Key Point: The Allied invasion worked, but was very costly. The Nazis took over Italy and put up a stiff resistance.
As the 450 ships of the Operation Avalanche invasion force approached Salerno on the evening of September 8, 1943, the Allied troops, packed tightly aboard transport vessels, broke into wild celebration. Italy had surrendered, and many of the invaders in the ships thought German opposition on the beachhead might be light or nonexistent.
“I never again expect to witness such scenes of sheer joy,” wrote Major Warren A. Thrasher, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s aide-de-camp. “Speculation was rampant and it was all good…. We would dock in Naples harbor unopposed, with an olive branch in one hand and an opera ticket in the other.”
Senior commanders knew, though, that the Germans intended to fight regardless. Actually, in addition to extensive military preparation, the days leading up to the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland had been filled with intrigue and political maneuvering. In the higher echelons of the Allied command there were few delusions of an easy march through Italy. Their troops had already fought a bloody campaign in North Africa and were only halfway across Sicily. Now, invading Italy and pushing the Germans up the mountainous Italian “boot” while persuading the Italians themselves to offer no resistance amounted a jumble of potential scenarios.
“Italy is in Pieces”
Six weeks earlier, late on the afternoon of Sunday, July 25, 1943, as the Allies were still battling across Sicily, more than 20 years of Fascist rule in Italy had come to an abrupt and unceremonious end. A car carrying Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, arrived at the Villa Savoia on the Via Salaria in Rome. King Victor Emmanuel III was waiting.
The downfall of Mussolini’s government had inevitably arrived because of the Allied advance in Sicily and the growing weariness for war among the Italian people. Rationing had become extreme, with the daily allotment of calories down to less than 1,000 per person. Air raids were taking lives and devastating cities, diminishing the resolve of the common folk to follow a fading dream of empire.
“My dear Duce,” the 74-year-old monarch said to Mussolini following a 19-to-7 vote by the Grand Council to remove the Fascist leader from office, “it cannot go on any longer. Italy is in pieces. Army morale has reached the bottom and the soldiers do not want to fight any longer. The Alpine regiments have a song saying that they are through fighting Mussolini’s war. The result of the votes cast by the Grand Council is devastating…. Surely, you have no illusions as to how Italians feel about you at this moment. You are the most hated man in Italy; you have not a single friend left, except for me. You need not worry about your personal security. I shall see to that. I have decided that the man of the hour is Marshal [Pietro] Badoglio.”
The stunned Mussolini was driven from the meeting in an ambulance and placed under guard in a military barracks. For a while, he entertained the notion that the confinement was for his protection, but slowly he realized that he had been placed under arrest. An enraged Hitler vowed to retaliate by arresting the members of the new Italian government, the royal family, and even the Pope. While he was dissuaded from this course of action, he nevertheless intended to rescue Mussolini.
Eventually, Il Duce, still under arrest, was located in the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski lodge high atop the Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi Mountains. Hitler authorized a daring, glider-borne rescue attempt, and SS commandos under Captain Otto Skorzeny plucked the deposed leader from his captors and took him to northern Italy.
“Badoglio Admits He is Going to Double-Cross Someone”
Marshal Badoglio, who had previously served as the chief of the armed forces general staff in the Fascist government, formed a new government and made overtures of peace to the Allies. In early August 1943, Italian diplomats had secretly met with two high-ranking staff officers of the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, and his intelligence officer, British Brigadier Kenneth W.D. Strong, had met the Italians in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
Badoglio’s envoys stated that the desire of their new government was to not only surrender but also to change sides and fight the Germans. In exchange, Badoglio wanted assurance from the Allies that they would land in force on the mainland and execute an airborne operation to liberate Rome before the Germans could occupy the Eternal City.
The Italian nation was caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. To some, it was virtually impossible to distinguish which was the greater threat. The Allies were bombing Italy’s cities with impunity and they were unlikely to be in a conciliatory frame of mind, particularly when it came to the prospect of fighting alongside such a recent enemy.
In fact, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated bluntly, “Badoglio admits he is going to double-cross someone.”
Eisenhower’s representatives had gone to Lisbon to arrange terms for the unconditional surrender of Italy. Undoubtedly surprised by the overture of military cooperation, they relayed the proposal to Eisenhower. While he was interested in working with the Italians if it meant less resistance, the supreme commander’s assessment of the situation was also practical.
“Then began a series of negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys by secret agents, and frequent meetings in hidden places that, if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama,” Eisenhower wrote later. “Plots of various kinds were hatched only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances…. The Italians wanted frantically to surrender. However, they wanted to do so only with the assurance that such a powerful force would land on the mainland simultaneously with their surrender that the government itself and their cities would enjoy complete protection from the German forces.
“Consequently they tried to obtain every detail of our plans. These we would not reveal because the possibility of treachery could never be excluded. Moreover, to invade Italy with the strength that the Italians themselves believed necessary was a complete impossibility for the very simple reason that we did not have the troops in the area nor the ships to transport them had they been there….”
After several weeks of political wrangling, the Italians, on September 3, were obliged to accept unconditional surrender terms. The surrender, however, was not to be announced to the world until September 8, the eve of the landings by Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army on the beaches at Salerno, south of Naples.
Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor, the artillery commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Colonel William T. Gardiner, an officer of the U.S. Army Troop Carrier Command, were dispatched on a dangerous mission to Rome on September 7 to evaluate the risk associated with a planned airborne drop on the city. Taylor was instructed to send the single word “innocuous” if, in his judgment, Giant Two, the proposed airborne operation, should be scrapped and the Italians were either unable or unwilling to send their own cancellation message.
A British motor torpedo boat transferred the American officers to an Italian Navy corvette, and the emissaries reached the shore near Gaeta. Their uniforms were splashed with water and mud to give them the appearance of airmen who had been shot down and rescued. Following a ride in a car and an ambulance, they reached Rome, safely skirting several German patrols. The Americans were offered a fine dinner but became irritated when no Italian official of consequence appeared to discuss the situation. Eventually, they were brought to Badoglio, who reiterated his pro-Allied stance and his concern that German forces would occupy Rome.
Given the circumstances, Badoglio decided to send a message to Eisenhower, effectively canceling his earlier commitment for an immediate armistice. Taylor sent a message of his own. Both urged that Giant Two be canceled. Taylor sent a third message late on the morning of September 8: “Situation innocuous.” It was received hours before the transport aircraft had been scheduled to take off.
The purpose of the announcement of Italy’s surrender being delayed until the 8th was to confuse the Germans, so Badoglio’s message was ignored by Eisenhower. Ike announced the surrender as planned while the invasion force off the Italian coast at Salerno was preparing to land. Badoglio had no choice but to go along with the announcement.
The German Occupation of Italy
Hitler was not surprised or confused in the least by the surrender announcement, for he fully expected the Italians to turn tail once their mainland was threatened. In anticipation of the event, he had ordered a concentration of more than 12,000 airborne troops with supporting artillery to move to the vicinity of Rome, along with the 24,000 men and 150 tanks of the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a former Luftwaffe officer who would perform brilliantly during the arduous campaign to come, maintained overall command in Italy south of a line running from Pisa to Rimini, and he was ably supported by Col. Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff gennant Scheel. In northern Italy, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was in command of eight divisions. Depending on the location of an Allied invasion, each could be mutually supportive of the other.