Sunday, January 23, 2011

The First Battle of Monte Cassino, 17 January-11 February 1944

Battle of the Week 2011-03

By January 1944, Allied troops had been slogging their way up the boot of Italy for four months. They had already broken through two of the three German defensive lines across the peninsula, and now stood poised to begin their assault on the third and strongest, the Gustav Line.
But the Allies in Italy were exhausted from their efforts. Four months on the move, facing stubborn German resistance, had taken their toll: the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, the National Guard "T-Patchers" from Texas, went into the battle severely understrength--and more than 1,100 of its officers and men were green recruits who had just joined the division during a two-week rest out of the line.

But key to a successful offensive is an army's ability to keep pressure on its enemy, so back into the fight the 36th had to go. The next phase of the liberation of Italy was to be a two-pronged attack: two divisions of the Fifth Army were to make an amphibious landing at Anzio, above the Gustav Line, and drive toward Rome, while the remainder attacked the defenses directly to keep the Germans from repositioning forces to the north and driving the Anzio divisions back into the Mediterranean. It was an ambitious plan, and a risky one, but it carried at least a reasonable chance of success.

The attack was to happen in three phases: first, the British X Corps would cross the Garigliano River on the 17th of January and seize the high ground above the Rapido (Rah-PEE-do) river to protect the Americans' left flank as they crossed. The American II Corps, led by the 36th Infantry Division, was then to cross the Rapido and occupy the high ground beyond the town of Cassino. These two assaults were to attract German reserves from Rome and Anzio, clearing the way for the landings. The Gustav Line breached, the Fifth Army would then march on Rome from Anzio and the Cassino area simultaneously.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. The British attack kicked off on the 17th as scheduled, surprising the Germans and making significant progress the first night. But by the 19th, the Germans had moved two armored divisions to the area to block the Allied advance and the attack stalled.

The T-Patchers were supposed to begin their attack across the Rapido on the night of the 20th. But the Brits were supposed to be on their left, securing their flank, and they weren't. What's more, the engineers couldn't bring the boats they had assembled for the crossing any closer to the river than two miles because the Germans covered the entire river valley with observation and artillery fire. The already-exhausted infantrymen would have to carry them the rest of the way themselves.

Of course, after they got the boats to the river, they then had to get them across the river, assemble, and begin the long climb to their objectives. If you've ever hiked in the mountains, you can appreciate the challenge of a good climb--but imagine making that climb through barbed-wire obstacles and minefields, loaded down with 50 pounds of gear or more, all while machine guns dug in above you pour fire down at you and observers higher up direct artillery down on your head. The outcome of the Rapido River assault was entirely predictable, and it met the predicted outcome so thoroughly that after two days of fighting, the battered T-Patchers had to withdraw. Their enemies, unaware they had just beaten back a major offensive, reported to their superiors that the Allies had conducted a reconnaissance in force across the river and inflicted minimal casualties.

The attack continued for three more weeks, the 36th Division replaced on the line by the 34th, but in the end the Americans couldn't penetrate the Gustav line and the battle ground to a halt. In all, the Allies fought four battles over the same ground in their attempt to breach the Gustav line, finally managing to push north by the end of May.

It's likely the operations on the Gustav Line had a positive impact on the outcome of the war: after all, they ultimately resulted in the liberation and conversion of Italy, and they certainly forced the Germans to commit troops to the peninsula they might otherwise have moved to France to resist the Allied invasion there. But the men of the T-Patch division had to swallow the reality that their attack, for all the blood and sweat they had spent and all the friends they had left in that bloody river valley, had accomplished nothing.

See you next week!

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