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The decision to invade Italy
Eighty years ago the Allied campaign in Italy was making slow progress - a new analysis looks at the competing arguments for widening the war here
In the summer of 1943 it looked like the Allies were on a roll. They had inflicted a massive defeat on the Germans in North Africa, taking more prisoners than at Stalingrad. Sicily was a natural next step, consolidating the ascendancy of the Allied navies in the Mediterranean. Sicily was also a natural stepping stone to Italy. Yet it was not inevitable that Italy would or should be the next step.
This excerpt from Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy 1943 looks at the many competing considerations that brought the Allies onto the European mainland:
The attack on mainland Italy was a contentious issue for the Allies. The Americans were unsure and suspicious about the project, while the British persistently argued in favour. Italy was politically unstable, and the Germans were becoming anxious but planning for the worst-case scenario. Hitler was growing concerned about defending Italy, but equally conscious of the danger of the Italian airfields falling into Allied control and always aware of the potential danger to the Ploesti oilfields.
The first attack was Montgomery’s invasion of the south in Operation Baytown, which annoyed Montgomery because he had a secondary role, and he was sharply criticised for his sluggish speed up the Italian leg to assist at Salerno. Some historians justify and explain his measured approach, while others question his motives. The inexperienced battle commander General Mark Clark came dangerously close to losing the battle at Salerno, at one point even considering evacuation, which probably caused Eisenhower to wonder whether Patton would have been the better choice.
It was eventually successful, but only just, and the Allies sustained more casualties than the enemy; yet another warning of facing an experienced and professional army.
The whole Italian campaign and its usefulness has long been a point of historical contention, starting with Liddell Hart and General Fuller, who in their studies were critical. Notably, Fuller described it as a ‘campaign which for lack of strategic sense and tactical imagination is unique in military history’.
It was concocted in a state of haste, giving the frequent impression that it was improvised as demands arose. Initially, there were a variety of general aims, ranging from eliminating Italy from the war, to a limited attack to seize airfields, to just taking Sardinia and Corsica as air bases, to helping Russia, ignoring Italy to help Tito, and even the deviant argument of leaving Germany to assist its ailing partner.
The tensions between the Americans and the British continued after Sicily with regard to the occupation of mainland Italy, not only at the military and political levels, but it permeated command life at all levels. When the Allies jointly bombed the Littorio railroads into Rome the BBC blamed the Americans, who were understandably furious at this lop-sided view and apparent shifting of blame.
In his diaries John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, wrote that ‘from the American papers one would scarcely suppose any British troops were fighting’. The Allied tensions ran deep and were often papered over for the sake of the coalition’s strength.
At the political level, the ‘special relationship’ was at times tense and not helped by their military commanders. Churchill soon realised that with Stalin and Roosevelt he was very much the junior partner, and Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, tried to warn him time and time again that Roosevelt had other intentions than defeating the Axis powers, namely that he also had the British Empire in his sights.*
Churchill’s central argument on the Italian venture revolved around his belief that Germany was heading for defeat and the Russians needed help, and this would divert German troops. There was a concern that the Russians would think it was time for agreement with Germany, and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, pointed out that if there were a stop to the fighting in the Mediterranean the Russians might see it as a betrayal.
It was further argued that an Italian invasion would assist Operation Overlord by detracting German troops, and it was presumed that an Italian occupation would cause Hitler military strain. There was the argument that an invasion would induce Italian surrender and German withdrawal, with the possibility that Hungary and Romania would be forced to reconsider their options. An occupied Italy would supply airfields and possible attacks upon south Germany.
Even Marshall thought an attack on Naples was a good idea but persisted in his belief that crossing the English Channel to Berlin was best, but the Quadrant Conference in Quebec enforced the Italian policy. Churchill also saw it as a stepping-stone to the Balkans, Greece, and the Aegean, a transition phase from weakness to strength.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt and Marshall were less than keen, with Marshall demanding essential landing craft for the Pacific and mainland Europe, referring to the Mediterranean as ‘periphery picking’. There is no question that after Sicily there was a degree of Allied euphoria in believing that they held the momentum. The Allies were changing from a more defensive posture to an offensive one, but there were too many ‘faltering moves and hesitancy which contrasted with the speed and assurance of German counter-moves as in this time the OKW moved 16 divisions into Italy’.
There was the assumption that once Mussolini collapsed the task would be easy. They thought Hitler would not be overly tempted to defend his erstwhile partner, and there was probably a lack of caution as they became more opportunistic. There was considerable Allied discussion over the announcement of ‘unconditional surrender’, as the Italians were seeking a way out of their conundrum, with some in the Allied camp concerned about this policy. Unconditional surrender was a restricting declaration, and there was a distinct impression that the Italians felt they could not surrender until Rome was in danger.
The Americans took a softer approach than Eden, but the unconditional surrender demand had turned the war into a moral crusade to make the Russians believe that there could be no behind-the-back agreements. The question remains as to how perceptive and informed Roosevelt, Churchill, and their advisers were about Italy, and where the bombing of cities, and clashes between some Germans and Italian citizens had unsettled the 74-year-old King Emmanuel Victor III and the weak Ambrosio, who had constructed the core of their new government from the old military and political elite.
Pietro Badoglio, appointed prime minister after the king deposed Mussolini, played the game that the war would continue with German help, but Hitler did not trust him, and assumed Badoglio was talking with the Allies. Mussolini’s departure triggered strikes and demonstrations against the war, and the Italian government ‘basked in delusional miscalculations of both German intentions and Allied capabilities’.
Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt were rushing into any agreement with the Italians, and in Quebec on 21 August 1943 the two leaders approved a long-term armistice which called for the total surrender and disarmament of Italian forces. The armistice was eventually signed on 3 September 1943 at Cassibile, Sicily between Bedell Smith and Castellano.
… as the Allies were attacking Italy with improvised forces (leading to the longest and bloodiest campaign in the war for the Allies), and without clear strategic goals the Allies would lose the momentum they had established in North Africa and Sicily.
For his part Hitler had entered the Mediterranean to help his faltering partner, but now the Allies were posing a threat which needed a more significant input, especially because of the Ploesti oilfields. As soon as Mussolini fell, Hitler moved divisions into Italy, feeling on the one hand that he needed Italian cooperation, and on the other uncertain as to whether to follow Rommel’s advice of building a blocking force in northern Italy or Kesselring’s policy of defending every river and valley from the south. Initially he preferred Rommel’s policy, but the Germans could reinforce by sea more quickly than the Allies, and the terrain was better for defence than attack.
The Allies also believed that Operation Avalanche depended on Italian support, but this soon unravelled with General Maxwell Taylor’s risky visit to Rome, Operation Giant II, on 9 September, which proved to be a disaster as he found the Italians ‘uncertain’. The only clear message was that Badoglio and the king expected to be rescued.
As the plans were being prepared the dangers should have been apparent, as the Allies were attacking Italy with improvised forces (leading to the longest and bloodiest campaign in the war for the Allies), and without clear strategic goals the Allies would lose the momentum they had established in North Africa and Sicily. There were many areas of concern, and Churchill wrote to Alexander that ‘none of the commanders engaged have fought a large-scale battle before’, referring to Gallipoli when pointing out that the commander there had been advised to remain in control at a remote centre where he could know everything, but ‘had he been on the spot he could have saved the show’.
As noted by some historians, it transpired to be ‘a half-hearted Allied invasion combined with incompetent and spineless Italian leadership and resolved the debate in the German camp in favour of Kesselring and forward defence’. For Italy, it was to be one of the ‘saddest and most humiliating chapters of their history’.
© Andrew Sangster and Pier Paolo Battistelli 2023, Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy 1943-45. Reproduced courtesy of Casemate Publishers.
This is a fresh look at a sometimes neglected theatre. The Italian front certainly became a backwater in terms of publicity after 6th June 1944, yet the fighting continued here until the end of the war. At the heart of the arguments in Flawed Commanders and Strategy in the Battles for Italy 1943 are the massive egos of some of the commanders involved - not least among them Britain’s Bernhard Montgomery and America’s Mark Clark. It was not inevitable that the Allies would fight in Italy - and, once they were here, it was not inevitable that they would make some of the decisions that led to a nearly two-year bloody slogging match.
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