Gulf of Salerno, Italy September 9, 1943

On this date in 1943 in Italy, the Allies from their strong­holds in North Africa and Sicily invaded the boot-shaped Ital­ian main­land at Salerno 30 miles south­east of Naples (Opera­tion Ava­lanche), with diver­sionary land­ings at Reggio di Cala­bria (Opera­tion Bay­town, Septem­ber 3, 1943), which lay on the “toe” of the Ital­ian Penin­sula, and Taran­to (Opera­tion Slap­stick, Septem­ber 9), the Italian naval port and air­fields that lay in the “in­step” of the Italian heel (see map). (A landing farther north near the Italian capi­tal, Rome, would have been too far from Allied air sup­port based in Sicily.) Allied bombing mis­sions during the first week of September softened up the Salerno beaches and plain.

In landing on the Italian mainland U.S. forces were returning to the Euro­pean conti­nent for the first time since 1918. The day before the Salerno assault, Septem­ber 8, both Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Allied Com­mander, and Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio, former Chief of Staff of the Italian Army and now Benito Mus­solini’s replace­ment as head of state, publicly announced Fascist Italy’s uncon­di­tional sur­render, though the two sides had negoti­ated sur­render terms five days earlier. Immedi­ately, King Victor Em­manuel III and the Italian high com­mand for­sook Rome for the safety of Bari on the Adriatic coast, directly north of Taranto.

After Mussolini’s fall from power six-and-a-half weeks earlier (July 25, 1943), an enraged Adolf Hitler declared the Italians to be the “bitterest enemy.” Dissuaded from attempting a coup against Badoglio’s new govern­ment, Hitler directed his armed forces to take over the defense of Italy and occupy Rome, fun­neling fresh divi­sions from Austria through the Bren­ner Pass into Italy since the start of August—this as a resur­gent Red Army made gains on Germany’s East­ern Front. Three days later, on Septem­ber 12, 1943, German com­mandos snatched Mus­solini from Italian cap­tivity high in the Apen­nine Moun­tains and soon placed Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) at the head of a German-imposed pup­pet govern­ment in Northern Italy, the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana).

The Allied invasion of the Italian main­land unleashed 20 months of con­fusing and mur­derous tur­moil in Italy between Axis and Allied armies and Italian Fascists and anti-Fascists. On April 27, 1945, as Allied troops advanced through North­ern Italy, Italian par­ti­sans cap­tured Mus­solini trying to escape to Swit­zer­land, exe­cuted him the next day, and hung his bloodied corpse, along with those of his mis­tress and four Fascist leaders, from the girder of an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. A total of 15 bodies of leading Fascists were dumped in the city’s square for grizzly display.

Operation Avalanche: The Allied Invasion of Mainland Italy, September 1943

Allied invasion of Mainland Italy, September 1943

Above: Breaching Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” (Festung Europa). Once established on the Italian main­land, the Allies hoped to secure com­plete naval and aerial domi­nation of the Med­i­ter­ra­nean Theater, secure stra­tegic ports and air­fields for future opera­tions against For­tress Europe, knock Italy out of the war, entrap Southern Italy’s German defenders behind Allied lines, and force the remaining German forces to retreat north of the Alps. Not everything went according to plan.

Operation Avalanche: U.S. Lt. Gen. Mark Clark during the Salerno campaignOperation Avalanche: Landing artillery on Salerno beach, September 1943

Left: Six-foot 3-inch Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, Commanding General, U.S. Fifth Army on board USS Ancon, a converted ocean liner, during the landings at Salerno, on Italy’s west coast, Septem­ber 12, 1943. Clark com­manded the first Amer­i­can army to see active duty in Europe. How­ever, his con­duct of opera­tions through­out the Ital­ian cam­paign is con­tro­ver­sial, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, who had earlier made Clark his deputy com­mander in chief in the North African Theater, con­sidered him a bril­liant staff officer and trainer. (He’s “the best organizer, planner, and trainer that I have met,” Eisen­hower said of Clark.) Clark (1896–1984) won many awards during his 36‑year career with the army, including the Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross, sub­or­din­ate only to the Medal of Honor, for extreme bravery in war. (The award was recog­ni­tion of Clark’s assuming direct com­mand of an anti­tank unit that stopped 18 German tanks at point-blank range during the second major German counter­attack at Salerno.) In March 1945, the 48-year-old became a full general, the youngest American ever to wear four stars to this day.

Right: Artillery being landed during the inva­sion of main­land Italy at Salerno, Septem­ber 1943. By sun­down on D‑Day, more than 50,000 Allies (out of a total of 189,000 soldiers, sailors, and air­men on Septem­ber 16) were ashore and had pushed inland as much as eight miles. Their inten­tion was to cross the level Salerno plain, cross over the foot­hills to the moun­tain passes and through them to Naples, where they could use its excel­lent port facil­ities and air­fields as a main supply hub and base for future Allied operations in Italy.

Operation Avalanche: German artillery pounds Salerno beachheadBritish soldiers pass a burning German IV tank in Salerno area

Left: The Allies projected that the Germans might have 39,000 men facing them on D‑Day but on D+3 would have a force of 100,000. Under the com­mand of savvy and expe­ri­enced Field Marshal Albert Kessel­ring German units, along with Ital­ian mili­tary per­sonnel pressed into ser­vice, suc­ceeded in posi­tioning mortars and artil­lery (like the one shown in this photo) on the high ground in a semi­circle covering the whole coastal area. On Septem­ber 13, “Black Monday,” Clark’s Fifth Army, pinned down to a thin bridge­head, desper­ately tried clawing its way out of the jaws of defeat. By the next night the crisis had passed with the assis­tance of rein­force­ments from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division and Kesselring’s forces withdrew.

Right: The crescent-shaped, 35-mile-wide Avalanche landing zone was secured at the cost of 12,500 Allied casu­al­ties and MIAs on Septem­ber 16, 1943. On that date Ber­nard Law Mont­gomery’s British Eighth Army, moving up from the south (Monty’s forces had landed unopposed at Reggio di Cala­bria, just across the Strait of Messina from Sicily’s east coast on Sept­ember 3; see map), linked up with Clark’s Fifth Army. On Septem­ber 19 Allied forces (10 nation­al­ities filled their ranks) pushed north­west towards Naples. In this photo from Septem­ber 22, 1943, men of the 2/6th Batta­lion, Queen’s Royal Regi­ment advance past a burning German Panzer IV tank in the Salerno area. The regiment saw heavy fighting at Salerno, Monte Casino, and Anzio.

Operation Avalanche: British Newsreel of Allied Naval Shelling and Amphibious Landing at Salerno, Italy, September 9, 1943