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Naval Gunfire Support during the Invasion of Salerno, Italy

June 29, 2017 | By Marcus Thompson, Naval History & Heritage Command Intern (Dartmouth College)
During the Allied invasion of Salerno in September of 1943, "Operation Avalanche," the U.S. Navy set a new standard for naval gunfire support (NGFS) only eclipsed by the Okinawa and Iwo Jima campaigns. NGFS, although initially shunned by Army commanders who valued stealth over softened defenses, was an invaluable asset throughout Operation Avalanche and was a highly significant factor in protecting allied troop movements and warding off German counterattacks. It's success not only resulted from the performance of NGFS surface ships, but spotters on the ground and in the air, as well as air defense cover provided by allied aircraft. Using such intelligence gathered from the interrogation of Italian prisoners, aerial reconnaissance, and other sources, Vice Adm. H. Kent Hewitt, USN, the overall naval commander for Avalanche, drew up a list 275 targets for preliminary NGFS bombardment.[i]

Concerned that such strikes would compromise surprise for the landing, Lt. General Mark Clark, commander of the US Fifth Army, and 36th Division Commander Gen. Fred L. Walker denied the request.[ii] Gen. Walker also was concerned about the prospect of civilian casualties and the destruction of non-military structures just one day after the formal Italian surrender to the allies.[iii] Admiral Hewitt disagreed, arguing that there was no possibility of achieving surprise because German air raids and reconnaissance planes had already located the invasion force and provided intelligence to the German command of the imminent attack.[iv] Admiral Hewitt was unfortunately vindicated when American troops faced a tough landing German Gen. Von Vietinghoff, commander of the German Tenth Army defending Salerno, was well aware of the coming attack and had several days to reinforce his defenses.[v]

Despite the lack of preliminary NGFS, naval batteries supported troops on the beaches as soon as they moved into position and established communications around 9:00 a.m. on Sept. 9. Rear Adm. Lyal A. Davidson, commanded an NGFS force in the American sector. His forces included his flagship Philadelphia (CL-41), Savannah (CL-42), and four additional destroyers. While NGFS was delayed by un-swept mines and poor communications with shore fire control parties, by 9:00 a.m. on D-Day mines were for the most part cleared, communications were established, and targeting information began to flow from shore to sea. Between 8:25 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., Davidson's guns bombarded enemy batteries, observation posts, infantry, and tank concentrations. At 1131, Savannah fired on a concentration of tanks from an impressive range of 17,450 yards, forcing them to retreat.[vi]

On D-Day alone, NGFS ships engaged a minimum of 132 targets with 53% accuracy while troops were busy developing their beachheads and unloading copious supplies for further penetration.[vii] A particularly notable moment on D-Day occurred in the Northern Sector. Rear Adm. Richard L. Conolly, a hard-charging 1914 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy from Waukegan, Illinois, commanded the left flank of the mainly British Northern Attack Force in this sector.

After British and American minesweepers cleared channels at 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 9, Conolly ordered three Royal Navy Hunt-class destroyers to assume positions only a mile off the beaches. When German shelling cancelled the order to withhold NGFS, Adm. Conolly returned fire immediately and softened artillery enough to allow LSTs to deploy by H-Hour.[viii] At one point in the ensuing melee, Conolly personally spotted a German battery firing on troops from his flagship, USS Biscayne (AVP-11), a Barnegat-class small seaplane tender. With his destroyers occupied, he ordered Biscayne to approach and silence the German battery. This action, along with Conolly's aggressive maneuvers during the invasion of Sicily, earned him the nickname "close-in Conolly." Later in the war, Conolly would lead the amphibious landings at Guam in 1944 and Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, in 1945.[ix] 

U.S. Army Engineers haul a roll of wire mesh into position to make a beach roadway, at Salerno, circa September 1943. USS LST-1 is in the center background.

In addition to softening Axis defenses during the initial days of battle, NGFS was instrumental in repelling the first major German counterattack on Sept. 13. German troops threatened to break the Allied line by attacking the point separating the Northern and Southern Attack Forces: the junction of the Sele and Calore Rivers.[x] During the night of Sept. 13-14, Philadelphia alone fired 921 rounds of 6-inch on troops, tanks, and batteries.[xi] By the conflict's conclusion on Sept. 17, the Navy had delivered over 11,000 tons of shell in direct support to troops ashore.

By Sept. 28 the equivalent of 71,500 105mm field artillery projectiles had been fired at 556 or more targets.[xii] The Luftwaffe responded to the power of NGFS by unleashing devastating weapons of their own: new radio controlled rocket gliders, radio controlled bombs, and rocket propelled bombs.[xiii] Three major warships, Savannah, the British light cruiser Uganda (66), and the battleship HMS Warspite (03) were badly damaged or sunk by these new weapons, and several of Philadelphia's crew were injured when a glide bomb exploded near her.[xiv] In response, Hewitt requested additional air cover from Rear Adm. Philip Vian, Royal Navy, the commander of the Support Carrier Force for the invasion, whose carrier based fighters intercepted and prevented further Luftwaffe attacks.[xv] 

Sunrise over Salerno Bay, 10 September 1943, showing a portion of the invasion fleet.

When reflecting on the outcome of the Anglo-American victory at Salerno, German Gen.Siegfried Westphal, the chief of the German General Staff of the German Army Command in the West, concluded, "The greatest distress suffered by the [German] troops was caused by the fire of ships" guns of heavy caliber, from which they could find no protection in the rocky soil.[xvi] The Navy's support for soldiers ashore was critical in securing victory and provided the Navy valuable experience for further amphibious landings throughout the course of the war.

[i]Vice Admiral H. K. Hewitt, USN, The Italian Campaign: Western Naval Task Force, Action Report of The Salerno Landings, September - October, 1943, (United States Eigth Fleet: 11 January, 1945), 176; Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007), 199.
[ii] Martin Blumenson, The United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Salerno to Cassino, (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History United States Army, 1969), 57.
[iii] Blumenson, 56; Atkinson, 199.
[iv] Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison USN, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume Nine: Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, January 1943-June 1944, (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1954), 249; Ultimately, the official order on NGFS, handed down at 2035, on 8 September read, "In view of the Italian armistice no repeat no shore bombardment will be undertaken unless there is evidence that landing is being opposed." See Blumenson, 57.
[v] Morison, 360.
[vi] Morison, 266-267.
[vii] Hewitt, 231.
[viii] Morison, 272-273.
[ix] Morison, 276-277.
[x] Troy D. Morgan and Spencer C. Tucker, "Salerno Invasion (Operation Avalanche, 9 September 1943)," The Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 1329.
[xi] Morison, 292.
[xii] Hewitt, 232; Morison, 280.
[xiii] Hewitt, 169.
[xiv] Hewitt, 169.
[xv] Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, USN, The Allied Navies At Salerno: Operation Avalanche - September 1943, (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, September, 1953), 970. [xvi] Morison, 314.