Italian Campaign: Po Valley

The Allies invaded mainland Italy in early September 1943, expecting a quick drive north through the Italian peninsula, into the "soft underbelly" of Europe and on to the German heartland. Nineteen months later, in March 1945, after hard fighting against the Gustav Line in the rugged mountainous spine of Southern Italy, the landing at Anzio, their advance up the Liri valley to capture Rome, and more mountain fighting in the North Apennines, the Allies were still south of the Po Valley and the Alps.

Medics of the 10th Mountain Division pull sled of medical supplies up an Apennine slope, 1945
Medics of the 10th Mountain Division pull sled of medical supplies up an Apennine slope, 1945.

Today in WW II: 24 Sep 1944 US releases Morgenthau Plan, a plan for occupation of post-war Germany and conversion of that country to an agrarian economy, with no industry that could be used to wage war.   

Background to the Italian Campaign, Po Valley

Rome had been liberated in early June 1944 and fascist Italy was virtually out of the war, but much more had been accomplished elsewhere with the liberation of France and the great westward drive of the Soviet Red Army which had already crossed into Germany and was close to the battle for Berlin itself. To close the book on the Mediterranean Theater, the 15 Army Group had to overrun the top of the Italian Boot, the Po Valley.

The fighting in the North Apennines had exhausted 15 Army Group which was starved for replacements and supplies due to the shift in Allied priorities to France and western Europe. But by the end of the winter of 1944-1945, the fully rested and resupplied 15 Army Group, under U.S. Lt. General Mark Clark since December 1944, prepared to renew the offensive into the Po Valley, the final Allied push of the war in Italy. 15 Army Group consisted of U.S. Fifth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. since Clark move up to 15 Army Group in December 1944, and British Eighth Army, commanded since 1 October 1944 by General Sir Richard L. McCreery.

Po Valley Region of Northern Italy

Map of the Po River Valley in Northern Italy
Map of the Po River Valley in Northern Italy.

The east-west Po Valley is relatively level land, north of the Gothic Line of German defense in the North Apennines. In the Po Valley lay the Po River, meandering east from its source in northwestern Italy to the Adriatic Sea, forming a second line of defense. The river varied in width from 130 to 500 yards, bordered by levees which served as natural fortifications, augmented by field works constructed on both banks. The towns and villages along the river were fortified, and the east-west road system provided good logistical support for the defenders.

North of the Po, in the Alpine foothills, extending east and west of Lake Garda, the Germans had built a third line of defense. Dubbed the Adige Line, after the Adige River, these defenses were designed to cover a last-ditch Axis withdrawal into northeast Italy and Austria. The Adige Line, with its intricate system of trenches, dugouts, and machine-gun emplacements, was reminiscent of World War I. If stoutly defended it could be the toughest line yet encountered in Italy.

To reach the Po Valley, the Allies had to break out of the winter stalemate in the North Apennines, take the German positions of the Gothic Line, and descend into the Po Valley past Bologna and other fortified points.

The Allied and Axis Forces

By early 1945 the Fifth Army contained about 270,000 soldiers (with over 30,000 more awaiting assignments in replacement depots, as compared to 170,000 6 months earlier), over 2,000 artillery pieces and mortars, and thousands of vehicles, all positioned along a 120-mile front extending east from the Ligurian coast, across the crest of the Apennines, to a point southeast of Bologna. On the Fifth Army's right flank was the British Eighth Army, with eight divisions from four different nations, as well as four free Italian battle groups and a Jewish brigade from British Palestine. By April 1945 their line extended from the Bologna area east to the Adriatic, ten miles north of Ravenna.

Despite advantages in their defensive position, the Axis operated under significant handicaps imposed by Adolf Hitler, by the Wehrmacht High Command, and by Germany's growing shortages in manpower and equipment. Axis commanders in Italy preferred to withdraw from the Apennines to the Po River line before the expected Allied offensive but their requests were denied. They were commanded to hold fast, making it impossible to conduct organized withdrawals in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority in ground mobility and air power.

Cracking the German Defensive Line

The winter fighting in the Apennines had brought the Allies to good positions in the heights overlooking the Po Valley, even if they were unable to break through. The early months of 1945 were used well to rebuild and refresh the Allied forces, ready for the spring offensive.

Operations began on 5 April 1945 with a diversionary attack on the Ligurian coast. To the east, on the Adriatic coast, Polish, Indian, New Zealander, and British soldiers of the Eighth Army surged forward on 9 April after a massive air and artillery barrage. For the next several days they gradually pushed the Axis forces north toward the vital Argenta gap, just west of the impassable Comacchio Lagoon. In spite of stubborn German resistance, the British seized the Argenta gap on 18 April, thereby threatening to turn the entire Axis flank.

On 14 April 1945, after a few days of weather delays, Truscott's Fifth Army ground attack began. They seized the Pra del Bianco basin and Reno River valley after intense fighting, and during 15-18 April pushed northward from ridgeline to ridgeline, and from valley town to valley town with steady progress at the cost of heavy casualties. American firepower superiority and aggressive infantry attacks slowly pushed back the Germans, who fought stubbornly but futilely. Although the IV Corps had advanced only six miles by 19 April, there were already signs that the Axis defensive line in the Apennines was vulnerable.

To the east, intense bombing on 15 April around Bologna, the Po Valley highways, and along the ridges and valleys, supported attacks along II Corps' front, renewed on 17 April. By nightfall, only a rapidly disintegrating Axis force and about thirty miles of relatively flat terrain stood between the IV Corps and the Po River. In the face of superior Allied air and ground forces, and with negligible reserves, the Germans had little chance of containing the emerging American breakthrough.

By 18-19 April the American advance accelerated, pursuing the rapidly withdrawing German forces. As Axis defenses cracked, the bulk of the Fifth Army passed west of Bologna and units were repositioned for the final push out of the Apennines.

Out of the Apennines, Into the Po Valley

The turning point in the spring offensive came on 20 April, with both the Fifth and Eighth Armies in position to launch high-speed armored advances from the Apennines toward the Po River crossings. Given the flat terrain and excellent road network in the Po Valley -- a first for the mountainous Italian campaign -- 15th Army Group orders now emphasized speed and mobility to destroy surviving enemy forces before they escaped to the Po River and the Alpine foothills beyond. Truscott ordered II Corps units to Bologna and to encircle Axis forces south of the river by linking with the Eighth Army at Bondeno, about twenty miles north of Bologna. To the west, along the coast, the 92d Infantry Division prepared to advance to Genoa. In between 1st Armored Division was to mop up the remaining Axis forces in the foothills southwest of Ponte Samoggia, capture Modena, and drive for the Po. 10th Mountain Division, now pouring from the foothills, cut Highway 9 between Bologna and Modena, took Ponte Samoggia, and also moved north.

Bologna fell to the U.S. 34th Infantry Division on the morning of 21 April, but General Truscott left the city to his Italian troops and sent the 34th west toward Modena. By dawn on 22 April the entire Fifth Army was well into the Po Valley. On the right flank, Axis forces attempted in vain to prevent the juncture of the Fifth and Eighth Armies, desperately trying to buy time for small detachments of their comrades to escape. But the Allied onslaught, now moving at full speed, quickly swept aside the hasty defenses, overwhelming and annihilating numerous Axis rear-guard detachments in the process. Ultimately, over 100,000 Axis troops were forced to surrender in the areas south of the river.

Across the Po to the Alps

DUKWs ferry supplies across the Po River, Italy, 1945
DUKWs ferry supplies across the Po River, Italy, 1945.

By 24 April the entire Fifth Army front had reached the Po and the British Eighth Army units in the east were closing on the river. To take advantage of the deteriorating enemy situation and the feeble resistance along the Po River, Truscott discarded plans for a slow, deliberate river crossing, and instead issued instructions to jump the river as quickly as possible and press the attack northwest toward Verona, about sixty miles above Bologna in the Alpine foothills, to block escape routes to the Brenner Pass, and breach the Adige Line before it could be fully manned.

Lack of bridging threatened to delay his plans. With no permanent spans surviving Allied air bombardments, a variety of amphibious craft, rubber rafts, wooden boats, and ferries were pressed into service to carry men and light equipment across the river. Through the efforts of Army engineers, pontoon and treadway bridges, capable of supporting armor, spanned the river within two days of the first crossings.

During 24-26 April, Fifth Army forces erupted from their Po River bridgeheads and split the Axis forces in Italy. Verona fell on 26 April 1945 as three American divisions converged on the city, after a vicious night battle. The seizure of Verona now brought Fifth Army up to the Adige Line, the final Axis defense in Italy.

End of the Adige Line

The Adige Line's intricate system of trenches, dugouts, and machine-gun positions in the Alpine foothills varied in depth from 1,000 to 5,000 yards. But Axis forces lacked the materiel and manpower to organize a cohesive barrier and Fifth Army's rapid advance had denied them the opportunity. German units had disintegrated into small groups of harried soldiers retreating as best they could under intense Allied pressure, blocking their retreat south of the Alps.

Truscott directed IV Corps units to seal the Brenner Pass in the north and destroy the Ligurian Army in the west. Moving quickly, the 10th Mountain Division's lead element, Task Force Darby, commanded by Col. William O. Darby of Ranger fame, left Verona on 26 April for nearby Lake Garda, where it soon worked its way up the eastern shore. On the 10th Mountain Division's right flank the 85th Division moved uncontested through the Adige Line north of Verona and went into Fifth Army reserve on 27 April.

1st Armored Division began sealing all possible escape routes into Austria and Switzerland along the Po Valley's northern rim from Lake Garda, fifty miles west to Lake Como. On the 1st Armored Division's left, the 34th Infantry Division drove west, taking the towns of Parma, Fidenza, and Piacenza in quick succession and gathering large numbers of prisoners. In the far west, along the Italian Riviera, north of La Spezia, the soldiers of the U.S. 92d Infantry Division encountered only slight opposition as they swept up the coastal highway toward the port city of Genoa. As the lead elements of the division entered the city without opposition on the morning of 27 April, they discovered that the 4,000-man Axis garrison had already surrendered to Italian partisans the day before.

By 28 April Truscott's Fifth Army stretched from the French border in the west to the Verona area in the east, curving in and out of the Alpine foothills as American and Allied troops rolled across northern and northwestern Italy without encountering serious opposition. British Eighth Army forces driving north and northeast reached Trieste where they joined Tito's Yugoslavian Communist partisans on 2 May. The stream of prisoners taken since mid-April turned into a deluge during the last days of the campaign, and several combat units left the front lines to guard the tens of thousands of Axis soldiers swelling makeshift prisoner-of-war camps throughout northern Italy.

The Axis Surrender in Italy

With no hope left, German emissaries arrived at the 15th Army Group headquarters in Caserta, Italy, on 28 April to arrange a cease-fire and the unconditional surrender of the remaining Axis forces south of the Alps. They agreed to a cease-fire along the entire Italian front at 1200 hours on 2 May 1945. On the afternoon of 3 May 1945, Generals Truscott and McCreery attended a ceremony at Caserta, where a German representative surrendered the remaining Axis forces in Italy to General Clark, formally ending World War II in the Mediterranean.

On 4 May 1945, elements of the US 349th Inf, moving north from Italy, met patrols from 103rd Div (Seventh Army) coming from Austria in the north, at the Brenner Pass in the Alps, linking the European and Mediterranean fronts.

The U.S. Fifth Army was in continuous combat in Italy for more than twenty months, the longest of any U. S. field army during World War II. Allied losses in the Italian Campaign exceeded 312,000, of which 60% were sustained by Fifth Army units. Of the total losses, 31,886 were killed, including 19,475 Americans, the remainder of the dead being British and Commonwealth troops, Brazilians, Poles, Frenchmen, free Italians, and members of the Jewish brigade from British Palestine. German dead in Italy were estimated at more than 400,000.

Recommended Books about the Italian Campaign, Po Valley

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