La Batalla de Gemmano, un poco de trasfondo para mis Gebirgsjagers

Tras las brechas casi simultáneas abiertas por los Aliados en la batalla de Monte Cassino y en la batalla de Anzio en la primavera de 1944, las 11 naciones que representaban a los Aliados en Italia finalmente tenían una posibilidad para atrapar a los alemanes en un movimiento de pinza y cumplir alguno de los objetivos estratégicos fijados por Winston Churchill para evitar una campaña larga y costosa contra el llamado bajo vientre del Eje. Ello habría requerido que el V Ejército estadounidense al mando del general Mark Wayne Clark hubiese sacado a sus tropas de Anzio tomando al este Cisterna di Latina y hubiese ejecutado el envolvimiento previsto en la planificación original para la batalla de Anzio (esto es, tomar el flanco del X Ejército alemán, cortando su línea de retirada desde Montecassino). Por el contrario, temiendo que el VIII Ejército británico pudiera adelantársele en liberar Roma, Clark desvió una gran parte de sus tropas en dicha dirección, en un intento de asegurar que él y su V Ejército tendrían el honor de liberar la Ciudad Eterna de manos de los alemanes.

Por consiguiente, la mayor parte de las fuerzas de Kesselring escaparon del cerco y aunque cedieron terreno al norte luchando en acciones de retraso.

La estrategia de los Aliados

El frente italiano era considerado por los Aliados como un frente de importancia pero no en comparación con la ofensiva en Francia, y ello se puso de manifiesto con la retirada durante el verano de 1944 de 7 divisiones del V Ejército estadounidense para tomar parte en los desembarcos efectuados en el sur de Francia, la Operación Dragoon. Hacia el 5 de agosto la fuerza combinada del V Ejército estadounidense y del VIII Ejército británico se había reducido de 249.000 a 153.000 hombres, y contaban únicamente con 18 divisiones para afrontar la potencia combinada de los ejércitos X y 1XIV de la Wehrmacht, que reunían a 14 divisiones en línea, además de entre 4 y 7 divisiones más en reserva.

Sin embargo, Winston Churchill y los jefes británicos del Estado Mayor insistían en intentar abrirse camino por las defensas alemanas para abrir la ruta hacia el nordeste a través del pasillo de Liubliana, penetrando así en Austria y Hungría. Mientras que este movimiento amenazaría a Alemania por su retaguardia, Churchill también pensaba en que serviría de advertencia para el Ejército Rojo que avanzaba por la Europa central. El Estado Mayor estadounidense se oponía a esta estrategia, a la que veía como un debilitamiento de la necesaria concentración de potencia de los Aliados en Francia. Tras los éxitos de las tropas aliadas en Francia durante el verano, el Estado Mayor estadounidense se tranquilizó, y hubo de este modo un completo acuerdo entre los jefes de Estado Mayor en la reunión celebrada el 12 de septiembre para tratar el tema, la Segunda Conferencia de Quebec.

El plan de ataque de los Aliados

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La línea Gótica, en agosto de 1944, y el esquema de la Operación Olive. Las flechas azules indican los principales ataques de los Aliados.

El plan original del general Harold Alexander era el de asaltar la Línea Gótica por su centro, donde la mayor parte de sus tropas ya estaban concentradas. Se trataba de la ruta más corta hacia su objetivo, la llanura de Lombardía, y el ataque podía ser puesto en marcha rápidamente. Montó una operación de engaño para convencer a los alemanes de que el ataque principal tendría lugar en la zona del Adriático.

El 4 de agosto Alexander se reunió con sus comandantes de ejército, Mark Wayne Clark y Oliver Leese, encontrándose con que Leese no aprobaba el plan, quien argumentaba que los Aliados habían perdido sus tropas de la Francia Libre especializadas en la lucha de montaña, enviadas a la Operación Dragoon, y que la fuerza del VIII Ejército británico radicaba en el uso de una táctica que combinaba la infantería, los carros de combate y la artillería, y que esa táctica no podría ser utilizada en las alturas montañosas del centro de los Apeninos. También se ha sugerido que Leese tenía aversión a trabajar conjuntamente con Clark tras la polémica desatada cuando el V Ejército estadounidense había avanzado hacia Roma a fines de mayo y principios de junio, dejando al VIII Ejército británico que se las compusiese solo en la lucha contra los alemanes. Por el contrario, Leese sugería un ataque por sorpresa a lo largo de la costa adriática. Aunque el jefe de Estado Mayor de Alexander, el general John Harding, no compartía la opinión de Leese, y el equipo de planes de batalla del VIII Ejército ya había rechazado la idea de una ofensiva adriática (por pensar que sería difícil alcanzar la concentración necesaria de tropas para llevarla a cabo), Alexander no estaba preparado para obligar a Leese a adoptar un plan que estaba en contra de su inclinación y juicio.

Operación Olive, el nombre con el que se bautizó a la nueva ofensiva, establecía que el VIII Ejército británico de Leese atacaría en la costa adriática hacia Pésaro y Rímini, atrayendo a las reservas alemanas del centro del país. El V Ejército estadounidense de Clark atacaría entonces en el debilitado sector central de los Apeninos, avanzando al norte de Florencia hacia Bolonia con el XIII Cuerpo de Ejército británico en el ala derecha del ataque, penetrando hacia la costa para crear una pinza con el avance del VIII Ejército. Todo este plan provocó que, como un movimiento preparatorio, la mayor parte del VIII Ejército tuviese que ser transferida del centro de Italia a la costa adriática, en lo que se invirtieron dos semanas de tiempo, mientras que se aprovechaba para poner en marcha un nuevo plan de engaño de los servicios de inteligencia con la finalidad de convencer a Kesselring de que el ataque principal se produciría en el centro.

La lucha por Gemmano y Croce

La batalla de Gemmano ha sido apodada por algunos historiadores como la batalla de Montecassino del Adriático. Después de once asaltos efectuados entre el 4y el 13 de septiembre, primero por la 56.ª División de Infantería británica y luego por la 46.ª División de Infantería británica, tuvo lugar el regreso de la 4.ª División de Infantería india, la cual, tras un intenso bombardeo pesado, llevó a cabo el duodécimo ataque a las 3 h 00 de la mañana del 15 de septiembre, con lo que finalmente tomó y aseguró las posiciones defensivas alemanas. Mientras tanto, al norte, del otro lado del valle del Conca, tenía lugar un combate igual de sangriento por la conquista de Croce. La 98.ª División de Infantería alemana sostuvo sus posiciones con gran tenacidad, por lo que fue necesario invertir cinco días de lucha constante, a menudo cuerpo a cuerpo y casa por casa, antes de que la 56.ª División de Infantería británica tomase la localidad de Croce.

Como estoy un poco vaguete para ponerme a traducir ahora, lo voy a copiar literal de la web que he encontrado en “hereje”.

1st attack to Gemmano
(September 4 – 7, 1944)

When the first battle of Coriano was near to an end, Gen. Leese ordered the V Army Corps to advance along the river Conca valley and to take Montescudo (WNW of Croce) . Being the 46th Division  bogged down around San Clemente, Gen. Keightley filled the front on the 46th’s left flank with the 56th Division (Gen. Whitfield). On September 4, the 167th Brigade of the 56th captured Montefiore Conca. Pursuant Whitfield’s initial orders to continue the attack and to take also Gemmano, a platoon was assigned a  reconnaissance mission.

Late in the afternoon, however, Whitfield changed his mind and ordered to forget Gemmano, which that day had been heavily bombed for the first time by guns and aircraft, and move off directly towards Croce. A battalion was left behind “just to clear the hill of the few remaining Germans…”.

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On September 5, while heavy rain had started to fell and dust had turned into mud, fierce attacks and counterattacks continued on the steep slopes around the Villa hamlet.

On September 6, having lost quite a few tanks while they were moving along the river Conca valley, the 56th Division Command actually realized how dangerous would have been to leave the German garrison free to fire from the hill at the left flank of the division. Orders for an immediate attack on Gemmano were then given to a tank squadron of the 44th RECCE Regiment.. The tanks had almost reached the top of the hill when the Germans “sturm-geschütz” (assault guns) and “panzer-schrecks”   (panzer terror) rocket launchers came out from their hide-outs.

In a few minutes 14 tanks were hit and set on fire!

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(this tank was hit by a panzer-schreck rocket fired by Corporal. Weber)

During the afternoon, while it was continuing to rain cats and dogs, the British launched an assault “en masse”, supported by a terrific bombardment which completely shattered the church and the houses of Gemmano (as confirmed by the picture herebelow taken  from the Villa hamlet), and took several positions near the village from which, however, were repulsed soon after midnight by German counterattacks.

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The fightings continued throughout the entire September 7. The village and the surrounding salient points (Borgo and Pt. 449) were taken and lost four times by both the two parties. At night the exhausted 7th Oxford & Buckinghamshire Regt. was replaced by the Queen’s Brigade (the 169th).

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2nd attack to Gemmano
(September 8 – 10, 1944)

It rained heavily all morning on Sept.8, but the rain had stackened when the two assaulting battalions (Queen’s Brigade 2/6th and 2/7th under the command of Lt.Col. Renshaw and Maj.MacWilliam, respectively), supported by 4.2-inch mortars, by the medium MG of the 6th Cheshire Rgt., by two squadrons of the 8th RTR, and by the whole of the divisional artillery, moved off towards Gemmano at 2:00pm.

On the steep slopes the two battalions lost men fast, under the German MG fire which actually mowed the British troops while they were climbing the hill, in spite of the terrific shelling which, coming from Montefiore Conca, had pulverized the top of the ridge into towering columns of flying earth and stone.

By 3:45pm two Companies of the 2/7th battalion entered Gemmano. As usual, Germans stubbornly counter-attacked

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and by 8:00pm, after bitter fightings which caused heavy casualties on both sides, the British were rejected from all the positions they had hardly conquered except for two blocks of houses, at the rear edge of the village, garrisoned by a mixed group of men from ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ Companies of the 2/7th and by few others from the 2/6th battalion, under command of Capt. Rossiter.

Meanwhile, about half a mile ahead, the 2/6th was attacking the German positions in the area of the cemetery. A company reached the objective during the afternoon (at what cost ! It took four hours and a number of casualties, including Company’s CO (Major Purdon), to cover the 200 yards to the top of  Pt.414)   but they were actually rejected by the combined fire of German small arms and mortars.

During the night, in order to drive back a new British advance which could menace the salient Pt. 449 (Monte Gardo), Ernst was forced to give his artillery the bitter order to open a drumming fire on Gemmano, heedless of the German soldiers and wounded who were there, in the house and in the cellars. In this way, however, he could carry forward his soldiers to make a new defensive line.

It was during this action that Lt.Weber and Capt. Strohmeyer, COs of the 6th and 7th Company, respectively, were killed.

At dawn of Sept.9, the 2/7th battalion managed to reinforce Rossiter’s garrison. Company ‘A’, under command of  Major Sheppard, entered the village of  with little opposition and by 7:00am Gemmano was cleaned up.

While MacWilliam’s troops were advancing towards Pt.414 and the cemetery, to join with the remnants of the 2/6th battalion, they came under heavy machine-guns and mortars fire and suffered a number of casualties.

By mid-morning, however, the situation had quietened…

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Gemmano and Borgo, or at least their remains, were finally cleared .

All the eastern side of the ridge was in British hands.

The Gebirgsjaegers, however, were all but defeated. They still maintained strong defenses on the top of the hill known as Monte Gardo (Pt. 449) and on its bare slopes, overhanging the cemetery and Pt.414, from which they continued to pour a stream of fire over the attackers. As a matter of fact, the Germans were never dislodged from the hill, as they left the position only on Sept. 14, pursuant the orders received to withdraw from Gemmano to Montescudo.A number of casualties was suffered by both sides during the course of the various attacks and counter-attacks bravely conducted, often man-to-man, by the British and by the Germans.

Meanwhile, the 2/5th battalion was fighting at Farneto against  Capt. Hermann‘s I Abteilung (for his gallant conduct in this action Hermann won a Ritterkreuz). After two days of bitter fightings, the British assaults were actually rejected on the afternoon of September 10.

The Queen’s Brigade struggle for the Gemmano ridge was over.

3rd attack to Gemmano
(September 10 – 13, 1944)

After the capture of the Gemmano village, all the British efforts aimed to dismantle the German defenses were focused on the already mentioned Pt. 449. In view of the  heavy casualties suffered by the Queen’s Brigade, it was decided to withdraw the 56th Division from the Gemmano sector and to replace it with the 46th Division.

The Brig. Harding‘s 138th Bde was selected as division’s spearhead. The 2/4 Battalion of King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) Rgt was given the task to attack Pt. 449 from the East, along the Gemmano-Borgo line, while the 6th Lincolnshire and the 6th York & Lancaster  were to advance from the SE with the support of the tanks of the Major Preen’s 46th Recce .

While the units were deploying for the attack, the entire area going from Gemmano to Farneto and Marazzano

was cleared by an all-day-long shelling and bombing raid (even the Navy took part to the fireworks with its big guns) which battered the German positions but killed also some civilians.

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Like their predecessors, even KOYLI troopers, not to mention the Lincolns, had to pay with a number of casualties the Gebirgsjägers’ strong reaction (on Sept.10 only, Lincolns suffered 150 casualties), as well as the German artillery’s stream of fire. For about twenty-four hours, the frontline was very unstable and the combatants continued the same, old, bloody fast and loosegame

On Sept. 11 Gen. Hawkesworth (CO of 46th division) changed his plans. Instead of a front attack to Pt.449, which had proved to be almost impossible and highly “men consuming”, he planned to outflank Monte Gardo with a south-eastern advance to the river Conca valley and assigned this task to the 16th Durham Light Infantry (DLI).

When this unit reached the area known as “I Tufi”   (three houses placed on the Borgo-Monte Gardo ridge, on the slopes descending towards the Conca river), they hit the defensive stronghold set up by the Bachmaier’s III Abteilung Gebirgsjägers. The fightings around the defense system lasted three days and inflicted severe losses to both sides. During this action Ensign Rappel won a Ritterkreuz .

The vain attack to the “I Tufi” position was the last action of 46th Division in the Gemmano sector. On Sept. 13 the division was moved to the other side of the river Conca valley, to the Montescudo-Montecolombo ridge.

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4th attack to Gemmano
(September 14 – 15, 1944)

By September 13, the 4th Indian division was about a mile away from Gemmano ridge. The 46th and 56th divisions had assaulted the ridge eleven times but, albeit they succeded in wiping the Germans out of Gemmano village and from other salient points, had not be able to conquer the bastion of Monte Gardo (Pt. 449),  with its stark wooden cross overhanging the hill and the villages.

At 9:00am of Sept. 14, the 11th Indian Brigade (Brig.Partridge) took over the Farneto spur from the 46th division, withdrawn by Keightley along the north bank of the river Conca to exploit the Croce sector by taking Montescudo and Montecolombo. The 2nd Cameron was given the task to capture Pt. 499, in close support with ‘C’ Sq. of the 8th RTR, and with the umbrella of two hundred and sixty guns …

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The assault was planned to start at 03:00am on September 15 … but it was too late because at dusk of Sept. 14, Lt.Col. Ernst, pursuant orders received, withdrew from Marazzano to Montescudo and Sassofeltrio.

An hour and a half before the attack, however, British guns opened fire, without knowing that only few German rearguards were still in the area. A heavy shelling (more than two thousands rounds were fired on Zollara and surroundings) completely shattered the small village.

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The Camerons started their attack from the Farneto spur on scheduled time and seven hours later, by 10:12am, after Zollara (capture at 05:30am) they could actually secure Pt.449. The opposition was surprisingly light and caused few casualties, but when the Camerons reached their target, the scene they found on the top of the Monte Gardo was a real nightmare : from the slopes and the hill-top of  Pt.449 alone, the Camerons removed 91 British dead.

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