Skip to main content

A Question of Leadership: The 5th Army in Italy


ISSUE:  Winter 2000

Ask a citizen of the ‘90’s who commanded the World War II American 5th Army in Italy and chances are he or she won’t know. Except to students at the Citadel in South Carolina and certain angry veterans of the 36th Division in Texas, the name of Mark Clark, if it registers at all, may ring up only dim recollections of a bygone war.

But to the soldiers in Italy, the name of Lieutenant General Mark W.Clark was that of a remote, all-powerful figure whom most of us never saw but who we were painfully aware had the power to thrust us into exceedingly hazardous and extremely uncomfortable situations. Actually, those are conditions the combat soldier learns to take as his natural milieu. But he has the right to expect that orders sending him into such actions have well-thoughtout reasons and the likelihood of achieving worthwhile results. In Italy, we had the feeling that units as large as divisions and even corps were often sent into attacks with little or no planning and with the top commanders having no idea what conditions were like on the battlefield.

Actually, there were two allied armies in Italy. Operating in tandem with the 5th Army was the famed British 8th Army, the outfit that after many vicissitudes finally cornered Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Tunisia and removed it from the board. Somehow, it seemed to us that the 8th Army lost its magic touch once it got out of the North African desert and into the Italian mountains. It never again seemed to be the inspired fighting army we had once seen it to be. Together the 5th and the 8th made up the 15th Army Group commanded by a distinguished (and much decorated) Britisher, General (later Field-Marshal) Sir Harold Alexander.

Perhaps “acting in tandem” doesn’t quite describe the reality of the relationship between the two armies. The overall commander of the German forces in Italy, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, early noted the odd lack of cooperation between the two allied armies. The attacks made by one never seemed to coincide with the planned offensives of the other. The manner of their entry into the Italian mainland is instructive; for the 8th Army that entry was almost pure farce, for the 5th it was unrelieved tragedy, a near catastrophe.

At the close of the campaign in Sicily, the 8th Army and General Patton’s U.S.7th Army came together at the port of Messina across the straits from the toe of the Italian boot. At this point, the 7th Army was temporarily deactivated and 5th Army under Clark was formed to invade Italy, along with the 8th. Lack of mutual coordination and planning was evident from the start. Nearly all of the Axis forces in Sicily, comprising more than 100,000 Germans and Italians with all of their equipment were, over a period of more than a week, allowed to ferry themselves to safety in Italy with almost no interference from the overwhelmingly superior allied air forces. In broad daylight.

For weeks, 8th Army prepared a huge and devastating attack across the Straits of Messina aimed at Reggio on the mainland. Some 600 artillery pieces together with the guns of a large naval squadron bombarded the beaches at Reggio in Calabria which were also pounded by fleets of bombers. The 8th Army landed without any resistance whatever, and it was subsequently learned that there hadn’t been a single German soldier anywhere near Reggio. The whole artillery and bombing attack had been a total waste.

In the whole of the west coast of Italy, from Reggio north to the Alps, General Clark picked the one spot to invade exactly where his enemies expected him to do so, at the bay of Salerno. In postwar interviews, Kesselring said that Hitler had planned to write off the whole of Italy south of Florence but that the fumbling Allied leadership convinced him that he might hold them out of the north indefinitely. Hitler had expected a combined air-sea-land assault probably in the vicinity of Rome, but Kesselring was so sure of his man that he sent a panzer division to practice repelling a landing around the small bay at Salerno.(Two weeks previously, a German military news broadcast had actually predicted landings at Salerno and in Calabria.)

Clark’s force consisted of the U. S. 6th Corps and the British 10th Corps, both landing south of Salerno and separated from each other by several miles. The bay area was ringed by mountains, giving the Germans unobstructed observation of Allied movements. The British corps operated its landing in the accepted manner, beginning with a concentrated naval shelling and aerial bombing of their zone. Clark somehow got the idea that he was going to achieve total surprise and against the protests of both British and American naval commanders, directed that his troops go ashore without a preparatory bombardment. In the pre-dawn landing they were met at water’s edge by a hail of artillery and machine gun fire. One source said the Germans even illuminated the beach area with searchlights. This was not to be the last time that General Clark was to send men into a German ambush.

In contrast to the blundering movements of the Allies, the German forces were handled with skill and daring. Initially, there was only one panzergrenadier division on hand to oppose the Allied landing, but it was quickly reinforced. The new arrivals drove a wedge between the British and American forces and came very close to driving the entire Allied army into the sea. At one point German tanks got within a half mile of the beaches and were only contained by naval gunfire from the ships ringing the beachhead. General Clark seems to have reached a state bordering on panic and actually asked the naval commanders to prepare to take the American forces back aboard ships. Both U.S.and British navy men protested, and the situation was gradually brought under control with the landing of more troops and armor.

Men in combat units are nearly always unaware of the “grand design” of the operations or battles in which they participate. They can see only the holes they occupy and the immediate area around them; they are not privy to the intentions of those remote beings, the “generals” or “headquarters.” What they know depends heavily on rumor, scuttlebutt, and gut feelings. But that doesn’t mean they were unaware of what was happening. At the time, my division was still at our base in Sicily, but we knew almost immediately that Salerno was a fiasco and a near catastrophe. We didn’t read this opinion in Yank or The Stars and Stripes, two army publications issued to the troops, but we knew that allied divisions had been flung ashore with very little preparation in the teeth of crack German units, and that they were nearly wiped out. Thus our introduction to General Mark W. Clark. We were also aware that a second allied army, the 8th, was slowly proceeding through Calabria, 200 miles south of Salerno against token opposition and that it was of no use whatever to the beleaguered troops on the beachhead.

Mark Clark was a West Pointer who early in his career came directly under a man who was destined to become the supreme commander in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower. In his memoirs, Clark stresses his close, intimate ties with Eisenhower and more than once points out that Ike addressed him by his nickname, that through the years they worked closely together, even at various times shared apartments in different parts of the world. Eisenhower introduced Clark to an even more powerful figure, General George C.Marshall, the U.S.chief of staff, with whom he was to enjoy a close, if somewhat more circumspect, relationship. With two such powerful friends, Clark’s future was assured. Before he was sent to London to assume command of the European theater, Ike had been theater commander in the Mediterranean; there he had placed Clark in command of the newly activated 5th Army.

Clark’s relationship with his new commander, General Alexander, was awkward from the start. The much younger American was, at first, clearly intimidated by the older, much more seasoned British officers, many of whom were veterans of the First World War. One, General (later Field-Marshal) Sir Bernard Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Corps, was a general officer in that war, in which he won Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. Freyberg subsequently was to force Clark into giving the order to bomb the Abbey of Monte Cassino.

General Alexander came to know Clark as a difficult subordinate who, for political reasons, had to be treated with a consideration he would never have shown a British officer under his command. The reason for this was the changing nature of the relationship between Britain and the U.S.We were now the predominant power in the partnership and becoming more so every day. Clark was well aware of this, and his earlier feelings of intimidation vis-á-vis the British officers soon faded. He became arrogant, and his natural egotism and hunger for publicity made him resentful of his British superiors and suspicious of their intentions. He didn’t hesitate to question Alexander’s orders and complained of the latter’s interference in Clark’s unit dispositions.

Very early in Italy, Clark became obsessed with the idea of taking Rome. He apparently talked about it incessantly and insisted to anyone who would listen that it was the 5th Army’s destiny to take the Italian capital. He was convinced that Alexander and the British generals were out to beat him to the punch, and in spite of anything they could say he persisted in his suspicions. One of the basic problems about the campaign in Italy was that it was launched with no clear, definite strategic goal in mind. Was the aim to drive Italy from the war, take cities, conquer territory? Most strategists were agreed that the city of Rome had little value on the military chessboard, that the supreme goal of the Allied forces should have been the destruction of the German armies. It is the lesson that Grant understood so well when he went for the Confederate jugular, Lee’s army, ignoring Richmond. Clark wanted Rome for his own selfish aggrandizement, and it would lead him into wrecking Alexander’s plans for destroying the German 10th Army south of Rome.

When Clark was finally able, after being heavily reinforced, to drive the much inferior (in numbers) German force from Salerno, the Allies then began the slow, agonizing advance north of Naples. The two armies more or less split the country down the middle, the 8th Army progressing at what seemed a slow crawl up the east, or Adriatic, coast, the 5th Army taking the road up the west coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Both armies were true multinational forces; the 8th being made up of British, Canadian, New Zealand, Indian, and Polish divisions while the 5th contained American and British divisions and a newly constituted French Expeditionary Force under General Alphonse Juin. Under Juin were French, Algerian, and Moroccan divisions. General Juin, all but ignored in the early part of the Battle of Cassino, was to play the decisive role in breaking the stalemate in that tragic, bloody, and in my opinion, unnecessary, struggle.

Leaving Salerno, the Allied infantrymen almost at once were in the endless Italian mountains, the rugged, often icy and muddy terrain that was to dog their footsteps for the next six months or more. Crest after endless crest, they inched their way forward, always with a skilled, implacable enemy looking down on them from above, observing their every move and with ingeniously-sited machine guns and cannon covering them every step of the way. Even the taking of their immediate goal, the port of Naples, didn’t give them much cheer, so thoroughly had it been wrecked and booby-trapped by German demolition teams. Immediately north of Naples they ran against the first of what was to be an exhausting series of German defense lines, the Winter Line. One historian described the slow, bloody struggles to make headway in this forbidding terrain as “battering ram” tactics.

II

The central problem in the Italian campaign was this: it was consistently undermanned and underfunded. There were never enough landing craft available for exploiting overall Allied supremacy in men and equipment, and for this the U.S.command must take major responsibility. From 1942 to 1944, the American military buildup in Britain took priority over every other theater except the Pacific. U.S.military men, Marshall especially, had no time for the campaign in Italy, and they begrudged every piece of equipment and landing craft assigned there. On the other hand, the British military, and especially Prime Minister Winston Churchill, shrank at the idea of a cross-channel assault on the French coast; they dreaded the heavy casualties that seemed inevitable in any such attack, remembering the slaughter of a generation of young men in Flanders and on the Somme in 1914—18.Churchill found it easy to convince President Roosevelt of the advantages of an army in Italy; the president was eager to see American troops in action against the Germans somewhere, anywhere. Thus U.S.involvement in Italy was a political, not a military, decision. In essence, it was if Marshall and Eisenhower turned the Italian campaign over to Mark Clark and then forgot about it; Clark was free to do anything he wished. His real superiors were thousands of miles away and absorbed in other interests. His blunders would go unpunished.

The Allied advance from Salerno north went at a painfully slow pace, and it was to take five months to reach the most formidable German defense line of all, the line that was based on the Cassino massif, and which ran along the Rapido and Garigliano river valleys. A third valley, the Liri, was to be the goal of the armies for the next five months. Clark and Alexander saw it as the gateway leading north toward Rome, if only they could succeed in getting their tankers across the mountains and rivers into the valley. At Cassino, Hitler’s giant construction company, the Todt organization, the unit that built the Atlantic Wall and the Siegfried Line, had been working for months to fortify what became known as the Gustav Line. Todt engineers were lavish in the use of steel and concrete in building a series of interconnecting defense lines, tunnels, and deep concrete dugouts to house and protect men during Allied bombardments. There were even mobile steel and concrete machine gun and mortar units that were moved from place to place by small tractors. None of these elaborate defensive installations were ever, as far as I know, used on the Allied side. Allied infantrymen and artillerymen hunkered down in rain-soaked rifle pits and muddy dugouts, with no protection from either the elements or artillery fire.

The other formidable opponent was the ghastly Italian winter weather. It seemed to us that the sleeting rain never once stopped; it fell steadily day and night. Once drenched it was almost impossible to get dry. What was worse was the icy morass that we lived in and which sucked the shoes right off your feet. In this steep, muddy terrain, it was impossible to use tanks and almost impossible to use trucks or any other motor transport. As General Juin saw it, the British and Americans were wedded to their motor vehicles and thus were immobilized. On coming into Italy the French scoured the countryside buying up all the mules and donkeys in sight, and that was how they supplied food and ammunition to their front line troops. On foot. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the battle of Cassino was fought out in some of the worst weather and terrain conditions that confronted any troops in either world war. German troops who had served on the Russian front have been quoted as saying that they would crawl back to Russia on their hands and knees to get away from Cassino.

And confronted with this impregnable line what was the best that Clark and Alexander could do? Throw troops at it and have them mowed down by the tens of thousands. It was as though the Colonel Blimps of the first world war were back in charge. From December 1943 to the end of May 1944, military historians divide the bitter struggle at Cassino into four main battles. Time and time again the American, New Zealand, Indian, Polish, French, Canadian, and British divisions were flung into this carnage, only to be bloodily repulsed. Two American divisions, the 36th, a Texas National Guard outfit, and the 34th, were so badly mishandled that both were temporarily incapable of offensive action. Both divisions had arrived at Cassino in an exhausted condition, worn out from the fighting leading up to the Gustav Line. Both should have been taken off the line for rest and refitting, but R and R, as it was to become known in a later war, the Vietnamese, obviously was not yet a tradition in the U.S.Army. The 36th was almost immediately ordered into an assault across the icy, flooded Rapido river.

Obviously, General Clark and possibly even the divisional commander never went forward to observe conditions at the proposed crossing. If they had done so, they could not have failed to see the impossibility, the imbecility even, of such an attack. The Germans were, as usual, on the heights above, able in daytime to observe every move. Conditions were deplorable. The weather was cold but not cold enough to freeze the deep mud on the slopes of the river bank. Those banks were clear of woods and brush for hundreds of yards, providing no cover of any kind for approaching troops. The first attempts of the engineers to bridge the icy, fast flowing river were simply wiped out by German artillery as fast as they were put in place. Boats that had to be inflated in full view of the enemy were swept away in the rapid current or were destroyed by machine gun fire. Many of the infantrymen were drowned in the icy water, unable to swim with all their packs and weapons. In the 48 hours that this hopeless attack continued, groups of men, with unparalleled gallantry, did manage to force their way across the river, but they were too few in number to exploit their position. Incredibly, on the second day, additional efforts were ordered by the top command, but these, too, were easily repulsed by a securely entrenched enemy. The few men who got across the river were eventually allowed to get back to safety under cover of darkness. In these hopeless attacks the division lost nearly 2,000 of its infantrymen and engineers and for a time was unable to conduct any further offensive operations. After the war, the Texans made an attempt to force Clark to answer for these blunders. They demanded a congressional investigation, but with powerful friends in the army establishment, the general was easily exonerated.

According to a British military historian, the performance of the U.S.34th Division at Cassino “must rank with the finest feats of arms” accomplished by any other soldiers during the war. And again, the 34th, as had its sister division the 36th, was ordered into an attack that was doomed from the start. Like the 36th arriving at the Cassino front in an exhausted state from earlier actions, the 34th was ordered by General Clark to attack the nearly impregnable defenses of the town of Cassino itself and the mountain massif behind it. That steep mountain was overlooked by the famous Benedictine Abbey resting on its summit. It has been said that no German soldiers were known to have used the abbey, even as an observation point, but none of the Allied troops taking part in the battle believed that. All saw the Abbey as a frowning, threatening presence looking down upon their every move.

To get to its jumping off place for the attack, the men of the 34th had to traverse a two-mile marsh, wade an icy river, work their way through extensive mine fields, and then tackle a heavily entrenched enemy on the slopes of the massif. Two regiments of the division were detailed to fight their way up the mountainside while the third attacked the town of Cassino itself at the base of the mountain. Tanks could not operate in this terrain, the infantrymen were on their own. Day after day, night after night they clawed their way up those icy, wind-swept slopes against a determined, remorseless enemy. There was no cover, it was impossible to dig into that rocky ground, their only shelter was to gather mounds of loose rocks to take temporary refuge behind. Of the clumps of trees that once covered these slopes only stumps remained, the trees had been destroyed by shellfire. Only the Germans had secure shelters in this blasted landscape. They had had three months to dig themselves in, to enlarge existing caves and to lace the area with interlocking gun and mortar sites, boobytraps, and minefields.

The regiment that was detailed to attack the town of Cassino was not able to make real progress against the powerful defensive line the Germans had constructed there. They had blasted houses away to provide free fields of fire and had linked other houses and buildings to construct a continuous line of fortifications. The streets of the town were so filled with rubble from destroyed buildings that tanks were not able to maneuver. Still, the regiment battled its way into the suburbs of Cassino but was not able to dislodge the defenders, who happened to be some of the best troops in the Nazi army, the paratroopers.

For nearly three weeks their fellow regiments fought their way up the mountainside. They struggled to within a thousand yards of the great Abbey, and it was now plain to be seen that this great building was the key to the German defensive line. But the men of the 34th were not destined to be the ones to take it. They were completely fought out; they had, in some units, lost 80 percent of their effectives. Several hundred of the infantrymen had fought their way so far forward that they almost lost contact with their fellows; for a week or more there was no way to supply them with fresh food and supplies. When relief finally came, many of these nearly frozen men were so weak from hunger and exposure that they were unable to extricate themselves by their own efforts. At least 50 of them were so far gone they had to be carried out on stretchers by the relieving troops, men of the 4th Indian Division.

And in his total ignorance of the condition of these front-line troops, General Clark would have ordered the division into further attacks if he had not been dissuaded by “outside” forces. At this time, General Alexander decided that he would transfer one of the corps in the 8th Army, the New Zealand Corps, comprised of the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division, over to the 5th Army for new attacks on the Cassino massif. It was not a move that General Clark welcomed; the man in charge of this corps, General Freyberg, was too outspoken and independent-minded for him. In fact, it was General Freyberg and other New Zealand officers who protested Clark’s plans to use the 34th Division in new attacks. In their inquiries, these officers discovered that the U. S. generals had not been forward to check the condition of their men on the front line and that they had no idea that these troops were unable to do more.

In the American Civil War the casualty rate among general officers had been astonishingly high on both sides of the conflict. In that war, infantry, cavalry and artillery generals actually had led their men in battle, but there seems to have been a sea change in attitude among professional officers in the years following. In subsequent wars, the generals seem to have quietly removed themselves from the battlefields. I know of no American general killed in the First World War, and in World War II, I know of only one who died, Lesley McNair, killed by mistake by his own men. For more than a century American generals have fought their wars from the warm comforts of headquarters far behind the lines, often, for example, from luxurious French chateaux.

Thus the first battle of Cassino ended with two crack American divisions shattered. With limitless courage, the infantrymen of the 34th and 36th Divisions had given their all in attacks that were hopeless from the outset. Now other troops in divisions from other countries would be flung against this great redoubt, and many of them would be shattered in their turn. Among them would be two Polish divisions who would be shot to pieces in vain attempts to take the Abbey. The Poles had come through terrible trials just to be among those fighting Nazi Germany. They had seen their country destroyed in 1939 with half of it taken over by the Soviet Union; many had spent years in Soviet gulags. Their hatred for the Germans was visceral, and thousands of them served in the British army and in the Royal Air Force. Their subsequent treatment, as related by British historians themselves, was somewhat shabby. Many months later, in the final battles for the Cassino massif, it would be the Poles who finally took the Abbey from the Nazi paratroopers.

III

Actually, General Clark’s use of the two U. S. divisions in these hopeless attacks was designed to relieve enemy pressure on another front that the Allies had opened about 70 miles north of the Cassino line, the sea-borne landing that became known as the Anzio beachhead. This landing was mostly the idea of Winston Churchill who had become impatient with the snail’s-pace advance toward Rome. The prime minister had to use all of his powers of persuasion to get the permission of the U.S.command to divert enough landing craft from the buildup in England to transport the invasion force. He was convinced that a landing behind the German lines would force them to abandon the formidable Gustav Line at Cassino and withdraw all of their forces north of Rome, possibly even as far as the Po valley. As he visualized it, a hard-hitting Allied force would hit the beaches and send rapidly-moving units toward two objectives, to cut Highway 6, the main north-south route between Naples and Rome and to take the Alban Hills just south of the Italian capital. Cutting Highway 6 would permit General Alexander to trap and destroy the German 10th Army fleeing from Cassino; taking the Alban Hills would give easy access to Rome. It was a logical and well-reasoned idea, and it might have succeeded except that the invasion force was too small for such an undertaking; a secondary reason was that the man General Clark selected to lead it was far too cautious and unenterprising.

General Clark initially had not been enthusiastic about the Anzio plan, but he subsequently saw it as a means of breaking the Cassino stalemate and getting to his primary goal, Rome. His selection of Major General John P.Lucas to command the landing force, the reactivated 6th Corps, was a blunder in the fine old West Point tradition of “it’s his turn.” General Lucas had a good record as a run-of-the-mill corps commander, but he was a poor choice to head a force that needed aggressive leadership if it was to reach its objectives. For some strange reason, General Lucas was not included in the planning of the Anzio expedition, he was only told of it after all the plans had been laid. His attitude can only be described as defeatist; he did not think that the force was powerful enough to achieve its goals (and he was right), and he did not think it had a reasonable chance of success. Whether he made these opinions known to Clark is not clear.

General Clark was not the only one who blundered. The overall plan was drawn up in General Alexander’s headquarters, and this usually astute officer failed to give General Lucas precise instructions on what he was to do. Alexander’s main objective was the cutting of Highway 6 at the town of Valmontone which would trap the German forces. Clark’s instructions also were not decisive. He merely told General Lucas that he was to land his forces and set up a defensive perimeter. And that is exactly what Lucas did. Initially, the 6th Corps was composed of the British 1st Infantry Division, the U.S.3rd Infantry Division, plus some specialized units. Soon thereafter, the U.S.45th Infantry and the U.S.1st Armored Divisions arrived, and this essentially was the force that just barely was able to contain the great German offensive that soon fell on the defenders.

By great good fortune, the landing on Jan. 22, 1944, achieved total surprise and went off without a hitch. There were actually only a few German troops on leave in the twin resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno about 30 miles south of Rome, and there was no organized resistance. Lucas set to work immediately on constructing a defensive perimeter, against the protests of the commander of the British division who was aware of General Alexander’s desire to send out strong probing attacks toward Valmontone and Albano, a town in the Alban Hills. But General Lucas was unmoved; he would stand fast until he felt himself strong enough to send out patrols.

For once, the German commander was unsure of what he should do. He knew that if the Allies acted decisively his side was in deep trouble and in danger of losing not only Rome but all of southern Italy. He was not the only one living through suspenseful hours. Alexander and Churchill waited to hear that strong Allied attacks were in progress toward the nearby towns of Cisterna and Campoleone, preliminary to cutting the highway at Valmontone. General Clark was in hopes of seeing German divisions being withdrawn from the 5th Army’s Cassino front to counter the Anzio landing, and he urged his exhausted troops on the southern front to press their attacks. None of these Allied hopes was to be realized. Kesselring was the first to react to Lucas’ inactivity, and he did so with speed and decisiveness. Within a matter of days he had, with Hitler’s consent, called in divisions from as far away as France, Germany, and the Balkans. Almost before he knew what was happening, Lucas’ two divisions were surrounded by elements of eight German divisions, with five more on the way. Initially, this iron ring around the beachhead was composed to a large extent of 88-mm antiaircraft guns, which were just as efficacious when used as anti-tank weapons. This cannon, the “famed German 88” was without question the best and most versatile gun on either side. This buildup, as the Allied generals foresaw, was the preliminary to a gigantic attempt to wipe the beachhead off the map, to “lance this abscess,” in Hitler’s words.

Actually, General Lucas was the first to move. When his defensive line was set, he gave his forward units the permission to go forward that they had been trying for days to get from him. But it was already too late. The probing attacks sent out by the 1st British and the 3rd American Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division were easily checked by the powerful German defenses, even though the 1st Division got as far as the foothills of the Albano Hills. And one 24-hour delay in moving into the little town of Cisterna was to cost the Americans dear. Ranger battalions operating with the 3rd Division discovered a thinly-held section of the German line and prepared, under cover of darkness, to infiltrate that line and seize the town at daybreak. The delay was caused when in a sudden ambush the leading British unit lost three of its top commanders. During the delay, and unbeknownst to the Rangers, a panzergrenadier unit moved in to reinforce the Hermann Goering division in front of Cisterna, closing the gap in the line. The Rangers got to their position by daybreak, but there they were confronted by strong German forces and caught between two fires. Out of more than 700 men in the Ranger force, only six got back to the Allied line; the rest were killed or captured.

The British and the Americans were soon on the defensive along their entire perimeter, bracing themselves for the all-out attack to come. And, like Salerno, it was a narrow escape from disaster. Kesselring had overwhelming forces at his disposal, and he soon had the Allies backed up against their final defense line. There were times when only massed artillery regiments, firing over open sights were able to stop the enemy onrush. Time after time they seemed on the point of breaking through to the beaches, but they were finally stopped for good. In the middle of this final onslaught, General Clark told General Lucas that he was being replaced by the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division, Major-General Lucien K. Truscott, felt by most to be the outstanding American general in Italy. He probably should have been given the post in the beginning, but apparently to Clark, it was not “his turn.” Or, as one British general said, “We should have picked a thruster like Patton.”

The rest of the beachhead story was anti-climactic, the months following were spent in small unit actions of no particular importance. The last act in the Cassino-Anzio story would originate in the south. At Anzio, the final German offensive was halted in the first week of March, and a lull settled over the line that would last until the breakthrough in May. But this lull did not extend to the Cassino front; there weary divisions were still being thrown against what seemed to be an unbreakable line. General Freyberg’s corps was to spend itself in this effort, and its two finest divisions, the 4th Indian, thought by the Germans to be the best Allied unit in Italy, and the 2nd New Zealand Division were shattered in hopeless attacks. The New Zealanders, among the best troops in the theater, were superb “amateurs” where the Indians were spit-and-polish professionals. The story is told that when a high British general complained to Freyberg that the New Zealanders rarely saluted officers, the latter said “Why don’t you wave to them, they always wave back.”

It was prior to the attack of Freyberg’s corps that the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey took place. In his memoirs, Clark deplored the bombing as unnecessary, and he blamed Freyberg for it. But he was the army commander on the scene, and it had to be done on his orders. Freyberg justified it as “a military necessity.” The troops on hand felt that it had to be done, as I can attest, even though my division by this time was not present, being on the beachhead. In hindsight, it would appear that there were actually no Germans in the Abbey.

In the end it was the French who broke the stalemate. For months, General Juin had tried to influence both Alexander and Clark on the proper way to attack the Gustav Line. He felt that there must be coordinated pressure by all elements of both armies which would stretch the German defenses to the breaking point, and that attacks had to be made from a remote mountain area where the enemy least expected them. He spelled out his ideas in detail in a letter to General Clark who did not even give him the courtesy of a reply. But he did finally get Clark’s grudging permission to send his Moroccan and Algerian divisions into a flanking attack through the Aurunci Mountains behind Cassino. His troops had been trained in mountain warfare in North Africa, and they sliced through the German defense line on the flank next to the 8th Army with ease. Suddenly, Kesselring’s forces in that part of the line were in full retreat, with the French in rapid pursuit. The Gustav Line was broken.

For some weeks Clark and Alexander had been planning an attack on that line in coordination with a hoped-for breakout of the Anzio force, now heavily reinforced. In Alexander’s plan, the 5th and 8th Armies would attack northward and hook up with Truscott’s 6th Corps, trapping the German 10th Army fleeing Cassino. In his conversations with Truscott, General Clark told him to plan attacks in two directions, one toward Valmontone and Highway 6, which is the drive Alexander expected, but also an alternative drive in the direction of the Alban Hills. This would put the 5th Army within easy distance of Rome. Clark said nothing to Alexander about this alternative plan, and Truscott was in full accord with Alexander’s hope to destroy the German army.

With the French breakthrough, the Cassino front was suddenly on the move. Kesselring immediately saw his danger and began withdrawing his troops. The American divisions in the 5th Army began to make rapid progress toward the beachhead, and only the 8th Army seemed stalled. For some reason, General Alexander ordered five divisions to advance on the highway toward Rome. The narrow valley was much too small for such a gigantic movement of troops and armor, and there was soon a huge traffic jam that blocked all units from any advance. For 12 days, the 8th Army was out of touch with the retreating Germans until they got their units untangled. The French, placed between the rapidly moving American divisions and the 8th Army, complained bitterly about the slowness of the British advance, which left their right flank dangling in midair. At one point, the French were more than 20 miles in advance of the British units. Alexander refused a French request to move through the British zone and later squeezed them out of the advance altogether. Neither the French nor the Poles were to be given a place of honor in the victory parade held subsequently in Rome.

With the 5th Army headed for the beachhead, Truscott got his divisions underway and soon had taken the small town of Cisterna. It was now that Clark made his move. He did not go to Truscott in person, for he knew that that general was all for Alexander’s plan. He sent another general to Truscott with orders to follow the alternate plan diverting the attack toward the Alban Hills and away from Valmontone. Truscott and the divisional commanders were dumbfounded; they knew what Army Group intended doing and they were all in favor of its plan. Truscott demanded to see Clark, but the Army commander had carefully taken himself out of contact; he knew that Truscott, as the combat commander on the scene could insist on his point of view only if he could see the overall commander in person. Truscott had no choice but to obey and he reluctantly sent most of his divisions toward the Alban Hills. Thus, General Clark got his cherished wish of being the first general to “take Rome from the south in 1,500 years.” But it was at a terrible cost to the Allied cause. The 10th German Army with all its units made its escape to the north, and many weeks later when the Allies reached the vicinity of Florence they found waiting for them on a carefully constructed new defense line all of the intact German divisions they had fought for so many months before Cassino and Anzio.

Later, a German military historian wrote that at the breakthrough from the beachhead it was thought that only a miracle could prevent another Stalingrad south of Rome. “General Clark provided that miracle.”

5 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Robert Steckel's picture
Robert Steckel · 1 year ago

I worry when I have my biases confirmed, as in this case. Mark Clark was a jacka55. I don't doubt for a minute what you write about him; it backs up everything I've ever read about him -- toadying, incompetent, vain, glory seeking, and utterly indifferent to the men whose lives he wasted.  No question that his advancement and deplorable tenure In Italy are a huge blot on the records of both Eisenhower and Marshall. You are incorrect about McNair. General Maurice Rose, commander of the Third Armored Division (my dad's outfit), was shot down by a German tank commander while leading his troops at the front, in March of '45 in northern Germany. (The Third Armored was the first allied unit to penetrate the Siegfried Line.)

+1
-2
-1
Dwight Brawdy's picture
Dwight Brawdy · 1 year ago

Mark Clark had an ego as big as Italy itself. Until he died, he was convinced that he was a great commander. Eisenhower and Marshall should have been reprimanded for giving such a incompetent idiot like Clark charge of any troops.

+1
+4
-1
Maryofkent  's picture
Maryofkent · 9 months ago

Just a comment from the daughter of an British 8th Army Veteran who fought in Italy and always made the same comments about Clark, the so called ordinary soldiers knew he was useless. On the other hand my Dad had massive respect for so called ordinary America soldier on the front line, who did their best in horrific battles, they were always a welcome sight when they arrived. He spoke of them as good blokes. Thank you as I know that personally some of your guys quick actions saved him from servere burns, he never forgot them. Sadly Dads gone now.

+1
+1
-1
Julie Phelps's picture
Julie Phelps · 9 months ago

My grandfather was one of the exhausted men that General Clark flung into Anzio-Cassino, and after readong details of what he went through, it saddens me that this incompetant maniac was put in charge of so many lives without having to answer to them afterwards. For it was not only those who lost their lives in Italy, but those who came home with memories they could not leave on the battlefield. I shudder to think of the nightmares my grandfather must've had for the rest of his life.

+1
-10
-1
Stefan McKenna 's picture
Stefan McKenna · 1 month ago

Thanks for a very good article. Hopefully it won’t sound too whiny to mention that the article unfortunately  follows the very standard practice of redacting Canadian military history. The “ British “ 8th army included a Canadian infantry division and a tank brigade... large forces for a country with one tenth the US population. There were 6,000 Canadian dead left in Sicily and Italy and we took 25,000 casualties . Clark can be thanked in part for this of course as Canadian troops were asked by allied command to stop advancing on undefended Rome so that Clark’s troops could enter first while the Germans escaped north to continue fighting .

+1
+1
-1

Recommended Reading