Introduction: An Infantry War

Italian officers stood dumbfounded before the German General Westphal. He had just delivered an ultimatum: they must not resist Hitler’s occupation of their country or Rome would face the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini had first courted his Nazi counterpart in 1939 with the Pact of Steel; now the marriage was ending in an acrimonious and dramatic divorce. By the late summer of 1943 the Italians were wavering in their commitment to the Axis cause and Hitler needed to secure Italy and the Balkans against the encroaching Allies. At this point Field Marshal Albert Kesselring pulled off an audacious coup: ‘Smiling Albert’, with few forces to hand, browbeat, demoralised and bluffed the Italians into allowing him to occupy Rome and disarm them without even firing a shot.

In a letter to his wife dated 10 September 1943 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had fought so long beside the Italians in Libya and Tunisia, said with genuine regret:

The events in Italy have, of course, long been expected and the very situation has now arisen which we have done all we could to avoid. In the south, Italian troops are already fighting alongside the British against us. Up north, Italian troops are being disarmed for the present and sent as prisoners to Germany. What a shameful end for an army!

Before his fall from power Mussolini had wanted not additional German troops in Italy but rather German resources with which to replenish his exhausted and demoralised army. When Kesselring told Mussolini he was forming three new German divisions to help defend Italy, Mussolini remarked that they would make no difference and what he really needed was tanks and aircraft. His initial requests included 300 tanks, rising to enough equipment for 17 tank battalions and 33 self-propelled artillery battalions. The Germans scoffed at his demands.

While the campaigns fought during the Second World War in North Africa, the Eastern Front and northwest Europe were very much dominated by armoured warfare, the battles in Italy were not. The mountainous topography running the length of the Italian peninsula ensured that it was foremost an infantry war, with tanks playing a secondary supporting role. At the beginning of the campaign the mountainous terrain of southern and central Italy greatly impeded the Allied advance. When they were able to use the roads, after German demolition damage had been repaired and mines cleared, they still had to cover huge distances up zigzagging routes just to cover a few miles as the crow flies.

As well as Italy’s mountains and numerous rivers, the Allies also had to overcome a number of key German defensive positions known as the Bernhardt, Gustav, Senger, Caesar, Albert, Heinrich and Gothic Lines respectively. This was a job for infantry and artillery, not tanks. On top of this, the Italian weather was an additional curse on Allied operations. For over half the year there was rain and snow, both of which resulted in mud.

Only six Allied armoured divisions fought in Italy and not all at the same time. A single US armoured division served with the multi-national US 5th Army fighting in western Italy (though independent tank battalions were assigned to support the infantry units). This was the US 1st Armored Division, affectionately known as the ‘Old Ironsides’.This division was the founding unit of America’s tank force during the Second World War, supplying cadres for all the other fifteen US combat armoured divisions.

However, as pointed out, the US 5th Army was a multi-national force and at various times it was strengthened by the British 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, the South African 6th Armoured Division and the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. In contrast, the key armoured units with the British 8th Army fighting its way up eastern Italy were the British 1st Armoured and the Canadian 5th Armoured Divisions. The Canadians were not very happy at being equipped with the 7th Armoured Division’s worn-out vehicles when the latter shipped back to Britain to take part in the Normandy landings.

Likewise, German panzer divisions were always thin on the ground in Italy. On the whole the German infantry divisions relied on the support of panzergrenadier units, which had fewer armoured fighting vehicles than the regular panzer divisions. The key armoured formation was the 26th Panzer Division, which transferred to Italy in 1943 and remained there for the rest of the war until its surrender near Bologna in May 1945. The 16th Panzer Division fought in Italy for six months between June and November 1943, seeing action at Salerno and Naples before being sent to the Eastern Front. The 24th Panzer Division was sent very briefly to northern Italy in the summer of 1943 on occupation duties.

Another panzer division that fought in both Sicily and on the Italian mainland was in fact a Luftwaffe or German Air Force unit, although in February 1943 it came under army control after General Heinz Guderian became Inspector-General Armoured Forces.This was the volunteer Hermann Göring Panzer Division that had its origins in the elite pre-war Luftwaffe Jäeger Regiment Hermann Göring.This had become a brigade in 1942 with a paratroop and air landing training role. Early the following year it became a panzergrenadier division and finally the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring.

The Hermann Göring Panzer Division was destroyed in Tunisia but re-formed in southern Italy and Sicily and played a key role in the Sicilian campaign in July and August 1943. Escaping to the Italian mainland following the Allied landings on Sicily, it was given the title Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring, although the Fallschirm (‘Parachute’) designation was purely honorary. The division was heavily involved in containing the Anzio bridgehead from January 1944 onwards until the Allied breakout. In July it was transferred to the Eastern Front.

Five panzergrenadier divisions – the 3rd, 15th, 16th SS, 29th and 90th – saw long-term action in Italy. The 15th Panzer Division, having been lost in Tunisia, was reconstituted in Sicily as the 15th Panzergrenadiers and served there and on the mainland. Most of these units started life as motorised infantry divisions and were converted in 1943. On the whole they were equipped with turretless assault guns not panzers, though the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring included a panzer and assault gun battalion. Once the Allies had broken out of their various bridgeheads, the low-profile assault gun proved to be an ideal weapon for the Germans’ defensive war in Italy.

Despite the Italian surrender on 3 September 1943, Field Marshal Kesselring seized power and stabilised the situation in Italy following the Allied landings at Salerno on the 9th.The Allied planners realised belatedly that they had lost a golden opportunity by not landing just south of Rome to pre-empt Kesselring’s take-over. Not only did the Germans successfully seize most of Italy, but also the Italian-occupied zones in Albania, the Balkans, Greece and Yugoslavia, thereby securing their potentially exposed flank. Considering the German defeat at El Alamein, the subsequent Torch landings and the Germans’ expulsion from North Africa and Sicily, Hitler must have been quietly pleased with how he had retrieved such a disastrous situation.

By early October Hitler had reinforced his forces in Italy with 27,000 troops that had escaped from Corsica and Sardinia. In the meantime Field Marshal Kesselring managed to keep the Allies at bay and disarm the Italian Army. He then brought the invaders to a halt 100 miles from Rome. Eight months were to pass before the Allies reached the Italian capital, and it would take another eight months before they managed to break out into the plains of northern Italy.

Four major offensives between January and May 1944 were required before the Gustav Line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the US 5th and British 8th Armies (involving British, US, French, Polish and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a 20-mile front between Monte Cassino and the western coast.The forces at Anzio did not break out of their bridgehead until late May. Even then the opportunity to cut off and destroy a large part of the German 10th Army was lost when the Anzio forces changed their direction of attack to move parallel with the coast to capture Rome. The Germans fought a highly successful and effective defensive war in Italy, which slowed down the Allied armour at every turn, until the very end of the Second World War.

Photograph Sources

The photos in this book have been sourced from the author’s own extensive collection as well as various archives, including the US Army, US Signal Corps and Canadian Army Collections.



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