We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
German POWs taken at Monte Majo, 1944
Here we see German POWs captured in the Monte Majo area, during one the fourth battle of Cassino. There is more than one Monte Majo in this area, including one to the east of the Rapido River, almost due east of Cassino town, but this one is to the north-west of Castelforte, in the key mountain area captured by the French early in the fourth battle.
Devil’s Brigade: This Legendary Fighting Force Gave Rise to U.S. Special Forces
The 1st Special Service Force gained its place in history with daring exploits in combat in France and Italy.
Frederick’s gallant troops had secured the summit by the time the fog began to burn off at dawn, while to the south, the British 56th Infantry Division had captured Monte Camino. The SSF now took shelter in deserted pillboxes to wait for supplies to come up.
Meanwhile, the retreating Germans swarmed down the slope and across a connecting ridge to the second objective, Monte la Remetanea, while German artillery and mortars zeroed in and pounded the Forcemen on Monte la Difensa. But they held on, repelling probing counterattacks as rations, ammunition, and blankets were laboriously hauled up by the men and mules of their service battalion. Colonel Frederick was proud of his GIs and Canadians. In their first action, they had prevailed against a superior force and achieved one of the war’s epic feats of arms.
Heavy casualties forced Colonel Frederick to delay his assault on Monte la Remetanea for three days. Patrols were sent out to kill what German snipers they could find, and then, on the afternoon of December 6, Forcemen armed with knives, guns, and grenades moved silently through cold rain and shifting fog to kill more Germans. After a lengthy and brutal clash in which no quarter was given by either side, the enemy defenders began pulling back, and Monte la Remetanea was secured by noon on December 9.
Frederick lost 532 of his men killed or wounded, but the seizure of Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea opened strategic Highway 6 for the Allies to advance forward. “This feat captured the imagination of the entire Fifth Army,” reported Clark Lee of the International News Service. “And overnight Frederick and his soldiers became almost legendary figures in a battle area where heroism was commonplace.” When Prime Minister Churchill received word from General Eisenhower of the La Difensa success, he declared, “If we had a dozen men like him [Frederick], we would have smashed Hitler in 1942. He’s the greatest fighting general of all time.” By its boldness and courage, the U.S.-Canadian Devil’s Brigade had quickly joined the ranks of the Allies’ fabled assault units, such as the British commandos, Special Air Service, Gurkhas, and Chindits, and the U.S. Rangers, Marine Raiders, and Merrill’s Marauders.
Frederick’s Men Turn Their Eye Toward Cassino
After a brief respite at their Santa Maria bivouac area, the Forcemen went on to seize German-held heights barring the Allied push toward Cassino. Defying bitter cold, snow, ice, and gale-force winds, they beat well-entrenched enemy units twice their size and took 4,000-foot Monte Sammucro (Hill 720) on December 25, 1943 Monte Vischiataro on January 8, 1944 and the Monte Majo Range to the north, the maneuver pivot needed for an attack on Cassino. Despite grave losses, the North Americans moved forward stealthily by darkness to surprise the enemy. On one hill, they captured 100 unsuspecting Germans dug in among mortars and machine guns. Colonel Frederick received three more wounds during the Monte Majo assault.
After their ordeal in the mountains around Cassino, only a few trucks were needed to carry the exhausted Forcemen back to Santa Maria on the afternoon of January 17. Of 1,800 combat personnel, 1,400 were either dead or lying in field hospitals. Fifty percent of the unit’s service battalion packers and litter men were laid low by wounds and fatigue.
Operation Shingle: The Amphibious Invasion of Anzio
While the Allied attacks on Cassino were floundering, General Sir Harold Alexander, Eisenhower’s deputy Mediterranean field commander, ordered Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas’s U.S. VI Corps to undertake Operation Shingle, an amphibious invasion at the historic port of Anzio, 30 miles south of Rome and 70 miles behind the German Gustav Line. The ultimate objective was to push on and liberate the Italian capital.
The British 1st Infantry and U.S. 3rd Infantry Divisions landed west and east of Anzio, respectively, on January 22, while five American battalions attacked the port itself. The theory was that Field Marshal Kesselring would panic and pull back his Fourteenth Army, led by General Eberhard von Mackensen, as far as Rome. The Allied invaders met little opposition, and the cautious Lucas, fearing a repetition of the almost disastrous Salerno landings the previous September 9, dug in around a 15-by-7-mile perimeter and massed his forces, instead of pressing inland.
His hesitation gave the able Kesselring time to deploy the Fourteenth Army and seal off the crowded Allied beachhead, kicking off a series of fierce battles. A major Allied attempt to break out on January 31 was blunted by six German divisions, dooming Operation Shingle to harden into a bitter, four-month stalemate. To Adolf Hitler, the Anzio beachhead was an “abscess” that had to be excised.
In anticipation of a German counterattack, the Anzio bridgehead was reinforced by elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division and three other infantry divisions, two British and one American. They were soon joined by the North Americans led by newly promoted Brig. Gen. Frederick. By then, more than 35 percent understrength, they landed at Anzio on February 2 and dug in for eight miles along the Mussolini Canal on the right flank of the beachhead. The Forcemen were given twice as much front to hold as Maj. Gen. John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel’s veteran U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.
Trained as an assault force, Frederick’s men balked at assuming a defensive posture. “Defend, hell!” protested one soldier. “Let the goddamned Krauts do the defending!” So the Forcemen went on the offensive in their own inimitable fashion by raiding and killing as many of the enemy as they could. They snuck across the canal to German positions and looted horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and anything else they could find. One patrol returned with a wheelbarrow full of sweet potatoes, four bushels of peanuts, 22 eggs, a rabbit, and a wounded enemy soldier.
The North Americans’ favorite activity, though, was the death raids. Heading out almost every night with charcoal-blackened faces, knit caps instead of helmets, and loose gear taped to prevent rattling, the raiders would silently slash the throats of sleeping Germans and sentries, then steal back to their own lines with prisoners just before dawn.
One Forceman returned from a patrol with a diary taken from a German lieutenant who had been strangled with piano wire. A recent entry lamented, “The ‘Black Devils’ are all around us at night. They are upon us before we even hear them coming.” Word spread swiftly through the enemy ranks that their attackers were former convicts—mostly murderers—who showed no mercy and took no prisoners.
General Frederick added a gimmick to fuel the enemy’s fears. He ordered “courtesy calling cards” printed that displayed the North Americans’ insignia and the words, “Das dicke Ende kommt noch!” (The worst is yet to come!). Forcemen pasted the stickers on the faces or helmets of Germans they had dispatched, and Devil’s Brigade intelligence reported that the psychological impact of these tactics was devastating.
Force intelligence officers later found a Wehrmacht headquarters message on one of the prisoners they interrogated that read, “You are fighting an elite Canadian-American force. They are treacherous, unmerciful, and clever. You cannot afford to relax. The first soldier or group of soldiers capturing one of these black-hearted men will be given a 10-day furlough.”
Legends in Their Own Time
A number of the Forcemen became colorful legends during the four months that German artillery, bombs, and two 280mm railroad guns pinned down the dispirited Anglo-American troops in Anzio. One was tall, red-mustached Lieutenant George Krasevac, who ventured out on solo patrols, captured a herd of cattle, and was wounded three times. On other occasions, he carried an umbrella and rode a bicycle along one of the streets to draw enemy fire. Another was Lieutenant Taylor Radcliffe, who was captured, beaten when he refused to reveal Allied dispositions, and escaped several times in one night.
And there was the indefatigable Frederick himself, described as “a crazy bastard” by some Allied generals. Wearing a knit cap and with his face blackened, he went on many patrols into German territory. One night, he and his men wandered into a minefield and were raked by automatic-weapons fire. Several Forcemen were cut down, including a stretcher bearer. Left with a badly wounded man, the surviving bearer shouted to a dark figure, “Don’t just stand there, you stupid bastard! Grab hold of the other end of the litter!” After the two Forcemen carried the wounded soldier out of the minefield under fire, the medic recognized the man at whom he had shouted. It was General Frederick.
Wounded nine times, the SSF commander was the most shot at general in American history. No other World War II general spent more time with his men in action than Frederick. He eventually received no less than eight Purple Hearts, and his many other decorations included two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Order, and two Legions of Merit.
In the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, few Germans were captured by Red Army forces. After the Battle of Moscow and the retreat of the German forces the number of prisoners in the Soviet prisoner of war camps rose to 120,000 by early 1942.  The German 6th Army surrendered in the Battle of Stalingrad, 91,000 of the survivors became prisoners of war raising the number to 170,000  in early 1943. Weakened by disease, starvation and lack of medical care during the encirclement, many died of wounds, disease (particularly typhus spread by body lice), malnutrition and maltreatment in the months following capture at Stalingrad: only approximately 6,000 of them lived to be repatriated after the war.  As the desperate economic situation in the Soviet Union eased in 1943, the mortality rate in the POW camps sank drastically. At the same time POWs became an important source of labor for the Soviet economy deprived of manpower. With the formation of the "National Committee for a Free Germany" and the "League of German Officers", anti-Nazi POWs got more privileges and better rations. As a result of Operation Bagration and the collapse on the southern part of the Eastern front, the number of German POWs nearly doubled in the second half of 1944. In the first months of 1945 the Red Army advanced to the Oder river and on the Balkans. Again the number of POWs rose – to 2,000,000 in April 1945. 
German POWs marching through the Ukrainian capital of Kiev under USSR guard.
According to Richard Overy, Russian sources state that 356,000 out of 2,388,000 POWs died in Soviet captivity.  In his revised Russian language edition of Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses, Krivosheev put the number of German military POWs at 2,733,739 and dead at 381,067 (356,700 German nationals and 24,367 from other nations)  However, Soviet era sources are disputed by historians in the West, who estimate 3.0 million German POWs were taken by the USSR and up to 1.0 million died in Soviet captivity.  Waitman Wade Beorn states that 35.8% of German POWs died in Soviet custody,  which is supported by other academic works.  
According to Edward Peterson, the U.S. chose to hand over several hundred thousand German prisoners to the Soviet Union in May 1945 as a "gesture of friendship".  Niall Ferguson maintains that "it is clear that many German units sought to surrender to the Americans in preference to other Allied forces, and particularly the Red Army".  Heinz Nawratil maintains that U.S. forces refused to accept the surrender of German troops in Saxony and Bohemia, and instead handed them over to the Soviet Union. 
According to a report in the New York Times thousands of prisoners were transferred to Soviet authorities from POW camps in the West, e.g. it is known that 6,000 German officers were sent from the West to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp which at the time was one of the NKVD special camp and from which it is known that they were transferred to POW camps.  Soviet Ministry for the Interior documents released in 1990 listed 6,680 inmates in the NKVD special camps in Germany 1945 who were transferred to Soviet POW camps. 
At 16:00hrs No. 6 Company of the 3rd Regiment moved up to Hill 1065, the Viticuso mule track its jumping-off point, the 1st Battalion moving up the trail on its right. Contact had not been made with the German main line of resistance, as the German divisional commander had pulled the 44th Hoch-und-Deutschmeister back to high ground. The recent prisoner captures had revealed the enemy atop Majo to be the 1st Battalion, 132nd Infantry Regiment, the 2nd Battalion south behind Stefano and on Hill 1109. Further south, the 71st Panzergrenadier Regiment faced the left flank of the Force and the 168th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the German 132nd Infantry Regiment had about 300 men in each, equal to the fighting strength of the FSSF's 3rd Regiment, or in other words, outnumbering the FSSF units in the assault.
As soon as it was dark, men of the Force started up the Majo slope, the No. 2 Company of the 1st Battalion on the right, No. 3 Company on the left, No. 1 Company in reserve. The attack was made under a full moon and with artillery support firing from Ceppagna. The plan was to drive the 1st Battalion right at the peak and sweep the 2nd Battalion to the left, taking Hill 1259 from the west. No. 3 Company echeloned to the left rear prepatory to its flanking maneuver, and on the right, the 2nd Battalion moved up in column, prepared to take post in skirmishing formation before the objective, a mule train with additional supplied scheduled to follow on an hour later. The only resistance in the early going was scattered mortar fire, and the 1st Battalion was moving steadily by 22:00hrs. Just afterwards, light machine gun fire from half a dozen positions opened up, including guns bypassed earlier, striking the rear of the right-hand battalion. Snipers began firing tracers to indicate targets for mortarmen, and the 2nd Battalion caught the worst of the high explosive and machine-gun fires.
Stopped just short of the main defences of Mount Majo, the 1st Battalion went into action, and charged at the summit, the white snow and bright moonlight silhouetting the Forcemen. The companies managed to reach the ridgetop and begin cleaning out machine gun emplacements. The Austrians and Poles at the top had been ordered to hold the positions at all costs. No. 1 Company aided the attack by swinging to the right of No. 2 Company and reducing positions firing from the north. The 2nd Battalion had to fight uphill against a second line of ridges as the enemy withdrew, and several German machine-guns firing from southwestern knobs atop Majo cut off No. 6 Company and regimental headquarters from the main column before No. 4 Company silenced them. 20
At 9:00 in the morning, in the after-battle silence that fell over the area, a patrol from 2 Company informed Colonel Walker that Majo and its main peaks had fallen but with great difficulty. Word also came from 2d Battalion that the scattered knobs around Majo were each occupied by a company. Later in the morning the spiteful enemy artillery started pounding the newly taken height. Hoch-und-Deutschmeister Division (as Hitler had designated the 44th Division) having gathered its ranks together, started to obey its suicidal orders to retake the hills. Counterattacks continued for forty-eight hours. 21
Click to enlarge the picture
WHEN YOU GO
Sulmona is two and a half hours from Rome by frequent daily trains. Winter snow in the Apennine Mountains can be heavy, making May to October the best season for hiking. Campo 78 remains largely intact visits to the brick barracks can be made by appointment through the local tourist office (email: [email protected]). Give at least two weeks’ notice. There are plans to make the camp into a memorial park.
Where to Stay and Eat
Albergo Stella is a congenial, family-run hotel with an attached café in the historic center of Sulmona. The city’s restaurants offer some fine examples of Abruzzo cuisine, such as chitarra (Abruzzo-style spaghetti) and arrosticini (barbecued lamb skewers). Try Il Vecchio Muro , with its pleasant garden and cavernous interior, or La Cantina di Biffi , set in a handsome stone-walled cantina, or wine cellar.
What Else to See and Do
Sulmona’s Gothic-meets-baroque Cathedral of San Panfilo protects the relics of the famous hermit pope Celestine V. While strolling the compact historic center, look out for the 12th-century Gothic aqueduct and a classical statue of the Roman poet Ovid. It’s worth taking a 25-minute bus ride to the spectacularly sited village of Pacentro , where the Majella National Park office dispenses trail information. ✯
This article was published in the December 2020 issue of World War II.
Breaking the Gustav Line
GENERAL DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER’S DECISION to invade the Italian peninsula, based on wishful thinking and best-case scenarios, had drawn the Allies into a campaign without clear strategic objectives beyond a vague desire to capture Rome and tie down German divisions. But pinning down those divisions obliged the Allies to execute offensive operations across a tormented landscape that goats would find challenging. The difficulty spiked considerably once German commander Albert Kesselring completed a series of defense-in-depth barriers across central Italy. The most formidable, the Gustav Line, ran from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea, with the medieval Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino as its anchor point.
Perched atop 1,706-foot Monastery Hill at the confluence of the Rapido, Garigliano, and Liri River Valleys, Cassino dominated Route 6, the critical axis that followed the Liri Valley north to Rome. Cassino came to epitomize the slow, blood-spattered slogging march up the spiny peninsula, which replicated in its strategic futility and tactical frustrations the mud-soaked misery of the trench warfare of 1914–1918.
The long struggle in Italy might have proved even more humiliating for the Allies had it not been for the vital contribution of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français—a force that by May 1944 counted four divisions of French-led, largely North African troops supplemented by irregular Moroccan levies called goums. In the winter of 1943–1944 the CEF intervened in the conflict to break the stalemate at Monte Cassino.
The force was led by the wily, brilliant, and innovative General Alphonse Juin, whose hard-hitting fighters supplied the critical margin between victory and defeat at Monte Cassino in May 1944. U.S. general and Fifth Army commander Mark Clark conceded: “General Juin’s entire force showed an aggressiveness hour after hour that the Germans could not withstand.” He called it “one of the most brilliant and daring advances of the war in Italy.” Juin broke the Gustav Line after convincing Clark to switch from his futile and bloody frontal assaults on Monte Cassino to a campaign of surprise, maneuver, and infiltration. Juin’s French-led Muslim troops, especially the goums, proved particularly adept at mountain warfare. They almost single-handedly cracked the German front on the second day of the battle. Then, exploiting the breakthrough, they thwarted Kesselring’s attempt to reestablish his front on the reserve Hitler Line, branching west of the Aurunci Mountains at Cassino.
Remarkably, the CEF and its commander almost didn’t make it to Italy at all: The French had had to reconstruct an army virtually from scratch and largely from limited manpower resources in North Africa. Under the terms of the 1940 armistice, the French counted barely 60,000 poorly armed soldiers in North Africa when the Allies invaded in November 1942. Algeria and Tunisia relied on conscription, while Morocco called for “volunteers,” which produced a disproportionate number of Berbers. Most were young and illiterate, although tough and whipped into shape by native corporals who did not hesitate to employ brutality. The revival of conscription and the recall of reservists in Algeria reeled in 175,000 pieds noirs—Algerians of European descent.
Allied generals at that time held the French in contempt. Both Eisenhower and British chief of staff Alan Brooke viewed the French as worthy garrison troops at best. While Clark to his credit was more open-minded (or more desperate), his subordinate commanders remained skeptical. And well they might: The CEF appeared to be an unpromising motley force, 54 percent were largely illiterate North African Muslims, 40 percent French, and 6 percent odds and ends of overseas subjects. Clark’s original idea was to divvy up the French troops among U.S. corps commanders, but Juin remained determined that France claim its own sector of the front.
Delays in reequipment meant that initially only two French divisions were available for operations, the 2nd Moroccan Infantry and the 3rd Algerian Infantry, which disembarked at Naples in November 1943. Each division had been assigned a battalion composed of four goums or companies of 175 officers and men divided into three platoons. “Goums are companies of irregular light mountain infantry which are recruited almost exclusively from the Berber tribes,” read an undated Seventh Army report. Lean, bronzed recruits from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, they wore their American-supplied uniforms camouflaged under striped woolen North African djellabas. Armed with World War I vintage Springfield and Enfield rifles and wearing Great War-style French helmets, they appeared a study in anachronism. Their reputation, earned in Tunisia and Sicily, for rusticity, adaptability, raiding, and night operations led Clark to ask Juin in October 1943 to include goums in the CEF.
IF THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN WOULD PROVE THE REDEMPTION of the French army, so too would it rescue the reputation of Alphonse Juin. He was a pied noir officer and native of Constantine, in eastern Algeria. Juin had elected to join the Algerian tirailleurs after graduating first in his 1911 Saint Cyr class, and throughout his illustrious career remained fervently attached to L’Armée d’Afrique. A soldier’s soldier who enjoyed the rough humor of the barracks, Juin was reserved and understated. His authority sprang from his competence rather than any obvious charm or martial bearing. His signature was his left-handed salute, permitted after his right arm was badly wounded in the Champagne offensive of 1915. With his beret pulled down to his ears, the inevitable cigarette dangling beneath a full mustache, and a thick pied noir accent, Juin might easily have been mistaken for a Mediterranean peasant who had wandered onto the battlefield, had it not been for his insignia of rank. Anyone who underestimated him soon discovered a man who succeeded through personal bravery, an intuition for the right answer, and more than a touch of cunning.
Allied commanders in Italy quickly came to see Juin’s operational brilliance. His strengths resided in his understanding of the capacities and limitations of the North African troops in his command and in his straightforward, robust battle planning. He also had experience in mountain combat, gained in Morocco during the Rif War between Spanish colonial forces and Berber tribesmen in the 1920s. Despite Juin’s protestations that “politics isn’t my thing,” he proved remarkably diplomatic, using his humility, charm, and tactical sagacity to win over Clark, seven years his junior, and the Americans who, in Juin’s view, were simultaneously powerful and desperately insecure.
On November 25, 1943, Juin flew into Naples in a rainstorm. The Anglo-American advance had stalled before a near-impregnable string of fortifications that ran from the mouth of the Garigliano River on the Tyrrhenian Sea, along the jagged ridges and peaks of the Aurunci Mountains, to the confluence of the Gari and Liri Rivers about a mile and a half south of the town of Cassino. Route 6 wound southwest through the town and around the foot of Monte Cassino, crowned by the majestic medieval mother abbey of the Benedictine order, before it turned northwest toward Rome. Unfortunately, to exploit this most practical route toward the Italian capital, the Allies would have to cross the Rapido and charge up the funnel of the Liri Valley. Doing so would expose their flanks to the Aurunci Mountains to the south and to the north, to Monte Cassino, a shoulder of rock that stretched southeast from its 5,000-foot pinnacle of Monte Cairo. Kesselring, recognizing that Monte Cassino and the Liri Valley was the most obvious passage to Rome, concentrated his strongest defenses there. To the northeast, the Gustav Line curved through a series of spurs and ridges dominated by Monte San Croce and Monte Belvedere before it joined the Sangro River as it dropped out of the mountains to the Adriatic.
This tormented landscape became home to 60,000 German defenders deeply ensconced behind ridges and on reverse slopes that made the men difficult to spot, much less to blast with artillery or bombs. Ridgelines that appeared from a distance to offer smooth routes of advance were, in fact, shattered into irregular knolls and outcroppings transformed by the defenders into bunkers reinforced with concrete and railway tracks and ties, protected by kilometers of barbed wire and mines. The weaknesses of the German position in Italy were two: They could be outflanked by sea, and the massive extension of their front, caused by the sheer size of the mountains, meant they could not be strong everywhere. It was this latter deficiency that Juin and the CEF would exploit.
THE 2ND MOROCCAN INFANTRY DIVISION officially entered the line on December 11 to relieve the U.S. 34th Division, the link between the U.S. Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army in a rock-strewn, mine-infested, snow-whipped confusion of stark 6,000-foot peaks and ridges. The CEF rapidly realized that it would have to leave most of its American equipment at the foot of the mountains—that the mule, not the jeep, reigned in Italy. The enemy knew the sector and its chaotic terrain well and was always shifting position out of view. Officers had to prevent tirailleurs from lighting fires against a cold so bitter that the mechanisms of rifles froze. Because of imposed radio silence, messages had to be passed by runners, who frequently got lost. Boots slipped treacherously in the ubiquitous mud. Allied attacks, even when successful, could not be sustained because they could not be reliably supplied.
On December 1 the U.S. 34th Division’s attack to take the heights east of Cassino had come to a halt at the foot of the Pantano mountain. Juin knew he was taking a risk in throwing the untested 2nd Moroccan into the attack, but at 6:30 a.m. on December 16 he launched them up a mountainside still littered with GI corpses. In two days of fierce hand-to-hand fighting among a line of blockhouses sited on narrow ridges covered by German artillery, the 2nd Moroccan became the master of the Pantano. French troops pushed forward to occupy Mount Cerasuolo and pressed toward Mount Monna Casale and Mainarde Ridge, where German resistance firmed up. “Our allies saw us as the defeated of ’40,” remarked André Lanquetot, who served with the 8th Regiment of Moroccan Tirailleurs in Italy, “After these initial engagements [on the Pantano], we were accepted as companions in arms.”
During a glacial and joyless Christmas, the French attempted to assimilate the lessons of the Pantano engagement: the difficulties of night operations the need to do their own reconnaissance rather than rely on U.S. reports, which they found to be fragmentary and imprecise the requirement to lighten the load carried by the soldiers better coordination among battalions and better infantry-artillery liaison.
The commander of IV Corps, John P. Lucas, was eager to seize a troika of peaks called the Catenella delle Mainarde before the Germans could reinforce them. The first attack launched on December 26 failed when low visibility precluded close-air and artillery support, and U.S. engineers working on the road cut the telephone wires, which prevented coordination. The only success was that the goums had gained a foothold on the Mainarde Ridge.
A renewed attack the next day was announced by a short but furious artillery barrage on the 800-meter-long Mainarde Ridge and at pillboxes on adjoining heights. Three battalions of the 8th Regiment, each man’s pack reduced to a blanket, a shovel, a tin of rations, and as much ammunition as he could carry, surged forward at 8:45 a.m. The 5th Regiment of Moroccan Tirailleurs followed at 10:30. The fractured nature of the terrain broke the attack into a constellation of individual duels, with grenades and bursts by Thompson submachine guns against pockets of German resistance. Because German defenses were sited on the reverse slope, tirailleurs on neighboring heights often had a better view of the defenses than did those directly engaged, so the tirailleurs hit the enemy from the flanks with mortars and machine guns. The fog allowed some sections to take the defenses from the rear, where they hurriedly collected the valued German stick grenades.
As night fell, a violent snowstorm swept the battlefield, shrouding corpses and freezing the feet and rifles of the living. Tirailleurs sucked on snow for moisture, stripped the German dead of their clothing, and struggled to scrape a hole for the night, over which they rolled their tent half. Through the darkness mule convoys loaded with munitions toiled up the hill, while men hauled 50-caliber machine guns on their backs. On the return trips badly wounded men and corpses were wrapped in tent halves and lashed onto mule back.
“The Americans were stunned,” Juin remembered, because they had been unable to make any progress for two weeks. On December 27 the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division was also successful—against hardened Wehrmacht veterans dug in on the heights of Catenella delle Mainarde, a remarkable feat, made even more so given that it was the division’s first combat. The cost had been significant: 16 officers, 46 NCOs, and 235 tirailleurs had fallen. However, the French were mastering the art of mountain warfare with better artillery preparation more mules to convey ammunition to the front and casualties to the rear and more radios to coordinate attacks. They had also learned to take advantage of fog, rain, and snowstorms to attack from the rear. Four-man “stiff patrols” were dispatched to collect the dead and strip German corpses of their warmer boots and jackets. Soon the two armies were indistinguishable at a distance.
THE PANTANO WAS MERELY A WARM-UP for Clark’s mid-January assault, sometimes called the First Battle of Cassino. And while that frontal blitz failed amid great carnage for the U.S. 36th Division, a breath of promise and suggestion for a way forward emerged on Clark’s right flank. In two days Juin had so decimated the German 5th Mountain Division that Kesselring was forced to replace it with the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division. Hoping to turn the Cassino position from the northeast, Juin renewed his offensive on January 21, his agile Moors scaling the most difficult routes in the hope that these would be the least well defended. On the 23rd, Clark asked Juin to shift his attack to German lines just north of Cassino (that is, on the left side of the French line), which required moving all the artillery over mountain roads under German harassing fire. On the night of the 25th, the 3rd Algerian Infantry took Hill 470 by surprise, then seized the three peaks that constituted the mist-shrouded Belvedere. They changed hands several times before the 3rd Algerian finally secured them against 36 hours of repeated German counterattacks. Only two of the 80 mules sent to resupply the French defenders reached the summit, but the French advance placed the defenders in crisis mode and Kesselring had to milk his divisions for reserves.
On January 29 the U.S. 142nd Infantry Regiment was thrown into the fight for Monte Abate to bolster the French. On January 30 the French seized Monte Abate in bitter fighting—squads of French-led troops infiltrating over treacherous terrain approached German bunkers from the flanks, to push grenades through the embrasures and machine gun anyone who tried to flee out the back door. Peaks and ridges were taken, surrendered, and retaken as men fought for days without food, their weapons often frozen. By the first week in February, however, the German defenses had hardened, while lashing rain, logistical problems, and sheer exhaustion had halted the Allied advance. The costs for the 3rd Algerian had been high: 2,091 were hors de combat, including 64 officers. Loss rates for the Germans were unclear but included 450 POWs. Colonel Goislard de Monsambert of the 3rd Algerian proudly quoted a German POW: “I have just found out that the French army is not dead yet.”
The U.S. 34th Division and the CEF had snatched the honors of this first attempt to crack Monte Cassino. Juin reported that the Germans had required 17 battalions, or 44 percent of their forces, to halt the CEF. The British were especially impressed by the ferocity of the Moroccans the official British history reported that they “regarded the killing of enemies as an honourable and agreeable duty to be undertaken with zest.” German General Julius Ringel reported that the Moroccans had inflicted 80 percent casualties on his troops who had opposed them. However, a setback was a setback: Juin’s desire to restore France’s martial reputation did not blind him to the serious problems the Allies still faced in Italy.
Tactically, Juin had been unhappy with the role Clark had allotted him. He felt that the strengths of his troops—mobility, fluidity, the ability to maneuver and infiltrate—were mismatched against Kesselring’s tightly constructed German defensive system. Juin also feared that the morale of his North Africans might crack as their casualty rates skyrocketed. While Kesselring praised the “excellent troops of the French Expeditionary Corps,” he concluded that the Allies could not continue such a “reckless” expenditure of men.
For the May 1944 offensive against Cassino—Operation Diadem—the British XIII Corps was returned to the Eighth Army, which would bear the responsibility for the main effort against the monastery. The CEF would replace the XIII Corps at a portion of the line that paralleled the Garigliano River between Cassino and Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian coast. At first glance this sector, dominated by Mount Majo, appeared too formidable even for Juin’s North Africans: a bewildering maze of cliffs, crags, and stark hillsides studded with primeval boulders and dwarf oaks. But intelligence reports told Juin that the Germans were not occupying the mountain summits, because they believed the British XIII Corps lacked the capacity to attack them.
On March 22 Juin sought to convince Clark that the key to successful warfare in the mountains was surprise and a steady, seamless advance that denied the enemy the time to react. But Juin’s observations appeared to have fallen on deaf ears when on April 1 Clark’s operations officer announced a reprise of the frontal assault on Cassino, this time on a superior scale. The role of the CEF would be to open a small road to Castelforte, Ausonia, and Esperia for Clark’s Fifth Army. In other words, Juin’s corps was to be sacrificed so Clark could seize Rome and salvage his tottering reputation. Juin uncharacteristically protested by pounding his usable left arm on the map on the table.
Juin’s staff nevertheless worked up a plan to scramble over the lightly held mountain peaks to maneuver against the rear of the German Tenth Army, with the goal of blocking the roads against reinforcements. Although their plan to launch two divisions—a total of 35,000 men, supported by 7,000 mules—along a goat trail that ran for 45 miles into the German rear appeared fantasist, Juin got the backing of both French president Charles de Gaulle and U.S. 36th Division commander Fred L. Walker. Together, they convinced Clark to adopt Juin’s plan. On April 17 Juin visited General Harold Alexander, Fifteenth Army commander, to sell him on the idea. While Clark, Alexander, and Eighth Army commander Oliver Leese did not seem convinced by Juin’s scheme, they were bereft of better ideas and concluded that they had nothing to lose.
Juin’s idea proved to be based on a sound operational construct it wasn’t merely a shot in the dark. In a remarkable April 15, 1944, memo issued by the CEF operations bureau, Juin laid out his concept of mountain warfare, opening with the observation that success begins with capturing the mountain peaks that give “the best observation and fields of fire,” as well as the possibility for flanking movements. Commanders must begin with a thorough reconnaissance to understand which terrain features are most important to seize. Overwhelming force is a liability in mountain warfare large numbers of infantry are often superfluous in a constricted battle space. Small groups of men acting against “islands of enemy defense” can produce “great results” in breakthrough operations. The infantry must be organized in what Juin called “torrents,” so that fresh elements are always available to seize a ridge or execute a flanking movement and maintain unrelenting momentum. Surprise and speed are vital.
Juin’s memo stressed the importance of infiltration, decentralization of command, flexibility to adjust to rapidly evolving circumstances, and the need for mutually supporting advances. Seizing choke points—passes, valleys, road junctions—would keep the enemy from reinforcing them. Corps-level concentrations of artillery and mortars must suppress enemy defensive fire so the infantry could close on fortifications before revealing themselves. The artillery must also organize mobile elements to follow the advances. Engineers must advance with the infantry to demine and rapidly open roads and trails so the mules could supply the advance. Finally, Italy was to be scoured for mules, without which no breakthrough could be sustained: “No mules, no maneuver,” Juin declared.
THE BATTLE OF THE GARIGLIANO, part of Operation Diadem, launched at 11 p.m. on the night of May 11 behind a barrage of 2,000 guns firing 284,000 shells in four hours. Flanked by the 1st Free French Division and the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division, the 2nd Moroccan led and rushed the German defenses. But the attack had barely begun when radios crackled with calls for ambulances. Prearranged artillery targeting had failed to silence German batteries. The three attacking French divisions became entangled in mine fields and were subjected to heavy bombardment and counterattacks. They were driven back to their start line, suffering horrible casualties.
The next morning, May 12, Juin jumped in his jeep, crossed the Garigliano, and picked his way forward through a carnage of dead mules and mutilated men to assess the situation. Calculating that German defenses must be stretched to the limit, Juin quickly decided to risk renewing the attack with his single remaining reserve division on May 13. This time a strong preparatory bombardment disoriented the defenders, who began to surrender in large numbers. Clark shifted his artillery to support a promising French initiative, just in time to catch two German counterattacks in the open and stop them cold. By the afternoon of May 13, the 2,000-foot Mount Majo had been taken by the French, completing a rupture in the Gustav Line through which the entire CEF surged. For once Kesselring failed to react. His attention was riveted on the British Eighth Army’s thrust at Cassino, and he was also reluctant to commit his reserves against the advancing French just as the Anzio bridgehead sprang to life. Juin pushed his troops mercilessly forward to overrun the reserve defensive lines behind Cassino before Kesselring could regroup to defend them.
“Ability to cross country is especially notable among French and Moroccan troops,” Kesselring later reported. “They have quickly surmounted terrain considered impassable, using pack-animals to transport their heavy weapons, and have on many occasions tried to turn our own positions (sometimes in wide encircling movements) in order to break them open from the rear.” By May 17 the CEF had outdistanced its mules and hence its ammunition. Medium bombers of the Twelfth Air Force’s Tactical Air Command dropped water, ammunition, and food to the lead French units. Though his men were exhausted, Juin realized that they had to pursue the remnants of the retreating German forces, infiltrating their positions, turning their flanks, and ambushing unsuspecting units—giving them no time to recover. On May 18 the French swamped the seasoned 9th Panzer Grenadiers, capturing 40 guns in the process. This feat of arms shook the confidence of a German command disorganized by Allied air strikes and demoralized by the shredding of the XIV Panzer Corps. By May 22 the CEF and II Corps had pierced the Hitler Line and closed in on the Liri Valley from the south. His line breached, Kesselring had no choice but to scamper north with whatever troops he could salvage.
In the aftermath of the attack, the goums came in for both high praise and condemnation. A Fifth Army after-action report stated: “It was the Goums who caused real havoc behind the German positions. By infiltrating through the enemy lines at night in groups of two or four these troops attacked sentry posts, isolated rest bunkers, and in general succeeded in keeping the rearmost Germans on the line in constant fear of being isolated. By these means the enemy was given many false indications of attack. The result was that the German was under a constant nerve strain which contributed to tiring out the enemy forces.”
But at this point, reports from both British and American soldiers began to arrive that the Moroccans, especially the goums, were raping women, abusing POWs or even selling them to the Americans, ransacking the homes of locals, stealing livestock, and committing armed holdups of Italians. Juin denounced these claims as “exaggerated” charges leveled to discredit the French. Nevertheless, on June 20 he ordered his commanders to impose severe discipline, which produced a spate of courts-martial as well as summary executions.
On June 30, when Pope Pius XII met with de Gaulle in Rome, the pontiff too complained about the depredations of the Moroccans. French authors insisted that charges against the goums were exaggerated, and the accusations, they believed, spoke to the humiliation of the Italians in the war or to papal discontent with the French for importing Muslim troops into Italy. Whatever the case, the CEF was directed well to the east of Rome, as they continued to pursue Kesselring north to Siena.
“Juin’s operation was one of the most remarkable feats of a war more remarkable for bloody attrition than skill, and deserves to be better known instead of being a briefly noted incident of the secondary Italian campaign, or ignored altogether,” wrote Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, historians of the Italian campaign. Under Juin, the CEF reached the apogee of French performance in World War II.
DOUGLAS PORCH, professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written extensively on French military history and World War II. His most recent book is Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Breaking the Gustav Line.
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!
The 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Allied Invasion of Normandy
On Tuesday June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Northern France began. The broad-scale invasion of Nazi-held mainland Europe, code named Operation Overlord, started with numerous amphibious landings along the Normandy coast, code named Operation Neptune, but most commonly referred to today as ‘D-Day’. While there have been other D-Days – for it is a term commonly used in military parlance to refer to the first day of an attack – the D-Day of June 6 has come to be by far the most famous.
The invasion of France had been in discussion since at least 1942 – when an agreement was reached between the United States and Soviet Russia on the great importance of opening a second front in the war against Nazi Germany. However, the campaigns for North Africa and the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) and the following push northward into mainland Italy took precedence. This approach – hacking into what Churchill called the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ forestalled earnest efforts to invade Northern France until after the Allied Quebec Conference in August, 1943.
Robert Capa – one of Magnum Photos’ four founding members – had, by June, already photographed the invasion of Sicily, and the fight for Italy – not to mention the vicious civil war in Spain that had served as a prelude to (and at times effectively as a training exercise for) Nazi Germany’s invasion of Europe and the years of destruction that followed. In the weeks before D-Day Capa had been in London, holding parties which – according to Richard Whelan’s biography of the photographer – featured his signature punch, made by ‘soaking brandy-soaked peaches in champagne’. Such revelry was cut short on May 29 when Capa – assigned as a photographer to the US Army – was summoned to Weymouth, Dorset, for briefing and to await embarkation for France.
The 1965 Flood: How Denver's Greatest Disaster Changed the City
How a Citizen Revolt Snuffed the 1976 Denver Winter Olympics
The Snitch Who Stole Christmas: How Trinidad's War on Drugs Attacked the Innocent
The prisoners wasted no time sizing up their captors and testing them. Many of the camp guards had been rated for &ldquolimited service&rdquo by the Army because of health conditions that made them unsuitable for combat, and this was their first encounter with the enemy. The German officers resisted being fingerprinted, dragging their ink-stained fingers across the cards to smear the impressions. They complained about the long train ride, the lack of books and furniture in the drafty, moth-infested barracks, the rattlesnakes slithering around the place. Clearly, this just wouldn&rsquot do.
&ldquoThis section of the country is fit only for Indians and not white men,&rdquo one wrote in a letter home.
&ldquoThe Americans cannot organize the least thing,&rdquo wrote another. &ldquoThey fear us &lsquoBad Nazis&rsquo so much, but this fear only fills us with pride.&rdquo
Part of the problem was that the Trinidad Internment Camp was still under construction, a work in progress the whole project had been rushed into existence in a few months, and the guards had arrived barely ahead of the prisoners. The guards knew they were supposed to observe the rules of the Geneva Conventions, but there was no master plan explaining how to operate a modern prisoner-of-war camp in America, which had none on its soil during World War I. The War Department was making it up as it went along.
&ldquoThere was no manual, no instructions of how to take care of them, how to treat them or what to do with them,&rdquo wrote Kurt Landsberger decades later, in a book about his years as an interpreter stationed at the Trinidad camp.
Born in Prague, Landsberger had arrived in New York in 1939 as a nineteen-year-old Jewish refugee, narrowly avoiding the Nazi concentration camps spreading across central Europe. Despite his clubbed feet, which made it unlikely that he would ever be sent to the front, the U.S. Army was happy to have him and his fluency in German. He was sent to Trinidad days before the camp opened and was soon put in charge of censoring POW mail. Dealing with the prisoners stirred mixed feelings in him, as evidenced by the title of his memoir, published more than sixty years later: Prisoners of War at Camp Trinidad, Colorado, 1943-1946: Internment, Intimidation, Incompetence and Country Club Living.
For many prisoners, too, the camp experience was a welter of conflicting emotions. One of the first arrivals, an officer named Karlhorst Heil, kept a sketchbook and diary, portions of which were later translated by Landsberger, that vividly depict his bewilderment at his new environment.
&ldquoOur first impression was that we had been sent to the end of the world,&rdquo he wrote, shortly after getting off the train. &ldquoAlso that we must be considered dangerous, as everywhere machine-gun positions had been set up.&rdquo
Heil asked for a meeting with the camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clifford H. Hunn, to discuss developing productive activities for the prisoners. Hunn received him and another POW in his office, offering them tea, coffee, cake and whiskey. To Heil&rsquos amazement, the colonel invited them to join him on a ride into town. He showed them the Trinidad town hall and post office. They were invited into a private home and served orange and grapefruit juice. Then the colonel enlisted their help in loading a truck with musical instruments and books donated by locals and bound for the camp. Several of the books were in German. &ldquoThe two of us were speechless,&rdquo Heil wrote.
A copy of Heil&rsquos diary, along with the reminiscences of several other Trinidad POWs and their keepers, can be found in a special collection of the Denver Public Library&rsquos Western History Department. The collection was assembled in the early 1990s, when many former occupants of the camp were still alive &mdash and still gathering for a series of reunions in Trinidad. The documents and artifacts it contains are keys to a little-known but revealing chapter of Colorado history.
Numerous studies have been written about the internment camps erected in America during World War II, a phenomenon that was far more widespread than most people realize. By the end of the war, more than 500 POW camps had been established across the country, housing close to 400,000 German soldiers, 50,000 Italians and 4,000 Japanese. There were also camps for conscientious objectors in New England, &ldquoenemy alien&rdquo camps out west for citizens of Axis countries living in the United States, and relocation camps for more than a hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese descent.
&ldquoThis was an intolerant place to be during the war,&rdquo notes Arnold Krammer, a retired history professor who&rsquos authored several books about the camps. &ldquoIf you had copies of Karl Marx&rsquos books on your shelf in Oklahoma, you could be arrested.&rdquo
Colorado had four principal POW camps &mdash Trinidad, Greeley, one at Camp Carson in Colorado Springs and, later, one at Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained for ski warfare. The state also hosted dozens of &ldquoside camps,&rdquo supplying prisoner labor to nearby farms and industries, from Grand Junction to the eastern plains. But the Trinidad camp stood apart from the others, and from most of the POW camps across the country, because of the heavy concentration of German commanders among its prisoners it had been built to hold 4,000 men, and by the end of the war, more than 2,000 of these were officers.
The officers tended to be highly educated, even aristocratic &mdash including a smattering of counts and barons. They were doctors, dentists, lawyers and professors, as well as career military men. They were also more likely to be ardent Nazis, quick to challenge the guards and assert their authority over their own men. That led to some tense confrontations and even violence in the early going, followed by a long-simmering battle of wits, punctuated by embarrassing pranks and escapes.
It&rsquos a strange story. At times it played like low comedy, a Teutonic version of Hogan&rsquos Heroes, with foxy POWs conniving extraordinary privileges and outmaneuvering the blundering guards at every turn, even to the point of constructing a tunnel to the outside world. But by the end of the war, the story had become something else.
As several prisoners would later explain, at reunion gatherings and in letters to friends, the camp in Trinidad was not a place to run away from, but rather a refuge. A place, far from the horrors of the war, to gain a new understanding of your enemy and begin to face the darkness at the heart of your own cause.
Karlhorst Heil busied himself studying the landscape. He made sketches of Fisher&rsquos Peak and the surrounding hills. He watched the brilliant Colorado sunsets with a sense of awe. At night he looked out on the lights of Trinidad and wondered how his family was faring. One day he saw ranch hands working horseback far, far outside the barbed wire, and the scene brought him to the verge of tears.
&ldquoWe watched cowboys riding over the prairie,&rdquo he wrote, &ldquoand this made us yearn.&rdquo
When the United States entered the war at the end of 1941, planning for POWs hadn&rsquot been high on the list of priorities. It was only after several pleas from the British &mdash who, having been at war much longer, were running out of places to stash their German and Italian prisoners &mdash that Washington agreed to accept some of the overflow. Then came a series of dramatic reversals for Rommel and his Afrika Korps, which resulted in mass surrenders in the spring of 1943. Soon POWs were arriving stateside at the rate of 20,000 a month.
&ldquoWe hadn&rsquot thought about taking prisoners when the war began,&rdquo historian Krammer notes. &ldquoThen the prisoners started to pour in. We put them on Pullman trains and sent them out west.&rdquo
According to Krammer, several considerations went into the siting and operation of the camps. Some of the first to open were surrounded by established military bases, reducing security issues. As the program developed, many of the new camps were placed in the South and Southwest. That saved on heating costs and complied with one provision of the Geneva protocols, which stated that prisoners should be housed in a climate similar to that in which they were captured places like Texas and New Mexico offered the closest American approximation of the Sahara and the African tropics. There was also an expectation, or at least a hope, that if the camps were operated humanely, the Axis powers would be less likely to abuse American prisoners of war.
&ldquoWe felt that as well as we took care of their prisoners, they&rsquod take care of ours,&rdquo Krammer explains. &ldquoIt didn&rsquot work out that way, but I think we would have done the right thing anyway.&rdquo
Trinidad&rsquos town fathers campaigned earnestly for a camp in their back yard. Their eagerness was more about revenue than patriotism a camp would require construction jobs and a thousand American soldiers to guard the place, as well as civilian support staff. It would also provide a boost to a local economy stalled by the closing of the region&rsquos coal mines. It helped that Colorado congressman Edgar Chenoweth was a Trinidad native with the aid of Senator Edwin &ldquoBig Ed&rdquo Johnson, Chenoweth was able to seal the deal.
The physical layout of the camp followed a common blueprint for such facilities, but the officers&rsquo quarters were still under construction when the first POWs arrived. There was no blueprint for dealing with their outraged guests. &ldquoThe officers were arrogant and antagonized my officers right off the reel,&rdquo camp commander Lieutenant Colonel Hunn later recalled. &ldquoThey referred to the camp as a desert, so to speak that they, the Americans, were more in the habit of handling criminals.&rdquo
Although the camp opening was a bit rocky, with shortages of everything from chairs to toilet paper, the German officers actually had little to complain about. The food was abundant, the medical care excellent, and they received better mattresses and more spacious digs than the enlisted men the elite were allowed to have orderlies, and those with a rank above captain got their own room. Under the Geneva Conventions, enlisted men could be ordered to work, but not officers. They could do absolutely nothing and still draw POW pay of twenty bucks a month, issued in scrip, which could be used to purchase radios, musical instruments and canteen items &mdash including a one-serving-per-customer ration of Tivoli beer that was, by German standards, absurdly low in alcohol content.
Within a few weeks, the officers began to demonstrate their talents for efficiency and organization. They scavenged lumber and metal in order to make their own furniture. They put together an orchestra and converted a rec hall into a theater, suitable for staging concerts, operas and plays, including all-male productions of Goethe&rsquos Faust and Shakespeare&rsquos Julius Caesar. (One performance re-enacted their arrival in the camp and featured dead-on parodies of certain guards.) They put out their own professional-looking newspaper, Der Spiegel, printed in town, which put to shame The TIC, the American soldiers&rsquo flimsy mimeographed camp newsletter. (The TIC &mdash short for Trinidad Internment Camp &mdash eventually appeared in newsprint, too, but then ran out of funding.) They also established their own internal leadership structure, which Hunn suspected was designed to root out informers and dissidents in their ranks and persecute them, in order to keep the rest in line.
They supervised the formation of calisthentic programs and baseball teams. They tapped the educators in their midst to present dozens of lectures to the men, on subjects such as &ldquoAgriculture in the Reich&rdquo or the history of Bavaria &mdash something to while away the long afternoons. They started a garden and an art studio, an aviary populated with birds and squirrels, a watch-repair shop. One of them used scrap, springs and old tin cans to build a weather station, a Rube Goldberg contraption that could measure wind velocity and direction, temperature and humidity. (&ldquoOne would have to see the instruments to appreciate the ingenuity and patience involved,&rdquo one camp visitor observed.)
They were enterprising, but the enterprises soon led to trouble. The contractor trying to finish the barracks complained of vandalism and supplies being appropriated for unauthorized purposes. A verbal order came down that the guards in the lookout towers were supposed to fire a warning shot if they saw any prisoner stealing materials or attempting to sabotage the construction if the prisoner persisted, the guards were expected to fire on him.
Scarcely a month after the first prisoners arrived, the war of nerves became a shooting war. Guards fired at the feet of prisoners who strayed too close to the fence, sent bullets whizzing over the heads of men who tried to help themselves to lumber. A German captain was wounded when he ignored, or perhaps didn&rsquot hear, an order to drop a piece of wood. Six days later &mdash July 15, 1943 &mdash two POWs who were pulling two-by-fours from a half-constructed building failed to respond to shouted orders and a warning shot fired by a sentry in a tower 700 feet away. Private Lloyd Bilyeu&rsquos next bullet hit one of the lumber scavengers, Private Kurt Frisch, and ricocheted sixty feet and struck another prisoner, Lieutenant Ernst Kramer. Both Frisch and Kramer died of their wounds.
An investigation cleared Bilyeu of misconduct, but the captain who&rsquod ordered the guards to fire on scavengers was soon removed from the camp. Hunn, who denied knowing about any such order, was reprimanded and removed as camp commander. A new directive stated that firing on any prisoner was forbidden unless that prisoner was in the act of escaping.
The Americans weren&rsquot the only ones shaking things up. Deeply disturbed by the shootings, the POW officers decided to replace their designated spokesman, a captain named Wolf, with Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Dahlke, a more diplomatic and less confrontational figure. They would need all their guile and resourcefulness in the months to come. Gardening and plays and lectures and weather stations were fine in themselves, but they were also cover, means to an end. That end was the primary duty of any soldier captured by the enemy, even if it was the one thing that could get him killed:
Despite its improvisational nature, America&rsquos POW program turned out to be successful in ways its organizers hadn&rsquot anticipated. It not only isolated prisoners far from the combat zone, but it also became a surprisingly effective &mdash and lucrative &mdash source of cheap labor at a time when the nation was facing an acute manpower shortage.
After some initial trepidation about the possible security risks involved, the War Department began allowing prisoners to be assigned to menial duties around the camps, then set up a network of smaller work camps near agricultural and industrial centers, making the POWs available for contract labor. The Trinidad camp sent hundreds of prisoners to a side camp in Lamar to pick beets for Holly Sugar, to another camp in Monte Vista to pick potatoes, to another to pick corn in Springfield, to yet another to cut mine supports in Stonewall. The prisoners got eighty cents a day for their work, but the government charged farmers several dollars a head, making a tidy profit in the bargain.
The prisoners operated tractors and other machinery and were guarded by only a skeleton crew. Yet nobody from Trinidad tried to bust out of the work details. They were apparently under orders not to do so. Although the officers weren&rsquot required to work, many relished the opportunity to get out of camp and get some exercise it&rsquos possible, too, that they saw some value in the trickle of income the work produced for the prisoners, which could be used for canteen items.
There were other, informal arrangements around the base camp, too, in an effort to defuse tensions after the shootings in July. It wasn&rsquot unusual, for example, for small groups of officers to be granted permission to take &ldquonature walks&rdquo outside the compound, &ldquoof course with our word of honor not to use this as an occasion to escape,&rdquo as Heil noted in his diary. &ldquoThese walks are without guards, proof that the situation in the camp has calmed down.&rdquo
There&rsquos no indication in the camp archives that these gentlemen&rsquos agreements were ever violated. But that didn&rsquot mean the German officers had given up on the idea of escape. The best route to success, they reasoned, would be much less obvious than fleeing a work detail. It would be something the Americans wouldn&rsquot even know was happening until it was too late.
On the evening of September 4, 1943, four POWs disappeared from the Trinidad camp. Their absence wasn&rsquot discovered until a roll call at noon the next day. Two of them, one Horst Erb and Luftwaffe lieutenant Karl Gallowitz, were found a few hours later near a farm west of Trinidad they had altered their Afrika Korps uniforms to resemble Boy Scout uniforms. They had seven dollars in American currency and some bacon, which could only be legally purchased with ration stamps.
The other two escapees were soon caught on their way to the New Mexico border. Under questioning, the men gave implausible, conflicting explanations of how they got out of camp. They claimed to have cut the fence or jumped a gate, but no damage was detected, and no guards reported seeing a thing. The high command was still puzzling over the escapade when three more prisoners vanished. They were arrested several days later 150 miles away, in Dalhart, Texas, a key junction for switching train lines if you&rsquore headed to Mexico. They&rsquod been picked up by chance by a local sheriff, who suspected them of being deserters from a nearby air base. Again, the method of escape remained elusive.
Then all hell broke loose. On October 15, six POWs, including two officers, pulled a disappearing act. Traveling in pairs, they were all rounded up over the next week near towns in northern New Mexico &mdash Springer, Maxwell, Watrous. One of the men, Heinrich Haider, had photographs in his possession that showed him and another prisoner embracing Japanese-American women. Haider refused to say anything about the photos, but investigators suspected &mdash correctly, it turned out &mdash that the women had aided his escape.EXPAND
A month before the break, Haider had taken another prisoner&rsquos place on a work detail on an onion farm ten miles from Trinidad. There he befriended five sisters who&rsquod been sent to the farm from Camp Amache, the Japanese-American relocation camp in southeastern Colorado. Haider, an Austrian, told the women he&rsquod spent time in a German concentration camp for opposing Hitler and then was forced into military service he hoped to escape in order to get away from the hard-core Nazis in the POW camp and join freedom fighters in Europe. Three of the sisters agreed to help him. They arranged for him to pick up civilian clothing and maps on his next visit to the farm. The night of Haider&rsquos escape, they met him and a fellow escapee on the road outside the camp and drove them to New Mexico in a borrowed automobile.
The case, with its supposed Axis-forbidden-love angle, brought out the worst in the wartime press. The Denver Post jumped on the story like a cur on a soup bone, headlines cranked up to maximum volume: &ldquoGerman Prisoners Spooned With Jap Girls in Trinidad.&rdquo But the question of how Haider and the others got out of camp in the first place made for even more embarrassing national news. Searches and interrogations finally uncovered the existence of a 150-foot tunnel, eight feet under ground, that ran from one of the officers&rsquo barracks to a point 65 feet outside the fence, beyond the reach of the guard towers&rsquo sweeping lights.
According to the reminiscences of Elert Bade, one of the builders (and one of the three escapees who made it all the way to Texas), the tunnel had been completed in less than a month. The prisoners used razor blades to cut through planks in a closet floor, leading to the crawl space beneath the barracks. They then used claw hammers and other tools to excavate the tunnel, working in four-man shifts, four shifts a night. The lead digger clawed at the dirt, filling large food cans on a wooden sled. A second man pulled the sled back to the entrance a third spread the dirt under the barracks.
As the work progressed, they poked metal rods through the tunnel roof to provide ventilation. They also strung lights through the five-foot-tall tunnel using scavenged materials, not unlike the homemade stage lights they&rsquod fashioned for their theater the lights served both as illumination and as a signaling system if a lookout needed to summon the tunnelers back in a hurry. The exit outside the fence was disguised with a &ldquoflower box&rdquo containing local plants, made to blend in with the surrounding vegetation.
The escapees re-tailored their uniform pants and tried to make their headgear resemble the caps worn by railroad employees. But they feared being shot as spies if they took it too far. &ldquoUnder our &lsquocivilian outfits&rsquo each person had at least part of his uniform,&rdquo Bade recalled. &ldquoIn case of capture, this would signify that this was not a spying operation.&rdquo
The tunnel was the most elaborate uncovered at any American POW camp, and it helped to explain why Trinidad had more escapes than any other camp in the Seventh Service Command. (The officers joked among themselves that they should crawl out en masse some night and march on Trinidad, just to show that they could do it.) All of the escapees were caught, usually within a day or two, but that didn&rsquot seem to matter much in the media firestorm that followed. Subsequent searches turned up two more tunnels under construction, caches of food, U.S. currency and fermented wine, forged documents and getaway outfits, crude clubs, shanks and railroad spikes. Walter Winchell, whose radio broadcasts had been harshly critical of the &ldquomollycoddling&rdquo of German prisoners, went bananas. So did J. Edgar Hoover. What was going on in Trinidad? Why was the Army running a &ldquoFritz Ritz&rdquo while our boys were starving in Nazi stalags?
Even the discovery and demolition of the tunnel didn&rsquot stop the escapes. POW August Allbauer slipped out of camp in a snowstorm one November day. He was found walking the highway, cold and miserable, and given a ride to the county jail. Lieutenant Kurt Happach, who&rsquod been with Bade on the trip to Texas, escaped again a few months later in a thick fog, found refuge from a blizzard in a stalled car with a post office employee, then was captured when he showed up at a Trinidad hospital, suffering from exposure. That same day, another POW cut his way through the fence and was caught immediately, dragging a big backpack.
Some of the attempts were merely a gesture toward duty, or a middle finger to their captors, rather than a serious break. As the first escapes demonstrated, it was not getting out but staying out that was the problem. The escapees studied maps and railroad timetables, but the great emptiness of the American West stymied them. &ldquoIn Germany, a man can walk the open roads, or bicycle along, and never be an object of curiosity,&rdquo one of the tunnelers later complained. &ldquoIn America, to journey the highways in any way except by automobile is to be conspicuous.&rdquo
Still, the obstacles didn&rsquot deter Captain Till Edward Kiefer, who was shot down over Tunisia in 1943 and escaped his American captors three times. For his most notable egress from the Trinidad camp, he used a vegetable dye to turn his dress uniform brown and arranged for a noncom to answer for him at roll call. He made it to St. Louis before someone noticed that there was an Aryan-looking fellow in full Nazi attire killing time in the train station waiting room.
FBI agents questioned Kiefer and contacted the regional POW headquarters in Omaha. When the Omaha command contacted Trinidad, camp personnel insisted that all prisoners were fully accounted for. Kiefer hadn&rsquot even been missed yet.
A subsequent escape from a camp in Oklahoma took Kiefer all the way to the Mexican border before he was stopped. After the war, he resumed a career in films under the name Til Kiwe. In a bit of meta-casting, he played a guard who takes a shot at Steve McQueen as he&rsquos popping out of the tunnel in the ultimate POW movie, The Great Escape.
Men like Happach and Kiefer could make multiple attempts because the penalty for escape from an American POW camp, despite the shoot-on-sight authorization, usually turned out to be pretty mild. The typical sentence was thirty days in the cooler, as McQueen might say. Sometimes it was less. Heil once boasted that he got exactly one day on bread and water for his own dalliance with the tunnel.
For others, the consequences were much more severe. The three women who aided Haider were convicted of conspiracy to commit treason and received sentences of up to two years in prison. An even more serious case erupted in early 1944, after two POWs from Camp Hale in Leadville were arrested three miles inside of Mexico. Accompanying them was a 24-year-old American soldier, Dale Maple, a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard.
Maple had been kicked out of ROTC at Harvard for espousing support for the Third Reich on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he called the German embassy in Washington to offer his services. In its infinite wisdom, the U.S. Army assigned him to guard duty at Camp Hale, in a unit that contained several malcontents and Nazi sympathizers. Maple outdid them all, sneaking into the German compound in an Afrika Korps uniform he partied with the POWs for days and persuaded two of them to break out with him.
The episode led to the arrest not only of Maple, but of several other Camp Hale soldiers and three WACs charged with aiding the break. Hale&rsquos court martial was international news he was convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy and was sentenced to death. Franklin Roosevelt commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was quietly released in 1951.
Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above
Don&rsquot fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don&rsquot fence me in
Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters recorded their version of &ldquoDon&rsquot Fence Me In&rdquo in the summer of 1944. It rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts and sold more than a million copies. It was the hit of the year in the Trinidad camp, too the POWs heard Der Bingle crooning it on the radio and sang along. They&rsquod seen cowboys riding across the prairie, and it made them yearn.
After the flurry of escapes, the POWs braced for some kind of crackdown. It didn&rsquot happen life in the camp actually improved. There were still occasional bouts of trouble, including a mini-riot early in &rsquo44, when a group of prisoners ran around the compound breaking windows and had to be subdued by club-wielding guards. But as the months wore on, many of the officers seemed to be settling into their home away from home, seeking to make things run smoothly rather than encouraging resistance.
Several developments prompted the shift in attitude, including the changing fortunes of the war itself. Following the D-Day invasion, the news from Europe got progressively worse. All but the most fervent Nazis in the camp were becoming resigned to the inevitable collapse of the Reich. With so much uncertainty back home, they figured, it would be wise to establish better relations with the victors.
The camp leadership had also changed. Just as Lieutenant Colonel Hunn had exited after the shootings, his successor, Lieutenant Colonel William S. Hannon, was reassigned not long after the discovery of the tunnel. The new camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cain, showed an unusual degree of deference to the prisoners, particularly the officers. He increased their privileges in jaw-dropping ways, even extending the word-of-honor policy to allow officers to go horseback riding outside the camp without guards.
Cain&rsquos permissiveness was resented by many of the American soldiers, who believed the POWs were getting better food and better treatment than their guards. &ldquoWe heard right from the beginning that [Cain] told the assembled German officers that as professional soldiers they actually were &lsquocomrades in arms,&rsquo&rdquo Landsberger wrote.
That view wasn&rsquot shared by the high command, which regarded the Trinidad prisoners as a particularly problematic group. There had been persistent reports of a kind of Gestapo operating within the officer barracks prisoners whose loyalty to the Reich was suspect, such as the escapee Haider, were isolated from the rest, kept under watch and sometimes beaten. A few of the targeted ones had appealed for help and been transferred to other camps some of the hard-core Nazis were also transferred to a more restrictive camp in Alva, Oklahoma. Now, in the waning months of the war, the transfers became more frequent, as the Army embarked on a program to &ldquode-Nazify&rdquo its prisoners before they could be repatriated.
The program involved weeding out pro-Nazi books and tracts in the camp library and distributing a national camp newspaper, Der Ruf, that promoted American values some Trinidad officers burned an early issue, denouncing it as propaganda. The officers were also required to take classes in democracy. The intransigent got sent to Oklahoma.
One 1945 classified report on the situation at the Trinidad camp, issued by the POW Special Projects Division, noted that &ldquoa number of the officers here have already been transferred to the POW camp in Alva, Oklahoma, for rabid Nazi activities, but it is clear that many more are here who need to be transferred to a segregated camp for subversives.&rdquo The report fretted that there were too many SS officers in the camp, discouraging the prisoners from being productive in their work details.
The need to rid the camp of its bully boys was echoed in some prisoner accounts. &ldquoWe were more prisoners of the camp Gestapo than prisoners of the Americans,&rdquo one POW complained in a letter to his mother.
Shipping the SS faithful out of camp led to a perceptible decrease in tensions. Yet perhaps the most effective tool the Army had for steering the prisoners away from Nazism wasn&rsquot part of the official program. It was the POWs&rsquo contacts with farm families and others during work details. They made friends over meals and break periods and formed bonds that would, in some cases, endure for decades.
&ldquoMost of the prisoners I interviewed said this was the greatest time of their lives,&rdquo says Krammer. &ldquoI met very few who were still recalcitrant nationalists. A surprising number of them came back to America after the war. I met one who bought back a farm that a local bank had taken over.&rdquo
Just weeks before Adolf Hitler shot himself in the head in a Berlin bunker, Cain was relieved as commander of the Trinidad camp, following a series of complaints about his preferential treatment of the German officers. The prisoners remained many of the officers weren&rsquot repatriated until a year after the war in Europe ended. In the interim, they had ample time to contemplate the devastation they had mostly avoided and to prepare for the rebuilding of a nation in ruins.
At one point they were summoned to the camp theater and required to watch a documentary that featured raw footage of the liberation of the death camps. There was no boasting that day, not even a murmur of protest. Perhaps up until then, they could claim to know nothing, nothing about the Holocaust, or at least less than the &ldquogood Germans&rdquo back home. But not anymore.
&ldquoWe all were stunned,&rdquo Rüdiger Freiherr von Wechmar recalled years later in a memoir. &ldquoShaken and silent, we returned to our barracks.&rdquo
Von Wechmar, a baron and Afrika Korps officer, known around camp as one of the horse riders and an amateur thespian, would go on to become Trinidad&rsquos most illustrious alumnus. He was picking beets on a POW work detail in the fall of 1945 when he heard a radio report about the formation of the United Nations. Decades later, he would become the Federal Republic of Germany&rsquos ambassador to the UN, and, in 1980, president of the General Assembly.
Early in 1946, the camp began to wind down operations. Some of its personnel had been transferred months before Landsberg was sent to Yakutat, Alaska, to help dismantle abandoned barracks. A steady flow of POWs headed back to Europe. At least one Afrika Korps sergeant never left George Gaertner escaped from a New Mexico POW camp in 1945 and was living under an assumed name in Boulder when he finally decided to &ldquosurrender&rdquo in 1985, at the age of 64. He also collaborated with Krammer on a book about his experiences.
The Afrika Korps had a strong veterans&rsquo network, and many of the POWs kept in touch through reunions in Germany. In 1964, the Trinidad city council invited the group to hold a reunion there. Thirteen former prisoners made the journey, including Heil and Bade. They were greeted by some of their former captors, as well as Mayor Johnny Cha, Representative Edgar Chenoweth and other dignitaries.
The gathering went so well that the city hosted several more reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, even as memories faded and the ranks thinned. In a 1990 letter, Heil noted that the group had talked about establishing &ldquothe first monument of peace in the world in Trinidad&rdquo but had run out of time. &ldquoOur distance has been too far to realize this objective, but we served it in our heart.&rdquo
Of the camp itself, not much remains. The buildings were stripped and demolished, the materials sold for scrap or repurposed in other institutions across southeastern Colorado. An archaeological survey of the area conducted in 2013 by a University of Denver graduate student located scraps of glass, bottle caps and tin cans, remnants of the prisoners&rsquo gardens and some concrete foundations.
There&rsquos no trace of the tunnel. But the sloped floor of the prisoners&rsquo theater is still visible &mdash a place where men far from home put on plays about duty and honor and pride, a place of show and make-believe, ravaged by the wind.
Keep Westword Free. Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.
Daring Escape of Two German Prisoners of War Down The Mississippi River During WWII
The story of two World War Two German Prisoners of War escaping in Minnesota has been uncovered more than 70 years later.
Prison camps had been established across the US to house German and Axis prisoners of war during World War Two. In Minnesota a prison work camp had been established as a lumber camp on the banks of Lake Winnibigoshish, holding just over 200 prisoners. The camp was linked to other prison facilities in Owatonna, Faribault and Fairmont and was not a high security camp, it was only lightly secured.
The prison work camps acted as a way for the US to counteract the lack of native workers who had been drafted into military service.
It was during the night of Sunday, 29 th October 1944, when a regular evening bed check was being conducted, that prison guards realized two German prisoners were missing.
German prisoners Corporal Heinz Schymalla, 22, and Walter Mai, 21 had escaped and would keep guards and local police searching for them for five days.
In the prison, Heinz and Walter earned around 80 US cents a day to spend in the prison canteen in lieu of chopping and sawing the wood from surrounding woodland. It was when Heinz received a letter from his family telling him that his elderly father had been drafted to serve the Third Reich because the number of young recruits was dwindling.
Heinz felt that he had to get back to Germany and connived with Walter to come up with an escape plan, so that they could once again fight for their country. They planned to head to the waterways and paddle all the way down to New Orleans where they hoped they would be able to find Nazi sympathizers and a way to get back to Germany.
In a note left by Walter underneath his prison bunk mattress, he wrote: “Our fatherland, our homeland are now in a very difficult position and needs all available sons”.
The two prisoners had originally been captured by Allied forces in 1943 in North Africa, a year later they had made their escape from the prison camp stocked with extra clothing they had found in the prison grounds, along with extra rations of bread and meat.
The pair used a small map to work out that the lake they were stationed at was connected to the Mississippi River and could take them all the way to New Orleans where many ships would come into port. One of which they hoped would be of a neutral country that they could get a ride with.
The pair used scrap wood that had been carved into a boat shape and made their escape attempt. Authorities chased them and finally caught up with them around 12 miles down the river, the StarTribune reports.
They were sentenced to a month in solitary confinement and two weeks with just bread and water rations.