OPERATION HUSKY


by Robert M. Browning, Jr.


With great anticipation CDR Rodger C. Heimer USCG stood on the bridge of the Samuel Chase. The attack transport was part of the approach formation of a large amphibious invasion force. Twenty five miles in the distance he could see flares followed by anti-aircraft fire and explosions that silhouetted the shoreline. At midnight planes showing prearranged recognition lights passed low on the port side. Inside were paratroopers poised to jump behind enemy lines. As the transports and escorts neared their destination Heimer passed along orders readying his ship for an attack on the enemy.

In total darkness, the Chase and nearly 1400 other ships and over 1800 landing craft made final preparations to support or disembark nearly one-half million men. In the initial assault, nearly eight reinforced divisions were to come ashore abreast on a broad front nearly 150 miles wide. It was a daring plan to send so many men ashore in the initial landings. This had never been tried before and it has not been done on this scale since. The operation, however, was not the Normandy invasion but Operation "Husky"--the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.

The idea for the invasion of Sicily was born at the January 1943, Casablanca meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The overwhelming success of the North African Campaign allowed the Allies to consider pushing their plans forward to take the war onto the European continent. The initial decision they had to make was where to land. A landing across the English Channel in 1943 could not be accomplished due to a lack of resources. Instead they chose to land in Sicily in order to continue the pressure on the Germans, to secure lines of communication, and to divert German troops from the Russian front. A campaign in Sicily would weaken the Germans and make a cross channel invasion possible for the allies the following year. The Allies viewed the capture of the island as a campaign unto itself and not necessarily a springboard to an assault on Italy.

One of the single greatest changes since the landings in North Africa, just six months before, was the evolution of amphibious craft. The United States had worked to develop an amphibious vessel that would make landings more efficient. They developed one ship that could ground directly on the beach and lower a large bow ramp allowing vehicles, tanks, guns and personnel to disembark directly onto the beach. Designated Landing Ship, Tanks or LSTs they became a major component in the development of amphibious warfare. They were initially 328 feet long, were technically simple and easy to build, but sacrificed speed and comfort for these attributes. The men dubbed them " large, slow targets" and "lousy, stinking tubs". Despite the unkind nicknames they became the backbone of the amphibious fleet and were critcal for all the future amphibious campaigns.

A second important development were the vessels designated Landing Craft, Infantry, Large or LCI(L)s. Like the LSTs they were used for the first time in the Sicily landings. In their first wartime configuration they were 155 feet long, could carry about 200 troops and disembarked the men by gangways that lowered on either side of the vessel at the bow. Later modified versions had the capability to support ground operations and were fitted with mortars, rocket launchers and machine guns.

The three large Coast Guard manned transports, Joseph T. Dickman (APA 13), Leonard Wood (APA 12), and Samuel Chase (APA 26), participated in the Sicily operations. All three had played an important role in the North African landings. The Coast Guard also manned 24 LCIs and 5 LSTs and provided crews for other patrol craft to facilitate the landings. Additionally, the service provided partial crews for seven other naval transports--a significant contribution to the overall forces.

The ambitious plans to land the nearly one-half million troops on Sicily required the formation of two naval task forces. The Eastern Naval Task Force comprised British troops and landed on the eastern coast. The American forces, attached to the Western Naval Task Force, were under the command of Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt. The main job of this force was to land Lt. General George S. Patton Jr.'s 7th Army. The Western Naval Task Force gathered at six ports in North Africa. Hewitt's forces consisted of 580 ships carrying 1,124 landing craft.

The landing site for the Western Task Force was the southern apex of the island. Due to the tremendous number of ships and craft, Hewitt's command was divided into three attack forces designated JOSS, CENT and DIME. Each of these attack forces was further divided to land specific groups at predetermined spots on the beaches--given code names of various colors.

JOSS Force landed on the left flank or the western most position. Included in this landing was LCI(L) Flotilla Four under the command of CDR Miles Imlay, USCG. DIME Force landed in the center at Gela. The transport Samuel Chase served as the flagship of Rear Admiral John L. Hall who directed the attack on Gela. The transport Joseph Dickman also played a large role on this beach. The CENT forces landed on either side of Scoglitti and included the Coast Guard transport Leonard Wood.

In reality the invasion of Europe began on 10 July 1943, when the first landing craft touched the beach of Sicily--about a year before Normandy. The DIME Force with twelve transports including Dickman and Chase anchored off Gela, Sicily, thirty minutes after midnight. All the transports anchored over six miles out and parallel to the beach. The LCI's and LST's anchored astern. Naval cruisers and destroyers lay on either flank of the formation to provide fire support. There had been no pre-landing or air bombardment on the assault beaches because the planners hoped to get the troops ashore before the enemy could react, thus the operations began in darkness to obtain a surprise dawn landing.

Scout boats preceded the landing of the first waves on all the beaches. These boats carried crews of about six men, a couple of officers, and usually about a half dozen Army raiders. These boats attempted to locate channels to the beach and then signalled the landing craft in the first waves to the beach by blinker or hooded lights. After daylight, markers were placed on the beaches to guide all the additional boats to their proper landing sites. The scout boats also sought channels and buoyed them for the larger LSTs and LCIs that made later landings.

The Coast Guard attack transports' major duty was to get Army personnel to the beach along with the equipment and supplies needed to sustain the initial campaign. The protection of the ship was secondary but necessary until it could be completely unloaded. During the unloading process the ships were set under "Condition Four" which left them at an incomplete fighting strength. The Leonard Wood for example required the services of nine officers and over 150 men to help troops disembark. This detail took men away from the guns and the ammunition supply parties.

After the DIME Force transports anchored, spotlights from shore began to illuminate the transport areas. The fire control ships quickly put these lights out of action. The Joseph Dickman, carrying the 1st Ranger Battalion, began lowering its landing craft at 45 minutes after midnight. The Dickman could land a complete unit in twenty minutes and had launched all its boats in forty minutes. So efficient was Dickman's crew that the skipper, CDR Harwood, suggested delaying the launching of his boats so the men would not become seasick. Twenty-six of the transport's boats were preloaded with troops. Four, loaded with equipment, received their troops by cargo net. The control vessels that were to accompany the landing craft did not arrive in the rendezvous area on time and the boats waited for thirty minutes and then proceeded to the beach without them. Fortunately, the control vessels arrived just after the departure of the landing craft and managed to overtake them and guide them to the beach.

Harwood commanded the Naval Task Group that landed assault battalions on the beaches at Gela. His leadership enabled these troops to land on the beach with virtually no problems. He was later awarded the Legion of Merit for his contributions to the success of the operation.

For the initial assault on Gela, the Samuel Chase lowered twenty-one boats. Portions of the Seventh Army were in the craft. The first three waves came under fire but the "Lucky Chase" did not lose a man. This was attributed to the Coast Guard's ability to handle small boats and the fact that the landings were actually performed better than those made during the practices.

The CENT Force landed on both sides of the fishing town of Scoglitti. The Leonard Wood served as the flagship of the transports in the northern sector and carried on board about 2,300 officers and men of the 179th Regiment, 45th Division. The landings near Scolitti took place seven miles apart and were predicted to be contested. The Leonard Wood and the other transports anchored about five miles from the beach in two parallel lines. The debarkation from this point was not easy. A swell from the west made lowering of the boats hazardous and uncertain. The smaller landing craft, in particular, were unmanageable. H-hour was 0245 but this was delayed an hour to accommodate the problems in getting the boats ready.

Leonard Wood, in the true tradition of the service, handled the launching of the small boats better than any other transport. Twenty-eight LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) were loaded and in the water by 0105--a hour and a half before the others. After a long wait the boats left for the the departure line and then for the beach.

The landing plans at Scoglitti included six rocket launching craft to accompany the amphibious boats ashore. While being lowered from naval vessels two were damaged so badly that they later sank. The other four fired 84 rockets onto the beach and provided a smoke screen to protect the landing craft from snipers and from being illuminated by flares. The fire support destroyers also opened up a barrage on the beach to clear the enemy from the landing site.

The JOSS Force consisted of four attack groups that landed on either side of Licata. LCI(L) Flotilla Four under the command of CDR Miles Imlay made a significant contribution to the landings here. Seventy-six LCI(L)s, outfitted in Norfolk, Virginia, made a 32 day 4,600 mile trip to Sicily. Twenty-four of these vessels, all Coast Guard manned, formed the flotilla under Imlay. These vessels landed their men and equipment under enemy fire. Many took part in anti-aircraft defense and some were later sent on a two day trip to the home ports in North Africa for more troops.

The secondary landings in Sicily by the larger amphibious craft were difficult due to the nature of the beaches. The coast had many sandbars just off the shore called "false beaches." The LSTs were too deep-drafted to pass over some of these bars. The LSTs brought pontoons along that were strung from the false beaches to the shore. The LSTs unloaded at the outer ends of these man-made causeways. The 112 foot Landing Craft, Tank (LCT), however, could get over the bars. The lack of a sufficient number of pontoons forced the LCTs to bring material to the beaches. Some were secured athwartship to the LSTs to allow tanks and vehicles to drive onto them whereby they drove into a second LCT to be transported to the beaches.

Generally the boats from the Coast Guard transports encountered weak enemy fire and the casualties were light. The landing craft did a superb job getting the men, vehicles, and supplies to the beach. After the initial waves of landing craft secured the beaches, the transports moved closer to the shore. At daylight they became the targets for German dive-bombing aircraft. All the transports, the LSTs and LCIs fought German aircraft while bombs dropped nearby. Miraculously none of the Coast Guard vessels was hit.

While German planes buzzed overhead the amphibious craft brought supplies to the beach at a staggering rate. The heavy equipment bogged down on the beach due to the soft sand. Supplies began to pileup as more and more craft brought supplies to the beach. Aggravating this problem was the absence of the Army unloading details that were frequently called into action. Without the unloading details available the Coast Guard and Navy crews unloaded the craft themselves. Despite these hindrances, the men from Chase, for example, made over 250 trips to the beach to land the transport's cargo.

The supply backup on the beaches forced the landing craft to wait in the surf to be unloaded. During this wait many were broached and became stranded. At one time the Leonard Wood had 19 boats stranded and a salvage party was sent ashore to float and return the craft to service.

The American and British landings were all successful. The Allied troops moved quickly to take the southern half of the island. Within a month the German and Italian forces retreated across the straits of Messina and the island was completely in Allied hands. The success of the operation was credited to the amphibious craft that landed the troops. Of course the Coast Guard can boast that it played a large part in this portion of the invasion. With Sicily in hand, the American and British leaders began to look toward the Italian peninsula for its next campaign. Here naval leaders would once again rely on the Coast Guard to play another significant role.


 

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Last Modified 1/26/2012