Panzers in Italy II

Battle of the Bridgeheads

Having secured Sicily, the Allies invaded mainland Italy. The main assault, under the codename Operation Avalanche, took place on the western coast at Salerno, with two subsidiary operations taking place in Calabria and Taranto. The Salerno invasion force consisted of 100,000 British troops and 69,000 Americans, with some 20,000 vehicles borne by an armada of 450 vessels. The key armoured unit was the British 7th Armoured Division, while supporting forces also included the Royal Scots Greys and the 40th Royal Tank Regiment. The US 5th Army’s reserves included the US 1st Armored Division. Under Operation Baytown the Canadian 1st Armoured Division came ashore at Reggio di Calabria, supporting the British 8th Corps.

Following the Axis surrender in Tunisia, the British 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to Tripolitania to refit. It did not participate in Operation Husky, and instead trained for a role in the amphibious assault on mainland Italy. The battle-hardened veterans of 22 Armoured Brigade were brought back up to strength and issued with new vehicles and equipment. They cast off most of their British tanks and were equipped almost exclusively with the M4 Sherman. Their divisional armoured car regiment had Daimler and Dingo armoured cars supplemented with White scout cars.

To beef up the division’s anti-tank capabilities, the Jeep troop was replaced by a self-propelled gun troop equipped with two 75mm guns mounted in White half-tracks to give immediate fire support. At the same time the 5th Royal Horse Artillery was issued with the Priest 105mm self-propelled gun to work in conjunction with the armoured brigade’s tanks. In light of the terrain in Italy, the engineers were trained to deploy new Bailey bridges and tank-mounted scissor bridges in order to keep the division moving.

Field Marshal Rommel had taken charge of Army Group B in mid-August with responsibility for all German forces in Italy as far as Pisa. Field Marshal Kesselring and Army Command South remained in charge in southern Italy. The newly formed German 10th Army under General Heinrich von Vietinghoff was activated on 22 August with the task of fending off an Allied invasion. This army controlled the 14th Panzer Corps (Hermann Göring Panzer, 15th Panzergrenadier and 16th Panzer Divisions) and the 76th Panzer Corps (26th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions). Most notably, the 16th Panzer Division was deployed above the Salerno plain.

Following Operation Baytown on 3 September 1943, Kesselring rightly deduced that the Calabria landings were not the main Allied effort and concluded that Salerno or Rome would be their main point of attack. He withdrew General Traugott Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps, leaving just a regiment of panzergrenadiers to hold the toe of Italy in the face of the British 8th Army.

On 9 September Operation Slapstick seized Taranto unopposed, followed by Bari and Brindisi. The assault at Salerno also commenced that day, although the Allies soon found elements of the 16th Panzer, Hermann Göring Panzer and 15th and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions bearing down on them. Private J.C. Jones from the US 36th Infantry Division remembered,

Beyond the beaches in front of the 141st [Regiment], the relatively flat terrain was now invaded by five Mark IV (medium) tanks. The German armour rolled over the American troops who had taken cover in the irrigation ditches, firing continual machine-gun bursts into the prone men as they rumbled by. A platoon of B Company, led by Staff Sgt James A. Whitaker of Brownwood, Texas, was caught by these tanks.

By 13 September all German reinforcements were in position, including units from the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, which had been north of Rome. That day they launched a counteroffensive, which was halted by naval gunfire and artillery. Two days later the 16th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions went over to the defensive, while the Hermann Göring Division achieved some success east of Salerno. On 15 September, carrying infantry on their backs, the Shermans of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment departed Salerno en route for Naples.

When the 7th Armoured Division arrived in Italy on 15 September in support of the US 5th Army, its units were soon confronted with poor roads, mountains and impassable rivers. They acted as the follow-up division supporting the British 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions at Salerno. By 16 September the British and American bridgeheads had linked up, with the US 5th Army pushing up the west coast and the British 8th Army advancing along the east coast. The 7th Armoured Division’s first real success was the taking of Scafati on the Sarno river. Having secured the town’s road bridge intact, divisional engineers then erected a Bailey bridge next to it. Forward elements of the 7th Armoured Division entered Naples on 1 October.

Once beyond Naples, the armour was able to fan out. By 5 October the 7th Armoured’s tanks had reached the Volturno river near Capua. The Germans, however, had blown all the bridges and were firmly dug in on the far bank. On 12 October the 7th Armoured Division, acting in support of an infantry assault, launched a diversionary crossing to keep the Germans preoccupied. The tanks managed to ford the river and help turn the enemy’s defences. The Germans, though, simply withdrew to their next defence line along the Garigliano river.

In light of the Allies’ superior firepower, both the 76th and 14th Panzer Corps had little option but to break off the battle. Nonetheless, the armoured formations of the 10th Army had come very close to overcoming the Salerno bridgehead. The initial conduct of the 16th Panzer Division and the Germans’ ability to redeploy their forces more quickly than the Allies could reinforce almost tipped the battle in their favour.

The whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands by early October, and they now faced a whole series of German defensive lines. These would buy the Germans time while they constructed the ‘Winter Line’ south of Rome. In November the 7th Armoured Division was pulled back behind Monte Massico as it had been earmarked to take part in the coming Allied invasion of Normandy. The men handed over all their Sherman tanks and equipment to the Canadian 5th Armoured Division and made their way to Naples ready to be shipped back to England. There they reequipped with British-built Cromwell tanks – with dire consequences.

By early November Hitler had dispatched Rommel to oversee the defence of northern France and Kesselring was left in charge in Italy with instructions to deny Rome to the Allies for as long as possible. It took the Allies until mid-January 1944 to force their way through the Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt Lines to reach the Gustav Line – the centrepiece of the Winter Line.

The Allies launched their offensive in the south on 12 January 1944, with General Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps assaulting Cassino and the British 10th Corps attempting to exploit previous gains on the Garigliano river. Both assaults failed to break through the German Gustav Line, although limited progress was made.

A week later the US 2nd Corps attacked from the centre of General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army, attempting to cross the Rapido river, but after just two days the Americans were forced to call a halt. The breakthrough of the Gustav Line – the lynch-pin of the Allied plan, of which Operation Shingle (the Anzio landing) was a part – had bogged down. This lack of success at Cassino indicated there would be no progress towards Rome during March

Operation Shingle, launched on 22 January 1944, was an amphibious attack in the area of Anzio and Nettuno, designed to turn the German flank and compromise their defences. Some 36,000 troops and 3,200 vehicles poured ashore. British forces hitting ‘Peter Beach’ were backed by the 46th Royal Tank Regiment, while the American troops coming ashore on ‘X-Ray Beach’ had armoured support from the 751st Tank Battalion and 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Six days earlier the US 5th Army had struck the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino; although it failed to achieve a breakthrough, it drew German reinforcements in the form of the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions away from Rome.

At Anzio the Allies soon found their way blocked by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and a battle group from the 4th Parachute Division, which were holding the roads from Anzio to the Alban Hills via Campoleone and Cisterna. Just two days after the landings the Germans had over 40,000 troops in the area, with the 4th Parachute Division to the west, the 3rd Panzergrenadiers in front of the Alban Hills and the Hermann Göring Division to the east. The invasion forces were hemmed in by elements of the 26th Panzer and Hermann Göring Divisions, as well as the 3rd and 16th SS Panzergrenadier Divisions with about 220 panzers. In two weeks of fighting the Anglo-American forces suffered almost 7,000 casualties

By early February some 76,000 troops were facing 100,000 Germans under the control of the 14th Army and the 76th Panzer Corps and 1st Parachute Corps. The Germans launched a counterattack on 3 February and again on 16 February, with both sides fighting each other to a standstill. All the time the Allied forces at Anzio remained bottled up, they were tying up the valuable shipping that was keeping them resupplied. Due to the lack of progress, Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott replaced General Lucas as the commander at Anzio. Once again the panzers had triumphed.

Piercing the Gustav Line

The French took credit for the success of Operation Diadem, as it was they who turned the panzers.The French Expeditionary Corps started to arrive in Italy in November 1943 and by May 1944 was fully up to strength. Colonial Moroccan troops first really made their presence felt in Italy when General André Dody’s division tipped the balance during Operation Raincoat in mid-December 1943. His men helped push the Germans back to the Gustav Line, but overall the offensive failed to put the Allies in a strong position to support the forthcoming Anzio landings.

While the US 5th Army suggested advancing along the Ausente valley, it was the French General Juin who proposed attacking through the mountains while making no attempt to outflank Aurunci. To do this it was necessary to break out of the Garigliano bridgehead so the French could take Monte Majo and the Ausonia defile. General Clark, impressed by Juin’s boldness, agreed.

The 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division under General Dody was given the task of taking Majo and its three spurs. On the right was Brosset’s 1st Free French Division and on the left de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, which was tasked with securing Castleforte to open up the Ausente. Afterwards the Mountain Corps, comprising General Savez’s 4th Moroccan Mountain Division and General Guillame’s Group of Moroccan Tabors, could then push to the Aurunci massif.

On 13 May 1944, in the face of stiff German resistance, the Moroccans succeeded in breaching the Gustav Line at Monte Majo, one of its deepest (though most weakly defended) points. Ausonia was captured two days later. In particular, the fall of Majo unhinged the 14th Panzer Corps’ left wing, greatly contributing to the Allies’ success.

By 1730 on 23 May General B.M. Hoffmeister, commanding the Canadian 5th Armoured Division, felt a large enough breach had been achieved to commit his tanks. Unfortunately the division had to shift its axis of attack and got tangled up with the tanks of the 25th Armoured Brigade moving to rearm and refuel. By the time the mess was sorted out too much time had passed and Hoffmeister was unable to attack until early the next morning. This was to become an all-too-familiar problem.

His lead units kicked off at 0800 on 24 May. The vanguard was led by a composite group of tanks and infantry made up of squadrons from the British Columbia Dragoons, each supported by carrier-borne infantry from the Irish Regiment of Canada. This was known as Vokes Force (after the commander of the Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel F.A. Vokes) and its mission was to establish a base midway between the Hitler Line and Melfa. A second Canadian composite group, Griffin Force, consisting of tanks from Lord Strathcona’s Horse (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel P.G. Griffin) and lorried infantry from the Westminster Regiment, was to pass through Vokes Force and take a crossing over the Melfa. A third leap was to be made by elements of the Westminsters who would consolidate the bridgehead, while the 8th Princess Louise’s Hussars would fight their way towards Ceprano.

Hoffmeister’s tanks were protected on the flanks by the British 6th Armoured Division moving on their right along Highway Six, and by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division on the left, whose tanks and infantry were to strike along the north bank of the Liri. It was during these operations that some of the few major tank-versus-tank battles of the Cassino campaign were fought. It was now that the Allies first came up against the Panzer Mk V Panther in Italy. On 15 May, after urgent appeals from General von Vietinghoff, a company of Panthers had been deployed to Melfa, where they arrived five days later, just in time to confront the Canadians.

Shortly after midday the tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons and supporting infantry reached their objective about 2 miles northwest of Aquino, and Griffin Force was ordered forwards. At 1500 the Strathcona’s reconnaissance troop crossed the Melfa. Vokes Force had brushed with the Panthers early on 24 May and remarkably had managed to account for three Panthers for the loss of just four Shermans.

A and C Companies of the Strathconas, trying to cross further north, managed to drive the Panthers to the far bank, but they lost seventeen Shermans and claimed just five panzers destroyed, not all of them Panthers. An infantry officer spoke of the Canadian tank crews with amazement: ‘I’ll never forget the way the tanks would keep coming and then one would get knocked out and then another and still they’d keep coming.’

Meanwhile the Canadians were unable to get any anti-tank weapons over to the Strathcona/Westminster bridgehead and the Germans launched three counterattacks with Panthers. Three tanks almost overran their positions but PIAT fire made the Germans lose their nerve and they wheeled away. Fortunately by 2100 some 6-pounder anti-tank guns had got over the river

In summing up the Melfa battles a staff officer in the Canadian 5th Armoured Division wrote:

As for the main obstacle of the German tanks … the only reason why it was possible to make headway against their qualitative superiority was by weight of numbers … General Leese [Commanding 8th Army] was prepared to lose 1,000 tanks. As he had 1,900 at his disposal, the Panther stood a fair chance of becoming an extinct species among the fauna of S. Italy. On our side losses had to be taken and replacements thrown in. Being somewhat up against it, the tankmen were compelled to improvise and make the most of what they had.

It was decided to throw everything up the Liri valley as soon as possible. The net result was that five divisions (Canadian 5th Armoured, British 6th Armoured, Canadian 1st Infantry, Indian 8th Infantry and British 78th Infantry) were all madly jostling for space. This meant that around 450 medium tanks, 240 light tanks, 50 self-propelled guns, 320 armoured cars, 200 scout cars, 2,000 half-tracks and 10,000 lorries were jammed along the roads in the valley. Operation Diadem turned into one enormous traffic jam that threatened to derail the offensive before it had even properly got under way. The military police trying to sort out the chaos were faced with an almost impossible task as tempers flared and vehicles bumped into one another. The slow-moving tanks consumed four times as much petrol as normal and the heavy traffic prevented extra fuel being brought up. It is hardly surprising that the Germans slipped the noose.

On 24 May the British 6th Armoured Division was held up for several hours waiting for the Canadian 5th Armoured Division to clear the roads. On the 29th and 30th, with Acre cleared and 13th Corps thrusting for Altari, an attempt was made to commit yet more tanks, this time the South African 6th Armoured Division. The plan was for the South Africans to replace the Canadians, but until they took over the Canadian positions all they did was add a few more thousand vehicles to the existing almighty traffic jam.

In the meantime the Germans did what they were best at and conducted highly successful local defensive actions. The 90th Panzergrenadiers at Ceprano and the 1st Parachute Division at Acre managed to hold the British at bay and kept the road to Rome closed until the end of May. The Allied command despaired of their tanks ever doing what they were supposed to do.

Meanwhile the German 14th Army conducted an orderly fighting withdrawal towards Rome. Diadem cost the British and American forces some 44,000 casualties, failed to destroy the Germans and condemned the Allies to another year of fighting around the Gothic Line from August 1944 to May 1945. The Germans lost 450 panzers, half the available armour in Italy, as well as 720 guns of various calibres. Four of Kesselring’s battered infantry divisions had to be withdrawn for refit and another seven were badly weakened. Nonetheless, four fresh divisions and a regiment of heavy tanks were on the way to help hold up the Allied advance.

The Italian capital was not secured until 4 June, and even then the Allies failed to encircle Kesselring’s withdrawing forces. South of Rome the Germans made one last desperate attempt to stop their 10th and 14th Armies losing contact. The diary of an artilleryman serving with the German 65th Infantry Division recalled: ‘The whole day Tommy [British troops] is attacking. We answer until the gun barrels are red hot. At 12.15 groups of enemy tanks are trying to break through at the Schotterstrasse [disused railway bed]. This attack collapses in our fire. At 1600 Tommy attacks again. Soon after that we receive orders to retreat.’ The 65th Infantry Division destroyed 168 Allied tanks in front of the Schotterstrasse and at Campoleone to the east. Yet still the Allies pressed home their attacks.

Raleigh Trevelyan, a British platoon commander serving with the Green Howards, recalled:

Sometimes a [Panzer] Mark IV tank or scout car would block main highways into Rome, and partisans would guide the Americans through back alleys.… At about 8pm Irish Dominicans at San Clemente near the Colosseum heard a commotion like big wheels grinding and went out to investigate. A line of American tanks was drawn up close to the walls of the college. Two of the Fathers walked along the tanks, but no soldier spoke or made a noise. Suddenly from the last tank there jumped an officer, who went down on his knees and asked for a blessing.

The tough Hermann Göring Division, though badly mauled, escaped. Unfortunately for Kesselring, this division was sent to Russia the following month. The British 8th Army struggling up the Adriatic coast by mid-September was being resisted by elements of ten German divisions. This did not greatly deter its advance on the Senio river and by the end of the year the key armoured formations of the German 10th Army, the 26th Panzer and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions, had suffered ever heavier casualties. Only the arrival of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division alleviated the pressure on the exhausted 26th Panzer and staved off collapse.

Gothic Horror

Manned by Kesselring’s 10th and 14th Armies, the Gothic Line was the last major obstacle between the Allies and the Alps and it proved to be probably the best of all the German defences. The Italian landscape also once more assisted the Germans, for in the valley of the upper Tiber the mountainous backbone of the country twists northwestwards to join the Maritime Alps in Liguria. This forms a huge natural barrier between the flat lands of the northeast and central Italy. After Cassino and Rome fell, the series of delaying battles from Trasimere to Florence had bought the German engineers much-needed time. Unfortunately for the Allies, the French, who were their most experienced and effective mountain troops, were withdrawn to fight in southern France.

As it was the very last line in the series, the Germans had had much greater time to prepare it, not to mention the assistance of 15,000 conscripted Italian labourers. Although the Gothic Line was never finished, it still presented a formidable barrier. The positions included Panther tank turrets set in steel and concrete, bunkers, air raid shelters, gun emplacements, minefields and anti-tank ditches as well as an obstacle zone stretching for 10 miles.

The Germans had done everything conceivable to stop the Allied tanks. Anti-tank defences in depth blocked the approaches to Spezia on the west coast. From Carrara the line passed through the mountains north of Pistoia to the fortifications of the Futa Pass, which included anti-tank ditches and concrete casemates and tank turrets. Eastwards to the Adriatic foothills the defences were concentrated along the Foglia to Pesaro. There deep minefields, a tank ditch, pillboxes and tank turrets protected the coastal belt.

The Allies launched the imaginatively titled Operation Olive in late August 1944 with the 8th Army aiming to break through the sector of the Gothic Line held by General Traugott Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps (which did not contain any panzer or panzergrenadier divisions).Traugott’s positions were assaulted by the Polish 2nd Corps (which included the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade), the Canadian 1st Corps (Canadian 5th Armoured Division and the British 21 st Tank Brigade) and the British 5th Corps (1st Armoured Division, 7th Armoured Brigade and 25th Tank Brigade).The attack fell into four phases: the advance to the Gothic Line, the penetration of its defences, the battle for the Coriano Ridge and the exploitation of this battle. The reality was that Italy was now very much a secondary theatre of operations, as the battle for Normandy was at its height, and the US 5th Army had lost seven divisions that were sent to take part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, at the end of August. The US 5th Army and the British 8th Army had seen their strengths fall dramatically from 249,000 to 153,000 men, leaving them just eighteen divisions with which to overwhelm the fourteen divisions of the German 10th and 14th Armies.

The Germans rushed reinforcements forwards, including the 26th Panzer Division, but this did not stop the Allies breaking through and pouring towards Rimini on the east coast. The Germans, though, did not give up so easily and by 4 September the 29th Panzergrenadiers and two infantry divisions had arrived to bolster the German line, causing a slowing of the Allied advance towards the Gemmano and Coriano Ridges. The fighting here was some of the toughest of the entire Italian campaign. The Coriano Ridge battle between 12 and 19 September 1944 required both the British 1st and Canadian 5th Armoured Divisions to overcome the German defences.

By this stage the Germans had been able to bring in the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 20th Luftwaffe Field Division, giving them ten divisions with which to oppose the 8th Army. However, the German defence was overcome and on 21 September the 8th Army took Rimini and was at last in the valley of the River Po.

This advance had been at a terrible cost to both sides: the 8th Army suffered 14,000 casualties and the 76th Panzer Corps lost 16,000. In the British sector during September the Allies lost 250 tanks destroyed by the enemy and a similar number either bogged or broken down. Losses in manpower were such that battalions had to be reduced from four to three companies. Notably the 1st Armoured Division received such a terrible mauling that it virtually ceased to exist and was disbanded on 1 January 1945.

The British soon discovered that the Po valley was not the excellent tank country that they had hoped for. Instead it proved to be a boggy expanse covered in a series of watercourses that greatly suited the Germans’ finely honed defensive tactics.

On the left the US 5th Army now included the US 1 st, British 6th and South African 6th Armoured Divisions as well as the Canadian 1st Tank Brigade. Facing them was the German 14th Army, which included the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division. By the end of the first week of September the army reserve, consisting of the 29th Panzergrenadiers and the 26th Panzer Division, had been moved to the Adriatic front. On 18 September the British 6th Armoured Division took the San Godenzo Pass on Route 67 to Forli. A month later the US 5th Army gathered its strength for one last push on Bologna; however, the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadiers helped to put an end to any such ambitions, leaving the 5th Army stranded in the mountains over the winter.

Defeat on the Po

Mussolini made one last futile effort at the end of 1944. Carried out largely by Italians, the counterattack was launched in the Senio valley on 26 December. Some of the RSI’s remaining tanks may have taken part. The 8th Army, although exhausted and short of ammunition, easily stopped this attack.

On the west coast the Germans launched an attack in the Serchio valley, north of Lucca, and broke through to threaten the US 5th Army’s lines of communication with its base at Leghorn. The Germans were blocked with the assistance of a division detached from the British 8th Army. This delayed 5th Army’s planned attack towards Bologna and in turn brought the British 8th Army to a halt, because it had to conserve ammunition until the Americans were ready.

The requirements of the crumbling Eastern Front saw the departure of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division from Italy in the New Year. Kesselring was appointed Supreme Commander West in March 1945 and replaced in Italy by General von Vietinghoff. German forces on the Italian front amounted to twenty-three divisions, with two others partly formed, and six Italian divisions. The 10th and 14th Armies, holding the left and right flanks respectively, each still had a nominal panzer corps.

By the spring of 1945 neither of the German armies had any reserves, although the battered 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions remained in von Vietinghoff’s Army Group Reserve. These units, plus the 26th Panzer Division, continued to fight tenaciously as they were slowly pushed northwards.

The Allied armoured divisions were involved in one last offensive against the Germans, dubbed Operation Grapeshot. This was launched with the aim of breaking out into the Lombardy plains. The 8th Army element of the attack was called Operation Buckland, and the US 5th Army’s contribution was Operation Craftsman.

Preparation for Grapeshot commenced on 6 April 1945 when the Germans’ Senio defences were subjected to heavy artillery bombardment. Three days later 825 heavy bombers attacked fixed positions beyond the Senio river; these were then followed by medium bombers and fighter-bombers. The latter struck at anything that moved, especially exposed armoured fighting vehicles and motor transport. The air attacks heralded the ground assault against the shell-shocked defenders, which rolled forwards at dusk that day. In support of the New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division were twenty-eight Churchill Crocodile flamethrowers and 127 Carrier Wasp flamethrowers. These scorched everything in their path and by nightfall of 10 April the New Zealanders had reached the Santerno, which they crossed the following day.

The American assault, also preceded by a massive bombardment of enemy positions by heavy bombers and artillery, opened on 14 April with the US 1st Armored Division supporting the US 4th Corps. The following night the US 2nd Corps, which included the South African 6th Armoured Division, attacked towards Bologna between Highways 64 and 65.

The 8th Army had forced the Argenta Gap by 19 April and the British 6th Armoured Division swung left to drive northwestwards along the Reno river to Bondeno, link up with the US 5th Army and encircle the Germans defending Bologna. Bondeno fell on 23 April and the 6th Armoured duly linked up with the Americans at Finale to the north the following day.

Despite Hitler’s instructions to stand fast, the Germans had no option but to fall back beyond the River Po. They finally sustained a deathblow trying to escape across the river, losing eighty tanks, 1,000 motor vehicles and 300 pieces of artillery. By this stage continuing the fight in Italy had become pointless. The official unconditional surrender in Italy was signed on 2 May 1945.The remaining panzers and Italian tanks were turned over to the Allies. The Italian campaign was over.