Operation Battle of Monte Castello

The 'Battle of Monte Castello' was fought between Brazilian and US forces against German forces within 'Encore' (25 November 1944/21 February 1945).

The battle was fought between the Allied forces advancing into northern Italy and well-prepared German defenders, and marked the entry into the European land war of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force). Starting in November 1944, fierce combat dragged on for three months, ending on 21 February 1945. Six Allied attacks were mounted against the German forces, four of which were tactical failures.

Monte Castello is a hill about 30 miles (48 km) to the north of Pistoia in Tuscany and 37 miles (60 km) to the south-west of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna at an altitude of 3,205 ft (977 m) altitude in the northern part of the Apennine mountains on the border between the regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.

In November 1944, the Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division was diverted from the front on the Serchio river, where it had been fighting for two months ahead of the Rino river. Major General João Batista Mascarenhas de Moraes had established his forward headquarters in the town of Porretta Terme in front of the mountain area under German control.

German artillery positions were considered to be of singular importance and were sited to provide the best possible fields of fire over the Allied forces, which were thus hindered in their advance toward Bologna and Po river valley. Estimates were that the imminent winter would be harsh, complicating a situation which had already degenerated as a result of the rains and bombing, turning the roads into quagmires.

Despite the situation, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, commander of the US 5th Army and, from 16 December, commander-in-chief of the 15th Army Group in Italy, planned to use Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s US IV Corps, of which the Brazilian division was part, to open the way for Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army toward Bologna before the arrival of the first snows.

At this time the Italian front was the responsibility of Heeresgruppe 'C', under the command of Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel. Heeresgruppe 'C' controlled General Joachim Lemelsen’s German 10th Army, General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s German 14th Army and Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani’s Italian and German Armeegruppe 'Ligurien', the last responsible for holding the border with France. The 14th Army comprised General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin’s XIX Panzerkorps and General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps. The latter included in its strength Generalleutnant Eccard von Gablenz’s 232nd Division, which had been activated on 22 June 1944 and formed of convalescing veterans of the war on the Eastern Front. The 232nd Division was classified as a static formation, and comprised the 1043rd Grenadierregiment, 1044th Grenadierregiment and 1045th Grenadierregiment, each with only two battalions, as well as one battalion of marines as it reconnaissance battalion, one artillery regiment with four groups, and a miscellany of smaller units for a total of about 9,000 men. The age of the troops ranged between 17 and 40 years, with the younger and abler soldiers concentrated in the marine battalion. During the final battle, the division was reinforced by the 4th Gebirgsjägerbataillon (Mittenwald), which was kept in reserve. The veterans who defended this position lacked the commitment with which they had entered the war, but were still willing to fulfil their duty.

It was the task of the Brazilian force to provide success in the most combative sectors of the entire Apennine mountains front, but the Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division was too inexperienced a formation to engage successfully in a fight of that importance. Therefore, as Clark’s goal was to take Bologna before Christmas, training had to be accomplished in combat. Accordingly, on 24 November, the Reconnaissance Squadron and the 3/6th Regiment joined US Task Force 45 for a first foray to Monte Castello.

On the second day of attacks, it appeared that the operation would be successful. The US troops reached the crest of Monte Castello after capturing neighboring Mount Belvedere. However, in a powerful counterattack, the 232nd Division, responsible for the defence of Monte Castello and Monte Della Torraca, regained the lost positions, forcing the Brazilian and US troops to abandon all the positions they had won with the exception of Monte Belvedere. On 29 November, a second attack was planned on the hill. This counterattack was undertaken primarily by three battalions of the Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division with the support of a mere three platoons of US tanks. Meanwhile, an unexpected event occurred on the eve of the attack which undermined Allied plans: on the night of 28/29 November, the Germans counterattacked Monte Belvedere, taking the US position and leaving the Allies' left flank uncovered.

The Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division initially considered postponing its attack, but as the troops had occupied their start positions at 07.00 a new attempt was launched. The weather proved extremely severe: rain and overcast skies prevented air support, and mud effectively precluded the commitment of armour. The force commanded by Brigadier General Euclides Zenóbio da Costa made a good start, but then there came the inevitable German counterattack, which arrived with great violence as the 1043rd, 1044th and 1045th Grenadierregimenter blocked the Brazilian advance. By a time late in the afternoon, the two Brazilian battalions had been driven back to their start line.

On 5 December, Mascarenhas was ordered by the US IV Corps for his division to take and hold the summit of Monte della Torraca and Monte Belvedere. So, despite the failure of the two previous attempts, Monte Castello was still the main goal of the Brazilians' next offensive, which was postponed by one week. On 12 December, the Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division once more, using the 1 and 2/1st Regiment in very difficult weather conditions. It was immediately clear that the Brazilian infantry needed support. The Brazilians took some positions despite heavy losses to German artillery fire, but the attack failed with the loss of 150 casualties including 20 men killed. The lesson served to reinforce Mascarenhas’s conviction that Monte Castello could be taken only if the entire division was committed in place of the few battalions ordered by the 5th Army.

Only on 18 February 1945, after the winter weather had improved, did the 5th Army order a new offensive as 'Encore' to overwhelm the complex of German defensive positions round the Monte Castello, Monte Belvedere, Monte della Toracca, Castelnuovo di Vergato, Torre di Nerone and Castel d’Aiano area, which had proved extremely durable against all previous Allied attempts to destroy it. The new Allied undertaking was to be based on the Brazilian 1st Expeditionary Division and Major General troops of the 1st Brazilian Division and Major General George P. Hays’s US 10th Mountain Division.

The task of the Brazilian division was to take and hold Monte Castello. The tactics used were to be the same as those devised by Mascarenhas in November. On 20 February the troops of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force were ready, with all three of its regiments ready to assault Monte Castello. Advancing to the left of the Brazilians was the 10th Mountain Division, which had the responsibility of taking Monte della Torraca and so protecting the most vulnerable flank of the sector. The final attack on Castello began at 06.00 on 21 February, with the Uzeda Battalion followed by the Franklin Battalion, with Sizeno Sarmento Mountain Battalion waiting in reserve in the positions it had taken during the night. As outlined in the 'Encore' plan, the Brazilians were to reach the top of Monte Castello by 18.00 at the latest, one hour after the Monte della Torraca had been secured by the 10th Mountain Division. The US IV Corps was confident that Monte Castello would not be taken before Mote della Torraca.

However, at 17.30, when the 1/1st Regiment 'Franklin' took she summit of Monte Castello, the Americans had not overcome the German resistance on their objective, a task they would accomplish only during the night after the Brazilians had completed their task and were started to take position in the newly taken trenches and bunkers. Much of the success of the offensive was credited to the Artillery Division commanded by Major General Cordeiro de Farias which, between 16.00 and 17.00 on 22 February, had laid a perfect barrage on the summit of Monte Castello and thereby greatly facilitated the Brazilian infantry assault.