The Gothic Line, also known as Linea Gotica, formed Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's last major line of defence in the final stages of World War II along the summits of the Apennines during the fighting retreat of Nazi Germany's forces in Italy against the Allied Armies in Italy commanded by General Sir Harold Alexander.
Hitler had concerns about the state of preparation of the Gothic Line: He feared the Allies would use amphibious landings to out-flank its defenses. So, to downgrade its importance in the eyes of both friend and foe, he ordered the name, with its historic connotations, changed, reasoning that if the Allies managed to break through they would not be able to use the more impressive name to magnify their victory claims. In response to this order, Kesselring renamed it the "Green Line" in June 1944.
The Gothic Line was breached on both the Adriatic and the central Apennine fronts during the autumn of 1944, but Kesselring's forces were consistently able to retire in good order, and no decisive breakthrough was achieved. This did not take place until the renewed offensive in the spring of 1945. On April 29 1945, Heinrich von Vietinghoff, Commander of German Army Group C, signed an instrument of surrender, and hostilities in Italy formally ceased on May 2.
As a result, most of Kesselring's forces slipped the noose and fell back north fighting delaying actions, notably in late June on the Trasimene Line (running from just south of Ancona on the east coast, past the southern shores of Lake Trasimeno near Perugia and on to the west coast south of Grosetto) and in July on the Arno Line (running from the west coast along the line of the Arno River and into the Apennine Mountains north of Arezzo). This gave time to consolidate the Gothic Line, a 10-mile (16 km) deep belt of fortifications extending from south of La Spezia (on the west coast) to the Foglia Valley, through the natural defensive wall of the Apennines (which ran unbroken nearly from coast to coast, 50 miles (80 km) deep and with high crests and peaks rising to 7,000 feet or 2,100 m), to the Adriatic Sea between Pesaro and Ravenna, on the east coast. The emplacements included numerous concrete-reinforced gun pits and trenches, and 2,376 machine-gun nests with interlocking fire, 479 anti-tank gun, mortar and assault gun positions, 120,000 metres of barbed wire and many miles of anti-tank ditches. This last redoubt proved the Germans' determination to continue fighting.
Nevertheless, it was fortunate for the Allies that at this later stage of the war the Italian partisan forces had become highly effective in disrupting the German preparations in the high mountains. By September 1944 German generals were no longer able to move freely in the area behind their main lines because of partisan activity. Lieutenant-General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, commanding German XIV Panzer Corps, later wrote that he had taken to travelling in a little Volkswagen "(displaying) no general's insignia of rank — no peaked cap, no gold or red flags...". One of his colleagues who ignored this caution, Brigadier Wilhelm Crisolli commanding the 20th Luftwaffe Field Division, was caught and killed by partisans as he returned from a conference at corps headquarters.
Construction of the defenses was also hampered by the deliberately poor quality concrete provided by local Italian mills whilst captured partisans forced into the construction gangs supplemented the natural lethargy of forced labour with clever sabotage. Nevertheless, prior to the Allies' attack, Kesselring had declared himself satisfied with the work done, especially on the Adriatic side where he "...contemplated an assault on the left wing....with a certain confidence.
Nevertheless, Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff were keen to break through the German defenses to open up the route to the northeast through the "Ljubljana Gap" into Austria and Hungary. Whilst this would threaten Germany from the rear, Churchill was more concerned to forestall the Russians advancing into central Europe. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff had strongly opposed this strategy as diluting the Allied focus in France. However, following the Allied successes in France during the summer, the U.S. Chiefs relented, and there was complete agreement amongst the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Second Quebec Conference on September 12.
On August 4 Alexander met his army commanders, Mark Wayne Clark and Oliver Leese, to find that Leese did not favour the plan. He argued that the Allies had lost their specialist French mountain troops to Operation Dragoon and that the Eighth Army's strength lay in tactics combining infantry, armour and guns which could not be employed in the high mountains of the central Apennines. It has also been suggested that Leese disliked working in league with Clark after the US Fifth Army's controversial move on Rome at the end of May and early June and wished for the 8th Army to win the battle on its own. He suggested a surprise attack along the Adriatic coast. Although Alexander's Chief of Staff, General Harding, did not share Leese's view and 8th Army planning staff had already rejected the idea of an Adriatic offensive (because it would be difficult to bring the necessary concentration of forces to bear), Alexander was not prepared to force Leese to adopt a plan which was against his inclination and judgement.
Operation Olive, as the new offensive was christened, called for Leese's Eighth Army to attack up the Adriatic coast towards Pesaro and Rimini and draw in the German reserves from the center of the country. General Clark's US Fifth Army would then attack in the weakened central Apennines north of Florence towards Bologna with British XIII Corps on the right wing of the attack fanning towards the coast to create a pincer with the Eighth Army advance. This meant that as a preparatory move, the bulk of Eighth Army had to be transferred from the centre of Italy to the Adriatic coast, taking two valuable weeks, whilst a new intelligence deception plan was commenced to convince Kesselring that the main attack would be in the centre.
By August 30 the Canadian and British Corps had reached the second main defensive positions running along the ridges on the far side of the Foglia river. Taking advantage of the Germans' lack of manpower, the Canadians punched through and by September 3 had advanced a further 15 miles (24 km) to the third line of defenses running from the coast near Riccione. The Allies were close to breaking through to Rimini and the Romagna plain. However, German LXXVI Panzer Corps on the Tenth Army's left wing had withdrawn in good order behind the line of the Conca river. Fierce resistance from the Corps's 1st Parachute Division, commanded by Richard Heidrich, supported by intense artillery fire from the Coriano ridge in the hills on the Canadians' left brought their advance to a halt.
Meanwhile, the British V Corps was finding progress in the more difficult hill terrain with its poor roads tough going. On September 3 and September 4, whilst the Canadians once again attacked along the coastal plain, V Corps made an armoured thrust to dislodge the Coriano Ridge defenses and reach the Marano river. This was to open the gate to the plain beyond which could be rapidly exploited by the tanks of British 1st Armoured Division, poised for this purpose. However, after two days of gruesome fighting with heavy losses on both sides, the Allies were obliged to call off their assault and reassess their strategy. General Leese decided to outflank the Coriano ridge positions by driving westwards towards Croce and Gemmano to reach the Merano valley which curved behind the Coriano and Riccione positions to the sea.
Once again the way was open to Rimini. Kesselring's forces had taken heavy losses, and 3 divisions of reinforcements ordered to the Adriatic front would not be available for at least a day. Not for the first time in the Italian Campaign the weather intervened, with torrential rain turning the rivers into torrents and halting air support operations. Once again movement ground to a crawl, and the German defenders had the opportunity to reorganise and reinforce their positions on the Marano river, and the salient to the Lombardy plain closed. Once more 8th Army was confronted by an organised line of defense. It was not until September 21 that Rimini fell to the 8th Army's advance.
Meanwhile with Croce and beyond it Montescudo secured, the left wing of the 8th Army advanced to the Marano river and the frontier of San Marino. The Germans had occupied neutral San Marino over a week previously to take advantage of the heights on which the city-state stood. By September 19 the city was isolated and fell to the Allies with relatively little cost. Three miles (5 km) beyond San Marino lay the Marecchia valley running across the 8th Army line of advance and running to the sea at Rimini.
On the right the Canadian Corps on September 20 broke the German positions on the Marecchia and into the Lombardy Plain. However, Kesselring's brilliant defense had won him time until the onset of the autumn rains. Progress for the 8th Army became very slow with mud slides caused by the torrential rain making it difficult to keep roads and tracks open, creating a logistical nightmare. Although they were out of the hills, the plains were waterlogged and the 8th Army found themselves confronted, as they had the previous autumn, by a succession of swollen rivers running across their line of advance. Once again, the conditions prevented 8th Army's armour from exploiting the breakthrough, and the infantry of British V Corps and I Canadian Corps (joined by New Zealand 2nd Division) had to grind their way forward while von Vietinghoff withdrew his forces behind the river Uso, a few miles beyond Rimini. The positions on the Uso were forced on September 26, and 8th Army reached the next river, the Fiumicino, on September 29. Four days of heavy rain forced a halt, and by this time V Corps were fought out and required major reorganization.
Since the start of Operation Olive 8th Army had suffered 14,000 casualties and lost 250 tanks from enemy action and 230 from other causes. As 8th Army paused at the end of September to reorganise, Leese was reassigned to command the Allied land forces in South-East Asia and Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery was moved from the leadership of British X Corps to take over the army command.
Progress at the II Giogo pass was slow, but on II Corps' right British XIII Corps were making better progress. Clark grasped this opportunity to divert part of II Corps reserve (the 337th Infantry) to exploit XIII Corps success. Attacking on September 17, supported by both U.S. and British artillery, the infantry fought their way onto Monte Pratone, some 2-3 miles (3-5 km) east of the Il Giogo pass and a key position on the Gothic Line. Meanwhile, U.S. II Corps renewed their assault on Monte Altuzzo, dominating the east side of the Il Giogo pass. The Altuzzo positions fell on the morning of September 17 after 5 days of fighting. The capture of Altuzzo and Pratone as well as Monte Verruca between them caused the formidable Futa pass defenses to be outflanked, and Lemelsen was forced to pull back, leaving the pass to be taken after only light fighting on September 22.
On the left, 5th Army IV Corps had fought their way to the main Gothic Line: the Brazilian 6th RCT had taken Massarosa, by September 18 it also took Camaiore and other small towns on the way north. This unit had already conquered Monte Prano and controlled the Serchio valley region without suffering any major casualties in ten days of fighting..
On 5th Army's far right wing, on the right of the XIII Corps front, 8th Indian Infantry Division fighting across trackless ground had captured the heights of Femina Morta, and British 6th Armoured Division had taken the San Godenzo Pass on Route 67 to Forlì, both on September 18.
At this stage Clark decided, with the slow progress on the Adriatic front, that Bologna would be too far west along Route 9 to trap the German 10th Army. He decided therefore to make the main II Corps thrust further east towards Imola whilst XIII Corps would continue to push on the right towards Faenza. Although they were through the Gothic Line, 5th Army, just like the 8th Army before them, found the terrain beyond and its defenders even more difficult. Between September 21 and October 3, U.S. 88th Division had fought its way to a standstill on the route to Imola suffering 2,105 men killed and wounded—roughly the same as the whole of the rest of II Corps during the actual breaching of the Gothic Line.
The fighting towards Imola had drawn German troops from the defense of Bologna, and Clark decided to switch his main offense back towards the Bologna axis. U.S. II Corps pushed steadily through the Radicosa Pass and by October 2 had reached Monghidoro some 20 miles (30 km) from Bologna. However, as it had on the Adriatic coast, the weather had broken and the rain and low cloud prevented air support whilst the roads back to the ever more distant supply dumps near Florence became morasses.
On October 5, U.S. II Corps renewed its offensive along a 14 mile (22 km) front straddling Route 65 to Bologna. They were supported on their right flank by British XIII Corps including British 78th Infantry Division, newly returned to Italy after a three month re-fit in Egypt. Gradual progress was made against stiffening opposition as German Fourteenth Army moved troops from the quieter sector opposite U.S. IV Corps. By October 9 they were attacking the massive 1,500 foot (450 m) high sheer escarpment behind Livergnano which appeared insuperable. However, the weather cleared on the morning of October 10 to allow artillery and air support to be brought to bear. It nevertheless took until the end of October 15 before the escarpment was secured. On the right of U.S. II Corps British XIII Corps was experiencing equally determined fighting on terrain just as difficult.
On the Adriatic front 8th Army's advance resumed on its left wing through the Apennine foothills towards Forlì on Route 9. On October 5 10th Indian Infantry Division, switched from British X Corps to British V Corps, had crossed the Fiumicino river (thought to be river known in Roman times as the Rubicon) high in the hills and turned the German defensive line on the river forcing the German Tenth Army units downstream to pull back towards Bologna. Paradoxically, in one sense, this helped Kesselring because it shortened the front he had to defend and shortened the distance between his two armies, providing him with greater flexibility to switch units between the two fronts. Continuing their push up Route 9, on October 21 British V Corps crossed the Savio river which runs north eastwards through Cesena to the Adriatic and by October 25 were closing on the Ronco river, some ten miles (16 km) beyond the Savio, behind which the Germans had withdrawn. By the end of the month the advance had reached Forlì, halfway between Rimini and Bologna.
Cutting the German Armies' lateral communications remained a key objective. Indeed, later Kesselring was to say that if in mid-October the front south of Bologna could not be held, then all the German positions east of Bologna "..were automatically gone.. Alexander and Clark had decided therefore to make a last push for Bologna before winter gripped the front.
On October 16, U.S. 5th Army had gathered itself for one last effort to take Bologna. The Allied Armies in Italy were short of artillery ammunition because of a global reduction in Allied ammunition production in anticipation of the final defeat of Germany. Fifth Army batteries were rationed to such an extent that the total rounds fired in the last week of October were less than the amount fired during one eight hour period on October 2. Nevertheless, U.S. II Corps and British XIII Corps pounded away for the next 11 days. In the centre along the main road to Bologna little progress was made. On the right there was better progress, and on October 20 U.S. 88th Division seized Monte Grande, only 4 miles (6.5 km) from Route 9, and three days later British 78th Division stormed Monte Spaduro. However, the remaining four miles were over difficult terrain and were reinforced by three of the best German Divisions in Italy which Kesselring had been able to withdraw from the Romagna as a result of his shortened front: 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 1st Parachute Division. By October 28 the Allied offensive had petered out, and the U.S. 5th Army was condemned to a winter in the mountains awaiting better weather and conditions underfoot.
British 8th Army, held on Route 9 at Forlì, continued a subsidiary drive up the Adriatic coast and captured Ravenna on December 5. In early November the push up Route 9 resumed, the river Montone, just beyond Forlì, being crossed on November 9. However, the going continued very tough with the river Cosina, some three miles (5 km) further along Route 9 being crossed only on November 23. By December 17 the river Lamone had been assaulted and Faenza cleared. The German Tenth Army established itself on the raised banks of the river Senio (rising 20 or more feet above the surrounding plain) which ran across the line of the 8th Army advance just beyond Faenza down to the Adriatic north of Ravenna. With snows falling and winter firmly established any attempt to cross the Senio was out of the question and 8th Army's 1944 campaign came to an end.
In late December, in a final flourish to the year's fighting, the Germans attacked the left wing of the U.S. Fifth Army in the Serchio valley in front of Lucca to pin units there which might otherwise be switched to the central front. Indian 8th Infantry Division was rapidly switched across the Apennines to reinforce the US 92nd Infantry Division. By the time they had arrived the Germans had broken through but decisive action by Major-General Dudley Russell halted their advance and the situation was stabilised by the New Year. Notable in this action was the involvement of The XI Zone Partisans headed by their Commandant Manrico "Pippo" Ducceschi.