The war in North Africa was essentially an adventure initiated by Italy in an attempt to seize former colonial territories of Britain and France. As it became apparent that the Italian military had taken on more than it could handle, Germany was forced to come to Italy’s defense. In that respect, the campaign in North Africa was very much like the failed Italian campaign in Greece in November 1940. Unlike Greece, however, North Africa was a large-scale conflict and forced Hitler to divert considerable resources, severely weakening German efforts elsewhere. Ultimately, the North Africa campaign was a serious defeat for the Axis powers. It also marked the first major involvement in the European theater by U.S. forces.
Following the Axis defeat in North Africa, the Allies pursued them to the island of Sicily. On July 10, 1943, U.S. and British forces began Operation Husky, an invasion of the island using troops deployed by gliders, parachutes, and boats. Many of these landings were disrupted by high winds, making it difficult for Allied troops to regroup once on the ground. During the first few days, the invaders encountered significant resistance around Sicily’s main airfield, but it was quickly overcome. On July 22, the Sicilian capital of Palermo fell to the Allies, and Sicily was secured.
The day after the fall of Sicily, Italy’s Fascist ruler, Benito Mussolini, was overthrown by a peaceful coup, and Italian officials promptly began approaching the Allies about an armistice. Prior to Mussolini’s ouster, U.S. and British forces had planned an invasion of the Italian mainland, and the sudden turn of events took the Allied leaders by surprise. Although Italy officially surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the Allied invasion of Italy proceeded as planned, as there were still a large number of German forces stationed in the country.
Following the success in North Africa, British forces landed at Taranto, on the southeastern tip of Italy, on September 2. However, the main invasion did not begin until September 9, the day after Italy’s surrender. The two forces planned to fight their way across the country to meet in the middle. German resistance proved very heavy, however, and the U.S. forces in particular suffered great casualties. After slow and treacherous fighting, the Allies finally captured the port of Naples on October 1, putting all of southern Italy under Allied control.
Even though the Italian government had surrendered, the Germans were determined not to allow Rome to fall to the Allies. As the Allies secured their position in southern Italy, German forces formed a defensive line across the width of Italy, just south of Rome. This barrier was called the Winter Line and stretched from one coast of Italy to the other, crossing the center of the country at the fortified monastery of Monte Cassino.
The heavily defended Winter Line presented a very formidable obstacle to the Allied forces, who assaulted the entrenched Germans over and over again and each time were pushed back. The stalemate persisted for more than six months until Monte Cassino finally fell on May 18, 1944. Rome was liberated shortly thereafter, on June 5. The Germans retreated a short distance and formed a new defensive line in northern Italy, the Gothic Line, which would hold until the spring of 1945.