Allied hopes were running high after the conquest of Sicily that the liberation of Calabria and Campania could be next. Italy had been politically destabilised and its government had entered into secret negotiations with the Allies with a view to surrender.
It was assumed that since the Germans had been forced into retreat in Sicily they would not make a determined stand for mainland Italy. Rome was expected to fall within weeks, and the Germans to be driven out of the country with comparative ease. Allied commanders knew they had to press home their advantage and move stealthily northwards. They needed to land sufficient forces on the mainland; keep them on the move; and keep them supplied.
Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line
The invasion of mainland Italy began auspiciously, with a landing (codenamed Baytown) that met almost no opposition. On the morning of 3 September 1943, a contingent of the British Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina and landed at Reggio di Calabria. Again, there was little resistance: Italian troops were demoralized by the loss of Sicily and the uncertain political situation after the fall of Mussolini. The German commander Kesselring, meanwhile, had decide not to commit his forces in Calabria in open battle. His strategy would be to slow the Allied advance by blowing bridges and reinforcing established defensive lines further north.
That same afternoon, an armistice was signed between the Allies and the Italian government, a capitulation that was kept secret for the next five days while the Italians prepared for the reaction of Germany and the Allies continued strategizing. Since the fall of Mussolini, the Germans had suspected that the Italians were about to renege on their alliance, even though the new prime minister, Badoglio, assured them that it held firm. On 8 September, the news of the armistice was announced. Hitler had just returned to his headquarters at Rastenburg after his final visit to Russia. He awoke from his afternoon nap to the news that the Italian government had made peace with the Allies.
The armistice had dire consequences for Italy. The broadcasted news spread confusion among the Italian armies, who were not given any firm instructions except to cease hostilities with the Allies. Rome was occupied by German troops and the royal family and government fled east, finally taking refuge in Brindisi.
In order to maintain their northern progress, the Allies needed to take Naples. Its port would be crucial for importing the vast quantity of supplies necessary to sustain an army on campaign. In the early morning of 9 September 1943, an Allied invasion fleet landed near Salerno, south of Naples, as part of Operation Avalanche. The invasion force, under the command of US General Mark Clark, comprised the US Fifth Army, the 82nd Airborne Division and the British X Corps.
The landings met unexpectedly fierce resistance from the German army. The Allies managed to land and secure a 55km broad beachfront, but on 12 September the German Tenth Army counterattacked the bridgehead; it was barely held. The German counteroffensive led to heavy casualties and, at points, reached the beaches.
For a few critical days there was talk of halting the operation and evacuating the troops. It was hoped that Field Marshal Montgomery would arrive to ease the situation, but advancing slowly from the south, he was too far away to lend assistance until Operation Avalanche had already tipped in favour of the invaders. The German counterattack ultimately failed – mainly because Hitler refused to allow Kesselring to deploy more troops – and on 16 September the tide of battle turned and the German forces withdrew north.
While the battle of Salerno was being decided, so was the fate of the deposed and imprisoned dictator Benito Mussolini, who was being held in the Hotel Campo Imperatore in the Apennines. He was freed in a daring raid carried out by German paratroopers and commandos on 12 September and flown out of the country. Two days later, German forces were allowed to evacuate the island of Sardinia by the Italian garrison, while a small US force landed to notionally liberate the island.
To maintain some semblance of normality in northern Italy, on 23 September Hitler installed Mussolini as the head of a puppet government, officially the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), but universally known as the Salò Republic, after the town on Lake Garda.
Naples was finally taken on 1 October 1943, giving the Allies a working port. Allied forces continued to press north towards Rome, but their progress was halted by a series of defensive lines established by the Germans. The southernmost of these was the Volturno Line, which ran from Termoli along the Biferno river and through the Apennines to the Volturno river in the west; it was breached on 12 October. The following day, Badoglio’s government formally declared war on its old ally, Nazi Germany.
During Operation Avalanche, the Allied army landed on beaches along the Gulf of Salerno from Maiori on the Sorrento peninsula to Agropoli in the south. Most troops embarked on beaches – distinguished and labelled by colour – along the Sele River plain. The British landed north of the river mouth, near Magazzeno, and the Americans near Paestum, to the south.
In town, the Museum of the Salerno Landings (Museo dello Sbarco, Via General Clark 5, salerno1943-1944.com) tells the story of Operation Avalanche through a variety of displays, including unedited video footage, flags, uniforms and weapons. Outside the museum, more substantial military hardware takes the form of two restored Italian anti-aircraft guns and a Sherman tank.
A Commonwealth cemetery lies on the road from Salerno to Eboli.
The central feature of the MOA, housed in a fine 15th-century building, is the “Emotional Room”, which screens two moving projections. One film shows historical footage narrated by three distinguished personalities: photojournalist Robert Capa, novelist and war correspondent John Steinbeck, and Jack Belden, a war correspondent who landed with the troops at Salerno. The second screen projects images onto a 3D topographical map.
The Campagna Internment Camp was created in 1940 by the Mussolini government to house foreign Jews fleeing from persecution in Germany, Austria and Poland, and many others who “threatened” the regime. It was never a concentration camp, and only ever held a small population of inmates, reaching just over two hundred at its maximum. When the Allies invaded southern Italy, locals liberated the camp.
For the greater part of the Italian campaign, the spectacular Royal Palace at Caserta served as headquarters for the Allied armies. The 2nd General Hospital was also located in town from late 1943 until September 1945. Some of the 768 people buried in the cemetery at Caserta died in the hospital, others as prisoners of war before the Allied invasion (there was a POW hospital at Caserta, too).
The atmospheric complex of tunnels excavated 40m beneath the centre of Naples was begun by the Romans. Many of its passageways were used as air-raid shelters during World War II, and today’s Bourbon Gallery contains a good museum where wartime graffiti can still be seen.
Top image: Caserta Palace © rusm/iStock