FIERCE FIGHTING AT SAN PIETRO AS U.S. FIFTH ARMY ADVANCES NORTH

San Pietro Infine, Southern Italy December 17, 1943

On this date in 1943 what little remained of the ancient Italian farming com­munity of San Pietro Infine, popu­la­tion 1,400, fell to the U.S. 36th (“Texas”) Infan­try Divi­sion of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army—this after the col­lapse of the Bern­hardt Line (or Rein­hard Line), an out­lying spur of the heavily forti­fied German “Winter Line” (see map below). Seizing German-held San Pietro Infine straddling the stra­te­gic inter­sec­tion of Route 6 and the Bern­hardt/­Rein­hard Line had been impor­tant to Clark’s Fifth Army, now joined for the first time by troops of the recon­sti­tuted Royal Ital­ian Army (Regio Esercito) after Italy declared war on former Axis part­ner Germany in Octo­ber 1943. Since Sep­tem­ber hun­dreds of German troops had taken up posi­tions in San Pietro Infine and since early Nov­em­ber at the near­by choke point known as the Mignano Gap. The mile-wide gap was a 6‑mile-long cor­ri­dor through which Route 6, the main north-south high­way on the Italian penin­sula, me­andered past San Pietro Infine and Monte Cas­sino (10 miles further up the high­way), to the plain of the Liri Valley and thence to Rome, the prize which the Germans fought to keep and the Western Allies sought to take.

The Battle of San Pietro emerged as a major engage­ment in the Ital­ian Cam­paign (July 1943 to May 1945). The town, with its thick stone walls, steeply terraced terrain, narrow booby-trapped approaches, and com­manding view of Route 6, was occu­pied by two bat­tal­ions of the tough 15th Panzer­grenadier Regi­ment, German Tenth Army soldiers whom Hitler had ordered to hold out for as long as pos­sible. Domi­nating the town was the tree­less Monte Sam­bú­caro (Sam­mucro on Allied maps) and two other steep moun­tains facing Sam­bú­caro, Mts. Lungo and Rotondo. After Clark’s 36th Infan­try Divi­sion suc­ceeded in cap­turing the for­mi­dable heights and followed it by blasting San Pietro Infine into rubble, the panzer­grene­diers began their evac­u­a­tion on the night of Decem­ber 16, 1944, com­pleting it by sunup the next day. Escaping capture, the enemy fell back to defen­sive posi­tions in the vicinity of San Vittore del Lazio, two miles to the north­west; they stubbornly held these positions for the next three weeks.

The back-and-forth battles for the Bernhardt/­Reinhard Line, begun on Novem­ber 5, and subse­quently the village of San Pietro Infine (Decem­ber 8–17) cost an enor­mous 16,000 U.S. casual­ties. German casual­ties are unknown. Several hun­dred San Pietro males between 15 and 45, con­scripted by the Germans, were bru­tal­ized by digging trenches, hauling ammu­ni­tion, and erecting bullet- and bomb-proof forti­fi­ca­tions, mutually sup­porting pill­boxes, and road­blocks for the enemy. Close to 200 would lose their lives due to exhaus­tion, star­va­tion, the cold, and the savage German and Allied aerial bombing and mortar and artil­lery shelling that oblit­er­ated their town and every­thing in it. The 10‑day Battle of San Pietro was recorded for the U.S. War Depart­ment by Holly­wood screen writer and film director John Huston (see video below).

Having seized the subsidiary Bernhardt Line, it took the U.S. Fifth Army until mid-Janu­ary 1944 to fight its way to the pri­mary line of German defenses, the Gustav Line, anchored by the town of Cas­sino, which lay to the west of San Pietro Infine. Once at that line the Fifth Army com­menced the first Battle of Monte Cas­sino on Janu­ary 17, 1944. After the last of four engage­ments at Monte Cas­sino (mid-January to mid-May) the Germans retired north­ward, leaving Rome unde­fended and thus open to the Fifth Army’s occu­p­ation on June 5, 1944. Six months later the U.S. Fifth and British Eighth armies merged, becoming the 15th Army Group. Finally defeated in the 15th Army Group’s spring offensive, the Axis forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally on May 2, 1945.



German Winter Line Defenses on the Italian Peninsula and the Battle of San Pietro

German Defense Lines South of Rome, 1943-44

Above: Taking advantage of the point at which the Ital­ian Penin­sula is narrowest, the Germans built their “Winter Line,” which con­sisted of three parallel defen­sive systems to the south of the Ital­ian capital Rome. The defen­sive lines were called the Bern­hardt Line (also called the Rein­hard Line), colored green in this map; the Gustav Line (red); and the Hitler Line (green). Spaced roughly 11 miles apart, the defen­sive lines served as a for­mi­dable series of obsta­cles in the path of the Allies’ march toward Rome. The Bern­hardt/­Rein­hard Line was the southern­most of the three and was the German fall­back posi­tion from the Barbara Line and Vol­turno Line further to the south as German forces retreated grad­ually up the penin­sula. The Bern­hardt/­Rein­hard Line was actually a southern bulge in the stronger Gustav Line to the north. On the eastern side, the Bern­hardt/­Rein­hard Line bulged south from Cas­sino to incor­porate the moun­tains over­looking the approaches to the Liri Valley and then moved west to the Tyrrhenian coast. The Bern­hardt/­Rein­hard Line passed directly through the town of San Pietro Infine, blocking the Mig­nano Gap, the pass through which Route 6, the main Naples-to-Rome high­way up the center of Italy, ran toward Cassino and the entrance to the Liri Valley plain.

Images of San Pietro Infine 1 Images of San Pietro Infine 2

Above: Mt. Sambúcaro overlooking the modern town of San Pietro Infine (left) and ruins of the orig­i­nal town (center). After the war it was decided that the orig­i­nal centuries-old town would not be rebuilt. Instead, a new town arose a few hun­dred yards to the west. The ruins of San Pietro Infine were left intact and are today a living reminder of tragic events that occurred during World War II in Italy. In 2003, on the 60th anni­ver­sary of the Battle of San Pietro, a tall slab memo­rial was unveiled upon which are inscribed the names of close to 200 townspeople who perished in the battle.

John Huston’s 1945 Documentary, The Battle of San Pietro