Chapter XIX
The Rapido River Crossings

The culminating effort of the Fifth Army's massive attack was to be the assault crossing of the Rapido by II Corps. If the 36th Division could establish a bridgehead two and a half miles deep at Sant'Angelo, it could open the Liri valley. Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division was then, on corps order, to pass through the infantry and drive into the valley for at least six miles, its left flank screened by the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. The 34th Division was, meanwhile, to demonstrate on the corps right to tie down the German defenders in Cassino; it was to be ready to attack Cassino directly from the east, or pass through the Sant'Angelo bridgehead and attack Cassino from the south, or pass through the bridgehead to reinforce CCB in the Liri valley. The 45th Division, held in reserve, might be committed to reinforce CCB; but because it might instead be sent by water to Anzio to bolster the landing force, the 36th Division was to hold one regimental combat team for use in the Liri valley if necessary. The Rapido crossing would be supported by the organic artillery battalions and attached tanks and tank destroyers of the 34th and 36th Divisions, the artillery and tanks of CCB, and three groupments of corps artillery consisting of twelve firing battalions. To these ground forces, the XII Air Support Command promised to add the weight of its bombs and machine gun fire.1 (Map 9)

In the zone of the 36th Division--south of Highway 6--the Rapido River, even at flood stage, was small and unimpressive. Yet it flowed swiftly between nearly vertical banks 3 and 6 feet high and anywhere from 25 to 50 feet apart. The depth of the water in the river bed varied between 9 and 12 feet.

On the west bank, midway between the town of Cassino and the junction of the Liri and the Gari Rivers, was the battered village of Sant'Angelo. It occupied the slight eminence of a 40-foot bluff, but this was enough to give the Germans observation over much of the river and the flats east of the stream. The shattered masonry walls of the houses in the village provided cover for crew-served weapons.

Sant'Angelo was but one strongpoint in a carefully prepared system of local defenses that included a belt of dugouts, machine gun positions, slit trenches, and concrete bunkers on the west bank, all protected by double-apron wire fences, booby traps, and trip-wired mines, and by a lavish use on the east bank of mines concealed among the reeds and brush of the flat, marshy ground.

Manning these positions were troops of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division,


Map 9
Crossing the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers
17 January-8 February 1944



which, according to Senger, who commanded the XIV Panzer Corps, was the finest combat organization he had.2

Viewed from the 36th Division side of the river, the fixed defenses on the rising ground of the far bank seemed numerous but hardly elaborate. What bothered the Americans most was the absence of good covered approaches to the river.3 The German observation from Sant'Angelo could probably be blocked by an extensive use of smoke shells and smoke pots. But what could be done about the commanding height of Monte Cassino and its all-encompassing view? On the flat valley floor of the Rapido, the troops of the 36th Division felt crushed by the immense psychological weight of enemy-held Monte Cassino.4

The only way to escape at all the observation and the devastating fire bound to follow was to make a night attack. Keeping one regiment in reserve to comply with General Keyes's instructions, General Walker planned an assault with two regiments abreast, one crossing the Rapido north of Sant'Angelo, the other south of the village. The 36th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, on division order, was to follow the infantry crossing on the left (south) and outpost


MONTE CASSINO AND THE BENEDICTINE MONASTERY, commanding a view of the Rapido valley and the entrance to the Liri valley.

the flank, making contact with the 46th Division, which, Walker assumed, would have by then crossed the Garigliano. H-hour was to be 2000, 20 January, and it was to be preceded by an intense artillery preparation lasting thirty minutes.5

The simplicity of General Walker's field order climaxed a long period of concern among senior commanders. The natural defensive strength alone of the barriers blocking entrance into the Liri valley--the river line and the dominating heights--disturbed them. How could they penetrate directly into the valley without first taking the high ground north and south of the Liri?

As early as mid-November, when the 36th Division seemed destined to have this mission, General Walker had concluded that a frontal attack across the Rapido would end in disaster. He had then recommended outflanking the valley entrance from the north by a deep enveloping movement across the high ground that would take the troops into the Liri valley far behind--six to twelve miles behind the Gustav Line.6 During much of December, when it appeared that the 3d Division would make the attack to secure a Rapido bridgehead, General Truscott also had serious doubts about undertaking the operation "until the mountain masses opposite the junction of the Liri and Garigliano Rivers


and the heights above Cassino were in friendly hands."7

General Keyes pointed out in December that "a bridgehead at S. Angelo would be under close observation of the enemy at Cassino. In addition, armor would be committed over poor roads in a direction which will quickly put them beyond support of either Infantry or Corps Artillery."8 At a conference attended by Generals McCreery and Gruenther, when the idea of crossing the Rapido was discussed, Keyes proposed an alternative plan. Instead of an attack by II Corps across the Rapido directly into the Liri valley, he suggested an attack by both 10 and II Corps across the Garigliano River and movement into the Liri valley from the south. McCreery objected--his British troops, he said, were neither well equipped nor particularly well trained for the mountain fighting that would be involved in this maneuver. Gruenther accepted McCreery's contention, and Clark later agreed. Keyes's proposal was dropped. Much later in the campaign, McCreery would confess to Keyes that the II Corps plan had had merit and probably should have been followed.9

When circumstances at the end of December pointed to the 36th Division as the prime candidate for the assignment of crossing the Rapido and opening the Liri valley, General Walker again looked upon the prospect with reservations. But the protests and misgivings he voiced to his superiors were far from being strong objections.10

General Keyes had no need to be reminded of the difficulties of getting directly into the Liri valley. Nor did General Clark. Yet Clark seemed intent on getting into the valley quickly instead of going across the mountains as both Keyes and Walker preferred. He rejected the slower mountainous routes probably because he wished to make use of the 1st Armored Division. The Liri valley was one of the few places in southern Italy where armor could conceivably be used. Having insisted that he needed the division, Clark seized upon the opportunity presented by the Liri valley. General Harmon, the division commander, was confident he could roll right up the valley once a bridgehead across the Rapido had been established, and his enthusiasm caught Clark's fancy.11 Why not? The Liri valley was the most direct way of reaching the beachhead to be established at Anzio.

While General Clark looked beyond the Rapido all the way to Anzio, General Walker was concentrating on the obstacle of the river itself. By January, the projected attack filled him with foreboding. The terrain and the maneuver reminded him of a situation in World War I, when, as a battalion commander, he had defended a portion of the Marne River. The Germans had attempted an assault crossing that failed, and Walker's troops had heavily punished the attacking


units. At the Rapido, the situation would be reversed. The Germans held excellent defensive positions, and they would, it seemed clear to Walker, inflict severe losses on his division. "Have been giving lot of thought," he wrote in his diary, "to plan for crossing Rapido River some time soon. I'll swear I do not see how we can possibly succeed in crossing the river near Angelo when that stream is the MLR [main line of resistance] of the main German position."12

The extent of General Walker's opposition to a crossing of the Rapido was never apparent to his superiors. At a meeting of division commanders held at the II Corps command post on 18 January, two days before the attack, Walker characterized the German positions near Sant'Angelo as well organized, wired in, and supported by automatic weapons, small arms, and the prepared fires of mortars and artillery. The difficulty of the task facing the 36th Division, Walker said, ought not to be minimized. The German defenses would be tough to crack. But he felt confident, he said--or at least the people at the command post understood him to say--that his division would accomplish its mission and be in Sant'Angelo by the morning of 21 January.13

Keyes, who was well aware of Walker's earlier protests against the Rapido crossing, was cheered by the division commander's attitude at the meeting. When Keyes heard Walker say that he was sure his 36th Division could do the job, Keyes believed that Walker's misgivings over the ability of the division to establish the bridgehead had been dissipated.14

The failure of the 46th Division, on the immediate left of II Corps, to cross the Garigliano on the following night, 19 January, brought new concern.15 General Keyes had for some time been disturbed by the assistance to be rendered by 10 Corps. According to Keyes's original understanding, the 46th Division was to cross the Garigliano at least forty-eight hours before II Corps crossed the Rapido. At virtually the last minute, Keyes learned that the British had postponed their effort--the 46th Division would launch its attack only twenty-four hours before the II Corps attempt. Keyes protested vigorously to General Clark, requesting a day's delay for his own assault. But the army commander held to the schedule, probably because of the timing of the Anzio landing.16

General Keyes wanted the 46th Division to attack two days ahead of the II Corps because he believed the British division would need more time to secure the ground Keyes considered essential for his own attack to succeed. A specific ridge that he designated above Sant'Ambrogio, if in British possession, would deny the Germans important observation over the Rapido flats. Unless the British gained this height, they could hardly cover the II Corps and 36th Division flank. Yet the 46th Division plan made no mention of the ridge as an objective. Thus, in Keyes's view, the plan was defective, for it assigned a bridgehead that would be too shallow


to give the British a good foothold in the hills above Sant'Ambrogio. And this stemmed from what Keyes called "British unwillingness to launch attacks in force." Employing a tactical doctrine that he labeled "gradualism," the British would commit a platoon to probe an enemy position; if the platoon succeeded, a company would follow; and so on. To be of real help to the 36th Division, General Keyes believed, the 46th Division had to make a strong crossing with most of its strength committed. Only a large-scale effort would attract and engage German reserves, and this, plus capture of the ridge, would make feasible the Rapido crossing. Unless the 46th Division gave the real assistance that II Corps needed, Keyes informed Clark, "the effort of the II Corps risks becoming scarcely more than a demonstration or a holding attack."17

The failure of the 46th Division to cross the Garigliano, which General Clark characterized as "quite a blow" to his hopes, threatened to make General Keyes's prophecy come true.18 The Germans, according to Keyes, had had little difficulty turning back what in his opinion had been less than a forceful effort.19 General Walker's disappointment in the British attack intensified his doubts of his own chances, already weighing heavily on his mind. "General Hawkesworth, the 46th British Division Commander, now on my south flank, came to my Command Post this afternoon," Walker wrote in his diary shortly before his division was scheduled to attack, "to apologize for failure of his Division to cross the River last night. His failure makes it tough for my men who now have none of the advantages that his crossing would have provided."20

In partial compensation for the lack of a bridgehead in the Sant'Ambrogio area to protect the American left flank, a battalion of the 46th Division was attached to the 36th Division. After the Rapido crossings, the British battalion was to follow and hold the American flank on the south.

Other conditions besides the terrain, the enemy defenses, and the 46th Division failure contributed to General Walker's anxiety over his forthcoming attack. Despite his essentially simple plan, the co-ordination required was complex.

As early as 4 January, General Walker had directed his division engineer, Lt. Col. Oran Stovall, to make a topographical survey of the assault area in order to determine the engineer tasks and equipment needed for the operation. Gathering information from map study, aerial photographs, observation from forward positions, interrogation of Italian civilians, and intelligence reports, Colonel Stovall prepared his estimate. After spending three days trying to locate the equipment he thought would be needed, he "was surprised to find," Walker later remembered, "that there was an appalling lack of basic engineer supplies available." The standard footbridge was nowhere to be found, and all other items were scarce. Meeting with the corps engineer, Col. Leonard B. Gallagher, Stovall pointed out the difficulties. An attack through a muddy


valley that was without suitable approach routes and exit roads and that was blocked by organized defenses behind an unfordable river "would create an impossible situation and end in failure and great loss of life," Colonel Gallagher agreed. Yet the attack was scheduled, and to help make it successful, Gallagher promised to do his utmost to secure adequate equipment and furnish corps engineer troops to assist.21

The arrangements for engineer assistance were extensive. The 111th Engineer Combat Battalion, reinforced by two companies of the 16th Armored Engineer Battalion, was to have all crossing sites cleared of mines by 20 January, the day of the attack; to construct and maintain bridge approaches and exits before, during, and after the operation; to clear mines and maintain the roads in the bridgehead; and, as soon as the river banks were no longer under enemy fire, to build two Class 40 Bailey bridges or armored treadway bridges, large structures capable of supporting tanks and other heavy equipment. The 19th Engineer Combat Regiment was to attach a battalion to each assault infantry regiment. Each battalion was to provide at least 30 pneumatic reconnaissance boats, 20 assault boats, and 4 improvised footbridges for the infantry assault elements; to place this equipment during the night of 19 January where the infantrymen could use it; to construct a 6- or 8-ton pneumatic treadway infantry support bridge for vehicles; and, after the capture of Sant'Angelo, to install a Class 40 Bailey bridge.22

In compliance with the plan, the 111th Engineer Combat Battalion procured 100 wooden assault craft and 100 pneumatic reconnaissance boats, adding these to the organic stocks of 19 plywood and 13 pneumatic boats normally carried by the battalion. No footbridge equipment was available, but the battalion obtained fifty sections of catwalk and planned to improvise floating footbridges by laying the catwalk on pneumatic floats.

Besides supporting footbridges, pneumatic floats would be used to carry assault troops across the river. Each would hold 24 men, 14 of whom would have to paddle. In addition, 4 men were needed on shore to pull and guide the craft across the stream by rope. The pneumatic craft, which presented large and attractive targets to enemy fire and were easily punctured by shell fragments and bullets, were hard to beach and difficult to paddle, particularly if the paddlers were inexperienced and the current was swift.

The M-2 assault boat, a scow-type plywood boat with square stern and flat bottom, was about 13 feet long and more than 5 feet wide. It weighed 410 pounds. It would hold 12 men and a crew of 2. Designed to be transported in a nest of 7 per 2½-ton truck, the boats were bulky, heavy, and awkward to carry.

To save the assault infantrymen unnecessary exertion, the planners wanted the trucks to be unloaded at the water's edge. But there were no roads to the crossing sites that could support the weight of 2½-ton trucks. Even though Engineer troops spread inordinate amounts of gravel on the paths, trails, and wagon roads in the area, the fill had little effect. Despite the absence of rain during the ten days before the operation,


previous rainfalls had so soaked the Rapido River flats that the soggy ground was impassable to most track-laying and wheeled vehicles. Because German observation over the area and the lack of cover made it suicidal to try to negotiate the flats during daylight hours, the engineers placed the equipment in two dumps, one for each assault regiment, near the base of Monte Trocchio, several miles from the Rapido. The equipment would have to be carried from there to the crossing sites by the troops making the assault.23

The improvised footbridges--pneumatic floats and Bailey bridge catwalks--were to be constructed in advance of the operation. Infantrymen were to carry the bridges to the river and place them in the water. They were to work under the supervision of engineers, an engineer crew of about ten men assigned to each bridge to handle the guy lines, fasten end walks to the river banks, and maintain the bridge after installation.

The division was to receive a dozen amphibious trucks, but the loss of equipment during the rehearsal on 18 January for the Anzio landing deprived it of these vehicles. "I can not furnish the 36th Division with the 12 dukws," General Clark wrote in his diary with regret, "which they need so badly in their crossing of the Rapido."24 Actually, the river was too narrow and the approaches were too muddy for these awkward wheeled vehicles to have much practical value.

To give the assault infantrymen practice in handling the river crossing equipment, two regiments of the 36th Division conducted rehearsals at the Volturno. The 143d Infantry reported that the "dry run" crossings "turned out to be very successful and gave confidence to unit commanders."25 In contrast, General Walker found the training, which was conducted and supervised by Fifth Army staff members, "of little or no value because of the different characteristics of the two rivers" and because "little was taught besides methods of carrying, launching, and rowing the boats on a placid stream which had low banks."26 Thus he had no compunction about changing his assault regiments. Having originally selected the 142d and 143d Infantry for the assault and having sent these regiments to the rehearsals at the Volturno, he later substituted the 141st for the 142d in order to equalize the amount of combat among his three regiments. The 142d Infantry had seen more action in previous battles, and it would remain in reserve at the Rapido.27 The Fifth Army engineer, Brig. Gen. Frank O. Bowman, would later state his belief that the change of regiments broke up a trained infantry-engineer team.28

Also disappointed in the rehearsals at the Volturno was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 19th Engineer Combat Group, Maj. Jack S. Berry. The technical problems of a river crossing, he later said, "were hardly discussed" during the critique that followed the practice run. "Nor was I called upon," he added, "to


offer observations or suggestions on the infantry participation."29

To Major Berry, the failure to request his views was a lack of courtesy that should have been extended to the engineers. He later felt that this denoted an absence of co-operation which became even more evident during the days immediately preceding the action. When he visited the 143d Infantry command post on 17 January to discuss the operation, "The infantry greeted me warmly," he said, "but when it came to business treated me casually." On the following day, during a conference held at the division command post, he was surprised to hear Colonel Martin, the 143d Infantry commander, outline the regimental plan. He learned for the first time that Martin's crossing points were different from the ones Berry was counting on. Trying to arrange a meeting with Martin after the conference, he was told that the regimental commander was too busy to see him. Berry settled for the lesser satisfaction of straightening out the differences with Martin's S-3. But what troubled Berry was that the infantry and engineers had failed to develop the close co-ordination which marks the well-trained team. This was especially necessary, he said, for an operation that everyone expected to be difficult.30

If close teamwork was indeed lacking among the elements of the 36th Division, it could in part be attributed to the severe losses the division had taken in its combat operations during December. The battles of Monte Maggiore and Monte Sammucro, Monte Lungo and San Pietro had depleted each regiment by almost 1,000 men. During early January, replacements arrived for about half of the losses. Not only would the assault regiments at the Rapido be understrength, the new men, who would constitute a high proportion of the assault units, would be inexperienced. They would hardly know their immediate leaders, who, in turn, would be unfamiliar with the replacements and their capacities.31 If initiation into combat was fearsome in itself, it would be worse if it came in a night attack--and at the Rapido it would be awful.

The 141st Infantry planned to cross the Rapido at a single site upstream from Sant'Angelo. While the 2d Battalion in regimental reserve demonstrated by fire and feinted a crossing elsewhere, the 1st Battalion with three rifle companies abreast was to cross the water in boats and seize an area 1,100 to 1,500 yards deep. As supporting engineers started to install five footbridges across the river, the 3d Battalion was to cross, initially in boats, later on the bridges.32

Below Sant'Angelo, the 143d Infantry planned its assault crossing at two sites. About 1,000 yards downstream from Sant'Angelo, the 1st Battalion was to cross the river with companies in column. About 500 yards farther south, the 3d Battalion, also in a column of companies, was to cross. The 2d Battalion was to be ready to reinforce the attack at either site. One company in each assault battalion was expected to use boats, the other companies footbridges, two of which were to be laid at each site.33

Extensive night patrolling from 17 January on disclosed the strength of the


enemy defenses. Patrols discovered numerous mines on both banks of the river, booby-trapped and mined barbed wire on the far bank, and an enemy "who is thoroughly alert."34 Some patrols were unable to cross the river because of the immediate opposition they stirred up; most drew at least machine gun fire.

Engineers who reconnoitered the near bank of the Rapido to locate suitable crossing sites had difficulty with roving enemy groups. Having swept and taped lanes through mine fields to the crossing sites on the river bank during the last few nights immediately preceding the assault, the engineers had no certainty that the ground would remain cleared. German patrols were active on the near bank of the river, and it seemed possible, even probable, that they had relaid some mines.

During the night of 19 January, the assault battalions of both regiments moved off Monte Trocchio into assembly areas near the base of the mountain--flat marshland that forms the floor of the Rapido River valley. In the sparse clumps of trees and along the few hedges of the plain, the men tried to find and maintain concealment against the superb observation enjoyed by the enemy. To bolster the reserves immediately available to him, General Walker moved one battalion of the 142d Infantry from Mignano to Monte Trocchio.

On 20 January, the XII Air Support Command flew 124 sorties in support of the impending Rapido effort--64 P-40's bombed strongpoints near Sant'Angelo, and 36 A-20's and 24 P-40's struck roads and gun positions around Cassino. A heavier effort was impossible because 10 Corps was calling for air in defense of its Garigliano bridgehead, and the imminent landing at Anzio had its air requirements too.

As darkness approached, General Walker's impression of impending disaster intensified. He wrote in his diary:

Tonight the 36th Division will attempt to cross the Rapido River opposite San Angelo. Everything has been done that can be done to insure success. We might succeed but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the valley where German artillery observers are ready to bring down heavy artillery concentrations on our men. The river is the principal obstacle of the German main line of resistance. I do not know of a single case in military history where an attempt to cross a river that is incorporated into the main line of resistance has succeeded. So I am prepared for defeat. The mission should never have been assigned to any troops with flanks exposed. Clark sent me his best wishes; said he has worried about our success. I think he is worried over the fact that he made an unwise decision when he gave us the job of crossing the river under such adverse tactical conditions. However, if we get some breaks we may succeed.35

Darkness came early on the evening of 20 January, and with it came a heavy fog.36 In the 141st Infantry area north of Sant'Angelo, men of the 1st Battalion left their assembly areas shortly before 1800. Each man carried at least one extra bandoleer of ammunition. Each rifle was loaded but, to prevent promiscuous or accidental firing carried no rounds in the chamber--a normal


procedure for night operations. Bayonets were fixed.37

Moving to the dump where the boats for their crossing had been placed, the men quickly discovered that several boats had already been damaged beyond use or completely destroyed by enemy shells. Carrying the serviceable assault craft, the men of Company C left the dump around 1905, moving toward the river in a column of boat teams. Companies A and B followed around 1930.

About the same time sixteen battalions of American artillery, some in close support and others firing in general support, began a half-hour preparation, their volleys augmented by 4.2-inch mortar shells. The rounds were aimed to hit just beyond the river at first, then move westward according to a time schedule designed to keep them 150 to 200 yards ahead of the assault troops.

Soon after the preparatory fires started and long before the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, reached the river bank, German weapons retaliated. Fire struck the flats east of the stream. As the troops approached the bank, increasing numbers of enemy mortar and artillery shells fell among them. Company B lost thirty men, including the company commander and the executive officer, in a single volley.

As troops scattered for cover, dropping the boats they were carrying and in many instances their individual weapons, they got into mine fields, taking casualties and damaging boats.

The lanes had been swept and cleared of mines, then marked with tape. But the tapes soon became almost invisible and the lanes hard to find and follow. The engineers had originally used flat white tape, but they had changed to the round, brown marline cord because it was stronger and less likely to be detected by enemy observers. In the darkness, a man had to grope for a marker, then keep holding it while he followed the path. Because tape and cord had been destroyed by enemy fire in some places and trampled into the mud in others, guides often lost their way and sometimes became separated from the units they were leading; inevitably men walked into undetected or uncleared mine fields.

Realizing that his troops would still be on their way to the crossing site by H-hour, 2000, the regimental commander, Lt. Col. Aaron A. Wyatt, Jr., requested and obtained a continuation of the artillery preparation.

By H-hour, as men struggled to get to the crossing site, at least 25 percent of the engineer assault equipment was lost. As fast as they could be brought to the river's edge, boats and bridges in the 141st Infantry area were being damaged and destroyed by enemy fire; in some cases they were abandoned by the troops carrying them. Along with the enemy fire, the clumsiness of the infantry carrying parties and the lack of forceful leadership among them, according to Engineer reports, slowed the process of transporting the equipment to the river. Approximately half the bridges the troops were carrying had been damaged beyond use before they reached the stream. Once installed, the bridges would be quite stable, though all would eventually be destroyed by enemy fire.38

To Lt. Col. D. S. Nero, the commander


of the 19th Engineers, everything seemed to be going wrong. It was a mistake to have substituted companies from the 16th Armored Engineer Battalion for organic companies of the 19th, which were used to working with the 36th Division. It was a mistake to expect troops to carry boats and bridges so far from dump to crossing site--no more than 200 or 300 yards at most was practical--and troops other than those in the assault units should have been detailed to carry the equipment. It was a mistake to depend on so few crossing sites and approach routes to the river--too many troops were concentrated and vulnerable to enemy fire. Intensifying the normal confusion incident to river assault crossings were other unfortunate conditions, according to Colonel Nero. The thick fog that had drifted in with the fall of night caused men to get lost and aided stragglers who strayed from duty. Bodies of men killed by mines and by fire and the destroyed and abandoned boats blocked traffic lanes. Some boats were placed in the river despite holes in them and went down quickly, sometimes carrying with them men loaded with combat equipment. Other boats sank because they were improperly launched or incorrectly paddled. Some boats in perfectly good condition were completely deserted because of the heavy incoming fire. And, finally, the engineers could not put the infantry across the river if the infantry had no will to go. It would have been better to have infantrymen in charge of boats and bridges, Colonel Nero believed, because many infantrymen resented taking orders from engineers.39

Many factors worked against an orderly development of the operation. Inadequate mine clearance; lack of joint training of engineers and infantrymen, both of whom as a result "had their share of foul-ups"; frequent misunderstanding of oral orders; the problem of reporting troop locations accurately on maps; the prevalence of rumors and false reports; an absence of control over troop movements toward the river because of casualties among small unit leaders; ignorance of how to paddle a boat or how to install a footbridge; the failure of some guides to know the routes to the crossing sites; the heavy enemy fire; and the swift Rapido current--all contributed to the confusion and terror at the river.40

By 2100 a handful of brave men from Company C and a few boatloads of equally courageous men from Companies A and B, 141st Infantry, had survived the devastating fire and managed to make their way across the river. They encountered strong resistance. Numbering less than 100 men at most, they dug in and took cover, waiting for more troops to come across the stream. Their wait would be long; the build-up slow.

Behind them, on the near bank, engineers were trying to install four footbridges. One was destroyed by mines while it was being transported to the river. Another was found to be defective after it had been carried to the water. Two were knocked out by enemy artillery fire as they were being laid.

Using parts of all four bridges, engineer troops collected enough material to put together a single bridge, and this


they set into place at 0400, 21 January, seven hours after the initial crossings. An hour later this footbridge was damaged by shell fire. Only enough of the bridge remained intact to support careful crossings by individual soldiers.

Using this slippery bridge and the few operational boats, most of the rifle companies of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, had crossed the river by 0630. As for the infantry support bridge that was to have been constructed in the regimental area, the approach routes to the river were so poor and the volume of enemy fire was so heavy that trucks bearing bridge equipment were unable to reach the river. Engineer construction parties remained in their foxholes.41

Shortly before daybreak, enemy shells knocked out the telephone wires linking the companies on the far bank with the battalion headquarters on the near bank. All radios had by this time been lost or damaged during the crossings and the subsequent combat on the far bank. Signal communications across the river ceased. The noise of American rifles and machine guns firing gave the only indication of progress beyond the river, and the sounds indicated that the rifle companies were still very close to the bank.

With daylight coming and with it the certainty of even more accurate German fire, with the single damaged footbridge and a few boats the only means of crossing the water, and this much too slow a method of reinforcement, the assistant division commander, General Wilbur, decided there was little point in committing the 3d Battalion. He ordered all elements on the near bank of the river to retire to the previous assembly areas and take cover before daylight exposed them completely to German observation and fire. He sent a messenger to the far bank to instruct the troops to dig in and hold until reinforcements reached them.42

Either just before or just after General Wilbur dispatched his message to the troops across the river, Colonel Wyatt, the regimental commander, ordered the troops to return. Only a few were able to get across.43

The men remaining on the far bank dug foxholes 200 yards or so from the river's edge and prepared to withstand the continuing fire of small arms, machine guns, mortars, and artillery. To these weapons was soon added the noise of German tank motors, notice that the coming of daybreak would bring these engines of destruction into the battle. Without radio or telephone communication across the river, without prospect of immediate reinforcement, the troops on the far bank prepared to fight with the means at their disposal--their rifles and the few machine guns, grenades, and light mortars they had been able to carry across the river.

As early as 0715, 21 January, Colonel Wyatt began to plan another attack to reinforce the shallow bridgehead. A daylight crossing in the face of the strong German opposition seemed out of the question. Not enough smoke-generating equipment was immediately available to screen an attack. The division G-3 had notified each assault regiment the previous evening that 600 smoke pots per regiment were available at an army dump


in the rear; the smoke pots were to be picked up and used if necessary to conceal the river in the morning "to get stuff across," meaning reinforcements and equipment.44 But the regimental S-3's had received the information shortly after H-hour, when a host of messages dealing with the jump-off had vied for their attention. Whether trucks were dispatched to the army dump for the smoke pots in time to have them at the river by daylight is dubious. Had artificial concealment been available, the rifle companies might have pulled back from the far bank or been reinforced by the 3d Battalion.

For the regimental commander, the major factors that had prevented a successful crossing were the swiftness of the river current and the heavy enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire that destroyed assault boats and footbridges, separated guides from units, scattered infantrymen into uncleared mine fields, and generally spread confusion. Artillery forward observers with the assault companies had become casualties very early in the operation, and the dense fog had rendered artillery observation posts on Monte Trocchio useless. The German artillery fire that continued in slow cadence through the night was surprisingly effective.45

To the men across the river, 21 January was a long and ugly day. "Their whereabouts were never determined," the regimental commander wrote two days later, "since all attempts to establish communications during 21 January were unsuccessful."46

Below Sant'Angelo, in the 143d Infantry area, despite the pitch-black night and the heavy fog, engineer guides successfully led infantrymen of the 1st Battalion through lanes cleared of mines to the northern crossing site. A platoon of Company C launched its few assault boats at H-hour, 2000, 20 January, and crossed the river with little difficulty.

As the boats were returning to the near bank, enemy fire suddenly descended, destroying all the boats and inflicting casualties among Companies B and C on both sides of the river. A footbridge completed twenty minutes after H-hour was quickly knocked out, and the volume of the continuing shelling prevented repairs.

Only the first platoon of Company C--and this unit was by now reduced by casualties--was across the river by 2145. Engineers carried additional boats from the dump to the water and engineer work parties tried to install footbridges despite the enemy fire and the mines. Enough boats were placed in operation to get the remainder of casualty-ridden Company C over the river during the next hour.

At 2255, the regimental commander, Colonel Martin, went to the river accompanied by Brig. Gen. Paul W. Kendall, the assistant commander of the 88th Division, which was in the process of arriving in Italy. Kendall wanted to see combat in Italy at firsthand, and General Walker had asked him to help out in the 143d Infantry area. Martin and Kendall found Maj. David M. Frazior,


the 1st Battalion commander, trying vainly to get more boats forward. Since no available engineer troops seemed to be in the vicinity, Martin took part of Company B to the boat dump. There he found an engineer lieutenant and twenty-eight men in foxholes. Routing the men out of their holes, Martin had them help the infantrymen carry five boats to the stream. In these boats and over two footbridges that engineers had by then installed despite enemy fire, the 1st Battalion, 143d Infantry, completed its crossing of the Rapido. By this time it was 0500, 21 January. Not long afterward, German fire destroyed one footbridge and so badly damaged the other that troops could only cross one at a time.

On the far bank of the river, all efforts to move forward against the German lines failed. By 0700, the infantrymen had been forced into a pocket with the Rapido at their backs. Fifteen minutes later, the battalion commander, Major Frazior, asked Colonel Martin for permission to withdraw. The regimental commander transmitted the request to General Walker, who sent word that the battalion was to remain on the far bank and await reinforcement. By the time the order reached the battalion, Frazior himself had decided to pull back to avoid what, in his judgment, would be certain annihilation. By 0740, the men had been further compressed into a small position beside the river. Daylight revealed their location to German observers, and the troops were unable to maneuver. When German tanks joined the other weapons pulverizing the crossing site, Frazior estimated that his position had become altogether untenable. By 1000, all the men who were able to do so had returned to the near bank.

Had some of the deficiencies noted afterward by engineers been corrected at the outset, the assault might have gone better. Duckboards would have made it easier for troops to walk across the footbridges. Handrails and rope would have prevented many men from falling off the slippery walks. More competent engineer guides and better communications, orders changing less frequently, and infantrymen better trained to handle boats in the swift current would have improved the operation. But the incredibly difficult terrain on the near bank could not be remedied. One approach to the crossing site was a sunken trail four to seven feet deep, with six inches of water along the bottom; to walk in this narrow ditch, particularly while carrying boats, was virtually impossible yet altogether necessary to escape the enemy fire that swept the area.47

Major Berry noticed a basic deficiency that was summed up in a remark he overheard during the night. An infantry captain, Berry said, "indicated in no uncertain terms that the infantry needed no help from the engineers." While this was probably nothing more than exasperation, the comment emphasized to Berry the failure of infantry and engineers to establish close-knit teamwork for the operation.48

At the southern crossing site of the 143d Infantry, the engineer guides leading


the men of the 3d Battalion who were carrying boats to the river became lost in the darkness and fog. They wandered into a mine field, where exploding mines and shells took their toll of men and boats. Both infantrymen and engineers became disorganized, and several hours passed before a semblance of order could be restored. By 2250, all the rubber boats assigned to the battalion had been destroyed. Under the false impression that engineers were bringing wooden boats forward, the infantry waited for their arrival, while engineers at the crossing point waited for the hostile fire to lift so they could install footbridges.

Shortly after midnight, the regimental commander phoned the battalion commander, Maj. Louis H. Ressijac. "What is the situation?" Colonel Martin demanded.

"We have a few boats and one footbridge," Major Ressijac replied, "but we don't know the way through the mine field. Am looking for an engineer guide."

"When will your Battalion get boats in the water and start crossing?" Martin asked.

In an hour, Ressijac promised.

An hour later Ressijac reported over the telephone that he had lost four more boats. This left him five operational boats and a single footbridge.

At 0255, 21 January, Martin phoned again. Had any boats got to the crossing site?

"Yes," Ressijac said, "truck with five boats went by here about 45 minutes ago."

But the fire was too heavy, the confusion too rampant. No one managed to get across the river.

Losing all patience at 0500, Martin relieved Ressijac of command, replacing him with Lt. Col. Paul D. Carter.49

The command change had no effect or came too late. The approach of daylight promised only more accurate and devastating German fire. Without a single person having crossed the Rapido, the assault companies moved back to their original assembly areas shortly before daybreak.

Had the 46th Division on the immediate left of the regiment made its crossing successfully and taken the ridge General Keyes had designated as a vital point to cover the 36th Division, the men of the 143d Infantry at the southern crossing site might have at least done as well as the troops at the other crossing points. Had the engineer guides proved to be less bumbling, they would have got the infantry to the river. Had the infantry had more stomach for the operation, some men would have crossed the stream. According to an engineer soldier, "The infantrymen I talked with didn't like night fighting and lacked confidence in their ability to knock out the enemy in a night engagement."50 According to the executive officer of the 143d Infantry, it was common knowledge in the battalions and at regimental headquarters that the units would fail in the crossing operation because the defenses on the far side of the river were too strong for infantrymen to attack and live.51

The XIV Panzer Corps commander, Senger, was surprised to learn that the


Americans had chosen to launch an attack across the Rapido. Besides considering the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division his best unit, he thought its defenses along the Rapido were among the strongest on the corps front. The natural strength of these positions and the fortifications that had been added required few troops to man the line. Yet, as it turned out, the division was concentrated in the Sant'Angelo area, not because Senger expected an important Allied attempt there but because he could from there shift troops easily to other points along the Gustav Line that he judged to be more critical.

If the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division was surprised by the 36th Division attack, the staff gave no indication of apprehension to higher headquarters. Nor was there even a flurry of consternation. "Strong enemy assault detachments, which have crossed the river," the division reported to the corps in the midmorning of 21 January, "are annihilated."52

To Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, the effort of the 36th Division seemed to be nothing more than a reconnaissance in force. Not even the commitment of local reserves was necessary to turn it back.53

Early on 21 January, General Walker was in touch with his regimental commanders to see how best to reinforce the few men of the 141st Infantry on the far bank of the Rapido. Another attack across the river was necessary, but how soon could it be mounted? Colonel Wyatt, the regimental commander, judging a daylight crossing to be impossible, recommended another night operation. Walker approved and set 2100 as the hour for the attack. At 0820 he instructed Colonel Martin, the 143d Infantry commander, to make another assault at the same hour.

Not long afterward, at 0945, Colonel Martin was meeting with key personnel to discuss the new effort. He opened the conference by placing some of the blame for the failure of the preceding night on the engineers. "It appears that last night," Martin said, "they did not lead the troops through the lanes." Nor had they furnished an adequate supply of boats.

Turning to Major Berry, commander of the 1st Battalion, 19th Engineers, Colonel Martin asked whether the engineers were going to do better that evening. What, precisely, did they have available in the way of boats for the attack?

"I think," Berry replied somewhat vaguely, "there are 10 boats in the 3d Battalion [143d Infantry] area. There are actually two M-10 boats in the 1st Battalion area. There will be 17 more boats available."

Since this was not a large number, Berry added: "We have 72 pneumatic boats which can be pumped up and can be carried. They can be organized some way."

The vagueness of Berry's reply impelled Colonel Martin to another question. "How many of the 72 will you use as footbridges?"

If Berry answered, his reply went unrecorded.

Martin did not press the point. Instead, he concluded the conference with a pep talk. "You gentlemen must realize," he said, "this operation is a vital


operation and I trust that you have been in the army long enough [to know] that you can accomplish any mission assigned to you. It should have been proven last night." Among the various factors contributing to the failure, Martin declared, was the large number of men "who complain and try to return to the rear under pretense of illness."54

Some time earlier that morning, General Clark had received a report on the Rapido operation. According to information that came from his G-2, Colonel Howard, "The Germans are still reinforcing down in the Cassino-Rapido-Garigliano region, and this is an indication that the Germans are falling for this move to draw troops from the area where the SHINGLE [Anzio] force will invade." Without being at all clear as to what was actually happening--and he could not at that time have known specifically--Colonel Howard was referring to the movement of German reserves from the Rome area to block the British from expanding their bridgehead across the Garigliano. Whatever the reason for the arrival of additional troops to defend the Gustav Line, the Fifth Army attack that was designed to help the amphibious landing at Anzio seemed to be succeeding. General Clark immediately "talked with Keyes and . . . directed him to bend every effort to get tanks and tank destroyers across [the Rapido] promptly."55

Visiting the 36th Division command post around 1000 on 21 January to carry out this order, General Keyes directed General Walker to attack across the Rapido again as soon as he could. If bridges capable of supporting tanks and tank destroyers were installed just after the initial assault boats were launched, the operation, Keyes thought, might have a better chance of success. The division commander explained that since there was no possibility, in his opinion, of executing in daylight and with reduced forces an operation that had failed the previous night, he had already ordered the attack renewed at 2100. To the corps commander, this seemed much too long to wait, particularly in view of the army commander's instructions. The attack, Keyes informed Walker, would have to go at once or as soon as possible, in any event earlier than 2100. Although Walker pointed out that the disorganization of the assault elements and the destruction of engineer equipment made an immediate attack impossible, Keyes was adamant. With no choice but to comply, Walker, after consulting with his staff, his regimental commanders, and the engineer officers, set 1400 as the time for resuming the crossing attempt. "I expect this attack to be a fizzle just as was the one last night," General Walker wrote in his diary.56

General Walker had selected the hour of 1400 after the engineers promised to have 50 assault boats and 50 rubber boats in the division area and moved to forward assembly areas by 1230. Informed at 1120 of the 1400 H-hour, Colonel Wyatt began immediately to search for the arriving boats. Advised at 1310 of the 1400 H-hour, Martin protested--no boats had arrived. Walker postponed Martin's attack to 1500. Checking with Wyatt at 1340, and learning that none of Wyatt's boats had arrived


either, Walker gave Wyatt the same hour's delay. Not long afterward, Martin telephoned the division commander--his battalion commanders had objected to the 1500 attack hour; it was too early to launch the attack because no boats were yet forward; an H-hour of 1600, Martin's battalion commanders proposed, would be more realistic. Walker accepted the suggestion. At 1420, with boats finally reported on the way though still not at hand, Walker notified Wyatt to delay his attack until 1600. At 1545, Wyatt located boats that had been in his regimental area since 1430, but because it was by then much too late to organize and launch an attack to meet the 1600 deadline, Wyatt ordered his assault for 2100. In contrast, although Martin remonstrated that all his promised boats had still not arrived, Walker insisted that Martin's attack go at 1600 with whatever boats were on hand.

It was more than the matter of boats that held up a renewal of the attack. The assault units were dispersed. Morale had been fundamentally shaken. And the large amounts of smoke put out during the day confused the American troops more than the Germans, handicapping forward observers and preventing observed artillery fire. General Keyes later admitted his error in having ordered too much artificial haze.57

Below Sant'Angelo, the 143d Infantry jumped off at 1600, 21 January, as the 3d Battalion, concealed by a liberal use of smoke, ferried its rifle companies across the Rapido in rubber boats. By 1830 all the rifle companies were on the west bank, and shortly thereafter the heavy weapons, with the exception of the mortar sections, joined the rifle units. The engineers began to construct a footbridge, which was completed shortly after midnight. Using both footbridge and boats, the remaining elements of the battalion, including the headquarters, moved across the river. All of the 3d Battalion was now on the far side.

Colonel Martin ordered his 2d Battalion to follow the 3d across the river. While Company G remained in defensive positions around the crossing site on the near bank to guard the rear and keep the footbridge and an exit from the bridgehead open, Companies E and F crossed the river.

On the far bank, the troops advanced about 500 yards beyond the river. There they were pinned down by what they later described as heavy resistance. Staff Sgt. Thomas E. McCall of Company F, who virtually spearheaded his company attack, was last seen advancing on German emplacements while firing his machine gun from the hip.58

What the troops in the bridgehead needed was the close support of tanks and tank destroyers, and Colonel Martin on the near bank kept pressing the engineers to start work on more substantial bridges. If they could not install 6- or 8-ton ponton bridges, let them erect Bailey bridges. The engineers tried to get Bailey bridge equipment forward, but the trucks bearing the matériel were still not unloaded by 0400, 22 January.

Colonel Martin's requests for Bailey bridges surprised the corps engineer, Colonel Gallagher, for the normal sequence was to construct ponton bridges first, then Bailey bridges. Furthermore,


no work on bridges was supposed to be undertaken until enemy small arms fire was no longer being received at the crossing site. Since an insufficient number of troops had crossed the river on the first night to clear any of the crossing points, no ponton infantry-support bridges had been built. And consequently, no Bailey bridge equipment had been brought forward. But during the second night of operations, 21 January, someone at division headquarters, according to Gallagher, changed the corps plan and directed that Bailey bridges be installed immediately on the heels of the assault crossings by boat.59 This made little sense because it took engineers anywhere from six to eight hours to put in a Bailey bridge but only forty-five minutes to an hour to put in a 6- or 8-ton ponton bridge--under normal circumstances, of course.60

What neither Colonel Gallagher nor his deputy knew was that the change had been made at corps headquarters. According to Lt. Col. Ralph J. Butchers, the II Corps G-3, delay in establishing bridgeheads during the first night of operations had prevented work from starting on 6- or 8-ton ponton support bridges. Rather than waste time during the second night building the lighter bridges that would have to be replaced once the bridgeheads were firmly established, the corps commander decided to start erecting Bailey bridges at once. Furthermore, Bailey bridges seemed more practical than ponton treadways because of the high dikes along both banks of the Rapido. To install the water-level ponton bridges would necessitate considerable work to cut down the dikes for approaches, and cutting down the dikes might flood the bridge approaches. Installing Bailey span-type bridges on the tops of the dikes appeared to be far more practicable.61 With these structures in place, the 36th Division could get the tanks and tank destroyers across the river.

To the engineer battalion responsible for supporting the 143d Infantry, Colonel Martin's insistence on calling for Bailey bridges was somewhat incomprehensible. With enemy small arms fire far from being neutralized, construction of a Bailey bridge was manifestly impossible.62 To the Fifth Army engineer, attempts to use Bailey bridging as assault bridging were completely "unjustified."63

Despite the consternation provoked by Colonel Martin's calls to start erecting a Bailey bridge in the area of the 3d Battalion, 143d Infantry, the engineers in support tried to comply. Engineer mine parties swept the approaches to the bridge site, completing the task by midnight of the 21st. Trucks from the 175th Engineer Battalion hauling the bridge equipment to the river were then ordered forward. When broken culverts on the approach routes and sticky mud bogged down the trucks, engineer troops unloaded the vehicles and carried the Bailey bridge equipment to the site by hand. There, German small arms fire compelled them to wait for the banks to be cleared. But the banks were not


cleared that night and the engineers failed to construct the bridge.64

At the other crossing site in the 143d Infantry area, the 1st Battalion had also moved toward the river at 1600, 21 January. By 1835 Companies A and B were across in boats. Unable to follow immediately because of heavy German fire, Company C started across the stream at 2225. An hour and a half later, part of the company had joined the other rifle elements on the far bank. About this time engineers completed a footbridge.

When the battalion commander, Major Frazior, received word that his forward units were bogged down about 200 yards beyond the river, he crossed the Rapido to get them moving. His efforts were unavailing. The resistance was too strong.

At 0135, 22 January, Frazior radioed the regimental commander, Colonel Martin, that he was wounded--"I had a couple of fingers shot off" was his nonchalant report. Martin sent a new commander, Lt. Col. Michael A. Meath, to take over. By the time Meath reached Frazior and relieved him, almost three and a half hours had passed.

By then, at 0500, all three rifle company commanders had become casualties. The single footbridge and all the boats used by the battalion had been destroyed. An hour and a half later, engineers had put in two more footbridges. But these served for the most part only to permit infantrymen to straggle back across the river to the near bank on one pretext or another. Colonel Meath estimated around daybreak that his battalion combat strength on the far bank was down to 250 enlisted men.

Efforts to get more substantial bridges across the stream in this area were also unavailing. At 0655, 22 January, Major Berry, commander of the 1st Battalion, 19th Engineers, informed Colonel Martin that bridging equipment was too far from the bridge sites for work to continue. Several trucks loaded with bridge equipment had tumbled into ditches. Work that had been started on a Bailey bridge at 0300 was only 5 percent completed four hours later. According to Berry's estimate, the bridge could be finished by 1500 "if no enemy interference is encountered."65

At 0715, Colonel Martin told Berry that the bridge had to be built regardless of enemy fire. Why didn't Berry use smoke?

Berry said he was already using smoke pots.

Martin said he would get more.

While the regimental commander tried to obtain more smoke screening equipment, the units in the bridgehead suffered incredible punishment. About 1000 the 1st Battalion had a shallow bridgehead with Companies A and B and part of Company C at the southern crossing site; at the northern site, the 3d Battalion had a bridgehead about 500 yards deep with Companies I and K effectively holding the perimeter--Company L was badly disorganized as the result of heavy casualties; the 2d Battalion, reinforcing the 3d, had Companies E and F no more than 300 yards beyond the river, while Company G on the near bank protected a footbridge



which had by then been struck by artillery fire and rendered unserviceable. Resistance against the forces in both bridgeheads continued to be strong.

All work to erect Bailey bridges had by then come to a halt. General Kendall found one group of engineers in foxholes about one and a half miles from the bridge site. "They are dug in and scared," Kendall radioed Colonel Martin. "Work has not begun on Bailey bridge, [I] got them out of their holes and started them on their way to bridge site." But the engineers were moving toward the river most reluctantly. He did "not anticipate," Kendall added, "they would accomplish a thing."66

With no hope that a vehicular bridge would be established soon, with his troops in open flats across the river at the mercy of the Germans, and with casualties mounting, the positions on the far bank became untenable. Colonel Martin ordered his units to withdraw. By early afternoon, all three battalions were back. Only a few isolated groups remained in enemy territory.

Asked several days later to explain what had been responsible for the failure of the 143d Infantry to gain and secure a bridgehead, the regimental commander listed the fog that made engineer guides lose their way and lead men into mine fields, the enemy mines and fire that destroyed boats and bridges, the dispersal and disorganization of both


engineers and infantrymen that resulted from the thoroughgoing confusion. But the major cause, in his opinion, was one that he could express only indignantly and somewhat incoherently:

Losses from attacks of this kind are tremendous in man power and matériel, and in addition have a devastating demoralizing effect upon those few troops who survive them . . . As long as leaders . . . have the guts to plunge into hopeless odds such as this operation, [and men] are sacrificed like cannon fodder, our success in battle will suffer in proportion and disaster will eventually come.67

North of Sant'Angelo, the 141st Infantry had launched its attack at 2100, 21 January. The troops found most of the assembled boats defective. The few undamaged boats on hand were enough to carry only a small part of Company F across the Rapido.68 Five hours later these men had eliminated German riflemen and machine gunners who had been firing directly on the crossing site. At that time, 0200, 22 January, engineers installed two improvised footbridges. Two hours later, the rest of the 2d Battalion was across. Over these footbridges and a third installed later, the rifle companies of the 3d Battalion crossed single file. By dawn all these troops were on the far side.

The troops who established and built up a slender bridgehead on the far side of the Rapido found no survivors of the 1st Battalion, which had crossed the river the first night. Reinforcement had come too late.

The two battalions advanced about 1,000 yards beyond the river, and there, having suffered severe casualties, the men dug in.69

Meanwhile, engineers on the near bank were trying to get more substantial bridges installed. At 0055, after frantic search, engineers located the equipment for a Bailey bridge and started the trucks with the equipment toward the bridge site. Eight hours later, despite heroic exertions by engineer troops in this area, the soggy ground and the continuing enemy fire were still preventing the actual work from getting under way. At 0945, 22 January, work was temporarily suspended; it was never resumed. The footbridges that had sustained the crossings were, in the meantime, washed away by the current or destroyed by enemy fire, although engineers were able to keep one footbridge in place and open for traffic much of the time.

The coming of light brought morning mist and fog that limited visibility to fifty yards and helped the assault and supporting troops. When the sun began to dissipate the haze, smoke pots were used to screen the crossing site. Despite the concealment, enemy fire continued to be heavy and, though largely unobserved, effective. Between 0400 and 0630, an estimated 300 rounds of artillery fell in the division command post area, inflicting several casualties. And at 0900, an alarming, though incorrect, report circulated and spread that the Germans had made their own crossing on the 141st Infantry front. In the bridgehead, the continuing German opposition made it impossible to reorganize the units for a resumption of the attack.


Early in the afternoon of 22 January, as the three battalions of the 143d Infantry south of Sant'Angelo were withdrawing to the safety of the near side of the river, the situation in the 141st Infantry area north of Sant'Angelo began to deteriorate. The first indication came around 1300 as the telephone lines across the Rapido started to go out. Radio signals soon faded. By 1500 all officers in the headquarters of the two battalions across the river were casualties. By 1600 every commander on the far side of the river, except one, had been killed or wounded. About this time a shell landed squarely on the single footbridge still spanning the stream, knocking it out of commission.

With all boats by then destroyed, the infantrymen on the far side of the river were isolated. With no leaders, combat effectiveness disintegrated. The volume of German fire increased significantly, while the sound of American weapons appreciably declined. Between 1800 and 1900, about forty men returned to the near bank, swimming across the river or paddling across while they held onto logs or pieces of debris. The situation they reported was hopeless. At 2000 the sound of American weapons died. A few more men made it back across the river. The others were killed or captured.

Although General Keyes directed and General Walker in compliance alerted the 142d Infantry in division reserve to be ready to pass through the 141st Infantry and resume the attack, the movement was canceled. Further offensive efforts by the 36th Division ceased. The corps and division commanders would continue to plan to renew the assault across the Rapido, but the attempts to cross [the river] had seriously depleted the participating regiments and profoundly shaken morale.

General Walker wrote in his diary:

January 22 will long stand out in my memory as definitely as December 25 or July 4. Yesterday two regiments of this Division were wrecked on the west bank of the Rapido. Thank the Lord, General Keyes finally changed his mind and authorized me to call off the attack of the 142d Infantry which he directed me to make at 2:30 this morning. I had advised against the 142d making such an attack at the same place where the 141st Infantry had failed and had suffered so many losses. But he insisted that the attack go on. Later after thinking it over, he called on the phone and authorized me to cancel the attack which I did in a hurry. Thus many lives and a regiment were saved.70

When the survivors of the 141st Infantry were counted on the morning of 23 January, there were pitifully few--the 1st Battalion had 398 men, the 2d Battalion 309, and the 3d 283.71 The loss figures that were later totaled, after stragglers and others returned to their units, showed that the 36th Division had incurred 1,681 casualties in its organic organizations--143 killed, 663 wounded, and 875 missing during the 48-hour operation. To these must be added the casualties in the attached units.

The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, operating on a plain behind the Gari River and fighting from well dug-in positions, had caught the 36th Division in a firetrap. According to its figures, the division had captured 500 Americans during the 2-day battle. German losses were negligible. The division report of the operation was a laconic statement that


the 15th had "prevented enemy troops from crossing S. Angelo."72

Not until some time after the attack did Senger, the XIV Panzer Corps commander, realize the significance of the American effort and the importance of the defensive success. Generalmajor Eberhardt Rodt, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division commander, was a modest man, and his reports minimized the tactical victory he had won. Only after Senger's staff began to make a systematic accounting of the American dead and prisoners of war did Senger understand what Rodt's troops had achieved.73

On the evening of 21 January, twenty-four hours after the 36th Division had launched its first attack, General Clark learned that, "as was anticipated, heavy resistance was encountered in the 36th Division crossing of the Rapido River."74 His attention almost completely occupied on 22 January with the amphibious landings at Anzio, the army commander visited his corps commanders along the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers on the morning of the 23d to stress the necessity of continuing strong pressure against the enemy "at all costs." After conferring with General Keyes, then with General Juin, General Clark returned to the II Corps headquarters; accompanied by Keyes, he then set out for the 36th Division command post. There he discussed with Generals Keyes, Walker, and Wilbur the situation along the 36th Division front. Clark had lunch at the division mess, then departed for visits with the 34th Division commander, General Ryder, and the 10 Corps commander, General McCreery.75

General Clark impressed upon all three corps commanders the necessity for giving the Germans no rest, for preventing them from making an orderly withdrawal toward Anzio, and for advancing to the Anzio beachhead at the earliest possible moment. Since the weariness of the 36th Division prevented II Corps from making a massive effort, and since the terrain in the area of the French Expeditionary Corps seemed to preclude a decisive thrust there, Clark looked to 10 Corps to exert additional pressure. "In view of . . . Operation SHINGLE," he cabled McCreery that evening, "absolutely essential 10 Corps continue attack to secure objectives previously designated."76

As for what had happened at the Rapido, General Clark set down his thoughts:

In deciding upon that attack some time ago, I knew it would be costly but was impelled to go ahead with the attack in order that I could draw to this front all possible German reserves in order to clear the way for SHINGLE. This was accomplished in a magnificent manner. Some blood had to be spilled on either the land or the SHINGLE front, and I greatly preferred that it be on the Rapido, where we were secure, rather than at Anzio with the sea at our back.

But the failure of that attack had not changed the conditions that had made it necessary. "We must [still] get a bridgehead over the Rapido in order to permit the debouchment of our tank forces into the Liri valley."77 To that end, new plans were being prepared.


Having put down his thoughts on the Rapido crossing, General Clark never again referred to it in his diary during the course of the war. He regretted the losses and the failure. But the condition that had prompted the attack, the need to assist the Anzio landings, was, as he reiterated after the war, "more than sufficient justification" in his opinion for the assault.78

In contrast, General Walker brooded. The division had been badly hurt, just as he had feared. And to no justifiable end, in his opinion. Soon after his conference with his two superior commanders on the morning of 23 January, he wrote:

I fully expected Clark and Keyes to "can" me to cover their own stupidity. They came to my headquarters today but were not in a bad mood. Clark admitted the failure of the 36th Division to cross the Rapido was as much his fault as any one's because he knew how difficult the operation would be. He has now decided to attack over the high ground to the north of Cassino . . . . This is what he should have done in the first place.79

The army commander's attitude and words that morning appeared to General Walker to exonerate his division from fault, and he hastened to document the conversation by asking his assistant division commander, General Wilbur, to give him a typed and signed statement of corroboration. Wilbur's report of the visit, dated the same day, which Walker pasted into his diary, described the talk that had taken place among Generals Clark, Keyes, Walker, Wilbur, and Brig. Gen. Walter W. Hess, Jr., the division artillery commander. Clark had opened the meeting with the remark: "Tell me what happened up here." And the commanders had discussed the operation of the previous forty-eight hours. There was no attempt to blame anyone for the serious losses inflicted on the division. At one point, Keyes said that according to the information available to him beforehand the assault crossing had seemed to be a most worthwhile effort. "It was as much my fault," Clark said to Keyes, "as yours."80

Seeking an explanation for the disaster and the tragedy, which affected him deeply, General Walker saw in General Clark's words an admission of error. "The great losses of fine young men during the attempts to cross the Rapido to no purpose and in violation of good infantry tactics," Walker wrote a few days later, "are very depressing. All chargeable to the stupidity of the higher command."81

This to him became the reason for the failure: the incompetence of his superiors. Because Walker was unaware of the larger situation, in particular the close relationship between the projected OVERLORD operation and the Anzio landing, he could understand neither the need for haste nor the requirement to get tanks into the Liri valley quickly. He suspected that Clark's impatience to get into the Liri valley and to Rome stemmed altogether from an exaggerated personal ambition.82

Seeing the German positions in the Cassino area as the end of the enemy's delaying actions in southern Italy, Walker


felt, from his conversations with Clark and Keyes, "that my ideas did not receive logical consideration." Neither superior, in his opinion, "fully realized that piece-meal attacks and bold and venturesome movements, suitable against rear guard and delaying operations, would no longer be suitable against the prepared defensive positions [of the Gustav Line]."83

Yet it was obvious to the Allied command early in January that the Gustav positions were designed for indefinite defense. "Even if we penetrate soon to the Pescara line [on the east coast of Italy]," an intelligence report stated, "this need in no way jeopardize the Cassino positions."84 And despite General Walker's belief that his superiors paid little attention to the technical details that determine the eventual success or failure of a tactical operation, Clark and Keyes had discussed over a long period of time the advantages and disadvantages of all sorts of possible and alternative maneuvers, and their staffs had worked long and hard to prepare detailed plans for a variety of operations.85

Although General Clark recalled that the decision to cross the Rapido originated with General Alexander, General Keyes was under the "firm impression" that crossing the Rapido was "General Clark's baby."86 In mid-December, Clark had ordered Keyes to prepare to secure a bridgehead across the Rapido. General Clark was aware of the strength of the Gustav defenses. The terrain, German improvements of the natural defensive features, and the quality of the defending troops all led to the correct estimate that the heaviest German defenses were between Cassino and the mouth of the Liri River.87 He expected the 36th Division to "be badly worn down by their crossing of the Rapido."88 But he was convinced that the attack was necessary.

Kesselring later said he believed that "the frontal attack across the Rapido should never have been made."89 But Kesselring, unlike the Allied commanders, knew what the earlier thrust across the Garigliano River by the 10 Corps had accomplished in the way of disrupting the Gustav Line defenses and drawing to them the reserves Kesselring had collected near Rome. From his point of view, obviously, the attack across the Rapido was unnecessary--Kesselring had already dispatched his reserves to the Garigliano. But this the Allied commanders could hardly have been expected to know.90 Yet even had the Allied commanders appreciated fully what the Garigliano crossing had achieved, there was still need to join quickly with the amphibious elements coming ashore at Anzio. An armored strike up the Liri valley was without question the quickest method along the best avenue to junction with the Anzio beachhead. And this required a bridgehead over the Rapido.


According to Senger, the Americans should have made their main attack across the lower Garigliano River and moved from there into the Liri valley from the south. This was what Keyes had suggested. But if Senger appreciated the vulnerability of that route of approach to the Liri valley, why had he put his weakest division, the 94th, in this most likely path of attack? Because, Senger explained, the 94th Division was an infantry division and had nine battalions instead of the six organic to panzer grenadier divisions. Since the Garigliano River below the confluence of the Liri was the longest in terms of distance assigned to any division, and since the division also had responsibility for guarding against landings on the coast, Senger had placed the 94th there simply because it had more men.91

If war is regarded as a chess game, with the rules of logic the only determining factor, the best move would probably have been to exploit the success achieved on the British 10 Corps front by committing the 36th Division or part of it, not across the Rapido but through the bridgehead already established across the lower Garigliano. Had both 10 and II Corps been either British or American, this commitment, despite the difficulty of sideslipping a division or regiment in the line, would have been feasible. But the practical exigencies of coalition warfare, specifically the complications arising from committing an American division in a British zone without prior arrangements, made this course of action difficult if not altogether impossible.

What had brought disaster to the Rapido River crossings was a series of mishaps, a host of failures, a train of misfortune. Because the near bank of the river was never completely under American control, reconnaissance, mine clearance, and the preparation of approaches to crossing points and bridge sites were incomplete.92 The great weight and awkwardness of the assault boats, the vulnerability to fire of the pneumatic floats, the absence of standard footbridge equipment, and the reduced effectiveness of artillery support because of the overuse of smoke were contributing factors.93 Supplies were insufficient and had been stored where they could not immediately be obtained when needed; there was a "lack of co-operation from higher headquarters" and an absence of confident infantry-engineer coordination; infantry reports "dribbled in from time to time, keeping us [engineers] thoroughly confused on progress of attack"; darkness, fog, and smoke made it impossible to see the enemy troops, and the men had little opportunity to fire; engineers lost their way and troops accidentally entered mine fields.94 The result was a mounting confusion that led to near hysteria and panic. "Most boats got to the river or near there. Some Infantry crossed the river. Others refused to enter the boats. Machine Gun fire caused footbridge to be abandoned. The


Engineers took shelter in a nearby ditch; the Infantry retreated back. Everything became disorganized."95

To a chaplain who observed the operation at close range, "confusion reigned" because of the dense fog, the "maze of roads and pathways through vineyards and other uneven terrain," and the disrupted telephone communications. Many men became lost, "nervous uncertainty prevailed--the situation was no longer in a firm grasp--but out-of-hand, unhandled." Quite a few infantrymen tried in all sincerity to get across the river, some refused to cross, and others fell into the water deliberately to avoid crossing. Too many troops, it seemed to him, were taking part in their first action under fire.96

Perhaps most important, the "men were not keen for this attack." The troops had no confidence in the eventual success of the operation, and the second attempt had no better chance of succeeding than the first.97

A strange epilogue took place soon after the end of World War II. The 36th Division had been a National Guard unit before entering federal service, and its members had originally come from Texas. The Thirty-sixth Division Association, in convention at Brownwood, Texas, on 19 January 1946, adopted a resolution calling for a congressional investigation into the Rapido River attack--"to investigate the Rapido River fiasco and take the necessary steps to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as Gen. Mark W. Clark, in a high command to destroy the young manhood of this country and to prevent future soldiers from being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly."98

The senate of the state of Texas endorsed and approved the resolution of the Thirty-sixth Division Association, and the Committees on Military Affairs of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate held hearings to determine whether an investigation was warranted. The hearings turned out to be farcical, for with one exception, General Walker, who stated his position with dignity, the witnesses proved to be ill informed of the facts.

There the matter died. An investigation of the operation was, obviously, unjustified. As Mr. Robert P. Patterson, Secretary of War, stated, he had found after careful examination "that the action to which the Thirty-Sixth Division was committed was a necessary one and that General Clark exercised sound judgment in planning it and in ordering it."99


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (18) * Next Chapter (20)


1. II Corps FO 20, 16 Jan 44.

2. MS # C-095b (Senger), OCMH.

3. 36th Div Photo Interpretation Rpt, Rapido River Defense Line, 14 Jan 44, 143d Inf Jnl, Jan 44.

4. See Fred Majdalany, The Battle of Cassino (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957); Harold Bond, Return to Cassino (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1964).

5. 36th Div FO 42, 18 Jan 44.

6. Ltr, Keyes to Clark, 19 Nov 43, CG Opns; 36th Div Plan for the Capture of Monte Camino-Monte Maggiore Mountain Mass, 21 Nov 43, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

7. Quote is from comment on draft MS, enclosed with Ltr, Truscott to Pattison, 28 Sep 64, OCMH; Truscott, Command Missions, pp. 994-95. See also Ltr, Keyes to Clark, 11 Dec 43, CG Opns; Ltrs, Willems to Truscott and Harmon et al., 18 Dec 43, CofS Opns, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

8. Ltr, Keyes to Clark, 11 Dec 43, CG Opns.

9. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55, OCMH. See also Interv, Mathews with Col Robert W. Porter, II Corps DCofS for Tactical Opns, 30 Jun 50, OCMH.

10. See Ltr, Keyes to Clark, 28 Dec 43, CG Opns; Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker, "My Story of the Rapido River Crossing," Army, vol. XIII, No. 2 (September, 1952), pp. 52-62.

11. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55; Fifth Army Memo, Appreciation of Terrain for Use of Armor, 8 Oct 43, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.

12. Walker Diary, 8 Jan 44; Maj Gen Fred L. Walker (Ret.), Comments on the Rapido River Crossing, Jun 60, OCMH; Walker, "My Story," Army (September, 1952), pp. 59-60.

13. Statement of Col Butchers, II Corps G-3, 24 Jan 44, AG 333.5.

14. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55.

15. See above, p. 320.

16. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55.

17. The last quote is from Memo, Keyes for Clark, 13 Jan 44, CG Opns (also in AG 333.5). The other quotes are from Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55.

18. See above, p. 320.

19. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55.

20. Walker Diary, 20 Jan 44.

21. Walker, Comments on the Rapido River Crossing, OCMH.

22. 36th Div FO 42, 18 Jan 44, and Annex 3.

23. Ltr, Narrative of Opns of the 141st Inf in the Crossing of the Rapido River on Jan 20 to 23, n.d. (about 27 Jan 44), 36th Div G-3 File; 111th Engr Combat Bn AAR, Jan 44.

24. Clark Diary, 19 Jan 44.

25. 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

26. Walker, Comments on the Rapido River Crossing, OCMH.

27. Comments, Walker to author, 1963.

28. 2d Ind, 19th Engr Combat Regt Rpt of Engr Functions in Crossing of Rapido River, 18-22 January 1944, dated 29 May 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

29. Statement of Maj Berry, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

30. Ibid.

31. 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

32. 141st Inf FO 16, 19 Jan 44.

33. 143d Inf FO, 19 Jan 44.

34. 36th Div AAR, Jan 44.

35. Walker Diary, 20 Jan 44.

36. The following, unless otherwise noted, is based on the official records of the 36th Division and its assault regiments.

37. NATOUSA Ltr, Allegations . . . . 1 Mar 44, AG 333. See also 141st Inf FO 17, 1200, 21 Jan 44.

38. 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44; 2d Bn AAR included in the Gp AAR.

39. Statement of Col Nero, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

40. Statements of Capt Thomas J. Campbell, Lt Raymond C. Pownall, Capt Harold G. Zier, Capt Edgar F. Pohlmann, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

41. 2d Bn, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

42. 36th Div AAR, Jan 44. See also 141st Inf AAR, Jan 44.

43. Ltr, Wyatt to Walker, Opns on Rapido River, 23 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

44. Msg from G-3, 2050, 20 Jan 44, 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

45. Ltr, Wyatt to Walker, Opns on the Rapido River, 23 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl; Ltr, Narrative of Opns of the 141st Inf in the Crossing of the Rapido River on Jan 20 to 23, n.d. (about 27 Jan 44), 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

46. Ltr, Wyatt to Walker, Opns on Rapido River, Jan 44.

47. Statements of Capt Wesley G. Moulton, Lt Jack K. Shurley, Sgt Epifanie Gonzales, and Sgt Donald W. Smith, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

48. Statement of Maj Berry, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

49. 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

50. Statement of Tech 5 Clayton H. Nelson, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

51. Statement of Lt Col Henry H. Cardon, NATOUSA Ltr, Allegations . . . . 1 Mar 44, AG 333.

52. MS # C-095b (Senger), OCMH.

53. Vietinghoff MSS.

54. 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

55. Clark Diary, 21 Jan 44.

56. Walker Diary, 21 Jan 44.

57. Interv, Crowl with Keyes, 22 Sep 55, OCMH. See also Intervs, Mathews with Keyes, 18-20 Dec 52, OCMH.

58. Sergeant McCall was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

59. Statement of Col Gallagher, II Corps Engr, 24 Jan 44, AG 333.5.

60. Statement of Capt Leon F. Morand, Asst II Corps Engr, 24 Jan 44, AG 333.5.

61. Statement of Col Butchers, 25 Jan 44, AG 333.5.

62. 1st Bn AAR, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

63. 2d Ind, 19th Engr Combat Regt, Rpt of Engr Functions in Crossing of Rapido River, 18-22 Jan 44, dated 29 May 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

64. Statement of Col Gallagher, 24 Jan 44, AG 333.5.

65. 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

66. Ibid.

67. Ltr, 143d Inf Narrative of Rapido Crossing, 27 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

68. Ltr, Wyatt to Walker, Opns on Rapido River, 23 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

69. Ibid.

70. Walker Diary, 23 Jan 44.

71. Ltr, Wyatt to Walker, Opns on Rapido River, 23 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

72. MS # C-095b (Senger), OCMH. See also Vietinghoff MSS.

73. Interv, Crowl with Senger, 22 Sep 55, OCMH.

74. Clark Diary, 21 Jan 44.

75. Ibid., 23 Jan 44.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid.

78. Clark, Calculated Risk, pp. 277-78.

79. Walker Diary, 23 Jan 44.

80. Statement of Gen Wilbur, Walker Diary, 23 Jan 44.

81. Walker Diary, 25 Jan 44.

82. Walker, "My Story," Army (September, 1952) pp. 52-60.

83. Comments on the Rapido River Crossing, OCMH.

84. Middle East Force Weekly Intel Summary, 11 Jan 44, OCMH File Geog L, 370.2.

85. See, for example, Ltrs, Keyes to Clark, 11, 28 Dec 43, CG Opns.

86. Philip A. Crowl, Command Decision: The Rapido River Crossing, 20-22 January 1944, Lecture before the Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., 30 Sep 55, copy in OCMH.

87. Fifth Army G-2 Rpt, 9 Jan 44. See also Opn LIGHTNING, p. 67, and French Expeditionary Corps G-2 Rpts, 10-20 Jan 44, Fifth Army G-2 Jnl.

88. Clark Diary, 9 Jan 44.

89. U.S. News and World Report (September 9, 1955), p. 66.

90. See Effect of Rapido Operation on German Plans and Dispositions, OCMH File Geog M Germany 381 (Plans).

91. Interv, Crowl with Senger, 22 Sep 55, OCMH.

92. 2d Ind, 19th Engr Combat Regt, Rpt of Engr Functions in Crossing of Rapido River, 18-22 Jan 44, dated 29 May 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

93. 19th Engr Combat Regt, Rpt of Engr Functions in Crossing of Rapido River, 18-22 Jan 44, 29 May 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.

94. Statements of Capt Charles T. Mewshaw and Maj Arthur J. Lazenby, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44; NATOUSA Ltr, Allegations . . . . 1 Mar 44, AG 333; Ltr, 143d Inf Narrative of Rapido Crossing, 27 Jan 44, 36th Div G-3 Jnl.

95. Co A Diary, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

96. Statement of Chaplain (Capt) James T. Fish, 19th Engr Combat Gp AAR, Jan 44.

97. Rpt 126, Artillery Lessons from the Attempted Rapido River Crossing, 2 Mar 44, AGF Bd Rpts.

98. House Committee on Military Affairs, Hearings, The Rapido Crossing, 79th Cong., 2d sess., February 20, March 18, 1946, p. 14. By the time of the Rapido operation, men from many states had entered the division. Of the battle casualties incurred by the 36th Division during the month of January 1944, a total of 295 men were from the state of New York, 288 were from Texas, and 229 were from Pennsylvania. See 143d Inf AAR, Jan 44.

99. House Committee on Military Affairs, Hearings, The Rapido River Crossing, 79th Cong. 2d sess., p. iv. See also Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Hearings, Keyes Materials, June 11, 1946, OCMH.

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