This article is an edited transcript of Paul Reed and WW2 Italy on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 3 September 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The Italian campaign in September 1943 was the first proper invasion of the European mainland. If you asked the average person when the Allies arrived in Europe during World War Two, they would probably say D-Day.
In reality, however, nearly a year prior to D-Day, British Commonwealth and American Allied forces landed on the toe of Italy in 1943 and then, a few days later, at Salerno, in what were the main landings to really push towards Rome.
The soft underbelly
The Italian campaign came about after the campaign in North Africa ended in May 1943 with the surrender of the Afrika Korps.
The Allies had discussed at Yalta the need to open a second front in the war to relieve pressure on the eastern front. However, the Allies were not then in a position to make a proper landing in France.
The American belief was that the only way to defeat the Nazi regime was to land in France, go to Paris, to capture Paris, to push on to Belgium, to capture Belgium, and then to capture Holland – at which point the Allies would have a route into Nazi Germany.
But that wasn’t possible in the summer of 1943. So the compromise was to try and come in through the back door, an idea that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed in.
Churchill called Italy the “soft underbelly of the Third Reich”. That’s what Italy was to him and indeed to others as well.
The route through Sicily
There was a plan to attack through Italy on a second front, push up through Italy and into Austria, entering Germany that way. And it sounded easy. But by the end of the campaign, veterans called it the “tough old gut of Europe”.
Although the Allies had decided upon an invasion of Italy from North Africa, it wasn’t possible to do that directly. There wasn’t enough shipping or enough aircraft to cover an assault. Instead, it was going to be a two-step operation.
The Allies would go across the Mediterranean, capture the island of Sicily, and use that as a staging post to go to the Italian mainland.
The fight for Sicily
The landings at Sicily took place in July 1943, with British and Commonwealth troops arriving on one side of the island and the Americans landing on the other side.
There was some tough fighting on the island of Sicily in the countryside.
The beginnings of a rivalry between Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and US Lieutenant General George S. Patton emerged and some have suggested that they over-focused on that rivalry, consequently allowing German forces to get away across the Strait of Messina.
While the Allies did capture Sicily, it wasn’t the complete success they had hoped for, and the fight for the rest of Italy was yet to come.