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OPERATION AVALANCHE


by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.


The water was as smooth as glass as the first landing craft touched the water. The lack of a breeze kept the water still but made the night oppressively hot as the men scrambled down the cargo nets. The tightly packed landing craft left the side of the transport and the men sat in silence as the craft circled waiting for the signal to go in. Fifteen minutes before H-hour this solitude ended as the bombardment destroyers began pouring salvos onto the beach and were answered by German artillery. As the small craft approached they added to the battle with small arms fire. The first assault wave, as if in a choreographed dance, landed abreast and in unison. The bow doors crashed open, and the men of the Fifth Army were in Italy.

The landings in Italy came on the heels of two nearly flawless amphibious campaigns. In just over six months the Allied amphibious forces in the Mediterranean had swept the enemy before them. The Allies completed the conquest of North Africa in May and Sicily in August. But even before the first landing craft touched the beaches of Sicily, the Allies began looking toward the Italian mainland as a potential next step against the enemy.

Winston Churchill, an advocate of invading the "soft underbelly of Europe" wondered about future Allied movements in the Mediterranean. He questioned whether the capture of Sicily would be a "springboard or a sofa." Complicating the issue was the fact that the Americans and British did not strategically agree on the next point of attack. The British thought that it was essential for a victory in Sicily to be followed by another Mediterranean operation. The Americans, however, were afraid that an Italian campaign would postpone a future cross-channel attack. A conference in Washington in May allowed the Allies to hammer out their global strategy for the next year.

During the Washington conference the British won the argument for an Italian campaign. The Allied leaders decided upon several strategic goals. First they wanted to exploit any success of the Sicily landings. Second they agreed to follow up the invasion of Sicily. This had a double objective of eliminating Italy from the war and engaging as many German divisions as possible to keep them from the Eastern Front. Third, they concurred that a cross channel attack would take place in about one year. The final decision for the next operation came just two weeks after the landings in Sicily. They selected Salerno as the next target. From Salerno they could capture Naples and its airfields. From here the Allies could operate bombers against Germany. The Allies would call this Operation "Avalanche."

As a diversionary move to the major landing, the Allies planned to attack first across the straights of Messina. The British Eighth Army would cross prior to the Salerno landings in order to make the Germans think that this was the major effort. Italy had not been invaded from the toe of the boot since General Belisarius had done so fourteen centuries earlier. But the Allies hoped this attack would draw enough troops away to make the real assault at Salerno 150 miles north successful.

The British invaded Italy across the straits on 3 September. Five days later the Italians surrendered, unconditionally--only nine hours before the landings at Salerno.  Nevertheless, this surrender in no way deterred the Germans. They disarmed the Italians and stiffened the defenses. Those attacking Salerno still faced a battle-tested, formidable, well-armed and determined German Army. On the day of the Italy's surrender, the invasion fleet was underway and steamed for the Gulf of Salerno.

The naval contingents consisted of two groups, the chiefly British, Northern Attack Force under the command of Commodore Geoffery N. Oliver (RN) and the American Southern Attack Force under the command of Rear Admiral John L. Hall(USN). The American transports landed the Allied Fifth Army under the command of Lt. General Mark W. Clark.

The object of the operation was to land enough troops in the Gulf of Salerno to establish a bridgehead, capture Naples and secure the airfields in the area. Germany's Field Marshal Albert Kesselring knew the landing would be in this vicinity because it was at the extreme effective range of Allied fighters from bases in Sicily. Intelligence had confirmed the gathering of a convoy, and thus he made many defensive preparations for the Allies.

The Allies did not bombard the beaches before the landings. They decided to once again rely on surprise to land troops. This had worked well in Sicily, but the Germans were not surprised at Salerno. The Allies did bomb logistical targets weeks before the campaign but this had no effect on the initial landings. The Germans were able to make defensive preparations and bring up tanks and artillery without being disrupted by gunfire. The landings were not as easy as the two before and once the fighting began, the Germans bitterly defended the Italian peninsula.

The Coast Guard was well-represented in the landings. Attached to the operation were the transports Joseph T. Dickman and Samuel Chase along with LCI(L) Flotilla Four, three Coast Guard manned LST's and two Navy transports with partial Coast Guard crews.

The Dickman arrived in the transport area two minutes after midnight on the 9th. It carried assault troops of the Second Battalion combat team, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division--a total of 81 officers and over 1600 men. Within minutes after arrival the Dickman began launching its boats for the invasion. A small support landing craft(LCS(S)) carrying LTJG Grady Galloway USCG, was the first in the water and immediately departed for shore to locate the proper beach for Dickman's landing craft--designated Green Beach. Within an hour all the other boats were in the water with the exception of two that were damaged when a wire cable parted. While Galloway's boat scouted the shore twenty-one LCVPs preloaded with troops and eleven with equipment were lowered. Those with equipment remained by the transport to receive troops by cargo net. The Dickman also launched two new craft. These 2 ton amphibious trucks which would later be used extensively were known as DUWKs. Their real advantage was that they could go directly from the water and drive onto the beach without stopping.

The weather was perfect for the operation. The transports had no problems launching the boats or holding them alongside the transports until the assault waves were ready to depart. At 0310, while only 200 yards from enemy machine gun emplacements LTJG Galloway began blinking signals from 100 yards off shore. As the landing craft neared the beach, rocket launchers on board Galloway's boat helped to protect the first wave. He fired a thirty-four rocket barrage that caused the enemy to pause and then direct its fire onto the support boat. This enabled the first wave to get to the beach in relative safety.

The Dickman's boats landed on Green Beach and were met by a hail of accurate machine gun and artillery fire. An artillery shell hit one of Dickman's LCMs and wounded three men. The fire was so intense that the beachmasters would not let the later assault waves carrying vehicles to land. This caused much congestion outside the line of departure and the support boats later had to act as traffic boats to guide the landing craft to the proper beaches once it was safe for them go in.

The other large Coast Guard transport, Samuel Chase, served as the flagship of Admiral John L. Hall, commander of the Southern Attack Force. It had on board Lt. General Fred L. Walker, 96 officers, and 1163 enlisted men of the VI Corps, 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions.

Chase's landing craft disembarked the troops while light artillery shelled the beach. After the men landed, the craft made the fifteen mile trip to the beach time after time to unload the Samuel Chase's 88 vehicles, 13 2 ton trucks, four half tracks, 251 tons of ammunition, 125 tons of rations, water and engineer's supplies, 44 tons of gasoline and 2 tons of pyrotechnics. They did all this in twenty-five hours!

Later in the day German bombers appeared over the transport area but a heavy smoke screen obscured the ships and the bombs missed by a wide margin. On 10 September, with the ships unloaded, the transports made preparations to depart. At this moment German aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the transport area. The ships were subsequently subjected to a heavy bombardment by attacking Luftwaffe aircraft. The ships returned a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Fortunately none of the transports were hit.

The Coast Guard transports had a couple of close calls. A bomb exploded 600 yards away from the Dickman but Samuel Chase had a much closer brush with disaster. Chase had weighed anchor and was proceeding through the mine-swept channel when the medium and high altitude bombers struck. Six bombs fell close aboard the transport. Two large bombs fell close enough to splash water on the forecastle and jar the ship but did no serious damage.

The LCI Flotilla, under the command of CDR Miles Imlay(USCG), played an important supportive role in the landings. They sailed from North Africa a few days before the landing. All the LCIs that took part in Sicily also participated at Salerno except one. After landing hundreds of men, these vessels assisted the smaller craft that were stranded on the beach, or those hit by enemy fire. The LCIs also withstood some enemy attacks. Commander Imlay was again decorated for the performance of his flotilla.

The day after the landings, the Germans seized Rome. A German commando group also rescued Benito Mussolini who had been arrested by the Italian government. Mussolini set up a Fascist Republican regime in the German occupied areas to carry on the war against the Allies.

The Allies failed to break out of the Salerno beachead due to overwhelming enemy numbers and tough German defenses. The American and British forces remained pinned to the coast until the British Eighth Army threatened Kesselring's troops from the south and forced them to withdraw up the peninsula. A week after the Salerno landings the British Eighth Army made contact with the American Fifth Army ending the greatest worries of the Allied leaders.

The Allies strategy worked as planned! The Germans attempted to hold Italy with twenty divisions in a theatre considered non-decisive by the Allies. These German divisions were kept occupied and therefore could not be used to defeat the Russians on the Eastern Front nor could they be utilized for the Allied invasion of France.


LANDING CRAFT TECHNIQUE

The small landing craft that ferried men, vehicles and supplies to the beach were a critical yet largely overlooked aspect of amphibious warfare. These craft not only put the initial combatants onto the beach but also brought reinforcements and supplies to insure the campaign could continue. These tasks were done while frequently under direct enemy fire. For the Coast Guard this was one of the most important tasks it performed during the war.

The handling of small craft in surf is a specialized skill and not common among men in the Navy. For many in the Coast Guard, however, this was just the opposite. The men of the Coast Guard had learned this from handling boats in the surf at lifesaving stations. By handling the boats in the surf these men had developed a "sixth sense." This skill could only be learned through experience and was done as much by "feel" as knowledge.

This experience was helpful during the training exercises before the early amphibious operations. The Coast Guard's experience was shared by the surfmen who acted as mentors to the Navy coxswains trying to learn the nuances of controlling small boats in the surf.

Men experienced in handling landing craft were needed at every stage of the operation. The crew of the small landing craft usually consisted of a coxswain who was responsible for the boat, the mechanic or "Motor Mac", and the bowman who handled the ramp. They worked as a team to efficiently get to the beach and back.

The transports usually lowered boats with troops already on board. Those with equipment were lowered without the men who later climbed down the cargo nets. As the cargo net was lowered it was held to the boat by the bowman. The coxswain had the responsibility of keeping the boat near the transport as the men climbed down the net. This is not difficult in smooth water but in heavy weather it is a real art.

Before leaving the sides of the transports, the coxswains were briefed as thoroughly as pilots before a bombing mission. They were given intelligence sheets describing the details of the beach. Each boat had a designated position in the assault. A boat in the wrong position could upset the operation. Each coxswain carried a board with the craft's position and wave number painted on it. The boat traffic officer, who directed the boats to the beach at the line of departure, used this board to guide them to the beach from the rendezvous area.

On the trip in, a skilled boat handler could avoid getting the troops wet. But the real test was the beach. If the boat went onto the beach too hard then it could not retract and would take up the space of another boat. If the boat swung parallel to the beach it could be broached by the surf.

The trained surfman timed his approach to the beach so that the boat would be pushed ahead by a breaker almost like a surfboard. Just as the vessel went aground the bowman timed the lowering of the ramp so that it was not buried in the sand. Once aground the coxswain kept the boat's engine in forward, holding the boat firmly on the beach while the cargo was unloaded.

Duty in a landing craft was usually grueling duty. The men stayed in the boats for days and during long campaigns this duty might last for weeks. They made dozens of trips to the beach, unloading men and supplies. They ate in their boats and took turns sleeping in them. With the danger involved during the landings and the subsequent arduous duty, the men in these craft had jobs no less dangerous or difficult than the men they had put on shore.

 

 

 


 

Last Modified 11/17/2014