Operation Baytown: the invasion of Italy

Troops from 2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regimen

Troops from 2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment wait to board landing craft at Catania, Sicily, for the invasion of Italy, 2 September 1943.

Personnel of No. 3232 Servicing Commando relax by their vehicles in Sicily,

Personnel of No. 3232 Servicing Commando relax by their vehicles in Sicily, while awaiting the order to proceed across the Straits of Messina for the invasion of Southern Italy (Operation BAYTOWN).

Troops board a landing craft at Catania, Sicily.

Reggio, 3 September 1943 (Operation Baytown): Troops board a landing craft at Catania, Sicily.

British artillery bombards the Italian mainland

British artillery bombards the Italian mainland from Messina in Sicily prior to the initial landings at Reggio.

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.

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara.

Captain Packer, of HMS WARSPITE

Captain Packer, of HMS WARSPITE (on right) phone to his ear, directing the bombardment Reggio on the “toe” of the Italian mainland at the opening of the offensive against it, from the bridge of the battleship, while the navigator (centre) and the officer of the watch stand by. Note the men are wearing anti-flash hoods beneath their helmets possibly to prevent sunburn.

The forward 15 inch guns of HMS WARSPITE hurling shells at Reggio

The forward 15 inch guns of HMS WARSPITE hurling shells at Reggio on the “toe” of the Italian mainland at the opening of the offensive.

Amphibious DUKWs loaded with men and equipment,

Amphibious DUKWs loaded with men and equipment, enter the water at Messina in Sicily to cross to the Italian mainland.

A Priest 105mm self-propelled gun comes ashore from a landing craft,

A Priest 105mm self-propelled gun comes ashore from a landing craft, 3 September 1943.

A half-track and 6-pdr anti-tank gun coming ashore

A half-track and 6-pdr anti-tank gun coming ashore from landing craft at Reggio, 3 September 1943.

A Sherman tank moves inlan

A Sherman tank moves inland at Reggio at 9.30am.

A Sherman tank and infantry advance

A Sherman tank and infantry advance north from Reggio. Although the Eighth Army encountered little active resistance during their advance, the natural obstructions of the terrain, combined with German demolition’s resulted in very slow progress and prevented the Army from intervening in the fighting at Salerno until after the Germans had started to withdraw.

Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery, watches troops

The Commander of the Eighth Army, Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery, watches troops as they pass through the streets of Reggio.

The White Ensign flies over Reggio harbour.

The White Ensign flies over Reggio harbour.

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.

Ardizzone' s drawing of British troops

Ardizzone’ s drawing of British troops in Reggio on 3rd September 1943.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor September 4, 2013 at 8:48 am

The caption comes from the IWM which features the image amongst a collection from 3rd September 1943 for Operation Baytown.

Glauco September 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm

If im right, the first picture of the Sherman shows a Sherman of the Brazilian Expedictionary Force (FEB) that fought in Italy from late 1944 until the end of the European Battle.

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