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Breaking The Gustav Line: Army, Part 73



From top: A newly constructed bridge in Italy, May 1944; Cassino, Italy, May 1944.

This is the first in a series of articles focusing on the Canadian role in the battle for Rome, May 11 to June 5, 1944. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, veterans of Sicily, the Moro River and Ortona, were now joined by the 5th Canadian Armd. Div., and the corps’ medium artillery regiments. The Canadians moved west from the Adriatic coast to staging areas north of Naples to train for their role in the fourth Allied attempt to advance beyond Cassino.

If we are to understand the ferocity of the battles for Cassino and the approaches to Rome we need to recognize the depths of Hitler’s commitment to blocking an Allied advance in Italy. When Hitler ordered the occupation of Italy and the disarming of the Italian forces he decided to get as much out of Italy as he could “without regard to emotional ties” to Mussolini and the Fascists. The industrial capacity of northern Italy and its agriculture were absorbed into the German war economy and the labour force mobilized to assist the German forces. Labour unrest and partisan resistance were brutally suppressed.

One of the most extraordinary measures undertaken in the defence of German-occupied Italy was a deliberate attempt to create an epidemic of malaria in the Pontine Marshes south of Rome. The draining of the marshes and the construction of the Mussolini Canal was one of the great achievements of pre-war Italy, but the area now occupied a strategic position and in October 1943 the order was given to stop the pumps that drain the marshes. Two German scientists, experts on malaria, were sent to Italy to advise engineers on how to maximize breeding grounds for the most lethal mosquito species, and the plans to accomplish this were implemented once the Allied advance on Rome was underway. This dreadful experiment in biological warfare had little impact on the Allies who quickly crossed the Pontine Marshes before the malaria season was underway. Thereafter, the Allies employed massive amounts of DDT to safeguard their supply lines. It was the local population returning to their ruined homes and fields that had to endure “one of the great malarial upsurges in modern Italian history.”

Hitler also ordered the Todt Construction Organization, supplemented by conscripted Italian labour, to build formidable defences along a series of lines south of Rome. The Gustav Line, linking Monte Cassino with the sea, was built to take advantage of the Rapido and Gari rivers. The Hitler Line, which the Fuehrer insisted on renaming the Senger Line after one of his generals, was strengthened with concrete pillboxes and Panther turrets that were spaced to provide overlapping fields of fire for the high velocity 75-mm guns.

The first battle fought by French, American and British troops in January 1944 had failed to penetrate the Gustav Line, and this left the troops in the Anzio bridgehead under siege. Anzio was becoming the most bloody Allied operation of the European war with a monthly divisional wastage rate (killed, wounded, missing, prisoners of war, sick, injured, battle exhaustion) of 96 per cent–three times the average for Italy.

The crisis at Anzio called for new attempts to gain control of Cassino and the entrance to the Liri Valley. General Harold Alexander, described by Alan Brooke as “floating in the air with very little idea of what he is doing,” decided to reshape 5th Army, creating a New Zealand Corps under General Bernard Freyberg as an “exploitation force.” However, its first task was to win control of Monte Cassino and the town. Freyberg assigned the 4th Indian Div. to the mountainous approaches to the abbey where the French Expeditionary Corps had established a foothold. They were supposed to capture the monastery then pour down the mountain to help the New Zealand Div. seize the town.

Anyone who has walked the ground will understand the pessimism that threatened to overwhelm the troops moving into position for the attack. Eric McGeer’s battlefield guide to Ortona and the Liri Valley uses Google Earth satellite imagery as the base for his maps, and the view of Monte Cassino and the Liri Valley–looking towards Rome–offers a stunning visualization of the battle area for those who have not been to Cassino. None of this impressionistic information fully explains the decisions to destroy the monastery by bombing, but it may help us to understand why every soldier who has fought at Cassino was relieved when “the great white building that dominated the whole scene in that valley of evil memory” collapsed into ruins.

Unfortunately, the monastery was just a metaphor for the strength of the German defences and the February assaults failed to achieve their aims. A month later, the New Zealand Corps was ordered to make yet another attempt to secure Cassino and Monastery Hill. This time the town was to be destroyed with 1,000-pound bombs fused “to permit penetration of buildings down to basement depth.” Despite, or because of the bombing, the cratered ruins could not be cleared and held. As one anonymous New Zealander explained, “we are known as Kiwis because like the bird we can’t fly, we can’t see and we are rapidly becoming extinct.”

By the end of March 1944 these frustrating and costly operations were ended to allow the exhausted troops time to rest and recover. A new offensive, timed to prevent the Germans from reinforcing Normandy once Operation Overlord began, was to be launched in early May and this would require extensive preparation.

If the spring offensive was to succeed without the kind of favourable force ratio required by the terrain and fixed defences, something had to be done to block German reinforcements and re-supply. The Mediterranean Allied air force proposed to accomplish this through an independent air interdiction campaign with the evocative code name of Operation Strangle. Air attacks on roads, railway lines, bridges and marshalling yards north and south of Rome began in mid-March and continued until Diadem–the code name for the spring offensive–began. Despite considerable tactical success, Strangle failed to halt the flow of supplies, though it is credited with limiting German troop mobility. Unfortunately, for the Allied armies the German divisions manning the Gustav Line were not going anywhere unless overwhelming force was applied.

Alexander’s new plan called for the transfer of most of 8th Army to the west. The British corps from 5th Army was to be brought under General Oliver Leese’s control with the French Expeditionary Corps, mountain troops from Morocco and Africa, joining U.S. 5th Army. Leese would now command two British corps plus the Polish, New Zealand and Canadian corps. Diadem was to involve 11 divisions rather than the two or three used in earlier attempts against the Gustav Line.

Leese placed the Canadian Corps in reserve to tackle the Hitler Line, but he ordered 1st Canadian Armd. Bde. to work with 8th Indian Div. in the battle for the Gari River bridgehead. Major Michael Boire, a history professor at the Royal Military College, is researching the history of this often overlooked brigade and its three armoured regiments. Boire, an officer in the 12e Régiment blindé, has a special interest in 12th Canadian Armd. Regiment, a bilingual unit known in World War II as the Three Rivers Regt., but he also is evaluating the battle experience of the Ontario and Calgary regiments together with the role of brigade headquarters.

It is evident that 1CAB under Brigadier Bob Wyman and his successor Bill Murphy, as well as the commanding officers of the individual regiments, embraced the infantry-support role assigned to them, putting aside their dreams of brigade-level tank actions. The Three Rivers Regt., committed to action in Sicily and Termoli well before the rest of the brigade was involved in the battles for the Moro River and Ortona, led the way in tactical development, but all three regiments used the first four months of 1944 to train and absorb lessons learned. By May 1944, 1CAB, the most effective armoured brigade in 8th Army, was in demand everywhere.

Major-General Dudley Russell, the commander of 8th Indian Div., issued his orders for the Gari crossing well ahead of time, allowing the Ontario and Calgary regiments to work closely with the 17th and 19th infantry brigades. The Three Rivers Regt. was tasked to support the 21st Bde. in reserve for an exploitation role. Every detail of a very complex operation was worked out–“no one seemed to be rushed and everyone knew exactly what was required of him.”

The plan called for the rapid consolidation of a bridgehead so that engineers could construct a series of bridges across the river. Without armoured support the infantry would have trouble surviving counter-attacks or seizing control of the heavily fortified positions on the high ground beyond the river. The flexibility of the armoured brigade was evident in the preparations to support the assault battalions from the riverbank and in the remarkable experiment carried out by Captain H.A. Kingsmill and the Calgary Regt. Kingsmill, an ordnance corps officer attached to the Calgaries, supervised the creation of a tank-launched Bailey bridge. In collaboration with a company of Indian engineers, rehearsals were held and during the night of May 11-12 the bridge–mounted on a turret-less Calgary tank equipped with rollers, and with a pusher tank behind–reached the river. The first tank, guided by Kingsmill and two Bengal sappers, entered the river to serve as a pier, and its driver escaped as it submerged. The bridge was nosed onto the far bank, and Kingsmill–awarded the Military Cross for his efforts–was wounded by shellfire.

The attack began with a massive counter-battery and counter-mortar program that helped to suppress the enemy’s indirect fire. However, the 1,000-metre-wide flood plain was studded with trip-wire activated mines and well concealed machine-gun posts. According to the Indian Army official history, “A cold damp mist lay over the valley. To thicken the mist and the clouds of dust and smoke rising from the artillery concentrations, the Germans ignited smoke canisters… visibility was no more than two feet.”

The 17th Indian Bde., responsible for the crossing on either side of San Angelo–the most heavily fortified part of the Gustav Line–were assisted by tanks of the Three Rivers Regt. whose crews had rehearsed using their machine-guns to neutralize enemy posts on the far side of the riverbank. The assault battalion groped its way forward, up against mines as well as enemy machine-guns firing on pre-arranged fixed lines. Despite heavy losses, the infantry secured a narrow bridgehead, and at first light the Calgary and Ontario regiment tanks began to cross.

The battlefield is little changed and a tour of the crossing points inspires admiration for the men who were confronted with fire from the village of San Angelo and the low ridge the troops called the Platform. The 3/8th Punjab Regt. found itself in front of German positions where hand grenades were rolled down the slopes to burst among the Indian soldiers. “A 19-year-old Sepoy, Kamal Ram of Karauli state, new to the battalion and fighting his first action, attacked two German machine-gun posts single-handed.” He was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

Ontario Regt. tanks began crossing the river at 9 a.m., but “the flat ground on the far side of the river was found to be soft and boggy and 15 tanks bogged down. Men worked all day under constant shellfire to recover these tanks. The remaining force reached the lateral road and turned north to join the Gurkhas who were trying to mount an attack on San Angelo. However, a key bridge collapsed after two tanks had crossed. They were able to link up with the Gurkhas and the next morning one Sherman led the Gurkhas in the assault on the village. By the afternoon of May 13, a “scissors bridge” had spanned the obstacle and an Ontario squadron moved through San Angelo to assist a Royal Fusiliers battalion pinned down north of the village.

The Calgary Regt., supporting the 19th Indian Inf. Bde., was also slowed by the mist and soft ground, but the first tanks to reach the lateral road turned south shooting up enemy positions. “All during the afternoon the infantry made valiant efforts to get up onto the high ground and join the tanks. However, every time they moved they were cut to pieces by the continuous mortaring….” The next morning a second, full, squadron of Calgary Tanks and the reserve battalion, Royal Frontier Force Rifles, crossed the river. The RFFR and the Punjabs–supported by squadrons of the Calgaries–followed a heavy artillery barrage forward and reached the village of Panaccioni by late afternoon.

The Three Rivers Regt. and two battalions of 21st Bde. crossed into the bridgehead on the night of May 13 to lead the breakout. “The going was very hard. The morning was foggy, and the rough, bush-covered country with its many bogs, ravines and sunken roads made it extremely difficult to maintain contact with the infantry. We also had mines, shelling, mortaring and a quite tenacious enemy. C Squadron fought all day without making much headway.”

The tanks were eventually able to complete the first bound to Point 66, but the infantry, harassed by machine-guns and mortars, were forced to ground. After reorganization, the Canadian tanks and Royal West Kent Regt. captured Point 66 and consolidated, breaking German resistance and inflicting heavy casualties. Further advances were made across the divisional front with the tanks in constant action providing “magnificent support.” At 11 p.m. on May 16, 8th Indian Div. handed over its sector to 1st Canadian Inf. Div. The Gustav Line was well and truly broken.

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