“You will tell your men that”

Operation Husky

Prologue

Major William Martin, Royal Marines, born in Cardiff, Wales, on March 29 1907, had a fiancèe named Pam, a loving father and some trouble with Lloyds bank. Pam wrote to him love letters, his father signed the letters your devoted father, the bank intimated him to pay back a 79£, 19 shillings and two pennies  overdraft. But for major Martin all this, by now, had  no meaning. Because Major Martin was dead. Drowned, probably after an aerial crash. The drift had brought his body in the Spanish waters, near Huelva where, around 9,30a.m. 1943 a fisherman had found it, informing immediately the local authorities.
Major Martin had  a love letter and a picture of Pam, some letters of his father, a bill of the famous jewellery SJ Philip LT attesting the purchase of a wedding ring,  the letter of the bank and, into a suitcase tied to his waist, a couple of “explosive” letters.
The first was a letter of Deputy Chief of the British Imperial Staff, sir Archibald Nye, and it was addressed to general Harold Alexander; the latter was a letter of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and it was addressed to admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander in Chief of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea.  In confidential tone , Sir Nye wrote to his old friend: we are planning to land in Greece (operation  code name Husky) a couple of  Divisions , feigning in the same time an attack on Sicily and putting in action other operations in the Mediterranean, as operation Brimstone ( the invasion of Sardinia?), for instance. The Mountbatten’s letter said that Martin was an expert of  amphibian operations and that he was bringing an important and urgent letter to General Alexander.

It was a huge deception. Major Martin did not exist, he never existed. He was a part of  a plan planned by British Secret Services for deceiving the Germans , convincing  them that an attack against Greece or Sardinia was imminent , instead of an attack against Sicily. The corpse fished out in the Spanish waters was the corpse of a poor wretch, dead after having drunk rat poison. A British submarine– the Seraph— had carried that body till the Spanish waters into a steel canister filled with dry ice, releasing it at around a mile far from the coast.
Informed by the Spaniards, the German agents of the Abwher examined the corpse and the documents and took the bait. In fact, that deception was not only plausible, it was perfect. Everything had been managed with care, in particular the details: the uniform, the choice of the name ( among the Royal Marines, Martin was a very common name), a bus ticket, the stubs of the tickets of a London theatre dated  April 27, the bill of  an overnight stay in the Navy’s Club, the picture of his fiancé , the letters, even the underwear. That act would have misled everyone. Not for nothing, in the section that had planned it — that one of Commander Ewen Montagu– was in service  a man destined to be famous because of spies and special agents: Jan Fleming.

The body of Major Martin was returned to the  British Deputy Consul in Huelva and buried, with the military honours, in the local cemetery. On June 4, the Times published his name among the name of the fallen in battle, together with the names of two pilots crashed into the sea. The deception was complete.

Symbol.

Casablanca, Morocco, January 1943. Inter-allied  Conference, code name Symbol. The question for Churchill and Roosevelt is the following: Stalin is taking all the weight of the war in Europe, his troops are under a damned pressure, he asks insistently that a second front be opened: helping him is necessary. And about this question, there is full unanimity.
But where should the second front be opened? In France? We are already working about this possibility, but there is still much to do, is the answer of the military analysts .  How much ? A year, in the best case. France is, then, out of question. For the 1943, at least. But Stalin must be helped, it is necessary making lighter the pressure over the Red Army, forcing Hitler to take away troops from the Eastern front for engaging them elsewhere.
Elsewhere, yes, but where? Seen the favourable outcome of Torch ( the invasion of the French Northern Africa and of Tunisia), why not continuing the operations in the Mediterranean area and why not eliminating Italy, by always soft underbelly of the Axis? There are other “ Elsewheres”, of course. The Balkans and Greece or Sardinia, for instance, could be invaded, but they are strongly defended. Italy is better.
And Sicily even more. Close to the north-African coasts , in the range of our bombers and, once occupied her southern airports, also in the range of our fighters, important base for controlling the naval routes in the Mediterranean and towards Suez, defended by not very effective Italian troops and by a couple of German divisions, once conquered, she could be very useful for us. At this point Hitler could not be indifferent, he would see the Balkans under threat and would move troops from the Eastern front. And what about the political effects that such upset could cause in Italy? Would Mussolini last? Or would not he been replaced by the King or by a military coup , depriving Hitler of his best ally?

We land in Sicily, then. Everything in order? Forget it! Because landing in Sicily is not sufficient. The true question is the following: what do we do after having conquered Sicily ? We must invade the Peninsula, of course, the British say; stop at every other invasion: we must train the troops for landing in France, is the American reply. And they go on: putting foot on the Peninsula is a huge silly thing, a senseless thing. Once begun an operation, we must go the whole hog. And going the whole hog would cost too much in terms of men, materials, resources taken away from the landing in France and in terms of time taken away from the Pacific campaign. Let us bomb her if she  does not surrender, but let us keep our troops away from Italy, from this “siphon” of resources and time.
Silly thing? “Siphon”? is the British answer. It does not exist. Think twice. Husky  ends within a month, forty days. And afterward what do we do? Do we keep our soldiers idle? Our aircraft at the ground? Our ships in port? What will Stalin think about that? No: we must conquer Sicily, pass the Strait and go up the Peninsula. The landing in France? Nobody knows if landing in France is possible, if there are sufficient forces or sufficient landing crafts. While we, now, are close to Italy: wasting such an occasion would be a huge blunder: we could finish the war here and now.

And thus, come the conference to an end, everywhere memoranda and counter-memoranda are written as well as purposes and counter – purposes are presented. Another Conference ( Trident, May 1943) will be necessary to define the Husky’s details. The British have good reasons for wanting at all costs the continuation of the operations in the Mediterranean area. Not last the wish to make the ancient mare nostrum a  new mare britannicum ( British Sea). And what about the idea to keep Stalin far from the Balkans? Or, at least, to try it? The Americans , for their part, do not give up: the second front will have to be opened in France. Stop. If Casablanca had to be the symbol of collaboration , cohesion, and so on, surely the Conference has got its aim.

“Husky”.

On the military side, things do not go better. In the allied “henhouse” there are too many cocks and cockerels always ready to swell their chest. Montgomery acts as prima -donna; Patton criticizes everybody and everything; Eisenhower – before Torch a complete stranger or almost—is the commander in chief; Alexander commands the land forces;  Tedder is in charge of the aerial force and Cunningham is in command of the naval force. Three British commander, plus Montgomery, in the key positions. Do not  the British trust, completely, in the Americans? Trusting? Why? The battle of El-Alamein is not the battle of Kasserine Pass.
The planning, then,  is an endless suffering and mess. We are to land northwest, no: we are to land southeast;  we are to attack directly Messina, no: Messina is out of the range of our aircraft and the aerial cover would lack; we are to conquer at first the harbours, no: we are to conquer the airports, or rather both; we are to deploy our forces on a very wide front, no: we are to keep our forces united, in order to allow a mutual cover. And so on.
Finally, Montgomery resolves the situation. In his own way, of course. No landings in the north-western Sicily, no dispersion of forces : we are to concentrate our efforts in the south-eastern part of the island and we are to cover one another. Eisenhower agrees. 

And here is the plan. Two Armies – the  British Eighth Army and the American Seventh Army- are to land part of their men ( seven Divisions) on a front of around 150 kilometres in the southern and south-eastern part of Sicily. To support the landing, airborne units are to land behind the enemy lines.
The British are to land north of the Pachino Peninsula, are to occupy Siracusa ( Syracuse) and then they are to go on towards Augusta, Catania, Gerbini’s airport and Messina. The Americans are to land in the Gela Gulf between Licata and Scoglitti, they are to take some airports between Licata and Comiso ( Ponte Olivo, Biscari), are to reach the so called “Yellow Line” located at around forty kilometres inland, in order to control the heights and to cover the left  flank of the Eighth Army. Once secured the Montgomery’s left flank, the Patton’s men are to go more forward and to reach a new line, named “Blue Line” for controlling the road from and to Piazza Armerina. Nobody speaks to conquer Palermo.

As we can see, the British have the most important role in that operation; Patton seems to have only the task to cover the flanks of the Eighth Army and to make easier its advance. Seen the man, how much alka seltzer will have been necessary for swallowing that decision? In addiction, Alexander makes another mistake: he does not say to Patton what he must do after having reached the Blue Line. Can he go on? Must he go on? And if yes, in which direction? Alexander intends to decide when the bridgeheads will have been consolidated. But this “not decision” will bring many troubles.

To face this formidable armada ( in Sicily, the first day, many more men landed than, a year after, in Normandy)  there are around three hundred thousand Italian soldiers organized in six coastal Divisions, in four Infantry Division and in many “local” defensive units( Carabinieri, Camicie Nere, and so on).
In support of the Italian troops there are thirty thousand German soldiers regimented in two divisions: the Fifteenth  Panzer Division,  and the armoured Hermann Goering Division.  All they are under command of Italian General Alfredo Guzzoni. Ours are badly armed, worse equipped, not very trained and they have a low morale, but, morale apart, also the Germans have their problems. The 15th Division is at full rank, but the Hermann Goering Division is incomplete and, among its ranks, there are many inexperienced men. It is not very much for facing the huge Anglo-American power.
And our senior officers? According with a famous –and partly unfair—Rommel’s definition, they are “ salami”, i.e. completely ineffective . Perhaps Guzzoni has some flaws, but he is not a “ salami”. His reasoning is the following: the Anglo-Americans are bombing us since weeks, they have conquered Pantelleria and Lampedusa[1] and soon, very soon, they will arrive here in forces. And till here, to be sincere, nothing new. But if we be able to block them on the shores, perhaps things would change. We could immobilize them here till the arrival of reinforcements for a counter-attack. The question is: where will they land?
They could land west for getting Palermo or south and south-east for reaching Messina  or they could land both west and south. Probably they won’t scatter their forces and they will land only in a place. But Where? West or east? In my opinion they need ports and airports: thus they will land south-east and south to cut  off  Messina quickly and to block us here. What to do? For me the best move is the following: two Italian Infantry Divisions are to be sent north-westward  in the Palermo’s area; other two Divisions are to be sent in the eastern area. The two German Divisions are to be deployed here, south and south-east, because it will be here, between Pachino and Licata, that the foe will land.
Guzzoni talks about that issue with Kesselring, the commander of the German forces in the Mediterranean area. And this time, is “Albert the Smiling”  who seems a “ salami”[2]: nothing to do — is his answer– all the possible landing places have to be guarded. And he makes move westward the 15th Panzer at full rank and in full efficiency. Result: during the first, crucial hours of the invasion, only the Hermann Goering together with some Italian regiments will face the landings. And as we know, the HG was  partially incomplete.

The Mussolini’s wind.

The night between 9 and 10 July– day of the landing– is a nasty, terrible night. It is a  stormy night,  a night with high waves, a night of seasick. The wind blows almost at sixty kilometres per  hour, throwing the landing crafts now here, now there, beating without any mercy the aircraft and the gliders, confusing the  inexperienced pilots, turning the dropping  of the paratroopers into a real disaster. To support Montgomery, 147  gliders loaded with troops take off: only eleven get their targets. The others fall into the sea or they land nobody knows where. In the zone of the Seventh Army, things go even worse. The men of a whole battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division- the Second Battalion under command of Colonel Mark Alexander- land almost at fifty kilometres far from their target. The American GIs call that raging  wind the “Mussolini’s wind”.
However, once landed, the American paratroopers gather quickly, acting in small groups, attacking  the patrols, creating mess and confusion behind Italian and German lines. In the British sector, at Primosole bridge( Primasole, as it is wrongly indicated on the Anglo-American maps), a very hard struggle is fought. Montgomery is in a hurry, he wants that bridge on the Simeto river to reach Catania quickly. He plans, then, a combined operation with infantry and airborne troops ( the so called “Operation Fustian“) and he hopes to be luck.
His is a vain hope. This time, however, the “ Mussolini’s wind” is not guilty. The aircraft and the gliders coming from North Africa run into the “friendly fire” and then into the enemy fire. The pilots are not very willing to continue that dangerous mission, somebody  begins to fly in circle. Lt Colonel Alastair Pearson, battalion commander, when is aware of it, has to extract his revolver to force the pilot of his plane to get the target. In the meanwhile, the Germans have made arrive from France a division of trained, motivated paratroopers.

The British capture the Primosole bridge and make it clear of mines. Then they suffer a counter-attack and are forced to withdraw. They attack again, but the resistance is fierce, the German positions are very strong, the casualties are increasing. From both sides. Then Colonel Pearson–  the same who had forced, weapons in hand, the pilot of his plane to stop flying in circle — leads a couple of companies with mortars beyond the Simeto river, exploiting a ford, deploying his men  in the rear of the German position. The battle is not over, but because of this move, the bridge is doomed.
Free way towards Catania? No. Primosole  bridge is conquered on July 16, Catania is reached three weeks after, on August 5. And between July 13 and August 5 everything happens. Guzzoni is officially the commander, but, each day a little more, German General Hans-Valentin Hube becomes the commander de facto.
The resistance is fiercer and fiercer and Montgomery advances at a snail’s pace. Tense  and grumpy  because of that unexpected event, the winner of El-Alamein “ advices” Alexander to move westward the border between the American and British lines, in order to allow the Eighth Army to advance in the centre, avoiding the German coastal  positions. In practice, it means to give  part of the zone and of the conquests of the Americans to the British. Alexander agrees. According to the new orders, the Eighth Army is to head towards Enna, to turn northeast and to reach Messina. And the Seventh Army is to cover its flank.
The whole alka seltzer in the world would have been insufficient to make Patton able to let his anger cool. His Seventh Army, his Army of “killers” already beyond the “Yellow Line” turned suddenly into a servant of those unpleasant British! Who are they thinking they are? The masters of the war? But should not this be a combined operation? Was or was not the northwest Sicily a zone completely ours ? Are they thinking  we are inexperienced soldiers? This new order is a huge rubbish: by redeploying us, we will lose momentum, we will allow the Germans to set up a defensive line between Enna and Catania, we will waste  all what we have done. And so on.

He is not only resentful, he is enraged. He dreams the revenge, he prepares the coup of theatre. With Alexander, however, initially he is prudent. Could I send my soldiers towards Agrigento, to make a “reconnaissance in force”? he tries to ask. The city is  far only few miles from the positions reached by my Third division. All right is Alexander’s answer, “ reconnaissance” is authorized. Truscott moves immediately and on July 15 the Third division  enters Agrigento.
At this point Patton  rushes to headquarter and obtains from Alexander the permission to head towards Palermo, his real target, his coup de theatre. We will conquer an important harbour, we will reach Messina also from westward, it is  a good opportunity to confuse the foe, he claims in favour of his idea. In the meanwhile, while I am heading towards Palermo, General Bradley  moves northwards and cuts the island in two. In this way, the Eighth Army’s flank would  be  covered.
Alexander at first gives up, then he changes his mind: Patton has to head north and to cover the flank of Eighth Army. But Patton , left the headquarter, has already made move his men. The officer who receives the Alexander’s counter-order  pretends to have heard nothing, he invents some communication difficulties, he “grumbles” interferences in the radio broadcasting and when he is able to hear again, Patton is close to Palermo. The orders are clear: the city has to be occupied, crushing any resistance; the podestà, the mayor and the prefect have to be put under arrest; the cells of the “Ucciardone” ( the Palermo’s jail) has to be opened and some important local Mafiosi have to be set free; also the Anglo-Italian families have to be set free. In Palermo there are no Germans troops. Guzzoni, in fact, has recalled the 15th Division in a hurry eastward. The city, defended only by Italian troops is reached and conquered in less than seventy-two hours, on July 24.  Patton will claim to have got, by conquering Palermo, great tactical and strategic advantages: Kesselring, on the contrary, will say: by conquering  Palermo, the Americans lost their time.

The Big Red One

Palermo falls and also Mussolini falls. On July 25, the Gran Consiglio (Grand Council) of Fascism passes a vote of no confidence for the Duce, the King replaces him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio and the “ war continues”. More violent than before.   In particular near the Aetna Stellung ( The Etna Line), set up by the Germans between Acireale ( east) and San Fratello ( north) and pivoted around some strongholds, the stronger of which is the little town of Troina. Etna and Mounts Nebrodi –( or Caronie — are, in fact, formidable natural obstacles, very apt to defensive lines.
And the Germans are determined to withstand. They are about to leave the island and they want to gain the time that is necessary to withdraw in full security. Both for Patton — who is arriving from west — and for Montgomery — who is arriving from south– the situation becomes complicated. And also for Guzzoni. He would want to withstand till the last man, he would not want to leave Sicily, but , by now, he is not in command. Not more. Hans Valentin Hube is who is in command. The German general makes set up more than a defensive line placed in depth towards the Strait: he want to withdraw, fighting from a defensive line to an another defensive line,  till when the German and Italian troops will have left Sicily.

The area between Acireale and San Fratello is inaccessible, the armoured means  are blocked by that rugged and rough geography. The villages are situated for the most part on the heights where the tanks have more than a difficulty to arrive. Mules and horses are necessary to move artillery and supplies. In addition Patton is in a damned hurry: he wants at all costs to reach Messina before Montgomery’s arrival. He writes to General Middleton, commander of the 45th Division: the prestige of the American Army is at stake. We must absolutely arrive at Messina before  the British and win this race.
He has not stomached  the Alexander’s order, he is nursing anger and he is feeling resentful. He does not spare even his men. While he is visiting a military hospital,  he meets a soldiers who seems , apparently, healthy. This soldier is waiting to be examined by the doctors. Patton tells him he is a coward and hits him by a glove. During the visit in another hospital, Patton meets another soldiers  whose nerves are in pieces. “ Yellow son of a bitch” he tells him. Then he   hits him. Eisenhower will require public apologies.

On the battlefield, the Patton’s race is not a “cavalry race”. Rough geography, fierce defence, malaria, fevers, tiredness, African hot are making his advance slow.  On July 31, the First division —  the Big Red One — moves to attack Troina. The division is exhausted. It has the support of the artillery, of a regiment of mountain Moroccan troops, of the air force, but also , in front of it, there is a well entrenched enemy. Outflanking him is difficult. Moreover, the Big Red One has to cross wide spaces out in the open.
The attacks led one after the other are repulsed one after the other by the  grenadiers of the 15th Panzer and by the artillerymen of the Italian division AostaAn American regiment( the 26th) is isolated on Monte Basilio: it must be supplied by air, with parachutes. The battle is one of the fiercest of the whole campaign. Hube is under a huge pressure in many points of the Line and he is unable to dislodge the remains of the 26th from Monte Basilio. Thus, he orders 15th Panzer Division  and Aosta to withdraw towards Randazzo. The battle for Troina has ended. It is August 7.
At San Fratello the situation is similar. Truscott ( 3rd Division) is advancing along the coastal road. A regiment of German grenadiers is waiting for him. The Germans are entrenched on the flanks of the Hills dominating the road. The German fire is precise and intense. The GIs try to outflank them but without any result. Truscott, then plans a landing at Sant’Agata. It will be useless: on August 7th the Germans leave San Fratello.
By now, the Etna Line is broken in several points. Montgomery, although slowly, is advancing from south and the triangle within which the Italians and the Germans are entrapped, becomes narrower and narrower. But the Patton’s attempts to block them with mini amphibian operations ( at Brolo, for instance) fail. The Italian and German’s withdrawal is made in an orderly way  and when on August 17th Patton enters Messina one hour before Montgomery, more than hundred thousand Italian and German troops have crossed the Strait. Would they have succeeded if war, that war, had not been also a private matter between one,  who, after El-Alamein, considered himself as a new Napoleon and another one ( Patton), who considered himself the best commander in the world?

But the rivalry between Patton and Montgomery  was only one of the reasons of that half-won success, of that “ bitter victory”, as historian Carlo D’Este wrote. Germans and Italians escaped simply because a plan  to block them in Sicily lacked . And a plan lacked because Operation Husky was a limited operation, localized to the conquest of Sicily only. Putting in action combined operations in Calabria for supporting Husky was never thought. The Americans —  and Marshall, the Chief of Staff, in particular — did not want an invasion of Italy, they felt this invasion if not as a threat for Overlord, surely as an obstacle for its planning and achievement. Bringing military operations on the Continent , even only for supporting the landing in Sicily, perhaps would have caused a “chain reaction” and moved the strategic attention of the Allies from the Channel to Mediterranean Sea. This was the reason why there was a lot of cautions, of worries , of hesitations  before, during and after the campaign. At a certain point it seemed that the operation would have been cancelled. The reason? In Sicily there were, probably, two German divisions more than those that had been foreseen. Churchill, as poisonous as a snake,  commented: “ And what should Stalin say, who is facing 185 German Divisions?”
Sure, actually the Allies landed in the Peninsula, but this decision was taken after the Husky’s end. Before, in the spring of 1943, when Husky was planned, the invasion of Italy was not contemplated. For this reason, Italians and Germans were able to withdraw beyond the Strait.

Husky was the baptism of fire for the most part of the GIs and, in the same moment, the occasion to test the achievement of combined operations. If the GIs managed just fine, the coordination among the different Arms came short of expectation. Everybody complained: the Infantry complained because of the lack of aerial support and because of the poor accuracy of the jumps of the paratroopers; the Air force complained because it had been shot by the “friendly fire”; the Navy because the commanders of infantry, paratroopers and armoured units  had been not able to exploit its job; Montgomery complained because Patton, by heading towards Palermo, had left him without cover on his flanks during his march towards Catania; Patton complained because Montgomery seemed to underestimate the American soldiers. And so on. Probably even the cooks and the quartermasters complained.
The final assessment is known: from those events an important lesson was learned and a year after, on the Norman shores, the coordination among the different Arms worked very well. Translation: in Sicily we have made a blunder after another blunder, we had allowed the  foe to escape, but we have learned and what happened in Sicily will not happen anymore.

An operation like Husky had never been tried before. Thus, the  caution in every phase of the operation is understandable. And also the  conservative attitude of the High Commands is understandable. We have to be cautious, we have not to bite off more than we can chew , they were repeating and repeating. This conservative attitude, however, forbade them to see and consider other possible solutions, both during the preparation stage and during the achievement  stage.

Even the commanders contributed to that “bitter victory”. Eisenhower seemed to be hesitant  and shy; Alexander changed the battle plan in an inopportune moment , making Patton furious; Montgomery did not trust in the Americans and the Americans did not trust in him; Montgomery planned no amphibian landing for outflanking the Axis forces who were defending Catania. And we could continue. Something lacked. In particular a determined commander, able to impose his authority  in the name of a common plan. In other terms, the Eisenhower of Overlord lacked.
But Sicily was conquered, the sailing lines in the Mediterranean were restored in advantage of the Allies, the route towards Suez was opened again, Mussolini was deposed and Italy was occupied by the Germans. Now troops were necessary to garrison her. Troops that in those times were engaged on the eastern front or were garrisoning  France. In both cases , Hitler would have done or Overlord or  Stalin a favour. Under that point of view, for the Allies, there were no doubts: Husky had been a full success. 

And the Italian soldiers ? Without aerial support, without naval support, sometimes without the German support, they could not withstand very long. The most part of them was suffering the war, the continuous bombardments, the starvation, the Fascist regime. A lot of them threw away their rifle, many of them  disrobed their uniform, there were thousands of POWs. But lumping everything together indiscriminately would be wrong. Some units, many officers, some troops, even Camicie Nere fought bravely for that lost cause. Instead of aircraft and ships, instead of guns and armoured tanks, from Rome only empty exhortations arrived.  “Armed” with those exhortations and only with them, our soldiers should have faced the Shermans  and repulsed the “invader”.

“You will tell your men that.”

On the eve of the landing in Sicily, on June, Patton had summoned the officers of the 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbird—and as usual, he had spoken clear: when we land, hit hard. If the foe is at hundred fifty, two hundred yards from you and he raises his hands for surrendering, shoot him. He must die, you must kill him. You will tell your men that. [3]

In the morning of July 15 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest King, military chaplain of the 45th Division Thunderbird is driving his jeep towards the airport of Biscari – today Acate—conquered the day before. King is appreciated by everybody in the Division, in particular because, as Atkinson writes, his sermons are usually brief. At a certain point, close to an olive grove, the chaplain sees something strange. He approaches, remaining  horrified: dozens of corpses are lying on the ground. They wear civilian clothes, everybody has wounds by fire weapons, many of them has scorched hair and traces of gunpowder on their clothes. Having some doubts is impossible: those men have been shot almost point-blank. Close to the olive grove, some GIs are resting. When they see the chaplain , they stand up and go to meet him. “ We have come here in Sicily, weapons  in hands, to fight this kind of things.” they say indicating the corpses.  They are deeply embittered, they feel ashamed of their comrades.  

Captain John T. Compton, “C” Company, First Division, 180th  Regiment does not sleep since three days. Since the day of the landing, in practice. At 11 a.m. of the morning of July 14th  , captain Compton leads his Company to attack the Biscari airport. There is some resistance: mortar’s shots and snipers. If a GI is shot, the snipers open fire on the medics went out from the shelters to help him. Left his shelter in the attempt to localize the snipers’ position, Private Raymond Marlow reaches a blockhouse from which more than forty Italians, hands up, come out. Some of them wear civilian clothes, others wear the uniform. An interpreter asks them if they are snipers, but nobody answers.  Lieutenant Blanks, instead, asked by Captain Compton, answers they are snipers.
Shoot them!, is the captain’s order.

General Omar Bradley, commander of the Second Corps, is, temperamentally, the  Patton’s opposite: calm, thoughtful, careful. He has known by King about what has happened at Biscari and he speaks about this event with Patton. Sergeant Barry West, “A “Company, First Division has shot in cold blood thirty-six Italian POWs while he was escorting them to headquarter for the interrogation. Captain John Compton has made shoot more than forty of them. These are war crimes and we can not be silent. Keep calm, Patton answers, keep calm. Why not saying they were snipers? The POWs are dead and we can not do anything for them.
Bradley ignores the “advice” of his superior and he leads the issue to an end. Both West and Compton are deferred to the Martial Court. Both defend themselves  by claiming they have executed the Patton’s orders.

“You will tell your men that”, the “Iron General” had told the Thunderbird’s officers. “They must have the killer instinct” and “the killer are immortal”.

Sergeant West was found guilty, life sentenced, demoted and after six months in jail, he was sent to the front again.
According to someone he fell in Normandy.

Captain Compton was found not guilty and kept in service.
He fell at Cassino.

The yellow handkerchief.

July 14, 1943, Villalba, central Sicily. An airplane flies down over the houses of the village,  skims over the abodes’ roofs and it heads towards the country. Outside of the pilot’s cockpit a yellow flag is flapping. The flag has a big  black “L” in the middle. The plane reaches a big farm situated nearby,  flies down and the pilot drops a suitcase. Ready hands pick it up and deliver it to the master of the farm, a man in his sixty with a big underbelly. The man opens the suitcase. Inside there is a yellow handkerchief with a  black “L” in the middle. That man is Calogero Vizzini, Don Calogero Vizzini, Mafioso leader in the region. Don Calogero sends immediately a  message to another  powerful Mafioso, Don Giuseppe Genco Russo: the Americans have to be helped in every way, he writes to him.

Six days later, three American  tanks enter the centre of the little town of Villalba. On the radio aerial of the tank at the head of the column, a small yellow banner is flapping. In the middle of it, the usual black “L”. The kids crowd around the tanks, looking for taffies and chewing –gum. The Shermans stop. An officer tells, in Sicilian dialect, he wants to speak with Don Calò. Don Calogero Vizzini moves towards the officer, the crowd makes way when he  is passing. The American officer helps Don Calogero to go up on the tank and the turret is closed.
The following day, the Americans attack Monte Cammarata, northward of Villalba. The evening before the attack, the Italian soldiers on Monte Cammarata have received the visit of some mysterious people. The following morning, when the American tanks move against their target, the Italians are not on Monte Cammarata anymore. During the night, they have thrown out of the window their rifle, changed the uniform with civilian clothes and they have left a handful of Germans to defend the position. Monte Cammarata is conquered without firing a shot.

Navy Lieutenant Paul Alfieri, arrived with the Patton’s troops, is to meet a man. He has never seen him. He knows only that that man has escaped from the United States: he was still a kid, but he had been already sentenced to death. Alfieri and the mysterious man are to meet at Licata. When Alfieri will meet him, he will not show any yellow handkerchief: he will be simply say : “Lucky Luciano”.
Lieutenant Alfieri has met his man, he has told those two words and every diffidence has felt. It is night. Alfieri was heading towards the Axis headquarter in Licata. He is escorted by many Sicilians. The men of the escort neutralize the German sentries and open the door of the HQ. Alfieri finds a gold mine: maps of the defences of the island, maps of the mined fields, even a radio-code. For this action, Alfieri will be awarded a medal.

During the Operation Husky, did the Mafia help the Americans? And did the Americans ask Mafia for help? Are the Villalba’s events only a legend or are they true? This is sure, however: from a certain period on , the Americans presented Villalba and many other episodes of Sicily’s campaign as rumours without any foundation. The attack against Monte Cammarata? Never planned and never put in action. Don Calogero Vizzini inside the armoured tank? True, but only to explain why an American soldier had been killed, in the previous days,  close to his farm. The Michele Pantaleoni’s statement? ( The journalist who had told the episode of Villalba in 1962). It is fake because it is strongly partial. Pantaleoni is a communist and, thus, anti- American. If you read the reports of our units, you will find a different truth. “Uomini d’onore” ( Honoured  men, the Italian epithet of the Mafiosi) appointed mayors and administrators , when the military operations ended? There was no preventive agreement : it was a simple choice of convenience : seen their authority on the local inhabitants , they were necessary to uphold law and order. The Lucky Luciano’s role? But if he was in jail.. And so on.
But if the Mafia could have told his version about the Villalba’s events, which version would she have chosen, in your opinion?

Epilogue

The first American vanguards arrived to Dachau, in Bayern, late in the morning of April 29 1945, Sunday. The SS guards surrendered. Seeing thousands of human beings reduced like zombies, the American GIs before wept, then  begun to shoot the SS that had surrendered.

Many of them were men of the 45th Division Thunderbird.

You will tell your men that.

 Suggested reading:

Rick Atkinson,  Volume II: The Day of Battle, The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944. The Liberation Trilogy. New York: Henry Holt, 2007

Carlo D’Este,Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily 1943. London: Arum Press Ltd, 2008

Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat. The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II. London: Bloomsbury, 2010

Denis Smyth, Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat. New York: Oxford,2010

 Operation Husky map

 

 

 

 

 

The famous Robert Capa’s picture under the post’ title shows a Sicilian shepherd indicating to an American officer a point in the distance. The name of that shepherd  was Giovanni Maccarone. Few hours after being photographed by Capa, Maccarone was killed by a German soldier. 

 

 

 This is an automatic translation from Italian. Excuse the mistakes.

 

 

 

                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1]The campaign against the two islands ( and the conquest of Linosa and Limone) strongly wanted by Eisenhower, was put in action in June with massive bombardments. Goal: the conquest of the excellent airport of Pantelleria to allow the allied Air Force to support with more effectiveness the landings in Sicily. Pantelleria and Lampedusa had excellent defences, but the Italian garrisons surrendered without firing a shot.  Without suffering casualties ( except an American GI bitten  by a… donkey), the Allies  took  prisoner more than eleven thousand Italian soldiers.

 

[2]Kesselring , perhaps , feared an Italian betrayal more than an allied attack in Sicily. Deceived by the Major Martin’s fake documents , in Berlin nobody had doubts: the Allies will attack Greece or Sardinia. The landing in Sicily would have been only a diversionist move. However Hitler feared more than other thing an Italian defection caused by a landing – although diversionist- in Sicily. And also the German commanders in the Mediterranean sector feared it. The Kesselring’s decision to move the 15th Panzer Division westwards has been  seen by the historian Carlo D’Este as a German  attempt to controlthe region in case of an Italian defection.

 

[3]When we land against the enemy, don’t forget to hit him and hit him hard. When we meet the enemy we will kill him. We will show him no mercy. He has killed thousands of your comrades and he must die. If your company officers in leading your men against the enemy find him shooting at you and when you get within two hundred yards of him he wishes to surrender—oh no! That bastard will die! You will kill him. Stick him between the third and fourth ribs. You will tell your men that. They must have the killer instinct. Tell them to stick him. Stick him in the liver. We will get the name of killers and killers are immortal.

General S Patton Biography | Biography Online

 

 

 

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