Operation Olive, first attack on the Gothic Line, 25 August-October 1944

Operation Olive (25 August-October 1944) was the first Allied attack on the German Gothic Line in the northern Apennines. Although most of the fortifications of the Gothic Line were captured early in the offensive, the Germans managed to hold on to new lines further back, and the Allied offensive eventually ran out of steam late in 1944, tantalisingly close to the Po plains.

After the collapse of the Gustav Line in May and the fall of Rome on 4 June 1944 the Germans carried out a fighting retreat across northern Italy, in an attempt to give their engineers time to complete a new defensive position in the northern Apennines. An attempt to defend the ‘Dora’ line failed, but the Germans were able to hold the Trasimeno Line for nearly two weeks in June and the Arezzo Line for two weeks at the start of July. The Allies then paused in front of the Arno Line, to recover from the pursuit and to reorganise their units.

The Line

The idea of defending the northern Apennines first appeared before the Allied invasion of Italy. The first German plan for Italy was for Rommel to build up a defensive position between Pisa and Rimini, crossing the mountains, while Kesselring conducted a fighting retreat from the south. This plan was abandoned after Kesselring’s impressive performance at Salerno, and instead Hitler approved a plan to try and hold a line south of Rome. Kesselring was proved correct, and the Allies were unable to break through the Winter Line (or Gustav Line) until May 1944. 

Detail from Bofors Gun protecting advance towards Gothic Line
Bofors Gun
protecting advance
towards Gothic Line

Work on the Gothic Line resumed in June 1944, when the OKW issued a plan that included 100 Todt steel shelters, 30 buried tank turrets with 88mm guns on concrete and steel bases and bands of mines and wire. Around 15,000 Italian forced labourers and 2,000 Slovaks were allocated to the construction of the line.

The Gothic Line began a few miles south of La Spezia on the west coast. It ran south-east through the Apuan Mountains (at the point where the Apennines reach the coast). It then ran along the Apennines, blocking the main mountain passes (in particular those between Florence and Bologna), before following the Foglia River to the Adriatic, reaching that sea between Pesaro and Cattolica, a few miles to the south-east of Rimini.  

In the area north of Florence the main task was to defend a series of mountain passes. The mountains here were split in two by the Sieve River, which rises in the mountains north of Florence, but then runs east/ south east along a sizable valley before turning south to flow into the Arno east of the city. The main range lies to the north of the Sieve River. There were two main passes across this northern band of mountains. The main route followed Highway 65 over the Futa Pass, and ran to Bologna. This route was defended by some of the strongest fortifications on the line. A few miles further to the east was the Il Giorgo Pass, which held the road from Florence to Firenzoula in the mountains and Imola just beyond. The Germans expected the Allies to attack along the Futa Pass.

The line ran for 200 miles, although in many places the terrain wasn’t really suited to large scale operations. By the end of August a total on 2,376 machine gun posts and 479 anti-tank gun, mortar and assault guns had been completed, and 120,000 meters of barbed wire laid.

When the Allies drew up their plans for their first attack on the Gothic Line, the Germans also still held most of the Arno Line, which ran along the Arno, past Pisa and Florence, across the Apennines and down the Metauro to the Adriatic.

M5 Light Tank advancing towards Gothic Line
M5 Light Tank advancing towards Gothic Line

The line was defended by the German 10th Army in the east and the 14th Army in the west.

From west to east the 14th Army had the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier, 65th Infantry, 362nd Infantry, 334th Infantry and 4th Parachute Divisions and was commanded by General Joachim Lemelsen.

The 10th Army then took over, with the 715th Infantry Division in the mountains facing Clark’s Fifth Army. This was part of the 51st Mountain Corps (General Valentin Feuerstein), which contained five divisions. Finally the 76th Panzer Corps (General Traugott Herr) held the Adriatic flank, with five infantry divisions, including the 1st Parachute Division. The 10th Army was commanded by General Vietinghoff.

Allied Plans

Kesselring was aided by disagreements between the British and Americans over the overall strategy in the Mediterranean. Churchill wanted to take advantage of any success in Italy to get to the Po and then turn east to get into the Balkans, to try and meet the Soviets as far east as possible, and at the very least get to Vienna. He had support from Alexander, and from General Clark. However General Marshall and President Roosevelt believed that the best way to defeat the Germans was to focus on the battle in France, and insisted on Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the South of France. In June 1944 Roosevelt threatened to take the issue to Stalin to adjudicate. Churchill gave in, knowing that Stalin would always oppose any Anglo-American move into the Balkans, which he saw as part of his post-war sphere of influence. 

As a result the Allies lost three experienced US Divisions (the 3rd, 36th and 45th) and all four divisions of the French Expeditionary Corps, which included many of the best mountain troops in the Allied army. The Fifth Army did gain some reinforcements during this period, including the American 91st and 92nd Divisions and the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. The Brazilians were numerically strong, but had not combat experience. The 92nd was a controversial division, with African-American soldiers and white officers, and a troubled record in training. In combat these flaws would be exposed, despite many individual acts of bravery amongst the soldiers. As a result of these changes the Allied armies had twenty divisions, including some with little experience, the Germans twenty-two divisions. The US Fifth Army, which was most badly hit, went from a strength of 249,000 men in June to 153,000 in August. The army also lost a third of its artillery batteries and a sizable part of its air support.

German Infantry Tunnel on the Gothic Line
German Infantry Tunnel on the Gothic Line

Despite the loss of these troops, on 5 July Alexander was ordered to prepare for an attack on the Gothic Line. His orders had three phases - first, break the Gothic Line, cross the mountains and reach the Po, second cross the Po and advanced north-east towards the line Venice-Pauda-Verona-Brescia, third wait for further instructions. Churchill still hadn’t given up on the idea of an advance on Vienna, and hoped that an early victory on the Gothic Line might make it possible.

Italian giving infomation to Pole, Pesaro, 1944
Italian giving infomation to Pole, Pesaro, 1944

Alexander’s first plan was to use the Fifth and Eighth Armies side by side in the centre of the line. The Eighth Army would attack from Dicomano, north-east of Florence, the Fifth Army from Pistoia, to the north-west. The two armies would cross the mountains around Bologna, and then cross the Po around Ferrara. This plan was sent to his army commanders, General Leese and Clark, on 26 July, but Leese objected to it and put forward his own plan.

Leese didn’t want to attack across the high mountains without the expert French mountain troops, and he also didn’t want to find shoulder to shoulder with Clark, on the grounds that this would only lead to unfair comparisons between the British and American armies, and probably also because Clark was known to be rather too keen on publicity, and might claim all the credit for any victory.

Leese’s plan was to move the bulk of the Eighth Army back to the Adriatic front, and use them in a surprise attack on the eastern flank of the German defensive lines, the Arno Line on the Metauro and the Gothic Line on the Foglia. Once the Eighth Army had broken through these positions they would be able to break out onto the Po plains. At this point the Fifth Army would attack across the mountains. The Germans would be unable to move any reserves between the two battles, and the Allies would be able to hurry them back across the Po and into the north-eastern corner of Italy. Alexander accepted this plan, as did Clark, at least once the British 13th Corps had been left under his command.

The Fifth Army was made up of three corps. On the left was the 4th Corps, made up of the US 1st Armoured, South African 6th Armoured and part of the US 92nd Infantry Divisions. In the centre was the 2nd Corps (General Keyes), made up of the US 34th, 85th, 88th and 91st Infantry Divisions. On the right was the British 13th Corps (General Sidney Kirkman), with the British 1st Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions, the 8th Indian Division and the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade.

Barges sunk at Pesaro
Barges sunk at Pesaro

The Eighth Army had three corps. The Polish Corps (Kresowa and Carpathian divisions and Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade) was on the Adriatic coast. Next inland was the Canadian Corps (Canadian 1st Infantry and 5th Armoured Divisions, British 21st Tank Brigade and Household Cavalry Regiment). On the left was the 5th Corps, which contained the British 1st Armoured, 4th, 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions, the 4th Indian Division and the 7th Armoured and 25th Tank Brigades. 

The Eighth Army Attack

Leese still had three corps - the Polish 2nd, Canadian 1st and British 5th, with ten divisions, 1,200 tanks and 1,000 guns, a massive force. His plan was to attack along a thirty mile front, with Keightley’s 5th Corps on the left, Burns’ Canadians in the centre and Anders’s Poles on the right. The Poles would take Pesaro, and would then move into the army reserve as the front line shrank. The main attack would be carried out by the 5th Corps (1st Armoured, 4th, 46th and 56th British and 4th Indian Divisions, 7th Armoured and 25th Tank Brigades). This unit would first have to break through the Arno Line, then advance to the Gothic Line. Once the Gothic Line had been broken, the 300 tanks of 1st Armoured, supported by 4th Infantry, would be sent out onto the Po plains.

On the German side the Adriatic was defended by General Vietinghoff’s 10th Army. The 71st Infantry Division was the only unit defending the Arno Line, and the rest of his units, formed into the 76th Panzer Corps on the coast and 51st Mountain Corps inland, were behind the Foglia, defending the main Gothic Line position. Vietinghoff had ten divisions at his disposal, although they weren’t at full strength

The attack on the Arno Line began on 25 August, and caught the Germans as they were withdrawing closer to the Foglia. As a result the Allies made quick progress, and were well established on the hills between the rivers by dawn on 26 August. Over the next three days the Allies advanced to the Foglia, and they were in place on 29 August.

Clearing village near Coriano, Italy
Clearing village near Coriano, Italy

The attack across the Foglia went surprisingly easily. It began on 30 August, and by 1 September most of the carefully constructed German defences behind the river had fallen. However they were then able to form a second line of defence, based on the high Gemmano Ridge south of the River Croce and the lower Coriano Ridge, to the north. Artillery and artillery spotters on the Gemmano ridge inflicted heavy casualties on the Eighth Army, and the first attacks on the two ridges ended in failure. The Germans were eventually forced to retreat on 13 September after a coordinated attack on the Coriano Ridge by the 56th Division, Canadian 11th Infantry Brigade and 1st Armoured Division (battle of Gemmano, 4-13 September 1944). However a plan to exploit this success on the same day had to be postponed until 14 September, by which time the Germans had managed to rush reinforcements onto the Mulazzano ridge, north of the next barrier, the Marano River. A brief chance for a breakthough had been missed, and instead the Eighth Army became bogged down in a week long battle for Rimini (as well as a brief battle in San Marino). Even after the fall of Rimini, the Eighth Army was unable to make a breakthrough, instead getting dragged into a slogging match on the Romagna Plain, also known as the Battle of the Rivers. After a prolonged battle in the mud the Eighth Army captured Forli on 9 November, and Ravenna early in December, but the advance came to a halt late in the month on the Senio. 

The Fifth Army Attack

The original plan had been for the Fifth Army to attack once the Eighth Army had broken through the German defences, but by 8 September it was clear that this wasn’t going to happen as quickly as had been hoped. As a result Alexander decided to bring the attack forward

However Kesselring had been forced to move troops east to deal with this threat, and when General Clarks’s Fifth Army attacked at the start of September the Arno Line fell without much of a fight. Pisa was occupied on 2 September, soon followed by Pistoia, fifteen miles to the north of the Arno. On 13 September the Fifth Army reached the Gothic Line

There were two main passes suitable for use by the Fifth Army. The main road followed the Futa Pass, on the main road that runs north from Florence towards Bologna. Clark assumed that this pass would be heavily defended, and decided to use the Il Giogo Pass, which crossed the same high ground a little further to the east. Both routes start in the Mugello, an east-west running valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. The main attack would be carried out by the bulk of the US 91st Division. On the left part of that division and the US 34th Division would threaten the Futa Pass to prevent the Germans moving reinforcements to Il Giogo. Just to the right the British 1st Division would attack up the mountain to the east of Il Giogo.

The Il Giogo pass was flanks by mountains on each side - the 871m Monticelli to the west and 926m Monte Altuzzo to the east. Both were heavily defended by the Germans, with lines of barbed wire and concrete pillboxes. Both were also overlooked by higher ground to the north and east respectively. The difficult terrain meant that only a handful of troops could attack along the key routes. The pass now carries the Strada Provinciale 503, which climbs the pass and then runs through the mountains to Firenzuola.

The attack on the passes began on the night of 12 September. On the left the 363rd Infantry, 91st Division, led by 200 men from Company B, attacked up the ridge. After two days they had reached the crest of the peak, but only 70 men remained. The Germans still held strong positions on the summit, but the Americans were able to get reinforcements onto the peak.

On the right the 338th Regiment, 85th Division, attacked Altuzzo late on 12 September. This time the Germans successfully defended the ridge, which was still in their hands by 15 September. However the Germans had also suffered heavy losses, and an attempt to get reinforcements from the Grenadier Lehr Brigade failed. The 338th attacked again, and captured the peak by dawn on 17 September. The Americans had suffered 2,731 casualties, but both key hills were now in their hands.

Further to the right the British 1st Infantry Division captured Monte Prefetto, just to the east of Altuzzo. The Americans then sent the 337th Infantry Regiment through the British lines and captured Monte Pratone, overlooking Altuzzo.

On the evening of 17 September General Lemelsen ordered the 1st Parachute Corps to withdraw from the Gothic Line positions around the passes and retreat to a new defensive line north of Firenzuola.

At this point the Allies had broken through the centre of the Gothic Line, and in some places could actually see the Po Valley and the Alps. However Kesselring was ordered to form another defensive position in the northern Apennines. The next American drive was north-east, down the Santerno valley, towards Imola. This began on 24 September, and made some progress. On the right the Americans captured Monte Battaglia, the furthest to the north-east they got during this offensive. Kesselring was able to move four divisions to the threatened front, and the American advance came to an end by 1 October with the Americans only twelve miles south/ south-west of Imola.

The American front line now ran west across the mountains from Monte Battaglia. The final major offensive of the year was directed north, from this new front line, down the valleys and ridges heading to Bologna, in the area between the Santerno and Reno valleys. The main objective was the last line of high peaks, known to the Americans as the Livergnano escarpment after the hilltop village of the same name in the centre of line. This was the last set of 400m peaks before the mountains sloped down to the Po.  This attack began on 1 October, and by 15 October the Americans had successfully captured the ridgeline, but they were now running short of infantrymen, and German resistance was still fierce. On 3 October Clark visited Monghidoro, just past the American starting line, from where he could see the Po and even the Alps, and success seemed near. By 5 October he was already reported that he was dangerously short of infantry. Even the addition of the Fresh British 78th Division to the attack wasn’t enough, and on 28 October General Keyes was forced to order his divisions to go onto the defensive.

By the end of the final offensive, the Fifth Army had come frustratingly close to its target. At one point, close to Monte Calderaro, the leading American troops were only five miles from Highway 9 and the Po plains. To the east the Eighth Army had reached the Senio, and were only five miles to the east of Imola.

Spring Offensive, 1945

Although Operation Olive had failed to break through into the Po plains, it had broken through the original Gothic Line fortifications and pushed the Germans into a dangerous position. Kesselring was aware that his troops would probably not be able to resist for long when the Allies renewed their offensive in the spring of 1945, but he was unable to convince Hitler to let him retreat to more defensible positions along the Po. Instead the Germans had to cling on to a long line from Genoa to the Adriatic, with the Americans close to Highway 9 and the British close to Imola.

By the time the Allies went back onto the offensive, Clark had been promoted to command the Allied ground forces in Italy, replacing Alexander. Fifth Army was commanded by General Truscott, Eighth Army by General McCreery, who had replaced Leese late in 1944. Between them they came up with another plan for a two pronged assault, Operation Grapeshot. The Eighth Army would attack north-west into the Argenta Gap (Operation Buckland), while the Fifth Army attacked to the west of Bologna (Operation Craftsman). The Eighth Army moved first, on 9 April, followed by the Fifth Army on 14 April. This time the Allies finally achieved the long dreamed of breakthrough. On 21 April the two Allied armies met up north of Bologna. The German front collapsed, and the Allies were able to pursue them all the way to the Alps. Further to the north the British had got through the Argenta Gap, and advanced west along the north bank of the Reno, cutting off a large part of the German 10th Army. The Germans were unable to defend the line of the Po, or their final ‘Venetian’ Line, and on 29 April General Vietinghoff and General Wolff signed the first German capitulation of the war, covering Italy and parts of Austria. On 2 May nearly one million German troops surrendered.  

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 December 2018), Operation Olive, first attack on the Gothic Line, 25 August-October 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_olive_gothic_line.html

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