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The Allied landing in Italy had slowed to a halt by December 1943, just 75 miles south of Rome. The combination of bad weather and a determined German resistance formed "The Gustav Line," a defensive line set up along the entire width of Italy as a roadblock against an Allied advance. The main defensive strong point was the town of Cassino, which protected Highway 6, the pathway to Rome. The Allies started their offensive again on 2 January, but could not go around Cassino. Commanding the US 5th Army, General Mark Clark decided to reorganize and try again on 12 January, this time with British and French help. The plan was to get the Germans to move their strength from Rome to the front line, then secretly invade the coast behind the Gustav Line as a distraction. President Roosevelt had to approve it first, since it would require 56 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) to be taken from the upcoming Normandy invasion. The LSTs were in short supply and could hold up to 60 tanks that would land on the shore and move forward. The priority of the landing was debated, but it was finally approved.

At 2 am on 22 January 1944 the Allies landed at the coastal city of Anzio without any opposition and no German positions between them and Rome. The Allies then foolishly spent too much time organizing on the beachheads, which allowed the Germans to meet the invasion with resistance then reinforce their positions with 8 divisions. This ruined any chance of capitalizing on a distraction. By 28 January the US 3rd division and British 1st division had only advanced 10 miles into Italy, frustrating Churchill. Eventually the Allies were counter-attacked and General Clark was forced to call up 2 divisions because the Germans were completely determined to hold onto Europe. General von Makensen led his 14th Army in a counter-attack on 16 February, knocking the Allies back 4 miles in just 2 days. By 19 February the Germans had crushed the Allies into virtually nothing, with just 1 British battalion taking the brunt of the German thrust. The next day the weary Allies were pelted with artillery fire and the German infantry actually made it through the barbed wire and minefield perimeter. They were stopped by the fearless British, who fought back desperately in bloody hand-to-hand combat, even after losing half their men. Many battalions, both German and Allied, were cut down to less than 100 men. Even the Luftwaffe continued their pressure in spite of being outnumbered 10 to 1. On 1 March, however, the Germans finally pulled back, just as the Allies were too worn out to break through German lines. Yet another stalemate was reached at nearly zero gain.

On 14 January the Soviets began their last counter-attack on the failed German siege on Leningrad, and 5 days later the city was completely liberated. At the same time the US pushed for Finland to seek peace so that the best possible settlement could be reached, but the Germans wanted a separate settlement. On 6 February the Soviets bombed the Finnish capital of Helsinki, and 4 days later Kota was bombed too. By 12 February the Finns realized that they could not defeat the Soviets and met with them to seek peace. The Soviets' demands were strict, and would not give the Finns any concessions, but they would have to return all Soviet POWs, agree to the borders established after the Winter War 4 years earlier, demobilize their army, give up the Petsamo region and pay $600 million in reparations. The Finns were outraged and the fighting continued.

Located halfway between Naples and Rome, the mountaintop of Monte Cassino was the only path suitable for vehicles, as well as an important peak overlooking the valley in which Cassino lay. The peak was considered a holy place since the 6th century and the ancient monastery on top had been besieged many times over the last 1420 years because of its strategic value. When the Germans first moved into Italy, they warned the monks of the impending war and took out the holy artifacts, claiming they were defending them from Allied pillaging. Many cultural treasures were stored in the basement of Monte Cassino to protect them from Allied bombs. The Germans were right to be wary of the Allies because they needed to pass through Cassino to get to Rome, and would have to take it by force. On 24 January, French forces attacked north of Monte Cassino to flank the German positions, but it failed. Soon after, British, New Zealand and Indian troops were called in to take the town, but the commander of the New Zealand forces at Cassino, General Bernard Freyberg, did not want to proceed until the abbey was heavily bombed. He suspected the Germans were hiding in the abbey and using it as an observation tower because their artillery fire was extremely accurate. General Clark disagreed, arguing that if the abbey was destroyed that the Germans would turn the ruins into a defensive nest that the Allies would have great difficulty neutralizing. The Allied commander in Italy, British General Harold Alexander, had the authority to approve a bombing and sided with Freyberg. The result became one of the warís great military blunders.

Beginning at 9:45 am on 15 February, 2 waves of 142 B-17 bombers, plus 43 B-25 and B-26 bombers dropped 400 tons of bombs on Monte Cassino. Soon after the Allied bombing, the Germans quickly scrambled to the ruins and turned it into a defensive fortress, just as Clark had feared. For a millennium and a half it had withstood the ravages of time and war but now the buildings there were completely destroyed and the monks were forced to evacuate. After the inevitable protest throughout the world, the Germans began to reinforce Monte Cassino while Freybergís follow-up attack failed to make any headway. On 16 February the 4th Indian division led another disastrous attack, much like the US 34th division before, because the Germans were just too good and too dug in. The 2nd New Zealand division tried but after 3 days the attack was shut down in the midst of severe weather. Even though the Germans were victorious, they were in a predicament because all of their reserves had been sent to battle the Allies at Anzio. On 15 March the streets of Cassino were hit with 1000 tons of bombs and nearly 900 guns. 500 bombers also attacked the town of Cassino and pulverized its buildings. When the Allied infantry finally moved in, there were only 100 Germans left from the elite 1st Airborne division, but they fought valiantly with every gun they had. The Allied assaults were again canceled on 23 March because the casualties were too high for such little gain.

The Allies also launched "Operation Strangle" in order to bomb railways, bridges and cut communication lines throughout northern Italy. The aircraft assault was successful, but failed to force Field Marshal Kesselring to retreat from the Gustav Line. General Harold Alexander then took personal command of the campaign and ordered a major attack, using the British 8th Army and 2nd Polish Corps, code-named "Operation Diadem." 11 May marked the beginning of a week of intense fighting and the Germans made life difficult for the Allies by diverting the Rapido river to flood the plains near Cassino. Early casualties were frightening: the US 36th division, headed by General Fred Walker, were repelled from crossing the Rapido river and lost 1681 men in the first 2 days alone. The US 34th division lost 2200 men when they tried to advance near Monte Cassino, and the British X Corps lost 4000 men, but not before establishing a small bridgehead at the Garigliano river. Polish troops from II Corps, under General Wladyslaw Anders, did not fare much better, although they were filled with a resolve to avenge their destroyed homeland by seeking revenge upon the Germans. However, the Germans were simply too well dug in and their snipers and artillery were precisely aimed with the view they had from the peak.

The Allies did have strength in numbers, and perhaps drew most from the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) near Esperia (southwest of Monte Cassino), which contained Free French troops, the 2nd Moroccan infantry division and 3rd Algerian infantry division. These North Africans were experts at mountain warfare and could silently scale 3800 foot cliffs by night then take out German guards using knives. With help from the US 1st armored division and well-aimed artillery, the German armor in Esperia was eliminated and the German troops surrounded resulting in 1200 German POWs. It was not until Kesselring believed that the French forces in the valley posed a threat to him that began to retreat, allowing the Allies to advance upon Monte Cassino more steadily. Finally on 17 May the Poles attacked the monastery for a third time and the following day raised their flag proudly above Monte Cassino. This allowed the 6th Corps, stuck at Anzio, to break out and move up to Rome, which was captured on 4 and 5 June. The Germans escaped in another blunder by the Allies, who could have easily taken the fragile region. To assist in the upcoming Normandy landing, they instead wanted to invade southern France, which was one of the most ineffective operations in the whole war. Consequently the Germans retreated to the "Gothic Line" in Italy and prevented any Allied advance for months. This campaign was not entirely unproductive since it kept the German forces out of Normandy, making that infamous invasion a little easier. However, both sides suffered tremendously, with the Allies sacrificing 108,000 casualties, while the Germans had 80,000.

After the German disaster at Kursk, the Soviets continued to push German forces out of southwestern Russia. On Christmas Eve, 1943 General Koniev began attacks in the Ukraine to liberate Zhitomin and Korosten, which was taken on 5 January 1944. Hitler again prevented the Wehrmacht from retreating and soon the Soviets surrounded 60,000 Germans near Kirovograd. Field Marshal von Manstein tried to help them with his Panzers, but muddy ground and keen Soviet awareness prevented a full escape, but about half the Germans made it out. Then the 1st Panzer Army was surrounded on 4 March, and the Soviets began to tighten their grip on the faltering Army Group A. Field Marshal von Manstein pleaded with Hitler for more reinforcements to help his 1st Panzer Army, and for once Hitler agreed, but then removed von Manstein from command. The Red Army marched into Romania on 10 April, then pushed into the Crimean peninsula, which was defended by the German 17th Army, who were now cut off. Hitler would not help them evacuate, so he sent in more troops, but even with those reinforcements they were still outnumbered 5 to 1. The Soviets pushed them to the coast of the Black Sea and had the Wehrmacht on the ropes. During the first week in May the desperate Germans tried to evacuate, but only 1000 men out of the original 122,000 managed to escape.

The invasion of western Europe had been in the works since the fall of France in 1940. Amazingly, Hitler still controlled much of Europe even this late in the war with all his crushing defeats. Stalin had urged the Allies to invade the west since Hitler first invaded the USSR, since the Germans put nearly all of their muscle into attacking the Soviets. They suffered staggering casualties, and continued to lose 13,000 men a day and if the Germans had to defend another front, they would ease the Soviets' pain by transferring their troops to defend against the Allied invasion. The problem was that the Allies simply were not ready for an invasion of "Fortress Europe," because the Germans were an elite fighting force and the Allies, especially the Americans, were not nearly on the same level. There was also the fact that there simply were not enough soldiers or equipment to stage an effective invasion, which would have to be a one-shot try at cracking the German defenses. Additionally, the decision was made to attack the periphery of the German empire and move in gradually, thereby weakening the German war machine over time. Had they invaded Germany to seize Berlin at the onset of the war, it is likely that the few available Allied troops would have been annihilated.

For the American troops, it was not that they were unfit for combat, it was that they lacked the wealth experience the Germans had amassed. Only the 1st division and 82nd Airborne division of the nearly 50 US divisions that were used for the Normandy invasion had previous combat experience, making the US Army the most inexperienced major power in the war. But what the Americans lacked in experience, they made up for in their physical and mental strength. One third of US men drafted were rejected for health reasons, making the military a strong fighting force. The average US soldier was 26, 5 foot 8 inches, and weighed 151 pounds. Additionally, almost 50% were high school graduates and 10% had some college, which may not sound too impressive by today's standards, but at the time they were among the most educated enlisted soldiers ever.

During the Allied conference at Tehran, the "Big Three" (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) agreed that the invasion of western Europe would be in France in May of 1944. By this time Italy was crumbling to the Allied invasion and Hitler knew that France would be the primary spot for the next invasion, even larger than the one in Italy. Consequently he appointed Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as head of German forces in western Europe, who then gave a familiar friend the job of constructing a line of defense to shield against Allied attacks: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. He poured millions of tons of concrete to make bunkers along the French coast, then put all kinds of heavy guns, artillery and machine guns within. He put large concrete pyramids in open fields, called "Dragonís Teeth" to stop tanks and telephone pole-sized tree trunks called "Rommelís asparagus" to shred any gliders that may attempt a landing. The primary landing zones for paratroopers were flooded so that they would get stuck in their parachutes and drown. Finally, he put half a million obstacles on the beaches of Normandy, like telephone poles with mines attached so that if a landing craft bumped into it, it would detonate. Railroad tracks were welded together in a star-like shape to rip out the bottom of the landing craft as it approached the shore. Rommel personally inspected his Atlantikwall defense system and firmly believed that they had to stop the Allies cold on the beach to win the war.

The Allies had a plan of their own, called "Operation Bodyguard," which would deceive the Germans about the Allied invasion. "Operation Fortitude" became the blanket code name for the British tricking the Germans into believing there were other invasion sites besides Normandy. When the war first began, all German agents in Britain were imprisoned and forced to be double-agents by giving Germany trivial information that was accurate, thereby winning over the Nazis' trust. Now that it was time for the invasion, the German double-agents gave false information to Berlin and tricked them into thinking the Allies had vastly more divisions than they actually had. To back this up, "dummy divisions" were created by constructing wooden tanks, buildings and landing craft so that when German air reconnaissance saw them, they believed in the outlandish Allied numbers. Additionally, the Allies sent out bogus radio transmissions about divisions that did not exist to be intentionally intercepted by the Germans, who believed every word.

The Allies' ruse spread much further than just Britain. In Sweden, the stock market was intentionally rigged to make it look like Norway would soon be liberated. The British then trained their troops in Scotland for a Norweigan invasion, complete with radio chatter about obtaining winter gear supplies. This kept 200,000 German troops on full alert along the Norweigan coast. "Operation Zeppelin" faked a Balkan invasion via Egypt, causing the Germans to allow only 1 Mediterranean division to be diverted to France. In addition, French resisters helped the Allies by sabotaging trains and railways so that when the invasion came, the Germans would be unable to get reinforcements and supplies via railway. British civilians sent in their vacation photos of the Normandy beaches for intelligence analysts to pour over. Even more intriguing was the secret commando frogmen who actually slipped ashore at night to take samples of the sand to determine its capacity for a massive invasion. Perhaps the best bit of trickery came from one of the biggest names of the war--General Patton. Despite sitting out of the actual invasion, he played an incredibly important role in its success. Patton was made a Commanding Officer of a false Army "positioned" to invade the French city of Calais. Not coincidentally, German POWs were released through the Red Cross, including one German General who conspicuously had dinner with General Patton. Patton overtly mentioned Calais in conversation, and the German General later passed this on to German authorities. Believing that Patton was the Allies' top General, they truly believed he would be the commander of the invasion spearhead.

The real invasion would be a monumental task; the largest military invasion in all of history. While western history has placed more importance on "D-Day" than necessary, it was still a critical moment in time. WWII was not and could not be decided by June 6 alone, but it certainly affected the outcome. Germany's unconditional surrender hinged on Allied success in Normandy because a western front, along with the Italian campaign and Russian front, assured complete victory in which no remnant of the Nazi government could stand. Most German commanders realized the war was lost, but if they could only hold the Allies at bay in the west, or at least demoralize them enough, they could reach a treaty and turn their attention to the eastern front. If the Germans stopped the Allies from invading France, they would have to try again later, losing all elements of surprise and facing even stronger resistance. Perhaps more importantly, if the British and Americans were delayed in liberating western Europe, the Soviets would have marched into all of Germany and maybe France, claiming it as theirs and all of history would be re-written. Thus the Allies knew this was a must-win situation and began deciding the location of the invasion. They had debated about the landing site, arguing that the shortest route (to Calais) was too obvious and would be met with severe resistance. A Belgian landing would have beeen too far behind enemy lines and a western French landing would not be far enough into the Reich. The decision was made to land in Normandy because of the favorable terrain and proximity to Britain. This way they would break France in two and have a clear path to Berlin.

There would be 5 beaches code-named (from west to east): Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The US 4th division would land on Utah, the 1st division (with the 116th regiment of the 29th division) at Omaha, the British 50th division at Gold, the Canadian division at Juno, and the British 3rd division at Sword. Their objectives varied, but they were supposed to advance 5 to 12 miles at varying places up the coast of Normandy. The invasion would involve a multi-national 39 divisions, 3000 landing craft, 2500 ships and 500 escorts, all covered by 13,000 aircraft. It would also require the construction of an artificial harbor, named "Mulberry," to create favorable sea conditions for incoming ships. The Americans initially opposed the project but it was agreed there would be an American harbor, Mulberry A, and a British harbor, Mulberry B. Designed by Allan Beckett and built by the Royal Engineers of the British army, the British harbor was an engineering feat. Scuttled ships, concrete blockhouses and an ingenious anchor system would be put in place after the Normandy beachhead was established. This would create the necessary sheltered port to supply the Allies as they advanced inland. Despite in-house fighting between the British Army and Navy, the Allies worked for months to complete it on time. This was more of a strain on the British because they had invested great energy and resources into it. To them, it was a valuable military asset designed to withstand the violent channel waters. The Americans, on the other hand, saw theirs as expendable, and did not listen to warnings about the tempestuous seas. As a result, the Construction Battalion team built theirs much quicker, although it would not last as long.

Eisenhower set "D-Day" (D stands for "Day," meaning the day of the invasion) for 5 June, but bad weather pushed it to 6 June. The Germans in the west, under von Rundstedt, had 38 active coastal divisions with only a handful of reserve divisions and 160 available aircraft. He knew the invasion was imminent, but during the first few days in June the weather was deplorable and an invasion seemed impossible. In fact, German meteorologists were confident an invasion would be impossible before August. Additionally, the Germans figured the invasion to be at high tide, so that the troops would have less distance to reach the beach, so a morning attack was unlikely. Still, the Germans found out all to soon that the Allies would come, and in numbers.

The US 82nd and 101st Airborne were to drop on the east side of Normandy invasion 6 hours before the landing. The 101st division was to land behind Utah beach at "A," "C," and "D" zones and the 82nd division would land at "N," "O," and "T" zones north of the Douve river. The plan for the 101st was to destroy 2 bridges, capture La Barquette and capture the 4 exitways of Utah so the incoming 4th division could move out. The 82nd would take St. M?e ?lise, Merdere river and destroy 2 bridges. At midnight on 6 June, 900 C-47s carrying 13,000 men set out for France. Allied planes had their wings painted with heavy black and white stripes to easily identify themselves from any German aircraft, which by this point in the war were becoming a rarity. There were so many Allied planes used that nearly all the white paint in England ended up on their wings. The Allies continued to trick the Germans by sending British Lancaster bombers near Calais. They dropped metallic strips called "window," which fooled German radar, thereby diverting German ships and planes away from Normandy. Also dropped were dummy paratroopers that mimicked combat sounds to attract German attention away from the real airborne.

However, what the real paratroopers experienced that day was horrible. They immediately took heavy German fire, killing many men trapped inside and forced the planes to swerve about the night sky. As a result, the paratroopers were scattered all around, nowhere near the landing zone. Once out of the plane, they were gunned down before even reaching the ground, and many of the ones who landed drowned in the flooded fields. The survivors were completely unaware of their location and were often alone or in ineffectively small groups facing 2 regiments of the German 91st division and their 6th parachute regiment. The few that could organize into a squad were under unfamiliar commanders doing unfamiliar tasks. The one advantage they did have was that they confused the Germans because their dispersed troops cloaked their true numbers and their mission objectives. 2400 Americans were killed or seriously injured that night.

D-Day continued...

Late 1944


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