Defensive Operation of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division along the Moletta River Line, Northwest of Anzio, Italy, February 7 to February 8 1944. Personal Experience of a Heavy Weapons Company Commander. Capt James D. Shi Jr.
In order that a complete orientation is given to the reader, certain facts and events that influenced the action must be depicted. The reasons for the Anzio landings should be clarified so as to leave no doubt as to the necessity for taking this calculated risk involving large numbers of men and great quantities of material. During the winter of 1944-1945, the Allies in Italy were slowly smashing their way through rugged mountain obstacles on the roads to Rome. Since the Allied invasion of southern Italy, the Germans had fought a delaying action in order to prepare a series of defensive lines farther to the rear. The main defensive barrier guarding the approaches to Rome was the Gustav Line, extending across the Italian peninsula from Minturno to Ortona.
This defensive line was most formidable; the enemy engineers having reinforced the natural mountain defenses with, an elaborate network of pillboxes, bunkers, and minefields. The Germans had also reorganized their forces to resist the Allied advance, and Hitler was determined to gain the prestige of holding the Allies south of Rome.
Opposing the Germans was the Allied 15-AG, with the 5-A attacking on the western and the British 8-A on the eastern sectors of the front. In mid-December, men of the 5-A were fighting their way through the forward enemy defenses, which became known as the Winter Line. Braving the mud, rain, and cold of an unusually bad Italian winter, scrambling up precipitous mountain slopes where only mules or human pack trains could traverse, the Allied forces struggled to penetrate the German defenses.
By early January 1944, the 5-A troops had broken through the Winter Line and had occupied the heights above the Garigliano and the Rapido Rivers, from which they could look across to Monte Cassino, with Highway N°6 curving around its base into the Liri Valley. Before them were the main ramparts of the Gustav Line, guarding this natural corridor to Rome.
The Gustav Line was an even more formidable barrier than the Winter Line, because of the snow-capped peaks flanking the Liri Valley and the rain-swollen Garigliano and Rapido Rivers. Unless some strategy could be devised to turn the defenses of the Gustav Line, the 5-A faced another long campaign of mountain fighting.
The strategy decided upon by the Allied leaders, was an amphibious landing on the west coast of Italy, behind enemy lines. This plan, which was to be executed by a single division, was abandoned on Dec 20, 1943, the date set for the proposed landing. Because of the tenacious German opposition and difficult terrain, the British 8-A and the American 5-A in the Winter Line Campaign could not reach, their assigned objectives. This situation, together with the lack of available landing craft, made the plan for an immediate amphibious end-run impracticable. The continued slow progress of the Allied advance caused the revival of the plan for an amphibious operation south of Rome along the lines as previously contemplated. Originally planned as a subsidiary operation on the left flank of an advancing US 5-A. It developed into a major operation far in the enemy rear when the main 5-A troops failed to crack the mountain defenses in the south.
This landing was intended to cut the German communications and break the flank of the Gustav Line. Furthermore, it was believed that the Germans would move a part of their reserves to halt the new landings, and thereby imperil the Main Line of Resistance in the south. The US VI Corps, selected to make the landing, consisted of British as well as American forces. The assault force shipped out of Naples was virtually unopposed when it landed on Jan 22, 1944, in the vicinity of Anzio and Nettuno. Due to the limited number of landing craft available, a three-day turnaround was required to bring in reinforcements. The enemy made every effort to rush troops to this area and, aided by the bad weather which interfered with Allied air attacks on his communications, he was able to move units from the Gustav Line, from the Balkans, and from France. Within the first two weeks, the Germans had dispatched enough reinforcements to the beachhead to match the Allied strength. The Allied Commanders decided to hold their present positions and prepare for the defense of the new beachhead.
In the first week that the US 45-ID had been on the Anzio Beachhead (this division had landed as reinforcements), the troops had relaxed somewhat, having just left the scene of strenuous and hazardous combat in the snowy mountains above Venafro, just east of Cassino. As the American lines were extended and consolidated on the perimeter of the new beachhead, the men were astounded at the silence, which was only occasionally disrupted by sporadic small arms fire or the crash of an artillery shell. However, this silence was most misleading and actually became ominous. This silence gave no warning of the hell that was to be Anzio. The lonely stretch of the Italian coast looked gaunt and uninviting to all men.
The enemy had prepared few defenses in this sector, they had not progressed beyond the usual hasty field fortifications, trenches, some barbed-wire roadblocks, and a few minefields. The infantry troops organized and prepared defensive positions about the consolidated beachhead perimeter, for it was established by air recon that the Germans were rapidly bringing in reserves to oppose any advance in the direction of Rome. Although the Germans devoted the first days of February 1944 chiefly to defensive measures, it became more and more evident that supplies and reinforcements were being built up for a major counter-offensive. German artillery fire increased in intensity, and enemy patrols probed the forward lines. Higher headquarters realized that the Germans were massing for an attack, but had no idea from which direction it would come. The enemy now had numerical superiority, and from limited vantage points, forward observers could watch German tanks trundling out of the mountains to move into combat position beyond normal artillery range.
At the beginning of February 1944, the German XIV Army was preparing to strike. Hitler had personally ordered that the abscess below home be removed, whatever the cost. Having stopped the Allied drive toward Cisterna and Campoleone, the Germans renewed their preparations for an all-out offensive against the Anzio beachhead. For the first two weeks of February, while these preparations were underway, the Germans believed that the US VI Corps might again attack to break out of the beachhead. The German attacks of early February were designed to pave the way for the enemy’s main offensive, and, by maintaining constant pressure on the VI Corps, prevent the Allies from reorganizing for a new drive out of the beachhead.
The following extract, in part, from the Journal of the German XIV Army explains the reason for the attack on the Moletta River Line. The XIV Army has planned attacks with limited objectives, to suit various situations as they arise. Then the enemy is weakened by these attacks, an all-out counter-offensive will be launched. On Feb 5, 1944, the US 45-ID less the 157th Infantry reverted to the VI Corps reserve and occupied breakthrough, positions in the center of the beachhead perimeter.
The 157-IR was defending the west or the coastal sector of the beachhead. The British 2nd North Staffordshire Regiment was in position on the right of the 157-IR, astride the main road leading south into the harbor of Anzio. The hub of enemy activity in the coastal sector was the area surrounding the factory at Aprilia, situated on the southern edge of the town of Carroceto. Virtually a no man’s land, the factory could neither be claimed by the Germans nor the British, who held positions in the south of it. The enemy launched a tank attack against the British but the Tommies stopped the assault with artillery fire. However, the Germans continued to press their advantage throughout the night of Feb 5-6, 1944. The factory area at Aprilia consisted of many buildings which were located on a slight rise of ground and stood like a fortress dominating the surrounding countryside.
The hamlet of Carroceto located 500 yards southwest of the factory and just north of the overpass which crosses the Albano road and the parallel railway, together with the factory represented important enemy objectives. The capture of the factory and Carroceto were the next logical moves for the enemy as he planned an all-out effort along the axis of the Albano road. With these two objectives in enemy hands, strikes could be made in several different directions into the final beachhead line of defense. A network of roads, with the focal points at the factory and Carroceto, would permit the enemy a tactical advantage to the south and southeast. The enemy plan of attack called for a simultaneous assault on the night of Feb 7-8, 1944, by the 65.Infantry-Division from the west, and by Kampfgruppe Graeser (Task Force) from the east, converging on the Factory and Carroceto.
The Battalion Situation
Meanwhile, in the 157-IR sector, the front remained relatively quiet. During the early hours of darkness on the night of Feb 3-4, 1944, the 3/157, relieved the 2/157 and was in position to the west or left of the British 2nd North Staffordshire Regiment. While checking the newly assumed positions, members of the 3/157 discovered that the enemy was only forty to fifty yards across intervening wadis or gulches. It was also learned from the 2/157 that it was practically impossible to capture a German as a source of information, even though they were within calling distance of each other.
The 3/157 was now responsible for a frontage of approximately 2400 yards with Love Co in position on the right and in contact with the adjacent British unit, there was then a gap of 200 yards in the center between Love Co and Item Co, protected the left portion of the battalion sector. Item Co had one rifle platoon in position to the extreme left, separated from the main company position by a gap of 250 yards. This platoon was reinforced with a section of heavy machine-guns and a section of 81-MM mortars from Mike Co and maintained contact with the 2/157, 1000 yards to the left. This gap between the two battalions was heavily wooded and the few men defending it furnished adequate protection against a breakthrough.
King Co was in support, in the center, about 300 yards to the rear or south of the gap between Love and Item Cos. In addition to the heavy weapons with the platoon of Item Co, another section of heavy machine-guns was in position on the right flank of Item Co. The other platoon of the heavy machine-guns was supporting Love Co, with one section on each flank of the rifle company. The remaining 81-MM mortars (two sections) were located to support the entire front-line of the battalion sector.
One section of 81-MM mortars was in position to the center rear of King Co, where the third section was to the right rear of King Co in an abandoned rock quarry. The 3/157 CP was established in a ditch to the right of the quarry, 500 yards in rear of Love Co. A good dirt road, running from the rear just inside the right flank of the battalion sector, was utilized as the axis of communication, supply, and evacuation. The battalion aid station was at the junction of this north-south road (supply) and the main east-west macadam highway.
After taking over this position, the 3/157 was ordered to initiate plans for a night raid to be executed on the night of Feb 7-8, 1944, at 0100. As a preliminary preparation for the raid, the battalion was engaged throughout the night of Feb 6-7, in constructing the strongest fortified position possible under existing conditions and the limitation of time and darkness. Inasmuch as the terrain was flat as a table-top with limited vegetation of small scrubs and weeds, it was necessary to confine the major part of the preparations and movement to the hours of darkness. The newly assumed positions were reconnoitered for better alternate and supplementary firing positions, especially for the automatic weapons of the battalion. Fire plans were checked, minefields and wire entanglements were improved, positions were better consolidated and coordinated, and more adequate communications were established.
Additional rations, water, and ammunition were brought onto position as a three-day reserve. Each machine-gun, both light and heavy, had 5000 rounds of ammunition available at each gun position, the 81-MM mortars had 900 rounds total of HE Light, HE Heavy, and White Phosphorus ammunition stored at each mortar emplacement.
Final preparations for the raid were completed during the daylight hours of Feb 7. Complete and thorough analyses of maps and the terrain were made, the raiding party and its commander were selected and oriented. The commander of the raiding party, the heavy weapons company commander, and the battalion artillery liaison officer made an aerial recon flight in artillery observation planes (L-5) to become more familiar with their missions as outlined for the raid. As darkness closed in for the night, there was a feeling of confidence and optimism among the men that the raid would fulfill its purpose in gaining information as to the intentions of the enemy. It was not suspected that the ensuing several hours would prove a dilemma for all. However, it would be ascertained that the preparations made for the raid would be of great benefit in defending this position.
Defense of the Moletta River Line
At 2100, just four hours prior to H-hour for the contemplated raid, the 3/157’s positions were subjected to an intense and jolting artillery and mortar barrage. As soon as the barrage subsided somewhat, German infantry with strong tank support suddenly assaulted Love Co and the adjacent British on the right. While the main enemy pressure was hurled between Love Co and the left flank unit of the British 2nd North Staffordshire Regiment, Item Co fought off a limited diversionary attack. There were several farm buildings 350 yards to the front of Love Co, which the enemy employed as an assembly area to discharge waves of infantry into the 3/157’s right flank. Increased activity around the farm buildings disclosed that the Germans had organized for more than just a small-scale attack.
Several hundred yards to the right of these buildings, sixteen Mark VI tanks (Tiger) were slowly but without stopping rumbling towards the British positions. Three hundred yards to the left of the farmhouses an abandoned American tank (M-3) was fully utilized as a pillbox. Even though the tank was immobilized, the Germans had organized a strong point of three heavy machine guns, with excellent fields of fire, around and under the stricken vehicle.
Soon it was discovered that five German Tigers were roaming about to the direct front of the gap between Item and Love Cos. Apparently these armored monsters were leisurely and playfully endeavoring to locate a weak point along the forward line. Item Co was alert to this mechanized threat and marshaled the only active AT measures available for defense. Bazooka men were in the most advantageous firing positions and the artillery forward observer was firing all available guns at his command. The passive AT measures of minefields would be partially effective in retarding the few tanks which might breakthrough. When the attack had started, all men were alerted to battle because of the tremendous volume of deadly artillery, tank, mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire that covered the entire battalion sector. Just as this untimely attack began, the battalion switchboard operator opened all circuits starting a party line, which connected the battalion commander, the company commanders, and the mortar and artillery observers. A lateral line had been laid to the British, establishing communication with them.
The Germans’ initial preparatory and subsequent covering fires actually destroyed the four heavy machine guns in the sector of Love Co and the two heavy machine-guns in Item Co’s right flank within the first thirty minutes of the attack. It was unknown how the enemy neutralized these automatic weapons as quickly as they did. In addition to the light machine-guns of the rifle companies, there were two extra light machine-guns from Mike Co in action. These two soldiers, one a sergeant and the other a German-speaking private, had cautiously crawled to a vantage point in one of the dry wadis. When the right flank of the enemy was suddenly turned for heavy machine-gun fire, the German officers and non-commissioned officers could be heard bellowing commands to maintain the unity of the organization and to keep contact with adjacent units. It was at this opportune moment that the two American soldiers decided to play havoc with their German counterparts.
The German-speaking American subjected the enemy to a mixture of official-sounding commands and sworn epithets while the American sergeant demonstrated his prowess as a hand grenade-thrower. This little side-light provided a touch of comedy to what was meant to be entirely a tragedy. Any enemy soldiers that had strayed or had become lost from his unit was ordered by the American to move in the latter’s direction. The GI even lashed out with fluent obscene German retorts to entice the enemy within grenade range of the two men from Love Co. Additional grenades were supplied the sergeant and his comrade realized quite a profitable hour of labor before withdrawing into their company’s main position. (Statement of Capt Clifford R. Austin, Feb 10, 1944).
During the initial phase of the attack, the commander of Love Co, Capt Clifford R. Austin, had requested immediate 81-MM mortar fire in the vicinity of the farm buildings. Enemy reserves were being assembled here in order to exploit any serious penetration or major break in the forward lines. The 81-MM mortar section, emplaced in the quarry, was assigned the fire mission of dispersing the enemy forming in the rear of the farm buildings. This target had been previously designated as a primary target and registration fires had been completed by this mortar section. Forty to fifty rounds of HE Light ammunition were fired at a rapid rate and thereafter sustained fire was maintained for several hours. This one section of 81-MM mortars expended 3600 rounds of ammunition. Several hundred rounds were fired blindly without the employment of a forward observer.
(Doc Snafu) US Army ammunition at hand for 60-MM and 81-MM mortars. (1) 60-MM, a. Shell HE M-49-A2 HE; b. Shell ILL M-83-A1, Illuminating with Parachute; c. WP M-302 White Phosphorus. (2) 81-MM, a. Shell HE M-43-A1 Explosive (light); b. Shell HE M-45-B1 (light) Explosive; c. Shell HE M-56 (heavy) Explosive; d. Shell WP SMOKE M-57 White Phosphorus; e. Shell FS SMOKE M-57 (Red Smoke).
When Love Co requested fire on the enemy assembly area, it was discovered that the platoon leader and two mortar section leaders of the 81-MM mortar platoon were isolated and cut-off from friendly troops, along with an artillery forward observers’ party of four men. The heavy weapons company commander conversed with his mortar platoon leader by telephone and learned that the trapped observers could not escape from their observation post, a two-story stucco house located in the gap between Item and Love Cos.
The observers reported that bursts of machine-gun fire prevented them from using the windows to observe and adjust artillery and mortar fire on available enemy targets. Consequently, these observers were of no assistance in firing on the reserves forming near the farm buildings. Initially, the mortars were actually obtaining excellent results without the use of observers, Capt Austin reported that the fire was perfect and exactly where he wanted it, and to maintain heavy fire on that target.
The heavy weapons company commander contacted the battalion commander at his forward CP and requested permission to take a squad of riflemen from King Co and extricate the forward observers from their positions. Inasmuch as wire communications were out and could not be maintained, and the radio communication proved inadequate, the request was granted. Subsequently, the FO parties returned to safety after spending a harassing hour. They soon occupied, other OP’s and contributed to the defensive battle action. The heavy weapons company commander suggested that the battalion commander move his CP to another site that offered better observation and much more protection. The suggestion was ignored and the battalion commander remained in a position that the enemy was continually shelling in order to maintain better control of the situation. A short time later the battalion commander was killed instantly by tank fire and the battalion executive officer assumed command. The new battalion commander had maintained close contact with the progress of the battle and was well-qualified professionals to continue the defense of the position.
It was ascertained that the British Staffordshires were fighting a losing battle against overwhelming numbers, both in men and tanks. The British company on the immediate right flank had fought courageously against the several waves of tanks attacking them, but the unit had been reduced to one-third of its original strength. The Brits had exhausted their supply of ammunition, and their supply road had been cut temporarily by a group of infiltrating enemy. The Tommies requested the use of the 3/157 supply road and shortly afterward this road was subjected to intense shelling by the Germans.
However, the British were supplied with ammunition from the distribution point in Love Co’s sector. The British had been partially equipped with some American weapons and this fact plus Love Co having a reserve supply of ammunition on position was conducive to prolonging the battle insofar as the Tommies were concerned. This proved to be only a temporary measure, for the British company commander requested permission to withdraw his unit and join Love Co, after having made their third bayonet attack due to a lack of ammunition. The British officer and sixty men, all that remained of that unit, were granted their request but were either captured or killed before joining Love Co.
As soon as it was evident that the British position was untenable, plans were made to reinforce the right flank of Love Co with part of the 3/157’s small reserve. The British regiment had fought gallantly but could not be expected to resist indefinitely against superior odds on flat terrain. Small gaps appeared in their lines and in several hours the British were forced to withdraw about 400 yards and reorganize along the wadis. This withdrawal exposed the right shoulder of the battalion’s position.
The companies of the 3/157 began shifting to establish defenses against renewed attacks which were sure to come. Two squads from King Co moved to the extreme right flank of Love Co, and after several skirmishes, the enemy infiltration stopped. A raiding party from King Co flanked and captured a German machine-gun crew that had penetrated the lines and was pouring fire into Love Co’s position. The 3-RB (Rangers), a platoon of volunteers organized for raids and combat patrols, hurried from a reserve position to the extreme right flank of the battalion to reinforce the two squads of King Co.
The collapse of the adjacent British troops on the right forced Love Co to organize a perimeter defense. The right platoon of Love Co and the recently added reinforcements were pulled back in order to protect the right rear of the battalion. The new position of Love Co now assumed the outline of a semicircle or crescent moon. Later as enemy tanks and approximately fifty paratroopers attacked the rear areas of the British sector, the 3/157 right flank was exposed to this new threat. To counter the situation, the battalion commander extended his line to the southeast, withdrawing Love Co to keep it from being trapped. All available men in the vicinity of the battalion Command post were employed to outpost the rear of the sector and to prevent further infiltration and penetration nearer the command post.
Meanwhile, Item Co had withstood the minor thrusts made at its position and had reinforced the fires of King Co in denying the enemy any penetration in the gap between the front line companies. However, a German tank had broken through into the left rear of Item Co and was shelling the 81-MM mortars in position behind King Co. Each time the mortars fired, the tank retaliated and finally succeeded in driving the mortars into the rock quarry, where they aided in turning back the tank to its own lines. When Love Co had withdrawn to the southeast, its left platoon (on the west of the company position) had a terrific skirmish of thirty minutes in a successful attempt to disengage itself and cover the withdrawal of the main force of Love Co. The fighting engaged in by this platoon seemed to be a hopeless measure because it had turned into a hectic and confusing hand to hand affair. However, the platoon being composed mainly of seasoned troops, fought hard, determinedly, and became disengaged through the efforts of one squad. This squad screened the disengagement of the platoon and then resorted to individual tactics and infiltration to rejoin their unit. Only two men of this squad failed to return, so the action was considered to be successful.
All of the casualties, both the dead and the wounded, were left behind so as not to jeopardize the withdrawal to the new position of those men still able to fight. After Love Co had organized in its new position, combat patrols were dispatched frequently to determine the strength and probable intentions of the increasing enemy forces to the east and southeast (right rear). Other patrols were organized to outpost and screen the rear against further infiltration, especially by small groups of Fallschirmjaeger force which had been detected on the right rear. These German paratroopers were contacted and soon liquidated. (Lt Charles P. Barker, Feb 10, 1944)
The position of the 3/157 remained intact but offered a precarious situation which grew more alarming as each minute passed. The only supply road leading into position was under constant fire and several jeeps ran the gauntlet to bring in ammunition and to evacuate the wounded to the battalion aid station. Due to the bulge in the British sector the 3/157 was on the west shoulder of this indenture, protruding like a large wart and ready to be cut-off.
The Division and the Corps HQs were alert to the 3/157’s predicament and were endeavoring either to reinforce the battalion position or to have a sufficiently strong force counter-attack and partially restore the over-run British position. The latter solution was more desirable inasmuch as it would secure the right flank and rear of the 3/157, as well as reestablish the initial line of the previous day. Moreover, the greatest problem was in locating a unit that could be withdrawn from the line in another sector without endangering the strength of that portion of the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) and employ it as a counter-attacking force in the hard-pressed sector. Reserves in each sector were greatly inadequate and it would involve many risks to shift units of a battalion or a regimental strength from one sector to another. Directly to the rear of the 3/157, there were only several British artillery batteries (twenty-five pounders) between the defending battalion and the service troops of the VI Corps in Anzio. The only available infantry reserve in the sector of the 157-IR was the 1/157, 2500 yards to the left rear, which occupied breakthrough positions and constituted the only combat troops between the MLR and Anzio.
Immediate measures were required to maintain a more tenable position and to continue the defense of this sector. At 0500, Feb 3, the heavily shelled 3/157 command post and the two 81-MM mortar sections nearby were withdrawn, suffering casualties as men came under small arms and machine-gun fire in attempting to cross open ground in the early dawn. Item Co made a slight withdrawal to relieve increasing pressure by the enemy to exploit his gains on the battalion’s right flank. As soon as the new Battalion CP was established and the 81-MM mortars had been emplaced in new positions, Item Co launched a counter-attack at 0630 and regained its former position. The enemy had occupied the ground formerly held by Love Co. When Love Co had withdrawn to the southeast, it was necessary for King Co to retire a few hundred yards in order to further support both front-line companies and to repel the enemy if he should attack through the gap between Item and Love Cos.
The new Main Line of Resistance extended now from Item Co’s position on the Buonriposo Ridge to the east across intervening wadis and then turned southeast for several hundred yards. These wadis were natural obstacles with a depth of thirty to fifty feet and just as wide across the top of the gulch. These new positions were organized around the wadis, utilizing these freaks of nature to the maximum advantage. Being perpendicular to the enemy’s advance, the wadis offered excellent defensive positions from which the enemy could be stopped from making further gains. As the enemy’s attack slowed, new lines of communication were established and by 0800, the battalion position was consolidated and improvements continued. A new supply line was established which required carrying parties to transport the supplies through the wadis that lead directly from the south into the vicinity of the new battalion CP. Ammunition, water, and rations were replenished, and the new battalion aid station established, near the Battalion CP, 800 yards west of its former location.
At 0830, the attack ceased and the Germans began consolidating their costly gains. Concentrated artillery and mortar fire was maintained on the former positions of the 3/157 in an effort to prevent the enemy from entrenching and establishing himself too permanently. It was believed that the 3/157 could attack and restore its initial positions. However, all available forces in the battalion were committed and were actively engaged, and soon it was learned that the battalion could not be assigned a reserve sufficient to launch a successful counter-attack to regain the old positions.
One rifle company from another regiment was sent to support the battalion. It was now planned to reinforce the present position, dig-in, and prepare for another phase of defensive combat.
At 1400, Feb 8, a recon party from the 1/157 arrived to recon the 3/157’s positions in order to relieve the latter battalion commencing at dark that night. Installations of the Battalion CP and the 81-MM mortars were relieved from dark, due to the fact that these positions were well defiladed and hidden from enemy observation.
The relief was completed by 0100 and the weary men of the 3/157 marched to the breakthrough positions formerly held by the 1/157. Even though they were tired, dirty, hungry, and some wounded, the men of the 3/157 remained in good spirits, with the feeling that once again they had withstood an enemy onslaught of superior odds.