This was the German second most southerly defence line in Italy, and in essence a tactical delaying line located mid-way between the Volturno and Garigliano rivers to the south-west and north-east of the Monti del Matese in south central Italy (summer 1943/9 November 1943).
Lying essentially parallel to the ‘Viktor-Linie’ (otherwise ‘Volturno-Linie’) that was the most southerly German defence line, and therefore aligned from south-west to north-east, the ‘Barbara-Linie’ extended between a western end at Mondragone on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea via Teano Cascano, Le Tavernole and Venafro to a point just north of Isernia in the Apennine mountains, along the southern slopes of the Monte Massico, Monte Santa Croce and Monte Cesima via Sessano and Poggio Sannita, and thence down along a line along the northern bank of the Trigno river via Celenza, Tufillo and Lentella to reach an eastern end on the Adriatic Sea between Termoli and Vasto. The ‘Barbara-Linie’ was on average some 9.25 to 9.33 miles (15 to 30 km) north of the ‘Viktor-Linie’, and about the same distance south of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, of which they were in effect the outworks. The line was not continuous, but instead took the form of fortified hill and mountain tops which the Allied formations would have to take before passing to the north without the threat of being defiladed by German positions on the higher ground.
It was on 12 October that Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, ordered Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to fall back to the ‘Barbara-Linie’ after the 5th Army had crossed the Volturno river and thereby breached the ‘Viktor-Linie’.
The defences were breached by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army in the west and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army in the east.
The two formations of the 5th army which breached the ‘Barbara-Linie’ were Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps (Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division, Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division and Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 56th Division) and Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps (Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s 3rd Division, Major General Fred L. Walker’s 36th Division and Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division), flanked in the east by one battalion of Colonel Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division.
This breach took place in October 1943 after the Allies had encountered major problems in forcing a passage of the Volturno river on their way to the ‘Gustav-Linie’ definitive defences in southern Italy and thus the climactic and bloody battles at Monte Cassino.
On the western side of the Apennines the German main defence line (‘Gustav-Linie’ and its ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ forward defence line) ran through Mignano, where Highway 6 climbed up to the Mignano gap, some 30 miles (48 km) to the north of Capua on the Volturno river and the boundary between the VI Corps and X Corps preparing to cross the Volturno. Although Adolf Hitler had still not decided that the German forces should hold their positions south of Rome, von Vietinghoff-Scheel had been promised two more divisions for his 10th Army: it was expected that these formations, which were Generalleutnant Georg Pfeiffer’s 94th Division and Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s 305th Division, would be in position by 1 November. von Vietinghoff-Scheel had already been ordered to hold the line of the Volturno river until 15 October.
Upstream of Capua the Volturno river runs through a valley area in which farms were interspersed with woods, and the river line itself was protected by minefields, covered by anti-tank guns and artillery at every crossing point. Several Kampfgruppen provided by Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ were sited in some depth for the counterattack role between the southern end of the Matese mountains and Highway 6.
Downstream of Capua the river winds through a plain dominated by the Monte Massico to the river’s north. In this area the river was itself was a major obstacle with a width of between 150 and 300 ft (45 and 90 m) between banks 12 to 30 ft (3.65 and 9.15 m) high backed by levees between 10 and 15 ft (3.05 and 4.6 m) high. These latter had been built as flood defences, and provided the defence with excellent positions from which to defilade attackers. The river itself was about 6 ft (1.8 m) deep, and the Allies could find no fords. As a result of the heavy autumn rains, moreover, movement across the river plain was extremely difficult except along the main roads, which were easy targets for the German artillery.
The sector was held by a line of company-strength positions found by Generalmajor Ernst Günther Baade’s (from November Oberst Karl-Theodor Simon’s) 15th Panzergrenadierdivision and part of the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’. There was little depth to the position, which was based on machine gun and mortar strongpoints dug into the side of the levee on the northern side of the river, but the defence had the advantage of good observation for several miles across the river, and could therefore keep watch for the development of Allied offensive preparations and engage any concentrations or movements with artillery fire. Most of the German effort during October went into blocking Highways 6 and 7.
Behind its forward defences along the Volturno river, the 10th Army's next tactical delaying line was the ‘Barbara-Linie’, which ran along the ridge of high ground between the Volturno and Garigliano rivers and then over the Apennine mountains to the upper reaches of the Trigno river and thence down to the Adriatic Sea.
Covering the entrance to the Liri river valley slightly farther to the north was the ‘Bernhard-Linie’ (otherwise the ‘Reinhardt-Line’), which had been reconnoitred and planned as a covering line for the ‘Gustav-Linie’ main defence line by General Hans-Valentin Hube of the XIV Panzerkorps. This covering line was based on the Mignano gap or defile, but before he could order the start of work on the position, Hube was followed in command of the XIV Panzerkorps by General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin. The ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ defences represented an immensely strong position which could be held in great depth, and were in many ways superior to the ‘Gustav-Linie’. Their one major disadvantage was that they were a little too far forward and could not, therefore, be effectively co-ordinated with the rest of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, which had to be based on the Garigliano and Sangro rivers in the west and east respectively. The ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ was nonetheless serviceable as an excellent supplement to the defences of the Liri river valley.
Engineers of neither the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht nor 10th Army were available to prepare the defences, which the XIV Panzerkorps therefore constructed with its own resources, and the result was a series of strongpoints based on the large numbers of excellent tactical features with which the area abounds, and not in any way schemed as an effort to form a continuous line. Defence in depth was the main characteristic of the concept of the combined ‘Barbara-Linie’ and ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ in the west.
Clark’s plan was to attack the ‘Viktor-Linie’ defences with the six divisions which were already on the southern bank of the river. The main effort of the VI Corps would be made by Truscott’s 3rd Division to the east of Triflisco, while Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division would cross between Caiazzo and Souille supported by Eagles’s 45th Division, which was already to the north of the Calore river below the Matese mountains.
On the X Corps’ sector on the open coastal plain to the north-west of Naples, McCreery decided to attack on a front as wide as possible in the hope that a breakthrough could be made by Hawkesworth’s 46th Division on the left, at the mouth of the Volturno river. Here it was planned to bring in a battalion of tanks by landing craft tank to land just to the north of the river’s mouth in support of the division, whose efforts would be further aided by naval gunfire. In the centre, Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division would make a holding attack toward Brezza, while Templer’s 56th Division attacked below Capua with Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott’s 167th Brigade; a diversionary attack would be made by Brigadier J. A. Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade near the rather obvious crossing point just downstream of Triflisco.
During the night of 12/13 October the Allied artillery started its preparatory bombardment of the German positions, and the assault units moved up toward the river over sodden fields and along tracks deep in mud. On the British right, the 201st Guards Motor Brigade advanced under intense German artillery fire but nonetheless managed to get one company across the river into a position which was clearly untenable, as it was outflanked from the high ground above Triflisco, and this small bridgehead was therefore abandoned before the break of day.
The Germans were able to see the 56th Division preparing for the main attack downstream of Capua, for the British troops had to use the single road, almost completely lacking in cover, as the fields to each side were completely sodden. The Germans even launched a spoiling attack across the river at dusk. Then, despite this interference and a high level of artillery fire, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry made repeated attempts to cross in assault boats but suffered losses so severe that the attack was terminated before 24.00.
Brigadier L. G. Whistler’s 131st Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division also encountered strong resistance and was initially unable to cross. After repeated attempts, including the use of wire rope to haul themselves over in flat-bottomed assault boats, the British established a small bridgehead, but by dawn had managed to push across less than one company. However, the timing of the assaults and the weight of the artillery support they enjoyed probably persuaded the Germans that this was the main assault, and on the front of the VI Corps the US attack went in two or three hours later.
Near the mouth of the Volturno river the 46th Division achieved surprise as it crossed in silence and without any preparatory artillery bombardment. The division had managed to get three battalions across by 01.30 on 13 October, and this initial bridgehead was reinforced by two more battalions before dawn. The tanks and some guns were safely landed north of the river’s mouth by tank landing craft, but were then halted by a minefield. Fire from the Germans’ 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role guns stopped further landings by sea after it became light.
On 13 October the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision made repeated armoured and infantry attacks on the 46th Division, and the Sherwood Foresters, on the right between Cancello and Grazzanise, suffered losses so heavy that they had to be relieved by the York and Lancasters. Overnight two minefields were cleared, another squadron of tanks was landed, and a number of anti-tank guns were ferried across the river. A force of six infantry battalions with good armoured support now held the bridgehead across the Volturno river and the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision pulled back, leaving the bridgehead secure.
Meanwhile the 131st Brigade had managed to gain a foothold on the northern bank of the Volturno river and established a ferry service to bring more men, weapons and equipment across the river. On 14 October the 131st Brigade was driving forward in the face of accurate artillery and mortar fire.
The 56th Division still could not force a crossing at Capua.
On the VI Corps’ front the attack by the 3rd Division also started with a feint near Triflisco at midnight on 12/13 October. In the wake of a heavy artillery bombardment, two battalions crossed the river at about 02.00 without difficulty and headed for Monte Maiulo against light resistance. A crossing farther upstream met considerable resistance, however, but by the fall of night on 13 October the 3rd Division held Monte Maiulo and the hills above Piano di Caiazzo. Reinforcements crossed during the night, and by this time three bridges (one capable of carrying armour) had been built.
The crossing by the 34th Division had started well as the troops waded across the river, although one battalion was pinned down by artillery and machine gun fire until the following afternoon. The Volturno river on the VI Corps’ front was still up to 200 ft (90 m) wide, but only some 3 to 5 ft (0.9 to 1.5 m) deep, and there were good concealed approaches through vineyards and orchards and along sunken roads and tree-lined streams.
Caiazzo was captured during the night of 13/14 October, and on the right an advance was made toward Ruviano. By 14 October the 34th Division had built two bridges despite the weight of the German artillery fire as much of the river in this sector was under direct observation from the higher ground to the north-east.
Meanwhile the 45th Division had taken Telese and by 14 October was pressing forward over the Telese creek toward the central area of the Volturno valley. The 3rd Division’s advance on the left flank of the corps’ front was now dangerously exposed and Clark shifted the corps boundary to give the 56th Division the use of the bridge constructed at Triflisco. On 15 October the 201st Guards Brigade crossed to secure the US division’s left flank, and an outflanking attack was also made from north of the river to clear the Germans from their positions opposite Capua. On the following day a crossing to the south-west of Capua was successful, both Capua and Brezza being cleared before the fall of night. A bridge near Grazzanise and a tank ford discovered nearby were now brought into use.
By this time the 5th Army was growing rapidly stronger in its Volturno river bridgeheads, and the advance of the 3rd Division in the centre was threatening the Germans’ main artillery positions on the slopes of Monte Maggiore. The Germans could no longer retain the river line, but the 10th Army had almost managed to carry out its mission of holding the river line until 15 October.
By the evening of 18 October the 46th Division had forced its way across the Agnena Nuovo canal, the 3rd Division was in Dragoni, and the 45th Division was on the point of capturing Piedimonte d’Alife. The weather was now so bad, however, that the 5th Army’s advance across a 30-mile (48-km) front could achieve only slow progress, and could not break through the German rearguards.
Ahead of the 5th Army there lay a very complex pattern of mountains and rivers. As Highway 6 left the valley of the Volturno river’s lower reaches to climb toward Mignano, it gradually swung round to a north-westerly line, passing through the town of Cassino and below the famous monastery. The Rapido and Garigliano rivers constitute a water line running approximately north/south between Cassino and the sea. East of the two rivers is a range of broken and rugged mountains which start as the divide between the Rapido and the upper Volturno and end on the coast at Monte Massico.
The line of the Allied advance along Highway 6 thus needed a deliberate blow in the ‘waist’ of this mountain divide at a point just below that at which the two river lines are roughly parallel and only some 12 miles (20 km) apart, in order to pass through the Mignano gap and across the valley to Cassino. The narrow valley which forms the gap itself is virtually ringed by a mountain complex consisting of Monte Cesima (Point 1170), Monte Sammucro, Monte Lungo and Monte Rotondo, which dominate the valley from the north, while to the south lie Monte Maggiore, Monte la Difensa and Monte Camino.
As the 5th Army wheeled slowly to the north-east it encountered a change in the tactics which the Germans were using in their withdrawal. The demolition programme was even more intense: the bridges and culverts on both the main and secondary roads had been systematically destroyed, many village buildings had been demolished to block the narrow streets, mines of several types had been laid at road junctions, on road verges and along the banks of streams, and likely bivouac areas had been mined and booby-trapped. Moreover, instead of covering road blocks with mobile guns, the Germans now located small parties of infantry well forward, covered by mortars and artillery, and machine gun teams were often left behind in villages after these had been abandoned. Moreover, tanks and self-propelled guns, Nebelwerfer rocket launchers (both six-barrel towed units and 10-barrel units mounted on halftrack vehicles) were now all used.
The cumulative effect of these tactics was a serious degradation of the rate of the Allied advance. On 25 October the 7th Armoured Division took Sparanise, while the 56th Division reached Teano on 30 September and Roccamonfina during the following day. With the aid of armour landed from the sea, the 46th Division attacked along the coast below Monte Massico and by 2 November units of the 7th Armoured Division and 46th Division had reached the Garigliano. By 3 November the 34th and 45th Divisions were east of the Volturno facing the loop of the river opposite Venafro, and both the 3rd Division and 56th Division were approaching Monte Camino. On the 5th Army’s right, the 34th and 45th Divisions crossed the river on the night of 3/4 November and for 10 days fought their way into the mountains above Venafro. Although the peaks of Monte Corno and Monte Santa Croce were eventually taken, the momentum of the attack petered out against German positions that had been blasted into the solid rock and which were covered by heavy artillery fire. On 5 November the 56th Division and 3rd Division had attacked into the ‘hill mass’ of Monte Camino. The 201st Guards Brigade took Calabritto early on 7 November, and then made an eight-hour climb to seize part of a ridge leading up to the crest of Monte Camino itself.
But every Allied attempt to advance into the mountains was met by accurate and heavy German cross fire, and in five days of fighting infantry companies already much reduced by earlier fighting were whittled away to as little of 50% of their establishment strengths. Mule trains were improvised in an unsuccessful effort to maintain the forward units, and entire battalions had to be employed for the task of carrying supplies and ammunition to the forward positions on exposed rocky outcrops.
In the centre, the 3rd Division had advanced into the gap, where an unusual failure by the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision yielded possession of Point 1170 to the Americans, and then allowed Monte Rotondo to be attacked from the flank, albeit unsuccessfully.
Delivered in fog on 8 November, a second attack reached the crest, which was held against several counterattacks. An attack on Monte la Difensa on 5 December continued for 10 days.
By this time the 5th Army had been in action without a break since 9 September, and in this period of almost three months its casualties had been heavy and its reserves had already been absorbed into the fighting units. The problem of supplying the forward units in the mountains and the sodden valleys had by now also become acute.
As the 5th Army was forcing it way from the Volturno river to the Mignano gap on the western side of Italy, the 8th Army had arrived against the other end of the ‘Barbara-Linie’ defences extending from the Apennine mountains in the area north of Isernia down to the San Salvo ridge and Vasto on the coast. In front of these German defences lay the Trigno river, and some 20 miles (32 km) to their rear was the ‘Gustav-Linie’ based on the Sangro river and the forward slopes of the great Maiella massif. Facing the 8th Army was General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps, comprising von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s (from 1 November Oberst Hans-Ulrich Back’s) 16th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, of which the latter two had been seriously mauled in the fighting for Termoli.
The Allies’ objective was the capture of Rome, and within this the task of 8th Army was to take the high ground to the north of Pescara and then advance to the south-west through Avezzano in support of a co-ordinated attack by the 5th Army, which could be supplemented by an amphibious landing to the south of the estuary of the Tiber river. Although the formulation of precise and fixed plans had to await the decision of the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff committee’s decision about whether or not the theatre could retain 58 landing craft until mid-December, this was the pattern of operations formulated by Alexander with the objective off keeping the Germans off balance and generally on the retreat.
The 8th Army was already regrouping and, with winter closing in at a time earlier than had been expected, Montgomery ordered that the 8th Army should advance as soon as it could. Montgomery’s plan was for Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s XIII Corps (Major General G. G. Simonds’s [from 1 November Major General C. Voke’s] Canadian 1st Division and Major General C. G. Bucknall’s 5th Division) to attack on 28 October along the axis from Vinchiaturo to Isernia as a diversion for the main assault by Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s V Corps (Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division) up the coast road on the night of 30/31 October.
The offensive started well, and in a preliminary action the 78th Division got one battalion across the Trigno river on 22/23 October. Some 2 miles (3.2 miles) ahead of it, on the other side of an undulating and wooded plain, was the San Salvo ridge and the main German positions, and Keightley expected that he would be able to establish a strong force across the river in preparation for the main attack. At this moment the weather finally broke and heavy rain fell for several days. The clay banks of the river, which is very broad near the coast, turned almost instantly to mud and off-road vehicle movement became impossible. Attacks to enlarge the initial bridgehead on 27 and 28 October failed, and a diversionary attack on Cantalupo was postponed for 36 hours. Even so, in the face of the difficulties posed by the weather, difficult going and German demolitions, the 5th Division took Cantalupo on 31 October. The weather was appalling, and on this flank the terrain was very broken and the well-fortified mountain villages were held with determination by the 26th Panzerdivision. The weight of the German artillery fire increased steadily and became ever more effective, and the hard nature of the ground made it impossible for the infantry to dig in, so their only means of protecting themselves was to build shelters of the sangar type that were typical of combat in the North-West Frontier area of India. The primary means of transport for supplies, machine guns and heavy equipment was the mule.
On 5 November Isernia fell to the 8th Army.
Farther to the east, along the coast, the main attack was prepared with considerable care in an effort to deceive the Germans, and was then launched in great strength. The assault was preceded by the ‘Chickweed’ gunfire bombardment of Vasto and Cupello by two destroyers and a number of motor torpedo boats, whose efforts were designed to simulate preparations for an amphibious landing, while on the left of the assault area a machine gun battalion and 40-mm Bofors guns using tracer fired as if in support of an attack well inland. On the right the 78th Division advanced straight for the village of San Salvo. Evelegh had insisted that the anti-tank gun carriers and supporting Sherman tanks should be got across the river before the infantry advanced from the bridgehead, and also arranged for 30 DUKW amphibious trucks to land extra gun and tank ammunition on the northern side of the Trigno river’s mouth.
On the coastal flank the Germans fought hard for the San Salvo railway station and the expected tank battle developed in the olive groves around the town itself, which changed hands several times before the 16th Panzerdivision was compelled to pull back during the night. At first light on 4 November the attack continued, and with effective artillery support the infantry and tanks reached the outskirts of Vasto, which fell during the night, together with Cupello. On the left the Indian 8th Division captured the hill village of Tufillo in hard fighting and cleared Palmoli to reach the lateral road from Vasto on 5 November. Moving to the north along the coast road, the 78th Division now had Brigadier J. G. R. Runciman’s 11th Tank Brigade in the van, and by 9 November the south bank of the Sangro had been reached and cleared as far as Paglieta.
Farther inland, the Indian 8th Division was working its way across the grain of the country and therefore made only slower progress, but by 19 November it too was facing the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences across the Sangro river.
In the sector of the V Corps a steep escarpment gave good observation of both the far bank of the river and the German positions. Below the escarpment was the river, which was some 300 to 400 ft (90 to 120 m) wide, comprised many channels and was already in flood. The heavy rain which were falling in the mountains had led to the rapid rise of the water level by about 6 ft (1.8 m) in a single day, turning the Sangro into a genuinely formidable obstacle which could be forded in only a few places and then only with the greatest difficulty. On the river’s northern side was a flat plain extending about 2,000 yards (1830 m) back from the water to a steep escarpment about 150 ft (45 m) high and backed by further rises to the villages of Fossacesia and Mozzagrogna, which the Germans had turned into small but potent fortifications.
This vital coastal sector was held by Generalleutnant Gustav Heisterman von Ziehlberg’s (from 1 December Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division, only recently arrived from the north and wholly reliant on horse transport. In the mountain sector farther inland the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision was holding an extended front. Hauck’s 305th Division, also from the north, covered the junction between the 8th and 5th Armies in the area to the west of Isernia, and another new arrival was Georg Pfeiffer’s 94th Division, had also joined Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps on the Garigliano. The arrival of three fresh divisions had made it possible for Kesselring to withdraw Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, which were both in sore need of rest. At this time the offensive of the 5th Army northward along Highway 6, however, had led Kesselring to switch both the 26th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from the Adriatic flank to take their place.
It had now been decided that the 10th Army would stand on the ‘Gustav-Linie’, Kesselring was much involved in the inspection of positions and the disposition of additional mountain and infantry formations already being moved to the south. The shortage of armour on the Eastern Front at this juncture persuaded the Oberkommando des Heeres to make the 16th Panzerdivision available for redeployment to the Eastern Front, and when the battle of the Sangro river started this formation was already on its way. Its place was to be taken by the 26th Panzerdivision after this had been relieved by Generalleutnant Dr Franz Bayer’s 44th Division ‘Hoch- und Deutschmeister’. This division arrived tardily, however, and as a result the 26th Panzerdivision once again found itself making a forced march across the mountains for commitment in a battle which was already half lost.
Montgomery had now to decide on the 8th Army’s next step. An attack by the XIII Corps through Castel di Sangro to Popoli would, if successful, outflank the German positions on the Sangro river, but would be limited to movement along two minor roads that were prone to being blocked by drifting snow and were separated by high mountains. In the centre, an attack along the road linking Atessa and Casoli would threaten the coastal sector, but was rendered all but impossible by the poor communications to the south of the river. An attack on the coastal sector, however, could be created and implemented quickly and with full artillery support through being served by a good main road; naval gunfire support would also be possible, and the flying conditions were favourable.
With the onset of winter, time for a major undertaking was limited as, unless the attack followed a dry period of at least two days, the movement of armour and artillery would be impossible. The plan was to deceive the Germans into thinking the main thrust would come from the 8th Army’s western flank, and the XIII Corps was ordered to start operations designed to capture Roccaraso. Meanwhile Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s 2nd New Zealand Division would relieve the Indian 8th Division in the centre, except for one brigade who would remain in forward positions until the last moment to deceive the enemy. The task of the New Zealanders was to attack north from Atessa as a diversion, while the main attack was to be made on a narrow front by the 78th Division and the Indian 8th Division with the task of reaching the line between Ortona and Lanciano by 20 November. The orders were for the 78th Division to seize a bridgehead and the Indian 8th Division to break through the German line. The 78th Division was then to assume the lead once again and exploit the breakthrough to Pescara. Simultaneously the New Zealanders were to attack across the river at Chieti. The main attack was to be supported by 400 pieces of artillery, the bombs, cannon fire and machine gun fire of several squadrons of tactical aircraft, and the gunfire of a number of destroyers.
On 15 November Alexander, the commander of the the Allied 15th Army Group in Italy, called a halt. The frost-bitten and exhausted men of the 56th Division were pulled back from Monte Camino and the 3rd Division was withdrawn from the equally exposed positions below Monte la Difensa. As more squadrons and ancillary air force units were moved to Italy, the build-up of the 15th Army Group was adversely affected by the shortage of available shipping, and it was the end of November before the 5th Army was ready to continue its effort to break through into the valley of the Liri river. The Allied physical goal was still Rome, the Italian capital, but the Allied task was also to attract to the Italian front, and then to tie down, as many German divisions as possible.
In overall terms, Alexander’s plan was now to lead off with General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army moving north along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, while Clark’s 5th Army was reorganised and reinforced for a breakthrough along Highway 6. But the Allied divisions which had fought from Salerno to Mignano were not only tired but also greatly reduced in strength: many of the infantry battalions of the X Corps, for instance, had lost two-thirds of their officers and more than half of their men. Although reinforcements were arriving, time was needed to allow these replacements to be absorbed effectively into their units and, as a result of the build-up in the UK for ‘Overlord’, units in the Mediterranean did not receive the full number of replacements they needed.
The situation was exacerbated by the exacting timetable inaugurated for the replacement of divisions on their way back to the UK: these latter were the US 2nd Armored Division, US 1st and 9th Divisions, US 82nd Airborne Division, British 7th Armoured Division, and British 50th and 51st Divisions. So far as new arrivals in Italy were concerned, Major General Ernest H. Harmon’s US 1st Armored Division had only just begun to disembark in Naples, while Général de Brigade André Marie François Dody’s 2nd Division d’Infanterie Marocaine (the first of four divisions forming Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps) was due to arrive in the first week of December. Reinforcements already with the 5th Army were a regimental combat team held back from Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division and Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s 1st Special Service Force, this latter comprising six battalions of specially trained US and Canadian troops.
The 5th Army, now on a 40-mile (65-km) front, was now facing several fresh German divisions, however. As noted above, the Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision had been withdrawn to recuperate, and had been replaced by two fresh divisions, in the form of Georg Pfeiffer’s 94th Division on the coast and Hauck’s 305th Division on the other flank in the mountains covering the junction between the two Allied armies. In the centre were two mobile formations, Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Heinrich Deboi’s 44th Division, the latter replacing the 26th Panzerdivision. Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision was also expected to arrive in December.
On the other side of the Italian ‘leg’ was the 8th Army, the other army controlled by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group. In October the 8th Army had crossed the Bifurno river and broken through the ‘Viktor-Linie’ on 6 October. The army had to pause on the Trigno river, however, in order to undertake a regrouping and to reorganise its logistics along the poor roads stretching back to Bari and Taranto 120 and 170 miles (190 and 270 km) respectively to the rear. Delayed by these logistical problems, the 8th Army was unable to mount any immediate attack on the ‘Barbara-Linie’ behind the Trigno river. So it was only in the early hours of 2 November that Keightley’s V Corps on the right of the front on the coast and Dempsey’s XIII Corps on the V Corps’ left attacked across the Trigno river.
On the V Corps’ front, Evelegh’s 78th Infantry Division attacked along the coastal road while Russell’s Indian 8th Division attacked some 10 miles (16 km) inland. Fighting was fierce, but on 3 November the 78th Division reached San Salvo, some 3 miles (4.8 km) beyond the Trigno, at which point Sieckenius, commanding 16th Panzerdivision of Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps, opted for a fighting withdrawal to the Sangro river and the formidable defences of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ overlooking this river from the ridge tops on the far side.
Forward elements of the 8th Army moved to make contact with the German forward defences on the high ground north of the Sangro river. The Allies were able to move forward without opposition and the Allied advance reached the Sangro on 9 November.
With three fresh divisions and encouraged by the halting of the 5th Army’s attacks earlier in November, Kesselring now hoped to hold the defence lines of southern Italy for the foreseeable future, whereas he had earlier anticipated that the main defence would be made farther to the rear of this sector along the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences based on the Garigliano, Gari and Rapido rivers as far east as Cassino, and then along the forward slopes of the mountains running straight up into the remote passes of the central Apennine mountains and down the other side to the Maiella massif and down to the coastal plain of the Adriatic Sea, where the 8th Army’s advance from the Sangro river was slowly being halted.
Some 87 miles (140 km) long, these positions traversed the narrowest part of the Italian peninsula. In the forward positions the Germans held the Monte Maggiore and Monte Camino hill masses, the exits to the Mignano gap, Monte Sammucro and beyond this a tangled mass of mountains some 9 miles (14.5 km) wide between the valleys of the Rapido and the Volturno rivers and stretching north from Monte Sammucro past Venafro to the main ridge of the Apennines.
The weather had completely broken. Cold temperature and heavy rain now added to the difficulties of Allied operations in mountainous country, and the rain and mud restricted the supply routes forward from Naples over the few main roads, which were still under repair after extensive demolitions. In the forward areas there were still not enough mules to carry the supplies and ammunition into the mountains. But with every day that passed the fortifications in the ‘Gustav-Linie’ were being strengthened and, regardless of the weather and administrative difficulties, the Allies knew that the Germans must be allowed no respite. In mid-November the Allies were within 10 miles (16 km) of the mouth of the Liri river valley, but it was to be six months before they could break through beyond Cassino.
The required breakthrough of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ was to be achieved in three phases: first, the capture of Monte Camino and the other dominant features south of Highway 6; second, the capture of Monte Sammucro and a drive from Colli toward Atina; and third, to be undertaken only after the first two operations had been completed, the advance of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps into the Liri river valley with the 1st Armored Division available to pass through into the lead. The attack on the Camino hill mass was mounted by the X Corps from the south, followed by an attack from the north-east by the 1st Special Service Force and part of Walker’s 36th Division. In an effort to deceive the Germans into thinking that an amphibious attack would be made in the Gulf of Gaeta, to the north of the mouth of the Garigliano river, naval forces were assembled in Naples and Mondragone, and dummy batteries were set up and targets registered around the town of Gaeta. A feint attack was also made toward San Pietro and the bombing programme included many targets appropriate for an assault landing north of the river.
A courageous but abortive attempt to seize Calabritto by two battalions of the 46th Division during the night of 1/2 December succeeded in providing sufficient flank protection for the main attack on Monte Camino to be made by the 56th Division on the following night as scheduled. From 16.30 on the previous afternoon 925 pieces of artillery, including 24 8-in (203-mm) howitzers, fired 165,000 rounds on the German positions on the mountain, while 274 bombing sorties were made on 2 December with another 612 delivered on the following day. It was difficult, however, for pilots to achieve accuracy in the bad weather and mountainous terrain. The Allied artillery equally had much difficulty with improvised range tables and in getting the necessary elevation to fire on to and over the high mountains. The guns themselves became embedded in the mud and could only be moved by being winched out.
The 56th Division attacked with two brigades, and during the night both attacks made good progress. On the right, the eastern end of the ridge which had halted the attack by the 201st Guards Brigade about a month before was reached by dawn. The position was then retaken by troops of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision and held by them for three days against repeated counterattacks. The other brigade attack made good progress round the western slopes of the mountains and, as a result of this threat, the crest of Monte Camino was reached late on 6 December. Within three days Rocca d’Evandro had been captured and the western part of the Camino hills had been cleared down to the Garigliano river.
To the north-east, the 1st Special Service Force launched a night assault over extremely difficult ground, took Monte la Difensa before dawn on 3 December, but was driven back from Monte la Remetanea on the following day, and it was only after four days of fighting that Monte la Remetanea was finally captured. The occupation of these two features was the key to the Maggiore ridge, which was taken by the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Division and then held against several counterattacks.
The second phase of the offensive to open Highway 6, by clearing of Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo, now began. Between these dominating features the road ran through a valley only 1 mile (1.6 km) wide with the little village of San Pietro to the north of the road. The plan developed by the II Corps was to envelop the two features and avoid the valley. The extensive slopes and hill features of Monte Sammucro needed special attention and three battalions were ordered to launch a double-pronged attack, supported by US Rangers attacking a feature farther to the north. The assault was to be made on the night of 7 December. Early the following morning the Italian 1st Motorised Group (four co-belligerent battalions with field and anti-tank regiments) would assault the bare rocky slopes of Monte Lungo from the south-east.
The two most northerly US attacks on Monte Sammucro went well. After close fighting early on 8 December the crest was taken and held against a fierce counterattack later in the morning. The US Rangers also reached their objective but were subsequently thrown back. The position, however, was retaken at dawn on the next day, and held against counterattacks by the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision’s 71st Panzergrenadierregiment during the next four days. The other attack along the southern slopes of Monte Sammucro was a different story. Crossing the start line one mile (1.6 km) east of San Pietro at 06.20 on 8 December, the leading battalion of the 143rd Infantry was halted by intense artillery, mortar and machine gunfire after an advance of 400 yards (365 m), and a second battalion got no further. The Allied artillery was now committed to a bombardment of the village all night and to the support of further attacks which continued throughout 9 December. The result was insignificant gains and the infantrymen were finally pulled back.
The Italian attack was equally abortive. The 1st Motorised Group had assembled on 7 December. Unfortunately several of the men were so anxious to announce to their former allies what was in store for them on the following day that during the night they shouted insults at a battalion of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision holding the slopes of Monte Lungo, and thereby removed all chance of tactical surprise. At 05.50 on the following morning the German positions were shelled for 30 minutes, but before the attack could be committed heavy fog developed over the mountains, and the advancing infantry battalions were met by heavy machine gun and mortar fire. In spite of heavy casualties the Italian battalions continued in their attempts to advance, now with the support of the whole of the II Corps’ artillery. By noon the attack was called off.
The fighting so far had been inconclusive, as the Germans still held Monte Lungo and sufficient of the western slopes of Monte Sammucro to stop any advance toward San Pietro or into the valley carrying Highway 6. Walker now proposed to exploit the limited successes achieved north of the crest of Sammucro with an attack early on 15 December, to be followed by the main effort on San Pietro at noon, with armoured support if possible, and a further attempt on Monte Lungo after dawn on 16 December.
To the north, two battalions, including one of airborne soldiers, who were to relieve the Rangers, met very stiff resistance and in two days of fighting were unable to reach their main objective. One of these units was now reduced to 155 men. The main infantry and tank attack along the lower slope of Monte Sammucro started at 12.00 on 15 December. The terrain proved to be extremely difficult for armoured operations. The narrow road was mined and the ground on either side was a series of rock-walled terraces 3 to 7 ft (0.9 to 2.1 m) high, covered with olive trees and scrub. Stream beds, gullies and the terrain made any cross-country operation impossible. At the end of the day only four tanks returned to the assembly area, another 12 having been destroyed or disabled. The advancing infantry had met a terrible concentration of fire and for eight hours fought to gain only a few yards. At 01.00 the attack was renewed but without artillery support, as all communications had been destroyed. Attacking with grenades, a few men reached the village but by now one of the battalions was down to 120 men and, in spite of further attempts shortly after dawn, the surviving infantrymen were back on their start line by mid-afternoon on 16 December. It seemed that nothing could shift the men of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision from San Pietro.
The attack on Monte Lungo had been well prepared, however. On 12/13 December several features in the west had been captured, and on the night of 15/16 December a simultaneous attack was made from this direction and from the slopes of Monte Maggiore. This pincer movement resulted in the majority of the German positions being taken by daybreak. The subsequent Italian attack cleared the remainder of the mountain by a time early in the afternoon of 16 December. Early that evening a furious counterattack struck the battalion holding the slopes of Monte Sammucro north of the road linking San Pietro and Venafro and continued to about midnight. Patrols early on 17 December found San Pietro abandoned and the relieving force gone.
Farther to the north, in the mountains west of Venafro, the VI Corps had been mounting limited attacks to stop German reinforcements being switched against the II Corps operation and to try to reach the upper part of the Rapido river valley. In this rocky mountainous area, broken by ravines, only very limited advances were made on the roads toward Atina and St Elia. In mid-December Dody’s 2nd Division d’Infanterie Marocaine relieved the 36th Division. A few days later the Moroccans were in action and by 17 December had captured Pantano and the northern slopes of Monte Casale. On their left, the 45th Division took Monte Cavallo on 22 December, roughly handling the 5th Gebirgsdivision, which was caught off balance while taking over from the 305th Division in this sector. Early in January Général de Division Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert’s 3rd Division d’Infanterie Algérienne took over from the 45th Division. Commanding the French Expeditionary Corps, Juin now assumed responsibility for this sector and the VI Corps was withdrawn to prepare for the ‘Shingle’ landing immediately to the south of Rome intended to coincide with the 5th Army’s breakout into the Liri river valley.
On 31 December a heavy snow storm in the Abruzzi mountains brought the fighting on the 5th Army’s front to a temporary standstill. It was not until 5 January 1944 that the II Corps resumed the attack down Highway 6. Despite losing ground in the mountains and control of the Mignano gap, the Germans nonetheless still held the line of the Peccia river through Monte Porchia and north to the 4,131-ft (1259-m) Monte Maio (not to be confused with the 3,084-ft/940-m Monte Maio in the Liri river valley) and Monna Casale. Centrally placed, Monte Trocchio dominated the plain between the Peccia river and the Rapido river south of Highway 6. Frederick’s 1st Special Service Force led with an attack on Monte Maio, which was captured on 7 January and held for three days against fierce counterattack. Meanwhile the 34th Division captured San Vittore and pressed forward to take Cervaro on 12 January. In the centre the 46th Division, supported by part of the 1st Armored Division, captured Monte Porchia in the face of reinforcements rushed up from Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’. Ahead was the huge isolated hill of Monte Trocchio. This bare and rocky feature is less than 2 miles (3.2 km) east of the Rapido and was now untenable owing to the advance of the 34th Division. In the mountains the French Expeditionary Corps was approaching Monte Santa Croce and Monte la Meta, and by 15 January the German resistance east of the Rapido was almost at an end.
But in a skilfully executed fighting withdrawal the Germans had won the time they needed to strengthen the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. In six weeks of fighting the 5th Army had suffered 16,000 casualties, and the XIV Panzerkorps was now safely ensconced in prepared positions of tremendous natural strength.