Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: After the Fall of Rome
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
1 Alexander's Despatch, p. 2931.
2 Alexander's Despatch, p. 2931.
3 Later known by the codename DRAGOON.
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.
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.