U.S. and British troops had landed on the island of Sicily during the late evening and early morning of July 9-10, 1943. Codenamed Husky, the operation had as its goal the removal (by whatever means necessary) of the Italian and German military. Having done that, the island would be the staging area for the bigger drive into Italy, the “Soft Underbelly of Europe”.
General Bernard Montgomery led the British 8th Army, which landed on the southeast side of Sicily. General George Patton’s U.S. 7th Army landed on the south-central part of the island, near Gela. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the hard-charging U.S. General to tire of what he thought was a stagnant, play-it-way-too-safe style of warfare being run by the Commander of the land forces, General Alexander (also a Brit).
So, on July 17th, Patton flew to Allied headquarters in Tunisia, tracked down Alexander, pointed to the northwest corner of Sicily on his map, and said (not a direct quote), “How about I take Palermo?” As the capital of Sicily, it had been where the American leaders had wanted to land in the first place. But Montgomery and Alexander disagreed and General Eisenhower (in overall command and desirous of coalition harmony) backed Alexander’s plan. Alexander considered Patton’s idea, and gave him the go-ahead.
And like racehorses out of the gate at Churchill Downs, Patton’s men were off, ripping through the countryside, capturing lightly defended towns and taking prisoners. In fact, before asking permission, the man with the .45 on his hip had already allowed a large number of forces to begin moving and taking some of the smaller towns between Gela and the capital, 80 miles away. As it turned out, Alexander later countermanded the orders, but Patton ignored him, blaming garbled messages.
By the morning of July 22, 1943, the 7th Army was on the outskirts of Palermo, but was forbidden to enter the city. Patton, whose over-sized ego and vanity often got the best of him, wanted to lead a tank processional into the capital. There would be little or no fighting as most of the enemy had already left town and headed east. At 6pm (after waiting all day), several battalions were sent into the city and later in the evening, an Italian General overstepped his authority and surrendered the city.
The fall of Palermo was mostly symbolic and was accomplished with relatively little combat. It’s military importance lies mostly with how the enemy perceived it. With the British moving (slowly) towards Messina from the south and the western part of the island in U.S. hands, the Italians and Germans realized that Sicily could no longer be defended, and a retreat from the island was now on the cards.
Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle