M-2 Treadway Pontoon Bridge under construction across the Po River near Ostiglia
The Allies had begun their invasion of the Italian mainland in early September 1943 with the promise of a quick drive north, up the “soft underbelly” of Europe and into the German heartland. Yet nineteen months later, after hard fighting up the rugged mountainous spine of the narrow Italian peninsula, such goals still eluded the Anglo- American military leaders of the Mediterranean Theater. To be sure, long before April 1945 Rome had fallen to Allied arms and fascist Italy had been knocked almost completely out of the war. But in the interval France had also been liberated, and the Soviet Union had reclaimed almost all of its territory previously conquered by the once invincible German war machine.
Italy had in fact become a sideshow, a secondary theater, since the spring of 1944 when the western Allies had shifted their military resources north to support the buildup and execution of Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of Normandy. After that, there had been no turning back on the Anglo-American side, with its main effort directed east through the northern European plains. Thus, by April Germany was besieged on three sides, although the Allied forces in the south, those strung out along the northern Apennines overlooking the Po Valley, were now the farthest away from the tottering Third Reich. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill continued to strongly support an advance from northern Italy into the Balkans and southern Germany. However, the ability of the Italian-based Allied armies to sustain such an effort with minimal support in men and materiel seemed problematic.
In 1944 the 15th Army Group, under Field Marshal Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, consisted of Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army and Lt. Gen. Oliver Leese’s British Eighth Army. By midyear these forces had ended the stalemates on the Gustav Line, advanced up the Liri valley, captured Rome, and pursued retreating Axis forces north across the Arno River into the northern Apennines Mountains, on the very edge of the Po Valley, in the heart of northern Italy.
In December 1944 Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., replaced General Clark as commander of the Fifth Army, following the latter’s departure to become the new 15th Army Group commander. Before Truscott took command, however, the Allied offensive in the northern Apennines had ground to a halt. Both Allied armies were exhausted. Personnel, equipment, and supplies had been siphoned off to support operations in northwestern Europe and elsewhere. The ensuing lack of resources, combined with the harsh winter weather, rugged terrain, and stiff enemy resistance, had left the Allies short of their immediate goal, the heavily fortified communications center of Bologna, a few miles to the north in central Italy.
General Truscott, a hell-for-leather cavalryman, was no stranger to the Mediterranean. He had commanded the U.S. 3d Infantry Division through campaigns in Sicily, southern Italy, and Anzio. In February 1944, during the darkest days at Anzio, Truscott had replaced Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas as VI Corps chief and had reinvigorated the command. After the Anzio breakout in May, he led the VI Corps through Rome, then in the invasion of southern France (Operation ANVIL-DRAGOON), and finally in pursuit of German forces in the Rhone Valley and northward.
As 1945 opened the Allies still faced an organized and determined foe in Italy consisting of twenty-four German and five Italian fascist divisions. The Axis units were divided among the Tenth, Fourteenth, and Ligurian Armies, all under Army Group C and General Heinrich von Vietinghoff ’s command. Lt. Gen. Joachim von Lemelson commanded the Fourteenth Army, consisting of the LI Mountain and XVI Panzer Corps, which opposed Truscott’s Fifth Army in the west. Opposite the British Eighth Army to the east was the German Tenth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Traugott Herr, with the I Parachute and LXXVI Panzer Corps. The city of Bologna, still in Axis hands, constituted the boundary line for both sides.
The majority of Axis troops in Italy were experienced veterans who belonged to relatively intact units. Although fairly well led and supplied in 1944, they lacked vehicles, firepower, and air support, and by early 1945 they were experiencing increasingly troublesome shortages in nearly every category of equipment. Yet the winter’s respite had allowed them some opportunity to rest and to construct a defensive system in three lines that maximized the tactical potential of the rugged Italian terrain.
Their first defensive line, along the northern Apennines, protected Bologna and blocked entry into the east-west Po Valley, about fifty miles farther north. The Fourteenth Army had built fortifications on steep mountain fingers that were anchored on higher ridgelines and consisted of mutually supporting positions to provide optimum observation and fields of fire. Although the mountain fingers widened as they neared the flat valley floors, the valleys themselves were fenced in by trees, hedgerows, and dikes, which restricted cross-country mobility and provided excellent cover. In addition, the Po River’s southern tributaries emerged from the mountains to cross the valley floors, intersecting all possible routes of advance and serving as potential defensive positions.
The Axis generals planned to anchor their second defensive line along the Po River itself. From its source in northwestern Italy, the Po meandered east to the Adriatic Sea. The river varied in width from 130 to 500 yards and was often bordered by levees which served as natural fortifications made stronger by field works on both banks. As in northern Europe, the towns and villages along the river would provide natural fortifications, while the more developed east-west road system would ease the resupply movements of the defenders.
The third line, in the Alpine foothills, extended east and west of Lake Garda. Dubbed the Adige Line, after the river of the same name, these defenses were designed to cover a last-ditch Axis withdrawal into northeast Italy and Austria. The Adige Line, with its intricate system of trenches, dugouts, and machine-gun emplacements, was reminiscent of World War I. If stoutly defended, it could be the toughest line yet encountered in Italy.
Despite these apparent advantages, the Axis operated under significant handicaps imposed by Adolf Hitler, by the Wehrmacht High Command, and by Germany’s growing shortages in manpower and equipment. The top Axis commanders in Italy had repeatedly asked to withdraw from the Apennines to the stronger positions along the Po River before the expected Allied offensive. Permission was always flatly denied, and Hitler’s subsequent directives compelled local commanders to hold their positions until enemy action forced their retreat. Rigid adherence to this policy posed many risks for the defenders and made it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct organized withdrawals in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority in ground mobility and air power.
As the Axis feverishly dug in, the U.S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies prepared for the coming battle. The Allied troops were exhausted from months of fighting in late 1944, and the first four months of 1945 were marked by intensive efforts to rebuild combat strength and morale. Front-line units rotated to rear areas for rest, relaxation, and training; replacements were worked into tired units; and damaged or worn equipment was replaced or rebuilt. Administrators and logisticians requisitioned, hoarded, and stockpiled equipment and supplies, especially artillery ammunition. Fuel pipelines were built, reconnaissance conducted, supply points planned, and bridging equipment collected. However, due to the shortages caused by the equipment and manpower demands of other theaters, this process took time. In the end, Allied manpower and artillery superiority, critical in the rugged Italian terrain, was no more than about two or three to one.
By early 1945 the Fifth Army contained about 270,000 soldiers (with over 30,000 more awaiting assignments in replacement depots), over 2,000 artillery pieces and mortars, and thousands of vehicles, all positioned along a 120-mile front extending east from the Ligurian coast, across the crest of the Apennines, to a point southeast of Bologna. The commander’s major combat units included five U.S. infantry divisions (the 34th, 85th, 88th, 91st, and 92d), the U.S. 10th Mountain and 1st Armored Divisions, the Japanese-American 442d Regiment, as well as the 1st Brazilian Infantry Division, the free Italian Legnano Combat Group, and the 6th South African Armored Division. The U.S. IV Corps in the west, under Maj. Gen. Willis D. Crittenberger, and the U.S. II Corps in the east, under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, shared control of the ten division equivalents.
On the Fifth Army’s right flank was the British Eighth Army, commanded since 1 October 1944 by General Sir Richard L. McCreery. Containing the Polish 2d Corps and the British 5th, 10th, and 13th Corps, the Eighth Army controlled eight divisions from four different nations, as well as four free Italian battle groups and a Jewish brigade. By April 1945 their line extended from the Bologna area east to the Adriatic, ten miles north of Ravenna.
General Clark scheduled a new general offensive to begin in early April 1945. Unlike prior campaigns in Italy, he clearly assigned the major role to American forces. Prior to the main offensive, D-day minus 5, the U.S. 92d Infantry Division was to launch a diversionary attack, Operation SECOND WIND, to capture Massa along the Ligurian coast. Then, on 9 April the Eighth Army was to penetrate enemy defenses east of Bologna, drawing enemy reserves from the vital communications hub.
Following these diversions, the 15th Army Group’s main effort, Operation CRAFTSMAN, would be launched by Fifth Army forces around 11 April. Initially, Fifth Army units were to penetrate the enemy’s defenses west of Bologna, move into the southern Po Valley, and then capture Bologna itself. Rather than destroying the German forces, the initial phase of CRAFTSMAN thus focused on penetrating the Axis front and seizing enough terrain to provide a base for further operations in the Po Valley. Truscott intended to attack with forces from both corps advancing side by side along two major avenues, staggering the assaults to allow the maximum concentration of air and artillery support for each. Crittenberger’s IV Corps would attack first, west of Highways 64 and 65 which lead north to Bologna. One day later, Keyes’ II Corps would attack north along Highway 65 and take Bologna. During Phase II, both Allied armies would continue north toward the Bondeno-Ferrara area, thirty miles north of Bologna, trapping Axis forces south of the Po River. Finally, Phase III would see the combined Allied armies cross the Po and advance to Verona, fifty miles farther north, before fanning out into northern Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia, completing the destruction of the Axis forces in southern Europe.