Breakthrough on the Southern Front
The Eighth Army's Advance to the Hitler Line
With both Allied armies having broken through the Gustav Line, Field Marshal Alexander's next concern was to close with and assault the Hitler Line, the enemy's second line of defense, before the Germans could dig in. The Hitler Line, especially in the Liri valley, was formidable and if fully manned could be even more of an obstacle than the Gustav Line.
The main defenses extended from the hill town of Piedimonte San Germano, about four miles west of Cassino at the northern edge of the Liri valley, in a westerly direction to the vicinity of Aquino, then turned southward paralleling a secondary road for two and a half miles as far as Pontecorvo. Between Aquino and Pontecorvo the defensive zone varied in depth from 500 to 1,000 yards. Supplementing some of the natural obstacles found on the valley floor, such as the Forme d'Aquino, a tributary of the Liri, was a discontinuous antitank ditch, created by blowing craters that were rapidly filled by the high water table. There were also antitank mine fields with belts of barbed wire in the front and rear. Covered by fields of fire from automatic weapons, these wire belts would present a tough obstacle to engineers and infantry seeking to clear paths through the mines for armor. Scattered along the forward edge of the defensive zone were numerous prefabricated armored pillboxes, capable of holding two men and a light machine gun. The line's main defensive zone consisted of an intricate system of reinforced concrete gun emplacements and satellite weapons pits, all linked by tunnels or communications trenches. Adding to antitank defenses were nine Panther tank turrets on concrete bases with underground living quarters for the crews. The turrets had a 360° traverse, and two or three mobile antitank guns were echeloned to their flanks. A total of sixty-two antitank guns, of which twenty-five were self-propelled, were available. Deep shelters, having concrete roofs five inches thick and covered with up to twenty feet of earth, gave the defenders excellent protection against air and artillery bombardment.1
As formidable as the positions were they were weakened by the failure of the Germans to clear fields of fire through lush, untended vegetation that had grown up since the spring. Yet a greater handicap was the lack of an adequate number of troops to man the positions.
Approach and Breakthrough
The Hitler Line
15-23 May 1944
In the Liri valley the Hitler Line would be defended by the 1st Parachute Division, in the Piedimonte San Germano area, and the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, which since the 16th had replaced the battered 44th Infantry Division, in the sector between Aquino and Pontecorvo. The parachute and infantry divisions had already incurred heavy casualties in defense of the Gustav Line. The latter division, for example, now encompassed in addition to its organic units a motley collection of dismounted panzer troops as well as various engineer units, all pressed into service as infantrymen. The sector of the Hitler Line south of the Liri valley between Pontecorvo and Pico was held by the recently committed 26th Panzer Division.
General Alexander hoped that the French Expeditionary Corps, advancing rapidly through the mountains overlooking the valley from the south, and the Polish corps, advancing along the flanks of the mountains overlooking the valley from the north, might be able to turn the Hitler Line from the north and south and force the Germans to withdraw, as they had from the Gustav Line, thereby sparing the Eighth Army the necessity of making a set-piece frontal attack against the strongest sectors of the line in the valley.2
Meanwhile, early on the 18th, General Leese, hoping to overwhelm the Germans before they reached the shelter of the Hitler Line, sent the British 78th Division hurrying seven miles west along Highway 6 to capture the town of Aquino, located on the near bank of the Forme d'Aquino and on a secondary road about a mile and a half south of the main highway. The division reached the town in the afternoon and immediately attacked. But the Germans, veterans of the defense of Monte Cassino, had already occupied the Hitler Line positions and repulsed the attack with heavy fire. Reluctant to continue during the night, the British settled down to await armored support, plus a thrust by the 1st Canadian Division toward Pontecorvo. (Map IV)
Early on the 19th a ground fog offered welcome concealment to the attacking troops. The 78th Division got off to a good start, but unlike Joshua, Leese was unable to halt the sun in its course. When the sun burned the fog away, the advancing troops found themselves on open terrain with little cover and exposed to heavy and accurate fire from well-sited enemy antitank guns. The fire drove the accompanying armor from the field and left the infantry alone to face heavy automatic weapons and mortar fire. Under those conditions the infantry was unable to continue and fell back to its line of departure. In the meantime, the 1st Canadian Division's attack toward Pontecorvo stalled partly for lack of sufficient artillery support, which had been largely engaged in backing up the assault on Aquino. Traffic congestion, aggravated by a paucity of roads and trails, added to the problem.
The failure of the initial assaults on Aquino and Pontecorvo dashed General Alexander's hope of outracing the Germans to their second line of defense. There now seemed no alternative to an all-out set-piece attack against the Hitler Line.
The Fifth Army's Advance to the Hitler Line
The terrain in the Fifth Army's zone was far more rugged than that in the Liri valley, yet General Clark's troops experienced less trouble than did General Leese's in advancing to and closing with the Hitler Line. While few roads or trails crossed the Aurunci Mountains, neither did the mountains harbor many enemy troops. Aerial reconnaissance, supported by prisoner of war interrogations, had disclosed such a dearth of enemy that the Fifth Army's two corps could approach their tasks of crossing the wilderness of rock and scrub oak with considerable confidence.
Their first goals were the road junctions of Itri and Pico, key points on the enemy's second lateral line of communications (Route 82), and, in the case of Pico, a strongpoint in the Hitler Line, which, opposite the Fifth Army, extended some twenty miles from its anchor at Terracina on the Tyrrhenian coast northeastward across the mountains via Fondi to Pico, on the southern edge of the Liri valley. Capture of Itri, the II Corps' objective, would give Keyes control over Highway 7 and the southern half of the enemy's second lateral route of communications. The key to Itri was Monte Grande, a dominating height just northwest of the town. Twelve miles north of Monte Grande lies Pico, the second important road junction and immediate goal of the FEC. An integral part of the German defense system, Pico was a hinge of that part of the Hitler Line passing through Piedimonte, Aquino, and Pontecorvo.
On 15 May Clark had directed Keyes, in co-ordination with Juin's drive across the Aurunci Mountains, to send the II Corps as rapidly as possible to capture Itri and then attack the sector of the Hitler Line between Fondi and Terracina. Clark directed Juin to make his major effort against a sector of the enemy's defenses south of Pico, where Clark believed it to be the weakest opposite the Fifth Army front.3
Spigno, on the southern shoulder of the Petrella massif, lay within the II Corps zone, but Keyes agreed on 16 May to share the village with the French as a point of departure for the advance across the mountains. The steep, tortuous road leading across the escarpment to the village soon became jammed with American infantry, French colonial troops, mules, and motor vehicles of many types, all winding westward through billowing clouds of dust.4
The II Corps was to advance in parallel columns: Sloan's 88th Division through the Aurunci Mountains and, echeloned to the left, Coulter's 85th Division moving across the seaward slopes of the mountains toward Maranola and Formia, the latter on the coast about seven miles southwest of Castellonorato.5 General Sloan selected Colonel Champeny's 351st Infantry to lead the 88th Division across the mountains. Champeny's route of march was across the southern half of the Petrella massif to Monte Sant'Angelo and Ruazzo, about three and six miles, respectively, west of Spigno.
Guided by two local peasants, the two lead battalions started out early on the 16th for Monte Sant'Angelo. Moving rapidly, the battalions soon outdistanced their telephone lines, and even radios could function satisfactorily only after the setting up of intermediate relay stations on the mountaintops. By noon Champeny's infantrymen, encountering only scattered and light resistance, had reached Monte Sant'Angelo. Although the regimental commander wanted to pause there for a rest, an urgent radio message from corps prompted him to rush his men westward during the late afternoon toward their second objective, Monte Ruazzo.6
As the two battalions of the 351st Infantry moved toward Route 82, the Itri-Pico road, Senger, the XIV Panzer Corps commander, strengthened his positions along that road with a scratch force of self-propelled guns and motorized infantry, a force hardly able to do more than check the Americans briefly as they emerged from the mountains.
On 17 May, as the seriousness of Senger's situation in the mountains became evident at Army Group C headquarters at Frascati, in the Alban Hills some ten miles south of Rome, Kesselring, still glancing anxiously over his shoulder at his coastal flank and the Anzio beachhead, finally decided to do something about the Tenth Army's right wing. The German commander authorized Vietinghoff to shift a reconnaissance battalion from the Liri valley to reinforce Steinmetz's hard-pressed infantry in the Aurunci Mountains. "Otherwise," Kesselring remarked to the Tenth Army commander, "Steinmetz will not be able to get the situation in the mountains straightened out."7
On the morning of the 17th, Colonel Champeny's men gained the summit of Monte Ruazzo. Pausing only briefly, they resumed their advance in the late afternoon toward Monte Grande, the high ground overlooking Itri. When early the next morning the Americans approached the Itri-Pico road, they ran head on into fire from a force of tanks and self-propelled guns hastily assembled by General Senger to defend the road. Surprised by the heavy fire, Champeny's men had no choice but to halt, for their artillery was too far to the rear to be of help. Only when the regiment's reserve battalion arrived and artillery came within supporting distance could the 351st Infantry resume its advance.8
Forward displacement of the 88th Division's artillery depended upon the progress of the neighboring 85th Division advancing across the seaward slopes of the Aurunci Mountains, the only area where roads and trails were to be found over which the guns and their prime movers might pass. While General Sloan's division threaded its way over the mountains toward the Itri-Pico road, General Coulter's 85th Division advanced in two columns along the corps' left wing. One column moved astride the coastal highway toward Formia and the other, slightly ahead of the first, crossed the seaward slopes of the Aurunci Mountains toward Maranola, at the foot of Monte Campese and
VIEW OF ITRI
about three miles west of Castellonorato. On the afternoon of the 17th the 337th Infantry, 85th Division, after scaling Monte Campese, descended its northwestern ridge to take Maranola before dusk. That move cut the only lateral road leading to Formia, about two miles to the southwest.9
Meanwhile, Juin's Moroccans and Algerians closed in on Pico. After crossing the northern flanks of the Aurunci Mountains from the Ausonia corridor on the 17th, the French reached the outskirts of Esperia, whence they overlooked the Liri valley. Early the next morning, as the Eighth Army began its race for the Hitler Line in the Liri valley, the Algerians swarmed out of the mountains and into Esperia, while elements of General Sevez's provisional mountain corps moved to within artillery range of Pico. In the mountains five miles west of Esperia, between Monte Faggeto and the Sierra del Lago,
some French units had actually made two slight penetrations of a lightly defended sector of the Hitler Line.10
It was no longer possible for the Germans to establish a line east of their second lateral communications road. Furthermore, most German troop movements in the rear had become almost as hazardous as those in the front. During daylight hours, flights of fighter-bombers of the XII TAC freely roamed the skies, bombing and strafing virtually everything that moved behind the German lines, and depriving the enemy of the tactical moblity so vital to his defense. The Allied aircraft, after completing the destruction of Itri, knocked out two bridges northeast of the town and one to the southwest of Pico.11
As the Americans drew near Itri and Monte Grande and the French closed in on Pico, Vietinghoff's chief of staff, General Wentzell, told General Westphal, Kesselring's chief of staff, that Raapke had reported that his 71st Division had only 100 infantry effectives left.12 Westphal promised an allocation of replacements as soon as possible, but it was too late. On the afternoon of the 18th Kesselring himself belatedly recognized that loss of the XIV Panzer Corps' mountain sector was only a matter of hours away, which meant that Vietinghoff had to withdraw the Tenth Army's entire right wing or face envelopment. Pivoting on Pico, which was to be held, that sector between Pico and Itri was to be withdrawn slowly west of the lateral road connecting the two towns. To reinforce the Tenth Army's right flank, which could be exposed by the maneuver, Kesselring was forced a second time to dip into his reserves. He directed the Fourteenth Army (Mackensen)to release to Vietinghoff the following day the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division from the Fourteenth Army's reserve.13 Like the recently committed 26th Panzer Division, this too was one of Army Group C's better units.
Their confidence in the mountains as an obstacle to the Allied advance shattered, the Germans were also in for some surprises along the Tyrrhenian coast, where the 337th Infantry's capture of Maranola had outflanked their positions east of Formia. Thus the 338th Infantry, advancing astride Highway 7, was able to catch up with and eventually overtake its neighboring regiment in the mountains on the right. The 338th Infantry captured Formia against only scattered resistance on the afternoon of the 18th and continued on to the important junction of the coastal highway with the Itri-Pico road, less than a mile away. There was no opposition. Acting on Kesselring's orders to Vietinghoff, General von Senger had already ordered a withdrawal to a line extending about four miles southwest from Itri to Monte Moneta. From that line, which was only a delaying position, the Germans were to fall back to a line between Fondi and Terracina, the remaining strongpoints of the Hitler Line on the Tenth Army's right flank. Only a
U.S. INFANTRY APPROACHING ITRI
rear guard remained at Itri and on Monte Grande.
The withdrawal in the coastal corridor came none too soon, for the 88th Division's leading regiment, the 351st Infantry, was about to cut the last escape route along Highway 7. During the afternoon and evening of the 18th the 351st Infantry's reserve battalion arrived before Itri and the 601st and 697th Artillery Battalions, moving up from Maranola, drew within range of the Germans even as they were preparing to withdraw to their first delaying positions between Itri and Monte Moneta.
At that point, Colonel Champeny's infantrymen, well supported by artillery, attacked at dawn on the 19th. Opposed only by a rear guard, the Americans easily occupied Monte Grande by midmorning.14
The first pack train to reach Colonel Champeny's 351st Regiment in three days arrived after a 14-mile march across the mountain trails from Spigno. The ninety mules making up the train brought the weary infantrymen their
GERMAN PRISONERS CAPTURED AT ITRI
first resupply of rations, ammunition, and signal equipment since they had begun their march on the afternoon of the 15th.15
While the men cut the Itri-Pico road and dug in atop Monte Grande, advance patrols of Colonel Crawford's 349th Infantry, which had moved up from Maranola during the night, entered Itri and found it leveled. By early afternoon on the 19th the regiment had captured or driven away a few Germans lurking in the ruins.
All across the II Corps front the enemy was breaking contact and withdrawing toward the Hitler Line. Anticipating that the withdrawal would lead Clark to consider the possibility of a linkup by the II Corps with the Anzio beachhead, General Keyes directed General Sloan to form a task force consisting of a motorized infantry battalion, reinforced by self-propelled artillery, tanks, and engineers. The force was to be prepared to capture Fondi,
seven miles northwest of Itri, and block a secondary route from the coast to the Liri valley--the Lenola-Valle Corsa road where it passes through a narrow defile four miles north of Fondi--as preliminaries to an assault on the Hitler Line and a thrust to the beachhead.16
Meanwhile, General Coulter had sent the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron southwest along the coast to the 18th century Neapolitan seaside stronghold of Gaeta. Ranging freely and virtually unopposed, the squadron entered the port on the 19th. From Gaeta the force pushed northwestward eight miles along coastal roads to enter Sperlonga the next day.
As General Sloan assembled his mobile task force for the drive on Fondi and possible exploitation toward the Anzio beachhead, General Clark weighed the choices before him. Only one day earlier he had directed Keyes to hold all but one regiment of Coulter's division at Formia to await movement by sea to Anzio. Should the entire II Corps attempt a breakthrough of the Hitler Line between Fondi and Terracina and then continue on to Anzio, or should Keyes merely close up to the line without attacking while Clark withdrew the 85th Division and other elements of the II Corps for movement to the Anzio beachhead by water?
Clark hesitated. On the 18th he had received a message from Alexander, who was understandably concerned about the Eighth Army's progress in the Liri valley and uncertain just how vigorously the Germans would defend the Hitler Line. He ordered Clark to be prepared to change the axis of his army's advance to the north. He was to be ready to send the II Corps as well as the FEC toward the Ceprano road junction of Routes 6 and 82 in the Liri valley to threaten the German line of communications in the valley. Next day General Alexander became painfully aware about how staunchly the Germans would defend the Hitler Line. The British 78th Division was thrown back at Aquino and the French were halted before Pico by elements of the 26th Panzer Division, which Kesselring had ordered to replace the battered 71st Division on that part of the front.17
Although Clark shared Alexander's uncertainty about how strongly the Germans would attempt to hold the Hitler Line, the Fifth Army commander understandably had less concern for the Eighth Army's problems in the Liri valley than for his own. Clark's attention was focused on the Hitler Line between Fondi and Terracina. If the II Corps were to link with the beachhead, Keyes would have to break through soon. The Fifth Army staff had estimated that it would require four days to move the 36th Division to Anzio by sea and almost a week to shift the 85th Division and other parts of the II Corps. Such a delay would afford the Germans a welcome respite. When, on the 20th, the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron, after having taken Gaeta the day before, probed brusquely into Fondi and, before retiring, found the town weakly defended--no troops of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division destined for that part of the front had
yet arrived--Clark had his answer. He decided, notwithstanding Alexander's concern for Eighth Army's difficulties in the Liri valley, to take advantage of the enemy's apparent weakness along the coastal flank and throw the weight of Keyes' corps into a drive up the narrow coastal corridor toward a junction with the beachhead. Juin's corps would, Clark believed, be sufficient to force the Germans to relax their defense opposite the Eighth Army.18
Breakthrough of the Hitler Line
Clark's decision to disregard Alexander's operational concept was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the American commander, taking advantage of rapidly changing opportunities, followed a course of action at variance with that originally envisioned by Alexander. In this instance, after being advised by Clark of the change, Alexander did not object. He had held as loose a rein on Montgomery in the Western Desert. This was the Allied commander's style of command. It had brought success to the Alexander-Montgomery team in North Africa, and Alexander expected that it would work in Italy with an equally independent subordinate. In any case, the Fifth Army was advancing toward the long-sought junction with the Anzio beachhead, and the Eighth Army was preparing to launch a major set-piece attack against the Hitler Line.19 In preparation for that attack General Leese had shifted the burden from the British 13 Corps (78 Division) to the 1st Canadian Corps, which was to make the main effort in the sector immediately north of Pontecorvo. The former was to maintain pressure against Aquino and be prepared to advance abreast of the Canadians after the breakthrough.
Alexander had selected the night of 21 May, or early on the 22d, for the beginning of the attack, indicating that he expected the operation in the Liri valley to coincide with the beginnings of the U.S. VI Corps' breakout offensive from the Anzio beachhead.20
Meanwhile, on the 19th the Polish corps, on the 13 Corps' right, had advanced four miles beyond Monte Cassino to capture an enemy strongpoint, the Villa Santa Lucia. From there the Poles prepared to continue their progress the next day toward the northern anchor of the Hitler Line at Piedimonte San Germano.
Preparing for his imminent set-piece attack on the Hitler Line, General Leese brought forward units from his reserve. The 8th Indian Division, which had been relieved earlier by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, began moving on the 19th from east of the Rapido to an assembly area behind the Canadian corps' sector. Concurrently, the British 6th Armoured Division also departed the army reserve to take part in the exploitation of the expected breakthrough of the Hitler Line. With those units under way, together with
the normal supply traffic in support of the offensive, the few roads and trails behind the army front soon became congested with monumental and virtually uncontrollable traffic jams.
Traffic control problems were not, however, peculiar to the Eighth Army. On the same day that General Keyes assembled his forces for an assault on the Hitler Line at a point between Fondi and Terracina, he directed the troops still on the mountains to move at once southward through Itri. That order precipitated a traffic jam near the Itri road junction of Routes 7 and 82, as the infantry from the 88th Division, descending the mountains on the 19th became intermingled with elements of the 88th Division's motorized task force assembling to move on Fondi. For almost eight hours a tangle of motor vehicles, pack trains, and troops blocked the main road and held Sloan's task force east of the Itri junction more effectively than the enemy could then have done. Not until the following morning was the snarl untangled.21
Once again, as in the early hours of the May offensive when the FEC's capture of Monte Majo had been the break that had loosened up the entire German defenses, the French were to be the first to break through the enemy line. On the 20th, despite heavy fog and stubborn resistance from elements of the 26th Panzer Division, the 3d Algerian Infantry Division, reinforced with armor, penetrated the Hitler Line southwest of Pico and drove the enemy from the heights overlooking the town from the south. That evening the Algerians gained a foothold in the town itself. The Germans held off the attacking troops until the afternoon of the 22d, but the pressure was too great. Fighting on throughout the night, the Algerians drove the last of the enemy from the town by morning of the 23d.22
As Clark had foreseen, it would be the French breakthrough at Pico that would soon pay important dividends both in the Liri valley and on the Tyrrhenian flank, for in the attempt to hold Pico, Vietinghoff had been forced to bring up substantial parts of the 15th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions from the Liri valley where they might have manned the Hitler Line against the Eighth Army. Moreover, Senger's preoccupation with the defense of Pico had prevented him from countering the threat posed by Keyes' II Corps to that part of the Hitler Line between Fondi and Terracina.23
In General Alexander's opinion, the critical stage of the spring offensive had been reached on the morning of 23 May. The French had captured Pico, the hinge and vital connecting link between the sector of the Hitler Line that lay across the Liri valley and that still blocked the way to the II Corps' junction with the Anzio beachhead. Also on the 23d, the Eighth Army's 1st Canadian Corps was about to launch an all-out set-piece attack against the Pontecorvo sector of the Hitler Line, while on the coastal flank astride Highway 7 the Fifth Army's II Corps was about to
enter Terracina. And that same morning the Fifth Army's VI Corps had begun its long-awaited breakout offensive from the Anzio beachhead.
For the assault on the Hitler Line the Eighth Army commander had assigned the 1st Canadian Corps a sector extending northward from the Liri to a point near Aquino, which remained the objective of the British 13 Corps. General Leese's over-all concept envisioned a breakthrough of the Hitler Line by the Canadian corps at Pontecorvo, while the FEC, after capturing Pico, would thrust toward Ceprano to menace the enemy's line of communications in the upper Liri valley. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division was, in the meantime, to be prepared to exploit the breakthrough at Pontecorvo by an advance toward Ceprano.24
Behind a rolling barrage fired by 810 guns, the Canadians launched their attack against Pontecorvo at dawn on the 23d. Taking cover in the deep shelters in the sector opposite the Canadians were four grenadier and two engineer battalions, as well as a field replacement battalion, all under the command of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division. The 1st Parachute Division, with two parachute infantry regiments in line, awaited the British 13 Corps' attack at Aquino.
Meanwhile, the haze that had covered the valley in the morning had changed to rain, turning the battlefield, already pocked by heavy artillery fire, into a morass. Only after severe fighting did the Canadians by nightfall at last blast a hole in the Hitler Line about a mile northeast of Pontecorvo. By daylight on the 24th the enemy was gone from the town.
Casualties were heavy, especially in the 1st Division's 2d Brigade, which led the attack. In the Allied attack a total of 513 men were killed or wounded, yet the enemy incurred even heavier losses. The Canadians took 540 prisoners and estimated even a larger number to be killed or wounded. Only at Aquino did the Germans throughout the 23d and the 24th repulse all assaults against the Hitler Line, but thereby they denied the Eighth Army the only good road in the valley, Highway 6.
While the 78th Division fought on at Aquino, the Canadian corps swept through Pontecorvo on the 24th and by nightfall had advanced five miles beyond to the near bank of the Melfa River, a southward-flowing tributary of the Liri. That night the Canadians forced a crossing of the river. Ceprano, the goal of both the French and the Canadians, lay only five miles away.
Meanwhile, throughout the 25th, the German delaying action at Aquino and Piedimonte San Germano continued to deny the Eighth Army use of Highway 6. Thus blocked, the Canadian 5th Armoured Division and the British 6th Armoured Division, as well as all other traffic in support of the offensive, had to take the already overcrowded and rapidly deteriorating secondary roads and trails in the valley, so that traffic jams continued to cause delay and confusion as the Canadians widened their bridgehead beyond the Melfa. Covered by a rare air strike the Germans, during the night of 25 May, took
advantage of the slow Allied advance to evacuate both Aquino and Piedimonte San Germano, but they failed to demolish two bridges in Aquino that the British were quick to use.
After the fall of Piedimonte San Germano, the Polish corps was pinched out of line by the British 10 Corps, operating on the army's right flank. The latter continued to follow up the enemy's withdrawal, the same assignment it had been executing since the beginning of the offensive.
Junction With the Beachhead
While the Eighth Army achieved its breakthrough in the Liri valley, in the mountains to the south of the valley the U.S. Fifth Army continued its efforts to exploit the penetration of the Hitler Line made by the FEC on the Pico sector and to achieve a breakthrough with the II Corps. General Clark, anxious to keep the enemy from withdrawing troops from the southern front in order to counter the VI Corps' breakout offensive from the beachhead, sought to maintain heavy pressure against the Germans in the mountains and in the Liri valley. He directed General Juin on 22 May to exploit the imminent fall of Pico by a thrust against the southern flank of the Liri valley with a two-pronged drive northward toward Ceprano, a road junction on Highway 6 seven miles north of Pico, and northwestward via Valle Corsa to Castro dei Volsci to Pofi, some nine miles northwest of Pico. This phase of the Fifth Army's offensive began early the next day at the same time the breakout offensive began at Anzio. When, however, the Eighth Army began to show considerable progress in its attack on the Hitler Line in the Liri valley, the French drive shifted more toward the northwest in the direction of Castro dei Volsci in order to envelop the Germans opposing the Eighth Army. On the 24th Valle Corsa, five miles south of Castro dei Volsci, fell to the French and San Giovanni Incarico, on Route 82 four miles north of Pico, fell on the next day. Thereafter, the enemy fought only delaying actions in an attempt to hold open his routes of escape opposite the U.S. II Corps on the west and the Eighth Army on the east.
The II Corps had still to contend with a ten-mile stretch of the Hitler Line overlooking the coastal highway between Fondi and Terracina. Except for strongpoints at both places, the Germans had developed few defenses in that sector and preferred, as in the mountains between Pico and Fondi, to rely primarily on the rugged terrain. Before joining up with the U.S. VI Corps in the Anzio beachhead, the II Corps would have to cross an area varying in width from ten to twenty miles, from an irregular coastline to the left flank of the FEC, three miles north of Fondi. The area extended northwest from the Itri-Pico road over thirty miles of desolate mountains, deep gorges, and marshy coastal plains to Sezze, an isolated village overlooking the beachhead from the Lepini Mountains to the northeast.
South of Itri a hilly region four miles wide and ten miles long parallels the coast as far as Sperlonga, about seven miles east of Terracina. The hills fall away in the west into a triangle-shaped coastal marsh, which the Germans, by
flooding, had made even more of an obstacle. The base of the triangle stretches along the coast from Sperlonga to Terracina with an apex at Fondi.
When General Sloan's 88th Division attacked Fondi, it found the town defended only by survivors of General Steinmetz's battered 94th Infantry Division and the modest reinforcements that Senger and Vietinghoff had managed to scrape together locally. The formidable 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, which Kesselring on the 19th had ordered sent to the Fondi area, still had not arrived because General von Mackensen, the Fourteenth Army commander, had been slow to release the division. Facing an imminent Allied offensive from the Anzio beachhead, Mackensen was understandably anxious to husband his remaining reserves.
Once before, in October 1943, one of Kesselring's army commanders (that time, Vietinghoff) had apparently dragged his heels in obeying orders to send the 16th Panzer Division to repel the British landing at Termoli. Then events had vindicated Vietinghoff's insubordination. Would events do the same for Mackensen?25 The traffic jam between Itri and Fondi might have delayed General Sloan's forces long enough to have enabled the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to occupy the Terracina-Fondi sector before the Americans attacked had not the men of Colonel Crawford's 349th Infantry, preceded by elements of the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron, managed to slip by the bottleneck.26 The advance owed much to the presence of Brig. Gen. Paul W. Kendall, the 88th Division assistant commander, who had been acting as General Sloan's alter ego: first with the 350th Infantry during the fight for Monte Damiano on 11 and 12 May and later with the 351st Infantry in the dash from Spigno to Monte Grande. He would continue to act in this capacity as the 349th Infantry raced for Fondi. By noon on the 20th the regiment had come within two miles of the town.27
Fondi--the ancient Roman Fundi, near where the Republic's legions under Quintus Fabius Maximus had checked Hannibal's army during the First Punic War--provided in May 1944, as it had in the 3d century, B.C., a natural defensive position, this time guarding access to the enemy's third lateral line of communications leading northward across the mountains to the Liri valley. Pillaged twice in the 16th century, the town was to fare somewhat better in the 20th, for the very swiftness of the 349th Infantry's advance would carry the American infantrymen through the position before German reinforcements could dig in.
A patrol of the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron having drawn heavy fire from Fondi early on the 20th, Lt. Col. Walter B. Yeager (commander of the 349th Infantry's 3d Battalion) was alert to the hazards of a frontal assault on the town. Leaving only a holding force south of Fondi, Yeager led his troops, accompanied by a platoon of tanks, off the main road and into the hills overlooking the town from the northeast. As Yeager had suspected, the local German commander, apparently anticipating
an Allied thrust along the main road instead of through the mountains, had concentrated his meager defenses astride Highway 7. An assault down the slopes made quick work of the enemy garrison.28
Leaving a company to outpost the town, Yeager continued with the rest of his men toward Monte Passignano, just over a mile to the north. By evening the battalion was securely established on the high ground and had settled down for a well-earned rest while patrols probed north and west in search of the foe. The swift blow at Fondi had cost the 349th Infantry 6 dead and 13 wounded, but in the process, the 3d Battalion had pierced the Hitler Line at one of the two remaining strongpoints within the II Corps sector and had denied to the enemy his last good lateral communications short of the Anzio beachhead.29
While the breakthrough at Fondi was the more decisive, a thrust by the 88th Division far into the mountains northeast of the town appeared more spectacular. Even as Yeager attacked Fondi on the 20th, Colonel Fry's 350th Infantry began what became a ten-mile march northwestward to Monte Alto, deep within enemy territory. There Fry's men overran scattered German positions, killing 40 enemy soldiers and taking 65 prisoners at a cost of 30 American casualties, most of whom were wounded and evacuated over the difficult mountain trails on litters borne by the German prisoners.30
Fry's bold thrust created such a deep salient within the Tenth Army's right wing that it would take the rest of the Fifth Army three days to catch up. Until the rest of the 88th Division could cover Fry's flanks, he was dependent for supplies on an unprotected line of communications maintained by pack mule trains plodding over trackless mountain terrain. German patrols ambushed and destroyed one train of forty animals and frequently harassed others. To protect his line of communications, General Sloan on the 21st sent the 349th and 351st Infantry Regiments along Fry's right flank, where they remained until the left flank of the FEC would draw abreast two days later.31
Along the coastal flank, the 85th Division, with the 337th Regiment leading the way, continued to move toward Terracina. Finding the narrow coastal highway frequently blocked by demolitions, the corps commander ordered General Coulter to mount a small-scale amphibious operation to bypass the obstacles in the hope of accelerating the advance. Keyes had confidence in such a maneuver, since a similar tactic had had some success in the closing days of the Sicilian campaign.32
Late in the afternoon of the 21st the 1st Battalion, 338th Infantry, boarded a fleet of DUKW's at the port of Gaeta and moved parallel to the coast toward Terracina, but so choppy was the sea that the small armada eventually gave up and limped into port at Sperlonga,
AERIAL VIEW OF TERRACINA
several miles short of Terracina. The ad hoc seaborne infantrymen had nothing to show for their pains--and they were many--except a renewed appreciation for the terra firma they knew so well.
Upon arrival at Sperlonga most of the DUKW's were found to be unseaworthy. One sank and three others broke down on reaching shore; twelve others, the battalion commander insisted, would never make it to Terracina. Abandoning the amphibious venture, the 1st Battalion moved inland to join the rest of the 338th Infantry in reserve southwest of Fondi.
Magnificently situated on an eminence of gleaming limestone, Terracina anchored the Hitler Line in the II Corps sector and appeared to be an ideal defensive position. From a high, finger-like ridge the mountains overlooking the town drop sharply into the sea. At several places cliffs overhang the main road, which runs along a narrow strip often less than a hundred yards wide between the mountains and the sea. An ancient Roman fortress town, Terracina marks the traditional boundary between southern and central Italy.
Because the Germans considered
Terracina easily defensible from the landward side, they had concentrated their permanent defensive works against a seaborne attack, which after the Anzio landing had seemed the greater danger. The fiasco at Sperlonga, however, ended any threat from that quarter.
The 337th Infantry's 1st Battalion, advancing slowly along the heavily cratered and mined coastal highway, moved to within a mile of Terracina before machine gun and small arms fire forced a halt. Again, as at Fondi, the Americans took to the hills overlooking the road. Leaving their artillery support behind and marching across the seaward slopes, they gained high ground northeast of Terracina, the summit of Monte Sant'Angelo, on the morning of the 22d.33
Establishing themselves near the ruins of a temple to Jupiter Auxur, the infantrymen of the 1st Battalion paused to gaze northwestward across the Pontine Marshes toward the dim outline of the Alban Hills, the last major terrain feature south of Rome. If on that picturesque height any of the men chose to meditate upon the vanished glories of antiquity in their immediate vicinity, they were rudely cut short by heavy fire from a battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division that had arrived belatedly during the night. Faced with an overwhelming volume of fire, Colonel Hughes withdrew his men to the base of Monte Sant'Angelo, where they were joined by the 3d Battalion, while artillery, which had drawn to within supporting distance, opened fire on Terracina and the western slopes of Monte Sant'Angelo.34 (Map 4)
Behind heavy preparatory artillery fire and with the newly arrived 3d Battalion in reserve, the 1st Battalion returned to the attack during the afternoon of the 22d. This time the Germans contested every foot of the ground, but despite intense mortar fire from the hills northwest of Terracina, the men of the 337th Infantry had by nightfall fought their way back to the top of Monte Sant'Angelo and moved down the reverse slope as far as a cemetery a mile north of the town. After thirty-six hours of virtually uninterrupted fighting, the 1st Battalion, too exhausted to continue, was relieved after dark by the 3d Battalion. Resuming the attack, the 3d Battalion by midnight had infiltrated beyond the cemetery into the outskirts of Terracina.35
As the 337th Infantry prepared to renew the assault on Terracina on the 23d, two battalions of the 338th Infantry advanced over Monte San Stefano toward Monte Leano, four miles northwest of the town. Their mission was to block Highway 7 where it ran along the foot of Monte Leano, thereby cutting the German route of withdrawal from Terracina. Threatened with encirclement, the German garrison in Terracina left behind a small rear guard and, during the night of 23 May, withdrew northwestward in the darkness.
The Tenth Army Withdraws
To Kesselring and his staff the overall German situation in Italy was far
II and VI Corps Link-Up
22-25 May 1944
from reassuring. In the Liri valley, the Eighth Army had pierced the Hitler Line. The Fifth Army's two-pronged drive by the U.S. II Corps and the FEC toward the Anzio beachhead and upper reaches of the Liri valley, respectively, threatened to envelop the entire left wing of Mackensen's Fourteenth Army and the right wing of the Tenth Army. Furthermore, the Allied beachhead already had begun to erupt. The pending fall of Terracina would open the main coastal highway all the way to the beachhead, while the FEC--driving beyond Pico toward Lenola, thirteen miles northeast of Terracina and a key strongpoint on a road to Frosinone, on Highway 6 some fifty miles southeast of Rome--threatened to split the two German armies. Should the Germans fail to
halt the Fifth Army at either Terracina or at Lenola, a breakthrough to the beachhead and probably to the Caesar Line, the last German defensive position below Rome, was a certainty.36
At Supreme Headquarters (OKW) in Germany, some officers recommended to Hitler that Kesselring be directed to abandon his front south of Rome, others that he employ all of his remaining air strength in an effort to hold his positions. One of the latter, General der Artillerie Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of the OKW operations staff, declared that failure to commit the Luftwaffe would doom Kesselring's chances of holding Rome. Determined to husband remaining air power for the expected Allied invasion of northwestern France, Hitler refused to accept that reasoning. He chose instead to allow Kesselring to continue as he was doing: defend as long as possible on favorable terrain before falling back under pressure to another line, all the while exacting as heavy a toll as possible from the attacking Allied forces, instructions known to Alexander and his army commanders through the deciphered Enigma messages.37
The Americans, in the meantime, had launched their final thrust to the beachhead. Early on the 24th patrols of the 85th Division's 337th Infantry entered Terracina, and in midmorning Clark's chief of staff reported, "Terracina is ours."38 While General Coulter's engineers cleared the road through the town, a patrol from the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron moved cautiously across the Pontine Marshes to the village of Borgo Grappo, where shortly after daylight on 25 May the troopers met an engineer patrol from the U.S. VI Corps. Two weeks after the beginning of the May offensive on the Rapido-Garigliano front and 125 days after the Allied landings at Anzio, the troops from the southern front, having successively broken through the Gustav and Hitler Lines, had linked with those from the beachhead.39
With the French capture of Pico and the beginning of the breakout offensive from the Anzio beachhead on the 23d, and the fall of Pontecorvo to the Canadians and of Terracina to the Americans on the 24th, Vietinghoff's Tenth Army had no alternative to a full-scale withdrawal across the southern front. Beginning the night of the 25th, the LI Mountain Corps, opposite the Eighth Army, fell back beyond the Melfa River and withdrew from the Liri valley northward along the several roads through the mountains that parallel Highway 6 to the north. Opposite the Fifth Army's II Corps and the FEC, the XIV Panzer Corps withdrew northward through the Ausonia Mountains into the Sacco River valley, which joins the Liri valley about three miles northeast of Pico.
A combination of increasingly difficult terrain, congested roads, and a caution born of weariness and heavy casualties slowed the Eighth Army's pursuit, while the tremendous significance attached to the capture of Rome had its influence on the Fifth Army's
next operations. Meanwhile, large quantities of supplies from Naples moved in long truck columns along Highways 6 and 7 to support the final drive on Rome. Operation DIADEM was about to enter a new phase.40
1. MS # D-170 (Rothe); Map, 1:25,000, Stellungskarte Abschnitt 90 Pz. Gren Div, LI Mtn Corps, KTB Anlagen, Taetigkeitsbericht der Abt. Ia/Stopi, 10,V30.VI.44; Situation map, 5-6 Apr 44, AOK 10, KTB Anlagen VI, Lagekarten, 1.IV-14.IV.44.
2. Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, Sec. B. Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon this reference.
3. Fifth Army G-3 Jnl, 15-19 May 44; Fifth Army History, Part V, pp. 69-72.
4. II Corps CG Diary, 161345B May 44.
5. II Corps Directive, 16 May 44; II Corps G-3 Rept of Opns No. 237, 16 May 44; II Corps Diary, 161345B May 44. All in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, 16-20 May 44, vol. 3, incl. 7.
6. 88th Div G-3 Jnl, 16-20 May 44, vol. 3, incl. 7.
7. Telecon, OB AOK 10 with Kesselring, 2030B 17 May 44, in AOK 10, Ia KTB Nr. 6, Band V, Anlagen 777, 11-20 May 44, AOK 10, Doc. 53271/1.
8. 88th Div G-2 Rpt 55, 181600B May 44, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7.
9. II Corps G-3 Rpt 237, 16 May 44 and 88th Div G-2 Rpt 55, 181600B May 44, both in 88th Div G-3 Jnl.
10. II Corps G-3 Periodic Rpt 258, 171600B May 44 and G-3 Periodic Rpt 259, 181600B May 44, both in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7; Juin, La Campagne d'Italie, pp. 118-21.
11. Hq XII TAC, ISUM, 170600B May 44, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7.
12. Telecon, AOK 10 C/S with Gen Westphal, 181210B May 44, in AOK 10, Ia KTB Nr. 6, Band V, Anl. 801, 11-20 May 44, AOK 10, Doc. 53271/8.
13. MS # C-064 (Kesselring), pp. 53-55.
14. Msg, Leggin 6 to CG 88th Div, 191210B May 44; Hq, 88th Div Directive to CO Leather, 182100B May 44, both in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7, 16-20 May 44.
15. Msg, 351st Inf to II Corps, 191945B May 44, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7.
16. Msg, Hq II Corps (sgd Col R. L. J. Butchers, II Corps' G-3) to 85th Div, 191645B May 44, in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7.
17. Mathews, "The French in the Drive on Rome," Fraternité d'Armes Franco-Américaine, pp. 133-34.
18. Hqs, Fifth Army Opns Instr 19, 18 May 44; Clark Diary, 20 May 44; Fifth Army History, Part V, pp. 79-80.
19. Gen Clark's personal comments on MS, Oct 1973, in CMH files; Nigel Nicolson, Alex, the Life of Field Marshal, Earl Alexander of Tunis (New York: Atheneum, 1973), p. 160.
20. Operations of British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, Sec. B. Unless otherwise indicated the following section is based upon this reference. See also Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, pp. 411-12.
21. Msg, 88th Div to Engrs, 19230B May 44; CO Recon Trp to LO, 200220B May 44; Msg, 85th Div (Capt Butner) to II Corps, 200215B May 44. All items in 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7.
22. Mathews, "The French in the Drive on Rome," pp. 134-35; Juin, La Campagne d'Italie, pp. 124-28.
23. Mathews, "The French in the Drive on Rome," p. 134.
24. Operations of British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part II, Sec. B; Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, pp. 414-25. Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon these references.
25. See Blumenson, Salerno to Cassino, pp. 190-91; MS # C-064 (Kesselring).
26. 349th Inf Rpt of Opns, May 44.
27. II Corps G-3 Jnl, May 44.
29. 88th Div G-3 Jnl, vol. 3, incl. 7; 349th Inf Rpt of Opns, May 44.
30. 350th Inf Jnl, May 44.
31. II Corps Opns Rpt, May-Jun 44.
32. Fifth Army G-3 Jnl, 21-22 May 44; 88th Div G-3 Jnl, 16-20 May 44, vol. 3, incl. 7; Paul L. Schultz, The 85th Division in World War II (Washington: The Infantry Journal Press, 1959), p. 49; Msg, Harpool 3, 220445B May 44, in II Corps G-3 Jnl, 30 Apr-31 May 44. Unless otherwise cited the following section is based on the above sources.
33. Fifth Army G-3 Jnl, 21-22 May 44, Tel Msg from II Corps, 220515B May 44, Jnl X5-22-12.
34. 337th Inf, 85th Div, Opns Rpt, May 44, pp. 4-5.
36. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, OKW, pp. 491-92.
37. Ibid.; Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, p. 117.
38. 337th Inf Opns Rpt, May 44; Fifth Army Sitreps, 11-30 May 44; Msg, Gruenther to Clark, Ref 167, 240925B May 44.
39. II Corps G-3 Jnl, May 44.
40. Gen Clark's personal comments on MS, Oct 1973, in CMH files.