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Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

I: After the Fall of Rome

page 88

I: After the Fall of Rome


SOUTH of Rome, where the Apennines occupy nearly two-thirds of the width of the peninsula, the terrain had favoured the Germans in their defence of the Winter Line. North of the city, however, the peninsula widens, but the mountain backbone narrows towards the Adriatic coast and gives way in the west to comparatively open, rolling country little suited to the German purpose of blocking the Allied advance. North of Lake Trasimene the country becomes more rugged again, and beyond the Arno River the northern Apennines turn back towards the west to span the peninsula and block the approaches to the plains of the River Po in Lombardy. Apart from the few roads which thread their way through deep valleys and over high passes, the only gap in this great barrier is the narrow corridor of foothills along the Adriatic coast south of Rimini.

It seemed unlikely that Kesselring would attempt a protracted defence until his depleted armies reached the Arno River and the Gothic Line1 in the northern Apennines. He strengthened his right flank, which in the open country west of the Tiber River was in greater danger than the sector nearer the Apennines, by reinforcing with fresh but inexperienced formations, moving 14 Panzer Corps west of the Tiber to join 1 Parachute Corps in Fourteenth Army, and replacing 14 Panzer Corps by 76 Panzer Corps on the right of 51 Mountain Corps in Tenth Army. Kesselring gave orders for a gradual fighting withdrawal to the Gothic Line, but Hitler was

1 Described at first by the Allies as the Pisa-Rimini line, the Gothic Line was originally called the ‘Apennine position’ by the Germans, then the ‘Gothic Line’ (Gotenstellung) and from 16 June the ‘Green Line’ (Gruene Linie).

page 89 suspicious that he might want to fall back to this position without offering serious resistance and demanded that ‘After reorganisation of the formations the Army Group will resume defence operations as far south of the Apennines as possible.’1 On 14 June, therefore, the German commander-in-chief ordered that the Gothic Line was to be built up sufficiently to resist an Allied attempt to break through to the plains of the River Po, and to gain time for these preparations the Army Group was to ‘stand and defend the Albert- Frieda Line’,2 which crossed the peninsula from coast to coast and passed just south of Lake Trasimene.


At first the Allied armies made rapid progress in pursuit of the Germans north of Rome. Eighth Army drove up the Tiber valley with two armoured divisions of 13 Corps, 6 South African Armoured Division along Route 3 west of the river and 6 British Armoured Division up Route 4 east of it; on the left Fifth Army advanced with 2 US Corps on Route 2 and 6 US Corps on Route 1 up the coastal flank. The Americans seized the port of Civitavecchia, 40 miles north-west of Rome, on 7 June and the Viterbo airfields on the 9th. Although the port had been extensively damaged, it was open to Allied traffic in less than a week.

Meanwhile the enemy also began to fall back along the Adriatic coast and 5 Corps3 started to follow up on 8 June. Orsogna – which had withstood the New Zealand Division's repeated attacks six months earlier – was entered next day, and Chieti and Pescara were occupied and the Pescara River crossed on the 10th, the day the New Zealanders arrived at Avezzano.

General Alexander calculated that the enemy, despite the reinforcements he was known to have received, was not strong enough to hold the Gothic Line against a really powerful attack. In an appreciation to General Wilson (Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean) on 7 June he wrote of the Allied armies: ‘Neither the Apennines nor even the Alps should prove a serious obstacle to their enthusiasm and skill.4 He proposed to continue to press the pursuit up the centre of the peninsula and over the northern Apennines. If his armies were held in force he ‘would mount a full-scale attack on Bologna not later than 15th August. I would then establish a firm base in the area of Bologna and Modena for

1 War diary, Commander-in-Chief South-West.

2 Appendix to war diary, Commander-in-Chief South-West.

3 5 Corps now comprised 4 Ind Div and the Italian Liberation Corps. The two divisions of the opposing German Hauck Group had been drawn into the battle west of the Apennines and replaced by 278 Inf Div.

4 Alexander's Despatch, The Allied Armies in Italy, p. 2931.

page 90 the development of further operations either westwards into France or north-eastwards into Austria according to the requirements of Allied strategy at that time.’1 Such a plan would be possible only if the existing Allied forces were retained in Italy.

Alexander ordered Eighth Army to advance with all possible speed to the general area of Florence, Bibbiena and Arezzo, on the middle and upper reaches of the Arno River, and Fifth Army to occupy the region of Pisa, Lucca and Pistoia, at the northern extremity of the Tuscan plains; he authorised the two army commanders to take ‘extreme risks to secure [these] vital areas … before the enemy can reorganise or be reinforced.’2

To carry out these orders both armies regrouped. In Eighth Army 10 Corps (6 British Armoured and 8 Indian Divisions, with 10 Indian Division in reserve) assumed 13 Corps' responsibilities east of the Tiber River, and 13 Corps (78 Division and 6 South African Armoured Division, with 4 Division in reserve) continued its northward drive west of the river. On the Adriatic coast 2 Polish Corps replaced 5 Corps. The Canadian Corps was still in reserve. The French Expeditionary Corps relieved 2 US Corps on Fifth Army's right and 4 US Corps took over the coastal sector from 6 US Corps.

The pursuit continued against stiffening resistance. Tenth Corps entered Perugia, east of Lake Trasimene, on 20 June, and was then checked in the hills beyond the town; 13 Corps was halted near the south-western shore of the lake. The Allied armies were up to the Albert-Frieda (or Trasimene) Line, where the Germans had established a coherent defence across the Italian peninsula. Only after hard fighting was 13 Corps able to break this line west of the lake and continue its advance. Between Lake Trasimene and Arezzo, its next objective, 13 Corps was halted again; it did not enter Arezzo until 16 July, after it had been reinforced by the New Zealand Division.


While the Allied armies were making these gains in central Italy, Generals Wilson and Alexander were vainly striving to retain for the Italian campaign priority over all other operations in the Mediterranean. The Combined Chiefs of Staff had agreed in April that ANVIL3 (the invasion of southern France) should be deferred so as not to interfere with the offensive which was to

1 Alexander's Despatch, p. 2931.

2 Alexander's Despatch, p. 2931.

3 Later known by the codename DRAGOON.

page 91 accomplish the capture of Rome, but also had directed Wilson to plan for the ‘best possible use of the amphibious lift remaining to you either in support of operations in Italy, or in order to take advantage of opportunities arising in the south of France or elsewhere….’1 Wilson therefore warned Alexander on 22 May that he intended to mount an amphibious operation not later than mid- September, either in close support of the Allied Armies in Italy or elsewhere.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff informed Wilson on 14 June that ‘they were firm in the decision to mount and launch an amphibious operation of the type and scope planned for Southern France’,2 but a choice might be made between a seaborne assault on the south or the west coast of France or at the head of the Adriatic Sea. ‘All such plans were contingent on the completion of the ground advance to the Pisa-Rimini line and the ultimate selection of an operation was dependent on the general stategic situation….’3 Wilson informed Alexander of this decision and directed him to prepare for the release of American and French divisions from Fifth Army for assignment to Seventh Army.

Wilson recommended a course favoured by Alexander: the continuation of the Italian offensive into the Po valley and thence, supported by an amphibious assault on the Istrian peninsula, through the Ljubljana Gap (in Yugoslavia) into Austria and Hungary, which would threaten Germany from the south-east. General Eisenhower, however, wanted the operation against southern France. He believed that the Allies could support only one major theatre in the European war, which was in France. An important consideration was that an additional port was needed for the introduction into France of some 40 to 50 divisions waiting in the United States.

Wilson received a directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 2 July that he was to carry out the operation against southern France, on the target date of 15 August if possible. He informed Alexander on the 5th that the new operation must receive priority over the Italian campaign but assured him that not more than four French and three American divisions were to be taken from his command; they were to be replaced by 92 US (Negro) Infantry Division and a Brazilian infantry division. Alexander's task was to continue the destruction of the German forces in Italy; he was to advance through the Apennines to the Po River and thereafter to a line from Venice through Padua to Verona and Brescia, on the northern edge of the plains.

1 Combined Chiefs of Staff directive to General Wilson, 19 April 1944.

2 Report by the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, on the Italian Campaign, Part II, p. 31.

3 Ibid.

page 92

Alexander realised that, with the loss of 6 US Corps, the French Expeditionary Corps and a large part of the Allied Air Force, the penetration into the Po valley before the winter set in was most unlikely. He therefore gave permission for the bombing of the Po bridges, which previously had been spared because of the engineering problems that would be involved in rebuilding them.