In early November 1943, the British Eighth Army reached the Gustav Line and the American Fifth Army reached the Bernhardt Line in Italy. The Bernhardt Line was essentially the Gustav Line’s gatehouse in the west that protected the Mignano Gap, the entrance to the Rapido and Gargliano river valleys which formed the Gustav Line’s main line of resistance on the western slopes of the Apennines Mountains. These valleys were dominated by Monte Cairo with its amazing fields of observation and Monte Cassino at the entrance to the Liri Valley. The Gustav and Bernhardt Lines were part of a larger series of extensive German defensive fortifications across Italy called the Winter Line that were intended to prevent the Allies from reaching Rome, 80 miles to the northwest.
Through these extensive fortifications were only three routes up the Italian boot: Route 5, the old Roman Via Valeria, which ran along the Adriatic coast and up which the British steadily pounded until they reached the Gustav Line. Across the Apennine Mtns was Route 7, the old Appian Way along the west coast of Italy but this route was blocked by Germans’ extensive flooding of the Pontine Marshes. And finally Route 6 which was further inland and traveled through the Mignano Gap, into the Liri Valley, and then to Rome. Route 6 was the only realistic route to Rome, and the Germans would make the Allies pay dearly for every meter.
After a two week pause, the US Fifth Army in Italy began, on 1 December 1943, Operation Raincoat – the assault against the Bernhardt Line, which was defended by the tough and experienced 15th Panzergrenadier Division, heavily fortified and determined to hold the Mignano Gap. The Camino hill masses which formed the pillars of the Mignano Gap were the last stop before Monte Cassino, the Liri Valley and the road to Rome.
The US Fifth Army during operation Raincoat was the epitome of the multinational and varied nature of the Allied armies in Italy. Gen Mark Clark’s command consisted of four US Divisions: the active duty soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division, and three National Guard divisions, the 34th from the Midwest, the 45th from Oklahoma, and the 36th from Texas. The Fifth Army also had the British Territorials of the 46th and 56th Divisions from London and the Midlands, the French Expeditionary Corps of French Foreign Legionnaires and French colonials from Morocco, North Africa and West Africa (including the ill-disciplined but very effective Goumiers), the lumberjacks, mountain men, commandos and ranchers from the elite and highly trained American-Canadian 1st Special Service Brigade aka “the Devil’s Brigade”, and even units of the resurgent Royal Italian Army, made up of Italians who actively resisted the Germans upon Italy’s surrender two months before.
The fighting was in the bitterly cold, windy, and rainy Italian winter. Mud covered everything. Allied soldiers struggled and fought up jagged cliffs, and slopes and trails so steep that they were impassable even to pack mules. Supplies were hauled up by rope or on the backs of men crawling through the mud, and the wounded were brought down the mountains the same way. German observation posts saw every movement of the Allied troops below and fire swept every conceivable approach. The fight was as much an engineers’ battle as an infantryman’s. One young engineer wrote,
“These things . . . constitute war and battle: rain and mud, cold and discomfort . . . of digging and of sleepless nights and tiring days, of being afraid and of being hungry, of repairing roads and of building bridges, of being lonely . . . of an endless number of little things…”
Mostly forgotten today, the fighting among the mountains and towns forming the Mignano Gap: Monte Camino, Monte Maggiore, Monte La Difensa, Monte Lungo, and Monte Sammucro and the hellscapes that were the towns of Mignano and San Pietro Infine was the largest land operation by Western Allies so far in the Second World War. Operation Raincoat lasted until mid-January 1944 when the Germans withdrew across the Rapido River. The 46 days the Fifth Army took to advance the 16 miles through the Bernhardt Line to the Liri and Rapido Valleys and the Gustav Line cost the Allies tens of thousands of casualties.
The worst was yet to come.