While temperatures in my region of the U.S. are spiking to unusual highs, it’s time to revisit the cold and mud of Italy in the fall and winter of 1943.
To recap, in my first post in this series I covered the background of the invasion of Italy and how, even as it began, its goals were somewhat unclear. However, the Allies moved forward and achieved successful landings, though for the Fifth Army, winning the beaches of Salerno exacted a heavy cost. With a foothold on Italy’s…well, foot, the Allies began their march northward, unopposed by the Italian army as Italy had officially surrendered, but harassed by retreating German troops. At last, they reached a heavily battered Naples.
Italy’s geography dictated the next steps. The Italian peninsula is split roughly down the middle (like a zipper on the boot) by the Apennine Mountains. The Allied forces under the overall command of Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander split up, with the Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery heading north on the Adriatic side and the Fifth Army under General Mark Clark continuing up the Mediterranean side.
Still, a lack of a consensus on the final goals plagued them. From Naples, just how far north would the Allies advance? Particularly with OVERLORD1 drawing ever nearer, reinforcements and shipping for a long campaign in Italy were not part of the plan.
Maybe, Allied leaders thought, the Germans would withdraw to northern Italy after a bit of resistance. Then the Eighth and Fifth could press forward to Rome, establishing air bases and getting a more solid hold in southern Europe. Rome—the first Axis capitol—was a prize worth pursuing.
Unfortunately for these hopeful plans, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring was put in charge of the defense of Italy, and he was more than up to the task. He was veteran of WWI who had been involved in Luftwaffe operations such as the Battle of Britain as well as working with Field Marshal Rommel in North Africa.
By picking strong locations for lines of defense—and between rivers and mountains, Italy had plenty—and making the Allies fight for each one before he withdrew, Kesselring planned to make the Allies pay dearly for every inch of Italian soil.
The Eighth Army on the Adriatic
The British Eighth Army in Italy was quite an international group, including at various times divisions from not only the British Isles but Canada, New Zealand and India, as well as Polish, French and Gurkha (Nepali) troops. (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!)
Once Alexander confirmed that Rome was a definite Allied goal, the Eighth Army leadership aimed their sights on the city of Pescara. If the Allies could gain control of Pescara as well as Rome, they’d control one of the few major lateral roads across Italy. Mileage-wise, Pescara didn’t look that far. From Foggia, which the Eighth took around the same time the Fifth was wrapping up in Naples, it was only 115 miles away.
However, those miles included an awful lot of rivers and German defenses.
One of the first goals was the city of Termoli, just across the River Biferno. The line from Termoli through Vinchiaturo (along that green line listed on the map as the Volturno Line, though another source called it the Viktor line) offered a lateral gap in Italy’s natural defenses. Of course, to get to Termoli, one had to cross the Biferno. And of course, the Germans had blown the bridges.
While the Canadians fought fierce uphill battles inland in the mountains, other elements of the Eighth approached Termoli. The initial moves went well. The Special Service Brigade landed in the city and the engineers were able to construct a pontoon bridge to get some troops across the river. The Germans occupying the city were quickly subdued or withdrew.
However, the soldiers across the river were still short-handed and their support tanks were unable to cross and join them. As the sappers struggled to bulldoze a workable ford, a recce patrol brought in word. They had captured a motorcyclist with the 16th Panzer division. Supposedly, this tank group had been quite far away, but no, Kesselring, had dispatched them to shore up the Termoli area.
While not necessarily one of the “big” battles in Italy, the struggle in Termoli—infantry holding out against tanks until the Irish Brigade came in by sea and Allied tanks struggled across the river—could make its own blog post. In brief, the Allies held on and got a look at a pattern that would become familiar in Italy—
Approach a river. Find the bridge blown. Cross under fire. Fight for the other side. Struggle to get bridges made. Germans retreat. Forward! Approach another river… Soldiers fighting for the many mountain tops followed a similar pattern from height to height.
By early November, units of the Eighth had reached the Sangro River. This was a major milestone. Just beyond the Sangro was part of Kesselring’s Winter Line (also called the Gustav Line—see the map.) The Germans had built up a formidable defensive line that stretched across Italy here, going through a place called Cassino (which would play in heavily to the story of the war in Italy—more on that later.)
Predictably, the Sangro’s bridges were blown. However, Allied troops were able to wade across…sometimes. While they established a bridgehead across the river, the trouble was that the water level varied drastically depending on the weather. Troops who made it across may or may not be able to get back again. Supplies could sometimes be ferried across by amphibious DUKWS, but to make the attack work, reliable bridging was essential.
The men on the bridgehead struggled along, sending soldiers out in fighting patrols as the engineers struggled to get bridges up despite enemy shelling and the temperamental waters of the Sangro. Just one example: as Montgomery determined that the time for the full battle drew near, the Lancashire Fusiliers crossed on November 20th to help reinforce the bridgehead with the idea that heavier support would be crossing via bridge behind them. Heavy rain swelled the river to such a degree that when morning came the bridges, rather than spanning the river, stood as islands themselves, completely surrounded by water.
Eventually, the Sangro was taken and the Winter Line pierced, but the German resistance was such that the Eighth Army’s advance stalled before covering those last few miles to Pescara. Things were so rough that the 1st Canadians were considered as experts in street fighting after their bitter experiences in Ortona. At the same time, troops in the mountains struggled with cold and exposure as well as the German forces.
By New Year’s of 1944, the Eighth Army had only advanced fourteen miles since 28 November. Montgomery had decided to stop offensive operations for the time being and handed over the army to Sir Oliver Lease as he was heading to Britain for OVERLORD.
To the west, the Fifth Army was having its own struggles at the Gustav Line.
The Fifth Army, from Naples to Cassino
While Naples had been heavily damaged and its port was unusable when the American and British 5th Army came in, within a week the port was up and running again providing supplies for the troops and the impoverished civilians. Like the 8th Army, the 5th was to head north toward Rome, the goal being the lateral Pisa-Rimini line. Again, there was some misplaced hope that the Germans would not put up much resistance in Southern Italy.
The slog up the western side of Italy shared similarities with the the east. Rivers. Mountains. Rain. Mud. Stiff German resistance.
On reaching the Volturno River, the 5th Army faced a flooding river with 35,000 of the XIV Panzer Corps on the other side. Though, with great efforts, the Allies made the crossing, the Germans simply retreated to the Barbara line. Following, the 5th Army would make some progress only to be stopped by a road block or a bridgeless river and would have to circle around through the mountains or push through. Once the 5th made it past “Barbara,” they found that the retreating Germans had left more than 70,000 mines on the way to and on their next line, “Bernhard.”
As a result of all of these dangers and delays, in twenty days of October fighting across a 45 mile front, the Fifth Army gained only fifteen to twenty miles.
The men were nearing exhaustion. However there were few reinforcements to be had. American and British forces were being pulled from Italy to prepare for OVERLORD, and the conflict in Italy was declining in importance—at least to the people who weren’t in the thick of it.
As November began, the Fifth Army faced another challenge. Highway 6, the best road to Rome, passed through a six mile stretch that they called the Mignano Gap. It was surrounded by mountain peaks, and you might already have guessed who held the heights.
Fred Majdalany fought in Italy as an infantry officer and describes the Fifth’s efforts in the Mignano Gap in his book Cassino: Portrait of a Battle.
In appalling weather conditions the Fifth Army addressed itself to this thankless task and it was not long before it began to find frostbite and exposure responsible for nearly as many casualties as shells and bullets. By mid-November General Clark had to call a temporary halt, to rest and reorganize divisions that had been fighting continuously since Salerno. (Majdalany 292 )
After some recovery time, on December first the Allies returned to the attack—successfully, though not easily. Conquering one of the peaks, Monte Camino, took an expenditure of over 200,000 shells and earned the mount the nickname “Million Dollar Hill.”
At last, the Fifth Army had reached the bend in the road beyond the outposts of the Gustav (Winter) Line. Beating through those outposts had cost nearly 16,000 Fifth Army casualties.
Before them now stretched the wide, flat valley of the Rapido River, and beyond that a wall of mountains. One in particular might have caught their eyes—a slope close to the road they’d need to take atop which sat a cream-colored monastery. Monte Cassino.
Whew. That was a lot of historical ground to cover. As always, my goal in these posts isn’t to give an exhaustive history (for that, you might be interested in some of my sources, listed below) but to give an overview. If you have things to add, I’d love to hear them!
I have a few interim posts in mind, but the journey through Italy will continue with the Battle of Monte Cassino and the Anzio Landings (I’ve been waiting for that one.) If you’d like to read more of these posts, here are the links to the previous two:
Thank you so much for stopping by!
1Operation OVERLORD was the codename for the landings in Normandy, France which began with the most famous “D-Day” of WWII.
2Majdalany, Fred. Cassino, Portrait of a Battle. London: Cassell and Co, 1957. Print
Other sources that might be of interest:
Doherty, Richard. Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long, Hard Slog. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2007. Print
Ford, Ken. Battleaxe Division: From Africa to Italy with the 78th Division 1942-45. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999. Print