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Western FrontMay 1944

War in Italy

Should the Allies have fought in Italy?
The mountainous terrain of Italy proved tough going for the Allies- did the success justify the sacrifice?

Video Transcript

Commentary: On the 9th of September 1943 American forces landed here at Salerno on the Western coast of Italy near Naples. Just days before another allied force led by General Montgomery had landed further South on the Italian mainland. It was the next stage in an advance that had begun in the Western Desert, then moved across the Mediterranean to Sicily and now encompassed Italy itself.

Professor Robert Citino: You know arguably there’s a certain strategic consequence; the invasion of Sicily leads to the overthrow of Mussolini. You could make a case that all the way up to Rome it was still the only place where we were engaged with the Germans.

Commentary: The trouble was that to engage the enemy here, amidst the mountains of Southern Italy, was a perilous task.

Words of William Perry: This is a place where it is ideal for fighting a defensive war, in some places you know, you don’t have a lot of confidence in the intelligence they give you. You always got the same, there’s nobody up there, you know, and you’d just get up there and all of a sudden things would open up on you.

Sir Max Hastings: Up to the winter of 1943 it made sense; the Allies had to be doing something; the British and American Armies couldn’t be seen to be doing nothing while the Russians were fighting these colossal battles, but once it became plain just how tough Italy was going to be; once it became plain that the Germans were going to fight all the way, then I think Italy cost the Allies far more than it cost the Germans.

Commentary: And that high cost came to be symbolided by the battle in early 1944 here, for the monastery of Monte Cassino. The Germans had almost a perfect line of fire to the Allied troops who tried to advance below.

Words of Albert Price: You could actually here this boom right in the distance and you could hear this shell coming like an express train, the noise it made. Now that did put the wind up me. I heard one coming and I got a nasty feeling, you know, this is it, it’s coming straight for us, they’ve got our range now. I heard this one coming, it’s tremendous, boom, boom. And when it finished, it was just blackness.

Commentary: Then here, on these beaches in France, the nature of the war in the West suddenly changed. Four weeks after Monte Cassino had finally fallen to the Allies came D Day, the landings in Normandy. The scale of the effort here in France dwarfed that in Italy. It was clear to everyone that this was the major Allied offensive in the West, aimed at liberating France and then conquering Germany.

Professor Robert Citino: From then on it is very difficult, I think, for me as a historian, an operational analyst, to support the furtherance of the Italian drive. It tied down some German divisions, but it tied down just as many allied divisions and caused massive casualties on both sides and destroyed much of Italy in the process.

Commentary: Several thousand allied soldiers lost their lives capturing Monte Cassino, a small fraction of the overall allied losses in Italy. And when the war in Europe finally ended in May 1945 with the capture of Berlin, allied troops were still slogging their way here, through Italy.