The US Fifth Army began its spring offensive in Italy, after the US 92nd Division had launched diversionary attacks and the British Eighth Army had advanced from their positions in the east. There were delays as they waited for the weather to clear before the main thrust began with attacks by 10th Mountain and 1st Armored Divisions on the 14th.
They faced experienced German units, largely intact compared with the ad hoc battle groups that were formed in Germany at this time, although hampered by growing shortages of equipment and ammunition. Hitler had refused permission for them to withdraw to highly developed defensive positions on the banks of the Po river itself.
Instead they fought on the ridges and hills on the edge of the Apennines. These provided “excellent defensive positions and fields of observation” in the words of the US History, but, once broken, it was difficult to organise an orderly withdrawal from such positions.
Private First Class Richard Ryan of Company I, 85th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division:
The morning of April 14 dawned clear and warm, but the uneasy quiet was soon shattered by our artillery as it began bombarding enemy positions.
While waiting for orders to attack, I opened a can of K rations — ham and eggs – and munched on a couple of hard-as-rocks biscuits.
I had barely finished eating when we were on our way into the valley. The air was thick with heavy-clouds of smoke from our support fire. After advancing about two hundred yards, I looked around. The valley was carpeted with men – spread out and moving steadily forward.
Our artillery barrage was still raising smoke ahead of us — when suddenly it stopped. Then I heard the roar of P-47s as they raced in to strafe enemy positions.
We quickly reached the heights. They rose in ridges like a washboard. German artillery had already zeroed-in on every ravine and hiding place we might use. When we reached the top of the second draw, all hell broke loose. Machine gun bullets began zipping overhead. A man in front of me was hit. The frantic shouts of “Medic! Medic!” could be heard above the bedlam.
Our company sneaked around the side of a hill and began shooting at some farmhouses below us. We had been receiving sniper fire from the buildings. Three or four of our men on the forward slope were shot. My platoon leader was hit in both shoulders and a leg, and his runner was mortally wounded. Jim Keck, who teamed up with me in the squad, was struck in the left hip. The bullet deflected off the hip bone, ran up his side, and exited just below the armpit.
Another soldier dashed toward one of the houses. He threw two grenades – killing one of the snipers—before being shot through the head. We continued our advance — moving rapidly across a couple of open fields. Enemy mortar and artillery fire was heavy. I watched one large shell spinning end over end, screaming its death cry, before hitting the ground about two hundred yards ahead of me.
After what seemed hours of running, creeping, sprawling, and shivering with fear, we finally reached our objective – Hill 913. By this time, it was late in the afternoon. There was a short exchange of hand grenades with enemy troops on the other side of the ridge.
Suddenly, a couple of German soldiers – waving white flags—crawled out from their bunker in a ravine behind us. They were motioned to head toward our rear lines. Surprisingly, they were fired upon by their own men. These same snipers also began working on us. One man after another was picked off—mostly leg wounds.
By nightfall, enemy shelling had slackened. Buck and I were on the nose of the hill and subject to counterattack. We began digging a foxhole but struck stone about two feet down. A couple of wounded soldiers were on the ground near us. One of the men had been shot in both legs, the other in the chest. The medics never showed up, so we carried them down to the first aid station.
At daybreak, the Germans launched a heavy artillery barrage. Shrapnel was zinging everywhere, clipping the bark off trees and branches just above our heads.
It was late in the morning before we dared move to another foxhole farther down the hill. We remained there all day and until the following afternoon when the Germans withdrew.
This account appears in Packs On! Memoirs of the 10th Mountain Division in WWII
Also part of this action was Private First Class John D. Magrath, Company G, 85th Infantry regiment, 10th Mountain Division, who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor:
He displayed conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty when his company was pinned down by heavy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire, near Castel d’Aiano, Italy.
Volunteering to act as a scout, armed with only a rifle, he charged headlong into withering fire, killing 2 Germans and wounding 3 in order to capture a machinegun. Carrying this enemy weapon across an open field through heavy fire, he neutralized 2 more machinegun nests; he then circled behind 4 other Germans, killing them with a burst as they were firing on his company.
Spotting another dangerous enemy position to this right, he knelt with the machinegun in his arms and exchanged fire with the Germans until he had killed 2 and wounded 3. The enemy now poured increased mortar and artillery fire on the company’s newly won position.
Pfc. Magrath fearlessly volunteered again to brave the shelling in order to collect a report of casualties. Heroically carrying out this task, he made the supreme sacrifice–a climax to the valor and courage that are in keeping with highest traditions of the military service.