Monte Battaglia 1944
MONTE BATTAGLIA 1944
The following is a short account of the battle for Monte Battaglia, Northern Italy. It is an account written by Mr Len Bozeat M.M. who took part in that Battle serving with the 3rd Btn Grenadier Guards. Len first served with the 6th Btn Grenadier Guards and took part in that ill-fated battle of the “Horshoe” on the Mareth Line in North Africa, he was in No 4 Coy which like the other companies that attacked that line they were decimated mainly on the mine field, however they achieved their objective but could not hold it because the support of heavy weapons could not reach them. Len was awarded the M.M. following his actions during that battle Len, with the 6th Btn went on to fight further small engagements until the war in North Africa came to an end, he then found himself in the vast armada heading for Italy, landing on the Salerno beaches on the 9th September 1943, on the 14th September whilst leading his section forward they came under severe mortar fire, Len was seriously wounded and eventually sent back to North Africa to be hospitalised. On his return to active duty in Italy Len was to discover that the 6th Btn no longer existed, having lost so many men the remnants of the original 6th Btn was sent back to England, Len opted to stay and therefore joined the 3rd Btn to fight on in Italy, this is his short account of one battle, the battle for Monte Battaglia.
The Apennine mountains run from the South of Italy up to the plains of Lombardy before turning to form a mountainous barrier from the East to the West Coast with only a narrow strip of land on either side. In September 1944, Allied forces advancing North through Italy were held up at those strips due to strong German resistance and particularly the flooded rivers running down from the mountains to the sea. The Gothic Line – the German fortifications along the South side of the mountains – had been penetrated and so emphasis was placed on breaking through the passes which ran from North to South across the mountains to the plains. One such pass was named Arrow Route, being the road to Imola on the main Route 9 on the plains. The dominating feature of the Arrow Route mountains is Monte Battaglia (Battle Mountain) which at 2,400 ft towered some 400 ft above the surrounding heights. Bare rocky slopes with a 1 in 2 gradient run up to a pinnacle crowned by an ancient ruined Castle and Tower with a history of strife of more than a thousand years, for whoever held the height thus controlled the pass and the area. Not for nothing had it earned the title of Battle Mountain. The 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards played a prominent part in the fighting there in 1944 but what of the other combatants – American and German?
Battaglia was seized on the 25th September 1944 by troops of the American 88th Division’s 350th Regiment (The equivalent to a British Brigade), the Division reputedly being the best American Division in Italy was named the “Blue Devils” from their Blue Divisional shoulder flash. The Mountain itself was captured by the Regiments 2nd Battalion without a shot being fired, having been led there by Italian Partisans during the amazing absence of German forces. Why had they – the masters of delaying tactics – left such a vital bastion unguarded when they knew that earlier that day, lower heights nearby had been taken by the Americans? Whatever the reason, the Germans paid dearly in their valiant but unsuccessful attempts to rectify
the error for barely and hour after the battalions Company “C” had dug in at and around the Castle, the first of many vicious counter attacks came and was followed by many more in varying strengths with at times the Castle being overrun, but each attack was successfully repulsed but with heavy losses on both sides. The defenders were subjected to ceaseless shelling and mortaring which took a heavy toll because rock prevented digging in to an adequate depth. Added to that was torrential rain which flooded such trenches as could be dug and caused great difficulties in supply and evacuating of casualties; these horrific conditions were endured until the 2nd of October when relief was commenced by the British 1st Guards Brigade which the 3rd Btn Grenadier Guards belonged.
The quality of both the Americans and Germans alike can be judged from the citation of the posthumous award of the American Congressional medal of Honour, (the equivalent to the British Victoria Cross) to Captain Roeder of Company “C” as follows;
“Captain Robert E Roeder, Army of the United States. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 27th and 28th September 1944 on Monte Battaglia, Italy. Captain Roeder commanded his Company in defence of the strategic Monte Battaglia. Shortly after the Company had occupied the hill, the Germans launched the first of a series of determined counter attacks to regain this dominating height. Completely exposed to ceaseless enemy artillery and small arms fire, Captain Roeder constantly circulated among his men, encouraging them and directing their defense against the persistent enemy. During the sixth counter attack, the enemy, using flame throwers and taking advantage of the fog, succeeded in over-running the position. Captain Roeder led his men in a fierce battle at close quarters to repulse the attack with heavy losses to the Germans. The following morning, while the Company was engaged in repulsing an enemy counter attack in force, Captain Roeder was seriously wounded and rendered un conscious by shell fragments. He was carried to the command post where he regained consciousness. Refusing medical treatment, he insisted on re joining his men. Although in a weakened condition, Captain Roeder dragged himself to the door of the Command post and picking up a rifle, braced himself in a sitting position. He began firing his weapon, shouted words of encouragement and issued orders to his men. He personally killed two Germans before he was killed instantly by an exploding shell. Through Captain Roeder’s able and intrepid leadership his men held the heights of Monte Battaglia against the aggressive and fanatical enemy attempts to retake this important strategic area. His valorous performance is exemplary of the fighting spirit of the Army of the United States.
Army command realised that the attack towards Imola would not succeed and being required elsewhere, the 88th Division were switched further West towards the route to Bologna which was later to become familiar to our 5th Battalion in the South African 6th Armoured Division. Commencing on the 2nd October, the 1st Guards Brigade as part of the British 6th Armoured Division, comprised of the 3rd Btn Grenadier Guards, 2nd Btn Coldstream Guards, including S Company Scots Guards and the 3rd Btn Welsh Guards took over the Battaglia area and with its terrible mountainous terrain, weather and enemy positions – and also the numerous American and German corpses awaiting removal. The Mule Base at Val Maggiore was some four miles from Monte Battaglia to which access was by a single track mostly upon a knife – edge ridge, with precipitous sides, upon which thick gluey mud was churned nightly by a constant procession of 150 Mules and 100 men with the last mile under continuous shelling and mortar fire. Major General Sir John Nelson KCVO. CB. DSO. MC. MA who, as Lieutenant Colonel, then commanded our 3rd Battalion, later wrote that he had initially “found a thousand (American) men placed on the hillside” and “suffering a hundred casualties a day” He placed 200 Grenadiers on Battaglia and cut casualties to about eight a day. German infantry attacks continued, albeit not to the same degree suffered by the Americans but with the same continuous bombardment which caused a steady stream of casualties and culminated in a fierce night attack on the 11th October by some 100 German infantrymen who attempted to cut off the Castle, by-passing it to attack positions along the rear supply track. They were beaten off with casualties and with 76 of their number being trapped and captured. Lack of space precludes detail of many actions fought there by the 1st Guards Brigade but they are recorded in the relevant Regimental histories. Our own Regimental History does, however, include and account of how Guardsman “Timber” Wood, MM, beat off an attack when his Bren gun having jammed, he used it to fell a German soldier and then felled another with his fists before driving off the rest with grenades. Battle Mountain must surely have approved. From the 25th October, the Brigade was withdrawn due to the main battle having forged ahead on either side.
The Germans? It must be borne in mind that for the past year they had been fighting a retreating and delaying action from the toe of Italy, now, with no air cover and their homeland under threat from both East and West, there was nowhere for them to go and defeat inevitable, but still they fought on with incredible spirit – but not all of them. On an early morning patrol forward of Battaglia in low heavy cloud, I came across a German soldier sitting in a slit trench and apparently asleep. When I pushed my Tommy Gun into his back with orders for him to put his hands up, there was no response, and he slumped forward, an examination showed a large hole in the right side of his head and a pistol in his right hand. He had doubtless been in previous attacks on the hill and could not face another. On looking up through the thinning cloud to the Castle at the top of 400 feet of steep bare rock where heavily armed defenders would have been waiting, one could understand and perhaps sympathise.
There was only one thing to do, I prised the pistol the pistol from his hand (with difficulty due to rigor mortis and frost) and threw it as far away as possible in the hope that when he was eventually recovered he would be recorded as Killed in Action.
Certainly, for the German soldier to continue to attack as he did, morale and discipline must have been at a high level. The citation of Captain Roeder mentions the use of Flame Throwers, which I can personally confirm. Entrance to the Castle Tower – which was the main strong point – was by a small aperture through which one had to crawl over a duck board, made from tubes which had previously contained mortar boards and, when weight was applied to the duck board, there was a sound of escaping air which became the sound of air being sucked in when the weight was removed, curious as to the cause of the sounds, I removed the duck boards to find the body of a German soldier with a portable Flame Thrower. To have fought his way up those steep slopes in the face of heavy gun fire and explosives – and at the same time carrying a heavy Flame Thrower and fuel, he must have been a remarkable warrior, he had achieved his objective but died in his attempt, at the only entrance to what was otherwise a sealed chamber containing up to twelve men. It hardly bears thinking of what would have happened to them if he had not been killed before achieving his objective, but such are the fortunes of war. Over the centuries many men must have died there in the course of battle and there must be a particular Valhalla for warriors such as they – including the German soldier with his Flame Thrower and Captain Roeder.
It would appear that Battle Mountain has a spirit of its own and also a sense of humour, as has been reported, access was by a single track upon which German weapons had a fixed line of fire. One night when Guardsmen had been relieved and were making their way back from the Castle along the track, a stream of tracer bullets came floating across from the German positions accompanied by a heavily accented voice shouting “How you like that Tommy?” judging by the stream of obscenities which floated back, Tommy was not favourably impressed. Also in 1995, a party of Association Members and Ladies were visiting the Castle for a Remembrance Service where memorial plaques are installed in memory of the fallen of the 1st Guards Brigade, the American forces and the Italian Partisans, when they were assailed by a cloud of flying ants which were literally beaten off with Order of Service sheet, handbags and anything else that came to hand; no casualties were reported by the Association but the attackers suffered heavy losses! Battle Mountain must have remembered its past with a wry grin and a chuckle.
And so, to those who through the passage of time have fallen in combat on Battle Mountain, whoever and whenever Requiescat in Pace.
Mr Len Bozeat M.M.
Ex 6th Btn Grenadier Guards and 3rd Btn Grenadier Guards.
Len still lives in Epsom Surrey, sadly he lost his wife some two years ago, but is still active in his beloved garden.
After the war, he became so disillusioned about the killing and destruction that he no longer believes in God – but during a lull in the battle for Monte Battaglia he went out on his own, which he often did, to bring back information. It was a clear frosty night and as he sat on a boulder looking down at the distant valley’s he wrote this poem;
LINES ON MONTE BATTAGLIA
One night I saw beauty from a hill top
The stars hung bright, clear, glittering with the cold.
Down in the valleys the mist lay thick
Stretching from my feet to horizons far.
Where black, cold unfriendly Mountains broke
Like islands of night in a sea of day.
Silence was o’er all; I stood on cold dead stone
And gazed on dead hills, dead mist, dead sky
But were they dead? Even so, there was beauty there
As I had never seen before.
Then I knew I was near God
And I spoke, what words did I say?
I know not, but I spoke
And I heard a voice.
There was beauty there in those cold dead things
For there was God.
God Bless you Len (Mike Sterling) Rotherfield