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Italian Campaign (World War II)

The Italian Campaign of World War II was the name of Allied operations in and around Italy, from 1943 to the end of the war in Europe. Joint Allied Forces Headquarters AFHQ was operationally responsible for all Allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre, and it planned and commanded the invasion of Sicily and the campaign on the Italian mainland until the surrender of German forces in Italy in May 1945.

It is estimated that between September 1943 and April 1945 some 60,000 Allied and 50,000 German soldiers died in Italy. Total Allied casualties during the campaign totalled about 320,000 and the corresponding Axis figure (excluding those involved in the final surrender) was over 658,000. No campaign in Western Europe cost more than Italy the Campaign in terms of lives lost and wounds suffered by infantry forces.

Strategic background

Even prior to victory in the North African Campaign, there was disagreement between the Allies on the best strategy to defeat the Axis.

The British, especially Winston Churchill, advocated their traditional naval-based peripheral strategy. Even with a large army, but greater naval power, the traditional British strategy against a continental enemy was to fight as part of a coalition and mount small peripheral operations designed to gradually weaken the enemy. The United States, with an even larger army, favoured a more direct strategy of fighting the main force of the German army in northern Europe. The ability to launch such a campaign depended on first winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

The strategic disagreement was fierce, with the US service chiefs arguing for an invasion of France as early as possible, while their British counterparts advocated a Mediterranean strategy. The American staff believed that a full-scale invasion of France as soon as possible was necessary to end the war in Europe, and that no operations should be undertaken which might delay that effort. The British argued that the presence of large numbers of troops trained for amphibious landings in the Mediterranean made a limited-scale invasion possible and useful.

Eventually the US and British political leadership made the decision to commit to an invasion of France in early 1944, but with a lower-priority Italian campaign reflecting Roosevelt's desire that to keep U.S. troops active in the European theater during 1943 and his attraction to the idea of eliminating Italy from the war. It was hoped that an invasion would knock them out of the war, or provide at least a major propaganda blow. The elimination of Italy as an enemy would also enable Allied naval forces, principally the Royal Navy, to completely dominate the Mediterranean Sea, massively improving communications with Egypt, the Far East, the Middle East, and India. It would also mean that the Germans would have to transfer troops from the Eastern Front to defend Italy and the entire southern coast of France, thus aiding the Soviets. The Italians would also withdraw their troops from the Soviet Union to defend Italy.

The campaign

Invasion of Sicily

A combined British-Canadian-American invasion of Sicily began on 10 July 1943 with both amphibious and airborne landings at the Gulf of Gela (American 7th Army, Patton) and north of Syracuse (British 8th Army, Montgomery). The original plan contemplated a strong advance by the British north along the coast to Messina with the Americans in a supporting role along their left flank. Patton amplified the American role by a wide surrounding maneuver toward Palermo and then a series of hopscoth amphibious landings along the north coast of Sicily towards Messina, arriving first at the target. The defending German and Italian forces were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island, but succeeded in evacuating most of their troops to the Mainland, the last leaving on 17 August 1943. Allied forces gained experience in opposed amphibious operations, coalition warfare, and mass airborne drops.

Invasion of continental Italy

Forces of the British Eighth Army landed in the 'toe' of Italy on 3 September 1943 in Operation Baytown, the day the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies. The armistice was publicly announced by Italy on 8 September, and although the German forces prepared to defend without their assistance, all of their divisions but two opposite the Eighth Army and one at Salerno were tied up disarming the Italian army.

On 9 September forces of the U.S. Fifth Army, expecting little resistance, landed against heavy German resistance at Salerno in Operation Avalanche and additional British forces at Taranto in Operation Slapstick, which was almost unopposed. There had been a hope that with the surrender of the Italian government, the Germans would withdraw to the north, since at the time Adolf Hitler had been persuaded that southern Italy was strategically unimportant. However, this was not to be although Eighth Army were able to make relatively easy progress for a while up the eastern coast capturing the port of Bari and the important airfields around Foggia. No reserves were made available from the north to the German Tenth Army which nevertheless came close to repelling the Salerno landing, thanks to the overly cautious command of General Mark Clark. The main Allied effort in the west initially centered on the port of Naples. Naples was selected because it was the northernmost port city that could be taken while under cover of Allied fighter aircraft operating from Sicily.

As the Allies advanced north, they encountered increasingly difficult terrain: the Apennine Mountains form a spine along the Italian peninsula offset somewhat to the east. In the most mountainous areas of the Abbruzzi more that half the width of the peninsula comprises crests and peaks over which are relatively easy to defend and the spurs and re-entrants to the spine confronted the Allies with a succession of ridges and rivers across their line of advance. The rivers were subject to sudden and unexpected flooding which constantly thwarted the Allied commanders' plans.

Allied advance to Rome

Canadian sniper at the Battle of Ortona
In early October 1943 Adolf Hitler was persuaded by his Army Group Commander in south Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring that the defence of Italy should be conducted as far away from Germany as possible. This would make the most of the natural defensive geography of Central Italy whilst denying the Allies the easy capture of a succession of airfields each one being ever closer to Germany. Hitler was also convinced that yielding southern Italy would provide the Allies with a springboard for an invasion of the Balkans with its vital resources of oil, bauxite, and copper.

Kesselring was given command of the whole of Italy and immediately ordered the preparation of a series of defensive lines across Italy south of Rome. Two lines, the Volturno Line and the Barbara Line, were used to delay the Allied advance to buy time to prepare the most formidable defensive positions which formed the Winter Line, the collective name for the Gustav Line and two associated defensive lines on the west of the Apennine mountains, the Bernhardt Line and the Hitler Line.

The Winter Line proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting their advance on the Fifth Army's front, the western side of Italy. Although the Gustav Line was penetrated on the Eighth Army's Adriatic front and Ortona taken, blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December caused the advance to grind to a halt. The Allies focus then turned to the western front where an attack through the Liri valley was considered to have the best chance of a breakthrough towards Rome. Landings at Anzio during Operation Shingle, advocated by Churchill, behind the line were intended to destabilise the German Gustav line defences, but the early thrust inland to cut off the German defences did not occur, thanks again to the indecisiveness of the American commander (General Lucas), and the Anzio forces became bottled up in their beach head.

It took four major offensives between January and May 1944 before the line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the Fifth and Eighth Armies (including British, US, French, Polish, and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a twenty mile front between Monte Cassino and the western seaboard. At the same time the forces at Anzio broke out of their beachhead but an opportunity to cut off and destroy a large part of the German Tenth Army retreating from the Gustav Line was lost when, on the brink of success, the Anzio forces changed their direction of attack to move parallel with the coast to capture Rome. Rome was declared an open city by the German army and the US forces took possession on 4 June.Clark, ''Calculated Risk''

Allied advance into northern Italy

Brazilian Expeditionary Force in the Apennines, 1945
After the capture of Rome and the Normandy Invasion in June many experienced American and French units, the equivalent of a total of 7 divisions, were pulled out of Italy during the summer of 1944 to participate in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion in the south of France. These units were only partially compensated by the arrival of the Brazilian 1st Infantry Division, the land forces element of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force.

In the period from June to August 1944 the Allies advanced beyond Rome taking Florence and closing up on the Gothic Line. This last major defensive line ran from the coast some north of Pisa, along the jagged Apennine mountain chain between Florence and Bologna to the Adriatic coast just south of Rimini. In order to shorten the Allied lines of communication for the advance into northern Italy, the Polish II Corps advanced towards the port of Ancona and after the month-long Battle of Ancona, succeeded in capturing it on 18 July.

During ''Operation Olive'', the major Allied offensive in the autumn of 1944 which commenced on 25 August, the Gothic Line defences were penetrated on the both Eighth Army and Fifth Army fronts but there was no decisive breakthrough. Churchill had hoped that a breakthrough in the autumn of 1944 would open the way for the Allied armies to advance north eastwards through the 'Ljubljana Gap' to Vienna and Hungary to forestall the Russians advancing into Eastern Europe. Churchill's proposal had been strongly opposed by the US Chiefs of Staff who understood its importance to British post-war interests in the region but did not feel it aligned with prevailing overall Allied war priorities.

In December 1944 Fifth Army commander Mark Clark succeeded Harold Alexander as commander of all Allied ground troops in Italy when he was appointed to command 15th Army Group. In the winter and spring of 1944–45, extensive partisan activity in northern Italy took place. Because there were two Italian governments during this period, one on each side of the war, the struggle took on some characteristics of a civil war.

Continuation of the Allied offensive in early 1945 was made impractical by the poor winter weather (making armoured manoeuvre and exploitation of overwhelming air superiority impossible) and also by further requirements to withdraw British troops to Greece and the Canadian I Corps to north-west Europe as well as due to the massive losses in its ranks during the autumn fighting, the Allies adopted a strategy of "offensive defence" while preparing for a final attack when better weather and ground conditions arrived in the spring.

In February 1945 ''Operation Encore'' saw elements of U.S. IV Corps (the Brazilian Expeditionary Force and the newly-arrived U.S. 10th Mountain Division) battling forward across minefields in the Apennines to align their front with that of U.S. II Corps on their right. They pushed the German defenders from the commanding high point of Monte Castello and the adjacent Monte Belvedere and Castelnuovo depriving them of artillery positions which had been commanding the approaches to Bologna since the narrowly failed Allied attempt to take the city in the autumn.Bohmler, Rudolf, ''Monte Cassino'', Chapter XI Meanwhile, damage to other transport infrastructure forced Axis forces to use sea, canal and river routes for re-supply, leading to ''Operation Bowler'' against shipping in Venice harbour on 21 March 1945.

The Allies' final offensive commenced with massive aerial and artillery bombardments on 9 April 1945. By 18 April forces of Eighth Army in the east had broken through the Argenta Gap and sent armour racing forward in an encircling move to meet U.S. IV Corp advancing from the Apennines in central Italy and trap the remaining defenders of Bologna. Bologna was entered on 21 April by the Polish 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division and the Italian Friuli Group from Eighth Army and U.S. 34th Infantry Division from Fifth Army. 10th Mountain Division, which had bypassed Bologna, reached the river Po on 22 April and Indian 8th Infantry Division, on the Eighth Army front, reached the river on 23 April.

By 25 April the Italian Partisans' Committee of Liberation declared a general uprising, and on the same day, having crossed the Po on the right flank, forces of Eighth Army advanced north-north east towards Venice and Trieste. On the US Fifth Army front elements drove north toward Austria and north west to Milan. On the army's left flank the 92nd Infantry Division (the "Buffalo Soldiers Division") went along the coast to Genoa and a rapid advance on their right towards Turin by the Brazilian division took the German–Italian Army of Liguria by surprise causing its collapse.

As April came to an end Army Group C, the Axis forces in Italy, retreating on all fronts and having lost most of its fighting powers, was left with little option but surrender. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had taken command of Army Group C after Kesselring had been transferred to become Commander in Chief of the Western Front (OB West) at the end of 1944, signed the instrument of surrender on behalf of the German armies in Italy on 29 April, formally bringing hostilities to an end on 2 May 1945.

Source: Wikipedia