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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

II: The Land of Italy

II: The Land of Italy


Geography, as Uncle Toby assured Corporal Trim, is ‘of absolute use’ to the soldier. How well did the physical shape of Italy fit it for the strategic purposes that the campaign there was intended to serve? Italy, to all-comers rich in history, is to invaders poor in geography. Especially is this true of those relatively few invaders who, like the armies of Justinian in the sixth century and the Norman adventurers of the eleventh, have had to fight their way from south to north. From a military point of view the most significant geographical features of the peninsula are the extent of its coastline, its narrow, elongated shape, its mountainous contours and its climate.

Segregated from continental Europe in the north by the lofty barrier of the Alps and for the rest by the Mediterranean and its two gulfs of the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas, Italy has, as Mazzini said, her ‘sublime, irrefutable boundary marks’. But the defensive value of these two boundaries, the alpine and the maritime, is very unequal. A water frontier of about 2450 miles gives the Italian mainland the longest coastline of any European State and exposes it dangerously to the thrust of hostile sea power. Except for about 120 miles on either side of Genoa, few considerable natural defences exist to balk an invader, and although their gradients vary and they are in part closely overlooked by hills, numerous beaches, particularly on the west coast, offer suitable landing places. The coasts are too long to be thoroughly fortified and manned, and page 20 except at a few selected strongpoints the defence would have to rely on mobile forces held in reserve for movement to threatened localities rather than on permanent garrison troops. Given a sufficiency of assault equipment and imaginative leadership, an invading army by delivering, or even simulating, seaborne operations behind both flanks of the enemy's front could compel him to dispose considerable forces in a state of readiness for coastal defence and could, in favourable circumstances, escape from the stalemate which it would be the aim of the enemy to impose.


The defender, on the other hand, is favoured by the narrowness of the peninsula, which is nowhere wider than 160 miles and which at one point between Naples and Rome curves inward to a waist only 85 miles across. By stabilising his front at right angles to the north-westerly and south-easterly axis of the peninsula, the defender would effect the maximum economy in troops. In this object he is assisted by the mountain structure. Thrown off from the Maritime Alps in an easterly direction, the chain of the Apennines in north-eastern Tuscany bears to the south and then conforms to the general trend of the peninsula, forming, as it were, a backbone somewhat displaced in central Italy towards the east coast. The spurs and re-entrants running off eastward to the Adriatic from this central spine thus confront the invader with successive ridges and rivers squarely athwart the line of his advance. The rivers draining this massif, both to east and west, are subject to sudden and unexpected flooding, which may disconcert or even thwart the plans of an attacking commander.

The Apennines further ease the problem of defence by effectively closing to the attacker a large proportion of the front from coast to coast. In the Abruzzi, where the peninsula is most mountainous, crests above 3000 feet take in a width of more than half the peninsula. In such tangled country a front of 25 miles can be securely held by a single division. The same mountain barrier, by obstructing lateral movement from east to west, is likely to penalise the attacker more than the defender, since it reduces flexibility and makes it more difficult for the commander to switch the weight of his attack from one part of the front to another. On the other hand, if he achieves surprise and massive superiority at the point of attack, slowness of communication may well double his success by excluding many of the defending troops from the decisive battle. The division of the front into two distinct sectors also presents the high command with the task of co-ordinating the activities of two forces, each of which is tempted to fight an independent battle. Particularly when page 21
the narrow waist of the italian peninsula

the narrow waist of the italian peninsula

the boundary between two armies runs along the crests there is a lively danger, not merely of a disjunction of effort, but of actual misunderstanding and dissension. Mutual isolation may easily breed mutual grievance.1


The large area of hilly country makes the tank on the whole a less effective weapon than in most parts of Europe, and sets a premium on hardy and skilled infantry trained in mountain warfare. Artillery, while afforded good observation, finds it harder to search broken country where the cover is plentiful, and is likely to see its ammunition expenditure increasing proportionately with the difficulty of supplying it. Though free armoured movement is possible in some areas of rolling country such as that immediately around Rome, visibility is often restricted by olive groves and vineyards; and where the land is quite flat, as in the Po valley, it is intersected by innumerable watercourses and the frequent hamlets

1 A classic and extreme example of the hostility that can develop between two forces fighting the same battle in different conditions is provided by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1. The mutual isolation of Paris and the rest of the country during the siege of the capital was a prime cause of the civil war associated with the Paris Commune of 1871.

page 22 offer positions from which the rapid advance of tanks can be hindered.

As a consequence of its mountainous nature, the peninsula has a communication system that is easily disrupted. While the northern plains are served by an intricate network of railways, there were in 1943 only three lines to ‘stitch the boot of Italy’ from north to south, all of them, because of the large number of bridges, viaducts and tunnels, sensitive to air attack and capable of swift and efficient disablement by a retreating army. The road system, though often the work of resourceful engineers, would be severely strained by the burden of heavy military traffic in addition to that diverted from the railways.

In such a country the roads were bound to dictate the direction of military effort. Though even in Italy all roads do not lead to Rome, the capital is certainly the pivot of communications, and for this reason alone its possession confers great tactical advantage. The roads vary in quality. First in importance – for the autostrade were then too few to be militarily significant – are the great highways (the nineteen principal Strade statali). These are generally wide, easy in gradient and well surfaced, though sometimes very serpentine, and in the event they stood up well to wear-and-tear by army lorries, scarifying by tank tracks, and pitting by shells and bombs. The lesser roads are more liable to break up. They are frequently narrow, steep, or twisting and may run for long distances without affording motor vehicles either turning space or means of access to the surrounding countryside. At the crossing of rivers, valleys and defiles, in mountain passes and at other critical points, all roads are easy to block and some are hard to clear. In rugged country roads are few. In sum, communications are such as to rob a highly mechanised force of much of the advantage to be reaped elsewhere from superiority in machines, and even in certain circumstances to transfer the advantage to the force that moves on hoofs and feet; and the comparative paucity of capacious roads limits the choice of thrust lines and so the versatility of the attacker.


The climate tends to the same result. To the summer visitor a land of warm sunshine and bright moonlight, Italy takes on a less hospitable aspect as autumn deepens into winter. The rainfall is abundant, never much below an annual average of 20 inches in the inland south and rising to over 50 inches around Genoa. It is often heaviest in November, and from that month until April the movement of motor transport off roads and other hard surfaces is seriously handicapped. Thick, clogging mud and steep hillsides, page 23 many of which are terraced, not only impede the use of tanks but also slow up the pace of infantry and shorten the objectives that can reasonably be set. Though the lighter field pieces can usually be manhandled into the best position, medium and heavy guns must often be sited for convenience of access to roads rather than to satisfy more technical requirements. The eastern slope is drier and sunnier than the western, but by way of compensation it is steeper and therefore more eroded. Even in the northern plain snow and mud may bring an army almost to a standstill in winter. In some parts low-lying areas flood or become very damp and confine motor vehicles to roads running along the top of embankments, which the enemy can readily breach.

Though the sea is never far away from any part of the peninsula, its moderating effect on the climate is offset by the ribbon of highlands, the peaks of which are snow-covered for several months of the year, and the range of temperature is exceptionally great. The mild, equable Mediterranean climate of tourist literature does not survive the test either of statistics or of experience the year round. Temperatures high in summer become in winter bracing to the point of severity. The spread of temperature between the hottest and coldest months at Alessandria in the northern plain is 43 degrees F. and drops to 26 degrees at Palermo on the north coast of Sicily, but it is always above 25 degrees – a notable amplitude.1 The military implications are clear. Even in static warfare the rigours of the Italian winter make heavy demands on the physical and moral stamina of troops in the field; and much more so when strategic necessity calls on them to sustain a steady attack.

The climate and terrain awaiting the New Zealand Division in Italy were therefore a contrast to those in which they had trained and fought in the desert. In quitting the battlefields of desert Africa for Italy, they were exchanging, at least for the time being, heat for cold, sand for mud, flats or mild undulations for hills and mountains, freedom of movement for road-bound restriction, and an arid waste sparsely peopled for a land where the arts of peace had long flourished and where armies had manoeuvred and met since the infancy of Europe.

1 These figures, like most, assume meaning only by comparison. A New Zealand reader should therefore know that at Alexandra in Central Otago, the place of perhaps the greatest extremes of heat and cold in New Zealand, the temperature range is 25 degrees. At Christchurch it is 20 degrees and at Hokitika onlv 15.