July-September, 1943: Italy Invasion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of the decisions made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in February of 1943 was to occupy the island of Sicily in order to assure the safety of Allied shipping lines in the Mediterranean. At the time, no decision was made as to an invasion of the Italian mainland. General Dwight Eisenhower was given overall military command of the Mediterranean theater, while General Harold R. L. George Alexander was in command of the invasion force, the Fifteenth Army Group.

One of the decisions made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in February of 1943 was to occupy the island of Sicily in order to assure the safety of Allied shipping lines in the Mediterranean. At the time, no decision was made as to an invasion of the Italian mainland. General Dwight Eisenhower was given overall military command of the Mediterranean theater, while General Harold R. L. George Alexander was in command of the invasion force, the Fifteenth Army Group.

The invasion of Sicily was preceded by the capture of a small garrison on the nearby island of Pantelleria on June 11, 1943. The Germans were not convinced that the capture of this island pointed to an invasion of Sicily, but were tricked by a British ruse that suggested that an Allied invasion of Sardinia was forthcoming.

Following a monthlong bombardment of Axis air bases, the Fifteenth Army Group, consisting of the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Law Montgomery and the U.S. Seventh Army commanded by General George S. Patton, carried out two separate landings on the southern coast of Sicily on July 9 and July 10, 1943. Supported by naval gunfire and airborne operations, the Allies landed 160,000 men on the island. The Allies benefited greatly from superior air power, having thirty-seven hundred planes as opposed to sixteen hundred Axis aircraft. Although the landing itself went relatively smoothly, tragedy struck when U.S. airborne drops encountered friendly fire. Montgomery’s forces ran into some stubborn German resistance south of Catania, while Patton, whose forces had landed on the left flank, first moved through western Sicily and later assisted the British. On August 17, both forces arrived in Messina, on the northern tip of the island. In spite of complete Allied air superiority, the Germans had managed to evacuate more than a hundred thousand troops and a considerable number of vehicles to the Italian mainland.

Fall of Mussolini

The fall of Sicily was a major factor in the collapse of Benito Mussolini’s government. The Fascist leadership had become increasingly disenchanted with Mussolini, in particular with his alliance with Adolf Hitler. A meeting between Mussolini and Hitler, in which Mussolini requested the transfer of Italian divisions from the Russian front to be used in the defense of Italy, had brought no results. During a subsequent meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 24, Mussolini was handed a vote of no confidence. On the following day, he was dismissed from office by the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, arrested, and spirited away to a hotel on the Gran Sasso in the Abbruzzi Mountains.

Mussolini was succeeded as prime minister by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, a former Fascist leader whose emissaries had negotiated secretly with the Allies in Lisbon and Madrid. Badoglio’s problem was to make peace with the Allies and extricate Italy from the war, while preventing the Germans from defending Italy against an expected Allied invasion.

The collapse of the Fascist government in Italy brought to the fore the still unresolved issue of the entire purpose of the Italian campaign. U.S. military planners had insisted all along that the Italian campaign was to be no more than a secondary effort, insisting that the primary Allied effort had to be Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion. In their view, the purpose of the Italian campaign was merely to force the Germans to commit troops and resources in the Italian theater to prevent their use on the eastern front and, more important, against an Allied invasion in Normandy. On the other hand, British military planners–perhaps with an eye toward postwar settlements in the Balkans–assigned far greater importance to the Italian theater. The conflict of opinion was reflected in the fact that it took until the end of July to authorize an invasion of the Italian peninsula.

On September 3, 1943, an armistice was signed between Italy and the Allies. By mid-October, the Badoglio government had declared war on Germany and was recognized by the Allies as a cobelligerent. Although the announcement of the Italian capitulation took many Germans by surprise, Hitler had prepared for such an eventuality ever since Mussolini’s overthrow by ordering troops to assemble for possible entry into Italy. Thus, by the beginning of September, the Germans had eight divisions in readiness in the north of Italy, in addition to Field Marshall Albert Kesselring’s forces in southern Italy.

The Invasion

The invasion of the Italian mainland began on September 3. It involved the movement of two British divisions under General Montgomery across the narrow Straits of Messina into Calabria. On September 9, another British division landed at Taranto. The Italians were unprepared for the invasions, but the Germans reacted quickly, occupying Rome and airfields in the vicinity, thereby putting an end to any hopes for a possible Allied airborne operation in the area.

Unlike the invasions in Calabria and Taranto, which met with virtually no resistance, Allied landings at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) on September 9 met with stiff resistance. An invasion force of 55,000 troops for the initial landings, with another 115,000 to follow, was confronted by a much smaller contingent of German defenders. Lieutenant General Mark Clark, who had intended to surprise the defenders by forgoing preparatory naval bombardment, was faced with counterattacks from the Germans that almost turned the entire invasion into a disaster. Only with the help of skillful naval gunnery, artillery, and considerable air support could the invasion force maintain its precarious positions on the beach. By September 18, the beachhead was at last secured and the German offensive could be checked. Montgomery, after some prompting to accelerate, at last had managed to make contact with the beachhead on September 16.

The Germans realized that their failure to drive the Allies back into the sea left them only one option: a gradual withdrawal northward beyond Naples, where they had established a strong defensive zone, the so-called Winter Line or Gustav Line. The Allied campaign to penetrate this line met with little success. In an effort to break the stalemate, the Allies, on January 22, 1944, resorted to a landing behind the German lines on the beaches at Anzio. In spite of initial successes, the effort bogged down, and during four months on the beachhead, the Allies had to evacuate more than thirty thousand casualties. Following a combined air-ground offensive, a breakthrough was at last effected, and Allied troops entered Rome on June 4, 1944, two days before the Normandy invasion.

The Allied drive toward the new German defensive positions south of Bologna–the so-called Gothic Line–again bogged down, and the offensive could not be resumed until the spring of 1945. Bologna fell on April 21, only a few days before Mussolini was captured and executed by partisans. In fact, since March, 1945, SS General Karl Wolff secretly had been negotiating surrender terms for the German forces in Italy with Allen Dulles, the chief of the American Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland. Fighting in Italy ceased on May 2, 1945, five days before the final capitulation of Germany.

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