September 9, 2015 Michael Hotchkiss
Photograph from Maj. Ralph R. Hotchkiss archives – Staging Vehicles in Naples for the Allied beach landing at Anzio.

My Grandfather’s military life started in earnest with Operation Avalanche. He landed on the beaches of Salerno, Italy just south of Naples and remained with the 5th Army until the Allies marched into a liberated Rome some 9 months later. It was during this time that he wrote about the exploits of soldiers under horrific conditions for living let alone fighting in battle. Get a sense of the struggles endured during the Italian Campaign at The Winter Line Stories.

On September 9, 1943, the 36th Infantry “T-Patchers” led the charge of the U.S. 5th Army under General Mark W. Clark onto the beaches at Salerno, Italy in Operation Avalanche. It was the first time organized U.S. troops set foot on the European mainland during WWII. This became the beginning of one of the most horrific 9 month spans for American Armed forces ever.

Planning for the landing in Italy had been in the works for some time and was the second phase of the Allied move into Europe after taking Sicily in Operation Husky. In between the two major assaults, Italian Fascist Dictator, Benito Mussolini, resigned and was imprisoned. This reduced the Axis forces in Italy to just Nazi Germany. Optimism was high over the success in Sicily, Mussolini’s resignation and the relative ease the British 8th Army under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery had in coming ashore at the “toe” of Italy in Operation Baytown. This operation commenced a short week prior to the Salerno landing and coincided with the new Italian government agreeing to an armistice with the Allies.

Perhaps the optimism lead to a more casual approach to Avalanche or perhaps it was just underestimating the defenses that General Field Marshall Albert Kesselring had in store for beach landings. This theme of Allied forces facing overwhelming defenses continued for the entire journey from Naples to Rome.

The Germans retreated at the pace of erosion and made Sherman’s scorched earth March to the Sea appear relatively benign. Every line of defense was drawn from a place of higher ground and usually with a river to cross in front. Kind of like a fortified castle surrounded by a moat teeming with alligators. The Italian countryside was riddled with thousands of mines, bridges were destroyed and any semblance of a path that could be used to transport heavy vehicles were cratered and barricaded. Buildings, farms and even dead soldiers were booby trapped with the WWII version of IED’s.

Kesselring’s commanders either knew or figured out very quickly, that a town reduced to rubble created a stalwart garrison . This was never so evident than the four battles required for the Allies to take the linchpin of the German Winter Line at Monte Cassino. With trepidation and reluctance, eventually Allied Supreme Commander, General Harold Alexander ordered the bombing of the ancient Abbey atop the 1700 ft mountain lying in the path to Rome. The holy high-ground was thought to be an observation and artillery bunker for the Germans. It was not at the time of the bombing. Out of deference to the religious treasures in the Abbey, the Germans were instructed to keep away from the building and compound. After it’s destruction by  over 1000 tons of Allied bombs, the rubble was now fair game for the Germans to use for their defenses. Another error in judgement of the Allied command that did not ultimately lead to defeat, but sure as hell made it a lot costlier.

The Italian Campaign was harsh and bloody. It was an Allied victory but was principally designed to occupy German forces in the South to facilitate the main assault in Normandy (D-Day) that took place two days after the fall of Rome. It did achieve this objective, but at the cost of one quarter million casualties from all sides.