During the early morning of July 10, 1943, Operation Husky, the largest amphibious landing in military history was about to take place off the island of Sicily. H-Hour for the first wave of assault troops was 0245. As landing craft advanced toward the island, they were engulfed by a gale storm of 40 miles per hour; the soldiers later named the storm “Mussolini wind.”
Due to these extreme weather conditions, the enemy was caught off guard. However, ground landings and paratroopers were also significantly impacted, with numerous small landing craft and gliders crashing. Despite the deleterious circumstances, many were able to land and make headway against the enemy.
The Sicily Invasion was for many American soldiers their first experience in combat. Only the 1st and 9th Infantry divisions had previously seen combat; they had participated in the North African campaign. Operation Husky’s logistical plan was complex and involved, in the initial stages, battlefield coordination between American and British forces. The landing zones covered one hundred miles with over seven divisions spread out from the Gulf of Gela to the Gulf of Noto. This was the largest area covered during an invasion.
Sicily’s geography was challenging and perfect for the defenders with barren land surrounded by hill and mountainous terrain. The ultimate prize was the city of Messina, which was heavily defended and guarded by natural obstacles, and at that time were beyond the range of allied air.
While the allies slowly forged inland, they encountered frequent German counterattacks, while enemy units were retreating, laying mines, and destroying bridges leading towards Messina. These delaying tactics were instrumental in the evacuation of thousands of enemy troops and materiel across the two-mile gap between Messina and the mainland toe of Italy — Calabria.
After two and a half weeks, the 1st Infantry Division encountered the stiffest German opposition in the mountain village of Troina. Defending the village were the battle-hardened 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, no stranger to the 1st Infantry Division: the two units had previously encountered each other in North Africa. The weeklong battle ended with the Allies controlling Troina. Following the victory, General Patton relieved the exhausted 1st Infantry Division, only to soon begin training them for their future landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy.
The success of the six-week-long Sicilian campaign was vastly important: It opened the waterways between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. It provided an airbase for Allied bombers in preparation for attacks on mainland Western Europe. And it destabilized the Fascist regime of Mussolini, thus facilitating a coup that overthrew the dictator on the 25th of July.
Despite the Allied success, over 100,000 enemy soldiers, thousands of associated vehicles, and considerable equipment made it back to the Italian mainland to fight another day. This has been referred to as “Germany’s Dunkirk.”
The invasion of the Italian mainland began shortly on September 9th in Salerno. The next 20 months would prove how difficult the campaign to liberate Italy was, often leading historians to question Winston Churchill’s comment, “Italy was the soft underbelly of Europe.”