The battle for Sicily: breaking into Fortress Europe

The invasion of Sicily in 1943 marked the Allies’ return to ‘Fortress Europe’ – and, despite hellish terrain and an obdurate enemy, ended in victory in just 38 days. So why, asks James Holland, is the operation chiefly remembered for its failings?

Residents of Palermo, Sicily, line the streets to greet the American Sherman tanks after the town had surrendered to the Allies

The mountain-top town of Centuripe had proved a tough nut for the Allies to crack. The artillery had been forced to advance, completely exposed, to near the foot of the town, dodging enemy shelling and navigating the smashed road in search of somewhere to deploy that offered even a modicum of cover. Once they had finally done so, however, they were able to give the attacking infantry the support they needed, and by late on 3 August 1943 the town had fallen. The 3. Fallschirmjäger [Paratroop] Regiment then pulled back, down into the Salso Valley and up to the next town of Adrano – ready to do it all over again.

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Major Peter Pettit, second-in-command of the 17th Field Artillery Regiment, had the unenviable task of trying to work out how he was going to get all 24 of his 25-pounder field guns up to Centuripe, down the other side and then repeat the gruelling ordeal they had just gone through. Centuripe itself was old, smashed about and, with tiny, twisted streets, not suited to large Quad gun-tractors towing an ammunition limber and the gun itself. And these behemoths were competing with a further 80-odd guns of various sizes, as well as tanks, trucks and other vehicles, that all needed to pass through the town.

Early in the morning of 4 August, Major Pettit and his opposite number in the 57th Field Artillery went down the only road leading out of Centuripe to try and work out how to achieve this logistical miracle. Winding, narrow and with numerous switchbacks, it was also in full view of the enemy, who had now dug in on the lower slopes of Mount Etna on the far side of the Salso Valley. Halfway down, a large part of the road had been destroyed, but it was too dangerous to repair in daylight; it would have to wait until dark.

Recognising it was quite impossible to move until night fell, Pettit headed back up to Centuripe and then brought down reconnaissance parties to where he thought they should deploy that night. Once darkness had fallen, 6,000 rounds of ammo were brought down, and then the convoy of Quads and guns began rumbling down, nose to tail, before inching round a diversion hastily built by the engineers around a blown section of road and finally getting into position for first light. Pettit had had just two and a half hours sleep, but he was now forced to frantically try to get the guns in place and camouflaged as much as possible before the sun rose high enough to show their every movement. Three lorries following behind the guns were hit by enemy shelling and exploded.

After days of bitter fighting, Allied infantry forced the enemy back from their positions at Centuripe – but these were just some of the challenges that were faced by those fighting in Sicily.


On the podcast: James Holland tells the story of the dramatic Allied assault on the island of Sicily in the Second World War


A Baedeker guide warned travellers never to visit the island in July or August, when temperatures were unbearably hot, yet those were the months in which the battle took place. “The sun became an implacable enemy,” noted the Canadian lieutenant Farley Mowat, “and our steel helmets became brain furnaces.” The island was also rife with malaria, dysentery and other debilitating diseases. “My brain swam,” recalled the American infantryman Audie Murphy, “and my internal organs rumbled. Finally, I could take it no longer. I fell out of the ranks, lay down on the roadside, and heaved until I thought I would lose my stomach.”

There was little mains water outside of the cities, and many of the rivers were dry. In between were wide open plains and endless hills and mountains, linked by a narrow web of insufficient roads. Sicily was ideal for defence and a nightmare for any attacker, and yet the Allies took the island in just 38 days.

Hustled out of the war

July and August 1943 would prove a critical period in the war in southern Europe. Benito Mussolini was overthrown, Sicily subdued and a path paved for an invasion of mainland Italy. But despite these achievements, something of a black mark has remained against the assault on Sicily. Successive historians have condemned the Allies for the initial plan, their subsequent slow progress, and, finally, for allowing nearly 40,000 Germans to escape back across the Strait of Messina to reinforce the defence of the mainland. It’s time, however, that such a view was kicked very firmly into touch.

The decision by the Allies to invade Sicily was initially made at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, a meeting between British and American war leaders to thrash out a strategy to win the war in the west. By this time, they knew they must surely win in north Africa, and although it had been agreed that they would attempt a cross-Channel invasion of France the following year, there were very good reasons for invading Sicily. It would mean Allied troops would once more be back on European soil; it would help hustle Italy out of the war (if north Africa did not achieve that strategic goal); and it would further tighten the noose around Nazi Germany. Considerable forces had been built up in north Africa and the Mediterranean, and they could not sit back and do nothing until the following spring.

Despite complex deception plans, from incriminating bodies being dropped off the Spanish coast to sabotage operations in Greece – all engineered to suggest the Allies were going to invade Sardinia and Greece – simple logic pointed to Sicily. Certainly, this was what Mussolini and the Italian war leaders thought, and it was what Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, also believed.

The idea that Sicily was the obvious next target was based on the simple fact that command of the air over the invasion front was a pre-requisite for any amphibious invasion. This meant not only having bombers available but fighter aircraft too, which would be needed to fly protective high cover. The presence of Allied air bases on Malta and in northern Tunisia meant this could be only effectively achieved over Sicily: Sardinia and Greece were simply too far away.

Planning for Husky, codename for the invasion of Sicily, began immediately after the Casablanca conference, but by the time a plan for the assault was agreed upon, it had already gone through eight different variations. The ninth iteration of the plan was accepted on 3 May 1943. It was a mind-bogglingly complex operation and drawn up while having absolutely no idea what the enemy reaction would be, or in what strength German units might be sent to Sicily. Italian forces had fought well in Tunisia and had held up the Eighth Army very effectively at Enfidaville (in north-east Tunisia) in April 1943. There was a concern that they might fight even harder on Sicily, since they would now be doing so on Italian soil. The Germans, they knew, would fight determinedly.

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And the shape of Sicily and the location of airfields and ports, which were spread around the island, was another thorny matter. Somehow, the Allies needed to get 6,000 tonnes a day ashore, even though most of the island’s ports would not be available. The air commanders wanted troops to swiftly capture the airfields on the west, south and south-east all at once. On the other hand, the army wanted to land on as narrow a front as possible and quickly build up supplies from there. In other words, the differing Allied forces had entirely contradictory requirements.

In the end, a compromise was agreed. The British and Canadians would land on the south-east coast and head straight to the ports of Syracuse, Augusta and then Catania, and from there on to Messina as quickly as possible, while the Americans would land on the central southern stretch around Gela. It meant the airfields there and in the southeast could be captured swiftly, but not those in the west. Air power alone would have to deal with those.

Control of the air

For all the various planning drafts, there was no doubt that the one decided upon was the best in the circumstances and the one that gave the Allies the best chance of success. Nor should the Allied planners be criticised for the final plan’s evolution when developing an operation so complex; most major offensive operations in the war – from the German attack in the west in 1940 to Overlord, the invasion of Normandy – went through a number of drafts.

As it happened, many of the concerns raised during planning were resolved by the start of the operation, not least because Allied air power before – and during – the invasion was spectacularly effective. This moment in the war saw the emergence of a new, sophisticated marriage of overwhelming Allied air power working together with naval and land power. Bombers pummelled airfields, railways and lines of supply in Sicily but also far beyond as well, while fighters engaged enemy planes. By 10 July 1943, the Axis air forces had been largely neutralised. In fact, over the summer, the Luftwaffe lost 3,504 aircraft in the Mediterranean. By comparison, they lost 702 on the eastern front. The Allied dominance certainly ensured that, when the invasion was launched, the threat from enemy airfields in the west of the island was considerably reduced.

Such success in the air was not so certain at the time of planning. The most important factor at this stage of the war was to ensure the landings were successful. There could be no reverses. It also meant that General Alexander (army group commander for Tunisia, Sicily and then Italy) agreed with Bernard Montgomery (commander of the Eighth Army) to land as many troops as possible to ensure a bridgehead was quickly established and that no effective attempt to repel them could be mounted.

That too, however, involved even more compromises, because for all the impressive build-up of troops and supplies in the Mediterranean, there was still a limit to how much shipping and landing craft was available. Large numbers of troops could only be landed at the expense of large numbers of vehicles – the kind of vehicles that would then transport troops quickly up to Catania and beyond. In the end, 160,000 men were dropped or landed – more than on D-Day the following year – along with 14,000 vehicles and supported by 2,590 vessels and 3,462 aircraft.

Bloated bodies

As events turned out, the British landings were easier than had been feared. But Allied caution was entirely justified when mounting an operation of such scale, and when the cost of failure was simply unthinkable. Better to play safe than risk an upset that could have set the war back many months, if not longer.

There was a consequence, however. Because of the front-loading of troops, there was not enough motor transport to take the leading British units swiftly north. Rather, troops had to march north on foot, in sweltering heat, until transport could arrive in numbers over the following days – and going by foot, of course, took a lot longer than advancing by motorised transport.

In the meantime, the Germans on Sicily had been reinforced and resistance was, as a result, considerably stiffer. Nonetheless, the very real jeopardy that Husky would end in failure outweighed the necessity to move north towards Catania and Messina quickly.

The ponderous pace at which the Allies advanced has clouded their effort in Sicily ever since. As Italian resistance crumbled, the Germans were able to both substantially reinforce and regain their balance, falling back on a succession of defensive lines that initially ran west-east and which then covered the narrowing north-east corner. First the Catania Plain and then successive hilltop towns became scenes of brutal fighting. “The bodies are bloated,” wrote a German called Hanns Cibulka, “flies squat on the blood-crusted uniforms.”

The Primosole Bridge in the Catania Plain was a particularly deadly choke-point. Lieutenant David Fenner of the 6th Durhams jotted: “The air was thick with the stench of rotting bodies, explosives, smoke and lemons, the citrus scent heavy from the shredding the groves had received.” It was not far from here that the legendary England cricketer Hedley Verity was mortally wounded, leading a failed attack against the German Hauptkampflinie (main line of defence).

West and north of the plain, British, American and Canadian troops were forced to prise the Germans from one hilltop town after another, each a Herculean struggle, and each leaving the towns pummelled into rubble, with homes destroyed and civilians killed, wounded or turned into refugees. They were doing this, however, as quickly as supplies and the terrain allowed. The heat, the mountains, the narrow and often primitive roads, as well as the challenges of supply, disease and the casualties among front-line troops, all mitigated against a battle of rapid manoeuvre. Meanwhile, the Germans were struggling with ever-weakening air support, supply shortages and declining morale as it became increasingly clear that the island was lost. The battle being fought had become one of buying time.

Allied troops were forced to prise the Germans from one hilltop town after another, each a Herculean struggle

By the beginning of August, the Hauptkampflinie had been smashed, and the Americans at Troina and the British at Centuripe faced the next defensive lines. Firepower ground down the Germans, but it was the infantry, fighting on thin soil, and often exposed, that had to slug it out the hard way. Finally, by the second week of August, the Germans had fallen back behind Etna, but the tapering of the northeast of the island allowed them to hold ever-shortening defensive lines while the bulk began evacuating.

Although 39,569 Germans and 62,000 Italians escaped, only 25,000 of the Germans that left the island were fighting troops, and their four divisions on Sicily had been appallingly mauled. This escape has been nevertheless one of the biggest causes of Allied criticism.

Yet the history of the war shows that evacuations were generally pretty successful. At Dunkirk, 338,000 Allied troops escaped; 42,000 out of 46,000 British troops deployed were evacuated from Greece in 1941. That same year, nearly 19,000 of the 32,000 Allied troops on Crete were also evacuated. And at the end of the war, more than 2 million Germans were successfully evacuated from East Prussia and Danzig at a time when the Red Army was bearing down upon them. None of these evacuations took place at such a short crossing point as the Strait of Messina, which was little more than a mile wide, nor at a spot that was more densely defended: there were 333 anti-aircraft guns either side of the strait (compared with 135 along the Normandy coastline the following summer). It was impossible to stop them, and their escape made almost no difference to the Italian campaign that followed.

To stand today at the top of Centuripe, or any of the other mountain-top towns over which these bitter battles took place, is to marvel at how anyone managed to fight there at all. That they did so – in the first combined Allied assault of Fortress Europe – and managed to succeed at all was a remarkable achievement, and it should be remembered and better commemorated as such.

James Holland is an author and broadcaster. His books include Sicily‘43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe (Bantam Press,  September 2020)

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This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine