Battle of the Winter Line or Gustav Line, 12 January-18 May 1944

Preliminary Battles
The Main Battles
First Battle of Cassino
Second Battle of Cassino
Third Battle of Cassino
Fourth Battle of Cassino
Aftermath
Books

The battles of the Winter Line or Gustav Line (12 January-18 May 1944) were the most important battles of the Italian campaign, and saw the Germans under Kesselring keep the Allies pinned down south of Rome from the autumn of 1943 until the summer of 1944.

The battle of Salerno led to changes in plans on both sides. The original German plan had been to withdraw to the north of Italy, and defend a line from Pisa to Rimini, which the Allies would find hard to outflank by sea, and which was the most northerly line that could be used to keep the Allies off the Po plains. Kesselring was to command the fighting retreat from the south, Rommel the defensive battle in the north. However the unexpectedly prolonged battle around the Salerno beachhead helped to support Kesselring’s belief that he could successfully defend a series of lines in southern Italy. He had always preferred this option, and had ordered work to begin on surveying what became the Gustav Line during the battle of Sicily. On 10 September he had outlined this plan and on 4 October Hitler ordered him to make a stand between Rome and Naples. Rommel was ordered to send two of his infantry divisions and part of his artillery south, and was then removed from the Italian theatre altogether and sent to France. This approach would keep the Allies pinned down further from German soil, and would give the newly freed Mussolini a larger state to rule.

General Leese and General Alexander during 4th battle of Cassino
General Leese and General Alexander during 4th battle of Cassino

Kesselring built a series of defensive lines across southern Italy, each running north-east from the Italian west coast to the Adriatic. The first was the Volturno Line, which ran up the Volturno river in the west and the Biferno in the east. Next came the Barbara Line, which followed the Trigno River in the east. Behind these two were the main series of lines. These became known to the Allies as the Winter Line, but were made up of three defensive lines. The main line was the Gustav Line, which ran from close to the mouth of the Garigliano River in the west to the mouth of the Sangro River in the east (with the main position a few miles to the north of the Sangro). The other two lines didn’t cover the entire peninsula, and were meant to strengthen the German position in the west, blocking the main road from Naples to Rome. The Bernhardt Line was to the south-east of the main Gustav Line, the Adolf Hitler line to the north-west. Some sources suggest that the section of defences on the Sangro itself were part of the Bernhardt Line. The most famous position in the Gustav Line was at Casino, where the town and monastery hill blocked the entrance to the more open ground of the Liri valley.

On the Allied side Eisenhower decided to make Rome his next target on 26 September. At this point the Enigma intercepts actually mislead the Allies, as they were intercepting high level discussions of the plans for a retreat to the north. Eisenhower expected to be in Rome within six or eight weeks, and decided to postpone moving his HQ from Algiers to Italy until the city had fallen. Over the next few days it began to become clear that this wouldn’t be the case, and in early October the movement of Rommel’s troops was detected. On 7 October Eisenhower informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the battle for Rome would be ‘hard and bitter’. They asked if the offensive should be cancelled, and the armies left around Naples and Foggia, but Eisenhower disagreed. He wanted to capture the airfields around Rome, and to move far enough north to allow an invasion of the south of France to be carried out from northern Italy. The Allied attack on the German defensive lines thus went ahead as planned. The Allies had three possible routes to Rome. They could advance up the Adriatic coast to Pescara and then cross the Apennines from there, a very difficult route. They could follow the old Appian Way (now Highway 7) along the west coast, but this route ran along mountains by the coast, and then across the Pontine marshes, drained by Mussolini but now flooded by the Germans. The third route took Highway 6. This also passed through a band of mountains, but if the Allies could get past Cassino they would enter the wider and flatter Liri valley, which would given them a direct route past the Alban Hills to Rome. Both sides quickly realised that the Allies would have to take this third route.

The Allied command structure underwent a series of changes during this period. When Eisenhower made the decision to move north, he was commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean Theatre. The Allied armies in Italy formed the 15th Army Group under General Alexander. They were split into two - the British Eighth Army under Montgomery and the US Fifth Army under General Mark Clarke. Eisenhower was then summoned back to Britain to take command of Operation Overlord, and was replaced by the British General Sir H. Maitland Wilson. Shortly afterwards Montgomery was also called back to take part in Overlord, and was replaced as commander of the Eighth Army by General Leese. Alexander and Clarke remained in their positions. The battles for the Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt Lines took place while Eisenhower and Montgomery were in Italy, the battles for the Cassino under Wilson and Leese.

The Allies also lost a number of their best units. Seven of the most experienced divisions were withdraw, also to take part in Overlord. They were to be replaced by new French, Moroccan and Algerian troops then training in North Africa, but in early December the Allies had 14 divisions in Italy, the Germans more than 20.

Preliminary Battles

The first German defensive line north of Naples followed the line of the Volturno River in the west, running across the flat plains north of Naples, then into more hilly territory east of Capua and then crossing the Apennines. The Allies reached the Volturno Line in strength on 7 October, and prepared for a large scale attack, to begin on 12 October. This began with an attack by the US 45th Division down the Calore River, an eastern tributary of the Volturno. This division managed to fight its way into the upper Volturno by 15 October. On 12-13 October the 3rd and 34th Divisions crossed the Volturno to the west of its confluence with the Calore and managed to get established across the river. Finally on the Allied left the British attack in the plains began on 13 October. The British attack ran into strong resistance. On the right the 56th Division was unable to cross near Capua, while in the centre the 7th Armoured Division managed to create a small bridgehead. On the left the 46th Division had more luck, establishing two battalions across the river, but even here a third battalion was defeated. However by this point the Germans were close to their deadline of 15 October, and Vietinghoff began to pull back towards the next line. The Volturno line was cleared by 19 October.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Damaged StuG III, Cassino Front

The second German line, the Barbara Line, was more of a line of outposts. It rand along the hills at the northern end of the plains north of Naples, then around the upper Volturno, which rose in the Apennines, flowed south/ south-west and the south before turning west to flow toward the coast on the earlier Volturno Line. The first break in this line came near the coast, where the British 7th Armoured Division reached Monte Massico on 31 October and broke through to the Garigliano. By 5 November the British were in place to attack the Bernhardt Line. In the centre the US 3rd Division attacked towards Mignano on 31 October, penetrating the centre of the Barbara Line. On the right the US 34th and 45th Divisions attacked across the upper Volturno on the night of 2-3 November, and then pushed into the mountains between there and Mignano. Monte Cesima, in that area, fell to the Allies on 5 November.

The strongest of the preliminary lines was the Bernhardt Line, which ran along the mountains to the east of the main Gustav Line. On the west coast the two lines followed the Garigliano River, but the Gustav line then followed the line of the river north to the point where it was formed by the junction of the Liri and the Rapido Rivers and then followed the Rapido into the mountains, passing to the east of Monte Cassino, while the Bernhardt Line branched off to include the mountains on either side of the Mignano Gap, which carried Highway 6 and the Rome to Naples railway. The attack on the Bernhardt Line began on 5 November when the British 56th Division attacked Monte Camino, one of three key peaks to the south of the Mignano Gap. After nine days this attack had be abandoned. The same happened at Monte la Difensa, where the US 3rd Division had to withdraw after ten days. Further to the right the US 3rd Division (Truscott) captured Monte Rotondo, on the north of the gap, on 8 November. This first phase of the battle ended on 13 November after Clark asked for a pause to allow his units to recuperate. 

The attack on the Bernhardt Line resumed on 1 December as part of a much large Allied offensive across Italy. This involved an Eighth Army attack across the Sangro on the Adriatic Coast which began on 20 November. Once that was underway the Fifth Army would break the Bernhardt and Gustav Lines and advance up the Liri Valley. At that point two divisions would land at Anzio to try and cut off the retreating Germans. The main Eighth Army attack had to be postponed to 27 November because of heavy rain, and made slow but steady progress before getting bogged down across the Moro River in December.

The Fifth Army attack began on 1 December. The British attacked Monte Camino on 2-3 December and secured after five days. The US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force captured Monte la Difensa after a daring assault, and the 36th Division took Monte Maggiore. Monte Lungo and the village of San Pietro, which guarded the western end of the gap fell on 16-17 December after a fierce battle. The Allies now controlled the approaches to the Gustav Line.

The Main Battles

The Germans withdrew to the main Gustav Line positions around Cassino after the fall of Monte Lungo and San Pietro in mid-December 1943. The Allies now planned a two pronged assault on the Gustav Line. This would start in mid-January 1944 with an attack on the Cassino front, to be followed on 22 January by an amphibious landing at Anzio, on the way to Rome. The hope was that the Germans would be trapped between the two Allied armies, and the troops defending the Gustav Line around Cassino would be captured. This plan quickly proved to be very over ambitious. It would take four battles before the Allies were finally able to break the German lines around Cassino, while the landings at Anzio failed to live up to expectations, and the troops there soon found themselves besieged by the Germans instead of threatening their supply lines.

First Battle of Cassino

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Monte Cassino from the air, 1944

General Clark planned a three pronged assault to break the Gustav Line. This would start with attacks on the flanks to the north and south of the Liri valley, which would capture the high ground overlooking the river. The third attack would then come across the Rapido, breaking the centre of the line and allowing an advance up the Liri Valley. The Anzio landings would take place ten days after the start of the attack at Cassino, by which time the main part of the army was meant to be advancing up the Liri valley.

The offensive began on 12 January when General Juin’s French Expeditionary Force attacked in the high ground to the north-east of Cassino. They were able to make some progress, and by 16 January had reached Sant Elia, on the eastern edge of the Rapido Valley, but they were unable to make any progress in the key ground north-west of Cassino, and the offensive was cancelled.

In the south the British attack began on 17 January. On the left the 5th and 56th Divisions got across the Garigliano, but on the right the 46th Division was pinned down close to the river, and was thus unable to take the key high ground to the south-west of the junction between the Liri and Rapido.

Despite these failures, the third phase of the attack (the battle of the Rapido), began on schedule on 20 January. The US 36th Division ran into well prepared German defences, and the attack had to be abandoned on 22 February after the division suffered over 1,500 casualties without achieving anything. On the same day General Lucas landed at Anzio. Although the initial landings went well, he then paused to build up his forces, allowing Kesselring to rush reinforcements to the area. From then on Clark’s freedom of action at Cassino was limited by the knowledge that the troops in the Anzio beachhead were under heavy pressure.

As a result Clark decided to launch a renewed attack on 24 January. This time the French would attack five miles to the north of Cassino and attempt to cross the mountains north-west of the village, emerging in the Liri valley at Piedimonte, five miles to the west of Cassino. The US 34th Division would cross the Rapido north of Cassino town and advance across the mountains to the north of Monte Cassino. This attack made slow progress, but after two days the Americans were across the Rapido, and were advancing into the mountains. By 4 February they had taken the summit of ‘Snakeshead’, the next major ridge to the north-west of the Monastery Hill and got to within 400 yards of the monastery. On their right the French also made steady progress, and by 4 February the Allies were close to a breakthrough into the Liri. At that point the Germans counterattacks and retook the top of ‘Snakeshead’ and the key ridges, preventing the breakthrough. The Americans launched one more attack on 11 February, but this also failed and the exhausted division was withdrawn and replaced by the 4th Indian Division on 12-13 February.

Second Battle of Cassino

The second battle of Cassino was the most controversial of the three, as it started with the destruction by bombing of the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. From the outside this resembled a medieval fortress looming over the valley with thick walls and small windows, and many of the Allied troops fighting in the valley below believed that the Germans were at least using it as an observation post. General Tuker, commander of the 4th Indian Division, believed that the buildings needed to be destroyed even if they weren’t being used by the Germans, as there was nothing to stop them moving in once the battle got close to the walls. In fact the Germans weren’t using the Monastery buildings, and even had a small exclusion zones around the buildings. For once they had also behaved well towards artistic treasures, helping to remove the portable artworks and books to relative safety at Rome.

After a debate within the Allied high command, Tuker got his way. The Allied air forces were given permission to bomb the monastery and town of Cassino. This would be followed by an attack by the 4th Indian Division on Monastery Hill and the 2nd New Zealand Division into Cassino town. Unfortunately the air attack wasn’t coordinated with the infantry attack. The air forces timed it for their convenience, and having originally planned to carry it out on 16 February took advantage of an improvement in the weather to attack on 15 February. The bombing raid caused a huge amount of damage, and killed around 280-300 civilian refugees who were still sheltering in the monastery. The base of the thick walls were left intact, so the raid had failed to achieve its main aim. Instead the bombers had created a field of ruins that would eventually become a very strong German defensive position. To make things worse the 4th Indian Division wasn’t ready to attack on 15 February. They were able to launch a small scale attack that evening, and another one on 16 February, but both were repulsed. The first large scale attack, by six battalions,  came on 17 February, by which time the defenders had recovered from the shock of the raid. The New Zealanders also struggled to make any progress, and on 18 February the attack was called off.

On 16 February the Germans launched their most dangerous counterattack at Anzio, and by 17 February they were threatening to make a breakthrough into the beachhead area. The crisis was over by 20 February, but it kept up the pressure on the Allies at Cassino.

Third Battle of Cassino

The third battle of Cassino was almost a re-run of the second battle. Once again the Allies planned to start with a massive bombardment of Monte Cassino, to be followed by an attack on the Monastery by the 4th Indian Division and on the town by the New Zealanders. The original plan had been to carry out the attack as soon as possible after 24 February, but bad weather intervened, and the Allies weren’t able to attack on 15 March. This time 435 aircraft dropped over 1,000 tons of bombs on Cassino and the artillery fired 4,000 tons of shells. The infantry then attacked but found that although the defenders had lost much of their heavy equipment, they were still alive and able to fight back. In the town the New Zealanders got a foothold in the north, and eventually took the railway station, in the south-east of the town, but the Germans held on in the centre. On the mountain the Indians got to within 250 yards of the monastery, which was now garrisoned by the Germans, but were unable to make any more progress. An attempt to get tanks into the battle on 19 March using a route cut into the mountains achieved surprise, but the tanks were soon knocked out. After one last attack on 22 March Alexander cancelled the offensive.

Fourth Battle of Cassino

The deadlock was finally ended after Alexander decided to move most of the Eighth Army from the Adriatic coast to the Cassino front, to allow the Allies to attack in great strength along a wide front. The new attack would be carried out by fourteen Allied divisions with a fifteenth in reserve and seven divisions at Anzio.

The Fifth Army was placed on the Allied left. The US 2nd Corps (85th and 88th) Divisions would attack across the Garigliano near the coast and attempt to advance up Highway 7 (the old Appian Way) heading for Anzio. On their right the French Expeditionary Corps would attack towards the Aurunci Mountains.

Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino
Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino

The Eighth Army was posted on the Allied right. The Canadian Corps would attack just to the north of the Rapido and Liri Rivers. On their right the British 13th Corps would attack just to the south of Cassino. Finally the 2nd Polish Corps would attack Monte Cassino from the north.

The Germans now had two armies south of Rome, the 10th Army at Cassino and the 14th Army at Anzio. The 10th Army had the 14th Panzer Corps on its left, defending the area from the Liri to the coast with two divisions. On their right was the 51st Mountain Corps, with two kampfguppen and the 1st Paratroop Infantry Division. When the attack began General Vietinghoff, commander of the 10th Army, and General Sengar, commander of the 14th Panzer Corps, were both in Germany.

The attack began with an artillery bombardment on 11 May. The infantry then attacked, but despite heavily outnumbering the Germans made limited progress along most of the line. On the left the US troops made a short advance before being stopped. In the centre the Canadians and British managed to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido, but were unable to move into the Liri valley. On the right the Poles carried out a series of brave attacks on Monastery Hill, but were repulsed with heavy losses.

German POWs taken at Monte Majo, 1944
German POWs taken at Monte Majo, 1944

The key breakthrough came on the French front. The Germans believed that the Aurunci Mountains would block any large scale advance, but the French had large numbers of troops from mountainous areas of North Africa. They were able to break through the weak German front line in that sector, and within a few days had advanced across the mountains to reach a point where they could advance into the Liri valley. On 17 May they captured the mountain town of Esperia, ten miles to the south-west of Cassino and a key point in the next Adolf Hitler line. The French advance helped the British and Americans on their flanks. By 17 May the British and French were about to cut off the defenders of Cassino, and on the night of 17-18 May they were finally forced to retreat from Monte Cassino. On 18 May the Poles were able to raise their flag on the Monastery ruins.

Aftermath

The Allies were finally through the Gustav Line. The next part of Alexander’s plan was for a breakout from Anzio north towards Valmontone in the Liri Valley, which he hoped would trap a large part of the 10th Army retreating from Cassino. However General Clark was determined to make sure that his Fifth Army would be the first into Rome. He also didn’t believe that an advance to Valmontone would actually trap that many Germans. General Truscott, who had replaced Lucas at Anzio, began his attack on 23 May. Cisterna fell on 25 May, and he then prepared to advance towards Valmontone, where he also expected to cut off the Germans. Much to his anger, Clark intervened and ordered him to send two thirds of his men north-west towards Rome, advancing to the west of the Alban Hills.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
General Clark Enters Rome

As a result most of the German 10th Army managed to escape from the Liri Valley, and occupied new positions around Valmontone, part of the last German defensive line south of Rome, the Caesar Line. Truscott’s attack towards Rome also ran into the Caesar Line, and his advance came to a halt on 26 Mays. For a few days it looked as if Clark’s disobedience had thrown away the chance of a major victory, but his men then found a gap in the German lines at Monte Artemisio, which fell between two units, neither of which had garrisoned it properly. On 30 May 8,000 Americans from the 36th Division sneaked through the gap undetected, and the Germans were soon forced to abandon the entire line. On 2 June Kesselring asked for permission to abandon Rome, and it was granted on 3 June. The first American troops made Clark’s triumphant entry into the city on 4 June, earning him two days of good publicity before the D-Day landings of 6 June pushed Italy out of the headlines.

The fourth battle of Cassino had cost both sides a similar number of men - 40,000 Allied casualties and 38,000 German. The German armies had escaped from Alexander’s trap, but they were still in danger for some time as they retreated north from Rome. They weren’t able to make another stand until they reached the Trasimeno Line, fifty miles to the north of Rome. The Allies kept up the pressure, and by the end of August were ready to attack the last German defensive line in Italy, the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines.

Books

Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long Hard Slog, Richard Doherty. A good account of the twenty month long campaign on the Italian mainland, looking at the performance of the multi-national 8th Army and its three commanding officers, as they fought to overcome a series of strong German defensive positions. Shows why the campaign took a year and a half, and how the 8th Army finally achieved victory. [read full review]
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Monte Cassino: A German View, Rudolf Böhmler. Very good on the nitty gritty of the fighting carried out by Bohmler’s paratroops, who were responsible for much of the determined defence of Cassino monastery and town, so we get a good feel for the day-to-day experience of the paratroops. Not so strong on the overall picture or the political background, which is sometimes dominated by a desire to rehabilitate the reputation of the German army in a Cold War context(Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 August 2018), Battle of the Winter Line or Gustav Line, 12 January-18 May 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_winter_line.html

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