The Italian front opens at Salerno

In the distance landing ship tanks waiting to go inshore at Salerno while destroyers make smoke to cover them near the beaches. Photograph taken from the British minesweeper CIRCE.

In the distance landing ship tanks waiting to go inshore at Salerno while destroyers make smoke to cover them near the beaches. Photograph taken from the British minesweeper CIRCE.

(Operation Avalanche): The British destroyer HMS TARTAR puts up an anti-aircraft barrage with her 4.5 inch AA guns to protect the invasion force from attack by enemy aircraft.

(Operation Avalanche): The British destroyer HMS TARTAR puts up an anti-aircraft barrage with her 4.5 inch AA guns to protect the invasion force from attack by enemy aircraft.

It had been debatable whether the landings at Reggio would achieve much. The landings further up the coast at Salerno were thought very much more likely to provoke German opposition.

This time it was a combined operation with British and U.S. forces. The British went in under the cover of strong bombardment from the offshore battleships and cruisers. The US forces, landing on beaches further south, attempted an element of surprise and did without the preliminary bombardment.

Clark on board USS Ancon during the landings at Salerno, Italy, 12 September 1943.

Clark on board USS Ancon during the landings at Salerno, Italy, 12 September 1943.

Off shore General Mark Clark, commanding the US Fifth Army was watching from the USS Ancon. There were early signs from activity and flares on the beaches that surprise had not been achieved:

Then, to end any doubt about surprise, a loudspeaker voice on the shore roared out in English, “Come on in and give up. You’re covered.” Flares shot high into the air to illuminate the beaches, and German guns previously sited on the beaches opened up with a roar.

The assault forces came on in, but not to give up.

There was resistance on every beach, and within a short time the defenders were strengthened by artillery and planes, so that our opposition increased steadily as dawn approached. Some boats in the first assault wave were unable to reach their designated beaches and had to shift to other sectors, especially Red Beach, where opposition was lighter; while many of the second-wave boats were badly damaged or had to turn back on their first attempt to get ashore.

Men were separated from weapons in the confusion or when their boats sank. Radio communication was difficult in most instances because of loss of equipment and the intense enemy fire.

But owing to sound basic training and countless instances of personal bravery the assault forces not only held on, but slowly advanced inland. Men squirmed through barbed wire, round mines, and behind enemy machine—guns and the tanks that soon made their appearance, working their way inland and knocking our German strongpoints wherever possible as they headed for their assembly-point on a railway that ran roughly parallel to the beach about two miles away.

Singly and in small groups, they reached their first objective by devious means.

Under great difficulties heavy weapons were being landed by dawn. Ducks brought in 105-mm. howitzers of the 133rd Field Artillery Battalion, and the 151st Field Artillery Battalion landed at 6 A.M., just in time to beat off a dangerous German tank assault on the beachhead. The veteran 531st Shore Engineers began organizing the communication and supply lines, and bulldozer men, ignoring a steady fire which inflicted many casualties among them, built exit routes for vehicles to move from the beaches through the sand-dunes.

In this manner our toehold on Fortress Europa was gained, and no soldiers ever fought more bravely than the men of the 36th Division. I have spoken of their landing in detail both because it was the most diicult, since they were untested troops, and because they were among the first Americans to put foot on Hitler – held Continental Europe; but I do not want to seem to overlook the tremendous job that the rest of the Fifth Army was doing at the same time. The British veterans performed in splendid fashion.

See Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk: The Memoirs of a Great Commanding General of WWII

(Operation Avalanche): A landing craft ablaze offshore after receiving a direct hit. In the foreground on the beach are troops and casualties from the boat.

(Operation Avalanche): A landing craft ablaze offshore after receiving a direct hit. In the foreground on the beach are troops and casualties from the boat.

It was a bloody business for all too many that day. Here is just one of the official post action reports from amongst thousands :

Report of Action in the Gulf of Salerno 9/9/43 from O.C.R.M H.M.L.C.G. (L) 8

[Officer Commanding Royal Marines, His Majesty’s Landing Craft Gun (Large)]

In the absence of the Commanding Officer who was injured, I am rendering a provisional report on the above action.

At 03.24 hours on the 9th September 1943, fire was opened on the beaches and ceased at 03.25, five rounds being fired. It was impossible to open fire at the pre-arranged time of 03.20 owing to destroyers masking fire.

We then proceeded to patrol the coast to the South of Beach 29. At 06.45 fire was opened at the C/D Battery 788130, eight rounds being fired, six for effect. There was however, no counter-fire.

We continued to patrol the coast and at 10.30 observing LCG 2 closing the beach we followed at approx 1 mile on her port quarter.

Fire was opened on the two craft from a coastal position at approx 78815 at 11.05 with heavy M.G’s and what is believed to be 76mm D/P guns. A direct hit on the Bridge of this craft was scored by the enemy almost immediately, with an A/P shell of about 76mm calibre, killing instantaneously the R.A. Officer attached to the craft and causing seven other casualties including the C.O. and the 1st Lieut.

Both 4.7 guns counter-fired at once, being controlled from the Bridge direct by telephone. Hits were observed in the target area after the third salvo and fire continued until 11.14, 67 rounds having been fired, of which 64 were for effect. The initial range was 2200+ and enemy fire heavy until it finally ceased.

Shortly after, the Minesweeper J230 was contacted, which took off all casualties and subsequently transferred them all to H.M.H.S. St David. Until transferred to J230 the C.O. maintained command of his ship in spite of his injury.

I then proceeded to close H.M.S. Hilary in order to obtain instructions and relief Naval Officers for the C.O. and 1st Lieut.

For the majority of the crew it was the first time they had been under heavy enemy fire and their conduct throughout the whole of the action and subsequently was exemplary.

R C Lane Lt. R.M.

Salerno, 9 September 1943 (Operation Avalanche): Distant view of British warships bombarding enemy positions during the fighting on Salerno beaches. The naval bombardment broke up an attack by German tanks.

Salerno, 9 September 1943 (Operation Avalanche): Distant view of British warships bombarding enemy positions during the fighting on Salerno beaches. The naval bombardment broke up an attack by German tanks.

Operation Avalanche): British troops and vehicles from 128 Brigade, 46th Division are unloaded from LST 383 onto the beaches.

Operation Avalanche): British troops and vehicles from 128 Brigade, 46th Division are unloaded from LST 383 onto the beaches.

Salerno, 9 September 1943 (Operation Avalanche): American troops place one of their first casualties on board a landing craft.

Salerno, 9 September 1943 (Operation Avalanche): American troops place one of their first casualties on board a landing craft.

Taranto, 9 September 1943 (Operation Slapstick): Italian lighters and tugs help to unload Allied ships in Taranto harbour.

Taranto, 9 September 1943 (Operation Slapstick): Italian lighters and tugs help to unload Allied ships in Taranto harbour.

British soldiers man a machine gun post on the beach at Salerno, Italy, while a column of smoke rises from a transport ship in the background, 9 September 1943.

British soldiers man a machine gun post on the beach at Salerno, Italy, while a column of smoke rises from a transport ship in the background, 9 September 1943.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael September 13, 2013 at 2:43 am

The 36th Division was a Texas Army National Guard unit. One of the boundaries of Fort Hood is State Highway 36.

Frederick Guy September 9, 2013 at 3:13 pm

If you want more on Clark, none of it flattering, see Norman Lewis’ excellent book “Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth”.

Martin September 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

Must say, “Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk: The Memoirs of a Great Commanding General of WWII” is a title somewhat lacking in humility for a book you are writing about yourself! It could be the publishers of course. But then again, the title fits his ego. Clark later wilfully disobeyed orders just so he could be the one to capture Rome (an accomplishment that looked good in the press). In the process he allowed key German formations to escape, prolonged the Italian campaign, snubbed the British (who my mutual agreement at top levels had operation control at the time) and betrayed his vanity. He got away with it, if I recall. I wonder how many lives were lost because of his decision to take an open city instead of a decisive victory?

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