Author of "Red Legs of the Bulge: Artillerymen in the Battle of the Bulge," CJ is passionate about history and the people who make it.
In May 1944, the Allied armies in Italy were poised for a great victory. They were just 30 miles south of Rome. But the eternal city was not the real goal. It was the destruction of the battered German Army in Italy. After weeks of planning, a carefully coordinated attack by the American Fifth Army and British Eighth was designed to cutoff the German retreat. However, General Mark Clark had other ideas. The Fifth Army commander took matters into his own hands, redirecting his VI Corps towards Rome, allowing large portions of the German 10th Army to escape northward behind the mountains of central Italy. His reputation would be permanently marred and he spent the rest of his career justifying it.
The Forgotten General of World War II
The Italian Campaign is considered by many to be the forgotten battle of World War II. It was a battle hampered by a lack of resources, brutal terrain and a mishmash of nationalities. All of its achievements and struggles were eclipsed by the Normandy Invasion and the mammoth battles of the Russian front. But it was no less important. After a achieving the diplomatic victory of getting Italy to surrender, the Allies battled the Germans for control of the country. The campaign tied down dozens of German Divisions, straining an already overstretched supply and manpower situation for the Wehrmacht.
Much like other campaigns, it would be a joint American and British operation. As with so many other operations, politics and personality would play a large role. Such was the case of General Mark W. Clark. As Fifth Army commander, he led American troops during the Campaign. Clark's own vanity added to the toxic mix. Even General George Patton considered him a "glory hound."
While his bravery was without question, Clark's reputation remains mixed. Many of his most important decisions appear to have been less than prudent. The campaign became a backwater, but the casualties were all too real and the mistakes many. His successes were overshadowed throughout the War and he felt the sting of being overlooked. Despite final victory, bitterness towards Clark remained a problem years after the War. Veterans and politicians continued to criticize him until his retirement.
Ready for Action
Mark Wayne Clark graduated the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1917, just in time for service in World War I. Wounded by German artillery shortly arriving at the front line in 1918, he finished the war as a supply officer. Between the wars, he was given a variety of assignments but eventually came to the attention of both new Chief of Staff George Marshall in 1939.
In October 1942, Clark was made deputy commander of Allied Forces in the North African Theater. General Eisenhower also had a very high opinion of his abilities. In preparation for the Torch landing in November, he secretly went ashore in Algeria with American Diplomat Robert Murphy to talk with the French command about the intentions of the colonial forces. After the successful landings, he was promoted to Lieutenant General and made commander of the Fifth Army in preparation for landings on the Italian mainland. Despite a reputation of being an Anglophobe, Clark worked well with his British Allies, initially.
By the summer of '43, Clark was eager to see action, pressing Ike and the Allied Forces HQ for a final decision on a landing site. He would get more than he imagined. The Allies wanted to move on the mainland soon after Sicily was taken in August. After Italy's surrender in September '43, the Germans quickly moved to control the country. Ably led by General Albert Kesselring, every mountain pass, every beach, and every village would be held with dogged determination by bedraggled enemy formations who used the terrain to its defensive best. Time and time again, Allied momentum would be stopped cold by German counterattacks. Churchill called Italy the "soft underbelly of Europe," but it would prove anything but for Clark and the Allies.
Salerno - A Rough Beginning
Benvenuto, General Clark
The landings at Salerno on September 9, codenamed Operation Avalanche, were touch and go that first day. The Allies seemed surprised. With Italy’s surrender, thoughts of the operation being a cakewalk were prevalent. Air cover was a big problem. German resistance turned out to be much tougher than expected. It would not be a triumphal march up the coast to Naples. The British blamed this on Clark’s poor planning, which was ironic given the fact that he was appointed based on his supposed stringent preparations.
Once Salerno was secure, Clark’s decisions over the next eight months would forever be called into question. The difficulties in crossing the Rapido River, bombing of Monte Cassino and the seizure of Rome have been lingering criticisms. The 36th Infantry Division was chewed up in both the Battle of San Pietro and the crossing of the Rapido. Determined opposition was the cause of the San Pietro brutality, but the crossing of the Rapido was poorly conceived and should have been called off after the first attempt. The 36th’s CO, General Walker, eventually got the blame.
The Battle of Monte Cassino suffered from poor intelligence but probably could not have been avoided. The Fallschirmjäger units holding the area were ferocious in their defense. The town and ancient Abbey were destroyed; it took months to clear the valley.
The landing at Anzio, just south of Rome, became a morass of missed opportunities. A lack of aggressiveness led to the dismissal of Corps commander General Lucas. But it was Clark who told Lucas not to “stick his neck out.” His replacement turned out to be one of Clark’s best choices: Lucian Truscott.
One other factor complicated Clark's Italian Campaign: numerous disagreements with his immediate superior, British General Harold Alexander, commander of the 15th Army Group. This reached a boiling point in May 1944 as the Allies were poised for the capture of Rome.
Clark vs. Alexander
Alexander conceived Operation Diadem as a simultaneous assault on the two German Armies south of Rome. One arm would breakout east from the Anzio beachhead while the Allied forces to the south would attack northward to break through the three German defense lines. The real goal was to cutoff as much of the Tenth and Fourteenth Armies as possible, dealing the Germans a knockout blow in Italy.
The American VI Corps at Anzio would drive northeast from Cisterna while the American II Corps, British Eighth Army and French Expeditionary Force (FEC) would drive north through the German defensive barriers of the Gustav Line, Dora Line and Senger Line further north. The Southern arm would attack first, piercing the German's first two defense lines while the VI Corps liberated Cisterna. From there, VI Corps would swiftly drive eastward with four divisions toward the village of Valmontone, which sat astride Highway 6. This would be called Operation Buffalo.
General Alexander did not expect to destroy or trap the entire 10th Army, but at least half of it; enough to cripple their defenses and stop them from digging in behind another tough line of defenses. VI Corps' drive would decisively split the German armies and cutoff the main highways to the northeast. Then Rome would be taken on the march. However, Clark had his doubts and how much of that doubt was his burning desire to be the conqueror of Rome is still up for debate.
Clark's main concern were his flanks, bordered by the Lipini Mountains to the south and the Alban Hills to the north, which also had been incorporated into the Germans' Caesar Line. But the Allies now had overwhelming numbers in men and material. Nearly 250,000 men were poised for the offensive with overwhelming air superiority. Even the Germans' attempts to bring reserves southward had been hampered by constant Allied air attacks..
While Clark stressed the need for flexibility, General Alexander would no longer countenance to changes in his plan. Alexander was not a man prone to demonstrative displays, instead preferring to use compliments and neutral language while expressing his strategic wishes. He realized the moment of truth had arrived on the Italian front and dispensed with his usual niceties. Decisive victory was now at hand, and everyone needed to carry out the order of Diadem to the letter. Though he was later accused of miscommunication, he spoke to Clark on May 17 and left no doubt what he wanted, going through the plan point by point. He listened politely to the American's misgivings, but was unmoved.
General Alexander favored the Valmontone attack regardless of the enemy situation. To the British, it was common sense. VI Corps had four divisions with which to attack, one of them armored; plus, a commando unit of nearly 1400. Two British infantry divisions were also still in the Anzio area and Clark could use them if desired. The pressure that would be applied to the Germans by the southern attack would negate any pressure on Clark's right flank. Even Clark's most trusted subordinate, General Truscott, believed wholeheartedly in the plan, seeing it for the best way to destroy the enemy. However, he kept his opinion to himself as Clark instructed him to be prepared for a turn due north after taking Cisterna.
Clark considered three options. The first, and most obvious, was to follow Alexander's plan to the letter. The Germans were in disarray. with a substantial lack of forces in the Valmontone gap. By continuing past Cisterna up the rolling terrain of the Velletri-Artena Gap, between the Alban Hills and the Lepini Mountains, and along the northwest shoulder of the Lepini, the VI Corps might cut Highway 6, north of Valmontone. VI corps could then wheel northwest (turn left) across fairly open country to breach the Caesar Line northeast of the Alban Hills. It would be then a straight run right into Rome. German defenses in the Caesar Line between the Alban Hills and Valmontone were believed to be weaker than elsewhere. However, some intelligence estimates indicated substantial enemy forces in this area. VI Corps strongly suspected that the enemy might divert forces from the Adriatic coast or from the I Parachute Corps, which had been attached to the Fourteenth Army.
The second alternative was a drive west of the Alban Hills. It also was the most direct route to Rome. By launching the attack northwest from Cisterna, he thought he could exploit the German's disorganization, driving through the last prepared German position in front of Rome between Campoleone and Lanuvio at the southwest base of the Alban Hills. It would leave the Germans no time to react. Besides the taking of Rome, an added benefit would be the destruction of the Fourteenth Army, at least in theory.
Operation Diadem: Cisterna-Cori-Valmontone
His third alternative was a blend of the other two plans. It was a way for Clark to comply with Alexander's stated goal of cutting Highway 6 near Valmontone and his own desires. His Corps would be split. The 3rd Infantry Division would thrust toward Valmontone with some armored support and the aid of the First Special Service Force, who would later be immortalized in the movie, The Devil's Brigade. The 34th and 45th Infantry Divisions would lead the assault on either side of the Rome-Naples railroad northwest from Cisterna, straddling the base of the Alban Hills. The 36th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division were tasked with tying down the Germans on the right flank toward Velletri. They would head right into the Alban Hills to penetrate the Caesar Line.
The prize of Rome was too tantalizing and Clark chose to turn most of his Corps northwest and head for Rome. Though he was confident that the experienced 3rd ID could carry Alexander's orders alone. Whether or not Clark truly communicated his true intentions to Alexander has been the source of arguments between both camps for 70 years.
Diadem commenced on May 11 with the Eighth Army, FEC and U.S. II Corps making considerable gains. They pushed into the Liri Valley and cracked the Gustav Line. By May 14, the Tenth Army was falling back in mass. On May 23, VI Corps broke out of the Anzio beachhead.
Clark returned to Anzio on May 25. He had held a meeting with his Chief of Staff Al Gruenther on the southern front. Gruenther was well respected by the British staffs and Clark would make good use of that amiability in the coming days. Clark did a final run through of his plan with Truscott, who strongly endorsed the changed plans. He even told Clark that a "great victory is within our grasp." There was no turning back now for Clark and he still had not informed Alexander. He would attack first and explain later. The offensive would begin at 1100 the next day. As they spoke, the 3rd ID was trying to clear out Cisterna.
However, at 1115 hours that morning, Alexander flew to the 5th Army HQ. He spoke with Gruenther, who began explaining the replacement plan, which was already underway. Alexander did not forcefully object or say much at all. The one mild protest came from a question to the Chief of Staff, " am sure the army commander will continue to push toward Valmontone, won't he? I know that he appreciates the importance of gaining the high ground just south of Artena." The smooth talking Gruenter was equal to the challenge, assuring the 15th Army Group CO that he could depend on Clark to "execute a vigorous plan."
Whether Alexander believed this or not, he seemed to accept the change in stride. In light of what was to occur, the reserved Brit should have chewed out Gruenther and demand to speak with Clark. It might have saved a lot of lives.
A Flood of Prisoners
Despite the overwhelming confidence of Clark and his staff, they badly underestimated German resistance and the forces they still had in reserve. Though initially surprised, they finally moved swiftly to shift reserves. A division was moved west from the Adriatic toward Valmontone. The three divisions of the 1 Parachute Corps took up positions in the Alban Hills. Other infantry divisions were put into the defense line, even a coastal defense unit.
While not every avenue of advance was defended, it was enough to inflict a surprising amount of casualties on the Americans. After taking Cisterna in three tough days of fighting, the 3rd ID took off for Valmontone with its flanks still guarded by an armored task force and the Special Service Force. The 45th and 34th turned north. Both divisions spent nearly three days trying to break the German defense at the base of the Alban Hills to control of the roads to Rome. To call it bloody would be an understatement. Casualties soared after repeated attacks. But as two fresh American divisions from II Corps, the 85th and 88th, drove northward, the pressure was relieved. Kesselring knew it was time evacuate Rome and head north of the Tiber.
As the 36th ID and the rest of 1st Armored headed into the the Alban HIlls, they expected to bare the brunt of a desperate enemy. But luck was on their side for a change. A battalion of the 36th did find a hole in the Caesar Line. The 3,000 foot Mount Artemisio was left unoccupied. Division engineers quickly got to work building a road and the infantry followed behind the bulldozers. The 36th eventually got two full regiments atop the mountain. This only emboldened Clark who saw another opportunity. The British Eighth was still struggling to link up with VI Corps, but part of the blame falls on Clark for not sending enough units eastward to block Tenth Army. This would have increased the pressure enormously on the retreating enemy, limiting their avenues of escape and hinder their delaying actions
When the 3rd ID finally did make it to Valmontone, they were unable to block Highway 6, east and north of town. The men were exhausted and when it appeared that the Germans threw in more reserves, they assumed a defensive position. However, the Herman Goering Division was still very understrength. A strong push eastward would have cut the road and blocked more retreating Germans. Days went by without the 3rd ID trying to fight through the small group of Panzers. The Germans thought it was a miracle. Several intact units from the Tenth Army got through to the Caesar Line.
There is no doubt that had Clark sent three divisions toward Valmontone and Highway 6, he would have destroyed a large portion of Tenth Army and been able to turn northwest towards Rome very quickly. This would have cut off Fourteenth Army while still seizing the city. At the very least, Fourteenth Army's retreat would have been thrown into chaos. Instead, they inflicted heavy casualties on the Allies and multiple paths of escape were left open in central Italy for Tenth Army. Alexander observed later:
"If Clark had succeeded in carrying out my plan the disaster to the enemy would have been much greater; indeed, most of the German forces would have been destroyed. True, the battle ended in a decisive victory for us, but it was not as complete as might have been .... I can only assume that the immediate lure of Rome for its publicity value persuaded Mark Clark to switch the direction of his advance."
Alexander was angry but restrained. Back in England, Churchill was more displeased. Despite the imminent invasion of France, he had been receiving updates on the Italian front daily and was in regular contact with Alexander. He signaled to General Alexander: "If I did not let you know that the glory of this battle, already great, will be measured, not by the capture of Rome or the juncture with the bridgehead, but by the number of German divisions cut off."
American tanks rolled into the eternal city on June 4. Throngs of grateful residents flooded the streets. It was a triumphant day for the American Army.
The New Caesar
All Glory Is Fleeting
Clark has his defenders. According to historian Martin Blumenson, author of Salerno to Cassino, Clark was told directly by both Marshall and FDR while they were in North Africa, that taking Rome prior to the cross-channel invasion was a desired goal. He did not know the exact date of the cross-channel invasion, but common sense demanded that a landing in France occur by the late spring of 1944. So everyone knew it was imminent and he may have felt the pressure.
Noted author Robert Citino argues that trapping the Germans south of Rome or anywhere else was nearly impossible because of their skill of maneuvering out of encircled positions. He points out further that many other American commanders who are considered great (i.e. Patton) failed to do so. I think that argument misses the point. Clark failed to fully exploit his advantage in troop strength. He did not put his army in the best position to cut off the Germans. It is one thing to do your best and fail; it’s quite another to not give yourself the best chance to succeed.
Despite the barbarity of the Germans when dealing with civilians, they had no intention of destroying the ancient city and capital of its former ally. Kesselring would not allow it. Only token resistance was put up while the Germans pulled out. They spared Paris later that summer as well. The same would be true with Florence two months later. Historic bridges were blown and many art treasures moved, but the City remained relatively unscathed. When the Indian troops of the Eight Army made it into the City, the Germans had gone.
One cannot blame Clark wanting to be the conqueror of Rome. All generals are keen lovers of history. When something can be done to both defeat the enemy and save the lives of men by avoiding a prolonged struggle, it must be done. However, Clark failed to do this, and the fact that Italy became a backwater in minds of the general public after Normandy was his comeuppance. He was sensitive to the criticism in later life. When he gave an interview for the documentary World at War in the early seventies, you could sense his unease. He felt slighted by historians.
Was It Worth It?
After a year of hard fighting and missed opportunities, the campaign in Italy went relatively well from a military standpoint. It’s just that the press coverage was focused elsewhere. Controversies were gone. Fresh divisions like the 85th, 88th and 91st arrived. Other veteran units, like the 34th and 1st Armored, became well-respected for their fighting abilities after their miscues in North Africa. Although another year of tough mountain fighting remained, the Americans performed well, helping to push the Germans to the Alps by May ’45. Eventually, the soldiers of a dozen nations would serve in Italy at one time or another under Clark.
Clark continued his Army career and would eventually earn four stars. During the Korean War, he was the last U.N. commander in Korea before the Armistice. In retirement, he became president of The Citadel and wrote his autobiography trying to justify his actions. He died in 1984 at the age of 87. Though his obituary called him controversial, he would have approved of its subtitle, "Conqueror of Rome."
- Citino, Robert. "Mark W. Clark: A General Reappraisal." historynet.com. June 9, 2012.
- Holland, James. "General Mark Clark and the Fall of Rome." Griffon Merlin: James Holland's Second World War Forum. April 20, 2016. www.griffonmerlin.com.
- Saxon, Wolfgang. "Gen. Mark Clark Dies At 87; Last of the WWII Chiefs, Conqueror of Rome." New York Times, April 17, 1984. Section A, Page 1. Access via www.nytimes.com.
- Atkinson, Rick. The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2007.
- Blumenson, Martin. Clark, Gen. Mark W. Calculated Risk. New York: Enigma Books, 2007
- Fisher Jr., Ernest F. Cassino to the Alps: The U.S. Army in World War II, the Mediterranean Theater, 1977. Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center for Military History. (Part of the "Green Series;" United States Army in World War II, Mediterranean Theater of Operations).
- Greenfield, Kent Robert (Editor). Command Decisions. United States Army Center of Military History, 1960 - CMH Pub 70-7. Note: I specifically used Chapter 14, "General Clark's Decision To Drive on Rome," Sidney T. Matthews, author.
- Holland, James. Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008.
King, Major Glenn L. "From Salerno to Rome: General Mark W. Clark the Challenges of Coalition Warfare." United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2007. Fort Leavenworth, KS. Note: King was an officer in the New Zealand Army.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on March 15, 2019:
Thanks, Madan. Much appreciated. I need to update the article and reorganize a bit. It does need an edit. Hope to make it better. Stay well.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 14, 2019:
A very interesting and researched article. Lots of information and mostly informative.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on March 14, 2019:
Thanks very much, Anita. The pics I found are really amazing. Had not seen them before. I'm grateful to all those Army Signal Corps cameramen and photographers. Stay well.
Anita Hasch from Port Elizabeth on March 14, 2019:
Such an educational hub. It is interesting to read and learn about all the great men of the war
Photos are amazing.
Robert Sacchi on August 18, 2016:
I enjoyed reading this Hub about less well known American WWII generals. You gave detailed information about when things went well and when things didn't go so well.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on April 22, 2016:
Thx, Bryan. Nice to hear. I try.
Chase Gentry from Nashville, Tennessee on April 22, 2016:
Beautifully Written and I enjoyed looking through all the great pictures too.
walibooks on August 19, 2015:
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on August 16, 2015:
Thx very much Graham and Wayne. Great compliments coming from you both. When I saw the comment notification I was surprised. I'm hoping to another related article but include Brits and Canadians as well.
Wayne Duplessis from Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia on August 16, 2015:
Thank you for this well-researched and compelling history.
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on August 16, 2015:
Hi CJ. This really is a first class hub. I see I am the first to read and comment. I cannot understand this. Your research is so obvious and the presentation and charaters tip top. Well done.
voted up and all.