part of the Allied invasion of Italy had been Operation Baytown, an Eighth Army invasion of the tip of Calabria, launched from Messina on Sicily on 3 September. This part of the Eighth Army then had to fight its way slowly up Calabria as the Germans retreated, demolishing bridges and other features as they went.

The Taranto landing was carried out by the British 1st Airborne Division (Major General G.F. Hopkinson). They were carried to Taranto on six British warships, (including four cruisers taken from the forces screening the Salerno landings, the fast minelayer HMS Abdiel and the American cruiser USS Boise (CL-47)), rather than landing from the air. As the Allied fleet approached Taranto, it was passed by the Italian ships that had been based there, heading to surrender at Malta. This force included the battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio, so there were some nervous moments as the two forces passed each other. 3,600 airborne troops were landed at Taranto on 9 September, where they found no Germans. Instead they were welcomed by the Italians, who had agreed to welcome them into Taranto as part of their armistice agreement with the Allies. The city and port were soon secured as was the nearby airfield at Grottaglie.

The British lost the minelaying cruiser HMS Abdiel during the operation, sunk by mines while at anchor on 10 September, with heavy loss of lives. 48 sailors and 120 men from the 6th Parachute Battalion were killed and another 126 men wounded.

The port of Taranto was thus captured intact, and became a crucial supply base for Montgomery. The British spread out into the nearby countryside, but only had limited contact with the retreating German 1 Parachute Division, which pulled back towards the airfields at Foggia.

The landing at Taranto was just the first part of the Eighth Army operations on the Adriatic side of Italy.

On 10 Monopoli, 30 miles to the north on the Adriatic coast, was taken without any resistance.

On 11 September the British troops advancing from Taranto also captured the port of Brindisi, east along the Adriatic coast from Monopoli, giving them another working port, and Bara, a similar distance to the west. However the same day also saw General Hopkinson fatally wounded in a skirmish at Castellanata, a fifteen miles to the west of Taranto. This was the first significant encounter with the German 1st Parachute Division, which had posted a rearguard in the area around Castellanata, while the main part of the division pulled back to Foggia, just over 100 miles to the north-west of Taranto.

On 18 September the British 18th Corps HQ and staff landed at Taranto.

On 22-23 September the 78th Division landed at Bari.

The Baytown landing also gave the British another starting point for the advance towards Salerno, and on 20 September it was troops coming from Taranto who reached Potenza, fifty miles to the east of the Salerno beachhead, as part of a wider linkup between the two armies.

Troops from Taranto also ended up taking Foggia, one of the key targets of the Allied invasion of Italy because of the network of airfields on the flat lands around the city. The original plan had been for the XIII Corps, coming from Calabria, to carry out the assault, and on 21 September the corps paused on a line from Altamura to Potenza to Auletta to prepare for the attack. However the Germans realised that they were vulnerable, and General Herr ordered his men to retreat to new positions to the north and west of the city. This left it open to attack from the south-east. An ad hoc force, made up of troops from the 1st Airborne Division, B squadron 56 Recce, A Squadron the Royals and a 25-pounder troop was sent to cross the Ofanto river (about half way between Bari and Foggia) and take Foggia.

This small force, soon to be designated A Force, 4th Armoured Brigade, began to cross the Ofanto on 24 September. They came under heavy fire on that day, but were able to cross the river unopposed on 25 September. Some resistance was encountered six miles from the city, but was quickly dealt with, and A force reached Foggia early on 27 September.

These operations brought the Eighth Army up to the first of the German defensive lines across Italy, the Volturno Line, which in the east followed the River Biferno.

Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long Hard Slog, Richard Doherty. A good account of the twenty month long campaign on the Italian mainland, looking at the performance of the multi-national 8th Army and its three commanding officers, as they fought to overcome a series of strong German defensive positions. Shows why the campaign took a year and a half, and how the 8th Army finally achieved victory. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 June 2018), Operation Slapstick, the Taranto Landings, 9 September 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_slapstick_taranto.html

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