Despite the overshadowing events of D-Day, once Rome was secured the US Fifth Army made its way northwards, working towards the liberation of Tuscany.
Two days after the liberation of Rome, Allied commanders delivered their coup de grâce: a massive landing of forces on the beaches of France that would open a western front in Europe. This reduced the Italian campaign to secondary importance in Allied strategy. From D-Day onwards, the Italian battlefields were mostly seen as a way to lure German forces away from France and the Eastern Front, weakening opposition to the main campaign from Normandy to Berlin. Germany was expected to cede the rest of the Italian peninsula without much fight. The US Fifth Army travelled northwards up the west of Italy through Tuscany, while the British Eighth Army was committed in Italy’s centre and eastern, Adriatic coast.Sicily
The Germans made their first stand after being driven north from Rome at Bolsena. To the east of Lake Bolsena, a tank battle was fought in June 1944 between the 6th South African Armoured Division and the Hermann Goering Panzer Division. The next line of German defences centred on Lake Trasimene, adjacent to Perugia (which was liberated on 20 June). Cortona, north of the lake, was entered on 6 July, the day after Siena (Sienna) had been liberated by Free French forces.
A further German stand at Arezzo in early July 1944 resulted in a dogged struggle before the town was taken on 16 July by the 6th Armoured Division, with the aid of the 2nd New Zealand Division.
On the coast, the port of Livorno (once known as Leghorn in English) was liberated on 19 July 1944, but not before the departing Germans had blown up its ancient lighthouse. Pisa was liberated on 2 September by the Fifth Army, and Lucca on 5 September. Florence (Firenze), meanwhile, was attained and liberated on 11 August. Behind the German lines, Italian partisans were increasingly active, incurring great risk to themselves and their communities. Members of the Resistance and the wider civilian population were frequently subject to gruesome reprisals.
The Allied advance was checked by the formidable defences of the Gothic Line, renamed as the less grandiose Green Line in June 1944 to allay Hitler’s fear that the Allies, if they broke through, would use its name to accent their glories. The Gothic Line was a row of fortifications that ran through the hills north of Florence from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. When it prevented the Allied advance in October 1944, a strategy of “offensive defence” was adopted – the Allies would pause to overwinter until the weather cleared and a spring offensive could be organized. This strategy was disrupted in December, when a last offensive was launched by the German army and troops of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic. The Battle of Garfagnana (officially Operation Winter Storm or Unternehmen Wintergewitter) took place near Massa and Lucca; Barga was briefly captured by the Germans but as quickly lost again. The episode nevertheless provided a morale boost for Italian soldiers fighting with the Germans, and was promptly utilized for propaganda purposes.
On 18 June 1944, nine German soldiers entered the recreational club of the village of Civitella, where they were challenged by local partisans. Two Germans were killed in the ensuing confrontation. The villagers pleaded with the German authorities against reprisals, but on 29 June a detachment of paratroopers from the Hermann Goering division – young men, many trained by the Hitler Youth movement – was dispatched to Civitella to exact revenge. The local priest offered his life if others could be spared, but the paratroopers dragged all the men of the village out of their houses and shot them. In total, 149 people were killed, including two priests; the Germans then set fire to Civitella. Massacres were also carried out in fourteen nearby villages.
The Florence American Cemetery, located about 7.5km from Florence near Tavarnuzze, is one of only two American cemeteries in Italy (the other being at Anzio), covering 28 hectares of wooded hills. A bridge leads from the entrance to the main cemetery area, where 4399 headstones are arranged in symmetrically curving rows on the hillside. Most men buried here died in fighting between Rome and the Alps from June 1944 onwards, especially in the Apennines. Above the graves, on the uppermost of the three broad terraces, a memorial is crowned by a large sculptured figure. The memorial’s two open atria (courtyards) are connected by the Tablets of the Missing, which carry 1409 names. On the southern court is a chapel decorated with fine marble and mosaics; the northern atrium has operations maps (also in marble) showing the movements of the American armed forces in Tuscany and northern Italy. There is also a Commonwealth cemetery near Florence.
On 12 August 1944, troops of the Waffen-SS, assisted by Italian fascists of the Black Brigades, killed 560 people in this Tuscan hill village to punish the civilian population for supporting the Resistance. The massacre is remembered as one of the defining events in the Italian struggle for liberation. In fact, it helped set the political tone of Italy after the war; the new republic would be founded on the struggles of the partisan movement and the German attempts to suppress it. The village now has a national peace park, founded in 2000, while the restored church can also be visited.
The Gothic Line ran just south of this village, some 20km north of Lucca, where you’ll find multiple examples of excellently preserved military fortifications. Visible bunkers, tank walls and trenches all remain (almost) intact. The town’s handsome medieval bridge also survived the war and can be admired still.
The workers of Prato who were deported to Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps in Austria are honoured in this museum, where the exhibits prove that even the most everyday objects can be significant: clothes, posters and photographs speak of life, survival and death in the camps. Prato’s labourers – arrested following a general strike in March 1944 – joined Jews, homosexuals, Roma, the disabled and political opponents of the Nazis at the camps. Some were killed on arrival, others were literally worked to death.
The largest German war cemetery in Italy stands near a pass on the Apennines on what was once the Gothic Line. It contains a staggering 30,683 graves.
Top image: Medieval bridge at Borgo a Mozzano © Ross Helen/iStock