Salerno: Another Dunkirk?
What was really happening on the beaches of Salerno in Italy 75 years ago today?
With the release of the movie Dunkirk in 2017, it brought to mind something I read while working on the book, LST-388: A World War II Journal. The discussion centered on the invasion of Italy at Salerno in 1943. Battle on the beaches was not going in the Allies favor and, according to naval historian Samuel E. Morison, those in command (General Mark Clark and Admiral Cunningham) briefly considered conducting a reverse amphibious operation, taking troops from one beach and landing them on another. Limited with ships and landing craft to begin with, as many had already been sent to England to prepare for the cross-channel attack into France, this option to shift troops apparently was quickly dismissed.
Yet a more in-depth study is presented in Des Hickey and Gus Smith’s book Operation Avalanche: The Salerno Landings-1943. Consideration was not only given to a shifting of troops from one beach to another, but also to a full evacuation, and the Navy plans were already in place, waiting for the word go.
It seems that the invasion of Salerno is at times forgotten. The drama surrounding the Italian surrender and the German takeover of coastal defenses, all while the Allied amphibious force headed for the beaches, led to less than optimal situations for the soldiers on the beach. My Dad’s ship, the USS LST-388, took British troops to the northern beaches of Salerno and, under heavy gunfire, took three tries to get into the beach and land its troops and vehicles. One LST hit a mine on the way to the beach, others were damaged by gunfire and by radio-controlled bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. Yet they all managed to get their troops ashore.
My dad would write this in his journal on that first day:
We could see everything. Soldiers crawled along a wall as if they were going to crawl into it. Across the field, Germans were using their 88s and machine guns. On the beach lay a wrecked airplane and many other wrecked vehicles. Some tanks were still burning.
For the next several days, movement on the beaches stalled. German General von Vietinghoff reportedly felt confident that they would retake the Allied beachhead at Salerno and push the Allies back into the sea. He sensed another Dunkirk.
According to Hickey and Smith, rumors soon reached both the British and American soldiers on the beach, and many of them began assembling their gear for a possible evacuation. Axis Sally taunted them:
“They’re bringing transports to take you off the beaches, boys. But this time you won’t get away. Sorry, boys, it’s the end of the line for you…”
Yet Eisenhower concluded that evacuation of the beaches at Salerno was not an option, and the LSTs were quickly reloaded with troops from every available port and landed on the already crowded beaches, again and again. Morison admits that a reverse amphibious operation, under hostile gunfire, would have been extremely difficult to execute. I think we can picture that somewhat now since many of us have seen the movie Dunkirk.
But what if a reverse amphibious operation had to be executed? How would they have gotten all the soldiers off the beach? The Allies now had LSTs and the smaller landing craft, including LCIs, LCTs, and LCVPs (or Higgins boats), but were there enough of them?
One day I hope to see a movie on the landings and ensuing struggle on the beaches of Salerno. Many Allied lives were lost on these beaches. A military strategy that may not have gone according to plan, but nevertheless is an important part of our history and one that should not be forgotten.