By October 1943, the Allies were facing an ugly truth. Invading Italy was seen as a chance for a quick victory. But Albert Kesselring’s German forces had put an end to that. They had exacted a heavy toll for the beachhead at Salerno, before falling back to a series of fortified lines across central Italy. Now, before them stood the most formidable challenge yet and more bloody fighting. 

The Allies had a dilemma. How much further should they go?

Was it worth it?


Voice over: "By October 1943, the Allies were facing an ugly truth. Invading Italy was seen as a chance for a quick victory. But Albert Kesselring’s German forces had put an end to that. They had exacted a heavy toll for the beachhead at Salerno, before falling back to a series of fortified lines across central Italy. Now, before them stood the most formidable challenge yet and more bloody fighting."

Adrian Kerrison, IWM Curator, Second World War and Mid 20th Century: "The Allied invasion of Normandy was edging ever-closer, and Italy was becoming a less important theatre of the war. However, the possible capture of Rome was too great a prospect to pass up. Not only was there huge propaganda value in taking a major Axis capital, but the capture of the numerous nearby airfields would allow the Allies to threaten German forces in the Balkans and Southern France, as well as bringing them closer to Germany itself. Finally, the Allies wanted to tie down the maximum number of German forces to prevent their redeployment to the Eastern and soon to be Western fronts."

Voice over: "With Rome the target, some of the bloodiest and most controversial fighting of the war was around the corner. In this final episode of our series sponsored by Company of Heroes 3, we’ll explore the battles for Monte Cassino, the landings at Anzio and the capture of Rome. All to understand whether the entire campaign was worth it at all. 

As October arrived in Italy, men, material and, most importantly supplies, began to be transferred to the UK for Operation Overlord. In their place, three French forces began to arrive and, after joining the fight against Germany in October, Italian units helped pick up the slack behind the lines. Still, the already difficult task of reaching Rome had become even more challenging. 

Over the following months the Allies advanced painfully slowly from mountain to mountain with Mark Clark’s 5th Army on the west coast and Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army on the east. Their forces became exhausted from the hills, gorges, unpaved roads and destroyed bridges. By November, fog, rain and mud had turned the country into a swamp, and they were forced to purchase Italian pack mules by the thousand just to supply the men. Still the advance trundled on.

The 8th Army was to advance to Pescara, before turning left toward Rome, while 5th Army was to advance on the city via the Liri Valley and Highway 6. But it would not be easy, as General Alexander put it – “All roads lead to Rome and all roads are mined.”

German commander Albert Kesselring’s strategy was to slow the Allied advance as much as possible and buy time to construct further defences. Kesselring’s forces did have problems, a shortage of artillery ammunition, little air support and few reserves. However, the terrain more than made up for their problems."

Adrian Kerrison: "Good defensive lines utilise natural terrain features such as high ground, rivers, and dense forests, as they restrict the enemy’s freedom of movement. Kesselring’s Gustav Line, which ran across the Italian Peninsula from coast to coast, did exactly that. 

The key Allied target was the relatively flat Liri valley and Highway 6 that ran through it, which would give the Allies a straight shot to Rome. But to enter the valley, the Allies needed to cross the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers and secure the high ground around Monte Cassino, which overlooked the valley and this is where the Germans anchored their defences - The Gustav line.

They built complex, interlinking networks behind the rivers up to 3,000 yards deep and destroyed any bridges that crossed. These networks were made up of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, pillboxes, trenches and concealed anti-tank guns. A few miles behind the main line were artillery positions, whose fire could be accurately directed by observers on the mountain peaks. To many, the Gustav Line seemed almost impregnable."  

Voice over: "In the December, the 8th army finally managed to break through the Gustav Line near the coast. In brutal street fighting, Canadian troops captured the town of Ortona which became known as Little Stalingrad. Montgomery’s forces were exhausted. But just as he was poised to exploit the breakthrough, a blizzard blew through the region and made further progress impossible. As 1943 reached its end, the Allies were at a standstill. But everything was about to change.

As 1944 began, Mediterranean commander Dwight Eisenhower and 8th Army Commander Montgomery left the theatre to take their place in planning for Operation Overlord. Sir Henry Wilson and Sir Oliver Leese took their places (Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean and Commander Eighth Army). The transfer of General Wilson in particular meant that the Mediterranean was now a British led theatre and under the influence of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Adrian Kerrison: "Churchill was getting frustrated with the stalled Allied offensive. While lying sick in bed in Tripoli, he dreamed of a way to revitalise the offensive and capture Rome. There were previous plans for an amphibious operation to outflank the Gustav line, but these had been cancelled due to a lack of landing craft. With his pet project at risk, Churchill used his newfound sway to secure the required landing craft until mid-February. The Allied attack at Anzio, codenamed Operation Shingle, was on."

Voice over: "Operation Shingle was scheduled for January 22nd. 2 divisions of Six Corps under John P. Lucas would land at the resort town of Anzio, 30 miles southeast of Rome. They would advance inland to the Alban Hills, which overlooked both Highways 6 and 7, and threaten Kesselring’s supply lines, forcing him to weaken the Gustav Line and allowing the Allies to break through and race to Rome.

Both Clark and Lucas had severe misgivings about the plan, to them it was risky. Two divisions was a small force and there was no time for any rehearsal. Worst of all, if the Gustav Line was not broken, they were on their own.

As preparations for Shingle were made, 5th Army made its first major attack around Monte Cassino. They had only reached the Gustav Line on January 15th, but with a week remaining they attempted to draw in as many German units as possible with a series of attacks. The Battle of Monte Cassino was about to begin.

On the 17th of January the British 5th and 56th divisions made their first attack. They successfully crossed the Garigliano river, causing Kesselring such alarm he had to deploy reserves from Rome to stabilise the line. So far things were going to plan. But when the US Two Corps tried to cross the river Rapido three days later, the results were disastrous. 

There was little to no cover on the approaches to the river and withering artillery fire caused heavy casualties before they even reached its banks. The rubber and wooden boats were punctured and splintered while the pontoon bridges were quickly put out of action. After two days of heavy fighting, no gains were made.

In the following days, American and French Moroccan troops made their attacks to the north of Cassino. They made some progress, but after a week of heavy fighting they too came to a halt. 

On the 22nd of January, the Allied soldiers landed at Anzio almost entirely unopposed. They took the port and around 200 German prisoners, while advanced jeep patrols reached the outskirts of Rome. But rather than striking out for the Alban Hills, Lucas proceeded with caution. 

Adrian Kerrison: "He was worried that striking out for the Alban Hills would leave the beachhead at Anzio lightly defended and vulnerable to German counter attacks. Defending both the Hills and the beachhead with just the 2 divisions initially available to him would be a tall order, and success depended on the Gustav Line being broken. If it wasn’t broken and he lost his beachhead, his entire force could be annihilated. So instead, Lucas decided to wait and build up his forces before making his attack. As a result, three days later, Kesselring was able to muster elements from 8 divisions and surrounded the Allied beachhead."

Voice over: "After 9 days, Lucas had gathered 70,000 men and was ready to make his breakout. The British made limited gains, but the Americans took heavy casualties against now substantial German opposition. With all momentum lost, they had no choice but to dig in and await the inevitable German counterattack.

Meanwhile at Monte Cassino, American and French attacks continued to the North. The US 34th Division came within a few hundred meters of the monastery that overlooked the town. But losses were heavy and German reinforcements were able to plug the gaps. By mid-February the US Two Corps was utterly exhausted and had to be withdrawn from the battle. Their replacements were Indian and New Zealand divisions. These commanders quickly decided that, to make any progress themselves, the monastery at Monte Cassino would have to be destroyed. It would become one of the most controversial incidents of the Italian Campaign."

Adrian Kerrison: "The Allies had now been at the foot of Monte Cassino for a month, staring up at the monastery that was so close but so far out of reach. Though the Germans had promised that they would not occupy the building, rumours had begun to spread. Some Allied commanders believed that it was being used by German observers to call down artillery fire. Others believed that, even if the Germans weren’t occupying the Monastery now, they would likely use it as a strongpoint once Allied attackers made it up the mountain.

On the 15th of February 1944, Allied aircraft dropped more than 1,000 tones of high explosive and incendiaries on the Monastery. The entire area was reduced to rubble. But the Allies were wrong, there were no German soldiers inside. Instead, the Allies inadvertently killed 230 civilians sheltering from the fighting in this supposedly neutral zone. After the bombing, German Fallschirmjager moved in to occupy the ruins."  

Voice over: "To add to the disaster, the aerial bombing was not co-ordinated with attacks on the ground and the Allied troops were totally unprepared. When the Indian, Māori and Ghurkha troops attacked the next day they were repulsed with heavy losses. 

The following day on the 16th of February, the German forces at Anzio launched their long-awaited counterattack. They now outnumbered the Allies 125,000 to 100,000 and had enough tanks to make a serious attempt at destroying the beachhead. Over the course of three days, they pushed the Allies back to their final defensive lines, but Allied artillery fire had stopped them there. Both sides were taking heavy casualties, around 20,000 on each side in the month since the landings. The battle had reached a stalemate, but the Allies still had hope.

They believed that the number of German troops deployed at Anzio must have weakened the Gustav Line. In March, they intended to put this theory to the test, with a third attack at Monte Cassino preceded by a huge bombardment on the town of Cassino below. 

Beginning on the 15th of March, 435 aircraft dropped a huge amount of ordnance, but only half found their targets. This was followed by 746 artillery pieces, which delivered almost 200,000 rounds onto the town and enemy positions. It was an awesome showcase of Allied firepower, but would it dislodge the defenders?"

Adrian Kerrison: "The Bombardment was supposed to pulverize Cassino and daze its defenders. The 300 paratroopers from the German 1st Fallschirmjager Division holding Cassino lost half their number in the bombardment, but they still managed to put up an effective defence. The Fallschirmjager were Germany’s airborne – or paratrooper – forces. Part of the Luftwaffe, they were elite, highly-trained soldiers with their own specialist uniform and equipment. And this is the kind of uniform and equipment that the defenders of Cassino and Monte Cassino would have worn, all original and all from the IWM’s collection.

So, we’ve got the 1940 model jump smock in splinter pattern camouflage with the Luftwaffe emblem, camouflage-painted 1938 model jump helmet, a Luftwaffe belt and equipment for the Mp40 sub machinegun and 1939 model jump boots.

By 1944 the Fallschirmjager were no longer conducting airborne operations and instead were mainly used as elite light infantry. The 1st Fallschirmjager Division in particular were highly experienced and battle-hardened, well suited for the bitter house to house fighting that was to follow."

Voice over: "The bombardment completely blocked the roads for Allied tanks that were supposed to move in support of the infantry. On the second day, unexpected rains arrived and filled the cratered town with water and mud. Though fighting continued for 9 days, little progress was made, and the Allies were once again forced to call off the attack. 

Three attempts to break the Gustav Line at Cassino had now ended in failure. With Operation Overlord set to go off in early June, the Allies had one more chance to draw in as many German forces as possible and breakthrough to Rome. For this final attack, the commander of Allied ground forces in Italy, Sir Harold Alexander, took the reins in Operation Diadem. 

He concluded that he needed more manpower to have a chance of breaking through and decided to secretly redeploy the British 8th army from the east coast to the west. Rather than the staggered attacks attempted previously, both armies would attack simultaneously on a 25-mile front, while the men at Anzio would launch a breakout towards Valmontone on Highway 6. Together they could trap and annihilate the Germans."  

Adrian Kerrison: "The key difference to previous attacks came down to sheer weight of numbers. The Diadem offensive on the Gustav Line involved four Allied Corps, totalling fifteen divisions – more than a 3 to 1 ratio over the German defenders – and this was preceded by an artillery bombardment of over 1,600 guns. This was nearly twice the size of the Allies’ first attempt to break through at Cassino in January 1944. And unlike in January, the Germans holding the line were now much weaker and degraded after repeated Allied attempts to break through over four months of bitter combat.

An hour before midnight on the 11th of May, heavy guns like this 7.2-inch howitzer Mk IV opened up across the entire front, pounding the German positions of the Gustav Line. This particular gun, which was mounted on an American carriage, could fire 90-kilogram high explosive shells at 520 metres per second, which was the kind of destructive power required to soften up the Gustav Line. Shortly after the bombardment, Allied infantry and tanks began their advance into the stubborn line that had frustrated them for many bloody months. As a result of this overwhelming, coordinated attack, the Allies finally achieved the success that they had been waiting for."

Voice over: "The key breakthrough came at Monte Majo, opposite Monte Cassino. The Germans believed this area was impassable and left it comparatively lightly defended. When Moroccan Goumiers attacked on May 13th they routed the defending Germans and pushed up into the valley. 

Kesselring had other problems too. Allied air attacks had savaged his supply lines and Allied deception operations had led him to divert forces from the Gustav Line. On top of that, three of his top commanders were on leave in Germany which made it difficult to organise a counterattack. By May 15th, his line was beginning to buckle, only Monte Cassino still held."

Adrian Kerrison: "Though the French forces had made good progress, the British forces were still forcing their way through one of the most heavily defended parts of the line. This ration tin was in the pocket of Fred Woollcott of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers when he was wounded during the second day of the Diadem offensive. In the morning, his battalion had crossed a Bailey bridge over the Rapido River under heavy fire, before launching an attack against a series of fortified stone houses with a squadron of tanks in support. They sustained heavy casualties, but fortunately achieved their objective.

We don’t know at what stage in the morning Fred was wounded, but by looking at the ration tin it is quite clear how damaging the projectile that hit him was. The corner of the tin is pretty much obliterated, with the rolled edges of the tin bending and twisting outward and inwards. Luckily, Fred survived, but at least 39 men in the battalion had been killed by the end of the day, with many more wounded."

Voice over: "After resting, the British forces attacked again on the 17th and this time, they found success. Two Polish divisions fought through the night up the slopes of Monte Cassino and by the next morning, it was finally in Allied hands. The Gustav Line had fallen. A week later, the Allies began their breakout from Anzio. They were now at numerical advantage, and with support from massed artillery fire they too broke through the German lines. By the 25th of May, they had linked up with the rest of 5th Army and created a continuous front. It was at this point however, that Mark Clark made one of the most staggering decisions of the Second World War."

Adrian Kerrison: "Clark had orders to proceed to Valmontone on Highway 6 and cut off the retreat of the German 10th Army. Instead, he chose to turn North towards Rome. He was worried about flanking attacks and believed that the 10th Army had other escape routes, but the main reason for his decision was to ensure that his 5th Army, rather than the British 8th Army, got the glory of capturing the Italian capital.

The main problem was that Clark likely could have made it to Rome quicker, and with fewer casualties, if he had stuck to the plan. VI Corps got stuck at the next German Line, known as the Caesar Line, for four days, and only broke through thanks to the 36th Texas Division, who spotted a rare gap in the line that was then fully exploited. Meanwhile, a large portion of the 10th Army was able to escape north, where the Allies would have to face them once again at the Gothic Line."

Voice over: "On June 3rd, the Germans declared Rome an open city. And on June 5th Mark Clark entered the city. His glory was short-lived, however. On June 6th, Allied forces invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord. Over the following months, the Allies advanced well beyond Rome to the Gothic Line. Allied forces now joined by Brazilian and Italian troops broke through in September, but the weather bogged them down once again. More turgid, bloody fighting lay in store, until a breakthrough was finally achieved in April 1945. By the end of the month Mussolini was dead and the German forces in Italy surrendered.  

The losses were heavy on both sides, with around 312,000 Allied and 434,000 German casualties by the end of the war. The campaign also led to a civil war in fascist controlled Italy during which thousands of partisans and civilians lost their lives. Subjected to Allied bombing, German reprisals, and mass rape, the people of Italy paid a high price for their liberation.

Today, the Italian campaign is one of the most controversial of the Second World War. Debates still rage, not only over the many blunders and mistakes made along the way, but over whether the campaign should even have been fought in the first place."

Adrian Kerrison: "In the sense that Italy could have potentially unlocked an easier route into Germany, the campaign has to be considered a costly failure. Allied planners did not fully appreciate that the Italian peninsula was a defender’s dream, and this mistake came at the cost of around 312,000 Allied casualties, of which around 65,000 were killed.

However, in the sense that it tied up a huge number of German troops that could have been deployed elsewhere, it has to be considered a success. From May 1944 to April 1945, the Germans on average had about 350,000 troops inside Italy at any one time, and this excludes Italian forces who could have been committed to the Eastern Front or western Europe if the Allies hadn’t knocked them out of the war.

But questions will always remain. Did the Allies actually need to commit as much force as they did? Could they have simply held their ground after capturing Rome? Or could the Allies have achieved more by making Italy a priority? We will never truly know."

Voice over: "The Italian campaign is often overlooked, especially in comparison to more successful campaigns like those waged in Eastern and Western Europe. But the men who fought the campaign, across mountains and rivers, in rain and snow, through gruelling mud and blood deserve to be remembered, whether their sacrifice was worth it or not."

Watch the other episodes in our Italian Campaign series:

Episode one:
Operation Husky: The largest amphibious invasion of the Second World War

Episode two:
The disaster at Salerno

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