Chapter XVI
San Pietro

The Conditions

The village of San Pietro Infine was a cluster of gray stone houses huddled in medieval fashion part way up the dark and forbidding slope of Monte Sammucro. Facing south, San Pietro dominated the main approach route of the Fifth Army as it headed up the axis of Highway 6 toward Cassino. Allied troops had fought through the Mignano gap. They had secured Monte Maggiore on the left of Highway 6 and Monte Rotondo on the right. Now they had to take Monte Lungo on the left, just beyond Monte Maggiore, and San Pietro, just beyond Monte Rotondo. These objectives seemed ready to fall, almost for the asking.

Monte Lungo is a chunk of ground that seems to have broken off Monte Maggiore. It is a steep-sloped, rather smooth-sided mound separated from the larger mountain complex by an abrupt and narrow valley. Along the western edge of Monte Lungo flows a creek and beside it runs the railroad north to Cassino and beyond to Rome. Along the eastern edge of Monte Lungo, a distance of two miles, runs Highway 6 on its way to Cassino. To the east looms Monte Rotondo, and beyond it the Cannavinelle Hill, fading into the thick obscurity of the Matese Mountains crowding the horizon.

Highway 6 passes through a deep depression between Monte Lungo and Monte Rotondo. It makes a horseshoe bend, then straightens and moves directly toward San Pietro. Just when it appears that the road will strike the wall of Monte Sammucro, it turns to the left and scurries around the end of the mountain. Highway 6 has now gone beyond the point--a traveler hardly notices it--where it is joined by the narrow, winding road that has come westward from Dragoni--through Ceppagna and past San Pietro. About a mile beyond the San Pietro road junction, Highway 6 goes past another country road leading off to the right, this one to the village of San Vittore, perched on a hill on the north slope of Monte Sammucro.

Allied staff officers believed that a stubborn defense of Monte Lungo and of San Pietro was unlikely. Monte Lungo seemed completely dominated by the adjacent higher ground of Monte Maggiore and outflanked by the troops holding Monte Rotondo. San Pietro, indeed all of Monte Sammucro, appeared clear of German troops. Therefore, a swift thrust from Ceppagna--westward across the southern face of Monte Sammucro--would sweep through San Pietro; and if carried to the western end of the mountain to Highway 6, would isolate Monte Lungo. Capture of the crest of Monte Sammucro would in turn make San Vittore untenable to the Germans. Since



the Rapido and Garigliano Rivers were at flood stage and made withdrawals by assault boat hazardous, the Germans were probably already pulling back by increments the troops who were forward of the river line and in danger of being cut off by a swift Allied advance.1

Expecting Monte Lungo to come into Allied possession easily, Allied commanders looked toward San Pietro. What had escaped their intelligence officers was how inaccessible San Pietro really was. There were simply no good approaches to the village, where houses provided stout stone walls for weapons emplacement. Separated from Monte Rotondo and the Cannavinelle Hill by a deep gully and sitting above the Ceppagna road, San Pietro could be entered only by way of cart tracks and trails across the ravine scarred face of Monte Sammucro. Nor was it evident to Allied intelligence how important San Pietro was for the observation it gave of Monte Lungo and the trough that carried Highway 6 to Cassino.

The Germans had, in fact, decided to hold San Pietro, though the decision was almost accidental. When an exhausted regiment of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division was reeling back on


Map 7
First Attack on San Pietro
8-11 December 1943


13 November from heavy American pressure in the Mignano area, the Tenth Army commander, Lemelsen, concluded that further defense near San Pietro was useless. He telephoned Kesselring, who agreed that the "regiment must be taken back." But Kesselring first decided to check with OKW, for he did "not know yet whether the Fuehrer will give his permission." Until he received definite word, Kesselring told Lemelsen: "I will permit you to do anything that you convince me to be right." A few hours later, Kesselring informed Lemelsen: "The Fuehrer has given us a free hand concerning San Pietro." Shortly after midnight, Lemelsen instructed the regiment to withdraw.

The movement had hardly started when Lemelsen received a phone call from Kesselring's chief of staff, Westphal. "The order giving us a free hand," Westphal said, "has been cancelled, apparently for political reasons." Hitler was reserving for himself the decision on further withdrawals in the San Pietro area. The regiment had to be kept in the line, a course of action Kesselring characterized on 15 November as "most unpleasant."

"I do not like to do this either," Lemelsen said.2

The Germans' determination to hold San Pietro made inevitable one of the most bitter fights in southern Italy. By early December, two regiments of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, one on Monte Lungo, the other on Monte Sammucro, were reinforcing the depleted regiment of the 3d. One battalion of the 29th held San Pietro.

General Clark had been interested in San Pietro since late October. In early November and again in the middle of the month, he pointed to San Pietro and Monte Sammucro as critical objectives. His basic concept for seizing them was to launch not a frontal attack up Highway 6 but rather an outflanking attack westward from Ceppagna past San Pietro to Highway 6. A successful thrust would pinch off Monte Lungo, bring San Vittore within reach, and open up the last few miles on the direct approach to Cassino.3

Late in November, toward the end of the lull in operations, General Keyes acted on General Clark's idea. He instructed General Walker, to whose 36th Division the 3d Ranger Battalion was attached, to send the Rangers to San Pietro during the night of 29 November. They were to determine whether the Germans had strong defenses or only a thin screen across the San Pietro front. If the Rangers took San Pietro easily, Keyes continued, Walker was to dispatch them around the western end of Monte Sammucro to San Vittore. Avoid heavy casualties, Keyes emphasized. If the Rangers met superior forces, they were to withdraw under cover to be provided by the 36th Division. But if they had quick success, the division was to be ready to reinforce them.4

During the night of 29 November, in rain and mist, the Ranger battalion moved westward through Ceppagna toward San Pietro. Just before daylight, as they neared the eastern edge of the village, heavy artillery and mortar fire immobilized the Rangers and they remained pinned down throughout the


day. Feeling that immediate maneuver would have got the Rangers into San Pietro and attributing the failure of the battalion to a lack of determination on the part of the commander, General Walker ordered the men to withdraw after nightfall, 3 November. The Rangers had lost 10 killed and 14 wounded, and had acquired little information on enemy strength and dispositions, except that the defenders had access to good supporting fires and that no mines or wire barred entrance on the eastern approaches to the village.5

On the night of 2 December when a Ranger company took the same route, the men reached a point about a mile east of San Pietro without finding either enemy troops or obstacles. General Keyes then assumed that the Germans were ready to evacuate San Pietro after a show of force. He informed General Walker that he expected the next attack launched by the 36th Division to go through San Pietro to San Vittore without pause.6

A Ranger patrol managed to get even closer to San Pietro during the night of 4 December without stirring up enemy reaction. Yet a patrol dispatched toward the village by the 143d Infantry the same night reported it full of enemy troops.

The strength of the German defenses was still unclear when Keyes and Walker planned the next phase of operations. General Keyes attached the 1st Italian Motorized Group to the 36th Division and indicated his desire to have the unit capture Monte Lungo. He thought that two battalions of the 36th Division could work their way westward along the southern face of Monte Sammucro, one to seize Hill 1205, the highest peak, the other to descend the slope and take San Pietro from the rear. If the 3d Ranger Battalion occupied Hill 950, a peak in the eastern portion of Monte Sammucro, sufficient contact to protect the corps flank could be maintained with the 45th Division operating on the immediate right.

In his detailed plan of attack, General Walker had the 143d Infantry attacking with two battalions during the night of 7 December to capture San Pietro and the high ground immediately north and west of the village. The Ranger battalion would advance from the Ceppagna area to Hill 950 on the division right. The Italian unit would relieve a battalion of the 141st Infantry on the southern nose of Monte Lungo on the morning of 8 December and move up the slope to capture the hill. In support, the 141st Infantry would place fire on the low ground between Monte Lungo and Monte Sammucro. With these heights and San Pietro captured, Walker would continue the attack to San Vittore.7

The First Attack

Just before dark on 7 December, the 1st Battalion, 143d Infantry, moved out from the destroyed village of Ceppagna.8 The men picked their way quietly up the slope of Monte Sammucro, angling to the left as they climbed. As the first


pink edges of dawn began to show in the sky, they reached the top of Monte Sammucro, then swarmed over the crest of the mountain, threw grenades to blast a few Germans out of weapons emplacements, and took possession of Hill 1205.

Following the 1st Battalion, 143d, through Ceppagna, the 3d Ranger Battalion turned right at the foot of Monte Sammucro and climbed a ridge leading to Hill 950. Less than a thousand yards from their objective, the Rangers in the lead received machine gun fire from two alert German outposts. Rushing and overcoming the outposts, the Rangers reached and took the hill at daybreak, 8 December.

The 2d Battalion, 143d Infantry, descended Cannavinelle Hill during the night of 7 December. With San Pietro its objective, the battalion moved to a line of departure, about a mile east of San Pietro, and there awaited daybreak, hopeful that the battalions ascending Monte Sammucro would seize their objectives and compel the Germans to withdraw from San Pietro. At daylight the battalion advanced, only to meet fire from mortars, machine guns, and artillery. The leading troops moved no farther than 400 yards before taking cover. The rest of the battalion followed suit.

The regimental commander committed the 3d Battalion, instructing one rifle company to move around the 2d Battalion left, the others around the right. The troops made no headway against the continuing German fire.

Meanwhile, the Germans had gathered forces to launch a counterattack on the morning of 8 December against the battalion occupying Hill 1205. The assault almost dislodged the Americans before breaking up. At about the same time, several volleys of concentrated artillery fire forced the Ranger battalion to retire from Hill 950 to a lesser hill nearby. There the Rangers dug in and awaited the arrival of 4.2-inch mortars to help retake the objective.

If the three attacks on Monte Sammucro were achieving less than the desired success, the advance against Monte Lungo showed clearly how important the Germans regarded the direct approach to Cassino. Late in November General Keyes had alerted General Dapino, commander of the 1st Italian Motorized Group, of plans to employ his regimental-size unit and had informed Dapino that he was "somewhat concerned" about the group's ammunition requirements. Would Dapino make a detailed report of what he needed so that Keyes could be sure to give him adequate supplies? While Dapino studied his ammunition requirements, Keyes told Walker he wanted the Italian unit to succeed in its first combat assignment and therefore wanted Dapino to have a mission he could easily fulfill. Monte Lungo seemed appropriate. Overshadowed by Monte Maggiore, which was expected to be in American hands before the Italian attack, Monte Lungo appeared lightly defended. Walker's confidence in the outcome of the attack suffered when Dapino visited Walker's command post to discuss the operation. The Italian commander impressed him less than favorably.9

Relieving a battalion of the 141st Infantry on the southeastern nose of Monte


Lungo on 7 December, the Italian unit prepared to jump off the next morning. Unfortunately, the troops made no ground reconnaissance. Nor were combat patrols dispatched. A single security patrol sent to the flank during the night failed to return.

After a 30-minute artillery preparation on the morning of 8 December, the Italian troops, with good morale and high expectations of success, moved out with two battalions abreast into a heavy mist that had settled like a smoke screen over the small rocky knobs of the hill. Believing that the artillery preparation had neutralized all resistance, the Italians marched up the hill in compact formation. Despite little attack discipline, they made good progress until the assault battalions began to receive machine gun and mortar fire. The men faltered, then stopped. In the next three hours they became completely demoralized. Despite Dapino's earlier estimate of his ammunition needs, the artillery unit in direct support soon ran out of shells. Missions requested from other artillery units were beyond the range of the pieces. Co-ordination and liaison between infantry and artillery and all other communications were poor, and American artillery in general support hesitated to bring fire into close support because of lack of knowledge of the exact locations of the infantry. By midmorning, personnel losses and disorganization had reduced the strength of the Italian infantry group to about one battalion of effectives.

It was apparent by noon that the attack of the 1st Italian Motorized Group had failed. General Walker permitted General Dapino to withdraw his men to the southeastern nose of Monte Lungo, and there the regimental commander of the 141st Infantry helped restore order and set up defensive positions against a counterattack that everyone expected. When a company of the 141st Infantry took firing positions on Monte Rotondo to back up the Italian unit, and when 8-inch howitzers swept the crest of Monte Lungo to discourage the Germans from following up their success, the situation once more came under control.

Immediate estimates indicated that little more than 700 Italian troops remained of the original strength of 1,600 men. Unaccounted for were 800 men, and of these, 300 to 400 were presumed killed, wounded, and missing. The figures verified later were less discouraging: 84 killed, 122 wounded, and 170 missing. But because the unit had been "so severely handled," General Dapino asked the Italian high command, Comando Supremo, to bolster his organization with an additional battalion of infantry.10

To what extent another factor influenced the situation can only be a matter of conjecture. During the morning of 8 December, while the battalion of American infantrymen was repelling a counterattack on Hill 1205, while the Ranger battalion was being pushed off Hill 950, and while the Italian attack on Monte Lungo was meeting disaster, a group of dignitaries was visiting General Walker's division command post--Generals Alexander, Clark, Keyes, McCreery, Templer, and Rooks, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, Crown Prince Humberto--accompanied by a


host of newspaper reporters and photographers. "I had a difficult time," General Walker wrote in his diary, "to attend to the tactical demands with all these visitors coming and going."11

More important in explaining the lack of success was that Monte Lungo was not an easy assignment. Under observation from San Pietro and other points on Monte Sammucro, the steep sides of Monte Lungo made difficult any access to the top, particularly the one along the approaches from the southeastern nose of the hill. Monte Lungo had been an inappropriate objective for a unit undertaking its initial combat action.

On the other side of Highway 6, on Monte Sammucro, the infantrymen on Hill 1205 who had taken their objective were hard pressed to hold it. The Germans launched numerous counterattacks during the next four days. The Rangers who had been pushed off Hill 950, supported now by 4.2-inch mortars that had been painfully lugged up the slope of Monte Sammucro, attacked again on 9 December and recaptured the hill. They too were subjected to severe pressure from the Germans, who sought to regain the two most important heights on Monte Sammucro and who were denied by stubborn resistance and a telling use of white phosphorus shells. Yet the constant fighting and exposure to the elements depleted both American battalions. By 10 December, the 1st Battalion, 143d, was down to half strength, a total of 340 men, with the battalion commander wounded and two company commanders killed.

To bolster the units on the high ground of Monte Sammucro, General Clark sent General Keyes the 504th Parachute Infantry, which had earlier operated on the Fifth Army right flank. Keyes attached the paratroopers to General Walker, who committed them on Monte Sammucro to insure its retention.12

The failure to take San Pietro and Monte Lungo, to say nothing of San Vittore, disappointed General Walker, but only momentarily; he was soon immersed in plans for a new attack.

The Second Attack

The second attempt to take San Pietro was shaped in large part by a visit General Walker received around 9 December from General Brann, the Fifth Army G-3. Brann brought word that General Clark was interested in making greater use of armor. Clark had asked for the 1st Armored Division, Brann explained, had received it, and was somewhat embarrassed because so few opportunities existed for employing the division, which was still uncommitted. Was there any possibility of using some tanks of Walker's attached tank battalion to help capture San Pietro? (Map 8)

Walker thought not. The ground was anything but favorable for tank warfare. But since the army commander was interested in employing armor, and since General Keyes had also indicated his desire for tank action, Walker said he would try.13

He asked his tank battalion, the 753d, to make a company available for an attack on San Pietro scheduled for 12


Map 8
Second Attack on San Pietro
15-17 December 1943


December. The tanks, he informed Lt. Col. Joseph G. Felber, the battalion commander, would operate with the two battalions of the 143d Infantry that had been halted in their earlier effort against San Pietro a thousand yards or so east of the village.

The tank battalion staff began at once to study maps and aerial photos and to make ground and aerial reconnaissance. The results were discouraging. The southern face of Monte Sammucro had numerous stream beds and gullies that would serve the Germans as antitank traps and ditches. The road from Ceppagna was barely wide enough for two-way traffic, and between Ceppagna and San Pietro were four highly sensitive points: a small 3-span bridge, a 10-foot culvert, a 15-foot culvert, and a 35-foot single-span bridge, all of which the Germans could easily destroy. Above the road, terraces of olive trees and patches of scrub vegetation covered the foothills, obscuring visibility from the road and offering concealment to German defenders. Rain had saturated and softened the earth. Worst of all were the terraces, for each was elevated 3 to 7 feet above the next by rock walls. The few donkey trails that led from the road to San Pietro were too rough and narrow in most places for tanks. One trail was somewhat better--3 to 4 feet wide, it led to the first terrace beside the road, then broadened into a cart track 6 to 8 feet wide on the second terrace. A brick retaining wall would perhaps give sufficient tank footing, and engineer support might help tanks work their way precariously over the terraces along the trail to the village.

Brought into the problem, the engineers suggested another tactic. If tanks could get far enough above the road and high enough into the foothills, they might be able to make their way to the village by dropping down successive terraces. To this end, engineer troops worked through the night of 11 December. They broke down several terrace walls and cut a trail to a starting point high above the road.

When the tank company tried to get into position before daybreak, the tankers found the route impossible. The leading tank bogged down in soft earth and could get no higher than the second terrace above the road. Attempts to go beyond that point only churned up mud. When the lead tank finally threw a track and blocked the way, the attempt was abandoned. Dawn arrived, bringing with it accurate German artillery fire aimed at the unusual sounds of tank activity.14

For his next effort, General Walker planned a large-scale, coordinated, and progressive attack against all three of his immediate objectives, San Pietro, Monte Lungo, and San Vittore. In the first stage he would secure more of Monte Sammucro. If he could take three lesser peaks about a mile west of Hill 1205, he would definitely control the western portion of the hill mass. He would then have conclusively outflanked San Pietro and could threaten to cut the German escape route from Monte Lungo by dominating the trough between Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo through which Highway 6 runs. He would also have troops in good jump-off positions for an advance to San Vittore. The 504th Parachute Infantry and the 143d Infantry during the night of 14 December were


to attack the three hill objectives and gain them by daybreak. Walker would then move into his second stage by launching the main effort at noon, 15 December, a pincer movement exerted against San Pietro by tankers approaching, as before, from the east but now supported by the 141st Infantry advancing from Monte Rotondo on the south. With the defenders of San Pietro eliminated or at least engaged and unable to take the slopes of Monte Lungo under fire, Walker would send the 142d Infantry during the evening hours to capture Monte Lungo from the west, an approach that would give the assault troops some defilade. Finally, after daylight on 16 December, he would send the Italian troops up the southeastern nose of Monte Lungo once again, this time to mop up. By the 16th he also hoped to be moving against San Vittore.15

In the bright moonlight of the very early hours of 15 December, the 1st Battalion, 143d Infantry, advanced toward two of the three hills west of Hill 1205 in what was essentially a preliminary operation. Unfortunately, Monte Sammucro was virtually bare of vegetation at that height, and though the moonlight gave both the Germans and the Americans good visibility, their defensive positions gave the Germans concealment. About two-thirds of the way to the first hill objective, the battalion came under machine gun and mortar fire. Unable to maneuver on the incline and to bring effective supporting fire against the well dug-in Germans, the men suffered casualties while trying to dig holes for cover. Long after daybreak, the time that General Walker had expected to have the three hills on the western part of Monte Sammucro, the infantry battalion had not only failed to reach its objective but was reduced to 155 effectives, and they were almost out of ammunition. To replenish supplies and evacuate casualties, pack trains made hazardous trips up the mountain slope during the afternoon.

Nearby, the 504th Parachute Infantry was undergoing similar difficulties. Paratroopers reached a point less than 500 yards from their hill objective, and beyond that were unable to move. As German fire swept the path of advance, the paratroopers pulled back and dug in on Hill 1205.

It was more than plain that the Germans were fighting to keep open the route of withdrawal from Monte Lungo and San Pietro. But they were ready to give up neither. This became evident as the second stage of General Walker's operation got under way.

During a conference two days earlier, when the division commander had discussed his plans with his subordinate commanders, he had accepted and refined an idea presented by the commander of the 753d Tank Battalion. Colonel Felber recommended that Company A, which was to make the attack, remain on the road from Ceppagna and strike swiftly toward San Pietro. The infantry would then move across the terraces and over the cart trails into the village proper, while the tanks, in addition to thrusting down the road, would lend the support of their guns. General Walker suggested that the tank column split where the well-defined trail leading directly to San Pietro branched from the road. Could one platoon of tanks move up the trail into San Pietro too?


Acting on this suggestion, the tankers complicated the scheme. They decided to have the leading platoon move to the trail junction. The first section of that platoon would turn up the trail, take what was called an "overwatching" position on a terrace above the road, and search the northeastern slope of Monte Lungo with fire. The second section of the lead platoon would continue along the road, pass below San Pietro, and block the western exits of the village. The second platoon would take the trail, deploy one section in overwatching positions, and continue as far as necessary with the other section to block the village exits on the north. If it became feasible, the tanks would finally converge on San Pietro from the north and from the west.

The tankers requested smoke to be placed on Monte Lungo and on the western tip of Monte Sammucro, an intense artillery preparation to be laid on San Pietro, direct fire support from Monte Rotondo, and accompanying infantry to protect the tanks. Because the road was undoubtedly mined and the culverts and bridges were probably prepared for demolition, the tankers also asked for two Valentine treadway-bridge tanks specially designed by the British for bridge-laying operations.

Walker approved these requests. A company of tank destroyers on Cannavinelle Hill would give direct fire support. A company of infantry would protect the tanks from close-in fire. He obtained from 10 Corps two Valentine tanks, but unfortunately only one arrived in operating condition. The crew furnished by Company C, 753d Tank Battalion, to operate the tank had less than twenty-four hours to learn how it worked.

While the tankers would drive against San Pietro from the east, a battalion of the 141st Infantry would descend Monte Rotondo into the large gully between that height and Monte Sammucro, then climb the steep and rather open slope to the Ceppagna road and attack San Pietro from the south. Trying to get still more pressure against San Pietro, General Walker instructed the battalion of the 143d Infantry, which by that time was to have secured the western part of Monte Sammucro, to send whatever elements could be spared down the slope to squeeze San Pietro from the north.

Although the preliminary operation in the western part of Monte Sammucro had failed to gain the three hills General Walker wished, he opened the second stage of his attack as scheduled. At 1100, 15 December, as the morning mist was lifting from the ground, the 1st and 3d Platoons of Company A, 753d Tank Battalion, departed their assembly area. The tanks of the two platoons were interlaced in column to facilitate the subsequent turnoff from the road. At the line of departure, a bend in the Ceppagna road, the column halted while tanks and tank destroyers fired for fifteen minutes on San Pietro. At noon, the lead tank crossed the line of departure, followed in order by a second tank, the one British Valentine, and then the fourteen other mediums.

Beyond the bend, the road was cut into the side of Monte Sammucro, with hardly a straight stretch, the road curving first one way, then the other. On the right, a stone retaining wall that propped up the terraces was an obstacle against movement off the road. On the left, a sheer embankment dropped off precipitously.


Without even receiving German artillery fire, the lead tank in the column crossed the small bridge, then the 10-foot culvert, and reached the trail junction. Turning right, the tank inched up the narrow trail, finding barely enough room to move. After traveling about 100 yards, the tank commander reported over his radio that the trail was no longer passable. The company commander ordered him to leave the trail and open a path to San Pietro across the terraces. Using his tank to break down and crush part of a retaining wall on his left, the tank commander moved onto a terrace above and not far from the road. For more than three hours, the tank crew worked slowly and painfully toward the village, in the process destroying several machine gun nests, disrupting a command post manned by five German officers, and finally coming to within sight of San Pietro. There, at the end of the afternoon, the tank commander received word to return.

The second tank in column had remained on the road and gone beyond the trail junction to the 15-foot culvert, which was still, somewhat surprisingly, intact. The tank crossed, but soon afterward struck a mine that put it out of action. The crew remained inside, manning guns against targets of opportunity that appeared occasionally on the terraces above the road.

The Valentine was next in line. When the crew discovered the culvert still standing, the driver, in conformance with plans, pulled over to the side of the road on the right to let the following tanks cross.

By this time, German artillery shells had begun to fall.

The next three tanks in column passed the Valentine, crossed the culvert, and maneuvered past the tank that had been disabled by the mine. As the first of these three tanks started to turn up another trail, the tank commander saw that a destroyed German tank blocked the trail. He radioed the information to his company commander, and this news, adding to the earlier report that the terraces were too steep for the tanks to negotiate, prompted the company commander to direct all his tanks to continue along the road to positions below San Pietro, the tankers there to support with fire the infantry attack coming from the south.

The three tanks remained on the road and rolled to the 35-foot single-span bridge, which was also intact. With San Pietro only 1,000 yards beyond, the first of the three crossed. Just beyond the structure, it received a direct hit from an antitank shell and exploded. The next tank crossed, received two direct hits in close succession, and burst into flame. The third tank was struck by three shells and set on fire before reaching the bridge.

At the culvert, the next two tanks in the column struck mines as they tried to bypass the Valentine. The tank immediately following tried to push one of the disabled tanks off the road, and itself struck a mine. The next one, after attempting to push the two tanks off the embankment without success, tried to climb the terrace and failed.

Having learned from the lead tank that had worked across the terraces that it was closing in on San Pietro, the company commander ordered the remaining tanks in the column to follow that route. The first to try turned over on its side and blocked the way. Another threw a track. A third slipped off the


embankment on the left side of the road, dropped five feet, and turned over. A fourth collided with one of the disabled tanks.

The last three tanks backed to a path leading off the side of the road, their intention being to work their separate ways over the terraces to San Pietro. Two threw their tracks. The third found its progress blocked by an impassable ravine.

With darkness approaching, the company commander, upon battalion order, withdrew his operating tanks. Of the 16 Shermans committed, 4 returned. They carried with them the crews of nine others and several men of the Valentine crew. The Valentine was undamaged, but it had been boxed in by disabled tanks and was unable to move. Several damaged tanks were salvageable, and the tankers hoped to retrieve them the next day.

The terrain, road mines, and effective fire had stopped not only the armored thrust but also the infantry company working with the tanks. The infantry had hardly advanced beyond the line of departure when a shower of small arms and automatic weapons fire arrested movement. As for the battalion of the 143d Infantry, which General Walker had instructed to descend the Monte Sammucro slope and take San Pietro from the rear, the troops remained engaged near the western tip of the mountain and were unable to move.

South of San Pietro, the 2d Battalion, 141st Infantry, had jumped off shortly after 1200. An hour and a half later, after crossing the deep gully separating Monte Rotondo and Monte Sammucro, the two assault companies climbed the steep slope below San Pietro, rushed across the Ceppagna road, and approached the southern edge of the village. Along a stone wall three to four feet high, which gave protection against a large volume of machine gun fire coming from houses in the village, the companies built up a firing line. A few intrepid soldiers crawled toward the village and tried without success to neutralize enemy machine guns by grenades. Mortar shells dropped into the village seemed to have little effect on the German fire. Because crew members of several of the destroyed and disabled Shermans had escaped the burning tanks and taken refuge in San Pietro, the troops hesitated to call in artillery support. Besides, the infantry was gun-shy of close-support fire--earlier that afternoon several shells had fallen short and landed among the assault troops.

The battalion on the southern edge of San Pietro estimated that about 100 Germans defended the village. The troops identified, without precisely locating, at least one tank or assault gun firing from a position in or near San Pietro, at least four more from a distance. Despite the relatively few defenders, the small arms, automatic weapons, mortar, and antitank fire that spewed forth were devastating. By evening, each assault rifle company had a strength of less than 100 men.

Pressed by regimental headquarters to take San Pietro at all costs, the battalion mounted an assault about midnight, 15 December. Although all wire communications had by then been destroyed, making it difficult to co-ordinate supporting fires, a few men stormed into the village, fighting their way past the first houses by grenade and bayonet. They were unable to remain without immediate



reinforcement. Those who could returned to the stone wall.

With a total effective strength of not more than 130 men, the 2d Battalion, 141st Infantry, renewed the attack at dawn on 16 December, at the same time that the 1st Battalion, 143d Infantry, at the top of Monte Sammucro, tried once more to take its two hill objectives near the western tip of the mountain. Neither battalion made progress. That afternoon the battered 2d Battalion, 141st, returned to Monte Rotondo. On the following morning, 17 December, the exhausted 1st Battalion, 143d, was replaced by the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, and the weary men descended Monte Sammucro and entered a bivouac area for rest.16

The defenders of San Pietro, a battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, had conducted a skillful and tenacious defense of a strongpoint that had, by Hitler's order, become symbolic of the German effort in southern Italy. Ready to continue their fierce struggle, they would find the battle of San Pietro decided elsewhere.

During the night of 15 December, the 2d Battalion, 142d Infantry, and the 3d Battalion, 143d Infantry, moved westward across Highway 6 and around the southern nose of Monte Lungo. Working their way up the valley separating Monte Lungo from Monte Maggiore, the battalions then climbed Monte Lungo's



western slope. They took the enemy by surprise, rooted the reconnaissance battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division out of foxholes, and reached the top of the mountain by dawn. By midmorning of 16 December, the battalions possessed the greater part of Monte Lungo and were mopping up. To reduce the last remaining ridge in the southeastern portion of the mountain, the 1st Italian Motorized Group jumped off on the morning of 16 December, moved swiftly, and completed the capture of Monte Lungo that afternoon.

With Monte Lungo lost and the trough between it and Monte Sammucro threatened, the Germans in San Pietro were in danger of being cut off. An outburst of fire on the afternoon of 16 December masked their withdrawal. The battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division retired, leaving a village completely ruined, no longer habitable, not even worth rebuilding.17

On the morning of 17 December, the silence in San Pietro was almost eerie. Suspecting a trap, American troops moved cautiously into the ruins. Only the dead were present. Later that day the tankers recovered five of the twelve tanks they had lost; these were eventually repaired and returned to service.18

The fight for San Pietro had cost the 36th Division 1,200 casualties--about 150 killed, more than 800 wounded, and almost 250 missing. The 504th Parachute Infantry lost 5 killed, 225 wounded, and 2 missing. Casualties incurred by the other units engaged--the 3d Ranger Battalion, the artillery battalions, the 753d Tank Battalion, the 111th Engineer Combat Battalion, and the Italian group--must be added to these figures.19

What was not immediately apparent was the extent of the withdrawal. Were the Germans now ready to give up San Vittore, a scant two miles away?

The Aftermath

The assistant commander of the 36th Division, General Wilbur, had formulated a plan to gain San Vittore by infiltration during the hours of darkness.20


Following the plan on the night of 19 December, the 3d Battalion, 141st Infantry, and the 2d Battalion, 143d Infantry, tried to go around the western tip of Monte Sammucro by advancing along the lower slopes of the mountain mass. Skillful German resistance blocked the attempt. On the following night, the 3d Battalion, 141st, and two depleted battalions of the 143d Infantry tried again, this time on higher ground. The Germans refused to be dislodged.

Walker and Keyes then returned to the earlier idea of seizing the top of Monte Sammucro at its western tip. The mission went to the 1st Special Service Force, now recovered after its hard fighting on Monte la Difensa, reinforced with the 504th Parachute Infantry and a battalion of the 141st Infantry. Possession of the western spur of Monte Sammucro would give the 36th Division an advantageous line of departure for a direct attack on San Vittore.

Despite continuing bad weather that produced high rates of sickness and trench foot among his troops, Colonel Frederick co-ordinated a successful attack that opened on Christmas Eve. By the next morning, after stiff fighting, his troops possessed some of the high ground. One more day was required to win all the high ground overlooking San Vittore, and on that day two battalions of the 141st Infantry cleared the lower western slope of Monte Sammucro adjacent to Highway 6.

Although American troops dominated San Vittore, the Germans did not withdraw. Having prepared excellent positions in the hills immediately beyond San Vittore, the Germans commanded both the village and the logical avenues of American approach. A patrol entered San Vittore on 29 December, and a reinforced rifle company followed quickly to gain control over the village, but intense German fire forced the troops to pull out.

It became evident that the Germans who had retired from San Pietro had established and consolidated defensive positions along a new line from Monte Porchia through San Vittore to the heights east of Cassino. There they apparently intended to stay until forced out.

The 36th Division was now close to exhaustion. The combat and the weather had had their effects. General Walker wrote in his diary about his troops:

I regret the hardships they must suffer tonight . . . wet, cold, muddy, hungry, going into camp in the mud and rain, no sleep, no rest . . . . How they endure their hardships I do not understand . . . . they are still cheerful. All honor to them for they deserve the best the nation has to offer . . . . I do not understand how the men continue to keep going under their existing conditions of hardship.21

What made the situation worse was the discouraging fact that there was no change in prospect--the Italian campaign would be over neither "this week nor next," Walker wrote, " . . . taking one mountain mass after another gains no tactical advantage. There is always another mountain mass beyond with Germans on it."22 General Lucas felt the same way. "Rome seems a long way off," he wrote. But there was "no brilliant maneuver possible in this terrain."23

Neither commander knew of plans then being discussed on the higher echelons


PARATROOPERS PASS WRECKED GERMAN EQUIPMENT on cratered road as they approach abandoned San Pietro, above. Medical corpsmen enter the village, below.


for the amphibious maneuver designed to help seize Rome quickly. Until that operation became feasible, the painful winter campaign in southern Italy and the difficult attacks in the mountains would have to continue.

To replace the fatigued 36th Division, General Keyes brought up the 34th Division at the end of December. One regiment of the 36th remained in line to garrison Monte Sammucro. One regiment of the 3d Division, which had occupied Monte Lungo after its capture, was replaced by an armored infantry regiment of the 1st Armored Division.24

At the same time the Germans were substituting units on the other side of the front. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had fought valiantly at San Pietro and San Vittore, came out of the line. In its place went a somewhat depleted 44th Division, which had received a battering early in December from VI Corps. It was not altogether ready for recommitment, but it had at least had a few days' rest.

The Other Fronts

Elsewhere along the Fifth Army front, the Allies had jostled the Germans. In the 10 Corps area, while his troops held the Camino-Difensa-Maggiore complex, General McCreery launched a diversionary operation during the night of 29 December in part to cover the relief of the 36th Division by the 34th. A seaborne raid executed by a Commando unit, which was carried around the mouth of the Garigliano River, together with a river crossing by Scots and Coldstream Guards, the operation was also designed to gain prisoners and information and to keep the Germans on edge over the possibility of Allied amphibious landings.

The seaborne part of the operation had been discussed for more than a month. "Unofficially," a member of the army G-3 section noted, "the Navy is not keen on the job." A mine field six to seven miles offshore had to be swept, two sandbars obstructed most of the beach, and the beach itself was believed heavily mined.25 Despite these anticipated difficulties, Commando troops embarked in landing ships at Pozzuoli and went ashore 600 yards north of the Garigliano in the early hours of 3 December. They achieved complete surprise. Supported by heavy artillery and naval shelling, they ranged at will over the north bank of the Garigliano before withdrawing at dawn with twenty prisoners and precious information on enemy defenses.26 Units of the Scots and Coldstream Guards crossed the Garigliano River near its mouth and executed their foray into enemy territory with similar results.

In contrast with these dramatic thrusts, VI Corps on the Fifth Army right inched along parallel mountain roads toward Atina and San Elia with two divisions abreast. Neither the 45th Division nor the 2d Moroccan Division made much progress until II Corps forced the Germans out of San Pietro. Then the Germans opposing VI Corps withdrew hastily to readjust their defenses. The two Allied divisions pushed forward about seven miles before they


regained contact on 21 December at the next German defensive line.

By this time the 45th Division was in need of rest. Fortunately, a new unit had become available, the 3d Algerian Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Aime de Goislard de Monsabert, and it replaced the 45th. With two French divisions in the line, General Juin's French Expeditionary Corps headquarters became operational and relieved the VI Corps headquarters. General Lucas' new task would be to prepare an amphibious operation designed to get the Fifth Army to Rome.

For all practical purposes, the second phase of General Clark's operation, which had been conceived in November, closed at the end of the year. Monte Lungo, San Pietro, and Monte Sammucro had been taken at heavy cost, but the absence of reserves to follow up initial successes made impossible an immediate exploitation of the hard-won gains.

The units of the Fifth Army that had fought in December were tired and discouraged. There was a tendency in some quarters to downgrade the German opposition. For example, one intelligence report made much of the "remarkable background" of the divisions in the Tenth Army--the 44th, 94th, and 305th remade after Stalingrad, the 15th Panzer Grenadier and Hermann Goering reconstituted after Tunisia, the 3d Panzer Grenadier, renumbered but the same mediocre 386th, the 29th Panzer Grenadier, a milking of the 345th, the 1st Parachute drawn from the 7th, the 26th Panzer from the 23d Infantry--"Only [the] 65[th] is an original invention, and it may hardly be regarded as a success."27 Yet the fact was that the Germans had fought resourcefully and well.

The German soldiers acknowledged their respect for their opponents. An article in Die Suedfront, a newspaper published for German soldiers in southern Italy, described the tactics in the Monte Camino and Monte Rotondo area:

The Americans use quasi Indian tactics: They search for the boundary lines between battalions or regiments, they look for gaps between our strongpoints, they look for the steepest mountain passages (guided by treacherous civilians . . . . They infiltrate through these passages with a patrol, a platoon at first, mostly at dusk. At night they reinforce the infiltrated units, and in the morning they are often in the rear of a German unit, which is being attacked from behind, or also from the flanks simultaneously.28

How dissipate the stagnation that seemed to have fallen over the opposing forces in Italy at the end of 1943? The Allied command was about to try something new.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (15) * Next Chapter (17)


1. See 10 Corps Intel Summary 218, 5 Dec 43, Fifth Army G-2 Jnl; II Corps Planning Group Paper, 2 Dec 43, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

2. Steiger MS.

3. Clark Diary, 26 Oct, 5, 11 Nov 43.

4. Ltr, Keyes to Walker, 28 Nov 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.

5. Teleconv, Lt Duke to Col Goodwin, 0750, 1 Dec 43, II Corps G-3 Jnl; Walker Diary, 1 Dec 43.

6. II Corps CofS (Lt Col Ralph J. Butchers) Memo, 2 Dec 43, II Corps Memo, 3 Dec 43, and II Corps Ltr, 3 Dec 43, all in II Corps G-3 Jnl.

7. 36th Div FO 39 (amended), 6 Dec 43.

8. The rest of this chapter is from the official records of the corps, division, and regiments involved except where otherwise indicated.

9. Ltr, Keyes to Damiano [sic], 29 Nov 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl, 1-2 Dec 43; Walker Diary, 1 Dec 43; Walker to author, Jul 60.

10. Rpt by Capt N. W. Malitch, 8 Dec 43; II Corps Memo, 8 Dec 43; 1st Motorized Italian Brigade Ltr, Action on Monte Lungo, 10 Dec 43; and Telephone Msg, 9 Dec 43, all in II Corps G-3 Jnl.

11. Walker Diary, 9 Dec 43.

12. See 504th Regimental Combat Team Staff Jnl, Dec 43.

13. Walker to author, Jul 60.

14. 753d Tank Bn Rpt, Attack on San Pietro, 25 Dec 43.

15. 36th Div FO, 2000, 13 Dec 43.

16. Rpt, by Capt Flower, Comdr Co A 753d Tank Bn, to Maj Lohr, G-3 1st Tank Gp, 0930, 16 Dec 43; Memo, Capt Malitch, 15 Dec 43; Memo, Lt Col Fred L. Walker, Jr., 36th Div G-3, for Gen Keyes, 19 Dec 43, all in II Corps G-3 Jnl.

17. Twenty years later, only a few families, about forty persons, were living in the ghost town of San Pietro. The rest of the inhabitants had moved into the completely new village of Campobasso, located on the Ceppagna road not far from its junction with Highway 6. Of the thousand or so people of San Pietro who had lived in caves and cellars during the battle, about 300 were killed.

18. See Memos, Col Walker for Gen Keyes, 19 Dec 43, G-3 Jnl.

19. OCMH File Geog L 370.2 (San Pietro).

20. Wilbur Plan for the San Vittore Operation, 20 Dec 43 [the date is incorrect; the plan was made earlier], II Corps G-3 Jnl.

21. Walker Diary, 22, 26 Dec 43.

22. Ibid., 22 Dec 43.

23. Lucas Diary, 16, 17 Dec 43.

24. See 36th Div FO 41, 27 Dec 43.

25. Memo, Wood for Brann, 19 Nov 43, Fifth Army and G-3 Jnl entries, 21, 23 Nov 43.

26. Rpt on Opn PARTRIDGE, 3 Jan 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.

27. 10 Corps Intel Summary 216, 3 Dec 43.

28. Article in Die Suedfront, in Fifth Army G-2 Jnl, Dec 43.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation