the 10th Mountain Division, US Army, in Italy 1944 - 1945, WW2
This is a presentation delivered to a monthly meeting of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association (HBSA) in London, UK.
HISTORICAL BREECHLOADING SMALLARMS ASSOCIATIONTHE 10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISIONPART 2THE 10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION IN ITALY, 1944-1945Brian KealyLecture at the Imperial War Museum, LondonMarch 2011Images reproduced with kind permission of 10th mountain Association and Denver PublicLibrary, Historical Archive Section.
This presentation should be read in conjunction with my previous talk, which is anIntroduction to the 10th Mountain Division in Italy.This presentation will deal with the 10ths’ deployment in Italy, and is a brief pocket Historyof their movements. Formed from skiers and Mountaineers, it is interesting how their skillswere utilized.General Mark Clark, 15th Army Group commander, had lost many of his first-line units tothe invasion of France and was desperate for any combat troops on which he could lay hishands. The fact that the 10th was specifically trained for mountain warfare filled his billexactly, for the Allies in Italy were stalemated in the northern Apennine mountains. Themen of the 10th, too, were elated. At last all their years of hard training were about to payoff. At last they would be doing their duty and contributing to the war effort. The prospectof death or injury did not worry them. As one trooper told me later, "we were young andstupid."
A few words are in order here to properly set the stage for the battle for Italy. Italy hadbeen a place of high hopes and bitter disappointment for the Allies. It was thought by thehigh command that, since the Allies had fought Rommels Afrika Korps across northernAfrica and defeated it, then leapfrogged to Sicily, the next logical move was to cross theStraits of Messina and roll the German and Italian armies up the entire length of thepeninsula. Apparently, the Allies had forgotten the words of Napoleon who, more than acentury earlier, had declared that Italy is like a boot; it is much easier to enter it from thetop. While there were several alternative proposals that were considered, Italy keptcropping up as the best of a number of bad choices.
The main hope was that the Italians had lost the stomach for war, especially on theirhomeland, and that they would probably capitulate, leaving Hitler with a decision to eitherpull back to the Alps, or garrison the entire country and fight for every inch of Italian soil.With the Russians hitting the Germans hard on the Eastern front, and with an invasion fromEngland expected at any time, it seemed beyond all logic that Hitler would order his troopsto stand and fight.But, instead of rushing to the safety of the Alps, the Germans chose to fight on in Italywithout their one-time Fascist partners.
In September of 1943, the British landed easily on the toe and heel of Italy, but theAmericans, landing at Salerno, south of Naples, were nearly pushed into the sea, so fiercewas the German opposition. But the Allies hung on and began clawing their waynorthward, faced with 600 miles of mountains that turned every hill into a fortress.
The Germans, under their brilliant commander, Field Marschal Albert Kesselring, haddevised a series of formidable defensive lines, shown here in red, that in most placesstretched the width of the country. When forced from one line, the Germans simplyretreated to the next line of fortifications, pillboxes, and bunkers.
From these positions, a handful of German defenders could hold off entire divisions simplyby blowing a key bridge or by holding the high ground over an important road. Adding tothe Allies problems was the fact that many combat units had been shipped to England toprepare for the Normandy Invasion.
After much hard fighting on the ground, the Allies attempted an end run up the coast toAnzio, just 36 miles from Rome, and this too almost met with disaster. Withoutoverwhelming numbers, the Allies moved slowly and cautiously, allowing the Germans timeto regroup and respond. Again, and with heavy casualties, the Americans and Britishmanaged to resist Kesselrings efforts to drive them back into the sea.
Finally, on June 4, 1944, the weary Allies liberated Rome and the Germans retreated totheir defences in the north. Here we see General Mark Clark touring the Imperial City. Itwas a major, hard-won victory that should have been better celebrated and savoured, buttwo days later, the Normandy Invasion grabbed the headlines, and the war of attrition inItaly ceased being news. Even today, most books and documentaries about the war inItaly end with the liberation of Rome, as if the eleven months of terrible sacrifice and bloodyfighting still to come in Italy somehow didnt count. As the Allies pushed inland from theNormandy beaches and dashed toward Germany, Italy quickly became the forgotten front.
To the wet, miserable, forgotten Allied soldier slogging through knee-deep mud that suckedthe boots off his feet, while being sniped at or shelled or trying to scale impossible heightsto root out a determined enemy, this rosy picture of peace in Italy was the furthest thingfrom the truth.
It seemed that no matter how many mountains the Allies might conquer, there were alwayshundreds more, stretching as far as the eye could see, each one held by a tenacious,fanatical enemy.
On August 15, 1944, Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, was launched,taking even more troops, supplies, equipment, ammunition, and attention away from Italy.The chance of getting anything more with which to fight the war was almost zero. The U.S.5th and the British 8th Armies would just have to do the best they could with what they had.
Throughout the cold, wet Autumn and winter of 1944, the Allies fought as hard as humanlypossible against the Germans, who were by now firmly established in the Gothic Line...thelast line of major fortifications in the northern Apennines that guarded the approaches tothe important Po River valley.
Only with great effort and the expenditure of a great many men in the Autumn of 1944 didthe Allies manage to evict the German defenders from most of the Gothic Line. Despitetheir heroic sacrifices, the Allies were unable to completely rout the Germans, and so, asthe miserable winter weather settled in, both sides, like weary prize-fighters who were tooexhausted to deliver the knock-out blow, were content to remain in position and await thearrival of spring...and, hopefully, reinforcements that might turn the tide in their favour.This, then, was the situation in Italy when the 10th Mountain Division landed in Naples inJanuary of 1945.
Naples itself was a disaster area, with capsized ships clogging its once beautiful harbour.Many of the disembarking mountain troops were disappointed that they were not greetedas liberators. They were merely ignored by the war-weary Neapolitans, who had seenmany armies come and go.
The division was moved northward to a staging area near Pisa, then into the line north ofFlorence, between the all-black 92nd Division (this was at a time when the army was stillsegregated) and the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. I should mention at this point that theAllied forces the Italian theatre consisted of a real mix of nationalities. Besides Americanand British troops, there were units from Brazil, France, French Morocco, Algeria, India,Greece, Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Rhodesia, and Canada. There was the442nd Regimental Combat Team made up of Japanese-Americans...the most decoratedAmerican unit of the war, along with the Jewish Hebron Brigade, as well as Italian forcesthat had gone over to the Allied side. It was the largest multi-national coalition ever formedto participate in a single theatre of combat, and its supply and communications problemswere enormous.
After its arrival on the front lines, the 10th began probing the front with patrols, and trainingfor offensive action.Except for sporadic shelling by both sides, the front was relatively quiet.
But something big was in the works...another offensive against the Monte Belvedere-MonteDella Torraccia hill mass, a few miles in front of the 10ths positions. This objective hadresisted Allied attempts to seize it the previous autumn. No one was really expecting theinexperienced 10th Mountain Division to do any better than those divisions that had alreadythrown themselves at Belvedere and failed
But by studying maps and reconnoitring the terrain, the 10ths officers saw that the key totaking Belvedere was Monte Della Riva, better known as Riva Ridge, a connected series ofpeaks to the west of Belvedere. Riva Ridge was in German hands, and observers therecould spot any movement toward Belvedere and send artillery fire crashing down upon it.So a plan was devised to attack Riva Ridge in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter,without any sort of preliminary bombardment that would give away the fact that an attackwas coming. Most of the 86th Regiment was picked for the job. For weeks, experiencedmountaineers secretly probed Riva Ridges walls that loomed from 1500 to 2300 feetabove the valley floor to find routes to the top.
On the night of February 17th, the division was silently and secretly moved into tiny villagesat the foot of Riva Ridge and Belvedere to await the attack.
The next night, the 18th, the Riva Ridge assault force moved out of their hiding places andbegan the long climb up the treacherous cliffs. One false move could mean a soldier fallingto his death, and one unexpected noise could alert the enemy and bring death for all.Somehow, after their all-night climb, some 1000 men of the 86th Regiment made it to thetop and, as dawn broke, gave the Germans the biggest surprise of their lives. For the mostpart, all objectives on Riva Ridge were taken by late morning.
Meanwhile, below Belvedere, the rest of the men prepared for their baptism of fire. Everyrat-infested building in the villages was filled with 10th men. At 11 p.m. on February 20, thedivision began moving up the gently sloping south side of Belvedere.
As the mountaineers came within range, the Germans opened up on them with everythingthey had. Fighting their way through barbed wire entanglements, minefields, mortar andartillery bursts, and a deadly curtain of lead, the mountain troops came on.
Men on Belvedere were spun down by the impact of bullets slamming into their flesh, slicedopen by jagged shards of shrapnel, catapulted into the air by the force of explosions, andatomized by direct bursts from artillery and mortars. Yet the small clumps of infantrymoving forward and upward did not waver. They were filled with fear, but they did not runaway, as ordinary people would. Perhaps it was the months and years of training for justthis moment that kept them going. Perhaps it was the fear of shame at fleeing in the faceof undeniable terror and leaving ones buddy to face the horror alone. Or perhaps it was asense of duty. Whatever it was, it kept the men -- many of them still teenagers -- movingup the mountain against an incredible amount of deadly metal being hurled at them by theenemy.
In some places on Belvedere and Torraccia, the battle was over quickly as Germanssurrendered. In other places, the fighting lasted for days. But by February 25th, the entiregroup of peaks from Riva Ridge to Monte Della Torraccia, was in Allied hands.
In the battle for Riva Ridge and the Belvedere hill mass, the 10th had lost 203 men killed,686 wounded, and 12 missing. They captured over 400 of the enemy and left hundredsmore dead on the slopes. The German high command reacted with alarm at thisunexpected turn of events, while the Allied commanders were elated at the success of thepreviously untried 10th Mountain Division, and began planning for a follow-up operation.
On March 3rd, the 10th spearheaded what was termed a limited offensive to exploit thesudden breach that had been made in the German lines. With the Brazilians now on theirleft, the 10th was directed toward the small but important road-junction town of Vergato.Before Vergato, however, another line of hills and mountains, each held by an entrenchedenemy, needed to be taken.After a 30-minute artillery barrage, the 10th moved out, climbing hills and routing theenemy, who fought back savagely but without success.
One of the 10ths units entered the village of Iola. Two enemy soldiers emerged from ahouse and were immediately gunned down by the Americans. When they searched thebodies later, the GIs discovered that the dead Germans were actually two Italian womenwhom the Nazis had dressed in German uniforms and then pushed out into the street todraw American fire.
As March 3rd came to a close, the Division had advanced more than 4000 yards and hadtaken over 300 stunned prisoners who had no idea what had hit them. But the drive wasnot yet over.
Here, members of the 86th Regiment are moving down a road after taking the town ofSassomolare, a place of terrible fighting. A former lieutenant told me that there was somuch shrapnel flying through the air at Sassomolare, you could hold up your bayonet andget it sharpened.
The division continued its push, overrunning German positions and bagging Germanprisoners by the hundreds. One of the most brutal actions in a day filled with brutal actionswas the battle for the picturesque town of Castel dAiano.
One of the major battles on March 4 involved the taking of a mountain known as MonteDella Spe. The 1st Battalion of the 85th took the mountain.Germans committed their major reserve, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, to the battlebut, after four German counterattacks, the mountain was still in American hands.
Sgt. Werner von Trapp, of the famous Trapp Family Singers...yes, of “The Sound of Music”fame,..was a member of the 10th Mountain Division and was in a forward position on DellaSpe. Von Trapp could hear the enemy, just yards away, planning its assault. With Sgt.von Trapp translating the German commands, his company shifted positions each time tomeet the Germans head on and stymie all 8 counterattacks.Von Trapp Family Singers
On March 6, General Lucien Truscott, who had taken over command of 5th Army whenMark Clark was moved up to be 15th Army Group Commander the previous Autumn, calleda halt to the limited offensive, which had achieved its objectives.The Allies were now in charge of a 6-mile front that commanded Highway 64, and wereready to move out of the mountains down into the Po Valley and drive toward the key cityof Bologna. But the limited offensive had not been achieved without a heavy price.
During just four days of savage fighting, the 10th had lost 175 killed, 736 wounded, and 47missing.On March 9th, Hitler ordered Kesselring to take command of the crumbling Western Fronton Germanys border and installed Kesselrings deputy, Heinrich von Vietinghoff, ascommander of all German armies in Italy.
Spring came to the Apennines but the war went on. A massive spring offensive, code-named Operation Craftsman, would involve every Allied combat unit in northern Italy, everypiece of artillery, all tactical aircraft, and some 50,000 partisans, ...such as these Italianmountain troops, who would wage guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. The British 8thArmys role in Operation Craftsman would start on April 9th, while the U.S. 5th Army was tobegin its actions on April 12. But bad weather grounded Allied planes and the 5th Armysattack was postponed for a day.
On April 13th, it was learned that President Roosevelt had died. That news, plus thecontinuing bad weather, and the fact that it was Friday the 13th, made many troopers gladthe attack was put off for another 24 hours.
On the 14th, the battle commenced with hundreds of thousands of men, and thousands oftanks, artillery pieces, and aircraft hammering Nazi positions in the last line of hills beforethe Po Valley. The men of the 10th moved forward into what would be the bloodiest day oftheir combat history. Men were going down everywhere, yet more came on to blast theenemy out of their strongholds.
On April 14th, a day of incredible courage and carnage, of horror and heroism, a youngprivate from Connecticut became the 10ths only Medal of Honour recipient. John Magrathset out with a small recon party that was soon pinned down by machinegun fire. Instead offlopping to the ground, Magrath charged the enemy position, killed one German and forcedhis comrade to surrender. Five more of the enemy emerged from their foxholes, firing atMagrath. He grabbed the enemys machinegun and cut them down. He saw anotherenemy position, moved forward, and wiped it out. Later that day, he was killed instantly bya mortar burst.
As you may be aware, ex-Senator Bob Dole, and former presidential candidate, alsoserved with the 10th and was seriously wounded. It happened on April 14th, when 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Bob Dole, a platoon leader, was leading a patrol to capture a prisoner.The patrol came under enemy fire. A machine gun, protected by a minefield, blocked Lt.Dole and his men. Taking the lead, Dole was hit by machine gun fire, and the two menwith him were killed. Doles injuries resulted in the nearly total loss of his right arm, and helay near death for many weeks. He spent nearly three years in Army hospitals.
During the hard fighting on April 14th, the division had taken all its objectives, capturedmany prisoners, and had driven a wedge between two German divisions. As the Americanand German units settled into defensive positions for the night, another strange event tookplace that poignantly illustrates the futility of war.
One of the 10th Mountain men carried a guitar with him and another had a violin. Theyaccompanied the GIs as they sang into the night, and when they sang "Lili Marlene," theGermans on the other side of the hill sang along with them. Then the Germans would singa song and the guitar and violin would try to accompany them. Then the next morning, thetwo sides got up and started killing each other again.
The next day, the 10th continued its push in a north-easterly direction, where still moremountains and hills -- and thousands of heavily armed Germans -- awaited them. Eachmountain and hill represented a German strongpoint and, at each mountain and hill, more10th Mountain soldiers gave their lives or were grievously wounded. On April 19th, theDivision was at the edge of the mountains overlooking the Po Valley. It had taken all itsobjectives, yet the price of Italian real estate that week had been horrendously high.Nearly 1300 men of the 10th had been killed, wounded, or were missing in action.
On April 20th, Hitlers 56th birthday, the 10th Mountain Division and the 85th InfantryDivision became the first American units to break out of the Apennines and move down intothe Lombardy plain.
With the 1st Armored Division now on its left flank, and the divisions of II Corps on its right,the 10th prepared to assault German positions to the west of Bologna. With the 10thMountain and 85th Divisions in the lead, the Allies punched through the collapsing Germandefences.
At this time, somebody had the less-than-brilliant idea of staging the U.S. Armys finalhorse-mounted cavalry charge.
Thinking the Germans were in full retreat, the 176 men of the 10th Recon Squadroncharged on horseback into a peach orchard at the edge of the valley. But instead of aglorious charge into history, the men and horses of the 10th Recon were mowed down byGerman machine guns and artillery in a senseless slaughter. But despite the setback tothe 10th Recon, the rest of the division was rolling and there was very little the Germanscould do to stop the mountaineers advance toward the Po.
The Po Valley is a broad, fertile, agricultural plain that also is home to some of Italys mostimportant industrial and cultural cities...Turin, Cremona, Milan, Bologna, and more. 15% ofGermanys total war production, and much of its food, came from this region. The fleeingGermans knew that, if they were able to cross the broad Po and the many other riverswithin the valley, and blow the bridges behind them, they might have a chance tooutdistance their pursuers and reach the safety of the Alps. This was something the Alliesclearly wanted to forestall.
The 10th moved quickly through the towns and villages of the valley. In many cases, the10th would be entering the south side of a village as the Germans were exiting the northside.
Gen. Mark Clark was pleased with the 10ths progress, but wanted the division to slowdown so other divisions could move up and take over the spearhead. Gen. Hays thankedGen. Clark, but he had no intention of allowing any other division to pass through the 10thand take over the lead. So Hays formed Task Force Duff, under Gen. Robinson Duff, theassistant division commander, gave this force all the trucks and vehicles he had, and sentit racing thru the dusty towns.
On the evening of April 22nd, Task Force Duff reached San Benedetto Po, a small town onthe southern bank of the Po River, where the bridge had already been destroyed by theGermans. But Gen. Duff was no longer with the task force; a few hours earlier, he hadbeen wounded in the stomach.
All along the banks of the Po, destroyed German equipment and the charred remains ofGerman soldiers lined the river, victims of the Allied air assault. But the bridges had beenblown ...and the 10th found itself with no way to cross the 300-yard-wide river. All theassault boats were with the 88th division, because 5th Army had expected them to passthrough the 10th and reach the river first.
Boats were moved forward quickly and the next morning, April 23rd, the 10th MountainDivision became the first American unit to cross the river. The Germans, of course, shelledthe amphibious mountaineers, but luckily their aim was off and casualties were light.George Hurt, who would later develop and own the Hidden Valley ski area in Colorado,was credited with being the first American across the Po, and the crossing itself was hailedas being as significant as the U.S. Armys crossing of the Rhine at Remagen in Germany.
The next day, the ingenious engineers built a pontoon bridge across the river, enabling therest of the division, along with other Allied units behind them, to cross.
Once across the Po, the 10th was ordered to bypass Mantua, help the 85th and 88thDivisions take Verona, then continue north toward Lake Garda in an effort to cut off theGermans heading for the Alps.
About this time, one of Americas best-known soldiers joined the 10th. Col. William Darby,who had formed the Rangers, one of Americas most famous elite units, became asst. div.commander, replacing the wounded Gen. Duff. Bill Darby was no stranger to Italy; he andhis Rangers had landed at Salerno, helped the Allies drive on Naples, landed again atAnzio and were cut to pieces in the brutal fight to move inland and take Cisterna. Withmost of his Rangers dead or captured, Darby was given command of a regiment of the45th Division and helped hold off major German counterattacks at Anzio. Then, becausehe was a true hero the War Dept. didnt want to lose, he was sent back to a desk job inWashington. But he hated it and asked to be reassigned to a combat unit. When Gen.Duff was wounded, Darby got the job. His first role was to take over the task force, whichwas renamed TF Darby. With Darby in the lead, the rest of the division was hard-pressedto keep up.
At this point, April 28th, the 10th had reached the southern shores of Lake Garda, Italyslargest lake ... hard on the heels of the battered but still formidable German 14th PanzerCorps.
Lake Gardas sublime beauty was the inspriation for poets such as Shelley and Goethe,and its tranquility was legendary. However, at the end of April, 1945, it was anything buttranquil, for along its shores the battle for Italy was about to play out its final, and mostdesperate act.
On the eastern shore of the lake, sheer cliffs rise from the waters edge, and a highwaypasses through a series of six tunnels. At the northern end of the lake sit the towns ofRiva, Torbole, and Nago.
The Germans had occupied these three towns and, and with their backs literally againstthe wall, were determined to make a last stand...a fight-to-the-death. As the leadingelements of the 86th cautiously moved along the eastern shore road they were stopped bycraters in the road caused by German demolitions. Once again, the 10ths engineers werecalled upon to clear the way while under enemy fire
While road repair work continued, the 86th used amphibious vehicles to skirt the blownsections of the coast road, come ashore, and advance through the tunnels.
Other elements of the 86th climbed the mountains to the east of the lake to attack the townof Nago, and April 29th and 30th saw some of the most desperate fighting of the war.
On the 28th, Mussolini had been assassinated by partisans and his body strung up in aMilan petrol station and, two days later, Hitler commited suicide. Now, with both Hitler andMussolini dead, the Germans withdrew from the towns they held at the northern end of thelake. The last battle for Italy had ended.
Colonel William Darby, now the 10ths Assistant Division Commander, was killed by arandom shell fired by a German 88 somewhere in the hills above the town of Torbole. Ashe was standing with a group of division officers in front of this building, a tiny piece ofshrapnel no bigger than a 10p piece pierced Darbys heart. Colonel Darby, who hadsurvived so much combat since he had founded the elite Ranger battalions, would not liveto see the war end.
On May 2nd, two days after Darbys death, the Germans in Italy surrendered, and severalGerman units specifically requested that they be allowed to surrender to the 10th MountainDivision, since they regarded the 10th as a formidable foe.
Gen. Hays gathered his troops and congratulated them on their achievements, telling them,"when you go home and tell people about the things you have done, no one will believeyou."
On the crusty summer snows of Mt. Mangart, where the borders of Italy, Austria, and theformer Yugoslavia come together, the 10ths best skiers challenged each other. 1st Sgt.Walter Prager, the Dartmouth ski coach, won. It seemed a fitting way not only to end awar, but to begin the peace