Operation Baytown (3 September 1943) was the first stage in the Allied invasion of Italy, and saw Montgomery’s Eighth Army cross from Sicily to nearby Calabria (Italian Campaign).
Montgomery knew that only two weeks ago more than 100,000 Axis troops had been evacuated across the Straits of Messina into the exact areas he was about to attack, and was unwilling to take any chances. The invasion was preceded by a massive bombardment. The battleships Nelson, Warspite, Rodney and Valiant, supported by three cruisers, three monitors, six destroyers and two gunboats fired from the sea, while over 600 artillery pieces fired across the straits. Montgomery had been given the task of attacking Calabria between 1 and 3 September, and true to form picked the latest day available. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he chose to invade on the fourth anniversary of the British declaration of war on 3 September 1939.
The landing itself was carried out by the British 13th Corps (British 5th Division and Canadian 1st Division), and was a massive and welcome anticlimax. The Germans had already decided not to defend the toe of Italy, and none were found. The only Italian troops in the area immediately surrendered, and made it clear that they now supported the Allies. Italy was indeed sick of a war that many had never really supported. Mussolini had already been deposed, and the Italian armistice would be announced only five days later. On the same day a party from the Special Raiding Squadron landed at Bagnara, ten miles east up the north coast of Calabria from the tip. Here there was more resistance, and it took three days for the main force to reach the SRS, which suffered five dead and seventeen wounded in the action.
Although the crossing was easy, the Eighth Army’s advance north towards Salerno was anything but. Once again the Germans didn’t intend to stand and fight, but instead they took advantage of the mountainous terrain to conduct a skilful delaying action, destroying the many bridges, viaducts and tunnels along the few roads. The Germans were aware that Calabria was a long narrow peninsula, and feared that the Allies would carry out further amphibious landings behind their troops if they attempted to make a stand anywhere in the area.
Montgomery did indeed attempt this. On 8 September the British 231st Infantry Brigade was landed near Pizzo, forty file miles up the west coast from the original crossing points (Operation Hooker). Here the Germans did make a stand, allowing the troops further south to escape intact. On the same day the Canadians captured Catanzaro, a few miles further to the north on the east coast, at the narrowest point in the peninsula. However on 9 September Montgomery announced that his divisions needed a rest. He would sent light forces towards a line that ran from Crotone to Rossano to Spezzano to Belvedere, a line around 30-50 miles ahead of the Catanzaro position. His advance would resume on 13 or 14 September with an attack towards the next narrow point in Calabria, between Spezzano and Belvedere. Despite some prodding by Alexander, Montgomery stuck to this plan, and the advance resumed on 14 September. This caused a great deal of consternation at Salerno, where the Fifth Army had landed on 9 September and soon came under heavy German pressure.
Montgomery’s new attack made more progress on the coasts than further inland. By 16 September the Canadians were almost at Spezzano in the centre, while the 5th Division was at Sapri, 45 miles further to the northwest. On 16 September a reconnaissance patrol from the Eighth Army met patrols from the US 5th Army at Vallo, 180 miles from the Reggio Calabria by land, and 17 miles from Paestum, at the southern end of the original Salerno bridgehead. On the same day patrols from the Canadians met up with patrols from the 1st Airborne Division at Taranto, forty miles to the south-west of Taranto, and again some way ahead of their many body at Spezzano. All three Allied beachheads were now in contact with each other.
The Canadians continued to push up the east coast of Calabria, then turned inland and advanced north-west to Potenza, due east of the Salerno beachhead on 19/20 September, after the defensive battle there had ended. The 5th Division reached Auletta, half way between Potenza and Salerno, on 21 September, but by that point the Eighth Army had been ordered to switch to the Adriatic coast to take Foggia and its key network of airfields. On 21 September 13th Corps paused on the line Altamura-Potenza-Auletta and prepared to attack towards Foggia on 1 October. However the Germans then withdrew to the north and west of the city, and Foggia felt to an ad-hoc force coming from Taranto on 27 September.
After this the two parts of the Eighth Army came together, ready to attack the first significant German defensive position on the Adriatic, on the Biferno River (1-7 October 1943).
At the time many in the Eighth Army believed that they had saved the day at Salerno, but the crisis at there had already ended by the time the Eighth Army came close enough to influence events. However the Eighth Army advance did mean that the Germans were always aware that they might be trapped if they stayed around Salerno too long, and General Vietinghoff, the German commander at Salerno, did cite the approach of the Eighth Army as one of the reasons he abandoned his counterattacks and withdrew to the Volturno.