Battle of Rapido River
The Battle of Rapido River was fought from 20 to 22 January 1944 during one of the Allies' many attempts to breach the Winter Line in the Italian Campaign during World War II. Despite its name, the battle occurred on the Gari River.
|Battle of Rapido River|
|Part of the Winter Line and the battle for Rome, |
Italian Campaign of World War II
American soldiers bring back wounded during the attempt to cross the Gari River near Cassino, Italy, January 1944.
|Commanders and leaders|
Heinrich von Vietinghoff|
Frido von Senger und Etterlin
|36th Infantry Division||15th Panzergrenadier Division|
|Casualties and losses|
1,330 killed and wounded|
64 killed |
Lieutenant General Mark Clark, commanding general of the United States Fifth Army, in an attempt to break through the German defenses of the Winter Line (also known as the Gustav Line), tried to cross the Gari River, south of Monte Cassino, with two regiments (the 141st and 143rd Infantry) of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Fred Walker. After crossing the river in boats, the Americans were cut off from reinforcements and support and subjected to heavy fire and counterattacks from elements of the German 15th Panzergrenadier Division stationed on the west bank of the river. The Americans suffered very high losses, and after two days of fighting the survivors retreated back across the river.
In late 1943, the Italian campaign had reached a turning point; after the decisions made during the Tehran Conference, the supreme military and political leaders of the Allied powers finally decided to give top priority to the opening of the Western Front in German-occupied Europe and thus reduce the importance of operations in the Italian peninsula. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, left the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) in December 1943 and returned to the United Kingdom to plan for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Shortly afterwards, General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army, was given command of the 21st Army Group and command of the Eighth Army passed to Lieutenant General Sir Oliver W. H. Leese and he, Montgomery, also returned to the United Kingdom; seven veteran British and American divisions were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, waiting to be transferred to take part in the Normandy landings, scheduled for June 1944.
Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, continued to assign great importance to the Italian campaign on the other hand and despite having shared in general plans for a second front, he considered it essential (strategically and politically), to achieve a great victory in Italy. He hoped to destroy the German armies there and build on the success in the direction of Southeast Europe to anticipate the arrival of the Soviet Red Army. Churchill also ordered the 15th Army Group (later redesignated the Allied Armies in Italy), under General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, to, despite the weakening of their strength, keep pressure on the enemy and attain important strategic objectives and propaganda blows; this included Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, commanding the American Fifth Army, who was absolutely determined to achieve victory by securing the Italian capital of Rome first.
The Allied advance through Italy bogged down around Monte Cassino, which was a crucial point in the Axis defensive position known as the Winter Line. As a result, Allied commanders planned to outflank the Germans with Operation Shingle, an amphibious landing at Anzio. To assist in the landing, Allied forces to the south were to launch attacks in the days leading up to Operation Shingle by seizing German positions across the Garigliano and Rapido rivers; it was hoped that German forces would be drawn away from Anzio to counter these attacks.
On the night of 20 January 1944, the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, under command of Major General Geoffrey Keyes' II Corps, fired an artillery barrage on German positions across the Gari river, resulting in negligible damage. After the barrage, the 141st and 143rd Infantry Regiments were ordered to cross the river, which began at 19:00. Two rifle companies of the 143rd successfully crossed the river, but German return fire resulted in the loss of too many men and landing boats, and their foothold was abandoned. The 141st fared even worse, being forced to withdraw with heavy casualties after landing directly on a minefield.
The next day, both regiments were ordered to perform another attack, beginning at 16:00. Although this assault met with more success, the American foothold was still unsustainable, as withering fire from the 15th Panzergrenadier Division prevented the construction of pontoon and Bailey bridges by engineers. Without the bridges, armor could not assist in the attack, and the infantry were left to fight on their own, resulting in devastating casualties for the two regiments; after more than twenty hours of fruitless combat, both were ordered to withdraw. The 143rd was able to withdraw relatively intact, but much of the 141st was not so lucky as, being stranded, their boats and bridges were destroyed by enemy fire. The German defenders mounted a counterattack against the trapped Americans, capturing many hundreds. Major General Walker, decided against committing the division's last regiment, the 142nd Infantry, and the battle concluded at 21:40 on January 22.
No significant gains had been made in either assault, and the original objective of luring away German forces was entirely unsuccessful.
Significant controversy followed the American defeat, with Clark criticizing Walker's execution of the battle plan. Walker responded that the entire battle had been foolhardy and unnecessary, and that Clark's plan, which he (Walker) had protested against, was all but guaranteed to fail. The battle of the Rapido River was one of the largest defeats suffered by the U.S. Army during World War II and was the subject of an investigation in 1946 by the Congress to establish responsibility for the disaster.
- Schultz, Duane (2012). "Rage Over the Rapido". History Net.
- 1944: la battaglia di S.Angelo in Theodice e la confusione tra i fiumi Rapido e Gari Archived 17 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine, 1944: the Battle of St. Angelo in Theodice and the Confusion between Rapido and Gari rivers.
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. "Rapido River Disaster". Military.com.
- Schultz, Duane (2012). "Rage Over the Rapido".
- Winter Line Stories Original stories from the front lines of the Italian Campaign by US Army Liaison Officer Major Ralph R. Hotchkiss