to the editor by Joe F. Presnall
Presnall thinks he received this manuscript (original) in 1946 at the
36th Reunion in Brownwood and would like to see it in the Quarterly.
The story has been around for many years and deserves a place in the
of the 36th (Texas) Division, which I commanded in World War II, will
never forget the Rapido River crossing. In that operation in January
1944, more than 2,100 of their comrades were killed, wounded, or
missing in a heroic and needless sacrifice. After the war the
survivors petitioned Congress to investigate this disaster. A hearing
was held, but not the investigation they wished. They were told
officially that the sacrifice was necessary as part of a grand
tactical plan and that the commander who ordered the attack had used
They do not
believe this. They know better.
this catastrophe that have appeared in print generally blame the
failure on the 36th Division. In order to correct this impression, I
have decided, at the request of my friends, to tell my story of the
motive of the Italian campaign was the desire to capture Rome, and
from the time of the Salerno invasion in September 1943, the Allies
had been trying to get there. They found progress slower and tougher
than they had expected. The mountainous country was unsuitable for
offensive warfare. The Germans, skillful practitioners of the art of
defense, fought a delaying action and gave up ground only when forced
to do so. The combination of these two factors prevented the slogging
advance up the boot of Italy from developing a burst of speed.
At the Gustav
Line, a fortified defensive zone across the waist of Italy about 100
miles below Rome, the Germans threatened to bring Allied progress to a
definite halt. Their positions included the town of Cassino in the
shadow of the famous Abbey of Monte Cassino; and included also the
Rapido River, where the Germans had established their strongest
defenses. Not only could German weapons hold up an advance at the
Rapido; the river itself was an obstacle. Unfordable, eight to 12 feet
deep, 40 to 50 feet wide, with steep banks, a swift current, ice-cold
water and no bridges, the Rapido was destined to be the scene of
the attempt to make rapid progress to Rome, the Allied high command
decided to go around the Gustav Line by means of an amphibious
operation. To outflank the German resistance, troops would be sent by
sea to Anzio, a scant 30 miles below Rome.
assure success at Anzio, the forces along the Gustav Line were
expected to do two things: tie down the Germans along this front and
thus prevent them from interfering with the Anzio landings and drive
overland to join as quickly as possible with the troops that had come
ashore at Anzio.
THE LIRI VALLEY ROUTE
avenue of advance toward Anzio and Rome was the Liri Valley. In a
country generally lacking terrain suitable for tanks, the Liri Valley
was an exception. It was relatively level, and it went in the right
direction. It was particularly attractive to the Allied high command
because it offered an opportunity to employ part of the 1st Armored
which was sitting around waiting to get into action. Unfortunately,
the Rapido River blocked the entrance to the Liri Valley.
the importance of the Liri Valley, the Germans plugged the entrance
with particularly strong defenses. Elsewhere along the Gustav Line
where the ground was mountainous, they needed fewer troops and
weapons. But at the Rapido, at the gate to the Liri, the most
practical road to Rome, the Germans placed their strongest fortified
the river on the German side were series of strongpoints sheltering
riflemen, machine gunners, mortars, antitank guns. Dug-in tanks and
concrete bunkers were so arranged as to give mutual protection by
interlocking fire. The Germans had cut down trees and brush to permit
clear fields of fire. They had strung barbed wire to snag and hold
attacking forces. They had planted mines along likely approach routes.
Supported by considerable artillery, the 15th Panzer Grenadiers who
defended the Rapido River were confident they could turn back any
attempt to cross.
knew the Gustav defenses well. Aerial photographs had revealed their
extent. Prisoners of war and Italian civilians had disclosed their
secrets. Maps showed clearly their exact locations. The fortifications
ground on the American side of the Rapido was flat and bare for a mile
or so back from the river. Much of it was covered with deep mud. There
were no good highways, only farm roads, dirt tracks not strong enough
to hold up under the beating of the heavy vehicles of an infantry
division. Getting to the river bank itself would be tough. Getting
across the river would be worse.
THE RAPIDO AND THE MARNE
As we fought
our way to the Liri Valley entrance that winter, I gave much thought
to the problem of crossing the Rapido. The more I thought about it the
less I liked it. I could not recall a single instance in military
history where an attack had been successful when launched across an
unfordable river that was at the same time incorporated into the main
defensive position and covered by the fire and artillery and small
weapons located on the main line of resistance.
My views were
influenced by an experience I had had in the First World War. Almost
26 years earlier I had commanded a battalion of the 30th Infantry
Regiment in the 3rd Division. That division is known as "The Rock
of the Marne." On 15 July 1918, I helped earn that name. On that
day, in my battalion sector, a German division of about 10,000 men
made an attack across the river. In good defensive position along the
Marne, my battalion of 1,200 solders turned the Germans back,
disorganized, confused, and slaughtered them. That experience taught
me the great advantage that the defenders of an unfordable river have
over the attackers. I was particularly impressed because my men were
fighting their first battle against veteran German soldiers.
1944, I opposed making the same kind of attack, and I pointed out the
disadvantages more than once to Major General Geoffrey Keyes, who
commanded II Corps, and to the man above him, Lieutenant General Mark
W. Clark. They could not see the difficulties. They expected success
because they did not realize that bold and piecemeal methods,
successful up to that time against delaying action, would not be
suitable against a prepared defensive position. It appeared to me that
the defeat of the Germans on the Marne in July 1918 was about to be
repeated in reverse on the Rapido in January 1944.
THE PLAN OF ATTACK
their plan of attack, Fifth Army would deliver a series of blows along
the Gustav Line from left to right. The British on my left would
strike across the Garigliano River near the coast on 17 January. Two
days later they would cross troops closer to my left flank. On the
20th my division would make the culminating effort by attacking across
the Rapido. Once over the river and into the Liri Valley, we would let
the tanks of the 1st Armored Division pass through. They would strike
toward Rome and join the forces landing at Anzio on the morning of 22
January. That was the way they thought it would work.
January my division engineer prepared a detailed topographical survey
of the Rapido area and a list of equipment we might need to cross the
river. Not only did he find an appalling lack of basic engineer
supplies-for example, the standard non-sinkable footbridge was not
available-but his study confirmed my conclusion that, on the basis of
topography alone, an attack across the Rapido would probably end in
failure. On 8 January, I made this entry in my journal: "I'll
swear. I do not see how we can possibly succeed in crossing the river
near San Angelo when that stream is the main line of resistance of the
conviction on the eventual outcome of the attack, despite my inability
to impress my superiors with the difficulties involved, I did not show
my feelings to my subordinates. I took every possible step to make the
operation succeed. As an officer, I had taken an oath to obey orders,
and I proceeded to do so to the best of my ability.
At one point
I considered the possibility of asking to be relieved from my command
in protest. But I could not abandon the 36th. 1 felt that I could
conduct the operation better than a new division commander who would
not know the capabilities of my subordinate units and commanders, and
who would be inclined to push the troops into extreme and useless
attempts. I knew that the men, who trusted me, were about to undergo
unnecessary losses and hardship that I could not prevent. I had been
in command of the division for two and a half years. I knew a great
many soldiers by name. I had met their families when we had been
stationed in Texas. Although everyone knows that war is merciless, I
made it my business to keep down losses and hardship by careful
planning. It is bad enough to have to expend men for legitimate
military objectives. It is criminal to waste them as a result of
unrealistic and careless planning.
Germans had a clear view of the low ground on our side of the river,
because no suitable concealment existed for a mile this side of the
water, I decided that a night operation would be less hazardous. The
German minefields on our side of the river would have to be cleared
before the day of the attack. The infantrymen would have to hand-carry
all the crossing equipment to the river bank because there were no
suitable roads and because the noise of the trucks grinding through
the deep mud would alarm the German outposts. As soon as the leading
units cleared the far bank, engineers would start constructing
I decided to
begin the crossing three hours after sunset, at 2000 hours. Between
then and daylight the troops would have about 11 hours of darkness.
During this time they would have to get across, clear the river bank
and occupy and hold a good portion of the line of strongpoints so that
bridge sites would be free from enemy rifle and mortar fire. Then more
troops, tanks, guns, and trucks would be able to cross over, build up
a secure bridgehead, and let the 1st Armored Division pass through.
the problem with my staff and my subordinate commanders. How was
infantry, confined to four narrow crossing sites because of
insufficient crossing equipment, to survive disorganization and
casualties and advance to and capture the main line of resistance
during darkness or soon after daylight? For there could be no success
until the German line of strongpoints was in our possession. How can
assault troops build up a fighting formation by infiltration in the
dark over unfamiliar ground with no landmarks to establish location
and direction, after crossing the river under fire? How can troop
leaders exercise proper control under such conditions? How can
artillery support such a maneuver when it can put down no observed
fires during the night but must resort to map firing? How can the
German defenders be kept down within their defenses when restricted
ammunition supplies limit preparatory bombardment to only 30 minutes?
There were no
satisfactory answers. Though I felt that we were under taking the
impossible, I kept it to myself. Yet surely those who planned the
operation with me must have felt the same way. Everybody knew that a
tactical principle was being violated: night operations must be
simple, but there was no way in the world to keep this operation
simple. And everybody knew also that if we did not succeed under the
cover of darkness, we most certainly would not succeed in broad
daylight when all our formations would be under German observation.
I decided to
send one infantry regiment, with two engineer companies and a chemical
warfare company attached, across the river north of the village of San
Angelo and another regiment with similar attachments south of the
village. The third regiment of the division was in corps reserve and
not available. Each regiment would have 30 pneumatic rubber boats,
about 30 wooden boats, and four improvised footbridges. Once the
regiments were across, the engineers would construct two six ton
pontoon treadway bridges. Corps and division artillery would try to
neutralize the German strongpoints.
I hoped that
some miracle would make it work.
BRITISH SUCCESS ON THE GARIGLIANO
attack on the Gustav Line opened on 17 January, when British troops
crossed the Garigliano near the coast and wrested a bridgehead from
the relatively weak German 94th Division. The Germans had strung the
94th out over an unusually wide front in order to protect several
miles of seacoast. As a consequence, the British cracked the Gustav
This was a
very important success but, in my opinion, General Clark did not
recognize it for what it was. The German corps commander, General
Senger, became so alarmed that he asked for reinforcement. His
superior asked Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, top German commander
in Italy, to send him additional forces immediately. Kesselring
dispatched the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions from the Rome
area. These divisions were in position and counterattacking the
British on the 21st.
By all that
is normal and orthodox in military practice, the advantage secured by
the British near the coast should have been pressed home. Their
bridgehead should have been reinforced by pouring an increasing number
of troops over the Garigliano. I would have been delighted had the
36th Division received the task, although at that time I knew nothing
about the situation and the opportunity that existed in front of the
British. We could have outflanked the entrance to the Liri Valley and
forced the German troops on the Gustav Line to retreat. To prevent
such a disaster, Kesselring sent the two divisions to the Garigliano.
We would have had three days to do the job before these two divisions
could arrive. A marvelous opportunity was lost because it was not
original plan remained in effect. The British on my immediate left
launched another attempt to cross the Garigliano on 19 January. It
The next day
we took our turn in the series of piecemeal attacks. It was a
cheerless day. The troops of the 36th Division knew that they were
about to attack the strongest part of the Gustav Line under the most
unfavorable conditions. Nevertheless they resolved to do their best. I
could sense their feeling throughout the division area. I was proud of
my men. At the same time I could not help thinking that they did not
realize the extent of the advantage the Germans had in the attack that
I wished I could cancel.
That day I
attended a conference at General Keyes' II Corps headquarters. I
explained my plan of attack, pointed out the difficulties in general
terms, and tried to be optimistic in spite of my real feelings.
of the British division on my immediate left came to see me that
afternoon. He expressed his regrets for having failed to cross the
Garigliano the night before, for he was aware that his failure would
make the Rapido crossing tougher for us. He extended his wishes for
our success, but his attitude indicated that he had grave doubts.
afternoon General Clark telephoned to wish me success. He added that
he was worried. My part of the conversation was not encouraging.
THE CROSSING IS PRESSED
A heavy fog,
cold and dense, hung over the river that night of 20 January.
Visibility was near zero. As the four assault battalions started their
approach marches to the crossing sites, enemy shells began to fall in
increasing volume. White tapes marking clear lanes through minefields
soon became indistinguishable as the marching men trampled them into
the mud and the artillery tore them into shreds.
artillery was particularly effective. Shells decimated our units,
broke up our formations, destroyed our assault boats. Guides lost
their way. Carrying parties lost equipment. Men strayed into
minefields. The swirling current of the Rapido swept boats and men
found one of its four footbridges defective even before starting to
the river. Another footbridge was destroyed in a minefield while being
carried to the stream. A third got a direct hit from an artillery
shell at the crossing site. The single remaining footbridge was
finally installed at 0400, eight hours after the start of the attack.
Three rifle companies, perhaps 400 men, got across. A few soldiers
worked their way through the barbed wire and by daylight entered the
main German positions, but they were soon killed or captured. The rest
were forced to dig in and await support. Then German artillery
destroyed the footbridge. Unable to be reinforced, the men could not
return to the near side.
battalion, because German artillery had destroyed or damaged their
boats, did not get across the river until about 0600 in the morning.
immediately forced them into a pocket with the river at their backs.
In the open, without cover, attacked by tanks, unable to be
reinforced, the battalion was ordered to return to the near bank. The
men who remained alive managed to cross by swimming or on a damaged
footbridge that was still in place but under water.
Two of the
four battalions were unable to cross at all.
What had been
accomplished? At a cost of hundreds of casualties, a handful of men
were on the far bank of the Rapido. They were fighting for survival
and it was only a matter of time until they would be wiped out.
Gavino Manella, a medical aid man who worked with a rifle company that
had crossed the river had been captured and had returned with a
message from a German officer, for his regimental commander. He was
haggard and exhausted. He had that tell-tale air of a man who had been
to hell and isn't quite sure yet that he has returned. I have seen
that look often, but never so frequently as I did at the Rapido.
that morning of 21 January, General Keyes, the corps commander,
arrived at my command post. He was a quiet-spoken man, always well
dressed, his shoes carefully polished. I respected him, and I like him
as a person, but I sometimes found his ideas more academic than
practical. That morning I could not help contrasting his appearance
with the harsh reality along the river and the condition of the men
who had taken a beating there.
Keyes told me
that the 36th Division would have to make another attack at once. One
of the regimental commanders had already warned his troops to be
prepared for a second attempt at 2100, and I considered the
possibility of making a second crossing, principally to rescue the men
who were isolated on the far side, wounded and able-bodied alike.
wanted an all-out attack to go earlier, preferably before noon
because, he said, the sun shining into the eyes of the German
defenders would make it difficult for them to see. To comply with
Keyes' order would give us less than two hours to prepare. Considering
the disorganization among the units, an immediate resumption of the
attack was impossible. Even though I explained that we needed at least
several hours to organize for another crossing, he insisted that I
send the troops over the Rapido at once. I had no alternative but to
comply. "Yes, sir," I said, as formally as I could.
consulting my staff and my subordinate commanders, I set the hour for
the attack at 1400 hours. But we all knew that that deadline was
unrealistic and could not be met. Later I postponed the hour to 1500,
then to 1600.
calls kept coming from corps headquarters. When would we get our
attack going? With Keyes prodding me impatiently, I could not make a
further postponement. Though neither regiment was completely ready,
one started the attack on time.
got two companies across the river rather quickly and part of a third
during the night. But by daylight of 22 January, the battalion
commander and the company commanders were all killed or wounded, most
of the platoon and squad leaders were casualties. Since the units were
being pounded and gradually destroyed on the far side, the men were
ordered back. Some of the wounded who tried to swim back were swept
downstream and drowned.
battalion that made it across suffered numerous casualties and gained
very little ground. In the morning, when the battalion reported it was
running out of ammunition, the regimental commander masked the river
with smoke and sent another battalion across. By noon of the 22nd,
both battalions were pushed back against the river. That afternoon the
men were ordered back. The footbridges and almost all of the boats
were by then destroyed, so many of the men had to swim and some of
them were drowned, especially the wounded.
In the other
regimental area, two battalions crossed. By 0500, they were hacking
through the barbed wire several hundred yards from the river. But when
enemy fire increased, they were forced to dig in. Exhausting their
supplies of ammunition and water, unable to evacuate their wounded,
they were subjected to a strong German counterattack An hour later the
commanders and executive officer of both battalions, as well as all
the company commanders except one, were killed or wounded. The Germans
surrounded and eventually captured those still alive. About 2200 that
night the sound of American weapons across the river ceased.
THIRD ATTACK CANCELLED
a third attack because he thought the Germans were, as he said,
groggy. He thought their morale was low. He believed they might even
be preparing to withdraw. This, of course, was wishful thinking. We
had not even made a dent in their defenses. I tried to dissuade the
corps commander from ordering another attack that could only result in
additional casualties. After his conversation with me, Keyes phoned
General Clark. After consulting with the army commander, Keyes called
me back and authorized me to call off the third attack he had ordered.
About noon on
23 January, Clark and Keyes came to my command post. The conference
that followed made no attempt to blame anyone for the serious check we
had received. "Tell me what happened up here," Clark said
quietly. I told him.
At one point
in the conversation, Keyes said that, from the information available
before the operation, the attack had seemed to him to be most
suddenly to him. "It was as much my fault as yours," he
I wish he had
repeated later and publicly what he said then. So far as I know, he
never did. Neither he nor Keyes ever admitted their error in judgement.
They had sent the 36th Division into an attack with too little
concern, with too little regard for the difficulties, with too much
confidence. Their wishful thinking had obscured their ability to take
heed of the hard facts.
said later that the attacks at the Rapido by the 36th Division had not
been in vain. The Texas Division, he said, had not only tied down
German units along the Gustav Line but had also lured German units
from the Anzio area.
Much as I
would like to believe this, it just is not true. It is true that Field
Marshal Kesselring sent two divisions from the Rome area to help
defend the Gustav Line. It is also true that this permitted the Anzio
landings to be made against virtually no opposition. But what
Kesselring was trying to do was to prevent a breach in the Gustav Line
along the British front. The Garigliano crossing near the coast, not
the 36th Division's attack at the Rapido, had frightened the Germans.
Those two divisions, dispatched from Rome even before we launched our
Rapido effort, arrived on the Garigliano front and were attacking the
British on the morning of 21 January. The next day Kesselring rushed
them back to meet the Anzio invasion. Along with them out of the
Gustav Line went an infantry regiment and quite a lot of artillery.
The 36th Division's attack at the Rapido had not tied down the
Germans, had not made the landing at Anzio any easier. It accomplished
nothing favorable and should never have been attempted. As a matter of
fact, our setback made inevitable the four long months of hardship
endured by the troops in the Anzio beachhead.
of our failure at the Rapido can be seen from the German reaction. A
message we received by carrier pigeon indicated what the German troops
thought. Having captured one of our pigeons, they released the bird,
which flew, back to our loft. "Herewith a messenger pigeon is
returned," they had written. "We have enough to eat and
what's more, we look forward with pleasure to your next attempt."
Senger, the German corps commander, regarded the Rapido crossing
attempt as a "side show" (his words), because his principal
concern was with the bridgehead secured by the British at the
Garigliano. He judged our attacks as nothing more than a
reconnaissance in force, and he was not worried. His troops, he
believed, could dispose of any effort to cross at the Rapido. He was
of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which opposed us at the Rapido,
counted 430 American dead and 770 captured, a total of 1,200 of those
who had managed to cross the river. Nine hundred others were
casualties on our side of the Rapido. In comparison, the 15th Panzer
Grenadier Division suffered casualties numbering 64 killed, 179
wounded—a total of less than 250.
later, when Field marshal Kesselring was talking about the Rapido
action, he said that had one of his subordinates ordered a similar
attack, he would not have treated him very kindly.
attempt to break the Gustav Line have been done differently? I think
so. There were three alternatives. First, the successful British
attack across the lower Garigliano should have been reinforced
immediately. Next, we might have made a coordinated attack on my right
where the Rapido was fordable. Finally, the 36th Division could have
done just as much for Anzio by making a demonstration of deception at
the Rapido; that is, feinting an attack by building up supply dumps,
preparing and marking approaches, patrolling the German side of the
river, destroying enemy installations by artillery fire, and so on,
but with no intention of actually making an attack. This would have
kept the Germans in a state of expectation and caused them to hold
their troops in readiness until after the Anzio landing was
Some of the
accounts that have been published of the failure of the Rapido River
crossing have reflected unfavorably on the brilliant record and
outstanding battle successes of the 36th Division. Nothing can be
farther from the truth.
infantrymen of that division, most of them from Texas, tried to get
across the Rapido. They fought under conditions that made it
impossible for them to succeed. It is tragic that their efforts were
made in vain. Nevertheless, their loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice
are no less admirable than the conduct of the men who fought and died
under the lone Star flag a hundred years earlier at the Alamo. The
troops of the Rapido exemplified the same glorious tradition of
intrepid action against hopeless odds-an example and a tradition of
which Texas and the Nation have a right to be justly proud.
The fault at
the Rapido was unwarranted optimism, the refusal to look facts in the
face and the unwillingness to draw the correct conclusions. Mist
wanting something to happen, simply willing it, is not enough.
Wishing, as the Rapido proved, will not make it so.
36TH INFANTRY DIVISION
APO #36, U . S . Army
Of THE 36TH INFANTRY (TEXAS) DIVISION
is with great pride that I congratulate you on your magnificent
achievements in battle to date.
months ago you landed on the hostile beaches of PAESTUM, the vanguard
of your country's Amy, to crash the gates of Hitler' a European
Fortress. In that, your first action of the war, fighting courageoualy
against well-trained enemy forces of long combat experience, you
established the first American beachhead on the European Continent,
the first to be established anywhere by Americana against German
this achievement alone, you have a right to feel justly proud.
on, while subject to hardships that have never boon exceeded by arty
troops anywhere, you drove the enemy from his well-organized, stoutly
defended positions in the hill masses of CAMINO and SUMMUCRO: from MT.
MAGGIORE, MT. LUNGO, MT. ROTUNDO and SAN PIETRO. You punished him
severely. Hie losses in men and materiel were great. Throughout this
period of bitter winter weather, under the moat adverse conditions of
climate and terrain, you maintained a cheerfulness and enthusiasm far
superior to that of your enemy.
came your gallant effort on the RAPIDO. Let us bow our heads in
reverence to the fallen comrades who crossed that bitterly contested
stream and put up a great, if losing, fight-as great from the
standpoint of sheer gallantry and determination as any recorded in the
annals of our Armed Forces.
CASSINO and CASTELLONE RIDGE you were severely tested. You suffered
losses, but you captured vital high ground from the strongly
entrenched enemy, and held it throughout a month of hard fighting.
a well-deserved rest you were ordered to attack again—at a critical.
time and at a critical place near VELLETRI, to break the stronghold of
the enemy defenses east of ROME. History will record forever your
outstanding success. In a week of brilliant maneuvers and relentless
assaults on one position after another, VELLETRI, ROCCA DI PAPA,
MARINO and beyond, you killed and captured well over three thousand of
the enemy; routed him from his strong, well-organized positions and
drove him across the TIBER in disorder.
brilliant performance on that famous battlefield was a major
contribution in the capture of the first European capital to be
recovered from Nazi occupation. For your magnificent accomplishment
here, General Marshall sent a personal massage of congratulation to
you and to me. The German Army is still reeling from your blows. The
relentless pressure of your attacks will substantially shorten the
duration of the war. Your victorious march through the streets of the
cities of your enemy cannot be long delayed.
Major General, U. S. Army