How Operation Husky in July 1943 made Overlord possible in June 1944

Allied commanders of Operation Husky in Tunisia in 1943. Commander-in-chief General Dwight Eisenhower (left), Air Commander-in-chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder (second left) and  General Montgomery (not in the picture) were commanders in Operation Overlord.  General Harold Alexander, land forces commander in Husky (second right), remained in Italy. (© IWM CNA 1075)

AT a critical moment in the Second World War, thousands of American, British and Canadian troops dashed ashore after a massive naval bombardment of enemy positions.

Hours before, American and British airborne troops had landed by glider and parachute to seize key locations behind enemy coastal defences.

Specially-trained units climbed cliffs to knock out artillery batteries.

For months, Allied bombers had pounded strategic targets, disrupting ports and roads.

A deception exercise had kept Hitler uncertain about when and where the Allied blow would fall.

You probably think this is about Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northern France on 6 June 1944.

In fact it’s the story of the start of Operation Husky — the invasion of Sicily and the beginning of the Italian campaign – almost 12 months earlier.

D-Day in Normandy is rightly remembered as a turning point in the war. But it would have been impossible without the lessons the Allies learned in Sicily the previous summer.

Many Husky commanders were to lead Operation Overlord.

They included Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower; Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder; 8th Army commander General Montgomery and General Omar Bradley, commander of America’s II Corps in Sicily who subsequently led US ground forces in Normandy. It was a job that might have gone to General George Patton, commander of America’s 7th Army and Bradley’s superior in Sicily. Patton’s abuse of American casualties in Sicily almost ended his career. He was in England, not in Normandy, on D-Day at the head of a ghost army that deceived the Germans into believing Dieppe was the target of Allied invasion plans.

But the Patton story wasn’t over. He was to play a critical role in the Allied advance through France and in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

For Lucian Truscott, Sicily was an unambiguous triumph. He commanded America’s 3rd Infantry Division, garnering high praise from Patton. Appointed VI Corps commander during the Anzio operation in February 1944, Truscott at the end of that year was naned to succeed Mark Clark as commander of the 5th Army. He witnessed the surrender of German forces in Italy in May 1945.

Clarence Huebner, who Bradley replaced Terry Allen with as commander of the 1st Infantry Division during the Sicily campaign on 7 August, commanded the division in the assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Sicily landings influenced Market Garden

Others in Sicily who were to play starring roles in North West Europe included Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, a paratroop battalion commander in the British airborne operation to capture Primosole bridge south of Catania on 13/14 July.

The battle for the bridge over the  Simetto presaged the experiences of Frost and British paratroopers at the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in September 1944.

James Gavin made his first combat drop as commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment near Gela in southern Sicily on the night of 9/10 July. He was to command the US 82 Airborne Division in Market Garden. Roy Urquhart, who commanded Britain’s Ist Airborne Division at Arnhem, led the 231st Infantry Brigade during the Sicily campaign.

In darkness before dawn on 10 July, the Special Raiding Section led by Major Robert “Paddy” Mayne stormed Italian gun emplacements at Capo Murro di Porco south of Augusta and entered the city itself later that day. A western desert veteran, Mayne was awarded a bar to his DSO and led the 1st battalion of the Special Air Service (SAS) in France.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr had interrupted his Hollywood career to volunteer for the US Navy. He was a member of the Beach Jumpers deception team in Operation Husky and landed on the beach near Gela on 10 July. Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent beloved for his sympathetic reporting of the common enlisted soldier, hit the beach around the same time.

Fairbanks was decorated and returned to Hollywood after war. Pyle won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 but was killed on assignment on Okinawa in April 1945.

Private First Class Audie Murphy, 18 but looking younger and in combat for the first time, landed on Licata beach three hours behind the rest of his battalion in the 15th infantry due to confusion in the run-in but was soon in the thick of the fight. He finished the war as one of the most-decorated US combat soldiers of the Second World War and after became a Hollywood movie star, dying in a plane crash in 1971.

Others who were to gain subsequent fame included Philip Mountbatten, a 21-year-old lieutenant on HMS Wallace which supported the Husky landings. It was the first taste of combat for a young man who was to marry Princess Elizabeth in 1948 and become Britain’s prince consort in June 1953.

Sicily was pivotal for the Canadian Army.

Blooded in the Dieppe raid in August 1942, it was given a role in Husky following a request by the Canadian government. The 1st Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade landed near Pachino on 10 July. Lacking motor transport after shipping bringing it to Sicily was sunk, the Canadians advanced by foot from the landing beaches to Adrano.

It was a 325km walk that involved major battles including at Agira in central Sicily which will commemorated this July in the Walk for Remembrance & Peace (WRAP) organised by the International Forum for Peace, Security & Prosperity.

After joining the invasion of mainland Italy in September 1943 and fighting its way to the Gothic Line, the division in March 1945 was transferred to north-west Europe and the final advance into the Netherlands and Germany.

The German great escape

For the German Army under overall Mediterranean commander Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, Sicily was the testing ground of defensive tactics that were later to extract a heavy price from Allied armies on the Italian mainland. Its liaison officer in Sicily Generallieutenant Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin was later to organise the defence of Monte Cassino.

The German evacuation of Sicily completed in August 1943 turned a potential disaster for the German army into a great escape though there was little the Allies could have done about it.

Nevertheless, the Sicilian campaign was a success for the Allies. It was completed on time in less than 40 days. Allied casualties totaled 23,000, fewer than pessimists feared. More than half were due to malaria, then endemic in Sicily.

For Italy, however, Husky was to precipitate disaster. Fifteen days after the landings started, Benito Mussolini was deposed as prime minister and later arrested. He was replaced by Marshall Pietro Badoglio who immediately and in secret started negotiations with the Allies to get Italy out of the war.

This was eventually achieved in an armistice signed in the Sicilian town of Cassibile on 2 September 1943 in which Italy switched sides though this was only made public six days later.

The German response was immediate. Most of the Italian mainland was occupied. Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel fled Rome. The Italian army numbering around 1m men was disarmed and most imprisoned for the rest of the war.

Mussolini was freed by German paratroopers and commandos and set up a pro-axis republic in Milan. Badoglio called on Italians to resist fascism and German occupiers. Italian soldiers fought in both Allied and Axis armies. Italy was to be a battlefield until the end of the war and its people suffered grievously as a result.

There are many reasons why July 1943 should be commemorated. They will be examined at the Sicily 1943: Peace, Security & Prosperity conference at Catania’s Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia on 7- 8 July 2023.

To find out more about the conference click here.

A complete account of the Sicily campaign can be found in Sicily ’43 by James Holland published by Bantam Press in 2020. The Irish Brigade website thanks the author for details from his book used in this article.


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