Was General Mark Clark a poor commander in Italy?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the cites, but I was watching a program on The History Channel a few years ago, which among other things gave a rundown of the Allied Campaign through Italy in WW II.

It also gave a rather scathing opinion on General Clark, giving the opinion that he wasted more lives than necessary through some poor planning in one (or more) battle(s).

Again, I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the commentary. It went something like referring to his action as committing murder (to his own troops).

I find it hard that such an incompetent commander would then be named commander of another Allied force, less than a decade later in Korea.

Can someone shed some light?

It’s easy to say that the casualties in Italy were excessive, because they were. But it is very difficult that Mark Clark deserves any blame for causing them. Yes, there are debatable decisions in some battles (Monte Cassino is most often cited in questioning Clark). but that applies to almost every battlefield decision by a commander. Same could easily be said about Montgomery or Eisenhower, for instance.

Mark Clark had to deploy an offensive force in the absolutely worst possible terrain for it. Italy is custom-made for defensive operations, with the Appenines, poor roads (at the time), lots of streams to cross, and generally poor weather most of the year.

Italy is vulnerable to coastal invasions, but there is little room behind the beaches to consolidate (read about the Anzio invasion). More importantly, Clark did not have the transport available to make grand leaps along the coastline.

it wasn’t Clark that made the decision to invade Italy, it wasn’t Clark that thought Italy was the “soft underbelly”, and it wasn’t Clark that re-deployed troops, ships, and air power to France. Those decisions affected the course of the Italian campaign, and the casualties, more than any decision Clark took. He did the best with what he was ordered to do.

I’m sure he had many good qualities, but Mark Clark is personally to blame for one of the largest strategic blunders the Allies committed in Europe.

Through very good planning and a little bit of luck, Clark managed to almost simultaneously break out of the Anzio beachead and through the Gustav Line at Cassino and also at another point. This broke the German line and left the Anzio troops in the position to attack southeast, linking up with the troops moving through the Gustav Line and encircling a good chunk of the German Tenth Army.

Instead, Clark shifted his line of attack north, in order to capture Rome. It is widely believed that his maneuver was solely designed to capture headlines, rather than Germans.

And that’s exactly what happened. Rome fell on June 4, 1944 and Mark Clark was a hero for exactly two days, until the D-Day landings stole the show. In the meantime, the German Tenth Army set up an effective withdrawl to the Gothic Line and stalemated the war in Italy once again.

Had Clark encircled those German troops, it is possible that the Germans would have been unable to man another peninsula-wide defense of Italy, possibly paving the way for a third axis of advance on Germany and possibly shortening the war considerably. We’ll never know, but we do know that what Clark did was stupid and self-aggrandizing, and for that incident alone I think it is fair to question his judgment and his ability as a commander.

I was under the impression that Clark was blameless for Cassino. I mean that was against bombing it since he figured that Kesselring wouldn’t go there since it’s such an obvious target and would only be turned into a bunker if it was bombed. As I understood it an English commander raised a stink about it and got his way so it was bombed. Apparently Clarks assessment was correct. Kesselring didn’t garrison in there because he thought he’d get bombed but he did use it as a bunker after it had been bombed.

What I meant by referencing Monte Cassino was the thing that Sofa King raised: After the breakthroughs at Cassino and Anzio, Clark should have struck towards Valmonte to cut off the German 10th Army instead of striking towards Rome to liberate it. There is support for SKing’s position, for example, The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Warfare, “Clark, Gen Mark Wayne”, Frankland, Noble, ed., Mitchell Beazley 1989.

The other view is that Roosevelt and Churchill both wanted the liberation of Rome, that the Germans were already starting to occupy the Gothic Line positions, and a political consideration overrode purely military ones. Since Clark was promoted to take Alexander’s job, He certainly wasn’t punished for disagreeing with Alexander. See Sideshow War: The Italian Campaign, 1943-1945, Botger, George F., Texas A&M Univ Dept of Anthropology, 1996 I don’t think this is a clear-cut as has been stated, but that the decision is, as I said before, certainly debatable.

BTW, Dave_D, General Freyberg the New Zealand Corps commander. pushed heavily for the bombing. Is that who you were thinking of?

If you ask WWII veterans of the 36th (Texas) Infantry Division about Clark the response will probably be bitter dislike. That reaction is mostly a result of the failed Rapido River crossing that cost the division heavy casualities.

Clark and the other commaders in Italy faced a difficult job. Their theater was secondary to the ETO and they had to make do with second best support in supplies and reinforcements. Italy is divided down the spine by mountains making east-west movement difficult. In addition all the rivers run from the mountains east or west to the sea so there are many rivers to cross as you work your way up the boot. It is easy to defend and hard to attack. And they were opposed by Field Marshall Kesselring who was by all accounts an exceptionally able soldier.

Oh, I understand you now. Sorry about the misconception since I thought you were refering to the bombing of the monestary. Thanks for the clarification. BTW I think it was Freyberg that had a hard-on for the bombing.(Which was apparently a pretty big blunder.)

Oops, if it isn’t clear thanks for clarifying both my misconception of what you meant by Monte Cassino and that it was Freyberg who was the idiot that ordered the bombing.

I don’t know that I can agree with this. First, a nitpick: Freyberg didn’t order the bombing of Cassino. Freyberg was an officer in the Royal New Zealand Army. The bombing was carried out by the Fifteenth Air Force, part of the USAAF. General Alexander, the theater commander, gave the order.

Second, Freyberg was in direct command of the troops making the assault. His troops had already been bloodily repulsed in the First Battle of Cassino. Freyberg, it should be noted, was also a veteran of the ANZAC corps in Gallipoli in WWI. He was greatly concerned with limiting the casualties in the New Zealand Corps (which, btw, included Indians, Poles, and other nationalities). Freyberg had seen prolifigate waste of life in attacking fortified positions, and was determined to use every available weapon to avoid a repeat. General Freyberg is still a hero in New Zealand for his leadership of this corps.

We know now that Kesselring’s troops had deep caves that allowed them to survive the bombing. We also know that before the bombing they were using the area around, but not inside, the monestary. This is 20-20 hindsight.

I may sound pedantic in defending every Allied leader in this thread, but I think it is truly ahistorical to evaluate a leader based on information he did not have available when he had to make his decisions.

I agree - there is too much criticism with the benefit of hindsight these days.


i do whole heartedly agree with Sofa King about Mark Clark’s actions after the breakout - he did make an incredibly bad decision - even at the time (no hindsight involved.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that elsewhere he wasn’t a “good” commander at other times, but he was definitely a bad one then.

garius, on a purely military level, I think that this is a fair and accurate assessment of Clark.

I therefore should probably let this go.

But I’m not going to yet.

I think that using a purely military yardstick is inappropriate for any Italian theater commander after, say, January or February 1944 (when the Anzio invasion stalled at the beachhead). It was clear that the Allies were not going to advance through Italy to Austria and Germany.

The Italian campaign became a sideshow. Strategically, the aims of the Allies were to tie up German forces, provide air bases for the strategic bombing of Germany, support Italian partisans (which further tied up German troops), and deprive Germany of Italian industrial and agricultural output. Letting part of the 10th Army escape was a military mistake, but strategically mattered little. warning! speculation ahead Those troops did not affect the course of the campaign or war, and the Allied troops that died as a result would likely have died later anyway. Dave has given a good summary of why.

On the other hand, liberating Rome was a good propaganda and morale boost for not only the Italians but for all the Western Allies. The fact that Clark got some of the glory for the liberation does not change that.

What I didn’t mention above because I cannot find the proper citations is that I’m pretty certain that Clark defied General Harold Alexander’s explicit orders to cut off the Germans at Valmontone.

(Actually, Valmontone is to the north and Rome is to the northwest. I apologize for my poor sense of direction.)

If I remember correctly, Clark broke out with five divisions and sent four toward Rome and one toward Valmontone, thereby assuring the German escape.

Obviously, to make an accusation as serious as this requires a lot more than a series of urls. If I can find some primary documents on the web I’ll offer them, but until then I should temper these statements with a warning that until fully documented, it’s as much opinion as it is fact. It is, however, my honest understanding of the incident.

Sorry for the slight hijack, but regarding the liberation of Rome: is there any evidence that Hitler was planning a total demolition of the city (including the Vatican)? This might have promted the allies to rush to save the city.

Well, it’s Beer:30 and I don’t have much time to explain, but the short answer is this:

A recent Italian book claims that Hitler wanted to destroy the Holy See in September of 1943 as punishment for the Italian armistice, but was talked out of it.

In 1944, however, Hitler seems to have seen the utility of leaving an open target–and the logistical snarl it would create–waiting to soak up plenty of advancing troops. On June 3, 1944, Hitler declared Rome an open city and allowed Kesselring to remove his occupation troops there so that they could take positions in the defensive line which was created farther up the boot. At that point the Americans were less than thirty miles away.

I think this was a fear of the Allies. Although, as Sofa King says, this turned out to not be true, there was something that justified it. Naples was literally booby-trapped by the retreating German forces:

From this site

I think this was a fear of the Allies. Although, as Sofa King says, this turned out to not be true, there was something that justified it. Naples was literally booby-trapped by the retreating German forces:

From this site

Oh, and the directional errors are entirely understandable. Maps of Italy are usually “tilted” so that the “boot” runs up-down and it looks like Milan is almost due north of Rome, when in reality it is some degrees west of north.

I think this was a fear of the Allies. Although, as Sofa King says, this turned out to not be true, there was something that justified it. Naples was literally booby-trapped by the retreating German forces:

From this site

Oh, and the directional errors are entirely understandable. Maps of Italy are usually “tilted” so that the “boot” runs up-down and it looks like Milan is almost due north of Rome, when in reality it is some degrees west of north.

paperbackwriter - man do i which i was still at uni and had a whole library behind me - i hate this whole having to write on the fly thing :slight_smile:

i think at this point its worth pointing out the difference between the British view of the the Italian campaign and the American .

Whilst the American view was very much of Italy as a “side campaign” to the British (and particularly Churchill) it had always beenseen as an opportunity to open a proper new front against Hitler and potentially shorten the war.

So i think your opinion of Mark Clark is probably going to depend largely on which point of view you follow - if you follow the largely american view - that Italy was very much a side issue - then Clarks victory in Rome marks him out as a damn decent commander. Like you say, that came with a helluvah lot of propaganda value.

If, however, you (and i fall into this camp) prescribe to the British view of Italy and the Italian campaigns then Clarks actions are unforgivable - they represent a purely political manouevre over a potentially invaluable strategic one. They become actions that ruined a damn good chance of shortening the war not just in Italy, but the whole of Europe.

I don’t want this to be taken as a defense of Clark’s abilities. He has always seemed to me to be a rather conventional and uninspired military thinker. However (there’s always a “but” isn’t there?) he didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether he was going to implement what you call the “American view” or Churchill’s view. Such decisions were above his pay grade. He was 5th Army Commander, period. As such he took the orders given to him by the theater commander, Alexander who also didn’t have any choice. Decisions as to how many simultaneous, worldwide military operations we would conduct were made at about three political and command levels above Clark.

The main actor in the west as far as men and materiel was concerned was the US. We were conducting two major wars, one at the end of a 3000 mile and the other at the end of a 6000 mile pipeline. We simply didn’t have the transport available to maintain two European fronts with both having the magnitude of the northern Europe operation.

I am looking at a relief map of Europe. The Italian boot is sealed off from the rest of Europe by mountains that start around the French-Italian border and arc up through northern Italy then run down the east coast of the Adriatic Sea all the way to the end of the Greek peninsula. An attack in north Europe on the other hand, gives access to a low, level plain that runs right through the main industrial area of German, the Ruhr, and on to Berlin. Where to put the limited resources that only allow one major European operation seems obvious to me.