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Battle in North Italy: The Gothic Line World War II

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

battle-in-north-italy-the-gothic-line-world-war-ii

Background

North Italy 1944 (WW II)

The situation in Italy in 1944 was precarious. Benito Mussolini who had been deposed and arrested in 1943 was rescued by Hitler's storm troopers and made a puppet of the dictator in northern Italy. It was a sad end to the man who had led the famous "brownshirts" March on Rome in 1922.

In July 1944, there was an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler in his bunker but he survived. In June 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy. After the initial success of the invasion, the allies were faced with determined German resistance. Winston Churchill the British prime minister who had referred to Italy at the "soft underbelly" of the Axis had suggested to the high command to open a front in Italy to relieve the pressure in France. General Eisenhower, the Allies supreme commander agreed to launch A push in Italy to relieve the pressure on the Western front. Unknown to soldiers who were fighting in Italy this was to be only a diversionary attack and the allies had no plan to enter Germany from northern Italy.

Field Marshal Harold Alexander of the British Army was made the supreme commander and given the mandate to attack.

The Italians had lost the will to fight and we're looking for a face-saving way out. The bugbear to peace negotiations was Mussolini who had been removed. Marshal Badoglio was authorized by the king to start secret negotiations with the allies for surrender. In the negotiations, it was agreed that Mussolini would be handed over to the allies and an armistice worked out.

The situation was extremely fluid and Joseph Stalin was pressing Churchill and Roosevelt to relieve the pressure in the east. Despite victories at Stalingrad and Kursk the Germans were by no means defeated.

Hitler was anticipating an Italian defection and he made his plans accordingly. He appointed Field Marshal Kesselring to command the German forces in North Italy. He also inducted 16 German divisions and occupied the whole of North Italy.With Mussolini as the titular head, the Germans were ready for the ally attack.


Field Marshal Harold Alexander

Field Marshal Harold Alexander

The Allied Assault And The Gothic Line

Hitler watched with trepidation as the armistice of Cassibile was signed on 3 September 1943. It was signed by American General Walter Bedell Smith and General Giuseppe Castellano and made public on 8 September. The armistice stipulated the surrender of Italy to the Allies.

The Germans moved rapidly and attacked Italian forces in Italy and other places and quickly defeated them. Most of Italy was occupied by German troops, establishing a puppet state, the Italian Social Republic.

After Badoglio agreed for an armistice Kesselring was ready for any assault by the Allies. He set up defensive fortifications in what is called the Gothic line. It formed Albert Kesselring's last major line of defence along the summits of the northern part of the Apennine Mountains. The Germans made use of over 15000 slave labor and created more than 2,000 well-fortified machine gun nests, bunkers and artillery fighting positions to repel any attempt to breach the Gothic Line.

Opposing Armies.

The Allies commander Field Marshal Harold Alexander Marshalled his forces for the attack. He had under him the British eight Army and the United States Fifth Army. There were also troops of The British Indian Army. Kesselring had the German 14th army and the tenth army. In addition, he also had 14 panzer corps and 1 parachute corps. He had withdrawn to North Italy and was holding the Gothic line. The Allies hoped to breach this line and throw the Germans back.

battle-in-north-italy-the-gothic-line-world-war-ii

Failure : No Reason

The Offensive.

General Alexander ordered the launch of the attack on the Gothic Line. The Allies had already pushed the German forces to the Gothic line where Field Marshal Kesselring was hoping to make a stand.But now in hind sight it can be seen that the allied offensive was a half hearted affair. This does not take away any credit from Kesselring who fought an excellent rear guard action and delayed the inevitable by at least a couple of months. But the assault launched by the allies on the Gothic line resulted in innumerable causalities, which perhaps could have been avoided.

General Marshal sitting in USA had felt that an allied assault may not have the desired effect as Kesselring could easily escape beyond the Alps and set up a line of defense there. But Kesselring's request to Hitler to withdraw did not have the desired result and he had no choice but to hold the Gothic line. There were heavy causalities among the allied troops who failed to breach the Gothic line. It was not for want of bravery but for some strange reason where the Italian campaign had low importance. In that case the men who died in that campaign perhaps died in vain.

The Result

The Italian assault was called off and Alexander virtually admitted failure in a broadcast to the partisans on November 17, 1944. The partisans were asked to call of large scale operations and go on the defensive. Credit must go to the German army under Kesselring which fought to retain the line against the allies. It was definitely a great rear guard action. It gave Hitler precious time to prolong the war. But the fact remains that for the allies this was a low key theater and the aim was perhaps to just tie down the German forces so that Ike could advance across France. But then the question remains why so many soldiers had to die in this campaign of 53 days. There are no answers except that war is war and no quarter given and none expected. It is the call to arms and duty.

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

Tom, thanks.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 01, 2020:

Thanks, Tom, A lot of credit should also go to Field Marshal Kesselring.

tom on September 30, 2020:

1943 -1945 ,italian campaign failed,despite allied air superiority ,hilly terrain favoured defender

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 08, 2020:

Thanks. Great comments

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 08, 2020:

Before I sign off on this one, there is one thing I find odd with the Nazis - in particular AH - who 'complained' about British and Commonwealth fighting techniques, the Royal Marine Commandos (and Russians at Stalingrad), that they 'fought like gangsters', appearing from nowhere, taking pot-shots or blowing stuff up, and vanishing again. Hitler had a paranoia about commandos. Yet when anybody rattled their cage about the behaviour of the Waffen SS in the field, shooting prisoners of war, destroying villages and killing the inhabitants etc., they said with a blank stare as if they were talking to school kids, "This is war!"

They didn't find our idea of total war met with their approval.

Ya-boo-shucks!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 08, 2020:

Great interacting with you Alan.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 08, 2020:

You know me, emge, I'll do owt (aught - as opposed to nought) to oblige.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 07, 2020:

Thanks, Alan for w wonderful comment. cheers

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 07, 2020:

That's a classic, that one: getting the trains to run on time. It'd be a sure-fire vote winner here as well! The other thing was 'pulling the Mafia's teeth'. The US doing a deal with Al Capone to get the Mafiosi in Sicily onside against the remaining Italian fascists and Germans. The orderly Germans must've had kittens at the prospect of the Mafia turning on them!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 07, 2020:

Should not forget that Mussolini came into power in 1922 and at that time he brought order in a chaotic Italian society.I have read that at that time he did a lot of goods and for the first time trains began to run on time and stability came in society. He ruled till 1943 when he was deposed and that's a pretty long time.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 07, 2020:

Thanks, Alan, he was going great till about 1938 then lost his confidence as well as the Italians realized he was a man with legs of clay. That's it, he just lost his will and was ultimately shot by partisans.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 07, 2020:

That was in the early days, when he was on his perch with the eagle. He'd fought against the Austrians in WWI, thus had proved himself to be a 'warrior'. Whilst he was being lionised by Hitler he was 'top dog', mediating with Neville Chamberlain (a pushover who didn't understand foreign policy and should've stayed in his chancellor's job after Stanley Baldwin resigned from No. 10. His epithet should've been, "Couldn't play poker", a comic 'Chaplinesque' figure with his brolly and starched collar). 'Musso' was only really 'top dog' until he marched his men into Africa, to be helped out by the Germans who by then regarded him as a comic cut. Resistance was building inside Italy by then and his troops didn't see any point in fighting for him. In England Italian POW's had to be kept separate from the Germans due to mutual loathing. Here in Newham where I live the Italians were kept on Wanstead Flatts, an open area between two boroughs, the Germans were housed between factories at nearby Stratford (where the Olympic site is now, and West Ham football club play home matches) so their mates wouldn't bomb the factories. A lot of Italians never went home, and were let out from their camps on 'permissive leave'.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 07, 2020:

Thank you Alan, I remember having studied this campaign at War college. The important thing to consider is that Kesselring had lost air superiority, in fact, he had none. Thus Guilio Douhet's theory works against him as he had no air cover. He was pounded from the air and despite this, he held on is to his credit.

Yes, the Italians later turned against Mussolini and the Germans but see the movies and photos of the adulation they gave when in prime time Mussolini and Hitler met and signed the pact of steel.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 07, 2020:

Let's not waste praise on the Germans for 'stitching up' their former allies, the Italians. Praise should go to Sir Harold Alexander for keeping up pressure on Kesselring, forcing him to abandon one defensive position after another up the 'boot' (Italy), through two bad, mud-soaked winters, a diversity of allies no-one's had to put up with since the Roman empire. As one US general put it, "an army that consisted of troops who had special dietary requirements, wouldn't fight on Friday or Saturday, or during Ramadan, a diversity of weaponry and ammunition that had to be replenished"; as well as a diversity of thought or strategy - like Gen. Lucas digging in at Anzio and giving the Germans time to bring up their heavy rail gun, nicknamed 'Anzio Annie' and his own troops, along with the British, having to bide their time in mud-filled trenches or fox-holes, keeping their heads down, instead of forging ahead northwards to cut off the Germans' front line; or like Patton gallivanting around like a prima donna and Mark Clark doing his own thing.

Gen. Alexander did a better job in keeping up the pressure with all the hindrances and human obstacles than Kesselring's defences (and SS commmitting atrocities on the civilian population, destroying the infrastructure - as they did in Greece and Russia - and bringing disease in the aftermath). Many of the Italians, military and civilians, didn't favour an alliance with Germany in the first place, and when the Germans turned on them no sympathy was wasted on them when they lost the war they started out of chagrin and idiotic ideology.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 06, 2020:

Alan a lot of interesting information. I wrote on Major Skorzeny and Mussolini on some other site. He escaped to Spain after the war and died there. Yes, partisans were harassing `Kesselring's forces and he had to deal with them but in all, he fought an excellent rear guard action. Great of you to have commented.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 06, 2020:

This is where we meet up again with Otto Skorzeny, Hitler's pet 'go-getter', rescuing Mussolini and almost getting him killed by insisting on flying out from the hotel he'd been guarded at by Carabinieri.

The malaise in Italy began on Sicily with Patton going out for his own glory and by-passing Monty towards Messina.

The Allies got bogged down at Salerno and sought a way round. The idea came up to land at Anzio, as Churchill wished, "A snarling tiger" behind German lines (or words to that effect) behind the 'Gustav Line' north of Salerno under Major General Lucas. Churchill would later lament Lucas' inaction by saying they'd beached a whale. Elsewhere, with British, Commonwealth, Polish, French and French Colonial troops across the uplands near the west coast. Rome could've been taken before it was, and D-Day might not have eclipsed the Allies' triumph in Italy. King Victor Emmanuel and Marshal Badoglio had side-skipped the Germans in Rome by this time. When the Allies finally cracked the Gustav Line and pushed past Monte Cassino to Rome, General Mark Clark threw caution to the wind and rushed in a convoy of jeeps to Rome to take the German surrender... but they'd pulled back to the 'Gothic Line', forcing the Allies into another winter campaign up the Apennines.

Dad was wounded by a sniper's bullet around this time and recuperated in Rome, learning Italian from a professor in return for 'goodies' from the Naafi (Navy, Army & Air Force Institution) canteen. He'd spend his 21st birthday on 21st June, '44 under fire in Florence... on the Gothic Line... after the Germans blew all he bridges... Then on through the Alps where the Germans 'melted away' back to the 'Fatherland'. More successful than Arnhem, don't you think? And certainly more straightforward than the Ardennes in December, '44! But for Maj. Gen. Lucas Kesselring's Gustav Line might've melted with the spring thaw in '44, the Germans outflanked.

By the way did you know an army of Italian and German deserters, along with Italian Resistance fighters kept Kesselring's forces diverted in the mountains of north-west of Italy. Kesselring had to peel off large numbers of men from the Gothic Line to deal with them.

Just thought you'd like to know. Tito's partisans took a large number of Slovenian and Austrian civilians before the British Army could enter Klagenfurt (not knowing of anything untoward). This was in respect of resistance put up against the Yugoslav Army during the 1922 Plebiscite, where the newly formed Yugoslavia claimed a large tract of land in southern Carinthia. Brigadier Toby Law, head of the garrison there had enough on his plate with captured Russians in German uniform who surrendered to the British Army at Spielfeld Strass in western Styria. They would have to be forcibly repatriated, along with many who'd surrendered to the British Army in France.

Connections, emge. Funny old world, eh?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 06, 2020:

Flourish, Thank you

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 06, 2020:

This is a riveting account, detailed yet succinct at the same time. Well done.