German Tactics
in the Italian Campaign

by Gerhard Muhm

From my first day as a student officer the expression “Auftrag wiederholen” [“Repeat the mission!”] rang in my ears. Our superiors wanted us to “repeat the mission” that had been assigned us to be quite sure that we had understood it. And they always said “Auftrag” [“mission”] and not “Befehl” [“Order”].
And so it was through the entire Italian campaign. I always was given an “Auftrag”, never a “Befehl”. And I always did the same with my subordinates to whom I always passed on the “Auftrag”, in the well-worn traditional “Auftragstaktik” of the German Army.
The tactical concept followed by the German Army was the “Tactics of the Mission or Task” (“Auftragstaktik”) in contrast to the “Order-type Tactics” (“Befehlstaktik”) in use with other armies. The difference in conception and execution between these two tactics is fundamental: the first exalts the soldier’’s intelligence and capability, the second tends to damp them down, making the soldier a passive executor of the orders of others.
With Auftragstaktik a mission is ordered and the officer is left with the freedom to carry out the mission assigned to him, and so he feels responsible for the actions which are suggested to him by his intelligence, his enterprise and his capabilities.
With Befehlstaktik, however, he who executes must comply with an order given him by others, with no chance for him to fall back on his own initiative and skill, either in adapting himself, or in exploiting situations as they come up. This second concept is of course easier to follow, since it is based on pure discipline, while if Auftragstaktik is to be adopted officers, NCOs and soldiers have to be trained in the military schools with continuous exercises.
In 1813 General von Gneisenau, Chief of the General Staff of the Prussian Army and earlier collaborator with General Scharnhorst, introduced a new command technique which was also applied in other German armies of the era. The distinguishing feature of this technique was that the “intention” was formulated in a transparent and understandable manner, always leave room for personal initiative and freedom of action.
Field Marshal von Moltke, in his concise but classical directives to the armies in the campaigns of 1866 against Austria and of 1970 against France, claimed that in terms of both knowledge and experience, the practical application of Auftragstaktik would call for special and rigorous training of all commanders at every level.
Since that time, this type of training has been used in the German Army to reach:
- a unified criterion for judgment in evaluating situations and taking the resulting decisions; and
- abstention from all kinds of rigid schematicism, and independence in thought and action when leading in combat.
In this way, autonomy in performing the assigned mission, together with training in how to carry it forward, has become a special characteristic and a strong point of the German Army. In directing a battle, a commander must not only act courageously, but also be able to recognise se a favourable situation in time and exploit it: something that is not always done in war.
Von Senger und Etterlin write: ”Operational tasks forced commanders to make decisions more or less autonomously. In exercises, officers learned to act on their own initiative and to seek out responsibility … This method limited itself to giving only the most indispensable orders for the execution of any particular task, which means that the commander so tasked could freely choose the assets and the tactics that most suited him.”

In the Italian Campaign, the highest example of Auftragstaktik is to be found in the orders given by Field Marshal Kesselring in June 1944 for the withdrawal to the north of Rome.
Of the two German Armies, the Fourteenth had been sorely tried in battle, while the Tenth, which had fought on the Cassino Front, found itself off balance, too far forward, both in the Central Apennines and on the Adriatic Coast. To reorganise the Fourteenth Army, Kesselring gave this Auftragstaktik, which extended down to the division level: “Withdrawal fighting, bring into the line of battle from the rear and from the flanks the reserves already on the march southwards, close gaps between the various units, and build up the internal flanks of the units themselves…this phase, however, should not go on until the Line of the Apennines (the Gothic Line) has been reached but, after the major formations in crisis have been re-ordered, halt and concentrate in defensive positions, as far south as possible…”. This happened on the Albert Line (Lake Trasimene).
By contrast, an example that illustrated the difference between German tactics and Befehlstaktik is the botched Allied landing at Anzio in January 1944. When General Lucas (commanding the expeditionary force), landed he carefully followed the orders he received to defend himself and avoid another Salerno, rather than the head of Rome. If he had been a German general following Auftragstaktik and exploiting the enormous tactical and strategic advantages deriving from the surprise, the lack of defenses in the road to Rome and his absolute superiority in men and assets, he would have conquered the Eternal City and struck the entire German defence based on Cassino from the rear.
The basic points of the training of a German officer in conducting a battle under Auftragstaktik have been concisely listed by Müller-Hillebrandt, starting with von Moltke’’s axiom that every plan we conceive on the battlefield comes up against the independent and rarely known intentions of the enemy, which creates an atmosphere of insecurity in the awareness that the military situation envolves and changes almost continuously.
When our intentions meet the reality of things, frictions are created from the numerous imponderables which increase as we encounter the enemy, which in turn increase insecurity and snatch from the commander any chance to calculate in advance how the fighting is going to go. Even if he can apply all the most accurate means to learn the real situation, the enemy’s intentions and the way his decision on the ground are working out, there will always remain a certain insecurity which officers and NCOs have to confront with their will-power and their intelligence.
Officers ranging from the supreme commander of the front, to the battalion commander, down to the squad leader, can find themselves in the situations, which are impossible to foresee. Every commander of a fighting unit should have the authority and the ability to change his ideas about the situation continuously, taking into account not only the enemy’s intentions and capabilities but his own capabilities as well. His own intentions should be focused on carrying out the mission assigned him and on the capabilities of his men.
The person to whom a task is assigned should be given the time needed to carry it out. The higher the position of he who receives the task, the more time must be granted him for its execution, because situations continually change and they require sufficient time. A subordinate has no pleasure in carrying out a rigid order. Only his willing collaboration within the framework or the vision of a superior task makes it possible to overcome the most serious difficulties of a modern army and obtain the best results.
A task may - if necessary - be given as an order.
The use of the best technical resources is taken for granted.
I have already referred to the classic directives of Marshal von Moltke on officer training. Here I quote the words of General von Senger:
“In the German Army, leaders of all ranks were well trained in command. There was along tradition. The German General Staff was undoubtedly superior to all the other general staffs in what concerned the rapid and accurate evaluation of situations, decisions which did not lend themselves to ambiguous interpretations, and orders expressed with concise clarity. All officers underwent continuous training both in field and staff exercises and in instructional trips, so as to acquire a perfect mastery or the problems they would have to confront one day. Operational tasks were always conceived so as to force the commander involved to take more or less independent decisions. To achieve this, peacetime exercises often posited slightly “forced” situations: when a “new enemy” appeared, the exercise called for an interruption in communications or something or the kind such as often happens in reality”.
Freedom in the execution of an assigned task and training in personal initiative would become the special hallmark and the strength of the German Army. The more than the training and instruction of commanders at all levels progressed towards Auftragstaktik, the more the troops felt secure in the rapid and flexible execution of their combat tasks.
Higher commanders could rely on courage in the execution of tasks and on the advantage that the position was capable of exploitation by junior commanders, something which happens often in the battlefield but which has never been adequately recognised or taken advantage of.
And in the end, it was possible to make the enemy subject to one’s own will. In short, above and beyond material resources, many preconditions for future success could be achieved. The unity of conduct of commanders - who never knew the existence of special commands - plus the liberty of decision they enjoyed gave them the ability to act on their own initiatives in performing the task assigned to them.
And although these basic concepts of Auftragstaktik were no longer applied in the High Commands, I can say from my own experience that such concepts remained the pillar of the conduct of battles.
For generations work went on to improve these concepts and to train men in the field - even after 1918 and 1935. This work bore fruit in the campaigns of 1939, 1949 and 1941, in the Balkans and in North Africa, and determined the conduct of the War against the Soviet Union, a campaign which had a massive influence on German destiny but which also demonstrated the high potential of Auftragstaktik at all levels, with a measure of capability, experience and sense of duty not attained since that time. The High Commands took the field with faith in themselves, even if the enemy was numerically much superior.
What, then, were the tactical and strategic teachings or confirmations coming out of the Italian campaign? General von Senger has thoroughly examined these aspects, summing them in Auftragstaktik in modern times, or at least in World War II, since we can take it for granted that no war is like the one before it.
His first observation regards the exploitation of success:
“The law of war requires that pursuit be unresting, that it continue “to the last gasp or man and of horse”. That involves night attacks and forced day and night non-stop marches to retain contact with the enemy. Demolitions that the enemy carries out in withdrawal make it harder and harder to bring up supplies. And finally, the growing shortage of fuel forces the pursuer to entrust the pursuit to the cavalry, which is less tied to supplies, which is much more mobile in changing terrain, but in return much less effective in battle”.
This law of war was never applied by the Allies during the Italian campaign.
The armoured divisions, originally organised only as attack formation, became the best defensive formations. Modern defence is always organised within specified spaces and zones, and does not follow a linear development. But mobile defence calls for the presence of mobile, that is, motorised, formations. Only motorised reserves can redeploy rapidly from one flank to another, or be thrown from the rear into the battle area. Only the infantries of these divisions are used to fighting alongside the tanks which they are organically part of them. Only rearguards constituted from armoured formations can hold positions advanced well forward till the last moment because they are capable of disengaging rapidly and of surprising the enemy.
From November 1943 to June 1944 six mobile divisions fought in Italy (the 3rd Panzer Grenadiers, the 26th Panzer Grenadiers, the 15th Panzer Grenadiers, the 90th Panzer Grenadiers, the 26th Panzer Division and the “Hermann Goering” parachute panzer division).
Afterwards there remained only three mobile divisions, the 26th, the 90th and the 29th, to which was added, for the period from June to October 1944, the 16th SS Panzer Grenadiers. All other German divisions in Italy were infantry divisions whose systems of mobile defence were entrusted to the abilities of the respective commanders. Typical of these was the 362nd Infantry Division, a poor unit organised on six battalions of 250 men each, and to which was entrusted the mission of slowing down the American divisions in front of Bologna. General Greiner adopted the system of the “Zentimeter Krieg”, or “War by centimetres”, with the slogan of “lose terrain but don’t lose troops”, by falling back on his successive lines of defence, 14 in all.
Greiner assigned troops to these lines of defence in a way that facilitated the occupation and organisation of the lines of themselves; he performed the necessary troop movements even by day, in defiance of Allied air power, and seizing the advantage of the mountainous terrain; since counter-attacks involved heavy losses, he gave orders that the manning of barrier positions was more important than counter-attacks; he used his anti-aircraft guns in ground fighting, the 88 mm cannon against tanks and the quadruple 20 mm mountings against infantry. The successful defence of the division was facilitated by the tactics of the Americans who almost never made night attacks, thus giving the Germans the chance to reorganise during the night. At the end, the division’s losses from 19 September to 20 October 1944 were high: 420 dead, 12 of them officers, with 1614 wounded, 603 sick, and 1362 missing, but the purpose had been achieved. Lack of intelligence about the enemy was considerable handicap for German commanders at various levels. As von Senger writes:
“Of the enemy we knew little. The chief of the intelligence section was kept up to date on the situation by Army headquarters which, in general terms, knew which division we had in front of us. Directly, we managed to obtain practically no information, or virtually none, about the enemy. Only occasionally did we take a prisoner who was interrogated at Corps headquarters before being sent back to Army headquarters”.
“The enemy on the other hand knew we were not capable of launching an attack. He was able to strip completely certain stretches of the front in order to create strong points and echelon himself in depth at those points when he intended to attack. He could order his battalions to move and redeploy them in full marching order along rear lines of communication. His units were always well rested for the first attack.
“Today we know, from sources of our former enemy among others, that his tactical mistakes made life easier for us, They were mistakes we had learned to avoid, through in another manner, after Stalingrad. The slow pace of his initial attack launched by the infantry reflected his hesitation in throwing in reserves where they were needed to support the attack”.
Failure to exploit success was in fact a constant feature of Allied tactics, as has also been shown by Amedeo Montemaggi, who cites the incredible slowness of the Allied advance, the disastrous Anzio/Nettuno landings, the monotonous bloodbath at Cassino, the failure to encircle Valmontone, the botched attempt to penetrate the Apennine front in Tuscany. “If I had their resources I should have conquered Italy in a week”, said Kesselring, who was educated in Auftragstaktik.
I conclude with some observations on troop and the effect that the quality of a commander has on it. Von Senger praises my division, the 29th Panzer Grenadiers, “one of our best divisions”, and says of its General Fries (who commanded it up until 31 August 1944), “that he had the habit of evaluating situations objectively, of sticking close to reality, to performing his command function calmly, and of not seeking personal glory; he was fond of his soldiers and could therefore count on them at all times. All of them trusted him”.
That is totally accurate. Although we nicknamed him “der letzte Preuße” (“the last of the Prussians”), he always set for us the example of a fighting soldier; he would arrive unexpectedly in the front line, in the command post of some company commander, thereby helping us low-level commanders to keep the morale of our front-line fighting men high.
Von Senger has made another profound observation on the morale of the soldiers in Italy, when speaking of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, the most exposed to enemy pressure in the first half of 1944. He had received the impression that the moral of the troops had been shaken by numerous setbacks and continuous retreat. He was not at all surprised by this, since while the soldiers may have believed the propaganda and have been loyal to Hitler, at a certain point it must have dawned on them that an uninterrupted string of defeats could not possible lead to victory.
Of course. I have always been convinced that if we did fight right to the end, it was because we were always fighting for the comrade on our right, by the side of the one or our left, or perhaps for our immediate commander, whom we respected or perhaps because we believed we were fighting for our honour, doing our duty as soldiers up until the very last day. In 1944-45 it was very difficult to persuade the front-line soldiers to fight for Hitler any more, or even for Germany. We even sang satirical songs against Hitler, songs that strengthened our fighting spirit and which nobody objected to, because you do not argue with the front line soldier, the man we called the Front-Soldat.

From Valmontone to the Arno
Kesselring applied the principles of Auftragstaktik masterfully during the Italian campaign, with great perspicuity choosing the Schwerpunkte or strong points where he would concentrate his forces opposite the enemy’s “weak points”, that is, in sectors that were almost void of troops or with only weak forces incapable of intervening in time.
I shall be discussing two classic examples of Schwerpunkte in Italy:
(a) the defence and closing of the gap between the Tenth and Fourteenth German Armies withdrawn from Rome to Monte Amiata;
(b) the battle of Rimini with the concentration of ten divisions in one single Army Corps sector.

The failure to entrap the German troops at Valmontone, south of Rome, will never case to provoke discussion. The German point of view is that of von Tippelskirch, who commanded the Fourteenth Army from December 1944 to February 1945. “Our most dangerous situation came at the end of May after the collapse of the front between Velletri and Cisterna in the direction of Valmontone. In that decisive moment, the American staff made a mistake with momentous consequences: instead of concentrating all its forces on a single point, perhaps in the valley towards Artena/Valmontone, where there were only the remnants of the divisions of Anzio/Nettuno, they continued to reinforce their flanks. Before the American breakthrough could be made, there arrived on the scene our “Hermann Goering” and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions. With these forces the Fourteenth Army was able, partly by launching a series of counter-attacks, to prevent the decisive breakthrough to Valmontone until 30 May. In the night of 30-31 May the American troops, with four divisions against only the 29th, finally managed to break through the front and to take Valmontone on the first of June”.
In no book written so far has the story been told exactly as it happened. I can bear personal witness of the fact that nobody has told now the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was both heavily involved in this battle or that it was the 29th itself that would carry out a last-ditch defence of the Valmontone sector from 25 May to 15 June, in the sector from near Velletri on the right and including Anagni on the left.
None of us - nor even, I believe, our divisional commanders - had an exact idea of the enormous Allied forces facing us. Only much later, after the end of the war, did we learn that the 29th had fought two whole Army Corps, the U.S. II and the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC). On the Hitler line, from 21 to 25 May, my regiment (the 15th) fought alone against six American regiments of the 85th and 88th U.S. Divisions while another regiment of ours, the 71st, fought French colonial troops. Later, on the Valmontone front, from 25 May to 22 June, our division fought against three American Divisions, the 3rd, the 85th and the 88th, as well as two French divisions, the 2nd Moroccan and the 3rd Algerian. “Why don’t they advance? Why are they so slow?” we used to ask ourselves.
It would take up too much space in these pages to tell the full story of our involvement in the struggle in which we had intervened, after all, much to late, when the situation had become irreversible. Suffice it to say that we, in reserve in the Bracciano area, were alerted too late and started out only on the 19th, when it was no longer possible to plug the gap opened by the French and widened by the Americans.
On 22 May my company captured Monte delle Fate, north of Terracina, taking prisoners a few American officers and some 30 soldiers who had set up an observation post there. After a few American officers and some 30 soldiers who had set up an observation post there. After beating off counter-attacks, we then had to withdraw under the threat of being surrounded. We infiltrated through enemy lines by night to Amaseno until we reached our own lines again at Prossedi. From there we were transported to the area of Velletri (where we were overtaken by the first units of the “Hermann Goering” parachute armoured division), which our I/15 battalion, attached temporarily to the “Goering”, defended from enemy attacks coming from the direction of the Anzio bridgehead, while the rest of the 29th Division defended the southern front against the French and the Americans.
On the night of the 27th we were transferred to the Artena-Valmontone front, coming under the orders of our own division once again. My company by itself defended a sector of under the orders of our own division once again. My company by itself defended a sector of 500 metres along the road from Artena to Valmontone. The front of I/15 battalion alone was 2.5 km long, and it had to be defended against the attacks of three enemy regiments. Why did the Americans not break trough? Perhaps because they always attacked frontally and in the same direction.
On the 29th the fighting shifted more to the south, around Gorga, where headquarters concentrated three battalions: mine, III/15, and II/8 of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division. This meant that the front from Artena to Valmontone was almost stripped of defenders, only the remnants of two battalions of the 1060th Regiment of the 362nd Division brought in post haste to fill the gap. I have never understood why our commanders assumed this risk, and why the Americans never took advantage of the occasion. At Gorga we launched a counter-attack against the Moroccans, then fell back on Colleferro-Valmontone, where fighting went on until 2 June, when at last we withdrew to Subiaco and to Tivoli.
The Allies had concentrated enormous forces for the battle of Rome/Valmontone: seven American divisions, two British divisions, four French colonial divisions, for a total of thirteen.
Personally, I feel that two or three divisions would have been sufficient to capture Rome. The then withdrawing slowly from Cassino northwards (being composed of infantry, parachute and mountain divisions). Success was virtually assured.
But perhaps the Allied Command, not accustomed to Auftragstaktik, lacked the courage to plan so extensive a manoeuvre of encirclement. Certainly, the American staff had no idea how to exploit the success of Valmontone. At the same time I should add that the Americans, even at medium and low levels, have never known how to take advantage of favourable situations that occur in their sectors of competence. I can say this on the basis of my experience as defender of Valmontone, Gorga and Colleferro.
Von Tippelskirch writes how the Tenth Army found itself in a situation of extreme danger after Valmontone, since it was unable to make use of the six days gained at Valmontone (25 May to 1 June 1944) to unit its right flank with the left flank of the Fourteenth Army. In this case, the Americans did not know how to take advantage of the mistake made by our Army Group.
Indeed, after the fall of Rome an enormous empty space was created between the Fourteenth Army on the Tyrrhenian Front and the Tenth Army withdrawing in Central Italy and on the Adriatic Front. The Fourteenth Army, with few divisions (the 3rd Panzer Grenadiers, the 4th Parachute, the 65th Infantry and part of the 362nd Infantry), almost all decimated, was threatened by encirclement and annihilation by the Americans, who were advancing an average of ten kilometres per day. The Tenth Army, slowly retreating along the few roads available, defends its left flank with only the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, which itself was in grave danger of being encircled and destroyed, all the more so because it had to collect the remnants of the divisions that had fought in the sector south of Anzio (the 715th Infantry Division and part of the 362nd).
To avoid having his flanks turned, and to bring the two Armies even with each other and close the gap between them, Kesselring created a strongpoint in the Tiberina valley, from Tivoli to Lake Trasimene, with only four divisions: the 26th Panzer, the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadiers, and the 1st Parachute (“Schwerpunkt am Tiber” from 4 to 16 June). To accomplish this he displaced his front - in an audacious and masterful conversion - from a southerly to a westerly direction against the American troops advancing along the coast.
The tasks laid down for this Schwerpunkt were to secure the right flank of the Tenth Army, its withdrawal, and the defence of the “barrier position” between Tivoli and Acquapendente (Lake Trasimene) with the entire XIV Armoured Corps. With a perfect manoeuvre, as difficult as it was unfamiliar, the four divisions leapfrogged each other, forming a new front that connected the two Armies.
The success of this delaying movement to contain the Allied advance in central Italy has won the praise of General Puddu, an historian who has demonstrated a sound knowledge if the German Army, so much so that his comments sound as if they were written by a German general in his “War Memoirs”.
After pointing out the Gravity of the German situation, Puddu continues:
“As well, the solution to the German operational problem was complicated by any number of factors: the minimal security provided by coastal defence arrangements, the lack of sufficient naval and air resources to prevent a landing, the inability of own air reconnaissance to give timely notice of the enemy’s intention and movements, the difficulty of ensuring own resupply in the face of Allied domination of the air, the inadequacy of the road and rail networks and, finally, the difficulties imposed by the mountainous terrain”.
I share the observations made by General Puddu. We suffered much from the lack of capability of our intelligence services. For us, in the front line, it was already something to know that we were facing Morroccans, or Poles, or British, or Canadians, or the Gurkhas, and so on. Often we received the order (and not the task!) to take prisoners so as to get news of which enemy was facing our regimental or divisional higher headquarters!
Where re-supply is concerned, I do not agree with Puddu, but my experience may not be authoritative, because the 29th was a special, mobile division which had never lacked provisions, clothing, replacement men and vehicles, antitank “Panzerfausts”, ammunition, fuel and so on, right up until 18 April 1945 (when I was captured).
Puddu continues: ”However, these difficulties could be in great part overcome during the first and the second phases of battle, thanks to the iron will of commanders; the ability of the staffs; the valour of the troops; the intense training, especially in hand-to-hand fighting and fighting in built-up areas; the close cooperation between infantry and artillery; the gradual and intelligent introduction of new units into combat, with patrols of seasoned veterans were used to acclimatise new arrivals; and the intensive work done in the combat area to improve the positions occupied”.
I can fully confirm what General Puddu says in regard to the gradual and judicious introduction of fresh units into combat. Our system of brining new units and individuals up into the line saved us much blood and gave the troops a certain security while they fought. In my own company, from 19 May to 26 October, I received 285 replacements in groups of 20, 40, 50 and 70 at a time. I never put them all together in the front line but only in small groups of five. Only at Lastra a Signa, when I had received a group of 70 replacements, did I have to send them to the front in groups of ten because the urgency of time did not allow me to hold them back much longer.
And Puddu writes:
“The delaying action of the Germans was made possible as well by the continuous blowing of bridges, the mining of extensive transit areas and the demolitions of every kind that they carried out with their customary meticulousness.
“However, while these favourable conditions may have been able to facilitate the action of the German Command, it must be agreed that the German’s ability to overcome the crisis and conduct an orderly retirement can predominantly be attributed to the skill of their Command in coolly evaluating the danger and taking prompt measures to deal with it, and to the spirit of the troops who, while taking severe casualties, kept their sense of cohesion and their fighting spirit intact”.
The ability of the German High Command has been recognised even by enemy historians who praise the skill of German commanders, first, in evaluating all dangers accurately and in knowing how to take appropriate measures in a timely manner. Secondly, they managed to keep their companies together and in good order, conserving their fighting spirit despite extremely heavy losses.
This observations ring true. We obeyed a moral order that was never given us, but which we always followed: Better to lose ground than to break up the company! And so we kept the company intact despite some very hard fighting that cost us heavy and even very heavy losses and which often isolated one company from the others.
To give an idea of the gravity of the losses in the 13 days from 21 May to 2 June 1944 (the battle of Rome), we need do no more than mention the losses of six battalions of the 29th: Battalion I/15, 192 men (37 per cent); battalion II/15, 200 men (39 per cent); battalion III/15, 198 men (38 per cent); battalion I/71, 225 men (43 per cent); battalion II/71, 258 men (50 per cent); battalion III/71, 212 men (41 per cent). In all, the 29th lost 2066 men including dead, wounded and missing (without counting the sick), of whom 1591 were grenadiers, 247 scouts, 145 artillerymen, 41 engineers, 21 signalmen, and 21 from the service corps. Dead were 268, wounded 889, and 909 were missing.
What was the war in Italy like for us in the front lines? I can only agree with what Walter Nardini writes, keeping in mind that the battle conditions described by him are the same as my own regiment faced in the last third of October, when, already a veteran of the fierce fighting for Rimini and of continuous battles south of Cesena against the Canadians and the Gurkhas, and reduced to half its length, it turned to face the 34th American Infantry Division in the valley of the Zena, 15 km from Bologna: Every single house, every hill, every metre of ground had to be taken from the Germans with very heavy losses and none of the Americans expected a rapid end to this situation. As soon as we had crossed the river, along came another one; as soon as we had won a hill or a mountain, another one rose in front of us, from which mortar rounds and shells rained down on us. Tanks ground to a halt in the mud, the weather kept aircraft from taking off. When later the battle suddenly shifted to hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans seemed to be dispirited.
The British generals had intended to wipe out the German troops south of a line from Pisa to Rimini (the Gothic Line, generally speaking) so that they could then pass through the Ljubljana Gap and advance on Vienna, but the failure of their plans in the pursuit after the fall of Rome had an adverse effect, from many points of view, on their strategic plans for Central Europe (von Senger).

The “Schwerpunkt” of the Gothic Line

The strongpoint of the Gothic Line provides a classic example to be taught in War Colleges. Not knowing where, on a front as long as 320 km, the Allies were to launch their offensive, and not knowing whether this would happen in a single sector or in various sectors, the Army Group Command did the only thing it could do: deploy its troops according to a mathematical formula, two-thirds of the force (13 divisions) along the front, and one-third (seven divisions) in reserve or coastal defence.
After it became clear from 25 August that only the British Eighth Army would wage the offensive, the Army Group redeployed the seven available divisions to the Adriatic thus creating two very different combat sectors: (a) a sector of 270 km with three Army Corps and ten divisions, and nothing as its back; (b) a sector of only 50 km, with a single Army Corps, the XIV Armoured, with ten divisions. The last sector would become Kesselring’s Schwerpunkt. The transfer of the seven Divisions into the Adriatic sector had to overcome great difficulties. Because of enemy domination of the air, our division could move only by night in a very professional manner and succeeded in its objective of stopping the Allies at the Rubicon.
It should be pointed out that the success of the Adriatic Schwerpunkt helped prevent an offensive being launched at the same time in the 270 km sector. If the Allies had attacked contemporaneously, the Gothic Line would have collapsed because the Germans had no other reserves available. In the second phase, then, attacks staggered in time, first against Cesena, then in the Florence-Bologna line, enabled the German Army Group to redeploy unhurriedly the Adriatic Divisions in the mountain sector threatened. In this way they created new divisions, stopping them 15 km from Bologna.
It’s worth taking into consideration Puddu’s opinion, that the British attack in Romagna was launched on too narrow a front and echeloned in depth which made it possible for the enemy to reinforce his defences to the utmost, no thought being given to a lateral attack from the flank, starting off from the valley of Tiberina. Thus despite the valour of the Poles and Canadians, the initial attack became bogged down in a typical battle of attrition.
Special mention deserves to be made of how German defences on the Gothic Line were organised, because they afford a clear illustration of mobile defence systems. Because it was impossible to garrison the entire line to a sufficient density of forces, and having seen through experience the limits of continuity of a defensive line, the German traded rigidity of positions for resilience in planning, and flexibility and fluidity of manoeuvre. This placed critical importance on quick reaction at all levels, even at the expense of density of development, and every effort was made to exploit natural obstacles, especially watercourses, as reference positions, for concentration, and for last-ditch resistance. The adaptation of mobile defence procedures intended to paralyse the attack rather than to wipe out the forces conducting it allowed German troops to achieve defence success even on flat and hilly terrain. German units used reconnaissance, performed by light and extremely mobile elements, as well as delaying tactics using outposts, and brought the Allied attack to a halt using a system of strongpoints or barrier positions manned to platoon or company strength and deployed in depth in the defensive sector.
The strongpoints or barrier positions, supported by minefields, were generally installed in the vicinity of communications links and on the heights dominating them, behind a major natural or artificial obstacle (embankment and canals) which were easy to improve, or in an area that provided cover and a chance to escape enemy air observation.
Flexible conduct of the defence using positions organised on depth included the execution of immediate counter-attacks or assaults did not succeed, commanders would forget about regaining the preceding defensive line in order to save their forces, and would then organise a main line of defence further back (line tactics). The necessity of forming a reserve to occupy the zone in depth forced the Germans to dilute their main line of battle still further even at the price of weakening it.
The deployed depth of a division organised on defence was secured, at the divisional level, by scouts or anti-tank battalions and, at regimental level, by an assault company. Infantry divisions now lacked the third battalion of every regiment, eliminated following the organic restructuring of infantry division carried out in the Summer of 1944.
The disposition of the division could vary depending on the Schwerpunkt and as a function of the type of unit (infantry, Panzer Grenadiers, and so on).
As well, disposition of units deployed in depth was changed in accordance with the characteristics of the terrain and the ability of commanders to predict (or not) where the enemy might attack (and also in response to the methods used by the Allies).
If a study of the terrain revealed that directions of potential enemy penetration would be limited, units in reserve would be deployed in pre-planned barrier positions (or in strongpoints, in mountainous sectors). Otherwise, such units were disposed immediately back in a more or less central zone whence they can intervene rapidly at any of a number of points. The first were prepared zones, occupied or ready for occupation, situated immediately to the rear of the troops to fall back on should the enemy penetrate, so as not to involve in the withdrawal contiguous sectors of the front that had not been invested by the enemy and to link up with the previous line of resistance. In addition, such positions should consist simply of an alignment in which a unit might have to concentrate to block an unforeseen enemy penetration, or else it could represent a base from which to conduct counter-attacks and assaults.
Selection of the type of defence in depth was the responsibility of commanders at all levels.
Strongpoints, mainly organised in the mountainous tracts of the Gothic Line, were disposed in depth in up to three successive orders. Instead of being formed from fixed and continuous lines. Their advanced positions were held by groups of outposts protected by intricate lines of defensive fire. At their backs, waiting in reserve zoned and appropriately protected, were forces for the counter-attack. Counterslope positions were frequently established, although we in the 29th never used them.
Finally, the shortage of troops in some secondary mountain sectors forced German commanders to maintain entire stretches of the front ungarrisoned, Thus we see, for instance, positions of the 305th Infantry Division in the Forli area, in the sector from Portico to Gaeasta on the No.2 Green (or Gothic) Line, where the 576th Regiment had to defend a sector of 20 km long with only three battalions in which defence with three or four echelons of depth, sentries on the roads, alternated with wide empty spaces, without a single soldier, some as long as 6 km. (Wide sector defence). In this situation what was called defence/offence was conducted: this consisted of aggressive actions carried out by units of about 30 men who, moving continuously along the unoccupied stretch of front, attacked the enemy’s positions to keep him constantly under pressure, deceiving him on the real strength of the defence.

The offensive battles of the Gothic Line are, unfortunately, little known as Germany for the simple reason that the attention of historians has been drawn to the events of the fighting on the Eastern and Western Fronts. But the passages of arms in Italy formed, as Kesselring put it, “a famous page in the military history of Germany”, a great defensive victory admitted by Churchill himself when he spoke of the “failure of the offensive” of Alexander, and which had serious consequences for his Allies on the future of southern Europe. In this campaign shines the tactical genius of Kesselrings who, in the face of Hitler’s declared intention not to give up a single metre of ground, knew how to adopt an elastic defence which, profiting by the enemy’s mistakes, would save the German Army in Italy by blocking, for a good six month, the advance of the numerically dominant Allies.
The main phases of Operation Olive (or the battle of Rimini), the first phase of Alexander’s offensive, can be identified in the first battle of Coriano, when the advance of the Eight British Army was brought to a sudden halt before the Coriano ridge that runs from were unable to exploit the success of their breaktrough.
As Amedeo Montemaggi writes, “the judgment of the German commanders on the Allied conduct of the first battle of Coriano was one of astonishment at the tactics used. Instead of heading directly for Rimini with all the weight of their armed forces, Alexander and Leese, the commander of the British Eight Army, dispersed their resources on the hills of Coriano, weakening the attack force”. At this point it would not be inopportune to note that this judgment by German commanders on the Adriatic contrasts with that of von Senger, who at that point was on the Tyrrhenian front, and who attributed the failure of the Allied attack not so much to Leese’s tactical error as to the fact that his armoured vehicles were no longer suitable for the changed tactical conditions of the war.
It is hard to make a judgment on the effectiveness of tanks in the battle for Rimini. The terrain along the coast and for some way inland lends itself to their use and we used our few tanks with great effectiveness. Our division was at less than half strength and at 5 km from Rimini, on the road from Montescudo to Rimini, they way was barred only by my company and the four tanks under Leutnant Hecht. An enemy tank battalion could have broken trough easily. We kept asking ourselves why they didn’t do so.
In the Summer of 1945 Colonel Horst Pretzell, Chief of the Operations Office of the Tenth Army, wrote the following commentary for the Allied Supreme Command:
“To this very day it is not at all clear from the German point of view why the Allies did not immediately exploit the success of their breakthrough of the Gothic Line and head directly for Rimini without worrying about their flanks. At that point the Germans no longer had reserves capable of offering a resistance worthy of the name to so unexpected a breaktrough … During the later course of the battle [that is, the first battle of Coriano - Ed.], the massed power of the offensive could perhaps have been more effectively employed if there had been a greater concentration of forces on the internal wings of the attacking army corps and if these forces had been used in a concentrated attack on the coastal sector (the Canadian sector) which was more suitable for tank operations. The stubbornness with which the troops of the V British Army Corps were thrown away in attacks on the heights of Gemmano and Coriano caused considerable forces to be diverted away from the main attack. The result was that the course of the offensive was considerable retorted”.
The breaktrough of the Yellow Line at Rimini and the failure of the Allies to exploit success there form the culminating moment of the battle for Rimini, in which the 29th Division found itself ranged against the I Canadian Army Corps which had become the diamond point of the offensive itself. The Allied attack was preceded by a “monstrous” land, air and naval bombardment. As chroniclers of the 29th wrote:” The enemy employed men and machines in measure hitherto unknown in Italy. While the bombers attacked artillery emplacements, the fighter-bombers were permanently airborne to attack any available target, whether it was a single truck or even, sometimes an individual soldier”.
I recall those bombardments as a nightmare. My company was positioned in a field near the River Ausa under the rain of barrage fire in the night between the 16th and 17th. There were three hours of shellfire that we thought would never end. Using the system, the enemy’s artillery often blocked our nightly resupply. And I will never forget that the fighter-bombers almost routinely attacked our motorcycle dispatch riders as if they knew that our whole system of communications depended on them.
Back to the diarists of the 29th: “Enemy artillery was greatly superior to ours. The ammunition available to them was many times more than to ours. Naval gunfire was also used in fighting ashore to great effect”.
Indeed, the enemy artillery had at its disposal everything it wanted when I wanted it. When I was taken as prisoner, I got a look at their system as I passed among their batteries. They brought trucks right up to the gun emplacement, the trucks parked directly alongside each individual artillery piece, and the shells moved directly from the vehicle to the gun.
“An angry, devastating fire was loosed from our defensive positions. Our mortars - which in the night between 19 and 20 September were with great difficulty re-supplied with a stock of 1000 rounds - laid down in front of our positions such a barrage that the enemy attacker was blinded and deafened”.
The mortars, both those of 80 mm and those of 120 mm, were our salvation. During the day, our heavy field artillery could not intervene with counter-battery and barrage fire so as not to expose themselves to enemy fighter-bombers always lurking in the air. The Canadians, our direct adversaries in the battle of Rimini, say they suffered much from our artillery fire. I maintain that they suffered much from our infantry mortars and artillery.
The infantry mortars and artillery became our real artillery under the motto “Hilf dir selbst, dann hilft dir Gott [“God helps him who helps himself”]. This is why, on the basis of my experience, I teach at the Canadian War College that the infantry, if it is to defend itself, has need of effective mortars, of infantry guns and anti-tank weapons of every type. The Italian Campaign has taught us this.
Using a system developed during the First World War, in fact on the Italian Front, the English began in the night of 18 September to illuminate the battlefield with powerful searchlights. “The first time, towards 2200 hours, the enemy searchlights lit up all the sky aiming either at the front lines or towards the clouds”, say out diarists of the 29th, “these searchlights tried to prevent our observing the enemy, but at the same time they helped our drivers orientate themselves more rapidly and they were no longer held up by shell craters”.
I recall all too well that this illumination in no way hindered our observation. In fact, it allowed us to see the enemy better and it also demonstrated the fact that when the searchlights were in use the enemy never attacked either ourselves or our night movements.
What was more nightmarish was the presence of fog. And here I subscribe wholeheartedly to the words of Walter Nardini which, though he writes of Cassino, describe the way the Rimini battlefield looked under the incessant air bombardments and the shelling from land and sea: ”Fog in front of the outposts, fog in front of the enemy, fog in front of the hotels, fog for taking away the wounded, fog for bringing up ammunition, fog, fog, fog…There was no longer any day; there were only two species of night, one yellowish and full of clouds, that did not allow you to see and took you by the throat, the other full of flashes, of glimmer of light, of bursts of machine gun fire, of fearful noises”. This was the atmosphere of our attack on the Ausa on 17 September and of the later crossing of the Uso, near Santarcangelo.
In the second battle of Coriano, in which the 29th destroyed 46 enemy tanks, our fortresses were the houses on which our mobile defence was based. We used the houses or their ruins to defend ourselves as long as possible: these sheltered us from the fire of every kind of weapon. The Allied error was to direct the decisive charge of the 1st British Armoured Division against the Coriano ridge instead of against the plain around the Rimini airport, Miramare, and this was understood as well by the diarists of the 29th when they wrote that “the greater danger was along the coast where the terrain offered the defender less of a chance. The enemy could have employed his tanks en masse and supported his advance with air attacks and with land and naval gunfire. A breakthrough attack would have turned the flank of the last defensive positions in Coriano and of the Covignano hills and would have allowed the enemy to attack our defences on the flank, thus avoiding destroying himself in the usual frontal attacks”.
This comment was evidently inspired by General Polack, who had commanded the division since 1 September, or by General Herr, who commander the LXXVI Armoured Corps, but it was nothing more than what we sere saying all along the front. In fact the usual frontal attacks, at Cassino and elsewhere, gave us a chance to defend ourselves all the better and let the enemy advance only very slowly.
On 19 September, along all the front from Rimini to San Marino, the Allied attack was unleashed, prepared with a terrifying land, air and naval bombardment. The central point of the struggle was the pleasant hill of Covignano, attacked by two Canadian brigades and defended by two regiments of the 29th which had had to put the Turcomens of the 162nd Infantry Division in the centre of their deployment at San Fortunato. Terrorised by the bombardment the Turcomens surrendered, allowing the Canadians to break through the last German defence before the plain of the River Po.
On the morning of the 20th the division was still fighting in two isolated groups, at Villa Battaglia (the name “Battaglia” is an error on the part of the Italian cartographer; it is really the Villa Battaglini/Bianchini) and at San Lorenzo a Monte. “All the sector around was open to enemy attack. The division was at the end of its strength”, write our diarists.
And here is the novelty, which however is no novelty. The victorious Allies did not exploit their success. For inconceivable reasons the enemy stopped and did not exploit his opportunities vigorously. Perhaps the unexpected and determined resistance of these two small isolated centres made an impression on him. And it is entirely to the merit of these two small groups of fighting men that the day did not end in a catastrophe. The division no longer had anything to oppose to a breaktrough attack launched by the enemy with all his forces.
The battle of Covignano, known in Allied records as the battle of San Fortunato, is a classic example of failure to exploit success. As on many other occasions during the Italian campaign, the enemy gave us time to regroup, take up new defensive positions and prepare to meet a new attack. A German officer, even at the level of company commander, who knew that the task of the regiment was to reach the Marecchia, would never have been stopped by the isolated resistance at San Lorenzo a Monte but would have kept on across the river to get ahead of the retreating enemy! We retired in good order, undisturbed, taking up intermediate defensive positions, leapfrogging one strongpoint after another, using a method proven during our training and which gave us a sense of security and calm, while the enemy remained sufficiently far from our backs.
For the division, this pause on 20 and 21 September was an unexpected gift. It gave us a change to reorganise all the units and to redeploy them to take up their next task to the north of the Marecchia.
Allied generals blame this failure to exploit their success on the rains that caused heavy flooding…but only some days later! Their justification is not convincing - write the diarists of the 29th. There were only a few outposts left on the south bank of the Marecchia. In our sector, the river, with its low banks, its hard clay bed, almost empty of water, was certainly no obstacle. (This is proven also by the fact that, because the bed was thought to be impracticable, the destruction of the famous Roman bridge of Tiberius, which had been left intact by German sappers, was judged militarily pointless.)
Personally, I do not remember any rain on 20 and 21 September. I recall that, withdrawing towards the Uso, near San Vito, the countryside was lit up by straw ricks set on fire by enemy artillery, something that would not have happened if the ricks had been soaking wet with rain.

The battle of Rimini was the greatest battle of assets in Italy. The enemy, greatly superior in all fields, enjoyed full mastery of the air. He could rotate his troops frequently and attack again with fresh forces after a few days. Much of his success can be ascribed to the artillery, of which he could call on an enormous number of pieces of all calibres and immense quantities of ammunition. Often, his artillery destroyed our defensive positions even before his infantry attacked, which broke our troops morale, …if, despite this, success eluded him, it was because of the systematic rigidity of his attacks which tried to avoid all risks, and because of the resolution of our infantry and of the arms supporting them. All our fighting units gave proofs of superhuman strength.
This is the story of the battle of Rimini as seen by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division which was one of the actors in it. For my part, I should like to add three things. (1) the Allies rotated their troops frequently while he we always kept the same men in the line, which tired us out profoundly; (2) from the beginning of the second battle of Coriano, on 13 September, we had fought continuously, day and night, moving from one emergency or crisis to another, with our companies almost always cut off. Our morale suffered heavily from this, so much so that eventually the Feldgendarmerie or military police had to intervene to arrest individual stragglers; (3) support was given the infantry by company mortars (80 mm) or battalion mortars (120 mm) and by infantry regimental artillery. In my sector of the front line, our heavy field artillery was never seen by day and never heard by night.
But the Gothic Line offensive did not stop with the battle of Rimini and the halt imposed on Allied troops on the River Rubicon on 20 September. The new commander of the British Eight Army shifted the fighting to the hills south of Cesena and so my regiment was sent to Montecodruzzo and to Monteleone to fight against the Nepalese Gurkhas, who were ferocious nocturnal fighters. Then we were transferred south of Bologna to oppose the Americans. Our losses were heavy. On the Rubicon, my company was reduced to 30 men. In three days it was brought back to 120 men, more than half of whom we lost in 12 days of fighting against the Gurkhas. By the time we got to the new front near Bologna, there were hardly fifty of us left.
The 29th Division had been tasked with coming into the line between the 65th Division on the right and the 362nd on the left, between State Highway No.65 from Florence to Bologna and the valley of the River Zena. Our 15th Regiment was fighting south of Cesena when the 71st was defending the sector south of Zula and Castel de Zena. Battalion II/15 arrived in the Gorgognano sector on the 20 October, I/15 took up position the following day in the Casa Casetta sector in the centre of the valley, and then III/15 in turn arrived in the Poggio sector. The reconnaissance sector AA 400 took up a position in the mountains to our left.
The river was in spate from the constant rains. The valley was too narrow for a battalion to deploy properly, and the dominant positions overlooking it were in the hands of the Americans of the U.S. 34th Division. In the bottom of the valley there was a road, with a few mule tracks and some scattered groups of houses. Every now and then a single isolated house would be seen; the grey and muddy soil covered a rocky base in which it was virtually impossible to dig a defensive emplacement.
Fightinh began immediately, the 71th Regiment against the U.S. 91st Division, the 15th against the 34th Division. The Americans’ manner of fighting was a good deal different from ours. They gave us the impression of not yet being matured in battle. A little rain, a river a little way over its banks, and the fighting was called off! Lucky them! It seemed they no longer wanted to fight. They made themselves prisoners with great ease. That is the only way we could account for the many times that 100 , 80,70 or 50 prisoners were captured at once. They gave up their positions rapidly to withdraw, while our higher commander never seemed to have any understanding for us. If necessary, we would cross the River Zena in flood two or three times… and soaked to the skin from head to foot, as we were, we had no way of drying off quickly. We had to fight under torrential rains, in slipper ground, in the cold of the night. I believe that we survived only because we were able to light fires in the fireplace of some house or other, to dry ourselves in shifts, squad after squad, gulping down hard liquor, vodka … .
As I said, my battalion defended the valley of the Zena, changing positions and defensive arrangements often, from three companies in line to three echeloned in depth. Between 20 and 31 October, our company diary describes a succession of battles, among them American attack on the 24th which forced us to abandon the Poggio, a retirement to the second and third echelons when III/15 Battalion replaced us in the front line on the 25th, the counter-attack by my company and the 9th Company of III Battalion to retake the Poggio, and the capture of fifty-odd enemy on the 26th, the taking position at Casa Casetta by my command and the American attacks in the nights of 28, 29 and 30 October, all thrown back successfully, the replacements who created nothing but problems for me - thirty or so seventeen-year-olds that I had to and had neither the experience nor the stomach to fight.
Then on 31 October, I fell ill and was transported to Field Hospital 29 at Montagnana. During my absence the Americans finally took Casa Casetta, but were chased out of it again a few days later.
And so it was that Clark’s thrust came to a halt at the end of October, 15 km from Bologna.

Gerhard Muhm



Documents and documentary texts:
Ktb (Kriegstagebücher - War Diaries) of the Tenth Army and of the Fourteenth Army, the 76th Panzer Corps and the 14th Panzer Corps; Zustandsbericht (Mtl) for the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, 1 July 1943 to 1 April 1945; Divisional histories by Heinz Greiner (362nd); Harry Hoppe (278th), Joachim Lemelsen (29th), and unit history by GERHARD MUHM, Geschichte der 1.Kp. Pz Gren Rgt. 15 (1945-1946).

And also:
Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege [On War], Berlin, 1969;
GORDON A. CRAIG, Die Preussische-deutsche Armee 1640-1945 [The Prussian and German Army, 1640-1945], Dresden, 1980;
Müller Hillebrand, Das deutsche Heer 1939-1945 [The German Army 1939-1945], Mittler Verlag, 1954;
G. BATTISTI, Studio sulla Linea Gotica e sui principi della dottrina difensiva dell’Esercito Tedesco 1944-45];
WERNER HAUPT, Kriegsschauplätze Italien 1943-1945 [Italy: Theatre of War, 1942-1945], Stuttgart, 1977;
ALBERT KESSELRING, Soldat bis zum letzten Tag [Soldie to the Bitter End], 1954;
AMEDEO MONTEMAGGI, Offensiva della Linea Gotica [The Gothic Line Offensive], Bologna, 1980; by the same author, Rimini-San Marino ‘44, Rimini, 1983; and also Savignano ‘44, Rimini, 1985;
WALTER NARDINI, Cassino, Bad Nauheim, 1975;
MARIO PUDDU, Tra due invasioni: La campagna d’Italia, 1943-1945 [Between Two Invasions: the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945], Rome, 1965;
A.SEGÜR-CABANAC, Gefechtsbeispiele aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg [Examples of Battle form the Second World War], Vienna;
VON SENGER UND ETTERLIN, Combattere senza paura e senza speranza [Neither Fear Nor Hope], Milan, 1968;
KURT VON TIPPELSKIRCH, Geschichte des II Weltkrieges [History of the Second World War], Bonn, 1951.


I should like to express heartfelt thanks to Prof. Amedeo Montemaggi for the ability and patience with which he has translated my essay into clear, concise and fluent Italian.