Fighting in the Serchio Valley
During WW2, the Serchio Valley is a relatively marginal front line. However, some events will remain forever in the memory of the locals. Above all is the German offensive in December 1944, known as “Operation Wintergewitter” (Winter Storm). The German Army together with the militias of the Italian Social Republic, launched an attack on December 26, 1944. For two days the German assault in the Barga and Sommocolonia area, resulted in the retreat of the 92nd US Infantry Division (The Buffalo Soldiers) almost as far as Calavorno. However, after a few days, the Allied Forces counter attacked and re-established the original position.
The Gothic Line at Borgo a Mozzano
Between 1943 and August 1944 the German Army in Italy under the command of Field Marshal Kesselring, established, a massive line of defense in order to prevent the invasion of Northern Italy. Using forced labor, the German Organization Todt constructed a defensive line of concrete bunkers, anti-tank ditches, Flak installations, over 2,000 machine gun nests, and other fortifications in a 10-mile-deep corridor that stretched across the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
This defense line, running from east to west along the hill tops of the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy, the Gothic Line was the last final stronghold for the German Army in Italy.
The installing of the defensive structures west of Lucca started in the late 1930s, the time when Italy began preparing for war.
In October 1943, Organisation Todt assumed supervision of the Gothic Line. From November 1943 until August 1944, local workmen and laborers from elsewhere was basically forced to work on the fortifications near Borgo a Mozzano. Often done as a means of avoiding prison or deportation to Germany.
Dozens of tunnels, bunkers and trenches were built along with a few anti-tank walls. Mine fields were laid and barbed wire installed.
The Allies only learned about these fortifications from a young Italian named Silvano Minucci, who infiltrated the Organisation Todt and copied selected maps. Minucci recruited a young Italien woman to carry these maps to the US Fifth Army commanders.
It survived because the defending German forces withdrew 15 Km to the north. The order to retreat came from Field Marshal Kesselring himself as he became aware that the Americans could attack the Germans from the rear after they broke through an adjacent part of the Gothic Line. With this retreat, the Germans were able to slow down the Allied advance for another 7 months.
Borgo a Mozzano was finally liberated by the advancing Brazilian Expeditionary Force, nicknamed “Cobras Fumantes” - The Smoking Cobras. A memorial in remembrance to that event can still be found in the village.
The Defence Line in Borgo a Mozzano in May 2022
In the Serchio Valley, centered around the village of Borgo a Mozzano in Tuscany, all those bunkers, Flak emplacements, trenches, anti-tank ditches, etc. are still essentially intact today and well preserved. This site is the only one of the entire Gothic Line to have remained intact. It is therefore of massive historical importance.
The Pozzori Bunker
The Mao Bunker
The Anchiano Bunker
The Anti-Tank Wall
The Monte Elto Defense Fortifications
The Museum is located in the town of Borgo a Mozzano, and its constitution dates back to 1995, with the first proposals for the formation of a Committee for the Recovery and Enhancement of the Gothic Line fortifications present and well preserved in the territory. In fact, a visit to the museum should be seen as a complement to a visit to the routes along the tunnels, bunkers and firing positions excavated in the rock.
Borgo a Mozzano - Then and Now (May 2022)
The Devils Bridge was built in the late 1300s along an old mule trail that descended from the Alps. Legends has it, the devil is supposed to have built the bridge in a single night in exchange for the first soul to cross the bridge, and, of course, the devil was fooled.
The "Buffalo Soldiers” fighting in the Serchio Valley
Of the roughly 900,000 black American soldiers selected for duty in World War II, only one black division saw actual ground combat in Europe — the 92nd Infantry Division “the Buffalo Soldiers”.
The nickname Buffalo Soldier comes from the late 1860s, when black soldiers volunteered for duty in the American West.
The 92nd Infantry Division went into action in Italy in the summer of 1944.
US troops were facing an uphill battle in Italy, and at that point, the Allies were extremely short of infantry combat troops. After months of brutal fighting, the Allies had managed to push the Germans, commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, almost 500 miles up the Italian peninsula. But even after “the eternal city” of Rome fell on June 4, 1944, the Germans had simply retreated in an orderly way from one line of defense to another rather than surrender and acknowledge defeat.
During the summer of 1944, almost 100,000 men of the Fifth Army, out of a total strength of 249,000, were transferred to the Western Front in France. As the Allies faced Kesselring’s formidable Gothic Line, built on the slopes of the Apennine Mountains and prepared to assault it, the Americans had too many tanks and not enough infantrymen.
The 92nd Infantry Division were assigned to the IV Corps of the U.S. Fifth Army in two primary areas of operation, the Serchio Valley and the coastal sector along the Ligurian Sea.
In support of the II Corps’ renewed assault on Bologna, the 92nd was expected to launch a major offensive on December. The attack was rescheduled for Christmas Day due to a predicted German counterattack. When intelligence reports indicated a large German build-up in the northern region of the Serchio Valley.
The Battle of Sommocolonia
The 92nd Infantry Division Buffalo Soldiers were defending Barga and Sommocolonia in the Serchio valley at this time.
In the evening on December 24, 1944, the 366th Infantry Regiment sent its 2nd Battalion east of the river into Sommocolonia, a dying mountain village of fewer than 50 inhabitants that overlooks Barga in Tuscany and the northernmost edge of the American line.
Light artillery and mortar shells hit Sommocolonia but there seemed almost non German activity, so most of the 2nd Battalion moved out for duty elsewhere in the vicinity, leaving behind only two platoons.
The attack against the American lines, called “Operation Wintergewitter” (Winter Storm) was made in three columns: two by Italians and one by Germans. The surprise factor was fundamental in this attack, together with a cloudy winter front preventing Allied air support.
Their objective: take and hold the small towns of Barga, Sommocolonia, Vergemoli, Treppignana, Coreglia, Fornaci di Barga, Promiana, Castelvecchio and Calomini located north-west of Lucca.
The German Order of Battle was:
· First column (toward
Vergemoli-Calomini): Italian Alpini Intra battalion; HQ defence company of 1st Reggimento Alpini; Divisional Reconnaissance group (Monterosa Div.); Two battalion, 6th Marine Infantry Regiment
(San Marco Division)
· Second column (toward
Treppignana-Castelvecchio): Italian Alpini Brescia Battalion ; 1st and 2nd battalions of 286th German Grenadier Regiment;
· Third column (toward Sommocolonia-Barga): German Mountain battalion Mittenwald; Groups of Kesselring battalion.
The assault set off before sunrise on December 26, 1944, at 4 a.m. when the villages just north and east of Gallicano were attacked first.
Although the primary German assault seemed to come from west of the river, toward Gallicano, partisans were also fighting off enemy soldiers north of Sommocolonia later in the morning.
Elements of the two German assault battalions from the third column attacked Sommocolonia, held by the two platoons of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 366th Regiment, supported by some partisans
Within two hours, Sommocolonia was surrounded. A third platoon moved up to reinforce the embattled Sommocolonia troops. It was a hard, bloody and ruthless fighting - the largest in this area.
The two platoons of the 370th, along with a group of partisans, were engaged in bloody house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat with the enemy during that battle. Just before noon, the platoons were ordered to evacuate the village, but they were trapped. They managed to hold out until nightfall, but of the 70 Americans involved, only one officer and 17 men managed to fight their way out of the village that night as ordered. On December 27, American fighter-bombers roared into the valley and hammered Sommocolonia and other front-line areas.
At least seven civilians died that day. German war records show 43 K.I.A’s.US records name 55 black American soldiers of the 366th Infantry Regiment were killed in action in and around Sommocolonia during December 26 – 27, 1944.
By late afternoon on December 27, the German offensive ended and by the following day the Axis troops were pulling back towards their start lines with the withdrawal being completed by 30 December. It had been a success with a penetration of more than 25 kilometres inside the Allies lines. However, by January 1, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions.
Lt. John Fox's last stand in Sommocolonia
Among the defenders of Sommocolonia was Lieutenant John Fox, a “Buffalo Soldier” and forward observer of the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, supporting the 366th Infantry Regiment. He played a key role in defending and holding Sommocolonia. Fox was part of a small forward observer party in the Sommocolonia “Rocca high tower”, that volunteered to stay behind in village.
John Fox, exemplified the impressive fighting spirit of the black soldiers that day.
From his position on the second floor of a house, Fox called in defensive artillery fire against the advancing Germans.
Once the Germans penetrated the defensive perimeter of the village, the fighting turned into close combat, house-by-house fighting. Fox radioed the artillery to bring its fire closer to his position. At approximately 11.00 a.m. that morning, John Fox sent his last set of coordinates, eventually ordering to fire directly on his position. He gave his own position in order to hold off and destroy the main part of the advancing German attackers.
John Fox's close friend Otis Zachary, received the message and was stunned- He knew that Fox had almost no chance to survive a direct hit, but Fox simply said, "Fire it!
There's more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!" The incoming artillery barrage killed John Fox and approximately 100 German soldiers surrounding his position. Fox's sacrifice allowed the Americans to regroup in the valley below and fight again.