Operation Grapeshot - the Allied Spring Offensive in Italy (9 April-2 May 1945)

Operation Grapeshot, or the Allied Spring Offensive in Italy (9 April-2 May 1945) saw the Allied armies in Italy finally break their German opponents, leading to the first large scale German capitulation in Europe, signed only 20 days after the start of the offensive.

In the autumn of 1944 the Allies had attacked the Gothic Line, the main German defensive position in northern Italy (Operation Olive, 25 August-October 1944). The attack began well, and the formal defences of the Gothic Line were soon penetrated by both the Fifth and Eighth Armies, but in both cases the Germans were able to create new defensive positions further back. A combination of wet winter weather and an increasing shortage of infantry in the two Allied armies eventually forced them to halt for the winter, with the Fifth Army only five miles south of Bologna and the Eighth Army only five miles to the east of Imola.

The key target for the Allies was Highway 9, at the southern border of the Po plains. This ran all the way along the northern side of the Apennines, and in the east was already held by the Eighth Army. If they could get across the highway and break out into the plains, then there was a good chance that they could prevent the Germans retreating to the Po, or to the river barriers of north-eastern Italy. By the spring of 1945 the Allies had recovered from the infantry shortages, and outnumbered the Germans in just about every arm (although this did include a large number of untested Italian cobelligerent troops). On the Fifth Army front the Germans had a band of mountains 5-10 miles thick to defend. On the Eighth Army front a series of rivers were the main barrier. These flowed north from the mountains into the Reno, which rose in the Apennines west of Bologna, flowed north past the city and then turned east to flow into the Adriatic. Much of the area north of the Reno was flooded, while towards the coast there was only a narrow gap between the river and Lake Comacchio.

The German Plan

The Germans built another series of defensive lines in northern Italy. In the east the Eighth Army faced the Irmgard, Laura and Paula Lines in the Romagna. These tended to follow the series of rivers that ran north across this area, running into the Reno, which then flowed east into the Adriatic. Bologna was defended by the Genghis Khan line, which ran along the last river line east of the city.

The Po itself could be held for a few days. The final position was the Venetian Line, which ran from Lake Garda down the Adige to the Gulf of Venice. This was a short and well fortified position, with the potential to delay the Allies for some time.

When the attack came Army Group C still had two armies, the 14th in the west and 10th in the east. Between them they had 26 divisions - 21 German and 5 Italian, with 16 deployed on the front line and the others used for coastal defence or for anti-Partisan duties.

In the east the 10th Army (General Herr) was split into two corps - 76th Panzer Corps on the Adriatic front and 1st Parachute Corps facing the mountains.

76th Panzer Corps had 42nd Jaeger, 362nd Infantry and 98th Volksgrenadier Divisions facing the main Eighth Army forces in the coastal plains. On the far left of the line the 162nd Turkomen Division was posted to the north of Lake Comacchio and on the narrow spit that separated the lake from the sea.

The 1st Parachute Corps had the 278th Division facing the British 10th Corps, and the 1st Parachute Division in the foothills of the mountains facing the British 13th Corps. On the right 4th Parachute and 26th Panzer Divisions defended Highway 9, to block any advance on Bologna from the south-east.

On the right the Fourteenth Army (Lemelsen) defended a fifty miles front from the Idice valley to the south-east of Bologna to the west coast.

The 14th Panzer Corps (Generals Senger und Etterlin) held the 14th Army left, around Bologna, with the 94th, 8th Mountain and 65th Divisions.

51st Mountain Corps held the western end of the line, with the 232rd Reserve, 714th (114th) Jaeger and 334th Infantry Divisions.

Further to the west the Ligurian Army, commanded by the Italian Marshal Graziani, defended the coast from Genoa to the French border.

In March the Germans moved the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division from their position in the army reserve near Bologna to the Adriatic coast to the north-east of Venice, probably in response to Allied deception plans that suggested there might be an amphibious landing in that area.

The Allied Plan

The final stage of the war in Italy saw changes in the senior command on both sides. In December 1944 General Alexander was promoted to the post of Allied Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean Theatre. He was replaced as commander of the 15th Army Group by General Mark Clark. General Truscott replaced Clark as commander of the Fifth Army. On 10 March 1945 Marshal Kesselring was moved from Italy to command the German troops on the western front. He was succeeded in Italy by General Vietinghoff.

Picture of Field Marshal Harold Alexander
Picture of Field Marshal Harold Alexander

The Allies now had total command of the air over the Po Valley. The Germans were forced to build underwater bridges, which were more difficult to spot from the air, or to move their pontoon bridges off the rivers during daylight. The Allies were also helped by around 50,000 Italian Partisans who operated behind German lines. Kesselring responded by murdering hostages, but was unable to stop the partisans. When the offensive finally took place, the partisans overthrew the German garrisons of places like Genoa, Milan and Turin, making sure that they were handed over more or less intact to the advancing Allies.

The overall plan for the final Allied offensive was worked out by Generals Clark, Truscott and McCreery, with Clark making a surprising amount of concessions. Clark’s first plan, issued on 12 February, was for a Fifth Army attack towards Bologna, and then on to Verona, to cut the German army in half. The Eighth Army was to push west along Highway 9, to support the attack on Bologna. By the time the plan had been more fully developed, the Eighth Army role had changed to an advance towards the Rena to the west of Argenta, to help trap German troops around Bologna, while the Fifth Army had been given the freedom to attack west of Bologna. The two army commanders then put forward their own plans, which Clark largely accepted.

The Eighth Army would attack first, on the Adriatic Front, and draw German attention in that direction. Clark had wanted the British to attack along Highway 9, close to the Apennines, heading for Bologna, but McCreery was aware that this would take the Eighth Army across all of the new German defensive lines. He preferred to attack to the north-west, cross the Rena near the sea and then advance along the narrow band of dry ground between Lake Comacchio and the Reno, following Highway 16 towards Argenta, along what became known as the Argenta Gap. From Argenta the Eighth Army would be able to turn north and spread out towards the Po, and hopefully north-east towards Venice and eventually Trieste, which was being claimed by Tito and his Yugoslavian partisans.

The Fifth Army would then attack towards Bologna, break out onto the Po Plains, and pursue the Germans. Once again Clark had preferred an attack along Highway 65 directly towards Bologna, but Truscott wanted to bypass the strong German defences on that route by using Highway 64, which would bring the Americans out onto the plains to the west of Bologna.

The overall plan was designated Operation Grapeshot, the Eighth Army attack was Operation Buckland and the Fifth Army attack Operation Craftsman.

The Battle

The Eighth Army attack began on 9 April. It was supported by another massive aerial bombardment. Heavy bombers dropped 175,000 20lb fragmentation bombs, followed by more targeted attacks by fighter bombers and medium bombers. This was followed by an artillery barrage from 1,000 guns. The British advance brought them to the western end of Lake Comacchio, where they spent a week fighting their way through the Argenta Gap (12-19 April 1945). Argenta fell on 17 April. Within a few day the 6th Armoured Division was able to break out to the west, heading along the northern bank of the Reno. 

8th Army Mopping up in Argenta, April 1945
8th Army Mopping
up in Argenta,
April 1945

The Fifth Army attack began on 14 April, led by the 10th Mountain Division. The attack made rapid progress, prompting Vietinghoff to ask for permission to retreat. Unsurprisingly Hitler refused. On 20 April Vietinghoff ignored Hitler’s order to stand and fight, and ordered a retreat, but it was too late - the Americans had already broken out onto the Po plain.

The German retreat soon turned into a rout. Bologna was taken on 21 April. Elements from the Fifth Army and Eight Army met up at Finale, to the north-west of the point where the Reno turns east, on 23 April, trapping many of the survivors of the 10th Army south of the Reno. All along the front the Germans were forced to abandon their heavy equipment and many had to swim for safety across the Po. As a result they were unable to make a stand anywhere in north-eastern Italy.

Troops of US 5th Army in Genoa, 1945
Troops of US 5th Army in Genoa, 1945

On the far left of the Allied lines the Americans also advanced west towards Genoa and the La Spezia naval base. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, largely made up of Japanese--Americans, led the way, and by 25 April they were able to make a dash for Genoa. By the time they reached Genoa it had been taken over by the Partisans, and they found the same at Turin.

Amongst the fleeing hordes was Mussolini, but his attempt to escape ended in failure. He was captured by the partisans and shot, before his body was put on public display.

Surrender Negotiations

While the Allies had been preparing for their spring offensive, they had also been engaged in secret negotiations with German representatives in Switzerland. At the start of 1945 there were two sources of German authority in Italy - Marshal Kesselring, command of Army Group C and SS Obergruppenfuehrer Karl Wolff, the ‘highest SS and Police Commissioner with the German Forces in Italy. While Kesselring was planning for the final battles in Italy, Wolff was attempting to open negations with the Allies.

Wolff held a curious mix of views. He was a dedicated Nazi, and like many in the SS believed that the Western allies could be convinced to combine with what was left of the German army to ‘save’ Europe from the Soviets. Earlier in his career Wolff had been Himmler’s adjutant and had a close relationship with him. He was clever and charming, and used that to get out of trouble on several occasions during the peace negotiations. However he was also a major war criminal, and in the 1960s was convicted for his role in deporting 300,000 Italian Jews to the death camps. Despite his claims not to have known about them, photographic evidence shows that Wolff had indeed visited the camps while working directly for Himmler.

Wolff had plenty of support within the SS in Italy, including SS Obersturmfuehrer Guido Zimmer, head of the Milan office of the foreign intelligence branch of the RSHA. Rudolf Rahn, the German Ambassador to the revived Fascist state in northern Italy was also involved from the start.

The negotiations began when Baron Parrilli, an Italian businessman travelled to Switzerland to try and get in touch with the Allies. He used the excuse of a visit to an old friend, Dr Max Husmann, direct of a private school at Lucerne on 21 February 1945. Parrilli informed his friend that the Germans were planning large scale demolitions in northern Italy to destroy its industrial base, but that there were high ranking SS officers in Italy who would be able to stop this if the Allies were willing to join the fight against the Soviets. Husmann made it clear to his friend that the British and Americans would never enter into negotiations on these terms, but also realised that it was still worth trying to take advantage of this contact. He got in touch with one of his friends, Col. Max Waibel, chief of the Italian section of the Swiss Army intelligence organisation, who cut short a holiday and met with Parrilli. At this stage Parrilli mentioned Zimmer as one of his contacts.

On 25 February Waibel met with Allen Dulles, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Central Europe at Husmann’s house to fill him in on these developments. Dulles agreed that Waibel should try and find out if the Germans were sincere. If they were, then Dulles would meet with them.

Parrilli returned to Italy on 27 February, and reported back to Zimmer, who passed the news on to Wolff and Rahn. Wolff chose his liaison officer at Kesselring’s HQ, SS Standartenfuehrer Eugen Dollmann, to carry out the negotiations. On 2 March Parrilli returned to the Swiss border to announce that Wolff and Dollmann would be arriving on the following day. Dollmann met with one of Dulles’s subordinates at Lugano on 3 March, and on 8 March Wolff visited Switzerland in person, this time meeting with Dulles, after arranging the release of two Italian prisoners as a proof of his good faith. By now Wolff appears to have given up on his earlier hopes of a separate peace with the Western Allies and was ready to negotiation an unconditional surrender.

As a result of these meetings Dulles suggested that a more senior Allied delegation move to Switzerland. Alexander sent in his deputy chief-of-staff General Lyman Lemnitzer (US) and his chief intelligence officer General T.S. Airey (UK).

The negotiations suffered a potential setback on 8 March when Kesselring was promoted to command all German armies in the west, and was replaced by General Vietinghoff as commander of Army Group C. Kesselring had a track record of trying to avoid damage to Italy’s cultural heritage, and may have had some knowledge of what was going on. Vietinghoff would have to be won over from scratch. 

From mid March the British and Americans kept the Soviets informed about the progress of the negotiations, although a Soviet request to have a representative at the talks was quietly ignored.

On 9 April Parrilli and Wolff’s adjutant Major Max Wenner took the first detailed capitulation terms to a meeting at Chiasso on the Swiss border. These had been drawn up by Wolff and Vietinghoff, and at the latter’s insistence included a request that the German forces would be allowed to retreat into Germany with military honour and that a core of Army Group C should be allowed to remain intact ‘as a future instrument of order inside Germany’. There was a message from Wolff promising that he could deliver a surrender in northern Italy by 16 April, but that Vietinghoff might prove to be an obstacle.

On 10 April Parrilli returned to Wolff’s HQ at Fasano with Alexander’s reply. This was that a draft copy of the Allied capitulation terms would be given to the German plenipotentaries would they had reached Allied HQ with full authority to act on Vietinghoff’s behalf. This came on the day after the start of the Eighth Army contribution to the final offensive in Italy, Operation Buckland. From now on the Germans would be acting under increasing pressure as their armies in Italy began to collapse.

On 16 April, with the Fifth Army part of the offensive also under way, Zimmer reached Chiasso with news that Himmler was putting Wolff under pressure to visit him in Berlin, and also asked the Allies not to ‘make useless sacrifices with their intensified offensives’ when a surrender was so close. Unsurprisingly many on the Allied side, including Alexander, considered this to be an attempt to lift the pressure on the German armies. Zimmer also mentioned that the area east of the Isonzo, which include Tito’s target of Trieste, was to come under the authority of Army Group E, retreating from the Balkans, and not Army Group C. Vietinghoff considered that this move might have been aimed against him, and even went as far as moving troops to the west bank of the Isonzo and to guard the Alpine passes east of the Brenner.

On 17 April Parrilli reached Chiasso with the news that Wolff had finally gone to Berlin. At this stage in the war this was often a fatal move, but Wolff was able to bluff his way out of meeting with Hitler and Himmler and returned to Italy on 19 April.

On 20 April the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff threw a potentially devastating spanner into the works. In response to Alexander’s suspicions that the Germans weren’t negotiating in good faith, they ordered Dulles to break off all contact with the Germans and consider the matter to be closed.

On 22 April Wolff met with Vietinghoff, Rahn, Pohl (head of the Luftwaffe in Italy) and Franz Hofer (Gaulieter of the Tyrol and a supporter of Kaltenbrunner). Hofer was part of the die hard fight to the death faction, but at this meeting pretended to support the surrender negotiations. At the meeting it was agreed that Army Group C would act independently and no longer obey any orders from Himmler, while Vietinghoff authorized Oberstleutnant Victor von Schweitnitz to negotiation on his behalf and to sign binding agreements as long as they included what Vietinghoff considered to be honourable surrender terms (including a request that the Germans would be held in Italy rather than in Britain or the United States. Parrilli then went to Chiasso to inform Dulles that Wolff, his aide Major Wenner and Vietinghoff’s representative von Schweitnitz would be arriving at the border on the next day.

Dulles was now in a difficult position. He decided not to tell the Germans of his new orders, but also not to meet with them himself. Instead Wolff and his party were welcomed by Waibel and Husmann on 23 April. All of the parties then moved to Lucerne, where Waibel was able to inform Dulles that the Germans had arrived with the authority to negotiate a surrender, signed by von Vietinghoff. Dulles passed this news on to Alexander, who passed it on to the Combined Chiefs of Staff to see if they would change their minds. On 24 April Wolff attempted returned to Italy, leaving Wenner with the authority to sign the armistice on his behalf. On his way he ran into Mussolini’s defense minister, Marshal Graziani, who gave him the authority to include their remaining forces in the surrender. The route was then blocked by Italian partisans, and Wolff had to return to Switzerland to try and find a different way back to the German HQ at Bolzano.

Wolff finally left Switzerland on 27 April, on the same day that the Combined Chiefs of Staff allowed Dulles to resume his contact with the Germans. On the same day Hofer, Vietinghoff and Kesselring met near Innsbruck. At this meeting Kesselring refused to allow any capituation in Italy.

On 28 April Wolff reported to Vietinghoff at Bolzano. He reported that Schweinitz and Wenner were on their way to the Allied HQ at Caserta, to negotiate and sign the armistice. Hofer attempted to take control of the German forces in the Tyrol, but without success. He then reported directly to Kesselring, a move that greatly complicated the implementation of the armistice.

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

Late on the same day the German representatives reached Caserta. That evening they met with Alexander’s chief of staff, General Sir William D. Morgan, who presented them with the armistice terms. This was for an unconditional surrender. The Germans were given three hours to consider the terms. At a second meeting they were assured that their men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the request that they should be interned in Italy was rejected. The Germans made no attempt to put forward Vietinghoff’s request that the Germans should be allowed to keep their belts and bayonets and be allowed to march back into Germany, aware that these were entirely unrealistic.

After considering the details of the capitulation the German representatives spent the night looking at them in more details. By 0400 on 29 April they had written a message that was to be sent to Vietinghoff via Switzerland to arrange a time for the surrender and to make sure that he accepted the terms. Poor atmospheric conditions meant that this message didn’t reach Vietinghoff’s HQ that day. Wenner was willing to sign without a reply, but it took most of the morning to convince Schweinitz to do the same. The surrender document was signed just after 1400 hours on 29 April. All fighting was to end at noon on 2 May 1945, giving the Germans four days to get organised.

The capitulation was very nearly not implemented. Hofer’s message to Kesselring had produced results. Vietinghoff was relieved of his authority and Army Group C was placed under the command of General Friedrich Schulz, commander of Army Group G. Schulz and his chief of staff reached Bolzano at noon on 30 April and issued orders to continue the fight. That even Schweinitz and Wenner arrived with the signed armistice. They were intercepted by Kesselring’s chief of staff Roettiger before they reached Schulz. They then met with Wolff and Dollmann, and the group decided to arrest Schulz and his chief of staff and issue the cease fire orders themselves.

Schulz was duly arrested early on 1 May, while all communications back to Kesselring were blocked. Roettiger issued the cease fire order, but Generals Lemelsen and Herr, the army group commanders, refused to implement them while Schulz was under arrest. Schulz was duly released, and called a meeting of all senior officers at 1800. By the time the meeting began the news of Hitler’s death had reached Bosarno, along with an order from Doenitz to fight on. Schulz was thus unwilling to issue the cease fire order, even after Lemelsen and Herr made it clear that their armies were unable to offer any more resistance. Schulz agreed to pass this information on to Kesselring to get his orders. Soon afterwards a stern message arrived from Alexander demanding that von Vietinghoff confirm if he had accepted the surrender terms. Schulz promised to make a decision within an hour, and then attempted to get in touch with Kesselring. To add the somewhat farsical elements of the last few days, Kesselring turned out to be at the front and out of contact, and his chief of staff refused to make a decision for him. At 2200, with no news from Kesselring, Lemelsen and Herr agreed to issue the cease fire orders themselves.

Kesselring was still determined to fight on. At 0115 hours on 2 May an order for the arrest of Roettiger, von Schweintiz and von Vietinghoff arrived from him, followed by a similar order for the arrest of Pohl. Herr and Lemelsen returned to their own HQs to avoid being caught up in the chaos. Kesselring then rang Wolff to attack him for attempting to usurp his authority. A two hour long argument then followed, which expanded to include their respective chiefs of staff and even Schulz. Eventually, at 0430 on 2 May, Kesselring authorised Schulz to issue the cease fire order. The order was finally broadcast, in the clear, at 1400 hours on 2 May. The Italian campaign was finally over.

The surrender was implemented over the next few days. Just under one million prisoners were taken by the Allies, as their forces spread out across the rest of northern Italy. On 4 May troops moving north from Italy met up with troops from the Seventh Army, advancing across Germany and Austria from France. A brief standoff between the Allies and Tito’s partisans developed at Trieste, but that was eventually resolved.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 March 2019), Operation Grapeshot - the Allied Spring Offensive in Italy (9 April-2 May 1945) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_grapeshot_spring_offensive.html

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