This was a US offensive by Major General George P. Hays’s 10th Mountain Division within the ‘Craftsman’ undertaking of Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s 5th Army against the Monte Belvedere positions of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in the Apennine mountains of northern Italy (18 February/5 March 1945).
The plan was personally supervised by Truscott, who wished to clear a 10-mile (16-km) stretch of high ground dominating Highway 64 from the west in the area in which it runs through the valley of the Reno river between Poretta and Vergato. This would open the road for the planned US advance and would also provide his forces with excellent observation points, extending almost to the valley of the Po river. Some of the peaks, averaging 4,000 ft (1220 m) in height, had precipitous cliff faces which could not be avoided, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to provide the men of the 10th Mountain Division with combat experience of the 5th Army’s front.
The first phase of the 10th Mountain Division’s attack opened with the clearance of a ridge overlooking its route of advance in the second phase, from Monte Belvedere (Pt 1140) on the main watershed running to the north-east in the direction of Vergato. Setting out on the bitterly cold night of 18 February, the 86th Mountain Infantry scaled the 1,500-ft (460-m) cliff face of the first ridge during the night. The leading section of each battalion drove steel pitons into the rock and fixed the climbing ropes for the rest of the battalion to follow. Three counterattacks were launched during the next day by Generalleutnant Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz’s 232nd Division of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, but these were unsuccessful and by the end of the day the Americans were secure on the ridge. During the night which followed, the 85th and 87th Mountain Infantry started the attack on Monte Belvedere, dispensing with artillery preparation to gain surprise. The German resistance was sporadic, and by dawn on 20 February the leading US troops were in sight of Monte Torraccia, half-way to their final objective.
Alarmed by these exploits, the German command decided that Generalmajor Hans-Joachim Ehlert’s 114th Jägerdivision, which was being readied for a move to the western part of the Alpine front, must be temporarily diverted into the 14th Army’s line alongside the 232nd Division, which had suffered severely under the weight of US artillery fire and 412 sorties by Allied fighter-bombers. With the arrival of the 114th Jägerdivision, the German resistance stiffened and it was not until 23 February that the 10th Mountain Division finally secured Monte Torraccia.
The second phase of the US operation was delayed by adverse weather, and then hard climbing and fighting brought the division onto its objectives on the Monte della Spe (Pt 771) feature overlooking Vergato on 4 March. Troops of Major General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian Expeditionary Force kept pace to shield the US force’s right flank.
By this time the 232nd Division was approaching the point of collapse and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südwest’, became so anxious about the US progress that he ordered Generalleutnant Dr Fritz Pollack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision, his most reliable ‘fire brigade’ formation, out of reserve to re-establish the front. Shortly before 24.00 on 5 March, the 15th Panzergrenadierregiment counterattacked Monte della Spe, but the Americans held their ground and the Germans contented themselves with ‘sealing off’ the US position in a containing action.
Truscott now halted the offensive as he had no desire to draw too much attention to the 10th Mountain Division’s sector, whose potential he already saw for a breakthrough in the spring offensive.
The whole operation had cost the 10th Mountain Division some 1,450 casualties, including 309 killed.