The Volturno Crossing
The Immediate Situation
In early October the U.S. Fifth Army had its left flank on the Italian west coast. Its right was anchored on the Matese Mountains of the Apennine range, a virtually impenetrable barrier along the boundary between Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army. The two armies were to advance abreast in their zones, each independently of the other, but their movements were to be co-ordinated because occasional lateral breaks in the barrier provided the enemy with access routes for attacks against the armies' inner flanks. (Map 3)
Ahead of the Fifth Army's front, which touched the Volturno River, was terrain difficult for offensive maneuver. North of the river for about forty miles was a mountainous region that separated the Volturno valley from the next low ground, the valleys of the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers. Narrow winding roads, steep hills, and swift streams characterized the divide, which favored defense. Sharply defined corridors would impose frontal attack on offensive forces. Allied planners constantly sought opportunities for amphibious flanking attacks and airborne operations, but the shortage of men and matériel, as well as the difficulty of the terrain and the weather, kept them from making definite plans.1
In the coastal zone, where 10 Corps held a front of about twenty miles, the Campanian plain north of Naples peters out a few miles north of the Volturno River, and the relatively level area of fertile farmland, vineyards, and olive groves gives way to hills covered with olive trees and terraced plots. Inland, where VI Corps held a front of about thirty-five miles, the terrain consists of barren and rocky peaks several thousand feet high, with deep gorges, jagged ridges, and overhanging cliffs.
Traversing the area ahead of the Fifth Army were two excellent roads, both leading to Rome. Highway 7 runs from Benevento westward through Caserta and Capua to Sessa Aurunca and follows the coast. Highway 6, starting some miles above Capua, runs north for several miles before forking; the left fork goes to and beyond Cassino, the right becomes Highway 85 and passes through the upper Volturno valley to Venafro and Isernia.
The objectives that General Alexander had assigned to General Clark were
The Situation at the Volturno
7 October 1943
the heights generally between Sessa Aurunca and Venafro, the high ground overlooking from the south the Garigliano and Rapido River valleys. Crossing the mountain divide and reaching the objectives meant first crossing the defended river line of the Volturno.
Blocking the Fifth Army as well as the Eighth, the Tenth Army had an assigned strength on 1 October of about 60,000 men. Facing the Fifth Army were about 35,000 troops of the XIV Panzer Corps, which occupied the north bank of the Volturno. From the mouth of the river to a point just east of Grazzanise, the rested and highly efficient 15th Panzer Grenadier Division held a front of about twelve miles with one regiment in line and the remainder of the division guarding the coast against invasion as far north as the mouth of the Garigliano. In the center of the corps sector, on a front of about sixteen miles, almost to Caiazzo, the Hermann Goering Division, with four infantry battalions, a small armored group, and a large number of motorized assault guns and antiaircraft guns, possessed considerably more firepower than was normal. On the corps left, from Caiazzo to Monte Acero, a distance of about ten air miles, were portions of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, a reasonably effective organization augmented by the attached reconnaissance battalion of the 26th Panzer Division on Monte Acero. In the Adriatic sector the LXXVI Panzer Corps controlled the understrength 26th Panzer Division, the highly effective 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, and the 1st Parachute and 16th Panzer Divisions.
Had Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, had his way, the strong defensive forces along the Volturno would have been even stronger, but General Montgomery's amphibious landing at Termoli during the night of 9 October had disrupted his plans. When he had broken off the battle at Salerno, he had dispatched the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to reinforce the 1st Parachute Division in the Adriatic sector and to cover the gap between the paratroopers and the forces engaged at the Salerno beachhead; he had sent the 16th Panzer Division to construct fortifications along the Volturno. Montgomery's amphibious operation at Termoli forced commitment of the LXXVI Panzer Corps reserve against the British bridgehead, but the reserve force, a single infantry battalion, was obviously too small for decisive effect. Kesselring, who was visiting Tenth Army headquarters early on the morning of 3 October when news of the British landing arrived, instructed Vietinghoff to shift the 16th Panzer Division to the east coast immediately.
Vietinghoff objected. He knew that a tactical success at Termoli would be good for morale, but he thought that whether the LXXVI Panzer Corps withdrew its left flank from Termoli at once or in a few days would make little difference in the long-range development of the campaign. He favored sending reserves with sufficient strength to block a British breakout and to insure a methodical withdrawal of the Panzer Corps, and to achieve these limited ends he suggested moving the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, which was experienced in combat and available for transfer upon short notice. Vietinghoff believed the 16th Panzer Division important for defending at the Volturno, particularly in the difficult terrain immediately north of Capua, which he considered the
bulwark of his defensive line. Expecting the Allied forces to make their main effort toward Rome via the main highway leading from Capua through Cassino and Valmontone, he saw Allied success elsewhere as having no direct influence on operations in the main area. Consequently, Vietinghoff was constructing a series of positions south of the Bernhard Line and placing his major defensive strength along the road from Capua to Cassino, and he counted heavily on the armored division. Sending the division on a long march across the peninsula through the mountains to Termoli would be wearing on the tanks, and even if the tanks arrived in reasonably good condition, the support of the division's small infantry component of four battalions was hardly strong enough to eradicate the British bridgehead. Disturbed by Kesselring's instructions, Vietinghoff started neither the 16th Panzer Division nor the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division off to Termoli.
The night of 3 October, around 2230, Kesselring learned from his chief of staff, Generalmajor Siegfried Westphal, that the 16th Panzer Division was not racing across the Italian peninsula as he had directed. Kesselring ordered Vietinghoff to comply with instructions immediately. Vietinghoff had no choice but to relay the orders, and on the morning of 4 October the 16th Panzer Division started to move to the east coast.
Making a forced march of more than seventy-five miles over the mountains, the division got some elements to Termoli late that morning; the bulk of the division reached the Italian east coast twenty-four hours later. Subsequent counterattacks failed to eliminate the British bridgehead. Two days later Vietinghoff approved the LXXVI Panzer Corps proposal to retire to the next defensive line, the Trigno River, and the withdrawal began that evening.
To Kesselring, it appeared that the 16th Panzer Division had arrived at Termoli belatedly and had entered the battle piecemeal. Vietinghoff, Kesselring was convinced, had bungled the operation. To Vietinghoff the commitment of the armored division had not only failed to halt the British but had deprived him of troops who were constructing and were therefore familiar with the key defenses behind the Volturno.
The 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, not so good a unit in Vietinghoff's judgment as the 16th Panzer Division, replaced the latter along the Volturno. A reinforced regiment came in first, the remainder of the division arriving in separate groups over a period of several days starting about 10 October. The bulk of the division would reach the area only after the Allied assault crossing jumped off.2
Two infantry divisions, the 305th and 65th, were moving south from northern Italy to strengthen Kesselring's forces, but they were scheduled to be in Vietinghoff's Bernhard positions in mid-October; they would have no influence on the battle at the Volturno. Later the 94th Division would become available to Vietinghoff. The 16th Panzer Division would eventually be dispatched to the Eastern Front in the USSR.
Since Hitler had stressed the need to gain time along the approaches to the Bernhard Line to permit fortification of that line, Kesselring ordered Vietinghoff to contest every foot of territory. He
asked Vietinghoff to hold at the Volturno until 15 October at the least, and the Tenth Army commander promised to do so.
Having consolidated the Tenth Army front and having closed the gap between Benevento and the 1st Parachute Division, Vietinghoff built up his front as solidly as possible, but retained mobile units in ready reserve to seal off penetrations and guard his open flanks on the seacoasts. He accelerated the work of the construction units, the engineers, and special division detachments that were trying to get the positions forward of the Garigliano ready for defense by November.
Aside from the absence of air support, Vietinghoff's primary weakness, as he saw it, was his inability to replace troop and matériel losses. He was receiving replacement troops for only a small percentage of his casualties, no artillery, and few serviceable tanks. Unless a drastic change in policy occurred, he could look for no improvement.
The Volturno River itself provided an excellent obstacle to defend, particularly in early October when heavy rains put the river in flood condition. Rising in the mountains near Isernia and descending southwestward to the vicinity of Venafro, the Volturno turns to the southeast and parallels the coast about thirty miles inland for a distance of some twenty-five miles. Near the village of Amorosi it receives the waters of the Calore River, which has flowed westward and northward for almost fifty miles. The Volturno then bends to the southwest, going for twelve miles through an intensely cultivated farm valley flanked by scrub-covered hills and barren mountains to the Triflisco gap; from there, at the beginning of the coastal belt, it meanders in large loops through olive groves to the sea at Castel Volturno.
While acknowledging the value of the river--from Amorosi to the coast--for defense, Vietinghoff was conscious of several disadvantages. The river bed was deeply cut in some places, and this would mean dead ground for some German weapons. The south bank, occupied by Allied soldiers, was higher than the north at some points. Hilly terrain near Capua and north of the river would hamper German observation and limit the effectiveness of German artillery. While the mountainous area north of the river favored delaying operations, it offered no natural barriers on which to anchor a defense.3
From the Allied point of view, the lower reaches of the Volturno formed a serious obstacle along almost sixty miles of the Italian peninsula. Once across the river, the Fifth Army would have no assurance of easy progress. Hills could be covered by cross fires from mutually supporting positions. Demolitions and mines would certainly be used effectively. Destroyed bridges and culverts could be expected. Ambush was always possible, and crew-served weapons could easily cover the few natural avenues of advance.
For the Fifth Army, speed was essential for movement to the north. The autumn rains had swelled the rivers and turned the valleys into mud. But the approach of winter and worsening weather served as both carrot and stick to entice and drive the Allied forces on
in the hope of denying the Germans time to fortify the ground beyond the Volturno that the Allied command was already calling the Winter Line.
To maintain the momentum of the advance north from Naples, General Clark instructed General McCreery, whose 10 Corps seemed to be making faster progress toward the Volturno than VI Corps, to cross the river without waiting for General Lucas' forces to come abreast. But rains, enemy demolitions, and determined rear guard action delayed the 10 Corps approach to the river. Then swampy ground prevented a quick concentration of troops and supplies. A rapid and improvised assault crossing proved to be out of the question. McCreery estimated 9 October as the earliest date he could be ready to attack.4
Still hoping to get across the Volturno before the Germans could fully organize their defenses along the river, General Clark told General Lucas to go ahead. The 3d Division was in place and ready to make a crossing, and these troops alone, Lucas thought, gave him a superiority of three to one in men, tanks, and guns over the German defenders. But two divisions, he felt, were
necessary in order to insure sustained progress on the other side of the river. Confident that the 45th Division would advance from the Benevento area down the Calore River valley fast enough to protect the corps right flank near Montesarchio, thus making it possible to move the 34th Division from Montesarchio in time to accompany the 3d Division in the assault crossing, Lucas planned to sideslip the 3d Division to the left to make room along the front for the 34th. Thereupon, the 3d and 34th were to cross the river abreast, both employing the tactics of stealth and surprise. These preparatory movements would take time, and despite General Clark's hope for an earlier crossing, General Lucas, like McCreery, estimated he could attack no sooner than 9 October.
The prospect of a simultaneous assault crossing by 10 and VI Corps on that date soon vanished. Neither McCreery nor Lucas was ready. When McCreery suggested he could attack on 11 October, General Clark instructed Lucas to attack on the preceding night. If American troops seized the ridges north and northwest of the Triflisco gap, they would hold the ground that dominates the plain as far as the sea and thus facilitate the British attack.
But this operation had to be postponed too. "Rain, rain, rain," General Lucas wrote in his diary. "The roads are so deep in mud that moving troops and supplies forward is a terrific job. Enemy resistance is not nearly as great as that of Mother Nature."5 It was more than rain and muddy roads that caused delay. The paucity of roads in the VI Corps area and German artillery fire hampered and slowed the movement of the 34th Division from Montesarchio to the Volturno.
On 9 October General Clark ordered the two corps to make a coordinated attack during the night of 12 October. An assault along the entire length of the river would disperse and stretch the enemy forces and facilitate crossings at many places. Once across, the troops were to continue toward and into the Winter Line.
One point drew Clark's particular attention. Unless the 45th Division drove swiftly north and west from Benevento for twenty-two miles down the Calore valley to the juncture of the Calore and Volturno Rivers and then advanced into the valley of the upper Volturno, the forces on the right of the assault crossings would have an exposed flank. The nearer the 45th Division was to the Volturno by 12 October, the less uneasy the 34th Division would have to be about its right. And if the 45th Division could drive into the upper Volturno valley before the river crossings, it would threaten the left flank of the German forces defending the river line.
The Attack Down the Calore Valley
General Middleton's 45th Division was in control of the Benevento area on 9 October. Assigning a reinforced battalion of the 180th Infantry to guard his right flank and placing the 157th Infantry in reserve, Middleton sent the remainder of the division westward down the Calore valley toward the confluence of the Calore and the Volturno. His only path of advance was a corridor four to five miles wide, obstructed by rough
hills, deep ravines, and narrow roads, which gave German delaying forces ample opportunity for ambush, demolition, and harassment.6
When General Lucas visited General Middleton on 9 October to press for speed, Middleton said frankly he could not guarantee it. His men had been in continuous action for a month and were tired. Lucas did not "believe they are as tired as he thinks," but he promised Middleton he would try to give the division a rest once VI Corps was across the Volturno. This apparently had the desired result, for Lucas found the division's progress on the succeeding days excellent.7
With the 179th Infantry clearing the northern part of the Calore valley and the 180th the southern part, the division fought the terrain more than the enemy for three days. On 12 October, as the division approached Monte Acero, it began to appear that the 45th would reach the valley of the upper Volturno without setback and secure the right flank of the two divisions that were scheduled to cross the river downstream that night. Sudden resistance developed during the afternoon and dashed that hope. (Map III)
To the Germans, Monte Acero was a sensitive point. Defended by the reconnaissance battalion of the 26th Panzer Division, the height provided observation over the entire east-west Volturno valley. In the opinion of Hube, the XIV Panzer Corps commander, Monte Acero was essential if Vietinghoff was to make good his promise to Kesselring to hold the Volturno line at least until 15 October.
Machine gun and mortar fire from Monte Acero halted the lead elements of both American regiments, but the reconnaissance battalion in defense could not for long block the determined division. Advancing through the fire, the 180th Infantry took the village of Telese on the division left, while contingents of the 179th Infantry pushed onto the southern nose of Monte Acero itself.
Fighting continued throughout the night. The turning point in the action came when Company K of the 179th Infantry penetrated German positions on the southeast slope, then withdrew because it was unable to clear the slope of defenders. Unaware of the withdrawal, the Germans counterattacked before daybreak against the spot where the company had been. They were caught in an artillery fire trap and took heavy losses.
Shortly after daylight, Company K, reinforced by another company, cleared the eastern slope of Monte Acero. General Middleton then committed the 157th Infantry in the center, and elements of this regiment fought their way around the western side of the hill. By nightfall, 13 October, it was apparent that the Germans were withdrawing from Monte Acero, the eastern anchor of their Volturno defensive line.
It still took Middleton's men another day to clear the Germans from the Calore valley. Thus, despite the withdrawal of the reconnaissance battalion from Monte Acero, Vietinghoff made good his pledge to hold at least until 15 October--not until that day was the 45th Division ready to drive into the entrance of the upper Volturno valley.
Fifth Army Crosses the Volturno
12-14 October 1943
The Main Crossings
As it finally evolved, General Lucas' plan to put VI Corps across the Volturno called for two divisions to force crossings over a 15-mile stretch of the river between Triflisco on the left flank and the Calore confluence on the right. The 3d Division was to make the main effort between Triflisco and Caiazzo and assist British troops who were to advance along Highway 6 from Capua to Teano. The 34th Division, crossing on an 8-mile front, was to help the 45th Division get into the upper Volturno valley, then be ready to swing westward and laterally, also toward Teano.
The Volturno in front of VI Corps varied from 150 to 220 feet in width and from 3 to 5 feet in depth. Although the river was fordable at most points, the current, made swift by the rains, dictated some crossings by boat. The banks, from 5 to 15 feet high, were steep, and the rainfall that had made them muddy and slick would hamper boat launchings. Brush and olive groves on the hill slopes on the far shore would provide some concealment for troops, but the open fields on the south side of the river gave no covered approaches to crossing sites. The road net at the Volturno was poor, inadequate for the quick movement of large bodies of men and their equipment and supplies. Despite these disadvantages, VI Corps headquarters was optimistic over the prospect of successful crossings.8
In General Truscott's plan of attack, two hill complexes immediately beyond the Volturno were vital for the success of the 3d Division effort: the Triflisco ridge and Monte Caruso.9 Directly across the river from the American-held Monte Tifata on the division left, the Triflisco ridge is actually an extension of Monte Tifata, the two heights separated only by the bed of the Volturno. Here the river is so narrow that troops dug in on the northern slope of Monte Tifata regularly exchanged small arms fire with German soldiers hidden among stone quarries and olive orchards across the Volturno. Seizing the Triflisco ridge would facilitate a 10 Corps advance to Teano; eliminate dominant observation of the 3d Division's main axis of advance, a narrow valley leading northwest along the east side of the ridge; and remove commanding observation over the best bridge site in the 3d Division zone, the narrow banks between the ridge and Monte Tifata. Although aerial photographs showed strong defenses on the southern nose of the Triflisco ridge, General Truscott expected the 10 Corps crossing near Capua to help the 3d Division assault.
The other vital terrain feature on the north bank was Monte Caruso, opposite American-held Monte Castellone. About four miles north of the river, Monte Caruso commands both the valley of the Volturno and the narrow valley leading northwest. Standing in front of Monte Caruso and rising from the valley floor like mounds are two solitary hills, Monticello and Monte Mesarinolo. All three heights appeared to be strongly defended.
Figuring that the Germans expected an attack at or near Triflisco, General
Truscott planned to feint there on his left while making his main effort in the center directly toward Monte Caruso, the troops to bypass Monticello and Monte Mesarinolo and leave them for the forces on the division right. Once he held Monte Caruso, he assumed he could place such heavy enfilade fire on the Triflisco ridge that this fire, in concert with the British attack outflanking the ridge to the west, would force the Germans to abandon the ground.
Specifically, General Truscott would have the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, and the heavy weapons companies of the 30th Infantry make the feint by concentrating fire against the Triflisco ridge. If the Germans showed signs of withdrawing, the 2d Battalion, 30th Infantry, was to cross. Through it all the Germans on the ridge were to be cheated of their observation advantage by a blanket of smoke.
With the enemy thus diverted on the left, the 7th Infantry was to cross the river and drive directly to the westernmost tip of Monte Caruso. On the right two battalions of the 15th Infantry were to take Monticello and Monte Mesarinolo, then move to capture the easternmost tip of Monte Caruso. At daylight of 13 October, a company each of the 751st Tank and 601st Tank Destroyer Battalions, their vehicles waterproofed, were to ford the river.
Since surprise was an integral part of his plan, Truscott took special precautions to preserve it. He kept his artillery strength hidden by ordering half the pieces to be silent during the few days preceding the attack. He held the 7th Infantry in a concealed bivouac area near Caserta while the 15th Infantry alone manned the 3d Division front. After the 34th Division came into the line, relieving the 30th Infantry of the 3d Division, which shifted quietly out of the area, he arranged with General Ryder to have any 34th Division men captured while on patrol give a 3d Division identification to deceive the enemy.
Coupled with surprise was Truscott's trust in punch. Once started, he told his subordinate commanders, the attack must be kept moving without pause.
On the evening of 12 October, as darkness settled over the Volturno valley and a full moon rose, customary night patrols worked their way to the river, drawing an occasional burst of fire or flare, while artillery units were careful to continue seemingly normal fire patterns. In the rear areas, infantrymen of the assault battalions checked and assembled special equipment--rope for guidelines across the river, kapok life preserver jackets (luckily, a thousand had been found in a nearby Italian warehouse), rubber life rafts borrowed from the Navy, and improvised log and ponton rafts. Engineers were busy with assault boats and rubber pneumatic floats. Artillerymen studied their fire plans. As H-hour approached, engineers loaded rubber pontons on trucks, truck drivers warmed their motors, and long lines of infantrymen began to move to forward assembly areas.
At midnight the 3d Division began its demonstration on the left against the Triflisco ridge. An hour later corps and division artillery opened fire all along the front with high explosive. At 0155, 13 October, the gunners mixed smoke shells with the high explosive for the last five minutes of fire to screen the crossing sites. A few minutes before the artillery was scheduled to lift, men of the 7th
Infantry slogged across muddy fields to the river. At 0200 they started to cross.
The Germans by now were well aware that this would be no ordinary and uneventful night. Alerted by the suddenly heavy Allied artillery fires, they expected a major assault. They could anticipate attacks at some obvious crossing sites, but where the main weight would be thrown would probably become apparent only after daybreak.10
While carrying parties of American soldiers on the near shore were struggling to get boats and rafts down the slippery bank to the water's edge, advance groups of the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, waded the river to anchor guide ropes on the far side. Even with guide ropes it was hard to control the frail assault craft in the swift current. Weakened by days of rain, the roots of some of the trees to which the ropes were tied gave way. Improvised rafts sometimes broke up. Through it all, long-range German machine gun fire whipped the crossing sites. Fortunately, a high cliff-like north bank created one of the dead spots Vietinghoff had been concerned with and prevented most of the fire from striking the men on the river itself. Darkness and smoke also affected the accuracy of the enemy gunners. The crossing went more slowly than expected and dawn was breaking before the last man of the 1st Battalion reached the far bank. The accuracy of the German fire began to improve, and the last boat to pull away from the south bank took a direct hit from an artillery shell.
On the far shore, men of the 1st Battalion assembled along a sandbar under cover of the steep bank. They moved upstream in column, clinging to the bank for protection against the enemy machine gun fire and for support against the current. A few mines exploded, most of them throwing up spectacular geysers of water and mud that caused little damage. Several artillery shells splashed harmlessly into the river. After walking up the bed of a small tributary of the Volturno, the men deployed across the fields just south of Highway 87, which parallels the Volturno. Here they dug in to protect the regimental left flank and to form a base of fire for the other two battalions that were to head directly for Monte Caruso.
The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 7th Infantry, in that order, had crossed the river in column, some of the men in assault boats, others wading through the icy water holding their rifles over their heads with one hand, clinging to guide ropes with the other. Scrambling up the muddy bank of the north shore, they struck out for the dark and massive bulk of Monte Caruso.
Machine gun nests and individual enemy soldiers fighting from irrigation ditches were quickly eliminated, and by 0800 the foremost elements of the lead battalion were at the foot of the hill objective. With good observation of German positions in the valley and on the hill, the infantry called for fire from artillery and tank destroyers. Against slackening resistance, the troops moved up the slope. By noon the advance elements were digging in on the western tip of Monte Caruso, and the rest of the 2d and 3d Battalions were moving up to secure the ground.
Waterproofed tanks and tank destroyers had been trying to cross the river since daylight, but each time a bulldozer
approached the river to break down the bank and give the heavy vehicles access to crossing sites, enemy fire drove it back. Around 1000 after learning from an intercepted German message that a counterattack was imminent, General Truscott ordered the armored vehicles to cross at once, no matter what the obstacles. Pick and shovel work by engineers finally tore down enough of the bank to allow the tanks to get to the water's edge, and shortly after 1100 the first tank climbed the low sandbank on the far side of the river. By early afternoon, 15 tanks and 3 tank destroyers were across. The German counterattack never came, apparently having been broken up by artillery fire before it could begin.
By the end of the day the entire 7th Infantry was across the Volturno, and infantrymen held the western part of Monte Caruso.
On the division right, men of the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 15th Infantry had climbed down the rocky slopes of Monte Castellone and headed for Monticello and Monte Mesarinolo, the isolated hills on the valley floor. After wading the river, the troops immediately found themselves in close contact with Germans along the river bank. Battle raged at short range until the weight of the increasing numbers of troops coming across the river broke the opposition.11 The troops then swept up their hill objectives, where they organized the ground. Rafts and rubber boats carried machine guns, mortars, and ammunition across the river and bolstered the positions.
Strong concentrations of German artillery and tank fire pounded the two hills occupied by the 15th Infantry, but American counterbattery fire gradually forced the Germans to desist. During the afternoon, with enemy pieces virtually silenced, the two assault battalions pushed on to their next objective, the high ground on the eastern part of Monte Caruso, the Germans giving way before them.
On the division left, where the key ridge above Triflisco remained to be taken, the 30th Infantry, assisted by the 1st Battalion of the 15th, had made a demonstration and kept the Triflisco ridge covered with smoke. With five infantry battalions of the division well on their way to securing their objectives during the afternoon of 13 October, General Truscott told the 30th Infantry to cross the Volturno. The 2d Battalion made two attempts to cross the water and storm the ridge. Both failed against stubborn resistance. Although the crossings of the 7th Infantry east of the Triflisco ridge threatened to make the ridge itself untenable for the Germans, the British assault on the immediate left had stalled. The Germans remained in possession of the Triflisco ridge until nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, they began to withdraw. When troops of the 30th Infantry crossed the river during the night, they found that they could march up the ridge and take it with little trouble.
To Vietinghoff, the "very cleverly planned and forcefully executed attack" of the 3d Division, which had feinted defenders away from the main crossing sites, was the key action at the Volturno.
In his opinion, the 3d Division had avoided the mistake made by Allied troops at Salerno: without waiting until pockets of resistance were cleared, it had advanced regardless of the threats on its flanks. Having won the dominating slopes of Monte Caruso and strengthened its positions with a rush of reinforcements, the 3d Division could not be denied. The left flank of the Hermann Goering Division, holding the major positions in the center of the XIV Panzer Corps line, had been crushed on the first day's fighting, and the 3d Division bridgehead, four miles deep by the morning of 14 October, was too large to be destroyed.12
Helping to give the bridgehead stability was the work of the engineers, who had moved their bridging equipment to the river during the early morning hours of 13 October. Working under fire, the engineer bridge construction parties incurred casualties. Shells damaged rubber floats. Mines blew up several trucks. Although forced to take cover frequently, the engineers by the end of the day had built two bridges, a light one primarily for jeeps and an 8-ton structure capable of carrying trucks. Both required frequent patching and repair as a consequence of enemy shell fragments. Early the next morning several German planes bombed and strafed the bridges, damaging them slightly.
Engineers were to have constructed a 30-ton bridge for tanks on 13 October, but they could not start work until the following day, after the Germans had relinquished their hold over the Triflisco ridge. Even then the cover of smoke was necessary. Six hours after work began, the bridge was ready. Not long thereafter approaches across muddy fields connected the bridge with Highway 87, and the ferry service that had operated continuously to bring equipment and supplies forward was no longer necessary.
With three bridges assuring the continuous flow of men and matériel into the forward area, the 3d Division was ready on 14 October to exploit its bridgehead on the north bank of the Volturno. Surprise and aggressiveness had contributed handsomely to the division's achievement. Casualties during the crossing had not been excessive for an assault against a defended river line. The division had lost about 300 men on 13 October, the first day of the attack. (Map IV)
The Fifth Army Advances
14-25 October 1943
The Crossing on the Right Flank
The objective of General Ryder's 34th Division was a triangular area defined on the south and east by the Volturno and on the northwest by Highway 87, about four miles from the bend of the river. Outside the objective area but dominating the ground was Monte Acero, which General Middleton's 45th Division was to take before the river assault crossings.
General Ryder divided his front into two regimental zones. He instructed the 168th Infantry on the left to take Caiazzo at the westernmost point of the objective triangle, the 135th to take the high ground on the right. One battalion of the 133d Infantry was to be ready to reinforce the attack wherever needed. His attached tank battalion General Ryder kept in its assembly area because he judged the steeply sloping ground of a jumbled mass of hills on the far
side of the Volturno to be unsuitable for armor.13
A total of 96 guns and howitzers in support of the 34th Division opened general preparatory fires at 0145, 13 October. Fifteen minutes later, as infantrymen slid down the muddy banks of the Volturno, some to wade through the water, others to paddle across in assault boats, the artillery covered the crossing points with high explosive and smoke.
The first men of the 168th Infantry crossed the river without difficulty, but succeeding troops had a harder time. The swift current swept assault boats out of crossing lines. Men wading in shoulder-deep water lost radios and mine detectors. Enemy machine gun fire from the flat fields close to the river bank and from olive groves on the hill slopes added its hazard. It took almost five hours for the assault battalion to get completely across the river.
Once across, the troops found surprisingly little resistance until they moved into the brush-covered hills. Caiazzo, a fortified village on the brow of a steep slope, was a German strongpoint, and it was difficult to root out the defenders. Heavy and sustained artillery shelling seemed to have little effect, and not until the following morning, 14 October, when four tank destroyers forded the stream and gave direct fire support did the Germans evacuate the village.
Assault troops of the 135th Infantry had also crossed the river, all of them wading over during the early morning hours of 13 October. There was no serious resistance. The Germans withdrew at once. The Americans moved rapidly, and less than an hour after the initial crossings they were sending prisoners to the rear. A flurry of tank fire from Amorosi on the right flank briefly slowed the advance, and a pocket of bypassed Germans held up movement for a short time. But as the 45th Division reduced the defenses on Monte Acero off to the 34th Division's right, the 135th Infantry easily took its objectives three miles from the abrupt bend of the Volturno River.
What explained the relative ease of crossing was the fact that only part of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division had arrived at the Volturno, and that but recently. The units had hardly settled into their defensive positions when the attack struck.14
Despite the quick crossing by the 34th Division, the operation almost came to a halt because all good bridging sites in the division zone remained under German observation. Whenever engineers tried to put in a bridge, German artillery dispersed them. In an effort to speed their bridging operations, engineers who had been assigned to span the river with a light vehicular bridge had inflated their rubber floats before loading them on trucks. When the head of the truck column reached the river several hours after daybreak on 13 October, enemy artillery fire disabled 3 trucks at once and shell fragments punctured many floats, some beyond repair. Unloading 12 trucks, the engineers launched three floats. Almost immediately, an artillery shell destroyed all 3, inflicted casualties on the troops, and brought activities to a halt.
SELF-PROPELLED 105-MM. HOWITZER CROSSING THE VOLTURNO on a ponton treadway bridge.
That afternoon the engineers pulled their equipment back to a concealed assembly area, where they patched their salvageable floats. In the evening, after smoke pots had been moved to the river to screen the site, another bridging effort was made. To no avail. The German artillery fire continued to be heavy and accurate.
An engineer reconnaissance party finally located another bridge site. This one was defiladed, but the approach roads were poor and the river was seventy feet wider than at the original place. Because of the additional width of the river and the loss of nearly half the floats, the engineers had to borrow equipment. Moving to the new site at 0300, 14 October, the engineers completed a bridge by 1030. Not long afterward, as soon as the muddy approach routes could be improved and the far bank swept of mines, trucks began to cross into the bridgehead.
During the afternoon of 14 October, with the Germans no longer in possession of observation from Caiazzo, engineers began to construct a 30-ton treadway bridge, which they completed shortly after midnight. German planes made several unsuccessful passes at the bridge the next morning. By then traffic was rolling steadily across both bridges, including artillery.15
Having cleared a substantial bridgehead almost four miles deep by the
afternoon of 14 October, the 34th Division was ready to take up pursuit operations. The division had lost about 130 men during the crossing on the first day, 3 October.
The Crossings on the Left
Facing the Volturno River in the coastal area, 10 Corps had a difficult assignment. Between Monte Tifata above Capua and Castel Volturno on the coast, a distance of more than 15 miles, the ground is relatively flat on both sides of the river. Numerous canals drain the area, the most important being the Regia Agnena Nuova Canal, which parallels the Volturno from Capua to the sea about 4 miles north of the river. There were few trees on the south side of the river, but a belt of olive groves, vineyards, and scattered timber on the north bank offered the Germans excellent cover, while Monte Massico, about 8 miles north of the Volturno, gave them superior observation.
High river banks and flood levees obstructed British fields of fire. Recent rains had filled the river and canal beds to the point where no fords were available and had turned all approaches to the river, except the few main roads, into mud. In the right of the 10 Corps area, the 56th Division had only one road in its zone, the major route that crossed the Volturno at Capua. The 7th Armoured Division in the center had only a single country road crossing the river at Grazzanise. The 46th Division had two, a highway crossing the river at Cancello ed Arnone and a narrow unimproved road at Castel Volturno. In many places these roads resembled causeways, built several feet above the adjacent fields. With their usual thoroughness, the Germans had destroyed all the culverts along these roads and had demolished the bridges across the Volturno. They had sited their guns to harass movements along the highways leading to the north. A hard-surface road paralleling the river on the south bank of the Volturno was directly under hostile observation and would be useless until the Germans were driven back beyond Monte Massico.
Because all possible bridge sites in the corps zone were within short range of German mortars and small arms, and because all reconnaissance movements during daylight hours drew immediate fire, British patrols were unable to cross the river. Thus, there was no way of measuring the width or depth of the Volturno with accuracy. Running through marshland, normally canalized between steep banks, the river had overflowed. Much of the coastal plain, which is at sea level or just below, was wet, for a drainage system of canals emptying water into the sea by means of pumps had not been in operation for about ten days and British troops had little success getting the pumps working.
The depth of the river, normally 6 feet, was estimated at 1 to 5 feet above normal, and could conceivably rise 15 feet above normal. At possible bridge sites, the river was thought to be from 250 to 300 feet wide, with steep banks from 10 to 25 feet high. To visiting Fifth Army staff members, the 10 Corps headquarters seemed pessimistic about a crossing. The lack of ground reconnaissance, the difficulty of launching assault boats, the time required to construct bridge approaches, the limitations on bridge sites imposed by the few and
inadequate approach roads, and the shortage of bridge equipment that would allow little or no losses during the operation were problems that appeared to be well-nigh insoluble.16
General McCreery first thought of making his main effort on the right in order to use the superior road network around Capua and to assist the 3d Division. But the strong defenses on the Triflisco ridge dissuaded the corps commander and made him look to the coast. Hoping to spread the German defenses, he decided to attack on a wide front, putting his major weight on the left. He directed the 56th Division to make a demonstration from the hills immediately east of Capua and a crossing in battalion size just to the west. He instructed the 7th Armoured Division to launch a holding attack at Grazzanise, with an infiltration across the river if possible. He ordered the 46th Division to make a major crossing on a 2-brigade front between Cancello ed Arnone and the coast. To compensate for the increased difficulty of assaulting near the coast line, General McCreery secured naval assistance. Warships would fire in support of the 46th Division and provide several LCT's to ferry a tank company around the mouth of the Volturno for a landing on the north bank of the river.
Supported by massive artillery fire augmented by naval gunfire, the 46th Division attacked in the early morning hours of 13 October. In the right of the division zone, after overcoming extraordinary difficulties, a battalion crossed the Volturno in assault boats and took precarious and exposed positions on the north bank of the river northeast of Cancello ed Arnone. The men beat back two counterattacks launched during the day but could not resist a third that came at the last light. Their positions overrun, the men made their way back across the river as best they could.
On the division left, two battalions paddled across the river. After turning back a counterattack, the men dug in along a small canal. There they remained, waiting for daylight when LCT's were to ferry seventeen tanks around the mouth of the river and land them to give direct support to the infantry. The amphibious operation went as planned, but except for a psychological lift, the tanks proved to be of little immediate use. Boggy ground near the coast immobilized most of the tanks. Mines planted in dry ground just off the beach knocked out several others. Not until engineer troops removed the German nonmetallic mines, a slow process that took most of the day, did some of the tanks become mobile.
Despite lack of help from the tanks, the infantry battalions held where they were. On the following day, 14 October, they advanced about 600 yards to make room for substantial reinforcements. Into the bridgehead came four more infantry battalions and some artillery, all of which crossed the Volturno on two ferries that operated without harassment from enemy guns--British artillery and naval gunfire had proved to be highly effective. Although more tanks were loaded in LCT's for a landing on the north bank, they were not needed. The Germans were withdrawing. By the evening of 15 October, the 46th Division had forward elements four miles beyond
the Volturno and on the bank of the Regia Agnena Nuova Canal.
The 7th Armoured Division had launched a demonstration after nightfall on 12 October in order to feint the German defenders away from the other crossing sites. Assault troops at the river's edge had managed to get a cable across the river as well and a platoon of men crossed, though heavy fire forced them to return. Since the cable was still anchored, another effort was made shortly after midnight. Crossing in boats pulled along the cable, a small contingent reached the far shore, but it, too, had to come back. A third attempt succeeded, and when dawn came on 13 October the division was holding a small bridgehead in the Grazzanise area. On the following day, the 7th Armoured Division reinforced the men on the far bank and expanded the bridgehead about 1,000 yards.
Near Capua, the 56th Division opened a deception demonstration designed to make the Germans expect a strong crossing in the Triflisco area. Shortly after midnight, 12 October, a company crossed the river in assault boats to strengthen the feint. Fire from strongpoints on the Triflisco ridge dislodged the men, who withdrew before daylight.
This small crossing failed to secure surprise for the main attack launched near a destroyed railroad bridge at Capua. The site was an obvious one and under good observation by the Germans, but no other suitable place existed in the division zone. The leading elements crossing in assault boats met heavy opposition at once, and some of the boats were sunk. From the volume of German fire coming from the Triflisco ridge, the 56th Division commander judged that a crossing in that immediate area was impractical.
Learning on the morning of 14 October that the 56th Division had decided that no crossing in its zone was feasible, General Clark changed the corps boundary, shifting it to the right to give the 56th Division one of the three bridges erected by the 3d Division. Although this change deprived the 3d Division of its 30-ton bridge and some of its roads, the 56th Division now had the means of getting across the river to protect the increasingly exposed left flank of the 3d Division. The boundary change also placed the Triflisco ridge entirely within the 10 Corps zone.
By the afternoon of 14 October--as 56th Division troops and vehicles crossed the bridge above Triflisco to the far bank, the 7th Armoured Division expanded its bridgehead, and the 46th Division substantially bolstered its forces north of the river--the issue at the Volturno was no longer in doubt. The 10 Corps would soon be ready to exploit its crossing and drive toward the Garigliano valley.
In making the crossing, 10 Corps had sustained severe casualties. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had taken the brunt of the British main effort, had captured more than 900 prisoners and had counted more than 400 British dead and wounded. To Hube, the XIV Panzer Corps commander, it seemed unlikely that Fifth Army could continue attacking along the lower Volturno because of the extremely heavy British losses on 13 October. He expected the Americans to press their attacks to enlarge their bridgeheads east of Triflisco and to attempt to enter the upper Volturno. Little concerned then with his
sector between Triflisco and the sea, Hube decided to hold there while withdrawing his left flank to Monte Acero, which would give him an anchor for his defenses and continued observation over much of the Volturno valley.
While the British built up their strength north of the river on 14 October, the Americans seized important heights, in particular Monte Acero. Hube then asked permission to withdraw to positions behind the Regia Agnena Nuova Canal and on the heights behind Caiazzo and Monte Caruso.
Since Kesselring had stipulated that he was to hold the Volturno line only until 15 October, Vietinghoff approved Hube's request to withdraw. As he became aware of the threat posed by the 34th and 45th Divisions on the inner flanks of the XIV and LXXVI Panzer Corps, he directed the withdrawal to be made along the entire front in Italy.17
While the LXXVI Panzer Corps backed off from the British Eighth Army in the Adriatic sector and withdrew toward the Sangro River, where the 65th Infantry Division was constructing field fortifications, the XIV Panzer Corps withdrew slowly and grudgingly into the mountainous terrain between the Fifth Army and the valleys of the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers.
1. See for example Fifth Army OI 6, 7 Oct 43. Principal sources for this chapter are Fifth Army History, Part II, and AMERICAN FORCES IN ACTION, From the Volturno to the Winter Line (Washington, 1944).
2. MS #T-1a K1 (Kesselring) and Vietinghoff MSS, OCMH.
3. Vietinghoff MSS.
4. Fifth Army OI 5, 2 Oct 43; 10 Corps Invasion of the Italian Mainland, Summary of Operations Carried Out by British Troops Under Command, Fifth U.S. Army, n.d., draft copy, OCMH. See also Lucas Diary, 8 Oct 43.
5. Lucas Diary, 8 Oct 43.
6. See 45th Div AAR, Oct 43.
7. Lucas Diary, 10, 11 Oct 43.
8. Fifth Army Rpt of Volturno in VI Corps Zone, 10 Oct 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.
9. See 3d Div AAR, Oct 43; Donald G. Taggart, ed., History of the Third Infantry Division in World War II (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1947), pp. 88ff.
10. See Vietinghoff MSS.
11. Capt. Arlo L. Olson spearheaded the regimental advance and knocked out at least two enemy machine gun emplacements. For these and similar actions during the next thirteen days, Captain Olson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
12. Vietinghoff MSS.
13. 34th Div AAR, Oct 43.
14. Vietinghoff MSS.
15. See 151st FA Bn AAR, Oct 43.
16. Rpt on Condition of Volturno in 10 Corps Zone, Oct 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.
17. Vietinghoff MSS.