Kesselring’s Winter Position

The bitter and costly winter campaign to breach the line by which the Germans defended the approaches to Rome. Advance along the central mountain spine being impossible, the Eighth and Fifth Armies’ offensive efforts were confined to short stretches on either coast, on fronts at most twenty miles long. This – and the failure of the British and Americans to co-ordinate their offensives – greatly simplified Kesselring’s strategy, since it allowed him to leave his central sector almost undefended while concentrating his best divisions on the Mediterranean and Adriatic flanks. German troops in Italy, because they had been drawn from OKW’s central mobile reserve, were of high quality and would remain so throughout the Italian war. In October Kesselring deployed the 3rd and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions against the Fifth Army, with the Hermann Goering in reserve, and the 16th and 26th Panzer, 29th Panzergrenadier and 1st Parachute, together with two infantry divisions, on the Adriatic flank. Against these nine divisions the Allies could deploy only nine of their own, of which one alone was armoured; and, although Clark and Montgomery had additional tank resources in independent units, they did not enjoy material superiority, nor could they count on their total command of the air to unseat the Germans from their fortified positions. Airpower has its limitations, which the topography of Italy made all too evident. The Allied air forces posed no threat to the defenders: established on and behind steep, rocky hillsides, they had no need to manoeuvre and required only the barest of essentials to sustain their resistance. Historians might have recalled that Italy had only twice in modern times been overrun in a rapid offensive, first by Charles VIII of France in 1494 and second by Napoleon after Marengo in 1800. In the first case the French had brought a revolutionary weapon, mobile cannon, to the campaign, and in the second they had been confronted by inept and divided opponents. Neither condition obtained in the winter of 1943. The Allies enjoyed at best material parity in a battle with a resolute and skilful enemy who had nothing to lose and much to gain by standing his ground. The effort to make him loosen his grip on the crags and outcrops of the Apennines was to involve the British and Americans in the bitterest and bloodiest of their struggles with the Wehrmacht on any front of the Second World War.

The bloodiness of the Italian fighting was felt all the harder by the Allied Mediterranean Force because, by a chance of assignment, so many of its divisions were drawn from narrowly localised recruiting areas. The US 36th and 45th Divisions were respectively Texas and Oklahoma formations of the National Guard, while the British 56th and 46th Divisions came from London and the North Midlands. The two Indian divisions, 4th and 8th, were raised from the ‘martial race’ minority of the Raj, while the 1st Canadian was formed of volunteers from a dominion which, after the tragedy of a failed raid on Dieppe in August 1942, harboured ill-concealed suspicions about the freedom with which British generals shed its soldiers’ blood. Three other groups of soldiers under Alexander’s command, the 2nd New Zealand Division and the French Moroccan and the Polish II Corps, were renowned for their hardihood; the Poles in particular demonstrated the fiercest determination to pay back the enemy for the sufferings inflicted on their country since 1939. However, in the prevailing circumstances, all three lacked any easy means to make good the losses they suffered at the front. Recognition of the human fragility of the instrument under their command afflicted all the Allied generals throughout the battle for Italy and deeply affected their conduct of it.

Some of the most harassing fighting was to follow immediately on the Salerno success, as the Allies drove forward to attack the Winter Position which Kesselring was busily fortifying between Gaeta and Pescara. Its western end, hinged on the great fortress abbey of Monte Cassino, where Benedict had established the roots of European monasticism in the sixth century, was known as the Gustav Line and was the strongest section of the whole position. Its approaches were strong also and were to cost the Allies heavily in the five offensives they launched between 12 October and 17 January to reach it. From 12 to 15 October the Fifth Army established bridgeheads across the Volturno, just north of Naples. Meanwhile on the Adriatic coast the Eighth Army crossed the river Trigno beyond Termoli, which had been captured on 6 October, and then breasted up to the line of the river Sangro. The Sangro battle (20 November to 2 December) proved particularly difficult. Winter rains turned the river to spate and forced both sides into inactivity during the first week. When Montgomery got his army across he was prevented from exploiting his success by the tenacious German defence of the coastal town of Ortona, where the 1st Canadian Division suffered heavy casualties in house-to-house fighting. Sangro was Montgomery’s last Mediterranean theatre battle before he left to assume command of the Overlord forces.

While the Sangro campaign was in progress, the Fifth Army had been inching forward, through a maze of broken country and enemy demolitions, to the river Garigliano, from which the valley of the Liri led past the Monte Cassino massif towards Rome. The approaches to the Liri were, however, dominated by the peaks of Monte Camino, Rotondo and Sammucro, each of which had to be scaled and conquered in a succession of bitter actions between 29 November and 21 December. Winter snowstorms then imposed a pause until 5 January, when the American and French divisions of the Fifth Army attacked again to reach the Rapido river, which flows into the Liri below the Cassino heights. As a final move in his drive to enter the Liri valley, Clark ordered the 36th (Texas) Division to make an assault crossing of the Rapido, on the seaward side between Cassino and its junction with the Liri, on 20 January 1944.

The American engineer commander responsible for clearing the mines with which the Germans had strewn the battlefield, and in charge of bridging the watercourse once the infantry had crossed in assault boats, warned beforehand that ‘an attack through a muddy valley that was without suitable approach routes and exit roads and that was blocked by organised defences behind an unfordable river [would] create an impossible situation and result in a great loss of life.’ His prediction was gruesomely borne out in practice. The Texans tried for three days to cross the river; some did, but all help failed to reach them, and most of them swam back to the near side. When the operation was abandoned, 1000 were dead, out of an infantry strength of less than 6000. The after-action report of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division which opposed them conveyed no sense of the disaster it had inflicted, merely stating that it had ‘prevented enemy troops crossing’. The repulse of the Texan attack ended all Mark Clark’s hopes for an early breakthrough to Rome up Highway 6, the main north-south route on the Mediterranean coast. He did not despair of capturing Rome quickly, however, for since 3 November a plan, sponsored by Eisenhower, had been afoot to unhinge the Winter Position by an amphibious landing in the Fifth Army’s rear at Anzio, close to Rome. The genesis of the plan was not entirely military; it partook of the politics of the Second Front, in particular the controversial plan to match Overlord in Normandy with another landing (Anvil, later Dragoon) in the south of France. General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, personally regarded Anvil as a wasteful diversion. However, it was his duty to facilitate it, and he recognised that for its support it required the retention by the Central Mediterranean Force of a considerable portion of its landing fleet scheduled to leave Italy for England at the end of 1944, since Anvil could only be launched from northern Italy. Possession of a line running from Pisa to Rimini was regarded as essential for a successful launching of Anvil; to reach it by mid-1944 the Fifth Army would have to get north of Rome quickly; and to advance beyond Rome it would require landing craft to make a descent behind the Winter Position at once – hence Anzio and Operation Shingle.

The logistic calculation was flawless, the operational practice was lamentable. According to Bedell Smith’s plan, sixty Landing Ships Tank (the key amphibious vessel) were detained in the Mediterranean until 15 January, a terminal date later extended to 6 February. On 22 January the US VI Corps, which included a large complement of British troops as well as the American 1st Armoured and 3rd Divisions, commanded by General John P. Lucas, debarked at Anzio thirty miles south of Rome. The landing achieved complete surprise; neither the Abwehr nor Kesselring’s staff had detected any sign of its preparation. Had Lucas risked rushing at Rome the first day, his spearheads would probably have arrived, though they would have soon been crushed; nevertheless he might have ‘staked out claims well inland’, as Montgomery was to try to do in Normandy. In the event he did neither but confined himself to landing large numbers of men and vehicles and securing the perimeter of a tiny bridgehead. He thus achieved the worst of both worlds, exposing his force to risk without imposing any on the enemy. The Germans, rescued from crisis by his inactivity, hastily assembled ‘emergency units’ (Alarmeinheiten) from soldiers returning from leave, and these were rushed to Anzio while formed units were transferred from the north and quiet sectors of the Winter Position. When Lucas tried to move inland on 30 January he found the way barred; and on 15 February the newly formed Fourteenth Army counter-attacked him. This offensive, codenamed Fischgang, was undertaken in great strength on Hitler’s orders as a warning to the Allies that an Anglo-American landing could be thrown into the sea, and as a reassurance to the German people of the fate that awaited the invaders of northern Europe. Fischgang failed; but it left Lucas’s men besieged in squalor and danger. He was relieved on 23 February and his successor, General Lucius Truscott, was left to sustain the defence for the next three months.

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One thought on “Kesselring’s Winter Position

  1. having had 3 uncles in the Canadian 1st Div. and one being killed at Ortona and one wounded I appreciated your presentation

    Like

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