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Nightmare at Rapido River

“I had 184 men…forty-eight hours later, I had 17. If that’s not mass murder, I don’t know what is.” -Capt. Zerk Robertson, 36th Infantry Division.

It would be difficult to imagine an action involving U.S. military forces that has been the subject of more bitter controversy and recrimination, before and afterward, as the attempted assault across the Rapido River in January 1944. So murderous was the anticipated German defense and so appalling the casualties suffered by American forces for no appreciable gain, that after the war Congress felt constrained to hold hearings into the conduct of the battle by Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy.

To this very day, the controversy rages unabated among those remaining veterans of the Allied campaign in the Liri Valley of central Italy, one side arguing that the action was essential to pin down German defenders and keep them from the Allied beachhead at Anzio, the other countering with the virtual impossibility of crossing a heavily defended, rain-swollen, unfordable river with the attacking force’s flanks exposed. With all the controversy, there has never been a satisfactory answer to the question: “Were the lives of G.I.s rashly sacrificed on the banks of the Rapido River?”

When the Italian campaign opened on 3 September 1943, the Allies never envisioned it as a substitute for the planned cross-Channel invasion of the European continent. It was merely an opportunity to hurl the British-American force amassed in North Africa somewhere onto the European continent. Italy seemed a fairly obvious choice. It was close at hand, lying directly across the Mediterranean, and was considered a relatively weak area of Axis control, Churchill’s “soft underbelly of Europe.” What a deadly miscalculation it would prove to be.

The first Allied invasion of Europe, Operation Husky, took place on the island of Sicily in July and August 1943. After a month of tough fighting, surviving German units retreated to the Italian mainland.

On 3 September, elements of the British Eighth Army under General Harold Alexander landed on the toe of the Italian boot and, six days later, on 9 September, the U.S. Fifth Army waded ashore on the beaches of Salerno. Almost immediately, heavy German armored counterattacks threatened the Salerno beachhead and it was not without a fierce struggle that the landing zones were ultimately secured.

With the capitulation of Italy on 8 September, Germany came to regard its former ally a conquered territory and its forces cobelligerents with the Allies. The Germans, never entirely trusting of the Italians, took full possession of the country and the defense of Italy was placed under the command of the brilliant and affable Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring.

The Germans set out a strategy of slow withdrawal up the Italian peninsula, forcing the Allies to pay dearly for every step of advance. They could not have chosen better ground over which to defend in this fashion. Central Italy is narrow and mountainous with high, barely passable trails; its valleys are open and scored with rivers. Most roads at the time were unpaved and the heavy winter rains quickly turned them into oatmeal.

Kesselring prepared three defensive lines. The first of these, the Barbara Line, a hastily erected position, was little more than an outpost. The second, the Bernhard Line, was considerably stronger, anchored in the high Appenine Mountains. Here the Germans had sown a belt of 75.000 land mines covering the immediate approaches to the defenses. Behind these was the stoutest defense of all, the Gustav Line, anchored at Monte Cassino, which Kesselring, with more than a little certitude, believed impregnable to frontal assault.

Kesselring had at his disposal more than twenty divisions, many of them crack troops, including the Herman Goring SS Division and the First Parachute Corps. In opposition, the Allies were able to muster only fourteen divisions for the drive north to Rome and, because of the build-up in England for the cross-Channel invasion, little in the way of reinforcement could be expected. In fact, seven of the finest Allied divisions, four American and three British, had been transferred to England. From the Allied point of view, Italy was considered little more than a sideshow.

The Allies made slow but steady progress northward throughout October, although it must be pointed out that this progress had as much to do with the German strategy of slow retreat. It was with prodigious effort that the Allied advance reached the Gustav Line in late October. Here the Allies were halted like an ocean wave crashing upon a rocky coast. For two months, British and American forces slugged it out with the German defenders in the Gustav Line to no avail.

Facing the Allies was the flat open plain of the Liri Valley, traversed by the Liri, Garigliano and Rapido rivers and dominated on both sides by sheer mountains from which German spotters could watch every movement below and call down preregistered artillery fires. One of these heights, Monte Cassino, crowned by a centuries’ old Benedictine abbey, served as the centerpiece of this indomitable strong point.

The German delaying action had been a classic. They had punished and harassed the Allies who had been forced to expend unreasonable resources of men and materiel merely to reach an unfavorable position.

The Allies, with Churchill leading the way, recognized the virtual impossibility of breaching the Gustav Line by frontal assault. It was decided to make an end run around the German defenses by means of an amphibious landing north of the Gustav Line at Anzio. Because of the need for landing craft to carry out the plan, the D-Day invasion had to be postponed from the first week of May until June so that the Anzio invaders could make use of the relatively few landing craft available.

As part of the plan for the landings at Anzio, British General Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander, Italy, ordered an assault across the Garigliano and Rapido rivers by Fifth Army as a method of holding the German forces in the Liri Valley and preventing them from reinforcing the relatively light defenses at Anzio.

Gen. Mark Clark could not have chosen a better or prouder unit for the attempt across the Rapido than the 36th Division. Originally the Texas National Guard, the 36th, which could trace its ancestry back to the Alamo, had entered Federal service in November 1940. In September 1941 it had been placed under the command of Brig. Gen. Fred L. Walker whose 30-year Army career included outstanding service with the 3rd Division in World War I. He had commanded a battalion of that famous “Rock of the Marne” division and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor.

The 36th Division wore a shoulder patch that depicted an Indian arrowhead, point downward, with a superimposed “T” for Texas and veterans, to this day proudly refer to themselves as “T-patchers.” They took such unusual pride, in fact, in their Texas roots that they were regularly referred to as “The Texas Army.” Of course, by the time of the Italian campaign, the Texans’ ranks had been liberally reinforced with men from many other states, but this occasioned no less pride in the Texas Infantry.

The 36th had received its baptism in combat at Salerno where they had been one of the first units ashore and had acquitted themselves quite well in the extremely tough combat for the beachhead. In subsequent fighting, the Texas Infantry had distinguished themselves once again at Monte la Difensa and later at San Pietro, where the 36th took 1400 casualties, one casualty for each Italian resident of the village. The latter battle provided the subject matter for John Houston’s Academy Award documentary, “The Battle of San Pietro,” a film that so graphically illustrated the plight of the ordinary rifleman in combat that the government considered censoring it.

It is extremely important to note that there existed a barely hidden animosity between Gen. Walker and Gen. Mark Clark. Walker, a taciturn old warhorse, resented the meteoric rise of the younger and less experienced Clark, who had risen from Lieutenant Colonel in 1941 to Lieutenant General in 1943. Clark, for his part, did little to hide his disdain for National Guard units even though, when properly trained and led as the 36th undoubtedly was, they were every bit as capable as regular army divisions.

When Walker was presented the plan for the attack, he was incredulous. Two regiments of his division, the 141st and the 143rd, were to cross the Rapido at night and attack the heavily defended town of San Angelo. Immediately he was reminded of his own experience in 1918, when his battalion of 1200 green troops turned back and soundly blunted an attempt by 10,000 German veterans to cross the Marne River, costing the Germans untold casualties. He wrote in his diary of the plan to cross the Rapido: “I do not see how we can succeed in crossing the river opposite San Angelo when the stream is the main line of the German position.”

Walker protested the orders in the sternest possible terms. Gen. Clark and Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, commander of II Corps and Walker’s immediate superior, would hear nothing of it. The attack, he was told, would go forward as planned. Gen. Walker felt that Clark and Keyes failed to appreciate that bold tactics, successful up until then against enemy delaying actions, would not suffice against heavily prepared defenses such as they now faced. He seriously considered asking to be relieved of his command, but ultimately felt it foolhardy to abandon his men at such a critical juncture of the campaign.

The task before them was daunting in the extreme. The Rapido, as the name suggests, is a swift-flowing stream between twenty-five and fifty feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet deep. The approaches to the river were heavily mined. Awaiting them across the river was the veteran 15th Panzer Grenadier Division supported by dug-in tanks, heavy artillery, mortars and machine gun nests with interlocking fields of fire. Because there were no roads leading to the river, all materiel, bridging equipment and assault boats had to be manhandled almost two miles to the riverbank by the assault troops.

The attack was scheduled for the night of 20 January. On the 17th, elements of the British X Corps managed to cross the Garigliano to the left of the 36th, but were unable to turn the German flank and were stalemated. On the 19th, the British 46th Division, veterans of North Africa, launched an attack across the Garigliano on the immediate left of the 36th and failed dismally. The T-patchers now faced the prospect of crossing the Rapido with no flank protection and the Germans still holding the imposing heights above the valley.

A cold, dense fog fell over the Rapido valley on the night of the 20th. Visibility was near zero. Parties of engineers meant to guide the assault forces to the river bank became disoriented in the darkness and fog and led men directly into minefields. The Germans, alerted by the explosions on the far bank, began raining artillery with pinpoint accuracy into their midst.

Troops took to the water in the rubber assault boats, but many of these were destroyed by artillery. Shrapnel from exploding shells tore into the boats, hurling heavily-laden men into the river to be swept downstream to their deaths. The roar of explosions and the screams of dying men filled the chill night air and quickly plunged the assault force into chaos. Nevertheless, by 0400 hours, engineers had, through monumental determination, managed to complete a single bridge across the river allowing approximately one hundred men of the 141st Regiment to cross and set up a tiny, desperate beachhead. Farther north, the 143rd Regiment put the remnants of two companies across the river by 0500.

The men who managed to cross the river clung fiercely to their precarious toehold against overwhelming enemy machine gun fire and deadly shelling until daybreak when, with casualties mounting, it became apparent that the men on the far side of the river could not be reinforced or resupplied. They were ordered to withdraw to their original positions.

At 1000 hours on the 21st, Gen. Keyes visited Walker’s command post to demand that a second attack be launched by noon. In his memoir of the event, Walker stated that, at that moment, Keyes’ quiet demeanor and neat, carefully polished appearance contrasted starkly to the death and destruction that surrounded them on every hand. It was obvious that for all his academic skill as a tactician, Keyes had little appreciation of the ghastly predicament into which the T-patchers had been hurled and were about to be hurled once again.

After consultation with his subordinate commanders, Walker set the time for the second attack at 1400 hours, but this was soon set back to 1500 and, finally, to 1600. Although the attack was launched with the intention of breaching the enemy’s defenses, to many of the T-patchers, they were crossing the Rapido this second time in hopes of rescuing comrades who had been left behind the night before. New assault boats had been procured and shortly, most or all of three battalions of the 143rd and two battalions of the badly depleted 141st had battled their way across the river.

Engineers set to work constructing Bailey bridges so that tank and infantry support could be brought forward to the assault troops. Working under the most hazardous and trying of circumstances, with enemy artillery falling all about them, the engineers pressed their project forward until direct hits destroyed the partially built bridges. With the bridges demolished or washed downstream, the effort was finally called off at 2130.

The surviving elements of the two regiments that had managed to land on the far bank of the river fought their way several hundred yards inland and were hacking through the enemy barbed wire when a fresh German counterattack forced them to dig in. By 0500 of the 22nd, both regimental commanders and their executive officers were dead, as well as all company commanders except one. As sunrise approached, the sound of American fire became more sporadic as men died or ran low on ammunition. Most of those who survived the German attack were subsequently overrun and captured, but a straggling few, battered, bloody and exhausted, managed to return to the American lines by swimming the swift, icy river.

On 22 January 1944, the Allied VI Corps under Gen. John P. Lucas landed virtually unopposed at Anzio, seventy miles north of the Gustav Line. The attempts across the Garigliano and Rapido had, indeed, largely held the German defenders in place and allowed the end run to succeed. However, the amphibious attack did not nearly produce the bold results its planners envisioned. While achieving tactical surprise, the invasion quickly bogged down and it wasn’t until 11 May that the Allies finally broke out of the beachhead and drove north toward Rome.

The disaster suffered by the 36th Infantry Division on the banks of the Rapido River must rank as one of the greatest setbacks in the history of U.S. arms. Of the 6000 men who participated in the two-day assault, 2128 became casualties, including 550 dead. When the battle ended, the Allies had gained not an inch of ground or a bit of advantage, unless one considers the diversionary success involving the Anzio landings. The question “Who is to blame?” has never been satisfactorily answered. It has been suggested that Mark Clark was far too ambitious and self-aggrandizing to be properly solicitous about casualties among his forces. There are also those who feel that Clark was too wrapped up in the planning for the Anzio invasion and failed to take sufficient note of the difficulties faced by the Rapido and Garigliano raiders. Perhaps it was the fault of Gen. Keyes, the master of strategy, who was perhaps a bit too detached from the real world of combat. Or might it have been Gen. Walker who, in his solicitude for his men and his appreciation of the difficulty of the undertaking, might have unconsciously communicated his pessimism to his troops?

The Texas Infantry fought valiantly and well through five major campaigns in the European Theater of World War II, suffering almost 30,000 combat casualties, the third highest of any American unit of its size. It is difficult to contemplate that for two days in January 1944 this highly experienced, proud and capable division might have succumbed to pessimism and defeatism.

On 2 March 1944, Texas Independence Day, a group of twenty-five officers of the 36th Division met in a farmhouse and vowed to do everything possible to prompt an investigation into the fiasco at Rapido River. In January 1946, Congress opened hearings into the battle, but by no means the investigation the veterans were demanding. Testimony was taken from many of the survivors including Gen. Walker. Gen. Clark, however, was not required to testify and never saw fit to respond to the charges leveled against him. In what was ultimately referred to by critics as “a politically inspired, vindictive, but indecisive effort to fix blame,” the congressional panel accepted the Army view that “the attempt to cross the Rapido was a legitimate if difficult operation.”

For years after, whenever veterans of the 36th Division came together in their annual reunions, one often heard the question “Were you at the Rapido?” A positive response would invariably occasion a brief moment of respectful silence.

Nightmare at Rapido River

John Reardon

Joined July 2009

Artist's Description

This is a magazine article I wrote a number of years ago about a little known battle of World War II. Rapido River is rarely ever mentioned in the history books because it was an American defeat…a disaster. And yet I feel that there is a great deal to be proud of in the story of the bravery and camaraderie of these remarkable soldiers in the face of the most trying circumstances.

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