The Battle of the Giogo Pass

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Gothic Tuscany aps

"Gothic Line" - Gotenstellung – was the name given by the Germans to the set of fortifications built on the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines to defend the Po Valley from the advance of the allies from the south. In the summer of 1944, when it seemed that it would be overwhelmed by the allied troops, the Germans they preferred to change the name to “Linea Verde” (Grunelinie), less high-sounding, but the term Gothic line remained generally in use. The tactic of slowly retreating to successive fortified lines (such as on the “Gustav Line” at Cassino) was successfully adopted by the Wehrmacht throughout the Italian campaign. The Germans had started studying the possibility of fortifying the Apennines as early as August 1943, when the Allies were still fighting in Sicily, but the actual work only began in spring 1944, under the direction of the Todt organization. The Gothic was not a continuous line of fortifications, but a set of defenses, arranged deep in the Apennines taking advantage of the natural elements of the terrain, which crossed Italy from the Tyrrhenian coast north of Viareggio to the Adriatic coast in Pesaro, for about 300 km as the crow flies. It included thousands of field works reinforced in wood, stone or reinforced concrete, and anti-tank ditches (including a 5 km long one in Santa Lucia near the Futa Pass), all protected by barbed wire and extensive minefields. Fortunately for the allies, the work on the Gothic was well behind schedule and at the time of the attack the central Apennines were still undefended compared to the coasts, which were more vulnerable and therefore better fortified. The easiest points of the line were the Futa Pass and the Adriatic coast, which were therefore fortified with greater commitment. At Futa, in addition to the long anti-tank ditch, reinforced concrete casemates were prepared (in some cases with turrets of Panther tanks with 75 mm guns), weapons emplacements, and troop shelters. The advanced defense line included trenches defended by barbed wire and extensive minefields, and two of the five German divisions placed to defend the entire central Apennines were concentrated at Futa. For these reasons, the Americans decided to attack at the Giogo Pass, defended by few troops and less fortified, deceiving the Germans about their true intentions with a strong diversionary attack by the 343th Infantry Division on the Futa route, astride the Calvana ridge and through Calenzano and Barberino. Allied operations in the Tyrrhenian sector, under the control of the US 4th Army Corps, which also included Commonwealth troops, took on a secondary character compared to the effort north of Florence, and the units deployed along the Tuscan coast conducted operations on a relatively limited scale until spring 1945.

The attack order against the Giogo Pass envisaged a parallel maneuver against the reliefs on both sides of the State Road 6524 (today 503): the Monticelli chain to the west (sector of the 91th infantry division) and Monte Altuzzo to the east (sector of the 85th Divisione Fanteria). Le unità avrebbero goduto dell’appoggio dell’artiglieria dell’intero 2° Corpo d’Armata e di un’intensa preparazione di bombardamenti aerei condotta prima in profondità poi a ridosso del fronte. I grandi numeri non ingannino: la 5th The American army included ten combat divisions out of 262,000 personnel, however the front line clashes, the decisive actions on the ground, were supported by units with less than a thousand men: a few infantry companies of a few battalions. On the German side the disproportion was even more marked. The only 4th Parachute Division, already understaffed, held a front of almost twenty kilometers from Futa to Monte Pratone, with practically no reserves available. Among his men only a few were Cassino veterans, almost all of them were untrained replacements who had just arrived from Germany, sometimes without ever having fired a rifle shot.

The German defenses on Monticelli included reinforced concrete or rock-cut emplacements, and shelters reinforced with timber and earthfill. The defense lines on the ridge were protected by strips of barbed wire one meter high and one hundred meters deep. The only two natural approach routes to the ridge (two gorges of a small river) had been mined. On the northern side, Todt had built shelters extending twenty meters into the mountain (with a capacity of twenty men) and had dug into the rock a shelter with fifty places for the command. The defensive outposts covered the state road just beyond the Omomorto area. On Altuzzo, the German lines formed a semicircle at altitude, anchored in the West to a prominent crest that dominated the state road, and connected in the East with the summit of the mountain (elevation 926). The outposts covered the accesses to the massif under the West ridge and on the main ridge at altitude 782.

The 363rd Regiment of the 91stth American Infantry Division deludes itself into thinking it can conquer both Altuzzo and Monticelli without the help of the 85thth Division, but encountered greater resistance than expected, with heavy and precise concentrations of mortar and machine gun fire, and suffered night counterattacks from German paratroopers. The use of artillery support is hampered by uncertainty about the positions of one's troops. Only in the late afternoon of 15 September, when the front line units managed to direct artillery fire against the German positions, did Company B of the 1st Battalion reach the ridge line on the western side, now reduced to only 70 men out of two hundred initials. The company, isolated on the Monticelli ridge under intense fire, resisted many counterattacks for two days without supplies. The situation stabilized only on 17 September, when the 3rd Battalion on the right wing managed to reach altitude 871, the Monticelli plain. In the sector of Company B, which bore the greatest strain, there were more than 150 dead and 40 German prisoners, compared to 14 dead and 126 wounded Americans. But the overall losses on both sides are much higher.

The 85th Infantry Division assigns the task of conquering Mount Altuzzo to the 338th Regiment, which sends the 1st Battalion forward. But the difficulties of orientation on the ground and the scarce or incorrect information on the situation disorganized the attack of the leading companies against the two ridges of Altuzzo (towards height 782 and towards the West ridge, nicknamed by the Americans "Peabody Peak" from the name of the commander of Company B). The action breaks down into a series of fights between a few men, with repeated German counterattacks broken only by the intervention of the American artillery which also hits the rear, decimating the 1st Battalion of the 12th Parachute Regiment which is manning the positions on Monte Altuzzo . On 15 September the Germans called the 3rd Battalion into the line, which reconquered the lost positions. The German command, which finally understood that it was faced with the main attack of the 2nd Army Corps, belatedly ordered the influx of the few available reserves towards the Yoke, sending all able-bodied men into line. Among these were also 400 Lithuanians recruited by the Wehrmacht, many of whom surrendered to the Americans at the first opportunity. On 16 September the 1st Battalion of the 338th Infantry attacked again, finally reaching the top of Monte Altuzzo.
But the key to the breakthrough was actually the conquest of Monte Pratone and Monte Verruca by the units on the right of the American deployment on 17 September, which opened an 8 km breach in the Gothic defenses. The German command realizes that it is defeated and orders a retreat to the mountains beyond Firenzuola. On 18 September the Giogo Pass was in American hands. In six days of fighting the losses of the 2nd Army Corps amounted to 2731 men. The German figures are unknown, but certainly higher, especially due to the effect of the artillery fire that hit the few reinforcements heading towards the front lines.

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