By Rick Atkinson; Pulitzer Prize Winning Author.September 8, 2008
Shortly after noon on Friday, October 1, 1943, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark rolled into Naples from the south in an armored car and proclaimed the great Italian port liberated by the Allies and by the Fifth Army he commanded. Thousands of joyful Neapolitans jammed the Piazza del Plebiscito, shouting Aca,!A"Grazie! Viva!Aca,!A? Weeping and genuflecting, they plucked at the uniforms of the marching Allied soldiers or flung themselves down to kiss their boots. Aca,!A"Naples has been taken by our troops,Aca,!A? Clark radioed. Aca,!A"City quiet. No indications of disease or disorder.Aca,!A?
The victory promenade had been a long time coming. The invasion of southern Italy by American and British forces was an improvised strategy intended to exploit earlier Allied successes in the Mediterranean. Following the invasion of Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, Anglo-American troops had battled across North Africa for seven months before finally overwhelming a large German-Italian army in Tunisia, in mid-May 1943. Two months later, on July 10, the Anglo-Americans invaded Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, which sat only one hundred miles north of Tunisia and but two miles off the toe of the Italian boot.
Success in routing the Germans and Italians from Sicily emboldened Allied strategists to carry the campaign to the Italian mainland. The senior commander in the Mediterranean, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was given two objectives by his superiors in Washington and London: knock Italy--a faltering partner in HitlerAca,!a,,cs Axis of Steel--out of the war, and engage as many German forces as possible to prevent them from reinforcing northwest Europe, where a vast invasion force would come ashore at Normandy in the late spring of 1944.
Two assaults into southern Italy soon followed, in early September 1943. Gen. Bernard L. MontgomeryAca,!a,,cs Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina against negligible opposition, followed a few days later by the main attack from ClarkAca,!a,,cs Fifth Army at Salerno, forty miles south of Naples. Following secret negotiations and behind-the-scenes skulduggery, the Italian government surrendered unconditionally even before the first Allied soldier stepped onto the beach at Salerno.
But Allied hopes that Hitler would order German units to abandon southern Italy and retreat to a more defensible line in the far north soon proved illusory. Under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, German reinforcements swarmed to Salerno, nearly cleaving the Allied beachhead in two and throwing ClarkAca,!a,,cs army back into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Only naval gunfire and bloody resolve by American and British ground forces allowed Fifth Army to win through after more than a week of heavy fighting, in the first great battle by the western Allies to liberate the continent of Europe. Inelegant and brutal--a fitting overture for the Italian campaign to follow--Salerno cost 9,000 Allied casualties, including more than 1,200 killed in action.
Victory at Salerno opened the door to Naples, where the vast docks and other port facilities were vital to supporting the Allied army group now bulling north up the Italian peninsula. Another eight months would pass before Rome fell, and fighting in Italy would persist almost to the last day of the war in Europe. More than two dozen German divisions were tied up in Italy, but whether the war of attrition was worth the Allied effort remains controversial to this day. Eventually overshadowed by the decisive campaign that began at Normandy in June 1944, the 608-day campaign to liberate Italy would cost 312,000 Allied casualties. Among the three-quarters of a million American troops to serve in Italy, total battle casualties would reach 120,000, including 23,501 killed.
EditorAca,!a,,cs Note: Our Guest Contributor, Rick Atkinson, is recognized as one of our NationAca,!a,,cs finest of authors and military historians. He has written five books of military history, including The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.