Eighty years ago the Italian campaign proper gets off to an inauspicious start


 The Allies staged the major landing aimed at capturing Naples in the first stage of conquering Italy. In operation Avalanche one US and one British corps landed at Salerno south of the city under the command of US general Mark Clark. This was the first time British forces were commanded by a US officer in a major operation. Clark was a favourite of General Eisenhower but he had only been a staff officer; this was his first battle command. The Germans were well prepared and staged two full scale counter attacks on the bridgehead which came close to pushing the Allies back into the sea. Faulty planning by Clark has been blamed. The British corps commander Richard McCreery did much to save the situation although 300 British replacement troops mutinied and refused to go to their new units because promises to return them to their original units were broken. Fire support from almost unopposed allied naval units provided critical assistance. The remaining Bitish forces under Montgomery had only just begun the 300 mile journey from the toe of Italy to join the battle.

The Italian government under Marshal Badoglio surrendered practically unconditionally but the dividends to the Allies were slim. The Germans were fully prepared and took military control of all of Italy. Some Italian units were forcibly dispersed but the vast bulk of the Italian army disarmed itself and disintegrated. It is questionable whether Italian forces would have mounted much  worthwhile resistance, given their low morale. To complete the German clean sweep, Mussolini, who had been detained by the Badoglio government, was freed from the mountain hotel on the Gan Sasso in the Abruzzi by regular paratroopers commanded by Major Mors.  Otto Skorzeny, the SS special forces commander, was in overall control and flew Mussolini to meet Hitler in Austria and thus claim the credit for the mission.

The British scored a major own goal by formally ordering all their PoWs to remain in their camps throughout Italy. In part it was expected that they would soon be liberated; in part staff officers did not want the administrative problem of processing small groups of escapers. The order was rigorously enforced by a number of Senior British Officers but others allowed their charges to try to escape. The Germans were able to ship 50,000 British PoWs to Germany. Perhaps 11,500 escaped by reaching Italian lines and an unknown number were recaptured.

The Italian surrender allowed Churchill to indulge in one of its fits of strategic absurdity and launched a campaign against the Italian held islands of the Dodecanese. He was forever in thrall to the fantasy that there was a 'soft under-belly' to Europe that required minimal effort to attack. The Gemans swiftly took over from the Italian garrison on Rhodes, the most important of the islands, but the British ploughed ahead with the occupation of three smaller islands, well outside the range of effective Allied air support.