Battle of Gela (1943)
The amphibious Battle of Gela was the opening engagement of the United States portion of the Allied Invasion of Sicily. United States Navy ships landed United States Army troops along the eastern end of the south coast of Sicily; and withstood attacks by Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica aircraft while defending the beachhead against German and Italian tanks until the Army captured the Ponte Olivo Airfield for use by United States Army Air Forces planes.
The invasion of Sicily followed Allied capture of Tunisia in north Africa and preceded the Allied invasion of Italy as a means of diverting Axis forces from the eastern front with the Soviet Union until the English-speaking Allies were prepared to invade occupied Europe through France. Ground forces under overall command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower were transported by naval forces under overall command of Admiral Andrew Cunningham. The invasion was constrained by marginally effective air cover from approximately 700 fighters operating at maximum range from airfields on Malta and Pantelleria. Allied air forces refused to provide air support for Allied ground forces until Axis air forces had been neutralized; and, since Axis bombing continued through 12 July, the role of Allied aircraft was negligible in the fighting at Gela. Pre-invasion strategic bombing reduced Luftflotte 2 strength to 175 planes in Sicily, but 418 additional Luftwaffe and 449 Regia Aeronautica aircraft remained serviceable at bases in Italy to be flown in as required.
Unlike the earlier invasion of North Africa and later invasion of Italy, the United States invasion fleet included no aircraft carriers. Carriers which had supported the American landings during Operation Torch had been reassigned without replacement. USS Santee was defending UG convoys from U-boats while the other three Sangamon class escort carriers had been transferred to the Pacific to support the Guadalcanal campaign and USS Ranger was training new pilots on the United States Atlantic coast.
A western task force of 601 ships (including 130 warships and 324 landing craft and transports with 1,124 shipboard landing boats) under the command of Vice Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt carried the Seventh United States Army under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Both officers sailed aboard the flagship transport Monrovia. The western task force was divided into Task Force C to land the 3rd Infantry Division near Licata (sector Joss) on the western flank, Task Force K to land the 45th Infantry Division near Scoglitti (sector Cent) on the eastern flank, and Task Force H to land the 16th and 26th Regiments of the 1st Infantry Division with the 531st Engineers and the 1st and 4th Rangers near Gela (sector Dime). The reserve force of the 2nd Armored Division and 18th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division was landed on the first day of fighting to support the 1st Infantry Division.
The town of Gela on the west side of the Gela River was on a plateau at 150 foot elevation behind the beach in an area defended by the Italian XVIII Coastal Brigade. The town itself was defended by the Italian 429th Coastal Battalion using barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, and anti-tank guns. The beach was defended by machine guns on both flanks and artillery batteries 7,000 yards inland, on Cape Soprano to the west, and on Monte Lungo to the north. The sand and stone beach on the east side of the Gela River was from 10 to 30 yards wide and backed by one-half mile of dunes. It was defended by three machine gun nests at the east end and by artillery batteries 9,000 yards to the north and 10,000 yards to the northwest. The Italian 4 Mountain Infantry Division Livorno was positioned near Niscemi and accompanied by the Italian Mobile Group E with 38 Fiat 3000 tanks to respond when invasion points became known. They were reinforced on the afternoon of the first day by the German Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring armored regiment of 46 Panzerkampfwagen III and 32 Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks from Caltagirone.
Air support was available from one staffel of Jagdgeschwader 53 Bf109 G-6 fighters at Catania, two staffeln of Jagdgeschwader 77 Bf109G-6 fighters at Trapani, another Jagdgeschwader 77 staffel at Sciacca, two staffeln of Schlachtgeschwader 2 Fw190 F-2 ground attack fighter-bombers at Castelvetrano, and two staffeln of Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 Fw190A-5 fast bombers at Gerbini Airfield. Ju88A and SM79 medium bombers could reach Gela from bases in Italy.
The larger transports sailed from Oran on 5 July as convoy NCF 1 and were screened by destroyers as they hugged the African coast eastbound while the gunfire support cruisers sailed on a parallel course as a covering force to the north. The LSTs, LCIs, LCTs and patrol craft sailed directly from Tunisia as convoys TJM 1 and TJS 1. The convoys were spotted and all German forces on Sicily were alerted at 1840 9 July. Winds of 35 knots caused rough seas and widespread seasickness among the embarked troops. Winds moderated on the evening of 9 July as ships divided into task forces C, H, and K and proceeded to assigned anchorages off the Sicilian coast. As the ships anchored, airborne troops of the 505th Infantry Regiment landed inland attempting to capture strategic objectives; but they were largely unsuccessful after being scattered by wind and navigation errors.
Transports Dickman, Prince Charles, Prince Leopold, Oberon, Barnett, Monrovia, Lyon, Chase, Betelgeuse, Thurston, Stanton, Orizaba, and Chateau Thierry anchored approximately 6 miles off the mouth of the Gela River with LCIs, LSTs, and salvage vessels slightly further offshore; and destroyers USS Murphy, USS Glennon, USS Maddox, USS Bernadou, and USS Dallas screened the seaward side of the anchorage. The light cruiser USS Savannah and destroyer USS Shubrick patrolled a gunfire support area west of the anchorage, while USS Boise and USS Jeffers patrolled a similar gunfire support area east of the anchorage. The Army hoped for surprise, and declined Navy suggestions for pre-invasion bombardment.
The transports started unloading shortly after midnight, and General Guzzoni declared an emergency at 0100. The first assault wave from Barnett, Lyon, Thurston and Stanton landed about 0245. Shubrick destroyed two XVIII Coastal Brigade searchlights illuminating the first wave and fired on several XVIII Coastal Brigade artillery positions. Initial waves had landed on all beaches by 0335. The 1st Infantry Division attempted to move inland against heavy resistance east of the Gela River to capture the Ponte Olivo Airfield while defending against attacks from the town of Niscemi; but XVIII Coastal Brigade artillery and mortars were targeting the beach as LCIs began landing support troops east of the Gela River at 0430. Rangers made a holding attack on the town of Gela; and captured the town and 77mm/28 artillery of the XVIII Coastal Brigade defenders. It was hoped the Rangers might be able to capture the Gela pier for offloading the LSTs, but Italian defenders had destroyed the pier with demolition charges at 0240.
The 12th Air Support Command planned to provide air cover of 12 fighters over Gela during daylight hours, but the number actually available was never more than 8 and sometimes as few as 2. Axis air raids took place around the clock; so no Allied fighters were present when most axis air raids arrived. The first Allied fighters arrived at 0501 before sunrise at 0546; but Axis bombers had arrived before first light. Bombs and flares began falling at 0421 and Maddox sank at 0458 with 212 of her crew less than 2 minutes after being hit by a bomb dropped by an Italian Stuka. The minesweeper USS Sentinel was also damaged during the raid and sank later that morning. LST-345 and submarine chaser PC-621 were damaged by collision while maneuvering to avoid bombs. Savannah shot down a Ju88 at 0514. Absence of fighter cover during the initial Axis bombing attack created an enduring shipboard perception they were responsible for their own air defense and should prioritize aircraft destruction above identification. Axis fighters and fighter-bombers were able to make undetected low-level approaches from Catania under the fleet RADAR horizon by flying down the Acate River canyon east of the Gela beachhead. Allied fighters loitering at altitude to engage medium bombers were perceived as dive bombers and subjected to friendly fire losses when they attempted to engage low altitude air raids. Ships were using proximity fuzed anti-aircraft ammunition for the first time in the European theater.
After sunrise, minesweepers began clearing mines near the beach so the LSTs could start landing vehicles at 0800. LST-338 was straddled by Italian shellfire as soon as it beached. Italian artillery intensified firing at the eastern beach from 0710 until Boise and Savannah temporarily silenced the batteries at 0940. Landing craft temporarily stopped using the beach when Italian artillery resumed firing at 1010 and destroyed some landing craft and supplies offloaded onto the beach. Half-tracks attempting to move inland from the eastern beach encountered an Italian minefield and were delayed until the minefield was cleared at 1212. Landing craft had to wait up to four hours to be unloaded while the beach was congested by vehicles waiting to move inland. Unloading was frequently interrupted by air attacks and artillery fire; and a shortage of landing craft developed as nearly 200 were disabled by shellfire or broaching in the surf. Unexpected sand bars paralleled the beach 150 yards offshore and prevented some landing craft (including LSTs carrying tanks) from getting ashore to offload their cargo.
Boise and Savannah launched Curtiss SOC Seagull observation seaplanes at 0600 to locate targets and perform gunnery spotting. Bf109s had shot down both Savannah planes by 0730 as the Italian Livorno Division launched a three-prong counterattack to recapture Gela. The Italian counterattack was reported by an American newspaper: "Supported by no less than forty-five tanks, a considerable force of infantry of the Livorno Division attacked the American troops around Gela. The American division beat them back with severe casualties. This was the heaviest response to the Allied advance."  An infantry column approached Gela from the west while a second infantry column preceded by 13 Fiat tanks approached Gela along the Ponte Olivo Road, and a third infantry column preceded by about 25 Fiat tanks approached the beachhead east of the Gela River from Niscemi. Savannah launched its two remaining SOCs at 0830 as Rangers directed Shubrick gunfire destroying three of the tanks approaching Gela along the Ponte Olivo Road. Surviving tanks entered the town of Gela while the Italian infantry was immobilized by gunfire from Shubrick. The Rangers destroyed three of the tanks before the remaining 7 retreated with their accompanying infantry. The Rangers used the captured 77mm/28 Italian artillery to repel the Livorno Division infantry column approaching Gela from the west.
Boise opened fire at 0910 after their SOCs observed the third Italian column approaching along the Niscemi Road and radioed coordinates before being chased off by Bf109s. Bf109s shot down another Savannah SOC and the last SOC returned to the ship damaged. Boise, Savannah and the British monitor Abercrombie fired on the eastern Italian column from 1047 to 1108. Boise launched the last operational SOC at 1219 and it was shot down by Bf109s as Boise fired on the eastern column from 1245 to 1251. The naval artillery destroyed two tanks and prevented the Italian infantry from advancing until the surviving force retreated. Nevertheless, Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Hugo Leonardi's 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment met with some success, taking a number of prisoners from the U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment.
Axis bombing raids hit the beach at 1320 and 1430 in support of the Hermann Göring Division armored regiment counterattack against the eastern beachhead. A high-altitude bombing attack at 1530 was followed by intermittent attacks for the remainder of the day. Naval artillery delayed the advancing German tanks while the reserve force of the 2nd Armored Division and 18th Infantry Regiment began landing on the eastern beach at 1700. LST-313 was attempting to offload anti-tank artillery when three or four fighters dropped bombs on the pontoon causeway being used to offload the LSTs. One bomb struck LST-313 killing 21 men, damaging embarked vehicles, and igniting a gasoline fire causing a series of ammunition explosions. The burning LST was abandoned at 1824, and continuing explosions scattered the pontoons, causing nearby LST-312 to broach, and prevented offloading of more LSTs. The 1st Infantry Division requested extended air cover after being bombed from 1730 to 1930, and Axis bombing continued at a rate of 275 to 300 sorties per day with half arriving during hours of darkness. Gunfire support ships provided covering fire as the 1st Infantry Division began retreating back toward the beach at 2150 under cover of darkness. Only three LSTs (carrying half-tracks but no tanks) had been unloaded when the 1st Infantry Division requested immediate tank support at 2215. Axis bombing of beaches and ships intensified at 2245.
The Luftwaffe had flown 370 sorties on 10 July and lost 16 aircraft destroyed or missing. According to Italian sources, 141 sorties were flown by the Regia Aeronautica which lost 11 aircraft on the first day of the landings. That evening, Italian Stukas managed to sink the Indian hospital ship Talamba 3–5 miles off the beaches of Sicily, although the 400 wounded aboard were successfully evacuated.
Tugs refloated LST-312 about midnight. The first American tanks were landed at 0200 and promptly became stuck in soft beach sand. USS Butler replaced Shubrick as the western gunfire support destroyer at 0530 and USS Glennon replaced Jeffers as the eastern destroyer at 0620. Twelve SM79s bombed the transport anchorage at 0635 holing Dickman and Orizaba with near miss bomb fragments and striking Barnett with a bomb killing 7 army personnel, wounding 35 more, and starting a fire. It was the first of 14 Axis air raids on the beachhead that day, and covered a coordinated Axis attack. While the Livorno Division attacked the Rangers at Gela in three columns from the west side of the Gela River, the Hermann Göring Division attacked the 1st Infantry Division beachhead on the east side of the Gela River. Sixty Panzerkampfwagen III and Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks surviving the previous day's naval gunfire advanced in two columns from Niscemi and the Ponte Olivo Airfield while an armored infantry column advanced down the Acate River valley to the east. The German forces from the east planned to meet the Italian forces from the west at the Gela beachhead.
LST-2 landed five American tanks at 0845 and they immediately went into action without being dewaterproofed. By that time the German tanks were within 2,400 yards of the beachhead. Every man on the beach, including yeomen, electricians, carpenters, and intelligence and supply officers of the Advanced Naval Base Group, was hastily armed and formed a firing line along the dunes with engineers of the Army shore parties. Ships began gunfire support requested by shore parties at 0915, and Boise fired on the tanks from 1040 to 1142. Army observers reported 13 tanks destroyed by Boise, but after the war it was claimed that majority of these had been destroyed by the four mobile tanks of CCB, 2nd Armored Division. The German infantry in the Acate River valley were stopped by the 505th airborne infantry troops who had landed 36 hours earlier; and the westernmost column of the Livorno Division was stopped by the 3rd Infantry Division. Savannah fired 500 rounds of 6"/47 shells killing more than half of the Italian infantry advancing on Gela and leaving human bodies hanging from trees. Rangers took 400 prisoners from the dazed survivors.
While American forces ashore stopped the Axis advance, Minelayers spent the afternoon placing a protective minefield offshore of the anchorage. Axis bombing of the anchorage resumed at 1235 and continued intermittently with repeated attacks from 1351 to 1535. A 40-plane air raid at 1545 hit the Liberty ship Robert Rowan. The Liberty Ship's ammunition cargo detonated at 1730; but the ship didn't sink in the shallow anchorage, and fires illuminated the anchorage for a heavy bombing attack from 1947 to 1952 followed by a series of dive-bombing attacks beginning at 2134 and lasting past midnight. Many ships were damaged by near misses, but only one LST remained to be unloaded at 1600. Boise fired at Niscemi from 1826 to 1937. Surviving Axis tanks began to withdraw under cover of darkness at 2235.
The invasion convoy was 90 percent unloaded before dawn; and the 1st Infantry Division captured the Ponte Olivo airfield at 0845. Allied fighters successfully broke up an Axis bomber raid at 0936 and the daily number of Axis bombing sorties was halved by the end of the day. Ships continued to provide gunfire support, and Butler fired on tanks near Ponte Olivo airfield from 1126 to 1135. General Patton left Monrovia at 1700 to establish headquarters ashore. The Twelfth Air Force 27th Fighter Bomber Group landed A-36 Apache ground support aircraft at Ponte Olivo as soon as the airfield was declared secure for operations, and provided air support for continuing operations against German and Italian forces.
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