The destruction of Panzer Armee Afrika left the United Kingdom Eighth Army and the American Seventh Army without a mission. Even before the final surrender of Axis Forces in North Africa, there was much discussion of where the Allies should strike next. United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had quietly withstood Stalin’s blistering demands for a second front, pushed to delay an invasion of France by the end of 1943. The British believed the American war machine required more time to build up Allied forces to insure victory. Churchill recognized that with the majority of men and materiel coming from America, he had to give in to Eisenhower’s demand for an invasion before the end of the year. Churchill argued for an invasion of what he called the “soft underbelly” of Europe, either the Balkans or Greece. At the “Trident” Washington Conference in May 1943, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill agreed that an invasion of Italy could knock her out of the war. Besides boosting Allied morale, German control of the Balkans could be threatened.
The first target was the island of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Again Eisenhower was named supreme commander of the operation. United Kingdom Army General Bernard L. Montgomery commanded the Eighth Army and United States Army Lieutenant General George S. Patton commanded the Seventh Army. The Italians and the Germans had 405,000 men; 90,000 were German troops, armed with even some Tiger I heavy tanks.
The first use of American paratroopers, in conjunction with British airborne units, would precede United States landings at the Gulf of Gela and British landings at Syracuse. The Allied paratroopers were new units. The American 82nd Airborne Division was formed the year before, and the British had seen action in small-scale raids on the continent and in the Middle East to invade Iraq when the government there tried to join the Axis in 1941. These units were highly trained and motivated, but lacked combat experience.
In the drops on Sicily, the Americans were especially scattered, but both the Americans and the British caused great confusion among the Germans and accomplished their mission of covering the landings against counterattack. Misidentified en route to the target, the Americans were subjected to friendly fire. Inexperienced glider and transport pilots caused more men to be wounded and killed. Casualties among the airborne forces were very high, amounting to 27% of the Americans and 23% of the British. The airborne doctrine was called into question and changes were made before further operations would be undertaken.
The ground operations took 38 days to conquer Sicily. Patton advanced on Palermo, taking it on July 22. Montgomery, stopped by the Sicilian terrain as much as the German resistance, took Messina on August 17, too late to stop the Axis forces from evacuating 40,000 men, 10,000 vehicles including 44 tanks, and thousands of tons of ammunition and supplies under constant and heavy air attack.
The invasion of Sicily prompted the fall of Benito Mussolini government. On July 25 King Victor Emmanuel ousted Mussolini and named Marshal Pietro Bagdoglio as head of a new government. Bagdoglio immediately began negotiations with the Allies for the withdrawal of Italy from the war.
Sicily revealed many weaknesses of combined operations, but was a needed victory for the Allies. The hard fighting up the Italian ‘boot’ eclipsed the fervor over the fall of Mussolini. The rough terrain would cause the Italian front to stagnate.