Operation Battle of Gela

The 'Battle of Gela' was the first engagement of the US part of the Allied 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily, and pitted US and British naval, land and air forces against Italian and German land and air forces (10/12 July 1943).

In 'Husky' (i), US Navy vessels landed landed formations and units of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army toward the eastern end of Sicily’s southern coast, to the east of the British landings of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army, and then withstood attacks by Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica aircraft while defending the beach-head against German and Italian armour until the US Army had captured the Ponte Olivo airfield, inland of Gela, for use by warplanes of the US Army Air Forces. The outcome of the battle convinced US Army officers of the value of naval gunfire support, and revealed problems in the effective co-ordination of ground action and air support by semi-autonomous air forces in the course of amphibious operations.

The invasion of Sicily followed the Allied capture of Tunisia in North Africa by May 1943 and preceded the Allied invasion of Italy as a means of diverting Axis forces from the Eastern Front with the USSR until the Western Allies were ready to launch their 'Overlord' invasion of occupied Europe through France in June 1944. Ground forces under overall command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower were transported by naval forces under the overall command of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The invasion was constrained by the provision of only marginal air cover by 670 Allied fighters operating at maximum range, which limited patrol time across 100 miles (160 km) of invasion beaches and prevented a proportional and therefore effective response to incoming German and Italian air raids. The Allied air strength comprised three wings (20 squadrons) of Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters operating from airfields on the island of Malta and two groups of Curtiss P-40 Warhawk single-engined fighters operating from airfields on the islands of Pantelleria and Gozo. The Allied air forces refused to provide air support for the Allied ground forces until the Axis air forces had been neutralised, and as Axis bombing continued through to 12 July, the role of Allied aircraft was negligible in the 'Battle of Gela'. Heavy Allied bombing on the period before the commitment of 'Husky' (i) had reduced the strength of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II to 175 warplanes in Sicily, but 418 more Luftwaffe and 449 Regia Aeronautica aircraft remained serviceable at bases in Italy to be flown into Sicily as and when necessary.

The Allied ground forces had no idea when, where, in what numbers, or under what circumstances they might receive the support of Allied tactical aircraft. Unlike the situation in the earlier 'Torch' invasion of North Africa and later 'Avalanche' invasion of Italy, the US invasion fleet included no aircraft carriers, for the carriers which had supported the US 'Torch' landings had been reassigned and not replaced. The escort carrier Santee was defending UG convoys, carrying US reinforcements and matériel from the USA, against the depredations of U-boats, while the other three 'Sangamon' class escort carriers had been transferred to the Pacific Ocean to support the 'Watchtower' campaign on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands group, and the small fleet carrier Ranger was training new pilots on the US east coast.

The fishing town of Gela lies on a limestone plateau at a height of 150 ft (45 m) behind a beach with a 900-ft (270-m) pier. A plain cultivated for grain extended inland behind the community of 32,000 persons, the mouth of the Gela river was 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of the pier and the mouth of the Acate river was 5 miles (8 km) to the east of the Gela river. The sand and stone beach between the rivers was from 10 to 30 yards (9 to 27 m) wide and backed by 900 yards (820 m) of dunes. The drainage divide between the two rivers was the 400-ft (120-m) Piano Lupo high land 7 miles (11 km) to the north-east of Gela with a strategic junction of roads including the coastal highway between Gela and Scoglitti and roads leading inland to Niscemi and Caltagirone.

The 52nd Troop Carrier Wing of 222 Douglas C-47 Skytrain twin-engined transport aircraft carried the 505th Parachute Infantry from North African airfields for a parachute drop over the Piano Lupo. A Western Task Force of 601 ships (including 130 warships and 324 landing craft and transports with 1,124 shipboard landing boats) was commanded by Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt carried the landing elements of the US 7th Army, Both Hewitt and Patton were embarked on the flagship transport Monrovia. Patton now commanded three times as many soldiers as Hewitt had landed eight months earlier in Morocco during 'Torch', and the USA had not previously attempted to sustain so many combat troops over beaches without a port. Thus the amphibious shipping included nine new types of landing craft, five new types of landing ships, and Project 'Goldrush' pontoon causeways that were as yet untried under combat conditions. 'Husky' (i) marked the European combat debut of tank landing ships only one week after their use in the Pacific Ocean within the 'Cartwheel' campaign. The western task force was divided into Task Force C to land Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s 3rd Division near Licata on the western flank, Task Force K to land Major General Troy H. Middleton’s 45th Division near Scoglitti on the eastern flank, and Task Force H to land the 16th and 26th Infantry of Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s 1st Division with the 531st Engineers and the 1st and 4th Rangers, with the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion attached, near Gela. The reserve force of Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s 2nd Armored Division and 18th Infantry of the 1st Division was landed on the first day of fighting to support the 1st Division.

Sicily was held by Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s 6a Armata, and the Gela invasion beaches were defended by the Italian 18a Brigata costiera, while the town itself was defended by the Maggiore Rubelino’s 429a Battaglione costiero, which had barbed wire entanglements, concrete pillboxes and anti-tank guns. The beach to each side of the Gela pier was mined and defended by machine guns on both flanks and artillery batteries 7,000 yards (6400 m) inland, on Cape Soprano to the west and on Monte Lungo to the north. The sand and stone beach on the eastern side of the Gela river was defended by three machine gun nests at its eastern end and by artillery batteries 8,970 yards (8200 m) to the north and 9,950 yards (9100 m) to the north-west. Generale di Divisione Domenico Chirieleison’s 4a Divisione fanteria 'Livorno' was positioned near Niscemi and supported by the Gruppo mobile 'E' at Ponte Olivo with obsolete Renault R-35 light infantry tanks of French origin to respond when the exact invasion points became known. These Italian forces were joined on the afternoon of the first day by 9,000 German combat troops of Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' with 46 PzKpfw III medium and 32 PzKpfw IV battle tanks from Caltagirone, reinforced with one regiment of Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision including the 215th Panzerabteilung with 17 PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks.

Air support was available from one Staffel of the Jagdgeschwader 53 flying Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 single-engined fighters at Catania, two Staffeln of JG 77 flying Bf 109G-6 fighters at Trapani, another Staffel of the JG 77 at Sciacca, two Staffeln of the Schlachtgeschwader 2 flying Focke-Wulf Fw 190F-2 single-engined ground-attack fighter-bombers at Castelvetrano, and two Staffeln of the Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 flying Fw 190A-5 fast fighter-bombers at Gerbini. Junkers Ju 88A twin-engined and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engined medium bombers could reach Gela from bases in Italy.

The larger US transport vessels departed Oran in Algeria on 5 July as the NCF.1 convoy and were screened by destroyers as they hugged the African coast eastbound while the gunfire support cruisers sailed on a parallel course as a covering force to the north. The LSTs, LCIs, LCTs and patrol craft sailed directly from Tunisia as the TJM.1 and TJS.1 convoys. The convoys were spotted and all the German forces on Sicily were alerted at 18.40 on 9 July. Force 7 winds created 12-ft (3.7-m) seas, causing widespread seasickness among the embarked troops, then the wind moderated on the evening of 9 July as ships split into Task Forces C, H and K, and steamed toward their assigned positions off the Sicilian coast. As the ships anchored, airborne troopers of the 505th Parachute Infantry were scattered by wind and aircraft navigation errors, and fewer than 200 of the 3,400 paratroopers were able to reach the strategic Piano Lupo high land before the arrival of the defending 4a Divisione fanteria 'Livorno'.

The transports Joseph T. Dickman, Prince Charles, Prince Leopold, Oberon, Barnett, Monrovia, Lyon, Samuel Chase, Betelgeuse, Thurston, Elizabeth C. Stanton, Orizaba and Chateau Thierry anchored about 6.9 miles (11 km) off the mouth of the Gela river with LCIs, LSTs, and salvage vessels slightly farther offshore. The destroyers Murphy, Glennon, Maddox, Bernadou and Dallas screened the seaward side of the anchorage. The light cruiser Savannah and the destroyer Shubrick patrolled a gunfire support area to the west of the anchorage, while the light cruiser Boise and the destroyer Jeffers patrolled a similar gunfire support area to the east of the anchorage. The US Army hoped to secure operational and tactical surprise, and therefore declined the US Navy’s suggestions for a pre-landing bombardment.

The transport vessels started unloading shortly after 00.00 on 10 July, and Guzzoni declared an emergency at 01.00. The first assault wave from Barnett, Lyon, Thurston and Stanton landed at about 02.45. Shubrick destroyed two of the 18a Brigata costiera's searchlights, which were illuminating the first wave, and fired on several of the 18a Brigata costiera's artillery positions. The first waves of US troops had landed on all beaches by 03.35, and the Ranger battalions landed on each side of the Gela pier. The 26th Infantry landed on the eastern side of the Gela river, and the 16th Infantry to the east of the 26th Infantry. Some 300 men of the 45th Division’s 180th Infantry accidentally landed among the 16th Infantry on beaches to the west of the Acate river.

Major General Edwin J. House’s XII Air Support Command had planned to provide air cover of 12 fighters over Gela during daylight hours, but the number actually available was never more than eight and sometimes as few as two. There was a steady flow of Axis air raids, and thus there were no Allied fighters overhead when most Axis aircraft arrived. The first Allied fighters arrived at 05.01 before sunrise at 05.46, but Axis bombers had arrived before first light. Bombs and flares began falling at 04.21 and Maddox sank at 04.58 with 212 of her crew less than two minutes after being hit by a bomb dropped by an Italian dive-bomber. LST-345 and the submarine chaser PC-621 were damaged in a collision while manoeuvring to avoid bombs. Savannah shot down a Ju 88 at 05.14. The absence of fighter cover during the initial Axis bombing attack created an enduring perception among ships' crews that they were responsible for their own air defence and should prioritise aircraft destruction above identification. Axis fighters and fighter-bombers were able to make undetected low-level approaches from Catania under the fleet’s radar horizon by flying down the Acate river canyon at the eastern edge of the Gela beach-head. Allied fighters patrolling at altitude to engage medium bombers were perceived as dive-bombers and subjected to friendly fire losses when they attempted to engage low-altitude air raids. It is worth noting that the ships were using proximity-fused anti-aircraft ammunition for the first time in the European theatre.

The Rangers attacked the town of Gela with the object of capturing the town’s pier so that the LSTs could offload on it. The Italian defenders destroyed the masonry pier with demolition charges at 02.40, however, but the Rangers had captured the town by 08.00, taking prisoner 200 men of the 18a Brigata costiera as well as three three obsolescent 80-mm (3.15-in) guns of Austro-Hungarian origin. The 429o Battaglione costiera had lost 194 men killed or wounded, this representing about 45% of its strength. The 1st Division hoped to capture the Ponte Olivo airfield within 24 hours of landing. The 26th Infantry was prepared to assist the Rangers in capturing Gela but, after that had proved unnecessary, began moving inland to take the high ground to the west of Ponte Olivo. The 16th Infantry intended to join the 505th Parachute Infantry, which was assumed to be in control of the Piano Lupo high land to the east of Ponte Olivo. There they planned to defend against attacks from the Niscemi area and prepare for a co-ordinated attack with the 26th Infantry against Ponte Olivo. The 16th Infantry met strong resistance from the machine gun nests at the eastern end of its landing beach. The 18a Brigata costiera's artillery and mortar units were targeting the beach as the LCIs began landing support troops in the area to the east of the Gela river at 04.30.

After the sun had risen, minesweepers began clearing mines near the beach so that the LSTs could start landing vehicles at 08.00. LST-338 was straddled by Italian shellfire as soon as she beached. Italian artillery intensified firing at the eastern beach from 07.10 until Boise and Savannah, each with a main armament of 15 6-in (152.4-mm) guns, temporarily silenced the batteries at 09.40. Landing craft for a time stopped using the beach when Italian artillery resumed firing at 10.10 and destroyed some landing craft and the supplies they had offloaded onto the beach. Half-tracked vehicles attempting to move inland from the eastern beach encountered an Italian minefield. Teller anti-tank mines destroyed trucks, DUKW amphibious trucks and five US Navy bulldozers. The American forces were hampered at this time by the fact that their mine detectors had been rendered unreliable by exposure to salt water during the landing, so the first path through the minefield was not cleared until 12.12. By 12.00, not a single piece of Allied artillery had been landed, and none of the 10 tanks assigned to the 1st Division were ashore. Landing craft had to wait as long as four hours to be unloaded, and the beach was congested by vehicles waiting to move inland. Unloading was frequently interrupted by air attacks and artillery fire, and a shortage of landing craft developed as nearly 200 such craft had been disabled by shellfire or by broaching in the surf. Unexpected sand bars paralleled the beach some 150 yards (135 m) offshore and prevented some landing vessels, including LSTs carrying tanks, from reaching the shore to offload their cargoes. Some soldiers landing on the sandbars in darkness drowned as they waded toward the beach with their heavy packs. In the confusion ashore, some of the 1st Division’s supporting artillery was diverted to the Licata beaches to the west and the Scoglitti beaches to the east, and then suffered significantly delays as it moved toward Gela.

The light cruisers Boise and Savannah launched Curtiss SOC Seagull single-engined biplane observation floatplanes at 06.00 to locate targets and undertake gunnery spotting. Bf 109 fighters had shot down both of Savannah's floatplanes by 07.30 as the 4a Divisione launched a three-pronged counterattack to recapture Gela. The Italian counterattack was reported by a US newspaper with the words 'Supported by no less than forty-five tanks, a considerable force of infantry of the Livorno Division attacked the American troops around Gela. The American division beat them back with severe casualties. This was the heaviest response to the Allied advance.' A column of Italian infantry from Butera approached Gela from the west while a second such column, preceded by 13 Fiat 3000 wholly obsolete light tanks, approached Gela along the road from Ponte Olivo, and a third column preceded by about 25 Fiat 3000 tanks approached the beach-head to the east of the Gela river from Niscemi. Savannah launched her two remaining SOC floatplanes at 08.30 as Rangers directed the gunfire of the destroyer Shubrick, destroying three of the tanks approaching Gela along the Ponte Olivo Road. The surviving tanks entered Gela, but the Italian infantry was immobilised by Shubrick's gunfire. The Rangers destroyed three of the tanks before the remaining seven retreated with their accompanying infantry. The Rangers used the captured 80-mm (3.15-in) Italian guns to repel the 4a Divisione's infantry column approaching Gela from Butera.

The Italian column from Niscemi pushed through roadblock of the 505th Infantry to reach the Piano Lupo road junction before men of the 16th Infantry arrived. Boise opened fire at 09.10 after her SOC floatplanes had observed the Italian column approaching along the Niscemi road and radioed co-ordinates before being chased off by Bf 109 fighters. The infantry of the 4a Divisione remained in previously prepared defensive positions to avoid the naval gunfire, while the tanks continued toward the beach-head until they encountered the two forward battalions of the 16th Infantry. Bf 109 fighters shot down another of Savannah's SOC floatplanes, and the last SOC returned to the ship damaged. Boise and Savannah, their combined total of 30 6-in (152.mm) guns supplemented by the two 15-in (381-in) guns of the British monitor Abercrombie, fired on the Italian column from 10.47 to 11.08. The 16th Infantry occupied Piano Lupo as the tanks and infantry from Niscemi withdrew under combined pressure from naval gunfire and the 16th Infantry. Boise launched the last operational SOC at 12.19, and this was shot down by Bf 109 fighters as Boise fired on the Italians from 12.45 to 12.51. The naval guns destroyed two tanks and the 16th Infantry another two.

Axis bombing raids hit the beach at 13.20 and 14.30 in support of the counterattack on the eastern beach-head by the 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring''s Panzerregiment 'Hermann Göring'. A high-altitude bombing attack at 15.30 was followed by intermittent attacks for the rest of the day. The 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' approached Piano Lupo from Niscemi while 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, supported by 17 Tiger I tanks, approached from the Acate river. After some difficulty in threading the Tiger tanks through the olive groves, the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision overran the 1/180th Infantry of the 45th Division before being stopped by the 3/180th Infantry. The 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' pushed through the 16th Infantry in Piano Lupo, but paused as it encountered naval gunfire when moving off the Piano Lupo high land toward the beach-head. After waiting through the remaining daylight for a rendezvous with the stalled 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, the 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' withdrew at dusk to regroup. As this division pulled back, the reserve force of the 2nd Armored Division and 18th Infantry began to land at 17.00 over the beaches being vacated by the 26th Infantry. LST-313 was attempting to offload anti-tank artillery when three or four fighters dropped bombs on the pontoon causeway being used to offload the LSTs. One bomb struck LST-313, killing 21 men, damaging embarked vehicles and igniting a petrol fire that caused a series of ammunition explosions. The burning LST, still carrying the 26th Infantry’s anti-tank artillery, was abandoned at 18.24, and continuing explosions scattered the pontoons, causing the nearby LST-312 to broach, and preventing the offloading of more LSTs. The 1st Division requested extended air cover after being bombed from 17.30 to 19.30, and Axis bombing continued at a rate of between 275 and 300 sorties per day, half of them at night. Gunfire support ships provided covering fire as the 1st Division began retreating back toward the beach at 21.50 under cover of darkness. Only three LSTs,carrying half-tracked vehicles but no tanks, had been unloaded when the 1st Division requested immediate tank support at 22.15. The Axis bombing of the beaches and ships intensified at 22.45.

The Luftwaffe had flown 370 sorties on 10 July and lost 16 aircraft destroyed or missing and, according to Italian sources, 141 sorties were flown by the Regia Aeronautica, which lost 11 aircraft on the first day of the landings. That evening, Italian-flown Ju 87 single-engine dive-bombers or Reggiane Re.2002 Ariete single-engined fighter-bombers sank the Indian hospital ship Talamba some 3 to 6 miles (4.8 to 9.6 km) off the beaches of Sicily.

As 10 July turned into 11 July, tugs refloated LST-312 at about 00.00. The first US tanks were landed at 02.00 and these vehicles of the 67th Armor promptly became stuck in soft beach sand, and the steel matting intended to support the tanks' weight became entangled in their treads and bogey wheels. Butler replaced Shubrick as the western gunfire support destroyer at 05.30 and Glennon replaced Jeffers as the eastern destroyer at 06.20. Some 12 SM.79 three-engined medium bombers attacked the transport anchorage at 06.35, holing Dickman and Orizaba with near-miss bomb fragments and striking Barnett with one bomb, killing seven army personnel, wounding 35 more and starting a fire. This was the first of 14 Axis air raids on the beach-head that day, and covered a co-ordinated Axis ground attack. While the 4a Divisione attacked the Rangers at Gela in three columns from the western side of the Gela river, the 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' attacked the 1st Division’s beach-head on the eastern side of the Gela river. No fewer than 60 PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tank survivors of the previous day’s naval gunfire advanced in two columns. The 1/Panzerregiment 'Hermann Göring' advanced from Niscemi and the 2/Panzerregiment 'Hermann Göring' from the Ponte Olivo airfield while the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision again advanced down the Acate river valley to the east. The German forces from the east planned to meet the Italian forces from the west in the Gela beach-head. The 2/Panzerregiment 'Hermann Göring' swept past the 3/26th Infantry at 06.40, and the 26th Infantry began to retreat toward the beach, while the 16th Infantry delayed the 1/Panzerregiment 'Hermann Göring' until naval gunfire began to take effect in the middle of the morning.

While the 60 US tanks landed earlier still wallowed in the dunes, five tanks landed from LST-2 at 08.45 immediately went into action without having their waterproofing removed. By that time, the German tanks were within 2,400 yards (2195 m) of the beach-head. Every man on the beach, including yeomen, electricians, carpenters, and intelligence and supply officers of the Advanced Naval Base Group, was hastily armed and formed a firing line along the dunes with engineers of the US Army shore parties. Ships began gunfire support requested by shore parties at 09.15, and Boise fired on the tanks from 10.40 to 11.42. US Army observers reported 13 tanks destroyed by Boise, but after the war it was claimed that majority of these had been destroyed by the four mobile tanks of the 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command B. The 15th Panzergrenadierdivision in the Acate river valley was brought to a halt by the men of the 505th Parachute Infantry who had landed 36 hours earlier, and the westernmost column of the 4a Divisione was stopped by the 3rd Division. Savannah fired 500 rounds of 6-in (152.4-mm) shells, killing more than half of the Italian infantry advancing on Gela and leaving human bodies hanging from trees. Rangers took 400 prisoners out of the survivors' dazed ranks. Although unable to reach Gela, Tenente Colonnello Dante Hugo Leonardi’s 3/ 34o Reggimento fanteria took a number of prisoners from forward elements of the US 26th Infantry. The Sarasota Herald Tribune confirmed on 12 July that no fewer than seven determined counterattacks against the US beach-head on 10 and 11 July had been carried out by the 4a Divisione: 'The heaviest of seven Italian counter-attacks was met and beaten back by American troops in the Gela area. The attack was launched by the Italian’s Fourth Livorno Division with 45 tanks in support.'

While the US forces ashore stopped the Axis advance, minelayers spent the afternoon placing a protective minefield off the anchorage. Axis bombing of the anchorage began again at 12.35 and continued intermittently with repeated attacks from 13.51 to 15.35. An attack by 35 Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined bombers, escorted by Bf 109 fighters, at 15.45 hit the Liberty ship 'Robert Rowan'. The ship’s cargo of ammunition detonated at 17.30, but in the shallow anchorage the sunken ship was not wholly submerged and continuing fires illuminated the anchorage for a heavy bombing attack between 19.47 and 19.52 followed by a series of dive-bombing attacks beginning at 21.34 and lasting past 00.00. Many ships were damaged by near misses, but only one LST remained to be unloaded at 16.00. Boise fired at Niscemi between 18.26 and 19.37. The surviving Axis tanks began to withdraw under cover of darkness at 22.35.

On 12 July, the invasion convoy had been 90% before dawn, and the 1st Division captured the Ponte Olivo airfield at 08.45, which was about 27 hours later than planned. Allied fighters successfully broke up an Axis bombing raid at 09.36 and the daily number of Axis bombing sorties had been halved by the end of the day. Ships continued to provide gunfire support, and Butler fired on tanks near the Ponte Olivo airfield from 11.26 to 11.35. Patton left Monrovia at 17.00 to establish his headquarters ashore. The 27th Fighter-Bomber Group of Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz’s 12th AAF started to land its North American A-36 Apache single-engined ground-attack aircraft at Ponte Olivo as soon as the airfield had been declared secure for operations, and immediately began to provide air support for continuing operations against the German and Italian forces.