Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

I: A Strategic Blunder?

page 191

I: A Strategic Blunder?


ON 15 August 1944, 11 days after the first Allied troops entered the southern suburbs of Florence and nine weeks after the cross-Channel invasion of north-west France, the Seventh US Army (part American, part French), under General Patch, landed on the French Mediterranean coast; within a month it had driven up the valley of the Rhone and linked up with General Patton's Third US Army. ‘There was no development of that period,’ General Eisenhower has stated, ‘which added more decisively to our advantage or aided us more in accomplishing the final and complete defeat of the German forces than did this secondary attack coming up the Rhone Valley.’1 But among those who take the very opposite view are Churchill, Alexander, Mark Clark, and a host of military journalists and historians.

General von Senger und Etterlin, who commanded 14 Panzer Corps at the time, says that ‘the many setbacks of the Allies in the Cassino battles and the frustration of their plan to destroy the German army group after the May breakthrough in many respects prejudiced their designs in Central Europe, even if they anticipated an early victory after France had been invaded. The immediate consequence of the delays on the Italian front was that operation “Anvil” started too late. It should have preceded “Overlord” or at least have occurred simultaneously, in which case it would have attracted the German reserves and thus facilitated the main landings in Normandy. That indeed is the object of all secondary offensive operations, whether they originate on land or from the sea.’2

2 Neitber Fear Nor Hope, p.321.

page 192

Another German, Rudolf Böhmler,1 asserts that the invasion of southern France ‘accomplished exactly nothing…. Hitler at once withdrew all German forces from south and south-western France; and most of the ports2 in western France were already in Allied hands before the Franco-American forces … had reached Lyons. The German First and Ninth Armies extracted themselves so skilfully that General Patch had little prospect either of surrounding any major formations or of exercising any influence at all on the operations in northern France or Belgium.’3

‘Whatever value the invasion of Southern France may have had as a contribution to the operations in North-western Europe,’ wrote General Alexander, ‘its effect on the Italian campaign was disastrous. The Allied Armies in full pursuit of a beaten enemy were called off from the chase, Kesselring was given a breathing space to reorganise his scattered forces and I was left with insufficient strength to break through the barrier of the Apennines. My Armies, which had just been built up into a strong, flexible and co-ordinated instrument, inspired by victory and conscious of their own superiority, were reduced once more to the shifts and improvisations which had marked the previous winter and faced again with the problems of overcoming not only the difficulties of the Italian terrain and the stubbornness of the enemy's resistance, but also the lack of manpower on their own side.’4

This argument is supported by von Senger: ‘German resistance in the Bologna area [where Fifth Army attempted to debouch from the northern Apennines into the plains] in the winter of 1944/45 could not have been so effective if several Allied divisions had not been withdrawn.’5

Fifth Army had been deprived of the French Expeditionary Corps—whose mountain troops ‘were expected to repeat in the Apennines their feats in the Aurunci mountains’6—and 6 US Corps, altogether seven of its best divisions, which were inadequately replaced by one American division (the 92nd Negro) and the 25,000-strong inexperienced Brazilian Expeditionary Force.

Had Alexander's armies been capable of breaking through the Gothic Line and entering the Po valley at this stage, the gains to the Allies might have been of inestimable value: possession of the

1 Colonel Böhmler was a paratroop officer who fought in Holland, Crete, Sicily and Italy, and who was responsible for the defence of the monastery during the battle of Montecassino.

2 The need of an additional port for introducing American divisions into France had clinched the argument in favour of the invasion of southern France.

4 The Allied Armies in Italy, p.2930.

6 The Allied Armies in Italy, p. 2930.

page 193 Po valley would have facilitated the strategic bombing of the war industries which had been transferred to eastern Germany; it is not inconceivable that a thrust through the Ljubljana gap in Yugoslavia might have opened the way for an advance to Austria or Hungary and the Danube valley, which would have deprived the enemy of the raw materials from south-east Europe vital to his war effort. Success in such a venture, however, would have depended on the capacity of the Allied armies to penetrate what Churchill had given the misnomer of the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, actually a ‘hard-shelled back’1 of rugged country not very suitable for armoured warfare.

The opinion that an Anglo-American drive into south-east Europe might have prevented some countries from falling into the Russian sphere of influence has been expressed by General Clark, who succeeded Alexander as commander of the Allied Armies in Italy (redesignated Fifteenth Army Group) in December 1944 and later was Military Governor of Austria. He claims that ‘a campaign that might have changed the whole history of relations between the Western world and Soviet Russia was permitted to fade away, not into nothing, but into much less than it could have been. … the weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade southern France instead of pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war…. I am firmly convinced that the French forces alone, with seven divisions available, could have captured Marseilles, protected Eisenhower's southern flank, and advanced up the Rhone Valley to join hands with the main overlord forces. The VI American corps, with its three divisions, could then have remained in Italy. The impetus of the Allied advance in Italy would thus not have been lost and we would have advanced into the Balkans…. I later came to understand, in Austria, the tremendous advantages that we had lost by our failure to press on into the Balkans…. Had we been there before the Red Army, not only would the collapse of Germany have come sooner, but the influence of Soviet Russia would have been drastically reduced.’2

Southern France, says Böhmler (his vision enhanced by hindsight), was ‘an area that Hitler could afford to evacuate without undue loss from either the military or the economic point of view…. he was far readier to strengthen the front in Italy than to put up a fight for the possession of Provence and south-western France…. Anvil was an unmistakable indication of Allied intentions. Hitler knew that he need not worry any more about Italy

1 Maurice Matloff, The Anvil Decision: Crossroads of Strategy, in Command Decisions, p. 398.

2 Calculated Risk, pp. 368–72.

page 194 and the Balkans…. Anvil not only made nonsense of the whole Italian campaign, but also threw the whole Allied strategy in western Europe out of gear; and both these repercussions were to have tragic consequences for Europe. They presented Hitler with a chance to stabilize the Western Front and to sacrifice his last strategic reserves in his ill-fated Ardennes offensive—those reserves which, a little later, would have been able to hold up the Red flood from the east. And in that case, it would have been Eisenhower and not Zhukov who marched in Berlin. Then again, had not Anvil snatched the spear from Alexander's hand, it would most probably have been the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes that would have flown victoriously over the Ballhausplatz in Vienna.’1

Thus Böhmler, like Clark and others, presumes that an Allied offensive beyond the Italian frontier would have succeeded. Nevertheless the Allied armies might have been checked—as they had been in the peninsula south of Rome—and it might have become necessary to divert part of the Allied effort from north-west Europe. ‘That the Allies were not diverted from the northern campaign may even have been England's salvation. For otherwise, Hitler might eventually have pulverized Britain with V-2 projectiles from launching platforms in the Low Countries.’2


The Anglo-American decision to invade southern France had been influenced by the Soviet ally: it had grown out of the discussions between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Cairo- Teheran conferences of November–December 1943. Until that time no firm agreement had been reached by the Big Three on how, when and where to defeat Germany. The British had wanted to strike at German-occupied Europe from the edges of the Continent, especially from the Mediterranean theatre, and to launch a cross- Channel invasion when the enemy already had begun to collapse. This policy of attrition and opportunism was opposed by the Americans, who ‘wanted to concentrate forces early at a selected time and place to meet the main body of the enemy head on and defeat it decisively.’ The Russians ‘wanted a second front, they wanted it soon, and they wanted it in the West. Each Anglo- American postponement of this second front added fuel to the fire.’3

2 The Anvil Decision, p. 398.

3 Ibid., p. 385.

page 195

The stand taken by Stalin at Teheran finally fixed Anglo- American strategy: he promised that the Soviet Union would intervene in the war against Japan as soon as Germany was defeated; he declared that overlord (the cross-Channel invasion, the opening of the Second Front) should be the ‘basic’ operation for 1944, and he favoured the attack on southern France, in support of overlord, above all other undertakings in the Mediterranean. Despite the British Prime Minister's eloquence and persuasiveness, therefore, the Americans gained the decision they had desired. Nevertheless Churchill opposed the anvil operation (which became known by another codename, dragoon) until a few days before the launching of the invasion. He pleaded with Roosevelt: ‘Our first wish is to help General Eisenhower in the most speedy and effective manner. But we do not think this necessarily involves the complete ruin of all our great affairs in the Mediterranean, and we take it hard that this should be demanded of us….’1

The President's reply affirmed that he would not deviate from the strategy proposed at Teheran: ‘The exploitation of “Overlord”, our victorious advances in Italy, an early assault on Southern France, combined with the Soviet drives to the west—all as envisaged at Teheran—will most surely serve to realise our object— the unconditional surrender of Germany…. I am mindful of our agreement with Stalin as to an operation against the south of France, and his frequently expressed views favouring such an operation and classifying all others in the Mediterranean as of lesser importance to the principal objectives of the European campaign…. I cannot agree to the employment of United States troops against Istria and into the Balkans, nor can I see the French agreeing to such use of French troops…. For purely political considerations over here, I should never survive even a slight setback in “Overlord” if it were known that fairly large forces had been diverted to the Balkans.’2

Churchill has denied that anybody ‘involved in these discussions had ever thought of moving armies into the Balkans; but Istria and Trieste were strategic and political positions, which, as he [Roosevelt] saw very clearly, might exercise profound and widespread reactions, especially after the Russian advances…. On military grounds he [Stalin] might have been greatly interested in the eastward movement of Alexander's army, which, without entering the Balkans, would profoundly effect all the forces there, and … might produce the most far-reaching results. On a long-

2 Ibid., pp. 662–4.

page 196 term
political view he might prefer that the British and Americans should do their share in France in the very hard fighting that was to come, and that East, Middle and Southern Europe should fall naturally into his control.’1 Churchill apparently had not seriously considered ‘the question that so frightened the U.S. staff—the ultimate costs and requirements of an operation in the Balkans…. the Balkan question was never argued out in full and frank military or political terms during World War II.’2

Should Roosevelt have committed troops to a campaign in the Balkans—or south-east Europe—as well as in France and Italy, he most likely would have jeopardised his chances of re-election as President in November that year. The much-publicised Second Front and the liberation of France—which had helped the American colonies in the war for independence—were acceptable even to those who thought the war against Japan should have priority over the struggle for Europe, but Roosevelt judged that the American people would react differently to the diverting of United States forces to the Balkans or elsewhere in south-east Europe. There was some suspicion of British intentions in the Balkans, and public opinion had not yet been wakened to the Communist threat in eastern Europe.

The decision to invade southern France has often been described as one of the worst blunders of the Second World War. The post-war critics of American strategy presume that had the Allies entered south-east Europe the Russians would have been held in check. But it is by no means certain that they could have achieved this result; instead they might have become so involved in this region that they would have had to divert forces from the western front, which might have permitted the Russians to advance farther into Germany, perhaps all the way to the Channel. Had the western Allies entered the Balkans in the face of the advancing Red Army, ‘there is also no assurance that new embroilments might not have been begun then and there as the Americans feared. With the traditional balance of power upset, Great Britain growing weaker, the Russians intent on pushing their strategic frontiers westward, and the United States determined to leave Europe soon, more drastic measures than the temporary diversion of some Western military power—largely U.S. power at that—would seem to have been required to check the Russians and assure the peace of Europe.’3

2 The Anvil Decision, p. 398.

3 Ibid., p. 400.

page 197


When the decision to invade southern France extinguished British hopes of an advance beyond the northern frontier of Italy, the need for an assault on the Gothic Line lost its urgency. An argument put forward by Mr Churchill in 1943 was still valid: because of the anticipated requirements of overlord he had proposed an alternative to advancing beyond the narrow part of the Italian peninsula: ‘I should like it to be considered whether we should not, when we come up against the main German positions, construct a strong fortified line of our own, properly sited in depth. Italian labour could be used on a large scale for this purpose. Italian troops could naturally take part in defending the line. Thus, by spring, we should be able in this theatre either to make an offensive if the enemy were weak, and anyhow to threaten one, or on the other hand stand on the defensive, using our air power, which will in the meantime have been built up, from behind our fortified line and divert a portion of our troops for action elsewhere either to the West or to the East.’1

If this policy had been adopted in the summer of 1944, most likely the Germans would have retained large bodies of troops in northern Italy because Hitler would not have allowed a withdrawal across the plains of Lombardy to the Alps. ‘But the directors of Allied strategy fell between two stools.’2 They neither agreed to an offensive into the Balkans (or south-east Europe) nor called a halt in front of the Gothic Line; instead they ordered Alexander, with weakened forces, to advance over the northern Apennines and close to the line of the River Po, where he was to secure the area from Ravenna on the Adriatic coast through Bologna and Modena to the Ligurian coast north of Leghorn; and should the situation then permit, he was to cross the Po to the line Padua- Verona-Brescia at the northern edge of the plain. It was hoped that these advances, together with the invasion of southern France, would cause the enemy to withdraw from north-west Italy and thus make an offensive in that direction unnecessary.

While it cannot be denied that the Italian campaign, by achieving its object of containing ‘the maximum number of German forces’ in the peninsula, contributed to the general victory in Europe, it can be argued that the same result might have been accomplished more economically had Allied strategy taken a different course.

1 Record of Proceedings, ‘Quadrant’, Annex to Minutes of Meeting, 9 September 1943, quoted in The Canadians in Italy, p. 680. Churchill made this statement at a White House meeting following the ‘Quadrant’ Conference at Quebec.

2 The Canadians in Italy, p.680.