Seventy years ago, this week, the Western Allies launched their first amphibious assault on mainland Europe, as American soldiers in the U.S. Army's 36th Infantry Division (Texas Division) landed under fire on a beach south of Salerno, Italy.
The Sept. 9, 1943, attack on the Italian town of Paestum was the untried 36th's first combat action in World War II. Yes, an unbloodied unit conducted an opposed assault, but the division's immediate performance demonstrated it was combat ready.
Salerno wasn't supposed to be a slugfest. Benito Mussolini's fall had left Italy in political turmoil. The Germans knew many Italians favored the Western Allies. Optimistic Allied planners argued that the turmoil and supporting Allied efforts gave Operation Avalanche (code name for Salerno and the push to Naples) operational surprise. On Sept. 3, a British force had ferried troops far into southern Italy. Though 300 miles of rough terrain separated the British force from Salerno, the Germans could not afford to completely ignore the maneuver. The smartest German move would be a retreat to positions north of Naples. The Avalanche plan had Allied units entering Naples (north of Salerno) and seizing that critical seaport within five days.
On Sept. 8, Italy surrendered. So the Germans were now in hostile territory -- perhaps the optimists were right.
Allied naval gunfire opened up on the northern beach zones where other British and American units would land. Senior commanders took a calculated risk that the 36th could obtain tactical surprise at Paestum, so they withheld naval gunfire. With the Germans caught off guard, the 36th would drive inland -- quickly -- and link up with the northern landings.
Paestum, however, would prove to be the most difficult landing in the Mediterranean theater, up to that point in time. The Germans were quite ready. Through a loudspeaker sited behind the beach, an English-speaking German greeted the 36th's first wave. "Come on in and give up. We have you covered," he said. German fire followed the greeting. The 36th faced a battle group from 16th Panzer Division. The 36th needed naval gunfire, desperately.
It also needed anti-tank guns, but bearing landing craft had scattered up and down the beach. The division's 141st Infantry Regiment blocked a series of sharp German tank attacks just beyond the beachhead. One battle report described the combat as "man against tank," meaning the infantry took on the panzers with grenades and bazookas. The 3rd Battalion of the 141st received a Presidential Unit Citation for its heroic action.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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