Italian Campaign, 3 September 1943-2 May 1945

Baytown/ Taranto
Salerno to Naples
To the Gustav Line
The Gustav Line
To the Gothic Line
The Gothic Line
Allied Spring Offensive of 1945

The Italian Campaign was one of the hardest fought and most controversial offensives carried out by the Western Allies during the Second World War, and saw the Germans fight a skilful delaying action that lasted from September 1943 until the end of the war in the spring of 1945.

The decision to invade the Italian mainland was the cause of much controversy in its own right. Churchill had always been in favour of an invasion of Italy, in the hope that it would allow Allied troops to get into the Balkans ahead of the advancing Soviets, while also preventing the Germans from moving troops to France to face Operation Overlord. At first the Americans were entirely opposed to the idea, partly because they were suspicious of Churchill’s intentions in the Balkans and partly because they didn’t want to see resources drained away from Overlord. Early in 1943 they agreed to the invasion of Sicily on the grounds that Overlord couldn’t take place until 1944, and it would be hard to explain to Stalin why the Western Allies were no longer fighting a land campaign against the Germans, but at this point there was no intention of going beyond Sicily onto the Italian mainland.

The invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) began on 10 July and after a few nervous moments the Allies were soon firmly entrenched on the island. On 16 July Eisenhower was asked to consider an amphibious assault somewhere near Naples, and on 23 July he was ordered to prepare a plan for this as a ‘matter of urgency’. Events in Rome then made this invasion almost irresistible. On 25 July, Mussolini fell from power. He was replaced by Marshal Badoglio, who announced that Italy would remain in the war alongside Germany, but then entered into secret negotiations with the Allies, claiming that he wanted to change sides. This had the potential to transform the military situation in Italy and the Balkans, where many Italian troops were on garrison duty.

On 31 July the Italians sent an envoy to Lisbon to enter into negotiations with the Allies. The Italians were very considered about the potential German response to their actions, and wanted to make sure that they would be protected against their current, but soon to be former, allies. Badoglio wanted the Allies to land 15 divisions within striking distance of Rome and an airborne division into Rome herself. The first of these demands was entirely beyond the Allied capabilities, and would have been an invasion on an even larger scale than Husky or Overlord, but Eisenhower did at least consider dropping the 82nd Airborne Division into Rome. This plan was only cancelled at the last moment. General Maxwell A. Taylor was sent into Rome on 8 September to judge if the plan was feasible, and quickly realised that the Italian troops would be unable to defend the required airfields against the German troops that were already in the vicinity. The success or failure of this plan would have depended entirely on the response of the Italian military, as the airborne troops would have been entirely isolated in central Italy while the main Allied invasion was going on south of Naples, and would almost certainly have ended with the destruction of the 82nd.

Unsurprisingly the Allies didn’t trust the Italians. Badoglio promised to bring the Italian armed forces onto the Allied side, and wanted to know the exact date of the planned Allied invasion. This was of course entirely unacceptable to the Allies, who instead insisted that the Italians sign an unconditional surrender, without knowing the date of the invasion. This was signed on 3 September, the same day that saw Montgomery’s Eighth Army actually cross the straits of Messina. The Italian surrender was to be announced simultaneously by Eisenhower in Algiers and Badoglio in Rome, at 6.30pm on 8 September, the day before the planning landings at Salerno (although the Italians wouldn’t learn about the invasion until the following day).

The Germans had already put in place a plan for the defence of Italy, based on the assumption that the Italians would surrender. Rommel had been given command of a new Army Group in northern Italy, which was to defend a line from Pisa to Rimini. Kesselring commanded the Axis troops in the south of Italy, with orders to conduct a fighting retreat back to the Pisa-Rimini line. Kesselring was opposed to this idea, and believed that he could pin the Allies down much further south, taking advantage of the mountainous terrain of southern Italy to construct a defensive line that would be very difficult to penetrate. Kesselring had eight German divisions under his command in August-September 1943, two around Rome and six in the south, from Naples to the toe of Italy, where they formed the German Tenth Army, under General Heinrich von Vietinghoff.

The Germans also had a plan to disarm the Italian armed forces and seize control of the country if the Italians did chance sides, Operation Axis (Achse). This was activated when the Italian armistice was announced on 8 September 1943, and the majority of the Italian army was disarmed without any problems. There was some limited fighting around Rome, but any chance of more determined resistance ended after the new government and the Royal Family fled from the city. Eventually elements of the Italian armed forces would serve on both sides (and Italian troops made up a large part of the British Eighth Army at the end of the war), but for the moment they were no longer a factor.

The Allied plan was for three landings in the south of Italy. Montgomery’s Eighth Army was to move first, crossing the Straits of Messina between 30 August and 4 September (Operation Baytown). They would then advance north through Calabria. On 9 September another British force would land at Taranto, in the heel of Italy, while the main landing would take place in the gulf of Salerno, south of Naples. The two forces would be far too far apart to support each other at the start of the campaign - Montgomery would have to advance 200 miles north through difficult terrain to reach Salerno, and wouldn’t arrive until the battle had already been won. 

Baytown/ Taranto

The invasion of the mainland began on 3 September 1943, exactly four years to the day after the British declaration of war, when the Eighth Army crossed over from Sicily to the tip of Calabria (Operation Baytown). The two German divisions in Calabria carried out a skilful retreat, using the mountain roads and terrain to delay Montgomery’s advance, without risking getting trapped in the far south. An attempt to outflank them from the sea by landing at Pizzo (Operation Hooker) didn’t achieve much.

The second British landing, Operation Slapstick, faced even less resistance. The Italians welcomed them at Taranto on 9 September, and Bari and Brindisi also fell quickly. The German troops in the area pulled back towards Foggia, again offering only limited resistance. More troops then landed at Taranto and Bari, and pushed up towards Foggia, which fell to the 4th Armoured Brigade on 27 September.

Although there wasn’t much hard fighting, the Germans were able to delay Montgomery. The winding roads of Calabria were easy to block by demolishing the many bridges or culverts. Carefully positioned guns on the far side of the barrier forced the British to carry out a slow outflanking movement in the mountains, at which point the Germans would retreat without a fight, only to repeat the exercise a few miles further on.

Salerno to Naples

Operation Avalanche, the landings at Salerno, didn’t go as smoothly. The US Fifth Army (US 6th Corps and British 10th Corps) allocated four divisions to the first wave of the attack. The Germans only had one division in the Salerno area, but they were expecting an attack. The landing area was overlooked by hills that made good observation points for the German artillery and split by the Sele River. On 9 September the Allies landed, but were only able to establish two small separate beachheads. Kesselring rushed reinforcements to the Salerno front, and made a real effort to throw the Allies back into the sea. By 13 September the Germans were ready to launch their main counterattack. They came dangerously close to reaching the coast between the two breachheads, advancing down the line of the Sele. Their attack finally came to a halt where the Calore River flowed into the Sele. That night General Clark rushed the few reinforcements at his disposal into the beachhead, including flying in airborne troops. He also reorganised his lines, and even put in place plans to evacuate the US beachhead if it came under too much pressure. Clark’s response helped avert a crisis. On 14 September the Germans attacked again, but the attack was repulsed. General Vietinghoff, commander of the German forces outside the beachhead, requested permission to withdraw, only a day or two after claiming that he had won the battle.

The Germans withdrew from the beachhead area on 18 September. However their near success at Salerno changed the nature of the campaign. Kesselring was given permission to try and hold the Allies south of Rome and began work on the ‘Gustav Line’, where he hoped to make his main stand. His troops were ordered to carry out a fighting retreat, defending a series of less important defensive lines - the Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt Lines. The Allied advance from Salerno began on 20 September. They now came up against the same delaying actions as the Eighth Army had encountered in the south, but they were still able to take Naples on 1 October. The Germans had put a great deal of effort into disabling the port, but it was able to take 3,500 tons of cargo per day within two weeks!

To the Gustav Line

The rest of the Italian campaign was dominated by a series of German defensive lines. This started with the Volturno Line, which ran along the Volturno in the west and the Biferno in the east.

In the east the Eighth Army began its attack on the Biferno line on 1 October, with an advance towards the river. This was followed by an amphibious landing at Termoli, behind the river, early on 3 October. The Germans attempted to counterattack, but the key 16th Panzer Division moved too slowly, and although the defenders of Termoli came under heavy pressure, they held on. By 6 October the Eighth Army was able to go onto the offensive, and the Germans retreated to the next river line, on the Trigno.

Piper L-4 Grasshopper over the Volturno river Italy
Piper L-4 Grasshopper over the Volturno river Italy

In the west the Fifth Army reached the Volturno on 7 October, and launched their assault on the new position on 12 October. After some initial resistance, the Fifth Army was firmly established across the river by 15 October.

The next German line was the Barbara Line, which was more of a series of strong points than a continuous line. In the west it generally protected the exits from the plains north of Naples, and was just to the south of the mountains of the Bernhardt Line. In the east it followed the Trigno River.

In the east the Eighth Army attacked across the Trigno on 3 November, and the German line was quickly broken. They were forced to pull back to the Sangro, which was an outlying element of the Gustav Line.

In the west the first break in the Barbara Line cane on the coastal flank, where the British 7th Armoured Division broke through. The British reached the lower Garigliano, and were able to move up the river to threaten the outlying positions of the Bernhardt Line. On 31 October the US 3rd Division broke through the centre of the Barbara Line. Finally the US 34th and 45th Divisions crossed the upper Volturno and took the section of high ground between that river and the key Mignano gap.

The third German line was the Bernhardt Line. In the west this was an outlying spur of the Gustav Line. It followed the line of the Garigliano from the coast, but then crossed a series of mountains to guard the Mignano Gap, the best route to Cassino and the entrance to the Liri Valley. North of the gap the line followed more mountains north to the valley of the Rapido, a tributary of the Garigliano. In the east the situation is a little less clear, at least as far as names go. The Germans had two lines of defences, one on the Sangro and a stronger one a few miles to the north. The Sangro positions are sometimes called the Advanced Sangro Line and sometimes the Bernhardt Line. However the main line is also sometimes called the Bernhardt Line, although it is more often considered to be part of the Gustav Line.

In any case the two lines in the east didn’t survive for long. The Eighth Army began its main attack on the Sangro on 27 November, after heavy rain forced a postponement. This broke through both the positions on the Sangro, and the main line behind the river, and the Germans were forced to retreat back to the Moro River, where they were able to improvise yet another defensive line. The Eighth Army was able to push its way across the Moro, but was unable to take Ortagna, at the western end of the line. On the coast the Canadians were able to take Ortona after the first significant urban battle of the Italian campaign, but by the end of the year the Eighth Army offensive had come to an end. At the end of 1943 Montgomery was recalled to take command of the land forces for D-Day, and was replaced by General Leese.

In the west the Bernhardt Line positions held out for more than a month. The most important part of the line protected the Mignano Gap, where Highway 6, the best road from  Naples to Rome, ran through a gap in the mountains to reach the Rapido valley. The Allied attack began on 5 November, when the British 56th Division attempted to take Monte Camino, but the attack had to be abandoned on 14 November. Just to the north the US 3rd Infantry Division was equally unsuccessful at Monte la Difensa. However the 3rd Division was then able to get around the northern end of the line, taking Monte Rotondo, on the northern side of the gap. The Allies then paused for two weeks to recover.

The second attack on the Bernhardt Line was part of a larger scale Allied offensive. This began with the Eighth Army offensive on the Sangro. It was hoped that the British would be able to reach Pescara, and then threaten Rome from the north-east. The Fifth Army would then break the Bernhardt and Gustav Lines and advance into the Liri Valley. Finally two divisions would land at Anzio and the two prongs of the Fifth Army would trap the retreating Germans. This plan soon fell apart. The Eighth Army broke the Sangro positions, but got held up on the Moro. In the west the Fifth Army began on 1 December. The 56th Division finally secured Monte Camino by 6 December. Monte la Difensa was taken by the 1st Special Service Force, a US-Canadian force trained in mountain warfare. Monte Maggiore, behind these two peaks, fell to the 36th Division. This gave the Allies control of the southern side of the Mignano Gap. Next came an attack on Monte Lungo, in the middle of the gap, and San Pietro, on the northern side. These took longer than expected. The first Italian troops to join the Fifth Army attacked Monte Lungo on 8 December and were soon repulsed. The US 36th Division found that San Pietro was far more heavily defended than they had expected, and it took over a week to clear the village, which was evacuated by the Germans on 16-17 December. The Germans still held a few outlying positions east of the Rapido River, but they fell fairly easily.

The Gustav Line

The Germans had now been pushed back to their main defensive line south of Rome, the Gustav Line. This was a very strong defensive position, based around a series of mountains to the west of the line of the Rapido and Garigliano Rivers. The Rapido rises in the Apennines and flows south-west before reaching a more open valley where it flows south, past the town of Cassino and the famous monastery of Monte Cassino on a mountain to the west of the town. The Rapido then flows into the Liri River, which runs from west to east. The Liri valley was the main Allied target, as it would give them a fairly easy approach to Rome. The two rivers merge to form the Garigliano, which continues to flow south to the coast. The Germans had built strong defences along the rivers and the surrounding mountains. It would take the Allies nearly five months and four major battles to finally break through the Cassino line.

The first battle of Cassino (12 January-12 February 1944) was part of a two part Fifth Army offensive. It would begin with a three pronged assault on the Cassino front, to be followed by an amphibious landing at Anzio (Operation Shingle). When this had first been suggested in 1943, the Anzio landings were meant to happen after the breakthrough at Cassino, but this time they would happen while the main army was still stuck in front of the Gustav Line. Clark’s three pronged assault achieved very little. It began on 12 January when the French attacked on the Allied right. They made limited progress in the mountains between the Rapido and Volturno, but then ran into stronger German positions and their offensive was called off after the fall of Sant’ Elia on 16 January. On the left the British 10th Corps crossed the Garigliano on the three division front. On the left two divisions made some progress, and established a foothold across the river near the coast, but the 46th Division, which had the key role in the operation, made very little progress on the British right. The key heights overlooking the Liri and Rapido valleys remained in German hands. Despite these failures, the third prong, the US attack  over the lower Rapido, began as planned on 20 January, but the 36th Division lost 1,681 men in two days and achieved nothing.

On 22 January the Allies landed at Anzio. In order to try and support that attack, Clark launched a new offensive on the Rapido on 24 January. This time the Americans were able to get a foothold across the river north-east of Cassino, and were able to advance into the mountains to the north of Monte Cassino. By 4 February they had reached the top of the next major ridge to the north-west, known as ‘Snakeshead’ to the Allies, but after that the attack ran out of steam. The Germans retook the top of ‘Snakeshead’, narrowly preventing an Allied breakthrough into the Liri. The French and Americans continued to attack for a few more days, but they were soon exhausted. The first battle of Cassino came to an end when the US 34th Division was replaced by the 4th Indian Division on 12-13 February.

Four Dud German Shells, Anzio, 1944
Four Dud German Shells, Anzio, 1944

In the meantime the Allied landings at Anzio promised much but failed to deliver. When General Lucas’s 6th Corps landed at Anzio on 22 January they surprised the Germans. A beachhead was established without difficult, and for a couple of days the roads north to Rome  or east to the upper Liri Valley were open and almost undefended. Unfortunately Lucas was too cautious, and failed to take advantage of his brief opportunity. By the time he was ready to begin a cautious advance on 30 January Kesselring had already created a strong defensive cordon around Anzio, and the attack failed. The Germans were actually able to build up their strength quicker than the Allies, and on 16 February General Mackensen launched a large scale counterattack. This came dangerously close to success, and by 18 February the Allies had been pushed back into the area they had held on D+2. However the Allied artillery was too powerful for the Germans, and the attack faded away on 20 February. Two days later Lucas was replaced by General Truscott. A second German attack on 29 February was repulsed more easily, and after that the battle turned into more of a siege.

Monte Cassino from the air, 1944
Monte Cassino
from the air, 1944

The second battle of Cassino (15-18 February 1944) was the most controversial of the four. The task of taking Monte Cassino had been given to the 4th Indian Division. Its commander, General Tuker, believed that the attack could only success if the Benedictine Monastery on top of Monte Cassino, was destroyed first. His argument was that even if the Germans weren’t using the buildings before the battle, there was nothing to stop them moving in once it began. Many of the Allied troops believed that the Germans were using the buildings for artillery observation. This wasn’t actually the case. The Germans had been unusually respectful at Monte Cassino. They had no troops in the buildings, and had even helped move many of the artistic treasures to safety at Rome. They did have observation positions and troop positions fairly close to the buildings, but none within them. However Tuker’s request was supported by enough of his superiors for it to be approved, and on 15 February the Allies bombed the Monastery. Many of the buildings were destroyed, although the 10ft thick lower walls remained largely intact. Around 280-300 civilian refugees were killed in the bombardment. To make things worse for the Allies, the air attack wasn’t coordinated with a ground attack. The 4th Indian Division hadn’t been given enough time to prepare, and had expected to attack to come on 16 February. As a result their first attacks were on a small scale. It took until 17 February for a six battalion attack to be launched, by which time the Germans had recovered from the bombardment. Three weeks of poor weather then intervened, creating an unplanned gap before the start of the third battle.

The third battle of Cassino (15-22 March 1944) involved the same divisions as the second - the 4th Indian Division in the mountains and the 2nd New Zealand Division in the town below. The battle began with another heavy air attack and artillery bombardment, but both failed to crush German resistance. The Germans had built bomb proof bunkers and steel shelters in Cassino town, and were able to keep the New Zealanders out of the centre of the town. On Monte Cassino the Germans were now able to use the monastery ruins, and the Indian attack was also repulsed, although they did manage to get within 250 yards of the ruins. One final attack on 22 March also failed, and the offensive was cancelled later on the same day.

General Leese and General Alexander during 4th battle of Cassino
General Leese and General Alexander during 4th battle of Cassino

General Alexander now decided to concentrate both of his armies on the Cassino front. The resulting fourth battle of Cassino (Operation Diadem) of 11-18 May 1944 finally broke the deadlock at Cassino. The Eighth Army was moved from the Adriatic front, leaving holding forces behind. They would attack on the right. The Polish 2nd Corps would attack Monte Cassino from the front. The 13th Corps would attack across the Rapido south of Cassino. The Canadian Corps would attack just to the north of the junction of the Rapido and Liri Rivers.

The Fifth Army would attack on the left. The French Expeditionary Corps would attack across the upper Garigliano and into the Aurunci Mountains, south of the Liri Valley. On the far left the US 2nd Corps would attack along the coast. Once the Cassino line had been broken and the two armies were advancing towards Rome, the seven divisions at Anzio would break out and cut off the retreating troops from Cassino.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Ruins of Abbey
of Monte Cassino

Along most of the line the Germans managed to stop the initial Allied assaults without losing much ground, but French attack achieved a dramatic success. Many of their North African troops came from mountainous areas, and they were able to break through the line in the Aurunci Mountains. Over the next few days the French pushed on to the west, and they were soon threatening to break out into the Liri and to get through the Adolf Hitler Line, between Cassino and Anzio. The French advance helped the Americans and British on their flanks to push forward as well. By 17 May Kesselring was forced ordered to his troops to abandon the Gustav Line and retreat back to the Adolf Hilter Line. On the morning of 18 May the Poles were able to raise their flag above the Monastery ruins.

The time was now right for the breakout from Anzio. General Alexander ordered Clark to attack towards Valmontone, in the Liri Valley, in an attempt to cut off the German troops retreating from Cassino. Controversially Clark decided to largely ignore this order. Truscott was ordered to sent one third of his men towards Valmontone, but make his main effort towards Rome. As a result the retreating German 13th army was able to reach Valmontone and man the Caesar Line, the last defensive line south of Rome. At the same time Truscott’s new route took him to the strongest part of that line, and for a few days it looked as if the Germans might have been able to hold this new line. Luckily for Clark a gap was found at Monte Artemisio, where two neighbouring German units had failed to properly man a key mountain. The Americans managed to slip a unit through the gap, and the line was broken. The Germans were finally forced to retreat, and on 4 June US troops made their entry into Rome, giving Clark two days of glory before the D-Day invasions drew most attention away to Normandy.

To the Gothic Line

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
LCT397 lands truck at Civitavecchia
Although the Allies had been unable to trap large numbers of German troops south of Rome, the two German armies were still in real danger. The 14th Army, on the German right, was significantly further north than the 10th Army, on the left. For several days the Allies had a chance to get into the gap between the two armies by advancing north-east from Rome, but they were unable to take it. One of their problems was that their supply lines still ran down to Naples, making it difficult to get fuel to the front. As a result one of Clark’s key targets was the port of Civitavecchia, on the right of the 14th Army front. Clark was also faced with the imminent loss of many of his best units, about to be withdrawn to take part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the south of France.

The Allies did come close to breaking into the gap between the two armies. Kesselring attempted to organise yet another series of defensive lines, this time in order to win time to improve the defences of the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines. The first of these was the Dora Line, which began at Orbetello, seventy miles up the coast from Rome. It then ran to Lake Bolsena, and from there to Narni, forty miles to the north of Rome. Just to the north-east of Lake Bolsena was Orvieto and the first intact bridge over the Tiber. On 10-11 June the South African 6th Armoured Division broke through the Dora Line east of the lake and threatened Orvieto. The Germans managed to hold on just long enough for most of their troops to escape, but then had to retreat on 14 June.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
French Troops
approaching Siena

The second German line, the Trasimeno or Frieda Line, was a more serious barrier. By now the gap between the two German armies had been closed, and they finally had a continuous defended line across Italy. This ran from near to Piombino on the west coast, past Lake Trasmeno and then across the Apennines to reach the Adriatic near Porto Civitanova. The Allies attacked in three sectors, all to the west of the lake. On the Allied right the British Eighth Army hit the 76th Panzer Corps around Chiusi. In the centre the French Expeditionary Force attacked the 1st Parachute Corps. Finally on the left the US 2nd Corps hit the weak 75th Corps. The attack began on 20 June, and by 28 June the line had been broken around Chiusi. The British reached Foiano, 17 miles to the north of Chiusi, on 2 July. On the following day the French took Siena, while on the coast the Americans captured Cecina on 2 July. The Germans were forced to retreat to their next defensive line, the Arezzo Line.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Allied Jeep enters Arezzo, 1944

The battles for the Trasimeno Line had cost the Germans too many men, and so Kesselring decided to use the next two lines, the Arezzo and Arno Lines for delaying actions only. The Arezzo Line protected three key centres - the ports of Livorno and Ancona and the communications centre at Arezzo. These three sectors of the line produced three separate battles. On the Allied left the US 4th Corps attacked towards Livorno on 3 July. They broke through the German defences by 7 July, and the Germans began a full scale retreat on 12 July. The first US troops reached the Arno on 17 July, while Livorno fell on 19 July. In the centre the British 13th Corps reached the Arezzo line on 5-7 July. After a pause to move fresh troops to the front the line was assaulted on 15 July, and after resisting for a day the Germans withdrew that night. The British then pressed on towards the Arno. Finally on the right the 2nd Polish Corps, having moved back to the Adriatic after taking Monte Cassino, attacked towards Ancona on 17 July and took the port on the following day. 

Damaged Bridges over the Arno, Florenc
Damaged Bridges
over the Arno, Florence
The final barrier before the Gothic Line was the Arno Line. This followed that river from the coast, through Pisa and Florence and then crossed the Apennines to reach the Adriatic along the Metauro River. This time the German position was compromised by Kesselring’s desire to avoid a battle in Florence as he didn’t want to risk destroying her artistic treasures. The Allies came up to the Arno from mid July, but then had to pause to catch their breath and reorganise their corps to make up for the loss of the French Expeditionary Corps and several US divisions, removed to take part in Operation Dragoon. In the centre the Eighth Army reached the Arno around Florence on 3 August, and on 4 August the Germans began to pull back to the Heinrich Mountain Line in the Mugello Hills four miles to the north. The last German troops left Florence on 7 August.

The Arno Line held the Allies up for a month, as they prepared for their next offensive, but when that finally began the Germans didn’t attempt to make a stand on the Arno, so the fighting moved on to the main Gothic Line, which was also the target of the Allied offensive.

The Gothic Line

The main Gothic Line began a few miles south of La Spezia on the west coast. It then ran south-east through the Apuan Mountains before running along the Apennines, blocking the passes into the Po valley. In the east it ran across the Foglia River and ran into the Adriatic a few miles to the south-east of Rimini. The original Allied plan was for a joint Fifth and Eighth attack on the centre of the line north of Florence, but this was rejected by General Leese, the commander of the Eighth Army. He didn’t want to fight alongside Clark, and also believed that his army would be more effective on the Adriatic. Alexander and Clark accepted Leese’s alternative plan, in Clark’s case after the British 13th Corps was placed under his command.

The new plan (Operation Olive) was for the Eighth Army to attack first. It would cross the Arno Line and Gothic Line and then break out onto the Po Plains. Once the breakout was underway Clarks’ Fifth Army would attack north across the Apennines towards Bologna. The Germans would be unable to move their reserves between the two fronts, and the Allies would be able to push on to the Po and the Alps. This plan came very close to success. All of the effort that the Germans had put into the formal defensive positions of the Gothic Line failed to have any impact, as both Allied armies quickly broke through them. However the Germans were able to create new defensive positions just to the north, and eventually managed to stop the Allies just short of the Po.

The attack began on the Adriatic on 25 August. The Germans were caught in the middle of a movement back towards the Foglia and were quickly overrun. The Allies reached the Foglia by 29 August and were able to push through the German defences behind the river by 1 September. However the Germans then managed to make a stand on the Gemmano and Coriano Ridges, to the north of the Foglia, and stopped the Eighth Army making their quick breakthrough. The battle of Gemmano ended on 13 September, but the Germans then managed to delay the British outside Rimini for another week, before the city fell. The Eighth Army finally emerged onto the Romagna Plain, where they had expected to find good tank country. Instead they found a waterlogged plain, crossed by a series of easily defended and often flooded rivers, with smaller drains cutting across the areas between the rivers. The resulting battle of the Romagna or of the Rivers soon turned from an attempt at a breakthrough into a slogging match. By the time the offensive ended in late December the Eighth Army, now commanded by General McCreery, had taken Ravenna and reached the Senio River, but a shortage of infantry and the winter weather stopped any further progress.

As the Eighth Army slowed down, Alexander decided to launch the Fifth Army attack early. The Arno Line was overrun at the start of September, and the Fifth Army reached the Gothic Line by 12 September. Clark decided to make his main effort against the Il Giogo Pass, a secondary route to the east of the main Futa pass from Florence to Bologna. This was difficult country, but also relatively lightly defended. The attack began on the night of 12 September, and the peaks were in American hands by 17 September. That evening General Lemelsen, commander of the German 14th Army, ordered the 1st Parachute Corps to withdraw to a new position north of Firenzuola. Clark’s next attack was south-east, down the Santerno valley heading for Imola. This began on 24 September, but the valley was heavily defended, and the offensive ended on 1 October. By this point the leading American troops were only 12 miles from Imola. The final American offensive was directed north from their new front line, across the Livergnano escapement, towards Florence. This offensive began on 1 October, and by 3 October Clark was able to see into the Po valley and even glimpsed the Alps. The key Livergnano ridge was taken by 15 October, but the Americans were also short of infantry, and on 28 October the offensive was halted. Clark planned a series of further attacks towards Florence during November and December, but was unable to launch any of them. The Allies were five miles south of Florence and five miles east of Imola, but they weren’t going any further until the spring.

Allied Spring Offensive of 1945

The Allies were now faced with the final line of German defences on the Apennines. South of Bologna they held a series of potentially strong positions in the mountains. To the east the campaign area was dominated by water. The key was the River Reno, which rose in the Apennines west of Bologna, flowed north past that city and then turned east to flow into the Adriatic just to the south of the large Lake Comacchio. A series of rivers ran north from the Apennines to the Reno, and several of them had been fortified by the Germans. The area to the south of the Reno and to the west of Lake Commachio had been flooded.

By the time the offensive began both sides had new command structures. On the German side Kesselring was moved from Italy to take command of the western front in early March and was replaced by General Vietinghoff. On the Allied side General Wilson was moved from the supreme command in the Mediterranean to become the British representative in Washington. In December 1944 Alexander was promoted to the post of Allied Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean. He was replaced as commander of the 15th Army Group by General Clark. Truscott was promoted to command the US Fifth Army, while McCreery remained in command of the Eighth Army.

Clark, Truscott and McCreery came up with the overall Allied plan for 1945, Operation Grapeshot. This was largely inspired by McCreery and Truscott, and Clark was impressively willing to give in to his subordinates. Clark had wanted an attack towards Bologna, but his subordinates wanted to focus on destroying the German armies. McCreery wanted to attack north-west into the gap between the Reno and Lake Commachio, the Argenta Gap. Truscott wanted to avoid the strong German defences south of Bologna, and attack further to the west. Both men got their way.

The British attack, Operation Buckland or the battle of the Argenta Gap, began on 9 April 1945. The Eighth Army crossed the Senio. The Polish 2nd Corps attacked towards Bologna, while the British 5th Division attacked toward the Reno. On 14 April the British captured a key bridge at Bastia, east of Argenta, intact. The Germans rushed reinforcements to the Argenta sector, but they were unable to stop the Eighth Army. Argenta fell on 17 April, and the breakout began. By 20 April the 6th Armoured Division was only ten miles from Ferrara, while the Poles had almost reached Bologna from the east.

The American attack, Operation Craftsman, began on 14 April 1945. The attacks were staggered so that all available Allied air power could support one and then the other. The Germans managed to hold on in the mountains for a few days, but on 20 April the 10th Mountain Division finally broke out onto Highway 9. Bologna fell to troops from both armies on 21 April.

Lt Col Schweinitz and Major Wenner signing German Surrender in Italy, 29 April 1945
Lt Col Schweinitz and Major Wenner signing German Surrender in Italy, 29 April 1945

The Germans were finally defeated. Late on 21 April Vietinghoff ordered a full scale retreat to the Po, but very few of his units reached the river intact, and hardly any managed to get their heavy equipment across. On 23 April the leading troops from the two Allied armies met at Finale, to the north-west of the bend in the Reno, trapping large numbers of German troops to the south. The Allies reached the Po on 23 April, and were quickly able to cross the river. They were able to cross the Adige without a fight, and spread out across northern Italy. Many cities fell to Italian partisans before the Allies arrived. Mussolini himself made a brief attempt to escape in the Alps to make a last stand, but was captured and executed by Communist partisans near Bonzanigo, close to the Swiss frontier near Lake Como on 28 April. The last serious resistance came on Highway 12, to the east of Lake Garda, where Vietinghoff was attempted to retreat north towards Austria. Even here all serious resistance ended by 30 April. Elsewhere the Allies were able to advance almost unopposed, taking large numbers of prisoners and liberating a series of Italian cities.

In the background armistice negotiations had been going on since February 1945, after representatives of General Wolff, the SS chief in Italy, made contact with the Americans in Switzerland. After a prolonged series of complex negotiations, these finally paid off on 29 April, when representatives of the Army and SS signed the armistice agreement at the Allied HQ at Caserta. The armistice was to come into effect on 2 May. After some last minute problems with Kesselring, Vietinghoff agreed to implement the surrender terms, and the message was broadcast from the German HQ at Bolzano. At 2pm on 2 May 1945 just under one million German and allied troops in Italy and parts of Austria began to surrender, the start of the first large scale German surrender in Europe.


Monte Cassino: A German View, Rudolf Böhmler. Very good on the nitty gritty of the fighting carried out by Bohmler’s paratroops, who were responsible for much of the determined defence of Cassino monastery and town, so we get a good feel for the day-to-day experience of the paratroops. Not so strong on the overall picture or the political background, which is sometimes dominated by a desire to rehabilitate the reputation of the German army in a Cold War context(Read Full Review)
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Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long Hard Slog, Richard Doherty. A good account of the twenty month long campaign on the Italian mainland, looking at the performance of the multi-national 8th Army and its three commanding officers, as they fought to overcome a series of strong German defensive positions. Shows why the campaign took a year and a half, and how the 8th Army finally achieved victory. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 May 2018), Italian Campaign, 3 September 1943-2 May 1945 ,

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