DIADEM's First Day--11 May
Behind the German Front
An atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed on the German side of the front. Although German commanders reminded one another daily that an Allied attack could begin at any time, they had no specific information, as was evident from the absence of most senior officers from the front when the offensive began. Only a few hours before it started, General von Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, left for Germany to receive a decoration for valor from the hands of his Fuehrer. About the same time, the chief of staff of the XIV Panzer Corps departed for a week's home leave. Two weeks earlier Generalmajor Siegfried Westphal, Field Marshal Kesselring's ailing chief of staff, had gone to Germany on convalescent leave; and General von Senger, the panzer corps commander, was still away on a 30-day home leave that had begun in mid-April. Thus the Allied offensive was destined to strike a corps occupying a critical sector without its regular commander and chief of staff, an army minus its commanding general, and an army group without its chief of staff, an extraordinary situation.1
For the Germans the daylight hours on 11 May passed uneventfully; no
The Battle for Monte Cassino
12 May 1944
prisoners were taken and Allied artillery fire was sporadic, as it had been for several days. Heavy motor movements in the Eighth Army's rear opposite the Tenth Army's left wing only
MONTE CASSINO (Allied view).
confirmed the belief that the Allies had yet to complete preparations for their offensive.
Monte Cassino and the Rapido
An hour before midnight on 11 May the massed artillery of two Allied armies--1,060 guns on the Eighth Army front and 600 on the Fifth Army's--opened fire from Cassino to the Tyrrhenian Sea. On the Fifth Army front beyond the lower reaches of the Garigliano the infantry divisions of the U.S. II Corps and of the French Expeditionary Corps began moving up the slopes of the hills leading to their objectives. Three-quarters of an hour later the Eighth Army opened its attack as the British 13 Corps moved toward preselected crossing sites on the Rapido River. At 0100, two hours after the Fifth Army had begun to move, the Polish 2 Corps attacked enemy positions on Monte Cassino. (Map 1)
In the early hours of the offensive the two Polish divisions--the 3d Carpathian and the 5th Kresowa--fought their separate ways across Monte Cassino's rocky flanks to capture two features: "The Phantom Ridge," some
1,800 yards northwest of the abbey, and Point 593, high ground about 1,000 yards northwest of the abbey. But the Germans, well-entrenched and long familiar with the ground, quickly recovered from the preparatory artillery bombardment to inflict heavy casualties on the Polish troops. After daybreak exposed the attackers to enemy gunners, losses became so severe that the Poles were unable to withstand a series of counterattacks that began shortly after daylight. At 1400 on the 12th, General Anders, the corps commander, ordered his troops to withdraw during the night under cover of darkness to their line of departure northeast of Monte Cassino. Almost half of their number had been killed or wounded.2
Making the main attack in the valley below, General Kirkman's 13 Corps fought on through the night to establish a bridgehead beyond the fog-shrouded Rapido. General Kirkman had planned to establish a bridgehead west of the Rapido with the British 4th Division on the right and the 8th Indian Division on the left. After consolidating a position beyond the Rapido, the 4th Division was to swing to the northwest to effect a junction with the Polish corps on Highway 6 at a point about three miles west of Cassino. On the left, the Indians were, after securing their bridgehead, to clear the so-called Liri Appendix, the tongue of land between the Rapido and Liri Rivers, then exploit northwestward to the Hitler Line. The 78th Division, in corps reserve, was to be prepared either to cover the Indian division's left flank or to exploit through one of the assault divisions. Until the infantry had broken through the enemy's first line of defense, the Gustav Line, the armor (the 6th Armoured Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, on whose superior numbers and firepower British commanders had placed great reliance) could be used only for fire support.
At 2345, as the two infantry divisions launched their assault boats, the river's swift current swept many downstream and capsized others. Enemy automatic weapons fire, slashing through the dense smoke and fog, caused numerous casualties and made control difficult. Fortunately the earlier counterbattery fire had done its work well, for the assault troops encountered little enemy artillery fire at the crossing sites. Even so, by daybreak the corps had secured only a shallow bridgehead.
Although the engineers began work on bridges as soon as the infantry had reached the far bank, the 4th Division's bridgehead was too shallow to give the engineers the necessary cover from enemy small arms fire, and at first light the work was abandoned. In the 8th Indian Division's sector, however, engineers managed to complete two pontoon bridges by morning. With these in place, the Indians rushed reinforcements across to expand their bridgehead by late afternoon into the village of Sant'Angelo in Tiodice, about two miles south of Cassino.
The 13 Corps' gains by nightfall on the 12th were, nevertheless, disappointing. Only about half of the objectives set for the offensive's first two hours were in Allied hands. Yet something had been achieved. For the first time
TERRAIN FACING THE U.S. II CORPS. Santa Maria Infante (lower left), Pulcherina (center, foreground), and Monte Fammera (background).
the Allies had succeeded in placing two vehicular bridges across the Rapido.3
Santa Maria Infante and the S-Ridge
Unlike the Eighth Army, the Fifth Army, in DIADEM's first hours, had no deep and swift-flowing river to cross nor, except in the French sector, high mountains to scale. Instead, the Americans would launch their phase of the Allied offensive from assembly areas on the reverse slopes of a range of hills paralleling the Garigliano River some two to three miles to the west. The French would actually have the advantage of attacking from mountain positions west of the river that overlooked the German lines. For this favorable state of affairs the Fifth Army was indebted to the success of the British divisions of the 10 Corps, which, in the previous January, had established a bridgehead beyond the Garigliano extending from Monte Juga in the bend of the river southwest to Minturno, about five miles away.
By evening of 11 May the American
assault units had moved into their assembly areas between the towns of Minturno and Tremonsuoli, a mile and a half to the west. An overcast obscured the stars, and fog drifted through the narrow valleys. All was in readiness. It was, noted the 88th Division's G-3, "a quiet night, nothing special to report."4
Holding the 88th Division's objectives were the right flank regiment of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke's 71st Light Infantry Division and the left flank regiment of Generalmajor Bernhard Steinmetz's 94th Infantry Division. The 88th Division's attack would thus strike the enemy along an interdivisional boundary, usually a weak point in the front.5
Not only would the enemy be hit at a vulnerable point, but the II Corps' attack would be backed up by massive artillery support. In addition to organic artillery, the 85th and 88th Divisions would be supported by the 6th, 36th, and 77th Field Artillery Groups, controlling a total of nine firing battalions.6
Corps artillery also was to execute counterbattery missions and harassing and interdiction fire. The 36th Division artillery with more than three battalions was to fire in direct support of the 85th Division, and the 6th Field Artillery Group, with two battalions, in direct support of the 88th Division.
In comparison, the Germans had about three battalions of light artillery in the Ausonia corridor west of the village of Santa Maria Infante and Monte Bracchi, a mile to the northeast; three battalions of light and a battalion of medium artillery in the Formia corridor astride the coastal highway; several batteries of dual-purpose 88-mm. guns near Itri and along the Itri-Sperlonga road--an equivalent total of six battalions of light and one battalion each of medium and heavy artillery. The enemy also had numerous self-propelled light caliber guns and not more than six rocket projectors.7
To counter fire from the enemy's long-range 170-mm. guns, corps artillery, during the night of 10 May, moved a 155-mm. gun battery and a single 240-mm. howitzer across the Garigliano River and into prepared positions within 1,500 yards of the front. Throughout the 11th a heavy smoke screen concealed these new positions from enemy observation. When the Americans began the preliminary bombardment that night they were able to bring the 170-mm. guns under effective counterbattery fire, and so the enemy's heavy artillery was silent on the first day of the offensive.8
From H-hour, or until the assault troops closed with the enemy, the sixteen American battalions of light artillery were to fire on German frontline positions. Thereafter the fire was to shift to enemy command posts, reserves, and supply routes. Although the greater weight of artillery fire support
Attack on Santa Maria Infante
11-12 May 1944
available to Fifth Army had been assigned to the FEC, the II Corps would have, in addition to the fire support already described, considerable help available from 11 to 16 May from an offshore cruiser firing against previously located targets.9
As the American infantry began to advance toward the 94th Infantry Division's positions, the American artillery hammered the German front for an hour. Shells interrupted enemy communications, but had little effect on the German infantry, deeply dug in.
Making the main effort of the 88th Division and, in effect, the main effort of the II Corps, the 351st Infantry, commanded by Col. Arthur S. Champeny, moved toward the village of Santa Maria Infante. After taking the village and the adjacent high ground, the regiment was to attack across the Ausonia road and mount the Petrella escarpment. The 349th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Joseph B. Crawford, was to support this attack by taking Monte Bracchi, overlooking Santa Maria Infante a mile to the northeast. Col. James C. Fry's 350th Infantry on the right was to take Monte SS Cosma e Damian,10 a small hill mass just west of the town of Castelforte, to advance and occupy Monte Rotondo and Monte Cerri, about one and two miles, respectively, to the northwest, in order to protect the division flank. (Map II)
For men of the 350th Infantry ascending the slopes of Monte Ciannelli, one of the several hills making up Monte Damiano, resistance was at first surprisingly light; but forty-five minutes after the attack began, when the leading battalion sought to continue beyond Monte Cianelli, heavy fire erupted from the village of Ventosa on the northern slope of the hill. It took repeated attacks, plus commitment of the battalion reserve company, to gain Ventosa by dawn.
On the left, the 350th Infantry's 2d Battalion moved northward against Hill 316, another summit in the Monte Damiano hill mass. Shortly alter midnight, when machine gun fire stopped one of Company F's platoons, the platoon leader, S. Sgt. Charles W. Shea, continued forward alone to attack the enemy guns. Crawling up to one gun, he tossed grenades into the position, forcing four enemy soldiers to surrender, and then attacked a second, capturing its two-man crew. Though a third gun took him under fire, he rushed it as well and killed all three Germans in the position. With these guns silenced, the 2d Battalion's attack gathered momentum and soon reached the summit of Mount Damiano.11
Just before daylight the right flank regiment of Raapke's 71st Division launched a company-sized counterattack against the 2d Battalion on Monte Damiano's southern slope, but the American infantrymen held their ground. Since the 88th Division's commander, General Sloan, was anxious to avoid exposing his right flank, he ordered Colonel Fry to halt his men on Monte Damiano until the French could take the high ground north of Castelforte.
Within thirteen hours after the beginning of the offensive, Fry's regiment had captured its first objective at a cost of two men killed and 55 wounded. This baptism of fire would prove to be the only real success along the entire II Corps front during the first twenty-four hours of the offensive.
Nowhere across the American front on that first day would the agonizing adjustment of a new and untried division to the challenge of combat be more vividly illustrated than in the experience of men of the 351st Infantry as they attacked a well-entrenched battalion of the 94th Infantry Division astride the road leading from Minturno to the regimental objective of Santa Maria Infante. At his headquarters in Minturno, the regimental commander, Colonel Champeny, had erected a sand table model of the terrain in order to familiarize his men with the ground over which they would soon fight. All unit commanders had reconnoitered the area from the air and from well-sited observation points along the regimental front. One platoon leader commented that "never had an infantry outfit a better chance to study thoroughly the plan and terrain before an attack."12
Although Champeny's patrols had probed the enemy's outposts nightly, the infantrymen actually knew considerably less about the disposition and strength of the German defenses than they did about the terrain. They had located several automatic weapons emplacements, mine fields, and barbed wire obstacles but still lacked an accurate picture of the German positions. Possibly overoptimistic, Champeny expected to capture Santa Maria Infante within two hours after the attack began. He directed his supply officer to be prepared to feed the men a hot breakfast in the village before they continued the advance toward the Petrella escarpment.
Colonel Champeny selected the 2d Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Raymond E. Kendall, to lead the attack, while the 3d Battalion advanced in echelon to the right rear, and the 1st remained in reserve. From an assembly area south of the cemetery about half a mile northwest of Minturno, Colonel Kendall planned to advance with two companies abreast. One company would move along each side of the main road that leads from Minturno via Santa Maria Infante to the road running through the Ausonia corridor from the coastal highway to Ausonia, where the corridor narrows to a mile and a half defile bearing that name. The two companies were first to occupy twin knobs (wistfully dubbed "Tits" by the infantrymen) which flanked the road about 350 yards beyond the line of departure, then to continue astride the road into Santa Maria Infante.
The road ran along the crest of a ridge some 125 yards wide connecting the base of a triangular wedge of hills just south of the Ausonia defile with an apex at Monte Bracchi. From an S-curve near the cemetery the road wound along the ridge for almost a mile until it reached the southern outskirts of Santa Maria Infante, where it forked. The right fork led northeast to a dead end at the village of Pulcherini, perched high up the slope of Monte
Bracchi, while the left fork wound through the hamlet of Tame, a cluster of houses about 400 yards west of Santa Maria Infante, and thence to a junction with the road running through the Ausonia corridor northward from the coast to Ausonia.
Many spurs cutting the flanks of the ridge provided the enemy with excellent defensive positions against frontal attack. On one of the spurs, 700 yards southeast of Santa Maria Infante and overlooking a sunken road that traversed the slope, the Germans had developed a strongpoint, in a group of stone cottages, of well-sited and camouflaged machine guns and mortars--unfortunately not known to Champeny's men. In the early hours of the attack that position proved a formidable and deadly challenge to the untried infantrymen.
About 2230 the two assault companies, their movement masked by the roar of supporting artillery fire, moved beyond the Minturno cemetery toward positions immediately in front of the Tits. As the men advanced they laid white tape to help maintain contact in the darkness. Apparently anticipating a short operation, many of the men discarded their combat packs along the way.
Company F on the left, commanded by Capt. Carl W. Nelson, ran into its first obstacle just beyond the cemetery; a string of concertina wire blocked the way. Since the supporting artillery still kept the Germans under cover, it was a simple matter to cut the wire and continue to the base of the left Tit. There the company halted to await completion of the artillery preparation. Hardly had the friendly fires ceased when the leading platoons came under heavy small arms fire from an S-shaped ridge off to their left in the zone of the neighboring 85th Division. Caught in the open under intense fire for the first time, the company quickly dispersed into small one- or two-squad groups.
Within thirty minutes after the jump-off, Company F's attack had degenerated into a series of poorly co-ordinated platoon and squad actions. One after another of the platoon radios broke down, the leaders lost contact with their men, and darkness and fog shrouded the battlefield in a blanket of confusion that even bravery and good intentions were unable to penetrate. Early in the attack Captain Nelson lost communication with his battalion commander and, aside from his command group, had contact at that point with only one squad. At dawn he finally regained control of his support and weapons platoons, as well as an attached heavy machine gun platoon. That part of Company F not in touch with Nelson separated into three small isolated groups, each independently and fruitlessly seeking to press the attack.
Moving forward at a trot, one group of approximately twenty men led by S. Sgt. Peter Pyenta soon encountered more barbed wire. As the men tried to bypass it, fire from automatic weapons emplaced west of the ridge road cut down half the group. Fighting back with rifles and hand grenades, the survivors managed to silence the enemy guns, but with only nine men left and no information available concerning the rest of the company, Sergeant Pyenta withdrew his men to a point about 150 yards north of the Minturno cemetery.
1st Lt. Jack L. Panich, a platoon
leader, fared little better. Having lost control of all but one of his squads, he continued to press forward west of the road until he came upon T. Sgt. Robert A. Casey, another platoon leader, who also had lost contact with most of his men. Consolidating their small forces, Panich and Casey, with about ten men between them, continued to climb the slope of the ridge behind a stone wall that shielded them from machine gun fire coming from the crest. Spotting two of the enemy guns, most of the men took shelter in a large shell crater in order to provide covering fire while Lieutenant Panich along with four men crawled toward the guns. Reaching an open communications trench, apparently connecting the machine gun positions with the crews' sleeping quarters, Panich and his men hurled grenades until their supply was exhausted.
Still the German guns fired. The engagement was at an impasse until Panich, learning that Casey (in command of the covering force) had been wounded, was prompted to withdraw. Leading his own and Sergeant Casey's men toward the rear, the Lieutenant came upon Sergeant Pyenta and his small group near the cemetery. They joined forces, and, carrying their wounded, both groups withdrew to the company's former assembly area behind the cemetery.
A third group led by 1st Sgt. Paul N. Eddy came under several short rounds of supporting artillery fire and ran into brief fire fights with individual enemy skirmishers along the road, but continued to advance until halted by machine gun fire, apparently from the same guns that had stopped the other two groups. Failing to silence the guns with rifle grenades, the infantrymen dug in. There they vainly awaited reinforcements until night came again on the 12th, when they too withdrew to the vicinity of the cemetery.
Captain Nelson, with about 100 men he had assembled, had, in the meantime, managed to slip through the enemy's defenses west of the road more by accident than design. Screened by a stone terrace on the west slope of the ridge, Nelson and his men continued to move forward, despite brief delays occasioned by machine gun and mortar fire. Nelson himself knocked out one machine gun position with a rifle grenade, and his men captured two mortars and overran fifteen half-dressed enemy soldiers in their dugouts. By dawn of the 12th, Nelson's small force had reached Tame, the cluster of houses about 400 yards west of Santa Maria Infante. There Nelson and his men established a strongpoint based on a culvert under the main road leading from Minturno to the Ausonia corridor.
Company E experienced similar confusion and dispersion while advancing on the right of the road leading into Santa Maria Infante from Minturno. Two of the company's platoons, followed by Colonel Kendall, the battalion commander, and his command group, climbed the forward slope at the right Tit and occupied the crest against short-lived resistance. The platoon on the right advanced rapidly through grain fields for about 150 yards to the sunken road traversing the slope of one of the spurs cutting the flank of the ridge. Crossing the road, the infantrymen deployed as skirmishers and assaulted over the crest of the spur; but machine gun fire from both flanks drove them back to the shelter of the sunken road.
On the left two squads of the other platoon, which had lagged behind, also sprinted forward and gained the sunken road. Moving cautiously, the two squads continued to within seventy-five yards of a house near the crest of the spur, when a machine gun opened fire from the house and forced them to halt.
The third squad, separated from the rest of the platoon, ran into mortar fire on the forward slope of the Tit. The men took cover until Capt. Robert K. Carlstone, the Company E commander, arrived and urged them forward. Although wounded by a shell burst shortly after his arrival, Carlstone refused evacuation until he could arrange for supporting artillery fire and turn the company over to the weapons platoon leader, 1st Lt. Harold V. McSwain.
As McSwain assumed command of Company E, Colonel Kendall, disturbed at the company's lack of progress, arrived on the forward slope of the right Tit. Striding upright among men who were crouching behind any shelter they could find, Colonel Kendall prodded a few of them good-naturedly with his swagger stick. "Come on, you bastards," he called out, "you'll never get to Rome this way!"13 The very presence of Kendall--a tall, strapping figure--was enough to get the men moving again. Calling for more artillery fire on the crest of the spur, Kendall ordered his reserve company forward to join Company E.
Taking over direction of the attack, Lieutenant McSwain led Company E's support platoon to the sunken road, where he established contact with the platoon about 150 yards to his left. But after a survey revealed a confused situation, he decided to reorganize his force before continuing. As the men waited under the intermittent glare of enemy flares, and as mortar fire and grenades shattered the ground around them, the moon broke through the overcast to illuminate the hillside with a pale light.
Learning that the attack had stalled, Colonel Kendall this time personally took command of the company. After requesting tanks to support the 2d Platoon advance along the main road, he himself led the 1st Platoon against the enemy's positions, apparently based upon houses on the crest of the spur.
As the lead squad of the 1st Platoon clambered over a stone wall and started to move toward the westernmost of the three houses, machine gun fire cut down all but three of the twelve men. The three survivors scrambled back to the sunken road. At the same time a second squad led by Kendall plodded up the slope toward the second house, the men firing as they advanced. Kendall successively fired every weapon he could lay his hands on--a carbine, an M1, and a bazooka. When his third bazooka rocket struck the house, he urged two of his men to charge the position. But again a machine gun opened fire, apparently from the house. Both men scrambled for cover.
At that point Kendall, calling on the rest of his men to follow, dashed forward. He personally destroyed the enemy gun and killed two of its crew while the survivors fled across the crest of the hill. As Kendall paused for a moment to hurl a grenade into the position, another enemy machine gun
opened fire. Kendall fell mortally wounded, but as he did so he clutched the grenade to his body to prevent it from harming his companions. Kendall was dead, but the survivors of the 1st Platoon and a few men from the 2d and 3d Platoons at last had a precarious foothold on the spur.14
When word of the battalion commander's death reached Maj. Edwin Shull, the battalion executive officer, he assumed command and also moved forward to where most of Company E was dug in above and below the sunken road. After trying in vain to get the men moving again, Major Shull called for additional artillery fire on the objective and waited for new instructions from the regimental commander.
Since the attack had opened up, Company E had lost 89 men killed or wounded, roughly half of its starting strength. One enemy machine gun on the spur had been destroyed, but the accurate fire of about nine others still kept most of the men huddled in the cover of the sunken road.
The tank support requested by Kendall failed to arrive until 0300, when a platoon of five mediums from Company C of the supporting 760th Tank Battalion reached Company E's left flank. After a mine disabled the lead tank, the column halted behind the left Tit. An attempt to get the tanks moving again failed when the second tank also struck a mine. A third effort to get the tanks forward came to naught when another mine disabled yet a third tank. At 0500 Champeny requested division headquarters to send him another platoon of tanks.
Until the additional armor arrived, Colonel Champeny ordered Company G (2d Battalion's reserve), assembling behind the right Tit in response to Kendall's earlier order, to reinforce Company E. Although Company E commander, 1st Lt. Theodore W. Noon, Jr., led his men as far as the sunken road, when they tried to storm the enemy positions beyond, machine gun fire from the westernmost house on the spur brought them to a halt.
Lieutenant Noon nevertheless rallied his men and returned to the assault. With one platoon he sought to envelop the enemy from the left, but even though his men advanced to within thirty yards of the house, they too were forced to fall back to the sunken road. Noon then tried to knock out the gun himself. With two of his men providing covering fire, he rushed the house. Hurling grenades and firing his pistol point-blank at the enemy position, Lieutenant Noon destroyed the gun, but not before the two men covering him were killed. Noon then withdrew to the sunken road.15
As daylight neared it was evident that the 351st Infantry's attack had failed to make significant headway toward Santa Maria Infante. About ninety men from Company F were on the outskirts of Tame but were confined to a small perimeter around the culvert and posed no serious threat to the Germans. Except for that group none of Champeny's units had been able to breach the defenses astride the Minturno road. Shortly before daybreak, to get the
stalled attack under way, Colonel Champeny ordered his reserve battalion (commanded by Maj. Charles P. Furr) to move along the west side of the Minturno road, pass through Company F, and envelop Santa Maria Infante from the left.
With Company K leading, Major Furr's battalion advanced beyond the left Tit, but there it came to a halt in the face of ubiquitous German machine gun fire. Furr then ordered Company I to swing further to the left in an effort to envelop the German defenses. He ordered Company K to regroup and support the envelopment with a renewed frontal assault.
Informed that elements of the 85th Division on his left had by that time occupied the S-Ridge, Major Furr anticipated little difficulty from that direction. Yet hardly had Company I begun its maneuver when the tragic inaccuracy of the information became apparent. Machine guns from the S-Ridge joined with guns to the front, as well as a bypassed machine gun somewhere along the road to the battalion's right rear, to strike Furr's companies from three directions. Again the attack ground to a halt.
The regimental commander realized at that point that until the enemy's positions on the S-Ridge were destroyed, any attempt to envelop the German defenses from the left was doomed to failure. The nature of the terrain and divisional boundaries precluded a wider envelopment maneuver from the left; therefore when Colonel Champeny asked permission to divert his attack to take the crest of S-Ridge his request was denied. A staff officer at division headquarters assured him that the 338th Infantry of the neighboring 85th Division would soon take the ridge. Unfortunately that regiment was having as much difficulty on the slopes of the S-Ridge as was the 351st before Santa Maria Infante.
At that point Champeny called on his attached tank company to help smash a way up the Minturno road. Working throughout the rest of the night, the regimental mine platoon by daylight had succeeded in clearing the road to a point just beyond the Tits. Around noon a second platoon of five tanks, advancing along the road, destroyed two machine gun positions, but when the tanks tried to continue their advance, concealed antitank guns, firing from the outskirts of Santa Maria Infante, knocked out three and forced the others to withdraw behind the Tits. Several hours later a third platoon of tanks also attempted to force its way further along the road, only to encounter a similar fate. Concentrated fire by the guns of the 913th Field Artillery Battalion on the suspected location of the German guns about 700 yards east of the town likewise failed either to destroy the guns or to drive the Germans from their positions.
At the culvert near Tame, meanwhile, the Germans at the first light of day on the 12th discovered Captain Nelson's small force and quickly surrounded it. Throughout the day a beleaguered Company F fought back, its ammunition rapidly dwindling. At one point enemy self-propelled guns, advancing along the road from Spigno toward Tame, pounded the company with point-blank fire. All appeared lost until American artillery observers, soaring above the battlefield in small observation
aircraft, spotted the German vehicles and, with well-directed fire from the supporting artillery battalion, destroyed two and drove the rest to cover.
Although the immediate threat to Company F was thus removed, as the hours passed the situation of the besieged force at the culvert worsened. By nightfall on the 12th food and ammunition were virtually exhausted, and Captain Nelson received an order from Major Shull to withdraw after dark to the vicinity of the Minturno cemetery. Nelson agreed to try but doubted whether he could do it. On that despairing note Nelson's radio fell silent.
Shortly after sundown several enemy soldiers approached the culvert position shouting "kamerad." Not suspecting a ruse, Nelson's men scrambled from their shelter to accept their surrender. Suddenly, from all sides German soldiers closed in. Except for five men who feigned death in their foxholes, the encircled men surrendered. That action effectively liquidated the 351st Infantry's only penetration of the German front. Despite heavy supporting fire--the 913th Field Artillery Battalion alone had fired 4268 rounds--the enemy at nightfall on the 12th still held Santa Maria Infante.
As was evident from the German automatic weapons fire from the S-Ridge that had plagued the troops of the 351st Infantry during the assault on Santa Maria Infante, men of General Coulter's 85th Division on the left wing of the II Corps also faced determined resistance. Corps had ordered Coulter to capture the high ground overlooking the Ausonia corridor on the corps' left wing. Immediate objectives were the S-Ridge, the southern extension of the ridge on which Santa Maria Infante was located; San Martino Hill, an isolated rise just north of the Capo d'Acqua Creek about three-quarters of a mile beyond the American forward positions; and the Domenico Ridge, the latter a group of low hills to the south of the San Martino feature overlooking the village of Scauri and the coastal highway. Control of the latter ridge would give the Americans terrain dominating the junction of the coastal highway and the road running through the Ausonia corridor, the enemy's first lateral line of communications and the road toward which the Minturno-Santa Maria Infante road led.
On the 85th Division's left wing Col. Brookner W. Brady's 339th Infantry, attacking with three battalions in line (in reserve, a fourth attached from Col. Oliver W. Hughes' 337th Infantry), advanced toward San Martino Hill and the Domenico Ridge. Antipersonnel mine fields and heavy fire from well-placed enemy automatic weapons made the going slow from the start. The best Brady's infantrymen could accomplish was to win tenuous footholds on the lower slopes of their objectives.16
On the 85th Division's right wing the 338th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Alfred A. Safay, was to capture the S-Ridge, whose terraced sides were dotted with isolated stone cottages and an occasional grove of olive trees, with the
village of Solacciano perched on the ridge's seaward nose. Under cover of the artillery preparation, Safay's regiment began moving toward the S-Ridge at 2300 with two battalions abreast.
The 1st Battalion on the right, commanded by Maj. Vernon A. Ostendorf, struck at Hills 109 and 131, the latter the most imposing height along the S-Ridge and the site of the machine guns that later were greatly to plague the neighboring 351st Infantry in the attack against Santa Maria Infante. For the first two hours the two lead companies advanced through olive groves and grain fields up the southern slopes of the S-Ridge until halted midway to their objectives by a combination of antipersonnel mines and automatic weapons fire. Although one platoon from each company briefly gained the crest, they were pinned down there by heavy fire. Unable to get reinforcements forward and aware that the platoons could hardly hope to hold in the event of counterattack, the company commanders ordered withdrawal halfway down the forward slope.
On Major Ostendorf's left, the 3d Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. William Mikkelson, encountered a growing volume of fire while advancing toward the village of Solacciano and high ground just east of the village. Experiencing their first hostile fire, the two lead companies advanced cautiously and slowly throughout the night. At daylight the battalion reached the outskirts of Solacciano where heavy automatic weapons fire forced a halt. During the day the 3d Battalion fought its way into the village to seize two houses, but even that limited gain came at a high price. By nightfall Mikkelson could muster only 200 effectives to defend his forward position at Solacciano.
Like Colonel Champeny's men on the right, Colonel Safay's infantry, in spite of heavy artillery fire support, had been stalled by well-entrenched automatic weapons fire. Because these weapons had neither been silenced nor wrested from the Germans, Safay's men had little more to show for their first day of battle on the slopes of S-Ridge than had Colonel Champeny's in their approach to Santa Maria Infante.
The 349th Infantry, which General Sloan had held in reserve on Hill 105, about 1,600 yards northeast of Minturno and overlooking the Ausente Creek, had early on 12 May sent its 1st Battalion to occupy first phase objectives on the forward slope of the Casale Hill, some 1,200 yards southeast of Santa Maria Infante. There the battalion would remain until the afternoon of the 14th, when it again moved forward, this time to occupy Monte Bracchi by nightfall.
Everywhere the Germans had held. The fighting had hurt them severely, but as the first day ended this fact was hardly discernible to the Americans.
The massive artillery support of the II Corps' attack had taken a sharp toll. When, for example, General Steinmetz, commander of the 94th Division, attempted to reinforce his troops on San Martino Hill with a company from his reserve, American artillery fire cut the company to pieces while the troops were assembling for their approach march. The heavy artillery fire had also played havoc with the enemy's line of communications between the division rear area and the front line, virtually isolating one from the other. Though
that left what was essentially only a thin crust of resistance, it was one that proved remarkably tough in the face of renewed American assault the next day.
With the coming of daylight on the 12th, Allied fighter and medium fighter-bombers, according to plan, began a daylong attack against enemy headquarters, lines of communications, and supply dumps in an effort to complete the isolation of the battlefield begun earlier by Operation STRANGLE. Artillery spotter and control aircraft were especially effective throughout the day in locating enemy batteries and directing both friendly artillery and tactical bombers against them. Even Kesselring's and Vietinghoff's headquarters came under attack. Allied planes destroyed the Tenth Army field headquarters in the first hours of the offensive and severely damaged Army Group C's command post near Frascati in the Alban Hills south of Rome.17
The Capture of Monte Majo
General Juin envisioned the role that his French Expeditionary Corps would play in the early stages of the Allied offensive as participation in a series of three battles, to be fought in several phases and all aimed at eventually turning the enemy's second major defensive line south of Rome, the Hitler Line.
The first objective was a breakthrough over the Monte Majo massif to win footholds on the massif's two parallel ridges. Juin expected his troops to capture Monte Majo within the first five hours of the offensive. To protect the right flank of this thrust, the French would, as a preliminary action, have to drive the Germans from relatively strong positions on the high ground overlooking the axis of attack. The high ground consisted of three terrain features--Cerasola Hill, Hill 739, and Monte Garofano--rising from a high plateau named Massa di Ruggero.18
General Juin planned to exploit a breakthrough in the Monte Majo massif with drives along parallel northwest-running ridges to seize the Ausonia defile at the northern end of the Ausonia corridor. With that defile in hand, Juin expected to turn his corps westward toward Monte Fammera, northernmost summit of the Petrella massif. Monte Fammera would provide the needed foothold for an advance deep into the massif.
The objective of the second battle was to be a blocking action east of the town of Esperia, and included the capture of the town and nearby Monte d'Oro, a dominant height overlooking the Liri valley. If successful this operation would sever communications between the XIV Panzer Corps and the LI Mountain Corps, the latter opposing the British Eighth Army at Monte Cassino and in the Liri valley.
In the third battle, Juin planned to send his forces first against Monti del Montrono and della Commundo, overlooking the road junction of Pontecorvo in the Liri valley. From there he would be able to send a column northwestward to envelop the town of Pico, another road junction on the Germans' second lateral route of communications between the Tyrrhenian coast and the Liri valley. Meanwhile, a provisional
TERRAIN IN FRENCH CORPS SECTOR SHOWING CASTELFORTE AND MONTE MAJO (background).
corps under Maj. Gen. Francois Sevez was to approach the town from the southeast.
Judging it to be best qualified for the demanding requirements of mountain warfare, General Juin selected Maj. Gen. Andre W. Dody's 2d Moroccan Division to spearhead the thrust through the Monte Majo massif. General Sevez's 4th Moroccan Mountain Division, recently arrived in Italy from occupation duty on Corsica, was to attack on Dody's right but minus a substantial portion of its infantry, which Juin brigaded with General Guillaume's goumiers to form a provisional mountain corps under General Sevez. Upon this task force Juin placed the main burden of the drive west from Monte Fammera and toward the enemy's second lateral communications road, a drive to be launched once Dody's Moroccans had captured the Ausonia defile. In all three battles, enemy strongpoints were to be bypassed whenever possible in order to maintain the momentum of the attack and to sustain and exploit the surprise that Juin expected to gain at Monte Majo.
Juin's G-2 knew that the left wing of
FEC Capture of Monte Majo
11-13 May 1944
Senger's XIV Panzer Corps stretched from the Ausonia corridor across the Monte Majo massif into the Liri valley. In the mountain sector the corps front was thinly held by the 71st Division, under the command of General Raapke. This was a light infantry division with a strength of 10,000 men, supported by eighty artillery pieces, a few Italian assault guns, and a dozen self-propelled antitank guns--a relatively small force when compared with Juin's corps of approximately 90,000 men. Some thirty miles to the rear Senger held about forty tanks as part of his corps reserve.
Interrogation of a German noncommissioned officer captured a week before the offensive revealed that a few miles behind the Gustav Line Senger had directed preparation of a switch position that he designated the Orange Line. Actually, existence of the line proved later to have been limited largely to operations maps. Extensive aerial reconnaissance also disclosed that the enemy had virtually no defenses along that part of the Hitler Line extending through the Aurunci Mountains southwest of the village of Sant'Oliva, about three miles south of the road junction of Pontecorvo in the Liri valley. It appeared that Kesselring expected to rely upon the formidable mountains themselves as constituting a sufficient barrier.
In darkness, for the moon would not rise for another half hour, the infantrymen of the 2d Moroccan Mountain Division began moving at 2300 on 11 May from their assembly areas on Monte Juga toward assault positions on the eastern slopes of the Monte Majo massif, there to await completion of the bombardment of the enemy's positions in the forbidding heights far above. For the next half hour the Moroccans waited while shells from some 400 guns, including those of the U.S. 13th Artillery Brigade, smashed into the rocky slopes.19
A week earlier Allied registration fires had prompted the German commander, General Raapke, to move most of his artillery into alternate positions so that the Allied guns inflicted few losses on his batteries. Dispersed in well-covered dugouts and too close to the French lines to be hit by the artillery, Raapke's infantrymen also remained virtually unscathed by the preparatory fire. As on the II Corps front, the principal effect of the Allied fire was to disrupt wire communications and isolate scattered infantry positions.
During the first two hours of the attack, the Moroccan infantrymen fought their way to within 300 yards of the summit of Monte Ornito, a 2,000 foot peak about two miles southeast of Monte Majo, the division's objective. The Moroccans had just reached their new positions when local reserves of the 71st Division's 191st Grenadier Regiment counterattacked. (Map 2)
Failure of the artillery to make punishing inroads on the enemy infantry all too soon became apparent. Although by midmorning of the 12th a regiment of the 2d Moroccan Mountain Division fought its way to the crest of Monte Faito, a mile and a half southeast of
Monte Majo, with light losses, the troops were still over a mile short of Monte Majo, which General Juin had confidently expected to take within the first five hours of the offensive. What was more important, German defenders had thwarted a supporting attack on the right aimed at the high ground--Cerasola Hill, Hill 739, and Monte Garofano--overlooking the route the Moroccans would have to take from Monte Faito to Monte Majo.
Despite the failure to take the high ground indispensable for a successful attack on Monte Majo, the division commander, General Dody, tried to resume the advance toward the objective. Yet hardly had the men begun to move when fire from the heights on the right brought them to a halt.
Still determined to press on, General Dody ordered a regrouping, but before the men could move out again, a German battalion, reinforced by troops earlier driven off Monte Faito, counterattacked. Only with the help of massed artillery fire were the Moroccans able to repulse the threat, but the action left them too disorganized immediately to renew their attempt to take Monte Majo.
Although Generalmajor Friedrich Wentzell, chief of staff and acting commander of the Tenth Army in General von Vietinghoff's absence, and General der Artillerie Walter Hartmann, acting commander of the XIV Panzer Corps in Senger's absence, informed Field Marshal Kesselring of the unexpected severity of the French attack against the Monte Majo sector--unexpected, because the Germans had no idea of the size of Juin's force assembled in the bend of the Garigliano--the army group commander remained convinced that it was nothing more than a supporting operation for what he considered to be the main Allied effort in the Liri valley. Until Kesselring determined that this was not so and that there was to be no amphibious landing on his Tyrrhenian flank, he would refuse to authorize commitment of reserves to shore up the 71st Infantry Division's sector. The best he would do was to authorize the movement of two reserve battalions into supporting positions behind the 94th and 71st Divisions' sectors. He retained for himself, however, the right to say when either of the battalions might be committed. General Raapke, Kesselring insisted, should create additional reserves by the familiar expedient of thinning out less threatened sectors. Hartmann saw no alternative, therefore, to ordering the 71st Division commander to use his reserve battalion of panzer grenadiers. It was that battalion whose counterattack had just thrown the Moroccans off balance.20
It seemed at this point that the French attack had stalled because of the same kind of resistance encountered by the U.S. II Corps on their left and by the British 13 Corps on their right. The failure to take the division objective as planned could be attributed directly to the failure to control the high ground on the right of the corps zone of operations.
To revitalize the attack, General Dody proposed to the corps commander that he take advantage of the coming darkness to move on Monte Majo without first clearing the high ground. General Juin rejected this proposal,
for he was convinced that even if Dody's troops managed to slip past the high ground during the night, the enemy would emerge at daylight to harass their flank. Instead Juin ordered Dody to employ his reserve regiment in a night attack to clear the high ground on the right, first against Cerasola Hill and then against the other two hills in turn. Shortly after the attack began, Dody's assault forces were to move out once again from Monte Faito toward Monte Majo. This, Juin insisted confidently, would carry the objective.
General Juin's confidence permeated Dody's staff, and in a few hours the units were in position to renew the attack. At 0320 on 15 May, all artillery attached to Dody's division, except for two battalions supporting the troops on Monte Faito, began to fire on Cerasola Hill. Forty minutes later, as the reserve regiment began to advance, the artillery fire shifted to Hill 739 and finally to Monte Garofano. At the last minute, before the Moroccan infantry began their ascent, a detachment of combat engineers rushed forward with bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in barbed wire blocking the path of the advance.
The artillery apparently did its job well, for, as the riflemen climbed the slope, German reaction was almost non-existent. Reducing the few positions that had escaped the bombardment, the Moroccans moved quickly on to the next objective, Hill 739, and then to the third, Monte Garofano. Within two and a half hours the regiment had occupied all three objectives, capturing 150 enemy soldiers in the process, and even advanced a few hundred yards farther to occupy yet another hill mass overlooking the village of Vallomajo in the shadow of Monte Majo.
Success was not to be so readily achieved on the left, where the regiment making the 2d Moroccan's main effort tried to get moving shortly after 0400, first toward an intermediate objective, Monte Feuci, about midway between Monte Faito and the objective, then on to Monte Majo. Almost immediately the regiment ran into a counterattack by the 71st Division's lone reserve battalion. Even though the Moroccans held, employing mortar and artillery fire with deadly effect to drive the Germans back, the action checked the French advance.
Three more times before daylight and again at 0900 the German battalion tried to recapture Monte Faito with no success. Now the French, rather than the Germans, occupied the high ground on the right, which hampered the counterattacks from Monte Feuci just as it had earlier hampered French efforts to attack toward that feature. French gunners, with the observation advantage that daylight brought, had turned the last counterattack into a costly failure. Broken by heavy casualties, the enemy battalion fell back in disorder. Covered by an artillery preparation, the Moroccan infantrymen reached the crest of Monte Feuci by 1130; not a shot was fired against them.
The destruction of Raapke's reserve battalion, after the heavy punishment the troops in the main line of resistance had already taken, meant that no means existed for holding the Monte Majo sector of the Gustav Line. As the French regrouped, a radio operator intercepted a German radio message saying: "Feuci has fallen. Accelerate the general withdrawal." When a platoon-sized
patrol left Monte Feuci a few minutes later to test German defenses on Monte Majo, the results appeared to confirm the German message, for the patrol found not a German there. In late afternoon a battalion came forward to occupy the division objective and to raise on an improvised flagstaff a French tricolor large enough to be seen from Monte Cassino to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Breaking through to Monte Majo on 13 May, the Moroccans had breached the Gustav Line at one of its deepest, albeit most weakly defended, points. The feat had unhinged the entire left wing of the XIV Panzer Corps. It also had split General Raapke's 71st Division and opened the way for further advances along the parallel ridges running northwest toward Ausonia, San Giorgio, and Esperia and for a thrust across the Ausonia defile to Monte Fammera. Most importantly for the Eighth Army, it had put the FEC in a position to bring pressure against the right flank of the German defenses in the Liri valley.
It was to this latter threat that Field Marshal Kesselring now directed his attention. Kesselring at last realized that his southern front and not his Tyrrhenian flank between Rome and Civitavecchia was the point of greatest danger. Accordingly, late on the 13th, he ordered the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division to begin moving from its coast-watching position near the mouth of the Tiber southeastward to the southern front. Despite Allied air attacks against all enemy traffic, the last unit of the division managed to depart in the early hours of the 14th. Traveling mostly at night, the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was the first unit to reach the southern front, some seventy-five miles away, early on 14 May. As the regiment arrived it was committed on the 71st Division's left in an effort to stem the French advance from Monte Majo toward the town of San Giorgio on the southern edge of the Liri valley.21
1. Britt Bailey (MS # R-50), The German Situation in Italy, 11 May--4 June 44, copy in CMH (hereafter cited as MS # R-50 [Bailey]). Allied knowledge of the German situation was thanks, in large measure, to the interception of the German Enigma Code. As a matter of fact, the Allies first learned of Vietinghoff's absence after intercepting a radio message from Kesselring ordering Vietinghoff to return at once to his command in Italy. See Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, pp. 114-15.
2. Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, The Campaign in Central Italy. Unless otherwise indicated this section is based upon this reference.
4. II Corps G-3 Jnl, 11-12 May 44.
5. Unless otherwise indicated this account is based upon the official records of the 85th and 88th Divisions and those of the II Corps, supplemented by after-action interviews with key participants by members of the Fifth Army Historical Section.
6. Directly under corps' control was a battalion each of 240-mm. howitzers and 8-inch howitzers, a battalion each of 155-mm. and 4.5-inch guns, four battalions of 155-mm. howitzers, and five battalions of 105-mm. howitzers. Fifth Army History, Part V, pp. 56-57. Also see II Corps Artillery AAR, 25 Mar-5 June 44.
7. II Corps Arty AAR, 25 Mar-5 Jun 44; MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.).
8. II Corps Arty AAR, 25 Mar-5 Jun 44.
10. Hereafter referred to as Monte Damiano.
11. Shea received the first Medal of Honor awarded in the 88th Division, and was commissioned a 2d lieutenant.
12. 351st Inf S-3 Jnl, 10-12 May 44.
13. Sidney T. Mathews, Fifth Army His Sec, 1944, Combat Interview, CMH; 351st Inf AAR.
14. For this action Colonel Kendall was posthumously awarded the DSC.
15. For this action Noon was awarded the DSC.
16. During this action 1st Lt. Robert T. Waugh of Company G led his platoon in an assault against six enemy bunkers. Lieutenant Waugh advanced alone against the first bunker, threw phosphorous grenades into it, and then killed the defenders as they attempted to flee. He repeated this procedure with the remaining bunkers. For this and subsequent gallantry in the offensive, Lieutenant Waugh was awarded the Medal of Honor.
17. Craven and Cate, eds., AAF III, p. 387.
18. C.E.F., État Major, Mémoires du Avril (24 Apr 44), piece Nr. 117. The following paragraphs are based upon this document.
19. In this account the author has drawn upon two sources: Sidney T. Mathews, "The French in the Drive on Rome," prepared in CMH for publication in Fraternité d'Armes Franco-Américaine, a special issue of the Revue Historique de l'Armée (Paris, 1957); and Juin, La Campagne d'Italie, pp. 101-12.
20. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH.
21. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, KTB, IV (1), pp. 489-90.