This was a German limited offensive along the valley of the Serchio river in north-western Italy against Major General Walter D. Crittenberger’s US IV Corps of Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army (26/29 December 1944).
At this time the Allies were facing acute logistical problems, especially with the delivery of artillery ammunition, which had been expended at a considerably greater rate than had been planned. Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, commanding the Allied 15th Army Group in Italy, decided that the 5th Army might nonetheless be able to capture Bologna in a three-week operation if no other factors intervened.
It was Benito Mussolini, the leader of the revived Fascist state in northern Italy, who introduced the decisive factor as he sought to prove the utility of this Salò Republic’s new army, the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano. Mussolini therefore persuaded Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘C’, to provide German co-operation in an offensive against the 5th Army’s left flank by Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 4a Divisione alpina ‘Monterosa’, already based in the area, and Generale di Divisione Guido Manardi’s 1a Divisione Bersaglieri ‘Italia’, both attached to General Traugott Herr’s German 14th Army. On 8 December Herr was hospitalised and replaced by General Kurt von Tippelskirch, who reminded General Valentin Feurstein, commanding the LI Gebirgskorps, that his men must be kept ‘fresh and flexible’ by means of frequent patrols and raids. Parts of this corps’ front were held by the 4a Divisione alpina, whose ability to withstand Allied pressure was doubted by the Germans.
To Feurstein it seemed opportune to forestall such pressure by a limited offensive that would also boost morale and improve training, and on 10 December he approached von Tippelskirch with proposals for a limited-objective attack on Major General Edward M. Almond’s 92nd Division. The main thrust to the east of the Serchio river would be German, with Italian participation limited to the provision of artillery support and the staging of a feint attack to the west of this river by a battalion of the 4th Divisione alpina. Feurstein suggested that Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division should plan the operation and supply the German troops. von Tippelskirch informed Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südwest’, of the project on 13 December, but in view of its limited scale no authorisation was sought from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht which, it was felt, might demand a more ambitious undertaking.
It is also thought that Mussolini wanted a ‘spectacular success’ for his new Italian divisions, but the Germans were not prepared to consider so ambitious an Italian desire, for von Vietinghoff-Scheel opted not to effect any material weakening of his forces on the front shielding Bologna, and therefore allocated only two battalions of the 286th Grenadierregiment of Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division as well as two independent Gebirsgsjäger battalions (4th Gebirgsjägerbataillon and Lehr-Bataillon ‘Mittenwald’), for what became known as ‘Wintermärchen’ (iii) and involved only German units.
By this time the Allies had not sought to penetrate far into the Apennine mountains in this western sector, where the mountains come close to the Tyrrhenian Sea, instead being content to hold the mountains’ south-western edges at a sufficient distance to cover the Livorno, the port through which the entire 5th Army was now supplied. On this sector of the front, on the left of the IV Corps, Almond’s 92nd Division was holding an extended but very quiet sector extending from Bagni di Lucca for about 25 miles (40 km) to the coast. Running through this area was the valley of the Serchio river, which dropped down through Lucca into the valley of the Arno river. An attack in strength down this valley could represent a major danger for the Allies if it developed into a threat against Livorno.
From 22 December reports about the possibility of a major attack along this axis started to reached the Allies’ higher command levels, in which it was feared that von Vietinghoff-Scheel might commit a significant portion of his reserves in a last-ditch effort similar in concept, if not in size, to that just attempted by the Germans in ‘Wacht am Rhein’ toward Antwerp. The interrogation of prisoners from SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 16th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer-SS’, who spoke of a westward redeployment for such an attack, tended to confirm this possibility. The threat was too real to be ignored and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, of Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps within Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army, was ordered on 22 December to send two of its three brigades (its 17th Brigade remaining to cover the Polish flank on Monte della Volpe) with all possible speed westward into a reserve position in the Serchio river sector. Crittenberger instructed the Indian 8th Division’s brigades to deploy 4 miles (6.4 km) to the rear of the 92nd Division to provide support if the US troops had to fall back. The move went without incident except for the fact that the divisional headquarters was delayed by snow in extricating itself from the Apennines.
Brigadier T. S. Dobree’s Indian 19th Brigade deployed on 26 December and was joined by Brigadier B. S. Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade two days later. Truscott also ordered two infantry regiments of Major General John B. Coulter’s US 85th Division to back up the threatened sector, and additionally moved artillery, including some British medium guns, into range. The 92nd Division’s forward units were disposed across the valley of the Serchio river and on the higher ground either side, some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the south of Castelnuovo.
On 26 December the first stage of ‘Wintermärchen’ (iii) was committed on each side of the Serchio river and the US outposts were driven back, in some cases in disorder. On the eastern side of the river the defence broke and a reinforced German battalion quickly drove into the gap, with the result that the whole of the 92nd Division’s forward positions on each side of the river had been overrun by the afternoon of 26 December. Following up this success the Germans captured the second line of defences 24 hours later, by which time the units of the 92nd Division, now completely disorganised, were streaming back through the Indian 19th Brigade. By now the Indian 8th Division had assumed command of the sector, and after the fall of night on 27 December Indian patrols moved forward and were soon in contact with the Germans.
The Germans brought forward reinforcements the following day but meanwhile the Indian 8th Division had prepared its own counterattack for commitment under an umbrella of potent air support, and within another day the Indians had recaptured Barga and two days later all the ground which had been lost by the 92nd Division.
It subsequently transpired that rather more than five German battalions had been committed in the attack down the Serchio river valley. As a result, Truscott switched two of the 5th Army’s US divisions from the main battle area, Coulter’s 85th Division, with strong tank and artillery support, shifting to the area of Lucca as an immediate reserve, and on 28 December Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s 1st Armored Division being relocated into the same area.
Heavy snow was now falling in the mountains, and on 30 December the 5th Army’s attack on Bologna was called off and Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s Allied 15th Army Group passed over to the defensive.