The British, Canadian and American forces had moved swiftly across the island of Sicily and it now seemed inevitable that they would move onto the Italian mainland. It was a short hop across the straights of Messina to the nearest shore, a route by which the Germans had successfully extricated most of their men under the noses of the Allies.
But the Germans had decided that they would not defend this particular route themselves, preferring to site their main defences line at a place of their choosing, seeking to avoid being outflanked by another landing. So the historic first landing on the mainland of occupied Europe proved to be an orderly affair, meeting only little resistance from the weak Italian force that was left in the area.
Ray Ward was an officer with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, one of the thousands who landed that day:
On 2 September, south of Messina, the British 5th and Canadian 1st divisions prepared to embark for the invasion of the mainland. On a calm sea, hundreds of landing craft, DUKWS and destroyers milled around. These preparations were impossible to conceal from Jerry.
While we waited on the beach we were attacked by three bombers, but they sheered off without dropping bombs, scared off by the curtain of ack- ack fire that was raised. As they vanished into the darkness over the Italian shore, I saw the sea splattered with falling shrapnel. Unusually, there was hardly any enemy artillery fire from the mainland, as there had been a few days before.
We boarded our landing craft and cast off at 1900. At 0335 on 3 September 1943 — the fourth anniversary of the start of the war — the night exploded with an ‘Alamein barrage’, a ferocious 600-gun bombardment. The sky sang with shells from Sicily as we chugged across the straits in the dark, watching in frozen fascination as the barrage straddled the enemy coast.
All this turned out to be a complete waste of ammo. When we hit the beach at 0615, four kilometres north of Reggio di Calabria, our landing was unopposed. We were slightly dazed by the silence after the profligate bombardment. If someone had bothered to recce the beaches, I thought, or checked aerial reconnaissance photos, the shelling of an undefended coastline should surely have been avoided. But Monty had the firepower and there was an inevitability in its use.
On the first day some Jerry planes evaded our fighters and strafed and bombed the beaches. One of our men was killed and five were wounded. Such statistics sound heartless, but those anonymous men, and others I have mentioned, were not in A Company. I neither knew them nor their names — the infantryman’s interest and loyalty being confined to his own small group.
The Germans chose not to defend Calabria, preferring to concentrate further north towards Naples. We saw no Jerries but we bagged Italians — hundreds of the blighters, whose white flags had been waved the moment we landed — an instant labour force.
In the first hours of the invasion we dealt with constant streams of soldiers and vehicles landing. Over the first three days, 5,300 vehicles passed through the beachhead. Monty landed on the first morning, no doubt to see the results of his bombardment.
The War Artist Edward Ardizzone was once again cadging his way to the front lines for an unauthorised look at the front lines. His diary records a different aspect of the landings:
I make friends with an R.E. [Royal Engineers] Major whose vehicles are aboard the L.C.M. He drives me to Reggio. A wretched town, much bombed and without the charm of Messina. A desolation of twisted shutters and broken wire. Only the riff-raff left and they, with the soldiers, looting the town.