On October 24, 1917, a combined German and Austrian force began a ferocious attack on the Italian lines near the town of Caporetto. The attack was intended to follow new tactics in the hope of surprising the Italians; in this, it succeeded. Among its most dramatic episodes was the progress of Captain Erwin Rommel’s Württemberg Mountain Battalion, which captured three peaks south of Caporetto and 9,000 Italian soldiers in just over two days.
The strategic situation was difficult for both sides in the fall of 1917. Both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies had been battered by repetitive battles along the Isonzo River. While the German High Command did not fully appreciate the deficiencies in the Italian position, it did recognize the danger faced by its Austro-Hungarian ally. The Germans sent seven divisions to join with eight Austrian divisions to form a new Fourteenth Army. This army was to attack the Italians before they could mount an attack of their own, and this attack was to follow new patterns. Everywhere in Europe, German practice turned in 1917 toward tactics that avoided the heaviest concentrations of enemy units in favor of deep infiltration. This practice took a special focus on the Italian front. Where Austrian tactics had previously favored attacks along ridges, both moving and fighting on the high ground in order to control the heights, the new German tactics favored rapid movement through the lower ground between such heights, often isolating enemy concentrations for capture later. The German plan sought to overwhelm the Italians with a rapid development that would challenge any attempt at countermeasures.
Among the forces detailed to Fourteenth Army was the Wuerttemberg Mountain Battalion, which was part of the Alpine Corps. Such forces were specially trained in fighting on mountainous terrain, and planners depended on them to perform the difficult work of engaging enemy detachments on high positions that the main body of troops would have avoided; at the same time, they also fit into the larger strategy by infiltrating enemy territory, following ridges into zones that the Italians had thought were secure. Their work was essential for fighting in the mountains between Italy and Austria.
The battalion’s commander, Captain Erwin Rommel, wrote extensively about its performance in this battle, devoting the last four chapters of his book Infantry Attacks to it. The battalion consisted of three companies of mountain infantry, supported by a machine gun company. There were six machine guns in the latter company, which was standard in German organization of the time, and earlier in the month this company was issued light machine guns, presumably the MG 08/15. At half the weight of the MG 08, it did much to improve the mobility of the unit, and the guns were well received. The soldiers spent some time learning the capabilities of their new weapons, and then they were sent to the assembly zone for the attack.
The main Austro-German attack passed through or around Tolmino, which was the only place where the Central Powers retained control of the bridges over the Isonzo, while additional Austrians crossed further to the south, from the Bainsizza Plateau. Rommel’s battalion gathered just to the south of Tolmino, facing a mountain ridge dominated by peaks at Monte Cragonza, Mrzli and Matajur. Mrzli was the closest, and it overlooked the German operation from the start. The Alpine Corps was given the charge of capturing two major peaks, Kuk and Matajur, giving cover to the main effort which was to sweep up the Isonzo River and seize Caporetto. Rommel’s battalion was to support the Life Guards, which was to take the lead across the Kolovrat Ridge and capture Monte Majur. Of course, Mrzli and Cragonza stood in the way of this passage.
Rommel and his men began their ascent as planned, but soon came under heavy fire. Sensibly, and in accord with the prevailing tactics of the mission, Rommel avoided a direct attack, and instead, looked for a better guarded path. Concluding that a patch of woods was used by the Italians to screen their communications, and so that movement through it would not raise an immediate alarm, Rommel’s men used it to advance on the Italians and capture them by surprise.
From there, they proceeded to the west, taking indirect routes that allowed them to surprise other Italian positions. So far, they had not needed to engage in active fire, and thereby announce their presence; instead, they tended to appear unexpectedly, and surrender or flight was the usual response.
Resistance stiffened by the time Rommel’s men joined forces with the Life Guards, and it was necessary to call for artillery support. Moreover, the commander of the Life Guards proved uncooperative, demanding that his men had priority, and Rommel should be content to offer more passive assistance. Rommel, instead, began to look for ways to show some independent initiative. At the end of the day, his superior, Major Sproesser, arrived and authorized Rommel’s plans for an attack leading up to the Kolovrat Ridge.
When this began the next day, the 25th, Rommel’s men were again able to surprise the Italian sentries and capture them or drive them away without having to fire their weapons, and thereby announce their presence. Having reached the heights, they were in a position where most Italians were looking down, not up, for enemy fighters, and this gave the Germans further advantages. With the Life Guards embroiled in an audible battle further east, and the Wuerttemberg Battalion advancing almost soundlessly, Rommel’s men were able to take hundreds of prisoners and thoroughly disrupt the Italian positions on the ridge.
After repelling a counterattack, Rommel considered capturing Kuk, which was one of his Corps’ major objectives, but soon determined that the forces present there did not pose much of a threat, and that they would soon be swept away by other forces. With that in mind, he turned about and set his sights on Monte Cragonza, whose capture would cut off the Italians in the town of Luico and assist in the advance of further support for his own side. It would also curtail the support available to the Italians at Monte Mrzli. At the end of the day, after an intense firefight with a unit of Bersaglieri, Rommel made preparations to capture Monte Cragonza the next day.
Rommel and his men made most of the climb by night, and began the day under heavy fire as soon as it was light. Again, a set-piece battle here would have been pointless, but the Germans outflanked nearby Italian positions, suddenly appearing in rear quarters. While Rommel himself came under Italian machine gun fire, his second company completed the climb up the opposite slope and captured Monte Cragonza.
In spite of the arduous effort already performed, Rommel directed his men immediately to advance toward Monte Mrzli. Again he called in for artillery support, which arrived unusually promptly. Between the artillery fire and the advancing German soldiers, the garrison on Mrzli pulled back. As Rommel got closer, he found to his surprise that a large group of soldiers had assembled between the peaks of Mrzli and Matajur. Even more surprising was their posture: they were prepared neither to fight, nor initially to surrender, but stood uncertainly for some minutes while the Germans tried to communicate with them. At last, the Italians surrendered, overcoming the disagreement of a few who wanted to continue fighting, and many of them seemed all too glad to be done with the war.
Just two German soldiers accompanied the 1,500 Italian soldiers to secured territory; several more oversaw the captured officers, who were less enthusiastic about their predicament. Rommel directed the rest to the capture of Monte Matajur, from which active enemy fire was coming. He was in the process of setting up his attack when Major Sproesser recalled the battalion. Apparently, the sheer number of prisoners being returned to him persuaded him that resistance had been broken, when active fire continued to come from one of the Corps’ principal objectives. The bulk of the battalion answered the summons, but Rommel retained six machine guns and one hundred riflemen for his plan to capture Matajur. While the machine gunners pinned down the Italian garrisons, Rommel led a group up the mountain, surprising first the 2nd Salerno Regiment on a hill before the peak, and then the company occupying the peak itself. Rommel took care to extricate the officers from the main body of men before it became clear how few the Germans were; by that time, it would have been impractical to withdraw the surrender and make a fight of it.
In the course of these two days, Rommel’s men defeated five enemy regiments and took more than 9,000 prisoners. German casualties were only 36, of which six were fatal. In the process, they seized one of their Corps’ primary objectives by themselves.
This was not the end of Rommel’s participation in the Battle of Caporetto. After a brief respite the Wuerttemberg Mountain Battalion was engaged in the general drive to pursue the retreating Italians, first crossing the Tagliamento River, and then pressing on to the Piave. By this point, however, the decisive phase of the battle was long past. The attack at Caporetto had proven to be a great success, and the land up to the river Piave was part of its rewards, for the moment. It would not be held for long, however. As for Rommel and his mountain battalion, it is for the capture of the Kolovrat peaks in the first few days of the battle that they are best known. Rommel would go on to be a leading general in the German Army during World War II; ironically, he is best known for his work in shoring up the Italians in North Africa.
Hickey, Michael. The First World War (4): The Mediterranean Front 1914-1923. Osprey, 2002
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Rommel, Erwin. Infantry Attacks. Zenith Press, 2009
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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