WAR CURIOSITIES: MONTE CASSINO 1944. EXTREME RESISTANCE IN ITALY.
We are in the final stretch of January 1944. A German soldier, freezing cold with trembling hands, cleans his overused Kar-98 rifle inside a ditch made in the field. It would seem that this man, together with his comrades, gives the vivid image of a handful of men consumed by war and its privations. The physical and mental wear gives off through eyes that make up absent and cold glances, but not devoid of decision, as each of them knows that the rumbling echoing in the distance is nothing but the enemy’s advance towards their positions. Positions that must be defended at all costs, as the picturesque place where they are, Cassino, is the central point of the Gustav line, where the vital Route 6 runs on to Rome along the Liri valley.
Behind them at the top of an imposing elevation, with a sinister greyish sky in the background, you can see the silhouette of an ancient Benedictine monastery whose walls show centuries of age. Monte Cassino, an impressive 6th century building, peers down proudly on the town that lies at its feet, right at the foot of the steep hill that rises majestically. Entrenched, both inside Cassino itself and in its surroundings, dozens of German soldiers are ready for the inevitable: a hard fight against the Americans, who approach with numerous armored and powerful artillery pieces.
FIRST ALLIED ATTEMPT TO DOMINATE CASSINO.
20th January 1944. Tense morning. The 15th Panzergrenadiers Division of the Wehrmacht awaits anxiously the enemy’s arrival. Sheltered inside trenches, machine gun nests and bunkers, they discreetly watch the progress of the American soldiers who, in the distance, approached the surroundings of the Rapido River.
The latter are unaware that if they cross the river’s whitewater they will have to face greater additional dangers: minefields, muddy areas and, to make things even worse, intricate webs of barbed wire.
Well into the afternoon, with the darkness almost upon the rugged terrain, a few kilometers south of Cassino, the men of the 15th German Division are guarding the town of Sant ‘Angelo raise the alarm. Like deafening thunder, the North American artillery begins to strike with fury the entire sector. The mortars burst with a startling crash. The ground is shaken here and there. The German infantry, covered in their positions, resist the rain of fire with stoicism. They are not beginners, they know how war works.
While the shower of projectiles shakes everyting up, the German soldiers who have managed to find cover inside a bunker, a basement or a casemate, are busy preparing their weapons for battle. Many of them use those tense moments to give a last check to their Kar-98 rifles. They check that their bolt system slides correctly. Shortly after, boxes containing additional ammunition for the combat pass from one hand to another. Inside, dozens of cartridges glow in a sinister way under the poor light of the mousetraps where the soldiers are protected from the death howling over their heads. Firm hands, and also some trembling ones given the circumstances, claim those cartridges to feed their rifles, ready for action once their owners decide to slide aside the safety of their respective weapons.
Extremely tense moments in which the tinkle of ammunition and the rumble of explosions overshadow the overwhelming silence that dominates each shelter. The moment of truth is approaching …
Shortly after, the American cannons fall silent. It is the signal. The ground attack will take place at the drop of a hat. Like a hectic hornet, the German soldiers run through the trenches and position themselves in bunkers and parapets to start a skirmish that, in advance, is presumed bloody.
On the opposite bank of the river, confident by the previous work of their artillery, the American troops abandon their positions and begin to progress towards the Rapido. Of course, the first difficulties worthy of mention don’t take long to appear.
While the Americans prepare their assault boats to enter the fluvial channel, the gunshots of the German weapons burst with surprise. Rifles and machine guns shooting in all directions. The characteristic rattling of the MG-42 competes in intensity with the stampedes caused by the accurate Kar-98, a reliable rifle that, managed with deadly precision by the men of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, begins to leave its mark in the battlefield.
The tracer bullets constantly sprouting from the cannons of the MG-42 illuminate the evening with a sinister brightness. They draw murderous trails on their way to the shore occupied by the enemies, many of them disoriented. US officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) shriek as they make fierce gestures to bring order through the confusion. It is vital that boats and crews begin to cross the river as soon as possible. Dramatic moments for the attackers. The German mortars make an appearance with overwhelming force. Fatal whistles cut the air to, immediately, give way to the forceful sound of the grenade explosions that detonate everywhere with excessive fury. Death hailstorm.
After the long minutes of the assault boats’ preparation, given the impetus of the German defense, dozens of American soldiers lie on the muddy ground, either dead or injured. The picture is devastating. Those who are still alive, on their way to the river while transporting the boats by hand, stumble upon the corpses of the brothers-in-arms who have found there the end of their existence. Different sources say that around 500 men died before they even got on a boat and began to cross the hectic course of the Rapido.
Those more fortunated, finally jump on the boats, perched next to the shore. Some push and others encourage their comrades to get on board. Huge surprise for some Americans as, shortly after starting to cross the river, they see that their boats are completely pierced; therefore useless for crossing the river. German riflemen and snipers keep shooting with their Kar-98. The American infantry pays a high price for each meter.
On the other hand, the soldiers that have finally begun to sail the waters of Rapido, row with all their strength to counter the effects of the intense current. Dozens of bullets whistle over their heads. Numerous explosions shake the boats. The geysers of ice-cold water rise towards the sky with devastating effects. Some vessels suffer the direct impact of an accurate mortar grenade; soon, engulfed in flames, it flies through the air with its crew members shattered. The cries of encouragement from the officers infuse certain courage to those facing the feat, but with their voice they barely manage to upstage the heartbreaking howls of the wounded and dying or, in the worst case, those of men drowning in the river, swallowed by angry waters.
On the other side of the Rapido, the Germans take advantage of the intermittent mortar explosions’ flashes to shoot at the silhouettes outlined in the darkness. The Germans’ eyes, through the sights of the Kar-98 that they use with great effectiveness, vent their rage on the figures that can be seen in the gloom. Narrowed eyes. Unknown men who are outlined in front of the sight of those who handle a Kar-98. Fingers pulling triggers. The weapons crack and the American soldiers fall dead or wounded. Back to square one … Due to the simplicity of the use of the German rifle, the Panzergrenadiers insert stripper clips in the magazine of their Kar-98 incessantly. The shove of the Americans is intense, but the German defense is too.
Deafening chaos. Screams and shots intermingle with the sound of the current and the frantic beat of the oars against the water. Also there is the roar of the German guns, well protected behind diverse bunkers that cover that sector of the valley.
Despite the intense curtain of fire launched by the Wehrmacht, in addition to the high amount of casualties, several assault boats achieve their goal. Finally, some men manage to set foot on solid ground. Muddy ground, full of fearful soldiers who, from that moment, fight to stick to the ground and find shelter where possible. At the moment it is impossible to move forward as the German weapons clear out every inch of land. Some flirt with withdrawal during the first moments on the newly invaded shore, but a look back is enough to clear any doubt. The corpses, soaked by the waters of the river, are rocked by an invisible arm that invites to extreme caution. Bodies pierced or torn from those who were once comrades, are now pierced by bullets or disfigured by explosions.
The next day at dawn, after a night full of exchange of fire, incomplete companies, formed by just a few platoons of exhausted American soldiers, is all that has managed to reach the opposite end of Rapido. The tenacious defense of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division has decimated the ranks of the US 36th Division, whose officers, very optimistic, think that the Germans must have experienced similar casualties.
That approximation in its initial phase could not be more untrue! And only a few hours after the beginning of the attack!
THE MAUSER KAR-98 RIFLE. LETHAL WEAPON OF EASY HANDLING.
During and until the end of the battle of Monte Cassino, as from the beginning of the Second World War, the Kar-98 was a wide-spread rifle among the soldiers of the Wehrmacht (German Army). A weapon of simple operation, accurate in expert hands, relatively easy to use to hit targets at considerable distances, both then and now.
The weapon equipped with an adjustable sight line at 100m intervals, had an effective firing range of 500m. It is surprising, even today, to know that an experienced shooter, with his Kar-98 equipped with a telescopic sight, was able to reach targets located at 1000m of his position. It weighed around four kilos, distributed among the metal and wooden parts that formed a stylized weapon whose total length amounted to 1.1m.
Compared with other rifles of its time, such as the American semi-automatic M1 Garand or the Russian SVT-40, another semiautomatic, presented an obvious disadvantage: the rate of fire. The German Kar-98 was a weapon powered by a five-round stripper clip, while the M1 had a magazine for eight and the Russian had a capacity of ten. Even the Lee-Enfield, a British bolt-action rifle, which could hold up to ten rounds in the chamber, was also an important rival, not to mention the Soviet Mosin-Nagant, which was powered by a five-round stripper clip too, and showed an admirable performance under severe climatic conditions.
But what made and still makes the Kar-98 special? At this point a lively debate could be held between many of the readers and History enthusiasts. Perhaps some opt for this rifle due to its attractive design, given that its manufacture is practically artisanal. Others, who have certainly handled it once, have felt the touch of its wood, warm, imbued with History. Some are sure that, when aiming a target in the field of fire, they appreciate the advantages that the simplicity of their aiming system gives, not obstructing the view and a tangent=type rear sight with a V-shaped rear notch. And, of course, surely there are readers who, when looking at its meticulous design, are able to evoke some of the many contests in which the Kar-98 has taken part, from the Second World War to particular 21st century war conflicts.
This legendary rifle, which had a production of over fourteen million in just ten years (1935 to 1945), is a weapon that we can associate with the figure of any German soldier that comes to mind. Surely, at this momento all the readers visualize the image of a man, dressed in the German uniform, complemented by his inseparable Kar-98. This picture ‘man-rifle’ was a basic concept in any army of the time, but in the specific case of the Heer (German Army) it was carried to its ultimate consequences: since the beginning of the Second World War, to its final stages, the Kar-98 accompanied the German soldier wherever he fought. This was stipulated by the German military doctrine, which opted for the use of machine-gun fire (produced in smaller quantities) whose shooters had to support the riflemen, besides helping to transport ammunition and other essential elements for automatic weapons.
Despite this, during the war the Kar-98 was unveiled as an effective and easy to handle weapon, with a bolt system and an internal magazine that, despite the volume and weight of the weapon, provided a certain comfort to its users when transporting it for the long walks on foot towards the battlefields. Bear in mind that other rifles from the time, such as the M1 Garand and Lee-Enfield, whose magazine was external, were more uncomfortable for transport.
Beyond the technical aspects, whose advantages and disadvantages even today trigger interesting debates, the Kar-98 was a weapon that was not limited to a single model, as there were variants and prototypes based on the original model that, with more or less success, they came out, like the version for the Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) or the one dedicated for the snipers, among others.
To conclude this more technical section of the story, I have to mention a detail about its presence during the post-war period. Thousands of Kar-98 rifles, captured by the victorious powers during and after the end of the world war, ended up in the USSR’s possession and even served the armed forces of different European and Asian countries. In addition, given its proven effectiveness on the battlefield, ‘copies’ of the legendary Kar-98 were produced in countries such as Yugoslavia or Spain.
Surely the most meticulous readers have also noticed that, moving into the 21st century, the German Army has used the Kar-98 in some parades, being carried in the expert hands of the soldiers who make up the Wachbataillon.
NEW ATTEMPT. CROSSING THE RAPIDO BECOMES AN OBSESSION.
The mauled 36th Division, led by General Walker, an integral part of the American Fifth Army commanded by Lieutenant General Clark, cannot afford to abandon the attack on the enemy positions located on the other side of the river. In one of the flanks of the American contingent, the French have achieved certain successes, like the British, deployed on the opposite flank. Clark, then, presses Walker to launch a new attack that, on this occasion, must be successful.
On the afternoon of 21st January, two regiments of the 36th Division enter the rough Rapido waters with determination. The German response is immediate and, again, the dead and injured begin to increase the list of casualties of the battered 36th Division. Some of its men, with experience on the Italian front, cannot believe the fierce German resistance. On board of the assault boats, ready to charge against the opposite shore, they endure all kinds of misfortunes. The wáter surface seems to be holding an intense hailstorm, but it is not the case, it’s because of the countless bullets and grenades crashing into the turbulent current. Despite the danger of the deadly crossing, many American infantrymen manage to land on the muddy shore.
On this occasion, the German defenses are not as effective as the previous day due to the support given to the troops by several armored cars. When their turn comes, the war machines must cross the river at all costs. For that purpose, the engineers are ordered to build bridges and pontoons, but the task is practically impossible. The Germans, aware of the threat, know that a bridge in good conditions on the Rapido will allow the passage of, in addition to the enemy tanks, reinforcements and supplies more than necessary for men who are already on the shore defending with determination.
During the night, the engineers put their hearts and souls into building the bridges so they can be ready as soon as possible and, in this way, their comrades can safely cross the wild current. As the hours go by, several sections lie on the riverbed, but the Germans, with their cannon shots, prevent the Americans from completing their titanic work. Several trucks loaded with supplies get caught on the shore in just a matter of minutes. Impossible to maneuver. Mud represents an insurmountable obstacle.
The German artillery, with good visibility during the day and well guided by the observers during the night, causes real damage to the enemy. They can’t afford to let the Americans to build a bridge over the Rapido!
In the meantime, under the cover of darkness, the soldiers of the 36th Division who have managed to reach alive the shore defended by the stubborn men of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, are fighting for their lives amid a monumental fray. Explosions, cries and shots of rifles and automatic weapons get confused in a horrendous symphony of agony and death. The German counterattacks directed against the American bridgehead are devastating. The fight is fierce. Some need to protect that front sector, otherwise the enemy could make its way into the interior of the Liri valley. The others, meanwhile, need to breach that point to avoid being taken down by the British and French attack, and thereby push towards the Route 6, the valuable road that leads directly to Rome.
Imagine yourself in the middle of that wild struggle … Who will achieve their goal?
The morning of 22nd January 1944 presages a scene from the worst possible nightmare before the eyes of those who participate in the battle of the Rapido River. The shore defended by the Germans is crowded with corpses and abandoned war material. Assault boats, riddled or flaming, scattered everywhere, dot the breathtaking landscape full of craters.
The Headquarters of the North American 36th Division tries to gather information about the few men who still fight alongside the Rapido. These soldiers, exhausted and on the brink of insanity, have suffered the unutterable during long hours of combat. Many officers have perished under enemy fire. Almost all the radio operators lie next to their devices, shot down by the accurate bullets fired by the German soldiers who are still standing, exhausted, accompanied by their inseparable Kar-98 rifles, struck by the bursts of the machine guns or massacred by the terrible explosions. Over the morning, the fight loses intensity. The possibilities for breaching into the front are blurred before the eyes of men who have given everything in an attempt, almost suicidal, to enter into enemy territory, in the crucial Liri valley.
Thanks to the radio equipment that miraculously is still intact, the soldiers of the 36th Division receive the ‘sad’ order of withdrawal. Sad, perhaps in other circumstances, but more than desired news in these moments full of fear, distress and helplessness.
One of the two regiments deployed there, the 143rd, with much effort and courage, manages to return to the shore with their comrades. Unfortunately, the other battalion, the 141st, isn’t so lucky. The Germans, attentive to the enemy maneuver, do not hesitate to counterattack to finish off a retreating enemy.
Once night has fallen on the front, not many Americans of the 141st regiment manage to return to their starting positions. Most have fallen into the hands of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. Now they are prisoners of war, whose fate is uncertain. Hundreds of American soldiers, defeated but respected by an enemy who admires the courage shown in combat, begin the long road to captivity.
The prisoners, already under German custody, would soon receive gratifying news. Such notice got a smile out of dozens of emaciated faces. His comrades of the Sixth United States Army had just disembarked at Anzio. Then, many valued their daring intervention during those cold days of January 1944 … Would this feat have been worth despite the objectives were not achieved? Would such a sacrifice have served any purpose? There, among the dead and wounded, more than 1,300 Americans died and almost 800 had fallen into the hands of the enemy. The Germans, who had an advantageous situation when defending that point from the front, barely accounted for 250 casualties between wounded and deceased.
After 22nd January 1944, the debate on the risky maneuver carried out by the Americans continued and continues. From the own responsible commanders, Clark and Walker, who did not hesitate to throw serious accusations at each other, to the men who witnessed the disaster and historians and researchers who, years later, studied in detail the battle that took place on the bloody bank of the Rapido river.
The American attempt to enter directly and forcefully in the Liri Valley failed, not only when it came to breaking enemy lines, but also in another aspect, perhaps more important, as they were not able to get the Germans to deviate reinforcements to that sector of the front.
On their behalf, the French (and their colonial troops) together with the British, achieved success in their objectives entrusted elsewhere down the ‘Gustav’ Line.
Both the arrival of the Allied forces in Anzio and the successive attacks against Cassino and the symbolic monastery of Monte Cassino, should cost more lives and involve a longer investment in time and resources to the allies to be able to conquer that important enclave to continue the advance towards Rome.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
On 11th February, after long days of cold and heavy rain, the Germans of the 15th Panzergrenadiers Division, whose supplies and ammunition began scarce, welcomed the visit of some valuable reinforcements.
The 1st Parachute Division had arrived to Cassino and many of their members carried Kar-98 rifles on their shoulders, whose prominent role seems to have outshined the history books when the battle of Montecassino is described. The men of both divisions assessed each other with respect; everyone knew how much all of them had battled. Admiration and camaraderie in their eyes while greetings become ever more effusive.
One of those paratroopers, whose name doesn’t matter now, on the way to the position he should occupy as soon as possible, noticed an improvised tomb. The tomb, formed by a Kar-98 stuck in the ground, whose barrel went deep into a small mound of ploughed soil and a dented helmet rested on its stock, symbolized the place of eternal rest of one of many men who perished there. In this case, defending an enclave of crucial importance.
The paratrooper, bulky with a burning cigarette between his lips, stopped his steps next to the grave. There, bending one knee, he read the text engraved on a piece of wood hanging from a rope tied to the trigger guard, a trigger whose owner had stopped using a few days ago.
After reflecting for a moment, the parachutist stuck his cigarette over the grave, with the filter in the ground and the incandescent end facing upwards. A thin column of smoke rose leisurely as the soldier placed his hand on the helmet, dirty and deformed. After whispering a few words, the corpulent soldier moved away from that improvised provisional grave, located not far from the hillside at the foot of Monte Cassino’s monastery.
The sound of his footsteps faded into the distance, from which he gave a last glance to the grave, where that cigarette, offered to the dead soldier, kept burning.
‘Your last cigarette, comrade.’
He sighed just before marching again towards the elevation where, majestically, the monastery was erected; a place that, at first sight, looked like an indestructible bastion, but which, only just four days later, was razed to the ground by Allied aircraft; same as the German defenses, overtaken after long months of combat and at the expense of a huge sacrifice.
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98K CARABINE, GERMANY 1935