The Italian Campaign of World War Two


Even prior to victory in the North African Campaign, there was disagreement between the Allies on the best strategy to defeat the Axis.

The British, especially Winston Churchill, advocated their traditional naval-based peripheral strategy. Even with a large army, but greater naval power, the traditional British strategy 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 strategy 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 Mediterranean strategy. The American staff believed that a full-scale invasion of France as soon as possible was necessary to end the war in Europe, and that no operations should be undertaken which 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 that to keep U.S. troops active in the European theater 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 war, 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. It would also 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 Invasion of Sicily.

The assault on Sicily begins on the evening of July 9. General Matthew Ridgeway’s 82nd Airborne Division is to land and capture strategic objectives; British airborne units have similar objectives. But the airborne units are dealt hard blows - the 82nd drops over too large an area and cannot consolidate to take all their objectives. The British paratroopers fare better - but one-third of the troop gliders are released too early and crash at sea. Still, the disruption caused by the airborne assault helps the seaborne assault the next day.

On July 10, Patton’s forces land, smash through light resistance, and quickly take Gela, Licata, and Vittoria; Montgomery’s troops land unopposed and capture Syracuse by the end of the day.
The landing forces use, for the first time, two craft that will play important roles in the Normandy invasion: The landing ship tank (LST) and landing craft tank (LCT) enable the Allies to land armor with the first wave of infantry.

Patton’s forces swing west and capture Palermo on July 22; they surround 50,000 Italian soldiers, but motorized units, including most of the Germans, escape toward the northeast corner of the island. Three days later, the U.S. 45th Division captures Santo Stefano on the north coast and the British and Canadians swing west around Mount Etna.

On the same day (July 25) Mussolini is overthrown. Marshal Badoglio forms a new cabinet; he declares martial law and reassures Germany that he will not negotiate a peace with the Allies but immediately begins negotiating with them. An armistice is signed on August 3 and announced to the public on August 8. Hitler responds by sending reinforcements to Italy. As the fighting grinds on, Axis resistance stiffens. The Americans begin using small amphibious landings on the north coast to push the Axis forces back. There are landings at Sant Agata (August 8), Brolo (August 11), and Cape Milazzo (August 15); each compels the Germans and Italians to pull back. When American and British units capture Randazzo on the north side of Mount Etna on August 14, Axis defenses begin to crumble.

On August 17, Patton’s troops enter Messina, British units follow a few hours later, and the campaign for Sicily is over. The Germans and Italians have evacuated more than 100,000 men across the Strait of Messina. German casualties exceed 10,000 and the Italians lose more than 100,000, mostly as prisoners. The Allies suffer 7,000 dead and 15,000 wounded, but their success in Sicily convinces many that the offensive in the Mediterranean should continue.

The Invasion of The Italian Mainland.

On 3 Sept, Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army crossed from Sicily to Calabria during Operation Baytown, and faced little opposition as the Italian units surrendered almost immediately. The only opposition for Montgomery's troops were the single regiment of German troops who had to cover 17 miles of coast. Six days later the British First Airborne Division landed by sea at Taranto, which also faced little opposition; the trip by sea to Taranto, however, bore much tension as the Allied fleet sailed by the Italian fleet. The Allied naval commanders did not know whether to expect cooperation or treachery from the remnants of the Italian navy. While Taranto landings were taking place, an assault by 165,000 troops of the Allied Fifth Army under General Clark during Operation Avalanche at Salerno where they faced significant resistance. On 13 Sep, six divisions of German troops counterattacked the thinly-spread Allied troops at Salerno and almost drove the landers back into sea; General Clark even made plans to relocate his HQ back aboard a naval vessel should Germans continue to advance. On 14 Sep, Air Marshal Tedder executed a series of precise air raids against key German lines of communications and supplies. The strikes by air, coupled with ample naval bombardment, dwindled the ferocity of German counterattacks, and allowed the Allies to maintain their beachhead.

The German defenses in Italy were under the command of Albert Kesselring, who believed that the Italy terrain would prove to be easy to defend; similar opinions were voiced by Allied soldiers as well. The autumn weather was gloomy, and key bridges and railroads that could be used by the Allies were blown out on Kesselring's orders. Even Eisenhower commented in his memoirs that "[t]he country itself was ideal for defensive fighting." The terrain was divided by rivers of various sizes, some rivers such as the Vulturno turned so much that advancing Allied troops had to cross the same river a few times; Brigadier General Caffey observed his uninformed driver ranting about this "crazy country" where "every damn river in this fucking country is named Volturno". On 18 Sep, Kesselring ordered his troops to retreat into the mountainous regions and form defensive lines along the natural fortresses. The Fifth Army captured Naples on 1 Oct while the Eighth Army marched along teh Adriatic coast, capturing the airfields at Foggia. When the Allied forces collided with the German defense lines, the campaign became a slow and grueling continuous battle for the Allies. The German Winter Line and Gustav Line defenses, helped by rain and snow, held Allied advance to kust 70 miles from Salerno in four month's time. Fifth Army alone suffered 40,000 casualties and 50,000 sick, far exceeding the numbers on the German side.

In Dec 1943, Eisenhower and Montgomery were withdrawn from the Italian front for the Normandy invasion. When this was announced, Eisenhower was in Manhattan, Kansas, United States for a family gathering; he did not get a chance to return to Italy before being sent to Britain to plan for Operation Overlord (Normandy), for which he was rather upset. He wished to say thanks and goodbye to all his loyal lieutenants in person.

General Wilson was appointed Supreme Commander of the theater, succeeding Eisenhower. He launched another amphibious landing, Operation Shingle, at Anzio on 22 Jan 1944; Major General John Lucas successfully landed 70,000 troops to the surprise of the German defenders, but Lucas failed to take advantage of the surprise, and the beachhead ended up being a defensive position against constant German counterattacks.

On 17 Jan, 5th Corps launched an attack on the Gustav Line, which failed with 17,000 casualties. The next assault came in the form of a New Zealanders' attack on Monte Cassino following a heavy bombing run that destroyed the monastery by the same name; the German paratroopers there defended the stronghold easily. The third attempt, which also failed, was launched by New Zealand and Indian forces following another heavy air bombardment, but the German paratroopers dug in and fought back viciously and effectively. The line finally broke on 11 May when the Fifth Army and Eighth Army launched a coordinated attack. Free French and Polish troops seized Monte Cassino, and broke the Gustav Line. With the Gustav Line broken, Fifth Army troops linked up with 6th Corps on 25 May, and marched into Rome on 4 Jun. Kesselring retreated to the Pisa-Rimini Gothic Line, the next defensive line he had set up across Italy.

Starting on 4 Sep 1944, four British attacks challenged the Gothic Line near the village of Gemmano, but failed to break the German defenses. Another attack towards Bologna was defeated in Oct. Simiarly, a German counterattack that winter was also defeated by the Allies with heavy casualties. The fighting at the Gothic Line reminded the generals on both sides of the grueling fighting in WW1. The situation finally changed on 9 Apr 1945 when British and American forces performed a concerted attack that converged on Bologna. Bologna fell on 21 Apr, and very quickly captured Verona on the other side of the River Po four days later. With the German forces defeated at the Gothic Line, Mussolini fled toward the Alps for Germany. He was captured by Italian partisans who executed him on 28 Apr. 

The Italian Campaign 1943-1945