Our last instalment noted that the July 1943 Anglo-America invasion of Sicily led to the swift collapse of Italian Fascism. Seventy-three years ago on Friday, September 25, 1943, the Italian Dictator Mussolini was placed under arrest by his own Grand Council.
A new Royalist government under Marshal Badoglio then engaged in secret negotiations to switch Italy from the Axis to the UN camp. It was agreed that Italy’s September 8, 1943 surrender announcement would coincide with major landings by the British 8th Army at Taranto (Operation Slapstick) and the British reinforced American 5th Army at Salerno (Operation Avalanche).
As a diversion, other units of the 8th Army crossed the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, at Reggio on September 3 (Operation Baytown). Batswana combat and support troops participated in all three of these landings.
The UN Forces Commander-in-Chief, General (later US President) Dwight Eisenhower, along with his two senior deputies, the by then already larger than life 8th Army Commander Bernard Montgomery and US 5th Army Commander Mark Clark, anticipated that Italy’s surrender would lead to a rapid allied advance through southern and central Italy, securing the capital, Rome.
But this scenario was not to be. Instead Batswana gunners were prominent among those who prevented a near disastrous defeat at Salerno.
Operation Baytown went off without serious incident. The Italian Forces had already given up the fight, while the Germans pulled back. In the first 24 hours, the Batswana of 1977 Smoke and 1990 Pioneer Companies had joined the push up the toe of Italy to the strategic town of Crotone.
A total of five Batswana Companies- 1966, 1967, 1969, 1975 and 2302 participated in Operation Slapstick, which also proceeded smoothly. Having recovered from its losses at Lentini, 1967 Support Company was kept busy arming, fuelling and guarding RAF planes.
The 1966 Company joined the advance on the Adriatic port of Brindisi, establishing along the way ammunition and fuel dumps for armoured divisions. The heavy 3.7 guns of the other two units provided air cover at the port city and naval base of Taranto.
In the weeks that followed, seven more Batswana companies had joined the invasion.
Initially there was great danger on the sea as well as land as Axis aircraft and U-boats desperately targeted the allied convoys. In addition, the American, British and now allied Italian fleets suffered losses when the Fritz X, the world’s first operational guided missile, was deployed during the opening stages of Operation Avalanche.
The Battle of Salerno, which lasted from September 9-18, 1943, was one of the decisive events of war. A German victory there as well as in the fierce parallel fighting against 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 pending defeat.
By September 13, 1943 securing the Mediterranean perimeter at least seemed to be within Hitler’s grasp when the multinational, US-led Fifth Army was nearly forced to evacuate from its Salerno beachhead. It had landed four days earlier expecting little resistance, but had instead found itself divided and pinned down by reinforced units of the German 10th Army.
The Germans had the advantage of holding the high ground and being both better led and more experienced (many of the 5th Army’s American troops were facing hostile fire for the first time). A combination of luck, intelligence and intuition had further resulted in the bulk of the German forces including such elite units as the Herman Goering Panzer Division being concentrated right at the beachhead.
Defeat at Salerno was to a great extent averted by a gun line of artillery that notably included Batswana of the 278, 279, 280 batteries of the 87 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 armour and artillery in the hills above Salerno. Their effectiveness soon provoked a vicious response from enemy .88 flak guns.
When German ground forces failed to silence the Batswana they were attacked from the air. While the Fritz X’s played havoc on allied naval units, German aircraft were able to fly in low over Salerno Bay to attack the gun line from the rear.
With their own guns targeted at the hills, the Batswana were completely vulnerable to aerial strafing and dive bombs. Fortunately, other light anti-aircraft batteries were rushed to their sector to provide much needed support.
On the morning of the 13th, it appeared that the gun line would be overrun, but by the evening of the 14th, the Germans were forced to pull back.
Finally, on September 18, the 5th Army was able to link up with the 8th Army, which by now included over 3,000 additional Batswana troops. The immediate prospect of defeat had been averted, but the battle for Italy was far from over.