The valley that leads away from Castaglione towards Bologna in north-east Italy is just as beautiful today as it must have been in the autumn of 1944. Yet the shell holes on the Catarelto Ridge which bounds the valley are still visible, and hidden among the young fir-trees slit trenches can still be found.
My Italian guide had a little handheld metal-detector with him, and it buzzed away happily as we grubbed fragments from the ground – mortar splinters, bully-beef tins, and Mauser cases, along with the ubiquitous metal links for German MG42 machine-guns.
Catarelto marked the central part of the Germans’ final defensive position in Italy: the Gothic Line. In the eastern sector, the British Eighth Army were bludgeoning through the coastal plain, while here in the Apennines Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army were trying to left hook into the Germans’ flank in an effort to cut their lines of communication from the Po Valley and seize the nerve-centre of Bologna before winter set in.
Neither the Eighth nor the Fifth was exclusively American or British. While the struggle for Catarelto was US-led, it was the responsibility of the 6th (South African) Armoured Division, much of whose infantry were British – specifically, 24th Guards Brigade, veterans of North Africa and Anzio.
‘Look at this,’ said Mauro, a considerable expert on the battles for the peaks short of Bologna, as he rooted about in his knapsack and produced a soldier’s knife, an ordinary bit of metal cutlery. ‘Here’s the man’s number.’ And, sure enough, etched in the handle were seven numbers, which I could tell were from a late wartime enlistment; but I knew nothing more. ‘1st Battalion, Scots Guards. I found it not far from here a few weeks ago.’
By this stage of the fighting, the Scots Guards’ 1st Battalion was far from the pre-war unit that had graced the Forecourt of Buckingham Palace. Nonetheless, it was still a battalion that carried the prestige of centuries of gallantry that had only been burnished since 1940. At Catarelto, though, they were to meet a different sort of elite – the ideologues, the diehard Nazis of 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division, Reichsführer-SS.
Many of its commanders had graduated from the concentration-camp guard corps – the Einsatzgruppen – and from the 3rd SS Panzerdivision, Totenkopf, while most of the troops had come straight from the Hitler Youth and were aged between 17 and 20.
Although young, a measure of their ruthlessness was one of the most infamous anti-partisan operations of the entire war, which had been mounted a few days before the battle at Monte Sole, a little way to the north of Catarelto.
Local partisans from the Red Star group had carried out a number of highly effective attacks during the summer on the Germans’ main supply route to Bologna. Some of them were former soldiers who had returned to their homes after Italy’s surrender, only to find their families under the heel of their former allies. But, fascinatingly, there were also a good number of Russians who were escaped slave-labourers of the Nazis, or deserters from Wehrmacht units that had been topped up by Ostvolk (‘eastern people’) recruits. In classic guerilla fashion, once these fighters got wind of 16th SS Division’s intentions, they melted away.
But the SS were not just determined to drive the partisans off, they also wanted to teach the local Italians a bitter lesson. So the Division’s armoured reconnaissance battalion, under the one-armed Captain Walter Reder, executed one of the bloodiest onslaughts on civilians of the entire war in Europe, butchering about 770 women, children, priests, and old men.
They used mainly the rapid-firing MG42 – the ‘Spandau’ – and the devastating effects can still be seen today in the pockmarks on the walls and ceilings of the buildings which stand there, kept as a monument to horror.
Reder’s braves were later sent to reinforce 2nd Battalion, 35th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment once battle had been joined – as we shall see.
While the SS Panzergrenadiers may have been politically ‘sound’, keen, and pretty handy when it came to slaughtering civilians, they were young and inexperienced in battle. Their commanders, however, had seen hard and varied service with other SS units before mustering as part of a new elite division in late 1943. The same 35th SS Regiment and the Division’s Flak Battalion had already fought as an independent combat group at Anzio, before the rest of the Division rejoined them from Hungary for the battles north of Rome.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion had dug in along the crest line in typical late-war German fashion. Well trained and fit, they had learnt in the battles south of Rome and around Florence not to be tied to static positions, but to shelter behind reverse slopes that were impervious to shell-fire and, whenever possible, under cover from the dominating Allied aircraft. Anchored on deep MG42 and light-mortar positions, the SS troops more than understood how to yield ground and then counter-attack rapidly from a flank using whatever fire support was available.
Now 1st Battalion Scots Guards were to spearhead the assault on Catarelto’s high knolls and scrubby valleys. First, though, they needed to verify which enemy unit they were likely to face: their regimental history insouciantly tells us that a few days before,
A company-sized raid was ordered to secure a prisoner. While Major Mann and Sir David Moncrieff were engaged in the final reconnaissance for this raid, they chanced upon a German. The third member of the party, Guardsman Copland, Sir David’s servant, shot the German dead. The need for the raid had passed; the body was that of an SS man.
On top of this, estimates of the number of Germans defending Catarelto varied from three companies to a couple of battalions, men whom the Guards believed to be ‘for the most part, tough and fanatical Nazis who have been out of the serious fighting since July and were probably spoiling for a fight’.
They were right: the Scots Guards had last seen really savage combat at Carocetto near Anzio nine months before – where they had already met this very same SS unit.
Despite this, the Guards Brigade plan hinged on light resistance. The 1st Scots Guards were to push along the high ground until they reached the peak of Catarelto, while on the opposite side of Route 66 – the main Bologna road – 3rd Coldstream Guards would clear slightly beyond them, before 5th Grenadier Guards passed through towards the heights of Monte Salvaro. It was meant to have been swift and easy: it was not.
Advancing Scots Guards
Moving off in mist and drizzle on 29 September, the Scots Guards Right Flank Company found a marked map in a hamlet about 2,000 yards south of Catarelto that showed a complete battalion of SS dug in on the high ground with another in reserve close by. Then, at dawn on 30 September, the signs on the map turned into reality when the Left Flank Company – some 500 yards behind Right Flank – came under heavy mortar-fire. The 25-pdrs of 166th (Newfoundland) Regiment, Royal Artillery, did their best to respond, but the proper scales of ammunition had been delayed by the condition of the roads.
With one Scots Guards company forward, another under heavy fire, the Coldstreamers only able to give distant supporting fire, and the guns short of ammunition, the fight was on. A rapid piece of replanning by Brigade HQ followed, with the Grenadiers being warned to support the Scots Guards, whose leading companies were starting to suffer.
Lord Hesketh’s C Company was thrown into the fight, ordered to take Point 678 before last light. Carefully sited machine-guns enfiladed them, long streams of green tracer lighting up the dusk and forcing the company back.
Then patrols wormed past Point 678 towards Point 707 – Monte Catarelto itself – in the night, the darkness being punctured by bursting grenades and the slow thump of Bren guns. It became very clear, though, that Point 707 could be taken only once the lower knoll of Point 678 had fallen.
As the mist lifted at 08.30 hours next morning, Sir David Moncrieff’s Right Flank put in a deliberate attack. Bayonets glittered, 12 men fell, but with a cheer, Scotsmen bombed and stabbed the SS out of their slit trenches while supporting mortar-fire from the Royal Durban Light Infantry fell with fearsome accuracy. There Right Flank stayed, a rock in the storm that followed.
Point 678 had been used to blunt the Guardsmen’s attack, buying time for the main position on Monte Catarelto to ready itself for another onslaught. It came at 15.00 hours with C and Left Flank Companies attacking from the woods below the crest of the hill to the south-east.
Where the woods cleared, the open hillside was seamed and studded with stone walls, small enclosures, and a scatter of cottages – ideal country for pre-prepared machine-gun shoots and small, well-rehearsed counter-attacks.
Again, grenades and bayonets had the edge as Major Harvey’s Left Flank alternately crawled and rushed forward, covered by mortar and 25-pdr fire. The war diary tells us,
The SS men withdrew before the advancing Guardsmen, moving with a casualness and deliberation which, for several, can only be described as suicidal; the Machine Gun Platoon saw to that. The lack of caution displayed by the enemy throughout the action was exceptional, being one of the main reasons for their heavy casualties and, it must be conceded, for their success.
But, as dusk came, so did the inevitable counter-attacks. Captain Reder’s armoured reconnaissance battalion, dismounted from its vehicles with reserve elements of 2nd Battalion alongside, fought hard to recover the high ground.
It was unusual for the Germans to attack at night – the Guards were surprised by their enemies’ shouting and lack of stealth – but on they came, as the British struggled to coordinate their defensive artillery-fire in the gloom.
With Major Harvey now wounded and dawn breaking on 1 October, B Company was sent forward to bolster the two forward companies, but it was caught in a heavy concentration of shell-fire. Their remnants joined those they were meant to be supporting. The situation was critical as yet another SS counter-attack was pressed home. To stem it,
Lance Sergeant Starkey from a shallow slit which afforded him but little protection passed back valuable information to enable the Newfoundland Gunners to plaster the attackers with the greatest accuracy, even to within 20 yards of our men. Guardsman Cocker, one of the platoon runners, performed prodigies of valour with a Bren gun he had acquired. When the Bren was destroyed by shelling, he was equally untiring with rifle and grenade.
But freshness and dogged aggression told, and slowly, grimly, B, C, and Left Flank Companies were prised from their position and fell back on Right Flank, who were firing over their heads from Point 678.
As the guns and mortars fell quiet, the Scots Guards could hear the SS men shouting orders and the scrape of digging tools as they prepared for their turn to be counter-attacked. Throughout the day, the skeleton British companies hung on in their trenches, directing artillery, concentrating Vickers and Bren gun-fire, and harassing the SS. However, with 23 killed, 58 wounded, and nine taken prisoner, 1st Scots Guards were in no state for another assault.
Later that day, 3rd Coldstream Guards attacked on the west shoulder of the valley, making some gains that allowed the tanks of the Pretoria Regiment to fire at the Germans on the reverse, or northern, slopes of Monte Catarelto.
So the brigade commander, Brigadier Clive, brought up 5th Grenadier Guards to relieve the battered Scotsmen. According to the original plan, the Grenadiers should have been romping along the main road, with South African armour and guns to support them, well on the way to brushing the next German outpost aside and conforming to the American 2nd Corps to their east. But no, the bruising resistance of the SS had now caused the Brigade’s last reserve to be committed to struggle on Catarelto, and on the night of 2 October the 5th Grenadier Guards were poised for another punishing assault.
The initial attack was planned to be ‘two up’ – two companies abreast with the other two echeloned behind. But the weather delayed the fire-plan. The FOOs (forward observation officers), MFCs (mortar-fire controllers), machine-gunners, and forward air controllers had hoped to observe the effects of their fire from the high ground at Palazzo about a mile and a half due south of Catarelto, but mist and driving rain would not allow it.
So the Grenadiers reorganised into ‘one up’ – just one company leading with the others behind but able to deploy quickly into a flanking attack. Artillery and mortar observers were to accompany them, fully understanding that, while they could call for fire, adjusting it accurately and fast in such poor visibility would be almost impossible. Indeed, it was the lack of fire support that caused the first attack to fail.
The Grenadiers attack
The Guardsmen went into battle full of determination but, with fields of fire heavily restricted by the mist, the advantage lay heavily with the defenders. The SS men had wasted no time after beating back the Scots Guards and were ready for what came next. The Grenadiers were lanced by MG42s firing on carefully reconnoitred fixed lines through the murk. Hit also by showers of rifle grenades and light mortars, they fell back.
In the early afternoon, the weather was even worse, but another attempt was made using the cover provided by the woods to the south-east and east of the crest. The result was the same. Soaked and shot at, the ‘Fighting Fifth’ Battalion fell back to their start line to lick their wounds. The butcher’s bill – four dead and 13 wounded – had, happily, been fairly light, but the Brigadier was extremely conscious that he had no more resources to hurl against Catarelto.
A handful of reinforcements were brought up for the Grenadiers, who were rested and restocked with ammunition, the weather showed some signs of improvement, and plans were made for another attempt on 3 October. Then reconnaissance patrols were sent out in the darkness to see whether it would be possible to edge round to the rear of the Germans and attack from there.
In the early hours of 3 October, a little knot of Guardsmen picked their way towards the high ground, through wire, into and round shell-holes and smashed tree roots, expecting a whispered challenge and a burst of submachine-gun fire at any minute.
They got closer and closer to the walled enclosures on the top of the heights, finding empty trenches, strewed ammunition boxes, and all the mess of war – but no Germans. The 35th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment and their reinforcements had ‘broken clean’: they had used the weather and darkness to slip away and live to fight another day.
But why? It is always tempting for an attacking force to think that its aggression and bravery had forced the issue. In the case of 24th (Guards) Brigade, they had certainly killed, injured, and captured a large number of their enemy. But it was the American seizure of Monte del Galletto four miles north-east of Catarelto, and 11th South African Armoured Brigade taking the slopes of Monte Vigese that dominated the entire left flank, that had decided things.
In short, Monte Catarelto had served its purpose: blood had been spilled and time bought for further defences to be completed near Imola – the final gateway to Bologna – and every fighting man was vital to prop up Hitler’s crumbling cause.
The helter-skelter of defeat and retreat which overtook the Wehrmacht in the seven months that followed guaranteed that many of the meticulous records kept by German units were lost. There may also have been a special urgency about expunging the record of SS units. A prime case was Catarelto, where only British records exist to show just how badly the Reichsführer-SS had suffered.
By the estimate of the 1st Scots Guards, about 400 men had met their initial attack with about the same number committed later as reinforcements and as counter-attacking forces. About 40 SS corpses were recovered and buried by the Guardsmen, which led them to believe that more than 250 Germans had been killed or injured. This was a staggering number for a ‘simple’ delaying action.
I have speculated on how that Scots Guardsman’s knife ended up lost amid the scrub of an Italian hillside. Had it slipped from his haversack during some bitter struggle or been blown from his body by the grenade that killed him? We will probably never know, but it is at least certain that he was one of the gallant band for whom the bagpipe pibroch ‘Monte Catarelto’ was composed; it is played in their memory to this day. •
Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made special studies of the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, and the Italian Campaign of the Second World War.