Italy, Invasion and Conquest of
Opposing the Allies was a German army group commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who persuaded Adolf Hitler to defend Italy south of Rome instead of in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy.
The invasion of Salerno by elements of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark's U.S. Fifth Army on 9 September 1943 was the first major battle in the longest and bloodiest European campaign fought by the Western Allies. The landings were bitterly resisted by the German Tenth Army and nearly failed. When the Germans exhausted their resources in unsuccessful counterattacks, Kesselring ordered a fighting withdrawal north to the new Gustav Line, and anchored on Cassino.
The Allied High Command erroneously believed Rome would fall by the end of October 1943. However, without a second amphibious landing north of Salerno, the Allies were compelled to advance through the great chain of mountains that bisects central Italy, where freezing winter weather and numerous rivers proved the worst imaginable place to fight a large‐scale military campaign. By December 1943, the Allies had failed to break the Gustav Line and the Italian campaign was stalemated.
On 22 January 1944, the Allied ground commander in chief, Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, launched an amphibious end run behind the German lines at Anzio, thirty‐five miles southwest of Rome. Alexander believed the Anzio landings would force Kesselring to abandon the Gustav Line and retreat to the Apennines. However, an assault of the Rapido River by the U.S. 36th Division two days earlier was one of the bloodiest failures of the war and enabled Kesselring to reinforce Anzio with troops from the Cassino front—and from outside Italy.
Kesselring quickly contained the Allied threat, and in mid‐February 1944 he attempted to carry out Hitler's directive to “lance the abscess south of Rome” by launching a powerful counteroffensive to destroy the Anzio beachhead. Ferocious German infantry attacks cracked but ultimately failed to break the Allied defenses.
Nevertheless, this was a decisive moment in the war in Italy: Anzio became a colossal liability for the Allies, who were obliged to rush reinforcements from the south to meet the threat of the massive German buildup. Instead of a stalemate on one front, the Allies were now deadlocked on two widely dispersed fronts.
Earlier in February, the Allies had failed to capture either the town of Cassino or one of the holiest shrines of Roman Catholicism, the abbey of Monte Cassino. Its needless destruction by Allied bombers on February 15 remains one of the most hotly debated incidents of the war and the most visible example of the failure of Allied strategy in Italy in 1944.
The stalemate dragged on into the spring of 1944, with neither belligerent posing a serious threat to the other until overwhelming Allied offensives at Cassino and Anzio in May finally resulted in the collapse of the Gustav Line and a full‐scale German retreat into northern Italy.
Rome was occupied 4 June 1944, but during their fighting withdrawal to the north the Germans inflicted 34,000 casualties upon the pursuing Allied forces. The Gothic Line north of Florence was a defensive barrier where Kesselring successfully obstructed the Allied advance in the autumn of 1944, thereby continuing the war in Italy into 1945. The final Allied offensive that spring resulted in the surrender of all German forces on 2 May 1945.
The Italian campaign lasted 602 days. Overall Allied casualties were 312,000, of which 189,000 (60%) were sustained by the Fifth U.S. Army. Of these, 31,886 men were killed in action. Most were American (19,475 killed of 109,642 total U.S. casualties). German losses have been estimated at 434,646, including 48,067 killed in action, with another 214,048 reported missing.
Allied grand strategy was less to win than to prolong the campaign and thus prevent the dispersal of German formations to other fronts, particularly France, where it was correctly feared their presence might well have made a decisive difference between success and failure when the Allies invaded Northwest France in the D‐Day landing, 6 June 1944.
[See also Anzio, Battle of; Bombing, Ethics of; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in: The North Atlantic.]
Mark Clark , Calculated Risk, 1951.
Raleigh Trevelyan , Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City, 1981.
John Ellis , Cassino: The Hollow Victory, 1984.
Ernest F. Fisher, Jr. , Cassino to the Alps, 1984.
Dominick Graham and and Shelford Bidwell , Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943–45, 1986.
Carlo D’Este , Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome, 1991.