The Loss of the Col di Lana Peak - 17 April 1916

Col di lana viewed from the North from Mte. Sief
Introduction 

The following article is the story of just one day of a bitterly fought action between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian armies which commenced in May 1915 and continued until October 1917 nearly two and a half years later. Since the beginning of hostilities with Italy on the 23rd May 1915, the Austrians had held the 2462m high peak of the Col di Lana just to the Southwest of Cortina in the Dolomite Mountains. Initially held by assorted Standschützen and Landsturm formations and then by the famous German Alpenkorps during the Summer of 1915, the peak was to be lost after the explosion of a massive mine on the 17th of April 1916 while being held by the 6th company of the 2nd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger regiment. Subsequent to the loss of the peak itself, the Austrians were able to again stabilise their line about half a kilometre to the rear of the lost position on Monte Sief which was held until October 1917 when the Italians were compelled to withdraw to the line of the Piave River after the battle of Caporetto. The mountain was well named by the troops of both sides: "Blood Mountain" or "Calvary Mountain".

The War in the Alps  Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had made provision for the defence of its Southern border by the raising of specialised mountain formations. These were the Landesschützen of the Austrian Landwehr and also the four regiments of Tyrolean Kaiserjäger. Ironically when Italy declared war on the 23rd of May 1915, the very formations that would assure the defence of Austria's Southern border were bleeding to death in Galicia. At the outbreak of hostilities therefore, the newly mobilised Standschützen formations from the Tyrol and Voralberg were rushed to the Alpine front. These battalion and company sized formations were formed from the traditional rifle associations of the Tyrol and Voralberg and consisted of either the rather aged or the very young who were not already fighting at the front. The officers and non-commissioned officers were selected by a vote of the personnel of the individual unit and usually a common army or Landwehr officer was attached as an advisor. In many cases these formations were fighting in the vicinity of their own villages. The total forces immediately available on the Austrian side for employment on the Tyrolean front were 26 infantry battalions, 46 Standschützen detachments, 12 Landesschützenbesatzungsdetachements (the garrisons of the border fortifications drawn from the three landesschützen regiments), 37 Fortress artillery and three sapper companies; in total 35,000 men with 146 mobile and 539 fortress artillery pieces. Opposing the Austro-Hungarians on the 350km front were the 1st and 4th Italian armies (Lieutenant Generals Roberto Brusati and Luigi Nava respectively) with 12 infantry divisions and 3 Alpini groups. The Austrians voluntarily withdrew to a more defensible line in the South Tyrol and in some cases 15 to 20km behind the border at the beginning of the conflict. The whole of the Tyrol was divided into five defence zones known as Rayons which were numbered I through V. These in turn were divided into "Grenzabschnittkommandos" or border sector commands and then into "Grenzunterabschnitte" or sub-sectors. The Col di Lana position was the forward most point and anchor of Rayon V which stretched from the area East of the Marmolata and then generally in a North-Easterly direction to the Carinthian border. Rayon V was divided into Grenzabschnitte 9 and 10. The Col di Lana itself was in Unterabschnitt 9a. At the outbreak of hostilities until the 5th of June 1915 Rayon 5 was the responsibility of 56.Gebirgs-Brigade and from then on Division Pustertal (named after the major valley to the rear of the Rayon) under Feldmarschalleutnant Ludwig Goiginger. Under command Division Pustertal were the 51.Gebirgs-Brigade with responsibility for Abschnitt 9 under Oberst Edler von Sparber and 56.Gebirgs-Brigade under Generalmajor Bankowski with responsibility for Abschnitt 10. On the 25th May 1915, the former commander of 1.Armee, General der Kavallerie Viktor Dankl assumed command of the Tyrol's defences.

Sector map of the South Tyrol

The Col di Lana besides affording unequalled artillery observation of the Italian hinterland was also a major obstacle to the strategically important Puster Valley with its lateral railway from Lienz to Brixen and thence to Bozen and Innsbruck. It was therefore an important objective of General Nava's 4th Italian army and in particular the 17th and 18th divisions of Lieutenant General Marini's IX Corps. When on the 4th June 1915, the Italians mounted their first offensive in the Tyrol, the forces available in the Col di Lana sector amounted to only a part of Landsturmbataillon 165 and the Standschützen from Enneberg and Silz as well as a few Gendarmerie personnel and customs officials. Fortunately for the Austrians, however this initial thrust was not in the immediate sector of the Col di Lana. During the first days of the war patrol activity and the fortifying of the mountain positions had been the order of the day with only a few casualties. On the Col di Lana itself and on its forward and flanking slopes a number of positions were constructed, the most important of these being the actual position on the peak - the "Gipfelstellung", the "Infanteriestellung" and the "Felsenwache" or rock position both on the Southern (forward) slope and point 2250 just to the East. Additionally, a connected line of "Feldwache" or piquet posts were maintained below the peak along the Western side of the mountain generally running in a North Westerly direction. As a welcome and most urgent addition to the Austro-Hungarian defence, the German high command had dispatched the Alpenkorps to the South Tyrol under the command of the Bavarian Generalleutnant Konrad Krafft von Delmensingen; the first trains leaving the camp at Lechfeld on the 24th of May. After some familiarisation training, Major Hugo Bauernschmitt's 2.bayerische Jäger-Bataillon of the königlische bayerische Jäger-Regiment Nr.1 was assigned to the Col di Lana sector where it would remain until the 24th of September when it was relieved by the Prussian Reserve Jäger-Bataillon 10. The fighting for the Col di Lana position started in earnest with the mounting of the 2nd offensive commencing on the 4th of July 1915 with repeated attacks against the Bavarians in the Infanteriestellung and point 2250 over the following two weeks and with further heavy offensive action in the first week of August. Casualties were heavy, particularly for the attacking Italians. Losses for the Italians on the day and night of the 4th/5th of August being 4 dead and 8 wounded officers and 120 dead and missing NCOs and soldiers with a further 360 wounded. The garrison on the Col di Lana lost at the same time 45 dead, 7 missing and 60 wounded. Further fighting and heavy artillery exchanges continued for the rest of the Summer and into October when at last the men of the Alpenkorps on the Col di Lana were relieved by Oberst Maximilian Bauer's 3rd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger regiment during the second week of that month. Throughout the Autumn and Winter the bloody slog continued, casualties mounted on both sides with a succession of Austro-Hungarian units being relieved in place on the mountain. The Italians gallantly nibbled away at the position and with a combination of artillery fire and persistent infantry attacks gradually pushed the Austrians back up the mountain. Point 2250 was lost on the 22nd October, followed by the Felsenwache on the 26th. This made the continuing possession of the Infanteriestellung further to South and down the mountain increasingly untenable and this was lost on the 29th of October. On the 7th of November the 3rd battalion of the Italian 60th infantry regiment succeeded in storming the summit and capturing the the re-enforced platoon of Kaiserschützen-Regiment III holding the peak position. A counter-attack delivered the same evening under the command of Hauptmann Valentini and supported by heavy artillery support succeeded in retaking the lost position. The new year brought a new phase in the fighting with the introduction of mine warfare which would culminate in the detonation of a huge Italian mine beneath the peak position on the 17th April. Since the 6th of February 1916, individual companies of the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger regiment had been holding the "Gipfelstellung" or peak position. In the meantime, the Italian engineers under the command of Lieutenant Don Gelasio Caetani, Prince of Sermoneta had constructed a tunnel 52 metres beneath the mountain which had inclined up the mountain at a slope of 15 degrees. Started on the 13th of January from the area of the Rothschanze to the South West of the peak, the tunnel was completed and the 5020 kg of explosive was in place and ready for electrical detonation on the 17th of April.

Sketch Map of the Col di Lana Position October 1915

16/17 April 1916

The 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger regiment was commanded by Hauptmann Erich von Gasteiger, whose 6th company under Oberleutnant Anton Tschurtschenthaler von Helmheim relieved the 5th under Hauptman Adelbert Homa on the Col di Lana peak during the night of the 16th/17th April. The relief went smoothly and the night passed quietly. At about five in the morning in contrast to their usual practice, the Italian artillery began firing on the position. Initially the fire was not very accurate and many of the incoming rounds were blinds. However at about 7.30 am the first heavy (21cm) shell exploded in the centre of von Tschurtschenthaler's position and was immediately followed by many more. The company commander immediately initiated the evacuation of the more exposed shelters. All the personnel not on duty were assembled in the big cavern beneath the position. The fire increased in violence and at almost regular intervals 21cm fire was hitting the position mixed with grenades and shrapnel of all calibres. As the morning wore on the position was subjected to a level of fire of such an intensity as to be described by the Austrians as "Trommelfeuer" or drumfire - a very heavy bombardment. In fact the whole of the artillery of the Italian 17th and 18th divisions, some 111 small calibre and 28 medium calibre guns including six 149mm, four 194mm cannon and ten 210mm howitzers were concentrating on the Col di Lana peak. The exposed posts were reduced to minimal manning and the remainder of the garrison was held ready in the cavern with weapons and grenades to meet the expected enemy advance. At about 9 am an heavy grenade exploded just in front of the officer's bunker. At about 10 am a direct hit destroyed the stairs of the most important access to the fire trenches followed by a hit on the entrance to the cavern at about 11 am which completely blocked the entrance with boulders and beams. Although the entrance was soon cleared the resulting influx of cordite fumes from succeeding explosions soon made breathing within the cavern almost impossible and demanded the partial clearance of the overfull cavern (100 men) because of  men losing consciousness through lack of oxygen. And although men were therefore moved to other small bunkers these were not especially safe from the heavy gunfire. 

Inside the cavern, in order to ensure a continual supply of relatively fresh air, men were put to work wafting large tarpaulin sheets, a laborious task that had to be continued into the night due to the continuing enemy artillery fire. Hardly had the garrison of the cavern sorted themselves out when a further direct hit on the cavern entrance created the the same blockage as before. Throughout the morning casualties rose, with men being killed, wounded and buried alive and at about 2 pm a direct hit crashed into the large wooden barracks which normally accommodated the garrison just to the rear of the peak. The Italian artillery fire continued throughout the whole afternoon and evening in ever increasing intensity causing further loss of life and wounds on the beleaguered garrison. 

At five past nine the fire stopped...The fire trenches had all been destroyed, the access points to the position were for the most part buried. Oberleutnant von Tschurtschenthaler had the company under the supervision of engineer Feldwebel Schmelzer start to repair the damage as best they could in order to provide at least some provision for the expected attack during the night. The field telephone line to the sub sector command post had been cut all day and any communication to the rear had been impossible during the barrage. Von Tschurtschenthaler sent a report back to Hauptmann von Gasteiger with some lightly wounded troops in which he described the events of the day, losses and described the condition of his company. In a further message he requested reinforcements and if at all possible support for the rebuilding of the position. At 10 pm telephone communications were restored and von Tschurtschenthaler was able to reiterate his requests to the battalion commander.

At 10:30 pm a non commissioned officer sounded the alarm. The Italians were observed crawling forward. The position was immediately manned. For the Jägers in position behind the rubble and earth of the peak position the tension of the long day of waiting under fire was released at last. Oberleutnant von Tschurtschenthaler informed the battalion commander of the situation who in turn had the sector artillery placed on standby at von Tschurtschenthaler's call. After this last call to the sub sector commander he moved back into the cavern where he also had the telephone moved. He left two officers to supervise the fire trenches. About ten minutes later the Italians detonated the huge mine. The occupants of the cavern were thrown from their seats by the blast and concussion of the extremely powerful explosion. Once again the occupants were trapped inside the cavern. Through the remaining small opening that remained they could hear the racket and crashing of the stones and debris still rolling down the mountain. The drum fire commenced again. The trapped men in the cavern could hear the cries and moans of the wounded men including those who had been thrown through the force of the explosion into the Sief Gorge. Within five minutes the Italians had stormed the peak and overcame what little resistance could be offered by the stunned survivors. Meanwhile after some initial disorder within the cavern, Oberleutnant von Tschurtschenthaler restored calm and had the entrance to the cavern manned. His order: "No Italians in here, we'll hold as long as possible!" 

However, with the Italians at a tunnel entrance to the cavern and as in the morning before, breathing becoming ever more difficult in the oxygen starved cavern, this was really not a viable option. It was now a matter of either suffocating or surrendering. Oberleutnant von Tschurtschenthaler sent his senior non-commissioned officer, Oberjäger Galvanini to parley with the Italians. Shortly thereafter the cavern garrison after shaking hands together surrendered to the Italian infantry. The entire position was a scene of the utmost devastation, just a field of rubble. Only a crater remained where the garrison of the peak position had stood in wait.

 The record is unable to determine exactly how many men were garrisoning the Col di Lane peak on the 16th/17th April 1916, but it was somewhere in the area of 250 men: 6./2 TJR. had 5 officers and officer-cadets and 140 NCOs and Jäger. The crew of a 7cm mountain gun was 1 officer and 10 and an artillery FOO party was a further 1 plus 6. In addition there was a sapper detachment of 1 officer and 60 NCOs and sappers plus the personnel of 4 machine guns and two trench mortars. In total 9 officers and 238 NCOs and soldiers. It is thought that about 100 men died in the explosion, the remainder including the 60 in the cavern being taken prisoner.

Aftermath

The Italians were unable to follow up on their success at the Col di Lana and further attempts to take Mte. Sief immediately to the North were not successful. By the same token, the Austro-Hungarians were not to retake the Col di Lana peak until the Italians were compelled to withdraw their entire alpine line in October 1917 following the 12th battle of the Isonzo. Not withstanding the year-long effort and huge loss of life, the Italian  IX corps were only about 500 metres nearer to the Puster Valley and their tactical situation had not significantly improved. The Austrians had a more easily defensible line which they held on that part of the sector until the general advance to the Piave in October 1917.


Sources

Col di Lana by Generalmajor Viktor Schemfil. Published by Verlag Treusch, Bregenz 1935.

Österreich-Ungarns Letzter Krieg edited under the direction of Edmund Glaise-Horstenau and published by the Verlag der Militärwissenschaftlichen Mitteilungen in Vienna 1930 onwards. Volume 2.

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