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Posted on Aug 25, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 2

By Carlo D'Este

The battle for Sicily was characterized by a lack of direction from Alexander who failed to develop either a strategic or tactical plan for its conquest. There was no master plan, nor even an agreed strategy among the three commanders, Alexander, Montgomery and Patton, merely Alexander’s notion that Patton would act as the shield on the left while Eighth Army served as the sword on the right. But, as one of Montgomery’s senior staff officers has written, “the two armies were left largely to develop their operations in the manner which seemed most propitious in the prevailing circumstances.” Of greater consequence, however, was the lack of any strategic objective, although Messina, the gateway between the island and mainland Italy should have been the obvious objective of the Allies. Whoever controlled Messina controlled Sicily. Alexander nevertheless, elected to allow the land battle to develop before deciding the strategy his two armies would employ.


After the disastrous battles of Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass in February 1943 the improved U.S. performance in Tunisia in the spring had failed to alter Alexander’s strong conviction that American fighting ability remained inferior to the British Army, even though the U.S. force now fighting in Sicily bore scant resemblance to the one that had been humiliated five-months earlier. Alexander firmly believed that the troops of the Eighth Army were more experienced and reliable than any American troops, despite the fact that most of Montgomery’s veteran formations were battle-weary from too many months of combat in North Africa. Thus, Alexander was simply unwilling to entrust Patton and his Seventh Army with anything more than a secondary role in Sicily.

M-7 105mm self-propelled howitzers pass Sicilian civilians during the
American advance. (National Archives)

Prior to D-Day Alexander provided virtually no guidance to his two subordinate commanders about the conduct of the campaign in Sicily, nor did he anticipate the speed with which each would secure such sizeable bridgeheads. In the absence of direction, his two strong-willed subordinates inevitably began to act independently of Alexander and each other. Montgomery found ready acceptance when he proposed what Alexander had envisioned all along but never articulated: that Eighth Army make the main effort to cut Sicily in half.

To implement this strategy meant Eighth Army cutting directly across the boundary line between the two armies and directly across the route of the advancing U.S. 45th Division. Montgomery signaled that he wanted the troublesome boundary line moved. Alexander readily agreed and ordered Patton to hand over a disputed road to the Eighth Army, thus requiring the corps commander, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, to move the entire 45th Division back to the Gela beaches, and then north to new positions. It was the most contentious and militarily unsound decision of the campaign and, at a stroke, forfeited an opportunity to have encircled the entire German Panzer Corps defending the island. Although disgusted, Patton nevertheless complied without protest.

Bradley was thunderstruck and accurately judged the decision the turning point of the campaign, believing Patton ought to have resisted Alexander’s order.1 “We were ready to strike for Messina, the only real strategic prize on Sicily. Now Monty would deny us this role, relegating us (as in southern Tunisia) to the demeaning and inconsequential task of protecting the Eighth Army’s rear and flank.”2 Bradley never forgave Montgomery.

Once the orders were issued Canadian units encountered stiff resistance while the 45th Division stood helplessly by, unable to come to their aid even though their artillery was within one-mile of the highway. What the better-positioned American infantry, with the advantage of close artillery support, could have accomplished with relative ease became a costly ordeal for the Canadians.

Alexander’s unfortunate decision left a bitter legacy, and gave the German commanders precious time to impart their defensive genius and dictate the timetable for the campaign. From that time on both Bradley and Patton accepted the principle practiced by Montgomery, i.e., in the absence of leadership and guidance from above, “they should interpret their orders to suit themselves. In North West Europe it led to tacit conspiracy to ignore Eisenhower. ”3 Even worse, Sicily became the springboard for Omar Bradley’s anti-Montgomery, anti-British bias that had harmful consequences in Northwest Europe in 1944/45.

As a direct result of the boundary line incident Patton arrived unannounced at Alexander’s headquarters in North Africa on July 17 determined to gain a more important role for his army. With the British advance now stalled in the mountains and in the plain of Catania, and unable to crack the Etna Line, Alexander agreed to Patton’s plan to employ Bradley’s II Corps to thrust to Sicily’s northern coast, while the remainder of Seventh Army cleared western Sicily. In reality, this was merely a clever ploy by Patton to maneuver Seventh Army into a position to capture Messina. Patton was correct in his belief that to further demean the American fighting role in Sicily was intolerable, and the only means of overcoming it was by means of a great American victory, which in Sicily meant the capture of Messina.

Knocked out Pzkfw VI "Tiger" near Gela, Sicily on 13 July 1943.
(National Archives)

Alexander could have struck a killing blow with Seventh Army where the Etna Line defenses were weakest and incomplete and thus tightened a noose from which the only escape was retreat or surrender. Instead, the opportunity was squandered by the capture of Palermo and a secondary sweep into western Sicily, neither of which were of any strategic importance. Greeted by thousands of flag-waving, cheering Sicilians, Patton’s army liberated Palermo on July 21. While the publicity focused on Palermo, Patton began a new offensive along the north coast and across north central Sicily with two infantry divisions, their destination: Messina.

When the three Allied ground commanders met for the first time in the campaign on July 25, Montgomery proposed that Seventh Army rather than his Eighth Army capture Messina. The myth that there was a race to Messina between Patton and Montgomery existed only in Patton’s mind – and was unfortunately embellished in the film “Patton” in which a smirking Monty meets Patton in the city centre as two competing bands drown one another out. The truth was that Montgomery not only never went to Messina nor had any desire to do so but also once he recognized Seventh Army was better positioned to carry out this task, actually advocated that Patton do it!

Thus Patton had the full backing of both Alexander and Montgomery to seize Messina and end the troublesome Sicily campaign. In the time it took for Seventh Army to fight a series of bloody battles and capture Messina, the Germans skillfully carried out a succession of delaying actions by utilizing the mountainous terrain to maximum advantage. Although the German formations in Sicily had performed brilliantly, they now faced entrapment in the northeastern corner of the island and must either evacuate Sicily or surrender. While the German’s conducted a series of delaying actions which made American progress a painful and costly experience, plans were implemented for an audacious mass evacuation across the Strait of Messina to the Italian boot beginning in early August.

Ferry traffic in the Strait was efficiently organized and performed flawlessly under the cover of heavy anti-aircraft support as the Allied air forces made a half-hearted and largely futile effort to interdict the evacuation. The Germans fully expected catastrophic losses; instead, by the time the operation ended the morning of Aug. 17, 1943 they had extricated their entire remaining force of nearly 55,000 troops and virtually every weapon and vehicle capable of being ferried to the mainland, all of which would be later employed in the defense of Italy.4 The U.S. 3d Division entered the smoking ruins of Messina that same morning only to find that the last German soldier had long since departed.

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1 Comment

  1. The Tiger is outside 47 Corso Indipendenza, Acate, Sicily. It appears to have been destroyed by its own crew.


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