Rome and "The Forgotten Front"

Preparations for the May offensive began in March on both the Anzio front and the Cassino front. On the Cassino front forces were regrouped. To break through the Gustav Line, where mountain and town had defeated American, New Zealand, and Indian troops, General Alexander brought his Eighth Army from the Adriatic coast For a simultaneous attack on the mountains that bordered the Tyrrhenian Sea, he shifted the Fifth Army—II Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps—westward to the lower Garigliano River. Under the cover of an elaborate deception plan designed to make the Germans expect an amphibious landing at Civitavecchia, the changeover took place in the last two weeks in March. At the same time, II Corps underwent a reorganization. The 34th Division was sent to Anzio and the 36th Division was taken out of the line. Their places were taken by two divisions fresh from the United States, the 88th and 85th.1

The Ordnance forward maintenance group, which still bore the misleading designation of the 2630th Battalion (Provisional), moved to an area around Cascano on Highway 7 near the center of the new army zone south of the Garigliano. The men were glad to get away from the bloody Cassino front. Bombs dropped on Venafro by an Allied formation trying to bomb the town of Cassino on the night of 15 March, for example, had just cost the 42d Battalion of the forward group one man killed and eleven wounded. In the Garigliano sector there was a lull throughout April. The maintenance men were able to concentrate on repairing or replacing equipment, sending contact parties to the new divisions, calibrating field artillery pieces, and checking spare parts. Army depots were fairly close to the front and the shortage of spare parts that had caused such anxiety during the winter had been somewhat relieved; General Wells had gotten action on the shortage as soon as he returned home in January.2

At the Anzio beachhead, spare parts were more plentiful than at any other time in the history of Fifth Army Ordnance. To provide insurance against a hit on the depot in the town of Anzio, Colonel Detwiler removed half the supplies, splitting each SNL group vertically, to an Italian ammunition loading plant one mile south of Nettuno, a building enclosed in a large earth bunker and fairly safe from enemy action. With the arrival of a second depot


company early in April, the 201st (borrowed from Peninsular Base Section), Detwiler had enough manpower to operate the twin depots effectively. Every job in both depots was handled by two men, one from the 77th Depot Company and one from the 201st, so that when the drive to Rome began, the 77th could load its 16 vans and follow, while the 201st could continue to operate both depots after PBS took over the beachhead.3

On both fronts Ordnance mechanics created several ingenious devices to enable troops to advance through German defenses. At Anzio they made a portable artillery observation tower that folded into the bed of a truck, and they converted Italian farm tractors into driverless prime movers (called "mangle buggies") to tow long strips of prima cord that would blow up barbed wire entanglements or detonate mine fields. At the Capua arsenal on the Cassino front they modified tank grousers, using a six-inch extension to the usual grousers, to help tanks cross the Pontine Marshes beyond the coastal mountains, and they manufactured "battle sleds."4

The battle sled, invented by Brig. Gen. John W. O'Daniel (Truscott's successor as commander of the 3d Division), was half a torpedo shell, just large enough to hold one soldier lying down. Six were hooked together and attached to each side of a tank and the twelve sleds were pulled forward in the paths made by the tank's tracks, enabling an infantry squad to accompany a tank without being exposed to small arms fire and antipersonnel mines. After O'Daniel sent Ordnance a sketch of what he wanted, Colonel Jaynes and his staff developed a model with runners, to prevent heat from friction, and made the sleds in an atmosphere of the greatest secrecy in a field near the Capua shops. They set up a production line, using 80 welding sets in stalls under a big circus tent, and with the expert supervision of Sergeant Sellfors as chief welder, Fifth Army and PBS mechanics working in 8- hour shifts manufactured 360 sleds between 29 April and 14 May.

All the sleds were used in the breakout at Anzio. The worst impediments were ditches and mines that immobilized the tanks. In one regiment a platoon of tanks and four sets of sleds failed to get into action because of rough ground and the loss of several tanks from mines; in another, the results were negligible because the terrain was unsuitable; in a third unit, the towed infantry, supported by the tanks, took a strongly fortified house. Infantrymen were not enthusiastic about the sleds because they felt like "dead ducks" lying so close behind the tanks. General O'Daniel felt that the combat test was not conclusive, and that these special devices should be employed against organized positions when terrain and antitank defenses permitted. Half the sleds were salvaged from the battlefield and used in the invasion of southern France.5


In preparation for the "big shoot" that began the drive on Rome, Ordnance men handled thousands of tons of ammunition. Beginning at 2300 on 11 May, in what General Clark called "perhaps the most effective artillery bombardment of the campaign," 173,941 rounds of artillery ammunition of all types were fired in twenty - four hours. The 2652d (later 236th) Ammunition Company serving II Corps made a remarkable record. On 11, 12, and 13 May a detachment, helped by 200 Italians, handled about 2,500 tons a day at the ASP for divisional weapons; and a detachment of only 25 men with the help of 100 Italians completely stocked a 1,700- ton ASP for artillery in twenty-four hours.6

At Anzio and on the main front massed artillery fire, in which all guns within a corps were concentrated on a single objective, played a spectacular part in the Allied advance. The Germans were awed by the lavish use of ammunition; prisoners of war said that the intensity, accuracy, and volume of the Allied artillery fire, exceeding anything they had experienced on the Russian front, caused "a general feeling of helplessness, panic, and confusion" in the ranks. At Anzio a refinement of this technique was employed. Allowing for the difference in the time of flight of the shells of the various guns, the weapons were so fired as to insure that all shells reached the target simultaneously (called time on target, or TOT). The results disrupted enemy supply lines and shattered morale. German officers said their men trembled when it began.7

The attack jumped off and though there was bitter fighting in the Fifth Army sector for the first few days, the French Expeditionary Corps and II Corps advanced steadily. By 19 May the Germans were retreating toward their next defensive position, the Hitler Line, at Terracina. On 21 May there was a symbolic union with the Anzio beachhead when a II Corps 8- inch gun below Monte Biagio and a VI Corps 8-inch gun at Anzio fired on the same target, the town of Sezze. Terracina fell on 24 May. Next day the Allies pushed into the Pontine Marshes and joined the forces coming from the beachhead. Ordnance units moved on the heels of the combat forces; on 29 May at Littoria the forward group headquarters was joined by its 45th Battalion. To supply the fast moving attack Colonel Tate had sent army trucks from rear areas with rations, gasoline, ammunition, and engineering equipment to points designated by the divisions and unloaded material from the tailgates of the trucks into division vehicles. He used this method until the troops from the main front joined the force from Anzio; thereafter, all Fifth Army troops were supplied out of Anzio until the port of Civitavecchia was opened.8

The Allies Enter Rome

The Allies entered Rome on 4 June 1944, nine months after the landing at Salerno. In that time 11,292 Americans of Fifth Army had died in action. Twenty-two Ordnance men had been killed and


Photo:  M4 Tank pulling battle sleds around a curve to demonstrate sleds' flexibility, Nettuno, Italy

flexibility, Nettuno, Italy.

165 had been wounded. Operating ammunition dumps under shellfire, making repairs under front-line conditions in the rain and mud, changing gun tubes at the battery sites, they had suffered many hardships, notably at Anzio, where 14 of the 22 had lost their lives in the first two months.9

Ordnance men had learned to make the best of things. At Anzio they had dug an underground movie theater, called the "Diggers' Dream"; and when their rations improved in April they were grateful for such luxuries as "old fashioned eggs" and Coca Cola, "enjoyed with the symphonic shell whining while dining."10 On the main front of "mules, mountains and mud," they had become accustomed to getting along with a heterogeneous collection of human beings of many kinds and nationalities, including turbaned Indians, Scottish bagpipers, French Goumiers, and a battalion of Japanese-Americans. In the foxholes around Cassino Colonel David had even found some sailors who had left their ships and gotten rides to the front to do some fighting. The French Goums with their burnooses, their old Enfield rifles, and their women—each tabor (battalion) had forty women who, observed General


Lucas, "look after the wounded and perform other functions"—were an unfailing source of interest, as were the French Ordnance companies who took the tools out of their shop trucks, stacked them on the ground, and used the trucks as house trailers. All this was instructive and sometimes amusing. But on the whole, as Ernie Pyle reflected in the plane carrying him from Italy to England, "it had been bitter. Few of us can conjure up any truly fond memories of the Italian campaign."11

"The Forgotten Front"

Two days after Fifth Army entered Rome, the Allies landed in Normandy. Preparations for the cross-Channel attack had been going on since the fall of 1943. With the end of the campaign in Sicily, men began to leave the Mediterranean for England, and by December 1943, when General Eisenhower departed to command OVERLORD, Italy was already becoming a secondary theater. After the capture of Rome, Army planners concentrated on the defeat of Germany in the European Theater of Operations. The invasion of southern France (DRAGOON) by Seventh Army, which was mounted from Naples in August 1944, took from General Clark all of VI Corps (3d, 36th, and 45th Divisions) and the French Expeditionary Corps, and robbed Colonel Niblo of a great many of his men, enough to form two Ordnance groups. The attrition continued; Italy sank to such a low priority on the list of theaters that by the winter of 1944-45 the men there began to feel that they were on a "forgotten front."12

Because of the low priority for supplies for Italy after Rome's capture, Fifth Army was forced, more than any other army, to make the best of what was already available in the theater. Whenever there was a lull in action, combat areas were combed and guns, vehicles, clothing, equipment of every kind damaged or abandoned during battle were returned to the supply services. Quartermaster and Ordnance ran extensive salvage and reclamation facilities, far beyond those normally expected of a field army. In the fall of 1944 Colonel Niblo (who was to become a brigadier general before the year was out), moved his heavy maintenance companies from Capua to Florence and there in the Fiat automobile plant set up what he called his "Willow Run" operation, a huge repair shop in which hundreds of Italian mechanics supervised by Ordnance men completely rebuilt trucks and jeeps by assembly-line methods. With living quarters for the Ordnance troops above the shop and overhaul and depot sections set up in the Fiat garage near the main plant, the installation became one of Fifth Army's "show centers" during the winter of 1944-45.13

Lessons of the Mediterranean Campaigns

During the long winter evenings on the comparatively quiet front in northern Italy, waiting for supplies and replacements to build up for the spring offensive in 1945,


Photo:  Panther Tank


combat commanders and staff officers had leisure for the first time to look back upon the campaigns in the Mediterranean. Fifth Army had had fifteen months of continuous combat in Italy. The memories of many of the officers, including Niblo, went back two years to North Africa.14


By early June 1944, the Allied forces in the Mediterranean had encountered most of the weapons that the Germans were counting on for the defense of France. Land mines had been sown as lavishly in Italy as in North Africa, with the addition of the particularly vicious antipersonnel Schuetzenmine. In Italy first appeared the Panther tank; the self-propelled 88- mm. gun, as well as a new model of the 88, the Flak 41, which had a longer range, more muzzle velocity, and greater armor penetration than the American 90-mm. gun; and the miniature Goliath tank, a small, crewless, remote-controlled explosives container. Except for the Goliath, which was a failure, this was an impressive array of new weapons. The best counterweapon


the Allies had was still their field artillery, received in Italy in larger calibers than had yet been employed as field artillery in World War II. The trial of new American weapons such as the bazooka was inconclusive in the Mediterranean because the theater received them in early models before improvements had been made. The improved models were reserved for Europe, as were the first of the American multiple rocket launchers, inspired by the German Nebelwerfer.15

The Panther tank (Pzkw V), which the Germans designed to supplant the Pzkw III and IV as their main fighting tank, carried a 75-mm. gun (Kwk 42), even longer than the long-barreled 75-mm. on the Pzkw IV Special, with a muzzle velocity of 3,066 feet per second as compared with the 2,050 muzzle velocity of the 75- mm. gun on the U.S. M4 Sherman tank. In addition to an excellent suspension system, the tank had a long, sloping frontal plate (copied from the Soviet T34 tank) that was hard to penetrate. A distinctive feature was the turret, with its sloping walls. The Panther did not appear until the drive on Rome had reached the Liri Valley. By that time, the Germans' supply routes had been so wrecked by Allied bombing that gasoline was in short supply, which severely limited tank operations. When the Allies got to the Hitler Line in the mountains they found installed there turrets taken from Panther tanks.16

Most of the Mediterranean campaigns had been fought in the mountains, in country that was not, to use a British word, "tankable." It was mainly a war of artillery, infantry—and mules. One of the most surprising developments of the war was the necessity, beginning in northern Tunisia, of supplying isolated units by pack train. Scouring the countryside for mules and equipment, each division organized its own train of from 300 to 500 animals—"the most peculiar collection of little jackasses, packsaddles, ponies, and gear of all description."17 From Sicily onward, with one exception, the Germans had natural barriers of swift rivers and high mountains of which they took full advantage, using snipers, machine pistols and guns, artillery, blown bridges, and mines.

The exception was Anzio, and it was there in the flat farmlands, where the terrain was more nearly like that of the battlegrounds of France and Germany, that the most fruitful lessons had been learned about weapons. The Germans in their attempts to drive the Allies from the beachhead had brilliantly employed their self-propelled 88-mm. Hornets and Elephants for harassing fire. They would bring the guns up to the perimeter of the beachhead, fire twenty or thirty rounds, and then quickly withdraw before the Allies could get the range. Self-propelled artillery was not new to the Allies, who had been using tank destroyers in that role for some time,


but until the beachhead experience with the German 88's, there was little interest in self-propelled heavy artillery; most combat commanders preferred towed guns. In spite of the using arms' indifference, however, the Ordnance Department had developed a motor carriage for the 155-mm. gun, and it was ready in time to be used with good effect in Europe.18

"Much was fomenting at the time of the Anzio expedition," General Marshall later remembered; it was then that field commanders abandoned the position that only light, mobile artillery was wanted and "began yelling for heavy artillery."19 Largely because of the foresight of the Ordnance Department, which had always advocated longer ranges and heavier projectiles, Fifth Army got the 8-inch gun in time to use it in the drive on Rome. After the end of the war in Europe when General Truscott said that he had never taken his division, his corps, or his army into combat without the certain knowledge that the Germans had American artillery outranged and out-calibered,20 he could only have been thinking of the 280-mm. and 210-mm. railroad guns. But railroad guns, demanding tracks and tunnels, had limited use, to say the least. Against the German 170-mm. gun, which was the real long-range artillery menace on both Italian fronts in spite of the poor quality of its ammunition, Truscott admitted, the 8-inch gun put the Allies "on better than an even footing."21

In the Mediterranean theater as in all the others, it was hard to say which was more important—the gun that fired the ammunition at the enemy or the truck that brought the ammunition to the gun position. General Lucas called the 2½-ton truck "the greatest military vehicle ever invented." Trucks and jeeps continued to win golden opinions from all; DUKW's and other automotive matériel such as tank transporters and tank recovery vehicles had been invaluable. The Ordnance shop truck gave excellent service and had an unexpected use as a command post trailer, beginning in North Africa. In the field, Ordnance men put a cot across one end, placed a desk and map boards on one side and cushioned seats on the other, and even fitted in a clothes closet and a wash basin with hot and cold running water, making "a very comfortable little house."22 By February 1944 seventy were being constructed in the Ordnance shops at Naples. The most elaborate was General Clark's, which had fine mahogany furniture and a specially woven rug of virgin wool.23


The Mediterranean operations taught a great deal about supply. In the important nine months between Salerno and Rome, Colonel Niblo gave considerable study to the resupply of Class II, IV, and V items,


"the paramount problem of Combat Zone Ordnance Service." The conclusion was that doctrine and methods were not sufficiently realistic or flexible. One reason for early shortages in artillery ammunition in Italy had been the fact that production rates in the United States had been based on experience in North Africa, where much smaller amounts had been used. Class II and IV supplies were inadequate at times because tables of equipment did not provide enough guns or trucks to meet special situations and this caused a drain on maintenance stocks.

Automotive spare parts were nearly always scarce. There were of course problems of distribution, but in Niblo's opinion the main trouble was the too low estimate made in Washington of the spare parts that would be needed. Washington's estimate was based on the theory that 50 percent of the trucks issued would be replaced with new trucks when they broke down—and the replacement vehicles did not exist. Mortality tables for certain types of spare parts, notably brake linings, were sadly inadequate for deep mud and other conditions of the Italian campaign. At the end of the Tunisia Campaign Ordnance planners in the United States had begun a revision of SNL addenda to reflect actual consumption rates with the help of experience data from the field, much of it contributed by Colonel Moffitt of Niblo's staff; but the effects of the re-evaluation could not be felt for some time. On the whole, men in the theater considered that resupply had been computed on an outmoded basis—the amount of matériel that would be consumed in a month or a year—rather than on the basis that really counted, which was the amount of ammunition that would be shot by a gun, or the number of miles a truck would travel. They had learned that it was useless to furnish thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition if gun tubes to fire the ammunition were not available; useless to furnish gasoline if there were not enough tires to keep the vehicles operating.24

To make up for shortages caused by defects in the supply system, Niblo had had to use imagination and ingenuity. Extremely "Ordnance-minded," according to General Tate, "he never permitted supply to lag."25 Niblo saw to it that his ammunition men renovated unserviceable ammunition and recovered usable fuzes; a great deal of this work was done at Anzio. His collecting companies cleared the battlefields, using techniques learned in Tunisia, and turned over to fourth echelon shops every vehicle and weapon that could be repaired or cannibalized. He had learned from experience that more than 50 percent of certain critical spare parts had to be obtained in this way.26 He used native labor and native machinery and materials on a scale larger than had ever before been attempted. On the Cassino front alone, by May 1944 Fifth Army Ordnance Service was employing an average of 3,300 Italian laborers a day; the Fifth Army


engineer was using 1,200, the quartermaster, 250.27

Many officers of the various supply services had become convinced that base sections were outmoded. By the time base sections were established and operating, the front had moved too far away. Their shops and depots ran on union hours and consequently, as Colonel Crawford expressed it, "did not respond to the surge of battle." This was apparent in North Africa early in the Mediterranean operations and continued to be true in Italy. The discovery about base sections was one lesson that was applied to the planning for Europe. It led to the organization of an Advance Section to furnish close support to the armies. In January 1944 a party of ETO Advance Section officers visited Italy and North Africa to gather information on base section operations in the Mediterranean.28


The most important gain for Ordnance in the Mediterranean campaigns was the emergence of an effective organization in the combat zone. Group organization, first tried in Tunisia, had been expanded in Italy and had proved that it was flexible enough to meet the ever-changing demands of battle commanders. It worked so well, according to testimony by General Tate, that Ordnance, except for inherent shortages in certain spare parts and ammunition, never caused the Fifth Army G-4 any worries. The use of a group headquarters to command Ordnance troops was so successful that it was copied by the Fifth Army engineer and Fifth Army signal officer (though not, in spite of Tate's urging, by the quartermaster). The Fifth Army engineer considered that the very considerable advantage he gained by having all Engineer troops under his direct command was "the primary administration lesson learned during the Italian campaign."29 Niblo's employment of three group headquarters in the field, under the command group, had been equally successful. The group system was used in Europe and after the war became the standard organization of Ordnance service in the field army.30

In armies of the future, weapons would be different, methods of supply would change, new training would produce new skills, but men would not change very much. For Ordnance, perhaps the most useful lesson of the Mediterranean campaigns was a lesson in what men could do: what the Ordnance officer of an army could do to create an efficient organization; what Ordnance company, battalion, and group commanders could achieve in close support of combat operations; what Ordnance troops could accomplish and endure.


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Last updated 11 January 2007