IN THE SUMMER OF 1943 two muddied currents merged in the Mediterranean. The first was the Allied strategic problem of where to go and what to do now that the North African campaign was ending. The second was the Italian political problem of how to get out of an increasingly pointless war.
The Allies at Casablanca had decided on the taking of the island of Sicily, as a means of utilizing their strength in the theater, and of easing their shipping problems. In spite of the American desire for an invasion of the Continent, they accepted the British contention that Sicily was a valuable objective; they were also susceptible to the point that it was better to use troops in the Mediterranean to some advantage, than to withdraw them and have them cooling their heels in Britain through late 1943 and into 1944, waiting for the invasion. In this they were conscious of the immense battles being fought in Russia, and they believed rightly that the Russians would resent the downgrading of the one area where there actually was contact between Western Allied and Axis ground forces. For a variety of reasons then, most of which made good sense at the time, the Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed on Sicily as the next campaign. They did not, as they began staff planning for the invasion, consider going on to invade the Italian mainland.
Yet Italy was ripe for invasion and for collapse, because the Italians and their Fascist regime were reeling on the ropes. The war had turned increasingly sour for them and they had long since lost any real interest in it. Mussolini was bankrupt politically, with little support among his own administration, and regarded everywhere as a mere puppet whose strings were pulled by Hitler. Mussolini himself recognized this, much as he hated it, and fought against it whenever he could, which was not often. More and more the Germans took over direction of the Italian war effort. Il Duce was bullied into sending Italian troops off to fight the Communist menace in Russia; Italians were used extensively on anti-guerrilla operations in the Balkans. Everywhere they were regarded and treated as second-class citizens of the Axis alliance, and they responded by being overtly unhappy and performing poorly. They were in exactly the situation of the troops of the Kingdom of Italy in the Napoleonic Empire, and though many units and individuals fought bravely, as a people their hearts were not in Hitler’s war—if they ever had been.
Hitler’s response to Italian dissatisfaction and grumbling was to send more German troops south. When Mussolini wrote of the threat of Allied invasion and asked for the return of his troops fighting in Russia, Hitler sent Germans instead. There were not too many of them, but they formed part of the mobile garrison of Sicily, and they were scattered at key points throughout the Italian Peninsula as well. Field Marshal Kesselring, “Smiling Albert” as the Allied troops called him, was the German commander for the Mediterranean. Fortunately for German-Italian relations, Kesselring was something of an Italophile, which was rather rare in German military circles, and he and the Italian Comando Supremo managed to get along in what otherwise might have been a very awkward situation. As the possibility of an Allied invasion neared, Hitler ordered Erwin Rommel, back from Africa and sick leave, to command a shadow army group in the Alps, to be activated in the event of a landing. Unlike Kesselring, Hitler was aware of the possibility of Italian defection. He did not think that in such an event the Germans could hold the entire peninsula, but he issued orders that the German forces were to fall back and hold the shoulder of the northern Apennines, keeping the Allies out of the Po Valley.
Musing on his allies, Hitler once remarked disgustedly, “The Italians never lose a war; no matter what happens, they always end up on the winning side.” By 1943 the Italians, or many of them in high places, recognized that they were on the losing side and that it was time to get off it. To do so, they had to achieve two things: they had to get rid of Mussolini and they had to get Allied help to protect them from the German reaction. The spur that forced them to deal with the first of these was the invasion of Sicily.
On July 10 the greatest armada of the war, more than 3,000 ships, dropped anchor off the beaches of southern Sicily. Nearly half a million Allied soldiers made up the invasion force, larger than would be put into the early stages of the Normandy landings. Overall command went to General Eisenhower, as the Mediterranean theater chief. Under him General Sir Harold Alexander led 15th Army Group made up of two armies, the British 8th commanded by the desert victor, Montgomery, and the American 7th, under General George S. Patton, who had commanded the Casablanca landings and had then moved into still greater prominence during the Tunisian campaign.
Sicily was garrisoned by about 350,000 Axis soldiers, under General Alfred Guzzoni; many of these were local coastal reserve forces, who did not care for their German allies. The main strength of the defense was six mobile divisions, two of them German. As always, for an Axis faced with the superior enemy mobility conferred by sea power, the problem was whether they should try to hold all the possible landing sites, which was beyond their strength, or whether they should concentrate in some central position, then react when the Allied moves were revealed. In that case they would be hindered by Allied air superiority. The dilemma was essentially insoluble, and in Sicily, in Italy, and in Normandy the Germans were bothered by it.
In Sicily they concentrated inland, hoping to move and seal off the beaches as rapidly as possible. The landings therefore went relatively smoothly, encountering light opposition from the Italian coastal defenders. The weather was bad, with heavy seas running, and the invasion took the Axis by surprise. The most difficult part of the operation was a series of airborne drops. On the night of the initial landing, American paratroopers and British glider-borne infantry were scattered all over southern Sicily by high winds and the inexperience of their pilots. On subsequent nights, the 11th and the 13th, large numbers of Allied airborne troops were shot down by the Allied ships, as the transport planes flew over the invasion fleet to their drop zones. The Italians and Germans had been mounting fairly heavy but ineffectual hit-and-run bombing attacks against the shipping, and the gunners shot at anything that flew.
In spite of these setbacks the airborne troops secured some major bottlenecks on the approach roads to the beaches, and their very dispersion over the countryside helped to dislocate the enemy response. The crisis of the landing came on the 11th when the Germans mounted heavy armored counterattacks in the American sector, but they were beaten off, and within the next couple of days, the Allies had a secure beachhead.
The campaign then developed into a race between the Americans and the British. The latter, on the right, had been assigned the major role of advancing northward across the Catania plain, forcing their way past the great volcanic mass of Mount Etna and taking Messina, the key point from which the enemy would either resupply Sicily or escape across the Straits to the mainland. The Americans, with whose performance in Tunisia General Alexander had not been impressed, were assigned the subordinate role of clearing the western part of the island and protecting the British flank.
But the British stalled in the Catania plain, meeting the heaviest enemy resistance so far. Guzzoni knew the vital importance of Messina as well as the Allies did and he was determined to bar the direct route as long as he could. The Allies therefore began to sideslip to the west, and first the Canadians, on the British flank in the center of the island, then Patton’s troops on their left, began to pick up momentum. Within two weeks of the landing, the Allies controlled the southwestern two thirds of Sicily, and the Axis were being pushed back into the northeast corner. At the end of July, the Italians decided they would have to evacuate the island, and the German commander, General Hube, as Kesselring’s deputy, agreed that he must go too.
Montgomery’s troops at last thrust their way past Catania and worked around the slopes of Mount Etna. Patton’s, aided by several short amphibious leaps, drove along the northern shore. Nonetheless, in spite of Allied pressure, the Axis managed to evacuate their troops pretty well on schedule. The Straits of Messina are only about three miles wide; the Germans lined them on both sides with heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft guns, and ferried their troops over even in daylight, largely unmolested by Allied aircraft. On August 17 the British and Americans entered Messina to find the enemy had gone; more than 100,000 troops with 10,000 vehicles had safely gotten away.
There were rewards to the Allies. Allied casualties of about 16,500, compared with 164,000 on the Axis side; most of those were surrendering Italians, but they caught, killed, or wounded about 32,000 Germans. They now had Sicily, and the central Mediterranean was clear for shipping. Probably most important were the side effects: the taking of Sicily brought Mussolini tumbling down; and it led the Allies into a long, weary campaign on the Italian mainland.
American troops had entered the major city of western Sicily, Palermo, on July 22. By then the town was a wreck, after heavy bombing by Allied aircraft. The fall of Palermo spurred the Italian leaders to desperation: they had to get rid of Mussolini and they had to do it fast. Their absolutely overriding desire was to avoid fighting in Italy. At whatever cost, they wished to spare their country from becoming a battleground; they had no wish now to pay for Mussolini’s mistake in 1940 when he blithely assumed that Britain, like France, was finished, and leaped in to gain a share of the spoils at the last moment.
Getting rid of Il Duce turned out to be easier than might have been expected. In spite of all Mussolini’s power, Italy was still a monarchy, and he still officially only the premier of the country; there was, therefore, a higher authority to whom the dissidents could appeal. Unfortunately, the king, Victor Emmanuel III, was hesitant and dilatory. He took a great deal of persuading before he finally came around to the pro-Allied camp, but eventually the anti-Germans, led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, convinced him that he must oust Mussolini.
On the 24th there was overt opposition to Mussolini in a session of the Fascist Grand Council. Most of it was directed against the way the war effort was being handled, and Mussolini actually thought he could use it as a lever to free himself somewhat from Hitler’s coils. He had no idea that it was he himself his hitherto pliant supporters were after. The next day he was summoned to an audience with the king. The plotters had convinced the Italian monarch that he should dismiss Mussolini, who would then be taken into custody and held under close arrest. The aging dictator still retained some popularity with the masses of Italians, and no one knew what he might do if given time to muster a counteroffensive.
Instead, everything went as planned. The king demanded Mussolini’s resignation and told him he had already replaced him with Badoglio. They parted amicably, and the ex-dictator walked out of the palace and into the arms of the carabinieri, who put him in a police van. They took him through the streets of Rome, past squares where bands were playing their customary Sunday afternoon concerts, and by suppertime the bloodless coup was over.
The first of the Italians’ two problems was now resolved. The other one, negotiating the change of sides, was trickier. Mussolini’s successor Badoglio, on assuming office, immediately announced that Italy would remain in the war and would continue faithful to her alliances. He then equally immediately opened negotiations with the Allies, working through neutral territory in Portugal. The problems were immense; not only were there Italian troops over in the Balkans and out in Russia, hostages to good behavior, there were also German troops in Italy. The contacts with the Allied representatives had to be made in great secrecy, for the new Italian government was profoundly and rightly afraid of the German reaction should they discover what was happening.
Actually, in July and August, according with Hitler’s earlier decision, the Germans did not plan to fight in Italy. If the country tried to defect they would garrison it and take it over. If it were invaded by the Allies, they planned to fall back northward. They were conscious of Allied air superiority and even more of Allied amphibious capability, and they believed Italy could not be held. The German contingency plan for an invasion of Italy was therefore that Kesselring should withdraw his forces from southern Italy, carrying out demolition work as they went, and that the Germans would hang on in the north, around Florence.
Meanwhile, the Allies, who originally never intended to invade Italy at all, had changed their minds. As far back as May, at the Trident Conference in Washington that was their next meeting after Casablanca, Churchill had pressed for an invasion of southern Italy as a follow-up to the Sicilian operations. He thought possession of the southern part of the peninsula would allow the Allies to threaten a landing in the Balkans; further, there were large airfields in the plain around Foggia, and Allied bombers based there could reach the Rumanian oil fields. Churchill thought the still-forthcoming invasion of Sicily would bring Mussolini down, that the Italian war effort would collapse, and that the Germans would probably not fight in southern Italy; the Allies might even get Rome for nothing, and that would be a major victory, the first Axis capital to fall.
The Americans were thoroughly upset at this. Every time they thought they had Churchill and the British pinned down to a hard date for the invasion of France, he seemed to run off in pursuit of some new will-o’-the-wisp. Yet once again they gave in; in return for an absolute promise that France would be invaded no later than May 1, 1944, they agreed that the Sicilian operation ought to be exploited, and that the Allies would go on to invade and occupy southern Italy. They planned a cautious assault across the Straits of Messina and a march up the Italian toe of Calabria. Later on, in July, when the Sicilian defense was collapsing, they became a bit bolder and planned a second landing farther up the peninsula.
Neither the German nor the Allied intentions were known to the Italians. Their efforts were concentrated on getting the Allies to protect them from the Germans as much as possible. The Italians wanted the British and Americans to land fifteen divisions in the north of Italy, around Leghorn or Genoa, and in this way deliver the whole country at one blow. Such a request was absolutely ludicrous; the Allies lacked the fifteen divisions, and even if they had had them, they did not have the shipping to carry and supply them, or the air support to cover them. They countered by offering to land in Calabria, and if the Italians rose and helped drive the Germans out, they would put four divisions ashore south of Rome. In addition, the Italians would have to surrender unconditionally to the Allies, and their postwar treatment would depend on how much help they were to the Allied war effort.
Such an offer was not very attractive; the Italians did not know the Germans planned to pull out, and an Allied landing south of Rome seemed only to guarantee the kind of fighting they were seeking to avoid in Italy. Yet as the Germans moved more troops into northern Italy—officially in response to the Sicilian situation, actually because of Mussolini’s fall—the Italians felt more and more forced to accept the Allied deal.
There was confusion right up to the end. On September 3, 1943, the fourth anniversary of the declaration of war, British and Canadian troops of 8th Army made an assault crossing of the Straits of Messina and landed on the European continent, this time to stay. The same day, the Italian government signed a secret armistice with the Allies. The Germans started to pull out of Calabria; the Italian field command, still uninformed of the armistice, did not know what to do, and ended by doing nothing.
Meanwhile, the U. S. 5th Army, British and American troops under General Mark Clark, was preparing to invade south of Naples. Their choice of Salerno as a landing site was a compromise between their desire to get a major port, Naples, as soon as possible and their equally strong desire to have air cover while they made their landings. Allied naval leaders had assigned only light aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, because of the demands of the Pacific, and therefore the planners had to rely on land-based air cover flying from Sicily. Naples was just out of reach for effective combat air patrols, so they had instead to settle for Salerno, a few miles south of it.
Only as the invasion fleet made its final run in toward the coast was the Italian armistice publicly announced. The troops were jubilant, believing this meant no opposition on the beaches. What it actually meant was that they would encounter Germans instead of Italians.
Field Marshal Kesselring seemed to be the last man in Europe who still believed in Italian protestations of good faith. He had a contingency plan to cover an Italian defection and one to cover an Allied invasion; he did not have a plan to cover both events at once. Now, stunned but quickly recovering, he ordered his units to continue falling back from Calabria, as the British advanced, and he ordered other troops to hold up the Allied landing at Salerno until the southern forces were safely by. Hastily, local German units around the Gulf of Salerno moved into position, just in time to meet the Allied troops coming ashore.
The Allies landed in the early pre-dawn hours of September 9, British on the left and Americans on the right. Both ran into sporadically heavy resistance, but by the end of the day there were several thousand troops ashore. The Allies thought they had done well to get on land in the face of heavy German defenses; the Germans thought they had done well with their scratch forces to hold the enemy to a shallow beachhead. The crisis did not come for three days; by the 12th the Germans had rushed units south from Rome and had made contact with those retreating from Calabria, and they hit the beachhead hard. For a few hours it looked as if the Americans might be pushed back into the sea, and Kesselring had hopes of staging another Dunkirk. He might well have done so, but when he had asked Rommel in northern Italy for the release of reserves, Rommel said no. The Desert Fox saw no sense in sending troops all the way down past Rome, when the Germans did not intend to stand down there anyway. So the British held, and the Americans recovered their equilibrium, and by the 15th the Allies were secure and forcing their way inland.
A week later, General Eisenhower ordered Alexander to keep on and occupy Rome. Ironically, both the Allied and the German high commands agreed that the Germans could not hold south of the capital, and that the best defensive line would be Pisa-Florence-Rimini, up in the north. But Kesselring was not so sure of this. His troops in Italy had quickly disarmed the Italians once the news of the armistice had been announced; they had seized the road, rail, and communications networks, and the situation seemed to be well under control. Kesselring was much more optimistic a personality than Rommel and he assessed the Allied moves so far as pedestrian, hesitant, and extremely cautious. He kept reporting back to Hitler that he thought he could hold south of Rome, and that there was no sense giving the Allies anything that they were not strong enough to take.
Eventually, Hitler accepted this view of things, which conformed so well to his own desires anyway. Kesselring was told to hang on between Naples and Rome as long as he could. He began building successive defensive positions across the peninsula, determined to make the Allies fight for every mile.
In the face of this stiffening opposition the weaknesses of the Allied view soon became apparent. They had expected to get something for nothing. Denied a cheap victory, the proponents of the Italian campaign, most notably Churchill, kept asking for more men and matériel with which to gain their ends. But those Allied leaders who had not been especially in favor of going to Italy in the first place now remained adamant; Italy had all the resources it was going to get. The result of this, in turn, was that Alexander, as the field commander, was continually asked to deliver victories but denied the means to win them. He launched a whole series of operations on successive shoestrings; these inevitably ran into trouble, and as they reached crisis stages, the Allies then found themselves forced to allocate the resources they had initially refused. More than any other campaign of the war, Italy was beset by divided counsels at the top, uncertain perception of what the campaign was supposed to achieve, and a sense among the troops of being a second-class operation, undertaken because the Allies did not really know what else to do at the time. Partly because of these factors, partly because of the terrible terrain, Italy became the theater of fighting that most resembled the horrible static trench warfare of World War I. Few soldiers of World War II experienced the kind of deadening, soul-destroying fighting that had characterized the earlier war, but most of those who did experience it fought in Italy.
As the Allies wheeled out of Salerno for the push up the peninsula, they linked up with 8th Army, coming up from Calabria. They ended up with 8th Army on the Adriatic coast of the peninsula and with 5th Army on the western, Tyrrhenian coast. Between the two armies lay the chain of the Apennines, forbidding, lunar, barely passable to small groups, and generally such bad country that fighting deep in the mountains was out of the question. It therefore became impossible to flank the Germans on their inland side. Unfortunately, it also proved impossible, in all but one instance, to flank them on their seaward side as well. Partly this was because of the Italian coast which, though it looks wide open, actually offers relatively few spots that are suitable for an amphibious operation. Even more it was because the theater lacked the sealift capacity to supply both the existing fronts, and new beachheads as well. The upgrading of the Pacific and the preparations for the invasion of France both robbed the Mediterranean of any potentially surplus shipping. This deficiency was further compounded by the needs of the air force. The Allies soon were in possession of the Foggia airfields and they wished to use them for bases from which to bomb the Balkans. Every shipload of material for the air forces meant one less shipload of material for the ground forces struggling their way up the peninsula. The air offensive took priority, rightly or wrongly, so the ground troops did without not only the mobility that might conceivably have sprung them out of their impasse, but even many of the essentials for sustaining their effort.
For the Germans it became the kind of war they were now used to. German writers criticize the Allied command and what they consider as its lack of initiative and daring. The more thoughtful among them, however, admit as they do so their ignorance of the vast complexities of amphibious operations. The Germans thus settled down behind the successive rivers that break out of the Apennines and run to the sea; as they held one river line, they would prepare the next behind it; when their fixed position was finally breached, they fell back, destroying everything as they went, to the next river. Then the whole deadly scenario had to be played all over again.
On the Adriatic side, 8th Army fought its way up the coast. Its ultimate target was the town of Pescara, the terminus of one of the few good roads running through the Apennines to the other side of the peninsula. If they had taken Pescara and that road, they might have been able to break across to Rome, levering the Germans on 5th Army’s side of the country out of their positions, and the great prize would have fallen. But below Pescara is a series of small streams—the Biferno, the Trigno, and, most important, the Sangro—and on each of these the Germans stood fast. As summer dust turned to fall mud, as the cold winter rains came on, 8th Army made a series of head-on attacks against the German lines. There was no alternative; it was like a football game with no passes and no end runs; just put your head down and bull your way up the middle. So it was with 8th Army; British, Canadians, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans, all wore their hearts out slogging their way across the valleys and onto the heights behind. The Germans were always dug in, they always had good maps and good fields of fire, they had thoroughly swept the country as they retreated, and they were good soldiers determined to hold on.
Finally, late in November, 8th Army produced one last drive. They got over the Sangro and pushed along the coast but they lacked the stamina to get to Pescara. Christmas found the 1st Canadian Division, the last unbroken point of the British advance, fighting desperately from house to house in Ortona. They took it, but only after Ortona became Canada’s World War II equivalent of Vimy Ridge, and that was as far as they could go. When they at last ground down at the start of 1944, Pescara was still five miles away, it might as well have been five hundred.
On the other side of the peninsula, 5th Army encountered the same thing. They took Naples at the beginning of October, and thus had a port through which to supply. The Germans held on the Volturno, a rushing mountain stream. With the British component of 5th Army working along the coast, and the American inland, they broke across the river in mid-October. Rome lay a hundred miles ahead, and for the first forty of those the mountains came right down to the sea, in tangled masses crisscrossed by tumbling streams and marked by jagged outcrops of rock.
In this ideal defensive terrain the Germans constructed a series of positions. The lay of the land was such that they ran into one another, and different portions of lines were known by different names: the Winter Line, the Bernhard Line, the Barbara Line. The most famous, and the strongest, of them all was the Gustav Line. This was part of a general system that ran up along the lower reaches of the Garigliano, past the mouth of the Liri Valley and the main road leading to Rome, and into the mountains from there, up the Rapido River. The key point in the whole line, overlooking the shoulder where the Liri met the Rapido, was the town of Cassino. Above the town, on top of a mountain mass, lay the famous Benedictine Abbey, the mother house of the black monks of the Benedictine Order, one of the great religious foundations of Christendom.
By the time 5th Army reached the Gustav Line it was already worn down from the heavy fighting in the approaches. The Germans had, as Kesselring promised Hitler, fought for every yard. On mountains where supplies had to be carried by mule, and finally on the backs of infantry, the German and Allied troops had savaged each other in swirling cloud and bitter cold. At Monte Camino, Monte Maggiore, Mignano and San Pietro Infine, in company- and battalion-size actions, the British and Americans pushed forward. It was Christmas before they broke the Winter Line, and mid-January before they reached the Gustav Line. Here they stopped; this was Kesselring’s main position south of Rome, and he was going to hold it to the bitter end.
The Allies battered against the Gustav Line for nearly five months. In the main line of resistance, they faced, as usual, a German defense with both lines securely anchored, the western on the sea and the eastern in impassable mountains. Alexander was left no apparent alternative but to drive straight through.
There was another possibility, however. Earlier, in November, the Allies had considered making an amphibious assault behind the German lines. This was to have been coupled with 8th Army’s drive to and through Pescara. Since Montgomery did not get that far, the idea was shelved. Now it was brought out again, and as it evolved, it became part of a complex plan.
In mid-January the British corps of 5th Army would attack along the seacoast, at the end of the Gustav Line. That would dislocate the Germans; then, concurrently, the Americans would drive across the Rapido River and through Cassino, and a third Anglo-American force would land up the coast at the little port of Anzio. German reserves would not be able to counter all of these moves, and the Gustav Line would have to break.
Unfortunately, the plan did not go as it was supposed to. It was hastily prepared, because of the inevitable demands for shipping. The preparations for the Normandy invasion were well advanced by now, and as a secondary effort, the Allies were planning a landing in southern France. The Anzio operation had to be squeezed in, and shipping scraped up here and there to support it. As an example of the interlocking nature of the Allied global effort, Anzio caused the downgrading of a scheduled amphibious operation in the Bay of Bengal, and there were virtually cabinet-level meetings to decide on the disposition of as few as half a dozen landing ships, until Churchill was forced to grumble, “Sometimes I think the whole war depends on some damned thing called an LST.” He was right; the Landing Ship Tank, or “Large Slow Target” in sailors’ slang, had become one of the crucial items of the war inventory.
On January 17 the British attacked across the lower Garigliano, gained a foothold, and succeeded in drawing in the local German reserves from the Gustav Line. To its right the U. S. IInd Corps put in what was supposed to be the main attack. Hurriedly, not knowing exactly what they were doing or why, the 36th Texas National Guard Division tried to cross the Rapido just below Cassino. Their attack broke down with heavy losses, and they made hardly a dent in the Gustav Line. The Texans were so upset that they demanded—and subsequently got—a Congressional investigation into what they regarded as the wanton sacrifice of their division; yet they made so little impact that the Germans in their war diaries noted nothing more than increased patrol activities.
The haste and muddle at Cassino was all undertaken so that the Anzio operation could be carried out within the necessary time constraints of the larger war. The 36th Division’s attack was to draw in reserves so the landing at Anzio could proceed unopposed, and there, on January 22, 50,000 British and American troops of the U. S. VIth Corps came charging ashore against virtually no Germans at all. Having done that, and succeeded in totally surprising the German command, they stopped. The official doctrine for amphibious landings was that you got ashore, dug in and secured your beachhead against the inevitable counterattack, and then went on from there. This the American commander, General John Lucas, now did, with the blessing of General Mark Clark; no one, after all, had yet forgotten the near-run thing at Salerno.
But the Allied halt gave the Germans time to react, and they rushed reserves down from Rome; within hours they had contained the new threat. As in virtually every operation in Italy, the Allies initially caught the Germans by surprise, but then the speed of the German reaction and the slowness of the Allied exploitation negated the surprise and re-created an equilibrium. Alexander was put in a quandary: he now had two fronts in a static situation, too far apart for mutual cooperation, and his superiors were badgering him because of the shipping he was absorbing. At Anzio the whole beachhead was under fire, the Allies were in the position of a besieged garrison, and they stayed that way for four months. The Germans made vicious but unsuccessful attempts to drive them back into the sea, and the Americans and British made equally vicious and equally unsuccessful attempts to break out of the vise.
Churchill was undoubtedly the most disappointed of all. He was the great champion of the Mediterranean and the Italian campaign, and he had pressed for Anzio. Now it looked as if all his cajoling and bargaining for supplies had gone for nothing. He waxed caustic and sarcastic over Anzio: he had expected to be hurling a wildcat on shore, but instead had got a stranded whale; when told there were nearly 20,000 vehicles in the beachhead he replied, “We must have a great superiority of chauffeurs….” But neither bitter remarks nor the removal of the commander at Anzio had much effect. The only comfort to be had was that Italy was serving the purpose now of drawing in German troops from as far away as the Balkans, France, and Germany itself.
That could hardly solace the infantry huddling in their holes before Cassino, staring across the rushing Rapido, or gazing up at the mist-shrouded mountains and the great Benedictine Monastery, which seemed to glower menacingly back. In the first part of February the Americans tried to break across again, above Cassino this time; with great courage and heavy casualties they managed to make a minuscule salient in the German line. Inland from them was a new element, the Free French Expeditionary Corps, mostly colonial troops from North Africa, used to mountain terrain, and they too made some limited gains, at equally heavy cost.
Alexander then brought what he considered his best troops over from 8th Army, and launched the third attempt at Cassino with the New Zealand Corps. Its commander, General Bernard Freyberg, requested an air strike against the Benedictine Monastery, which all the troops were sure the Germans used as an observation post. On March 15, heavy bombers flew over Cassino and the ancient monastery and pounded them to rubble. The results were disastrous. The monastery had been empty; with good observation all over the mountains, the Germans had had no need to occupy it, and they had scrupulously respected its territory. Now they moved into it and set up their observer posts. Cassino town itself was converted into a mass of masonry and junk, which made ideal cover for the defenders, and the Germans settled down in the choked cellars and alleyways, and fought it out with the New Zealanders and Indians who tried valiantly and unsuccessfully to force their way in. By late March they had fought each other to exhaustion. At Anzio, and at Cassino, the campaign was stalled. It looked as if the invasion of Italy had reached a dead end.
The calendar marched inexorably on, toward spring, toward the invasion of France. If the stalemate in Italy was to be broken, if it was all to be more than a mere holding operation, things had to happen and they had to happen soon. Finally, the Allied high command agreed to allocate sufficient resources to get to Rome before the Normandy landing, seeing that as the best way to distract German attention from what was coming. At the end of March there were roughly twenty Allied combat divisions in Italy; by the first of May there were twenty-eight. Leaving only four of these to cover all of the Adriatic side of the peninsula, Alexander massed his forces before Cassino and piled them secretly into the Anzio beachhead.
He was going to smash through the Gustav Line and push his way both up the coast and up the Liri Valley. When his offensive was well and truly launched, and the Germans all pulled in to meet it, the Anzio forces would break out inland, take up a blocking position and, if all went well, virtually the entire German Army in Italy would be caught and destroyed. Rome would fall as a matter of course, there would be a rollicking dash north all the way to the Alps, and the Italian campaign would end in a justified burst of glory.
Alexander’s May offensive was one of the great setpiece battles of the war, with a huge international cast: Americans, British, Canadians, Free French, Poles, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans. After dark on the evening of May 11 more than 2,000 artillery pieces began a barrage that ran from the mouth of the Garigliano all the way up past Cassino and into the mountains. An hour before midnight the troops jumped off. The Germans were surprised, but not panicked, and there was heavy fighting and slow going. For some of the Americans along the seacoast it was their first taste of combat, and with heavy casualties and the courage of innocence they forged steadily ahead. To their right, Algerians, Moroccans, and Senegalese of the Free French Corps scaled the mountains and began filtering through the German lines; to their right again Indians and British opened the door of the Liri Valley, and before the Germans could shut it, the Canadians surged through it and up the highway toward Rome. Up in the Apennines the Polish Corps, made up of men who had survived German blitzkrieg and Russian prison camps, circled down and finally raised their eagle banner over the ruins of the monastery. It took more than a week of steady, toe-to-toe slugging, but eventually the Germans could stand it no more. They cracked, then they broke wide open. The Americans lunged up the coast, to Formia, to Gaeta, to Terracina; the French came down off the mountains to meet the Canadians as they pushed up the Liri, and suddenly the Gustav Line was gone, and everyone was off to Rome.
It was a bad two weeks for Kesselring. He had laid out two fall-back positions: the Hitler Line, a few miles up the road to Rome in the Liri Valley, and then the Caesar Line, in the Alban Hills outside Rome. The former had possibilities, the latter was no more than staked out.
The Hitler Line lasted five days. The British and Canadians reached it on the 18th, tried to take it on the run, and did not quite have enough steam left to do so. Five days later they put in a full-scale attack and crashed through. Once more the Germans pulled out and headed north, harried by Allied fighter-bombers.
Meanwhile, up at Anzio, the American commander, General Truscott, was ready to go. The axis of his attack was to run straight out from the beachhead; a short drive of a couple of miles would take him to Cisterna and cut the coastal line of retreat. Continuing in the same direction would take him fifteen miles to Valmontone; that would cut the Liri Valley escape route and trap ten German divisions, the bulk of the available fighting forces in Italy. On the 23rd, Truscott leaped. One of the great fighting generals of the war, Truscott had his troops fired up and they made steady progress toward Valmontone.
On the 26th, as the trap was all but closed, General Clark intervened. He was unhappy with the overall plan; he feared Alexander was going to allow British 8th Army to beat American 5th to Rome. Jealous of the honor, and feeling he and his men deserved it, he ordered Truscott to change the axis of his advance; instead of continuing to Valmontone, Truscott was to go straight for Rome. Obediently, Truscott shifted around, losing enough momentum as he did so that the desperate Germans stalled him off in the Alban Hills. For a week they held on in the hills and at Valmontone, until the Gustav Line troops were safely back, then, declaring Rome an open city, they scooted north.
On June 4, 1944, the first Allied troops, Americans from 5th Army, entered Rome. Eighty years earlier, after seven tries, U. S. Grant had wired Lincoln, “Vicksburg is ours, and fairly won”; now Alexander and Clark could say, “Rome is ours, and fairly won,” but they had missed the real prize of the campaign; they had failed to destroy the German Army in Italy.
The May offensive was still a great one. It broke the Gustav Line, smashed the Hitler Line, allowed the Anzio breakout, took Rome, and carried the Allied armies 200 miles up the peninsula in one vast swelling tide.
Then, in the midst of this gloriously exhilarating pursuit, the troops in Italy had the rug pulled out from under them. Churchill and Alexander had both overextended their credit, and just as the gamble was paying off, their bills were called in.
In November of 1943, at the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed with Stalin that they would launch an invasion of southern France as a supplement to the Normandy operation. The Americans believed they would need the extra port facilities of Marseilles to supply their armies, and they envisaged a great pincer movement that would squeeze the Germans out of all southwestern France. Now both Alexander and Churchill pressed that this operation be abandoned. If they got into the Po Valley, and there was little doubt they would, they could exploit in either direction. They might well have enough momentum to carry them through the passes into the Danube Valley, to Austria and Vienna; the whole of southeastern Europe might be liberated in a rush. Alternatively, if they could not go in that direction, they could as well force their way westward, into France by way of the Riviera coast, and they would reach southern France without the necessity of another seaborne invasion.
The American high command stood fast. They knew Stalin did not want Western Allied troops in eastern Europe; they also used as an argument their feeling that the French would insist on an operation aimed primarily at the liberation of France, though up to this point the Americans had not been overly responsive to French views on the conduct of the war. Mostly, Roosevelt believed that since the agreement to invade southern France had been taken with Stalin’s concurrence, he could not change it now. Ironically and unhappily, all of this sensibility about the Russians’ feelings came a mere couple of months before the Warsaw rising. The Americans felt they had succumbed to Churchill and the Mediterranean for the last time. They now insisted that the earlier commitments be honored.
In Italy the pursuit flowed on. The long columns of infantry trailed through Rome; heavily laden G. I.’s trudged past the Colosseum, crossed the Tiber bridges, and took up the path that led to the north. The tanks, at last freed from their inglorious role as mobile artillery tied to infantry, swept up the Italian highways, hot on the heels of the Germans. Tactical aircraft strafed and bombed the retreating enemy columns. But the Germans remained tough and wily; they did not panic, they did not rush. They dropped their rear guards at every bend in the road and they blew up every culvert. Their staff work functioned smoothly as always, and finally, in late July they noticed a diminution of the Allied pursuit. For some reason the pressure was slackening, and they began to have a bit of breathing space.
The answer was simple enough: to get ready for the invasion of southern France the Allies were pulling seven divisions out of Italy, all of the Free French Expeditionary Corps, and three veteran American divisions. Not only were they moved out, but they had to travel back south to Naples, all the way against the stream of the pursuit going north. There was a significant dislocation of the Allied communications as a result of this, and the Germans began to recover once more.
The end result was that northern Italy remained under Axis control virtually to the end of the war. The Germans by early August were in their northern defense position, the one they had originally thought to hold a year earlier, and this, the Gothic Line, proved every bit as tough as the Gustav Line had last year. Behind them there was a good deal of partisan activity in the western mountains, and there was the enfeebled Mussolini. Imprisoned in isolation by the Italian government, he was rescued in a daring coup by German airborne troops; and brought back behind German lines. Now he set up a shadow Fascist government, usually called the Salo Republic, and it managed to control a small portion of German-held territory.
Neither he nor the partisans mattered a great deal, however. The Italians as a people and as a state had long lost their gamble to keep the war from their homeland. The decision on that was up to the Germans and the Allies, and now, once again, the front had stabilized. The Germans put up a strong defense around Arezzo, and it took a full-scale Allied attack to push them out of it. By late August they were on a line that ran from Pisa to Florence along the mountain peaks to the Metaurus River. Alexander still hoped, with his reduced forces, to break clear of the mountains and into the Po Valley. There was heavy fighting all through September, and the Canadians on the east coast reached Rimini, while the Americans in the center broke through the Futa Pass and got to Firenzuola. Hitler had pulled out German divisions as soon as he knew of the Allied withdrawals, and Kesselring lacked sufficient troops to man his line as completely as the fortifications demanded. The Allies were thus actually through to the rearmost portions of the original Gothic Line when the winter rains hit them, and everything ground to a halt. Ten miles short of Bologna and the breakthrough into the Po Valley, the exhausted 5th Army gave over its drive. On its right 8th Army too sank worn out into the autumn mud. Time, circumstance, and their friends as well as their enemies had robbed them of complete victory.