The Forgotten Army, Italy 1943 – 1945
I have used the above heading as something that was used to describe the fighting that was going on in Italy during WW II after the launch of the D-Day Landings on the Normandy Coast in 1944. There were two armies fighting in Italy at that time, predominately the United States (US) 5th and the British 8th. The only reporting has been about the US5th Army on the Mediterranean side of Italy by the Snow family on BBC television. There seems to have been no mention of the fighting on the Adriatic side. I am going to try to correct that situation by covering the landing into Taranto on the toe of Italy, through to Trieste at the northern end of the Adriatic coast.
The invasion of mainland Italy started with the British 8th Army landing at Taranto on 3rd September 1943 and on an operation named “Baytown”. As a matter of interest, the US 5th Army landed on 9th September 1943 against heavy German resistance at Salerno in operation “Avalanche”. The 8th Army were able to make relatively easy progress for a while up the eastern coast, capturing the Port of Brindisi, Bari, as well as airfields around Foggia, which provided a base from which US bombers were able to exploit the opportunity to bomb oil fields in Romania and various places in northern Germany. There was an interesting episode by the American Air Force who rescued 500 POW’s after landing in Yugoslavia with the assistance of the Italian Partisans.
What has never been reported is the raid by German bombers on the port of Bari on the evening of 2nd December 1943. A small number of planes succeeded in destroying 17 Allied merchant ships and killing well over 1000 military personnel., merchant seamen and many local civilians. The Commonwealth Cemetery in Bari contains 2128 graves. It is reported that every available docking space was occupied, with ships anchored out beyond the jetties jutting out into the Adriatic. The dockyards had become such a beehive of activity that unloading was carried out during the night under the glare of lights. The German bombers had a perfect target – it was described as a “cake Walk”. The ships already in the harbour contained a great store of ammunition, along with trucks, bales of clothing and hundreds of canvas mailbags for the troops. Alongside them was a US Navy tanker with half a million gallons of high-octane gasoline on board. One ship, “John Harvey”, carried as part of its cargo, 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. It was thought that Germany were going to use mustard gas in attacks during the campaigns in Italy, they did not!
With successful Allied landings completed at Taranto units established themselves in various camps and carried out training in preparation for the fighting that lay ahead. As the Allies advanced northwards encountering increasingly difficult terrain, characterised by a succession of fast flowing rivers and intervening ridges running at right angles to the line of advance, this prevented fast movement and provided ideal defences for the Germans.
On 11th November 1943, Pte Duncan of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the George Cross posthumously for bravery. On 12th November 1943, Major W Hargreaves of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the Military Cross. The 2nd Parachute Brigade, together with other Commonwealth regiments made their way up the coast to the Sangro River, through icy winds and torrential rain, living in improvised shelters, and eating cold rations. During December 1943 the troops managed to establish a bridge across the Sangro River which had widened considerably due to the heavy rains. The 2nd Para’s moved inland up the Sangro Valley to establish Battalion HQ in a school in Casoli from where they were patrolled the local area including the villages of Fara, Lama and Torricella.
One of these patrols met with German soldiers at the Malone crossroads, an intense fire fight ensued resulting in the death of Sergeant Alf Goldman and wounding Lt Stewart, who died at a later date. My cousin Trevor Warden was shot in his back and was rescued by New Zealand medics and eventually to a UK hospital. During brigade stay in Casoli two English Ladies came into the HQ together with several POWs who had escaped from the prison camps. They were able to offer valuable information about the German positions.
The next obstacle was the German Gustav Line where a battle ensued to secure Ortona. Blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December 1943 caused the advance to grind to a halt. By the middle of December 1943, Canadian troops at the front of the 8th Army had reached Ortona, a coastal city occupied by German troops. The armies clashed for nine days outside the city, with many casualties on both sides. Canadian troops finally won the terrain, but the Germans still held the city. The Canadians and German soldiers then battled within Ortona in the fierce door-to-door fighting. After a week, the Germans retreated. These battles damaged or destroyed most of Ortona’s buildings and ravaged surrounding countryside. Ortona was secured on 28th December 1943. River Moro War Cemetery is where 1615 service personnel are buried; mostly Canadian, but it also contains other Allied service personnel as well. Sangro River War cemetery has 2617 burials, with a memorial commemorating more than 500 Indian service members who died fighting in the sector. In addition, the cemetery contains the graves of a number of escaped prisoners-of-war who died while trying to reach the Allied lines. Sangro cemetery is the second largest cemetery in Italy after Cassino. There are 2117 different regiments buried there, 279 from the Royal Artillery, 352 from New Zealand, 837 from the Combined Indian Regiments and 62 from the Parachute Regiments.
General Montgomery (Monty) halted the 8th Army in order to conserve resources for the spring campaign. Monty then handed over command of the 8th Army to General Oliver Leese in Vasto and flew to England to prepare for the invasion of France, scheduled for mid-1944.
In the meantime, the Canadians, New Zealand and Polish troops moved north along the coast towards Pescara. After reaching Pescara, the Indian, Canadian and Polish Regiments were moved across Italy to support the American 5th Army who were in deep trouble attempting to take the Benedictine monastery on Mount Cassino. Eventually the Polish regiment took Mount Cassino, which to the Polish fighters was satisfying, in return for Germans invading Poland in 1938. Most of the Polish fighters * (see Note 1 below) came from units that had found themselves in the UK after escaping from Poland at the beginning of the war.
The 8th Army continued fighting along the Adriatic coast; sadly this created the need for cemeteries at Anconc 1029 burials, Casriglione South African, 502 burials; Montecchio 582 burials; Gradara 1191 burials; Coriano Ridge 939 burials; Rimini Gurkha 618 burials; Cesena 755 burials; Medola145 burial; Forli 1234 burials plus a cremation memorial for nearly 800 Indian servicemen; Ravenna 955 burials; Villanova 955 burials; Villanova Canadian cemetery 12 burials; Faenza 1152 burials; Santerno Valley 287 burials; Bologna 184 burials; Argente Gap 625 burials; Padua 513 burials.
Fighting along the Adriatic section of Italy was quite intensive and continuous from Bari in the south to Milan in the north. The CWGC estimate that the commonwealth lost nearly 50,000 dead in Italy during World War II most of whom lie buried in 37 war cemeteries, and 4000 soldiers whose graves are not known but remembered by name on the Cassino memorials. Almost 1500 Indian servicemen, whose remains were cremated, are remembered on three memorials in various cemeteries.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the 8th Army had a difficult time fighting the Germans over very difficult terrain along the Eastern Adriatic coast of Italy. It seems only the Mediterranean side of Italy that is reported on, maybe because the American 5th Army proved to be more attractive to the TV producers or they had better PR service personnel? In addition, they wanted to be “first” into Rome!
It is interesting to note that the film “Anzio” showed two American soldiers entering Rome to find no Germans there. Having reported back to the American generals they decided not to follow-up on the information fearing it was a trap by the Germans. In fact the truth is that it was two British soldiers that were first to drive to Rome, not the Americans. I wonder if the two British soldiers are still alive and remember the occasion.
An interesting situation developed when a New Zealander, Lt Titchener, with a patrol of eight men set out for Casoli. “Before they set out an Italian who spoke English informed them that the Germans had vacated, or were vacating, Casoli and he offered to take them there a back road. His offer was accepted. There were no Germans in the first village, Altino, so they moved into Casoli. The Italian led the way, with Lt Titchener armed with a tommy gun immediately behind him, waiting to deal with him if the whole thing was a trap.
The patrol descended a steep hill, which they had to do in stages marvelling all the while at the untiring pace of the Italian guide, a short stumpy man. At last, on reaching the top of the hill they were greeted by a farmer and his family, offered chairs and given a glass of wine each, we moved on again however, and refusing repeated offers of wine and food, we came to the main street. It was a big town of 9,000 inhabitants and at first, the people did nit seem to realise who we were. Then it suddenly struck them, they rushed out, shook our hands and as we neared the centre of the town started clapping, cheering and many of the women wept, Lt Titchener said he felt very embarrassed.”
Should any member of the Italy Star Association like to have a photograph of a relative buried in Italy, they can get in touch with the program director of the War Graves Photographic Project, Steve Rogers (www.twqpp.org) requesting a copy of a photo. There will be a small charge to cover postage and packing. Please state the name of the service person, together with service number, and name which cemetery the person is buried at.
Note 1 The Polish Corps.
The Polish soldiers traveled a long, hard road to get to the Italian Campaign. They demonstrated they were willing to fight the Germans in any location to get their country back. Poland was the first country attacked by Germany and their dubious ally, Russia. The Polish prisoners were placed in Russian camps. When the Germans turned against the Russians, the British convinced the Russians to release the Poles so they could help fight their common enemy. The Polish troops were outfitted by the British and sent to the 8th Army.
The first year of the war, the British were desperate for manpower as the US had not joined the Allies. There was concern was for the security of the oil fields in Iran and Iraq. On July 30, 1941, the leader of the Polish Government in exile, General Wladyslaw Sikorski reached an agreement with the Russian government. Paragraph 3 stated that the Poles residing on Russian soil after September 1939 were allowed to join the Polish Armed Forces.
In April 1942, Russia released 26,000 Polish veterans that organized the first two Polish divisions in Uzbekistan. The Poles were moved to Iraq for further training and equipping. By August 1942, an additional 44,000 soldiers and 26,000 civilians joined them. The training ended in June 1943. At the Quebec conference in August, Rooservelt & Churchill decided to send the Polish Corps to Italy. After reviewing his troops, General Sikorski was returning to England when his plane crashed on take-off from Gibraltar.
Prior to arriving in Italy, the Corps totaled 45,000 men. The 3rd Division had 13,200; the 5th Division 12,900; and the 2nd Armoured Brigade 3,400. There was concern as to how they would recieve replacement troops. The British High Command wanted to use the Polish Corps as a replacment pool. This would deplete their organization and they would loose their identity. The Polish command was able to convince the Allies to recruit from soldiers who had been forced to serve in the German Army. They were allowed to fight as a unit. After arriving in Italy, the Polish Corps swelled to a force of 110,000. The Poles were to prove their bravery in the Battle of Monte Casino.