This was a US attack by part of Major General Edward M. Almond’s 92nd Division (with two of its organic African-American regiments combined into one and supplemented by the 442nd Infantry of Japanese-Americans and the 473rd Infantry of converted anti-aircraft units) toward Massa and La Spezia in north-western Italy (5/12 April 1945).
This undertaking, along the western coastal road linking Pisa and La Spezia, was a diversionary offensive against Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division, and was intended to draw off German forces of General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, which would otherwise be available to fight the ‘Craftsman’ primary offensive by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s 5th Army.
Since the ‘Fourth Term’ of the previous winter, the 92nd Division had been reorganised. Two of its former regiments (the 365th and 371st Infantry) had been detached from the main body of the division to cover the long left flank of Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s IV Corps, and by internal reorganisation Almond had grouped together the best men of the three original regiments into Colonel Raymond G. Sherman’s 370th Infantry. To fill the gap left by the detachments of the two African-American regiments, Truscott attached the Lieutenant Colonel Virgil R. Miller’s Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Colonel William P. Yarborough’s 473rd Infantry, the latter a unit comprising former anti-aircraft gunners now surplus to requirement as the Germans had no significant air capability left to them. The 92nd Division was thus a radically different formation from that which had performed so poorly during the previous winter.
This time Almond decided to risk no repetition of the abortive operation across the Cinquale Canal on the coastal plain, but instead decided that the division’s main effort would be delivered across the high ground overlooking the plain from the east. The 370th Infantry was to cross the flanks of the Strettoia hills to the east while the 442nd Infantry operated on the right over the higher land just below the sharp peaks of the Apuan Alps, where the 371st Infantry had operated in February. The 473rd Infantry was initially to remain in the Serchio river valley on the division’s right flank. By gaining control of the high ground as far as Massa, Almond expected to compel the Germans to give up the US objective without the need for any costly frontal attack. The question yet to be answered was how would the reconstituted 370th Infantry fight over the same terrain which had been the
scene of the regiment’s debacle in ‘Fourth Term’.
Early on 5 April US warplanes bombed the German and Italian positions, including the naval guns at Punta Bianca, and there followed a 10-minute artillery preparation aided by the shore bombardment of British destroyers offshore. The two left-wing regiments attacked from a line of departure 5 miles (8 km) to the south-east of Massa on each side of the coast road. Getting off to a good start, the 370th Infantry’s vanguard company covered more than 2 miles (3.2 km) and occupied a height half-way to the objective of Massa, but when the Germans launched their inevitable counterattack, the company and its supporting armour lost most of what they had gained. Sherman reorganised and and attacked once more, through without success as a result of indifferent small unit leadership and persistent straggling. For the next few days the 370th Infantry continued to lag behind the 442nd Infantry, which was on the right.
The slow progress of the 370th Infantry initially had little effect on the progress of the 442nd Infantry. After passing through the 371st Infantry on Monte Cauala, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-east of the mouth of the Cinquale Canal, the 442nd Infantry, led by the 100th Battalion, drove forward about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in a wide flanking attack on the 2,800-ft (855-m) Monte Fragolita, which lies some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south-east of Massa. By the fall of night on 5 April, the Japanese Americans had driven the Axis forces from Monte Fragolita and also from several nearby heights. During the following two days the regiment pursued their retreating opponents over narrow mountain trails rendered still more treacherous by rain and fog, and took the 3,000-ft (915-m) Monte Belvedere, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north-east of Massa.
As the Japanese-American troops advanced, Almond replaced the laggardly 370th Infantry with the 473rd Infantry, which he had brought forward from the Serchio river valley. The 370th Infantry was then posted to hold positions from which it could protect the division’s right flank. After the 442nd Infantry had outflanked Massa from the east, Almond believed he needed a more aggressive unit to work with the 442nd Infantry in making a frontal assault on the town, for the Axis forces as yet showed no signs of yielding the town without a fight. The anti-aircraft gunners turned infantry did not disappoint the divisional commander. They pushed steadily to the north on each side of Highway 1, linking Pisa and La Spezia, through extensive minefields and the fire of artillery and mortars to reach the outskirts of Massa by 12.00 on 9 April. With the support of tanks of the 758th and 760th Tank Battalions, the 473rd Infantry prepared to assault the town on the following morning, but the Axis forces, already outflanked, now opted to slip away during the night. The US units occupied the town on the morning of 10 April.
On this same day, to the north-east of Massa, the 442nd Infantry forded the Frigido river to take Monte Bruguana, 2.5 miles (4 km) to the north of Massa, then continued another 2 miles (3.2 km) early on 11 April to occupy the celebrated marble quarry of Carrara.
By this time increasing difficulties in supplying the forward troops combined with growing Axis resistance, the latter including the long-range harassing fire of the Italian coastal batteries at Punta Bianca near La Spezia, especially against the 473rd Infantry in the coastal corridor, to suggest that the comparatively rapid pace of the US advance up to this time would soon end. For the next week, up to 19 April, the 92nd Division was brought to a virtual standstill by Axis forces dug-in just behind the Carrione stream, 7 miles (11.25 km) to the north of Carrara.
Even so, ‘Second Wind’ had served its purpose, for in order to check the 92nd Division’s advance beyond Carrara, the Axis forces had been compelled to draw on their main reserve. In spite of the harassment of Allied aircraft and severe fuel shortages, one regiment of Generalmajor Heinrich Baron von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision managed to move in sufficient strength from its reserve position in the vicinity of Modena to the Ligurian flank to help halt the 92nd Division’s advance. This meant that to a halt. Yet this meant that Generaloberst Gottfried-Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ had committed a modest but nonetheless irreplaceable part of its reserve against what was only a diversionary effort. Yet von Vietinghoff-Scheel had felt that he had to take the risk because he considered himself still bound by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s long-standing order that no part of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ was to be yielded.