Battle Of Sicily: March From The Beaches

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Battle Of Sicily: March From The Beaches

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 29 apr 2011, 18:51

Aboard a transport, one of a thousand ships bearing the U.S. Seventh Army to Sicily, a colonel climbed atop a gun mount and read out an Order of the Day from Lieut. General George Smith Patton Jr.:

We are teamed with the justly famous Eighth Army, which attacks on our right, and we have for the Army Group commander that "veteran and distinguished soldier, General Sir Harold Alexander.

When we land we will meet German and Italian soldiers whom it is our honor and privilege to attack and destroy.

Many of you have in your veins German and Italian blood, but remember that these ancestors of yours so loved freedom that they gave up home and country to cross the ocean in search of liberty. . . .

Remember that we as attackers have the initiative. We must retain this tremendous advantage by always attacking rapidly, ruthlessly, viciously, without rest. However tired and hungry you may be, the enemy will be more tired, more hungry. Keep punching. God is with us. We shall win.

A correspondent aboard the command ship saw a lone figure, leaning on the bridge rail. It was General Patton, gazing over the water toward the Sicilian shore, where history and the enemy awaited him and his men.

The Landing. Patton's ship stood off Gela, a soiled town on a blue bay, the main initial objective of the U.S. troops. Against Gela and its environs had been thrown a great weight of naval shells and aerial bombs. Against Gela, now, were sent crack troops of the Seventh Army: first a shock battalion of Commando-trained Rangers under Lieut. Colonel William O. Darby, who was to do brave things, and Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen's tried-&-proved 1st Division.

One of several correspondents in the landing craft was TIME Correspondent Jack Belden, who reported the landing and the battles which followed. (Because of transmission delays, no eyewitness accounts of the landing reached the U.S. until last week.)

Many of the men in the boats had been seasick on the packed ships. Now, on the way to the flaming shore, they were sicker than ever. They held their heads in their hands. They moaned. They vomited. A shore light picked out one of the boats. The faces in the light were pale and green. One of the men growled: "Why don't they shoot out that goddam searchlight?"

Red balls flew toward, over and among the boats. The Italians on the shore had depressed their ack-ack guns. A soldier, crouching, head down, said: "Shooting at the boats. Jeezus!"

Gunboats with blue lights, standing in toward the shore as guides for the landing craft, began to hail the first comers: "Straight ahead. Go straight ahead. You'll see the light on your right. Land there. Look out for mines. Good luck."

The naval ensigns commanding the boats cut their underwater exhausts, gave their engines the gun, roared toward the nearing shore. Toward some of the boats the red balls converged in multiple lines. For some, other things went wrong. They struck sandbars or reefs. Ramps stuck. Men jumped too late or too soon. Some, on orders, leaped with their equipment into the water, sank to their chins or lower. Some drowned.

"Get inland! Keep moving!"

The red balls and the officers' shouts tore at the minds and feet of the men. They ran toward the trees, the sand humps, anything beyond the water which offered cover. Once there, they realized that in most places the enemy fire had been rather light. A soldier said: "I've been wounded. But there is so much blood, I can't tell exactly where." In the darkness, along a 45-mile stretch of the island shore, it was pretty much the same: confusion in the first moments, the slow adhesion of well-commanded troops, the first meetings with the enemy on the land.

At one such meeting, a strange, fierce shout rang in the darkness. The invaders who heard the shout dropped to the ground, saw a pillbox on the skyline. The voice called again; it was no longer fierce, but high-pitched, panic-stricken.

"He wants to surrender," a U.S. soldier guessed. "Surrender! Surrender!" the soldiers shouted. The owner of the voice in the pillbox did not appear.

"Shoot the bastard, we can't wait here all day," a soldier growled.

"No," said someone, "don't shoot him. Maybe these people don't want to fight."

Finally an Italian-American soldier shouted: "Veni qui." A figure then crept from the pillbox on all fours, ran down the hill, screaming and sobbing. He was seized, searched, left behind. That particular unit had met its first Italian in Sicily.

Introduction to Gela. Daylight came. Up & down the beaches officers had marshaled their men, found lost companies, established contacts with other units on their flanks. With daylight came the first German planes—20 of them in one attack, veering from the beaches toward the ships.

Ashore the job was to take Gela. On the hills enemy artillery opened up. One U.S. unit found three wooden guns on a hill, but there were real guns, too. Warships answered, and the men on and near the beaches lay between the fire, under the whirring shells. Enemy machine gunners on a hill held up an advancing unit east of Gela. Enemy artillery fire raked the hillside.

But, everywhere along the shore, the troops advanced. They took prisoners. They found enemy dead on the hilltops, beside ruined Roman relics of older conquests. Within seven hours of landing, Lieut. Colonel Darby and his Rangers had fought their way, ahead of the main body of the ist Division, into Gela.

Battle for Gela. The enemy was not through. The Rangers and the 1st Division had ahead of them 50 sleepless hours of bombing, tank and artillery attacks, the hardest fight in the experience of that experienced division.

During the first full day ashore, the 1st landed all of its regiments. By morning it had some 40 artillery pieces and 15 antitank guns in position to fire. It had three tanks, but one had lost a tread in the sand. These weapons were not enough for what was to come. Only the bravery of the men and the fire of the warships offshore saved Gela and the landing.

At 8 a.m. of the second morning (July 11), Lieut. Colonel James Curtis was just finishing his breakfast of K rations when the telephone rang in divisional headquarters. The message said that 30 to 40 German tanks had attacked the 2nd Battalion of the division's 16th infantry regiment. That battalion held the division's right flank on a hill between Gela and the inland town of Niscemi.

Most of the battalion's anti-tank guns had not come up. Under the first shock, it had to retreat from hill to hill, toward the sea. The battalion commander, trying to pull his companies together at the height of the German attack, was wounded. His executive officer, a young captain, had to take over. Upon him, for a tense while, the fate of the U.S. invasion rested.

With 45 enlisted men and six other officers, the captain held a position called Hill 41.* Tanks repeatedly overran the hill. Every man fought for himself. The unit on the hill had only one anti-tank gun. Officers sometimes fired the gun. They manhandled it on a wall, firing first at tanks to the right, then at tanks to the left. A captain seized a bazooka (the army's famed anti-tank rocket weapon), knocked out a tank 25 yards away. A lieutenant colonel of paratroopers, who had stumbled on the battalion and stayed with it, knocked out another tank with a bazooka, then was killed. Officers and men battled the waves of tanks with grenades, rifles, machine guns. In the desperation of that battle, the men no longer sought cover. They fought standing up, running, all over the hill.

A mobile tank destroyer (a truck-mounted 75) arrived. The young captain in command of the battalion jumped into the destroyer, charged to the top of the hill, toward the tanks. His men did not expect him to return. He drove off the remaining tanks, and he came back. His battalion regrouped, advanced, eventually seized Niscemi. Softspoken, black-haired, tired, unconsciously heroic, the captain met Correspondent Belden. Belden said: "I hear you got some tanks yourself."

"I was in it," the captain said. "Everyone was in it. Just a family affair."

The right flank was saved. But the left was also under attack. Darby of the Rangers, on that flank, watched 300 Italians march toward his position. When they were well within range, his mortars fired. Only 50 Italians survived to retreat.

At the center of the divisional line, two groups of tanks came out of the hills, reached and crossed the Gela-Vittoria road, shot up some amphibious trucks, lobbed shells over divisional headquarters toward the shore 800 yards from the tanks. The defending units had no infantry, no antitank guns to stop the tanks. There was only artillery — 105-mm. howitzers, designed for other work—and Bofors anti-aircraft guns.

Toward the beaches, aswarm with incoming men and weapons, the tanks steadily advanced. A brigadier general of artillery, watching them, said to his companions: "I won't go back into the sea." Terry Allen said: "Hell, we haven't started to fight. Our artillery hasn't been overrun yet."

The snouts of the 1058 spat down toward the tanks. The Bofors gunners forgot the sky, at that stage often alive with German planes, and turned on the tanks. Warships offshore got the range, their fire guided with marvelous precision by naval control parties on the beach. Correspondents with the Army were convinced that the Army guns did most of the work that followed; those with the Navy, that the Naval guns did it.

Guns and men did it. The men behind one anti-tank gun were killed. Their company commander then fired the gun until he was killed. The battalion commander fired it until he was wounded. German Mark Ills, IVs, and two of the giant Tiger Vis crumbled under the combined fire. The assault broke. The remaining tanks scuttled.

That afternoon General Patton came ashore. Men on the ships heard that he could no longer bear the stillness of command offshore, jumped into a landing boat, then plunged into the surf. When the men in Gela saw him, he was in an armored command car, flying his three-starred flag, beautiful and battle-fevered in boots and whipcords. Just as he arrived, German bombers attacked Gela, killed 70 civilians and littered the street with bodies.

An Italian assault group approached from the northwest. Colonel Darby called for Naval assistance. Shells from a cruiser found the Italians, who were marching in column as though they were on parade. That attack melted.

At 6 in the evening, eight more tanks sneaked through the U.S. positions, infiltrated toward the beach. Engineers at work on the beach grabbed guns. A captain and a lieutenant spotted an advancing unit of Italians. The captain killed six. The rest retreated. The tanks were routed.

"We Attack." Worn by constant attack, sleepless, the men of Gela were near collapse. It seemed to many an officer that one more enemy attack would finish them. At that point, Terry Allen called a conference. He said: "We attack."

The troops of the 1st had learned that the 45th Division fighting near by—fighting as valiantly, but apparently unaccompanied by correspondents—had held its part of the beach. This news was cheering to the ist. So was Terry Allen's order. But the enemy attacked first.

German tanks were on three sides of one regiment. Its guns had only nine rounds of ammunition left. Someone told the regimental artillery officer: "Here comes a load of ammunition up the road." The officer turned to the regiment's colonel and said: "Shall I let 'em have both barrels?"

"Sure," said the colonel. Off went the guns.

For a taut time, the guns were silent.

"Why?" said the colonel.

"Shot up all the ammunition," said the artillery officer. The tanks were coming on.

Ammunition arrived from the busy beaches. U.S. tanks rolled ashore. The entire ist Division got up from its slit trenches and attacked.

The objective was a spot of high ground overlooking the airfield of Ponte Olivo, eight miles inland from Gela'. Terry Allen had said: "Be there before dawn." Before dawn a regimental commander sat on the high ground. Before that day was done, the airfield fell.

The Wide Advance. Such was the fighting for Gela and its beaches, the fighting which made the rest of the U.S. invasion possible. On the ist Division's left flank, 48-year-old, Texas-born Major General Lucian K. Truscott's 3rd Infantry Division seized Licata and its neighboring airfields, then expanded its position westward and inland to take Canicatti and seize the old walled port of Agrigento and its innumerable, well-placed gun positions.

On the right, Major General Troy H. Middleton's 45th Infantry Division moved in from the beaches toward and through Vittorio and a juncture with Canadians of the Eighth Army. Some of the fighting was hard, the deeds of these divisions were valiant, but the detailed accounts were delayed. Inland, early in the advance, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway's 82nd Air-Borne Division preceded the other divisions to Sicily. Unannounced in the first eleven days of the fighting were the positions and accomplishments of the 2nd Armored Division, commanded by 47-year-old Major General Hugh J. Gaffey, who had been General Patton's Chief of Staff in Tunisia, but an Italian communique said that heavy tank battles occurred in the 3rd Division's area.

There were many local battles for towns and airdromes, of great moment to the men in the battles, dismissed with a sentence or no mention whatever in the communiques. One such engagement was the battle for the town of Butera, eight miles inland from Gela. Butera was taken by Rangers on the march toward the inland communications center of Enna, which Canadian and U.S. troops approached this week.

General officers had thought that Butera, perched on a hill behind deep and well-gunned passes, might require a month of siege. It fell in a matter of hours to a Ranger detachment of 50 officers and men. After a tense, hard march in the night, Privates John C. See and John Constantine crept within earshot of the garrison, lolling and chatting beside their guns and trucks at the top of a high pass. Constantine, one of the many Italian-speaking soldiers in the Seventh Army, called upon them to surrender. The few German officers with them tried to make the Italians fight. After a few halfhearted shots the Italians refused. The Germans escaped, and the town with its half-starved, emaciated residents fell to the Rangers.

The Sword. At week's end, General Patton returned briefly to North Africa. Ahead of him came stories befitting the Patton legend. According to one story, a visiting major general accosted Patton at Gela. Patton promptly ordered him to the top of the hill, "so that you can get shot at a bit." Patton went with the major general. After a suitable number of missiles had fallen suitably near, Patton said: "All right, you can go down now."

Patton's colleagues smiled at such stories, believed some of them. But in the early months of the Tunisian fighting, in the later months when he was shaping the Seventh Army, a more balanced impression of General Patton had got about. "Gorgeous George," "Old Blood & Guts," who had once cultivated the spectacular impression, was also a patient and careful and studious man, a field officer with a good staff mind.

His mind and his experience told him that the foes to be beaten in Europe were the Germans, that the way to defeat the Germans was to confront them with overwhelming force. He likes to say: "It makes no difference what part of Europe you kill Germans in." Sicily, for him, is a way station on the road to the battlefields where Germans can be killed in quantities. On the way he will see to it that, as in Sicily, he meets them when he has the superior forces necessary to kill and defeat them.

Last week, during his interlude in North Africa, Patton's eyes and stars were bright. Seated in a British command car, he slapped his leather-bound swagger stick into the palm of his hand and invited a correspondent to return to the action with him.

"You had better come now," he said, "or my men will have killed all the bastards." Then he was gone, back to the places where the fighting was.
NEC JACTANTIA NEC METU ("zonder woorden, zonder vrees")

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