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The Sicilian Campaign - 1943

"Many of you have in your veins German and Italian blood. But remember that those ancestors of yours so loved freedom that they gave up home and country to cross the ocean in search of liberty. The ancestors of the people we shall kill lacked the courage to make such a sacrifice, and remained slaves."

"There are four hundred neatly marked graves somewhere in Sicily. All because one man went to sleep on the job. But they are German graves, because we caught the bastard asleep before they did."

- General George S. Patton

US Army military ribbon for the Sicily Campaign.

Prelude to War
Wars Before The War
Out of Africa
Into Sicily
The Generals
The Landings
The Push Inland
Americans Go West
Events in Rome
The Plain of Catania
Battle of Palermo
The Race to Messina
Death in Victory
Mafia Support
Allied Perceptions of Sicily
Further Reading
At left: U.S. Army Sicily Campaign ribbon

Prelude to War

Nobody ever commended George Patton for his tact, but he was one of the best "motivational speakers" of his day. The hapless Axis soldiers who found themselves in Sicily in the hot Summer of 1943 had only a vague idea of what awaited them, and it was far worse than what anybody - even Patton - could put into words.

Ill-advised and disastrous it may have been, but Italy's entry into the Second World War was no accident, nor did it reflect exclusively Fascist policies, though these were certainly involved. It was prompted by an expansionist foreign policy rooted in earlier nationalist aspirations to establish an "Italian Empire" at the turn of the century, thus (it was hoped) aiding the economy and making Italy a "great power" on a par with Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain. Italy had seized some east African territories beginning in the 1880s only to be checked by Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 - a landmark defeat for a European colonial power. In 1911, the Italians occupied Libya, formerly part of the fading Ottoman Empire, following unexpectedly heavy fighting against a ferocious enemy. The Italian occupiers subsequently undertook a civilian massacre. This action shocked even powers such as Great Britain and France, whose own colonial exploits often led to high civilian casualties. There's no escaping the fact that as colonialists the Italians were inept, and no great power took the "new" nation (united only in the 1860s) seriously, either militarily or politically. The First World War and its immediate aftermath led to acquisition of new territories in what is now northeastern Italy, but to this day the Germanic Tiroleans of "Trentino-Alto Adige" and the Slovenians of Trieste hardly consider themselves "Italians."

The Sicilians were -and are- ethnically more Italic than these peoples, but in the 1860s Sicilian revolts against the new "unitary" regime of the House of Savoy were ruthlessly suppressed, with thousands of Piedmontese carabinieri troops stationed in Palermo, Catania and Messina for over a decade. Initially, the Sicilian secessionist Fascist building in Palermo.movement sought restoration of the exiled House of Bourbon of Naples (ousted in 1860). Decades later, with the increasing poverty of a region which (until the 1870s) had been more prosperous than most northern regions (now industrialized), the more radical Sicilian separatists desired full independence. This may seem arcane, but it partly explains the reluctance of many Sicilians to defend their "Italian" island when war came to their shores in 1943, and does much to define the kind of "liberation" that took place in Sicily, from "Italian" forces, as opposed to the liberation of peninsular regions which (after September 1943) were controlled primarily by German forces, augmented by the die-hard Fascists of Mussolini's short-lived Nazi puppet state, the Italian Social Republic ("Salò"). In reality, Sicily was one of the least Fascist, and least nationalist, regions of the Kingdom of Italy.

There was another subtle force at work. In view of widespread poverty, thousands of Sicilians emigrated in search of better lives abroad between 1890 and 1930. In the less populated northern regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, which by 1900 were at least marginally wealthier than Sicily, there was less emigration. This meant that many Sicilians, having close relatives in the United States (some of whom sent money to their families in Sicily), did not readily accept the Fascist propaganda that painted the Americans as barbaric animals. Fascism itself offered the Italians a mixed bag of realities, both good and bad, and it was less successful in the South than elsewhere.

Despite a few pragmatic and beneficial social programs (public housing projects, old-age and widows' pensions come to mind) initially praised by the British and Americans alike, Fascism rapidly evolved from a vaguely socialist, populist --if authoritarian-- movement in 1922 to a full-fledged dictatorship by 1928. Though not intrinsically monarchist, Fascism propped up the existing order of social classes through a nationalist philosophy embraced by many as a reaction against Communism, perceived as a worse evil. Protectionist policies shielding much of the economy from international influences created a certain false prosperity but illiteracy and poverty, while alleviated somewhat by an improved public education system, remained high. Italian society, despite a slightly improved industrial base, was still essentially agrarian, with more than sixty percent of the population involved in agricultural-related fields or minor trades.

Before long, Fascism evolved into a totalitarian system complete with its political exiles abroad (Umberto Nobile, Arturo Toscanini, Emilio Segré, Enrico Fermi, Sandro Pertini, Luigi Sturzo and thousands of others). In retrospect, however, the police state of the 1930s, with its repression and censorship, was generally acceptable to many Italians because, to the ordinary citizen, it was not much different from the state that existed twenty years earlier, particularly in Sicily. The intellectual and creative classes suffered most and, tragically, these represented a tiny minority in a nation of what seemed to consist primarily of semi-literate "peasants" and drones. Even before Fascism, the Kingdom of Italy, with its shadowy democracy and theoretical constitutional liberties, could not be said to have been a free or democratic state --or even a very prosperous one. Under Fascism, it remained a backward nation where (to cite a few examples) senators were appointees, women could not vote, the study of foreign languages was prohibited in public schools, public policy and even elections were rigged, severe nutritional diseases and malaria raged and millions still sought to emigrate for lack of opportunity. In its cultic cronyism, curbing of free expression and cruel treatment of human rights, the observable effects of Fascism (and the Nazism inspired by it) were not much different from those of Soviet-style communism. At the outbreak of war, the most obvious difference, at least to those in Allied nations, was that the Russians were on the Anglo-American side while the Italians were not.

Until Italy's declaration of war against the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a number of pro-Fascist organizations thrived in cities such as New York, where Mayor La Guardia had spoken against them. Fascist activity of this kind ceased following the declaration of war, and indeed a number of Italian citizens active in such associations in the United States were arrested, to be interned for the duration of the war. In the United Kingdom, most adult Italian male citizens were arrested and imprisoned when Italy declared war against that nation.

Wars Before The War

The mid-1930's were not Fascism's best moment. At home, the anti-Semitic laws did little to help the nation's prestige. Abroad, Fascism's expansionist policy leading to the bloody invasion of Ethiopia made Italy an international pariah, resulting in economically ineffective --but politically devastating-- sanctions by the League of Nations. Italy declared war on the "Allies" in June 1940, though this did not yet include the United States. The British were already engaged in military actions against the Italians (leading to their defeat of Italian forces in Ethiopia) before the entry of the United States into the Second World War in December 1941. Fascist Spain, a close ally of Italy, was wise to stay out of the war while Italy, in the spirit of her Pact of Steel with Nazi Germany, couldn't resist the chance to gain additional territory. With her African aspirations dashed, she looked to the Balkans. The fact that Italy, whose military troops in 1941 outnumbered those of the United States, was unprepared for a full-scale war against a competent and motivated power such as the United States or Great Britain, was lost on the country's fanatical leadership. Benito Mussolini and his closest supporters actually believed, partly due to the implications of Germany's early military successes, that the war would be a brief one lasting perhaps a few months. By then, new territory could have been acquired across the Adriatic.

Italy's invasion of Greece (October 1940) was a disaster to rival that of the Ethiopian debacle to follow a few months later. The targeted slaughter of Greek civilians failed to suppress a formidable resistance, and Hitler had to send in troops to prop up the incompetent Italians. It was difficult to deny that Italian forces rarely met with success in anything even remotely resembling a campaign against a well-matched adversary, or even partisans, even when (as in Ethiopia against the British) they vastly outnumbered the enemy. Italian commanders were becoming infamous for blaming severe field losses on the troops they commanded!

Out of Africa

British victories against the Italians in Ethiopia (January-May 1941), and against joint Italian-German forces in El-Alamein, Egypt (August-October 1942), were discouraging to the Italian military leadership. With the Germans' simultaneous defeat at Stalingrad, El-Alamein marked a turning point in the war as the major Axis advances were halted, even without direct American intervention. The Italian escapade in Russia was also a disaster, and one long-remembered; the Soviet Union freed its last Italian and German prisoners only in 1955. But Ethiopia and Russia were far away. For many Italians, the British bombing of the Italian Ionian port of Taranto (which had provided the Japanese with a tangible idea of how to attack Pearl Harbor) was the first sign of Fascism's weak military link, making it obvious that Italy itself could be attacked to devastating effect. The myth of Italian military invincibility, if ever it was taken very seriously, was easier to sell to Italians when their cities were not being bombed.

In November 1942, the Americans joined the British in the North African campaign, landing in Algeria and Morocco. Between February and May 1943, the American forces under Dwight Eisenhower and the colorful George Patton, collaborating with British forces under Harold Alexander and Bernard Montgomery, pushed Italian and German forces to Tunisia's Kassarine Pass, where a hundred thirty thousand (130,000) Italians, and an equal number of Germans, were taken prisoner following extensive fighting. The brilliant Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox" (but never a convinced Nazi), reached Germany, his tank and infantry corps destroyed. In the bargain, Italy lost Libya, a territory it forcibly acquired from the remains of the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The Axis had invaded --and lost-- Africa; now it was time for the Allies to invade Europe.

Into Sicily

With the Axis defeat in North Africa foreseen, the invasion of Sicily was decided upon by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Strategy of the Italian Campaign was never very well defined (it was conceived partly to draw German forces away from Russia and France), and the invasion of Sicily was always secondary to the invasion planned to take place at Normandy a year later. Now overshadowed by the Normandy Invasion, the Sicilian operation was the largest amphibious invasion in history until D-Day (6 June 1944), and in its first day included more divisions and a larger landing area than the D-Day operation's first day. The Sicilian operation was to be called "Operation Husky."

Even before the invasion, the Sicilian Campaign had some interesting aspects. Hitler and Mussolini knew an attack to be imminent, but where? To deceive the Germans and Italians about the real location of the Allies' Mediterranean invasion of southern Europe, British Naval Intelligence devised "Operation Mincemeat" (described in the book "The Man Who Never Was"). Overwhelmingly successful, this startlingly simple plan convinced Axis intelligence that the Allies would initially attack elsewhere but not in Italy. The covert operation planted a body disguised as a British military officer with "secret" papers. Inspecting the fictional "Operation Brimstone" documents outlining an attack in Greece, the Balkans and possibly Sardinia, the Germans fell for the ploy (on 12 May Hitler ordered improved defensive measures for both Greece and Sardinia), though they never actually ruled out the possibility of an eventual attack on Sicily. The mastermind behind this plan was Ewen Montagu, working with a young intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, later distinguished as author of the James Bond novels.

Military action began with the intensified bombing of Sicilian cities by the United States Army Air Corps early in May 1943, Death in Palermo.coinciding with the attack of targets in the occupied Balkans to mislead the Axis about the true location of the planned invasion. (The British had undertaken isolated bombing raids over Sicily since late 1942.) Officially, the "carpet bombing" of cities such as Palermo and Messina (so-called because it was to "lay the carpet" for Allied landings), like subsequent bombings in mainland Italy, was intended to destroy port facilities, anti-aircraft batteries, air fields, military bases, railway stations and certain factories. Unofficially, it was meant to frighten the Italians, both military and civilian, discouraging resistance against Allied troops when the actual invasion came. In that sense it was not very different from the bombings in Germany and Japan, though in the case of Italy civilian objectives were rarely targeted deliberately, and it was always presumed that any resistance against the Allies, either military or civilian, would be minimal. Civilian casualties were presumed, and imprecise bombings from high altitudes destroyed churches and even schools. They also served to impose upon the Italians, as well as the Germans stationed in Sicily, the resolve and military might of the Allies.

The Axis had conducted extensive bombing raids over Malta. Now, in late May, the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria (located south of Sicily), with their radar stations and large military garrisons, were targeted by the Allies. The massive bombing was lethally effective. The islands were easily sealed off, their supplies of food and drinking water somewhat restricted. In one of the war's most astounding chapters, thousands of Italians were to surrender the islands, without a shot being fired, on 11 and 12 June, a month before the main Allied invasion force landed at Sicily. In a sense, this echoed the mass surrender of Italian troops to Ethiopian and British forces two years earlier. On Pantelleria, Admiral Gino Pavesi surrendered some 11,000 troops; Lampedusa's garrison was about 6,000. A few Germans were also present.

The Generals and Their Troops

Dwight Eisenhower was supreme Allied commander for the operation, but General Alexander was to be in charge of the land invasion, supported by Patton commanding the US Seventh Army (of about 200,000 men), with assistance from the likes of the distinguished Omar Bradley, and Montgomery commanding the British Eighth Army of over 100,000 troops, including a young Philip Mountbatten, who lived to marry the future Queen of England. With the Americans were some French Moroccan units, while the British forces included Commonwealth units, Canadians prominent among them. Both George Patton and Bernard Montgomery had strong characters, each was profoundly respected by the troops under his command, and the antipathy between the two intrepid "prima donnas" was becoming well known.

On the Axis side, General Alfredo Guzzoni was supreme Axis commander in Sicily, though in practice the German disdain for Italian generals extended to him as well as other Italian officers. Guzzoni was actually one of Italy's more competent generals, having seen action in France and Africa, but not particularly gifted as a strategist. Personally, he commanded the Italian Sixth Army and related units --a total of nearly 300,000 men. Hans Hube commanded some 30,000 German troops in tank and infantry units. Italian carabinieri units, military forces normally charged with law-enforcement duties, were also placed under Guzzoni's command.

Much was at stake, and the battles of Sicily made up in tactics and execution what they lacked in strategy and vision. The Sicilian Campaign was nothing if not interesting. The rivalry between two great Allied generals, set against a European backdrop in the torrid days of a Mediterranean Summer, has become legendary. Sicily marked the most significant fighting in military history between exclusively American and Italian units, prompting the dismissal of a ruthless dictator. New kinds of equipment were used, and new kinds of alliances --such as the behind-the-scenes participation of the Mafia.

The Italians' tactics in Ethiopia and elsewhere were characterized by every form of disingenuous treachery and cruel atrocity, from the use of poison gas to the use of Nazi-style reprisals against civilians. Now, in Sicily, Guzzoni found himself commanding the true face of Italy's military --a demoralized, poorly-armed force consisting primarily of poorly-trained, poorly-educated farm boys led by unmotivated officers (who one author characterized as "playboys" more interested in wine, women and song than patriotic service) facing a worthy adversary of nearly equal numerical strength and far superior firepower. These were hardly unprepared Ethiopians, Greeks, Albanians or Serbs, but highly motivated, well-equipped troops led by competent generals intent on making Sicily an example for both Mussolini and Hitler, and despite propaganda to the contrary the Italians could not readily deny the significance of a foreign power bombing and then invading Italy. By the Summer of 1943, the Italians had been defeated almost everywhere; only in certain Balkan regions and a tiny part of southeastern France did they still occupy any foreign territory, and this was soon to change. The false Italian nationalism imposed by Fascism was already crumbling long before the Allies touched Sicilian shores.

A team of Americans of Sicilian ancestry acted as interpreters. It has been suggested that the Americans, whose army included many Italian descendants (the largest single "ethnic" group among American draftees), generally were more kindly disposed to the Italians than to the Germans, but there is little evidence to support this theory. "Why We Fight," a U.S. Army film produced by Frank Capra, himself an immigrant (he was born in Palermo), paints Mussolini's Italy with the same brush used to depict Hitler's Germany. It is human nature to hold some affinity for one's own kin, but few of the U.S. Army's Italo-Americans had ever met their Italian cousins or set foot in Italy. When they did, most were appalled at the abject poverty and squalor they encountered in Italian towns and cities --some thirty years after many of their parents or grandparents had emigrated-- and astounded that any nation which had threatened weaker ones with such arrogance might fall so easily in the face of American resolve.

The Landings

The plan called for British troops to land in the southeastern region near Syracuse (Siracusa), with American forces controlling a landing zone westward in the Gulf of Gela. On the Landings and initial action.night of 9-10 July, almost half a million Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen, with an armada of 2590 vessels, began the assault on Sicily, using various transport ships and even gliders. By morning, the Axis command near Palermo knew of the landings. Pantelleria and Lampedusa had fallen, and reconnaissance flights had spotted part of the invasion force the day before. The Italians and Germans raced to the landing area. (As it was beyond the range of Allied aircraft, Messina was not initially a bombing objective, but the Gerbini airfields on the Plain of Catania were targeted early in the campaign, to be captured or --if necessary-- destroyed.)

By daybreak, fighting had begun. Apart from the coastal areas, Gela and Licata were the first populated localities to see it, though inland Comiso was soon secured. It had been predicted that German forces would fight fiercely, and this was the case. Montgomery's prediction that the Italians would be tenacious now that they were defending home territory proved true only in isolated circumstances, particularly when they were fighting closely alongside the Germans. They offered little resistance the first sunny day of the attacks, and by the end of the day Syracuse, Ragusa and Noto were under British control, while the Americans grappled with a strong German tank advance. German aircraft also posed a threat. Still, a beachhead had been established; it was about four miles deep and extended along some fifty miles of coastline.

The Allied success could be found in the numbers. By the end of the first day of fighting, the Seventh Army had taken 4,000 enemy prisoners while suffering 58 of its own men killed, 199 wounded and 700 missing (some were captured by the Germans during a strong tank and infantry advance). On the second day, fighting was particularly fierce, with the German tank divisions advancing into the American lines. They were repulsed.

The Push Inland

Within three days of the initial landings (13 July), the push inland had begun and Niscemi had been captured by the Americans while the British took Vizzini. But here the campaign began to take an unexpected turn. As the Americans steadily pushed northward and westward against both German and Italian forces, the British were now encountering German ones in the hills leading to the Plain of Catania with its airfields. In response, Montgomery requested that Alexander authorize British units to move westward in an effort to encircle the Germans, into the zone designated for the Americans. Alexander approved the move, removing the city of Enna from the American zone.

It was always presumed that the American Seventh Army would play a supporting role to that of the British Eighth, which was more experienced in African combat against the Germans. What annoyed Patton was Montgomery's opinion that his seasoned troops were superior to the Americans, and Alexander's decision to extend the British zone westward only seemed to confirm this belief. The Allies' objective was Messina, where the Axis were to be stopped before they could retreat across the Strait of Messina into Calabria. Unfortunately, Alexander's orders provoked controversy because they effectively required the Americans to wait for the British to reach the road leading northward to Enna, giving the Axis time to reinforce their position by establishing a defensive line in a favorable position. The underlying problem in all this chaos was that Alexander's strategy was never clearly defined, thus leaving open the possibility of the Sicilian campaign becoming a vaguely-planned series of battles left to "micro-managers" surrounded by mountainous terrain.

Americans Go West

This encouraged the Americans to seek their glory in western Sicily. Patton (supported by his generals) solicited Alexander's permission to conduct reconnaissance in the Agrigento area, just beyond the current front line. With Agrigento taken on 15 July, he requested authorization to proceed westward. Alexander agreed, but soon sent revised orders for Patton to move northward to cover Pillbox bunker near Palermo.Montgomery's flank. Patton's staff later claimed that these were "garbled."

The impromptu change of plans facilitated a rapid advance through western Sicilian territory largely abandoned by the Germans and left to Italians. (Hube and Guzzoni themselves were in eastern Sicily.)

Even today, the concept of "eastern versus western" Sicily has strange implications for Sicilians. Two small but historical cities little known outside Sicily straddle a socio-political "divide" in the island's rugged interior. Mountaintop Enna is considered "eastern" while Caltanissetta, just twenty miles to the west, is part of "western" Sicily. (People residing in Enna gravitate toward Catania, while those in Caltanissetta often work or study in Palermo.) While the British moved toward Enna, the American 45th Infantry took Caltanissetta on 18 July. Some brief but intense fighting at the Fonduto Pass was the most notable action against Italian troops in this region of west-central Sicily.

Other American units sped northward in a "cavalry charge" toward the Madonie Mountains and westward toward Marsala, meeting with little serious resistance. By this time, most of the German units in western Sicily had already moved along the northern coast toward Messina. A sociological point overlooked by many historians is that Allied action in western Sicily brought two predominantly Roman Catholic armies --Italian and American-- into direct engagement, a rare event in the Second World War.

The Americans' advance was to see some bizarre developments. In at least two incidents, overzealous Americans mowed down groups of (unarmed) German prisoners with machine gun fire. Advancing inland with his troops, Patton encountered some Americans helping an Italian farmer push a stubborn mule off a narrow road. Annoyed, the general got out of his jeep, drew one of his revolvers and shot the animal, remarking that his Army would not be delayed by an ass! But perhaps the most unusual incident involved a unit sent with special orders to Villalba, a town of no strategic importance in the province of Caltanissetta. Their orders were to contact a rustic Mafioso, Calogero Vizzini, for information which would make it easier (with the help of "anti-Fascist" criminals) to govern Sicily in the months to come.

As the Allies advanced, identifying (if not always arresting) the various mayors and local Fascist podestàs ("commissars"), members of the Fascist party hid or sought to conceal their identities. Many burned their party membership cards.

Events in Rome

On the morning of 19 July Rome was bombed for the first time in its history. Railroad yards were targeted but some bombs hit civilian areas, killing 717 people and wounding many more. On the 25th, King Vittorio Emanuele III had Benito Mussolini removed from office and placed under protective arrest. Almost overnight, the bombing of the capital and the removal of the dictator, coupled with news of an impending and humiliating defeat in Sicily, drove many common Italians to isolate, harass --or even kill-- a number of locally prominent Fascists. In Sicily, effects of this sudden revolt were less than those in other parts of the country. Sicilian Fascist party offices in various localities were sacked, but in truth these were already largely abandoned during the first days of the invasion.

The Plain of Catania

Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army found itself bogged down in protracted and bloody battles on the Plain of Catania and in the Nebrodi Mountains northwest of Mount Etna. Deprived of American support, they suffered heavy losses, and it was probably then that Montgomery, who was always highly sensitive to the matter of battlefield casualties, began to resent Patton's bravado. (The poorly coordinated Anglo-American efforts at the Kassarine Pass had not helped matters.) The drive to Messina was taking longer than what had been envisaged, and only on 23 July did the Eighth Army near Catania.

"Battle" of Palermo

By 21 July, the Americans were nearing Corleone and Termini Imerese. There wasn't much fighting around Palermo. In some cases, Italian commanding officers in areas such as the Madonie Mountains east of the city actually ordered their subordinates not to fire on the Americans. A day later, Patton would arrive in Palermo.

The last German soldier, holding out in a small pillbox bunker outside the hilltop town of Altofonte (formerly "Parco"), was handily disposed of and the American "cavalry charge" to Palermo began in earnest from high ground around Altofonte and Monreale. The orders of the day were explicit: Occupy the city, and along the way commandeer the army andAmericans arrive in Palermo. carabinieri bases to the south of the old city, destroying any resistance. Second, find and arrest the Fascist podestà, the prefect and the mayor, wherever they might be hiding, and seize their headquarters, again destroying any resistance. Third, commandeer the jails and the main prison (Ucciardone), freeing certain political prisoners, particularly several high-ranking Mafiosi whose collaboration was promised by their associates to ensure smooth administration. Last, but hardly least, in fulfilling a personal promise made by President Roosevelt to King George, free the "Anglo-Italian" families at Palermo, the Whitakers prominent among them, at all costs and wherever in the city they were, and liberate the Anglican pastor and his church (confiscated under a Fascist law prohibiting British ownership of property). It happened that no British were actually imprisoned and the church was in good condition except for a few windows destroyed during a bomb blast. The Whitakers offered the Americans the use of their palatial residences.

Palermo is considered by historians to be the world's most conquered city, occupied by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese and others, but nowhere else in the Second World War was any city conquered so quickly and easily, without even token resistance. The Palermitans rejoiced en masse, welcoming the American jeeps and trucks along the rubble of their narrow old streets. In the Anglican church, now restored to its proper owners, a memorial mass was celebrated for fallen Americans, attended by General Patton and other officers.

The rapport with the Catholic Church in Italy was more complicated, despite covert American relations with the Vatican. Palermo, of course, was full of churches, and only two were not Catholic (the other one was the Waldensian church). The American ranks were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but so were those of the Italian Army --whose military chaplains had rarely officially spoken against atrocities witnessed in Africa and the Balkans. (An infamous incident occurred in occupied Yugoslavia, where the massacre of Orthodox Christians took place in a concentration camp with the knowledge --and possible collaboration-- of Franciscans, notably Father Miroslav Filipovic, who supported the establishment of a "Kingdom of Croatia" as an Italian-Fascist puppet state.) Despite a weakly-worded encyclical criticising certain Fascist policies, the Vatican had never taken a strong official position against Mussolini's government, with which it had signed the Lateran Treaties in 1929. Even in Sicily, high-ranking clergy sometimes took questionable positions; before the invasion a Sicilian bishop had actually preached against the Americans, though the opportunistic Archbishop Lavitrano of Palermo (whose closeness to Fascism and the House of Savoy did not go unnoticed) was almost as cordial with Patton as he had been with the Fascists. All of this left the moral situation of many ordinary Italians ambiguous; their nation's position was weak but so, it seemed, was their Church's. Later, in the partisans' northern Italian war, such sentiments would fuel the fires of Communism and anti-clericalism. (Overzealous Italian partisans killed a number of priests for alleged collaboration with Fascism.) In September, when an aged monarch changed sides, Italy's ambivalent position became truly ridiculous. For now, it seemed slightly bizarre that both the American chaplains and the Italian ones had believed in the concept of a "just war." Against each other! Could both sides be right? Yes, war was Hell.

A further irony was that many of the people welcoming the Americans as liberators had close male kin who had fought against them in Africa, many never to return. This was not the only affront to Sicilian dignity (such as it was). The wholesale prostitution of Palermitan women to American soldiers was shocking, particularly considering that most of the young women in question had never formally prostituted themselves before, if indeed many had ever been intimately involved with any man. Even where actual prostitution was not an issue, Sicilian men rushed to betroth their daughters to Italo-Americans. Almost immediately, the occupation government had to contend with acute food shortages (further afield the Americans provided drugs to cure malaria) and a generally unruly populace.

Once order was established, Colonel Charles Poletti, in peacetime a lieutenant governor and (for one month) governor of New York state fluent in Italian (also conversant in Sicilian and Neapolitan), was appointed assistant administrator of Sicily by the "Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory" (AMGOT) and at his office in Palermo soon found himself dealing with everybody from aristocrats to Mafiosi to separatists. Technically, the chief allied administrator was an Englishman, Lord Rennel of Rood. The eccentric Scotsman Robert Gayre was responsible for reorganizing the public education system in occupied Italy, eventually purging it of Fascism but not all Fascists (who in any event "re-created" themselves in their former careers after 1945), arresting and detaining certain Fascist professors and teachers --at least for a few weeks-- and attempting to destroy Fascist-oriented school text books. In his memoirs, Gayre observed that the Americans' attitude toward the Fascists was more adamant and less tolerant than his own, and that he (like Churchill) supported preservation of the Italian monarchy while the Americans desired a republic. The situation in Palermo was eclectic, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the British were fighting the Germans, and Guzzoni's few remaining Italians, on the Plain of Catania, only gradually pushing them northward toward the Peloritan Mountains and Messina. The Axis command had recently foreseen the fall of Palermo, and the main body of German troops had already left the city days before the Americans arrived, in their wake destroying several buildings they had occupied and randomly shooting a number of civilians on the streets. Still, a defeat of such magnitude was a major blow for the higher-ranking officers of the Italian military, even following severe defeats elsewhere.

The Race to Messina

George Patton had little time to enjoy this victory. On 23 July, Alexander ordered him to proceed eastward to Messina. When the American learned that both Alexander and Montgomery had maligned the American Seventh Army, he decided to reach Messina before the British, and in so doing prove his troops' superiority or at least competence. This was easier said than done. By now, most of Guzzoni's troops had melted away, so General Hube was actually in charge. The Germans had established an "Etna Line" beginning from an area north of Catania, encircling the volcano and then extending northward across the Nebrodi Mountains to the sea.

Though a coastal approach was attempted, it was also necessary to cut right across the mountains to the Axis line, and on 31 July, at Troina, where the last battles were fought between Normans and Saracens in the eleventh century, the Americans, led by General Omar Bradley, ran up against the Germans, and a few Italians, head-on. Set on high ground amid rugged terrain, Troina seemed impenetrable, and the torrid Summer heat only made matters worse. This was to become the most difficult battle of the Sicilian Campaign, lasting a week until the Germans retreated on 6 August. German mining made a pursuit to Messina difficult.

Hube was able to delay the Americans long enough to begin evacuating Sicily, transporting troops and equipment across the Strait of Messina. This was precisely what the Allies had hoped to avoid. Around Mount Etna, the British Eighth Army was pushing Axis troops northward, and in the Peloritan Mountains overlooking the Ionian coast progress was difficult but steady. By 15 August, the Americans had reached Milazzo, and the British had moved beyond Etna. Bombings in the northeastern region of Sicily, including Messina, did not make their job much easier.

On 17 August, the Germans and Italians evacuated their last fighting forces across the straits -- some 100,000 men and as many as 10,000 vehicles. Guzzoni's actions don't seem to have reflected any great concern for the troops left behind. The Americans arrived a few hours later, followed by the British.

Patton had won his race, but the campaign could have been managed much better than it was. Initial landings at Messina might have facilitated the capture of the Axis rather than their efficient escape. This shortcoming partly reflected the Allies' initial intention to invade Sicily but not peninsular Italy, though in the end the rest of Italy was invaded anyway. In retrospect, one may conclude that while strategy of the Sicilian campaign was less than far-sighted, the battles constituted a tactical success. Ideally, all might have been concluded more speedily.

Death in Victory

A precise account of the number of civilians killed in Sicily is difficult to calculate. It is certainly far less than was previously believed (i.e. over eight thousand), but the toll was still high. Among military personnel, the figures were hardly balanced. Around 29,000 Axis soldiers were killed or wounded, with around 140,000 Axis troops captured. Most were Italians sent to the United States, where thousands applied for citizenship following the war. The Americans suffered 2,237 killed and 6,544 captured or wounded. The British lost 2,721, with 10,122 wounded or captured.

Mafia Support

The involvement of organized crime remains one of the more enigmatic aspects of the Sicilian campaign, and much nonsense has been published about it. In exchange for deportation to Italy in lieu of serving a prison sentence in the United States, the American (but Italian-born) gangster "Lucky" Luciano aided the war effort by encouraging the members of the Mafia-influenced labor unions working American ports around New York to cooperate in identifying possible sources of espionage. This followed the destruction of the SS Normandie, possibly due to German sabotage. (The ship would have been useful in troop transport, as it could outrun any German submarine.) In Sicily, Mafiosi acting on the advice of American contacts cooperated with American forces after the landings, but their efforts did little to aid the invasion itself. Indeed, that was unnecessary; the poor condition and morale of Italian troops had been proven in Africa and elsewhere, and Allied armies needed no internal coercion to encourage such troops to surrender. Moreover, Allied intelligence was already efficient, and aerial bombardments had softened many targets while demoralizing the population. None of this was owed to the Mafia, many exponents of which were in prison --where they perhaps should have remained. Calogero Vizzini and others provided additional intelligence and identified friendly parties (Mafiosi) imprisoned in Sicily as opponents to the Fascist regime. (It was easy for the Mafiosi to pose as anti-Fascists.) These individuals were promptly released. A number of key Mafiosi assisted the Allies in administration during the occupation and several were appointed to replace Fascist mayors of Sicilian towns. This paints a complex picture of collaboration, but nothing like the colorful escapades described by some authors.

Allied Perceptions of Sicilians

Booklet distributed to Allied troops.What might be described as foreigners' "anthropological" view of Sicilians was not very flattering and in some cases it was nothing less than bizarre even when it contained a few grains of truth. A 20-page booklet distributed to several hundred thousand Allied soldiers reflected what were then prevailing perceptions about Sicilians, their living conditions, values and "morals" (sexual behavior). Edited in Britain with an introduction by General Dwight Eisenhower, the Soldier's Guide to Sicily was intended as a guide to the local history and culture, with a section translating useful phrases. A handful of negative stereotypes - or at least overstated generalities - made their way into its otherwise accurate and informative pages, but so did some remarkable historical insights. Among the less favorable observations:
• Page 2: "Today 40 percent of the people are still illiterate, compared with 20 percent on the mainland... Two houses out of three are without drinking water laid on, and only about one-half have sanitation."
• Page 6: "Morals are superficially very rigid, being based on the Catholic religion and Spanish etiquette of Bourbon times; they are, in fact, of a very low standard, particularly in the agricultural areas."
• Page 6: "The Sicilian is still, however, well known for his extreme jealousy in so far as his womenfolk are concerned, and in a crisis still resorts to the dagger."
• Page 7: "An American report maintains that 'gangsterism' in the USA had its origin in Sicilian immigration."
• Page 12: "The native, living as he does in primitive conditions, has become immune from many diseases which British soldiers are likely to contract."
• Page 12: "The insanitary condition of the island is one of its best defences against an invader, and casualties from disease could well be higher than those caused in the field."
• Page 13: "Venereal disease thrives on the island...contact with the civilian population may bring other diseases such as those mentioned above."


On 8 September 1943 Italy changed sides, though the British and Americans never regarded (or treated) the Kingdom of Italy as an Allied nation on the same level as France or Russia. Internally, the war destroyed whatever was left of Italian nationalism, rendering the position of Italy and Italians ambiguous at best. Was Italy essentially Fascist, or was she to be viewed as a "new" nation created by partisans fighting in regions north of Rome? War memorials commemorate both the Fascist troops fighting before 8 September and the "Allied" Italians (such as partisans) fighting against German and Fascist Italian forces (of Mussolini's short-lived "Republic of Salò"). By 1945, Sicily was a "semi-autonomous" political region, an act undertaken by King Umberto II (then heir apparent acting as the "viceroy" of King Vittorio Emanuele III) on an Allied "suggestion." The Italian Republic was born by popular referendum in June 1946, Umberto was exiled, and the work of reconstruction began --hampered a bit by widespread corruption resulting, at least in part, from the involvement of Mafia-oriented politicians whose power was owed to the Allied appointments of 1943 and 1944. In February 1944 Sicilian administration was officially ceded to the Kingdom of Italy headed by Prime Minister Piero Badoglio, though Allied troops remained present.

Corruption was not the only problem. Cowardice was everywhere. Longtime members of the Fascist party now denied their involvement. Some destroyed their membership cards. Others (such as public officials and police officers) cited circumstances, defining themselves as "victims." Axis troops could claim to have served through forced conscription rather than by choice. Hardly an Italian family exists in which there is not a father, uncle, cousin or grandfather who did not serve in the war. Yet, given the Italians' reluctance to fight, it is perhaps unsurprising that one rarely meets an aging veteran who was actually wounded in the war. Sicily was not Saipan, and few Italians ever fought with the raw courage of the Japanese, even when defending their own country. This is one of the most tragic facts of the war.

The Allies destroyed the worst form of Fascism but not the Fascists themselves, many of whom continued their careers as educators, military officers or lawyers in a "new" Italy, this time as Christian Democrats or (in rarer cases) even Socialists. Forced to subsist on American generosity (the Marshall Plan and other programs) and deprived of her ill-won foreign lands (reparations to Greece, Albania and Ethiopia were paid "in kind" by a cash-poor Italy), the nation tried hard to forget its hapless wartime experiences. Upon returning home, more than a million prisoners of war were treated with indifference, even disdain.

By a tradition dating from the medieval Norman rule of southern Italy, the Archbishop of Palermo is the Primate of Sicily. In modern times, this has entailed little more than a titular (and symbolic) precedence over other Sicilian bishops, but an important one. It was deemed inopportune for the Archbishop of Palermo (since 1928), Luigi Cardinal Lavitrano (1874-1950), who had been sympathetic to the Fascist regime, or at least perceived in that light, to continue in his position; General Patton's dislike of cardinal Lavitrano was well-known. Therefore, he "resigned" to a post in the Roman Curia in December 1944. For a bishop to retire from active pastoral work at seventy years of age was unusual (the mandatory retirement age is now seventy-five), but in the case of this unforeseen wartime resignation - possibly the first of its kind in modern Italy - the Vatican did not have an immediate successor in mind. In fact, Ernesto Ruffini (1888-1967) was not appointed Archbishop of Palermo until October of the following year. Though conservative, Cardinal Ruffini was regarded as less reactionary and less monarchist than his predecessor.

Moral ambiguity made justice a rarity. Rodolfo Graziani, the general responsible for the use of outlawed poison gas in reprisals against Ethiopians, was tried for war crimes by the Italian Republic but released following a symbolic sentence. The more fortunate Alfredo Guzzoni escaped such a fate, retiring on a generous military pension and living into the 1960s. In 1946 the new governmernt passed a general amnesty law which made it impossible for Italians to be prosecuted for wartime crimes connected in any way to official policies or Fascism, or indeed any such crime committed at any time before 1946.

War is never pleasant, but its immediate aftermath is decidedly easier for the victors than the vanquished. Hitler himself said that history would be written by the victors, though neither he nor Mussolini lived to face their adversaries. So shameful and absolute were their military defeats that Italian veterans knew not what - if anything - they could tell their children about a lost war. (Most have said nothing.) Though the situation is improving, little of the Second World War (in Italy) or Fascism is taught in Italian schools even today, leaving the nation with several ignorant generations of citizens. Not only is history written by the victors, the vanquished are often vilified. In truth, however, there was rather little of this disdain reserved for the Italians, with whom the Americans and British seemed not to be angry so much as profoundly disappointed.

Equally disappointing is the degree of revisionism which has emerged in recent years, often from unexpected quarters. In Italy, "historical authors" of both the Left (liberals and Communists) and the Right (conservatives and neo-Fascists) seek to paint their own self-serving pictures of the nation's disastrous defeat, both militarily and politically. Outside Italy, though scholarship is generally more balanced, certain "Italo-centric" organizations minimize the evils of Fascism, the significance of the war in Italy, and even the fact that Italy ever fought a war against the United States and Great Britain. That kind of partisan point of view will not be found in the publications suggested below (some may be ordered from the books page).

For Further Reading
Except for some archival research, augmented by interviews with numerous well-informed Italians, Britons and Americans involved in the events described (particularly the late James Risk CVO and Douglas Fairbanks Jr), there is little original material presented in this article. However, as wars usually occur based on some pretext or reason, we have sought to outline the subject in its complete historical context. For more detailed information regarding particular topics, we suggest the following historical works, some of which themselves contain useful bibliographies. Our recommendations are listed according to the usefulness of each work in learning more about the Sicilian campaign.

Carlo d'Este, Bitter Victory - The Battle for Sicily 1943 (1988). The first and still definitive general history on this subject, sober and traditionalist in tone.

Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle - The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1945 (2007). Lengthy work that places the Sicilian Campaign in context, considering personalities, motivations and the sometimes distasteful (illegal) behavior on both sides. This follows the author's Pulitzer prize-winning book An Army at Dawn about the African campaign.

Samuel Mitcham and Friedrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily - How the Allies lost their chance for total victory (1991). Analytical work with insights into Axis strategy and the Allied response.

Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat - The true spy story that changed the course of World War II (2010). Bestselling book about the fascinating espionage operation and intrigue that led to what was then (until the Normandy Invasion) the world's largest amphibious military invasion, inspiring one of its planners, the young Ian Fleming, to create the world's most famous fictional secret agent, James Bond.

Andrew J. Birtle, World War II Campaigns: Sicily. U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH Pub 72-16). Official United States military history available online.

Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers: Volume 2 (1974). From the general's archive, with additional sources.

Omar Bradley, A Soldier's Story (1951). Autobiography of a general present during the campaign

William Breuer, Drop Zone Sicily (1983).

Philip Cannistraro, Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (1985). Excellent reference.

John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (2000). Controversial (in some Roman Catholic circles) but well-researched.

William Darby, Darby's Rangers: We Led the Way (1980). Good firsthand account.

Peter De Rosa, Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy (1988). Detailed chronology and historical outline.

Vladimar Dedijer, Anriman Verlag, The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican (1988).

Roy Palmer Domenico, Italian Fascists on Trial (1991).

John Eisenhower, Allies (1982).

Albert N. Garland, Howard McGaw Smyth, Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (1965).

Trumbull Higgins, Soft Underbelly (1968).

W. G. F. Jackson, The Battle for Italy (1967). Good history and commentary.

Robert Katz, The Fall of the House of Savoy (1971). Excellent description of context and key Italian events (and blunders) leading up to the invasion of Italy.

Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (1994). Good general history.

C. J. C. Molony, The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume 5 (1973).

Samuel Eliot Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio (1954). Good history written in a time before "political correctness."

G. W. L. Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy: 1943-45 (1967). The little-known but important role of the Canadian troops.

S. W. C. Pack, Operation Husky: The Allied Invasion of Sicily (1977). Solid military history.

George Patton, War As I Knew It (1947). Good autobiography.

Hugh Pond, Sicily (1962).

Denis Mack Smith, Italy and Its Monarchy (1992). Excellent history of the Savoys in Italian history from about 1848 to 1946, dealing with the leadership and aspirations of a unified Italy and the shameful defeat of a nation and a dynasty.

Denis Mack Smith, A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713 (1968). Good general history of Sicily, more detailed than the condensed single volume of this series published later.

John Strawson, The Italian Campaign (1987). Excellent strategic analysis, though superficial compared to Atkinson's book (above).

Lucian Truscott, Command Missions (1954). Autobiography by a distinguished general present during the campaign.

In Italian:

Gianni Oliva, L'Alibi della Resistenza: Ovvero Come Abbiamo Vinto la Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Mondadori Editori, Milan, 2003). Brief but interesting look at historical revisionism in post-war Italy, with observations regarding Italian war crimes, the ethically questionable actions of Italian statesmen, and mass "denial" in a nation afraid to confront its own past. (Oliva is a respected Italian historian who has also written about the House of Savoy.)

Tonino Zito, Lo Statuto Provvisorio: Fatti e Retroscena della Sicilia tra il 1943 e il 1945 che Portarono alla Speciale Autonomia (Presidenza della Regione Siciliana, Palermo, 1996). Fascinating look at the deeds and misdeeds, from about 1940 to 1946, that led to Sicilian autonomy, with focus on the Allied occupation, the fall of Fascism, the Separatist movement, and the personalities involved in all three.

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