In July of 1943, the Allies had a problem. More than two weeks into the battle for Sicily, the Allied leaders had failed to decide what would happen next. They were locked in a fierce debate. The Americans wanted to take the most direct route into the Third Reich via France, while the British wanted more time to build their forces.
But on the 25th of July 1943, everything changed. The Fascist Grand Council in Italy deposed the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini and his successor began secret peace negotiations with the Allies. Now, the Allies planned to take advantage of this coup and knock Italy out of the war with an invasion of the Italian mainland.
The invasion was supposed to be a simple one. But the reality was very different. We examine the Allied invasion of Italy and just how close it came to catastrophe.
Invading Italy was meant to be easy. What went wrong?
Voice over: "In July of 1943, British, American and Canadian troops had landed on the beaches of Sicily and were beginning to fight their way inland. But there was a problem. More than two weeks into the operation, the Allied leaders had failed to decide what they would do next. The Americans wanted to take the most direct route into the Third Reich via France. But the British wanted more time to build their forces."
Sean Rehling, IWM Curator: "The debate was fierce, but on the 25th of July 1943, everything changed. The Fascist Grand Council in Italy deposed the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. His successor, Marshal Badoglio, began secret peace negotiations with the Allies. Now, the Allies planned to take advantage of this coup and knock Italy out of the war by an invasion of the Italian mainland."
Voice over: "The invasion was supposed to be a simple one, capitalising on a wavering Italy and a distracted Germany. But the reality was very different. In this second episode of our series, sponsored by Company of Heroes 3, we’ll be taking examining the Allied invasion of Italy and just how close it came to catastrophe."
Voice over: "With secret Italian peace negotiations underway, it was vital that the Allies took the initiative in Italy before the Germans had a chance to take control for themselves. Planning was frantic, but as the flighting in Sicily drew to a close, the operation began to take shape. The invasion was two pronged.
First, troops of Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army would land on the toe of Italy at Reggio di Calabria in Operation Baytown. They would attempt to tie down the Axis forces who had escaped across the straights just weeks before.
Then, troops of Mark Clark’s 5th Army would land at Salerno, in operation Avalanche. They would capture Naples and the airfields at Foggia to cut off any Axis escape. This would coincide with the announcement of the armistice and would be accompanied by an American airborne landing near Rome to help Italian forces to defend the city.
If everything went to plan, the Italians would be able to delay the Germans, allowing the Allies to take the south of the country with limited interference. It seemed that a short campaign was within their grasp.
On the 3rd of September 1943, Marshall Badoglio signed the secret armistice with the Allies. The Italians were out of the war. On the same day, Montgomery’s men embarked for the invasion. But their landings would not unfold as planned.
Sean Rehling: "The Landings at Reggio de Calabria were straightforward. The distance across the Strait of Messina was only three miles so the troops could cross on landing craft without the need to disembark from Naval vessels. The aim of those Landings was to tie down Axis forces and stop them from retreating further north. But, as General Montgomery had predicted, the landing did not provoke a German counter-attack. Instead Field Marshall Kesselring instructed his subordinate General Herr to conduct a fighting retreat. Impeding the British advance with the use of mines and the destruction of bridges."
Voice over: "The Germans were well prepared for the Allied landings. While a small force slowed Montgomery’s advance, Kesselring concentrated the bulk of his troops to the north near Naples, where he expected the main Allied attack to fall. He had orders to delay any landing, before falling back to a defensive line north of Rome.
They were also well prepared for an Italian armistice. Though Marshal Badoglio had publicly proclaimed that Italy would continue fighting for the Axis, Adolf Hitler was sceptical. He had devised Operation Achse which would use Erwin Rommel’s Army Group B alongside Kesselring’s forces to seize Italian territory and neutralise its army should they defect.
The Italians were expecting the armistice to be announced on September 12th, giving them time to prepare a defence of Rome. Instead, they learned that Eisenhower planned to make the announcement on September 8th. Badoglio begged for more time, but with landing craft already enroute to Salerno, the Allied Supreme Commander refused.
On the evening of the 8th, the announcement was made. But the botched execution would have terrible consequences. The American airborne landings in Rome were abandoned, while an additional landing at Taranto codenamed Operation Slapstick was hurriedly put together. Meanwhile, German troops moved in to disarm the Italians.
Sean Rehling: "The Italian surrender was a complete shock to the officers who commanded Italian troops. The Italian forces defending Rome were substantial and there was an attempt to defend the city from the German assault. But this was undermined by the flight of Marshall Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel from the city. The confusion that reigned in the Italian Armed Forces assisted the well-executed German plan that saw hundreds of thousands of Italians taken into captivity. The swift action by the Germans dashed the Allied hope of a quick victory."
Voice over: "In the following days, the Germans would set up a puppet state in the parts of Italy they still controlled and break Mussolini out of prison to run it. At the same time, Allied troops embarked their landing craft for Italy. At Taranto, the landings faced almost no resistance and the British paratroopers quickly took control of the town and its port. But the troops at Salerno were in for the fight of their lives.
Their commander, Mark Clark, believed he could achieve tactical surprise and chose not to employ a preliminary Naval bombardment. But he was wrong. As the first wave of troops approached the beaches, a German loudspeaker sparked into life and proclaimed “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” The bloody battle of Salerno was about to begin.
At 3:30am, the British and American troops hit the beaches of Salerno. But as they waded ashore, fire from the 16th Panzer Division in the hills above Salerno rained down onto the beaches causing mayhem and confusion.
On the left US Rangers took the mountain passes to Naples with minimal resistance, and British Commandos fought hard for a foot hold in Salerno itself. Meanwhile, British 10th Corps in the centre and US 9th Corps on the right managed to secure a small beachhead, but were ominously split in two. As they attempted to advance inland, the Allied troops then came under attack from German tanks."
Sean Rehling: "In the face of the German armoured onslaught British infantryman had to rely on weapons such as the PIAT, which stands for the projector infantry anti-tank. The PIAT was designed to provide infantry with a readily portable weapon capable of stopping a tank. The range of the PIAT was rather short, so it required infantrymen to come perilously close to the tank for the chance of an effective strike. At the Vietri sul Mare, three miles west of Salerno, No.2 Commando were able to stop a tiger tank after multiple hits with their PIAT. The Allied soldiers were under severe pressure as they fought to stabilise defensive lines."
Voice over: "Overnight, new German units arrived from the north and stopped the British from capturing the town of Battipaglia the following day. They also denied the use of Montecorvino airfield to the Allies, which restricted their air support.
But in the south, German units ran out of fuel and failed to arrive in time. As a result, the US forces expanded their beachhead and closed the gap between themselves and the British. All the time Montgomery’s units were advancing at a snail’s pace through the toe and boot of Italy.
Offshore, the Luftwaffe mounted over 550 sorties in the first three days of the invasion. Their targets however, were not the Allied troops landing in force but the ships in Salerno bay which were finally unleashing their huge firepower against the German defenders."
Sean Rehling: "The Germans did have one answer to the massive Allied firepower that sat in Salerno Bay. Throughout September they repeatedly deployed the world's first precision guided weapon - the Fritz X. The Fritz X was specifically designed to target cruisers and battleships. The bomb was guided by a radio control link which sent signals to the spoilers in the tail fins. The operator had to keep the ammunition in sight whilst the pilot of the aircraft had to maintain course. On the 11th of September 1943, the American light Cruiser, the USS Savannah, was hit by a Fritz X which passed through the roof of a gun turret. The bomb exploded in the lower ammunition handling room. 197 United States Sailors were killed and 15 severely wounded in the attack."
Voice over: "After four days of fierce fighting, the situation was becoming more and more precarious. The beachhead was still shallow and the Germans were seemingly reinforcing faster than the Allies. But things would only get worse. With Montgomery’s men still miles away, Kesselring managed to concentrate the elements of 6 German divisions ready for a massive counter-attack. As the 13th of September arrived, they were poised to drive downhill, straight in between the British and American forces."
Sean Rehling: "The German units were highly mobile with tanks and armoured vehicles. They quickly concentrated and identified weak points in the Allied line, they exploited those holes, before regrouping and concentrating to attack in a different direction.
The attacks were costly for the Germans. The 16th Panzer Division's attack in the center caused the loss of more than half of its tanks. Still, by the night of the 13th of September the Germans appear to be on the brink of victory as they threatened to split the Allied beachhead in two."
Voice over: "As dawn broke on the 14th of September the mood was gloomy. All unloading was ceased as supply men joined the combat troops in digging in for a final stand. Meanwhile, initial preparations were made to evacuate the beachhead. The only good news was the arrival of vital reinforcements in the form of the 82nd airborne division, whose landing near Rome had been cancelled days before.
At 8am the Germans attacked again, having received yet more reinforcements. But this time the Allies held. Devastating supporting fires from naval guns in Salerno Bay proved pivotal and scores of German tanks were destroyed. By the end of the day, evacuation plans were out the window. The Allies were here to stay.
After the war, Kesselring stated that with two more panzer divisions transferred from Rommel’s Army Group B, his forces could have defeated the Allied landings at Salerno. Instead, after a few more attacks, the German forces began to withdraw northwards and the Allies finally began to pour supplies into Salerno. On September 20th, 5th Army finally linked up with the 8th army and together began their pursuit. For their next objectives, Naples and Foggia, the Allies were expecting an even tougher fight, but they were in for another surprise."
Sean Rehling: "In the days following the Allied landing at Salerno a febrile atmosphere had been brewing in Naples. When an announcement was made that all men of working age would be rounded up for deportation to work camps in either Northern Italy or Germany, the refusal to comply with this order surged into a civilian uprising. Their efforts prevented the Germans from organising a defense of the city, but the consequences were severe. As the Germans withdrew from the city they perpetrated acts of destruction such as burning the university library and the state archives. The Germans also planted explosive devices with time delays. Shattered water, gas, and electricity supplies, wrecked sanitation, and a major food shortage greeted the allies when they liberated the city on the 1st of October."
Voice over: "On the same day, 8th Army found Foggia abandoned. The Germans had changed their strategy.
Adolf Hitler had initially decreed that the Germans should only defend Northern Italy. But after the defence of Salerno, he was persuaded that the mountainous terrain of central Italy would favour defensive fighting. Now Kesselring, given command of all German forces in Italy, planned for a fighting withdraw across a series of defensive fortifications, culminating in the fearsome Gustav Line. There he would hold the Allies for as long as possible."
Sean Rehling: "The Germans slowed the British advance by laying numerous mines. The most famous was the S-mine or Bouncing Betty as the Americans named it. When triggered a propellant charge sent the mine upwards to about chest height. Then the main charge detonated and the material inside became shrapnel, spraying horizontally maiming or killing anyone in the area. The safest response was to drop to the ground as quickly as possible. These mines became emblematic of the static attritional warfare that was to follow."
Voice over: "The Allies now controlled Southern Italy. The fighting had been costly, over 12,500 Allied casualties to this point, with the Germans suffering just over a quarter of that number. Ahead of them lay even tougher German defences, and autumn rains turning the ground into a quagmire. But as the Allied soldiers fought the mud, their commanders were grappling with a new question. How much further should the Allies go?
Whichever answer they chose one thing was clear. The supposedly soft underbelly of Europe had turned out to be one tough old gut."