The Surprise at Čukla

By Klemen Lužar

 

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The Italians decided, after the capture of Bovec, to put all their efforts into capturing the Veliki vrh, this is the Rombon Massif. They were aware that this peak could be used as a good observation post for the whole valley. They would have an excellent overview of the enemy's movements in the valley of the river Koritnica. They didn't eventually drop this plan until the October Offensive in 1917. The Italians attacked for the first time on the 27th of August 1915, but the carefully prepared attack of the Special Battalion Bes, under the command of Captain Celestino Bes failed. They had prepared this attack only after the end of the 2nd Isonzo Offensive when the Italians decided that they must try to capture the Rombon Massif and conquer the peak. They succeeded in capturing vrh polic and Čukla, which were good advance positions for further attacks.
Map showing the general area of operations in August 1915 around the Bovec Sector. 44. Landwehr -Infanterie-Division was the left flank unit of G.d.K. Rohr's Armeegruppe with responsibility for the Rombon-Flitsch-Krn line.

On August 27th the troops of the Battalions Bes and Val d'Ellero attacked. The units of battalion Bes directed their assault from Vrh polic toward the West side of the Rombon mountain, while the companies of the Battalion Val d'Ellero attacked from the South from the Goricica plateau. In the late evening hours of that day four assault patrols of arditi, about 40 men started the attack on the massif. They moved with the utmost circumspection and in in absolute silence. They even wrapped their shoes in cloths in order to move more silently. About half an hour later they were joined by the rest of the battalion's units and they managed to reach peak 2105, the southern peak of the middle massif of Rombon. The Slovenes don't have a name for this peak, while the Italians called it Romboncino and the Austrians Kleiner Rombon.

In the early morning hours they met the Austrian defenders and after a short artillery barrage attacked their positions. The defenders repulsed them with hand grenades, good shooting and even by throwing rocks at them. Only two platoons of the Italian Alpini managed to reach the ridge itself. In a hard fought battle with the bayonet they captured two Austrian rock shelters and remained there for three days. Further advance was impossible. The Austrian fire was too heavy and too deadly. On the ridge they were cut-off from the other units. In fear that the Austrians would capture them, they withdrew after three days to their previous (advance) positions. Only a few of them survived and all were wounded, some seriously.

Sketch map of the Vrsic/Bovec SectorThe Italians heavily fortified the top of Čukla, which they had previously captured in May 1915. This exposed peak was converted into a mighty rock fortress and in front of it was constructed a wide belt of barbed wire. From this position they often attacked Rombon in order to capture it. from the summit of Čukla The Italians successfully controlled the area towards Rombon and they could also observe the enemy movements in the valley and on Javorscek. These flank positions were also good observation posts for the shelling of flank positions and the hinterland of Feldmarschalleutnant Josef Nemeczek's 44th Landwehr-Infantry Division.

It is no wonder therefore that the Austro-Hungarians also wanted to capture this peak. This same opinion was also held by the commander of the Bovec military sub-sector, Oberst Artur Edler von Schuschnigg.

In autumn 1915 Landwehr-Infanterieregiment Nr.4* arrived in the Bovec area in which served by some estimates approximately 28 % Slovenes. The regiment took position from Rombon up to Javoršček. It covered both the roads from Predil and also from Trente (Vršič Pass). The left flank of the regiment (2nd Battalion) was positioned south of the Isonzo River on Javoršček, the centre (3rd and half of the 1st Battalion) took the positions in the valley with the main support point on Ravelnik Hill. The right flank was situated on the steep hillside of the mountain of Rombon on which the 1st Company were positioned on the summit.

The Austrians were aware of the fact that the Italians had heavily fortified the top of Čukla and that any attempt to attack would be both very risky and difficult. In winter conditions the risks were even greater yet Oberst von Schuschnigg decided to attack Čukla at this time. On 11 January 1916 he detailed his plan to the commander of the 2nd Company, the then only 23-years old but already experienced and brave Oberleutnant Hans Mickl. Mickl's company at first went into the Bavšica Valley to rest and prepare for the attack. Before that the company was situated at Na robu plateau at peak 1313. At first Oberleutnant Mickl with Fähnrich Schlatte visited the Austrian advance positions. They tried to get as close as they could to estimate the positions and course of the attack. They both found out that the Italian trenches towards the East were covered with a dense belt of barbed wire and that the attack on such steep terrain would be heavily exposed to the enemy artillery bombardment. In waist-deep snow an attack in this direction be useless, especially after the artillery barrage which would force the Italians to even more carefully observe to their front. Night after night they crawled from one Italian guard post till another, searching for the gaps in the enemy's defense. Finally, on the 8th February they found a gully, through which it could be possible to attain the saddle between Čukla and the foot of the Rombon where the the Italian positions were located. Mickl also counted on the element of surprise as he knew that the Italians felt safe in their cozy shelters and who reckoned that the deep snow would prevent any possible attacks by the Austrians. He also cancelled the artillery support as he didn't want to warn the Italians that an attack was imminent. As they have to climb the gully unnoticed to attack the Italian positions, the company would be dressed in white camouflage clothing. On the 8th February 1916 Oberleutnant Mickl's company moved into positions under the Rombon massif. They planned to conduct the attack on 10 February, but due to the heavy snowfall and the possibility of avalanches, the attack was canceled. In addition, the reserve unit, the 4th Company, had still not arrived at their positions also due to the heavy snowfall. Consequently, the Rombon sector commander, Major Kihal postponed the attack. The attack commenced on the 12th February 1916 at 0245 hours in the morning, when the assault company, approximately 200 men, under the command of Oberleutnant Mickl left their advance positions and started to move toward the Italian positions on Čukla. The column advanced under the cover of a large natural overhang and was additionally also protected by patrols.

Oberleutnant Hans Mickl described later in his report: 

"The Mountain wind had made several metres high snowdrifts; at some places the snow was covered with a crust. On some other places we could see after the sun had risen the smooth icy surface. There, where the crust was already so solid as to hold the men, it cracked under the boots, that it was hard to believe that the Italians didn't hear this. Where the snow wasn't frozen, it was waist deep, so that one's neighbour had to pull one out. We needed two hours for the trip. Only with much difficulty had the company managed to reach the upper, completely frozen edge of the gully. This led into the rear of the Italian guard position further up at the top of the saddle and even further up to the main position. Now a three metres high rocky step, which under normal circumstances wouldn't cause much difficulty, was now covered in smooth ice without any possibility for grip. All attempts to climb from the gully on to the saddle failed We all tried, officers, NCOs, experienced climbers, even I tried but all was useless. Now a three metres high rocky step, which under normal circumstances wouldn't cause much difficulty, was now covered in smooth ice without any possibility for grip. The clock was mercilessly ticking and the pointer was moving towards six o'clock in the morning. The company was crowded into a narrow gully, which was frozen and covered in deep snow just close by (under??) the enemy positions. From here we needed two hours, and at least as much if we decided to return back to the advance positions. We wouldn't reach them before sun rise. It was too late to return back. It looked like the company was lost. The sun was already appearing in the East. The situation was terrible. The officers, who were terribly exhausted, tried everything to climb the icy wall. Time was mercilessly running out, and from the East we could already see the new day appearing, without a fog, and even without any cloud. . Using a fallen tree Fähnrich Schlatte managed to climb from the icy gully. He held out his rifle and after him also other men managed to climb. In the Italian shelters we could see the light of the candles. As soon as the first platoon assembled, it immediately proceeded into the Italian shelters. The defenders were completely surprised, some of them we even had to wake up. We captured the complete garrison of 121 men. In my brave company fell one officer and four men and four were wounded. The joy of the men was enormous as no one had expected that we would conquer this rocky fortress so easily."

Some sources claim that they captured 3 officers and 83 NCOs and men, while another Austrian source claim 1 officer and 82 NCOs and men.

The last surviving officer, Fähnrich Schlatte from Klagenfurt, later updated the report with a new, still unknown fact from the assault. He says that during the climb through the gully the line of men was broken, as they had to walk in deep snow which covered in some places even up the shoulders.

"Oberleutnant Mickl disappeard into the darkness to look for the men who were lagging behind. Suddenly besides them, the silhouttes of two, three persons appeared. We were all stiff, thinking they were the Italians. A shot was fired and the closest figures raised their hands. It was Kadett Cassiander, climbing with his group as flank protection. It was a true miracle how that shot didn't disturb the Italians. Nothing moved in their positions. Despite the fact that the daylight that started to appear, we didn't wait to assemble the whole company. Everyone who was there attacked; but an assault from the gully was not a heroic act. It was a retreat forwards as the return during daylight was not possible. There at the summit the snow was hard, and we worked on the barricades, which were snapped (??) on the steel pales in the snow. We threw hand grenades through the chimneys into the Italian shelters. We didn't encounter any resistance; only a little bit later the company encountered the barrage fire shortly under the peak. We have taken Čukla."

The Italians immediately mounted a counter-attack to re-capture their lost positions. Especially the alpini from the 2nd Company of the Alpini Battalion Pieve di Teco, but all their efforts failed. The Italian 210th Company were given the credit, that the Austrian attackers didn't capture their positions too. The Italians tried to reorganize an attack, but they had to wait until the units from the hinterland and valleys arrived which were resting there. Via the quickest route, the Alpini Battalions Val d'Ellero, Bassano and Exilles, and also 27th Bersaglieri Battalion plus some other infantry detachments arrived. The positions on the south, from the top of Čukla mountain until peak 1583 were taken by the units of the Alpini Battalion Val d'Ellero, while the 1st and 8th Company of the Alpini Battalion Pieve di Teco took positions between peak 2115 and the top of Čukla, that is, toward the North. After four hours of artillery bombardment and after demonstrative actions in other areas, the Italians launched during the evening of February 14th an attack towards Čukla.

Mickl and also other sources claimed that what followed the capture of Čukla was a pure hell. The whole Italian artillery from the Bovec sector trained their guns toward Čukla and shelled it for four hours. The trenches were soon useless. Already during the first days the Kärnten Landwehr Infantry regiment had sustained huge casualties. In the first two days they had 20 killed and 60 badly wounded soldiers. Mickl himself later claimed that the losses would have been even greater had his telephonists not listened secretly to the Italian telephone conversations. This was first done by one guy from Triest (slo. Trst, it. Trieste), who listened secretly from his shelter at the summit of Čukla to the Italian telephone orders from the village of Zaga. So the Klagenfurt Landwehr men knew up to the minute precisely when the bombardment would start or when an infantry attack would begin. The artillery fire was so intense that the Austrians had to leave all their positions; only at the Southern side had they left a small guard to inform them about the attacks. In a short time both guards were hit; one was wounded.

During the night of the 15th February the Alpini Battalions Pieve di Teco and Bassano attacked through the deep snow. They suffered enormous casualties. Two hours later the Italians tried yet another attack but this also failed. All useless. Čukla remained in Austrian hands. The Italians stated in their reports that an attack with large numbers of soldiers was impossible due to deep snow and the exposed terrain. It could only be attacked by small assault groups or by the element of surprise. Despite the efforts of the 8th Company of the Alpini Battalion Pieve di Teco which captured the positions West from the top of the mountain, and despite the efforts of the 32nd and 84th Companies of the Alpini Battalion Exilles, the Italians couldn't break the Austrian defence. The same fate hit the soldiers of the Alpini Battalion Saluzzo who were attacked in the following days. The Italians finally decided to halt their attacks until the 20th March.

Up to February 20th another three Italian attacks followed, each time supported by heavy artillery fire. By extending their positions, the Austrians captured several dozen of the Italian soldiers and one machine gun, while their own losses were one officer and 26 soldiers killed and more than 60 wounded. In the same time the Italians lost at the battlefield at Čukla 18 officers and 384 NCOs and men.

On the 17th February, the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment also arrived on this battlefield. In the regiment served the young soldier Benito Mussolini, who had passionately supported the entrance of Italy into the war in 1915. Interestingly enough is the fact that he didn't immediately volunteer for the army but rather waited until he was mobilized. His excerpts from his diary are very interesting:

"On 12 February we were ordered to go on to Rombon, actually on Čukla, which was lost by the Alpini units during a sudden Austrian attack. We departed in the evening. It was a night with many stars. We marched several kilometers along the Isonzo River through an old country road, then we moved into the ruined tavern by the destroyed bridge. In the moonlight we had a marvelous look at the whole Bovec basin. We marched for eight hours. We marched too through Pluze, the village, which was destroyed by the Austrians. We slept in a small barracks. On 17th February it snowed. We were given boards and steel plates for Spanish riders. We put the rucksacks on our backs. Our company was intended to go to the first front-line, in the forward trenches. This was followed by a march though an almost impassable route. My guard post was on the extreme right side of the trench. I used for shields the bags filled with snow and a steel shield. In front of our trench was in an half-circle the barbed wire. In no-man's land lay grey corpses, the deserted bodies. We were in the middle snow in a bright moon night. In the distance I observed the hills which surrounded me and most of them were known to me. On my right I could see the silhouettes of Krn, Vršič, Veliki and Mali Javoršček. It was a real dream look. We were ordered to take our bayonets and to shoot here and there. The cold was biting us. We were completely in the open. The trench didn't give us much cover. That night I shot at least a half dozen bullets. The Austrians rarely replied. One of ours was lightly wounded… On 24th February I guarded with my platoon a place where our soldiers were recently killed. The snow was still red from the blood. On the 25th February the fog was alternating with snow. We worked like madmen. The shovel was as much worth as the rifle. Our trench was so deep that it protected us from the enemy bullets. We reinforced the trench with extra bags of sand. In a couple of hours we filled more than a hundred of them… On 2nd March everywhere was just snow and I was stunned by a shining whiteness. In the morning the avalanche has swallowed four alpini with a mule. We left Rombon that day…."

Benito Mussolini finally left the Rombon-Čukla positions on 13th March when his unit was transfered into the hinterland to get rest after the heavy battles in which the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment was involved in at this time.

On the 12th April 1916 the exhausted men of the Klagenfurt Landwehr Regiment with Oberleutnant Mickl were relieved by the soldiers of 4th Bosnisch-Herzegowinische Regiment from Mostar which had arrived from the Eastern Front. By April 12th, when the Bosnians replaced them, Mickl's Company was reduced from 200 to only 44 soldiers.

The Italians remembered well the Bosnians, as they were extremely daring and dangerous warriors in close combat. They were experts in surprise and concealed attacks. Besides the rifle they usually used for close combat also knives, bayonets and "buzdovan", a mace nailed with iron. The Italians were terribly afraid of the red fez which the Bosnian Muslims wore and the buzdovans and therefore Bosnian soldiers captured with this weapon where likely to be shot immediately. On the 26th of April the Bosnians attempted to relieve the situation of the Čukla defenders, but the Italian Alpini Battalions Val Camonica and Borgo San Dalmazzo repulsed all attacks. On May 4th they repeated the attack and managed to capture the first Italian trenches but were then stopped by the Alpini Battalion Saluzzo. The Italians decided for on a massive attack after the last Austro-Hungarian attack in May. On 10th May at 1800 hours the heavy artillery bombardment commenced firing on the Bosnians situated on the summit. After an hour of heavy bombardment the Italians jumped off from their trenches and attacked. The Alpini Battalions Ceva and Val Camonica attacked peak 1583 and captured it, Alpini Battalion Borgo San Dalmazzo again captured the lost positions, while the 22nd and 23rd Companies of the Alpini Battalion Saluzzo and the 62nd Company of the Alpini Battalion Bassano managed to capture after heavy close combat with the Bosnians, the summit of Čukla. The three Bosnian companies lost approximately 250 men. The Italian casualties were enormous: they lost 18 officers (including the commander of the Alpini Battalion Saluzzo who was killed at the head of his battalion) and 516 NCOs and soldiers.

For the successful recapture of mountain of Čukla, the Italians awarded the Alpini Battalions Saluzzo and Bassano with a silver medal, while the commander of the Alpini Battalion Saluzzo, Lieutenant Colonel Luigi da Corsione Piglione, was posthumously decorated with the gold medal for military merit.

What happened to Oberleutnant Johann Mickl? Oberleutnant Hans Mickl continued with his military career after the war. In 1919 he fought against the Slovenian Volunteer Army in Stajerska (Styria) and captured the town of Radgona (aut. Bad Radkersburg), which after that became Austrian. During the Second World War he was for a while the commander of the German 11th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front and after that the commander of the Croatian Legionary Division (392.Infanterie-Division). During the Second World War he was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and on the 10th of April 1945, shortly before the end of the war, he was killed in battle against partisans near Rijeka (Fiume), Croatia.

After the war the Italians built a monument with a memorial plaque at the top of Čukla mountain dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Alpini Battalion Bassano who fell there on 10th May 1916. Today the monument is still visible at the summit of Čukla but lays in ruins without a memorial plaque.

If you ever come to Bovec, I strongly advise you to visit the Ravelnik Hill, which is easy to spot as it is the lonely hill surrounded by flat country and if you have time I would strongly recommend you to go for a one day tour to the nearby peaks of Čukla and Rombon, which are not far away from Bovec. There is no mountain cottage on Rombon where one can sleep the night (at least not to my knowledge), so you should reserve a room in Bovec. However be careful, especially in using the proper equipment suitable for the mountains. Clogs are not recommended:-) If this is your first time in the mountains I heartily recommend you to ask a local guide to accompany you on your tour. I am sure that the people of Bovec will assist you in any way. And remember: safety always comes first.

* Renamed in April 1917 as Gebirgsschützenregiment Nr.1 (1. koroski gorski strelski polk)

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