Operation Corkscrew (i)

'Corkscrew' (i) was the Allied amphibious operation, otherwise known as 'Hobgoblin', to take the Italian island of Pantelleria (11 June 1943).

Lying to the west of Malta in the Sicilian Narrows separating Sicily from Tunisia, the island had been fortified and strongly garrisoned from 1937 at the orders of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, who saw in Pantelleria an Italian counterpart to the British bastion of Malta some 120 miles (195 km) to the Italian island’s south-east.

By mid-1943 the island was under the local command of Ammiraglio di Divisione Gino Pavesi and garrisoned by Generale di Brigata Achille Maffei’s 11,750-man Brigata Mista Pantelleria, which occupied an extensive network of pillboxes and had at its disposal 21 batteries of artillery in a number of calibres, under the overall command of Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s 6a Armata in Sicily.

The neutralisation of Pantelleria and the adjacent Italian islands in the Sicilian Narrows was essential for the success of the Allies' planned 'Husky' (i) landings in Sicily, for these islands lay athwart the only practical approach routes from Tunisia, and Pantelleria was also well suited for service as a base for the fighter-bombers which were necessary for the support the Sicilian landings. Moreover, the Allies believed that the radar installations and airfield on the island were a real threat to the planned invasion of Sicily. In addition, the Allies believed, there was an opportunity to assess the impact of bombardment upon heavily fortified defences. It was therefore decided to see whether or not the island could be forced into submission by aerial and naval bombardment alone, and failing this an amphibious assault would be made.

The British had been on the brink of trying to take Pantelleria in January 1941, but had abandoned this initial 'Workshop' operation as impracticable as German air formations arrived in the theatre to strengthen Italian air power, and then greater events had pushed the concept aside.

On 8/10 May a sustained air offensive was implemented to prevent the use of the island as a staging post in the Axis evacuation of its forces from Tunisia. The bombing offensive was resumed on 18 May, and increased in weight from 6 June by elements of Major General James H. Doolittle’s North-West African Strategic Air Force, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s North-West African Tactical Bomber Force and Colonel Lawrence P. Hickey’s (from 13 June Major General Edwin J. House’s) specially reinforced US XII Air Service Command. By 7 June the attacks had become almost continuous, and between 6 and 11 June some 5,324 tons of bombs were dropped on Pantelleria in 3,712 bomber and fighter-bomber sorties: since mid-May some 6,400 tons of bombs had been dropped in 5,218 bomber and fighter-bomber sorties.

The light cruiser Orion, which had already carried out a gunfire bombardment on 12/13 May, shelled the island on 31 May in company with the destroyers Petard and Troubridge. On 1 June the light cruiser Penelope repeated the bombardment in company with the destroyers Paladin and Petard; during this effort Penelope was hit by the return fire of the Italian coastal artillery. During the night of 2/3 June Orion, Paladin and Troubridge shelled Pantelleria, and this exercise was repeated on 3 June by the destroyers Ilex and Isis, on 5 June by the light cruiser Newfoundland with the destroyers Paladin and Troubridge, and on 8 June by the light cruisers Aurora, Newfoundland, Orion and Penelope, the light anti-aircraft cruiser Euryalus, and the destroyers Jervis, Laforey, Lookout, Loyal, Nubian, Tartar, Troubridge and Whaddon together with the motor torpedo boats MTB-73, MTB-77 and MTB-84.

After the gunfire bombardment and the dropping of 6,200 tons of bombs by Allied aircraft in 5,285 sorties, Rear Admiral R. R. McGrigor’s landing force, carrying Major General W. Clutterbuck’s 1st Division, appeared off the island on the night of 10/11 June after crossing from Sfax and Sousse with the headquarters ship Largs, the destroyers Paladin and Petard and the gunboat Aphis, together with Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt’s covering force comprising the light cruisers Aurora, Newfoundland, Orion, Penelope and Euryalus, the destroyers Laforey, Lookout, Loyal, Jervis, Tartar, Nubian, Troubridge and Whaddon, and eight motor torpedo boats.

After a final heavy bombardment from the air and the sea, the island’s garrison was twice invited to surrender. There was no reply, so the British troops were landed, and Pavesi then capitulated, having been authorised to do so in the course of the preceding night.

The Axis losses totalled 56 Italian soldiers killed and another 116 wounded, and 11,621 Italians and 78 Germans taken prisoner. The sole British casualty was one man bitten by a mule.

An assessment by a British analyst, Professor Sir Solly Zuckerman, reported that the Italian defences had been trimmed to a 47% effectiveness. The intense 10-day bombing effort had substantially reduced the physical defences: of the 80 pieces of artillery which were bombed, 43 had been damaged, 10 of them beyond repair; all control and communications facilities had been destroyed, and many gun emplacements, ammunition stores and air-raid shelters had been damaged. Unfortunately for the Allies, the ease of the operation led to an overly optimistic assessment of the effectiveness of bombing within the context of the land battlefield.

In the smaller 'Guitar' operation, on 12 June the 4,600-man garrison of the neighbouring island of Lampedusa also capitulated after a night shelling by Aurora, Orion, Penelope and Newfoundland supported by six destroyers, Linosa surrendered to the destroyer Nubian on 13 June and Lampione on 14 June. The way had thus been cleared for the 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily less than one month later.