Sunday, August 9, 2015

Italian Campaign Finale

DUKWs ferry supplies across the Po River, Italy, 1945

Kesselring to withdraw to the Pisa-Rimini Line, 150 miles north of Rome. This line was the first of the next series of defense lines across the peninsula that were known collectively as the Gothic Line, which he reached in August 1944. Alexander still hoped to make for Vienna, but the Italian Campaign had assumed a definite secondary status to the invasion of France. Six divisions were withdrawn in the summer, and when the autumn rains and mud forced operations to be suspended at the end of the year, another seven divisions were withdrawn. 

A prolonged Allied tactical air-interdiction program during the autumn and winter of 1944 effectively closed the Brenner Pass and created an acute German fuel shortage that drastically reduced the mobility of Army Group C in northern Italy (commanded by Vietinghoff after Kesselring was severely injured in a road accident in October). Although the Germans still had over half a million men in the field, the Allies had been invigorated in both spirit and outlook by substantial reinforcements, including the Brazilian Expedition Force, and an abundant array of new weapons.
On 9 April 1945, after the ground had dried, Alexander launched his spring offensive, with Eighth Army attacking through the Argenta gap. Fifth Army struck on 15 April, and just 10 days later, both Allied armies met at Finale nell'Emilia, after having surrounded and eliminated the last German forces. The Allies then advanced rapidly northward, the Americans entering Milan on 29 April and the British reaching Trieste on 2 May. Fifth Army continued to advance into Austria, linking with the U. S. Seventh Army in the Brenner Pass on 6 May. 

The isolated and hopeless position of German and RSI forces led Schutzstaffel (SS) General Karl Wolff, military governor and head of the SS in northern Italy, to initiate background negotiations for a separate surrender as early as February 1945. The talks, facilitated by Allen Dulles, head of the U. S. Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland, held much promise, although they were complicated and took place in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Wolff wished to avoid senseless destruction and loss of life and to repel the spread of communism; he also hoped to ingratiate himself with the West in case war crimes trials were held in the future. From the Allied perspective, Wolff offered the prospect of preventing the creation of a Nazi redoubt in the Alps. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, halted the talks in April, forestalling their conclusion before the Allied spring offensive, but by 23 April, Wolff and Vietinghoff decided to disregard orders from Berlin. Wolff ordered the SS not to resist the Italian partisans on 25 April, and an unconditional surrender was signed four days later, to be effective on 2 May, six days before the German surrender in the West.

The final Western Allied offensive of the Italian campaign (1943-1945) was conducted down the Po Valley by 15th Army Group, led by Field Marshal Harold Alexander. British 8th Army was led by Lieutenant General Oliver Leese. He faced wholly immobile but veteran units in German Army Group C, under command of General Heinrich von Vietinghoff. The Germans had no air cover but were still given a "stand and fight" Haltebefehl order by Adolf Hitler. The British began with a daring commando assault. They forced a path around Lake Comacchio from April 9, thence through the Argenta Gap toward Ferrara. British 8th Army was supported from April 15 by a second powerful attack made by U. S. 5th Army under Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott. The main British and American advances were supported by Brazilian and South African troops, among others. U. S. forces included a unit of Japanese Americans from the 442d Regimental Combat Team. All Western Allied troops enjoyed overwhelming artillery and air superiority. Truscott shifted the axis of advance to take advantage of collapsing German positions, even "bouncing" the Po with an improvised fleet of small boats and river ferries. He broke through the Adige Line before the bewildered Germans could properly man it. It took just over a week for the Western Allied armies to link and encircle what was left of Army Group C. In rapid succession, Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Milan, and Venice were liberated. All German forces in Italy surrendered on April 29, effective at 12:00 hours on May 2.

A German defensive line built across northern Italy along the Adige River. It was a World War I-style system of interlocking trenches and pillboxes, usually 1,000 to 5,000 meters in depth. It was intended to cover the Wehrmacht's withdrawal into the last corner of northeast Italy, thence into Austria. It was breached before it could be fully manned, overrun by the rapid advance of U. S. 5th Army during the campaign for the Argenta Gap in April 1945. 

The cost of the entire campaign was staggering: 188,746 killed or wounded in the Fifth U. S. Army, 123,254 killed or wounded in the Eighth British Army. German casualties were very high, some 434,646 killed, wounded, or missing. As a process of attrition, the Italian Campaign was punishingly hard on both sides-though, on balance, much harder on the Germans. The extent to which this contributed to the Allied victory in Europe is debatable. Certainly, the Germans could not afford the losses they sustained, but if the Italian Campaign drew off German forces from the Soviet and French fronts, it also drew off Allied forces from France. The best that can be concluded about the Italian Campaign was that it produced mixed results, and while that assessment is true enough in a strategic sense, it in no way conveys the degree of destruction and misery the campaign also produced- on both sides.

Italy entered the war hoping to expand its overseas empire and win military glory. Instead, the nation lost its existing empire, was invaded, and became a battlefield and the scene of a civil war. The prolonged fighting and slow Allied advance up the length of the Italian peninsula severely damaged Italy. The war destroyed some 8 percent of the nation's industrial plant, demolished a considerable amount of housing (mostly in the cities), and severely dislocated the railroads (60 percent of the locomotives were lost, along with half of the rolling stock). Some 5,000 bridges were destroyed, and agricultural production fell by 60 percent. Nonetheless, by 1948, the nation was able to regain the economic levels of 1938, and it experienced considerable growth in the 1950s and 1960s.

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