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Surrender of Pantelleria
Written By: Nick Wahoff, Columbus, OH
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Surrender of Pantelleria
Surrender of Pantelleria
Tuskegee Airmen in front of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
Surrender of Pantelleria
Men of 1st Division advance past a burning fuel store on Pantelleria.
    On November 8, 1942, American and British forces stormed the beaches of North Africa. Since the United States entered the war almost a year earlier, the Soviet Union had pressed the Western Allies to create a second front against Germany and its Axis partners. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force, sought to destroy the Axis Armies in Africa to expose Southern Europe to Allied assault.
    Before any assault on Europe could take place, Eisenhower would need to take care of Italian Sicily and the small islands in the middle of the Mediterranean known as "Bomb Alley." These islands held Axis airfields used to attack Allied ships.
    The Italian island of Pantelleria, 9 miles long & 5 miles wide, is strategically located in the Strait of Sicily just 37 miles east of Tunisia. The island was fortified with more than 100 gun emplacements and numerous pillboxes. More than 10,000 Italian soldiers and a small contingent of Germans defended the island. Also, the island had a military airfield with an underground hangar that housed 80 combat aircraft.
    By May 1943, the Axis forces in North Africa were overwhelmed by the advancing American and British armies. With their backs against the sea, more than 230,000 German & Italian soldiers surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia. The island of Pantelleria became the frontline in the Axis defense of Southern Europe.
    Just a few months earlier, U.S. General George Marshall suggested to Eisenhower that the Allies seize Pantelleria. Marshall thought its airfield could be used to support the upcoming invasion of Sicily. Also, there was a concern about radar installations on the island. After much deliberation, Eisenhower agreed, and on May 13, 1943 plans were approved for the invasion, codenamed "Operation Corkscrew."
    The "Corkscrew" plan was going to be a "rather simple affair" according to Eisenhower. After consulting with the commander of his air forces, Lt. General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, it was decided that an overwhelming ground force would not be used to take the island. Instead, the British 1st Infantry Division would take the island after a massive bombing campaign, from the air, supported by a naval bombardment. Three smaller islands nearby would also be bombarded & seized.
    The air operation of "Corkscrew" was overseen by Major-General James "Jimmy" Doolittle. Just a year earlier, Doolittle led a group of 16 bombers in a surprise air raid on Tokyo & other Japanese cities. Now the Medal of Honor winner was tasked with bombing the island of Pantelleria into submission.
    In early May, the U.S. Army Air Force, The Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force began flying sorties against Pantelleria. On the 18th, the "Operation Corkscrew" air offensive officially started when nearly 200 Allied aircraft attacked the island.
    Seeing combat for the first time, the 99th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Force was used in "Corkscrew." Trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, the newly formed African-American unit flew P-40 Warhawk fighters in the battle.
    By late May, much of the islandÙs defenses were damaged by the ever intensifying bombing campaign. The airfield, port, coastal batteries and gun emplacements were continuously targeted by DoolittleÙs air group.
    Heavy bombers were used, starting on June 1st, with an attack by British Wellingtons and American B-17s. Every day the number of attacks increased against the island. On June 6th, there were more than 200 sorties by the Allied air forces.
    Round-the-clock bombing began on June 7th, with 600 tons of bombs dropped on Pantelleria. Also that week, the British navy shelled the islandÙs harbor. The next day, Allied naval forces began a full scale bombardment of the harbor & coastal defenses. Allied bombers dropped 700 tons of bombs on the island on the 8th and on the 9th more than 800 tons were dropped.
    Sicilian based Axis fighters began to harass the Allied air assault on Pantelleria, but had little impact on their progress. Nearly 60 Italian and German fighters were shot down during the air battle over the island.
    During the intense bombardment, surrender leaflets were dropped. The Axis defenders hunkered down and ignored the Allied demand. On June 10th, waves of Allied bombers took off from bases in Tunisia and headed over the Mediterranean to Pantelleria. More than 1,760 sorties were flown that day dropping 1,571 tons of bombs on the islandÙs defenses. During a three-hour lull in the bombardment, the Allies called for the Axis troops to surrender. Again, the call was ignored.
    On the night of June 10-11, the British 1st Infantry Division set out to capture Pantelleria. As the assault force headed toward the island, American B-17s pounded the island one more time. Allied airplanes spotted a white cross on the islandÙs airfield just as the first British troops landed on the beach. The landing force commander was able to contact the islandÙs military commander - Italian Admiral Gino Pavesi. With the British forces swarming ashore, Admiral Pavesi surrendered the island to the Allies.
    The intense bombing campaign devastated the island. The harbor was damaged, the town destroyed, roads badly damaged and the airfield was cratered. The underground hangar took several direct hits –destroying or damaging all but two of the islandÙs airplanes. According to US Air Force Historian Herman Wouk, "The surrender of the Italian-held islands furnished a spectacular illustration of the intense and violent force that the Allies could bring to bear upon the enemy. The reduction of the islands furnished the first proof of the power of such bombardments to induce surrender."
    The capture of Pantelleria allowed it to be used as a springboard into Sicily and  the Italian mainland. Later, writing in his memoirs, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that the invasion was so successful, the only British casualty was a man bitten by a mule.

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