Northern Italy and the End of Hostilities
August 1944 to May 2, 1945
Richard J. Garfunkel
July 17, 2004
In regards to Italy, a new fascist government was founded in Northern Italy for a short period of time, but collapsed. After the fall of Rome Marshall Albert (Smiling Albert) Kesselring was reinforced with 8 new divisions of varying quality (one from Denmark, Holland, and Russia, with two from the Balkans and three German ones from the eastern Front) and also the vaunted Herman Goering Panzer Division.
With these forces in the wake of the fall of Rome he established a strong defensive line from Grosetta on the Western coast, not far from the off shore island of Elba (of Napoleonic fame) to the eastern coast of the Adriatic. He fought strong delaying actions, but by August of 1944,as he was forced to re-establish a strong defensive in the Po Valley, Kesselring banked on his new Gothic Line. Attacks on the Gothic Line were concentrated in the east under General Harold Alexander's 15th Army Group and its British 8th Army. With Polish and Canadian forces they were able to move up the coastline from Rimini to Revenna and challenge the Gothic Line's forces commanded by General Vietinghoff's 10th Army. In the east General Mark Clark's army of American and British Corps enveloped Florence (Firenze) on the Arno River and advanced northward to challenge German General Lemelson's 14th Army.
As the winter set in, a weather related stalemate ensued between January and March 1945. Eventually Kesselring was recalled to Germany to support the actions on the Western front, Alexander became commander of the Mediterranean Theater, and Clark succeeded Alexander as commander of the 15th Army Group. So in the Po Valley, rough terrain, and stubborn German resistance handicapped the Allies. The Allies had 4000 planes to the Axis powers total of 200 of all types and this air superiority started to attrite supply lines and whatever was left of German armor. Vietinghoff requested from Hitler permission to orderly withdraw, but was ordered to stand and resist in place. At the end of March the Allies attained the three rs; rest, reorganization and re-equipment. But they were a polyglot command and with the reassignment of 3 British divisions to the Western Front, they were now reinforced with new formations that included the Jewish Brigade, the 42nd Regimental Combat team of Japanese-Americans and a Brazilian Division. The 15th Army Group had already included; American, British, New Zealand, Canadian, Newfoundland, South African, Gurkha, Indian and Polish units. The language and logistical problems were extraordinary and daunting to the supreme command.
By late April 1945, General Lucien Truscott's 5th Army had penetrated deep into the Po Valley, and by the 23rd Bologna fell to Keyes II Corp. The German forces were further compromised by Italian Partisan bands operating throughout their rear areas. These partisans were trained by Allied agents (OSS) and therefore it was estimated that by April I, 1945 there were over 50,000 of these irregular troops (guerrillas) in Northern Italy. Though the German command was never under the illusion of victory or relief they still fought very hard. Eventually when Hitler's death was confirmed Vietinghoff surrendered on May 2, 1945 (my birthday) all of his forces. Eventually through all of this and as the German forces were divided, enveloped and destroyed, the Allied forces reached the Austrian frontier. New Zealand forces also received the surrender of German forces in Trieste. Of course, by this time, Yugoslavian forces under Marshall Tito were also moving towards Trieste as they routed German and Croatian units.
The Germans were caught between the Allies in northern Italy, the Italian Partisans and the Tito's forces. By that late date, many of the American and British forces were worn out. In truth, with the polyglot forces under Allied command, with the rough terrain, the logistical nightmare, and the active partisan forces in the area, the battle for Northern Italy was not easy. The Alexander and Clark commands were never given their proper due. With regards to Yugoslavia, the Allies had no interest. They were never convinced or concerned about a post-war Soviet domination of the Balkans.
Tito had grown in strength and the Allies were decently happy with him and saw no economic imperative in Yugoslavia. If anything the British were only interested in Greece and we wanted Italy to remain in one piece. Also Tito was seen as quite strong, and if there were any worries about the Soviets, Tito was seen as a nationalistic bulwark. Later on, Tito proved that he was independent of Soviet domination. The crisis in the Balkans came decades later in the wake of Tito's death. The nine subgroups that made up that amalgam state started to seek their own self rule, and the ancient rivalry and bad blood between the Croatians (former nazi allied Ustashi) and the Serbs erupted. With all the tough fighting, the Allies weren't in any mood to get into another fracas in the wild topography of Yugoslavia.
With the occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviets, the old dynasties that had run Bulgaria, Hungary, Roumania and Yugoslavia had been deposed and the ethnic rivalries were suppressed! In essence it wasn't far from what the planners had desired. Unfortunately they had not envisioned a Soviet bloc becoming a new empire.
In truth it was “reality on the ground” that won out. We were not willing or able to challenge Soviet hegemony in that area of the world. The Soviets had proximity, men, and eventually all the “new” politicians. American presidents from Truman through Reagan saw the futility of overthrowing Soviet rule by force! From Churchill's historic “Iron Curtain” speech, containment became the policy rather than confrontation.