Italian Campaign: Rome & North

After the breakout from the Anzio beachhead in late May of 1943, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, split his forces in order to ensure that American units would be the liberators of Rome, a decision that remains controversial. He sent a weak force toward Valmontone where they were unable to prevent the escape of the German Tenth Army to new positions north of Rome. The balance of Clark's forces participated in the final drive to Rome, which fell to the Americans in the evening of 4 June 1944, nine months after the first landings in southern Italy.

M10 TD of the 701st Tank Destroyer Bn. advances north from Poretta in support of the 10th Mountain Division. U.S. Fifth Army, M. Terminale area, Italy. 3 March 1945
M10 Tank Destroyer of the 701st TD Bn. advances north from Poretta in support of the 10th Mountain Division. U.S. Fifth Army, M. Terminale area, Italy. 3 March 1945.

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Background to the Italian Campaign, Rome to North Apennines

The news of the fall of Rome on 4 June 1944 was quickly forgotten in the euphoria of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June. Following the invasions of Normandy (Operation OVERLORD) and southern France (Operation DRAGOON/ANVIL) in the summer of 1944, Italy was destined to become a holding action of secondary importance.

As Rome fell, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, German commander in Italy, staged a fighting withdrawal of his forces, pressed by Allied advances, to regroup behind the Gothic Line, a natural defensive barrier in the North Apennines, 150 miles north of Rome, beyond the Arno River, north of Pisa and Florence, south of the central Italian city of Bologna, and east to Pesaro on the Adriatic. During late July and early August, Clark and the British called a halt in offensive operations to allow Allied units, many of which had been in continuous action since May, to rest, refit, and prepare for a late-summer assault on the Gothic Line.

Allied intentions were quite mixed at this point. Resources earmarked for Italian operations steadily diminished after OVERLORD and DRAGOON/ANVIL. At the same time, it was desirable to continue on the offensive through the North Apennines and into the Po Valley to keep the Germans from a static defense that would allow them to transfer forces to other fronts. Therefore, Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, commander of 15 Army Group in Italy, an Anglo-American force that eventually included troops from sixteen Allied nations, was committed to an offensive, but with a weakened force.

Within the 15 Army Group was Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark's Fifth Army, holding the western portion of the Allied line from the Ligurian Sea at the mouth of the Arno River to a point just west of Florence. To the east Lt. Gen. Sir Oliver Leese's larger Eighth Army, held the line from the Florence area to just south of Fano on the Adriatic coast. They were opposed by Axis Army Group C, under the overall command of Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.

Operation OLIVE Moves Against the Gothic Line

The first move against the Gothic Line, Operation OLIVE, was a planned attack by Eighth Army up the Adriatic coast to Rimini coupled with a follow-up attack by Fifth Army from Florence directly north toward Bologna. The Fifth and Eighth Armies would then converge on Bologna and move to encircle and destroy Axis forces in the Po Valley.

OLIVE commenced on 25 August 1944 with Eighth Army's attack on a seventeen-mile-wide front along the Adriatic. Polish and Canadian units penetrated the Gothic Line near the coastal town of Pesaro on 30 August, threatening to turn the entire Axis front, but Kesselring's countermoves plugged the breach. Maximizing the defensive advantages provided by inclement weather and numerous rivers and ridges, Axis units inflicted a total of 8,000 casualties on the attackers and by 3 September stalled Eighth Army forces short of their Rimini and Romagna Plain objectives.

Fifth Army began its advance on 10 September, pursuing the Germans across the Arno River to the Gothic Line. The Eighth Army's attack in the east had succeeded in diverting most enemy units away from the Futa Pass and II Giogo Pass areas where Clark expected to punch through, starting with an assault on 12 September. The terrain facing Fifth Army units was typical of the Italian Campaign, consisting of numerous mountain peaks, streams, deep valleys, broken ridges, and rugged spurs, all offering excellent defensive positions to the enemy. Although significant numbers of troops were involved on both sides, small unit actions predominated and rarely were units larger than a battalion engaged at any one time. The compartmented terrain tended to erode the Allies' three-to-one advantage in manpower, and whatever successes were gained were due largely to the individual soldiers' valor, resilience, and determination.

In six days of intense fighting between 12-18 September 1944, Fifth Army units seized the Il Giogo Pass, Monticelli Ridge, and Monte Altuzzo. These successes outflanked the Futa Pass and ended the American phase of Operation OLIVE, but cost over 2,730 II Corps casualties.

The Germans withdrew to the next set of ridges to establish another defensive line. Encouraged at having breached the Gothic Line in at least one sector, the Americans began a sustained mountain-by-mountain, ridge-by-ridge, and valley-by-valley drive toward Bologna against the tenaciously defended German positions.

British Advance on the Adriatic Coast

As the Fifth Army continued its offensive, the British Eighth Army resumed Operation OLIVE on 12 September. In a classic demonstration of attrition warfare that took full advantage of overwhelming Allied air, armor, and infantry firepower, the British and Canadian units smashed through German defenses to capture Rimini, the gateway to the Romagna Plain on 21 September. Yet the Eighth Army had advanced only thirty miles in twenty-six days in the face of stubborn resistance, heavy rain, flooding, and mud. Nevertheless, despite the strain on its troops, on 22 September the Eighth Army pressed its attack northward beginning a three-month-long operation known as the "Battle of the Rivers." During this series of engagements, the Eighth Army, again taking advantage of its overwhelming materiel superiority, moved from river to river, under extremely adverse weather conditions, only gradually overcoming heavy Axis resistance.

Fifth Army Moves North

Following OLIVE, Fifth Army pushed north along two lines of attack. Clark sent units to attack up Highway 65 toward Bologna and a second force to drive northeast toward Imola in attempt to split German forces in that area.

The drive toward Imola initially went well, and by 27 September the Americans had advanced half the distance, capturing in the process most of the high ground surrounding their positions including the summit of 2,345-foot-high Monte Battaglia. However, the Germans returned to counterattack repeatedly against the positions, not finally secured until 5 October. Heavy casualties, and lack of further progress in terrible weather, led Gen. Clark to abandon the drive on Imola on 1 October, concentrating all forces on the Highway 65 operations toward Bologna.

In the advance along Highway 65 toward Bologna, three divisions, in line abreast from east to west, moved out to capture the Radicosa Pass, ultimately seizing three major peaks on the ridge. These successes, along with the capture of Monte Battaglia (now called Battle Mountain), forced the Germans to withdraw from their outflanked positions. On 1 October the advance was reinforced by a fourth division diverted from Imola. The four division thrust gained four miles in three days along the line of Highway 65. Visiting a divisional headquarters on the first day of the attack, Clark saw the Po Valley and the snow-covered Alps beyond and believed that both were now within his grasp. But sustained Axis resistance, American troop exhaustion, rugged terrain, and poor weather halted the advance ten miles south of Bologna on 13 October.

Gen. Clark ordered a series of attacks toward Bologna on his front, but each was stopped in turn by determined resistance, bad weather, and a lack of reinforcements. At the same time, Eighth Army attacked north of Rimini on 15 October in a continuation of the "Battle of the Rivers." Despite grueling combat which lasted until the end of October, Eighth Army units failed to break through anywhere along their 30-mile front.

Winter 1944-1945 in the North Apennines

On 27 October, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, ordered a halt to the bloody Allied offensives, due to increasingly stiff enemy resistance, Allied munitions and shipping shortages, troop exhaustion, the lack of replacements, and the worsening weather. With the focus of Allied efforts in western Europe, the pace of the Northern Italian Campaign could not be sustained. Between 10 September and 26 October, II Corps' four divisions had suffered over 15,000 casualties, with the U.S. 88th Division alone losing over 5,000 men. During roughly the same period, Eighth Army casualties approached 14,000 men.

Another combined attack commenced on 2 December, after a period of rest and refitting, but failed to move the lines. On 15 December 1944 there was a major command reorganization that brought Maj. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. from France to head the Fifth Army and Gen. Clark was made commander of 15th Army Group. After command changes on their side, on 26 December 1944, Axis forces launched Operation WINTERGEWITTER, a spoiling attack twenty miles north of Lucca that stalled a few miles beyond Barga, and was withdrawn starting on 27 December, returning to their original positions by year end.

End of the North Apennines Campaign

In January and February 1945, while most of 15 Army Group received replacements and regrouped from the bitter fighting of the preceeding months, several small offensives were mounted by Allied units, focused on consolidating positions and securing exits from the northern Apennines directly into the Po Valley itself, in preparation for the planned offensive to commence 1 April 1945.

The U.S. 10th Mountain Division began arriving in Italy on 27 December 1944, assigned to capture the high ground on the right wing of the IV Corps and eliminate enemy positions overlooking Allied forces so that the spring offensive could be shifted westward to bypass heavily fortified Bologna. On 19 February 1945, a battalion of the 10th Mountain Division successfully climbed the cliff face of Riva Ridge, surprising enemy forces there and forcing them to retreat. Continuing their attacks to the northeast, the Americans captured Monte Belvedere and Monte delta Torraccia by 23 February. A second 10th Mountain Division attack in bad weather against ridges farther to the northeast also succeeded. By 5 March, the 10th Mountain Division had occupied a solid line of ridges and mountain crests that improved the Allied position.

As spring 1945 approached, the fully rested and resupplied 15 Army Group prepared to renew the offensive into the Po Valley, the final Allied push of the war in Italy.

Recommended Books about the Italian Campaign, North of Rome

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