Sicily in the Second World War

Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, south-west of Italy. During the early stages of the Second World War the island was under the control of Benito Mussolini and his fascist government.

At the Casablanca Conference held in January 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to launch an invasion of Sicily. It was hoped that if the island was taken Italy might withdraw from the war. It was also argued that a successful invasion would force Adolf Hitler to send troops from the Eastern Front and help to relieve pressure on the Red Army in the Soviet Union.

The operation was placed under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Harold Alexander was commander of ground operations and his 15th Army Group included General George Patton (US 7th Army) and General Bernard Montgomery (8th Army). Admiral Andrew Cunningham was in charge of naval operations and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder was air commander.

On 10th July 1943, the 8th Army landed at five points on the south-eastern tip of the island and the US 7th Army at three beaches to the west of the British forces. The Allied troops met little opposition and Patton and his troops quickly took Gela, Licata and Vittoria. The British landings were also unopposed and Syracuse was taken on the the same day. This was followed by Palazzolo (11th July), Augusta (13th July) and Vizzini (14th July), whereas the US troops took the Biscani airfield and Niscemi (14th July).

Kimon Marengo, The Progress of Russian and German Cooperation (1939)
Kimon Marengo, Invasion of Sicily (1939)

General George Patton now moved to the west of the island and General Omar Bradley headed north and the German Army was forced to retreat to behind the Simeto River. Patton took Palermo on 22nd July cutting off 50,000 Italian troops in the west of the island. Patton now turned east along the northern coast of the island towards the port of Messina.

Meanwhile General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army were being held up by German forces under Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring. The Allies carried out several amphibious assaults attempted to cut off the Germans but they were unable to stop the evacuation across the Messina Straits to the Italian mainland. This included 40,000 German and 60,000 Italian troops, as well as 10,000 German vehicles and 47 tanks.

On 17th August 1943, General George Patton and his troops marched into Messina. The capture of the island made it possible to clear the way for Allied shipping in the Mediterranean. It also helped to undermine the power of Benito Mussolini and Victor Emmanuel III forced him to resign.

Operations in Sicily (10th July - 17th August, 1943)
Operations in Sicily (10th July - 17th August, 1943)

Primary Sources

(1) General Harold Alexander led the 15th Army Group during the Sicily Campaign.

Sicily was the first large-scale amphibious operation against enemy-held beaches in the second world war. It was, therefore, without any practical experience that the planners began their task. Apart from the many assault problems to be solved, such as beach gradients, tides, hostile defensive positions, strength and location of German and Italian forces, it was obviously essential for us to have a port or ports through which to supply the troops fighting inland.

There were four good ports with the necessary capacity; Messina, Catania, Syracuse and Palermo. Messina was heavily guarded by fixed defences and beyond the range of our fighters. Catania was only just within fighter cover, and was also heavily defended and under the fighter umbrella of the Luftwaffe based on the Catania group of airfields, within close striking distance of the port. Syracuse and Palermo were both within our fighter cover and not so heavily defended.

(2) General Bernard Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (1958)

The method by which the campaign would be developed once the armies were on shore, and how the island would finally be reduced, was not decided. In fact, there was no master plan. As a result the operations and actions of the two Allied armies were not properly co-ordinated. The army commanders developed their own ideas of how to proceed and then " informed " higher authority. The Seventh U.S. Army, once on shore, was allowed to wheel west towards Palermo. It thereby missed the opportunity to direct its main thrust-line northwards in order to cut the island in two: as a preliminary to the encirclement of the Etna position and the capture of Messina.

During the operations it was difficult to get things decided quickly. The responsible C.s-in-C. had their headquarters widely dispersed; they did not live together. Elsenhower, the Supreme Commander, was in Algiers; Alexander, in command of the land forces, was in Sicily; Cunningham, the Naval C.-in-C., was in Malta; whereas Tedder, the Air C.-in-C., had his headquarters in Tunis. When things went wrong, all they could do was to send telegrams to each other; it took time to gather them together for the purpose of making joint decisions.

I once discussed this campaign with Admiral Morison, the United States naval historian. He holds the same view as myself about the iniquity of letting most of the Germans get away to Italy. Time was vital if we were to exploit success in Italy before the winter set in. We took some five weeks to complete the capture of Sicily and the Eighth Army suffered 12,000 casualties. With close co-ordination of the land, air and sea effort we would, in my view, have gained control of the island more quickly, and with fewer casualties.

(3) Harold Alexander worked closely with General Omar Bradley and General George Patton during the invasion of Sicily. He wrote about the men in his autobiography, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

They were two completely contrasted military characters; the one impatient of inaction, the other unwilling to commit himself to active operations unless he could clearly see their purpose. On one of my visits to the American head-

quarters, I was fascinated to hear this characteristic exchange:

Patton: Why are we sitting down doing nothing? We must do something!

Bradley: Wait a minute, George! What do you propose we do?

Patton: Anything rather than just sit on our backsides!

Both were good soldiers. Patton was a thruster, prepared to take any risks; Bradley, as I have indicated, was more cautious. Patton should have lived during the Napoleonic wars - he would have been a splendid Marshal under Napoleon.

In spite of all his bravura and toughness and terrific drive General George Patton was a very emotional man. He loved his men and they loved him. I have been with him at the front when he was greeted with demonstrations of affection by his soldiers, and there were - as I saw for myself - tears running down his cheeks.

(4) Ivor Brett-James, letter to Antony Brett-James (8th August 1943)

Still no mail from anybody, but I have just been re-reading your last letters I got in England. In them you complain that you

have seen no action as yet. When I left England you had already been abroad 18 months, but already out here in Sicily I have seen more than enough. You have missed nothing worthwhile and even if your present life is dull (it may be very different now) stick to it and try to come out of this bloody war alive and unmaimed. That is all that really matters. Not medals, Africa stars and all that cock. It is your brains that we want after the war, not your decorations.

You also lament the lack of anything better than a hurricane lamp to light your mess with. Well, we have no mess and no lamps, nor are we likely to have either for a long time. We have been eating by night and living in holes dug in the ground full of ants, fleas, lice, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, and a lot more, and as a result my body is one mass of festering sores and bites and I am swathed in bandages. My face is daubed with some purple muck and I cannot shave. For weeks at a time we have not even taken our boots off, let alone undressed, and two hours is a good night's sleep. We have been sweating in a climate as hot as Africa and when dead a man and a cow smell alike. The foulest smell on earth.

(5) General George Patton , memo to all commanders in the 7th Army during the Sicily campaign (5th August, 1943)

It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but are dealt with in their units. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.

(6) General Omar Bradley saw General George Patton soon after the incident at 93rd Evacuation Hospital on Sicily on 10th August 1943.

He was bragging how he had treated this man to snap him out of being a coward. Thought that if he made the man mad, he would be mad enough to fight. That men were showing a yellow streak. He didn't agree with me that every man has a breaking point. Some are low, some are high. We call the low points cowards. To George anyone who didn't want to fight was a coward. He honestly thought he was putting fight into these men. He was pleased with what he had done. He was bragging about the incident. Next day the surgeon of that hospital handed a written report to Brigadier General William B. Kean (the II Corps Chief of Staff). Kean brought it to me. After reading it, I told Kean to put it in a sealed envelope in the safe - only to be opened by Kean or me. I didn't forward the report to Eisenhower because Patton was my Army commander - I couldn't go over Patton's head.

(7) General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter to General George Patton on 5th August, 1943, about the incident at 93rd Evacuation Hospital.

I am aware that firm and drastic measures were at times necessary, it did not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates. If this true, then I must so seriously question your good judgment and your self-discipline, as to raise serious doubt in my mind as to your future usefulness.

No letter that I have been called upon to write in my military career has caused me the mental anguish of this one, not only because of my deep personal friendship for you but because of admiration for your military qualities; but I assure you that such conduct will not be tolerated in this theater no matter who the offender may be.

(8) Harry C. Butcher, Naval Aide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, wrote about how his boss dealt with George Patton over the incident at 93rd Evacuation Hospital (21st August, 1943)

Ike (Eisenhower) makes a point that in any army one-third of the soldiers are natural fighters and brave; two-thirds inherently are cowards and skulkers. By making the two-thirds fear the possible public upbraiding such as Patton gave during the campaign, the skulkers are forced to fight. Ike said Patton's method was deplorable but his result was excellent. He cited history to show that great military leaders had practically gone crazy on the battlefield in their zeal to win the fight. Patton is like this. Yet Ike feels that Patton is motivated by selfishness. He thinks Patton would prefer to have the war go on if it meant further aggrandizement for him. Neither does he mind sacrificing lives if by so doing he can gain greater fame. So Ike is in a tough spot; Patton is one of his best friends but friendships must be brushed aside.

(9) General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter to General George Marshall where he commented on George Patton's time in Sicily (24th August, 1943)

Patton's brilliant successes in the Sicily campaign must be attributed directly to his energy, determination and unflagging aggressiveness. In spite of all this - George Patton continues to exhibit some of those unfortunate personal traits of which you and I have always known and which during this campaign caused me some most uncomfortable days. His habit of impulsive bawling out of subordinates, extending even to the personal abuse of individuals, was noted in at least two specific cases. I have had to take the most drastic steps; and if he is not cured now, there is no hope for him. Personally, I believe that he is cured - not only because of his great personal loyalty to you and to me but because fundamentally he is so avid for recognition as a great military commander that he will ruthlessly suppress any habit of his own that will tend to jeopardize it.

(10) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989)

We landed in Sicily at Avola three days after the main landing, so did not see action there. After the arid wastes of North Africa, where you could smell the villages miles away, I felt this was Europe again at last. We occupied a farmhouse in extensive lemon groves on the fertile coastal plain. Three rimes in the next fortnight I was ordered to Tripoli, where they were planning the landing at Salerno in conditions of almost total publicity. Three times the order was cancelled. Finally I was posted to 231 Independent Brigade as Military Landing Officer - or beachmaster - for an assault on the Italian coast north of Reggio: we were intended to cut off the German forces retreating from Sicily, so that they could not reinforce those drawn up against our landing at Salerno.

I was fortunate in that posting. The officer who took my place in Tripoli was killed within hours of reaching Salerno's beach. Exceptionally experienced, 231 Brigade was composed of three battalions from the regular army, with a first-rate commander in General Urquhait, who later commanded the airborne division at Arnhem. I could not have hoped for better company in my first serious operation.