80 years ago, the Allies launched Operation Husky: one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. Learn the story of the Invasion of Sicily and the start of the Italian campaign with Commonwealth War Graves.
What was the situation in the West during 1943?
Image: Men of the 51st Highland Division wading ashore as Operation Husky commences (Wikimedia Commons)
After four years at war, mostly on the back foot, the Allies are finally starting to see the tide of war turn in their favour.
In late 1942, British Eight Army under General Bernard Montgomery had decisively defeated German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps at El Alamein.
Come May 1943, the Allies have achieved victory in North Africa after the introduction of US troops into the theatre and the capture of Tunis, Tunisia.
So, where next? A huge number of experienced service personnel, aircraft and naval vessels had now been freed following the North African victory. Where best to deploy these assets?
Discussions about where to target following victory in Tunisia had taken place in January 1943 at the Casablanca Conference in Morocco. Attended by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, negotiations were intense.
The US delegation initially favoured a knockout blow with a cross-channel invasion of France. However, the British successfully argued for another target: Italy, starting with an ambitious amphibious invasion of Sicily.
Why did the Allies target Sicily in World War Two?
There were several reasons behind the thinking of Churchill’s desire to target the “soft underbelly of Europe” as he described Italy and Sicily:
- It was an opportunity to knock Fascist Italy out of the war
- It would help shift German military resources to yet another theatre of war. At this time, the German armed forces are engaged in titanic clashes with the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, sucking in men and materiel
- An invasion of Italy would also expose Germany’s southern flank
- Crucially, Sicily and Operation Husky, the codename given to the invasion, would provide an incredible learning opportunity for the D-Day Landings of June 1944.
Amphibious assaults had been attempted by the Allies before with mixed results.
For instance, Operation Ironclad, an assault on northern Madagascar, was a complete success.
The Dieppe Raid, on the other hand, had been something of a debacle.
Sicily, however, would dwarf both these operations in scale.
After much planning and deliberation, Operation Husky was approved. The invasion would commence on the night of 9th-10th July 1943.
Operation Husky begins
A vast army of more than 180,000 US and Commonwealth soldiers was assembled to invade Italy. They were supported by an armada of some 2,600 Royal Navy and United States Navy vessels plus 4,000 aircraft including bombers, fighters, gliders, and troop transporters.
As with D-Day and Operation Overlord the following year, the first phase of the invasion of Sicily was a two-pronged assault.
Airborne troops, including paratroopers and glider units, would land behind enemy lines, capture key objectives, and cause disarray in the enemy ranks before the seaborne elements could smash ashore and forge a beachhead.
The Airborne assault
Image: British glider troops waiting to board their American-made WACO glider. Unfortunately, the glider assault would go tragically wrong (Wikimedia Commons).
Another parallel between Sicily and Normandy was the role of the weather.
As the airborne soldiers in their gliders and transport aircraft were heading for Sicily in the evening of July 9th, a ferocious, unseasonable storm arose.
Gale-force winds and driving rain played havoc with the pilots’ navigation. Indeed, many of the pilots assigned to the airborne component of Husky were undertrained and inexperienced.
The results were tragic. Paratroopers were scattered and landed far from their drop zones. In the case of the glider troops, the storm proved fatal. Only 4 of the 144 gliders made it to Sicily. The rest were either smashed into cliffs or forced to land in stormy seas, resulting in heavy casualties.
More than 600 Commonwealth glider-borne soldiers lost their lives. Over half would drown in the seas off the Sicilian coast and consequently have no known war grave but the ocean.
With weather conditions so bad, there was much debate as to whether to call off Husky. However, it also presented an opportunity: The Axis commanders charged with Sicily’s defence did not expect the Allies to continue their assault in such terrible weather.
10th July 1943: The amphibious assault on Sicily
Image: Map showing Operation Husky's landing zones (Wikimedia Commons)
The Allied advance continues and the Axis defence
Over the next five weeks, the Allies would continue to push onward and take significant ground. The Wehrmacht sent General Hans Hube to Sicily to oversee the defence on July 15th in an attempt to stall the unrelenting Allied assault.
Patton and Seventh Army forged a path heading towards the Northwest of Sicily with the capture of Palermo as its goal.
The Commonwealth elements of the invasion force included the British and Canadian units assigned to Eight Army. They would take the Easterly route, aiming to link up with Patton and Seventh Army at Messina in the north from where Italy was only a stone’s throw away.
The story of their advance can be told in the locations of Commonwealth War Graves’ Sicilian cemeteries and memorials.
Syracuse War Cemetery
Syracuse War Cemetery lies within the ancient city of Syracuse in Southeast Sicily. The city, once home to Archimedes, was captured on 12th July 1943.
The cemetery subsequently contains burials of the men who fell in the early stages of the invasion, including the landings, assault on Syracuse, and the following drive towards Lentini.
Many of those commemorated at Syracuse War Cemetery are from the glider regiments and their tragic experiences on the night of the 9th of July.
Around 1,020 Commonwealth war graves can be found in Syracuse War Cemetery.
Catania War Cemetery
While the US troops and Canadians were forging west, and while Patton and Seventh Army were pushing in from the Northwest, Montgomery and Eighth Army were driving up from Lentini towards Catania.
The road to Catania however was difficult. One of the key objectives on the route from Lentini to Catania was the Simeto River-spanning Primosole Bridge: the last bridge before Catania. Capturing it was essential to success.
1st Parachute Brigade was tasked with the capture of Primosole in an action that would presage airborne drops in Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden in October 1944. There were once more supported by glider troops.
On 13th July, the Paras were dropped behind the bridge and took its defenders by surprise, despite another scattered landing and several glider crashes. A determined Axis counterattack, however, dislodged the airborne troops and drove them off.
It was not until the night of the 15th July that an attack by the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the Paratroopers, was able to take the bridge. On the 16th, Eighth Army convoys could begin the advance on Catania.
Image: Royal Engineers clear debris from Primosole Bridge (© IWM)
Facing them were well-dug in opposition, including elite German Fallschirmjäger paratroopers. Coupled with difficult terrain, the advance on Catania was difficult going. Following fierce fighting, the port town was captured on 5th August 1943.
The 2,020 or so casualties in Catania War Cemetery mark the difficulty in Eighth Army’s east coast advance.
The men buried in Catania fell during the drive from Lentini to Catanaia, the river crossings over the Simeto, and the final advance and capture of Catania itself.
Agira Canadian War Cemetery
As July wore on, an influx of Wehrmacht troops under Hube helped stiffen Axis resistance. However, the Allies continued to make ground.
Eighth Army had to contend with Sicily’s geography as well as their military opponents. During the drive up the East Coast, Monty’s men had to overcome one formidable obstacle: Mount Etna.
Montgomery’s army was advancing on Catania, a port in the shadow of Etna. In their way stood orderly disciplined and determined Wehrmacht troops, protecting a thin corridor that made attacking difficult.
The 1st Canadian instead swung west in an attempt to outflank the German positions and skirt the formidable mountain. In their path lay the town of Agira, which was captured after fierce fighting on the 28th of July 1943.
Reflecting the bloody nature of the fighting in and around Agira is Agira Canadian War Cemetery.
Agira Canadian War Cemetery commemorates almost exclusively Canadian soldiers who fell during this stage of the Sicily campaign. A single British casualty, Private August Saul, lies with his Canadian Comrades at Agira.
The capture of Messina
Image: British tankers celebrate with Sicilian children (Wikimedia Commons)
With Patton steaming in from the West, and Montgomery pushing hard up the East, the Axis situation in Sicily was quickly proving untenable.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, overall Axis commander in Italy, ordered the evacuation of Messina. German and Italian forces began an orderly retreat from Messina across the narrow straits onto the mainland on the 11th of August. By the 17th, they had made it to Italy.
Despite overwhelming success on the advance across Sicily, the Allies were unable to halt the retreat, allowing over 100,000 Axis soldiers and 14,000 vehicles to make it to Italy.
Messina was in Allied hands by the 17th. With it, Italy lay tantalisingly close. Soon, the Allies would launch Operation Avalanche and begin the incredibly difficult Italian campaign.
From the initial landings to the fall of Messina, the Sicily campaign had taken just one month, one week, and one day to complete. The tide was beginning to turn in Europe.
Aftermath of the Sicily Campaign
One of the biggest consequences of the Sicily Invasion was the fall of Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini.
On 25th July, as the Allies were advancing towards Messina, the ruling Grand Council voted to oust Mussolini from power, and some of his dictatorial powers were transferred to Italy’s king Victor Emmanuele.
With Mussolini humbled and essentially out of power, the Italian political situation was changed. The Italian people were tired and sick of war, as well as resentful of their erstwhile German allies dragging them into a devastating conflict.
The Italian government began to explore the idea of surrendering to the Allies, although this would not take place until September when Allied soldiers moved onto mainland Italy under Operation Avalanche.
In military terms, Sicily was proof the Allies could fight and beat the Wehrmacht in Europe.
Considering all that had gone before, such as Dunkirk or the Crete Evacuation, scoring such an important victory was huge, not just militarily, but in morale and propaganda terms too.
The Allies had seen the Axis could be beaten in North Africa. Now it could be beaten in Europe too.
Commemorations & casualties of Operation Husky
Such victories always come with a hefty price.
The three main Commonwealth War Graves sites in Sicily hold 3,600 or so servicemen who would not make it off the island.
Their sacrifice ensured the victory, but it is worth noting the human cost of such important events.
Discover more about Commonwealth War Graves in Sicily
Our search tools can help you learn more about those we commemorate in Sicily.
Want to learn more about the fallen Commonwealth soldiers we commemorate there? Our Find War Dead tool can help. Simply filter by country and locality to discover the Second World War casualties in our care.
If you’d like to learn more about the sites in Italy we maintain, use our Find Cemeteries & Memorials tool. Each cemetery page details the number of casualties it commemorates, visiting information, and more.
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