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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 continued presence of the enemy at Aquino after the breakthrough had prevented 78 Division of 13 Corps from advancing,
The Advance to Rome, 11 May – 4 June 1944

The Advance to Rome, 11 May – 4 June 1944

1 Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, pp. 423–5.

page 37 as planned, on the right of the Canadians on the 24th. It was decided, therefore, that 6 British Armoured Division should take a route through the Canadian sector south of Aquino, but as 5 Canadian Armoured Division was not yet clear of this route, 13 Corps' advance was postponed until next day. Early on the 25th patrols found Aquino and also Piedimonte (which 1 Parachute Division had held against the Poles' attacks) clear of the enemy. Thirteenth Corps then closed up to the Melfa with both 6 Armoured Division and 78 Division, while 8 Indian Division, with 18 NZ Armoured Regiment under command, occupied small towns and villages in the foothills on the northern side of the Liri valley.


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.

A Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment joined 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 19 Brigade and set off past Castrocielo towards Roccasecca, a small town near the Melfa River. During the advance one of A Squadron's tanks fell into a 20-foot well which had been roofed over and covered with earth.3 Another

1 Brig H. A. Robinson, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Waipukurau; born New Plymouth, 29 Sep 1912; farmhand; Div Cav 1939–44; CO 18 Armd Regt Mar–Jul 1944; 20 Armd Regt Mar–Oct 1945; twice wounded.

2 W. D. Dawson, 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 462.

3 It was hauled out by 4 Brigade's Heavy Recovery Section.

page 38 tank, upon turning a corner of a narrow lane, came face-to-face with a German turretless recovery or maintenance tank, and captured two of its crew. Next morning (26 May) the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders entered Roccasecca unopposed. The last of the Germans were cleared from the Liri valley east of the Melfa River.


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

Displaying greater defensive capabilities than the Americans had anticipated, the Germans delayed 6 Corps' advance in the vicinity of the Alban Hills. ‘The greatest irony was that if the VI Corps main effort had continued on the Valmontone axis… Clark could undoubtedly have reached Rome more quickly than he was able to do by the route northwest from Cisterna….

1 Mark W. Clark, Calculated Risk, p. 357.

2 Field Marshal Alexander's Memoirs, p. 127.

page 39 Ironically, too, when the Fifth Army finally broke through the last of Fourteenth Army's defences, it accomplished this by a surprise night infiltration along the eastern side of the Alban Hills between the hills and Valmontone….

‘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

Nevertheless, on the eve of the British and American cross- Channel invasion of France, the Allied armies were fulfilling their professed aim in tying down in Italy German troops who otherwise might have been diverted to western Europe. The German High Command had consented on 22 May to the transfer of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division (which had been earmarked for France) from Leghorn to the Rome area, and to its replacement at Leghorn by 20 Luftwaffe Field Division from Denmark. The Hermann Goering Division, travelling in daylight and losing heavily from Allied air attacks as it went, did not go into action until

1 Sidney T. Mathers, ‘General Clark's Decision to Drive on Rome’, in Command Decisions, pp. 362–3.

3 Ibid.

page 40 the 27th, and its units, like those of the other divisions drawn into the battle, were committed piecemeal in small counter-attacks.