In the final push to defeat the Axis powers of Italy and Germany during World War II (1939-45), the U.S. and Great Britain, the leading Allied powers, planned to invade Italy. Beyond their goal of crushing Italian Axis forces, the Allies wanted to draw German troops away from the main Allied advance through Nazi-occupied northern Europe to Berlin, Germany. The Italian Campaign, from July 10, 1943, to May 2, 1945, was a series of Allied beach landings and land battles from Sicily and southern Italy up the Italian mainland toward Nazi Germany. The campaign seared into history the names of such places as Anzio, Salerno and Monte Cassino, as Allied armies severed the German-Italian Axis in fierce fighting and threatened the southern flank of Germany. The Allied advance through Italy produced some of the most bitter, costly fighting of the war, much of it in treacherous mountain terrain.
The Allies Target Italy: 1943
In Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1943, Allied leaders decided to use their massive military resources in the Mediterranean to launch an invasion of Italy, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) called the “soft underbelly of Europe.” The objectives were to remove Italy from World War II, secure the Mediterranean Sea and force Germany to divert some divisions from the Russian front and other German divisions from northern France, where the Allies were planning their cross-Channel landing at Normandy, France.
The decision to attack Italy was not made without debate. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) had long been clamoring for the other Allies to relieve his armies fighting Germany in the east by undertaking an Allied invasion from the west, and American commanders were reluctant to divert any resources away from Normandy. But Italy lay just across the Mediterranean from the North African theater where plentiful Allied forces could be redeployed. Churchill argued that as long as the Allies maintained the initiative, these troops could battle their way up the Italian peninsula relatively quickly and benefit the Normandy operation in the process. His view prevailed.
Italy Soon Surrenders, Germany Fights On
On July 10, 1943, Operation Husky, the code name for the invasion of Sicily, began with airborne and amphibious landings on the island’s southern shores. Jarred by the Allied invasion, the Italian fascist regime fell rapidly into disrepute, as the Allies had hoped. On July 24, 1943, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was deposed and arrested. A new provisional government was set up under Marshal Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956), who had opposed Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and who immediately began secret discussions with the Allies about an armistice.
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On August 17, 1943, Allied forces marched on the major port city of Messina, expecting to fight one final battle; instead, they discovered some 100,000 German and Italian troops had managed to escape to the Italian mainland. The battle for Sicily was complete, but German losses had not been severe, and the Allies’ failure to capture the fleeing Axis armies undermined their victory.
Meanwhile, the German command deployed 16 new divisions on the Italian mainland. German leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to let the Allies establish air bases in Italy that could threaten Germany’s southern cities as well as its primary oil supplies in Romania. He instructed his army group commander in southern Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (1885-1960), to make the Allies pay dearly for every inch of their advance.
The Long, Hard Slog in Italy: 1943-44
On September 9, 1943, when American troops landed on the Italian coast at Salerno, the German army, which was rapidly taking over the defense of Italy, nearly drove them back into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Germans entrenched in the high Apennine Mountains at Cassino brought the mobile Allied army to a grinding halt for four months. An intended quick push inland at Anzio became bogged down in driving rains, German air raids and command hesitation, prompting Churchill to complain, “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.” Where the mountains receded, there were still muddy rolling hills, flooded rivers and washed-out roads to hamper the Allied advance and assist the German defenders.
Under the resourceful Commander Kesselring, German forces set up several defensive lines across the narrow Italian peninsula. The southernmost of these, the Gustav Line, ran just behind Monte Cassino. Despite Allied air superiority across Italy, it took Allied soldiers four grueling battles over several months to break through heavily fortified Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line. The Allied breakout in May 1944 exposed Kesselring’s main forces to a potential trap by advancing Allied armies from Anzio and Cassino. However, in a controversial and little-understood decision, U.S. General Mark Clark (1896-1984) contravened his orders by moving northwest to capture Rome instead of cutting off the German soldiers retreating from Cassino. His decision allowed a sizable German army to escape and possibly squandered an opportunity for a quick resolution of the grinding Italian Campaign.
German Forces Surrender: 1945
As General Clark’s Fifth U.S. Army moved into Rome on June 4, 1944, the D-Day landings in Normandy, scheduled for June 6, took priority over the Italian Campaign. Six Allied divisions were removed from Italy to support landings in southern France. Further Allied advances in Italy were slow and hampered by heavy autumn rains. The Allied High Command ordered that priority be given to pinning down as many German divisions as possible for the duration of the war, rather than pressing the Italian offensive further. Allied soldiers had pushed across the Po Valley in northern Italy when German forces in Italy finally surrendered on May 2, 1945, two days after the collapse of Berlin.
The Allied campaign in Italy, launched with some optimism after the Allied victory in North Africa in 1943, turned into a brutal, protracted, and costly slog. American casualties at Anzio alone were 59,000. The difficult combat at places like Monte Cassino pushed many soldiers to their breaking point. After the Italian fascist regime fell from power and was replaced by a new government friendly to the Allies, the battle for Italy became an extended bloodletting between tenacious Allied troops and steadfast German forces. It ended only when the war in Europe ended. By then, more than 300,000 U.S. and British troops who fought in Italy had been killed or were wounded or missing. German casualties totaled around 434,000.