12

Up the Wasp-Waist Peninsula

July 1943–May 1945

Here is this beautiful country suffering the worst horrors of war, with the larger part still in the cruel and vengeful grip of the Nazis, and with the hideous prospect of the red-hot rake of the battle-line being drawn from sea to sea right up the length of the peninsula.

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 24 May 19441

The invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, had been agreed at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, once the alternatives of Sardinia and Corsica were discarded, and then confirmed at the Trident Conference in Washington that May. However, the Americans had not agreed to invade mainland Italy once Sicily had fallen, and were not to do so until the Quadrant Conference in Quebec in August 1943, while the fighting was actually taking place on the island. The Italian campaign thus grew naturally out of the Sicilian, yet the delay in officially authorizing it had the disastrous effect of allowing large numbers of Germans to escape capture in Sicily, which an early landing on the toe of the Italian boot at Reggio could probably have prevented.

Although the Allies wanted to capture Naples and take the airfields around Foggia, hoping thereby to relieve the pressure on the Russians on the Eastern Front, General Marshall recognized that landing on the Italian mainland could only further delay the eventual invasion of north-west France, which he always saw as the most important step towards extinguishing the Third Reich. Although the Oxford-educated German General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin believed that the Allies should have invaded Sardinia and Corsica instead of Sicily, thereby leap-frogging Italy altogether, this would not have achieved the objective of tying down as many German units in Italy as possible. The German Military Cemetery outside Cassino contains the remains of 20,057 men, buried six to a grave, who represent less than 5 per cent of the casualties that the Reich was to suffer in Italy.

Sicily was invaded at dawn on Saturday, 10 July 1943 by 160,000 men of General Alexander’s 15th Army Group, comprising Patton’s US Seventh Army and Montgomery’s Commonwealth Eighth Army, landing in 3,000 vessels on the southern coast in stormy weather, but with the advantages of surprise and heavy naval gunfire. The Axis had 350,000 troops stationed in Sicily, but only one-third were German. In all, the Allies were to pour 450,000 troops on to the island during the thirty-eight-day campaign. Although the Italian Sixth Army fought back bravely as soon as the Allies landed, and German divisions at Gela and Licata nearly reached the invasion beaches in counter-attack, western Sicily was conquered in the week after 15 July.

Because the Eighth Army was halted for a week at Catania by fierce German defence, the US 3rd Division reached Messina first, on 17 August. By then, however, 53,545 German troops, 50 tanks and 9,185 vehicles plus 11,855 tons of stores had been successfully evacuated off the island, which Eisenhower later privately admitted had been a severe strategic error of the Allies.2 The Sicilian campaign saw 7,319 American casualties and 9,353 British, but 132,000 Italians and 32,000 Germans were killed, wounded and (mainly) captured there.3 The Mediterranean and Suez Canal could now be opened up as an Allied sea route, ending the necessity of taking supplies via the Cape of Good Hope. This, General Brooke estimated, was to free up a million tons of Allied shipping for use elsewhere.4

The landings in Sicily also had the effect of overthrowing Mussolini, whose Fascist Grand Council passed a vote of no confidence in him by nineteen votes to seven a fortnight later. (His own son-in-law and foreign minister, Count Ciano, voted with the majority, and along with four of the others was to pay for it with his life later on.) It seems somewhat unFascist of the Council even to call a vote, and even more unFascist of Mussolini to take any note of its democratic will, but when he visited the King to report what had happened, he was arrested. His replacement, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, publicly committed Italy to fighting on against the Allied invader, in order to reassure Hitler, while secretly entering into peace negotiations with Eisenhower. Even before the Sicilian campaign was over, Hitler sent Rommel, commander of a new Army Group B, to contest the peninsula with eight and a half divisions. (After Rommel left for France on 6 November 1943, this army group was reconstituted as the Fourteenth Army.)

The Sicilian campaign saw the equally egocentric Generals Patton and Montgomery fighting together in the same campaign. Their rivalry was as pathetic as it was probably unavoidable, and when later the egos of Generals Mark Clark and Omar Bradley were added to the ever combustible mix, it did the Allied war effort no good. While much is made of Montgomery’s and Patton’s vanity and ceaseless self-promotion, however, it is often forgotten how Clark, in the words of one history:

became obsessed with public relations and soon had fifty men working to ensure that his efforts, and those of his Army (and particularly the American part of it), were given maximum publicity. Ensuring this he ordered a ‘three to one rule’. Every press release was to mention Clark three times on the front page and at least once on all other pages – and the General also demanded that photographs be only taken of him from his left side. His public relations team even came up with a Fifth Army song: ‘Stand up, stand up for General Clark, let’s sing the praises of General Clark…’ He was very fond of that song.5

Patton’s ambitions for a major command in Italy were ended prematurely after he slapped two hospitalized, shell-shocked soldiers. In two separate incidents, he called Private Charles H. Kuhl an ‘arrant coward’ and a week later Private Paul G. Bennett a ‘yellow bastard’, adding, ‘I won’t have those cowardly bastards hanging around our hospitals. We’ll probably have to shoot them some time anyway, or we’ll raise a breed of morons.’6 Although on Eisenhower’s insistence Patton had to apologize to his troops – most of whom vocally supported him – Patton felt no genuine repentance, except insofar as the incidents had damaged his hitherto meteoric career. (In both the German and Russian armies, needless to say, the two privates would have been shot.) Eisenhower’s relegation of his old friend Patton led to Omar Bradley leapfrogging him, and becoming commander of the US First Army in the invasion of France. When Bradley paid a final courtesy call on Patton on 7 September 1943, at his palace in Palermo, he found him ‘in a near-suicidal state… This great proud warrior, my former boss, had been brought to his knees.’

To counter the general impression of George Patton it is worth considering the testimony given many years after the war to the US Army’s Senior Officer Oral History Program by General John ‘Ed’ Hull, one of George Marshall’s right-hand men at the Pentagon, who knew Patton well and worked with him closely in the planning stages of three campaigns. ‘General Patton was in a way a two-faced individual,’ Hull stated.

At heart he was very gentle, he was modest, very friendly, not at all superior in his attitude towards you, but very kindly, very considerate. But he put on the other face – well, we’ve had a lot of generals in history that were people of that kind… but that face was the rough and ready face. Curse a little bit at times and he knew all the words; but when he left a formation where he bawled somebody out, he might sit down and write a prayer… So, all in all he was quite a character, interesting and very likeable if you knew him.7

Field Marshal ‘Smiling Albert’ Kesselring was in overall charge of German troops in Italy, superior even to Rommel. A bourgeois gunner turned airman from Bavaria, he was looked down upon socially by the aristocratic Prussians under his command, but he was obeyed. Kesselring assumed that the Allies’ next step would be to make amphibious landings at the Gulf of Salerno, just south of Naples, which was as far north as Allied air cover from Sicily could stretch. Sure enough, at 03.30 hours on Thursday, 9 September 1943, forty-seven-year-old Mark Clark’s Fifth Army landed on the Gulf in Operation Avalanche, and dug in on four narrow, unconnected beach-heads. They were vigorously counter-attacked by the German Tenth Army, commanded by General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had commanded a Panzer division in Poland, a Panzer corps in Yugoslavia and Russia and the Fifteenth Army in France and was now to prove an equally formidable opponent in Italy. ‘Shells were flashing in the water,’ recalled an American journalist, Jack Belden, ‘flames were yellowing the sky, and bullets were slapping into the boat. They snapped over our heads, rattled against the boat sides like hail and beat at the ramp door… The boat shuddered and the ramp creaked open… I stepped down… At last I was on the continent of Europe.’8

Montgomery had landed almost unopposed on the tip of Italy five days earlier in Operation Baytown. Nonetheless the Germans concentrated their efforts further north at Salerno, hoping to fling Clark’s Fifth Army – comprising Major-General Richard McCreery’s British X Corps to the north of the Sele river and Major-General Ernest Dawley’s US VI Corps to the south – back into the sea. If they had succeeded, which they almost did on 13 September amid bitter fighting, it would have had a profound effect on the plans to invade Normandy the following year. At the same time as Avalanche, the 1st Airborne Division of the Eighth Army landed at the instep of the Italian boot at Taranto. In Berlin, Goebbels was reading Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel about Wales,How Green was my Valley. ‘It is very informative about English mentality,’ he noted in his diary on 20 September. ‘I don’t believe that England is in any present danger of becoming Bolshevized.’9

Sailing to Salerno, the men of the Fifth Army had been informed that Italy had signed an armistice, formally dropping out of the war. It made no difference to the reception that Clark’s men received from the Germans when they landed, of course, and Kesselring later claimed that Badoglio’s defection had meant that ‘Our hands were no longer tied’ and that he could now requisition anything he needed without tiresome negotiations with the Italians over compensation.10 There was a viciousness to Kesselring that was to come to the fore in March 1944 when, with his full prior knowledge, following the killing of thirty-two SS men in Rome by partisans, 335 Romans were taken to the Ardeatine Caves on the southern side of the city and shot in the back of the neck in groups of five. He could also undertake wholesale reprisals against the partisans, sending out an order on 17 June 1944 that ‘The fight against the partisans must be carried out with all means at our disposal and with utmost severity. I will protect any commander who exceeds our usual restraint in the choice of methods… Wherever there is evidence of a considerable number of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence being committed these men will be shot.’11 Churchill and Alexander nonetheless called for the commutation of Kesselring’s death sentence in 1947, and he was released in 1952.

Although the Germans disarmed and interned all Italian forces in their vicinity, much of the Italian Navy sailed from Spezia to Malta, allowing Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham on 11 September 1943 to make his splendid signal to the Admiralty Board in London: ‘Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian Battle Fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta.’12 In all five battleships, eight cruisers, thirty-three destroyers, thirty-four submarines and scores of other war vessels surrendered, as well as 101 merchant ships totalling 183,591 tons. A further 168 merchant ships were scuttled to avoid capture by the Germans. On their arrival in Spezia, the Germans shot all Italian captains responsible. ‘That’s the way to treat your late Allies!’ remarked Cunningham. The Italian Navy was subsequently used against Germany, especially its brave special underwater section, the 10th MAS Flotilla, with no less an authority than Admiral Cunningham paying tribute to their ‘cold-blooded bravery and enterprise’.

Although Clark showed personal bravery on the beach-head at Salerno, nonetheless in the words of Anzio’s historian, ‘He had a momentary wobble and had to be dissuaded from re-embarking VI Corps,’ although Clark denied this in his memoirs.13 With German artillery observation points in the hills surrounding the beach-heads, and attacks from no fewer than six German divisions, it took the dropping of three battalions of the US 82nd Airborne almost on the water’s edge, the bombardment of German positions by strategic bombers from the North-west African Air Force, and close supporting fire from the 15-inch naval guns of specially diverted naval forces, but above all the grim determination of the Fifth Army on the beach-heads, to stay in place. ‘If the Germans had pushed on to the sea’, Alexander commented with characteristic sangfroid, ‘their arrival might have caused us some embarrassment.’14 The position was not secured until 16 September, and it was only four days later – once the Germans had successfully extricated their forces from the south of Italy – that the attacks abated, and a further eleven days after that before the Allies could enter an abandoned Naples. By then the Fifth Army had got 170,000 troops and 200 tanks ashore, and Montgomery was coming up from the south. The Salerno operation in all had cost 15,000 Allied casualties against 8,000 German, and it is hard to take issue with the historian who concludes that ‘The outstanding feature of the battle had been the foresight, skill and initiative of Kesselring, and the efficiency of his troops.’15 It was a phenomenon that was to be repeated as the fighting moved northwards up the peninsula.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Italy, the 1st Canadian Division of the Eighth Army took the Foggia airfields on 27 September and reached the Adriatic Sea on 3 October. From those flat plains, General Ira C. Eaker’s Mediterranean Allied Air Forces could then dominate the air war in the south of Europe. Within three weeks the USAAF Fifteenth Air Force was roaming at will all over southern Germany, Austria and the Balkans, and in particular they could bomb the Romanian oilfields of Ploesti, from where much of the Reich’s fuel flowed. The US 12th Air Support Command bombed the German forces in Italy itself, forcing them to move largely at night. From the spring of 1944, the Allies had more than ten times as many warplanes in Italy – at 4,500 – as the Luftwaffe.16

The situation in Naples was appalling, with bread riots, typhus, Mafia crime, water shortages, totally corrupt local authorities, prostitution-for-food (special military VD hospitals had to be set up) and a general breakdown in law, order and morality. Even the papal legate’s car was found to be driving on stolen tyres.17 Most serious for future operations further north, the German scorched-earth policy had devastated the docks. Allied military experts, engineers, police and administrators moved in en masse under the auspices of the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories, but it was to be months before anything approaching normality or decency could return to the stricken city.

With Rome the next major objective – more for political and morale than for military reasons, since it was designated a demilitarized open city by both sides – the Allies had to fight their way northwards, taking booby-trapped and sharply contested towns and villages, crossing rivers whose bridges had been destroyed and driving down roads expertly laid with Tellermines, mushroom-shaped circular metal boxes a foot in diameter which packed a 12-pound charge of TNT. The terrible weather in the autumn of 1943, combined with the topographical opportunities for defence provided by the 840-mile-long, 80-mile-wide Apennine mountain range with its 4,000-foot peaks, meant that Vietinghoff had myriad opportunities for tenacious rearguard actions, with the effect of Allied air superiority often negated. Churchill had injudiciously likened Europe to a crocodile, with the Mediterranean as its ‘soft underbelly’. As Mark Clark told the TV programme The World at War, ‘I often thought what a tough old gut it was instead of the soft belly that he had led us to believe.’18 Montgomery agreed. ‘I don’t think we can get any spectacular results,’ he reported to Brooke, ‘so long as it goes on raining; the whole country becomes a sea of mud and nothing on wheels can move off the roads.’19 The rain, sleet and frequent blizzards during the winter of 1943/4 led to pneumonia, dysentery, respiratory diseases, fevers, jaundice and the debilitating fungal infection called trench foot, which arises from wet socks that are not removed for days on end. As well as Fifth Army’s 40,000 battle casualties by the end of 1943, there were 50,000 non-combat casualties and perhaps as many as 20,000 deserters.20

The first meeting of what became known as the Big Three – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – took place at the Teheran Conference (codenamed Eureka) from 28 November to 1 December 1943. Roosevelt was under the mistaken but surprisingly widespread impression that personal intercourse could mollify Stalin, and he deliberately set out to try to charm the Russian dictator, if necessary by making Churchill the butt of his teasing. For his part Stalin insisted on the invalid Roosevelt flying halfway around the world to meet in the Iranian capital, and placing him in the Russian Legation as his guest, thus separating him from Churchill. On Stalin’s insistence, Chiang Kai-shek was also excluded from the conference altogether, so as not to ruffle the sensibilities of the Japanese, with whom the USSR had a non-aggression pact. In the first session of the Teheran Conference, however, Stalin announced his willingness to declare war against Japan after Germany had surrendered, which was greeted with undisguised pleasure by the Western Allies.

Less happy was the reception given to Churchill’s strategy of using Italy as a springboard from which to attack the Germans in south-eastern France and Austria and Hungary via Yugoslavia. Not wishing to see a powerful Allied force in his south-eastern European backyard, Stalin opposed the scheme, and was supported by Roosevelt, so it fell through, much to Churchill’s chagrin. Although Stalin would have preferred to see an earlier date for the cross-Channel invasion, he accepted that it would take place on 1 May 1944. (It later had to be put back five weeks for lack of landing craft after fighting in Italy went on for longer than planned.)

Other discussions on the eastern border of Poland, which was to be compensated with German territory for the loss of land to the USSR to its east, ran directly contrary to the promise made in the Atlantic Charter for ‘no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned’, but at least Stalin agreed to the outlines of a United Nations Organization with vetoes for Britain, Russia, the United States and China. There was also agreement on Yugoslavia, where Marshal Tito’s Communist partisans would be given support rather than the pro-monarchist Chetniks, because it was clear from Ultra decrypts that the Chetniks were in league with the Italians, and the Germans feared the partisans much more than the Chetniks. Meanwhile, also at Teheran, on Stalin’s insistence it was decided that Germany was not to be split up into five autonomous countries, as Roosevelt and Churchill had envisaged. Teheran saw the high-water mark of Allied co-operation in the war, and was hard fought though generally good natured. Roosevelt’s overt keenness to charm Stalin, however, allowed the Marshal to spot a gap between the two democracies that he was to seek to exploit over the coming months. Nothing got past him. Each of the Big Three left Teheran with something he wanted, but each had to give up something too, although it is hard to escape the conclusion that Churchill was forced to give up the most.

‘The army’s advance up the spine of Italy,’ wrote John Harris in his novel Swordpoint,

had been that of a bull, wearied yet still willing, butting its way head-down in assault after assault. The pattern had rarely changed. Plains were few and far between and no sooner had one river or mountain been crossed than another barred the route. They’d battled across the Creti, but behind the Creti was the Agri, and behind the Agri was the Sele, and behind the Sele was the Volturno… The whole country, every river, every town, every hill, had shown them how useless machines could be when climate and terrain conspired to make them so. ‘Oh yes,’ the current joke ran, ‘the Germans are retreating all right. Unfortunately, they’re taking the last ridge with ’em.’21

The terrain has been described as one ‘that goats would find difficult to negotiate’.22

The Fifth Army crossed the swollen Volturno river, whose bridges the Germans had destroyed, in mid-October, after which Alexander ordered a short rest for regrouping and recuperation. The way ahead, over seemingly endless mountain passes through atrocious weather, could not but depress the most enthusiastic spirits. As the Germans withdrew, they adopted a scorched-earth policy against all types of food supplies and public utilities. This was only intensified when the Badoglio Government, ruling from the safety of Bari having judiciously fled Rome, declared war on Germany on 13 October.

With the Eighth Army – commanded by Montgomery’s protégé Oliver Leese after 1 January 1944 – to the east of the Apennines, and Clark’s Fifth Army to the west, there was precious little meaningful mutual support. As the Germans retreated northwards, they provided their countrymen with as much time as possible to perfect the Bernhard, Barbara, Winter and especially the Gustav Lines of defence. The last stretched right across Italy from the Gulf of Gaeta in the Tyrrhenian Sea to just south of Ortona in the Adriatic.

Informed via Ultra of Hitler’s decision of 4 October to support Kesselring’s plans to fight south of Rome, Eisenhower and the 15th Army Group commander Harold Alexander concocted a plan that would use the Fifth and the Eighth Armies in unison to take Rome. The Eighth Army would capture Pescara and swing westwards, while the Fifth Army advanced up the Liri Valley, aided by a bold amphibious landing just south of Rome at Anzio that would take reserves off the Gustav Line and draw away any strategic reserves further north. Although Alexander had eleven divisions in Italy by December 1943, Kesselring had nine south of Rome, and another eight in reserve to the north. Whereas the Wehrmacht was an homogeneous army in Italy, no fewer than sixteen nationalities fought on the Allied side, including Poles, New Zealanders, Algerians, South Africans, Moroccans, a Jewish contingent and even a Brazilian expeditionary force – many of them speaking different languages and using different weapons and ammunition. Moreover, the Anglo-American rivalries that had been seen in the ‘race’ to capture Messina in Sicily – convincingly ‘won’ by Patton – resurfaced and multiplied in the bid to capture the Eternal City. In general the British, exhausted after the North African and Sicilian campaigns, seemed slow and over-cautious to the Americans. On the reverse side of the same coin, some of the fresh American units seemed raw and naive to the British. There were undoubted tensions between the senior officers, though fewer among the other ranks. Mark Clark in particular became obsessed with the glory of being the general who marched into the first Axis capital, as Alexander’s chief of staff Major-General John Harding later stated: ‘If I may put it diplomatically, I think General Clark was overwhelmed by the wish to be the first into Rome, which he would have [been] anyhow.’23

Clark made a key error in not moving straight on to the nearby Gustav Line as soon as the Winter Line was broken in mid-December 1944. Instead the Fifth Army only reached the Sangro, Rapido and Garigliano rivers and the Gustav Line between 5 and 15 January 1944. The Germans were thus given almost another month to prepare the (already formidable) defences of the Gustav Line after the fall of Mounts Camino and Lungo and the medieval town of San Pietro Infine. These had been formidable obstacles, and the scars of the house-by-house fighting in San Pietro, in three separate assaults by the 36th Texas National Guard Division against the 15th Panzergrenadiers, can still be seen today, in the town which has been kept just as it was in 1944. ‘The name of San Pietro will be remembered in military history,’ reads the Operations Report of the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division, which finally took the town from the rear on 18 December 1943 after two previous attacks had been flung back.

We picked our way through fields ripped by mortars and shells and the still bodies of doughboys [GIs] who fell in the bloody, savage fighting… [in] this gray little town overlooking the valley approaches to Cassino. The soldiers call it Death Valley because death was on the rampage… as they stormed this enemy fortress ringed by fortifications, dug into terraced slopes commanding the Liri valley.

The German garrison of San Pietro could not merely be bypassed, isolated and hemmed in, as the Fifth Army moved on towards the Gustav Line, because their observation posts in the town would have directed incessant and accurate artillery fire on to the advancing forces and their logistical support. Just as with Camino, Lungo and the great monastery hill of Monte Cassino itself, there was no alternative to holding the high ground.

Between the attack on Camino on 6 December and the Germans finally being expelled from San Pietro on the 18th, the fierce fighting left the Fifth Army spent, and the driving sleet and hail further blunted enthusiasm for an assault on the Gustav Line during the shortest days of the year. The snow and low clouds also meant that little air support could be expected in the period before planes could land by instrumentation alone. The hiatus before the renewed Allied offensive therefore allowed Senger a vital month in which to dig in, bring up reinforcements from Rome, reposition his forces and make his contingency plans. The (anti-Nazi) Senger had commanded the withdrawal of German troops from Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and was a master of the rearguard action. The Winter Line was only ever an outpost, a delaying position in front of the Gustav Line, just as the Hitler Line was yet another one behind it.

Since it was deemed impossible for troops untrained in mountain warfare to operate to the east of the 5,000-foot Mount Cairo, where there was a continuous range of peaks right across the centre of the peninsula, the attack on Cassino had to take place from the west and south of the town. Then, as now, the town formed a horseshoe around the 1,700-foot-high hill on the peak of which the abbey rests. Founded in the early sixth century by St Benedict himself, it was the mother church of the Benedictine Order. Cassino was the strongest part of the Gustav Line, nestling under Mount Cairo. ‘There was something titanic about the scene,’ wrote Harris, ‘frightening in its vastness, sombre under the low cloud and drizzling rain that blurred outlines and gave the slopes a menacing appearance of evil.’24 By the time the Allies reached it, the Gustav Line bristled with deep, reinforced concrete bunkers, anti-tank ditches, tunnels, barbed wire, minefields, hidden gun emplacements, 60,000 defenders and scores of secret observation posts from which withering artillery fire could be directed. Not for nothing did N. C. Phillips, the official historian of the New Zealand forces in Italy, point out that ‘On its military merits alone, no competent soldier would have chosen to assault Cassino in March 1944. He would have looked askance at the very notion of trying to carry by storm the strongest fortress in Europe at the dead of winter by a single Corps unsupported by diversionary operations.’25 Yet considering the forces at hand, the lack of geographical alternatives and the pressing need to take Rome before the Normandy landings, that was what had to happen.

From Cassino to the Tyrrhenian Sea lies a succession of rivers, principally the Gari, the Garigliano and the aptly named Rapido, which provided major obstacles for the Allies. It was here, just as much as at Cassino, that the Fifth Army fought and bled trying to break the Gustav Line during the four months after January 1944. Between 17 and 21 January, X Corps tried to attack across the Garigliano, but was blocked by the Fourteenth Army’s reserves, although 46th Division’s assault caused Senger some concern. Meanwhile to the east, the US 36th Division was thrown back ignominiously from the fast-flowing, freezing Rapido, with such heavy losses that a Congressional inquiry was later held. The British 46th, US 56th and US 36th Divisions desperately attempted to establish a toe-hold on the northern side of these three rivers, but in vain. The sheer topographical majesty of Monte Cassino has overawed historians as much as today it continues to overawe tourists, but in fact the battles to the south and west were equally important and costly; since crossing the Volturno, Fifth Army had suffered 26,000 casualties. Had any bar been awarded for the Italy Star medal, it ought to have read ‘Garigliano’ rather than ‘Cassino’, for all the iconic status that was awarded to the latter due to its geographical prominence.

The prize – either by crossing the rivers or by taking Cassino, or both – was the Liri Valley, a flat, wide and direct route straight through to Rome down which the Allied armour could drive at speed. (Once Cassino finally fell on 17 May, the Fifth Army was in Rome within three weeks.) It might be that the Allies put too much emphasis on the importance of armour in the advance on Rome, since their tanks – though more numerous – had been inferior to the Germans’ throughout the war so far. The Sherman tank was nicknamed the Ronson by the Allies because in the words of the contemporary advert ‘It lights first time, every time’, and the Tommy-cooker by the Germans because a hit from an 88mm shell tended to create enough kinetic energy to ignite its engine fuel. Until later in 1944, the Germans retained a lead over the Allies in creating tanks with a better combination of firepower, mobility and protection. Allied tanks often had such restricted vision that driving them was likened to driving a semi-detached house looking through its letterbox. If the Allies had been less fixated on the Liri Valley, they might have broken the Gustav Line elsewhere earlier.

On 11 December 1943 Kesselring assured the Vatican that the abbey of Monte Cassino would not be occupied by his forces, but most of its movable treasures were taken to Rome nonetheless (today they can be seen in the monastery’s museum). At 09.30 on Tuesday, 15 February 1944, the entire abbey was flattened by 239 bombers dropping 500 tons of bombs, destroying the immovable but art-historically important frescos in the process. This Allied vandalism was a propaganda coup for Dr Goebbels, although it was good for the morale of the troops preparing to attack the monastery, at least until they discovered that few Germans had died in the bombing and that rubble was almost as easily defended as entire buildings. ‘I say that the bombing of the Abbey was a mistake, and I say it with the full knowledge of the controversy that has raged round this episode,’ wrote Mark Clark in his autobiography Calculated Risk, in 1951. ‘Not only was the bombing an unnecessary psychological mistake in the field of propaganda, but it was a tactical military mistake of the first magnitude. It only made our job more difficult, more costly in terms of men, machines and time.’26 Though he later denied responsibility for it, in fact Clark had been personally involved in and approved of Alexander’s and Freyberg’s decision to destroy the abbey.27 Certainly the commander of the Cassino defenders, Senger, later claimed that ‘The bombing had the opposite effect of what was intended. Now we would occupy the abbey without scruple, especially as ruins are better for defence than intact buildings… Now Germany had a mighty, commanding strongpoint, which paid for itself in the subsequent fighting.’28 The defensive superiority of ruins over intact buildings had already been seen at Stalingrad, and was to be so again at Caen. Yet it is hard to believe that during the Allied attacks the Germans would not have abandoned their moral ‘scruple’ and defended the abbey room by room.

Visitors to the magnificent rebuilt structure will immediately be impressed by how completely the abbey dominates the hilltop, which in turn dominates the Liri Valley. It was effectively doomed as soon as Kesselring chose it as the hinge of the Gustav Line, which a glance at the landscape from the top of the hill looking south shows was unavoidable. Churchill could never understand why Cassino could not simply be outflanked, and why three divisions had to ‘break their teeth’ on a front only 3 miles wide, and it is indeed difficult to comprehend on two-dimensional maps. The folds of the land, the overlaps of the rivers, above all the heights of the mountains protecting the Liri Valley are best studied in situ, and make the tactical difficulties instantly comprehensible. As for Monte Cassino itself, Harding believed that ‘It was necessary to bomb it from the point of view of the morale and the confidence of the troops. Everybody thought the Germans were using it for military purposes… It’s part of my military philosophy that you must not put troops into battle without giving them all possible physical and military support to give them the best chance for getting a success.’29 The political price of attacking the abbey without first having flattened it was felt to be too high, especially in New Zealand, whose troops were to form the first wave, and Freyberg, Clark and Alexander all approved its destruction. Of course it was paradoxical that, in the crusade for civilization against Nazi barbarism, a prominent jewel of that very civilization should have been destroyed by the Allies, but such was the nature of the Total War unleashed by Hitler, who must therefore bear ultimate responsibility for the aesthetic and cultural tragedy.

By the end of January, the French Mountain Corps had made considerable advances between Monte Cairo and Monte Cassino, and the US 34th ‘Red Bulls’ Division had reached Point 593 behind the monastery hill. Snake’s Head Ridge, of which Point 593 was a part, saw bitterly contested fighting, reminiscent of the Great War, as the Allies attempted to outflank Cassino from the north; indeed as many men fell there as in the full-frontal assaults up Monastery Hill itself.

The four battles of Monte Cassino were fought by Germans, Americans, British, French, Poles, Australians, Canadians, Indians, Nepalis, Sikhs, Maltese and New Zealanders, although not by the Italians themselves, the majority of whom had by now largely adopted a che sera, sera attitude to their national fate, apart from (mainly Communist-dominated) partisans who fought against the Germans further north. ‘We do not want Germans or Americans,’ one representative piece of Italian graffito read. ‘Let us weep in peace.’30The four battles have been likened to the Somme: at the first battle after 12 February, for example, the Fifth Army suffered 16,000 casualties, above all in the 34th Division. In the second battle between 15 and 18 February it was the New Zealanders who suffered, and between 15 and 23 March further losses were sustained in the third.

The Luftwaffe barely made it into the air for routine reconnaissance during the struggle for the Gustav Line, such was the Allies’ preponderance, and in late 1943 it had only 430 aircraft in the whole of Italy.31

In the Vatican, meanwhile, the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, reported to the Foreign Office on 26 January 1944 that ‘The Cardinal Secretary of State sent for me today to say that the Pope hoped that no Allied coloured troops would be among the small number that might be garrisoned at Rome after the occupation. He hastened to add that the Holy See did not draw the colour line but it was hoped that it would be possible to meet the request.’32 The role of Pius xii in the Second World War remains highly controversial, because he took the deliberate decision not to denounce publicly the Nazis’ war against the Jews, despite having detailed information about its nature and extent (and indeed that of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Poland). This decision was based on his belief – proved well founded with regard to the Protestant Church in Holland – that the Germans would viciously punish ecclesiastical authorities who spoke up for the Jews, thereby lessening their opportunities to help in other, more clandestine ways. (The Pope himself harboured thousands of Jews at his own properties in Rome and at Castel Gandolfo outside the city.) Yet although it would not have derailed or perhaps even slowed down the Holocaust, which by its nature was not undertaken by genuinely pious people, it was in retrospect of course part of the Pope’s moral duty to draw global attention to what was taking place. It is quite untrue, as has been alleged, that the Pope himself was anti-Semitic or held any brief for the Nazis or that he was in any way, as the title of one book has it, ‘Hitler’s Pope’.33

After the second battle of Cassino in February 1944, the commander of its defence, General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, reported to Hitler at the Berghof to receive the oak leaves to his Knight’s Cross, an honour that left him unimpressed ‘now that hundreds of people wore the decoration’. Senger was even less impressed by the sight of the Führer himself, which he found ‘utterly depressing’ and wondered what effect it would have on the other soldiers receiving medals that day. ‘He wore a yellow military blouse with a yellow tie, white collar and black trousers – hardly a becoming outfit!’ recorded the Roman Catholic Rhodes Scholar:

His unprepossessing frame and short neck made him appear even less dignified than usual. His complexion was flabby, colourless and sickly. His large blue eyes, which evidently fascinated many people, were watery, possibly due to his constant use of stimulating drugs. His handshake was soft, his left arm hung limp and trembling by his side. Yet a striking feature, contrasting with his notorious screaming fits during speeches or fits of rage, was the quiet and modulated voice that almost inspired compassion since it barely concealed his despondency and weakness.34

The trembling left hand has been put down to incipient Parkinson’s disease, from which it is thought that Hitler might have suffered. Even taking into account Senger’s anti-Nazism and the fact that this account was written long after the war, it seems that Hitler was ailing even before the Normandy landings in June, the assassination attempt on 20 July or the destruction of Army Group Centre in Russia later that month.

On 15 March more than 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cassino from 500 bombers, yet too often the USAAF, which flew two-thirds of the sorties and dropped 70 per cent of the bombs, failed to co-ordinate closely enough with the commanders on the ground, who often did not know when the raids were scheduled to end. This meant that, however heavy the bombardments, the Germans in the many arched cellars of the abbey always had time to take up positions in the rubble of the monastery before the assault waves moved in. ‘I had climbed every single hill that offered a long view,’ recalled Senger of his 50-mile-wide sector based at Cassino, ‘and this gave me a complete picture of the fissured mountain terrain. I could thus appreciate fluctuations in the situation from changes in artillery fire and air activity.’35 The Germans managed to avoid being outflanked in the first battle of Cassino in February, retaking Point 593, but the hill succumbed in subsequent engagements in February and March. Fighting between the 8th Indian Division and German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) was particularly harsh, and on the rocky outcrop known as Hangman’s Hill a company of Gurkhas somehow clung like limpets for ten days under constant German bombardment and sniping. To visit the spot is to appreciate both units’ extraordinary achievement and courage.

‘What exceeded all expectations was the fighting spirit of the troops,’ Senger later wrote of his 1st Parachute Rifle Division, which had relieved the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division on 15 March and was engaged against the New Zealanders in the town. ‘The soldiers crawled out of the shuttered cellars and bunkers to confront the enemy with the toughest resistance. Words can hardly do them justice. We had all reckoned that those who survived the hours of bombing and the casualties would be physically and morally shaken, but this was not so.’ He put this down to their being trained, as paratroopers, in fighting in isolated, surrounded areas of resistance. Senger particularly liked the way they didn’t bother to report the loss of small amounts of ground ‘because they hoped soon to recover it’.36 Visiting 3rd Paratroop Regiment at the divisional headquarters of General Richard Heidrich, the commander of I Parachute Corps, Senger recalled the ‘jarring explosion of shells, the whistling of splinters, the smell of freshly thrown-up earth, and the well-known mixture of smells from glowing iron and burnt powder’, which vividly reminded him of his time on the Somme. ‘Hitler was right when he told me that here was the only battlefield of this war that resembled those of the First,’ he wrote after the war. In fact there were plenty such battlefields, especially in Russia, but Führers are not on oath when awarding oak-leaf clusters to brave commanders.

The gradient of the Monastery Hill slope up to the abbey is 500 yards up for every thousand horizontal, that is 45 degrees, and the other places where the fighting was fiercest in the town – the Continental Hotel (which had a German tank concealed inside its foyer), Castle Hill, the botanical gardens and the railway station – sound like sites in a Baedeker guide, but they all saw vicious hand-to-hand combat. The fighting in the town of Cassino, recalled a veteran, ‘was at such close quarters that one floor of a building might be held by a defender while the next was occupied by the attackers. If the latter wished to use their artillery to soften up the building before storming it, they would have to evacuate this floor!’37

‘The Cassino front cost the Allies three whole months for an advance of 15 kilometres,’ boasted a proud Senger years afterwards. By early 1944 the Germans had twenty-three divisions in Italy, fifteen of which formed the Tenth Army holding the Gustav Line against Alexander’s by now eighteen divisions. If the Allies were able to make amphibious hops up the coast of Italy, ‘like a harvest bug’ in Churchill’s typically arresting simile, they needed to get behind the Germans’ east–west defensive lines. This was the thinking behind the attack on Anzio, Operation Shingle, although the need for landing craft – principally Landing Ships Tank (LSTs) – for the operation meant that the timing for the Normandy landings (codenamed Overlord) had to be postponed a month from the date of 1 May 1944 that had been agreed at the Trident Conference in Washington.

The amphibious attacks on Anzio and Nettuno, small holiday ports on the west coast of Italy 30 miles south of Rome, by the US VI Corps under the corncob-pipe-smoking, fifty-three-year-old Major-General John Lucas, was intended to cut communications between Rome and Cassino, forcing the German Tenth Army to weaken or even abandon the western part of the Gustav Line, and outflank the Cassino position. Task Force 81 comprised 374 vessels and sailed the 100 miles from Naples under the overall command of Rear-Admiral Frank Lowry, with Rear-Admiral Thomas Troubridge commanding the Royal Navy element. As Ultra had suggested they would, the landings achieved complete surprise, and many Germans – nicknamed Teds by the Allies, a shortening of the Italian word for Germans, Tedeschi – were caught with their trousers down, in some cases literally so. ‘As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street,’ an American private later recalled, ‘I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted “Halt!” as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands and walked towards us… His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.’38

Within two days of the first landings at 02.00 on Saturday, 22 January 1944, some 50,000 Allied troops and 5,200 vehicles were ashore, establishing a perimeter 3 miles deep. If Lucas had pushed inland to seize the towns of Aprilia (nicknamed the Factory), Campoleone and Cisterna, he could have cut both the main railway and Route 7, which ran southwards to the Gustav Line. Instead he waited for tanks and heavy artillery, and within seventy-two hours had lost the opportunity, which was not to recur for four pain-filled months. Whereas there were only a few thousand Germans in the area on 23 January, by the evening of the next day there were over 40,000. Lucas was the wrong man to command Shingle, not least because he believed, as he vouchsafed to his diary, that ‘The whole affair has a strong odour of Gallipoli and apparently the same amateur was still on the coach’s bench.’39 Intended by Churchill as a campaign-winning coup, the battle of Anzio turned into a drawn-out, costly failure. The German capacity for counter-attack was undimmed as Kesselring rushed troops from the Gustav Line, France, northern Italy and the Balkans to try to snuff out what Hitler described as an ‘abscess’. Since Ultra gave Clark good warning of this, Lucas was able to dig in on his beach-head, albeit under constant fire from the Alban Hills (Colli Laziali) and direct attack from the German Fourteenth Army under the aristocratic General Eberhard von Mackensen. Digging in at the beach-head was uncomfortable work: deep trenches were impossible because the water table was too high, and as one veteran recalled, ‘Dig a slit trench, leave it for an hour, and the bottom would be black with beetles trying to get out.’

Anzio was where the Emperor Nero reputedly played the fiddle while Rome burned in AD 64. The German Commander-in-Chief South showed no such lassitude when the Allies began landing there in 1944. Kesselring had signalled the warning code ‘Case Richard’ to all units by 04.30 on 22 January, and forces started arriving fast. The Allies had slightly expanded their beach-head by 1 February on narrow and exposed fronts, but their further attacks were comprehensively repulsed at both Campoleone and Cisterna. Although soon after the landings Churchill had told Alexander, ‘Am very glad you are pegging out claims rather than digging in beach-heads,’ he had spoken too soon.40 Alexander and Clark both landed at Anzio at 09.00 on the first day, yet neither ordered Lucas to take Campoleone and Cisterna post-haste at all costs. (On visiting a 5th Battalion, Grenadier Guards anti-tank platoon, an 88mm shell-burst covered Alexander’s fur-lined jacket with earth. ‘He brushed off the soil as he would the drops of water having been caught in a shower of rain,’ recalled a guardsman, ‘and continued on his way chatting to his aide, who looked as though he’d seen a ghost.’) 41

‘Daddy’ Lucas, who was also known to his men by the hardly inspiring nickname Foxy Grandpa, set up VI Corps headquarters in underground cellars in the via Romana in Nettuno, close to where he had got off the boat. He then kept them there, far from the British sectors, and at one point a practice evacuation was even carried out. ‘Slow in movement and speech,’ records Anzio’s historian, ‘Shingle’s pilot was as far removed from a dynamic, charismatic leader as could be imagined.’42 The British war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas wrote that Lucas had ‘the round face and the greying moustache of a kindly country solicitor’. Lack of progress meant that Lucas was replaced on 23 February by the altogether more dashing Major-General Lucian Truscott, who wore a silk scarf around his neck that was part of an airman’s escape kit. Both Alexander and Clark, who rubber-stamped all Lucas’ decisions but escaped censure, were affected by what today is called legacy-thinking. They refought the battle of Salerno at Anzio, without taking into account the key differences between the two operations, the main one being that the latter had the inestimable advantage of total surprise. Alexander, who had to be a mediator as much as a commander with his multi-national force, ought to have set out far more specific objectives than he did, allowing both Clark and Lucas less leeway. They were nonetheless right not to have made a dash for the Alban Hills just south-east of Rome on landing, as some now argue they ought to have. With his forces strung out from Anzio to the mountains it would have been simple for the counter-attacking Germans to cut Lucas off, and the heights would have turned into the largest POW camp in Italy. Equally, had he pushed on northwards to Rome, he would have had, in his own picturesque phrase, ‘one night in Rome and eighteen months in PoW camps’. Dick Evans, the adjutant of the 1st Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment: ‘In the first two days we could have driven straight into Rome. Then we would have been slaughtered.’

The harbours of Anzio and Nettuno, and the armada needed to keep the beach-head resupplied, took a severe battering from the Germans once Kesselring put the aerial side of Case Richard into operation. In the ten days after the landings he summoned a force of 140 long-range bombers from outside Italy, and sixty more from southern French bases. The ships supplying the Anzio beach-head had to face E-boat torpedoes, bombs and the terrifying new invention of radio-operated, rocket-powered glider bombs, although all the human torpedo attacks failed miserably. The cruiser Spartan, destroyers Janus, Jervis and Plunkett and minesweeper Prevail, as well as a hospital ship and troop transporter, were all lost. Nonetheless, over 68,000 men, 237 tanks and 508 guns came ashore in the first week, a great inter-Allied and inter-service achievement. In all, no less than half a million tons of supplies were landed at Anzio, which for a brief moment became the world’s fourth busiest port. Those who landed in that first week faced 71,500 Germans, including 7,000 crack troops from the 26th Panzer Division defending Cisterna.

The British attack on the key railway station at Campoleone failed. Major-General W. R. C. Penney’s 1st Infantry Division began its assault on 28 January, badly delayed because of an ambush of some key Grenadier Guards officers. Only one man, from the 2nd Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters, got across the railway line, but he was subsequently killed, along with 244 other comrades from his regiment in the space of only ten minutes. Campoleone was not to fall for over three months. In all, 23,860 American and 9,203 British Commonwealth casualties had to be taken off the beaches in the Anzio operation, apart from around 7,000 who had been killed there. The life expectancy of a forward observation officer was a mere six weeks.43 Those who fought at Anzio saw the full horrors of the Second World War close up. An army surgeon called James A. Ross, who later became president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, recalled the scene in a casualty clearing station inside the Anzio perimeter:

The wounded lay in two rows, mostly British but some American as well in their sodden filthy clothes… soaked, caked, buried in mud and blood; with ghastly pale faces, shuddering, shivering with the cold of the February night and their great wounds… some (too many; far too many) were carried in dying, with gross combinations of shattered limbs, protrusions of intestines and brain from great holes in their poor frames torn by 88-millimetre shells, mortar and anti-personnel bombs.44

By 7 February 1944 it was clear that the British War Cabinet had severe reservations about the way the Italian campaign – especially at Anzio – was progressing. ‘The battle in Italy is approaching its climax,’ Churchill reported, according to the notes of the War Cabinet Secretariat:

Two weeks ago we had high hopes of a military success – now we still have hopes of an uphill slogging match, which may nevertheless succeed… The 5th Army not yet delivered its attack – force not yet engaged and may at any moment advance on enemy’s front – Enemy troops stretched, no relief. No reason to suppose possibility of decisive victory has faded away. But the strategic principles on which the operations were founded are sound and persist in bringing their rewards in spite of tactical disappointments. The German attempt to crush the bridgehead failed… Advisers not alarmed… We have a front engaging 19 divisions of the enemy. Hitler evidently on impulse had 6 or 7 divisions sent down. Our duty is to fight and engage all our forces with the enemy. Hitler does not want all his forces engaged on the peninsula. Our battle must be nourished. Disappointing not to gain tactical success.45

Churchill then said something that Lawrence Burgis took down as ‘US asked us for an appreciation… In US may say Eisenhower removed.’ This is capable of the interpretation that Eisenhower’s job would on the line in the United States if victory was not won in Italy, and when the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin said that he should send Alexander a message of encouragement, Churchill said, ‘I’ll think about it,’ which was hardly a ringing endorsement.

The great German counter-attack, Operation Fischfang (Catch Fish), came on 16 February, with Mackensen’s intention to drive down the via Anziate to Anzio and throw the Allies back into the sea. Supported by a 452-gun bombardment, Mackensen flung his 125,000 troops against the Allies’ 100,000, but Allied artillery and naval guns fired no fewer than 65,000 rounds on the first day alone. Fierce engagements developed at the road’s flyover at Campo di Carne on 18 February, with craters formed, mines laid and concrete-laden lorries blocking the underpass below. ‘Cooks, drivers and clerks fought side by side with infantry,’ records the battle’s historian as the Germans reached what was ominously designated ‘the Final Beach-head Line’.46 Close co-operation between the Allied artillery and infantry – it is estimated that they fired around fifteen times more shells during the battle than the Wehrmacht – made all the difference in a struggle where the air forces could not operate because of the low visibility. Light reconnaissance aircraft were used, however, to devastating effect. In all at Anzio, 10 per cent of German losses were due to Allied infantry, 15 per cent to aerial bombardment, but no less than 75 per cent to the artillery – figures which, as the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst historian Lloyd Clark has pointed out, are virtually identical to the statistics for the Western Front in the Great War.47

Mackensen’s offensive, broken up by artillery bombardment and tenacious resistance on the ground, failed to reach further than 7 miles from Anzio, and petered out by the evening of 19 February. It had cost the Fourteenth Army 5,400 casualties, against VI Corps’ 3,500. From then on there were nearly three months of almost continuous fighting in what were known by the British Army as the wadis, the sunken marshlands and mosquito-ridden tributaries of the upper Moletta river. Although the front lines were broadly static in the areas nicknamed Starfish, the Bloody Boot, North Lobster Claw, South Lobster Claw, Shell Farm, Mortar Farm and Oh God Wadi, there were constant costly trench raids and counter-attacks. Battalions typically spent six days in and eight days out of the line. In his superb diary of the wadi fighting entitled The Fortress, the twenty-year-old subaltern in the Green Howards, Raleigh Trevelyan, recorded the experience of his battalion being surrounded by the Germans on three sides:

I find it bewildering the way our own and the Jerries’ positions are so interwoven. There is no hard and fast straight line as the front between us… The men keep asking why we don’t press forward and drive the enemy back – any risk is better than our present conditions. The answer is that there are more wadis beyond, and at the expense of much blood we would only be in exactly the same predicament, but with lengthier lines of communication.48

Walking the wadis today – it is advisable to do so only with a guide as there is still some unexploded ordnance there – one can see how close-quarter the fighting was, with trenches less than 50 yards from one another along waterlogged ditches, and man-sized holes dug out in the side of mud-banks for protection and makeshift accommodation. The 1st Battalion, Irish Guards took 94 per cent casualties in the wadis in only five days serving there, while the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was reduced from 250 officers and men down to a mere thirty in a similar period.49 Yet the Germans failed to break through either there or at the nearby Flyover.

‘I had hoped that we were hurling a wild cat on to the shore,’ Churchill complained to the Chiefs of Staff on 31 January, ‘but all we got was a stranded whale.’50 It was true that the Anzio operation had not succeeded in its objectives, largely owing to the German capacity for counter-attack. In his novel of Anzio, Seven Steps Down, the war correspondent John Sears Barker describes the Ranger attack on Cisterna on the night of 29 February, carried out along one of the main drainage ditches of the Mussolini Canal that came close to the town:

The Rangers considered it a sheltered alley… That 800 yards would be over unprotected open land but the Rangers, advancing through the early morning shadows, counted on surprise. What they didn’t count on was the Hermann Göring Division, which had set up a three-point ambush. Machine gun emplacements, mortars, anti-tank guns, depressed anti-aircraft guns, and Tiger tanks, hidden in farmhouses, ditches and haystacks, rimmed the ditch on all sides.51

The attack was disastrous: of the 767 men of the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions who took part, twelve were killed, thirty-six wounded and almost all of the rest were captured.

In the event, instead of VI Corps saving X Corps trapped on the Gustav Line, it turned out to be X Corps breaking through the Line in Operation Diadem in mid-May that finally opened up the oppor tunity to save the trapped VI Corps. With a proportion of Eighth Army brought back across the Apennines in support, Diadem saw Allied superiority of three to one, and an opening barrage of 1,500 guns at 23.00 hours on Thursday, 11 May 1944.52 General Alphonse Juin’s Free French Corps performed impressive feats of specialist mountain soldiering in turning the German flank. Meanwhile, II Corps of Fifth Army made good progress, and on 16 May Alexander could finally report to a hugely relieved Brooke that the Gustav Line had ‘definitely’ been breached. After initial rebuffs, XIII Corps of Eighth Army broke through, and it turned out to be the Polish II Corps which took Monastery Hill on 18 May. (Their charismatic commander, General Władysław Anders, died in exile in 1970, and his grave can be seen among those of his comrades at the Polish cemetery there.)

As the Tenth Army reeled back from the Gustav Line, and tried to defend the Hitler and Caesar Lines behind it, the opportunity arrived for Alexander to use VI Corps at Anzio to cut off the Germans’ retreat. Having missed capturing large numbers of the Wehrmacht in Sicily and Salerno, here was a third chance to put a great many German soldiers, then streaming up Highway 6 towards Valmontone, ‘in the bag’, as had happened in Tunisia. Yet at a press conference at 20.00 hours on Monday, 22 May Clark told reporters: ‘I intend to take Rome, and to take it soon – nothing will stand in my way.’53 It was assumed at the time that he was just referring to the Germans. When the very next day, Alexander – informed of enemy intentions via Ultra – ordered Clark to break out of the Anzio pocket, cross the Alban Hills and swing his Fifth Army eastwards, thereby trapping the retreating Tenth Army at Valmontone as it tried to escape northwards, his subordinate was in no mood to comply.

Admittedly, breaking out of the Anzio perimeter was still no easy task. By the end of 23 May, 3rd US Infantry Division of VI Corps had lost 955 men, the largest number of any US division on any single day during the whole war.54 German losses were equally heavy, however. By the evening of Wednesday, 24 May, Truscott’s VI Corps was making good progress towards Valmontone, and the prospect beckoned of the Tenth Army being trapped in the valley on Route 6, with many forced to surrender. Contact was finally made between the two Allied forces at 07.30 on Thursday, 25 May, more than four months after the Anzio landings, and Cisterna also fell later that day.

Yet, instead of obeying his orders from Alexander, on Friday, 26 May Clark deliberately reduced the force Truscott needed to capture Valmontone – the true Schwerpunkt – with the result that the Germans were able to keep their retreat route open all the time between 26 May and 4 June, and so the Tenth Army escaped. Clark kept the greater part of his force to make a dash for Rome – which Kesselring had anyhow evacuated – taking it largely unopposed on 5 June, the day before D-Day and therefore just early enough for him to bask in global approbation for a full twenty-four hours before attention turned elsewhere. (He understandably kept a large Roma traffic sign, complete with a bullet hole, in his office as a souvenir.) ‘Alexander never gave orders not to take Rome,’ was Clark’s ex post facto rationalization, dripping with double negatives, special pleading and Anglophobia:

I know he was concerned about my maintaining my thrust to Valmontone, but hell when we were knocking on its door we had already destroyed as much of the German Tenth Army as we could ever have expected… One thing I knew was that I had to take Rome and that my American army was going to do it. So in all the circumstances I had to go for it before the British loused it up… We had earned it you understand.55

As a result of Clark’s orders on 26 May ‘to leave the 3rd Division and the Special Force to block Highway 6 and mount that assault… to the north as soon as you can’, the US 34th and 45th Divisions broke off their march to Valmontone and instead headed for Rome, covered by the 36th Division. Truscott was ‘dumbfounded’ and protested that ‘We should pour our maximum power into the Valmontone Gap to ensure the destruction of the retreating German army,’ but he was overruled.56 For the rest of his life he was convinced that, as he put it, ‘To be first in Rome was a poor compensation for this lost opportunity.’ Clark’s divisional commanders – especially Major-General Ernest N. Harmon of 1st US Armored Division and Brigadier John W. O’Daniel of 3rd Division – were equally angry about the change of plan, and Alexander himself was informed only after it had been made, when it was too late to countermand. Short of instantly replacing Clark with Truscott, there was little the commander of 15th Army Group could do, and he was reduced to asking Clark’s chief of staff, Major-General Alfred M. Gruenther, ‘I am sure the army commander will continue to push towards Valmontone, won’t he?’57 He would indeed, but not with anything like the force necessary to trap Vietinghoff, seven of whose divisions now managed to withdraw north-east of Rome.

Between the opening of Operation Diadem and the fall of Rome, 15th Army Group had lost 44,000 casualties, a sacrifice that might have been easier to justify if the German army had not been permitted to escape in relatively good order to continue the struggle in central and northern Italy, and especially on the Gothic Line. General von Vietinghoff himself had no doubts that ‘If the Allies, as in previous days, had directed their attack against Valmontone, the initially weak forces of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division would not have been able to prevent a breakthrough. The fall of Rome, the separation of both German armies, and the bottling up of the bulk of their units would have been unavoidable.’

Alexander confined himself in his memoirs to the caustic comment that he could ‘only assume that the immediate lure of Rome for its publicity persuaded Mark Clark to switch the direction of his advance’, and Harding agreed, saying: ‘By diverting his axis to advance from almost due east to north-east he missed an opportunity of cutting off some forces, but he was attracted, I think, by the magnet of Rome.’58 To make matters worse, Clark actually informed Alexander that, if the British tried to approach Rome before the Americans, he would order ‘his troops to fire on the Eighth Army’, and once Rome had fallen – or rather was evacuated in relatively good order by the retreating Germans – American Military Police refused British units permission to enter the city.59 It was, Harding recalled, the nearest that the British ever got to ‘coming to blows’ with General Mark Clark.

Churchill told Roosevelt and Stalin at the Teheran Conference of November 1943 that ‘He who holds Rome holds the title-deeds to Italy,’ but he was wrong. The fall of Rome proved to be just another step on the long and bloody journey up the peninsula. If Rome had fallen in the autumn of 1943 it might have been a significant moment in the history of the Second World War, but coming so late, and so soon before D-Day, it makes little more than a footnote. Thereafter the entire Italian campaign became a sideshow, kept alive by Churchill’s faith that victory there could open up opportunities in Yugoslavia, Austria and France, each of which was heavily discounted by Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Alexander’s pursuit of the Germans northwards, where the Gothic Line had been constructed between La Spezia and Pesaro, has been described as ‘wooden and hesitant’, leading one historian to state, with reference to North Africa as well as Italy, that ‘This failure in the pursuit was the most marked feature of the Western Allies in the Second World War.’60 It is true that the Germans managed to get their forces up to the Gothic Line without being overtaken, but Harding estimated that on 1 July 1944 the Germans had between eighteen and twenty-one divisions, against the Allies’ fourteen infantry and four armoured, and moreover they had mini-defensive lines such as the Albert Line behind Perugia and Chiusi, and lines in front of Arezzo and Siena, and the Arno Line centred on Florence and Bibbiena. All these had to be mastered before the Allies even reached the Gothic Line itself.

It was to be a phenomenally hard slog up the Apennines before reaching the plains of the Po Valley. Small wonder that the fellow officers of Coldstream Guards Lieutenant (later Professor Sir) Michael Howard, who won the Military Cross at Salerno, wondered whether the General Staff had used a map that featured contours when they had planned the campaign. Alexander’s chances of a glorious breakthrough of the Gothic Line were severely weakened when six divisions were withdrawn from his command in order to take part in the invasion of southern France on 15 August 1944, while Kesselring was simultaneously being reinforced. The Fifth Army crossed the Arno on 2 August, and the Eighth Army took Rimini on 21 September, but the focus of the Second World War had long since moved to north-west Europe, where the life or death of the Third Reich would be decided, rather than in northern Italy. By the time Romagna fell on 20 September 1944, Eighth Army had been fighting in the mountains of Italy for a year, and the autumnal rain brought more dreadful weather conditions that would shock present-day visitors to Italy who confine their tours of Tuscany and Umbria to the summer months. Even once the Allies reached north-eastern Italy, there was a series of east–west-running rivers to cross if they were to achieve Alexander’s plan to destroy the twenty German divisions in front of the Alps. Even as late as December 1944, Hitler was capable of putting together a twenty-six-division surprise attack in the Ardennes without having to remove troops from Italy, although he did remove Kesselring in March 1945 to defend western Germany.

The last stage of the Allied campaign was easily its best tactically, with the Gothic Line breached with vigour and a pursuit of the Germans that has been described as ‘tactically superb’.61 Much of the credit for this must go to Clark, who commanded 15th Army Group, Truscott of the Fifth Army and Sir Richard McCreery, who in November 1944 had taken over command of the Eighth Army from Oliver Leese. Refusing Vietinghoff permission to retreat into the Alps, but instead ordering his troops to ‘Stand or die’, Hitler condemned the by then demoralized German forces to fight north of the Po, where they were comprehensively defeated between 14 and 20 April 1945. Vietinghoff surrendered German Army Group South-west to Alexander, who was by then supreme commander Mediterranean, on Wednesday, 2 May 1945.

Although the attritional warfare on the slim peninsula – which might have been specifically designed for a long retreat – had cost the Fifth Army 188,746 casualties and the Eighth Army 123,254, a total of 312,000, it had cost the Germans as many as 434,646.62Yet despite constant inferiority of numbers in the air, and being always on the defensive, Kesselring and Vietinghoff had held up the Allies for nineteen months before the final collapse. It is hard to see what the continued Allied assaults from Rome to the Po Valley really achieved considering the cost, except that they kept many German divisions away from the Western Front, and some historians assert that ‘The Allied Italian campaign was a necessary component of the giant ring that squeezed the life out of the Nazi state.’63

The Italian campaign also provides a perfect illustration of how well the Germans could fight when not interfered with strategically by Hitler. Kesselring, Vietinghoff, Mackensen and Senger hardly made a serious error in their masterly withdrawal northwards up the entire length of Italy, and had Hitler permitted a retreat into the Alps they could have extricated their armies further. From the spring of 1944 the Allies had more than ten times as many warplanes in Italy as the Luftwaffe, but had the Nazis organized aircraft and tank production efficiently enough for the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht to be able to contest the skies and plains, there is no reason to suppose that they would have been expelled from the country in the first place. ‘May I give you a word of advice?’ the urbane General Senger joked to Michael Howard ten years after the war ended. ‘Next time you invade Italy, do not start at the bottom.’64

Back on 12 September 1943, Mussolini had been rescued on Hitler’s orders from the mountainside hotel in which he was being held, in a sensational German glider operation commanded by Colonel Otto Skorzeny. ‘The liberation of the Duce has caused a great sensation at home and abroad,’ crowed Goebbels to his diary two days later. ‘Even upon the enemy the effect of his melodramatic deliverance is enormous.’65 After meeting Hitler, Mussolini was set up as dictator of the so-called Republic of Salò, ruling from Gargagno on Lake Garda for nineteen months until the German collapse. Attempting to escape across the Swiss border on 26 April 1945, Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci, her brother Marcello and fifteen others were captured by the Italian partisans. On Saturday the 28th Mussolini and Petacci were executed by sub-machine gun in front of a low stone wall by the gates of a villa outside the village of Giulino di Mezzegra on Lake Como, one of the loveliest beauty-spots in Italy. (It seems rather unItalian to murder an attractive and apolitical mistress, but such is war.) Their bodies were added to those of the other captured Fascists, loaded in to a removal van and driven to Milan, the birthplace of Fascism.66 There, the corpses of Mussolini and Petacci were kicked, spat upon, shot at and urinated over, and then hung upside-down from a metal girder in front of the petrol station in the Piazzale Loreto, with their names on pieces of paper pinned to their feet. It was remarked with surprise by the women present, who were joking and dancing around this macabre scene, that Clara Petacci wore no knickers and that her stockings were unladdered. (It was hardly her fault; she had not been given time to put her knickers on before she was taken away and shot.)

It is all too easy at this distance of time to forget that each casualty listed in these campaigns represents a tragic human story. In the Beach Head Cemetery 3 miles north of Anzio, for example, lies the grave of the twenty-five-year-old Sergeant M. A. W. Rogers of the Wiltshire Regiment, who won the Victoria Cross taking a German position on the north side of the Moletta river by bomb and bayonet on 3 June 1944, advancing alone against an enemy that occupied the high ground. The London Gazette recorded how, under intense fire, Rogers had penetrated 30 yards before he was:

blown off his feet by a grenade, and wounded in the leg. Nothing daunted, he ran on towards an enemy machine-gun post, attempting to silence it. He was shot and killed at point-blank range. The NCO’s undaunted determination, fearless devotion to duty and superb courage carried his platoon on to their objective in a strongly defended position.67

For all the glory of winning Britain’s greatest gallantry medal, his gravestone tells of the grief of his wife: ‘In memory of my beloved husband. May we be together soon, dear. Peace at last.’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!