Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944--1945by James Holland
During the Second World War, the campaign in Italy was the most destructive fought in Europe – a long, bitter and highly attritional conflict that raged up the country’s mountainous leg. For frontline troops, casualty rates at Cassino and along the notorious Gothic Line were as high as they had been on the Western Front in the First World War.… See more details below
During the Second World War, the campaign in Italy was the most destructive fought in Europe – a long, bitter and highly attritional conflict that raged up the country’s mountainous leg. For frontline troops, casualty rates at Cassino and along the notorious Gothic Line were as high as they had been on the Western Front in the First World War. There were further similarities too: blasted landscapes, rain and mud, and months on end with the front line barely moving.
And while the Allies and Germans were fighting it out through the mountains, the Italians were engaging in bitter battles too. Partisans were carrying out a crippling resistance campaign against the German troops but also battling the Fascists forces as well in what soon became a bloody civil war. Around them, innocent civilians tried to live through the carnage, terror and anarchy, while in the wake of the Allied advance, horrific numbers of impoverished and starving people were left to pick their way through the ruins of their homes and country. In the German-occupied north, there were more than 700 civilian massacres by German and Fascist troops in retaliation for Partisan activities, while in the south, many found themselves forced into making terrible and heart-rending decisions in order to survive.
Although known as a land of beauty and for the richness of its culture, Italy’s suffering in 1944-1945 is now largely forgotten. This is the first account of the conflict there to tell the story from all sides and to include the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike. Offering extensive original research, it weaves together the drama and tragedy of that terrible year, including new perspectives and material on some of the most debated episodes to have emerged from the Second World War.
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Meet the Author
James Holland was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and studied history at Durham University. A member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides, he also regularly contributes reviews and articles in national newspapers and magazines. He is the author of three previous historical works – Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943; Together We Stand: North Africa 1942-1943 – Turning the Tide in the West; and Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War. His many interviews with veterans of the Second World War are available at the Imperial War Museum. James Holland is married with two children and lives in Wiltshire.
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Read an Excerpt
PART I The Road to Rome
ONEThe Eve of Battle May 1944
There were many nationalities and differing races in the two Allied armies waiting to go into battle. The British and Americans formed the largest contingents, but there were also French, Moroccans, Algerians, Canadians, New Zealanders (whites and Maori), Poles, Nepalese, Indians (all faiths), South Africans (white, Asian, black, Zulus), and in the air forces, Australians, Rhodesians and others beside. Whatever their differing creeds and wide-ranging backgrounds, they all were relieved to see that on this day, the eve of battle, the weather was being kind. Thursday, 11 May 1944, was a glorious day: warm, with blue skies, and, by the afternoon, not a rain cloud in sight, just as it had been for most of the month. By evening, the temperature had dropped somewhat, but it was still warm, with just the faintest trace of a breeze – even near the summit of Monte Cassino, some 1,700 feet above the valley below. In their foxholes, the men of the 45,600-strong II Polish Corps waited, repeatedly checking their weapons; eating a final meal; exchanging anxious glances. The minutes ticked by inexorably slowly. It was quiet up there, too; quieter than it had been for many days. Not a single gun fired. The mountain, it seemed, had been stilled.
It was now three weeks since the Poles had taken over the Monte Cassino sector and since then, almost every minute, both day and night, had been spent preparing for and thinking about the battle ahead. By day, the men had trained; they had held exercises in attacking strongly fortified positions, practising rock climbing and assaulting concrete bunkers. New flamethrowers were also introduced, while each squadron and platoona was given clear and detailed instructions as to what they were supposed to do when the battle began.
By night, the Poles had been even busier. Vast amounts of ammunition and supplies had to be taken up the mountainside, a task that was impossible during daylight when the enemy would easily be able to spot them – secrecy was paramount; so, too, was saving lives for the battle ahead. It was also a task that could only be achieved by the use of pack mules and by the fortitude of the men, for there were just two paths open to them – both old mountain tracks, which for more than six miles could be watched by the enemy. A carefully adhered-to system had been quickly established. Supplies were brought from the rear areas by truck. Under carefully laid smoke screens, they were loaded onto smaller, lighter vehicles, then, as the mountain began to rise, they were transferred onto mules and finally carried by hand and on backs by the men themselves, slogging their way up the two mountain tracks that led to the forward positions. All this was done in the dark, without any lights, and as quietly as possible. Even so, the men were often fired upon. The German gunners around Monte Cassino would lay periodic barrages along various stretches of these mountain paths and despite their best efforts, casualties mounted – casualties II Polish Corps could ill-afford.
Now the waiting was almost over, and as the sun slipped behind the mountains on the far side of the Liri Valley, and darkness descended, the Poles knew that at long last the moment for which they had endured so much in the past four-and-a-half years was almost upon them.
In what had once been a lovely mountain meadow, the men of the 2nd Squadron, 12th Lancers, were now dug in. Part of the Polish Corps’ 3rd Carpathian Division, they were some 600 yards from the crumbled ruins of the monastery, and the ground ahead of them was pockmarked and churned by shell holes, and strewn with twisted bits of metal and remnants of the dead. Not that twenty-seven-year-old Wladek Rubnikowicz had had much chance to examine the area that was to be his part of the battlefield. In an effort to keep their presence a secret, Wladek and his comrades had been forbidden to send out patrols to reconnoitre the area. In fact, since arriving in their positions on the night of 3 May, Wladek had done little but bring up more supplies by night and brace himself for the attack by day.
The Lancers were cavalry, trained to use armoured cars and to operate as a fast-moving reconnaissance unit, but for the battle they had become infantrymen, foot-sloggers like almost every other soldier that had fought across this damnable piece of land for the past four months. The armoured cars now waited for them miles behind the line with the rear echelons. Only once the battle was won, and the men were out of the mountains and into the valleys below, would they get their vehicles back.
For the vast majority of Polish troops now lying in wait on the mountain, their journey there had been long and tortuous – an epic trek that had seen them travel thousands of miles, crossing continents and enduring terrible losses and hardship – and Wladek was no exception. It was a miracle that he was alive at all.
The blitzkrieg that followed the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 had lasted just twenty-eight days and on 29 September, the country was carved in two by the month-old allies, Germany and the Soviet Union. What had been a beacon of democracy was now subjugated under fascism in one half and Stalinist communism in the other. Its cities and towns lay in ruins, while its stunned people wondered how this apocalypse could have happened in such a short space of time.
Wladek, then a cadet with the Polish Army, had been wounded in the shoulder in the final days before the surrender. Left behind in a disused schoolhouse, he was helped by some local girls who tended him and brought him food and water and, once fit enough to walk, he began the long journey back home to Glebokie, a small town in what had been north-east Poland, but which had now been consumed by the Soviet Union.
His older brother had been killed in the fighting, leaving a wife and two small children, while his home town had been devastated by the war. ‘I could see that every thing that made life worthwhile had come to standstill,’ Wladek recalled. Nor could he stay at home. Russian troops were everywhere, arresting Poles in their droves. He eventually managed to get to Warsaw after travelling most of the way by clutching to the buffers of a train in temperatures well below freezing, and despite being arrested at the German – Russian border. Temporarily locked in a barn, he quickly escaped and made his way through the snow into the German-occupied half of Poland.
For a while Wladek worked for the Polish resistance movement, but on a mission back into Russian-occupied Poland, he was arrested at the border once again. This time he did not escape.
For thirteen long months, Wladek was held at Bialystok prison. He was one of fifty-six prisoners crammed into an eight-man cell. Occasionally he would be interrogated and beaten. Eventually he was sentenced to three years in a Siberian labour camp. In June 1941, he and 500 others were loaded onto a goods train, fifty to a wagon, and sent to a labour camp in the Arctic Circle.
Ventilation for the wagon came from a small, barred hole and an opening in the floor used as a toilet. There was not enough air and they all struggled to breathe properly. Each prisoner received 400 grammes of bread and one herring at the start of the journey, but the salty herring made them thirstier. They were eventually given a small cup of water each, which, they were told, had to last until the following day. Dysentery soon gripped many men, and most had fever. A number died, their bodies remaining where they lay amongst the living. ‘Can you imagine?’ says Wladek. ‘We didn’t realise then that of course the Soviets hoped these conditions would kill off many of us on the way.’
The journey lasted two weeks. The further they travelled the more bleak and desolate the surrounding country became. Eventually they halted at a railhead on the Pechora River. Staggering off their wagon, they were herded towards a transit camp before continuing their journey by paddle steamer. This took them a further 700 miles north. They disembarked a week later at Niryan-Mar Gulag, in one of the most northern parts of Russia.
Conditions had been bad at Bialystok, but Niryan-Mar reached new depths of deprivation. The men were housed in large marquee-like summer tents, each sheltering around 180 men, and although they each had a rough wooden bunk to sleep on, there were neither mattresses nor blankets and the prisoners slept fully clothed at all times. They kept their clothes stuffed with cotton wool and although they just about managed to keep warm, they were soon plagued by lice.
Every day the prisoners were put to work at the nearby port on the mouth of the Pechora for twelve-hour days of physically demanding labour, sustained only by meagre rations of water and hard bread. As Wladek says: ‘We worked as slaves.’
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but there was nowhere a prisoner could go even if he did escape: they were miles from anywhere and the surrounding forests and marshes were home to wolves. Even so, Wladek did make one bid for freedom. A Swedish vessel came into port and thinking the crew seemed friendly and sympathetic, he managed to slip away and hide in the hold. He misjudged them, however. Soon discovered, he was handed back to the Soviets. ‘The punishment I received I shall never forget,’ he says; Wladek was beaten to within an inch of his life.
Inevitably, many prisoners succumbed to disease. Illness, however, was no excuse not to work. Despite high fevers and crippling dysentery, prisoners had to keep going, as ‘the alternative to working was death’. Wladek’s malnutrition caused him to start to go blind. His affliction was worse in the evening and to ensure that he did not step out of line and that he made it safely back to camp each night, he depended on others to guide him.
This hell did eventually come to an end, however. Months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he and his fellow prisoners were released and, armed with a free rail pass and some meagre rations, were told to head south. As they did so, Stalin had already begun to renege on his promises and large numbers, Wladek included, were forcibly detained on collective farms. He and several others managed to escape by stealing and pilfering, and, weeks later, they finally reached the Polish camp at Guzar in Uzbekistan, one of the most southerly points in the Soviet Union.
Even before Wladek had left the gulag and set out on the journey that would take him eventually from the Arctic Circle to the edge of Persia, he had been in a weakened physical state – and just a fraction of his normal body weight. Several thousand miles later, having travelled by rail, boat, and on sore and bloody feet, he was seriously ill. Struggling with a high fever, he staggered to the Polish camp’s registration office and was then sent to the first aid station, where he was told he had contracted typhoid.
Meanwhile, General Wladyslaw Anders in the southern Soviet Union, and General Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Free Polish Forces, in London, had been having a difficult time with the Soviet leaders. It had been the Poles’ hope and intention that the reconstituted Polish Army should fight as a whole against Germany on the Eastern Front, which would send out a strong signal to the world about Polish solidarity and their fighting spirit. Stalin, however, who had designs on Poland if and when Germany was beaten, had no intention of allowing this to happen, and so had been making life as difficult as possible, giving the Poles mustering areas and camps in inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union where disease – such as typhoid – was rife, and waylaying potential Polish troops by forcing them to work on collective farms.
Eventually, however, Stalin decided he wanted to free himself of any obligations to arm and provide for the Polish Army, no matter how useful they might one day be. Churchill had let it be known that he wanted Polish forces fighting alongside the Allies in the Middle East, and so under pressure from both Britain and America, Sikorski agreed that Anders’ Polish Army should be evacuated to Persia, from where they would train under British guidance.
Wladek Rubnikowicz was still making his miraculous recovery from typhoid when the first evacuation to Persia was made, but he joined the next one a few months later, only to contract malaria. After a couple of weeks the fever subsided leaving him with recurrences of the disease that would plague him for years to come. Things were looking up, however. He made his way to Iraq, where he joined General Anders’ camp at Quisil Ribat Oasis and where training began in earnest. It was whilst there that Wladek also heard good news about his parents. They too had escaped from the Soviet Union and were at a camp in Iran. He even managed to get leave to see them.
Now with the 12th Polish Lancers of the newly formed II Polish Corps, Wladek moved with his regiment to Kirkuk. With plentiful rations and a moderately balanced diet, he and the rest of his Polish comrades gradually began to build up their strength. ‘We all felt anxious to get to the front,’ he says, ‘and begin fighting for the liberation of Poland. That may sound strange, but it’s true.’
After further training in Palestine, the 12th Lancers, part of the 3rd Carpathian Division, reached Italy in December 1943. Several months were spent carrying out final training and acclimatising, until, in the middle of April, they were moved up to the Cassino front.
In fact, General Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British Eighth Army, under which II Polish Corps served, had visited General Anders on 24 March and proposed that his troops be given the task of taking the Monte Cassino heights and then the hill-top village of Piedimonte, several miles to the west in what would become the fourth battle of Cassino. ‘It was,’ noted Anders, ‘a great moment for me.’2
The Polish commander had suffered as well in the previous years of war. Captured by the Russians in September 1939, Anders had been imprisoned in Lubianka after refusing to join the Red Army. Released after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was given permission to trace and recruit Polish POWs held in the gulags. It was largely thanks to his tireless efforts that he managed to muster some 160,000 men in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan who were then trained to continue the fight for Poland. Now, at Cassino, he had a small corps of two divisions and an armoured brigade made up of 45,626 fighting men. It was an incredible achievement by the dashing and charismatic fifty-two-year-old.
For a few moments only, Anders had considered Leese’s suggestion. He was well aware that Monte Cassino had not been taken in two months of bitter fighting; that it had hitherto eluded the efforts of battle-hardened and highly experienced troops. The task that Leese was putting forward was an awesome proposition for his men in what would be their first battle since the fall of Poland. ‘The stubbornness of the German defence at Cassino and on Monastery Hill was already a byword,’ Anders observed. ‘I realised that the cost in lives must be heavy, but I realised too the importance of the capture of Monte Cassino to the Allied cause, and most of all to that of Poland.’3 And so he accepted.
Now, on the evening of 11 May, the moment had almost arrived. Wladek and his comrades had been thoroughly briefed. The messages of Generals Alexander and Leese to their troops had been translated into Polish and the single sheets of thin paper passed around. So too had Anders’ own message. ‘Soldiers!’ he wrote, ‘The moment for battle has arrived. We have long awaited the moment for revenge and retribution over our hereditary enemy … The task assigned to us will cover with glory the name of the Polish soldier all over the world.’
Wladek and the men of 2nd Squadron, 12th Lancers were as one behind their commander. Certainly, Wladek was scared, but he was excited too. ‘We all wanted to be able to fight for our country,’ he says. ‘All of us, 100 per cent and 100 per cent more, felt a sense of honour at going into battle for Poland.’
It was not only the Poles who felt ready for the coming battle. Operation DIADEM, the codename for the battle for Rome, had been launched by the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Armies in Italy at a commanders’ conference on the last day of February 1944.b Since then, General Alexander, his staff, and commanders had been working flat out, reorganising and training troops, planning and making sure that nothing was left to chance; they were not going to be caught short for want of a horseshoe.
All of the commanders felt tense. For every single one involved, whether at divisional, corps or army level, this was to be the biggest battle of their careers: more men, more guns; more aircraft above them. Each was acutely aware of how much was at stake. Despite the build-up of men and materiel, and despite the improved weather, there was unlikely to be any easy victory. The flooding in the valley had receded but the Liri Valley, only six miles at its widest and just four at the greater part of its length, was narrow for a two-corps assault. The serpentine River Liri was too wide and deep to ford, while numerous other tributaries and water courses cut across the valley and hence the path of the attackers. There were also heavy German defences: concrete dugouts, gun turrets, machine-gun posts, mines and wire. Furthermore, overlooking this softly undulating valley of pasture, cornfields and broken woodland – slow going for wheels and tracks – were the imposing mountain ranges, filled with yet more carefully positioned guns, machine guns and troops. Indeed, the mouth of the Liri Valley, the gateway to Rome, was protected by two superb artillery positions, Monte Cassino to the north, and Monte Maio to the south. In four months of fighting these ‘gate posts’ had not been cleared. Few of the Allied commanders, however, could have felt this pressure more keenly than Lieutenant-General Mark W. Clark, Commander of the US Fifth Army.
The planning for Operation DIADEM largely complete, Clark spent a final few days touring the front, briefing his commanders and inspecting his troops, many of whom would be going into battle for the first time. Earlier that morning of Thursday, 11 May, Clark had inspected also the US 36th Division, pinning a number of medals on the chests of Texans and addressing them briefly. It was the 36th Division who had been involved in the first disastrous attempt to break into the Liri Valley back in January, when they had tried to cross the narrow Rapido River that runs south through the town. Even before that attack, the auspices had not been good. The British 46th Division had already failed to cross the wider River Garigliano further south – an operation designed to help the Texans in their task to cross the Rapido – and had warned the Americans that the ground on the far side of the river was heavily defended. Moreover, they had insufficient river craft with which to do the job. Yet Major-General Walker, 36th Division’s commander, had assured Clark, despite considerable private doubts, that the operation was still achievable. Clark, who had urgently needed to divert German troops away from the Anzio beachheads for the Allied landing that would take place two days later, had consequently given the go-ahead.
In the forty-eight hour operation that followed, some 1,700 men were killed or wounded. Rather like the men on the Somme on 1 July 1916, the Texans had been cut down in swathes. The river had run red with blood; the bodies stacked six high in places. In America, the pressmen had labelled the ‘Bloody Rapido’ the worst disaster since Pearl Harbor.
General Clark had taken his share of the blame, but within a few days it became apparent that the American-led operation at Anzio, Operation SHINGLE, had also fallen short of its aims. Neither the Rapido disaster nor the setback at Anzio had been entirely Clark’s fault and both operations had been executed because of pressure higher up the chain of command. But an army commander lives and dies by his successes, and by the spring of 1944 – on the battlefield at any rate – these had been all too few. Clark was unaware that his position was under threat and that discussions had taken place about whether to remove him, but he nonetheless keenly felt the frustrations of his comparative lack of success.
Mark Clark – or ‘Wayne’ as friends knew him – had just turned forty-eight at the start of May. Standing six foot three inches tall, he was lean and muscular, his hair still dark, and despite a prominently hawkish nose, he was a youthful-looking and handsome three-star general who towered over most of his subordinates and superiors alike. One of the few American commanders who had seen action in the last war, he had led a battalion in France in 1917, until wounded when a shell had exploded nearby. He spent the rest of the war as a captain carrying out staff duties. It was a rank he kept for sixteen years, sitting out the post-war doldrums with mounting impatience.
In 1933 his fortunes had finally begun to change, with promotion followed by time spent at both the US Command and General Staff College and the Army War College, so marking him out for future high command. By the summer of 1937 he had joined the 3rd Division, where he renewed his friendship with his old West Point friend, Dwight D. Eisenhower. By 1940, he was a lieutenant-colonel and was appointed chief of staff to General Lesley McNair, the man commanded to expand, train, and reorganise the US Army ready for war. Clark immediately showed his exceptional aptitude for planning and organisation, demonstrating great resources of energy, intelligence, enthusiasm, and an ability to get things done, and done fast.
Catching the eye of General Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, Clark was sent to Britain in 1942 along with Eisenhower to arrange for the reception and training of American troops and to begin preparations for the invasion of Continental Europe. When immediate Allied plans were redirected towards an invasion of northwest Africa, Eisenhower was made Commander-in-Chief with Clark as his deputy. As head of planning for Operation TORCH, Clark deservedly won a great deal of credit for pulling off what was the largest seaborne invasion the world had ever known. It was also no small thanks to Clark and his pre-invasion discussions with Vichy French commanders that the resulting landing was a comparative walkover.
But however much Clark had proved himself as a planner and diplomat, he desperately wanted the chance for operational command but, as Eisenhower’s official deputy, he knew he was in danger of spending the rest of the war as a desk man. Consequently, he began to badger his chief for his own command until he was eventually appointed commander of the newly created US Fifth Army, the first American army headquarters to be formed overseas. Although for the first few months it was little more than a training organisation, it was then that he began to develop a deep affection for Fifth Army, a force that he nurtured and considered his own. Together, he believed, they were destined to achieve great victories.
Not until the invasion of Italy was Clark finally given the chance he so craved, of leading his men in battle. Given the task of planning the main Allied landings at Salerno, VI Corps from his Fifth Army duly landed on 9 September 1943. It was almost a massive failure. Heavily contested by Kesselring’s AOK 10, it had been a far more bitter fight than either the North African or Sicily landings. Clark, however, had showed resolve and courage, quickly getting himself onto the beachhead and taking firm and decisive command. At one point, during the second and most threatening German counterattack, he took personal charge of an anti-tank unit and turned back eighteen German tanks at almost point-blank range. The Allies regained their footing, a bridgehead was firmly established, and as Axis forces withdrew north towards the defences of the Gustav Line, Clark and his Fifth Army quickly took Naples, a key port on the route to Rome.
Despite this success, however, Clark suffered the mutterings of some. At the height of Salerno, with defeat a distinct possibility, Clark realised he had made no provision for an evacuation should the worst occur. Quickly trying to rectify this, he ordered his staff to make the necessary plans for a withdrawal. Although purely a contingency plan, news of these orders spread; to some, this was not seen as Clark’s pragmatism shining through, but rather a sign that he had momentarily lost his nerve.
In fact, at Salerno and in the fighting in Italy since the Allied invasion, Clark had proved himself an extremely able battlefield commander. He possessed a thorough understanding of modern all-arms tactics, an ability to grasp and see the bigger strategic overview, and was not afraid of taking difficult decisions or the rap if things did not go according to plan. However, many found him overly blunt, arrogant even; he could be prickly – and brusque and heavy handed with his subordinates. He was the boss – and no one was allowed to forget it. If that made him unpopular to some, well to hell with it; winning battles and the war was what counted, not worrying about telling people some harsh home truths. Again, in many respects, there was nothing wrong with this approach, but unfortunately Clark also suffered from a deep-rooted hang-up that many of his fellow commanders, whether Alexander or Leese, or the British corps commanders attached to his Fifth Army, had considerably more battlefield experience than he and he suspected that they looked down on him because of this. There is no evidence that anyone regarded this as a defect at all, but it niggled him considerably and made him far too quick to see the decisions of Alexander and others as an attempt to undermine him, his authority, and to belittle the efforts of his Fifth Army.
Just six days earlier, on 5 May, this paranoia had come to the fore when Alexander made a visit to the Anzio bridgehead, from where the US-led VI Corps was to make its break-out once the southern front had been sufficiently broken in the forthcoming battle. There, Alexander had spoken with Major-General Lucian Truscott, the VI Corps commander. After hearing Truscott’s plans, Alexander suggested he should be concentrating on only one course of action, namely to spearhead north-eastwards towards Cisterna, Cori and Valmontone, as had been previously agreed with Clark and all concerned. Truscott then informed Clark of this conversation. Outraged, Clark rang Alexander’s headquarters and demanded to speak with the British commander. ‘I told Alexander,’ Clark wrote in his diary, ‘that I resented deeply his issuing any instructions to my subordinates.’ Alexander, by now used to Clark’s occasional fits of over-sensitiveness, assured him he had not intended to undermine his authority in any way, and that he had merely made the point lightly in the course of his conversation with Truscott, gently reminding Clark that he was only telling Truscott what had already been agreed. It seemed to be what the American wanted to hear. ‘This is a small matter,’ Clark noted later, his honour sated and his feathers smoothed once more, ‘but it is well that I let him know now, as I have in the past, that he will deal directly with me and never with a subordinate.’4
However, on the eve of battle – 11 May – that day of days, Clark was playing the part of army commander perfectly. It is typical of him that he should have chosen that morning to address the men of the 36th Texas Division – the men who blamed him above all for the Bloody Rapido – looking them in the eye and stirring them for the battle to come, a battle in which yet more of them would lose their lives.
News that the offensive would at last begin that night was given out to men along the line throughout the day, in the form of thin paper fliers. In the case of those in Eighth Army, one was from General Alexander and the other from General Leese. Then, in the afternoon, battalion commanders gathered their officers around them and gave them a general as well as a more specific brief. The 19th Indian Brigade, for example, part of 8th Indian Division, had a key role that opening night of the battle. ‘Tonight,’ the Brigade Commander, Major Parker, told his officers, ‘we’re attacking the Gustav Line across the River Rapido here. We’ll have the Poles and 4th Division on our right and French troops on our left. The Fifth Army are making a push at the same time. This is the first blow of the Second Front. It will be closely followed by the invasion of Western Europe and a general attack by the Russians in the south-east.’
The attack, Major Parker continued, would begin with a massive barrage at 11 p.m. using just under 1,700 guns – almost double what had been used at the Battle of Alamein in November 1942. To begin with, the fire would be counter-battery, that is, falling behind the German forward positions in an effort to hit the enemy’s own artillery. Then it would be directed against targets on the front. After this opening barrage, the infantry would begin their attack. In their own sector along the Liri Valley, the division would make their assault alongside the 4th Division, crossing the River Garigliano under cover of continued artillery fire, while the Poles assaulted Cassino and the Goums and part of the French Expeditionary Force attacked the Aurunci Mountains on their left, ‘with instructions to cut off the heads of every German they meet’. Furthest to the south, along the Minturno Ridge that runs to the sea, the US II Corps would attack with the new boys, the 85th and 88th Infantry Divisions.
The task of 19th Infantry Brigade was twofold. The Indian battalions were to get themselves across the river, whilst the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were to invade what was known as the ‘Liri Appendix’, a narrow finger of land between where the Garigliano turned sharply and ran parallel to the River Liri before actually joining it. From the moment the barrage began, the Appendix would be covered by machine-gun fire to keep the Germans’ heads down. ‘So if you hear close machine-gun fire,’ the Brigade Major told them, ‘you’ll know it’ll be our fellows pumping lead into this Appendix.’ The barrage would not finish until 4 a.m., and would then be followed by wave after wave of Allied bombers and fighter planes – ‘as many as we’ll want’.
Having given his brief outline, Major Parker paused, folded away his map, then smiled dryly at his men. ‘We hope,’ he told them, ‘this will do the trick.’5
Although any infantry heading into battle obviously faced extreme danger, amongst those men most at risk were the junior officers. American Lieutenant Bob Wiggans was a platoon commander with Company D of the 1st Battalion, 338th Infantry Regiment – part of the 85th ‘Custer’ Division.c The 85th had reached Italy less than seven weeks before, sailing into Naples under the smoke and pall of the still-erupting Mount Vesuvius, and had only been sent up to the front in the middle of April. The entire division, along with the also newly arrived 88th Division, were the first American all-draftee divisions to go into combat. Bearing the brunt of the Americans’ initial assault in the coming battle, their performance would be the first proper test of the US Army’s wartime training and replacement system – a system that had been set up in some part by General Mark Clark.
A twenty-six-year-old farmer from upstate New York, Bob Wiggans had undergone reserve officer infantry training whilst at Cornell University – an activity that was compulsory for all male students – and so when he was given his draft notice just a couple of weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, he was immediately sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to join the cadre that would help form and train the brand-new 85th Infantry Division.
Bob regarded 7 December 1941 as one of the saddest days of his life. The war would not only take him away from the farm he had bought less than a year before, but also from Dot, his wife of five months. Leaving home was a terrible wrench, but he believed that the United States was doing the right thing, and that Nazism had to be defeated.
In the two years in which Bob had served with the 85th, it had grown from nothing to a fully-formed and trained combat division. However, the division showed its inexperience during its first few days on the Cassino front, when it took over positions from the British in the rubble and remains of the town of Minturno, the most westerly point of the front line. Most of the 85th’s men found the whole experience of being on the battlefield and close to the enemy and of coming under shellfire deeply unsettling. Bob had been called out one night offering to help 3rd Platoon who were convinced there were Germans crawling around in the rubble above them. It turned out the ‘enemy’ were just rats scurrying about. Bob had found that hurtling through the ruined town in his jeep, distributing mail, ammunition and supplies, was enough to get his heart racing. ‘These night missions were harrowing enough with the interdictory artillery fire,’ he noted, ‘but the awful smell of decaying flesh from under the rubble made it infinitely worse.’6
That the ‘Custermen’ were a little jumpy is no wonder: all the draftees, officers and enlisted men were entirely new to war, with no battlefield experience to draw upon. And like the Poles and so many of the assaulting troops, their first battle would be one of the biggest their countries had ever taken part in. d
That afternoon, back in his caravan at Fifth Army headquarters, General Clark dictated a message of best wishes to his fellow army commander, General Sir Oliver Leese – happy, on this occasion, to observe inter-army protocol. The British commander promptly replied in kind. ‘We all in Eighth Army,’ wrote Leese, ‘send your Fifth Army our cordial good wishes and look confidently forward to advancing shoulder to shoulder together.’7
Leese was impatient for the battle to begin, and though apprehensive was quietly confident. ‘Ultra’ intercepts of German Enigma codes passed on by the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, suggested that the Allies’ elaborate deception plans had worked and that the Germans were not expecting a major attack until the following month. Leese had more than a quarter of a million men under his command – ‘an immense army’ – all of whom were fully trained and briefed. Ammunition and petrol were ready in dumps at the front line. Everyone was agreed on the battle plan, and from his manic tours around the front, Leese believed his troops to be in good heart. ‘It has been a vast endeavour and it will be a huge battle,’ he wrote. ‘All we want is fine weather and a bit of luck.’8
As the evening shadows lengthened, infantrymen along the front furtively began moving up to their start lines and forming-up positions. In the Liri Valley, men uncovered assault boats; bridging parties moved trucks of Bailey bridge sections forward, while other sappers reeled out long lines of white marker tape to later guide the troops in the dark towards specific river crossing points.
Dusk soon gave way to the darkness of night, and the first desultory shelling of Cassino began just as it had every night for weeks since the end of the third battle of Cassino in March. Partly as cover, and partly to give the impression that this was just like any other evening along the front, the shelling gradually died out, so that at ten o’clock, when General Leese sat down to write to his wife, Margie, the front seemed eerily quiet.
‘In sixty minutes,’ he scrawled on the thick blue writing paper Margie Leese had sent out to him, ‘hell will be let loose, the whole way from Monte Cairo to the sea. At 11 p.m. on 11 May, 2,000 guns will burst forth.’e It had, he added, been a lovely day, and it was now a glorious night.
A huge weight of responsibility rested on Leese’s shoulders and those of his fellow commanders, not only for the men under their command but also because there was so much at stake with this, the biggest battle the Western Allies had yet attempted in the war. A sweeping, crushing victory promised untold riches, yet defeat would not only be a blow to Allied chances of success in launching an invasion of northern France, but it would also wreck the future of the Italian campaign and with it British credibility in particular. No wonder General Leese was counting down the minutes.
ITALY’S SORROW. Copyright © 2008 by James Holland. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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