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Battle of Cisterna

American troops taking shots at German troops who are just out of view in Cisterna

The Battle of Cisterna was a battle that took place between chiefly American Ranger forces and members of the Herman Göring Panzer Division along with elements of the 33rd Infanterie Division in Cisterna, Italy, 1944. The battle took place from January 30, 1944 to February 2. The battle resulted in a German victory and the dissolution of just about all US ranger forces in Italy. It has been judged that the root cause of why the rangers had failed even with the support of some additional infantry units was that they were lightly armed and did not have any of the necessary support units such as tanks or aircraft needed to combat the well entrenched German troops.

Also an important factor was that the rangers, as the suffered casualties were given new "green" troops with little experience meaning operations were more likely to fail. The final "nail in the coffin" for the rangers was that they were used in a way that strayed from their purpose, they were used in Cisterna as conventional infantry but thatwas exactly what they were not. The rangers were meant to fight as stealthy squads that could infiltrate enemy lines.[1]

The importance of the battle was for the Allies to break through the very troublesome Winter Line which after the battle would need to be defeated elsewhere. Allied casualties were about 42 killed, 94 wounded, and around 740 men captured. The allies only captured Cisterna three months later. German casualties for the battle are unknown.

Planning and Preparation[]

For the battle it was decided that the Allies would send in the 4th Ranger Battalion, 3rd Ranger Battalion, and 3rd Infantry Division along with elements of the 504th Parachute Regiment. The initial plan of attack was to have the 504th drop in behind enemy lines and have the 3rd Infantry and Rangers come in conventional, however this plan was quickly scrapped and the new one consisted of having the Rangers infiltrate the city alone while the 3rd Infantry and the 504th cover their flanks.[2] Meanwhile, as the battle raged in Cisterna, the British would march on to Campoleone and the Alban Hills. What the Germans had in the city was large amount of battle-hardened troops that were all on leave from the Winter Line. These units were chiefly from the Herman Göring Panzer Division and the 33rd Infanterie Division. This was entirely contradictory to what the US intelligence had described as a group of Wehrmacht units that were all on the verge of surrender and were a loosely knit group of low skill level troops. In fact, the Germans were shipping huge amounts of troops to Cisterna for a counterattack. Other German units that were in the city were some elements of the 4th Fallshirmjäger Division.

The Battle[]

The battle of Cisterna truly began on the night of January 30, 1944 when US Rangers began their infiltration. They quickly captured a building on the edge of town and set up their base of operations. Rangers were then sent out to set up farther into the town and await further orders, however, the two forces lost contact with each other and in the haste of confusion, US commanders further split up their forces and continued to move forward. At this point, the Rangers were painfully weak as their forces had divided so much. Even worse, when a runner had been sent to make contact with the other Ranger battalion, its company commander, Major Alvah Miller had been killed in combat, thus furthering the confusion about whether the Germans were on to the operation or not. Still confused, the Americans pushed on killing some German patrols along the way to the main city.

Battle of Cisterna 2

German tanks quickly surrounded the American forces at Cisterna as evidenced in this photograph

As soon as both Ranger battalions got within a few hundred meters, German troops opened fire and determinedly, the Rangers managed to destroy some of the German tanks. They also managed to make contact with the units they had lost contact with a couple hours before. However, the Germans had in fact planned for the Americans to make an attack so a counterattack using tanks, half-tracks, and scores of infantry soon faced the rangers.

At this time, the Americans fought furiously but were soon surrounded and were being attacked on all sides, now with artillery. Even worse for the situation at hand, more German units were still pouring into the city. US troops, especially "green" replacements surrendered in hordes as the Germans closed in. Colonel Darby, the man in charge of the operation, still at his command post on the edge of town soon lost contact with those fighting in Cisterna. By February 2nd, the battle was officiallynover but the rangers were doomed before that point even arrived.