Sicily has always been coveted by those hoping to dominate the Mediterranean basin and the 2nd World War was no exception. Indeed, Sicily was the first part of Europe to be reclaimed by the Allied forces.
After driving the German and Italian forces out of North Africa, the British commanders saw Sicily as the next natural step. The Americans preferred a direct attack on Germany through France but agreed that an advance on Sicily might help Russia by forcing Germany to redeploy its forces. At the same time, Sicily would be a significant strategic base for any future invasion of Italy (though this was not foreseen in the immediate future). The invasion of Sicily would also serve as a kind of training exercise for the future D-Day invasion in Normandy.
On the night of 9th July 1943 Operation Husky got underway. The Americans landed on the beaches of the Gulf of Gela, while the British and Canadian forces landed at the south-eastern tip of Sicily, around Pachino, and in the Gulf of Noto.
High winds made landings extremely difficult especially for the paratroop regiments who were dropped in to create a little confusion before the amphibian invasion. British, Commonwealth and Canadian troops moved north-west across the Iblei mountains, and north where they captured Siracusa with very little difficulty.
The Americans, meanwhile, came up against greater resistance as they were met by one of the two German battalions on the island. After securing their beachheads, however, they headed westward towards Agrigento and then across the centre to Palermo.
There was some confusion after the successful landing as to who would be doing what. Plans had been laid for the initial attack, but beyond that the rest of the campaign was somewhat improvised. The ground forces commander, General Sir Harold Alexander, and the commander of the American forces, General Patton, seemed to distrust each other and the latter began to disobey the former, eager to demonstrate the superiority of the American army.
The Americans preferred a direct attack on Germany through France but agreed that an advance on Sicily might help Russia by forcing Germany to redeploy its forces.
Patton marched his men to Palermo despite being instructed to head further west. Sicily’s capital fell easily, however, and almost immediately the stunning news that Mussolini and his government had been overthrown. With Italian forces in disarray both armies marched on Messina. For Patton, arriving there first was a matter of personal and national pride, as we can see from a letter he wrote to General Middleton: "this is a horse race in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake........we must take Messina before the British. Please use your best efforts to facilitate the success of our race."
The British and Canadians faced the difficult task of getting around Catania and Mount Etna where the last remaining German forces had dug in deep. Patton duly won his race, arriving in Messina on 17th August, some 38 days after the start of the invasion. By this time, however, over 100,000 German and Italian troops, and a great amount of military equipment had been successfully transferred to the mainland, a fact that meant the fight up the Italian peninsula would be considerably more difficult than hoped for.
2,721 British Commonwealth troops, 2,237 Americans and 562 Canadians died taking Sicily in what as the largest amphibian operation of the entire war. Many of the dead were buried in War Cemeteries in Syracuse and Agira. Some 29,000 Axis soldiers also lost their lives.
Once Sicily was under Allied control, the decision was taken to continue the invasion up through the Italian mainland in what would be a long, bloody struggle.
Much has been written about the Mafia’s involvement in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Folkloristic tales of Lucky Luciano being parachuted in to smooth the Americans’ path are certainly exaggerated, but it would seem that the Mafia, glad to be rid of their Fascist oppressors, were far from resistant to the US forces. Fascinating accounts of the mutual back-scratching between the Americans and the Dons can be read in Matt Dickie’s “Cosa Nostra” and Norman Lewis’ "The Honoured Society".