SICILY ’43: The Assault on Fortress Europe


In terms of men landed in a single day, Operation HUSKY, the Allied assault of Sicily on 10 July 1943, remains the largest amphibious invasion ever mounted in the history of the world.  More than 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops were dropped from the sky or came ashore that day, more than on D-Day in Normandy just under a year later, or in any of the island battles in the Pacific.  It was a remarkable achievement and all the more so since Britain and America had, just three years earlier, had almost no armies to speak of and practically no tanks, guns, trucks and other essential equipment.  In many ways, the Battle of Sicily is the moment the Western Allies came of age.  It was on Sicily that the British and American coalition began to operate at a war-winning level.  Modern warfare by 1943, said General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of all Allied land forces for Sicily, was a correlation of, ‘the three elements we live in: land, air, water. Army, air force and navy must become a brotherhood.’  At the time, it was only the Western Allies who were bringing these three elements together and it was to bring about a sea-change in how they fought.  Most narrative campaign histories are incredibly land-centric but, in this book, I have tried to bring air and naval power much more to the fore, giving it the emphasis it deserves.  Air power, especially, was a vital part of the pre-invasion operations on and around Sicily and continued to play a critical part throughout the campaign.

The thirty-eight-day Battle for Sicily is an extraordinary – and complete – story.

Its conquest involved the largest airborne operations ever witnessed up to that point, daring raids by special forces, including glider and paratrooper drops (on both sides), the legendary Paddy Mayne and the SAS, Commandos, the harnessing of the Mafia, attacks across mosquito infested plains, assaults up almost sheer faces of rock and scrub, and featured an astonishing array of highly colourful characters: from commanders such as Generals Montgomery and Patton to the German Valentin Hube – nicknamed ‘der Mann’ – as well as a host of lesser ranked officers and soldiers, like Lord Tweedsmuir, the son of John Buchan, Philip Mountbatten (later to become the Duke of Edinburgh), England cricketer Hedley Verity, and Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier of World War II; the legendary Luftwaffe pilot ‘Mackay’ Steinhoff and the kilt and claymore-wearing Ernst-Günther Baade are two fascinating men who fought on the German side, while hovering in the background was Don Calo Vizzini, the head of the Sicilian Mafia, and Italian-American gangsters Vito Genovese and Lucky Luciano.  It was a period in which Fascism was overthrown in Italy, Mussolini was toppled, and in which the pattern for the rest of the war in the West was set.  On Sicily, future heroes and commanders of D-Day and the war in Northwest Europe earned their spurs – characters like the American paratrooper Jim Gavin, Generals Omar Bradley and Miles Dempsey and many more.  In Sicily, vital lessons were both learned and ignored, but the legacy of this campaign, now largely forgotten, can be seen clearly in any study of the events of D-Day and the battle for Normandy.

Sicily was a terrible place to fight a battle, especially in the blazing heat of high summer.  A Baedeker guide from the 1930s warned that no tourist should consider visiting in the months of July and August, when temperatures were blistering and conditions at their worst – and yet this was precisely when the Sicilian campaign took place.  Certainly, it was brutal in many ways.  The violence was extreme, the heat unbearable, the stench of rotting corpses intense and all-pervasive, and the problems of malaria, dysentery and other diseases a constant plague that affected all trying to fight their way across this island of limited infrastructure, rocky hills, mountains and an all-dominating volcano.  In my book, the island of Sicily itself will become one of the main characters.  I hope readers will find themselves wiping the sweat from their brows as they experience the dusty roads of the Sicilian interior in July and August of 1943.

At the time, Sicily was the biggest battle being fought in the West, finding itself on the front pages of newspapers and headlining news footage across Europe and the United States.  The eyes of the West were on this Italian island as were those of Nazi Germany. Today it is largely forgotten, overtaken in the narrative by the Battles for Cassino and most especially by D-Day, Normandy and the war in Northwest Europe.

Despite being such a thrilling story with so many different and exciting elements, very little has been written about it.  The North African campaign and Alamein have been the subjects of many accounts, as has what followed in the last two years of the war, but on Sicily there is very little.  Curiously, I have carried out more battlefield studies there with the British Army in the past ten years than any other campaign or theatre of war and the reason is simple: on Sicily, modern-day soldiers can study multiple different aspects of warfare in a neat and contained location and following an equally contained narrative – one that has a clear start, middle and end.

It was a period of dramatic change in the fortunes and tempo of the Second World War:  the end of the Italian participation in the war, the closing of the noose around Nazi Germany and Hitler’s growing paranoia about his southern flank, and the first major amphibious operation of the war against a defended coastline and the first coalition operation between the United States and Britain in which both nations each fielded entire armies.  A major campaign with far-reaching strategic importance, I was amazed by just what an extraordinary and compelling campaign it was. It was a privilege to write about and I hope you all find it every bit as interesting and illuminating as I did researching and writing the book.

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