The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 7 No 2 - December 1986

Assault on Sicily, 1943

by Jochen Mahnke

An account based on the Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht, and the autobiography of General der Flieger Alfred Mahncke, with special emphasis on the activities of the Luftwaffe. (The war diary extracts are marked WD)

Frascati, 26.6.1943

Two days after my arrival from Russia, I received an invitation to dinner from Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring. Afterwards he asked me to stay behind. He obviously needed someone whom he knew and trusted, to talk about his many problems.

The Italians were tired of this war. The military command was anxious to preserve their own command structure in the country, and guarded their positions jealously. Nevertheless, this did not prevent them from making impossible demands for supplies of hardware of all kinds, especially guns and fighter aircraft from Germany. They threatened to consider peace negotiations with the enemy if this help was not forthcoming. Mussolini, although a friend of Germany, was no longer in the same unshakeable position, and he was a sick man as well.

Kesselring explained that he held himself responsible for everything that had happened in the Mediterranean, and for the bad turn of events. He described it as a war of missed opportunities.

I understood this to refer to the unclear chain of command. Kesselring acted under direct orders from Hitler. At the same time he was under the Duce's orders, but again not under the Commando Supremo, with whom he worked closely. He was in command of all German troops in the South, who, with reference to tactical deployment, were also under Mussolini's orders. Rommel was under Kesselring's orders but also under those of Hitler and the Duce! This led to considerable friction and difficulties.

Kesselring did not see eye to eye with Rommel. In his opinion Rommel's dash into Egypt in the summer of '42 had been a mistake. Without a secure base and open and protected supply lines across the sea a permanent success was not guaranteed.

Unfortunately Rommel could not visualize the transport and logistic problems ahead. He left all the worry to Kesselring, hoping he would manage somehow. Disagreements between the two field marshals followed. Despite this, Kesselring spoke highly of Rommel. Not once did he criticize him.

Another missed opportunity was Malta. Kesselring had wanted to occupy the important island, and had already received Hitler's and Mussolini's consent. The German and Italian High Command had prepared everything for an attack, Luftflotte II was in charge.

The attack began with air bombardments during May 1942 during which British bases and aircraft were destroyed. However; the expected paratroop landing on Malta could not take place because Rommel, badly in need of reinforcements had persuaded Hitler to send him the paratroops for the war in Africa instead. Consequently, the heavy air attacks on Malta, and the war in Africa bled the air force dry. Kesselring was unable to prevent this.

At the time Field Marshal von Richthofen took command of Luftflotte II, Kesselring, having been promoted to Oherbefehlshaber Sued, discovered that the number of aircraft (bombers, fighters, transports etc.) available to him, was small; so small, in fact, that massed attacks could not be contemplated. The effective operational strength of bomber units during November/December 1942 was, for instance, only 100-200 aircraft. This figure later declined still further.

Luftflotte II therefore could not offer any decisive support. It was irresponsible that despite its depleted condition, Hitler and Goering, both of whom could not claim ignorance of the actual strength of the Luftflotte, urged repeated heavy attacks to be flown against the enemy in North Africa, slowly decimating the units.

All Richthofen could do was to evade these orders as best as he could, to conserve aircraft and men enabling him to have a fighting force at his disposal when the expected enemy landings on the continent should take place.

Frascati 7.7.1943

The Americans and British carry on with their battle preparations. They continously reinforce their troops, and we estimate that at the moment 4 to 5 divisions are waiting in North Africa, well prepared for the landing.

The landings will come either on Sardinia or Sicily. If this is all they will risk, then we can contain them.

The bombings of our airfields continue. (Catania, Gerbini, Trapani, Comiso). We have to consider withdrawing our air force, as otherwise it faces certain destruction. But the alternative airfields are too far away for our aircraft to fight effectively, and therefore such a move is not contemplated yet.

So far I have seen very little of Rome. FM Kesselring has declared Rome an open city, so as not to give the British an excuse, not even a flimsy one, to bomb the eternal city.

I live in a small Villa. FM von Richthofen resides in another building, which houses the command section of Luftflotte II. Just as in Russia he insists on living right in the nerve centre of the air war. I have worked under him in Russia for some time. He trusts me, prefers my style, and he was instrumental in my transfer from Russia to Italy.(1)

First photo

General der Flieger a.d. Alfred Mahncke

WD 7.7.1943

The heavy bombardment of airfields on Sicily continued on the 6th as well. The OB South reported that, although there exist signs of an immiment enemy assault in the western Mediterranean, the substantial increase in German strength on the island, will certainly not escape the enemy. This will restrain him from an immediate offensive. The losses of aircraft suffered by the enemy during his recent attacks on Italy should influence his plans as well.

WD 11.7.1943

The enemy air forces continued their attacks on Sicily. It appears that certain areas close to harbours, which can be used as landing points, are being left untouched.

WD 9.7.1943

The enemy continued his attacks on airfields, but with considerably reduced forces. More transport ships entered the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. From afternoon onwards, enemy ships could be observed closing in on Sicily.

Frascati, 10.7.1943

FM von Richthofen informed me on the 9th that I would have to take charge of a short-range fighter unit, if the HQ of 2 Air Force Division and their heavy bombers, was forced to evacuate the island and move to the mainland.

He ordered me to fly to Sicily to obtain first-hand impressions about the uncertain situation, and report back to him within five to six days. The following day I arrived at Catania airfield and a car took me to the HQ at St Giovanni de Punta, where I met Lieutenant General Buelowius. He was a top rate, experienced leader, who had replaced General Loerzer.(2)

Buelowius told me that the Allies had landed on Sicily during the night. The defenders were totally in the dark about the enemy strength, and the location of the landing sites.

He guessed that the key landing points were near Gela, Augusta and Syracuse. Apparently the enemy had met little or no resistance, and, judging by the hundreds of enemy aircraft in the sky, giving the attacker unlimited airpower this was understandable. Nothing had been seen or heard of the Italians. Their fleet was at anchor at Taranto. The normally inefficient communication system was out of order due to bombing, and their HQ at Enna was silent. Buelowius suggested that I should fly to Enna in my Storch, and confer with the German liaison officer there. He wanted me to ascertain what assistance the Italian air force could give, and what action was planned to counter the invasion.

Upon my arrival, the liaison officer, General von Sengern-Etterlin, arranged a visit to Army General Guzzoni. He received us in the presence of his GSO. The General was short, tubby, and did not altogether cut an impressive figure. But he was calm and collected, and he had the reputation of being one of the best military leaders in Italy.

He admitted ignorance of the full extent of the landing, but mentioned that parts of the 5th US Army under General Eisenhower and 8th British Army under Field Marshal Alexander had landed. He estimated the enemy strength at between 10 and 12 divisions.

We had approximately the same number of German and Italian troops. This included the Panzer-Division Hermann Goering. We realized that our forces, in the face of the tremendous allied superiority, were insufficient. Their transport ships could move unhindered and land supplies protected by the vast fighter umbrella.

Our own fighters were unable to make much of an impression. This was not a fault of the air force leaders or the pilots but the result of bad planning by our armament experts who had given preference to the construction of bombers instead of fighters. The Italian air force was conspicuous by its absence.

Guzzoni explained to me that he would attack the minute he knew more about the enemy. As it was already midday, I concluded that we had lost the initiative. He had waited too long, and every minute lost now only reduced any hope of success even further.

We left Guzzoni's HQ which looked very much like a disturbed ant's nest. Soldiers milled around in senseless confusion, a babble of hysterical voices clashed with the noise of motor cars and trucks starting up. Tatty soldiers loitered on street corners, their weapons discarded. Nobody seemed to be in control any more. ADCs rushed between offices, staff cars were packed high with belongings. It looked like a panic evacuation.

In a depressed mood I climbed into my Storch to fly back. But on the way I wanted to sweep south as far as possible to have a closer look at the landing beaches. I needed to evaluate the situation for myself at first hand. I hoped that by hugging the ground, I would not be seen by highflying enemy fighters.

Closing in on Gela I saw heavy artillery fire. This could only mean that the panzers of the Hermann Goering division were fighting the enemy. A few minutes later I spotted our panzers advancing.

And then in the far distance an unforgettable picture unfolded. The ocean was seething with hundreds of transport ships and warships, landing craft and aircraft carriers. Most of them lay at anchor, but quite a number criss-crossed the sea. This was the armada which had attacked Sicily.

I banked away and continued to the Syracuse-Augusta area, where landing forces had been reported as well. Closing in on the harbour of Augusta I caught my breath.

The fields were covered with fleeing soldiers, all without arms, stumbling, slipping, running as fast as they could to escape the enemy. They choked the roads; they were on foot, on bicycles, on horse carts, on anything that moved. It was a disgusting shambles, and a total rout of the Italian forces.

My mechanic brought me back to the present, and pointed to the many high-flying aircraft. I set a course for Catania. Suddenly I felt my Storch being hit repeatedly, and saw tracer all around. I knew in a flash that I was now being punished for my impudence in taking the slow, unarmed Storch into the hornet's nest. Something hard fell on my shoulders.

Automatically I put the aircraft's nose into a dive. Warm blood splashed on my neck. The mechanic lay crumpled in his seat. Flames enveloped the cabin. My immediate reaction was: shot up, plane burns, down and out!

I threw the Storch to the ground. The wheels collapsed, the frame sliding along the grass. Luckily the door had not jammed. Ijumped out, struggling to free the mechanic.

Then the Spitfires returned to finish me off. Bullets clanged and whined. I dived for safety into a hedge of thorny cacti, palms and bamboo, still pulling the mechanic's body with me. But he was already dead.

Apart from burns, singed hair; and a torn and bloody uniform I was in one piece. The Storch burnt itself out. A short while later Italian soldiers arrived with a motor car and took me and my mechanic's body to Catania.

In the evening I reported to Richthofen by telephone. We ended this eventful day, which had so nearly cost me my life, on the terrace of Buelowius' HQ with a drink. It was dark. From the offices the muted ringing of telephones drifted across, the sound of urgent voices. From time to time an officer with a new report joined our small circle. Chains of tracer crossed the sky silently in the black distance, and somewhere bombs fell with hollow crumps. It felt good to be alive.

The reports confirmed my impressions of the fall of Augusta. This modern, well fortified harbour had capitulated without a single shot having been fired. Moreover, it had not even been under attack. The Italian coastal divisions had been entirely ineffective. The division at Naples had melted away into nothing, and at other places officers and men had left their positions days before the assault. They had spiked their guns, blown up the petrol dumps and put on civilian clothes before deserting from their duties.

WD 10.7.1943

On 9 July at 13h30, five enemy convoys comprising 150-180 vessels, including landing craft and battleships, were observed north of Malta on a northerly course. Reports of further convoys on the same course followed. At 23h30 many enemy ships, including heavy warships, approached Sicily's south coast on a wide front between Licata and Marsala. Syracuse, Catania and Augusta were shelled by naval artillery. Near Ragusa paratroops were dropped, followed by an airborne landing near Syracuse. At 08h30 on the 10th, the enemy landed simultaneously near Licata, Gela, Cape Pasero, Augusta and Syracuse. It is estimated that the enemy strength is between five and six divisions.

WD 11.7.1943

Among the invasion force of six to seven divisions American units have been observed in an area close to Licata - Gela, and a British group close to Pasero - Augusta. The Hermann Goering division prepared to attack the enemy at Gela, and the group Colonel Schmalz has orders to attack from their positions south-west of Catania to occupy the harbour of Syracuse. The enemy paratroop units have been almost totally destroyed.

Our air force attacked shipping targets and bridgeheads. The 0KW transmitted an order by the Fuehrer to the OB South, to strengthen German forces on Sicily urgently, in order to drive the enemy back.

WD 12.7.1943

The enemy, now estimated to number between 9 and 10 divisions could widen his bridgeheads everywhere, because the Italian defence has collapsed. Near Gela the enemy was forced to re-embark temporarily due to pressure from the Hermann Goering division. However, he returned with strengthened forces.

The targets selected by the enemy appear to be the still operational harbours (Licata, Syracuse). The advance of group Schmalz was halted by the enemy 40 km in front of Syracuse. Our air force continued with attacks on shipping targets.

Giovanni di Punta, 11.7.1943

The situation seems improved. The Hermann Goering division gained ground while attacking Gela, and our troops fight the enemy at Syracuse. But of the overall position we know nothing. We experienced heavy bombardments of airfields, city and harbour of Catania this morning. They were 4-engined bombers in four waves. I expect heavy losses among the civilians. All roads are choked with fleeing people who have no idea about air raid precautions.

The people are mostly poor. They have had enough of this war, a war they don't understand. And they look upon us as intruders in their peaceful existence.

Now they shout: 'peace at all costs!' And this slogan has emasculated the Italian soldiers. I believe that this is the real drama.

Frascati 13.7.1943

I'm back from the island again. All in one piece. But things on Sicily are bad indeed. The Italians are in full disarray, and the enemy can advance almost unhindered. Yesterday two battalions from paratroop division No 1 jumped from 105 JU 52 transport aircraft, and another 50 aircraft landed guns. These were the first reinforcements to reach us in our precarious situation. They are all combat tested troops. But will they really be able to change things? Here, as elsewhere, we suffer from too little, too late.

FM Kesselring had flown over from the mainland to watch the drop, and I talked to him. He criticized the collapse of the Italian leadership and their troops bitterly.

The allied air superiority increases daily. Even some of the traffic on main roads comes under attack from strafing aircraft.

A battleship squadron consisting of 1 heavy vessel, 2 light cruisers and 6 destroyers cruised in sight of Augusta yesterday and shelled the units of group Schmalz. The ships arrived at 14h00, and when I left early next morning, they were still at it.

I reported back to Richthofen, who, with his overview of operations considered our position more optimistically. It appears that our bombers had certain successes when bombing the invasion fleet. I suggested to him that, as long as the supreme command on the island was in Italian hands, no more German troops should be risked and sent across. We should rather withdraw. Only if a German general could be placed in overall command, should we defend Sicily. However, in such a case strong German forces would have to be committed. A quick decision was vital. Every hour lost could have disastrous consequences.

In the afternoon my new orders arrived from the FM. Back to Sicily!

WD 13.7.1943

The enemy's fighting power has increased considerably because new landings took place between Agrigento and Licata. Augusta was under heavy naval bombardments. The hills north of Licata are defended by group Fullriede (15th Panzer-Grenadier Division). Gaps between the individual fighting units were closed.

The OB South reports that due to the desertion of the Italian forces, the main burden of the fighting falls on the German soldiers. The effectiveness of the air force close-combat units has fallen drastically. They are unable to give the necessary support to the ground troops any more.

However, the successes of bombers against enemy shipping are so outstanding that one can expect a strong, perhaps even decisive influence on enemy operations. The Panzer-Division Hermann Goering has suffered grievous losses.

It is impossible to defend the island successfully with the available German forces alone. Based on the reports from OB South the Fuehrer has ordered our units to be used to delay the advance of the enemy which is to be stopped at a line from San Stefano to Adrano to Catania.

The Fuehrer has ordered that Colonel Schmalz' report concerning the spineless capitulation of Augusta should be submitted to the Duce in its entirety. The Fuehrer requests the Duce to comment on this, and to also confirm that he has been briefed about this by his own officers.

The German General at the Italian HQ replied that an enquiry against the commandant of the harbour has been instituted. It appears that the Navy, defending the harbour, has failed.

The Duce commented in his reply that, although the successes achieved by the Luftwaffe against shipping and landing craft are acknowledged, their number (of aircraft) is not sufficient. Since August last year, they were short of at least 500 aircraft, especially fighters, and that this was the reason 'for all our bad luck'.

The enemy continued to attack at Caltanisetta, and the group Fullriede had to move back. The division Hermann Goering and group Schmalz held their positions.

Our air force sank 5 transports of approximately 25 000 BRT, and damaged another 31 ships of approximately 120 000 BRT. The enemy air force attacked airfields on Sicily and the southern mainland.

From the General's autobiography

My orders were clear. They were to organize a withdrawal of all technical air force staff and units from Sicily, and to set up a new service organisation in an area close to Apulia and Calabria on the mainland.

Richthofen elaborated that General Hube, a well-known, experienced tactician would be in overall command of the defence of Sicily. He expected Hube to force the Italians into action, and also to strangle the allied supply lines which fed the landed forces. However, Hube still has to arrive.

We need time to be able to reinforce our troops, and to slow the enemy's advance by sinking more of his ships.

I do not agree with Richthofen's view. I have seen how ineffective our fighter force is. Superhuman efforts by a handful of men are not enough in the face of the allied air supremacy. And, furthermore, the enemy bombs all our bases to hell.

When I fly tomorrow, I will be unable to use my HE III to hop to Sicily. I will have to use a Storch again.

In Naples three Storchs were waiting. We took off with me in the lead. A sudden arrival during the night flew in No. 2 aircraft. He was Lieutenant General Stahel, an acknowledged master in handling chaotic or hopeless situations behind our own lines.

One could be sure that, wherever Stahel appeared, the situation was desperate. His unannounced appearance was certainly ominous. He confirmed that it would be his job to round up all air force drifters, shirkers, recuperating wounded, soldiers awaiting leave and all flotsam in staff units and elsewhere, and to mould them into Alarmeinheiten. (Special provisional fighting units). These dreaded units lacked fighting experience, suitable officers, heavy arms, motivation and morale. They were makeshift units of little operational value, and all soldiers hated them. But desperate times required desperate measures.

WD 15.7.1943

The main thrust of the enemy (8th Army) was directed towards Catania. Strong enemy air force units took part in the fighting on the ground and also over the Messina straits.

It lonks as if Sicily cannot be held very much longer. Whether the enemy's next targets are Sardinia, Corsica or Italy itself, cannot be guessed at yet. Large scale landings in Norway or France seem to be out of the question at the moment.

The Duce has been urgently requested to rectify the glaring shortcomings within his ground organisations and operations to assist the German air force in Italy. Due to the lack of support, hampering deployment of the air force, 320 German fighter aircraft have been lost on airfields in Sicily and Italy during the last three weeks.

WD 16.7.1943

Heavy attacks by enemy tank units, supported by flanking fire from naval artillery forced the left flank of divition Hermann Goering to withdraw to the railway line Catenuanova - Catania.

A hundred of our aircraft achieved hits on 43 enemy ships during the night, among them 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers with a total of more than 100 000 tons.

General Hube has arrived on Sicily and will take over command on the 20th.

WD 17.7.1943

The 15th Panzer-Grenadier division had to be withdrawn in a north-easterly direction to prevent a break-through. The division Hermann Goering and Group Schmalz held their positions although they suffered heavy losses.

Our air force supported ground troops and attacked enemy ships. During a naval battle with numerically stronger enemy S-boats, five of our own were damaged.

The Italians have changed their minds again, and now wish to defend Italy on Sicily, so they say. But German opinion is that, owing to the total failure of Italian military support, and the precarious supply position, as well as enemy strength, this cannot be considered at all. The deployment of the Italian fleet is 'shocking'. Repeated and urgent requests to Admiral Riccardi did not even impress him sufficiently to sweep the Messina straits with his light forces to improve our situation.

WD 18.7.1943

The enemy follows our withdrawing troops only slowly. The group Schmalz was forced further back by strong enemy pressure. The OB South reported that the situation on Sicily has stabilized, but that improvement may be of short duration only. Catania and the area west of the city are in danger. Transport of supplies suffers through enemy air attacks.

Frascati, 25.7.1943

The idea of having to cross open water totally defenceless did not appeal to me, but I wasted no time. We approached the island cautiously, skimming low over the waves, and with the last of daylight left, landed on an airfield which was badly scarred by bomb craters.

In the sudden silence after the engines had heen switched off, we heard firing close by. Air force soldiers, running to meet us, told us that enemy paratroops had landed in the afternoon, and were still being flushed out.

A ghostly ride across a burning Catania, which was under artillery fire, followed. We found the GHQ of II Air Force Corps at Acireale shortly before midnight. There I discovered that the purpose of my mission had already been overtaken by a quick change of events. Buelowius, forced by worsening circumstances, had already given orders to extricate all air force units prior to moving them across to the mainland. Of course, we both knew that this first part was the easy one. The transfer of all troops across the 8 km wide straits of Messina under the most adverse conditions posed the dangerous second part. We would have a disaster on our hands unless I exercised strict control at the departure site. For that I needed an iron fist.

With this firmly fixed in my mind I drove to the straits early the next morning.

As I had suspected, I found chaos. A constant stream of all sorts of transport moved along the narrow winding roads from Catania and Palermo towards the shores. In the stream were all the air force units. Among them were Italian civilians in total confusion and highly excited. They too wanted to leave Sicily as quickly as possible.

We had only a few ferries, plying between the island and Messina and Faro on the mainland, to ship these crowds across.

On the opposite shores German trucks waited with desperately needed supplies for the fighters on Sicily. Small wonder that there was bedlam at the loading and unloading points. Motor cars were immobilized in the traffic, and could move neither back nor forth. The ferry traffic had come to a virtual standstill, which tempted the desperate or reckless to force their way across regardless of costs.

All we needed now was a bombing raid, and we would have been wiped out to the last man.

It took many hours of frustrating work to disentangle the traffic and create conditions necessary for a smooth ferry transport and also to calm the hysterical civilians and restive soldiers.

I contacted the officer commanding the AA [anti-aircraft] units, and asked him to move a number of light batteries to give further protection to the ferry landing points against strafing aircraft.

I summoned the leaders of all six German organizations of OB South who were effected by the evacuation. They arrived in the evening. They hardly knew each other. They had no proper communications, not even by telephone and each staff muddled through as best it could.

I took over general command, delegated responsibility for the tasks on hand, nominated suitable officers to control the flow of all traffic, and emphasized the necessity for absolute ruthlessness when dealing with rebellious mobs.

I requested additional ferries from OB South to speed up evacuation, because we had only 5 Siehel ferries and 7 Pioneer landing craft, which were completely insufficient. As was to he expected, my requested was turned down. Worse, I was not allowed to proceed with ferry traffic at night as the Italian Supreme Command of the Navy objected, fearing enemy night attacks in the straits of Messina. All this was not far removed from organized chaos, and the usual Italian touchiness in all matters of military pride did not help.

Somehow FM Kesselring secured two additional divisions and, despite considerable friction with the Italians, who insisted that all German troops should fall under their command, they were en route to southern Italy and perhaps even Sicily. Nevertheless, it was clear to everybody that the island could not be held much longer. Then an unavoidable incident happened. A German Pioneer company, under orders to the front from the landing point at once, requisitioned a few Italian military trucks. The Italians refused to give them up; the Germans, believing themselves covered by an emergency order of OB South, used force and shots were fired. I received a highly emotional report from the Italians about this clash in the evening, together with information that the Italian Admiral Barone had issued orders to fire on German troops should such an incident happen again. Admiral Barone also asked me to call on him to discuss the matter. I replied immediately and oftered to see him right away. He replied, however, that he was not available and that I could call on him the next day, but only after l0h00.

When I met the Admiral he was most upset and volubly insisted that I should cancel Kesselring's requisition order at once. I had to refuse but tried to pacify him, explaining that it was in everyone's interest, even his own, for German troops to reach the front as fast as possible, regardless of whose transport was used.

Unfortunately, the Admiral was not to be pacified, his pride having been hurt, and he repeated his intention to order his soldiers to fire.

I swallowed my reply and promised to contact Kesselring and ask him to clarify his statement. After a few hours I was lucky to reach the FM. As I had feared, he retracted half of his orders and explained that he had been misquoted and that he had referred to civilian and not military transport. In the circumstances, this struck me as ridiculous.

The FM asked me to contact the HQ of the Italian 6th Army. They were to decide how such delicate matters should be handled. Fortunately, nobody knew where this HQ was, if it existed at all, and the matter was never resolved. The ferry traffic improved. Inexplicably, the British did not attack Messina during this critical period. They bombed Reggio on the other side and did a great deal of damage, but not on the landing site.

Everyone was doing his job well, and I snatched time for a proper meal and some sleep.

I worked in the Villa of the senior AA commander during the last two days of my stay. From a window I watched two British corvettes enter the straits on two consecutive nights. On both occasions our light AA batteries fired on them. The enemy ships were hit, and one limped away burning. When they tried again, our searchlights picked them out right away, and they quickly turned and sped off.

My job on Sicily was now finished. More than 600 vehicles of the air force had been shipped across, plus an even greater number of German and Italian Army vehicles.

I left the island together with Buelowius and returned to Rome. Allied air superiority over Italy was as overwhelming as it had been over Sicily. The enemy attacked our airfields systematically and, due to the fact that we had no more than a handful of fighters, the bases were severely damaged. One could not escape the conclusion that the German-Italian air defence was close to collapse.

On the evening of 24 July, I reported back to FM von Richthofen. He told me that I had been appointed Commanding General and Commander of Luftgau Italy. We then talked about my experiences on Sicily, and I promised a full written account.

After he had received this report, Richthofen sent me a short note:

The Chief of Luftflotte II. 25.7.1943
I wish to express my very special appreciation to General Mahncke for his energetic and considered handling of the withdrawal of all air force units across the Messina straits, and also for his successful leadership of all units situated on both shores.

von Richthofen

WD 19.7.1943

Enemy pressure in front of our troops increases. Our air force continues to attack enemy shipping successfully off Syracuse.

The Fuehrer and the Duce prepare for a meeting which takes place on the 19th, in a country Villa near Belluno. Among the points discussed are:

  1. Reference to the necessity to mobilize all human resources. Germany has carried this through down to the 15 year olds.
  2. Against the fluctuations of luck in war, iron will power must be used; this is the first provision to master fate. (Here the Duce receives the report of the first air attack on Rome).
  3. Germany has supplied as much air power as can be spared for the south. But this is of no help if the ground organisations (provided by the Italians) are lacking. The absence of suitable airfields in Italy requires that bomber units have to operate from southern France. The Italians should use their fast battleships as transports and should arm their transports with AA guns. This would have to be executed with iron discipline.
  4. Regarding Sicily, the Fuehrer explains that he has 'two souls in his breast'. If the supply position is guaranteed, one could be ready for all the following consequences, and the island could be defended, and one could revert to attacking the enemy. If this was not possible, then one would have to retreat, in order not to sacrifice more troops.
  5. The Italian requests for more material are described as unacceptable by the Fuehrer, e.g. delivery of 2 000 aircraft. Germany cannot withdraw these from the Russian front, or manufacture them. The Italians will have to copy their own tanks, anti-tank guns, aircraft and AA guns from German models and drawings.

WD 20.7.1943

The enemy reinforces his units, especially with tanks, but leads only weak attacks against our troops. Our air force attacked ships close to Sicily and Malta. Four hundred enemy aircraft attacked Rome. The Duce has ordered that Sicily must be held with all means. Italian divisions should be freed to be employed in southern Italy. (2 divisions). The Commando Supremo feels that it is prejudiced because it has no authority of command over German divisions.

WD 21.7.1943

All enemy attacks were repulsed. German S-boats sunk 2 enemy destroyers off Syracuse, and one ship of 3 000 tons; a further vessel was torpedoed.

The Duce has stated that he will defend Sicily at all costs. For this purpose he will dispatch one division, but first the supply position will have to be studied. Two thousand tons per day should be transported across the straits. The straits should be guarded by hundreds of AA guns as fighter aircraft seem to be unavailable. Italian staff officers are very touchy as far as their pride is concerned. They cannot agree among themselves, with their Commando Supremo the Duce, the Generals, and not with the Germany Army General Staff. They demand more German divisions, ask for additional supplies for their own forces, but at the same time fear that the reins may be taken from them by the German liaison officers.

WD 24.7.1943

The Italian Government has been toppled in a coup. During a meeting of the Grand Council of the Fascist Party, the Duce was removed by a vote of no confidence and placed in protective custody.

The King was invited to take control of the Nation and the armed ferces to save the honour of the fatherland.

Marshal Badoglio has been nominated to lead the government while the supreme army command falls under the King. The war will go on. Anti-fascist and anti-German demonstrations take place in many locations. In northern Italy socialist and communist mobs surface.

WD 26.7.1943

The OB South receives the following orders:
1 Suspend all further troop movements to Sicily.
2 Prepare for evacuation of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica of all German troops after destroying all heavy equipment.
3 Clandestine preparations for a take-over of all air defence systems in Italian controlled sectors.
4 Withdrawal of all AA equipment at present in Italian hands.

The Panzer-Division Hermann Goering lost 13 Tiger tanks, but they were able to destroy them before they fell into enemy hands.

WD 28.7.1943

Since midday of the 26th, the enemy attacks with strong forces on a wide front, assisted by aircraft. Major General Stahel has been given the task of protecting the northern coast of Sicily. Enemy landings in Sardinia and Corsica or on the Italian mainland can now be expected. Landings in northern Italy cannot be excluded.

WD 29.7.1943

At 13h00 a conversation by radio-telephone between the British Prime Minister, Churchill, and the President of the USA, Roosevelt, was monitored, in which a proclamation by General Eisenhower and the imminent armistice with Italy were discussed.

Churchill: We do not wish to submit armistice conditions before we have been finally asked to do so.
Roosevelt: This is correct.
Churchill: We can wait quietly for a day or two as well.
Roosevelt: This is correct.

Then the position of British PWs in Italian hands was discussed. Their removal to the 'land of the Nuns' should be prevented. Churchill wants to send a message to the King of Italy in this regard. Roosevelt takes it upon himself to contact 'Emanuel' as well, 'I'm not quite sure, though, how to go about it.'

This is conclusive proof that secret negotations between the English, Americans and Italians are under way.

WD 30.7.1943

An additional convoy consisting of a troop ship, 67 transport ships and 5 tankers entered the Mediterranean. Due to the high losses suffered by the enemy yesterday, the day was quiet.

A draft order (to be destroyed after reading) to circulate propaganda rumours within the Italian forces, in order to support the Duce; has been withdrawn.

The German Ordinance Attache in Rome reports:
'I have accompanied FM Kesselring on his visits to the King, Marshall Badoglio, Colonel General Ambrosia and General Roatta. During all visits the Italians made unequivocal statements that the war will be continued.'

WD 31.7.1943

The withdrawal of 29th and 15th Panzer-Grenadier Divisions proceeded as planned. The Panzer-Division Hermann Goering repulsed tank supported enemy attacks.

WD 1.8.1943

The enemy did not follow our withdrawing troops beyond San Stefano. Enemy air attacks on Messina and Reggio were without serious damage.

WD 2.8.1943

Both the Panzer-Grenadier Division No.15 and Hermann Goering repelled heavy tank and air supported enemy attacks, although the soldiers are exhausted.

WD 5.8.1943

The right flank of the 29th Panzer-Grenadier Division was continously shelled by artillery fire from sea and ground positions. The enemy pressure continues. Enemy aircraft attacked Naples and targets in the Messina straits. 160 of our aircraft attacked shipping targets off Palermo. The bridgehead on Sicily can be held for a long period, if losses can be made good, ammunition can be replaced and air defence increased.

This could tie down 11 to 12 enemy divisions. Our naval forces are only sufficient to defend the Messina straits. Unless they set sail, one cannot expect anything from the Italian fleet.

WD 6.8.1943

Our frontline has been shortened. Catania has been evacuated. Heavy enemy attacks against the 15th Panzer-Grenadier Division were repulsed with serious losses on our side.

WD 9.8.1943

Air attacks were directed against ferry traffic in the Messina straits. On Sicily, the enemy's main thrust is in the northern area. A new enemy bridgehead at Agata is being attacked by us.

WD 11.8.1943

The withdrawal to the final bridgehead by our troops went according to plan. Our aircraft sank 4 ships of 21 000 tons, and damaged another 5, as well as a cruiser off Syracuse and Augusta.

WD 13.8.1943

The signs of new enemy landings in southern Italy increases. Our troops had no contact with the enemy during planned withdrawals. Our aircraft attacked on a wide front. They sunk 4 ships, 1 tanker and 2 destroyers and damaged another 18 vessels.

WD 16.8.1943

The withdrawal from Sicily continues. Despite heavy enemy air attacks the evacuation across the Messina straits continue.

WD 18.8.1943

The last troops left Sicily at 06h30 yesterday. This means that despite overwhelming enemy superiority on land, sea and in the air; about 60 000 German soldiers with their arms and transport, and the Italian units with some of their equipment, were successfully evacuated.

The Fuehrer has expressed his highest appreciation to the OB South.


The British and Americans completed the deployment of their air fleets before attacking Sicily for which task they required three weeks.

After being attacked from the air and sea, the fortified islands capitulated one by one. The loss of Pantelleria was an especial set-back. After only a few air attacks, the commanding Admiral capitulated with a force of 12 000, and surrendered the fortified stronghold owing to an apparent water shortage. Of the 54 heavy and light batteries, only two were spiked by the defenders. All others remained in full working order.

This was the only case in modern history where a fortress had been forced to surrender solely as a result of air attacks.

The allied air offensive then concentrated on Sicily. There were six Italian coastal protection divisions and four mobile reserve divisions. We had deployed two mobile German divisions.

Early on 10 July, British and American forces landed on the southeastern corner of Sicily without meeting any resistance. The German air force on the island had already been partially eliminated prior to the landing.

As early as three weeks before the assault, the ratio of German to enemy fighters was 150 to 1 200, with bombers 30 to 800 (on Sicily). This air superiority was decisive for the success of enemy operations.

Another factor was the absence of the will to resist on the part of our Allies.

This forced OB South to make these critical remarks on 30.6.1943: 'The defence of the islands Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica against strong attacks by the enemy can be considered as secure, based on present strength and supply conditions. But a deciding factor is the low spirit of the Italian troops. It is to be hoped that the prevailing and envisaged deployment of German troops will improve the morale of the Italians. If the island defences and the Italian soldiers fail, then the loss of the island (Sicily) must be expected sooner or later. German forces alone will not be able to defend Sicily for any length of time.

After a token defence, the Italian coastal defence and protection units capitulated. The counter attack by the Panzer-Division Hermann Goering could not succeed when advancing towards the coast because of the curtain of fire put up by the enemy's naval artillery.

The island's evacuation became necessary after the Italian Commando Supremo had begun armistice talks with General Eisenhower's staff. The German High Command believed that it was imperative to move the dangerously exposed German units from their positions far in the south of Sicily to the north.

The final evacuation of Sicily succeeded surprisingly well, and it took place under massed AA cover from both shores of the Messina straits.


1 Positions held, by General Mahncke (then Lieutenant-General) June-Nov 1942 Commander Luftgaustab zbV 21 with Luftflotte 4. Southern front, Kaukasus. Nov 42-Jan 1943 Commander of 15th Luftwaffenfelddivision operating near Proletarskaja. Jan 43 to May 43 Commander of Fliegerdivision Donez, at Stalingrad.
2 General Loerzer, an ex-WW I fighter pilot and close friend of Goering, had, unfortunately, only been concerned with his personal comfort while in command of Sicily. His tenure of command had been undistinguished in a military sense, and everybody was glad to see him leave. The general opinion was that he was incompetent. Despite his shortcomings he had been commended for his excellent services in the Mediterranean. He moved back to Berlin to become Chief to Personnel in the R.I.M., a post for which he was unsuitable. I believe that Goering made a grave mistake in putting Loerzer into this job.


Luftgau: the basis of the administration and supply organisation. It was a territorial area command responsible for training, administration, maintenance, supply and field defence.

Luftflotte: established on a territorial basis. The commander of a Luftflotte was responsible for the field formations. Subsidiary formations were the Fliegerkorps, Fliegerdivisions, the Jagdkorps etc.

0KW: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme Command)

OB South: Oberbefelhshaber Sued. (High Command South)

BRT: Gross register tonnage

The extracts of the War Diary are quoted with kind permission of the Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Koblenz, West Germany. All other material is copyright by the author.

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