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For the 72 Million

The Allied Campaign in Italy, 1943-1945

The Allies were flushed with excitement over the possibility of the Italians surrendering. The 82nd Airborne Division prepared for a drop on Rome and Allied planners thought the Italian Campaign would be over in a matter of weeks.

They were wrong. Italy would represent frustration and death for thousands of Allied soldiers in a bitter stagnated fight. It would be a year before Allied troops entered Rome, and the Invasion of Normandy would overshadow that victory.

In September 1943 Allied hopes were high. The Italians separated into two camps, pro-Allied and pro-German factions. The Allies landed Americans at Salerno and British at Taranto on September 9, and by September 26 had built a force of 189,000 men and 30,000 vehicles.

Blown bridges and blocked roads hampered the initial assault, but the Allies moved quickly and gained 300 miles in seventeen days. The United Kingdom Fifth Army took Naples on October 1, 1943. The port was repaired to land supplies and airfields were taken at Foggia to give the Allies command of the air.

But the Germans were also making preparations. A series of prepared fortifications in mountainous country called the Gustav Line, which incorporated the Rapido, Garigliano, and Sangro Rivers as natural defenses. Studded with pillboxes, the Gustav Line hinged on the town of Cassino.

The Allies were stopped cold by a combination of German artillery, Italian winter, and mountainous terrain. Little advance could be made, even employing mules to carry troops and supplies over the rocky battlefields. By January 1944, it was clear the Allies were not going to break the line.

The answer was to leapfrog around the Gustav Line with an amphibious landing. Choosing to land at Anzio, United States Army General Mark Clark put ashore one and 2/3 divisions. A major concern was the lack of landing craft, especially Landing Ship Tank (LSTs) that were the backbone of most American amphibious landings in all theatres. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring poured fire down on the Americans, depressing antiaircraft batteries elevation to zero to cut down infantry as they came off the ships. The fire was subdued with heavy casualties and the Americans were ashore to stay. After the violent landing, Clark’s subordinates waited to build up forces, allowing chances to break through the fragmented German lines to slip away.

When the Americans were finally ready to break out of Anzio, they ran into Kesselring’s superior generalship and were hung up. Clark had tried to move the Anzio beachhead forward while breaking through the Gustav Line, a move Kesselring had anticipated and was able to counter. A disastrous crossing of the Rapido cost the lives thousands of Texas National Guardsmen of the 36th Division. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese’American unit, extricated them from their tenuous beachhead across the river.

Dozens of nations’ armies were poured into the area around Monte Cassino, a 15th Century abbey overlooking the town. Allied bombers, in a controversial move, reduced the ancient landmark to rubble in an attempt to wipe out the supposed German defenders, who actually had guaranteed the abbey’s safety. The Germans, crack paratroopers heavily armed with automatic weapons and backed by artillery, occupied the remains of the abbey and laid waste to whole units of Americans, New Zealanders, British, South Africans, French, Ghurkas, Brazilians, Australians, and many other national units.

Meanwhile fighting at Anzio had lasted for months. In May 1944 the war of attrition, affected by the Germans’ growing problem of supply and manpower needs everywhere, allowed the Allies to break out of the Anzio beachhead. Polish soldiers, taking heavy casualties, conquered Monte Cassino.

The Germans retreated and the Americans drove eastward from Anzio. Clark had an opportunity to cut off and destroy the German forces retreating north, but he decided to head for Rome. Entering Rome on June 4, 1944, he had no way of knowing that the Allied landing in France two days later would knock the liberation of the ancient capital from the public eye.

Instead of a quick campaign, the Italian Campaign took 275 day and cost 124,917 Allied dead. And they were not close to the end of the fighting. German soldiers took up defensive positions behind the Gothic Line on August 4.

The Allies opened an offensive under very different circumstances than the attack on the Gustav Line. First, Allied soldiers landed in Southern France on August 15, threatening the Germans’ west flank. Then, Greece was evacuated in October, allowing the Allies to menace the Germans from both sides of the Italian command. British forces began the attack on the Gothic Line on September 10, 1944.

Again the Italian mountains helped the Germans. The British Eighth Army, the American 10th Mountain Division, and many other units, fought a hard battle through Ravenna and up the Po Valley through April 1945. On April 27, roving bands of Italian guerillas captured Mussolini and executed him the next day. German forces surrendered on April 29.

Bitter feelings over the generalship of Mark Clark would lead to congressional reviews, lagging questions, and decades of controversy. While Clark gets the lion’s share of the blame, he was charged with an almost impossible task in unfamiliar terrain, under pressure from Churchill to give Stalin a second front. Clearly the Italian campaign could have been better fought, but at a time when an invasion of France was not possible, the Western Allies attacked what they perceived as an easy target. The thousands of soldiers who never returned form the mud of Italy’s battlefields are as much a testament to Allied ignorance as to their own courage and bravery.

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