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U.S. Fifth Army commander Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, on board a PT-boat just before the Anzio landing. After the war, Clark was accused of showing a clear disregard for human life and military information during the "Rapido River fiasco." (U.S. Naval Historical Center)
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Rapido River Disaster

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."

Next: The Attack Begins

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