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The Battle of the Rapido River: One of the Greatest Military Tragedies of World War II

August 4, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WWIIWWII HistoryNazi GermanyRapido RiverItaly

The Battle of the Rapido River: One of the Greatest Military Tragedies of World War II

Part one of a three-part series.

In World War I Walker had commanded the 30th Infantry Regiment at the 2nd Battle of the Marne in July 1918. In that fight he had to defend a river bank against a heavy onslaught by desperate German attackers. He succeeded to such a stellar level that he was awarded the nation’s second highest combat decoration for valor: the Distinguished Service Cross.

The citation for his award described actions that were eerily similar to Walker’s 1944 fight at the Rapido, but in reverse. In 1918 it was Walker whose men held the commanding position over the German attackers. During the battle, then-Major Walker “received the principal shock of the German attack . . . but inflicted great losses on the enemy as (they) crossed the river. Those who succeeded in crossing were thrown into such confusion that they were unable to follow the barrage; and, through the effective leadership of this officer, no Germans remained in his sector south of the river at the end of the day’s action.”

When Walker said the plan wouldn’t work, it was for sound tactical reasons and based on personal, bloody experience. Clark, on the other hand, had little personal combat experience, but of greater importance, had an inadequate understanding of battlefield realities. It was this limitation—and Clark’s growing ego—that conspired to doom the operation.

The Texas 36th Infantry Division was virtually wiped out as a result, never again to rise to the power it had on the eve of the Rapido attack. But it was not the name of “a division” that suffered. It was thousands of American men, among whom were among the most heroic and courageous of World War II. Their actions in the face of what they realized was certain failure—meaning they realized the chances were high they’d die, be wounded, or become a prisoner of war were high—were at once heroic and horrific. Yet as events would later unfold, their worst fears weren’t as bad as what actually happened.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

ImageBy Benjamín Núñez González - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.