Before the fight for North Africa ended, Roosevelt, Churchill, and their top military advisors met at Casablanca in January 1943 to examine the worldwide course of the war and decide on future strategy. In the Mediterranean theater, they called for the conquest of Sicily (Operation Husky) following a North African victory. The Allies recognized the island of Sicily, located just south of the Italian mainland, as a logical step on the road to Rome.
Lying between Tunisia and Sicily, Pantelleria and Lampedusa posed a threat to the invading forces. With their radio direction finder stations, troops on both islands could interfere with ship movements in the Sicilian straits, and a modern airfield on Pantelleria gave the enemy an interdiction capability. Capturing the bases would protect the invasion forces and allow the Allies to deploy fighters to protect ships and men during the first stage of Operation Husky. Reluctant to invade, Eisenhower decided to bomb the defenders into surrender.
In late May, NAAF and Allied naval forces began pounding Pantelleria. The airmen unleashed a torrent of bombs using an array of aircraft, including B-17s, B-25s, B-26s, P-38s, P-40s, A-36s, A-20s, and RAF Wellingtons. On June 11, a battered Italian garrison eagerly surrendered. Enemy forces on Lampedusa capitulated soon thereafter.
Allied airmen then turned their full attention on Sicily. During the latter part of May, they bombed Sicilian and Sardinian airfields often and hard, and when Axis bombers pulled out for southern Italy, Allied airmen followed. In the last week of May, they struck heavy blows against Axis airfield complexes at Naples and Foggia.
In an effort to block enemy reinforcement of Sicily, NAAF flew hundreds of medium- and heavy-bomber sorties during the latter half of June against depots, ports, and marshaling yards along Italy's western coast. As part of this effort, Messina, located on Sicily's northeast tip, was struck especially hard.
The Allied air forces also repeatedly hit airfields and landing grounds on Sicily, putting many of them out of service before the invasion. The Luftwaffe, however, still posed a threat. As Allied convoys approached Sicily on the night of July 9/10, enemy aircraft spread among bases in Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, and southern France still numbered in the hundreds. Although Allied air forces had nearly five thousand operational aircraft, they remained alert to possible attack.
The invasion plan called first for British and U.S. airborne assaults, the former by glider and the latter by parachute. The British began their operation on the evening of July 9 when 147 tow planes, each pulling a loaded glider, took off from Tunisia. The aircraft, nearly all C-47s from the AAF's Troop Carrier Command, carried the British I Airborne Division. Their mission focused on seizing a canal bridge south of the city of Syracuse on Sicily's east coast. Regrettably, strong winds, flak, and poor visibility caused most tow pilots to release their gliders in the wrong areas. Only twelve came down in the landing zone; at least forty-seven gliders crashed into the sea, drowning many of the troops aboard. But the British managed to engage the enemy at the canal bridge and captured it the next day.
The U.S. phase of the operation paralleled that of the British. More than two hundred C-47s carrying almost three thousand paratroopers of the 82d Airborne Division left Tunisia on the evening of July 9. Delayed because of high winds and a missed checkpoint over Malta, they approached Sicily in almost complete darkness to discover that fire and smoke from earlier Al lied bombing further obscured their drop zones. As a result, the paratroopers came down over a wide area. They carried out their mission, however, seizing and holding a strategic road junction east of Gela.
The Allies had decided to invade Sicily at its southeastern corner, with the U.S. Seventh Army under Lt. Gen. George Patton on the left and the British Eighth Army under Montgomery on the right. As dawn, July 10, approached, the amphibious phase of the operation began. At daylight, Allied airmen, including the recently arrived African-American troops of the 99th Fighter Squadron--popularly known as the "Tuskegee Airmen"--established defensive air patrols over the beaches and shipping. Night fall found Licata, Syracuse, and the airfield at Pachino in Allied hands. The next day, the U.S. Seventh Army held the beachhead against assaults by the German Hermann Goering and Italian Livorno Divisions, sustain ing more than two thousand casualties in the effort.
Patton decided to reinforce the beachhead with paratroopers from his North African reserves and he ordered a mission for the night of July II. Not everyone got the word, however. Nervous antiaircraft gunners in the Allied fleet and on shore mistook the arriving Allied transports for the enemy and opened fire with devastating effect. The gunners shot down twenty-three out of 144 aircraft, damaged thirty-seven more, and inflicted 10 percent casualties on the paratroop force. The surviving troopers joined the Seventh Army's fight to take the coastal plain and move into the hills beyond.
On July 13, the American and British armies linked up and the critical assault phase was over. With the landings now secure, NAAF struck targets farther afield. Medium and heavy bombers attacked Messina on July 14, and B-17s and Wellingtons bombed Naples on July 14-15, damaging marshaling yards, rolling stock, and railroad tracks in both cities.
A week after the invasion, the U.S. Seventh Army raced north and west toward Palermo and the British Eighth Army moved against Catania. During these drives, AAF's XII Air Support Command helped the Americans, the RAF's Desert Air Force aided the British, and the Allied Tactical Bomber Force supported both armies.
On July 22, the Americans liberated Palermo, a swift action that required little air support. But across the island, air power played a major role in fighting for Catania. Airmen flew hundreds of missions in the last ten days of July, bombing enemy communications centers, troop and gun concentrations, ammunition dumps, roads, and bridges.
On August 1, as the Sicilian campaign drew to a close, Libya-based B-24 Liberators of the Ninth Air Force struck Ploesti in the AAF's final heavy-bomber, low-level attack of the European war. A navigation error destroyed the daring plan's split-second timing, alerted Axis air defenses, and created confusion over the target; but despite very heavy losses, the crews grimly pressed home their attacks from altitudes as low as one hundred feet. Bravery and heroism in the attack on Ploesti resulted in five awards of the Medal of Honor. The Germans, however, swiftly repaired the damage.
As Allied troops approached Messina from the south and west in early August, enemy forces fled across the narrow straits to the Italian main land. To slow their withdrawal, Allied aircraft targeted every means of escape. A-36 dive-bombers struck merchant vessels, barges, freighters, and other small craft; medium and heavy bombers pounded supply points, marshaling yards, and beaches; and fighters attacked harbor shipping. In spite of these efforts, the resourceful Germans saved thousands of men and tons of equipment.
The campaign in Sicily successfully combined air, ground, and sea power in one of the largest amphibious landings of World War II. Al though a tough fight in torturous terrain followed, the eventual triumph secured Allied lines of communication in the Mediterranean, forced the Germans to transfer troops into southern France and the Balkans, and pro vided a springboard for the invasion of mainland Italy.