Sixty-eight years ago, a battle was taking place in the hills surrounding my town. Allied forces, having liberated Florence and much of Tuscany in the months prior, were closing in on the Gothic Line–the last defensive line in the Italian Campaign of WWII, the breaching of which would lead ultimately to the liberation of northern Italy the following spring.
The U.S. 5th Army II Corps arrived in this area on September 11 and 12, liberating several towns of the Mugello, including Barberino, Scarperia, and Borgo San Lorenzo, and preparing for this next major offensive. Two natural points of weakness in the central-Tuscan portion of the Gothic Line–the Futa Pass and the Giogo Pass–had been heavily reinforced with defense structures by the Todt organization, the construction arm of the German military. It was beyond this line Germans were retreating, regrouping and readying; and through it the Allies must pass to gain Italy.
The 5th Army’s 85th Infantry Division (aka the Custer Division, or Custermen) attacked at Mounts Altuzzo, Verruca, Prefetto, and Pratone. Altuzzo, forming the right flank of the Giogo, was where the 338th infantry regiment of the 85th would fight a slow-going, disorienting, exhausting battle, starting on September 13. Plagued by missed objectives in the confusing terrain, faulty communications, and lack of accurate data on the enemy’s position, the 338th endured three grim and bloody days, until a breakthrough to the east at Pratone opened up a tactical advantage. Though ‘seriously depleted’ and ‘battered but indomitable,’ as described by Douglas Orgill in his book The Gothic Line, the 1st battalion of the 338th finally captured Altuzzo at dawn on September 17.
Orgill sums up the importance of the 338th’s victory:
‘Far more important, of course, was the effect of the 338th’s victory when combined with the success of the 337th and the 1st British Infantry Division round Monte Pratone. Along the whole line from the Futa Pass for several miles to the east, the Germans fell back. On the 85th Division’s right, the 339th Infantry took Monte Verruca, virtually destroying a battalion of the Lehr Brigade in the process, while the 91st Division on the left seized the crest of Monticelli. More important still, the elaborate defence works of the Futa Pass, with its dug-in tank turrets, wire, and terraced minefields, were completely out-flanked as the German line pulled back to the heights behind Firenzuola. The great pass fell to the American infantry after only light rearguard fighting on September 22.’
The 338th lost 290 soldiers in the battle for Altuzzo.