WW2 Italy Campaigns
Conquest of Sicily: June-August 1943
Some weeks before the end of hostilities in North Africa detailed planning had begun for the capture of Sicily, to be followed by the invasion of the Italian mainland. On June 11, 1943, the island of Pantelleria, with its Italian garrison of 15,000 men, surrendered to the Allies, and the smaller islands of Lampedusa and Linosa surrendered on June 12 and 13, respectively.
The Allied forces in the Mediterranean were ready for the invasion of Sicily by early July. Under the supreme command of General Eisenhower, the land forces consisted of the Fifteenth Army Group under the direction of General Alexander, comprising the United States Seventh Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) George S. Patton, Jr., and the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery. Axis forces in Sicily numbered about 75,000 Germans and 275,000 Italians. The German forces included the 15th Panzer Division with about 60 tanks and the Hermann Goering Division with about 100 tanks. The Italians had four divisions and 100 light tanks.
The Allied troops taking part in the assault came from widespread areas: the American 1st and 3d divisions and the British 51st (Highland) Division from North African ports; the American 45th Division, from the United States; the Canadian 1st Division, from the United Kingdom; and the British 5th and 50th divisions and the 231st Infantry Brigade, from the Middle East. The Allied invasion fleet, comprising 3,000 ships and craft carrying about 140,000 men and covered by powerful naval and air forces, was approaching Sicily on the afternoon of July 9, when a severe storm blew up that threatened the landings with disaster. On the next morning, however, the assault took place as planned, the British Eighth Army landing in the southeastern corner of the island, and the United States Seventh Army on the south coast. The assault by sea was preceded by American airborne landings near Gela and by British landings near Syracuse (Siracusa). The first Allied airborne operations on a big scale, they were only partially successful because of the stormy weather. Many men and gliders landed at some distance from their targets, some of them falling in the sea. But the assault as a whole was successful, and Syracuse was captured that day.
By July 22, British Commonwealth forces had advanced northward to the foothills of Mount Etna, while American troops had overrun the western part of the island, capturing Agrigento and Palermo. Only the northeast held out. By August 15, Randazzo and Taormina had been captured, and by August 17 all Axis resistance in Sicily had ceased. Allied casualties included 6,896 Americans and 12,843 British. Axis killed, wounded, and prisoners numbered about 164,000, of whom approximately 32,000 were Germans. The Allies captured or destroyed about ‘1,500 aircraft, 78 armored fighting vehicles, 287 guns, and 3,500 motor vehicles.
While the fighting in Sicily was in progress, important political developments had been taking place. On July 25, Mussolini was forced to resign, and Marshal Pietro Badoglio became premier of Italy, while King Victor Emmanuel III assumed command of the Italian armed forces. These events were followed by secret feelers, put out by the Allies through neutral diplomatic circles, to induce Italy to cease hostilities and if possible declare war on Germany. On September 3, a military armistice between the Allies and the Italian government was signed secretly at Syracuse. It was announced publicly by General Eisenhower on September 8.
Invasion of the Italian Mainland: September – October 1943
Immediately after the fighting in Sicily ended, planning began for the invasion of the Italian mainland. The general plan called for the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery to cross the Strait of Messina from Sicily onto the toe of Italy and advance northward as quickly as possible. About a week later the American Fifth Army under Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Mark W. Clark was to land in strength on the west coast at Salerno, 30 miles southeast of Naples (Napoli) and 180 miles north of Montgomery’s landing place, with the objects of joining its forces with the Eighth Army, cutting off substantial German forces in southern Italy, and capturing the port of Naples at an early date.
Events moved quickly. On September 3, the Eighth Army, with massive sea and air support, crossed the Strait of Messina at Reggio di Calabria and advanced rapidly northward against light opposition. Eisenhower’s announcement five days later of the capitulation of Italy regularized the withdrawal of the country from the war (which for all practical purposes had already taken place), but it did not as yet bring Italy into the conflict as a co-belligerent against Germany. The port and naval base of Taranto was occupied by British airborne forces on September 9. Two days later, the main part of the Italian Navy steamed into Valletta under escort, and Admiral Cunningham was able to signal the British Admiralty: “Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta.” During their voyage to Malta the Italian warships were heavily attacked by German aircraft. The flagship Roma was hit, caught fire, and blew up. Most of her crew, including the commander in chief, were lost.
The Fifth Army began landing at Salerno on September 9. For some days the Allied intelligence staff had known that Germans had replaced Italian troops in the Salerno area. There was some opposition on the beaches, but on the whole, the landings went smoothly and without very heavy fighting. Although the Germans made furious counterattacks on the beachhead on September 13, the crisis was over by September 16, and on that day troops of the Fifth and Eighth armies linked forces. Troops of the Fifth Army occupied Naples on October 1, by which time the British 1st Airborne Division, which had landed at Taranto on September 9, had captured the important airfield at Foggia.
By October 12, the Allies had established a reasonably solid front across the Italian Peninsula, from Foggia on the Adriatic coast to just north of Naples on the west coast – a distance of about 120 miles. The Eighth Army was on the right, and the Fifth Army on the left. Success had been swift: within six weeks the Allies had captured and occupied a substantial part of Italy. There were, however, many hard battles still to he fought. Meanwhile, on September 19, the Italian island of Sardinia had fallen to the Allies, and on October 4 the French island of Corsica was taken.
The over-all policy, agreed to by the Allies for conducting the war, was that the main effort should be directed first to the defeat of Germany, after which all available forces would be concentrated against Japan. There was, however, some difference of opinion between the American and British governments and their military advisers as to the best strategy for northwestern and southern Europe. The British at first favored exploiting the Mediterranean theater on the grounds that the Allies were already established there, that no further assault landings would be necessary, and that an attack on Germany through Italy and the Balkans would prevent the spread of communism in central Europe. The Americans held that a crossChannel attack based on the United Kingdom was the easiest way of getting quickly to the heart of Germany and greatly simplified the logistic problem. They pointed out that while British Commonwealth forces received many of their reinforcements and much of their equipment and supplies through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the route from North America to the Mediterranean was longer, more dangerous, and logistically less convenient than that to the United Kingdom and the mainland of northwestern Europe. The American staff also drew attention to the formidable mountain ranges, very suitable for defense, which would have to be negotiated in an advance on Germany from southern Europe.
By the late summer of 1943 the American view had prevailed. Planning for Operation Overlord was in progress, and in consequence, the Mediterranean theater tended to decrease in importance, although it was still to play a major part in Allied strategy. As soon as the Sicilian campaign was over, the Allies began to transfer 7 divisions (4 Americans and 3 British) from the Mediterranean to Britain in preparation for Overlord, which it was expected would take place in the late spring of 1944.
Following the conquest of Sicily and the surrender of Italy in September 1943, another important strategic matter arose. This was the question of occupying some of the islands of the Dodecanese, off the coast of Turkey, which were mostly garrisoned by Italians. General Eisenhower was opposed to diverting troops from Italy for this purpose, but the Middle East command under General Wilson sent detachments, carried and escorted by British warships, to Leros and some smaller islands. While the Italian garrisons were friendly, they were not prepared to fight Germans in defense of the islands. Against heavy German threats the British garrisons were withdrawn by mid-November, and the Germans reoccupied the islands. British naval losses in these abortive operations comprised 6 destroyers and 2 submarines sunk by mines or German aircraft, and 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers damaged.
Operations on the Italian Mainland: October 1943-August 1944
On Oct. 13, 1943, Italy declared war on Germany, and thereafter Italian partisan forces played an increasing role in the war against their former Axis partner. By early November, the Allied land forces in Italy consisted of the American 3d, 34th, and 45th Infantry, 82d Airborne, and 1st Armored divisions and the British 46th, 56th Infantry, and 7th Armored divisions, of the Fifth Army; and the 5th, 78th, 1st Canadian, 8th Indian, 2d New Zealand, and 1st Airborne divisions, of the Eighth Army. About this time plans were made to transfer the French Corps under Gen. (later Marshal) Alphonse Pierre Juin from North Africa to Italy. Later the troops in Italy were to be joined by the Polish Corps under Gen. Wladyslaw Anders and by other American, British, and Canadian formations.
The winter of 1943-1944 was a period of hard fighting which brought the Allies up to the German Gustav Line. The Fifth Army crossed the Volturno River on October 13. On November 8, General Alexander issued a directive for offensives by the Fifth and Eighth armies. The Eighth Army began its offensive on the Sangro River on November 20, and the Fifth Army attacked in the Liri Valley on December 1. In both cases the advance was limited, as neither army was strong enough to exploit its success.
In January 1944, there were important changes in command. General Eisenhower left the Mediterranean theater to direct Overlord and become supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in northwestern Europe. He was succeeded as supreme commander in the central Mediterranean by General Wilson. General Alexander remained as commander in chief in Italy. General Montgomery, who returned to the United Kingdom to command the Twenty-first Army Group, was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Sir Oliver Leese in command of the Eighth Army.
As early as October 1943, plans for an amphibious Allied landing near Anzio had been considered. As finally approved, the landing was to be made by the United States 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, comprising 1 United States infantry division, a United States armored element, a battalion of Rangers, a parachute regimental combat team, and 1 British infantry division, a British armored element, and 2 Commando units. The object of the landing was to cut the communications of the German 14th Corps, assist the main Allied armies to advance to the north, and capture Rome (Roma). The landing took place on Jan. 22, 1944. The leading troops advanced about 10 miles but were then halted by stubborn resistance. The German commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, concentrated 10 German divisions against the 4 which, with further reinforcements, the Allies had established on the beachhead. While the Anzio beachhead held firm, little progress was made by the Allies on any front, and it was nearly five months before Rome was captured.
At the end of March 1944, the Allied position facing the Gustav Line extended for 100 miles westward across Italy, from the Sangro River to Cassino and thence to the Tyrrhenian Sea near the mouth of the Garigliano (lower Liri) River. The Anzio beachhead was firmly held. The key position in the Gustav Line was Monte Cassino with its famous Benedictine abbey on the summit. This position was attacked first by the United States 2d Corps (the 34th and 36th divisions) in January; then by the New Zealand 2d Corps (the New Zealand 2d, Indian 4th, and British 78th divisions and a combat group of the United States 1st Armored Division) in February; and for a third time, again by the New Zealand 2d and Indian 4th divisions, in March. All three attacks failed despite the fact that the last two were preceded by massive bombardments by heavy bomber aircraft as well as by artillery. The Allies spent the month of April and first half of May regrouping and planning for a further assault on the Gustav Line at Cassino, preparatory to an advance on Rome. By this time the strategy in the Mediterranean had definitely become subordinate to northwestern Europe, where the cross-Channel assault was planned for early June. General Alexander defined the task of the forces in Italy as follows: “To force the enemy to commit a maximum number of divisions in Italy at the time the Cross-Channel invasion is launched.”
The fourth and last assault on the Cassino position was carried out by the Polish Corps, with the British 2d Corps on its left ready to advance up Highway 6 in the Liri Valley and open the road to Rome. Farther to the left the Fifth Army (which included the French Corps) was to advance on Rome, using Highway 7 as its main axis. The offensive was supported by 1,000 guns with the Eighth Army and 600 with the Fifth Army and by more than 3,000 aircraft. The battle began on May 11, but it was not until the morning of May 18 that the Poles were able to occupy the abbey of Monte Cassino. The whole Allied battlefront westward from Cassino then surged forward, and events moved rapidly. On May 23, the Allied forces in the Anzio beachhead took the offensive and joined the troops of the Fifth Army advancing from the south. By this time the Germans had decided to give up the Gustav Line, and their next position, the Hitler Line, was already pierced. On June 4, American troops of the Fifth Army entered Rome, which the Germans had declared to be an open city. The bridges were left intact, and the city was saved many of the ravages of 20th century warfare. Two days later, on June 6, the forces in Italy learned of the successful Allied landings on the Normandy coast.
After the capture of Rome the Allies pressed northward on what was in reality two fronts divided by the Apennines and with only slight ground contact over the mountain barrier. One portion of the Eighth Army was to the east of the Apennines; the Fifth Army and the rest of the Eighth Army, to the west. The full exploitation of success was prevented by the withdrawal of more troops from Italy to help the Allies in northwestern Europe by means of landings in southern France. Pescara on the Adriatic was captured on June 11, Arezzo on July 16, Ancona on July 18, Leghorn (Livorno) on July 19, and Florence (Firenze) on August 11. The Allies now faced the German Gothic Line, which ran from the Adriatic to the north of Ancona, north of Arezzo and Florence, to the west coast north of Leghorn, or about 150 miles.
Allied Landings in Southern France: Augus – September 1944
At the Teheran Conference (Nov. 28-Dec. 1, 1943) it had been agreed that the landings in northwestern Europe would be followed by further landings in the south of France. After the fall of Rome preparations began to implement this decision at the expense of General Alexander’s forces in Italy. It was now proposed to withdraw 7 good divisions from the Fifth Army: 3 American (the 3d, 36th, and 45th) and 4 French. Known at first as Anvil, the operation was later code-named Dragoon. Planning and execution were entrusted to the headquarters of the United States Seventh Army under Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Alexander M. Patch. The troops consisted of the United States 6th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Lucian K. Truscott and composed of 3 United States divisions; and the French 2d Corps, composed of divisions formerly in Italy, under Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
Early on the morning of Aug. 15, 1944, a special service force of American and Canadian units seized the offshore islands of Levant and PortCros, while French Commando troops landed on the French Riviera mainland immediately to the north. Farther inland and 22 miles west of Cannes, the 1st Airborne Task Force, consisting of American and British airborne units, was dropped. These preliminary operations were quickly followed by seaborne landings of major formations of the Seventh Army between Nice and Toulon. German resistance was not sustained, but it was tenacious in places, especially at Toulon and Marseille. By August 27, the French had captured Toulon, and on the following day, Marseille. After liberating southern France the Allied force moved via the Rhone and Doubs valleys to the Belfort gap. It then joined with the Allied armies in northwestern Europe, came under General Eisenhower’s command, and ceased to be within the Mediterranean theater of operations.
For a more detailed account of operations in southern France in 1944, see section 5. Recovery of France and Advance into Germany.
Campaign in Italy: August 1944-May 1945
Despite the weakening of his forces, General Alexander made early plans for an assault on the Gothic Line. This involved the transfer of troops from the western or left flank to the right flank in preparation for an attack on the enemy’s left. The offensive was opened by the Eighth Army on Aug. 25, 1944, and by August 31 the German front had been pierced on a line 20 miles long to a depth of 4 miles. On the left the Fifth Army, which included some British Commonwealth formations, also attacked vigorously, and by September 13 had broken the enemy front north of Florence. Rimini fell to the Allies on September 21, and by September 28 the Gothic Line had been forced. This phase of the Italian campaign was an exceptionally fine operation by the Allies, carried out despite dwindling numbers in difficult mountain country well suited to defense. The price, however, was a heavy one-approximately 50,000 casualties. When the offensive was halted at the end of September, the line ran across Italy from east to west for about 150 miles, from north of Rimini to north of Florence and Pisa.
There followed a lull of about six weeks, but elsewhere in the Mediterranean theater an important development took place. In the late summer of 1944 it became apparent that the Germans were preparing to withdraw from Greece. The country was in ruins, however, and clearly the first requirement was an Allied force to maintain law and order, prevent the country from falling under Communist domination, carry out relief work, and generally reestablish stable conditions. Operation Manna, the code name for the relief force, was ready by mid-September, its commander being the British Lt. Gen. (later Sir) Ronald M. Scobie. Except for some Greek units, which had been operating under Allied command in Italy, the force was mostly British, including initially the 2d Parachute Brigade, 23d Armored Brigade (in an infantry role), and administrati- units. The land forces were to be supported by th 15th Cruiser Squadron, United States transport aircraft, and four British and three Greek air squadrons.
On September 26, a conference took place at Allied headquarters at Caserta, Italy, which was attended by representatives of Premier George Papandreou’s Greek government in exile and leaders of the two principal Greek partisan groups, the National Liberation Front (EAM) and the Greek People’s Army of Liberation (ELAS) . The latter both agreed to operate under General Scobie’s orders. On October 3, British Commando and airborne troops landed in southern Greece and on the next day occupied Patras (Patrai). Additional airborne forces landed at Megara Airfield, outside Athens, on October 13, and on the following day moved into the capital on the heels of the retreating Germans. Naval forces immediately entered Piraeus (Peiraieus), bringing General Scobie and the rest of his force, followed two days later by the Greek government.
By November 8, the last formed bodies of German troops had left Greece, but their departure did not bring peace. The rival partisan groups-the left-wing EAM and ELAS and the anti-Communist EDES (National Greek Democratic League)-were openly hostile to the Greek government, and in addition quarreled and fought among themselves. The partisans’ promise to take orders from General Scobie was soon broken. Toward the end of November, Scobie’s command was reinforced by the Indian 4th Division. The last days of November and early December saw a bid by ELAS to take over Athens, and clashes between British troops and ELAS occurred in the city on December 5. In the face of increasing partisan opposition some of the smaller British detachments had to be withdrawn, a few suffering casualties in the process.
With the situation worsening, the Greek government and the Allies turned to Archbishop Damaskinos as the leading figure in Greece and the man with the greatest influence over all parties. As a result of a meeting held on December 26-27, attended by the archbishop, Prime Minister Churchill, and other political and military leaders, King George II of Greece postponed his return to the country, the archbishop became regent, and Papandreou was replaced as premier by Gen. Nicholas Plastiras. In the meantime, General Scobie had been further reinforced by the British 4th Division, which was intercepted in mid-December, while on route from Italy to Egypt. Its arrival turned the scale, and by Jan. 5, 1945, Athens and Piraeus had been cleared of dissentient forces.
On February 12, representatives of the Greek government and the Central Committee of EAMELAS signed at Varkiza an agreement, the terms of which included the disarming and demobilization of all revolutionary forces (who were to release their hostages), a general amnesty, and the formation of a national army. Following the Varkiza agreement, British forces had little difficulty in occupying all of Greece. The worst was over, and the troubles of the Greeks gave way to more urgent matters.
Meanwhile, in Italy on Nov. 3, 1944, Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Sir Richard L. McCreery succeeded General Leese in command of the Eighth Army. During the late fall and winter the battlefront remained generally inactive, but the Allies made some progress on their right along the Adriatic coast. Forli was captured on November 10, and Ravenna on December 5. Operations were greatly hampered by unusually heavy rainfall during the last three months of the year. On the night of October 1, for example, approximately 8.5 inches of rain fell in the Po Valley in 10 hours, reducing the countryside to a quagmire.
On December 12, General Wilson left the Mediterranean theater to become head of the British Combined Services Mission in Washington. His place as supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean was taken by the recently promoted Field Marshal Alexander. General Clark became commander of the Allied armies in Italy, which now reverted to the title of Fifteenth Army Group, and General Truscott took command of the Fifth Army. Between Dec. 28, 1944, and Jan. 2, 1945, the Germans made a powerful counterattack against the Allied left in the Serchio Valley north of Pisa. It fell mainly on the Indian 8th Division, which stood firm and repulsed the attack with heavy losses to the Germans.
In mid-March, Allied intelligence staffs estimated that about a third of the German strength in the west was employed in Italy, and this was judged to be an important factor in the success of Overlord. Special measures were taken to make this known to the Allied troops in Italy, and it proved a useful antidote to the disappointment caused by the earlier withdrawal of troops, which had prevented the Allies from completing the conquest of northern Italy. By the early spring, Italian troops were playing a considerable role in operations against their former German partners. Their activities were mostly of the guerrilla type, but they also had some field units in action.
On April 9, German strength in Italy was the equivalent of 26 divisions, including 1 panzer and 1 light (motorized) division. On this day the Eighth Army on the right launched a major offensive, supported by heavy air and artillery bombardments, and crossed the Senio River. On the Allied left the Fifth Army also carried out a heavy attack, capturing Massa and crossing the Frigido River. On April 16, Field Marshal Alexander and General Clark made it known that the hour for the final battle for Italy had arrived. On the Adriatic side the offensive of the Eighth Army had been designed in the initial stages to give an opportunity to exploit success, either through the Argenta gap near the coast or farther west through Bologna. Argenta was the choice; on April 17 the gap was secured, and the town itself was entered the next day. Meanwhile, the Fifth Army offensive, which had begun on April 14, met with stubborn resistance in the mountains, but once the battlefront reached open country the German withdrawal became a rout.
On both fronts the retreating enemy was pursued by Allied armor and pounded by Allied aircraft. The object of the Germans was to get as many troops and as much equipment as possible north of the Po River. Bologna fell to the Fifth Army on April 21, and on April 23 leading armored elements of the Fifth and Eighth armies met south of the Po in the Ferrara-Finale nell’ Emilia area, where they created havoc among German troops and transport crowding the roads to reach the river bridges. By that evening the Fifth and Eighth armies had reached the Po on a wide front. Ferrara, Bondeno, and Modena (all south of the Po) fell on April 24, and by the evening of April 25′ approximately 30,000 German prisoners were in Allied hands, and a substantial part of the German armor, artillery, and transport had been destroyed or captured. Such was the measure of the defeat of the Germans south of the Po that they were unable to offer any serious resistance on this formidable river line, which the Allies crossed without serious opposition.
Operations now entered the area of Napoleon’s Italian campaigns, and familiar names appeared on the air and in written messages. On April 26, Mantua (Mantova) and Verona fell, and the Adige River was crossed. At this stage it was revealed that the area west of the Como-Milan ( Milano ) -Genoa (Genova) line was virtually under the control of Italian resistance troops, who had been organized by Allied liaison officers and equipped from Allied sources. Genoa was occupied by the Fifth Army on April 27. On the following day, Mussolini was murdered by partisans. By this time the Fifteenth Army Group was firmly established across the Adige, and on April 29 it began advancing northward from the river. On the same day the Fifth Army entered Milan, and the Eighth entered Padua (Padova). On April 30, the official communique stated: “Troops of the Fifteenth Army Group have so smashed German Armies in Italy that they have been eliminated as a military force.” About 120,000 Germans had been taken prisoner since the offensive started.
On the last day of April, purely military operations began to give way to other considerations. It was important that northeastern Italy should be occupied as quickly as possible by American and British troops. Large numbers of German soldiers, many of them detached from their units and not under regular discipline, were roaming the countryside. Many thousands of Italian partisans were to be found, not all of them under proper control. A dispute between Yugoslav partisans and Italians over the possession pf Trieste seemed likely to cause a clash, and for many reasons it was desirable that Austria should be occupied as soon as possible. Although the fighting was nearly over, there was much to be done to preserve law and order and bring about a semblance of control.
Allied troops entered Savona and Turin (Torino) on May 1. On the following day, May 2, 1945, at 12 noon, hostilities in Italy came to an end as the result of an instrument of unconditional surrender signed at Caserta on April 29 by representatives of Col. Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commander in chief of the German Southwest Army Group. Nearly 1,000,000 Germans then laid down their arms. Thus ended operations in the Mediterranean theater of war, which had begun on land on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier early on June 11, 1940, a few hours after Italy entered the war.
The purpose of the Allied campaign in Italy was to contain as many Axis troops as possible in order to ease the burden on other fronts. The extent to which this objective was accomplished can be judged by the following comparison of German and Allied strengths at various times (Italian units, which at different times formed part of the forces of both sides, are not included) :
|Mid-October 1943||19 divisions||15 divisions|
|Spring 1944 (for a brief period only)||23 divisions||27 divisions|
|Summer 1944||25 divisions||20 divisions|
|Mid-March 1954||24 divisions||17 divisions and 9 independent brigades|
Allied casualties in Sicily and Italy totaled 320,955, while those of the Axis ( excluding those involved in the final surrender) numbered 658,339. If to the latter figure are added the Axis casualties in North and East Africa, the total is approximately 1,610,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners.