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Ntwa Ya Hitler (7) - The Invasion Of Italy

JEFF RAMSAY
We left off with Batswana APC artillery and smoke companies of the British 8th Army having distinguished themselves during the initial phase of "Operation Husky", the July 1943 Anglo-America invasion of Sicily.

On the 11th of August, the Batswana of APC 1967 Company came under concentrated aerial attack at Lentini airfield. Heretofore the Batswana had miraculously suffered only two wounded during the entire invasion.

But at Lentini 5 more were killed and 26 wounded when a formation of 30 enemy planes swept down with anti-personnel bombs.

The Lentini raid was the worst single attack suffered by Batswana during the war. Five Batswana Pioneers were subsequently commended for their unfailing courage during the raid.

Their names (as recorded) were: Sergeants Otukile and Petoro, Corporals Phatsimo and Ditogile and Private Ntshonyalo. The last had been amongst those who had fallen.

The success of the Sicily invasion led to the swift collapse of Italian Fascism. Fighting on the island was still ongoing when; on the 25th of July 1943 the country’s notorious Dictator, Benito Mussolini, was deposed and arrested by his own Grand Council.

The last Axis resistance on the island capitulated on August 17, 1943, by which time an interim Italian government under Marshal Badoglio, backed by the King Victor Emmanuel II, was engaged in secret negotiations to switch sides in the war from the Axis to the allied or United Nations (UN) camp.

The negotiations resulted in an agreement that Italy’s announcement of the shift, on September 3, 1943 would coincide with the first of a series of landings on the Italian mainland.

On that day, in what turned out to be a diversion, units of the British 8th Army carried out Operation Baytown, which involved crossing the narrow Strait of Messina that separated Sicily from the Italian mainland, at Reggio. The Operation went off without serious incident.

The Italian Forces either stood down or cooperated with the invaders, while the Germans pulled back. Within 24 hours of the initial landing, Batswana of 1977 Smoke and 1990 Pioneer Companies had joined in the push up the toe of Italy to the strategic town of Crotone.

On September 8, 1943 the bulk of the 8th Army unleashed Operation Slapstick, which involved their landing at Taranto, a major port city and naval base. Welcomed by the Italian forces on the scene Taranto and the surrounding region were also quickly secured despite numerous logistical hiccups, which resulted in British troops speaking of the landing itself as “Operation Bedlam.” 

A total of five Batswana Companies- 1966, 1967, 1969, 1975 and 2302 participated in Slapstick. Having recovered from its losses at Lentini, the 1967 Support Company was kept busy

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arming and fuelling RAF planes.

From Taranto, 1966 Company joined the advance on the Adriatic port of Brindisi, establishing along the way ammunition and fuel dumps for Montgomery’s armoured divisions.

The heavy 3.7 guns of the other units provided air cover. By October 1943, seven more Batswana companies had joined the 8th Army from Sicily and the Middle East. The biggest and riskiest of the landings was Operation Avalanche, which involved the America 5th Army reinforced by the British 10th Corps landing on September 9, 1943 at the seaside town of Salerno.

The senior UN commander General (later U.S.A. President) Dwight Eisenhower and overall theatre, British General Harold Alexander, along with his two senior deputies, Montgomery and U.S. 5th Army Commander General Mark Clark, were confident that Italy’s surrender and defection to the UN camp would pave the way for a rapid allied advance through southern Italy in order to quickly secure the capital, Rome.

With the active collaboration of now allied Italian units it was expected that the Salerno landing would be virtually unopposed. But this scenario was not to be. Instead Batswana gunners of the 278, 279 and 280 HAA Artillery Batteries were prominent among those who prevented a near disastrous American defeat.

A combination of luck, intelligence and intuition had resulted in the bulk of the German 10th Army, including such elite units as the Herman Goering Panzer Division, being concentrated near the UN forces’ landings allowing for their rapid deployment in the hills above the Salerno beachhead

During the landings, the Germans also unleashed a new super weapon on U.N. shipping and port facilities, the “Fritz X”. The world’s first operational guided missile, when mounted on specially designed Dornier light bombers the Fritz X was a formidable challenge to the UN forces including Batswana gunners and smokescreen operators.

On the day of the initial landing the British and now allied Italian fleets suffered heavy losses when the Fritz X was deployed for the first time.

This further complicated the task of Gen. McCreery’s 10th Corps, incorporating what had been 1976 Batswana Company, which had landed at Salerno as the spearhead of Operation Avalanche only to find themselves in front of reinforced units of the German 10th Army holding the high ground.

Following their transfer from the British 8th to the US 5th Army the Company had been reorganised as three batteries (278, 279, and 280) as part of the 87th HAA Royal Artillery Regiment.



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