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Gothic Line

When the Allies invaded Western Europe, Allied Forces in Italy had already captured Rome, the first Axis Capital to fall to the Allies, and were next engaged in pursuing the Germans north of Rome. Sicily was captured, thus freeing the Mediterranean to Allied shipping. Italy surrendered, but the Germans within its borders did not follow suit. Allied predictions that the German Army would quickly retreat to the Alps after Italy left the war on 8 September proved wrong. Axis forces tenaciously defended every mountaintop and valley amid deteriorating winter weather from behind a series of fortified lines that stretched across Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic.

After spending the winter of 1943-44 stalled at the Gustav Line and within a small beachhead at Anzio south of Rome, the U.S. Fifth and the British Eighth Armies succeeded in overwhelming enemy defenses in May. The Allies (except those at Anzio) jumped offat 2300 hours 11 May, 1944. The attack was made all along the Gustav line, thus making it hard for the Germans to tel1 just where the main blow was coming. Fighting was fierce, but the Gustav Line and Hitler Line were smashed and the Allies surged north. On 23 May 1944 the forces on the Anzio Beachhead jumped off. They soon joined the forces coming up from the south. The Allies entered Rome on 04 June 1944. In a two-month long summer campaign that was very uncharacteristic of Italian operations until that time, Allied forces pushed the enemy 150 miles north to the Arno River by mid-August 1944. This campaign, the Rome-Arno, was drawing to a close and the North Apennines Campaign was soon to begin with the assault on the Gothic Line.

Axis forces began new preparations to frustrate any continuation of the Allied drive by building another belt of fortifications, the Gothic Line. The new line generally consisted of a series of fortified passes and mountaintops, some fifteen to thirty miles in depth north of the Arno River and stretched east from the Ligurian Sea through Pisa, Florence, and beyond. Farther east, along the Adriatic coast where the northern Apennines sloped down onto a broad coastal plain, Gothic Line defenses were generally anchored on the numerous rivers, streams, and other waterways flowing from the mountains to the sea.

From ancient times, inhabitants of the Italian peninsula had built their cities on the peaks of the Apennines for easy defense. The Germans stretched their Gothic Line across the same peaks. From one half to two thirds of Italy consists of mountains. For centuries these mountains have aided the natives in stopping invaders. It is to be expected therefore that in general terrain in Italy would favor the defense, particularly if the defender is skilled in the choice and use of the best defensive terrain. The wisdom of the German defender was demonatrated by his choice of the Forth Apennines, for these mountains cross Italy in a transverse fashion, thus forming the only strictly geographical division of Italy there is, North Italy thus being distinctly separated from the rest of Italy. The Apennines branch off from the Maritime Alps somewhere between Nice and Genoa, follow the coast around the Gulf of Genoa, and in the vicinity of Carrara north of Pisa and Lucca turn and go across the peninsula. Then, ceasing to be called North Apennines when they turn south and go lengthwise down Italy, they form the central spine of the peninsula.

In the German-held territory to the north of the allies at the beginning of the North Apennines Campaign there were only a few small beaches on the rocky western coast and the one beach on the east coast just north of Rimini can be easily defended. The further west the broader the North Apennine Mountain Range becomes.

The Gothic Line included concrete pill boxes with slits for automatic weapons, well sited and camouflaged - tank turrets mounted upon concrete pill boxes - command posts dug far into the sides of mountains - mines and barbed wire. In addition it was built along the southern glacis of the rugged North Apennins mountains and stretched from coast to coast. The Germans had been working since early in 1944 in preparing the defenses of the Gothic line. The Todt Organization, constructing the line, had reputedly used the labor of a whole Slovak division and a half million Italians as well as a considerable amount of German labor andd supervision. Also the Germans had spread propagand awhich stated that the Gothic line was impregnable and depicted the frightful slaughter that any assault on this line wouldbe certain to meet.

Yet, as the allies nere moving forward toward Leghorn and the Arno Hiver, the Gothic Line was not ready. Hence, it was necessary for Field Marshal Kesselring, the German Commander, to delay the advance of the Allies at points south of the Arno River until the Gothic Line was ready. This he did but it required some fierce fighting.

Once the Allies reached the Gothic Line, they might have remained there for the rest of the war. Planners, however, were convinced that the Axis commanders could hold their positions with a minimal force, thus freeing units for duty elsewhere, in particular northwest Europe. They even surmised that the Germans were attempting to conduct a reverse holding action in Italy by tying down a greater number of Allied troops than they themselves were forced to commit. The nature of the mission of Allies was necessarily to contain as many of the enemy in Italy as possible in order to keep them from being shifted to another front. The very nature of such a mission entails a strict economy of force. To assign an overwhelming concentration of troops on this mission would not be accomplishing the mission. Also the Allies hoped and planned to break through the Worth Apennines into the Po Valley.

The divisions to participate in the battle of the Gothic Line were of as diverse national and racial origin as could be found anywhere. Among thesewere Americans both black and white, British, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians from India, Poles, Brazilians and Greeks; later in the campaign a Jewish Brigade from Palestine and some Italian troops joined the fight. It was a United Nations in miniature.

On 26 August 1944, the Eighth Army jumped off and attacked across the Metauro River on a twenty mile front. By 31 August it had captured the forward positions of the Gothic Line and was ready to assault the main positions of the Gothic Line. The withdrawal of the 71st German Division holding the coastal sector from its forward positions half an hour before the attack commenced was a considerable aid to the advance.

Kesselring rapidly threw in three supporting divisions which slowed the advance and gained time for the arrival of three more divisions. Taking advantage of the time provided by the Eighth Army's well-known proclivity for slow-moving, set-piece battles, and taking additional advantage of its failure to provide adequate armored reserves to exploit the unexpected breakthrough, Kesselring soon managed to plug the breach with the 26th Panzer, 29th Panzer Grenadier, and 356th Infantry Divisions. Maximizing the defensive advantages provided by inclement weather and numerous rivers and ridges, Axis units inflicted a total of 8,000 casualties on the attackers and stalled Eighth Army forces short of their Rimini and Romagna Plain objectives by 3 September.

By 03 September 1944 the whole of the eastern portion of the Gothic Line had been overrun. By 4 September British and Poles were four miles from Rimini. But now the Germans fought harder than on the Gothic Line itself. The Germans, reacting quickly to the attack of the Eighth Army brought up reinforcements including armor. During the period 4-13 September Allied advances were in yards. Fifth Army did not launch its attack until 10 September. During the period between Eighth Army's attack ana its own, Fifth Army with IV Corps and XIII Corps followed up German withdrawals from positions forward of the main Gothic Line positions.

The Sieve River was rapidly crossed during the night of 10-11 September, as the Germans had chosen only to delay at this outpost of the Gothic Line. By 18 September the 85th Division supportedby the massed fires of all II Corps Artillery, had broken through the Gothic Line on a narrow front in the St. Altuzzo area. The line had little depth. Encouraged at having breached the Gothic Line in at least one sector, the Americans began a sustained mountain-by-mountain, ridge-by-ridge, and valley-by-valley drive toward Bologna. In response, the Germans tenaciously defended each position in a series of short, intense, small unit actions. In such operations, the work of small combat units was pivotal. The Futa Pass fell on 21 September. But to say that American troops in that area entered it without having to fire a shot would be an error.

The Gothic Line had been breached, but there were still plenty of mountains and pletnty of Germans. Despite two months of planning, limited offensives, and much maneuvering, Allied units came to rest on a winter line that changed very little since late October 1944. Axis forces, having successfully held the Gothic Line through the fall and early winter, also used the lull to rest and refit, sending two divisions, the 356th Infantry and 16th SS Panzergrenadier, to reinforce their Hungarian and Western fronts, respectively. The intensity of the combat of September and October 1944 had a detrimental effect on the morale, readiness, and capability of the Allied forces in Italy. The already critical manpower shortages in Fifth and Eighth Armies were becoming so severe that their commanders predicted that if they continued to lose men at the same rate, both armies would have to cease operations for lack of replacements. But five Eighth Army divisions and one corps headquarters were moved to northwest Europe and Greece, further diminishing Allied capabilities in Italy. In early January 1945 the Allies in Italy ceased large-scale military operations.

The Allies attacked the Gothic Line in the fall of 1944 with hopes of a quick breakthrough and the rapid destruction of Axis armies on the plains of the Po Valley. Given the depth of the German defenses and the highly compartmentalized terrain, however, the Allies' progress had been disappointingly slow. Weather delayed the advance north, especially with the onset of winter, but more important was the lack of powerful and mobile reserves able to rapidly exploit local successes. Although Allied armies in Italy successfully tied up Axis forces desperately needed elsewhere, they could not break Axis positions or morale until the final offensive in April 1945.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:11 ZULU