71 years ago this month, in the summer of 1943, the Wehrmacht carried out one of the most impressive maritime retreats of World War II, comparable to the British evacuation of Dunkirk or the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal. Between 11 and 17 August some 60,000 Wehrmacht personnel, along with 75,000 Italians, were evacuated from the island of Sicily, saving them from encirclement and capture by the advancing Allied invasion force. The German units that were saved included the élite Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 15th Panzegrenadier Division as well as detachments from the 1st Parachute Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division. If the operation had failed then the German Army in Italy would have been crippled as a fighting force, leaving the Axis position in southern Europe dangerously exposed.
The commander of XIV Panzer Corps, Hans-Valentin Hube, began preparing for the German withdrawal shortly after the Sicily campaign began. As early as 14 July, only four days after the initial landings, Hube realised that he was going to need an escape plan. He assigned one of his trusted subordinates – the flamboyant and eccentric Knight’s Cross holder Ernst-Günther Baade – the task of defending the Straits of Messina against Allied attack from the air, sea, and land. This promotion was important, not only because it brought all the relevant units into a unified command structure, but also because it pushed the unreliable Luftwaffe commander Rainer Stahel (and with him the pernicious influence of Hermann Göring) out of the picture.
Over the next three weeks, while the battle was raging in Sicily, Baade turned the Straits of Messina into a fortress bristling with anti-aircraft guns and anti-ship artillery. He also gathered a flotilla of military and civilian transport vessels. With the assistance of naval commander Gustav von Liebenstein, a highly efficient ferry service between Messina and the Italian mainland was established. This was a major achievement given Allied superiority in the air.
By the last week of July it was clear to Hube that the Axis force was going to have to evacuate the island sooner or later. On 1 August he submitted a formal plan for the operation to the German high command, who gave it their approval. Although he did not envisage abandoning the Island for at least another week, Hube thought it wise to start moving non-essential personnel to the mainland as soon as possible. The Italians, who were less willing to accept defeat on Sicily, refused to begin moving troops off the island until the situation was clearly irretrievable.
Although relieved that his proposal had been approved, Hube was annoyed to find that the response included a note from Hitler forbidding him from telling his men about the evacuation plan. Hube ignored this order, telling his men that evacuation plans were well underway on the evening of 2 August. This was an important boost to his men’s morale, as they had been worried that they would be on the receiving end of one of Hitler’s pointless “fight to the last man” orders.
On 4 August, the first non-essential German troops began to gather in Messina where they were loaded onto ferries and taken across to the mainland. Hube had arranged matters so that from the moment the troops were ordered to leave the island they came under the command of Richard Heidrich, commander of the 1st Parachute Division. This arrangement allowed him to concentrate on the tactical withdrawal of his troops in Sicily, while Heidrich and his staff, who had remained on the mainland, oversaw the complex administrative task of reorganising and billeting the departing formations.
Between 4 and 11 August, as boatloads of mechanics, staff officers, medical orderlies and clerks were transported to the mainland, von Hube carried out a masterful tactical withdrawal across the island. Using the terrain to their advantage, the German troops would hold mountain strongpoints during the day then fall back by night, planting landmines and blowing bridges as they went. The British could not keep up with the speed of the German withdrawal, and their attempts to cut them off using amphibious assaults repeatedly fell short, capturing ground that had already been abandoned.
On 11 August the evacuation began in earnest. Gustav von Liebenstein had laid out four marked routes for ferries across the straits, and each German unit was given instructions to head to a particular assembly point. For six days the ferries worked non-stop, carrying tens of thousands of German troops across to safety. The RAF and USAAF attempted to interdict the evacuation, but the raids were driven back with heavy losses by the massed anti-aircraft guns on either side of the straits.
Rigid discipline was required to prevent panic. If a soldier was deemed to have deserted or made remarks that could undermine the confidence of his comrades, he was shot. Similarly, soldiers that arrived at the assembly points without rifles or missing significant pieces of equipment were turned away. By maintaining order, the Germans were able to escape the island not only with most of their forces, but also with almost all of their heavy equipment (unlike, say, the British at Dunkirk).
The Italians, by contrast, fared poorly. Italian troops were assigned lesser importance in the German plans than non-essential German materiél and supplies, so the Italian army had to improvise its own evacuation plans. These were, predictably, chaotic. Small ships, crammed to the gunwales with deserters, followed erratic and unpredictable schedules, coming and going from various ports with no overall plan. The Germans by this point had dropped all pretence of friendliness with the Italians, and were sometimes openly hostile. During the final stages of the evacuation, the Germans confiscated numerous trucks and vehicles from Italian units, transporting them across to the mainland where they were given to German divisions.
By 17 August, the last German troops had abandoned the Island. The Allies found themselves in possession of a large piece of enemy territory and around 100,000 Italian prisoners, but the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat had been lost. This would come to be an all too familiar story for the allies fighting their way up through Axis Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’ over the next two years.