Friday, September 11, 2015

World War II: Italian Front (1943–1945)

Production of the M4 medium Sherman tank, with a 75 mm cannon in a fully traversable turret, began in October 1941. The standard U. S. Army medium tank, the Sherman was improved as the war progressed to the M4A3 version; almost 50,000 of them were produced. This tank's weight, initially 33.25 tons, grew to 35.5 tons. The most significant improvement was the high-velocity 76 mm gun. The crew was composed of five men. Engines varied widely, and the maximum speed was 24 to 26 mph. Variants to the standard tank included flamethrowers and recovery vehicles.

Pursuant to the Allied strategy of first invading Europe by way of what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) called its "soft underbelly," British and American forces invaded North Africa and defeated German and Italian forces there between 1941 and 1943, then stepped off to invade Sicily. 

The Allied invasion of Sicily from North Africa, called Operation Husky, began on the night of July 9-10, 1943, when 3,000 ships and landing craft carried 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, 1,800 guns, and 160,000 men of the Fifteenth Army Group to a landing on the island. Air strikes to soften up defenses had prepared the way for the landings, and an advance guard of paratroopers, from the British First Airborne and U. S. 82nd Airborne also participated. Combined German and Italian land forces, about 350,000 men, outnumbered the attackers, but 3,680 Allied planes overwhelmed the 1,400 Axis planes in the area and quickly achieved air supremacy, greatly facilitating the landings. The Allies rapidly secured beachheads, and the British Eighth Army captured Syracuse on July 12, then Augusta on July 14. Axis resistance stiffened at Catania, where the enemy held the slopes of Mount Aetna. While the British forces were stalled at Catania, U. S. general George Patton (1885-1945) continued his advance, taking the port of Licata, then beating back a counterattack at Gela. 

After this, the U. S. II Corps, under Omar Bradley (1893-1981), drove up the center of Sicily to capture San Stefano. After Gela and San Stefano, the thrust of the American advance turned east in two columns. One proceeded along the coast, while the other advanced via an inland route. The bifurcated American advance drew off pressure from the British Eighth Army, which was able to take Catania. However, it was the capture of Messina by U. S. units that ended the 38-day campaign for Sicily. 

At a cost of 167,000 Axis casualties, mostly Italian, and 31,158 Allied losses (including 11,923 Americans), the Allied offensive had been brought to the doorstep of the Italian mainland and the European continent. The rapid advance of the Allies pulled the last supports from Benito Mussolini's (1883-1945) tottering Fascist regime. Many in Mussolini's own party, including his foreign minister and son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano (1903-44) and his general Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956), had already denounced him and been sacked by February of 1943. With the Allied invasion, a Grand Council of Fascist leaders convened on July 25 and, after a vicious debate, voted to depose Il Duce and return their country to "the King and parliament." Mussolini resigned the next day. Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947) appointed Badoglio to head a new government and issued a warrant for Mussolini's arrest. 

Faced with a dilemma-Italy wanted peace but was afraid to break with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and provoke a German attack-Badoglio feigned loyalty to Germany but made secret contact with the supreme Allied commander, Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969). Badoglio was hoping to time an armistice with immediate Allied occupation in order to avoid having to fight Germans, but the Americans made it clear in August that Italy's surrender had to be unconditional. Worse, Eisenhower would not promise to land as far north as Rome. 

The Germans were growing suspicious as two British corps crossed the Strait of Messina unopposed, and Badoglio agreed on September 3 to Allied occupation. The Italian surrender was announced on the 8th and Allied landings followed immediately, that very night, in the Bay of Salerno south of Naples. Before the week was out, Hitler's commandos parachuted into northern Italy, rescued Mussolini, and set him up as puppet dictator. All Badoglio's efforts to exit the war proved fruitless when the Allies demanded that the Italians declare war on Germany. He executed the volte-face on October 13, and Italy became an Allied "co-belligerent." 

Allied confusion over just what Italians under Badoglio would do-would they honor the peace? would they resist?-stayed the British and Americans from rushing to occupy all of Italy. The delay bought the Germans time to occupy the mainland with a large force. The Allies now realized that even with Italy formally out of the war the invasion would not be the swift stroke that would open up the rest of Europe. 

The object of fighting up through Italy was not only to take Italy and invade Europe by its back door but also to force the Germans to withdraw troops from the Russian front to defend Italy. This, it was hoped, would enable the Russians to defeat the vast German forces that had invaded Soviet territory. With Allied pressure applied from the Italian south and the Russian east, a massive landing in the west, across the English Channel, would successfully complete the invasion and subsequent liberation of Europe. 

What Allied planners had not counted on was how fiercely and effectively the Germans would resist Italy's invasion. On September 3, 1943, the British Eighth Army landed on the mainland at Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot. On September 9, the day after Badoglio concluded an armistice with the Allies, the U. S. Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark (1896-1984) landed at Salerno, where German resistance was extremely intense. It was not until September 18, after much bloodshed, that British and American operations were sufficiently coordinated to enable the U. S. Fifth Army to declare the Salerno beachhead secure. The cost had been tremendous. The able German general Albert von Kesselring (1885-1960) inflicted more than 15,000 casualties on the Allies while incurring 8,000 losses. 

Slowly and painfully, during September and early October, the U. S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies advanced northward, methodically consolidating gains in southern Italy. The advance was all but halted during the Volturno River campaign (October 12-November 14) by especially effective German resistance along what Kesselring called the "Winter Line," or "Gustav Line," a series of very well prepared defenses extending from the Gulf of Gaeta to the Adriatic Sea. Here the Allied advance was stalled through the end of 1943, when a standoff developed in rugged and frozen terrain just five miles southeast of the Rapido River. 

Heartbreaking as the Italian campaign was for the Allies, the effort of resistance did take a terrible toll on German forces as well, and, as the Allies had hoped, it also tied up forces that might otherwise have been used against the Russians. Thanks in some measure to the Italian campaign, the Soviet army was able to make significant progress, and 1943 proved to be a turning point on the Russian front. Whereas the Soviets had continuously fallen back since 1941, the seemingly interminable Stalingrad campaign, which ended in the loss of 300,000 Germans and the surrender of the 93,000 survivors of the German Sixth Army, brought, at the end of 1943, the launch of a major Soviet offensive. The tide had turned, and if Allied pressure pushing up from the south had stalled, it had nevertheless allowed the Russian push from the east to become overwhelming. 

By January 1944, the U. S. Fifth Army and British Eighth Army had advanced to the Rapido River but got no farther. A fresh Allied landing took place on January 22, when an Anglo-American force of 50,000 hit the beaches at Anzio and encountered almost no resistance. Unfortunately, Major General John P. Lucas (1890-1949) decided to take time to consolidate his forces before commencing his inland advance. This delay allowed Kesselring to reinforce his positions in Anzio and, during February 16-29, mount a fierce counterattack, which forced Lucas to retreat. 

Lucas was relieved by Major General Lucien K. Truscott, Jr. (1895-1965), who had earned a reputation as an uncompromisingly aggressive commander. Yet even Truscott could not compensate for the momentum that had been sacrificed. Anzio rapidly hardened into a bloody stalemate that brought to mind the unproductive slaughter of WORLD WAR I trench warfare. 

With the opposing armies locked in a death grip at Anzio, the U. S. Fifth Army continued to strike against the Gustav Line along the Rapido. Three assaults were hurled against Monte Cassino. The Allies were repulsed in the first Cassino battles, on February 12 and during February 15-18; the Third Battle of Cassino (March 15-23, 1944) also failed to produce a breakthrough, even though massive air support was employed. The Anzio-Rapido-Cassino operations produced 23,860 U. S. and 9,203 British casualties during the four months before a brute-force frontal assault during May 11-25, coordinated with Allied air bombardment of German supply lines (Operation Strangle), finally produced a breakthrough toward Rome. 

Rome was an important objective, and it lured Clark to shift the advance of his Fifth Army in order to attain it. This decision, however, saved the German Tenth Army from envelopment; thus, while Clark was able to enter Rome in hard-won triumph on June 4, the German Tenth remained a viable force and continued to exact a heavy toll on the Allies. Still, the liberation of Rome set up a rapid Allied advance to the Arno River during the summer of 1944. The Fifth Army crossed the Arno on August 26, and the British Eighth Army took Rimini on September 21. Resistance at Bologna proved too strong for Clark to overcome, and Bologna remained in German hands, even after a full-out assault in October. 

In contrast to the war's other fronts, Allied progress in Italy remained slow as 1945 began. In April, the British Eighth Army made a major breakthrough against the German Tenth Army just southeast of Bologna. Shortly after this, the U. S. Fifth Army penetrated the Po Valley in an action that sent the remaining German defenders there into full retreat. The German stronghold of Bologna was at last in Allied hands, and the U. S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies steadily and relentlessly pursued the retreating Germans far into northern Italy. On May 4, 1945, the U. S. Fifth Army linked up with the U. S. Seventh Army at the Brenner Pass, at long last marking the end of the Italian campaign.

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