Operation Sesame (ii)

This was the Allied programme of air attacks on German positions in the Futa and Il Giogo passes to the north of Florence in Italy (9/11 September 1944).

These two passes were the main axes of advance for Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army against the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in northern Italy, and the positions in them were held by Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision of General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps (4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s 334th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division) of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, with General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps of Generaloberst Heinrich Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army on its left flank.

Under the supervision of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, heading the Allied Armies in Italy command, Clark now planned to break through the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences in the Apennine mountains and reach the key communications nexus at Bologna before the arrival of winter brought the 1944 campaigning season to an effective end. Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army had already punched its way through the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences on the Adriatic Sea sector at the eastern end of the German line, and the 10th Army had lost three of its divisions in the vain attempt by Heeresgruppe ‘C’ to stem the British offensive.

Now it was Clark’s turn to assault these formidable defences in the hills and mountains of the Apennine range. The main task was allocated to Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps (Major General Charles L. Bolte’s 34th Division, Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division, Major General Paul W. Kendall’s 88th Division and Major General William G. Livesay’s 91st Division), with Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps (Major General H. Murray’s 6th Armoured Division, Major General C. F. Loewen’s 1st Division and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division) on its right.

Clark’s plan was for the US II Corps to seek to deceive the Germans as to its real intentions by advancing astride Highway 65 leading to the Futa pass, with the 34th and 91st Divisions on the western and eastern sides respectively. As these two divisions closed on the Futa pass, the 85th Division would drive forward in the main effort through the Il Giogo pass (believed to be less strongly held) with the 91st Division coming to its support from the west. The 88th Division would be held back to exploit the sector in which the greater success was achieved. Operational cover for the whole enterprise was to be provided by the XIII Corps, which was to attack farther to the east on the Faenza and Forlì roads against Generalmajor Hanns von Rohr’s 715th Division of the LI Gebirgskorps. The 1st Division was tasked with advancing up the Faenza road, and the Indian 8th Division up the Forlì road.

In the event, Kesselring accepted the Allies’ operational deception, and until too late believed that the main effort was being made by the XIII Corps against Faenza and Forlì with the intention then of taking Imola and advancing on Bologna from the south-east.

‘Sesame’ (ii) was launched by Air Vice Marshal W. F. Dickson’s Desert Air Force on 9 September with the object of softening the German defences in the two passes, and more than 2,000 sorties were flown by medium bombers and fighter-bombers during the five days of the air offensive. Though the German defence was damaged, it was too well entrenched and too battle-experienced to suffer decisive casualties.

The 5th Army offensive got under way on 10 September, and by 12 September the 34th and 91st Divisions had forced the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, which had all three of its regiments in the line and thus possessed no reserve, back into the main defences of the Futa pass. One day later the 85th Division closed on the Il Giogo pass and the offensive proper was launched as the efforts of ‘Sesame’ (ii) tailed off.

In four days the US divisions made no real impression on the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, and suffered very heavy casualties for its efforts. However, to the east the XIII Corps was faring better against the 715th Division, and on 17 September a combined effort by the US and British forces of the 85th and 1st Divisions caused the loss of the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision’s left-flank defences on the eastern side of the Il Giogo pass. By 18 September the US II Corps held a 7-mile (11.25-km) section of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences.

It was only at this stage that Kesselring came to realise that the road to Imola through the Il Giogo pass was open, and pulled the 44th Division and 362nd Division, of the LI Gebirgskorps and XIV Panzerkorps, from the 10th Army’s sector to try to hold Firenzuola. The divisions began to arrive on 20 September, but were too late to check the development of the US II Corps’ salient through the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences as the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, exhausted by its feat up to this moment, was compelled to pull back from the Futa pass and Firenzuola on 21 September.

The Allied plan had called for the fresh 88th Division to move up for an exploitation toward Bologna, but as the 8th Army was currently stalled after the San Gemmiano and Coriano Ridge battles, Alexander ordered Clark to send the 88th Division toward Imola and thus toward the rear areas of the 10th Army checking the British. But by 27 September the Americans were held at Monte Battaglia in front of Imola as Kesselring committed every unit he could. The fighting lasted some 10 days and halted the 88th Division; the winter weather had now arrived, and given the determination and skill of the German defence, Clark decided to call a halt and consolidate.