Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
VI: The Fall of Rome
VI: The Fall of Rome
Despite instructions from the German High Command that ‘if at all possible, no withdrawal is to be made without the personal concurrence of the Fuhrer’,1 it was obvious by nightfall on 25 May that a retreat could not be postponed much longer. Plans were made, therefore, for the northern wing of Fourteenth Army to hold firm between Velletri (near the Alban Hills) and the sea while its left wing fell back with the right wing of Tenth Army as slowly and economically as possible to the Caesar Line, which Hitler ordered Kesselring to defend at all costs.
The German forces were to retire to a series of lines of defence and inflict ‘such heavy casualties on the enemy that his fighting potentiality will be broken even before the Caesar line is reached’.2 In Tenth Army's zone the first of these lines was near Ceprano, where the main Liri valley forked into the valley of the upper Liri, through which Route 82 led northward to Sora and Avezzano, and the valley of the Sacco, through which Route 6 led north-westward towards Rome. The right wing of Tenth Army could use both avenues of escape. On the northern side of the main Liri valley Route 6 entered the narrow Providero defile before joining Route 82 at Arce, and then turned sharply to the south before crossing the upper Liri River by a bridge at Ceprano. Direct access from the Liri valley to the Sacco valley was blocked by the upper Liri River and by the Isoletta Reservoir, formed by a dam below the confluence of the Liri and Sacco rivers. On one route, therefore, Eighth Army would have to force its way through a defile; on the other it would have to cross a difficult water obstacle.
It had been decided that the honour of taking Rome should go to Fifth Army. Eighth Army's task was to break through the Caesar Line in the Valmontone-Subiaco sector (between the Alban Hills and the Simbruini Mountains) and then exploit northwards along the roads east of Rome.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division made slow progress on 26 May from the Melfa River towards the Liri above the Isoletta Reservoir. The country was rough and thickly wooded; the enemy had left numerous mines and booby traps, and his shell and mortar fire and snipers were troublesome. The bridges over the Liri had been destroyed, but next day the division established a bridgehead above the reservoir and occupied Ceprano, which patrols had found free of the enemy. Meanwhile a force from 1 Canadian Infantry Division, advancing virtually unmolested on the left flank, where the French already had driven off the enemy, sent a patrol across the Liri below the reservoir and also across the Sacco.
Thirteenth Corps' advance along Route 6 from the Melfa was checked by the German defence of the Providero defile. General Kirkman decided to take advantage of the Canadians' success by passing 78 Division over the Liri near Ceprano and thus bypass the blocked route. The Canadian engineers' bridge, however, collapsed into the river early in the morning of 28 May and was not ready for traffic until the following evening. This allowed the Germans an extra day in which to make an unhurried and orderly retreat. Thirteenth Corps was given priority in the use of the bridge when it was completed. Meanwhile the Canadians had bridged the Liri below the reservoir and also spanned the Sacco, which opened up a detour around the corps' left flank. They despatched a strong force along this route.
In the advance beyond the Liri River 5 Canadian Armoured Division had to contend with thickly wooded ridges, gullies, streams, minefields and shellfire, and also fought a sharp action with German tanks. The Canadian infantry division took over the pursuit on 31 May and closed in on Frosinone, the town which commanded page 42 the junction of Route 6 and the alternative escape route to the north through Alatri and Subiaco.
After crossing the Melfa River, 6 Armoured Division of 13 Corps drove up Route 6 on 26 May until halted at the Providero defile, about two miles from Arce. Troops of 1 Parachute Division, who occupied the steep and wooded hills on each side of the highway, thwarted for two days the British attempts to burst through to Arce. To outflank this rearguard Kirkman ordered 8 Indian Division into the hills north of the defile, and at the same time directed 78 Division across country to Ceprano where (as has been mentioned) the Canadians were bridging the Liri.
The 8th Indian Division, with 18 NZ Armoured Regiment still under command, had not yet crossed the Melfa River. In the morning of the 26th a column consisting of a squadron of 6 Lancers' armoured cars, a troop of B Squadron's tanks, and a company of infantry was sent up the narrow gorge through which the Melfa flowed into the Liri valley. The column overcame a German rearguard, but could not prevent the enemy from blowing the bridge half-way through the gorge (Ponte la Valle), so therefore returned to Roccasecca.
A ford below the gorge was negotiable to all types of vehicles, and a bridge built by the Germans farther downstream was still intact, but as these were considered inadequate, 8 Indian Division constructed a Bailey bridge near the ford. When this was ready, 17 Indian Infantry Brigade, with a squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment in support of each of its three battalions, was to cross the Melfa and advance over the hills north of Route 6 towards Arce. This country, although marked on the map as ‘impassable to tracked vehicles’.1 did not deter the New Zealand tank crews, who ‘were prepared to go anywhere and undertake any task. They took their tanks to seemingly impossible places, up steep mountain sides strewn with boulders and down again.’2
When two companies of Gurkhas and a troop of tanks closed in on Frajoli in the failing light, the Germans brought down machine-gun and mortar fire from the village and the nearby hillsides. The tanks replied with their 75-millimetre guns and Brownings; the artillery fired in support, and part of B Squadron crossed a ravine to lend a hand. By 9.30 p.m. all resistance in and around Frajoli had ceased. Some Germans were dead and over 40 were prisoners. The New Zealand casualties were slight: an officer wounded and one tank damaged.
Now that 8 Indian Division had secured the hills on the northern side of the Providero defile, 6 Armoured Division renewed the attack on the southern side, and gained the top of two prominent hills during the night. Fierce fighting continued next day.
On 28 May the Frontiersmen and B Squadron advanced beyond Monte Clavello to Monte Favone, the highest peak in the locality. On the far side of Favone was the town of Santo Padre, from which a road led northwards through Arpino to Sora, on Route 82 in the upper Liri valley. The leading tanks skirted around Favone until they were looking across a ravine at Santo Padre. ‘The town was swarming with Germans, evidently hurrying to evacuate the place, for trucks and cars were pulling out as fast as they could along a road that wound away to the north. Our infantry was nowhere in sight, but down from Favone towards Santo Padre streamed figures in khaki, unrecognisable at that distance.’1 Not knowing that these were Germans, the New Zealanders left them alone and concentrated on the transport which came into view at a road bend a mile away. Several vehicles were knocked out, but the rest vanished down the road.
2 Dharm Pal, p. 196.
About the same time as he abandoned Santo Padre the enemy surrendered the junction of Routes 6 and 82 at Arce. Under the cover of darkness 1 Parachute Division, having fulfilled its role, disengaged on 13 Corps' front. The Gurkhas entered Arce before midday, close behind troops of 6 Armoured Division.
While B Squadron and the Frontiersmen were driving the Germans from Monte Favone and Santo Padre on 28 May, A Squadron, in support of 1/5 Mahratta Light Infantry of 21 Brigade, was ‘inching its way forward over incredible country farther west, occupying the almost vertical rampart of Monte Nero’,1 above Arce, and pushing on to the next peaks. A and C Squadrons (the latter in support of 3/15 Punjab Regiment, also of 21 Brigade) waited next day on the hills above the town of Fontana Liri, from which a road led to the Liri River, while a way down was reconnoitred on foot and by an Auster artillery observation plane, and a bulldozer cut a track. B Squadron, meanwhile, went back from Favone to link up with 19 Brigade, with which it advanced along Route 6 to the Liri.
Thirteenth Corps' plan for continuing the pursuit beyond the Liri was for 78 Division to advance parallel with the Canadians from Ceprano to Frosinone (which it reached on 31 May) and for 8 Indian Division to take a more northerly route through Monte San Giovanni, Veroli and Alatri.
On 30 May C Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, passed through Fontana Liri on the way down to the river at Fontana Liri Inferiore,2 about a mile distant, and waited near a demolished hydro-electric station while 3/15 Punjabs of 21 Brigade covered the building of a bridge. A Squadron went about two miles upstream with the Mahrattas, but eventually crossed next day at Fontana Liri Inferiore. B Squadron waited about two miles downstream from Fontana Liri Inferiore while the engineers, hampered by shellfire, constructed a Bailey bridge which was ready for traffic that night. B Squadron's tanks, in support of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of 19 Brigade, were the first to get to the other side. They set off uphill in single file on a narrow road, and about 3 a.m. on 31 May reached the little hilltop town of Colli, where they waited for daylight.
2 The lower village.
From Colli the road continued northwards between the Liri River and the town of Monte San Giovanni, on top of a sugar-loaf peak, and curved to the north-west around the far side of a large hill, Colle Lucinetta. Some armoured cars of 6 Lancers and a troop from B Squadron, while scouting along this route, encountered a rearguard from 1 Parachute Division at a road junction. A Sherman tank silenced an anti-tank gun, but another New Zealand tank and an armoured car were knocked out. The column was without infantry support and had no prospect of dislodging the enemy, so it withdrew. Meanwhile the rest of B Squadron accompanied the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders across country to clear Colle Lucinetta and Monte San Giovanni. Its tanks fired at scattered parties of escaping Germans.
After crossing the Liri C Squadron advanced with 3/8 Punjab of 19 Brigade towards the road junction where the German rearguard had turned back the scouting column. The Indians jumped down from the tanks on which they had been riding and approached on foot, but were stopped by machine-gun and mortar fire, and took cover. So heavy and persistent was the subsequent fighting that the tanks' Browning barrels ‘were red-hot and their rifling worn away before the day was over.’1 One Sherman was hit, probably by a bazooka, and set on fire; a member of its crew was killed and the rest wounded.
Traffic, obviously the main body of the enemy, was seen speeding away along a road to the west. Early next morning the rearguard, having delayed the pursuers as long as was necessary, had gone from the road junction; it left behind two anti-tank guns, several spandaus, quantities of ammunition and stores, seven stragglers and about 40 dead.
On 1 June a troop of B Squadron accompanied a squadron of the Lancers on a reconnaissance to Veroli, on a hill several miles to the west. The 6/13 Royal Frontier Force Rifles, with A Squadron in support, drove from Monte San Giovanni through a valley of prosperous farms and orchards. The countryside looked peaceful and free of the enemy, and the Italians who lined the road waved home-made Union Jacks, threw flowers and embraced the liberators.
By this time 2 NZ Division, having crossed the Melfa River near Atina, had cut the Sora escape route in the upper Liri valley on the eastern side of the Simbruini Mountains, and the only way to the north still open to the enemy between 10 and 13 Corps was the Veroli-Alatri-Subiaco route, on the western side of these mountains.
From Veroli 17 Indian Brigade continued the advance towards Alatri on 2 June. The Royal Fusiliers and B Squadron of 18 Regiment took most of the morning to get clear of Veroli's narrow streets, which were blocked in places by debris. They then descended a steep, winding road littered with German vehicles knocked out by the RAF and the artillery. In the valley ahead was the transport of 78 Division, which had come up from the south and was attacking Alatri, on top of another conical hill and at times blotted from view by the dust and smoke of shellfire, bombing and strafing.
The Royal Fusiliers and B Squadron left the road and took to the fields on 78 Division's right. B Squadron ran into country ‘worse even than the hills east of the Liri. The tanks struggled across a succession of ridges, with steep rises and sharp drops to stream beds, and on every slope vines, vines and more vines. How the crews cursed those endless fields of vines! They seemed to take an age to push through, the Shermans pitching like destroyers in and out of the ditches that paralleled every row, men sitting in front with heavy wire-cutters to hack a passage….’1 The tanks fired a few rounds at German transport retreating farther up the road, but it was impossible to see in the haze whether any hits were scored. By nightfall 78 Division had occupied Alatri.
B Squadron was still ostensibly in support of the Royal Fusiliers on 3 June, but the going was so difficult that the tanks lost contact with the infantry. The squadron formed a close laager for the night and was on the move again before daylight on the 4th. Its tanks gave covering fire for a patrol of 6 Lancers reconnoitring towards the next village along the road, Guarcino, which 17 Brigade entered the following day.
While 13 Corps was pursuing the enemy through the hills north-east of Route 6, the Canadian Corps pushed along the highway until halted on 3 June at Anagni, about 30 miles from Rome, to allow the French Expeditionary Corps to pass through on Fifth Army's right flank. The Canadians then went into reserve and Eighth Army regrouped so as to place 6 British Armoured Division and 6 South African Armoured Division, under 13 Corps, in the van of the pursuit to the north.
By this time the battle for Rome was drawing to a close on Fifth Army's front. The 2nd US Corps, attacking on the eastern side of the Alban Hills, had cut Route 6 at Valmontone by nightfall on 1 June and closed the northern entrance to the Sacco valley next day; it then wheeled to the left and headed towards Rome, thus threatening to turn the flank of the German Fourteenth Army, which already was being hard pressed by 6 Corps. Fourteenth Army abandoned the Caesar Line and pulled out of the Alban Hills, leaving Route 7 an open road to Rome. Tenth Army withdrew to the north of Route 6. General Clark's Fifth Army columns converged on Rome, where they received a wildly enthusiastic reception on 4 June. Two days later Allied forces under General Eisenhower assaulted the Normandy beaches to begin the liberation of north-west Europe. The Italian campaign now was of only secondary importance in the global war.