Having defeated Axis forces in Sicily, the Allies turned their attention to mainland Italy. Planners chose Salerno, south-east of Naples, as the point where the main invasion force would land in Operation Avalanche. Operation Baytown (3th September 1943) and Operation Slapstick were launched against positions at the heel of Italy, although Slapstick actually began on the same day as Avalanche (9th September). Salerno was chosen because it had landing beaches favourable to invaders and it had nearby airfields and major roads that could be used by Allied forces after a successful invasion.
For Operation Baytown, British and Canadian troops of General Bernard Montgomery’s XIII Corps (part of Eighth Army) landed at Regio Calabria at the south-western tip of Italy – including 1st Hampshire (see previous timeline entry). The intention was to tie down German troops in southern Italy and away from the Salerno area. However, the German Commander-in-Chief, Albert Kesselring, realised that the main Allied target was further up the coast and pulled back most of the crack troops of his LXXVI Panzer Corps, leaving only one regiment and some Italian units to meet the Baytown invasion.
Troops of the British 1st Airborne Division spearheaded Operation Slapstick which saw amphibious landings at Taranto and Brindisi in south-eastern Italy. The two port cities had actually been made available to the Allies by the Italians during secret armistice negotiations, but Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower nevertheless decided to land large numbers of troops there, again to draw German attention away from Salerno. However, both landings met little resistance as Kesselring pulled his troops back prior to the landings.
The main Operation Avalanche invasion at Salerno was conducted by 165,000 Allied troops of the US Fifth Army, under Lieutenant General Mark Clark. This comprised Major General Ernest Dawley’s US VI Corps and Lieutenant General Richard McCreery’s British X Corps. The aim of Avalanche was to seize Naples and drive to the east coast to cut off enemy forces to the south. The operation involved landings on a 35-mile front to the south of Salerno. Responsibility for the initial landings fell to the British 46th and 56th Divisions to the north of the Sele River and the US 36th Infantry Division to the south. A small force of US Rangers and British Commandos would land northwest of the British beaches to secure the roads leading to Naples up the coast.
Opposing the Allies stood several German divisions, all of which were well prepared for any attack.
The Salerno landings began on 9th September, the day after the announcement of an armistice between the Allies and Italy. (Under the armistice Italian units ceased combat and the Navy sailed to Allied ports to surrender. However, German forces in Italy were prepared for this and moved swiftly to disarm Italian units and occupy important defensive positions.)
At Paestum the Americans met stiff German resistance but succeeded in holding the beachhead until the next wave of troops arrived. Further north the British were able to push inland for between five and seven miles.
Over the next three days both sides built up their strength but on 13th September the Germans counter-attacked in the region of Battipaglia, with the intention of dividing the British and American forces. The Americans suffered particularly heavy casualties as the Allies were pushed back. At one stage Clark even considered evacuating his forces and it wasn’t until 15th September that the German advance was slowed, mainly as a result of heavy naval and aerial bombardment. The following day the Germans launched a fresh attack against British X Corps, but made little headway.
The same day British forces which had taken part in Operation Baytown had reached Sapri, less than 60 miles south-east of Salerno. Realising that the two Allied forces were on the brink of linking up, Kesselring called off the German offensive and ordered his forces to pull back and to destroy bridges and other means of transportation as they did so. Although this meant surrendering Salerno, Kesselring planned to form a new defensive line, using Italy’s mountainous terrain to frustrate any future Allied advance.
On 19th September British and American troops of US Fifth Army began marching on Naples. By the end of the month the southern part of Italy was under Allied control, including the strategically important airfield at Foggia. Despite this success Avalanche had failed in its objective of achieving a lightning-quick seizure of Italy. Instead the Allies were now committed to a long slog fighting up the boot of the Italian peninsula from toe to top.
The 2/4th Battalion at Salerno, September 1943
Four Hampshire battalions took part in the Salerno landings – the 2nd, 1/4th, 5th and two companies of the 2/4th. This section will focus on the 2/4th Hampshire. The battalion had been withdrawn from 128th Brigade in May with two companies being assigned to each of the newly-formed 20 Beach Group and 21 Beach Group which were tasked with moving supplies from the beachheads. These units then underwent special training, 20 Beach Group for the Sicily landings and 21 Beach Group for the Salerno operation.
The men of C and D Companies of the 2/4th Battalion approached the Salerno beaches in the early hours of 9th September 1943 alongside the assault troops of 56th Division. Although the beaches were heavily wired and mined and some units landed in the wrong sector a firm defensive line was quickly established. However, 21 Beach Group was not called upon to operate as envisaged and so the two 2/4th Companies were moved into the line. On 10th September the 2/4th came under command of 167th Brigade and took over the defence of a vital crossroads to Battipaglia on the right of the 56th Division line.
On 12th September the two Companies moved forward, making good progress until halted by heavy mortar fire. This signalled the start of the major German counter-offensive in the Battiopaglia region which aimed to push the Allies back into the sea. The 2/4th Companies fell back to the crossroads and spent the next four days beating off determined attacks by motorized German infantry. In one attack, on 15th September, D Company’s position astride the main Battipaglia road was overrun by ten Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) manned by troops of the crack Hermann Goering and Panzer Division. D Company pulled back and reformed while 6-pounder anti-tank guns picked off the AFVs one by one. Using every available man, including cooks and drivers, the old D Company position was counter-attacked and recaptured. The next day the Germans attacked with a full battalion but the 2/4th held firm and drove them off. It was during this battle that Lieutenant GF Heald won the Military Cross for gallantry and Sergeant AR Hopgood was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for commanding his platoon in the absence of his officer with conspicuous gallantry and success.
For six days the two Companies grimly hung on to their positions, suffering many casualties. On 19th September, after one day’s rest out of the line, they advanced with 131st Brigade to Battipaglia – which had now been captured – and took up positions there. On 23rd September, however, the Companies reverted to their Beach Group role, providing five labour parties to help handle the thousands of tons of stores and supplies being brought ashore.
At this point the Commanding Officers of both halves of the Battalion began a campaign to reunite the 2/4th. After several setbacks and much pleading with authority, this was finally achieved on Boxing Day 1943 when the Battalion was informed that it was to be a fighting unit once more.
The 2nd, 1/4th and 5th Battalions (the Hampshire Brigade) at Salerno
The 128th (Hampshire) Brigade – comprising the 2nd, 1/4th and 5th Battalions – was one of three assault brigades of X Corps at Salerno. Part of 46th Division, the Brigade attacked on X Corps left, nearest to Salerno itself, while 56th Division (including 2/4th Hampshire) landed on the right. The plan was to force a landing on a front of about one mile between the rivers Picentino and Asa and destroy local enemy defences. The Brigade was then to capture the hills overlooking the Salerno road allowing 138th Brigade, following through behind, to capture Salerno itself.
After some confusion – 2nd Battalion landed on the wrong beach and 5th Battalion on the wrong side of the Asa river – much of the Brigade initially made good progress against strong German resistance. Nevertheless casualties, were heavy: Major DD Crofts of 2nd Battalion was among those killed while Major HB Portsmouth, the second-in-command of 1/4th Battalion, was wounded on the beach.
The 5th Battalion was badly mauled as it attempted to regroup after becoming dispersed during the landings. Two Companies advancing up a narrow lane – subsequently known as ‘Hampshire Lane’ – were caught in the open and overrun by a German counter-attack with tanks. The enemy assault then swept over A Company and Battalion Headquarters and many men were lost, including nine officers taken prisoner. Battalion Headquarters were trapped between the walls of the lane when a tank advanced, firing as it came and running over the dead and wounded. A direct hit from a shell killed three officers as well as the signallers on the wireless sets. The attack was eventually halted by men gathered together by Major PR Sawyer, but at the end of the day the 5th Battalion had lost five officers and 35 other ranks killed and more than 300 of all ranks wounded and taken prisoner.
Despite these losses, the three Hampshire battalions had done their job. With the beach-head secured and the British sector enjoying a brief lull in the fighting, troops, guns, tanks and stores were brought ashore in great numbers to supply the force mustering for the crucial attack on Naples.
On 13th September the Germans launched their counter-attack against the Salerno beach-head. The 5th Battalion was again at the centre of the storm. After its mauling on the day of the landings it had been reorganised into two Companies, ‘D’ and a composite Company made up of the survivors of other rifle Companies. The battalion’s positions on White Cross Hill came under attack along with those on The Crag, held by the 1/4th Hampshire, but these were beaten off. However, just before midnight on 14th September the enemy launched surprise attacks against both positions. The Crag was quickly overrun but most of the 1/4th escaped to join the 5th Battalion on White Cross Hill.
However, even the arrival of the 1/4th on White Cross Hill could not prevent its capture by the Germans. A counter-attack by two Companies of the 5th Battalion did reach the top of the hill but the troops had to withdraw before first light. On 15th September and the days following the Hampshires launched several more unsuccessful and bloody counter-attacks against White Cross Hill. Among those killed were Captain W Follit of the 5th Battalion and Lieutenant J. Hillman, of the same unit, who gave his life gallantly attacking an enemy machine-gun post.
Among the many acts of bravery in the fighting for White Cross Hill the actions of Sergeant GAF Minnigin stood out. Sgt Minnigin led the defence of the village of San Nicola, on the 5th Battalion’s right flank, with just a handful of men. He rescued a wounded Commando from the village church and on several occasions went up the slopes of White Cross Hill to bring back other wounded. Sgt Minnigin received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery to add to the Military Medal he had won in North Africa.
On 20 September the Germans began to withdraw and White Cross Hill passed into Allied hands once more. Meanwhile, the three Hampshire battalions went back to the beach for a short period of rest following which they joined in 46th Division’s advance towards Cava.
The advance began on 23 September, but it was not until the 25th that the Hampshires – supplemented by reinforcements from the 51st Highland Division – passed through the village (128th Brigade was in reserve). However, they found that much of the mountainous country had not been thoroughly cleared of the enemy and that Cava was still under fire. As a result all three battalions were slowed up and it was not until nightfall that they reached the village of San Lucia. On the left, meanwhile, a battle raged for the terraced hill of San Martino and the church perched on top.
The fighting was tricky and costly; isolated German outposts with snipers had to be dealt with systematically. The Regimental History recounts one of the many displays of gallantry by the Hampshires, that of Sergeant A.R. Bremner of the 5th Battalion:
‘Sergeant Bremner’s company was held up by heavy machine-gun fire and sniping. He was leading his section on the right of the company, and inspite of heavy fire, he went on, killed two snipers with his tommy-gun and located a machine-gun. He shot the gunners, and when a German section tried to stop him by throwing grenades he turned and chased them for a hundred yards and, aided by his men, wiped them out with grenades and tommy-guns. He then searched a neighbouring farm and returned to his company, bringing with him a considerable amount of German equipment.’
For this action Sergeant Bremner was awarded the Military Medal.
The arrival of the 7th Armoured Division finally turned the tide. It swept northwards, pushing back the Germans and enabling the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards to enter Naples on 1 October. The first great objective of the Salerno landings had been achieved. After three weeks of heavy fighting the Hampshires enjoyed a few days of well-earned rest and to take in reinforcements for the battles to come.
All three battalions had suffered heavy casualties. The 2nd Battalion lost two officers and 43 other ranks killed, six officers and 76 others wounded and two officers and 175 other ranks missing. The 1/4th Battalion lost a total of nine officers and 150 other ranks. The 5th Battalion suffered the heaviest casualties – 29 officers (nine killed, nine wounded and 11 missing) and more than 400 other ranks. Eight Company commanders of the 5th Battalion were casualties in the first two weeks of fighting.
Besides Sergeants Minnigin and Bremner several other Hampshire men received gallantry awards. Colonel R Chandler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Major JW Brehaut the bar to his Military Cross and Majors TA Rotherham, JW Tinniswood and BP Doughty-Wylie the Military Cross. Private Towler won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal was awarded to Sergeants DA Carter, FTJ Hughes, WG Wise and B Wynne along with Corporals LW Etheridge, JW Scott and WA Touzel and Privates HC Lee and M Pook.