Battle of the Barbara Line, 31 October-4 November 1943

The battle of the Barbara Line (31 October-4 November 1943) saw the Allies break through the outlining defences of the ‘Winter Line’, a hastily constructed line of outposts between the Volturno and the more strongly defended Bernhardt and Gustav Lines.

The Barbara Line ran from the west coast, along the Monte Massico, ridge, just a few miles north of the Volturno. It then ran north-east to Teano and from there north to Presenzano (curving around the southern slopes of the extinct volcano of Roccamonfina). From there it ran up the western side of the upper Volturno valley, along the edge of the high ground between the Volturno and the Rapido. At this point it ran close to the Bernhardt Line, the outlying positions of the Gustav Line, and in places along the upper Volturno the two seem to have followed the same route. The Volturno flows south-west and then turns south in this area. The town of Pozzilli, in the north-east of the plain to the north of the river, was roughly where the Barbara and Bernhardt Lines met, while Venafro, a short distance to the south-west, was between the two lines. 

The Barbara Line protected the northern exits from the plains surrounding Naples, and the most likely Allied line of advance towards Rome. On the Adriatic coast it followed the Trigno River. Some sources suggest that the actual Barbara Line stopped at the mountains, making the Trigno position a separate line, but the two halves do line up. The two halves of the line were defended separately, against different Allied armies - the multi-national Fifth Army in the west and the British Eighth Army in the east.

The Barbara Line was only meant to be a holding position, and was intended to delay the Allied advance to allow more work to be carried out on the main positions of the Gustav Line, further to the north. As a result the battle to breach the line wasn’t conducted as a series of formal assaults. Instead it saw different parts of the Allied army reach and breach the line at different times. The Allied offensive plans also add to the confusion, often calling on troops to advance through both the Barbara and Bernhardt Lines.

In the west Kesselring ordered his men to hold the Barbara Line until at least 1 November, and they achieved this. It took the Allies two weeks to break through the line and approach the more daunting Bernhardt Line.

The Allies broke through the Volturno Line on 12-15 October. The Americans made fairly rapid progress in the upper Volturno valley, which at this point ran from north-west to south-east, in their line of advance, and were thirteen miles north of Capua by 19 October, although this still didn’t quite bring them up to the Barbara Line. The British made slower progress in the face of the 15 Panzer Grenadier Division and Hermann Goering Panzer Division, and needed until 25 October to reach Sparanise, seven miles to the north-west of Capua. On 25 October General Clark ordered a pause in major operations, to give his units a few days to reorganise and regroup.

On the Allied left the Desert Rats (7th Armoured Division) moved from the centre of the British line to the left, on the coast, swapping with the 46th Division, as the coastal area was more suited to armour than the waterlogged central section. The 56th Division remained on the British right, north of Capua.  

On the Allied right the US 3rd Infantry Division was on the left, operating in the hills to the west of the upper Volturno. The 34th Infantry Division was next, generally advancing up the Volturno. The 45th Division was on its right, also fighting its way up the valley.

The first break in the Barbara Line came in the west. The British 7th Armoured Division broke the line at the coast. It reached Mondragone, to the south-west of Monte Massico, on 31 October, then got past the ridge and reached the lower Garigliano. To their right the 46th Division advanced to the south-west of Monte Sta Croce and the 56th Division towards Teano (which fell on 31 October) and then around the north-east side of Monte Sta Croce (the volcanic ridge north of Roccamonfina). The British then advanced up the Garigliano, and prepared to attack the Bernhardt Line at Mounte Camino. This attack began on 5 November.

Next in line was the US 3rd Division. This needed four days to reach Dragoni, half way from the Volturno Line to the Barbara Line. The division then cut across the hills that separated the upper Volturno from the approaches to the Mignano gap. On 31 October the division launched a surprise attack towards Mignano itself, bypassing the Barbara Line positions around Presenzano. The division captured Mignano, penetrating the centre of the Barbara Line, and then joined the British attacks on the Bernhardt Line.

The 34th Division headed north after getting across the lower Volturno, and then had to cross the upper Volturno a few miles further to the north. It then met up with the 45th Division, which had fought its way up the eastern side of the upper Volturno valley, but was by now exhausted. The 45th had to be taken out of the line to recover, and was posted behind the 34th. The 34th then continued to push north, through the Matese Mountains. It took the division four days to push seven miles forwards, at the cost of 300 casualties.

The final part of the Barbara Line to fall was the section in the upper Volturno. On the night of 2-3 November the 34th and 45th Divisions waded across the shallow river. The 45th Division captured Venafro and the 34th Division took Pozzilli, bringing the Allies to the foot of the mountains north of the Volturno. The Germans still held Monte Cesima and the area of high ground between the Volturno and the Mignano Gap, but this area was now surrounded on three sides by Allied troops. On 4 November the US 3rd Division attacked Monte Cesima from the south. The III Battalion of the German VI Paratroop Regiment counterattacked, but was unable to push the Americans back and by 5 November Monte Cesima was firmly in Allied hands. This brought the 34th and 45th Divisions through the Barbara Line and up to the Bernhardt Line.

On the far right of the line the 504th Parachute Battalion fought its way across steep mountains and captured Isernia. They were soon joined by the 1st Canadian Division, part of the Eighth Army, which was operating on the Adriatic Coast

Marshal Kesselring was unhappy with the quick collapse of the Barbara Line positions and questioned General Vietinghoff’s conduct of the defence. Vietinghoff responded by asking to go on sick leave, and was replaced as commander of the German 10th Army by General Joachim Lemelson. This lasted until the end of December, when Vietinghoff returned to the front.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 July 2018), Battle of the Barbara Line, 31 October-4 November 1943, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_barbara_line.html

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