Bridgehead On The Melfa: Army, Part 76

June 1, 2008 by Terry Copp
Major-General Bert Hoffmeister. [PHOTO: LIEUT. STRATHY E.E. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204155]

Major-General Bert Hoffmeister.
PHOTO: LIEUT. STRATHY E.E. SMITH, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA204155

Military historians often distinguish between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war though they frequently disagree on their exact meanings. The term grand strategy is usually reserved for decisions made by Allied leaders like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The grand strategy behind the World War II Italian Campaign in the spring of 1944 was to continue an offensive as a means of diverting enemy resources away from the D-Day beaches and Normandy.

To further this plan General Harold Alexander, the overall Allied commander in Italy, developed a strategy calling for a broad advance towards Rome that would engage the enemy. This was to be followed by a breakout from the Anzio beachhead that was intended to trap the German 10th Army by cutting its escape routes.

Generals Oliver Leese, 8th British Army, and Mark Clark, U.S. 5th Army, developed more detailed operational plans to carry out Alexander’s directive. This involved allocating roles and resources to the corps commanders who would direct the battle at the tactical level. However, the situation was complicated by the personalities and personal ambitions of both Clark and Leese. The American commander had no intention of following Alexander’s orders if it meant denying his 5th Army the glory of liberating Rome. Leese, equally anxious to win laurels for 8th Army and emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, Bernard Montgomery, was no less determined to achieve a rapid advance to Rome.

Canadian troops advance towards Italy’s Melfa River, May 1944. [PHOTO: CAPT. ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA132878]

Canadian troops advance towards Italy’s Melfa River, May 1944.
PHOTO: CAPT. ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA132878

When 1st Canadian Division broke through the Hitler Line on May 23 the task was difficult enough without the complication of an open right flank at Aquino where elements of the elite 1st Parachute Div., supported by artillery firing from the slopes of Mount Cairo, directed intense fire on the Canadians. Aquino and Highway 6, the main road to Rome, were in Gen. S.C. Kirkman’s 13 British Corps section, but Leese wanted to keep the 78th Div. available to support an advance by 6th British Armoured Div. once the German retreat had begun. The heavy casualties suffered by 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on May 23 were largely the result of Leese’s decision to order 78th Div. to stage a diversionary attack on Aquino instead of a full-blooded assault.

Matters were made worse by the plan to allow 13 Corps to use roads in the Canadian sector once a breakthrough had been achieved. As the British official history notes, “this plan for exploitation contained the seeds of trouble.” General E.L.M. Burns, the Canadian Corps commander, knew about these problems. However, there was little he could do on the evening of May 23, a date all Canadians ought to remember with pride. That was when 1st Canadian Div. reported that it had forced a gap in the Hitler Line. What followed was an opportunity to send 5th Canadian Armd. Div. forward to exploit the situation.

If you visit the Liri Valley and explore the area south of Aquino where the breakthrough and breakout occurred, the challenges confronting both Canadian divisions will be readily apparent. The town straddles a creek bed—the Forme d’Aquino—a kilometre south of Highway 6 and three kilometres from the seemingly vertical mass of Mount Cairo. The hole in the Hitler Line that 1st Div. punched through was a kilometre south of the town, and it was within visual as well as artillery range. In 1944, the narrow roads leading to the Melfa River—the initial objective for 5th Armd. Div.—were simply donkey tracks that passed through enclosed fields containing olive groves and vineyards, and located on frequent and deceptive terraces crossed by razor-backed ridges. Cross-country movement was further hampered by gullies and irrigation ditches. Since Highway 6 was reserved to 13 Corps—and 5th Divisions’ own supply route was to be shared—Canadian staff officers were confronted with an almost impossible situation.

The best published accounts of the battle for the Melfa are found in Doug Delaney’s biography of General Bert Hoffmeister, The Soldier’s General, and in Vol. 2, No. 2 of the journal Canadian Military History where the story of the battle, written by Lieutenant E.J. Perkins, DSO, is reproduced. The full text of Perkins’ article can be found at www.canadianmilitaryhistory.com.

Delaney notes that Hoffmeister was at 1st Div. headquarters when Gen. Chris Vokes turned to him and said, “Bert, this is the best we can do. There is not much of a hole, good luck.” Hoffmeister ordered 5th Armd. Bde., Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), 8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars, the British Columbia Dragoons and the Westminster Regiment with the Irish Regt. from 11th Inf. Bde. to secure a crossing of the Melfa six kilometres away.

Hoffmeister, who had no previous experience with armour, left the detailed planning to Brigadier Des Smith. He was convinced that the normal artillery barrage would be useless in this action as the dust and smoke would limit visibility and provide enemy gunners with a target line behind the barrage. Major J.W. Eaton, the brigade major, described Smith’s attempt to introduce an element of clarity into a very opaque situation: “The brigadier studied the map…and decided where—if he were in the enemy’s position—he would place anti-tank guns. These positions he marked along with any features likely to be used as enemy OPs (observation posts) and other possible gun emplacements. These localities, for example, would include the southeasterly fringe of woods facing the direction in which we were coming and points commanding any open ground our tanks must cross. Thus 105 different spots were selected and each of them ringed and numbered.”

Copies of the map were issued to all units allowing fire or smoke to be called down when needed. An air OP squadron was also available to assist the gunners.

Smith divided his brigade into Vokes Force, named for the commanding officer of the British Columbia Dragoons, and Griffin Force, named after the commander of the Strathconas. Vokes Force led off and despite rain, enemy shelling and limited artillery observation, the BCD tanks and Irish Regt. infantry worked smoothly together and secured their objective at 3 p.m. Along the way they met and destroyed the first Panther tank encountered by 8th Army in Italy. The BCD after-action report notes: “This was the first time the regiment had seen action. The men had never been under shell fire, nor had they seen battle casualties. They responded well, and there was a general feeling of ‘let’s get at them’.”

Griffin Force passed through and by late afternoon the Strathcona recce squadron, commanded by Perkins, reached the Melfa at a point one kilometre north of a well-marked and well-defended fiord of the river. This was no accident, Smith and Griffin had selected the route to achieve surprise, now it was up to Perkins and his men to take advantage of the situation. In his account of the battle, Perkins explained that his squadron “consisted of eleven light American General Stuart or Honey tanks. From these the turrets have been removed and…a .50-calibre machine-gun is mounted.” He noted that the vehicle also carried a crew of five and its firepower, besides the .50, includes a pair of Browning machine-guns, a Bren gun, a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank gun) and four Tommy guns. “We also carry prepared charges and grenades.… For the Melfa crossing, six of my tanks were for use by engineers.”

Smith’s decision to send 18 sappers (Royal Canadian Engineers) forward with each armoured regiments’ recce squadron proved to be inspired. They “cleared mines, cut diversions, filled in craters and built bridges—sometimes working without relief for stretches of 36 and 48 hours.”

The sappers with Perkins’ force helped forge a river crossing despite the steep banks. Field engineering included “altering the north bank” with three prepared charges and building a retaining wall. Combat engineers, who often served as integral parts of infantry and armoured units, rarely got the attention they deserved. However, Smith made a point of recognizing their enormous contribution.

Once across the river, Perkins and his men rushed a house and captured eight surprised paratroopers. The paratroopers were described as “big, well-built men” who were “armed to the teeth” but taken by surprise while facing south towards the obvious crossing point. As Perkins organized an all-around defence, A Squadron of the Strathconas arrived on the east bank where it came under fire from enemy self-propelled guns. There was no way the heavier Sherman tanks could cross the river. Therefore, a lot depended on the arrival of the lead Westminster rifle company. However, that unit’s cumbersome, wheeled scout cars ran into trouble when they were forced to leave the road and enter the ditches. It did not reach the crossing until 5 p.m., two hours after Perkins’ first encounter with the enemy.

Major J.K. “John” Mahony then took command, extending the bridgehead and inspiring everyone with his determination. A major counter-attack led by four German tanks was met by concentrated small arms fire and PIAT bombs that fell short of their target. Despite this limited threat the enemy tanks and infantry turned away. They succeeded in overrunning an isolated Westminster platoon, but lost a tank crew to a couple of grenades thrown by Private John Culling. Just before midnight a second Westminster company crossed the river bringing the anti-tank platoon with its six-pounders. The bridgehead was still very small and under heavy shell fire, but it was secure. For their valour and inspiring leadership, Mahony earned the Victoria Cross and Perkins the Distinguished Service Order.

Smith brought the Irish Regt. forward with orders to attack at first light on the 25th. Traffic jams slowed the movement of artillery and anti-tank units, delaying the advance to midday. It was late evening before they reached the river. After getting what sleep they could the battalion deployed, under fire, to attack on a wide front to the south of the Westminster bridgehead.

The Westminsters, “who had a keen personal interest” in the success of the Irish attack, decided to help by destroying an enemy machine-gun post so that when the Irish began its attack the few Germans remaining at the river quickly surrendered. Both battalions, now supported by a squadron of BCDs, moved forward to the lateral road a kilometre beyond the Melfa. The BCD squadron had to deal with long-range, anti-tank fire from 88-mm guns. It lost seven tanks, but it stuck with the infantry and provided the essential covering fire. As the infantry dug in, using a one-pound explosive charge carried with their K-rations, the Germans drenched the area with fire “for seven long hours.” This delayed any further advance and allowed them time to assemble their scattered forces at Ceprano.

Meanwhile, 1st Div. had joined the advance to the Melfa. Early on May 24, the commander of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Adams, led a battle group that consisted of his own regiment, two squadrons of Royal Canadian Dragoons, one squadron of Three Rivers tanks and the Carleton and York Regt.

The RCD “Report on Ops…” recalled that “no one will ever know exactly what happened during the advance or in what sequence.… Time and again the lead cars were ‘left in the blue’…yet all the while, in spite of the confusion, the advance went on.” The RCDs reached the Melfa, close to its junction with the Liri where the far bank is steep and high. On May 25, the Carletons found a crossing and quickly established a bridgehead. Joined by a troop of Three Rivers’ tanks, the Carletons pronounced their position “snug.” But while the Germans were thin on the ground they still had enough mortar, nebelwerfer and artillery fire in range to prevent a further advance. The engineers waited until dark to bridge the river.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and his army commanders were now faced with several unpleasant options, all of them potentially disastrous. The American breakout from Anzio was making good progress and seemed to be directed at Valmontone, a town astride Highway 6. This was the German supply and escape route for their 10th Army. If Valmontone fell only narrow mountain roads would be available to link the 10th and 14th Army fronts. Kesselring decided to send his best reserve unit, the Hermann Göring Panzer Div., to check the American advance. He ordered Germany’s 51st Mountain Corps, situated opposite the Canadians, “to occupy a new line of defence on the northwestern bank of the River Melfa.” No reinforcements were available, but as usual the line was to be held with no withdrawal unless authorized by Kesselring or Hitler. The swift Canadian advance had made these orders meaningless. “The situation,” 51st Mountain Corps reported, “is the result of the sustained artillery bombardment preceding the advance of massed tanks which are followed by the infantry. However brave the troops may be, they are powerless against tanks.” One wonders what Perkins with his six Honey tanks or the Three Rivers troop commander with his four Shermans would make of this explanation for the loss of the Melfa Line.

Kesselring responded to the crisis by issuing a directive that called for the paralysis of the enemy’s offensive spirit “by the infliction of heavy casualties… done by fanatical defence of the designated main defence lines,” including the Melfa. Despite this order the war diary of 51st Mountain Corps notes the decision to withdraw as “the enemy increased the depth of his penetrations over a wide front and the complete collapse of the section could only be prevented by the decision of the corps to withdraw.”

Much of 10th Army was already retreating north, including the artillery. The Germans at the sharp end were now faced with unopposed artillery, air attacks and massed tanks. No less than seven German battalions had been “completely destroyed” since May 23 and there was not much left. The fate of 10th Army now rested in the hands of General Lucian Trustcott’s 6th U.S. Corps which was headed for Valmontone with the aim of closing the main escape route.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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