3. Kompanie Reichsgrenadier Regiment 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister'
Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister'
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The Italian Campaign 1943/44

 

In early November 1943, the 'Hoch und Deutschmeister' Division was assigned to 10. Armee of Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, and soon after, the entire division was moved by rail to the "Reinhardt Line", to relieve the 26. Panzer-Division and its battalions were immediately deployed to these positions forward of Cassino itself. The “Reinhardt Line” itself was a temporary defensive line and was named after the Chief of Staff of the RGD HuD, Oberstleutnant i. G. Fritz Reinhardt. This line was used to buy time for the more complex set of defences in the “Gustav Line” to be constructed and completed.
The Division set about its new task with troops inexperienced and underequipped in mountain warfare facing an experienced opponent whose superiority in men and equipment the German Army as a whole could not surpass. When the first elements of the division reached the assigned positions, they occupied the fortifications which their predecessors - trenches, machine gun nests, bunkers, mortar positions ... had built on the slopes of the steep mountains that populate this region. The orders of the 'Hoch und Deutschmeister' were to defend the Sant'Elia road to Monte Cassino, the village of Monte Lungo and the Rapido Valley. A handful of days after the arrival of the grenadiers to their positions, they soon realised the vast differences between his new enemies and the Red Army. Now, the allies controlled almost entirely the air theatre (actually a column of 'Hoch und Deutschmeister' was attacked by several Allied fighter-bombers as they marched to their positions south of Monte Cassino), and they had an almost continuous support of artillery and tanks.
The objectives of the US 45th Division at this time was to be the village of Lagon and several of the peaks that dominated the village and the road to Sant'Elia. Key to these was Peak 769, and several days of combat around Peak 769 followed, between elements of the 179th US Infantry Regiment and 2 Kompanie 131 Grenadier Regiment, Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister', with attack followed by counter attack, and the summit changing hands several times. Finally the Americans secured the summit for good and the 2/131 withdrew from its last positions on the reverse slopes with only 12 men and one officer remaining in the company. On 9th December the US Division also managed to get troops into Lagon but after house to house fighting, failed to dislodge the defenders from I/134 Grenadier Regiment 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' and the village would remain in German hands for another 2 weeks.
 
When the 5th Gebirgsjäger Division became available, the 10th Armee replaced the Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' in the mountains and shifted it south to cover the more likely approach to the Liri valley, at the Mignano gap. It would cover a wide sector with its units interspersed with those of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division. The defence was based on a series of low hills on either side of Highway 6, with the landscape rising dramatically on its left flank to the 1270m high, Monte Majo. The US Fifth Army had used the short lull in operations since mid-December to freshen its forces and made plans for a renewed attack which would be amply supported by armour, artillery and air power. The attack would use a task force from 1st Armored Division, plus some British support on the left, 2 regiments of the 34th US Infantry Division - the 168th and the 135th on the right and some Special Service troops on the high peaks of Monte Majo. The 1st Special Service Regiment had a battalion of specifically trained mountain troops and these were used to cross the inhospitable and difficult terrain and seize the summit of Monte Majo on the first day of the offensive, the 4th January 1944.
 
 
The summit was in the sector of the 132 Grenadier Regiment, Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' who mounted repeated counterattacks but failed to regain the lost ground and suffered badly from the hands of American artillery - the US 93rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, who fired 8500 rounds in 3 days in support of the Special Service troops. Having weakened the defenders the Special Service troops then went on to secure the neighbouring peaks. With the high peaks secured the US forces launched their drive along Highway 6. The attack started well when forces from 168th lead battalion were ambushed by elements of III/132 Grenadier Regiment, Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' under Leutnant Prandl who captured 2 officers and 68 men. The Americans, however, put this early setback aside, and broke into the village of Viticuso with the US 135th Regiment, and after 2 days of difficult house to house, captured it, taking 170 prisoners from the Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' in the process.
 
The US forces then pressed on to the ridge behind the village, La Chinia, one of their major objectives, and still held by the III/132 Grenadier Regiment, Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister'. The German battalion hung on to its defences for another 2 days but were finally forced off the summit. Following the pattern of earlier clashes, it then lost heavily to US artillery whilst counterattacking, and was reduced to company size, and its remnants eventually had to be placed under the command of the II/132 Grenadier Regiment, Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister'. 
 

It was clear from the outset that the Division would face a difficult time nevertheless it managed to slow down the momentum of the Allied Forces restricting them to an overall territorial gain of 20Km, although in doing so it incurred heavy casualties and had everywhere been driven from its defences. Gen. von Senger und Etterlin, the Korps Commander, then brought up fresh forces to slow the Allied advance and allowed the Reichsgrenadier Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' to fall back into the Gustav Line positions in and around Cassino for a few days rest and replenishment. Thus the exhausted and battered Division fell back to these positions and became a cornerstone of the “Gustav Line” to assist in the defence of Cassino. 


The first major Allied attack on the “Gustav Line” hit amongst others the Reichsgrenadier Division with full force, and again it suffered significant losses with some battalions being reduced to platoon strength subsequently losing some dominant terrain features as a result of these severe losses. Into this critical situation the Germans introduced the 1st Parachute Division whose name would become forever linked with the battle for Monte Cassino. Whilst the Parachute Division received the accolades for stabilising and blunting the Allied assault it could only fully be achieved by the hard fighting conducted by other German divisions including the Reichsgrenadier Division too, a fact that has often left veterans of these formations frustrated by the lack of recognition attributed by their own side at the time and general historians since.
An Obergefreiter, Leutnant & Unteroffizier sat outside of the command post of the 6th company of the 131st Infantry regiment 'Hoch und Deutschmeister' Division, thought to be in the Viticuso area, Italy, December 1943.
 
The second battle for Monte Cassino began with the bombing of the Monastery but again no significant gains were made by the Allies as the Germans managed to hold the “Gustav Line” and prevent any breakthrough towards Rome. The sector defended by the Reichsgrenadier Division was relatively quiet apart from regular patrolling and small skirmishes with the troops facing them.
The third and final battle of Cassino was commenced in May 1944 and a breakthrough led by General Juin in command of the French Expeditionary Corps following an artillery barrage of unprecedented force was finally achieved over the Garagliano bridgehead on 11 May 1944. The French Forces were met by “Kampfgruppe Nagel” (made up of Grenadier Regiment 131, Aufklärungs Abteilung 44 and elements from both 15th Panzergrenadier Division and 71st Infanterie Division) and despite brave resistance the battle group was unable to prevent an Allied link-up between the French forces and those forces which had been landed at Anzio/Nettuno as a part of Operation Shingle although they did prevent the juncture between the two German Army Corps from being severed, for this achievement its commander, Oberst Nagel (Kdr Grenadier Regiment 131) received a Knight’s Cross. However, because of the Allied linkup with the forces at Anzio the way to Rome lay open and indeed the city had been designated as an “Open City” to prevent any further unnecessary destruction of suffering. Such a situation now left the Germans on the “Gustav Line” in a tenuous position.

(In front of the Divisional Command Post, 1944. From left: Generalleutnant Dr. Franek (Div Kdr), Major Vesenmayer (Div IIa). With Dr Franek listed as the divisional commander this would put the timeframe for this photograph somewhere between the dates of 1 January 1944 - 1 May 1944).   
Under these circumstances a general retreat was begun by all German forces and the battles of the following weeks were characterised by the division (and others likewise) often turning to strike at the pursuing Allies to buy time and to enable the bulk of its forces to withdraw in an orderly manner. Indeed by striking out to claim Rome as a prize on the 5 June 1944, the Allies failed to turn the German retreat into a rout by allowing them to withdraw to new defensive lines further north. Throughout the summer months fighting continued on both sides of the Tiber in the northern Apennines. The Allies were once again held at a new defensive line near Florence designated the “Green Line” (often referred to as the “Gothic Line”).  The Division launched a counterattack at Monte Battaglia in September 1944, which was described as “ferocious” by the commander of the American troops who faced them.

However, having sustained significant losses at and since the battles at Cassino the Division was withdrawn from the line and sent to Udine in Northern Italy for a period of rest and refitting. However, this respite proved to be short-lived as the situation had worsened on the Eastern Front and the approach of the Red Army threatened to overwhelm Hungary.  

 


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