The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, is often viewed as a logical progression from the North Africa campaign (TORCH) through Sicily and on into Italy. It is one of the ‘Big Four’ operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres of operations, which culminated in the invasion of Normandy. Sicily has often been either overlooked entirely or seen through a more ground-centric lens (think of the movie Patton). That being said, there has been some excellent historical work in recent years on the invasion and even some very good historical-fiction by, for example, Jeff Sharra. Perhaps overlooked is too strong a word. Overshadowed is perhaps apter and nowhere is the invasion of Sicily more overshadowed than in the realm of air power. True, there is Robert S. Ehlers excellent work The Mediterranean Air War (2015), which covers the entirety of the theatre, but a singular focus on the air war exclusively over Sicily has been missing.
Alexander Fitzgerald-Black seeks not only to bring HUSKY back into focus but seeks to delve into the often-overlooked role of air power in the Mediterranean theatre, particularly over the skies of Sicily and does so by linking the tactical to the strategic. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxii) states that:
This work reconnects the role of the Allied air forces in the Battle for Sicily to the wider narrative of the air war and to the crucial Allied strategy for engaging Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater during the Summer of 1943.
Air power itself has been viewed through various lenses, but the most notable narrative through HUSKY was that Allied air power did not live up to the promises it made – Fitzgerald-Black singles out Carlo D’Este for holding this interpretation. The author seeks to turn this traditional narrative on its head, and Fitzgerald-Black argues persuasively that some authors have focused too myopically on the tactical missteps and therefore, missed the greater strategic narrative. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxiii) argues that ‘Allied strategic success in Sicily and the Mediterranean in mid-1943 mattered far more than the failure to prevent German forces on the island from escaping.’ Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe to pay a heavy toll for defending not an only island but the theatre writ large. Also, attacks against the Italian mainland helped drive Italy from the war entirely.
In the buildup to the landings, German and Italian air power was systematically, but not entirely, destroyed. Some authors have pointed this out as a failure of air power showing their preference for a Clausewitzian decisive battle that rarely appears. The Luftwaffe, under the direction Wolfram von Richthofen removed their bombers to the Italian mainland, believing Sicily to be untenable. Attacks on German and Italian bases gained enough air superiority that the invasion took place without prohibitive interference from the Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica. The simple fact was that Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to react in ways it did not want to. Some might say Allied leaders had got inside their enemy’s OODA loop (p. 54, 63).
Again, there exist critiques of Allied air power on the day of the landings, but as Fitzgerald-Black demonstrates, the Germans and the Italians seemed to be to some degree husbanding their resources. Even in doing so, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies seriously. Where engagements did occur, the author shows that ‘[E]ffectiveness cannot only be measured by casualties inflicted upon Axis aircraft.’ There were occasions (p. 83) where ‘USAAF and RAF fighters broke up enemy formations and/or forced the bombers to jettison their payloads prematurely […].’ Fitzgerald-Black does an excellent job of interweaving his analysis and engaging prose with numerous first-person accounts from both sides of the conflict. His use of Johannes Steinhoff’s remembrances adds a level of balance to the work, wherein the points and actions of both sides are brought forth. Looking at the battle in retrospect, ‘The success of the German tactical withdrawal pales in comparison to the strategic victory the Allies won in Sicily during the Summer of 1943.’ Italy was knocked out of the war and Germany was now forced to defend Europe on two fronts that soon turned into three with the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 (p. 159).
One final point worth mentioning, and this is more a press decision than a note on the author’s work, but the use footnotes versus endnotes is a welcome change making it significantly easier to check the author’s sources at a quick glance. In the end, Fitzgerald-Black has done an outstanding job of refocusing attention on the air war over Sicily and has contributed to the study of air power history. His work resides alongside Chris Rein and Robert Ehlers in broadening our understanding of the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War. His expert linking of tactical, operational, and strategic in a clear narrative allows all readers to understand that while one area of a campaign might be deemed a tactical misstep, the overarching importance of the strategic victory cannot be taken for granted.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
In June 1943 a staff officer with 1st Canadian Infantry Division examined planning documents for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The operation to begin the Allied assault on Festung Europa’s soft underbelly was just weeks away. During his preparations, the officer came across an air staff memorandum. It read:
Owing to the small size of Malta which limits the number of fighter squadrons which can be based there, and the distance from the beaches, it will not be possible to maintain standing patrols over the assault areas except for the first few hours after the battle starts.
The large number of Air Forces taking part in the operation […] will be employed in bombing and “sweeping” enemy airfields and communications in order to gain air supremacy and prevent Axis aircraft from interfering with our assault forces. It is probable, therefore, that few friendly aircraft will be seen by our forces on the beaches after the first few hours and the reason for this should be carefully explained to assaulting troops […] it should be made clear that, although few Allied aircraft are visible immediately over their heads, considerable air forces are, in fact, operating continually in support of them.
The Canadian division was entering combat for the first time. However, it was to fight as part of British Eighth Army, famous for its victory at El Alamein under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Years of fighting the Germans and Italians in the desert had allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to hone its support for land campaigns. Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham put into practice an air support doctrine that privileged concentration of force. The priority for an air force supporting the army (or navy) was to secure air superiority. The second was to disrupt the enemy movement of reinforcements and supplies behind the lines. Close air support of ground troops in combat with the enemy was third, much to many army commanders’ dismay.
Many (but not all) British Army commanders felt that this order was incorrect. Instead, they desired control of their own air force in support of ground operations and an air umbrella that would protect their advancing forces. The British Army had tried this approach and failed in the Western Desert. During the attempt to relieve Tobruk in Operation BATTLEAXE the British Army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Under Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, the RAF caved to the British Army’s requests, even though they believed this to be a highly inefficient use of resources. This decision ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.
From then on, the RAF in the Mediterranean guarded against the tendency of army commanders to request for what senior airmen called ‘penny packets,’ smaller groups of aircraft assigned to a ground commander. They also endeavoured to convince their army counterparts that the RAF’s optimal use in support of ground forces was as long-range artillery. This explains why the Air Staff memorandum included in planning documents issued to the assault forces. Aircraft should be concentrated against Axis airfields, ports, transportation networks, or shipping beyond the reach of land or sea forces to stop or limit the enemy’s ability to interfere with the land operation. During Operation HUSKY, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of all Allied air forces, used his air forces effectively according to the priorities set out above.
I have discussed the air superiority and close air support functions in previous posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the role of interdiction strikes in support of the army and its purpose in Sicily.
Why were the Allies landing in Sicily? At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 superior British staff work and arguments led to the decision to invade Sicily once the Allies secured North Africa. General George C. Marshall, America’s top soldier, argued for Operation ROUNDUP, a cross-Channel invasion from the United Kingdom in spring 1943. He felt that this was the best way to ease pressure on the Soviets in the east. Marshall’s British counterpart, General Sir Alan Brooke, had a different assessment. There were 42 German divisions in France, more than enough to contain whatever force the Anglo-Americans could get across the Channel in 1943. The Eastern Front would benefit little from Marshall’s plan. However, what if the Allies knocked Italy out of the war in 1943? The Italians had some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the still-formidable Italian navy. If Italy surrendered, it was logical to expect that the Germans would replace these losses with their forces. Nazi Germany had already shown a willingness to send forces to the Mediterranean in a crisis. They had done it in the Balkans and the Western Desert in 1941 and Tunisia in late 1942. Forces defending southern Europe could not support operations on the Eastern Front. Nor could they stand watch on or behind the Atlantic Wall waiting for the inevitable cross-Channel invasion. This was the plan the Allied air forces supported.
As news filtered in about the success of Allied landings in Sicily (under temporary air umbrellas established by fighters based in Malta, Gozo, Pantelleria, and even Tunisia), Tedder was already looking ahead to future operations in support of the Allied strategy. He wrote to his superiors in London:
Should the next week’s operations go well, I have been considering possibility of staging really heavy blows at, say, three vital centres in Italy. The whole of the Liberator force on Naples before it has to stand off to train for Tidalwave, the whole B.17 force on Rome, and if possible Harris’s Lanchester force on another shuttle service attack on suitable targets in N. Italy. All attacks simultaneous. Feel moral effect of such operations might be vital, especially if attack by shuttle service included [sic].
With the landing force firmly ensconced in Sicily, Tedder unleashed his strategic bombers in another round of attacks. He hoped that Italy – tired of three years of war, having suffered massive casualties at Stalingrad and Tunis, and with Allied forces on their doorstep – was ripe for capitulation. Allied bombers in North Africa targeted Naples and Rome in particular. Both were significant as transport hubs, but Rome had the added prestige of being an Axis capital.
The Allied air forces had already paralysed the Sicilian railway system; now their focus shifted to the mainland. Naples was southern Italy’s most important railway junction. From 15 to 18 July 1943 the city suffered bombardments from United States Army Air Force B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s by day and RAF Wellingtons by night. Some RAF Boston light bombers even acted as pathfinders for a force of American B-25s, operating at night. The raids targeted the city’s marshalling yards, war industries, and nearby aerodromes. According to a report by Solly Zuckerman’s Bombing Survey Unit using evidence assembled after the Allies took the city in October, ‘Naples was wiped out as a railway centre after the July attacks.’
On 19 July the skies darkened over Rome as a combined force of nearly 600 medium and heavy bombers struck railway yards, war industry, and aerodromes within or near the city. Realizing the enormous political ramifications of this raid, the American aircrews were thoroughly briefed. They were to avoid targeting the Vatican, and the raid was preceded by dropping leaflets to warn the local population of the pending attack. Despite these and other efforts to prevent civilian casualties the bombers still killed between 1,700 and 2,000 people. The raids effected a 200-mile gap in the railway system from Rome to Naples for 48 hours and contributed to the wider campaign of paralysing the Italian railway system by destroying rolling stock, locomotives, and their repair facilities. The trains were no longer running on time in Italy.
More importantly, the raid on Rome helped to drive the Italians out of the war. At the time of the raid, Benito Mussolini was meeting Adolf Hitler at Feltre in northern Italy. Mussolini’s task for this meeting was to secure his country’s removal from the war. He failed as an irate Hitler shouted him down, complaining about the failure of the Italians to provide adequate bases for the Luftwaffe and the resulting heavy losses the Germans had suffered defending Sicily. Mussolini returned to Rome when he heard about the raid and less than a week later King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The new government set about contacting the Allies to sign a separate armistice, which they did on 3 September 1943.
Popular accounts feature Hitler’s response in the form of the operation to rescue Mussolini. What is more critical is Operation Achse. This was a plan for German forces to disarm Italian forces in Italy, the Balkans, and southern France in the event of an Italian defection or surrender. In addition to the four German divisions fighting in Sicily, a further ten were already on their way to Italy or had just arrived. The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy. Even without counting the German forces arrayed in southern France and against Tito’s Partisans in the Balkans, the Allied strategy set out at Casablanca had worked.
The Allied aims for Operation HUSKY were to open the central Mediterranean to Allied shipping, topple Italian fascism, force the Nazi high command to defend southern Europe on its own, and secure bases from which to continue the war in Italy. The American, British, and Canadian armies fighting in Sicily played their role in this mission with the support of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, capturing the island by 17 August 1943. However, so too did the Strategic Air Force. Their raids on mainland Italian railway transport made Axis resupply efforts difficult and forced the enemy to use other less efficient methods to move their forces and supplies. This approach would later become the basis for the Transport Plan in support of Operation OVERLORD in 1944. These same raids brought pressure on the Italian state to shed Fascism and change sides in the war. In this way, the strategic mission of the Allied soldiers and the Allied airmen (even those flying missions hundreds of miles away from the front) were one in the same.
Author’s note: As an aside, while the Allied air forces managed to paralyse the Sicilian and southern Italian railway systems in mid-1943, they were also unable to stop the Axis evacuation of Sicily in August. Should air commanders be held to account for failing to prevent the successful Axis evacuations across the Strait? I will save this topic for a future post, but you can always read Eagles over Husky to examine my answer.
 Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.
 For a new interpretation that gives Collishaw proper credit for these developments, see: Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 4.
 Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.
 Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.
 The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK, AIR 20/3372, Cypher telegram from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, 10 July 1943. There had been earlier shuttle runs using Avro Manchester and Lancaster bomber aircraft. These runs were deemed logistically unsound and Bomber Command settled for attacking the industrial cities of northern Italy from bases in the United Kingdom.
 TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.
 The Solly Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia, Bombing Survey Unit/6/7, Air Attacks on Raid and Road Communications, Appendix II, Part 3.1: Naples pp.98-99.
 Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.
 Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018) pp. 112-6.
 Albert N. Garland & Howard McGraw Smyth, The United States Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965) p. 243.
 List compiled from Ibid., P. 248 and 293, and Helmut Heiber & David M. Glantz (eds.), Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2004).
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Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)