In August of 1943, the Western Allies captured Sicily. The next step in the war was a landing in Italy. In order to distract the enemy from Salerno, where the landing would take place (Operation Avalanche), the British performed a decoy landing at Reggio Calabria, on the sole of the "Italian boot". However, this deception was not successful, and parts of the Wehrmacht were ready to face the main invasion.
The invasion was not Germany's only problem. On September 8th, 1943, Italy announced that it was dropping out of the war. Germany's response was sudden and harsh: Italian forces were disarmed and the country was occupied. The German army was left to defend Italy alone.
On the night from September 8th to September 9th, Allied vessels neared the shore.
Hot morning on the Italian beach
The German 16th Tank Division covered a significant portion of the Salerno bay. There were not enough forces for an uninterrupted defensive perimeter. Instead, the Germans created several defensive positions near beaches that were convenient for a landing and populated them with infantry and artillery. The 16th division itself was split up into mobile groups of tanks and trucks or APCs with infantry. These groups were supposed to rapidly drive to any landing site and stop the invaders.
The Allies did not expect the Germans to know they were coming. American commanders even considered that an artillery barrage should be omitted to increase secrecy. In reality, the Germans were getting ready for battle while their ships were just approaching the bar.
In the British sector, landing ships came under fire on their way into the bay and took losses. It was obvious that the element of surprise was gone. When their soldiers managed to reach the shore, they encountered stiff resistance.
The American sector had even bigger problems for its attackers. The 36th Infantry Division landed in two places: north and south of the city of Paestum. The Germans did not open fire prematurely. Only the sounds of the ships' engines broke the silence. However, as soon as the Americans were close to shore, they were met with deadly artillery and mortar fire. Those that made it to shore found themselves facing German tanks.
1:0 for Infantry
At 7:00, the stunned attackers were counterattacked by 15 German tanks without infantry support. 7 vehicles drove forward while the rest fired from concealment. The American infantry found itself in a challenging situation. They were on a beach with no cover, artillery didn't set up yet, and the Americans included no armour in the first wave of the landings.
The only things the advance guard of the infantry had were bazookas and one 37 mm gun. One German PzIV approached to 800 meters and opened fire from its machineguns. Two infantrymen rushed to their gun and returned fire. Of course, a 37 mm shell could not do much to a PzIV from that range, but it was enough to force the tank to withdraw.
The Germans kept the Americans pinned down, but divisional scouts came to the rescue. They deployed a .50 cal machinegun and opened fire on one of the forward tanks. While the crew was distracted by the large caliber bullets, two Americans snuck up to the tank and fired on it with bazookas and rifle grenades. With support from other infantry, one PzIV was destroyed. The other six pulled back.
Soon, 4 more German tanks went on the offensive, but American artillery was already set up. The Germans were met with fire from two 105 mm howitzers, which forced them to break off the attack and retreat. Two more tanks were driven away by AA guns.
The landing was still in grave dancer. German snipers and machineguns kept the beach under constant fire. The Americans were taking losses, the number of wounded grew. German tanks kept coming back.
Establishing a foothold
An artillery observer arrived with a landing wave, who could correct fire of ships' guns. The Germans could no longer think about continuing their attacks and hurriedly withdrew. Two tanks were not very lucky that day and suffered hits from 127 and 203 mm shells. The surviving tanks left the shoreline and retreated into cover.
By noon, the German commanders understood that it is fruitless to keep attacking in the south, as the chance to push the invaders back into the sea was gone. Ground gained in successful counterattacks could not be held due to a lack of forces. Tanks that attacked without infantry support were vulnerable in close combat and could not hold positions on their own.
The attacks north of Paestum started later than at southern beaches. At around 11:30, 13 German tanks moved out towards the HQ of the American 142nd regiment. A 105 mm howitzer crew noticed the approaching enemy. They turn the gun and engaged. The gun was set up in the open and the crew was at great risk, but luck was on their side that day. Soon, five tanks were knocked out and the rest withdrew.
The last attack was around noon. Everyone who could fight engaged the 10 PzIVs: infantry with bazookas, 105 mm howitzers, SPGs that managed to land by then, and a 37 mm gun. The Germans lost more than half of their tanks, the rest retreated to initial positions.
While infantry and a few artillerymen fought off German tanks, more and more forces reached the beaches. Soon, the Americans gathered enough strength to advance, capture a few German positions, and widen their foothold. Operation Avalanche was free to continue into Italy.
Original article available here.