The battle of the Volturno Line (9-19 October 1943) saw the Germans under Kesselring delay the Allied advance north from Naples for over a week, winning crucial time for the construction of defences further to the north.
The Volturno Line was the first in the series of defensive lines constructed by the Germans in Italy, and was intended to win them time to complete the construction of the main Gustav Line. Like all of the lines it ran north-east from the west coast to the Adriatic. In the west it followed the line of the Volturno River, in the east that of the Biferno River. The two halves of the line were defended by different German forces, and attacked by different Allied armies, and so we will study them in separate articles.
The Volturno river rose in the Appenines, and flowed south-west, then south-east, before merging with the Calore and flowing south-west to the sea. The German defensives followed this lower part of the river, from the coast up to the junction with the Calore, then crossed the Matese Mountains to join up with the Biferno defences to the north-east.
The Volturno was defended by the XIV Panzer Corps (Hube), with four divisions, part of General Vietinghoff’s army. The 15 Panzer Grenadier Division (Rodt) was on the coastal sector, defending a front of 12 miles from the coast to Grazzanise. Next came the Hermann Goring Panzer Division (Conrath), which covered sixteen miles from Grazzanise to Caiazzo, an area that included part of the coastal plain and the first of the mountains. Next was the 3 Panzer Grenadier Division (Gräser), which covered ten miles from Caiazzo to Monte Acero, on the northern side of the junction between the Volturno and the Calore. The 26th Panzer Division (von Lüttwitz) was on the German left, heading into the mountains. Finally the 16th Panzer Division had also been in the area, but on 2 October Montgomery carried out an amphibious assault at Termoli on the Adriatic Coast, which threatened the Biferno line. Kesselring decided to send the 16th Panzer Division across the mountains, and after some confusion it began to move. Its position was taken over by the 3 Panzer Grenadiers, starting on 10 October.
On 16 September, while the fighting at Salerno was still going on, Kesselring gave Vietinghoff orders to hold the Volturno line until 15 October. After that he could withdraw to the Barbara Line if he was pressed too hard.
The attack on the Volturno Line was carried out by the US VI Corps (Lucas) and British X Corps (General McCreery) of the Fifth Army. The British were to attack on the left, where the terrain was fairly flat but there was little cover. The Americans were on the right, where they had to face the familiar difficult Italian terrain, with narrow mountain roads, blocked by broken bridges and other acts of demolition. The Volturno itself was also a significant barrier, running high after weeks of rain. In the British sector it was 250-300ft wide and up to 11 feet deep. In the American sector it was 150-220ft wide and in several sectors was only 3ft deep, and could be forded. The Volturno rises to the north of the German lines, and flows generally south through the mountains, before turning west at its junction with the Calore River, to flow towards the sea. It was this last section that formed part of the German defensive line. At first General Clark had hoped to ‘bounce’ the Volturno as part of the advance from Salerno, but heavy rain and skilful German rearguard actions and demolitions held up both of his corps, until it was clearly too late for an improvised assault. Although the Germans had begun to pull back from Salerno on 18 September, the Allies weren’t able to reach the Volturno in strength until 7 October. Instead plans had to be put in place for a more organised assault, to begin on 12 October.
The attack was to begin with an advance west down the Calore River, from Benevento to Amorosi, at the junction of the rivers., to be carried out by the US 45th Division (Middleton) of the VI Corps. The 3rd (Truscott) and 45th (Ryder) Divisions were then to cross the Volturno further to the west. The 45th Division attack began on 9 October. The advancing Americans ran into fierce resistance as they approached Monte Acero, to the north-east of Amorosi, on 12 October. The Germans were forced to begin to pull back by the end of 13 October, but the division wasn’t able to get into the upper Volturno valley until 15 October.
The 3rd and 34th Division attacks followed on the night of 12-13 October. They were able to cross the Volturno just to the west of the confluence with the Calore.
The 34th Division, on the American right, got across the river fairly easily, catching the German 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division before it had fully moved into position. Even so, the Germans were able to defend Caiazzo, on the division’s left flank, for 24 hours. However the Germans were able to bring accurate artillery fire onto all of the best positions for bridges, and so the division soon began to run short of supplies. Eventually the engineers managed to find a suitable site that was shielded from German view by high river banks, and by 10.30am on 14 October the bridge was ready for use. By 15 October the 34th Division had pushed four miles past the river.
General Truscott, commander of the 3rd Division, wanted to capture the Triflisco ridge, at the western end of his area, which guarded the river’s entrance into the coastal plains, and Monte Caruso, further to the east. He concentrated on catching the Germans by surprise. Their artillery bombardment didn’t begin until 1am on 12 October, but the crossing was still difficult. The infantry were able to get across and get established on the west bank on the right, but their armoured support was stuck on the east bank. Attempts to use bulldozers to create a suitable tank track down to the river failed, and eventually the engineers had to do the job by hand. The tanks and tank destroyers got across by the early afternoon, just in time to help fight off an expected German counterattack. Late in the day the division also managed to get across at Triflisco. By the morning of 14 October the division had a bridgehead four miles deep. By the end of that day three bridges had been completed, including one for tanks. The entire attack had only cost the division 400 casualties.
The British were faced with a difficult task. They had little bridging equipment, and on this front the best places for bridges were under artillery, mortar and even small arms fire. The river was too wide and deep to ford as the US 3rd Division had. General McCreery decided to make his main attack with the 46th Division (Hawkesworth), which was closest to the coast. This attack was to be supported by naval gunfire and by tanks landed from LCTs on the north side of the river. The 7th Armoured Division and 56th Division were to make feints further inland, to distract the Germans, and then attempt to cross the river later in the day.
The British attack began on 13 October. On the left three battalions of the 46th Division crossed the river in small boats. The battalion on the right was overrun by the Germans after a day long battle. The other two managed to hang on, but the armour ran into difficulties advancing from the coast. Some tanks got bogged down in sand, others were damaged by non-metallic mines that took all day to clear. On 14 October the British were able to ferry artillery and heavy equipment across the river under the cover of naval gun fire, and moved four more battalions across the river, securing their bridgehead.
Further inland it took the 7th Armoured Division three attempts to get a small beachhead across the river near Grazzanise, where it had to fight off counterattacks from the 15 Panzer Grenadier Division. During 13 October the division managed to push 1,000 yards past the river. The attempt by the 56th Division to cross near Capua was repulsed. On 14 October Clark shifted the boundary between the two corps a little to the right to give the British one of the three bridges built by the 3rd Division, and they were soon across the river.
By now Vietinghoff was getting close to his deadline. On 14 October he began a gradual retreat in the US sector, but stayed put in the British. Over the next few days the Germans pulled back all along the line, and it was secured by 19 October. The next German position, the Barbara Line, was closest to the Volturno line in the west, and then ran north-east, so the eastern section, facing the Americans was some way further back. The Americans were thus able to make quicker progress, and by 19 October had troops thirteen miles to the north of Capua. In contrast the British only had a short distance to go to reach the Barbara Line, and were faced by the 15 Panzer Grenadier Division and Hermann Goering Panzer Division, which were able to delay their progress. The British reached Sparanise, seven miles to the north-west of Capua, on 25 October, when Clark ordered a short pause in the offensive. It would resume on 31 October with an attack on the Barbara Line.