Less than a month after the fall of Sicily, the Allies began their quest to liberate mainland Italy. On September 3, 1943, the British undertook simultaneous landings in the Calabria “toe” region of Italy. About a week later, on September 9, 1943, the Americans launched Operation Avalanche near the port of Salerno. The operation began the 20-month mainland Italian campaign of brutal fighting.
Salerno is about 170 miles north of Calabria. The objective of the British landings was to divert German troops south, thus leaving the port of Salerno undefended. This would make it quick work for the U.S. Fifth Army, thus enabling it to link up with the British the next day.
To maintain the surprise, it was decided to not carry out the usual pre-invasion naval or aerial bombardment. As the troops prepared to land, word spread throughout the convoy that the Italians had surrendered the day before. Confidence rose among the ranks who mistakenly believed that the landing area would not be defended.
Yet, as the first wave approached the shore, troop confidence went to hell in a handbasket. Rather than a deserted shore, the landing crafts were greeted by loudspeakers blaring in English, “Come in and give up. We have you covered.” Without pre-landing bombings, the German heavy fortifications were unscathed. Strategically positioned artillery and machine guns covered the zone. Several German divisions allowed to retreat from Sicily were positioned in the landing area and beleaguered the landing forces. In addition, the defenders did not fall for the bait of the British landings, thus maintaining their strength.
Despite a confident warning from the Panzergrenadier Divisions, American troops landed under heavy fire. Wave after wave tried to assemble at the port only to be impeded by a counterattack from the 16th Panzer Division. Despite the heavily defended landing zone, numerous obstacles, and questionable decisions made by Allied leaders, the American soldiers fought through the ferocious defense and by the end of the second day were close to linking with the British.
On the third day, the Germans realized that the Americans and the British were close to joining forces. They, therefore, initiated their final counterattack composed of infantry units supported by tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery from the surrounding hillside. Its objective was to push the invaders back to the beachhead. At long last, naval gunfire began striking true and reinforcements from the 82nd airborne and 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion landed behind the counterattacking Germans thus helping divert the onslaught. Despite heavy penetration, the German offensive failed, and the port remained in American hands.
Yet, why was the planning for Operation Avalanche poorly done? One could point to several probable factors: It could be that the surrender of the Italian army had imbued the Allies with overconfidence. Alternatively, the Allies could have been trying to limit damage to the port, or their leaders could have been preoccupied with forming the groundwork for the invasion of Normandy.
There were many challenging battles in the Italian campaign. One parameter that remained constant throughout was that the “underbelly” of the Axis was heavily defended — it was not so soft after all. However, thanks to the Italian campaign (and the German retreat on the Eastern front), a significant number of German divisions were diverted away from France and Belgium.