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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: The State of the Campaign

page 41

I: The State of the Campaign

THE Eighth Army had come far and fast in the seventy days since its landing in Italy. From the tip of the Calabrian toe to the heights that overlook the Sangro River from the south, the direct distance across sea, plain and mountain measures 300 miles, a figure that would be almost doubled in the itinerary of a mechanised army making an opposed march. But when, on 8 November, British patrols first saw the Sangro flowing towards the Adriatic in the broad, gravelly bed of its lower reaches, the days of rapid advance were over for a season. Aided by the terrain (ahead lay the Abruzzi) and by the weather (snow was reported on the heights on 10 November), a stubborn enemy was preparing to hold the peninsula from sea to sea.

By this time strategic uncertainty had expired, but it had bequeathed a legacy of tactical troubles. The German intentions in Italy remain concealed, and indeed undetermined, until October. For a month the Eighth Army encountered no serious resistance. Progress through Calabria, Lucania and most of Apulia was hindered mainly by demolitions, difficulties of supply and the need to transfer base facilities from the toe to the heel of Italy, where the three ports of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari were quickly occupied after a landing at Taranto on 9 September. Foggia admitted troops of 13 Corps on 27 September and by the middle of October the Eighth Army was disposed along a line TermoliCampobassoVinchiaturo, with 5 Corps in the coastal sector and 13 Corps among the mountains on the left. The last stages of the advance to this line had been sharply contested: hot counter-attack flared up after the landing of commandos and a brigade of 78 Division at Termoli, and the German defenders exacted forfeits from 1 Canadian Division before yielding the important road junction of Vinchiaturo.

From the Fifth Army's front came corroboration of the enemy's hardening purpose. The effort to throw the invaders back into the sea at Salerno had failed by the end of the first week, when the Eighth Army's approach forced the enemy to break his encirclement of the bridgehead and seek safety to the north. With the fall of Naples on 1 October, four days after the capture of Foggia, the page 42 Allies had gained their first chief geographical objectives, the indispensable port and the highly desirable airfields. The Germans withdrew from Naples in order to defend the line of the Volturno River. Here the American 6 Corps and the British 10 Corps effected a crossing only with difficulty, and the month was well advanced before these two corps could feel themselves secure north of the river.

As the allegro of September gave way to the slow movement of October, the Allies for the first time had really to face the implications of their presence in Italy. They could no longer improvise upon the strength of an unopposed advance. The invasion of Italy, as we have seen, was the last of a series of ad hoc decisions on Mediterranean strategy. Geographical objectives had been left an open question. On the day of the Salerno landings Churchill wrote to Roosevelt that, after the fall of Naples, ‘we are, I presume, agreed to march northwards up the Italian peninsula until we come up against the main German positions’.1 On 21 September Alexander set his armies four successive objectives for the winter, the last as far north as Arezzo, Florence and Leghorn. But in fact, lacking a long-term plan when they invaded Italy, the Allies had made insufficient provision for a rapid pursuit which might have hustled the enemy up the length of the peninsula while he was still shaken by the Italian surrender. Irrespective of enemy interference, the Eighth Army in October had to pause because it had outrun its administrative services.

The German intentions were as opportunist as the Allies'. The enemy had been prepared to fall back even as far as the line of the Po and at best had not contemplated a stand farther south than a line across central Italy from Grosseto to Ancona. But as time passed, confidence flowed back into his strategic thinking and gave weight to Kesselring's plea to hold Rome. Despite the failure at Salerno, he had extricated his forces from the south in good order. The Italian civilians were proving more docile and the Allied soldiers less numerous than he had feared. He was now ready to accept the risk of seaborne outflanking operations – a risk increased by his evacuation of Sardinia and Corsica but diminished, had he known it, by the loss to other theatres of most of the Allied assault craft.

He had much to gain from a southward stand. From the northern plain, pacified with satisfactory ease, he could spare divisions to reinforce the south, where the line was shorter; he could also release armour to the eastern front, where it was urgently needed, in exchange for infantry; he would win time to perfect successive defensive lines; he would buoy up morale by halting a retreat that page 43 had begun at El Alamein; he would preserve Rome as a capital for the Neo-Fascist Republic and deny its airfields to the Allies. These were no chimerical hopes but strictly practical possibilities, for the approaching winter would impede offensive manoeuvre and go far to neutralise the Allied mastery of the air; and, above all, the lie of the land south of Rome offered spectacular advantage to the defender.

From the Gulf of Gaeta to Vasto the peninsula is no more than 85 miles wide and here it happens to raise a barrier of immense natural strength. So long as its western hinge is held firm, the door may be allowed to swing back for some distance in the east, where the seaward slopes of the Apennines undulate in a series of rivers and ridges which can be defended one by one. The western bastion is formed by the Aurunci Mountains, moated to the south by the Garigliano River and falling away inland to the one stretch of flat ground in the whole line. But this stretch, the mouth of the Liri valley, which leads to Rome, is itself closed by the Garigliano and Rapido and commanded by Montecassino on its northern angle. Thence, farther inland, rise mountains of heights and contours that are militarily prohibitive until, within a few miles of the east coast, they descend in the spurs that monotonously confront the army working north. Such was the belt, the Winterstellung, defensible in great depth, upon which the Fuehrer in directives of 4 and 10 October ordered his Italian command to detain the Allies throughout the winter. The significance of the lively enemy reaction at Termoli and on the Volturno lay in showing that the two Allied armies had run against its southern abutments.

By the second half of October the Allied command appreciated the fact. The shortcomings inherent in the strategy of the Italian venture now became apparent. Eleven Allied divisions faced nine German divisions in southern Italy, but reserves in the north raised the German strength to twenty-five divisions. The Allied build-up was going slowly and was doubly burdened by the order to return seven experienced divisions to the United Kingdom for Overlord by the end of November and by the decision, which consumed a great deal of shipping space, to transfer strategic bombers to the Foggia airfields. Alexander dared not rule out the possibility of a German counter-attack, and neither the Foggia airfields nor the port of Naples could be secure until protected in greater depth. And he was operating under the overriding instruction to maintain maximum pressure on the enemy as far away as possible from the eastern and the potential western front. Rome, which was the hub of Italian communications and whose possession meant prestige, was the obvious objective; but, assuming a shortage of landing craft for page 44 an adequate amphibious attack, Alexander concluded that Rome could be won only by ‘a long and costly advance, a slogging match’.

Nevertheless, emboldened perhaps by a knowledge of Churchill's enthusiasm for ‘amphibious scoops’, he included a seaborne attack in his revised plan for the winter. This plan, given final form in a directive of 8 November, was that the Eighth Army, having secured the high ground north of Pescara after crossing the Trigno, Sangro and Pescara rivers, should swing south-west along the route to Avezzano, whence it might threaten the enemy communications. The Fifth Army, having regrouped after breaking into the western end of the winter position before Cassino, would then take up the initiative in an endeavour to complete the breach in the enemy's main defences and press on up the Liri valley. When both armies were poised within striking distance of Rome, a seaborne force landed south of the Tiber would make a dash for the Alban Hills.

Meanwhile it was necessary to edge forward through the outlying defences on both fronts to establish a springboard for the major attacks. Though early in November the Fifth Army reached the Garigliano near the sea, on the right its exhausted divisions were halted in pitiless weather among the heights that block the approach to the river, and by the middle of the month Clark had to order a pause, with his army still only on the fringe of the main defences.

The Eighth Army, which was to deliver the first blow for Rome, was able to close up more quickly to the eastern flank of the Winterstellung. The first formidable natural outwork was the River Trigno and the hills behind it. The right-hand division of 5 Corps won a foothold north of the river on the night of 22–23 October but heavy rain delayed the attack on the high ground beyond until the early morning of 3 November. By the 5th both divisions of the corps had confirmed their hold on the ridges over the river, and in four days an advance of 20 miles brought the vanguard of the army to the south bank of the Sangro near the mouth. The army now stood with its right wing advanced, resting on the mouth of the Sangro, and its centre and left echeloned back in a line running almost north and south as far inland as Isernia. Of the two divisions of 5 Corps, the 78th was on the right in the coastal sector and on the left 8 Indian Division was still probing forward among the hills south of the river. Further south in mountainous country, 13 Corps had 1 Canadian Division on its right and 5 Division, which had occupied Isernia, in contact with the right flank of the Fifth Army.

As he manoeuvred the Eighth Army towards the Sangro, Montgomery planned to rush the defences and appear on the lateral page 45 road from Pescara to Avezzano before the weather broke and the enemy could reinforce the winter line, still lightly held. Of three possible routes, he chose the coastal road to Pescara, though it was the least direct and the most heavily defended, because it alone could support a thrust in strength and because it afforded better opportunities for air and naval bombardment. His four infantry divisions, now tired and weakened by casualties, were unequal, in his judgment, to breaking the winter line unaided.

1 Churchill, V, p. 120.