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The Big Bang: Pulverizing Pantelleria

By Lawrence Spinetta
3/5/2018 • World War II Magazine

Eisenhower’s plan to conquer the Mediterranean in 1943 hinged on a bold, unproven strategic bombing campaign.

“It’s suicide,” warned Gen. Harold Alexander when, in May 1943, Allied commander in chief Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to consider an amphibious landing on the Italian fortress island of Pantelleria. Alexander was not alone in his grim assessment; the majority of Eisenhower’s staff feared that such an assault would result in slaughter.

Undeterred, Eisenhower kept pressing them for options. The Allies simply could not afford to bypass the strategically located island. Wedged “like a cork in a bottle” between Tunisia and Sicily, Pantelleria—and nearby outposts Lampedusa, Linosa, and Lampione, known collectively as the Pelagie Islands—commanded the passage connecting the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean. Before the Allies could invade Sicily and the Italian mainland, they had to uncork the Axis’s southern defenses, but those defenses were formidable.

Finally, Air Marshal Arthur Coningham suggested that strategic bombing alone might do the trick. Eisenhower’s heart soared. This was exactly the type of bold idea he was searching for. “How long do you think it will take to reduce the island from the air?” he asked. “Two weeks,” was Coningham’s confident response.

Alexander bristled at Coningham’s prediction. It was a false promise, he said, nothing more than dangerous rhetoric. Eisenhower later said of the heated discussion that followed, “Never in my experience, certainly not in the African theater, was there ever a more bitterly fought battle among my advisors.”

But Eisenhower embraced Coningham’s plan, which offered the best potential for capturing the island without suffering crippling casualties. The aptly named Operation Corkscrew hammered Pantelleria with more than four weeks of continuous bombing in May and June 1943. It was a bold experiment: Could an air force alone dislodge a determined, well-entrenched enemy, making a costly ground assault unnecessary? And if so, could this pattern then be applied to the other island outposts, and to the European invasions to come?

When Allied leaders met at the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in January 1943, victory in North Africa was within grasp. Discussion turned to the next step: invading the European continent. Advocating against a cross-Channel approach, Churchill suggested a thrust into Sicily, up through the Italian mainland—the “soft underbelly” of the enemy, as he termed it—and into the heart of Germany. They selected Eisenhower, who had successfully directed Operation Torch the previous November, to plan the Sicilian invasion. He scheduled the operation, code-named Husky, for a favorable period of the July moon.

Eisenhower’s choice of invasion date was not unanimously popular. Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff and Eisenhower’s valued mentor, criticized his slow timetable and sent him a gut-punching message saying that his conservative plan lacked “any degree of boldness and daring which have won great victories for Nelson and Grant and Lee.”

But Ike’s timetable ultimately proved sound. Axis troops in North Africa officially surrendered on May 13, 1943, yielding over 275,000 prisoners, and mop-up operations were slow to conclude. When Marshall realized that aircraft carriers would not be available to support an early Sicilian invasion, he abandoned his push and recommended that the Allies first seize Pantelleria. Marshall knew that Allied fighters flying from airfields in North Africa could not reach Sicily, and Malta and Gozo were inadequate for basing enough short-range fighters. Pantelleria’s Marghana Airfield could accommodate more than 80 fighters and was only 135 miles from Sicily.

Eisenhower agreed with Marshall, but he knew that conquering Pantelleria was not going to be a cakewalk. The island was a natural fortress. Its irregular coastline and rocky beaches offered few feasible landing areas; the surface of the island lacked vegetation to conceal movement. The shallow, heavily guarded Porto di Pantelleria offered an anchor depth of 26 feet at most, limiting the size of supporting naval vessels, and the high surf, offshore current, and forceful winds made entering the port difficult and dangerous.

In 1937 Benito Mussolini had ordered Italian engineers to strengthen the island’s natural defenses and construct naval and air bases. An Allied spy plane managed to sneak past Italian air defenses in 1942 and snapped a photograph that revealed the eight-mile-long, five-mile-wide island was studded with over 100 gun emplacements and supplemented with coastal batteries, mountain strongpoints, and pillboxes embedded in the cliffs. This led some intelligence officers to call Pantelleria the “Italian Gibraltar”; Churchill, familiar with the island fortress from the siege of Malta, called it “the thorn in our side.”

But Pantelleria, and the Pelagie Island outposts, had to be taken. As a declassified U.S. Army Air Forces report put it, “If left in possession of the enemy, [the islands] would constitute a grave menace. [Pantelleria and Lampedusa] were the seats of Radio Direction Finder stations of sufficient power to detect the movement of aircraft not only over adjacent waters of the central Mediterranean but over the plains of eastern Tunisia as well. Both had observation posts which took note of practically every ship that passed between them and the shores of North Africa.”

Perhaps smarting from Marshall’s criticism of his conservative Sicilian invasion plan, Eisenhower decided to “make the capture of Pantelleria a sort of laboratory to determine the effect of concentrated heavy bombing on defended coastline,” as he wrote on May 13, 1943. His goal was to break the resistance of the Italian battalions on the island by air, attaining surrender without a costly ground assault.

He invited Solly Zuckerman, an Oxford scientist and adviser to the British Combined Operations Staff, to head a special group charged with systematically organizing air attacks to maximize impact. Zuckerman’s academic successes, notably publishing a book about primates called The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, made him an unlikely contributor to the Allied war effort. Nonetheless, his firm grasp of the scientific method made him a valuable addition to the science of bombing.

Zuckerman’s initial calculations showed that the only way to effectively destroy the island’s formidable defenses was to assemble a massive striking force. Bombing tests showed that a thousand-pound bomb falling eight yards from a target would destroy a circular area of about 200 square yards. Zuckerman estimated that, on average, 400 thousand-pound bombs were needed to wipe out a single Italian gun emplacement.

So he and the other air planners devised a two-phase bombing campaign. In the first phase, a minimum of 50 bombers and 50 fighter-bombers would wreak daily havoc on Italian positions, while a flotilla of British and American warships established a naval blockade. The second phase called for around-the-clock bombing, growing in intensity from 200 to 2,000 sorties on June 10, the apex of the operation.

Eisenhower hoped the aerial bombardment would be enough, but he empowered his joint commanders—Rear Adm. Rhoderick McGrigor of the Royal Navy; Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of the Northwest African Air Forces; and Maj. Gen. Walter Clutterbuck, commander of the 1st British Infantry Division—to decide whether a landing assault should be carried out on June 11 or abandoned in the face of dangerous opposition. Knowing his plan had been met with resistance by the majority of his staff, he stressed that he would assume full responsibility if the experiment failed.

The attacks commenced on May 18, when 42 American B-25 Mitchells and 44 B-26 Marauders, escorted by 91 P-38 Lightnings and P-40 Warhawks, dropped more than 97 tons of bombs on the island’s docks, jetties, and coastal guns. Allied pilots also targeted small craft anchored in the island’s harbor and strafed the airdrome, setting administration buildings and barracks afire. The next few missions were less spectacular, but the Allies again ramped up their efforts on May 23, when 72 medium bombers and 10 fighter-bombers showered 76 tons of bombs on the island. The pilots encountered little fighter opposition, though their crews reported heavy antiaircraft fire from well-concealed gun positions on the island.

Early attacks were directed against the airfield and the port to prevent the enemy from replenishing their water, food, and ammunition. Although a few German Ju 53 transport planes had managed to sneak in from Sicily between air attacks, and several boats had avoided the naval blockade to distribute an estimated 630 tons of supplies, by the end of May the Allies had effectively cut off the island’s outside access. Pantelleria was, for all practical purposes, isolated.

As the bombing intensified, Eisenhower wanted feedback on how well the enemy was coping. He authorized a surreptitious landing by a team of British commandos. On May 28 their two-hour reconnaissance mission along the beach revealed that the Italians had posted guards every 150 to 200 yards. The commandos captured one sentry, but not before he sounded the alarm. In the struggle, three Italians were killed and one British soldier was so seriously wounded that he was left behind.

On June 1, dozens of heavy bombers entered the fray. The island was also pounded by American B-26s, B-25s, P-40s, P-38s, and A-20 Bostons, as well as Royal Air Force Bostons and Baltimores. The airspace over the island was so crowded that aircraft had to circle warily to avoid collision and wait for their turn in the queue to complete their bombing run. “The whole end of the island was going up in one big bang,” Sgt. Ray Saulmon, a B-17 Fortress gunner, excitedly exclaimed. “We have hit them so hard I wish they would give up for their own sakes.”

Surely the 24,000 people on Pantelleria shared Saulmon’s feelings. After the June 1 raid, seven acres of the town had been destroyed, the port demolished, and the electric plant knocked out. Supplies were nonexistent, and most of the townspeople had been evacuated to underground quarters or sought refuge among the more remote hills. The quality of life on the island was so dismal that a group of Italians were caught trying to escape to Sicily via motor schooner.

Axis airmen did make a desperate attempt to break up the seemingly endless parade of Allied bombers, but it was far too late. Starting on June 5, they launched more than 200 fighters from bases on Sicily. Having given priority to other fronts, the Axis simply didn’t have enough flyable planes available locally, and their pilots found themselves outnumbered and outmatched. Their defensive efforts to break up attacking bomber formations proved disappointing as Allied fighters knocked them out of the sky.

On June 7, the British attempted another commando landing—this time on Lampedusa. Like the raid on Pantelleria, this one was repulsed by brisk machine gun fire. Germany’s official news agency immediately broadcast reports of the raid’s failure, boasting that Italian defenders prevented a “serious” effort by British commandos to conquer the island via a “coup de main.” In their broadcasts, Axis propagandists bragged that the Allies would never invade Italy. Their chest puffing, however, was short-lived; Corkscrew’s final phase began the next day.

That day, Eisenhower joined Adm. Andrew Browne Cunningham, naval commander in chief for the Mediterranean, on the bow of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Aurora. Heavy bombers operating at 20,000 feet started the action, laying down their ordnance with precision. Medium and light bombers followed, skimming the wave tops to clean up what the heavy bombers had missed. They strafed barracks and released leaflets that demanded immediate surrender. The carnage continued for four hours, until the feared Italian coastal batteries fell silent. Clearly elated, Eisenhower turned to Cunningham and remarked, “Andrew, if you and I got into a small boat, we could capture the place ourselves.”

On June 10, the Allies dropped 1,571 tons of ordnance on the island: more than had been dropped in the entire month of April on all targets in Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. German and Italian pilots mounted a strong defense, but their efforts again proved futile. Thirteen Macchi 202s tried a slicing attack on the Allied bombers, only to be intercepted by American Spitfire pilots. Six Me 109s and three FW 190s joined the dogfight in an attempt to even the odds, but the Americans managed to quickly shoot down 12 planes. “The Italians were being knocked down so fast,” said Maj. Frank Hill of Hillsdale, New Jersey, “that I saw four enemy parachutes in the air at one time. And down below us, I could see I don’t know how many splashes in the Mediterranean where their aircraft were crashing.” In total, 42 enemy planes were destroyed.

When the Italians still refused to accept the calls for surrender on June 10, the Allies made final preparations for a ground landing. The British 1st Infantry Division, sailing in three convoys from Sousse and Sfax, arrived outside Pantelleria’s harbor the morning of June 11.

At 11 that morning, planes attacking installations on Midway Hill caught sight of a white cross on the airfield—a symbol of surrender. But the crews of several Italian coast guns, unaware that the island’s governor had decided to capitulate, were still firing, and the Allies elected to continue air attacks. B-17s showered bombs on the island, causing a great roar. Smoke and dust billowed high above Montagna Grande, Pantelleria’s tallest peak at 2,732 feet. At 11:30, the destroyer Nubian reported seeing a white flag flying from the Sant’Elmo semaphore station, silhouetted against the sky on the summit of the first mountain ridge.

Italian resistance ceased at 11:55 a.m., just as the first landing craft reached the harbor area. Shortly after noon, a message forwarded from Malta brought official word that Adm. Gino Pavesi, the military governor of Pantelleria, had capitulated. His note read, “Beg surrender through lack of water.”

Scarcely more than an hour after Pantelleria’s surrender, a formation of Marauders swung southeast and made the first large-scale bombing attack on Lampedusa, the next Italian island outpost. Twenty-four B-26s dropped 18 tons of bombs on the island. Night brought no respite as dozens of British Wellingtons skimmed over the island, dropping their heavy bomb loads, including two-ton “blockbusters,” on its defenses. But a brutal and sustained air attack on Lampedusa turned out to be unnecessary; in a strange turn of events, the island would surrender to a lone, lost British aviator later that day.

Sgt. Sidney Cohen, a 22-year-old orphan from London’s East End, was an unlikely candidate for royalty. But he became known as the “King of Lampedusa” for his actions that day. While flying a Swordfish biplane on a search-and-rescue mission from Malta, he became lost, and his plane’s fuel began to run low. Desperate to land, he saw an island through the clouds and asked his two-man crew, “Does that look like Malta?”

They quickly deduced they were nowhere near the British garrison, but decided to take their chances as prisoners of war rather than ditch their aircraft in the cold sea. “As we came down on a ropy landing field,” Cohen recalled, “we saw burned hangars with burned planes all around them.” A group of Italian soldiers rushed towards the plane. Cohen’s gunner initially swung his Vickers gun toward them, but decided it would be wiser to put up his hands to surrender. It was then the Swordfish crew realized that the Italians were waving white sheets, shouting, “No, no—we surrender.”

In a show of bravado, Cohen insisted on seeing the Italian commandant of the island and demanded that the entire 4,300- strong garrison surrender to him. While negotiating the island’s surrender, Cohen and his crew were caught in an Allied air attack. The commandant reached his breaking point, found a scrap of paper, and signed a surrender note. An entire island surrendered to one lost aviator! When Cohen and his crew emerged from the bunker, they found their Swordfish unscathed. The Italians supplied them with enough fuel to get to Tunis, and told the fliers to hurry and deliver the surrender note.

At 7 p.m., after Cohen arrived in Tunisia, an Allied naval commander observed white flags on the island and sent an officer ashore. The landing party located an Italian junior officer, but he was unsure whether his superiors had authorized surrender and initially refused to sign any document. His intransigence quickly ended when the Allied officer reminded him that they had “another 1,000 bombers at our call; then he [promptly] borrowed a pen and signed.”

The day after the capture of Lampedusa, the British destroyers Troubridge and Nubian sailed for Linosa. The Italian commander on Linosa, having heard the fate of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, surrendered without resistance. On June 13, when the naval task force reached Lampione, the Allies found no Italians on the tiny island. Every Italian, including the lighthouse keeper, had abandoned his post, fearful of becoming a prisoner of war.

At a press conference on June 17, secretary of war Henry L. Stimson crowed over Corkscrew’s impressive results, noting that the Allies had captured almost 16,000 Italians while losing “only about forty airmen and a few planes.” In fact, the only officially recorded ground casualty was a British infantryman, bitten by a cantankerous donkey who did not take kindly to the occupation force that landed on Pantelleria after its surrender. The heavy, continuous air attacks that hit their targets “with mathematical precision” had made a deep impression on Stimson, who stated that this type of warfare held “great promise for the future.”

Many Allied military leaders shared Stimson’s enthusiasm. Eisenhower, unable to hide his pride, cabled Marshall on July 11 to announce the victory—won, he noted, “in the face of contrary advice.” Corkscrew reinforced Churchill’s belief that bombing Germany into submission was “worth trying.” And Gen. Carl Spaatz trumpeted the operation as proof that victory was simply a matter of determining how much air power was required. Although his assessment can be dismissed as overly optimistic, there is no doubt that Corkscrew influenced his direction of the air strikes against Japan later in the war.

Critics of air power sought to qualify and diminish the historic importance of Operation Corkscrew; reactions ranged from skeptical to outright hostile. A 1943 Time magazine article stated, “Soberer heads recognized this as a victory of air power, but a victory won under laboratory conditions. The island fell because it was possible to isolate it completely from the supporting bases on the mainland. This was the decisive factor, not the sheer weight of bombs.”

Still, Corkscrew had long-lasting implications. Not only did the operation open a secure channel for the Sicilian invasion, allowing Allied troops to push up into the mainland, but the meager resistance offered by the Italian people proved that air power could deliver a crushing blow to enemy morale. The success of the campaign created a template that the Allied air forces would call upon again and again during the remainder of the war, in both Germany and the Pacific theater, citing—as the official U.S. Army Air Forces history put it—Corkscrew’s “spectacular illustration of the intense and violent force that the Allies could bring to bear upon the enemy.”

 

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here

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