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Ntwa Ya Hitler (8) - Battle For Salerno

We left off on September 9, 1943 with Operation Avalanche, the landing of the American led but multinational US 5th Army at the beaches of Salerno bay in Italy.

The operation spearheaded at the centre by the British 10th Corps which included Batswana APC gunners now serving as batteries 278, 279, and 280 of the 87th HAA Royal Artillery Regiment.

With the active collaboration of now allied Italian units the landings had originally been expected to be virtually unopposed. But, from the very beginning, fierce resistance was encountered.

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.

The anticipated advantage of overwhelming naval support had also been compromised during the landings by the German deployment of the world’s first operational guided missile, the Fritz X, as well as conventional aerial bombing.

As the armies came clashed, the resulting Battle of Salerno, which lasted from the 9th through the 18th of September 1943, proved to be one of the decisive military events of the Second World War. A German victory there as well as in the ongoing and to some extent interrelated fighting between German and Soviet forces in the central sector of the Eastern Front might have given the Third Reich time to mobilise its defences in order to stave off its pending defeat.

We know that such at least was Hitler’s ambition. The collapse of Italy and the Soviet push across the plains of Ukraine and Belarus following their great victory at Stalingrad had by then made ultimate German defeat appear ever more likely in the eyes of senior German officers as well as Nazi leadership.

For his part, the evil dictator hoped to buy time by securing the flanks of his “Fortress Europe” with a defensive “Eastern Wall” against the Soviets and “Mediterranean Moat” against the Anglo-American led southern front.  The later however required a decisive victory in Italy.

If the UN advance could thus be stemmed, Hitler and his cohorts reasoned Germany could regain the advantage through the deployment of a new generation of super weapons then being readied for battle, which included the ME 262 Jet, the revolutionary Type XXI Submarine and the V1 and V2 Rockets (with the massive intercontinental V3 on the drawing boards), as well as the already deployed but in short supply Fritz X Missiles and a new generation of mobile armour platforms, epitomised by the Tiger Tank.

Fortunately, we now know that progress on

the one super weapon that might have actually tipped the balance, the German “Uranverein” (Uranium Club) project to develop a nuclear weapon, had in 1941 been de-prioritised in preference for investment in jet propulsion and rocket and missile development.

In contrast to the briefings received by the US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill, the theoretical potential of nuclear technology had to a great extent been hidden from Hitler.

By the 13th of September 1943 securing the Mediterranean perimeter at least seemed to be within the German’s grasp with the Fifth Army finding itself divided and pinned down by the enemy. Besides the advantage of holding the high ground with superior armour, the 10th Army was both better led and more experienced (many of the 5th Army’s American troops were facing hostile fire for the first time).

Defeat at Salerno was ultimately averted by a gun line of artillery that notably included the Batswana batteries of the 87th HAA Regiment. After their success at Syracuse the Batswana had been brought ashore with the expectation that their 3.7 Guns would provide air cover against high altitude bombers. But their role was quickly altered by the desperate situation on the beaches.

The 3.7 barrels were instead depressed for field firing against German armoured units and artillery in the hills above Salerno. The effectiveness of the HAA’s in disabling the heavily armoured Tiger Tanks in particular.

The German’s responded by raking the gun line with their .88 flak guns. When this failed to silence the Batswana and their colleagues, the gunners were attacked from the air. With Fritz X’s playing havoc on U.N. naval units, Luftwaffe fighters were able fly in low over Salerno Bay to attack the gun line from the rear.

As Swazi APC NCO Austin Dlamini described the action: “We assembled at the beach to realise only too well the order of the day was dispersal and moved to cover right away. Once again an enemy plane came from nowhere, opened its machine guns on us and we fell to the ground, the felling was that of bullets were going through as little puffs of dust rose in multitudes through the ranks of the men lying prone.

The hills of the northern end of the Salerno front were blasted as our gunners drove shells into the enemy machine gun nests. Dust rose from the target, which whirled down the hillsides as the dry scrub caught fire.”

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