Collapse of the Gustav Line
Despite the Allied command's long-held conviction that Monte Cassino would have to fall before there could be any appreciable success in the Liri valley, it now seemed, with the French breakthrough of the Gustav Line, that Monte Majo instead of Monte Cassino might be the key, not only to the Fifth Army's advance through the mountains south of the Liri but also to the Eighth Army's penetration of the enemy's defenses in the valley itself. Northeast of Monte Cassino the 2 Polish Corps had withdrawn to its line of departure as of the night of 11 May, leaving the 1st Parachute Division still master of the ruined abbey and its neighboring ridges, but General Raapke had been forced to commit his last reserves in a vain attempt to prevent the FEC from taking Monte Majo. The threat to Monte Majo and the need to reinforce that sector during the night of 12 May doubtless had been a factor in the German failure to prevent the British 13 Corps from widening and deepening its foothold beyond the Rapido. Thus by morning on the 13th the British 4th Division at last succeeded in bridging the river. With three pontoon bridges in operation--southeast of Cassino the 8th Indian Division had succeeded in building two the previous night--the 13 Corps soon had a secure bridgehead, varying in depth from 1,000 to 2,500 yards.
The Eighth Army had accomplished what the Fifth Army had failed to do during the winter campaign: establish and reinforce a bridgehead beyond the Rapido. Although Monte Cassino remained in German hands, the 13 Corps had managed to construct bridges over which it could reinforce its units at will. Since the assault divisions had incurred considerable casualties, General Leese authorized the corps commander (General Kirkman) to commit his reserve division, the 78th, on 14 May and at the same time warned General Anders (the 2 Polish Corps commander) to be prepared to resume his attack on Monte Cassino the next day. The 78th Division was to move out as soon as possible after dawn in order to pass through the British and Indian divisions south of Cassino and Highway 6 and make contact with the Polish troops--hopefully, sometime on the 15th--at a point on the highway southwest of Monte Cassino.1
While the 78th Division assembled east of the Rapido preparatory to crossing into the 4th Division's zone, the XII Tactical Air Command flew 520 sorties in support of the British 4th and Indian 8th Divisions. In spite of clear weather and undisputed mastery of the skies, the strafing and bombing attacks failed to silence enemy batteries firing
from well-concealed positions in the vicinity of Atina, approximately seven miles north of Monte Cassino.
The artillery fire, plus stiffening resistance to efforts to expand the bridgehead, as well as the first indications of growing traffic congestion on the few available roads--a problem that would eventually harass the Eighth Army in the Liri valley almost as much as would the enemy--so delayed the 78th Division that it was unable to get into position to fulfill its exploitation role. Although the 4th British and 8th Indian Divisions continued to push ahead, it became clear by nightfall that the corps would be unable to reach the highway by the morning of the 15th. That prompted General Leese to postpone the Polish attack on Monte Cassino. The Eighth Army had penetrated the Gustav Line but had not broken through.
In preventing an Allied breakthrough in the Liri valley on the 14th, the Germans had paid a high price. That night Generalleutnant Bruno Ortner, the commanding general of the 44th Division, reported to the LI Mountain Corps headquarters that because of heavy losses and fragmentation of units within his division his front would have to be heavily reinforced or else he would have to withdraw into the Hitler (Senger) Line, at the latest during the night of 15 May.2
In response, General Feuerstein, the corps commander, authorized neither course. The only major reinforcement available in the corps area was the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, but part of it had already been committed on the XIV Panzer Corps' left flank to reinforce the faltering 71st Infantry Division. On the 15th, however, Feuerstein ordered the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the second of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division's two motorized infantry regiments, to bolster the defense of Ortner's front on the Pignataro sector, about three miles southwest of the town of Cassino on the Cassino-San Giorgio road, but the regiment would arrive too late to prevent the Indian infantry, supported by armor, from capturing the village of Pignataro and breaking through the German lines about a half mile northwest of the town by midnight the same day.3
Meanwhile, on the XIV Panzer Corps front opposite the Fifth Army, General Hartmann, the acting corps commander, prepared countermeasures against the U.S. II Corps. He despaired of restoring his front against the French, but remained confident that, at least for the present, he could continue to hold opposite the Americans. Although the American 85th Division had penetrated the 94th Division's front between the S-Ridge and the Domenico Ridge and had won a foothold in the village of Solacciano, Hartmann believed that those minor penetrations could be eliminated. It was therefore with some expectation of success that he ordered the 94th Division commander, General Steinmetz, to launch counterattacks to pinch them off.4
Less sanguine than the corps commander, General Steinmetz, on the night of 12 May, nevertheless counterattacked on his right wing, from the S-Ridge to the coastal corridor; but except for some slight gains on the Domenico ridge the Germans failed to regain the lost ground. Accurate concentrations of American artillery fire had broken up the counterattacks and forced them back with heavy casualties that Steinmetz could ill afford. The 94th Division commander now recognized that unless his troops could be reinforced before the next American onslaught, his thin, brittle front would soon crack. He had no alternative but to act on a suggestion General Hartmann had earlier given the 71st Division commander: create his own reserves in the customary manner. In view of the strength of the Allied offensive across the entire corps front on 12 May, such a do-it-yourself scheme for obtaining needed reserves was patently the counsel of despair.5
The II Corps' Attack Renewed
General Steinmetz's despair contrasted sharply with General Clark's reaction to the results of operations on his own front. Sensing a breakthrough by the Fifth Army, Clark was impatient with what he deemed to be a lack of aggressiveness and flexibility in the II Corps' attack. That lack was particularly apparent when contrasted with the élan and drive shown by the FEC in its thrust into the Monte Majo massif. Though aware that the latter was composed of veteran, professional mountain troops, while 85th and 88th Divisions were mainly conscripts engaging in their first combat operation, in view of the strength concentrated by the II Corps before the enemy's positions at Santa Maria Infante, Clark believed that Sloan's 88th Division should have cleared the village by noon on 12 May.6
Contrary to the impression created by the stubborn enemy resistance, General Keyes (II Corps commander) believed, as did General Steinmetz, that the German front was near the breaking point. Convinced that one more effort would pierce the Gustav Line, Keyes called both of his division commanders to corps headquarters early on the 13th to plan for a continuation of the attack.
The 88th Division commander, General Sloan, presented a reassuring picture of the situation on his right wing, where the 350th Infantry held the village of Ventosa and Hill 316, key points on the regimental objective of Monte Damiano. Troops from the 350th Infantry were also building up on Monte Ceracoli, and infantry with a platoon of tanks in support had thrust north of that feature toward the Ausonia corridor.7
Unfortunately, progress on the 88th Division's right wing had far exceeded that on the left, which was one of the causes of Clark's concern. Along both sides of the Minturno-Santa Maria Infante road the troops of the 351st Infantry still faced strong opposition. Numerous strongpoints near the village of Pulcherini on the western slope of Monte Bracchi, on the Spur, at Santa Maria Infante, and on the S-Ridge
southwest of Tame were holding up General Sloan's left wing as well as General Coulter's right.
On the credit side, losses incurred by the two divisions in the early hours of the offensive had been quickly made up by replacements held in readiness in division rear areas. As an experiment, each division had been assigned sufficient overstrength to permit the creation of replacement detachments in support of each regiment. Having trained with their assigned unit, these men could be quickly integrated when replacements were needed, so that the two U.S. divisions were prepared to continue their attacks on 13 May with almost the same numbers as on the 11th, the day the offensive began.
Keyes continued to place the main burden of the renewed effort on Sloan's 88th Division, which was to resume its attack during the afternoon of the 13th. The corps commander also shifted the interdivisional boundary slightly to the left to give the 88th Division, which was to continue its drive on Santa Maria Infante, the additional task of clearing the northern end of the S-Ridge (Hills 109, 128, and 126), but leaving Hill 131 in the 85th Division's sector. Thus, the division bore responsibility for eliminating the machine guns that had been so troublesome on the 351st Infantry's left flank. Coulter's 85th Division, meanwhile, was to consolidate its recently won positions at Solacciano and on the San Martino Hill and protect the corps' left flank by maintaining strong pressures on the Domenico Ridge.8
In making plans at the division level to resume the attack, General Sloan decided to shift the boundary of Colonel Crawford's 349th Infantry westward to include the sector of the 1st Battalion, 351st Infantry. This freed the 1st Battalion, still relatively fresh, to try to take Santa Maria Infante from the left flank. The battalion was to capture Hill 109 on the S-Ridge, then swing northward along the ridge through Tame to envelop Santa Maria Infante from the northwest. While this battalion maneuvered on the left, the 2d and 3d Battalions, astride the Minturno road, were to maintain pressure by holding attacks against the Spur and Hill 103. On the left, Coulter's 85th Division was to help with a renewed attack by Colonel Safay's 338th Infantry against Hill 131.
Shortly after the conference, General Clark arrived at Keyes' command post. Concluding that the Germans had been thrown off balance by the magnitude of the Allied offensive, the Fifth Army commander directed Keyes to press his attack throughout the night, with the 88th Division driving through Santa Maria Infante, crossing the Ausonia corridor, and capturing the village of Spigno on the edge of the Petrella massif preparatory to a thrust across the mountains, as the French were even then preparing to do from Monte Majo. Back at his own headquarters at Caserta that afternoon, Clark noted confidently in his diary that "we should have Spigno tonight."9
While the divisions prepared to renew their efforts on the afternoon of the 13th, three U.S. fighter-bombers attacked Santa Maria Infante, already
reduced to Cassino-like ruins. As if in response, the enemy made one of his rare air raids over Allied lines. At 1330 three out of a flight of twenty-two FW-190's eluded Allied air patrols and bombed and strafed the 85th Division sector in the vicinity of Minturno-Tremonsuoli, but damage was light and casualties few.
Although the 351st Infantry commander, Colonel Champeny, had designated 1630 as the jump-off hour, a slow approach march by the 1st Battalion to its line of departure at the base of the S-Ridge was followed by a series of delays that for several hours jeopardized the operation. Taking longer to launch its attack because it had a greater distance to move from an assembly area near the cemetery than had the other battalions, the 1st Battalion also had difficulty in co-ordinating its plans with those of Colonel Safay's 338th Infantry, which was preparing to attack Hill 131, the southernmost knob of the S-Ridge. The battalion was further delayed when enemy mortar fire pinned down the commander and several of his staff while they were on reconnaissance, separating them from their units and killing the heavy weapons company commander. Not until six hours after the time originally set for the attack did the battalion at last begin to move toward Hill 109, 300 yards northwest of Hill 131. Learning of the 1st Battalion's failure to reach its line of departure on time, Champeny postponed the regimental attack first for half an hour, then for another thirty minutes, and finally for an additional hour.10
Unfortunately, word of the postponements failed to reach the 2d Battalion, assembled east of the Minturno road. Ordered to pin down the defenders of Santa Maria Infante by an attack against the Spur, the battalion moved out as originally planned at 1630. As the lead companies approached the sunken road on the eastern slope of the Spur, where the attack on the 12th had halted, the Germans from the vicinity of Santa Maria Infante and Pulcherini brought down a heavy volume of artillery and small arms fire. The men nevertheless reached the crest of the Spur, where continued heavy fire drove them to cover and prevented them from going further.
On the left, in the 85th Division's sector, a tank-infantry team, composed of two platoons from Company I, 338th Infantry, and about ten tanks from Company C, 756th Tank Battalion, with which Colonel Safay planned to cover the left flank of Colonel Champeny's attack, also failed to get word of the postponement. Tanks and infantry moved toward Hill 131 on the S-Ridge, but the former were soon wallowing helplessly in a small gully at the foot of the hill. Unassisted, the two infantry platoons nevertheless quickly overran the enemy on Hill 131, capturing about forty Germans but losing over half the American riflemen in the process. When the Germans struck back almost immediately with a sharp local counterattack, they forced the survivors to fall back to their original positions down the slope. By evening only sixteen men remained of the original infantry force that had attacked Hill 131.
When, after two hours, the 1st Battalion, 351st Infantry, still failed to appear, Colonel Champeny, apparently
unaware of the 338th Infantry's setback on Hill 131, decided to wait no longer. He ordered the 3d Battalion to maintain its pressure against Hill 103 along the left side of the Minturno road in support of the 2d Battalion, already battling on the Spur.
Beginning at 1825, the 2d Chemical Battalion and the 913th Field Artillery Battalion, assisted by guns of corps artillery, fired several hundred rounds of smoke, white phosphorous, and high explosives on the villages of Santa Maria Infante and Pulcherini. On the heels of this preparatory fire, the 3d Battalion's two forward companies began to move toward Hill 103, about 500 yards west of the Spur. Company L was to pin down the enemy from the front, while Company I worked around the western slope to envelop the enemy from the crest. Meanwhile, Company K was to provide supporting fire from positions just west of the road leading to Santa Maria Infante.
As Company I attempted to begin its envelopment, 30 to 40 rounds of 88-mm. fire fell into the battalion sector. Heavy and accurate mortar fire also blanketed the area, forcing the lead companies to fall back in disorder to their starting positions. Company K was down to half its strength, Company I lost one-third of its effectives, and Company L also incurred heavy losses. The battalion S-3 reported despairingly to the regimental commander: "Two years of training [have] gone up in smoke . . . my men . . . about half of them--almost all my leaders."11
Close on that misfortune, the long-delayed 1st Battalion began assembling for its attack on Hill 109. The commander, Maj. Harold MacV. Brown, decided on a frontal attack in a column of companies, with Company C leading the way. Once Company C reached the crest, the next company in line was to pass through and move northward along the crest to clear Hill 126 on the northern end of the ridge.
Shortly after midnight, following a 10-minute artillery preparation, men of Company C, advancing with two platoons forward, began to pick their way up the southern slope of Hill 109. Midway up the slope men of this company, as had other 1st Battalion troops, came under mortar and machine gun fire from Hill 131. Also like these other troops, they too believed Hill 131 to be in friendly hands. The company commander (1st Lt. Garvin C. MacMakin) ordered his men to dig in where they were while he brought his reserve platoon forward and surveyed the situation.
During MacMakin's absence his executive officer, assuming that the fire on his troops from Hill 131 was coming from American guns, disregarded the advice of fellow officers and set out alone toward the hill. Shouting repeatedly, "We're Americans, stop your fire!" he approached to within a few yards of the German positions. A short burst of enemy fire cut him down.
To Lieutenant MacMakin it was obvious at this point that something had gone wrong with Colonel Safay's attack on the left. He decided to hold his men where they were until somebody had cleared Hill 131.
Colonel Champeny, in turn, informed his division headquarters that
he was "catching hell from Hill 131," and requested permission to go into the 85th Division's zone and clear it himself. Until the hill was taken, Champeny pointed out, his regiment simply would be unable to move. General Coulter, the 85th Division commander, denied permission, apparently wary of the hazards of violating unit boundaries in the darkness. Coulter declined even to approve neutralizing artillery fire against the hill, since the fire might endanger his own men on the forward slope of the S-Ridge.
Colonel Champeny, convinced that he could not take Hill 109 and outflank Santa Maria Infante while Hill 131 remained in enemy hands, ignored the refusal. He took it on himself to order Major Brown to seize the hill with the reserve company of his 1st Battalion.12
Lieutenant MacMakin of Company C had in the meantime brought up his reserve platoon. With the men of this platoon in position to cover the flank that faced Hill 131, he decided to try again to take Hill 109. With two platoons abreast, MacMakin started up the hill. This time, to his surprise, hardly any German resistance developed. His men quickly gained the crest and found there only a small enemy rear guard, eager to surrender.
Even as MacMakin's infantrymen deployed on Hill 109 and while it was still dark, Major Brown's reserve company started to climb Hill 131. There too the Americans were in for a surprise. The company encountered only scattered bursts of machine gun fire and reached the top of the hill with few losses. By that time the men found only empty dugouts, probably abandoned by a rear guard that had just slipped away unobserved in the darkness. The only Germans remaining were on the reverse slope--they were dead, victims of the first day's artillery fire.
The Germans Fall Back on the Right
The unexpected ease with which the men of the 351st Infantry's 1st Battalion finally captured Hills 109 and 131 was, without their knowing it, a direct dividend of the French breakthrough in the Monte Majo sector on the afternoon of the 13th. As the French had widened their breach in the Gustav Line during the rest of the day and through the night, General Hartmann, the acting XIV Panzer Corps commander, ordered Steinmetz to pull back his left wing about a mile and to anchor it on Monte Civita, two miles northwest of Santa Maria Infante, where contact could be re-established with Raapke's battered 71st Division.13
During the night General Steinmetz withdrew across the Ausonia corridor, leaving a rear guard behind. In an effort to strengthen his center, he also pulled back his troops from the coastal salient on his right flank near Monte Scauri. Because neither Sloan nor Coulter hampered its movement, Steinmetz's division by morning had managed to establish itself in the Gustav Line's rearmost positions along the high ground extending from Monte Scauri northward to a point east of Castellonorato along the crests of hills overlooking the Ausonia corridor from the west
13-15 May 1944
to the eastern slope of Monte Civita. From there Steinmetz's 94th Infantry Division linked up with the 71st Division's right flank. The French continued to widen their gap in the Monte Majo massif and advance toward San Giorgio on the southern flank of the Liri valley, while the 94th Infantry Division, on the XIV Panzer Corps' right flank, would try to stabilize its front along the new line. (Map 3)
As the two Allied armies prepared to continue their offensive on the 14th, the Germans found control over their front line increasingly difficult to maintain because individual combat units, dispersed by Allied breakthrough and penetrations, had lost both leaders and
Collapse of the Gustav Line
13-15 May 1944
communications. Steinmetz was sure that unless Kesselring released considerable reinforcements, his, Steinmetz's, division would be unable to achieve more than to hold the Americans briefly short of the Hitler Line (Senger Riegel). A withdrawal into the second line of defense appeared inevitable and would most likely have to be set up by the night of 15 May.14
The Fall of Santa Maria Infante
The U.S. II Corps commander, General Keyes, meanwhile had learned from reconnaissance reports during the night of 13 May that the enemy had demolished a bridge on the road leading from Ausonia to the coast and the first lateral communications route behind the enemy front. That confirmed Keyes' suspicions that Steinmetz was preparing to fall back to new positions west of the road. Keyes promptly directed Sloan to move his men as rapidly as possible into Santa Maria Infante and then on to occupy the Monti Bracci, Rotondo, and Cerri, the high ground to the northeast of the village. A day earlier Clark had told Keyes to strike across the Ausonia corridor and seize Spigno as rapidly as possible. But the hard fighting and uncertainty as to the extent of the enemy withdrawal since the 11th had left both troops and corps commander unprepared for a headlong pursuit of the enemy. Instead, Keyes ordered Sloan to send strong patrols into the corridor to locate the enemy.15 (Map III)
Before dawn on the 14th, the 349th Infantry's 1st Battalion advanced in a column of companies to occupy Monte Bracchi. Meeting little resistance and capturing only a few stragglers, the battalion gained the summit within eight hours. The remaining battalions of the regiment, in the meantime, moved up the Minturno road behind the 351st Infantry into an assembly area southeast of Santa Maria Infante, whence they were prepared to exploit the capture of the village by advancing through the 351st Infantry, across the Ausonia corridor, and onto the Petrella massif.16
While the 1st Battalion of the 349th Infantry scaled Monte Bracchi, the 3d Battalion of the 351st at last closed in on Santa Maria Infante, defended now by only a small rear guard. By early afternoon, after a house-to-house fight, the village was cleared.
A small but nevertheless important role in the battle for Santa Maria Infante had been played by sixty local Italian peasants who had volunteered to serve as carriers during the battle. Of these sixty, twenty-three had been killed by enemy fire and several wounded.17
On the 88th Division's right flank, Colonel Fry's 350th Infantry had secured its initial objectives from the Ausente Creek around to Castelforte. After the adjacent French unit had cleared the north side of the Castelforte road, the regiment attacked on the 13th from the vicinity of Monte Damiano to occupy Monte Rotondo. Although interrogation of prisoners had revealed that the objective was lightly held, rugged terrain and a particularly stubborn
AMERICAN TROOPS ENTERING THE RUINS OF SANTA MARIA INFANTE
rear guard forced Colonel Fry's men into a 3-hour struggle before they could occupy the height.18
Colonel Fry had then turned his attention to Monte Cerri, the regiment's second objective. Some 2,000 yards southwest of Monte Rotondo, Monte Cerri had been reported free of enemy by an earlier patrol. Fry gave the job of occupying the feature to a reserve company located on Monte Ceracoli, only a mile away from the objective.
What followed poignantly illustrated the demoralizing effect that the sounds and rumors of battle can have on inexperienced troops waiting anxiously in reserve. When the regimental commander's order reached the company commander, he refused to move out with his unit. Promptly relieving him, Colonel Fry sent Maj. Milton A. Matthews, his S-3, to take command of the company. The men, Major Matthews found upon arrival on Monte Ceracoli, were thoroughly demoralized. Matthews explained to them that a patrol had reported the objective abandoned; however, only one officer and one noncommissioned officer reluctantly agreed to follow him. Only after considerable urging and cajoling was Matthews able to persuade the men to advance.
As the company neared Monte Cerri, an 18-man German rear guard opened
fire, giving the lie to the patrol's optimistic report. Nevertheless, the company kept moving. It quickly gained the summit and dispersed the enemy rear guard at a cost of only two men slightly wounded. This small success restored the company's morale.
By early afternoon on 14 May, after almost three days of fighting that had cost the 88th Division almost 2,000 casualties, German withdrawal across the Ausonia corridor enabled the weary infantrymen to walk unopposed onto most of their objectives. After almost three days of infantry probes by two fresh divisions, supported by heavy and accurate artillery fire and supplemented by wide-ranging fighter-bombers from which only darkness brought relief, the losses among the defending German units had been heavy. That evening General Steinmetz reported that since the night of 11 May his 94th Division had lost 40 percent of its combat strength and could hardly hope to hold at length in the positions across the forward slopes of the Petrella massif and the coastal heights. He was convinced that the Americans would soon move against Monte Civita and the villages of Castellonorata and Spigno, the three remaining key positions in that part of the XIV Panzer Corps sector of the Gustav Line opposite the Fifth Army.19
Monte Civita was the first of the new positions to be occupied by the Americans. General Sloan sent Fry's 350th Infantry toward Spigno and Crawford's 349th Infantry to take Monte Civita, the nearest summit in the Petrella massif beyond the Ausonia corridor. Reaching the base of Monte Civita by dark on the 14th, the regiment's forward battalion paused to rest. Resuming the attack that night, the American infantrymen encountered little resistance as they occupied the south peak of the 1,800-foot height by morning. There they surprised and captured 23 men from an artillery unit that was still firing on American positions in the valley below.20
Colonel Fry's 350th Infantry meanwhile advanced on Spigno. Widely dispersed, uncertain of enemy strength, Fry's regiment moved cautiously. Upset at what seemed to be a lack of drive, the army commander, General Clark, threatened disciplinary action against whoever was responsible for the delay in capturing Spigno. General Keyes therefore sent the 351st Infantry forward to relieve the 350th Infantry. Passing through Fry's lines on the morning of the 15th, the 351st Infantry attacked toward Spigno, capturing the town within a few hours.21
Clark's thoughts now were already ranging far beyond Spigno, for that morning he ordered Keyes to send the 88th Division with all possible speed from Spigno directly west across the mountains toward Itri, nine miles away, and the road junction on the second of the enemy's two lateral communications routes, while Coulter's 85th Division followed the withdrawal of that part of the 94th Division on the seaward side of the Aurunci Mountains. Echeloned to the left rear, the 85th Division was to follow only as far as Monte Campese, the high ground about two miles west
of Castellonorato and overlooking the coastal highway.
Looking ahead to a breakout from the Anzio beachhead, Clark planned first to move the uncommitted 36th Division there within three days, then to shift the 85th Division and increments of the II Corps headquarters to Anzio as preliminaries to moving the entire corps there. General Crittenberger's IV Corps, then at Pozzuoli on the coast just west of Naples, was to take over the II Corps sector.22
It was evident at this point that Clark was still thinking in terms of making the major breakthrough to the Anzio beachhead through the Aurunci Mountains sector rather than along the coastal corridor where the German defenses appeared more formidable. Because of those defenses, both Clark and Keyes had rejected a frontal attack along the axis of the coastal road (Highway 7) as too costly. Keyes directed Coulter instead to break through to that part of the Gustav Line based upon the town of Castellonorato, on the seaward fringe of the high ground, thereby outflanking the strong positions on the coastal plain. To provide additional strength for that attack, Keyes attached the 349th Infantry and the 337th Field Artillery Battalion to the 85th Division.23
Its buildings clustered beneath the ruins of an ancient fortress perched atop a steep hill, Castellonorato was the lone stronghold remaining in that part of the Gustav Line. Yet since German positions on Hill 108, approximately a mile and a half northwest of Solacciano, midway between Minturno and Castellonorato, dominated the route of approach to Castellonorato, General Coulter had first to clear the hill before he could move against the town.
During the morning of 14 May, the 85th Division commander regrouped his regiments before attacking Hill 108 in early afternoon. Holding the 339th Infantry on the S-Ridge as a base of fire, he moved the 338th from the San Martino Hill to occupy the Cave d'Argilla, high ground about half a mile farther north, overlooking the approach to Hill 108. To the 337th Infantry, which except for one battalion had been in reserve since the beginning of the offensive, he gave the mission of taking first Hill 108 and then Castellonorato. The attached 349th Infantry was to cover the attack by advancing on the right, with the 337th Field Artillery Battalion firing in support.24
Attack on Castellonorato
Colonel Hughes, commander of the 337th Infantry, decided to employ a tank-infantry team composed of the 2d Battalion with two platoons of tanks, as Colonel Safay had done the day before in his ill-fated attack on the division's right flank. After taking Hill 108, Hughes planned to use the armor to probe the enemy's defenses before making a final thrust into Castellonorato. The 3d Battalion was to follow closely in reserve, while the 1st Battalion remained attached to the 338th Infantry.
Hardly had the attack on Hill 108 jumped off on the afternoon of the 14th when a hitch developed. As engineers tried to prepare a fording site for the tanks to cross a small stream near Capo d'Acqua, a hamlet about 2,200 yards east of the objective, heavy fire from the vicinity of Castellonorato forced them to take cover. The tanks had to remain on the east bank where they could provide the infantry with only long-range support. Even so, that support proved sufficient at the start, for the infantrymen forded the creek and gained the crest of the hill on which the hamlet was located against little opposition; but when the men tried to continue down the reverse slope, the story was different. Heavy machine gun fire drove them back across the crest.
Here the attack was stalled for several hours until engineers at last succeeded in preparing a crossing site for the tanks, ten of which immediately forded the stream and joined the infantry to provide the impetus the attack needed. As the tanks rumbled down the reverse slope of Hill 108, part of the enemy surrendered while the rest fled toward Castellonorato.
With the capture of Hill 108, the way was clear for Colonel Hughes' reserve battalion to make a final attack on the town, but the setbacks encountered earlier forced a postponement until the following morning. On the 15th, shortly before the assault on Castellonorato was to begin, aircraft from the XII TAC roared over the front. Beyond a bomb line laid down only a thousand yards ahead of the infantry, a flight of six fighter-bombers struck the objective. While smoke and dust hung heavily over the town, Hughes' men quickly entered, but despite the aerial bombardment it still took several hours of street fighting to clear the place. By midnight Castellonorato was free of the enemy.
While the 337th fought for Castellonorato, a battalion from the 338th Infantry moved down from the Cave d'Argilla and quickly occupied Monte Penitro, situated over one mile to the west and overlooking the Ausonia corridor road a mile northeast of Highway 7. Routing a small enemy detachment, the battalion also captured the village of Penitro and continued down the Ausonia road to Santa Croce, a hamlet located at the junction of the road with the coastal highway. The capture of Castellonorato, Monte Penitro, and the Santa Croce road junction carried the 85th Division--with it the II Corps--all the way through the Gustav Line on the seaward slope of the mountains. Thus outflanked, the enemy's defenses astride Highway 7 on the coastal plain near Monte Scauri were no longer tenable.25
The Germans Prepare To Withdraw
Recognizing the portent of this penetration for the entire German right wing, the acting XIV Panzer Corps commander, General Hartmann, issued the usual injunction to General Steinmetz to contain the breach at all costs, at the same time reporting to the Tenth Army headquarters that without reinforcements a clear American breakthrough,
comparable to that which had already taken place in the French sector, was inevitable. Hartmann urged either reinforcing the 94th Division with a separate panzer grenadier regiment that was patrolling the coast on the Gaeta peninsula or authorizing the corps to fall back about two miles immediately to the Dora switch position. Despite those recommendations, General von Vietinghoff, the army commander, newly returned from his leave, authorized nothing more than withdrawal during the night of 15 May of the 94th Division's artillery.26
While failing to obtain permission to withdraw all of the 94th Division, General Hartmann nevertheless saw the authorization for artillery displacement as a harbinger of eventual approval. Relaying the instructions to Steinmetz, Hartmann hinted that orders for such a move would soon be forthcoming.
To support the crumbling front and cover the expected general withdrawal, Steinmetz managed to assemble three infantry companies from the now untenable Monte Scauri salient, along with a platoon of heavy antitank guns from the vicinity of Formia, five miles west of Scauri. Those units he rushed into positions southwest of Castellonorato. Yet Steinmetz's center continued to give way. A real danger began to loom that the Americans might overrun the Dora Line even before the Germans could occupy it. For Steinmetz, the only bright spot was the arrival within his lines of survivors from a company that had fought out of an encirclement on Hill 79, south of San Martino Hill.
Keyes Reinforces His Left
General Hartmann was not alone in recognizing the portents of the capture of Hill 108 and the fall of Castellonorato. General Keyes too realized their significance. He also realized that at this point the more favorable terrain of the mountain slopes overlooking the coastal corridor rather than the inhospitable Aurunci Mountains offered the best opportunity for exploiting the II Corps' success in the Gustav Line. Accordingly, during the night of 15 May, Keyes gave first priority on artillery and armored support to the 85th Division, thereby transforming what was to have been the secondary attack on the left into the main attack. Thenceforth the momentum of the II Corps was directed along the axis of the Castellonorato-Maranola road, the latter village located two and a half miles due west of Castellonorato. Keyes hoped thereby to outflank Formia, four miles up the coastal highway, which controlled the road junction leading to the enemy's second line of lateral communications, Route 82. Indications are that Keyes had not consulted Clark on this decision, for the latter had authorized use of the 85th Division only as far as Monte Campese, and Maranola lies a mile to the northwest and Formia over two miles to the southwest.27
By early morning of 16 May, the French Expeditionary Corps as well as the U.S. II Corps had broken through the Gustav Line between the Liri valley and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Earlier, following its success against the 71st Division at Monte Majo on the 13th, the FEC, on
the Fifth Army's right wing, had fought across the Ausonia corridor, captured the Ausonia defile leading into the Liri valley, and advanced over the northern half of the Petrella massif into the heart of the Aurunci Mountains. The net effect of the successful II Corps-FEC strike had been to outflank the strongest parts of the Gustav Line, those along the Tyrrhenian coast and in the Liri valley.
A total of more than 3,000 casualties--1,100 of which were incurred during the first forty-eight hours of the offensive by the 85th Division--surpassed the II Corps' losses in the hard fought battle for Monte Cassino during the preceding winter campaign. The replacement system employed by both the 85th and 88th Divisions nevertheless enabled the corps to make up the losses quickly and maintain the momentum of the offensive.28
Progress in the Liri Valley
The Eighth Army, meanwhile, had also begun to move. On the 14th General Leese had assembled the 1st Canadian Corps behind the 13 Corps' left wing preparatory to sending the Canadians across the Rapido to take part in the forthcoming exploitation toward the Hitler Line. Even as the U.S. II Corps was battering through the Gustav Line's last defenses on the night of 15 May, so too in the Liri valley the British 13 Corps broke through the last of the Gustav Line's positions. That night the Canadian corps began crossing the Rapido.29
The next day the 78th Division completed its passage of the 4th Division's lines and launched its long-delayed attack to cut Highway 6 southwest of Cassino. During the day the 78th Division made such good progress that General Leese ordered the Polish corps on Monte Cassino to resume its postponed attack the following morning.
Accordingly, early on the 17th, the British in the valley and the Poles in the mountains launched a pincers attack against the surviving enemy positions on Monte Cassino and in the town at its base. By afternoon the 78th Division had cut the highway southwest of Monte Cassino and the Poles and seized the Colle Sant'Angelo Ridge north of the abbey. Only two escape routes--along the Monte Cassino-Massa Albeneta Ridge and the flanks of the hills overlooking the highway--remained open. The Cassino position was now clearly untenable. Field Marshal Kesselring acknowledged this fact by ordering General Vietinghoff to withdraw from that position the 1st Parachute Division. Within minutes after Kesselring's order was radioed to the Tenth Army on the night of the 17th, British Intelligence had deciphered the message and in turn radioed the welcome news to Churchill, Alexander, and the U.S. Chiefs of Staff.30
Throughout the day aircraft of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces flew about 200 sorties in support of the
MONTE CASSINO MONASTERY SHORTLY AFTER ITS CAPTURE
Polish attack on Monte Cassino. Targets were enemy mortar and artillery positions in the vicinity of Villa Santa Lucia, Passa Corno, and Piedimonte Roccasecca (features north and west of Monte Cassino), as well as the command posts of the 1st Parachute and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions and some troops assembling for a counterattack to cover the planned withdrawal of parachutists. The counterattack came that night from the neighborhood of the Villa Santa Lucia, a mountain village about two miles northwest of the abbey and was aimed at the Polish troops on the Colle Sant'Angelo Ridge. It enabled the Germans, as the Polish corps commander, General Anders, had feared, to withdraw over the remaining escape routes. Consequently, on the morning of the 18th, when a patrol from the 12th Podolski Lancers, advancing along a ridge from the Colle d'Onufrio southeast of the abbey, reached its objective, it found only thirty badly wounded German soldiers with several medical orderlies quietly awaiting capture in the massive ruins of the abbey. At 1020 the Polish lancers hoisted their standard over Monte Cassino, thus ending the fourth in a series of battles for the height which had begun on 17 January 1944 when the U.S. 36th Infantry Division had fought its way across the Rapido.
With the capture of Monte Majo by the French on 13 May, of Spigno and Castellonorato by the Americans on the 15th, and, finally, on the 18th, of Monte Cassino by the Poles, the Allies could claim a complete collapse of the Gustav Line. General Leese's Eighth Army was now poised to move against the towns of Pontecorvo, Aquino, and
Piedimonte San Germano, strongpoints in that sector of the Hitler Line astride the Liri valley. Two days earlier General Clark's Fifth Army had begun its exploitation to the Hitler Line. That meant an advance across the Aurunci Mountains and the seaward slopes in order to reach that part of the enemy's second line of defense lying between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Liri valley.
The German Reaction
From the very start of the Allied offensive, Field Marshal Kesselring, despite considerable effort on the part of his staff, had been unable to obtain an accurate picture of the situation on his southern front. He bitterly demanded that his senior commanders on that front, Vietinghoff and Senger, hastily summoned from their leaves in Germany in response to the emergency, give him the needed information. "It is intolerable," he fumed at one point, "that a division is engaged in combat for one and a half days without knowing what is going on in its sector." Fighting a desperate defensive battle, the Tenth Army had captured only a few Allied prisoners while losing over 2,000 of its own men as prisoners of war. Little wonder that German division commanders were unable to give their superiors a clear picture of the forces pressing against their positions.31
Not until the 14th had Vietinghoff determined that eleven and not six Allied divisions, as German intelligence officers had originally believed, were trying to break through his front. He also suspected that Alexander was holding twelve additional divisions in readiness for exploitation of any penetration.32
Shortly after the beginning of the offensive the Germans had identified at the front a number of Allied divisions previously presumed to be in rear areas. Yet they still believed as late as the 14th that the U.S. 36th Infantry, Canadian 1st Infantry, and South African 6th Armoured Divisions were in the vicinity of Naples, possibly preparing for another amphibious landing. Field Marshal Alexander's deception plan had done its work. OB Suedwest's G-2 also believed that on the island of Corsica one American and three French divisions were being held in readiness as a forward echelon of a large strategic reserve in North Africa, earmarked for landings either in southern France or on the Ligurian coast of Italy. When on 15 May German agents in Bari reported an unusually large concentration of Allied ships in that port, concern arose briefly at Kesselring's headquarters that the Allies might launch an amphibious attack against the Adriatic flank in co-ordination with a breakout attempt from the Anzio beachhead.33 The ships actually were bringing in supplies for the British forces in Italy.
Because of this faulty estimate of Allied troop dispositions, a problem that would plague the German command
in Italy throughout the campaign, Kesselring and his staff persistently worried about the possibility of an amphibious landing somewhere along the Tyrrhenian flank. Partly this concern was the fruit of the Allied deception plan which deliberately sought to foster concern in the enemy. Consequently, during the first critical days of the Allied offensive, Kesselring had been unwilling to authorize more than piecemeal commitment of his reserves, and had forfeited his only opportunity for checking the Allied armies before their offensive acquired an irresistible momentum.
Not until 15 May did the Germans identify the Canadian 1st Infantry Division and the South African 6th Armoured Division opposite the entrance to the Liri valley. Only then did Kesselring belatedly realize that the supposed Allied concentration in the vicinity of Naples no longer existed. His apprehension alleviated, on the 16th he ordered the 26th Panzer Division, as he had earlier the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, to move from the vicinity of Rome southeastward into the Tenth Army's sector.34 Since Kesselring rated those divisions, together with the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, as among his best, the shift indicated an even greater awareness of the seriousness of the Allied gains on the southern front. Yet Kesselring hesitated to release control of the 26th Panzer Division to Vietinghoff, holding it instead as a part of Army Group C's reserve even as the division began to move southward.35
Over the next few days Army Group C alerted additional units--among them the 1027th Grenadier and 8th Grenadier Regiments of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division--for movement to the Tenth Army's sector. In the Tenth Army Vietinghoff ordered the 305th and 334th Divisions on the army's Adriatic flank to shift units to the Liri valley. Movement of those reinforcements, however, was considerably delayed by Allied air attacks.36
At Supreme Headquarters in Germany, Hitler had on the 15th been briefed on the renewed fighting on the distant Italian front. He immediately ordered the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division to move from Germany to reinforce the OKW reserves in northern Italy. Yet like his commander in Italy, Hitler remained uncertain about actual Allied intentions there. He therefore placed strong restrictions on the employment of the reserve units; they were to be used only in event of an Allied landing on the Ligurian coast, a possibility that the German command in Italy had already begun to discount. Such hesitancy on the part of both the OKW and Army Group C in reacting to the gathering momentum of the Allied offensive boded ill for re-establishing a stabilized front south of Rome, as in the previous winter.
1. Operations of British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, Sec. B. Unless otherwise noted this and the following section are based upon this reference.
2. LI Mtn Corps, Ia KTB, Nr. 2, 14 May 44, LI Mtn Corps Doc. No. 55779/1.
3. Ibid., 15 May 44; G. W. L. Nicholson, "Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War," vol. II, The Canadians in Italy, 1943-1945 (Ottawa: Edmund Clothier. G.M.C., O.O., D.S.P., 1956), p. 406.
4. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH.
5. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WPSt, KTB, pp. 488-91.
6. Clark Diary, 13 May 44.
7. Memo, Hq, II Corps, 13 May 44, sub: Conference of Corps and Division Commanders at 0730, in II Corps G-3 Jnl.
9. Clark Diary, 14 May 44.
10. Unless otherwise indicated the following tactical narrative is based upon official records of the 85th and 88th Divisions and the II Corps.
11. Telephone Log, 351st Inf Jnl, 13 May 44.
12. Msg 118, 133235, CO, 351st Inf, to CG, 88th Div, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, 11-15 May 44, vol. 4, incl. 7.
13. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH. Unless otherwise indicated this section is based upon this reference.
14. Ltr, Gen Kdo LI Mtn Corps, Ia 484/44g.Kdos, 14.v.44 to AOK 10, in AOK 10 KTB Nr. 6, Band V, Anlagen 723, 11-20 May 44, AOK 10, Doc. 53271/8.
15. II Corps G-3 Jnl, 11-13 May 44.
16. Ibid., 11-16 May 44.
17. WD Hist Div, Small Unit Actions (Washington, 1946), p. 157.
18. 88th Div G-2 Rpt No. 51, 141300B May 44, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7; II Corps G-3 Jnl, May 44. Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon the latter reference.
19. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH.
20. 349th Inf Opns Report, May 44.
21. Ibid.; II Corps G-3 Jnl, 11-16 May 44.
22. Clark Diary, 15 May 44; Fifth Army G-3 Jnl, 15-16 May 44; Fifth Army 0I 18, 15 May 44.
23. II Corps G-3 Jnl, 11-16 May 44.
24. 88th Div Directive (sgd Sloan), 15 May 44; 85th Div FO 6 (sgd Coulter), 15 May 44; II Corps G-3 Periodic Rpt (sgd Col Butchers, G-3), 15 May 44.
25. 337th Inf Rpt of Opns, 14-15 May 44; 338th Inf Rpt of Opns, 14-15 May 44; 85th Div Rpt of Opns, 14-15 May 44.
26. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH. Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon this reference.
27. Clark Diary, 15 May 44.
28. 85th Div G-1 Rpt of Opns, May 44; 88th Div LO Rpt to G-3, 15 May 44; 88th Div G-1 Rpt of Opns, May 44.
29. Operations of British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, Sec. B. Unless otherwise indicated the following section is based upon this reference.
30. See Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, p. 116.
31. Telecon, Lt Col v. Ingelheim, Ia, OB Suedwest, to AOK 10, 0955, 15.V44, in AOK 10 KTB Nr. 6, Band V, Anlagen 725, Doc. 53271/8. Through intercepts of Enigma messages, the Allied command was well aware of the disarray at Kesselring's headquarters. See Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, p. 116.
32. Comments on Inspection of LI Mtn Corps by Tenth Army CINC, 14 May 44, in AOK 10, Ia KTB Nr. 6, Band V, Anlagen 719, 11-20 May 44, AOK 10, Doc. 53271/8.
33. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, KTB, p. 489.
34. MS # R-50 (Bailey), CMH.
36. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, KTB, p. 490.