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.
Over next six days, the struggle in the Gulf of Salerno's surrounding hills was so bloody and the German resistance throughout the Salerno battle zone so unexpectedly bitter that at one point, senior Allied commanders considered evacuating the 36th and the British and American units that landed on the northern side of the Gulf of Salerno. On Sept. 12, every unit in the British Xth Corps was engaged. That same day, the German 29th Panzergrenadier Division attacked the 36th. To move reinforcements from Sicily by sea would take too long. On the night of Sept. 13, 1,300 U.S. paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment jumped into the Texan's beachhead.
The crisis passed as relentless American GIs and British Tommies, backed by artillery fire and air strikes, broke the German counterattacks. The Germans began a careful retreat, harassed by Allied air attacks.
Naples in five days? British forces reached its outskirts on Sept. 30. The 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. Army Rangers entered the city Oct. 1. The Germans retreated to the Volturno River and waited for the next Allied attack.
Rocky hills, towns made of stone, vicious German counterattacks followed by calculated retreat: in retrospect the Battle of Salerno foreshadowed the entire Allied Italian campaign. Winston Churchill claimed that Europe had a soft underbelly. Salerno and the drive to Naples demonstrated that Italian terrain is anything but soft.