Operation Devon

This was the British amphibious seizure of the Italian port of Termoli on the Adriatic Sea coast (1/8 October 1943).

The plan was created within the context of the need of General the Hon. Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group to break through the defensive positions of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army extending across Italy between a point to the south of Naples on the west coast and Termoli on the east coast. The Allied line was held by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army in the west, where the successful ‘Avalanche’ landings at Salerno had been undertaken three weeks earlier, and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army in the east, where Foggia had been taken on 27 September.

Montgomery now planned that with the left flank of his army and its lines of communication shielded by Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s V Corps (Major General G. C. Bucknall’s 5th Division, Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division and Major General E. E. Downs’s 1st Airborne Division), ‘Devon’ would be run by Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s XIII Corps with Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division, Brigadier C. Vokes’s Canadian 1st Division (with attached army tank brigade) and Brigadier J. C. Currie’s 4th Armoured Brigade, with the 5th Division in reserve at Potenza. The corps was already well forward, with the 78th Division on the right, the Canadian 1st Division on the left and the 4th Armoured Brigade between and ahead of them as its probed to the north from Foggia.

Dempsey’s plan was the Canadian 1st Division would push north along the axis of the inland Highway 17 toward Vinchiaturo and Campobasso while the 78th Division moved along the coastal Highway 16 toward Termoli, which was to be taken by an amphibious assault just ahead of the 78th Division’s arrival.

The capture of Termoli was entrusted to Lieutenant Colonel J. F. Durnford-Slater’s 1st Special Service Brigade, comprising No. 3 Commando and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando supported by the 1st Special Raiding Squadron (1st Special Air Service renamed after the end of the North African campaign in May 1943) with 207 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel R. B. Mayne. The assault force was then to be bolstered by the seaborne arrival of two of the 78th Division’s three brigades (Brigadier B. Howlett’s 36th Brigade and Brigadier N. Russell’s 38th Brigade) and the landward arrival of the division’s third component (Brigadier E. E. E. Cass’s 11th Brigade) supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade.

von Vietinghoff-Scheel believed that the 8th Army had no more than four divisions and lacked effective naval support, and therefore expected that the British northward advance along the eastern side of the Italian peninsula would be slow and methodical, especially as the terrain offered excellent defensive capabilities to the rear of the ‘Reinhard-Linie’ defences.

Thus the coastal region between the Adriatic Sea and the Molise mountains on the eastern part of the front, the responsibility of General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps, was held only by Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, which was disposed for the most part astride Highway 17 along the Canadian 1st Division’s axis of advance, and Oberst Karl-Lothar Schulz’s Kampfgruppe ‘Schulz’, based on the 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment at Larino to the west of Termoli with its 2/1st Fallschirmjägerregiment about 5 miles (8 km) from the town. The 400 or so men of the Kampfgruppe ‘Rau’ were located in Termoli.

Following a request for reinforcements from the LXXVI Panzerkorps, parts of Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s 16th Panzerdivision from General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps were, however, ordered to move to the east on the evening of 1 October, and during the following day Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, instructed von Vietinghoff-Scheel to shift the entire 16th Panzerdivision to Campobasso. This formation was therefore on its way to an area some 40 miles (65 km) from Termoli just as the British were about to land.

The 8th Army’s advance began on 1 October, and the 1st Special Service Brigade sailed on the following day. Preparatory air operations had been frustrated by a week of bad flying weather. The light bombers had been grounded during this period, but British and US Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s Desert Air Force, and Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers of Major General James H. Doolittle’s North-West African Strategic Air Force were able on occasion to interfere with German troop movement on the roads linking Campobasso and Isernia, and in the battle for Termoli which now started the Allied air forces intervened effectively.

The 1st Special Service Brigade arrived off Termoli before dawn on 3 October, landed, scattered the Kampfgruppe ‘Rau’, and established a close perimeter round the town. The commandos’ patrols made touch during the morning on the Biferno with 2/Lancashire Fusiliers leading the overland force. This had been delayed by the cratering of the roads and the demolitions of bridges, and had also encountered limited combat with German detachments.

Heavy rain began on 3 October and, continuing for 18 hours, rendered almost all of the area except the roads virtually impassable to vehicles, and both field and anti-tank guns were constantly bogged down. There was a small and low-capacity boat-bridge over the Biferno, but Bailey bridging equipment, hurriedly moved forward, did not arrive until 4 October.

By 12.00 on 3 October the Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’ and Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’, of the 16th Panzerdivision, were each moving toward Termoli. Shifted suddenly from the Volturno river front and hampered by fuel shortages as a result of air attacks, the two Kampfgruppen found it difficult to make effective progress. The Kampfgruppe ‘Schulz’ meanwhile drew in its left-hand troops to the northern side of the Biferno, where the ridge of the Monte di Coccia looks over Termoli.

The 11th Brigade was occupied during 3 October in crossing the Biferno in small groups, wading or using the boat-bridge and local boats. The 36th Brigade disembarked during the night of 3/4 October, and the plan for 4 October was that the 11th Brigade and the 1st Special Service Brigade would hold the bridgehead at Termoli while the 36th Brigade cleared the Coccia ridge and then advanced toward Guglionesi, 7 miles (11.25 km) to the south-west. The British knew nothing of the approach of 16th Panzerdivision, and the prospects of striking out from a secure bridgehead seemed good.

When the 36th Brigade began to probe the Coccia ridge and cross the Sinarca stream to the north-west of Termoli on 4 October, the Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’ (based on one Panzergrenadier battalion) was arriving at Petacciato on the north, and the Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’ (based on two Panzergrenadier battalions) likewise at San Giacomo to the west of the Coccia ridge. These Kampfgruppen together amounted initially to three battalions and five batteries of artillery.

Neither side gained any advantage in the day’s fighting gave no particular gain to either side, but the British deduced that a large German force, probably armoured, was entering the battle, while their own armour and all but a few anti-tank guns were on the wrong side of the Biferno. By the evening, however, engineers were working on a tank ford and a Bailey bridge, and Howlett ordered his 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the night of 4/5 October to renew the attack on San Giacomo, which had been started on 4 October but been checked. Howlett was very anxious to have armour in support since these could probably move on the higher, drier ground. Six Sherman tanks of 3/County of London Yeomanry crossed early on the 5 October by means of the newly completed ford, but in the process caused so much damage that no other armour could reach the northern bank.

Early on in morning of 5 October, the infantrymen of the 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders found themselves, with very few anti-tank guns, in a dangerous position near the Valentino brickworks outside Termoli. And on this morning, too, three companies of the 2nd Panzerregiment of the Kampfgruppe ‘Stenckhoff’, totalling some 20 PzKpfw IV battle tanks, made their appearance. With the support of this armour, the Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’ and Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’ attacked toward San Valentino and the Goccia ridge, greatly threatening the 36th Brigade. Four Sherman medium tanks were knocked out and the 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had suffered 162 casualties, were pressed slowly back toward Termoli. On the 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ flank six German tanks, on the Goccia ridge, overran part of 6/Royal West Kent, penetrated between it and the Buffs, and with the infantry of the Kampfgruppe ‘von Döring’ forced back both battalions. The Kampfgruppe ‘Stempel’, on the German left, closed on Termoli.

However, at 15.00 a Bailey bridge was finally completed and 3/County of London Yeomanry quickly crossed. Forward with the 36th Brigade, Evelegh ordered a counterattack, and the combination of the 3/County of London Yeomanry and the 5/Buffs re-established positions on the Goccia ridge, and the 11th Brigade and 1st Special Service Brigades held strongly in the bridgehead to the north-west of Termoli. The Germans were now exhausted, having gained little more than 3,000 yards (2750 m) in two days of heavy fighting: the 16th Panzerdivision currently had 126 casualties and 108 men sick.

On 5 October reinforcements reached the British: in the afternoon two squadrons of Sherman tanks of the Canadian Three Rivers Regiment arrived overland, and during the evening the 38th Brigade was delivered by sea. On the same day, moreover, the fighter-bombers of Major General Edwin J. House’s US XII Air Support Command were diverted to the 8th Army’s front to support the efforts of the Desert Air Force.

Evelegh ordered a general counterattack on 6 October, and this started to turn the tables by noon on the same day. At 16.35 Herr sanctioned a withdrawal to the north-west. On 7/8 October the 78th Division pushed forward to Larino in the south and toward Petacciato on the coast. Termoli had been a hard-fought, stubborn battle with well over 500 casualties on each side.