RAPIDO RIVER OPERATION
Prime Minister Churchill favored the Anzio-Cassino operation. As a result, General Alexanders 15th Army Group ordered General Mark Clarks Fifth Army to make a landing at Anzio and at the same time to make a strong assault across the Rapido River toward Cassino and Frosinone, to force the enemy to commit its reserve south of Rome, then develop an opening through which to link up quickly with the Anzio Landing.
To secure favorable positions for the attack on Cassino across the Rapido River, the 36th Division, which had been assigned the task, attacked on 14 January and captured Mt. Trocchio. The Divisions mission was to establish a bridgehead over the river in order that the 1st Armored Divisions CCB could pass through and attack up the Liri River Valley to effect a union with the Anzio forces. Opposing the Division, the Germans had developed the Gustav Line (or Hitler Line) as a series of defenses in depth. Allied commanders recognized that casualties would result from an attack on such defenses but they believed that if the Germans were left free to oppose the Allied landing at Anzio, the casualties there could be much higher with the greater danger that the landing would be repulsed.
Powerful artillery support plus engineers, tanks and tank-destroyers were attached to the Division for the operation. The XII Air Support Command was to bomb bridgehead area strongpoints. As the 36th Division was organizing for the Rapido River crossing the enemy tried to interfere by air. Platoon A-1 destroyed a German-marked Spitfire near San Vittore while Platoon C-2 destroyed an FW-190 in the same vicinity. Platoon A-1, losing three men killed and one wounded by enemy shellfire, was replaced in the planned river crossing force by Platoon D-2.
On 18 January, British forces, on the left flank of the 36th Division and south of the Rapido Rivers S-bend, had attempted a river crossing and had found the position untenable. As a result, the British refused to sacrifice more men in support of the 36th Division. When the 36th Division attacked across the river on 20 January it was the only offensive action across the entire British and American front. This permitted the Germans to concentrate their forces before the 36th Division.
The 36th Division front extended four miles south from Mt. Trocchio, parallel to the Rapido River which flowed south about 1000 yards to the west. The river approach from the east was marshy and covered with reeds and brush. The river was a fast, mountain-fed stream, about fifty feet wide and ten to fifteen deep, flowing between vertical banks five feet high. At 7:30 pm on 20 January, artillery began preparation fire and at 8 am the 141st and 143rd Regiments attacked to establish the Rapido bridgehead. Intense, accurate crossfire from the enemy covered every point where a crossing was attempted. Extremely heavy artillery fire was received on all crossing points and assembly areas. Mines and booby traps had been well placed, and concealed, at all points defiladed from weapons fire. In spite of the strong enemy defense, two companies of infantry crossed the river. But intense enemy fire prevented bridge construction and destroyed communications. The strong, German defensive positions included concrete bunkers, dugouts and barbed wire about 150 yards west of the river. Rubber boats were sunk and the one footbridge, over which Companies A and B had passed, had to be abandoned because of enemy fire. Engineer attempts to install an 8 ton infantry support bridge were unsuccessful.
Probably learning from captured prisoners where the 36th Division Command Post was, the Germans lashed out at their attackers. Both the 36th CP and the 443rd Battalion Forward CP were behind Mt. Rotundo and from 4:30 AM to 7:30 am on 21 January, enemy 170 mm artillery lobbed 310 rounds into the CP areas. The Division Mess Sergeant was killed and Platoon C-3 had a man wounded who later died from gangrene in an amputated leg.
By late morning on 21 January, contact was lost with troops who had crossed the river. At 10 am II Corps Commander, General Keyes, ordered the attack to continue. So at 4 pm the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 143rd Regiment attempted a crossing. Initial resistance was somewhat lighter than during the previous crossings but it increased quickly when it became apparent that Division troops were moving over in force. While rubber boats, hit by fire, capsized and sank, two battalions of the 141st Regiment were able to cross the river by 6:30 pm. The assault broke through enemy barbed wire defenses for about 600 yards before intense fire of all kinds stopped the advance. American-generated smoke to cover the crossings, plus natural fog) blinded the Divisions field artillery observers while enemy snipers took advantage of the poor visibility to move into positions where they could harass troops crossing the river. All day long on 22 January, troops that were across the Rapido were subjected to continuous enemy fire. Elements of the 143 Regiment withdrew to the east bank of the river and strong, German counter-attacks were thrown against elements of the 141st Regiment that remained. By nightfall, Americans were running out of ammunition. Ferrying patrols, formed to bring back men who were left on the west bank, failed because of heavy enemy fire. A handful of men were able to swim the Rapido back to the east bank, during the night. The Rapido River crossing had failed and casualties were heavy over 2,000 men. The Abbey of Monte Cassino remained in enemy hands a high observation point dominating the surrounding landscape. And patrols sent out every night after 22 January failed to get back across the river or were forced back by heavy enemy fire shortly after reaching the west bank. In retrospect it is of interest to note that tactically sound General Walker had offered the Fifth Army an alternate plan to demonstrate with diversionary tactics along the strong Gustav Line defenses before Cassino but simultaneously send troops across a fordable area north of the fortified town. The plan was turned down with consequent results. In just such a maneuver, the 34th Division, at a later date, outflanked the enemy north of Cassino.
Incredibly, a third attack across the river was ordered. It would have included commitment of the 142nd Regiment which was in reserve. The order was cancelled only after a heated protest from General Walker.
Some weeks later, a Corps of New Zealand troops attempted the Rapido crossing and were thrown back. When the British Eighth Army finally crossed the Rapido River in May the entire front line from Cassino to the sea made a full scale attack to support the five British divisions committed to the crossing.
Subsequent to its disaster at Cassino the 36th Division shifted northeastward to the vicinity of Cervaro. Here, on 15 February, 443rd men witnessed eight bombing raids by Flying Fortresses and fighter bombers on the Abbey of Monte Cassino and the slopes surrounding it. Only one portion of the Abbey wall remained intact after the bombing.
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