Battle of the Bernhardt Line, 5 November-17 December 1943

The battle of the Bernhardt Line (5 November-17 December 1943) saw the Allies capture the mountains that guarded the ‘Mignano Gap’, on the approaches to the main Gustav line positions behind the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers after a series of costly infantry assaults (Italian Campaign).

The Bernhardt Line was an outlying spur of the main German defensive position south of Rome, the Gustav Line. The two lines both began at the mouth of the Garigliano River, but the main line then followed the river inland to the junction with the Rapido then heading north up that river to Cassino. The Bernhardt Line followed a line further to the east, and linked a series of strongly defended mountains - Monte la Difensa, Monte Camino, Monte Lungo and Monte Sammucro - that acted as an outer shield to the Rapido valley. They protected the Mignano Gap, the best route to Cassino and the entrance to the Liri Valley, which in turn was the best route for an Allied advance on Rome. Some sources also suggest that the defences along the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast were part of the Bernhardt Line, but they are probably better seen as the outlying defences of the eastern part of the Gustav Line. However the British attack on the Sangro took place at the same time as the second Allied assault on the Bernhardt Line. In some areas the Bernhardt Line also ran very close to the Barbara Line, the previous German defensive position, and the Allied attacks don’t neatly form into a series of attacks on the individual lines - the British on the Allied left reached the Bernhardt Line while the Americans on the right were still facing the Barbara Line, but the Fifth Army plan of attack at the start of November had been designed to penetrate both lines on the right.

The Mignano Gap was a six mile long mountain pass, protected on both sides by 3,000ft high mountains that had been built into the German defensive system. Highway 6, the best route from Naples to Rome, ran through the gap. From the Allied point of view the first high ground was a wedge shaped area between the gap and the upper Volturno, peaking at Monte Cesima (this appears to have fallen between the Barbara and Bernhardt Lines). On the left there was a more triangular area of high ground, with Monte Camino on the left and Monte Difensa on the right facing the Allied positions, and Monte Maggiore at the rear, all forming part of the main Bernhardt Line. A series of scattered peaks were located in the middle of the gap, overlooking the highway, with the circular Monte Rotondo on the right and the longer Monte Lungo on the left. To the north of these positions was the town of San Pietro, at the foot of Monte Sambucaro. The line ran across a mountain pass between Monte Sambucaro and the Monte Cesima area. It then ran across the mountains bordering the upper Volturno, running to the north of Venafro and joining the Barbara Line at Pozzilli.

By now the Italian theatre was losing out to Operation Overlord. In November the experienced British 7th Armoured Division and most of the American 82nd Airborne Division were removed from Italy and moved to Britain ready to fight in Normandy. They were replaced by the US 1st Armored Division and the 1st Special Service Force, a specially trained US-Canadian mountain warfare unit. The 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division arrived in December 1943.

The first attack towards the Bernhardt Line began on 31 October. On the left the British 56th Division attacked Monte Camino on 5 November. The British made slow progress up the mountain, and were able to fight off three German counterattacks by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division on 8 November. By 10 November the British attack was running out of steam. On 12 November General Templer was prepared to put his third brigade into the fight, but Clark didn’t believe that the mountain could be held, and suggested a temporary retreat. The British pulled back on the night of 14 November.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Italian Civilian at
Mignano, 1944

To the right the US 3rd Infantry Division had attacked the Barbara Line on 31 October, bypassing Presenzano and heading directly for Mignano which quickly fell. The division then attacked Monte la Difensa, but after ten days the attack had to be abandoned.

Further to the right the Allies had more success. On the night of 2-3 November the 34th and 45th Divisions waded across the Volturno. The 45th Division captured Venafro and the 34th Division took Pozzilli, giving the Allies control of the upper Volturno valley. 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.

General Truscott, commander of the 3rd Division, took advantage of the advances on the right, and sent some of his men around into the 45th Division sector to attack Monte Rotondo from the east. The 30th Infantry then attacked the mountain from the east, and captured it on 8 November.

Further to the Allied right the US 6th Corps managed to push the German 305th Infantry Division back around Monte Pantano, in the mountains to the north of Pozzilli. On 8 November the Germans moved the 26th Panzer Division into the mountains, where it took over the right-hand part of the 305th Division’s sector. Between 11-16 November the 29th Panzer Grenadiers was also moved to the front, replacing the 3rd Division in the Mignano Pass and on Mount Sambucaro (also known as Mount Sammucro), to the north of the gap. 

By 13 November Clark was worried that his army was being destroyed by the constant series of attacks, and asked Alexander for permission to pause before some of his divisions were damaged beyond repair. Alexander gave his permission, and on 15 November the Allied offensive came to a halt. The Allied divisions were given two weeks to recover from the series of battles that had moved them from Salerno to the Bernhardt Line. 

The second attack was part of a larger and rather over-optimistic Allied plan. This was to start with an Eighth Army offensive on the Adriatic Coast that was to cross the Sangro Line, break the Gustav Line and reach Pescara, and then advance up the Pescara Valley to threaten Rome from the north-east. The Fifth Army would then join in with an attack that would break the Bernhardt Line and the Gustuv Line and take the advancing troops into the Liri Valley. Finally two divisions would land at Anzio, and the two prongs of the Fifth Army attack would trap the retreating Germans.

The offensive began on 20 November with an Eighth Army attack on the Sangro positions. The Sangro was in flood, and the approaches were soft and muddy. The British 78th Division had to build a road across half a mile of swamp to the edge of the river before they could build a bailey bridge. They then had to build a road off the river bank, all the time under heavy German fire. After two days the bridge was completed, and the German 65th Infantry Division was almost wiped out. The weather then intervened - more heavy rain caused the Sangro to rise again, and the British bridges were washed away.

Montgomery was forced to pause until 27 November, when the weather allowed him to get the 8th Indian Division and 2nd New Zealand Division across the Sangro. The Germans had also moved two fresh divisions to the area, one from Mignano and the other from the north of Italy. Another bitter battle was fought along the Moro River, starting on 4 December, and it took the British a month to reach the outskirts of Ortona. By this point the British had penetrated into the Gustav Line and the Germans were determined to hold on for as long as possible. The resulting battle of Ortona (20-28 December 1943) saw the Canadians successfully capture the heavily defended town, but also effectively brought the Eighth Army offensive to an end.

The main Fifth Army attack began on 1 December. The first targets were the mountains to the left of the gap, Monte Camino and Monte la Difensa. The battle began with a massive aerial and artillery bombardment of the two positions, with 900 bombing runs and tens of thousands of rounds fired over two days.

On the night of 1-2 December the British 46th Division took Calabritto, at the southern foot of Monte Camino.

The main offensive began on the night of 2-3 December. The British 56th Division attacked Monte Camino for the second time, and reached the summit during the night. They were pushed off the summit twice by German counterattacks, but took the highest peak on 6 December, and after five days secured the position.

Monte la Difensa and Monte Maggiore were attacked by the US 2nd Corps. The attack started with a bombardment by 925 guns, including a new 8in howitzer. The Germans on the mountains were fairly secure in their stone defences, but they were cut off from the rest of the German army.

Monte la Difensa was attacked by the 1st Special Service Force, a US-Canadian mountain warfare unit, that found an unexpected route to the top, ambushed the garrison, and then fought off a series of counterattacks. The Germans finally began to withdraw on the afternoon of 8 December, after the British secured Monte Camino.

The final part of this triangular area of high ground, Monte Maggiore, was taken by the 142nd Infantry Regiment, US 36th Division, with the support of an effective artillery bombardment.

The next objective was Monte Lungo, the last mountain in the middle of the gap, and the village of San Pietro, to the north. The Allies were confident that these positions would fall quite easily, and so the newly arrived 1st Italian Motorized Group were given the task of taking the mountain, while the US 36th Division attacked San Pietro. The attacks began on 8 December, and it quickly became clear that neither position would be easy to take. The Italians were repulsed by noon, losing 84 dead, 122 wounded and 170 missing from their 1,700 men. The 36th Division became involved in a long, costly battle at San Pietro which dragged on to the night of 16-17 December, when the Germans withdrew after Monte Lungo was finally captured.

With the mountains in the heart of the Bernhardt Line now in Allied hands, the Germans withdrew to the Gustav Line. The Allies still had to fight a few more battles to move all the way up to the Rapido, but the last mountain east of the river was abandoned after it was surrounded on three sides by Allied troops. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 July 2018), Battle of the Bernhardt Line, 5 November-17 December 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_bernhardt_line.html

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