American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Riva Ridge

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Wilson Ware
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1946

THIS story really begins in the winter of 1942, back in the “good old days” when the 10th Mountain Division was a single battalion of enthusiastic volunteers. These were the days of Mt. Rainier, the experimental, glee club days. Back then, and always ever since till its deactivation in the fall of 1945—division strong, battle tested and proud—there were two bright topics of unit harangue: equipment and training, or what might be called the “what-kind-of-outfit-are-we” line. Everyone knew the equipment intimately; he ate it, wore it, lived in it, and mainly groused about it, even as he prized it, for any of a thousand reasons. Training talk, though hazier, was based largely on conflicting and paradoxical appearance, experiment, indirection, and rumored indecision among the higher-ups as to our worth and possible use. Then again there were opposing factions, weak and strong, who lobbied for snow- shoes, skis, flat-land tactics, air supply by parachute, and even some who wanted no mountain troops at all. Twenty years from now old members of the outfit will still remember, with warmth or bitterness, that talk; and will still retalk it when they meet.

Well, what of it all? The talk and the training. Did it work? Was it proved?

Yes. It was proved brilliantly and decisively. It was proved bv the attack on the Belvedere-Torraccia land mass, by two subsequent limited objective attacks which covered over a score of mountains and advanced the front roughly fifteen miles, so rapidly and shatteringly that prisoners repeatedly said, “Why don’t you go on? Where? To the Alps! We have no front left. Nothing.…” The training was proved by German opinion, which rushed the finest troops available to the area, which dubbed the division “Elite Mountain Troops.” … “Watch out for them. They attack powerfully from unconventional directions and in unconventional ways.” It was proved by commendations and citations from theater and army commanders. It was proved by the cracking of the Apennine Winter Line, by the first crossing of the River Po, by.…

But that is another story. This one concerns a single action, a subsidiary but vitally important phase of the taking of Belvedere: the attack and holding of the Riva Ridge. It is offered with a double apology: as an account of mountain troops in a mountain operation; and as evidence of their use and of their worth. It is the opinion of qualified men that this operation, if no other, was accomplished only because of mountain knowledge and mountain training. It remains to be seen if in this account the fact can be shown.

The Belvedere-Torraccia section of the Apennines is a straggling mass four miles long, some 4500 ft. high, and roughly thirty air miles southwest of Bologna. Because of the concentrated lines of communication to and through Bologna, this city was considered the key to the Po Valley. And so it was. No one realized this more than the Germans themselves, who ringed it with defenses, thirty miles and six layers deep. The British, in January, 1945, attacking from the east and the south, advanced with cost and pathetic slowness. The Americans, attacking numbers of times along the main routes from Florence to the north, were stopped in their tracks after transforming the countryside into an eerie waste with their efforts. Mt. Belvedere was the most important western salient of the entire German line of defense. Southwest of it the main chain of the Apennines became so rugged that offensive warfare was impossible for either side. Only a handful of poor and tortuous roads, which did not lead to Bologna, served the area, some thirty miles across, between Mt. Belvedere and the main highway along the Tyrrhenian coast. Whoever held Belvedere held not only a cornerstone of the German defense, but also a height of land between central Italy and the Po Valley.

Two different American outfits had tried to take the mountain frontally without success. More than that, they had left many men and burning tanks; they had been thrown off, able to rally only on the lower slopes where they had started. And yet the mountain had to be taken. For like everything in war it was a choice of evils, and this one seemed the lesser.

The mountain, technically, did not present too great difficulty. It was not steep. Farmed nearly to the top on all sides, it would in peacetime, on a summer’s afternoon, have offered a pleasant hike up across fields, through quaint hamlets, along winding lanes; but not now. From the summit you could see all roads leading toward it from every direction for fifteen miles. An army must have continuous supply and supply requires movement over roads, but in this case every road was under enemy observation. If the summit were taken, as it had been once, there was to the west a ridge, the Riva Ridge, which not only had observation over all the supply routes which Mt. Belvedere commanded, but over across at Mt. Belvedere itself.

Riva Ridge was so precipitous that no attack in strength could be launched from it or supplied across it. Another disadvantage from the American point of view was that it faced in the wrong direction, but it did have observation, commanding observation. From it all avenues of approach to itself and to Mt. Belvedere could be seen. From it troops in the vicinity could be observed if they massed or advanced. From it artillery could be directed to almost any spot desired, through observation of the enemy’s actions. The Belvedere-Torraccia and the Riva ridges were the keys to invaluable knowledge. Mutually supporting, they were almost invulnerable.

Troops who had twice before suffered defeat at Mt. Belvedere no doubt had cursed the Riva Ridge as only weary, frightened, and bitter soldiers can curse. Perhaps their training, attitude of mind, and lack of winter equipment had made success impossible. Anyway they had not succeeded.

On January 8th, 1945, the 1st Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry, moved into the sector centering on the village of Vidiciatico. Their positions on that freezing night were a series of strong points ranged along a vast but easy ridge, which runs southwest from Belvedere itself. Theirs was the extreme left flank of the “Bologna Front,” nine miles across from Belvedere to the peninsular divide. When light came they could see their “area of responsibility”: the easy western slopes of Mt. Belvedere, from the summit to the village of Rocca Corneta; and the Riva Ridge. The one stretched perhaps 2000 yards from the upper right to below and in front. It was on an angle, 400 to 1800 yards away, and a strongly defended line. The latter, the Riva Ridge, stretched from front to left and far up a valley-gorge, frozen and towering. It was a wall, lightly held perhaps by patrols, and with observation points. No one knew very well, for it was of course impossible.

To all men a ridge of this sort is cause for concern; to mountain men particularly, it is of interest too. Five and a half miles long, the major element of this part of the front, the ridge stretches generally N.E. from Monte Spigolino (6400 ft.), on the peninsular divide, to Monte Campiano (4200 ft.), a series of six connected summits repeated in order: Spigolino, Cinque di Bure, Riva-Man- cinello, Serrasiccia, Cappelbusso, and Campiano. Each summit commands the next, for each is only actually part of a sharp arête. The average altitude difference, ridge to valley, is 2000 ft., not huge as mountains go, but precipitous and very huge in a soldier’s mind.

The land before our positions sloped gently for perhaps a thousand yards to the Dardagna, a rushing mountain stream, with rolling fields dotted with tiny hamlets on the other side below the ridge. On the friendly side of the stream the ground had a very steep average gradient, perhaps 45°, with a series of gullies and buttresses banded with outcrops of rotten shale, some twenty feet high. On the enemy side the altitude difference was appreciably less and the gradient easy, say from 10 to 20 degrees. A large plateau, almost 500 yards wide, lay along the central part between Mancinello and Serrasiccia—an ideal battleground. On the friendly side there was no habitation except three deserted cabins and a few trees, though thick brush in places grew among the talus between the cliff bands. On the enemy side, the farmland was dotted with trees, small villages, and a network of mule paths. Only the extreme upper end near Spigolino, and the lower end around the final buttress, Campiano, were steep, deserted and rough. It seemed a heavensent defensive position, but hell to attack.

Even prevailing storm winds favored the enemy. The weather that first morning and for a month thereafter was cold and frozen and white. A foot and a half of snow in the valley rapidly became four. The winds came from the northwest, from behind the ridge, so that our area became a trap with settled powder in the ravines twenty feet deep and iced on the bare cliffs.

It was a “set-up” for the Kraut. He could look down the throat of every defense and foxhole we had; he could watch our every movement; he could foretell our intentions. We saw him occasionally on patrols along the ridge, digging out an implacement, watching us with telescopes. Sometimes he would stand up and take wild burp-gun bursts at us. He could afford to be arrogant for he had to his front what he thought was an unclimbable wall.

Perhaps we can’t blame him, for no previous unit had thought of climbing it, much less tried it. It was considered inconceivable that attack could or would come from the ridge itself, and inconceivable that attack could be launched in that direction. No. Their eyes were turned to Belvedere; and so initially were ours. Three patrols were required a day—reconnaissance, combat, and prisoner capturing—aside from the “normal” security patrols across the mountains to the rear and to the units right and left. There was much to learn, and there were no rumors or orders for attack.

To go back a bit, one of the dark moments in 10th Division history, particularly to the many men genuinely interested in the mountains and mountain troops—had been the sudden and unexplained move from Colorado to Texas the previous spring. At that time all mountain equipment of every sort had been taken away. Now, equipped with standard infantry items, including combat boots, four blankets per man, and overcoats, plus a few shoepacs, arctics, and “jungle” (or cargo) packs (an invention apparently of the same fiend who designed the old infantry haversack), the 1st Battalion. 86th Mt. Infantry, made its fourteen-mile night relief to Vidiciatico. With the same equipment it was the next day expected to operate five patrols, varying in size from five to eighteen men, in distance 500 to 6000 yards, and in snow conditions from thigh-deep powder to wind-blown crust and ice-covered rock. The much maligned and much discussed mountain equipment of the Camp Hale days was never so much regretted as at that moment; and for all anyone could discover there was little or none of it in all of Italy.

During the next weeks the situation was somewhat remedied by superhuman efforts of the regimental and divisional supply officers. Everyone was issued either parkas or camouflaged alpaca coats. Everyone got shoepacs, alpaca caps and hoods. Twenty- four and finally forty pairs of snowshoes were issued per battalion; fifteen and finally thirty pairs of skis, thirty pairs of mountain boots, 100 rucksacks, but no ice axes, no rope, no pitons, and no crampons. This for between eight and nine hundred men. Finally, when spring was close, some sleeping bags and mountain stoves appeared.

Patrols, in these early days, were accomplished with difficulty. Mattress covers were cut to make white tunics. “Creepers” for shoepacs were fashioned out of knotted ropes. A few skis were borrowed from natives and used with GI shoes. The defunct local branch of the Italian Alpine Club was contacted to try to secure a few ice-axes and crampons. None were available. Typical of patrol problems was the example of a group which left one night under a fine officer, struggled nine hours in powder in places up to their chests, reported back finally exhausted, not having reached their objective, to find at dawn that their tracks had not gone farther than 250 yards from their positions!

Our men, with training if not equipment, did remarkably well. What skis and snowshoes we had were interchanged from platoon to platoon and company to company (irrespective of size or fit). Warm camouflaged clothing was exchanged as needed, and given this barest of equipment patrols started to operate. Miles of country were covered; small groups crossed mountain ranges to contact our next battalion eleven miles away, took prisoners right out of the German front line, finally climbed the Riva Ridge itself and killed the men encountered on top, and stirred up such a row that agents reported the arrival of two mountain trained battalions in enemy reserve.

At first, as I have said, patrolling was not concerned with “the ridge,” but that came later, inevitably. Our men were accustomed to be on the top of things, as well as our thoughtful and aggressive

CO, Lt. Col. Henry Hampton. One night a patrol attempted to reach the lowest summit of the ridge, Campiano, along what the map indicated as a trail, lt was a path about a foot wide, often obliterated, sometimes cut into the rock, which traversed a great shoulder of cliff and zig-zagged up through ravines with frozen waterfalls towards the summit. The men went about two-thirds of the way to the summit that night without enemy contact, using skis to the base and “creepers” from there until stopped by an ice slope in a ravine.

The very next day, before Division Headquarters could have received the report, a patrol was ordered to the top. We were glad then of the experience, for this patrol went by day, circumnavigated the ice slope, surprised three Germans on the summit so much that in their gaping astonishment they could hardly raise their rifles to fire, killed them, and returned. Immediately three “confirmed” enemy positions and patrol routes became eighteen, one OP changed to four, and mortar rounds began dropping from behind the ridge. There was wild and to us somewhat humorous digging and snow-shoveling along the crest. We had stirred them up. The ridge was not “impossible.”

It stirred us up as well. From that moment there was almost an obsession among the command group of the battalion to take the ridge, to show that mountain troops would work. Nor was it too long before the idea passed all through the “recommendation” stages of regiment, division, and corps to return as an order to prepare a plan of attack for an unspecified date, in conjunction with an attack on the Belvedere-Torraccia Ridge, for such was the audacious plan of our division commander, Major General Hayes.

It is the basic rule of mountain tactics to get on a ridge or on a summit as quickly as possible and attack down, so as to attain “ground advantage,” if for no other reason than that a man is at a tremendous disadvantage fighting uphill. The natural inclination then was to try to find a covered hidden route around to the windswept reaches of Spigolino, where we knew from patrols that the enemy had only four or five men in a mountain climbers’ hut. Here they would have ground advantage and could attack down along the ridge. Patrols were sent to determine the possibility of this, and their information was recorded and studied in detail and with the utmost care. The battalion would have to move with all supplies, attack, hold, and remain supplied. Supply. That was the important word. After careful analysis the attack appeared not feasible, for there was no covered route, nor any for mules or weasels1 (we now had two of these). Supply would be all man- carry; an incredible task to perform over a distance of eleven miles and up to a rise of 4000 ft., in full view of the enemy, and with snow hard enough to make stamping with steel-edged skis obligatory. An extra man for every man in the battalion would hardly have sufficed, even with skis, and besides there was that plateau half way along. If we were discovered in movement, the enemy would have ample time to deploy at the plateau near Mancinello, even bring up reserves before we arrived, and put up a mighty uncomfortable fight. Not to mention the certainty of being able to hack us up with artillery before we arrived.

What then of a single route up the face somewhere near the middle, and then a fanning up and down the ridge ? Patrols were dispatched to find this route. The decision, however, was that the climbing of the face was so exposed that a battalion massed at the base and climbing a single trail could be cut to pieces by just a few men and an artillery observer. Also it would take hours, even days, to get a battalion up just one trail. Discovered, the battalion could almost be picked off man by man as they reached the crest. There was absolutely no possibility of deployment on the face itself.

No. The only possibility was multiple routes on the face. There must be surprise, and each summit must be reached at approximately the same time, so as to keep the surprise and to insure that one German strongpoint could not be reinforced by another or reserves brought up generally. It was an audacious plan to put it mildly, one which must work or utterly fail. Not least of the problems was to find a trail, possible for all men, directly to each summit.

The planning of this operation began about the middle of January. Two or three patrols a day went searching for routes, besides still more aggressive patrolling in the Belvedere-Rocca Corneta sector to make the Kraut think we were interested in that area. We already had “Route 1” to Campiano; this must be made to work. The map indicated a “mule trail” up to Cappelbusso; this we hoped could become a supply trail for it was covered. By the end of January every summit was reached somehow, after repeated tries. All this reconnaissance was done at night on the steep face, with little equipment, but with continuous hazard. Men were buried in deep falls of powder snow in ravines, where they had to be found and dug out. Men fell in the stream at the base (there was one bridge only) and came near to freezing to death. Two men fell four hundred feet down an ice slope because they could not cut good enough steps with bayonets! An account of these patrols alone is a story of heroism and an irrefutable proof of what mountain training can do for the inconspicuous and unsung “dogface.”

Three to one superiority is considered necessary for successful attack on the flat-land; ten to one in the mountains. All sources of intelligence indicated about seventy men on the ridge with an under strength (400) but well trained battalion of mountain troops in reserve. At ten to one a U. S. Army battalion reinforced with a rifle company (850 plus 180) was not too much, for the job was to take, and also to hold. Early in the game, therefore, each company was assigned its summit and route area, and patrolling was done by the men who would finally climb each trail. It is desirable to emphasize here that by this system not one small group of specialists did the work, but the average “GI,” mountain trained.

About 1 February the battalion was relieved and moved to a rest area just north of Lucca, where the plan was perfected and the final training and orientation accomplished. The training consisted of rock climbing on terrain as closely resembling “the ridge” as possible. It included study of large annotated maps and air photos of the ridge, study of a sand table model of it, and study and consequent knowledge by every member of the command of the entire plan and his place in it. This aspect of the plan of each company is of note: each one was to be preceded on its trail by an assault platoon picked at random; each assault platoon was to be preceded one half hour by three expert mountain men to pick trail and fix ropes where necessary. The ascent was to be done at night, without any noise, and even piton hammers (we were to receive this equipment at last) were to be wrapped in cloth.

A list of strengths and armament is also of interest, to give an idea of the force concerned. The attack was to entail the 1st Battalion, 86th Mt. Infantry, plus “F” Company of the 2nd Battalion, plus the remainder of the 2nd Battalion in reserve. Attached were one platoon of tanks (4) ; and one platoon of tank destroyers for direct fire on the ridge if necessary; eight “50” cal. machine guns; one Company (9) of “4.2” inch mortars; nine extra “81” mil. mortars; all of our division artillery (thirty-six “75” mil. howitzers and twelve “105" mil. howitzers); plus any Corps Artillery we cared to call upon (“105s” and “155s”). This was a formidable array to be at the call of a battalion.

Finally, a brief outline of the division plan is also of note to give the relation of this one phase to the whole. The Riva Ridge was to be taken on the night of 18-19 February—taken and held in order to close that avenue of observation and to divert strength possibly from the Belvedere line. Then, one night later, the remainder of the division (13,000 men) was to pour through the Vidiciatico sector on an arc, flank Mt. Belvedere from the west, and capture it and the whole ridge to Torraccia within one day. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (one division), pinched out by this action, was on the same day to shift to the right and fill the gap left by this advance. It was an extremely audacious plan, for it must be remembered that a whole division had to mass, in attempted secrecy, by night, under the very noses and in full view of the enemy. To anyone familiar with what this means in artillery emplacement and stock-piling of supply the undertaking is almost unbelievable.

Supply. Supply and equipment were still the ogres constantly at hand. Supply was to be handled by an Italian Mule Pack Company (about thirty small and agitated mules) and by a porter platoon (forty men) from our regiment. Priorities were set: ammunition first and always; evacuation of wounded second (this by the Battalion Aid Section and an attached Collecting Company) ; and as a bad third, food and water. As soon as the ridge was secured, an aerial tramway was to be built by the engineers to a buttress near the supply trail, “No. 2.” This would speed things enormously, when it was done. An aggravation was our obligation to get the “50” caliber machine guns and a pack howitzer up the ridge for direct fire in aid of the division next day. A “75” pack howitzer alone weighs nearly 1300 pounds!

Equipment. Would it still be winter? Would the thaw come? We were now assured by Army that we could have all the skis and snowshoes we wanted. (Where had they been?) We were prepared, at least, to move the whole battalion on skis.

On 12 February a small group—mountain climbers from each company, the author, and the men of the Intelligence Section— returned to the ridge to check last details. Fate had been kind. Spring had come with a bound. South slopes were bare, snow was in most cases hard packed, and days were almost balmy, while freezing at night caused convenient screening mists. We would not need skis; we would not need so much clothing, and the men could carry more ammunition. The only hitch was mud, Italian mud, and what might be called overcrowding. Already the division was beginning to mass. Most movement was at night, but each morning saw more new guns exposed in new emplacements, new roads plowed, new trucks (hundreds of trucks it seemed) in every shadow along every lane. And everywhere were growing piles of food and ammunition crates and gasoline cans along the roads. Unavoidable. But what of the Kraut ? And what of our surprise !

On the night of 17 February, blessed with a friendly blanket of mist, the battalion moved into its positions, little hamlets out in “no man’s land” near the base of each trail. All day of the 18th it waited in the houses, quiet. fireless. On the night of 18 February at 2230 the men started to climb the ridge. All was still. No artillery was to be used unless a fight started, and not until light at that. “Normal patrols were active,” and the hours were interminable. At 0545 on the morning of the 19th, just as dawn approached, the last unit reported by radio, “In position.”

The enemy? Prisoners later informed us that fate had again been kind to us: surprise was complete for we had caught the Krauts in the middle of a careless relief, and we had also caught them in a careless blunder: there was no lateral communication along the ridge. As each outpost attacked thought it was being attacked by an isolated patrol, there was no realization of a general assault. The enemy did not know what had happened until the attack was over, so complete had been the myth of the ridge’s invulnerability.

Hadn’t they seen the massing? “Yes,” they said, “but Americans are crazy. They are always moving around in the open. We didn’t think it meant anything.” At first dawn found the ridge a melee of confusion. Germans were surprised asleep in their bunkers and surrendered in thunderstruck groups; those who resisted were dispatched in isolated bursts of fire, while others ran wildly. The reinforced platoon which attacked Campiano continued on to two small houses on the far side, where they killed several men, took food, small arms, artillery equipment, ammunition, two mortars, and valuable documents. The attack was complete without a single American casualty. All parties reached their assigned positions and the “impossible” had been accomplished.

To attack and to hold are very different, as the enemy knew well. It did not take him long to retaliate, for though he had been caught in a grave error of underestimation of his opponent, he knew the value of that ridge; and was to know it even better when the next night, following a shattering barrage, the rest of the division moved in successfully on Mt. Belvedere. His advantage was now lost and his pride badly battered, as shown by the fact that in the next two days various parts of the battalion received six counterattacks in force up to company strength, numerous smaller assaults, and continuing artillery. The defense of Campiano alone is a chapter. This, though lowest of the summits, was under continuous counterattack for five days, many times completely surrounded, once in such a critical position that Krauts were crawling in among the positions themselves and the men holding it had to call for artillery and “50” caliber machine-gun fire on their own position. Lt. Col. Hampton personally led a reinforcing platoon down a knife-edge ridge to its partial relief. Here men comparatively new to combat vomited at the sight of the dead and broken Germans before the position, rotting in the sun.…

A few more details need to be recorded. The pack howitzer and the “50” calibers got to the ridge and fired on time, though one mule died of exhaustion on the way. The tram was up in about a day. Men, mules, and tram carried ten and a half tons of ammunition to the ridge in the five days we were there. Even food and water came after three days. Evacuation of wounded was heartrending, for eight to ten men were required per stretcher, as well as ropes, sweat, and infinite care. Evacuation from Campiano, just off the ridge and not to a hospital, took thirteen hours. From Cappelbusso evacuation down the “Supply Trail” took eight hours. Living was basic: shallow frozen holes were used with one blanket or half a sleeping bag (and they went to the wounded) ; at first no food was available and then frozen “K” rations at last; water was scarce or lacking; and attacks were constant or near constant day and night. But the men of the 10th were used to frozen food, were at home in the mountains, and were unconventional. In a strange sort of way they liked being up there.

On the day of February 23rd, 1945, the 1st Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry, straggled in little groups off the Riva Ridge. Their rear was still in view of the enemy, so the relief was made not to look like a movement. The ridge was fairly quiet, for the enemy had accepted defeat. And the battalion was being relieved.

1 The T-29 or “weasel” is a light tracked vehicle with wide tracks used for travel over snow.

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