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Background

In September 1943, the Allied forces invaded Southern Italy in combined amphibious operations in Reggio di Calabria (Operation Baytown), Salerno (Operation Avalanche) and Taranto (Operation Slapstick). At first, these operations were relatively successful: despite quite fierce resistance from the German Tenth Army, the Allied progressed quickly northwards on two fronts. However, they were stopped at the so called Winter Line, where the Germans exploited very successfully the natural geographical defenses provided by the Appennine Mountains. In January 1944 started the battle(s) of Montecassino, which ended only five months later after inflicting 55,000 casualties on the Allies (more than double the German ones). Even so, it would take one more month to take Rome. After that, the Allies moved quickly north to the so called Gothic line where they were once again halted in Autumn 1944 for several months (and in fact, the surrender of German forces in Northern Italy only happened in April 1945).

Historiographic significance

In French common historiography (as presented for instance in History textbooks), the Italian campaign is treated with great importance. I would conjecture that this is due to the heavy involvement of French Free Forces (mostly from Northern Africa) and to the fact that this was the first time in WWII where French forces inflicted significant defeats on German forces, thereby avenging the humiliating defeat of 1940. I would venture that this campaign may perhaps have the same significance in Poland, for the same reasons. The American, British and Canadian point of view seems much more ambiguous; possibly due to the heavy casualties suffered during the Italian campaign and the lack of symbolic military victories to remember.

Strategic significance

Whatever its place in current historiography, purely from a strategic point of view, the Italian campaign seems at first sight to be rather a German success. Of course, the Allied eventually came to prevail, but at an extremely high cost. Beside, had the war gone on after April, 1945, it is unclear to me where the forces in Italy would have gone and what their strategic use would have been. On the other hand, the opening of a second ground front in Western Europe was vitally important to relieve the Eastern Front and was actively campaigned for by Stalin.

With the benefits of historical hindsight, is the Italian campaign now considered a strategic mistake (or at least a sub-optimal strategy) by military historians?

For instance, is it now believed (again with hindsight) that canceling the Italian campaign in favor of advancing the combination of Operation Overlord and Operation Dragoon (whose progresses were much more spectacular, at least in part, it seems, because of the lack of natural defenses) would have been a better strategy? Or is it thought that these two operations had to take place in summer (in which case summer 1943 seems obviously too early and thus the Italian campaign was better than nothing)? Let me make it clear that I do not wish to speculate about alternative history and that I believe I have a reasonable understanding of why the Italian campaign was chosen against the alternatives at the time: my question is solely about the current strategic evaluation of this choice now that we know how events unfolded.

Update

I have learnt a lot from the two answers (and have up voted them accordingly) but still I wonder if @RI Swamp Yankee and @Tom Au (or anyone else, obviously) would care to expand their answers in the relative direction. For instance, Tom Au cites the psychological effect of knocking one of the Axis down. Sure, but wouldn't the liberation of France be an even greater psychological victory? Likewise for the economic impact : surely the bulk of industrial production was located in Northern Italy, which remained under German control almost to the end, and surely again the liberation of France would have deprived Germany of an even larger industrial base. And similarly again, or so it seems to me, with the number of German soldiers tied down: considering the excruciatingly slow and murderous progress the Allies made in Italy after the initial landing, perhaps the 240,000 soldiers and 4,000 planes engaged in Monte-Cassino would have been better employed in Normandy or in Provence. I mean, the statistics are rather damning: in just about a month, the 200,000 soldiers of Operation Dragoon inflicted 150,000 casualties on the German forces, provoked the withdrawal of the German army to the Vosges and suffered 20,000 casualties in the process; to be compared with what 240,000 sliders accomplished in Montecassino in 5 months at the price of 55,000 casualties.

Now again, I think I understand why the strategic decision to invade Italy was taken at the time. What I really want to know about more is whether the combined invasions of France (or any massive operation on the Western Front) was deemed possible in 1943/early 1944 or if it was deemed necessary to wait until the summer 1944 (for instance to ensure a favorable climate)?

References

Most of the facts discussed above are well resourced, starting with Wikipedia's page Italian campaign and references therein. The assertion about the role of the Italian campaign in popular French historiography comes from my own recollection of my education. Note also the tremendous box-office success of the movie Indigènes.

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This is a good example of a question that educates as well as inquires. I'd upvote if the assertions were linked to references/research. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 22 at 18:23

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The invasion of Italy was a huge psychological success for the Allies. It caused the Italian government to overthrow Mussolini in a coup d'etat and join the Allies. One (admittedly the weakest) of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis had fallen before the Allies lost one of their major powers (Britain, the Soviet Union or China) to the Axis. From this point of view, it was clear that the days of the Axis were numbered.

Forget about the fact that the Germans quickly occupied most of the Italian peninsula. It was the moral factor that mattered most, that the Italians was now officially pro-Ally, like the French or Poles, and that "Italy" was for now, just another German-occupied country. Also, close to 2 million Italian troops either laid down their arms, or were disarmed by the Germans because of "suspect" loyalty. Only about a third of the Italian army joined the Germans.

Another aspect of the Italian campaign was the establishment of a full "second front." After the battle of Kursk, some 20 (mostly) German divisions were transferred from Russia to Italy, a weakening equivalent to the Sixth Army lost at Stalingrad. (And the third of a million, mostly Italian men lost in North Africa represented a third "Stalingrad.") This prevented the Germans from stabilizing/rebuilding the Eastern front.

As to the liberation of France, tides, and other issues threatened to prevent a cross-Channel invasion (D-Day at Normandy was basically a 50-50 proposition. Given the choice in 1943 of invading Italy for sure or France "maybe," the Allies reasonably chose "Italy for sure."

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Thanks for your answer. However, from a purely psychological point of view, surely the liberation of France would have been more symbolic (as it was, eventually, but a year after). –  Olivier Jan 5 at 15:08
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@Olivier: France was an Allied country and its liberation meant a lot. But Italy was (initially) an ENEMY country, and "turning" it meant not only "+1" for the Allies but "-1" for the Germans. Besides, the invasion/liberation of Italy was a "down payment" on the liberation of France. And that's if for no other reason than a number of "occupying" Italian troops in France laid down their arms and forced the Germans to use some "front line" troops on garrison duty. –  Tom Au Jan 5 at 15:11
    
The full "Second Front" or the Invasion of France was out of the question until 1944. Not enough drilled troops, or support to make it work. So the choice of minor theater to keep things going is left to the Balkans, or Italy. Of the two, Italy is a better choice by far. –  Oldcat Jan 7 at 1:29

Italy was (and is) an industrial and financial powerhouse - Mussolini was an ineffective wartime leader, but the resources his nation lent Hitler were essential to continuing the war. Removing Italy from the Axis sphere of influence was high on the list of Allied strategic goals - remember, the Allies' game plan was to deny Germany the means to make war in support of aggressive offense and counter-offense.

More, by defending Italy, the Germans had to keep a major investment of men and materiel in the peninsula, which it could not bring to bear against the Soviets, or redeploy to defend against an invasion of France. This made long-term strategic sense, even if they were stalemated or out-fought during portions of the campaign.

It was a compromise between Roosevelt and Churchill made at the Casablanca Conference - the tried-and-true British strategy was to contain Continental threats with overwhelming Naval power, and weaken them with constant peripheral campaigns. The British were very keen to remove the Axis from the Mediterranean, particularly Sicily, as they could then dominate shipping from the Middle East and Subcontinent without German or Italian interference. American generals wanted to use their massive land-based strength to tackle the Germans head-on with an invasion of France.

Roosevelt and Churchill agreed on Italy, to meet British strategic goals, to prepare the way for D-Day to meet American strategic goals and to help clear a path for the Russians in the East. In return for playing things their way, the British would step up their efforts to bolster American allies in the Pacific.

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Unfortunately I cannot upvote while this statement remains (without evidence): "Italy was (and is) an industrial and financial powerhouse". However, the 500,000 men that Italy maintained (largely in Balkans garrisons) had to be replaced by German troops, to the detriment of other theatres. I think that would be a better point to make than Italian industry. With that change you will have written basically what I was intending to write this evening, and could upvote with a clear conscience. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 2 at 23:06
    
Here ya go: onwar.com/articles/0302.htm "During the battle of France, in 1940, Italy joined the war on the side of Germany/Austria. In terms of 1939 GDP, the Allies to Axis ratio now stood at 0.86 because of the addition of Italian GDP to the Axis." –  RI Swamp Yankee Jan 2 at 23:20
    
Interesting link; thank you. I agree Italy was more than insignificant; but it was not then, and nor is it now, an economic powerhouse. Als don't see any of Canada, AUstralis, New Zealand, South Africa, and India in that analysis. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 2 at 23:27
    
Here's another one - all of the UK colonies in total, SA, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Singapore, India, etc, were ~240bln in GDP, not all of which could be mobilized: www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/academic/harrison/… –  RI Swamp Yankee Jan 2 at 23:38
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@PieterGeerkens - There were only two large industrial powers, USSR and UK. Italy was a major, top-ten world economy with a top-five per-capita GDP. If that ain't a powerhouse, I don't know what is. –  RI Swamp Yankee Jan 2 at 23:52

The Italian campaign, while it diverted German troops from the Russian front, also diverted landing craft, troops and other resources from the Allied buildup to invade France, delaying that event into 1944. As an earlier post noted, when the Allies did invade France from the south, they inflicted substantial casualties on the Germans at a far lower cost than did the battle of Monte Cassino--which was not the pivotal battle in the campaign. And, the Sixth Army group--the one that invaded southern France--was at the Rhine before the units that invaded Normandy were. The group was stopped from invading Germany by Eisenhower.

The Germans used the excellent defensive terrain of Italy to slow down the Allies at great cost in men and materiel and still occupied the northern, industrial heart of Italy when Allen Dulles succeeded in getting them to capitulate. See his book, "The Secret Surrender". The Allies never displaced the Germans from the north by force of arms. As Hannibal proved centuries earlier, the way to conquer Italy is from the alps, not from the south.

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There was no realistic way a cross channel invasion in 1943 was happening once Tunisia lasted until mid-May. A South France invasion without the cover of air support was not going to happen - and attacking Sardinia and Corsica without Sicily wasn't practical either. –  Oldcat Aug 22 at 18:42

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