Second World War - Italy & Sicily
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On 10 July 1943 the British 8th Army – freed from duty in North Africa by the surrender of the Axis there – invaded Sicily along with the US 7th Army. Two weeks later Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was dismissed and imprisoned by King Victor Emanuel. By 17 August the Allies had taken Messina opposite the Italian mainland – by which time 100,000 Italian and German troops had withdrawn across the Straits of Messina.

Axis losses in the Sicilian campaign amounted to 164,000. This brought the number of Italians lost in the three years since Italy had entered the war to 400,000. It was too much. On 3 September the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies.

Now the prospect of a protracted campaign against the Germans loomed, as the Allies fought to gain a footing on the mainland Italian peninsula. Their initial landings in early September were at Salerno, and near Reggio right on the toe tip of Italy. Pioneers from Basutoland, the Seychelles and many other small Commonwealth colonies took part in these landings, as they had done in Sicily. By 2 October the Allies were in Naples. The US 5th Army and the British 8th Army (which included the Indian 4th and 5th Divisions) moved gradually north during October and November for a winter campaign on the Gustav Line, a fortified German line from Minturno on the Tyrrhenian Sea across the peninsula to Ortona on the Adriatic.

On 22 January 1944 the Allies made a landing at Anzio, behind the Gustav Line. But they became trapped there until the spring, while their colleagues hammered away at the Gustav Line around Monte Cassino on the road to Rome. The 16th-century Benedictine monastery on the summit of the ridge behind Cassino, thought erroneously to be a German observation post, was destroyed on 15 February in a bombing raid. But the defenders of Cassino fought on, repulsing the attacks of Americans, British, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders, Free French and Poles. It was bloody, attritional fighting. Even on a ‘quiet’ day the Indian 4th Division, for example, could expect to lose 60 men; when attacks went in they cost the Division hundreds of casualties.
Indian stretcher bearers carry a badly wounded man at Cassino
Indian stretcher bearers carry a badly wounded man at Cassino
© Imperial War Museum

At last on 11 May the decisive offensive began. The Indian 8th Division was one of those that broke through, getting across the Garigliano River and advancing through mountainous country, sustained by 10,000 Indian Pioneers (See Nila Kantan (India)). On 18 May the monastery ruins were finally taken by the Poles. Just over a fortnight later the Allies were entering Rome.

In the autumn the Germans retired to their Massa-Rimini fortifications known as the Gothic Line. Here they dug in for the winter of 1944-5 - another bad one, as it turned out. In August 1944 the Caribbean Regiment, after four years of training, had arrived in Italy eager for front-line service. But the ‘powers-that-be’ decided that they would not be able to operate effectively throughout the rigours of an Italian winter, and they were posted on to Egypt – to their bitter disappointment.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1945 that the Allies broke through at the Adriatic end of the line. The Americans, breaking through at their western end, were in the Po Valley by 20 April. The Germans retreated across the Po, leaving their heavy armour behind. On 28 April, as Genoa fell to the Allies, Mussolini and his mistress were captured by partisans in the act of fleeing to Germany. They were shot, and their bodies displayed for the Milanese crowds to hoot. The unconditional German surrender in Italy followed on 2 May 1945.
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