THE SALERNO BEACHES had been won from an enemy who had been prepared and alert. The Fifth Army had control of a narrow beachhead from Maiori to Agropoli at the end of D Day; its next objective was to secure the dominating mountain heights inland from the beaches. With these heights in its possession the army could protect and develop the beachhead as a base for the drive toward the port and airfields of Naples.
On the left flank of the Fifth Army, where the main enemy strength was concentrated, 10 Corps met stubborn resistance and heavy counterattacks from infantry, tanks, and artillery as it attempted to push inland from Salerno to the north and east. Except in the center of the beachhead, VI Corps had little opposition. The 36th Division occupied the important hills from Altavilla to Ogliastro on the south and southeast of the beach area. The enemy forces had withdrawn from this area after their tank attack on D Day had failed to stop the invasion. But in the center the 45th Division, meeting the enemy southwest of Ponte Sele in the corridor formed by the Sele and Calore rivers, was to receive a savage blow which completely stopped its advance.
The Advance of the 10th
The principal task of the 141st Regimental Combat Team was to protect the VI Corps right flank by blocking the two main routes of access to the Salerno plain from the south and southeast (Map No. 5, faces page 39). Early in the morning of the 10th the 2d and 3d Battalions occupied before daylight the hills by Ogliastro in position to command Highway 18. On the way, the 3d Battalion met a small amount of sniper fire which failed to slow its movement; the 2d Battalion completed its march without incident. The 1st Battalion reorganized during the night of the 9/10, and on the 10th, after cleaning tip the last enemy positions near the railroad east of Blue Beach prepared to advance into the lofty ground of the Trentinara area, to block the road through Capaccio to the plain. After these long marches up rocky roads and steep slopes, the men of the 141st now had a breathing spell of 2 to 3 days that left them in good condition to reinforce more active parts of the Fifth Army line.
From reserve positions near Capaccio the 143d Regimental Combat Team assisted in guarding the right flank by sending patrols east and southeast across the upper Calore River. The patrols found no indication of enemy movements anywhere south of Mount Soprano; abandoned, burned, and wrecked German vehicles on Highway 18 as far as Ogliastro were evidence of the hasty departure by the Germans during the previous night. The tanks and artillery which had harassed the 141st Regimental Combat Team on the 9th had withdrawn to concentrate in the more important northern areas.
In the center and on the left flank, the 10th of September was a day of calm, as units of VI Corps took up positions to launch a coordinated attack the next day. The 179th Regimental Combat Team of the 45th Division began landing on Blue Beach late in the morning of the 10th. It then proceeded north on Highway 18 to an assembly area along the highway near Paestum. From there it prepared to attack up the valley between the Sele and Calore rivers. Artillery of the 45th Division, consisting of the i58th, 16oth, and i8gth Field Artillery Battalions, came ashore during the day and went into positions generally southwest of the Sele-Calore junction.
Meanwhile the 142d Regimental Combat Team moved forward in preparation for an attack on Altavilla and Hill 424. Early in the
PONTE SELE is the only crossing over the 10-foot deep Sele River
north of Persano. It
is part of Highway 19, the German route of approach to the Salerno area from the east
and south. Originally assigned to 10 Corps, it later became an objective of the 45th Division.
morning of the 10th the 2d Battalion, advancing on Roccad'aspide to protect the right flank of the regiment, dispersed over the rugged slopes of Mount Soprano. The 3d Battalion, ordered to take Albanella, left its assembly area on Tempone di San Paolo and marched cross-country, because the roads were mined at strategic spots. After they had crossed the Lusa, their route led up very steep slopes in full view of the Albanella ridge road, but only scattered machine-gun fire impeded the march. By 2000 the 3d Battalion occupied Albanella with little difficulty. Paralleling this advance, the 1st Battalion (less Company B) moved northeast on the regimental left flank toward the Altavilla hill mass, and by nightfall was at the edge of the slopes 2½ miles southwest of Hill 424. The 132d Field Artillery Battalion displaced to support the battalion's advance.
At the close of this day of preparation, VI Corps was ready to strike northeast. Highway 19 between the high ground at Serre and Ponte Sele over the Sele River was the key to all the center of the Salerno plain (Map No. 6, faces page 41). With this stretch of road in its possession, VI Corps could deny the enemy approaches from the east, and put pressure on the main German escape route, Highway 91. This route ran along the open slopes north of the Sele River to Contursi and then turned north into the mountains. Our plan called for the 179th Infantry to move directly against Ponte Sele and the high ground at Serre while the 142d Infantry struck at Hill 424, which dominates this area from the south.
High Tide at Altavilla
During the coming critical days of the Salerno battle, the conflict on the left flank was to sweep back and forth over the Altavilla hills (Map No. 6, faces page 41). This extensive complex, as viewed from the valley to the west, apparently consists of two hillsó424 and 315ójoined by a saddle. But from Hill 424, a third, unnumbered hill comes into view jutting up on the eastern side of the saddle ½ mile to the south. A rough ravine runs between this hill and 424. Altavilla lies sprawled on the southwest slopes of Hill 424 and is in itself unimportant. The higher slopes of the hill command the village completely.
From various points on Hill 424, it was later discovered that the Germans could observe east into the upper valley of the Calore, north into the corridor between the Sele and Calore rivers, west into the valley between Altavilla and La Cosa hills, and on over those hills to the sea. The enemy had superb observation of every part of the central sector of the Salerno plain; but he could not see the lower slopes of Hill 424 itself, which are divided into many ridged noses by wooded ravines, providing only poor fields of fire. The enemy had garrisoned all the projections in order to retain the entire hill. A stone shed commanding much of the hilltop was used for a machine-gun position.
The only good approach to the summit of Hill 424 is by a steep, stony trail about 9 feet wide, terraced every 10 feet. This trail from Altavilla runs between perpendicular rock and earth walls from 2 to
6 feet high, is bordered on the right by several small terraced fields, and is protected from view at various points by olive trees and young oaks. The hilltop itself is extremely irregular.
On the morning of ii September the 142d Regimental Combat Team prepared to carry out the divisional order to capture Hill 424 and secure the high ground as far south as Roccad'aspide. Our initial attack against these objectives succeeded with deceptive ease. At 1000 the 1st Battalion, supported by two platoons of the Cannon Company, advanced from positions about a mile southwest of Altavilla. Forward elements entered the village of Altavilla before noon. The battalion dispersed widely over the hill mass: Company B occupied the high ground above the road; Company A went on over the trail to the summit of Hill 424; and Company C occupied the south slope. All companies sent out patrols to the Calore River and prepared for defense. Meanwhile the 3d Battalion, which was receiving scattered artillery fire, sent out patrols along the Albanella ridge and watched for enemy movements toward Altavilla from the south. The 2d Battalion extended the line along the ridge toward Roccad'aspide. Except for sporadic artillery fire, all was quiet on Hill 424 and on the ridges at Albanella and Roccad'aspide.
The 179th Drives into the Sele-Calore Corridor
To accompany the 142d's push at Altavilla, General Dawley had ordered the 179th Regimental Combat Team to advance on the left flank, with the mission of securing Ponte Sele and the steep hills at the end of the valley near Serre, where they block the corridor between the Sele and Calore rivers. Col. Robert B. Hutchins issued the attack order at 1600 on 10 September, and at 1925 the regiment moved out.
The 2d Battalion, with Battery B, 160th Field Artillery Battalion, and a platoon of tanks was at the head of the column. The route of march followed Highway 18 to the road just south of Ponte alla Scafa. Here it turned east for a mile, then forked. The regiment divided at the fork. The 2d Battalion under Lt. Col. Charles D. Weigand, leading the southern column, continued eastward across the low hills on the west bank of La Cosa Creek and then moved northeast over the rolling ground below Altavilla to skirt the northern end of Hill 424.
VIEW OF ALTAVILLA (above) shows the terraced ground
which made the capture of this
objective difficult. From the center of the town (below) a road extends to the summit of Hill 424.
From the Calore crossing north of that hill it was to strike northeast to the high ground at Serre. The northern column, consisting of the 1st and 3d Battalions and led by the 3d Battalion under Lt. Col. Earl A. Taylor, turned off north to the Calore just above its junction with the Sele, and moved up through the corridor toward Highway 19 to attack Serre from the west.
All night the march continued. The 2d Battalion, advancing south of the Calore, drove back a few enemy detachments and reached the bridge north of Altavilla at about 1000 on the 11th, just as the 1st Battalion, 142d Infantry, was moving against Altavilla itself. The men of the 2d Battalion found the bridge destroyed, but they used hand tools and vehicles to break down the 10-foot banks of the Calore so that the infantry elements, a platoon of tanks, and a platoon of tank destroyers were soon able to ford the shallow stream. On the north bank a heavy enemy counterattack by tanks and infantry of the 29th Pioneer Battalion, supported by artillery, hit them hard and by 1235 drove them back across the river. Throughout the afternoon the 2d Battalion, under intensive artillery fire from hills to the northeast, struggled with the German pioneer battalion for the river crossing.
Within the corridor, the rest of the 179th Infantry met even tougher opposition. A pile-and-plank bridge over the Calore south of La Cosa Creek was in flames when the northern column reached it. Crossing the river at a bypass constructed downstream from the burning bridge, the 1st and 3d Battalions continued north through the flat, marshy land of the lower corridor and passed, without stopping to occupy, the knoll on which the few large buildings and stables of Persano stand. Here the column turned northeast and marched over the gently rising ground and tree-lined fields of the upper corridor. Dawn of the 11th found the infantry well past Persano, moving up the straight and narrow Tenuta di Persano road. Company L, on the left, branched off to follow the main road leading to Ponte Sele. It drove out an enemy detachment and temporarily controlled the river bluffs overlooking Ponte Sele; but a German counterattack with tanks soon threw the company back. The rest of the 3d Battalion, acting as advance guard on the Tenuta di Persano road, met resistance which held the infantry all day at the ridges near the junction of the Tenuta road with Highway 19.
Though the main column of the 179th, the 1st and 3d Battalions, had reached the northeast corner of the upper corridor and threatened the Germans' hold on the highway, an enemy thrust at its exposed left flank and rear would make the position of these two battalions extremely precarious. Shortly after daybreak this danger materialized, when the regimental support column came under such heavy machinegun fire from the small knoll at Persano that no men or vehicles could get past the settlement. The main body of the. regiment was almost completely cut off and its threat to the enemy's control of Highway 19 became ineffective.
The Germans then counterattacked up the corridor from Persano to strike at the rear of the 1st and 3d Battalions. By 1100 eight enemy tanks and a battalion of infantry, coming from the vicinity of Eboli, had crossed the Sele near Persano and turned northeast, the tanks leading the attack. Company C, which had been ordered to meet the threat to the rear by organizing a defensive position in the open ground northeast of Persano, was hit before it could dig in and was severely mauled. The tanks moved on and nearly reached the Command Post of the 179th, near the intersection of the Tenuta di Persano and Persano-Ponte Sele roads, before halting temporarily. The rest of the 1st Battalion faced about to hold off the attack. Strong enemy combat patrols pushed in all along the rear and the flanks, and the two battalions of the 179th Infantry, nearly encircled, went into an all-round defense.
The enemy thrust at the rear had cut off most of the regiment's attached units, which remained in the tip of the Sele-Calore corridor below Persano. Company C, 753d Tank Battalion, had crossed the Calore at 0645 over a ford prepared by engineers below the burned bridge. Together with the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the tanks halted just beyond the river, and Battery A, 160th Field Artillery Battalion, joined them. The commanders of these units decided to remain in their positions to hold the ford against the apparent enemy threat to secure it and thereby completely encircle the 179th. When enemy fire lessened about noon, one platoon of tanks and Company C of the tank destroyers attacked Persano. Stopped by road blocks and 88-mm fire, they fell back with a loss of one tank and seven destroyers. In the afternoon a force of tank destroyers, tanks, and infantry tried to cross the Calore near a blown steel-trestle bridge a mile north of La
Cosa Creek; but the enemy crushed the attempt and knocked out three of our tank destroyers.
By late afternoon on 11 September, the main body of the 179th Infantry was hard-pressed. Many of the companies were without food and water; the Regimental Aid Station, crowded with casualties, was under shell fire. Batteries A and C, 160th Field Artillery Battalion, had exhausted their ammunition supply except for 10 rounds per gun kept as reserve for a last emergency. At 1700 aircraft began to strafe and bomb the 3d Battalion, and the enemy launched a tank-infantry attack, supported by artillery fire from Eboli, starting from Highway 19 just east of Ponte Sele. The relatively open ground in the upper corridor proved untenable, and heavy artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire forced the 3d Battalion to retreat toward the 1st Battalion northeast of Persano. By midnight the battle for the Sele-Calore corridor remained undecided; but the enemy had a definite advantage, and Highway 19 was still open to his troops.
First Battle of the Tobacco Factory
Although the Germans may not have been aware of the fact, their attacks on 11 September struck the weakest part of the Fifth Army line. The British 56 Division, already hard-pressed on a wide front, could not extend to its right to fill the gap between 10 Corps and VI Corps. Consequently, General Clark moved the Corps boundary north of the Sele and assigned the left flank of VI Corps to the 45th Division under General Middleton. The 157th Regimental Combat Team under Col. Charles Ankcorn, committed from Army reserve, was ordered to advance on the west side of the Sele River on 11 September to secure the fords north and west of Persano, and thus cut off the enemy attacks on the rear of the 179th.
This plan would bring American troops into the area north and west of the Sele for the first time during the operations. The land here displays long, gentle swells with scattered buildings and a few small patches of woods. The tops of the swells furnish long fields of fire, but draws could be used for covered approaches to many parts of the district. Close to the Sele is a tobacco factory (Tabacchificio Flocche), consisting of five large buildings arranged about three sides of a square. The Tobacco Factory crowns the large flat top of
THE GRATAGLIA borders the Sele River northwest of Persano. Buildings
appear on the right behind the plain, and Hill 424 with Altavilla on its eastern slopes is
in the center background. On 11 September German tanks went through this plain,
crossed the Sele by a ford, and attacked the rear of the 179th Regiment.
a swell providing excellent observation to the south along the road connecting Highway 18 with Eboli, to the east across the Sele bridge into the lower part of the Sele-Calore corridor, and to the north for a distance of 1,000 yards to a farm with a set of substantial buildings. But it is not possible from any vantage point to see up the Eboli road beyond the little river plain called the Grataglia, or to observe very far into the draws which approach the Factory swell from the northwest.
The gravel road, leading northeast from Highway 18 to Eboli, is the main route of the area. From the highway it runs across open fields, until about 700 yards north of the Tobacco Factory it drops sharply to the Grataglia plain. Here the Eboli road meets a minor road, coming straight east from Bivio Cioffi on Highway 18, and another smaller track which cuts east through the Grataglia to a ford across the Sele to Persano. The river plain is cultivated but there are scattered trees; on the west it is bounded by wooded hillsides, with a draw to the northeast of the road junction. From this junction the
Eboli road bends to the northeast around the corner of a hill and gradually rises into the more broken country toward Eboli.
The fight for this area was to prove the great tactical importance of the Factory swell, for whoever held this swell commanded the Grataglia and thus held the crossings, controlling access up the Sele-Calore corridor toward Ponte Sele and eventually to Highways 19 and 91. The first of these roads was the main enemy route from Battipaglia to Eboli, the upper corridor, and Altavilla; the second was the main escape and supply route for the enemy forces all along the VI Corps front.
The 191st Tank Battalion (M), attached to the 45th Division, was the first American unit to contest German occupation of the Factory. As it moved northeast along the Sele on the 11th, well ahead of the 157th Infantry, it found in the vicinity of the Factory a German bivouac area with Mark IV tanks and personnel carriers. An enemy order captured later indicated that elements of the 1st Battalion, 79th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (16th Panzer Division) had moved down from Battipaglia on that day to outpost the line Torre Palladino Tobacco Factory-Persano.
Company B of our tanks, commanded by Capt. Donald H. May, advanced cautiously against the Factory at 1600, two platoons out on the west side of the swell and the third platoon on the east just above the 40-foot bluff along the Sele. The platoons on the left knocked out several half-track personnel carriers, machine-gun nests, and antitank guns in buildings and in strawstacks; but the enemy apparently had laid a trap with the personnel carriers as bait. As our tanks approached close to the Factory they met devastating fire of heavy caliber. In addition, small arms from the Factory on the east and the farm on the north finally put seven of our tanks out of action. Of these, five were burned out. Company B, however, remained in the general area until 2130 to assist the advance of the infantry.
The 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Preston J. C. Murphy, led the main push north. Company C moved up Highway 18 toward the gentle swell at Bivio Cioffi which dominated the west side of the zone, while the rest of the battalion advanced up the Eboli road against the Factory. At 1530 Company C met enemy fire at the Bivio, but pushed on to take the crossroads despite opposition from the strongpoint at Torre Palladino 1 mile to the north
MAP NO. 7
east. At 2100 the company set up road blocks north and west of the Bivio to hinder enemy movement and thus protect the advance of the rest of the regiment up the Eboli road.
Companies A and B had much more difficult fighting as they advanced against other strongpoints of the enemy outpost line to the east. Well-sited machine guns and mortars kept them under fire. Enemy tanks maneuvered in the open area between Highway 18 and the Factory and pinned down Company B at 1715. Fire from our artillery made the enemy more cautious and reduced his pressure on us. At dusk Company A went in on the left of Company B, but by 2300 these units had gained only the edge of a little draw 500 yards south of the Factory. At midnight the Germans still held the Factory and the Sele crossings.
The General Situation, Evening of 11 September
By the evening of 11 September, VI Corps had made significant advances from the Paestum beaches (Map No. 7, page 48). The right flank was securely anchored on the hill positions in the Trentinara and Ogliastro areas gained by the 141st Regimental Combat Team. In the center we had driven to the vicinity of Roccad'aspide without opposition, and the 1st Battalion, 142d Infantry, held Hill 424. But the situation on the left flank was dangerous. The 2d Battalion, 179th Infantry, had been unable to advance beyond the Calore crossing north of Hill 424, and enemy pressure had forced the battalion to fall back to La Cosa Creek during the night. A slashing enemy counterattack had cut off the 1st and 3d Battalions from their support, which was held in the lower Sele-Calore corridor. In an effort to relieve the 179th Infantry from the effects of the enemy counterattack, the Fifth Army had thrown in the 157th Regimental Combat Team to attack the Tobacco Factory area west of the Sele River. This attack had bogged down. At the end of the day the issue in the area from Bivio Cioffi east through the Sele-Calore corridor was unsettled.
To our north, 10 Corps had been meeting even more stubborn resistance and heavy German counterattacks. Though these thrusts had not penetrated the British lines, they had slowed the advance and stopped it in several sectors. On the far left of 10 Corps, the Rangers
above Maiori held their lines, which overlooked the Nocera-Pagani valley. To insure the retention of this valuable position, General Clark had sent substantial reinforcements of infantry, artillery, and other arms on the night of 10/11 September. On the 11th the 1st Battalion, 143d Infantry, was shifted by LCI's from Paestum beaches, where it was guarding Division Headquarters, to Maiori and arrived just in time to help beat off an enemy attack south of Pagani.
Farther east, the 46 Division tightened its hold on the port of Salerno and attempted to drive north into the mountains, but could make little progress. Just north of VI Corps the 56 Division had pushed patrols into Battipaglia before dawn on the 10th. The enemy brought up tanks and two battalions of infantry which threw advanced British elements out of the town. The British came at the town again and managed to work their way into its streets by the evening of the 11th; other units on the left of the 56 Division line had heavy fighting at a tobacco factory 2 miles west of Battipaglia and at Montecorvino airfield, which they finally secured.
Enemy artillery fire from the hills prevented our use of the Montecorvino landing strip, and all air support still had to come either from a squadron of airplane carriers in the Gulf or from the distant airfields of Sicily. The air forces had not planned to run long fighter missions for more than 2 days, but they continued until United States Aviation Engineers and detachments from almost every engineer unit in VI Corps, working night and day, completed on 13 September a new landing strip west of Highway 18 and north of Paestum. Enemy air activity was at its height during the night of 10 September and throughout the next day; in this period the Germans flew about 120 sorties, concentrating mainly on shipping and naval craft in the Gulf. A bomb or rocket from one enemy plane landed squarely on the Savannah, which was on station in the fire support area, causing heavy casualties and forcing the cruiser to withdraw. Though some damage was caused by these attacks, our antiaircraft batteries and barrage balloons kept the enemy bombers high, where squadrons from the force of 196 Spitfires, 119 A-36's, and 326 P-38's patrolling the beachhead intercepted them.
The Fifth Army beachhead had been expanded on the 10th and 11th along a 35- to 49-mile coastline to an average depth of 6 to 7 miles. Only in the center, in the Sele-Calore corridor, was the beach-
head insecure; here the successful enemy attack on the 45th Division threatened to separate 10 and VI Corps. If this threat could be averted and the beachhead maintained intact, the Fifth Army would have a substantial base in which to build up its strength for further advance.
page created 23 July 2001
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