The Italian Campaign of World War II was the name of Allied operations in and around Italy, from 1943 to the end of the war in Europe. Joint Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) was operationally responsible for all Allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre, and it planned and commanded the invasion of Sicily and the campaign on the Italian mainland until the surrender of German forces in Italy in May 1945.
It is estimated that between September 1943 and April 1945, some 60,000 Allied and 50,000 German soldiers died in Italy.[nb 6] Overall Allied casualties during the campaign totaled about 320,000[nb 7] and the corresponding Axis figure (excluding those involved in the final surrender) was about 336,650. No campaign in the West (Mediterranean, Middle East and Western Fronts) cost more than the Italian campaign in terms of lives lost and wounds suffered by infantry forces.
Strategic background[edit | edit source]
The British, especially Winston Churchill, advocated their traditional naval-based peripheral strategy. Even with a large army, but greater naval power, the traditional British answer against a continental enemy was to fight as part of a coalition and mount small peripheral operations designed to gradually weaken the enemy. The United States, with an even larger army, favoured a more direct method of fighting the main force of the German Army in Northern Europe. The ability to launch such a campaign depended on first winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
The strategic disagreement was fierce, with the US service chiefs arguing for an invasion of France as early as possible, while their British counterparts advocated a policy centred on operations in the Mediterranean. There was even pressure from some Latin American countries to stage an invasion of Spain, which under Francisco Franco was friendly to the Axis nations, although not a participant in the war. The American staff believed that a full-scale invasion of France at the earliest possible time was required to end the war in Europe, and that no operations should be undertaken that might delay that effort. The British argued that the presence of large numbers of troops trained for amphibious landings in the Mediterranean made a limited-scale invasion possible and useful.
Eventually the US and British political leadership made the decision to commit to an invasion of France in early 1944, but with a lower-priority Italian campaign reflecting Roosevelt's desire to keep US troops active in the European theatre during 1943 and his attraction to the idea of eliminating Italy from the war. It was hoped that an invasion would knock them out of the conflict, or provide at least a major propaganda blow. The elimination of Italy as an enemy would also enable Allied naval forces, principally the Royal Navy, to completely dominate the Mediterranean Sea, massively improving communications with Egypt, the Far East, the Middle East and India. In addition, it would mean that the Germans would have to transfer troops from the Eastern Front to defend Italy and the entire southern coast of France, thus aiding the Soviets. The Italians would also withdraw their troops from the Soviet Union to defend Italy.
The campaign[edit | edit source]
Invasion of Sicily[edit | edit source]
A combined British-Canadian-American invasion of Sicily began on 10 July 1943 with both amphibious and airborne landings at the Gulf of Gela (American 7th Army, Patton) and north of Syracuse (British 8th Army, Montgomery). The original plan contemplated a strong advance by the British northwards along the east coast to Messina, with the Americans in a supporting role along their left flank. When 8th Army were held up by stubborn defences in the rugged hills south of Mount Etna, Patton amplified the American role by a wide advance northwest toward Palermo and then directly north to cut the northern coastal road. This was followed by an eastward advance north of Etna towards Messina, supported by a series of amphibious landings on the north coast, that propelled Patton's troops into Messina shortly before the first elements of 8th Army. The defending German and Italian forces were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island, but succeeded in evacuating most of their troops to the mainland, the last leaving on 17 August 1943. Allied forces gained experience in opposed amphibious operations, coalition warfare and mass airborne drops.
Invasion of continental Italy[edit | edit source]
Forces of the British Eighth Army landed in the 'toe' of Italy on 3 September 1943 in Operation Baytown, the day the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies. The armistice was publicly announced on 8 September by two broadcasts, first by Eisenhower and then by a proclamation by Marshal Badoglio. Although the German forces prepared to defend without Italian assistance, only two of their divisions opposite the Eighth Army and one at Salerno were not tied up disarming the Italian Army.
On 9 September, forces of the US Fifth Army, expecting little resistance, landed against heavy German resistance at Salerno in Operation Avalanche; in addition, British forces landed at Taranto in Operation Slapstick, which was almost unopposed. There had been a hope that, with the surrender of the Italian government, the Germans would withdraw to the north, since at the time Adolf Hitler had been persuaded that Southern Italy was strategically unimportant. However, this was not to be; although, for a while, Eighth Army was able to make relatively easy progress up the eastern coast, capturing the port of Bari and the important airfields around Foggia. Although none of the northern reserves were made available to the German Tenth Army, it nevertheless came close to repelling the Salerno landing, thanks to the overly cautious command of General Mark Clark. The main Allied effort in the west initially centered on the port of Naples: that city was selected because it was the northernmost port that could receive Allied air support by fighter aircraft operating from Sicily.
As the Allies advanced, they encountered increasingly difficult terrain: the Apennine Mountains form a spine along the Italian peninsula offset somewhat to the east. In the most mountainous areas of Abruzzo, more than half the width of the peninsula comprises crests and peaks over 3,000 feet (910 m) that are relatively easy to defend; and the spurs and re-entrants to the spine confronted the Allies with a succession of ridges and rivers across their line of advance. The rivers were subject to sudden and unexpected flooding, which constantly thwarted the Allied commanders' plans.
Allied advance to Rome[edit | edit source]
In early October 1943, Hitler was persuaded by his Army Group Commander in Southern Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, that the defence of Italy should be conducted as far away from Germany as possible. This would make the most of the natural defensive geography of Central Italy, whilst denying the Allies the easy capture of a succession of airfields; each one being ever closer to Germany. Hitler was also convinced that yielding southern Italy would provide the Allies with a springboard for an invasion of the Balkans with its vital resources of oil, bauxite and copper.
Kesselring was given command of the whole of Italy and immediately ordered the preparation of a series of defensive lines across Italy, south of Rome. Two lines, the Volturno and the Barbara, were used to delay the Allied advance so as to buy time to prepare the most formidable defensive positions, which formed the Winter Line - the collective name for the Gustav Line and two associated defensive lines on the west of the Apennine Mountains, the Bernhardt and Hitler lines (the latter had been renamed the Senger Line by 23 May 1944).
The Winter Line proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the Fifth Army's advance on the western side of Italy. Although the Gustav Line was penetrated on the Eighth Army's Adriatic front, and Ortona captured, blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December caused the advance to grind to a halt. The Allies' focus then turned to the western front, where an attack through the Liri valley was considered to have the best chance of a breakthrough towards the Italian capital. Landings at Anzio during Operation Shingle, advocated by Churchill, behind the line were intended to destabilise the German Gustav line defences, but the early thrust inland to cut off the German defences did not occur, thanks again to the indecisiveness of the American commander (General Lucas), and the Anzio forces became bottled up in their beachhead.
It took four major offensives between January and May 1944 before the line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the Fifth and Eighth Armies (including British, US, French, Polish and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a twenty mile front between Monte Cassino and the western seaboard. With the US Army pinned down in Anzio, the Canadian Forces, who were tasked with capturing Rome, endured the toughest German opposition in the War. They sustained disproportionate losses, more than any other Allied country in the Campaign.
Yet they did not enter Rome first, although that had been the ordered plan. In a concurrent action, US General Mark Clark was ordered to break out of the stagnant position at Anzio and cash-in on the opportunity to cut off and destroy a large part of the German Tenth Army retreating from the Gustav Line between them and the Canadians. But this opportunity was lost on the brink of success, when General Clark disobeyed his orders and sent his US Forces to enter the vacant Rome instead. Rome had been declared an open city by the German Army so no resistance was encountered.
The US forces took possession of Rome on 4 June 1944. The German Tenth Army were allowed to get away and, in the next few weeks, were responsible for doubling the Allied casualties in that Campaign. General Clark was hailed as a hero in the US. The Canadians were sent through the City without stopping at 3:00AM the next morning.
Allied advance into Northern Italy[edit | edit source]
After the capture of Rome, and the Normandy Invasion in June, many experienced American and French units, the equivalent of seven divisions, were pulled out of Italy during the summer of 1944 to participate in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of the South of France. These units were only partially compensated for by the arrival of the Brazilian 1st Infantry Division, the land forces element of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force.
In the period from June to August 1944, the Allies advanced beyond Rome, taking Florence and closing up on the Gothic Line. This last major defensive line ran from the coast some 30 miles (48 km) north of Pisa, along the jagged Apennine Mountains chain between Florence and Bologna to the Adriatic coast, just south of Rimini. In order to shorten the Allied lines of communication for the advance into Northern Italy, the Polish II Corps advanced towards the port of Ancona and, after a month-long battle, succeeded in capturing it on 18 July.
During Operation Olive, the major Allied offensive in the autumn of 1944, which commenced on 25 August, the Gothic Line defences were penetrated on both the Eighth Army and Fifth Army fronts; but, there was no decisive breakthrough. Churchill had hoped that a major advance in the autumn of 1944 would open the way for the Allied armies to advance north eastwards through the 'Ljubljana Gap' (the area between Venice and Vienna, modern Slovenia) to Vienna and Hungary to forestall the Russians advancing into Eastern Europe. Churchill's proposal had been strongly opposed by the US Chiefs of Staff who, understanding its importance to British post-war interests in the region, did not feel it aligned with prevailing overall Allied war priorities.
In December 1944, Fifth Army commander Mark Clark was appointed to command the 15th Army Group, thereby succeeding Harold Alexander as commander of all Allied ground troops in Italy. In the winter and spring of 1944–45, extensive partisan activity in Northern Italy took place. As there were two Italian governments during this period, (one on each side of the war), the struggle took on some characteristics of a civil war.
The poor winter weather, which made armoured manoeuvre and the exploitation of overwhelming air superiority impossible, coupled with the massive losses suffered to its ranks during the autumn fighting, the need to transfer some British troops to Greece (as well as the need to withdraw the Canadian I Corps to northwest Europe) made it impractical for the Allies to continue their offensive in early 1945. Instead, the Allies adopted a strategy of "offensive defence" while preparing for a final attack when better weather and ground conditions arrived in the spring.
In late February-early March 1945, Operation Encore saw elements of US IV Corps, (the Brazilian Expeditionary Force and the newly arrived US 10th Mountain Division) battling forward across minefields in the Apennines to align their front with that of US II Corps on their right. They pushed the German defenders from the commanding high point of Monte Castello and the adjacent Monte Belvedere and Castelnuovo, depriving them of artillery positions that had been commanding the approaches to Bologna since the narrowly failed Allied attempt to take the city in the autumn. Meanwhile, damage to other transport infrastructure forced Axis forces to use sea, canal and river routes for re-supply, leading to Operation Bowler against shipping in Venice harbour on 21 March 1945.
The Allies' final offensive commenced with massive aerial and artillery bombardments on 9 April 1945. By 18 April, Eighth Army forces in the east had broken through the Argenta Gap and sent armour racing forward in an encircling move to meet the US IV Corps advancing from the Apennines in Central Italy and to trap the remaining defenders of Bologna. On 21 April, Bologna was entered by the Polish 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, the Italian Friuli Group (both from Eighth Army) and the US 34th Infantry Division (from Fifth Army). 10th Mountain Division, which had bypassed Bologna, reached the River Po on 22 April; the Indian 8th Infantry Division, on the Eighth Army front, reached the river on 23 April.
By 25 April, the Italian Partisans' Committee of Liberation declared a general uprising, and on the same day, having crossed the Po on the right flank, forces of Eighth Army advanced north northeast towards Venice and Trieste. On the US Fifth Army front, elements drove north toward Austria and north west to Milan. On the army's left flank, the 92nd Infantry Division (the "Buffalo Soldiers Division") went along the coast to Genoa; and a rapid advance towards Turin, by the Brazilian division on their right, took the German–Italian Army of Liguria by surprise, causing its collapse.
As April came to an end, Army Group C, the Axis forces in Italy, retreating on all fronts and having lost most of its fighting strength, was left with little option but surrender. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had taken command of Army Group C after Kesselring had been transferred to become Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front (OB West) in March 1945, signed the instrument of surrender on behalf of the German armies in Italy on 29 April, formally bringing hostilities to an end on 2 May 1945.
See also[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
Further reading[edit | edit source]
[edit | edit source]