Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
V: The Breaking of the Hitler Line
V: The Breaking of the Hitler Line
From the hill town of Piedimonte San Germano the Hitler Line ran southwards across the Liri valley to the vicinity of Pontecorvo and, after crossing the river, swung south-westwards over the mountains to Terracina on the coast. Although far from complete, its defences were even more elaborate than those of the Gustav Line; they included armoured pillboxes, reinforced concrete gun emplacements and weapon pits, underground shelters, and minefields and wire to obstruct tanks and infantry. The line's great weakness, however, was that there were too few troops to man it adequately. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, which held the sector in front of the Canadian Corps, had been reduced to little more than a motley collection of units in which men of every arm were intermingled. On its left, opposite 13 Corps, was 1 Parachute Division, and on the right in the Pontecorvo-Pico sector was 26 Panzer Division.
The French captured Pico on 22 May and began to outflank the Hitler Line from the south, but the enemy showed no sign of abandoning it. He defended Pontecorvo that day against a Canadian thrust. Early next morning 1 Canadian Infantry Division, with very heavy artillery support, launched its main assault between Aquino and Pontecorvo and, in a day in which the Canadians experienced their hardest and most costly fighting in Italy,1 succeeded in piercing the line. Nearly 1000 Canadians were killed or wounded, most of them from units on the right flank, which was exposed to fire from Aquino. The German casualties included several hundred killed and over 700 prisoners.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division passed through the breach on the 24th and exploited to the far bank of the shallow, meandering Melfa River, which crossed the valley about four miles west of Aquino before flowing into the Liri. A battle group from the infantry division pushed along the road from Pontecorvo and next day crossed the Melfa just above the junction of the two rivers. By nightfall on the 25th the Canadians' bridgehead west of the Melfa extended from the Liri to the railway.
The Advance to Rome, 11 May – 4 June 1944
Led by C Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson1) drove up Route 6 on 25 May to join 8 Indian Division, commanded by Major-General D. Russell. The New Zealanders wondered at the evidence of the recent fighting. ‘For miles the ground was all torn up by shells.’ The Hitler Line ‘looked really wicked…. The boys had never seen anything quite like it, except photos of the Maginot Line away back in the very early days of the war. Even now that those large, cunningly hidden anti-tank guns were tame, the thought of advancing into their muzzles made you feel sick inside.’2
C Squadron's tanks followed 6/13 Royal Frontier Force Rifles of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade from Route 6 towards the foothills west of Monte Cairo, where the lower slopes were so closely cultivated and wooded that the tank crews could not see far ahead and at times lost sight of the infantry. Castrocielo was deserted. The civilians had taken refuge in nearby caves. Some of the Indians pushed on beyond the town to take the craggy peak of Madonna Castrocielo. They were fired on by German machine-gunners sheltering behind large boulders, but with the protection of a smokescreen created by the tanks, closed in and killed or drove off the enemy.
3 It was hauled out by 4 Brigade's Heavy Recovery Section.
Meanwhile, on 23 May, 6 Corps (commanded now by Major- General Lucian Truscott) had opened the attack to break out from the Anzio beachhead, and next day 2 US Corps had occupied the coastal town of Terracina. Kesselring had brought the last of his mobile divisions, 29 Panzer Grenadier, from the Civitavecchia area to prevent a breakout from the southern flank of the beachhead and to halt the American drive towards Terracina, but it had not arrived in time to accomplish either task.
If Fifth Army could succeed in blocking Tenth Army's line of retreat by cutting Route 6 at Valmontone, there was a chance that a rapid advance up the Sacco valley by Eighth Army might achieve the encirclement of 14 Panzer Corps. In the afternoon of 25 May, however, General Clark on his own volition swung the main axis of 6 Corps' advance to the north-west, away from Valmontone to the Alban Hills, with the result that the town was not captured until 1 June. This decision and Eighth Army's slow progress sacrificed what may have been an opportunity to cut off and destroy part of Tenth Army.
General Clark himself says, ‘I was determined that the Fifth Army was going to capture Rome and I probably was overly sensitive to indications that practically everybody else was trying to get into the act.’1 Alexander, however, intended that the Americans should enter Rome and that the British and their other allies should bypass it. ‘I had always assured General Clark in conversation that Rome would be entered by his army; and I can only assume that the immediate lure of Rome for its publicity value persuaded him to switch the direction of his advance.’2
2 Field Marshal Alexander's Memoirs, p. 127.
‘For at least three days German strength in front of Valmontone and westward to the Alban Hills was inadequate to have stopped a strong attack by even a secondary effort; even in subsequent days German strength was not sufficient to have halted the main effort of the VI Corps had it been directed in that direction. For more than a week before the capture of Rome, the rear and right (west) flank of the German Tenth Army, withdrawing slowly toward the Caesar Line, were exposed and threatened with a trap which the German commanders feared would be closed, but which was not.’1
This argument, however, overlooks the fact that Route 6 was not Tenth Army's only way of escape. As General von Senger und Etterlin says, ‘it must not be concluded that Alexander's plan to use strong forces from the [Anzio] bridgehead for an attack towards Valmontone would have met with success.’2 Von Senger's 14 Panzer Corps fell back along a road which left Route 6 at Frosinone—which Eighth Army had not yet reached—and passed through the foothills of the Simbruini Mountains towards Subiaco. Along this road, well to the north of Valmontone, ‘seven divisions were pulled back in five days and nights. This was achieved despite the fact that the road was practically unusable in daylight because of the enemy's air superiority…. XIV Panzer Corps could only have been annihilated if the enemy had then also succeeded in pinning it down at Frosinone or alternatively if he had pushed forward beyond Valmontone towards Subiaco, which would have involved him in major difficulties of terrain.’3