Following the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, Allied military strategists turned their attention to southern Italy. Winston Churchill famously described the region as the “soft underbelly of Europe,” and claimed that an invasion would pull German troops from the Eastern Front and help bring a swift end to the war.
On July 10, 1943, American and British forces invaded Sicily. Operation Husky brought the island under Allied control and hastened the downfall of Benito Mussolini, but more than one hundred thousand German and Italian troops managed to escape across the Strait of Medina. The “soft underbelly” of mainland Italy became, in the words of US Fifth Army commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, “a tough old gut.”
Less than a year after landing with the US Marines on Guadalcanal Island, journalist Richard Tregaskis joined the Allied forces in Sicily and Italy. Invasion Diary documents some of the fiercest fighting of World War II, from bombing runs over Rome to the defense of the Salerno beachhead against heavy artillery fire to the fall of Naples. In compelling and evocative prose, Tregaskis depicts the terror and excitement of life on the front lines and recounts his own harrowing brush with death when a chunk of German shrapnel pierced his helmet and shattered his skull.
An invaluable eyewitness account of two of the most crucial campaigns of the Second World War and a stirring tribute to the soldiers, pilots, surgeons, nurses, and ambulance drivers whose skill and courage carried the Allies to victory, Invasion Diary is a classic of war reportage and “required reading for all who want to know how armies fight” (Library Journal).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Richard Tregaskis including rare images from the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.
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By Richard Tregaskis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1944 Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
JULY 9, 1943
I had just flown into Algiers from Morocco and was walking down the sun-bathed main street, Rue Michelet, feverishly searching for the Public Relations Office, when I met Pete Huss, the International News Service manager at Allied Headquarters. We shook hands, and then he immediately led me to his room in the Aletti Hotel. He knew, without my saying; that I was hot on the trail of the invasion.
I had been running fast, struggling, cutting corners to get down here to the Mediterranean theater in time for the big excursion into Europe. I followed Pete into his third-floor hotel room, and he shut the door behind us.
"Is it Sicily or Sardinia?" I asked him. From various indications in London I had guessed that it would be one or the other.
"That's right — Sicily," said Huss.
I would have realized as much if I had looked down from the balcony to the blue, white-capped water of the Bay of Algiers. There ten or twelve troop transports, the rails colored khaki by lines of troops, were even then weighing anchor. Some of them had begun to move and I knew that I had missed the landing. It was too late to get aboard this task force.
"And they're only reserves," said Huss. "The main force left about a week ago." He grinned at my crestfallen expression. "But you can still catch up. There'll be plenty of fighting left to cover."
At 4 A.M. a telephone call summoned us to the Public Relations Office. There was no moon, and it seemed a good night for the invasion. In the press room we found the correspondents assembled for the expected announcement.
The British Col. McCormack, wearing his brilliant red staff officer's cap, stepped up to the front of the room, cleared his throat, and said, "British, Canadian and American troops began landing operations in Sicily early this morning."
The copy — the small amount of it that was permissible — was passed in, and a deadline of six o'clock was declared for the release of the story. It was getting light, and on the balcony outside the press room I saw Hugh Baillie, President of the United Press, looking down into the silent Rue Michelet. "Well," he said, "I guess plenty of our boys have gone to glory by this time."
This morning I received word that I would be able to get air transportation to Tunis, first step on the way to Sicily.
Gen. Eisenhower arrived from Sicily. We correspondents piled into our jeeps and made a journey of some distance to a villa near Tunis where the general's Headquarters had been set up. It was a spotless modern house with beautiful mosaic floors. A few minutes later, "Ike" breezed into the room, looking fresh and cheerful. He wore a tropical worsted shirt and trousers, with four silver stars sewn on his collar, his only decoration. He is a good-looking man, with regular features, a balding crown, and notably pale blue eyes. Most striking is his quick, agreeable manner. He seemed to sense the implication of every question quickly, and answered with concise phrases. He said that we are facing 240,000 to 260,000 Italians. They are probably coastal divisions, he said, adding, "They have no stomach for fighting."
The campaign has been so far very successful, said the general, and tanks and supplies have been put ashore without any difficulty. More than 500 tanks are in Sicily, 6,000 Italians have been captured, the enemy resistance is negligible, our casualties "far lighter than expected." The general said, "A decision should be reached in about two weeks, if our present good luck continues. We effected considerable tactical surprise. Evidently the enemy had expected that our attack would be based from Pantelleria, and had prepared for an assault against Northwestern Sicily."
Five days have gone, and still no arrangements for my transfer to Sicily. The swimming at Carthage is wonderful, but, under the circumstances, every pastime is sheer waste. I want to get going.
This afternoon I went to the summer palace of the Bey of Tunis, now an American Army billet, to see Col. Elliott Roosevelt and try to arrange at least a look at Sicily. The photographic reconnaissance group under his command had made twenty-four flights over Sicily yesterday alone. He had flown with the most recent night photo reconnaissance himself in an A-20, and would go over again tonight. I asked him if I could go along and he consented.
"It's a wonderful sight," he said. "You can see explosions everywhere on the island. You can even pick out the bomb flashes when the bombers are making a raid. The ports are taking an awful beating. Messina looks as if it had been wiped off the map and Palermo is the same way."
I asked the colonel how soon he thought the fight for Sicily would be over. "I'm not a military expert," he said, "but my impression is that it will be over quickly, maybe inside of two weeks. The pressure is on day and night, and the aerial bombardment is terrific. Come along and see for yourself."
I was at La Marsa Airdrome at 1:30 A.M. Outside the Operations Tent, Col. Roosevelt said, "Are you all ready?" and pointed toward the B-25. It was the same type of two-engined, double-tailed, medium bomber which the Doolittle flyers had taken on the historic attack on Tokyo. Mechanics were working in the half-light, hoisting parachutes and other equipment into the trap-door opening in the belly of the ship.
I put on my Mae West, struggled through the bottom hatch and tried on my parachute. The colonel took the co-pilot's seat next to Capt. George Humbrecht of St. Louis. From the small compartment directly behind the pilot's and co-pilot's chairs, I could look over their shoulders and through the wide strip of windshield.
It was 2:07 A.M. when we took off. We could see the wrinkled mountain mass of North Africa in the growing moonlight. Cape Bon, a rocky point reaching out toward Sicily where the Germans had staged their final evacuation in North Africa, lay to our right. The Mediterranean seemed ghostly still, like a sea of fog in the moonlight. Col. Roosevelt's duck-billed cap bobbed as he looked over the water, and the crossed straps of his parachute harness seemed white and distinct. An orange beacon winked on our port beam from the misty plain of the Mediterranean.
Through the astrodome, where the navigator takes his sights, I could see stars strewn over the moonlit sky, and Cassiopoeia, the queen on her chair, pointed toward the North Star. We were heading northeast.
I crawled through the narrow tunnel to the bombardier's compartment in the nose, the "greenhouse," where he operates his machine gun and bombsight. It was noticeably cold in the compartment, for we were climbing to the zone of lower temperature. The bombardier, Lieut. Everett Anthony, of Hartford, Conn., was concerned about a light from the toggle switchboard, which seemed to be out of commission.
The moonlight was brighter and the sheen of the sea more lustrous. Only the top of the propeller arc shimmered above the shadow cast by the wing. The colonel was rubbing his hands in an attempt to keep warm. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled. We were approaching Sicily.
The strip of beach, green in the moonlight, like a scar between the sea and the mountains, was now behind us. The ridges of the high mountains, white icing in the moonlight, incrusted the dark background of the land mass.
Suddenly I saw embers of fire, another fire beyond the first. From the detached distance of the air, they appeared mere bonfires. The closer fire, on the right, proved to be a disorderly group of large blazes, like strewn coals against the land. The farther fire, beyond and to the left, magnified by the binoculars, was revealed as a huge U-shaped double row of houses, burning brilliantly. In this one group there must have been thirty to forty large conflagrations, and the even spacing and arrangement indicated they were the buildings of an ammunition dump or a factory.
"They're firing at us over there, on the right," said the colonel. White flashes of gunfire pricked the darkness of the ground. A searchlight beam, leaning against the sky, snapped on, then off. Another beam of light swept the sky ahead of us. The colonel and the pilot were shouting at each other. The canvas back of the colonel's chair came loose. There were more flashes of anti-aircraft firing, closer on our right.
We were maneuvering violently, attempting to stay clear of the anti-aircraft fire. As we passed over the U-shaped mass of fires, we saw a large orange explosion near by, and felt the lifting blast of the concussion. It might have been a bomb dropped on the ground by some plane we had failed to see, or perhaps a fresh fire in the munitions dump — if munitions dump it was.
I looked at my watch. It was 3:23 A.M. Now the fires were fading into the distance behind us, and we were coming near to our objective, Palermo. The moonlight was paling, the land growing misty, and the horizon had become a line of cloud just below the moon.
"We are to the west of Palermo," said the colonel. "We'll try to find out through the overcast just exactly where we are."
We continued to descend, and passed over a shore line, with a mountainous mass on the right, and circled again. We had overshot our target.
The pilot looked down nervously and said to the colonel, "Dawn is breaking at 4:15. We don't want to get caught up here."
The weather grew increasingly misty. "We'll have to go back," said the colonel. We swung southward. We could not drop our flash bombs.
At 4:30, a searchlight probed the sky to the left. There were more glowing coals of fires to the right. We were still over Sicily.
The fires and searchlights faded, and there was no more anti-aircraft firing. I buttoned my jacket around my neck, squatted on my parachute and began to doze. When I woke up we were landing at La Marsa Airfield in North Africa.
We rubbed our hands, shivered and stretched our creaking joints. I asked the colonel about the route we had followed.
"We passed over Sciacca, then Palermo and Castelvetrano. The large fires were probably in Sciacca." He yawned and added, wearily, "Not much of a show. Come back again some time and we'll have another try."
I worked on the story until late in the morning. The flight itself had been a failure, but I had learned, at least, that the President's son was not afraid to share danger with his men.
I am trying desperately to make arrangements to go to Sicily. The details of getting transferred by the P.R.O. progress with tantalizing slowness. Col. Joe Phillips, head of the P.R.O., assures me that my assignment will be coming soon, but it is a full week since the Allied forces landed in Sicily. If the predictions of Gen. Eisenhower and Col. Roosevelt come true, then the campaign is already one-third finished, and there remains little time for me to see any action.
Maj. Max Boyd, of the Air Corps, dropped in casually and let it be known that an air mission of considerable importance was impending. His quiet approach made the whole matter so much the more mysterious. When he said that any of us who wanted to go along should report to Air Corps Headquarters tomorrow, my interest perked up. Anything to distract me from the annoyance of waiting was welcome. The campaign in Sicily might well be over before I set foot on the island. In any case, I might get a good story out of this mysterious mission, and still be back in time to catch a boat for Sicily. I had nothing to lose.CHAPTER 2
Raid on Rome
At Allied Air Force Headquarters we were met by Brig. Gen. Laurie Norstad, second in command to Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz. Slim, blond, clean-cut Gen. Norstad greeted us soberly. Less than thirty-five years old, he is the ultra-modern officer.
General Norstad drew some photographic prints from a file and passed them out to us. They were aerial pictures of cities and other bombing targets. We waited for the explanation.
"Our job is to cut the enemy's communication lines," he began in his precise manner, choosing his words carefully. "The photo reconnaissance unit photographed our raids in Sicily. It seems that we did a lot of damage. Our emphasis is now shifting to the mainland. We have made two attacks on Naples — probably the most concentrated to date."
There was a pause. Gen. Norstad seemed to be measuring his words. "I think we have demonstrated that we bomb for military effect. We do not bomb to scare people. We've now reached the point where it is necessary to cut the enemy's supply lines. We must achieve the destruction of enemy aircraft and bases.
"Bombardment from the air is a precise instrument. We are using it with precision methods. That is done in all cases. Precision bombing reached a peak at Pantelleria. We checked it every day. We checked it coldly and scientifically. We found that we were even a little too conservative in our claims."
The general waited a moment. We looked up expectantly.
"You people may participate in a flight which will be very interesting," he began.
Now we were going to get it.
"There may be an air attack on Rome very shortly." He spoke almost casually. An electric silence filled the room. It was broken when Gen. Norstad continued in his meticulous way.
"It is very important in this mission that not one of the religious institutions should be damaged. We have selected our crews with the utmost care. When the city is attacked, it will be attacked only by those units which have indicated that they are capable of bombing with great accuracy."
It developed that some 250 heavy bombers and nearly 300 mediums would attack marshaling yards and similar installations.
Norstad gave out confidential photographic mosaic maps of Rome.
"You will notice that I have marked the Vatican and the other religious monuments with this legend: 'Must on no account be damaged.' Here is the St. Paolo Basilica, less than five miles from the San Lorenzo yards. There is the St. John Lateran. That too must be given a wide berth. The closest of all the buildings is the St. John Lateran, about a mile and a half away.
"If any cloud formation exists which might make bombing inadvisable, we will not do it. Those are our orders. We have been preparing for this mission literally for months. But when we do it, when we go out to destroy something, we should really destroy it, go out and bomb the hell out of it."
The precise, handsome young general had made all his points. The talk was over.
Eight of us correspondents were chosen to make the flight over Rome. A C-53, two-engined transport plane had been chartered to take us to the air bases where the attack on Rome would originate, and afterwards to Algiers to write our stories.
As the last remnants of sunlight were fading over the bare, almost grassless African plain, Herbert Matthews, of the New York Times, and I reached the camp of the Heavy Bombardment Group to which we were assigned. Already the chill evening winds had begun to blow through the tent camp. From across the company street came the sounds of a reed organ, and voices singing a hymn. Chaplain Harold T. Whillock, of Springfield, Ill., who was passing, volunteered the information that singing was quite common here on Sunday night. The chaplain said that church attendance had been very good today — the day before the Rome raid — and that he had conducted three separate services, one for Protestants, two masses for Catholics.
A yellow harvest moon hovered on the sharp horizon, and the evening star was brilliant on the blue shoulder of the night. The quartet in the briefing tent across the street, which did double duty as a church, shifted into another hymn, and from the yellow triangle of light which was the door of the neighboring tent came the sounds of a squeaking phonograph, giving out the swing version of "Don't Sit under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me."
This morning at six o'clock, carrying our armful of paraphernalia, which included oxygen masks, earphones, Mae Wests, and field glasses, we joined the group of crew members being "briefed" by Col. Fay R. Upthegrove, C.O. of the outfit. Most of the pilots — the "grapevine" of underground information was usually rapid in any aviators' society — knew in advance that the mission was to be directed against Rome.
Excerpted from Invasion Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Copyright © 1944 Random House, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
II Raid on Rome,
III Sicilian Front,
IV The Road to Nicosia,
V Objective: Catania,
VI Gateway to a Continent,
VII The Best Laid Plans ...,
VIII Action at Altavilla,
IX In the Shadow of Vesuvius,
X This Is Naples,
XI "The Volturno Is Quite an Obstacle",
XII Politics in the Wake of War,
XIV Battle Scarred,
Index of Names,
A Biography of Richard Tregaskis,