Friday, September 11, 2015

The Italian Campaign, May–September 1944

The offensive in Italy that began in mid-May represented the pinnacle of Allied strength in the theater. Substantial French and Polish forces, trained and equipped by the Americans, proved a crucial addition. The French troops came from North Africa and other colonies. The Poles had found their way to the Middle East after release from Stalin’s camps; despite the certainty that either the Germans or the Soviets would control their homeland after the war, they still fought with extraordinary bravery.

Plans called for Eighth Army, which had taken over the front at Monte Cassino, to make a major thrust up the Liri valley; to its left, Fifth Army would break through to Anzio, while the six divisions in the pocket would, at the appropriate time, break out toward Valmontone. There, Route 6 represented both the main logistic link for the German Tenth Army as well as its main escape route. The campaign intended to destroy German forces south of Rome. However, Clark never accepted this fundamental goal of Allied operations. He was much more interested in ensuring that his Fifth Army and his American troops would liberate the Eternal City and bask in the international publicity a grateful press would shower on this moment in history.

With an overwhelming superiority in firepower, the Allies plastered German frontline positions on 11 May. The firing of 1.2 million heavy shells suggests the Allied advantage. At first the offensive achieved little. Eighth Army gained minimal ground, while the Poles suffered heavily in attacks on Monte Cassino. Fifth Army’s veteran units had no greater success. But in the middle of the Allied lines, the four French colonial divisions proved startlingly effective. Because the mountainous terrain seemed impassable, the Germans covered the sector in front of General Alphonse Juin’s divisions with one weak division. Clark himself had little respect for the French, which is why they drew a sector with such formidable terrain. For his part, Juin showed a mutual disrespect for Clark’s plans and, in French fashion, proceeded to march off on his own line of attack.

After heavy fighting, the North African troops destroyed the German defending force, broke through the Gustav Line, and proceeded across the mountains. Unlike many other Allied generals, Juin understood and accepted his operational goal: to penetrate the rear of the German Tenth Army and allow the breakout of Fifth and Eighth Armies. The French success opened the way for the American II Corps. Equally important, Juin’s Goums (his Moroccan mountain infantry) crossed the escarpment and broke into the Liri valley before the Germans could man the backup Hitler Line. Thoroughly taken in by Allied deception efforts, Kesselring responded slowly. Adding to his troubles were the absence of his competent Tenth Army commander, General Frido Senger von Etterlin (who was home on leave), and the failure of commanders on the scene to respond quickly.

The plans of Alexander’s chief of staff, Major General John Harding, called for Fifth Army to link up with the six divisions in the Anzio bridgehead. The combined force was then to drive north to Valmontone on Route 6 and cut the main avenue for any German withdrawal. With Valmontone in Allied hands, Fifth Army would possess good prospects for encircling much of the German Tenth Army. The Germans expected a drive out of the Anzio bridgehead northwest toward Rome, an expectation VI Corps cultivated. However, on 23 May the Americans struck out of the beachhead due north toward Valmontone, and in two days of heavy fighting achieved a breakthrough. The road was open to Route 6. At this point Clark’s G-3 (operations officer), Brigadier General Donald Brann, arrived at VI Corps headquarters, where Major General Lucian Truscott was in command. Clark, defying Alexander’s orders, sent only one division toward Valmontone, while the whole weight of VI Corps was to push straight toward Rome. Truscott demanded to see Clark, but the Fifth Army commander had conveniently taken himself out of circulation.

In fact, Alexander had some intimation that Clark might disobey his orders, but he was not prepared to call his American commander on the carpet. In some ways Clark’s insubordination was similar to Montgomery’s disobedience in 1944 in not making the opening of Antwerp his first priority. But the difference was that Montgomery’s disobedience reflected the field marshal’s operational analysis of the situation, while Clark’s disobedience reflected a vainglorious pursuit of publicity and prestige.

The Germans held Valmontone long enough to allow most of Tenth Army to escape. As Fifth Army pushed on toward Rome, it immediately ran into strong German defenses. However, the German I Airborne Corps failed to cover the steep slopes overlooking Velletri, and troops of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division seized the position. Kesselring now had to admit that he could not hold Rome, and German troops pulled north in good order. On 4 June Clark and his troops marched into an undefended city— whereupon the Pope highlighted his ambiguous record by asking that the Allies keep black troops out of the Eternal City. For a few brief moments, Clark basked in publicity on the front pages of American newspapers, but within two days Operation Overlord—the invasion of northern France— subsumed events in Italy, and Clark found his army and himself relegated to the back pages.

Still, the fighting in Italy did not cease. The Germans fell back toward their new Gothic Line in front of the Po River valley just north of Florence. There, they intended to take a strong stand, since industrial production in northern Italy, largely untouched by Allied bombing, was supplying weapons and other materiel in considerable quantities to the Reich. Over the course of the summer, Kesselring fought a series of delaying actions as his troops withdrew, and for once Hitler—distracted by events elsewhere in Europe—did not object to withdrawals. Kesselring was merely retreating to a line that Hitler had considered holding in fall 1943.

As their advance ground slowly northward, the Allies pulled seven divisions out of the theater for the invasion of southern France (its codename now changed from Anvil to Dragoon). Clark gave up three veteran U.S. divisions, his special forces of divisional strength, and all six of his French divisions. He was probably not sad to lose the last, since the French not only had proved cavalier in following his instructions but then had been successful in their disobedience to boot. After the war, a number of British commentators suggested that removal of these divisions from the Italian theater prevented Alexander from capturing the Po River valley and driving on to Trieste and Vienna. Given the record of Allied Armies Italy, it is possible that they might have captured the Po River valley, but the idea that they might have pushed on over the Alps to Vienna is inconceivable. After all, the Austrian Army had managed to use the mountains to hold off innumerable Italian attacks in World War I (and kill 600,000 Italians), and this time the defenders in the Alps would have been Germans, not Austrians. Moreover, Dragoon’s contribution in opening up the ports of southern France proved crucial in meeting the Allies’ supply crisis in France in fall 1944, especially after Montgomery’s failure to open the Scheldt. Even more to the point, it hardly seems reasonable that France would leave its troops in Italy, while its own countryside was being liberated from the Germans.

In late August, Alexander’s forces tried to break through into the Po with the remaining 18 Allied divisions. The Canadians delivered a skillful blow that came close to penetrating German defenses near the Adriatic and gaining the Po River valley. But the Eighth Army commander, General Oliver Leese, failed to position his reserves to take advantage of such a possibility. A plodding infantryman, Leese had been the XXX Corps commander at El Alamein, where his performance had been less than spectacular. As always, the Germans responded more quickly than did the Allies, and the possibilities opened up by the Canadian success disappeared. Moreover, the rainy season arrived to turn the battlefield into a morass that slowed movement to a crawl.

Clark’s drive on Bologna opened on 10 September; the sterling U.S. 88th Infantry Division, one of the best in Italy, attempted to outflank the city to the east but failed. Clark followed up that effort with a series of straight-ahead attacks that bled his divisions white. In fact, the U.S. Army was facing a worldwide crisis in manpower, and the Italian theater was well down on the priority list for infantry replacements. This crisis finally brought home to Clark why the British were so much less willing than he to drive their divisions to exhaustion. As a result of their failures, the Allies could maintain only a weary watch on the Po River valley over the winter of 1944–45.

Mark Clark would move up to take command of the Allied army group in Italy, but that could hardly have assuaged his thirst for glory. In April 1945, Allied forces in Italy finally broke their German opponents, but largely as a result of the collapse of German forces elsewhere. To Allied strategists, the Italian theater had been a major disappointment; but to the troops who fought there it had been a horror, and for the Italian people it was nothing short of a catastrophe.

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