On the whole, historians have not been kind to General Mark Clark and his handling of the Italian campaign. He wavered at Salerno, say his detractors, sent the Texans of the US 36th Division to needless deaths across the River Rapido, and most heinous of all, disobeyed General Alexander’s orders to cut off the retreating German 10th Army at Valmontone during the DIADEM Battle for Rome, and instead turned the bulk of his forces through the Alban Hills in an effort to reach the Italian capital more quickly. This decision, it has been argued, was motivated largely by personal vanity and an unchecked arrogance that corrupted his military judgement.
However, as is often the case with many received views in history, a careful re-examination of the evidence offers an alternative reading of events in which Clark emerges with greater credit.
General Alexander, the Commander of Allied Armies in Italy, had begun planning for Operation DIADEM, the Allies’ Spring offensive, in February 1944. The bulk of both British Eighth Army and US Fifth Army had been moved into the twenty-mile stretch of land from north of Cassino town to the Tyrrhenian coast, so that Alexander could have a much needed 3:1 majority in manpower along the main battle front. Fine weather was undoubtedly a key element in any potential offensive operation in Italy, and so Alexander set the date for the launch of his battle at 11 May, by which time it was felt the ground would be hard enough to allow the Allies the chance to bring to bear their massive superiority in armour and air power.
After nearly three months’ detailed and careful planning, Alexander issued his final Operation Order on 5th May, and in it he made crystal clear his aim for the coming battle: ‘To destroy the right wing of the German Tenth Army: to drive what remains of it and the German Fourteenth Army North of Rome; and to pursue the enemy to the Rimini-Pisa line inflicting the maximum losses on him in the process.’
But getting away they were. Von Viteinghoff and his senior commanders, von Senger included, had, since the collapse of the Senger Line, been doing their best to persuade Kesselring that a deep withdrawal was their only course of action, and had not only made plans but had begun to act on them in anticipation of approval. Kesselring’s hands, however, were tied by Hitler and the German High Command, and so he initially forbade such a retreat. It was, of course, too late, but not until 28 May did Kesselring give official orders for AOK 10 to begin a fighting retreat using the kind of delaying tactics that had been employed to such good effect following the battle at Salerno the previous autumn. Nor was there any talk of giving up Rome. Rather, Kesselring’s two armies were to eventually fall back behind the Caesar Line, the last major defensive position south of Rome. Like the Gustav Line, it ran across the width of Italy, beginning some fifteen miles south of Rome. It was far from complete, having only been begun in March, but was still another considerable defensive barrier, and which once again made the most of the high ground wherever possible.
The Allies had been aware of the Caesar Line, or ‘C-Position’ before the battle, and its existence was another reason why Alexander and Harding had favoured blocking off AOK 10 before they fell behind it with a strike from the Anzio bridgehead. Yet although this thrust towards Valmontone had been an integral part of Alex’s battle plan, Clark had never been so convinced that this was the one and only course of action. Always the most assiduous planner, Clark was not prepared to leave anything to chance, and so had prepared three possible lines of attack from the bridgehead. One was towards Valmontone as Alex envisaged; the second was south-easterly towards Sezze in case the attack in the south had not gone as well as hoped; and the third was north to Rome via the Appian Way – or Route 7 – to the west of the Colli Laziali in the Alban Hills. Clark briefed his commanders on 5 May outlining all these plans, but later in the day, Alex visited him and told him to concentrate on only one line of attack. ‘He said that the only attack he envisages is from the beachhead,’ noted Clark, ‘is the Cisterna-Cori-Valmontone attack.’ Three days later the two men had a further conference, where Alex directly expressed his concerns that Clark was not ‘all-out’ for the attack towards Valmontone and that he felt he was not in agreement with his plans. ‘I told Alexnader that I wanted to attack out of the beachhead with everything I had,’ noted Clark, ‘that if conditions were right I wanted to attack towards Cori [and Valmontone] but that what I was guarding against was pre-conceived ideas as to what exactly was to be done.’ Clark agreed that they potentially had a big opportunity for a great victory but was wary of over-optimism. In light of his experiences so far in Italy, this was understandable. ‘He kept pulling on me the idea that we were to annihilate the entire German Army,’ continued Clark, ‘and did it so many times that I told him that I did not believe that we had too many chances to do that; that the Boche was too smart.’ Clark insisted that he wanted to maintain his flexibility, although his biggest concern had been that the main attack along the southern front might be stalled and that Alex would then order a premature breakout from Anzio. ‘I told him that I had directed Truscott to give first priority to the Cori attack,’ added Clark, ‘but that he would continue plans for the attack to the west of Colli Laziali. I wanted to have plans prepared to meet any eventuality, keeping my mind free of any definite commitment before the battle started.’ With this, their meeting ended – unresolved.
Clark still expressed his desire for flexibility even once it was clear the main attack in the south was going well. During his meeting with Alex on 18 May, he raised the issue of the direction of VI Corp’s attack from the bridgehead once more. Alex was again adamant that an attack in the direction of Valmontone was the only course of action. When Clark pointed out the mountains he might have to fight through in order to take Valmontone, Alex ‘brushed this aside.’ The following day, during a meeting with Truscott, his VI Corps commander, Clark once again stressed that he wanted to maintain flexibility, regardless of Alex’s orders. The plan to thrust towards Valmontone would be carried out as directed, but Truscott should be prepared to change the line of attack northwest towards Rome. ‘Much depended,’ added Clark, ‘upon the German reaction to the attack on the main Allied front.’
What had concerned Alex was less his suspicion that Clark had other ulterior intentions, but more what he perceived as a lack of aggressiveness and over-caution. Yet Clark did have some reasons for caution. The attack to Cori and then on to Valmontone meant funnelling VI Corps from the flat plain around Anzio into a comparatively narrow stretch of softly undulating low ground of about twenty miles. To their right were the Lepini Mountains, with Cori, and further on, Artena, lying on the lower slopes of the edge of this range. On their left, as they advanced, were the Alban Hills, in which the Caesar Line lay. Velletri, like Cori opposite, lay on the lower slopes overlooking the low ground. Before the battle, Clark would have been aware that potentially, he could have had enemy troops in the high ground either side of him. He was also aware that making a flank march across two fronts of an undefeated force was a classic military sin. The threat to his southern flank had all but gone – although not entirely – by the evening of 25 May, but the threat to his flanks from the Alban Hills was very much still there. In fact, much of AOK 14 lay dug in along the Caesar Line, and from Clark’s point of view, there was no guarantee that they would not counter-attack and assault his vulnerable flank and rear. After the near-failure at Salerno and the debacle of the Rapido, and following the disappointments of Anzio, and now the hard-fought success of the past two weeks, there was no way Clark was going to risk a major set-back now. To his mind, AOK 14 had to be faced, and that meant continuing the pressure on Velletri.
Furthermore, Fifth Army intelligence reports suggested on 25 May that the German 362nd Division had withdrawn towards Valmontone to the east of Velletri. On the evidence of the way the Germans had fought the battle so far, Clark also suspected von Mackensen would shift units from the Alban Hills into the Valmontone gap, which would in turn then thin out the German forces along the Caeasr Line to the north.
Moreover, he was not convinced that much could be achieved by pushing across to Valmontone. It would mean overextending his line of supply from the bridgehead, and, in any case, beyond the town lay more mountains, whose valleys cut across any potential line of advance.
As it happened, although Kesselring and his commanders were worried about such a threat to Valmontone, their concern was for the right wing of AOK 10 only, and they certainly did not envisage the whole of AOK 10 being destroyed there. In fact, the Via Casilina that passed through Valmontone was just one of five escape routes von Viteinghoff and his two corps commanders planned to use for their withdrawal. The other four all concertinaed northwards out from the narrow southern front, and hence further away from Valmontone with every mile. The next route to the east of Valmontone, for example, led through Genazzano, eight miles by a rough, track road across mountains; north of that lay another route, through Subiaco, fourteen miles as the crow flies, but barred from Valmontone by further mountains and only tracks, or strade bianche, as they are known in Italy. The fifth route was more than forty miles as the crow flies, and many more on the ground. VI Corps did not have trained mountain troops; some American paratroops dropped in to block these escape routes might have been put to good use, but Clark was did not consider using the 509th Airborne Combat Team – who were out of the line but theoretically available – for this. Thus the chances of heavily motorised US troops being able to speed over mountains and across rivers – there were a minimum of five to reach Subiaco, for example – and cut off the retreating Germans, who were lightly motorised, and mostly passing down existing valley roads, was extremely slim.
At any rate, on the morning of 26 May, Clark issued orders which split his forces into two lines of attack rather than one. The 34th Red Bull and the 45th Divisions were now thrown northwest of Velletri through the Alban Hills, with almost all 1st Armored supporting them around Velletri, and with 36th Texas Division ready to attack northwards too. He preferred to deal with the threat to his flank by turning and attacking it face on; and it was also his judgement that this was the best and quickest way to take Rome, with the chance of destroying a large part of AOK 14 in the process. The other half of his forces – 3rd Infantry and 1st Special Force – were to carry on driving towards Valmontone, with the FEC continuing to push through the Lepini Mountains towards the Via Casilina, and II Corps also sweeping north.
On the other hand, there were also sound arguments for sticking with Alex and Harding’s original plan. AOK 10 was on the run and, even if the Germans did reinforce Valmontone, the momentum was with the Americans and they would have surely won the day. By severing the Via Casilina, a number of German units would have been destroyed even if perhaps not the majority of AOK 10. Certainly, Truscott was dumbfounded by the decision, and protested vociferously. Even once he heard Clark’s reasons for the switch he still believed the change of attack was mistaken, although did his best to fall in line. General Harmon, commander of the 1st Armored, was also deeply gloomy about the change of plan, as was Colonel Hamilton Howze. ‘It was a dreadfully bad decision,’ noted Hamilton. ‘It is a cardinal battle principle that in attack one should reinforce success.’ The change around also caused organisational difficulties – Howze Force, for example, was now seconded to 3rd Division, with the accompanying change of command structure. His main gripe, however – and shared by Harmon – was not the missed opportunity to annihilate AOK 10, but rather that Clark was losing out on a golden opportunity to capture Rome quickly.
Equally horrified was Eric Sevareid, who attended Clark’s press briefing on the morning of 26 May. He could not understand why the Allies were now apparently abandoning the officially stated strategy. ‘It seemed to some of us,’ he wrote, ‘that in view of Alexander’s declaration that the aim of the campaign was the destruction of the enemy in Italy, this was a serious mistake.’ In his next broadcast script he wrote, “There is a question whether the two aims [of getting Rome and of destroying the enemy] are compatible or mutually exclusive.” The censors cut this line and at a further briefing Clark referred directly to Eric’s suggestion that they might no longer be able to capture the bulk of the Germans. “That is sheer nonsense,” Clark told the assembled correspondents, pointing out the numerous lines of German escape to the north-east of Valmontone. ‘Now the General spoke in a manner,’ added Eric, ‘that seemed to deny that the idea had ever entered his head.’
What Clark was doing in front of the press, in the full knowledge that his words would be quoted around the world, was justifying his decision on military terms and making the point that he had never really approved of the Valmontone line of attack in the first place. This was seriously bad form. Clark expected complete loyalty from his subordinate commanders; Truscott, for example, strongly disagreed with Clark’s change of attack, but dutifully supported his boss, and obeyed orders. Clark, on the other hand, regardless of the merits or otherwise of his reasoning, was flagrantly undermining his boss, Alexander, undermining him and, by changing the plan without full consultation with his superior, disobeying his orders. It was very much Alex’s command style to get what he wanted by suggestion and gentle coercion, but when he gave specific and repeated orders, he meant them to be obeyed.
At the time, however, he accepted Clark’s judgement, believing that VI Corps was attacking northwards in support of the main drive to Valmontone. Later that day, Alex even visited the VI Corps front, and although he did not see Clark, he did spend time with General Al Gruenther, Clark’s much respected and widely liked Chief of Staff. Having been briefed by Gruenther, Alex told him, “I am for any line of action which the Army Commander believes will offer a chance to continue his present success.” A few minutes later Alex added, “I am sure that the Army Commander will continue to push towards Valmontone, won’t he?” Gruenther assured him he was continuing to do so. ‘I am certain that he left with no mental reservations as to the wisdom of your attack,’ Gruenther wrote later in a message to Clark. ‘He stated that if you are able to capture the high ground north of Velletri it would put the enemy at a serious disadvantage, and would practically ensure the success of the bridgehead attack.’
To begin with it looked as though Clark’s change of plan was going to bring a sweeping and rapid success, with the thrust towards Valmontone continuing to surge forward. As Colonel Howze’s tanks rumbled onwards they saw plenty of still-burning German vehicles, but almost no resistance. Travelling in his armoured car, Hamilton saw only signs that the Germans had given up the fight. At one point he watched the tank ahead of him fire three rounds into a field of wheat. ‘I thought this was imbecillic,’ he noted, ‘but went ahead to see an imploded 50mm German anti-tank gun with its crew strewn bloodily around. What had it been waiting for? It could have destroyed two or three of our tanks. The crew must have been exhausted – and asleep.’
As the day progressed, they swept past Artena, where the 3rd Infantry had surrounded the town, and by late afternoon the leading tanks of Howze Force were just a tantalising mile from Valmontone and the Via Casilina. As Howze approached in his armoured car, he could see three of his tanks burning. When he eventually caught up with his leading tank commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bogardus Cairns, he learned that they were now being engaged by large numbers of German infantry coming from the east, as well as a number of tanks from the north.
Howze ordered his tanks to fall back for the night. The following day Artena fell, and from the slopes above the town American artillery was now able to direct fire onto the Via Casilina. But the troops Howze Force had encountered were the men of the newly arrived 334th Division from the Adriatic, while the tanks were those of the Fallschirm Panzerkorps Hermann Göring, more units of which were had now reached the front. Also adding weight was the newly formed 92nd Infantry Division, and the remnants of the 715th Division who had joined them having retreated from the French. Suddenly, from having faced almost no opposition at all, there was now a sizeable German force holding open the Via Casilina and offering a solid wall through which the exhausted Americans simply could not punch a hole.
On the northern front, Clark’s forces had also had initial success before the Germans fell back behind the Caesar Line. At this point, the Americans were stopped dead, the enemy artillery from the high ground pinning them down and preventing them from even getting close to a breakthrough. For the moment, it looked as though Kesselring had at long last begun to stabilise his front.
Things were hardly going any better on the Eighth Army front. German rearguards, demolitions, mines, congestion, and far too many river crossings were grinding the massed armour of XIII Corps and the Canadian Corps almost to a halt, much to the frustration of everyone concerned, from Alexander and General Leese down to infantry privates like Stan Scislowski. In pushing through Ceprano, the Canadians were held up by a blown bridge across a wide section of the Liri. Stan ended up crossing the 120 foot stretch by rowing across in a flimsy wooden boat along with seven other infantrymen, with German mortars firing into the mass of vehicles still stranded on the other side all the while. He found it a deeply unnerving experience. That night the Canadian sappers worked hard to get a Bailey bridge across, only for it to buckle and collapse just as they were about to push the structure the last few yards to reach the far side. Stan heard that some of the sappers openly wept when the bridge tumbled into the water. Instead of building another one, the armour and vehicles still waiting to cross backtracked and inched their way across another bridge further back. By the time the Canadian 5th Armoured Division was ready to roll forward again, it was the early hours of 28 May, and the enemy had safely pulled back once more.
North of Ceprano, the Liri Valley narrowed, and was criss-crossed with numerous tributaries of the Liri. As such, it was no longer suitable country for armoured warfare. The Via Casilina was repeatedly blocked by mines and German demolitions, while the secondary roads and tracks were too narrow and often steep-sided, making it impossible to deploy off them at all, and ensuring that any advance could only be made with a line of tanks one behind the other. Setbacks such as the bridging failure at Ceprano ensured that units were forced to pass through one another. No less than five divisions – two of which were armoured – were vying for space in this maze of narrow tracks, streams, and gullies. As everyone involved could see, it was utter mayhem. ‘In no way,’ noted Stan, ‘could it be described as an armoured juggernaut steamrolling its way through to Rome.’
Leese could have perhaps left some of his vehicles and armour behind and continued advancing more or less on foot, but he would need his motor transport once they emerged into the more open rolling countryside to the east and north of Rome. He wished he had been sent a division of mountain troops as he’d requested – troops trained in fighting in mountains and who were able to carry pack artillery and equipment by using mules and limited motor transport. But the best-trained mountain division, the 52nd, had been earmarked for Normandy, and France was now the priority.
While units of von Senger’s 14th Panzer Corps were holding the Allies at bay either side of the Via Casilina, the rest of AOK 10 was disappearing down the four other escape routes. Georg Zellner and his 3rd Battalion of the H und D Regiment, were ordered to pull back on 24 May, along with other units of the 44th Division. Carrying out a fighting retreat, they fell back down the fourth escape route in the direction of Sora. Following them hard were the New Zealanders of X Corps, who until then had not played an active part in the battle.
There were, however, some mountain troops that Alex could call on to help Eighth Army. Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps was gradually being squeezed out between Eighth Army on their right and US II Corps on their left. General Juin therefore suggested his troops sweep out of the Lepini Mountains and cut across the Via Casilina towards the town of Ferentino, and then head up the Via Casilina towards Valmontone. Alex was keen for the French to thrust towards the Via Casilina, but not for them to actually use it; Eighth Army was having a hard enough time as it was with congestion, without clogging its main artery with even more traffic and troops. Juin was disappointed, but as it happened, Alex’s decision proved to have been a sensible one because by the time the French were entering Ceccano, just south of Frosinone, on 30 May, the Canadians were finally reaching the town themselves.
Meanwhile, on the main battle front, the Allied attack was faltering. For four days, VI Corps could make no impression on the Germans’ defences of the Caesar Line, while Eighth Army continued to struggle slowly northwards at a rate of between three and four miles a day. In London, Churchill was beginning to fret. Looking at the arrows on his map, he could see the advance appeared to have stalled, and that Clark was not bringing maximum pressure on Valmontone. ‘I feel I should be wanting in comradeship,’ he signalled to Alex, ‘if I did not let you know that the glory of this battle, already great, will be measured, not by the capture of Rome or the juncture with the bridgehead, but by the number of German divisions cut off.’
What the maps did not tell him, however, was that even by travelling mostly at night to avoid Allied air attacks, the retreating divisions of AOK 10 could walk down their escape routes faster than Eighth Army could follow in their motorised transport. Hans Kumberg had been amongst those of the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division holding XIII Corps at bay near Arce. They had more than fulfilled their task. By the time they fell back on the 29th, most of von Senger’s 14th Panzer and the 51st Mountain Corps had escaped northwestwards. No part of AOK 10 was actually using the Via Casilina as a line of retreat.
Meanwhile, VI Corps was attacking against fortified positions in which the enemy had the advantage of height. Even at the main point of Clark’s thrust, to the west of the village of Lanuvio, the ground was still hilly and running against the line of attack. Then, for some reason, the gods of fortune played into Clark’s hands. For just as it seemed as though a bloody and bitter stalemate might grip the front once more, the Germans let down their guard.
It was largely thanks to the efforts of the 36th Texas Division – the division that had suffered so horrendously on the Rapido back in January, and the division which still held a grudge against their army commander, that a gap in the German line was spotted. The Texas men, shortly due to replace the 34th Red Bull Division to the west of Velletri, were holding the centre of the line. Ahead of them was the mass of Monte Artemisio, a forbidding ridge, steeply terraced and rising to some 3,000 feet, and over which there was nothing but a narrow and rough track. Aerial photographs, however, curiously showed no sign at all of it being occupied by the enemy. General Walker, the Texas Division commander, thought it would be worth patrolling the mountain vigorously to confirm or disprove this. Sure enough, by the morning of 28 May, he was able to report that it was indeed unguarded. Furthermore, his divisional Chief Engineer felt certain that it would be possible to bulldoze a way for tanks and other vehicles along the rough track that ran up to the summit. Truscott was initially dubious, but after cross-examining the divisional Chief Engineer, gave Walker the go-ahead to try and capture the ridge. Armed with an extra regiment of engineers and a number of powerful bulldozers, the Texas men began their assault on the night of 30 May.
Feldmarschall Kesselring, on one of his regular visits to the front had also noticed this gap in the line between the 362nd Infantry Division – positioned between Velletri and Lanuvio – and the now almost complete Fallschirm Panzerkorps Herman Göring, positioned between the eastern side of Monte Artemisio and Valmontone. Immediately giving the order to fill the gap and to fill it fast, he was horrified when, a day later, the gap was still not closed. ‘I personally spoke sharply to the Commander of Fourteenth Army,’ noted Kesselring, ‘and drew his attention to this inexcusable failure to take prompt action, pointing out to him that what could be accomplished easily with one battalion today might be impossible with a division tomorrow.’
Von Mackensen had called for the gap to be closed but such was the shortage of men the only battalions available were two from the Herman Göring division who had yet to reach the front; they did not arrive on Monte Artemisio in time to stop the Texas men’s assault. Despite Kesselring’s rebuke, von Mackensen had still not sufficiently closed the gap, and the Texas men were able to infiltrate first one then two regiments onto Monte Artemisio. A third regiment, using the new mountain route, slipped in behind Velletri, cutting off the German retreat in that part of the line. Suddenly, a massive hole had been blown in the Caesar defences.
Following hard on the tails of the Texas men was Eric Sevareid, who, along with a photographer from Life Magazine was hoping to witness this breach in the line. Travelling by Jeep, they followed a trail rising sharply between high banks, until they were told by their driver they had to continue on foot. The two correspondents began hiking upwards under a blazing sun, machinegun fire crackling nearby. Rounding a bend they were amazed to see tanks trundling up, toe-to-tail, their bulking breadth scraping stones and earth from the narrow channel that had been cut ahead of them. ‘Scrambling around the tanks,’ wrote Eric, ‘we found the ubiquitous bulldozer simply carving the trail into a road, roaring and rearing its ponderous way at a forty-five degree angle upward. This was all madly impossible, and yet it was being done.’ This was the kind of American muscle the Germans in Italy could only dream of.
When Kesselring heard of the American infiltration, he wasted no time in recommending to Hitler that von Mackensen be sacked immediately. To his mind, his troublesome army commander had disobeyed two major orders: first, when he initially refused to move 29th Panzer Division south, and now with his failure to close a gap in the line that should never have existed in the first place. ‘It was no longer possible,’ noted Kesselring, ‘after four years of war, to reply on the strict execution of an order.’ A counter-attack by the Fallschirm Panzerkorps Herman Göring tried to unseat the Texas men, but failed; the Americans were, by then, too entrenched, and so Kesselring’s worst fears had been realised.
Clark, on the other hand, now recognised that a great opportunity had suddenly and inadvertently arrived to smash the Caesar Line once and for all. He had also by now completely regrouped, with his two British divisions brought up to the line in the west, and II Corps, with 3rd Division, Howze Force and 1st Special Force attached, also brought into line between the Texas men and Artena. Aware that VI Corps had suffered no small amount of casualties, the American general was nonetheless never afraid to throw men into the breach if he felt it was a risk worth taking. Moreover, all across AOK 14’s front he now had both sustained and wide pressure – his favoured broad front policy.
The night before the renewed assault, Clark gave another press conference, an ‘off the record’ briefing about the next phase of the battle. The Fifth Army commander also emphasised that this attack did not have the capture of Rome as its primary objective. Rather, he stressed, the main aim was ‘to kill and annihilate as many of the Germans as possible’ on Fifth Army’s front, although had he not lost sight of the fact that Rome might be taken as a result. He spoke to the press men with confidence, but was hiding an anxiety he felt keenly. Back at his Anzio HQ, he sat down to dictate a letter to his wife, Renie – his pet dog, Pal, on his lap as he dictated. ‘We are in as desperate a battle as Fifth Army has ever been in,’ he wrote. ‘If it were only the battle I had to worry about and not many other matters, it would be easy, but I am harassed at every turn on every conceivable subject – political, personal and many others.’ He again reiterated his hope that they would annihilate much of AOK 14, and prayed for early results. ‘I am on the go every minute,’ he added, ‘trying to visit my commanders to get the latest information and buoy them on to greater effort.’
So now, as May gave way to June, the final act in the battle was about to be played out.
Meanwhile, advancing towards Hans Golda and the German lines around Valmontone had been the tanks of Task Force Howze, and its commander, Colonel Howze, had been in a tank himself and glad to have had the chance for some shooting. ‘We knocked out a few anti-tank guns,’ he noted, ‘killed a number of infantry, captured a fair bag of prisoners and received a lot of enemy artillery fire.’ By nightfall, they were abreast the 3rd Infantry Division but to Hamilton’s disappointment, had been unable to penetrate further.
The next day, Hans Golda and his Werfer team continued to keep firing from their now devastated position, but the German front was crumbling and in the afternoon they were ordered to withdraw north to Palestrina. In the light of this German withdrawal, Task Force Howze had a far easier day, and reached their original objective of Lábico, astride the Via Casilina, while battered Valmontone, Alex’s original goal for VI Corps, finally fell to the 3rd Infantry.
There was now no question of pushing on eastwards beyond the town, however. Catching the remnants of AOK 10 was left to Eighth Army, who were now in hot pursuit. Hans Kumberg was among those Fallschirmjäger troops still trying to stave off the British advance, and was part of yet another rearguard, now near Alatri, on the Subiaco escape road. In doing so he and his comrades had earned further respect from General Leese. ‘The Para boys,’ wrote the Eighth Army commander, ‘even in hurried retreat are as tough as ever.’ Even so, as Hans freely admits, their numbers were now woefully few, and they were absolutely exhausted after fighting by day and walking by night almost continually since leaving Cassino. Stan Scislowski and the other Canadians of the 5th Armoured Division should have finally been able to catch and overwhelm them, as they were now about to enter the valleys north of Frosinone, and with the traffic congestion at last thinning out, the going would have been easier, and hence their advance swifter. General Burns, however, the Canadian Corps commander, chose this moment to pull them back and let the infantry division take over the lead. The change over was supposed to be gradual – one brigade at a time – so as not to impede the advance, but it was still not the best time to risk momentum or lose fire-power. At any rate, von Senger’s rearguards certainly managed to keep them at bay while the rest of 14th Panzer Corps continued to slip away into the hills.
The Germans were now on the run across the front: the breakthrough at Valmontone had presaged the collapse of the whole of the Caesar line along AOK 14’s front. On 3 June, Colonel Hamilton Howze had the strange experience of receiving an order by air when General Keyes, the II Corps commander, buzzed over him in his Piper cub and dropped a package with the words, ‘Howze – get these tanks moving!’ Now alongside the 88th Division, Hamilton and his Task Force Howze set off immediately. Initially, he felt his tanks were not progressing fast enough, cautiously approaching every new bit of terrain. So with the kind of ruthless determination that Clark would have thoroughly approved, he ordered a platoon of tanks to rush on down the road at 10 miles per hour. Inevitably, every so often the lead tank would hit a mine or be knocked out by enemy fire, but it ensured their rapid progress. Such an advance also meant they were not stopping to mop up any enemy troops, so that as the infantry followed more slowly behind, they often found themselves involved in heavy fire fights. Even so, the Germans were in disarray. Hamilton’s tanks made short work of several enemy columns, including a battery of horse-drawn artillery. At one point, Hamilton’s Jeep driver paused to relieve himself. Armed with only his pistol he disappeared into some scrub and returned with around twenty Germans, all with their hands up. Later in the day, a German colonel was captured and spent the rest of the day travelling with Hamilton in the Jeep.
By the following morning, 4 June, they were closing in on the capital. Hamilton was now placed under the command of the 1st Special Force. It was agreed that the assault on the suburbs was an infantry job, so Hamilton and his tanks spent a frustrating morning waiting for the go-ahead to follow on behind. Eventually, at 3.30pm, Task Force Howze began its final drive for Rome. ‘This attack made fine progress against considerable resistance,’ noted Hamilton. ‘We lost two tanks, but knocked out five, plus some guns, and killed and captured a good bag of Germans.’
Following hard on Hamilton’s heels was Eric Sevareid, who had begun to realise that the German defences had now collapsed so completely that the capital would surely fall that day. ‘German vehicles were smouldering at every bend,’ he noted, ‘and dead Germans lay sprawled beside them, their faces thickening with the dust sprayed over them by the ceaseless wheels that passed within inches of their mortifying flesh.’ He watched as an Italian child kicked at a dead German officer, until a woman pushed the boy aside and tugged off the dead man’s boots.
In the wrecked villages, he noticed threadbare Italians gathering in the rubble-strewn squares. ‘And standing beside their ruined parents,’ wrote Eric, ‘the children, in their innocence of tragedy and death, were clapping their small and grimy hands as we passed them by.’ In the city itself, the Germans had been leaving all day. Any remaining cars and vehicles had been requisitioned, but there were no detonations, no mass destruction of roads and buildings. Kesselring had, as promised, spared the Eternal City. Back in Rome and feeling largely recovered was Carla Capponi and her boyfriend, Paolo. They had returned a few days before to monitor the German retreat. By 4 June, they were even wearing Partisan armbands: red, white and green with CLN spelled out. They were not alone – there were now hundreds of Partisans, most armed, marking the German withdrawal.
Not that Hamilton Howze saw them. As dusk began to fall, he and his leading company were nearing the centre of Rome. In contrast, the streets were completely empty, with doors and windows shuttered tight. Hamilton called a halt with his company of tanks, waiting for the rest of his column to catch up. Some Italians clearly heard him and his driver talking, because suddenly a window opened and someone shouted ‘Americano!’ Soon, hundreds of Romans were emerging, throwing themselves upon Hamilton and his men, the women showering them with kisses. ‘It was,’ noted Hamilton, ‘both gratifying and annoying.’
Just to the south of the city, on the Via Casilina, Mark Clark and his small entourage of Jeeps pulled off the side of the road while the Fifth Army commander conferred with his generals – Keyes of II Corps and Frederick of the 1st Special Service Force. They were standing at the foot of shallow hill on the top of which was a large sign inscribed ‘ROMA’. For Clark this was a proud moment, and he was particularly keen to get a photograph of himself standing by this sign – a shot he knew would make for a great news picture. There had been some shooting going on nearby, but when it died down, Clark, Keyes and Frederick gingerly scrambled along a ditch and up towards the sign. When it seemed safe, they stood and no sooner had the camera shutters snapped that a bullet smacked into the sign next to them. ‘I doubt that anybody ever saw so many generals duck so rapidly,’ noted Clark. ‘We crawled back down the ditch to safer ground, but later Frederick had someone get the sign and eventually brought it to me as a souvenir.’
Rome had fallen, and the following day, 5 June, the Eternal City was awash with Americans, and the streets swarming with overjoyed Italians who believed that at last their salvation was at hand. Amongst them was Bucky Walters, who had been fighting with the 34th Division through Lanuvio and up through the west of the Alban Hills. ‘It was very exciting,’ admits Bucky. ‘I guess that’s one of the better parts of war.’ They passed through the city in Bucky’s Jeep. ‘We saw the Colosseum,’ says Bucky, ‘and this guy with me says, “Sarge,” he says, “They wasn’t supposed to bomb Rome were they? That place sure took a lot of hits!”’
Also there was Lieutenant Bob Wiggans of the 85th Infantry. ‘We marched through Rome, strutting like peacocks,’ he noted. ‘The Italians were wild with joy.’ He noticed that his aches and pains had completely disappeared. In the middle of the morning, Clark and his entourage of Jeeps drove into the centre of the city too. The Fifth Army commander certainly wanted to savour the moment, but he also wanted to waste as little time as possible pursuing AOK 14 north of Rome, and so one of his staff officers suggested he meet his corps commanders for a quick conference at the Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill. Neither Clark nor any of the entourage had been to Rome before, and they lost their way; not that the Fifth Army commander minded too much – after all, it was good to see the sights and to bask in the adulation of the near-hysterical Roman crowd. When they eventually reached the Campidoglio they then discovered the town hall was locked. After banging on the door several times, Clark pulled out his map, and laid it out on the balustrade. Juin, especially, looked bewildered, but his corps commanders gathered around him, while around them all were pressing a mob of reporters and photographers. “Well, gentlemen,” said Clark, glancing up at the assembled correspondents, “I didn’t really expect to have a press conference here – I just called a little meeting with my corps commanders to discuss the situation. However, I’ll be happy to answer your questions.” Then he added, “This is a great day for the Fifth Army.”
Watching this spectacle was Eric Sevareid. ‘That was the immortal remark of Rome’s modern-day conqueror,’ he noted. ‘It was not, apparently, a great day for the world, for the Allies, for all the suffering people who had desperately looked toward the time of peace.’ Nor was he alone in his disgust. Next to him, Eric heard one of his colleagues mutter, “On this historic occasion I feel like vomiting.”
General Clark had, since his arrival in Italy, always prompted mixed feelings. Like Montgomery before him, he was reluctant to compromise and pursued what he believed to be right with ruthless determination. And like Montgomery, he quite blatantly courted publicity. Earlier in the campaign, Eric had followed Clark to the front. The Fifth Army commander had worn his steel helmet all the way, but when it was time for the photographers to take their pictures, he took it off and replaced it with the cloth field cap that was almost as much his trademark as was Monty’s tank beret. When the photographers had finished, the helmet was put back on.
Yes, Clark was vain, but he would argue that all he was doing was making sure people back home knew about the valuable work the American Fifth Army was doing in Italy – and he was the figurehead of that effort, so it was important that every suitable photo opportunity and news story was exploited to the full. Clark recognised that they now lived in a media age, and he also understood politics and the sentiments back in Washington: he knew that his bosses were far less interested in Italy – and than northwest Europe; therefore any good publicity could only help not only his own cause, but more importantly, that of the Allies in Italy. A picture of him and his corps commanders leaning over a map in the centre of Rome, the first European capital to fall to the Allies, was good publicity. And, as Montgomery was well aware, the more famous the general, the more famous the army. After all, even today, it is Montgomery of Alamein, not Alexander of Alamein; yet, Monty was the subordinate general to Alex then, as was Clark the day Rome fell.
The trouble was that while blowing one’s own trumpet was distasteful to men like Eric Sevareid, it was absolute anathema to the majority of British. Bragging, or ‘shooting a line’ was simply not the done thing; Alex would never dream of claiming any form of personal glory for himself. Captain Giles Lampson, the son of the British ambassador in Cairo, and Clark’s British ADC, or ‘Aide’, found this difference of attitude hard to swallow. ‘One thing does rile me a lot here,’ he wrote in a letter to his fiancée, ‘and that is the enormous amount of personal publicity and boasting that goes on. One cannot move without fifteen press photographers in tow.’ All the generals received fan mail and kept albums of photographs and scrapbooks of press cuttings as though it was the most normal thing in the world. ‘However,’ added Giles, ‘if that is the way the American public wants its news and if it is going to stimulate interest in the war and help recruiting and so forth, then they are right to do it. But it strikes me as rather indecent and ostentatious.’
Most British soldiers in Italy, but especially the officers, shared this latter view. It also goes some way to explaining why, even more than sixty years on, nearly every Eighth Army veteran will claim that it was Mark Clark that prevented the Allies from destroying the German forces in Italy there and then. His arrogant desire to capture Rome, they argue, ensured that he placed personal ambition over the greater need to destroy the enemy. It is an argument that has developed into one of the great controversies to have emerged from the Italian campaign.
There is no question that Clark saw Rome as a great prize, not for the Allies but for Fifth Army – a force that he had nurtured since its formation in North Africa – and also for America. The glory that might be bestowed upon him would be welcome, but this should not cloud the fact that Clark recognised how important the capture of Rome, by Americans, would be back home in the US as far as future operations in Italy were concerned, and in giving Fifth Army the credit he believed they were due. Exacerbating this was his suspicion that the British – and Eighth Army in particular – were trying to steal his show whenever possible; and in the days before Montgomery left to take on the Normandy job, there was, in fact, some truth in this.
‘Clark was always very sensitive about the taking of Rome,’ said Alex. ‘I assured Clark that neither I nor Leese wanted the Eighth Army to participate in its capture; we felt it fell naturally into the Fifth Army’s area.’ A few days before the battle began, one of Clark’s periodic paranoias began to develop over the matter. ‘I know factually that there are interests brewing for the Eighth Army to take Rome,’ he vented in his diary, ‘and I might as well let Alexander know now that if he attempts any thing of the kind he will have another all-out battle on his hands; namely, with me.’ Strong words, but at that time, he knew Fifth Army’s role in the battle was due to be secondary – until the Anzio breakout at any rate – with Eight Army’s effort down the Liri Valley expected to be the main push. In other words, he could see that Eighth Army might storm ahead and reach Rome first despite reassurances to the contrary.
As the battle developed, however, and Fifth Army raced ahead of Eighth, so his worries began to subside. Never one to hold back from ranting to his diary, his anger, when it surfaced, was directed at other matters once the battle began. Indeed, his concern about reaching Rome is barely mentioned again.
And if his motives for changing Alex’s plan from the Anzio beachhead were to get to Rome quickly, then he was certainly taking an enormous risk, as events subsequently showed. It was good fortune on Monte Artemisio that enabled him to win the breakthrough, and prevented an embarrassing and costly stalemate. Had Fifth Army become unstuck, Eighth Army might have taken Rome after all, something that would never have occurred had he stuck to Alex’s original plan and pressed his main effort up the Via Casilina. Certainly, by the beginning of June, Leese was rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of stealing Clark’s thunder. ‘AL [Clark]? is making desperate efforts to get to Rome on his own,’ he wrote to his wife on 1 June. ‘I only hope he will do and can then go north on our own business, but I’m afraid he’ll bungle it like Cassino and then we shall have to clear it up. I believe it would have been much better if he would wait for us to help but he was terrified we might get to Rome first.’ Then, with mounting relish, he added, ‘I only hope it does not warp his military decisions if he does fail now and we have to go. I shall race him to it all out and beat him.’
Interestingly, however, Leese never criticised Clark for the change of attack, even though he knew Alex’s battle plan as well as anyone. On the contrary: ‘The American effort from the bridgehead was extremely good,’ he admitted in a letter to Montgomery, ‘the troops fought magnificently with great dash.’ Nor did Kirkman, the XIII Corps commander, in his dairy, complain about Clark’s switch; and neither did Harold Macmillan, the UK High Commissioner to the Advisory Council for Italy, in his, despite being a very close friend of Alex’s – and despite spending considerable time with the C-in-C throughout the battle. Yet all three were quite happy to complain about people and to gripe to their diaries whenever they felt the need. Indeed, nor even was there any criticism from Harding, the co-architect of DIADEM, in diary. ‘Battle has gone well,’ he noted on 4 June, ‘and as planned. Everyone very thrilled and pleased.’
After the war, Clark was repeatedly grilled over his decision by interviewers, and always he gave much the same answers: that although he was concerned that Eighth Army might steal a march, his overriding reasons were of a military nature. Later, he claimed that on his brief return to the US in April, Roosevelt himself had told him he had to take Rome before D-Day. Yet by turning to face AOK 14 at the Caesar Line head on, it is reasonable to argue – as Hamilton Howze maintained – that the path to Rome took longer than it would have done had he exploited through Valmontone and headed up the Via Casilina. But it is also probable that in so doing, he destroyed more of AOK 14 than he would have done otherwise. Rather than annihilating one German army, as had been Alex’s original plan, the Allies seriously mauled two. Indeed, AOK 14 had been routed.
Certainly it is unfair to suggest that the Allies failed to annihilate AOK 10 south of Rome because of Clark’s decision to change his line of attack, and it is a myth that should be quashed. Because of Fifth Army’s success in the south, the German axis had shifted; Eighth Army’s progress in the Liri Valley had been slower than expected, which allowed much of AOK 10 to escape northeast; a golden opportunity to encircle them at the Senger Line had been missed. Nor should the brilliance of von Senger’s delaying tactics as they retreated away from Eighth Army be discounted.
Yet neither should the Allied achievement be played down. Alex’s battle plan had been brilliant. He had completely duped Kesselring, and had broken through three strong defensive lines – positions every bit as strong as those facing the Allies on the Western Front in the 1914-18 war. As Kesselring admitted, ‘the Allies won a great victory.’ Kesselring lost between 50-60,000 men dead, wounded and captured. This was the equivalent of about four full-strength divisions, but since his divisions were mostly massively under strength, this loss was, in real terms, far worse.
The Allies had suffered 43,746 killed, wounded and missing. But already, as they headed north, new divisions and fresh troops were being brought in; Alex had never lost his balance and nor did he intend to now. Incredibly, thanks to a smoothly operated replacement system, by 5 June, Fifth Army was at its highest ever compliment – an effective strength of 369,356, despite the losses of the previous month. In contrast, Kesselring’s forces were in disarray, horribly short of equipment and supplies, his men hungry and defeated, harried by enemy aircraft over their heads and by Italian Partisans at their backs.
Nor was the Allied chance to finish the job over with the fall of Rome. As General John Harding noted in his diary on the day Rome fell, ‘It now remains to be seen how quickly we can pursue and how far we can get before the Boche regains control of his forces.’ Complete victory in Italy for the Allies now seemed tantalisingly close. And Alexander, for one, was determined it be would be achieved by his Armies.