The invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands finally exposed the Japanese shortfalls in naval and land based aviation to American intelligence officials. Additionally, the increasingly one sided air battles over Rabaul after the invasion of Bougainville proved that the quality of Japanese airpower was in serious decline. To ensure adequate numbers to face the American fighter sweeps over Rabaul, the Japanese were required to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to feed the defense of the South Pacific. Squadrons were transferred from far flung Japanese possessions, including the Gilberts and Marshalls, and sent to Rabaul. The nearly nonexistent Japanese air response to the invasion of Kwajalein convinced Admiral Nimitz to push up the timetable in the Central Pacific, and more specifically the invasion of Eniwetok. However, Eniwetok was within striking distance of the Japanese main naval base in Central Pacific: the Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was essentially a sunken mountain range surrounded by coral reefs and has, by far, the best natural lagoon in the Central Pacific. Its 50 by 30 mile sheltered anchorage has so far in the war allowed the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor and conduct continuous operations in the South Pacific.
Like Rabaul for Allied planners, Truk was The Lair of the Boogeyman from which All Bad Things Emerged.
Nimitz needed to neutralize Truk. His plan for the Central Pacific involved a future invasion, but the operation to secure the Marshalls meant something had to be done immediately.
By the beginning of 1944, American industry produced enough new aircraft carriers to allow the formation of fast carrier “strike groups”. These strike groups raided Japanese held airfields, anchorages and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Nimitz formed the largest such strike group so far in the war, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher of five fleet carriers, six light carriers, and seven new fast battleships with accompanying cruisers and destroyers as escorts.
Task Force 58 was a massive force, nearly double the Japanese strength against Pearl Harbor just two years before, but it was still headed for Truk. The idea of willingly sailing aircraft carriers into range of major land based airpower was still alien and unthinkable to most carrier admirals. (The only reason the Japanese did it at Pearl Harbor was because they hadn’t declared war yet. Even at Midway, the main threat was still the island, all the way up until four of their carriers were sunk.) And Truk was the biggest Japanese base outside of Japan. On 15 February when Mitscher announced over the loudspeaker their destination for Operation Hailstone, one of his pilots said, “I nearly jumped overboard.”
However, as early as October 1943, the Japanese recognized they could no longer hold the outer perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and settled on a smaller more easily defensible perimeter to gather strength for a counter attack. They withdrew most of the capital ships from Truk back to the Palaus, so few of the juicy targets remained. The mighty Yamato and Musashi had spent almost 18 months at Truk and had only recently departed. Nevertheless, the withdrawal to the inner perimeter meant that much of the shipping form the outer bases went to Truk first, a major transit point, before heading west. Mitscher’s raid caught the lagoon without capital ships, but filled with arguably more important transport and cargo ships that the Japanese could ill afford to spare.
On the morning of 17 February 1944, Task Force 58 approached Truk behind a storm front and struck the airfields first just as the Japanese did on the morning of the 7th of December 1941. American surprise was complete. Japanese pilots were mostly on shore leave, but the 90 or so Mitsubishi “Zeros” that went up were promptly shot down. By 1944, the Zero was outclassed in almost every category by the new American Hellfighters and Corsairs, and due to fuel and training shortfalls, American pilots had hundreds of more hours in the air than their Japanese counterparts. By the afternoon, any Japanese air response was non-existent, and the Mitscher’s dive and torpedo bombers attacked Truk’s lagoon and shore facilities with impunity. They only had to worry about a few manually controlled anti-aircraft guns and these were quickly dispatched once they revealed their positions.
Unlike Nagumo’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Mitscher didn’t withdraw after two strikes, but launched 13 separate strikes against Truk. Even Mitscher’s boss, Adm Ray Spruance, wanted to get in on the action. He took tactical command of the battleships New Jersey and Iowa and some escorts to chase down fleeing Japanese ships that managed to escape the lagoon. Only darkness ceased Operation Hailstone.
And it was in the darkness that the Japanese managed to strike back: a single torpedo from a “Kate” night bomber penetrated the screen and struck the carrier Intrepid.
For the loss of about 25 planes, most whose pilots were rescued and about 40 personnel, mostly from the Intrepid, Mitscher sunk five cruisers, four destroyers, and almost forty support, transport and cargo ships, including the all-important fleet oilers, and damaged many more. His fliers either shot down or destroyed on the ground almost 250 planes, and over 4500 Japanese personnel were killed, and twice that number wounded, most of whom could not be evacuated.
The destruction of the Truk anchorage convinced Nimitz that it could be bypassed and that an invasion was unnecessary. In the space of just 12 hours, the mightiest Japanese naval base outside of the home islands went from being the focus of all American operations in the Pacific to a tiny and obscure footnote in most Pacific War history books.
In 529 CE, during the darkest days of the so called “Dark Ages”, Benedict of Nursia established a small monastery on the site of an old temple to the god Apollo outside of the Roman village of Cassium. He wanted to take his small religious community in a new direction, and created a monastic rule for his followers based on order, balance, and moderation. The Benedictine Rule for Catholic monks spread throughout Europe. Their manuscripts and dedication to education went far in preserving the light of Western civilization during the numerous and successive barbarian invasions of Europe.
1415 years later, the Abbey at Monte Cassino took on a sinister visage to the Allies, in particular the remnant of the remnant of the US II Corps. Since the capture of San Pietro in December 1943, there was nowhere on the battlefield that you couldn’t look up and see the Abbey. During the meat grinder at San Pietro, the massacres crossing the Rapido River, the carnage swept slopes of Monte Cairo and Castle Hill, the brutal house to house fighting in Cassino, and a hundred other bloody engagements where the Allies were slaughtered, there was only one constant: the Abbey. Like a cackling mad god surveying his vicious handiwork, it loomed over the bloody hills and valleys of the Gustav Line. The American soldier wanted the Abbey obliterated.
Lt Gen Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the recently arrived New Zealand Corps, agreed. His Kiwis, Brits and Indians were next in line to feed the Beast in the shadow of the monastery. The II Corps staff was convinced the Germans had occupied the stout walls of the Abbey, or were at least using it for observation. And that is exactly what they briefed the New Zealand Corps’ staff during the relief in place. On 12 February 1944, Freyberg formally requested the Abbey be smashed by heavy bombers with “blockbusting” bombs. Gen Mark Clark disagreed based on the recommendation the II Corps commander, MG Keyes, who said, “They’ve been looking so long (at the Abbey), they’re seeing things.” No concrete evidence has ever been uncovered that the Abbey was ever occupied by the Germans before the 14th of February.
Field Marshall Kesselring specifically ordered that the Abbey was not to be so in any form, and made sure Hitler, the Allies and the Vatican knew that. Lieut Gen Viettinghoff, the German Tenth Army commander, ruthlessly enforced the edict and knew that the military crest of Monte Cassino was just as advantageous anyway. But British Field Marshall Harold Alexander, the CinC of the Allies in the Mediterranean, overruled Clark. Alexander wanted to give the bomber enthusiasts a chance to show what they could do in support of ground operations in Italy.
On the 13th, the Allies dropped leaflets on the Abbey telling the monks to leave. The Abbot knew there were no Germans in the monastery and thought the Allies were doing this to protect them from the ground fighting and stray rounds, so there was no sense of haste. Additionally there were over a thousand Italian refugees in the monastery, and they would take days to organize for movement north through the German lines.
Two days later on 15 February 1944, 300 Allied bombers and 100 fighter bombers destroyed the Abbey. The German Minister of Propaganda Jozef Goebbels immediately exploited the act and broadcast the news around the world. Most of the monks and civilians were killed. Vietinghoff immediately ordered the remains of the Abbey occupied. The elite German paratroopers of the 1st Fallshchirmjaeger Division turned the ruins into an impregnable fortress, exactly what the Allies accused them of doing in the first place. For the Allies, the future battles around Monte Cassino just became exponentially more difficult.
After the invasion of Tarawa in November, the next step for Adm Nimitz’ Central Pacific Campaign were the Marshall Islands, specifically the Kwajalein Atoll.
On 29 Jan 1944, Nimitz’ Bombardment Group centered around 6 fleet carriers, 6 Escort carriers, and eight battleships shelled, staffed and bombed the islands of the atoll. On the 31st, the US 7th Infantry and 4th Marine Divisions assaulted the islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur. The Soldiers and Marines never encountered more than 300 dazed survivors at a time. Within a week, the Kwajalein atoll was secured.
Although there was hard fighting at times, Operation Flintlock was successful because it was characteristic of the changing nature of the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese slowness to adapt. The Japanese fortified the outer ring islands of the atoll, but the Americans broke their code and knew which islands to isolate. Without a challenge from the Japanese Navy (which still had not replaced the losses from the Guadcanal naval battles), the US Navy just sailed around the heavily defended islands and secured the supporting islands. Without a navy to come to their aid, most Japanese were cut off and just left alone by the Americans to starve to death.
Furthermore, the heaviest Japanese defenses were focused on the ocean side of the islands because they believed the Americans did not have the technology to penetrate the lagoon or wherewithal to risk another Betio. They were mistaken. The Americans learned from their mistakes of the last year, and either found solutions or did not repeat them. So if any heavily defended islands had to be attacked, the Allied assaults hit Japanese defenses pointed on the wrong direction. Finally, the pre invasion bombardments were particularly effective. The Japanese weren’t as heavily fortified on the supporting islands. Estimates from both Japanese and American sources say that 50% of the 8000 Japanese defenders on the atoll were killed or wounded before a single soldier or Marine set foot on dry ground.
The Kwajalein and nearby Eniwetok atolls would provide the springboards for the American return to Guam and the Mariana Islands later in the year.
After a short buildup, MG Lucas, the commander of all of the troops in the Anzio beachhead, was under great pressure from Gen Mark Clark and Winston Churchill to break out. The Alban Hills, the original objective for Operation Shingle, was out of the question: they were already too strongly defended and would grossly extend his perimeter if he did capture them. So he sent the British 1st Division to seize them anyway just to temporarily get his superiors off his back. However, another possibility, a real one, did exist. He could still cut Highways 6 and 7 to stop supplies heading to the Germans in front of the French and Americans fighting around Cassino by capturing the Italian town of Cisterna. He couldn’t hold it for any length of time, but the town provided a good point to push further inland and cut Route 7. And because it briefed well, there was always the pipe dream that the shock of being temporarily cut off might cause the Germans to withdraw.
The US 3rd Infantry Division was given the job. Leading the attack would be COL William O Darby’s 6615 Ranger Force. Leading the way, the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions and the 3rd ID’s Recon Troop were to infiltrate Cisterna the night before to pave the way for the assault.
Unfortunately, the German main line of resistance was much closer and stronger than the Rangers expected. Clark and Lucas underestimated the German operational ability to quickly mass troops at trouble spots. The rangers and scouts infiltrated right into the assembly areas of two German panzer divisions — the 26th and the powerful Herman Goering Panzer Division.
The two Ranger battalions were immediately cut off, and over the next seven hours, methodically destroyed. Even the best light infantry in the world is no match for an armored force when it’s fixed in an exposed position without heavy equipment.
The 3rd ID and 6615th, spearheaded by the 4th Ranger battalion and the 504th Parchute Infantry Regiment, launched themselves repeatedly at Cisterna to relieve the entrapped Rangers. The fanatic and soon desperate assaults were in vain. Of the 800 Rangers and Troopers trapped in Cisterna, only six returned. What remained of the 6615th was disbanded and the Rangers were sent to the replacement depots as ordinary infantry. COL Darby was ignominiously reassigned to Lucas’ staff.
The Rangers weren’t used again until the invasion of France in June.
On 22 January 1944, British and American troops of MG John Lucas’ VI Corps landed on a 15 mile stretch of beach between the Italian resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno, 30 miles from Rome and 30 miles behind the Gustav Line and Monte Cassino. VI Corps’ objectives were the Alban Hills along Highway 7 and the town of Cisterna along Highway 6. Their capture would cut off the German defenders to the south. However, priority for the all-important LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank. The ship that would unload supplies and reinforcements after the assault waves cleared the beaches) was to Operation Overlord, the invasion of France from England. Winston Churchill, whose pet project Shingle was, had to threaten American naval logisticians to release the bare minimum of 88 LSTs for the invasion. They were enough to land Lucas’ force, but not enough to reinforce it promptly and keep an expanding beachhead supplied.
When Lucas asked his friend George Patton to look over the plan, Patton solemnly said, “John, there is nobody in the U.S. Army I would less like to see killed than you, but you can’t get out of this alive. Of course, you might get wounded and nobody ever blames a wounded general”.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, MG Lucas did not immediately advance to secure the objectives. He only had two divisions in his assault force, the British 1st and US 3rd, and several attachments: the US 6615 Ranger Force, the US 509th Parachute BN (landing from the sea) and the British Commando BDE. Lucas’ invasion force was not strong enough to secure the beachhead from German counterattack while simultaneously securing his objectives 20 miles away. The battlefield calculus simply did not allow both options. He would be lambasted to this day (probably by some of you reading this) for his decision to build up the beachhead to defeat the inevitable and crushing German counterattack.
Clark admitted later that his only hope for the understrength end run up the Italian boot was to shock the Germans into pulling off of the Gustav Line. This was not an unreasonable assumption, even if it was an inaccurate one. In several previous instances during the campaign, the Germans withdrew from prepared positions after an amphibious end run by the Allies. However, the competent and unflappable German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, made it clear he was not going to give up the stout and well-fortified Gustav Line. The Gustav Line took advantage of the only terrain south of Rome that allowed Kesselring the opportunity to block the Allied advance up the peninsula and prevent the capture of the Eternal City. At the Gates of Monte Cassino was where Kesselring planned to stop the Allied advance up the Italian boot.
The Germans were taken completely by surprise by Operation Shingle and there was no resistance to the initial landings. Nonetheless, Kesselring sprang into action. Within an hour of the initial report, reconnaissance units from two German divisions were enroute to the area, and within six hours their divisions’ main bodies were on the move. Kesselring then fell back upon one of the Wehrmachts’ greatest strengths: to operationally move formations from other fronts to troubled areas, which was well honed from fighting on the Russian front. Within two days eight more divisions from as far away as France and the Balkans were converging on the small Anzio beachhead. In five days, there were thirteen German divisions committed to crushing Lucas’ exposed and already overextended beachhead.
After sundown on 20 January 1944, the US 36th “Arrowhead” Infantry Division from the Texas and Oklahoma Army National Guard, began their movement to the shore of the Rapido River, intending to cross near the Italian town of San Angelo. Both the 143rd and 141st ran into German minefields, and mortar and machine gun fire from across the river slammed into the exposed troops. Mass confusion reigned in the darkness and the Americans had not even reached the near riverbank.
Nonetheless, the 141st and 143rd Regts pushed on all night and by mid-morning established shallow toeholds on the far shore of the narrow but swift and deep Rapido River. But in the daylight, no reinforcements could cross or even get near the near shore: the Germans on Monte Cassino could see every movement for miles and those on the hills above San Angelo could engage anyone even attempting to approach the riverbanks. The Americans’ Italian nemesis, the veteran German 15th Panzergrenadier Division counterattacked and eliminated the toeholds by midafternoon.
The 36th’s commander MG Fred Walker had previously told Clark that the river crossing was in the “worst possible spot”. He would know, as a battalion commander in the First World War, he slaughtered Germans trying to cross the Marne in a similar situation. Nonetheless, he decided to try again that evening. The regiments again succeeded in placing toeholds on the far shore by dawn, but the Germans again destroyed them by the end of the day. The German report for the action was only one sentence long, “Strong enemy assault detachments which have crossed the river are annihilated.”
MG Walker refused to continue the assaults, even though Clark ordered him to do so.
The failed assaults cost the 36th 2200 additional casualties effectively neutralizing the unit, with only one weak regiment, the 142nd, left to hold the line.
After the war there would be Congressional hearings as to if or why, “West Pointers deliberately threw away the lives of National Guardsmen.”
On 17 January 1944, the British X Corps crossed the Garigliano River as part of Gen. Mark Clark’s US 5th Army offensive to seize Monte Cassino and crack the German Gustav Line across Italy. Clark didn’t expect the offensive to succeed which included not only the British but also American and French corps further north along the Rapido River. Privately, he said the best he could hope for was to pull German reserves away from the impending landings up the Italian coast at Anzio and Nettuno. The stated objective of the British X Corps’ dangerous river assault was to seize high ground that overlooked the US II Corps’ future river crossing at San Angelo. The British X Corps was initially successful and held a tenuous bridgehead over the Garigliano.
On 19 January 1944, the British 46th Division assaulted across the Gargliano River near its junction with the Liri River in support of the rest of the British X Corps. But the operation failed and even if it succeeded, it wasn’t enough to secure the lodgment. The British commander requested more troops, but Clark refused: the only available troops were the nearby US troops earmarked for the Rapido River crossing on the 20th, and Clark refused to alter the plan. Instead of crossing the river and securing and expanding the British bridgehead, the US II Corps was condemned to its own suicidal river crossing just a bit farther north. After three brutal days successfully defending against incessant German counterattacks in the rainy and cold Italian winter, German reserves from Rome finally forced the exhausted and overwhelmed British X Corps back across the river.
Although the British river assault was successful in pulling German reserves south away from the Anzio/Nettuno landings, the US II Corps paid heavily Clark’s decision and for the British failure to secure the high ground which could observe their crossing sites. Just to the north of the British fighting to secure their bridgehead, the US II Corps, consisting of the US 45th and 36th Divisions, finished their three day rest and reorganization from the grueling six week fight during Operation Raincoat.
During the battle through the Bernhardt Line, the US II Corps took 60% casualties, and nearly 80% in the line units. Replacements arrived just in time on the 19th to participate in the 36th’s rehearsals and final preparations for their assault across the Rapido River, scheduled for the next day. Farther north, the US 34th Division and French Expeditionary Corps were preparing for their own assault across the Rapido on 22 January, the same day as Operation Shingle, the landings at Anzio and Nettuno 35 miles behind the front.
On 19 January 1944, the assault elements of Shingle, the VI Corps, which consisted the British Commando Brigade and 1st (UK) Division, and the US 3rd Infantry Division and the Ranger Force, conducted a rehearsal in the vicinity of Naples. The rehearsal was a disaster. MG John Lucas, the VI Corps commander and each of his division commanders recommended the invasion be delayed in order to conduct more training. Clark and PM Winston Churchill denied the request: the invasion craft were needed as soon as possible in England for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France scheduled for May, and there could be no delays in the Mediterranean. Operation Shingle had to happen in the third week of January at the latest or it wouldn’t happen at all.
Clark hoped the river assaults and the landings behind the German defenses would convince the Germans they were outmaneuvered and abandon the Gustav Line.