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A Brief History of WWII

Sicily and Italy

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Meeting in Casablanca in January 1943, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that the large Italian island of Sicily would be their next target. Montgomery's British forces landed on the southeast coast, while Patton's newly activated Seventh Army landed on the southwest, with the mission of seizing airfields and protecting the flank of the British drive. Airborne troops spearheading the attacks scattered wide of their targets but managed to disrupt enemy communications. Hours after the initial landings on 9 July, German armor struck the American beaches. Naval gunfire, infantry counterattacks, and the direct fire of field artillery landing at the critical juncture broke up the German formations. But two attempts to reinforce the beaches with parachute and glider-borne troops ended in disaster when Allied antiaircraft batteries mistook the transport planes for enemy aircraft and opened fire, causing severe losses.

Meanwhile, the Germans solidly blocked the British drive on the Sicilian capital, Messina. General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, Allied ground commander, ordered Patton to push toward Palermo, at the western tip of the island. Once in Palermo, since the British drive was still stalled, his forces attacked Messina from the north. Patton used a series of small amphibious end runs to outflank German positions on the northern coastal road. American and British troops arrived in Messina on 17 August, just as the last Axis troops evacuated Sicily.

In late July the Allies decided to follow up their success in Sicily with an invasion of Italy. Having lost hope of victory, the Italian High Command, backed by the king, opened secret negotiations with the Allies. The Germans, suspecting that Italy was about to desert the Axis, rushed in additional troops.

The Germans swiftly disarmed the Italian Army and took over its defensive positions. A British fleet sailed into the harbor of Taranto and disembarked troops onto the docks, while the U.S. Fifth Army under Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark landed on the beaches near Salerno on 9 September. The Germans reacted in strength. For four days vigorous attacks by German armor threatened the beaches. But on 16 September American and British forces made contact, and two weeks later American troops entered Naples, the largest city south of Rome. Allied plans called for a continued advance to tie down German troops and prevent their transfer to France or Russia, while Hitler decided to hold as much of Italy as possible.

As the Allies advanced up the mountainous spine of Italy, they confronted a series of heavily fortified German defensive positions, anchored on rivers or commanding terrain features. The brilliant delaying tactics of the German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, exacted a high price for every Allied gain. The campaign in Italy became an endless siege, fought in rugged terrain, in often appalling conditions, and with limited resources.

Moving north from Naples, the Allies forced a crossing of the Volturno River in October 1943 and advanced to the Winter Line, a main German defensive position anchored on mountains around Cassino. Repeated attempts over the next six months to break or outflank it failed. An amphibious end run, landing the U.S. VI Corps under Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas at Anzio in January 1944, failed to turn the German flank, for Lucas waited too long to build up his reserves before moving aggressively against the German defenses. Kesselring had time to call in reinforcements, including artillery, which soon brought every inch of Allied-held ground under fire. As the defenders dug in, the end run turned into another siege, as American and British troops repulsed repeated counterattacks.

Meanwhile, an American attempt to cross the Rapido River, timed to coincide with the Anzio landing, miscarried with heavy casualties. Allied efforts to blast a way through the enemy's mountain defenses proved futile, despite the use of medium and heavy bombers to support ground attacks around Cassino. Finally, in May 1944, a series of coordinated attacks by the Fifth Army and Eighth Army pried the Germans loose, and they began to fall back. On June 4, 1944, two days before the Normandy invasion, Allied troops entered Rome.

The Normandy invasion made Italy a secondary theater, and Allied strength there gradually decreased. Nevertheless, the fighting continued. The Allies attacked a new German defensive line in the Northern Appenines in August but were unable to make appreciable headway through the mountains. Not until spring of 1945 did they penetrate the final German defenses and enter the Po valley. German forces in Italy surrendered on May 2, 1945.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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