Rugged terrain. Allied soldiers in pursuit after the retreating enemy. This pursuit in the country with few roads, and numerous rivers and swamps had actually turned into an exhausting tumbling through the mountains.



In the mid-1943 the tide of the Soviet offensives were sweeping westward with mounting power. More and more squadrons of destroyers and corvettes were cleaning the Atlantic Ocean of the German submarine pirates. More and more air squadrons were flying onto Germany turning its cities in ruins and ashes. After the victory in North Africa it became more and more clear, that the war was coming to its new stage, that the time was coming, when the Allies would come back to Europe. Therefore the German propaganda abandoned aggressive slogans and launched a new campaign: from Berlin resounded shrieks about a Festung Europa (European Fortress), which all the Europeans had to defend of barbarians from the East, West and America.

Only few introduced people, close to the political leaderships, knew that there was no unanimosity as to the further conduct of the war. The British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, fostered the idea of striking from Africa to the Balkans, which he called "Europe's soft underbelly". He expected that such a strike would be supported by local resistance movements, especially in Yugoslavia, whereas Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary would be stricken out of the war, and Turkey would side with the Allies. He also calculated that the British forces would arrive to the basin of Danube and Vistula before the Russians, and would hold it in the sphere of exclusive British interests. The Americans were against that idea. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a strike from the British Isles across the English Channel and a march the shortest way to Germany through France. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, supported the Americans. He rejected ideas of striking against southern Europe, and demended the soonest possible landing of the Allied forces on the coasts of France. His own forces had to strike from the East and take the German Reich in gigantic strategic pincers. Eventually in the beginning of 1943, during the conference in Casablanca in January and Washington in May, Churchill and Roosevelt had concluded a compromise agreement and decided that the main effort would be driven against France, while an auxiliary effort would be driven against southern Italy.

On 10 July 1943 Anglo-American forces landed in Sicily. The Italian defence, reinforced by two German divisions, was overcame within five weeks. This spelled the end to the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. The Italian dictator was arrested by his own aides, stripped of all the posts and imprisoned in the mountains of Gran Sasso, while Marshal Pietro Badoglio assumed the power in Italy in name of king Victor Emmanuel III. The new Italian government undertook secret talks with the Allies and asked for a help in overthrowing German dependency. It was a grotesque situation: the main Reich's partner in the fascist "Axis" Rome - Berlin, for years advertised as the Pact of Steel, an ally, which possessed many divisions and a mighty navy, and also still occupying vast areas in the Balkans, on those beautiful summer days 1943 begged the enemy to occupy its capital city and provide at least one airborne division for its defence.

In case of a protracted war Mussolini counted on a German aid, but above all he counted on a prompt conclusion of peace, which would make him, along Adolf Hitler, a winner at a low cost. But those hopes proved vain. Materiel aid did not come - the Germans needed to satisfy their own needs, which were becoming more and more urgent. After the loss of the African possessions and annihilation of the Italian expeditionary forces in the steppes of Russia in 1942/1943, Italy was exhausted militarily and morally. Her air forces, which in 1937 were the strongest in the world, in 1943 possessed no more than 400 obsolete aircraft; half of it dispersed in the Balkans. The navy, beaten many times by the inferior enemy forces, would not dare to leave its safe ports. There were 20 divisions, including two armoured ones, deployed in Italy, but the troops lacked training, discipline and combat spirit. Since the very beginning the Italians regarded the war as alien to them and did not put much effort in fighting. Now all they wanted was a severance of the hated association with hitlerite Germany.

The Allied leadership at once distrusted the Italian reversal and the talks protracted. But the success in Sicily and the perspective of a swift Italy's removal from the "Axis" induced the Americans to change the original plans. While originally only the British 8th Army had to land on the Apennine Peninsula, now it was decided that there would also land the 5th Army, hastily composed of the American VI Corps and the British X Corps. The whole reported to the 15th Army Group commanded by the man, who took Tunisia and Sicily - Gen. Harold Alexander. On 3 September 1943 the British struck from Sicily across the Strait of Messina. The Italians did not deliver any resistance. The troops were just throwing their arms, and civilians were cheering their liberators with genuine Italian temperament. On the day of the British landing General Giuseppe Castellano signed in Syracuse the act of surrender of Italy. It was decided not to announce it until the 5th Army landed in Italy. The Italians hoped that this way they would delay the German intervention.

After the defeat in Africa the Germans of course expected an Allied attack on southern Europe, but they expected it rather in the Balkans. Even the invasion of Sicily and Calabria did not change their minds. The German staff officers thought that the occupation of southern Italy by the Allies was designated to bring them closer to Yugoslavia. The British strengthened that assumption by staging intelligence operations accordingly, and so more German troops were sent to the Balkans. And so, even when the Allies started the Italian campaign, the Germans still were concerned about the security of their Balkan positions. Nevertheless in southern Italy they had concentrated eight divisions under the command of air forces' Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring.

The presence of those German forces in Italy posed a considerable risk to the plans of Italy's capitulation, but they had to be carried on. Harold MacMillan, a future British prime-minister, and at that time a state secretary attached to the Allied headquarters, has commented in his memoirs on the atmosphere that commanded on 8 September in Algiers. On that day he assisted the broadcasting of Badoglio's declaration of surrender. According to a previous secret agreement it had to happen in the afternoon, on the eve of the 5th Army's landing. A fleet of ships and vessels carrying the invasion troops was already steaming in the Tyrrhenian Sea. At 18:30 the broadcast was completed. Then came the time of nervous waiting: would Rome confirm the declaration or the Italians would pop up with some new combinazione? Finally at 19:45 the Radio Rome announced the capitulation in words agreed upon. MacMillan, and the whole Allied headquarters, could sigh with relief. They did not know, that it was just the beginning of the troubles.

The German reaction was swift. The same night Badoglio and the Royal Family had to flee from Rome; they managed to get to Pescara on the Adriatic coast from where a British cruiser took them to Brindisi, which was already in the Allied hands. The date of landing of the 5th Army was kept in secret from the Italians themselves. As a result the capitulation surprised state authorities and military commands. The Germans without troubles interned Italian soldiers and officers, and then murdered many or them in concentration camps. Similar was the fate of Italian garrisons of Greek islands. Their soldiers, instead of resisting German occupation, and despite of their superiority in numbers, were captivated by the euphory of prompt return home, and in result were almost entirely exterminated by more determined Germans.

The shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea in southern Italy make a sight beautiful to the tourists coming to admire them, but ugly to the soldiers coming to storm them. Small but steep hills reach there the sea all the way from Messina to Naples. There is only one place, which has beaches fit for seaborne landing - it is Salerno, some 50 km in straight line from Naples. When Kesselring assumed the command of his troops, he tried to evaluate possible landing spots and he naturally spotted... Salerno. He ordered manoeuvres in the hills surrounding the town. They took place on the very day of the Allied landing. And when the Allied troops hit the beaches, they got under the hell of the fire. The battle of Salerno lasted a whole week. Landing troops were bleeding enormously. Finally, supported by strong ship artillery, they managed to push the defences back and march on Naples. They lost 6,000 killed and many more wounded. On 1 October the Americans without a trouble entered Naples, since the city was already liberated in the course of a 6-days-long uprising. On the same day the British took Foggia with an important airfield.

On those days another important event took place: the Italian navy left the Ligurian ports and arrived to Malta. Yet, attacked by the German air forces, it suffered a heavy loss: the battleship Roma had sunk. Amidst all those important events, another one went practically unnoticed - Mussolini was set free. By the orders of the new Italian government he was imprisoned in a tourist resort in the Gran Sasso massif in the mountains of Abruzzi. He was set free by German parachutists, who after all did not risk too much: the Allies were still far away. Then, as a puppet completely dependent on his German masters, he established in northern Italy so-called Italian Social Republic, which he ruled under the supervision of the German secret police (Gestapo).

Meanwhile in the south the Allies were moving on, but slower and slower. The German defence was hardening. The geography itself acted against the Allies. The Apennine Mountains dominate the whole peninsula separating the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas. Naturally, the invasion since the very beginning split into two streams: the 5th Army marched along the Tyrrhenian coast, and the 8th Army marched along the Adriatic coast. The mountains in between impaired, and sometimes even rendered impossible, co-operation between them. Numerous mountain streams slowed down the advance of vehicles. It was not until the Christmas that Canadian troops took Ortona on the Adriatic coast.

Ironically, the Allied strategy also turned against the Allies. The 5th Army was limited in the number of its composing units, and the famous 8th Army was also a residuum of its former strength; the XIII Corps was actually its only real combat power. The Italian front was regarded as an auxiliary theatre diverting the German attention from the main one, but where the main theatre was supposed to be created - that was still unclear. In fact at the end of September in Bari landed the British 78th Division, which had the experience of desert war, as well as a tank brigade, but those units constituted merely the minimum of required reinforcements. Of course, there were more units in the Middle East, but the Allied command still had made no decision about their use. And so in the autumn 1943 the so effectively launched military campaign started getting gradually stuck in the mud of the Italian winter. Even the greatest military effort must eventually come to the end if it exhausts its means and resources.

Ortona was the last success on the Adriatic coast that the Canadians managed to achieve at a very high cost. On the Tyrrhenian coast the 5th Army, fighting and digging its vehicles out of the mud all the way, mile by mile was approaching Monte Camino. The mountain was eventually taken after heavy fights. Due to the casualties and the expenditure of ammunition (as many as 200,000 artillery shells were shot) the soldiers nicknamed Monte Camino the Million Dollar Hill. Farther along the same Road No.6 from Naples to Rome there is Monte Trocchio. It was taken on 15 January 1944. Within two and half of month that elapsed since the liberation of Naples the 5th Army moved forward barely several kilometres.

The weakness of the Allied land forces sent to Italy in the beginning was balanced by the power of their air forces as well as the inconsequence of the organization of the German command. Apart from Kesselring's troops in the south, there were also eight German divisions concentrated in northern Italy and commanded by Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, chased out of Africa. Kesselring had no authority over Rommel's troops. Meanwhile Hitler was inclined to listen to Rommel's advice to relinquish southern and central Italy with Rome and assume a fast defence along the line Pisa - Rimini. Such a manoeuvre would shorten the dangerously stretched coastlines difficult to defend. In such a case Rommel had to hold the main line of defence, and Kesselring had to conduct fights in approaches and slow down the Allied advance as much as possible. Yet Kesselring opposed such a strategy; he argued that leaving Rome would ease too much Allied air raids on industrial centres in Austria and Bavaria. He also was afraid that the Allies could seize the valley of the River Po - from there they could unfold advance into France or Yugoslavia. He did not know that operations in the latter directory were not considered by the Anglo-American command, since the Balkans were deemed the zone of Red Army's strategic operations. Kesselring proposed building of defence positions in the south of Rome, in the place that would suit them ideally.

Between Formia on the Tyrrhenian Sea and Ortona on the Adriatic Sea, the narrow Apennine peninsula is partitioned by a real mountainous barricade, which in the Abruzzi range reaches 2800m in height. Narrow strips of plains along the sea shores, on the other hand, are cut by numerous and rapid streams; the plains around Formia are on top of that swamped. So, to an army that wants to force that mountainous barricade from the south there is only one gap left: the valley of the river Liri that opens near the town of Cassino. There also runs one of the roads leading to Rome - the Road No.6 or Via Casilina. In the west the valley is overseen by the massif of Monte Majo (940m above sea level), and in the east by Monte Cassino (516m above sea level) with the historic Benedictine abbey atop. Monte Cassino constitutes the southernmost summit of the mountainous range of the same name, which joins the massif Monte Cairo towering as high as 1,660m above the sea level. There, in the mountains and in the valley of Liri, thousands of workers were digging trenches, building bunkers, shelters and obstacles, and engineers were laying mine-fields. In short time there was created a sophisticated system of fortifications known as the Gustav Line.

Rommel, although beaten in Africa, was still considered a great strategist, while Kesselring so far commanded only air forces and had no experience in commanding land troops. Nevertheless, Hitler yielded to Kesselring's opinion and in November entrusted to him the command of all the German forces in Italy. They went to the making of the Army Group C, which comprised the 10th Army fighting in the south and the 14th Army being formed north of Rome. Whereas Rommel was sent to assume the command of the forces deployed in France. Gradually, as the worries about the Balkans whittled away, German forces in Italy increased their strengths. They were reinforced, among others, by two armoured divisions and 40,000 troops from Corsica, which the German command decided to surrender. Corsica was taken by local partisan groups reinforced by the troops of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Overlooking the withdraval of the German troops from Corsica was a serious mistake made by the Allied air forces' command.

And while the enemy was growing stronger, nothing had changed on the Allied side. From the point of view of the supreme command the objective of the landing in Italy was achieved - airfields were seized, and the 15 Air Army was on the move from Africa aboard the ships of 300,000t of total displacement, while Churchill on 17 November was telegraphing angrily to Washington that it was a serious mistake to install strategic air forces in Italy at the expense of the battle of Rome.

To Churchill the Italian campaign was a matter of special attention. All the November he strove to reanimate that stalling front. In December, when in Teheran he met Roosevelt and Stalin, he used all his eloquence to convince the suspicious Soviet leader that opening the "second front" in France was still the priority of the British policy, but he did not renounce Italy either. He maintained that the Italian campaign constituted a "third front" of the world war, and promised prompt liberation of Rome. He calculated that the operation Overlord, namely landing in France, planned for the beginning of May 1944, could be postponed for few weeks. This way he could use landing crafts and heavy equipment, designated for the Overlord, on the coasts of Italy. Stalin, of course, opposed and accused his Anglo-Saxon partners in deliberate delaying of opening the "second front" for two years then. But eventually even he had to agree that once the Italian campaign was under way, it could not end up in a draw. Like every campaign of the Second World War it had to go on till the victorious end.

So, it was decided to seek a break-through in simultaneous assault of strong seaborne forces at Anzio and the 5th Army in the mountains. Fresh Allied troops were streaming to Italy. It was about time, since the protracted November fights created a dangerous situation in southern Italy: 11 Allied divisions faced there 25 German divisions. During the winter 1943/1944 to Italy arrived two divisions of the French Expeditionary Corps, the famous Indian 4th Division, no less famous 2nd New Zealand Division, Canadian 5th Armoured Division, and the Polish 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division announcing the arrival of the II Polish Corps. On 15 January 1944 the soldiers of the American 36th Texan Division took Monte Trocchio. They complained about the slow pace of the advance as they dug in on the new positions. They did not know yet that they took part in the prelude to one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Second World War.