Operation Wintergewitter (ii)

winter storm

This was an Axis offensive, otherwise known as the Battle of Garfagnana, at the western end of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences in north-western Italy (26/28 December 1944).

The operation took place in the northern part of the Tuscan Apennine mountains, near Massa and Lucca.

Late in December 1944 General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s Axis 14th Army used a force of eight German and Italian infantry battalions in this limited offensive against the left wing of Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army in the valley of the Serchio river in front of Lucca to pin units that could otherwise be switched to the central front.

Anticipating an operation of this type, the Allies had ordered the rapid transfer of two brigades of Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Infantry Division across the Apennines to reinforce Major General Edward M. Almond’s US 92nd Division. By the time the Indian brigades had arrived the Germans and Italians had broken through to capture Barga and routed the 92nd Division. Reports from captured US soldiers indicated that they had intended to retreat to Lucca and beyond, but decisive action by Russell stabilised the situation.

With their task nonetheless achieved, the Axis forces broke off the attack and withdrew. The Allies recaptured Barga one week later, and the western end of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences then remained essentially static until a time late in March 1945.

Part of the Axis operation’s origins can be found in the desire of Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy, and of his war minister, Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, to create a new Fascist Italian army independent of German control and, moreover, for part of this new army to play a part in a major offensive against the Allies. Graziani therefore planned an offensive in the Garfagnana area by two of the new formations in Graziani’s 97a Armata ‘Liguria’, namely Generale di Divisione Almilcare Farina’s 3a Divisione di marina ‘San Marco’ and Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 4a Divisione alpina ‘Monterosa’, together with one or two German divisions (one of them motorised), totalling 40,000 men, and considerable air support.

Highly improbably, given the weakness of the Axis forces in north-western Italy and the difficulties imposed by the terrain and winter weather, the operation’s objective was the the recapture of Lucca, Pisa and Livorno.

The Italians lacked all types of weapons, especially armour and aircraft, and most of the other equipment they needed, and the 4a Divisione alpina that was to spearhead the undertaking was ready only in December. Thus the Italian basic concept was recast as the German-led ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii).

This was planned as an altogether smaller-scale undertaking and, as such, ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii) was the last military effort of the collapsing Rome-Berlin Axis. The operation was also one of the last examples of German operational and tactical capabilities, severely savaged one US infantry division and achieved some minor results, slightly and inconclusively improving the Axis situation at the western end of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences in the Apennine mountains.

The revised ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii) was led by Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico, commander of the 148th Division, and its limited objectives were to engage the Allies in a small area in the Garfagnana region and drive them back some 15.5 miles (25 km) and thereby reduce the Allied pressure on the German forces in the area of Rimini area. As Fretter-Pico was finalising his plan, units of the African-American 92nd Division moved into the Garfagnana sector during November 1944, and advanced along the Serchio river valley against only slight resistance. Even so, the division’s attempt to capture Castelnuovo di Garfagnana failed.

On 21 December Graziani and Carloni visited the battalions of the 4a Divisione alpina in the Garfagnana area to prepare the offensive. After ‘Wacht am Rhein’ in the Franco-Belgian Ardennes in mid-December, Allied intelligence had considered it possible that the Axis forces would attempt a similar effort in northern Italy, most probably in the western coastal sector. As a result Brigadier T. S. Dobree’s Indian 19th Brigade and Brigadier B. S. Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade of Russell’s Indian 8th Division were ordered from the central Apennine sector to reinforce the 92nd Division on the 5th Army’s left flank in front of Lucca. The Indian 19th Brigade arrived on 26 December and was ordered by Major General Willis D. Crittenberger, commanding the US IV Corps, to position itself some 4 miles (6.5 km) behind the 92nd Division. The 21st Indian Brigade arrived two days later. As an additional insurance, Truscott placed two infantry regiments of Major General John B. Coulter’s US 85th Division under Crittenberger’s command and moved additional artillery into positions from which it could tackle any Axis advance.

On 26 December several Italian units, including four battalions of the 4a Divisione alpina and 3a Divisione di marina, and three German battalions, launched ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii). The undertaking involved 9,100 Axis troops, of whom two-thirds were Italian, with the support of 100 pieces of artillery but no armour. The attack was faced by 18,000 Allied troops supported by 140 batteries of artillery, 120 tanks and 160 Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of Brigadier General Thomas C. Darcy’s US XXII Tactical Air Command.

Surprise was, as ever, a factor fundamental to the Axis attack, and Fretter-Pico hoped that the presence of a cloudy winter front would prevent the Allied aircraft from flying. In fact the Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of the XXII Tactical Air Command flew throughout 26 December, but mainly on scheduled missions over north-eastern Italy until the severity of the ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii) breakthrough became clear, after which the XXII Tactical Air Command revised its plan for 27 December to provide support for the 5th Army’s front. The Americans had total command of the air, and this was a major factor in dislocating the Axis thrust.

While Fretter-Pico was the overall commander, Carloni led the attack operationally. The Axis attack on the 92nd Division was based on the movement of one German and two Italian columns, whose objectives were the small towns of Barga, Sommocolonia, Vergemoli, Treppignana, Coreglia, Fornaci di Barga, Promiana, Castelvecchio and Calomini to the north-west of Lucca. The Italian first column, on the axis toward Vergemoli-Calomini, comprised the Battaglione alpina ‘Intra’, the HQ defence company of the 1o Reggimento alpino, the divisional reconnaissance group of the 4a Divisione alpina, and two marine infantry battalions of the 6o Reggimento of the 3a Divisione di marina. The mixed Italian and German second column, on the axis toward Treppignana and Castelvecchio, comprised the Battaglione alpino 'Brescia' and the 1 and 2/286th Grenadierregiment. And the German third column, on the axis toward Sommocolonia and Barga, comprised the Gebirgsjägerbataillon 'Mittenwald' and elements of the Maschinengewehrbataillon 'Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring'.

Early on 26 December elements of the two German assault battalions from the third column attacked the Sommocolonia, which was held by elements of Company F of the 2/366th Infantry supported by a number of Italian partisans, and according to some sources the US and partisan was tough but quickly overwhelmed. In the morning of the same day 200 men of the Gebirgsjägerbataillon 'Mittenwald' seized the US positions to the south of Sommocolonia at Bebbio and Scarpello from the 92nd Reconnaissance Troop, which withdrew to Coreglia. In the meantime, Axis mortars had opened fire along the whole front and the other two columns had begun to advance. The two German Grenadier battalions together with the attached Alpini company were successful in their attack in the centre down the Serchio valley on the eastern side of the river. On the river’s western side, the other companies of the Battaglione alpino 'Brescia' overcame a weak initial resistance, but their opponents were already falling back and the attackers advanced against only minimal resistance to Fornaci, which fell quickly despite the fact that the two German battalions came under severe criticism for their laggardly progress and lack of aggression.

The first column, however, faced more vigorous opposition on the right of the front. The elements of the the 3a Divisione di marina took Molazzano without difficulty and drove back the defenders back, but the regimental headquarters company suffered losses and failed to take the village of Brucciano. The Gruppo 'Cadelo' of the 4a Divisione alpina, supported by the Battaglione 'Intra' which made small diversionary attacks, occupied Calomini, but the 370th Infantry and some partisan groups could not be dislodged from Vergemoli. Under threat of encirclement and being cut off, this US and Italian partisan garrison eventually withdrew, leaving a partisan group to provide cover.

By 27 December the German-led minor offensive was over. In the morning, the German assault troops entered Pian di Coreglia, which was their final objective, and Italian patrols went as far forward as the village of Calavorno, reporting that the Americans were still in full retreat. The other columns had also reached their objectives, and a complete Allied division had been routed.

During the morning of the following day, the Axis columns occupied Piano di Coreglia, their main objective, and some Italian patrols probed ahead and returned to report that the Americans were still in full retreat. The Axis forces took more than 250 prisoners, together with significant numbers of weapons and much food and equipment.

The Axis troops thus took all the villages of the Serchio valley as far as the outskirts of Bagni di Lucca after a penetration of more than 15.5 miles (25 km) through the Allied line.

As the men of the 92nd Division streamed back, they were ordered to take up positions on the left flank of the Indian positions, and the whole defence was placed under the command of Russell. The Axis objectives were short of the Indian line, however, and the Axis attack was pressed no farther forward. By a time late in the afternoon of 27 December, the Axis offensive was called to a halt, and by the following day the Axis troops were pulling back toward their start lines.

On 29 December the reconnaissance regiment of the 8th Indian Division advanced to the north along the main road, making no contact with the withdrawing Axis troops, and by 30 December the front line had been restored more or less to the pre-battle position. On 8 January the Indian troops were withdrawn into reserve.

On 8 January the Indian troops were withdrawn into reserve, and the men of the 4a Divisione alpina then held their new advanced line, 1.25 miles (2 km) to the south of the positions they had occupied on 25 December, until March 1945.

Graziani, who had promoted the attack to give military credence to the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, informally known as the Salò Republic, was well satisfied with the offensive and wanted to continue it. However, the threat posed by Allied air superiority effectively ended all thoughts of any further Axis attack to advance south of the 'Gotisch-Linie' defences.

Fascist propaganda gave great emphasis to the offensive, claiming it was a smaller-scale Italian version of the 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive which took place in the same month.