Memories Never Forgotten


 

tpatch

General Walker's Story
of the Rapido Crossing    

 

Sent to the editor by Joe F. Presnall

 

Joe 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 series.

The veterans 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 good judgement.

They do not believe this. They know better.

Accounts of 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 Rapido crossing.

A primary 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 debacle.

Frustrated in 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.

To help 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

The best 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

Division, which was sitting around waiting to get into action. Unfortunately, the Rapido River blocked the entrance to the Liri Valley.

Recognizing 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 defenses.

Overlooking 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.

The Allies 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 were impressive.

The low 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.

In January 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

According to 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.

Early in 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 German position."

Despite my 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.

Because the 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 bridges.

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.

I discussed 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

Fifth Army's 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 Line.

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 recognized.

Instead, the original plan remained in effect. The British on my immediate left launched another attempt to cross the Garigliano on 19 January. It failed completely.

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.

The commander 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.

Later that 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.

The German 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 downstream.

One battalion 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.

Another battalion, because German artillery had destroyed or damaged their boats, did not get across the river until about 0600 in the morning.

The Germans 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.

Private 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.

About 1000 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.

But Keyes 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.

FOLLOW-UP ATTACK

After 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.

Repeated 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.

One battalion 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.

Another 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

Keyes wanted 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 worthwhile.

Clark turned suddenly to him. "It was as much my fault as yours," he said.

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.

General Clark 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.

GERMAN ASSESSMENT

The measure 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."

General 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 right.

The commander 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.

Several years 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.

Could the 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 established.

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.

Some 6,000 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.

 

HEADQUARTERS 36TH INFANTRY DIVISION
APO #36, U . S . Army

16 June 1944

MEN Of THE 36TH INFANTRY (TEXAS) DIVISION

It is with great pride that I congratulate you on your magnificent achievements in battle to date.

Nine 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 opposition.

For this achievement alone, you have a right to feel justly proud.

Later 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.

Then 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.

At 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.

After 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.

Your 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.

FRED. WALKER
Major General, U. S. Army
Commanding

 



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