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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p82  Chapter 9

Naval Aviation in the Italian Invasion

If the nature of naval operations in the Atlantic and in European waters relegated the Navy's air power to a less spectacular role than it played in the Pacific, that role was by no means unimportant. Wherever the Navy functioned in those theaters, it was almost always accompanied by air units and practically every form of naval air operation was undertaken at one time or another, from offensive carrier plane strikes to air‑sea rescue.

Until the landings made in North Africa in November, 1942, naval aviation in the Atlantic theater, as we have seen, devoted itself primarily to protecting the sea lanes between America and our European allies, that is, to anti-submarine warfare. Beginning with the African landings, American naval air power played an ever-increasing part in the crescendo of combined operations which finally precipitated the collapse of Germany. In each landing the Navy as a whole performed two major functions: the first was the strictly amphibious operation which ferried assault troops and equipment to the beaches; the second was gunfire support. Here the Navy took up positions offshore and supplied artillery support needed by the assault troops until a beachhead was secured and until mobile ground artillery could be landed and brought to bear against the enemy. In this latter phase, naval planes performed vital tasks of spotting and directing the fire of naval vessels upon shore targets. In the African landings and, as we shall see later, in the final European landings made on the southern coast of France in August, 1944, a third important function was undertaken by American naval forces with escort carriers. Because carriers were able to operate close inshore they provided immediately available air bases from which long-range fighter planes were able to strike at the enemy far inland until the Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force were established at land bases.

Traditionally viewed as "the eyes of the fleet," naval observation and scouting planes operating from battle­ships and cruisers emphasized the  p83 accuracy of that view with distinctive credit throughout the war. Normally, each ship carried from one to four float-mounted scout-observation planes. They were launched or literally "shot" into the air from deck catapults. When they returned for recovery they landed in the relatively smooth water of the ship's wake and were hoisted aboard by aircraft cranes usually on the ship's fantail. The men who flew these planes received dual training in aviation and naval gunnery and were under administrative command of the ship's gunnery officer. Because of their relatively slow speeds, older types of scout-observation planes could almost hover above the target area correcting their ship's main battery fire and indicating new targets by radio. The Curtiss SOC's, called "Socks," and the newer "Kingfishers" did remarkable work from the outbreak of war until they were finally replaced, in the latter part of 1944, by faster, more heavily armed SC‑1 Curtiss "Seahawks," which were not so vulnerable to enemy aircraft. While they were never intended for such tasks, all these types were used at various times for bombing, strafing, anti-submarine patrols with depth charges, and similar types of combat missions.

With the exception of the Casablanca naval operations, none of the landings made in the European-Mediterranean theater was strictly a navy "show," even though our Navy usually provided the greater number of ships. For the most part each landing was a true combined operation with American, British, French, Netherlands, Canadian, Greek and Polish units, plus units of other nations taking part in varying arrangements according to the availability of their sea and air power. The major naval strength was furnished by the two greatest sea powers, the United States and Great Britain, and naval command for each operation was shared or alternated between the two. This was the case when Sicily was invaded some eight months after the African landings.

The invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943 was the largest amphibious operation ever attempted to that date. In size and scope it was exceeded in the European war only by the invasion of northern France almost a year later. It was the first time we were able to strike a major blow against the enemy in his home territory, his vaunted Festung Europa. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Eisenhower commanded the expeditionary forces, and top naval command went to British Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham. The over‑all plan called for landings at five different places on the island, three of which, Scoglitti, Gela, and Licata on the south coast of Sicily, were primary American objectives. Transports, cruisers, and destroyers were assembled at Oran and Algiers, and landing craft  p84 were assembled at Tunis and Bizerte. More than fifteen hundred United States naval vessels participating in the operation began to leave North African ports on 5 July, and on the morning of the tenth they were all in position for the assault, which was preceded by a heavy naval bombardment of shore targets. The light cruisers Brooklyn, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Boise, and Savannah supplied the heaviest gunfire support for the landings, most of which was directed by their spotting planes. By the afternoon of D‑Day all three beaches were secured by our troops who began the job of unloading supplies to consolidate positions. However, the enemy began a series of strong counterattacks by air and land that kept our cruisers seriously occupied for the next few days. One of the most effective jobs undertaken by our cruisers and destroyers was in stopping counterattacks by enemy tanks which threatened to drive our forces into the sea. Naval gunfire was directed against shore batteries, roads, bridges, and other targets of opportunity throughout July and August until attention was shifted to the coast of Italy proper.

It was during the early hours of the D‑Day assault on the Scoglitti area that a Navy pilot in one of the Philadelphia's "Socks" performed one of the most remarkable exploits in the annals of naval scout-observation aviation. The pilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Paul E. Coughlin, while spotting for his ship over the assault area, reported enemy troop activity a short distance inland from where our forces were unloading. Since he carried two 100‑pound bombs on his plane he requested permission from his ship to bomb the enemy. Permission was granted by the Philadelphia's commanding officer to bomb all troops on the beach provided they were positively identified as enemy. He made a dive-bombing attack on the enemy troops dropping his first bomb which failed to explode because of incorrect fusing. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect of dispersing the enemy troops and keeping them away from their gun position. As he pulled out of his dive, Coughlin circled past an American forward patrol on the beach at the foot of a cliff. This group waved to him and pointed to the hill position from which it was evidently being held up by the enemy. Circling low over the hill, Coughlin spotted a group of enemy soldiers running into a hedge, whereupon he immediately dropped his second bomb. This bomb also failed to explode because the low altitude from which it was dropped did not give it sufficient time to arm itself, so the pilot and his radioman began to strafe the position until white flags and Italians began appearing from the hedge. Coughlin then flew low and motioned for them to move in the general direction of the American patrol on the beach. The  p85 radioman, Richard Shafer, ARM2c, emphasized the pilot's instructions by well-placed machine‑gun bursts at their heels. Four more white flags appeared over entrenchments as the prisoners moved toward the shore. As the first group of Italians passed one of these entrenchments, the pilot flew over and guided these new groups in the direction of the main party, again punctuating his instructions with gunfire which effectively convinced the hesitant few.

Using tactics of the cattle roundup, the two navy men in the SOC herded their prisoners into the open and directed them to the beach, discouraging by machine‑gun fire those who indicated a desire to stray. At one point, when the prisoners were scattering, the radioman's free machine gun jammed. The pilot circled low over the group and the radioman kept the gun pointed at the men, none of whom realized the situation, for when one did try to break away and run for shelter, the radioman turned him back by firing his .45 pistol along the machine‑gun barrel. The prisoners needed no further convincing and about a hundred of them reached the positions on the beach where they were taken by American troops. Coughlin returned to the hill and "flushed" an additional thirty or more Italians by judicious strafing with the pilot's fixed gun, but as he was directing them to the crest of the hill, he suddenly saw a burst of antiaircraft fire on his starboard beam and two German Messerschmitts closing on his tail. He went into a steep dive and at that moment 5‑inch shells from the Philadelphia began breaking between him and the enemy planes, forcing them to turn away from the pursuit. Men on cruiser had been watching the entire show, and when they saw German planes some five or six miles from the SOC shoot down a plane spotting for a British ship, they anticipated the attack on Lieutenant Coughlin and the gunnery officer ordered immediate fire on the enemy.

As soon as the German planes disappeared, Coughlin returned to his prisoners who had taken advantage of his difficulty and dispersed. Nevertheless, he again rounded up most of them by strafing near‑by buildings and other possible hiding places. When the Italians were within firing range of the Americans on the beach, he returned to his ship, having brought in approximately 150 prisoners with an expenditure of 1,000 rounds of .30 caliber ammunition.

The Sicilian campaign was scarcely ended on 17 August 1943 when British forces crossed the two‑mile Straits of Messina and landed on the Italian mainland. On 9 September the Allies moved in force to secure the important harbors of Naples, Gaeta, and Salerno with their main  p86 effort directed against the last of the three in the Bay of Salerno. A combined American-British fleet of more than six hundred ships and large landing craft under Vice Admiral (later Admiral) H. K. Hewitt supported the landings. This fleet was divided into two groups, one predominantly American and the other mainly British, with the American Southern Attack Force covering the Salerno operations. From D‑Day until they bombarded Naples on 1 October, our naval forces were engaged primarily in supplying the beach forces, in fighting off enemy attacks, and in destroying shore targets by naval gunfire. Together with British battle­ships and lighter units of both nations, the United States cruisers Boise, Philadelphia, and Savannah which supported the Sicilian invasion, continued their offshore bombardment of enemy installations and concentrations.

Here again, heavy spotting responsibilities fell to fleet aircraft. New considerations were introduced, however, which greatly altered former concepts of aerial spotting and observation. The hazards of spotting naval gunfire from the then available cruiser planes had been conclusively proved at Casablanca and Sicily. "Socks" and Kingfishers were designed as adjuncts to the gunnery functions of battle­ships and cruisers, not as fighter planes. The very nature of naval gunfire support for an amphibious invasion meant that these planes were now operating close inshore and therefore well within range of land-based fighter aircraft. Their vulnerability to these fighters because of their relatively slow speeds was obvious, and consequently it was decided that because of anticipated enemy fighter strength in the Salerno operation, the use of cruiser-based planes for spotting would be of limited value.

The Commander, Western Naval Task Force, Vice Admiral Hewitt, in his report on the Salerno operations explained the steps taken to overcome this problem as well as the future planning for naval air spotting which was so success­ful in later operations:

"A conference of representatives of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, United States Naval Aviation, and staff gunnery officers (British and American) . . . was held to determine the plane most suitable to perform this mission. The P‑51 (Mustang) was selected. As time did not permit training cruiser pilots to fly P‑51's, it was decided that U. S. Army Air Force pilots would be trained to spot naval gunfire. Navy pilots trained the Army pilots in spotting procedure. Aircraft operated in pairs, one spotting, the other furnishing cover. (This procedure doubled spotting effectiveness in that both pilots were trained spotters, and either could take over if the other was rendered ineffective  p87 by mechanical failure or enemy attack.) Contrary to general belief, the naval gunfire spotting from P‑51 aircraft proved exceptionally success­ful. Unfortunately, only four P‑51 aircraft were made available for spotting. In future planning, when it is necessary to use Army Air Force reconnaissance for this work, the number of aircraft needed for spotting should be laid down as a naval requirement, and the pilots trained to 'spot' rather than to 'sense.' . . . for immediate future operations in this theater the U. S. Navy in order to have suitable aircraft for spotting naval gunfire must use high performance aircraft, and Army pilots trained to use naval procedure. Steps have been taken to train immediately the cruiser pilots in this theater to fly fighter aircraft, and to learn fighter tactics and gunnery."

Vice Admiral Hewitt's recommendations were heeded and naval pilots trained in fighters proved their exceptional value in the invasion of northern France.

Despite the dangerous nature of such missions, SOC's did fly from American cruisers during the opening phases of the Salerno landings and provided valuable spotting-observation information. One plane from the USS Savannah directed cruiser fire on a group of about twenty enemy tanks on D‑Day. The pilot reported four more tanks moving on a road in the direction of the main group, plus thirty-five additional vehicles as well as troops in the area. After ascertaining that the vehicles and troops were not friendly and that there was no Naval Shore Fire Control Party in the vicinity, he effectively directed cruiser fire at the target. After 9 September, spotting was taken over completely by Shore Fire Control Parties and the P‑51's.

The only carriers in this operation were British; nevertheless, the U. S. Navy controlled other fighter aircraft. The USS Ancon flagship for the Commander, Western Naval Task Force, also served as the fighter director ship for all land-based fight aircraft of the XII Air Support Command throughout the operation.

The famous "end run" terminating at the Anzio-Nettuno beachhead was the final amphibious invasion on the coast of Italy. Designed to break the stalemated military situation and hasten Allied capture of Rome, it was a direct flank attack on supply and communication lines fifty-five miles behind the front, which forced the enemy to turn about and fight and then withdraw to new defense positions. The operations began in the early morning hours of 22 January 1944, supported by a naval task force composed of British, American, and Greek naval units,  p88 which were later supplemented by French and Netherlands ships for gunfire support. The entire naval task force of 243 ships was under the command of Rear Admiral F. J. Lowry, USN. The principal American naval gunfire support during the early phases of the campaign was furnished by the light cruiser Brooklyn and the destroyer Edison, but other American naval units continued to support the beachhead until it was expanded with the Fifth Army move on Rome in June, 1944. Here again the primary function of navy aviation was spotting. Because the landings caught the enemy by complete surprise, there was little initial opposition and most naval gunfire was directed at whatever targets were located by either spotting aircraft or Shore Fire Control parties rather than to previously selected objectives. In addition, Army Air Forces planes spotted fire for all Allied ships. Our cruisers engaged in long-range duels with enemy artillery, but the most important spotted naval gunfire was interdiction fire on roads, junctions and bridges, disrupting enemy troop and supply movement.

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