News of the Italian surrender came as no complete surprise to Adolf Hitler and the German High Command. Months of suspicion and distrust of their ally had led the Germans to make elaborate plans to cope with Italy’s possible withdrawal from the war or switch to the Allied side. Yet uncertainty over Italy’s intentions complicated German preparations for the defense of the Mediterranean area, which were primarily concerned with Allied capabilities.
All political and military authority in Germany rested with Hitler. No unified command or joint staff existed to direct the national war effort except as embodied in the person of Hitler himself as German Chancellor, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and Commander in Chief of the Army. Nor did Hitler consider it necessary or desirable to keep his military associates informed of his political goals and his schemes to attain them. The military had been reduced to tools, with which Hitler, regretfully it seemed, could not dispense.
Hitler had assumed leadership as early as 1938 over the Armed Forces High Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) , which acted as a personal staff for Hitler in his capacity as head of the armed forces and, at least theoretically, exercised the prerogatives of formulating grand strategy and conducting joint operations. Actually, the power of OKW was limited because the Army, Navy, and Air Force refused to acknowledge its supremacy. Each military service maintained its own separate high command- Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) , Oberkommando der Kriegsnmarine (OKM) , and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL)-and the Navy and Air Force sent only low-ranking liaison officers to represent them in the OKW. Though OKW was responsible in theory for all theaters of operation, OKH directed operations in the east. Differences over the strategy to be followed against the Soviet Union and the failure of the Moscow offensive in November 1941 prompted Hitler to take for himself the title and functions of the Commander in Chief of the Army. His absorption in the eastern campaign led him to give more or less perfunctory attention to the other theaters. Thus OKW, with Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel in charge of its day-to-day concerns and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl at the head of its planning section, served as Hitler’s instrument for directing operations in the Mediterranean area.
By the spring of 1943, Hitler had lost the strategic initiative. He had no overall war plan, for he lacked the basic prerequisite, a substantial strategic reserve. Losses at Stalingrad and in North Africa precluded accumulating a reserve unless he called off offensive operations in the Soviet Union and established a relatively short front. Mussolini had urged Hitler as early as December 1942 to end the war in the east by negotiation, or at least to withdraw behind an “East Wall” that would permit a concentration of forces against the Western Allies, specifically in the Mediterranean area. But Hitler refused to consider retrograde movements in the USSR. He would neither abandon his “historic mission” in the east nor forego any of his war aims in an attempt to find a political solution in the east. He would not even make concessions to the occupied countries in exchange for greater co-operation, which would lighten his troop commitments.
His vision in the summer of 1942 of his armored columns advancing through North Africa and the Caucasus to a meeting somewhere in the N ear East in the most gigantic pincer movement in history having failed him, Hitler had no positive plan for victory beyond an “Endsiege’ a final triumph founded on irrational hope and mystic faith. Earlier he had believed that he could defeat the Soviet Union by attrition, but by 1943 he was counting on an eventual split between the USSR and the Western Allies to change the fortunes of the war.
Even as Hitler saw his prospects of defeating the Soviet Union diminish, his outlook elsewhere darkened. The battle of the Atlantic was turning in favor of the Western Allies. The air superiority Germany once enjoyed was gone, and German lines of communication were becoming increasingly vulnerable to Allied bombing. Efforts to build an army in France capable of meeting an expected Allied invasion conflicted with the demands of the active theaters in the USSR and in the Mediterranean, as well as with the requirements of the inactive theaters elsewhere in Europe. And if Italy collapsed, Hitler would have to fill a vacuum in the Balkans and southern France, where Italian troops occupied the coastal regions.
Hitler had long been aware of Italy’s weakness. Italy had been ill prepared for the economic and industrial requirements of modern warfare, and as the best Italian divisions were destroyed in Greece, the Soviet Union, and North Africa, criticism of Mussolini’s conduct of the war mounted at home. The loss of 150,000 Italian troops in North Africa, along with 100,000 Germans, seriously depressed Italian morale. In May 1943, when the Axis Powers were expelled from North Africa, Hitler recognized that the unstable internal situation in Italy was moving toward a crisis. He realized that he might have to face Allied operations in the Mediterranean without being able to rely on Italy for a share of the defense.
If Italy withdrew from the war, several strategic alternatives were open to Hitler: he could assume the defense of all of Italy and the Balkans; he could surrender all Italian territory to the Allies and thereby avoid committing strong forces in what could be only a secondary theater of operations; or he could defend Italy along some geographic line to prevent loss of the rich agricultural and industrial resources of the Po Valley.
Hitler never seriously considered evacuating all of Italy. He disliked giving up the Po Valley, and he had no desire to see Allied troops on his southern border. Although the Alps provided an obstacle to gl Gund invasion of Germany, air bases in northern Italy would place Allied bombers within easy striking range of southern and central Germany, and staging areas would make possible Allied amphibious operations against southern France and Dalmatia. A German withdrawal to the Alps might also suggest to some of the German satellites, Hungary and other Balkan countries, that they could disengage from the war; it might have an adverse effect on Turkish neutrality.
To occupy and defend all of Italy and the Balkans in the event of Italian withdrawal from the war was Hitler’s first idea. In May 1943, he ordered plans to be drawn to these ends should Italian resistance collapse or Italy reach what he called a “treacherous” agreement with the Allies. Yet Hitler was loath to take the first step toward an open break with his ally or to give the Italians an excuse for defection. There was some chance that the Italian Government would refuse the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies. Thus, all German plans designed to cope with the possibility of an Italian defection were prepared in great secrecy.
Specifically, Hitler instructed Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel to activate in Munich a skeleton army group headquarters disguised as a rehabilitation headquarters. Rommel was to be ready to move into Italy and take over the defense of the country. To carry out the operation, he was to receive six good divisions from the eastern theater, eight reconstituted divisions from France, and two parachute divisions from Germany, all of which were to assemble in southeastern France and in Austria for subsequent entry into Italy. But when offensive operations in the USSR threatened to take some of the divisions Rommel was counting on, he informed Hitler that without all the promised units he could not guarantee the occupation and defense of all of Italy. When Jodl agreed with Rommel, Hitler decided to defend only part of the country. He would establish a defensive line in the Northern Apennines and hold there. By July Hitler was admitting openly, “We cannot hold the entire peninsula without the Italian Army.”
While Hitler, the OKW, and Rommel made plans in anticipation of Italian defection, the senior German commander in Italy, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, Commander in Chief, South (Oberbefehlshaber Sued-OB SUED), remained for the moment uninformed of these activities. Kesselring, who had gone to Italy in December 1941 as commander of Luftflotte 2 (Second Air Force) and whose command had subsequently been enlarged, was working in close co-operation with Comando Supremo) the Italian Armed Forces High Command. In agreement with Comando Supremo and independently of Rommel’s mission, OKW had been building up Kesselring’s strength for action against the Allies.
The Allied invasion of Sicily in July prompted an immediate increase in Kesselring’s forces. Officially attached to the Italian forces, the German units were under the operational direction of Comando Supremo. Actually, German subordination to Italian command was a nominal matter, and Kesselring was in fact the responsible commander of German troops and held accountable by OK W for their proper use and deployment.
A natural optimist with distinct Italophile views, Kesselring was convinced that Italy would continue in the war. Hitler’s distrust of the Italians was repugnant to him and talk of evacuating southern Italy even more so. He objected strongly to uncomplimentary remarks reportedly made by Rommel about Italian officers, and he resented the fact that while his own influence with Hitler seemed to be declining, Rommel’s was increasing. Shocked by Mussolini’s fall from power and imprisonment in July, Kesselring believed Badoglio’s declarations that Italy would continue in the war to be in good faith. He was convinced that even if Sicily were lost, all of Italy could and should be defended. Mussolini’s downfall greatly disturbed Hitler. In his immediate excitement he inclined toward quick action-a Coup d’état by German troops to seize BadogIio and the King, liberate Mussolini, and re-establish the fascist regime under German protection. To take whatever military measures might be necessary, Hitler dispatched to Rome by air elements of a parachute division, together with a corps headquarters. He selected a young and adventurous officer who had attracted his attention, Captain Otto Skorzeny, to go to Rome to locate and rescue the Duce.
Before any of his wild ideas could be carried out, Hitler grew more cautious, restrained by ignorance or Mussolini’s whereabouts and by the apparent willingness of the Italian Government to maintain the alliance and continue in the war. Instead of making a sudden and dramatic move, Hitler decided to occupy Italy unobtrusively by gradually increasing the number of German divisions in the country, if possible with Comando Supremo agreement. This coincides with the requirements of the final plan developed by OKW from the previously rather vague studies of hem’ to cope with an Italian collapse. The German forces in Italy needed reinforcement if they were to disarm and disperse Italian troops, destroy the Italian Navy, render the Italian Air Force inoperative, and seize or destroy key installations and communications.
The German plans for moving into Italy in strength were complicated by the threat of what the Allies might do. Had they invaded the mainland before the end of the Sicily Campaign, they would cut off and perhaps isolate the German forces fighting in Sicily and those stationed on the mainland south of the invasion area. An Allied amphibious operation against northern Italy, unlikely as it was, if made in conjunction with an attempt by strong Italian forces to block the Alpine and Apennine passes, would boule lip most of the German forces in Italy, A landing near Rome, where at least file Italian divisions could assist, would cut off a substantial number of German forces in the south. An invasion of Calabria with or without Italian co-operation, would imperil the forces in Sicily.
Other possibilities, though dangerous, were less menacing: an Allied invasion of Sardinia as a prelude to operations in northern Italy or southern France, or landings in the heel to secure the air bases at Foggia in order to simplify later operations in the Balkans. Although an Allied assault near Naples as within the realm of possibility, the Germans judged that other areas offered the Allies greater strategic and tactical advantages.
Estimating that any large-scale Allied invasion of the Italian mainland would come only after agreement with the Italian Government in order to capitalize upon that concord, the Germans believed that the Balkans rather than Italy will be the Allied strategic goal. “At present,” Hitler stated on 17 July, “it appears that the next enemy landing will be attempted there [in the Balkans]. It is as important to reinforce the Balkans as it is to hold Italy.”
To Hitler, an Allied campaign in Italy as an end in itself made little sense. German forces could use the terrain and the communications network to great defensive advantage, and an Allied march up the peninsula would reach a dead end at the Alps. Allied landings in Greece, on the other hand, would impose great difficulties on the Germans-all German reinforcements and supplies would have to be shipped over a single rail line of limited capacity; 1,300 kilometers long, the line was venerable to attack from the air and from partisan forces on the ground; political repercussions in Hungary and Rumania, allied to Germany, were likely; and Allied Success might persuade Turkey to give up neutrality.
The economic dependence of Germany on the Rumanian oil fields and on the bauxite, copper, and other resources of southeastern Europe also led the Germans to anticipate an Allied invasion in that area, while the Ljubljana Gap offered an invasion route into Central Europe that would enable the Western Allies and the Soviet Union to join in a coordinated strategy. Finally, the presence of British and American troops in the Balkans might check Russian ambitions, a point Hitler thought to be of particular concern to the British.
Thus, to cope with an Italian surrender that, in German estimates, would open the door to new Allied operations in the Mediterranean, OKW divided its plans into two parts, one for the Balkans, the other for Italy and southern France. [n5-11] In Italy there would be no German defense south of Rome. Effective on OKW order, to be issued upon news of Italian capitulation or collapse, Rommel was to occupy all the important mountain passes, roads, and railways in northern Italy, disarm Italian Army units, and secure the Apennine passes.
Kesselring was to move his forces out of Sicily and southern Italy to the north, disarming the Italian Army and crushing any resistance as he went. As soon as the units “in northern Italy became operationally connected with those in southern Italy,” as Hitler put it, Rommel was to assume command over all the German forces in the Italian peninsula. By this time, the German troops on Sardinia and Corsica were to have reached the mainland.
Kesselring remained convinced that all was well in Italy. He saw no danger to his forces or to his lines of communication, and little reason to withdraw. He needed reinforcements for the proper defense of the toe and the heel, and made repeated requests for more troops, certain that the Italian leadership and armed forces want to cooperate with us. “. . . I repeat my previously expressed opinion that Calabria (the toe) and Apulia (the heel) are not sufficiently secure. Also, in view of the strategic importance of these regions as a springboard to the Balkans, I ask again for reinforcements of German troops in southern Italy.” As late as 19 August, he was of the opinion that Italian “commands and troops will do everything possible to frustrate [Allied] attacks.”
[n5-11 15 # P-OI9 (Warlimont). The Germans increased the number of their divisions in the Balkans from six in January 1943 to more than thirteen in July.]
Hitler refused to send more troops into southern Italy. Enough forces, he felt, were already imperiled there by the double danger of Italian defection and Allied invasion. In any event, evacuation of the German units from Sicily to southern Italy would sufficiently strengthen Kesselring’s forces to make possible the orderly withdrawal Hitler had in mind.
Hitler’s disregard of Kesselring’s views and Kesselring’s knowledge that Rommel was eventually to succeed him in command led Kesselring to submit his resignation on 14 August. Hitler refused to accept it. He needed Kesselring in Italy to guarantee a continuation of the superficially smooth relationship with the Italians and watchfulness over Allied intentions.
In August OKW began to send German units into northern Italy, some with the consent of Comando Supremo, some without. When Rommel’s forces-three corps headquarters, five infantry divisions, and two panzer divisions-crossed the border into northern Italy, Rommel opened his headquarters at Lake Garda as Army Group B. Although tension between OKW and Comando Supremo mounted, neither wished to assume responsibility for an open break. The Italians felt insecure because no agreement had yet been reached with the Allies, while the Germans wished to move as many troops as possible into Italy before open hostility on the part of the Italians made movement more difficult. The Italians had no doubt that the troops in the north were in effect an occupation force, but, not daring to protest, they pretended to accept the German explanation that Army Group B and its forces comprised a strategic reserve for action in the Balkans, southern France, or Italy.
And while Comando Supremo urged OKW to use these forces to strengthen the defenses in southern Italy where an Allied attack was more likely, OKW suggested that Comando Supremo move some Italian divisions from northern to southern Italy for the same reason.
The successful evacuation of German forces from Sicily to the mainland substantially strengthened the German units in the south. To relieve Kesselring and his headquarters of the increasing detail of tactical command and to tighten control over the units, OKW created the Tenth Army headquarters on 8 August and made it operational two weeks la ter. The army commander, Generaloherst Heinrich von Vietinghoff Scheel, had commanded a corps on the Eastern Front before taking command of an army in France, Soon after his appointment but before he actually assumed command of the Tenth Army, Vietinghoff reached the conclusion that “Allied landings in the Naples-Salerno sector represent the main danger to the whole of the German forces in Southern Italy.”
Meeting with Hitler on 17 August, the day the Sicily Campaign ended, Vietinghoff learned that his primary mission was to assure the withdrawal of German forces from southern Italy to the Rome area when Italy surrendered-only a matter of time so far as Hitler was concerned. Despite Hitler’s apprehension that the Italian Army might co-operate with the Allies and block the Germans in the south, Vietinghoff was to give the Italians no excuse for defection. He was not to begin his withdrawal prematurely, He was to hold the Naples-Salerno area with three divisions, evacuate Calabria (the toe) only under Allied pressure, and keep the 1st Parachute (Fallschirmjäger) Division in Apulia (the heel), where an Allied attack seemed less probable, for observation and security duties.
These views of Hitler’s reached Kesselring in the form of an OKW order on the following day, 18 August. Assuming Italian capitulation “sooner or later,” Hitler wanted Kesselring to be sure that the Tenth Army could withdraw all its forces to the vicinity of Rome in the event the Allies landed in Italy or the Italians turned on the Germans. The German troops on Sardinia and Corsica were to defend those islands against invasion and evacuate them only if Italian troops collapsed or if Italy surrendered.
By the end of August the decision was firm. Kesselring was to be ready to disarm the Italian Army and withdraw all his forces to the Rome area, holding there only until his troops had escaped from the south and from Sardinia and Corsica. He would then move his units northward to a line somewhere along the Apennines. In the meantime, Rommel was to secure and occupy all the Alpine and Apennine passes and the major ports in northern Italy.
Thus the Germans had plans to deal with two different situations. If the Italians surrendered, the Tenth Army was to disarm Italian units in southern Italy and withdraw to the Rome area; if the Allies invaded the mainland before an Italian capitulation, the Tenth Army, with Italian support, was to repel the landings in order to guarantee the routes of withdrawal to Rome. What the Germans lacked was a firm plan of action if the two events should occur simultaneously.
For all their suspicions of Italian intentions, the Germans had no real intimation of the negotiations between the Badoglio government and the Allied high command. Extensive Italo-German conversations, discussions, and correspondence on all military and diplomatic levels continued normally even though the Germans judged the Italian will to fight as virtually nil, even though Comando Supremo had vehemently opposed, before reluctantly agreeing to, the activation of the Tenth Army. Harmony and co-operation, mutual trust and regard characterized the relations between Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, and the Italian Seventh Army commander, whose areas of responsibility coincided.
When the British crossed the Strait of Messina and invaded Calabria on 3 September, Kesselring ordered Vietinghoff to fight a delaying action while withdrawing to the north. ‘When the Italian Seventh Army commander inquired whether German forces would support a counterattack he contemplated launching, Vietinghoff replied in the negative.
The Germans, in accordance with their plans, began to retire from the toe at Italy, their movements facilitated by Italian help. In order to clear his decks for action against the stronger Allied invasion of the Italian mainland he still expected, Hitler decided to resolve the uncertainty hanging over the German-Italian alliance by requiring Italy to accede to certain demands.
They were not new-the Germans had made them before-but the Italian Government and Commando Supremo had in the past been evasive without refusing altogether to make them at least the basis of discussion. On 7 September Hitler instructed OKW to have the demands incorporated into an ultimatum ready for his signature by 9 September. If Italy refused to submit. Hitler would take the steps necessary to insure the safety of the German troops stationed in the Italian peninsula, particularly those in the south.
One of the steps he contemplated was withdrawing the Tenth Army to the Rome area, the first move toward establishing a relatively short front in the Apennines north of Rome. North of this Apennine line, German troops would pacify the country and clear it of Italian forces. Three or four divisions would then become available for dispatch to the Balkans, which were, as Hitler said. “vulnerable to an Anglo-Saxon attack from Apulia [the heel].”,
As for the major Allied invasion that the Germans expected, opinion had fluctuated on the exact place of the landings. Gaeta, Salerno, Rome. Apulia, northern Italy, Sardinia, even a direct invasion of the Balkans were among the sites considered. Reports from intelligence agents were useless-according to them, attacks were likely against all possible targets and some impossible ones too.
Lacking reliable strategic intelligence. Kesselring variously stressed Calabria, Apulia, and Naples as the most likely invasion sites. His inconsistency was perhaps motivated as much by real concern as by his desire to strengthen his forces in southern Italy at the expense of Rommel’s troops in the north. When Kesselring informed OKW on 29 August that five heavily guarded Allied aircraft carriers had departed Gibraltar and were proceeding eastward, this piece of evidence tied in with observations regarding the relocation of Allied landing ships in Sicily. New Allied attacks were obviously imminent.
The concentration of Allied strength in the western Mediterranean appeared to rule out a direct invasion of the Balkans. But whether the blow would fall on southern Italy, Sardinia and Corsica. or the Rome area remained in doubt. OKW inclined toward the Salerno or .Naples area, but Kesselring, who was disturbed by the inadequacy of his aerial reconnaissance, concluded that the invasion site was “entirely unpredictable.”
To meet an Allied invasion and also the threat of Italian attack, Kesselring had considerable forces in southern and central Italy. The successful evacuation from Sicily had added 60,000 men and all their individual equipment to the 75,000 troops already in the southern portion of the mainland. The troops were organized as follows: the 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions (about 30,000 men) were under the LXXVI Panzer Corps headquarters and withdrawing from Calabria; the Hermann Gӧring Division (reconstituted after its losses in Tunisia with troops available in Italy), the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division (activated in Italy), and the 16th Panzer Division (which had been destroyed at Stalingrad and reconstituted in France) totaled about 45,000 men and were deployed along the Italian west coast between Gaeta and Salerno under the XIV Panzer Corps headquarters.
Both corps, as well as the 1st Parachute (Fallschirmjäger) Division (about 17,000 men), which was stationed in the heel around Foggia, were under the Tenth Army headquarters. In. the Rome area, under the XI Flieger Corps headquarters, which was controlled directly by OB SUED, were the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division (which had also been destroyed at Stalingrad and reconstituted in France) and the 2nd Parachute (Fallschirmjäger) Division-about 43,000 men.
When reconnaissance pilots on 7 September spotted an Allied convoy north of Palermo moving on a northeasterly course, destination unknown, Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, ordered the LXXVI Panzer Corps to accelerate the withdrawal of its two divisions from Calabria. Specifically, he wanted the 26th Panzer Division to hold off the British Eighth Army at the Catanzaro neck, while the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division hurried to Castrovillari, ready to go from there either northeastward to Apulia or northward to Naples, preliminary steps to a withdrawal to Rome.
As pilots confirmed the movements of a large Allied convoy on the morning of 8 September, Tenth Army began to look for landings at Salerno or Naples. When reports on the size and composition of the convoy came in about noon-80 to 100 transports, the pilots suggested, and go to 100 landing craft, escorted by 10 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, as well as cruisers and destroyers – Vietinghoff placed the XIV Panzer Corps on the highest alert status. But since the destination of the convoy remained unclear and since the Allies might land at several points, Vietinghoff kept the three divisions of this corps guarding the Naples area-the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division at the Gulf of Gaeta, from Terracina in the north to the mouth of the Volturno, the Hermann Gӧring Division stretched from the Volturno to Castellammare on the northern shore of the Sorrento peninsula, and the 16th Panzer Division along the Gulf of Salerno as far south as Agropoli. Vietinghoff also, after conferring with the LXXVI Panzer Corps commander, General der Panzertruppen Traugott Herr, and with the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division commander, Generalmajor Walter Fries, ordered the withdrawal from Calabria once more accelerated. Fries was now to move his division to the head of the Gulf of Policastro to protect that part of the Italian west coast. The 26th Panzer Division was to retire from the Catanzaro neck, but slowly enough to insure the evacuation of all its materiel, especially its antiaircraft guns.
While Vietinghoff prepared to meet an Allied invasion in southern Italy, Kesselring remained apprehensive over the likelihood that the Allies would land near Rome. His headquarters at the suburban town of Frascati had been bombed and destroyed by Allied aircraft on 8 September in a one-hour attack at noon. Air sightings of several large invasion formations, heavily protected by warships and carriers and heading toward the west continued to be reported.
The German naval command buttressed Kesselring’s feeling by believing as he did that the Allies would come ashore immediately north or south of Rome, perhaps both. Although the German naval command later that day revised its estimate and indicated an expectation of Allied landings in the Gulls of Gaeta or Salerno, Kesselring remained concerned about Rome. At last becoming uneasy about the presence of several Italian divisions near Rome, he instructed Vietinghoff to alert the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division for a possible shift from Gaeta to the capital city. Later he advised Vietinghoff to look for landings near both Rome and Naples. But above all, Kesselring emphasized, Vietinghoff was to be ready to move one or two divisions of the XIV Panzer Corps to help the XI Flieger Corps in “the decisive fight against enemy landings and Italian troops near Rome.”
Neither Kesselring nor Vietinghoff had apparently worked out detailed plans on how to meet an Allied invasion anywhere. The reasons for this state of affairs were the recent activation of the Tenth Army, which had become operational only two weeks before; the recent redeployment from Sicily of divisions that were still reorganizing and making up losses in personnel and equipment; and the necessity for the Germans to coordinate their planning, at least officially, with the Italians, whom they expected to assume responsibility for coastal defense while the Germans mounted a counterattack with their mobile and armored forces. Nor had the German commanders in Italy given much attention to meeting an Allied invasion without Italian help.
Advance preparations consisted simply of alerting certain divisions for certain movements—the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division to be ready to move to Rome, the Hermann Gӧring and 16th Panzer Divisions to Apulia. If the Allies landed north of the LXXVI Panzer Corps and threatened to cut off the troops withdrawing from Calabria, or if Italian units attacked the corps, the German forces were to follow the previous instructions: they were to fight their way northward as best they could to Rome.
When Tenth Army at 2000, 8 September, picked up a London broadcast announcing the Italian armistice, Vietinghoff immediately called his Italian counterpart, who in good faith labeled the news a crude propaganda maneuver. Vietinghoff was on the point of issuing a message to his troops to deny the truth of the broadcast when confirmation of the Italian capitulation came from OB SUED.
In a telegram to Vietinghoff, Kesselring could hardly restrain his indignation. The Italians had “committed basest treachery … behind our backs.” But the Germans would continue to fight to the utmost “zum Heil,” for the salvation of Italy and Europe. If we retain our fighting spirit and remain dead calm, I am confident that we will continue to perform the tasks entrusted to us by the Fuehrer. Italian troops will be asked to continue the fight on our side by appeals to their honor. Those who refuse are to be ruthlessly disarmed. No mercy must be shown the traitors. Long live the Führer.
A message issued by the German naval command in Italy was more direct. “Italian armistice does not apply to us,” the naval headquarters announced. “The fight continues.” The Italian Seventh Army commander in the south, disconcerted and embarrassed by the action of his government, made no trouble for his former allies. He turned over to the Germans fuel and other supplies they needed. Some Italian units allowed themselves to be disarmed by the Germans after brief negotiations, others after an ultimatum or a skirmish.
In Naples, a hungry civilian population supported some Italian soldiers who threatened an antiaircraft installation manned by the only German unit in the city, but the arrival two days later of the combat troops quickly smothered the flare-up. In the Rome area Kesselring faced several hostile Italian divisions, but after a few days of confrontation, including a clash of arms, he became master of the situation. Italian units for the most part dissolved themselves, the troops throwing away their weapons and uniforms and disappearing overnight into the countryside. The threat of Italian resistance that the Allied command had hoped to raise against the German defenders at Salerno failed to materialize.
News of the Italian surrender on the evening of 8 September came the day before Hitler planned to sign the ultimatum and deliver his demands to the Italian Government. Had the surrender announcement been made several days later, Hitler would probably have already dispatched his paper. Having signed the armistice with the Allies, Italy would have had to stall for time. By then, all of the Tenth Army would probably have started its withdrawal to Rome, Instead, upon news of the Italian surrender, German units began to disarm the Italian Army and take over the coastal defenses. When the Allied invasion force arrived off the beaches of Salerno, the Germans were getting into position to oppose landings anywhere along the west coast of Italy. Thus, despite Hitler’s earlier intentions, the Germans found themselves defending Italy south of Rome. Hitler’s reluctance to withdraw his troops as long as the slightest possibility remained that Italy would continue in the war, the timing of the armistice announcement, which prevented the delivery of Hitler’s ultimatum, and the Allied invasion itself-these made inevitable the battle on the beaches of Salerno.
SOURCE: SALERNO TO CASSINO; by Martin Blumenson (United States Army Center of Military History)