Operation Albert-Stellung

Albert position

This was the German defence line across the central part of Italy to the north of Perugia between Radicofani and Perugia via Chiusi and Lake Trasimeno (June 1944).

The line extended to each side of Lake Trasimeno on a south-west/north-east alignment, and was designed as a holding position to delay the Allied armies as they advanced toward the major defences of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ farther to the north.

In trying to stabilise the German front after the capture of Rome by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army on 4 June 1944, the most difficult task faced by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’, was the restoration of the morale of the 14th Army. The first step in this direction was the replacement of its current commander, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, by General Joachim Lemelsen immediately after the fall of Rome, but Kesselring nonetheless appreciated that time would be needed to re-establish the confidence of the army’s staff and its corps and divisional commanders.

At this time Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army was entrusted with the task of checking Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army in the mountainous terrain to the east of the Tiber river, but the 14th Army would still have to face the 5th Army’s continuing progress to the north in the open country to the west of this river. Kesselring therefore directed most of the reinforcement supplied by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to the sector of the 14th Army, and began to develop a temporary covering position to the east and west of Viterbo, through which the disorganised formations of General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps and General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps could withdraw. He also ordered the 10th Army to send Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Fritz Polack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision to aid the 14th Army in stabilising its sector. These divisions had to move by a long and circuitous route well to the north before they could turn west into the sector of the 14th Army because all the bridges over the Tiber river to the north-east of Rome had been prematurely demolished in the first fraught moves after the 5th Army’s breakthrough of the ‘Cäsar-Linie’ position.

In planning his delaying action, Kesselring appreciated that logistic difficulties would slow the Allied advance if his forces could complete the thorough destruction of all road and rail communications in the area through which they were retreating.

Although the Italian peninsula widens in the area to the north of Rome, Kesselring believed that there was a line of the right type running north-east/south-west through Lake Trasimeno. Kesselring thought that these ‘Albert-Stellung’ defences were sufficiently far to the north of Rome to give his formations the time needed for rebuilding, and to offer the German army’s engineers the opportunity to create a significant logistic ‘desert’ which would genuinely hamper the Allied advance.

To the north of Lake Trasimeno Kesselring intended to continue the employment of his well-established tactic of falling back through a series of minor delaying positions until he reached the line of the Arno river, on which he planned a final stand before withdrawing slowly to the north into the major ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences he hoped to hold for the winter.

In the first half of June few officers on either side would have believed that Kesselring’s plan offered any but an illusory chance of checking the Allied advance. In the later part of 1943 Kesselring had been fortunate inasmuch as the Allies had withdrawn seven of their best divisions and most of their landing craft to prepare for ‘Overlord’ before they had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Germans. No one in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or in the headquarters of his own Heeresgruppe ‘C’ knew at this stage that the German forces would be saved once again in almost the same way.

At the highest levels of the Allied command in the Mediterranean the chance of this eventuality was all too evident, however, and had become the main preoccupation of Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson (commander-in-chief Middle East), General Jacob L. Devers (Wilson’s deputy), General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander (commander-in-chief of the Allied Armies in Italy), and Lieutenant General Sir John Harding (chief-of-staff of the Allied Armies in Italy).

Between 4 and 16 June, even as his two field armies maintained contact with the advancing Allies, Kesselring managed to execute a difficult and very unorthodox manoeuvre so that considerably depleted corps and divisions of the 10th Army and 14th Army came into alignment to create a homogeneous front along the defensive positions on the ‘Albert-Stellung’. This was indeed a remarkable achievement, though it cannot be denied that it was facilitated by a measure of confusion within the Allied advance resulting from the relief in the 5th Army of the II and VI Corps by the IV Corps and French Expeditionary Corps, and in the 8th Army by the advent of the X Corps into the line on the right of the XIII Corps, and the relief of the V Corps by the Polish II Corps.

The Allied pursuit from Rome to the north started at dawn on 5 June. The Tiber river valley formed the general boundary between the 5th and 8th Armies and between the two German armies they were attempting to harry. The 5th Army despatched Major General Lucian K. Truscott ’s VI Corps north along Highway 1 to seize the port of Civitavecchia, which was needed for the landing of the supplies required by the 5th Army’s movement to the north. Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s II Corps advanced along Highway 2 to seize Viterbo and its airfield complex, the latter needed by the Allied air forces. Neither of the US corps met any but minimum resistance. Civitavecchia fell after only a short fight on 7 June and Viterbo was also in US hands by 9 June.

The VI Corps was then relieved by Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s IV Corps, which had arrived in Italy at the end of March, so that the former could be prepared for its involvement in ‘Anvil’ (later ‘Dragoon’) should the Allies order the implementation of this descent on the south coast of France. Général d’Armée Alphonse-Pierre Juin’s Corps Expéditionnaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps) relieved the II Corps, which went into army reserve.

On the 8th Army’s front the pursuit was conducted by Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s XIII Corps with Major General W. H. E. Poole’s South African 6th Armoured Division west of the Tiber river on Highway 3 and Major General V. Evelegh’s British 6th Armoured Division to the east of the river on Highway 4. Major General A. D. Ward’s British 4th Division was to follow up the advance in immediate support of the armoured divisions. The XIII Corps had a harder task than its US counterparts as it was faced by high-quality formations in the form of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and Generalmajor Ernst Baade’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision. In spite of this, progress was relatively rapid, the South African 6th Armoured Division making an advance of 35 miles (55 km) on the first day.

Alexander ordered that the advance be continued on 7 June, with the 8th Army to move to the general area of Florence, Bibbiena and Arezzo via Highways 3 and 4, and the 5th Army to the general area of Pisa, Lucca and Pistoia via Highways 1 and 2. Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s V Corps, on the Italian east coast, was not to make any effort to speed the German withdrawal along the Adriatic Sea littoral, so reducing the corps’ demand for bridging equipment and transport, which was more urgently needed by the main bodies of the 5th and 8th Armies.

If the general advance in the area to the west of the Apennine mountains did not persuade the Germans to abandon Ancona, an important port on the east coast between Pescara in the south and Rimini in the north, Generał dywizji Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps would be brought forward over the 8th Army’s main axes on the west of the Apennines to fall on the port from the west.

Both army commanders were told to take ‘extreme risks’ to ensure that their formations achieved their objectives before the German armies could recover their balance. For the next 10 days, therefore, the Allied armies continued their rapid advances, but throughout the period the German resistance nonetheless stiffened steadily: the demolition of bridges and mining of roads became more thorough on a daily basis, fewer stragglers were caught, and the rate of the Allied advance slowed.

The 5th Army continued to employ the IV Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps along Highways 1 and 2. The 8th Army brought up Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s X Corps on the XIII Corps’ eastern flank, and after some regrouping pressed forward in a more north-westerly direction aiming to pass round each side of Lake Trasimeno in order to capture the important road and rail communication centre of Arezzo.

By 20 June both Allied armies found themselves up against the ‘Albert-Stellung’, Kesselring’s first main delaying position. The IV Corps was meeting stiffer resistance on the Ombrone river and the French Expeditionary Corps was checked on its tributary, the Orcia river. The XIII Corps was stopped in front of Chiusi, just to the west of Lake Trasimeno, and the X Corps took Perugia but was then halted to the east of the lake. On the Adriatic coast, the V Corps followed up the German retirement into Pescara and Chieti. The Polish II Corps then took over on the Adriatic coast and advanced quickly to the Chienti river, the Adriatic extension of the ‘Albert-Stellung’, which it reached on 21 June.

By the last week of June the Allied formations had come up against the ‘Albert-Stellung’ defences, in which Lemelsen’s 14th Army had General Frido von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps facing the IV Corps on the west coast and General Alfred von Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps facing the Corps Expéditionnaire Français, and von Vietinghoff’s 10th Army had General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps facing the XIII and X Corps, and General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps facing the Polish II Corps on the Adriatic. The most effective element of the German defence was in the area of Lake Trasimeno itself, where the XIII Corps’ 78th Division was involved in severe fighting on 17 June at Città della Pieve and then on 21 June at San Fatucchio. By 24 June the Allied forces had worked their way round to the lake’s northern shore and linked with the X Corps' Indian 4th Division and Indian 10th Division as the German defenders withdrew toward Arezzo.

The IV Corps also found it difficult to make effective progress at anything more than a snail’s pace, but by 1 July the corps had crossed the Cecina river and its formations were within 20 miles (32 km) of Livorno. Meanwhile the French Expeditionary Corps had been decked along the Orcia river to the west of Lake Trasimeno until the formations of the I Fallschirmkorps pulled back on 27 June, allowing the French to enter Siena on 3 July.

Off the Italian west coast, the ‘Brassard’ operation against Elba, which should have been mounted during ‘Diadem’, was finally undertaken with the air support which could not be provided until the completion of ‘Diadem’. The pursuit phase of the advance behind the retirement of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was now over, with the German line re-established as a coherent whole across the Italian peninsula. Kesselring had his formations under tight control and was more determined than ever to repeat his defensive successes of the previous year. The Allies would be made to pay in men and, more especially, time for every mile of their advance from the ‘Albert-Stellung’ to the ‘Gotisch-Linie’.