Chapter 16: The Path to Rome
While the Fifth Army was engaged so sternly on the plains and in the hills about Salerno, the Eighth, encountering but slight resistance, but delayed by demolitions, was moving slowly up from the south and south-east of Italy. On 16th September, patrols from its 1st Airborne Division, which had been landed at Taranto, made contact on their left with the Canadians who, moving steadily to Avigliano, had captured Potenza by the 19th. Here they came into touch with the Fifth Army which had seized the high ground to the north and east of Eboli. For the next few days the enemy continued to withdraw, pivoting on his right flank north of Salerno. It was his plan, now that the whereabouts of the Allied invasion had been discovered and its strength gauged, to hold on a line south of Rome running from Gaeta through Isernia to Vasto; but before retreating to these positions, which were to form the basis of his winter line, he continued to fight a series of delaying actions. During these he lost the large group of airfields around Foggia, of which the capture was one of the strategic objects of the Allies. They fell to the Eighth Army on 27th September. On the next day, Broadhurst’s Desert Air Force found themselves entering a bleak plain, and could see upon their right hand the mountainous promontory of Monte Gargano, the spur on the heel of Italy. In the midst of this plain was the dusty town of Foggia, of which the general appearance had not been improved by the frequent air attacks made upon it, and to the south of it, the airfields. They were of great extent and admirably suited for the operations of heavy bombers.
Three days before they suffered this severe loss, the Germans completed their evacuation of Sardinia. This island, which, it will be remembered, had at one time been considered as a possible objective in place of Sicily, had been attacked from the air since the beginning of February, the attacks varying in intensity but becoming severe in April and May. Its main airfields—among them Elmas, Monserrato, Milis, Olbia and Alghero—had been subjected to spasmodic and sometimes violent assault by Wellingtons at night and United States fighter-bombers and Mitchells by day throughout
the period immediately before the invasion of Sicily and during it. On the fall of Sicily and with the invasion of Italy imminent, the German High Command decided to cut its losses and the evacuation of both Sardinia and Corsica was decreed and carried out. After rendering the main landing fields unserviceable, and destroying such aircraft as could not be taken away, the Luftwaffe moved off almost without loss, save among the seaplanes of the 2nd Staffel of No. 196 Gruppe which covered the forces retreating by sea, and in so doing lost heavily in combat with Beaufighters. The German Air Force could justly claim that it had successfully withdrawn most of its units, which were then sent to reinforce those in the area of Rome. They were badly needed there, for the Luftwaffe in Italy was in a sorry state. Before 1943 was out, their resources, in aircraft and men alike, had fallen far too low to cope with the many demands made upon them, ranging as these did from attacks on Allied shipping carrying reinforcements, to close support over the field of battle.
Having secured the Salerno beach-head, the Allied armies began their advance, and on 1st October the 7th Armoured Division entered Naples. This great town, the largest city captured from the enemy up to that date, had been attacked from the air over fifty times. Some of these onslaughts had been singularly effective especially those directed against the marshalling yards, where much damage had been caused including the destruction of about 600 railway wagons. There is no doubt that the Northwest African Air Forces were very successful in creating at Naples a stumbling-block to the movement of supplies to southern Italy, and their success was enhanced by the destruction at the end of August of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Whether through an act of sabotage or from a cause unknown, she blew up and caused heavy casualties, the shells on board flying ‘like meteors through the air’ to explode indiscriminately all over the town. Before leaving, the Germans demolished the harbour and the landing gear, including the heavy cranes. They then fell back, abandoning upon the nearby airfields of Capodichino and Pomigliano 145 German and 45 Italian aircraft.
With the capture of Naples, it seemed for the moment that there was a chance of bringing the campaign in Italy to a rapid and triumphant conclusion. The enemy was in retreat and hard pressed. By 6th October, the Fifth Army stood along the line of the Volturno river and the Eighth was opposite Termoli. The second of the four phases, into which Alexander had sought to divide the campaign, had been completed. The third phase, the seizure of Rome and its airfields, now seemed possible, and this would lead to the fourth, the advance to Leghorn, Florence and Arezzo.
The completion of the second phase had one result of outstanding importance to the Allied onslaught upon the Reich from the air. The capture of the Foggia group almost completed the circle of airfields lying round Germany. Henceforward and for the rest of the war it was possible to bomb that country from bases as far apart as the levels of Lincolnshire and the plain of Apulia, and not Germany only, but all the Balkan Peninsula, the industrial areas of Silesia, the factories of Czechoslovakia, the oilfields of Rumania. Allied bombers made their first attack from Foggia on the aircraft factories of Wiener Neustadt on 1st October, only three days after the group had fallen into our hands. It was carried out entirely by United States bombers of the Strategic Air Force, whose crews showed a splendid determination to help their comrades of the Eighth American Air Force and of Bomber Command operating from England to fulfil the Casablanca Directive. Between 1st October, 1943 and 8th May, 1945, attacks were launched from Foggia against a great variety of targets. Among those assaulted were Augsburg, Munich, Breslau and Pilsen in Germany and Czechoslovakia, Wiener Neustadt, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt in Austria, Bucharest, the Iron Gate of the Danube, and Ploesti in Rumania, Budapest and Pecs in Hungary, Czechowicka in Poland and Marseilles, Toulon, Lyons and Grenoble in France. From this base, too, the mining operations of No. 205 Group of the Royal Air Force, which did so much damage to hostile shipping in the Danube, and which are described in Volume III (Chapter X), were mounted.
From the point of view of General Alexander, the presence at Foggia of units of the Strategic Air Force was more a liability than an asset. They were engaged in carrying out the strategic bombing programme which had no direct relation to the military operations for which he was responsible. Yet they were based on Italy, then but partially conquered, and, as the months went by, to be the scene of a fierce and long drawn-out campaign. The problem of supplying the heavy bombardment groups stationed at Foggia put a severe strain on the supply services and on shipping, while ‘their maintenance requirements were nearly as great as those of the Eighth Army’. On the other hand, one of the main objects of the invasion of Italy had been to secure these bases for the purpose for which they were used.
Though superiority, indeed supremacy, in the air had been virtually achieved in the Central Mediterranean within three days of the Allied landings in Sicily, and though thereafter the Luftwaffe gave no cause for anxiety, an occasional success rewarded its spasmodic
efforts to play a part altogether beyond its strength. On the night of 2nd/3rd December, preceded by three aircraft flying at 10,000 feet dropping WINDOW—the strips of tinfoil which were proving so baffling to the night-fighter defences of Germany—a force of Ju.88s dropped bombs and parachute mines upon the town and harbour of Bari with devastating effect. A ship carrying ammunition was hit almost at once and her explosion set three others on fire. The conflagration spread until fourteen merchant vessels, with 34,330 tons of cargo on board, were burning or sunk; three more went down, but their cargoes were saved, and six others were damaged; the bulk petrol pipeline was pierced and took three weeks to repair. About 1,000 men, chiefly seamen and soldiers, were killed and injured. By then, it must be admitted, the Allies had grown careless. Bari was defended by a bare minimum of anti-aircraft guns and there were far too few searchlights. On the night of the attack the best sited radar warning set was unserviceable, telephone communication was bad throughout the area, and the defence arrangements suffered from being under too many authorities.
Such a raid, however, could cause no more than a temporary setback. Nor could the German night attacks by Ju.88s on Naples do more than hamper the influx of supplies. Here, too, the Germans used WINDOW with some success, confusing alike the radar warning stations and the fighters sent up to repel the raiders. The anti-aircraft gunners were less affected and it was to their fire that the majority of such as were destroyed fell. Far more serious than the opposition of the Luftwaffe was the evil weather, which, persisting, soon became the bane alike of the air forces and of the army. ‘The Apennines’, said one observer, ‘produced Jekyll and Hyde conditions. A blue sky to the west could mask scudding clouds to the east’1. Soon squadrons were experiencing every variation of climate at very short notice, and flying conditions, which at the beginning of a sortie were good, often became in the proverbial twinkling of an eye so bad that a closely knit system of diverting and recalling aircraft became urgently necessary. This led to an increase in the labours of those engaged on Flying Control, an organization which, being almost unnecessary in the desert, had up till then hardly existed. The Mobile Operations Room Unit did its best to help pilots who, with long hours of flying in Africa behind them, found the new weather conditions difficult and exasperating. The trials of the Unit were many. ‘Daylight found the site an indescribable scene of desolation’, records an entry in its diary for 1st January, 1944, when it was at Penna Point. ‘In the small hours the abominable
gale returned accompanied by very heavy rain. One and all suffered. The orderly room was flattened and draped half across the road’. The airmen were found shelter in neighbouring houses and the seven officers took refuge in a chapel hard by, whose verger ‘...came in and... produced a vast bottle of Vino Rosso and made us all drink to Capo d’Anno. No flying was possible’. Close at hand the 7th South African Air Force Wing on the beach at Trigno was washed out by high waves driven on to the shore by the ‘strong northerly gale’.
From October 1943 until well on into the spring of 1944 weather conditions were to prove a potent cause of the delay in the advance of the armies; and with delay came frustration. Long before October was out, Alexander’s plan to complete the third phase, the capture of Rome, had gone irretrievably agley. He had hoped that the enemy would retreat north and stand on a line running from Pisa to Rimini, the ‘Gothic Line’ which the Allied army was eventually to assault many weary months later. Instead, urged by Hitler, who sent imperative orders on 10th October, Kesselring stood to his defence much farther south along what presently became known as the ‘Winter Line’ and then the ‘Gustav Line’—a series of positions defended in depth, based on the Rivers Sangro in the east and Garigliano in the west, and containing among others the strong position of Cassino in the massif of Monte Cairo. An earlier attempt to turn this line by landing Commando troops at Termoli on the east coast had miscarried through failure to exploit their initial success, and with it the last chance of moving speedily up Italy to Rome and beyond.
Throughout this period the bomber forces maintained their attacks whenever possible on targets far and near. The marshalling yards at Civitavecchia, Pisa, Bologna, Mestre and the railway bridge at Bolzano all felt the weight of their assault. Closer at hand, as the weather decreed and opportunity offered, the Tactical Air Force ranged the sky above the battlefield. It was especially to the fore at the crossing of the Volturno and Trigno rivers in the middle of October, and of the Sangro a month later. During these months of bitter fighting on the ground there were no great battles in the air. The tale is rather one of monotonous co-operation, of day-to-day protection afforded to troops in close contact with a resolute foe. Individual combats there were on occasion, such as that which took place one December day between a Spitfire of Desert Air Force flown by a young South African pilot, Lieutenant A. Sachs of No. 92 Squadron, Royal Air Force, who attacked twelve Focke-Wulf 190s seeking to assault our forward troops. He shot down two within a few moments, the second blowing up to the detriment of his own
aircraft, which was soon further damaged by the remaining Focke-Wulfs, now roused to fury. Half the tail was shot away, both wings were damaged, and the engine was smashed and set on fire. Then a Focke-Wulf collided head-on with the Spitfire and fell burning to the ground. The Spitfire began to fall too, and Sachs baled out, his parachute opening at the last possible moment. On landing he was surrounded by a number of peasants, who rushed forward and kissed his hands.
Bad weather proved a more redoubtable foe than the Luftwaffe. This entered so little into their calculations that the Desert Air Force presently evolved a form of tactical support which was to prove of great, of very great, value in the battles awaiting the Allies in Normandy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The Eighth Army had stumbled up the comparatively open and unencumbered east coast of Italy and had crossed the Trigno, when the air forces protecting it began to elaborate the system already in use for describing targets on the battlefield the infantry wished to be attacked from the air. Their delineation had for long been the task of the Air Liaison Officers stationed at all Wing and Group headquarters and with the Mobile Operations Room Unit. Targets were accepted or rejected by the Headquarters of the Desert Air Force after consultation with Army Area Headquarters. On acceptance, a single codeword, to which the word ‘accept’ was added, was sufficient to cause the Mobile Operations Room Unit to allot the target to the appropriate Wing. By the time the acceptance had been received, the Air Liaison Officer was ready to brief the squadrons detailed for the operation.
This practice, with various modifications, had proved successful in the desert. In the closer country, however, in which the army was now operating, something which would achieve much quicker results was necessary. It was discovered by Wing Commander D. Haysom who gave his Christian name to the experiment. Haysom created a Mobile Observation Post situated with the forward troops at Brigade Headquarters, and in direct, communication with a squadron or squadrons of aircraft already airborne. The same photographic map with a grid superimposed upon it was used by both pilots and controllers, and by means of it the second gave targets to the first as and when necessary. What happened was this. A squadron of fighters or fighter-bombers patrolled overhead, usually in line astern, and when the army called for an attack to be made upon a specific target, one or more aircraft from the formation, or ‘Cab Rank’, as it at once came to be known, dived upon it and dropped its bombs or opened fire with its cannon. ‘ROVER DAVID’—to give this system its
code-name—proved an instant success. It was conducted at first from armoured cars fitted with Very High Frequency transmitters, but presently the equipment included a lorry, a jeep and a trailer manned by an army and a RAF officer with a mechanic. What ‘ROVER’ patrols were to be flown was settled on the evening preceding each day of battle at a conference attended by representatives of the army and the air force.
The advantages of the ‘Cab Rank’ system quickly became obvious. Targets, fixed or moving, could be bombed or subjected to cannon and machine gun fire very swiftly, within a matter of minutes after they had been chosen. Various modifications of the system were tried from time to time as the war went on, but its essential principle remained unchanged.
‘ROVER DAVID’ would have been quite impossible to institute had the Luftwaffe been able to dispute the presence of Allied aircraft over the battlefield. That such a system could be adopted and maintained in action from the late autumn of 1943 until the end of the war is one of the many proofs of the supremacy which the Allied air forces established. It had, however, its disadvantages, the principal one being the very large number of aircraft needed to keep it in operation. Only when the air forces of a country have very great resources on which to draw, and the virtual certainty that air opposition will be negligible and will remain so, can they afford the luxury of a ‘Cab Rank’ system. Fortunately, as the war progressed, the Allies came to be more and more in that happy situation with every day that passed, and there can be no doubt that it proved of great value and saved many lives.
On 10th December, Mediterranean Air Command became Mediterranean Allied Air Forces and into its headquarters was absorbed that of Northwest African Air Forces. The Northwest African Tactical, Strategic and Coastal Air Forces were renamed Mediterranean Allied Tactical, Strategic and Coastal Air Forces respectively. Their activities were unchanged and in fact increased, for better weather in the first half of the month enabled the strategic bombers, particularly those of the Royal Air Force, to attack the Italian railways. Bolzano was again assaulted, together with the marshalling yards at Arezzo; so, too, were the ball-bearing works in Turin. On 2nd December, some precious hours of sunshine enabled the Tactical Air Forces to be directed against targets on the front of the Fifth Army, then preparing to attack south-west of Mignano.
This day marked the end of exactly three calendar months of operations against the enemy in Italy. They had been uniformly
successful in the air in contrast to those on the ground. The armies had made a good beginning but, losing momentum, had failed to achieve a decision. The fact was that the Germans had throughout shown a great spirit of determination and stubbornness. Their men were resolute, well-trained and quick to profit from the natural advantages afforded by swollen rivers, tumbled mountains and infrequent roads. In strength they were nine divisions, and to oppose them the Allies could muster no more than eleven, ‘no great numerical superiority’ as Alexander observes in his despatch.
At the beginning of 1944, General Sir H. Maitland Wilson took over supreme command in the Mediterranean from Eisenhower, who was appointed Supreme Commander for the invasion of Normandy. Montgomery was succeeded on 1st January by General Leese, and all the armies concerned were grouped under the general title ‘Allied Armies in Italy’. A change of command was also made in the air forces, General I. Eaker, of the United States Army Air Force, taking over from Tedder, who departed to the more important post of Eisenhower’s deputy. Eaker had as his second in command Air Marshal Sir John C. Slessor. The new commanders, like the old, were determined to fulfil the general plan to ‘contain the maximum number of German divisions in Italy’, and duly continued along the thorny path to Rome.
Alexander’s first ‘knight’s move’ in October 1943, the outflanking of the German line at Termoli, had not been successful; but now, three months later, a similar operation, carried out on a larger scale on the west coast, within easy distance of Rome, might give him his next and most desired prize, the Eternal City. A successful landing at the two small ports of Anzio and Nettuno, on the western seaboard, followed by the immediate seizure of the Alban Hills, would outflank the defences of Monte Cassino, gateway to the coastal road to Rome, and render a frontal assault, on what had always been considered an impregnable position, unnecessary.
As at Pachino and Salerno, the general task of the air forces at Anzio was, first and foremost, to eliminate all opposition from the air from such of the 5552 operational aircraft which, it was thought, composed at that time the remaining strength of the Luftwaffe in Italy. Next in order of importance came the disruption of the enemy’s supply lines, then protection from the air for the assault convoys, and lastly, direct participation in the operation by attacking suitable targets in the battlefield and its neighbourhood. Plans were drawn up with these four ends in view, but their details changed almost as
quickly and as often as did the date of the assault, which, for one reason or another, was postponed from week to week until it was finally launched on 22nd January, 1944.
The operation began well by the achievement of complete surprise. This had been secured by the action of the air forces in striking hard at all the central Italian airfields. So effective were these blows, especially those against Ciampino, Centocelle, Guidonia, Rieti and Viterbo, that the Luftwaffe was unable to put even one reconnaissance aircraft into the air. In consequence, the convoy of243 vessels of various kinds and nationalities carrying the assaulting troops was able to reach the Anzio beaches unobserved. Once more, thanks to the power of the air, 50,000 American and British troops had arrived undetected in full battle array, this time many miles behind the enemy’s front. Not until twenty minutes past eight on the morning of 22nd January, six hours after the landings had been carried out, did a Messerschmitt 109 succeed in penetrating the air screen and bringing authentic news to Kesselring that the Allies were behind his right flank.
Having at length discovered the new invaders, the Luftwaffe did what it could to molest them, but until 2nd February it was never able to fly more than a maximum of 100 sorties a day of which some sixty were by fighters. Fog on the airfields and its own depleted numbers made a stouter effort impossible. Its chief success was the sinking of the British cruiser Spartan by glider-bomb on the 29th. The Royal Air Force and the United States fighter squadrons, on patrol above the beach-head, were numerous and alert. Beyond them, in the area between Rome and Anzio, notably at Albano on 2nd February, the bombs dropped by Fortresses and American medium bombers on road junctions and other tactical targets hindered the approach of reinforcements on the ground, and, far away from the immediate battlefield, attacks on Italian railways, notably at Pisa. Empoli and Pontedera, were maintained with good, though not decisive, effect.
For a day or two it seemed that Alexander was at last to reap the reward of his great and sustained efforts. But this was not to be. The troops ashore failed, or were not able, to exploit the surprise they had achieved. General Lucas, their commander, fulfilling the letter rather than the spirit of the plan, chose not a swift dash inland to those delectable mountains, the Alban Hills, but the painstaking consolidation of his bridgehead. In his defence it must be admitted that the beaches were so unsuitable and the little port of Anzio, which a battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadiers had failed to blow up, of such limited capacity, that the landing of guns, tanks and heavy equipment
‘was delayed beyond our expectations’. On the other hand an air force of great, indeed overwhelming, strength was present and active.
Though weak in the air, the enemy was now strong on the ground. A regiment of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, on its way east to oppose the Eighth Army, was brought back to the Alban Hills, where it was joined on the evening of the 23rd by a regimental group of the 15th Panzer Grenadiers. These troops, reinforced by a part of the Hermann Göring Division, were ready to carry out unflinchingly a brusque order from Hitler to ‘struggle for every yard’. By 30th January, elements of eight army divisions were assembled south of Rome, hastily organized, it is true, and very mixed in character, but stout-hearted and determined to display the German genius for war. They did so.
By 2nd February General Lucas’s advance was halted, and the efforts of the air forces to clear a path for him were unavailing. American bombers attacked Ceprano and Pontecorvo, but not heavily enough to case the situation. The headquarters of those directing the German forces were also assaulted. On 10th February Allied bombers destroyed the Villa Propaganda at Castel Gandolfo. Some 500 civilians suffered, many being killed; but the German Staff escaped, for they were not in the building. Nor were the Tactical Air Forces, which continued to bomb road junctions Immediately beyond the beach-head, more successful. Nevertheless, pressure by the Allied Air Forces was maintained by day and night, and marshalling yards as far distant from the area as Verona were bombed, the object being to cut the line through the Brenner Pass to Bologna along which reinforcements must be carried.
Though unable to produce more fighters, the enemy had brought his strength to 130 by transferring two Junkers 88 Gruppen of bombers from Greece and Crete to north Italy, and by reinforcing his striking force in the south of France by twenty-five Dornier 217s equipped with radio-controlled glider-bombs.
The Fifth Army, which at the end of January had attacked across the Garigliano in support of Operation ‘SHINGLE’, was given full fighter protection, and the Bostons of the Desert Air Force did all they could at night to prevent the movement of German troops from cast to west. They were able to achieve a certain success, for the enemy drivers, faced with difficult Apennines roads, dared not turn off their headlights and therefore provided targets easily visible. Farther away heavy bombers made raids against the Montpellier and Istres le Tubé airfields in the south of France and the Udine group in the north of Italy. The attack on Lavariano, Villaorba, Maniago and Udine of 30th January, 1944, was particularly successful. 215
escorted Fortresses and Liberators dropped some 29,000 twenty-pound fragmentation bombs, which did much execution among German fighters assembled there for the dual purpose of reinforcing Kesselring’s hard-pressed air force and of intercepting the long-range Allied bombers operating from Foggia against Austria and southern Germany.
These efforts, which involved the dropping of 12,500 tons of bombs between 22nd January and 15th February, though by no means insignificant, could not prevent Kesselring from launching a strong counter-attack, which came near to complete success. The troops who delivered it were in high fettle and were under the stimulus of a special order from Hitler, who demanded that the abscess, as he called it, should be ‘eliminated in three days’. They were further heartened by promises of strong air support and by the use of a new weapon, the Goliath remote-control explosive tank. The counter-attack began at dawn on 16th February, and by the end of the day an advance into our positions of some 2,000 yards had been made. The air strip at Nettuno was under artillery fire and could not be used. On the next day the drive continued until a ‘wedge of two and a half miles wide and over a mile deep’ had been driven into the positions of the invaders at Anzio. This the enemy had accomplished with very limited help from his air force. On the 16th the Luftwaffe was able to fly at most 250 sorties and on the next day about 200. It seemed as though his infantry were capable of achieving victory without air support. Indeed, had this been adequate, the issue would hardly have been in doubt. The 18th was the most critical day. For four hours the battle raged just beyond the ‘final beach-head line’, which if pierced would entail either the destruction of the force or its hasty withdrawal to the friendly safety of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
By then, as at Salerno, the navy and the air forces had begun to intervene and to play a great, perhaps a decisive part, in preventing the achievement of Kesselring’s desire, and this despite the weather, which varied between ‘poor’ and ‘bad’. On 17th February, more than 800 bombers of all kinds, including Wellingtons, dropped 950 tons of bombs in close support of the armies—the heaviest assistance in one day which the Allied Air Forces had yet been able to render. On the 18th, the weather was very bad and no more than forty United States Invaders and eighty-seven Warhawks were able to aid the hard-pressed troops. The weather next day was the same, but on the 20th it improved, and more than 10,000 fragmentation bombs were dropped on enemy concentrations near Carroceto, on the way to Anzio,
The German counter-attack was at last spent, and Alexander felt confident ‘...that the bridgehead could be held’. But the invaders were equally exhausted, and it seemed unwise to their commander to use his ‘last fresh troops’ to repeat ‘our former attacks, unless I could produce some new tactics to give us a better chance of success. In this frame of mind I decided to try the effect of a really heavy air bombardment’. General Cannon, Commanding General of the Tactical Air Force, was anxious to make the experiment too; he hazarded the opinion that, given good weather and all the air resources in Italy, we could ‘whip out Cassino like an old tooth’. The General had already witnessed the effects of one such experiment conducted on 15th February when the Monastery on Monte Cassino was destroyed by a concentrated bombing attack. How this came about must now be explained.
In order to support the operations at Anzio an assault against the general Cassino positions had been launched by the 34th American Division of the Fifth Army. By 2nd February it had driven the Germans from Monte Casselone, a nearby bastion, and, advancing along a feature known as Snake’s Head Ridge, had reached a point a few hundred yards from Monastery Hill. This advance so encouraged General Clark that he sent a message to Alexander declaring that ‘present indications are that the Cassino Heights will be captured very soon’. The General was an optimist, but at that time his optimism seemed well founded. Yet the natural obstacles confronting his troops were among the most formidable in the world. The mountain called Monte Cassino was a position of such strength that it had for years been regarded by the Italian General Staff as the most conspicuous example in Italy of an impregnable site. Such indeed it was. Situated at the mouth of a valley watered by the Garigliano, into which flows the rivers Liri and Rapido, is the town of Cassino. It stands at the foot of a hill some 1,700 feet high, upon whose summit St. Benedict built his first monastery. The saint had a shrewd eye for country, for the hill is a bare and rocky promontory thrust out from the greater mass of Monte Cairo,’ the southernmost peak of a great spur of the Apennines’. The position dominates the road to Rome, the Via Casilina, which runs through the valley until it reaches the Pontine Marshes, which the Germans had attempted, without much success,to flood. Close to the road at the crucial point flows the Rapido, which Alexander in his despatch compared ‘to the moat before a castle gate’. Such was the castle which the American 34th Division had come near to taking by storm.
After their gallant efforts a pause ensued while the next step was being considered. It was of the gravest kind. Should the Monastery,
one of the most renowned and revered shrines of the Christian world, be bombed or not?
To do so would be to attack one of those historical monuments about which Eisenhower had issued a special directive dated 29th December, 1943, and addressed to all his Army Commanders. It had not been revoked by his successor. ‘If, said the American Commander-in-Chief, ‘we have to choose between destroying a famous building and killing our men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the, building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference’.
What Generals Wilson and Alexander and their subordinate commanders had therefore to decide was whether the bombing of Monte Cassino was a necessity or a convenience. Alexander seems to have thought that to spare it would be ‘to our great disadvantage’. General Wilson was convinced that the Monastery buildings had been occupied by the enemy and he based this view on intelligence reports received for the most part from II Corps. These, which he summarized in a signal sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff three weeks after the bombing, were of a fragmentary and inconclusive description. With the exception of two, one from an Italian civilian, the other from a German prisoner of war, and of a statement by the Commander of the 133rd United States Infantry Regiment, who reported that a telescope had been seen protruding from a window on the east face of the Abbey, none of these reports stated that the Abbey was garrisoned, but merely that the Germans were dug in close to it. This was true, and subsequent examination of the ground has shown that there were no fixed defences in the immediate neighbourhood of the Abbey. In other words though the hill, Monte Cassino, was part of a complicated and immensely strong defensive position, the Abbey itself was not.
At the time, however, General Wilson was evidently convinced that it was, and General Freyberg, commanding the New Zealanders, had no kind of doubt whatever. ‘In the meantime’, says the History of the Fifth Army, ‘General Freyberg decided that the Abbey of Monte Cassino must be destroyed. Enemy activity round it had been observed for some time. Ammunition dumps were dangerously close to it; observers used it constantly to direct artillery fire; snipers had fired from it and gun emplacements were numerous round it’.
General Tuker, commanding the 4th Indian Division which was to make the attack, was equally definite and desired the Abbey to be bombed whether it was ‘occupied by a German garrison or not’, in his view so formidable a position must ‘be softened up’ before being assaulted by infantry or else ‘turned and isolated’, a solution which was eventually adopted after all else had failed.
The British Commanders, then, were of one mind; but the American General, Mark Clark, was very doubtful and expressed the view that, once the Abbey was bombed, its ruins would provide excellent cover for the Germans.3 His subordinate, the General commanding the 34th Division, went further and maintained that there were no Germans in the Monastery. Eaker and Slessor, in command of the air forces, shared General Clark’s doubts.
If the testimony of Abbot Gregorio Diamare and Father Oderigio Graziosi living in the Monastery at the time be correct, those doubts were justified. The Germans had resisted the temptation to garrison the Monastery, and this for a very good reason. It was both unnecessary and dangerous to do so. The hill upon which it is built is tall and steep. Though its summit dominates the plain, so also do its upper flanks. In these, observation posts, gun posts and foxholes could be very easily constructed, and they were. In this rocky hillside they proved far less conspicuous than the great mass of stone and marble buildings, which could be seen for miles and was not a suitable defensive position as long as it remained intact, a shining invitation to bombers. The posts established around but some distance below it, might, and indeed did, remain untouched by bombardment. So convinced was the German General Baade, commanding the fanatical parachute troops holding the position, that the Allies would not seek by bombing to transform the Monastery into a useful addition to his defences, that when, on 13th February, leaflets threatening to do so fell, he informed the monks that this was an attempt at bluff, and that he would continue to honour his undertaking not to occupy the Monastery unless it was bombed. His attitude was doubtless influenced by a direct order issued, according to General von Senger, commanding the German XIV Panzer Corps, by Kesselring. No Germans were to enter the Monastery, said the Field-Marshal, and military police were posted at its gates to see that the order was obeyed. They also took care to allow no civilian to leave.
Alexander and his generals, however, were not bluffing and the leaflets meant what they said. At 0830 on the morning of 15th February, 135 United States Fortresses of the Strategic Air Force dropped 287 tons of 500 lb. general purpose bombs and 66 tons of
100 lb. incendiary bombs on the buildings and courtyards of the Monastery, while forty-seven United States Mitchells and forty United States Marauders dropped 140 tons of 1,000 lb. bombs on the same target and the guns of the Fifth Army fired 314 shells of heavy and medium calibre into it. The Monastery was reduced to a heap of smoking ruins; but its outer walls, in places thirty feet thick, remained standing. An unexploded bomb lodged in the pavement before St. Benedict’s tomb and was still embedded there in 1948. The saint’s cell, hewn partly in the rock where he had established himself in the year 529, survived, but the great church and courtyard were wiped out, together with between 300 and 400 women and children who had taken refuge in the Monastery.
So crumbled to ruin a building erected upon a site venerated by Christendom for more than 1,400 years. It is too early to pass final judgment on this melancholy event; but, while making allowance for the feelings of commanders faced with a task of peculiar difficulty, it may not be out of place to observe that to destroy so famous a shrine on so slender evidence that it was occupied by the enemy even though it stood in the midst of his defences, was to place a very wide interpretation on Eisenhower’s directive. Of greater weight, perhaps, is the contention that no troops, not even the New Zealanders and the Gurkhas, Baluchis and Mahrattas of the 4th Indian Division, could have been expected to attack so strong a position as long as the buildings which crowned it stood intact. This may have been true, but what is certain is that the action taken by the commanders on the spot was endorsed by General Wilson and subsequently by the Chiefs of Staff. Future generations alone will be able to decide whether the bombing of the Monastery of Monte Cassino was a necessity.
As soon as the attack was ended, General Baade saw his opportunity, and that same afternoon, while the aged abbot4 was leading the few survivors down the hill to the dubious safety of the plain, German machine gunners hastened to set up their posts among the ruins and their field kitchens in the cell of St. Benedict. A most useful addition to the defences had, contrary to his expectations, been provided. More than that he was able to counter-attack and by 19th February to drive the assaulting troops east of the Rapido.
Such was the position of the Fifth Army when the German counterattack in the beach-head at Anzio was brought to a standstill. The
After the Allied Attacks at Cassino
fighting had been of such severity that, as has been seen, it induced Alexander to try to produce ‘new tactics’ and with the aid of air power to seek a decision at Cassino. The destruction of the Monastery had failed, that of the town might succeed. On 15th March it was reduced to rubble by eleven groups of the Strategic Air Force heavy bombers and five groups of the Tactical Air Force. The bombing of the town, which was strongly held by determined German parachute troops, lasted with intervals of approximately fifteen minutes from 0830 hours until noon. 1,107 tons of bombs fell and the target was utterly destroyed. Subsidiary attacks were made by about 200 aircraft of XII Air Support Command on the positions of the enemy to the south and south-west, and by fifty-nine Desert Air Force Kitty-hawks on gun positions to the north of Aquino. To cover the advance of the infantry, 200 United States Lightnings and seventy-four Royal Air Force Spitfires patrolled the battlefield but found no enemy to engage. Mustang and Spitfire pilots observed for the guns and took photographs.
The bombs which fell upon Cassino proved disruptive, too much so. Huge craters in the streets and masses of brick, rubble and masonry created blocks of formidable size. The German garrison, which at the beginning of the air bombardment had returned to its dug-outs and shelters, came out of them as soon as it was over, manned the ruins and maintained a stubborn and successful resistance. ‘A battle on the Stalingrad model developed’, says one observer. ‘Bombers and snipers laboriously cleared a few yards at a time. ... Every wall, every cellar window, harboured a paratrooper’. Not until two months later, on 18th May, when the position was finally captured, did this ill-starred battle come to an end.
Long before that date, on 19th March, the most determined of all the efforts of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces to help the armies in Italy began. Operation ‘STRANGLE’ was designed to interrupt, and, if possible, to destroy, the enemy’s lines of communication. If successful, the Germans would be without the necessary supplies in their forward areas when the Allied offensive opened in May. The essence of the plan was for the bombers of the Tactical Air Force to assault railway targets, especially bridges, south of the line Pisa/Rimini, and for the fighter-bombers to attack similar targets closer to the front and also repair depots, open stretches of track and places where stores carried by rail were transferred to lorries. As the attack proceeded and these targets were shattered, it was hoped and believed that rolling-stock carrying essential supplies would begin to accumulate in the various marshalling yards of northern Italy where it could be destroyed by
the heavy bombers. In order to leave unmolested no means whereby the enemy might supply and reinforce his troops at the front, harbours and coastal shipping were also included in the programme of assault.
The planning of the operation depended upon speed of attack and frequent photographic reconnaissance. The latter was carried out effectively by the Photographic Reconnaissance Wing commanded by Colonel Roosevelt. By the end of March more than 1,000 bombing sorties against the main railway communications had been flown with some not inconsiderable results. The marshalling yards at Campo di Marte and the bridge at Orte had been damaged, and that near Poggibonsi destroyed. The cutting of the viaduct west of Arezzo, the damage to the bridge east of Perugia and the demolition of the Cecina railway bridge must also be noted. Kittyhawks of the Desert Air Force were employed against targets situated on the east coast, including Terni and Ancona, and in fulfilment of the second phase of the plan, the Strategic Air Force and the Wellington bombers attacked junctions along the Milan/Venice railway and the marshalling yards at Verona, Mestre, Turin, Bolzano and Milan. The assault was made in some strength, well over a thousand tons being dropped. As was by then usual, opposition offered by the Luftwaffe was very small.
Operation ‘STRANGLE’ would have been more effective had not periods of bad weather intervened to prevent the full development of this long series of attacks. Even so, in the month of March 1944 the Mediterranean Strategic, Tactical and Coastal Air Forces were able to drop 19,460 tons of bombs. The attacks continued on an increased scale in April, and by the 6th the interpreters of the photographs reported that the Italian railways had been blocked in ten places.
The effect of this operation, as of those which had preceded it, though far from negligible, was inconclusive. The supply routes of the Germans were constantly cut, but were as constantly repaired, and in spite of the destruction caused to railways, ports, vehicles and dumps, the enemy was still able to keep his troops supplied with their minimum requirements. The fact was that the weight of the air attack throughout the campaign, though heavy, was not nearly sufficient utterly to destroy and disrupt the communications of a country like Italy. Much damage was inflicted from the beginning in September 1943 and at intervals during the autumn, winter and spring which followed; but it was not enough to turn the scale, not even after Operation ‘Diadem’ had added 51,500 tons to those dropped in Operation ‘STRANGLE’. Nevertheless, though the use of the railways was never entirely prevented, the enemy had largely to increase his
use of roads and presently found himself under the necessity of moving convoys by day with disastrous results.
In summing up the first ten months of the war in Italy, it must be said that the air forces were at times hampered in their task by divided counsels. The broad aim as outlined by General Wilson was ‘ to use the air to deprive the enemy of the ability either to maintain his present positions, or to withdraw his divisions out of Italy’. In theory unassailable, in practice it was unattainable, an unpleasant fact not fully appreciated at the time either at Army or Air Headquarters where two schools of thought, each with much evidence to support it, contended. One was under the influence of Professor S. Zuckerman, technical adviser to those responsible for the bombing policy. Zuckerman, whose advice concerning the bombing of Pantelleria had proved correct and whose opinion therefore carried much weight, urged that the weak link in the Italian railway system was the repair and servicing facilities. Vigorously attacked, they would soon be unable to perform their functions, the quantity of rolling-stock unserviceable would therefore increase more and more and faster and faster until eventually all traffic would be brought to a standstill. Since the repair shops were for the most part situated in or near marshalling yards, these should be immediately attacked. The proverbial two birds could thus be killed by one stone; not only the repair shops, but also many hundreds of wagons in the yards would be destroyed.
The other school, supported by not a few of the Army Commanders, maintained that such a scheme could not achieve a result quickly. It was one of attrition, whereas what was wanted was a policy which would have an immediate effect on the battle. This would be achieved by attacking bridges, viaducts, road junctions, and similar targets so as to isolate the enemy’s troops from their supplies. A geographical line of interdiction, through which no train would be able to pass, should be established. This plan was strongly favoured by the American Air Force Commanders who based their views on a study of captured documents and on the interrogation of prisoners. It was Slessor who found the solution. After discussing the problem with Brigadier-General L. Norstad of the U.S. Army Air Force he succeeded in blending the two opposing designs into a single plan. A geographical line of interdiction would be established so as to put an end, if possible, to through traffic on the Italian railways. At the same time the heavy bombers would be used to assault marshalling yards, and therefore repair shops, behind this line. This combination of interdiction and attrition formed the basis of the ‘Transportation Plan’ afterwards used with such telling effect in
Normandy. It was the origin of new strategy and new tactics which were to make the intervention of the air forces in the battles of Western Europe decisive. This was not so in Italy. That the new policy was sound was soon as obvious as was the fact that it was not achieving overwhelming results. The reason was simple. Large though the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces were, they were not large enough, and the requisite concentration of bombs was beyond the capacity of the heavy bombers. South of Naples and Foggia the only railway target of first-class importance was Brindisi: the others at Potenza, Lecce, Cosenza, and elsewhere being the home of railway shops of secondary importance. Upon these the requisite concentration of bombs to ensure destruction could be dropped and it was. When, however, it became necessary for the bomber offensive to move farther northwards, the number of railway targets which had to be destroyed, especially in the valley of the Po, was too great for this method of concentrated bombing to be followed. The bomber force available, though large, was not large enough to make it possible to paralyse simultaneously, or even for a short period, such railway centres as Turin, Pisa, Piacenza and Florence. Too few bombs were dropped on too many places, too few times. For this the weather must bear a large part of the blame. Bad weather is sometimes a convenient excuse for bad operations—in Italy it was not. It provided the dark curtain of cloud, the blind mist of rain, which must always be the best protection for any target attacked by aircraft not equipped with special devices.
Such conclusions, however, are but wisdom after the event. During the conflict, and at its height, these difficulties, which so greatly prolonged the campaign, were not clearly seen, or if they were, could not be adequately dealt with by the means at the disposal of the commanders. During the winter of 1944-1945 the position so greatly improved that this was no longer so. Then the wisdom of the policy became immediately manifest. With more squadrons, more bombs, it could be applied on the required scale and it was. The results were the same as in Normandy. The enemy’s lines of communication were pulverized to an extent which proved decisive in April 1945.
The spring offensive opened on 11th May, 1944, and on 4th June, two days before Montgomery and Bradley went ashore at Normandy, the Allies entered Rome. Much hard fighting had taken place before the polyglot army of Alexander marched beneath a rain of flowers through the roaring streets of the Eternal City. The high hopes entertained after the battle for the Salerno beach-head ten months before had not been fulfilled. The broken country of woods and mountains, with its rain-swollen rivers and its poor communications,
the small size of the invading force, the bad weather which bedaubed troops and vehicles accustomed to rock and sand with clogging mud, above all, the stubborn resolution of the enemy, displayed especially on those parts of the battlefield towards the east coast, where the country was more open, were among the main causes of the unsatisfactory nature of the campaign. Though air supremacy had been gained from the outset and was never lost, the bald truth is that it did not avail to achieve swift victory. Without it, no invasion would have been possible; with it, the ultimate result was certain, but the way, nevertheless, long and hard.