After four months of stalemate in the shell hole ridden, malaria infested marshlands of the Anzio/Nettuno lodgment, Gen Mark Clark’s Fifth Army was ready to break out. To the south, the Eighth Army smashed through the Gustav Line and brushed aside the Senger Line (aka Hitler Line, which had a quick name change once it was so easily pierced by the Canadians) and were driving into an increasingly desperate German Tenth Army, the last obstacle separating the Fifth and Eighth Armies.
As part of Operation Diadem, the Fifth Army launched Operation Buffalo to tie down German troops and cut off the Germans fighting to the south. All of his troops were making good progress. On 25 May, 1944, MG Lucian Truscott’s US VI Corps, consisting of the US 3rd, 34th and 45th Infantry and US 1st Armored Divisions were within striking distance of their objective: the Valmatone Gap and Route 6. The capture of Valmontone would cut off the German Tenth Army to the south and ensure its destruction.
That night, Clark’s operations officer told Truscott to cease Operation Buffalo and begin Operation Turtle. The main differences were a shift in the main effort, and the mission of the 1st Armored Division. In Turtle, the main effort shifted to the 34th and 45th’s drive into the Alban Hills. Once they broke through, “Old Ironsides” would turn north and drive on Rome instead of Valmontone, while the 3rd ID would continue on alone. Truscott knew about Turtle, his staff had planned it, but that plan was based on the main German strength at Valmontone, not in the Alban Hills. By executing Turtle, the 34th, 45th and 1st AD would be attacking directly into the teeth of the only occupied and entrenched units of the Caesar C Line, while leaving Valmontone to the “hodge podge” of units the Germans had holding the door open for the Tenth Army. Truscott knew that the 3rd ID would never make it there by itself, and even if it did, it would not be able to hold Valmontone from a concerted counterattack when the Germans attempted to break out. He also recognized the vainglorious insanity of capturing Rome at the expense of letting the German Tenth Army escape. He initially refused the order, and demanded to talk to Clark first. But Clark “was not available” to speak with him, and he was told to execute. In a decision he would regret for the rest of his life, Truscott complied.
On 2 June, the Caesar C Line collapsed but by that time some 70,000 German troops of the Tenth Army had already fled north. Almost all of them escaped through the Valmontone Gap within sound of the 3rd ID’s guns. Those veterans formed the hard core of the defenders on the next set of fortifications, the Gothic Line. The Gothic Line, north of Rome, proved to be more formidable than the Gustav Line. The Allies would try to breach it for a long seven months, nearly twice as long as the Gustav Line. The Allies incurred tens of thousands of casualties in the process and didn’t breakthrough until April 1945.
On 3 June, Hitler ordered Rome an “open city”, and its occupiers retreated to the Gothic Line. Clark victoriously entered The Eternal City on 4 June, 1944, like a triumphant ancient Roman consul. He would have his front page headlines for exactly one day. On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, and operations in Italy would be relegated to the back pages of Clark’s beloved newspapers for the rest of the war.
Clark’s decision to seize Rome at the expense of destroying the German Tenth Army is one of the great “What ifs?” of the Second World War. If the Tenth Army was destroyed, the Allies would have pushed through the Gothic Line in August. (Assuming, of course, the Germans didn’t reinforce Italy, but then those troops would have to come from somewhere.) Northern Italy was a historical playground for armies because there’s no defensible terrain. There was nothing to stop the Allies from pushing into Croatia and Slovenia, linking up with Tito, and then pushing into Austria, Hungary, and Romania months before the Soviets, as Churchill envisioned. The Germans would have reacted, but again, those troops had to come from somewhere, and operational reserves for the Germans were a zero sum game by the end of 1944.
“Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”, though.