Friday, May 28, 2021

Coming Home!

 

COMING HOME

the concluding installment of

One Soldier's Story

by John Bascom

 

On April 30, 1945 Hitler committed suicide in Berlin.  On May 7, all of Germany formally surrendered.  The war in Europe was over.

In the Pacific, however, war continued to rage.  U.S. forces had successfully prosecuted their island-hopping campaign, moving closer and closer to the Japanese homeland.  By mid-1945, the Philippines had been retaken, and the island of Okinawa, the closest to Japan itself, had been seized.  The Japanese air and naval forces had largely been destroyed.  Intense daily bombing had devastated Tokyo and other key industrial cities and ports.  Plans were underway for a massive land invasion of Japan.  Estimates called for a ten-million-man invasion force, with over a million American casualties expected.  Word quickly spread through Allied forces in Italy that they would soon be sent to the Pacific, a massive logistical undertaking.

In Italy, the main business was maintaining order.  Power abhors a vacuum, and partisan factions had begun fighting among themselves.  In the west, France had moved to claim long-disputed border territory and was threatening to enter Italy.  It was up to the Americans to assure a peaceful and orderly transition to civilian rule.







Dad and his unit were moved to San Remo on the Italian Riviera and the border with France.  It was but twenty miles from the independent state of Monaco, long a haven for the rich and famous.  San Remo was a resort town noted for its beautiful Mediterranean beaches.  Their job was to keep the peace between the French and Italians.  Passes were issued to enjoy the waterfront and the sights.  It must have been a welcome change from the grind of war.

Generals visited troops, made speeches and decorated soldiers.  Dad was awarded the Good Conduct Medal there.  He received medals and ribbons for his role in the Arno, North Apennines and Po Valley campaigns.  In early August, news came of the atomic bombing and surrender of Japan.  There would be no redeployment to the Pacific.

The troops moved south to await transport back home.  There were nearly a million Allied soldiers in Italy, and marshalling them for deployment home was a gigantic logistical task.  My father at some point visited Rome and Pompei on leave as a tourist while awaiting his turn.  There, he enjoyed the scenes and collected souvenirs.  He was promoted to Pfc, the highest rank he would attain.  On October 22nd, he boarded ship in Naples, disembarking at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia on November 3rd. 

He arrived back in St. Louis around November 9, 1945 and was formally and finally honorably discharged from service with character and efficiency ratings of excellent.  He had weighed 153 pounds when he was inducted; he was down to 138 for his exit physical.  He had experienced endless months in the field, been wounded twice by artillery shells, and was hospitalized for hepatitis.  He had watched his best friend die a gruesome death.  Dad endured up to a month at a time in wet foxholes, dodged machinegun fire and hand grenades, and survived a mano-a-mano, eye to eye shootout at the war’s very end.  But now he was home.

My earliest memory is of my father coming home, and I truly recall the event as clearly today as I experienced it at the time.  I was just beyond two years old, only twenty-six months.  I’ve been told the family had been buzzing about his return for weeks, but I remember none of that, though excitement surely rippled through my grandparent’s flat in South St. Louis.  I recall my father climbing the long steps, smiling, his uniform starched and pressed, my mother giddy with arms-outstretched in anticipation.  At the top of the stairs they embraced and kissed.  And, an uncomprehending toddler, I remember wondering why in the world she was kissing the mailman, the only other uniformed man I had ever seen at our house.  Then I slipped away and hid under the massive buffet table that stood along the dining room wall, peering out warily at the raucous scene that was unfolding.

Memories of my father are scant in the few years following his return.  He found work in Albany, New York, but not sure that it would work out for the family, we remained at the St. Louis flat of my grandparents while he commuted on weekends.  For me, he was still not a part of my daily life.  About eighteen months later, he found a good job in Minneapolis, and our entire family moved into a small frame house there.  I was four years old.  It was the first traditional nuclear family life I had experienced.

Dad settled into a typical routine.  He worked hard at his job and did well.  Ours was the classic suburban life of school, church, friends and back yard barbecues.  My father experienced some drinking problems, but quickly got them under control.  I never recall him taking a single drink.  I experienced him as aloof and detached at times.  Later, he displayed a few uncharacteristic angry outbursts over minor events.  José Narosky, the Argentine author, famously said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”  It must be true.  Did the traumas of the Apennines warn him not to get too close, or cause him to burst forth in those occasional fits of barely constrained anger?  I’ve often wondered.

Whatever his demons, they eventually faded.  His life can fairly be described as long, productive, and successful.  He enjoyed a good career, rising in the ranks to management levels in a major corporation.  His marriage was lifelong and from all indications happy.  His friends liked and respected him.  He was loved by his wife and children.  I never heard of him experiencing nightmares or flashbacks.  He occasionally talked about the little things: seeing Rome, shooting the cow, the time his buddies dared him to swim across a lake, and he came head to head with a huge turtle.  But he never spoke about combat.  My mother and he must have talked, late at night, the children in bed, the house quiet and the lights low.  The death of Woody, the killing of the German boy.  It was she who, much later, secretly revealed these events to my sister and me.  He and I made our peace in the end.  Dad died quietly of cancer in July, 1985, seventy-five years of age.

It is over twenty years now that I vacationed in Tuscany, marveling at the rolling hills, the little walled medieval villages, Chianti vines heavy with grapes in the fall, my wife and I stopping to pick one, bursting with juice, as sweet as any candy.  Sipping Brunello Reserve at the hilltop winery in Montalcino.  Then, I knew nothing of the details I have shared here.  Now, having learned the things I have in writing this, I resolve to return.  I will visit the wartime places of my father, I tell myself.  This time, I will go to Castel Fiorentino, traveling through Florence, not pausing there as I did on my first visit.  I will go to Barbarino, to the places of the battles, to Bruscoli, Livergnano, where my father advanced inch by inch and house by house in the face of withering fire and grenades raining down from the clifftops, then to the Futa Pass.  I will travel to Monte Bastione and contemplate what happened there.  I will follow in my father’s footsteps, I say to myself, climbing the pathways the mules trod up the side of Mount Belmonte, pausing on the summits to hear the wind moving through the treetops as had my father.  I will perhaps, quite unknowingly, stand on the spot where Woody Woodruff breathed his last.  And I will turn my ear to the sacred ground and hear the whispers of the souls of Americans who have never left that place.   These are the things I say to myself.  As I write this, I am a seventy-six-year-old, burnt out and used up old man.  Still, these things I say and resolve, and I will do it all.

What will the souls on Mount Belmonte tell me?  Will they say that I would have performed as well, been as brave, suffered the terrors with the same fortitude as did my father?  I think I would not, but really, I don’t know.

But one thing I am certain those souls will tell me is that wars are not fought and won by machinegun charging heroes.  They are waged by bakers and cab drivers, salesmen and store clerks.  Those who do not volunteer, who do not want to be there, but, like my father, answer the call when it comes.  They are fought by men who show up, do their duty despite their fear, and then, for the lucky ones, go home again.

My father was such a man.  He never, ever complained about his service.  Dad received no medals for valor, but in the thick of violence he put his head down, and like his comrades, moved forward.  And in so doing, he participated with the others of his time in defeating unimaginably powerful forces of evil.  He stood among those to whom we all owe so much, those who journalist Tom Brokaw rightly called The Greatest Generation.

___________________________________________

This book is dedicated to my father, John Gay Bascom, to whom I owe so much, and upon whose shoulders new generations now stand

John Bascom


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Victory in the Po Valley

 

The Battle of the Po

excerpted from One Soldier's Story

by John Bascom


(After nine months of grueling mountain fighting, the Allies break the Gothic Line and the 34th Red Bull Division seizes the key Po Valley city of Bologna, the linchpin in the Nazi's defenses in Northern Italy.  All that remains is to finish them off)

In late April, 1945 the Red Bull Division had finally cracked the Apennine Mountain Gothic Line, driven the Nazi's out of the mountains and taken the strategic city of Bologna.  Now the 34th had bigger fish to fry.

What occurred in the ensuing week was one of the most daring, chaotic and successful moves in military annals.  Rather than the classic pause to regroup and reconnoiter, General Clark grasped the opportunity to exploit the Germans’ panic and finish them once and for all.  Instead of locating and attacking enemy units one at a time, he resolved to disorient them and prevent their retreat into the Alps by swiftly enveloping them in the Po Valley.  There, all the advantages lay with us.  Unlike the commanding and intimidating Apennines, the Po was relatively open, rolling and crisscrossed by good roads.  The terrain was suitable for our superiority in tanks and equipment to move swiftly.  The weather there was more accommodating to substantial friendly air forces.  The Germans had essentially no air capability left.  Still, abandoning our classic military defensive formations in pursuit of an elusive brass ring was a risky strategy.  It left many of our units exposed to assaults should the German’s be able to regroup and reorganize.  General Clark accepted the risk.

Allied units were ordered to race forward, bypassing areas of light resistance in a blitz of our own designed to disrupt and block the retreat of the enemy.  The 135th Regiment was ordered to attack west along Highway 9 that ran parallel to the northern face of the Apennine Range.  Germans were pouring from the mountains in an attempt to cross the Po River and establish new defenses. 

The Regiment was ordered to capture objectives along Highway 9, initially taking and clearing Modena, then pushing on into Parma, about sixty miles west of Bologna.  Germans continued to drift out of the mountains and into the towns all along the highway, requiring brisk fighting to drive them out.  A history of Company L describes it thus:

“The Po Valley was aflame…rolls of powder smoke belching from thousands of weapons darkened the sky on that otherwise bright day.  The resistance was sharp all along the way…”

The 135th continued to fight west along Highway 9, achieving their assigned objective of Piacenza, a strategic town on the Po River over a hundred miles west of Bologna.  It had taken eight bloody months to advance from Florence to the approaches of Mount Belmonte.  In less than two weeks the 135th had moved over a hundred-ten miles through enemy territory in late April.  In the afternoon of April 26th, Company L was ordered to Caorso, some ten miles from Piacenza.  It had been reported to be a German stronghold.  The Company was advised by friendly civilians that the Germans had moved out.  Our men proceeded cautiously into the town square where a crowd of civilians including the mayor greeted them.  Suddenly, enemy burp guns opened up.  The locals dashed wildly for safety while Company L sought cover and returned fire with BARs, machineguns and small arms.  It became all too obvious that German elements remained.  Outnumbered, the men of Company L sought refuge wherever they could.  There were casualties and a few of our soldiers were taken captive.  German troops, retreating from the mountains, continued to pour into the village.  Night fell and enemy tanks appeared.  The Americans were by then scattered, and in the darkness, it was difficult to tell friend from foe.  The Germans hurled hand grenades and directed tank rounds into the buildings where our forces, increasingly outmanned, were hunkered down.  Eventually an estimated six thousand Germans had arrived, a considerable force easily outnumbering the entire nearby 3rd Battalion, not to mention little Company L.

American reinforcements soon arrived, however, and the tide turned.  Most of the Germans escaped north across the Po, but many were killed in Caorso and seven hundred were captured.  Our casualties, while much lighter, were still a painful reminder of the unpredictable fortunes of war.

By April 27th, only two weeks after the breakout over Mount Belmonte had begun, the battle for Highway 9 and the Po River south of the Apennines had been won.  A total of three German divisions had been captured.  Many others had escaped north across the river and were fleeing toward the Alps.  The next day, on April 28, the entire Red Bull Division was ordered to move north across the Po River to aid in sealing the Alpine passes.  Every conceivable vehicle was pressed into service.  Soldiers clung to the hoods, fenders and bumpers of trucks.  The 135th sped back to Modena then north, breaching the Po River on a hastily made pontoon bridge.  



Orders were changed mid-route, and the unit raced toward Brescia, fifty miles north of Caorso where they had been ambushed.  Upon arrival, orders were almost immediately issued to proceed to Milan, the largest industrial and commercial center in Italy.  News soon came that the Italian resistance had liberated the city, and captured then brutally killed Mussolini, the Fascist dictator and ally of Hitler who had led the nation to ruin.  His nude, battered body was infamously hung naked from a balcony in the city square, a final act of violent defiance.



Overall, our combined forces spread across the valley and sped along the well-developed road network in the Po.  The Germans in turn wheeled, dodged and raced with frantic zeal.  Their units fragmented.  Some were simply left behind to be mopped up later by the Allies.  Prisoners began to pour in, some finding and surrendering to American units on their own initiative.  Others continued futile resistance.  According to eye witnesses, it was an amazing spectacle, colorful and exciting.  The demeanor of the German prisoners was one of utter dejection, defeat and hopelessness.



With Milan pacified, the 135th was ordered to take and capture the German 75th Corps.  Upon making contact, that entire corps, tens of thousands of men, surrendered en masse to the Red Bull 34th Division.  In a twist of irony, the German 34th Division surrendered to my father’s division of the same name.  Our forces were given the massive task of rounding up and taking custody of the POWs.

It was about this time that my father experienced the most dangerous and terrifying encounter of his time in Italy.  A few small German units continued to resist.  They either had not gotten or refused to heed the orders to surrender.  My father and several fellow soldiers were manning an outpost set up in a small stone farmhouse on a little hilltop.  They were spotted by a rogue group of Germans, who immediately attacked their position.  A fierce fight followed.  With superior numbers, the enemy stormed the house and burst into the tiny interior, weapons firing.  Dad found himself in the same room with the German soldier who had knocked the door down and rushed in shooting.  My father instinctively fired his weapon, his BAR, from the hip in a reflexive act of self-preservation.  Both men shooting at each other, the German boy collapsed and died before Dad’s eyes.  My father was unscathed.  With the enemy surrendering and the war virtually over, he had come closer to death, saved only by chance, than at any other time during his combat.  My father was incapable of violent vengeance.  But in an odd way, it seems a fitting counterbalance to the tragic death of Woody, his young ward, also before his very eyes.  Fate has a way of evening scores.

Ultimately, we were able to get behind the retreating Germans in this fashion, and bring things to a whimpering end.  On May 2nd, the Germans signed a surrender of all forces in Italy, and the war there was over.  One observer reported

“…the final surrender was received by our troops with a strange calm almost amounting to complacency.  There was neither shouting nor cheering, no celebration was held.  Perhaps it was because the men had foreseen the inevitability of the enemy’s collapse.  Or perhaps our battle-weary soldiers were just too exhausted…”

It is estimated that between September, 1943 and April, 1945, 70,000 Allied and 150,000 German soldiers died in Italy.  The total number of Allied casualties including those wounded was about 320,000, and the German figure (excluding those involved in the final surrender) was over 330,000.

And so the Battle of the Po and all hostilities in Italy came to an end.

_________________________________

Next: "COMING HOME", the conclusion of One Soldier's Story


Saturday, May 1, 2021

BREAKTHROUGH!

 


BREAKTHROUGH INTO THE VALLEY OF THE PO

April – June 1945

Excerpted from
by John Bascom


         

April in the Apennines arrived to much improved spring weather and great anticipation among Allied troops.  March had been marked by the usual patrols, skirmishes and shelling.  It had been a month of holding the line and preparation.  My father had been hospitalized in Livorno for much of the time, but returned to his unit in April.

The officers of the Allied Armies were busy planning the great offensive that would, once and for all, crush the Germans in Italy.  Back in Germany proper, American forces had breached the Rhine River at Remagen, and a metaphorical floodgate had opened allowing the Allies to pour into central Germany.  The Russians were on the doorstep to the east.  German resistance was crumbling; hundreds of thousands of prisoners had been taken, Hitler was hiding underground in Berlin, and Nazi officials were already fleeing the country.  Many had surrendered or committed suicide.  The end was in sight.

Conditions and morale among the German officers and men continuing to resist in Italy must have been abysmal.  Still, the Gothic Line stood strong, stretching across the northern Apennines from coast to coast in a two-hundred-mile line from the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean west to Rimini on the Adriatic.  Their line was opposed along it’s entire length by the Allies, over one million men strong.  Better equipped and motivated, our forces were ready for the great and final assault to begin.

British forces along the Adriatic and the American 92nd on the west coast began attacks northward in early April.  In addition to pushing the Germans off the line in those areas, it was designed to pressure them into pulling troops from, or at the very least prevent them from reinforcing their forces in the center of the line south of Bologna.  It was there, in the center, that General Clark had planned the final, killing blow.  Both coastal attacks met with good results and fulfilled their objective of pinning the Germans down there.

The Red Bull and other divisions of II Corps continued to be positioned between Florence and Bologna astride north-running Route 65 and its parallel byways.  On April 14, with weather fair and troops ready, the great assault commenced.  It was marked by an earth-shaking roar of artillery, followed by air attacks from thousands of bombers dumping countless tons of high explosive and antipersonnel munitions.  Then came the screaming, swooping fighter planes firing machineguns and rockets.  The massive explosions continued throughout the day.

The air and artillery attacks were followed by a full-force assault of infantry.  The squad and platoon-sized probes a hill or village at a time were a thing of the past.  With improved roads, tanks accompanied our foot soldiers.  Artillery and air continued to prepare their advance.  Once again, the 135th Regiment found itself positioned south of and ready to attack Mount Belmonte one last time.  They moved out on command to take the eastern flanks and hills adjacent to the mountain.


Spring attack to break the Gothic Line.  Position and planned path of the 34th Division shown right center.  Mount Belmonte is shown immediately above and slightly left of the Division’s starting position

On the eastern Adriatic Coast, the British had achieved a breakthrough and surged across the Gothic Line defenses into the Po Valley.  Swinging westward, they threated to continue north behind German lines, trapping the entire German army between them and the Americans charging northward. 

At first German resistance to the advance of the 135th Regiment was as fierce and stubborn as before.  Casualties ran high on both sides.  But the enemy could not negate the months of Allied preparation, stockpiling ammunition, and our resolve to end things once and for all.  And above all, the devastating air and artillery bombardments.  According to military historians Jay Roth and Judith Nichols, German prisoners

“…revealed the ordeal that had been theirs during two terrible days of air and artillery preparation.  Many were still trembling when captured: others stared with vacant eyes, numbed and speechless.  Still others told of the hell they had endured.”

 

Realizing their precarious position, the German defenses in the Apennines began to collapse.  The Red Bull Division and its sister II Corps units surged north, taking objective after objective.  The previously impregnable Mount Belmonte was quickly overwhelmed.  German units, all hopes of successfully resisting dashed, began a scrambling retreat out of the Apennines and across the Po River, which defined the southern edge of the Po Valley.  Their aim was to form a secondary defensive line north of the Po River and then retreat further north in an orderly fashion until the refuge of the Alps could be achieved.

Bologna is an ancient and historic city located about sixty miles north of Tuscan Florence.  It was the prize the Red Bull Division struggled to attain in the previous eight, bloody and frustrating months.  Bologna has a rich Renaissance heritage and hosts many historic and architecturally important sites.  


A teaming city—one of Italy’s largest—it is home to over a million people.  The Piazza Maggiore is the sprawling square with lovely arched colonnades and medieval buildings of classic beauty.  There sits the Fountain of Neptune and the Basilica di San Petronio.  Graceful towers adorn the city including one that is leaning, reminiscent of the famous tower in coastal Pisa.  Bologna boasts the world’s oldest university, the 1088 AD University of Bologna.

But the beauty and historical significance were not the reasons it was coveted by both the Allies and Germans.  It sits squarely in the west – east center of the entrance to the Po Valley, directly in the middle of the Nazi’s defensive forces.  Immediately to the city’s north lies the west – east oriented Po River, a perfect defensive barrier for the enemy’s retreating armies.  Taking Bologna and the river were the keys to shattering German lines and opening the Po Valley to attack by our troops, tanks and aircraft.

As the grand assault in the quest for Bologna began in mid-April, the 135th Regiment deployed on the right flank of II Corps.  While resistance as always was brisk, they quickly took their objectives around Mount Belmonte and pushed forward east of and finally astride Route 65.  After several days of fighting the battered and retreating Germans, the 135th entered Bologna, their original target at the outset of the Gothic Line campaign back in September 1944.  They and a sister Polish unit fighting with the Allies were the first to gain the prize.  It had taken less than a week to advance the final twelve miles to the city, something that had not been accomplished in months of earlier fighting.  The German’s had already withdrawn north across the Po River in an attempt to establish their next line of defense as planned.  The mission of the 135th was to secure the city and remove any mines or booby traps left by the enemy.  Other Allied units along the entire length of the Gothic Line were making good progress as well.

The Red Bull’s stay in Bologna would be short lived.  After securing the city, its defense was handed over to other units.  The Division had bigger fish to fry. 

___________________________

Next Installment: The Allies defeat the Nazis in a frantic series of battles ranging across the Po Valley and into the far corners of Northern Italy, while our soldier comes closer to death than ever before 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Holding the Line in the Apennines

 

Excerpted from

One Soldier's Story

by John Bascom

HOLDING THE LINE

January – April 1945

 


 

By early January 1945 both sides in Italy had ceased large-scale military operations. In addition to the winter weather, five British Eighth Army divisions that had been attacking the Gothic Line to the east of our 5th Army had been moved to northern Europe.  This continuing drain of people and equipment added to the growing Allied shortages in Italy, and made defeating the entrenched and tenacious Germans more difficult than ever. The generals decided to go on the defensive and use the winter months to prepare for new offensive operations scheduled for April 1945, when the weather would be better and resupply and reinforcements would have, at least to a small degree, occurred. Despite four months of planning, bloody offensives, and staggering casualties, Allied units came to rest on a defensive line in a position that had changed very little since early autumn.

Troops of the Red Bull Division were set to work constructing our own defensive winter line south of the Po Valley.  Since September, their assaults had carried them nearly fifty hard-fought miles up Route 65, stopping just a dozen or so miles south of Bologna and the Po.  The line ran east to west across Route 65, just south of the as yet unconquered section of the German Gothic Line near Mount Belmonte.  The men of the 34th constructed bunkers, machine gun pits, artillery emplacements, barbed wire, mine fields and other obstacles to a German attack.  Heavy snow made construction difficult, and at times totally covered and concealed prepared positions, requiring them to be marked with poles so they could be found by our soldiers later. 

Neither side could nor wanted to launch a major offensive.  Still, patrols were sent out regularly to assess the enemy’s position and intentions, which resulted in frequent clashes.  Any enemy movements were struck with artillery and machine guns, and they likewise struck us.  On several occasions, based on information from local civilians who despised the Germans, enemy agents dressed in American uniforms seeking to infiltrate our positions were captured by Dad’s Company L.  The 135th Regiment and its 3rd Battalion were moved to the very front of our lines near Mount Belmonte, which had previously been the site of the fierce battles that had failed to dislodge the Germans.  Conditions were slippery, which made vehicle traffic up the icy mountain lanes virtually impossible.  Our men were forced to march for long distances in blinding snow storms and through partially frozen slush when required to change locations.  Conditions for the men entrenched on Mount Belmonte were grueling.  Trench foot became epidemic in Company L and its sister companies of the 135th

Firefights continued to break out.  On January 9th, four German soldiers approached Company L and indicated they wanted to surrender.  However, the ruse turned into a fierce clash and three of the four Germans were killed with the fourth captured.  The next day a detachment of sixty enemy was spotted.  When they took shelter in a small building, they were shelled by our artillery.  The building was completely destroyed.  A mortar duel erupted, and two men from Company L were
wounded.  Soon after, a five-man enemy contingent attempted to raid the company.  Four were killed by our troops.  For the remainder of January, these kinds of scattered encounters continued.  Company L was tasked with setting up ambush patrols closer to German lines.  At times, the dug-in troops received coordinated, intense artillery bombardments augmented by bombing from Germany’s few remaining planes in the theater.  My father wrote that at one point during this winter deployment on the front, he spent thirty miserable, consecutive days living in the same cold, wet foxhole. 

Heavy patrolling continued through February.  In early February, several more aggressive and organized raids were launched against German positions with limited results.  Dad related that they had been eating rations from cans for nearly a month, when a cow was spotted by his patrol.  It was dispatched by their M-1s, and the men dined on steaks for several days.  By the middle of the month, the 135th was pulled briefly into reserve, then quickly redeployed to another nearby sector.  What had become the customary patrols, shelling and intermittent gunfights continued throughout the balance of the month.

My father had earlier in the campaign been twice wounded by shrapnel during enemy artillery bombardments.  Fortunately, the injuries were minor and he was
treated at the nearby field medical facility, then quickly returned to his unit.  However, in late February Dad was taken ill with jaundice and hepatitis, probably from coming into contact with contaminated water.  Soldiers in the field sometimes washed their hands or faces in streams or pools, and it was impossible to know what pollutants lurked just upstream.  The men of course had to relieve themselves in the field.  Also, food occasionally obtained from local villages was suspect.

Since hepatitis is infectious and disease had become a problem among the troops, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Livorno on the Mediterranean coast, southwest of Florence and well behind the action.  He not only enjoyed a clean, comfortable bed, but the weather was also considerably warmer.  Despite being ill, it must have been a welcome break from six straight months of fighting, shelling, death and misery.  After several weeks of treatment and convalescence, he recovered and returned to his unit in the Apennines to continue the fight.  



 


Friday, February 26, 2021

ONE SOLDIER’S STORY: THE BATTLE CONTINUES

The Wartime Experience of John Gay Bascom

by John Bascom

WINTER ON THE GOTHIC LINE

The Attack that Wasn’t

November – December 1944



The onset of November saw the 34th Division, it’s constituent and sister units on a broad defensive east – west line across the northern Apennines centered on Route 65.  The assault had stalled due to a combination of German tenacity, well planned and constructed fortifications, horrible weather even by the standards of the Apennines, and a serious depletion of men, equipment and supplies. 

The Allies main thrust against the Germans was the invasion of northern Europe through France at Normandy in June 1944.  By November, the main European assault had driven the Germans from France and Belgium back into the motherland.  American troops had approached the western German border and were threatening the Rhine.  Berlin would then be within striking distance.  The thrust into Germany was receiving top priority for men and equipment.  Our forces in northern Italy were a neglected stepchild, contributing to the shortages that made cracking the Gothic Line increasingly difficult.

The Germans were not fairing well either.  Their homeland had been subjected to relentless strategic bombing for four years.  Thousands of huge, heavily laden Allied planes rained hundreds of tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs on German cities daily.  Smaller aircraft swooped in on their military concentrations, strafing, bombing and launching air-to-ground rockets.  The Allies had established near complete air superiority and had largely destroyed the German Air Force and Navy.  Industrial capacity was crippled, German equipment had been decimated on a wholesale basis, and countless thousands of Nazi soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured.  And the Russians had turned the tide and were advancing rapidly on Germany from the east.  The Germans’ main priority was protecting the homeland, and Italy was an afterthought.  As such, their men, equipment and supplies were dwindling in Italy as well, more so perhaps than those of the Allies.

For both sides the battle in Italy was seen as a secondary front designed to frustrate the enemy.  The Allies sought to pin German forces down to prevent their use in the main defense of their country further north in Europe.  The Germans realized they could not defeat the Allies in Italy, who enjoyed a huge advantage in manpower and materials.  Their objective was to stall our advance, keep our forces from reinforcing the assault that was proceeding well across northern Europe, and only secondarily to protect their southern borders.  German leadership in Italy had long wanted to fall back into the more defensible Swiss and Austrian Alps to avoid further carnage.  Italy itself was seen as being of little strategic importance.  But Hitler had ordered a “no retreat” policy, so the Germans fought on across the Gothic Line.

General Clark’s plan to crush the Gothic Line and pour into the Po Valley by the end of October had failed.  The infamous Apennine winter would soon make maneuvering for an attack virtually impossible.  Against this backdrop, a renewed assault toward the Po was ordered to begin in November before the worst of the winter weather could set in.

In early November, Dad’s 3rd Battalion was in reserve in Montecatini.  Many of the men were billeted in hotels or other buildings in the town.  They were finally able to shower, relax, socialize and even attend a few movies.  There was mail to and from home.  The commanding generals visited the area to commend troops and award medals.  Training was also conducted and fresh troops and equipment arrived.

The R&R did not last long.  General Clark was still committed to reaching the Po before winter.  For the time being, the II Corps’ line deep in the northern reaches of the German Gothic Line was still held by our troops.  November saw the opportunity to improve our positions, destroy enemy guns and fortifications with heavy artillery, and conduct reconnaissance and harassing raids preparatory to a major assault being planned for December.

By November 11th, Dad’s 135th Regiment moved back onto the front lines to Barbarola, a tiny village astride Route 65.  It was only two miles south of recently taken Livergnano and eighteen miles south of the Regiments’ main objective, Bologna.  To the north were the commanding and strategically important heights of Mount Belmonte.  They were ordered to conduct two patrols nightly and target known enemy positions for artillery and mortar fire.



Mount Belmonte was a rugged, sprawling area of deep gorges, steep cliffs, and narrow, muddy trails. Located just north of the tiny village of Zena and lying only ten miles south of the Bologna objective, the mountain was strategically positioned.  It dominated the approaches the 34th Division would have to use if it were to seize Bologna.  It would have to be taken before a breakthrough in the center of the Gothic Line could be achieved.  As such, my father’s 135th Regiment was ordered to attack it.

Mount Belmonte was more than a simple military objective.  It was a strong point, a lynchpin in the German Gothic Line.  To say it was heavily fortified or defended would be a vast understatement.  A huge, mountainous area rather than a single peak, it was awash in enemy entrenchments, bunkers, defensive barriers and crack German troops.  Moving onto its face, patrolling the area was difficult and dangerous.  Our units regularly received machine gun and mortar fire.  Uncharacteristically clear days occasionally allowed our aircraft to effectively bomb and strafe enemy positions to our front.  For its part, the enemy fired tank, artillery and machine gun rounds into our positions with regularity.  They, too, continuously patrolled, assaulted our positions or counterattacked those they had recently lost.  Once our units gained a ridge or prominence, they immediately made preparations to repel the almost certain counterattacks.  All the while, our patrols constantly met and exchanged fire with those of the Germans.



Aggressive patrolling, firefights, assaults and ambushes continued through mid-November.  On the 18th of November, Company L and other elements of the 135th were relocated to the village of Sassi, where they continued to receive enemy artillery fire.  Mount Belmonte remained firmly in German hands.  But my father would revisit it again and again before it finally fell.

On November 20th, they moved farther back to Barbarola south of Livergnano, where they had originally been located earlier in November.  Two days later they fell back behind the front lines to Barberino for some well needed rest after being encamped in the field for most of the month.  By the evening of the 25th, the entire 135th Regiment was in reserve at Barberino.  Training resumed and a few one day passes to Florence were granted.  General Bolte, commanding officer of the entire 34th Division, presented the Combat Infantry Award to the 135th Regiment in recognition of their distinguished performance in the Gothic Line campaign.

Commanding generals were planning a new, intensified assault and the rest at Barberino was not to last long.  Company L was dispatched once again to Barbarola and then marched forward to Sadurano, situated east of Route 65 about two miles from Livergnano.  The weather had remained cool and rainy all through November, and the area where they were ordered to encamp in tents was covered in nearly a foot of water and slush.  Fortunately for Company L, it was soon ordered to move out and reinforce the sister 133rd Regiment near the village of Quercito where living conditions were slightly more tolerable.    Another assault on stubborn Mount Belmonte, still partially occupied by the Germans even after two weeks of bloody attacks, was scheduled to begin in a few days.

A flock of twenty-five sheep was obtained to probe for mine fields.  A German deserter was captured who reported that some twenty agents had been sent to infiltrate the American line including six women.  Our combat patrols increasingly received machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.  Heavy rain and enemy fire were delaying any new major attack.  Still, unit officers were meeting regularly to discuss plans for the long-awaited main assault.  The Germans, perhaps sensing an attack, increased patrolling and shelling activities.  The men were in high anticipation.

Still, rain and fog delayed action.  On the occasional clear day, allied planes attacked enemy positions to our front.  Some minor repositioning occurred and aggressive patrolling continued.  About December 16th, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to return to Barberino, marching cross country through rain and thick mud.  There the 135th was reinforced with two additional battalions from a sister unit, bringing the total to five battalions. 

Winter weather was beginning to arrive.  Snow and ice covered the hilltops and roads.  The men were issued cold weather gear, including white “snow parkas” for some.  A Christmas dinner was served for those in reserve including the 135th Regiment, and church services were available.

Having been thwarted in efforts to attack earlier in December, the American senior commanders had been planning the long-delayed offensive against the length of the entire coast-to-coast Gothic Line to begin on Christmas Eve.  The goal was to surprise the Germans and finally break through before the worst of the winter weather.  It would be the last chance before spring.  The date for the attack had been continuously postponed due primarily weather, and Christmas would be the latest it could be launched. 

The Germans, however, had learned of the preparations, and planned their own preemptive assault before the Americans could attack.  They initiated a major, multi-division thrust southward along the Mediterranean coast against the recently arrived American 92nd Division, which the Germans viewed as particularly vulnerable.  The enemy’s aim was not to defeat the Allied armies there, but to create a major diversion designed to draw Allied reinforcements from the center of the Gothic Line to the coast in defense of the 92nd.  In in so doing, it would spoil the assault on the center of their lines.  The strategy worked.  Allied commanders became aware of the Germans’ plan a few days before it was to begin, and units were shifted eastward to block the German onslaught.  Elements of the 135 Regiment were moved west near Lucca in the 92nd Division’s sector near the coast to help them stop the Germans.

Also significant was the Germans’ pre-Christmas thrust into Allied lines in Belgium, the famous Battle of the Bulge.  It met with some initial success, although it was ultimately turned back, in large part by the counterattack of Patton’s armored forces at Bastogne.  Nonetheless, the Allies were alerted to the fact that the Germans did not intend to go quietly into the night.  All this increased the anxiety of commanders further south in Italy.

        Ultimately, the German assault against the coastal 92nd Division was halted, but equipment and forces had been reduced and realigned in the II Corps along the Route 65 sector.  By the time the threat had passed, the weather had taken a bad turn and it was too late into winter for the planned breakthrough assault to Bologna to occur any time soon.  Any such action against the center of the Gothic Line would have to wait until spring. 

___________________________________

Next Installment: Holding on in the Winter; Cold, Snow, Slush, and Sickness