It was on a cool September morning in 1943, that the Allies began the riskiest amphibious operation of the entire Second World War. The landing craft approached a little known sea town south of Naples called Salerno.
Read about the recreation of the Salerno landings which the World War 2 group put on for Games 2001.
Before the assault craft were even in shallow water, German firepower began to rain in heavily. The landings came as no surprise to the Germans. To Field Marshal Kesselring, Salerno was one of only a few possible landing sites, and purposely he had the 26th Panzer Division deployed in the vicinity to defend the Salerno coast.
The German Division’s presence was not known to the Allies. Planning for the attack had assumed the positions would be occupied by Italian forces, but with news of Italy’s surrender on the evening of the 8th September, many attackers hoped the defences would be abandoned.
General Clark’s Fifth Army, comprised the British X Corps (46th and 56th Divisions), American VI Corps (36th and 45th Divisions), supported by Rangers and Commandos. The landing plan was for the Rangers to land west of Salerno, which would be attacked directly by the Commandos. The 46th Division landing south of the town would move north into the town to support the Commandos, while the 56th Division pushed inland to capture airfields near Battipaglia.
To the south General Walker’s 36th Divisionwas to secure its beach head at Paestum and with two combat teams abreast of the main assault, occupy the two high ground towns of Altavilla and Albanella. The advantage of these two towns was that they looked down over the wide expanse of Salerno Bay and the coastal plain. When taken, troops were to advance to Ponte Sele bridge where they would link up with the British on their left. 143 Regiment was to be kept in reserve, and would come ashore after the first wavein order to provide a fresh battle force through to the objectives. General E. J. Dawley had the 170th and 157th Regiments of the US 45th Division stationed on landing craft offshore to act as a backup reserve force.
German defensive fire was particularly effective with 88mm, quad 20mm, and 50mm, and 75mm antitank gunfire. In the American half of the landings, the target was a flat area at the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Paestum. This assault force consisted of the green, but well trained 36th Texas National Guard Infantry Division. The initial assault waves met heavy fire. So heavy, some landing craft had to abandon their coordinated landing spots for safer approaches to land their infantry.
The 36th Infantry bled heavy from fighting an enemy who possessed a plethora of support weapons, and MG42 machine guns firing at a rate of over 1,000 rounds a minute from dominating elevated terrain. Regardless, the 36th Infantry Div. managed to clear some enemy positions to create a small enclave for follow on forces. A toehold had been secured in Italy, but a shaky one. The problem would come later in the next days in the form of Panzer IV counterattacks. The Panzers wreaked havoc among the 36th, taking a serious toll in American lives. The U.S. Army Bazookas could not penetrate the Panzers’ 80mm frontal armour. And the infantry were paying for it dearly.
Where were the fighters? Allied air power was indecisive because it was at the edge of its range. They were being flown from air bases in Sicily. They only had some 30 minutes fly time over the beachhead. Axis air power made its most spectacular appearance since North Africa, and in their strafing claimed heavy damage or sinking of at least 3 Allied ships. 18 P-38 Lightning fighters alone were downed by Axis fighters at Salerno.
The American forces were able to establish a foothold in the first couple of days. Though day one’s objectives were far from reached, American infantry continued to fight inland. Casualties were mounting, particularly from German artillery and mortars possessing perfect observation. Supplies and artillery were able to get ashore and were deploying, along with the reinforcing 45th Infantry Division. The beachhead was expanded, the 36th Division on the right, and the 45th on the left. It seemed they would achieve their mission and advance into the mountains surrounding the flat landing areas, but the enemy had other ideas.
The Germans amassed the 3rd, 26th, and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions, Herman Georing and 16th Panzer Divisions, and the 76th Corps coming from of Calabria in the south. On September 13, the American sector was hit by a concentrated combined arms assault focused on the town of Altavilla, and its prevalent Hill 424 defended by the 36th Inf. Div. Despite a brave attempt to endure enemy fire, accurate German artillery pounded and disorganised the defending infantry. The Germans attacked with tanks and panzergrenadiers, and after a sharp and bloody fight, the Americans were routed, fleeing for their lives. The retreating groups of men were rallied at the rear and dug in. Naval 6 inch (152mm) gunfire from the U.S. Navy cruisers Savannah, Philadelphia and Boise rained in and stopped the murderous Panzer advance.
Throughout the beachhead the British and American troops were assailed by a potent enemy who possessed the most advantageous terrain and observation possible seeing every move. They used these advantages to maximise the effectiveness of the long 75mm, 88mm, 10.5cm and 15.0cm guns with the accuracy of giant sniper weapons. A town in the northern British sector called Battipaglia was the scene of just this, and what may have been the battles’s most intense street fighting. Here both sides used their massed artillery to devastating effect. The town changed hands several times a day, with great loss of life; finally becoming a German possession.
On September 15th, the most intense Panzer attack came in the centre of the beachhead parallel to the Sele River. Here the American VI Corps in the south, and the British X Corps to the north were poorly joined. Due to the attrition of the battle, neither Allies could afford to stretch their battalions for the security of this critical seam. The commanding German General, Vietinghoff, saw this weak point and concentrated his panzers and infantry right into the vulnerable opening. The sector was defended by the veteran 45th Infantry Division. The Division had a regiment defending the town of Persano, which was about to be in the path of the most powerful Wehrmacht assault of the entire battle. For the American Infantry battalions at Persano, it was a virtual slaughter.
This attack was not an indiscriminate charge. It was a fully co-ordinated, powerful, and speedy tactical manoeuvre of combined arms forces. Multiple battalions of German armoured vehicles and tanks came streaming into the perimeter letting loose with devastating fire preceded by a severe German artillery bombardment. The American infantry were stunned, and shattered. Survivors came trickling back with cries of desperation, and horror stories. General Clark saw this pending disaster and made a great effort to scrape together any troops to hold the dyke. He even made sure that the band traded their instruments for weapons and took positions at the front. In fact the line at Persano had been broken, and the only thing between the panzers and the beach were two American artillery battalions, the 189th, and the 158th. In frantic desperation 105mm pieces lowered their guns and fired direct fire missions at the Panzers, and their supporting infantry. Round after round was fired with effect causing the enemy to halt their advance, and back away. A truly heroic action by the artillery units.
Clark ordered the parachute drop of over 2,000 Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division inside the beachhead. The Paratroopers hit the ground and went into the combat line immediately. They brought with them new energy and strength to the fight, and they were a nasty surprise for the German Wehrmacht. Relentlessly, the Panzers still came. Kesselring knew he needed a victory fast, or the Allied naval and air power would eventually grind his forces to dust. Throughought the American XI Corps sector the situation became precarious especially on the 15th of September. Contingency plans were drawn up by General Mark Clark for the evacuation of VI Corps and its redeployment in the British X Corps perimeter. But the arrival of the immense firepower of the British battleships Warspite and Valiant made the difference with their massive 15 inch guns.
Attrition was decimating all German units. The Allied air and naval power was allowing no further penetrations for the enemy, and on September 17th, Field Marshall Kesselring called off all German attacks. The Allied beachhead was saved, and the Wehrmacht began withdrawing north to the Volturno River line. The British and Americans had held the beachhead, and moving reinforcing divisions inland. They had taken over 13,700 casualties in 11 days of brutal combat. They lost 3 cruisers, and a number of transports. The intensity of the Salerno Battle is often overlooked, and is a monumentous victory often unappreciated.
Photos of a recreation of the Salerno landings at NWA Games 2001