The German Conduct of Operations in the Italian Theatre 1943-1945. An overview.
par le Doktor Manfred Kehrig
When, on 12 May 1943, the last German-Italian units in North Africa ceased fighting and surrendered to the Allied Forces, the Second World War had obviously reached its peripeteia : the Stalingrad disaster, the collapse of the submarine war, the start of strategic bombing offensive against Germany and her allies, and now also the loss of the North African theatre heralded once and for all the passing of the initiative into the hands of the Axis powers' opponents. In the Mediterranean, Germany had been forced to commit herself since 1941 in order to help her ally Italy who was having difficulties in the Balkans and Libya. Germany did not, however, consider this region to be the centre of her war effort, although Germany Navy chiefs had, since 1938, increasingly been viewing the Mediterranean as mare nostrum and, above all, wanted to see the Near East as an economic aera dominated by Germany, while Italy was to be clearly limited to the status of an ally with lesser rights. On the other hand, Italy had only fought half-heartedly alongside Germany in Russia since 1941, as she was unable to discern any political objectives in the vast expanses of this giant empire, despite all ideological antagonism. The smashing and partial capture of the Italian 8th Army on the Don on 16 December 1942 had only a marginal influence on the Italian leaders and people, but the collapse in Tunis meant the loss for ever of Italy's African Empire and had a much more damaging effect on her prestige and political consciousness. The insidiously growing aversion to the war was promoted by an antagonism, partly open and partly concealed, in large sections of the aristocracy, the middle classes, the working class, intellectuals and even some members of the armed forces toward fascism and, above all Mussolini who, after the loss of North Africa, was regarded by the controlling bodies of his own movement as a troublesome obstacle on a way out of the war. For Italy, withdrawal from the war was a quite logical consequence of the situation that her objective of establishing her Mediterranean Empire had been dashed on 12 May 1943.
After their defeat in North Africa, the Axis partners had to ask themselves where the Western Allies would aim their next blow. The Comando Supremo was divided. Its chief, General Ambrosio, believed that Sicily was most at risk, whereas its staff feared that an attack would be launched against Sardinia and Corsica from where an invasion of France could be launched. Hitler and Mussolini, supported by the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW), were of the opinion that the Balkans would be the Allies' next objective, as an offensive there would intensify the partisan movement, cause Turkey to enter the war on the Allies' side and, above all, threaten the German raw material base in the Balkans with the valuable oil wells in Romania. Consequently, the number of German divisions in the Eastern Mediterranean region was increased to 14. The OKW considered Italy to be far less important. It would hardly be possible to defend this country with its elongated coasts which offered numerous possible landing sites. The OKW thus considered abandoning the whole of Italy south of the line Pisa-Rimini and concentrating on defending the approaches to the Po Plain and to the North Italian industrial region. One of the major reasons for this solution was that the OKW saw in it a chance to create an economically autonomous theatre of war with this industrial potential. This view was supported most vigorously by the Commander-in-Chief earmarked to assume command of the north Italian zone of operations, Field-marshal Rommel, who was at this very moment establishing an army group staff in Munich for this purpose. Rommel had learnt his lessons from the North African theatre ; he not only distrusted the Italians, but also realized that successful battles in Southern and Central Italy would be significantly hampered by Allied air supremacy. Since 1943, the Commander-in-Chief of German Troops in Italy, as Commander-in-Chief South (Army Group C), had been Luftwaffe Field-Marshal Kesselring, who nervertheless had sound experience as an army officer, as he had not joined the new Luftwaffe until 1935 when he was a colonel and commander of an artillery regiment, and had held general Staff positions in the First World War ; consequently, he combined in an optimum manner capabilities for commanding both ground and air forces. He disagreed with Rommel and the OKW and beleived that it would be possible, with the help of Italians, whom he trusted, to successfully defend the entire peninsula. For every inch of ground that he had to relinquish to the Allies, he was determined to demand from them a high price in terms of bloody losses, belligerent energy and, above all, time. These fundamental differences of opinion between Rommel and the OKW on the one hand and Kesselring on the other - which also had something to do with a personnal rivalry dating from 1941 - were to leave their mark on Germany policy towards Italy in the months to come.
At first, Hitler, unlike Rommel and the OKW, tended towards Kesselring's view for alliance and economic reasons. Relinquishing Italy was bound to encourage his other allies in their desire to end the war, and Germany would not have been able to replace the Italian troops withdrawn from the Balkans and Southern France - and this at a time when every division was needed in view of the planned battle in the Kursk Salient. Another consideration was that once the well-developed airfields in the aera around Foggia in Apulia were in the hands of the Allies, they would be able to fly attacks from here against Austria, Southern Germany and even against thr Romanian oil fields. But there was one thing above all that Hitler did not want to do - abandon his friend Mussolini.
In early May 1943, the German command provided Comando Supremo with initially three divisions for the defence of Italian territory. One of them was to come from France, while the other two were to be activated from the remains of German divisions from Tunis. Comando Supremo wanted one division deployed on Sicily, one on Sardinia and the other on Corsica. When, two days before the end of Tunis, Hitler offered three more divisions, General Ambrosio firmly declined, suggesting instead the return of the Italian divisions from Southern France and the Balkans. This, and many other things, aroused Hitler's and the OKW's suspicion, and when, on 19 May, the Wehrmacht Operations Staff sketched Hitler a picture of the situation of the Italian forces that was far from flattering, he ordered a contingency plan - "Alarich" - to be implemented in the event that Italy should break away from the alliance with Germany. Under this plan, Northern Italy was to be occupied by several German divisions under the command of HQ Army Group B, Rommel. While Rommel would then prepare the defence of Northern Italy, Kesselring was to exercise control over the withdrawal of the German troops from Southern Italy and Sicily and their integration into the defence of Northern Italy prepared by Rommel.
Even though Comando Supremo had agreed, in mid-May, to the deployment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division on Sicily, the 90th Panzergrenadier Division on Sardinia, the Panzer Division Hermann Goering in the Naples area and the 16th Panzer Division, which was to be transferred from France, under the command of XIV Panzer Corps, the ubiquitous war-weary behaviour of the Italians and, above all, the capitulation under mysterious circumstances of the island of Pantelleria (between Sicily and Tunisia) on 11 June aroused German suspicion to a very high degree. The rapid collapse of the Italian resistance on Sicily from 10 July onwards caused the Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, Jodl, to come to the conclusion on 15 July that the Island could not be held. The further deterioration in German-Italian relations, resulting from the arrest and deposition of Mussolini as prime minister on 25 July, could not be attenuated by the assurances of the King, the new Prime Minister, Badoglio, and Ambrosio that they intended to continue the war on the German side. Indeed, tension between the two sides increased when the Wehrmacht High Command learned through various channels that Italy was seeking an armistice with the Allies. Hitler realized better than anyone else what the consequences of Mussolini's arrest would be : collapse of the fascist system and Italy's exit from the war. Despite the imminent Soviet couteroffensive at Kursk, he ordered the implementation of Alarich to stabilize the situation in Italy and the Balkans.
- Occupation of the Mont Cenis Pass (Operation Copenhagen)
- Occupation of the French Mediterranean coast in the Italian 4th Army's sector (Operation Siegfried)
- Occupation of Northern Italy by II SS Panzer Corps, withdrawn from the East, under the command of Army Group B, Rommel
- Preparations for the arrest of unreliable customers in Rome by the Commander-in-Chief of German Airborne Forces, General Student, with special units (subsequently 2nd Parachute division) and for the rescue of Mussolini.
In addition, Kesselring was ordered to prepare the evacuation of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and to concentrate the 3rd and 26th Panzer Divisions in the Rome area. On 28 July, orders were issued to launch Operation Axis which widened the scope of Alarich and Konstantin (occupation of the Italian regions in the Balkans). Both the Commander-in-Chief South and the Commander-in-Chief Southeast were directed to wait for the codeword Axis and then take over the regions occupied by the Italians, win over to the German side those units willing to cooperate, and disarm and intern the others. These directives once again made clear the OKW's main ideas for the defence of Italy - relinquish Southern and Central Italy and withdraw to the Northern Italian redoubt. Consequently, all arriving German formations were concentrated in Northern Italy, and it became increasingly clear to the Italian leaders that they now hardly had any chance to effectively oppose this development. On 6 August, they yielded along the entire line in Tarvisio with the aim of giving priority to German troop movements to Italy. Tension grew in the following days as a result of troop movements by both sides in an attempt to gain more favourable lines of departure. On the Italian side, these were guided by the understandable desire to secure the Alpine passes and particularly important bases such as La Spezia and Genoa. On 18 August, the OKW announced that Rommel had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B ; he commanded all German formations north of the Line Elba-Perugia-Civita Nova. South of this line, the Commander-in-Chief South, Kesselring, was in charge ; the ground forces under his command comprised the slowly forming 10th Army under Colonel-General von Vietinghoff-Scheel with the XIV Panzer Corps and the LXXVII Panzer Corps.
Following the successful conclusion of the evacuation of Sicily - an operation which followed a classic pattern - on 17 August, the OKW and Kesselring were again faced with the question as to where the Allies would aim their next blow. They proceeded on the assumption that Italy would soon collapse and surrender. The main consquence of this was that it was imperative to keep open not only the Alpine passes but also the crossings in Southern and Central Italy for the German formations. The best opportunity for an allied landing was considered to be in the Naples-Salerno area, which is why three major units were to be concentrated there, while the 1st Parachute Division was to protect the air bases at Foggia ; Sardinia was to be defended in a delaying action and then evacuated. On 30 August, the OKW published a new version of Axis. The Italian formations were to be disarmed as quickly as possible and the disintegration of the Italian Army encouraged by telling every soldier that he could now either go home or continue fighting on the Wehrmacht's side. However, despite these OKW directives, Kesselring and Rommel could still not agree on a common strategy for Italy. Kesselring stuck to his belief that he would be able to hold Central Italy, whereas Rommel believed that a successful defence would only be possible in Northern Italy. Nevertheless, Kesselring made his conception the basis of his operational planning in implementation of the OKW directive of 30 August, and he was able to refer to Hitler's agreement to conduct the first decisive defence south of Rome.
Since, at the end of August, 75% of the enemy's air forces, all his heavy naval forces and 97% of his amphibious capacity were concentrated in the western part of the Mediterranean, Kesselring beleived that only a landing in Southern Italy was possible, although the possibility of landings on Sardinia, in the Gulf of Salerno and in the Greater Rome aera could not be ruled out. The Commander-in-Chief South thus decided to move the 14th Panzer Corps with the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and the Panzer Division Hermann Göring to the Naples area, initially to refit, while the 76th Panzer Corps with the 29th Panzergrenadier Division and the 26th Panzer Division were, in the event of a landing in Southern Italy, to slowly withdraw from the southern tip of Calabria to the Castrollari region. The 1st Parachute Division was to cover Northern Apulia and the Foggia area including Taranto. The formations fighting as part of the 10th Army were formally under the command of the Italian 7th Army.
It is not necessary here to go into detail about the individual phases of the Italian surrender negotiations with the Allies, German countermeasures etc. It will suffice to note that the Wehrmacht reinforced its presence everywhere, introduced more and more German enlisted personnel into the transportation and communication control networks and secured its lines of supply with its own forces.
On 3 September, the British 8th Army launched its landing at Reggio di Calabria under covering fire from a massive armada of artillery and with extremely heavy air force support. But the blow did not strike anything, as the 29th Panzergrenadier Division had withdrawn from the coast. Not a single shot was fired by the Italian side. The German formations retreated as planned to the line Catanzaro-Nicastro. Even if there was no immediate threat to this front sector of the 10th Army at this time, the overall situation was still critical. At 1845 hours on the evening of 8 September, Marshal Badoglio announced on the radio that Italy had concluded an armistice with the Allies ; he did not combine this with any directives to the Italian troops. At 2000 hours, the OKW gave the codeword Axis. The German formations acted with exemplary efficiency, as quick as lightning and with determination. In Italy, Southern France and Balkans, the formations of the Axis partner were disarmed, sent home or interned without much difficulty. The word put out by the Germans that the war was over rapidly led to the disbandment of the Italian Army. It was a shocking end to a common struggle lasting three years, embarrassing for the German troops involved in the action and bitter and humiliating for Germany's former comrade-in-arms. The Italians' vehicles, equipment and valuable stores were taken over by the German troops. Only 45 000 Italian soldiers on Sardinia and 85 000 on Corsica escaped disarmament. Sardinia was evacuated by German troops on 19 September, Corsica on 3rd October.
In this situation, the Allies landed at two more points in Italy on 9 September. Near Taranto, a british airborne division went ashore, faced only by weak elements of the German 1st Parachute Division, which were able to conduct a successful defence despite their being outnumbered. Far more dangerous, however, was the landing by the American 5th Army in the Gulf of Salerno on a width of 30km, where the 16th Panzer Division was employed in strongpoints between Salerno and the Sele River. South of the Sele, the Americans were able to reach the heights, but north of the river the first elements of the Panzer Division Hermann Göring, approaching from the Naples aera, were able to contain the enemy thrust. The German forces were too weak to mount an immediate counterattack, and even if the 26th Panzer Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division of 76th Panzer Corps did manage to conduct an orderly withdrawal from Calabria without heavy losses, the fact remains that, as a result of lack of fuel, they arrived on the battlefield 24 hours too late to smash the enemy - who was advancing at an incredibly slow pace - in the bridgehead. Nevertheless, the German counterattack launched on 14 September almost achieved its objective, which would have been an enormous prestige success for the German side, but the Americans also did not want to run the risk of a defeat, and so the German attack perished once and for all in a hail of steel on 16 September.
Under the effect of the American landing in the Salerno area, the OKW, on 12 September, ordered the counterattack but also, regardless of whether it was successful or not, the withdrawal of the 10th Army to the line Grosseto-Ancona, i. e. north of Rome. In view of his so far successful conduct of operations, however, Kesselring was of course in no hurry with this withdrawal to the north. On the evening of 12 September, he discussed with the Commander-in-Chief of the 10th Army the possibility of erecting a fortified line south of Rome, which was later called Gustav Line. In the strict sense of the word, this could not be a line, but rather a system of fortified landmarks, echeloned in depth, at the narrowest point of the Italian peninsula. The line followed the course of the rivers Garigliano, Liri and Rapido, continued via Venato and the Maiella Mountains and reached the Adriatic coast at Tossacesia, a few kilometres north of the Sangro. In the weeks that followed, Kesselring had this system of positions developed at full speed by Engineer General Bessel. In the long run, Hitler could not withhold his recognition of Kesselring's vigorous style of command. Unlike the generals on the Eastern Front, Kesselring did not deliver pessimistic estimates of the situation, he demanded that his troops hold their ground, fight and not withdraw, just the kind of language that Hitler liked to hear. Moreover, the Gustav Line, with a length of 135 km, could be defended with fewer forces than the Gothic Line in the Apennines, which was prepared by Rommel, and psychologically the Gustav Line had the great advantage that it covered Rome. On 4 October, the OKW ordered that the 10th Army be withdrawn to the Bernhard Line between Gaeta and Ortona, i. e. still south of the Gustav Line, while holding the coast north of Salerno. Once the Bernhard Line had been reached on 21 November, Kesselring was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Army Group C, which controlled the 10th Army and the newly created 14th Army under Colonel-General von Mackensen. Kesselring retained his function as Commander-in-Chief South, now with the title Commander-in-Chief Southwest. Rommel was dispatched to France with a new mission.
The Bernhard Line was originally the main German line of defence ; with a few modifications, it subsequently became Gustav Line. The Cassino position, with the 10th Army started to develop vigorously when the British 8th Army and the American 7th Army started approaching the Bernhard Line, was a branch of this main line of defence. This position began in the aera of Monte Cassino, ran west to Ridimonte and then southwest to Ponte Corvo ; it ended on the ridge of the Arunci Mountains. In January 1944, it was given Senger Barrier after the Commanding General of the 14th Panzer Corps, Armour General Fridolin von Senger-Etterlin. All these fortification lines were developed by the Todt Organization, supported by Italian construction battalions and civilian building workers, following tactical directives which Kesselring once again summarized on 8 December. When constructing the positions, skilful use was made of all the advantages that the terrain offered, and they were even enhanced by additionally created obstacles. Thus, for instance, by blasting holes in the rock, artificial caves were created which were then transformed into carefully camouflaged bunkers. Behind the boulders, machine-gun positions with an unobstructed field of fire were established. On the winding road leading to Monte Cassino monastery, artillery positions were constructed, and mortars were deployed in the valleys and on the reverse slopes. To protect them against artillery bombardment, the positions were to be located neither on ridges nor on forward slopes. The main line of resistance itself did not form a continuous system of trenches as in the First World War, but was composed of a system of mutually supporting pockets of resistance, laid out like a chessboard and capable of conducting all-round defence. This system was organised in depth and additionally secured by minefields, barbed-wire entanglements, antitank ditches or flooding systems. Kesselring went even further and gave instructions for digging-in, camouflage, creation of fields of fire, billeting of soldiers in the immediate proximity of the combat installations, execution of deception measures, every position had to have two exits, drainage systems for rainy periods etc.
Purely in terms of numbers, the 10th Army formations were in quite good position. The 10th Army consisted of 11 divisions which could, if necessary, be reinforced by formations of the 14th Army and reserves of the Commander-in-Chief West in France. The American 5th Army consisted of 7 infantry divisions and one armoured division plus the French Expeditionary Corps with the 2nd Moroccan and the 3rd Algerians divisions under the command of General Juin. The British 8th Army numbered 4 infantry divisions and one armoured division, to which was later added the New Zealand Corps under General Freyberg. However, it must not be forgotten that a German infantry division comprised 6 battalions whereas the Allies' divisions comprised 9 infantry battalions. In terms of infantry alone, the Allies had a threefold superiority. As far as artillery, ammunition supply and available air forces were concerned, their superiority was simply overwhhelming. For this reason, German air reconnaissance was out of the question, and relief and supply movements had to be conducted during the night. Every foggy or rainy day was most welcome because it meant that the Allies could not employ their air forces. In view of the Allied air supremacy, Luftwaffe bomber formations could not be employed effectively. But the German units had one decisive advantage over the Allies, especially the Americans : combat experience, a high degree of motivation, independance in taking decisions and acting. The German mission-type tactics, based on the soldier's own responsibility and initiative, were now displayed to great effect in the southern theatre following their successful application in the eastern theatre. And the German units had one more advantage : they were able to defend from fortified positions.
At the turn of the year, the Allies' principal objective was to not allow the fighting to degenerate into trench warfare, but rather to keep the war of movement going making full use of their air supremacy and material superiority. By means of various individual operations, they aimed to penetrate Gustav Line, destroy the bulk of the German formations, take Rome and reach the line Civitavecchia-Viterbo-Terni ; Ancona on the Adriatic Coast was further operational objective. This major objective was to be reached by a combination of frontal attack against the Gustav Line and amphibious operation in the rear of the German front at Anzio-Nettuno, in such a way that the landing would take place after all German reserves had been tied at the front. The Commander-in-Chief of the Allied ground forces, General Alexander, gave his subordinate commanders a picture of the state of their German opponents that was more than remarkable : it was a picture of an exhausted and disintegrating enemy desperatly attempting to refill his formations. It was not surprising that General Alexander gave his operations orders the bold title The Battle for Rome.
The Allied offensive preparations remained almost entirely concealed from the German leaders in front of the Gustav Line. The Luftwaffe was unable to fly any reconnaissance missions, reconnaissance by force behind enemy lines was not possible due to insufficient forces, and the Allied camouflage and deception measures proved almost perfect.
The attack by the French Expeditionary Corps on 12 January 1944 against the German front east of the Rapido marked the beginning of the first Battle of Cassino, which was to last until 18 February 1944. From the very beginning, the French Corps proved to be particularly suited to mountain warfare. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, the soldiers were mountain dwellers from North Africa who had been trained in mountain warfare. They had the knack of discovering usable mountain trails, and they usually followed the worst and thus in most cases least well defended routes of march. Secondly, these soldiers normally pursued the tactics of infiltrating the terrain in several elements simultaneously and then attacking in heavy concentration. Thirdly, the French leaders displayed a flexible and intelligent method of fighting. Fourthly, the French officers' and NCOs' will to fight was exceptionally strong, as they were inspired by the desire to restore the honour of the French Army, which had been wounded so severely in 1940, and, moreover, to liberate their fatherland. The enlisted personnel did not hesitate to follow their resolute leader into the fiercest fighting. Fifthly, the North African soldiers were in top physical conditions, and they were just as skilled with the hand grenade as with the bayonet. The French attack hit the German 5th Mountain Division with such that force that it had to abandon the combat zone east of the Rapido immediately and, on the 16th, fall back to the Gustav Line.
A much greater threat was posed in the night of 17/18 January 1944 by the attack of the British 10th Corps against the lower reaches of the Garigliano, where the German 94th Infantry Division was soon in difficulties. Kesselring immediately recognized the enemy's intention to penetrate the Gustav Line and advance to Liri Valley, and released his only reserve divisions - the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions - for employment there. He now had nothing left with which to counter new crisis situations, but the enemy offensive had to be stopped as quickly as possible to deprive the Allies of any motive for mounting an amphibious landing, the preparation of which had naturally not gone unobserved. Kesselring now concentrated everything he could lay his hands on to mount a counterattack against the successful British 10th Corps, and did not shrink from detaching induividual regiments, battalions and companies from all sorts of divisions. But the counterattack did not result in a sweeping success. It did, however, bring about such a stabilization of the front on 21 January that the British had to resign themselves to not being able to achieve anything else. This was all the more important because the attack by the American 2nd Corps on 20th January also collapsed with heavy casualties.
The successful operations conducted by the German troops on and in the Gustav Line were unable to mature into a full success because the American 6th Corps mounted a surprise landing at Anzio-Nettuno on 22 January. The two Panzergrenadier Divisions which were supposed to repel such a landing had been transferred to the southern wing by Kesselring. If the Americans had acted quickly and resolutely, they could have totally altered the entire course of the war in Italy and forced the 10th Army to abandon its positions. Instead, they methodically consolidated their beachhead, under the protection of which 55,000 men were brought ashore in the next few days. This gave Kesselring the opportunity to take his countermeasures quickly and also effectively. In the Nettuno combat zone, 14th Army HQ under Colonel-General von Mackensen assumed command. In mid-February, this army had 3 infantry divisions, one parachute division, 2 panzer divisions, 2 panzergrenadier divisions, several Panther and Tiger battalions and a sizeable artillery. The German counterattack against the bridgehead, launched on 16 February, very nearly achieved success, but it was discontinued just at the time when the Allies were also throwing their last man in the battle and were seriously considering going back to their ships. The German counterattack failed, and the 14th Army went over the defensive. Army Group C did at least achieve one decisive success : the desired link-up between the American 5th Army and the landing forces in the bridgehead was unable to have an effect, Alexander's Battle for Rome did not take place - at least not yet -, not even at the expense of the totally senseless, barbaric destruction of Monte Cassino Monastery, which was totally demolished on 15 February 1944 by 300 Allied bombers dropping 453 tons of bombs.
The further Battles of Monte Cassino do not need to be discussed here in their operational context. It will suffice to note that the 2nd Battle of Cassino, from 15 to 23 March, also did not result in any significant success for the Allies. The final outcome was determined by the 3rd Battle of Cassino, which began on 11 May. Again thanks to vigorous action by the French Expeditonary Corps, which by now had increased in size to 4 divisions, the Petrella Massif was quickly lost and the German formations were driven back to the Fondi aera. Nevertheless, Kesselring remained determined to prevent any link-up by the attackers with the Americans in the bridgehead and thus to conduct his defence with dogged resolution. However, he could not prevent the French and American formations from increasing the pressure and thrusting not only into the deep flank of the 10th Army but also into the rear of the 14th Army. The 14th Army, without reserves and with only 5 weak divisions, was holding the bridgehead front against 5 American divisions were twice as strong. On the morning of 23 May, the American 6th Corps broke out the bridghead and launched an attack with the objective of Valmontone. On 25 May, the American 5th Army was able to link up in Terracina with the forces which had launched the break-out attack from the bridghead. But instead of purposefully continuing their thrust northward and completing the breakthrough, the Americans got wound up in the flanks of their penetration wedge. They did not succeed in breaking through until 30 May, the 10th and 14th Armies were now separated. To retain a uniform conduct of operations, Army Group C ordered, for the night of 3/4 June, the withdrawal of the 14th Army behind the Tiber and the abandonment of Rome, while the 10th Army was still echeloned a long way forward in the Sabine Hills and on the upper Liri. It then slowly swung back north and was able to link up again with its adjacent unit at Orvieto on 14 June 1944. By the end of June, the formations of Army Group C had largely consolidated again.
June 1944 marked a decisive turning point in the Italian theatre. On 6 June, the Allies landed in Normandy, and Italy irrevocably became a secondary theatre of war. In mid-June, the Anglo-American High Command issued the instruction to pull one US corps and the French Expeditionary Corps out of the front, as they were to take part in a landing in Southern France in August 1944. The Italian theatre lost significance for the Americans in particular. Not, however, for the British. Supreme Commander, Mediterranean, General Wilson, objected strongly to the departure of the two corps, pointing out that there was now a favourable opportunity to cross from the Adriatic coast to Istria and, advancing via Ljubljana, releive the pressure on the Soviet front in the Ukraine. This concept of operations, which was naturally supported by Churchill, did not meet with a favourable reception from President Roosevelt and had to be dropped by the British.
Under these circumstances, it will suffice if the further course of operations up to 2 May 1945 is sketched with just a few strokes. In August, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied ground forces in Italy, General Alexander, received, in return for the two corps he had to surrender, a Brazilian army corps, Greek and newly activated Italian formations plus an Israeli brigade. In all, he retained an adequate superiority over the German forces to be able to continue dictating the action to the German side. In the course of the next two months, Army Group C fell back to the Apennine position - the Gothic Position - which had been under construction for a long time, and in which it was to bring the enemy to a standstill once and for all. During July, there was a fighting on the approaches to the Arno, with the enemy's main effort on the western wing of the 14th Army. General Alexander was determined to settle the issue in Italy before the summer and automn months were over. His offensive operation was a breakthrough on the Adriatic and in the mountains towards Bologna. The fighting in the Apennines turned out, all in all, to be extraordinarily successful for Army Group C and involved heavy casualties for the Allied side. By the end of 1944, most of Army Group C had been pushed out of the Apennines and stood on the line Lake Comacchio - south Bologna. The issue had not been settled as General Alexander had hoped. Even as late as March and April 1945, Army Group C was able to fight succesful battles while withdrawing. On 2 May 1945, it was the first part of the German Wehrmacht to surrender to the Allies.
Since the start of the German formations' withdrawal from the Gustav Line, groups of partisans had been making a nuisance of themselves in the mountainous terrain with its many hiding places. They were under the influence of the Allies who had supplied them generously with weapons. By destroying bridges, blocking routes and attacking supply vehicles, they caused a certain amount of disturbance behind the front, so that it was even necessary here to pull formations out of the fighting at the front to put an end to this state of affairs. The partisans were unable to exert a really decisive influence on the German conduct of the war, neither here nor during the subsequent fighting in Northern Italy. In most cases, they also found little support among the population. In general, the civilians wanted to be left in peace and be spared by the war as much as possible, and the majority of them were well disposed towards the German troops. In the partisans, the Allies had a double-edged sword. For they aroused spirits from which the Italian people suffered far more after the war than the German Wehrmacht during the war. Here, as in other theatres, the Wehrmacht was forced to conduct the war in a way it deeply abhorred. It is from this angle that occasional excesses should be viewed which only happened because the war was no longer being fought in its conventional form.
As is generally known, Hitler and the OKW had not intended to conduct a vigorous defence of Central and Southern Italy. Only Kesselring's insistence and successes were able to convince them otherwise. Admittedly, the Italian theatre tied down German forces and supplies on a large scale. But the German operations also had a diversificatory effect on the Allied forces. The Western Powers had expected that their armies would be able to immediately start a smooth advance northwards. Nothing of the like had happened. The Italian Army had disappeared from the scene without trace. The Germans continued fighting, free of cares and without worrying about their unreliable comrades-in-arms. The Allies were now faced with the militarily undesirable fact that they had created a new, strength-sapping theatre in which they did not want to strive to decide the outcome of the war, but which they could not abandon either. They decided to continue the war in Italy from mid-1944 onwards using a minimum of forces in order to maintain the second front and to concentrate all efforts on preparing the invasion of France.
Mesdames, Messieurs, je voudrais terminer ma présentation avec la remarque suivante : au moment de la capitulation ŕ Tunis le 12 mai 1943, le général Von Arnim a rendu une visite officielle au général Alexander qui l'a reçu avec bienveillance et a beaucoup apprécié le courage des troupes allemandes.
Copyright www.stratisc.org - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin