Operation Raincoat

This was the Allied breakthrough of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ defences in the Monte Camino region of Italy by Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US II Corps and Lieutenant General R. L. McCreery’s British X Corps (2/10 December 1943).

Under the supervision of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army schemed ‘Raincoat’ as the means to drive through the southern defences of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ held, from west to east, by the units of Generalleutnant Georg Pfeiffer’s 94th Division, Generalmajor Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalmajor Walther Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Dr Franz Beyer’s 44th Division, Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s 305th Division of General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps within Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army.

Such an advance would allow the Allies to close on the main defences of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ in front of Cassino, and to this end the 5th Army envisaged a three-phase assault. In the first phase (‘Raincoat’ proper), the X Corps (Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division and Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 56th Division) and II Corps (Major General Fred K. Walker’s 36th Division and Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force, with Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s 3rd Division available from army reserve if required) would take Monte Camino, the southernmost bastion of the German defence. In the second phase, the II Corps would move ahead of the X Corps to take Monte Lungo and Monte Sammucro, the central and northernmost bastions of the German defence, while Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps (Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division and Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division) held the Germans along the road linking Colli and Atina in the hills above Venafro. The, in the third phase, the Allies would exploit into the valley of the Liri river with a view to pushing up the valley of the Rapido river to Cassino.

This first attack in the campaign to breach what the Allies called the Winter Line (from south to north the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’, ‘Gustav-Linie’ and ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’) was to be delivered against the formidable group of peaks known as the Camino hill mass, which forms an outpost at the entrance into the Liri river valley from the Mignano gap. The dominating peak is Monte Camino (the 3,160-ft/963-m Hill 963) with a monastery at its summit. Two slightly lower peaks, Monte la Difensa (Hill 960) and Monte la Remetanea (Hill 907), are less than 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north of Monte Camino, and the upper end of the Camino feature is occupied by the many peaks of Monte Maggiore. The entire hill mass is about 6 miles (10 km) long and 4 miles (6.5 km) wide. On the east and north-east, the slopes rise steeply to the heights, then fall away gradually to the west in the direction of the Garigliano river.

The 5th Army planned that two corps would make a co-ordinated thrust against these hills. Before the main attack, elements of the X Corps were to make diversionary moves along the lower reaches of the Garigliano river to suggest a possible landing on the coast in conjunction with an attack along Highway 7. On the 5th Army’s right flank, the VI Corps was to harass the Germans with offensive probes against their mountain positions along the full length of the corps’ front. The main effort was thus to be made in the centre, where the X Corps was to advance from the southern slopes toward the peak of Monte Camino, while the II Corps attacked from the north-east corner of the hill mass toward Monte la Difensa and Monte Maggiore. As soon as all the high ground around Camino had been taken, the X Corps was to be prepared to relieve the formations of the II Corps as far to the north as Monte Maggiore.

These operations together constituted the first phase of the Allied assault on the Winter Line, and were intended to unhinge the southern part of the line, so paving the way to the opening the Liri river valley, and bringing the Germans’ lateral supply road, running through Cassino and down to the coast, within range of Allied observation and artillery.

In order to cover the movement of troops to their assembly areas and to draw German forces from Monte Camino, the 46th Division was to take Hill 360, the southernmost spur of the Camino mass, during the night of 1/2 December. The 56th Division was then to attack the highest points of Monte Camino during the night of 2/3 December. The correct timing of these moves was a vital factor, for if the X Corps could succeed before daylight of 3 December, the Germans would be deprived of the high ground from which he could threaten the formations of the II Corps as they attacked the peaks farther to the north from 06.20 on 3 December. The base for the attack was the Allied position on the lower end of a ridge sloping down from Monte la Difensa to form the north-eastern corner of the mountain mass above Mignano.

Hill 368 on this spur marked the line of departure. From it, the 1st Special Service Force was to push along the ridge toward Monte la Difensa and then beyond to take Monte la Remetanea. This attack would cover the movement of the 142nd Regimental Combat Team from Hill 368 across the northern slopes of the mountains against Monte Maggiore. Only diversionary action was planned on the corps’ right flank, where the 141st and 143rd Regimental Combat Teams held the northern side of the corridor.

The German formation threatened by this plan was the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision holding the sector between Monte Camino and Monte Maggiore. Between Cassino and the west coast of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the XIV Panzerkorps had two divisions (Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ and Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision) in reserve, and these could reach the front within 24 hours.

The preparations for ‘Raincoat’ were very thorough. First came the extremely difficult and arduous movement of supplies by quartermaster and engineer units. The engineers also swept trails, roads and bivouac sites for mines, brought up gravel, railway ties and poles for road improvements, built bypasses, culverts and bridges, and maintained and improved Jeep trails and foot tracks. Even so, the roads which were maintained with so much difficulty reached only the base of the mountains, where many dumps were established. From here carrying parties man- and mule-packed food, water and ammunition up to the troops. The difficulties were exacerbated by torrential rain, but the transport effort was successful in overall terms and by the end of November the front-line units had sufficient supplies for the imminent offensive.

While these preparations were taking place, the Allied artillery and air forces readied themselves for major efforts, and deceptive measures were begun to persuade the Germans that about the exact point at which ‘Raincoat’ would be launched. Elements of the X Corps carried out the planned feint on the lower reaches of the Garigliano river, and on the right flank the VI Corps launched diversionary attacks four days before the Camino offensive was to be committed. Even in the centre of the 5th Army’s front, efforts were made to confuse the Germans by increased patrolling activity on the right flank of the main assault units. Division and corps artillery fire on targets between San Pietro to San Vittore was intensified. Smoke was used daily on Monte Lungo, and, when the weather permitted, the air forces bombed targets in the area between San Pietro and San Vittore.

A reconnaissance in force was made toward San Pietro in an effort to mislead the Germans into the belief that the Allies’ main effort would be directed against that area. The task was undertaken by the 3rd Ranger Battalion with close support from Company B of the 83rd Chemical Battalion and the 133rd Field Artillery Battalion. On the night of 29/30 November the Rangers moved up from Venafro through Ceppagna. Led by guides from the 180th Infantry, they began the steep descent toward San Pietro at 22.30 through rain and mist that reduced visibility to a few feet. By 05.30 the battalion reached a point about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of San Pietro, and several attempts by its patrols to scout routes to the village drew heavy small arms and mortar fire. By 12.00 it had become clear that nothing more could be accomplished without the committal of larger forces, Walker ordered the Rangers to withdraw under cover of darkness.

The Germans reacted to the reconnaissance by increasing the volume of their artillery and mortar fire in the San Pietro area, and a strong German combat patrol made an attack during the night of 1/2 December on the 1/141st Infantry on the south-eastern edge of Monte Lungo.

Air activity was in general severely limited by bad weather but, on the days in which flying was possible, bombers attacked bridges in the Liri river valley, artillery installations and hill towns on various parts of the front. On 26 November 36 aircraft bombed the Germans on the hills to the west of Monte Camino, and on the following day 24 Curtiss P-40 fighter-bombers attacked the Vallevona plateau. On 1 and 2 December, Major General Edwin J. House’s XII Air Support Command made its greatest effort of the month when, despite the efforts of the weather, 274 sorties were flown on the first day and 612 on the following day against targets in front of 5th Army’s main strength between the Liri river and the mountains in front of the VI Corps.

The artillery preparation for ‘Raincoat’ was the heaviest to date by the 5th Army. From 16.30 on 2 December, 925 pieces of artillery deluged the German positions with high explosive and white phosphorus shells. Against Monte Camino alone, 820 pieces ranging from 3-in (76-mm) guns to 8-in (203-mm) howitzers fired an extremely compact and devastating concentration: in the hour between 16.30 and 17.30 on 2 December, 346 pieces of artillery, including 24 8-in (203-mm) howitzers, fired 22,500 rounds in the II Corps’ sector. The bombardment continued for two days until by 18.00 on 4 December the 5th Army’s three corps had fired 206,929 rounds.

By 1 December the formations of the X and II Corps were ready to launch their attack. As its pre-planned diversion, Brigadier A. P. Block’s 139th Brigade of the 46th Division sector led off at dusk against the Calabritto ridge barring the way to Hill 360, and here, during the night, the leading battalions ran into strong opposition from machine guns and also encountered minefields and wire. The British troops overcame these obstacles and pressed their attack after daylight on 2 December, supported by heavy artillery fire and by elements of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment. The Germans defended stubbornly and at the end of the day still held the village of Calabritto. Even so, the 56th Division moved off to attack Monte Camino and the hills below it, and here too the Germans resisted strongly and the British could not reach Hill 963 on 3 December.

Timing its attack with the X Corps’ drive against Camino, the II Corps formations moved out against the northern part of the Camino hill mass. Frederick’s 1st Special Service Force advanced to Ridge 368 after dark on 2 December. By midnight the 2/1st SSF was well up the slopes of Monte la Difensa just below the cliffs of Hill 960, and before dawn had forced the Germans off the hill and compelled them to draw back along the ridge. While the battalion organised itself to defend Hill 960, the 1/1st SSF moved on to take Hill 907. The Germans could not hold their positions, and by 09.45 on 3 December, the ridge as far as Monte la Remetanea was in Allied hands. A German counterattack on 4 December then drove the 1/1st SSF back from Hill 907 to a defensive position on Monte la Difensa. The 3/1st SSF, the force reserve, was severely hit on its way to Hill 907 by German artillery fire from the north and north-east.

During the day cold rain fell in a steady deluge, limiting visibility and adding to the difficulties of supply and evacuation. A prisoner had revealed that the Germans were planning to counterattack Hill 960 at 03.30 on 5 December, and at about 03.00 a forward observer spotted a German concentration in the draw to the west and south of Hill 907, and artillery fire was laid down on this area. Some 600 Germans launched the counterattack at 03.35 but the 1st SSF drove back the assault. Later in the day the 1/1st SSF came up to support the 2/1st SSF, and during the next three days cleared the mountain of German troops. On the afternoon of 8 December Hill 907 was retaken, bringing to an end all organised German resistance in that area.

Meanwhile the X Corps had taken Hill 963. On 6 December, in the sector of the 56th Division, the 2/5th Queen’s of Brigadier L. O. Lynne’s 169th Brigade occupied this feature on the crest of Monte Camino after intensely bitter fighting, and other units of the 56th Division including Brigadier R. B. R. Colvin’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade under the temporary command of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Kingsmill, drove the fiercely resisting Germans of the 3/129th Panzergrenadierregiment from the western slopes and out of Rocca d’Evandro by 9 December. Colonel George E. Lynch’s 142nd Infantry had the task of taking the ridge constituting the north-western shoulder of the Camino hills (facing Monte Sammucro across the Mignano corridor) with Monte Maggiore (Hill 630) at its far end. The attack began on 3 December from Hill 368 a few hours after the 1st SSF had left that point on its way toward Monte la Difensa.

The 3/142nd Infantry led off at 03.00, followed an hour later by the 2/142nd Infantry. By 07.00 K Company was clearing the Germans from Hill 370, and I Company had reached a knoll some 500 yards (465 m) to the north-west. Monte Lungo to the north across the Peccia stream valley was peppered with smoke shells to hinder observation from across the valley. While the 3/142nd Infantry worked its way along the lower slopes, the 2/142nd Infantry was moving to the west in order to reach the main ridge leading toward Monte Maggiore, taking Hill 596, about mid-way to Monte Maggiore, at 10.30. By 17.00 the battalion had skirted the Vallevona plateau and gained the final heights and immediately organised for the defence of its position. The 1/142nd Regiment had crossed Ridge 369 at 07.30, mopping up bypassed pockets of resistance, and prepared Hill 596 for defence.

After the swift capture of its objective, the 142nd Infantry now had to prepare itself for the virtual certainty of a German counterattack. Since the situation was well in hand on the eastern slopes of Monte Maggiore, Lynch instructed the 3/142nd Infantry to pull back after dark on 4 December, leaving its reinforced L Company as an outpost of Hill 370. After a night’s rest, the battalion began to carry supplies from the dump in the area to the north of the village Caspoli to the units on Monte Maggiore.

During the night of 5/6 December, the Germans counterattacked the US positions on Hill 630, held by E Company, but were beaten back. The next serious threat to the Americans, in the form of E and F Companies, arrived on 7 December in the form of another attempt to recapture Hill 630. At 16.35 Lieutenant Colonel Samuel S. Graham, commanding the 2/142nd Infantry, reported the attack to the 132nd Field Artillery Battalion, which fired 338 rounds in 10 minutes. The attack diminished after this artillery response, and by 23.00 all was quiet on Mount Maggiore. Patrols sent out the next day counted more than 100 German dead.

On 8 December the 142nd Infantry extended its position to include Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea, relieving the 1st SSF.

Rain had fallen steadily from 2 to 4 December and greatly increased the discomfort suffered by the Allied troops. The 2/142nd Infantry, for example, had advanced to Monte Maggiore carrying all the ammunition possible, only a few mortars, and almost no food. The only way to deliver supplies to the forward positions, in terrain too difficult even for mules, was man-packing along rough trails constantly under German fire, swept by rain and wind, and so steep that men had to crawl some of the distance and haul the packs up by rope. Two companies of the 141st Infantry and half of the 142nd Infantry was used to carry supplies to the men on Monte la Difensa and Monte Maggiore. The corps supplied additional litter squads to evacuate casualties, which were relatively light. The round trip of 3 miles (4.8 km) between a point near Mignano and Mount Maggiore took some 12 hours. Some attempts were made to drop rations from the air, but the men of the 142nd Infantry on Monte Maggiore could recover only one pack of ‘K’ rations from three drops, so for three days each man lived on one ‘K’ ration and water from snow or shell holes.

After all the Allied objectives had been taken, the II Corps’ units were relieved by those of the X Corps according to plan, and by 11 December the British had taken over the entire Monte Camino/Monte Maggiore complex, making the II Corps available for service against farther to the north against the elements of the 71st Panzergrenadierregiment of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision holding Monte Sammucro.

Meanwhile the 5,485 Italian co-belligerent troops of Generale di Divisione Vincenzo Dapino’s 1st Motorised Group were attached to the II Corps for active participation in the campaign and on 7 December came into the line at the Mignano gap.

‘Raincoat’ had been a major success, for in nine days the II and X Corps had driven the Germans from practically the whole of the Camino feature, giving the 5th Army control of the heights on one side of the corridor accessing the Liri river valley.

The second phase of the operation began on 7 December, as the X Corps was still embroiled on Monte Camino. The II Corps initially made good progress, but was then seriously checked by the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision. The offensive was resumed in 15 December, and by 17 December the Americans had taken Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo. The 36th Division was totally exhausted by its considerable efforts, and the casualties in the II Corps had been heavy.

The VI Corps fared no better against the 44th Division and 5th Gebirgsdivision, the tide turning in the Allies’ favour only with the arrival of Général de Division André Marie François Dody’s 2nd Division d’Infanterie Marocaine as the first element of Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin’s Corps Expéditionaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps).

In this sector the Germans had finally been pushed back to the main ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences by 29 December. Even so, however, the offensive had failed in its main purpose, which had been to put the Allies in a strong position no more than 30 miles (48 km) from the Anzio beach-head area of ‘Shingle’ (which had been fixed for no later than 15 January 1944 so that its amphibious craft could be redeployed to northern Europe for ‘Overlord’) by the time winter ended the 1943 campaigning season.

‘Shingle’ was implemented despite Clark’s urging that it be abandoned, and in January the Allies were thus faced with a difficult task, especially as seven divisions had been withdrawn from Italy for ‘Overlord’ at the time of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ battles, when the Allies had 13 divisions (four British, three commonwealth, five US and one French, all of them in the operational zone) in Italy to the Germans’ 18 divisions (only 11 of them in the operational zone, and five of the seven German mobile divisions in the process of replacement by four infantry divisions). The Allied divisions shipped to the north between the Volturno and ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ battles were replaced in December 1943 and January 1944 to bring Allied strength to 18 divisions (five British, five commonwealth, one Polish, five US and two French formations), while the Germans had been bolstered to 23 divisions, but though the Allied operational-zone advantage at this time was three divisions compared with two at the time of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ battle, the new divisions were inexperienced in the conditions of Italian warfare.