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Draining The Devil’s Brigade: Army, Part 72



Clockwise from top: The First Special Service Force uses mules to transport supplies in Italy; FSSF members camouflage their faces near Anzio in 1944; the shoulder flash of the FSSF.

Italy, Normandy’s ‘Long Right Flank’, was the theme of University of New Brunswick historian Lee Windsor’s keynote address to the 18th Annual Military History Conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Dr. Windsor, a passionate and compelling speaker, made the case for evaluating success or failure in Italy in terms of the impact of Allied operations on German priorities. Since Hitler was forced to send some of his very best divisions to hold a series of defensive lines in central Italy, the Allies, he argued, accomplished their purpose by weakening Hitler’s capacity to defend the coast of France and prevent the breakout from Normandy.

Dr. Windsor’s interpretation of the significance of the battles for Rome and the assault on the Gothic Line harkens back to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s oft-quoted telegram to Winston Churchill, dated Oct. 25, 1943, which stated: “It is essential for us to retain the initiative until the time approaches for mounting Overlord…. If we can keep him on his heels until early spring then the more divisions he uses in a counter-offensive against us the better it will be for Overlord and it then makes little difference to what happens to us if Overlord is a success….”

This view of the Italian Campaign correctly explains both the strategic purpose and larger achievement, but it does not resolve questions raised about specific operations carried out by Allied armies. At the theatre level, General Harold Alexander–the army group commander–and his senior subordinates, generals Oliver Leese and Mark Clark, appear to have sought great victories; breakthroughs and breakouts that would transform Italy from a holding action into a decisive theatre of war. This attitude, which was shared and encouraged by Churchill, was especially evident in Clark’s 5th United States Army, a multinational force that included three British and two French divisions as well as five from the U.S. Army.

Clark rose from obscurity as a junior staff officer to lieutenant-general and 5th Army commander in 1943 without any experience in combat at battalion, regimental or divisional level. The noted American military historian, Martin Blumenson, has described him as “Aggressive, impatient, imperious in bearing and inclined to be sharp of tongue, although he could be elegantly charming.” These characteristics were coupled with an over-confidence in his own judgment of operational possibilities.

Clark’s army was to strike north through the Liri Valley to Frosinone, 90 kilometres south of Rome, while 8th Army fought its way to Pescara and the Valerian Way, the east-west road to Rome. When the two armies reached these objectives, Alexander would launch a seaborne landing at Anzio–on the coast south of Rome–that was designed to cut off the enemy facing 5th Army.

There were a number of problems with this plan. The weather in November and December was likely to be rainy with snow in the mountains. The terrain, mountainous country with fast-flowing rivers cutting across the battlefield, favoured the enemy. The force ratios, attackers to defenders, came nowhere near the 3:1 odds considered necessary for success. Through Ultra, Alexander and his two army commanders knew Hitler was determined “to defend central Italy on the line Gaeta-Ortona” with his 10th Army, while the 14th Army defended the coasts and “pacified” the north. The 14th Panzer Corps was opposite Clark’s army.

Albert Kesselring, Hitler’s supreme commander in Italy, had ordered 14th Panzer Corps to hold the mountains on either side of the Mignano Gap, blocking the approach to the Liri Valley. During November when 5th U.S. Army was reorganizing, German engineers supervised the laying of minefields and well camouflaged machine-gun and mortar positions. Deep dugouts “roofed with tree trunks, planking and sandbags” were connected to the firing posts by crawl trenches. When necessary, solid rock was excavated to provide the necessary cover.

On the plus side, the Allies knew the German army was in the midst of a major reorganization intended to save manpower by reducing the size of a division from roughly 17,000 men to 13,000. All three divisional infantry regiments lost a battalion, but a fusilier battalion, often employed as the divisional reserve, as well as powerful artillery and anti-tank battalions were preserved. This sustained the combat power of the division in defensive operations–the only kind required in Italy.

The German army was also thought to suffer from shortages, especially in artillery shells, but those with front-line experience knew that German gunners, with full observation over the battlefield and time to register targets for artillery and mortars, had no need of the extensive barrages employed by the Allies to neutralize the enemy during an attack. With the mountainous terrain as a force multiplier, the seven and one-half German divisions of 14th Panzer Corps were a formidable obstacle.

As always, the Allies hoped air power would make up for other deficiencies, and the newly organized Mediterranean Air Command was prepared to offer considerable support. Unfortunately, when the advance towards Cassino and the Liri Valley began on Dec. 1, overcast skies and frequent days of heavy rain–normal for central Italy in December–limited the impact of air superiority.

Clark divided the operation into three phases “so that the maximum air and artillery support can be used against the most difficult terrain.” Phase I required the capture of the “critical terrain features” Monte Camino, Monte la Difensa and Monte Maggiore. This task was assigned to 56th British Div., which had already tried and failed to capture the position, and a fresh U.S. division, the 36th, which had been strengthened by the attachment of the First Special Service Force, the so-called Devil’s Brigade.

Jim Wood, a young historian who will be joining the faculty at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., is the author of We Move Only Forward, the most recent history of this remarkable unit which was the only joint Canadian-American formation created during World War II. Originally developed to operate as elite troops “trained in winter warfare and equipped with armoured snow vehicles, and capable of either parachute or glider landings in the snow-covered regions of occupied Europe…these highly trained troops would be able to conduct long range sabotage operations against key industrial targets.” This outlandish project, known as Operation Plough, was inspired by Mountbatten and his eccentric science adviser Geoffrey Pike. Wood offers a balanced review of the politics behind the project as well as the recruitment and training of a force that was eventually employed in the unopposed landing at Kiska in Alaska.

The transfer of FSSF to Italy in September 1943 was accomplished without any decision on what role a highly trained, lightly armed “commando” unit might play. The force was comprised of three “regiments,” each of two, two company battalions and one administration battalion. The total strength, roughly 2,200 officers and men,included 600 Canadians concentrated in the combat battalions. Since the force had been created to carry out a single mission, no provision had been made to provide trained reinforcements. The 60-mm mortar was the heaviest support weapon. The force brought 600 of the small, tracked-carriers–known as Weasels–with them to Italy, though it was by no means clear what value the machine’s ability to operate in snow might have.

Eisenhower had requested the FSSF “for special reconnaissance and raiding operations” but Clark decided to use them as regular infantry providing a battalion of airborne artillery to increase their hitting power. The FSSF commander, Colonel Robert Frederick, reported to the 36th “Texas” Div. on Nov. 23. So, there was less than a week available to prepare for their assigned task capturing Monte la Difensa.

On a recent visit to the battlefields in Italy it was possible to take advantage of an advance copy of the guidebook The Canadian Battlefields in Italy: Ortona and the Liri Valley by Eric McGeer. The book, recently published by the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies and the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, uses Google Earth satellite imagery as the base for its maps, allowing the battlefield to be seen in three dimensions. Dr. McGeer, who has examined the battlefields from every angle, has recced the best ways of examining the FSSF battlefields, and outlined the routes to follow.

However viewed, the Camino-Difensa-Maggiore massif is a formidable sight. Little has changed since 1943. The lower slopes are terraced with olive groves, but the northeast face of Monte la Difensa, the route followed by Col. Don Williamson’s 2nd FSSF Regiment, becomes close to vertical one third the way up. Williamson, a Canadian officer, used the 1st Battalion to lead the way with light, climbing loads while the 2nd Bn. followed with enough food, water and ammunition to hold the position they hoped to seize. The artillery program–925 guns and 22,000 shells, which seemed so impressive to observers –did little damage to the well-fortified defenders. And so the initial success–achieved by climbing the most difficult approach route–soon evaporated. Monte la Difensa was held by a battalion-sized battle group, supported by heavy artillery and the hated Nebelwerfer. Initially, the defenders were cut off and with little hope of withdrawal fought for “six cold bloody days” in a battle of extraordinary ferocity. By Dec. 8, when German resistance ceased, the FSSF had suffered 511 casualties, including 73 dead and 116 hospitalized for battle exhaustion.

The decision to employ the elite FSSF in such an operation meant that the reinforcement question could no longer be avoided. American replacements could be drawn from 5th Army’s pool with FSSF officers combing the ranks for the best men. No Canadian reinforcements were available. Before this issue or the training and integration of replacements could be dealt with, the Corps commander, General Geoffrey Keyes, sent the force back into action at Monte Sammucro. On Christmas Day, the 1st Regt. began a frontal assault on a German position, “encountering strong enemy opposition.” Success was obtained, but at the end of the day the effective strength of the regiment was 14 officers and 217 men, less than half its authorized numbers.

And there was no let up. The War Diary of the First Canadian Special Service Bn. includes the following entries: “Jan. 8: Today’s casualty return…lists 100 names, half of them frostbite and exposure, the rest battle casualties. The weather in the hills is very cold, with high wind and snow. German resistance is quite severe, artillery and mortar fire is taking its toll.

“Jan. 9: Today’s Force casualty return has 122 names, again nearly half are frostbite and exposure. There soon won’t be much left of the force if casualties keep up at this rate.

“Jan. 10: News from the front is bad…. The Force is being thrown into one action after another with only a handful of able-bodied men left and no sign of their being relieved. Seventy-three names on today’s casualty report, 40 frostbitten feet. Those returning to camp on light duty say it is really rugged and they are all played out. Three weeks tomorrow since they left here.”

No one could doubt that the FSSF had met the challenges of combat in the mountains of Italy. Under some of those most difficult conditions of weather and terrain the force had ably assisted 36th Div.’s conquest of the Camino massif. But what was an elite, paratroop trained, lightly armoured, under-strength special service force doing fighting an attritional infantry battle?

Aware of the fact that “less than half of the Canadian contingent” was still on its feet, and that there were no Canadian reinforcements available, the senior Canadian officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gilday, recommended that the Canadian element be withdrawn from the FSSF while there was “still enough of it left to be of assistance to the Canadian Army. This withdrawal should take place immediately before the Force is committed again….”

Gilday feared that the Canadian component would be so diluted that the force’s Can-Am character would disappear as American reinforcements arrived. The problem was that Canadians filled many of the officer and non-commissioned officer ranks in all four combat battalions, and their departure would cripple the command structure. The battalion war diarist summed up the situation in his last entry for 1943: “This ends another year. It has been a very eventful one for the Force which covered a good 20,000 miles during the past 12 months, a long way before getting into real combat and at that finds itself in a definitely secondary theatre being used as glorified infantry and all the special training going by the birds except possibly for mountain climbing. The question that can only be answered in the New Year is ‘Will the Force be permitted to peter out here, which it is doing rapidly, or will it be employed in a new theatre where some of its specialized training can be used to advantage?'”

Before any action to withdraw or reinforce the Canadian contingent could be taken, Clark ordered the force to move to the Anzio bridgehead to defend a 10-kilometre sector along the Mussolini Canal. Employing the FSSF in an assault infantry role in the mountains might be justified, but canal defence on the edge of the Ponline Marshes? For Clark, the force was just another unit that could be used to fill a gap and for the next 98 days the FSSF experimented with aggressive defence, employing fighting patrols and blunting German counter-attacks. The assignment to Anzio saved the force from participation in one of the most difficult and costly battles of the campaign, the failed attempt to cross the Rapido River which cost their comrades in 36th Div. more than 1,500 casualties in less than 48 hours.

A decision to reinforce the Canadian component from volunteers waiting in the Canadian reinforcement camps restored the Can-Am nature of the force in time for the breakout and the advance to Rome in May-June 1944. This time the force fought alongside the 3rd U.S. Infantry Div. and we will return to examine its role in a future article.

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