45th Infantry Division Thunderbird Second WorldWar

Winterline, Italy

15 November 43 - 15 January 44

45th Infantry Division Thunderbird Second Worldwar
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Excerpts are taken from:

FIFTH ARMY AT THE WINTER LINE
15 November 1943 - 15 January 1944

CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY
UNITED STATES ARMY
WASHINGTON, D.C., 1990

First printed by the Historical Division, War Department, for the American Forces in Action series, 1945

CMH Pub 100-9

Edited by Eric Rieth

Click here for printer friendly version

Map of the Fifth Army offensive late November 1943
(click for larger image)

THE WINTER LINE operations, lasting from 15 November 1943 to 15 January 1944, continued the Allied campaign to drive the Germans out of southern Italy. The underlying plan was to keep pressure on the enemy and, if possible, to break through toward Rome. Both the terrain and the season reduced the chances for effecting a breakthrough. By maintaining pressure, however, the Allies would prevent the Germans from, resting and refitting the tired and depleted divisions which they might hold as a mobile reserve for the close defense of Rome in the event of a new Allied landing on the west coast or for use in a possible counteroffensive in the opening months of 1944. Then too, the fighting in Italy had its effects on the over-all military situation in Europe. As long as the Germans were actively engaged on the Italian front, they would be forced to feed in men and supplies which would otherwise be available for the war in Russia or for strengthening their Atlantic Wall against an expected Allied invasion in 1944. Continuation of the Italian campaign was not in question; the problem was how best to carry it on.
The Allied effort was therefore maintained in an offensive planned to break the enemy's Winter Line, a series of well-prepared positions along the shortest possible line across the waist of Italy-from the Garigliano River on the west through mountains in the center to the Sangro River on the east. For the individual soldiers of the Fifth Army, the attack resolved itself into the familiar pattern of bitter fighting from hill to hill.

Fifth Army's Problem

Less than eight miles in front of the center of Fifth Army lay the beginning of the Liri Valley, the "gateway to Rome" and the ultimate objective of the coming attack. The gateway, however, has all the defensive advantages that nature can bestow. To the south, it is flanked by steep mountains which border the western side of the Garigliano River all the way from the sea to the bend of that river into the Liri Valley. Near the Garigliano mouth, a flood-plain five miles wide lies on the eastern side of the stream; attack across this plain, toward dominating hills behind a river barrier, would be exceedingly difficult.


Near the center of Fifth Army's sector the terrain presented opportunities and problems of a different order. Leaving the Volturno plains, Highway No. 6 follows a natural corridor through the north-south mountain barrier. Near Mignano the corridor narrows to a mile-wide gap, six to seven hundred feet above sea level. South of it lies the hill mass of Mount Camino, about three thousand feet high; even higher ridges tower to the north. Just beyond the Mignano Gap, as the valley begins to widen out again toward the Rapido River plain, two small but prominent hills lie athwart the corridor. Rising six hundred feet above the valley floor, Mount Rotondo and Mount Lungo resemble natural "stoppers" obstructing exit from the mountains. As a final hurdle, troops attempting to debauch into the Rapido Valley would find themselves facing two isolated hills, Mount Porchia (850 feet) and Mount Trocchio (1,400 feet), which lie directly on the approach to Cassino and flank the plain leading across the Rapido River into the Liri Valley.


On the right flank of Fifth Army a wedge of rough mountain upland widens north from Mount Sammucro to the main ridge of the Apennines, effectively protecting the approach to the Liri Valley from the north, via the Rapido Valley. Dominated by peaks nearing the four thousand foot level, this region of bare knobs and brush-covered swells is scantily inhabited and poorly provided with natural routes of advance. Only two roads, one from Filignano to Sant' Elia and the other from Colli to Atina, penetrate the desolate country. Both roads are narrow and tortuous and are dominated everywhere by the hills.


Along the whole Fifth Army front, German engineers made very skillful use of terrain and fortifications to hold our forces back. They laid mines on the roads and trails, at the heads of gullies, and in the natural cross-country approaches. All bridges and culverts were destroyed, and sites for bypasses were mined. Machine-gun and mortar emplacements, many of them dug four or five feet into solid rock, covered nearly every path. Not even intense artillery concentrations could smash these positions. On the slopes of mountains, behind stream beds, and across narrow valleys, dozens of mutually supporting machine guns were sited to weave a deadly pattern of cross fire. As a result of these defenses, small forces of the enemy could hold the gullies, draws, and difficult trails that led into the mountains, even in the face of strong attacks.


Where terrain features were not sufficient barriers to military movement, the Germans constructed strong points, especially in the relatively flat land of the Mignano Gap. Fifteen hundred yards northwest of Mignano, for example, a minefield guarded
an important trail

After 18 November, Fifth Army was made up of three corps. British 10 Corps, with the 46 and 56 Divisions, controlled the high ground east of the Garigliano Valley for a distance of fifteen miles from the sea; then the British line left the valley and skirted the eastern edge of the imposing Camino hill mass, meeting the U. S. 11 Corps sector just south of Mignano. II Corps, composed of the 3d and 36th Divisions, held a five-mile front across the corridor followed by Highway No. 6 on its way toward Cassino. Starting at the lower slopes on the shoulder of the Camino mountains, the corps positions neared the foot of Mount Lungo, then crossed the highway to include Mount Rotondo and Cannavinelle Hill. VI Corps' sector, with nearly fifteen miles of front, started at the low saddle connecting Cannavinelle with Mount Sammucro. Beyond, the 45th Division held hard-won positions along the eastern slopes of Sammucro and on high ground above Venafro. North of Pozzilli, the 34th Division's outposts lay in rough upland along the Pozzilli road and north to the army boundary near Castel San Vincenzo

.
On the right flank VI Corps launched diversionary attacks four days before the Camino drive started; and even in the center of Fifth Army front, efforts were made to confuse the enemy by increased patrolling activity on the right flank of the main assault units. Division and corps artillery fire on known targets from San Pietro to San Vittore became more intense. Smoke was used daily on Mount Lungo, and, when the weather permitted, the air force bombed targets in the San Pietro-San Vittore area.

The 45th Infantry Division's Role

Map of VI Corps positions 29 November 1943
(click for larger image)

On the night of 29 November 1943, the Rangers moved up from Venafro through Ceppagna, and at 2230, led by guides from the 180th Infantry, they began the steep descent toward San Pietro through rain and mist that reduced visibility to a few feet. By 0530 the battalion reached a point about one mile east of San Pietro. Frequent attempts of patrols to reconnoiter routes to the village drew heavy small-arms and mortar fire. By noon, when it was apparent that nothing more could be accomplished without committing a major force, General Walker ordered the Rangers to withdraw under cover of darkness.

VI Corps engaged the enemy north of the Mignano Gap. 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

Hill 769 under 160th FA fire
HILL 769, under smoke from white phosphorus shells, fired by the 160th Field Artillery Battalion.

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 elevations 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 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 of the capture of Hill 769
(Click for larger image)

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. 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 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 Battalion 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 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 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.

 

Attack by VI CORPS
(15-21 December)

Map Advance by VI Corps 15-21 December 1943
(Click for larger image)

THE DRIVE BY II CORPS in the San Pietro area was to be accompanied by a full-scale offensive on the part of VI Corps in the mountains to the north. As in Phase 1, the main effort in this sector was made along the two east-west roads, but this time the fighting would spread over a wider area. Ultimate objectives, to be reached as the offensive continued into Phase III, were the heights north of Cassino at the head of the Rapido River Valley. Ten miles of rugged mountain country lay between VI Corps and these objectives.


For the opening attack, the French 2d Moroccan Infantry Division, which had relieved the 34th Division on the right flank, received the mission of taking the high ground east of Cardito, overlooking the Colli-Atina road, while the 45th Division on the south was ordered to launch a secondary attack to gain dominating terrain east and southeast of Casale on the first stretch of the road to Sant' Elia. The day set for VI Corps' assault was 15 December.

The 45th Division, on the left, was to make a drive toward Casale. The 179th Infantry would clear the Lagone draw, while the 157th Infantry attacked along the sector from Hill 640 down to Fialla Hill just north of Concacasale. The German opposition before the 45th Division consisted of fresh units from the 44th Grenadier Division: the 1st Battalion, 134th Grenadiers, in the Lagone area and the 1st Battalion, 131st Grenadiers, south of the Sant' Elia road.

VI Corps' offensive opened with an attack toward the village of Lagone, lying within a draw running west between Hill 769 and La Bandita. During the previous fighting in this area units of the 45th Division had gained Hill 769 and had driven to the vicinity of Lagone. Progress, however, had been slow and difficult. Within the draw the enemy had excellent opportunities for interlocking bands of machine-gun fire on all avenues of approach. Well protected in rock dugouts which merged with the rude stone walls of the hillside terraces, he could wait in comparative safety during our preparatory fires before coming out to meet the infantry attack. The enemy, furthermore, having hidden access to almost any part of the draw, could shift positions quickly; and any local gain on our part might be expected to produce a swift counterattack along the sunken trails of the district.

The 1st and 3d Battalions of the 179th attacked at 0630 on 15 December after a ten-minute preparation by the 160th and 189th Field Artillery Battalions. While the 3d Battalion struck directly at Lagone, the 1st Battalion moved from the north slopes of Hill 769 to take Hill 760 west of Lagone and thus threaten the German route of escape. Despite heavy small-arms fire, Company B got close to its objective on Hill 760 shortly after daylight and put down mortar fire on the hill until the enemy was eliminated. The company then moved up to consolidate its gains, and Company A dug in on a little knob to the south of Hill 760. In the 3d Battalion's attempt to take Lagone, Company L reached the north edge of the village by going around a low knob, called the "Pimple," but neither it nor Company I on the south was able to take the objective during the day. Both companies pulled back at nightfall.

During the night Company K started around to the left of Company I to take Lagone from the west, but a heavy artillery barrage from enemy guns completely disorganized this flanking force on the north slopes of Hill 769. Nevertheless, the Germans were sensitive to the threat in their rear and evacuated Lagone before daylight. Patrols of Company L entered the hamlet shortly after noon on 16 December, and our troops occupied the timbered dugouts of the enemy, some of which were twelve feet deep. On the 17th the 3d Battalion continued to advance cautiously west toward Mount la Posta against very slight opposition.
Just to the north of Lagone, the fighting on 15 and 16 December brought first contact with the German 5th Mountain Division, a unit of Austrian-Tyrolian origin which had moved from the Leningrad sector to Italy at the end of November. Before daybreak on the 15th the 1st Platoon, 45th Reconnaissance Troop, went out on a volunteer mission to capture Hill 895, held by elements of the 100th Mountain Regiment. Although the enemy broke up the platoon's gallant assault, his hold along this sector was weakening. After dark a platoon of Company C, 179th Infantry, was able to take La Bandita without opposition, and the next day the Germans also yielded Hill 895 to French troops of the 5th Rifle Regiment.

The 157th Applies Pressure

Between the main mountain masses surrounding Mount Majo and Mount Monna Casale lies an area of lower hills, hardly definable as a pass. La Rava Creek, a small mountain torrent, cuts its way back into the hills toward the village of Casale. Taking advantage of this valley, the road to Casale runs on the slopes above the creek and just to its north. The mission of the 157th Regimental Combat Team was to open this route into the mountains by capturing the high ground on both sides of La Rava Creek. North of it, the first task was to clear a group of hills immediately commanding the road, with Hill 640 as the most prominent feature. South of the La Rava Valley the 157th aimed at Fialla Hill on the spurs of Mount Majo, overlooking the hamlet of Concacasale.

The regiment had already tested out the German defenses around Hill 640. In the first phase of the offensive, the 157th had made diversionary thrusts into this area, in support of the attack on Lagone. A steep ridge runs southeast from Hill 640, with slight knobs marking Hills 470 and 460 as the ridge nears La Rava Creek. On 29 November elements of the 157th had managed to get to Hill 460 but had been unable to work through murderous machine-gun fire on the saddle leading to Hill 470. Exposed to fire from higher ground on three sides, the 157th troops, had, nevertheless, clung to Hill 460 and had endeavored to drive the enemy off the 470 knob by artillery fire and combat patrols. After one of the heaviest concentrations of mortar and artillery fire, patrols reported on 11 December that they found "some arms and legs but no personnel" on the knob. But the Germans were back the next day and were not dislodged by night attacks on 13 and 14 December.

This stubbornly held ridge was the first objective in the 157th's attack on 15 December, employing the 1st and 3d Battalions. No artillery preparation was used except for smoke by the 158th Field Artillery Battalion, intended to prevent enemy observation from Mount Cavallo. Company B, backed by Company K, jumped off at 0515 for Hill 640 and was on its objective by noon. Company C launched a daylight push at 0805 toward Hill 470, supported by medium tanks of the 1st Platoon, Company A, 755th Tank Battalion, which cruised through enemy artillery fire up and down the road to the east of the hill. The tanks drove the enemy into dugouts on the steep reverse slope, and two machine-gun crews which were holding up our infantry had to withdraw.

By noon our troops, aided by smoke, reached the top of Hill 470 only to be forced back to the east side by enemy artillery fire. Company C moved up La Rava Creek to get around the hill. One platoon was cut off by the Germans and no one returned. The remainder of the company came under heavy fire from across the valley and withdrew at nightfall. Just after midnight, Nebelwerfer ("Screaming Meemie") fire came down on Hill 640, and the enemy regained the west slopes of that hill.

On 16 December attacks by Company C on Hill 470 were again supported by the medium tanks but failed to clean out the enemy, though twenty-four prisoners were taken. By the middle of the afternoon the company was back on Hill 460. As it turned out, this withdrawal was fortunate, for at 1430, eight A-36's bound for Casale hit Hill 470 by mistake. Our infantry gleefully reported that the enemy suffered heavy casualties, but we did not launch another attack.

Meanwhile, the 2d Battalion of the 157th had been fighting for the commanding terrain south of La Rava Creek and had encountered equally tough resistance. Fialla Hill and Hill 770 were the key objectives. The battalion started its attack at 0500 on 15 December from positions on Hill 759. As the leading elements moved forward, colored flares were sent up by the enemy, and his artillery began to pound the attacking troops. Company E swung south and placed one platoon on Fialla Hill by 0830, but the German guns shelled it off the hill and back to its original positions by 1600. Company G on the battalion's right attacked up the draw south of Hill 770 and cut north toward the crest of the hill, only to bog down on the southwest slopes by noon. During the night the company tried to take the rest of Hill 770 but, after running into heavy cross fire from machine guns, received an enemy thrust on the left flank which pushed it entirely off the hill. By daybreak of 16 December, Company G was back at its original positions on Hill 759 with a loss of almost half of its men and all its officers.

Company E's turn came next. During the night it regained Fialla Hill; two minor counterattacks in the early morning of the 16th were beaten off with the aid of mortar and artillery fire. At 1055, however, the enemy hit the company hard. After severe fighting which reduced one platoon to an effective strength of five men, the 2d Battalion had to yield ground under the threat of encirclement. Our artillery put down a smoke screen; on the left, the mortars of the 3d Battalion, 180th Infantry, stopped the enemy's flanking thrust long enough for Company E to withdraw to Hill 759. During the afternoon three local counterattacks were made against Hill 759, but our troops repulsed them.

Though the Germans had driven the 157th back from all gains except Hill 640, the pressure of our attack had its effect. From midnight of the 16th, the sector of the 157th Infantry was quiet, and the enemy artillery activity decreased. On the next afternoon our patrols on the western slopes of Hill 640 found empty fox holes and abandoned enemy equipment. The Germans had also given up Hill 470, after an almost continuous nineteen-day fight. To the south the 2d Battalion reported Fialla Hill clear by late evening. Not a single shot was heard in the drab hills before the 157th Infantry throughout the day.

The Enemy Withdraws to New Positions

Map, Action Along the VI Corps front 21-31 December 1943
(Click for larger image)

Evidence on 17 December from all other front-line units of VI Corps corroborated the indications reported by the 157th Infantry; the Germans were making a general withdrawal along the center of the corps front. Though our penetrations were nowhere deep enough to cause the enemy great alarm, the positions on which he stopped us in November had become increasingly difficult to hold as a result of our attacks; accordingly, the enemy decided to make a limited withdrawal, regroup on a new line, and thus gain a breathing spell. His retreat would also lengthen our supply lines through the mountains and bring us into new and unfamiliar terrain.


Beginning on 18 December, our patrols filtered forward to regain contact with the enemy. Over hills strewn with the dead of both sides, the front-line companies followed slowly and carefully. The advance was greatest in the center along the Sant' Elia road, while the flanks of VI Corps remained anchored on Mount Corno and northwest of Castel San Vincenzo. During the night of 17/18 December the 180th Infantry, moving through the 179th Infantry, occupied Mount la Posta without opposition and pushed along the Sant' Elia road to the hills just east of Mount Molino and Mount Rotondo. South of the 180th, Company A of the 157th Infantry early on the 19th occupied Mount Cavallo, and although the troops were subjected to German artillery and small-arms fire coming from the northwest, they held their position.

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. Here patrol groups of the 45th Division and the 2d Moroccan Division tested his new positions.

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 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.

Men, Mud, Mules, and Mountains

Mules bringing supplies to the 157th Infantry, in the Pozzilli valley.
Mules bringing supplies to the 157th Infantry, in the Pozzilli Valley.

After 46 days of fighting following the Salerno landing, leading elements crossed the Volturno river, November 3, 1943, and swung North. There was another range ahead and these mountains were among the most rugged in Italy. The cold, penetrating rain splattered unceasingly. There began the battle of the men, mud, mules and mountains.

The immediate objective after bridging the Volturno was Venafro. Here again extremely bitter fighting preceded the taking of the town. With the tortuous mountain trails too steep and winding for jeeps to pass, supply problems became acute.

Mule teams were formed. Supply personnel became "mule skinners". Food, ammunition - everything troops needed for living and fighting - were hauled up the mountainside on the backs of these mules. Where mules couldn't go, men struggled with pack-boards to "get the stuff up there". Mule skinners operated at night because nearly all the treacherous and steep trails were under observation during the day.

An Italian soldier with pack mule near Venafro.
A Thunderbird watches an Italian soldier and pack mule bring rations through an olive grove near Venafro.

To reach Venafro, division elements pulled an end run. A week later, the "pool table" became an impact area, and the mountains echoed the screech of "Meemies" and the wail of artillery.

On the town's far side, Germans had established a well-defended, prepared line. It was their intention to hold off the Allied advance at this line for winter. Continuous snow and rain, extremely difficult terrain and constant enemy observation made the fighting exceptionally severe. To the GI, it seemed that every hill he took led to a still higher hill. And the Germans always were there - waiting. Despite these conditions, the division pushed ahead to capture Pozzilli, Concassale, Lagone and other mountain towns, each of which bristled with enemy defenses.

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.

To supply the basic needs of an infantry regiment in the line two hundred and fifty animals per day were required.
To supply the basic needs of an infantry regiment in the line two hundred and fifty animals per day were required.

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.

Mortars by mules
The first donkey is loaded with an 81-mm mortar, the second carries the ammunition.

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 fiber 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.

Machine gun by donkey
Strapping a light .30-caliber machine gun on a donkey. The pack animals obtained by the Allies in the Mediterranean area were generally smaller than American mules.
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.


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, 3rd 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 2nd Moroccan Division and the 3rd Algerian Division now holding the right flank of Fifth Army.

 

 

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