The Italian Campaign

This is Chapter 13 of BRITAIN AT WAR 1939 to 1945 What was life like during the war? by James Lingard which is available in paperback (ISBN 9781434359339) through local bookshops or on-line; or from AuthorHouse or Kindle as an e-book (ISBN 9781434359346).
The Heritage Officer of the Watford Museum has referred to the book as ‘a fascinating read and a very important document’; the education and outreach department of the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum have found it ‘a useful reference for teachers preparing for WW2 Home Front studies and wanting a personal rather than political focus’
The book has received excellent reviews including:-
The Historical Association – a charity which supports teachers in primary and secondary education but also academics at all levels – ‘Members will be interested in BRITAIN AT WAR 1939 to 1945 What was life like during the war? which brings alive the harsh realities of life in Britain during the war – life full of uncertainty and the danger of impending death. It also provides ‘a concise history of the salient campaigns in World War 2 ideal for anyone who lacks the time or inclination to study the larger works.’
UCL People (University College London) (March 2009) ‘A memoir of boyhood in Britain during World War II, this short but powerful book brings together personal reflections with the historical and political context. The author’s memories are interwoven with quotations from Churchill’s speeches and overviews of the major campaigns. ‘Britain at War’ is written from the standpoint of people directly involved, and all personal experiences are based on actual events.’

‘The time has come for you to decide whether Italians shall die for Mussolini and Hitler – or live for Italy, and for civilisation.’ (Allied leaflet dropped on Rome 17th July 1943)

After the conquest of North Africa, the Allies decided to strive for Sicily and if this proved feasible, the Italian mainland. This required 3,000 ships / landing craft to transport 100,000 men with tanks, guns and equipment – no mean undertaking. The British Eighth Army under General Montgomery comprising seven divisions, two armoured brigades and commandos was to sieze the east of the island; whilst the U.S. Seventh Army under General Patton comprising six divisions took the west.
Against them stood two German divisions – one of which was armoured – and four Italian divisions supported by local troops. Similarly, the Allies could muster 4,000 operational aircraft, whilst the Axis powers had less than half that number in the region.
The well prepared offensive was launched on the 3rd July 1943 with an intensive air strike which quickly established air superiority and kept the Italian navy away from the invasion fleet. Four transports were sunk by German U-boats but the landings were successfully accomplished on the 10th July. The only disaster befell the Air Landing Brigades whose gliders were cast off too early and became scattered with many casualties.
The German Panzers launched a heavy counterattack against the Americans; German paratroops brought in from the mainland slowed the British advance. However, the Allies brought up further divisions held in reserve and by the 17th August, Sicily had fallen. Many of the German troops succeeded in withdrawing during the night across the Messina Straits to the mainland, but there were 37,000 German casualties and over 130,000 Italian. It became clear that the Nazis were not popular with the Italian population.
* * *
The landings in Sicily had serious political repercussions in Rome. Italy itself now faced the threat of invasion. Mussolini fell. He was arrested on the 25th July 1943 on the orders of the Italian King following a vote of the Grand Council, and interned on the island of Ponza. A substantial majority of the population of Italy had turned Communist virtually overnight. Communist demonstrations were put down by armed force.
The Germans poured men into Rome, backed by an armoured division on the outskirts. The Italian troops in the vicinity had practically no weapons. The King and Italian Government were forced to pretend support for Hitler but requested the Allies to land in Italy at the earliest opportunity. The Allies requested that the Italians order their airforce and fleet to leave the country and surrender, release all prisoners of war and destroy communications in the north to disrupt any German invasion.
Hitler, however, ordered reinforcements into Italy and the country rapidly came under German occupation. The Italian Government signed an armistice surrendering to the Allies on the 3rd September 1943. Before dawn that same day, the British Eighth Army had crossed the Straits of Messina and landed on the toe of Italy.
During the night of September 7th, the Germans encircled and subsequently siezed Rome but the King and senior ministers escaped to allied occupied Brindisi. That same day, the Italian fleet escaped from its bases to Malta and surrendered with the loss of the flagship Roma sunk by German aircraft. Hitler responded by sending in paratroops to rescue Mussolini and set him up as a rival Government on the shores of Lake Garda in North Italy. There, he remained cut off from the outside world by carefully chosen German guards.
The Italian surrender and the relative speed with which Sicily had been liberated encouraged the Allies to proceed with the invasion of Italy. However, there were sixteen German divisions stationed in Italy; eight in the north under Rommel, two in and around Rome and six in the south under Kesselring. Moreover, twenty German divisions had been withdrawn from the Russian front and were refitting in France. The Allies had control of the sea and air, but not enough troops on the ground to ensure success and not enough landing craft to bring in massive reinforcements.
* * *
On September 8th, the Allies landed at Salerno, south of Naples, under cover from a strong British fleet but without much air support as the fighters were at the limit of their range. The Germans had disarmed the Italians in the vicinity and put up a strenuous resistance. Salerno itself fell, but the Herman Goering Armoured Division based in Naples, the 16th Armoured Division and a regiment of the 1st parachute division backed by support from the Luftwaffe contained the landing within a ten mile perimeter. For six days of bitter fighting the issue remained in doubt. Naval bombardment saved the Allies from being pushed back into the sea, but at the cost of the battleship Warspite being disabled by a glider bomb – one of the new German secret weapons.
However, the landing did disrupt the German defence of Italy and on the 9th September the Royal Navy steamed unopposed into the naval base at Taranto in the heel of Italy and landed six thousand men of the British 1st Airborne Division who siezed the port. This enabled much needed allied reinforcements to be landed.
By September 16th, the danger of defeat at Salerno had passed. Elements of the British Eighth Army fighting its way up from the toe of Italy began to arrive and the Germans had to withdraw to meet this new threat. Naples itself fell a few days later and within two weeks its harbour had reopened and its airfields became bases for Allied fighters.
Once Naples had been taken, the Allies advance met increasing resistance and of necessity paused. The Germans now had nineteen divisions ranged against no more than thirteen. Reinforcements had become a necessity. They were available but landing craft had other priorities as well. The shortage of transports prevented the relief of Rhodes and other Greek islands which remained under Nazi occupation.
* * *
On the 12th October, the Allies resumed their advance, but early in November they came upon the forward defences of Hitler’s main strategic position south of Rome which had been strongly reinforced. The opposing armies were of equal strength and the Germans had orders not to withdraw from the mountainous defences which they held. They had been told that if they held out, the new secret weapons now developed would destroy London and force the British to seek an armistice.
Moreover, the Allies began withdrawing troops and landing craft back to England to prepare for the invasion of France. That invasion had absolute priority – indeed the existence of the secret weapons made any delay risky. The result in Italy was a deadlock for a period of severe fighting. This suited the Germans well enough – the divisions they held in reserve could be made available at short notice where needed, be it Russia or to repel an invasion of Northern France.
The stalemate was no use to the Allies. They needed Rome to convince neutrals such as Turkey that they were now winning the war. They needed the airfields north of Rome to bomb industry in Southern Germany, and Stalin needed to prevent reinforcement of the Nazi armies in Russia. But how to break the stalemate? Frontal assaults proved costly and were only partially successful.
Allied landing craft were about to be withdrawn from the Mediterranean but Churchill saw the opportunity to land two divisions at Anzio, just south of Rome, behind the German lines. Would two divisions be enough? There were not enough transports to land more.
The landings on 22nd January 1944 achieved almost complete surprise, but the advantage failed to be pressed home. The road to Rome was open but the troops were held back to Churchill’s fury. Worse, German reserves quickly came up and sealed off the bridgehead. Then, they launched a heavy counterattack on 16th February narrowly failing to drive the Allies back into the sea – repulsed by bombardment from every aircraft the Allies could fly.
The Allies resumed frontal attacks on Monte Cassino, but during winter and early spring this resulted in heavy casualties and precious little progress. It did, however, cause the Germans to commit reserves and pinned down nearly twenty good divisions weakening their efforts against Russia.
* * *
Once the snow on the mountains had melted and the ground hardened, the Allies were able to attack on a much broader front in support of the D-Day landings in Northern France. In great secrecy, they had used the Spring to regroup and reinforce their forces in Italy. They now mustered twenty eight divisions against the Germans twenty three and had succeeded in concealing the point of attack.
The fresh onslaught started at 11pm on the 11th May 1944 when 2,000 allied guns opened up a barrage followed up at dawn with heavy bombing. The Polish Corps once again tried to take Monte Cassino but yet again were repulsed. The French Corps made some progress into the mountains and after thirty six hours of murderous fighting the Germans began to fall back. The Americans attacked in strength up the coast road, but it took a week before Cassino town finally fell.
German reinforcements now began to arrive. Would they make a stand in the Alban Hills / Valmontone just south of Rome? They tried to hold a line along the river Liri some miles to the south but the Canadians broke through on the 24th May and that triggered the six allied divisions now in the Anzio bridgehead to break out. German losses were heavy, but the crack Hermann Goering Panzer Division was on its way south to stop the rot. It arrived at Valmontone before the Americans and held the main road open to allow the retreating German units through.
The Alban Hills held out for a few days but Rome fell on the 4th June – two days before D-Day and the Normandy landings. The Germans fell back to the mountains north of the city where the terrain made things difficult for the allied armoured divisions. The retreat, harassed by air attacks, was disorganised and closely pursued by the Allies.
Kesselring reorganised his forces to hold a strong prepared position named the Gothic Line which ran across Italy along the Apennine range north of Florence. There his retreating army would be reinforced by eight new divisions. He skilfully fought rearguard actions to slow down the advance.
General Alexander, on the other hand, had to release seven divisions – almost 40% of his troops – to take part in the landings in the south of France. The strategy agreed by the Allies was to tie up Nazi strength in Italy rather than conquer territory in the mountains. Churchill tried his hardest to keep the troops in Italy to continue their advance, notwithstanding the Gothic Line. Fortunately, the Americans and the Russians forced him to stand by the agreed strategy. The advance through France proved far easier and less costly in casualties.
The attacks on the Gothic Line continued at the cost of heavy casualties, but the German strength was reinforced to twenty eight divisions and held with the aid of the weather into the winter. Churchill asked the Americans to send reinforcements to Italy, but they declined – sending them instead to strengthen the armies on the Rhine. The mountains of Italy led back to the Alps – territory far too easy to defend and costly to attack as had been proved at Monte Cassino.
* * *

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