RSI: Monterosa Alpini Part II

Festung Europa

Operation Wintergewitter

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During Christmas 1944 the Italians and Germans carried out their last combined offensive of the war. Operation Wintergewitter (Winter Storm) was a limited offensive in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, but was one of the last examples of German tactical and operational mastery in Italy. The offensive badly mauled an American infantry division and achieved some minor results, slightly improving the Axis situation over the western Apennines Gothic Line sector.

Plans and Preparations

During a meeting on 20 October 1944 between General Mario Carloni (commander Italian Monterosa Alpini Division) and German General Jost (commander 42. Jäger Division deployed in the western sector of the Gothic Line) briefly went over a plan being considered by Kesselring’s German Italy command and Mussolini and the RSI military leadership since early October.

The plan envisioned a strong offensive to be launched against the left (western) wing of the US 5th Army in the Garfagnana mountain region (between Emilia and Tuscany). It would be an all-out attack carried out by 40,000 men, one German and two Italian Divisions, with heavy tank, artillery and air support. Its aim was to breakthrough the US 5th Army lines and retake Lucca, Pisa and the strategically important port of Livorno, resulting in the Allies being forced to withdraw units from the central and eastern sectors of the front and call off their offensive in the critical Ravenna-Bologna area. In the British 8th Army sector, where the German defence wasn’t benefited by favourable terrain, the drawing off of attacking Allied units would ease pressure on the German defenders.

Mussolini and Marshal Rodolfo Graziani (commander-in-chief of the RSI Armed Forces), for obvious morale and propaganda reasons, warmly supported the plan in this original version. A resounding success mainly due to Italian troops would have been a blow to Allied prestige and a much needed boost to Italian Republican morale.

However, when the operative plan was overviewed it underwent major changes, dictated by the reality of the Axis local and overall situation and available resources.

The "grand plan" was an unachievable dream with the resources available.

Serchio Valley
 Of the three required divisions, the Italian "Italia" still had to arrive, just 50% of the Monterosa was available, and the German 148. Infantry Division was in poor shape. There were no tanks, aircraft, or fuel and only a few extra German artillery batteries were available. Any attempts to move armoured units to the area, or to strengthen the infantry divisions already deployed, would have been quickly detected by Allied reconnaissance or partisan observers.
German General Otto Fretter-Pico

Tactical and operational surprise could never have been achieved (not to mention the fact that the Allied air forces would have quickly made mincemeat of those reinforcements).

Generals Carloni and Otto Fretter-Pico (commander, 148. Infantry Division) radically modified the plan and proposed a limited local attack on a narrow front. This was something that the available Gothic Line forces could launch without resorting to unlikely reinforcements. The offensive’s aim was now to improve the Axis defensive positions in Garfagnana, pin down American forces in a secondary zone to prevent them from being shifted to more vital areas, capture weapons, foodstuff, ammunition and materials, and boost the Republican morale.

The revised plan was accepted and preparations began. The attack would invest the American front line between the town of Sommocolonia (east of Serchio River) and Mount Pania Secca (west of the river) 20 kilometres distant. While General Fretter-Pico would be the overall commander, General Carloni would lead the attack operationally.

4,600 men of the Monterosa and 148. Infantry Divisions plus attached units were split up into three attack columns.
Axis and American Orders of Battle

Axis OOB and plan of attack

1st Column:

Italian "Intra" Alpine Battalion
Regimental HQ Company of the 1st Alpine Regiment
Monterosa Division "Cadelo" Recon Group (plus a company of the Italia Division)
2nd Battalion, 6th "San Marco" Marine Regiment
1st Battalion, German 285th Grenadier Regiment (in fact, the latter unit operated alongside the second column)

2nd Column:
Italian "Brescia" Alpine Battalion
2nd Battalion, German 285th Grenadier Regiment

3rd Column:
German "Mittenwald" Mountain Battalion
elements, German "Kesselring" Machinegun Battalion

80 field guns (including some additional German artillery batteries: 1 x 150 mm, 3 x 105 mm, 2 x 75 mm, 1 x 88mm) plus the divisional light infantry guns and mortars.
The best and most experienced units were the two German assault battalions of the 3rd column, attached to the 148. Infantry Division, and called "special battalions" in Italian sources. They were entirely made up of well-trained and fast-moving assault troops. However, the two under-strength German battalions of the 285th Grenadier Regiment were of poor quality. Most of their men came from Alsace, and had been forcibly enlisted in the Wehrmacht after the 1940 campaign and the German annexation of their native land. The desertion rate was high and on 26-27 November an Italian Alpini company had to be sent to keep them under control and to thwart any attempts at mass desertion or mutiny.

The first attack column would operate on the right of the Axis attack front, carrying out diversionary attacks and taking the American first line and the towns of Vergemoli and Calomini. The second, central column (left and right of Serchio river) would break through the American defences and would head for the rear area towns of Gallicano, Treppignana and Fornaci di Barga.

The 1,500 man strong third column, on the left, was the pivotal one. It would start first, penetrating the US line, then outflank it, and quickly seize the town of Sommocolonia and make for Barga - Fornaci di Barga - Pian di Coreglia (8km south of the start line).

American OOB

The unit that would bear the brunt of the upcoming battle was the 370th Regimental Combat Team (Colonel Sherman) of the 92nd Infantry Division:

370th Infantry Regiment (less 3rd Battalion)
2nd Battalion, 366th Infantry Regiment
598th Field Artillery Battalion
92nd Reconnaissance Troop
Cannon Company, 366th Regiment
B Company, 760th Armoured Battalion
A Company, 317th Engineer Battalion

The situation prior to the Attack

The Italian and German commands did their best to conceal troops and artillery movements and confuse the enemy by purposely propagating rumours about a possible Axis offensive in the Serchio valley.

They knew that the partisans and Allied intelligence would at some point learn of their plans prompt some counter or preparations. Vague information reached the US IV Corps and 92nd Infantry Division (African-American "Buffalo" Division), the American unit holding the Sommocolonia - Pania Secca line. An attack was expected on or about 10 December. New trenches, fieldworks, barbed wire entanglements, strong points and minefields strengthened the US defences. Coincidently the IV Corps had also planned a Christmas attack, which would start on 25 December at 08:00 hours. On 10 December nothing happened, the 92nd Division commander (General Edward M. Almond) ordered his troops to make ready their attack, while at the same time kept a look-out for possible Axis actions. This ambiguous directive caused confusion among 92nd Division’s officers and troops, and probably contributed to their defeat.   
92nd Infantry Division Patch
The Attack

On 24 December the US 92nd Division was ordered to call off the scheduled attack and prepare to fend off an Axis offensive which would be launched on 27 December. Unfortunately for the Americans the Axis third attack column was ready to go at midnight, 25/26 December.

At 04:50 (03:00 according to some sources) hours, 26 December, elements of the two German assault battalions emerged out of the darkness and suddenly attacked the Sommocolonia garrison (elements of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 366th Regiment, supported by some partisans). Some authors state that the resistance there was tough, but quickly overwhelmed; others say that it lasted all day and the attackers were even forced to call for artillery support.

Italian House

A typical Italian country home in the mountians, somewhat worse for wear
after the fighting.

The latter account seems more likely. When the town finally captured by the Germans only 18 defenders managed to disengage and withdraw.

In the morning, 200 men of the Mittenwald battalion seized the American positions at Bebbio and Scarpello, villages to the south of Sommocolonia and held by the 92nd Recon Troop. The Americans withdrew to Coreglia.

At 14:00 hours, the German spearheads attacked Barga garrisoned by the 2nd Battalion, 366th Regiment. Here, too, the defenders put up stiff resistance before they succumbed to the German assault by the following morning.

In the meantime Axis mortars had opened fire along the whole front and the other two columns had started moving forward.

The centre column in the Serchio valley (east of Serchio river), the two German Grenadier battalions together with the attached company of the Italian Brescia Alpini battalion west of the same river, and the other Brescia companies overcame a weak initial resistance. However, their opponents were falling back already and the attackers got to Fornaci smoothly, meeting only minor resistance. Fornaci itself fell quickly, although the two German (Alsatian) battalions were heavily criticized for their slow and un-aggressive advance.

The all-Italian right column, however, faced a much more vigorous defence. The San Marco easily seized the village of Molazzano and pushed the defenders back, but the Regimental Headquarters Company suffered losses and could not take the village of Brucciano. The Cadelo Group supported by the Intra battalion, which was engaging the enemy by launching small diversionary attacks, occupied Calomini, but the Vergemoli garrison (370th Infantry Regiment elements and some partisan groups) was tough nut to crack. A wide minefield, artillery barrages and deadly machine-gun and rifle fire stopped the advancing Italian platoons and inflicted heavy casualties. Not even the intervention of the Axis artillery could dislodge the Americans from their positions. On the evening of 26 December the town still was in American hands, but the Cadelo Group broke off its attacks because the whole US line had elsewhere crumbled. The stout Vergemoli garrison could be encircled and cut off. It eventually retreated, leaving in place a partisan group as a covering party.

By 27 December the mini-offensive was over. In the morning the German assault troops entered Pian di Coreglia, their final objective, and patrols went forward as far as the relatively distant village of Calavorno, reporting that the enemy was still in full retreat. The other columns had also reached their objective points, and an entire Allied Division had been routed. Nearly 200 prisoners were taken, along with many weapons (including several Browning M2 .50cal heavy machineguns, mortars and some bazookas), foodstuff and assorted materials. Axis attack forces had wedged themselves into an area 20km wide and 8km deep. 

Two American POWs with a group of Alpini of the Monterosa Division.

Even the Allied air forces were caught off guard and the usually ubiquitous USAAF P-47s did not seriously oppose the Axis advance until the morning of 27 December.

Results of the Attack

It’s difficult to assess Axis losses as the sources don’t give any figures. The left and centre columns’ casualties most likely were negligible; the heaviest losses were those of the right column (possibly 70-80).

As for the 92nd Division, the low prisoners statistics indicate that in its defeat managed to retreat, sometimes after having held out to the last, to take shelter in the Allied second lines. It also would have been a difficult task for the Axis forces, a few infantry battalions in rugged terrain, under air threat, to capture thousands of prisoners. They simply didn’t have the resources or men to transport and guard large numbers of prisoners.

During the American retreat episodes of panic, low resistance and utter disorganization took place, as witnessed by Gallicano civilians. The responsibility for these episodes, as General Clark himself pointed out, rests almost entirely with the high level commanders, not with the 92nd troops or with the majority of their platoon, company and battalion leaders. 

Italian RSI soldier with his German supplied MG-42.

A night assault took them by surprise, they did what they could do, and many fought valiantly; a number of 92nd soldiers were later awarded decorations. In the Italian and German officers’ opinion, the American black soldiers were not consistently aggressive, but in defence they proved themselves stubborn and tough. In several local attacks during the months of October and November the Buffalo soldiers had fought fairly well.

Unfortunately for their troops, General Almond and Colonel Sherman were the first US soldiers to panic in Garfagnana, and although they later tried shamelessly to lay the blame upon the troops, their company and platoon leaders some of the blame can be laid at their feet. The 92nd Division’s commanders’ muddled orders, slow reaction and misunderstanding of the situation gave wee some of the main causes of the American setback. However the tactical surprise and the effectiveness of the left outflanking column contributed considerably.

The Allies had also underrated the Monterosa troops’ morale. A mid-December US intelligence report stated, "the morale in the [Monterosa] Division is very low". While the Italian unit was not an elite force, and had its morale troubles, it was far from being a total failure.

The success went to Mussolini’s and Graziani’s heads. They (and several RSI military and political representatives as well) pressed for a continuation of the offensive, by pouring reinforcements in and directing the victorious columns southwards (Lucca), south-west (Viareggio) or eastwards.

It was the realm of fantasy. During 27 to 30 December the USAAF aircraft strafed and bombed everything in sight. In the town of Camporgiano, even a hospital where German, Italian and American wounded were being treated was attacked by mistake. The few 20mm and 88mm anti-aircraft guns could not stop the waves of Allied planes.

Moreover, the 8th Indian Division (first a battalion and a company of the 19th and 21st Indian Brigades, then the whole units) was hurriedly rushed to the Garfagnana front and was deployed north of Bagni di Lucca. Two US 85th Division Regimental Combat Teams quickly set up a front line again. The 1,000 meter high Mount Palodina (4km south of Gallicano) became an impregnable Allied strongpoint.

The new Allied line was not tested. The Wintergewitter commanders ended the offensive and withdrew their troops to more solid positions just 1 - 2 km south of the 26 December start lines. The withdrawal was completed by 30 December. The 8th Indian Division’s bloodless advance simply followed on the Axis retreat and no fighting took place. The Germans and Italians had withdrawn from conquered territory.

In a few patrol actions, the 8th Indian Division reportedly captured one German and two Italian soldiers. 

Indian troops take up positions in the mountains.
Italian Soldier.


All of the limited objectives of the Garfagnana offensive were captured. The US 5th Army got a minor beating. Allied reserves were shifted to a secondary sector (8th Indian Infantry Division) and the Wintergewitter operation worried the US Army so much that it contributed to the fourth (and last) postponement of the attack on to Bologna and the Padana plan. 

The success cheered the Italian RSI troops, though just for a while. Some local Italian partisan bands and groups were eventually scattered. The Axis gained a slightly better defensive situation on the Western Appennines, and indeed, the new line stayed more or less intact until April 1945 and the final Axis collapse.

Given the awful conditions under which the Axis units were operating in the Italian theatre, and the disproportionate numbers and firepower, it’s unthinkable they could achieve more than they historically did. Assuming it was a realistic proposition, which is highly doubtful, an all-out Ardennes-style offensive if successful would probably have led to the capture of Livorno and pushed 5th Army further back, but it would never have "driven the Allies into the sea". An extra German effort in Italy would just have quickened the collapse of the Western and Eastern fronts.

To the End of the War

In February 1945 the Italia Division replaced the Monterosa on the Gothic Line, and the latter unit was transferred to the Piedmont Alps, except for the engineers, the Intra battalion and some artillery, which held their Gothic Line positions to the very last days of the war. In the Alps the Division took part in some hard fighting with French regular and partisan forces as well as Italian partisans. A Monterosa detachment also carried out garrison duties in Liguria until the end of the war.

Western Alps defence was entrusted LXXV German Corp (34. Infantry division and 5. Gebirgsjäger division) to whom were added the main part of Monterosa, Littorio Division and other units (Xa Mas, Cacciatori delle Alpi).

On September 1944, the Monterosa deployed Tirano and Bassano battalions and artillery group Vicenza on this front.

The Bassano occupied the 2,500-2,800 meter high hills of Colle dell’Agnello, St. Veran, Longet, and dell’Autaret di Maurin. The zone was under marquis (French partisans) and Italian partisans control. The Monterosa troops had to undertake some hard fighting to clear the area and prepare fortifications before winter.

Tirano battalion relieved the 5. Gebirgsjäger and deployed from Rocca Clary, above Claviere, to Punta Rascià, and Mount Gimont to Chenaillet. The positions were well fortified, but under heavy mortar and artillery fire. In mid October French troops, by a coupe de main, occupied Chenaillet Fort, but on the 21 October the Alpini were able to re-conquer it with a strong counter-attack. During the action Alpini Renato Assante was killed, he had come from Turkey to enlist. Assante was the first Alpini to reach the mountaintop and launch himself at the defenders.

He was post humorously awarded the gold medal, the highest Italian decoration.

A line of Monterosa Alpini marching on the snow-covered mountains.
On 23 December 1944 it was the Monterosa turn to attack. A patrol of 25 Alpini and 25 German Gebirgsjäger carried out a raid on the enemy lines and destroy the Mont Janus fortifications.

Vicenza Artillery Group batteries were deployed at the start of the operation on the French side of the frontier, near Maddalena hill. Unfortunately due to the bad weather and snow they had to be withdrawn towards the valleys. The positions were then occupied by Aosta battalion coming from Garfagnana with Brescia battalion and Mantova artillery group.
A view of an Alpini squad garrisoning a mountaintop.

At the end of March the Mantova artillery group, with its 305mm heavy howitzers, deployed two batteries in Susa valley to guard Monginevro pass, and another one near la Thuile. This one drove a French attack back on 26 April and, although the Liguria Army surrender was signed the following day, resisted as late as 8 May 1945 until US troops arrived from the Padana plan.

The Monterosa units on the Gothic Line surrendered (with military honours) to the Brazilians of the FEB in late April 1945.  

According to some sources, Monterosa Division lost 910 soldiers killed in action. 142 were awarded decorations, including 3 Gold Medals for Valour (the top most Italian war decoration) and many German Iron Crosses 2nd Class.


Gazzi A., Operation Winter Storm, Comando Supremo
Pansa G., 1991, Il gladio e l’alloro, Mondadori, Milano
Pisanò G., 1994, Gli ultimi in grigioverde, C.D.L. Edizioni, Vareggio (MI)
Viazzi L., 1978, Gli Alpini, Ciarrapico Editore, Roma