Reflections on the battle of Salerno, September 1943

Very nearly 75 years ago a combined army of British and American troops conducted an amphibious invasion near the Italian town of Salerno, not far from the now glitzy Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. The Germans counterattacked and there were 10 days of hard fighting in which thousands were killed from both sides, and many Italian civilians too, many more of whom lost their homes to artillery bombardment and bombing from the air. The Germans then retreated. This battle is little noticed in current historical accounts of World War 2, but I have long been interested in it.

My initial interest was sparked when I was at school, fascinated by anything to do with WW2, when I read a book on the battle by the journalist Hugh Pond, which included many accounts from survivors. This evolved into my focus on the Mediterranean battles of 1943, before German heavy armour and Allied air superiority created a very awkward asymmetry.  That went on ice in 1979, as I left home (or rather my parents moved out of town leaving me behind), and I put my wargames stuff into storage or gave it away. When I did resume wargaming, I concentrated on the Napoleonic wars.

That changed a couple of years ago when I joined a wargames club, and discovered the enduring popularity of WW2 games. I then found some of my old 1943 models in the loft. Now retired, I decided to have another look. I naturally resumed my interest in Salerno. Source material was thin, though, as historians and games are much more interested in Normandy 1944 and after, or the Western Desert in 1941-42 (to say nothing 1940 Blitzkrieg or the 1941-45 Eastern Front). I found a rather unsatisfactory Osprey book. But eventually I laid my hands on Angus Kostam’s book Salerno 1943  published in 2007. This is a very good book. It reconstructs events across the ten days without digressing into the anecdotes so popular in historical works. The maps could be better, and I would have liked more on the air war (and more detail generally), but after reading this I at last have a better grasp of the sequence of events. It has also given me a better feel for warfare in WW2 in general.

What to say of the battle? Generally the Allies blundered and were outfought by the Germans, who seem to have suffered half the casualties. Only artillery, from field batteries and warships, saved the Allies from disaster. In the end the Germans did not have the strength to prevail. In his analysis Mr Kostan falls in with a fairly standard critical assessment that the Allies under the US General Mark Clark went onto the defensive too quickly, giving the Germans the chance to take the initiative and drive the Allies into the sea. I’m not convinced. The Allies suffered their biggest setbacks when they pushed forward too aggressively, in the British sector on D-Day (when disaster hit the Hampshires), in Battapaglia not long after (ditto the Fusiliers), and the Americans in Altavilla and environs on D+3 and 4. In each case the Germans exposed the tactical ineptitude of inexperienced troops, who left gaps as they pushed outwards. In particular the Allies struggled to coordinate the different arms of service – infantry found itself under attack from armour-supported infantry without armour support or antitank guns. At other times it was the tanks that didn’t have the support (though at least once that happened to the Germans too). Coordination with the artillery was better, and that often saved the day. But I suspect even the artillery was not used as effectively as it could have been – a lot of shells being wasted on buildings which housed no Germans, because they were convenient targets that produced satisfactorily observable results. An object lesson on how things should have been conducted was provided by the British Guards, one of the few veteran units, when, towards the end of the battle, a big German attack ran into a prepared trap, where infantry, artillery and antitank guns were all properly coordinated. On that occasion even the antiaircraft guns were deployed to help, a rarity for the British, but commonplace for Germans. The result was devastating. A rapid advance by Allied troops that were still learning how to fight effectively could have been sliced up by the Germans, leaving the rear areas very vulnerable.

A further thing strikes me about the battle, which presumably applies to WW2 more generally. The fighting forces were quite thin on the ground, and one of the key ingredients to success to was understanding where your enemy actually was. The Germans were adept at pulling back to regroup, and turning up somewhere else. The better Allied troops (notably the US Rangers and paratroops), as well as the Germans, conducted aggressive patrolling in advance of their positions as a matter of course. This was no WW1 battle with clearly defined front lines. This is part of the “empty battlefield” syndrome that I have heard mentioned a number of times.

So what about wargaming Salerno? In the north, and some of the southern fringes, the battle was in hilly country, mostly unsuitable for vehicles. The Germans did use armour but the Allies generally didn’t. There was fierce fighting, including by the British Commandos facing German paratroops, but not so easy to create an attractive game, especially on a club night. Elsewhere though, notably in the sector fought over by the British 56th Division, the ground was flat, and the combat is closer to the popular Normandy pattern – though no bocage. The German forces were drawn from Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions, so quite well-equipped, including good armour support and armoured half tracks, but no heavy tanks or tank destoyers (notwithstanding frequent reports of Tiger tanks from allied troops), and no panzerfaust or panzerschrek infantry antitank weapons. The allies had good antitank weapons (6pdr and 17pdr antitank guns for the British) including PIATs and bazookas. And the Sherman tanks (with M10 tank destroyers in the US sector) were quite capable of dealing with the German Panzer IVs and StuG IIIs. Air support did not play a big role on either side at the tactical level (though there was quite a bit of bombing of town by medium bombers and German attacks on the fleet). Reconnaissance forces on both sides were frequently drawn into the front line, with armoured cars etc. All this should produce some good games. The difficulty is allowing for artillery, important to both sides, and critical to the Allies, and the struggle the Allies had in ensuring their infantry was properly supported by antitank weapons or armour.

I’m just beginning when it comes to scenario design, though. There should be some ways of getting good club games from these ingredients. There is also scope for a very interesting operational level game (perhaps using Sam Mustafa’s Rommel) looking at the battle as a whole.That’s a whole new area though.

 

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