Italy and the Battle for Rome-1944by Lloyd Clark
“Highly readable, and of much interest to students of WWII history.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Highly readable, and of much interest to students of WWII history.” —Kirkus Reviews
The Allied attack of Normandy beach and its resultant bloodbath have been immortalized in film and literature, but the U.S. campaign on the beaches of Western Italy reigns as perhaps the deadliest battle of World War II’s western theater.
In January 1944, about six months before D-Day, an Allied force of thirty-six thousand soldiers launched one of the first attacks on continental Europe at Anzio, a small coastal city thirty miles south of Rome. The assault was conceived as the first step toward an eventual siege of the Italian capital. But the advance stalled and Anzio beach became a death trap. After five months of brutal fighting and monumental casualties on both sides, the Allies finally cracked the German line and marched into Rome on June 5, the day before D-Day. Richly detailed and fueled by extensive archival research of newspapers, letters, and diaries—as well as scores of original interviews with surviving soldiers on both sides of the trenches—Anzio is a harrowing and incisive true story by one of today’s finest military historians.
“Lloyd Clark’s . . . lucid, elegantly written book is well overdue. Long neglected, the Allies’ war in Italy, particularly the set-backs at Anzio, deserve to be . . . re-examined without prejudice. Clark has succeeded in producing a fast, enjoyable narrative that undermines several myths and . . . sets the record straight. Absolutely first class.” —Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter and The Few
“Highly readable, and of much interest to students of WWII history.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Masterly . . . a heartbreaking, beautifully told story of wasted sacrifice.” —Vince Rinehart, The Washington Post
“Absorbing . . . [Clark] tells a relentlessly fascinating story.” —Publishers Weekly
“Clark includes the accounts of American, British, and German eyewitnesses at all levels of participation, which gives an immediacy to the narrative. . . . Recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal
The Italian Job
(Allied Strategy and the Invasion of Italy 1942-1943)
The rockets poured over the landing craft and thundered down onto the beaches. Their lunatic shriek heralded the arrival of the Allies at Anzio-Nettuno at 0200 hours on 22 January 1944. Twenty-year-old Private Richard Dawes held his breath as explosions blistered the coastline. Just like the other thirty-five soldiers stretched out in two lines on the landing craft, Dawes felt vulnerable now that the force had announced itself so dramatically. Adrenaline surged through his body and his stomach lurched. The cacophony drowned out the growl of the engine, but from the vibrations through the soles of his boots, and the breeze on his face, he sensed movement. Then the rockets stopped firing as though giving way for a response. A wave boomed against the armoured plated hull making the men start and huddle together. Dawes tried to work out how far they were from the beach, but spray blurred his vision. He blinked hard, licked his lips and pulled his rifle tight to his chest, his heart beating furiously.
There was a shout of: “Thirty seconds!” and Richard Dawes began counting to steady his nerves. He had only reached twenty before a jolt propelled him into the man in front, and the ramp rattled down to expose them. A stentorian voice yelled “Move!” as they scuttled down the slope and onto the beach. Another shapeless figure yelled incomprehensibly, and pushed him towards the green lamp that marked the rendezvous point. Dawes jogged heavily across the sand, inhaling a mixture of smoke and cordite, until he reached his company’s position. He listened for the rip of German spandaus, but heard nothing save the arrival of panting colleagues. As the battalion assembled around him, he relaxed slightly, even allowing himself to think that everything was going to be all right.
Private Richard Dawes was a replacement who had joined his unit just after landing at Salerno, but in time for its advance towards Rome. During the autumn as part of Major General John Lucas’s US VI Corps (a formation consisting of American and British divisions) he had fought his way through Italy’s Apennine mountains. Every step had been a struggle. In early October Lucas—a natural worrier with a great deal to worry about—had confided to his diary: “Rain, rain, rain. The roads are so deep in mud that moving troops and supplies forward is a terrific job. Enemy resistance is not nearly as great as that of Mother Nature.” The vile weather and mountains were difficult enough, but the Germans had made the advance tortuous. Dawes had been soaked to the skin for weeks and in almost continual combat. He had been so tired that on several occasions he had fallen asleep whilst marching to his next battle. Both hands were calloused from digging foxholes. “This is just so awful,” he wrote in his notebook, “I think that death might be preferable. God help me. God help us all.” But he and his comrades continued their struggle, taking tiny bites out of the terrain. It was the sort of stagnation that the Germans regarded with satisfaction, but the British perceived as sinful.
Bursting with enthusiasm for the strategic possibilities that Italy offered, Winston Churchill feared that his campaign was on the verge of break down, and would perish during the winter. To revive his Mediterranean ambitions, the Prime Minister had backed plans to land troops behind enemy lines on the beaches of Anzio-Nettuno, a mere thirty miles from Rome. The plan had considerable potential, but to the Americans it was considered “a sideshow of a sideshow.” The situation reflected developing tensions between Britain and the United States: strong allies sharing a common tongue and purpose, but with differing priorities, perspectives and characters. At the British Embassy in Washington the philosopher Isaiah Berlin observed of the Americans: “they have been taught to dislike [the British] in their history books. Those Englishmen who they do like are liked precisely because they do not conform to what they regard as the standard type of Englishman.” National stereotyping abounded. The experienced British pedigree gun dog felt the need to be patient with the flighty American mongrel puppy. But the Americans looked at Britain as a tired-out creature whose back legs fell occasionally from under him, and needed support. As one British diplomat observed: “Britain and America are partners, but they are also rivals, each anxious to prove that its views on policy, indeed its way of life, is superior to that of the other. It is this element of competition which distinguishes the partnership . . .” There was rivalry, but the rivalry masked more profound differences and the Italian Campaign, with its distrust, frustration, dispute and resentment, had brought those differences to the fore. In such circumstances the strong relationship between Winston Churchill and the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, was critical.
The agreement by the Western Allies in December 1941 that their priority should be the defeat of Germany had been logical for the British. But for a United States still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was far more challenging. Churchill had consistently argued for an attritional policy that gnawed away at Germany’s ability to sustain its war effort. In this the Mediterranean loomed large and Churchill, advised and supported by the service heads who formed the Chiefs of Staff, was its patron. The Americans instinctively disliked the Mediterranean approach, not least because its Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that it was informed as much by British Imperial interests as it was by defeating Germany. But the British had begun fighting in the Mediterranean during the summer of 1940, intent on defending Egypt from Benito Mussolini’s Italy. By the spring of 1942 Germany had joined the fray, and the Axis powers had advanced to within seventy miles of Alexandria. The Americans were unimpressed and despite the British extolling the virtues of patience, the Joint Chiefs were restless, wanting to seize the initiative. The American Army Chief of the Staff, the amiable-looking General George C. Marshall, had already made up his mind. The sixty-one-year-old was set on an offensive launched from Britain into mainland Europe, a cross-Channel invasion, as soon as was practicable. The British were not against this per se, but argued that the Axis powers had to be further weakened before it could be successful. Nevertheless, the cohorts agreed to build air and ground resources in the United Kingdom for its preparation, and a tentative launch date of April 1943 was set. With the Americans temporarily placated, General Sir Alan Brooke, the prudent British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, peddled the case for an expansion of operations in the Mediterranean. Marshall immediately took this to mean that the British were not fully supportive of a cross-Channel invasion, code named Operation Roundup, whereas Brooke maintained the need for flexibility and attrition. A decision was required and London began to work on Washington to get what it wanted. General Albert C. Wedemeyer, a senior officer on Marshall’s staff, remarked of the subsequent meetings held during the spring of 1942: “What I witnessed was the British power for finesse in its finest hour, a power that had been developed over centuries of successful international intrigue, cajolery and tacit compulsions.” But the Americans held out and nothing had been decided by the time that the Allies met in Washington in June. Here the Joint Chiefs continued to argue that operations in the Mediterranean would undermine preparations for Roundup. But the British could not be dissuaded and a frustrated Churchill began to work personally on Roosevelt’s resilience. “Here is a true Second Front of 1942,” the Prime Minister insisted: “Here is the safest and most fruitful stroke that can be delivered this autumn.” The American President was slowly convinced. He wanted to get inexperienced United States troops into battle and, in a Congressional election year, wanted to be seen as a man of action. Marshall called the subsequent decision to invade Frenchheld North Africa—Operation Torch—as: “a momentous change of Grand Strategy.” He was as apoplectic as Brooke was delighted. The British could now develop their Mediterranean ambitions.
Torch was the first truly Allied operation of the war, and aimed to secure the entire North African coastline. The British had cannily agreed to an American Commander in Chief of the Allied forces, Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower. The astute Eisenhower held the permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel and although new to field command had nascent talents. Another soldier whose star was in the ascendant became his deputy, the ferociously ambitious Major General Mark W. Clark. Beak-nosed and with a leanness that made him seem taller than his six feet three inches, Clark was on the cusp of great fame. The two men, who had been friends since West Point, congratulated each other on 8 November as Torch made a firm lodgement on African soil, then pondered the military lessons. The learning curve had been steep, particularly for the Americans. Indeed, the dashing Brigadier General Lucian Truscott, the future divisional and corps commander at Anzio, stated that his landing in Morocco was a “hit and miss affair that would have spelled disaster against a well-armed enemy intent on resistance.” Even so, this easy opening fixture gave the British and Americans some confidence, and as General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army pushed westwards after its victory at El Alamein, the grand plan seemed to be working. However, the deteriorating weather and tenacious Germans had ensured that the campaign could not be concluded that year. Even as the Allied dust cloud converged on Tunis in early 1943 the Afrika Korps continued to land punches. The severe blow that the Americans took at the Kasserine Pass in February was such a shock that the British raised questions about their military competence. Such inquests only served to further strain already stretched allied relations in North Africa. Brooke’s dissatisfaction came spilling out in his diary: “I am afraid that Eisenhower as a general is hopeless!” he complained on 28 December: “He submerges himself in politics and neglects his military duties, partly I am afraid because he knows little about military matters.” General Sir Harold Alexander, the impeccably dressed Anglo-Irish aristocrat who became ground forces commander in the final stages of the campaign, was more broadly critical of the Americans: “They simply do not know their job as soldiers and this is the case from the highest to the lowest, from the General to the private soldier.” Such attitudes were commonplace within the British officer corps and Clark in particular was singled out for special treatment as an individualist who courted publicity—a “typical American general.” Many that worked with him were not therefore displeased to see him promoted in January 1943 and sent to command the new US Fifth Army. But Clark never forgot the barbed British remarks about him and his countrymen in Tunisia. Truscott, however, was more conciliatory:
British commanders and staff officers impressed Americans as being supercilious, conceited, and arrogant. British officers considered the Americans to be loud, boastful and inexperienced . . . One could sympathise with the lack of understanding and mutual regard between British and American commanders, however one might deplore it. But the bitterness, personal and professional jealousy . . . and even hatred, which existed among some of the American commanders and staffs, I could never condone.
This mature outlook was one shared by Eisenhower who wrote to a friend, “one of the constant sources of danger to us is to regard as our first enemy the partner that must work with us in defeating the real enemy.” He was quite right, for the surrender of the Axis forces in North Africa in May was not the final step towards the defeat of Germany, only the first. Nonetheless, it was a crucial success as Field Marshal Albert Kesselring—the man who was to emerge as the Allies’ bête noire in Italy—noted: “The Allies won a total victory. The final battles left the enemy with a sense of superiority which gave an extraordinary boost to his morale . . . at the end of this phase the Axis had lost the strategic initiative.”
The surrender was a watershed for the Allies, as Ernie Pyle, an American war correspondent in North Africa, recognised:
There were days when I sat in my tent alone and gloomed with the desperate belief that it was actually possible for us to lose this war. I don’t feel that way any more . . . We are producing at home and we are hardening overseas . . . I can’t yet see when we shall win, or over what route geographically, or by which of the many means of warfare. But no longer do I have any doubts at all that we shall win.
By the late spring of 1943 the Allies had some momentum behind them. Along with the success in North Africa came a more positive outlook on the Eastern Front and the rapidly growing military strength of the United States. In such circumstances the British were keen to extend their Mediterranean strategy before their allies’ strategic desires became demands that could no longer be resisted.
The British sought to make the Mediterranean a liability for the Germans. At the Symbol Conference in Casablanca in January 1943 Alan Brooke had proposed the invasion of Sicily to finally open the Mediterranean to Allied vessels, further wear down the German war machine and—possibly—force Mussolini out of the war. If the Italians did leave the Axis, he continued, Hitler would then be forced into deciding whether to defend Italy using German forces, or withdraw. Brooke had emphasised that, if the Allies filled the vacuum, a withdrawal would provide many treasures. He listed them whilst pointing to a large map: access to partisans in Yugoslavia; valuable bomber airfields and a threat to the Austrian border-the southern reaches of the Reich. Marshall was unimpressed: his fears were becoming a reality, with the British attempting to alter the direction of an agreed strategy, and he reflected the unease of many in Washington. One British observer wrote that the Americans “regarded the Mediterranean as a kind of dark hole, into which one entered at one’s peril.” But not all agreed and, disappointingly for Marshall, Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest King, the American Naval Chief of Staff and General Henry Arnold, the Chief of the Army Air Forces, backed the invasion of Sicily. Marshall winced. The Mediterranean was to be the theatre of 1943 and Operation Husky in Sicily-the first opposed landing in occupied Europe—was scheduled for July. But what was to happen after Sicily? At the Washington Trident Conference in May the British suggested an invasion of Italy, at which Marshall became convinced that they were trying to scupper the cross-Channel invasion, now code named Operation Overlord, and were pursuing a hidden agenda. Kesselring, the commander of German forces in Sicily and southern Italy, concurred declaring that Churchill wanted: “to establish a jumping-off base for an assault on Europe from the south.” This was undoubtedly the case, and to sweeten this potentially bitter strategic pill for the Americans, the British proffered a concession. Overlord was to be launched in May 1944, and seven battle-tested divisions, and most of assault shipping currendy in the Mediterranean, were to be returned to England by 1 November 1943. With it also came an agreement that Eisenhower should report on further Mediterranean options. The next Allied move would depend on his findings, in concert with an appreciation of the invasion of Sicily and the delicate political situation in Rome.
As the strategists manoeuvred, Harold Alexander sought to ensure that his Army Group was ready for its next challenge. Whilst overseeing the assimilation of many lessons from North Africa, he was most concerned to improve the fighting ability of the Americans. By ensuring that their training, discipline and whole approach to battle fighting were tightened, Alexander and his team achieved his aim. And he did it without causing offence. “We must tread very warily,” Alexander confided to Brooke in April 1943:
If the Americans think we are sneering at them—and God forbid that—or that we are being superior, they will take it very badly, as they are a proud people. We must take the line that we are comrades and brothers in arms, and our only wish is for them to share the horrors of war (and the handicaps) and reap the fruits of victory together.
Diplomacy was one of Alexander’s strengths. The fifty-one-year-old had led from the front as a junior officer in the Irish Guards during the First World War. Initially unsure whether he was cut out for military life, he had flourished and rose steadily through the ranks. In 1940 he managed the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to Dunkirk, then served in Burma before becoming Commander-in-Chief Middle East in the Western Desert in August 1942. In every respect Alexander fulfilled the American image of what a British general officer should look, sound and act like. Most comfortable when dressed in riding boots, breeches and a leather flying-jacket, he was Churchill’s favourite general—handsome, bright, modest and, above all, a gendeman. Eisenhower wrote that “Americans instinctively liked him.” However, Harold Alexander’s laissez-faire approach to command and relative inability to initiate were weaknesses. Alexander did not “grip” his subordinates (particularly if they were successful) nor did he discuss matters through with colleagues before coming to a decision. The Mediterranean Campaign was to probe his strengths and weaknesses to the full.
The invasion of Sicily tested Alexander, not least because of the two difficult subordinates that he had under his command: Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, the narcissistic commander of British Eighth Army, and Lieutenant General George S. Patton, the equally narcissistic commander of the US Seventh Army. From the outset there were problems. The more experienced British force was allotted the principal role in the invasion whilst the Americans, much to their chagrin, were to provide support. Bernard Montgomery aggravated the situation by throwing his weight around during planning—criticising arrangements, making demands. With his hands held behind his back, he would perambulate around the conference table at Alexander’s headquarters, making speeches. Occasionally he would stop and point at a colleague or map for effect. Alan Brooke was so enraged with the situation that he had to “haul Montgomery over the coals for the trouble he was creating with his usual lack of tact and egotistical outlook.” In the end a conservative plan had been agreed: a British-led advance to the critical port of Messina in the north-eastern corner of the island. This was unlikely to lead to the destruction of the defenders, as Germans and Italians could withdraw to Messina for evacuation to the Italian mainland, but it was the plan most likely to deliver Sicily into Allied hands. The Americans, however, remained piqued at their subsidiary role, leading to competition between the two Armies in Sicily, turning rivalries and jealousies into festering resentments.
As the Allies made their final approach to their Sicilian landing beaches in the early hours of 10 July 1943, Churchill played bezique with his daughter-in-law at Chequers. With a large Cuban Romeo y Julieta cigar between his fingers and a tumbler of Red Label whisky at his elbow, he rose abruptly on several occasions to venture into the Operations Room for the latest news. On one occasion he returned mumbling: “So many brave young men going to their death tonight”, and then scanning his cards added: “It is a grave responsibility.” That night he slept just a couple of hours before returning to the Operations Room for the first report, clad in a silk dressing gown. The Prime Minister was informed that the weak Italian troops defending the coast had been quickly overrun by Montgomery’s force. The defence of the island was now in the hands of 33,000 German forces included two half formed divisions: the lorry-born infantry of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to the west of the country, and the Hermann Goring Panzer Division (a future Anzio division) to the east. The Germans were a far more formidable foe than the Italians and as reinforcements doubled their number, they delayed the 450,000 Allies by skilful use of the terrain. The Eighth Army was halted on the plain of Catania and Montgomery was desperate to get moving again. He looked to bypass the blocked route by pushing westwards through Enna, but that road had been allotted to Omar Bradley’s II Corps. Paying no attention to American needs, or waiting to obtain permission, Montgomery despatched his XXX Corps onto the road. As John Steinbeck, then a war correspondent for the Herald Tribune, declared: “We get along very well as individuals, but just the moment we become the Americans and they become the British, trouble is not far behind.” Patton’s response was inevitably pro-active. Never one to turn away from a challenge he got the suggestible Alexander to allow him to advance westwards for indecisive—but prestigious—objectives which included the capital, Palermo. His command contained two divisions that were to feature in the fighting at Anzio: 3rd US Infantry Division, a veteran of the fighting in North Africa commanded by the talented and amiable Major General Lucian Truscott; and 45th US Infantry Division, well-trained but green and newly arrived from the United States commanded by Major General Troy Middleton. Supporting Patton’s other formation, 1st US Infantry Division, were two battalions of US Rangers—a third battalion was attached to Truscott. Similar to British commandos, the Rangers were an elite force which had been activated in the early summer of 1942. They had landed in North Africa and fought with distinction in the subsequent campaign commanded by their founder, the young and dynamic William O. Darby.
Patton’s indulgence in the west was uneventful: Palermo was taken on 23 July, and he then received permission to turn eastwards in preparation for an assault with the British on the German defensive line in the north-east corner of the island. Patton wrote to Middleton about the coming attack: “This is a horse race in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake. We must take Messina before the British. Please use your best efforts to facilitate the success of our race.” In fact, Montgomery had already conceded that the Americans would reach Messina first, but to Patton, there was a point to prove. The Americans won the “race” with their 3rd Division entering Messina on 17 August—but not before Kesselring had overseen a slick evacuation of his forces.
The invasion had been a steep learning curve for the Western Allies and as Kesselring was to contend: “the Axis Command was mighty lucky, helped above all as it was by the methodical procedure by the Allies. Furthermore, the Allied conception of operations offered many chances. The absence of any large-scale encirclement of the island or of a thrust up the coastline of the Calabria gave us long weeks to organise the defence with really very weak resources.” Alexander had compromised, stroked, consented and indulged—at the expense of effectiveness and victory. Even so, Sicily was a military success falling in a mere thirty-eight days and another boost for Allied morale. But it had also been an education, as Montgomery conceded: “I think that everyone admitted that we learnt a great deal in Sicily. In some cases possibly all that was learnt was how not to do certain things. But all in all, the experience was invaluable to us all . . .” Moreover, the Americans not only rehabilitated themselves in the eyes of many British officers—including Alexander and Montgomery—but also ushered in a resurgence in their self-confidence. The fall of Sicily was a turning point in many ways, “perhaps the decisive one on the way to defeat, a road along which other milestones had been Stalingrad and Tunis” according to Johannes Steinhoff, the commander of a Luftwaffe Fighter Group who fought in the skies over Sicily. But another commentator observed that although Sicily was “an Allied physical victory,” it was also “a German moral victory.” The Germans had been outnumbered, but fought a successful withdrawal leading to the evacuation to the Italian mainland of 53,545 men, 9,185 vehicles, all of their heavy weaponry and 11,855 tons of stores. Moreover, Kesselring had warned that Alexander and his men would have to be on their metde if they were to make further progress in the Mediterranean theatre. Alan Whicker, then a teenage subaltern and director of an Army Film and Photographic Unit, believed that there was little doubt where they would end up next: “Our last pictures of the Sicilian campaign,” he recalled, “showed Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery staring symbolically through field glasses out across the Straits of Messina towards the toe of Italy, and the enemy.” A decision had already been taken, but the nature of the Western Alliance ensured that it had not been easily reached.
While Allied High Command debated their next move, they were closely following the deteriorating political situation in Rome. Since their defeat at El Alamein in October 1942 there had been a growing feeling in Italy that they should pull out of the war. Indeed, Kesselring’s Chief of Staff, General Siegfried Westphal had written: “only a few Italians still believed that the salvation of their country lay in continuing the war at the side of their German ally . . . the distaste felt for Mussolini and the Party has become a burning hatred.” On 24 July 1943 the Fascist Grand Council met for the first time since the beginning of the war and passed a vote of no confidence in Mussolini. On the afternoon of 25 July, he went to see King Victor Emmanuel at Villa Ada, the royal residence on the outskirts of Rome to discuss the situation. The King, dressed in Marshal’s uniform, the dark bags under his eyes contrasting starkly with his luxuriant white moustache, spoke frankly:
My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits. Army morale is at rock bottom. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more . . . The Grand Council’s vote is terrific . . . You can certainly be under no illusion as to Italy’s feelings with regard to yourself. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy . . . I have been thinking the man for the job now is Marshal Badoglio.
Finally aware that everything had changed, Mussolini stormed out, only to be bundled into a waiting ambulance under an armed guard, which he thought at first had been provided for his personal protection, but soon realised was facilitating his arrest. Marshal Pietro Badoglio thus became President, the King took command of the armed forces and the Fascist party and its Grand Council were abolished. The Duce was escorted into hiding, eventually to be holed up in a mountain hotel at Gran Sasso in central Italy.
That night, 25 July, the news was announced on the radio to an expectant population in speeches by the King and Badoglio. Italy immediately celebrated. “The people in the street are going mad with joy,” one observer wrote about Rome, “Pandemonium is let loose! I hurry along to have a look!” Some wept, others embraced. Young and old jostled to tear posters of Mussolini from the wall, hurl them to the ground, and crush them underfoot. Black shirts and Fascist literature were torched in street bonfires. Fifteen-year-old Alonzo Badotti lived with his widowed mother and six hungry siblings in a loft near Rome’s Termini Station. That night they were given hope:
It was a wild time the news was a release, everyone was happy—but it was also a time for revenge. I saw one particularly hated Fascist lying in the gutter in a pool of blood, his face smashed, and people kicking his corpse as they went past, children as well as adults. It was a wild time.
But it did not last and a malaise descended once more. Badotti continued:
Over the course of the next few days, there were stern faces in the bars and coffee shops as people tried to work out what it all meant. There was no more jollification. It was only at this point that we began to turn our minds to the possibilities of ending our involvement in the war. It was the next logical step, but we did not know what the government’s intentions were.
At this stage even Badoglio did not know what his government’s intentions would be, as he weighed up the advantages of surrendering to the Allies against the consequences of German reprisals and occupation. Berlin was watching Rome carefully. As it did so the President initiated secret armistice negotiations with the Allies. The Germans had been planning for an Italian volte-face since May, and had developed “Plan Achse” to deal with it. Kesselring, an Italophile, immediately recognised the dilemmas facing the new regime, and sought reassurances. Although the King informed him that Italy would continue to fight, and indeed, their war “would be intensified” Kesselring retained his reservations. Hitler completely distrusted Italy without his friend Mussolini at the helm, and German troops moved into northern Italy under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the commander of a new Army Group B. By 16 August some eight and a half German divisions had secured important mountain passes, roads and railways vulnerable to being blocked. If the Italians surrendered, Achse would be activated, and Kesselring’s divisions withdrawn up the Boot of Italy to be taken in under Rommel’s command. This was a blow to sixty-year-old “smiling Albert” Kesselring, an eternal optimist who argued that southern Italy could be successfully defended by making the enemy struggle in the exposed, mountainous countryside. From his headquarters at Frascati near Rome, Kesselring insisted that delaying actions would provide time to construct defensive lines which would in turn absorb repeated blows and sap Allied resources. The Führer listened, was interested, but would not commit himself to a decision just yet. Whilst waiting on Berlin, the innovative Luftwaffe officer continued with his preparations to defend against an Allied invasion of Italy, while the newly created Tenth Army commanded by General Heinrich von Vietinghoff was ordered to anticipate an amphibious attack somewhere between the Straits of Messina and Naples.
The decision taken by the Western Allies to invade Italy had been angst ridden. During the fighting in Sicily the British had pointed at an unstable Italy and proposed giving it a shove. Naturally Marshall was against the idea, but in the wake of Eisenhower’s report supporting an invasion, the Joint Chiefs provided their assent. The Army Chief of Staff, incredulous to the end, then worked hard to ensure that the British were not given a blank cheque in Italy. Brooke wrote exasperatedly in his diary at the end of July:
Marshall absolutely fails to realise the strategic treasures that lie at our feet in the Mediterranean . . . He admits that our object must be to eliminate Italy and yet is always afraid of facing the consequences of doing so. He cannot see beyond the tip of his nose and is maddening.
When the Quebec Quadrant Conference gave the final authority for the invasion in August, the agreed goals were limited, but Brooke was not downhearted. Although initially doing little more than stretching the Germans, encouraging Italian surrender and seizing airfields, the British harboured the belief that the Americans could be talked into agreeing to more grandiose aims later. Rome—and beyond—beckoned and Churchill wanted to blaze a trail there. But recognising that the Americans needed cajoling, the British began to pave the way by agreeing to Operation Anvil, a landing in the south of France which was to act as a diversion to Overlord. Both sides left Quebec quietly satisfied, but Churchill was already thinking of “quickly crushing Italy,” thus making the risky cross-Channel offensive unnecessary.
The invasion of Italy by Alexander’s 15th Army Group was to take place in early September. There were to be two main attacks. The first was to be conducted by Eighth Army on 3 September—four years to the day since Britain declared war on Germany. Operation Baytown was to land British XIII Corps on the toe of Italy, advance through the Calabria and roll the Germans north along the Adriatic coast to the airfields at Foggia. The second attack was to be conducted by US Fifth Army six days later. Operation Avalanche was to land Major General Ernest J. Dawley’s US VI Corps and Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps in the Bay of Salerno thirty miles southeast of Naples and develop operations northwards via Naples. There was also to be a subsidiary attack at Taranto in the inner heel of the Boot by 1st British Airborne Division named Operation Slapstick. This assault would endeavour to secure the ports of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari thus assisting the sustenance of Eighth Army as it developed its advance. Moreover, as it was also to take place on 9 September, it was hoped that it might divert some attention away from Avalanche. This was thought to be important as there was excellent defensive terrain on the high ground surrounding the landing beaches which provided not only excellent observation, but also a barrier to exploitation operations. Moreover, Fifth Army was a new fighting organisation and its abrasive commander, forty-seven-year-old Mark Clark had never commanded troops in the field before. Brought up in Chicago, Clark had graduated from West Point 110th out of 139 candidates. He had risen from the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to Lieutenant General in just three years and was seen to be one of the most talented and ambitious officers in the US Army. His choice of Alfred M. Gruenther as Chief of Staff—at forty-three the youngest Major General in the army—reflected Clark’s innate belief that this was a young man’s war, although he recognised the need for experience and also surrounded himself with men that were senior in years of service—including his former War College instructor Fred Walker as commander of 36th US Infantry Division. But Clark regarded dynamism as the most important soldierly trait, and eschewed caution. Acutely aware that his handling of Avalanche would be closely scrutinised, he relished the challenge.
As his commanders got down to the detailed planning of their operations, Alexander looked towards the autumn months. Trying to anticipate future difficulties from his headquarters in a villa in La Marsa on the outskirts of Tunis was essential, but he was only just grasping the enormous difficulty of the tests that an invasion of Italy posed. Alexander—or “The Chief” as his inner circle knew him—spread out a map of Italy on the table in his study. As he examined the mountains, valleys and rivers that dominated the landscape he instinctively knew that, if they decided to stand and fight, this terrain offered the Germans significant defensive opportunities. What were the Germans planning? Would Kesselring defend Rome? And would the Allies have the resources to break through if they did? He returned to the map and surveyed the contour lines for a second time.
In keeping with his character and previous battles, Montgomery’s Baytown was a meticulously planned, methodical attack. By deciding to overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers and firepower, the diminutive general provided yet more evidence that he would do whatever he could to avoid unnecessary casualties. The landings on the beaches north of Reggio, so recently used by the Germans in their evacuation from Sicily, were successful with the defending Italians once again collapsing. “Irresistibly the scene was like a regatta,” wrote the Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead, describing the crossing from Messina on 3 September, “or some yachting carnival perhaps, even Cowes . . . The soldiers laughed and waved.” Alan Whicker, then making his second assault landing, agreed that it was all unexpectedly easy, “peaceful” and “almost gentlemanly,” with the surrendered Italians assisting in the unloading of the British craft, guiding troops through minefields and cheering Montgomery when he arrived.
The news had been greeted enthusiastically by the Prime Minister, who was staying with the President at the White House. The two men got on well, but Churchill was an exhausting guest, as Roosevelt revealed to a colleague: “I’m nearly dead. I have to talk to the P.M. all night, and he gets a bright idea in the middle of the night and comes pattering down the hall to my bedroom in his bare feet.” The invasion of Italy had given Churchill’s fertile imagination a new lease of life, and when he heard that the Italians had also signed a secret armistice agreement he grinned broadly and scampered to the President’s side proclaiming, like Sherlock Holmes to Dr Watson, that “the game’s afoot.” The next step was to make the armistice public and strike Italy’s sixty-one field divisions from the Axis order of battle. But that was easier said than done as Badoglio continued to fear a “spiteful” German reaction, demanding that no announcement be made until Allied troops were more firmly established on Italian soil. Already disgusted at Italian duplicity, the Allies immediately began to pressurise the President for an early declaration in the hope that the Germans would withdraw northwards before “Avalanche” was unleashed. The discussions continued as Eighth Army eased itself into the rocky Calabria, at Italy’s heel. The advance proved demanding for Montgomery’s two and a half divisions who were faced by two divisions of Lieutenant General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzer Corps—both of which were also to end up at Anzio. By pulling away from the laborious British attack, and the skillful demolition of roads and bridges, 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions stifled any offensive momentum. Montgomery would have to be patient, advance steadily and hope that Clark would not rely on Eighth Army assistance if Avalanche ran into trouble. Eisenhower did all that he could to limit the risk of significant problems for the attack, but grew increasingly exasperated at Badoglio’s failure to disclose the armistice. Eventually the tantrum-prone Eisenhower could stand no more, and was granted permission by both Roosevelt and Churchill to broadcast news of the agreement even as the Allied armada approached the Bay of Salerno.
As Eisenhower rehearsed his short speech on the morning of 8 September, Kesselring was reading air reports about enemy shipping movements in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Although his staff officers were unsure what (if anything) the enemy were up to, it looked as if a convoy was heading from Bizerta in North Africa, to either Salerno, Naples, or the coast north of Rome. At his great walnut desk Kesselring examined the reports, pondering potential scenarios. An aide de camp squinted as he entered the room to bring the Field Marshal an update. Sunshine flooded the office through a window at Kesselring’s back, and reflected off the highly polished parquet flooring, blinding staff and interlopers alike. It was an old trick but the competitive old soldier liked it. He studied the paper, checked his maps and just before noon acted decisively. Von Vietinghoff was ordered to withdraw the divisions facing Eighth Army in the Calabria more quickly, and to put all troops in the central sector of Italy on alert. Kesselring was concentrating his forces, seeking a rapid riposte to any Allied landing. He continued to shuffle formations into the afternoon until his concentration was broken by air raid sirens. As he left his office for the shelter escorted by his bodyguard, several anti-aircraft guns coughed into life. Their fire drowned out the drone of 130 approaching American B-17 bombers. The Field Marshal agonised as the hour-long raid devastated his headquarters, cut his communications and cost nearly 100 men their lives. It was an attack that dislocated Kesselring’s command at the very time it needed to be in control. He had been lucky to escape with his life. He emerged from the bunker and grimaced. The raid had confirmed his suspicions that an Allied landing was imminent.
At 1830 hours, when Clark’s force was just nine hours from Salerno, Eisenhower’s voice was heard on Radio Algiers informing the world of the Italian armistice. Although the announcement was not a complete shock to the Italian government, it was a surprise. Indeed, when Raffaele Guariglia, the Foreign Minister, met Badoglio at the Royal Palace after the broadcast to ask him about the severity of the situation, Badoglio candidly declared: “We’re fucked.” The Italians did not have a plan to resist the Germans. They were not organised nor were they motivated to do so. The announcement was confirmed three hours later by Badoglio: “The Italian Government,” he bleated, “having recognised the impossibility of continuing an unequal struggle against overwhelming opposing forces, with the intention of saving the nation from further and graver misfortunes, has requested General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-American Forces, for an armistice. The request has been granted. Consequently any act of hostility against Anglo-American Forces must cease on the part of the Italian forces everywhere. They will, however, resist any attacks that may be made upon them from any quarter.”
Italy was out of the war and the Royal Family, Badoglio, ministers and the army general staff fled Rome for Brindisi. The news of the armistice was passed on to the anxious troops in the Avalanche armada. They cheered and some sang (“Run Rabbit Run” was a favourite in the British vessels) in the belief that the Italians would at that very moment be withdrawing from the Bay of Salerno. It took the experienced, intelligent and responsible to get the men to focus on the job in hand by warning them that the Germans might be waiting for them. It was a confusing situation and Norman Lewis, then a British Intelligence officer attached to the Fifth Army Headquarters and who was later to write Naples ’44, a seminal book on the Italian Campaign, was as perplexed as anybody: “It was clear that no one knew what awaited us,” he wrote, “despite all the agents we had assumed to be working for us in Italy, absolutely no information had come out regarding the situation.” In spite of the warnings, some salvaged the condoms with which they had been issued. Removing them from the muzzles of their rifles, they hoped that they might now be useful in other ways.
The Italians also greeted the news with glee, but exhilaration evaporated with the swift reaction of the German troops. In their naivety, many had believed that an armistice would lead to an immediate German withdrawal, but the reality was to be very different. In order to protect themselves, the Germans unleashed the first phase of “Plan Asche” in which they swiftly disarmed the Italians whilst occupying Rome and other towns and cities: “. . . and so began a new chapter in our living nightmare” recalled one Roman. In the Bay of Salerno, Major General Rudolf Sieckenius’s resolute 16th Panzer Division replaced the jaded Italian defenders, quickly improving its defences. Kesselring’s foresight had given Tenth Army an opportunity quickly to concentrate its full weight against a landing. Von Vietinghoff had five divisions within striking distance of the Avalanche coast, and the Prussian aristocrat knew just as well as Clark that the side which built up its forces fastest was likely to win any beachhead battle. Coming from the sea Fifth Army might have been considered at a disadvantage in this contest, but Tenth Army was, as Westphal recognised, “poorly fitted to resist an attack from the sea.” The Allies had surprise mastery of the sea, and dominated the skies from where they could attack the mustering Germans as they advanced along the poor Italian roads. Nevertheless, amphibious warfare was notoriously difficult to master—particularly for a novice such as Clark—and at one point during the coming battle, it looked as if the Allies might be pushed back into the sea.
Avalanche did not start badly on 9 September, although landing in the darkness of the early hours did lead to some confusion. It was only Sieckenius’s particularly strong and well-positioned defences opposite VI Corps’s 36th US Infantry Division that caused difficulties. Enjoying the elevation of the mountains, clear fields of fire and pre-surveyed killing zones for their machine guns and artillery, the Germans hit Walker’s division hard. American journalist Jack Belden was one of the first out of the landing craft and had a torrid time:
This was the third landing I had made, and it was the hardest . . . Shells were flashing in the water, flames were yellowing the sky, and bullets were slapping into the boat. They snapped over our heads, rattled against the boat sides like hail and beat at the ramp door . . . the boat shuddered and the ramp creaked open . . . I stepped down . . . At last I was in the continent of Europe.
Despite obstinate German defence on the night of the landings, during the first day the situation was never desperate operationally, and the two Allied corps forged small beachheads. It was only when Clark tried to take the high ground and build a strong defensive perimeter that he ran into difficulties. The Germans had reacted quickly. Faced with Montgomery’s advance in the south and the successful Slapstick landing at Taranto, Kesselring prioritised and decided to focus on Salerno. Ordering the Hermann Goring Panzer and 15th Panzer Grenadiers Divisions to mass against British X Corps on the Allied left, and 26th Panzer Division and 29th Panzer Grenadier Division against the Americans on the right, the Germans hoped to stop the Allies pushing inland, and then break them. So good was the response of Tenth Army that on 12 September von Vietinghoff was able to launch a counter-attack into the gap between Fifth Army’s two corps. The carefully focused ferocity of the thrust led Clark to confide in his diary later that day: “The situation is extremely critical.” Striking hard against Walker’s beleaguered division, German armour looked set to reach the landing beaches and threatened the VI Corps headquarters, a large barn hung with drying tobacco leaves, where Dawley panicked. When asked by Clark what he was going to do the General replied: “Nothing, I’ve no reserves. All I’ve got is a prayer.” Clark was unimpressed, but he too had a momentary wobble and had to be dissuaded from re-embarking VI Corps and sending them over to join the British. He later suggested that this was merely a contingency plan, and his memoirs went so far as to paint a picture of him taking a bold decision against received wisdom: “I thought it over carefully as I walked along the beach,” he declared: “I was dirty and tired and worried, and finally I said, ‘To hell with the theory! I am not going to issue any such orders!’ Furthermore, I decided, the only way they’re going to get us off this beach is to push us, step by step, into the water.” Just as Clark’s words reveal a good deal about his personality and obsession with image, Harold Alexander’s laconic declaration says much about him: “If the Germans had pushed on to the sea their arrival might have caused us some embarrassment.”
The Wehrmacht were eventually held by a stoical defence conducted by a mixture of troops including the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (which had been dropped within the VI Corps perimeter for the purpose), together with headquarters and support staff. Two batteries of artillery firing at close range also provided much needed fire power. At one point Norman Lewis was ordered to take his revolver and “assist in the defence of Army Headquarters against Mark IV and Tiger tanks that were rolling towards us.” Lewis was not impressed. “Outright panic now started,” he continued, “and spread among the American troops left behind. In the belief that our position had been infiltrated by German infantry they began shooting each other, and there were blood-chilling screams from men hit by the bullets . . . What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos.” Clark bravely prowled along the frontline encouraging his men and gaining information. On one occasion he personally took charge of defences against an attack by eighteen German tanks. Seeing a Lieutenant General playing the part of a Lieutenant must have been inspirational. This was not swaggering; it was remarkable leadership that made all the difference.
For four days the battle was precariously poised, but support by 15inch naval guns and airpower tipped the balance. Lieutenant Rocholl of the 16th Reconnaissance Battalion, 16th Panzer Division wrote in his diary: “Nearer and nearer the shells dropped, with shrapnel flying past uncomfortably close. Involuntarily one ducked together in the armoured car, although it would not have given the slightest protection. Suddenly there was a sharp crack and a deafening explosion . . . all the earth and dirt seemed to drop into our open turrets. This was a bit too much . . .” Rocholl’s diary was later found on his dead body. Taking heavy casualties and lacking fuel, the Germans gradually began to tire. By 16 September, with some 170,000 troops and 200 tanks ashore, Clark believed that the crisis had passed and Kesselring ordered his forces to disengage—just as Montgomery was approaching from the south.
Alexander had urged the Eighth Army commander to greater efforts on 10 September in order to assist Clark at Salerno. But Montgomery was revelling in his own private war and explained that the terrain and enemy demolitions continued to hinder his advance. Clark was underwhelmed, and on 12 September as the Germans were driving towards the beach, he wrote to Alexander: “I hope that Eighth Army will attack with all possible vigor in order to contain 26th and 29th Panzer Divisions to maximum.” Alexander hoped so too, and ordered Montgomery to get to Salerno “whatever the risks”—but it remained a very cautious advance. It was not until 15 September that Clark received a message from Montgomery which started: “It looks as if you may be having not too good a time, and I do hope that all will go well with you . . . We are on the way to lend a hand, and it will be a great day when we actually join hands . . . .” Clark’s terse reply ended: “Situation here well in hand.” By the time Eighth Army finally linked up with Clark’s troops on the following day, it was too late to influence the battle, but just in time to take the glory. During the fighting in Sicily Clark believed that the British media had failed to give the Americans the credit that they deserved, and now BBC reports painted Montgomery’s advance as “courageously pushing aside enemy resistance” to go to Fifth Army’s aid. Clark was incandescent: “We’d get reports from the BBC that the Eighth Army was coming to our rescue,” he later complained:
I remember sending Monty a message that we needed help. The faster he could get, and the nearer he could get, the very momentum of his Army coming up was a deterrent to the enemy and a boost to us. But there wasn’t any physical joining of hands to the extent that any British came to intervene in the battle. Monty sent me some sort of personal message saying that we had joined hands, and I said, “Well I haven’t felt the grip of your hand yet.”
The difficult situation was exacerbated when Clark was told by Alexander’s headquarters to: “First, play up the Eighth Army progress henceforth. Second, the Fifth Army is pushing the enemy back on his right flank.” Clark read the missive disbelievingly and vowed not to be cheated again. After Salerno he became increasingly suspicious and critical of British officers above—and below—him, which coloured his relationship with Alexander and came to distort his operational planning. He also became obsessed with public relations and soon had fifty men working to ensure that his efforts, and those of his Army (and particularly the American part of it), were given maximum publicity. Ensuring this he ordered a “three to one rule.” Every press release was to mention Clark three times on the first page and at least once on all other pages—and the General also demanded that photographs only be taken of him from his left side. His public relations team even came up with a Fifth Army song: “Stand up stand up for General Clark, let’s sing the praises of General Clark . . .” He was very fond of that song. In this way Clark became as adept at using the Fifth Army to promote himself as Montgomery was with the Eighth Army. In many respects the two men were very similar, not least in their self-confidence. In fact, Clark and Montgomery got on quite well, particularly after the cagey young American had learned how to flatter the effete old Brit. Clark’s diary records that he once said to Montgomery: “The Fifth Army is just a young Army trying hard to get along, while the Eighth Army is a battle-tried veteran. We would appreciate your teaching us some of your tricks.” Montgomery was delighted with this and gave him some advice: “From time to time you will get instructions from Alexander that you won’t understand. When you do . . . tell him to go to hell.”
Salerno had been a severe test for Clark, his commanders and his troops. It was yet more invaluable experience, but Ernest Dawley was not given the opportunity to put what he learned to the test. Superiors who had visited the VI Corps headquarters during the battle were united in their doubts about Dawley. According to Clark he was prone to “go to pieces in emergencies,” Alexander dubbed him “a broken reed,” and Eisenhower considered him “nervous and indecisive.” Dawley was sacked and on 20 September replaced by John Lucas. The crusty West Virginian was not Clark’s ideal successor, older and lacking the hard edge that Clark was really looking for, but he was available and experienced. Clark was not particularly taken with McCreery either, but to have removed both corps commanders would have raised questions about Clark’s ability to harness the talents of his subordinates. In any case, even a rebuke to a British corps commander in an American Army at that sensitive time would have been politically unwise. Nevertheless, some emerged from Avalanche with their reputations enhanced, prime among these being Truscott and his 3rd Division, with whom Clark had a strong affinity having served with that formation just before the war—”the finest division in this or any other theatre”—and Darby—”an outstanding battle leader”—and his Ranger Force. Clark was also feted. Six years younger than the average age of a divisional commander, he had revealed some inexperience, but was now a proven battle winner with a Distinguished Service Cross pinned on his chest for the extraordinary heroism that he displayed during the fighting. It was well deserved. Alexander was impressed, Churchill began calling him “the American Eagle” and Eisenhower, although perhaps not the most objective assessor, said that he was a man of “enormous ability, intelligence and drive.” However, the American General Jacob Devers, who was to get to know Clark well during the course of 1944, recognised both Clark’s foibles and talent, observing that he was a “cold, distinguished, conceited, selfish, clever, intellectual, resourceful officer who secures excellent results quickly. Very ambitious.” Omar Bradley was equally sceptical, remarking that Clark “seemed false, somehow, too eager to impress, too hungry for the limelight, promotions and personal publicity.” Both assessments are accurate-Mark Clark not only wanted to be successful, he wanted to be seen as a great war hero who Americans could relate to. In his memoir Calculated Risk published in 1951, he dubbed himself a “tall and dirty Western bandit on the prowl.” The Chicago-born cowboy had made an impressive entrance, but still had much to learn.
Field Marshal Kesselring and von Vietinghoff had lost the Battle of Salerno, but their confidence was not gready undermined. Although the beachhead had not been destroyed in spite of a propitious position, both men looked with admiration at their achievement in initially stifling Avalanche. Kesselring knew that Hider was analysing the battle, but remained convinced that his argument for defence south of Rome had been strengthened by the landings. The Field Marshal now claimed, much to Rommel’s ire, that he could stall the Allied advance for between six to nine months. Salerno became, therefore, another German morale victory and from it Tenth Army drew strength. As Fifth Army reorganised after its exertions, the Germans prepared to fight delaying actions in front of Naples. As he wanted to see more, Hider did not rush into a decision about a withdrawal, but while he continued in his deliberations, the first important steps were being taken towards Anzio.