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Introduction to the Italian Campaign

Allied victory in Sicily had resulted in the overthrow of Mussolini's government, and the capitulation of Italy was only a matter of negotiation and time. An armistice was announced on September 8. The Italian surrender resulted in German evacuation of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, gave the Allies the Italian Navy, and, in effect, made Italy a co-belligerent with the Allies. Nevertheless, the Germans still had a firm hold on the Italian boot.

The Italian Campaign (September 3, 1943 - May 2, 1945) placed Allied troops on the European mainland for the first time, but it was never intended as a substitute for an attack aimed at Germany by way of the more open and more remunerative route through northern France. The invasion of Italy had a number of lesser objectives: to capitalize on the collapse of Italian resistance; to make immediate use of ready Allied strength; to engage German forces which might otherwise be used in Russia and northern France; to secure airfields from which to intensify the bombing of Germany and the Balkans; and to gain complete control of the Mediterranean.

On September 3, 1943 elements of the British Eighth Army landed on the toe of the Italian boot. Six days later, on September 9, the U.S. Fifth Army, under Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark landed on beaches along the Gulf of Salerno, and a British fleet placed a division of troops at Taranto in the arch of the boot.

Heavy fighting quickly developed at Salerno, where German armored counterattacks jeopardized the entire Allied position. It was six days before the Americans were able to surmount the crisis and secure the beachhead.

On September 16, the British Eighth and the U.S. Fifth Armies united their fronts southeast of Salerno. On October 7, the British took Naples with its fine port. Meanwhile the British had captured the airfields of Foggia near the Adriatic coast on September 27, and by mid-October had moved north to a line extending from Larino west to Campobasso, where they were abreast of the Americans on their left. The Allies were in Italy to stay.

Under strategic priorities decided upon by the CCS (Quebec Conference, August 1943) the forces now in the Mediterranean were not to be strengthened further; in fact, seven of the best Allied divisions (four U.S. and three British) were withdrawn to the United Kingdom for the cross-Channel operation. Shipping limitations, in any case, forbade any large-scale reinforcement of the Mediterranean except at the expense of the buildup of American forces in the United Kingdom.

By October 1943 the U.S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies together had only 11 divisions, but this force was able to tie down some 20-odd German divisions throughout the long campaign. The mountainous terrain and the restrictions on maneuver imposed by the narrowness of the peninsula favored the German defenders, but the Allied force continued to press northward until the end of the war.

Having paused a few days after taking Naples and Foggia, the Allied force in Italy renewed its offensive late in October 1943. This drive broke a strong German position at the Volturno River and carried the Allies as far as the so-called Winter Line (or Gustav Line), anchored on Cassino, which the Germans had been preparing about 75 miles south of Rome. Here the Allies were brought to a halt for the remainder of the winter.


In December 1943 the Allied line was reinforced by a French corps equipped with American arms. With this added strength at his disposal, General Clark used the U.S. VI Corps, with British and American troops, in an attempt to envelop the western flank of the German line, while he simultaneously tried to break through the Gustav Line.

The VI Corps made an amphibious landing at Anzio, behind the German line about 30 miles south of Rome, on January 22, 1944. The landing was initially successful and additional forces came in while the landing force pushed inland against growing enemy resistance. After the first week, the Germans reacted with a strong counterattack that reached a peak of intensity on February 17 and threatened to wipe out the beachhead. But the VI Corps' magnificent defense of the perimeter, supported by artillery, tanks, planes, and naval gunfire, brought the last of the major counterattacks to a halt on 2 March.

While the Anzio maneuver failed either to turn the German defenses in the south around Cassino or to open a breakthrough north to Rome, the Anzio beachhead remained a thorn in the German side, engaging its tactical reserves.

In May 1944 the Allied forces made a carefully planned assault on the Winter Line, synchronizing their thrusts with an attack from the Anzio beachhead. The drive carried all the way to Rome, which fell to the Allies on 4 June 1944, two days before the cross-channel attack.

The Germans made their next stand along the so-called Gothic Line in the north Apennine Mountains. The Allied force, although reduced in strength by the necessity to relinquish some divisions for use in France, initiated a drive in September that broke the Gothic Line after a three-month campaign. In the spring of 1945 the Allies pushed across the Po Valley and, when German resistance began to crumble, made spectacular advances which ended with the surrender of the German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945.

The Italian campaign involved some of the hardest fighting in the war and cost the United States forces some 114,000 casualties. But the campaign played an important part in determining the eventual outcome of the war, since the Allies, with a minimum of strength, engaged German forces that could possibly have upset the balance in France.

Italian Campaign: Features

Heroes of the Italian Campaign

Fascinating, inspiring stories and details about American heroes of the Italian campaign who were recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

[The primary source for this text is the U.S. Army Center for Military History. For a more general overview of the war see the Brief History of WWII e-text."]

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