WWII: Why the Battle For Italy Should Never Be Forgotten
Video Above: How Infantry Will Improve Tank Killing
By Daniel L. Davis, The National Interest
With Hitler’s Germany in possession of most of continental Europe, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill pressed his American allies to increase the pressure on the Germans occupying Italy. Churchill had convinced the Allied Command to conduct a beach landing about sixty miles behind German lines at Anzio and needed the United States’ 5th Army to prevent German reinforcements from moving north.
“The success at Anzio,” Churchill wrote to his chief of staff on December 26, 1943, “depends on the strength of the initial landing . . . (The attack) should be decisive, as it cuts the communications of the whole of the enemy forces facing the Fifth Army. The enemy must therefore annihilate the landing for by withdrawals from the Fifth Army front or immediately retreat.”
The prime minister believed—wrongly, as subsequent events would prove—that a strong landing at Anzio would force the Germans who were facing Clark to withdraw to meet the greater threat to the North, thus allowing Clark to penetrate their lines and squeeze the Germans in Italy between the two Allied forces.
To accomplish this mission, 5th Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark tasked the 36th Infantry Division to make a penetration of the German lines on the Rapido River. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker, told Clark at least five times that the mission was doomed to fail and had suggested an alternative mission that would have accomplished the same outcome—tying down German units so they couldn’t support the landings at Anzio—but Clark had flatly refused.
With only four days to prepare, Walker realized further push-back was pointless and he had to instead turn his focus to coming up with an attack plan.
Often when senior commanders discuss military plans they lose sight of the impact their orders will have on the men who have to carry them out. Other times they may be fully aware of the impact but have to make the hard call to order the mission anyway, knowing even a high sacrifice is necessary to obtain a higher need for the war. In the case of the Rapido attack, both Clark and Walker were in agreement that an attack was necessary.
Clark’s unwillingness to consider alternative ways to accomplish the higher requirement, however, set the stage for a supreme sacrifice for Walker’s division yet without succeeding in hampering German actions. Regardless of Walker’s assessment the mission would fail, he was nevertheless obligated to give it his best effort. It was a hard sell to his subordinates.
Compounding his already impossible task, Walker only had four days to prepare for the attack. His first order of business was to conduct an intelligence assessment of the nature and scope of the German defenses north of the river.
His senior intelligence officer conducted aerial reconnaissance, interrogated German prisoners, and interviewed Italians who lived in the area. After his assessment the officer told Walker the enemy had anti-tank defenses in depth which would be able to repulse any armored attack between a staggering distance of at least seven miles.
They had created a series of concrete-protected pill boxes from which machine guns could mow down any attacking infantrymen, trenches and strong points. Moreover, the intelligence officer finally noted, beyond the strong immediate defenses, the Germans “had reserve units that were complete divisions—motorized divisions.” If the powerfully arrayed enemy was the only obstacle, Walker’s men would be facing almost impossible odds. Unfortunately, the Americans faced additional hardships.
The Rapido River would normally have proven a moderately difficult hurdle to overcome. But the Germans were masters at exploiting natural obstacles to their tactical advantage. They had dredged the river to make it deeper than normal, which had the effect of creating high, vertical banks so it would be difficult for crossers to either get in or get out of the thirty-foot-wide river. But nature also conspired against the 36th Division: it had been unusually rainy in the weeks prior to the assault and the river was running even faster than normal.
In addition to manipulating the river to give their defenses an advantage, they also flooded the flat land leading up to the river so that any attacking force would have to traverse a considerable distance to even get to a crossing point, and they would be bogged down in the mud—and most critically, it was too muddy for trucks or tanks to drive through, meaning the men would have to carry their own boats to the river, through the mud, under enemy fire (for German gunners and artillery spotters commanded the high ground on either side of the river and had unobstructed visibility on the approaches).
While Clark did not appreciate the near-impossibility of the task he gave to the 36th, he was not unwilling to try and help either. To distract and weaken German defenses, he had ordered a British and French force under his command to conduct diversionary attacks on the left and right flanks of the river. Unfortunately, both attacks failed to accomplish any of their objectives. Instead, it fully alerted the Germans that a larger attack was coming. They were then fully prepared when Walker started his assaults.
The 36th Division was composed of three Infantry Regiments of about two thousand men each, the 141st, 142nd, and 143rd Infantry Regiments. As if he didn’t need any additional disadvantages, the 142nd had been taken away from Walker and designated as the Corps reserve, leaving him short-handed to attempt the attack. Just before the assault began on the night of January 20, 1944, Walker said he felt utterly helpless because “I will have little influence on the battle because everything is committed; I have no reserves; use of artillery ammunition is restricted; and I have no freedom of maneuver.”
The attack began with an intense but short artillery barrage on known or suspected German defensive positions that could bring fire on the assault force. Then the engineers began moving forward under cover of darkness to clear mines and mark lanes for follow-up forces. At a predetermined time, the first waves of infantrymen began moving towards the river carrying their boats. Things went awry from the beginning.
The plywood-and-rubber boats used in the crossing weighed four hundred pounds. It took sixteen men to carry one boat. Each man was carrying a full combat load of personal gear, had to carry the boats in the dark, over thick mud—and under heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire (the Germans had pre-selected likely targets during the daytime so that if an attack happened at night when they couldn’t see, they could still fire their weapons onto the sites most likely to be used by the Americans). The awful conditions exacted an immediate and heavy toll.
It was so dark “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” as many later recounted. Men would often trip and fall, upsetting the boat and causing the others to fall. One lieutenant described the horrible trek to the river in the dark. One group of his men were about 200 feet in front of him when “German shells came in and . . . wiped out my whole platoon except for me and my runner who was with me.” Some of the shells also killed the company commander and severely wounded several other officers—which added a new layer of difficulty for follow-on troops: having to step over and around the dead bodies of their friends.
Miraculously, some of the boat teams actually made it to the river’s edge. The fast-running water was only a couple degrees above freezing and was a shock to the men as one crew put its boat in the water—only to discover that the shelling had ripped so many holes in it that it sank right away. Some of the men, so heavily weighted down with combat gear, slipped off the boat and sank into the dark waters, never to be seen again.
Others were able to successfully get their boats into the water but because of the heavy current, were swept up to five hundred yards too far downstream, outside of the objective area and without any assistance. German machine guns were also probing the river line, killing many Americans and sinking more boats. Adding to the misery, some of the lanes cleared by the engineers got displaced, leading succeeding waves of infantrymen to walk in uncleared areas and being killed with mines.
Small groups of men eventually made it across the river and quickly dug foxholes for protection. But there were too few of them. To make matters worse, all their communications gear and radios had been lost during the trek to and over the river or had simply failed to function. They were cut off and unable to communicate with anyone. Worse, the sun would soon be coming up and the Germans on the high ground would be able to direct accurate fire on the U.S. troops.
The assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. William Wilbur, realized that the entire force would be destroyed when the sun came up, gave the orders at 5:15 a.m. to return to covered positions on the U.S. side of the river to regroup. The order applied only to the men still on the U.S. side of the river. They had lost all contact with the men on the German side. They would have to blindly wait, hoping help came soon, no idea the attack had been called off.
Later that morning, II Corps Commander, Gen. Geoffrey Keyes pressed Walker to renew the attack by noon. Walker, incredulous at the irrational demand, noted that Keyes’ operations officer was carrying a clipboard with suggested attack plans Walker could use.
“Anybody can draw lines on a map,” Walker later wrote, “that doesn’t require brains nor tactical ability. But it does require knowledge, skill, discipline, and many other good qualities to figure out, in detail, with reasonable accuracy, the difficulties that lie in the way.” It was obvious that Keyes had no understanding of the profound nature of the difficulties the Germans posed.
But under the harsh conditions of war, it is almost impossible for subordinate commanders to refuse orders, even if they feel the orders are foolish; there may always be something the higher commander knows that the junior leaders don’t. Walker therefore grudgingly regrouped his men, took accounting of the troops and equipment still left, and went about the near-impossible task of formulating a new attack plan. If the Germans had been alerted to the attack on the 20th, they were now fully prepared for the second attempt on the night of 21st January.
In general terms, an attacking force should be three times larger than the defending force to have a chance. As it turned out, the Germans had a substantial superiority in numbers to the attackers. On top of every military and natural obstacle working against Walker’s troops, the Germans were well-rested, in secure bunkers, and had the dominating high ground. The second attack was doomed before it began.
The second attack started just as the first and suffered much of the same fate. German artillery and machine guns cut the troops to ribbons on the way to the river and killed many more during the crossing. The Texans continued their relentless drive and by early afternoon on January 22nd, a number of troopers made it across and joined the few who had been huddled in foxholes since the first attack.
The determination of the leaders and men under these conditions was astonishing. Despite the impossible odds, regardless of how many of their comrades has already fallen, the men of the 36th continued fighting. Col. William H. Martin, commander of the 143rd Infantry, said of this attack, that when he knew “there was no alternative but to make the attack as ordered, I made an all-out effort to succeed. My officers and men did likewise, knowing they were facing impossible odds. The heroes of the Alamo knew they could not succeed, but they fought with determination to death.” The Texans of the 1944 battle suffered much the same fate.
Too few men made it across the river and there were insufficient numbers of soldiers to press the attack to pry the Germans from their covered positions further from the river. Survival became the greatest task. Like the day before, eventually all the Americans on the far side of the river lost contact with their headquarters, they began to run out of ammunition, and their numbers continued to dwindle as the Germans destroyed all the bridges the 36th erected over the river and then methodically eliminated each isolated group. The battle had been lost.
Astonishingly, however, World War II Corps Commander Gen. Keyes was still not able to acknowledge defeat. With the virtual destruction of two infantry regiments, he initially ordered Walker to embark on a third attack. At the time Keyes issued the order on the afternoon of the 22nd, all the boats that had been made available for the operation had been destroyed. All the bridging equipment the engineers had brought were likewise destroyed.
The only fresh unit available was the 142nd Infantry, but other than manpower, they had no means to cross the river even if there had been no enemy. Only Clark—who belatedly accepted the reality of the mission’s failure—stepped in to cancel the third attack. The battle was finally over.
Out of the approximate four thousand men of the 36th Division who began the operation, more than half were killed, wounded, or captured. Those that were left were physically and emotionally devastated and unavailable for quite some time. But what had the fight accomplished for the Allied? Sometimes even a tactical defeat can result in strategic success. That’s what Clark believed.
In his memoirs published after the war, Clark said he recognized the risk but was compelled “to go ahead with the attack in order that I could draw to this front all possible German reserves in order to clear the way for SHINGLE. This was accomplished in a magnificent manner. Some blood had to be spilled on either the land or the SHINGLE front, and I greatly preferred that it be on the Rapido, where we were secure, rather than at Anzio with the sea at our back.”
The problem with his noble-sounding rhetoric, however, is that he was wrong about the impact the attack had on the Germans. It did absolutely nothing for the Allied troops at Anzio nor did it draw any German reserves away from the Liri Valley surrounding the Rapido River. Moreover, beginning just days later, the 34th Infantry Division succeeded in crossing the Rapido River and creating a beachhead on the German side—in precisely the same spot Walker had requested prior to the January debacle.
As it turned out, the troops at Anzio did not get any help from Clark’s troops until late May when they finally broke through the Liri Valley. Clark then pressed all his troops to move with all possible speed to take Rome from the Nazis, which finally occurred on June 5, 1944. If you don’t remember that date, it’s not surprising: the costly victory did little to hasten the end of the war, and the next day—June 6, 1944—Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s troops landed on the beaches of Normandy and forever captured the attention of the world.
The survivors of the 36th Infantry Division, however, were not willing to fade quietly into history. In the minds of the troops that made the knowingly ill-fated attack at the Rapido, they deserved to have their story heard and justice for their loss. Less than a year after the war was over, Gen. Walker, Col. Martin, and one other veteran of the battle testified before the US House of Representatives. Their stories were gut-wrenching. Their search for justice, however, met a fate almost as disgraceful as their bitter loss in Italy.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1. This article first appeared last year.