The Battle of Monte Porchia, 4-8 January 1944. Image: WIPL and Ian Bull
Patrick Mercer recalls a gruelling mountain assault by one of America’s most illustrious infantry units.
My father fought throughout the Italian campaign and I can remember him saying to me, ‘It is the side which is less frightened who wins.’
That is why I have chosen to base this article on Lloyd M Wells’s book From Anzio to the Alps, a young officer’s account of the savage fighting in central Italy as experienced by the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment of the US Army.
The book is remarkable on several counts. First, it deals in a very understated way with the thoughts, emotions, fears, and triumphs of a young civilian who has no idea what he is about to face as an infantry officer with a front-line unit. Never is his heroism spelt out: his record of wounds and decorations is allowed to speak for itself.
Second, whilst Wells is rightly proud of the hard fighting 6th Infantry, he is never under any illusion about what actually happens in battle. There are accounts of the sort of problems he faced as a twenty-something platoon commander whose soldiers sometimes ran, sometimes ‘straggled’ (a term the GIs used for disappearing unaccountably when the fighting raged, only to appear again later), often infuriated him, and yet finally thrashed Kesselring’s men amongst the scrub, rocks, and freezing mountain rivers of Italy.
The title of Wells’s book refers to the regiment’s later exploits in the hellish confusion of the Anzio beachhead and then the bloody combat further north on the Gothic Line. But I want to concentrate on Wells’s first few weeks with his battalion, which he joined further south, just before the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Italian Campaign will know about the battles that raged around the Abbey of Monte Cassino and, probably, the disastrous attempt by the 36th Texas Division to cross the Rapido River on 22 January 1944. Much less well known, however, is the series of battles to take the rocky spines that led up to the rivers below Cassino proper.
A FATAL PAUSE
An exhausted GI naps on the Cassino battlefield in January 1944. Image: WIPL
One such was the assault by the 6th Armored Infantry, part of the US 1st Armored Division,
against Monte Porchia – undertaken whilst the British 46th Midland Division attacked its much smaller neighbour, Monte Cedro, in early January 1944.
It is fascinating to read that Wells thought his division’s efforts to seize this outcrop were just as bloody as the river crossing attempted by the Texans a few days later – the only difference being that 1st Armored’s succeeded!
First, though, it is important to explain the topography and sequence of events leading up to the battle for Monte Porchia. After the landings at Salerno and the bruising crossing of the Volturno by Mark Clark’s Fifth Army in the middle of October 1943, the Germans bought time to complete the defences of the main Gustav Line by fighting on another, temporary line, adjacent to Mignano, known as the Winter Line.
Anchored on Camino in the west and the village of San Pietro in the east, British and US troops finally broke through during the third week of December 1943. But the Germans knew their enemies too well and gambled that the Allies would not press their advantage.
They were right. In perhaps Clark’s greatest mistake as a general officer, he allowed his weary troops to pause after these battles, to regroup, to rest and celebrate Christmas. He should have been merciless with his men; he should have driven them remorselessly on to the rivers and mountains upon which the Gustav Line was still being prepared.
Had he done so he might have disrupted the Germans’ operational tempo. He might even have
‘bounced’ his way through what was to prove to be one of the costliest positions to capture in the entire war. But he dawdled, and his troops would pay the price in blood.
A MINOR MOUNTAIN
Below Monte Cairo, upon which the louring Abbey of Monte Cassino sits, are the confluences of several rivers: the Gari running north-east, the Liri running north-west, the Rapido running south-west and joining with the mighty Garigliano, which runs down to the sea near Minturno.
These rivers needed to be overlooked and dominated by artillery observers before they could be crossed by armour and infantry, but all were guarded and screened by a series of stony, whaleback features that rose suddenly out of the ground.
Having drawn breath over Christmas around Camino, Monte Lungo, and Monte Sammucro, the Fifth Army could see Monte Trocchio as the final vantage-point overlooking the rivers, with the main German defences beyond.
Before Trocchio, however, lay another range of three hills: Monte Chiai, Monte Porchia, and Monte Cedro; of which, Monte Porchia was dominant.
Monte Porchia is the small mountain in the background in this photo of German prisoners being led to the rear. Image: WIPL
Initially, 1st Armored Division were to tackle Porchia alone, but once it was realised how vulnerable the Americans’ flank would be, the British 46th Division were committed to what should have been a simple operation against Monte Cedro.
The two divisions were to leapfrog onto their objectives, providing mutual covering fire, but the British ran into trouble almost as soon as their advance began.
Crossing the smaller River Pecchia proved both slow and costly, and once their leading battalions were across, the Brits were immediately counter-attacked.
One battalion – the 6th York and Lancasters – clung to the far side of the river, fighting an epic minor battle all of its own. The others, though, had to be withdrawn, and this fouled the advance of 1st Armored.
The Americans needed flanking fire to be suppressed by the British before they could attempt Monte Porchia, yet the British needed German fire from the same mountain to be suppressed before their bridgeheads over the Pecchia could develop. It was a brutal impasse.
AN ARMOURED INFANTRY BATTALION
Finally, artillery was massed, both divisions renewed their attacks at night, and eventually – bitterly – the Germans were crowbarred from some of their dugouts and trenches. It was into this maelstrom that the 6th Armored Infantry Regiment was launched from the northern end of Monte Lungo.
An American armoured division had a three-battalion-strong infantry regiment mounted in M3 halftracks (what would now be called an armoured personnel carrier), a hybrid lorry with wheels at the front, two axles supporting a track behind, light armour, and a variety of support weapons mounted on top.
Such vehicles sound ideal for swift infantry movement to keep up with tanks but Lloyd Wells remembers:
The ‘tracks’ were designed for a war of movement, but it was not their speed which appealed to us. Neither was it their firepower nor their protective armour. Indeed, according to the old Africa hands, they were worse than useless in combat because they attracted artillery fire and bombs without providing protection against either. But they did give some assurance we wouldn’t have to hike our guts out, and they gave the outfit a certain cachet, a certain flair, don’t you know.
THE 6TH ARMORED INFANTRY GOES IN
This air-reconnaissance photo shows Monte Porchia, bottom, Monte Trocchio, centre, Monte Cassino (with the monastery clearly visible) in the near distance, and Monte Cairo (snow-capped) in the far distance.
There were to be no rapid flanking moves around mountains and rivers at Cassino, just hard slog. General Juin, the deeply controversial commander of the French Expeditionary Corps, was appalled by the Allies’ over-dependence on armour and vehicles generally. When he first arrived
in Italy in late 1943, he made no secret of his scorn for the Fifth Army’s tactics and demonstrated just how he believed mountain warfare should be conducted with his lightly equipped colonial troops.
But none of this helped 6th Armored, who fought on foot at Monte Porchia just like any other infantry. As Wells explains:
The regiment did not, of course, go after Porchia without assistance. It simply provided the infantry component around which Task Force Allen was assembled. Other units of the task force included tank and tank-destroyer battalions, division artillery, an engineer combat group, and assorted other outfits, including a contingent of medical personnel whose services would be much in demand.
It was to be a classic, night attack.
Shortly after dark on 4 January 1944 or thereabouts, the regiment came down from the heights on Monte Lungo and formed up with 1st Battalion on the right, 2nd Battalion on the left, and 3rd Battalion in reserve, standard attack formation.
Tanks and tank destroyers were in support of both the assault battalions, and engineers were assigned down to company level to clear paths through the minefields which lay ahead…
… it was not easy going in the dark, but the infantry moved out across the field rather than risk daylight movement under direct observation.
US infantry under cover during the fighting on Monte Porchia.
SMALL-ARMS AND SHU MINES
No sooner had the leading elements come up to the low ground directly overlooked by Monte Porchia than they were struck by violent artillery fire, worse than anything the veterans in 6th Armored’s ranks had seen in North Africa.
So bad were casualties amongst the 2nd Battalion that the 3rd had to be moved in to replace them, so committing the reserve before battle was even properly joined.
Then, as the Americans clawed at the slopes throughout the next morning, the Germans launched a counter-attack. This was beaten back by concerted mortar fire. Slowly, the regiment crept forward; the main event was only just beginning.
Close to the base of Porchia, the troops were met by heavy volumes of small arms’ fire coming from stone farmhouses which have been converted into defensive strong-points. Tank and bazooka action reduced these positions one by one.
The infantry also encountered in some profusion the deadly Shu mine, which, because its destructive core was encased in wood or plastic, could escape the mine-detecting equipment carried by the engineers. Small wonder that movement was slow.
By early afternoon, however, about two dozen men of the 2nd Battalion had struggled their way to the summit, fired-in by British artillery on their western flank, and, in turn, providing support for the 46th Division on Monte Cedro.
But there were simply not enough of them to resist the inevitable counter attack, and they were soon pushed back.
So General Allan used his sappers as infantry to plug the gap until 1st Battalion was able to carry out a pre-dawn assault on 7 January, which allowed the other two battered battalions to drive the Germans off the whole feature and break up a number of counter-attacks.
Although it took four more days fully to clear the objective and exploit forward to the next target, 6th Armored had the satisfaction of watching the ‘Krauts’ pack up and leave Monte Trocchio – the last hill before Cassino and the Garigliano – without a fight.
THE COMBAT EXPERIENCE
US Armored Infantry in action in Italy in 1944.
The 6th had won and there were plenty of instances of huge personal courage. It is recorded that a lieutenant-colonel battalion commander – ‘always in the forefront’ – grabbed a rifle and led his forward squads until he was severely wounded.
And there was Lieutenant Jarman, who had killed the sniper holding up his company’s advance until wounds caused him to hand over command to the ‘fun-loving Sergeant Owens, a company favourite, until he, too, was stopped.’
Bearing in mind that this is his own unit, whose élan he admired and of which he was properly proud, Wells continues,
But there were other stories told more cautiously, more reluctantly and privately, of something less than heroism. Apparently, the actual fighting had been done by a few individuals. Most men,
it would seem, simply went to ground, never fired their weapons, and moved forward only when they judged it safe.
Also, ‘straggling was a serious problem at Porchia. An undetermined number of people simply slipped off or took off for the rear.’
Wells’s conclusion provides the essential coda to these observations, however:
I realised that soldiers who bug out are not necessarily cowards or bad men, or even weak men, but in January of 1944 I was not able to view the matter with anything like Olympian detachment… nothing had prepared me for this.
This was the reality of war, seldom written about with such candour. Whatever the details of this battle, 6th Armored fought and won time and again in Italy, and if you want to get a feel for what modern combat is actually like, read Wells’s wonderful book and admire the men who endured, fought, and died alongside him.
Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made special studies of the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, and the Italian Campaign.