The Italian invasion took place in the context of the victory gained in the battle for Sicily. The invasion of continental Italy was planned and carried out by Army Group 15. This group was under the control of Harold Alexander and was made up of two armies: the American 5th Army, commanded by Mark Clark, and the British 8th Army of Bernard Montgomery. The success of the Italian campaign marked Italy’s exit from the war, through the signing of an armistice and the death of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Concerning the landing area, the Allies had two options: one in the basin of the Volturno River, and the second at Salerno. Both places were within the action range of the Allied airplanes in Sicily. Salerno was chosen due to the fact that it was closer to the air bases in Sicily. At the same time, the navigating conditions on the water were better there. This location allowed transport ships to anchor much closer to the beach, and there was an excellent network of roads in the area. The landing had the codename Operation Avalanche.
The Germans put six divisions into position in order to cover the possible landing places on the west coast, from Rome to the Italian ‘toe’. The German forces were made up of the ‘Hermann Göring’ Panzer Divisions 26 and 16, the Panzergrenadier Divisions 15 and 29, and the 2nd Fallschirmjäger - Airborne Division. Heinrich von Vietinghoff, commander of the 10th Army, especially placed the 16th Panzer Division close to Salerno.
During the landings, there was minor opposition, with the Italian units immediately surrendering. They left a lone German regiment to defend 27 km of coastline. The German General Albert Kesselring and his staff did not believe that the main invasion would take place at Calabria, where Montgomery’s troops landed ahead of the main Allied forces. Since the Salerno region and even the region to the north of Rome seemed to be much more logical choices, Kesselring ordered the Panzer 76 Corps not to engage the British 8th Army in battle, but to delay it by demolishing bridges on retreat.
After the retreat of the German forces from the Allied landing area, the Anglo-American forces began to pursue the 10th German Army. The initial tactical goal of this pursuit was to capture the cities of Naples and Foggia. During this time, the American 3rd Infantry Division, recently landed, occupied the localities of Acerno and Avellino. After these objectives were attained, the Allies attacked a series of German defensive lines to the south of Rome.
Dwight Eisenhower and Harold Alexander put together a plan in which the 5th and 8th Armies would fight to occupy Rome. The 8th Army must gain Pescara and head west. The 5th Army would advance towards the Liri valley, helped by a strong landing force in the south of Rome, at Anzio. The troops from Anzio would annihilate the reserve troops on the Gustav Line and push all strategic reserves of the German troops towards the north. The Allies knew the German defensive plans before the beginning of operations, through the spy network.
With Rome as the next major objective, the Allies set out for the north. They quickly attacked towns and villages and crossed the rivers whose bridges had been destroyed. Rome was chosen as the objective for political and moral reasons rather than military ones. This city was declared by both camps as a demilitarized city. The terrible weather in the autumn of that year and the topographical defensive features of the Apennine mountains were a favorable context for General Fridolin von Vietinghoff to begin determined measures from the German rearguard. Thus, Allied air superiority was often negated.
The autumn campaign in Italy consisted of a series of assaults on the German defensive lines installed to the south of Rome. Of these, the Gustav Line and the Winter Line proved the hardest to conquer. The Winter Line was a well-fortified outpost of the Gustav Line, which must be crossed in order for the Allies to assault the Gustav Line. During the attack in the area of the Winter Line, the battle of San Pietro took place. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the Italian campaign. The Allies managed to occupy this town after nine days of hard fighting.
Once the Winter Line was broken through, the Allies assaulted the Gustav Line, with the attack on Cassino being carried out from the west and south of the town. The Germans did not include the historic monastery of Monte Cassino in their defensive plans, but occupied defensive positions on Mount Cassino. The Allies had to occupy this mountain to be able to advance on Rome. This only happened after four attacks, which were considered the hardest battles fought in Italy. The first attack was planned by General Mark Clark, and was an Allied attack in three directions.
The main attack of the American 36th Division began after sunset. Pressed by time, the Allies had not prepared a safe passage to the German positions, and the road leading to them was full of mines and rudimentary traps. At the same time, the American troops did not have the necessary experience to cross a river upstream. Although the 143rd Regiment and two companies of the 141st Regiment managed to advance to the southern and northern sides respectively, they became isolated from the rest of the American forces. The American tanks did not have the necessary means to be able to advance. Thus, the elements which managed to advance were very vulnerable to a counterattack. The attack failed.
The American units were put into reserve to be reorganized. They were replaced on the front by the New Zealand Corps, formed of the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division. The new troops were commanded by Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg. At Anzio, VI Corps was under serious threat. Freyberg was pressed to launch an action at Cassino in order to ease the pressure on the troops in Anzio. Freyberg’s plan was to continue the first battle: an attack in the north on the peaks of the mountains in the area and an attack from the south-east, along the railway line. The objective was to capture the station found on the other side of the Rapido River.
As time passed, more and more Allied officers believed that the Germans were using the monastery on Monte Cassino as an observation point. This had foiled all attempts the Allies had made up to that point to break through the Gustav Line. As a consequence, American airplanes dropped 1,150 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs on the monastery, reducing the entire complex of buildings into a smoking ruin. Between air raids, the artillery of II Corps bombed the mountain. The German defenders sent their troops and occupied the monastery, transforming it into a fortress.
For the third offensive, it was decided that two simultaneous attacks would be launched in the north, one towards the monastery and one towards the well-fortified town of Cassino. The attacks would be launched when spring arrived. In order to carry out this assault, it was necessary to have three days of good weather. Thus, the attack was delayed by 20 days. The morale of the Allied troops suffered, when Major-General Howard Kippenberger was wounded by an antipersonnel mine. He lost both legs and was replaced by Brigadier General Graham Parkinson. The third assault was also repelled by the German troops.
General Bernard Freyberg brought elements of the 78th Infantry Division out of reserves in order to increase the number of troops in the town and to prevent the Germans from infiltrating areas which had already been swept clean. Also, bringing in the 78th Division allowed the Allied positions close to the Castle Hill to be fortified. This was the route used by the Germans to send backup to the troops in town. The German defenders were well-organized, so the Allied attempt to block the German access into town failed. In Cassino, battles were fought over each house. The Allies were forced to retreat due to the stubborn resistance of the Germans.
The plan for Operation Diadem, the final battle of Monte Cassino, was drawn up by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy, Harold Alexander. The American II Corps would attack on the left, along the coast, up to Rome. The French forces, to the right of the Americans, would attack along the Garigliano valley. The British XIII Corps, in the center of the front, would attack in the Liri valley. The Polish II Corps, formed of the 3rd and 5th Divisions and commanded by Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders, must attempt a new assault on the monastery. This plan gave the Allies the victory at Monte Cassino.
The role of Pope Pius XII in World War II remains extremely controversial. He deliberately decided not to publicly denounce the Nazi war against the Jews, in spite of the fact that he had detailed information about the nature and dimension of the phenomenon. His decision was based on his conviction - which proved to be founded - that the Germans harshly punished ecclesiastical authorities which intervened in the favor of the Jews. This would have reduced the opportunities to help in other, especially clandestine, ways. The Pope himself sheltered thousands of Jews in his properties in Rome and at the Gandolfo Castle, outside the city.
The Allies carried out two amphibious attacks on the towns of Anzio and Nettuno. The attacks had the goal of cutting off communications between Rome and Cassino. Thus, the Allies forced the German 10th Army to weaken or even abandon the western part of the Gustav Line. Once they landed, the Allied troops would be able to attack the flanks of the positions at Cassino. The operation was initially a failure for the Allies, who were stuck in the landing area for several months. After they managed to break through the German defense, the forces from Anzio reached Rome.
John Lucas, known by his soldiers as ‘Foxy Grandpa’, established the general headquarters of VI Corps in the underground caverns of Via Romana in Nettuno, close to the landing area. He remained there, far from the British sectors, and at one point carried out an evacuation exercise. In the absence of progress, Lucas was replaced by the much more energetic Major-General Lucian Truscott. Both Harold Alexander and Mark Clark approved all of Lucas’ decisions, but they escaped criticism.
The ports of Anzio and Nettuno, but also the fleet which was needed to supply the bridgeheads, were hit heavily by the Germans. In ten days from the landing, Albert Kesselring had brought from outside Italy a force of 140 long-range bombers and more than 60 craft from bases in southern France. The ships which were supplying the Anzio beachheads had to face German torpedoes, bombs and some terrifying new inventions, such as the radio-operated, rocket-powered glider bombs. All the manual torpedo attacks failed miserably.
Friedrich von Mackensen’s offensive, given a thrust by the bombing from the artillery and the tenacious resistance on the ground, only managed to reach a point 11km from Anzio. From that moment, in dry valleys, in swamps and streams full of mosquitos from the upper reaches of the Moletta river, the fighting continued for three months. Although the front lines were generally static, constant attacks were carried out against enemy trenches, which brought heavy losses. Usually, the battalions spent six days in the front line area and eight away. In the end, the Allies won due to the fact that they managed to break through the front at Monte Cassino.
After the defeat at Monte Cassino, the Hitler Line could no longer resist in the face of the massive Allied assault. The Canadian 5th Armored Division created the first breach in the line. The Poles captured Piedimonte and the line collapsed completely. The American forces from Anzio, under the command of General Mark Clark, were ordered to capture the town of Valmontone, in order to cut off the German 10th Army’s retreat route. Clark ignored these orders and pointed his troops towards Rome. Clark’s troops entered a Rome abandoned by the Germans on the 4th of June 1944, just two days before the Allied invasion of Normandy.
After the fall of Rome, the Wehrmacht reorganized to the north of Rome in new defensive positions. This was possible since the German units had escaped through the breach at Valmontone. Later, Harold Alexander blamed the pull of publicity created at the fall of Rome for the fact that Mark Clark ignored his orders. Thus, Clark allowed the Germans to escape from an encirclement which would certainly have made the last year of war in Italy much easier for the Allies.
The pursuit of the Germans towards the north, made by Harold Alexander, was hesitant. The pursuit took place where the Gothic Line was constructed, between La Spezia and Pesaro. The Germans managed to bring their forces to the Gothic Line without being overtaken. Also, they were protected by mini defensive lines, such as the Albert Line behind Perugia, the lines in front of the towns of Arezzo and Siena, but also the Arno Line, centered on Florence and Bibbiena. All these must be conquered before the Allies could reach the Gothic Line. Alexander’s plan was that the German divisions be destroyed in front of the Alps.
Hitler refused to grant permission to General Heinrich von Vietinghoff to retreat to the Alps. Instead, he ordered his troops to ‘resist or die’. Thus, he condemned the already demoralized German troops to a battle fought to the north of Pad, where they were completely destroyed in spring 1945. In these conditions, Vietinghoff surrendered the South-West Army Group to Alexander, who was at the time supreme commander in the Mediterranean.
Looking back, the fact that each human loss recorded in these campaigns represents a tragedy of history is often too easily forgotten. In the Military Cemetery, 3km north of Anzio, for example, lies the grave of 25 year-old Sergeant Maurice Rogers, from the Wiltshire Regiment. He received the Victoria Cross after he took the German position on the north bank of the Moletta River with grenades and a bayonet. Rogers advanced alone against the enemy which occupied the highest part of the land. On both sides, soldiers fought with much courage and commitment. Many of them never returned home.
After the Allied landing in Sicily, Mussolini was arrested. Two months after these events, he was saved by an operation of German paratroopers. Up until the end of the Italian campaign, Mussolini was named dictator in Northern Italy, in what is known in history as the Republic of Salò. Upon the collapse of the Wehrmacht in Italy, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland with his mistress, Clara Petacci. The two were captured by Italian partisans and executed. Their bodies were taken to Milan, the birthplace of fascism, and hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto.