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Sicily & invasion of Italy
National Archives WC-1025
Civilians look on as a wounded private receives blood plasma from a medic. Sicily, August 9, 1943.
Sicily & invasion of Italy
(1943-1945)
Allied invasion of Sicily, to that point the largest amphibious landing in history. At the January 1943 Casablanca Conference, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and their staffs discussed the next military objective to follow the final defeat of Axis forces in North Africa. The British favored a strike against the Axis southern flank that would avoid the strong German defenses in northern France, whereas U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and the Americans advocated a cross-Channel invasion of France as the shorter road to victory. Ultimately, Roosevelt agreed with the British view that a southern advance would secure Allied Mediterranean shipping lanes, provide bombers bases from which to strike Axis southern Europe, and perhaps drive Italy from the war. Thus the next big offensive of the western Allies was the invasion of Sicily, code-named HUSKY.

U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had overall command of Allied forces in the Mediterranean. His ground commander for HUSKY was British General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Fifteenth Army Group. British Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham commanded the naval forces, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder commanded the supporting Allied air forces. British and American forces would participate in HUSKY in almost equal numbers. The Eastern Task Force would put ashore General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army in southeastern Sicily from just south of Syracuse to the end of the southeastern peninsula. The Eighth Army was then to advance along the coast, its final objective the port of Messina on the northeastern tip of the island. The Western Task Force would land Lieutenant General George S. Patton's U.S. Seventh Army in southeastern Sicily between Licata and Scoglitti. On securing the beachhead, Patton was to move inland to conduct supporting attacks and protect Montgomery's left flank. The newly formed Seventh Army had the supporting role, because Alexander believed that Montgomery's veteran troops were better suited for the chief offensive role. The Allies enjoyed air superiority; they had some 3,700 aircraft as opposed to 1,600 for the Axis forces.

Sicily was defended by Italian General Alfredo Guzzoni's Sixth Army (consisting of seven static coastal divisions and four maneuver divisions) and German Lieutenant General Hans Hube's XIV Panzer Corps of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and the Hermann Goring Division. On 10 July, the Germans reinforced with the 1st Parachute Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division. Axis strength totaled between 300,000 and 365,000 men.

The Allied invasion was preceded by an elaborate British deception, Operation MINCEMEAT. This was designed to convince the Germans that the Allies planned to invade Sardinia and islands in the eastern Mediterranean. The deception worked, causing Adolf Hitler to shift some resources to those locations.

The invasion of Sicily, preceded by naval and air bombardment, began with airborne landings on 9 July 1943, the first large use by the Allies of such troops in the war. Few of the 144 gliders landed on their targets, and many crashed into the sea. The paratroopers were also widely dispersed. Worse, the invasion fleet fired on the second wave of transport aircraft in the mistaken belief they were German aircraft and shot down 23 C-47s. Nonetheless, the widely dispersed airborne soldiers created confusion among the Axis defenders, disrupted communications, and, despite their light weapons, prevented some German armor units from reaching the invasion beaches.

The seaborne invasion began early on 10 July in bad weather. The second-largest landing undertaken by the Allies in the European Theater after OVERLORD, it involved two large task forces and 2,590 vessels. Operation HUSKY was the first Allied invasion of the war in which specially designed landing craft, including the DUKW truck, were employed.

Resistance from the Italian coastal defenses was weak, and by nightfall the Allies had secured the beachheads. At Gela, the Hermann Goring Division attacked the U.S. 1st Infantry Division but was driven off by naval gunfire. Inland, the rugged terrain and Axis resistance slowed the Allied advance, although Patton's forces reached the capital of Palermo on 22 July and, several days later, cut the island in two. The British occupied Syracuse with little resistance.

British and American forces were soon in competition to see which would be first to Messina, and a major controversy erupted when Montgomery expropriated an inland road that had been assigned to the Americans. This shift delayed the advance for two days and prolonged the campaign. Meanwhile, on 25 July, Benito Mussolini fell from power in Italy as that government moved toward leaving the war. In Sicily, Axis forces continued a tenacious defense. Allied forces pressed forward, aided by a series of small, skillfully executed amphibious operations on the north coast east of San Stefano.

On 11 August, German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring ordered the evacuation of Axis forces, the Italians having already begun their exodus across the narrow Straits of Messina to Italy. The Italians brought out 62,000 personnel and 227 vehicles; the Germans evacuated 39,569 troops and 9,605 vehicles. It was thus something of a hollow victory when, on 17 August, Patton's forces reached Messina just hours after the last Germans had evacuated to Italy. Later that day, elements of the British Eighth Army also entered the city.

The conquest of Sicily claimed 11,843 British and 8,781 Americans killed, wounded, missing, or captured. The Germans suffered some 29,000 casualties, including 4,325 killed, 6,663 captured, and an estimated 18,000 wounded. Italian losses are estimated at 2,000 killed and 137,000 captured, most of the latter taken by the Seventh Army. The Axis side also lost up to 1,850 aircraft against only 375 for the Allies.

The invasion of Sicily was one of the most important Anglo-American campaigns of the war. It was the first assault by the western Allies on Fortress Europe and another important experience in coalition planning. As such, it set important precedents. It also achieved its goal of driving Italy from the war. On 3 September, a new Italian government signed a secret armistice with the Allied powers.

Anthony L. Franklin and Spencer C. Tucker

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Citations:

D'Este, Carlo. Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 9, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, January 1943-June 1944. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.

Smyth, Howard McGraw, and Albert N. Garland. Sicily and the Surrender of Italy. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965.

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Italian Campaign

At the American-British Casablanca Conference in January 1943, with a cross-Channel invasion of France no longer an option for that year, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and their military staffs agreed to follow the Axis defeat in North Africa with an invasion of Sicily. Several weeks later, the Americans also agreed to a subsequent invasion of the Italian Peninsula. This campaign would allow the Allies to retain the strategic initiative, expand their control in the Mediterranean, open a second front on the mainland of Europe to relieve pressure on the Soviets, and provide air bases closer to strategic bombing targets in Austria, Romania, and parts of Germany.

In a month-long campaign commencing on 10 July 1943, in their largest amphibious assault in the war to date, Allied troops defeated Axis forces in Sicily. The Allied conquest of Sicily had a profound effect in Italy, where, faced with growing unrest and the reluctance of Italian forces to oppose the Allies, the Fascist Grand Council launched a coup d’etat that overthrew Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and installed a new government led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Secret negotiations between the Allies and the new Italian government for an armistice began immediately but soon became bogged down by the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender. A "short military armistice" was eventually signed, on 3 September. Meanwhile, however, Adolf Hitler used the interlude to move another 16 German divisions to Italy, including the crack 1st SS Panzer Division from the Soviet Union.

The Germans then occupied the entire country and took control of most of the Italian army. Much of the Italian fleet escaped to Malta. On 12 September 1943, German commandos led by Schutzstaffel (SS) Standartenführer Otto Skorzeny rescued Mussolini from captivity in the mountains at Grand Sasso in a daring airborne raid. Hitler then installed Mussolini as head of the Italian Social Republic (RSI) in northern Italy.

The strategic logic for continuing the Allied campaign in the Mediterranean appeared obvious to the British Chiefs of Staff, who saw an invasion of Italy as an opportunity to accomplish several goals: to continue the ground war against Germany utilizing experienced troops who would otherwise remain idle for a year; to draw Axis troops away from France and the Soviet Union; and possibly to create opportunities elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, were far less convinced and believed that Allied efforts should be directed to the cross-Channel invasion of France, now sanctioned for the spring of 1944. They were also skeptical of British motives, fearing that the postwar preservation of colonial interests was a high priority for Britain - a goal they vehemently opposed. A final decision to invade the Italian mainland was not made until the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943, but there was no strategic plan other than to continue the existing operations. The Americans were reluctant to commit to a new Italian campaign, and there was no new, large-scale amphibious landing in northern Italy. Any such operation would have been beyond the range of Allied fighter aircraft, and it is an open question whether that type of operation and an airborne raid to capture Rome would have brought the campaign to a rapid conclusion.

The Allied invasion plan envisaged a pincer movement across the Straits of Messina by General Sir Harold Alexander's 15th Army Group, with the first objective being the vital southern Italian port of Naples. In Operation BAYTOWN, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army crossed from Sicily to Reggio di Calabria on 3 September, followed by the British 1st Airborne Division, which landed by sea at Taranto six days later. The main assault, by 165,000 troops of the Anglo-U.S. Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, went ashore at Salerno in Operation AVALANCHE, 35 miles south of Naples, on 9 September. Salerno was chosen chiefly because it was the farthest point in the north for which air support could be provided from Sicily. The Allies hoped that, once ashore, their invading forces would somehow find a way to open the road to Rome before the end of the year.

German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had convinced Hitler that Italy could be easily defended because of its ideal terrain. The central mountainous spine of the Apennines rises above 10,000 feet and has lateral spurs that run east and west toward the coast, between which are deep valleys containing wide rivers flowing rapidly to the sea. The north-south roads were confined to 20-mile-wide strips adjacent to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts, where the bridges that carried them were dominated by natural strong points.

Kesselring formed the six divisions in the south of Italy into the Tenth Army under General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, but he had anticipated a landing at Salerno and stationed the 16th Panzer Division in the area. At Salerno, Fifth Army attacked with two corps abreast: the U.S. VI Corps and the British X Corps. Initial resistance was light, but the Germans reinforced by 11 September and, despite their weakness, launched a counteroffensive that almost split Fifth Army between the two invading corps. By 15 September, the beachhead was secure, in large part because of an overwhelming weight of firepower in the form of accurate naval gunfire and massive air support and because more reserves were landed. Fifth Army then began an advance on Naples, 30 miles away. Montgomery, disappointed that he had only been assigned a secondary role, was needlessly cautious in his advance - so much so that a group of dismayed war correspondents drove themselves through German-occupied territory to contact Fifth Army more than a day before Montgomery's advanced units managed to do so on 16 September.

Two days later, Kesselring ordered a fighting withdrawal to the first of the series of mountainous, fortified defensive lines, from which the Germans planned to defend the approaches to Rome. On 1 October, Fifth Army captured Naples while Eighth Army advanced up the Adriatic coast and captured the airfields at Foggia; there, the Allies installed the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force to launch strategic bombing raids against the Reich. By early October, the two Allied armies had formed a continuous, 120-mile line across the peninsula running along the Volturno and Biferno Rivers. But in the previous three weeks, Fifth Army alone had taken 12,000 casualties.

Henceforth, the campaign in Italy became a slow, remorseless, and grinding battle of attrition, and as the rain and snow turned the battlefield into a muddy quagmire, the appalling struggles resembled World War I battles. Kesselring had fortified a series of defensive lines, known collectively as the Winter Line, between Gaeta and Pescara. The western end based on the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers, known as the Gustav Line, was particularly strong and hinged on the great fortress of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino.

On 12 October, the Allies began the Volturno River Campaign, with the objective of seizing the approaches to Rome. Their plan was too ambitious, given the Germans' skill at defending the mountainous terrain. Between the Volturno and Rome lay 120 miles of rugged country. Fifth Army's VI Corps successfully attacked across the line of the Volturno River, and X Corps seized two crossings. To exploit the success, General Clark ordered an advance across the entire Fifth Army front. Particularly in the VI Corps area, poor roads, demolished bridges, and the difficulties of bringing supplies forward combined with German resistance to slow the advance. Meanwhile, in a series of bitterly contested actions, Eighth Army crossed the Trigno River and advanced to the Sangro River. By 15 November, however, the Germans had stopped the advance along the Winter Line, a position that extended along the Garigliano River to Mount Camino, the Mignano gap, the mountains to the northeast, and the Sangro River to the Adriatic Sea.

The Winter Line Campaign, lasting from 15 November 1943 to 15 January 1944, marked the failure of the Allied plan for a major winter offensive. Eighth Army was to break through on the Adriatic coast and then swing left behind the Germans, at which time Fifth Army would advance. When the two came within supporting distance, Fifth Army would launch an amphibious operation south of Rome. Although its efforts to break into the German position were initially successful, Eighth Army fell victim as much to weather as to the German defense. In early December, the Sangro River, vital to Eighth Army communications, rose 8 feet, and bridges were under water or washed away.

By mid-December, it was clear that the efforts to break through the German defenses were futile. Meanwhile, Fifth Army successfully cleared the heights dominating the Mignano gap after much hard fighting, but it was stopped at the Rapido River. Allied forces had reached the defensive position of the Gustav Line, which generally ran along the Garigliano, Rapido, and Sangro Rivers. One of the key points was the town of Cassino on the Rapido. However, four successive attacks by Fifth Army failed to make any significant headway. The winter campaign had degenerated into a situation in which two separate armies were attempting to penetrate the Gustav Line.

In four months, the Allies had slogged just 70 miles from Salerno and were still 80 miles from Rome. Fifth Army alone had incurred 40,000 casualties, far exceeding German losses, and a further 50,000 men were sick; meanwhile, six experienced divisions were withdrawn for the cross-Channel invasion of France, Operation OVERLORD. The supreme Allied commander of the European Theater of Operations and U.S. forces in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Montgomery also departed to lead the cross-Channel invasion. In recognition of British predominance in Italy, General Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson was appointed to head the Mediterranean Command, and Lieutenant General Oliver Leese became commander of Eighth Army.

Kesselring, who was appointed commander of Army Group C on 21 November, now had 15 (albeit weakened) divisions in Tenth Army vigorously holding the Gustav Line. On 22 January 1944, in an attempt to unhinge this force, the Allies launched another amphibious landing, Operation SHINGLE, at Anzio, 30 miles south of Rome. The U.S. VI Corps, under Major General John Lucas, achieved complete surprise and safely landed 70,000 troops within a week, but it failed to exploit the advantage. Churchill later wrote, "I had hoped that we were hurling a wild cat on to the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale."

Kesselring hastily improvised eight divisions into Fourteenth Army, commanded by General Eberhard von Mackensen. This force resolutely counterattacked at Anzio, employing "Goliath" remote-controlled, explosive-filled miniature tanks for the first time in the war. The beachhead was saved only by the excellent tactical use of intelligence in one of ULTRA's most important triumphs. Major General Lucian K. Truscott replaced Lucas, but for three months, he could do no more than hold the defensive ring. Meanwhile, Allied forces to the south were unable to break through the Gustav Line. Losses were heavy on both sides as the Allies battered against the line. VI Corps held on at Anzio but was unable to break out of the beachhead. A stalemate persisted until spring.

On 17 January, V Corps launched an attack on the Gustav Line but was forced to call it off within a month, after the badly exhausted troops had advanced just 7 miles, at a cost of 17,000 casualties. The New Zealand Corps then attempted a direct assault on Monte Cassino, preceded by the questionable bombing by 145 B-17 Flying Fortresses that destroyed the famous monastery. The 1st Parachute Division troops defending the heights were some of the German army's finest, and they did not flinch. They now took up positions in the ruined monastery. A third attack by New Zealand and Indian infantry, using even heavier air and artillery bombardments, also failed to break through, not least because the rubble created an impregnable defensive position.

On 11 May, the Allies launched a fourth attack, Operation DIADEM, in which General Alexander coordinated Fifth and Eighth Armies as an army group for the first time. The aim was to destroy the German armies. In an astonishing feat of arms, Polish and Free French troops seized Monte Cassino, and XIII Corps broke the Gustav Line in a set-piece battle. Moreover, Kesselring, who had been duped into expecting another amphibious landing farther north, was slow to send reinforcements southward.

Alexander was alerted to the German movements through ULTRA intelligence, and when victory seemed complete, he ordered the Anzio breakout on 23 May. He planned for the U.S. VI Corps to strike directly inland to encircle the German Tenth Army. Rome would thus be ripe for the taking, but more important, the Germans would be unable to form any organized defenses in the rest of Italy, enabling the rapid occupation of the country right up to the Alps. However, Clark, perhaps the most egocentric Allied commander in the war, was enticed by the glory of capturing Rome and altered the direction of his thrust toward the city. Fifth Army linked up with VI Corps on 25 May and made the triumphant march into Rome on 4 June, but the spectacle of the first capture of an Axis capital was eclipsed by the Allied invasion of France two days later.

Clark's change of objective from Alexander's intent enabled Kesselring to withdraw to the Pisa-Rimini Line, 150 miles north of Rome. This line was the first of the next series of defense lines across the peninsula that were known collectively as the Gothic Line, which he reached in August. Alexander still hoped to make for Vienna, but the Italian Campaign had assumed a definite secondary status to the invasion of France. Six divisions were withdrawn in the summer, and when the autumn rains and mud forced operations to be suspended at the end of the year, another seven divisions were withdrawn.

A prolonged Allied tactical air-interdiction program during the autumn and winter of 1944 effectively closed the Brenner Pass and created an acute German fuel shortage that drastically reduced the mobility of Army Group C in northern Italy (commanded by Vietinghoff after Kesselring was severely injured in a road accident in October). Although the Germans still had over half a million men in the field, the Allies had been invigorated in both spirit and outlook by substantial reinforcements, including the Brazilian Expedition Force, and an abundant array of new weapons.

On 9 April, after the ground had dried, Alexander launched his spring offensive, with Eighth Army attacking through the Argenta gap. Fifth Army struck on 15 April, and just 10 days later, both Allied armies met at Finale nell'Emilia, after having surrounded and eliminated the last German forces. The Allies then advanced rapidly northward, the Americans entering Milan on 29 April and the British reaching Trieste on 2 May. Fifth Army continued to advance into Austria, linking with the U.S. Seventh Army in the Brenner Pass on 6 May.

The isolated and hopeless position of German and RSI forces led Schutzstaffel (SS) General Karl Wolff, military governor and head of the SS in northern Italy, to initiate background negotiations for a separate surrender as early as February 1945. The talks, facilitated by Allen Dulles, head of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland, held much promise, although they were complicated and took place in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Wolff wished to avoid senseless destruction and loss of life and to repel the spread of communism; he also hoped to ingratiate himself with the West in case war crimes trials were held in the future. From the Allied perspective, Wolff offered the prospect of preventing the creation of a Nazi redoubt in the Alps. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, halted the talks in April, forestalling their conclusion before the Allied spring offensive, but by 23 April, Wolff and Vietinghoff decided to disregard orders from Berlin. Wolff ordered the SS not to resist the Italian partisans on 25 April, and an unconditional surrender was signed four days later, to be effective on 2 May, six days before the German surrender in the West.

The Italian Campaign gave the Allies useful victories in the interval between the reconquest of the Mediterranean and the reconquest of northwest Europe. In a theater of increasingly secondary importance, Kesselring's position was merely a defensive one, and the best the Allies could claim was that they kept 22 enemy divisions from fighting in another theater. Allied casualties came to 188,746 for Fifth Army and 123,254 for Eighth Army, whereas German casualties were about 434,646 men. The Italian Campaign did, however, afford the Allies experience in amphibious operations and the stresses of coalition warfare, all of which proved invaluable during the invasion of France.

Philip L. Bolte and Paul H. Collier

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Citations:

Carver, Michael. The War in Italy, 1939-1945. London: Macmillan, 2001.

D'Este, Carlo. World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Press, 1990.

Gooch, John. Italy and the Second World War. London: Cass, 2001.

Graham, Dominick, and Shefford Bidwell. Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943-45. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

Higgins, Trumbull. Soft Underbelly: The Anglo-American Controversy over the Italian Campaign, 1939-1945. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Howard, Michael. The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War. London: Greenhill, 1968.

Lamb, Richard. War in Italy, 1943-1945: A Brutal Story. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Starr, Chester G., ed. From Salerno to the Alps. Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 1986.

Strawson, John. Italian Campaign. London: Secker and Warburg, 1987.


ABC Clio School

Tucker, Dr. Spencer C.; Roberts, Dr. Priscilla Mary. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 2005).