By LCol Don Chipman (Ret'd)
At the end of August 1944, the last major battle of the Italian Campaign began. It would last a month and cost of 4500 killed, wounded and missing. It did not end the fighting in Italy, but it broke the back of Field Marshall Kesselring’s last line of defence on the Italian peninsula.
This article is presented in four parts:
- Part 1: The Background of the Gothic Line Battle
- Part 2: The Battle in Each of its Four Phases
- Part 3: The Role of the RCE in The Gothic Line Battle
- Part 4: The Cost - Tributes to Fallen Sappers
Part 1 - Background
In early August, the two divisions of 1 Canadian Corps were in Tuscany centred on Florence. By this time in the campaign, the Germans focused much of their intelligence gathering on the movements of the Canadians. Ever since breaking the Hitler Line and opening the road to Rome in April and May, the Canadians had been regarded as the 8th Army’s shock troops. Track the Canadians and you knew where the next offensive would be carried out.
The Gothic Line was a 16-kilometre deep stretch of heavily fortified positions stretching over 300 kilometres across Italy from La Spezia on the west to the Foglia Valley on the east, and running through the rugged Apennine Mountains. Besides anchoring their defence on topography, the Germans used 15.000 slave labourers to build nearly 3,000 concrete-reinforced gun pits and trenches including Panzerturm (tank turrets set in concrete emplacements), machine-gun posts, anti-tank; mortar and assault gun positions; 120,000 metres of barbed wire and many kilometres of anti-tank ditches.
Along the Adriatic Coast, the Germans had built their defences in depth. Green Line I was built on the hills overlooking the Foglia River and valley and was called the Gothic Line by the Allies; Green Line II stretched from the coast near Riccione in the hills overlooking the Conca River; and the Rimini Line went from Rimini along a series of steep ridges overlooking the Ausa River. Needless to say, every bridge across every river, stream and ditch had been destroyed. These were the most fortified positions the Germans built in Italy.
The initial Allied plan favoured striking northeast out of Florence with the objective of pushing from Florence to Bologna and through the Po Valley onwards into Austria and Hungary before advancing Soviet forces. Deception plans focussed on leading the Germans to assume the attack would come up the Adriatic coast and not in the centre. Kesselring was fooled and devoted more effort to strengthen the coastal sector. However, as the time for the attack drew nearer, the Commander Eighth Army, Sir Oliver Leese, convinced General Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief, that a lack of mountain troops and the strength of the defences in the centre actually made the Adriatic approach more favourable. Over strong American objections based on their view that it would be hard if not impossible to bring sufficient forces to bear in the east, Alexander accepted Leese’s plan. They knew the Gothic Line fortifications in the eastern coastal sector were far stronger; they also knew the terrain favoured the defenders.
Now remained the challenge of getting forces to the Adriatic coast without tipping off the Germans. Rather than continuing the deception of an Allied attack on the coast, a second deception placing the Canadians alongside a British corps in the centre was set into play. This masterful deception arguably contributed more to the success of the Gothic Line battle than any other factor. In reality, Eighth Army would secretly move the entire Canadian Corps from Florence to the Adriatic coast under the noses of the Germans who were watching them above anyone else. Sappers built a 200-kilometre one-way tank route in five days. No bridging was to be used and no main routes were to be used. Canadian troops stripped their insignia and disguised their vehicles. Troops moved only at night, noses-to-nose, guided only by the axle light of the vehicle ahead. The Canadian Corps alone moved almost 11,000 wheeled vehicles, 280 carriers, 650 tanks, one million shells and 50 million litres of fuel. Amazingly, the movement of significant numbers of unbadged troops, vehicles and equipment east out of the reserve positions, while observed by the Germans, was not connected to a repositioning of forces and Kesselring continued expecting an attack from the centre.
Part 1: The Background of the Gothic Line Battle
McAndrews, Bill, Canadians and the Italian Campaign 1943 – 1945, ISBN 2-920718-63-0
Kerry and McDill, The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume II
Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy 1943 – 1945