US breakout continues, British locked in combat

Personalities: Lieutenant General George S Patton, commander of the US 3rd Army which became operational in Normandy in July 1944, part of the 12th Army Group.
Personalities: Lieutenant General George S Patton, commander of the US 3rd Army which became operational in Normandy in July 1944, part of the 12th Army Group.

George S. Patton had finally returned to the battlefield, formally taking charge of the US 3rd Army on the 1st August. Until then he had headed the fictitious First US Army Group, supposedly waiting in south east England waiting to launch the “second invasion”. The deception had kept large German forces waiting in northern France and Belgium, which only now were being released to travel to Normandy.

It was too late. Patton was a man with pent up energy, driving his army forward in a rapid advance that first took Brittany and then swung round again to begin to encircle the German positions in Normandy. It was a dramatic move, especially after the long time spent bogged down in the Normandy bridgehead, and not everyone was comfortable with it. Colonel Charles R Codman was on his staff and saw how it unfolded:

The General knows exactly what he is doing, and if at times the higher staffs turn green around the gills when across their astonished situation maps flash the prongs of seemingly unprotected spearheads launched deep into enemy territory, it is only because they have yet properly to gauge the man’s resourcefulness.

As for his subordinates, more than one corps and division commander, in the course of a whirlwind visit from the Old Man, has felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach on finding himself and his command catapulted into outer space, but all of them have learned that he never lets them down. They know that if the unexpected happens, he will find a solution, and what is more, he will be up front to see that the solution is applied.

Three times in the last few days, in as many tents and wooded fields, the same dialogue with minor variations: Division commander: ‘But my flanks, General?’ The General: ‘You have nothing to worry about. If anything develops – and it won’t – our tactical Air will know before you do, and will clobber it. That will give me plenty of time to pull something out of the hat.’

A pat on the shoulder.

‘Get going now. Let the enemy worry about his flanks. I’ll see you up there in a couple of days”

Charles R Codman: Drive; A Chronicle of Patton’s Army

General de Gaulle saluting as he left the Town Hall in Lavel after addressing the people who had turned out to welcome him. Lavel was liberated by United States troops driving through Normandy on 6 August 1944.
General de Gaulle saluting as he left the Town Hall in Lavel after addressing the people who had turned out to welcome him. Lavel was liberated by United States troops driving through Normandy on 6 August 1944.
Major George E. Preddy Jr. of the 487th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, hold up hands for six enemy aircraft he shot down on 6 August 1944 mission. This was a record number of victories for a single pilot in one mission.
Major George E. Preddy Jr. of the 487th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, hold up hands for six enemy aircraft he shot down on 6 August 1944 mission. This was a record number of victories for a single pilot in one mission.
Men of an RAF airfield construction wing finish off the 5,000ft runway at Lingevres (B-19), 6 August 1944. Iron stakes are being driven in to secure the metal SMT (square-meshed track) surface, which was stored in rolls and had to be correctly tensioned to prevent it flexing in use. The airstrip took a mere six days to complete, and was the first to be constructed in Normandy by RAF manpower alone.
Men of an RAF airfield construction wing finish off the 5,000ft runway at Lingevres (B-19), 6 August 1944. Iron stakes are being driven in to secure the metal SMT (square-meshed track) surface, which was stored in rolls and had to be correctly tensioned to prevent it flexing in use. The airstrip took a mere six days to complete, and was the first to be constructed in Normandy by RAF manpower alone.

The situation maps looked very different for the British (including the Polish Armoured Division) and Canadian forces still locked into battle with the Panzers on the eastern flank of the Normandy battlefield, with very little forward movement apparently being made. The most dedicated Nazi troops were under severe pressure but they were not going be pushed easily. What that actually meant for the men involved can be illustrated by just one incident from this day.

No. 5779898 Corporal Sidney Bates, The Royal Norfolk Regiment

In North-West Europe on 6th August, 1944, the position held by a battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment near Sourdeval was attacked in strength by 10th S.S. Panzer Division. The attack started with a heavy and accurate artillery and mortar programme on the position which the enemy had, by this time, pin-pointed.

Half an hour later the main attack developed and heavy machine-gun and mortar fire was concentrated oh the point of junction of the two forward companies.

Corporal Bates was commanding the right forward section of the left forward company which suffered some, casualties,- so he decided to move the remnants of his section to an alternative position whence he appreciated he could better counter the enemy thrust.

However, the enemy wedge grew still deeper, until there were about 50 to 60 Germans, supported by machine-guns and mortars, in the area occupied by the section.

Seeing that the situation was becoming, desperate, Corporal Bates then seized a light machine-gun and charged the enemy, moving forward through a hail of bullets and spnnters and firing the gun from his hip. He was almost immediately wounded by machine-gun fire and fell to the ground, but recovered himself quickly, got up and continued advancing towards the enemy, spraying bullets from his gun as he went. His action by now was having an effect on the enemy riflemen and machine gunners but mortar bombs continued to fall all around him.

He was then hit for the second time and much more seriously and painfully wounded. However, undaunted, he staggered once more to his feet and continued towards the enemy who were now seemingly nonplussed by their inability to check him.

His constant firing continued until the enemy started to withdraw before him. At this moment, he was hit for the third time by mortar bomb splinters — a wound that was to prove mortal.

He again fell to the ground but continued to fire his weapon until his strength failed him. This was not, however, until the enemy Had withdrawn and the situation in this locality had been restored.

Corporal Bates died shortly afterwards of the wounds he had received, but, by his supreme gallantry and self sacrifice he had personally restored what had been a critical situation.

See also ‘Normandy: The Search For Sidney’

Sidney Bates, awarded Victoria Cross for determined single handed attack.
Sidney Bates, awarded Victoria Cross for determined single handed attack.

Bradley faces criticisms of ‘slow’ Allied advance

Omar Bradley fires a 155mm artillery piece in a publicity shot for the 4th July.
Omar Bradley fires a 155mm artillery piece in a publicity shot for the 4th July.
A Stuart light tank,  fitted with a hedge cute and heavily sandbagged against 'panzerfausts', supports US infantry in the bocage.
A Stuart light tank, fitted with a hedge cute and heavily sandbagged against ‘panzerfausts’, supports US infantry in the bocage.

As if they didn’t have enough to contend with the Allied leaders fought their war under the spotlight of the world’s Press. Remarkably sometimes the criticism was that they were being too cautious in trying to save Allied lives.

General Omar Bradley commanded US Forces in Normandy. He himself had been frustrated by the pace of the advance but readily understood the difficulties that had been encountered in the bocage country. He was already planning the moves that would become Operation Cobra, the attacks that would lead to the final breakout. It was a frustrating time when he could not possibly explain the full strategy to the Press:

By the middle of July we could sense the growing impatience of newsmen who looked critically on the deadlock that seemed to have gripped our beachhead. Middleton’s attack toward Coutances had ballooned their hopes, then flattened them even more abjectly.

Those who had awaited Monty’s assault on Caen as the signal for an Allied breakthrough trooped back disheartened to their gloomy press camps when the British went no farther. Weeks of intermittent rain had shrouded the beachhead with a dismal gray cloud cover, pinning the air forces to the ground while the enemy dragged up reinforcements.

As Corlett’s XIX Corps bellied forward through the hedgerows toward St.-Lo and Collins crawled through the Carentan swamps, more and more newsmen began to ask if the Allies had learned anything since climbing out of the trenches in France 26 years before.

This melancholy mood was best expressed in a newspaper story that appeared just two days before the breakout. It was written by a well-known correspondent who had succumbed to the gloom of the press camps. He attributed our “stalemate” in the beachhead to an overdose of caution.

“The principal point made by critics of the strategy followed by General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery,” he wrote, “is that he is playing safe and in playing safe is turning caution into a vice. The United States Army has consistently followed the policy of doing things the way that costs the least number of lives. This policy has been contagious and has spread to the British command.”

For the moment we could do little but grin and bear it. For although COBRA was rapidly taking form, we dared not yet tell newsmen of it. The enemy had already shown signs of apprehension on the Carentan front and by the middle of July had mustered the remnants of 12 divisions against us. Most alarming was the shift of two panzer divisions from Monty’s sector to ours.

No one disliked more than I did the disagreeable necessity for inching our way through those St. Lo hedgerows and Carentan marshlands. For while we sloughed afoot toward the Périers road, our vastly superior motorized equipment lay wasted under its camouflaged nets. Nevertheless, until We reached the carpet and broke through to the terrain beyond it, we could do nothing but belly ahead and swallow those heavy losses.

While aware of this growing criticism from the newsmen, I did not feel that we owed an apology to anyone for our gains. At the end of one week ashore we had linked the beachheads. During the second we cut the Cotentin. In the third we captured Cherbourg. During the fourth we attacked out of the neck. And when the fifth rolled around, we had put together our COBRA plan and were already edging toward the breakout.

Besides those critics who thought us too timid to risk the fast stakes of mobile warfare, there were others who searched our tactics for signs of a conspiracy against the Reds. A British columnist asked if our “sitdown” were part of a scheme to exhaust the Russians by leaving them to fight the Reich alone. And an American correspondent cautioned me a week before the breakout that if this were indeed our intent we would default in our right to bargain on the shape of the postwar world. I assured him that we were guileless and suggested he withhold his verdict. “Wait a week or so before you go overboard,” I said, wishing it were possible to tell him of COBRA.

The charge that we might have been conspiring against the Soviet was nonsense. I knew no more of the Russian advance than any newspaper reader, indeed probably less, for I saw the news- papers less often. Until we approached the Elbe and came face to face with the problem of joining up with the Red army, I fought the war in total ignorance of Soviet intentions. Even when the Red army had closed to within a hundred miles of ours and the gap between us narrowed daily, we plotted the Soviet advance on our war map from news broadcasts of the BBC. This remained our only pipeline to the Soviet High Command.

See Omar N. Bradley: A Soldier’s Story.

A GI surveys the body of a German soldier, the boots already removed, probably by French civilians, many of whom were reduced to wearing wooden clogs after the years of occupation.
A GI surveys the body of a German soldier, the boots already removed, probably by French civilians, many of whom were reduced to wearing wooden clogs after the years of occupation.
US Soldiers in the 'bocage' hedgerow country , armed with a 'Grease Gun' automatic and a Browning water cooled machine gun.
US Soldiers in the ‘bocage’ hedgerow country , armed with a ‘Grease Gun’ automatic and a Browning water cooled machine gun.

‘No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country’

Men of a US Army infantry division file into a briefing tent in one of the sealed-off and closely guarded assembly areas near the south coast of England, May 1944.
Men of a US Army infantry division file into a briefing tent in one of the sealed-off and closely guarded assembly areas near the south coast of England, May 1944.
 Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., 1943. (pictured before his promotion to full General). U.S. Army Signal Corps. "George Patton as Lt. General." March 30, 1943.
Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., 1943. (pictured before his promotion to full General). U.S. Army Signal Corps. “George Patton as Lt. General.” March 30, 1943.

After an unfortunate incident during the battle for Sicily General George S. Patton had spent most of his time on the sidelines of the war. Now he was to command the U.S. Third Army in Normandy – but he was not to arrive in France until late in the battle.

His absence made even more credible the existence of the fictitious First United States Army Group, FUSAG. The Germans could not believe that a General of the calibre of Patton would not be taking a leading role in the ‘Second Front’.

Patton failed to appear when the Normandy landings took place – and the Germans were then even more certain that he would be leading the ‘second invasion’ of the Pas de Calais area, probably landing at about the end of June. Hitler would keep his 15th Army waiting on the sidelines as the battle for Normandy unfolded, ready and prepared for this massive new Allied formation to arrive.

Patton was nevertheless preparing to lead the U.S. Third Army, like the other commanders he spent time making himself known to them. When he addressed the men from its different units he had to remind them:

Don’t forget, you don’t know I’m here at all. No word of that fact is to be mentioned in any letters. The world is not supposed to know what the hell they did with me. I’m not supposed to be commanding this army. I’m not even supposed to be in England. Let the first bastards to find out be the goddamned Germans. Some day, I want them to rise up on their piss-soaked hind legs and howl ‘Ach! It’s the goddamned Third Army and that son-of-a-bitch Patton again!’

The 31st May is the day he is believed to have first included the memorable line “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country”:

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans, love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers … Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in Hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.

Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The Bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post, don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating. Now we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world.

You know … My God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. My God, I do. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.

Now some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you’ll all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood, shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo, that a moment before was your best friends face, you’ll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything, we’ll let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly, and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy.

We’re going to hold onto him by the nose, and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time, and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose. Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it.

Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, What did you do in the great World War Two? You won’t have to say, Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.

Alright now, you sons of bitches, you know how I feel. I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.

That’s all.

Patton gave this speech several times, with slight variations. There was no official version, it was written down by some of the men who heard it. Historians have constructed a longer, more complete version by combining different sources, see “Terry Brighton: Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War”.

US Engineers are briefed on their objectives for the forthcoming invasion, May 1944. Left to right: Private Albert V Ottolino; PFC (Private First Class) Howard D Kraut; Private J H James.
US Engineers are briefed on their objectives for the forthcoming invasion, May 1944. Left to right: Private Albert V Ottolino; PFC (Private First Class) Howard D Kraut; Private J H James.
US Army Lieutenant Ralph Vernon and men of his unit study a map of their objective in a briefing tent in one of the assembly areas on the south coast of England, May 1944.
US Army Lieutenant Ralph Vernon and men of his unit study a map of their objective in a briefing tent in one of the assembly areas on the south coast of England, May 1944.

Breakout from Anzio

Troops of the Green Howards advance through enemy minefields at dawn during the start of the final breakout attack.
Troops of the Green Howards advance through enemy minefields at dawn during the start of the final breakout attack.
Men of 'D' Company, 1st Battalion The Green Howards, 5th Infantry Division, occupy a captured German communications trench during the offensive at Anzio, 22 May 1944.
Men of ‘D’ Company, 1st Battalion The Green Howards, 5th Infantry Division, occupy a captured German communications trench during the offensive at Anzio, 22 May 1944.

Sidestepping the Germans at Cassino by landing at Anzio had seemed such a simple concept when Churchill met the Allied commanders at Christmas. It proved to be quite easy to organise an amphibious landing at short notice – but quite another to breakout of the small bridgehead that was then established.

Now that the Gustav line had broken and the Germans were falling back, the Anzio positions offered the Allies another opportunity. If they could break out from the beachhead in sufficient strength they would be able head directly inland and cut off the Germans retreating from Cassino. The German forces would be squeezed between the two Allied attacks and would potentially suffer a great defeat.

Overseeing all on the ground was General Mark Clark:

On 22 May I moved permanently into the forward echelon of my headquarters at Anzio in preparation for the break-out. . . . Almost every inch of space at Anzio was crowded with men, guns and ammunition in preparation for the attack. Any time the enemy fired a shell in our direction it was almost certain to hit something, but we had taken what precautions were possible, and most of our supplies were protected by mounds of earth.

Before dawn on the morning of 23 May I went with Truscott to a forward observation post on the Anzio front, where just before six o’clock some five thousand pieces of artillery opened up on the enemy, whose positions were concealed by a morning haze.

The smoke and haze hid our movements, but in the next hour or so we could hear our tanks moving forward to the attack, and there was a dull rumble of aircraft overhead as bombers began to pour their bombs on the German positions. The beleaguered Anzio garrison was about to break out, with the town of Cisterna their first objective.

The timing of the attack from Anzio again caught the enemy off-guard. As the artillery fire suddenly ended our tanks drove through the smoke, followed by swarms of infantry that caught the enemy outposts unprepared. Some of the Germans in dugouts had to be dragged out with only part of their clothes on, completely unready for battle.

Our artillery had previously been aimed at specific enemy centres, which were heavily shelled, but the morning haze interfered with the German artillery observation and gave us an opportunity of making considerable progress before meeting firm resistance. The Germans were never able to recover from this initial setback, and their later counter-attacks were weak and poorly organized.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

British soldiers take cover from German shelling in a shallow trench during the breakout. The trench is similar to many which were dug along the opposing front lines during the lifetime of the bridgehead.
British soldiers take cover from German shelling in a shallow trench during the breakout. The trench is similar to many which were dug along the opposing front lines during the lifetime of the bridgehead.

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.

Patton congratulates his troops for success in Sicily

General George S. Patton in command of US forces on Sicily.
General George S. Patton in command of US forces on Sicily.
The Drive for Messina 10 July - 17 August 1943: The successful German rear guard action towards the end of the campaign enabled over 100,00 Axis troops and a large quantity of equipment to be evacuated to Italy from Messina. An aerial photograph shows one of the last German ships to leave Messina on fire after being bombed by the Royal Air Force off the Sicilian coast.
The Drive for Messina 10 July – 17 August 1943: The successful German rear guard action towards the end of the campaign enabled over 100,00 Axis troops and a large quantity of equipment to be evacuated to Italy from Messina. An aerial photograph shows one of the last German ships to leave Messina on fire after being bombed by the Royal Air Force off the Sicilian coast.

The Allied invasion of Sicily had been successfully concluded with Germans and Italians driven off the island. It should have been an auspicious moment for George S. Patton who had not only driven his US Seventh Army unexpectedly quickly up to capture the city of Palermo, cutting off and capturing large numbers of Italian troops. He had demonstrated his flair for masterminding swift movement, as his troops drove east to take the final objective of Messina, just ahead of the British.

Unfortunately the “slapping incident” now cast a shadow over Patton’s achievements. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation Patton’s career now hung in the balance. His superiors, recognising his ability, wanted to play the incident down. It remained to be seen whether the matter would become public news.

Patton was forced to make public apologies to his troops, addressing them in massed audience, to try to overcome the rumours. It was a message that contrasted with the inspiring words that he wanted to deliver, contained in this written order, distributed or read to all troops:

Headquarters 7th Army U.S. Army

General Order Number 18

August 22, 1943

Soldiers of the Seventh Army:

Born at sea, baptized in blood, and crowned with victory, in the course of thirty-eight days of incessant battle and unceasing labor, you have added a glorious chapter to the history of war.

Pitted against the best the Germans and Italians could offer, you have been unfailingly successful. The rapidity of your dash, which culminated in the capture of Palermo, was equalled by the dogged tenacity with which; you stormed Troina and captured Messina.

Every man in the Army deserves equal credit. The enduring valor of the Infantry and the impetuous ferocity of the tanks were matched by the tireless clamor of our destroying guns.

The Engineers performed prodigies in the construction and maintenance of impossible roads over impassable country. The Services of Maintenance and Supply performed a miracle. The Signal Corps laid over 10,000 miles of wire, and the Medical Department evacuated and cared for our sick and wounded.

On all occasions the Navy has given generous and gallant support. Throughout the operation, our Air Force has kept the sky clear and tirelessly supported the operation of the ground troops.

As a result of this combined eort, you have killed or captured 113,350 enemy troops. You have destroyed 265 of his tanks, 2324 vehicles, and 1162 large guns, and, in addition, have collected a mass of military booty running into hundreds of tons.

But your victory has a signicance above and beyond its physical aspect – you have destroyed the prestige of the enemy.

The President of the United States, the Secretary of War, the Chief of Staff, General Eisenhower, General Alexander, General Montgomery, have all congratulated you.

Your fame shall never die.

G. S. Patton, Jr.,
Lieut. General, U.S. Army,
Commanding

British and American troops meet at a road junction outside Randazzo. Randazzo was the last strong defensive position available to the Axis forces. After its fall on 14 August, the campaign developed into an unofficial race between the Americans and British for Messina.
British and American troops meet at a road junction outside Randazzo. Randazzo was the last strong defensive position available to the Axis forces. After its fall on 14 August, the campaign developed into an unofficial race between the Americans and British for Messina.
The Drive for Messina 10 July - 17 August 1943: A British Sherman tank in the streets of Francofonte. During 13 - 14 July, XIII Corps, Eighth Army began a major effort to reach Catania. Their efforts were resisted by German paratroops in and around Francofonte who delayed the British advance for two days.
The Drive for Messina 10 July – 17 August 1943: A British Sherman tank in the streets of Francofonte. During 13 – 14 July, XIII Corps, Eighth Army began a major effort to reach Catania. Their efforts were resisted by German paratroops in and around Francofonte who delayed the British advance for two days.
General Montgomery stops his car to talk to Royal Engineers working on a road near Catania, 2 August 1943.
General Montgomery stops his car to talk to Royal Engineers working on a road near Catania, 2 August 1943.

Patton marches into Palermo, Sicily

Lt. Col. Lyle Bernard, CO, 30th Inf. Regt., a prominent figure in the second daring amphibious landing behind enemy lines on Sicily's north coast, discusses military strategy with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton. Near Brolo. 1943. (Army ) Exact Date Shot Unknown
Lt. Col. Lyle Bernard, CO, 30th Inf. Regt., a prominent figure in the second daring amphibious landing behind enemy lines on Sicily’s north coast, discusses military strategy with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton. Near Brolo. 1943. (Army ) Exact Date Shot Unknown

In Sicily the tremendous rivalry between two of the Allied commanders had very nearly broken out into the open and demonstrated weaknesses in the Alliance. Montgomery was commanding British forces driving out from the south east of Sicily for an assault on the main German forces in the east. He prevailed upon the Allied Commanders to be given two of the roads heading east upon which to base his attacks.

It left little room for his American ally George S. Patton to pursue the Germans as well. It also looked suspiciously like a British stitch up – as the decision had been made by the British Deputy Allied Commander, General Harold Alexander.

Patton was at first extremely frustrated but then diverted his energies to marching north to capture the first major Italian town of the campaign. In a spectacularly swift move he arrived in Palermo on the 23rd July, his troops urged on by their commander:

July 23, 1943

On the afternoon of the twenty-first, we secured a position northeast of Castelvetrano from which to launch the 2nd Armored Division, which heretofore had been held back near the middle of the island so that the enemy could not tell which way it was going.

The troops moved into position, beginning at 4 p.m., and were all set by dark. In the morning they started their relentless advance.

The first act was to break through the enemy on his immediate front. This was done by the 41st Infantry supported by a battalion of medium tanks from the 66th. This started the enemy rolling back. From then on, it was a question of attacking him with converging tanks whenever he tried to stop us, which he attempted on three occasions.

In one case a ’75 mm. assault howitzer in a half-track engaged a German 105 at five hundred yards and destroyed him. This act was as lucky as it was heroic. The last stand was made in the mountains southwest of Palermo, which was a most difficult nut to crack, but was finally done with artillery fire and tanks.

We met some of the most ingenious tank traps I have ever seen. The Germans would dig a hole about eighteen feet long and ten feet deep halfway across the right side of the road and cover it with chicken wire and dust to make it look like the road. Then, about thirty feet beyond, on the left-hand side of the road, they would make a similar pit. In front of each pit they would put a wire entanglement with the hope that our tanks would disregard the wire and crash into the holes. Fortunately we did not do so.

In other places they tank traps about twenty feet wide and fifteen feet deep for distances of several miles, but by sticking to the roads and blasting our way through, we had no trouble with them.

I drove up through the column and received a very warm reception from the 2nd Armored, all of whom seemed to know me, and all of whom first saluted and then waved.

As we neared the city, it was dark, so I picked up Colonel R. F. Perry, Chief of Staff of the division, to act as a guide. He stated he believed the town had fallen, and we therefore decided to go in and see.

As we approached, the hills on each side were burning. We then started down a long road out out of the side of a cliff which went through an almost continuous village. The street was full of people shouting, “Down with Mussolini!” and “Long Live America!”

When we got into the town, the same thing went on. Those who arrived before dark, among them General Keyes, had flowers thrown on the road in front of them, and lemons and watermelons given them in such profusion that they almost became lethal weapons.

The Governor had left, but we captured the two Generals, both of whom said that they were glad to be captured because the Sicilians were not human beings, but animals. The bag in prisoners for the day must have been close to ten thousand. On the morning of the twenty-third, when I was inspecting the harbor, I passed a group of prisoners, all of whom stood up, saluted, and then cheered.

See George S. Patton: War As I Knew It

All smiles for the camera, Montgomery and Patton drive through Palermo.
All smiles for the camera, Montgomery and Patton drive through Palermo.

Meanwhile Montgomery’s forces, even with their room to manoeuvre, were getting bogged down as the German resistance stiffened.

Rommel counter-attacks in the desert

Indian troops during Operation Battleaxe.
Indian troops during Operation Battleaxe.
General Erwin Rommel getting to grips with conditions in the desert in early 1941.
General Erwin Rommel getting to grips with conditions in the desert in early 1941.

In North Africa the British Operation Battleaxe had been intended to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk. Instead it began to reveal the disparity between the British and German equipment. More than once they suffered heavily at the hands of the 88mm gun. The British Matilda tank, although heavily armoured, was too slow. The new Crusader tank was faster but was outgunned by the German tanks.

The German commander Rommel also had the advantage of being able to intercept British communications, which had forewarned him of the attack. Realising on the 16th that the British had been disheartened by their losses on the 17th he ordered a counter-attack:

Next morning, the 17th June, the 5th Light Division set off at the appointed time [4.30am] and after a headlong advance reached the neighbourhood of Sidi Suleiman at 06.00 hours. The 15th Panzer Division had become involved in heavy fighting against an armoured force which the British had sent to parry the danger menacing their army. But it soon reached is objective. Great numbers of destroyed British tanks littered the country through which the two divisions had passed.

This operation had obviously taken the British completely by surprise. In wireless messages which we intercepted they described their position as very serious. The commander of 7th Armoured Division sent a request to the Commander-in-Chief of the desert force to come to his headquarters. It sounded suspiciously as though the British commander no longer felt himself capable of handling the situation.

It being now obvious that in their present bewildered state the British would not start anything for the time being, I decided to pull the net tight by going on to Halfaya. Accordingly, at about 09.00 hours, orders were issued for the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Division to push on to Halfaya and prevent any break-through of British armour from the north. The British were seriously in trouble over petrol and ammunition and I hoped to be able to force them into a stand-up fight and destroy their whole force.

The enemy wireless was repeatedly reporting lack of ammunition. Soon they set fire to their stores at Gapuzzo and withdrew, leaving the desert littered with vehicles abandoned for lack of petrol. They complained bitterly of their high tank casualties.

The 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions reached the Halfaya Pass shortly after 16.00 hours. There they turned and advanced side by side to the north. This was a very unfortunate move, as its result was to squeeze out the pocket instead of closing it and preventing the enemy’s escape. Thus the enemy was able to pour back east unmolested through the vast gap between Sidi Omar and Halfaya. I was furious at this missed opportunity. The two divisions should have deployed in front of the enemy as soon as they reached Halfaya, thus bringing him to battle and preventing his escape. In that way we might have raked in a large portion of his offensive power.

See The Rommel Papers.

In fact Rommel was mistaken about this missed opportunity – the British had ordered their withdrawal earlier and would have avoided the attempted encirclement anyway.

Rommel was complimentary about the British strategy which was ultimately the responsibility of the Middle East commander, General Sir Archibald Wavell.

Churchill, who had been expecting a great breakthrough with the new tanks, was unimpressed and blamed the British commanders. Wavell would be moved out to India, swapping places with Claude Auchinleck who became the new Commander in Chief Middle East. This was unfortunate as the British were slow to analyse the real reasons for their failure.

Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert, 26 November 1941. The Mk I only had a two pounder gun and was unreliable.
Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert, 26 November 1941. The Mk I only had a two pounder gun and was unreliable.

U.S. military chiefs consider next move on Japan

Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall - 18 June 1945
Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall – 18 June 1945
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.

Over a month after the war had ended in Europe the Supreme Allied Commander finally managed to get home – and was greeted as the conquering hero that he was. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s contribution to steering the Allies to victory had been hugely important, overseeing great military undertakings with many imponderables, not least of all D-Day, and pulling together a team of military leaders that included more than one ‘difficult’ individual, as well as dealing with enormous political pressures from above, both British and American.

Now the wider U.S. military command faced more difficult decisions as they determined how to bring the war with Japan to an end. Not all were privy to the atomic bomb secrets – and in any event the weapon remained untested even now. They had to proceed on the basis that it would eventually be necessary to invade the Japanese mainland, and had to face up to the likely scale of casualties. Admiral Leahy was not alone in thinking that it might be possible to avoid horrendous casualties by now seeking some sort of peace accord:

General of the Army, D. D. Eisenhower, arrived in Washington from Europe and led a parade from Army Headquarters to the Capitol Building. The streets were crowded by a larger number of spectators than has been seen before by anybody now in Washington.

In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, before a joint session of the House and Senate, General Eisenhower made a very well prepared address which was not delivered with particular skill. The galleries were crowded with visitors and on the floor of the Chamber seats were provided for the Supreme Court, Cabinet Officers, Ministers, and Ambassadors from foreign countries, and the American Chiefs of Staff.

Immediate1y following General Eisenhower’s address we proceeded to the Statler Hotel and participated in a luncheon for 1,000 guests given by the City of Washington in honor of the General…

From 3:30 to 5:00 PM. the President conferred with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy; and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy, in regard to the necessity and the practicability of an invasion of Japan. General Marshall and Admiral King both strongly advocated an invasion of Kyushu at the earliest practicable date.

General Marshall is of the opinion that such an effort will not cost us in casualties more than 63,000 of the 190,000 combatant troops estimated as necessary for the operation.

The President approved the Kyushu operation and withheld for later consideration the general occupation of Japan. The Army seems determined to occupy and govern Japan by military government as is being done in Germany.

I am unable to see any justification from a national defense point of view for a prolonged occupation of Japan. The cost of such an occupation will be enormous in both lives and treasure. It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provision for America’s defense against future trans- Pacific aggression.

Dined with the President at a dinner given in honor of General Eisenhower to a large number of military and political officers. For the first time in my experience cocktails were served to the guests in the East Room of the White House. A number of enlisted men, brought by General Eisenhower from Europe, attended the dinner which was served on small tables filling the State Dining Room.

See William D. Leahy: I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time

The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles."
The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles.”

RAF outnumbered in last dogfight over Germany

Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.

While the Germans began to surrender in large numbers the overall situation remained very unclear. It was far from inevitable that there would be a complete surrender within days. For a long time there had been a suspicion that Hitler would make a last stand in a mountain redoubt. Even though he was now believed to be dead there was plenty of evidence that some fanatical units would continue to fight on.

In these circumstances there could be no slackening of pressure when identifiable threats emerged. French pilot Pierre Clostermann, who although only a Sous-Lieutenant in the French Air Force was now leading a Wing within RAF Fighter Command, commanding many officers who were technically senior in rank to him.

By the 3rd of May they thought they were on “the last lap” but it appeared that the Germans might be trying to hold out in an area from the Kiel Canal, in northern Germany up to Norway. Luftwaffe aircraft appeared to be massing to support a large convoy to Norway. Late in the evening he was ordered up to attack German transport planes on the ground. Maintenance problems meant he only had twenty-four planes instead of the normal complement of ninety-five:

In front of us, either on the ground or just taking off, were more than 100 enormous transport planes – theoretically my primary objective. In the air, about 100 enemy fighters. One group at 1,500 feet, another at 3,000, a third at 4,500 and two others on a level with us, i.e. at about 10,000 feet. Above us there were certainly one more, perhaps two. And I only had 24 Tempests!

My mind was quickly made up. Filmstar Yellow and Blue Sections would attack the fighters above us, and Pink, Black and White Sections, commanded by MacDonald, would engage the Focke-Wulfs below us.

In the meantime I would try to slip through with my Red Section and shoot-up the airfield. I passed this on over the radio and then, closely followed by the rest of my section, I released my auxiliary tanks and went into a vertical dive, passing like a thunderbolt at 600 m.p.h. through a formation of Focke-Wulfs which scattered about the sky like a flock of swallows.

I straightened out gradually, closing the throttle and following a trajectory designed to bring me over the airfield at ground level, from south-west to north-east. All hell was let loose as we arrived. I was doing more than 500 m.p.h. by the clock when I reached the edge of the field. I was 60 feet from the ground and I opened fire at once.

The mottled surface of the anchorage was covered with moored Dornier 24’s and 18’s. Three lines of white foam marked the wake of three planes which had just taken off. A row of Blohm und Voss’s in wheeled cradles was lined up on the launching ramps. I concentrated my fire on a Bv I38. The moorings of the cradle snapped and I passed over the enormous smoking mass as it tipped up on the slope, fell into the sea and began to sink.

The flak redoubled in fury. A flash on my right, and a disabled Tempest crashed into the sea in a shower of spray. Jesus! The boats anchored off shore were armed, and one of them, a large torpedo boat, was blazing away with all it had. I instinctively withdrew my head into my shoulders and, still flying very low, veered slightly to the left, so fast that I couldn’t fire at the Dorniers, then quickly swung to the right behind an enormous Ju 252 which had just taken off and was already getting alarmingly big in my gunsight. I fired one long continuous burst at him and broke away just before we collided. I turned round to see the Ju 252, with two engines ablaze and the tailplane sheared off by my shells, bounce on the sea and explode.

My speed had swept me far on — straight on to the torpedo boat which was spitting away with all her guns. I passed within ten yards of her narrow bows, just above the water and the thousand spouts raised by the flak. I caught a glimpse of white shapes rushing about on deck and of tongues of fire from her guns. The entire camouflaged superstructure seemed to be alive with them. Tracer shells ricocheted on the water and exploded all round over a radius of 500 yards. Some shrapnel mowed down a flock of seagulls which fell in the sea on all sides, panic-stricken and bleeding. Phew! Out of range at last!

I was sweating all over and my throat was so constricted that I couldn’t articulate one word over the radio. Without realizing it I had held my breath through the whole attack and my heart was thumping fit to burst. I regained height by a wide climbing turn to port. What was happening? The situation looked pretty grim. A terrific dog-fight was going on above the airfield. Three planes were coming down in flames – I was too far to see whether they were friend or foe. Another, pulverized, had left a trail of flaming fragments in the sky and a fifth was coming down in a spin, followed by a white trail of smoke. Yet others were burning on the ground.

The radio was transmitting an incomprehensible chaos of shouts, screams and curses, mingled with the vibrations of cannon firing. Near the torpedo boat, in the middle of a patch of foam, the remains of a plane were burning and heavy black smoke curled up from the sheet of burning petrol.

What had happened to the rest of my section? …

More men had been lost, he returned with just thirteen planes out of twenty-four. It had been his last battle.

See Pierre Clostermann: The Big Show

Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.
Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.

The RAF also made a fateful attack in the Baltic on this day, when rockets from Typhoons of 198 Squadron hit the SS Cap Ancona, causing “one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life in the Second World War.”

Captain Baldwin then ordered the other four planes from the 198th Squadron to follow him. They dove fast and low on the Cap Arcona. No smoke billowed from its large stacks, indicating it was still at anchor in the bay. The target was locked, and the Typhoons released their rockets on the defenseless liner. All of them found their mark, the first rockets striking the large gray liner directly between the first and second smokestacks atop the ship. The next barrage hit the third funnel and sports deck.

The story is told in ‘The Nazi Titanic’, which was one of my featured titles in 2016 and you can read the full excerpt here.

Meanwhile Montgomery received the first German delegation at his HQ but they did not have authority to surrender all the forces facing the British 21st Army Group, and he sent them back to Doenitz to reconsider.

Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.
Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.

At the same time the Canadians were trying to put emergency measures in place to assist the Dutch population, even though the 117,000 German forces they had cut off in the Netherlands had not yet surrendered.

 Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried spoon 'just in case'.  Date: 1944-1945 Place: Amsterdam, Netherlands
The occupying Germans were still fighting, and the occupied Dutch were still suffering serious privation under them. The oppressors had flooded the farmlands of western Netherlands and blockaded food and supplies to civilians. The abject neglect of the Dutch by the occupying Germans caused the death of at least 18,000 civilians in the terrible famine known as the Hunger Winter. Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried a spoon ‘just in case’.
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food,
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food, following agreement amongst Germans, Dutch and Allies about the distribution of food to the Dutch population. 
Date: 3 May 1945 Wageningen, Netherlands (vicinity)