The difference between what HQ thought the position was and the reality on the ground was sometimes rather stark. On the Cassino front the 5th Army was pressing for further pushes to take the line forward and seize the high ground. Yet they seemed to be under a misapprehension as to how many men were in the forward positions and how far forward they were.
The 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division had sustained heavy losses in the battle for the Rapido River. Captain C.N. ‘Red’ Morgan took over the 3rd Battalion shortly afterwards. The battalion was only out of the line for a short time and did not receive anywhere near the number of replacements they needed.
They took over positions from the 34th Division on the night of the 9th and then were expected to launch an attack on Hill 593:
An attack was scheduled for 1100 that day, Feb. 11, 1944.
Confusion reigned that day. The only thing that kept the Germans from overrunning our positions was the tenacity and guts of the officers and men of the line companies.
Capt. Newman and I had spent much time on the telephone convincing higher echelons that we were not where they thought we were. To get where they thought we were, we would have to move at least 100 yards forward. That 100 yards was across an area that did not necessarily have to be occupied in force. To borrow a phrase from WW I, it was a “no man’s land”. The Germans could effectively contain this area by fire from adjacent positions.
In addition the Germans had had enough time to prepare fortifications on hill 593. In these positions the Germans kept enough personnel to keep us honest at all times, including the times when visibility was poor. The Germans also had routes available from other positions that offered concealment for attacks on our positions. The Germans had the advantage of planned supporting fire. They knew the terrain. They wanted our position on Snake’s Head. It was a key position offering excellent observation for the protection of the Germans from any direction.
The 1st Bn was to lead off on the attack with the 3rd Bn in support. The terrain was such that there was little room for deployment or maneuvering.
[They attacked, sustained heavy losses, made limited progress and were counter-attacked]
In repulsing these counter-attacks, mortars and machine guns were used when possible. Our most effective weapons were rifles and grenades. When these are your most effective weapons, it takes good men to use them. Thank God for those good men. At the risk of seeming facetious, I might point out that rifles and grenades are very ineffective against planned artillery fire. The range is a little short.
The Germans seemed to have plenty of ammunition. They delivered harassing mortar, artillery and rocket fire as though they had enough to last forever. They did not hesitate to throw in a serenade of these weapons at any time. They also had an ample supply of small arms and grenades and were not reluctant to use them. The Germans continued their strong aggressive patrolling.
At about 1700 Feb. 11, the combined strength of the 1st and 3rd Bns was about 20 officers and 150 enlisted men. The normal complement of the combined strength of these two battalions would have been approximately 70 officers and 1,600 enlisted men. Pursuant to a telephone message from Lt Col. Wyatt, CO 141st Inf, the two Bns were combined under Capt Newman and I was designated as Exec. Off. This was a wise move.
There had been no friction between Capt. Newman and me. No two People can be in charge of the same mission. Capt. Newman was a fine officer. I respected his judgement. He had commanded the 1st Bn for some time, including, the time of the ill-fated Rapido River Crossing. He was a rock on which we depended during the remainder of our stay on Snake’s Head. I repeat, the 141st infantry Regiment had many fine officers.
At that time, our mission was changed. We were to hold our positions at all costs.
During daylight hours, practically any movement of any member of the battalions could be observed. As a result, practically any movement brought in small arms fire as well as the heavier ordnance. The small house used as the Bn Cp was about 75 yards down the trail from the company positions. At times the entrance was covered with small arms fire. To hesitate in that door was hazardous.
A few yards down the trail from the house was a stretch of about 150 yards that must have been under observation by many German positions. On this stretch of trail any movement, including litter bearers and patients on litters, was subject to small arms fire. Giving the Germans the benefit of the doubt, let us say that litter bearers and patients were hit by small arms fire when visibility was poor and the firing had been directed toward movement. Of course the shells of indirect fire weapons have no eyes.
Walking wounded were carefully screened. We could not spare a man that could still throw a grenade or fire a rifle. Those few walking wounded that were evacuated were warned to stick to the trail. The odds that they would be killed, wounded again, or lost were high.
The whole of Captain Morgan’s account used to be available at http://kwanah.com/36division/ps/ps81117.htm – 36th Infantry Division Association. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.