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The idea was to be up in Rome by Christmas time. That was the way they thought it was going to be, but they didn't realize in wintertime how difficult the struggle was going to be because of the mountains starting around Capua.
If you wanted to go from Naples to Rome, there were three roads. You could take one along the Tyrrhenian Sea; another along the Adriatic Sea—they're all very mountainous—and one is up the middle, Highway 6, the Appian Way. It's very, very rough. The Germans knew that. They knew that they were going to be in territory that was easy to protect because of the topography— mountains and valleys—and anything we did was going to be seen. Then the weather was against us—cold and mud and landslides. You could hardly move your mobile weapons like tanks and trucks.
The Germans were absolutely sure that nobody could get through Cassino if it was properly defended. They believed they could block the Americans, so what they were doing was fighting for time. The Germans had a construction battalion with them. They were famous. They would get Italian labor, pay them a certain amount, and if the guys didn't want to come, the Germans would force them—abduct them from their homes. The idea was to build a defense line. They called it the Gustav Line, going from near Gaeta to Cassino and all the way across to the Adriatic side. They needed until Christmas time, so what they did was fortify the mountains on either side of Highway 6. Once you pass Capua going up to Cassino, you pass though towns like Mignano—we called it "Death Valley"—Presenzano, Teano, Mignano. The Germans really fortified those mountains. All they wanted was time. They'd say, ok, keep the Allies back for at least a week or so and then fall back to the next mountain and make sure that we are all lined up by Christmas time. And that's what happened.
We couldn't get through there. In fact, historically, only once has any invading army gone up to Rome from south to north, because when they got to Cassino they were completely blocked. Only once, and this happened, I think, in around 1100 or 1200. It was a Muslim army, I think. Most of the invasions of Rome were from the north.
[ed. note: The reference is to Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of southern Italy, who invaded and pillaged Rome in 1084. Indeed, he employed Muslim mercenaries.]
The town sitting in front of Cassino was San Pietro. That was the last stronghold before you get to Cassino. The Allies had liberated San Pietro, I think, around the 19th of December. Then they were sitting in front of Cassino and couldn't get through. First the Americans tried and got badly slaughtered. Then they tried with the English and got slaughtered. Then they tried with the French and got slaughtered. The New Zealand general said that he wouldn't attempt it until they got all the [German] observers out of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. He was convinced there were guys up there who could see everything.
[Q: That was responsible for the bombing of the abbey?]
That's right, but, hell, you didn't have to sit in the abbey to see what was going on. There were mountains all around that would show you the whole valley. So they went ahead and prepared to bomb it, which they did, of course, and I remember seeing that. There was 50% cloud cover. We made mistakes, we mistook targets. We had a hospital not too far away in a town called Venafro. We bombed the hell out of that, and we bombed the hell out of a lot of other places, not knowing from the air that they were Americans, visibility being what it was. Of course, we bombed the hell out of the Abbey. Then, the English had the Ghurkhas with them and the Ghurkhas started to go up, but the Germans had booby-trapped everything. They had trip-wires everywhere. All it did was make it more difficult for the Ghurkhas to try to get up, and they didn't succeed at all. They tried and tried—kept on trying—and were never able to get across.
Herman Chanowitz speaking at a
recent ceremony in San Pietro to
remember the liberation.
From the time we got there somewhere around the first of the year until the middle of May, we were stuck there. This was when the Allies decided to go to Anzio to see if they couldn't get around Cassino, but they got stuck there because anyplace you could land was like an amphitheater—flat with hills all around you.
We remained in front of Cassino until May of 1944. It was the French army who really were responsible for our breakthrough. They did it by going a route that, as far as the Americans were concerned, was impossible. The Germans thought it was impossible, too. They were North African troops, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. They thought that the loot belonged to them, including all the women—and they raped like hell. They thought this was the way war was fought. The Italians said, look, if this is what you're going to do, we'd rather be with the Germans. These guys also had their own sheepherders behind them because they were Muslims and couldn't eat pork. All of the fighting troops were Muslims, but the officers and non-coms were all Free French.
We had our outfit with these guys and we knew what the hell was going on. But they were able to break through because they went a route that the Germans thought couldn't be penetrated. The weapons they used weren't guns because guns make noise. They used knives. They'd sneak up on a guy and—they finally broke through. They cut the German supply lines that passed through the Aurinci mountains to the west of Cassino.
[ed. note: More on the episodes involving Moroccan troops at Mamma Ciociara]
(to part 3)
(Photo credits: I have been unable to trace credit/copyright information for the record album graphic of the stylized Mt. Vesuvius/US flag. If anyone has accurate information, I would be happy to list the appropriate credit. The map is a detail of a larger map on the website of the History Department of the United States Military Academy.)