This is the forward to the upcoming publication of Winter Line Stories. A book based on stories my grandfather, Major Ralph R. Hotchkiss, wrote while embedded with the US 5th Army from 1943 through 1945 during the Italian Campaign of WWII.
In February 1943, at age 37, Captain Ralph R. Hotchkiss left his early career as a financial writer and joined other soldiers on a high seas journey to Tunisia as a member of the U.S. Army. He left behind his wife, three young sons and 8th-grade education, to serve as a correspondent and Intelligence liaison officer. Fresh off a crash course in Italian at Yale University, the newly minted soldier had no idea what would transpire over the next couple of years. Given his age and life experience, he was commissioned as an officer despite never completing a single high school class.
The Captain, my Grandfather, was assigned to the newly formed 5th Army under General Mark Clark based in North Africa. Before eating his first bite of couscous, Captain Hotchkiss was just another name in the thousands headed for the beaches of Salerno, Italy in OPERATION AVALANCHE; the Allied mission intended to advance from the foot of Italy north towards Rome with the goal to drive the Axis foes from their occupation of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist country. The operation was in motion when Benito Mussolini abruptly resigned and his fractured Fascist system crumbled as the oppressed Italian main stream celebrated. The defense of Italy was left to the occupying Nazi German Wehrmacht. Game on. Thought to be a less of a challenge now, AVALANCHE became a large, slow rolling snowball. The Amphibious landing at Salerno was a portent of the things to come. The overwhelming task of moving armies from a host of countries from the beaches of Southern Italy, over muddy roads either bounded by mountains or ribboned with swollen rivers, mortar-pocked mule paths, and mine-riddled olive groves proved to be way more difficult than had been planned for. Numerous battles were fought starting with the amphibious landing in Salerno, in and around the rivers Volturno and Rapido, the Anzio Beachhead, Monte Cassino and various other locations along Routes 6 and 7 just to reach the German main defenses; the Gustav Line, aka Winter Line.
The Italian Campaign has frequently been referred to as the “Forgotten Front”. In large part, this is a product of the Army Public Affairs Department. The powers-that-be knew the importance of information long before they would be able to Snapchat propaganda. The battles that waged in a 140-mile-long journey were numerous, bloody and tortuous, ultimately yielding upwards of 1 million casualties from all sides of the conflict. Miniscule advances, frequently repelled, along with difficult terrain, relentless winter cold and rain did not make good copy. Allied commanders were measuring progress in terms of casualties per yard of land gained – I kid you not. Since there was not much else to report, little was known to the American public, hence the relative anonymity of the Campaign.
My Grandfather quickly learned that the First Amendment had special provisions in forward combat operations. The “Rules” of censorship were as ambiguous as the reported efforts of the Allied forces were revealed. One could not write about the horrible conditions or bad weather. A torrential sideways downpour in near-freezing temperatures that lasted a week, in reality, became “days with a chill in the air and a persistent mist about” in approved printed copy after passing the through the Army PR filters. For more obvious reasons, giving locations, regimental or division designations were omitted from anything written. Casualty numbers or even hints thereof were verboten unless referring to “substantial losses by the enemy”. Material submitted for any type of public consumption were vetted through Army bowdlerizers. Grandfather’s original articles and photographs all have censor approved status stamped and signed.
Accurate accounts would have to wait until the fighting was over and even then, much of the sensitive material would not be known to the public until many years after the war.
The autumn of ’43 through the summer of ’44 was the most challenging for the 5th Army and the rest of the allies from Britain, Canada, Free France, Poland, the Italian Royalists, India, Morocco, Australia and New Zealand among others. Lieutenant General Mark Clark was the 5th Army commander in Italy. His counterpart for Germany was Commander-in-Chief of the South, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring. Both were highly regarded and decorated leaders not without controversy, though.
Clark was criticized by some for focusing the attention on taking Rome rather than busying Kesselring and the German 10th Army with continuous assaults and losses during a slow retreat; keeping them occupied so the Allies could set-up air operations in Northern Italy for bombing missions directly into Germany. Some believe this caused a delay in the inevitable conclusion of the war. The strategy has been criticized by many as military folly, but the ultimate outcome obscured further debate save serious war historians.
Kesselring’s alleged shortcomings occurred during the retreat from the Winter Line and Rome when Draconian orders were given to deal with Italian loyalists by “exceeding normal restraint” with artillery fire, flame throwers and other means of lethal force. Kesselring was later tried under British Military Authority, convicted for killing Italian civilians and sentenced to death for these actions. The sentence was never carried out.
It was during the slower periods of the Italian campaign that Grandfather found a good time to write and finalize stories of the things he observed first-hand. He earned the rank of Major along the way. The timing of events he wrote about stem from the aftermath of AVALANCHE in the environs of Naples until the triumphant march into Rome. Stories that included an incidental phenomenon – when compared to a world war – of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius outside Pompeii in March of 1944. An eruption that spewed lava into the village of San Sebastiano, destroying it completely. A significant even by any measure but a mere blip on the history screen at the time.
Many stories were based on events while he was embedded in the Liri river valley just south of the Winter Line. The valley was a confluence of the Liri, Garigliano and Rapido rivers. This was the critical launching point for the final trip to Rome beginning with the bloody battle for the entry to the valley at San Pietro where the famous story “The Death of Captain Waskow” was written by esteemed war journalist, Ernie Pyle. This was followed by two disastrous (and failed) attempts to cross the Rapido chronicled in Duane Clark’s excellent book Crossing the Rapido – a Tragedy of World War II. The struggle for the Allies continued with four attempts to take Monte Cassino. The final attempt preempted by the most massive bombing of a single site during the war to obliterate an ancient Benedictine Monastery thought to be a German defensive stronghold and ideal observatory of the Liri valley 1700 ft (520 meters) below. A treacherous series of battles with casualties on a par with the Battle of the Bulge. Monte Cassino, the Hardest Fought Battle of World War II” by Rick Atkinson depicts the gory details of the four skirmishes taking place between January and May of 1944. As brutal as the entire campaign in Italy was, this period during the winter and spring of 1943-1944 was the worst in terms of conditions, human suffering, and unthinkable casualties. “One healthy mule was more valuable to the cause than an entire column of Sherman tanks” said one soldier.
Yet, it was here that he witnessed things that taught me about the roles of Piper Cubs, Linesmen, Ordnance Corps, Combat Engineers, Messengers and Army Pictorial Services. He became good friends with Eric Sevareid, covering the war for CBS News during the Vesuvius eruption.
The final story he wrote while still in Italy was about the last few miles to Rome. It’s a lengthy article of trepidation, fear and ultimately jubilation targetted for the general population. He wrote the same account in a letter to my Grandmother whom he addressed as “Hotchie” as a story of relief, celebration of a freed Rome and the beauty of the Eternal City. A juxtaposition extraordinaire.
His stories were about everyday folks doing extraordinary things that were as important to the outcome of the war as most other recognized feats of military genius or human bravery. Terms like Battle of the Bulge, Utah or Omaha Beach, the Battle of Britain or Auschwitz are well-known to even the casual observer. The names of Eisenhower, Hitler, Montgomery, Patton, Himmler, and Rommel are equally famous or infamous in their respective ways. Grandfather wrote about the unheralded, the little known and rarely credited. Whether partially due to censorship rules or perhaps his own beliefs, the stories are mostly anecdotal and uplifting. I cannot answer which was more influential, the censors or his conscience. That is one thing about my Grandfather I’m afraid I did not learn from a foot locker full of stories typed on tissue paper and grainy black and white photographs. It would have been nice to get that answer.
It was a pleasure getting to know you, Grandfather.
Note: All of the original stories my grandfather wrote will be included in the book. Excerpts of these stories have been scanned and can be viewed at winterlinestories.com/stories