After securing North Africa in May, it was time for the Allies to turn their attention to the “soft underbelly of Europe”. It had been decided that, rather than attacking Italy directly, Sicily would be dealt with first. Clearing the island nation would not only provide an excellent staging area for the landings in Italy, but it would keep Italian and German forces “off their backs” once the landings commenced.
But even before that, there was Pantelleria. Never heard of it? Well, it’s a small island situated 53 miles east of Tunisia (in North Africa) and 63 miles west of Sicily. About 40 square miles in size, it possessed value to the Allies because of its airfield, which would support aircraft for the upcoming operations. Pantelleria also provided good harbor facilities.
From the opposing point of view, the airport and harbor areas were valuable as well. But the radar facilities were especially important, as they allowed Italian and German fighter squadrons on Sicily and Italy advanced warning of approaching aircraft. British and American forces definitely wanted that equipment neutralized.
It was determined that an assault of the island, code-named Operation Corkscrew and set for June 11, 1943, would be preceded by heavy bombing, since the island’s strategic position meant it was heavily fortified with nearly 100 gun emplacements and 10,000 troops.
And so, as action was ending in North Africa in May, the bombings began. And they increased in intensity over time and, by June 7th, were pretty much running around the clock. June 10th saw the heaviest onslaught, with more than 4,000 tons of bombs released onto the island target.
When British commandos landed on June 11, 1943, the white flags were already flying by the surviving members of the Italian garrison. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill would write that the only casualty among his men was somebody bitten by a mule.
As assaults go, it was one of the easiest of the War. The defenders had been bombed senseless, more than half their guns were destroyed, the ships in the harbor were now resting at its bottom, and the air forces there had been decimated.
But it also gave the Allies something of a false impression concerning the effectiveness of air power. Some came to believe that bombing alone could subdue targets and, as we have seen through the years, that generally just isn’t the case.
For Pantelleria, however, it pretty much was.
Recommended Reading: The 320th Bomb Group website – A fine website with a good workup of Operation Corkscrew.