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Commemoration 80: Operation Avalanche and the Liberation of Italy

On 9 September 1943, Allied soldiers stormed the shores of Salerno as the liberation of mainland Europe began. This is the story of Operation Avalanche.

Operation Avalanche

Salerno War Cemetery

Tall green trees and central Romanesque shelter in Salerno War Cemetery

Image: The peaceful serenity of Salerno War Cemetery

Some 1,850 Commonwealth war graves of the Second World War lie in Salerno War Cemetery.

This quiet place, beautifully maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff, offers a spot of peaceful serenity in the seaside spot, located just south of Napoli on the Italian coast.

Many nationalities are present in Salerno, with British, Indian, Canadian, South African and New Zealand.

They fell in the first phases of one of World War Two’s most gruelling campaigns: the Allied Liberation of Italy.

What had started in Sicily in July 1943 was about to see thousands of British, Commonwealth, and US soldiers hit mainland Italy in force under Operation Avalanche.

First, they had to get ashore - and as the war graves and serried headstones at Salerno War Cemetery tell us, this would be no easy attack.

What was Operation Avalanche?

British troops coming ashore with a landing craft in the background at Salerno.

Image: British troops come ashore as part of Operation Avalanche, triggering the early stages of the Liberation of Italy (© IWM NA 6630)

Operation Avalanche was the codename given to the Allied landings on mainland Italy between 9-18 September 1943.

The operation came following the fall of Sicily.

The Sicily campaign, also known as Operation Husky, had been a major success. Over July and August 1943, a joint Anglo-American force had captured the island, forcing its German defenders back to mainland Italy.

Importantly, the capture of Sicily triggered the fall of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The Italian government removed Mussolini from power and began to negotiate an armistice with the Allies soon after the first Allied boots landed on Sicily.

Following these momentous events, a series of quick military successes in Italy was believed to be achievable.

A ceasefire between Allied and Italian forces was signed on 3 September, effectively removing Italian armed opposition from the theatre of conflict. In theory, the Allies would be facing German Wehrmacht units with no local support. 

It was agreed by Allied planners to launch an amphibious assault on mainland Italy in September 1943. This was Operation Avalanche.

Who was involved in Operation Avalanche in WW2?

Operation Avalanche was a joint Allied action.

Overall command of the ground forces was given to Lieutenant General Mark Clark commanding US Fifth Army. Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt oversaw the naval component.

With the Fifth Army, Clark had two Corps under his command: US VI Corps commanded by Major General Ernest J. Dawley and British X Corps.

X Corps was commanded by Lieutenant General Richard McCreery. X Corps consisted of:

All told some 170,000 men were assembled by the Allies for Operation Avalanche.

Why did the Allies land at Salerno?

Map of the Allied Landings at Salerno

Image: Map showing the Salerno landings as part of Operation Avalanche (Wikimedia Commons)

Salerno was chosen as the main landing site for Operation Avalanche for one key reason: air power.

Any successful seaborne invasion requires support from the air. Control of the skies is just as important as control of the seas and landing zones.

With the capture of Sicily, the Allies essentially had a natural aircraft carrier from which they could attack southern Italy. Salerno was well within the Allies’ air cover umbrella.

Aerial concerns aside, Salerno had more features that made it the Allies’ preferred landing point.

Salerno instead offered suitable beaches, level ground further inland suitable for assembly and staging areas, and nearby airfields and ports that could prove useful if the landings were a success.

Salerno was still not totally perfect. The inland plain away from the coast was circled by mountains: ideal ground for target-hungry artillery crews.

Secondly, the plain was split in half by the river Sele, essentially splitting the beachhead.

Lastly, there were only steep valleys through the Sorrento Hills, aka the Allied exit route. When it came time to break out into Italy proper, the Allies would find themselves restricted by matters of geography.

Operation Baytown

On 3 September, Operation Baytown took place.

Baytown had been conceived as a diversion to the main Salerno landings. The idea was for Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army to cross the Straits of Messina from Sicily to Calabria at the tip of Italy’s boot.

While there, the Eighth Army would tie up and engage any Axis opposition they faced, drawing troops away from the main landing zones further north. 

Montgomery, the victor of El Alamein, was opposed to the plan. He believed that the Wehrmacht wouldn’t give battle in Calabria. In Monty’s opinion, Eighth Army was better suited to supporting Avalanche than a diversionary assault.

An artillery piece firing over the Straits of Messina during WW2.

Image: Artillery booms across the Straits of Messina ahead of Operation Baytown (© IWM NA 6152)

When Eighth Army crossed into Calabria under a ferocious artillery barrage, they faced little to no resistance.

Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, Wehrmacht and Axis commander of the Italian theatre, correctly deduced any landings at Calabria would be diversionary in nature. 

Kesselring ordered his German units to pull back and demolish as many bridges and other infrastructure as they could.

Italian troops around the south coast were demoralised and under-equipped. While there was some resistance by the paratroopers of the 185th Parachute Regiment against the Canadians at Aspromonte, many simply surrendered.

Monty then moved his men north, aiming to cover 300 or so miles to link up with Clark in Salerno, although Eighth Army played no part in the Operation Avalanche landings.

The Salerno Landings

British troops land on the beach at Salerno during Operation Avalanche.

Image: British troops and their landing craft coming ashore at Salerno (© IWM NA 6636)

While Monty was chasing shadows in Calabria, the Western Naval Task Force was assembling in the southern Tyrrhenian Sea.

Some 450 ships carting 170,000 soldiers and 20,000 vehicles moved their important cargoes of men and materiel steadily towards the Italian coast, watched from the skies by a mix of British, French, and US warplanes.
At 6.30 am on the morning of 8 September 1943, the armistice between the Allies and the Italian Government was announced. For many of the British and Allied soldiers about to hit the beaches, this gave them a sense of false hope.
Some expected to waltz into Napoli with the Italians welcoming them with open arms. What they got, instead, was determined German resistance on the beaches of Salerno.

The massive Western Naval Task Force wasn’t exactly difficult to spot. Luftwaffe scouts spotted the fleet on the 8th. Soon, Salerno was packed with Wehrmacht defenders, including the tanks of 16th Panzer.

Hitting the beaches

On 9 September 1943, the skies above Solerno were rent asunder by the big guns of the Western Naval Task Force sounding off.

Shells pounded the shore as the British troops began to move onto dry land.

No.2 Commando pushed towards the Maiori at Vietri sul Mare. Well dug-in German machine gunners zeroed in on their landing craft but fire support from HMS Blackmore helped the special forces team reach the shoreline.

On the main British front, a new weapon caused some confusion among the incoming British troops. 

The Hedgehog, a rocket-firing landing craft, was used for the first time at Salerno. Despite being able to fire 800 3-inch rockets, this new-fangled weapon proved inaccurate. 

A British soldier in glasses firing a machine gun while a plomb of smoke billows into the sky behind him.

Image: A British machine-gun team sprays fire up the landing zone as Operation Avalanche hits Salerno (© IWM NA 6720)

As such, the 56th Division found itself on the wrong landing beach after being ordered to follow the rockets. Despite this mix-up, both the 46th and 56th Divisions were able to gain ground and move ashore on Operation Avalanche’s first day.

No.2 Commando was able to capture Salerno town and move onwards towards the airfield at Motecorvino. Elsewhere, to the south, the Royal Fusiliers pushed up to Battipaglia but were unable to hold the town.

The US portion of Avalanche wasn’t heralded by a naval bombardment, but the landings began well. 36th Division landed at 3.30am, managing to establish a beachhead. The first German counterattack struck the US troops but they were able to fight off the Wehrmacht by noon.

By the end of the first day, the Allies and established two narrow beachheads. Good news so far but the beachheads were still separated by a nine-mile gap. While the Germans had been well dug in and difficult to fight, the worst was yet to come.

The Wehrmacht counterattacks

Starting from the 10 September 1943, the German forces assembled and around Salerno began a ferocious counterattack.

The main fighting on the 10th came when 16th Panzer slammed into the British flank.

British 56th Division continued its push towards Battipaglia but was unable to take the town. The choice high ground around the Montecorvino airfield thus eluded Allied capture for the time being.

The airfield was captured the following day on the 11th but with German artillery fire still raining down on the runway, Montecorvino remained inoperative.

British soldiers advance passed knocked out Wehrmacht tanks.

Image: British infantry cautiously march around the burning hulls knocked out Wehrmacht vehicles (Wikimedia Commons)

By the 12th, Wehrmacht counterattacks had seen the Germans recapture the important sites of Altavilla and Hill 424, reopening a corridor of land near the Sele River. In the British sector, the 56th Division was attacked but the Coldstream Guards and Royal Fusiliers stood firm.

Establishing and holding beachheads so reinforcements can flood ashore is integral to a successful amphibious landing. The defenders will be desperate to hurl attacking troops back into the sea and will throw men and materiel at assault forces to do just that.

On 13 September 1943, the Wehrmacht tried exactly that.

With pressure mounting on both beachheads, the German Commander on the ground at Salerno, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff slightly misread the situation. 
Vietinghoff believed the Allies were on the verge of evacuating the beach, following a series of troop movements designed to plug the gap in the Allied lines.

Attacking with full force, the Wehrmacht launched a multi-pronged assault on the Salerno beachhead:

A US force attacking at Altavilla was overwhelmed but the most critical part of the attack fell in the centre.

The Wehrmacht forces attacking there overran the 2nd Battalion of the US 143rd Infantry Regiment, taking them to within two short miles of the Salerno beachhead.

At this point, the landing zone was defended by two small 105mm gun batteries and a thin line of US infantry.

General Clark’s headquarters, a scant few yards behind the artillery, was vulnerable. The attack lay on a knife edge.

In this case, it wasn’t a knife that saved the day but artillery. 

To reach Clark’s headquarters and the beach defenders, the Wehrmacht had to cross the Calore River. Their only route was a ford near a burnt-out bridge, creating a vulnerable chokepoint.

The US artillerymen on the beach opened up, pumping 4,000 shells into the advancing Germans, sending them back up the Sele corridor, away from the beach.

The night of the 13th brought panic for General Mark Clark. Avalanche’s commander seriously considered evacuating the US sector and reinforcing the British right. However, his naval advisors suggested this could prove confusing and dangerous.

Instead, Clark ordered 1,300 paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division to be dropped in to reinforce the beleaguered beachhead. Elements of the 45th Division and British 7th Armoured Division finally landed on the 14th.

Endgame on the Salerno Beachhead 

Another German attack fell on the 14th, pushing hard at the centre. They hadn’t noticed that the middle of the American lines had been reinforced during the night, and the attack was repulsed.

Around the British positions on the Allied left the 46th Division repelled a fierce German assault, while at Battipaglia, the 56th Division held off another attack. 

The Allies were able to keep fighting a desperate battle as more and more men came ashore or parachuted in from Salerno’s war-torn skies.

Low-flying aircraft from the Northwest African Air Force continued to strafe ground targets or tangle with Luftwaffe pilots above Salerno.

Gradually, the German assault faltered. A greater number of Allied men were filling holes in the line with more landing by the hour. 

By the 15th, the worst of the German attack was over. Vietinghoff asked for permission from his superior, Field Marshal Kesselring, to pull back from Salerno.

Fighting would not cease for a couple more days.

Sherman tank and British Infantry on the move at Salerno, Italy, during WW2.

Image: A Sherman tank and British infantrymen push onward into mainland Italy (Sherman Tank & Infantry at Salerno © IWM NA 6646)

On the 16th, for example, HMS Warspite was struck by a glide bomb and badly damaged. She was forced to withdraw but would be back in action for D-Day and Operation Overlord the following year.

German formations began their retreat from the Salerno beachhead on the 18th of September. On the same day, tanks of British Eight Armoured Division rolled into Battipaglia. Elsewhere, liaison teams from Montgomery’s Eighth Army were starting to link up with elements of Fifth Army.

By the 19th most Allied troops at Salerno were starting to think offensively. They had weathered the storm on the beach and now men and fighting vehicles could begin to come ashore in greater numbers. 

Operation Avalanche had been a success – but such success would come at a cost.

Operation Slapstick

British Airborne troops approach Taranto in their landing craft.

Image: British Airborne troops approach Taranto in their landing craft under Operation Slapstick (Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Baytown was not the only operation supporting Avalanche in September 1943.

On the 9th, the British launched Operation Slapstick, targeting the port of Taranto.

The operation was put together at very short notice following the inking of the Italian armistice on September 3rd. The Italian Government had offered to open the ports of Taranto and Brindisi on the heel of Italy to the Allies. Military planners spotted an opportunity.

The British 1st Airborne Division was selected to lead the assault. A shortage of transport aircraft meant the paras had to come in by sea, but all available landing craft were busy at Salerno or in Sicily.

Up stepped the Royal Navy. Its ships carried 1st Airborne into Taranto where they faced no resistance. Later, the Paras took Brindisi too.

The only Wehrmacht forces in the area were parachute troops themselves but instead of falling from the sky to harass the British, they fought more of a guerrilla war. Ambushes and hit-and-run strikes were the name of the game as the Germans retreated north.

By the end of September, the 1st Airborne had advanced some 125 miles to the strategically important airfields at Foggia.

While the initial landings were without major conflict, Operation Slapstick was not without cost. A total of 58 British paratroopers lost their lives in the skirmishes around the heel. In Taranto harbour, minesweeper HMS Abdiel struck a mine and went down with 48 souls lost.

What was the outcome of Operation Avalanche?

Operation Avalanche gave the Allies an important foothold for which they could expand into Italy.

The precarious situation on the beachhead could have ended in disaster but as it is the Allies were now ashore and ashore in force.

Despite the initial ideas that Italy would prove a quick and easy campaign, Allied military planners were quickly mistaken.

Italy was one of the most brutal campaigns of the European theatre of World War Two, but Operation Avalanche was the first step towards the full liberation of Italy.

How many people died in Operation Avalanche?

Operation Avalanche, especially the defensive actions in the centre of the Allied lines, was a short but bloody affair.

The US forces involved took around 6,200 casualties, including killed, missing, or wounded. This includes both the Army and Navy casualties.

On the British and Commonwealth side casualty figures totalled:

Wehrmacht casualties are estimated at around 3,345 killed, missing, wounded, or captured.

Casualties of the Salerno landings

Captain Henry Valerian George Wellesley, 6th Duke of Wellington

The Commandos attracted an interesting and varied type of recruit, due to the challenges and prestige that being part of the special forces bring. Many members of the British aristocracy, no strangers to military service, took up the call to go above and beyond with the Commandos.

One such member was Henry Valerian Wellesley, 6th Duke of Wellington and relative of the famous General Sir Arthur Wellesley, the famous Napoleon-defeating Iron Duke, victor of the Battle of Waterloo.

Duke Henry Wellesley had started his military career in the mid-1930s, receiving a commission as a reserve Second Lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards in 1933. He then received a commission of the same rank with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in 1935.

Come Operation Avalanche and Henry was serving with No.2 Commando, commanding a troop as Captain.

Coming ashore, No.2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare west of Salerno, but quickly changed targets to a position southeast of the port.

German soldiers controlled the high ground in this area, including a spot known as Pimple Hill. Pimple Hill lay at the end of a valley. Whoever controlled it, essentially controlled important paths and passes surrounding Salerno.

On 16 September, No.2 Commando assaulted Pimple Hill. Met by a torrent of machine-gun fire, the special forces teams were forced to withdraw after sustaining heavy casualties.

Amongst the number of dead and wounded was Captain Wellesley.

The Duke had been part of the first No.2 Commando assault on Pimple Hill. He was struck multiple times by a withering hail of machine-gun bullets, with his helmet holed three times.

Captain Wellesley is today buried at Salerno War Cemetery.

Pimple Hill was eventually captured by the Commandos with a fresh assault led by No. 41 Commando.

Across the course of Operation Avalanche, the Commandos would take severe casualties relative to their small size. 48% were killed, wounded, or went missing over the action’s ten days.

Chaplain 4th Class the Reverend Joseph Edward Gough Quinn

While they may not have been firing weapons or taking part in hand-to-hand combat, priests and padres were often found in the thick of the fighting in the World Wars.

Chaplain 4th Class the Reverend Joseph Edward Gough Quinn exemplifies this.

Born the eldest son of the Revd. James Quinn, Chancellor of Down Collage, Joseph was literally born into the cloth.

Joseph was educated at Shrewsbury and earned a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford University, where he graduated with a degree in history and theology in 1937.

After graduation, Joseph was a Lecturer in Theology and Modern History at Wycliffe Hall, another Oxford University college, before being ordained as the Chaplain of St. Peter’s Hall.

From April 1939, several months before the outbreak of World War Two, Joseph entered the military. He was attached as Chaplain 4th Class to the 5th battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Joseph joined the Northamptonshires in France, Syria, and eventually Italy during his time in service.

In 1940, Joseph earned the Military Cross. His award citation, published in the December 20 1940 issue of the London Gazette, reads:

“Rev. Quinn acted as chaplain to the Battalion throughout the operations in Belgium and France and was outstanding for the cool manner in which he tended to the wounded without a thought for his own safety.

On every occasion when the Battalion occupied a defensive position he refused to go back to the transport lines but stayed in the forward area, encouraging the men and by his personal example of fearlessness inspiring all who came in contact with him.

On several occasions, owing to the M.O. becoming a casualty, he took charge of the R.A.P.

He was badly wounded on 28 May, while tending the injured. He showed a fine example of coolness and courage.”

Joseph and his battalion were then involved in the thick fighting of Operation Avalanche. For Joseph, it would be his last campaign. He was killed at Salerno and is today buried in the CWGC military cemetery there.

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