Operation Husky: Allied Invasion of Sicily
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The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major campaign of World War II, in which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers (Italy and Nazi Germany). It was a large amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign and was the beginning of the Italian Campaign.
Husky began on the night of 9/10 July 1943 and ended on 17 August. Strategically, Husky achieved the goals set out for it by Allied planners; the Allies drove Axis air, land and naval forces from the island and the Mediterranean Sea lanes were opened for Allied merchant ships for the first time since 1941. Benito Mussolini was toppled from power in Italy and the way was opened for the invasion of Italy.
Importantly, the Allies learned many lessons from Operation Husky which they put to good use in the Normandy landings a year later.
Guests are met in central Catania.
We make our way to the excellent Allied Landings in Sicily 1943 museum nearby. The museum has the island’s most prestigious collection of weapons and uniforms and here we give our introductory talk on the invasion and subsequent battles.
After lunch we depart in our private air-conditioned tour coach for the beautiful and ancient city of Syracuse where we will have lunch by the harbour.
Ponte Grande Bridge. We explore and discuss the actions of Operation Ladbroke on the night of 9/10 July carried out from Tunisia by glider infantry of the British 1st Airlanding Brigade. The objective was to establish a large invasion force on the ground near the town of Syracuse, secure the Ponte Grande Bridge and ultimately take control of the city itself with its strategically vital docks, as a prelude to the full-scale invasion of Sicily.
Murro di Porco. Elsewhere during Operation Ladbroke about 150 men landed at Cape Murro di Porco and captured a radio station. The Special Raiding Squadron under the formidable Major Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne neutralised coastal batteries in the initial assault. On the ground we tell the story and get to explore the remains of the Italian defences, which are numerous.
CWGC Syracuse. We conclude our first day by paying our respects at the graves of some of the men we have been discussing during the day. Every headstone tells the story of an individual person and we will discuss several of the men in detail.
Late afternoon we check in to our hotel in Syracuse where we spend our first night. A little later we take a short walk to see this wonderful city, perhaps a pre-dinner drink and then we dine locally.
We head to Fontane Bianche where we discuss the Allied amphibious landings which were made in the early hours of 10 July on 26 main beaches spread along 105 miles (169 km) of the southern and eastern coasts of the island. The British and Canadian forces landed in the east and the Americans to their west on the south coast of Sicily. This constituted the largest amphibious operation of the war in terms of size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day. We tell the story of all the Allied forces but will concentrate on visiting the British and Canadian locations throughout our tour.
At Malati Bridge we explore the action of 3 Commando. On 13 July, the Commandos were given the task of landing in the Bay of Agnone, behind enemy lines about 11 miles from the bridge at 22:00 hours and capture the Ponte dei Malati bridge and hold it, intact, until the 50th Division, which formed the vanguard of the advancing British Eighth Army, under General Bernard Montgomery, could relieve them. It was described as their “most perilous enterprise of its career”.
After a local lunch we depart for Primosole Bridge. Operation Fustian was an airborne forces operation carried out by Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, part of the British 1st Airborne Division. Their objective was the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River. The intention was for the brigade, with glider-borne forces in support, to land on both sides of the river. They would then capture the bridge and secure the surrounding area until relieved by the advance of British XIII Corps, which had landed on the south eastern coast three days previously. Because the bridge was the only crossing on the river and would give the British Eighth Army access to the Catania plain, its capture was expected to speed the advance and lead to the defeat of the Axis forces in Sicily.
Late afternoon we arrive in Catania city to check in to our hotel. A little later we go on a 60-minute guided tour of central Catania led by a local. This ancient city which sits in the shadow of Mount Etna was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 1600s and has been beautifully rebuilt in baroque period architecture.
As the British 8th Army advanced across Sicily, it encountered intense German resistance from heavily fortified positions along the Assoro Ridge. The commander of the British 8th Army, Lieutenant- General Bernard Montgomery, assigned the 1st Canadian Division the task of taking the two main German bastions on the ridge, the towns of Leonforte and Assoro.
We visit Leonforte. The main approach to Leonforte was a long bridge that spanned a steep ravine, and German engineers had destroyed the bridge shortly before the 1st Canadian Division had arrived. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment managed to negotiate the ravine and enter Leonforte by midday on 22 July 1943. The German defenders, reinforced by tanks, launched a furious counterattack. As the sun set, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment was completely isolated in the centre of the town. What happened next was an amazing feat of arms by the Canadians. A little-known story but one we tell in depth and try to do it justice.
We then move on to neary Assoro. To avoid a costly frontal assault the 1st Canadian Brigade commander proposed to scale a precipitous 300-meter cliff that the Germans considered impassable. After the commander of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was killed by shellfire from a German 88mm Major Lord John Tweedsmuir succeeded as commanding officer. The regiment scaled the cliffs during the night of 21 July and established a defensive position above the town. With sunrise, the Germans discovered the Canadians dug in with a commanding view of their positions. As they counterattacked the Canadian regiment, Major Tweedsmuir radioed the location of the German defences to artillery batteries of the 1st Canadian Brigade and 2nd Brigade at Leonforte. After an intense barrage, the rest of the 1st Brigade attacked Assoro, and the Germans retreated.
The battle for Leonforte cost the Canadians 56 men killed and 105 wounded. But it also cost the Germans a key position on their outer defensive perimeter. With the Assoro Ridge in Canadian hands, the British 8th Army was able to continue its advance through central Sicily.
After an early lunch at Assoro we depart for Agira and then the Canadian Cemetery at Agira.
To the east, the 8th Army was still battering at Catania; Montgomery’s new plans called for an attack on the Etna defences from the west. Advancing parallel to the US 1st Division, the Canadians were to strike up the centre of the island and were given the British 231st “Malta” Brigade under command. The Canadians were ordered to advance immediately on Agira. The Malta Brigade was ordered to advance from the south, seizing high ground east of Agira while the Canadians attacked along six kilometres of highway leading to Catania. It was assumed the enemy would defend the high ground at Agira. The presence of German troops at Nissoria, a village located in low ground along the highway between two low ridges, was not expected.
Agira cost the Canadians 438 casualties, the costliest battle of the Sicilian campaign. The cemetery is the most beautiful we have ever seen here at MHT.
Regalbuto. As 231 Malta Brigade and the Canadians occupied Agira, the Germans pulled back to the next mountain town; Regalbuto. This small town sits on cross-roads with hills all around that command the roads in and out. German defences were stiffened with artillery and tanks. Engineers from the Herman Goering Division had created defensive positions on the ridge in front of the town. The Germans had been instructed to hold the ridge at all costs as Regalbuto was a pivotal point in their entire defensive line, a defence that was to prove costly to the Devons and Hampshires tasked with taking the town.
Our last location of the day is Centuripe. Centuripe is a hill town and set on a very high rocky pinnacle and approached by only one steep and twisty road. The Battle of Centuripe was fought from 2 to 4 August 1943. The 78th Battleaxe Division, of the British Eighth Army, was engaged in fierce fighting around the town which is in the central portion of Sicily in the hill country between the Rivers Dittaìno and Salso. It was the key to the whole Adrano position, the capture of which would in turn force the Germans to withdraw to new positions. The British troops captured the town after heavy fighting and as a result caused the Germans to start contemplating abandoning Sicily altogether.
We return to our hotel in Catania city.
We drive up the coast to Messina and at the Messina shoreline we discuss the advance of the British and Canadians beyond Centuripe and the bitter fighting which ensued before the breakthrough to Messina. At the same time, we discuss the US advance from Palermo to Messina.
At the Messina Heights we have a vantage point above the city which overlooks the straits and gives a wonder backdrop to discuss the Axis withdrawal to the Italian mainland. By 27 July, the Axis commanders had realised that the outcome of the campaign would be an evacuation from Messina. Kesselring reported to Hitler on 29 July that an evacuation could be accomplished in three days and initial written plans were formulated dated 1 August. The Germans transferred over 12,000 men, 4,500 vehicles and 5,000 tons of equipment from 1–10 August. Full-scale withdrawal began on 11 August and continued to 17 August. During this period, Hube ordered successive withdrawals each night of between 5 and 15 miles (8.0 and 24.1 km), keeping the following Allied units at arm’s length with the use of mines, demolitions and other obstacles. As the peninsula narrowed, shortening his front, he was able to withdraw units for evacuation. The Allies attempted to counter this by launching brigade-sized amphibious assaults, one each by the Seventh and Eighth Armies, on 15 August. However, the speed of the Axis withdrawal was such that these operations “hit air”.
In Messina city itself we discuss the Allied aerial bombardment of the city.
After lunch in Messina we cross the Messina straits by Ferry to the Italian mainland. On board we talk about the Allied crossing of the straits as well as their landings at Salerno on the mainland. It is a round boat trip and we do not disembark. It does, however, give a great sense of what it must have been like.
Late afternoon we arrive at our hotel in Messina and check in.
We head down the coast towards Catania and on the way, we visit Taormina. This beautiful seaside town has been visited by Oscar Wilde, Nicholas I of Russia, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, among others. We will have a short shop to enjoy the town which was the location of the Headquarters of Hube, the German Commander.
Later in the morning we vist the German War Cemetery, Motta San Anastasia. As we wind down our tour we pay our respects to the fallen of the German Armed Forces. Here lie the remains of 4,561 men who lost their lives, 451 of whom are unidentified. The cemetery/memorial contains different ‘rooms’ representing different locations in Sicily where they were killed.
CWGC Catania. The last location on our tour. Catania War Cemetery contains burials from the later stages of the campaign, from Lentini northwards. Many died in the heavy fighting just short of Catania (the town was taken on 5 August) and in the battle for the Simeto river bridgehead. Catania War Cemetery contains 2,135 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 112 of them unidentified. This is a fitting place to bring our tour to an end.
We depart for Catania city if guests need to be dropped central Catania.
14:30 Arrive Catania Airport at the latest.