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 the his­toric port of Salerno 29 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. Instead, the Battle of Salerno became a bloody and vicious struggle to stay ashore or be pushed back into the sea.

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. Clark and his staff had already dis­cussed pre­lim­i­nary plans for a sea­borne eva­cu­a­tion. Twenty-four hours later the crisis had passed after the night­time drop on Septem­ber 13/14 of two para­chute infantry regi­ments from the U.S. 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion, plus another reinf­orcing PIR drop. Kessel­ring began with­drawing his hard-fighting forces from Salerno.

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 battered Fifth Army. The bridge­head was con­soli­dated on Septem­ber 18. The next day Allied forces (10 nation­al­ities filled their ranks) pushed north­west towards Naples, which was reached on Octo­ber 1. 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

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