Cliff climb assault surprises Germans on Riva Ridge

Pioneers of the 10th Mountain Division, the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, training in the United States in 1941.

Pioneers of the 10th Mountain Division, the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, training in the United States in 1941.

10th Mountain Division soldiers with snow shoes. 10 Jan 45,coming past the last contact with the accepted front. 2 Tank Destroyers are used for direct fire against any positions the enemy tries to build or any movement that may be observed.

10th Mountain Division soldiers with snow shoes. 10 Jan 45,coming past the last contact with the accepted front. 2 Tank Destroyers are used for direct fire against any positions the enemy tries to build or any movement that may be observed.

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.

Robert B. Ellis: See Naples and Die: A World War II Memoir of a United States Army Ski Trooper in the Mountains of Italy

American soldier putting chains on his truck’s tires on a snowy mountain road. 6 Jan. 1945

American soldier putting chains on his truck’s tires on a snowy mountain road. 6 Jan. 1945

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Fortier July 19, 2019 at 6:38 am

My dad, Paul Fortier was in the 86th, Company A under the command of Bill Neidner. He spoke a few times of the nighttime cliff assault on Riva Ridge. As dad was a rock climbing instructor i suspect he was one of the first group that set the piton insertions and fixed ropes for others to follow. He was fearless and a humble man. Cancer took him in 1996 .

Ronald McIntyre June 29, 2019 at 3:22 am

My father was with the 10th during WW2. He was with the 605th Field Artillery Battalion, Co. A, as a First Sergeant. He received the Bronze Star, and also a letter for meritorious service for his direction to his men during an amphibious crossing on Lake Garda near Torbole, Italy. I found the letter of commendation after his passing. When asked about his time in Italy; he just said it was cold up there in the Alps. The Greatest Generation these men and women were.

John Rummel April 30, 2019 at 9:40 pm

My grandfather, Vaughn Rice, was in Company A of the 86th Infantry and also took part in the night climb at Riva Ridge. He would not talk about his time in Italy, and it was only after he passed away in 2012 that I discovered some of the things he did and experienced. I have been gathering information and recollections of others who served in the same Company of the 86th, so if you have a relative from Company A, I would love to hear from you. Sincerely, John

THERESE ROGERS April 28, 2019 at 5:57 am

My dad was staff sergeant of 86 M in the 10th mountain division..He will be 95 on June 19th.He also climbed Riva Ridge. He said their motto was “higher”.He has been telling me some bad ass stories lately..These guys were like navy seals…My dad said the training was worse than real combat…He has a lot of memories ..he is sharp as a tack…if anyone has questions , maybe he will know…unfortunately he cant walk, so its hard for him to go to any more reunions…RIP to all of our heroic 10th mountain soldiers

Anne Santee Stoner April 19, 2019 at 2:00 am

My Dad was also in the 10th for that night assault. It would be great for the grown children to all visit Riva Ridge together someday.

Thomas Lucas November 15, 2018 at 6:44 am

My Dad was in the 10th Mountain division in WW2, not sure if 85 or 86th reg. He lost a few fingers in an Italian village before Riva, I have the picture of his regiment on the wall. He died 3 years ago at 92, he was very proud of the 10th and he would ski and mark the trails and drink at the Green or Red Onion ? Bar after the war with some of his buds.

Holly Kropp August 10, 2018 at 2:17 pm

My Dad was in the 10th Mtn Division at Riva Ridge and was one of the many men who climbed the vertical rock face during the cover of darkness to capture the Germans unaware the next morning. My Dad, being one of many rock climbers, surprised the German troops who were still half asleep and surrendered without any shots being fired. Dad went on to start a ski school in Northern New England after the war. Many of his comrades in the 10th Mtn Division also went on to start ski resorts and ski schools throughout the U.S. after the war.This includes Aspen, as well as Vail in Colorado. My Dad lived a full and rewarding life and passed away peacefully in 2009. He was almost 90. RIP AP “Bud” <3

joe Simone April 9, 2018 at 9:27 pm

God Bless you Dad. My dad served under Patton in the 13th Tank destroyer battalion all the way into Austria! Your dad is an American hero RIP

connie colby brown April 30, 2017 at 2:38 am

my dad was with the 10th mt div 86th.he was killed on riva ridge march 4 1945. i am always looking at any little tidbit i can find. my mom told me he was the only casualty that particular day.thanks for the info.

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