Thursday, August 10, 2006
The German Army Begins Evacuation Of Sicily, August 11, 1943
Today in 1943, German forces began a six-day evacuation of Sicily. This retreat meant the end of the campaign to liberate the island and it also signaled the beginning of the end of Italy's participation in the war as an Axis power.
In January, 1943, with North Africa firmly in Allied hands, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt decided that an invasion of Sicily was necessary in order to force the Germans to send troops to southern Europe so as to draw down the forces facing the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front. It was also hoped that a successful invasion would force Italy to withdraw from the war. General Dwight Eisenhower was in charge of the operation, with General Harold Alexander commanding ground forces made up of General George Patton's 7th Army and General Bernard Montgomery's 8th British Army. The date of the invasion was set for July 10th.
The liberation of Sicily began with airborne operations involving four divisions of paratroopers. High winds scattered the troopers and made it difficult for many of them to reach their rallying points. However, both the British and American ground forces, which landed the next morning, faced little opposition on the beaches and quickly achieved their first day objectives. Patton's 7th Army liberated Palermo, the island's capital, on July 22, which trapped 50,000 Italian troops on the west side of the island. Soon, both the American and British forces were racing for Messina, a town located near the northeastern tip of Sicily. The Americans attempted to outflank the German retreat by use of amphibious landings, but the British Army under Montgomery fell behind schedule as they met stiff German resistance.
The Messina strait, at its narrowest point, only separates Sicily and Italy by two miles. This short boat trip was the only path of escape for the Germany Army. On August 11, when the first German units crossed the strait, there were almost 40,000 Wermacht soldiers on the island. Additionally, there were 60,000 Italian troops in need of evacuation. Ships ferried men and machines over the short stretch of water non-stop while the remaining Axis forces beat back Allied attacks along the 'Etna Line', a line of prepared defensive positions around Messina.
Over the next six days, 100,000 German and Italian soldiers were successfully evacuated to the Italian mainland. In addition, they brought with them nearly 10,000 vehicles, including 47 tanks and 97 heavy guns. 2,000 tons of ammunition were also loaded aboard the waiting ships. When General Patton's forces finally liberated Messina on August 17, 1943, the last evacuation ship had left just hours earlier.
Overall, the Sicily campaign was a success for the Allies in that it achieved all of its stated objectives. However, the escaping German soldiers were immediately put to work preparing for the defense of Italy, the next logical place for an Allied invasion. American intelligence estimated that before the evacuation of Sicily, there were only two German divisions on the Italian mainland; afterwards, there were six. The failure to stop four divisions of well-trained, well-armed Germans at Messina would haunt the Allies as they fought up the boot of Italy for the remainder of the war.