9 September 2018

Allied troops land at Salerno

Operation that marked start of invasion of Italy

American troops disembark from a US Navy tank ship across a causeway set up by the beach at Palermo
American troops disembark from a US Navy tank ship
across a causeway set up by the beach at Palermo
The first wave of an invasion force that would eventually take control of much of the Italian peninsula on behalf of the Allies landed on the beaches around Salerno in Campania on this day in 1943.

More than 450 ships carrying 190,000 troops assembled off the coast on the evening of September 8, shortly after news had broken that terms for the surrender of the Italian half of the Axis forces had been agreed.

The US 36th Infantry Division were in the vanguard of the invasion force, approaching the shore at Paestum at 3.30am on September 9, and there were other landings further up the coast near Battipaglia and Pontecagnano involving British troops.

After news of the Italian surrender, the invasion force, which consisted initially of 55,000 troops, were unsure how much resistance they would encounter.

British soldiers on the quayside at Salerno, the day after the invasion of the Italian mainland had begun
British soldiers on the quayside at Salerno, the day after
the invasion of the Italian mainland had begun
A decision had been taken not to launch a naval or aerial bombardment in advance of the invasion, in the hope that it would take the enemy by surprise. In fact, the Germans were well prepared and even as the first landing craft approached Paestum, the American soldiers on board were greeted with a loudspeaker announcement from near the beach in English, urging them to give themselves up.

Although the German Commander-in-Chief in Italy, Albrecht von Kesselring, had only only eight divisions to defend all of southern and central Italy, he had had six weeks to plan for an invasion following the deposing of Benito Mussolini in July and had been expecting the Allies, who had already taken Sicily, to strike at the Italian mainland. He even had a good idea where any invasion would take place.

The eight German divisions were therefore positioned to cover possible landing sites.

Within half an hour of the first American troops setting foot on the shore, German planes arrived to strafe the beaches. Under Kesselring’s instructions, the Germans had established artillery and machine-gun posts and scattered tanks throughout the area of the landing zones.

The Americans set up a command centre inside one of the Greek temples at Paestum
The Americans set up a command centre
inside one of the Greek temples at Paestum
This made progress difficult, but the beach areas were successfully taken. Around 7am a concerted counterattack was made by the 16th Panzer division, causing heavy casualties, but was beaten off with naval gunfire support.

Both the British and the Americans made slow progress from their landing positions, and still had a 10 mile (16km) gap between them at the end of day one. They linked up by the end of day two and occupied 35-45 miles (56-72km) of coast line to a depth of six or seven miles (10-12km).

In the days that followed, the German 10th Army were very close to overwhelming the Salerno beachhead and the Allies were fortunate that Adolf Hitler and his commander in northern Italy, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, decided that defending Italy south of Rome was not a strategic priority. As a result, Kesselring had been forbidden to call upon reserves from the northern army groups.

By early October Naples had been taken and the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands, including a number of vital airfields.

But German strategy changed again in October, with Kesselring given the remit to keep Rome in German hands for the longest time possible.  His armies established a number of defensive lines stretching from west to east across the peninsula and only after seven months of intensive fighting did the Allies eventually reach the capital, in May 1944.

Travel tip:

A panoramic view over the city of Salerno
A panoramic view over the city of Salerno
Salerno, which has a population of about 133,000, is a city often overlooked by visitors to Campania, who tend to flock to Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and the Cilento, but it has its own attractions and is a good base for excursions both to the Amalfi coast, just a few kilometres to the north, and the Cilento, which can be found at the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno. Hotels are cheaper than at the more fashionable resorts, yet Salerno itself has an attractive waterfront and a quaint old town, at the heart of which is the Duomo, originally built in the 11th century, which houses in its crypt is the tomb of one of the twelve apostles of Christ, Saint Matthew the Evangelist.  The city can be reached directly by train from Naples, which is about 55km (34 miles) north.

The second Temple of Hera at Paestum, built almost 2,500 years
ago at the time southern Italy was known as Magna Graecia
Travel tip:

Paestum, where the Allied landings began, is best known for the extraordinary archaeological site a mile inland that contains three of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, which were once part of the town of Poseidonia - built by Greek colonists from Sybaris, an earlier Greek city in southern Italy, in around 600BC.  The relics cover a large area and takes as much as two hours to explore, but there are several bars close by and a hotel and restaurant just outside the site.

More reading:

Palermo falls to the Allies

The destruction of Monte Cassino abbey

How the Nazis freed Mussolini from his mountain 'prison'

Also on this day:

1908: The birth of writer Cesare Pavese

1918: The birth of Italy's ninth President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro


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