Operation Wintergewitter or the battle of Garfagnana (26-28 December 1944) was the last German counterattack in Italy, and pushed back one Allied division before being stopped by a second.
The attack was mounted towards Garfagnana in the Serchio valley, towards the western end of the Gothic Line. A successful advance down the river might have threatened the port of Livorno (Leghorn), a key supply base for the Fifth Army. The Allies suspected that something along these lines might happen, especially after the start of the German offensive in the Ardennes.
The area was defended by the 92nd Infantry Division, newly arrived at the front line, and troubled. The division was made up of African-American enlisted men and white officers. The relationship between the officers and men was poor, with many of the officers resenting their posting to the division and the soldiers unhappy at serving under officers who saw them as inferior. The problems had been in place ever since the division had been formed in the United States, and got worse under the stress of battle.
The 92nd first entered combat in October 1944, taking part in a limited attack along the coast towards the town of Massa, six miles from the American front line at Forte dei Marmi. After several days of fighting the division captured Monte Cauala, the first of its targets, on 12 October. The offensive was called off on 23 October, after little more progress had been made. Of the divisions regiments, the 370th was the only one to take part in this attack, and was thus the only one to have any combat experience before the Germans attacked.
In early November the division took over a six mile section of the front line, running from the coast to the village of Barga in the upper Serchio Valley.
The Germans were indeed planning an offensive in this area, Operation Wintergewitter (Winter Thunderstorm). The aim was to relieve the pressure on the Italian Monte Rosa Alpine Division, which was being pressured by the Brazilian Expeditionary Corps in the Serchio valley, and to destroy the 92nd Division. The attack was to be carried out by a force made up of one battalion each from the 285th and 286th Infantry Regiments, the Alpine Training Battalion (Mittenwald), the 4th Alpine Battalion, a motorized artillery battalion from the 51st Artillery Regiment and one heavy and two light artillery battalions from the 1048th Artillery Regiment.
When the German attack began on 26 December, the 92nd Division was pushed back, with some elements fleeing up to five miles. The Germans attacked from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, and hit the 1st Battalion, 370th Infantry at Molazzana, four miles to the south on the western slopes of the valley and the 2nd Battalion at Calomini, a mile further south. On the other side of the valley outposts from the 2nd Battalion, 366th Infantry, which was holding Sommocolonia, Bebbio and Tiglio, were attacked.
The main attack came in the east. The 2nd Battalion, 286th Infantry, captured the area to the west of Barga, and then repulsed a number of counterattacks from Barga. Later in the day the 4th Alpine Battalion captured Sommocolonia, to the north-east of Barga, and the Mittenwald battalion captured Tiglio, to the east of Barga. Company G of the 366th Infantry, defending part of the line in this area, fled south. The Germans then attacked Barga, which fell to them on 27 December.
By mid-December the Allies had evidence to suggest that the Germans were planning to attack in the area. The 148th Infantry Division and the Italian Monte Rosa and San Marco Marine Divisions were known to be in the area and the 157th Mountain Division might have been moving there as well. As a result part of the US 85th Division and the experienced 8th Indian Division had been moved into a reserve position. When the attack came, two brigades from the Indian Division were moved into a backup position, while the 1st Armoured Division was moved to Lucca and the 135th Infantry, 34th Division, to Viareggio.
During 27 December the Germans mopped up any resistance in the two miles between Barga and the Serchio, but this was the limit of their ambitions for the operation. The main forces then withdrew, leaving a screening force around Barga.
The Allies were quickly able to recapture the lost areas. The Indian Division moved up to a position four miles to the south of Barga on 26 December. The survivors from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 370th Infantry, were assembled to the south of the Indian position, and then moved to the west of the Indian position.
On 27 December the Allied air forces attacked the Germans as they began to withdraw. The Indians then went onto the offensive, taking Barga on 29 December and Sommocolonia on 30 December. They also recaptured the villages on the western bank of the river.
The German offensive had been far less ambitious than the Allies had feared, but it had achieved its own objectives, which were to boost the morale of the 14th Army with a quick victory and to give new troops combat experience. It also had an impact on the wider battle. The Allies had been forced to move troops west to deal with this threat, and as a result the planned attack towards Bologna, the final stage of the breaking of the Gothic Line, had to be postponed to the spring of 1945.
General Clark made it clear that the problems of the division didn’t reflect a lack of courage on the part of the soldiers, but instead a lack of motivation and a failure of leadership. He made it clear that he had decorated men from the division for bravery, and what was needed was better leadership, which would make the men feel that they were fighting as equals.