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Operation Husky
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 Operation Husky:  The Allied Invasion of Sicily, 1943
Operation Husky:  The Allied Invasion of Sicily, 1943
by Thomas E. Nutter

Aspects of the Allied Invasion of Sicily, 1943

I. The Allied Strategic Debate


HUSKY [1] was an operation born in controversy. During the so-called Second Washington Conference in the early summer of 1942, an acrimonious debate raged between the British and their new American allies over the future strategic course of the war against the European Axis powers. General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, espoused the view that the Allies could successfully confront the European Axis only by means of an amphibious invasion of Western Europe, and that consequently no operations which might detract from this goal should be undertaken.[2] In a sharply worded memorandum to President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill attacked Marshall's position:
No responsible British military authority has so far been able to make a plan for September, 1942 which had any chance of success unless the Germans become utterly demoralized, of which there is no likelihood. Have the American Staffs a plan? If so, what is it? What forces would be employed? At what points would they strike? What landing-craft and shipping are available? Who is the officer prepared to command the enterprise? What British forces and assistance are required? If a plan can be found which offers a reasonable prospect of success, His Majesty's Government will cordially welcome it and will share to the full with their American comrades the risks and sacrifices. This remains our settled and agreed policy . . . . But in case no plan can be made in which any responsible authority has good confidence, and consequently no engagement on a substantial scale in France is possible in September, 1942, what else are we going to do? Can we afford to stand idle in the Atlantic theatre during the whole of 1942?[3]
Of course, the Allies did not "stand idle" during 1942. In November of that year, American forces came ashore in French North Africa to join with the British to begin the process of driving the Axis from the African continent. Nevertheless, the controversy over the primacy and urgency of an invasion of Western Europe to Allied strategy continued, finding its next venue at the Casablanca Conference, conducted in that North African city between January 14 and January 23, 1943. The Casablanca Conference produced a decision favoring Operation HUSKY . In preparation for the Conference, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff promulgated a memorandum setting forth their basic strategic concept for 1943 in December, 1942.[4] Their view was that the "primary effort" of the Allies should be directed against Germany by rapidly building up in the United Kingdom sufficient forces for a land offensive against Germany in 1943. With regard to North Africa, the U.S. Chiefs believed that once the Axis had been expelled, the Allies should establish large air bases in North Africa for the purpose of beginning "intensive" air operations in order to drive the Italians out of the war. However, only forces sufficient to secure the Allied position would remain in the theatre; the remainder would be sent to the United Kingdom to take part in the invasion of Western Europe.

The British position on the matter of North Africa was quite different. It was conditioned by British concern over the perceived perils of invading a European continent still indisputably under German mastery. One member of the British Chiefs of Staff, John Slessor, took the view that there was no hope of establishing a substantial force on the mainland, to say nothing of confronting and defeating the Wehrmacht, "until German resistance had been softened up from the air." The previous September, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the British Chief of Air Staff, had produced a memorandum in which he set forth his position on the future course to be followed by the Allies for the remainder of the war. There were three alternatives available, namely (a) to invade Western Europe precipitously, with as much force as could be mustered in a short period of time, sufficient to overcome the Wehrmacht; (b) to crush German resistance through the air, only after which would invasion be undertaken; or (c) a mixture of (a) and (b), in which both air and land forces would be amassed, without a specific invasion plan. Both Portal and Slessor favored the second approach, although they saw themselves and their allies pursuing the third. The second view became the official position of the British Joint Planners in October, 1942

The first of the military meetings associated with the Casablanca Conference convened on January 14, 1943 with Marshall urging a general agreement on the distribution of Allied effort between the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. Four days later the meetings continued, with "an apparently wide divergence of opinion on basic strategy." According to Slessor, "[T]he morning's discussion did not go at all well and at times became uncomfortably warm." The sensitive topic of the Allies' German policy generated all of the energy. After the lunch break, however, the parties were able to agree upon a memorandum, drafted by Slessor, which cleverly balanced the efforts of the Allies in the major theatres.

The British Chiefs prepared two lengthy memoranda in which they set out their own arguments for how the war should be prosecuted in 1943.[5] They suggested that two alternatives were available, namely (a) to concentrate on building up a force in the United Kingdom "of sufficient size to invade the Continent," or (b) to "devote our main effort towards undermining the foundations of German military power" while simultaneously building up forces in the United Kingdom for a "return to the Continent as soon as German powers of resistance have been sufficiently weakened." The first of these alternatives corresponded to the American plan, and the British Chiefs had no hesitancy in criticizing it in no uncertain terms:
. . . the adoption of this strategy would mean a relaxation of pressure on the Axis for 8 or 9 months with incalculable consequences to the Russian Front and at the end of the period no certainty that the assault on France could, in fact, be carried out. Or even if it were carried out, that it would draw out land forces from the Russian Front.
The British plan, then, contemplated the application of continuous pressure on the Axis by all available means. With reference to North Africa and the Mediterranean region, the British plan meant that every effort would be made to drive Italy out of the war, so as to stretch the Wehrmacht to its limits. In contrast to the American concept, which called for Allied consolidation in North Africa and its use as a base for air strikes against Italy and Germany, the British scheme required the seizure of Sicily or Sardinia in order to increase the pressure on Italy.

President Roosevelt and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had prepared for the Conference at a White House meeting on January 7, 1943.[6] In response to Roosevelt's suggestion that "we should meet the British united in advocating a cross-Channel operation," General Marshall made the revealing statement that "there was not a unified front on that subject, particularly among our Planners." Marshall went on to say that while the American Chiefs favored an invasion of Western Europe over any Mediterranean operation, "the question was still an open one." The Chiefs specifically discussed the alternative Mediterranean targets of Sicily and Sardinia. Interestingly, while Marshall rejected both choices in favor of an assault on the Brest Peninsula, both Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, and General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of U.S. Army Air Forces, indicated a preference for an attack on Sicily.

The ambivalence of Marshall and the other American Chiefs was openly displayed nine days later at a meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Marshall began the discussion aggressively, saying that the Combined Chiefs should "reorient" themselves "and decide what the 'main plot' is to be. Every diversion or side issue from the main plot acts as a 'suction pump.'"[7] Marshall urged that while an operation against Sicily looked advantageous because of the "excess number of troops in North Africa," the role of such an undertaking in the overall strategic plan should be determined before a final decision was made. Notwithstanding this expression of disdain for the Sicilian invasion by Marshall, and persistent questioning by the other American Chiefs regarding the availability of sufficient landing craft, by the end of the meeting the Combined Staff Planners had been directed to "reexamine the British plan for HUSKY . . . and to calculate the earliest date by which the Operation could be mounted " (emphasis added). Two days later, the Secretaries of the Combined Chiefs of Staff circulated a memorandum setting forth the Combined Chiefs' recommendations for the conduct of the war in 1943.[8] In this document, the occupation of Sicily is specifically called for, while provision is made for assembly in the United Kingdom of forces sufficient to re-enter Europe "as soon as German resistance is weakened to the required extent."

On January 22, 1943 the Combined Chiefs established the high echelon of command for the Sicilian campaign, identifying General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander, with British General Sir Harold Alexander as his Deputy Commander-in-Chief. Two additional British officers, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham and Air Chief Marshal Arthur W. Tedder, were named Naval and Air Commander respectively. The Combined Chiefs further instructed Eisenhower to set up a special operational and administrative staff, with its own Chief of Staff, for the planning and preparation of the invasion.[9]

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Copyright © 2003 Thomas E. Nutter

Written by Thomas E. Nutter. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Mr. Nutter at: tenutter@gmail.com.

About the author: Tom Nutter is in his 25th year of practicing domestic and international patent, copyright and trademark law, and is the Managing Partner of an intellectual property law practice in St. Louis, Missouri.  He holds the Masters and Doctorate degrees in diplomatic/military history from the University of Missouri.  His interests include railroad history as well as European and American military history in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  He lives in St. Louis with his wife, three children and two German Shepherd dogs, Caesar and Cleopatra.

Published online: 03/01/2003.
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