Operation Orkan (iii)

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This was a German counterattack on Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army ‘Avalanche’ beach-head at Salerno by Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s 16th Panzerdivision of General Hermann Balck’s XIV Panzerkorps within Generaloberst Gottfried-Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army (12/13 September 1943).

The German division’s attack was launched from the area of Ponte Sele on the Sele river to the south-west in the direction of Hill 140 and the southern part of the Allied beach-head, held by Major General Ernest J. Dawley’s US VI Corps, and was part of the somewhat belated but strenuously delivered German riposte.

It was on 12/13 September that the Germans launched their counterattack. While Kampfgruppen of Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’, also part of the XIV Panzerkorps, attacked the beach-head’s northern flank, the main attack was delivered on the boundary between Lieutenant General R. L. McCreery’s British X Corps and Dawley’s VI Corps, which extended approximately approximately from Battipaglia to the sea, with the greater German power directed at the VI Corps.

On the morning of 13 September elements of the 16th Panzerdivision attacked and took Altavilla on the high ground some 9 miles (14 km) behind Paestum, but a counterattack forced them to withdraw as darkness fell. During the afternoon, two German groupings, the Kampfgruppe ‘Klein Limburg’ and Kampfgruppe ‘Krüger’, had attacked Persano and overrun the 1/157th Infantry before crossing the Sele river to engage the 2/143rd Infantry and almost destroy it. The two Kampfgruppen continued their advance to the south and south-west until reaching the confluence of the Sele river and its large tributary the Calore river, where they was stopped by artillery firing over open sights, naval gunfire and a makeshift infantry position manned by artillerymen, drivers, cooks and clerks and anyone else whom Major General Fred L. Walker, commander of the 36th Division, could scrape together. By this time the VI Corps had lost most of three battalions, so the forward units of both its divisions were withdrawn to reduce the length of the defensive line.

Major General Troy H. Middleton’s 45th Division consolidated at the position at Sele and Calore, while the 36th Division was on the high ground on the seaward side of the La Caso stream, which flows into the Calore. The new perimeter was held with the assistance of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division. Following the cancellation of ‘Giant II’, two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry, totalling some 1,300 men, had been assigned to execute the final version of ‘Giant I’ at Capua on the evening of 13 September, but instead jumped into the beach-head and moved into the line on the right of VI Corps. During the following night, with the crisis passed, 2,100 men of the 505th Parachute Infantry also dropped into the beach-head and reinforced the 504th Infantry.

A clear sign of the crisis passing came during the afternoon of 14 September when the 180th Infantry, last of the 45th Infantry Division’s regiments, landed and Clark was able to place this in reserve rather than in the line. The 325th Glider Infantry, reinforced by the 3/504th Parachute Infantry, landed by sea on 15 September. A night drop of 600 paratroops of the 2/509th Parachute Infantry to disrupt German movements behind the lines in the vicinity of Avellino was widely dispersed and failed, and suffered major losses.

Aided by British naval gunfire and the 5th Army’s organic artillery, the reinforced and reorganised infantry units defeated all German attempts on 14 September to find a weak spot in the lines. By this time the German counterattacks involved, from north-west to south-east, the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’, Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision. The German losses, especially in armour, were heavy.

Moreover, on 14 September and the following night Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, heading the Mediterranean Air Command, ordered all available aircraft, including heavy bombers, to support the 5th Army: more than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped during the daylight hours of that day.

On 15 September the 16th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision went over to the defensive, and this marked the end to the thrust toward Paestum, whose capture would have split the VI Corps into northern and southern halves.

Farther to the north Oberst Wilhelm Schmalz’s Kampfgruppe ‘Schmalz’ of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ achieved surprise as it attacked Brigadier M. A. James’s 128th Brigade of the 46th Division on the high ground to the east of Salerno: the attack was spearheaded by the infantry of the Kampfgruppe, but the armoured column following in the infantry’s wake was intercepted and driven back, leaving the infantry exposed.

The Allied bombing effort continued on 15 September, although at a pace slightly less intense than that of the previous day, as did the naval bombardment. The arrival of the British battleships Warspite and Valiant, each with eight 15-in (381-mm) guns, provided the Allied troops with boost in morale, although Valiant was not required to shoot and Warspite fired only 29 rounds within the context of 2,592 rounds fired during the day by Allied warships.

On 15 September Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, reported to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that the Allies’ air and naval superiority had forced General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps onto the defensive in the south-east and that a decisive success would depend on the current attack by the XIV Panzerkorps in the north-west. Should this fail, Kesselring added, the 10th Army would have to end its counter-offensive. And fail it did, leaving the 5th Army firmly ashore on the coast of the Gulf of Salerno.