Chapter Two

The Race to Messina

Despite the determined German counterattacks, the Allies drove north with little difficulty until the British 8th Army ground to a halt before Catania, just over half-way to the army’s final objective: the port of Messina. Although the key strategic task had been allocated to Montgomery’s 8th Army, it was the US 7th Army under the dynamic leadership of General Patton that made the real progress. By 23 July Patton’s forces had cleared western Sicily and were heading eastwards along the north coast towards the prize of Messina. Their advance was assisted by a series of amphibious landings on 8, 11 and 15 August to outflank the resistance now being conducted largely by the Germans as they withdrew towards Messina.

General Hube was appointed Corps Commander on 13 July, less than two weeks before Mussolini’s downfall on 25 July. German reinforcements sent to Sicily were the 1st Parachute Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division to add to the 15th Panzergrenadiers and the Hermann Göring Division. The 29th Panzergrenadiers were in the northern sector, the 15th in the centre and the Hermann Göring in the east. They were supported by the remnants of three Italian divisions.

The arrival of these reinforcements bolstered the German garrison to some 72,000 men with about 160 tanks, including a company of Tigers. Until the 14th Panzer Corps arrived, the new units were nominally under the command of the Italians, though in reality took their orders from General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, who was the German liaison officer with the 6th Italian Army HQ and answered to Kesselring. Hube eventually took full command of the Sicilian front in early August.

Private H.I.Tait of the 51st Highland Division witnessed the tough time that Allied tanks had on Sicily: ‘One point I had particularly noted during the battle was the vulnerability of the Sherman tank, which had a much higher outline than the German tanks, and seemed to be picked off very easily. Our CO [Commanding Officer] was killed whilst in a tank conferring with the tank commander.’ Private Tait also recalled the bitter fighting against the Luftwaffe’s panzers for the Gerbini airfield: ‘There were several counterattacks by German troops which were identified as units from the Herman Goering Division and paratroops. At about 9.00am, 21 July, there was a counterattack by German tanks supported by about a battalion strength of infantry.’ During the fighting Tait was captured but managed to escape. He recalled: ‘It was probably early August before our battalion went back into action. I recollect that one of our infantry companies captured a self-propelled 75mm gun by dropping into it from a tree as the gun proceeded along the road.The gun was retained.’

By late July Allied air strikes were concentrating their efforts on the panzers, especially the 15th Panzergrenadiers. They withdrew to a strongly defensive north – south line that ran through Regalbuto, conforming with the 29th Panzergrenadiers to the north and the Hermann Göring Division to the south. All three were prepared to tough it out to the end.

The Axis forces then moved to a second defensive line, anchored on Mount Etna, starting at San Fratello on the north coast and running through Troina and Aderno. The 15th Panzergrenadiers, along with the remains of an Italian infantry division, held the former. For six long days they clung on, launching twenty-four counterattacks. Once the Americans were on Mount Pellegrino, the Troina defences became untenable.The Hermann Göring Division was pushed back by 30th Corps and the 29th Panzergrenadiers’ positions were turned at Santa Agata and San Fratello after the Americans landed behind them.

Catania fell on 5 August and two days later Aderno (southwest of Mount Etna) fell to the British after heavy fighting and an abrupt withdrawal by the Germans. With Aderno and Troina taken, the main defence line across northeastern Sicily was broken. On 13 August the Americans took Randazzo to the northwest of Mount Etna, some 50 miles from Messina. Efforts to trap the enemy were continually thwarted by the speed of the German withdrawal.

It was clear to Kesselring that his forces on Sicily could not hold out much longer. Hube was told to save the three German armoured units, the Hermann Göring Division and the 15th and 29th Panzergrenadiers. In Calabria the 14th Panzer Corps Mainland Corps was instructed to oversee evacuated units. German guns kept enemy fighter-bombers and warships away from the Strait of Messina so the Allies were unable to impede the German escape. Likewise, the Allies’ failure to invade Calabria, the toe of Italy, thereby cutting off the Messina Straits, sealed mainland Italy’s fate in becoming the next battleground.

Between 1 and 10 August some 12,000 Germans, 4,500 vehicles and 5,000 tons of equipment were successfully withdrawn to the Italian mainland. A larger-scale evacuation was conducted from 11 to 17 August. In total General Hube saved 40,000 German troops, 10,000 vehicles, 47 tanks, 94 guns and 17,000 tons of supplies, all of which were redeployed to supplement the defences of the Italian mainland. Despite this achievement, Hube lost vital equipment, including 78 tanks and armoured cars, 287 guns and 3,500 vehicles. Although the 8th Army was pressing on the Germans’ heels, the honour of taking Messina fell to the US 3rd Infantry Division.

Around 62,000 Italian soldiers, 227 vehicles and 41 artillery pieces were shipped across to the mainland for the loss of 15 landing barges, 6 minesweepers and many smaller craft before the American and British armies reached Messina on 17 August. Sicily had fallen and a tremor ran through the Italian political elite in Rome. The Sicilian campaign cost the Allies almost 25,000 men, the Germans between 10,000 and 20,000, and the Italians 147,000. Crucially an entire panzer corps and its panzer and panzergrenadier divisions got away to fight another day.

The bloody fighting and resulting stalemate at Gerbina on the plains of Catania had held up Montgomery just long enough for Patton’s tanks to take the laurels for winning the race to Messina. It is ironic that Patton was supposed to safeguard Montgomery’s rear while Monty rushed forwards, as he had done from Alamein to Tunis.

Lieutenant General George S. Patton discusses the battle with Lieutenant Colonel Lyle Bernard, the commander of the US 30th Infantry Regiment. The British 8th Army under General Montgomery landed between Syracuse and the southeastern tip of Italy. General Patton and the US 7th Army landed in the Gulf of Gela between Licata in the west and Scoglitti in the east. The objective of both armies was Messina on the northeastern tip of the island; in the process it was hoped to trap the German and Italian forces before they could escape over the Messina Straits.

American Gls take a closer look at a number of knocked-out Tiger tanks. Exposed roads such as this made them vulnerable to Allied fighter-bombers. The 60-ton Tiger was soon found to be ill-suited to the rugged and unforgiving Sicilian countryside, while Italian armour was too light to offer any real resistance against American firepower.

A US medic treats a casualty while poor Sicilian civilians look on. The Germans conducted a well organised fighting retreat eastwards and at no stage did this turn into a rout.

American soldiers take a rest from the fighting on Sicily in the town of Cefalu while military police in a jeep patrol the streets.The narrow streets were potential death-traps when targeted by enemy snipers.

A British early production M4A2 Sherman just north of Rammacca, which lies about 22 miles southwest of Catania and 87 miles southeast of Palermo.

This classic shot shows veterans of Montgomery’s British 8th Army storming a Sicilian railway station with fixed bayonets.

Men from the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade conduct house clearances in Centuripe. Both photographs were taken in early August 1943.

Troops from the Canadian 1st Infantry Division enter Modica on the southern tip of Sicily.

On the whole the Italian troops on Sicily were of a poor quality and already thoroughly demoralised after their defeats in Libya and Tunisia. The Sicilian capital Palermo fell to the Allies on 22 July 1943, and by this stage some 40,000 men had been taken prisoner. Here some rather apprehensive Italians surrender to British troops.

While very few Axis tanks escaped over the Messina Straits, tens of thousands of troops crossed largely unmolested.This photo shows Messina’s railyards under air attack.The air defences here were particularly strong.

Canadian tanks of the Regiment de Trois-Rivieres entering the ruins of Regalbuto, 4 August 1943.

The final resting place for another knocked-out Tiger in the Sicilian countryside. The Germans left behind seventy-eight tanks and armoured cars following the evacuation, but 55,000 troops escaped.

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