Po Man’s War: WW II, Napoleon, and the Po River Valley
The Allies’ advance through Italy was a slow, costly slugfest. Napoleon might have suggested they take the Po Valley route instead, as he had done.
During World War II, Winston Churchill strongly advocated for an invasion of Italy calling it the "soft underbelly of the Axis." As Allied strategy focused on a cross-channel invasion of France, few others shared Churchill’s belief, and none shared his conviction. He argued that an invasion’s immediate results would be to knock Italy out of the war, deny Italian industry to the Axis, and divert German forces to Italy, all aiding the invasion of France. After the Allies’ success in Sicily and with the invasion of France still approximately a year away, an invasion of "the Boot" seemed a natural progression of the war, and Churchill got his invasion of Italy. Subsequent events convinced many that the invasion was a mistake. Slow advances through mountainous terrain, heavily fortified defensive lines, and battles best known for their high casualty rates characterized the Italian Campaign. A study of Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, however, indicate that the mistake may have been more of execution than of strategy.
The Allies’ Italian Campaign
The Allies first entered Italy by crossing the Strait of Messina from Sicily. Amphibious landings at Salerno and Taranto followed. Several mountain ranges limited any movement northward to the narrow river valleys in between. This allowed small German forces to slow down the Allies’ advance to a crawl, while the bulk of the German forces prepared defensive lines farther north. When a defensive line finally cracked, the entire process began again. Attempts to envelop these defensive lines by amphibious landings failed to speed the process along, because the Allies lacked the depth necessary to prevent the Germans from shifting forces to pin the them in their beachhead. Even when a landing was unopposed, the tone of the campaign was such that the Allies missed the opportunity to reap decisive results from the accomplishment.
For example, the Anzio landing surprised the Germans and the Allies found the Alban Hills that dominated the approaches to Rome—and more importantly, the supply lines to the Gustav and Hitler Defensive Lines farther south—empty. Yet, following the admonition of his army commander to not "stick his neck out," the commander of the Anzio forces concentrated on building up his beachhead and failed to occupy the hills. The Germans quickly recovered, shifted their forces to attack the beachhead, and almost pushed the Allies back into the sea. When the war in Europe ended, the Allies had just reached the passes through the Alps along Italy’s northern border; the U.S. Army had fought its longest continuous campaign of the war.
Napoleon’s Experiences in Italy
Like the Allies in their attack on "the soft underbelly," the Italian Campaigns of Napoleon were secondary fronts in a much larger war. In 1796, the two French armies in central Europe held priority of resources to the point that—unlike the Allies in World War II—the French army in Italy often suffered severe shortages in supplies and men, to the extent that the army at times lacked food or shoes. Despite these overwhelming obstacles, Napoleon used what little political influence he possessed at this early point in his career to obtain command of the French army in Italy.
Prior to taking command, Napoleon held the position of the army’s chief of artillery. He used this opportunity to study the problems facing the Army of Italy and develop a realistic plan to overcome those problems before throwing his troops into battle. In contrast, the Allies underestimated the difficulties they would face in Italy, believing that an invasion was a mere formality, and that the Germans would not defend Italy. While the Italian government did surrender the day the Allies landed at Salerno, the Germans were prepared and quickly took over defense of the country.
The Allied plan, as well as the invasion itself, was the product of compromise. As the Italian Campaign progressed and the invasion of France neared, more and more resources were diverted to Northwest Europe. This lack of intensity and commitment resulted in a plan that involved simply forcing the Germans up the peninsula and conducting amphibious operations to break any stalemates along the way. The Allies played it safe, and they accomplished the objectives of the invasion—eventually.
Napoleon acted more boldly. He quickly moved to capture the passes out of the Republic of Genoa along the Ligurian Sea and into the Po River Valley, the widest valley in Italy. It stretches across the top of the country. Here, Napoleon was able to overcome the greatest challenges his army faced. By using the wide valley to maneuver his outnumbered army between the divided Austrian forces, he defeated them one at a time, a technique he would repeat often in the future. The valley’s resources provisioned his army and even allowed him to send supplies and tribute back to France.
When new difficulties arose, Napoleon continued to react pragmatically and decisively. Like the WWII Allied commander, Napoleon also had to contend with unruly subordinates. Whereas the competition and distrust between the Allies would be allowed to reach the levels of paranoia in Italy, Napoleon acted quickly to punish or remove a subordinate whose actions—such as excessive looting or corruption along his supply lines—threatened to undermine his plans. Nor was Napoleon afraid to ignore directives from the French government when events on the ground required it. This often included engaging in diplomatic negotiations, even though he lacked the authority to do so.
Marengo vs. Salerno
Within a year, Napoleon led his army across the Po River Valley. He vanquished three different Austrian commanders and their armies. Finally, when Napoleon pushed to within 100 miles of Vienna, Austria sued for peace. In a time when France suffered defeat after defeat, Napoleon gave her victories. He became famous throughout France and established the public support necessary for his later rise to power. After returning from Egypt four years later, Napoleon once again faced the Austrians in the Po River Valley, decisively defeating them at Marengo.
By contrast, in World War II, with a great advantage in resources, the Allies slogged their way slowly up the Italian Peninsula with little recognition of their efforts and were all but ignored after the landings in Normandy in June of 1944.
In order to fulfill his vision for an invasion of Italy, Churchill needed a general willing to follow not only the example of Napoleon’s boldness but his invasion route as well. Instead of Salerno, an Allied landing near Genoa offered a much greater chance for decisive results, albeit with much greater risk. Amphibious invasions need to take ports to keep the beachhead supplied and Genoa is Italy’s largest port. From there, mountain passes lead to the Po River Valley. A successful breakout into this valley would have led to an Italian Campaign that favored the Allies instead of the Germans. The Allies’ greatest advantages lay in their air power and mobility. These were nullified in the mountainous terrain to the south. In the valley, they would have been overwhelming. When the Allies finally reached the Po River Valley in 1945, they secured its entire length in less than a month.
Additionally, all of the Allied goals for the campaign were centered in the Po River Valley. With control of the valley the Allies would have captured the bulk of Italian industrial and food production, cut off German forces fighting the British Eighth Army in southern Italy, and drawn even more German forces from the defenses in France.
Such a campaign could potentially have altered the postwar situation. Allied forces in the Po River Valley would have been in position to attack through the Alpine Passes into southern Germany. Eisenhower would not have felt a need in 1945 to divert forces to prevent a German withdrawal to the Alps and could have kept them pushing on to Berlin. Alternatively, Allied forces could have used the Po River Valley as a springboard into Yugoslavia, Greece and/or Eastern Europe, countering Soviet advances there. These are just the kinds of opportunities Churchill—who always had one eye on the postwar situation with the Soviets—believed an Italian Campaign would produce.
A focus on the Po River Valley and an amphibious landing near Genoa would have been much riskier for the Allies, however. A failed landing may have been even bloodier than the campaign up the peninsula, but history shows us that such boldness is often rewarded. Napoleon twice forced Austria to sue for peace in the Po River Valley, and Churchill may have been looking to his example when he called Italy the "soft underbelly of the Axis." We can also look to a more recent example: In 1950, at Inchon, Korea, a bold general named Douglas MacArthur conducted an extremely risky invasion of another mountainous peninsula, and dramatically altered the course of the Korean War.
About the Author
Taylor Holbrook is currently a member of the Kentucky Bar association. Previously, he served in the U.S. Marines Corps and studied International Security Affairs, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, and American Military History as part of his undergraduate degree.