Italy Was Defensible, But it Required the Right Man
|The ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino after the battles along the Gustav Line in 1944.|
Whether or not to defend Italy or retreat to the Alps was fiercely debated within the Wehrmacht. There were two schools of thought, with Erwin Rommel advocating an immediate withdrawal to the north and Albert Kesselring insisting that he could keep the Allies far to the south. The issue came to a head In September 1943, after the Allies invaded the mainland and faced a furious German counterattack at the beachhead in Salerno. The issue had huge political ramifications, as there were still many loyal Italian fascists and industries south of the Alps that could contribute to the war effort. Mussolini and the Axis in general also would benefit by retaining Rome.
|Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in discussion with Field Marshal Kesselring in June 1942 (Moosmüller, Federal Archive Bild 101I-785-0300-33A).|
Kesselring, on the other hand, was renowned throughout the Wehrmacht for being an optimist who felt that he could achieve objectives that others felt were unachievable. Everybody knew that Hitler preferred to not give up ground without a struggle ("We must bleed them white for every meter of ground!"), and Kesselring had a plan to do just that in Italy. Keeping the enemy as far away from the Reich's cities was extremely important to the war effort because it lengthened the distance the Allied bombers had to fly and increased the Luftwaffe's odds of shooting them down. As a Luftwaffe general, Kesselring was very sensitive to airpower and how withdrawals only helped the enemy's bomber streams get through to their targets. The further away were the Allied airbases, the better.
Since both men had marshal’s batons, this was a dispute that only Hitler could resolve.
|How would you respond to this situation? Hitler received two completely different and irreconcilable recommendations from two of his best field marshals.|
|Among the ruins of the Monte Cassino abbey, a German Fallschirmjaeger (paratrooper) gives instructions to a mortar team (Credit: FonthillMedia).|
|The 2nd NZ Infantry Division marches into the town of Monte Cassino past the ruins of the Hotel Des Roses. The hills and ruins were perfectly suited for the defensive battles planned out by Kesselring (Credit: FonthillMedia).|
Winston Churchill crazy. At this stage of the war, the British still essentially controlled strategy in the European Theater of Operations. To speed things up, Churchill and his generals cooked up the Anzio landings (Operation Avalanche), intended to break the stalemate. This turned into a disaster that was just short of a catastrophe, as the Germans quickly sealed the landing grounds and came very close to pushing the US VI Corps of General Mark Clark's Fifth Army into the sea. The US Army had its highest "battle fatigue" rate of the war at Anzio. US General John Lucas was fired on 22 February 1944 as a result. Huge German guns such as "Anzio Annie" and the "Anzio Express" battered the Allies who had little cover and could only hope and pray the big shells did not land near them.
|The Anzio Express was another of the two K5 guns used at Anzio. The name came from the express train-like sound of the shells.|
|A squad of Allied troops, obviously veterans of a tough war, plans a raiding patrol at Cassino (Credit: FonthillMedia).|