Chapter Seven

Piercing the Gustav Line

The French took credit for the success of Operation Diadem, as it was they who turned the panzers.The French Expeditionary Corps started to arrive in Italy in November 1943 and by May 1944 was fully up to strength. Colonial Moroccan troops first really made their presence felt in Italy when General André Dody’s division tipped the balance during Operation Raincoat in mid-December 1943. His men helped push the Germans back to the Gustav Line, but overall the offensive failed to put the Allies in a strong position to support the forthcoming Anzio landings.

While the US 5th Army suggested advancing along the Ausente valley, it was the French General Juin who proposed attacking through the mountains while making no attempt to outflank Aurunci. To do this it was necessary to break out of the Garigliano bridgehead so the French could take Monte Majo and the Ausonia defile. General Clark, impressed by Juin’s boldness, agreed.

The 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division under General Dody was given the task of taking Majo and its three spurs. On the right was Brosset’s 1st Free French Division and on the left de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, which was tasked with securing Castleforte to open up the Ausente. Afterwards the Mountain Corps, comprising General Savez’s 4th Moroccan Mountain Division and General Guillame’s Group of Moroccan Tabors, could then push to the Aurunci massif.

On 13 May 1944, in the face of stiff German resistance, the Moroccans succeeded in breaching the Gustav Line at Monte Majo, one of its deepest (though most weakly defended) points. Ausonia was captured two days later. In particular, the fall of Majo unhinged the 14th Panzer Corps’ left wing, greatly contributing to the Allies’ success.

By 1730 on 23 May General B.M. Hoffmeister, commanding the Canadian 5th Armoured Division, felt a large enough breach had been achieved to commit his tanks. Unfortunately the division had to shift its axis of attack and got tangled up with the tanks of the 25th Armoured Brigade moving to rearm and refuel. By the time the mess was sorted out too much time had passed and Hoffmeister was unable to attack until early the next morning. This was to become an all-too-familiar problem.

His lead units kicked off at 0800 on 24 May. The vanguard was led by a composite group of tanks and infantry made up of squadrons from the British Columbia Dragoons, each supported by carrier-borne infantry from the Irish Regiment of Canada. This was known as Vokes Force (after the commander of the Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel F.A. Vokes) and its mission was to establish a base midway between the Hitler Line and Melfa. A second Canadian composite group, Griffin Force, consisting of tanks from Lord Strathcona’s Horse (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel P.G. Griffin) and lorried infantry from the Westminster Regiment, was to pass through Vokes Force and take a crossing over the Melfa. A third leap was to be made by elements of the Westminsters who would consolidate the bridgehead, while the 8th Princess Louise’s Hussars would fight their way towards Ceprano.

Hoffmeister’s tanks were protected on the flanks by the British 6th Armoured Division moving on their right along Highway Six, and by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division on the left, whose tanks and infantry were to strike along the north bank of the Liri. It was during these operations that some of the few major tank-versus-tank battles of the Cassino campaign were fought. It was now that the Allies first came up against the Panzer Mk V Panther in Italy. On 15 May, after urgent appeals from General von Vietinghoff, a company of Panthers had been deployed to Melfa, where they arrived five days later, just in time to confront the Canadians.

Shortly after midday the tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons and supporting infantry reached their objective about 2 miles northwest of Aquino, and Griffin Force was ordered forwards. At 1500 the Strathcona’s reconnaissance troop crossed the Melfa. Vokes Force had brushed with the Panthers early on 24 May and remarkably had managed to account for three Panthers for the loss of just four Shermans.

A and C Companies of the Strathconas, trying to cross further north, managed to drive the Panthers to the far bank, but they lost seventeen Shermans and claimed just five panzers destroyed, not all of them Panthers. An infantry officer spoke of the Canadian tank crews with amazement: ‘I’ll never forget the way the tanks would keep coming and then one would get knocked out and then another and still they’d keep coming.’

Meanwhile the Canadians were unable to get any anti-tank weapons over to the Strathcona/Westminster bridgehead and the Germans launched three counterattacks with Panthers. Three tanks almost overran their positions but PIAT fire made the Germans lose their nerve and they wheeled away. Fortunately by 2100 some 6-pounder anti-tank guns had got over the river.

In summing up the Melfa battles a staff officer in the Canadian 5th Armoured Division wrote:

As for the main obstacle of the German tanks … the only reason why it was possible to make headway against their qualitative superiority was by weight of numbers … General Leese [Commanding 8th Army] was prepared to lose 1,000 tanks. As he had 1,900 at his disposal, the Panther stood a fair chance of becoming an extinct species among the fauna of S. Italy. On our side losses had to be taken and replacements thrown in. Being somewhat up against it, the tankmen were compelled to improvise and make the most of what they had.

It was decided to throw everything up the Liri valley as soon as possible. The net result was that five divisions (Canadian 5th Armoured, British 6th Armoured, Canadian 1st Infantry, Indian 8th Infantry and British 78th Infantry) were all madly jostling for space.This meant that around 450 medium tanks, 240 light tanks, 50 self-propelled guns, 320 armoured cars, 200 scout cars, 2,000 half-tracks and 10,000 lorries were jammed along the roads in the valley. Operation Diadem turned into one enormous traffic jam that threatened to derail the offensive before it had even properly got under way.The military police trying to sort out the chaos were faced with an almost impossible task as tempers flared and vehicles bumped into one another.The slow-moving tanks consumed four times as much petrol as normal and the heavy traffic prevented extra fuel being brought up. It is hardly surprising that the Germans slipped the noose.

On 24 May the British 6th Armoured Division was held up for several hours waiting for the Canadian 5th Armoured Division to clear the roads. On the 29th and 30th, with Acre cleared and 13th Corps thrusting for Altari, an attempt was made to commit yet more tanks, this time the South African 6th Armoured Division.The plan was for the South Africans to replace the Canadians, but until they took over the Canadian positions all they did was add a few more thousand vehicles to the existing almighty traffic jam.

In the meantime the Germans did what they were best at and conducted highly successful local defensive actions.The 90th Panzergrenadiers at Ceprano and the 1st Parachute Division at Acre managed to hold the British at bay and kept the road to Rome closed until the end of May.The Allied command despaired of their tanks ever doing what they were supposed to do.

Meanwhile the German 14th Army conducted an orderly fighting withdrawal towards Rome. Diadem cost the British and American forces some 44,000 casualties, failed to destroy the Germans and condemned the Allies to another year of fighting around the Gothic Line from August 1944 to May 1945. The Germans lost 450 panzers, half the available armour in Italy, as well as 720 guns of various calibres. Four of Kesselring’s battered infantry divisions had to be withdrawn for refit and another seven were badly weakened. Nonetheless, four fresh divisions and a regiment of heavy tanks were on the way to help hold up the Allied advance.

The Italian capital was not secured until 4 June, and even then the Allies failed to encircle Kesselring’s withdrawing forces. South of Rome the Germans made one last desperate attempt to stop their 10th and 14th Armies losing contact. The diary of an artilleryman serving with the German 65th Infantry Division recalled:‘The whole day Tommy [British troops] is attacking. We answer until the gun barrels are red hot. At 12.15 groups of enemy tanks are trying to break through at the Schotterstrasse [disused railway bed].This attack collapses in our fire. At 1600 Tommy attacks again. Soon after that we receive orders to retreat.’ The 65th Infantry Division destroyed 168 Allied tanks in front of the Schotterstrasse and at Campoleone to the east. Yet still the Allies pressed home their attacks.

Raleigh Trevelyan, a British platoon commander serving with the Green Howards, recalled:

Sometimes a [Panzer] Mark IV tank or scout car would block main highways into Rome, and partisans would guide the Americans through back alleys.… At about 8pm Irish Dominicans at San Clemente near the Colosseum heard a commotion like big wheels grinding and went out to investigate. A line of American tanks was drawn up close to the walls of the college. Two of the Fathers walked along the tanks, but no soldier spoke or made a noise. Suddenly from the last tank there jumped an officer, who went down on his knees and asked for a blessing.

The tough Hermann Göring Division, though badly mauled, escaped. Unfortunately for Kesselring, this division was sent to Russia the following month. The British 8th Army struggling up the Adriatic coast by mid-September was being resisted by elements of ten German divisions.This did not greatly deter its advance on the Senio river and by the end of the year the key armoured formations of the German 10th Army, the 26th Panzer and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions, had suffered ever heavier casualties. Only the arrival of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division alleviated the pressure on the exhausted 26th Panzer and staved off collapse.

This dramatic photo was taken at a US 5th Army forward artillery observation post at Francolise during a 25-pounder barrage on German positions across the Savone river in November 1943. On the west coast the 5th Army had taken Mondragone and the road junction of Sessa Arunca, and by 9 November was approaching the Garigliano.

A disabled Panzer Mk IV captured during the British advance on Villa Grande. This is probably an Ausf G or H. After the taking of Ortona by the British 8th Army on 28 December 1943, troops from the Indian Division occupied positions a quarter of a mile beyond Villa Grande.

A British Honey light tank rounding a bend on its way to the Sangro river from Baglieta, with the Maiella mountains in the background.This photograph was taken on 9 December 1943. In the face of appalling weather conditions and stiff enemy resistance, the British 8th Army carried the river and drove on the port of Pascara.

A column of three Shermans and a carrier come under German mortar fire during the battle of the Sangro river in early December 1943.

Infantry of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada searching German prisoners near the Moro river on 8 December 1943.

A D8 bulldozer retrieves two Canadian Shermans that came off the road north of San Leonardo di Ortona on 10 December 1943.

German defences in Orsogna under attack by Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk dive-bombers on 22 December 1943. The British reached Orsogna in early December but the Germans counterattacked and expelled them.The British attacked again, only to discover that the Germans had dug in a Panzer Mk IV and a flamethrower in the town square covered by machine guns positioned in the surrounding houses. This led to heavy street-to-street fighting while the main Allied advance pushed up the east coast towards Pescara.

German gunners score a direct hit on a house in Castel Frentano.The Kittyhawk attack on Orsogna was followed up by thirty-six medium bombers; although the German anti-aircraft defences were weaker than usual, they retaliated by shelling the forward communication road in front of Castel Frentano, a mile from their lines.

General Bert Hoffmeister, commander of the Canadian 5th Armoured Division. His men, in the shape of Vokes Force and Griffin Force, were committed to Operation Diadem on 24 May 1944. Their flanks were protected by the British 6th Armoured Division and the Canadian 1st Infantry Division.

Tanks from the Canadian 5th Armoured Division moving up for the Diadem offensive. Note the carrier stranded in the mud in the lower right of the frame.

Canadian tanks from Vokes Force first came up against the Panzer MK V Panther in the Melfa area on 24 May 1944. The engagement resulted in the loss of four Shermans and three Panthers. Gathering their wits, the panzers subsequently knocked out seventeen Shermans for the loss of just five of their number.

Griffin Force struggled to get its 6-pounder anti-tank guns over the Melfa to fend off German counterattacks with Panthers.Three panzers overran the Canadian positions but the crews lost their nerve and withdrew, by which time help was on its way.

US M10 tank destroyers roll past the Colosseum. American tanks entered Rome on 4 June 1944, to be greeted by Dominican monks.

(Above and opposite, top): American M4 Shermans passing through Italian streets.The first photograph depicts an early model M4A1, identifiable by the cast hull and one-piece cast nose. In the second photograph the tank in the foreground is also an M4A1, while the one in the background is an M4A4, again with a cast hull but with the three-piece bolted nose.

(Opposite, below): Visible are at least eight British Churchill tanks. After fighting against the Gustav Line, the British 8th Army captured Rimini and established a bridgehead over the Marno on 14 September 1944. This was subjected to fierce German counterattacks.

Upgunned Churchill IVs (NA 75) shelling the Gothic Line. They were converted in Tunisia, North Africa (hence NA) when 120 Churchill IVs were fitted with M3 75mm guns and mantlets salvaged from damaged Shermans. They were the first British tanks to take this calibre gun into action and they proved highly successful in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns.

Two knocked-out Tigers in Italy. The lower image shows the first Tiger knocked out by the New Zealand 18th Armoured Regiment in late July 1944, during the push on Florence.

The Red Army’s Major General Vasiliev (centre) visiting the US 5th Army on Mount Camino. He was particularly interested in Allied battle methods and weapons.

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