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The Road To Rome:
Italian Campaign 1943-1944

From The Pages Of Wargames Illistrated Issue 271
by Ken Camel

First Step - Sicily

The combined forces of the American Seventh Army, under General Patton, and the British Eighth Army, under General Montgomery, invaded the island of Sicily on 10 July 1943 with both amphibious and airborne landings at the Gulf of Gela and north of Syracuse.

The original plan envisioned a strong Eighth Army advance northward along the coast to Messina with the American Seventh Army in a supporting role ontheir left flank. German response to the invasion caused the British advance to sputter and allowed the American Seventh Army to move west to Palermo before turning back towards Messina with a number of amphibious landings along the north coast of Sicily, and arriving first at the target.
The defending German forces succeeded in evacuating most of their troops but were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island. The invasion marked the first Allied joint operation of the war. Though many hard lesson were learned, valuable experience in coalition warfare, amphibious landings, and airborne drops was gained in the invasion of Sicily that would prove critical throughout the Allied war effort to defeat Germany.
The Road to Rome

The war in Italy generates as many different opinions as there were armies that fought in it. Though the stated gains of the Italian Campaign, ‘forcing German divisions into Italy away from the Allied Landings in Normandy’, has proven to be sufficient, there have been many political, military, and strategic opinions
surrounding the campaign. So much so, that the truth has been lost in the rhetoric. But after all is said and done, the real truth of the Italian campaign can be found in the individual stories of the multi-national forces that fought over the hills, valleys, beaches, and rivers of Italy.

Italian ruins
The individual soldiers, particularly the infantrymen, whether they be Algerian, American, British, Canadian, French, German, Indian, Italian, Moroccan, New Zealander, Polish, or South African, are the true story of Italy. They overcame the weather, the topography, artillery, aircraft, guns, and tanks and slogged their way through the worst environments both sides could envision, and fought unbelievably deadly and bloody battles.
Italian Landings With a shadow of the carnage of the First World War hanging over every skirmish, these soldiers from around the world faced the worst that the elements and the enemy could muster, and all came out heroes. The battles on the boot were some of the closest battles of the war with victory or defeat hanging on the intangibles in war and sometimes on lady luck.

Attacks were initiated against nearly equal forces with the only hope of success being tactical surprise, local numerical superiority, and plain dumb luck. Casualties ran high on both sides, but neither side routed, no matter the circumstance. Untold bravery, sacrifice, and daily stories of courage and fortitude became commonplace, so commonplace and numerous that the individual events became lost to the grand strategies and opinions of the politicians, historians and newsmen who never faced the enemy hand to hand.
A glimpse at any army that participated in Italy will uncover heroics, innovation, tactical genius, as well as staunch fighting that easily equals and even surpasses the more storied battles of the war. Italy offers battles of every shape and size. Though lacking the sweeping armoured warfare of the steppes and the Allied end run across France, the battles over Italy became the crucible where combat skills and tactics were developed, tested, and perfected. Many innovative ideas on both sides have their roots in the bloody hand-to-hand fighting that typified Ortona, Salerno, Cassino, and Anzio.
The Invasion of Italy

After Sicily fell, the Allies turned their eye to the Italian mainland. The Germans had completed an excellent retreat from Sicily and in August 1943 were in the process of reorganizing their Italian forces into two armies. German forces in northern Italy came under Armee Gruppe B headed by Generalfeldmarschal Rommel while OB Süd (Army Command South) was led by Generalfeldmarschal Kesselring.

It would be OB Süd and the German Tenth Army consisting of two corps with a total of six divisions responsible for facing forthcoming Allied landings.
British armour advances down an Italian road

British paratroopers landed unopposed at Taranto due primarily to the Italian surrender the day before, but were soon embroiled in some sharp skirmishes with the German 1. Fallschirmjäger Division (Parachute Division). Since most of the strength of the paratroopers had been syphoned off to support German forces near Salerno, the Germans fell back leaving Bari and Brindisi open to capture on 11 September. The rest of the British V Corps landed soon after and began to move up the west coast of Italy.

Salerno map Salerno

The US Fifth Army consisting of one British and one US Corps hit the beaches at Salerno with three assault divisions (the British 46th and 56th Divisions and the US 36th Division) supported by a light infantry force of British Commandos and US Rangers. In an effort to achieve tactical surprise, no preliminary naval bombardment was used, but the Germans had already anticipated an Allied landing at Salerno.

Left: Operation Avalanche, 9 September 1943.
Four Kampfgruppen (battle groups) of the 16. Panzerdivision (tank division) met the initial landings. The Allied divisions failed to meet their initial objectives but by the end of the first day had established a reasonable beachhead. Another US infantry division, the 45th Division, landed on the second day to assist in consolidating the beachhead.

The next three days saw the Allies fighting to expand the beachhead against tenacious defenders, who were trying to mask a buildup behind their lines for a counterattack. Both the Hermann Göring Fallschirmpanzerdivision and the 15.Panzer-grenadierdivision had been released from the LXXVI Panzerkorps reserve to help reduce the Salerno beachhead.

German attacks on 13 September nearly broke through the 36th Infantry Division but two regiments of artillery
poured direct fire on the German spearhead preventing a breakthrough. 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers
airdropped behind the Allied line to stabilise the wavering front. With the front stabilised, Allied artillery and airpower began to turn the tide. The additional threat of the advancing Eighth Army forced the German Tenth Army back behind the Volturno River. By early October, the Germans established the first of many defensive lines that would plague the Allied march up the boot of Italy.

Volturno Line

Once additional divisions to the US Fifth Army and both Corps of the British Eighth Army arrived, each Allied Army managed to breech the Volturno Line. Following a British Commando amphibious landing at Termoli on the Adriatic coast, the British 78th Division crossed the Biferno River on October 3. Once the two elements linked up, another brigade of infantry landed at Termoli. Heavy rains washed away the bridges on the Biferno preventing any Allied tank support. The 16. Panzerdivision attacked forcing the Allied infantry onto the defensive.

Sherman in the Italy countryside
By 5 October, Allied infantry had been forced back to within half a mile of Termoli. However, when engineers completed a bridge across the Biferno, Canadian and British armour repulsed the German attack in desperate fighting.

The next day the Allies were once again on the attack pushing the Germans back to their next prepared defences on the Barbara Line north of the River Trigno.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, the US Fifth Army attacked across the Volturno river on 12 October. With great skill in using the favourable defensive terrain, the Germans displayed their rearguardtactics expertise while retreating northward to the Barbara Line.

German FJ in action When the British Eighth Army’s forward units had reached the Sangro on 9 November, the 8th Indian and British 78th Divisions, together with the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division, prepared to attack. However, Kesselring had guessed the Allies’ intentions and switched two additional divisions across the Apennines to oppose the British V Corps.

The 90. Panzergrenadierdivision (motorised infantry division), 65. Infanteriedivision (infantry division), and 26. Panzerdivision were now opposite the 8th Indian and British 78th Divisions, while the 16. Panzerdivision opposed the New Zealanders and the 1. Fallschirmjägerdivision faced the Allied XIII Corps (1st Canadian and British 5th Divisions).
The Eighth Army attacked on 28 November, supported by heavy artillery concentrations. In two days of fighting
they crossed the river and breeched the Reinhard Line. However, by 3 December the 26. Panzerdivision had sealed thegap and proceeded to create a formidable defensive complex around the town and upon the ridges of Ortona. The neighbouring town of Orsogna was not occupied by the Allies, despite two more determined attempts in December, until the Germans withdrew after the Allied breakout at Cassino in May 1944.

The rest of the winter on the Adriatic front was spent in bitterly uncomfortable conditions with the opposing sides often in close proximity and engaged in nighttime patrolling and vicious skirmishing.
The US Fifth Army resumed its attack, Operation Raincoat, on 1 December. Its was delivered against an entire hill mass about six miles (10 km) long and four miles (6.5 km) wide, after an intensive artillery and air bombardment. It took until 8 December before the Camino mass was secured from 15. Panzergrenadierdivision.

Meanwhile, on Fifth Army’s right flank, the US VI Corps (34th and 45th Infantry Divisions) had attacked into the mountains. They made little progress until reinforced by the mountain troops of the French Expeditionary Corps.

Landing in Italy
On 8 December, the US 3rd and 36th Infantry Divisions, as well as the First Special Service Force, launched an attack on Monte Sambúcaro and into the Mignano Gap. By 10 December the peak was taken, threatening German positions in the gap. However, German positions at San Pietro held firm until 16 December when an Allied attack launched from the Camino mass took Monte Lungo. This compromised their hold on San Pietro and under the cover of a counterattack, the German forces withdrew north towards the Gustav Line.

December had cost the US Fifth Army 5,020 wounded, but admissions to hospital totalled 22,816 due to jaundice, trenchfoot and other diseases. The Fifth Army now paused to reorganise, replace its losses and gather itself for a final push to reach the Gustav Line.

More beach landings The US VI Corps went into reserve to train and prepare for the Anzio landings while French troops, now at corps strength, took over their positions.

The US II Corps was scheduled to clear the Germans still in front of the Gustav Line. However when the British X Corps attacked on the left, the German XIV Panzerkorps considered their positions untenable and withdrew across the Rapido River to the Gustav Line. When II Corps moved forward on 15 January, they encountered no resistance.
Gustav Line

A formidable system of trenches, bunkers, and minefields, anchored on the Italian mountains, the Gustav Line
now blocked the Allied advance. The town and monastery at Cassino became a key objective overlooking and blocking the approaches to the Liri Valley and Highway 6 towards Rome.

The Allied plan now called for an end run around the German defences with an amphibious landing at Anzio. The goal was to outflank the Gustav Line causing it to collapse without the need to punch through it.

To assist the landings, an offensive was launched against the line with hopes of drawing and then pinning German reserves in the south. This fighting began on 17 January with attacks in the west across the Garigliano River by the British X Corps and in the east above Cassino by the French Expeditionary Corps. While both the British and French made some initial inroads into the German defences both attacks ground to a halt with heavy casualties.

On 20 January, the Americans assaulted across the Rapido River attempting to break into the Liri Valley. The American attack led by the 36th Infantry Division ran straight into a well-entrenched 15. Panzergrenadierdivision. By 22 January, the 36th Infantry Division had suffered horrendous casualties and Allied objectives in the south were not achieved.

The Germans saw the American assault as nothing more than a spoiling attack. They never raised the alarm within 15. Panzergrenadierdivision nor released any reserves.

Kiwi soldiers on the move

The British 1st Division and the US 3rd Division landed on Peter and X-Ray beaches straddling the town of Anzio. The British 2nd Special Service Brigade (Commandos) and the 6615th US Ranger Battalion (Darby’s Rangers) led the assault on Peter Beach and into the town of Nettuno.

Generalfeldmarschal Kesselring had anticipated an Allied landing but did not have the forces to cover the entire Italian coastline. He did however react appropriately and quickly.

While the initial Allied landings were consolidating their beachhead against nominal resistance, Kesselring busied himself organizing a rapid response to the invasion. On the night of 23 January he released the Luftwaffe. The new Fritz-X guided bombs were used at night against the Allied shipping. However, the Beaufighter, a new radar-equipped nightfighter, proved capable of protecting Allied shipping.

A German Panzer IV Meanwhile, German army reinforcements raced to the bridgehead. Within two days elements of five divisions had enclosed the beachhead in a defensive perimeter. The Fourteenth Army headquarters was moved to the Anzio area and began planning for a counterattack.

The first fighting began on 25 January around the town of Aprilia. Within the first week of the landings, the Germans mustered a force of 71,500 to the Allied force of 61,000 on the beachhead.

Initial Allied efforts to break out were repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. The intensity of the battles stalled the German counter-offensive for a week, giving the defenders time to dig in.
Potent German reserves provided a great assortment of premier weaponry including Panther tanks, Tiger heavy
tanks, Ferdinand tank-hunters, Borgward remote control demolition carriers, and Brummbär assault guns. The
counterattack began against the British divisions but rain, mud, powerful Allied artillery and aircraft kept the lines from changing drastically in either direction.

The extremely muddy conditions relegated armour attacks to the few roads available. This forced any gains to be made to infantry attacks, which resulted in bloody battles and heavy casualties on both sides.

In conjunction with the first Allied attempts to break out of the Anzio beachhead, the French Expeditionary
Corps and the US II Corps went on the offensive in an effort to wrest control of Cassino from the Germans. The French attempted to outflank the Cassino monastery to the northeast but ran into the German 5. Gebirgsjägerdivision (5th Mountain Division). The US 34th Infantry Division tried, for three days, and failed to cross the Rapido River and enter the town of Cassino.

Finally, supported by tanks, the 34th infantry secured a small bridgehead across the river and inched their way towards the town. This signalled the release of the 36th Infantry Division into the mountains to assault the gap between the 34th Infantry Division and the French forces. For the next week the Allied forces slogged their way slowly from hilltop to hilltop.

In early February the offensive was stopped. The Germans moved the 90. Panzergrenadierdivision out of the front line to reinforce around Cassino. The Allied attack fell back to more tenable positions and the first battle of Cassino ended.

The rumble in Cassino
Operation Fischfang

Back at Anzio the Germans counterattacked. Known as Operation Fischfang, the attack began on 16 February in an effort to push the Allies off the beach. Spearheaded by the 3. Panzergrenadierdivision and the 715. Infanteriedivision, the attack concentrated along the main road to Anzio against the US 45th Infantry Division in an attempt to split the beachhead. Diversionary attacks on the flanks against the British 56th Division and US 3rd Infantry Division were also conducted.

By the end of the first day, Operation Fischfang failed to make any significant penetration into the Allied defences.
Appalling German losses forced them to rotate out the attacking units for the next three days of their attack.
 Monte Cassino Monastery Though almost breaking through the US 45th Infantry Division, the beachhead was finally secured when Allied reserve support units entered the battle. On 19 February the assault was over.

Second Battle of Cassino

On 14 February, the US II Corps had been replaced by the II New Zealand Corps. This new corps contained the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division and the British 78th Division. As the II US Corps had nearly reached the monastery in their last assault attempt, the New Zealand plan to take Cassino stayed the same.
On 17 February, the 4th Indian Division had taken the positions held by the 34th and 36th US Divisions while the 2nd New Zealand Division would cross the Rapido and drive towards the town of Cassino once more. Both the Indian and New Zealand attacks faltered. The Maori Battalion actually entered Cassino but were forced out by a German counterattack on the morning of 18 February.

Third Battle of Cassino

With Anzio secure after the failure of the German counter-attack, the Allies felt another attack against Cassino might prove successful. Preparations began for a third assault. However, the Germans had replaced the now tired 90. Panzergrenadierdivision with the fresh and elite 1. Fallschirmjägerdivision.

The attack began on 15 March with the controversial bombing of the monastery. Vicious fighting in the mountains between the Fallschirmjäger and the Indian Gurkhas left both sides exhausted. Fighting in the town of Cassino raged on for nearly a week, but on 23 March General Freyberg, commander of the II New Zealand Corps, consolidated his small gains and ended the Third Battle for Cassino.

Operation Diadem

While the battle still raged along the Gustav Line, General Alexander, Commander of Allied Forces in Italy, began planning for the final breakthrough of the Gustav Line.

The organizational nightmares of supplying mixed British and American armies were eased by putting all forces outfitted with British gear in the Eighth Army and all forces outfitted with American gear in the Fifth Army. The only exception was the two British divisions still at Anzio.

Next, both armies were given specific tasks. The Eighth Army was tasked to assault Monte Cassino and drive a wedge up the Liri Valley, while the II Corps of the Fifth Army was to force its way up the west coast to relieve Anzio.
British soldiers advance in the rumble
Finally, the US VI Corps was to breakout from Anzio once German reserves were drawn south by attacks on the Gustav Line.

Operation Diadem began with an artillery barrage from over a thousand guns on 11 May. At first, the assault began to mimic earlier attacks. The 8th Indian Division did manage to cross the Rapido but were taking heavy casualties. Enemy resistance was just as fierce as it had been against the US 36th Division. Closer to Cassino, the British 4th Division fared even worse, being unable to bridge the river for three days.
Raising the flag at Monte Cassino
Two fresh American infantry divisions, the 85th and 88th, began their assault up the west coast on the morning of 12 May meeting similar stiff resistance. A Polish Corps consisting of the 3rd Carpathian and 5th Kresowa Infantry Divisions supported by the 2nd Polish Armoured Brigade also began a fourth assault on the monastery. It too met heavy resistance from the now legendary 1. Fallschirmjägerdivision.

Two things however changed the story from three months earlier. More Allied guns and additional divisions to support any breakthrough were now available as were the mountain troops of the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC).
The FEC managed to cross the mountains and infiltrate the German 71. Infanteriedivision. They made startling
gains in the first two days. This provided the breech needed. By threatening both the German defence on the west coast as well as in the Liri Valley, the Gustav Line began to buckle.

The rest of the French Corps was released into the breech further threatening the integrity of the German lines. German reserves were released to the south. General Alexander now released the I Canadian Corps. They reinforced and then exploited through the bridgehead gained by the 8th Indian Division. The British 78th Division was also sent to reinforce the XIII Corps.

German reaction to the French penetration diverted the 90. Panzergrenadierdivision and 26. Panzerdivision from reinforcing Cassino in order to block the French advance. The collapsing German defence in the mountains, forced Kesselring to authorise a general withdrawal to the Hitler Line.

A second attack by the Polish Corps together with the withdrawal of the 1. Fallschirmjäger to the Hitler Line finally yielded the monastery to the Allies. The II US Corps also broke through on the coast following up a German retreat there. The French breakthrough had cracked the Gustav Line. General Alexander had one more surprise to spring.

Operation Buffalo

In the early morning of 23 May, another tremendous Allied artillery barrage targeted the defences before Cisterna. An assault across the entire Anzio beachhead was launched, spearheaded by the US 1st Armoured Division, the US 3rd Infantry Division and the First Special Service Force (SSF). Initial enemy resistance
was stiff and German minefields took a heavy toll on American tanks and tank destroyers. But by noon, the SSF had cut Highway 7 below Cisterna, and all assaulting units had reached their initial objectives.

Over 700 air missions were flown against Cisterna and more distant objectives. By evening, the US 1st Armored Division had crossed the Cisterna-Campoleone railroad, and burst through the German defensive line.

German reports at the end of the first day, estimated the 362. Infanteriedivision, (opposite the 1st Armored) had lost fifty percent of its combat power, and two regiments of the 715. Infanteriedivision (opposite the 3rd Infantry and SSF) reduced by 40%. The Hermann Göring Fallschirmpanzerdivision, fully refitted and earmarked for France, was now rushed southward towards the breakthrough.

The German Fourteenth Army now ordered additional combat units from I. Fallschirmjäger Korps, holding the
German line to the north, to detach and bolster the now shattered LXXVI Panzerkorps forces on the Cisterna
front. However, attacks by the 1st and 5th British Divisions together with the US 45th Division delayed their
release. General von Mackensen, Fourteenth Army Commander, realized his precarious position, but requests
to withdraw his collapsing left flank at Cisterna were denied.

On the next day, 1st Armored and the SSF drove beyond the Cisterna railroad with renewed vigour and cut Highway No. 7 above the town, while the US 3rd Infantry Division encircled it. Cisterna fell the following day yielding a thousand German prisoners.

By evening 26 May, the 3rd Division and First Special Service Force were now at the base of the Lepini Mountains. The 1st Armored Division was positioned halfway to the entrance of the Velletri Gap pointed directly at Highway 6.

Advances through the night found elements of the 1st Armored Division within two miles of Velletri by morning. The motorised cavalry of the 3rd Infantry then raced through the Velletri Gap stopping at Artena, a mere three miles (5 km) from Valmontone and Highway 6.
With Artena captured on 27 May, the VI Corps advance came to a temporary halt. The plans for the continuation
of the Fifth Army’s attack were being recast, and the Germans had recovered from their confusion. In particular, the Aufklarungs of the Hermann Göring Fallschirmpanzerdivision had reached the Valmontone area and were counterattacking Task Force Howze (made up of elements of the 1st Armored supported by the 3rd Infantry). The main elements of VI Corps were now directed towards Rome and the drive to Highway 6 was left to the 3rd Division, Task Force Howze, and the SSF.

Though successful, the Anzio beachhead breakout was costly in both men and material. In the first five days, combat casualties exceeded 4,000. Armored losses surpassed eighty tanks and tank destroyers in the first day’s attack alone. However, the five month stalemate south of Rome had been broken and both the Tenth and Fourteenth German Armies were retreating northward. Rome was captured on 3 June, 1944.

Italy situation map
Highway 6 Or Rome

Much speculation has been wrought on why General Clark changed the direction of his attack on 25 May. As one of the most controversial actions in the entire campaign, Clark changed the bulk of his attack from the cutting of Highway 6 to the northwest and directly into the teeth of the German defences on the Alban Hills. Much has been written about his vanity, his disregard of Alexander’s orders, the complaints of his field commanders, and his headline-taking for targeting Rome and letting the German Tenth Army escape.

However, two Top Secret Ultra intercepts during the breakout might show a different light. Clark knew that
the fully-equipped Hermann Göring Fallschirmpanzerdivision had been sent to plug the gap at Valmontone and that the Germans had ordered the bulk of their armoured and anti-tank forces in the Alban Hills to be redirected to the Gap. This information would support a change of attack trying to out guess the German moves.

He could not have guessed that Hermann Göring would be caught in the open by Allied air nor that the order to move the armour and anti-tank guns would never reach the frontline units due to communication failures. Though speculative, these thoughts would support the decisions of a tactical commander during a battle and an Army Commander preserving the Ultra Secret rather than a conscious decision to be the liberator of Rome.

Back Page News

The Fall of Rome and the Allied landing at Normandy two days later, moved Italy to the fourth priority for American War Planning and relegated the campaign to the back pages of the news. Though resources were prioritised to the Western Front, the Pacific, and even the Soviet Union, the slugfest in Italy continued throughout 1944. More rivers, more mountains, more bad weather combined with the tenacious German defence to keep the Allied advance to northern Italy slow, methodical, and extremely costly for both sides.

Hundreds of daily battles occurred across the Italian peninsula as the Allied Fifth and Eighth Armies ground their way towards the Alps and ultimately the southern door to the Third Reich. Hitler’s orders to hold onto the resources of northern Italy kept the German Tenth and Fourteenth Armies locked in combat with the Allied armies from ten different countries. The bloodbath continued for nearly another year.

~ Ken.
Soldiers in the Italian hills

Last Updated On Friday, November 29, 2013 by Wayne at Battlefront