The Italian Campaign

The two-year Italian campaign resulted from a May 1943 meeting in which Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt discussed the most effective way to get Italy out of the war and at the same time provoke the Germans into battle there so their forces in France would be weakened before the Normandy invasion, which had been scheduled for May 1944.

It was also hoped that a victory in Italy would hurt the morale of the other Axis nations and give the Allies air bases in Italy to accelerate the air war against German-held territories.

The Taking of Sicily

The first goal of the Italian campaign was the conquest of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, which was made possible by the Allies' victories in North Africa (discussed in Chapter 5). General Dwight Eisenhower, who had commanded the Allied invasion of North Africa, was made Supreme Allied Commander in charge of the Sicily invasion.

The invasion took thirty-eight days and started with an amphibious landing on July 10, 1943. The Seventh Army under General George S. Patton landed in the Gulf of Tela, and the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery landed south of Syracuse. Even though Axis forces in Sicily totaled more than 400,000, the Allied landings, which were accompanied by air and naval support, met very little resistance.

The airborne phase of the Sicily invasion was a disaster for the Allies. American and British paratroopers dropped on the eve of the invasion suffered heavy losses as a result of harsh winds, friendly fire from Allied antiaircraft fire, and poorly trained troop transport pilots. In all, American paratroopers suffered 27 percent casualties and British paratroopers 23 percent.

German Tiger tanks attacked a unit near the beachhead, but the U.S. destroyer Cowie made short work of them with its powerful five-inch guns. It was the first destroyer versus tank “battle” in military history.

The land invasion fared better. Patton's army cut through Axis defenses on its way to Palermo on the island's northern coast, though Montgomery's forces, after taking Syracuse, were slowed at Catania by difficult terrain and stronger-than-anticipated opposition by German forces. Montgomery's objective was Messina, the coastal town that would be the launching point for the invasion of the Italian mainland. He reached it on August 17, nearly a month after Patton reached Palermo. Because of the delay, Axis forces were able to withdraw across the Strait of Messina.

Mussolini Deposed, Bailed Out by Hitler

Shortly after the Allied invasion of Sicily, Fascist leaders in Italy called a conference with Mussolini, who was instructed to appear before the Fascist Grand Council. Mussolini tried desperately to salvage his political career with blustery oratory but was deposed by a council vote of nineteen to eight, with one abstention. Mussolini was quickly arrested and, on order of King Victor Emmanuel III, replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of the Italian General Staff. However, Mussolini still wasn't out of the picture. While under arrest, he was rescued in a daring raid by German commandos and set up by Hitler as head of a puppet state in northern Italy known as the Italian Social Republic.

Map 4-3 The invasion of Sicily by U.S., Canadian, and British forces on July 9 and 10, 1943.

Map courtesy of the National Archives (Invasion of Sicily, RG 160, Vol. 2, No. 13)

Secret Surrender?

The capture of Sicily sent shockwaves through Italy, and Italian military and government officials soon engaged the Allies in secret surrender negotiations in Lisbon, Portugal. Brigadier General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, represented the United States, and Major General Kenneth Strong represented Great Britain. The men carried with them special “short terms” documents for Italy's surrender, while the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office drafted the “long terms” agreement stipulating the Allied war aim of unconditional surrender. The surrender documents were signed on September 3, 1943, and Italy was taken out of the war.

While the surrender was in the works, the Allies prepared for the invasion of Italy. On September 3, the British Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina and landed on the Calabrian coast. Italian resistance was minimal.

General Mark Clark's Fifth Army landed at Salerno on September 9. At the same time, British forces landed at Taranto, moving swiftly to take Bari and Brindisi. Fearing German reprisals, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the new head of the Italian government, and King Victor Emmanuel III fled Rome and established a provisional capital in Brindisi.

Clark's Fifth Army met an extremely strong German defense and was nearly driven back to the sea. However, the day was saved when Allied forces in the air, at sea, and on the ground successfully secured the beachhead. Within a few days, nearly 190,000 troops, 100,000 tons of supplies, and 30,000 vehicles arrived for the scheduled push up the Italian peninsula.

While troops and equipment were being amassed in Salerno, British forces pressed northward, pushing the Germans into retreat. Capri and other islands in the Bay of Naples surrendered as the Allied invasion continued, and on October 1, the Fifth Army marched into Naples, where the harbor, badly damaged in the fighting, was quickly put back into commission.

The Gustav Line

The Germans had been working frantically to create a series of strong defensive lines across Italy from coast to coast, and the Allies ran into the first of them — the Gustav line — in early November. Suddenly, the easy capture of Italy became extremely difficult. Stalled by the rocky terrain, winter weather, and well-entrenched German defenses, the Allies tried a different strategy: an amphibious landing at Anzio to harass the German flank while additional forces pressed the Gustav line.

The landing at Anzio was met with a blistering response by the Germans, who pinned down Allied troops with vicious artillery fire. Meanwhile, General Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring, a skilled battle strategist, thwarted the Allied offensive plan calling for Clark to break through the Gustav line by crossing the Garigliano and Rapido rivers and moving up the Liri Valley to Rome. At the same time, French and British forces were supposed to feint momentarily, then strike at the center of the German line.

Once the German defense at Anzio was destroyed, Clark's army headed east, then turned to take Rome. Clark's army liberated Rome on June 4, 1944. The entire campaign had taken 275 days and cost the Fifth Army nearly 125,000 men, including more than 20,300 dead.

The plan was intended to throw Kesselring off balance as he tried to determine which threat to address first, thus allowing both the Anzio and river-crossing operations to move forward. But Kesselring anticipated the plan and set up formidable defenses. As a result, Clark's crossing at the Rapido was a total disaster, resulting in high casualties.

Fighting continued at Anzio, in the Liri Valley, and around Monte Cassino, which was a Gustav line stronghold, for months. In May 1944, an offensive finally pierced the German defensive line. Combined Allied forces were able to break through at Anzio, and French troops pushed through the supposedly impassable mountains. After a hard-fought battle and the loss of many men, members of the Polish Corps planted the Polish flag on Monte Cassino. Allied forces from around the world had joined hands to help break the German defense.

Italy Falls

Despite a series of setbacks in Italy, the Germans weren't ready to call it quits. Retreating north from Rome after tremendous Allied gains, German forces made a stand at Florence, only to be knocked back on August 4, 1944, by advance units from a South African armored division. From there, the Germans dug in at the Gothic line, which stretched from above Leghorn to the Adriatic Sea. An Allied offensive led by the U.S. and British armies started on September 10 and quickly sent the Germans into another retreat.

By then, the German army was being attacked on two additional fronts: across northern France after the Normandy invasion and in southern France, which Allied forces had stormed on August 15.

German forces continued to fight through the fall and winter of 1944, establishing a number of defensive positions in Northern Italy. In April 1945, the Eighth Army pressed through west of Ravenna and the Fifth Army fought its way up the Po Valley, often engaging the enemy in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

On April 17, 1945, Il Duce was kidnapped by Italian guerrillas and was executed the next day, along with his lover and a handful of political supporters. All remaining German troops in Italy surrendered to the Allies on April 28, bringing the war in Italy to an end.

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