In 1945, the Allied forces were making significant progress against the now surrounded but still formidable Germany, and were making plans to advance on Berlin by cutting their way through Northern Europe. This was the most feasible plan but still had a number of obstacles in the way.
Germany was adept at setting up defenses and there was a lot of rugged territory to cover along the way. The concern was that once the Allies penetrated the German border, their ranks would be depleted to the point of not being able to advance against the strongest of the German fortifications.
The Allies decided take a portion of their forces and launch an attack on Italy, over the objections of the Soviet Union who wanted additional troops to relieve their forces at the Eastern Front, with two basic goals.
First, to take the Italian military off the board. Defeating Italy and forcing them to disband their army and navy would drastically reduce Germanys available military manpower and prevent an attack by Italy against the Allied invaders heading for Berlin.
Second, to divert German troops away from Northern Europe and the German fortifications, effectively clearing the way for the Allied movements.
The campaign against Italy began with sea attacks on Sicily and the Southern Italian coast in July of 1943.
The treacherous mountain conditions of this region, combined with some of the strongest fortifications in the Italian theater, made this a costly battle plan.
Taking advantage of internal strife:
At the time the Allies were attacked Sicily, Italy was in a state of disarray.
The citizenry, tired of Mussolini and the fascists, were in a mood for a change.
Once word the attacks on Sicily and Southern Italy by the Allies spread, the populace deposed and arrested Mussolini and replaced him with an interim government, one which was much more inclined to side with the Allies.
This is much along the lines that the Allies were hoping for.
The German Response:
While the possibility of leaving Italy to its own devices almost certainly was considered, Germany realized that the taking of Italy by the Allies would ultimately lead to disaster, for several reasons;
- It would be a crushing political blow to lose a major ally, regardless of how useful they were or were not in a military engagement.
- It would allow the Allies another base of operations in Europe, one that could easily mount attacks at Germany’s Southern borders.
- It would give the Allies a major strategic advantage in the Mediterranean, while at the same time canceling out the advantage enjoyed by the Axis.
To counter the Allied effort, Germany deployed more than 2 dozen fresh divisions to the area, while at the same time assisting more than 100,000 German and loyalist Italian troops to escape the Allies, who were hoping to take this force out of the game.
The new German troops, under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, would then do their best to halt the Allied advances into Italy.
And they were successful, slowing the Allied advance through some of the toughest and bloodiest battles of the war. One of the first battles of this series was for the city of Anzio, a name that still rings in military history.
Fighting into Italy:
The decision to attack Italy’s southern tip gave the Allies an advantage of being able to use nearly the entire Mediterranean Sea as a staging and supply resource, but it also provided an advantage for the Germans. The Italian peninsula is narrow in that area, which allowed the Germans to set up multiple effective lines of defense to keep the allied ground forces bottled up in Anzio.
The first of these was at the Gustov line, and successfully held the Allies in check for some time before General Clark of the US Army went against and cut through the lines and advanced on Rome. This did give the Allies a foothold in the country, but also allowed a significant contingent of German troops to escape. These were later deployed in other areas of the Italian theater, and contributed to the protracted offensive required to ultimately liberate Italy, and offensive that would drag on for nearly 2 years.