Part 13

19 Days from the Apennines to the Alps -- The story of the Po Valley Campaign

Allied leaflet, News from the Home Country (FP supplement) No 45, original translation article
Picture. "The end is near".
Article in News from the Home Country (Frontpost supplement) No 45 of 10th April, 1945.
(coll. Burridge)


On 2 May, right after lunch, word came to the Army Commander that the unconditional surrender of the enemy in Italy might be expected that day. He had known that negotiations which were in progress had reached a critical point, but the precise time of the capitulation, if it should come, was known to no one.
He was instructed to expect German emissaries, on foot, coming down from German headquarters at Bolzano to confirm General Von Vietinghoffs acceptance of the conditions of surrender. Until such word was definitely received, there must be no intimation of what was in the wind, lest carefully laid plans blow up in a premature wave of celebration.

A major assault on the mountain strongholds toward Bolzano had been ordered for early the following morning, with the 10th Mountain Division driving northeast from Riva, and the 88th from Fonzaso. It was imperative that this not take place unless it was evident that the surrender was off. Who could tell, the German Commander and his negotiators might in the meantime have been arrested; they might be dead. The General dared not trust the telephone to impart such significant instructions.
That afternoon he took off in a liaison plane for II Corps Headquarters, well to the north in the Alpine foothills, while the Chief of Staff drove straight up along Lake Garda to the command post of the 10th Mountain Division.

General Hays was told to hold up the attack until further orders, but was not definitely informed of the expectation that surrender would come that day. He was instructed to keep an eye out for the German emissaries.

By this time, however, tense listeners monitoring the German radio had picked up broadcasts to German troops sent in the clear from Bolzano, ordering them to cease firing at 6:30. The emissaries did not arrive from Bolzano that day, but the German radio signals were clear and explicit.

At 6:30 word was flashed to the world that all the enemy forces in Italy and western Austria had surrendered unconditionally, and that the long, bitter campaign for the liberation of Italy had ended. Even then, some soldiers of the Fifth Army, notably advance elements of the 88th and 85th Divisions, learned about the surrender from the Germans, and then encountered fire afterward from fanatic Nazi bands which refused to accept the dictum of their generals.

But it was not long before all knew. The reaction was curious, but characteristic. The campaign in the Mediterranean Theater was over; the first theater-wide surrender of the Germans had occurred, but the war was not finished, not even in Europe, and there was little jubilation  only a sensation of profound relief.

For the Fifth Army, events had moved with such unbelievable rapidity in the 19 days which had just ended tbat there had hardly been time to think. Officers and men, having geared themselves to tremendous effort, to sleepless days and nights, to exertions seemingly beyond human endurance, felt momentarily lost, as if an intolerable silence had fallen; as if, indeed, they had suddenly been precipitated into a vacuum.

Yet they had known that something of the sort must happen, and soon. Whole divisions and corps of the Germans and Italian Fascists had been surrendering the past few days. There was no longer a German line, no longer an organized defense  only a breakneck race to the mountains and the sea. Men were too weary to think.

+ You knew the end was coming  you expected it any time, but now that it is actually here you almost can't believe it, ; said one infantry lieutenant. + You feel sort of let down, as if the bottom had fallen out of everything. ;
+ This is too big a thing, ; remarked a private from Chicago. + What can you say that makes any sense except maybe a 'thank God'? He's the only one can really understand how a guy feels right now. ; Said a sergeant: + Wait till the European war is over  that's the time to be excited. ;

But the thoughts of thousands of doughboys were clearly expressed by one mortarman with the 88th Division who, with astonishment in his voice, sat on the ground and murmured, + Thank God! I made it! ; The announcement had come to the troops with dramatic suddenness, but it marked the culmination of secret negotiations that had been in progress for weeks. Initially, word came to the Allied Headquarters that General Karl Wolff, top officer of the SS in northern Italy, was convinced that further resistance would be futile and was prepared, with other high-ranking Nazi officers, to discuss surrender. Negotiations went on in an atmosphere like that of a mystery novel. By April nothing had been decided, and the attack was ordered.

Allied leaflet, News from the Home Country (FP supplement) No 45, original translation article
Picture. Hitlers "Eagle's Nest" is taken.
Another article in News from the Home Country (Frontpost supplement) No 45 of 10th April, 1945.
(coll. Burridge)
But at 2:00 p.m. on 29 April, emissaries of the German High Command in Italy, after much futile haggling, signed the papers in the Royal Palace at Caserta, headquarters of the Allied Forces, and it was stipulated that the surrender should become fully effective on 2 May. The German representatives immediately set out by air for General Von Vietinghoffs headquarters.

Yet Monday, 30 April, was a day of anxious waiting. Would the German officers be able to reach Von Vietinghoff's headquarters without being captured by American troops? Would Generals Von Vietinghoff and Wolff honor the signatures of their representatives? Would the news leak out and upset everything?

An elaborate system of codes had been set up for communication between Allied and enemy headquarters, and on Monday Field Marshal Alexander, Allied Commander, sent off a radiogram to Von Vietinghoff, just in case the plenipotentiaries had failed to arrive. Next day word came from Bolzano that the emissaries had reached headquarters there, and that the surrender would be carried out. The Allied troops were not to cease firing until the German radio had broadcast the surrender orders. When on the afternoon of 2 May Allied radio receivers began to pick up the German broadcasts, our own troops were ordered to halt in place.

The German surrender, largest-scale enemy capitulation so far in the war, was to have a tremendous effect on the conclusion of hostilities throughout Europe, less than a week later. It knocked a million German soldiers out of the war and provided the moral impetus for the collapse of the Nazis everywhere. It laid the foundation for the return of peace to Europe. Bewildered enemy commanders of lesser rank had already surrendered or been captured with their troops all over northern Italy and more than 150,000 prisoners of War had been taken by the Fifth Army alone. In the IV Corps sector, where the greatest amount of territory had been covered and the most extensive hauls made, every division commander opposing the Corps when it jumped off on 14 April had been taken but one, and he was reported killed.

The cold numerical record of casualties sustained by the brave men of the Fifth Army during those final fateful days of the Italian campaign is but a slight indication of the severity of the fighting that characterized their actions and contains nothing at all of their countless stories of individual valor and sacrifice. In the nine days from 5 April, when the preliminary attacks on the west coast began, through 13 April, the eve of the all-out attack, the losses totaled 4495. These included 195 killed, 999 wounded, 45 missing in action, with 3256 non-battle casualties from all causes. From 14 April through 2 May the losses were 12,059, which included 1394 killed, 5,009 wounded, 74 missing, with 5582 casualties from non-battle causes.

Throughout the entire operation and closely following the Army spearheads, officers of Allied Military Government, integral to Fifth Army, absorbed the problems of civil administration. With the rapid expansion of the Army's area of control these problems increased enormously. At the close of the campaign nearly half of Italy, an area with a population of some 23 million people, was under direct control of the Fifth Army  an area which included the great financial and commercial centers of Milan, Turin and Genoa.

Such complex problems as the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons; the disarming of the Partisans, from whom approximately 200,000 weapons were collected; the care and transportation of some of Italy's greatest works of art which had been retrieved from the Germans; the feeding of the entire civilian population of the area; the administration of justice, the supply of civilian labor to the Army, were but a few of the manifold civilian tasks which had to be undertaken. These were accomplished successfully and concurrently with the progress of military operations and kept pace at all times with the rapidly moving situation.

From the Straits of Messina to the Brenner Pass, Italy was free. The last great battle of the war in the Mediterranean Theater had been fought and won. The Fifth Army, born overseas, was victorious. As the 88th Division G. I. remarked,
+ We made it! ;
In nineteen days!

MILAN, ITALY ........ 1945

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