The invasion of Sicily by Allied forces in 1943 that was, until D-Day eleven months later, the largest amphibious invasion in history. The ambitious assault for the liberation of Sicily, codenamed Husky, was the culmination of months of meticulous planning by the leaders of the Allied armies in North Africa. There was much argument about how to go about the task: how many troops would be needed, what their main objectives should be and how air power could best be used in their support.
Eventually it was agreed that a two-pronged offensive would target a number of beaches on Sicily’s southwestern and southeastern coasts. The beaches had been covertly surveyed by submarine teams to make sure they were suitable for the large-scale disembarkation of troops and heavy vehicles. The last great unknowns were how strong the enemy’s defences would prove and how hard the Italians and Germans would fight to retain control of Sicily.
Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line
In preparation for the campaign, a massive amount of men and materials had to be assembled, not just for the invasion itself but to sustain a large army in the most impoverished part of Italy for an indefinite period afterwards. Every detail had to be readied, from medals to be awarded in battle to grave markers for the fallen.
Two task forces were assembled in North Africa under the overall command of General Eisenhower. The Western Task Force was essentially the US Seventh Army – commanded by US General George S. Patton – and the Eastern Task Force was the British Eighth Army, including Canadian divisions, led by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Each had its respective fleet; altogether around 160,000 men were embarked. Sicily was defended by the Italian Sixth Army, with an estimated strength of over 200,000, supported by around 32,000 German troops.
Prior to the invasion, the small Italian islands of Pantelleria, Linosa and Lampedusa were captured without any exchange of fire. Bombing raids were carried out on Sicily’s two main towns, Palermo and Messina, while airborne troops were dropped inland. The operations carried out by these troops, as well as the naval barrage, were highly significant because they marked the start of the European land war.
The main Allied force was transported overnight on 9–10 July 1943 across 150km of open sea between Tunis and Sicily – a journey which takes around ten hours today. The Western and Eastern task forces were assigned different zones of operation: the Americans to the centre of the island and the British and Canadians to the east coast, pushing past Etna to reach Messina.
The landings in Sicily were largely unopposed. On the first day, a 6.5km-deep beachhead was established and four thousand prisoners were captured; several towns were taken in the opening few hours alone. The Germans staged a counterattack against the Americans at Gela, however, and tenaciously held on to the fortifications they had established in the east. Communication failures, errors and incidents of friendly fire also caused much loss of life. In particular, airborne assaults using parachutes and gliders proved ineffective and costly in fatalities.
The campaign to overcome the island’s defenders ran into difficulty at several other points, especially on the east coast. Things were not helped by a tense rivalry between Patton and Montgomery, which hindered cooperation and made it hard to co-ordinate troops. The plain of Catania and the surrounding hills proved a particularly bloody battlefield, and a strong German defensive line was established around the volcano of Etna.
While Montgomery slogged up the east coast, Patton headed north to take Palermo (against light opposition), next turning east to try and reach Messina before the British. Although Patton reached Messina first, his troops were too late to prevent the Germans from evacuating their remaining forces to fight another day.
By the time the campaign was completed on 17 August after 39 days of fighting, more than 5500 Allied soldiers and 9000 Axis combatants had lost their lives. The Allies were mostly greeted as liberators rather than invaders, but as the new occupying force of Sicily, they soon found themselves with problems that would be repeated all over a newly liberated Europe. There was the pressing question of how to deal with civilians who had cooperated with the fascist authorities; another issue was getting Allied troops to treat the local populations with respect.
The invasion of Sicily had important consequences in Rome, as its planners would later claim they’d hoped. While bloody battles were being fought in Sicily, a palace coup d’état in Rome forced Mussolini from power. The new government resolved to secretly negotiate a peace with the Allies, and its prime minister, Pietro Badoglio, opened discussions to this effect. After a pause in fighting, the Allies made their first tentative landfall on mainland Italy on the morning of 3 September 1943. The same afternoon saw the fruition of a long series of negotiations, and an armistice was signed between the two sides at a military camp near Cassibile, on Sicily’s east coast.
The US Seventh Army landed three divisions on beaches in the Gulf of Gela: at Scoglitti, Gela and Licata. Some of the first troops sent ashore were Italian-Americans, who proved invaluable during the build-up and implementation of Operation Husky. These men supplemented military intelligence with personal recollections and were able to communicate with the locals and help stabilize the newly liberated Italian territories.
Along the coast today – from Porta Aurea at the Valley of the Temples to the streets of Vittoria, through Licata and Gela – you can see a number of surviving military structures including bunkers, strongholds, trenches and pillboxes. Several sombre plaques record mostly individual deaths of combatants, while there are two war monuments in the town of Gela itself.
The 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army faced determined opposition at Ponte Dirillo on the night of 10 July, where they were heavily outnumbered by the German and Italian troops and their tanks. This monument, a large stone tablet located near Gela on the way to Punta Secca, commemorates the 39 paratroopers who died in battle.
There are three Italian war cemeteries on Sicily. Besides this one in Agrigento, two others are located at Catania and Acireale on the east coast. Between them, they contain the graves of more than four thousand soldiers who died defending the island.
In the prelude to Operation Husky, Sicily’s capital was badly bombed, but to little end. Palermo was a more symbolic than useful prize, and the US Seventh Army, who advanced from its landing beaches to take the city, met minimal opposition. Nevertheless, the assault provided useful publicity and a welcome boost to morale. General Patton occupied the grand Palazzo Reale for a few days while he prepared his advance on Messina.
One of the fiercest battles of the Sicily campaign was fought for control of the small inland town of Troina between 31 July and 6 August 1943. Many inhabitants survived in squalor in the crypt of the cathedral; the scenes of horror and destruction that greeted the US liberators would be repeated in countless towns all the way up the Italian peninsula. The end of the battle marked the breaching of the Etna defensive line, but the Germans managed to make an orderly retreat from Troina before the arrival of the US troops.
The British Eighth Army was assigned a series of beaches on the Gulf of Noto, south of Siracusa. Canadian forces came ashore on the west side of the Pachino peninsula; the rest of the Eighth Army landed on stretches between the tips of the Pachino and Maddelena peninsulas. A few memorials stand sentinel in and around Pachino, and at one beach, Fontane Bianche, there’s a modern holiday resort.
A plaque next to the church in Cassibile records the signing of the Italian armistice in a military camp near town on 3 September 1943, which brought hostilities with the Allies to an end. Preliminary negotiations were undertaken in Lisbon, but the terms were finalized here in Cassibile, with future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan playing an important role in the process. The document was signed by Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, and Giuseppe Castellano, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio. The armistice and its terms were kept secret for five days as the Italians bought time to prepare for the German backlash. The delay also allowed the Allies to continue planning their invasion of mainland Italy without alerting the Germans to the Italian surrender.
British and Canadian forces made their landings in the southeast corner of the island, between Pachino and Siracusa, now the site of a Commonwealth cemetery. The majority of burials belong to men killed during the landings or in the early stages of the campaign – including members of the airborne units that attempted to land west of the town on the night of 9–10 July, when gale-force winds forced sixty of the 140 gliders into the sea and blew others well wide of their objectives. Altogether there are 1059 graves, 134 of them belonging to unidentified personnel.
Despite its mouthful of a name, this museum does a good job of explaining the Sicily campaign, from the beach landings to the battles that allowed the Allies to take the island. Located near the railway station in Catania, it houses a range of evocative displays in a repurposed industrial building.
Exhibits include uniforms, weapons, photographs, video footage and projections of the island’s devastated towns, in particular Catania, Palermo and Messina. There are also wax statues of Roosevelt, Churchill, King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini and Hitler; a reproduction of the tent at Cassibile in which the armistice was signed on 3 September 1943; and a simulator that gives visitors the eerie sensation of living through an air raid.
The museum also functions as a library and research centre, collating books and papers (published and unpublished) about the Sicily campaign, including local resources and eyewitness accounts recorded by Sicilian civilians.
A total of 4561 German military personnel, killed in action in various parts of the island, are buried here. The poignant cemetery is designed like a building, with different rooms representing the different parts of the island where these men fell.
Agira was taken by the 1st Canadian Division on 28 July 1943. The site for this war cemetery was chosen a couple of months later for the burial of all Canadians – a total of 484 – killed in the Sicily campaign. It’s permanently open to visitors who want to pay their respects, although the steeply terraced site makes wheelchair access difficult.
Messina was heavily bombed in the prelude to the invasion of Sicily. The closest island town to the Italian mainland, Messina was a strategic objective for the Allies, who hoped to reach it before the Germans and Italians could evacuate their troops. In the event, the Axis evacuation went ahead virtually unhindered.
Top image: Palermo cityscape today © Iurii Buriak / iStock