All Roads Lead to Rome: General Mark Clark’s Journey to the Eternal City

Photograph of U.S. 5th Army Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, 1944 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was 1943, and the Allies were ready to invade the soft underbelly of Europe, the Italian peninsula. They hoped that by pressing Germany’s ally, they might isolate Germany by forcing them to retreat into the German homeland north of Italy. Among all of their strategic targets, Rome, the Eternal City, was the most prized. The Allies wanted the city because of its historical and religious significance, and they wanted it taken before Eisenhower’s D-day landings, with as little fighting as possible because of the city’s significance to the Italian people. Naturally, there was stiff competition between the Allied generals to be the one to reach the city first, and the young American General Mark Clark was entirely convinced he would be the one to claim the great prize.1

Map of the Allied invasion of Italy, 1943 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

General Clark’s first step on the road to Rome was the conquest of the Italian beaches around the town of Salerno. Unluckily for Clark, this first step would be more of a stumble. So, on September 8, Clark’s 5th army boarded their landing craft and began the slow descent to the shores of Salerno. At 3:30 am, all seemed to have been going well. The first of the landers had reached the beach and disgorged their precious cargo, and the Germans seemed unaware of the American troops in their midst. Yet, the moment the Americans took their first step onto the Italian mainland, a loudspeaker announced in English “Come on in and give up, you’re covered,” followed by a wall of flares illuminating hidden German guns.2 Then, the beach exploded in a hail of bullets and shells. Clark’s men faced stiff enemy resistance well into the morning, only establishing a tiny foothold when 105mm howitzers were unloaded. The following day, Clark’s sliver of shoreline was widened using a combination of spotters and naval fire.3 With the Salerno beachhead expanded, the German Luftwaffe was unleashed on the Allied forces. On September 9, the USS Ancon, the vessel Clark was commanding from, called over 30 Red Alerts over 36 hours in response to 450 Luftwaffe sorties. Thankfully for Clark, the fleet survived the onslaught mostly unscathed. On September 12, Clark moved his headquarters to the shores of Salerno. Regrettably, for Clark, his troops were bottlenecked during the landing procedures and he lacked troops to continue his push towards his goal. On September 13, Clark endured another wave of German counterattacks. The Germans descended on the Sele-Calore corridor, where if successful, Clark’s 5th Army would be gutted and his hopes of reaching Rome reduced to a daydream. Clark’s men endured the punishment of German panzers, mortars, and machine guns, and were eventually beaten back to the shores that they had landed upon some days before. Clark’s situation was so dire that his general staff even drafted evacuation plans. But Clark refused to budge and toured the front line on September 14, motivating his troops to hold the line. Over the next day, American artillery crews fired over 10,000 shells, American naval guns unleashed another 1000 shells, and the air force flew over 1000 sorties against the charging Germans, and by the evening of the 14th, retreat was no longer even being considered. Clark’s crusade for Rome had been saved, and he and his 5th Army were free to continue their breakout operations.4 Though Clark may have managed his problems with the Germans, internal issues were becoming more apparent within his command staff. Major General Ernest J. Dawley was underperforming, hindering Clark’s overall advance out of the region. This placed Clark in a delicate situation as Dawley was ten years his senior and a commander that Clark had repeatedly vouched for, yet Clark would never reach Rome with lackluster subordinates. So, with great difficulty, Clark relieved Dawley from his command. With his internal matters dealt with, Clark was then free to refocus on the next step on his path to Rome, the capture of the city of Naples.5

Painting of a Photograph taken of the Allied landings at Salerno, Italy 1943 | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Luckily for Clark, the Germans appeared to be in full retreat, and perversely for Clark, Allied high command wanted him and his 5th Army to remain near General Montgomery’s 8th Army. This meant that Clark’s advance was limited to the advance of the 8th Army, impeding the rapid advance on Naples that he had hoped for. So, by September 24, Clark was growing impatient. The Germans had managed to slow his advance to a crawl through various delaying tactics, and his commanders were unable to reach the outskirts of Naples. Then, on the 29th of September, Allied high command removed the restriction that required Clark to remain alongside the advance of the 8th Army. So on September 30, Clark and his men engaged in a furious charge to annihilate the remaining German resistance, with their goal of driving the Germans back to the Volturno River. Naples was finally taken on October 1, 1943, by Clark’s 82nd Airborne Division, and one week later, the 5th Army had reached the Volturno River. With Highways 6 and 7 leading directly to Rome on the other side of the Volturno, Clark was determined to cross. On the other side of the river, 35,000 German troops had dug in, to make Clark and his 5th Army pay for every step; and unfortunately for Clark, winter was approaching rapidly. On October 9, Clark ordered his men to begin the crossings on October 12. They were to advance along the entire length of the river, and once across, to continue onwards toward the German Winter Line. Two days later, after slogging through a hailstorm of German machine guns and artillery, Clark had established a beachhead on the other side of the Volturno. Now, to reach Rome, Clark would have to slug his way through the German Barbara Line, Bernhard Line, and Gustav Line, veritable walls of German guns and steel. However, if Clark could survive this ring of hell that he had descended into, he would be on the most direct path to the Eternal City. Over the next few weeks, Clark and his men would shatter the Barbara Line in the upper Volturno valley, and by October 24, they would be marching into Italian towns unopposed. Subsequently, from October 26 to November 4, the 5th Army made a rapid advance to Highway 6, which led through Mignano to Cassino and eventually to Rome. By this point, Clark had destroyed most of the Barbara Line and now faced the more prepared Bernhard Line. Clark’s immediate objective on his path to Rome was to secure the entrance to the Liri valley, the gateway to Rome. To reach the valley, the 5th Army would have to clear the Mignano gap. Over the next several days, Clark and his men attempted to break through the Bernhard line. But by November 15, Clark’s men were exhausted, forcing Clark to halt his advance to provide time for rest and resupply.6 For the next two weeks, Clark re-evaluated his approach to taking Mount Camino, which had been the cause of his halted advance through the Mignano Gap. Clark’s X Corps had been repelled off the hill three times in his attempts to break through, but Clark knew that this was the only way to reach Rome before the British. Clark ultimately realized that this challenge would simply have to be faced head-on. So, on December 2, 1943, the U.S. 5th Army renewed its assault with an artillery barrage from 925 guns. Over the next seven days, Clark and his men engaged in a brutal slog through the Mignano Gap, firing 206,929 shells to dislodge the entrenched Germans. On December 7, Clark flew out to visit a VIP in Sicily, where he received a distinguished service cross and a letter from President Roosevelt himself. Within that letter, the President essentially christened Clark’s crusade for the Italian capital, and Clark returned to Italy renewed and ready to continue.7

Map of the 5th Army’s Advance up the Volturno River in Italy during 1943 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Clark’s arrival back in Italy was heralded with good news. While he was away, the 5th Army had taken Mount Camino and Mount Maggiore. Yet, this good news was undermined by the fact that Clark’s advance had again been stymied. To continue forward, Clark and his men would have to throw the Germans off Mount Lungo, Mount Sammucro, and finally capture the fortified town of San Pietro. Over the next several days the 5th Army would struggle forward in yet another hail of German bullets and mortar shells, and finally, on December 17, the 5th Army would march into San Pietro virtually unopposed. Unfortunately for Clark, his days in Italy had just become numbered. General Eisenhower wanted Clark to lead a joint Allied landing in southern France after the Normandy landings were completed. This frustrated Clark, who believed that capturing Rome was essential for the 5th Army both politically and psychologically. Clark now needed to take Rome before the Normandy landings in June 1944. Thus he began drafting Operation SHINGLE. He hoped to land troops in the Italian coastal town of Anzio, south of Rome, where they would then flank the Germans and link up with the remainder of the 5th Army, thus bringing Clark within striking distance of Rome. Operation SHINGLE had to be delayed, however, as Clark and Eisenhower both agreed that the projected landing date of January 15 was untenable, as the 5th Army simply hadn’t made enough progress up Italy to be able to reach them in a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, Clark had bought himself more time as Eisenhower permitted him to remain in command of the 5th Army in Italy for a while longer. Clark could now see where the Rapido and Garigliano rivers met beneath the cliffs of the small Italian town of Cassino. The Christmas of 1943 was a conflicting affair for Clark. He was frustrated that after three months of fighting, he was still mired down in the Mignano Gap. Though, the celebrations proved to be a jovial affair for both him and his staff officers. Clark received a late Christmas gift. As on the night of Christmas day, he received a message stating that Churchill himself had stated that Operation SHINGLE would receiver further Allied support and that it would be carried out at the end of January. Yet now that Clark had received the support of someone so high up the chain of command, a failure at Anzio was now unacceptable. So once the landings began, Clark would be unable to stop his drive for the Eternal City. But Clark’s situation was about to get worse. The Navy never got the memo about Operation SHINGLE, so all of the landing craft that had been dedicated to the landings at the end of January would be sent to England on February 2, essentially leaving the troops landed in Anzio completely on their own. Thankfully, Clark was able to get a message sent up to Churchill, whom he hoped would be able to throw his weight around to secure Clark enough ships to make the Anzio landing tenable. Thankfully for Clark, Churchill, like Roosevelt, had a vested interest in capturing Rome, and the necessary ships and supplies were allocated to Clark. Now a week before the Anzio landings on January 22, Clark renewed his assault on the German defenses. While Clark was engaged in political maneuvering, the 5th Army had managed to finally break through the German Winter Line. However, now 90 miles from Rome, the Germans had erected yet another defensive line, the Gustav Line. Starting in Sant’Elia, running along the Rapido to Cassino, back to the Rapido and Gari Rivers, the Gustav Line was the pinnacle of defensive fortifications, and it was all that stood between Clark and a successful operation at Anzio.8

Clark sadly did not have an easy time breaking the Gustav line. He found himself with fanatical German defenders dug in and ready to fight to the end on the front, and roiling political turmoil on his rear. On January 17, Clark renewed his assault in an attempt to penetrate the line in time for the Anzio landings that were scheduled for five days later. The assaults seemed to be going well. The British Xth Corps, which was under Clark’s command at the time, successfully crossed the Garigliano and established a secure beachhead. Clark then ordered an American crossing of the Rapido, now under intense political pressure to capture Rome promptly. Both Roosevelt and Churchill had decided that the success of the Italian campaign was of utmost importance for the future success of the invasion of France. Thus Clark found himself thrust into the political limelight. He needed to take Rome, and to take Rome he needed to succeed in Anzio, and to succeed in Anzio, he needed to shatter the Gustav Line. So, on January 20, the Battle of Cassino commenced with a massive charge of armor and artillery. Cassino proved to be one of the most difficult challenges Clark had ever faced. The German fortifications were so extensive that Clark would later learn that during one of the heaviest periods of bombardment, a group of German officers were able to play a game of cards completely and entirely undisturbed by the firestorm above. Clark and his 5th Army would make little progress in the early days of February. His attempts to outflank Cassino were unsuccessful. Yet Clark would get a reprieve. By the end of the first week of February, his troops managed to fight their way until all that remained between Clark and the precious Highway 6 was Monastery Hill, Castle Hill, and the town of Cassino itself. But political turmoil was erupting within Clark’s ranks. General Freyberg believed that the Germans were holed up within the Monte Cassino Abby on top of the hill and wanted it razed to the ground. Clark strongly disagreed. Freyberg nevertheless attempted to sidestep Clark’s command and ordered the convent bombed. This caused the issue to be brought up to Clark’s superiors, who decided in favor of Freyberg. The bombing commenced on February 15 and the historic Abby was completely demolished, taking precious works of art and upwards of 300 civilians with it. The next day, rains slowed Freyberg’s assault to a standstill and he ultimately withdrew. Clark’s assault on Cassino remained stagnant until March 15, when the 5th Army dropped almost 200,000 rounds on the town in two hours. Clark’s men took about two-thirds of the town in the next three days, yet the Germans quickly rallied and continue to resist the approaching allies. Clark received further bad news. The British 8th Army was to be moved into the Liri Valley to take part in the advance on Rome. Clark and his 5th Army were now expected to work their way up the west coast of Italy to link up with the troops at Anzio. It appeared for Clark and the 5th Army that the Battle of Cassino was at an end.9

While Clark was occupied with Cassino, it was not his only responsibility. On January 22 at 3 am, General Lucas, one of Clark’s most trusted subordinates, descended upon the beaches of Anzio with two divisions from the 5th Army. The first few days of the assault seemed to be going well. However, by January 27, the Germans had deployed heavy guns mounted on railcars that were shelling the beachhead. Three days later, the assault had completely ground to a halt. Hitler himself had ordered the Allied landing at Anzio be annihilated at any cost, and nearly 70,000 German troops were pouring into northern Italy to repel Clark’s men. Over the next two weeks, the men at Anzio struggled to take new ground and hold on to the ground they’d already taken. On February 16, the Germans launched a furious counterattack in a desperate attempt to drive Clark’s men into the sea. Over the next three days, Clark personally took charge of the troops at Anzio, fighting desperately to cling to the shores of Italy, eventually managing to break the back of the German assault.10

Over the next month, Clark reorganized the 5th Army for a renewed push up the west coast of Italy. The men at Anzio had managed to hold on, and now all Clark needed to do was to link up with them. Finally, on May 11, Clark began his drive towards Anzio. The Germans stubbornly resisted, often falsely surrendering to draw American troops out into the open. However, the 5th Army would not be deterred, and over the next several days they made astounding progress, reaching a point where they could close in on Anzio when the time was right. Clark and his men at this point believed that they had the honor of being the ones to take Rome. Considering all that they had endured, it was their right. On May 23, the Anzio breakout began. Over the next two days, the gap between Anzio and the rest of the 5th Army progressively lessened, and finally, on May 26, the two fronts merged into one. After five months of hellish fighting, Anzio had been liberated and all eyes were now turned to Rome. The 5th and 8th Armies were now in direct competition for the town of Valmontone. Allied high command had decided that whichever army reached it first would be allowed to use Highway 6 to reach Rome. With this new development, Clark had become increasingly irritable towards the topic of capturing Rome, going so far as to lambast a Yugoslavian General for sending troops to tour the front. On May 31, a liaison from the 8th Army arrived stating that if Clark believed that the 5th Army could take Rome on its own, then the 8th Army would not interfere. Clark’s final assault began on June 2, and Clark spent nearly all of June 3 moving between command posts, rallying his men and urging them onwards. Clark began to shun away all other Allied troops from Rome, going out of his way to ensure that the American 5th Army would be the first to enter the city. Finally, on June 4, General Mark Clark made his way into the Eternal City. He marched up to a large sign that said ROMA and stood underneath it. The long journey he had embarked upon so many months ago had finally led him to this victory, narrowly winning the race to Rome by two days.11

Unfortunately for Clark, his time in Rome would be short. The Germans may have been driven from the city, but they had not given up on their ambitions in the Italian peninsula. Clark would face many other challenges, both militarily and politically, throughout the remainder of the war. He would eventually be reassigned to lead a massive Allied naval invasion into southern France, an invasion he would later come to regret.12 After the end of the second world war, Clark would go on to serve as American High Commissioner of Austria. Later, in the 1960’s, he would serve as Chief of the Army Field Forces training soldiers for combat. After the Korean War, he would live out the rest of his life as President of The Citadel, a military training academy in Charleston, South Carolina. Clark would eventually pass away in 1984 in Charleston, a distinguished officer who accomplished one of the most impressive feats in history.13

  1. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 155, 248.
  2. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 156.
  3. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 156-158.
  4. Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (New York: Henry Holt, 2008), 205-230.
  5. Martin Blumenson, Salerno to Cassino, World War II 50th anniversary commemorative edition., CMH Pub: 6-3-1 (Center of Military History, United States Army, 1993),150-151, 154.
  6. Martin Blumenson, Salerno to Cassino, World War II 50th anniversary commemorative edition., CMH Pub: 6-3-1 (Center of Military History, United States Army, 1993), 157-160, 162, 188, 190-192, 202-208, 213-214, 223, 226, 233.
  7. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 190-192.
  8. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 194-211.
  9. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 212-226, 248-258, 260-268.
  10. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 227-247.
  11. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 267-291.
  12. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), 294-295.
  13. General Mark W. Clark and Martin Blumenson, Calculated Risk, New Ed edition (New York: Enigma Books, 2007), XVI.

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21 Responses

  1. I think it was great how much information you were able to include in this article. I feel like sometimes it can be hard finding particular stories on soldiers from older wars because there were so many, and they sometimes get lost. I enjoyed reading this article and learning about World War II from the experience of Clark.

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