One of the two Panther turrets that were positioned to protect the Futa Pass. The presence of these weapons inclined the Americans to attack the less well-defended II Giogo Pass. (US National Archives, 195989)
Pantherstellung (Regelbau 687) which shows an unmodified Panther ausf.D turret with original commander’s cupola.
A Pantherstellung (Stahluntersatz) photo which illustrates how the turret was modified by completely removing the commander’s cupola and replacing it with a modified circular hatch (shown here in the open position) with vision block, no doubt reducing the silhouette and producing less of a target.
General Mark Clark’s decision to attack the strongest portion of the Caesar Line not only allowed the Germans to extricate themselves from a possible encirclement, but also meant he unnecessarily weakened his divisions, which made it difficult for them to pursue the enemy north of Rome. This, together with the panoply of lines and defensive positions that the Germans had established between Rome and the Gothic Line, slowed the Allied advance. The Eternal City fell on 5 June but it was not until the end of August that the Allies were in a position to launch an attack against the last bastion before the Alps.
Although it was clear that the Allies would soon launch a new offensive, when it started on the night of 25/26 August it came as a complete surprise to Kesselring and von Vietinghoff, the commander of Tenth Army. They had been considering the possible withdrawal to the Po, Operation Herbstnebel, while the movement of divisions in and out of the line distracted their immediate subordinates. At the same time, divisional commanders were preoccupied with the phased withdrawal of troops from their forward positions into the Green Line proper; the tardy withdrawal in part driven by Hitler’s insistence that no ground should be given up to the enemy. The result was that many of the troops had no time to familiarize themselves with the defences they were supposed to be manning. Not that all the positions were complete; a large number of Panther turrets had still to be installed in the ground and signs were still in place detailing safe lanes through the minefields.
With the Germans taken by surprise, Eighth Army, in the first phase of the battle, smashed through the defences of Green I with unexpected ease. Their advance was also facilitated by the devastating effect of bombing and strafing by the Desert Air Force. When 26th Panzer Division was committed to the battle on 28 August it found that ‘air and artillery bombardment had already obliterated many of the positions they should have occupied’. And minefields that had taken a considerable time to lay were ‘simply lifted from the air’.
The air and artillery bombardment also served to unnerve the enemy. When 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade and their supporting tanks from 21st Tank Brigade launched their attack on Monteluro on 1 September they ‘found the intricate and deep system of trenches, MG posts and anti-tank gun positions abandoned.’ Elsewhere, the enemy was more stubborn and was only dislodged by small unit actions and individual bravery. In fighting on the previous day 46th Division captured Montegridolfo, Mondaino and Pt 374, the highest point along the ridge half way between the two villages. An achievement that was made possible by the ‘brilliantly successful attack of 1st/4th Hampshires in which Lieutenant G.R. Norton won the VC for dealing with three German concrete weapon emplacements.’
Once through Green I the Allies should have been faced with the equally daunting prospect of breaching the defences of Green II, but a lack of time and materials meant that no work had been completed. Nevertheless, it was naturally strong and manned by fresh divisions. Moreover, because no work had been completed the Allies were unaware of its existence and assumed that the Germans would fall back to their next prepared position – the Rimini Line. They were wrong. The Germans fought a vigorous rearguard action that provided valuable time for further work to be completed along the Ausa River.
In the middle of September the Germans began to man the Rimini Line in preparation for the next Allied assault, which began soon thereafter. The defences were again softened up by air attacks from the DAF, but bombing could not always neutralize the enemy defences. On 15 September 1944, 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade supported by tanks of 18th New Zealand Armoured Regiment attacked Miramare airfield, near Rimini, which was protected by two emplaced Panther turrets. One of the turrets sited to cover Route 16 (the coast road) had been destroyed by its crew following an earlier engagement with the New Zealanders, but the other remained intact.
On 17 September the Seaforths of Canada supported by a squadron of 145th Regiment RAC put in an attack on San Martino. The attack started well, but soon six of the supporting tanks were knocked out. These it was believed were the victims of the second Panther turret located at the northern end of the airfield. This was engaged by artillery and ground attack aircraft but neither succeeded in silencing the turret. The only alternative was a direct attack by the tanks of 18th NZ Armoured Regiment. But so complete was the turret’s command of the terrain that it was decided that the best way of silencing the menace was an attack by a single tank. Covered by smoke the tank, commanded by Lieutenant Collins, advanced to within range of the turret and with its fourth shot knocked it out before escaping under another smoke screen. For his bravery in the battle for Rimini airfield Collins was awarded the Military Cross.
In a little under a month Eighth Army had broken through the three main lines in the Apennines and Leese could rightly claim that his men had smashed ‘the powerful Gothic Line defences at very small expense and before the enemy was ready’. Eighth Army now stood on the Plains of Lombardy, but waiting for it was a further series of defensive lines and the autumn rains had come early, which extinguished any lingering hopes of a swift exploitation.
On Fifth Army’s front, General Mark Clark planned to make his main thrust through the Apennines towards Bologna. The most direct route, and the weakest point topographically, was along Route 65 through the Futa Pass. However, the Germans had also recognized the significance of this pass and it had been heavily fortified. Moreover, intelligence intercepts suggested that Hitler had ordered Kesselring to concentrate his troops at this strategically important point. In light of this Clark considered his options. The Il Giogio Pass, some 10km east, was a less promising avenue of attack, but it was neither as heavily fortified nor as heavily defended (only one regiment of 4th Fallschirmjager Division guarded Il Giogio – there were two at the Futa Pass), and it also lay on the boundary between the German Tenth and Fourteenth Armies, and as such was one of the weaker points on the enemy front. A breakthrough here would outflank the defences of the Futa Pass and open up the possibility of exploitation towards Bologna or Imola.
On 12 September Clark launched his attack. The 91st (US) Infantry Division attacked Il Giogio with 85th (US) Infantry in reserve, while the 34th (US) Infantry Division launched a feint against the Futa Pass. Although undoubtedly less challenging than the Futa Pass, the capture of Il Giogio was nevertheless a daunting prospect. It was dominated by the Monticelli Ridge on the left and Monte Altuzzo on the right. These features had been fortified with the addition of concrete shelters or positions blasted into the rock that were almost impossible to identify. The main avenues of advance had also been covered with mines and barbed wire.
As the men of 91st (US) Infantry Division made their way up the slopes of the Monticelli Ridge they were engaged by the enemy firing from pillboxes and bunkers. Where possible these were engaged by anti-tank guns, tanks and tank destroyers, while positions out of range or too strong were targeted by heavy-calibre 8in. guns and 240mm howitzers. But in the final reckoning it was down to the infantry to storm the enemy positions using small arms and grenades and, after a sanguinary struggle, the men of 363rd Infantry Regiment managed to secure part of the ridge by 15 September. With the defenders unable to call up reinforcements from the two regiments guarding the Futa Pass, who were themselves under pressure from the holding attack by 34th (US) Infantry Division, the Monticelli Ridge was captured on 18 September. Initially it was believed that 91st (US) Infantry Division would be able to capture this feature and Monte Altuzzo, but the stiff resistance meant that 85th (US) Infantry Division had to be ordered forward to attack the second feature. After further fierce engagements with the tenacious paratroopers the mountain was taken on the same day. The Americans paid a high price for this small section of the Gothic Line – 2,731 casualties – but the important breakthrough had been achieved. The OKW was acutely aware of this fact and Lemelsen, the commander of Fourteenth Army, ordered 4th Fallschirmjager Division to abandon the Green Line. The formidable defences of the Futa Pass had been outflanked and captured without a fight.