The US Army had initiated the 10th Light Division (Alpine) in 1943, it was redesignated the 10th Mountain Division in 1944. Drawn from a mixture of skiers, climbers and outdoors men from a wide variety of backgrounds they trained in the Rocky Mountains before arriving in Europe in late 1944.
The precipitous mountains of Italy had proved to be natural defensive territory for the Germans, often providing positions impregnable to the average Allied soldier .
On the night of 18th-19th February 700 men of the 86th Regiment made one of the most audacious mountain attacks of the war, climbing five different routes up a 2,000 foot mountainside to attack the Riva Ridge, two of the routes requiring fixed ropes.
The attack proceeded according to plan. Only one contact with the enemy was made and that was B Company on trail #2. As the assault platoon reached the top of M. Cappel Buso the Krauts opened up with machine guns and machine pistols.
Taking advantage of lessons learned previously not to return fire at night, the leading echelon continued to move forward and the Krauts pulled out. Not a shot was fired by our men.
All columns reached their objectives without a casualty. The Krauts had pulled back in their dugouts for the night, not leaving a man in position. The ultimate had been gained, surprise was complete, and an important difficult, rugged terrain feature had been taken without a casualty.
See Report by Lt Col Henry J. Hampton
While the major elements of our attacking force were engaged in the darkness and bitter cold below Monte Belvedere, teams of picked rock climbers of the 1st Battalion of the 86th were assembling coils of ropes over their shoulders and clusters of pitons and other rock-climbing gear on their belts.
All the years of alpine training on Mount Rainier and Camp Hale, so publicized in newsreels and Hollywood movies, were now about to be tested. In fact, what developed was to be the only signicant action in which the 10th had to use this most specialized kind of training. Nevertheless, no one in the War Department or in the 10th could later deny that this single exploit on Riva Ridge justied all the demanding training that had gone before.
A dusting of new snow covered the rock face and upper slopes of the mountains. The valley floor was a quagmire of freezing mud. Searchlights behind the combat area scanned the low—hanging wall of clouds and reflected a scattered, shadowy light over the terrain below. But the valley itself and the ridges were dark.
Climbing in the dead of night, members of the teams hammered steel pitons into the cracks in the rock, attached snap links to them, and then fastened ropes to the links which, hanging down, offered lines which those who followed could use to pull themselves up the vertical face of the ridge.
When the advance teams reached the top at approximately midnight, they signaled to the 1st Battalion units below that they could begin the ascent in force. These units advanced in a column of companies toward the foot of Riva Ridge and then split up, each taking a different route up the face of the cliff.
Fortunately, the haze which hung over the lower elevations of the ridge continued to help conceal the attacking mountaineers. With a biting and wet wind whipping them about, the climbers clambered cautiously up the wet rocks with the aid of the preset ropes, fearful that any dislodged rock that clattered down the cliff face would be followed by bursts of enemy machine guns and grenades.
Inevitably some rocks did fall, causing the climbers to halt in dread anticipation of the hail of death to follow. “Perfect fear casteth out love,” joked the Briton Cyril Connolly in his travesty of I John 4:18, and members of the 10th came to fully appreciate that remark in this introduction to combat.
By 4 A.M. on February 19, all three companies of the 1st Battalion, 86th, and Co. F of the 2nd had reached their separate objectives on top of the ridge unseen and had charged the holding units of the German 1044th Infantry Regiment with rifles and grenades. Surprise was complete.
“I don’t see how you did it,” one German defender stated. “We thought it was impossible for anyone to climb that cliff”
With the coming of daylight, the Germans began to launch the expected counterattack after counterattack, accompanied by heavy artillery fire on the ridge.
When accurate counterartillery bursts repulsed one attack, the Germans came back with their hands up, feigning surrender. After nearing the 1st Battalion positions, they dropped and began firing again, but were finally driven off with heavy casualties. One platoon alone, with the help of our supporting artillery, accounted for 26 Germans killed, 7 captured, and countless wounded.