Saturday, December 31, 2016


After serious tension and argument over Allied grand strategy at the Casablanca Conference (January 14–24, 1943), the Western Allies agreed to invade Sicily from North Africa. Operation HUSKY followed in July 1943. The question of invading mainland Italy arose again, with Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff pushing hard for what they believed would be a major drain on the Wehrmacht and support to the Red Army, by drawing off divisions from the Eastern Front. As the Allies readied to invade, Adolf Hitler moved significant forces into Italy to reinforce Army Group “C.” British 8th Army under General Bernard Law Montgomery landed on the toe of the Italian boot across the Strait of Messina on September 3, 1943. Montgomery immediately paused to build up supplies and forces. It was Montgomery at his worst, many have since argued. It certainly cost him support and credit among some American military leaders at the time. Yet, the Americans had little better to offer: Lieutenant General Mark Clark also got off to a bad start in Italy, and his performance was arguably a good deal worse for the Allied cause than was Montgomery’s in the long run. Clark was in charge of U.S. 5th Army landings near Naples at Salerno (Operation AVALANCHE), carried out on September 9, a day after General Dwight Eisenhower announced the Italian surrender. He was inexperienced at that level of command and would ultimately prove to be dangerously vainglorious and careless of soldiers’ lives. In combination, the Western Allies thus failed to link the two beachheads or to connect promptly or properly with the government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, which had agreed to coordinate an armistice and a quick and bloodless surrender. Instead, the handoff was badly botched by Italians and Western Allies alike, while the Germans moved faster than either to occupy the country.

Heavy naval gunfire helped the Western Allies get onshore and pushed the Germans back from the landing zone perimeters. But Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops quickly contained and isolated the widely separate beachheads. Just as rapidly, they disarmed the Italian Army across Italy and the Balkans. In several locales, Germans butchered their erstwhile allies by the hundreds, and even thousands. On the island of Cephalonia, for instance, nearly 5,000 Italian officers and men were executed after offering resistance to the Germans. Within a short time, 650,000 Italian prisoners were entrained for the Reich to work in forced labor camps; some 200,000 died there. Meanwhile, German units moved south to defend a series of fortified lines thrown across the paths that must be taken by the enemy armies as they moved north. The lodgement at Salerno came under brisk attack from German 10th Army as Field Marshal Albert Kesselring reinforced and attacked much faster than the deleterious Clark. A major effort to crush the lodgement was made by the Germans on September 12. The situation was recovered for the defenders only by a desperate drop of two battalions of U.S. 82nd Airborne, in combination with concentrated naval and air bombardments. German 10th Army began a phased pullback on September 16, enabling the Americans at Salerno to finally link with British 8th Army.

Hitler had been skeptical about defending south-central Italy. Now he reversed course and told Kesselring to hold south of Rome at all costs, along a hastily constructed set of defensive works dubbed the Bernhardt Line. Kesselring bloodied the Allies, then fell back to a stronger position at the Gustav Line. This strategy took full advantage of the fact that Italy was crossed by rivers on either side of the Apennines. The river positions were well-defended by the Germans and had to be crossed under fi re by Allied troops in terrible and costly small boat assaults. The Italian campaign thus played out as a series of brutal, unimaginative frontal assaults on a series of Wehrmacht fortified lines and river positions. As soon as German defenses looked ready to crack, but just before they did, Kesselring pulled back to a fresh set of lines already prepared to his rear. That essential pattern marked the fighting until the end of the war, which did not come in Italy until just a few days before fighting ended in Germany. Four major and bloody battles were thus fought from January 1944, before the Germans were finally driven from their position atop and around Monte Casino on May 18. Each was more like a World War I trench fight than the swift armored advances both sides had seen in the desert campaign or later in France and Germany.

The main exception to the pattern of bloody frontal attrition in Italy was the daring but poorly planned and executed landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944. That amphibious operation was carried out in an attempt to use superior sea power to outflank Kesselring and cut off and kill his armies in a north Italian Kessel . However, the assault troops took too long to expand the Anzio beachhead. They thereby tossed away the advantage of operational surprise, a fact that nearly allowed Kesselring to crush the landing zone and throw them back into the sea. Only superior air power and precise intelligence, gathered through air recce and ULTRA intercepts, enabled the Anzio defenders to blunt a major German counteroffensive from February 16–20. Hard fighting continued along a slowly expanding perimeter until late May, when 6th Corps at Anzio finally linked with 2nd Corps of 5th Army and a broad American advance began. Clark’s 5th Army was part of Allied 15th Army Group led by Field Marshal Harold Alexander . But Clark never really accepted the fact that he was Alexander’s subordinate. Over the course of the campaign Clark lied and disobeyed orders while alternately carping that Montgomery was secretly conspiring to beat him to Rome, or alternately, that Montgomery was not moving fast enough. Clark’s insubordination and frequent command recklessness broke all bounds once he smelled a Roman triumph for himself following the breakout from Anzio. His disobedience culminated in the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, but only because he ignored Alexander’s order to cut off and destroy retreating German 10th Army. Instead, Clark took a different road than ordered. That permitted 10th Army to escape north while he personally drove into Rome in the role of conqueror-liberator. History does not record that achievement as decisive. Most historians have judged Clark ever more harshly as time passed, and the cost of his vanity in lives and wasted strategic opportunity became more clear. Clark’s own comment on June 6, 1944, that the D-Day landings would steal his headlines from Rome, speaks volumes on its own.

Some Western commanders were exposed in Italy as incompetent, others as vainglorious. A few were both. However, everyone was impressed by the combat power and fighting quality shown by the Wehrmacht in defense, and by the high level of command skill displayed by Kesselring. The Germans had to fight at a growing material disadvantage, but did so with tenacity. Smaller armies, such as the Canadian Army, Free French, and Polish Army, found lasting moral significance and great pride in blood sacrifices made on the slopes of Cassino and elsewhere in Italy. Some British and French soldiers and many of their officers reacted differently, recalling with bitterness experiences along the Somme and at Ypres during the last war. Most lamented the low command imagination of Clark, the slowness of Montgomery, and lack of closer oversight of subordinates by Alexander. Meanwhile, relations between the British and American armies and among some top officers deteriorated in tandem with a growing gulf between London and Washington over the strategic morass that Italy had become. Arguments that began south of Rome among participants continued for decades after the war among historians. Some viewed the entire campaign as another “Churchillian mistake.” Nigel Hamilton even argued that it approximated a replay of Churchill’s disastrous Dardanelles campaign during the Great War, with Anzio playing the role of Gallipoli. However, Douglas Porch has argued that the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns sponsored by Churchill and the British High Command were all essential preludes to the decisive Normandy campaign in France in 1944.

While U.S. 5th Army was driving to break out of the Anzio perimeter, British 8th Army—with units of Free French, Canadians, Poles, New Zealanders, and others included—drove up the Adriatic coast of Italy, making comparably slow progress against the Hitler Line . There followed two failed American assaults on Monte Cassino. Fresh New Zealand and Polish attacks were complicated rather than helped by preliminary heavy bombing that destroyed the monastery and gave more effective cover to the defending Germans. The Poles finally took the heights, at great cost in casualties. The Germans, too, were nearly broken by the defense of Cassino. The French Expeditionary Corps stormed and broke the Hitler Line simultaneously with the Anzio breakout, but Clark’s fixation on Montgomery and Rome robbed the Western powers of the chance to wipe out German 10th Army and race to the Alps. Instead, a hard slog north resumed after Kesselring fell back to an alpine defense line. Western resources were drawn away to Normandy for the OVERLORD invasion in June, then to southern France in August for Operation DRAGOON . As a result of the failure to properly pursue a defeated enemy after the fall of Rome, northern Italy would not be liberated until the end of the war in Europe. By then, Italy had become witness to a civil war among fascisti of the Salò Republic and pro- Allied partisans, replete with massacres and reprisals, mass deportation of Italian Jews and former soldiers, and all the other horrors of Nazi occupation and civil war. From February 1945, Alexander was not even under orders to liberate more Italian territory. His instructions were instead to hold as many German troops as he could in Italy while the conquest of Germany was underway.

The Mediterranean strategy of 1942–1943 and the invasion of Italy that crowned it incurred great costs, but also brought some strategic benefi ts: it compelled Hitler to cancel ZITADELLE and to transfer elite ground and air forces from the Eastern Front. It knocked Italy and its armed forces out of the war. It provided air bases from which to open a new front in the Combined Bomber Offensive and, notably, for successful attacks on the Rumanian oil fields and refineries at Ploesti . In addition, it gave Western ground forces combat experience they lacked and needed before the main invasion and fight in France. But while the Italian campaign ground down the Wehrmacht, it also wore out Allied divisions. By May 1944, there were only 27 German divisions fighting in Italy. At that time, there were 156 Axis divisions on the Eastern Front. Stalin had made it clear before the start of the Italian campaign that he did not approve of an invasion that was never part of the grand strategy agreed by all the Allies. But he tempered that view by November 1943, acknowledging that the war in Italy made a real contribution to the larger war against Germany. He said: “The present action of the Allied armies in the south of Europe do not count as a second front. But they are something like a second front.”

Even if the Mediterranean path might be justified strategically up to mid- 1944, most historians believe it was a misguided and wasteful campaign after the OVERLORD and DRAGOON landings established a true and continuous second front in France. Although the Western Allies reduced their effort in Italy once they got ashore in France, they still incurred many casualties over the final 11 months of the war. It took a bloody campaign to batter and break through the Gothic Line, then to fight into well-defended northern valleys and take the many cities of northern Italy. The last Allied offensive broke through at the Argenta Gap from April 9–19, 1945. Once Western armies also broke the Adige Line, they took just over a week to encircle most remaining German units. Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Milan, and Venice were liberated in rapid succession. On April 29, 1945, all German forces in Italy surrendered effective at 1200 hours on May 2. In all, Allied casualties in Italy numbered 312,000. The Germans lost 435,000 men over the course of the Italian campaign, excluding large prisoner totals from the final surrenders.

Suggested Reading: D. Graham and S. Bidwell, Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943–1945 (1986); Richard Lamb, The War in Italy, 1943–1945 (1993).


  1. Yes excellent article! My uncle was one of 7 men from the 363rd Infantry Regiment killed in action July 5th in Italy 1944.