The Italian Front
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.
The Allies pressed on either side of Nazi Germany by January 1945, grimly determined to complete their version of Vernichtungskrieg (“war of annihilation”), or total war, to drive Germans to accept unconditional surrender and evermore foreswear war as an instrument of national policy. A double-invasion of Germany ensued on a scale unimaginable by any party to the war just four or five years before, and certainly not imagined by its instigators now huddled beneath Berlin or dying in vast multitudes along the frontiers of the “Greater German Reich.” Out of the east came the Red Army, engorged with desire for blood revenge for tens of millions of Soviet dead, for destroyed cities and burned out fields, for their own lost youth and ineffable suffering. Millions of heavily armed men with red stars on their caps surged into Germany, bluntly forcing a way across the Oder with blood and brute force, crashing tanks and artillery into cities crowded with the terrified refugee flotsam of broken Nazi ambition for empire. Out of the west came the armies of democracy, pouring through the Westwall and over the Rhine. Their rage was not as great, but all war is cruel and most wanted to kill as many Germans as it took to end the fight and buy their ticket home. And whatever the quality of mercy on the ground for some poor Landser conscript seeking to give himself up, above advancing Western armies roamed enormous fleets of bombers heading out to burn down Germany’s cities and terrorize its civilian population. For even the great democracies of the West had descended into ruthlessness that brooked little resistance and abjured almost no method of destruction that promised to shorten the war. The greatest armies known in the history of war had a singular mission and one destination in 1945: to meet in the center of Germany, astride the fetid corpse of the Nazi idea.
The battle maps of Germany, filled with arrows, strings, and the tiny symbols used by the generals and their staffs to assess the current status of operations, covered large walls, while others were barely large enough to cover the hood of a jeep or staff car. But all had in common a forest of arrows depicting the movement of Allied forces eastward and the relentless advance of the Red Army toward the west. To the uninitiated, such maps may have seemed chaotic but, notes historian Charles B. MacDonald, it was an illusion, and “in reality from each of the columns strings led, as from puppet to puppeteer, to General Eisenhower’s supreme command.” Whether pointing east or west, the arrows were all aimed at one key location on the map: Berlin.
On the evening of his shocking visit to the Merkers mine and Ohrdruf, Eisenhower revealed privately to Patton that he was soon to halt the First and Ninth Armies at the Elbe River to await the arrival of the Red Army. Third Army would be given a new mission to drive southeast toward Czechoslovakia. “From a tactical point of view, it is highly inadvisable for the American Army to take Berlin and I hope political influence won’t cause me to take the city,” he said. “It has no tactical or strategic value and would place upon the American forces the burden of caring for thousands and thousands of Germans, displaced persons and Allied prisoners of war.”
Patton’s reaction was incredulity. “Ike, I don’t see how you figure that out. We had better take Berlin, and quick—and on to the Oder!” Later on, in the presence of his chief of staff, Patton reiterated the need to drive on to Berlin, arguing that it could certainly be done in forty-eight hours by Ninth Army. Eisenhower wondered aloud, “Well, who would want it?” Patton did not reply at once, but placed both hands on his friend’s shoulders and said, “I think history will answer that question for you.”
Bradley admitted that he was sorely tempted by the lure of his troops capturing the greatest political prize of the war but realized it was simply not militarily feasible. A strong dose of reality set in when he calculated the cost, and noted that to have sent Montgomery on a mission to capture Berlin would have necessitated detaching a U.S. army-size force to guard his flank and correspondingly thwart the defeat of the German army on the 12th Army Group front. “As soldiers we looked naively on the British inclination to complicate the war with political foresight and nonmilitary objectives.”
Among those dismayed by Eisenhower’s decision was Simpson, who when ordered by Bradley to halt his Ninth Army at the Elbe, replied, “Where the hell did you get this?” Told, “From Ike,” Simpson obeyed his orders but was convinced it was a terrible mistake, and that his army could have advanced to Berlin. The U.S. official historian agrees: “The American armies, the Ninth in particular, could have continued their offensive some fifty more miles at least to the fringe of Berlin. The decision of the Supreme Allied Commander and nothing else halted the Americans at the Elbe and the Mulde [Rivers].”
Eisenhower had the full endorsement of Bradley, who was likewise convinced of the existence of a National Redoubt, which, he said, was “too ominous a threat to be ignored and in consequence it shaped our tactical thinking during the closing weeks of the war.” Bradley, wrote Chester Hansen in his diary, “is convinced that we shall have to fight the Germans in the mountain wilderness of southern Germany and there destroy the core of his SS units which are determined to carry on the battle.” Bradley predicted there might be twenty SS divisions, “supplied through a system of underground factories and supported by aircraft from underground hangers [sic]” from which “he could presumably have held out for a year.” No one seems to have questioned where these divisions might have come from, particularly in view of the fact that Model’s forces in the Ruhr had been thoroughly bottled up and then surrendered. In A Soldier’s Story Bradley ruefully admitted that it had existed “largely in the imaginations of a few fanatic Nazis.” Only after a senior German general in a position to have known surrendered to Ninth Army did it finally become clear, at least to Bradley, that they had been chasing a ghost. “I am astonished we could have believed it as innocently as we did.”
Not until a week before his death did Hitler issue a rather broadly worded directive outlining the creation of a “last bulwark of fanatical resistance” in the Alps, which came far too late in the war to have been established. The British official historian was unable to discern “any clear intention” on the part of Hitler to make a “last-ditch” stand in the Alps or anywhere else in particular unless it were in Berlin. … Indeed, the greater the threat to Berlin, the more tenaciously did Hitler cling to the idea of holding out there at all costs … for Hitler the notion of a “redoubt” was no more than a momentary idea. … An examination of the contemporary German evidence available to us [in 1968] shows quite conclusively that the so-called “National Redoubt” never existed outside the imaginations of the combatants.
The final irony was that in the last days of the Third Reich, when Joseph Goebbels learned of the Allied delusion over the Redoubt, his propaganda machine scored one of its greatest coups by effectively playing on Allied suppositions in much the same way that the Germans had been hoaxed before D-Day by Fortitude.45
The myth of the National Redoubt might have been merely incidental and a lesson in leaping to false conclusions had it not been for its profound effect on Eisenhower’s strategic thinking. As Russell Weigley points out, despite evidence to the contrary, “Eisenhower and Bradley had already moved their armies as though the threat of the Redoubt merited a high strategic priority, higher than Berlin.”
The decision to turn de Lattre’s French First Army, Hodges’s First Army, and Patton’s Third Army south toward Switzerland, Bavaria, and Austria came at a time when Montgomery’s army group was thinly spread. With Ninth Army committed to securing and guarding the Elbe, there was no American force available to provide support to carry out his mission of capturing northern Germany, securing the Baltic ports, and liberating Denmark.
Eisenhower’s controversial decisions regarding Berlin and the National Redoubt notwithstanding, during the month of April 1945 the death knell of the Third Reich sounded as the rampaging Allied armies began mopping up pockets of resistance from the central plains to the Alps, capturing tens of thousands of prisoners and drawing the noose ever tighter.
With his nation in ruins and his armies destroyed, Hitler designated the head of the German navy, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, to carry on the fight as his successor, then committed suicide on the night of April 30. His corpse and that of his mistress, Eva Braun, were burned on a funeral pyre outside his Berlin bunker in a scene that would have done justice to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. To the bitter end the German madman who had unleashed the worst conflagration in history entertained fantastical delusions that somehow he could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
By May 1, 1945, both the U.S. First and Ninth Armies were astride the Mulde and Elbe Rivers, where they halted as ordered, while to the south the Seventh Army was advancing deep into Bavaria and Austria. To the north Montgomery’s troops were nearing Hamburg and Lübeck. Patton’s Third Army had driven into Austria and Czechoslovakia, but—in yet another controversial decision by Eisenhower—his troops were forbidden to enter the capital of Prague. At Churchill’s instigation the British chiefs of staff exhorted the U.S. Joint Chiefs to compel Eisenhower to liberate Prague and Czechoslovakia before the arrival of the Red Army. The State Department, agreeing that Czechoslovakia was a political prize that should be denied the Russians, urged Truman’s concurrence. Truman consulted Marshall, who passed the request back to Eisenhower, who replied that he thought that the Red Army would liberate Prague before Patton could get there, and thus elected to halt Third Army at the prewar border near Pilsen (now Plzeň). Marshall supported his decision. “Personally and aside from all logistic, tactical or strategical implications, I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.”
However, Third Army, which had captured Nuremberg, advanced to the Danube, and been astride the Czech border for several weeks, was primed to advance into both Czechoslovakia and Austria. Patton had begged for permission to push on but had been firmly restrained by a stop line beyond which Third Army was not to advance without permission. Bradley thought that Prague could have been liberated within twenty-four hours. On May 4 Eisenhower finally authorized Third Army to cross the Czech border, but there was to be no advance beyond Pilsen. That same day units of the U.S. Seventh Army and the U.S. Fifth Army driving north from Italy made contact at Austria’s Brenner Pass.
Bradley believed that Patton might ignore the new stop line, and on May 6 excitedly telephoned to reaffirm Eisenhower’s order. “You hear me, George, goddamnit, halt!” Reluctantly Patton complied. This decision brought about the repercussions Churchill had correctly feared. An uprising by the Czech Resistance against the SS in Prague was ruthlessly suppressed, while Third Army sat idle, a mere forty miles away, but under orders not to intervene. Although conceding that Eisenhower’s reasons for halting at Pilsen were sound, Patton wrote shortly before his death, “I was very much chagrined, because I felt, and I still feel, that we should have gone on the Moldau River and, if the Russians didn’t like it, let them go to hell.”