In May 1943 the British First Army fighting from the west and the British Eighth Army fighting from the east met in Tunisia. The German and Italian forces there surrendered and the three-year campaign in North Africa was over. Not only had the Axis powers lost more than 400,000 men together with significant equipment, the Allies now had the Mediterranean Sea under their control. With substantial armies no longer fighting, and no prospect of an invasion of Western Europe until the following year, the question facing the Allies was “what next?”.
By this time, the tide had also changed for the Axis in Russia. Over winter 1942-43 the German Sixth Army had been annihilated at Stalingrad, and the Red Army had already started to make progress westwards. Stalin had requested that pending a Western European invasion the Allies open up a second front to divert German military strength away from the Eastern Front. Churchill also believed that a strike up the Adriatic coast of Italy into Slovenia and beyond to Austria could shorten the war.
The US was not enthusiastic about diverting effort away from the planned invasion of Western Europe, which in mid January 1943 could potentially have taken place as early as that summer. Nor were they keen about taking resources away from the Pacific war against Japan. However at the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff conference held in Casablanca that month it was agreed that at the least the Allies should invade Sicily, with three objectives: to secure the Mediterranean; to divert German forces from the Eastern Front; and to intensify pressure on Italy.
Therefore on 10th July 1943 the Allies landed on Sicily, completing their conquest of the island on 17th August.
On 24th July the Fascist Council in Rome turned against Mussolini, who was deposed and imprisoned two days later. All Fascist institutions were disbanded. The new Italian government opened secret negotiations with the Allies for an armistice. As a result, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff decided to go ahead with a full invasion of mainland Italy, planned to coincide with the signing of the armistice.
On 3rd September 1943 the new Italian government signed the armistice, and Italy changed its allegiance from the Axis to the Allied side. The Germans had planned for this and moved quickly to secure Italy as far as they could. Before the Italian armed forces could receive clear orders from their commanders, they were disarmed and neutralised.
On the same day, the US Fifth Army landed at Salerno, around 50 Km down the coast from Naples. Here they met significant resistance but after two weeks of taking heavy casualties established a bridgehead.
Also on 3rd September 1943 the British Eighth Army’s XIII Corps made an amphibious landing in Reggio Calabria in the south-west. Part of the objective for this was to divert German attention from the US landings at Salerno. However, the Germans had already decided not to engage the allies so far south, the British met only light resistance, and no immediate relief was provided to the US forces further north.
Following the German defence at Salerno which had nearly deprived the Allies of a bridgehead, Hitler took the decision to defend Italy as far south as was practical. The Germans may not have been able to stop the Allies from landing on the Italian mainland, but they could prevent them from making easy progress northwards. They had the terrain of the country on their side, with easily defendable mountain positions at strategic points. They also had the weather in their favour: over both winters of the campaign this would prevent the advancing Allied armies from making any significant progress between December and March.
The third Allied landing took place on 9th September 1943 when the Italian government declared the city and port of Taranto open, allowing the British Eighth Army to land there unopposed. Some six weeks later on Saturday 23rd October, Captain Patrick Maybin arrived there from North Africa.