The great gamble

Operation Avalanche, the opening gambit of the Italian campaign, was no zero-sum game. War historian James Holland outlines the split priorities, secret discussions and bold commitments that somehow managed to wrench victory from mayhem

British soldiers disembark at Salerno. The invasion was a multi-national affair against, on paper, overwhelming odds
The Fifth Army’s commander, Mark Clark, pitted three Allied divisions and special forces against seven German ones in a daring amphibious operation

It was 0900hrs on September 6, 1943. On the command ship USS Ancon, General Mark Clark, the commander of the US Fifth Army, was briefing a number of newsmen and correspondents about the plan for Operation Avalanche. His Fifth Army was to land on the long stretch of beaches south of Salerno, which in turn lay some way to the south of Naples, Italy’s third largest city and a major port.

Except it was not the whole of Fifth Army that would be landing but only three divisions: the 36th Texan and two British divisions, the 46th and 56th, plus special forces made up of British Commandos and US Rangers, who would land just to the north of Salerno and secure vital mountain passes leading towards Naples. A fourth division, the 45th ‘Thunderbirds’, would be held in reserve as there were simply not enough landing craft for them to join the main assault.

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