End of Phase II

SUBSTANTIAL GAINS HAD been made by Fifth Army in the period from 8 to 19 December; then the offensive effort gradually slackened. The next two weeks were marked by operations of local importance, designed to round out the gains made earlier or to improve positions in preparation for the next phase. The period was also used for regrouping of units. Winter fighting, under the conditions imposed by the mountainous terrain, had taxed the worn Fifth Army units to their limit. Non-battle casualties showed an increase, further reducing the combat strength of front-line units; fresh reserves were lacking to follow up initial successes. Supply and evacuation became more and more of a problem, and increasing efforts were needed in the struggle with snow and mud in the mountains, mud and rain in the valleys.

Continued stubborn resistance by the enemy, combined with weather that became progressively worse during December, slowed the whole Allied campaign. Eighth Army's push along the east coast had almost completely stopped; from the middle of December the communiqués of Eighth Army day after day reported delays caused by mud and rain. The Canadian 1 Division reached the outskirts of Ortona by 13 December, but German reinforcements rushed from Venice held the advance there for two full weeks.

II Corps Tries for San Vittore

Capture of a key hill mass was seldom accomplished merely by gaining the highest peak; this fact was brought out once again in the effort of II Corps to seize the mountains north of the Mignano


gateway. The Sammucro peak, Hill 1205, had fallen early in the offensive, but the Germans clung both to the southern slopes and to the ridges on the western side of the peak (Map No. 22, page 78) Their positions flanked any maneuver out of the Mignano Gap along the axis of Highway No. 6. Hard fighting then dislodged the enemy from San Pietro and the mountainsides just above it, but this victory left II Corps short of the objectives assigned. There were still two miles of lower slopes to clear, ending at the village of San Vittore, and above these terraced slopes the western spurs and ridges of Sammucro. When patrols of the 36th Division pushed out on 18 December, following the capture of San Pietro, they found the Germans ready to contest this last corner of the mountain. The enemy now held positions about a mile west of San Pietro. Anchored in the

Photo: North of Highway 6

NORTH OF HIGHWAY 6, the slopes of Sammucro flanked the route
of advance toward Cassino. San Vittore, in the foreground, was the next ob-
jective after II Corps captured San Pietro.


mountains, the defenses extended down the slopes to Morello Hill and on across Highway No. 6, barring the way to San Vittore.

On 19 December, the 36th Division tested the strength of these positions. The 141st Infantry attempted to capture Morello Hill while the 143d fought for the slopes higher up. Aided by accurate artillery fire, the 2d Battalion, 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, broke up the attack. The 141st Infantry was not able to hold ground which they occupied close to Morello Hill.

A second attack toward San Vittore was planned for the night of 20/21 December. This time the main effort was to be made on the higher ground. The 3d Battalion of the 141st was to assault Hill 730, then move west down the ridge toward San Vittore. Their right

Photo: Junction of Highway 6 and the road to San Pietro

a favorite target for the artillery of both sides. Even after the Germans lost
San Pietro (at right) they could direct artillery fire from positions high on
the western slopes of Mount Sammucro.


flank protected by this maneuver, two battalions of the 143d would move west along the slopes well above Morello Hill, then strike southward to capture that strongpoint.

The assault companies moved out under a sky heavy with clouds that threatened rain. The 143d Infantry, reduced to an average fighting strength of thirty-five men per company, could make no progress. On the right the 3d Battalion, 141st Infantry, started up a trail to the ridge dominated by Hill 730. Enemy artillery and machine-gun fire hit the advancing column, forcing the men to disperse among the rocks, and by morning the battalion was back at its line of departure. Up on the slopes Company B, 141st Infantry, tried to clear a trail to Hill 730 to aid the advance of the 3d Battalion but was held up by deadly machine-gun fire which covered the approach to the hill.

Stopped on the lower slopes, the 36th Division shifted the axis for its third attack to still higher ground. The units which held the Sammucro crest would again attempt to drive the enemy from Hill 730 and his remaining positions on the western shoulders of the mountain. This effort was postponed until the night of 24/25 December by difficulties of supply and movement. Early Christmas morning the 1st Regiment of the 1st Special Service Force overran Hill 730, but only after fighting that caused severe casualties on both sides. Fifty enemy dead were counted. Further north, the 504th Parachute Infantry had equal success, taking a series of enemy-held hills as far north as Hill 610. On 26 December the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, took over Hill 730. Below it, the 1st Battalion of the 143d succeeded in capturing Morello Hill.

The enemy still held in San Vittore and showed no intention of withdrawing. On 29 December two combat patrols and Company B of the 143d Infantry fought their way into San Vittore but had to withdraw. Nevertheless, the Sammucro hills were now fully cleared, and II Corps had secured its main objectives for Phase II. On 30 December the 34th Division came in to relieve the 36th, which was nearly exhausted after six weeks of almost constant mountain fighting. The 142d Regimental Combat Team was attached to the 34th Division; the units of that combat team had enjoyed a brief rest after the capture of Mount Lungo, and now remained in line to garrison the hills of Mount Sammucro.


MAP NO. 23

Map No. 23: Action Along the VI Corps Front, 21-31 December 1943  

Probing Along the VI Corps Front

During the last ten days of December there was no large-scale offensive effort by VI Corps, and much of the line saw little activity. Along the center of the corps front the enemy had withdrawn to an outpost line of defense in the hills overlooking Viticuso, Casale, and Cardito (Map No. 23, above). Here patrol groups of the 45th Division and the 2d Moroccan Division tested his new positions.


Over rocky slopes, small patrols frequently went out to reconnoiter, while combat patrols of platoon strength moved forward occasionally to occupy some little knob or to raid a German post. Enemy mines and machine guns made the twisting trails too dangerous for use. With cover scarce and footing uncertain on the rough hillsides, surprise was almost impossible. Time after time patrols would stalk an enemy hill, only to be spotted by a sentry whose alarm sent German defenders dashing across the crest into prepared positions.

When snow covered the mountains, our men were conspicuous in the moonlight against the dazzling white background; but the German mountain troops, wearing reversible white and brown uniforms, were well camouflaged. Though the enemy shifted his positions from hill to hill, his outpost observers everywhere watched for patrols and brought down coordinated machine-gun and mortar fire when they discovered good targets. Usually, however, the Germans remained quiet in an effort to escape detection and opened fire only when a patrol approached within very close range.

On several days the VI Corps artillery did almost no firing, and the rounds it did send across to the enemy were usually bunched in "bingos," heavy concentrations in which every gun in the divisional artillery fired two or more rounds on a small target. The leaflet war continued. By means of special shells from its 105's our artillery "shot the news" weekly, delivering the Frontpost and other propaganda sheets to the enemy's fox holes. Sometimes the pamphlets were scattered from a plane. When the propaganda was accompanied by successful offensive action on our part, it had some effect; but in static warfare only a few enemy soldiers were induced to slink over to our lines through the snow on the mine-covered mountains, waving leaflets as they approached.

In place of a large-scale offensive, units of VI Corps during the last week of December conducted piecemeal operations up and down the front. On 22 December the 8th Moroccan Rifle Regiment began to relieve the 4th. Four days later, with two tabors of Goumiers, the 8th moved toward the Mainarde ridge. The enemy countered with machine-gun, mortar, and small-arms fire and threw back the assault units. The French renewed the attack on the morning of the 27th and at noon were in possession of the western slopes. Although no rations could be delivered to the men, they continued to push along the western slopes of the ridge through three feet of snow and on


the 28th occupied Hill 1190. By the 29th, however, the weather and supply problems combined to halt the drive. On the morning of the 29th the 5th Rifle Regiment attacked south of the Atina road and took three hills on the east end of Mount Monna Casale. Further advance was impossible; the Moroccans dug in on their gains.

On the 45th Division front the only important action was an assault by the 1st and 3d Battalions, 180th Infantry, on 30 and 31 December. Their objectives, the hills astride the Sant' Elia road from Mount Molino north to Mount Rotondo, were held by the 3d Battalion, 134th Grenadiers, and the 2d Battalion, 100th Mountain Regiment. At 0615, 30 December, seven battalions of artillery put down a fifteen-minute concentration on Mount Molino and the town of Acquafondata. Then the artillery fire was shifted closer to the enemy front lines, and at 0630 the assault companies of the 180th Infantry jumped off.

As the men moved forward, they fired heavily, but the enemy remained quiet; for a while all went well. On the north of the road Company K was on Mount Raimo by 0815; at the same time Company L gained Mount Rotondo. To the south Company B, moving through smoke and early morning fog, got on the first knob of Mount Molino's northeastern slope; Company C on its left reached the east nose of Hill 960 by 0900. Tanks from Company A, 755th Tank Battalion, moved up an engineer-cleared path through Casale and supported the attack. About 0920 the tanks retired for more ammunition, and artillery fire was lifted from Mount Molino in the belief that our troops were progressing satisfactorily.

Everywhere along this front, however, the enemy had only allowed the 180th Infantry to advance to within the most effective range of his heavy weapons. His artillery then opened up in force; machine guns laid down interlacing bands of fire; mortars delivered such effective counterbattery that the 3d Battalion mortars could fire only two rounds during the whole day. Under the additional pressure of enemy counterattacks, all the assault units were forced to withdraw to their initial positions except for Company L, which continued to hold Mount Rotondo.

On 31 December rain began and later turned to snow. During the afternoon the 1st Battalion made another unsuccessful try at Mount Molino. By dark the attack of the 180th Infantry was over, and our troops had gained only one hill, Mount Rotondo. Both battalions


Photo: A Bailey Bridge on Highway 6

A BAILEY BRIDGE ON HIGHWAY 6, near Mignano, is under construc-
tion by engineers of Company A, 235th Engineer Battalion. Possible bypasses
through the olive trees on either side of the highway had to be cleared of
mines (top). 

equipment and interfered with the transport of supplies (bottom).

Photo: Flood waters of the Volturno River 


were utterly exhausted by the most grueling fight they had yet experienced; the rifle companies were left with an average of sixty-six men apiece. To cap their defeat, a blizzard struck on New Year's Eve, sending snow-edged winds over the mountains and down into the men's fox holes. All through the first day of 1944 the officers of the 1st Battalion kept their troops busy making limited patrols, chopping wood, or digging deeper fox holes to keep from freezing. The men, piling on all the clothes they had, crowded into the few available bunkers or huddled about fires to await better weather before resuming the offensive.

"Mud, Mules, and Mountains"

Winter in the mountains greatly aided the enemy's determined efforts to delay the Allied advance. The miserable weather increased the discomfort of the men and more than doubled the disease total. At night the temperature frequently dropped below freezing; the rain changed to sleet or snow; and often the only shelters were those which the men dug in on the rocky hillsides when tactical operations permitted. To counteract these hardships our command took measures to protect health and maintain morale. Wool underwear had been issued early in November, and extra blankets and shelter-halves were available in the early part of December. Even more useful were the two-piece combat suits with which many front-line units were equipped. By December the men also had overshoes, and the battalion surgeons ordered the aid stations to keep a supply of dry socks. A double coffee allowance was issued, and wherever possible hot meals took place of the "K" or "10-in-1" ration.

Despite these efforts, the cold and wet weather and loss of sleep during weeks of continual fighting contributed to the great amount of sickness among the troops. Disease removed far more men from combat units than did enemy action. During December, a month when unusually heavy fighting took place, 5,020 Fifth Army men


were wounded, but the total of admissions to hospitals and quarters was 22,816. Jaundice, fevers, and trench foot were prevalent.

The institution of Fifth Army Rest Camps at Naples was perhaps the most successful step toward maintaining high morale. Men received new uniforms; hot showers were always available, and hot food was served at any hour. There were movies and band concerts daily, and soldiers were completely on their own so long as they maintained good behavior. From the end of November on, divisions sent about three thousand men to the rear every five days so that in little more than a month the entire personnel would have a five-day rest away from the front line.

As the cold and wet weather increased the needs of the troops, the task of supplying them became more and more difficult. The front lines were generally several hours away from the dumps, so that carrying an emergency load often required the time and labor of large units of combat troops. In the case of the 157th Infantry, to take an example, Company D discovered on 22 December that water soaking through the fibre cases had ruined all of its 81-mm mortar ammunition. The whole regiment had to labor for an entire day to replace the ammunition, for the last part of the 157th Infantry's supply route was a five-mile mule trail through the mountains. The length of this trail was exceptional, since the engineers were usually able to build jeep roads forward; but even where roads existed the supply problem was grave.

The road net itself was not only limited but had the further disadvantage of being intersected by the Volturno River, a stream capable of sudden fury. High water from 15 to 18 November washed out the temporary bridges which our engineers had thrown across the upper river, and a flash-flood again closed the upper bridges from 5 to 7 December. Rain, traffic, and the enemy combined to keep the road system in a condition that required constant work. On the 11 Corps front, road and bridge maintenance was the principal task of the 111th Engineer Battalion, for whom "Mignano mud" made life a nightmare. Heavy traffic moving over the roads turned them into streams of mud, full of seemingly bottomless pits. Ton after ton of gravel and rock was spread in the worst places. At otherwise impassable spots the engineers laid corduroy, which they obtained by laboriously cutting poles from the banks of the Volturno


Photo: Mules of a 157th Infantry pack train

MULES of a 157th Infantry pack train, high above the Pozzilli valley, carry
supplies forward.

River. Enemy artillery not only harassed the men at work but blew craters that had to be filled.

A very large part of VI Corps traffic had to pass Venafro. Every twenty-four hours in December, four thousand vehicles were moving through this bottleneck; as a result convoys had to be controlled strictly to keep unnecessary motor movement down to a minimum. To lighten the load on Highway No. 85 and the narrow road to Pozzilli, the 120th Engineers constructed two additional roads from Venafro to Pozzilli and followed close behind the combat troops to repair the Sant' Elia road. Eventually, however, the engineer roads came to the steep mountains where mules and men with pack-boards


had to take over on the narrow, twisting trails which were the only supply and evacuation routes for most of the infantry.

Without mules our winter campaign in Italy would have been impossible. On the flats, motor vehicles could churn through the mud; on the worst slopes, only men, climbing upward a few inches at a time with a case of rations or a can of water on their pack-boards, could make the ascent. Between these two extremes were miles of trails where the mule became an exasperating necessity. At the beginning of November the 45th Division had thirty-two animals; at the end of December the number exceeded four hundred with an additional 140 in a section of an Italian pack troop. Still more mules were needed, for 250 animals were required to supply the basic needs of an infantry regiment in the line.

Mules were a novelty for many American soldiers, and at first everything had to be improvised, including the mule skinners. Each division had a provisional pack troop with personnel drawn principally, but not exclusively, from the service companies. The 3d Division had brought mules from Sicily, but all other units had to find their animals in Italy by purchase in rear areas or by requisition from the farmers. At the outset the shortage of pack animals was so great that those on hand were quickly worked to death or worn out. Not only were mules scarce, but there was also a lack of halters, shoes, nails, and packsaddles. Italian packsaddles were issued wherever possible, since those from the United States proved to be too large for the average-sized Italian mule and reduced the load he could carry, which normally totaled about 220 pounds. By the end of December Fifth Army had brought in a French veterinary hospital which helped conserve the scanty mule stock, and the arrival of regular French and Italian pack units from Africa and Sardinia relieved many infantrymen from supply duties.


Fifth Army objectives for Phase II had been attained by the last week of December. By victories won at heavy cost, II Corps had finished the job of opening the route followed by Highway No. 6 through the mountain barrier. Mount Lungo had been taken, and the Sammucro hills to the north were clear of enemy. On the right flank, VI Corps had pushed three miles into the mountains along


the east-west roads that led to the upper Rapido Valley. French troops had acquitted themselves with distinction and were once again proving a most valuable addition to the Allied forces.

As fighting dwindled to small-scale operations, Fifth Army mustered its strength for the next blow against the Winter Line. II Corps brought up relatively fresh troops and obtained replacements for depleted units. The 36th Division was relieved on 30 December by the 34th, which had been in reserve since the Pantano action. On Mount Lungo, the 6th Armored Infantry of the 1st Armored Division relieved the 15th Infantry, 3d Division, on 31 December. The whole VI Corps now went out of the fight. When the 45th Division took its last man out of line on 9 January, that unit had been in combat for all but 7 days of the 122 spent in Italy since the landing at Salerno. With other units of the corps it went into training and preparation for the attack at Anzio. The French Expeditionary Corps, commanded by General Alphonse P. Juin, took over the VI Corps sector. It was composed of the 2d Moroccan Division and the 3d Algerian Division now holding the right flank of Fifth Army.

10 Corps' front, south of VI Corps, had remained fairly quiet after the capture of the Camino hills. On 28 December the 56 Division repulsed a strong enemy attack on Pontifiume at the mouth of the Garigliano; the next night a battalion of the 201 Brigade and a group of Commandos countered with a raid across the river on Argente. These skirmishes, as well as patrol action further north, confirmed earlier estimates by the Allied command that the Germans would hold the well-fortified Garigliano positions as the right anchor of their Gustav Line.

This line had not yet been reached north of the Garigliano sector. From Mount Porchia northeast through San Vittore into the mountains, the German XIV Corps still held positions well forward of its main system of planned defenses. No change was indicated in the enemy policy of forcing the Allies to an unspectacular battle of attrition for every yard of advance.


MAP NO. 24

Map No. 24: Plans for Attack, 5 January 1944


page created 20 July 2001

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