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Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

I: The Armies Regroup

page 7

I: The Armies Regroup


THE New Zealand Corps, having failed in its attempt to capture Cassino, was disbanded on 26 March 1944, and in the seven-week pause that ensued, the Allied armies regrouped and assembled a striking force west of the Apennines in preparation for a fresh onslaught on the German Gustav Line.

The exhausted troops were rested, and vitally necessary reinforcements arrived and were absorbed. The front-line positions had to be held in sufficient strength to withstand a possible enemy counter-attack, and owing to the shortage of reserves, most units had to vacate one position and occupy another after only a brief spell out of the line. Also, because the enemy overlooked much of the front and its approaches, it was practically impossible to relieve a group larger than a battalion; in fact many reliefs had to be made at company or even platoon level. To ease the administration of the two armies, United States and American-equipped French formations were retained under the command of Fifth Army, and British-equipped formations (except those in the Allied beachhead at Anzio), including 2 Polish Corps, came under Eighth Army.

When the regrouping was completed Fifth Army had two corps in the line between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the confluence of the Liri and Gari rivers: the French Expeditionary Corps on the right with four divisions (1 Motorised, 2 Moroccan, 3 Algerian and 4 Moroccan Mountain Divisions) and about 12,000 goumiers (native Moroccans under French officers and NCOs, especially skilled in mountain warfare), 2 US Corps on the left with 85 and 88 US Infantry Divisions, and 36 US Infantry Division in army reserve. At the Anzio beachhead south of Rome 6 Corps, still under Fifth Army, page 8 had six divisions (3, 34 and 45 US Infantry, 1 US Armoured, and 1 and 5 British Infantry Divisions) and 1 (Canadian and American) Special Service Force.

dispositions, 11 may 1944

dispositions, 11 may 1944

In Eighth Army's sector, which extended from Fifth Army's right boundary north-eastwards across the mountainous centre of the peninsula, the striking force was concentrated on the left, where 13 Corps held the line from the Liri River to Cassino with four divisions (6 British Armoured, 4 and 78 British Infantry, and 8 Indian Divisions); 1 Canadian Corps (1 Canadian Infantry and 5 Canadian Armoured Divisions) was in reserve in rear, ready when called upon to go into the line or pass through up the Liri valley; 2 Polish Corps (3 Carpathian and 5 Kresowa Divisions) was on the right, poised for the attack on Montecassino. The remainder of Eighth Army's sector, astride the Apennines, was held by 10 Corps, which comprised 2 New Zealand Division (reinforced from time to time by British, Canadian and South African formations), and an Italian Motor Group about two brigades strong. The 6th South African Armoured Division, not all of which had arrived in Italy, was in Eighth Army reserve. On the Adriatic coast 5 Corps, consisting of 4 and 10 Indian Divisions, was under the direct command of Headquarters Allied Armies in Italy.

page 9


At Anzio Mr Churchill ‘had hoped that we were hurling a wild cat on to the shore, but all we had got was a stranded while.’1 If the Allied amphibious attack had fallen short of fulfilling the Prime Minister's hopes, at least it had placed Field Marshal Kesselring's Army Group C in an awkward, extended, two-fronted position, with Tenth Army (Colonel-General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel) on the Winter Line across the peninsula and Fourteenth Army (Colonel-General Eberhard von Mackensen) around the beachhead perimeter in rear of the line. Tenth Army's dispositions resembled those of the Allied armies: on the Adriatic sector Hauck Group (305 and 334 Infantry and 114 Light Divisions), like 5 Corps opposite it, had only a holding role; 51 Mountain Corps (5 Mountain, 1 Parachute and 44 Infantry Divisions) occupied the line across the Apennines to Cassino and the Liri River; 14 Panzer Corps (71 and 94 Infantry Divisions, with 15 Panzer Grenadier Division in reserve) was between the Liri and the Tyrrhenian Sea; 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, between Anzio and the Tiber River, was in army reserve. To contain 6 Corps at Anzio Fourteenth Army disposed 76 Panzer Corps (362 and 715 Infantry Divisions, with 26 Panzer Division in reserve) and 1 Parachute Corps (4 Parachute, 65 Infantry and 3 Panzer Grenadier Divisions—the last partly in the line); 29 Panzer Grenadier and 92 Infantry Divisions, beyond the Tiber, were in army reserve. The Hermann Goering Panzer Division, awaiting transport to France, was at Leghorn—but was later drawn into the Italian battle instead of leaving, as intended, for the western front.

To meet the apparent threat of another seaborne (or an airborne) landing the enemy had spread out his mobile formations well along the west coast. He may have been deceived by an Allied scheme, employing dummy wireless traffic, which was intended to give the impression that an amphibious assault was to be made against the port of Civitavecchia, 40 miles north of the mouth of the Tiber.

To back up the forward position of the Gustav Line the Germans constructed an even stronger alternative defence line, on which an attack might be held after the surrender of the intermediate ground. Known to the Allies as the Hitler Line,2 this was hinged on the main Winter Line at Monte Cairo, crossed the Liri valley about eight miles west of the Gari River, and continued through the page 10 Aurunci Mountains to the coast at Terracina. The Gustav and Hitler lines were designed to block an Allied thrust up the Liri- Sacco valley, but because of the presence of the Allied force in their rear at Anzio, the Germans began to construct yet another defence line to delay the capture of Rome. This, the Caesar Line, was supposed to cross the peninsula from the west coast north of Anzio to the east coast north of Pescara, but was never completed; the most developed portion of it was in the vital area at Valmontone, where Route 6 passed through a gap between the Alban Hills and the Prenestini Mountains.

When the Allies struck at the Gustav Line on 11 May, Kesselrings mobile reserves were too far away to give immediate help, and because he apparently still expected a seaborne attack, he committed them tardily and piecemeal. General Alexander, therefore, had the disparity in strength he desired, ‘a local superiority of at least three to one’, in the battle area: between Cassino and the sea four German divisions opposed an Allied strength of more than 13 divisions.

2 The Germans first called this line the ‘Fuhrer Riegel’ (switch-line) but changed its name on Hitler's orders after the Anzio landing to ‘Senger Riegel’ (General von Senger und Etterlin commanded 14 Panzer Corps); before it fell they called it the ‘Dora’ Line.