Remembering the fight in Italy

Much has been made this year of the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1944, that marks the beginning of the successful drive to push the German war machine out of Western Europe and the Nazis’ eventual unconditional surrender to Allied forces 11 months later.

Commemoration of that date is certainly warranted. The Normandy invasion and the fighting in the days immediately following took a costly casualty toll on American and British troops, with more to come over the months ahead, including the Battle of the Bulge the following winter.

But an equally costly battle front, seemingly interminable and under the dreariest of conditions, was being waged simultaneously to the south, in the mountains of Italy. 

Casualties of the Italian Campaign in World War II totaled 188,000 Americans and 123,000 British. Yet except among families of service members who took part in it, and military historians, relatively little is remembered about the 1½-year Allied slog up the Italian peninsula.

The German military surrendered in Italy on April 29, 1945, about a week before the German High Command’s unconditional surrender in Germany. But by the Normandy invasion in June 1944, American and British troops had already been engaging the enemy in Italy for nine months, pushing northward very slowly and at great human cost through the mountainous terrain, fighting heavy rains, swollen rivers and seasoned, well-equipped German troops. Winters in the mountains were particularly difficult for the Allies.

By August of 1944, the Americans and British had pushed the stubborn German defenders up most of the Italian peninsula, to the Nazis’ defensive “Gothic Line” from south of Genoa on the west to south of Venice on the east. The Allies could go no further, and that’s where the front remained until the German surrender eight months later.

Italy was obviously a long way from the German homeland, and on the other side of the Alps to boot. So why did America engage in such a peripheral location, at such cost, with so little to show for it?

The reasons lie in Allied strategic tensions among the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. 

President Roosevelt and his high-level military commanders had aimed at an invasion of the northern French coast since almost the beginning of American entry into World War II. But it would be months — in fact, several years — before American industrial might and troop preparation would be ready to undertake it.

But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought at all costs to avoid an early Normandy invasion. 

British armaments, air power and naval forces had taken heavy losses in and around Western Europe since the autumn of 1939. Britain had lost even more in blood and treasure in World War I, including at Gallipoli, where Churchill had borne heavy responsibility for the fiasco. 

Churchill was convinced Britain could not afford the costs of an invasion of France before the American buildup was ready.

For his part, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin desired above all else the opening of a second front against the Germans in Western Europe. After Hitler brought continental Europe under his control, he broke the non-aggression pact he had signed with the Soviets in 1939 and invaded the Soviet Union. 

The German-Soviet military struggle took 20 million Soviet lives, including military and civilians. Stalin felt he was going it alone against Germany.

The different goals of the three primary Allied nations resulted in a decision by Roosevelt (reluctantly) and Churchill (delightedly) to engage first the Italians and then (after Italy surrendered and Germany moved thousands of troops onto the Italian peninsula) the Germans. 

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the American commander, decided he couldn’t keep thousands of American troops under arms for at least a year with nothing to do while the American military buildup continued. 

The Americans agreed to send them first to North Africa, even farther from Western Europe, and then as time went on, up to Sicily and then on to Italy to try to force Hitler to shift some German forces back from the Eastern Front.

That didn’t happen.

What did happen was a long, costly struggle with existing German troops on the North African, Sicilian and Italian fronts with little strategic gain to show for it. 

That fact takes nothing away from the sacrifices American and British troops laid down in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean Theatre. It has more to do with the complexities and vagaries of wartime alliances generally.

Given the needs and wants of multiple participants in worldwide conflicts, it’s sometimes surprising that agreements on tactics can be reached at all, and that they sometimes succeed.

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