Archive for the ‘Mediterranean’ Category

Operation Ladbrooke was designed as a fairly straightforward mission, but failed miserably even in its success.  The goal was simple:  fly 1,700 soldiers to the Ponte Grande bridge.  That bridge, which spanned the Anapo River, was located just south of Syracuse, a city on the southeast side of the island of Sicily.  It was July 9, 1943, not quite two months since Allied forces had driven the German army from North Africa.  And now, the opening salvos of the battle for “the soft underbelly of Europe” were being fired.  Ladbrooke was just one small piece of the Allied invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky.

The soldiers of Ladbrooke were to capture their target before it could be demolished, and hold it against German and Italian counterattacks.  Having done that, they would move into Syracuse and secure its docks, providing a key point of disembarkation for the Eighth Army.  Unfortunately for those soldiers, the results were an unmitigated disaster.  In his book The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson writes that Ladbrookebore the signature traits of so many airborne operations in the Second World War:  poor judgment, dauntless valor, and a nonchalant disregard of men’s lives.

The soldiers would be transported in Horsa gliders which were pulled by aircraft using a 350-foot rope.  And that’s about all the good one could say about the mission.  It was flown at night by pilots who had very little night experience and almost no experience pulling gliders.  The area near Ponte Grande were rocky and full of stone walls, which made terrible (to say nothing of dangerous) landing zones for unpowered, wooden gliders.  Naysayers of the plan were many…naysayers that actually spoke up were few, as the plan had originated in General Montgomery’s headquarters, and speaking out carried with it career risks.

Glider pilots with any experience at all had never flown in anything but sunshine and calm conditions, a far cry from what they encountered that windswept Friday night.  But off they went, all 144 gliders from a half-dozen airfields in Tunisia.  And from that point (before the bullets even started coming), the plan was shot.

Some pilots had poor navigation maps, some had none at all.  The strong winds buffeted the planes and gliders badly, and numerous pilots became disoriented, flying far off course.  Some soldiers landed on Malta, while others were dropped back in Tunisia.  And while that’s pretty bad, those soldiers were the fortunate ones.  Winds caused additional strain and broke the tow-ropes on some gliders, which then landed in the Mediterranean, with all occupants drowned.

And while the majority of the gliders made it to where they could see Sicily, some pilots released their gliders too early, which again meant a swim and, on many occasions, death by drowning.  Only 54 gliders actually made to land belonging to Sicily and, even then, results were pretty awful.  Enemy anti-aircraft fire shot down a number, while others crashed heavily on landing, killing most (or all) of their passengers.

Rather than the five hundred men expected to take the bridge, a mere platoon seized Ponte Grande.  By morning the force had grown to nearly 100, but they were shelled heavily by Italian mortars and machine guns, and forced to surrender.  The bridge was later recaptured by Royal Scot Fusiliers.

So yeah, the bridge was captured intact, but the price was terrible.  The glider forces sustained more than 600 casualties, and more than half of them drowned without ever firing a shot.  While the mission of Ladbrooke was accomplished, the failure of the plan was seen over the ensuing weeks, as bodies washed up on shore with daily regularity.  Atkinson summarizes, “If the courage of those flying to Sicily that night is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for the judgment of their superiors in concocting and approving such a witless plan.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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Today was not a day of war for the Greek cruiser Elli.  August 15, 1940 was a day of celebration.  Anchored in Tinos Harbor in the Cyclades (a chain of islands southeast of mainland Greece), she was arrayed for a party rather than geared up for battle.  In his book on the sea battles around Crete, David Thomas describes the scene when he writes, “The 2,083 ton cruiser, barely larger than a destroyer flotilla leader, presented a gay scene, the bright summer sunshine adding to the colour of the bunting and flags which decorated her overall.  She – and the estimated 40,000 people ashore – were there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to the Greeks second only to Easter Sunday as a sacred day.”

Also in Tinos Harbor was the Delfino.  She was not there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  The Italian submarine was submerged and outfitted for war, and she had the Elli in her sights.  And at half past 8 in the morning, the Delfino made her move, launching 3 torpedoes at the her target…a sitting duck.

In recent months, the Mediterranean had seen an increase in conflicts between the Italians and the British.  The British were very interested in keeping the Italian Navy out of the eastern part of the region, particularly the Aegean and Ionian Seas.  For their part, the Italians were seeking an expanded empire (not unlike their Axis partners Germany and Japan).  Italian strong-man Benito Mussolini had set his sights on Romania, but Adolf Hitler got there first.  So Italy turned to Greece, which had pro-British leanings.  And nothing says “you’re in the crosshairs” like a submarine attack on an idle pip-squeak cruiser during peacetime in front of 40,000 people at a religious celebration.

Two of the torpedoes missed the Elli, but did damage some of the docks.  The third struck home, hitting the ship in the boiler room, dropping her to the harbor floor, and killing nine sailors.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, told the public that the attacker was unknown.  Problem was, his government was the only group of people that “didn’t know”.  The public knew it was the Italians, and the military knew it was the Italians.  Even when investigators recovered fragments of Italian torpedoes from the waterlogged Elli, the government (in its efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Italy) squelched the findings and maintained that the attackers were unknown.

And as we know, Greece’s attempts to prevent war with Italy were ultimately pointless, as Mussolini’s forces attacked Greece two months later.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941

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As May of 1941 rolled into June, the situation for the British in the Mediterranean was bleak.  North Africa was under siege from Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps, Greece had been occupied by the Germans, and Crete has just fallen to a daring (and costly) German paratroop assault.  British General Archibald Wavell faced a daunting task:  keep the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s vast oil supplies from falling under the “crooked cross” of the Axis flag.

But manpower was scarce.  In fact, there was really none to be had.  So Wavell turned to Colonel Dudley Clarke, and tasked him with figuring out a solution to the problem.  In his recently-published book Deathly Deception (which focuses on Operation Mincemeat), Denis Smyth writes, “In such straitened military circumstances deception could act as a force multiplier, dissuading the enemy from assaulting a particularly weak point in British defences.”

In the closing days of May 1941, that weak point was Cypus.  Located just 300 miles straight east from newly-acquired Crete, the British believed it presented a juicy target to the Germans, offering a chance to dominate the Mediterranean, ease supply to Rommel in North Africa, and look straight down the chute of the Suez Canal.  And Cyprus was defended by a less-than-adequate 4,000 British soldiers of, shall we say, not front-line caliber.

So Clarke and his men decided to convince the Germans that Cyprus had more men than it really did.  He created the 7th Division and “placed” it on Cyprus.  And on June 13, 1941, the deception began.  There were dummy headquarters and dummy tanks (like the one shown above) placed around the island.  There were phony divisional signs and directions placed on the roads and intersections.  Since a divisional HQ generates quite a bit of radio traffic, that was contrived as well.  In fact, the British went so far as to leak some information about the island’s defenses to a known Axis collaborator.

As it turns out, the Germans didn’t really have plans for Cyprus at all.  But the deception was valuable anyway.  The German High Command completely fell for the ruse.  The 7th Division didn’t go away.  In fact, over time, more fictional forces were created, and they wreaked havoc on the German planning. Field Marshal Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein brought with it the capture of German documents, which overestimated British tank counts by 40% and infantry strength by a staggering 45%, thanks in part to phony forces.

When preparing for the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943, and ultimately, the Normandy coast in 1944, these ficticious units served to dilute the German defenses, forcing them to keep busy in lots of places for no good reason.  And the 7th Division, created out of thin air in June 1941?  In German minds, it never went away.  That division (along with others) figured into German planning all the way to the end of the war, almost 4 years later.

Recommended Reading:  Deathly Deception – A mostly fascinating look at one of the most famous deception campaigns of the Second World War.

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Since being removed from power, Benito Mussolini had been spending quite a bit of time reading Ricciotti’s Life of Jesus.  Well, reading and being transferred from prison cell to prison cell.  There was little doubt in the mind of Pietro Badoglio, the new Italian leader, that the Germans would be searching long and hard for the old Italian leader.  So Mussolini was shuttled around from one secret place to another, ending up in late August at the Hotel Albergo-Rifugio, a mostly inaccessible (and closed down) ski resort in the Gran Sasso peaks of the Apennines.

And Badoglio was right…the Germans were frantically searching for Mussolini.  And they were using more than just the normal channels (spies and message interception).  They were using channelers as well.  Rick Atkinson briefly mentions it to his readers in his book The Day of Battle.  He writes, “Hitler’s search for his erstwhile ally included consultation with various occultists and astrologers, among them a certain ‘Master of the Sidereal Pendulum,” as well as more conventional intelligence clairvoyants.”

At some point (I’m guessing from conventional channels), the Germans discovered Mussolini’s latest residence, and Hitler turned immediately to Captain Otto Skorzeny, quite possibly his most trusted commando operative, with orders to effect a rescue.

And Skorzeny did just that on September 12, 1943.  He loaded 108 commandos into gliders and headed for the Gran Sasso.  Mussolini was looking out the window when he saw his rescuers come sliding across the grounds.  Within minutes (and without a shot being fired), Otto Skorzeny had flung open the door to Mussolini’s room and the deposed dictator was a free man.  He and Skorzeny shoehorned themselves into a tiny Storch airplane, and flew off to safety.

Benito Mussolini was warmly greeted by Adolf Hitler, who would soon install him as the head of the Italian Social Republic.  It was nothing more than a figurehead position over a piece of real estate that would eventually fall to the Allies, but I suppose a good number of things, even working for Hitler in 1943, were better than prison.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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On April 30, 1943, the battle for North Africa was winding down, and the Axis had defeat staring it in the face.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the tactical genius, had exited the theater in poor health nearly two months before.  In fact, the final offensive against the depleted Panzers (Operation Strike) was just a week away.  Tunis and Bizerte were certain to fall, and if they did, the Germans were facing a loss of men and equipment that could rival Stalingrad.

But on this day, Allied war planners weren’t thinking about the “here and now”.  They were looking ahead to the next target…Sicily.  The trick, however, was to get Adolf Hitler and his military leadership thinking about a place other than Sicily.

And that’s where Operation Mincemeat came in.  This involved making the German government believe that it had captured top-level, top-secret documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece and Sardinia.  But the Germans were pretty intelligent in their own right, and fooling them wouldn’t be easy.  Plus pretty much everyone knew that, after Africa, the next step would be Italy, and Sicily make the perfect stepping-off point.  This would have to be quite the ruse.

The idea was to have a body, dressed up like a mid-level officer, wash ashore on the Spanish coast.  British Intelligence believed that the Spanish, with their close ties to Germany, would immediately report the discovery, and things would progress.  So the body of a man that recently died of poisoning was found, and a stash of phonied documents of the operation in Greece was placed in a briefcase and strapped to him, along with a major’s uniform and some old receipts and a made-up wife-to-be.

The submarine HMS Seraph then carried the body in a canister filled with dry ice.  As the dry ice evaporated, the carbon dioxide consumed the oxygen and preserved the body without refrigeration (which would have been a dead giveaway to German doctors).

At 4:30am, the Seraph off-loaded the body and the intelligence services watched and waited to see if their trick worked.

To say it succeeded would be an incredible understatement.  The Germans bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  Field Marshal Rommel, now in better health, was sent to Greece and given overall command of its defenses.  Additional reinforcements were directed away from Sicily and to Greece and Sardinia instead.  A Panzer Division was moved from France and, more importantly, two Panzer Divisions were moved from the Eastern Front, a move that would have a big benefit for the Russians at Kursk.

And when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily in July of 1943, Hitler and his generals still believed it to be a feint, and continued their focus on Greece.  By the time they figured out they had been tricked, Sicily was all but lost.

So I guess that just like Michael Knight, one (dead) man can make a difference.

Recommended Reading: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory – It’s probably dangerous to recommend a book that, as of this writing, has yet to hit the presses.  But I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on it.

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The German air raid on the Italian port of Bari would have, under normal circumstances, occupied a minor space on the shelves of history.  It is notable that the attack, which took place on the evening of December 2, 1943 and involved 105 Junkers Ju-88 bombers, caught the Allies completely off guard and achieved a “Pearl Harbor”-esque level of surprise.

But Bari was primarily a supply port and depot, so the targets were hardly as glamorous as Battleship Row, with capital ships lined up like so many immobile ducks in a shooting gallery.  Still, there were a lot of supply ships and merchantman moored about.  The Germans succeeded in hitting two ammunition ships and, as we would suspect, they exploded in titanic fashion.  An oil pipeline was also severed, dumping fuel oil into the harbor.  Once it caught fire, the harbor became a sheet of flame, igniting other merchant and supply ships.  In all, nearly 20 ships were destroyed and the port was closed for three weeks.

A good tally for the Germans, to be sure, but really not enough to make it stand out on its own.  So what makes this particular event different?…what gives it more historical “shelf space” than others?

The SS John Harvey.

The John Harvey was a Liberty ship that arrived in Bari with a special cargo…a classified top-secret cargo.  In her holds were 2,000 bombs carrying mustard gas.  Used extensively in World War I, this chemical agent caused terrible burns when contacting the skin and respitory damage when inhaled.  The use of chemical weapons had been outlawed in the 1920’s, but the military feared that the Germans, in the face of defeat, might resort to unconventional weapons of their own.  The John Harvey was an Allied “contingency” plan…and it back-fired badly.

The John Harvey was one of the victims of the raid, and as she exploded and sank, some of the the mustard gas was released.  It mixed in with the oily water, which coated sailors as they struggled for shore.  It got into the air, mixing with the smoke of the fires and passing over the city of Bari.

Within 24 hours, hundreds of civilians were showing up at medical facilities with strange burns, acute illness, and blindness.  Medical staff found it increasingly difficult to handle the work, not only because of the volume of cases, but also because many of them (having been exposed to the sailors and wounded) were now being affected by the agents.

The Allied High Command kept quiet, desperately wanting to keep the mustard gas a secret, which forced medical personnel to “fish in the dark” for the causes of the symptoms.  It wasn’t until weapons experts were brought in and began examining the situation that the source was discovered.

And it would be another three months until the news was made public.  But by then, hundreds (and probably thousands) of people had died from exposure.  It’s likely that many deaths were not counted simply because so many people fled the city to escape the “mystery disease” that burned, blinded, and killed.

The final reports were classified by the U.S. until the late 1950’s, but the British documents were actually sanitized, changing the cause of death from World War II’s only release of chemical agents to “burns due to enemy action”.  It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that the British admitted the truth.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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The decision by Vichy French forces to lay down their arms in North Africa didn’t play well at the top of the German military.  The announcement, coming on November 11, 1942, was immediately followed by the German occupation of Vichy France.

Nazi forces rolled through Vichy (which comprised the southeast half of France) and arrived at Toulon, a major port that opened into the Mediterranean Sea.  It was also home (and still is, for that matter) to a large portion of the French fleet, which interested the Germans greatly.  Docked in Toulon were 3 modern battleships, 7 cruisers, 18 destroyers, nearly 2 dozen submarines, and dozens of smaller auxiliary boats, tenders, and tugs.

It presented a nice addition to the Germany Navy, and a huge boost to their presence in the Mediterranean.  At that point the Germans began negotiating with Admiral Jean de Laborde, trying to get him to surrender the fleet peacefully.

Simultaneously, French Admiral Darlan was trying to get Laborde to sail the fleet out of Toulon and to the North African coast (not all that long of a journey) and add its firepower to the Allied side of the ledger.  The French ships stationed at Casablanca had foolishly decided to fight the incoming Allied forces and were soundly defeated.  The addition of the ships from Toulon would be most welcome.

For two weeks the negotiations continued, with the Germans and Allies each trying to win the day.

In the early morning hours of November 27, 1942, German patience ran out and SS panzer troops stormed the gates of Toulon’s naval base.  Immediately, Laborde gave the “Scuttle, scuttle, scuttle!” order.  And in one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage ever, the French sailors complied.

The sea cocks were opened and the waters of the harbor poured into the ships.  The engines were destroyed, along with the instruments, and the base at Toulon became a giant junkyard.  One by one, the ships got lower in the water, the fires set in the engine rooms eventually succumbing to the incoming flood.

In all, more than 70 vessels were sunk.  The 3 battleships, the 7 cruisers, 15 of the 18 destroyers, a dozen submarines, most of the torpedo boats, and all the tugs.

The immense frustration felt by Darlan (and many others) was tempered by General Eisenhower who, always the diplomat, reminded everyone that keeping such a powerful force out of German hands was a victory of sorts.

I wonder if anyone was brave enough to tell the good General that it wouldn’t take many of these victories to cost the Allies the war.

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The Battle of Taranto is one of the Second World War’s more obscure engagements.  Maybe that’s because it happened at night, or because it lasted only a few hours.  But as we’ll soon see, it was very important for a couple of reasons.

Taranto itself might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, who may recognize the harbor and city as one of the landing areas for Allied troops commencing the invasion of Italy in 1943.  But this was 1940, and Operation Husky was too far into the future to even be a gleam in the General’s eye.

In November of 1940, France had fallen and Britain stood alone in Western Europe as the only country unconquered and unoccupied by Nazi Germany.  But more than just standing on her own, Britain’s holdings in the Mediterranean were threatened as well.  Axis advances were threatening Crete, Malta was already under heavy attack, and Hitler had his eye on the key chokepoint at Gibraltar.

The Germans didn’t have a large naval presence in the Mediterranean, but the Italians did.  British operations in North Africa were supplied through Egypt, and a strong naval presence at Taranto meant Axis forces were in a good position to cut British supply lines.  A way was needed a way to level the playing field a bit.

The British had been considering action against Taranto for years, but planning stepped up after the fall of France.  A two-carrier operation was formulated using carrier aircraft from the HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious.  An attack in the latter part of October was scratched when the Illustrious suffered a small but potent fire and the Eagle was diagnosed with serious fueling problem.  In the end, aircraft from the Eagle were shuttled to the Illustrious and Operation Judgement became a one-carrier mission.

At 10:00pm on the night of November 11, 1940, two dozen Swordfish aircraft left the decks, many armed with torpedoes and some with bombs.  The Swordfish itself was a World-War-I-style biplane (shown above) that couldn’t even reach 140mph, but on this night, it didn’t need to.  Just before 11:00pm, they made their first pass over Taranto for target acquisition.  Fifteen minutes later, the attack began.

And these outdated biplanes did far more damage than their diminutive sizes would have suggested.  The battleship Conte di Cavour was hit, as was the battleship Littorio (twice).  The next wave succeeded in hitting the Littorio again and putting a large torpedo-sized hole in the battleship Caio Duilio.  Italy’s power had been seriously damaged, and its battleship force had been cut in half.  The British lost a couple of Swordfish.

Naval convention said that torpedo launches had to be made in water that was at least 100 feet deep.  The waters around Taranto were only 40 feet deep and the British dropped their torpedoes at a very low altitude and pioneered a dramatic change in torpedo tactics.

The Swordfish would go on to achieve greater fame six months later, when they would again put holes in a battleship…this time the legendary Bismarck.

The Battle of Taranto would also go on to achieve greater fame, thirteen months later, when the Japanese studied the British attack and used many of the same tactics…this time at legendary Pearl Harbor.

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We rarely visit the movie theater.  Occasionally, we’ll go and watch a movie, but even “occasionally” is too strong a word.  The last time I occupied a theater seat was in December of 2006, when I took my wife to a show as part of a Christmas present.  I don’t remember when I went before that, but I remember the movie I saw…U-571.

U-571 is another of those movies that’s “based on a true story“…which can mean just about anything in Hollywood parlance.  It stars Matthew McConaughey and is about a U.S. submarine crew that, in 1942, chases down a crippled German submarine (U-571) to capture it and remove the code machine and cipher keys.  It’s a decent movie that’s pretty exciting, which you would expect.  It’s also not that all that historically accurate, which you would also expect.

So let’s use the platform of Today’s History Lesson the clarify things.  The real U-571 was sunk in 1944, but the movie’s story more closely matches that of U-559.

U-559 was a modestly successful German submarine.  Her first few patrols were in the Atlantic, but she spent the remainder of her time patrolling the Mediterranean Sea in obscurity, putting holes in a handful of freighters and a frigate.  It wasn’t until the day of her sinking that she attained notoriety.

In the early morning hours of October 30, 1942, the sub was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean by a patrol plane, who radioed the destroyer HMS Hero.  She, along with four other destroyers, spent the rest of the day chasing and depth-charging U-559.

As night fell, the now-damaged sub was forced to surface.  Surrounded by destroyers and thinking his vessel was sinking, the captain decided to abandon it and sink it with explosives.  The crew, in its panic to get off the sub, opened the sea valves, but failed to destroy the Enigma machine and its code books.

The German crew was quickly taken into custody and below decks, at which point 3 British sailors volunteered to board the sinking sub and see what they could find.  Lt. Tony Fasson knew the sub carried the Enigma, and probably figured it was destroyed.  But still, it never hurt to take a peek.  He, along with Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown boarded the dying sub…

…and found a bonanza.  The Enigma machine was quickly removed, along with the code books, cipher keys, and various maps.  With Brown waiting outside, Grazier and Fasson re-entered the sub again, looking for more documents.  And then the sub gave up its fight with gravity’s pull, and sank in about 200′ of water.  Brown could do nothing but swim free, knowing his two mates were now dead.

But those two deaths prevented hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other deaths.  For not only had they captured an intact Enigma machine, they also had in their hands the keys for German Navy’s SHARK and TRITON code systems.  For the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, this was like winning the lottery…twice.

The British worked very hard keeping their discovery a secret, to the point of not awarding the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award) to the three men, fearing it might tip off the Germans.

Like I said, U-571 was a pretty exciting movie.  But the story on which it is based would have been just as good a movie.  One wonders why Hollywood can’t simply tell the real story.  I suppose if that were the case, guys like me would have take up decoupage or something…

Recommended Reading:  uboat.net – Need to find information on a German submarine?  Look no further.  I’ve linked you to U-559’s page.  Need to cross-reference?  Maybe uboatwaffe.net can help.

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Italian dictator Benito Mussolini clearly had a flair for ineptitude.  He may have made the trains run on time in Rome and he may have made the grapes more delicious in Tuscany.  He might have even single-handedly kept Venice from sinking deeper into the Adriatic.

But on military matters…well…most people wanted him fighting for “the other guy”.

As a member of the Axis, Italy’s part (militarily speaking) was often to sit by and watch Germany and Japan pretty much do what they wanted.  And that didn’t sit well with Mussolini, who became jealous of their “easy” conquests.  Oh sure, there had been some gains in Africa (Abyssinia, British Somaliland, Eritrea).  And don’t forget the “conquering” of Albania.  But they paled when compared with Poland and China and Norway and France.

Mussolini needed a big feather in war-time cap.

Romania had, in the middle of October of 1940, accepted German protection for its massive oil fields at Ploesti, which bothered Benito badly.  He had long considered Romania to be in the Italian sphere of influence, and believed Germany was overstepping its bounds a little.  So he turned at Greece, sending an ultimatum demanding they allow Italy to occupy their territory.

Greece and Italy had a history of troubled relations.  Italy’s conquest (I use that term lightly) of Albania put them right on Greece’s border, and Prime Minister Metaxas was showing a preference for Britain.  For his part, Metaxas did what he could to maintain neutrality, going so far as to cover up the origins of the sinking of the Elli in Tinos Harbor in August…clearly an Italian operation and a topic worthy of discussion at some point.

But there was no way the Prime Minister of Greece was going to allow an Italian occupation.  He refused on October 28, 1940…and was attacked by Italy on October 28, 1940.  Italian Generals launched their attacks while simultaneously trying to recall the men they had sent home just weeks before to help with the harvests.

Within two weeks, Greece’s military had stopped the Italian advance.  A stalemate, which would last six months, began.  Hitler was, once again, angry with the Italian leader for going off and beginning an operation he couldn’t finish.  Evenutally (in the spring of 1941), Germany would have to delay Operation Barbarossa and commit his own forces to finally subdue Greece.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941 – This is a somewhat dry book dealing mostly with British naval operations around Crete, but it provides good background information on Greece as well.  It should go quickly for you.

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How the mighty had fallen.  When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, he had done so on a wave of immense popularity.  Twenty years later, he was on his way out.  A string of terrible military “adventures” in Africa, a disastrous invasion of Greece, the impending loss of Sicily, and the inevitable invasion of Italy by Allied forces had seriously eroded his support base.

On July 25, 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III told the embattled dictator, “Dear Duce, the situation is beyond remedy.  At this moment, you are the most hated man in Italy.  You have not a single friend left, except for me.  I am sorry, but the solution could not be otherwise.”

Italy’s Grand Council had just passed, with the greatest of ease, a vote of no-confidence against Benito.  The people were angry, the government was angry, and now the King’s words, coming from a man standing barely five feet tall, towered over the once-powerful Italian leader.

And as he left the King’s estate, he was met by armed men and arrested.  The reign of Mussolini in Italy was over.  The annoucement was broadcast over the radio shortly before midnight, leading to an impromptu after-hours pajama party in the streets of Rome.

Almost overnight, Facism in Italy vanished.  Pietro Badoglio, who took over power, said, “Facism fell, as was fitting, like a rotten pear.”  Even Mussolini’s own newspaper replaced Il Duce’s picture (shown prominently on the front page) with one of Badoglio.

In Germany, the news was met with anger and harsh words.  For all his miserable economic failures and complete ineptitude as a military leader, Mussolini had Teutonic allies.  In his diary, Joseph Goebbels would write about the deposed dictator, “…behind his massive figure a gypsy people has gone to rot.  The only thing certain in this war is that Italy will lose it.”

And then the scheming to somehow free Mussolini began…

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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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.

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A diadem is a type of crown.  According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s a royal headband.  I’m no linguist, but the dictionary tells me the word originates from a Greek or Latin word that means “to fasten” or “to bind”.  So it’s probably somewhat appropriate that the offensive launched by General Harold Alexander on May 11, 1944 was given that name.  Operation Diadem was designed to, once and for all, break the Gustav Line that had held up Allied troops in Italy for months, while “binding up” the German forces that held it.  And, as we saw a year it ago, it succeeded in breaking through, though not without cost, which we also saw, specifically in the case of Max Brand.

But of course, one part of the Gustav Line stood out.  The abbey of Monte Cassino, or rather, what was left of the abbey, had become one the toughest fortifications along the entire line of strongpoints.  And the Allies were partly to blame for that.

Back in February of 1944, U.S. and British forces had decided (incorrectly) that Monte Cassino, blessed with a commanding view of the valley around Cassino Town, was being occupied by enemy soldiers and artillery pieces.  They also decided (incorrectly) that bombing the abbey would not only kill the Germans there, but would also make an assault on it that much easier.

So on the 15th of February, the abbey was heavily bombed, which succeeded in killing numerous not-Germans that were there, but none of the Germans that weren’t.  Then the surviving not-Germans left, and the Germans that weren’t there suddenly were, and had a perfect redoubt to boot.  And for next 3 months, assault after assault would crash against the remains of the abbey (which continued to be bombed and shelled as well), only to be repulsed with heavy loss.  All told, the casualties suffered in the four major attacks on Monte Cassino neared six figures, most of them suffered by General Mark Clark’s U.S. 5th Army.

But Operation Diadem helped to change all that, as the massive wave of 28 divisions overwhelmed defenses all along the line.  Had the Germans stayed and defended the ruined monastery, they would have been quickly surrounded.  And so they pulled back, leaving only those soldiers too weakened or wounded to evacuate.  And on May 18, 1944, a Polish reconnassaince regiment arrived on-scene, found it abandoned, and raised the regimental colors on the…well…diadem of the monastery, using a makeshift flagpole (shown above).  Monte Cassino (that beautiful pile of rubble) was now in Allied hands.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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In 1950, Sam Newfield directed the movie Radar Secret Service.  In it, radar plays a front-and-center role in breaking up a crime ring.  Of course, radar was still a relatively new invention, to the point that the technology depicted in the movie bore no real resemblence to actual radar.  But even in its infancy, it somehow managed to out-act all the human characters.

Radar has talent.

The Battle of Cape Matapan is a lesser known naval engagement that took place between the British and Italians in 1941 in the Mediterranean Sea, but it was essentially radar (or the lack of it) that made the difference.

Intelligence intercepts tipped off the British to the fact that an Italian battle fleet was heading out to harass Allied convoys in the Mediterranean, so they sent a larger force in response.  The first part of the battle saw the British pretty much just stay out of range of the Italians but, on the evening of March 28th, they moved in.

This wasn’t 1950, but even rudimentary radar in the early 40’s gave a distinct advantage to those that possessed it.  The British had it on some of their ships, the Italians did not.  Using their advantage and the cover of night, the British closed to within 2 miles of the enemy before opening fire.  For battleships, cruisers, and even small-gunned destroyers, 2 miles is considered point-blank range.

And in very short order, the Italians got a whooping.  When morning broke on March 29, 1941, they had lost 3 heavy cruisers, a pair of destroyers, and the lone battleship was damaged.  More than 2,300 sailors were lost.  The ledger’s other side showed the British suffering very light damage to a couple cruisers and losing one torpedo bomber and its 3-man crew.

But more than the loss of the battle (fought to the west of the Grecian port Cape Matapan and to the west of Crete), the Italians had largely lost control of the Mediterranean Sea and allowed the British to concentrate on countering the German buildup in North Africa.

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For more than 1,400 years, the Abbey of Monte Cassino had stood more than 1,500 feet above Cassino town in central Italy. Majestically situated with a commanding view of the entire valley, it had for centuries been a place of solitude, study, and prayers.  Established in the 6th century, the Abbey had seen a slow decline since the Middle Ages, but was still a magnificent structure.  And so, it’s with some sense of irony that this place of intense peace became the focus of one of the most controversial decisions of World War II.

As the Allied armies had been pushing north through Italy in early 1944, they had run into stiff resistance at the Gustav Line.  Running from south of Rome across the country, one of the strongpoints was centered in the hills around the monastery.  But the Abbey was of enormous historical significance, and leadership on both sides of the war wanted to be nowhere near the blame incurred for causing its destruction.

The entire country was full antiquities, to the point that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring declared the Italian defense a “war in a museum“.  Already, numerous sites of immense historical value had been destroyed in places like Naples, and no one was willing to repeat it…except New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg (who we remember from Crete), who was convinced that the monastery-turned-national-monument was being used by the Germans as part of their defense of the area.

Unsure of the truth, two Allied generals took to the air and flew over the Abbey on February 14th, and the report came back that it appeared that there were Germans in the courtyard along with radio masts.  Of course, there weren’t Germans in the courtyard, nor anywhere around the monastery (though they were in the vicinity), and Major General Keyes, who also flew over the monastery, said so.

But the decision to bomb won out and so, on February 15, 1944, more than 200 medium and heavy bombers lifted off, flew over the Abbey, and plastered it with more than 1,100 tons of bombs.  The only fatalities were the Italian civilians that had taken refuge there (certain it would not be attacked) and the monks that refused to leave.

Monte Cassino had been reduced to rubble, and because it had been attacked by the Allies, the Germans were perfectly justified to infiltrate the ruins and set up camp.  And that’s just what they did.  What’s more, the Allies didn’t begin their assault on (what was left of) the monastery for a couple days, so the Germans were fully prepared, and a battle that had been a bloody struggle to this point would get no better.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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January 22, 1944 marks the day of the landings at Anzio.  If you recall, Allied forces had landed on Italian soil in September of the previous year.  Coming up Italy’s boot, units from Britain, the U.S., and Canada had progressed northward with the main objective of capturing Rome…until running into the Gustav Line.

The Gustav Line (also known as the Winter Line) was a series of fortifications that spanned Italy, running from just south of the Gulf of Gaeta on the west through Cassino to just south of Ortona on the eastern coast.  Lying in wait there was one of the masters of defense, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.  And here, just 60 miles south of Rome, the Allies were stopped…cold.

Which kind of brings us back to the present.  British planners (actually, the idea kind of originated with Winston Churchill) believed that additional landings between the Gustav Line and Rome would present Kesselring with a quandary.  If he stayed put, Allied forces to the rear could conceivably cut off the his defense line.  If he moved troops to address the invasion, the Gustav Line would be weakened, relieving the pressure to the south and maybe allowing a breaththrough.

American military leaders saw it a little differently.  For them, it was yet another example of Winston Churchill’s meddling in military affairs.  Regardless of the plan’s merits, with U.S. leadership in the Allied coalition increasing, having “the other guy’s” leader tell you what he wanted created instant resistance.  But more practically, those same generals were knee-deep in planning for Operation Overlord, the massive cross-Channel invasion of France, and Churchill’s “sideshow” was just another cause for late nights and lost sleep.

So Churchill did what any good Prime Minister would do…he went over the military’s head and straight to President Roosevelt, who signed off on the plan.  And let’s be honest, it was a pretty good idea, landing behind a major enemy fortification and presenting that enemy with a two-front war.

Anzio was selected because it was right in the middle of the Gustav Line and Rome, and because its beaches were well-suited to landing.  Broken into three landing forces, the British landed an infantry division and a tank brigade north of Anzio.  A composite force of U.S. Ranger battalions, led by William Darby, assaulted Anzio directly.  And the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division tackled the areas east of Anzio.

The landings, begun in the wee hours of the 22nd, were met with little resistance, allowing the Allies to quickly establish a beachhead.  But over the next couple days, there was very little movement, giving time for Kesselring’s forces to regroup and move in.  Just two days later, the beachhead would be largely surrounded by the Wehrmacht.

And then, between Rome and Cassino, the fight would be on.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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The months heading into the fall of 1943 had not been especially good ones for the country of Italy.  Benito Mussolini had been deposed in July and replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.  The new leader vowed to “carry on the fight with their Germanic brothers“…while simultaneously meeting with Allied negotiators (smuggled into the capital) in an effort to get Italy out of the War.

An armistice was finally signed on September 3, 1943, but was not publicly announced until five days later (the day before the Allies landed on the beaches of Salerno and Taranto in southern Italy), which prompted the Germans to take over Rome.  Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III immediately left the capital for the safety of Malta, and the Italians, without direct leadership, were left to enjoy their Nazi occupiers and conditions approaching anarchy.

But on October 13, 1943, some sense of clarity was provided to the Italian citizenry and military as, once again, the Italians declared war…on the Axis.  Thousands of Italians turned on their former brothers-in-arms and current overlords, but many others joined the German ranks.

Recommended Reading: The War North Of Rome: June 1944- May 1945 – This part of the war in Italy doesn’t get the press that the rest does. Here’s a great book to learn more about it.

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I’ve never been to Naples, Italy…frankly, I’ve never been out of the United States.  But from the pictures I’ve seen, the city is beautiful.  Situated on the southwestern coast of the country, the 2,500 year old city boasts an overall population of more than 3 million people.  Its climate is wonderful, the history is rich and diverse, and the food is world-famous.  And it’s a huge attraction for tourists.

On October 1, 1943, however, climate mattered little, and history wasn’t very important, either.  About 500,000 people inhabited Naples, and food was the paramount concern, but mostly because there was none to be had.  On this date, Allied forces entered the city, capturing it from the retreating Germans.  If you recall, Allied forces had landed on Italy just a few short weeks before and were working north.  Naples, which sits just 30 miles northwest of Salerno (the landing point), was an obvious target because of its terrific port facilities.

When the first U.S. forces entered at 9:30 in the morning, most of the Germans were gone.  An insurrection by the Neapolitans had forced Field Marshal Kesselring’s troops, which had occupied Naples just two weeks prior, from the city.  German occupation, forced labor, and public executions for “malcontents” had stirred the citizens into a fury, and the level of violence (according to OSS operatives) was what actually forced the Germans to leave.

But oh, did the Germans use that two weeks to make a mess!  Sappers blew up the main aqueduct in numerous places and drained the city’s reservoirs…no water.  They dropped dynamite down many of city’s manholes…no sewer.  They blew up the phone exchange…no phone, they destroyed the electrical substations…no light, and they dynamited nearly all the bridges…no motorcars…not a single luxury.  They stole the fishing boats in the harbor, forced the owners to pay exhorbitant ransoms to get them back, then scuttled them anyways, along with every other vessel in the port.

And the antiquities!  They torched the library of the University of Naples (teaching ground of Thomas Aquinas), more than 80,000 books and manuscripts stored in Nola (a Naples suburb) were burned, and the archives of the city of Naples and the Italian Royal Society all went up in smoke.  The National Library was also destroyed, as were numerous sites of enormous cultural value.

But for the Allies, the mess they saw was only the beginning.  The Germans set dozens and dozens of time-delayed explosives throughout the city, killing thousands in the subsequent days and weeks.  Starving women reduced themselves to prostitution for food, causing rampant disease…soldiers said one could get gonorrhea for a candy bar.  And then, just months later, Mt. Vesuvius would get into the action and make the mess even worse.

October 1, 1943 was a terrible time to vacation in what some have called the most beautiful city in the world.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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Sicily had been secured by the Allies in August of 1943.  Thanks to some bold decisions by American commanders, the Germans had realized pretty quickly that holding the island off the boot of Italy just wasn’t practical…or safe.  So, once General Patton had swung his tanks northwest and overrun Palermo, Axis troops headed toward Messina and a “vacation” on the Italian coast.  Had Montgomery’s forces been able to move north and east more quickly, a goodly number of the enemy may have been trapped.  But such as it was…

The next logical target was Italy and, on September 9, 1943, Allied forces landed at Salerno (just south of Naples) and at Taranto (inside the heel of Italy’s boot).  The landings overall were helped somewhat by the announcement the previous day that the Italians were quitting the War, thereby breaking the long-standing Pact of Steel.  The landings at Taranto were further helped by the fact that the Germans simply weren’t there in very large numbers.

Forces landing directly at Salerno and to the west of the city also faired well, meeting little resistance and capturing their objectives rather quickly.

The beaches to the south and east of Salerno, on the other hand, proved a significant challenge.  General Mark Clark, in overall command of the invasion, had decided to try and surprise the enemy.  So the landings in the early morning were made without any naval or aerial bombardment.  Unfortunately, the enemy wasn’t the least bit surprised, and when British and American troops started coming ashore, the Germans were waiting for them.

Stiff German counterattacks inflicted heavy casualties but, fortunately, General Clark didn’t hold back the big guns once the enemy rounds started falling.  Naval gunfire and bombs were able to stave off the German Panzers and, by day’s end, the Allies had a beachhead…a tenuous beachhead to be sure, but the Allies were in Italy to stay.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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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

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