September 3, 1943: Allies Invade Mainland Europe (No, Not the Normandy Landings!)

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A Brief History

On September 3, 1943, the Allies (mainly the United States and the United Kingdom) invaded mainland Europe, thus living up to the promise to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin to invade mainland Europe in 1943.  Of course, Stalin was not satisfied with the choice of Italy as the target of the Western Allies, and despite the assurance of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that attacking the “soft underbelly of the Axis” would yield good results, the invasion of Italy proved to be an agonizingly difficult endeavor.  The main Allied attack was at Salerno, called Operation Avalanche, while secondary, diversionary attacks were made at Taranto (Operation Slapstick) and Calabria (Operation Baytown).

Digging Deeper

By September 16, 1943, the Allies had 189,000 troops ashore, resisted by about 100,000 Germans.  The top American military man, General George Marshall, and most other senior American planners did not want to dabble in Italy when they saw an invasion of Northern France as the main route to Germany to end the war (World War II).  British insistence won over President Franklin Roosevelt, with visions of knocking Italy right out of the war (as Italy was quite near capitulation anyway) and secure the sea lanes to the Middle East and the Black Sea area to send supplies safely to the Soviets.  The Western Allies realized that they were not going to be ready to invade Northern France in 1943 and Roosevelt especially was eager to please Stalin by diverting German troops and equipment away from battle with the Red Army.  Allied planners originally considered invading right across the Straits of Messina after easily taking over Sicily, but the prospect of fighting up the entire Italian peninsula was a daunting task.  The thought of “entering from the top” as advised by Napoleon Bonaparte over a century prior also seemed unlikely, but perhaps an invasion at least part way up the “boot” of Italy could bring the invading forces closer to taking Rome and assuring the elimination of Italy as a combatant.  The reason Allied planners chose Salerno as the main point of the invasion was not because it was the most attractive point, but because Allied fighter planes flying from Sicily would be within range of supporting a Salerno invasion, but not an invasion farther North.    The deposing of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini meant the Allies would not have to fight Italians as well as Germans, which encouraged planners of the invasion.

Map of the Invasion of Italy.

The diversionary attack on the “toe” of Italy at Calabria, Operation Baytown, would be the easiest way to invade mainland Italy and was meant to fool the Germans into thinking Calabria was the main invasion site.  Landing craft could easily transit the Strait of Messina, a mere 3.2 miles, taking the British and Canadian troops of Operation Baytown without the trouble of loading ships and unloading for the assault.  General Montgomery opposed the plan on the grounds that the assumption that the Germans would vigorously oppose the landing, thus diverting defensive troops from the main landing was not all that probable.  In fact, Montgomery was correct as events proved, with German resistance concentrated at the main landing site.  (Montgomery was a notoriously egotistical man and always wanted to be in the limelight at the center of the action, not used as a mere diversion, which probably led to the discounting of his objections and astute analysis of the German defensive plan.)

The other part of the 3 pronged invasion, Operation Slapstick, again involved British troops, this time an airborne division (oddly enough opposed by a German parachute division) assigned to take the port of Taranto at the “heel” of Italy.  The Italians had previously agreed to turn over Taranto without opposition, leading to a hurried plan to quickly seize the port.  Shortages of transport aircraft ruled out the use of an airborne parachute landing, and a lack of landing craft and cargo ships already dedicated to the other 2 landings necessitated the use of Royal Navy warships to transport and land the landing contingent of Operation Slapstick.  As it turned out, Taranto was an easy target with only 58 men of the landing force killed and an additional 48 sailors killed with the loss of a single minelaying ship.

Aerial view of Taranto.

While Operation Baytown went off with almost no resistance (the Germans confined defense to blowing up bridges and minor delaying actions) Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, in charge of the German defense of Italy, chose to deploy his forces from the Calabria area to defend against Operation Avalanche at Salerno, exactly as Montgomery had feared.  Avalanche was launched on September 9, 1943, completing the triad of invasions of Italy that had been planned.  Unfortunately for the Allied planners, Avalanche was not only far from the surprise they had counted on (going so far as to avoiding any prelanding bombardment), the invading American and British troops were greeted by a loudspeaker announcing in English, “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.”  German forces mounted counter-attacks to the landings on D-Day and on ensuing days, but the Allies managed to carve out a reasonable beachhead of about 35 miles long and 6 to 7 miles deep.  German counter-attacks were so fierce plans were made to evacuate the invasion force, though never instituted.  The Allies lost over 12,500 casualties while the Germans suffered only about 3600 killed, wounded and missing.  Copious use of naval gunfire and aerial support were needed to retain the beachhead.  By early October 1943, Allied advances had secured all of Southern Italy, but then German defense stiffened and further advances slowed considerably.

In an effort to accelerate the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula, Operation Shingle was planned and executed, with a left-hook landing up (North) the coast at Anzio.  Initially achieving surprise, the Allied forces easily established a beachhead, but then overly cautious establishment of a defensive perimeter by American Generals Mark Clark and John Lucas resulted in an enormous error of lost opportunity.  For weeks the Allied beachhead remained a pocket of pummeled people, shelled daily by a heavy dose of artillery, including really big guns  such as a Krupp K-5 (Anzio Annie).  Allied invasion forces stayed in place, taking a pounding until May of 1944, when they finally broke out and began an advance.  Fighting continued in Italy all the way to May 2, 1945, only a week before the final German surrender of World War II.  The invasion of Italy never resulted in in the entire country being taken and never allowed a pathway into the rest of Europe from the South.  The Allies had committed about 3 times as many troops to the Italian campaign than the Axis forces, as well as a much bigger investment in airplanes and equipment.

Artillery being landed during the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno, September 1943.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think the Italian Campaign, especially Operation Avalanche, was worth the effort, or should the Allies have used their combat power elsewhere?  Please share your analysis of the campaign and your thoughts on the subject of leadership and planning involved in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Diamond, Jon. On to Rome: Anzio and Victory at Cassino, 1944: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Images of War). Pen and Sword Military, 2018.

Diamond, Jon. Salerno to the Gustav Line 1943–1944: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Images of War). Pen and Sword Military, 2018.

The featured image in this article, artillery being landed during the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno in September 1943, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.