World War II Sicilian Campaign: Converging Allied Drives on Messina

World War II Sicily British drive
Figure 1.--Hitler and Mussolini hoped Some had hoped that once the Allies invaded Italy proper that Italian troops would fight more determindely than had been the case in North Africa. It did not occur. The Itlians on Sicily with only a few excptions of units fighting with the Germans, wanted no part of the War. Civilians were no different. The press caption here read, "Tommy and His Pals: The civilians of Sicily were more than lukewarm in their attitude toward the United Nations which came to release them from Fascism, but the children were even more friendly. This British soldier is sharing his biscuit [cookie] rations with children in Palazzolo, Sicily." Palazzolo was located in southeastern Sicily, inland from the coastal road in the area that Gen. Montgomery attempted to outflank the German coastal road defenses.

The Allied campign in Sicily was designed by Gen. Montgomery. He assigned the primary role in the campaign to himself and his 8th army which was to drive up the coastal road straight to Messina. Patton's 7th Army was assigned the secondary role of prorecting the Btitish flank as they drove up the coastal road. Patton was not happy with role assigned, but then was furious when after being blocked along the costal road demanded an area that had been assigned to the Americans which had roads running north. Alexander granted this request which essentially moved the American 7h Army out of the fight. This was too much for Patton. He decided to attack to the norhwest. This left the British flnk vulnerable, but the Germans had all withdrawn ti the north and the Italinns had no desire to fight. Patton quickly seized Palermo and and opened a new front--the northern coastal road which also led to Messina. The struggle for Sicily became two separate Allied drives on Mesina, the Americans from the west and the British from the south. Both Patton and Montgomery took the struggle personally and desired be the first to reach Messina. For the Germans, Messinawas vital because it was the only place where they could withdraw from to reach the Italian mainline. After the Allies established theit beachhead, there was no way the Germans could win, especially because most of their Italian allies had no desire to fight. Thus the campaign became a delaying effort with the idea of withdrawong to the mainland as the Allies approached Messina.

British Drive

The British Eighth Army was to drive north along the eastern coastal road and seize Messina. The coastal road was the shortest most direct route to Messina. The British took Vizzini just north of the bridgehead as planned. The British began to encountering siffening German resistance as they attempted to drive north along the coast--the direct route to Messina. The Germans thus focused much of their forces in this area. An important objective was the Plain of Catania with its airfields. The Plain of Catania is the largest and most important plain in Sicily. It was, however, separated from the British landing beaches by rugged foothills in which the German built a defensive line. When Montgomery hit the German defenses, rather than ask he Americans to strike the Germans, he requested that Alexander allow the British units to move westward in an effort to encircle the Germans instead of attacking them directly. This was, however, into the zone initially designated for the Americans. Alexander granted the request and Enna, a city located in central was shifted from the American to the British zone. Enna towers over the surrounding countryside. The Germans based their defense of the island on opposing the British drive on Messina along the coastal road and rugged terraine of central Sucily. The terrain was mountainous, ideal for defensive action. Historians vary on what occurred after the British attack north bogged down. Catania half way up the coast toward Messina and at the foot of Etna proved to be the major roadblock. Catania was repeatedly bombed by the Allies, at the onset of the War (June 1940). Some 100,000 of its inhabitants were evacuated to the neighboring villages long before the allies landed. The Germans used the rugged foothills leading to the Plain of Catania to good advantage and proved to be a major obstacle. The British Eighth Army found itself bogged down in protracted fighting to take the Plain of Catania and in the Nebrodi Mountains northwest of Mount Etna. Montgomery insistence on moving west deprived the Eighth Army of American support. The result was heavy losses. Montgomery was always sensitive on the issue of battlefield casualties. He began to fume about Patton's highly publicized adances and light losses to the west. The drive north took much longer and resulted in higher losses than Montgomery had nticipated. The Eighth Army finally approached Vatani (July 23). But the Germans continued to resist for two more weeks. The Germans finally evacuated Catania (August 5). That broke the front wide open. The British entered the city and began a race to Messina.

American Drive

The British western flank was to be protected by the Americans. Patton from the start did not appreciate the supporting role he was given. The Americans were assigned to seize and secure airfields and protect the British flank as they drove north. The Americans took Niscemi. Then the campaign planned by Montgomery began to change. The British drive north bogged down along the coastyal road. Montgimery demanded Higway 124 and Alexander gave it to him. Patton was furious as this meant hr had no way of moving north to engage the Germans. Some reports suggest that Alexander ordered Patton to take Palermo at the northwestern tip of the island. Others say that Patton exceeded his orders in driving toward Palermo. There is no doubt that Patton immediately began to assess how his army could play a more real role in the Sicly campaign. And what caught his attention was Palermo. This was not only Sicily's capital, but a storied city in history. And Patton had a sence both for publicity and history. He immediated realized that taking Palermo would not only be a publicity bonanza for him and the the American Seventh Army, but it give his army a major port to supply his army and a fromt go attack the Germans along the northern coastal road. He appararently got Alexander to sanction a 'reconnaissance' probe toward the town of Agrigento, several miles west of the 3rd Division's front line. General Truscott entered the city (July 15). With Agrigento, Patton had an open road into lightly defended northwestern Sicily. Patton conferred to with Alexander at (July 17). He argued for just that. Patton had two objectives in mind. First he wanted to cut loose from Monthomery and the Eighth Army and launch an independent American drive with I Corps on Palermo. Second he wanted to order Bradley's II Corps north to the coast cutting Sicly in half. Alexander had reservations, by reluctantly agreed. He then had had second thoughts and sent Patton revised orders, instructing Patton not to divide his army and to proceed due north in force and not to lose contct with 8th Army's flank. There was not to be any move west. Meanwhile Patton organized the 2d Armored, 82d Airborne, and 3d Infantry Divisions into a provisional corps under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes. What followed was a 100-mile dash to the historic Sicilian capital. Palermo was in American hands after only 72 hours. Patton ignored Alexander's message claiming that it had been 'garbled' in transmission. And by the time Alexander's instructions could be 'clarified' Patton was on the outskirts of Palermo. Patton is said to have asked Alexander if he wanted him to give Palermo back? That is perhaps apocryphal, but conveys th drama involved. Patton entered Palrmo (July 22). Patton's Seventh Army had met little opposition from Italian units during its sweep through western Sicily. Guzzoni had moved the powerful German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to central Sicily soon after the invasion. As a result, the only forces left in western Sicily were dispirited and poorly armed Italians who had no desire to fight, especially fight Americans who they liked. Ironically for the Axis, the Italian troops felt more friendship toward the Americans than their German allies. Gen. Bradley's II Corps rapidly pushed north to cut the island in two east of Palermo. The result was Seventh Army controlled all of western Sicily (July 24). They captured 53,000 Italian soldiers mostof whom were more than happy to be out of the war. The cost was the loss of 272 men. And he now possessed access to the northern coastal route and the ability to open a new front against the Germans and Messina. This forced the Germans to divide their already limited forces. Patton to avoid the German strong points set up along the narrow coastal road. Patton countered with a series of limited amphibious operations as he drove east.


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Created: 1:40 PM 7/2/2017
Last up dated: 1:40 PM 7/2/2017