Operation Führer-Senger-Linie

Leader-Senger Line

This was a German defence line in Italy just to the north of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ position centred on Cassino and extending along the Rapido and Garigliano rivers (spring 1944).

The ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ positions were approximately parallel, except where terrain conditions made this impossible, with those of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ between Terracina on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea until it closed with the ‘Gustav-Linie’ at Terelle in the Apennine mountains between Monte Abate and Monte Cairo, and were comprehensively breached on 22 May 1944 as Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army swept forward from Cassino with Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps, Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre’s Juin’s Corps Expéditionaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps) and Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps, supplemented by Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns’s Canadian I Corps. The result was the fall of Rome on 4 June.

The origins of the whole Allied operation leading to the penetration of the ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ defences and the advance to Rome, aided by the ‘Buffalo’ breakout of Major General Lucian K. Truscott ’s US VI Corps from its ‘Shingle’ lodgement at Anzio, were the initial Allied setbacks at Cassino and Anzio. To start the process of remedying the situation, General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied Central Mediterranean Force (from 9 March Allied Armies in Italy), brought Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps directly under his command for use on the eastern side of Italy’s ‘leg’ along the Adriatic Sea. Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army was allocated the sector between the peaks of the Abruzzi mountains and the Liri river valley.

The 5th Army retained responsibility for the Anzio lodgement, but in the area to the left of the 8th Army was limited to the sector of the front between the Liri river valley and the Tyrrhenian Sea, and transferred Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps, on the Garigliano river front, to the 8th Army.

The decision of the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff not to proceed with the ‘Anvil’ (later ‘Dragoon’) landing on the south coast of France in the period before the launch of ‘Overlord’ on the north coast of France reached General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean theatre, on 26 February 1944, and Wilson was thus able to divert to the formations and matériel previously reserved for this operation. On 11 May Alexander therefore had under his command nine corps totalling 26 divisions and about 10 independent brigades.

Alexander’s objective in the great ‘Diadem’ operation was the destruction of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe 'C' by means of a double pincer envelopment: the first would open the Liri river valley to the Allies, and the second would begin, once the Allies had pushed into the area to the north of Frosinone, by the break-out of the VI Corps from its Anzio lodgement and its subsequent advance to meet them.

Commanding the Corps Expéditionaire Français, which had taken over from the X Corps in the Garigliano river bridgehead, Juin was not happy with the task allocated to his formation, namely the seizure of Monte Maio, as this was the same kind of narrow turning movement which had led to the very high casualties which his men had suffered on the Colle Belvedere and on Monte Cassino. On 4 April, therefore, Juin set out his ideas on the manoeuvre in a memorandum to Clark: after Monte Maio had been captured, the Corps Expéditionaire Français should not turn right but ‘infiltrate under cover of surprise into the massif dominated by [Monte] Petrella and seize the key points…and thence, by an outflanking movement, open the way to frontal advances mounted concurrently to secure Highway 7 and the road from Esperia up to and including the road running parallel to the front of Arce…the aim being to bring to bear on the Arce sector a force of considerable size so as to be able to break out in strength behind the [German] rear and advance toward Rome’.

Clark was soon won over to Juin’s plan, which had the great advantage of including in the outflanking movement of the Corps Expéditionaire Français the ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ or ‘Senger defile’ blocking the Liri river valley at Pontecorvo. On the other hand there still remained the formidable obstacle of the Monti Aurunci, which reach a height of 5,030 ft (1533 m) at Monte Petrella and with other heights at Monte Revole and Monte Faggeta. It might be assumed that the Germans had not occupied the heights in great strength, and that surprise could be achieved by a clever exploitation of the massif’s natural features. All depended on the speed with which an early success could be exploited, for it was to be expected that Kesselring would respond would respond with his customary vigour and speed.

Nonetheless, Juin felt that he had the advantage in his Moroccan mountain troops supported by 4,000 mules for the timely delivery of the ammunition and other supplies they needed. Though Clark agreed to the French plan, he could not get Leese to accept its corollary, the Atina plan, and though he used a corps against Cassino where Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps had used a division, the pincer was still too short and there were heavy losses.

At this time Kesselring had 23 divisions, but most of these formations were exhausted and short of ammunition, whereas the Allied divisions had an abundance of all the matériel they needed. Another serious disadvantage faced by Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was the Allies’ total aerial and maritime superiority. Thus Kesselring had to be concerned not only about an amphibious landing at Civitavecchia or Livorno farther to the north on Italy’s west coast, but also about whether or not Allied air power would cut the lines of communication serving General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps at Frosinone. However, Kesselring’s most pressing concern was the composition, point of attack and subsequent axis of advance of the Corps Expéditionaire Français.

Thus the headquarters of the 10th Army and its subordinate formations were instructed to report straight to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ as soon as they had identified the Corps Expéditionaire Français in its sector of the front. Nevertheless, the Corps Expéditionaire Français had camouflaged itself so well when it moved into position in the foothills of the Monti Aurunci that Kesselring realised that it was there only when the Monte Maio action had been completed.

A decoy movement by Alexander as 'Nunton' made Kesselring think that the frontal attack would be combined with a landing in the area of Civitavecchia, and would start on 14 May.

At the start of the campaign the 10th Army was deployed with, between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Liri river, the XIV Panzerkorps (Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division); from the Liri to the Meta General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps (Generalmajor Ernst-Günther Baade’s Gruppe ‘Baade’, Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalleutnant Heinrich Deboi’s 44th Division, and Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision); from the Meta to the Adriatic Sea Generalleutnant Friedrich Wilhelm Hauck’s Gruppe ‘Hauck’ (Hauck’s 305th Division, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s 334th Division, and Generalleutnant Alexander Bouquin’s 114th Jägerdivision); and in army reserve, behind the LI Gebirgskorps, Baade’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision.

Thus the initial clash pitted 12 Allied divisions (two Polish, four British, four French, and two US) against six German divisions. The Germans’ current numerical inferiority was compounded by the fact that at the time of the Allied attack’s start both von Vietinghoff-Scheel and von Senger und Etterlin were absent from the front on leave, and, despite Kesselring’s order, the 94th Division had placed no men on the Petrella massif.

At 23.00 on 11 May, 2,400 Allied guns started a simultaneous barrage on a front of about 25 miles (40 km), and one hour later the Allied infantry moved forward. When dawn broke both Leese and Clark had to admit that in spite of the surprise effect the night attack had not brought the expected success. Generał dywizji Władisław Anders’s Polish II Corps (Generał brygady Bronislaw Duch’s 3rd ‘Kresowa’ Division and Generał brygady Nikodem Sulik’s 5th ‘Carpathian’ Division) had failed on the slopes of Monte Cassino and, for all the fighting spirit shown by these men, their losses were very heavy. In the Liri river valley the XIII Corps had managed to push two of its divisions across the Rapido river, but without fully puncturing the defence of the LI Gebirgskorps, and in this area the fighting qualities of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision were again particularly evident.

Though the Corps Expéditionaire Français had been strengthened by the arrival of Général de Division François Adolphe Laurent Sevez’s 4th Division Marocaine de Montagne and Général de Brigade Diégo Charles Joseph Brosset’s French 1st Motorised Division (1st Free French Division), its task was made more difficult by the fact that the opposition, in the form of the 71st Division, had been expecting the attack and was therefore fully prepared. During this night operation, which they undertook to facilitate the XIII Corps’ crossing of the Rapido river, the French stumbled on to minefields and were attacked by flamethrowers. By the end of 12 May there were fears that the French might be exhausted and that Kesselring would have time to occupy the whole of the Petrella massif. Juin very rapidly recast his artillery attack to concentrate everything on the Monte Maio bastion, and this bold change broke the 71st Division’s resistance, making it possible during the afternoon of 13 May for Général de Division André Dody’s 2nd Division d’Infanterie Marocaine to reach the summit of the 3,000-ft (915-m) hill. On its right the French 1st Motorised Division had cleared the bend in the Garigliano river. On its left Général de Division Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert’s 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne had captured Castelforte and was moving toward Ausonia.

Farther to the west, the US II Corps was well on its way to Formia, and on discovering that the Germans were starting to pull back and so opening a gap between the II Corps and his own formation, Juin committed his mountain troops into this gap. The French order of battle now included Sevez’s 4th Division Marocaine de Montagne and the mountain groupes of Général de Division Augustin Léon Guillaume’s Groupe de Goums Marocains. Relying on man-packing of weapons such as machine guns and mortars, these scaled the steep slopes of Monte Petrella to reach the top on 15 May. From this they immediately advanced on the Revole massif, some 4,150 ft (1265 m) high.

Passing behind the mountain forces, meanwhile, the 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne took Ausonia and reached Esperia, thus capitalising on the success of the French 1st Motorised Division, which had captured San Giorgio on the right bank of the Liri river. It is possible that if the 8th Army had at the same time undertaken a wide enveloping movement of the type suggested by Juin, it would have outflanked the Pontecorvo position and placed the XIV Panzerkorps in a position of a probable catastrophe, which could then have been extended to the rest of the 10th Army. It was only on 17 May that the Polish II Corps’ renewed offensive found the abbey on Monte Cassino deserted.

It was again only on 19 May that Major General C. F. Keightley’s 78th Division of the XIII Corps attacked the ‘Senger defile’ in the area of Aquino, but failed to break through. This lack of liaison between the British and the French delayed the latter’s exploitation toward Pico and the Monti Ausoni.

Committing all that he could, Kesselring sent elements of Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, the 305th Division, and General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision to stop them. He also deployed Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision against the US II Corps, which had advanced through Formia and Itri, and by 22 May was threatening Terracina.

However, this major German reaction was made possible only by the removal of these formations from another frontal sector, that of Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army checking the VI Corps at Anzio. Reinforced to the equivalent of eight divisions by the transfer of Major General Fred L. Walker’s US 36th Division to the Anzio lodgement, the VI Corps thus encountered no real problem in breaking the resistance of the 14th Army when it launched ‘Buffalo’ on 23 May. Two days later the leading elements of the US II Corps and VI Corps met on the shores of Lake Fogliano. On the same day the Corps Expéditionaire Français was spreading out over the Monti Ausoni and the Canadian I Corps (Major General C. Vokes’s 1st Division and Major General B. M. Hoffmeister’s 5th Armoured Division), which had just relieved the XIII Corps, was forcing its way through the Pontecorvo defile.

Kesselring tried once more to protect Rome by establishing a new position on the line between the Colli Laziali (Alban Hills) and Monti Lepini to secure von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s right, and to achieve this he withdrew from the area of Livorno his last reserve, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’, for immediate despatch to Valmontone. The Allied bombing attacks, which on 26 May alone were responsible for the destruction of 665 of the 14th Army’s vehicles, were a major hindrance to these troop movements. In accordance with Alexander’s orders, Valmontone was now the primary objective of the VI Corps. Had this formation, now in Cisterna, thus driven its main strength along the axis between Corti and Artena, it would have had every chance of cutting off the 10th Army’s rearward move to cover Rome. The latter’s rearguard was still at Ceprano, some 40 miles (65 km) or more to the south-east of Valmontone, and the Germans would thus be driven back against the Abruzzi mountains, which were virtually impassable, and entirely cut off.

But Clark ordered the US VI Corps to attack to the north-west with Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division, Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division and Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s 1st Armored Division along the axis between Velletri and the Colli Laziali, sending only Major General John W. O’Daniel’s slightly reinforced 3rd Division to the north along the Valmontone axis. Taken in the afternoon of 25 May, this decision elicited only a slight reaction from Alexander, who remained confident that Clark’s main objective was still Valmontone. But the mirage of Rome had seized Clark and, to a lesser extent, Alexander, and the chance to cut off and destroy the 10th Army was lost. On 31 May the 36th Division found a gap in the 14th Army’s defences, turned the Velletri position and scaled the Colli Laziali.

Furious at this setback, Kesselring recalled von Mackensen and replaced him with General Joachim Lemelsen. But Kesselring now had to order the evacuation of Rome, which he proclaimed an ‘open city’. On 4 June Major General John E. Sloan’s US 88th Division was the first Allied formation to enter Rome.

On 11 May Kesselring had possessed 23 divisions, but these had now been reduced to remnants: the 44th, 71st and 94th Divisions, as well as Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Hoffmann’s 715th Division, had been effectively destroyed, while his Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions had lost most of their equipment. Among the reinforcements which Adolf Hitler had ordered to be sent through the Brenner Pass from Austria into northern Italy there were badly trained formations such as Generalmajor Professor Dr Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer’s (from 21 May Generalleutnant Ralph von Heygendorff’s) 162nd Division, recruited from Turkoman contingents, Generalmajor Wilhelm Crisolli’s 20th Luftwaffe Felddivision, and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s 16th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer-SS’. These all went to pieces as soon as they entered battle.

During the same period the US forces lost 18,000 killed, missing and wounded and the British forces 10,500, while the casualties of the French, Canadians and Poles were 7,260, 3,742 and 3,700 respectively. These losses were not enough to check the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, which was soon to be boosted in strength by the arrival of three more French formations, Général de Division Raoul Albin Louis Salan’s 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale, Général de Division Jean Louis Alain Touzet du Vigier’s 1st Division Blindé and Général de Division Henri Jacques Jean François de Vernejoul’s 5th Division Blindé.

With their forces now well through the ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ defences, the Allies could well have planned a bold offensive along the axis linking Rome and Ancona via Terni, and so brought to an end all German resistance south of the Apennine mountains.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that he could persuade the Americans to cancel the ‘Anvil’ landing in the south of France in favour of a strengthened Allied drive via the Tarvis col and the Ljubljana gap to Vienna. This was not to be, and between June 11 and July 22, three US and five French divisions dropped out of the Italian fighting in preparation for ‘Anvil’, although the 9th Division d’Infanterie Coloniale did take Elba on 17/19 July in ‘Brassard’.

The lull in Allied operations presented Kesselring with the opportunity, which he seized with both hands, to re-establish the German forces in the Apennine mountains with new primary positions in the ‘Arno-Linie’ and ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences, and also to cope with the transfer to the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, of his 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, and also the diversion to the Eastern Front of his 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’.