The History Place - Defeat of Hitler

Allies Invade Italy

Upon the demise of Rommel's Afrika Korps in early 1943, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and President Franklin Roosevelt met at Casablanca in North Africa to plan their next move.

By now, Roosevelt's generals had their eyes squarely fixed on northern Europe and were already thinking about an invasion from southern England across the English Channel. But Churchill had a different idea. He thought the quickest way to go after Hitler would be to forge a pathway into Nazi Germany via southern Europe, by taking the island of Sicily, followed by an invasion of the Italian mainland. British and American troops would then proceed up the boot of Italy and link up with the Russian Army in southeastern Europe. The combined Russian-American-British force would be unstoppable and Hitler would be finished.

Although his generals were not keen on the idea, Roosevelt agreed to Churchill's Italian offensive on one condition – the bulk of American manpower and resources would still be reserved for the (D-Day) invasion of northern Europe via the English Channel.


And so the invasion of Sicily began on Saturday, July 10, 1943, with the British Eighth Army, led by General Bernard Montgomery, coming ashore the island's southern coast along with the American Seventh Army, led by General George Patton. Facing the battle-tested Allies were 400,000 Italians, reluctant warriors drafted into the army of Italy's longtime dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Staring down the barrels of Patton and Montgomery's tanks, most of the Italians dropped their weapons and surrendered, while the Sicilian population welcomed the British and Americans as liberators. But this did not lead to an easy victory. About 90,000 Germans stationed on the island, including the elite Hermann Göring Panzer Division, aided by a smaller number of Italians who did not surrender, contested the Allied advance in rugged northeast Sicily for about five weeks. As the Allies finally closed in, the Germans withdrew all of their troops and equipment from Sicily across the sparsely defended Strait of Messina onto the Italian mainland.

The Allied conquest of Sicily had huge political consequences for Italy, triggering changes that were a long time coming. Benito Mussolini had now ruled the country as dictator for two decades. In his early days, when it seemed Fascism was the wave of the future, the Duce, as he was known, enjoyed tremendous popular support, strutting before cheering throngs like a modern-day Roman emperor.

Later, Mussolini was very much overshadowed by Hitler. In 1940, when it appeared Nazism was Europe's future and the German military seemed unstoppable, Mussolini had plunged Italy into World War II on Hitler's side, seeking to share in the spoils of victory. But by 1943, after the German defeat at Stalingrad and the German-Italian defeat in North Africa, it was evident Mussolini had been mistaken. This emboldened his political opponents, led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, to consider ousting the dictator, now blamed for Italy's war suffering. As Mussolini became increasingly unpopular, strikes and demonstrations erupted with Italians openly demanding "bread, peace and freedom."

By this time, Mussolini, similar to Hitler, had begun to cave in physically under the overall stress, and was a shadow of his former Romanesque self. In fact, when the two leaders met on July 19, 1943, at Hitler's request, they presented a sorry sight to those who saw them, compared to how they looked during their days of triumph. Hitler had sent for Mussolini to stiffen his resolve after the Allied landings in Sicily. But Mussolini, exhausted and demoralized, was not encouraged at all. Even worse, during the meeting Mussolini received word the Allies had conducted their first-ever air-raid on the Italian mainland by bombing the outskirts of Rome.

A few days later, back in Rome himself, Mussolini was abruptly summoned to a meeting by the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel. He told the Duce the situation was hopeless. "At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy," the King declared. Mussolini, stunned to silence, was then dismissed from office by the King, escorted by police to a waiting ambulance and taken straight to jail – an unceremonious and humiliating end for the would-be Caesar. Upon his ouster, his Fascist Party was also disbanded.

Hitler's initial shock over the news soon gave way to anger and he vowed bloody vengeance on all those responsible. Nevertheless, the new Italian government formed by Marshal Badoglio immediately sought an armistice with the Allies. Unfortunately, it took six weeks for the Allies to work things out with Badoglio. This allowed Hitler much time to ponder a military response and also gave German troops in southern Italy a chance to withdraw northward while leaving behind a trail of blown up bridges and wrecked mountain roads.

On September 8, 1943, the news became official – Italy, the oldest ally of Nazi Germany, had surrendered unconditionally to the Americans and British. Hitler's response was dramatic. He pulled Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions from Russia, France, and southern Germany, rushed them into Italy to quickly disarm the whole Italian Army, then occupied the northern two thirds of the country, including Rome. For the moment, it seemed Hitler had remarkably regained some of the decisiveness he had shown in his earlier days.

Meanwhile, the Allied offensive targeting the Italian mainland began. The American Fifth Army, led by General Mark Clark, landed on the coast at Salerno, south of Naples, encountering stiff opposition from German troops in the area. At the same time, Montgomery's troops moved up the boot from southernmost Italy, encountering the many wrecked bridges and roads, which slowed them to a crawl. The offensive was off to a shaky start.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (2nd from right) with his officers during an inspection of the Italian Front. Below: At Monte Cassino, a German machine-gun crew finds good cover amid the rubble.
Below: A German mortar shell lands near an American infantryman attacking the Gustav Line.
Below: A German paratrooper surveys the plain below, ready to direct lethal artillery fire at anything that moves.
Below: Benito Mussolini (right) with Otto Skorzeny (next to him) and others elated over their accomplishment in liberating him.

In a further measure to prevent the Allies from ever advancing through Italy into southern Europe, Hitler set up the east-to-west Gustav Line, south of Rome. Under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a master of defensive warfare, the Germans took full advantage of Italy's mountainous terrain to dig entrenched positions all along the high ground, setting up mortars and 88-mm anti-tank guns to blast anyone attempting to climb up and dislodge them.

As a result, the Allies soon found themselves locked in a frustrating stalemate. Month after month passed with little progress to show since the landings at Salerno. To break the obvious deadlock, the Allies launched two bold offensives beginning in January 1944 – a ground attack at Cassino, located along the Gustav Line, and a seaborne invasion of Anzio, further northward, behind the Gustav Line. At Cassino, the initial attack failed outright. At Anzio, the Americans and British landed unopposed, with the highway to Rome seemingly open. But the American commander, General John Lucas, cautiously halted and went on the defensive even though there were no Germans around. It seemed as though the Americans were just waiting to be attacked. The Germans soon obliged, gathering up all of their forces in the region to slam them with a counter-attack twice their size.

At this point in the war, Hitler longed to deliver a knock-out punch on any front to prove the Wehrmacht was still potent – even better if it came against the Americans. And so he ordered Kesselring to throw everything at the embattled Americans and the British alongside them. As a result, waves of German infantrymen were sent dashing across the open ground at Anzio only to be needlessly machine-gunned, like a scene out of World War I. The failed infantry charges, along with heavy American artillery barrages and precise Naval gunfire, brought the German counter-attack to a halt and both sides dug trenches and settled in at Anzio.

More months of stalemate followed in which the Americans and British at both Anzio and Cassino were simply unable to dislodge the Germans. At Cassino, the battle culminated around a centuries-old hilltop monastery. Although American bombers leveled the monastery and nearby town, German troops used the wreckage as good cover and were able to fend off three separate Allied infantry attacks, including an assault by New Zealanders in which 4,000 men were lost.

By now, it had become quite clear to the American and British senior commanders watching from afar in England that the limited approach in Italy wasn't working. And so massive troop reinforcements were sent in to bulk up Clark's Fifth Army. At the same time, the Germans were cleverly deceived into believing another amphibious landing was imminent, this time north of Rome. As a precaution, Kesselring weakened his front lines and repositioned troops to fend off the phony landing.

By May of 1944, frontline Germans at Cassino and Anzio were outnumbered three-to-one by a multinational Allied force from 18 nations including Canada, India, South Africa, along with Free Poles and Free French. The Allies then blasted their way through Kesselring's weakened lines. Surviving Germans now abandoned the Gustav Line and went into a headlong northward retreat. Kesselring decided to evacuate Rome as well, declaring it an open city. For General Clark, the opportunity to go down in history as the liberator of Rome proved irresistible. He therefore passed up the chance to pursue the tattered remnants of Kesselring's army and instead rolled into Rome.

In the weeks that followed, Kesselring managed to regroup and set up yet another defensive position, the Gothic Line, north of Rome, which became even stronger than the former Gustav Line. As a result, the whole bloody mountain scenario would play out again.

In this manner, Hitler and Kesselring were able to hold off the Allies in Italy for the war's duration, while inflicting 300,000 Allied casualties. The breakthrough that Churchill had envisioned into southern Europe never happened. The only consolation at all for the Allies was the weakening of Hitler's armies in Europe and Russia to supply Kesselring with adequate troops and equipment. For Hitler, the Supreme Commander, the skillful defense of Italy proved to be a rare success for him in the later years of the war.

And true to his earlier threat, several of those responsible for Mussolini's downfall were indeed hunted down and executed. Among those caught up in the wave of vengeance was Mussolini's former side-kick, his own son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano. Others had fled to the Allies for safety, including King Victor, Marshal Badoglio, most of the Italian Navy, and the new Italian government.

On Hitler's order, Mussolini himself had been freed from Italian captivity. In September 1943, a special commando detachment led by SS master of espionage, Otto Skorzeny, had glided into the mountaintop location where Mussolini was imprisoned, scared away the local police, put the former Duce in a small plane and flew him off to Rome. From there he was taken to see Hitler.

Hitler had wanted Mussolini to set up a revived Fascist regime in German-occupied northern Italy. At Hitler's insistence, Mussolini dutifully proclaimed the new Italian Social Republic, to be led by the new Fascist Republican Party. In truth, they were names that amounted to nothing as worn out Mussolini now had zero interest in politics of any sort, preferring to spend all of his time relaxing with his mistress, Clara Petacci. They stayed at a lakeside villa in northern Italy surrounded by a detachment of the Leibstandarte-SS, Hitler's personal bodyguard.

For Hitler, the circumstances surrounding Mussolini's downfall, involving betrayal by Italy's military and King, left him feeling paranoid about his own security. As a precaution, he ordered SS-Reichsführer Himmler to be ready with "the most severe police measures" and subsequently expelled an array of German aristocrats and princes from the Wehrmacht. A few wound up in concentration camps, a destination that would become commonplace for disfavored military officers in the months to come.

By 1944, that concentration camp system had reached its zenith, with hundreds of facilities, large and small, all designed to exploit their inmates, or in some cases, simply kill them. The largest camp, at Auschwitz, had grown into a giant complex of slave labor camps, and by now had also become the biggest killing center the world has ever known.

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