Preparations for the Attack

Allied Decisions

THE WINTER LINE operations, lasting from 15 November 1943 to 15 January 1944, continued the Allied campaign to drive the Germans out of southern Italy. The underlying plan was to keep pressure on the enemy and, if possible, to break through toward Rome. Both the terrain and the season reduced the chances for effecting a breakthrough. By maintaining pressure, however, the Allies would prevent the Germans from, resting and refitting the tired and depleted divisions which they might hold as a mobile reserve for the close defense of Rome in the event of a new Allied landing on the west coast or for use in a possible counteroffensive in the opening months of 1944. Then too, the fighting in Italy had its effects on the over-all military situation in Europe. As long as the Germans were actively engaged on the Italian front, they would be forced to feed in men and supplies which would otherwise be available for the war in Russia or for strengthening their Atlantic Wall against an expected Allied invasion in 1944. Continuation of the Italian campaign was not in question; the problem was how best to carry it on.

The Allied effort was therefore maintained in an offensive planned to break the enemy's Winter Line, a series of well-prepared positions along the shortest possible line across the waist of Italy-from the Garigliano River on the west through mountains in the center to the Sangro River on the east. For the individual soldiers of the Fifth Army, the attack resolved itself into the familiar pattern of bitter fighting from hill to hill.

The Drive to the Winter Line

The Allied armies had reached the Winter Line as a result of operations which began early in September 1943 (Map No. 1, oppo-


Map No. 1: Allied Advance in Italy, 3 September-15 November 1943


site). On 3 September the British Eighth Army, under General (now Field Marshall) Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, began the drive up the toe of Italy. The U.S. Fifth Army, under Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, struck the main blow on 9 September by landing at Salerno. The German forces in the peninsula at that time were widely scattered, for the enemy high command could not be sure of our plan of attack and also had to safeguard rear lines of communications made uncertain by the Italian armistice. Confronted by these problems, the Germans managed to hold us below Naples until their troops could evacuate the south; thereafter they retreated up the boot of Italy, yielding the port of Naples and the airfields at Foggia but skillfully delaying us wherever the terrain favored a temporary stand. Their chief holding effort had been made on the Volturno River, which Fifth Army crossed successfully the night of 12/13 October. As the Germans resumed their forced withdrawal, the Eighth Army on the right and the Fifth Army on the left drove steadily forward.

Our push up the west coast, however, grew increasingly difficult as winter approached. The fall rains, which had begun early in October with unusual force, slowed down our advance. On the vital supply routes, flooded streams washed out temporary bridges, built hastily to take the place of the hundreds of spans blown by the enemy. Vehicles and men had to struggle through deep mud, and morale declined as rain continued to pour down from leaden skies. From the damaged port of Naples to forward units battling on precipitous hills, the entire supply chain creaked under the burdens imposed by demolitions and bad weather. Worst of all was the lack of reserve divisions, for without fresh troops to exploit a possible breakthrough Fifth Army had to rely on cautious tactics. The troops grew weary, and they had no hope of immediate relief.

Early in November the German XIV Panzer Corps, which had been holding on with barely enough troops to man the line, was strengthened by two divisions. At the same time our advance elements reached the outskirts of a strong line of fortifications on the Garigliano River and in the mountains to the northeast. Our momentum, already affected by weather, terrain, and supply problems, was first slowed and then stopped by the tenacious enemy defense in this area. The drive which began at Salerno came to a temporary halt by 15 November. It was time for the Allies to reorganize and consolidate their gains in preparation for an attack against the enemy's well-prepared positions.


Photo: Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark

Commanding General, Fifth Army, United States Army


Photo: Engineers spread rock...


At the Winter Line

By the end of October, German prisoners of war were talking vaguely about their Winterstellungen or winter positions, which were being prepared by reserves and forced civilian labor to the rear of their immediate front. In that month, on the basis of the successful delaying action in progress, the German high command apparently had decided that our forces could be held south of Rome for the winter. The enemy had therefore set about the construction of a defensive line from the Tyrrhenian Sea straight across to the Adriatic. Conflicting reports at first made it difficult to determine the exact course of this line, and the subsequent fighting showed that not one but two systems of fortifications awaited Fifth Army troops.


Photo: To prevent scenes like this


The main positions, making up the Gustav or Cassino Line, began at the Tyrrhenian coast, ran along the Garigliano River, then up the west bank of the Rapido River to the heights above Cassino (Map No. 2, page 6). Here the Germans planned to halt us definitely, but in front of Cassino, to protect the work of fortification and to gain time, they had constructed a system of temporary positions which eventually was called the Winter Line proper. Hinging on the Garigliano River ten miles from the sea, the system extended northeast through the hills barring access to the Rapido Valley into the high Apennines where neither side could operate in force. Though this forward line was planned only to delay us, the success of the enemy in stopping our advance units at its approaches in the first part



Map No. 2: Winter Line Terrain


of November led to a decision to hold it as long as possible before falling back to the main defenses. However temporary in original plan, the Winter Line presented a formidable barrier to General Clark's army. It was a succession of interlocked defenses in depth, and no single key position presented an opportunity for a brilliant stroke that could break the entire system. Each mountain had to be taken, each valley cleared, and then there were more mountains ahead and still another main defense line to be broken.

In Eighth Army's zone, what was called the Winter Line was not a series of strong forward positions but the main belt of defenses on which the Germans planned to hold after mid-November. The Sangro River, from its mountain headwaters to the Adriatic, served as a natural barrier in front of this system.

During the period up to mid-November, Fifth Army had delivered the main attack in the Italian campaign and had, as a result, drawn against itself the bulk of the enemy forces. If the weight of Allied effort were suddenly shifted now to Eighth Army on the east coast, there was a chance to surprise the enemy; upon this chance the plans of General (now Field Marshal) Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, commanding 15th Army Group, were based. Fifth Army was ordered to halt and to reorganize in preparation for an attack about 30 November; Eighth Army was meanwhile to begin an attack up the east coast toward Ortona. On reaching this area, Eighth Army was to swing west on Highway No. 5 toward Rome; this threat to the rear of the main German forces engaged by Fifth Army might compel the enemy to pull back well north of Rome. Eighth Army, in accordance with these plans, began to regroup its forces for an attack through the Winter Line on the lower Sangro River and jumped off on the night of 19/20 November. It was immediately engaged in heavy fighting by the enemy, who contested every yard of the hills overlooking the river.

Shortly after Eighth Army began its part of the operation, Fifth Army moved forward to break the Winter Line south of the Apennines. Plans for this attack had been under way since October and had been frequently changed, but they all revolved about the necessity of smashing through the forward defenses of the enemy so as to place our troops at the entrance of the Liri Valley. Rome would thus be threatened from the South by General Clark's forces and from the east by Eighth Army.


Fifth Army's Problem

Less than eight miles in front of the center of Fifth Army lay the beginning of the Liri Valley, the "gateway to Rome" and the ultimate objective of the coming attack. The gateway, however, has all the defensive advantages that nature can bestow. To the south, it is flanked by steep mountains which border the western side of the Garigliano River all the way from the sea to the bend of that river into the Liri Valley. Near the Garigliano mouth, a flood-plain five miles wide lies on the eastern side of the stream; attack across this plain, toward dominating hills behind a river barrier, would be exceedingly difficult.

Near the center of Fifth Army's sector the terrain presented opportunities and problems of a different order (Map No. 3, page 9). Leaving the Volturno plains, Highway No. 6 follows a natural corridor through the north-south mountain barrier. Near Mignano the corridor narrows to a mile-wide gap, six to seven hundred feet above sea level. South of it lies the hill mass of Mount Camino, about three thousand feet high; even higher ridges tower to the north. just beyond the Mignano Gap, as the valley begins to widen out again toward the Rapido River plain, two small but prominent hills lie athwart the corridor. Rising six hundred feet above the valley floor, Mount Rotondo and Mount Lungo resemble natural "stoppers" obstructing exit from the mountains. As a final hurdle, troops attempting to debouch into the Rapido Valley would find themselves facing two isolated hills, Mount Porchia (850 feet) and Mount Trocchio (1,400 feet), which lie directly on the approach to Cassino and flank the plain leading across the Rapido River into the Liri Valley.

On the right flank of Fifth Army a wedge of rough mountain upland widens north from Mount Sammucro to the main ridge of the Apennines, effectively protecting the approach to the Liri Valley from the north, via the Rapido Valley. Dominated by peaks nearing the four thousand foot level, this region of bare knobs and brush-covered swells is scantily inhabited and poorly provided with natural routes of advance. Only two roads, one from Filignano to Sant' Elia and the other from Colli to Atina, penetrate the desolate country. Both roads are narrow and tortuous and are dominated everywhere by the hills.

Along the whole Fifth Army front, German engineers made very skillful use of terrain and fortifications to hold our forces back. They laid mines on the roads and trails, at the heads of gullies, and in the



Map No. 3: Area of the Fifth Army Offensive


Photo: Mignano Gap

MIGNANO GAP was one of the few breaks in the natural defenses sup-
porting the Winter Line. The flanking positions on both sides of the corridor
had been strongly manned since early November in expectation of Allied

natural cross-country approaches. All bridges and culverts were destroyed, and sites for bypasses were mined. Machine-gun and mortar emplacements, many of them dug four or five feet into solid rock, covered nearly every path. Not even intense artillery concentrations could smash these positions. On the slopes of mountains, behind stream beds, and across narrow valleys, dozens of mutually supporting machine guns were sited to weave a deadly pattern of cross fire. As a result of these defenses, small forces of the enemy could hold the gullies, draws, and difficult trails that led into the mountains, even in the face of strong attacks.

Where terrain features were not sufficient barriers to military movement, the Germans constructed strongpoints, especially in the relatively flat land of the Mignano Gap. Fifteen hundred yards northwest of Mignano, for example, a minefield guarded an important trail


north of a creek bed. Beyond the mines was first a belt of concertina wire, fifty to seventy-five feet deep, then log-and-earth bunkers, which provided cover for riflemen and served as blocks against armor. This strongpoint, hastily prepared in October or early November, was well supported by machine guns emplaced on the slopes of neighboring heights. Although only about five hundred yards long, it covered one of the few open spaces in the valley. The Winter Line depended primarily on defenses of this type. Concrete and steel pillboxes were not met by our troops until they had driven to the Gustav Line.

Although the Germans' main concern was to control the dominating mountains in the path of the Fifth Army, they also used the few small towns on the mountain slopes for organized defense and delaying tactics. The Italian houses, built of solid masonry, could be transformed into effective strongpoints, forcing us in many cases to reduce by artillery fire or by street fighting a town which otherwise might have been bypassed. Demolitions, mines, and booby traps were used to full effect in delaying tactics afforded by the village fortresses.

Photo: The Mountains Facing VI Corps

THE MOUNTAINS FACING VI CORPS stretch some sixteen miles between
the upper Volturno and the upper Rapido valleys.


Photo: Express Highway

''EXPRESS HIGHWAY" near Mignano runs generally parallel to Highway 6.
American engineers ripped up the tracks of the railroad made useless by
demolitions and transformed the stone bed into a supply route to the front.

Enemy howitzers and long-range guns, often self-propelled and well defiladed behind protecting crests, could reach nearly every area held by the Allied troops. The trails and roads they had to use, bivouac sites, and the front lines were all subjected to harassing fires. Peaks, such as Camino and Sammucro, provided posts from which enemy forward observers could see every movement made by our forces in daylight. Rain, snow, and fog limited visibility much of the time, but still most of our movements had to take place under cover of darkness. Behind the mountain barrier, on the other hand, the Germans could supply their troops with relative ease and could maneuver almost at will to reinforce the comparatively small detachments that manned individual defenses.

After 18 November, Fifth Army was made up of three corps. British 10 Corps, with the 46 and 56 Divisions, controlled the high ground east of the Garigliano Valley for a distance of fifteen miles from the sea; then the British line left the valley and skirted the eastern edge of the imposing Camino hill mass, meeting the U. S. 11 Corps sector just south of Mignano. II Corps, composed of the 3d


and 36th Divisions, held a five-mile front across the corridor followed by Highway No. 6 on its way toward Cassino. Starting at the lower slopes on the shoulder of the Camino mountains, the corps positions neared the foot of Mount Lungo, then crossed the highway to include Mount Rotondo and Cannavinelle Hill. VI Corps' sector, with nearly fifteen miles of front, started at the low saddle connecting Cannavinelle with Mount Sammucro. Beyond, the 45th Division held hard-won positions along the eastern slopes of Sammucro and on high ground above Venafro. North of Pozzilli, the 34th Division's outposts lay in rough upland along the Pozzilli road and north to the army boundary near Castel San Vincenzo (chart, page 116).

Fifth Army was opposed by five enemy divisions, under XIV Panzer Corps. The 94th Infantry Division held the enemy right flank facing British 10 Corps along the Garigliano; the 15th Panzer Grenadier

Photo: The Upper Volturno Valley

THE UPPER VOLTURNO VALLEY was cleared of enemy troops by VI
Corps, before 15 November. While German rearguards carried out delaying
actions, main forces had been strengthening defenses in these mountains.


Division held the sector on the left of the 94th to within a mile of Mignano; the zone between Mignano and Venafro was occupied after 17 November by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. From Venafro to Filignano the line was held at the end of November by the 44th Grenadier Division; and the enemy's left flank, from Filignano on into the Eighth Army zone, was defended by the 305th Grenadier Division. After the Allied offensive began early in December, the enemy reinforced his line, first by elements of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division at the Mignano Gap and then in the middle of the month by units of the 5th Mountain Division west of Filignano. Though our offensive wore down several units to remnants of their former strength, the Germans resisted bitterly under direct orders from the Führer to hold their ground.

The Fifth Army attack orders divided the operation into three phases. The first was a blow on the left of the Mignano Gap to capture the Camino hill mass; then would come a thrust at the Sammucro heights on the right of the Gap, supported by a simultaneous penetration along the two east-west roads on the north flank; and in the third phase the main attack was to drive into the Liri Valley. British 10 Corps on the left flank was to capture part of the Camino feature during the first phase, as well as to make a feint along the lower Garigliano River. U. S. II Corps was to carry out the offensive in the Mignano Gap sector. VI Corps had the task of pushing through the mountains toward Sant' Elia and Atina, with the high ground north and northwest of Cassino as its ultimate objective. Plans had also been laid for the introduction of French troops into the Italian theater. The 2d Moroccan Infantry Division arrived at Naples by I December, and the 3d Algerian Infantry Division was scheduled to arrive at the end of the month. Both divisions had been trained in mountain fighting, and both were eager to vindicate the old glory of French arms. With the addition of these two divisions and the U. S. 1st Armored Division, which came to Italy in November, Fifth Army would have nine divisions for the grueling drive which lay ahead.


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