WHILE 10 and II Corps were making the main effort against the Camino peaks, VI Corps engaged the enemy north of the Mignano Gap (Map No. 9, page 30). Intended to divert attention from the Camino sector and draw German reserves toward the north, the action began 29 November, four days in advance of the main effort. The attack was designed to capture limited objectives in the mountains between Mount Corno and Mount Mare. This operation would test enemy defenses in the area where the Allies, in the later phases of the offensive, would attempt to drive through ten miles of continuous mountain highland and bring pressure on German positions above Cassino.
On both flanks of the corps sector the terrain presented major difficulties. North of the Colli-Atina road the main Apennine peaks begin to reach heights above six thousand feet. Centering on Mount Marrone and Mount Mare, the precipitous ridges and bare cliffs discouraged any large-scale effort on this flank. In the southern part of the sector, the trackless hills leading toward Mount Majo would be difficult to penetrate. Attack plans were therefore focused on the center; here two mountain roads, however poor, would facilitate supply during an advance. On this stretch the enemy front lay several miles east of the dominant peaks, Mount Monna Casale and Mount Majo, both near four thousand feet in height. Irregular ridges slope unevenly from each of these peaks toward the east, ending in prominent spurs and knobs such as Mount Pantano and Hill 769 overlooking the Filignano Valley. The two east-west roads, struggling through rough upland on either side of Monna Casale, reach eleva-
MAP NO. 9
tions of more than two thousand feet on their way toward the Rapido watershed. The broken terrain is marked by rocky ravines and steep ascents with scant cover.
The attack into this rough country had to start from the lowest foothills, on the edges of the Pozzilli-Filignano Valley, reached by the Allied offensive that had come to a temporary halt on 15 November. Even after that date, positions along the VI Corps sector had not become stabilized. On the left flank the heights above Venafro, commanding the upper Volturno Valley and the Allied supply routes, were bitterly contested by both sides. Night patrols of both armies frequently penetrated well behind positions normally held by hostile troops. Enemy artillery was active in harassing fire, while our own artillery units operated under most unfavorable conditions. For a shift in position, guns must be winched out of the clinging mud. To clear the masks presented by mountains looming dead ahead, barrels had to be elevated and range tables improvised on the spot.
The mission of the 45th Division, comprising the 157th, 179th, and 180th Regimental Combat Teams, was to open a portion of the Filignano-Sant' Elia road and, by attacking northwest of the road, to support the 34th Division's left flank. The men of the 45th were already familiar with the terrain ahead of them, for from 6 November they had struggled for positions in these hills, and their patrols had felt out enemy defenses all along this front (Map No. 10, page 33).
Before the division lay a complex hill pattern which gave the Germans every advantage. Hill 769, a scrub-covered plateau southwest of Filignano, was the keystone of the enemy forward defenses. Its reduction would open the way to ground which rises abruptly to the northwest toward La Bandita (Hill 855) and Mount la Posta (Hill 970). In the village of Lagone, partly encircled by these hills, buildings were strong enough to withstand everything but direct hits from heavy caliber shells. A single trail winding through the village gave the enemy an excellent covered route of communication. On forward slopes of hills in this sector were mutually supporting light and heavy machine-gun bunkers. Riflemen, posted as sentinels on the trails, covered dead spaces in the bands of machine-gun fire. To the rear, sometimes on reverse slopes, the enemy had emplaced mortars.
MOUNTAINS ON FIFTH ARMY'S RIGHT (above) were extremely
rough. Seen from a plane flying over Scapoli, Mount Marrone in Ike middle
ground and Mount Mare behind it rise to more than 5500 feet.
LAGONE (below), with Mount la Posta looming in
the background, lies
in a barren and rocky area. Approach by jeeps was possible only after the
rough trail leading up to the town had been improved.
This area was held by elements of the 44th Grenadier Division, which had recently relieved the 26th Panzer Division.
Plans for the 45th Division directed that the 179th Infantry would make its initial effort against positions from La Bandita southward
MAP NO. 10
beyond Hill 769, with the dual purpose of supporting the 34th Division's attack further north and of getting astride the road through the mountains to Sant' Elia. The 1st Battalion would move toward Lagone and northwest to La Bandita. One company of the 2d Bat-
talion would attack toward Hill 640, just north of the Sant' Elia road, after capturing Hill 769. The 157th Infantry was meanwhile to use one company against hills 460 and 470 south of the road.
At 0600 on 29 November the 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry, began the attack on the right flank but met small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire from the front and right. The enemy front appeared to be in the vicinity of Hill 769, Lagone, and La Bandita. The next day one platoon of Company B was sent around to the left flank of Company C to try to enter Lagone from the south, and a patrol from Company A was ordered to the crest of La Bandita. Both movements were opposed by small-arms and machine-gun fire. During this time the 2d Battalion remained in position and supported the advance of the 1st Battalion by firing mortar missions on Hills 769 and 760 and the heights nearby. The 3d Battalion in division reserve prepared to move on order. From I to 3 December, 1st Battalion efforts toward La Bandita were thrown back by machine-gun, mortar, and small
HILL 769, under smoke from while phosphorus shells, fired by the
Field Artillery Battalion.
arms fire from the tops of that hill and the neighboring height, 895. Day after day was filled with small unit actions; patrols from the 179th went toward Lagone, La Bandita, and the draws leading to enemy positions, only to be driven back by enemy fire.
Our troops already held the forward slopes of Hill 769 at the start of the offensive. To capture the rest of the position it was necessary to clear the enemy from the hills and draws on either side, which he was strongly defending. The 2d Battalion began on 1 December by testing the enemy's strength in the vicinity of Hill 769. Patrols worked their way to the crest of the hill and onto a knob just north. When the companies moved out to follow the advance elements, however, the enemy counterattacked fiercely. This set the pattern of fighting for several days following. By 6 December our troops were on the top of Hill 769, but the Germans still hid a toehold on the reverse slope. For three more days they kept their positions in pillboxes and reinforced dugouts, before withdrawing
MAP NO. 11
from the hotly contested ground. Fifteen rock and wood emplacements on the reverse slope of Hill 769 had been used as shelters and gun positions. Our infantry had knocked out at least three of them with rifle grenades, hand grenades, and bazookas.
By 9 December La Bandita and Lagone were still held by the enemy, though our troops had entered Lagone and engaged in house-to-house fighting with German delaying forces. On the left the 157th Infantry had meanwhile carried out diversionary stabs at Hills 460 and 470. Both the 157th Infantry and the 180th, maintaining contact with the 36th Division and the 1st Ranger Battalion, had been sending aggressive patrols into enemy-held territory.
To the right of the 45th, the 34th Division, including the 133d, 135th, and 168th Regimental Combat Teams, occupied forward positions along a seven-mile front (Map No. 11, page 35). Before it on a line extending south from Mount Marrone, across the Rio Chiaro, and down to Pantano were elements of the 305th Grenadier Division. At the start of the new Allied offensive the 34th had as its immediate mission the capture of key heights north and south of Cerasuolo overlooking the Colli-Atina road.
From its defense area in the vicinity of Scapoli the 133d Infantry moved on the morning of 29 November toward the hills lying between Castelnuovo and Cerasuolo. By the 30th patrols of the 1st Battalion were in Castelnuovo, and units of the 100th Battalion,1 after occupying Hill 920, were moving onto Croce Hill. The 3d Battalion had reached Mount la Rocca, one and one-half miles northwest of the latter point. Enemy counteraction, especially mortar and artillery fire, checked the advance of the 133d. The regiment's only further gain before it was relieved on 9 December was Hill 1180, on the southern slopes of Mount Marrone, which Company L took by night attack across snow and ice on 2/3 December.
The main fighting of the 34th Division came in the effort to take Mount Pantano. Towering sixteen hundred feet above the Filignano
1. The 100th Infantry Battalion was activated on 12 June 1942 as a separate unit whose members were all to be native American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The battalion was initially composed of men from the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion. Men of the 100th Infantry trained in the United States and reached North Africa on 2 September 1943. On 29 September the battalion was attached to the Fifth Army and served as the 2d Battalion, 133d Infantry.
MAP NO. 12
Valley and flanking the Atina road, this height was the objective of the 168th Infantry (Map No. 12, page 37)
Before dawn on 29 November, the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, moved along the ridge just north of Filignano, across the road and up the brush-covered, rocky slopes of its objective. Aided by surprise, Company A took the southeast knob (Knob 1) of Mount Pantano shortly after daylight. This success did not end the battle. Three other knobs rise from the plateau which forms the mountain top, defended by the 2d Battalion, 577th Grenadiers. The main enemy strength lay on a nose jutting out from Knob 3, from which the Germans could sweep knobs 1 and 2 and the draws between them,
but the whole plateau, fissured by gullies, offered excellent locations for dugouts, concealed mortar positions, and minefields.
Very soon after the appearance of American troops on the mountain top the Germans counterattacked from Knob 2 and broke through the right flank of Company A. Under heavy fire, Capt. Benjamin J. Butler, company commander, led forward his headquarters group and one squad of a platoon to stop the enemy, and then rallied his company to regain the lost ground. Meanwhile, our artillery fired a concentration on Knob 4. By noon the other two companies of the battalion had come up. This reinforcement did not discourage the enemy, for his counterattack later in the afternoon was checked only by a bayonet charge led by Capt. Butler. All through the night the Germans pressed against the 1st Battalion. To relieve the situation, Company F was committed on the left of the 1st Battalion toward Hill 895, and Company I went in on the right of Hill 760. The 168th on Pantano was short of ammunition when the enemy on Knob 2 counterattacked again at 0530, 30 November. However, our troops withstood the attack, and enemy activity slackened.
The 1st Battalion then prepared to push on toward Knob 2, but heavy fog prevented action until after noon. When the mist lifted, the 1st Battalion started forward, only to run into a thick minefield in the gully between the two knobs. Extremely heavy small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire came down, forcing the battalion to retreat to Knob 1. Within one hour Lt. Col. Wendell H. Langdon, commanding the 3d Battalion, and Lt. Col. Edward W. Bird, commanding the 2d Battalion, were wounded, and heavy casualties were suffered throughout all companies on the mountain top.
Toward evening on the 30th the divisional artillery and Company D of the 3d Chemical Battalion prepared extensive protecting and harassing fires, and the 1st Battalion dug in for the night. At 2130 enemy mortar fire was concentrated on Mount Pantano, and artillery fire with a high percentage of white phosphorus was added to it. At about 2240 a new enemy attack broke, in 'the greatest force so far. Capt. Fred D. Clarke, Jr., now commanding the 1st Battalion, sent a brief appeal for help through the radio of his forward artillery observer, the only means of communication left, and then the battalion set grimly about beating off the onslaught of the German infantry, whose strength was estimated at two companies. Throughout the wild night on the top of the mountain our men held their
fox holes. Once two squads of Company C had to crawl over to aid Company A. As daylight approached, the Germans, pounded with heavy concentrations of our artillery, broke and fell back.
Other elements of the regiment were moving to support of the 1st Battalion on Mount Pantano. Company E, carrying food and ammunition, started up after midnight of 30 November. The 3d Battalion moved to the draw by the village of Pantano, where the houses were booby-trapped and the fields strewn with S-mines. Maj. Floyd E. Sparks, the battalion commander, went on ahead just before dawn on 1 December to take over command of the 1st Battalion. Heroic efforts were made to restore communication with our hard-pressed forces. The 1st Battalion message center chief, Sgt. Edward G. Jones, volunteered to repair the wire and crawled up the mountain through darkness and rain. Close to his goal he was wounded fatally
ON MOUNT PANTANO and the heights beyond, weapons were emplaced
on reverse slopes and in ravines to bring fire on any approaching force.
Observation posts controlled fire and gave information to troops.
by mortar fragments. Others continued the effort, but mortar fire kept cutting the line throughout the following day and night.
On 1 December Mount Pantano was almost quiet, as falling snow drifted across the rocks and the first-aid men sought out the wounded. All through the Pantano battle the medical personnel displayed the utmost bravery. Evacuation by litter was a four-hour carry down the steep mountainside, but the litter bearers from Company C, 109th Medical Battalion, carried their loads carefully despite casualties from the constant mortar fire. Even off the slopes of Pantano the wounded soldier was not in safety, for the enemy artillery hammered all the rear areas and arrival at a hospital was sometimes delayed for many hours. Extensive first aid bad accordingly to be administered in the thick of the fight. Capt. Emile G. Schuster crept forward under fire to an enemy minefield to treat men wounded by the antipersonnel mines and carried out plasma transfusions on the scene of battle Once a bottle was shot out of his hand, and the tree beside him was cut down by machine-gun fire; but Capt. Schuster got more supplies and continued his work.
The 2d of December was cloudy and cool with good visibility. At 0800 the 3d Battalion launched an attack up the slopes of Knob 2, preceded by a one-hour artillery preparation and accompanied by a rolling barrage (Map No. 13, below). The enemy yielded Knob
MAP NO. 13
MAP NO. 14
2 to Company K without a fight. Then our men moved on down toward the ravine between Knobs 2 and 3, leaving one platoon with a section of Company M on Knob 2; but the Germans rallied, counterattacked, and pushed Company K back over and down Knob 2 to the east edge of the Pantano plateau by 1400. At that point Company L reinforced Company K. Together they drove up again and in another two hours regained Knob 2, where Company E, with only one officer and twenty men left, joined them from Knob 1. A simultaneous attack by the rest of the 2d Battalion to the south of Knob I had meanwhile been stopped on an enemy minefield.
The three companies on Knob 2 held their ground throughout the night, while our chemical mortars put down a round every five minutes on the west slopes of Mount Pantano. After dark Company E, 135th Infantry, relieved Company I, 168th Infantry, on Hill 76o, and the latter company moved up to Knob 1 together with Company G to relieve the 1st Battalion (Map No. 14, page 41). By the morning of 3 December the 1st Battalion had left the position which had cost so much to take and hold. Company A came down the mountain with only three officers and fifty-three men, and the other companies were but little stronger.
At 1030, 3 December, the 3d Battalion plodded off through the rain in a renewed attack toward Knob 3 by double envelopment, supported by Company M from Knob 2. As the attack got under way, it met enemy reinforcements—the 2d Company, 577th Regiment of the 305th Grenadier Division and the 10th Company, 134th Regiment of the 44th Grenadier Division. These units had marched all night from Lagone and Picinisco respectively; they attacked between the wings of our envelopment, firing machine-pistols rapidly.
Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Frederick B. Butler quickly ordered the 3d Battalion to withdraw to Knob 2, while the supporting mortars and artillery fired heavy concentrations on enemy positions and line, of advance. But it was too late to assume the defensive, and to make matters worse, Company M on Knob 2 ran short of ammunition for its Browning automatic rifles, which had been brought up in place of the heavy machine guns. The enemy drove on over Knob 2, especially on the right flank of the 3d Battalion, and by 1330 our troops in this area were completely off the Pantano plateau. Coordinated with the attack on the 3d Battalion, other assaults were launched against Knob 1. Cpl. Zannie M. Reynolds, voluntarily exposing himself in order to return hostile fire, had first one rifle and then a second shot from his hands by enemy machine guns. With a third he fired for several minutes and then threw hand grenades at the advancing Germans until the attack was broken up. Companies G and I on Knob 1 maintained their line. On the far left, however, Company F was pushed back by 1300 with severe losses.
A disaster was in the making, and our supporting fires came down hard. In seventy-five minutes one chemical mortar fired 370 rounds of smoke and high explosive, even though enemy rifle fire was falling on the mortar positions east of Hill 895. The antitank platoons of
the 168th Infantry hauled up ammunition. Plans for organizing a rifle platoon from the rear echelon of the 2d Battalion were dropped in favor of getting reinforcements from the 3d Battalion, 135th Infantry. With a fresh supply of ammunition the 3d Battalion, 168th Infantry, rallied and came back up to the lip of the plateau east of Knob 2, where it was relatively safe from enemy mortar fire.
The enemy, having restored his positions on Knob 2, broke off the attack at 1830. In the afternoon of 4 December the 135th Infantry came up to relieve all elements of the 168th on Mount Pantano. During its six-day test of mental and physical endurance on the mountain the 168th Infantry had lost all its battalion commanders, together with 33 other officers and 386 men killed or wounded. It had expended 6,800 rounds of 81-mm mortar ammunition, 3,000 hand grenades, 7,500 rounds of 75-mm ammunition, and 400,000 rounds for rifle and machine gun. Only one knob of Mount Pantano was in our possession.
From 5 to 9 December the troops of the 34th Division were occupied in consolidating positions and patrolling. Enemy activity was confined to intermittent interdictory and harassing fire from artillery and mortars. Artillery concentrations hit in the Mount Pantano area late on the 6th and again on the night of 7/8 December, when the 135th Infantry received heavy enemy shelling every four or five minutes. During 8 and 9 December relief of the entire 34th Division was begun by the 2d Moroccan Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. A. M. F. Dody, which had landed at Naples from 21 to 30 November. General Dody formally assumed command of the north sector of the VI Corps front on 10 December, and a fresh division of eager troops, trained in mountain fighting, was ready for the next phase of the attack.
MAP NO. 15
page created 20 July 2001
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