Operation Battle of Monte la Difensa

The 'Battle of Monte La Difensa' was fought in Italy between a joint US and Canadian force and German forces within 'Raincoat' (3/9 December 1943).

The battle was part of the 'Bernhardt-Linie' campaign. Monte la Difensa, which was also known as Hill 960, is one of the peaks forming the Camino hill mass, itself the left-hand 'gatepost' dominating the Mignano gap. and as such the key to the route of Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army to the Liri river valley and Cassino, and thence Rome. The mountain itself had become a major obstacle to the progress of the US and British troops because of the powerful nature defences built and manned by the defending German troops as part of the 'Bernhardt-Linie'.

The action was the first combat task in the Italian theatre for a unique US-Canadian commando unit, Colonel Robert T. Fredericks’s 1st Special Service Force, which was attached to Major General John E. Dahlquist’s US 36th Division. The 1st SSF used the special training it had received in winter and mountain warfare to scale the mountain and overcome the Germans atop the stronghold.

The 1st Special Service Force, often accorded the soubriquet 'The Devil’s Brigade', had arrived by ship at Casablanca in French Morocco during November 1943 and quickly moved to the Italian front, arriving at Naples on 19 November 1943 and immediately going into the line with the US 36th Division. The force was tasked with taking a pair of heavily fortified German positions in the Italian mountains: one was on the Monte la Difensa (Hill 960) and the other on the Monte la Remetanea (Hill 907) just to the west of the first. These positions were held by the 104th Panzergrenadierregiment with Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision 'Hermann Göring' of the Luftwaffe in reserve. The importance of these two mountains lay in their position relative to the 'Gustav-Linie', for they constituted the last entrenched German defensive line before the Allies reached the 'Gustav-Linie', and an Allied drive through the mountains would enable them to advance closer to Rome. The mountains provided a commanding view of the countryside and road, giving German artillery on the mountain control of the surrounding area. The German artillery on Monte la Defensa was also using a new weapon, the Nebelwerfer artillery rocket launcher. The paths leading up the Monte la Difensa were reconnoitred carefully by patrol of the 1st Special Service Force before the attack and it was reported to Lieutenant Colonel T. C. MacWilliam, leading the the 2nd Regiment’s assault on Monte la Remetanea, that the best way to approach the German positions was up an almost vertical escarpment over the right of the hill mass. The use of this route, the Americans and Canadians believed, would catch the Germans off guard, as previous Allied attacks on the mountain had attacked the Germans head on.

With the rest of 36th Division on the 1st Special Service Force’s right attacking Monte Maggiore, Major General G. W. R. Templer’s British 56th Division attacking Monte Camino and Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s British 46th Division on their left, it took the Allies five days of heavy fighting to clear the Camino hill mass, in the process sustaining heavy losses.

The assault was planned for 2 December, while the men were refreshed in mountain climbing and fighting tactics at their temporary barracks at Santa Maria. The plan was as follows: at 16.30 on 1 December the 2nd Regiment would be moved by truck to within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the base of the mountain and over a six-hour period would march the rest of the way to the Monte la Difensa; the 1st Regiment and the US 36th Division would be the reserve for the 2nd Regiment; and the 3rd Regiment was to be divided into two, half to supply the 2nd Regiment following its planned initial assault and the other half to be in reserve with the 1st Regiment and 36th Division.

After reaching the base of the mountain and resting for the night, the 600 men of the 2nd Regiment began their ascent of Monte la Difensa on 2 December at dusk under cover of a heavy artillery barrage. The men of the 2nd Regiment came within range of the German positions at 00.00 and began to climb the final cliff, which rises steeply for about 1,000 ft (305 m). The men climbed with ropes tied to one another in the freezing rain. On reaching the top, MacWilliam signalled his men to move forward into a depression in front of the German position. Initially, the soldiers were given the order to hold their fire until 06.00, but the Germans became aware of the Allied presence after members of the force tripped over loose gravel while moving along the mountaintop. The German shot flares into the air and the battle began. Through gun and mortar fire, the men of the 2nd Regiment managed to set up machine guns and return fire, surprising and overwhelming the Germans. The staff of the US 5th Army had estimated that the battle would last between four and five days, but within two hours the Germans on the Monte la Difensa had retreated to the Monte la Remetanea.

US and British forces had previously suffered many casualties in futile attempts to take the important Camino Ridge. The 1st Special Service Force was successful in taking its initial objective of Monte la Defensa but was delayed in obtaining its primary objective, Monte la Remetanea by a pause resulting from the death of MacWilliam, the 1st Regiment’s commander, While he desired that the force should not lose momentum, Frederick ordered a halt in the advance on Hill 907 in order to await the arrival of reinforcements and supplies, and the force dug in at Monte la Difensa in anticipation of a German counterattack.

However, massive Allied artillery barrages and the flooding of both the Rapido and Garigliano rivers prevented the Germans from re-forming. While waiting for the order to attack Monte la Remetanea, the 2nd Regiment was resupplied by the 1st and 3rd Regiments. Once the British forces had broken through the German lines at Monte Camino, the force was ordered to attack its primary objective, Hill 907. The 1st Special Service Force immediately continued its attack, assaulting the Monte la Remetanea from 6 to 9 December. It captured Hill 720, starting from Monte Sammucro on 25 December, and after difficulties assaulted Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro almost simultaneously on 8 January 1944.

During the mountain campaign the 1st Special Service Force suffered 77% casualties in the form of 91 men dead, nine missing, 313 wounded and 116 exhaustion cases. The force was relieved by the US 142nd Infantry.

After a pause to regroup, the US 5th Army renewed its offensive, but it was the middle of January 1944 before it had been able to advance the 10 miles (16 km) to Cassino at the mouth of the Liri river valley and the formidable positions of the 'Gustav-Linie' position, where the Allies were halted by stubborn German defence until May 1944.