Operation Herbstnebel (iii)

autumn mist

This was the German withdrawal from the line of the Po river in northern Italy by General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army and General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army (April 1945).

The movement was in response to the order of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Südwest' and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe ‘C’, despite the express instructions of Adolf Hitler that the army group (with the dubious support of Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s 97th Army ‘Liguria’ provided by Fascist Italy) should fight and if necessary die on the line of the Po.

By April 1945 the senior German commanders in northern Italy believed that an offensive by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army in north-eastern Italy was imminent, and that this would almost certainly by followed in short order by an offensive by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army to its west. von Vietinghoff-Scheel wished to soften the impact of both the British and US offensives on the 10th Army and 14th Army respectively, but especially the former’s ‘Buckland’, an according to General Hans Röttiger, von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s chief-of-staff, by the start of April the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Sudwest’ made another attempt to persuade the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to authorise the withdrawal of the 10th Army and the left wing of 14th Army into the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’, which was based on the Idice and Reno rivers. von Vietinghoff-Scheel pressed the argument that a withdrawal from the salient to the south-east of Bologna would shorten the German front by an appreciable degree, that the occupation of the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ would facilitate a later retreat to the line of the Po river, and that it would serve to dislocate the 8th Army’s preparations for its offensive. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht refused its permission for any such retirement, and also rejected a similar, though smaller-scale, suggestion by Herr. The plan of the 10th Army’s commander envisaged that an artillery programme some 24 hours before the start of the 8th Army’s offensive would allow him to thin the 10th Army’s front on the Senio river in the area between the Via Emilia and the Via Adriatica by means of a partial withdrawal to the Santerno river. Despite its rejection by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Herr’s plan was retained, at least in part, in the thinking of Heeresgruppe ‘C’: the artillery programme was fired during the night of 6/7 April, worrying Allied commanders because it suggested that their planning might have been neutralised by the 10th Army slipping away to the north.

There is evidence that elements of Generalmajor Alfred Kuhnert’s (from 19 April Generalleutnant Viktor Linnarz’s) 26th Panzerdivision were deployed on the Santerno river by 8 April, and that Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s (from 11 April Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s) 98th Volksgrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Alois Weber’s 362nd Division of General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s (from 25 April Generalleutnant Karl von Graffen’s) LXXVI Panzerkorps were ordered to pull back during the night of 9/10 April. Thus it seems likely that Herr, on his own initiative, had indeed decided to thin his line on the Senio river by the time the 8th Army attacked.

Then, early on 14 April and before Once again von Vietinghoff-Scheel was pressing for authority to execute ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii), but still more than ever before Adolf Hitler had lost touch with reality, both political and military. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s North-West European forces were already deep into Germany and General Georgi K. Zhukov’s Soviet forces were poised for their assault to Berlin, but at this stage two developments served to reinforce Hitler’s belief that his enemies would fall out with each other and thereby save Germany. On 10 April the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht knew of ‘Eclipse’ (iv), the Allies’ plan for the post-war division and administration of Germany. Thus knowing that the US advance to the Elbe river would bring their forces into the planned Soviet zone, Hitler hoped that there would be major disagreement between the Allies. This thinking appeared to be bolstered by the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 12 April. This was news which was hailed by Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on the following day as constituting a turning point in German history, and in a proclamation issued to the German forces on the Eastern Front just two days later, Hitler announced that ‘fate had already removed from this earth the greatest war criminal of all time’, that ‘the break-in of our enemy in the West, despite everything, will fail in the end’, and that the ‘last onslaught from Asia’ would also be broken if the troops did their duty and held their positions.

Whatever his beliefs and exhortations, Hitler was nonetheless wholly incapable of removing the very real prospect of Germany being sundered into two parts. On 15 April, the day before the Soviets launched their ‘Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation’ from the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers, Hitler ordained that in the event of communications in central Germany being severed, he would remain in overall command, but also that Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz would become responsible for the defence of the northern part of the Greater German Reich, and at the same time Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring would supervise the defence of the southern part. As the Oberbefelhshaber ‘West’ and later also the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, Kesselring was thus to control Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Südost’ on the Eastern Front, Heeresgruppe ‘G’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Oberrhein’ on the Western Front, and Heeresgruppe ‘C’ on the Italian Front. The dates on which these changes were to be made were affected both by the upheavals in the German high command occasioned by the speed of the Soviet advance and by Hitler’s decision to await the end in Berlin.

So far as the Germans formations on the Italian Front were concerned, Hitler’s political delusions and his blind determination never to surrender or yield territory won with German blood combined to ensure that von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s request for permission to fall back was refused. Even if it had been granted, this permission would have been too late: as von Vietinghoff-Scheel himself said, it would need two weeks, at least, for the formations on the western wing of the 14th Army and the 97th Army ‘Liguria’ to remove themselves from their coastal positions and the western end of the Alps. During this period the 10th Army would have found it almost impossible to prevent the 8th Army from breaking through to the Po river. Four of the 10th Army’s divisions had already been savaged, and no level of determination by the Germans troops could offset the British superiority in matériel and tactical air power. Then, after the 5th Army had launched its own offensive, the ‘known intention’ of the Allies to effect the total destruction of the German armies in Italy could only be avoided by the avoidance of decisive battles and a withdrawal to prepared defences on the line of the Ticino and Po rivers. von Vietinghoff-Scheel urged an early decision and for a realistic consideration of Röttiger’s logistic report, which gave Heeresgruppe ‘C’ a combat endurance of about 14 days unless it received early and increased supplies of fuel and ammunition.

Röttiger’s report was passed to the quartermaster general’s department at the Oberkommando des Heeres, which responded that there could be no increase in allocations as a result of overall shortages and problems of transport. Responding to von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s appreciation on 17 April, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht general staff, merely reiterated Hitler’s order that there were to be ‘no more proposals for a change in the present war strategy’. On no account, therefore, must troops or their commanders be allowed to waver or to adopt defeatist attitudes, and ‘serious consequences’ were threatened for any commanders who did not obey Hitler’s order promptly, filly and without demur.

All that this rebuff managed to achieve was to convince von Vietinghoff-Scheel that from this time onward he would have to take his own military decisions. Even so, he was anxious to avoid any ‘open break’ with the high command, which could have resulted in the dismissal of both him and Röttiger, and at the same time jeopardising the progress of the ‘Crossword’ negotiations on which he depended to stop the pointless destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘C’.

The key date for von Vietinghoff-Scheel and the Allies alike was 19 April. In complete defiance of his orders, on this date von Vietinghoff-Scheel instructed the 97th Army ‘Liguria’ to put ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii) into effect and then, on the following day, ordered a general withdrawal from the area of Bologna. During the evening of 20 April von Vietinghoff-Scheel signalled Hitler to the effect that it was only in the adoption of a ‘mobile strategy’ that he foresaw any chance of his army group’s survival. The assurance that von Vietinghoff-Scheel awaited Hitler’s orders merely elicited the response from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that local penetrations of the German line were not to lead to further contractions of his front, and that any commander who entertaining any thought of defeat was to be punished severely.

Hitler was now almost totally obsessed with the fate of Berlin. On 20 April Dönitz was authorised to issue orders on Hitler’s behalf for the defence of the northern half of the Reich, but the direction of the war on the southern fronts was left largely to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. By 22 April, when Hitler announced that he would remain in Berlin to the end, there was of necessity a major exodus of the staffs of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Oberkommando des Heeres from Zossen, to the south of Berlin, as Soviet spearheads had been reported as nearing two days earlier. The operations branch of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht divided, and Jodl’s deputy, General August Winter, established a southern Operations Staff B in Bavaria. To maintain some sort of contact with Hitler and with the northern commands, both Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, and Jodl remained with Operations Staff A, whose location moved constantly as the Soviets pressed forward. Kesselring’s appointment as the Oberbefelhshaber ‘Süd’ came on 25 April: on strategic matters Kesselring was to consult the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, whose senior commanders at last but all too late started to reveal an element of realism in their thing about the southern fronts.

On 23 April Jodl on his own initiative authorised von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s withdrawal to the line of the Ticino and Po rivers in order to save enough troops for the occupation of the so-called but largely illusory ‘Blau-Linie’ (otherwise Voralpen) positions in the southern foothills of the Alps. This, it was hoped, would preserve Heeresgruppe ‘C’ for the ‘fight against Bolshevism’ which, as Jodl informed the southern army groups on 24 April, ‘must be waged to the last consequence’. All the available German strength was therefore to be committed against the Soviets, even if this meant the cession of territory to the Western Allies.

These directives were too late to avert the effective destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in the area to the south of the Po river. The ‘Blau-Linie’ could not be manned, still less the more illusory ‘inner fortress’ in the Alps whose construction Hitler had ordered on 24 April as a ‘final bulwark of fanatical resistance’: this Alpenfestung was not and could not be supplied. Winter, moreover, reported to Jodl on 29 April that of the German forces in the zone of Operations Staff B there was still a will to resist only among those fighting the Soviets and Yugoslavs, capture by whom was deemed tantamount to death. Kesselring reckoned at the end of the month that the Alps (not the Alpenfestung might be held for just long enough to enable the German forces in Czechoslovakia, Austria and Yugoslavia to reach the occupation zones of the Western Allies. His hopes were not to be realised.