US Army in Italy 1944-45 II


The 10th Mountain Division advancing in Italy in April 1945.


Throughout the Fifth Army there were exhausted troops and ammunition shortages, but above all there was a lack of replacements. What it got instead of a steady replenishment of existing formations was two new ones: the 92nd Division and a Brazilian division.

The combat debut of the 92nd, composed of black troops under black junior officers and white senior officers, was discouraging. As a rule, a green unit coming into combat for the first time was given a comparatively easy objective in its first attack, so it would gain confidence. Racial tensions had plagued the 92nd Division from the start. The division commander, Edward Almond, was an able infantry officer, but his evident lack of faith in the ability of black soldiers to fight made him a poor choice for this command.

His best regiment, the 370th Infantry, made the division’s combat debut during the October offensive. Unfortunately, the regiment felt it had been lied to by Almond’s staff. It took its assigned objective, and was thrown off it. Took it again, lost it again. On the third attempt the objective was finally secured, but the regiment was demoralized and sorely aggrieved.

With most days now shrouded in rain and fog, hopes of capturing Bologna faded. Alexander began planning to have the Eighth Army make an amphibious assault across the Adriatic and move into Yugoslavia. In effect, the British proposed to leave Clark’s 275,000 troops to deal with Bologna and the 450,000 Germans still in Italy, while the Eighth Army went its own way. It was an interesting development, when one reflected on the fervent demands made by Churchill and Brooke for promises not to pull American troops out of Italy and leave the Eighth Army to fight there alone.

Before this plan could go very far, Alexander was promoted to command the Mediterranean Theater. Clark moved up to command the 15th Army Group, consisting of the Fifth and Eighth armies, and Truscott was brought back from France to take over the Fifth Army. In the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Marshall got Alexander’s projected amphibious assault into the Balkans thrown out.

The British started pulling divisions out of Italy anyway. Three were sent to participate in the Greek civil war and reinstate the Greek royal family. The Greek monarchy was an offshoot of the British royal family imposed by the British on the Greeks in the nineteenth century.

The Eighth Army was further weakened by the departure of the Canadians. They went to reinforce the Canadian army serving with Montgomery, now worn out from its long struggle to clear the Scheldt Estuary.

The Germans, meanwhile, were preparing a counterattack. The poor showing of the 92nd Division offered an opportunity the enemy didn’t intend to ignore. At Christmas the Germans struck the division hard. Truscott had anticipated something of the kind and positioned troops from other divisions close behind.

For several days the Germans seemed about to make major penetrations that would unravel the Fifth Army’s front. This crisis was overcome, but the last faint hope of reaching Bologna before spring lay trampled in the snow.

Just as in the previous winter, conditions in the fighting units were bad going on terrible. Now, though, they seemed unbearable. Men had clung to Italian mountains in the winter of 1943 knowing that at least they represented their country’s main effort to defeat Fascism. A year later, they represented its main effort to capture Bologna. The decisive campaign was now being waged on other war-blackened white slopes in Luxembourg, Belgium and France. Why them? Why this poorly run campaign that never seemed to get anywhere?

Clark wasn’t capable of lifting their spirits, of convincing them their sacrifice was worthwhile. He was a competent general rather than a great one.10 He wasn’t popular with troops the way Eisenhower was, didn’t make enlisted men proud to serve under him, the way Patton could. And after his elevation to army group command he was an absent figure as far as most of Fifth Army was concerned.

When Truscott took over the Fifth Army, he inherited a force whose morale was brittle and in some divisions ready to break. All that was needed was a catalyst. At Christmas it arrived in the comely, perfumed form of Representative Clare Boothe Luce, the glamorous play writing wife of publisher Henry Luce, owner of Time.

Mrs. Luce was beautiful and brave, outspoken and free spirited. She’d arrived in Europe as part of a congressional delegation that wanted to see how the war was going. Most army headquarters lived well, but when delegations like this came around meals were likely to consist of C rations, and the detested lemonade powder was actually offered up as a beverage. Like many another representative of that era, Mrs. Luce tended to drink more than she should. At Patton’s headquarters she was so drunk the Third Army’s chief medico had to sober her up.

On the eve of the Battle of the Bulge, the delegation decided to move on and see how things were going in Italy. All but one of the representatives were content to stick close to the comforts of Florence.

On Christmas Day Mrs. Luce arrived at Bolté’s 34th Division command post with Truscott. She insisted on visiting troops in the front lines. Bolté flatly refused. He’d take her to a regiment dug in on a reverse slope, he said, but not all the way to the front. The Germans were there too, he pointed out. “They’ll shoot at you against the snow.” She got to within 800 yards of the most advanced Allied positions in Italy, which was a lot closer than anybody else in Congress seems to have managed.

When she eventually returned home (after a brief but torrid affair with Truscott), Mrs. Luce told the world that the troops in Italy were the war’s “forgotten men.” She’d also developed a personal interest in the 34th Division; she demanded that it be brought home. Its soldiers, she said, had spent more than a year in the front line.

Overnight, Mrs. Luce nearly destroyed the fighting value of the Fifth Army. Soldiers in Italy were deluged with mail from home that told them how right she was. Self-pity, the surest solvent of fighting spirit, threatened to undo years of training and blood-bought fighting spirit.

The laconic, sensitive Truscott could read men’s hearts. In the 3rd Division he’d demanded more than other division commanders, yet made men want to reach the heights he pointed to. He made his soldiers feel special, made them want to be the best; and in the view of many, including Marshall, they achieved it. When Charles Gerhardt had learned that his 29th Division was going to take part in the initial assault at Omaha, he went to Italy to spend some time with the 3rd so he could model his own command on it.

Truscott’s interest in morale showed in countless ways. He’d taken pains, for example, to get a 3rd Division song. He wanted a vibrant marching tune and words men wouldn’t feel stupid singing. The 3rd had the only good division song around.

During the dreary siege at Anzio, Truscott had set up a rest center in Naples. One battalion at a time pulled out of line for five days. Within hours, men had gone from sleeping in the dirt to sleeping in beds, to eating three hot meals a day, to being warm and dry and safe, if only for a little while. It revived their spirits and their health.

His answer to the “forgotten front” crisis was to start putting out press releases designed not for the wire services or big-city newspapers but for local papers back home. These releases reported the small-unit actions, the dangerous patrols into enemy lines, the unspectacular feats of courage, the constant struggle against hardship that made up the reality of everyday soldiering in areas where few war correspondents ever lingered.

Published in hometown newspapers, such stories told families, friends and neighbors what it was that Joe or Billy or Steve was really doing up there in those Italian mountains, and described Joe or Billy or Steve actually doing it. Thousands of brief, factual accounts were turned out every month. Each one made some individual soldier a hero in his hometown, whether he liked being admired or not.

The clamor in the 34th Division to go home might have ruined it completely, but Bolté had a firm grip on his command. There were graphs prominently displayed in his office that showed the state of marksmanship training, percentage of men attending church, number of trucks available, amount of ammunition on hand, gasoline stocks, rations, casualties, numbers reporting for sick call, numbers on leave, and so on. Within minutes he could evaluate the 34th’s readiness for combat. He could tell which of his regiments was in the best shape, and which in the worst. He also spent several hours each day visiting units and talking to troops. Otherwise, he knew, the word would go around that the old man just sat in his office all day studying his damned statistics.

When the clamor about the 34th broke in the press, Bolté didn’t give an inch. Look, he said, I haven’t been in combat for 365 days, and give or take a few people here, neither have you. Men were constantly leaving the division, new men coming in. Few soldiers spent a whole year in the line. Bolté promised to transfer any man who survived a year of frontline service to a rear-area slot.

The 34th remained the workhorse division of the Fifth Army. It survived Mrs. Luce’s help and stayed in the line without a break from September 1944 until the end of the war. By May 1945 it would have 500 days in combat, more than most divisions in the Army.

In the end, what saved the Fifth Army besides the leadership of men like Truscott and Bolté was the excellence of its divisions. Clark, like MacArthur, was permanently embittered about the fact that he was asked to do big things on slender means. What was sent him was modest, indeed, in keeping with Marshall’s view that any campaign north of Rome had little strategic value. Yet the overall quality was higher than for the Army as a whole.

The 85th and 88th divisions, which had arrived just before the Anzio breakthrough into the Liri Valley, had performed superbly from the start. Their combat effectiveness had impressed the Germans and reassured Mars hall that the division-making machine really worked; as it had to for Overlord to succeed. The 91st, a draftee division from Big Sky country, was a solid, even stolid, outfit; never flashy, but never failed either.

Clark was allowed to keep the 1st Armored Division, even though Italian valleys were too cut up by rivers to provide real tank country. Harmon had made 1st Armored an excellent formation before he left in July 1944. It performed well even in this unpromising terrain.

The problem division of the Fifth Army was the 92nd. It was incapable of sustained offensive operations. Many of its defects might have been corrected with better leadership and good-quality replacements, but there was no system for providing black replacements.

To keep the 92nd up to strength, Clark attached the all-black 366th Infantry to it. The 366th had been used to guard AAF bases in Italy. In February 1945 he remade the entire division. He created a new infantry regiment from white AAA troops and assigned it to the 92nd. Marshall took a hand by offering to assign the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry to Almond’s division. Almond accepted it gladly. The 442nd was magnificent, the most highly decorated regiment in the Army. Clark took the 92nd’s two weakest regiments and made them the IV Corps reserve. The result was a division that had one black regiment, one white and one Nisei. In effect, Clark had created the Army’s second integrated division, one that was finally capable of sustained offensive action.

At the end of 1944 Clark got one of the finest divisions anywhere and one of the most unusual in the history of the Army, 10th Mountain. This had to be the most highly educated division ever to take the field in modern warfare. Before the 1950s skiing was a pursuit largely of the middle class and college educated. The division had been recruited through the National Ski Patrol. The 10th’s commander, mander, George P. Hays, had won the Medal of Honor as a young artillery officer in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He’d served two tours on the General Staff and commanded the 2nd Division’s artillery. Marshall held him in high esteem, which was why he got command of what always looked like being an elite division.

The 10th Mountain was originally offered to Eisenhower in the evident belief at OPD that he’d need it in the Vosges Mountains or the French Alps. His staff had turned it down, saying it would have to be retrained as regular infantry. The SHAEF G-3, “Pinky” Bull, couldn’t see the value in a division whose organic transportation consisted of Weasels and mules, whose divarty consisted of 75mm pack howitzers.

Only when Marshall asked Eisenhower why he’d rejected it did Ike learn what had happened and try to get it. Too late: Clark had snapped it up. One of his best moves.

In moving up to command the 15th Army Group, Clark found himself running the original rainbow coalition. When Marshall visited commanders in the field, he sent the same message in advance to all of them: “No honors.” When he visited Clark in Florence in February 1945, however, he was greeted with bands, fluttering flags and a huge honor guard. As Clark led him to inspect the honor guard, Marshall expressed his displeasure. “General,” said Clark, “it will take only a few minutes and you’ll not regret it.”

Clark introduced him to the various nationalities of the 15th Army Group—Brazilians, Scots, Irish, Welsh, English, Canadians, Poles, Indians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Italians and Americans. (A few weeks earlier he’d also had a Greek brigade.) Somehow Clark had to make this diverse force act as one, feel as one, fight as one. Marshall finished the inspection delighted. Here was the United Nations at war as nowhere else on Earth.

Truscott used the 10th Mountain Division to make a limited-objective attack early in March and seize peaks and ridges the Fifth Army would need to resume its advance. One of its regiments attacked positions held by two German divisions and advanced four miles. It rode out repeated counterattacks by yet another German division. At a cost of 550 casualties, it had put the Fifth Army onto ground where it could attack downhill the rest of the way into the Po Valley.

Before the spring offensive could begin, Kesselring was injured in an accident and returned to Germany. His place was taken by Vietinghoff.

Truscott planned to attack on April 12. A week ahead of the jump-off, the 92nd Division attacked German positions on the Fifth Army’s far left flank, drawing German reserves away from where the main blow would fall. And on April 9 the Eighth Army, on the right flank, started its offensive, turning enemy positions by using landing craft to cross a large lake that the Germans had counted on to secure that flank.

Postponed to April 14, Truscott’s offensive opened with attacks by 2,000 heavy bombers and more than 2,000 artillery pieces. German positions were drenched with napalm, pounded with bombs and raked with artillery. The 10th Mountain and 85th divisions, supported by the Brazilians and the 1st Armored Division, thrust deep into enemy lines and bypassed Bologna. The city was taken by the 34th Division.

Five days after the offensive began, the German line along the southern Po Valley collapsed. What followed was hot pursuit across the Lombardy Plain. Here, armor could roll freely once again; fighter-bombers had targets out in the open once again. The Germans were harried mercilessly across the Po and on toward the Alps.

Leading the pursuit was a force of mountain infantry and a battalion of tanks from the 1st Armored Division—Task Force Darby. After the destruction of Ranger Force, Colonel Darby had returned to the United States to serve on the General Staff. On a visit to Italy, he had persuaded Clark and Truscott to keep him there. Hays gladly took him on as ADC of 10th Mountain.

The mission of Task Force Darby began as pursuit, but turned into something more daring: the capture of Benito Mussolini. Il Duce’s headquarters were at the northern end of Lake Garda, in the Italian Alps. Using DUKWs to make an assault crossing of the lake, Darby narrowly missed bagging Mussolini. He and his cronies were already in flight. The day the mountain infantry crossed the lake Mussolini was caught by Italian partisans and strung up at a gas station in Milan.

Leave a Reply