El Cruce del río «Rapido», enero de 1944

Posted on 2016/02/26

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  • Rage Over the Rapido
  • 1944: la battaglia di S. Angelo in Theodice e la confusione tra i fiumi Rapido e Gari
  • 1 Giovanni Petrucci, S. Elia e il fiume Rapido, Montecassino 2000, p. 37.
    2 Fred Majdalany, La battaglia di Cassino, I Garzanti, Milano 1958, p. 76.
    3 Associazione Historia, Cassino 1944-1994, Ceprano 1994, p. 30.
    4 Arrigo Petacco, La Seconda Guerra Mondiale, Roma Pubblicazione Periodica, p. 1370.
    5 Rudolf Böhmler I ‘Diavoli Verdi’ a Montecassino in Cassino ~1944~, Villa S. Lucia 1989, p. 298.
    6 Antthony Ferrar-Hockley, Battuta d’arresto a Cassino, Milano Pubblicazione Periodica, p.403.
    7 Ministère d’état, Le Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Italie (1943-1944), Paris 1971, p.106
    8 Ken Ford, Le quattro battaglie di Cassino, Madrid 2008, pp. 37 e 38.
    9 Silvio Micheli, Cassino sotto il fuoco in Vie Nuove, Le Grandi battaglie del ’44, n. 19 7 maggio 1964, p. 35.
  • foro

A rain-swollen river and powerful German defenses made the 36th Division’s assault an exercise in futility.

By Clayton D. Laurie

At 10 a.m. on March 18, 1946, Andrew J. May, chairman of the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, called to order hearings on the Rapido River crossing conducted by the 36th Infantry Division near Sant’ Angelo, Italy, between January 20 and 22, 1944.

Hearings

During the course of two days of hearings, the 30 committee members heard testimony from veterans supporting the statements made in two resolutions: one approved in January 1946 by the members of the 36th Infantry Division Association and the other passed by the Texas Legislature. These resolutions referred to the infamous battle as “one of the most colossal blunders of the Second World War,” a “murderous blunder” that “every man connected with this undertaking knew…was doomed to failure” before it took place.

Further, the resolutions charged Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, the commander of the Fifth Army, of which the 36th Division was then a part, with a clear disregard for human life and military information. Clark, they alleged, ordered the attack even though he knew it was going to fail with horrendous losses, even after his subordinates had voiced their misgivings and offered alternative suggestions for attacks elsewhere that could, and later did, succeed. The petitioners urged Congress to investigate not just the “Rapido River fiasco,” but to take “the necessary steps to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as Gen. Mark Clark, in a high command…to prevent future soldiers from being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly.” With this testimony and supplemental reports from the War Department and Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, the committee examined all aspects of the Rapido River disaster.

Up The Boot

The Allied landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno, Calabria and Taranto in September 1943, followed quickly by the liberation of Naples and the crossing of the Volturno River in October, succeeded in tying down German forces in southern Europe and in knocking Italy out of the war. However, these operations failed to force the enemy to retreat to the northern Apennines, the Po Valley or the southern Alps as the combined Anglo-American Mediterranean command had hoped. Instead, the Germans quickly disarmed their former Italian allies and began a slow, fighting withdrawal north. By year’s end the Germans had amassed a force in Italy of 24 divisions in Army Group C under Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, consisting of 215,000 troops in the Tenth Army under Generaloberst (Colonel General) Heinrich von Vietinghoff engaged in the south, and the Fourteenth Army of 265,000 men held in reserve in northern Italy under Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen. Opposing this force was the combined Anglo-American Fifth Army under General Clark and the Commonwealth and Allied Eighth Army under British General Bernard L. Montgomery, hero of the North African campaign.

In front of the Allied advance, the Germans constructed three major defensive lines across the peninsula in the fall of 1943 — the Barbara Line, ill-defined and improvised; the Bernhard (or Reinhard) Line, a wider belt of stronger fortifications 40 miles north of Naples; and the most formidable of the three belts, the Gustav Line, a system of sophisticated interlocking defenses located across the rugged, narrowest part of Italy along the Garigliano and Rapido rivers and anchored on Monte Cassino. By mid-January the Allied armies had destroyed the first two belts in the Winter Line campaign and had closed on the third. But Kesselring had high hopes for the Gustav Line and promised Hitler that these positions could be held for at least six months, blocking the entrance of the Fifth Army into the Liri Valley, the most direct route to Rome.

In early 1944 it appeared that Kesselring would be able to keep his promise. After countless bitterly fought small-unit actions, the Allied forces in Italy were exhausted. The terrain favored the defenders, who used the Apennine Mountains, deep valleys, foggy marshes and rain-swollen streams and rivers to slow the Allied advance to a crawl in ever-present mud and poor weather. Soldiers endured icy winds and torrential rains, lived in improvised shelters, ate cold rations, suffered from exposure and trench foot, and were often forced to carry their munitions, supplies and casualties up and down steep mountainsides.

The growing Allied superiority in men, materiel, air power and armor was largely negated by the skillfully conducted German defense of this mountainous and often rain-soaked terrain. By the last week in January, the Fifth Army drive had ground to a halt near the Garigliano and Rapido rivers at the base of Monte Cassino, while the Eighth Army advance had stalled well short of Pescara on the Adriatic coast.

Anzio

Complicating the tactical situation was the ongoing debate between the British and American high commands concerning their overall strategy in the Mediterranean and the amount of support it should receive relative to the other theaters, especially the build-up for Operations Overlord and Anvil, the invasions of France scheduled for the summer of 1944. When the authority of the Anglo-American combined chiefs of staff for Mediterranean operations passed to just the British chiefs of staff in early January 1944, the primacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and General Dwight D. Eisenhower devolved to Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke, greatly strengthening Britain’s ability to influence Allied strategy in the theater. Churchill, unlike the Americans, was adamant that the Italian campaign and Mediterranean theater in general get increased support and urged that the capture of Rome was essential.

To restore maneuver to the battlefield, Allied leaders had discussed a highly unorthodox amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Anzio, 35 miles southwest of Rome. The lack of sufficient troops and landing craft, however, caused the cancellation of this risky plan in December. Yet with the change in command and the concomitant British insistence on an increased Italian effort, the Anzio idea, although a major gamble, was revived as part of a three-pronged offensive.

The new plan, largely conceptualized by Fifteenth Army Group commander General Sir Harold Alexander, called for the Fifth Army to land two divisions at Anzio, which would then drive rapidly inland toward Rome, outflanking the Gustav Line while cutting enemy supply and communication lines. In the south, on the main line of resistance, the remaining portions of the Fifth Army would draw German forces away from Anzio by attacking and taking the territory before the Rapido and Garigliano rivers. Once these areas were in Allied hands, the Fifth Army would cross the rivers, take the high ground on both sides of the Liri Valley, and advance north to link up with the Anzio force within a week. The Eighth Army would support these operations on the Adriatic coast by crossing the Sangro River and capturing Pescara, further tying down enemy forces and preventing their lateral transfer across Italy to Anzio. The offensive in the Fifth Army area would start with the British X Corps’ crossing of the Garigliano River on January 17, followed by the U.S. II Corps’ crossing of the Rapido River on January 20. On January 22, 40,000 soldiers of the Fifth Army’s VI Corps would land at Anzio. If all went according to plan, Rome would be liberated by February 1, 1944.
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II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes doubted the wisdom of attempting to ford a flooded river over a four-mile-wide plain with both flanks exposed. His doubts were later confirmed. (National Archives)

The Offensive Begins

The Allied offensive started as planned when the British began their crossing of the Garigliano River late on January 17. Within hours, the British succeeded in ferrying 10 battalions of the 5th and 56th divisions to the far bank and established a large bridgehead. The attack achieved complete surprise and captured the village of Minturno, but later crossing attempts further north on January 19 at three sites near Sant’ Ambrogio by the British 46th Division failed dismally against an alerted enemy force. The 46th Division failure left the II Corps flank unprotected just as the Americans completed their preparations to cross the Rapido.

The success of the initial crossings, however, and their potential to breach the Gustav Line, stunned the German XIV Panzer Corps commander, Generalleutnant Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, who knew that his recently arrived 94th Infantry Division on the Garigliano could not contain the British force alone. On January 18 he appealed to Kesselring to send immediate reinforcements to the Garigliano. The 29th and 9th Panzer Grenadier divisions, the only two reserve divisions available in the immediate vicinity of Rome, moved south the next day and halted the British drive on January 20. The X Corps advance was stopped far short of its main goal, the heights of Sant’ Ambrogio, an objective the Americans considered vital for protecting their left flank during the Rapido crossing.

The Rapido

The day after the British assault ended, the U.S. 36th Infantry Division was to cross the Rapido River in the vicinity of Sant’ Angelo, a village atop a 40-foot bluff on the main line of resistance defended by the numerically superior 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, considered one of the best German units in Italy. River assaults under fire are always difficult and hazardous, but the crossing of the Rapido posed more than the usual number of tactical and logistical problems, even though Fifth Army and II Corps planners believed the 36th Division sector offered the best chance for success.

The Rapido was a small and unimpressive but swift-flowing river, 25 to 50 feet wide, 10 to 15 feet deep, with banks varying in height from 3 to 6 feet. There were few covered approaches to the river, and because the British X Corps and French Expeditionary Corps had failed to expel the Germans from the heights on both sides of the Liri Valley, the entire area was under enemy observation from Monte Cassino to Sant’ Ambrogio.

The 36th Division commander, Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Walker, whose veteran 141st and 143rd Infantry regiments were to cross the river at night and envelope Sant’ Angelo from the north and south, doubted the wisdom of attempting to ford a flooded river over a four-mile-wide plain with both flanks exposed. This concern was shared by the II Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes. Making matters more difficult, the assaulting units of the 36th Division were below strength by as much as 500 men per regiment and contained many unassimilated replacements and undertrained small-unit leaders who had only recently arrived to fill the gaps left by the heavy losses suffered in the recent battles for the Bernhard Line. The troops lacked sufficient boats, bridging equipment, and training in river crossings. Engineers of the II Corps and the 36th Division had obtained more than 100 rubber and wooden assault boats and had improvised foot and pontoon bridges. They were unable, however, to move any of this equipment to the riverbank because of withering enemy fire, poor roads, land mines and spongy ground. Both bridging equipment and assault boats were left more than two miles to the rear, near Monte Trocchio, for the already heavily laden infantrymen to carry to the river on the night of the attack.

T-Patchers

The 36th Infantry Division was a veteran unit. A National Guard division from Texas with a history dating back to the Texas Revolution and the Alamo, the 36th saw service in the Spanish-American War and in World War I at the Marne and Meuse-Argonne. The unit was mobilized and mustered into federal service at Camp Bowie, Texas, on November 25, 1940, and put under the command of Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Walker, an Ohio-born Regular Army officer with 29 years of service. On assuming command, Walker took the unusual step of retaining the division’s National Guard officers rather than replacing them with Regular Army officers, an action contrary to common Army procedure. Once federalized, the division underwent extensive training in Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts and participated in the Louisiana and North Carolina maneuvers of 1941.

The “T-Patchers,” 80 percent of whom were Texans, were shipped overseas in early 1943, arriving in Oran, Algeria, on April 11. The division was attached to the newly created Fifth Army, but did not see any action during the closing months of the North African campaign or in Sicily in July. When Italy was invaded on September 9, 1943, however, the 36th Division formed part of the initial invasion force. During 12 days of combat at the beachhead, the unit’s infantrymen gave a good account of themselves, morale was high, and the division received the first of 10 Presidential Unit Citations and the first four of an eventual 15 Medals of Honor. Yet before the division was removed from Salerno for rest and refitting, it had suffered more than 4,000 casualties, the 143rd Infantry Regiment alone losing 1,144 men.

Within two months the division was reinserted into the II Corps line near Mignano and Venafro, Italy, relieving the 3rd Infantry Division then engaged in the Winter Line campaign. During the next six weeks, the men of the 36th Division again distinguished themselves in heavy fighting along the Bernhard Line and in the battles for Monte la Difensia, Monte Maggiore, Monte Lungo and Monte Sammucro. The gains made, however, came at a high price. In the battle for Monte Sammucro alone, the 143rd Regiment lost 1,059 men. It suffered a further 1,400 casualties in the battle for San Pietro — one American casualty for every Italian living in the village. Thoroughly exhausted by December 30, the division was again pulled from the line. Over the course of the next two weeks, the division received 1,014 enlisted replacements and 90 officers, most of them going to the grossly understrength 143rd Infantry Regiment. The majority of these new men had only 17 weeks of infantry training before they arrived in Italy, and most of the commissioned replacements were fresh from officer candidate school.

Objectional Plan

The 36th Division returned to the front on January 15, 1944. On the following day, the division was ordered to take the remaining ground on the near bank of the Rapido River in preparation for an assault to establish a bridgehead as far as the village of Pignataro. Once this foothold was secure, Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division would pass through the 36th Division position and attack up the Liri Valley toward Anzio and Rome. During the 36th Division’s crossing, the 34th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Charles W. Ryder, would launch a diversionary attack on the 36th Division’s right flank, to the north in front of Cassino, before passing through the 36th Division bridgehead behind the 1st Armored Division.

Walker and Keyes were skeptical of this plan and encouraged Clark to consider alternatives. One option, according to Walker’s later testimony, was to cross the river farther north, in the 34th Division sector, where the Rapido was broader, less swift, and not dominated by a fortified village. The two men also suggested that the 36th Division launch a flanking attack over the high ground behind Monte Cassino, piercing the Gustav Line and outflanking German positions along the river.

In spite of these suggestions and Walker’s repeated arguments against the scheduled operation, Clark insisted that the Rapido be crossed at the planned point and time to keep pressure on the Germans during the Anzio landing, to draw enemy forces south, and to allow the armored and infantry units to dash north together up the Liri Valley. The two alternatives offered by Walker and Keyes would place the American infantry in the heights above the valley where they would be unable to support the armored thrusts below. Indeed, the alternatives precluded altogether the use of armor because the terrain in these areas was either too marshy or mountainous for tracked vehicles to operate effectively.

In Clark’s mind, crossing at the sites already selected offered the best chance for success along the most favorable route north. Like Walker and Keyes, Clark expected heavy losses, but he considered the Rapido attack a military necessity regardless of the cost involved. In the days before the attack, Walker’s pessimism was reflected in his diary entries, where he confided that “we might succeed, but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed.” Walker wrote that “a frontal attack across the Rapido would end in disaster,” as such assaults had failed on repeated occasions throughout history, and he added, “I am prepared for defeat.”

After an artillery barrage of 31,000 shells and the placement of smoke on both sides of the river, the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, began the Rapido River crossings with an assault upstream from Sant’ Angelo at 7:05 p.m. on January 20. It was followed by the 3rd Battalion. Darkness had fallen by the time the troops began their approach, and a thick fog hung over the area. Before the 1st Battalion even reached the river it came under heavy mortar, artillery and small-arms fire.

Initial Crossings

Rumors ran rampant, markers indicating cleared paths through minefields were destroyed or lost, guides became disoriented in the fog and darkness, infantrymen refused to cooperate with the engineers, and men wandered away or were otherwise separated from their units. Enemy fire damaged or destroyed most of the assault boats on the riverbank, and the others were hit soon after they entered the water; several sank while filled with infantrymen, who subsequently drowned. Much of the bridging equipment was destroyed before it reached the river, and efforts by the engineers to construct bridges failed under a rain of enemy shells.

By 4 a.m. about 100 men of Companies A, B and C, 1st Battalion, had crossed the river by footbridge, but this solitary link was soon destroyed by shellfire, isolating them on the far bank. German artillery knocked out telephone wires, field radios were lost or malfunctioned, and engineer and infantry units were quickly pinned down on both sides of the river. At dawn on January 21, the regimental commander, Lt. Col. Aaron A. Wyatt, Jr., suspended the attack and ordered the troops on the near bank to fall back to their original positions while ordering those on the other side to dig in until help arrived. By late morning the regiment had lost contact with the troops across the Rapido.

The 143rd Infantry Regiment began its crossings at 8 p.m. on January 20, at two points about a half mile to the south of Sant’ Angelo under intermittent artillery fire. By 5 a.m., Companies B and C of the 1st Battalion had successfully crossed the rain-swollen river at the northern site, but many boats were destroyed by artillery fire after completing the first round trip. With most of the regiment’s boats destroyed and casualties on the far bank rising, Colonel William H. Martin, the regimental commander, ordered his troops back across the river at 7:16 a.m., a movement completed by 10 a.m.

At the other crossing site farther south, deadly accurate enemy fire and land mines inflicted an enormous toll in men and boats and caused great confusion. A crossing was not even attempted during the early morning darkness, prompting the relief of the battalion commander, Major Louis H. Ressijac. Yet the major’s replacement, Lt. Col. Paul D. Carter, could not make order out of the chaos and soon gave up all hope of mounting a crossing before dawn, when more accurate enemy artillery fire could be predicted to rain down on the battalion. The unit was ordered to withdraw to its original positions at daybreak.

Trying To Advance

Determined that the crossings be completed, Keyes, under pressure from Clark, ordered Walker at 10 a.m. to conduct a new assault by both regiments on January 21, after replacement boats were obtained. But the confusion resulting from the failed assaults delayed the new attacks. The 143rd Infantry was first to attempt a crossing. Between 4 and 6:30 p.m., the entire 3rd Battalion reached the far bank and began to advance through the enemy wire, knocking out several German machine guns in the process, although with heavy losses. The 1st Battalion soon followed in the face of heavy enemy fire, crossing to the north of the 3rd Battalion.

Intense enemy opposition prevented the final battalion from crossing at the appointed time, and it was not until the early morning hours that two companies of the 2nd Battalion finally managed to reach the Rapido’s far bank. Although three battalions had succeeded in reaching the far bank by 2 a.m. on January 22, every effort to construct pontoon, Bailey or footbridges to allow reinforcement by armor and infantry units was stymied by enemy fire. Darkness, heavy fog and smoke obscured vision and prevented counterbattery fire. Mines accounted for still more casualties, and demoralization and disorganization gripped most units.

Yet amid the confusion and heavy enemy fire, many soldiers performed incredible acts of bravery. Staff Sergeant Thomas E. McCall, from Viedersburgh, Ind., serving with Company F, 143rd Infantry, commanded a machine-gun section providing fire support for riflemen crossing the river. Exposing himself to the deadly enemy fire that swept over the flat terrain, McCall, with unusual calmness, welded his men into an effective fighting unit. He led them forward across barbed-wire entanglements and personally placed the weapons of his two squads in positions covering the battalion’s front. A shell soon landed near one of the positions, wounding the gunner, killing the assistant gunner, and destroying the weapon. Even though shells were falling all around, McCall crawled forward and rendered first aid to the wounded man before dragging him to safety. In the meantime, the crew of the second machine gun had also been wounded, leaving McCall as the sole effective member of his section.

The sergeant picked up the last operating machine gun and ran forward with the weapon on his hip. He reached a point 30 yards from the Germans, where he fired two bursts, killing or wounding all the enemy soldiers and putting their gun out of action. A second enemy machine gun soon opened fire, and he rushed that position as well, firing again from the hip and killing four of the crew. A third machine gun, located 50 yards to the rear, then began delivering a tremendous volume of fire. McCall spotted its position and went toward it in the face of overwhelming fire, shooting from the hip. He was severely wounded and captured in this last attack, but his actions helped stabilize the battalion’s position, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor. Despite such individual acts of courage, however, by 12:40 p.m., January 22, the second crossing attempt had failed and the badly mauled battalions on the far bank were ordered to withdraw.

Withdrawal

The efforts of the already battered 141st Regiment were even less successful. The 2nd and 3rd battalions crossed the river at 9 p.m. on January 21, and although they searched the far bank under intense enemy fire, they could find no survivors from Companies A, B, and C, stranded the night before. Immediately after the two battalions crossed the river, the engineers began constructing a Bailey bridge, but enemy artillery halted their work at 9:45 a.m. and construction was never resumed. The remaining footbridges either washed away or were destroyed by artillery.

Meanwhile, the troops in the bridgehead were unable to move forward more than 600 yards and endured a merciless pounding through the seemingly endless daylight hours. By 6 p.m., January 22, all officers except one were casualties, and enemy snipers with automatic weapons had moved to within yards of the American positions. Soon all boats and bridges were destroyed, communications were out and the units were cut off.
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After the debacle at the Rapido River, the survivors regrouped, then continued to advance up the Italian peninsula. Here, 36th Division infantrymen march through Tarquinia, north of Rome. (Real War Photos)

As the 143rd Infantry completed its withdrawal downstream, the Germans counterattacked, concentrating their efforts on the stranded men of the 141st. Except for 40 soldiers who managed to swim back across the river, all others in the two battalions were killed, wounded or captured.

At division headquarters, General Walker resisted new orders from Keyes to commit his last regiment, the 142nd, in a third and final attempt to establish a bridgehead late on January 22 or at the latest on the following morning. Walker knew that the battle was over, and he managed to convinced Keyes of the same. As the demoralized survivors fell back from the river, all sounds of firing from the far bank ceased at 9:40 p.m. The 141st and 143rd Infantry regiments had suffered 2,128 casualties in 48 hours, including 155 killed, 1,052 wounded and 921 missing or captured. Nearly all officers and NCOs, battalion commanders, members of the battalion staffs, company commanders, platoon and squad leaders were killed, wounded or missing. One company of the 141st Regiment, under Captain Zerk Robertson, was reduced from 187 to 17 men, most of whom were wounded. For all practical purposes, the 36th Division was no longer an effective combat unit.

Sacrifice

German losses were negligible, and scarce reserves were never committed. Indeed, it was later learned that the reserves that the crossing was supposed to have drawn south had already been committed to the Garigliano front to contain the earlier British crossing. Kesselring could not have sent any units to reinforce the Rapido front even if the need had existed.

Ironically, the American attack had failed so dismally that neither the Tenth Army commander nor the enemy soldiers who repelled the assault were ever aware that the 36th Division was launching a major offensive. In their reports, enemy commanders referred to the attack as nothing more than a reconnaissance in force.

In the aftermath of the assault, Walker confided in his diary that the division had been sacrificed for no justifiable end. He “fully expected Clark…to ‘can’ me to cover his own stupidity.” Yet “Clark,” Walker wrote, “admitted the failure…to cross the Rapido was as much his fault as anyone’s.” Walker never appeared to understand, however, that the Fifth Army commander’s admission of failure was not an admission of error. Clark steadfastly maintained that the attack was part of Alexander’s overall offensive plan and not the result of Clark’s own initiative, and that had the British crossings of the Garigliano been more forceful and more successful, the Rapido attack would have succeeded as well. Clark also believed that the operation succeeded in tying down German forces during the Anzio landings as intended. He held that “some blood had to be spilled on either the land or SHINGLE [Anzio] front, and I greatly preferred that it be on the Rapido, where we were secure, rather than at Anzio with the sea at our back.”

Why?

The attack on the Rapido had failed for many reasons. The assault was hampered by poor weather and terrain conditions that hindered the movement of men and materiel, especially boats and bridges, and prevented the efficient use of air power, artillery and armor. The Americans had selected a poor crossing site, as Walker knew, where their flanks were exposed, where the enemy positions were well prepared, and where the available bridging equipment was inadequate for the job. In addition, any element of surprise that the 36th Division might have enjoyed was squandered by the many patrols the Germans spotted along the river in the days prior to the attack.

Yet of all the factors cited for the failure of the 36th Division crossing, the one reason most veterans focused on during and after the war was the poor tactical judgment shown by the higher command, especially Clark, in carrying out Alexander’s orders. Indeed, the major complaint was not Alexander’s basic plan or the orders given for the attack, but Clark’s allegedly poor judgment in carrying out the assault at the chosen point and time. To most, launching an attack across a rain-swollen, heavily defended river, for a drive up the center of a valley where the heights on both sides were still under enemy control, was faulty judgment bordering on negligence and incompetence.

Under the circumstances, the Rapido assault should never have been launched after the failed British and French drives, regardless of the situation at Anzio. On March 2, 1944, Texas Independence Day, with memories of the disaster still fresh, a group of 25 officers of the 36th Division met in an Italian farmhouse and vowed to do everything possible to prompt a postwar inquiry into the Rapido fiasco.

Afterwards

The 36th Division remained in the line for a month after the Rapido assault, dug in on the slopes of Mount Cairo behind Cassino and the Castellone Ridge, which fringed the town. The unit continued to serve with distinction in the advance on Rome in May, and was responsible for capturing Mont Artesmisio, a crucial position vital to breaking the German defenses before Rome. Following the liberation of the Italian capital, the division moved north, fighting its way 240 miles up the peninsula before being pulled from the line on June 29, 1944, after 11 months of campaigning and 11,000 casualties.

The division next took part in the Operation Anvil landings in southern France in August, followed by the dash up the Rhone Valley. The 36th then battled the Germans in the Vosges Mountains and elsewhere in Alsace-Lorraine, including the Colmar Pocket, a German holdout position on the west bank of the Rhine River. In the spring of 1945, the division entered southern Germany in pursuit of enemy forces falling back to the rumored Alpine Redoubt, and ended the war in the Austrian Tyrol. In five campaigns, the 36th Division suffered the third highest number of casualties of any unit in the European theater: 3,974 killed, 19,052 wounded and 7,317 missing.

The survivors of the Rapido disaster managed to have their grievances heard on Capitol Hill in 1946. In an investigation that critics called a “politically inspired, vindictive, but indecisive effort to fix blame,” testimony was heard from many veterans, including General Walker. General Clark, who never referred to the Rapido River disaster in any public utterances after the war or in his memoirs, was not required to testify and never officially responded to any of the charges leveled. When all was said and done, however, the statements of the War Department and the secretary of war carried far more weight than those of the 36th Division veterans appearing before Representative May’s committee.

The congressional panel accepted the Army view that “the attempt to cross the Rapido was a legitimate if difficult operation” where Clark “exercised sound judgment in ordering the attack.” No further inquiry was deemed necessary, and the failed Rapido attack became just another bloody battle in a long and costly campaign.

 

 

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