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Battle of Garfagnana

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US troops near Massa, Italy during the battle of Garfagnana

The Battle of Garfagnana was an offensive carried out by German and Italian RSI forces against British and American forces on the west side of the Gothic Line. Often referred to as the Offensiva di Natale ("Christmas" Offensive) or Operation Winter Storm, the battle resulted in an Axis tactical victory against the Allies. The battle lasted from December 26, 1944 to February 10, 1945.

The Monte Rosa & Italia Divisions that took part in the battle had been trained in Germany and in late October 1944 overran part of the Brazilian forces fighting through the Gothic LIne, gaining much experience in the process.

On 13 October, Italian Waffen SS units fighting alongside German divisions had helped defeat American attempts to capture Bologna city. The Americans suffer 15,700 casualties & call off their assaults.

The US 92nd Buffalo Infantry Division was expected to launch a major attack on Christmas Day in support of the renewed Allied attacks against the Axis defenders dug in and around Bologna. The attack was cancelled due to Operation Winter Storm.[1]

Background Edit

From 26-31 December, as part of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani's and Benito Mussolini's Operation Winter Storm[2], the Monte Rosa (Alpine) and San Marco (Marine) Divisions under General Mario Carloni attack and overrun the US 92nd Buffalo Infantry Division (commanded by General Edward Almond) in the Serchio Valley, with the Italians forming and commanding two of the three Italo-German Spearheads involved.

Operation Winter Storm Edit

On 13 December, in preparation for the coming Axis offensive, a hand-picked Italian platoon slips past the US outposts at Vergemoli and Gallicano and attempts to blow up the concrete bridge at Farnaci.[3]

The Italo-Austrian force advanced in three columns under the cover of darkness of 25 December. The first column moved toward Vergemoli-Calomini, the second toward Treppignana-Castelvecchio, and the third toward Sommocolonia-Barga. The troops of 2nd Battalion from the US 366th Regiment at Sommocolonia were hit first and several forward platoon positions were overrun, with Bebbio and Scarpello captured, pushing the Americans back toward Coreglia.

In the early hours of 26 December, a company of black American soldiers from the 92nd US Infantry Division, were pinned down by heavy mortar fire in Sommocolonia, a village of 200 inhabitants.  29-year-old Lieutenant John R Fox, an artillery officer, soon saw the streets of Sommocolonia swarming with soldiers from the Austrian 4th Gebirgsjäger (Mountain) Battalion. The Axis attackers expected little resistance as many Black American troops had been reported in the area. Much fierce resistance was encountered, though.

By 9 in the morning, there was house-to-house combat taking place in the streets Sommocolonia. Black American soldiers, reinforced by a platoon of Italian Communist Partisans, soon realised that they could, at best, only slow down the Axis offensive.

Orders to retreat were radioed from Barga headquarters, but by that time, two thirds of the American and Italian defenders were dead or wounded. With the wounded dragged inside, the Austrians started burning houses in Sommocolonia.

US field artillery at Barga opened fire in support of the Somocolonia defenders that were being surrounded, with Lieutenant Fox radioing the co-ordinates.  With Austrian and Italian infantry reinforcing the attack, several men at Barga heard Fox’s last call for a smokescreen to allow the surviving American soldiers and Italian Communist Partisans to escape, and then heavy artillery fire rained down on his position.  The US artillery commander hesitated in firing on his position but Lieutenant Fox had his way. Of the 100 Americans and Partisans, only 18 made it from Sommocolonia to the lines of the US 5th Army.

In the fighting on 26 December, Austrian troops had also captured Fornaci from the Americans, and the Italians captured the village of Molazzano but failed to take Brucciano.

On the night of 26/27 December, the surviving civilians from Sommocolonia were rounded up by the Austrians and Italians and suspected Communist Partisans and sympathizers detained. The local Italian priest later told of seeing Lieutenant Fox’s body in the rubble, along with the bodies of about 100 Axis soldiers. About 50 American soldiers and 30 Communist Partisans were killed in the defence of Sommocolonia.[4]

On 27 December, Austrian troops captured Pian di Coreglia, a main objective, while Italian troops captured the village of Calavorno.

On 27 and 28 December, with US 92nd Buffalo Division retreating or digging in all along the 9-kilometre frontline, 1,000 US P-47 Thunderbolts, Mustang fighters, Mitchell bombers and British Commonwealth Spitfires, Kittyhawks intervened, finally halting the Italo-German advance.

US War Correspondent Sid Feder would claim that Allied air power played a key part in halting the Italo-German drive:

Strong Allied air and ground forces were thrown into battle today in an effort to halt the German assault on a six-mile front in the Serchio river valley, where American doughboys have been driven from the important road town of Barga in two days of fierce fighting. The Germans declared that the U.S. 92nd division had been knocked back "some kilometres", which evidently was aimed at the vital Allied supply port of Livorno (Leghorn) ... The Allied tactical air forces hurled the full fury of their bombs, cannon and machineguns against the attacking enemy, with well over 1,000 warplanes participating in the headlong strikes against troop concentrations, gun posts, occupied buildings and road junctions in the battle area. American Thunderbolt and Mustang fighters and Mitchell medium bombers were joined by British and South African Spitfires and Kittyhawks in the blistering assault. Many fires and explosions were seen around Barga and two towns in the immediate northwest, Castelnuovo and Gallicano.[5]

Nevertheless, a number of Italian rifle companies and platoons advance 10 kilometres or more and reach the outskirts of the Spa Town of Bagni Di Lucca and the Monte Rosa and reinforcements in the form of the San Marco and Italia Divisions successfully defend their forward positions in the Serchio Valley for several days, weeks or months.[6][7]

Although the Axis offensive had pushed back the Americans by about 25 kilometers, Allied air power and reinforcements from the 8th Indian Infantry Division halted the offensive.

The Axis troops would form a new defensive line about 2 kilometers south of the original line, bringing back large amounts of captured weapons, food, equipment, and 300 POWs.

Generals Mark Clark and Lucian Truscott would be at a loss explaining the defeat of the 92nd Buffalo Division, claiming that several crack German Gebirgsjäger Battalions had overrun the US 366th and 370th Infantry Regiments.[8][9]The two Gebirgsjäger Battalions from the German Mountain Division involved would come under heavy criticism from the Italian commanders for taking too much time in clearing Sommocolonia.[10]

On 2 January 1945, the Australian "Special Correspondent" from The Age Newspaper reporting from the US frontlines in Italy, reports that the hilltop town of Sommocolonia (lost during Operation ''Winter Storm'') had been recaptured.[11]

On 4 February, the 366th Infantry Regiment from the US 92nd Division recaptures the Town of Gallicano that was lost during Operation Winter Storm.

On 5 February, the 365th Regiment recaptured the town of Lama, north of Sommocolonia, and occupied Mount Della Stella at the foot of the Lama di Sotto Ridge.

On 8 February, Axis reinforcements in the form of a German battalion dislodges the 365th Regiment from Mount Della Stella.[12]

On the night of 10/11 February, under heavy Axis artillery fire, the Buffalo soldiers retook Mount Della Stella.

On 28 February, the fighting continued in the Serchio Valley, with American fighting patrols reporting "long-range enemy machine gun and mortar fire between the Serchio valley and the Ligurian coast." [13]

Aftermath Edit

Shortly after the end of the war, Sommocolonia’s inhabitants erected a peace memorial to Lieutenant John R Fox and all the civilians and Allied and Axis soldiers that died in the battle.[14]The villagers even named one of the streets in the village after the Buffalo Division of which Fox was a member.

In 1997, Lieutenant Fox was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on 26 December 1944, that helped prevent the Axis advance from spilling into the port of Livorno.

In July 2002, Antonio Nardini (president of the Lucca Historical Society) that fought against the 92nd Division in the battle recognized the bravery of Fox in an interview with Alessandra Stanley from the New York Times, "His gesture may have been futile, but he acted like a real soldier."[15]


  1. African American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War II
  2. "Italian government, then at Brescia, reported that Mussolini had urged on Hitler the argument that an attack on the weakly-held western sector of the Allied front in Italy by two Italian and two German divisions would, by advancing to the Arno and cutting of Eighth Army, give the Axis a much-needed military success." British Intelligence in the Second World War, Francis Harry Hinsley, p. 357, Cambridge University Press, 1979
  3. "On 13 December, Vergemoli and the Gallicano area again received more heavy shelling. On that night, too, a small enemy patrol slipped past the guard to blow the concrete bridge across the Serchio at Farnaci. Demolition, however, was not properly effected and by morning, Engineers had repaired the bridge." Buffalo Soldiers in Italy, Hondon B. Hargrove, p. 58, McFarland, 2003
  4. 'Buffalo soldiers' veterans gather at WWII battlesite in Italy
  5. GERMANS PUSH AHEAD ON WEST COAST OF SICILY, The Lewiston Daily Sun, 29 December 1944
  6. "Nothing could dislodge the gains made by Operation Winsterstorm. These comprised a conquered wedge twenty kilometres wide and nine kilometres deep which stood largely intact throughout the rest of the war. In fact, its defenders continued fighting for days after Mussolini's death the following year." Mussolini's War, Frank Joseph, p. 198, Casemate Publishers, 2010
  7. ""Still not routed, the Germans and their RSI allies thereafter successfully defended the 'Gothic Line', running from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic Sea south of Bologna and the other gateways to the Po valley. That richest part of Italy was not liberated until the last days of the war in April 1945." Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship, 1915-1945, R J B Bosworth, Penguin, 2006
  8. "It (92nd Division) did not come up to the test, and when the Germans struck down the Serchio Valley, the Regimental Commanders were unable to exercise sufficient control of their troops in an emergency." Buffalo Soldiers in Italy, Hondon B. Hargrove, p. 78, McFarland, 2003
  9. "The Germans launched several limited objective attacks in the Serchio Valley, with forces involving five or six battalion which struck the First Battalion, 370th Infantry and the Second Battalion, 366th Infantry, both of which "melted away"..." Buffalo Soldiers in Italy, Hondon B. Hargrove, p. 79, McFarland, 2003
  10. "Fornaci itself fell quickly, although the two German (in fact mostly Alsatian) battalions were heavily criticized for their sluggishness and lack of aggressiveness." WINTERGEWITTER Bastogne italiana
  11. Defences Probed, The Age, 3 January 1945
  12. African American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War II
  13. PATROL CLASHES FLARE IN ITALY, Spokane Daily Chronicle, 27 February 1945
  14. Memories of black soldier's WWII heroism bing back mixed feeling in Italian village
  15. [,2965713&hl=en Memories of black soldier's WWII heroism bing back mixed feeling in Italian village]

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