Panzers in Italy I

Italian officers stood dumbfounded before the German General Westphal. He had just delivered an ultimatum: they must not resist Hitler’s occupation of their country or Rome would face the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini had first courted his Nazi counterpart in 1939 with the Pact of Steel; now the marriage was ending in an acrimonious and dramatic divorce. By the late summer of 1943 the Italians were wavering in their commitment to the Axis cause and Hitler needed to secure Italy and the Balkans against the encroaching Allies. At this point Field Marshal Albert Kesselring pulled off an audacious coup: ‘Smiling Albert’, with few forces to hand, browbeat, demoralised and bluffed the Italians into allowing him to occupy Rome and disarm them without even firing a shot.

In a letter to his wife dated 10 September 1943 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had fought so long beside the Italians in Libya and Tunisia, said with genuine regret:

The events in Italy have, of course, long been expected and the very situation has now arisen which we have done all we could to avoid. In the south, Italian troops are already fighting alongside the British against us. Up north, Italian troops are being disarmed for the present and sent as prisoners to Germany. What a shameful end for an army!

Before his fall from power Mussolini had wanted not additional German troops in Italy but rather German resources with which to replenish his exhausted and demoralised army. When Kesselring told Mussolini he was forming three new German divisions to help defend Italy, Mussolini remarked that they would make no difference and what he really needed was tanks and aircraft. His initial requests included 300 tanks, rising to enough equipment for 17 tank battalions and 33 self-propelled artillery battalions. The Germans scoffed at his demands.

While the campaigns fought during the Second World War in North Africa, the Eastern Front and northwest Europe were very much dominated by armoured warfare, the battles in Italy were not. The mountainous topography running the length of the Italian peninsula ensured that it was foremost an infantry war, with tanks playing a secondary supporting role. At the beginning of the campaign the mountainous terrain of southern and central Italy greatly impeded the Allied advance. When they were able to use the roads, after German demolition damage had been repaired and mines cleared, they still had to cover huge distances up zigzagging routes just to cover a few miles as the crow flies.

As well as Italy’s mountains and numerous rivers, the Allies also had to overcome a number of key German defensive positions known as the Bernhardt, Gustav, Senger, Caesar, Albert, Heinrich and Gothic Lines respectively. This was a job for infantry and artillery, not tanks. On top of this, the Italian weather was an additional curse on Allied operations. For over half the year there was rain and snow, both of which resulted in mud.

Only six Allied armoured divisions fought in Italy and not all at the same time. A single US armoured division served with the multi-national US 5th Army fighting in western Italy (though independent tank battalions were assigned to support the infantry units). This was the US 1st Armored Division, affectionately known as the ‘Old Ironsides’. This division was the founding unit of America’s tank force during the Second World War, supplying cadres for all the other fifteen US combat armoured divisions.

However, as pointed out, the US 5th Army was a multi-national force and at various times it was strengthened by the British 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, the South African 6th Armoured Division and the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. In contrast, the key armoured units with the British 8th Army fighting its way up eastern Italy were the British 1st Armoured and the Canadian 5th Armoured Divisions. The Canadians were not very happy at being equipped with the 7th Armoured Division’s worn-out vehicles when the latter shipped back to Britain to take part in the Normandy landings.

Likewise, German panzer divisions were always thin on the ground in Italy. On the whole the German infantry divisions relied on the support of panzergrenadier units, which had fewer armoured fighting vehicles than the regular panzer divisions. The key armoured formation was the 26th Panzer Division, which transferred to Italy in 1943 and remained there for the rest of the war until its surrender near Bologna in May 1945. The 16th Panzer Division fought in Italy for six months between June and November 1943, seeing action at Salerno and Naples before being sent to the Eastern Front. The 24th Panzer Division was sent very briefly to northern Italy in the summer of 1943 on occupation duties.

Another panzer division that fought in both Sicily and on the Italian mainland was in fact a Luftwaffe or German Air Force unit, although in February 1943 it came under army control after General Heinz Guderian became Inspector-General Armoured Forces. This was the volunteer Hermann Göring Panzer Division that had its origins in the elite pre-war Luftwaffe Jäeger Regiment Hermann Göring. This had become a brigade in 1942 with a paratroop and air landing training role. Early the following year it became a panzergrenadier division and finally the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring.

The Hermann Göring Panzer Division was destroyed in Tunisia but re-formed in southern Italy and Sicily and played a key role in the Sicilian campaign in July and August 1943. Escaping to the Italian mainland following the Allied landings on Sicily, it was given the title Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring, although the Fallschirm (‘Parachute’) designation was purely honorary. The division was heavily involved in containing the Anzio bridgehead from January 1944 onwards until the Allied breakout. In July it was transferred to the Eastern Front.

Five panzergrenadier divisions – the 3rd, 15th, 16th SS, 29th and 90th – saw long-term action in Italy. The 15th Panzer Division, having been lost in Tunisia, was reconstituted in Sicily as the 15th Panzergrenadiers and served there and on the mainland. Most of these units started life as motorised infantry divisions and were converted in 1943. On the whole they were equipped with turretless assault guns not panzers, though the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring included a panzer and assault gun battalion. Once the Allies had broken out of their various bridgeheads, the low-profile assault gun proved to be an ideal weapon for the Germans’ defensive war in Italy.

Despite the Italian surrender on 3 September 1943, Field Marshal Kesselring seized power and stabilised the situation in Italy following the Allied landings at Salerno on the 9th.The Allied planners realised belatedly that they had lost a golden opportunity by not landing just south of Rome to pre-empt Kesselring’s take-over. Not only did the Germans successfully seize most of Italy, but also the Italian-occupied zones in Albania, the Balkans, Greece and Yugoslavia, thereby securing their potentially exposed flank. Considering the German defeat at El Alamein, the subsequent Torch landings and the Germans’ expulsion from North Africa and Sicily, Hitler must have been quietly pleased with how he had retrieved such a disastrous situation.

By early October Hitler had reinforced his forces in Italy with 27,000 troops that had escaped from Corsica and Sardinia. In the meantime Field Marshal Kesselring managed to keep the Allies at bay and disarm the Italian Army. He then brought the invaders to a halt 100 miles from Rome. Eight months were to pass before the Allies reached the Italian capital, and it would take another eight months before they managed to break out into the plains of northern Italy.

Four major offensives between January and May 1944 were required before the Gustav Line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the US 5th and British 8th Armies (involving British, US, French, Polish and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a 20-mile front between Monte Cassino and the western coast. The forces at Anzio did not break out of their bridgehead until late May. Even then the opportunity to cut off and destroy a large part of the German 10th Army was lost when the Anzio forces changed their direction of attack to move parallel with the coast to capture Rome. The Germans fought a highly successful and effective defensive war in Italy, which slowed down the Allied armour at every turn, until the very end of the Second World War.

The Luftwaffe’s Sicilian Panzers

Following the German and Italian defeat in Tunisia, the Allies turned their attentions to the Italian island of Sicily. The invasion of Sicily was not a foregone conclusion. Ideally, the Allies wanted to open a new front in western Europe, but at this stage simply did not have the resources in place to conduct a landing in northern France. Options on the table for the Allied planners included invasions of the Italian island of Sardinia or the French island of Corsica, with subsequent advances into northern Italy and southern France respectively. It was decided that an invasion of Sicily and an advance into southern Italy was the preferred option as it offered shorter and safer lines of communication with Allied forces in North Africa. Fighter cover could also be provided from Malta. Crucially this Sicilian ‘right hook’ alternative was intended to serve much grander goals.

Strategically, it was hoped that an attack on southern Italy would draw the Germans away from Normandy and the Eastern Front, but this led to differences of opinion among the Allies. The Americans saw the Italian campaign as a way to sap Germany’s strength from more important fronts, rather than as a major effort to defeat the Axis powers in Italy. The British, on the other hand, saw a push north through Italy and into Austria and southern Germany as a way of striking at Hitler. This was an important schism because it meant that in mid-1944, at a crucial moment in the Italian campaign, the Allied armies were drained of resources to support the fighting in France.

The Germans had two armoured formations deployed on Sicily: the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Panzer Division commanded by General Paul Conrath and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division under General Eberhard Rodtfrom. These units could field a total of 159 tanks between them. They were reinforced by General Walter Fries’ 29th Panzergrenadier Division, which began to arrive in mid-July and came under General Hans-Valentin Hube’s 14th Panzer Corps.

In contrast, the Italian tank units were negligible, comprising a number of battalions of Renault R-35 tanks. The Italians had lost the bulk of their armour in the fighting in North Africa. Very limited numbers of armoured fighting vehicles remained scattered in Albania and Greece, while the few remaining medium tanks and assault guns were gathered for the defence of mainland Italy. They were so short of tanks that when Italian officers inspected the 6th Army formations on Sicily in June they confirmed that German armour would be needed to help defend the island.

The defence of Sicily was the responsibility of the Italian 6th Army, consisting of two corps, under General Alfredo Guzzoni. However, to confuse matters the specially designated Fortress Areas around the ports came under the Italian Navy. By early July Axis forces on Sicily numbered some 200,000 Italians and 62,000 German Army and Luftwaffe personnel. The Italians were organised into four frontline infantry divisions, while the rest formed immobile coastal divisions.

For the invasion the infantry divisions of General Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army were supported by the British 4th and 23rd Armoured Brigades and the Canadian 1st Tank Brigade. The latter, along with the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, was included at the insistence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army’s principal supporting armoured units were the 70th and 753rd Tank Battalions and the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, plus elements of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Under the US Provisional Corps was the US 2nd Armored Division. The US 45th Infantry Division was also supported by a tank destroyer battalion.

Overall command and planning for Operation Husky fell to General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group, which had the responsibility of getting Montgomery and Patton’s two armies ashore on southern Sicily. General Guzzoni’s 6th Army headquarters was based at Enna, in the centre of the island, while its subordinate commands consisted of General Matio Arisio’s 12th Corps to the west and General Carlo Rossi’s 16th Corps to the east. Reserves consisted of a single Italian division, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 15th Panzergrenadiers. The poor weather meant the Italians were not anticipating any amphibious operations, so they were not on alert along the southern coast.

Operation Husky commenced on the night of 9/10 July 1943. By the evening of 10 July the assault divisions (three British, three American and one Canadian) had secured the port of Syracuse and were well established. Two days later Kesselring himself arrived to assess the situation and rapidly came to the conclusion that his troops were on their own. They needed reinforcing as quickly as possible, and in order to shorten the front line it was decided to abandon western Sicily. As a result a defensive line was established from San Stefano on the north coast via Nicosia, Agira and Cantenanuova down to Catania on the eastern coast.

As the only armoured division supporting the invasion, the US 2nd Armored was divided between two of the US 7th Army’s task forces. To the left Combat Command A (66th Armored Regiment) was with the 3rd Infantry Division coming ashore at Licata. The bulk of the division was to act as a floating reserve to support the central invasion around Gela.

In the face of counterattacks by the panzers of the Hermann Göring and Italian Livorno Divisions, plus Mobile Force E, reinforcements from the US 2nd Armored were put ashore in the shape of Combat Command B (3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment). While forty panzers were overrunning the positions of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Shermans of the 2nd Armored struggled to get off the beaches. Four Shermans under Lieutenant James White finally reached the coastal highway and began to shell the Germans’ flank and they eventually withdrew with the loss of sixteen tanks.

At Licata, the westernmost US beachhead, Combat Command A suffered a major reverse when the Luftwaffe hit a landing ship carrying a company of Shermans, an infantry company’s vehicles and half the command’s HQ equipment. Nevertheless, on 11 July the division took Naro, only to be bombed by their own air force. On 16 July 2nd Armored was placed in reserve, and then went on to take part in General Patton’s attack on Palermo on the northern coast of the island. The division rolled into the city on 22 July. Once the island had been occupied, the 2nd Armored was sent to England to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Kesselring’s Italian Coup

After the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia, the writing was on the wall for Mussolini, and his fate was sealed when Allied troops assaulted Italian soil with the invasion of Sicily. The fighting on the island triggered a political crisis in metropolitan Italy. Fifteen days after the invasion Mussolini was arrested in Rome and the new government under General Badoglio began to secretly negotiate with the Allies. Hitler was furious, and did not trust Badoglio’s claims that Italy would remain loyal to the German cause. General Jodl, Hitler’s Chief of Operations, urged caution but the Fuhrer knew the situation called for decisive action by his panzers before his southern flank became unhinged.

Just two days after Mussolini’s fall, Hitler convened an emergency conference and presented four military options for dealing with Italy if she should abandon the Axis cause. The first, Operation Eiche (Oak), envisaged a maritime or airborne rescue mission to secure Mussolini’s release; the second, Operation Student, was more ambitious and called for the seizure of Rome in order to reinstate Mussolini; the third, Operation Schwarz (Black), proposed the total occupation of Italy and the fourth, Operation Achse (Axis), planned for the capture or destruction of the Italian fleet. The last two were to be combined under the codename Axis.

By late July Hitler, fearing the worst, drafted War Directive 49 outlining the occupation of Italy and all her overseas possessions. The directive was never issued, but on 31 July a series of separate orders were sent out informing commanders of what they should do if the Italians dropped out of the war. Although Hitler was dissuaded from putting the 3rd Panzergrenadiers on the streets of Rome, he swiftly secured the Alpine passes between Germany and Italy, and between Italy and France. Eight divisions were assembled from France and southern Germany as Army Group B, ready to rescue those German forces in Italy.

Had the Italians acted decisively they could have sealed the Alpine bridges and tunnels and cut off the Wehrmacht already in Italy. The Italians had prepared the Brenner Pass for demolition, and had they blown the vital rail link it would have been out of action for at least six months. However, changing sides took time and Badoglio had to establish contact with the Allies and agree terms for an armistice before he could act against his former comrades in arms. Six precious weeks were to be wasted, leaving Italy vulnerable to Hitler’s counterstroke.

According to the German Intelligence Bureau established to monitor Italian troop movements in the north, the Italian Army was suffering a severe ammunition shortage. Field Marshal Rommel, placed in command of securing Italy, was not surprised: he already had a low opinion of Italian industry after his experience with the ill-resourced Italian forces in North Africa.

Belatedly the Italians moved the Alpine, Julia and Trentina Divisions to the Brenner. The road to the Italian naval base at La Spezia was also blocked. On 9 August Rommel wrote to his wife: ‘The situation with these unreliable Italians is extremely unpleasant. To our faces they protest their truest loyalty to the common cause, and yet they create all kinds of difficulties for us and at the back of it all seem to be negotiating. ‘The Germans also became alarmed by the Italian withdrawal of their occupation forces from southern France, and the movement of two Italian divisions from southern Italy to the north.

‘General Feuerstein reports that a critical situation developed on the Brenner about midday yesterday [1/8/43],’ recorded Rommel in his diary, ‘when the Italians tried to hold up the advance of 44th Infantry Division. General Gloria had given orders for fire to be opened if 44th Division attempted to continue its march.’ Fortunately the Italian troops on the ground chose not to obey the order and instead withdrew. The Italians concentrated 60,000 men in the Verona – Bolzano area but, in the face of the tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which crossed the Brenner Pass on 3 August, chose not to deploy them. The panzers rolled over the frontier alert to possible resistance, but in the event the only casualties were two Tiger tanks, which did not like the concrete roads: one overturned and another caught fire. In truth, the 1st SS Panzer Division was a bit disorganised as all its armour had been left in Russia and it had to re-equip en route.

Rather than defend the whole of Italy, the Germans drew up plans for a defensive line in the Apennines well to the north of Rome. During August the 1st SS and 25th Panzer Divisions and five infantry divisions crossed the frontier. In central Italy the German 10th Army was activated; it was able to call on five divisions and another two near Rome. Up until the end of the Sicilian campaign, and the successful escape of four German divisions, Hitler only had two divisions covering the whole of southern Italy. The Italians were not pleased about the presence of these German troops and Kesselring’s Chief of Staff, General Siegfried Westphal, spent a great deal of time trying to smooth ruffled feathers.

On 15 August Rommel travelled to Bologna to discuss the situation with General Roatta, Chief of Staff of the Italian Army. To his alarm, German intelligence indicated that the Italians intended to either poison him or have him arrested; in response he took with him German panzergrenadiers to secure the conference building beforehand. Roatta claimed the withdrawal of Italian troops from southern France was to help fight the British, and that the Alpine division from southern Italy had moved simply north to resume garrison duties. He confirmed that a second division had moved also north, to secure the railways from sabotage. Roatta dismissed any ideas that these refitting formations were in any way a threat to German interests.

Roatta reiterated that the defence of Italian soil against the Allies must be left to the Italian Army, though the Germans could take over air defence. He also tried to get rid of the powerful 1st SS Panzer Division by suggesting it be sent to Sardinia; he also suggested that other German forces should be moved into southern Italy. The meeting broke up without agreement and the following day Italian representatives offering Italy’s unconditional surrender approached the British Ambassador in Madrid.

After securing Sicily in August, the Allies invaded mainland Italy at Reggio, Salerno and Taranto at the beginning of the following month. The Italians lost an estimated 2,000 dead, 5,000 wounded and 137,000 captured on Sicily, along with all their tanks. This final military disaster was a blow from which the Italian Army would not recover. By September the Italian Army had twenty-one divisions in mainland Italy, although half of these were of poor quality, plus four in Sardinia and another thirty-six overseas.To fend off a German takeover of northern and central Italy, the Italian Army had eight infantry divisions and two motorised/armoured divisions, supported by another eight (weak) infantry divisions. Against these forces the Germans could field about sixteen highly experienced divisions.

If the Allied invasion fleet gathered off Naples on 8 September had sailed north and put its forces ashore near the Italian capital, the Italian Army would probably have used its remaining tanks against the Germans and Hitler would have abandoned Kesselring and his eight divisions. Instead, fate took a cruel turn and the American 5th Army landed not near Rome but at Salerno, south of Naples. Kesselring’s HQ at Frascati, near Rome, lost all communication with the outside world on the 8th after an American air raid killed nearly a hundred of his staff.

Following the Italian armistice with the Allies on 9 September, Hitler issued the codeword Achse (Axis). When the Germans learned of the armistice through a BBC broadcast, Kesselring was alerted. For a day or two the fate of those German forces in central and southern Italy hung in the balance. A tense stand-off took place between two German divisions and five Italian divisions equipped with tanks near the Italian capital. During 1943 the Italian Army had received an updated version of their medium tank, designated the M15/42. By September just over eighty had been delivered and these were deployed around Rome.

General Westphal, trying to reach General Roatta at Monte Rotondo, found himself obstructed by troops from the Italian Grenadier Division. Fearing something was wrong, Westphal insisted on seeing Roatta, and upon his arrival the Italian general informed him that Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies. Returning to Frascati, Westphal acted quickly and with more aggression than Kesselring would have liked. He called a conference with the General Staff of General Carboni’s Italian Corps, which was responsible for Rome.

Once the Italian officers were gathered, Westphal expressed his regret that they were no longer comrades in arms (he had served alongside them in North Africa). He said they had two options: either to lay down their arms or to suffer Stuka dive-bomber attacks. In support of this threat, Field Marshal von Richthofen had eighty fighter aircraft at his disposal in Italy. The next day an Italian officer arrived and signed the surrender order for the Carboni Corps. Kesselring and Westphal heaved a sign of relief that their coup would be bloodless. The Wehrmacht took possession of two-thirds of Italy, including the industrial north, whose factories were soon put to work churning out arms for the German war effort.

Hitler’s next move was to ‘rescue’ Mussolini, and for this job he called on SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Otto Skorzeny. On 12 September Mussolini was snatched from the Hotel Albergo-Rifugo 100 miles from Rome. A German glider landed in the hotel grounds and disgorged a number of Waffen-SS commandos and an Italian general. The carabinieri guarding Mussolini were unsure what to do; some simply fled, while the others faced the quandary of whether to open fire on an Italian general, or indeed their former leader. At the behest of Skorzeny and Mussolini, they decided to lay down their arms.

Skorzeny hurried the former dictator to a small plane and he was flown to Vienna via Rome. A few days later he arrived at Rastenburg to meet his saviour. While Mussolini was full of gratitude, Hitler was displeased to find his one-time ally was less than enthusiastic about his plans to revive fascism in northern Italy.The disillusioned Mussolini found himself the puppet ruler of his German-occupied homeland, the so-called Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI). In reality, all he wanted to do was spend time with his mistress while Italy went to ruin.