The Battle of of the Rapido River
In mid January 1944, the slow, hard slog up the Italian peninsula was into its fourth month already and the Allies were looking for innovative ways to break the formidable German defenses. With the plan for an amphibious operation at Anzio, US Fifth Army Commander Mark Clark feared the landing force being forced back into the sea by the German reserve forces around Rome. In an attempt to draw the Germans away from the Rome and Anzio area and further south, he ordered an attack by the 36th Infantry Division from Texas across the Rapido River to the south of Cassino. Secondarily, there was even some hope that the attack might succeed with an armored follow up by the 1st Armored Division that would storm up the Liri River valley and beyond. Clark met his first objective, but failed miserably with the secondary objective.
The Allied plan was for a forceful movement against the Gustav Line, of which the Rapido River area around Sant’ Angelo was a central part of, to tie down the German defenses. Additionally, Clark wanted to inflict enough damage to bring out German Field Marshal Kesselring’s reserve forces away from Anzio. Clark instructed the British 10th Corps, led by Lieutenant General Richard McCreery, to attack the Gustav Line on 18 January at three places. The British 5th Divison would attack across the Liri River near Minturno on the west coast of Italy. The British 56th Divison would attack over the Liri near Castelforte. Finally, the British 46th Divison would attack over the Liri near Sant’ Ambrogia and most importantly continue to the area of Sant’ Apollinare and secure the high ground that overlooked the US 2nd Corps’ 36th Division’s assault area near Sant’ Angelo. The 36th’s Commander General Fred Walker had real reservations about his part of the operation and claimed (with some support) that Clark promised the 36th would not have to proceed if the southern high ground around Sant’ Apollinare had not been secured by the British 46th. This issue would prove disastrous.
A little background is in order about the relations between the British and the Americans in Italy. British General Harold Alexander was in overall command of the Allied forces in Italy in the form of the 15th Army Group, which consisted of Mark Clark’ Fifth Army and Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s UK 8th Army. Fifth Army consisted, in part, of the US 2nd Corps under General Geoffrey Keyes and the British 10th Corps under McCreery. The British and the American military leadership often saw the same battlefield in two different ways. According to Carlo D’Este in Fatal Decision, the British were all about concentration of force, but the Americans liked to probe on a broad front, then exploit weak spots. More importantly, the key Generals in this fight exhibited their countrys’ worst stereotypical traits. Whereas Eisenhower was known first and foremost as a humble diplomat and a great smoother of Allied tensions, Clark seemed pathologically ambitious, vane and held contempt for anyone who might have the gall to cross him. Likewise, where Churchill’s manner was leavened by his American mother, Alexander showed the British aristocracy’s patronising view of all things American. These traits combined with Clark’s coming of age in the Salerno campaign and finding that the Alexander controlled publicity machine made it out to be a British victory made the ground fertile for bad decisons. Clark held a deep distrust of the British and could not stomach the Brits getting any more glory in the Fifth Army sector. Therefore, Clark had made up his mind that the breaking of the Gustav Line, if it happened at all, would be led and exploited by the Americans.
In the Liri Valley plan, McCreery felt his 10th Corps had been spread too wide and did not want to force any particular area too hard for fear of getting in a fight with too few troops and taking heavy losses. This led to the tragically predictable consequence of McCreery’s Corps delaying their start by 24 hours, knowing full well it would enrage Clark, then, despite early success, not pushing to take the high ground near Sant’ Apollinare without having secured a bridge over the Liri behind them. Clark was livid, if not surprised, but was now presented with two decisions. First, Clark could, but not realistically, delay the 36th’s Rapido River assault, because he was already butting up against the 22nd of January which was the planned date for Operation Shingle, the Anzio landings. The Battle of the Rapido River assault was needed to ensure that Kesselring would have to deploy his reserves away from Rome and Anzio. Second, and ironically, Clark had a good choice and refused to take it. Clark could have followed American doctrine and re-enforced the British 10th Corps’s definite, but limited success, but just could not accept the idea of the British getting the credit for the break through. Clark declared the operation was to proceed as planned. The 36th Infantry’s Texans and General Walker would bear the brunt of this All-American bravado.
All of this high level bickering and positioning did not mean that the 36th were inevitably doomed to fail, but it surely seems that they were. The 36th had fought hard and painfully in the area around San Pietro in the bloody slog up to the Rapido. They were battle weary and filled with too many green replacements. However, most importantly, the 36th seemed to be filled with the belief that they drew all of the hard missions and the ones no one else wanted. In this case, they may have been right, but that belief in a combat unit is contagious and almost always self defeating. This included their General and at least one of their Colonels, who made their doubts about the operation public, without any notable objections up the chain. The 36th entered the battle looking for failure and they found it in spades.
The plan was for 2 line regiments of the 36th, the 141st and the 143rd to attack across the Rapido on the night of the 20th and in the early morning hours of the 21st of January. The lead elements would cross in boats, then be followed by the engineers who would build foot bridges for the remainder of the regiments’ troops to cross. It was a clear and simple plan, but the execution was under-equipped and ill practiced to the point of negligence. The fact that so much coordination was needed was obvious to many, but 36th officers were too busy feeling hard-done-to. Some basic exercises were practiced on the Volturno River, but nothing to the scale that was required of such a tough operation. It was as if the 36th felt the result was not in question, so no real effort should be spent in preparation. The engineers were woefully short on the proper equipment and got little support from Fifth Army. Rather than amphibious DUKWs and specially made foot bridges, the troops got rubber dingys, wooden scows and catwalks laid over pontoons. Adding to the mess was the fact that no roads led to crossing sites and the area was open to German observation all throughout the day. The engineers cleared the mines during the night as best they could, but the infantry had to drag all of the boats and equipment forward themselves.
The movement started as it was to follow, chaotically. Many of the boats had been damaged by German artillery and the infantry had not been trained how to handle them or even how many or what kind of oars were needed. The infantry stumbled through mine lanes in the dark, rattling boats and equipment all the way with at least one group straying into a minefield. The Germans were alerted by the sounds and started to bring fire down on the hapless Texans. When some did make it to the Rapido River, they found that it was narrow, but deep and fast. Many of the boats foundered or were hit by German fire. Shamefully for the 36th, a small number, but too many refused to go or fell in the river on purpose to avoid going. Many of those that did get to the western side of the river were drenched and exhausted. Each regiment got significant numbers across, but could not follow up with supporting battalions and the engineers could not keep their footbridges in tact for more than few hours. The tenuous positions on the western side of the river were quickly becoming untenable and the disaster was setting in by mid morning of the 21st. The lead battalion of the 143rd fell back across the river to their start point. This certainly helped them, but it allowed the Germans to concentrate all of their fire on the northern crossing and the 1st Battalion of the 141st. This battalion was stuck and would never be rescued.
By midday on the 21st, Clark and Keyes were demanding a renewed offensive. Walker wanted a new offensive too, but only to retrieve the lost 1/141st and Walker wanted it under the cover of darkness. Keyes demanded that the new offensive should take place in the mid afternoon, but various other foul-ups meant it did not happen for the 143rd until 15:00 and the 141st until 21:00 on the 21st. Both crossings established a perimeter on the German side, but not large enough to get armor across for fire support. These assaults worked no better than the earlier ones. In fact, the new was exactly like the old, only worse. By midday on the 22nd, the situation was dire and all units were looking to pull back, but had their bridges and boats destroyed. In Cassino: The Hollow Victory, John Ellis says Keyes was not having it and demanded that the Division reserve, the 142nd Regiment, be committed. Walker balked, but complied. Soon, however, the losses became too great and the attack was cancelled in the mid afternoon of the 22nd. What was left of the 2 regiments retreated as best they could, but the 1st of the 141st, as a unit, was never heard from again.
The numbers tell the soldiers’ story. 143 killed, 663 wounded an 875 missing ( approximately 500 were confirmed later to have been taken prisoner by the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division ). The 36th Texas Infantry Division ceased to exist as a combat capable unit. The German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division had 64 killed and 179 wounded. Clark achieved his goals of tying up the Germans prior to the Anzio landings and even managed to get the Germans to send their reserves south. However, embarrassingly for Clark, they were sent in response to McCreery’s 10th Corps assaults, not the 36th’s.
Churchill had pushed for the Italian campaign, calling it the “soft underbelly” of the German monster, but nothing could have been further than the truth. The German military machine was probably the best defensive army ever assembled and the succession of mountains on the Italian peninsula gave them a natural advantage. The Italian theatre was as grueling a campaign as anything in World War II and worst than most. The Battle of the Bloody River was its saddest moment for the Americans.
Map: Maps courtesy of the USMA, Department of History
Check out this ride that starts in Naples, then winds through the mountains south of the Liri River and finally follows the Liri up to the Rapido River around Sant’ Angelo in Theocides.