In July 1943, British, American and Canadian forces landed in Sicily in the first full-scale assault on Hitler’s Europe. It was a huge operation employing half a million men supported by 2,500 ships and protected by a large air force. The defence of Sicily was in the hands of 200,000 Italian and 62,000 German troops. Codenamed Operation Husky, the Sicilian campaign lasted for just thirty-eight days before some 100,000 Axis troops withdrew across the straits of Messina to continue the war in mainland Italy.
The impact of the campaign upon the fortunes of the Allied cause was immediate. Mussolini fell from power for his inability to protect his country. Shortly afterwards Italy came out of the war. To protect his southern flank, Hitler sent forty-three German divisions to Italy from Northern Europe and the Eastern front thus relieving pressure on Russia at a critical time.
The full story of the campaign is imaginatively told in James Holland’s new book, Sicily ’43. His well-researched, lively account balances campaign strategy with the experience of men in the front line. Stories of individuals such as an Italian infantryman, a British commando and a German airman, bring the realities of war to life. Holland does not pull his punches about the brutal nature of the fighting which took place in burning heat over rough terrain. Allied troops, used to fast-moving tactics in the deserts of North Africa, found themselves fighting close quarter infantry battles against determined German defenders.
Operation Husky was the forerunner of Overlord, which took place nearly a year later. In Sicily, as in Normandy, the British led by Montgomery made slow progress fighting battles of attrition, while the Americans under Patton rapidly forced their way through to their objectives. Before D Day, the British used gliders and paratroopers to take strategic targets while American Rangers scaled heights behind the beaches to capture gun emplacements. Airborne troops suffered heavy losses due to poor planning and bad weather. Patton ruined his chances of commanding Overlord by slapping a soldier who was recuperating from the fighting and calling him a coward.
In terms of destruction to the island, this was the worst of the many invasions that Sicily suffered over the centuries. The Allies, especially the Americans, used their industrial fire power to protect their conscript armies by degrading the enemy’s ability to defend the island. Sicily’s port cities, towns and airports suffered multiple bombardments from carpet bombing, naval shelling and field artillery. During their retreat to Messina, the Germans left behind them thousands of mines. Reconstruction of the island was the work of decades.
A temporary military government was established to control Sicily after the fighting ceased. In searching for civic leaders with anti-fascist credentials, the Allies often chose mafia bosses as city mayors, including for Palermo. Once the Allies withdrew from the island, the mafia, which had been suppressed by Mussolini, became well-established on the island once more. It was not until the 1980s, and the rise of a new class of dedicated Sicilian magistrates and law-enforcement officers, that the power of the mafia faced a serious challenge.